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"It's okay, Dean. It's gonna be okay. We can patch this up. Don't worry."

Dean clenches and unclenches his hands inside his hoodie, still hiding them as pain shoots through his joints, his skin cracking. "I couldn't stop. Dunno why, but I couldn't... I couldn't stop, Sammy."

"It's okay," Sam says soothingly, sitting down on top of the closed toilet seat. "Please let me help you."

Dean shifts around on the edge of the bathtub, not wanting to show his brother how bad it really got this time. How bad it gets every time he backslides. He bends forward a little, protecting his hidden hands.

But Sam handles this well, and he always has. He sits silently and still. He waits patiently like he's got nothing better to do. He's got so many better things to do.

Dean knows he won't win this. Not like he wants to. He craves Sam's help with the same tenacity that he craves his rituals. Slowly, he drags his hands out from under the hem of his hoodie and holds them out.

Blessedly, Sam doesn't even flinch. He just swivels around to grab the lotion, ointment, and bandages from the sink counter. They're always there, right on display. "It's not a failure," he says quietly as he first works the heavy duty Vaseline lotion into all the cracks and crevices of his brother's hands. They're still bleeding a little bit, but not too badly anymore.

"It's always a failure when I get his bad," Dean mutters, staring at the top of Sam's head instead of looking at his ruined skin.

"No, it's not," Sam insists quietly. "Not today."

Today is November 2nd. The years have passed into decades, and Dean's still scared. Still mourning. Still trying to comfort himself in his own way. "I should be over it."

Sam glances up sharply. "You shouldn't have to be over losing Mom. Or Dad, for that matter." He moves on to the ointment, spreading a thin layer over the bloody parts.

"You handle it just fine," Dean argues, if only to distract himself from the stinging.

Sam huffs. "No, I don't. Or did you forget that I pretty much failed out of college and did drugs?"

They view that year following John Winchester's death a lot differently. There's no denying that Dean spiraled abysmally, ending up in an acute treatment facility when his rituals had escalated so far that he hadn't been able to leave the house.

And Sam had spiraled as well. He'd shirked his classes in favor of illegal substances.

But Dean suspects in his heart of hearts that it hadn't just been about their dad. The responsibility for Dean's tenuous hold on his mental health, and keeping him functional, had suddenly fallen to Sam, and he hadn't been ready for it. Shouldn't have had to. He was 18, a full time student. He'd had friends and a social life. He'd had a girlfriend and a bright future. Then John Winchester had had a heart attack, and Sam had been saddled with an older brother who was incapable of keeping his shit together.

It had fallen apart for the both of them, and while Sam will twist himself into a pretzel to leave his brother blameless, Dean is perfectly able to blame himself for the both of them. "Sammy..." he says with a wealth of emotion that he can't express better in words.

"I mean it," Sam warns, sounding suspiciously full of blubbery emotions himself. "We're not gonna talk about failing. We're gonna talk about fixing. How long were you at it today?"

Dean glares at the sink. "Ran the hot water heater out," he mumbles. "So, I dunno? An hour? Hour and a half?"

Sam nods along easily. "Do you need your Xanax?"

Shaking his head, Dean says, "nah, I'm good. Calm. Fucking exhausted."

Sam finishes securing the bandages but holds onto his brother's hands, finally meeting his eyes squarely. "Your therapist said that even if you're calming down, it's good to take one get a nap, and get yourself back in order, right? We'll deal with the rest when you're at full capacity, and I've got time to wait. Is that okay with you?"

With the way his exhaustion is eating at him like it always does at the end of a particularly long ritual, he can't find it in himself to protest. It's probably how people feel after running a marathon. It's why Dean thinks Sam is insane for jogging. "Yeah, s'cool."

Later. Sam's right. It'll be better later. It's always better later.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

"Okay, Dean-o. Do ya mind if I start with an observation today?" Dr. Donna Hanscum asks in her most cheerful tone.

Dean crosses his ankle over his knee, sinking down into the comfortable couch cushions. "Go for it."

She gestures towards him with her tablet's stylus. "Your hands are looking pretty raw. Is that because of the weather getting colder, or is something else going on here?"

Unconsciously, Dean wrings his dry, cracked hands, tucking them into the space between his legs. "A little bit of column A, little bit of column B."

"You wanna talk about it?"

Dean stares at his scuffed boots. "Sam's decided to start classes again this semester."

Donna's eyes widen. "That's great news, right?"

Dean nods emphatically. "Yeah, it's totally great. I'm proud of him. Just... it's... it's a long commute."

Donna hums in understanding. "I see."

Rubbing his hands, feeling them start to sweat a little, Dean continues, "He wants to stay in our house, too. Doesn't wanna move somewhere closer."

"What's worrying you about that?"

Dean shrugs. "He says he wants to stay there because it's the family home, but I don't know if that's true. Could just be because he's too worried about me living alone. The last time I did... well, fucking disaster. And then I'm worried about that commute. Feels like it's just asking for the catastrophe to come true. And maybe he's holding himself back from getting his own apartment because he doesn't think I can hack it on my own."

Donna smiles. "I get that. But we've talked about you assuming Sam's real feelings before. How valid does his reason for staying at the house with you really sound?"

"I get it," Dean says slowly. "It's the same reason I don't wanna move. Besides the stress of moving in the first place. It's where we grew up. The last connection we have to our parents besides the car. We've fixed it up over the years; erased the fire evidence that Dad couldn't bring himself to. It's a good home."

Carefully, Donna makes a note on her tablet and asks, "I do understand that, but do you think it might be time to return to our original conversation about your obsession years ago?"

"About us both moving?" Dean asks, though he's positive it's that. It's always been that.

"Yeah," Donna answers. "How has your obsession with the house fire been lately? Say, in the last year?"

Dean tilts his head from side to side thoughtfully. "Better-ish. I guess. I mean, it's still there. Not all the time, though, obviously. I don't stay awake half the night anymore, or go around unplugging everything. I can fight it off sometimes."

"That's awesome," she says encouragingly, starting to shift around in her seat in poorly-contained excitement. "So, do you think it has something to do with where you live still, or do you think it would be the same anywhere else?"

Scratching at his ear, he admits, "I'm not positive, but I'm so used to the thoughts that they'd probably happen anywhere."

"Maybe that's something to explore with your occupational therapist?"

Shrugging, Dean says, "yeah, I could do that. See what Jody's got to say about it."

Satisfied, Donna rests back more casually. "That'll work." She pokes herself on the forehead right between her eyes. "See ya got your thinking face on, there."

"Guess so," Dean says distractedly. "We've talked about it a million times, though."

"Doesn't matter," Donna assures him. "If it's still something you need to noodle out, it's still worth talking about. Give it a whirl."

Smiling a little at her constant cheer, Dean asks, "how do I get over all this guilt for more than a month or two? How do I start to believe it when you, and Sam, and Jody tell me that I haven't been holding Sam back from his life? When does this therapy shit really start to work?"

Donna rolls her fond eyes. "It is working. You're asking those questions, ain’t’cha? You're able to get out of your house. You're able to let Sam get more than a few steps away from you. You're able to drive, work, function outside of your head. I'm not trying to belittle you at all here, Dean-o, but your world’s improved."

"I know," Dean allows. "All thanks to you."

She shakes her head and she reaches over to smack his knee. "Credit's yours, pal. Just keep moving onwards and upwards, 'k?"

"Got it."

"You can't control everything, and you surely shouldn't have to. You were a kid when that awful fire took your mom and hurt Sam. But it's not on you, Dean. It's never been on you."

Shaking his head, Dean says softly, "I wish my brain agreed with you, even if I do."

"It will one day," Donna promises.

The rest of the session goes much more smoothly. More of a check in than anything else, and Dean's tension drains as usual over the course of an hour. As much as he rails against this talk therapy thing most of the time, it does ground him. Does give him a point of reference. Does reset his brain so that he can start the week with something like dignity.

Plus, Donna's a hoot.

At the end if the session, Donna does the same thing she always does. As Dean's getting ready to leave, she holds up a ceramic bowl with cartoon cats painted all over it and stuffed to overflowing with lollipops.

"And, hey," she says with a kind and cheerful smile. "Happy five year anniversary with me."

"What's that one?" Dean asks breezily. "Tin?"

"Wood."

"I'll bring you a baseball bat or something next time."

"Just what I always needed to bash someone's head in!" she chirps. "See ya next week."

With a smile and a small salute, Dean grabs a green sucker, gets his prescription refill, and gets on with his weekend.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Monday is a hell of a day. It's always a hell of a day. That's why Sam Winchester makes sure he's up at 6:30 AM on the dot, not a second earlier or later, every Monday without fail. He knocks on Dean's door four times. Waits thirty seconds. Knocks again.

Dean opens it. "Hey," he says with a yawn. "'Morning."

"Yeah, it is," Sam beams. "Ready for breakfast?"

Dean waves him towards the stairs. "Make yourself useful and get the coffee started."

Sam rolls his eyes, but does as he's told. Like they haven't had this conversation for as long as they've both been adults living on their own. They used to live in an apartment since the family home hadn't been fully restored after the fire, but that had been a disaster. It had quickly become readily apparent that Dean needed his own space in order to be fully functional. And it's gotten a lot better over the past decade. Now they can move around each other without being on top of each other. Sam's domain is the master bedroom and most of the space on the ground floor, while Dean's got his peace of mind upstairs in his childhood room, plus an office in Sam's old room.

Once the coffee is started, Sam pokes his head out of the kitchen and yells up the stairs, "Did Bobby send you your schedule?"

"Yeah!" Dean yells back. "Hold on!" There's a few minutes of banging around and then Dean is tromping down the stairs fully dressed in his Monday morning "uniform." It's the red and black plaid. He hands off his printed schedule to Sam as he passes by him to get himself a cup of coffee.

"Oh, wow," Sam says. "You're gonna do more than just the scheduled repairs and restorations?"

Dean shrugs. "I said I'd try a few calls. See how it goes."

"That's big," Sam says with as much forced casualness as he can.

It's not that big. But it also kind of is that big. "Don't oversell it," Dean says. "It's nothing."

"Dude, it's a lot!" Sam protests. "You've come a long way since your first therapy session. What did you call it?" He kicks his feet out under the table, tapping his chin with exaggerated thoughtfulness. "Oh, right! 'Snake oil for the mind.'"

"Whatever," Dean mutters. "It's been a while now. Saying 'I told you so,' is getting real old."

"I'm not," Sam says, grinning. "I'm just really, really happy, is all. You're getting better, and that'll make you happier, and that's all I care about. I don't want to hold you back for the rest of your life."

Dean blinks. "What?"

Sam's hippie hair falls low over his eyes when he dips his head down. "I've been to some of your sessions with you, remember? I know all about your obsessions. I know you have OCD because you grabbed me out of that fire and almost got hurt yourself. It's how you deal with the trauma. This whole..." he waves vaguely at Dean. "This whole thing is because of me."

Dean slams his coffee cup down on the table harder than intended. He sits right across from his brother, staring him down hard. "This ain't about you, Sammy. Never has been. You didn't set the fire, and you're not responsible for my trauma. I'm serious, man. You gotta believe me, okay? It's not because of you. That fire fucked me up for years, sure, but my brain's always had these issues. It's just who I am. The issues just, like... manifest as that. Not like that wasn't the worst thing we've been through. If there'd been something worse..." his shoulders tip up. "I'd be freaking out about that instead."

Sam finally looks up, almost smiling in encouragement. "I'm still sorry that you're dealing with this. Is there anything else I can do to help?"

Shaking his head, Dean says, "no. You already do everything you're capable of. Just keep doing what you're doing. Being happy. I'm glad you're going back to school, too, for the record. I can fix the rest on my own. I've got to. Can't rely on everyone else to fight my battles forever."

"Can I say I'm proud of you without you thinking I'm being condescending?"

"Nope," Dean chirps.

Laughing Sam holds up his hands. "Fine, I'll leave it. Have a good day at work." He gathers his things and takes his dishes to the sink.

On the way out, Dean calls over his shoulder, "yes, dear!"

He talked a big game to be able to do this, but ritual is more necessary than ever on a day like today. Dean sits at the kitchen table nursing his first cup of coffee like it's no big deal, but with his leg jiggling hard under the table, until Sam has finished his morning routine and promising to text once he gets to school. The garage door screeches up. Dean winces. It screeches down.

Palms sweating, Dean pushes out of his seat and rushes back upstairs through his room to his en-suite bathroom, heart thundering behind his ribs harder and harder until the first shock of cold water in the sink hits his hands.

He sighs, hanging his head. "Don't panic," he whispers to himself. "Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic."

He soaps up his hands, scrubbing vigorously to the count of thirty. Rinses for thirty. Repeats.

Repeats.

Repeats.

Repeats.

Tells himself he won't keep count, but he does because he has to end on an even number, or else.

Squeezing his eyes shut, he refuses to let the scenario play out in his head. "I'm doing what you want, brain," he mumbles. "Don't make me see it. I'm doing what you want."

The terror doesn't take hold. The waking nightmare doesn't take hold. The consequences of him stopping the ritual don't take root in his mind.

And when his cell phone pings loudly with a text, he's able to shut off the water, knuckles throbbing with cold.

It's from Sam, thankfully.

Campus is bigger than I remember. Parking was a bitch. See you at home!

Dean tries to smile, but feels like if he moves his facial muscles too much, he'll end up barfing. Sam's okay. Sam's happy. Sam's out of his car. He's at school. Nothing will happen for now.

Dean dries off his hands, hangs the towel back up on the hook perfectly evenly, then steps back into his room to collect his wallet and keys. He shuts his bedroom door behind him, pointedly not looking at the clock on his desk. Today is Monday. He doesn't want to see how much time he's started the week by wasting on his useless bullshit. He needs to get going. If he's too late, he'll miss his chance to get to the cafe, and the whole goddamn cycle will start again.

Fuck.

At least the roar of the Impala's engine is enough to drown out the white noise. It always has been. The uneven roar and vibrations under him, trickling up his arms to his fingers on the steering wheel. Back before he got into talk therapy and occupational therapy, he'd spent more than a few nights tucked into the back with his sleeping bag just to have a few hours without any nightmares. Sam never said anything about it, just made sure that the garage was closed and the car off.

But ten minutes later, he's shutting off the car, the hum of low-grade anxiety that had been soothed by the car, simmering back up. He can manage it, though, at least when everything is moving along as it should. He steps into Espresso Lane, the smell of roasting coffee and sweet pastries filling his nose with relaxing familiarity. He glances at his watch and counts the people in line. A minute and fourteen seconds behind schedule. That's manageable. And there's an odd number of people waiting, so he makes it even, and that's a bonus. He's been coming here five days a week for years and orders the same thing, so he can't pretend to study the menu while he waits off to the side for someone else to wander in and put the right number of people in the line. Exposure therapy and doing this a million times has helped immeasurably.

The morning rush is just ending anyway, Dean the last one behind three other people as the cafe empties out with the other local coffee snobs heading off to their respective jobs.

Dean watches his boots steadily as he creeps forward in the line, unable to take a real look around this morning. Too much movement. Too much chaos. He's only been awake for three hours and it already feels like he's getting to the end of his rope. Maybe Donna was right to worry about too much too soon with Sam starting classes on the same day that Dean will be picking up random, unscheduled repairs. Question marks in the routine. He shoves his shaking hands into his leather jacket pockets. He notices a scuff on his right boot while cursing himself for insisting on jumping into the deep end of life changes.

"What can I get for you, sir?" A cheerful female voice asks. Female? No, that's not right. His barista is never female. There's only one person who can serve him coffee. He can't be gone for his morning break already?

"Uh, hi," Dean says, embarrassed, staring harder at his boots. All or nothing, he supposes. He can ask for what he needs or run like hell like a complete embarrassment and never come back here again. Jesus. He can't even imagine what that would do to him. It's already bad enough today. "I... would it be possible for Cas--"

"Hello, Dean," Castiel interrupts warmly. God, it sounds great to hear.

Dean's head comes up slowly, the ten ton pressure in his chest easing in an instant. "Hey, Cas," he says, letting his smile finally break free now that it's genuine.

Castiel Novak is the best part of Dean's work week. Owner of Espresso Lane, vocal proponent of direct trade coffee, and, in Dean's opinion, super hot for a tree-hugging hippie.

The guy wears hemp dress shirts rolled to his elbows and faded denim like a freaking fashion model with his constant scruff, deep blue eyes, and messy dark hair.

He also bodily shoves his employee out of the way with a laugh, handing off the cup he was prepping for the previous customer. He glances over at her and says, "don't worry, Dean's a regular. I always serve him." Then he turns back with a bright smile, the crow's feet around his eyes deepening. "Sorry, she's new, and hasn't learned the routine yet. But she makes a killer chocolate mocha. Anyway. The usual?"

"Yeah," Dean says softly, trying to fight back the humiliating burn in his cheeks. "Please."

Without being asked, Castiel strips off his gloves, pops on a brand new pair, and pulls out a plastic cup from the middle of the towering stack. At the bar he scoops up a spoonful of ice. "Ten ice cubes, two pumps caramel sweetener, cold brew dark roast." He shows Dean every part of the process and hands the cup over proudly once he pops on the lid.

"Thanks," Dean says, fishing out a five and waving away the change as usual. "Sorry for being so picky every morning."

Castiel beams. "You have literally the easiest order I make all day. Trust me, it's no problem." He tosses the change into the tip jar on Dean's behalf. "Have a great day." He winks.

Dean swallows hard. Raises his cup in cheers, "you, too, man." Then he steps to the side to grab a straw while watching Castiel smile at the next customer in line, as always, hoping it's not just his imagination that he doesn't look quite as genuinely happy to see them as he does Dean. Wishful thinking, but some days, it's the best Dean can hope for in a full schedule of intrusive thoughts.

The best thing about Espresso Lane is that it's almost exactly halfway between the house and Bobby's salvage yard. Their coffee is pretty fucking great, too. Ten more minutes and he's pulling up to the front of the yard, into the parking lot at the garage portion where he spends the daylight hours.

Bobby's behind the front desk, feet kicked up, reading a real newspaper like the internet was never invented. "Look who decided to show up," he says without looking away from the paper. He says that every day, even though Dean is perpetually ten minutes early. Gives him time to get his head in order and his jumpsuit on.

"What would you say if I was actually late?" Dean asks, not standing on ceremony while he yanks his jumpsuit up over his clothes.

"I'd express my great surprise that you were alive," Bobby answers dryly without missing a beat. He gestures to a teetering stack of papers on the corner of his desk. "Get to work since I ain't nice enough to pay you to stand around looking pretty."

Dean grabs the folders. All his repairs for the day. Maybe the week depending on how involved they are. No surprises. Bobby lets him make his own schedule and prioritize the projects for two reasons. First of all because Dean's been around long enough that Bobby trusts him. Second of all, because Dean wouldn't be able to function unless he was able to control this much. It's no hardship on anyone, though. He gets the work done.

However, he'd promised Jody. And Jody scares him sometimes. So, he clears his throat and says, "I'm cool with a few oil changes today."

Bobby doesn't look up from his ancient computer, but quirks an eyebrow. "The drive-ups?"

"Yeah."

"A few?"

"Maybe two," Dean amends.

Bobby shrugs like it's not a big deal because he knows exactly how big of deal it is. "Suit yourself. Garth's too slow on 'em, anyway."

"Thanks," Dean grunts, and then he's getting the hell out of Dodge because that was a bit much, and it's barely nine in the morning. On Sam's first day of returning to school. Jesus.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Monday ends early. It's not much a surprise, but it is frustrating. Bobby says it's no problem, and technically Dean does work eight hours, though he's used to longer days. The scheduled repairs on his docket aren't an issue. They go mostly smoothly, save for a few parts that need to be ordered. It's the oil changes that end up doing it.

The first time Bobby calls for him to do one is before lunch. Dean had been so wrapped up in the tire change he'd been doing, that Bobby's voice yelling his name had nearly made him jump out of his skin. And then it takes him almost as long to prepare to do the oil change as it does to actually do the oil change. His hands shake the entire time and he can't stop calculating over and over in his head how far behind his meticulously planned time he's getting.

The second time that Bobby asks, he must see something on Dean's face because afterwards, he makes up some lame excuse about closing shop early, and sends Dean home. And as much as Dean wants to protest, he's too busy running for his life.

He drives over the speed limit and nearly blows through a red light on his way home. And the only thing that he can think about once he gets there is diving towards his workbench in the garage and dumping his tackle box onto the floor. Hundreds of nuts, bolts, nails, and screws clatter across the concrete. He scoots them into a heaping pile, sits cross legged on the cold ground, and begins the painstaking process of sorting every last one of them into their respective slots in the box. He drops the first several, his hands are shaking so badly thanks to his pounding heart.

However, as the minutes tick by and the calming exercise starts to appease his anxiety, he calms, mind going blank.

He's maybe halfway done with the pile when the garage door screeches up. He really needs to oil the track again. He's blocking part of the space from where he's sitting, but doesn't bother to move. Predictably, Sam cuts the engine on his car and steps inside a moment later, plopping down beside his brother.

"Hey," Dean grunts because Sam won't let him get away with ignoring his presence for long.

"So, this is the bad sorting, then."

"Not too bad," Dean answers honestly, not to be deterred from his task.

"How'd it go?" Sam asks, purposely keeping the question vague so that Dean can answer with as much or as little information as he pleases.

It's appreciated today. "Two unscheduled oil changes and then I had to leave," Dean summarizes.

He can see Sam nod out of the corner of his eye. "Sounds good. I'm hungry. Wanna eat?"

The corner of Dean's lip tips up. "It's fine. Stop fidgeting and just help."

Following Dean's lead, Sam picks up one item at a time and drops it into the proper slot. Over the years they've figured ways for Sam to help speed up the rituals when Dean isn't too locked in on them. The ritual has served its purpose this time, but they both know it can't stay half-done.

But once it is, Sam leads the way inside. "So, how do we really talk about your day without either of us feeling like an asshole?"

Dean shrugs and kicks his foot out behind him to shut the garage access door. "There's no way, man, so might as well just do it however. Look, I get it. We can't talk about anything without it coming back around to my crazy."

"You're not crazy," Sam says with his best sour lemons look. "We established this years ago when you decided to start therapy."

"Okay, my former crazy," he amends, just to be the obnoxious big brother some more as he grabs two beers from the fridge. He hands one over, taking in the full brunt of Sam Winchester's attitude. The only solution is an eye roll and a release of the information. "Today was okay, and then it wasn't, and now it is again. Like I said, no big deal." He pushes up onto the counter. "I'm more interested in how your first day was."

Unable to help himself, Sam beams like he won the lottery. "It was good. Really good."

"Why? You got a hot professor, or something?"

"Nah, but there's a TA who's not so bad," Sam answers cheekily.

Dean grins. "I should have gone to college."

Sam pops the top on his beer and takes a long drink. "I said he's not so bad. But he's got nothing on your old trade school teacher."

"Benny?" Dean arches an eyebrow.

Sam nods. "I was so freaking jealous about that forever!"

Laughing at the sudden admission, Dean spits beer right down his chin and wipes it away with his forearm. "Dude. You should be. Benny was..." he closes his eyes and kisses his fingers like he's just sampled a meal of artistic proportions. "He was the cream of the crop. There'll never be anyone like him."

"You don't know that," Sam disagrees. He steps around Dean's idly swinging legs to dig through the cabinets for dinner supplies. "You said he was, and I quote, 'a good ride,' but I got the feeling that you never really fell too hard for him."

With a small snort, Dean agrees, "would'a been a stupid thing to do. I always knew he wanted to go back to Louisiana eventually. Which he did, by the way."

"Yeah, I know. It's just... how much better do you think it would be if you actually fell in love with someone?"

Dean is silent for such a long time that it inspires Sam to glance over his shoulder from his post at the stove, but Dean isn't angry or shut down. Just thoughtful. He shakes his head with a wry shoulder tilt. "That's just wishful thinking for me. I'm not the kind of guy who people want forever with." And for the first time in a long time, Dean kind of regrets that. And to avoid that can of worms, he downs the rest of his beer and silently watches Sam cook.

Chapter Text

Monday is really, really hard for Sam Winchester. Being both excited and terrified is freaking difficult. Especially as he gets older. Especially when he feels way too old stepping back onto campus for the first time in years. He doesn't remember everyone looking so young before, and that's saying a lot since Sam himself is only 23.

He kind of wants to laugh at himself, but not enough to actually do it. He feels kind of... homesick, actually. Itchy about being away. He commutes to school every day. He'll be home every night. But it's still strange, the new life that he's been anticipating for so long becoming a reality.

He's arrived early so that he can get his bearings again since it's hard enough being older here, and he won't add insult to injury by wandering around helplessly like a lost freshman on top of everything else.

At least it's a nice day. Warm enough in the sun, and the campus is as beautiful as he remembers, despite how he left it. He tries not to think about the day he came to withdraw from classes. It had been cold, all the trees bare, gusty wind, everyone rushing across the campus as fast as they could to get out of the weather. It had also been raining. Nearly raining? He can't remember. But it had been a perfect day to say goodbye to his future.

Sam rolls his eyes at himself as he glances around. "Shut up, Sam, you're not taking any poetry classes," he scolds himself. "Now's not the time to making up sonnets."

He stomps towards the administration building with purpose to bring them the rest of the forms they need and to get his finalized class schedule. They haven't reinstated his email address yet, so for now he's got to go old school, pardoning the pun. Not like he minds. It weirdly grounds him, standing in the line with a bunch of other nervous freshmen. Even if he's not really one of them, he's sort of one of them.

The harried redheaded girl behind the counter smiles at him, a bit tired and frantic. "How can I help you?"

Sam hands over his papers. "Sam Winchester. I'm here to get my schedule and make my final tuition payment."

She takes the stack and flips through, then types at the computer. "Student ID card?"

Sam digs in his wallet and pulls it out. "Can this old one be reactivated?"

She nods as she takes it. "Sure can." She types even more rapidly and then slides the card through a reader. "Would you like to add funds at this time? You're not enrolled in a meal plan?"

"Yes to the first, no to the second," Sam says. "Put a hundred on it, please."

She hands the card back. "Okey dokey, that's four-sixty and no change for your total. How are you gonna be paying today?"

"Debit."

She gestures to the card reader on the counter and Sam slides his card, punching in the PIN. Once the transaction is done, the girl - Charlie, her name tag says - hands him back his stack of papers and a printed schedule. "You're all squared away now. Welcome back." And her smile looks totally genuine.

Sam feels his own lips tugging up in an answering smile. "Thanks."

He starts to back away, but Charlie says, "hey. Your comparative religion professor, Dr. Pellegrino? Good luck."

Sam grins wider. "I stuck my foot in it already?"

She snorts. "Both of them, even. Probably unrelated, but the class withdrawal deadline is October first. Just... so you know." She winks.

"Good info," Sam answers. He gives her a small wave and then moves out of the crowded building to get himself sorted out in peace. He's got an hour before classes. Plenty of time to have a minor panic attack and then be ready for math. He sighs. It's going to be a long day.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Towards the end of the day, Sam is starting to damn himself for the Winchester penchant for diving into the deep end. He should have gone back part time for a semester instead of straight to full time.

A headache has been pounding behind his right eyeball since the middle of economics. He's starving, but the cafeteria is on the other side of campus. He's exhausted, still riding on a wave of low level anxiety. Dean hasn't answered his texts so there's that on top of everything else. It was a bad idea coming back. He should have deferred again. Taken online classes only. Something. His aching forehead clunks down onto the metal table in the quad. He's about to give up again when something else clunks down, rattling the table and inspiring Sam to shoot up to a sitting position.

The redhead from the admin building has slung her backpack into the chair opposite him and put two cups of coffee on the table, one right in front of Sam.

"You look kinda dead," she says as she takes her seat without preamble.

"Getting there," Sam answers. He touches the lid of the coffee. "This for me?"

"It's pity coffee. I'm Charlie, by the way. Charlie Bradbury. Comp-Sci."

She holds at her hand and Sam shakes it wearily. "Sam Winchester. Pre-Law."

"Ooh, future slimeball! Nice."

Sam chuckles tiredly. "I'm still young and impressionable. I hope to go into human rights law."

Charlie laughs. "Yeah, age and higher level classes will fix those high ideals real quick."

"Hopefully I'll be in too deep to give up by then," Sam answers, smiling more and more. He carefully sips at the coffee, thankful for it. "This is so good, thanks."

Charlie waves a hand. "I can't help it when I see someone so fracking forlorn." She leans back fully in her chair, kicks her rainbow boots up onto the table, and eyes Sam shrewdly. "So, you wanna be besties and spill your whole sob story to me now, or wait a few more days for propriety's sake?"

Startled into a laugh that has him nearly spitting out some of the coffee, Sam coughs and grins. "Why do you think I've got a sob story?"

She rolls her hazel eyes. "Because I saw your records, duh. Kinda my job? You're twenty-three and re-enrolling. Not even easing back into it. Full load first time around. Sitting here by yourself like you just ran a marathon you hadn't trained for. You looked at your phone about ten times when I was just walking over. Therefore, something's up."

"Huh," Sam grunts noncommittally.

"And since we're friends now," she breezes on, "you should know my worst quality. Which is, I'm super nosy and invasive."

It may be the exhaustion, or it may be the fact that he hasn't made a friend in years, but Sam discovers that he doesn't mind it. It's refreshing, in a way, to talk to a complete stranger who just wants to get to know him from the ground up. "I dropped out because of family problems and... personal stuff," he says boldly. "But I got help for me and my family, and now I'm back."

Instead of looking shocked, or worse, pitying, Charlie just looks impressed. "Good on you!" she chirps. "Life is hard, man."

"Easier with friends," Sam ventures, giving her another opt out opportunity.

"That's what I'm here for!" Charlie grins.

She ends up making the rest of the day far more palatable. She doesn't share any classes with him, but she walks with him and points out the best hidey holes to study away from the crowds. Warns him away from the taco stand at lunch. Lets him in on the shortcut to the parking deck from his final class. Which is fantastic because Dean's rubbing off on him and now he's anxious to get home and see how the house is doing. How his brother is doing. He'd been prepared for the feeling, of course, but it really sucks to actually have it now in real time.

He hates not knowing what he'll find when he gets home. Even on the first day of classes, there had been enough to occupy his mind so that he didn't dwell, but on the drive home, he has thirty minutes to worry. Unbidden, his mind wanders back to when his dad first died.

That had been terrible for him, but even worse for Dean. Once the wake was over, and the reality started sinking in as the house grew ringingly silent... they'd both cracked. In some ways, Sam thinks he's lucky that he doesn't remember their mom. That would have compounded everything. But Dean... even now Sam can feel the lump in his throat forming when he thinks about how he'd ended up just abandoning Dean to his disability. He's so ashamed of it. He'll never not be.

On an intellectual level, he realizes that being a full time student, full time breadwinner, and full time caretaker is far too much to ask of any eighteen year-old, but he still doesn't think that literally and figuratively abandoning his brother and the rest of his responsibilities to do Oxy in Ruby's bedroom should be excused. He could have cut back on his classes. He could have told his advisor or the counselor what was going on. He could have - should have - called Bobby. It could have been easier for all of them. Dean might not have backslid so much. Especially the night that Bobby had showed up.

It was in the hospital. Sam had woken in a fog and he'd known. He'd known. He'd done something worse than the bad he'd already been doing. Mealy-mouthed and cotton ball-headed, Sam had let his unfocused eyes drift to his left. Bobby.

"Goddamn idjit," Bobby had mumbled when he'd caught Sam's gaze. But he didn't move from where he'd been standing behind Dean, a firm hand on the back of his neck.

Dean was sitting beside the bed, curled forward on himself, broad hands covering his face.

Oh, God, he's crying. The jolt that sent through Sam made tears spill out of his own eyes. "I'm sorry," he'd mumbled, tongue too heavy, lips too numb. "I'm so sorry." He'd said it a dozen times. It had seemed like the only words that were left in him for days. All the way through his release from the hospital and straight to a rehab program. He'd panicked, and Bobby had promised to stay with Dean. Had promised that he wasn't going anywhere.

He hadn't. He'd helped Dean into acute care for a week until he'd been able to function again, and Sam was out of the hospital. Then they'd both come home. Dean had hugged him hard enough to squeeze the air from his lungs.

Then he'd punched him in the face.

Sam still thinks it's not enough.

Maybe it never will be. He's going to have to square with that if either of them are going to be able to get on with their lives.

Even so, it's hard to not feel like an asshole. Dean had said that he'd been happy for Sam going to back to school. He'd acted that way, too. This is Sam's failing, anyway. He'll get used to it. They always find a way to get back to where they should be together and apart. He just needs a little bit more mental lubricant to get his head out of his ass.

As he settles into his car, he tries to remind himself that he and Dean had both agreed to this. They'd worked out the eventualities through suggestions from Donna and Jody, brought home by Dean. It had taken a lot of talking; hashing out. More than they'd done in years, really.

But Sam's palms are still a little damp as he grasps the steering wheel, chafing his palms back and forth a few times to bleed off some of the stress. And when he pulls into the driveway, his - not worst, but maybe moderate - fear is realized. Dean is sitting in the parking space, sorting his "collection."

Sam gives himself a moment while he grabs his books and bag. Surreptitiously he watches his brother through the windshield for a minute. Dean definitely looks tense, but thankfully not manic. It might not have gone too badly for him, either.

His suspicions are confirmed when Dean is not only willing to give him an overview of the day, but also seems to have an appetite. Extra bonus that he remains in the kitchen to talk while Sam makes dinner. "You're making meatloaf tomorrow, right?"

Dean stands to grab another beer. "Still don't want a salad tonight."

"Suck it up," Sam counters. "We won't always be young and reflux-free. This is why we take turns and have the dinner chart, anyway." It's only half true. The fewest surprises possible to help with a solid routine is the other half. Either way, it means Dean can't eat burgers and bacon all week die of a heart attack when he's forty.

"There better be pie," Dean says because he was obviously expecting Sam's answer.

"There's always freaking pie," Sam answers, definitely having expected that reaction. "Plus, I'm giving you a bit of a compromise. There's bacon bits for the salad."

"You're such a sucker, Sammy." Dean laughs.

Sam scoffs. "I am not, shut up. I'd rather not have to go grocery shopping a million times a week because you won't eat what I make and end up midnight snacking your way through the entire fridge."

"I don't do that," Dean protests in his "I'm totally lying," voice. They both know it's bullshit, but they're brothers so they have to keep up the pretense for a bit.

"Whatever. It'll be ready in like, thirty minutes."

Dean rolls his eyes, but starts towards the stairs so he can clean up before eating. "Wow, must be a super fancy fucking salad for it to take so long!"

"Bite me!" Sam yells after him. It's going to be a great salad. He makes the best salads ever. God, he's hungry. Going to school is making him starve to death. He goes all out on the salad for his sake as much as Dean's. Grilled chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocado, the promised bacon bits, and homemade dressing. He normally wouldn't spend so much time working on a weeknight dinner, but it's kind of a celebration for the next step in their lives. Despite the anxiety they'd both clearly experienced today, it hadn't been terrible for either of them.

Plus, Sam has short days on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Just two classes and then he's home free. Of course, one of those classes is the one that Charlie had warned him about. Not that he's super concerned. He can always drop it for a different elective if he wants to. It's not a part of his major, so it's not a big deal. The course had just sounded interesting. He's always been fascinated by religion.

That's a problem for tomorrow, though.

At dinner, which Dean makes a show of suffering through, though Sam is positive he secretly is actually enjoying since he eats it all, Dean peppers Sam with questions about his classes. There's not much to say yet, but he does mention Charlie. "She seems nice," he says. "She sat with me between classes and talked a lot."

Dean chuckles. "She'll be a perfect match for you, then. You never did know when to shut up."

"She's a friend," Sam stresses. "Her girlfriend is also really nice."

That makes Dean laugh harder. "It's okay, Sammy. Maybe one day you'll be lucky enough to get rid of your virginity."

"Sure I will," Sam shoots back. "There's a few thousand people there all ready to blow off steam. I'll make sure to find the loudest partner I can and bring them back here."

For once, and very curiously, Dean refuses to be needled. "That's my boy," he says proudly.

Sam resists the urge to roll his eyes because Dean's good mood makes them both happy. It's been a long time since happiness wasn't tinged with something else underneath. It's a hazard of learning how fragile it can be that often makes it difficult to enjoy without thinking about where it could end.

Tonight it doesn't.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Tuesday is a bit smoother right from the start. Sam doesn't have to be up early, but there's no way he'll break habit now. He knocks on Dean's door the same as always and then trudges down to the kitchen to get the coffee started. Dean had said that they could try to start weaning off of that tradition, but Sam doesn't want to push it on the first week. Maybe not even the first month. Even though he doesn't have to be to campus until ten, he's used to waking up at 6:30, and sees no reason to stop now, so he doesn't.

Not to mention, if Dean is left to make the coffee by himself, it'll be undrinkable.

After breakfast is finished, Sam stays at the table, nursing a second cup of coffee, ostensibly still too tired to get truly started with his day, but in reality he's listening. He doesn't think Dean's realized it, but his bathroom is directly over the kitchen, and some sounds carry. Sam can hear the water running, and can easily distinguish between the sounds of the sink, toilet, and shower. The sink is on right now and Sam glances at the clock. When it shuts off again, Sam smiles to himself. Dean had only washed his hands for ten minutes. That bodes well.

The pleasant feeling lasts until he takes a seat in his Comparative Religions class. A man breezes in three minutes before the start time and eyes them all like they're chewed gum on the sidewalk.

Charlie's warning comes rushing back to him, and perhaps unfairly, he already hates this class.

The professor doesn't start talking immediately. Instead he stands directly at the front of the room, staring them all down with a look that Sam can only think of as "pityingly condescending." His light blue eyes seek out everyone in turn, locking on wordlessly, punctuated by a scowl, and then moving on. When Sam gets trapped, he feels his back tense, and for whatever reason, can't bring himself to blink. It's like being an ant under a microscope. And when he's free of it, he can't help but pray that he's never looked at again. For any reason.

"Good morning," the professor says. "My name is Dr. Nick Pellegrino, and this is Comparative Religion 101. Thank you for being on time, and since it's the first day of class, I'll be brief. The syllabus is online, but I've left a copy on your desk. Read it thoroughly and be prepared every class. If you haven't done the reading or aren't prepared for a discussion of the contents, don't bother showing up. You will be called on."

He crosses his arms behind his back, chest puffing, icy blue eyes sweeping around the room again. "There are biweekly short reading comprehension quizzes. My TA proctors them and teaches on those days. I've taught him everything he knows, so he'll answer your questions. Don't waste the opportunity."

Sam reads that statement as, "don't bother me with your stupid questions." Which is exactly how it sounds coming from the professor.

Several students start to slump in their seats, and Dr. Pellegrino obviously notices. He relents, but his smarmy expression doesn't ease. "There is no attendance policy, but if you're not here, you won't pass. You pay for a real education, so that's what you're gonna get, all the bells and whistles. It's easy to fail this class, but it's also easy to pass. Show up, do the work, use your brain, and you might come out unscathed. Anyway, today make sure you have all the books, and get ahead on the reading. I'll see you Thursday, and be ready to do some work."

With that, Dr. Pellegrino nods to them all and dismisses them.

It's only been ten minutes, but Sam feels like he's suffered through an entire two hours. Something about that guy had sucked the life force out of the room. He'd spoken pretty casually, and dressed more casually still, but there was just... something. The guy meant business.

Sam hightails it out of the classroom, very suddenly craving some fresh air. In the quad, he catches sight of Charlie in all of her neon-clothed glory on the opposite side coming out the engineering building, accompanied by her girlfriend, Dorothy. He beelines for them, Charlie waving enthusiastically when she catches sight of him.

"Hey, Sam!" she greets. "How goes the day?"

"You were right about Nick," Sam answers with a grimace. "Hey, Dorothy."

"Hey," she says, smiling. "You got that old devil, did ya? Sorry about that. We're heading to the cafe for an afternoon pick me up. Wanna join?"

Before he can answer, Charlie loops her arm through Sam's, drawing him in the direction of the student center. "I never took a class with him. Honestly, I was only throwing the rumors at you to freak you out since you already looked anxious."

"Charlie looks nice, but she's a mean girl at heart," Dorothy points out.

Sam grins despite the admitted cruel joke. "Bet that's why you like her."

"'Course it is," Dorothy says airly. "But she really wasn't joking about Dr. Nick. I had him last year and he was a monster. Gave me the creeps straight off, just like you, but over the semester he was just... ugh." She shudders dramatically. "It was like, he was condescending and kind at the same time. Weird mix that made me think he might be a serial killer in his spare time."

Charlie laughs, but something in Sam lurches the wrong way. "Not that I wanna judge anyone at first glance, but... something was off."

"Literally everyone on this campus will agree with you," Charlie assures him as Sam holds the door open for his friends. They drop into line at the coffee stand.

"His TA is fine, though," Dorothy hastens to add. "I'm not sure how he managed to escape whatever curse I'm sure Nick knows how to lay on someone, but it was a relief on his days."

"Good to know," Sam sighs. "And thanks for the heads up. Again."

"Hey," Charlie says soothingly, rubbing at Sam's back. "Don't go getting all droopy as your hair, dude. Think of it this way: you're starting at the deepest end. It can only go up from here!"

That does calm him somewhat.

Dorothy nudges Charlie. "He should come with us on Saturday."

Charlie literally jumps up and down at the suggestion, startling Sam. "Yes! Sam! You need to come with us Saturday!"

Sam scoots forward in the line. "Where?"

"A rave!" she announces, jazz hands and all.

"Uh, no," Sam says immediately. "Thanks, but I don't do clubs."

Dorothy grins beside him when Charlie makes a rude noise and whines, "boo, you suck! Why not?"

Sam scuffs his shoe on the ground slightly. "Reasons."

He should have known that Charlie Bradbury would be way too astute for her own good. "There's no drugs," she says pointedly.

"Charlie!" Dorothy admonishes sharply, smile disappearing.

Charlie swings around in front of them and jabs a finger at Sam and then Dorothy. "Look, I dunno what your story is, Sam, but you're young, you've got energy, you don't seem to be allergic to fun since you're hanging out with me, and you didn't say you didn't like clubbing. If you didn't want to go to one, you'd say it wasn't your scene. The only other reason people our age and attractiveness levels don't go to clubs on the weekend to celebrate the first godawful week of school is because they're worried about something they'll find there. And the worrisome things are..." She holds up three fingers dramatically. "Drugs, sex, and booze."

"And sometimes bad music," Dorothy adds.

"No music is bad when you're sorta drunk and dancing," Charlie counters and Dorothy shrugs.

Instead of answering, Sam taps her on the arm and nods over his shoulder to indicate it's time for them to order. Charlie pays for all of their drinks, brooking no argument.

Dorothy takes a moment with Charlie's distraction to address Sam again. "I'm sorry about her. She comes on really strong sometimes, but it's because she wants to make friends. She sees something in you, and frankly, when she takes notice, it's usually something worth taking notice of. You don't have to come if you don't want to."

Sam rubs the back of his neck, somehow cowed by Dorothy's sincerity. He's been keeping so much in for so long that it's unnatural for him to spill to anyone. Even people he knows well who don't already know his past and present situation. He didn't come to college to be some sort of nerd hermit and not make any friends. He desperately wants to meet people, hang out, be as normal as he can be for a while. It would be a wonderful bonus to have a social life as well as an education. But he also knows how much lying and not sharing ruins any chance of that.

So, he settles for what he's comfortable giving. "She's right." Charlie has finished paying and leads the three of them over to the collection window. "You're right, Charlie. I... had a hard time a few years ago. It took a lot of people and a lot of willpower to get away from it. I just... I don't wanna even take the chance of falling into it ever again."

Charlie squeezes Sam's arm, her hazel eyes sympathetic, but not pitying, which Sam is thankful for. "I get it. I'm sorry I ran my mouth off without thinking before. I was telling the truth, though. It's sort of a campus club we're going to. And in order to be allowed to stay on campus and cater to students, they have to be pretty strict with their rules. It's clean. Well." She grins slyly. "Clean of the bad stuff. I do recommend wearing clothes you don't mind throwing away later."

Sam's eyebrows go up. "What? Why?"

Like she's announcing the arrival of Santa Claus, Charlie starts bobbing up and down on her toes again. "It's a paint rave!"

"Am I about to act like an old man if I say I don't know what that is?"

Dorothy laughs. "Charlie's being a little dramatic, because the paint's washable. It's a rave with black light paint. They put cans of it everywhere. You can paint yourself, your friends, the tables, walls. And if you're really lucky, you get picked to join the drum circle. It's the messiest part."

"Huh," Sam muses. He grabs his coffee and adds a few packets of sugar to it. It actually sounds like fun. Dean would have a freaking aneurysm if he went, but he often keeps to himself on Saturdays to recharge his batteries. Locks himself in his room with his classic rock and Netflix. He probably wouldn't even notice if Sam ducks out for a few hours. Not like it's some huge commitment, anyway. If he doesn't like it, he can leave. He's an adult and can make grownup choices all on his own. "I'd like to go," he says eventually.

Charlie beams. "Really?"

"Yeah," Sam grins back. "I mean, I gotta make sure my brother doesn't have any plans, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't, so..."

"Awesome!" Charlie exclaims. "I swear it'll be so awesome," she promises.

They chat for a few more minutes, Sam begging off for his other class. Before leaving, he exchanges numbers with both Charlie and Dorothy. All the way across the campus, he feels light. It's silly, but he's almost giddy at having made new friends. At having actual weekend plans.

This year. This year is going to be amazing.

Chapter Text

Dean is jealous. He's really fucking jealous. Of his little brother. Sam has bounced on home from classes and asked if it was cool for him to go out on Saturday. With his friends. To a club. Naturally, Dean's first instinct is worry. Not for what will happen when the schedule is thrown off, because they've already talked a lot about how that is going to happen from time to time. Being at the mercy of the outside world is a hell of a trial, but they've got to. Things need to change.

He'd really tried to stop himself from his kneejerk reaction on Sam's behalf. He owes him so much more trust, but his mouth isn't playing ball and he still says, "clubs are how it started for you."

Sam grimaces, picking at a piece of green pepper in his meatloaf. "I know." Nothing else. No denying, excuses, deflections. He's come a long way, Sam Winchester has.

"I don't wanna be the one telling you where to go and what to do. You get that, right? I'm the last person who needs to ride you about your life choices. Sorry. I'm not trying to be a dick."

"No, I know," Sam answers. "And actually, at first I told Charlie I didn't wanna go because of what happened. Didn't go into any real detail, but enough, y'know? She said the place was clean. They keep it all locked down pretty well since it's kind of a campus club."

"Then you should go," Dean answers and stuffs a huge bite of meatloaf into his mouth.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm not the boss of you." What he really wants to say is, "you don't have to keep making up for lost time," but that one gets swallowed down with the meatloaf because as much as he wants to believe it, Sam won't.

He's smart because the look that crosses his face momentarily is like he's reacting to the unsaid part, anyway. "I'll be back by one," he says.

Dean grabs the ketchup bottle and squirts another pile onto his plate. "Stay out as long as you want." He glances up, knowing Sam will more often relent and believe what he's saying if they make eye contact. He's getting creepy-good at reading people. "For real, man, I'm cool with it. I actually feel a lot better knowing you're out there having the good time you're supposed to be having. Live it up while you're young and all."

"Like you're so old."

"Feels like it most days."

Sam puts his fork down carefully on the edge of his plate. "What about you?" he asks, fascinated with his broccoli.

"It's not about me," Dean valiantly tries to deflect since Sam doesn't practice that particular party trick anymore.

With a sigh that ruffles his long, hippie bangs, Sam asks, "do you think you'll ever be able to...?"

Cutting that line of thinking right off the top, Dean says a little too harshly, "I'm okay, Sam. I'm not unhappy. It's not like I wanted to go clubbing anyway. Ever. In a million years."

"I get that," Sam assures him with a smile. "I just wanna make sure that one day you'll get to a place where you can go out and do whatever the hell you want. Clubbing or otherwise."

It's a nice sentiment, and very politically stated. "I'll get there," he promises. "You can count on that."

Blessedly, the subject is dropped after that. Sam has some reading to get started on after dinner, so he begs off to his room after cleaning the dishes. Dean watches him go and then makes his way to his own room.

It's a nice prison. He glances around, trying to take in all the details like he hasn't seen them a million times before. The posters that haven't changed since he was a teenager. The military folds on the sheets. They're newer because the old ones had gotten pretty threadbare, but he'd spent a month trying to track down the same ones he'd had. God, what a fucking waste of time. His desk. His high school baseball trophies. Nothing's changed except him being unable to make changes. Even in the place he's the most at ease in the world.

He understands Sam's worry. There are precious few places that Dean feels comfortable going, and none contain crowds of people. If it weren't for the cafe and the salvage yard, he'd never leave the damn house. That ain't healthy for a red-blooded American man. But them's the breaks.

Thoughtfully, Dean pulls his cell phone out of his back pocket and palms it. He should talk to Jody about this. In the interest of this big life change with Sam returning to school, she hasn't pushed him out of his comfort zone too much. It took her a year to get him properly into the cafe without someone there with him. Of course, that had been the first big step he'd taken. And the first step is always the hardest. Since then he's been able to visit other places with Sam or Jody, but nothing ever sticks. He can't even go inside the grocery store. But he can, at least, order groceries and go pick them up.

He's not one for clubs, but it sure would be nice to go socialize at a bar or something again. Make friends. Not sit alone in his room all the time stewing in his own juices.

He falls back against the bed, kicking his feet up and resting back against the pillows. He unlocks his phone and pulls up his texts. I think we should push some more he texts to Jody.

Five minutes later, Jody texts back, sounds good. I got some ideas.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Jody has bad ideas. Really, really bad ideas.

"I'm not doing this," Dean says.

"You're doing this," Jody answers.

Dean's eyes are locked on the doors of Espresso Lane. This is both the first and the last place that he wants to be right now. He can see Castiel through the spotless windows. Morning rush is well and truly over. Bobby has given him the day off and Sam is at school. Jody had told Dean that she'd come and pick him up "mid-morning." An estimated time makes Dean's skin crawl. Jody knows that, and that's why she's doing it. So, they're now standing in the parking lot at 11:29, and Dean is getting freaking hives.

He stuffs his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. Twisting. Pulling. Don't panic. You can't panic. This isn't worth panicking over.

A hand touches his back firmly. "Deep breaths," Jody says. "Thought stopping. You can do it."

Her supportive, but strict tone jolts Dean out of the thought spiral. It's nice that Jody is kind without being syrupy about it. He needs the support with a bit of an edge to it. He sticks his tongue to the roof of his mouth and counts off his controlled inhales and exhales.

What if?

What if the worst happens?

Dean doesn't even know what the worst is anymore. Instead of being the fire, or a car wreck, or a heart attack, or some specific horror that he'd seen or been a part of, the catastrophe has aged into some nebulous horrific event that nevertheless roots his feet to the ground.

What if something good happens? Donna's voice echoes in his head. What if you kick the problem in the butt and end up with what you want? What if you get out there and enjoy yourself?

Unconsciously, Dean's eyes lock on Castiel who is shoving out from behind the counter with an armful of boxes to refill the condiment counter.

What if...

"Go in there, order anything other than your usual, and if you're feeling frisky, let someone new fill the order."

Dean's lips twist as a brief wave of nausea takes over. "Nah, I... I can only... I can only do like, one new thing. For today."

Jody slaps his back. "That's fine. What do you want to start with? New person or new drink?"

Unable to blink for following Castiel with his eyes, Dean says, "new drink. Definitely a new drink."

"Then stop hanging around me, and get in there."

She says it with a certain matter-of-fact harshness, but she won't rush Dean. She'll stand there as long as necessary until Dean completes his task.

Castiel is still at the counter near the door, wiping down the surfaces before refilling the extras.

Now or never, and for some strange reason, Dean feels that having Castiel closer to him the second he walks in the door, will make this torture easier. So he straightens his shoulders and stomps across the parking lot, Jody in tow to stand outside and wait for him. He pushes the door open with the sleeve of his hoodie, and immediately turns a half step towards Castiel. He feels like he's drowning in rising panic, but then those blue eyes glance up, meet his, the familiar smile blooms, and just like that, Dean's... fine. He's fine. Slimy anxiety oozes through him, but his task doesn't seem as insurmountable as it did in the parking lot.

"Hello, Dean!" Castiel greets. He abandons the boxes to walk beside him on the way to the service counter. "I was wondering where you'd gotten to this morning. Missed you during the rush."

It's a platitude that's not meant to be a gut punch, but it socks Dean all the same. Hard. "Yeah. Uh. Car trouble," he says vaguely.

"Good thing you're a mechanic then," Castiel says breezily, scooting back behind the counter. Dean's heart lurches at Castiel both knowing and remembering something about him. It must show on his face because Castiel tilts his head curiously. "You are a mechanic, aren't you? I've seen your uniform and assumed..."

"No, yeah, you're right," Dean answers in a rush. "Just didn't think you'd, y'know..." he trails off, heat creeping up his neck again.

"I noticed," Castiel says with a small smile. He backs up a few steps, puts on fresh gloves, and grabs for a cup on the middle of the stack like always. "Usual?" he asks, already moving to make it.

"Actually," Dean pauses. "Um. How about a latte?" He doesn't really know what a latte is, but he didn't look at the menu, and it's the only other coffee word he can remember off of the top of his panicking head.

It doesn't help that Castiel freezes with his arm literally reaching for the ice. He doesn't seem to know how to answer for a second, eyes wide with curiosity. Then it all unsticks in an instant. The smile eases back onto his face. "What kind?" he asks.

This time Dean's heart lurches in the bad way. "What kind?" he echoes weakly. There are kinds? Why did he do this? He can't do this. Fuck, this was the wrong thing to do.

And away with the smile again. Jesus. Dean's giving them both whiplash. But Castiel recovers first. He plants the cup on the counter and leans forward, to point down at the laminated menu that's taped to the granite top. "There are flavors. Cinnamon, chocolate, caramel, and seasonal pumpkin spice."

Dean bends forward, too, not touching the counter or anything else to look where Castiel is pointing. Or really to look at the shape of Castiel's hand. It's nice. Long fingers. "What's your favorite?" he asks. Then he makes the mistake of looking up again because Castiel's face is right there and it's overwhelming. His brain screeches to a halt. Which, is actually probably a good thing because if Dean has to ask for a glass of water to take a Xanax now, he's going to bury himself alive.

"It's fall," Castiel says, clearly unaffected by their proximity. Or maybe even liking it as his eyes flick down to Dean's mouth for a split second before moving back up. It's warm. His whole expression is warm. His voice is far too intimate to be entirely professional when he continues, "If you're really looking for an adventure outside the norm, I recommend the pumpkin spice. It's my favorite. I realize all the coffee shops have it, but ours is especially good. I promise."

"Go for it," Dean says, embarrassingly short of breath.

"Iced?" He murmurs.

"Hot." Dean murmurs back.

This time, Castiel's once over of him is blindingly obvious. And if it hadn't been, the wink as he pulls back pretty much cements it. "Definitely hot. Coming right up," he says.

Dean does his best to fight the shaking in his hands as he swipes his debit card. Castiel hands over the receipt with a wider grin. Dean rocks back on his heels. He signs the receipt with a $5.00 tip. The coffee is only $4.00.

As usual, Castiel makes the drink himself, whistling lightly all the while. Dean makes absolutely no effort to hide his staring. Castiel moves easily around the equipment, operates it with both skill and finesse. Dean finds himself loving the obvious joy that the guy takes in his work.

"You've got a great job," he hears himself saying.

Castiel finishes steaming the milk and then turns with both cups, placing them on the counter in front of Dean so that he can finish making the concoction eye-to-eye. "I think so, too," he smiles. "Though most people don't say that about people in any sort of customer service job."

Nodding, Dean says, "yeah, but where would we all be without people like you?"

Castiel arches an elegant eyebrow while he carefully pours the milk into the coffee. "They'd be at Starbucks, I assume," he quips.

Dean snorts a laugh. "Yeah, and they have the same kinds of people. Not as good as yours, and the coffee beans are always over roasted, but you get what I'm saying. There are people who come in here who literally can't start their day without your coffee. That's a big deal."

Slowly, Castiel's smile blooms into a gummy grin. He finishes his creation and scoots it along the counter by the tips of his fingers. Dean takes it without a second thought. "Very true," he muses, mirth dancing in his clear blue eyes. "I've never really thought about it, but where would we be without coffee shops for those of us who don't have the time or the energy to make their own at home? People wouldn't be able to wake up. If they can't wake up, they don't go to their own jobs. If they don't go to work, things don't get done. If things don't get done? Mayhem. The total failure of our infrastructure."

Easing into the humor, Dean adds, "dogs and cats living together. Children weeping in the streets."

Castiel's chuckle is as warm as the coffee that Dean's holding in his hands. "It's a good thing I started this business then, isn't it?" He pauses on a drawn in breath like he was going to say something else. Then his smile relaxes softly and he says, "I'm glad that you came in today," Castiel says, the picture of sincerity. "I suppose I never realized it before, but you're such a fixture that it was very strange when I didn't see you this morning."

Dean shrugs, trying for casual, but even his ears feel hot now. He holds up his cup. "I'm one of those people who couldn't function otherwise."

"Happy to help," Castiel says amicably. He nods towards the drink that Dean still hasn't tried. "So?"

Tentatively, Dean takes a sip, schooling his face because flavored coffee isn't something he's ever liked. But Castiel had wanted him to try it. Oh, God. It's good. It's really, really fucking good, and Sam will never let him live it down. "Wow," he breathes.

Castiel stands up straight again, eyes blazing in triumph. "Do you like it?" he asks excitedly.

Why his opinion should matter stumps Dean. But he rolls with it. "Yeah, it's actually awesome."

Castiel's palms slap down onto the counter. "Hah! Another convert! I knew it!"

Dean blinks. "What?"

Castiel points at him in teasing accusation. "You're the type to only drink your coffee black and suffer through, ignoring the finer things in life in order to preserve your masculinity."

If it hadn't been so astute and actually true, Dean would not have laughed. But he does, because Castiel is kinda sorta right. And today's already been such a weird day. He's already done something he didn't think he'd be able to do for a long time. What if... what if... what if he goes for broke? "Dude," Dean says with a smirk that's probably only trembling in his mind. "If I was worried about my masculinity, I wouldn't let other dudes put their junk up my ass."

Castiel looks broken. Totally, completely broken. He's very suddenly not moving a single muscle. And he's staring at Dean with his mouth hanging open.

"See ya," Dean says with so much more bravado than he has. But he needs to escape now. He's at the very last inch of his normalcy. If he stays a second longer, he'll have a chicken fried meltdown. With that in mind, he beats a hasty retreat.

He can't even bring himself to glance over his shoulder, but over the tinkle of the door's bell, he hears a distant, "oh, my God. Oh, my God, I love that."

The smile he wears, carries him all the way back to where Jody is leaning against her car. "Success?" she asks, but she doesn't need to because she's smiling as big as he is, completely relaxed.

Dean holds up his cup. "Pumpkin spice something or another. It's good."

"You were in there a long time."

He doesn't like the knowing look he's getting. "It's a complicated drink to make."

"Yeah, sure," Jody says smugly. "And I'm sure it has absolutely nothing to do with you chatting up the barista who is over there watching through the window right this second?"

It physically pains him to not turn around. "Let's go," he mumbles. He practically rips the passenger door handle off throwing himself into the car.

Jody follows a moment later, starting the car, but not immediately diving off. "So, what's the guy's name?"

Dean shoots her a look. "Cas... uh, Castiel."

"What's the deal there? You talk to Donna about him?"

"Why would I?" Dean returns. "He owns the joint and he makes a great Americano. Hallelujah, the end."

Jody puts her car into gear and pulls out of the lot. "First of all, that snark ain't pretty, Winchester. Second of all, I thought you and Donna had a full truth policy when it came to talking about safe people."

A metaphorical Mac truck hits Dean in the chest. It punches the air right out of his lungs. Carefully, because Jody Mills would kill him if he spilled anything, Dean sets his coffee cup into the holder. Voice weak even to his ears, Dean says, "he's just the guy who makes my daily coffee."

Jody shoots him a brief look. "Does he always make your coffee? Every day?"

There's no use in lying. "Yeah."

"No one else?"

"I can barely make myself go in there in the first place. No, no one else makes my damn coffee," he snips.

"Okay, fine, so did you even think about it for a second?"

"Hell, no." Of-fucking-course not. Why would some random dude in a cafe be a safe person? They've barely said more than two words to each other on the daily.

"Maybe you should, because I think he is."

Dean snorts, but it's as weak as his excuses. "Jody, he's just this... weird, nerdy little dude. I talked to him more today than I have in the past two freaking years. I go in, he says, 'usual,' I say, 'yeah,' and that's it."

"And yet," Jody drawls. "It doesn't change the fact that you were totally comfortable around him. I could see it and it was... Dean, I'm not trying to grill you here. I'm just saying, if this guy helps, then he helps, and you should look into that."

He should look into that.

Yeah, right.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Donna, of course, is on Jody's side because she's a big, fat traitor. Dean does as Jody asked and tells him everything about the encounter. And about her suspicion of Castiel. Not his. Hers. He's not sold on it. Can't possibly have missed such a major plot point.

"So, is this safe person a cutie?" is Donna's first traitorous question.

"Are you kidding me right now?" Dean complains. "Did you hear anything I said?"

"Heard everything you said, cutie pie!" she chirps. "And I have about a million questions, but the first thing I wanna know is, is this new safe person a cutie?"

Like a dog with a bone. "Dammit, Donna, yes, he is, okay? He's really fucking hot. Like, crazy hot. Like, I want to be inside him so much, I can't even stand it."

If he thought that he was going to put her off, it's totally the opposite. Her dimpled grin spreads wider and wider. And then the bouncing. Great. Now she's never gonna let this go. "Did'ja ask him out?"

"Why the hell would I do that?"

Donna taps her tablet. "Uh, because that's what people who have crushes on other people do?"

"Not when they're goddamn crazy." He's trying not to be angry. Anger at his mental illness isn't going to change anything. In fact, most of the time, it just makes everything worse. Worse isn't the right direction.

"I'm sure I'm not the only one who's told you this, but you're not crazy."

"Okay, sick," Dean snarks.

Donna rolls her eyes, used to his antics and never rising back to the challenge. "All righty, enough about your making goo goo eyes at the barista. Got the signal loud and clear. In that case, have you thought about him being a safe person for you since our Jody brought it up?"

"Yeah," Dean sighs, deflating. She only wants to help. All anyone ever wants to do is help, and all he ever does it bite their heads off. Nice work, he chides himself. How about not alienating the last couple of people in your life who care about your sorry ass?

"And?"

Dean shrugs one shoulder and then the other. "He probably is. For what it's worth."

"It ain't nothing," Donna assures him. "Look, safe people don't have to be family, or even people we know better than ourselves. Sometimes they happen to be someone we deal with casually often enough that they just slip through our defenses."

Dean rubs his hand over his mouth. "I get that. But, like, the only reason I'm comfortable around this guy is because he goes with my picky bullshit coffee order daily and doesn't act like I'm insane."

"He's probably had weirder," Donna suggests. "And that's sometimes all it takes. Safe people don't have to be profound. At least, they don't have to start that way."

"Yeah," he returns sarcastically, "they just have to happen to be the guy who, by random luck, makes my coffee order for the first time and then gets stuck making it forever."

"So? You found my practice doing a Google search. And I'm a safe person now. Not too much different, yeah?"

"I guess not," Dean admits hesitantly.

Donna leans forward in her chair. "Dean, I'm tellin' ya. Once you get over this self-sabotage, you'll be golden."

"Easier said than done," Dean mutters.

"I know it," Donna agrees. "Look, if you're not comfortable with letting Castiel into your circle, that's fine. That's for you to decide. But. There's nothing says you can't be sneaky about it!"

The suggestion is intriguing enough that Dean perks up a bit. "Hit me with your idea."

It's actually possible for Donna to smile wider. She does so now. "Keep on with Jody-o. Go to the cafe at different times. Order different drinks when you can. Chat with Castiel if he's got the time. Big changes don't have to be huge, y'know what I'm saying?"

Strangely, he does. And it sounds... doable. Nothing bad had happened the first time. Why not push the envelope a little bit further? He's no worse off than he was Monday when the actual huge changes had happened. It's another step forward. Maybe quicker than he's been making steps lately, but that's the thing about gaining momentum. It wants to keep going. "I can... I can try that," he says.

He takes a red lollipop from Donna's bowl this time, and spins it between his fingers thoughtfully on the whole drive home. Of course, it takes him fifteen minutes to realize that he's not actually at his house. He's nearing the intersection where Espresso Lane is. Jesus. Brains are so unhelpful.

Before he can talk himself out it, and still riding on the high of his session with Donna, he cuts the wheel to the right, swinging into the nearly empty parking lot. He doesn't let himself take even a second to talk himself out of it. He pushes out of the car and then power walks the rest of the way, shoving the door open. Immediately his eyes find Castiel, the only one in sight, who looks like he's actually about to leave. He's halfway to untying his apron, but when he looks over his shoulder and sees Dean, he ties it back on, a smile lighting over his features.

"Hello, Dean."

Dean's lip tips up. "Hey, Cas. Uh. Is it quitting time?"

Castiel tilts his head from side to side. "I usually only work a few hours on the weekends when I'm needed."

He holds up his hand. "Don't let me stop you."

"Don't be silly," Castiel scoffs. "You're my favorite customer. I'm happy to serve you." His eyes suddenly go wide and his teeth clack shut. Face decidedly pinker than normal, he clears his throat and shuffles up towards the cash register, eyes cast down. "I mean. It's good to see you. What can I make for you today?"

"You were right about that pumpkin spice thing. I'd like another one."

Castiel's light blush is only heightened by his pleasure at hearing that. "Of course. It's a seasonal flavor, so we won't have it in a few months, but I've always preferred peppermint season, myself."

"My brother makes damn fine peppermint bark," Dean offers. "I've been known to eat all of it in one sitting."

Castiel chuckles. "I would, too." He pulls on a pair of gloves and gets to making the coffee. "We sell it here in the winter." He glances over his shoulder and gives Dean a sheepish smile. "I go a little crazy over peppermint things here in the winter."

"If you think I'm gonna complain..." Dean lifts both shoulders. "I totally won't."

Letting out a small laugh, Castiel turns back around. "Good to know at least someone is supportive of my vices." He carefully constructs the beverage and instead of moving back to the register, he pushes up the counter hinge and comes around to the front. "Are you in a hurry? This one is on the house."

"Got nothing else to do," Dean says carefully.

Castiel gestures to a small table near the window and Dean can do nothing except follow along. He sits, Castiel directly across from him, and he hands the coffee over and then strips off his gloves.

Dean feels a jolt behind his ribs. Not that he's worried exactly, but Castiel's fingers are fascinating. His hands are broad, but the fingers are long and a little bit delicate. The nails clean and neatly trimmed. He picks up the cup and then proceeds to take too big of a gulp, scorching as it goes down, but he prides himself on his poker face.

Thankfully Castiel doesn't seem to notice. He seems to be as fascinated as Dean is with staring at his fiddling fingers. "I must apologize to you."

Dean's gaze shoots up. He can't parse the confident cafe owner with this guy here, red to his roots and barely able to look at Dean for more than a couple of seconds. "What for?" he asks incredulously.

"For my behavior the other day," Castiel says to his palms. "I don't... I don't make a habit of flirting with customers. It's only... um..."

"I made the dick joke," Dean reminds him. "Didn't mean to embarrass you or nothin'."

Castiel shakes his head vigorously. "You didn't, I promise. I started it, and you responded, and I liked it. That's... well, that's what I wanted to say."

Dean coughs lightly. "I liked it, too. I was cool with it."

Now Castiel is far more able to meet his eyes. Dean likes what he sees there. Wishes it could be more. Wishes he was capable of more. But. Right now, he's not. "So... would you perhaps want to... with me...?"

Dean cringes, taking his turn to stare down at the table. "I'd love to, Cas, but things are kinda... complicated for me right now."

"I see."

No. No, he hates that sound in Castiel's voice. Dean reaches out, almost grabbing Castiel's hand, but remembers himself at the last second, left hovering awkwardly. He tilts to the side instead, resting his palm right next to Castiel's. "Maybe I could stop in during slow times, and we could... I dunno, talk some more? Maybe... take a rain check?"

Some of the light comes back to Castiel's lovely eyes, but not as much as there had been. Dean hates that just a little. "I'd like that." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bright pink sticky note. He holds it out between two fingers and Dean takes it. Unfolds it. Grins.

"Your number?"

Castiel grins back and shrugs. "I was planning on giving it to you the next time I saw you. No pressure."

Tons of pressure. Of course, Castiel has no idea what it will cost Dean to even pursue a friendship, but damned if the guy doesn't make him want to try. "Thanks, Cas," he says. He stands, Castiel following a moment later. "I'll text you, okay?"

The full brunt of the warmth returns. "Please do."

As Dean leaves the cafe, coffee hot in his hand, he once again practices his deep breathing techniques. But for once it has nothing to do with panic. It has everything to do with the pleasant butterflies in his body threatening to carry him away.

Chapter Text

Getting back into the groove of student life isn't nearly as difficult as Sam had thought it would be. The first week is a challenge in exhaustion and mad dashes across campus since he hasn't figured out the most efficient routes yet. At least he has Charlie and Dorothy to take him around so that he doesn't feel completely isolated in the crowds of people. They introduce him to pretty much everyone they know, and by Friday, Sam's lost all hope of remembering anyone's name. They don't seem to care, though. A huge crowd of them are crammed into a table at the very center of the student center during lunch and they all shout his name when walks in, clapping like he has just discovered the cure for cancer.

With an embarrassed laugh, he joins them, happy, but a little introverted until the group conversation starts to split into smaller ones that Sam can join two or three people at a time instead of being the sole focus of the group.

And as he's driving home after his first full week, his initial impression is that he can definitely find a way to make this all work.

Dean also appears to be leveled off as well. No major panic attacks, no unusual rituals; it's all just... normal.

Until Saturday afternoon.

Dean comes home much later than expected after his appointment with Donna, and he looks off. As is wise, Sam holds his tongue at first, assessing the situation. He jumps a foot and almost drops his sandwich when the garage access door slams open, Dean stomping in thunderously.

"Hey," Sam greets casually. "Hungry?"

"No," Dean answers shortly, and then he's gone. Up the stairs, slamming his door. Sam pauses. Tilts his ear towards the ceiling. No water running. Huh. Must be the usual kind of pissed off. Best to give him his space in situations like this.

Dean doesn't make an appearance until dinner, and even then he shuffles into the kitchen and slides into his chair, slumped down as far as he can get without falling onto the floor.

"Your pants slippery today or something?" Sam jibes, bringing their plates over.

Dean just heaves a huge sigh. Then he glances at his phone. Then he makes a disgusted noise. Then he taps the phone screen on again.

"What's going on with you?" Sam asks, mystified, taking his seat.

"Stupid shit," Dean mutters.

"Obviously not," Sam counters. "I'm not gonna push you, but if you wanna talk about it, I'm here."

Dean slides back up, finally picking up his fork. "It's not a family problem," he says eventually. "It's a personal problem."

Oh. Well, that's new. And for all it's making Dean angry, it's probably actually a step forward. "It's not about tonight?" he asks, just to be sure.

"No," Dean answers immediately. "Not even a little. It's all me. Seriously, don't worry about it. I'm just back to shoving my foot in my mouth."

"Or your head up your ass?" Sam grins. He remembers those days well. Kind of likes having them back.

Dean flicks a chopped onion at him. "You wish. Have fun tonight, bitch. I won't wait up."

"I hope not!" Sam chirps. "You've only been preaching to me like a grandma since I first brought it up."

And easy as that, it's the end of it. Dean deliberately flips his cell phone over so that he can't see the screen, flips Sam off, and continues with his meal. Then he calms enough to ask general questions about Sam's week and who he's meeting at the club. Sam is more than happy to expound upon his adventures to break the funk around his brother. Dean seems especially fond of hearing about Charlie and Dorothy.

Not wanting to push his luck too much, but a bit desperate to test the waters, Sam says, "maybe I could invite them over sometime. You'd really like them."

Dean scratches at his ear. "Yeah, maybe. But... not for a while, okay?"

Sam shakes his head. "Just a vague statement. An idea."

"It's a good one," Dean reasons. "We can work on it."

Work up to it. That's promising.

Sam beams. Just a year ago, Dean would never have even entertained the idea. And he's certainly not simply saying it for Sam's benefit to get him off his back. There'd been a time when that had been a real thing. Sam hadn't been the best at dealing with Dean's needs, and had often pushed for what he wanted instead. For a while Dean would put him off with "maybe" and "we'll see," and eventually Sam had turned into the petulant child he'd never been before.

There had been one frustratingly memorable night when Dean was able to do the grocery shopping and Sam had invited Ruby over. He'd intended to keep her in his room so as not to disturb Dean as a compromise, but she had taken it upon herself to bring other people with her.

God, it had been a disaster. They'd taken over the living room, shoes on the furniture, raided the fridge for beer, and Ruby had put her goddamn Oxy right onto the coffee table to cut.

When Dean had walked in the door, Sam had been shouting at Ruby's friends to get the hell out, Ruby had been shouting at him, and one of her friends had chucked a beer bottle right at Dean, and he'd barely ducked it in time for it to shatter onto the wall instead of his head.

It had taken weeks for either of them to recover.

This isn't that, and even if it was, Sam wouldn't do anything to jeopardize his brother's mental health. Not anymore. Not ever again.

"No worries. Right." He tosses his napkin down and pushes out of his seat. "Time to get ready."

Dean shoots a shit eating grin up at his brother. "Have fun at your rave," he sing-songs. "Make good choices. Don't do most of the stuff I'd do."

Sam groans and turns but Dean is getting ramped up. Again. Sam can practically say the speech along with him. "For real, man. If you drink, call Lyft. Or call me. Doesn't matter how late. Don't buy anything at all from anyone named Don. And if she says she's cool going dutch, she's lying."

Helplessly, Sam looks around for anything at all to stop the parenting tailspin. He's already nervous enough to be the odd nerd out at the freaking prom. "Pie!" he blurts. "There's pie on the counter!"

Dean's head whips around. "Hell, yeah!" And he's up and moving.

Thank God. But just before he can leave, Dean, mouth alarmingly full, says, "kissing on the mouth is for the second date."

Sam rolls his eyes. "Eat me, jerk." It's not the best comeback ever, but he's using the long legs God gave him to stride out of the room and up the stairs before Dean can think of anything better to say.

"There are condoms in the bathroom, second drawer!" Dean shouts.

"Fuck you!" Sam yells back, slamming his bedroom door. Then of course, he's confronted with his closet and all of the clothes he doesn't have to wear to a club. How does he dress without looking like a total douche or an eighty year-old man? He starts shoving hangers to the side, looking at every last thing he owns.

"Oh, God, I'm such a geek," he laments softly, noting the polo shirts. "And part lumberjack," he adds derisively, noting all the plaid.

He gives up a minute later, nothing at all suitable in there. He turns to his dresser, pretty sure the only stuff in there can be labeled "unkempt college student chic." He will not ask Dean for help. He cannot make himself do it. Dean would never let him live it down. There has to be something in this room somewhere that he can wear that doesn't make him look either like he's trying too hard, or just rolled out of bed for an 8:00 AM class that he doesn't care about.

He rips open all of the drawers in his dresser and then stands back, hands planted on his hips. "Okay, you've got this," he encourages himself. "You've got plenty of clothes. Just find something that isn't..." he grabs a small handful of shirts and tosses them right to the bed. "Stupid," he finishes weakly.

For a few angsty minutes he thinks about texting Charlie with any excuse he can think of to get out of this. But she'd already told him that their whole group is coming as an unofficial welcome party. For Sam.

He scrubs his face with both hands. "Jesus." He can't back out. Doesn't want to. Ugh, the only reason he wants to back out is because of clothes. He could not possibly be lamer. Besides, Charlie had called the event tonight a... paint rave? Neon party? Something messy and with paint. Black lights and all that shit. So, in that case, he'd need something plain if he really wanted to stand out. Something he doesn't mind getting messy.

Easy. His whole wardrobe is worth throwing away at this point since neither he nor Dean has bought anything except shoes in the past five years. He digs in the bottom drawer for a pair of jeans so worn that there are almost holes in the knees. He's had the damn things since his last growth spurt in high school. At this point they're so comfortable and loose that he's slept in them more than a few times. He can definitely get paint all over them, no problem.

Now for a shirt. Something plain is good enough. The second drawer is full of the t-shirts he rarely wears. He pulls out the first one. "What the fuck? Why do I even have this stupid purple dog shirt?" Right. Goodwill when he'd had to get rid of everything he'd owned thanks to that same unreasonably large growth spurt over the summer. He tosses it over his shoulder.

It takes sorting through every last shirt in his collection, but he finally comes out with a long sleeved, gray v-neck t-shirt. That'll do. It's not stained or too tight or too embarrassing in general. He yanks it over his head and then turns to face the mirror, pushing the sleeves up his forearms. He tucks his hair behind his ears. "Not bad," he admits to his reflection.

If he stays in his room any longer he'll only overthink it, so he quickly puts on his socks and then lopes out of his room, closing the door so that Dean doesn't see what a mess he's made. Dean's door is also closed across the hall, so Sam knocks on it loudly in case his brother has his music up on his headphones to ear splitting levels. "I'm heading out!"

"See ya!" Dean hollers back.

That's good enough. Sam runs down the stairs, yanks his shoes on, grabs his keys from the hall table, and makes his way out into the night.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

The club at the outer edge of the university's property is innocuous in the daylight. In keeping with the college aesthetic, it's a brick facade with a wooden sign overhanging, proclaiming it simply to be, Splatter. The only other telltale detail is that the white background on the sign is splattered artfully with many colors of paint. Dorothy had mentioned that over school breaks when the crowds are at their lowest, the place is transformed into an indoor paintball range. Sam would enjoy seeing that at some point. He'd never looked twice at it before.

For tonight, though? Music is pumping out of the building, the bass line rattling the windows slightly. He parks across the street in an overflow lot and jogs across to the door. He's reaching his hand out for the handle when he hears his name shouted from down the street.

He swings around and sees Ash and his impressive mullet, made even more impressive for a night on the town, running towards him. "Sam, buddy!" he calls.

Sam waits for him to catch up. "Sounds like the party's already started."

Ash pounds Sam on the back and then drapes an arm casually over his shoulder. "My dude, the party don't start until the guest of honor arrives. Shall we?"

Grinning, shoulders finally relaxing, Sam nods. "Yeah. Let's go."

Inside is the best kind of mayhem ever. The club is full, but not overwhelmingly so. Loud techno music with frantic drum beats pounds through the speakers set up all over the space. The inside is dark with black lights and strobes, the walls stark white that glow blue, splattered with all colors of neon paint. Tables and booths line the walls and surround a large dance space that abuts a stage where a DJ is standing behind his equipment, bouncing from turntable to laptop to mixer. To the right of the stage is the bar. It's huge and long, clear Plexiglas, lit with neon lights and teeming with servers and bartenders, all carrying glasses that glow in the lights.

To the left of the stage is the prized drum circle that Charlie had told him about. Of course, they're less musical drums, and more tin drums. A dozen of them, but only a few are claimed since apparently they're invite only by order of the DJ. But they look incredibly fun. Each is topped with the neon paints so that when they're hit with drumsticks, the paint flies up, spattering everywhere. The people playing them appear to be having the time of their lives. And they're all covered in paint like confetti.

Sam's smiling so hard that his face hurts. Then he spots his friends in a booth near the drum circle when the spotlights shift and light them up brightly for a moment. He can't be heard over the music, so Sam lifts his hand to wave. They catch sight of him and Ash, and though drowned by the music, they're obviously cheering and shouting at his arrival.

Ash expertly weaves them through the undulating throng of dancers to the table, everyone dishing out hugs and back pats.

Sam is about to slide into the seat beside Dorothy, but is stalled by the booming voice of the DJ. "The man of the hour has arrived!" he calls good naturedly.

Dorothy laughs and grabs Sam's face, turning his head towards the stage. Sam follows the movement and blinks. The DJ is looking right at him. What? His brain immediately denies any of this being about him until he spots Charlie next to the DJ bouncing excitedly and gesticulating wildly at him while saying something.

The DJ leans towards her and laughs, then flicks the mic back on. Speaking directly to Sam he says, "our good Miss Bradbury here wants to welcome you back into the warm, sultry embrace of higher education. First round's on the house. Second round's on me!" The crowd erupts into cheers and Sam's heart stops.

He stares unblinking at the smirking DJ. In the spotlight, Sam gets an eyeful of sandy hair, hazel eyes, thin features, and a hell of a lithe, small frame packed into a white dress shirt. Sleeves rolled up his forearms, black vest opened, a fedora perched carelessly on his head. The whole hipster vibe combined with the startlingly unconventional good looks does something to Sam that hasn't been done in long, long time. He wants a piece of that. If only briefly. If only because of the euphoric atmosphere.

Then a glass is being pushed into his hand by Ash, and Sam downs the whole sugary shot in one go.

The DJ grins like the Cheshire Cat and steps to the edge of the stage, reeling Sam in effortlessly with that one look. He kneels to get closer to Sam's level. "Take the next one on me and then I wanna see your gargantuan hot ass up on those drums. Doctor's orders."

Charlie whoops beside him and Sam blinks owlishly at the DJ until he belatedly realizes that a cheap plastic name tag proclaiming him to be "Dr. Sexy" is hanging from his vest.

That sight is what finally gets Sam to laugh. Dean would kill this guy with his bare hands for daring to sully that name. And in a stroke of genius that can really only be attributed to a bit of alcohol after a long dry spell and susceptibility to group mood, Sam bends over the stage, right into the DJ's nice smelling hair to murmur, "think I'll dance first."

And then he's off, dragging Charlie and leaving the DJ speechless for a split second. But it's a glorious split second because Sam suspects it's incredibly rare.

"Smooth moves Winchester!" Charlie crows. "Didn't know you had it in you!" They slip back into the booth, Sam crammed between Charlie and Dorothy. She shoves some mixed drink or another at him with huge grin. "You came off as the shy type at school, so I thought I'd tease you by making the DJ announce you, but wow. I got you totally wrong! And my gaydar was malfunctioning, too, 'cause I did not see the queer coming!"

"Not totally," Sam admits, bumping her shoulder affectionately. "I mean, I guess I'm not completely outgoing, but that DJ left himself wide open."

Ash leans over the table, propping his elbows up and regarding Sam like he has all the answers to the universe. "You think he's hot?"

Sam shrugs, face hot from the heat in the room and also from the suggestion. "Yeah. I mean... yeah."

Ash pounds his fist on the table, rattling the glasses, fire in his eyes. "Good. We'll make sure that happens."

Sam doesn't want to know what that means, but the laughter that lights up the table has to be a good sign. At least, that's what he tells himself as he tosses back his second fruity drink, intent on pacing himself, but definitely requiring at least a mild buzz to convince him he's anything approaching a passable dancer.

Charlie doesn't give a shit. As soon as Sam's set his glass down, she's urging him and Dorothy and Ash onto the dance floor, bopping around like she doesn't care who's watching. She wouldn't. Sam admires her more and more. And tries to take a page out of her book. He shuts his eyes, lets the bass thump deep in his chest, and moves to the beat without worry. Or, less worry. Not enough worry to glance around and wonder if he's being judged.

He dances until he starts to sweat. At least, he thinks it's sweat until it starts to itch a little. He pops his eyes open to see Charlie and Dorothy laughing and holding plastic cups with paint brushes. They've been dancing in their little circle painting on each other with the glowing paint, and shaking the brushes at Sam. He looks down and sees his shirt dusted with multi-colored freckles, guessing it's also probably on his face and arms, too.

"Drums!" Charlie shouts loudly enough to be heard over the music.

Nodding enthusiastically, fully committed to the atmosphere, Sam uses his substantial height to push through the crowd to the drum circle. Dr. Sexy glances down at their approach and winks at them. Instead of trying to speak to him, Sam points to himself, Charlie, and Dorothy.

Dr. Sexy nods and jerks his head back to indicate they can pass.

Sam high fives his friends, and they race to claim their spots. There are more drinks, a bass drop, and Sam grabs a pair of drumsticks, staring down at the swirling mess of red, purple, blue, and green paint resting in the pan of his drum. It's going to be a disastrous mess. He hasn't been allowed, or allowed himself to, make a mess in years.

With an ecstatic whoop and shout, Sam flings his arms up as high as he can and smashes the drumsticks down into the pool of paint as hard as he can, in time to the music. Charlie and Dorothy practically scream their delight, following suit. It only takes seconds before they're covered in countless drops of paint. It's in their hair, on their faces. Sam's shirt is nearly soaked and heavy. In a fit of exhilaration, he whips it off over his head and tosses it over his shoulder. The smaller group around them yells their support with wolf whistles and catcalls. He doesn't even care. The feeling of cold paint on his overheated skin feels amazing.

He loses track of time in what feels like seconds. They pound the drums, they dance in the crowds, they paint graffiti on the walls and on each other.

It's too soon when the lights flash and Dr. Sexy announces last call. Then he clicks a button on his laptop and jumps into the dancing crowd as the last song plays.

Sam can't help watching the guy. This is clearly a thing he does on the regular, because he moves through the ebb and flow of the dancing ocean like he lives among it; and he's got his own paint pot, shimmying up to paint people with hearts and stars on their cheeks. People hold out their arms for his glowing autograph. He looks like he's in heaven. Sam's transfixed. And Dr. Sexy is coming his way.

Sam's proud of himself that he doesn't stop dancing and pretends to ignore the guy.

But then the DJ is there, and the song is coming to an end. Sam stops swaying.

The guy's eyes sweep over him, making Sam feel almost naked. And... kinda hot.

People are milling around collecting their things and moving off the dance floor towards the doors. Even if they weren't, Sam suddenly feels like they're the only people in the room. "I'll be seeing you again?" Dr. Sexy asks.

"Yeah," Sam breathes, heart pounding, breathing heavy from exertion and proximity. "Yeah, definitely."

"Lots of people painted on ya," the DJ notes.

Sam studies his arms, and he can feel the paint dried and cracking on his face as he smiles. "Looks like."

"Don't like," Dr. Sexy corrects. He dips his palm into the paint and brings his hand up, pressing it right to the center of Sam's chest. "See ya next time, stud," he says, and then he's gone in the waves of people around the club.

Sam blinks down at the perfect hand print. "Shit," he whispers.

When Charlie hands him his shirt with a smug look, Sam waits until the very last second to put it back on. Just in case the paint won't smear. At least not for a little while longer.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

The house is silent when Sam trips back in, still giddy but completely sober. Aware enough to fall on his face or make enough noise to wake Dean if he's asleep. He removes his shoes in the garage to avoid tracking in anything from the sticky club floor, and walks as softly as possible up to his room.

Now that he's starting to wind down, he can feel the tacky sweat matting his hair, the flaking itchy paint, and part of someone's drink sticking to his shirt in a wet splotch that smells like an alcoholic pineapple.

Wincing as the previously unremarkable sensations start to become decidedly uncomfortable, Sam strips down and buries his clothes in his hamper. He'll do the laundry tomorrow so that Dean doesn't have to see or deal with how well Sam's night out went. He tiptoes down the hall to his bathroom and quietly shuts the door. He turns the shower on as hot as he can stand it, and while he waits for it to warm up, catches sight of himself in the mirror. He chuckles at the crime scene on his body incredulously.

"I'm disgusting," he murmurs delightedly. He's absolutely covered in paint. Gross with sweat. And in the dead center of his chest... carefully Sam touches his fingertips to the DJ's hand print. Drags them down to the palm, further until his fingers meet unblemished skin.

Shit, that guy was something else. Before he can get ahead of himself, Sam jumps into the shower and starts to scrub away his winding thoughts along with the mess. It's really hard. Especially when he starts to put the whole meeting in a different context. What if he'd just happened to see Dr. Sexy on the street or at the store? Would he have noticed? The DJ is certainly attractive, but enough to capture Sam's attention so thoroughly? He's not sure. Not sure why he's concerned.

It's just that the guy had seemed so... so in his element. The club was his kingdom. And everyone in it, his subjects. In his thrall, Sam especially. What would it be like under more normal circumstances? Is he always that outgoing? Always so sure? Sexy?

"Nice eyes, though," Sam says to himself.

There's nothing for it now. No big deal. He's making a mountain out of a molehill since he hasn't been out socially in ages. Overthinking everything. That's definitely something he's used to.

Whatever. It's not a problem. Just a strange daydream.

Sam finishes his shower and returns to his room, exhausted and surprisingly sore. Thankfully, tomorrow is Sunday. He hasn't stayed out so late in years. At least he has a full day to feel like an old person and recuperate.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean looks like he was out all night too, the following morning. He slumps into the kitchen and into his chair, rubbing his face. There are dark circles under his eyes, and it looks like he can barely lift his head.

"Long night?" Sam asks concerned. He slides a cup of coffee over to his brother and sits down across from him.

"Not really," Dean says, a yawn betraying him. Then he amends, "not as long as yours."

Sam winces. "I didn't mean to wake you up."

"You didn't," Dean admits.

"Dean," Sam says slowly. "Did you wait up for me?"

Dean scoffs into his mug. "Not like I was trying to, man. It just happened."

"We weren't ready for this," Sam surmises. "I'm so sorry, Dean. You could have called. You should have called."

Waving a hand dismissively, Dean says, "wasn't gonna do that. Things aren't ever gonna get better if we don't push sometimes. I handled it. I'm fine."

Sam doesn't point out that Dean's hands are raw and that all of the dishes in the cabinets have been rearranged. They know what happens when Sam points out the obvious. It's not beneficial to either of them anymore. They don't know all of the triggers for Dean's episodes. Nor do they know how to handle all of them properly, but they do know how to ease the transition afterwards. Dean's come miles from where he started. He can handle panic attacks and his compulsions. He knows how to mitigate them, and will no longer simply ignore - or worse, play off - what's happening. He asks for help when he really needs it.

Sam just has to fully understand the limits. When he honestly needs to step in, and when Dean can do what he needs to do on his own.

It's a learning process, and Sam is further behind on it than his brother, but they're getting there. They don't fight nearly as badly as they used to. They've both accepted that the friction comes from a place of love. It's done wonders.

And it's good enough that Sam can relent here, too. "It doesn't bother me when things get hard for you," he says instead of pushing. Donna had given him a wonderful piece of advice on their first meeting. She'd recommended that when talking to Dean about the effects of his problems on Sam, he should keep it about himself. Not about his brother. It's the surest way to get him to turtle up making it about Dean's issues. "Even if I'm out having a good time. Even if I'm doing something I've been looking forward to for ages. Even if I'm in the middle of a final exam. If you need me, call me. Even if you just need to talk for a second. You're my brother. And you're the most important person in my life. Okay?" He smiles hopefully at Dean, praying it's not read as something insincere, because it's not.

Dean gets it, because he sighs heavily. "I think... maybe if I could'a just... texted or checked in, I might've... I dunno."

Sam elects to ignore the embarrassment so as not to throw off Dean's awesome attempt at opening up. "Let's do that, then. It's a great idea. Let's set up check in times. Say, every three hours? Four?"

Dean's purses his lips thoughtfully. "Yeah, three for now. Sam... thanks for like... not making it a big deal."

Sam shakes his head. "Jody and Donna both told us to make solutions to problems that won't just create more problems. Can I be honest?"

Dean nods once, peering into this coffee.

"This first week? It kinda sucked for me. I was worried a lot." He holds up a hand quickly. "Not about you going catatonic or something. More like..." he pulls his hand back, gesturing vaguely. "I depend on the routine, too. Since it's just you and me now, I have trouble thinking about what if's, too. It's comforting to have this schedule that doesn't change. No surprises. And if we ignore the parts that don't work out of stubbornness, it'll make something else worse. This could help ease the transition more. There's no shame in that. Not for me."

"I didn't know," Dean says, eyes turning up to study Sam's face. "I thought it was just me so I didn't want to make things harder on you."

"It's not. And it's never an imposition to have a feelings talk." He almost makes it through the sentence without cracking a tiny, teasing smile.

Dean barks a tired laugh. "Yeah, whatever, Samantha. I'm gonna just sleep today, if it's no imposition to His Highness, the party animal."

"I probably will, too," Sam says, smirk fading to a tired grin.

"Did you have fun, at least?"

"Tons," Sam says, caught off guard by a yawn. "I'll tell you all about it when my brain feels like working."

"Good call."

The rest of the day is pure laziness. Just what Sam needs to recharge. Dean, too, if his relaxed state is anything to go by. He does his usual chores in the afternoon, and not a single compulsive ritual the rest of the day.

Or Else Sam
Art by Winchester-Reload

Chapter Text

Jody doesn't look all that pleased to be in Donna's office, but then again, Dean kind of likes it because she's the only one who seems to be immune to Donna's constant cheer.

"Hey, there, Jody-o!" she chirps when Jody strolls in, exactly on time.

"Donna," she nods. "Dean. What's the story?"

"Thanks for coming," Donna says. "Real pleased to have ya here again!" She holds out a red lollipop.

Jody rolls her eyes. "Aren't those earned, not given?"

Donna winks. "You always earn them!" She wiggles the candy in front of Jody's face until she snatches it out of Donna's hands and shoves it in her shirt pocket. Then she takes her seat and pats Dean on the knee.

"I appreciate y'all making the time," Dean says. "I know we're off of our normal schedule."

"Hey," Jody says, much more comfortingly. "If you call and say you need an extra session, that's what you need. We're here for you."

"Darn right," Donna agrees. "So, let's get right down to business, okay? What's eating at you, Dean?"

Dean rolls his shoulders. "We're not DEFCON anything, getting that out of the way," he says after a pause. "Sam and I've been making some changes, so I wanted to run them by you."

Donna gestures for him to go ahead, holding her tablet pen over the screen ready to take notes. "Start wherever you want to."

Jody turns sideways on the spacious sofa and tucks one leg up, leaning against the arm. She crosses her arms over her chest, then a moment later unfolds them. She'd been making a conscious effort to look less intimidating lately after Donna told her it can throw her more skittish patients off. It doesn't bother Dean, but he does appreciate her not looking like she's channeling his mom about to launch off on a tirade about his messy room or bad table manners.

Dean rubs his hands together and then folds them between his thighs. "So, the weekend was a little... um. Sam went out to a club on Saturday. He was out most of the night."

Jody arches an eyebrow and says nothing.

Donna, however, asks, "you didn't want him to go?"

"No, I did," Dean corrects quickly. "Kid needs to get out and have fun sometimes. I get that. I wanted him to make friends and go to college parties. Make harmlessly bad decisions, you know?"

Jody cracks a small smile.

Donna isn't so held back with her emotions as her counterpart, so she grins widely. "Did he do that?"

"Yeah," Dean answers, also quirking a smile. "Said he had an awesome time. It wasn't his going out to do stuff that caused a problem. It was him not being home."

"Ah," Jody says.

Donna nods sagely. "How long's it been since he was out all night?"

Shaking his head, Dean says, "I don't even remember." He does remember, though. It had been when Sam was doing things that were best done in the middle of the night, and he doesn't do that anymore, so he's not going to get into any of that with either Jody or Donna. They've hashed out all of those past issues over the years plenty. They can read between the lines if they want to.

"Guessing you had some anxiety?" Donna asks.

It's a huge understatement. Right now, Dean's appreciating Donna being so willing to gently pull his teeth. "Yeah. But Sam and I had a talk Sunday morning. We agreed to three hour text check ins for the time being. Is that too much?"

Donna shrugs and turns towards Jody. "Whaddya say there, Jody?"

Jody shrugs, too. "I'd say if it was your girlfriend, that'd be weird. But you and Sam have a lot going on right now. So, whose idea was this?"

"His," Dean answers. "But, like, Sam said he had trouble with the extended time away from home, too. We thought it might help if we set up some kind of check in to kinda ease the transition for a while. And especially if he's gonna be going out a lot." It kills Dean to be saying all of this. Kills him to be needing it. Even though he knows there's nothing wrong with adjustments that help him get back to a more functional life. Ease his anxiety. Methods that don't make something better by making something else worse. Methods that don't suffocate either him or Sam. Getting over their codependency to a strong and healthy brotherhood. It's been such a difficult climb up that Dean will be damned if he or Sam did anything to make them backslide again. They can't afford it. Untangling the threads was hard enough the first time around.

"I'm cool with that," Jody says. "It's harmless and you've both agreed that it's not too much for either of you. You can always reassess later. And we'll get to some other strategies to help you when you're home alone like that in the future. Check ins won't necessarily be helpful if you fall back on your rituals to deal with the rest of the time alone."

"I totally agree!" Donna enthuses. "I don't hear anything unhealthy about that plan. However, it can't be a long term solution. Sam's your primary support person, but remember how he can't be your crutch anymore. You and him have gotten to a place where you're not codependent anymore, and we need to keep that up."

Dean's whole body burns with shame at the reminder. "Right," he mumbles. "No more unhealthy behaviors from either of us. I get it, Donna."

"Know ya do, sweetie!" Donna assures him. "Just sayin', 'cause that's my job! At any rate, you got the green light here. Was there anything else eatin' atcha?"

Now or never, Dean reasons. He sucks in a deep breath through his teeth. Puffs his cheeks and pushes it out. "Yeah. So... what point do I need to be at before I'd be able to like... start dating?"

For once, Donna is totally speechless. Dean's even managed to shock Jody, who doesn't look much like it, except that he eyes are open extremely wide.

Silence fills the room.

Dean clears his throat. "Just a freaking question, guys."

"Big question," Jody argues. "Big, big question."

"Sh'yeah," Donna breathes. "Are you... is there someone, Dean?"

Dean says nothing.

His therapists keep staring at him.

Suddenly, Jody smacks Dean on the arm. "Espresso Lane! I was freaking right!"

"Oh, God," Dean groans. He shouldn't have brought this up. He's currently regretting every second, up to, and including, hiring these people to help him.

Donna blinks. "You mean, what's his name? Cas?"

"Castiel," Dean mumbles, barely loud enough to be heard.

"He's gone from safe person to crush?" Donna asks. "Gotta say I was wondering when that was gonna happen."

Scowling, Dean says, "how the hell could you know who I'd have a goddamn crush on?"

With a flat look, Donna says, "uh, duh, 'cause you have a grand total of four safe people in your life, and two of them are your therapists." She gestures between herself and Jody, who snorts a brief laugh. "And we talked about him before, right? Same guy we thought might be another safe person?"

"This is getting out of hand," Dean laments.

"You should just tell us what's going on," Jody agrees.

Donna laughs. "Party poopers. Fine. I'm ready for story time." She lounges back in her chair, chin in hands.

Dean rolls his eyes. "Awesome. So, Jody took me to the cafe last week and told me to order something different. I did, and I talked to him for a while. Same stuff I talked to you both about last week."

Jody and Donna nod in tandem.

Dean shifts his legs, squeezing his hands more tightly between his thighs. "I left out the part where I went back again later, and he gave me his number."

Donna's face lights up like it's Christmas morning. Jody appears far more reserved, but Dean's known her long enough to read her smirk. "Did you want his number?" she asks.

Dean rubs at the back of his head as if that could dissipate the heat he feels creeping up his spine. "I kinda did, yeah. I might have flirted with him a little bit."

Donna makes an extremely unprofessional noise that she tries to bite back.

"So you do have a crush on him," Jody surmises.

"I don't know," Dean admits, though it pains him to do so. "I've always thought he was hot, but never went past that, right? How could I? I can barely take care of myself these days. I got no business bringing someone else into that mess."

Donna's face falls. "So, you're not planning to try and make a friend out of him?"

"No," Dean answers.

"Why not?" Jody asks.

Dean spreads his hands wide. "Have you met me?"

"Why do you keep asking that?" Donna says as sourly as she can.

Jody pipes up with, "memory loss already?"

Dean scoffs. "I can't be the only one who thinks it's a bad idea to let someone into my life right now. Look," he leans forward, elbows on his knees. "I know you two hate it when I sit around calling myself 'crazy,' or 'a mess,' or whatever, but it's still true. Pretending that my brain works normally doesn't do anyone any favors. I can't let some poor bastard have to deal with my bad days. No one should have to put up with that."

Donna's eyebrows draw down and she mirrors Dean's stance, frowning deeply. "And have you taken even a split second to consider that some people can handle you, and it's up to them to decide if they want to?"

Dean collapses back again, head resting on the back of the couch, staring plaintively at the ceiling. "This ain't like Sam. Or Bobby. Or you two. My family puts up with me because they love me, so they feel obligated to help. I pay the two of you. Y'all are awesome, but there are reasons the people in my life are there, and it ain't 'cause they wanna fuck me."

Jody slides her foot out, not so subtly kicking Dean's ankle. "Your family loves you, yes. But why can't someone else outside the bloodline, too?"

Dean only snorts.

"Hey," Donna says sharply, fully done with his bullshitting. "Guess I need to tell you this again, pal. You don't get to decide other people's feelings. That's not your right. You can feel the way you feel until the cows come home, but that's it."

"I know," Dean murmurs, counting the spots on the ceiling tile. The thing is, he wants Castiel to like him. He wants to get to know him. He seems like a great guy all around. Hell, he could make an amazing friend, and Dean has definitely noticed the glaring lack of them in his life. "Just feels like I'm cheating them, y'know?"

"I don't know," Donna argues. "You have OCD, not the plague."

Dean opens his mouth to fire back, but Jody gets there first. "All righty, guys, we're starting to get heated here, so maybe it's time to see where the other person is coming from."

Donna slips back in her cozy chair, glaring fairly unconvincingly at Jody. "Hate it when you psychoanalyze me."

"You love it," Jody teases. "Anyway, Donna, you're doing great at your job. It's not your fault that Dean's skull is as overly thick as it is."

"Hey!" Dean protests. "I'm not paying you people to insult me!"

"You do enough of that on your own," Jody retorts. "Look, I think what Donna's getting at here is that nobody is totally normal. No one cheats anyone just because they don't want to tell everyone their most intimate secrets. Not all your friends have to be as close to you as Sam. And even if you start dating, you don't necessarily have to bare your entire soul, either."

"Yes!" Donna enthuses. "That! Dean, there's a pace to getting to know people. You set yours. They set theirs. They don't have to match, either. Everyone has secrets. That's perfectly healthy."

Dean sighs. "OCD isn't a secret. He'd find out in a second. Anyone would."

"So what?" Donna demands, but without the heat she'd been building up to before. "I think you're under the impression that the only people who are gonna like you are medical professionals and your kin."

Squaring his shoulders, Dean says, "most people hate complications. They want easy."

"The best friends worth having aren't usually easy," Donna answers. "Not all the time. And certainly no relationships are."

Obviously Donna isn't going to be swayed on Dean trying to establish a relationship with someone he's taken an interest in. She's always been a dog with a bone. It makes her a wonderful therapist for someone with Dean's temperament, but a huge pain in the ass when he's in the mood to deflect and just have everyone agree with him for once.

Jody steps in too, because of course she would. "It's best to let the people around you decide what the can and can't handle. And you decide what you can and can't handle. Maybe Castiel wants to be your friend. Maybe he might be equipped to handle more, and want it. The only thing you can do is look out for yourself. Everyone else is responsible for themselves."

Dean scrubs at his face with both chapped, splitting hands. "Right. Then lemme ask this: for the sake of argument, how do I go about making a new friend?"

Donna beams so widely she's about to fart rainbows.

It's Jody who answers with an exasperated, "you freaking text him!"

"Yes!" Donna cries. "Start simple. Ask him out to coffee or something."

Dean laughs loudly. "Where did you get your degree? He owns a fucking coffee shop!"

"You know what I mean!" Donna says, unperturbed.

Shaking his head wryly, Dean relents. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

"Dean," Donna says, softening again. "There's the illness and there's handling the illness. Those aren't the same thing. Your brain is what it is. How you handle it is what makes the difference, and in the end, that's what affects those around you."

She's right, Dean knows that. She's always right about these things. Too bad his brain and his coping skills have a hard time agreeing with each other sometimes. Still, he gets a blue lollipop for his troubles.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

By Tuesday, Dean's given up hope of ignoring the sticky note. It's plastered right on the mirror in his bedroom, staring at him all the time. Fuck. He should have given Castiel his number in exchange. Then he could sit back and wait and convince himself that Castiel really wasn't interested for real when he didn't initiate first contact.

Every time he so much as touches his cell phone, he itches to text. He doesn't know what to say. There are too many options. From simple hellos all the way down to regrets to inform that Castiel's given his number to a waste of time.

Sam notices, naturally, and Dean makes an effort to hide his phone and his obsession with fiddling with it. It doesn't work. He prides himself on his poker face, to no avail here.

Sam pauses the TV. "Dude, is there something wrong with your phone?"

Dean tosses it onto the coffee table irritably. "Nah."

"Why do you keep looking at it? Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing's wrong," Dean grouches. "Just... nothing. Donna and Jody were just getting in my head again."

"That's their job," Sam reminds him dryly.

"I don't have to like it all the time."

Sam huffs a small laugh. "That's true. You can talk about it with me if you want."

Dean heaves himself lethargically off the couch. "No, thanks. I've got enough people talking in my head right now, no offense."

"None taken," Sam assures him. "As long as you're okay."

"Fine. Working through it. I'm gonna hit the hay."

Sam presses play on the TV again and drags his laptop onto his knees to get going on his homework. "Sounds good. 'Night."

Dean punches his brother lightly on the shoulder as he passes by and makes his way to his bedroom. So much for keeping a low profile. He should have known. Sam's been seeing through him for ages. Not like Dean hasn't been doing the same in return. Sucks having a brother sometimes. But it's awesome having one that doesn't push all the time. And Dean will be damned if he's going to ask his brother for either friendship or relationship advice.

Shit, he used to be good at this. It's gotta be like riding a bike, right. Once he gets back on, the muscle memory will take over.

He thumbs his phone on. Pulls up his contacts. Squints over at the sticky note and carefully types in Castiel's number, double checking to make sure that it's correct. Then he saves the contact and opens his text app.

Dean (10:03 PM):
Hey Cas. It's Dean.

He drops the phone onto his bed like a hot potato, and then starts to get ready for bed in order to distract himself from the waiting. Here, at least, his normal routine is completely necessary to keep from fidgeting out of his skull. He takes his clothes off in the same order every day. He steps over to the closet and removes his socks, then overshirt, then pants, then undershirt, then boxers, tossing each item into the proper laundry basket so he doesn't have to sort them later when he does the wash. He steps over to the dresser and pulls out a fresh pair of boxers and shirt.

He's got the boxers halfway up his legs when the text message alert sounds. He finishes dressing before checking it.

Cas (10:05 PM):
Hello, Dean.

He scowls at the phone. That's it? That's absolutely nothing to go on at all.

This isn't like riding a bike at all.

Fuck.

Dean (10:06 PM):
Thanks for giving me your num

No. That's stupid.

Dean (10:06 PM):
Just wondering what you're up

Even worse.

Dean (10:06 PM):
I'm not really good at

Stupid. Stupid and asinine.

Dean (10:07 PM):
You shouldn't have given your number to a crazy person

Delete. Delete. Delete.

Dean (10:08 PM):
What's up?

Probably the literal worst thing he's ever come up with, but he jabs send before spending an hour being a prepubescent baby. He throws his phone down and storms to the bathroom.

Wash hands, but just the once. Wash face. Scrub away the failure at being smooth in front of Castiel even when he's not in the same room. Brush teeth until gums ache for penance at being such a fucking idiot.

Another ping, and Dean cringes, tucking himself under the sheets and turning on his own TV before he has the courage to peek at the response.

Cas (10:11 PM):
Not much, truthfully. I'm actually at a bit of a loss. I usually have so many things to do during the week with the cafe and my home, but today was slow. I caught up on everything, including bookkeeping, so now I'm watching a Discovery Channel documentary on bats. They used to scare me as a child, but I'm so fascinated by watching them that I can't seem to change the channel. I didn't realize that they're the only mammals that can actually fly. And did you know that even though they make up a quarter of all mammals, many species in North America are endangered or declining? That's unfortunate. It must explain why there seem to be more mosquitoes than normal in the summer. At least I feel that way. Anyway. What are you up to? :)

Dean gapes at the message for a full minute. Then he starts to laugh. Relief and affection wash over him quickly and suffocatingly sweet. He grabs his remote and changes the channel. Then, before he can think twice, he hits dial.

After a single ring, the call connects. "Dean?"

"Looks like I'm watching some documentary on bats."

Castiel's laugh is startled and surprisingly embarrassed. "I'm sorry that I sent you a wall of text. I can go off on tangents sometimes. I just got so bored. I'm useless at relaxing since I never actually get to do it."

"Then you're talking to the right person," Dean answers warmly. "I'm a master at chilling. For hours on end. Days, even. I'm happy to give you some tips."

"I'd be very appreciative," Castiel says with false solemnity; the grin absolutely evident in his voice.

"Great!" Dean grins back. "What are you wearing?"

Castiel coughs, chokes, laughs. "I beg your pardon?"

Dean laughs, too. "Wow, yeah, that sounded wrong for the stage we're at. Your clothes, though. You still got your work clothes on, or jammies?"

"I..." There's a pause and a rustle. "I'm in the clothes I wore to work, yes."

Rolling his eyes, Dean says, "well, the first rule of relaxation is dressing comfortably."

"These clothes are extremely comfortable," Castiel protests. "They're hemp and linen. Both eco friendly and--"

"Put your pajamas on, ya hippie!" Dean interrupts loudly.

"Fine," Castiel sighs. "Give me a..." there's more shuffling, "... moment. Ugh. I'm..." his voice fades in and out, then comes back with an annoyed tinge. "Hold for a moment, please." Then there's clacking like the phone being set down.

Dean bites his bottom lip, holding back a huge surge of laughter at Castiel's expense. What a nerd! This is fantastic. This will work. Dean can actually work with this. Furthermore, he wants it to. Sure, he's mentally kicking himself for having worried so much about it, but that's kinda his thing. He worries about everything. He's glad that Castiel is somehow able to make things easier.

"I'm back," Castiel announces, somewhat breathless, but proud. "I have my pajamas on. You were right. They're far more comfortable than my work clothes."

"That's why they're pajamas," Dean says. "So, do you wanna keep watching TV to bum around, or is there something else you do?"

He can practically hear the noncommittal shrug when Castiel says, "TV is fine. I don't watch much of it, but I feel like my cable package and Netflix go to waste otherwise."

"I could spend the whole weekend watching TV," Dean admits boldly.

But Castiel doesn't sound judgmental at all when he replies, "that sounds wonderful, actually."

Dean snorts. "Somehow you struck me as the hiking and apple picking kind of dude."

Castiel scoffs. Then hums. "Hiking, no. I go running five days a week, though. It's a wonderful workout. But apple picking? That actually sounds lovely. Can you do that around here?"

"Get yourself lounging on your couch or the bed, and I'll tell ya anything you wanna know," Dean says.

"Where are you?"

"In my bed. I live with my brother, so it's really the only place he won't barge in."

"Scandalous," Castiel teases. "Bed sounds nice, however, so I think I'll do that. I have a TV in my room, anyway."

"Atta boy!" Dean encourages.

There's more rustling, a sigh of contentment and then, "so, are you going to offer your explanation as to why you stereotyped me, or do I need to ask?"

It's said lightly and without a hint of insult, so Dean rolls with it. But still, he feels the need to defend himself first. "Is it really a stereotype? You own a free trade coffee shop, at least three pairs of sandals, and admitted that your clothes are hemp and linen. What exactly am I supposed to think?"

"You're supposed to think that turnabout is fair play so I'm going to stereotype you now."

"This ought to be good." He crosses his ankles under the covers, settling in further and muting the documentary to hear Castiel better.

"I'm very good at this. Let's see. What I know so far is that you're a mechanic, wear an impossible amount of flannel, and know all about proper relaxation. Therefore, I can surmise that you value both your work and the leisure that's earned from a job well done. You probably sleep until the last second every morning because you never fail to stop by for coffee, suggesting you're not a fan of mornings."

Strangely, Dean feels his face start to heat. "That's... not really what stereotyping is, Cas. You're just telling me your observations."

"I'm just getting warmed up," Castiel says brightly. "My guess is you own a muscle car - black or red - that you love more than your own life. You listen to classic rock loudly; nothing newer than 1985. You will drink any beer, have never taken an indulgent bath in your life - only showers - and will eat anything full of processed sugar, or fats. You're especially fond of the three B's: bacon, booze, and beef. Though, you probably also love pizza as long at it has meat on it."

Dean's mouth falls open. He's sure he's got a snappy comeback in there somewhere, but all he can actually say is, "what the fuck?"

Smugly, Castiel says, "alpha male masculinity is pretty straightforward to diagnose."

"She's a 1967 Chevy Impala, and she's black," Dean answers primly.

"You probably have a motorcycle, too."

"My baby is my one true love," Dean corrects. "Don't need any other wheels."

"Where have you driven her?"

That's an interesting question. One that Dean wouldn't have expected. Most people would just idly ask if he's traveled before. How much. To where. But Castiel appears to be able to read his personality incredibly well. His instinct is to assume that because Dean talks so lovingly about his car that he's taken pleasure in putting her out on the open road as often as he can. "Everywhere," Dean says. Castiel breathes a small laugh and Dean amends, "well, most of the West, anyway. Lots of open highway and not a lot of people."

"You're adverse to crowds or cities?" Castiel asks.

Dean doesn't answer for a moment. It's a perfect opening and Castiel doesn't even know it. Dean could explain his agoraphobia and OCD in one fell swoop and wait for the fallout. Wait to get hung up on. Or worse, pitied. "Guess I'm a country boy at heart," he says.

"I'm the same," Castiel says. And then rushes to add, "and not because I wish I lived barefoot in the woods communing with nature!"

Dean laughs, the tension in his chest easing somewhat. "You don't have to be a hippie to enjoy the open sky."

"That's true."

"You ever go stargazing?"

"I'd love to, but I haven't thought about it in years," Castiel says wistfully.

Dean glances up. "I've got a skylight in my room. Love watching the stars. My house is on some acreage so it gets really dark."

"That must be nice," Castiel answers, clearly envious. "I have a half acre myself, but it's a normal neighborhood. Lots of streetlights. The only thing that I can do is keep an apiary in my backyard. It's where the honey for the cafe comes from."

"Huh," Dean says. He's noticed the glass bottles of honey, both with and without combs, behind the counter in the cafe, but he's never thought twice about them before. "You know, I know some good spots around the area to watch the stars. Spent a lot of my wayward youth discovering them and wishing I was ballsy enough to run away."

With fond warmth, Castiel asks, "and you'd be willing to share that sort of valuable secret?"

Unsure of what's gotten into him, Dean says before he can think, "only if you let me call it a date."

Silence. But for some reason, Dean's not exactly scared by it. Castiel's proven himself, even before they were talking, to be kind, friendly, and probably not the type to be a dick about this. In fact, if he does want to turn down Dean's offer, he'll be nice about, and that's fine with Dean. They could still be friends. Hell, a date might not even work out. Dean's not entirely sure that he can work it out now. But suddenly, deeply, he wants to try.

And Castiel says, "you can call it that."

Dean's heart thuds. He swallows hard, hoping that Castiel can't hear it. "I wasn't planning to ask you out today... y'know, just so you... know."

"I'm that irresistible?" Castiel quips, voice lower.

"Must be," Dean answers.

"I never would have had the courage," Castiel says softly. "I'm glad that you did."

The feeling that his voice produces sends something curling down from Dean's ear. Something that he hasn't felt in a very long time, and hopes to feel some more. "Happy mistake," he murmurs back. He sinks down into his pillows, comforter up to his chin, phone pressed more closely to his ear.

"I suppose since we're not face to face right now, I can be more comfortable telling you that I've thought you were incredibly attractive since the beginning."

"Crushing on your patrons?" Dean smiles.

"Just the one," Castiel answers like it's the easiest thing in the world. Maybe it is for him. "I tend to get pretty focused." He sounds slightly embarrassed about that.

"Helps when you own your own business."

"Yes," Castiel replies contemplatively. "Of course, the focus also takes over sometimes so thoroughly that I end up ignoring everything else."

"Like your personal life."

"Yes," Castiel sighs.

"And all the documentaries you wanna watch."

Castiel laughs, deep and throaty and the sound sends pleasant chills up to Dean's scalp. "That, too."

"Wanna fix that?" Dean asks uncertainly, even though Castiel had already agreed to go out with him. "With me?" He recognizes that the anxiety might really be for him. At whether he can sustain a friendship, much less a burgeoning relationship. What would Castiel do? Say? Want? What's Dean actually able to provide? The only thing he can think of is Donna with her most cheerful, "You won't know until you try, buddy!"

"I think I'd like that," Castiel says. "Yes. I would."

Now or never. And better not to let it drag out so he has the chance to panic even more. "How about this weekend? I'm busy during the week, but I'm usually free on Saturday and Sunday."

"Wonderful," Castiel answers. "Sunday, then?"

Dean smiles wider. "Yeah. Gotta also admit... I haven't been out in a long time. I have no idea what the kids are doing these days for dates."

Chuckling, Castiel answers, "same here. How about... let's each make lists of what we'd like to do, and then compare notes? Nothing says we have to follow some standard dating protocol. Having fun and getting to know each other is much better, right?"

"I agree." A yawn splits his jaw now that he's done with the most distinct emotions. "Sorry. Tired."

"We've both had busy days," Castiel says affectionately. "I could use some sleep as well. Thank you for calling, Dean. Have a good night."

"You, too, Cas. 'Night." He presses end, drops the phone onto his chest, and ends up staring at the ceiling for the next few hours.

Chapter Text

In wake of the best night ever, followed by the best lazy Sunday ever, Sam is loathe to go back to classes. He does, though. He and Dean had worked hard for the money to pay for his tuition, plus he honestly is so glad to be back. He's just yet to shake the constant fatigue that follows his change of routine. He'll manage. It'll probably only last a couple of weeks, anyway, so he toughs out Monday.

But then, it's Tuesday. And Tuesday becomes a day to remember.

He's not looking forward to comparative religion, but he's still too stubborn to drop it just yet. Plus, he considers that he let Charlie and the rest of his friends psych him out a little bit. Dr. Pellegrino is certainly off-putting, but he hasn't done anything totally insane yet. Mostly he's just up on some academic high horse, which Sam figures will be a thing with more than one professor at this institution. So far, the worst part is having to pay a hundred dollar's for the professor's own goddamn textbook that he wrote himself and demands to be a part of the curriculum. It's overly dense and so boring that Sam fell asleep twice reading the chapter assignment over the weekend.

Still, a certain low buzz of anxiety vaguely knots his stomach every time he takes his seat, waiting for the weird stares from the professor, but today someone entirely different enters the room with a hearty, "time to shut up, everyone!"

Sam shoots up in his seat. Oh, God. This can't be real.

But it is.

It's him. It's Dr. Sexy.

The DJ from he bar! The one with the hair. And the hands. And the flirty smile. And the effortless attitude.

God, he looks even better in the semi-natural classroom light. Today he's got on dark khaki slacks, a white button down, and an honest to goodness burnt sienna argyle vest on. And he's wearing glasses. They look amazing on him. Like a professor out of a sitcom, only better because he's real. And he's still hot.

Sam shifts in his seat, his body projecting back to middle school where awkward boners were a thing. He's in serious trouble here and now, too. Why is this even happening?

And if the DJ's announcement wasn't enough to show he wasn't just another student, he's now standing at the podium looking even more attractive when he's in command of a classroom the same as a dance club, though with a far more professional expression on his face.

It feels like a fever dream. Even more so when he starts to talk.

"Hey there, victims, I'm Gabriel. Last name is none of your damn business 'cause I didn't give this waste of a university enough money to put letters after it." He smacks the whiteboard. "This is my cell phone number since this waste of a university does pay me to give it to you. But they can't stop me from having two phones. This one is on during normal office hours only. If you call or text or email during me time, I'll ignore you, hate you, and/or drunk text you at three in the morning with something completely useless."

Several students snicker, but Sam doesn't because the guy actually looks serious about it. Gabriel. His name is Gabriel. It suits him. Angelic sounding, but larger than life. Maybe this class won't be so bad after all. Not if this is going to happen every two weeks.

"I'm gonna be your TA this semester, and you should all feel lucky it's me here today and not Nick. First of all, I'm way better looking, second of all, I'm way nicer. Most of you are here for core elective credits, but he doesn't give a shit about that. Do your work like this one class is your whole major, or you'll end up snot crying. Bathroom's three doors down for that, if you don't mind. I hate snot and I hate crying."

The class titters again, and Sam glances around, noting several of the girls leaning towards each other and talking behind their hands.

He's surprised by his surge of jealousy. Mentally stomping it out and focusing back on the TA.

"Nick calls me in here because he hates proctoring his quizzes and tests, but I've never really understood that. They're nitpicky and difficult, and he usually likes watching people suffer. Any old hoo." He scratches the back of his neck as though he's lost his train of thought. "You're here, so no getting out of it. Pucker up." He holds a stack of papers up. "Books away, phones out of your laps. You know the drill." He counts off the stacks and plants them on the desks of the people in the first rows, telling them to pass them back.

It's a total accident that he looks up halfway down the room and happens to lock eyes with Sam, in the third row back. There are 70 people in the class. He'd be easy to miss. Except when fate decides to fuck all that noise.

The recognition is there in an instant. For what it's worth, Gabriel's expression doesn't change much. But his eyes soften in a way that makes Sam's belly squirm. "You've got fifty minutes. Don't leave me hanging," he says, not so much as flicking his eyes away. He's staring at Sam. Hard. "I'm looking forward to tearing your education apart. Good luck." He smirks. At Sam. He winks. At Sam.

Then he strolls back to his desk at the front and kicks his feet up, attention firmly on his phone.

It takes Sam three whole minutes of stupor before he can shake it off to start his quiz. He glances down at his paper, mind absolutely blank. Oh, God. His first grade back in school is going to be an F. He'd studied this! He'd fallen asleep twice studying for this! He knows this!

He shakes his head vigorously. Absolutely does not glance up towards Gabriel. Picks up his pen. Drops his pen with a soft, "fuck." Gets a dirty look from the person sitting next to him. Picks his pen up off the floor. Sets pen to paper. Hopes his brain can function without the rest of him, and he starts to write.

He writes furiously. He writes helplessly. He writes hopelessly. He writes until his hand cramps and a third of the class has turned in their papers. That's okay. He didn't want to be first to turn in his quiz, anyway. But he also doesn't want to be last. He glances around to make sure that there are still enough people working, and then reads his answers over. His eyes cross into the third question, and he really has no idea what point he'd been trying to make. Whatever. He's done. If he fails, he fails. It's up to the Fates now.

He gathers his supplies and shoves them into his messenger bag. Before he makes his way to the front, he glances over at Gabriel who has his headphones in, eyes riveted on his phone. Sam hates to even think it, but from his brief encounters with Gabriel so far, he thinks the guy probably won't be super strict about grading, anyway. It's entirely possible that he's a TA for credit to his Master's program, and that's it. And he's definitely ignoring everyone who approaches to leave their paper on the growing stack on the desk.

Sam slinks up and slides his paper onto the top of the stack. Gabriel hasn't even peeked over at his approach, but very suddenly, he pulls out one earbud and levels Sam with a curious stare. "How'd you do?" he asks.

Taken aback and instantly embarrassed, Sam tucks a piece of hair behind his ear. "Uh. Okay, I guess."

Gabriel looks down pointedly at the paper. "Well... Sam Winchester, since you don't got the confidence, guess it's up to me to determine your fate."

"Guess so," Sam says eloquently.

Gabriel shrugs both shoulders expansively. "At least your handwriting is legible."

Unconsciously, Sam smiles. "Just wait until you turn the paper over."

Gabriel does so. "Ah. I can literally see your will to live sinking out through your hands."

"That's entirely accurate."

Gabriel turns the paper back over and smiles up at Sam. "May God go with you."

Sam adjusts his shoulder strap. "Sometimes He does." Gabriel grins and puts his earbud back in. Sam makes his escape before he can further convince his TA that he's a completely irredeemable moron.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

At dinner that night, Dean seems in a chipper enough mood, so Sam decides to risk being made fun of for the literal rest of his life. "What should I do if I have a possible conflict of interest in one of my classes?"

Dean arches an eyebrow while he carefully pushes the broccoli on his plate as far away from his lasagna as he can. "You're not working anywhere or fucking anyone, so how the hell could you have a conflict of interest?"

Sam shakes his head. "Not a... not real one, I guess. Just maybe a possible one."

Dean puts his fork down. "What's the deal?"

He'd opened the can, he might as well let the worms out. "So, there was this guy at the club. The DJ, actually. He kinda... well, okay not kinda... he hardcore flirted with me."

That perks Dean right up. "Sam, you slut!"

Sam throws a piece of broccoli at him. Dean dodges it, and he's even too invested in his teasing to worry about the kitchen getting dirty as it bounces down to the tile near the sink. "Shut up. I can be slutty if I want, but that's not the issue."

"No shit. This guy in your class or something?"

Sam sighs. And then he strategically waits until Dean has an obscene amount of food shoved into his big fat mouth before continuing. "He's the TA for my comparative religions class. He teaches sometimes, but the problem is that he's in charge of most of the grades. He proctored a quiz today." The way that Dean's face positively shines with brotherly assholery, Sam's glad he waited until his brother would have to take a minute to swallow before laying into him. It gives him some time to prepare himself.

Dean does not disappoint. "Sammy, that's like the start of the best porn ever. Hot for teacher is an awesome premise."

"Good thing I'm living in a porn, then," Sam says sarcastically. "I know you've got like, a million jokes to make, but could you put them on hold for a minute to tell me what you think I should do?"

"Yeah, fine, you're no fun," Dean sighs. "Do you think he's really gonna screw with your grade? Or even better question, are you interested in screwing him?"

Sam leans his elbow on the table. "He's pretty sexy."

Dean beams. "Awesome. So, then, do you think he'd be the type to fuck with your grade while he's fucking you?"

"I honestly don't know," Sam admits, brushing aside Dean's horrible jokes. "He seemed pretty laid back both at the club and in class. I'd like to think there aren't any TA's who would abuse their authority, but my faith in humanity is a bit low these days."

Dean snorts and shoves another mountain of lasagna into his mouth. "True. Look, if you're worried, drop the damn class."

"You wouldn't be mad?"

"Man, why would I be mad?"

Sam tilts his head back and forth. "Because you work a lot to pay for my tuition now that I can't have a job. I don't want you to feel like I'm letting you down."

"That's impossible," Dean scoffs. "Sam, you're in school, you're doing better, you're turning your life around. You could be taking one class and dropping the rest, and I wouldn't be disappointed. Do what you gotta do. I'll support it. You're smart. You'll figure it out. The money isn't an issue. Your scholarship pays most of it for one, and two, anything's worth you getting out and getting the life you deserve."

Sam didn't even realize he'd gotten so tense until the pressure is released from the center of his chest. It unravels in gratitude at Dean's words. "Thanks, Dean. That really means a lot."

Dean brushes the thanks aside the same way that Sam had the jokes. "But in my professional opinion, I think you should fuck him first."

"Noted," Sam acknowledges dryly.

They eat the rest of their dinner in silence, Dean sometimes chuckling a little to himself at Sam's expense, and Sam trying to pretend that he really wasn't considering Dean's "professional opinion." But he does because his brain is a traitor and likes to think about his teachers naked.

After dinner it's no better. No matter what he wants to be doing, his thoughts turn back to Gabriel. Trying to reconcile the outgoing DJ with the geeky looking grad student telling him his handwriting sucks. Well, at the least he doesn't have to worry about it again for a couple of weeks. There's plenty of time left before drop/add ends. Maybe by then he'll have a better idea of whether he'll be able to stick it out or not.

He tries not to freak himself out even more. He knows he's fairly attractive, and that people do flirt with him semi-regularly when he's in those kinds of open places, but he also knows almost nothing about Gabriel. This may just be the way he is with everyone. Sam might not be special. He doesn't like the thought of that, but accepts it as a possibility. Of course, if it's true, it'll make being in the class without wondering that every good grade he gets might come with an ulterior motive. If it's not true, he'll be disappointed, and he'll get over it.

Sounds so easy.

It's probably really hard.

And it's making focusing on his homework impossible for the time being. He shuts his laptop and gives up the ghost. He's caught up, anyway. He can take a small break. If only that small break wasn't being used to think about what Gabriel's lips would feel like against his. It's the most unproductive daydream of his life, but damn it's good.

After more deliberation of the pros and cons, as befitting his declared major, Sam decides that, at least for now, it's harmless. A man's allowed to dream.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

However, his resolve lasts all of twenty four hours, give or take. Sam manages to catch up to Charlie near the end of her lunch on Wednesday. He tosses his messenger bag into the chair next to her and drops into another chair. "Did you know about Gabriel?" he demands.

Charlie pauses, sandwich halfway to her mouth. "Who?"

"Gabriel! Dr. Pellegrino's TA."

Her eyebrows scrunch further. "Yeah? I mean, I don't know him, know him, since I've never taken the doc's class. Why should I have told you about this Gabriel?"

Sam braces his hands on the table, leaning forward. "Gabriel is Dr. Sexy." Charlie giggles and Sam clarifies, "the DJ from Splatter."

"Oh." Her eyebrows shoot up. "Oh! You mean, the dude who was hardcore after you at the club is your TA now?"

"Yes," Sam breathes.

Charlie drops her sandwich. "Wow, that's a good porn plot."

"Jesus, you and Dean are all about the porn references. Anyway. You didn't know?"

She shakes her head. "Nope. Wow. If I had, I'd've told you. Dr. P's class is hard enough without your boyfriend grading your papers. But, either way, what's the big deal? You afraid he's gonna cook the books?"

Sam sighs. "No idea. I don't know anything about him at all. I was worried about it a little, so I was hoping you might be able to ease my mind."

Charlie pushes her plate to the side and kicks her feet up on the table, grabbing her coke. "I mean, there's no real rules about TA's dating students since they're technically not in charge of grades or anything. They can suggest grades, naturally, but the actual professor has the final say, and in a perfect world, they're supposed to review all of the grades the TA gives before making them final. Not sure if Dr. P does, but he's so up his own ass that he probably does. Can't imagine such a control freak wanting it any other way."

"That makes a lot of sense," Sam agrees. "Thanks."

She grins. "Sooooooo, you gonna bang him?"

Blowing out an explosive breath, Sam complains, "for real, do you know my brother? Do you talk to each other?"

She snorts. "No, but he clearly asks the right questions."

He laughs. "Anything about my sex life isn't the right question."

"Not with that attitude!"

"You're the worst."

"Darn right I am! Anyway, I gotta get to class." She jumps to her feet and grabs her bag and trash. "If you want, I can ask a few people who have been in Dr. P's class about Gabriel. Since you're so determined to earn your grades the hard way."

"Any intel would be helpful," Sam confirms. "See ya, Charlie."

She tosses a friendly wave over her shoulder and makes her way across the campus.

Her words do manage to set Sam's mind at ease somewhat. He's never been the type of person to think the worst of people, but assessing every eventuality is important right now because it could be his grades at stake. He's not going to sacrifice his GPA for anyone. Least of all some hot TA with a "fuck it all" attitude. He wants to think the best of everyone. But he's not sure that he can afford to.

He thinks back on the class; back onto Gabriel's brief introduction. Objectively, he'd seemed like he didn't care about the class at all. Maybe he was just doing the bare minimum to get the credits he needed and earn his paycheck. Of course, he's not the first TA to only be filling a chair. Lots of professors don't really allow their TA's to do much of anything, save for the drudgery of grading or reading papers that they themselves don't want to do. He certainly hopes he's mistaken, but he's going to hope for the best while expecting the worst.

And Thursday before his comparative religion class, Ash finds him and has plenty to say about it.

"I took the class for shits and giggles couple years ago," he explains while he lounges back on one of the stained couches in the student center, typing as rapidly as is humanly possible on his laptop. "I been kinda collecting majors at this point. Religion was one of the few that lost my interest after a while." Thankfully, Sam's interested in his words, because he's not at all sure that he wants to know what the guy is doing on his computer to make his face light up with such savage glee.

"Gabriel was the TA?"

"Yeah," Ash confirms. "Fun guy. Kinda an asshole."

"Sounds about right," Sam says, expression pinching. "I don't know much about him, but he seems more, uh... laid back than I'd prefer."

"No shit," Ash chuckles. "Gabe was all right, but he always came in looking like he'd just rolled out of bed. Tossed us our papers and quizzes all wrinkled up. I never was sure if he paid any attention to what he was grading, or skimmed it and made a guess. Never got comments or corrections from him. I passed the class, but not sure what grade I actually earned. Didn't super care, though. I dropped the major next semester." He pounds the enter key and glances up at Sam. "Hey, man, no need to look so constipated. If you put in a modicum of effort, you'll pass. Plus, I heard he's a lot different now. Not sure what happened, but Kevin had him last semester. Said Gabe was a whole new man."

"That's good to know," Sam says carefully. He's both encouraged and discouraged. It's a weird feeling. He shouldn't split hairs on a class that he's taking as an elective. It has no bearing on his major. He shouldn't be concerned about this in the slightest.

But then he remembers his dad. He and John Winchester hadn't always seen eye to eye. They'd butted heads just as often as they'd gotten along. Dean had managed quite well under John's penchant for bringing military rigidity into his parenting. At home, Dean had been the model son, only running buck wild when his father wasn't looking. Sam hadn't been capable of such patience around him. He'd saved most of his rebellion for home. The only time he'd felt like he could completely relax was at school. His friends hadn't expected anything of him. His teachers had been supportive. Dean largely ignored him during school hours. John had never hassled him about his grades. He even signed his report cards with pride.

Sam's actually a little bit sorry that he didn't appreciate what his dad had been trying to do during his younger years. He'd never been dismissive, abusive, manipulative. He'd just been strong minded and scared. Scared of being without Mary. Scared of raising two boys into two good men. Scared of failing. Scared of doing it all alone.

It's only when he got older, and possibly even more so after losing his father, that he can appreciate what they'd all been through. Sure, Sam admits that he would have felt better with a softer touch, but John Winchester had done his best with his marine training and a deep seated desire to honor his wife.

God it must have been awful for all of his fears to come true when Dean's OCD had gotten too severe and Sam had nearly killed himself with drugs.

The memory alone is enough for Sam to decide that, no matter what, he's going to stick his classes out. He'd chosen them all carefully after weeks of deliberation. There's a reason he wants to take them. Even if his professor sucks, even if it's not the most ideal situation, he'll take it. It can't all be peaches and cream forever. At the very least, he'll suck up his pride and have a talk with Gabriel should push come to shove. But that's a problem for a different day.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

After Gabriel and his laid back attitude, it's jarring to return to a lecture with Dr. Pellegrino. Granted, he knows his stuff. He knows the books backwards and forwards, and is highly opinionated. But he isn't the best people person. He lectures like a Southern Baptist minister on a roll with holy intent. Sam's heard a few, so he knows. He actually stops taking notes long enough to snort down at his notebook paper when he realizes that Nick kind of sounds like Reverend Buddy Boyle when he gets onto Old Testament rants. He and Dean used to listen to the program before it got its own internet following. They'd tromp around the house, imitating the man and yelling "HELLFIRE AND BRIMSTONE!" at their father when he'd call up the stairs to remind them they were being way too noisy. Buddy Boyle annoyed the shit out of John Winchester, and that's a big reason Sam and Dean never missed a broadcast for a whole year, until youth and liberal ideologies wore the humor off.

But it's certainly entertaining him now.

Somehow he makes it through the class without calling any attention to himself. And he certainly doesn't ever look up enough to make eye contact.

Finally, at the end of the class, Dr. Pellegrino fans out a stack of papers onto his desk. "Your graded quizzes are here on the table. A few of you performed like you actually soaked in a lesson or two. Others leave a lot to be desired. As you leave, pick up your papers. Remember that your cumulative quiz grades account for forty percent of your final grade. You're dismissed."

There's the scrape of chairs and rustle of paper and bags. Sam wanders to the front of the room towards the middle of the line of people collecting their quizzes. Dr. Pellegrino has already left by the time Sam gets to the table, so he doesn't have to risk saying anything or looking at him, and he sorts through until he finally finds his test. He doesn't remember most of it anyway, so instead of giving himself an anxiety attack in the middle of a crowd, he folds it in half and stuffs it into his bag to be perused later.

Of course, later turns out to be ten minutes later in his car when he finally can't resist anymore. He pulls out his bag and digs the paper out, unfolding it and then smoothing it out in his lap. He startles to see a "B" on it. Clearly his subconscious did pretty good. For a "B" though, there's an awful lot of red pen.

Sweeping, beautiful handwriting. The note at the top of the page lets him know exactly who graded his paper. I wanted to subtract half a point for your shitty handwriting, but decided to impress you with mine instead. Sam smiles. Gabriel. So, maybe it is true that Dr. Pellegrino doesn't grade the quizzes at all.

Instead of glancing through the notes and corrections, Sam takes his time reading every one carefully. Some aren't all that helpful. A word underlined here and there with a, bigger vocab words would impress me more.

But the vast majority are quite insightful. Helpful. This isn't an argumentative essay. Hold off on your opinions.

One further along that says, don't assume Christianity for all of your readers. The point of this class is to do an academic comparison of world religions. You need to take off your Western Christian glasses. There's a small aside, cramped into the rest of the margin that says, not assuming your religious status or lack thereof. Just sayin'.

Smiling, Sam reads the rest, his mind relaxing about Gabriel. He's never been so happy to be wrong about his assessment of someone in his life. Gabriel may act like he's only about pleasure and fun, but he obviously knows his course of study. And he knows how to impart his knowledge well. If all the quizzes are graded like Sam's, it's a good bet that Gabriel honestly wants them all to learn and improve. Not just get a passing grade. He'd clearly taken a lot of time going over Sam's work with a fine toothed comb. Sam's eternally grateful for that.

He pulls out his cell phone and clicks on Gabriel's number that he'd programmed in on the first day of class.

Sam (4:02 PM):
Hi, this is Sam Winchester from CR 101. I wanted to thank you for all the notes that you left of my quiz. It was very helpful. I'm sure I'll improve with them.

Then he suddenly remembers what Gabriel had said about texting or calling outside of office hours. He doesn't remember what office hours are.

Quickly he sends another text.

Sam (4:02 PM):
I'm also really sorry that I forgot office hours! Please don't yell at me if they're over. I'll never do it again, I swear.

He chews his thumbnail worriedly while he waits for a response. Kind of hates himself for being so concerned with getting one. Kind of hates himself more for expecting one. Why? God, he's such an idiot. With a sigh, he tosses his phone into the passenger seat and buckles his seat belt, but before he can start the car, there's a beep.

He grabs his phone so quickly that he fumbles it into the foot well, and has to grapple it out from under the chair.

Gabriel (4:05 PM):
I won't pretend that I'm willing to make exceptions to my rule because that'd make me look weak and probably cause anarchy. Sam, you got the looks and the brains. Wouldn't be surprised if Nick tried to recruit you to the Dark Side.

Laughing softly, Sam strokes the text box and replies,

Sam (4:06 PM):
I appreciate it. All of it. I won't be swayed from pre-law, though. But I'll put in a lot of effort to every class I take.

His thumbs hovers over the screen. Then, before he can second guess himself, he adds,

Guess we've got something in common with the looks and the brains. See you next week.

He hits send before he can talk himself out of it.

Then he mutes his cell phone out of sheer embarrassment.

Then he shoves the phone into the bottom of his messenger bag.

Then he turns on the car and makes his way home.

It's not until he's home and safely in his room before he bothers to check his phone again. He spends an inordinate amount of time staring at the blinking blue text message light before he can bring himself to look.

Gabriel (4:06 PM):
Then I guess I should say, nice to meet you, Sam Winchester. I'm Gabriel Milton. See you soon.

He doesn't know why, but the simple text makes Sam's heart flutter. It's probably not a big deal. It probably doesn't mean anything. It's just harmless flirting.

"Milton," Sam murmurs.

Like it's some huge secret that Gabriel decided to share with only him. No one else in the class. Maybe? Who knows. Who cares? Sam Winchester cares. It feels amazing and he wants nothing more than to roll with it for a while. So he does.

And he plugs Gabriel's full name into his contacts.

Chapter Text

Dean used to be really good at making lists. He'd made them to keep track of all of the chores and things he and Sam had to do as kids. He'd made them for groceries, school assignments, medications, everything. He'd been the official list curator since back in the day. And after he'd started treatment for his OCD, he'd made lists about that, too. It had been one of his most early compulsive behaviors, and had taken a concerted effort to break. Sometimes he still gets caught in the cycle because it's not like he can completely give up the behavior. It's a compulsion, sure, but it's a useful one. So it becomes a tightrope walk of learning when reasonable becomes too much.

This might be one of those times. Or, it might become one of those times. If he had anything on his current list besides a title. "Date Ideas," he's written. Nothing else.

It's like he's completely forgotten how to go on dates. Or go anywhere. He shakes his head. No, he hasn't forgotten, he just doesn't want to remember. That would mean he'd have to address all the life he's lost in the past several years. Even with all the therapy, even with all the support, even with how far he's come, he still doesn't want to remember what it was like to be fully functional. It's painful. And he'd accidentally put himself right into the position of having to address it.

He taps his pen on the paper thoughtfully. Now's the big test of his resolve, isn't it? He has to decide whether or not a potential relationship with Castiel is worth digging into his mental health more than he's had to for a while. And the struggle is real. Dean doesn't want to short change Castiel. It feels totally wrong to judge someone on the basis of Dean's own mental health. Castiel is a living, breathing human being.

And on the one hand, he wants more than anything to take Jody and Donna's advice. Let Castiel decide what he can and can't handle. But on the other hand, Dean's never going to be cured. There's nothing pretty or sexy about his bad days. Hell, most of his good days are mentally exhausting for him and his safe people, too. And if he and Castiel end up getting serious or... Jesus, end up doing something like sleeping together, there will be no way to hide it.

So when does he tell Castiel what's going on with him? He's so used to finding workarounds to his compulsions in polite company that it's really second nature. He does it around Sam, too. It's part of the treatment, besides. He's the only one who needs to deal with the absolute worst of his symptoms.

God, this sucks. Maybe he isn't ready for this after all. Not like he'd been thinking about it in the first place, or even better, planning for it. Once again, his mouth had gotten ahead of him before his brain had caught up with the program to remind him of his limitations.

What's done is done. Plus, when he really thinks about it, he wants to try. No matter what it costs him, he wants to try. If it blows up in his face, at least he'll know. It'd be a damn shame, but maybe he could end up at least casual friends with Castiel. He seems like a laid back enough guy that he'd let Dean down easily if push came to shove.

Sighing, he puts pen to paper and starts to write.

An hour later, he's not much further than when he started. His list simply says 1. Drive.

Not helpful.

His cell phone pings and he turns it face up, glancing at the text from Castiel.

Cas (5:12 PM):
This question isn't related to anything in particular, but out of curiosity, what kind of dates do you prefer?

Dean blinks down at the text. Then he starts to laugh incredulously. "Guess I'm not the only one," he murmurs.

Dean (5:12 PM):
Follow up question not related to anything in particular. What kind of dates do YOU prefer?

For once he doesn't mind waiting. There's quite suddenly no anxiety in his mind at all over this exchange. It's a small insight into Castiel, and he admits that he could very possibly be wrong about everything, but it seems as though Castiel is nervous, too. Maybe he wants to impress Dean as much as Dean wants to impress him. Which isn't all that hard these days. Or maybe it is if Dean's brain decides the first date with a hot hippie is the prime time for a panic attack or something.

Cas (5:14 PM):
I'm not exactly picky, but I want to do something that we'd both enjoy. However, it's occurred to me I've never dated such a man's man before.

Dean laughs again. Shakes his head.

Dean (5:14 PM):
Dude, you don't gotta put me up on some beefcake jock pedestal or keep stereotyping. We covered that, remember? Let's start simple. What have you done before that you liked?

That's good. This is good. Give and take. Anxiety on both sides. That's healthy.

Cas (5:16 PM):
You're probably going to laugh at me, but it's better to be honest and let you judge me now. I like going to small breweries. I like going berry picking in the summer and apple picking in the fall. You wouldn't believe the pies we make for the cafe with fresh, organic fruits. I like to go to farmer's markets, stargazing, hikes, movies, bars that serve amazing burgers, picnics. All sorts of things. Honestly, my favorite things to do on the first several dates are ways that we can get to know each other better. Something where we don't have to perform for each other in a crowd and subconsciously show everyone around us that we're having a great time. At any rate, I think I've waxed poetic enough to chase you off now, haven't I?

Dean is already learning to love these walls of text. Especially when they're so freaking awesome. He likes all of those things, too. Or, well... he probably would like most of those things. And he used to like the rest when he was able to get out of his brain long enough to have a good time.

Dean (5:17 PM):
Dude if you give me pie, you'll never get rid of me. I can't say I've done a whole lot of that more hippie stuff, but it sounds cool. So... what would you say to going on a sunset drive and then stargazing?

He hits send while simultaneously calling himself a huge fucking sap. He's never suggested anything so cheesy in his entire life. Jesus. Wasn't Castiel thinking of him as some leather-clad grease monkey who rides motorcycles and chews razors? So much for that impression. And it's completely confirmed by Castiel's reply.

Cas (5:17 PM):
Did someone steal your phone, or are you really this romantic?

Dean (5:18 PM):
fuck you

Cas (5:18 PM):
Ah, crude language. It really is you! :D Wait, you want to cruise in your Impala, right? That's alpha male all over. I'm in. Let's do it.

Dean grins.

Dean (5:19 PM):
Friday?

Cas (5:19 PM):
Pick me up at the cafe at 5:30. I can't wait.

Dean (5:19 PM):
Same.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

"Sam, I've got a huge fucking problem."

Sam doesn't even have the decency to glance up from his laptop. "What else is new?" He brushes his hair agitatedly out of his eyes and then attacks the keyboard as though brute force can make his paper submit to his will.

Out of sheer spite, Dean walks over to the couch on Sam's side and knocks his legs down off of the coffee table where he crosses, causing the laptop to slide onto the seat and Sam to curse a blue streak.

"Come on, man," Sam complains. "We can't afford another laptop if this one breaks."

Rolling his eyes, Dean plops down next to his brother and offers him a peace treaty in the form of a beer. Sam takes it gratefully. "I'm gonna need your help with something."

Sam closes the laptop carefully, like he's bracing himself, and gives his brother his full attention. Dean hates that, but it's not unwarranted considering years of learned behavior. "What's up?"

Dean rubs his chin. The large part of his self-sabotaging brain is warning him to keep his mouth shut. This whole thing is fucking humiliating. Sam may have seen the worst of him in a thousand different ways over the past several years, but this is something else entirely. This is what Dean used to be good at. It's what he used to be famous - or infamous - for back in high school and trade school. What he'd given Sam advice about when Dad had been too gruff to have "the talk" properly. Hell, celibacy had only become a thing for Dean after his dad died, and sometimes he imagines the old man looking down... or up? at him and shaking his head sadly at his eldest son not out there chasing tail.

It sucks. It really, really sucks. Not the celibacy part. The internet was invented for a reason, and it's served Dean's single life plenty. What sucks is that he's been brushing off Donna repeatedly telling him to not ignore positive signs of change, even if they are small. Even if they seem like nothing at the time. His mind would inevitably ping at something for a reason, and recognizing that early could help him to prepare for the desire to act that might follow.

Case in point: Dean's been ignoring why Castiel is the only one who can make his coffee. It's not entirely true that it had been the luck of the draw, as he'd insisted to Jody and Donna. Castiel had been the one behind the counter when Dean had visited the first time, and he had taken Dean's weirdly picky order without batting an eye. That had made Dean instantly comfortable.

But a first time isn't a habit. It didn't necessarily imprint on him that way. If he'd gone back the second day and someone else had taken his order, as long as the order had been the same, Dean would have been okay with it until one person had made it often enough that they'd become the one he'd asked for.

Dean had been responsible for making Castiel the one. It wasn't just the OCD. It had been the way that he'd smiled at Dean that second day with recognition and said, "welcome back!" as if he'd been pleased to see a rumpled mechanic with dirty boots scuffing up his clean floors again. It had been the way that Castiel had learned that second time's a habit for Dean, and on the third day had said, "good morning. The usual today?" And had kept saying that. Had kept looking happy about that.

It could have been anyone five years ago. But now it has to be Castiel. He's integrated into the habit and into Dean's deep desire to change. Dean tries not to think, poor bastard, but the thought comes. And then it leaves because for once he's going to take Jody and Donna's advice and let Castiel decide what's worth it. He wants to. And that might just be the kicker.

With that in mind, Dean steels himself. He needs Sam. He might catch hell for this since that's what brothers do, but Dean Winchester needs to get out of neutral, and this is probably the only way to get it done. "There's no real rush," he says. "I'm not about to have some meltdown. Just. Do me a favor and don't react like you normally do, okay?"

Sam's eyebrows go up. "Okay?" he says slowly.

Now or never. "I'm going on a date. Friday." He's glad that he didn't say that when Sam was actually drinking his beer because he chokes on his own spit hearing that.

"You're... what?"

"I'm going on a fucking date, and I need help. Practice."

Sam leans away slightly. "Gross."

Dean rolls his eyes to cover the pit in his stomach that's rapidly dropping out. "Are you kidding me right now?"

Sam's eyes grow wider. "Are you kidding me right now? How did this happen? With who?"

Dean grits his teeth, hands clenched in his lap. This is so much worse than anticipated. He'd even rehearsed what he was going to say. Leave it to Sam to pull the whole damn thing off the rails. Don't panic. Don't panic. Don't panic. Don't panic. He's being unfair. Sam's being the way he always is. Dean just wants to blame the wrong person for his discomfort. Again.

He's silent long enough that Sam seems to get his feet back under him. "Um. Look, Dean, I'm not..." he shakes his head to shake it off. "I'm not trying to make fun of you. I'm just like, really freaking shocked right now. I had no idea you'd come this far. You've never even hinted at being ready for something like this. So."

Now that's completely reasonable. Dean deflates into the couch as the urgent gnawing in his chest starts to subside. "I don't know that I am."

"Shit," Sam mutters. "So. Uh. What can I do to help? Or maybe give me the details? If you want? You've giving me mixed signals right now, so I've got no clue whether to be happy for you or not, and it's kinda confusing. I'm not sure what emotion to settle on here."

Dean huffs a humorless laugh. "That makes two of us. Remember Cas? Castiel? Espresso Lane's owner?"

"Yeah," Sam breathes. He takes long, steadying pull from his beer and then sets it on a coaster on the coffee table. He pushes his laptop away completely and tucks a leg under him to face Dean fully. "You finally got around to flirting with him?"

Dean tries to scoff, but he can feel how hot his ears are. "Sorta happened by accident," he admits. Then he takes a deep breath and tells Sam everything. About Jody making him order something new at the cafe, how he'd chatted with Castiel, how he'd ended up with his number, and the texting.

Sam's mouth actually drops open during the story. "Wow," he says eventually. "So, it's cool if I'm happy about this?"

As much as it nearly physically pains him to say it, Dean mutters, "yeah, if you wanna."

Beaming, Sam says, "I totally do! I mean, you've been avoiding social situations a lot, which is fine; it's where you're at. But this is a huge step. No wonder you've been acting so weird lately."

Dean sighs. "We only set up the date last night. It's Friday. And I want to go through with it, but... y'know."

"I know," Sam says. "All right, solution time, then. What help do you need?"

Something vaguely wonderful and embarrassing and uncomfortable wells up in Dean's chest. "Thanks, Sammy," he says gruffly. He can't say anything else. Sometimes he really wishes that he could tell his little brother how much it means to him that they've come so far. That Sam's doing so much for him, not because he has to anymore, but because he can, and he's fine with it. It's not always easy for Dean to accept, but that might also be why Sam's so willing and good at it.

"Anytime, man. For real. I'll do whatever I can to help. Except gross stuff."

The attempt at humor works. The weird feeling dissipates and Dean cracks a smile. "I just need to get a read on how I'll react to some of my space being invaded."

"Are you inviting him here?" Sam asks like he can't even imagine it.

"No, no way," Dean assures him. "I'm light years away from that. We're going on a drive."

Sam's confused and amazed expression clears. "Dude, that's a great idea!"

"I haven't let anyone in the Impala in ages," Dean protests. "Not even you."

Sam leans forward excitedly. "Yeah, but besides your bedroom, it's the safest space in the world for you. You couldn't have picked a better spot for a date."

He hadn't thought about it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Probably why he suggested it in the first place. He'd hardly been thinking deeply about it, but the idea had felt the least uncomfortable out of all of them. "I thought I'd take him out to the Lookout," he ventures.

Seemingly comfortable now that there's no Red Alert, Sam picks up his beer again, hiding his shit eating grin behind the lip. "I know for a fact you've been on dates since high school, so why are you reverting back to then to take Castiel to the Makeout?"

"The Lookout," Dean corrects sourly.

"How many people have you had sex with out there again?" Sam asks with such false curiosity that Dean can't help but swipe his hand out to smack Sam's beer bottle, causing him to slosh onto his knees. "Hey, no alcohol abuse!"

"Cas mentioned stargazing, so that's what we're doing," Dean snipes. "No sex on the menu."

"Yet," Sam says, wiping at his pants.

"Yet," Dean allows. "You gonna help or not?"

"I'm gonna help," Sam answers brightly. "What do you need?"

Instead of answering right away, Dean finishes off the rest of his beer in four huge gulps. He belches softly. "I need some exposure therapy."

"You wanna got to the Lookout?"

"No, even easier. Need ya to just... sit in the car with me for a little while."

Sam shrugs, looking a little surprised. "That's it?"

Dean scowls.

Sam holds up a hand. "Sorry, I'm not belittling you. I only thought you'd want more stuff."

"'S'good enough for now," Dean mumbles.

Reading Dean's discomfort well, Sam jumps to his feet. "All right, let's do this. I call shotgun."

The corner of Dean's lip tilts up in a barely there smirk. And he follows behind his brother to the garage. Grabs his keys off of the wall hook. He flips on the light in the garage, Baby gleaming proudly under the glow.

"She looks great," Sam says with a smile.

Dean nods, swallowing hard. "I do my best." He fiddles with his keys in his sweating hands, turning them over and over.

Sam walks around the long way to give Dean a moment; an unspoken, instinctual support that Dean loves about him. He's always been so good at anticipating these things without making Dean feel even more like shit for being this way. Dean watches his movement out of the corner of his eyes until Sam comes to a stop in front of the passenger door, hands in his pockets, looking as casual as you please.

Dean takes a breath. Then another. Moves to unlock the driver's side door, but then stalls, hands trembling.

"Take your time," Sam says softly.

Dean turns his face up towards the ceiling. The panic welling up his windpipe makes it really hard to breathe, but he does his best. He arches his neck as far as he can to give himself more literal breathing room. Then he plants his tongue on the roof of his mouth. Takes in as much air as he can into his lungs. Holds it. Pushes it out through his mouth. He does it again and again until the panic slowly, slowly, begins to burrow back down into his core. Less and less. This isn't that bad. He can handle this. He wants to handle this.

His hands are much steadier this time when he reaches back out to open the door. He's in no danger anymore of scratching the paint because of shaking hands. He unlocks the door, pulls the handle, and slides into the driver's seat. He leaves the door open, but leans over and flips the lock on the passenger door.

Sam opens the door, but doesn't get in. He leans down and pokes his head in, waiting for Dean to look at him. "Can I get in?"

Dean clenches his jaw, teeth grinding. He nods curtly. Sam gives him an eyebrow lift, but Dean ignores it. He stares out the windshield, hands so hard on the steering wheel that his knuckles turn white.

Sam takes a beat, and then takes his brother's invitation, slipping into the car and sitting as close to the door as he can, also leaving it open.

Dean's forehead comes down onto the steering wheel. "Why is this so goddamn hard? It shouldn't be this goddamn hard just to let you into my fucking car."

"It is what it is," Sam says so damn reasonably that Dean wants to punch himself in the face for being so stupid. "Don't worry about me and don't worry about being ashamed, all right? You just... work it out however you need."

Slowly, Dean lifts his head. Plunks it back onto the seat. "I'm okay," he whispers for both their benefit. "I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay." He doesn't turn the car on, doesn't so much as move a muscle until he's absolutely certain that he's not about to puke all over the upholstery.

Sensing the calm down, Sam asks, "how you feeling?"

Taking stock quickly, Dean has to admit, "not at freaked as I thought I would be." He's even able to glance over at Sam briefly. For a moment he's overwhelmed by his big baby brother filling up the entire other half of the passenger seat, claustrophobia clinging to the edges of his mind, but he lets it go. Sam's huge, so this is the worst case scenario. Castiel is smaller, so he won't fill up so much of the space. And maybe it'll be warm enough to ride with the windows down. If it's not...

Dean rolls his window down. "I'm gonna shut my door. Leave yours open."

Sam shrugs and Dean closes his door. Waits a second. "Okay."

Sam shuts his door and doesn't roll the window down, still watching Dean closely.

Heart pounding now, Dean once again leans his head back and closes his eyes. Tries to imagine what it would be like to enjoy the open road again with someone beside him. The wind, the music, the roar of the engine. He unclenches his left hand from the steering wheel and rests his elbow on the open window frame. Just like this. He remembers this. With his dad and Sam. With his dates and friends. Man, he wants this back.

The summer after Sam had graduated high school, Dean had begged Dad for an entire week to be able to take the Impala on a road trip in celebration. John has finally let him with a stern warning about messing up the car. Even back then before the Impala was his, Dean would have cut off his own leg before letting anything happen to her.

And he'd kept his promise, too. He and Sam had spent two weeks in gross motels, three nights spent in the Impala when they had run out of steam before finding a place for the night. They'd seen stupid tourist attractions, awesome tourist attractions, filled up SIM cards with insane amounts of pictures. Ate junk food and diner food. Bought key chains and postcards. Got sunburned on the shores of crystalline lakes. Ruined their boots hiking. It had been the best summer of their lives. And the last thing that Dean wants to do is make it the last best summer of his life.

"You're smiling," Sam breaks into his thoughts.

Dean blinks, the endless Nevada sky dissipating from his eyes to show the cream carpeting on the roof of the Impala. "Was thinking about that road trip we took when you graduated," he murmurs.

Sam finally eases back into his seat, mirroring Dean's reclining position. "I've still got all those postcards taped to the back of my closet door."

"Me, too." He stares up some more, listening to Sam's slow breathing beside him. This is... this is good, he realizes. He's calm. "I don't wanna be alone forever," he says, still quiet. "I don't want that passenger seat empty forever."

"Well, it's not now," Sam answers. "So, I think it won't be forever."

"I wish..." he trails off before he can even start to finish that thought. There's a lot and it's all pointless to dwell on.

"It doesn't matter," Sam says. "You know that, right? You'll get there, so it doesn't matter."

Dean's smile turns a little bit sad. "Yeah. I know."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Not usually one to think in grandiose terms, Dean nevertheless has the impression that something's shifted after his trial run in the car with Sam. It follows him for the rest of the week. Everyone notices, including Bobby.

"What's got you so light in the loafers?" he asks on Thursday while Dean's neck deep in the engine of a vintage Camaro that's seen better days. Better decades.

Turning his head to the side to be able to see his boss, Dean says, "nothing. Why?" He shouldn't ask why. He doesn't want to know why.

"Dunno," Bobby answers thoughtfully, scratching at his graying beard. "You just seem different is all. Not so damn moody."

Dean snorts. "Yeah, right. I'm a freaking peach all the time."

"Hardly. It's not a bad thing. It's a good look on you."

Dean secures the bolt he'd been warring with and straightens, stretching his back and wiping his hands on his already filthy shop rag before turning to rest against the car, squaring up with Bobby. "If you've got something you wanna know, you can ask."

Bobby shucks off his dirty trucker cap and scratches his head, then puts it back on. "I don't know what I wanna know. Just that you're doing okay. Doing better, maybe?"

Dean shrugs like it's nothing, when it's really everything. "Don't know about that," he admits, "but I'm not doing so bad right now. Got some extra time in with Jody and Donna. Got some more exposure therapy stuff. It's working. So, I guess..." He shrugs again. "Yeah, I guess I'm doing a little bit better."

Bobby smacks him roughly on the shoulder. "I like to hear that, son."

With an exaggerated shudder, Dean says, "don't get all weird and emotional on me, Bobby."

"Like hell I'd do that," Bobby snorts. He turns and makes his way back across the bay. He turns around before reaching his office. "Idjit."

Dean grins.

On his lunch break, he stays in the break room. Washes his hands thoroughly, but forces himself to stop before it goes as far as he usually lets it. He's in a good mood today. In a good place. Pushing himself a bit will probably work. It does.

He drops into his usual chair at the table and kicks his feet up on the chair opposite him. With one hand he unwraps his sandwich. With the other he swipes at his phone with his thumb.

Dean (1:01 PM):
Been thinking about you.

He sends it right away without a trace of the heebs or the jeebs at being so sappy. He puts his phone on the table, not really expecting a reply in the middle of the day at the end of the lunch hour when it's probably still a bit busy at the cafe. Sure enough, he's almost done with his sandwich when his phone finally vibrates.

Cas (1:18 PM):
We saw each other this morning. But. Same.

It's strange how he can read the shyness in the response. He likes it.

Dean (1:18 PM):
Don't let me bother you if you're busy.

Cas (1:18 PM):
You're not. I'm on lunch. However, you've been distracting me all day, regardless. I made the wrong drinks twice today, no thanks to you.

Dean grins wider.

Dean (1:19 PM):
You're welcome. Can't say I've made any mistakes today because of you, but most of the repairs I've done ain't exactly rocket science. Easy to multitask.

Cas (1:19 PM):
Considering your job has the potential to be much more dangerous than mine, I'm glad of that. Can I ask you something?

Dean reads the text twice, curiously. He's not sure how to take it. Not sure how he wants to take it.

Dean (1:20 PM):
Go for it.

He keeps looking at his phone. Keeps staring. Starts worrying slightly when no reply is forthcoming.

Cas (1:24 PM):
Are you nervous about Friday? I'm nervous about Friday. Not because of you! Or us. Okay, yes, I am. I think we're two entirely different species of person. But I've really enjoyed talking to you. We haven't known each other that long outside of pleasantries. I used to think that "opposites attract" was a foolish notion. Then I met you, and I'm reexamining that. I want it to be true because you seem like such a wonderful man. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say. I've been saying too much. It's taken entirely too long to reply to you. I'm sorry. So. Are you nervous, too?

Dean finds the now familiar random walls of text endearing. The content gives him a bit of trepidation, though. He doesn't want to assume what Castiel is really getting at; hoping he's not having second thoughts about it. But it's only a first date. Not the rest of their lives. He certainly isn't the right person to convince Castiel that he has nothing to worry about. Dean worries about everything all the freaking time. His brain lives in a state of constant anxiety. There are a dozen things he wants to say, though. So many things he wants to do to assuage his fears. But he's not as good with words as Castiel is. Not by a long shot. The best he can do is to keep it simple.

Dean (1:25 PM):
Hey Cas? I'm nervous too.

It feels so inadequate after sending it. His text bubble tiny next to Castiel's word dump.

Still.

Cas (1:25 PM):
That makes me feel so much better. Thank you, Dean. I'm excited, too. Spending time alone with you will be wonderful, no matter what we decide happens after the first date.

It's so diplomatic, yet so personal, that Dean feels a pleasant flush up the back of his neck. He's amazed that Castiel so effortlessly, so unknowingly, puts him at ease.

Dean (1:26 PM):
I agree. With all of that. Why don't we agree to not stress about it and just have a good time, no pressure or agenda?

That's rich coming from him, but Castiel doesn't know it, so he rolls with it.

Cas (1:27 PM):
That sounds wonderful. I have to get back out front now. See you soon?

Dean (1:27 PM):
Count on it.

Chapter Text

Sam's so thrilled with his brother having a date that he can't even stand it. He's always proud of Dean when he makes strides, of course, but this whole thing is making him happy, too. It's been so long since Dean's even attempted to bring someone else into his life. Too many complications and unknowns. And not only is he considering it now, he's got a specific someone in mind. Someone he wants to date. It's amazing.

Of course, it could also end in complete disaster. That unwelcome thought is enough to keep Sam up at night. Literally. He lays in his bed that night, staring at the slowly turning ceiling fan as the minutes, and then the hours, tick by. Is there anything else that he can do to help? Or prevent disaster? Is there anything that he should do to help or prevent disaster? How? Would Dean even want that?

He rolls onto his side, tucking his arm under the pillow. The glowing red numbers on the clock warn him that it's 1:45 AM. He's going to be sleepy as hell in class tomorrow. He groans and rolls over and away from the damning evidence.

Just go to sleep, he tells himself. He shuts his eyes.

Nothing. What if Dean can't go on the date and regresses?

He starts to count backwards from a thousand.

Still nothing.

What if Dean does go on the date, and it's a disaster, and he regresses?

Fitfully, he flops over onto his back. This is getting him nowhere. He needs sleep. He can't concentrate when he's too tired. He kicks off the covers and starfishes onto his back. Then he closes his eyes and practices the measured breathing technique Dean was taught to calm down. Gradually, he physically begins to relax. His muscles unclench and he sinks into the mattress. His head's still a mess, but at least he isn't so agitated that he can't find a single comfortable position.

It's not enough for him to fully fall asleep, but his thoughts do start to taper off. Then... a slow smile spreads across his lips. It's late, right? He's going to be tired no matter what tomorrow, isn't he? Maybe he should stop for a cup of coffee on his way to campus.

He knows a place that serves a fantastic strong dark brew.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Unfortunately, Sam can't sleep in or really change his morning routine by a single iota or else Dean will immediately become suspicious. He needs to be a bit more sneaky about it. So, sleep deprived and groggy, he gets up at the same time as always. He yawns hugely, scratching at his tangled hair as he knocks on Dean's door, earning him an unamused "go away!" from inside. That makes him smile tiredly.

He keeps on his trajectory down the stairs lest the siren's call of his bed convince him to skip classes for real. Instead he shores himself up by putting the coffee on, but he doesn't have the wherewithal to make breakfast beyond pouring a bowl of cereal. He's just sitting down, groaning like an old man when he hears Dean's footsteps on the stairs, loud as always.

"'Morning," Dean mumbles, voice still sleep rough.

"It is that," Sam agrees, yawning again.

Dean pours himself a cup of coffee as always, and then plops down into his chair. Sam hates the shrewd look his brother is always so good at giving him. "You look tired."

It's useless to argue, and it's too damn early to give it a real try, so Sam merely says, "yeah. Didn't get much sleep last night."

With a snort into his mug, Dean says, "up too late in the books, ya nerd?"

No. In fact I was up worrying about your dumb ass, Sam thinks to himself. Which, in the cold light of day four hours after going to bed, was a stupid thing to do. He scowls at Dean. "We're paying a lot for my education. Thought good grades would be the best way to pay you back."

Dean's teasing face eases to something a lot softer. "True," he agrees setting his coffee down. "But don't work yourself into an early grave, man. Your brain won't function when you forget to sleep, no matter how big it is. A bad grade or two ain't gonna sink you."

Instantly, Sam feels like a dick for the uncharitable thoughts his fatigued mind had thought up. His big brother's just doing what he always does and is looking out for him. He almost apologizes to Dean, and then remembers at the last minute that he never said that shit out loud. "Just don't want it to happen this early in the semester, is all. I'll be able to sleep plenty tonight. It was my first paper. Took a lot longer than I thought it would."

Dean lounges back, yawning himself, then shaking his head like a wet dog to throw off the last of his own exhaustion. "I get that. You're the brains of this operation. Not to sound like your parent or nothin', but remember to eat and sleep, all right? That's all I'm asking."

Sam eyes his brother. "Is this you being over protective, or does it really add to your anxiety that much?"

"Dunno," Dean answer easily. "It's too early in the morning to really think about."

Sam laughs a little. "Fair enough. I'm gonna drink a gallon of coffee today, and I promise to eat a disgustingly huge lunch."

Grinning, Dean shrugs. "I am kinda jealous of you eating all that university food. They had everything from what I remember when we toured it years ago."

"I can bring you a to-go box," Sam quips.

"You do that," Dean deadpans. "Speaking of which, you need any money? How's your funds?"

With a light scoff, Sam says, "totally fine. I'll tell you when I start getting low. I can take care of myself, you know."

Dean drags himself out of his chair, holding his coffee. "Doesn't mean you should have to all the time," he says airily, brushing past his brother to the hall. "Wipe your snot nose and don't be late to school!"

Sam flips off Dean's general direction and then returns to his coffee. At least that's taken care of.

Normally, Sam likes to leave for the campus early every day, not just for the routine, but also for the extra time in the library. No one but the hardcore students are there before lunch, so it's even more quiet than usual, and Sam appreciates that. He's getting used to the crowds, but finds himself still needing time to recharge by himself. Life lately has turned him into a bit of an introvert. Not that it's a bad thing, just new. And considering the vast majority of friends he's made so far are extreme extroverts, it takes some getting used to.

However, this morning isn't a library kind of day. It's a waiting for Dean to leave and get to work first so that Sam can trace his trail to the cafe and see what the fuss is about with the barista he's got a date with, kin of day. Honestly, Sam doesn't remember much about him. Nothing about what he looks like, and less about his personality. He only recalls what Dean's said the few times he's brought the guy up. And in fact, the only reason that Sam remembers the guy's name is because it's so unique. There have been so many names in Dean's past, that Sam learned long ago to not bother remembering them unless Dean invited them home to shake hands with the rest of the family.

Castiel.

An angel's name.

Sam grins to himself. That's so the opposite of his brother's personality.

At any rate, Sam putters around the kitchen, the living room, his bedroom; increasingly irritated that Dean takes his goddamn sweet time getting out of the house. Is he like this every day? Why the hell does he make Sam wake him up so early? It's pointless. It feels like hours before he's shouting up the stairs that he's leaving and Sam shouts back for him to have a terrible day.

Then he tosses himself into the shower and rushes through the rest of his morning routine. With Dean gone, he's actually eager to get out of the house and sneak around. Part of him feels a little guilty. Dean would probably tell him anything he wanted to know, but whatever. He's not going to do anything stupid. With any luck at all, he won't even engage Castiel in conversation. He'll just get some froofy coffee mix with a pastry, sit at a table out of the way, and observe. Like a scientist. Unobtrusive and unremarkable.

It's a perfect plan.

He dresses and makes sure he has everything he needs in his messenger bag before heading out for the day in the opposite direction of the university and to Espresso Lane.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

The cafe is at the tail end of the morning rush when Sam arrives eight minutes after Dean's start time at work. And since Dean would rather skip his coffee routine rather than being a minute late to the garage, it's totally safe. Of course, paranoia is a thing that happens when one is sneaking around, so the first thing Sam does is take a spin around the parking lot to make sure the Impala's gone. Satisfied that he won't ruin his mission by running into his brother, Sam finds a parking space and then makes his way into the shop. It smells awesome, like warm roasting beans and cinnamon baked goods. Sam likes it here immediately. The decor is hipster chic, all distressed wood and chalkboard paint with hand written signs, but the ambiance of artfully low lights and calming music makes it feel homey and welcoming. Definitely the proper atmosphere to hang around for a bit while enjoying a cup of coffee and a danish. Especially with all of the comfy chairs and sofas along the walls to compliment the tables and chairs flanking the center of the room. Not a lot of people are utilizing the sitting spaces considering it's a weekday, and most people here are probably on their way to work, but that suits Sam just fine. He can still blend in and observe without being too obvious.

That is, until the whole thing is thrown over the cliff the second he gets into line when a hand pounds him in the center of his back hard enough to make him cough.

"The hell?!" he gasps, spinning around. And promptly nearly swallowing his tongue. "Gabriel?!"

The short TA grins at him like the sun coming up. "Well, if it isn't Sasquatch Winchester here to load himself up for the day!"

"Hi," Sam answers eloquently, completely lost at the sight of him.

Gabriel's eyes narrow. "Not quite the mid-morning person, are we?"

Feeling his face go red, Sam says, "no. Uh. Yeah. Um. Yeah, no, I hate everything."

Gabriel blinks. Then he bursts into such loud gut busting laughter that several heads turn in their direction.

Sam wishes he could die, but his body doesn't seem to want to do that at the moment, so he settles on mumbling, "I hate everything about mornings, I mean." Which is a complete lie, but it's true for today, and he seriously can't figure out why he's being this way.

The hand on his back urges him forward, which Sam is grateful for because holy shit, his whole being isn't cooperating with Gabriel around.

"Oh, Gabriel, what the hell are you up to now?" a pleasantly low voice asks.

"Nothing, Cassandra," Gabriel says smugly. "Samwise here is in one of my classes. I'm just giving him a hard time."

Sam's eyes unglue from a fascinating spot on his tennis shoes to meet an amused blue gaze. In a second, Sam takes in what he can, and his eyes flick down to the name tag. Castiel. With almost giddy embarrassment, Sam realizes his luck is with him. This is Castiel! The guy his brother is going on a date with at the end of the week! And he's super hot!

"Hi," Sam says again.

"Hello," Castiel smiles, mirth making his whole face light. "If Gabriel is bothering you, please tell me and I'll throw something sturdy at his head to make him go away."

"Hey," Gabriel protests sharply. "Is that any way to run a small business in this day and age?"

"No one will miss you. You don't tip well, anyway."

Gabriel sputters, and Sam laughs for real, helped along back to his normal self thanks to Castiel. Then it occurs to him that those two are talking with an awful lot of familiarity that doesn't typically happen between a simple customer and owner. Unless. Sam has the horrible thought that perhaps Castiel flirts with everyone. "Um," he says, shifting from foot to foot. "I'll have a blueberry muffin and a peppermint mocha, thanks." He tries to appear casual as his eyes flick between Gabriel and Castiel. "You two know each other?"

"Unfortunately," Castiel says at the same time Gabriel says, "Yep!"

Castiel plugs Sam's order into the register. "We went to school together, and for some reason, Gabriel never left either our college, or our acquaintance."

"Stop playing coy, Cassie. I'll have my usual." He thrusts out cash before Sam can protest, paying for the both of them. Then he turns to Sam, clearly cutting off any attempt to be paid back by explaining, "he's so stuck up that I can't help loving him. We actually grew up here. Lived in the same neighborhood, went through the awkwardness of puberty together, escaped the same church upbringing. You get the idea."

"Childhood friends?" Sam asks, stepping to the side to the delivery counter with Gabriel.

Castiel snorts from by the espresso machine and says, "for the first thirteen years of our lives, all Gabriel ever did was prank me and convince my mother that he was some sort of angel so she'd feed him dinner."

"Latchkey kid here," Gabriel clarifies with an odd sort of pride. "I got tired of boxed mac and cheese after a while and Casanova's mom cooked the best shit."

"Why only thirteen years?" Sam asks, amused now that he's not the one being teased.

Castiel smiles mildly and passes their muffins over first. "I got bigger than him."

Grinning, Sam looks down at Gabriel. "You do look like you haven't grown since then."

Castiel laughs loudly and Gabriel makes an angry noise, scooting further away to pout by the condiments. "It isn't my fault I hated milk, so I never grew."

"Does a body good," Sam chuckles.

"That's completely your fault," Castiel answers.

Gabriel jabs a finger towards Sam. "You can quit circuitously calling me ugly." He does the same to Castiel. "And you can do what everyone else does, and admit the customer is always right."

"You're more like a fixture," Castiel says sarcastically. He puts both of the coffees on the counter and slides them over. Elbows on the counter and shit eating grin in place, he continues, "you don't count. But I hope you have a wonderful day."

Belligerently, Gabriel grabs Sam's arm and drags him towards a table at the window.

Sam follows along willingly because this is an incredibly rare opportunity that he can't pass up. "He seems nice," he says flippantly.

"Yeah, for a walking, talking asshole," Gabriel mutters, sitting down and kicking the seat of Sam's chair so it slides out from under the table in a lazy invitation.

Sam takes it and is promptly struck with a massive conundrum. On the one hand, he can easily sit back and question Gabriel about Castiel all he wants for a while. It won't be suspicious in the slightest. Just polite conversation. Plus the fact he suspects that Gabriel would be more than willing to air all of Castiel's dirty laundry in his current frame of mind.

Then again... Sam is sitting right across the table from Gabriel. The guy he's had a useless crush on for a few weeks now. If Gabriel's personality in class is anything to go by, he probably doesn't mix with students all that often. Certainly not by choice. And maybe he's just being polite to Sam. Espresso Lane isn't exactly on the way to campus from either main road leading there. The campus coffee shop itself is cheap and not terrible. So this may have been a rare encounter for the both of them. It might not mean anything. Sam could finally gather enough data to take his crush to bed. PUT his crush to bed. Put. Jesus.

But Dean. Dean needs him. He's stressed about the date. Admits that he doesn't know much about Castiel. Says he asked him out by accident. Sam can help. He's in a position to help. He really should help.

"I wasn't calling you ugly before," he hears himself saying. "I think the opposite."

Gabriel stares at him for a moment, wide eyed. He doesn't react more than that. He doesn't smile, or laugh, or frown. He just keeps staring at Sam, and the intensity in his gaze makes it impossible for Sam to look away. Then, after what feels like an eternity, Gabriel murmurs, "Sam Winchester." Nothing else. Just that.

Sam jumps to his feet, knocking into the table, almost spilling their coffees. "Thanks for the coffee," he blurts, grabbing his cup. "See you in class." And then he's gone. He's out. He beats feet out of the coffee shop quickly. Cheeks on fire, he rushes to his car, jams the key into the ignition, and peels out of the parking lot in a way that would make Dean both proud and concerned. What a fucking disaster. And damn it all, he left his muffin behind.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Gabriel watches the impressive retreat of Sam Winchester, stunned. Had that... had that really just happened? That was awesome! He's been right about Sam. That hot piece of ass is totally into him! Good news! Great news!

"Gabriel, did you just scare off my customer?" Castiel admonishes from right beside him.

Gabriel jumps a mile, whipping his head around. "Dude, we need to get you a damn bell! What are you talking about?"

Castiel nods towards the door. "You just made... Sam?" Gabriel nods. "Yes, Sam. You made him run out of here like his pants were on fire. What did you do this time?"

"Nothing!" Gabriel exclaims, partially insulted, though there's precedent for the accusation. When Castiel merely raises an eyebrow at him, he says, "I'm serious, Cassie. The guy told me out of the blue he thought that I was hot, and then he just bolted!"

"You're interested in him?" Castiel asks incredulously. "Didn't you say he was your student?"

"He's not really my student," Gabriel reminds him. He puts his feet up on Sam's chair, and Castiel immediately nudges them back down. "I'm Nick's TA, remember? I read the papers, but I don't grade them. I just pass my notes along and Nick decides what the letter'll be. I only issue grades for the multiple choice things. And he never lets me teach 'cause he's a great big bag of dicks."

Castiel smiles slightly in agreement. "He'll never change. That aside, I didn't expect you to go for someone so young, though."

Gabriel shudders. "It ain't like that, either. He deferred a few years, and is just coming back. He's typical graduation age, actually."

"I'm not judging you," Castiel assures him. "Not really. It's only me disagreeing with you stringing someone along. It's a terrible part of your personality."

"I realize that," Gabriel says primly. "I haven't done anything to, or with, Sam. And I'll have you know that I was attracted to him before he even showed up in that class. I sorta met him at the club."

Castiel's whole upper body goes with the patented eye roll. "You've 'sort of' met dozens of people at the club."

Gabriel eyes his oldest friend suspiciously. "Dude, since when have you been like this about the people I hook up with? What's going on with you? Have you... Castiel." He sits up straight, all traces of humor gone. "Have you met someone? Are you trying to spread the wealth? You always get like this when you wanna be monogamous again."

Castiel slides into the seat, hands folded around his own cup of coffee, on break now that the crowds are gone. "I'm getting old and tired, Gabriel," he says wearily.

"We're the same age!" Gabriel exclaims. "Twenty-nine ain't old!"

"It feels old," Castiel says. At Gabriel's side eye, he relents. "Okay, fine, I'm lonely. And, for the record, I was always monogamous when I chose to be in a relationship. It suits me, I think."

"So, you have met someone."

"I believe so."

Gabriel's not sure whether to be thrilled or worried. He goes for neutral. "Wanna tell me about it?"

"There's nothing to tell," Castiel says. "We haven't actually been on a date yet. Our first night out is Friday."

"That's... kinda unlike you," Gabriel says slowly.

Castiel makes a non-committal noise. "He seems special."

"Can't wait to meet him," Gabriel grins.

Castiel laughs. "Hopefully that'll never happen." He raises his cup in cheers and Gabriel taps the lids together.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Sam needs someone to talk to who isn't a part of his family. Someone on the outside of the situation who he can confide in. The issue is that in order to do that, he'd have to spill at least some of Dean's secrets. And that's not something he's really prepared to do. It isn't fair. He'd been to a few of Dean's sessions with Donna, and he'd spoken to her alone once early on in the treatment process. She'd told him that there's nothing wrong with him finding his own support system outside of his brother. That he'd probably need it after a while. That if he found someone he trusted, there was nothing wrong with having their confidence. Even Dean had agreed. Then again, Dean would do anything to keep Sam happy, so he could have only been acting fine about it. He realizes how irrational he's being; everyone has someone that they talk to about their personal and interpersonal problems. That's what having best friends is all about. In fact, he's 100% positive that Dean had told Jo Harvelle all about Sam's rehab back in the day. And she had done what she was supposed to do about it. She'd kept her mouth shut, let Dean vent, and never so much as let on to Sam that she knew more than he was comfortable with.

Regardless, it feels wrong to talk about his brother behind his back, though the urge to have someone to vent to is pretty strong.

He knows he's not exactly unbiased here. And because of that he can't decide whether Dean's made a good decision about dating at this stage in his treatment, or whether Sam's just being overly cautious. Either one is likely. The problem is that neither one seems more likely with Sam so close to the situation.

Briefly, he considers confiding in Charlie. She'd be the obvious choice if he wanted to have a confidant, and he's sure that she'd be willing. She's nosy, but doesn't gossip. Caring, and seems easily able to handle the angst from her friends. In fact, she often seems as though she enjoys being a secret keeper and counselor. Plus, Sam likes her a lot. He's comfortable hanging out with her. She also gets bonus points for not knowing Dean, so there's little risk of anything getting back to him.

He's just not sure he's ready to talk about his situation as far as Dean's concerned. If this were about him alone, he'd go for it in a second. Maybe he could talk about it in vague terms? He could try. Since when did he get so bad at this?

Frustrated at his over thinking, he grabs his phone out of his bag and sends off a text.

Sam (1:05 PM):
Got any free time coming up? I could use someone to talk to.

It doesn't even take a minute to get an enthusiastic response.

Charlie (1:06 PM):
That's what best friends are for! Let's meet after your last class in the student center! Save me a seat!

Sam smiles, certain he's made a good choice. Besides, he has two whole hours to decide what he wants to say to Charlie, and how he wants to say it. That's plenty of time.

When Charlie shows up and plops down next to him on the sofa in the TV lounge, Sam's used that time to come up with the brilliant question, "how do I help my brother get laid?"

"Gross!" she giggles. "I dunno. Give him some condoms, drop him off at a bar, and hope for the best?"

Sam shakes his head. "No, I mean. What if he's not really... good at getting out?"

Charlie shrugs. "My point is still salient."

"I was kinda hoping you'd be psychic," Sam groans, flopping back dramatically, which Charlie totally appreciates. She turns sideways to lean against the arm of the sofa and kicks her feet up into Sam's lap. Before dropping her backpack to the ground, she digs into it to grab a family sized bag of strawberry Twizzlers, taking one for herself, and offering the bag to Sam, who decides to indulge.

"So, what is it?" Charlie asks lightly. "Your brother super old? Super ugly? Super dickhead?"

"None of the above," Sam assures her. "He didn't used to have problems getting anyone he wanted. He's just going through some stuff."

"Not to sound rude, but everyone's going through some stuff. Can you be more specific?"

Sam shrinks down further, guiltily eating the Twizzler string by string. "I wish I didn't have to be. You can keep a secret, right?"

Charlie plants a hand over her heart. "I can keep all the secrets, I swear on my Hermione Granger statue," she says solemnly.

Sam cracks a smile. "Good enough. Dean - my brother - he's got OCD. Like, bad OCD. It's taken him years just to be able to get out of the house again and hold down a job. Now he's got this guy he's into, and they're going on a date, but on his bad days, Dean can barely stand to be around me, let alone some dude he sees a few minutes a week, and who has no idea what he's getting into."

Charlie hums thoughtfully. "Is this the family thing that kept you out of college?"

"Yeah," Sam confirms. "Our dad died and I was the only one left to look out for him." In the interest of fairness, he offers up his side, too. "I handled it like shit, honestly. Got into drugs and lots of other bad stuff. But Dean got counseling, I got into rehab, and things are starting to work out. You figured out some of that before, but that's what happened. Neither of us want to backslide again, so we're easing back into things. It's just..." he pushes a hand onto his hair. "Neither of us planned on something like this so soon. I wanna make sure that it works out for him. Or at least, not make things worse again."

Charlie listens to the whole thing quietly, and with a mildly impressed expression. "I get that. First of all, I think it's awesome what you're doing for your brother. And what you did for yourself isn't small change, either. But I don't think you can control everything. Dean's gotta get out into the world in his own way eventually. Not everything is gonna be a win, and it would do both of you a disservice to act like it would be."

"Yeah, I figured as much," Sam says. "Doesn't stop me from trying, though."

Charlie leans forward long enough to pat his shoulder. "Guess we could come up with an action plan, though! I sure do love some good romance!"

Sam smiles. "Really?"

She grins back. "You bet! We're besties. This is what friends do! So. What do you know about this guy that's overcome your brother's OCD?"

Good question. Very good question. Sam hadn't actually thought about it in those terms. Castiel isn't just "some guy." He's a guy who, whether he knows it or not, has become important enough to Dean that he's raised himself above Dean's OCD. Or at the very least, made Dean want to raise himself above his current limitations. There hasn't been much incentive lately to go above and beyond the standard they'd reached since it was working for them. Now there is. That's a good angle to approach it from.

So, Sam tells her everything he knows, including that Castiel is Gabriel's childhood friend. Charlie sniffs out conspiracy in that, and it makes her incredibly lively in her desire to help. She admits to knowing nearly nothing about real OCD, or men dating in general, but a fresh set of eyes, and being a sounding board, helps Sam out immensely. He's not sure if he can come up with a good solution other than being there for his brother if and when he's needed, but his mind is much less full being able to talk about his problems to a willing ear. And if that's the best he can hope for, then for now, it's okay. He's got enough to worry about with his classes and his grades, anyway.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Gabriel Milton is shit at having crushes. Total and complete shit. He might give Castiel hell for his falling in and out of love with like, six people at a time, but he's got no ground to stand on. Literally none at all.

Even less as he sits at home on a freaking weekend night to review essays. Sam Winchester's is the third one down. Gabriel pulls it from the stack and places it on top. Doesn't read it, but flips through the pages with a smile. Guy doesn't even employ any of the copious "sneaky" cheating methods. The font is 12 pt. Times New Roman, as instructed. No extra spaces between the sentences. No punctuation marks set to a bigger font to fill space. The essay is exactly the length it needs to be, margins set properly, lines double spaced. The consummate nerd. He's going to make a terrible lawyer following all the rules so strictly.

Gabriel picks the paper up again and slides it to the bottom of the stack. Like a treat for later. The essay will probably be better than 90% of the others. It'll be well thought out, though not particularly fun to read. It'll be to the point and matter-of-fact. Exactly the kind of writing that will serve him well in law to make up for his lack of creative rule bending.

It's hard to concentrate. Every now and then, Gabriel glances at his cell phone hoping for a text. At first he tries to convince himself that a distraction by anyone would be great, but he can only fool himself for so long. He keeps hoping that Sam Winchester will forget about office hours again.

But he won't because he's a damn good student.

That doesn't stop his heart from skipping a beat when a text does eventually pull him up from his work. But the sender makes his lips twist slightly.

Nick (8:45 PM):
I hope you're not going easy on the students this time.

Gabriel rolls his eyes with his whole body, probably a lot like Castiel does.

Gabriel (8:45 PM):
I wouldn't bother. You could take half the stack if you wanted.

He can hear the condescension in the reply.

Nick (8:46 PM):
I've got much better things to do. There are a couple of standouts, though. I'd like to schedule conferences with them at some point.

Something about that makes Gabriel's skin crawl, as does Nick's personality. There's a reason the guy can't keep a TA for more than a semester. Only Gabriel's own belligerent ingrown asshole keeps him from shoving Nick's essays where the sun don't shine. Of course, the guy's not an overt creep. He always tries to wine and dine promising students into his program. Gabriel suspects it's a way for him to boost his own ego by offering students a sweet and easy ride up through the ranks of academia so that he can have more clout in the department. It's the smallest in the school, always in danger of downsizing, and Nick one day wants to be the one to shove crow down everyone's throat by making it notable, since he built it from the ground up. The worst part is the guy's smart enough to eventually do it.

Gabriel (8:47 PM):
Who are you having me scout this time?

He thumbs at the staple on the current essay he's reading while waiting for a reply. Sure enough, a pit settles in his stomach when the next text arrives.

Nick (8:48 PM):
From 101: Ambriel, Tyson, and Sam. Put your feelers out. Let me know.

Grimacing, Gabriel thinks, the hell I will. Laboriously, he replies,

Gabriel (8:49 PM):
Got it.

He's really, really, really shit at having crushes.

Chapter Text

Sometimes headphones just don't do music justice. But Sam hates it when Dean plays it too loudly without them, so Dean goes to his happy place. He slides effortlessly into Baby's interior like he slides into his bed at night. He puts the key in the ignition and turns it halfway to crank just the battery, then presses Dean's top 13 Zepp Traxx into the tape deck. "Ramble On" is almost too loud once it starts slamming through the speakers, but it only takes a moment for Dean's ears to adjust. They'll be ringing afterwards, but today is a good day for that. He tilts to the side, laying down across the seat and closing his eyes. The scent of leather and fresh carpet cleaner soothes him as much as the music drowns out his spiraling thoughts.

All he's done the entire week is second guess himself about this whole date thing. He knows Sam's been privy to his silent anxiety as well. Damn the kid for being so intuitive all the time.

He rolls carefully onto his back, letting the familiarity of the space and the music wash over him. Can he really do this? He knows better than anyone that wanting to do something doesn't mean that he can. It sucks. This used to be his thing. Once upon a time he'd been great at flirting, dating, sex. Now, though? Jesus, now the thought of having someone else's sweat anywhere near him - never mind bodily fluids - makes him run cold instead of hot.

Why is he doing this to himself in the first place? Why push himself further than he's clearly ready to go? It can't just be about being lonely. He's used to lonely. Hell, he's okay with lonely. Lonely's his best goddamned friend. Lonely is fine because he's not alone. His OCD comes part and parcel to loneliness most of the time. He can't even resent it. He doesn't even mind it. Usually. Until the second he starts to think about Castiel again. For any reason. In any situation.

"I'm such a dumbass," he mutters to the music. He's had a lot of time to take back what he said. He could have called Castiel at any point and rescinded his offer. But he hadn't. Why hadn't he? Why was he doing this to himself?

Despite the unreasonable encouragement his family has given him, he can't conveniently blame any of them for this. He could try, though. He used to have a goddamn Gold Medal in it. But they've all been cool and supportive.

Hell, maybe it's Sam. All week he's been giving Dean looks like Dean is suddenly going to announce that he made a huge mistake and the date is off. It had only been a fever dream, after all, right? There wasn't anyone named Castiel making it impossible for Dean Winchester to get a good night's sleep.

Plus, it's too damn late now. It's fucking Friday, and Dean has two hours left to either get ready for the next stage in his recovery, or hope a plane falls out of the sky right smack dab onto the garage. A meteor would be good, too. He's not being picky here. All he needs is a miracle.

Naturally, it doesn't happen. His luck was never that good, anyway. So he gets rid of one hour sitting in the car, visualizing Castiel in the passenger seat. At first, he sweats through both of his shirts even though it's cold in the garage. Then it starts to get better. He imagines Castiel's smile on him. Only on him and only for him. That makes his shoulders unclench. Why does that weird, gummy smile make him want to smile too, instead of freaking out? Nice mystery. If his luck changes, he might get plenty of opportunities to figure it out.

What is Castiel like in a car? Does he get antsy being confined? Is he a free spirit who much prefers the open air? What temperature does he like it? Will he make Dean sweat to death, or complain about the heat? Will he inherit Sam's sour lemons look if the music is too loud? Will he fiddle with the tapes or complain about all classic rock all the time? Will he be a talker or prefer to contemplate the scenery quietly?

Rather than all of those unknowns stressing him out, Dean kind of enjoys his imaginings.

It still takes an hour to prepare him enough that he can get out of the car and into the shower to finish getting ready for his date. He's visualized. He's taken his medication. He's desensitized himself. He's spoken to himself in the foggy mirror a couple of times. He's ready for this. As ready as he'll ever be.

As he washes himself off, he reminds himself that these are good butterflies, not razor wings.

As he rinses, he reminds himself that he'd be nervous no matter what.

As he dries off and wipes his hand across the condensation on the mirror, he reminds himself that Castiel is getting ready right now, too. And he's also nervous.

As he goes back into his bedroom and digs through his closet, he reminds himself that first dates are supposed to be a little uncomfortable.

He'll get through this, and he might even enjoy himself while he's at it. Again, if his luck changes. Stranger things have happened.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

After the morning rush had finished at the cafe, Castiel had called in extra help. In fact, he'd called in every favor he'd ever had with all of his employees. Only one had taken pity, but it's enough. Castiel can't finish working today. He'd honestly like to, but after seeing Dean's shy smile and even more-than-usual humble request for his normal order, Castiel had needed to back away. All the way back. Into the kitchen. Past the kitchen to the stockroom. Past the stockroom to his office. Past that all the way up the back stairs into his apartment.

There, it's okay to react how he'd wanted to. He presses both hands over his face, surprised that his cheeks don't feel feverish. He's a goner. His heart is beating too fast to be healthy. Perhaps he drank too much coffee? Yes, he'll go with that. That makes the best sense. Otherwise he'll have to face the fact that Dean's affecting him more than he should be at this point. They've barely had a real conversation. And yet.

He thinks about Dean's smile. Blinding and overtaking his whole face. He's never understood the expression of a smile lighting up a face, but with Dean, it's very true. The man's eyes crinkle and shine when he smiles for real, cheeks flushed and lovely, freckles peppering everywhere.

It's nice. Dean is quirky, picky, shy. But he's also kind. He'll hold the door open and let ten people ahead of him, even if he's getting soaked in the rain. Castiel knows because he's seen it happen. Dean speaks nicely to all of the employees, never makes a mess with the sugar or cream, tips well above the average, and clearly loves his day job.

Sure, they're polar opposites on the surface, but the important things run deeper, and they're far more important. Dean must value the people in his life, if his car is any indication. He spoke of it like a lover, and it's reasonable to assume that he takes meticulous care of it. He probably treats his family the same way. He pays for his brother's college without a single ounce of resentment.

Figuring he's allowed to romanticize Dean a little before their first date, Castiel decides to daydream that the man is fiercely protective, fiery in his passion, loves vastly, and gives everyone a fair chance. If it's even partly true, it'll be perfect.

Hopefully he's also generous in his judgement, and they can discover a few hobbies to share; things that they can agree on together. Common ground is important, though exploring new things outside of their comfort zones will be half the fun. That's what dating is for.

Speaking of which, why the hell doesn't he have anything to wear? He looks at everything in his closet with disgust. Who in the world let him buy ten of the same outfit? This won't do at all. It's a miracle Dean noticed him at all with all the damn beige he wears without second thought.

"Everything sucks," Castiel mutters to himself. He dives into the back of the closet, hoping for something appropriate that he'd simply forgotten about over the years. Suit! There's a dark blue suit still in the garment bag, pressed against the back wall. He drags it out with a grunt of effort and hangs it on the back of the door. Too formal? Likely too formal for a drive and stargazing.

Well. He might as well try it on and see if it still fits. If it looks good, Dean might appreciate the effort.

Or laugh at him.

Don't think about that. Castiel scrambles into the suit before he can second guess himself. It fits in the most important places, which he's sort of proud of since it's been years since he last wore it.

"Ooh, hey there sexy!" An accursed voice sing-songs from the doorway. "I was told you were getting ready for your big date!"

"Go away," Castiel answers without turning around.

"How dare you treat a compliment in such a way," Gabriel admonishes dramatically. "What would your mother, and by extension, my mother, have to say about that?"

"Nothing unless I use swear words," Castiel deadpans.

"Can't argue with the fucking classics!"

"Why are you even here?" Castiel frowns, fixing his tie and then ripping it back off again. "Haven't I told you I don't want you meddling in my love life?"

"Meddling?" Gabriel purrs. He affects the worst British accent either of them have ever heard and says, "why, Lizzie Bennet, I would never dream of meddling in your affairs of the heart or otherwise."

Castiel snorts in derision. He mutters, "I'm much more like Lydia, anyway."

Gabriel takes that with a side to side head tilt and comes fully into the room. He grabs Castiel by the shoulders and swings him around. Eyes him shrewdly. "You're trying too hard," he announces.

"That's rich, coming from you," Castiel says, though he can't stop the desperate tinge in his voice. As much as he enjoys kicking Gabriel out of his home - and he enjoys it a lot - there's no one else around to keep him from making a fool of himself tonight.

"You're lucky I love you and only want the best for you," Gabriel tuts, slipping Castiel's jacket off and hanging it back up. "And that I understand why you're acting this way." He arches a pointed eyebrow.

Castiel sighs. "Forgive me. I'm an hour away from humiliating myself in front of the only person that I've been attracted to in years."

Gabriel nods sagely, standing directly in front of Castiel again, unbuttoning his dress shirt like a discerning parent. "Why are you so worried about it?" He asks as Castiel stands still and pliable, letting his best-friend-might-as-well-be-brother get him set right. "What's this guy got that the other people you ended up in love piles with don't have?"

Castiel sighs again, removing his dress shirt and tossing it negligently towards the window seat.

When he doesn't answer, Gabriel presses on. "Is he rich? Hung like a horse? Can he tie a cherry stem in his mouth without using his hands?"

Castiel crosses his arms over his bare chest, expression darkening. "No to the first, and I have no idea about the rest."

"Okey doke, so this is like Amelia," Gabriel surmises lightly. "I'd say 'good for you,' but the last time you had actual feelings for someone, you ran out on her."

Castiel removes his pants and throws them at Gabriel angrily. "I didn't run out on Amelia. I left her after she thought my desire to quit a lucrative accounting job to open my coffee shop was a sign of a mental break."

"My story is so much more dramatic." He shoves Castiel lightly on the shoulder. "Go shower, you smell like coffee. I'll find you something to wear."

Defeated, Castiel shuffles towards the bathroom. Over his shoulder he says, "I've returned all the lingerie that was left here to its rightful owners, so don't bother to go digging." He closes the bathroom door to the sound of Gabriel's noise of disappointment.

In the shower, he lets himself unwind, suddenly feeling the full brunt of his exhaustion. He's slept so little and worried so much that he wants to crawl back into bed and sleep for a week. After his date, of course. The ache of weariness can wait a few more hours.

He scrubs his face extra vigorously to encourage a little more wakefulness. Now more than ever he's happy Dean suggested something simple that won't take too much energy. But he finishes his ablutions quickly once the warmth of the water starts to make him yawn.

Cleaned, he wipes his hand across the mirror to get a look at himself. He sighs. There are dark circles under his eyes, beard looking a bit sad. He digs his electric razor out of the drawer and makes himself look more five o'clock shadow, less down on his luck hobo. There's only so much that can be done, but it's good enough.

Back in the bedroom, Gabriel's laid out the proper wardrobe on the bed. Castiel eyes it critically. Jeans, his prized AC/DC shirt, and the black leather jacket he's felt guilty about wearing since he became an activist, yet can't make himself part with since it's soft and extremely well made. He arches an eyebrow at his best friend. "This might be worse than the suit."

Gabriel gives him a very skilled "bullshit" face. "How?" he demands. "They're normal people clothes!"

"Dean's only ever seen me in work clothes, and he definitely thinks it's all I wear."

"He's right," Gabriel says.

Castiel gestures to the "normal" clothes. "This is much more likely to make him think I'm trying too hard."

With a shrug, Gabriel tosses him the shirt anyway. "Yeah, but he'll also think you're really hot. Get dressed, and stop being difficult. I'm going down to get coffee."

Castiel mumbles a wordless agreement, then sets himself to the task at hand. Gabriel's probably right. Trying too hard or not, wearing radically different clothes than normal does elicit more attention, and he certainly wants that from Dean. God, does he ever want those amazing green eyes on him; undivided attention. He coughs. Clears his throat, face heating up again. Enough of that. He needs to get himself together. He's supposed to be able to charm Dean enough to secure a second date. It's a testament to their wonderful text conversations that Castiel is already convinced that he'll want more than a single date. And if he blushes the whole night and bites his tongue stuttering around his words, Dean will think he's a moron without the fallback of preparing his words over text, and he can't do that. He won't do that.

And once he's dressed in Gabriel's choice of outfit, he definitely looks the part of a suave, flirty man, and not a nervous wreck of a hippy coffee shop owner. They can all just ignore the pink that's refusing to leave his cheeks due to the fact he can't stop himself from imagining kissing Dean good night.

To get out of his own head, he turns off all of the lights in the apartment, and locks the door behind him on the way back downstairs to the cafe's office.

Of course, he must have been at it upstairs longer than anticipated, because sooner rather than later, Gabriel pokes his head back in, his lithe body following. "Your Mr. Darcy is here," he trills loudly enough for everyone to hear. Then he waltzes with himself back out of the room and into the kitchen. Castiel scowls, then his heart thumbs wildly behind his ribs, then he takes a deep breath and steps into the kitchen.

"What's that dude's damage?" Dean asks without missing a beat.

Dean. Beautiful Dean is there in his kitchen, hands in the pockets of his distressed jeans. Slowly, Castiel starts to smile because they're dressed almost the same, though Dean's band of choice on his black shirt is Led Zeppelin, and his leather jacket is dark brown.

He smiles even wider, a little bit in love with Dean not so much as blinking at Gabriel's antics. "At the risk of you rightfully dumping me before our first date, that's Gabriel. He's my best friend."

"No accounting for taste," Dean says, lip ticked up. "I have plenty of friends worth throwing off the roofs of buildings, too."

Laughing, Castiel shrugs helplessly. "It's good to have common ground on a first date. Shall we go, or would you like a cup of coffee first?"

"Do you want one?" Dean asks, slightly surprised. "You work around it all day."

"I work around it all day for a reason," Castiel protests blithely. "I could drink it all the time." He nods his head over his shoulder. "Come here. We'll have some in the back so we can be alone."

"Sexy!" the forgotten Gabriel crows from the doorway.

Impulsively, Castiel grabs a croissant off of the baking rack next to him and throws it at Gabriel's head. "Leave!" he hollers.

Gabriel dodges the pastry and makes a run for it.

Dean laughs and begins to wander aimlessly around the space. Respectfully not touching anything, but appearing interested all the same. Castiel watches him without further comment, stepping to the opposite side of the kitchen to where his private coffeemaker is. It makes him feel... well, something special deep behind his ribs to be making coffee from his private stash for two.

"How do you take your coffee?" he calls over.

Dean spins on his heel, still with his hands stuffed in his pockets like a kid in a china shop. "Just a little sugar," he answers. He walks over to Castiel's side of the kitchen. "This place is awesome, even in the back."

"Thank you," Castiel says beaming with pride. He pulls down two mugs. "We're really not going to be late for anything?" he asks before pouring.

"No," Dean smiles. He rests his hip against the counter. "The stars'll be there all night."

"Good," Castiel grins. "I hate to admit this, but I certainly need some coffee. I'm exhausted."

Dean pulls up beside him, not touching, but looking extremely concerned. "Everything okay? We can postpone."

Touched, and also shaking his head vigorously, Castiel says, "I'm only tired because I couldn't sleep waiting for this date. Caffeine will do just fine." He places the mug daintily on the counter and pushes it over with the tips of his fingers. "Then we can be on our way for you to show me the stars."

Realizing the pattern of his words, he feels his face flash hot, but Dean seems to like it. He grins and picks up his mug, pinky finger raised teasingly. "Awesome."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

So far, so good, Dean thinks. And thinks again. And thinks a dozen more times as he tries his best to be attentive and follow the conversation while hurricane winds blow in his head. He thinks he's answering Castiel properly, but he can't be positive. At least Castiel is reacting normally and not looking at him like he grew two heads. Yay for coping techniques.

And the coffee is excellent as always. More with the company to go along with it. It also helps ease him into the rest of the date. He'd been physically shaking when he'd shown up at the cafe, hands stuffed into his pockets to that no one would notice the trembling. But it had worried him that Castiel would find him standoffish, when in reality, there's nowhere he'd rather be than here. Which is kind of a startling revelation, considering his normal mental state. Of course, it helps that they're in a kitchen, and it looks immaculately clean and up to code.

When they're finished with their coffee, Castiel rinses both of the cups and then puts them in the industrial dishwasher. Then he grabs his coat off of the rack next to the door. With a beaming smile he says, "shall we?"

Feeling bold in the face of such excitement, Dean risks his own mental health and holds his arm out, elbow bent. Castiel loops his arm underneath and then guides them outside into the cool early evening. Only a few lonely clouds in the sky, for which Dean is grateful. He seriously had no other solid plans for what they'd do if it had rained.

Pushing his luck seems to be panning out. The whole walk through the parking lot, Dean keeps waiting for the panic at prolonged contact with another human being to rear its ugly head. But it doesn't. They're both wearing coats, he supposes. And Castiel had washed his hands properly. And they're not touching skin to skin. It's amazing how okay it is. It's okay enough that he laments the loss of contact a little the second they get to Baby, and Castiel releases him to properly praise the car. Which is a fast way to Dean's heart. Possibly also his dick, but if he thinks about nakedness and bodily fluids again, he really will have a panic attack at this stage.

"Dean," Castiel coos with nothing less than unbridled pleasure, "this car is definitely fitting to the Kerouac image I've built up in my head about you." He takes the long route around the car, admiring her every curve and stroking his fingers along them as he strolls. Once at the passenger door, his shining blue eyes rise to meet Dean's. "You restored her yourself?"

Dean nods, mouth inexplicably dry. "Yeah, but she was in pretty good shape when I inherited her. My dad kept her up well, but he wasn't much of a mechanic, so I had to overhaul the engine." He unlocks the door with the key and slips behind the wheel, leaning over to unlock the passenger door and push the door open.

Castiel is still smiling when he settles in. "You didn't upgrade anything to automatic while you were at it?" He nods towards the manual windows, plus the lack of key fob on Dean's keychain.

Dean puts on his seatbelt and cranks up the car, pretending to fiddle with the radio while Castiel sits beside him; a welcome, but suffocating presence. However, Dean had been right to practice with Sam. Castiel doesn't take up nearly as much space, so it's easier to adjust to him. The heat blasts them both since the car hasn't cooled too much in the twenty minutes Dean's been out of it. Castiel sighs happily and leans forward towards the air, which sends the scent of coffee and something slightly earthier through the car.

Dean pauses, sitting back, sitting straight. It's... different. Not bad different, but different enough that it pulls his focus away from his rapid pulse and sweating hands for a moment. Before he can think, he says, "you smell really good."

The sly look that Castiel gives him is worth the almost-embarrassment. "So do you," he answers. "Like leather." He leaves it like that.

Dean swallows hard, though he's pretty sure his face doesn't change expressions. Except for the tickling flush up the back of his neck. Jesus, tonight might just kill him for all unexpected reasons.

Then Castiel is fully leaning into the vents again, blissed out like a dog with its head out the window, and Dean can only grin, put the car in reverse, and get them on their way.

"You said you knew a good spot," Castiel notes as they bypass the highway for the back roads leading away from the university and humanity in general.

"I thought the Lookout would be best."

"The Makeout?" Castiel teases with a salacious lilt. "Are you already confident enough to think you're getting a goodnight kiss?"

As airily as he can, Dean answers, "not on the first date. I'm not that kinda girl." He even winks. Then he starts wringing his hands, chafing them back and forth against the steering wheel. He really should have planned this better. Not like he could practice on anyone for desensitization. He'd been so wrapped up in the rest of it that he hadn't even given a second's thought to how it would look taking Castiel to a known and notorious makeout spot.

"I'm actually glad you feel that way," Castiel answers. When Dean chances a glance over at him, Castiel is looking right at him, and he looks totally sincere. Dean starts to relax again, but then Castiel lounges back against the window with a sassy, "there's something to be said about old fashioned anticipation."

Just like that, Dean's out to sea again. He really won't survive this. It takes him a minute to rally, but once he does, his smile is back. "Bet you've never actually watched the stars there, huh? Only done a lot of hardcore making out."

Castiel tilts his head from side to side. "I can't say that I have ever been there specifically to watch the sunset and see the stars."

Dean laughs. "Dude, you couldn't have possibly been more diplomatic if you'd been a politician."

Castiel laughs, too. "Must be my customer service background shining through."

Dean snorts. "Sure, let's call it that." He finds that he really enjoys Castiel taking his snark and firing it right back. Since Dean's brain to mouth filter doesn't always work so well, it's great that Castiel can handle it without offense.

But he also seems just as fine with companionable silence on the drive. Dean likes that, too. The Lookout is only a few miles outside of town up the nearest mountain, and it's an easy, scenic drive. Despite being so close to town, it feels like it's hours away from civilization.

It's also blessedly deserted when they arrive. Dean smiles to himself as he takes a prime position near the cliff where the trees split to frame the valley and town below in all its splendor. This is the one time he's glad of the internet age. Parking has become a lost art. But Dean shines here. He cuts the engine and beckons Castiel out of the car and to the trunk where's he's packed a picnic blanket and a cooler with beer, water, and snacks.

Castiel is absolutely delighted by the old school trappings. He excitedly spreads one blanket over the hood of the car and climbs up carefully so as not to accidentally scratch the paint. He leans back on his hands, facing out towards the sunset with a look of awed wonder on his face. "This is such a beautiful view. It almost makes me regret my wayward youth up here."

"Almost?" Dean grins, climbing up beside him and opening the picnic basket with a flourish. He brings out two bottles of beer, popping off the caps with his ring. He hands one to Castiel and they clink the necks together.

Castiel winks as he presses the rim to his lips. "Well, almost because then I wouldn't appreciate the first time being so special with you."

"Oh, God," Dean groans. "You're a closet sap! I shoulda known."

Castiel laughs, deep and throaty, coughing behind his hand to clear the beer out of the wrong pipe. "Maybe that means we should use this time to tell each other our worst qualities to get that out of the way?"

"I brought plenty of beer for that," Dean agrees. "All right, me first? If I'm a second late to anything, I'll have a coronary."

Grinning, Castiel says, "if crumbs are left anywhere on any surface, I'll yell at you for hours."

"I can't stand pushing toothpaste from the top of the tube. You'll have to stop doing that."

"I'm incredibly nosy. If you get evasive, I'll press until you lock me out of the house or hang up on me and block my number for twenty-four hours."

"I hate parties. Can't stand being in a crowd for more than a few minutes."

"I always leave laundry on the floor."

"I always leave dishes in the sink."

"I will never make you coffee when I'm not behind the counter at the cafe."

"I won't drink any snooty craft beers."

"Whatever shall I do about my refined palate?" Castiel deadpans.

Dean laughs again, feeling lighter than he has in years. Of course, once again, Castiel has inadvertently given him another huge opening to talk about his OCD openly. It's a fantastic opening, really. It's a great atmosphere, they're in a good mood....

They're on their first fucking date. Lighthearted and optimistic as they are, it's a first date. They know nothing about each other, not really. Looking at Castiel, painted glowing gold with the sunset, Dean wants more than anything for this to go somewhere. But until he knows for sure whether there's a chance, he wants to remain the man that Castiel doesn't know down to his gooey center. Not yet.

Especially watching the last of the sunset sparkle past the valley into true darkness, the stars crawling across the horizon while sharing Dean's homemade peppered beef jerky and fruit. More especially when they both fall back against the windshield to gaze upward without craning their necks.

Into the mostly silence, Castiel murmurs, "bring me back here when it snows. I want to see the sunset with the snow."

"Sure," Dean answers right away. "I come here to think a lot, y'know? Kids don't come up here anymore these days, so it's perfect to clear the head."

Castiel turns his head to look at Dean. "Would you mind if I borrowed this space sometimes for myself?"

Dean bumps Castiel with his elbow. "Do it. And if you ever don't mind some quiet company, lemme know."

The slow smile that crosses Castiel's face is worth all the anxiety that got them to this point. "I'd like that."

They spend nearly two hours talking, quiet, watching each other, watching the stars. Then Castiel starts to sniffle and shiver in the cold, Dean noticing enough to suddenly be aware that the temperature sure has dropped significantly in such a short time. "We can go," he says.

Castiel's grin goes sheepish and he slides off the car, Dean with him. He gathers the blanket and wraps his around his shoulders with a shudder. "I'm really sensitive to the cold," he explains, and sneezes.

Even not contagious, Dean thanks the stars they've been watching that he's on the other side of the car so he doesn't have to worry about germs. It doesn't matter whether they're the bad kind or the non-existent kind. "I'll get you warmed up and home in a sec," he says, tucking everything back into the trunk.

The drive back to the cafe is quiet, but nice. Castiel rallies with the heater again, and then lingers once they're back to the cafe. He unbuckles his seat belt and turns in his seat to face Dean. "I had a wonderful time," he says softly.

"Me, too," Dean smiles. "Can we do this again sometime?"

"Yes, please." He slips the blanket off of his shoulders. "Oh, but not this weekend. I'll be on a business trip. Back Monday. I'll text you when I am."

"I'll be waiting," Dean assures him.

This is the point that Dean would have leaned in for a kiss had he been more normal in the brain space. But he's not, so he doesn't. However, the promising look that Castiel gives him as he gets out of the car is nearly as satisfying.

Chapter Text

Sam has become wonderful at waiting. A pro, probably, after all the hours he's racked up doing it. Maybe he should keep track, just for the hell of it? He could make a spreadsheet. Pie chart. Line graph? Line graph would be best. He is the master of waiting. It's almost like meditation. He could do it for hours. He has done it for hours. He's been doing it for hours today. Sort of. He hasn't only been waiting today. He's done other things, too. Passing the time since this is the sort of waiting that doesn't require sitting still. He's not a big fan of that kind of waiting. Productive waiting is fine. That's what he's doing. Been doing. Getting a little tired of doing.

He's cooked about four meals, portioned them out, and then put them in the freezer for later dates. He's cleaned the bathrooms. Then the bedroom because it made him feel uncomfortable seeing a spotless bathroom through his door in the midst of a disastrously dusty bedroom. Did a little laundry. No harm in getting some of that started for the week.

He's halfway through emptying the dishwasher when he hears the garage door screech up.

He pretends not to rush the process and break any dishes while he impatiently waits for his brother. And he's actually surprised when Dean doesn't stay in the car or the garage for too long, only just long enough to grab the blanket and picnic basket and drop them by the door. "Hey," he says.

Sam blinks at him. "Hey," he echoes. That's it? Nothing else? Just "hey," and that's the end?

Apparently so. Dean grabs a glass from the cabinet, and then to the fridge for ice and water. He downs the first glass immediately and then refills it.

"You're torturing me," Sam says flatly.

"You don't sound very tortured," Dean responds.

He doesn't sound tortured, but he is. Of course he is. But he's learned that proper Talking To Dean Skills require a bit of finesse. And a complete lack of enthusiasm. The more you sound like you want to know, the more disincline Dean is to tell you. Reverse psychology. Or something equally as irritating.

However, Sam's been waiting for like, four hours now, so fuck finesse. "Oh, come on, don't be a dick. How did it go with Castiel?"

Dean faces Sam and leans back casually against the counter. "Fine," he says.

Sam is the unluckiest brother in the world. He has the literal worst brother ever. Dean Winchester, at his core, is just a big 'ol piece of shit. But two can play at this game. They come from the same stock, afterall. "Too bad," Sam sighs. "You used to have game, and now you're out of the running after four hours. That sucks, man. I really feel for you."

That about does it, because Sam is awesome and knows how to get the information he wants. It's never recommended to slight Dean's game because he's a red-blooded American man at heart. Whatever that means.

Regardless, Dean folds like a bad poker hand, the shine in his eyes too big to hide, and his face morphs into a teddy bear smile that Sam hasn't seen on him in ages, and is really thankful to be seeing again. "It was great, Sammy, I gotta tell ya," he says, giving in full throttle. "I had a great time. Cas had a great time. We're gonna go out again, probably next week. He's out of town for the weekend, but after that?" He shrugs, sipping his water again. "I didn't have any meltdowns before, during, or now. I'm just... good."

Sam feels his own face pulling up into a smile, but keeps it small. "That's awesome," he says. "I'm glad the fantasy lived up to the reality."

Dean doesn't rise to the challenge, simply shrugging again. "For the moment. You got a social life this weekend?"

"Probably not," Sam sighs. "I've got some papers and tests coming up. Might hit up the study rooms at the library tomorrow."

Dean pushes off of the counter and gives Sam a rough hair ruffle as he passes by. "Sounds about right," he teases. "'Night."

"Whatever, jerk," Sam grumbles to himself, smoothing his hair back down.

"Heard that, bitch!" Dean calls back from the hallway, then his heavy footsteps are crashing up the stairs.

In the end, Sam can't be annoyed in the slightest. It all went better than he hoped. Dean is acting normal. Better than normal. He seems happy with how his evening went. And when Sam hears the water turn on upstairs, it's the heavier rush of the shower, not the sink, so obviously Dean hadn't been playing off his mental state. Best case scenario. Sometimes good things do happen, and it's incredible to finally have the confirmation.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Sam's good mood lasts him through a late night and overly dense reading assignment, and into the following morning when he resigns himself to going to the university library to get started on his Comparative Religions paper because Dean's good mood has also lasted, and he's therefore been blasting his music since breakfast. Which was all bacon.

Sam eats just enough to take the edge off of his hunger and then retreats to the cafe for coffee and something a little healthier than endless nitrates. Sadly, Castiel isn't there when he arrives. He must have already left on his business trip. The coffee is still as awesome as always, as are the breakfast biscuits.

He finishes his food right as he pulls up to campus, taking his coffee with him into the library. Saturday is a slow day for students, so there are plenty of quiet spots to set up. And over the weekend, the small study rooms are first come, first served without a time limit, so Sam takes one on the third floor, shutting the door behind him, leaving the window blinds open. From behind the desk he gets a great view of the rest of the library, and behind him, the campus sprawls out in impressive panorama. The rooms also have separate thermostats, so he can make it as warm as he wants, which is a relief with the winter months bearing down quickly. Bless the small perks of higher education at a private university.

The first order of business then becomes organizing everything. The laptop is set up front and center on the large table, his textbooks piled to the left side. Mouse and notepad to the right. He'd checked out several reference books on Friday, so those go next to his textbooks, spines facing him for easy retrieval.

Satisfied, he sits down, cracks his knuckles, and gets to work.

Some time later, he's got little more than a minor headache and three pages of scribbled notes that are taking him nowhere fast. He leans back in the chair with a noisy sigh, tilting the backrest enough that he can stare up at the ceiling tiles. He squints then snorts. Right above his head, someone has written in Sharpie, "for a good time, call no one. Take a nap instead."

God, that's so true.

He lets his eyes slide shut, and massages his temples lightly. If he let himself, he could definitely sleep like this. Gets close to it until a knock at the door startles him to full wakefulness again. He can't see anyone outside the window, so he stands, raising his arms over his head for a spine-popping stretch and groan, then opens the door.

And promptly bites his tongue. "Gabriel?" he stutters.

The TA grins from the doorway, holding out a bottle of Coke, and looking... well, looking exactly as Sam had dreamed he would in jeans and a university hoodie. "Saw you suffering though the cage glass and decided I couldn't let that stand."

Hoping for suave, Sam instead eloquently says, "Uh."

Gabriel only grins wider, wiggling the bottle. "You need this."

Sam takes the bottle. He shuffles back a little. "You, uh... wanna come in?" Jesus. Like this is his home? Moron.

Gabriel laughs.

Sam can't do a single thing to stop his cheeks from burning red. "I mean." Someone kill him. "I'm a fucking idiot." There's no reasonable way to retreat, so he turns and shuffles back to his chair.

Gabriel laughs harder and follows him right inside like Sam being a fucking idiot is the best thing that's happened to him all day. "How long have you been here?" he asks, not unkindly. "You have that brain scrambled sound like you've been here since yesterday."

"Not if it's still Saturday," Sam grunts when he collapses back into the chair.

"It is," Gabriel confirms.

"What time is it?" Sam's phone is right there on the table, but he decides then and there that he finds the way Gabriel pushes up his sleeve and jiggles his wrist to see his watch face is far more pleasing than looking at his boring phone.

"Two and some change."

Groaning, Sam rubs his sandpapery eyes, forehead clunking down onto the wood with an impressive thunk. "I'm going to quit school and join the circus."

Gabriel plops down into the chair opposite. "Them's high school quitter's dreams right there. Think bigger, Samshine, you're pursuing higher education now."

"Your cheerful voice is super grating," Sam answers, still embarrassed, and still face down.

Gabriel snorts.

"Fine," Sam mumbles. "I'll quit school and join Cirque du Soleil."

Gabriel outright laughs. "Much bigger. Good job." He kicks his feet up on the table well out of the way of Sam's head. "So, what's giving you beef? Can I help?"

Sam props his chin on the table. "You don't have office hours on Saturday or Sunday."

"I can still be a good person," Gabriel protests, looking slightly too affronted for it to be real. "And I'm smart as hell seven days a week."

Sam smiles. "You know anything about math?" Lethargically, he pushes the textbook towards Gabriel, who slides it the rest of the way towards him.

"You aren't an engineer or something, are ya? You only do math with numbers, right?"

Pressing his cheek to the table with a grin, Sam says, "I'm pre-law."

Gabriel's nose scrunches up in a way that makes Sam's stomach flip. "Even worse. Guess there's no accounting for taste."

"I hear that a lot," Sam admits gamely. "It's good, though. Helps prepare me for the future of always being called a scumbag."

"At least you're hot," Gabriel says blithely, no longer standing on ceremony, and rifling through Sam's notebooks. He flips the pages and Sam lets him. He'd be embarrassed about it, but it's not like he's back in middle school scribbling love notes in the margins, so there shouldn't be anything incriminating in there. Maybe a swear word or two. Gabriel's confirmation is, "you really suck at taking notes."

"I can't write as fast as some of my professors talk," Sam argues.

"Laptop?"

"I remember things better when I write," Sam admits, cheeks feeling inexplicably warm. "Sorry. I'm old school."

Gabriel shakes his head. "Hey, man, if you know what works, do what works. No one gives a shit how you get the grade once it's in the books. But you could definitely use some better organizational habits. Transcribing everything the profs say ain't gonna do you any good in the end, unless you're a masochist and want carpal tunnel."

Sam perks up a little bit, first because Gabriel seems to be sincere about helping with no strings attached, and second, because his mildly authoritative voice is kinda super hot. "So, what should I do?" he ventures.

Without so much as asking permission, Gabriel grabs one of Sam's pens and unceremoniously slashes through several lines of his notes, ignoring the indignant noise he gets for his efforts. "You cut through the bullshit," Gabriel says sternly. He plops the notebook down on the table, tapping it pointedly with the pen. "You gotta learn that people with doctorates are mostly full of hot air and love to stroke their PhDicks in front of a captive audience."

Slowly smiling again, Sam counters, "I think you like to hear yourself talk, too."

"Of course I do," Gabriel scoffs. "That's why I'm in this line of work. And why I know what I'm talking about. But you gotta figure out what they're saying to make themselves sound smarter, what they're saying to make you actually smarter, and what they're saying that's good enough for you to waste your ink and paper on."

That sounds gloriously impossible. "How the hell am I supposed to tell the difference?"

Gabriel leans down to Sam's eye level, gorgeous golden eyes sparkling like he's got the secret of the ages to spill. "Easy," he murmurs from barely a breath away. "When they deign to quote someone besides themselves, that's your ticket to ride."

Sam laughs; an honest, true punch of humor that has Gabriel chuckling with him as they both lay their heads on the desk like a couple of sleep-deprived idiots. "I really wish you were the one teaching Nick's class," he blurts, infected by the nice repartee enough to be bold.

But a shadow passes over Gabriel's expression, and the TA sits up straight again, not quite scowling, though definitely not smiling anymore. "Sometimes I do, too, my man. Which reminds me... Nick asked about you."

Sam joins him in a fully sitting position again, brow furrowing. "Why? Was there something wrong with my last paper?"

"Yeah, it was too good," Gabriel answers, folding his arms over his chest. "Nick's taken a bit of a shine to you, truth be told. He wants to have a conference with you."

Sam studies him carefully, a little lost as to what he's seeing. Being in the good graces of a professor is usually an awesome place to be. But for some reason Gabriel doesn't look entirely pleased with the news. It doesn't read like his disagrees with Nick, but more like he wants to. Carefully, Sam asks, "is... that a bad thing?" He remembers how Charlie and Dorothy had talked about Nick. How he himself feels every time the professor's pale eyes light on him for even a second. The offputting condescension he so often displays. "I didn't think he'd taken a shine to anyone in the whole class," he admits.

Gabriel barks a short, humorless laugh. "Yeah, you're pretty dead-on. Nick's trying to build his ranks."

More confused by the second, Sam asks, "of who? Exhausted students? Nerdy second time sophomores?"

This time, Gabriel's laugh is slightly more genuine, which eases the constriction in Sam's chest. "Hopefuls for a comparative religions major," he clarifies. "He head hunts. He'll pitch it good enough, I suppose. Tell you the major is small, and it's a clean line to a doctorate. Easy to get into academia or even tenure somewhere. Which..." he holds a hand up. "That part's true."

Sam leans back in his chair, staring shrewdly at the TA. "There's a 'but' in there I think I'd really like to hear."

"But Nick's a great big bag of dicks."

Sam laughs hard and loudly, slapping his hand over his mouth so that he doesn't disturb anyone else who probably isn't in the library. As honest as he is unexpected, Sam finds himself liking Gabriel more and more. "No offense, but aren't like, half the teachers here like that?"

Gabriel leans back further in his chair. "Yeah, that fifty percent of all is a hundred percent of the tenured professors." His saucy, conspiratorial grin makes Sam's heart beat funny for a few seconds.

"Shouldn't I be flattered that a bigwig around here has his eye on me?"

Face scrunching again, Gabriel says at length, "usually, I'd say 'hell yeah,' without missing a beat, buuuuuuuuut..." He trails off, Sam watching him, but Gabriel just stares right back at him without continuing.

With a sigh, Sam asks, "what's your recommendation, then?"

Again acting like he doesn't want to, Gabriel offers up a, "have that conference. He won't fail you if you don't or anything, but he can make your life a lot harder if you blow him off." His eyebrows shoot up, a little of the glimmer coming back to his eyes. "In the innocent way, naturally."

Sam snorts another laugh. "Yeah, I got that. Fine, I'll do it. But your lack of enthusiasm kinda makes me nervous."

Gabriel shrugs, picking up Sam's notebook again and flipping idly through the pages. "He won't kill you and eat you, so there's that."

"Wow," Sam says flatly. "Such a vote of confidence. If you don't like him, why are you his TA? And why say I should meet with him?"

Gabriel doesn't answer, reading through the notes, small smile on his thin lips. He gets towards the end, and snaps the book closed. With a shrewd look once again, he answers, "I'm his TA because I don't want his students to give up. I happen to care about education."

Sam considers this with a mirroring smile. "That's a really attractive quality."

Gabriel's eyes skip away, face slightly pink. "Whatever," he mutters, though he sounds pleased with the compliment. "You're smart, Sam," he grins to the wall. "Like, crazy smart." He glances back at Sam, and then away, reddening further. Then back again, and it sticks. "Just. Watch yourself around him. Though... something tells me you can totally handle yourself."

"I've been known to," Sam replies smugly, confidence in response to Gabriel's obvious attracted embarrassment. "So... now that you've read my diary, you got any other pointers for my successful pursuit of education?"

Gabriel's feet smack down onto the floor and he plants both palms on the table. "Sure do, Samwise. Let's get this show on the road."

And they do. For all the joking and snark, Gabriel is wicked clever, and he's easily able to walk Sam through more efficient ways to study and take notes. He also seems to know something about everything the way that he doesn't miss a beat with advice from ethics to English. After an hour, Sam's mystified as to why Gabriel hasn't gotten more than a Master's degree.

Then he's thoroughly distracted when Gabriel pulls his chair around the table to not have to read upside down, throws on his glasses, and sits close enough for Sam to smell his cologne. This isn't the man he met at the club. Well, in some ways it is. Gabriel peeks up at him every now and then with that smirk that had caught Sam's attention for the first time. It's like the guy knows what he's doing to Sam, but is also shy about doing it. It makes Sam warm all over; more than willing to stick around for as many tastes as he can get. He hates thinking that Gabriel is wasting his entire Saturday on a second time sophomore, but he can't force himself to stop until they're at the end of the notebook and Gabriel sits back in his chair again, looking quite satisfied with himself.

Suddenly uncomfortable after prolonged comfortable, Sam also sits back and says haltingly, "um. Thanks. For all your help. You've probably saved my life and all my grades."

Gabriel waves a hand dismissively. "I know I'm not wasting my time on you, so it's all worth it."

"How can you know that?" Sam teases.

Gabriel shrugs. "How old are you, Winchester?"

"Twenty-three," Sam answers immediately, caught off guard.

Gabriel points at him. "Exactly. You're not here 'cause your folks made you be here. You're here 'cause you actually want to get this education."

"You're not wrong," Sam admits. "Took a few years off, but it was unavoidable."

"Can I ask why?"

"Sure," Sam finds himself saying to his own slight horror yet desire. "It was family stuff. Personal stuff. But it's gotten better, so here I am. Y'know. Again."

"Was it a woman?"

Sam makes an ugly sound that could have been a laugh under better circumstances. "Yeah, sorta. A woman with drugs."

Gabriel has the decency to wince. "Honestly? I can't even imagine it with you. Unless it was pot. You could use some of that with your anxiety levels."

Sam breathes out. "No." He pauses. Sighs. Gabriel isn't pushing him for details. He definitely looks non-judgmental. Like he's seen this sort of thing a thousand times. Hell, maybe he has. But the last thing that Sam wants is to be another stupid statistic in Gabriel's eyes. He doesn't want to wash away his former good impression. It's been such a long time since someone looked at him with sincere admiration devoid of pity, that he grabs it with both hands. It's such a strong urge that accompanies the even stronger crush. "I was into narcotics. School and taking care of my older brother got to be too much when I was eighteen."

His eyes widen in horror. Shit. He honestly hadn't meant to mention Dean. He'd never in his life use someone he loves to score brownie points.

Gabriel reads it and just like Sam's come to admire, brushes the comment aside. "Things are better now, I take it?"

"Yeah," Sam breathes gratefully. "We both got help and things got better. It's just him and me, so." He trails off, shrugging expansively.

Gabriel's hazel eyes soften with something that Sam won't dare call affection, though he wants to. "Suppose I'm not the first person to call you hella brave, but I think you are, Sam. People who do what you do will always find the right way to get the things they need out of life."

"I'm not sure I believe that, but it's nice to hear," Sam smiles.

"You can," Gabriel assures him confidently, "because I'm always right."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Gabriel thinks about Sam Winchester for the rest of the day. He really shouldn't have gone in there. Well, he should have gone in there. But he shouldn't have stayed in there for so long. It had only been a fluke that he'd been on campus on a Saturday, anyway. Just a quick stop to pick up the folder of graded papers he'd left in the library the day before. Then he'd strolled by the private study rooms and seen Sam Winchester bent over his books with a look on his face like he was holding back a nasty fart. Brilliant nerd extraordinaire, and absolutely unaware that he's fucking catnip. Kind, dedicated, hard working, honest, playful, whip-smart, a smile to light the whole room, and good goddamn so tall. It's rapidly becoming Gabriel's only wish in the world to climb that guy all the way to the top.

Then again, he gets this oddly horny/protective streak around Sam, too. On the surface, Sam seems like the consummate sheltered middle-class white dude. Gabriel should know better than to stereotype - and he usually does - but Sam looks kinda.... textbook. Floppy hair, innocuous clothes, the whole "blend in without a worry" vibe. The total opposite personality of a future lawyer, truth be told.

And Gabriel is becoming addicted. With rapidity. Maybe a poor choice of words considering Sam's past.

It's still true, though. He needs to talk to someone about this. So he departs campus and goes to the only place he's ever received any worthwhile advice.

"Go away," Castiel's voice says from behind the door of his apartment.

Not the welcome he'd been hoping for. Gabriel knocks again, harder, and clucks his tongue in disapproval as he tries to remember if he'd done anything to Castiel to piss him off either today, or badly enough for him to hold a grudge for a few days. "I come in peace, I promise," he calls out. "Need someone to talk to about my love life, that's it!"

"As much as I would adore that," Castiel answers dryly, "not today. I'm... unwell."

Which sets off all the bells and whistles. "You called out of work?"

"Yes. I cancelled my business trip."

"Open the door," he demands.

"No," Castiel answers. That's followed by an alarming amount of coughing.

Rolling his eyes, Gabriel digs his key ring out of his pocket and uses the spare key to open the door. He pushes it open and Castiel stumbles back, affronted, but also red of nose, wild of hair, and blanket burrito-d of body. "I swear to God, Cas," he admonishes. "Go get horizontal somewhere. Bed or couch?"

"Gabriel, please, I--"

"Bed or couch?"

Wordlessly, though with a glassy-eyed death stare, Castiel shuffles to the couch and falls sideways onto it.

Planting his hands on his hips, Gabriel asks, "symptoms?"

Castiel purses his cracked lips in an impressive glower. "You quit medical sch--"

"--symptoms!"

"Everything hurts, high fever, and I'm coughing and sneezing a lot."

Gabriel nods shrewdly. "Sudden or gradual onset?"

"Sudden," Castiel groans. Now that he's lying down he appears disinclined to move ever again, so he curls his feet up under the blanket and wiggles around until he's comfortable. "Hit me all at once when I was getting ready for bed last night."

"Explains why you've been a little rundown for a few days," Gabriel adds, softening. "Dollars to donuts it's the flu. Do you have anything to take for it?"

Castiel coughs again, burrowing until his head is barely visible. "Tea. Eucalyptus oil to put in the humidifier in my room."

Gabriel comes in front of the couch so that Castiel can fully appreciate how stern he's looking for the moment. "Are you trying to kill yourself? Did your date go that badly?"

Castiel moans piteously and curls into himself further. "I need a fever reducer. Something for the body aches." His pleading, red-rimmed eyes move up to meet Gabriel's. "The date was amazing. I need to live. Gabriel, please don't let me die."

"Fine," he huffs like he wasn't going to save his best friend's life, anyway. "I'm going to go to the pharmacy and stock up your medicine cabinet. And your fridge. Take everything I get for you, and at the very least, stay hydrated."

"You're an angel among men," Castiel rasps before falling into another painful coughing fit.

"Don't I know it," Gabriel sighs. "Okay, I'll be back. Get some sleep if you can."

And that's how he magically finds himself being a good person for the second time on a Saturday afternoon, schlepping shopping bags full of the stuff of life up to Castiel's apartment so that his hippie tendencies don't drop him dead. At least he's migrated away from the couch by the time Gabriel is back and Lysoling literally every surface as he goes through the apartment to put the food away and bring the medications to the bedroom.

It's almost overly humid and decidedly eucalyptus-y. He doesn't spot the patient for a moment, until the lump under three blankets moves slightly and groans pathetically.

Gabriel shakes the plastic bag. "Meds. Lunch of champions. Come on, sit up and take 'em."

Castiel refuses for all of ten seconds before a nasty hacking cough drives him to a doubled over sitting position. After he's finished, he holds his hand out weakly for the bag. Gabriel hooks it over his wrist. "Thank you," he croaks, voice completely gone.

"That's what you get for for making out on the first date," Gabriel teases, though not completely without sympathy. "You really look like shit. You sure I shouldn't take you to an urgent care?"

Moodily, Castiel rips at the packaging of the digital thermometer. "Let's see." He finally gets it open, tosses the packaging over his shoulder, and shoves it in his mouth. It beeps a minute later and he pulls it out. With the tiniest of smiles he says, "103. Brain's not boiling yet. I think I can stay here for now."

"Will wonders never cease," Gabriel deadpans. He helps unbox the Ibuprofen and cold medicine. "I can call in a favor and get you a prescription."

"I should be fine with this," Castiel says. "I rarely need to take medicine, so I'm sure this will work wonderfully."

Risking further infection, but unwilling to abandon his friend, Gabriel plops down on the edge of the bed as far away from the germs as he can get. "You're shit at taking care of yourself."

Castiel squints at the back of the packages, reading and rereading the directions. "I know," he says distractedly.

"I mean it, I worry about you," Gabriel whines. "Look, you can't always put everyone else before yourself. Sometimes you gotta sit back and be selfish."

"I wasn't made that way," Castiel answers, carefully measuring out the proper dosage of the liquid cold and flu medicine, downing it like the grossest tasting shot ever. "It's just the flu."

With irritated air quotes, Gabriel counters, "'just the flu' kills thousands of people every year in this country alone. It's not something to joke about."

The fever reducers go down the hatch next. "I know. I apologize. I just." He bends forward again, scrubbing wearily at his face. "I feel awful. I feel sicker than I ever have in my entire life."

"Lucky for you," Gabriel murmurs. "I can stay."

Castiel gives him a wretched look. "No. Don't get sick yourself."

"I got a flu shot," Gabriel shrugs.

"I did, too," Castiel smiles again. "I'll be fine, Gabriel. I promise. If I'm not, I'll call."

"Answer all my texts," Gabriel demands, giving in and standing up. "I'm gonna text a lot."

Castiel falls back into the pillows again. "I promise. Thank you."

"Anything for you," Gabriel says sincerely. "Get well soon."

Then he's finally on his way home. Immediately, he strips off his clothes, tosses them into the washing machine, and jumps into the shower. It probably won't do much good after the germ soup he'd sloughed through to take care of Castiel, but in the end, he considers it a small price to pay to make sure that the people he loves are taken care of when they won't take care of themselves. The list is too damn short these days. He'll do anything for the ones he's got left.

Chapter Text

Castiel doesn't answer his texts over the weekend, but Dean hadn't expected him to. And when his "maybe I dreamed the whole date" anxiety starts to settle in enough that he calls anyway, Castiel's phone is off along with a voicemail message.

Hello, this is Castiel Novak. I'm away on business at the moment. Please leave a message and I will return your call on Monday evening after end of business. I will be back at the cafe on Monday, but if you need immediate assistance, please ask for Hannah at 470-555-

Dean hangs up the phone and shakes his head. Monday. He can wait until Monday to make sure that he hadn't just dreamed it all up.

Waiting is hard, though. Incredibly so. Sam's already cleaned the house from top to bottom minus Dean's spaces as always, so he dives into that. Even the baseboards in his room get dusted and cleaned by the time Sunday rolls around. Sam says nothing about it, letting Dean do his thing since the rituals aren't exactly out of control. In fact, he's way too busy with his homework and complaining about his homework and getting headaches over his homework to make a fuss about anything besides fucking homework.

Sunday night Dean's downright jittery. He goes to the living room and shoves the coffee table aside, yanking down all the DVD's and Blu-Ray's from the bookshelf next to the TV, piles them on the floor, and sorts them in stacks by genre, then by title. It doesn't necessarily soothe him, but it passes the time well enough, and he does feel something distinctly like relief once everything's back on the shelf in an arrangement other than purchase order.

Then it's to the garage; the only other space that Sam doesn't ever touch. Summer and Fall are officially over, so he's free to tackle the dust and cobwebs from every corner of the space. Which he does with enthusiasm. Sometimes physical distraction is better than mental distraction. It's why he details Baby every week, though it's starting to get too cold to do it comfortably. He'd bitched to Jody about his freezing hands washing the car in January, even wearing gloves, which had been a mistake. She'd slyly suggested it be the next compulsion they try and break since the weather was about to be perfect for it.

He reluctantly adds it to his mental checklist. And he quickly realizes that it's not totally for him. It's for Castiel. One date. They've had a single date, nothing more. And yet... he's in there. He's starting to burrow in there, and Dean wants to try to do right by him. He doesn't know if he can, but he wants to keep trying. Stretch further. He's not sure that he's ready. Terrified of the urge to want to stretch his boundaries without prodding, and sometimes blackmail, in the first place.

He can't stop himself from finishing the task he's started in the garage, but his lack of patience is taking root with his idea, and has him almost easily resisting the compulsion to reorganize all of his work spaces for now. He brushes his hands off vigorously on his jeans and scrambles back inside. Sam isn't immediately visible downstairs, and Dean can't hear anything else over the pounding of blood in his ears, so he rushes upstairs and slams open the bathroom door. "Sam!" he shouts.

There's a yelp, a thud, and Sam's soapy head thrusting out from behind the shower curtain. "What the hell, Dean?!" he demands, eyes wide. "You almost scared me into breaking my damn neck!"

"Whatever," Dean shakes his head roughly. "Sammy, what happens when I push myself?"

Sam blinks. Then curses a blue streak and disappears. "Ow, fucking soap in my eyes! Dean, can we please have this conversation when I'm clothed?"

"Sam!" Dean barely stops himself from yelling.

Even over the water, he can hear his brother's sigh. "I dunno, Dean," he answers as though he's somehow rehearsed a sort of speech. "Sometimes it's smooth sailing, and sometimes you regress and then get better after. It's like it always is. Some of the time it's a leap forward, and other times it's one step forward, two steps back for a few days, but it's always progress in the end."

Dean listens desperately to all of it, even though it wasn't exactly what he was going for. That only makes his chest tighten further, despite verbal confirmation of his healing process.

"What happens to you when I push myself?" Dean says more urgently.

Silence from behind the curtain save for a few more thuds and then the water shuts off. Sam's face appears again, eyes red from the shampoo abuse, and he holds his hand out. Dean snatches his towel off of the rack and passes it over impatiently. "Are you having a panic attack?" Sam asks calmly, wrapping the towel around his waist.

"No," Dean answers, voice vibrating with the effort to keep it from becoming a lie. "Not yet. Just answer the question."

Sam scowls.

"Please," Dean bites.

"Why are you asking me this?" Sam demands, and Dean could scream at the recalcitrance.

"'Cause I need to know." Why, he can't explain and frankly doesn't have the mental fortitude to unpack for the moment. Maybe Sam's onto something with the panic attack. He knows he's being irrational, and pissing his brother off isn't the right tactic. Worrying him too much sucks, too, because then he goes into caretaker mode, which also isn't what Dean wants right now.

Too bad he's already stepped in it.

Sam plants his hands on his hips and gets this look on his face that is Profoundly John Winchester for as much as he inherited more of Mary's features. "Dude, you need to give me something here because breaking our privacy rules is only for emergencies. Is this an emergency?"

"Yes," Dean says. "No. I dunno. It's just important."

"Then you can give me a damn minute," Sam mumbles, shuffling across the hall to his bedroom and shutting the door in Dean's face when he tries to follow there, too.

Dean stands in front of it belligerently. He clenches his hands at his sides, balls his fists, nails digging into his palms. Now is not the time to be irrational. It only makes Sam call a timeout for Dean to get himself back in control before going any further. It makes him feel pretty shitty to do this to Sam constantly, but long ago they'd realized - with the help of Donna - that the only thing they accomplished when Dean gets too flustered is wasting hours of time that don't need to be. God, he's an asshole. Running in on Sam in one of the two places he's allowed to be alone at any time, for any reason, without question, allowing Dean in by invite only.

Frankly, Sam's much better at respecting that rule than Dean is, despite Dean himself being the whole damn reason for the necessity of it in the first place. When he'd first started working with Jody on getting himself out into the real world again, she'd had a meeting at the house with both the residents, given the tour of every inch of the property by Dean, and noted where his compulsions got the better of him.

Sam had trailed with them the entire time and when Jody had asked Sam what he hoped could be accomplished with the occupational therapy, Sam had surprised everyone - including himself - by saying that he hoped one day Dean would be able to let him have his own private space again to do with and organize as he pleased.

Dean hadn't even realized that when he went on a binge cleaning and decluttering the place, that he'd even move around stuff in Sam's room and bathroom. Just because his OCD had told him "it didn't belong there." Even if it was Sam's. Even if he didn't have any right to touch it or decide where it belonged.

They'd managed to get there, but it had taken a lot of work. Namely, Sam putting locks on his bedroom and bathroom and carrying around the only set of keys so that Dean couldn't break in whenever he wanted and let his rituals destroy Sam's living space.

For a while it had been fucking miserable. Every time Dean had walked by the closed doors, all he could do was imagine what sort of mess was behind them. What if Sam didn't take out his trash regularly? What if he left dirty clothes and towels on the floor in the bathroom? What if he didn't vacuum or clean up his messes? What if he took food in there?

For the first two weeks, Jody, Donna, and Sam had let Dean freak out, as they'd all agreed. He'd hit the gold medal of panic attacks in the first week, then shut himself into his own room fairly comatose until Sam had come in on laundry day to collect the sheets and clothes.

And fucking up the chore schedule suddenly became a worse prospect than his festering mental state, so Dean had gone to wash away four days of panic sweats and Sam had removed the evidence of them. After that, it started to settle.

To be fair, on the whole, Sam doesn't mind his private space being respectfully invaded. If Dean knocks and then doesn't touch a single thing, he's allowed in the room. However, when Sam opens his bedroom door this time, fully dressed, he blocks the entire entryway with a wary look. "The rules are still important," he says gentle, but stern.

"Yeah, I know," Dean sighs. "Look, man, I'm sorry I busted in. Strike one is all I get."

Sam glances pointedly down at Dean's fidgeting hands. "Let's get to neutral ground," he suggests.

Immediately, Dean swings around to go back downstairs, but he can't stop himself from at least starting the conversation. He repeats his question from before. "What happens to you when I push myself?"

Sam follows behind, thoughtful for a moment, but thankfully not long enough for Dean to get worked up again. "Do you mean when you push yourself and things get a little worse for a while, or when you do and they get better? Are we talking your first day back working for Bobby, or your date with Castiel scale?"

Excellent question and worth the wait since it helps the neurons balance again. "Both, I guess. Start with the bad news first."

He can hear Sam smiling when he talks from behind him as they make their way into the living room. "It was tough. I'll preface that by saying my memory of it is probably pretty skewed because that was the first major OT thing you did, right? It was rough all around." He throws himself into the armchair next to the fireplace, draping his long legs over the arm, and kicks his foot up to the switch on the wall that turns the gas starter on. The fire thumps to life, and gives Dean something calming to look at instead of the person he's forcing himself to have an incredibly uncomfortable conversation with presently.

"It's a starting place," he admits. "How was it?"

Sam slouches further sideways, eyes also towards the fire, though unfocused. "It sucked." He laughs a little, startled slightly by the memory. "I sat right here, in fact. In this chair all day with the fire going just like now. My mind was just... a mess." He pushes his hands into his hair. "I had to physically put my cell phone upstairs in my desk so I wouldn't have the urge to call every thirty seconds to make sure you were doing all right, even though we'd agreed to hourly check ins. I..." his expression falls, lips pulling down, and he looks directly at his brother. "I kept waiting for Bobby to call and tell me you couldn't handle it, and that felt like shit. I felt sick all day. Worse when I realized how I was treating you."

"You wouldn't have been wrong," Dean says softly. "My whole medical history just backed up your story. But... is it like that now?"

"Not all the time," Sam shakes his head. "Not even usually. Every now and then... well, like when you went out with Castiel, I... yeah I had a lot of anxiety about that, but it wasn't nearly as bad as before. You've got a great recovery track record, Dean. Are you suddenly doubting that?"

"I don't wanna, but I am," Dean confirms. "It's just..." he shrugs expansively. "That date was awesome. Cas is awesome. Being around him is awesome. But if I keep on doing this with him, he's gonna find out. He's gonna be in the same position that you are. And I'm not sure it's worth it just for a boyfriend."

Sam scowls. One of the hard ones that tells Dean he's making a very detailed mental bullet list of Why Dean Winchester Is Fucking Wrong. His face morphs through so many of the points and their associated emotions that Dean gives up trying to read them. "Nothing about you is an imposition to the people who care about you," he says bluntly. "No meaningful relationships are easy all the time. Everyone has something that they worry about someone else not wanting to sign up for."

Dean's gaze slides back to the fire, intent. "You sound like Donna."

"She told me something similar," Sam confirms. "And it's really true."

"Look, this isn't some weird quirk like chewing with my mouth open or always having to sleep with a fan on or something. OCD is..." Sam knows what it is. "My OCD is something else entirely."

"Sure it is," Sam says, "but you're not at a place anymore where it's the only thing about you, right? It's not a hundred percent of your mind and functional life. You're not fighting it all the time. I mean... are you?"

It probably shouldn't be such a shock to hear it so plainly, but for some reason, Dean's struck with the lightning bolt of clarity. "It's not," he says wonderingly. "There was this moment." His eyes unfocus, going back to the kitchen at Espresso Lane. When he and Castiel had been about to leave, and Dean had offered his arm, and Castiel had taken it. There hadn't been so much as a split second of anxiety about touching, or germs, or what would happen next. "Cas stood right up next to me and we were touching."

Sam's eyes practically bug out of his head. Also understandable because he and Dean have only touched when Sam needed to help Dean bandage his hands, and only then after washing his own thoroughly in front of him. "Really?"

"Yeah. Not skin to skin. We had our coats on, but I wouldn't have been able to do even that much a few months ago."

"So, I'm right," Sam says, trying and failing not to sound smug.

"Shut up," Dean agrees.

Sam grins.

"I just hope I'm really ready," Dean continues finally. "I hope Cas is worth the try. That I'm worth the try. Maybe it won't work out, but I want it to be worth the try."

"It will be if you let it," Sam assures him. "Everything will be. Are you gonna tell him at some point?"

Nodding, Dean says slowly, "I'm letting it ride for now." At Sam's cautious look, he rushes to add, "only for another date or two. Just until I know for sure if I want to keep seeing him."

Sam's silent for a minute, looking like he's about to say something either profound or something to annoy Dean, but then his expression clears and he sucks in a deep breath and lets it out like his whole body is shrugging. "I think that's reasonable." And then miracle of miracles, leaves it at that.

"Thanks, Sammy. And. Y'know. Sorry."

"We're allowed fuck-ups," Sam answers with a smile. "I've had plenty of my own. Just. Seriously, dude. Shower."

Dean chuckles. "For what it's worth, I probably was about to have a panic attack."

"I get that. I'm glad I could help, for real."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

At least the rest of the weekend doesn't drag its ass, and Monday swings around quickly. For the first time in a long time, Dean actually almost forgoes some of his weekday rituals to get out the door faster and to the cafe to see Castiel.

Who isn't there when he arrives. There's a cheerful girl behind the counter whose smile makes Dean vaguely nauseous. But he still approaches the counter slowly and forces himself to say, "hey, is Cas here?"

Her smile falters a little bit, more towards the professional side than truly friendly like it had been a second ago. "I'm so sorry, but he's off today."

"Why?" Dean demands, not at all meaning to sound as harsh as he does.

She takes a half step back, glancing over her shoulder towards a coworker who Dean recognizes and thinks his name is... Roy? No. Benny. Where the hell did Roy come from? "Sorry, I'm not really allowed to give out personal information about employees."

Dean's about to drop to his knees begging since Castiel wouldn't miss a single day at his cafe unless he was dead. Or worse. He doesn't even get the chance to open his mouth before none other than Gabriel waltzes out of the kitchen. Literally. The man waltzes with two large bags of unground coffee beans as his partner.

"Dean!" He sing-songs. "Short time no see. Looking for Cas?"

"Yeah," Dean answers, frowning at the last person in the world he wants to see, though if the guy's willing to give him some answers, he'll deal with the shitty personality.

"No can do on that front today," Gabriel says with the worst act of false sincerity ever. "Our good buddy's been down with the flu since Friday. I'm picking up some slack here in his stead."

An internal sound like a record scratching screeches in Dean's brain. The flu? Since Friday? As in, the very same Friday they had their date? The very same day that Dean had touched Castiel and sat beside him in the enclosed space of his car breathing the same recycled air with the windows up? His knees are in immediate danger of giving out.

"You don't look so good, pal," Gabriel says, actually sounding really concerned. "Cas is gonna be right as rain in a few days. I've been taking care of him. He's been checking in and everything. Bit of a baby about the whole thing, if you ask me."

Dean shakes his head, afraid that if he tries to speak, he'll either just scream or barf.

"I, um... look, if you're really that worried, you can go up and see him? I mean, infection risk and all, but I've been making sure that the place is clean as it can get."

"That's..." Dean's heart is pounding so hard behind his ribs that he thinks a panic attack is imminent. Heart attack to follow shortly thereafter.

Gabriel's eyebrows pull down further. "I mean, if you wanna know the truth, the flu virus is actually a fairly wimpy disease. Dies easily on surfaces. As long as you don't let him sneeze right on you, you stand a chance of not catching it."

Dean turns around and gets out of the cafe like he's gunning for first place in the hundred yard dash.

His fingers and toes are already starting to tingle by the time he makes it to the car, a sure indication that he has minutes until all the bad things happen. He lives too far away to make it home, but right now, that's the only place he can be. He prays there aren't any cops or speed traps around.

There aren't. He drives like a bat out of Hell; as carefully as he can, but also thankful that there's barely any traffic to speak of. He knows he shouldn't drive even at the very beginning of a panic attack, but he's got no time. Less than no time. Sam wouldn't get there in time and Dean was the fucking idiot who forgot to pocket his meds before leaving the house because he'd been excited to get to the cafe and see Castiel. It was supposed to have been one of the first good days in an age.

He's home barely in time. Doesn't bother to wait for the garage door to open all the way to pull the Impala inside. Instead he throws it into park, yanks the keys out of the ignition, and then dives under the opening door in a clumsy crouch. The tingling is getting worse and his whole body is starting to shake. He yanks the inside door open, sprints up the stairs, and makes it to his bathroom just in time to say goodbye to his breakfast. At least it wasn't much.

Then he's on the cold tiles, sucking in deep, fetid breaths, tears streaking his face, legs and arms completely useless. His Xanax is in the bedroom.

Looks like he'll have to ride this one out the old fashioned way. Fuck everything. For two minutes he allows himself to let the worst of it wash over him in waves of hot and cold flashes. Lets the trembling and sweating overtake him.

Then he starts to pull himself together. He can't just sit on the floor all day without someone noticing and coming to make an even bigger deal out of it. His stomach refuses to settle completely, so he starts by flushing the toilet, putting the lid down, and resting his forehead against it, praising his cleaning streak over the weekend so he's not risking even more germs.

Deep breaths. Clear the mind. Focus on just the breathing.

Holy shit, I'm gonna be late to work. Sam's gonna text a check in in like, an hour, and I won't be able to answer it. Bobby's gonna get swamped at the garage, and I'll have to pull later hours the rest of the week to make up for it. Cas is sick, so I might get sick, and there'll be germs all over the house. I might have the flu now. Sam might have been exposed. Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Stop.

This isn't helping. This never helps. This is the worst thing that he can be doing. He has to stop the spiraling thoughts.

Forget about the time. Forget about clocks. Forget about what you should be doing, and focus on what you need to be doing.

He needs to be able to breathe finally and get his ass up to his medication. He can do that. It's not much. He can do that much. It feels like ten years before he can get himself moving again, but he does. Slowly, so as not to upset the delicate balance he's managed. Brushes his teeth thoroughly and throws the toothbrush away afterwards. He's got extras.

He shuffles through the adjoining door to his bedroom and wastes no time settling into his bed. Then he pops a full dose of Xanax, sucks in a small breath, and then digs out his phone to text both Sam and Bobby. SOS pa +5. alone. He's glad for the shorthand he and Jody had worked up together for quick messages to loved ones when he didn't have it within him to do more.

"SOS" has always been a full scale cancellation of any plans on the schedule, no matter what they are. No negotiations. Then the abbreviation for the reason, this one being a panic attack. Finally, a standard 1-10 suffering scale, and whether or not he needs help.

It's worked out beautifully thus far, though for a long time, Sam couldn't bring himself to adhere to the request for alone time or company, and would haul ass back home with a quickness.

The replies from Bobby and Sam come only seconds later, both with an iteration of "let us know if you need anything."

Satisfied that the immediate problems are solved, he drags the comforter over his shoulders, closes his eyes, and waits for sleep to take him. It's blessedly not long in coming.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Much to Castiel's chagrin, Gabriel is intent on being a do-gooder while Castiel fights off the worst sickness he's ever had. He pops in to steal the store keys early in the morning to open, then he comes back at lunch with mild soup, and at the end of the day, he looks ready to settle in, complete with surgical mask and gloves. Those come off with alacrity after several minutes of Castiel not falling into fits of coughing and sneezing all over him. But after three days of languishing in bed with his medications, Castiel is now at least coherent enough to be annoyed by Gabriel since he's no longer completely out of his mind with fever. Though he does freely admit that he'd rather be doing anything else other than having to process word-sounds and make his own word-sounds in return. One of the medications makes him groggy, and coupled with the fatigue, the most he can manage is hoarse one-liners as he sips his ginger tea with lemon, until Gabriel touches on a subject that had horrifically been forgotten during the worst of the death throes.

"Your knight showed up today," Gabriel says.

Castiel coughs lightly while planting his nose and mouth over his mug to breathe in the steam. "Who?"

"The Americano freak!"

Castiel's brow furrows. "Are you talking about Meg? She's kinky, sure, but I wouldn't call her a freak--"

"No," Gabriel huffs. "Your paramour, dumbass. Orders the same thing every day? Drives a real piece of compensating-for-something? Ringing any bells here, or were his green eyes that forgettable after a single, torrid night?"

"Dean's not a freak, either," Castiel says sourly. "Don't be rude."

Gabriel snorts. "You know what I'm talking about."

More perturbed by the second, Castiel says, "I swear to God, Gabriel, if you can't keep a civil tongue in your head, I will lick your face and infect you with this flu. The doctor assured me that I'm less contagious now, but that's just quitter's talk."

Gabriel holds both hands up in defense. "Sorry, Cassie. After all these years, I'm still not cured of being a dick. I didn't mean to rain on your sexy parade, but Dean-o did freak out when you weren't there."

"Did something happen?" Castiel demands impatiently. He hates it when Gabriel decides to use his dramatic flair to keep the important plot points in the dark. If something serious happened in his store, he needs to know about it.

"Sort of," Gabriel admits. "He came in as usual, and you weren't there." He shrugs like that's all he needs to say on the matter.

"So what?" Castiel asks.

Gabriel's face screws up into an uncomfortable pinch. "So, he asked for you like he always does when you're not right there, and I told him you were out with the flu, and would remain out until you were better enough that you wouldn't spread your plague around."

"Thanks," Castiel says dryly.

"I'm tellin' ya, Cassie," Gabriel continues like he hadn't even heard his friend. "Dude looked like like he was about to pass out and then he straight up ran right out the door like someone had set his pert ass on fire."

As much as Castiel is feeling more and more like he should lick Gabriel's face now just on principle, he's more intrigued with Dean's attitude. Unless the melodrama is the usual. "Please stop being yourself for a few minutes, and tell me what really happened," he rasps wearily.

Gabriel doesn't bother to look affronted at having his MO called out. "I'm serious. That's literally what happened. I'd have thought he just didn't like me, but he was more scowly until I told him what was up. Then he just... he fucking fled. Ask anyone. I'm not overselling this time."

If it's true, it is... strange. Something to think about. Dean's always ordering the same drink, except twice. Always having Castiel make it. Always making it the exact same way. Always looking so uncomfortable walking in until he spots Castiel himself, waiting and ready to take over his order.

On the surface, Castiel's first impression had been that Dean was just picky. Many people start their days the exact same way or else they feel slightly off. And he'd also been under the impression that he wanted Castiel to make his drinks because it gave them a few seconds to... not flirt, not until recently, but... talk. He thought they'd both been feeling out a crush.

However, such a severe reaction to simply hearing about illness... that could be something else entirely. "Thank you for telling me," he says softly.

Of course, Gabriel always picks the worst moments to be a dog with a bone. "Is there something up with him? I mean, seriously up with him? You didn't get yourself into a bad spot, did you?"

Thankfully, Castiel has just enough energy to become offended on Dean's behalf. "Not even slightly," he grates, glaring at Gabriel. "I told you, there's nothing wrong with Dean. I'd thank you to not make assumptions, or at the very least, trust my judgement."

"I'm looking out for you," Gabriel frowns back. "Need I remind you that you yourself asked me to be the one to keep my eyes open on your behalf in these situations? Hostility ain't gonna make me back off when I see something squirrelly."

Castiel sighs, the sound rattling in his chest. He had asked that of Gabriel once upon a time when he'd been a few years younger, just free of Amelia, and a hell of a lot more willing to throw himself back into the romantic deep end. It had caused plenty of problems.

He knows he's not the best at being objective. Especially when his emotions run hot, like they're starting to for Dean. He wishes he could be calmer; see things he misses when he decides to fall in love. Or think he's falling in love. "You're right. And I did ask you to help me out when necessary, it's just..." he sips at his tea. Thinks about it for another minute. "I don't think I'm making a mountain out of a molehill here. Dean Winchester is special. There's no harm in liking him."

"Winchester?" Gabriel queries, oddly interested even by his standards. "He got a brother?"

"He mentioned one briefly," Castiel says slowly.

"Huh," Gabriel says. Then he stops asking questions and leaves Castiel with moderate trepidation.

As soon as he leaves, Castiel shuffles back to his room and grabs for his cell phone. He checks it and finds nothing from Dean. He dithers between wanting to ask about what happened this morning, and not wanting to cause any further issues.

Cas (5:14 PM):
I'm sorry I missed you at the cafe today. I've been sick.

He sits against his pillows staring at his phone, swiping the screen every time it blanks out. Ten minutes later, there's a ping.

Dean (5:25 PM):
No worries! Happens to the best of us. You okay? Need anything?

Castiel considers the message. It sounds perfectly normal.

Cas (5:26 PM):
I'm getting better, thank you. Gabriel's set me up with everything I need. I need to sleep some more, but I wanted to check in. Make sure that you didn't think I was ignoring you.

Dean (5:27 PM):
Get all the sleep you need. I'll be here when you're back to fighting form.

Castiel smiles.

Cas (5:27 PM):
Thank you, Dean.

Dean (5:27 PM):
NP. Talk soon.

Chapter Text

On his way home that night, Gabriel kinda sorta begins to starting hoping he catches the flu. For penance. He'd just laid into his flu-ridden best friend about the brother of the guy he's got a crush on. Man, what a freaking idiot. Castiel had forgiven him. And years ago, he had made Gabriel promise to help keep his head on straight just in case he tried to ruin himself over love again. It had been a shitshow once upon a time. No one at this point can deny that, or will even try. But he could have been nicer about it. Why the hell is Gabriel so damn bad at being nice? Doing nice is nothing. He can do nice things all day. He has done that all day just recently. But, damn he's a shithead sometimes.

Not like that'll stop him from being protective, because nothing on this Earth can stop that when he's set his mind to it. Castiel and he may not be blood, but they're better than that. He's called the guy his brother since they were wore Underoos, and he ain't gonna stop now.

Still, after all this time he should have picked up one or two better parts of Castiel's personality. Like being non-judgmental. How is he supposed to do that?

He stops by the grocery store on his way home, storming through the doors and heading straight for the bakery. Score! They have the 24 packs of soft baked chocolate chip cookies. And blueberry muffins with crystallized sugar on top. And chocolate croissants. Eh. Never mind those, he needs something else not chocolate. Strawberry bear claws. That's more like it.

Ugh, stress eating. This is what he's been reduced to. Damn Castiel and his trust in all things from sting-y bees to weirdos who order boring coffee every day for their whole lives. Damn himself for being such a soft nougat soul encased in a jawbreaker-hard shell. Damn Dean Winchester for being so hot and probably good for Castiel on just enough levels to be bad for him later. Damn Sam Winchester for being... He cuts that thought off, chomping down on a bear claw while stomping back to the checkout line.

Sam Winchester is the crux of the whole fucking thing. Can anyone besides God appreciate how much His son Gabriel struggled not to jump over the freaking study table and maul that nerdy Boy Scout until they both were sated for life? No. No, of course no one could appreciate it.

Not like he hadn't spent a pretty decent amount of time throwing the poor kid into the maw of Nick the Dick. That absolute broken crayon had been as pleased as a pig in shit to hear that Sam had scheduled a meeting with him. Gabriel shudders as he pulls out his wallet and angrily pays for his sweets.

Being selfish got you jack with a side of squat back in the day, he reminds himself as he powers out of the store. Remember that.

But, oh, the sweet high of getting what he wanted when he wanted it. Too bad Castiel had crashed back into his life and shown him how much brief happiness sucked compared to delayed dividends. It would have been nicer if he'd been wrong.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, Sam doesn't think he has permanent anxiety. There are things that give him anxiety, and a lot of it revolves around... well, his whole life right now. Home, school, everything. All the things on the daily. It's hard working back to happy. He'd feel awful for complaining a single iota compared to what Dean's been dealing with, but they both kind of grabbed the Gold for self-sabotage back in the day, and now they're both clawing their way back up. No one said it would be easy, but it'd be nice if it wasn't always so hard, too.

He needs to get out more. Charlie keeps saying so.

Wow, that gives him anxiety, too. It's too much to think about all too soon. There's enough on his plate. All he needs to do is plug away, work on it slow and steady, and not have a stress-induced heart attack before graduation. Even with a scholarship, education is expensive. He can't waste all that money by dying before he gets his degree. Things will calm down. Things will even out. He'll get there. He just has to keep moving forward and grow accustomed to the new normal. It'll happen. It always does. Then it'll be better.

But for now? He's wiping his sweating hand on his jeans and clenching his messenger bag strap in a white-knuckled grip before knocking politely on Dr. Pellegrino's office door.

"Come in!"

It's strange how he can sound both cheerful and condescending at the same time, Sam vaguely thinks as he opens the door and steps into the cold office.

Like most of the rooms on the old part of campus, the office is small, mostly dark stained wood, old hardwood floors, and an ancient radiator under the window that probably only works thirty percent of the time. It's amazing that tenured professors actually have incredibly heated arguments with the board to get housed here. The newer buildings are all more spacious and comfortable, but apparently scholarship aesthetic is most important to people with a lot of letters after their names.

"Sam Winchester!" Nick enthuses, standing up from behind his overflowing desk and stepping around it to hold out his hand. "In the flesh and everything; welcome to my humble space of learning! It's a pleasure to have you!"

Sam shakes it with an uneasy smile. Nick's hand is ice cold. "Hi, Dr. Pellegrino. Thanks for making the time to see me."

Nick shrugs and gestures for Sam to sit as he shimmies back into his ostentatious dark red, high-backed leather desk chair. He crosses his ankle over his knee and steeples his hands. "Call me Nick," he says. "And I should be thanking you for making the time, Sammy. I've had my eye on you the past month, and I gotta say... I'm impressed with what I see."

Sam's not sure if it's really a compliment when it sounds kind of like an insult. And he definitely doesn't like the way that his nickname sounds right now. "Thanks," he says again. "Gabe... um... Mr. Milton said that you wanted to talk about my... I guess... my studies or something?"

Nick laughs, though it's on the rude side of how laughs usually go. "Milton's a bit of a character. Don't hold it against him. He's right, though. So!" He slaps his knees for emphasis. "What are your future plans, Sam Winchester? I know you've got 'em, so don't be coy." He leans forward over the desk, expression open, but his ice blue eyes bore into Sam in such a way that makes him recall Gabriel's flippant remark. "He won't kill you and eat you."

But he does look... hungry. Hungry in a way that makes Sam lean back in his chair slightly, anxiety welling up again to flutter in his chest. So as vague as he can be without outright lying, Sam hedges, "right now I'm just trying to get back into the swing of being a full time student. I elected pre-law as a major, but for now, I'm focusing on getting my core classes done and focusing on that is my goal. At... present." He trails off lamely, unnerved by Nick's unwavering assessment.

Nick arches an eyebrow, clearly skeptical and Sam feels the distinct impression that the man knows exactly what Sam's trying to do. He braces for the hard questions, taken aback when Nick simply asks, “what kinda law are you most interested in?"

Well, that's easy, and it also feels like a trap, though Sam can't for the life of him see it coming. "I'm not totally sure yet," he admits, "but I've always been interested in human rights laws and things like that."

"Won't pay much," Nick muses.

Hackles rising, Sam does his best to keep his expression neutral. "Money can't buy happiness."

Nick shows his teeth in a biting grin. "Yeah, but it can sure buy the things that do make us happy. Anyway, let's talk about religion."

His knee jerk response is to say, "let's not," but the retort stays where it ought to. Still, a tiny bit of defiant sass can't help but ask, "why? Am I doing more poorly in your class than I thought?"

"Psh," Nick waves his hand dismissively. "You're a star, champ. That's why I want you on my team."

So Gabriel really had been telling the truth about the head hunting. "For a Comparative Religion major? Why me?" Sam asks.

"'Cause I think you got the chops for it," Nick answers easily. "I want the best to build my major, and kiddo, you're one of 'em. Don't you think you'd like academia?"

"I would," Sam admits. "I mean, I do. That's why I'm here in the first place. But... I'm not really religious or anything. Never have been."

Nick actually laughs at that, and Sam's suspicions are confirmed about him with that single sound. He'd been testing the waters, and he'd been right. It makes him nervous to think about why Dr. Pellegrino is in this area of study in the first place. Why he wants to make it such a big thing for the school. But he doesn't ask. He won't ask. He's already uncomfortable enough.

"It doesn't take being religious to love religion," Nick says and Sam falters for a second because that actually makes sense. "Got you there, didn't I?" Nick says astutely. "Come on, man, it's gods and monsters! What's cooler than that?"

Sam shrugs, non-committal. He doesn't necessarily want to hear the whole song and dance routine, but a part of him is a bit intrigued by it. And his anxiety levels are currently gluing feet to floor and ass to chair, begging for a reprieve. To just sit, even if it's not in the most ideal place.

"It doesn't matter what you believe," Nick continues, taking Sam's silence for permission to stay on his soapbox. "This isn't really a religious major. It's what all the cultures in the world believe about those gods and monsters. The morals they build around them. Ethics, and sure, religion. Just think about it. Entire civilizations have been built and broken by this stuff. All because human beings have always wanted - needed - something bigger than themselves."

Sam frowns a little. He's not sure he likes how smugly superior Dr. Pellegrino sounds about that, but it's definitely something that piques his interest. Even something he'd been thinking about for his paper. Though that's not to say he's sold on it for his life's work.

He also needs to get better at hiding his emotions because Nick sees it, and grabs on. "I can see that spark in there, Sammy. Right now. Just. Y'know. Give it a think. Let me know."

"I will," Sam says, and not just as a platitude. Maybe it's hardwired into his DNA by now to do what his teachers and professors say, but he will think about it. Like he needs more things to stress out about.

There are a few more pleasantries, then Sam is given the chance to escape. He does so as calmly as possible, but it feels like his whole body is being weighed down with disquiet. He should be relieved. He's not. He's so far from it.

He closes Dr. Pellegrino's office door behind him and drags his feet down the hall, staring at the old tiles until a pair of brown shoes breaks up the monotony.

"Told you, didn't I?" Gabriel says. "Awesome sales pitch, right?"

Inexplicably, Sam's knees almost give out at the sight of him, all done up in his argyle and glasses like a god of bookworms. The sheer relief he'd been waiting for that washes over him is as shocking as it is pleasant. "I feel like I need a drink," he hears himself saying, because the rest of his life is rapidly shaping up to be this whole awful thing where he'll never be able to say anything smart to Gabriel ever.

"You look like you need one," Gabriel agrees kindly, reflexively taking Sam's elbow to keep him up as he wobbles slightly. He steps in front of Sam, looking up at him with genuine concern. "Dude, I know I promised nothing weird would happen in there, but you look... I dunno. Spooked. Did something happen?"

His grip tightens and Sam winces. He shakes his head. "No. It's. No. I can't really explain it." Jesus, on and on with the stupid.

Gabriel loops their arms together and guides them down the hall towards the fresh air and, hopefully, the cafe. "So he didn't bad touch you?"

Sam snorts a tiny laugh. "Just metaphorically. Being in the same room with him sorta... sucks my soul away."

Gabriel's laugh is much heartier. "That's a really good way of putting it. Sorry to put you through that. I mean it."

Sam bumps their shoulders. "You didn't put me through anything. I didn't have to have to go. It was my decision."

"Hey," Gabriel admonishes with mock offense. "Let me have some guilt here, would ya?"

Sam smiles more and more out in the sunshine with Gabriel beside him, golden and carefree. "If that's what you want, I won't stop you. But can we get some coffee while you wallow?"

Gabriel releases him and skips ahead to back-step in front of Sam's long stride looking for all the world like a cartoon character. "A date?" he sing-songs. "With Sam Winchester? Oh, my gosh, I'd love to!"

Despite recognizing the teasing for what it is, Sam can feel his face starting to heat. "You can pay for your own damn coffee," he mutters.

"Duh," Gabriel rolls his eyes. "Full time students are notoriously poor. I'd hardly be a gentleman if I made you buy me anything."

Sam smiles. "You don't seem like much of one, anyway."

"And I thank you for noticing," Gabriel answers without missing a beat, though he bows low and sweeps open the door of the student center for Sam to enter first. The line at the cafe is short, but the place is packed with students milling around before the next round of classes start. Sam sighs at having to elbow his way around for a table, but Gabriel has already popped up to the counter, ordered two coffees, stuffed a fistful of sugar packets into his jacket pockets, and pulled Sam away from the hustle and bustle before he can get too far into the miasma of undergrads.

"Where are we going?" Sam asks, following along somehow without worry.

"It's a date, right?" Gabriel grins over his shoulder. "Those aren't any good in noisy places."

He doesn't know what to think about that. Which. Granted, is pretty normal when dealing with Gabriel Milton. It isn't a date. Not really. He'd been joking, right? Dates don't happen on college campuses, right? Isn't that stupid? Sam rolls his eyes at himself and concentrates on keeping up with Gabriel's surprisingly fast stride away from the cafeteria and towards the restrooms. There's a door in the corner there that's always locked with a maintenance sign on it.

Gabriel shoves both of the coffees into Sam's hands and then digs into his pockets almost comically patting himself down, worried frown on his face. Then he grins. "Ah!" He pulls out a small key ring and unlocks the door. It squeaks open and he traipses inside without a care in the world.

With a few more cares in his world, Sam follows him slowly, closing the door carefully behind them and groping with his toes in the darkness so that he doesn't trip up the stairs. Then he blinks rapidly as bright white sunlight floods his eyes right as they were just about to adjust to the darkness. A cold breeze rushes through the narrow hall a moment later making Sam shiver, but then he's stepping out onto the roof of the student center, and the view is spectacular. "We're totally not allowed to be up here," he murmurs, holding out Gabriel's coffee and stepping towards the edge of the roof to fully appreciate the view of the campus, the hazy town beyond, and even the blue-tinted mountains in the distance.

"Sure we are," Gabriel says from right beside him, taking the coffee. "I have a key, don't I?"

"You stole it," Sam accuses like he's really praising the TA.

"Doesn't matter how I got it," Gabriel grins unrepentantly. "Now that I have it, I can use it, and since I didn't pick the lock, we're allowed to be up here. Access granted."

Sam laughs at that, though the very back of his anxiety brain pings again at the danger that this man possesses. Small things maybe, but they do sometimes pile up. He won't compare him to someone like Ruby, but she'd seemed harmlessly rebellious at the beginning, too. It makes him cautious, but still... something about Gabriel standing in profile, glowing in the late afternoon light again, back straight. He looks like a god or an angel surveying his creation. It socks Sam in the gut, and he finds himself slipping a little bit more down the slope. "You're kind of a weirdo," he decides to say.

Gabriel only smiles wider. Interesting, it doesn't totally touch his eyes. "It's been said."

They quietly sip their drinks for a minute, Gabriel studying the scenery mildly, and Sam studying Gabriel less so. He wishes more than anything that he could grasp onto some solid impression of the guy. But all he is is a pile of contradictions. Or at least he acts that way. Smart but reckless. Caring but irreverent. Young at heart but old of soul. Funny but pointed. How is he supposed to reconcile all of those things to decide whether or not there's a real red flag, or if he's just too used to making them after all this time?

"You're really okay?" Gabriel asks, sounding completely sincere.

Sam swallows too big of a mouthful of coffee too quickly. It scorches his throat. He coughs softly. "Do you mean after Dr. Pellegrino, or in general?"

Gabriel turns only his head, hazel eyes expressing another contradiction of soft but deadly serious. "Either. Or both. I'd prefer both."

Taken aback, Sam doesn't lie and say, "fine." He blinks, burned tongue feeling heavy, aching throat thickening. "I'm..." he huffs a tiny laugh that gets swept away easily by the wind. "I don't know."

There's a couple of beach chairs a few feet away that Sam hadn't even noticed before, but is positive that Gabriel brought up at some point. Gabriel tips his chin towards them and they sit. "I didn't bring you here to pressure you into a makeshift therapy session," he says. "Or an actual date, if you didn't want one."

Sam can appreciate that. "I didn't follow you to get one."

Gabriel wraps both of his hands around his cup. "That's good. I'm terrible at both, anyway. I just saw you coming out of Nick's office and you looked..." he shakes his head. "You looked a kind of way that I feel like you don't deserve."

Roundabout as it is, Sam feels the genuine nature of the comment whether or not he fully understands it. "Can I be honest with you?"

"Only if you wanna."

Sam nods. "I still can't decide whether Dr. Pellegrino really made me uncomfortable because of him, or if it was because you were teasing me to see if you could freak me out."

Gabriel says nothing, but something in his eyes changes. It's slight and hard.

And it only makes Sam barrel on. "I don't know anything about you at all, and it drives me nuts. It's so mixed up, I can't actually tell if you've been flirting with me and wanted a real date, or if that's just the way you treat people."

"It is sometimes," Gabriel admits quietly, gaze on Sam's unwavering. "I've got a history of being a dickhead."

"Just a history?" Sam prompts, desperately wanting Gabriel to say "yes" whether or not it's a lie. As long as it's convincing, he'll believe it because he's got a history of wanting people who can make him feel better, good influence or otherwise.

"No," Gabriel answers with a wan smile. "But I like to think I'm learning to strike a balance."

Huh. It's too uncharacteristically self-deprecating to be something other than the truth. "Fair enough," Sam says wishing the buzzing in his chest would ease up with that little reassurance. "I guess I was a dick first, accusing you of scaring me for laughs."

"We laugh about things, not at them," Gabriel says like he's reciting it.

"That's a good way of thinking."

"My best friend's been a bad influence on me that way," Gabriel says, some of the lightness returning to his arresting hazel eyes.

"They have a way of doing that," Sam says, the needles in him not at all dulling.

"I can tell you've got a lot going on," Gabriel continues. "I mean, yeah, sure, we all do, right? Everyone's got shit to deal with, that's not one of life's big mysteries. And you're also right that we barely know each other. But I'm also guessing there's a reason you let me tear up all your study notes one day and bring you on a coffee date up to the roof on another."

"How old are you?" Sam asks instead of baring his heart.

"Twenty-eight," Gabriel answers. "Why'd you let me bring you up here, Sam?"

His heart is beating faster for no goddamn reason at all. "Do you live with your parents?"

"Of course not, asshole, I live with my cat and dog. Why, Sam?"

Palms sweating, Sam asks desperately, "why are you single? Are you single?"

Face scrunching up completely, Gabriel says, "I am and just 'cause." He reaches out and takes Sam by the forearm. "Dude. Relax, okay? What's with the third degree?"

"I dunno," Sam answers, teeth almost starting to chatter more with stress than cold. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." He drags in a deep, trembling breath. Lets it out and then feels a shade more steady. "Can we talk about something else?" What is the matter with him today?

"Sure," Gabriel shrugs like it doesn't matter because it does. "Um... oh! Been meaning to ask ya. You got a brother named Dean? I saw him the other day."

Sam physically startles. This is not where the conversation was supposed to go. His heart slams in his chest. "You... what?" he croaks.

"Dean," Gabriel says again. "Is he your brother? Does he go to Espresso Lane?"

Physically shaking now, Sam manages to ask, "how do you know that?"

Gabriel rubs the back of his neck. "He came in yesterday looking for Cas and he was acting kinda weird, so-"

Sam jumps to his feet, the beach chair clattering onto its side. "I'm leaving," he says far too loudly.

Gabriel jumps up with him, reaching out again, but Sam rears back. "Hey, whoa, Sam, I was just asking..."

"I'm not talking about my brother," Sam bites, bites his tongue. "We're not talking about that. I'm... I'm leaving." And he does. Quickly. In a split second, he's glad that he's so much taller than Gabriel because that makes his legs longer and him a lot faster. He doesn't even know if Gabriel has tried to follow him at all as he clangs through the heavy door and down the stairs, stumbling through the darkness down into the noisy student center, and then straight to the parking lot. Fuck classes. He can't do this shit. He needs to get home. Get safe.

Jesus, he's not ready for any of this. What the hell is the matter?!

He prays that Dean's well enough to go to work, but there's no such luck. Dean is smack dab in the center of the living room on the couch, watching TV when Sam arrives home hours earlier than intended.

Dean has the decency to look confused when Sam slams through the door. "Sammy? What the hell are you doing here?"

Sam closes the door behind him and leans against it, back pressed hard to the wood. His breath heaves in his lungs, mind reeling. Is he having a panic attack? Is this what a panic attack is? No fucking wonder Dean needs more than a couple of hours to recover. He might pass out. He might actually hit the floor dead cold and out. Holy shit. Holy shit, shit, shit.

The next time he blinks, he is on the floor for real and Dean is right there on his knees in front of him, hands on either side of Sam's face, eyes wide and close and... understanding. Oh. He's having a panic attack. "Sammy, look at me," Dean says firm and calm. "Breathe with me, man. Come on. In and out. Nice and even."

One of the hands moves from his cheekbone and down to the center of his chest, pressing and pressing.

Sam breathes. He breathes. And breathes and breathes. And then, slowly, the colors start to come back into the world. "I think I just had a panic attack," he whispers.

Surprisingly, Dean grins. "Nah, man, you almost got there, but you can't be an overachiever at everything. That right there was an anxiety attack. It's the panic attack's little brother. Just like you are to me."

Despite everything, Sam laughs tremulously. It's still a laugh, though. "Did I really fall on my ass?" He glances around.

Dean pats Sam's cheek more like a series of slaps. "Hell yeah, you hit the deck. Thought you were gonna pass out for a second, but I think you had a minor waking blackout. Only a few seconds. Thought I'd have to just leave you on the kitchen floor like a total embarrassment. Can you get up?"

Surprisingly wobbly, Sam stumbles to his feet, Dean holding onto him and guiding him unerringly into the living room and to the couch. Sam falls into it with a moan of appreciation. He must have been down for a minute on the tile because his whole ass is tingling with pins and needles as it tries to wake up. He scrubs both hands over his face. "God, Dean, I'm sorry. I must have freaked you out."

Dean stands in front of the couch, squared off with Sam, arms crossed over his chest. "Actually, no, you didn't. I've been wondering when something like this would happen."

"What?"

Dean rolls his entire upper body with his eyes. "You have to have noticed how twitchy you've been getting," he says dryly.

"Stress is normal," Sam protests weakly. God, it sounds idiotic when he says it out loud like that. It's not normal. His levels are so not normal.

Dean plants himself onto the coffee table, now eye level. The better to stare Sam down with. "Not the kind you've been having," he says softly, confirming Sam's worst fears. "I should'a said something sooner, but you're usually good at the touchy feely crap, so I figured you'd come to me when you needed to. Didn't realize you were driving with such a big ass blind spot."

In order to avoid Dean's stare, Sam drops his head back with a noisy sigh. "I didn't, either. I mean, I got used to a certain level of stress, y'know? Guess it was closer to a breaking point than I knew. And today just..." He tosses his arms up in the air and lets them flop back down to the couch.

"Something you wanna talk about?"

"Not right now," Sam says regretfully. "Talking about stuff caused the whole damn thing to begin with."

"Okay." Dean's quiet for a minute, and Sam keeps watching the ceiling, afraid again of someone saying something to him that he can't anticipate. "Maybe you should talk to Donna."

Carefully, Sam raises his head. He didn't anticipate that, but for some reason it doesn't add to the pile, either. Probably because it's a hell of a suggestion. "You'd be okay with me seeing your therapist?"

Dean shrugs. "She's awesome at what she does, and doctor/patient confidentiality is a thing."

Cautiously, the constriction in his chest starts to ease. It'd really be okay? This could all be okay? "I... I wouldn't mind that."

Dean leans forward, elbows on his knees. "Sammy, you been through a lot, and... hell, maybe now's the time for everyone to stop pretending that our needs being met have been equal, 'cause they haven't been. I know that. And I'm sorry, man. I really am. Once you got your feet back under you, you kinda got pushed to the side because of my mess, and it probably wouldn't have gotten this bad if I hadn't pulled all the focus."

Sam's eyes widen. He hadn't even thought of it that way. Not for a long time. "Dean. Dude. Stop, okay? I don't feel that way at all."

Dean's face morphs into that "willing to let Sam win but wanting more than anything to call bullshit" pinch he's been really good at not having lately. "Did you ever feel like you needed more help, and then not ask for it?"

Sam's mouth drops open. Then shuts. It would make Dean feel better if he lied, but he's pretty sure his expression's already given it away, so he says, "not until recently. Look, I'll admit I've had some lonely days here and there, but you've needed a lot more resources than me. And it's not your fault. Like you said, I was back on my feet before you were. You were allowed to have the focus."

Dean hangs his head. "And now you need it, too, because of what I've been going through," he surmises. "You got pushed too far to the side. Jesus."

Sam didn't want to say it. He didn't want to believe it. "It's not just you," he assures his brother. "Honestly? It feels like I just... like I can't let go of it when it happens, y'know? Even after the thing that stressed me out is gone, the feeling stays. And yeah, it's been piling up, I guess."

"Everyone has a breaking point," Dean says wryly. "I live that on the daily. But, dude, if you need some chill pills of your own or something, let's do that. Get set up with Donna and don't worry about me. I've been living with my brain's bullshit for long enough that I can handle it. We can get you better. That much is doable."

The ghost of a smile proceeds the threat of tears. Neither one happens, but it's a close encounter on both. "Thanks."

With mock grimness, Dean says, "save it for when you've had a few sessions with Donna's constant Christmas cheer directed at you and only at you."

That makes the humor overcome the swelling in his throat. "Noted."

It's doable, he thinks. And miracle of miracles, he sort of believes it.

Chapter Text

"It's doable," Sam repeats out loud.

Dean smacks a hand right on his shoulder. "I'll call Donna and get you her next open appointment."

To his absolute alarm, Sam's big-ass puppy dog eyes well with tears. "I've felt like shit for weeks and I thought I was just bad at going back to school."

Attempting levity Dean says, "now I know you need to talk to Donna 'cause if school was a contest, you'd be winning against everyone I've ever met." Sam nods vigorously, obviously fighting the emotional outburst, which Dean appreciates - really, he does - but there are times when it's just gotta happen. Dean'll take one for the team this time. "It's gonna be okay," he says softly because that's what Sam had said to him a million times back when Dean didn't think becoming stable again was even a distant possibility.

Sam keeps nodding away at the floor, but the tears aren't fought for long. At the first drip, Dean reaches out and grabs him, pulling him to his chest and hugging him roughly, pounding his back a few times. "It's gonna be okay, little brother. We'll make it okay. You hear me?"

"I hear you," Sam answers, stuffy and cracked. It only lasts another minute or two because Sam's a champ at pulling himself together, and he draws back, rubbing at his eyes with the meat of his palm like he'd done as a kid. "I'm so embarrassed."

Dean scoffs. "Dude. Seriously?"

Sam switches it up from the nodding to the head shaking. "Not about... that. It's..." His shoulders heave up and then down in a dramatic sigh. "I may or may not have humiliated myself in front of my crush this morning."

Dean winces just as dramatically. "Yikes. Was that the last straw?"

"Might have been," Sam admits wearily. "He was only trying to help and I totally lost it. He probably thinks I'm insane now."

Dean huffs. "Well, if he can't get his head outta his ass and see how awesome you are, then find yourself someone else."

"Because that's so easy," Sam rolls his eyes.

Dean likes seeing some of the humor and happiness return, even if it is in the form of snark. "For us it is, sure. You're Sam fucking Winchester. Looks and charm is a Winchester family trait."

Laughing, Sam takes a final swipe at his eyes. "Whatever you say, Dean. Okay, I'm done here. We done here?"

Dean knuckles Sam hard on the shoulder. "Yeah." Then Dean convinces Sam over the next hour to forget about school and life in general, and just relax. Okay, maybe "convinces" is the wrong word. It's more like "forces." Dean says his piece about rest and mental recovery, Sam scoffs like he really just wants a firm push in the right direction. Dean complies by stealing Sam's messenger bag with his laptop, school supplies, and cell phone, locking them in the trunk of the Impala, and then threatening to swallow the key. Sam fights a smile at that, and with a truly grateful look at his brother, goes to his room and shuts the door.

As soon as he's taken care of, Dean picks up his cell phone and calls Donna. It's the middle of the day, so she's probably with a patient, and he gets her overly cheerful voicemail. "Hey, Donna, it's Dean," he says, pacing back and forth from one side of the kitchen to the other while he talks. "Look, I need you to do me a solid since you aren't accepting new patients right now, and let Sam have my slot tomorrow. Sorry for the last minute notice. I'm doing fine, and he needs it more. Lemme know. See ya." He hangs up, glancing towards the stairs and wondering if there's anything else he can do for his brother other than giving him his therapy sessions. There's got to be something, though damned if he knows what.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Castiel really needs to work on Gabriel's manners more. He thought they'd arrived at some understandings regarding common decency. However, clearly some things haven't sunken in and Castiel needs to take his key back because Gabriel has just used it to barge into his home without so much as knocking. Again. There is no sacred ground according to this man.

Castiel meets him halfway to the living room, knitted blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He'd needed to get up for a fresh cup of tea, anyway. Might as well kick his best friend out at the same time. "I'm not well enough for any shenanigans, Gabriel," Castiel says as firmly as he can with his voice still wrecked to hell and back.

"This goes beyond that," Gabriel assures him, giving Castiel pause at how inordinately worried he looks. He even takes the mug of cold tea out of Castiel's hands and spins right around to distractedly fix them both some more. "You still a teetotaler, or can one hope for some freaking booze around this dump? It's been that kind of day."

Castiel wearily tugs the blanket tighter around his shoulders. "There's actually a small bottle near the coffee maker," he answers, stalling Gabriel's banging around through all the cabinets with migraine-inducing levels of noise.

Gabriel picks up the bottle, clearly not too agitated to turn and give Castiel a shit-eating grin. "Sweetheart," he drawls.

Castiel rolls his eyes upwards, praying for patience and understanding and the internal will to not murder today. He's far too sick to hide a body. "Hot toddy," he clarifies. "It helps my throat better than any cough syrup on the market."

"You don't need to convince me," Gabriel grins as he daintily picks up the kettle and fills two mugs with hot water, drops in two tea bags, and then douses them both with a generous splash of top shelf whiskey. To his own, he adds half the sugar bowl. "I'm just glad that when you decided to become a big boy, you copped for the good stuff."

"I'm not really a teetotaler," he mutters, accepting the proffered mug. "And my tea isn't the reason you're here."

"It. Is. Not." Gabriel over-enunciates each word.

"I'll need to sleep again soon, so whatever it is that necessitated you breaking into my apartment, you better get it off your chest soon."

Gabriel scowls. "Weren't you supposed to teach me kindness and hospitality?"

"It's not on this week's lesson plan," Castiel retorts dryly, breathing in the steam from his mug. He sits down at the table, fearing a long, drawn out conversation that will be a while in coming.

When Gabriel hides behind his teasing for more than a few minutes after running in with his pants metaphorically on fire, something serious is going on. Flu or not, Castiel is more than willing to help, but sometimes he wishes that Gabriel had the mental fortitude to get to the damn point faster.

At least today, Gabriel appears to be more agreeable than usual. He sits across from Castiel, fiddling with the handle of his mug. Castiel waits him out, expecting another foolish weekend embarrassment at the club or a spat with Nick Pellegrino since Gabriel's been working those themes lately. Therefore he is wholly unprepared to hear, "Cassie, we need to get while getting's good because something is seriously wrong with Sam and Dean Winchester."

Oh, right. He'd forgotten about this new theme. Adding Sam is a new trope, though. "What on earth are you talking about?" he groans, hopefully infusing his voice with enough world weariness for Gabriel to give up.

No such luck. "I saw Sam today and he's got a crack in his chassis as bad as your Disney prince. I'm serious, Cas. You told me to drop it about Dean, and I was gonna, I swear to God and God's brother, Chuck, that I was."

"Meaning to do something means nothing if you don't do it," Castiel snaps. "And with your history, I honestly don't think you tried." He's too sick to be generous and too done with Gabriel's unfair judgments of people. The understanding approach had obviously failed at their previous conversation, so pointed it is.

"You don't have to be mean about it," Gabriel mutters, and that makes Castiel pause again.

He looks closer at his friend and sees honest to goodness emotion there. Something like sadness and regret. It's been years since that's been a thing. Not since Gabriel had shown back up in his life ready to, as he'd said, "stop being a great big bag of dicks, and start being a human again." As much as he hates hearsay, Castiel can't help a small sigh. "Gabriel," he says gently. "Tell me what happened, and don't leave anything out."

It's quite a story in the end. Castiel's already heard briefly about Dean at the cafe on Monday. But this time Gabriel doesn't leave a single detail out. Then he talks about Sam. And they way that he talks makes it clear Gabriel genuinely likes Sam. Perhaps even in a romantic way. That's different.

What's also different is that he doesn't seem to be telling a story. Not the way he usually does. Not with added porn stars and trips to Monte Carlo. Granted, there is usually more truth than lie in Gabriel's tales, but he has to tell them with flair. Not this time. This time he speaks plain, hunched over like he doesn't enjoy being in the limelight for once, and his voice carries none of the melodramatic ups and downs of an epic yarn.

No, Gabriel tells Castiel about his afternoon with Sam as though he deeply, mournfully wishes that it hadn't ended the way that it did.

"I just asked about Dean," Gabriel finished plaintively. "That was it. I said I'd seen him at the cafe and wondered if he was Sam's brother. Then Sam looked like he'd seen a ghost and literally ran away just like Dean had on Monday."

Castiel remains silent. Hears the water slowly dripping from the leaky faucet in the sink. Drinks in the details as carefully as he drinks in his hot tea. Eventually, he asks, "so you think that because Sam refused to talk about Dean, that there's something... I don't know, sinister going on?"

"Okay, maybe not sinister," Gabriel allows with an eye roll. "This is a small town. If there was something Amityville going on, the neighborhood watch would'a found out about it ages ago. No, what I'm saying is that something messy is up with the both of them, and it's probably something that we don't need to get involved in."

"If romance is about need, then you're doing it wrong," Castiel counters.

"I'm trying to be serious here," Gabriel says, lips thinning.

"I realize that," Castiel answers. "But so am I. I'm making a conscious decision to not see danger around every corner."

"Why the hell not?" Gabriel demands, slapping his palms on the table in true tantrum fashion. "What's the point of blind trust when it's gonna come back and bite you in the ass someday? I'm not telling you to be like me. Hell, Cassie, even I know that'd be a waste. What I am trying to tell you is that I've seen a lot more than you have, and sometimes I can tell when something - or someone - ain't worth it."

Castiel shrugs. "You can. You're usually right about people. Most of my current employees were your choice, and you've been right about every single one thus far." He smiles a little.

Gabriel smiles back looking relieved and starting to sit up straighter.

That's why it breaks Castiel's heart a little to bring him down again by saying, "but you're wrong about Dean Winchester." Gabriel's scowl comes back harder. He opens his mouth to argue more, but Castiel shakes his head. "If you think you're right about Sam Winchester, that's your prerogative since I don't know him. But you're wrong about Dean."

Gabriel's jaw works like he's chewing on his tongue for a minute. "And you won't even entertain the idea that I might be right?"

"If you are, it's my loss, not yours," Castiel says kindly. "You can't save everyone, my friend, though you try."

"Hear ya loud and clear," Gabriel answers with total fake cheer. "So, what'll you do?"

Castiel shrugs, coughing a little and sniffling. "Nap," he rasps. "Then I'll call Dean and see if he wants to talk."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean pretends to putter around the house for a few minutes trying not to make much noise in case Sam is trying to sleep. Then he admits that he's just pacing waiting for Donna to call him back. He's about to rearrange everything in the fridge when his phone ringing distracts him for a minute and he swipes the accept button. "Hey, Donna," he says as cheerfully as possible.

"Ah, no," a scratchy, hesitant voice answers. "Dean?"

Dean freezes both literally and figuratively. He swallows hard, audibly. "Cas?"

"Yes. Have you... do you have a minute?"

"Sure, yeah. I, uh... sure." He snaps his mouth shut and sits heavily on the kitchen chair so he doesn't fall over. Jesus. Castiel sounds awful. It's definitely the flu. It's so fucking irrational, but even over the phone Dean gets both the heebs and the jeebs. You can't get sick from talking to a sick person on the phone, you goddamn moron, he reminds himself. Then reprimands himself for self-abusive language. Irrational thoughts are part of the game. He knows that. Calling himself names will only make him feel worse about it. "What's up?" he prompts, much more steady.

"It's. Well..." there's a long pause where Dean can hear coughing and scraping. He winces, but wills himself to keep the phone pressed to his ear rather than throwing it away like a hot potato. "Gabriel was here this afternoon, and he said some things that... I... I'm not sure what I should be saying. I apologize. I'm still a bit foggy."

"Hey," Dean says in the same calming tone he'd used with Sam earlier. "Is something wrong? Just come out with it. If there's something you wanna ask, I'll listen."

"Is Sam all right?" Castiel asks in a rush. "Your brother? Gabriel was extremely concerned about him today, and frankly, he was also worried about you when you were at the cafe the other day. He told me that you... seemed upset when I wasn't there."

Oh, God. This is the worst case scenario. The literal worst case. This isn't how he wanted this to happen. This conversation should have been so very different. Under controlled circumstances. On Dean's own terms and no one else's. The tingling starts in his fingers and his heart jackrabbits behind his ribs. This is what set Sam off. Jesus.

And then there's a beep on the line. And another one. Dean jerks the phone away from his ear. It sticks to his cheek for a second thanks to the burgeoning panic sweat. Donna! Holy shit, it's Donna! "Cas, hold on, okay?" he says voice trembling. "I can't miss this call on the other line. Just. Hold on, please?" He knows he sounds far too scared, but there's no stopping it.

"Of course," Castiel says too slowly.

Dean jabs the button to switch lines, "Donna!"

"Heya, Dean-o!" she chirps. "Got your message."

"Good, awesome, but hey, get your stopwatch 'cause I need you for a second in an official capacity. Bill me later."

Donna doesn't even hesitate. "Shoot," she said.

Dean slams the phone on the table and presses the speaker. He rests his elbows on either side of it, hands fisting in his hair, leaning his head between his arms. "Cas is on the other line. He's... he's asking about my mental state."

"Oh," Donna says, surprise clear in her voice. "Did something happen?"

"It's too much to go into, but I'm there, Donna. I'm about to have a freaking panic attack, and I can't fucking lie to him."

"Worst case scenario," Donna prompts pointedly.

"I tell him and he calls me a freak, and never wants to see me again. I have to get coffee somewhere else and backslide like a motherfucker."

"Best case?"

"He still wants to go out with me."

"So, when do you think it'll hurt worse if he dumps you? Now, or a dozen dates in when you buck up?"

"I already know that, Donna, but my brain doesn't give a shit right now."

"What's it sayin'?"

Don't do it, or else. Do it or else. "I don't know."

"Dean, lemme tell ya something, and I really need you to listen, okay?"

Dean nods. Then sighs. "Yeah," he grunts.

"A safe person is never really a safe person until you tell them you want or need them to be that for you. Maybe not in so many words, but it's a two way street. He won't know if you don't tell him, and Dean? Now's the time to put up, or shut up. It's not the way you wanted, and it's not the way you planned, but what else have we been working so hard for all this time? Unpredictability and adapting"

She's right. He knows it. But his brain is still screaming, or else, or else, or else. All of the irrational scenarios flashing by in an instant if he does, or maybe doesn't do, this thing. The house burning down, Sam in a devastating car wreck, and now... now Castiel. It's not a fleshed out nightmare scenario yet, but it's definitely Castiel and it's definitely bad. Dark. Castiel laying on a dirt path, black ashes spread from his shoulders. He can't see much, but Dean knows this feeling. It's an intimate feeling. He's felt it twice in reality, and countless times in his panics. "He's on the other line," Dean croaks. "I gotta go." He can't even wait for a goodbye. He'll lose his nerve. He just clicks the line over. "Cas."

"Is everything all right?" Castiel rasps, voice hoarse and concerned.

"No, but... but can you do me a favor?"

"Of course I can," Castiel answers immediately like it's no big deal. Like his life isn't in Dean's clumsy, shaking, sweating hands. "Anything."

Dean laughs rough and humorless. "You might wanna hold onto that. I need you to listen. I gotta tell you some stuff. Okay?"

"Okay." It's quiet, serious.

Dean can tell he's got the guy's undivided attention. "It has to do with what you were just asking about. Uh. Worrying about me and Sam. It's... it's mostly me."

He drags in a deep breath and lets it out in a noisy rush. Then he barrels on fast like ripping a band-aid off. "I've got OCD. Like, big time. Had it most of my life, but it only got bad when my dad died a few years ago. And... uh, this isn't the cute kind we're talking about. It's like... Cas, it's like panic, and anxiety all the time, and I couldn't get out of the house for a year, man. That bad."

His next breath in is like a painful hiccup that gets caught in his throat. His voice cracks as he continues. "I was in the hospital for a while. Then I got out. Got therapy. That - that other call just now was her. She's awesome. I've got Occupational Therapy, too. So I can... so I can get out of the house. Do... normal stuff."

He stops when he realizes his mouth is so dry that he's starting to slur his words. He rushes to the fridge to grab a bottle of water, and in the short interim, he can hear Castiel breathing on the line. It's a little labored, but he can't tell if it's because of the flu, or because he's having a minor freak out himself. Either way, he says nothing and waits for Dean to continue.

Dean sucks down half the bottle before he can even try. The cold water shocks his system, and for a moment he feels the tiniest bit more clear. He uses that time to try and speak more slowly. "I have a job now," he says quietly. "And obviously I can get out. I just..." he rolls his eyes to the ceiling so that the sudden threat of tears doesn't take over. "It's hard. I have panic attacks sometimes. I can't always control my compulsions. I haven't even done anything fun in ages until our date the other night." And just as suddenly as the tears had hit him, so does the end of his speech. He can't think of anything else to say besides, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before I asked you out."

"It's okay," Castiel answers immediately as though he's surprised to be saying it.

There's silence after that.

It's long.

Dean drinks his water and hangs his head over the table. Over the phone.

Castiel coughs a little and there are sounds that Dean can't recognize. Finally, he asks carefully, "may I ask you something, Dean?"

"Yeah." The sound comes out as a thready whisper.

"Why did you ask me out?"

Dean pauses, thrown more than he probably should be by the question. "Because you're hot?" he ventures, and there's a phlegmy laugh on the other side of the line. It encourages him. "Because you're nice, and funny, and you talked to me like a human, and you made me try that pumpkin spice bullshit, and you always make me comfortable and... well, you said yes."

"I did," Castiel agrees. There's a lot of warmth there. "And I don't regret it. Not even at this very second. Do you believe that?"

"I'd like to," Dean says hopefully, emboldened. Steadier. Desperate to give Castiel something he says, "you can ask me whatever you want. Like... informed decision and all. Imma be real with you here... I want to keep going out with you. It's just... there's a lot on my side that you might not want. That might be me hoping for something that's bad for the both of us. But you need to know it. But I... don't really know where to start."

Castiel hums. "Are you ready for me to ask you now, or do you need some time?"

"Both," Dean admits with a wan smile, "but if we wait, I'll just keep panicking, so whatever. If you got questions, ask 'em."

There's more silence. Considering. "I don't know anything about OCD, so I'm not sure what to ask, but I suppose it's fine to ask whatever comes to mind?"

"That's cool," Dean confirms, inexplicably starting to plateau. His anxiety seems to finally have a limit.

"All right. First question... what are your symptoms? Triggers? I'm not sure of the right word, I apologize."

Dean sighs with a tiny smile, shoulders starting to hunch down. "Those are two different things. You wanna know the compulsions? Like, what I do?"

"Yes, that would be a good place to begin. If... if you're willing."

"You have no idea," Dean answers wryly. Frankly, he doesn't, either. It's been so long since he's had to lay it all out. And for once, something inside him is clawing at him to do it. To be able to. "I, uh. I wash my hands a lot. Like, twenty, thirty minutes at a time. Organizing and sorting, but that's usually more to calm me down. Counting fucking everything. Those are most of my main rituals. I've also got some phobias. Germs, which you... probably already know. Got some agoraphobia, too, but it's mostly crowds that get me. Some... other stuff."

"And... you can't control it?" Castiel asks, hesitating all the way.

"No," Dean answers, tiredly. "I mean, I can fight it. That's what the therapy is for. But the intrusive thoughts... they'll always be there. Some days I can fight it, and deal with it. Other times... the consequences aren't worth it. The thoughts... they just win. I believe 'em too much."

He hadn't noticed how soft his voice has become until Castiel answers him in the exact same hushed tone. "What are they?"

Dean shakes his head. "Can't really tell you that." It makes them too real.

"That's fine," Castiel assures him right away. "I don't know the protocol here, so if I overstep, please tell me. I just... I want to know. Like you said. Better prepared."

Dean grimaces at how stilted it all is. "Maybe it's not a good idea," he ventures.

"What's not?"

"Us."

Another long, tense pause. Then, "are you saying that for yourself, or deciding for the both of us?"

Dean can't possibly believe that he's hearing actual anger in Castiel's voice, so he ignores it. Like a lot of things. "It's too much to ask you to... I'm sorry, Cas."

There's no ignoring the anger this time. "I'm so tired of people trying to tell me my mind," he growls.

"I'm not," Dean protests. "Man, I've been living with this since the jump, and you don't even know. My brother, my therapists... dude, they all made it sound like some fan-freaking-tastic idea to put myself out there some more. And I bought it, paid in full. But here I am giving you the rundown, and I can hear how fucking insane it is. It's... this shit's destroyed everyone in my life who wasn't paid to be there. Even my little brother's upstairs sleeping off a freaking anxiety attack because of me. Because he's worried. Because I can't keep my shit together. Tell me how that's fair to put on anyone else, like you."

"It's not," Castiel shoots back, and Dean physically startles at the strength behind the words. "None of it's fair. I won't argue that going through what you are, sucks. No, I don't know anything about it, but it sucks. It's still not your decision to decide what I can handle. You don't get to decide that. So, instead of doing that, tell me what you want, and I'll figure out the rest on my end."

Dean's throat clicks when he swallows. Goddamn tears are back clogging up the works. This was a terrible idea.

No.

It was a good idea. It was a test, and he failed. They can't all be winners, though.

It sucks.

"I'm sorry Cas," Dean murmurs. "It's too much."

"I understand," Castiel answers in an overly calm voice.

And before he can say anything else stupid, Dean nods once firmly, and hangs up.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

The knock on Castiel's bedroom door comes far too soon after hanging up. Redirecting his ire, Castiel snaps, "what?"

Gabriel pokes his head through the door. "I swear I wasn't eavesdropping."

"You were, and I'd rather you admit to that than lie to my face."

"I wasn't," Gabriel insists. He shuffles into the room fully with a tray of food. "I was too freaking busy making you chicken soup from scratch. So you can pack up that asshole routine and tell me why you're really pissed."

"Dean dumped me," Castiel grates, throwing his phone to the foot of the bed and not quite mollified enough by Gabriel's peace offering to calm down fully.

Of course, Gabriel doesn't care now that the shoe has dropped. He bends over and primly sets the tray on the bedside table. Stands and plants his hands on his hips. "He dumped you? He doesn't get to dump you. People don't dump you."

Despite the roiling anger, Castiel can't stop a wispy smile of gratitude. "Thank you."

Gabriel studies him intently, and Castiel refuses to squirm. "So. You're not gonna let him dump you. Skeletons weren't as bad as I said? Or are you going to bull rush ahead to spite me?"

Rolling his eyes, Castiel places the tray on his lap. "Thank you for lunch. And you're not worth the trouble of me possibly ruining my life over in order to prove a point."

"Good to know," Gabriel says evenly. "Okey doke. What's the master plan, then?"

Castiel shrugs, blowing on a spoonful of soup. "Changing hearts and minds."

"So easy," Gabriel snarks.

Castiel smiles wider. "I certainly hope not."

"You're not gonna tell me anything," Gabriel says flatly.

Castiel eyes him. "None of it is for me to tell. However, it would behoove you to remove your head from your ass and reassess the situation with Sam Winchester. If you know what's good for you." A smirk tugs his lips. "If you want what's good for you."

Gabriel ambles back to the door and then turns casually on his heel, jabbing a finger towards Castiel. "I've never wanted what's good for me." He grins.

Castiel grins back. "You wanted my friendship again. Lying's a sin."

Gabriel scoffs. "The world's all sin, and you're suffering an acute case of pride, if I'm not mistaken."

"Don't listen to me if you don't want to," Castiel returns.

"Why would I want to?"

"Because good things happen sometimes when you trust other people."

"Can I argue semantics for a sec? Good, thanks. I can trust other people just fine. I just don't trust myself with them."

Castiel pauses, spoon halfway to his mouth. He blinks up at his best friend. "This is about you not wanting to get involved?"

Gabriel slouches against the door frame. "You took away my excuse to bow out with dignity," he mutters.

Castiel smiles serenely, "well, then, it looks like we both have a lot of soul searching to do, don't we?"

Gabriel shoulders off the wall. "Whatever." And then he leaves Castiel alone. With his thoughts.

They are... myriad. His first instinct is to go with Dean's assessment. Mental illness isn't something to take lightly. And anyone with any illness should have their wishes respected on matters pertaining to it. That's something Castiel has always believed. Perhaps he is over-complicating the matter with this own wishes. Maybe Dean is absolutely correct about them.

Or.

What brought them to that wonderful first date? There's more than mild interest. He believes that Dean's condition is as serious as he said it was. But it didn't stop him from flirting. It didn't stop him from being interested. It didn't stop him from showing Castiel a wonderful evening.

That's not nothing, is it?

He frowns down at his soda crackers. What if it had been a different illness? Cancer or something else that had the potential to cause lifelong problems?

He'd still have liked Dean. He still would have accepted the date.

Obviously Dean, if only for a brief moment, hadn't seen his OCD as an insurmountable obstacle to... to what?

Happiness.

Maybe there's a sliver of that still there. Castiel wants there to be. So, after he finishes his lunch, he replaces the dishes on the tray with his laptop and gets to work.

Chapter Text

"Look who's here!" Donna chirps as she opens her office door. "My very own Sam Winchester! All to myself! Come on in, kiddo! Let's get started." She gestures over her shoulder in an exaggerated welcome that Sam can't help but smile at. He follows her in and drops into the dead center of the couch that faces her preferred desk chair.

"Thanks for doing this," he says. "Dean was, uh... pretty serious about getting me in here."

"Right," Donna says, falling into her chair with her tablet at the ready. "And I'm more than willing to do a solid for Dean, as long as it's what you want."

Sam nods vigorously. "Yeah, no, yeah it is. I definitely need to be here."

Donna smiles wider, dimples deepening. "All righty, then! Wanna tell me what's up?"

Sam scratches the back of his neck. "Um. I had an anxiety attack yesterday. Maybe a panic attack. Or. Something. Uh. Dean thought it was an anxiety attack, so. He'd know better than me. All I know is I freaked out and Dean calmed me down and we both agreed that I need to do something about it."

Donna leans forward, encouragingly. "That's okay, Sam! We'll get it figured out together. Where would you like to start?"

Sam's heart thumps, stomach dropping. "Uh. I... I dunno? I don't even know where to start."

"Most people don't," Donna tuts. "That's why I'm here! I'll just lead ya along for a tick, if that's cool with you?"

Sam clenches his hands in his lap, trapping them between his knees. "Sounds good," he says to his jeans. "Whatever works."

"There's no standard set of steps to get to proper therapeutic levels," Donna assures him. "Some things work, some things don't. All brains are different. The point is to find out what you need, and get it to you. Yeah?"

"Yeah," Sam murmurs.

"Okey doke! First question, then. How long have you been aware of your anxiety?"

Sam huffs. "Starting in the wading pool first, huh?" he says sarcastically.

Donna laughs it off. "Okay, we'll go smaller. Let's talk maybe, the past couple'a weeks. Has your anxiety been getting worse, better, or the same?"

"It's been getting worse," Sam says. "Over the past month or so... worse."

"Worse things going on? More stressors, or is it something else?"

Sam shakes his head. "Dunno," he murmurs.

"Take your time givin' it a think," Donna encourages gently. "There's no rush. Especially not for a first session. We'll get there. Just take a few breaths and start wherever you wanna. Try to think about the last month or so and see if you can pinpoint even a moment that made your anxiety spiked."

Take a few breaths. He can do that. That's not hard. So he does that. Listens to the industrial heater churn on and hum through the vents. Thinks about. About all of it. Searches for a time when he didn't feel like he was up to his neck in flood waters without the ability to swim. Quietly, he says, "the only time I didn't feel this much stress and worry was when I was getting high."

A tsunami of shame pummels him from every side. God, he's the worst. He just admitted out loud that the only time he'd been happy was when he'd been killing himself. Killing Dean. Killing both of their futures. He wants to cry, but only the urge is there without the actual feeling behind it for the moment. Just the shame. A metric shit ton of shame.

A red lollipop taps him on the knee.

He blinks at it. Blinks up at Donna who is beaming at him and stretched as far out of her chair as she can go without toppling to the floor to give him the piece of candy. "Now that's something we can work with," she says.

Sam sniffles a little to clear the worst of the emotions and takes the lollipop, twirling it between his fingers. "I feel like shit saying that."

Donna leans back in her chair again, taking notes on her tablet without even looking away from him. "What for?"

"Because I-" he breaks off, rolling his eyes at himself. "God, I already know how stupid this is gonna sound. I feel like shit saying that because I feel like I'm... like I shouldn't be that way."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm not... I don't have mental health issues," he says weakly. More idiotic by the second.

And judging by the "bullshit" frown Donna gives him, she's not buying what he's selling, either. "Hate to point out the obvious, buddy..." she pointedly glances around the room and then gestures to herself.

"I know," Sam sighs. "I just... I don't know how to say what I'm trying to say."

The dimples start to make a reappearance at that. "Not an uncommon problem. Sam, I've seen you a few times now, right?" He nods. "Sure it was with your brother and in the context of his treatment, but I like to think I've picked up on a thing or two about how Sam Winchester's hamster runs in his wheel."

His grin only lasts the same second his amusement does. It's enough to keep him going forward with this session. "Okay, shoot."

She winks at him. "All we've ever talked about with you in the room, are Dean's problems. Everything you've heard, and probably thought, has been put through his lens. Filtered through his needs and experiences. Now, you're a smart guy; can you guess what that'd do to someone who isn't fully aware of his own problems?"

"Sublimation, probably," Sam quips.

Donna laughs, quick and honest. "Sometimes, sure! But it also can do a heck of a job making you think that your problems are tethered to his. Tell me if this sounds familiar: when he's doing good, you're just dandy. When he has a bad day or two, you get kinda down in the dumps, too."

Sam tilts his head from side to side. "I guess."

"That's the codependency we've been working on. However, the both of you have been doing a great job of getting your lives together. But there's a downside there that I don't think we counted on."

She looks almost guilty at the admission, and that piques Sam's interest. "What do you mean?" he asks, sitting up straighter.

"I think with you starting to live your own life more and more, letting Dean step up in his own, you're having a lot more time to process your own feelings for yourself. Ones that you've maybe put a teeny tiny bit to the side."

Picking up the thread, Sam continues, "and I've been ignoring the stress and anxiety because it's nothing compared to what Dean's dealt with. I think all those problems are linked to my brother, so when it's not about him, I don't even stop to think that it's about me."

"Until it can't be ignored anymore," Donna finishes.

Sam rakes his hands through his hair. "I'm such an asshole!"

Donna raises her eyebrows. "Why would you say that?"

God, it all makes perfect sense, and it's horrible. "Because I am, don't you get it? I couldn't handle life when I was eighteen, so I gave up instead of getting help, and I ended up spending half of my inheritance on drugs and hospital bills! Then I made Dean spiral, and yeah, he got better, but now here I am not being able to handle life again, and what am I doing? Still taking away from Dean to get myself set right again! This is his appointment! His time. He's got actual problems, and here I am ready to bitch for an hour about school being stressful and some guy not liking me back!"

Donna takes a deep, exaggerated breath. Lets it out slowly. "Do this with me," she instructs in a rare, no-nonsense tone that Sam has no choice but to obey. The deep breathing goes on and on and until he's dizzy and lightheaded. In fact, his brain probably hasn't had this much oxygen in years. The horrible buzzing under his skin gradually begins to abate.

Donna nods her head rhythmically a few times. "Gosh, you and Dean are pros at folding yourself into pretzels over the self-blame game, aren't'cha?"

"I need to tell him I'm sorry!" Sam says over her.

"At least you're the soft pretzels," Donna mutters.

"Donna, I shouldn't be like this!"

"Hey," she admonishes sharply. "You are who you are, and there's nothing wrong with that. You don't have to believe me, but I'm still telling the truth. Sam, you aren't taking anything from Dean by being here today, or by admitting that you have problems that need treatment. This isn't some zero sum game, or whatever. Neither of you has to go without so that the other can go with. That's the codependency talking, and we'll work on that, too. Dean's coming in tomorrow instead of today, and your health insurance is just as valid as his, so you're not taking his time or his money. Well. Okay, like twenty-five dollars for the copay. Bottom line is, you need help, and you're gonna get it."

He really wishes that he could stop crying for one damn day, but that's just not happening. It's got to show something about his character that kindness brings him to tears. "Thank you," he mutters sincerely.

She holds out an orange lollipop like it's the biggest award on the planet. Sam takes it without protest. "So," she says. "Now that you're on board about not beating yourself up, we got some work to do. Get that anxiety under control, get your thoughts working right again, and you'll see how you can stand fully on your own two feet and be just fine."

It sounds like snake oil, but Sam's always believed in therapy. And at this point he's willing to do whatever it takes, because it just can't keep getting worse. Even if it doesn't get better, it has to stop getting worse.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Gabriel didn't used to be much of a pacer. But today he is a pacer. He's not sure what the fuck he's supposed to do after the last few days. Which is weird because he considers himself to be a pretty smart guy on the whole. This is just way out of his area of study. He needs to get his head in order. Make a list or something. That usually clears the cobwebs and jump starts the brilliance.

Nah, fuck the lists. He's only making excuses as to why he's a freaking mess. Sam Winchester and their off the wall "date." If it had been anyone else, Gabriel would have laughed until he was blue in the face about it. He's had plenty of fumbled plays in his past. Most of them had been hilarious in retrospect. This one? Not so much. It should make his Impress His Drunk Friends story list, but it's not. It never will. The more he marinates on it, the more he overcooks it, and the more he realizes that he did the wrong thing. Most surprisingly of all is, he realizes he doesn't want to simply shrug it off as usual and move on.

Two hours. He's got two hours until he takes over Nick's damn class, Sam Winchester front and center. If he even shows.

Gabriel sighs. Of course he'll show. He always shows. Embarrassment be damned, discomfort be damned, Sam Winchester will have his ass in his usual seat, and he'll take notes, and ace his exams, and get A's on his papers, and Gabriel will be the one wondering what the hell could have been done differently to make it all better. Make it all good.

He doesn't want to be determined to find something wrong with everyone all the time. It's his biggest character flaw and also the hardest one to break. It's so ingrained in him that he does it on autopilot.

Like, the girl who sits next to Sam? She always chews gum and pops it incessantly. Annoying.

One of the guys who sits in the front row of the advanced seminar constantly readjusts the crotch of his pants. Disgusting.

Sam Winchester himself clears his throat whenever something frustrates him.

There's so much more. And as smart as he's become over the years, he can't get past the annoyances that his mind wants to make up into these insurmountable mountains. Even when he wants that defense mechanism to go away and let him start making friends, it insists on sticking around. What's he supposed to do about that? It's too goddamn lonely up on Mt. Needless Judgements of Perfection. He hates it.

Too bad he's got way too much time to mull it over during class. It's not quite far enough into the semester that he'll be teaching a class by himself yet, but Nick has him administering another reading quiz. There's no point to it, and Gabriel is far too wise to ask him what he wanted to miss class for.

Sam shows up right before the period begins. He slumps in, shaggy hair blocking his face as he stares at the ground while making his way to his seat.

Holy God on high, it really is like Gabriel kicked a puppy or something.

Sam makes his best effort to slouch as low in his chair as he can, though he's large enough that it's impossible for him to disappear. He'll never be able to disappear. Not to Gabriel. And in Gabriel's opinion, maybe not to anyone. But that could be his bias.

As it is, Gabriel is disturbed to find himself subdued as well. "Okay, kids. Today Nick's set you up with a brief Q&A. The stress is on brief. I don't wanna sort through an entire dissertation on these questions; it's only a 100-level class, and this one'll hardly scratch your final GPA. Show me how smart you are by how quickly and succinctly you can impress me. Books closed, phones away. You can leave when you're finished. Let's get the torture started," he says dully.

And in the shuffle, inspiration strikes. Gabriel digs into his bag quickly for his packet of sticky notes, scribbling quickly before shoving himself out of his desk and passing the quizzes out. Then he goes back to his perch and kicks back in his chair, feet up on the desk, pretending to be engrossed in his phone, but he keeps half an eye on Sam, drooped over his paper, writing unceasingly. Until he turns the paper over for the last question.

He pauses. But that's the only reaction there is until he starts writing again. He doesn't so much as glance up towards Gabriel.

He certainly doesn't meet the man's eyes as he finishes his work, collects his belongings, turns in his paper, and shuffles out of the room.

Oh, man. I did bad here, too, Gabriel laments silently. And he holds himself back until all of the papers are turned in and the room is cleared. Then he sorts through the stack until he reaches Sam's paper.

His handwriting still sucks.

Slowly, he flips it over and finds his sticky note.

Sam, I'm sorry for the other day. I didn't know there was a landmine until I'd stepped on it, but that's not an excuse. I saw how stressed out you were and only made it worse, when I wanted to make it better. Should I just fuck off? Circle Y/N.

There's no answer to his plea.

Gabriel sighs. He should'a known it would backfire.

"Gabriel."

Gabriel's head whips up. He blinks. Is he so depressed that he's suddenly hallucinating his desired outcome? Is that a thing that happens? "Uh. Sam?"

Sam is standing in the doorway chewing his bottom lip, face red, but more like an angry maroon than an embarrassed rose. That doesn't bode well. But Gabriel holds his ground. Whatever happens, he's earned it.

Sam stomps forward, eating up the feet between them in no time thanks to his unfairly long legs. He stops right in front of Gabriel's chair.

Gabriel swivels in it, full frontal for the consequences.

Sam's hand flies out, and he smacks Gabriel on the forehead. Then he's gone before the sting even registers for a heartfelt "ow!"

Pink blocks the top of his vision.

Gabriel slowly reaches up and peels the sticky note off of his forehead. Turns his wrist to read it. Study room 3-B tomorrow 4-5 PM. Bring better coffee.

Gabriel picks up his phone, ignoring the slight tremor in his fingers. He dials. Waits. Waits. Pick up, pick up, pick up "Cas! How you doin' now? Feeling any better? Can you get out of bed? I need a favor."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

It's 3:45. Fifteen minutes. Fifteen more minutes. Will Gabriel even show?

Can he do this? Is he capable? Donna had said, "sometimes 'want to' and 'can' are on different pages of the book, so just keep plugging away until you get to that page. There's no shame in that."

It's a good point. A great point. A fantastic point. His leg is starting to jiggle so hard that it's making the whole chair wobble. "There's no shame in that," he whispers to himself. "There's no shame in that."

So can he do this?

Sam squints inwardly. Of-fucking-course he can. He's got a week of Lexapro in his system and Xanax for the rest. He and Donna had agreed that the anxiety was just one tricky situation away from it affecting his daily life, so they'd agreed to low doses of an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. At least for now, it's not worth trying to sail through the storm without some help. He doesn't want his concentration and grades to start dropping before he admits that he needs medication. And it's helping. He's got two months of further weekly appointments with Donna to make sure that everything is improving, and it's a great start.

Want to and can. Start with the small steps. Is this "want to" or "can?"

Want to. It's total want to. Therefore, he should try and see if it's possible to turn it into a "can." Thus, at this point, with something he wants so badly, trying and failing is better than standing Gabriel up. Or maybe getting stood up. That would suck a lot, too.

Get it together. He presses his palm over his chest hard to help regulate his breathing. The unknown doesn't have to be terrifying. If Gabriel isn't there, nothing changes. If he doesn't come, nothing changes. Rejection means that nothing changes. But if he is there... Sam knows the outcome he wants. He's not a self-denying idiot. It's clear to him what - and who - he wants. Freakout the other day aside, Gabriel sparks crazy-good emotions in him as no one's managed to do... well, since Ruby, but he'd rather not think about that. He's working hard to overcome and let go of his past. Forgive himself for being a dumb kid. Donna had said he's allowed to do that, and Dean had only backed her up even more emphatically when Sam had told him all about his session.

So, if Gabriel wants something different, or nothing at all, nothing changes. Sam will go to school and do his work. He'll hang out with his friends. He'll fight with Dean. He'll one day beat Charlie at Mario Kart. He'll go to bed alone every night staring up at the ceiling.

A little bit of change would be really nice.

His eyes are burning and he blinks rapidly, suddenly realizing that he'd been staring at the far wall so zoned out that he'd forgotten to blink. Geez. He glances down at his phone. It's a minute after four. Holy shit, zoning out sure is an effective time-waster.

He stands up, readjusts his messenger bag over his shoulder and heads to the elevator. His heart's racing already, so climbing the stairs would probably only wind him and make him start to sweat.

For as much money as the university has paid to renovate and update the library, the elevator is ancient and slow. And creaky. Maybe he'll get stuck in it and have more time to prepare himself for the unknown.

No such luck.

The elevator doors screech open like it's the last thing they want to do, and Sam's two doors away from his assigned study room.

His palms are prickling with sweat. The blinds are drawn on the window, but there's light coming from under the closed door. If it were unoccupied the door would be open and the lights off. Did the person before him run over their time? Or... Gabriel?

Sam sucks in a breath and holds it as he knocks, just in case he's disturbing a stranger, and opens the door.

"You're here!" Gabriel says, sounding far more shocked than he has any reason to be, though equally as shocked as Sam is. Silence follows. Sam can feel something happening with his face. It makes Gabriel frown and then say, "you gonna stand there gaping like a goldfish, or come in?"

Sam comes in. He shuts the door behind him. For the life of him, he can't take his eyes off of Gabriel. Who is right there in front of him, shifting from foot to foot and unbuttoning the top of his dress shirt with a grimace like it was choking him under his argyle v-neck.

"I..." Sam starts. "You're here, too," he finishes lamely.

"Uh, huh," Gabriel answers just as lamely.

Sam is distracted by the TA's shifting enough that his eyes decide to move again to get the full picture. First off Gabriel in his deliciously nerdy dark gray slacks and sweater vest, and then they're able to wander comfortably around the rest of the room. All the blinds are closed, but for once that doesn't make the room feel claustrophobic. It's cozy. And on the table... "holy crap," Sam murmurs. "I was... kinda joking about the coffee."

That seems to shake Gabriel loose. His frown doesn't change shape. Rather it changes style, the sparkle in his hazel eyes making it far less foreboding. He wags a finger at Sam. "No one who drinks coffee jokes about coffee."

Sam slowly lifts the bag's shoulder strap over his head and sets it to the side. "This... isn't that," he says, starting to smile.

Gabriel steps aside so that Sam can get the whole effect. "Something important that you should know about me, is that I go way overboard when I'm nervous." He actually wrings his hands when he says it.

Sam shoots him a wry look. "You already know I do the same thing. Just... not with food." And then he's in front of the table looking at the array of sandwiches, pastries, cookies, as well as the promised two huge cups of coffee. "From Espresso Lane?" he asks, though he's positive he recognizes the designs on the cups.

Gabriel scratches his ear. "Yeah. I owe Cassie about a million favors now, but he's a bit of a romantic, so..." he trails off when Sam's gaze shoots up to meet his, and Sam can't even imagine it even as he's seeing it, but Gabriel's face is going red.

"Is that what this is?" he asks.

"Only kinda sorta," Gabriel hedges. "It's mostly an apology. For the other day."

Sam turns away from him when his own face starts to roast, instead picking up the coffee cup with his name scrawled on it in calligraphic Sharpie, obviously Gabriel's handwriting. "You don't need to," he says softly. "You really don't. That was all me. I've got a lot to explain."

Gabriel hovers by the table but doesn't sit until Sam does. And even then it's directly across from him with a whole table and a lot of sugary things between them. There's a small basket with non-dairy creamer and what looks like a hundred sugar packets. Gabriel swipes a huge handful for his coffee, while Sam settles for two of each. While they're fixing their drinks Gabriel says, "just because I didn't know what would upset you doesn't mean I can't be sorry for doing it. And I am, for the record."

Sam mulls that over while he stirs his coffee and fits the lid back on. "I appreciate that," he says. "Can we, um... can we backtrack a little?"

Gabriel obviously has no idea what prize Sam is shooting for in the claw machine, but he still rolls along with it and says, "it for go."

Sam opens his mouth to talk, but then registers what Gabriel has said. Sam scowls.

Gabriel grins with a rakish wink.

Sam struggles with his facial muscles again.

"Laugh to you dare I."

Sam sucks both his lips in, but all that does is make his dimples stand out more.

"Bet I could fit a Skittle in those dimples," Gabriel muses.

Sam throws a chocolate croissant at him and Gabriel catches it.

"What is it with you people and your violence towards me with croissants? What did they ever do to any of us besides good, buttery things?"

Sam laughs. "Are you ever serious?"

"Only when I have the confidence to be," Gabriel answers regretfully.

"How did you even manage to think of how to say a whole sentence backwards so quickly?"

"Practice," Gabriel admits. "Used to drive my parents nuts. Buuuut, as much as I love to talk about me, I have a feeling we're getting off topic."

"Yeah," Sam agrees. "I was... I wanted to ask again if you were like... actually interested in me. To date. Or. Whatever."

"There's no 'whatever.' I'm interested."

Sam blows out a breath that doesn't seem to want to leave his lungs. "Same here. There's... stuff, though. Stuff I should be upfront about if we're gonna."

Gabriel leans over the table a bit, the humor leading his face. "It's okay, Sam. If you're not ready, I can back off with the snap of my fingers."

He actually holds his hands up like he's literally going to snap.

Sam reaches over the table and swats his hand down. "I'm ready enough."

"Then, I'm listening."

Sam wraps his fingers around the coffee cup, the warmth giving him a small measure of comfort, which boosts his confidence. "The last time I fell in love with someone, she was also my drug dealer," he starts, letting the worst of it go first. "I know I mentioned I did drugs to you briefly before, but it... it got bad. I OD'd and went to rehab, and then I got myself back on my feet. And Dean, he... well, he's had his own issues. Nothing like drugs, but that's his deal. I can't go into his personal business with you. That'd betray his trust. It's just... we've had to help each other out a lot over the years, and it's stressful, only the two of us. I've, uh... started to go to therapy 'cause I'm basically this huge ball of anxiety now. Meds, hand-holding through all my personal mental shit, the whole nine." He sighs.

Gabriel sighs louder.

Sam peeks up.

Gabriel has his arm on the table, palm turned upwards. "No one's holding you hand, yet. Wanna fix that?"

Before he can talk himself out of it, Sam slides his palm into Gabriel's, and he threads their fingers together, warm from his cup where Gabriel's are cold. It feels fucking amazing. "Solved that," he quips weakly.

Gabriel smiles. "Samwise, there's nothing wrong with taking your massive, brilliant brain to the doctor if it gets sick. And the fact that it was your first reaction rather than flushing yourself down the drain again, speaks volumes. Thanks for telling me."

Cautiously, Sam starts to smile once more. "Thanks for listening."

Gabriel shrugs, squeezing Sam's hand. "I won't push about your brother anymore. You've told me it's over the line, and I'll respect that totally. I wasn't asking about him in good faith, anyway. It was for Cassie."

"Cassie? Castiel?" Sam's eyebrows go up. "Why? He and Dean are... well," he snorts. "They're doing their best."

"That's a word for it," Gabriel says dryly. "Look. I worry about things I don't know enough about," Gabriel answers, shame-faced. "I got it into my head that you and Dean had something shady going on after the way he reacted at the cafe, and then after the way you acted on the roof. Cas gave me a huge dressing down about it, and I backed off of him. But I wanted to clear the air with you, if that was possible."

Sam doesn't draw away, though his instinct is to do so by hearing that Gabriel jumped to the worst case scenario right off the bat. Then he remembers that he's been living with that for years. Dean does because his OCD makes him. Sam does because he hasn't been addressing his anxiety. Gabriel does for some mystery reason, but he seems sincere in his apology, and the desire to do better. "Dean's not dangerous. Neither am I."

"I know," Gabriel assures him. "It was all me and my wanting to find something wrong with every good thing. Self-sabotage and running away were sort of my calling cards."

Sam does pull his hand back at that, and Gabriel let's him like he was expecting the move. "So what happens if and when you want to cut and run with me?" he asks pointedly.

But Gabriel only grins. "Then you call me out on it if you think I'm worth the effort. Cassie does all the damn time, and he should. I don't wanna get scared and run anymore. That's not who I wanna be. If you can handle that, then..." he shrugs. "Sam, I came crawling back to you on metaphorical hands and knees. I've done that move exactly never. I know it probably doesn't mean much as a gesture to you, but in Gabriel-speak, that's bigger than big."

Sam shakes his head with a small laugh. "I believe you. I mean, it's only fair. If you're willing to handle my brain chemistry, I'm willing to handle you acting like some skittish cat."

Gabriel laughs, loud and bright. "Well, then. Looks like it's on."

Sam raises his cup in cheers, cheeks heating up again. "Guess so."

The anxiety now that they can both settle back and process, doesn't come. For once, it doesn't come. Sam leans back in his chair, holds Gabriel's hand over the table, and allows himself to stare. Gabriel doesn't shy away from it in the slightest. In fact, he appears to soak in Sam's study with the air of the DJ who spends his weekends controlling the ecstacy of entire crowds of people. His thin lips curl up in an inviting smile over the rim of his cup, and Sam's eyes are glued to it.

Gabriel puts the cup down and slowly, reaches up with his thumb to swipe at a bit of the foam on the corner of his mouth. He licks it off.

Sam literally launches himself over the table, upsetting the artfully prepared tray of snacks. He's on his stomach like a goddamn fool sprawled out, but it doesn't matter because he has Gabriel's smug, sexy face in his hands. And when he kisses the TA, Gabriel proves to be one of those guys who refuses to waste time. He grabs Sam's wrists to hold him there, tilts his head, and shoves his tongue right into Sam's waiting, grateful mouth.

He doesn't even laugh when Sam wiggles and shimmies over the table, trying to get closer without breaking the kiss. He has to for a second. But only long enough for him to be able to get to his knees, slide off the table, and into Gabriel's lap.

Gabriel, still clinging to Sam's arms, and wide-eyed, whispers, "Sam Winchester," full of wonder.

Sam kisses him again. Arches his spine to show off his height even in this position. Gabriel's head tilts back, exposing his throat. God, Sam wants to explore that, but his mouth. That first. Maybe that forever. Short butterfly pecks, followed by longer, intense chaste presses, followed by nipping, biting, sincere desire.

And to his own great dismay, and mild confusion, Sam is the one to bring it to a close. Over a long time, though. Holy shit, he feels like he's going to die and live and sink like a rock and float like a balloon all at the same time.

"Wow," Gabriel rasps, shell-shocked.

"Yeah," Sam says just as hoarsely.

Gabriel clears his throat. "Uh... just so you know. If you wanna keep doing that, we can keep doing that."

Sam grins. "We're gonna keep doing that."

Gabriel grins back, though for once, has no smartass comeback.

Sam counts that as the biggest compliment ever.

Chapter Text

Once he's decided that he doesn't like being dumped by Dean, Castiel finds that it's much easier to research ways to talk him out of it. He's caffeinated, he's determined, and by Thursday, he's got almost a full binder of notes, a headache, and he's overwhelmed. There's a lot to take in. Dean wasn't lying about that. There's more than a lot. There's way too much. Even when Castiel tries to focus his research on the symptoms he remembers Dean mentioning, it's daunting. It appears that there are as many compulsions and rituals as there are people who have them. But a few thing do stick out.

Medications and therapy are most often used to treat severe cases, like what Dean has. That's encouraging.

He knows his limits. He has a solid support structure. He's honest and forthright, and if not for the way the conversation ended, Castiel might have even called him brave. Those are all good signs, though Castiel isn't sure where he fits into all of this; what had prompted Dean to step forward.

Over and over again he's seen references to "safe people." Scholarly articles talk about them, personal blogs from people with OCD, doctors, advocate websites, and all of them - at least in part - make it sound like Castiel is one of those very people for Dean.

Is he?

He's not entirely comfortable asking Dean directly after it had taken so much out of him to even admit his illness. And telling him about it obviously doesn't mean he trusts Castiel with it, if summarily dumping afterwards is any indication.

However.

The talking, the trust, the flirting, the date. That has to prove something, right? Many of the articles had mentioned that sometimes safe people aren't even aware of being one. Especially those who are a part of a daily routine by rote. Like a preferred customer service representative at a favored restaurant or store. Exactly like Castiel. He had worked around Dean's rituals without fuss and without even knowing it, and that consistency had led to Dean considering Castiel a safe person to deal with. Someone who doesn't immediately trigger anxiety or catastrophic thoughts.

Of course, most of the articles stressed that safe people who have a more "casual" relationships with the person with OCD can't, and shouldn't, be expected to take on any sort of caretaker role. Nor should they be judged at fault for inadvertently causing distress.

Castiel doesn't feel that way. He hadn't known about Dean even when they'd gone on their date, so he's not blaming himself for upsetting Dean in any way. In fact, he hadn't upset Dean at all. Dean had upset himself. And inadvertently Castiel, but he can forgive that because Dean was right. It is a lot to handle. All he knows by the end of his research time is that he wants to be given the chance to try and see if he can handle it. Dean seems worth it.

Now. How to convince him of that? The best case scenario is that Dean will continue his tradition of coming to Espresso Lane and Castiel can corner him to talk. Worst case is that he finds somewhere else to go and blocks Castiel's phone number. He certainly hasn't been answering any texts the past few days aside from the last one. To that, Dean had simply said, I'm sorry. I need space. I'm sorry. Castiel can respect that. To a point. He hadn't been given the chance to explain his own side or tell Dean of his own feelings, and that's not fair. Relationships should be fair. Castiel's always believed that. So if he does have to catch Dean unawares just once, he'll do it. Then he'll get back to agreeing with fairness and everyone else's feelings. Until then, he'll take what he's got to work with. Which isn't much, but dammit, he's going to try.

Of course, by the time he's allowed back at work without his employees giving him suspicious leaning-away looks and threatening him with bottles of Lysol, he's completely lost his nerve. Dean doesn't show up at the coffee shop for days, and Castiel's willpower goes right out the window come lunch. He calls Dean, but it goes straight to voicemail.

At least it's not blocked.

But now he's worried. And it doesn't go away. It settles heavy in his chest and lingers.

He can't go on like this. So, he draws up his shoulders and bites the bullet. He texts Gabriel. You said you owe me for that surprise I helped you set up for Sam. I'm cashing in.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean is getting really sick and tired of fucking panic attacks. The second he'd hung up the phone on Castiel, he'd had one. Then he'd had another one in the shower that night before going to bed when he'd allowed his mind wander. Then, the second he'd opened his eyes the next morning, immediately realizing what he'd done, he'd had another panic attack before he'd even had the chance to open his eyes.

By the time he's able to coordinate his limbs enough to push up onto his elbows and dry swallow a Xanax, his stomach is in serious danger of giving him a repeat of his dinner, and his palms are so itchy with sweat that he drops the pill bottle twice. Then his cell phone slips out of his hands.

One thing, he tries to tell himself. Do this one thing, and it'll all be better. He swipes his phone off the floor, pokes at it, barely coordinated enough to text Bobby and tell him that he needs to take a sick day. He also texts Sam to not try and get him up, even though his room is right next door. Sam prefers face to face communication, but this is one thing he lets Dean get away with, to his older brother's eternal gratitude.

Finished with that, he shuts the phone off completely and tosses it to the other side of the bed. Mission accomplished. He curls himself up into the covers as tightly as possible, squeezes his eyes shut, stays as still as a statue, and breathes shallowly out of his mouth.

He's shaking so hard that his teeth chatter, and he clenches his jaw to stop it, which gives him a headache, which only adds to the oily miasma of guilt and worry plaguing him. It's not a backslide, you'll be fine, he thinks, repeating it over and over in his head with a rhythmic, sing-song lilt. Hoping, praying that his meds will knock him out again soon. Sleeping off the panic attack might make the anxiety surrounding it much easier to address. Because right now? He can't. He can't address anything. He's never thought that retreat is the best option, but at the very least, his brain doesn't give a shit about those small potatoes for the moment. Sure, it'll add to the pile of miseries later, but it can't keep him awake anymore when the pills pull him under into a dreamless, sweat-inducing sleep.

When he wakes up again, he resolutely turns his face away from the window and the clock with a groan. The beaming sun warms the back of his head almost immediately, so he inherently knows that it's some time in the afternoon.

Don't think about the wasted day, he orders himself. Just breathe. Waking up like this sucks since his defenses are down and it takes a conscious effort to keep from having another exhausting panic attack five seconds after waking. Don't let the intrusive thoughts take over immediately. Don't let the anxiety flood back in right away. Don't think about missing work. Don't think about Sam. Don't start making a mental list of the things that aren't getting done. Don't allow it to swallow you whole.

It doesn't comfort him to remember that everyone will understand. That everyone does understand. That everyone only wants for him to be as healthy as he can be. Somehow, that often accomplishes little more than making him feel even worse.

It's a goddamn vicious cycle.

His brain shies away from the positivity, so Dean starts belligerently muttering to himself aloud.

Donna says, "If you need to make a bad list, at least make a good list first."

"One, Sam'll be fine on his own. He's an adult and can get himself to classes and cook himself food without my help. Two, Bobby has plenty of people to help out at the garage when I can't be there. Three, this is a legit sick day. Your fucking stupid, intrusive, piece of shit brain, is sick again." Donna would take away a lollipop for the self-deprecation, but it induces a fierce sense of control in Dean sometimes, so he rolls with it when he's by himself.

It helps now, though when he shifts to kick the covers off of his feet, his stomach reminds him that he's still too on edge to do anything as ambitious as moving around. Gingerly, he reaches out for his cell phone and powers it back on. He waits, and a couple minutes later, the message sound pings several times. He tips the screen up and squints at it. There are texts from Sam and Bobby as well as the ones he hasn't read from Castiel.

Bobby (9:02 AM):
Don't come back until you're 100%. Nothing that can't wait on you. Take as much time as you need. I mean it.

Dean breathes out at that.

Sam (10:58 AM):
Made it to classes fine. I'll be quiet when I get home. Let me know if you need anything.

And that's it. His family knows him. They love him. They want him to be happy.

Unbidden, tears spring to Dean's eyes. He doesn't think there's anyone else in the whole wide world outside of his family who treats his mental illness like a normal thing. They don't act like they're working around it or catering to it. They've accepted it and treat him like... well, like he's normal. Like this is just how it has to be with him, and it's fine. That sort of acceptance doesn't come easy, and throws into stark relief how few people there are who can be like that. Who are capable of being like that when they're not like him.

He groans at himself and shakes his head vigorously, the rub crackling static and sticking his hair to his forehead. No use feeling sorry for yourself now. It is what it is. He'll handle it. He always does.

Of course, that doesn't make it any easier when he's still in bed hours later and Sam comes home. Dean can feel the rumble of the garage door opening and he pauses his music, slipping the headphones down around his neck. He's not really ready to talk about what happened, even though he's more relieved than he cares to admit that Sam's home safe.

The usual noises of doors opening and closing follow, the heavy feet on old stairs. He can hear his little brother dither for a minute outside of his room thanks to a squeaky floorboard, and then he walks away.

Dean sucks in a hard breath. His loved ones accept how he is, but still always worry about it. He slides out of the bed and pokes his head into the hallway.

Sam's standing in front of his own bedroom, hand on the knob, entire upper body slumped forward.

"Hey," Dean says softly.

Sam's shoulders jump. "Hey," he answers, not looking back. "I swear I won't grill you. I just wanted to make sure that you were okay."

"I will be." Dean shrugs and leans against the wall. "Thanks for, y'know. Not pushing."

Sam nods. "You want something for dinner?"

"Maybe something small. I'm still a little..."

"I get it," Sam assures him. He glances quickly at Dean and Dean can see the questions he so badly wants to ask. But he won't for Dean's sake.

In that moment, he's pretty fucking tired of all the egg shells they're walking on, too. "It was about Cas," he offers.

Sam turns fully. "I'm so sorry." The worst part is, he sounds like he means it. Like Dean's inability to foster relationships is weighing on Sam.

It shouldn't be that way. Dean scuffs his toe against the carpet four times. Then the other one to make it even. "I wasn't ready to tell him, but I had to. I didn't have a choice."

Sam braces his hands on his hips. "He didn't take it well?"

"He took it just fine," Dean corrects angrily. "It was all me. Once I started talking... telling him everything that's..." he breaks off, tapping his forehead with his fist. "Getting it out in the open. It sounded like too much."

Sam's eyes widen. "So, you what? Dumped him?"

"Yeah," Dean says. Dean challenges.

To his utter shock, Sam backs out right away. "That's your choice," he says far too reasonably. "You do what's best for you, and we can figure out the rest. Anyway, I'm starving. I'm gonna make dinner." He shoves his door open, tosses his messenger bag inside, and then leaves immediately to go back downstairs.

Dean watches him without comment. He wanders aimlessly back into his room, scrubbing his hands over his face wearily. Somehow, he has to do better than this.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

It's fitting that the first true winter weather of the season rolls in while Castiel is in the doldrums of his life. The snow always did cause him a measure of dramatic melancholy. His heart isn't in his work, which is undoubtedly strange for him in the first place, but he can't stop thinking about the binder sitting on the desk in his back office behind the locked door. Protecting his idiocy. Protecting Dean's privacy for just in case. All that time and information and no way to talk to Dean about it.

Thankfully, Gabriel has answered his call beautifully and shows up at the end of Castiel's shift. Castiel drags his best friend into kitchen and back up to his apartment, slamming the door behind him. He swings around, and without preamble, says, "what can I do if someone's being stubborn about their medical condition and won't talk to me about it?"

Gabriel blinks twice. "Nothing?" he ventures.

Castiel frowns. "There must be something that I can do. Come on, you dropped out of medical school, and you wanted to be a psychiatrist, right? You must have learned a trick or two."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Gabriel says, "I learned a lot of tricks back then. But you can't coerce someone into disclosing their medical condition to you. It's unethical. You can't force Dean to talk to you just because you want in his pants."

Letting out an angry sigh, Castiel says, "it's not about that. Dean's already told me what's wrong. He just won't let me do anything about it."

Gabriel ambles over to the sofa and flops into it. "What can you do about it? You're not a doctor, last time I checked."

Here, Castiel falters. "It's... it's not a physical... I can't betray Dean's confidence."

"You sure as shit can't," Gabriel agrees. "Not if you want in his pants."

Castiel collapses down beside him with an ugly noise. "What can I do to open the lines of communication, then? Just... he didn't let me say anything. It's not fair."

"Neither's life, but we're still living it," Gabriel quips.

Castiel frowns harder. "I'm glad you quit med school. You would have been a terrible therapist."

"You're right," Gabriels grins. "I'm far too selfish and only wanted to learn about my own problems, anyway. Cas." He tucks his right leg under his left to face Castiel completely. "I agree that you should get to have your say in a relationship. But, depending on what's up with Dean, he might actually know what's best for the both of you. Or at least for him. And you might have to square with the fact that what's best for him ain't you."

"Do you think it is?" Castiel counters fiercely.

"No," Gabriel answers immediately, bless him. "Frankly, I think that you're only capable of improving anyone's life. Could be my bias."

"I'm going to take it as fact," Castiel answers with the beginnings of a smile. "Do you think... maybe I could go old school? Would you be willing to revert back to our teenage years and pass a note for me?"

Gabriel grins, eyes alight with mischief. "I'll do you one better. Just give me a day."

And as promised, the following morning, Castiel is just putting the first of the pastries into the display case when Sam Winchester breezes into the coffee shop looking apprehensive, yet determined. "Hey, Cas," he says, bypassing the line and stepping to the side of the service counter. Castiel slides over to meet him.

"Sam. It's good to see you."

Sam smiles, but the gesture doesn't so much as touch his eyes. "I wish I could say the same, but I'm not entirely comfortable with what Gabe's asking me to do."

Castiel's hand flies over the counter, grabbing Sam's wrist as if he's about to flee. "I'm not asking you to go behind Dean's back. I only... how is he?"

Sam's face scrunches. Then crumbles a little. His broad shoulders slump. "That's why I bothered to come in the first place. He's been home the whole week so far. Even when he was..." he glances from side to side to ensure that no one's paying them any special attention. Then he leans over the counter, Castiel mirroring the movement. "I haven't seen him like this in years. He's really got himself down this time."

Castiel also mirrors Sam's slump upon hearing that. "Perhaps he was correct, then? Is... am I not any good for him?"

"That's the thing," Sam says with furtive intensity. "I think he's down because he's trying to convince himself that you're not any good for him, but you are. And when Gabriel gave me the rundown, well... it seems like you're willing to try. That's good enough for me. What do you need from me? As long as it's not stepping over Dean's boundaries, I'll do it."

Grinning with sudden relief, Castiel digs into his apron and pulls out an envelope. "Please give him this letter."

Sam raises his eyebrows as he takes it. "Wow. A real paper and pen love letter?"

Castiel laughs, feeling his cheeks heat. "It's the only option I could come up with."

Sam slips the letter into his bag. "It might work better than anything else. He's kind of a sappy romantic sometimes."

"He took me stargazing on our first date," Castiel smirks. "I'd already guessed that much."

Sam laughs a little. "No kidding."

"Thank you for doing this," Castiel says sincerely.

"Don't thank me yet," Sam argues. "He's a stubborn asshole. It takes more than a heartfelt love letter to get him out of his head."

Castiel shakes his head, still smiling. "Well, maybe that one will be his kind of sappy."

"I'll give it to him as soon as I get home," Sam promises.

"That's all I ask," Castiel answers, stepping back.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean's putting clean sheets on his bed when he hears Sam stomping up the stairs. He cringes inwardly a little, expecting a knock on his door and another plea to at least leave his room for a little while. After four days, Dean does admit that he's stretching it further than he should. He's had a phone session with Donna, and her urging was a lot more harsh than his brother's.

He's earned that.

He's also earned whatever lecture Sam decides to dump on him for being shut away for an extended period of time. He's ready for it.

Therefore, he's shocked when Sam's footsteps stop in front of his door but no knock follows. There's a slight shuffling sound, and then the footsteps fade away. He hears Sam's door shut and he sits up in bed, curious. He sees the envelope on the floor. What the hell?

Dean leans forward and flops onto his stomach. He wiggles forward until he can reach his arm out. His fingertips touch the envelope and he drags it closer with a grunt, scrambling with his fingers until he's got it. He sits up, and reads his name printed neatly on the front in handwriting that he's unfamiliar with. He slides his thumbnail under the flap and opens the seal, pulling out a sheet of notebook paper.

Dear Dean,

I've started this letter a dozen times, and I'm still not sure exactly what I want to say. I've been thinking this whole time about ways to convince you that I'm not scared of your mental state, or you, or whatever future we could build together. Then I realized that I was taking the wrong approach. Please feel free to correct me if I get any points wrong. These are just my thoughts and feelings.

I believe that you're not scared of me or what I bring to the table. You're scared of you. You're thinking in terms of what you can't give me, rather than what you can. But everyone has things they can't do. I firmly believe that relationships aren't about what we can/can't give or take. It's about where we overlap in our lives. Sometimes the overlap is enough and the relationship flourishes. Sometimes it's not, and it doesn't. Either one is okay, but we never got a chance to get to that point, and I personally feel like that's a huge loss. You don't have to agree, but I'd like to talk that out, too.

I've done an embarrassing amount of research on your illness. For days I've been reading every word that I could find about OCD and the symptoms that you mentioned. I won't lie to you (not ever, about anything) and pretend that I wasn't overwhelmed by it, because I was. However, I kept coming back to the term "safe person." And I realized that, whether intended or not, I am that kind of person to you.

That doesn't scare me, Dean. I need you to know that. I need you to try and believe that. I'm not scared. I feel like I can be that for you, as much as you'll let me. I want to be that for you. And I don't see why I can't be that with whipped cream on top. Pardon the pun.

I can't change what you feel or how you cope. That's not my right. But no matter what happens, I don't want you out of my life forever. Please. Let's talk. You know where to find me.

Castiel

Dean reads the letter again. His first instinct is to deny everything in it. But these are Castiel's feelings, and he can't discount those. Everyone's allowed to feel how they feel.

And Dean's allowed to feel like Castiel is making a rookie mistake here. Crushes make everything seem doable. Unfortunately, he's not doable. Okay, yes, he is doable. But his headspace totally isn't. Too messy both literally and figuratively.

Everything's a mess. Everything's a fucking mess

And it's not any less of a mess when he plops down on Donna's sofa with the sound and posture of a deflating balloon the following day. "I'm fucked," he says.

Donna smiles. "Nah, that doesn't sound right to me."

"Well, then, let me tell you the whole story so that you can agree with me."

Donna picks up her tablet. "Have at it!"

Dean does. Does he ever. He tells Donna every single word of what transpired with Castiel, going so far as showing her the letter.

Her reaction is the opposite of what he wants when she reads it and gives a heartfelt, "awww! This is adorable! He really is sweet on you!"

"Not helping," Dean grouches.

Donna rolls her eyes and passes the note back. "I'm a therapist, not an enabler," she says flatly. "So, let's not beat around the bush. Do ya want him, or not?"

Dean rolls his eyes right back at her. "That's totally beside the point."

"Except where it's not, and is actually the whole point."

Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. "Donna, please."

She jabs her stylus at him. "Don't pull that bull with me. Look, kiddo, I know this ain't easy for you. An uphill battle is an uphill battle. But all I heard you talking about was you. Unless you left out the real end of the conversation you had with him, you didn't so much as let him say 'boo' before you decided both of your fates all on your own."

Dean leans forward on the sofa agitatedly. "Since when have I not been allowed to make decisions for myself?"

"You've been allowed since day one, until you decided to make it a twofor. You can't make a unilateral decision in a relationship. You can have your say, he can have his, and then you're supposed to find the middle ground. And I know you know that already, so what's the deal?"

Dean stares at her. Donna repeats the process, though she's a lot better at not blinking.

Sighing, Dean says, "I'm fucking terrified of him."

That perks Donna right back up because she's a goddamn sadist. "Some truth! I like talking about true things!"

"What the hell am I supposed to do?" Dean says plaintively, spreading his hands. "I like him! I fucking like this guy! But I can't-" he rubs his head vigorously. "I can barely be around him. If anyone except like, five people, get within two feet of me, I get fucking hives and practically have to burn my clothes afterwards. I won't be able to kiss him. I won't be able to have sex with him. I won't be able to be a boyfriend, so tell me what in God's name I'm supposed to fight for here?"

Donna's eyes narrow in that weird way where Dean can recognize that she's angry, but he still can't convince himself that she knows how to be real person mad. "Have you talked to Jody about this, because OT is her bag, and this is exactly what she's for. Do you wanna be a defeatist or do you eventually wanna smoosh faces with this guy?"

Dean folds in on himself, head in hands. "I wanna fuck him so bad, you have no idea."

With a laugh, Donna says, "I got a hint."

Dean groans. "All right. Advice?"

She smacks him in the arm with a green lollipop. "Talk to him. And then get with Jody. She can help you with all the mental creepy crawlies you get around him."

It sounds so easy when she says it that way. He takes the lollipop.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

It's midweek by the time Castiel's depression gets a break. Dean Winchester walks into Espresso Lane during the lull after lunch when everything's so slow that all the employees actually look forward to cleaning around the store.

The second Castiel tells himself to play it cool, he doesn't by almost vaulting over the counter. "Dean!"'

Thankfully there are no heads around to turn because of the very uncool shouting. Dean stuffs his hands into his jean pockets and stares down at the floor. Which is very clean because boring afternoon and all. "Hey, Cas," he says quietly.

Castiel plants his palms firmly on the counter to physically stop himself from approaching. But he wants to. He really, really wants to. "I'm so sorry," he rushes to say so quickly that he bites the inside of his lip. Still, he pushes forward. "I'm sorry for everything. I didn't mean to-"

"Whoa!" Dean holds his hands up in a stopping motion. "You've literally done nothing to apologize for. It's all me."

Shaking his head emphatically, Castiel says, "just because I didn't know what was going on with you, doesn't mean I can't be sorry for causing you stress. I am. I care about the effect I have on people."

The hint of a smile touches Dean's lips. "That's, uh... that's an awesome thing to say. I... appreciate it."

Taking a chance, Castiel ventures, "can we talk?"

The hands go back in the pockets again. "Yeah. That's why I'm here."

Heart in his throat, Castiel says, "please don't dump me."

Dean blinks at him. There's a war going on with his expressions, and all Castiel can do to keep up is stare back with all the hope and desperation he has. A short snicker wins out, and to Castiel, it's music to his ears. "How could I? I mean, no one's ever looked so pathetic about it."

Good feeling gone. Castiel scowls. "I'm trying to be one hundred percent honest with you."

"Dude, you look like I just took away your Christmas puppy."

"I'm a cat person," he counters acidly.

Dean grins. "I fucking knew you were."

Castiel crosses his arms over his chest. "Are you always this much of an assbutt?"

More of that rude laughter. "Assbutt? Huh. Yeah. You still wanna date me?"

"Yes."

Dean looks surprised. Frankly, Castiel is surprised. Not by the feeling, naturally. He wants Dean like cat wants a sunbeam. He's just surprised at how easily he's able to admit it. A week of being parched can sure change a man.

"Okay," Dean says slowly.

Castiel steps around the counter so that nothing separates them anymore. But he still doesn't come too close. He can read the tension in Dean's body from a mile away. So he simply stands back and rests his hip against the granite. "Are you sure?"

Dean becomes fascinated with his boots again. "I'm sure I wanna try," he mumbles. "Not a glowing review, I guess, but that's all I got right now. I can't promise you anything." The shame is as clear as day.

"Sure you can," Castiel disagrees with all the false bravado in the world. "You can promise to be open with me. Talk with me and work with me on this. If you can promise that, then I can promise you the same. I'll never leave you wondering."

"Fair," Dean says to his shoelaces. "In all honesty, you were right about me. I am scared. But..." his green eyes glance up and it makes Castiel's heart skip a beat. "I think it's that good kind of scared that's gotten me this far."

Inexplicably, Castiel can feel his face prickle with heat. "I... I'm flattered."

He holds Castiel's gaze and stares. Searches his face for something that he's not sure if he's found or not. He needs to figure it out so he says, "can I ask one more time if you're sure?"

Castiel nods. "Are you trying to ask me if I think I can handle going out with you?"

Dean puffs an exasperated laugh. "Saw right through me." He scuffs his foot on the floor. "I can barely handle myself half the time. Dunno what I'm gonna do in an actual relationship."

Shaking his head, Castiel smiles. "That's okay. We can work on it together. Take is as slow as you need. And I promise to respect your boundaries because you being able to handle yourself isn't my problem. Me being able to handle you is. And, Dean? I can handle you."

Dean sucks in a huge breath through his teeth. "So. Saturday?"

A wide, gummy grin spreads across Castiel's face. "Absolutely. Somewhere we can talk more? lay out a battle plan?"

Dean nods with a slight shrug. "Suppose we should hash some things out. And... maybe somewhere I'm comfortable."

"Like where?"

"Maybe... here?" He peers around. Then back to Castiel. "Or... not? I mean, the place you work isn't the best setting for a date."

"It's fine!" Castiel rushes to assure him. "We have to be a little bit creative while we're figuring this out, and if that means a candlelit dinner here rather than a restaurant, I understand. Here's fine."

Finally, Dean's smile touches his eyes. "Yeah, okay. Yeah. Thanks, Cas."

Castiel moves back behind the counter, standing much taller than he has been for a week. "Seven on Saturday. Don't be late."

Chapter Text

Sam likes to think that he's above using people to get what he wants, but he really isn't. Especially not with his grades on the line. He's weeks away from adding a specialized internship with Nick to his already full schedule, and the rest of his professors are starting to double down before midterms; rushing their schedules and piling on the homework and assignments like no one's business.

The student center is noisy and suffocating. Fall has been pretty literal lately, the sky dumping torrential downpours at all hours of the day and night. It's taken the temperatures with it, and brought almost a thousand desperately sleep-deprived students indoors to flood the cafe in the same way that the rain is flooding the streets.

Therefore, Sam is grabbing nepotism with both hands. TA's and professors have first pick of the study rooms. So, when Sam had kind of idly mentioned to Gabriel that the cloying atmospheres in the student center was making him more anxious, Gabriel had taken it upon himself to place a standing three hour reservation in "their" study room on the third floor of the library. He hadn't needed to go that far, though even he'd become pinch-lipped and annoyed when the librarians had given up trying to shush the masses of students in the main areas.

The only thing that stops the guilt from taking over is Sam's flimsy justification that Gabriel is as annoyed with the constant noise as he is.

Also, it's damn good to have some alone time with him during daylight hours however it happens. It might be scheduled, but it's daily, and it's the only time that Sam can feel his heart fully rest without a hint of anxiety. Except for the exams, quizzes, papers, and projects barreling down on him faster and faster.

"Hey, Gabriel, are you the kind of guy who'll give up trade secrets for bribes?"

Gabriel turns his head towards Sam and pushes his glasses down the bridge of his nose, eyeing him over the frames. He's got his feet kicked up on the table as always, a box of doughnuts between them, and the largest cups of coffee that Espresso Lane offers. "At the risk of never getting a bribe from you again, which sucks 'cause I bet they're sexy, yes, I give up trade secrets. And depending on what you want me to betray my kind for, you might not have to bribe me at all."

Sam sighs, rubbing his temples. "Midterms only exist to torture students, right? There's no functional purpose to them, is there?"

Gabriel laughs. "Then it's group torture because who do you think has to suffer through the aftermath of grading what's left of y'all killing off your brain cells with caffeine and all nighters?" He holds up the stack of essays he's been grading, smacking them with the back of his hand. "You think I wanna do this all day and night? It's freaking painful."

"Good point," Sam mutters. His forehead hits down on the table. It's been doing that a lot lately. Maybe he should have brought a pillow.

Gabriel's fingers stroke through the hair on the crown of his head. "You'll make it, my friend. You'll ace everything and be a teacher's pet for... well, for someone who's not me because you're not into kink, but whatever. You'll get your degree and be amazing at everything you do forever."

Chuckling, Sam reaches up to cover Gabriel's hand with his own, peeking up and resting his chin on the table, which is only marginally more comfortable. "You're surprisingly great at pep talks."

Gabriel shrugs. "If you dropped out and lost faith in everything, my life here would get way too boring."

Squinting, Sam hums thoughtfully. "Why do I find you sexy when you're being selfish?"

Gabriel laughs. "Dunno. You don't get enough of that in your life and you aspire to it?"

"You should have gone into therapy."

Sitting back further to let the chair legs rise up and then slam back down, Gabriel says, "I almost did." With a confusing amount of pride, he continues. "I dropped out of med school and everything!"

Sam's eyes widen. "And you were gonna be, what? A psychiatrist?"

Gabriel jabs a finger at him. "No free therapy. You don't want me shrinking your head, anyway. There's a reason I dropped out."

Sam sits up properly, Gabriel's hand sliding down so that Sam can thread their fingers together. "Feel like telling me why?"

Gabriel offers up his other hand and tangles all their fingers together. "I'm assuming you want the real story instead of the song and dance that I give to everyone else?"

"You can lie if you wanna," Sam says, heart clenching slightly. He realizes that they don't have enough ground below them to really have these heart to hearts, but he wants to. He's always been an all or nothing kind of guy. It's probably why his dating life has been pretty lackluster since the "everyone bares their soul" years of high school, but he can't help it. And admittedly, he's held back plenty in his last several experiences. Ruby knew jack all about him, which is definitely a good thing, but he'd had some other brief relationships that could have gone somewhere if he'd invested himself more. It's only that the urge hadn't been there. In the end, he hadn't felt like there would have been a point because he'd been going out to... well, go out. Get away from home and his problems and Dean's problems. Now? He wants to be with Gabriel for himself. Maybe that puts an unfair burden on Gabriel, though whatever he offers, Sam will willingly offer back.

"I'm not gonna lie to you," Gabriel grins. "I mean, not about this. I'll only lie about stupid shit that makes me sound cooler."

Sam rolls his eyes with a chuckle. "You really don't have to tell me."

"Nah, it's fine. So... there's this adage that people only go into psychology to figure out what's wrong with them, and I totally fell into that cliche. At first I thought my desire to help people would counteract my selfish wants, buuuuuut... it wasn't. I didn't give a shit about helping other people. I was worried I'd get my license, go into private practice, and then all I'd ever tell anyone was, 'life's a bitch, and then you die. Get over it.' And be the worst therapist in history."

Sam laughs. "Okay, but can I point out that you're helping people anyway?"

Gabriel scoffs, jerking his hands away and huffing with a beautiful pout. "Shut your gorgeous mouth, you piece of shit. I open my heart to you and you insult me this way?"

"You're a teacher!" Sam laughs harder.

"That's not helping, that's torturing, I thought we established this?"

"We did. Thanks for telling me, though."

Gabriel's eyes narrow. "You're thankful for the weirdest stuff."

"Maybe you don't think it's a big deal, but I definitely think sharing personal stuff is something to thank someone for."

Those hazel eyes slit further. "You sure you're not just with me to get at Castiel? That's much more his jam than mine."

"Psh, Cas is way too tall. If I can't put you in my pocket, I'm not interested."

Gabriel grins again. "He wouldn't appreciate your humor, anyway. Too much sass."

"And you think Dean will be good for him if that's the case?"

"They have to actually get together first," Gabriel retorts.

Sam can see that he doesn't mean anything by it, but he winces anyway. "Yeah, it's entirely possible that might not happen."

"Hey," Gabriel says. "We did what we could for them. They'll find dry land eventually."

And... that's it. He doesn't prod. Doesn't push. Looks like he isn't going to tack anything onto the end of that sentence at all. Huh. It makes a strange kind of warmth unfurl in Sam's chest. Eventually he says, "you've got a lot of faith in them."

"I don't know Dean, but I know Cassie. And the way he was acting about it? He ain't going down so easy on this. He's got real grownup feelings for your big bro. That doesn't happen to him all that often."

"That's actually really comforting to hear," Sam admits. "I think that what Dean needs most is for someone who might stick. Plus, he's so into Castiel that I almost can't stand it."

Gabriel winks. "Well, lucky they have us to help."

"Frankly, I'm jealous of them," Sam says primly.

"Oh, hard same," Gabriel says equally as primly. He grins wider.

Sam grins back. "Wanna make out?"

Gabriel reaches forward slowly, intense eye contact the whole way, and he opens Sam's textbook. "That's a privilege reserved for people who aren't worried about failing chemistry."

Despairingly, Sam pleads, "study break in one hour?"

Gabriel winks and taps the book. "Get to work, stud."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

As soon as he gets home, Dean is waiting for him. Like, actually waiting for him in the kitchen, squared off with the garage entry door. Arms folded across his chest. Feet planted. "Have you studied enough today, nerd?" he demands.

Sam stops short, hand still on the knob. "Uh. I guess?"

"Good. Jody's coming over. I need you on my team."

Sam rolls his eyes. "I'm not enabling you anymore, remember? We stopped that years ago."

"It's not for enabling, I swear."

Sam eases his bag off of his shoulder, sets it aside, and closes the door. "Then why do you need me? You and Jody usually have your own thing."

Dean droops. "She was so, like... excited when I asked for help to deal with Cas." He makes a wide berth around Sam.

Sam goes to the sink to wash his hands, eyebrows tipped up. "For real?"

He scoffs. "It makes me nervous."

"So, you need backup."

"Will you?"

Sam shrugs and dries his hands off on a paper towel. "Sure. I mean, seeing Jody super excited and smiling will be pretty damn amazing. Or scary. I dunno. She kinda scares me sometimes."

Dean swings his arm wide to smack Sam's shoulder. "Me too, little brother. She'll be here soon."

That's enough for him. Sam decides to jump on dinner before taking a shower, though Dean prefers clean clothes and bodies before tromping all over communal areas. However, they've been working on it slowly since Sam often has later days at school, thus Dean's been discovering that he'd rather deal with the chance of germs than significantly changing the chore wheel. Those consequences would be much broader spectrum than cooking dinner in the clothes they wore for the day.

He'd prepped most of the food before leaving in the morning, so all he has to do is peel the potatoes, set those and the green beans to simmer, and mix up the meatloaf before shoving it into the over. Twenty minutes later he's in the shower, the water pressure beating away the knots in his shoulders. It's such a relief. Since he started school, showers have easily become his favorite part of the day. But just in case Jody arrives early, he doesn't take his time. At least he doesn't have the time to let his mind wander to his own problems. That's better addressed once he has a full stomach and a good night's sleep. And maybe after his antidepressant dosage has been upped to level him out more.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Jody arrives just as Sam comes back downstairs to finish cooking. Dean mutters, "go time," as he passes by to answer the doorbell. He wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans before pulling the door open.

She appears in the kitchen a moment later, Dean trailing behind her, and she definitely has the biggest smile that any of them have ever witnessed on her. "So!" she chirps as cheerfully as she can manage, which is nothing on Donna, but more than Sam or Dean can do. "I hear that both the Winchester boys are hitting it big out there in the romance department!"

While her back is turned washing her hands, Sam scowls at Dean. "I'm not a part of this."

"Throwing you under the bus softened the blow," Dean says, unrepentant.

"Traitor," Sam snipes, looking a bit more pissed than he usually would be over such small things. "Fine." He turns his fakest, most megawatt smile on Jody. "I'm doing much better at it than Dean, thank you! How are you?"

"Peachy!" Jody answers in exactly the same tone.

"Please join us for dinner," Sam continues.

"That would be wonderful!"

"I get it!" Dean complains loudly. When both his brother and his therapist turn their questioning gazes on him, he continues at a lower volume, studiously measured tone. "Sam, I'm sorry for selling you out. Jody, thank you for coming to help me, and me alone."

Jody and Sam's fake smiles fade to real ones. "That's much better," Jody says. "I can help with everything except deflection."

"Do your thing," Sam says magnanimously. "Dinner'll be up soon." He moves to the cabinets and pulls down three plates and bowls. It's a slick method of staying out of the way while he pretends not to eavesdrop. It's a lot easier for Dean to handle the spying when it's done right in front of him without looking over his shoulder.

The hovering drives him fucking nuts. He gestures for Jody to take a seat at the kitchen table. She does so while Sam moves around them, setting the table and then going back to the stove.

"So what's the deal?" Jody asks, whipping out her notebook and pen, ready to get right down to business. "Am I here for brainstorming, action plans, exposure therapy, or what?"

"Good question," Dean answers sardonically.

"Good start," Jody says dryly.

Sam rolls up Dean's silverware in a napkin before handing it off to him, touching it as little as possible before setting places for Jody and himself. "You're seeing him Saturday, right?"

Dean nods once. "That's the plan. So, how do I make it all not fall apart? Y'know. Again."

Jody leans back in her hair. "Plenty of ways. Where are you going with him?"

"Espresso Lane."

Jody's eyes light up. "Classic coffee date?"

"Dinner date," Dean corrects.

Sam sets down serving dishes with green beans and mashed potatoes on the center of the table. "Is he really fine having a date at his own store?"

"He said so," Dean shrugs. "Look, I know it's lame, but Cas is on board. He said anything that would make me comfortable. I know the cafe, and it'll be after hours, and I'll bring the food, so it's no big deal."

"It's not lame, it's smart," Jody says, giving Sam a pointed look.

Sam waves it off and brings over the meatloaf. "I said I'd stay out of it. This isn't my love life." He looks like he'd rather do anything else other than stay out of it. Once again, that suspicious irritation that Dean can't quite put his finger on, crosses his brother's face.

In the interest of germs, Dean serves himself first, and keeps the portions small. A sort of ambient nausea has been plaguing him since he'd squared things with Castiel, and it makes him as uneasy as anything else. But he'd swore to himself that he wouldn't leave Castiel out in the dark again, and this is another step in the process.

"Take your meds as usual, and make sure you have your emergency stash on you," Jody says. Dean glances up from his plate and sees that she's been eagle eyeing him. His carefully arrangement of the long green beans to face a single direction hasn't gone unnoticed.

He sighs, not even bothering to hide the construction of a smooth mashed potato mountain with his fork. "Yeah, 'cause having a panic attack on the first date is so freaking sexy," he mutters.

Jody perks up at that. "Why are you calling it your first date? It's not."

"He knows who I am now," Dean answers, slouching over his plate. "Who I really am."

"So what?" Sam breaks in, absolutely going against his promise to stay the hell out of it. "He still wants to go out with you."

Dean can't help a small, sarcastic grin. "Dude, you looked pissed about it."

"I'm not." Sam slams his fork down onto his napkin, proving his brother's point.

"Then what?"

Sam folds his hands in his lap and stares at Dean with a hard look. "You're about to start going on about how you're not good enough. How Cas'll like you despite your problems, or stick with you in spite of your issues. And none of that is true."

Dean scowls. "Why? Because you're some sort of mind reader now? Or you been having some heart to hearts with Cas? Maybe getting your goddamn boyfriend in on this freak show?"

"You're not a freak!" Sam returns, loudly and obviously close to his boiling point. "Neither of us are freaks! And we deserve better than having someone care about us despite what we're dealing with!"

For all of Sam's increase in volume, Dean's drops dangerously low. "You don't know shit about that, Sam. We're not the same."

"You're right, we're not! I have this thing called self-respect-"

"Whoa, enough!" Jody yells, holding both of her hands out, palms up; one towards Dean, one towards Sam. "Zip 'em up and put 'em away. Now." She gives both brothers a quelling look, one after the other. Then she says, "Sam, pass me the ketchup. Dean, eat your vegetables."

Both of them comply immediately, twin sets of sheepish, "yes, ma'am," confirmations murmured in turn.

Once satisfied that they are calming down, Jody continues, "okay. We're gonna work on this before either of you ends up saying things you can't take back easily. Both of you have made some salient points in really bad ways. First of all, Sam?"

He sits up straighter, preparing for the dressing down, and that makes Dean's heart sing with brotherly schadenfreude. "Yes," Sam says smartly.

"You're right about what y'all deserve, but you really should have shut up after that."

Sam's head droops. "I know. I'm sorry, Dean."

Dean barely has the chance to grin with victory when Jody turns to him and smacks the pride right out of him. "Dean, you're also right about you two being different, but not as different as you wish you were. Plus, your brother's not a spy. He's just looking out for you."

"Yeah," Dean mutters. "Sorry, Sammy."

"Fantastic," Jody says crossly. "Let's move on and do something productive with our evening, shall we?"

Sam and Dean both nod.

"Great." She blows out a breath. "Back to my original question, Dean. What am I here for? "

"I need a heads up on every eventuality," Dean admits. "Everything that could go wrong and how to not have a fucking panic attack when it does."

"That's doable," Jody promises, smiling her greatest mom-smile again and picking up her fork. "Time to talk turkey."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

It's closing in on one in the morning, and Dean is still lying in bed staring at his ceiling, head swimming. By the time Jody had left after dinner, he'd almost believed her that this whole thing is doable. Maybe it is. Jody isn't the sugar coating type. She's never lied to him, and has certainly never proven herself to be wrong about the things she's told him are possible. It's all worked out so far.

For the hundredth time, he picks up the sealed envelope Jody had given him as she'd put her coat on to leave with strict instructions to give it to Castiel without opening it. Not like he would. She knows that. That's why she'd very pointedly licked the flap to seal it. He ain't touching her spit no matter what, even if he was wearing gloves and had a letter opener on hand. He's really freaking curious, though. She'd said he shouldn't worry about the contents. They were just notes for Castiel that would help ease the way until Castiel had figured out on his own how to tiptoe around Dean's compulsions. Reasonable. Also, nothing confidential. He definitely trusts that.

He picks his phone up off of his headboard.

Dean (01:04 AM):
Hope I'm not waking you up or anything. My occupational therapist wrote you a love letter. I'm gonna bring it to you tomorrow.

He's shocked when an answer lights up his screen not more than thirty seconds later.

Cas (1:05 AM):
Ooh! Looks like I've still got it! :D

Dean laughs, shoves his pillow more comfortably under his head, and adjusts his phone in his hand so it doesn't slip and smack him in the face.

Dean (1:05 AM):
Keep it in your pants, Casanova. It's really just like... suggestions from her on ways to help keep me from going nuts on you.

Cas (1:07 AM):
I don't think you're nuts, and I'll say that as many times as I need to convince you. However, I'll take any help that you are comfortable giving me from anyone. I realize there's a lot I need to learn, and I want to. Are you okay with your therapist passing me notes? If you're not, we'll figure something else out together.

Dean blinks at the text. Reads it twice. Jesus. Castiel is actually serious about this. He's not sure if he'd just done enough homework to understand how to talk to him, or if it's some natural instinct he has for dealing with Dean, but either way, it's pretty fucking amazing. Constantly making sure he's cool with everything without sounding condescending. That pretty much never happens, so far as Dean has seen.

Dean (1:10 AM):
I'm cool with it. Thanks for asking, tho. Why are you still awake?

Cas (1:10 AM):
I threw my sleep schedule off when I had the flu. Now I'm suffering for it with insomnia. I'm seeing what warm milk will do.

Dean (1:11 AM):
Hippie. XD Take 2 Benadryl. My therapist told me to take them when sleeping pills knocked me out for 3 days lol.

Cas (1:11 AM):
Home remedies can be very effective. Maybe I just need a bedtime story to go with this.

Dean presses on Castiel's name and then the call button when the menu pops up.

Castiel picks up on the second ring. "Hello, Dean." He sounds very pleased and nearly sleepy. The warm relaxation in his voice causes a cascade of sympathetic relaxation in Dean.

In a low, calm rumble, Dean says, "once upon a time there was a dumbass who didn't believe in medication..."

Castiel laughs briefly. "And another dumbass called in the middle of the night to call the first dumbass a dumbass for not putting unnecessary chemicals into his body."

Dean chuckles, too. "And the other dumbass wasn't a dumbass because he knew that sometimes bodies need extra help."

A small hum. "You're right. I don't have any Benadryl, though, so it's a moot point."

"Don't you have to be up opening the cafe in like, four hours?"

"Four and a half, technically, but I've passed the opening duties to my assistant manager. She prefers it so that she can be off earlier to spend more time with her daughter after school. Besides," his tone lightens, "you don't usually come in until nine, so why would I want to get there so early for no reason?"

"That's a great point," Dean grins, though he's pretty sure he's red to his roots.

They fall into a gently embarrassed silence for a minute before Castiel clears his throat. "Why are you still awake?"

"Been thinkin'," Dean murmurs. "About Saturday and what's been going on. Makes it hard to sleep. This shit's hard for me, Cas."

"I'm sorry that it is," Cas says softly. "Does it ever get any easier for you?"

Dean shrugs, though Castiel can't see it. "Sometimes."

"How?"

"Working through it. Exposure. And sometimes, I dunno. I get lucky and it just does."

"I'm sorry to cause you stress."

Dean sighs. It's taken a lot of soul searching to discover the truth of his illness, which has a payoff here. "Ain't you," he promises. "And it ain't me. It's just how my brain works. There's stuff I can fight, and stuff I can't. Same way there's stuff I will fight, and stuff I won't. I mean, everyone's like that. Some of us just have to fight harder and pick more battles than others." And he reminds himself silently, don't resent the people involved in the battles you lose. It's not their fault that you did.

"You make it sound so simple," Castiel says gently.

"Hell, no it's not," Dean scoffs. "Hardest thing ever. But, I've learned how to do it my way. It's just not as second nature as it is for people like you."

"That's fair," Castiel muses. "And it makes a lot of sense. Thank you for being so open and honest with me, Dean. I realize how difficult this all is. I'll do my best not to make it harder."

Dean rolls onto his side, staring at the clock. "It's already harder, man, but it's still worth it. I just... promise me if it gets too much for you, you'll tell me. We always gotta be honest with each other about that."

He can hear a smile when Castiel answers, "of course, Dean. I can definitely promise you that."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Sam pulls the covers up all the way over his head before dialing Gabriel. Normally he wouldn't call anyone so late, but since Gabriel's schedule skews towards the afternoon at the earliest, he'll be up. And since it's a weeknight, he probably won't be doing any work this late.

"Well, if it isn't my Samshine burning bright after midnight!" Gabriel chirps after the third ring. "Can't sleep?"

"I'm sure I could," Sam admits from his cocoon. "I'm just letting myself get distracted too much."

"That sounds juicy. From what? Nightmares? Wishes that won't come true? Wet dreams?"

"Ew, no," Sam laughs. "I'm just not sleepy yet."

"You sound like you're in bed, though."

Sam scoots around until he's on his side, phone on the pillow beside him. "Yeah, Dean's talking to Cas so I figured I'd make myself as scarce as possible."

"How's that working out? I have it on good authority that Cassie's really good at phone sex."

"Why is everything sex with you?" Sam accuses with an eye roll and a grin.

"Because my mind never grew past the age of fifteen."

"That explains a lot," Sam muses.

A small laugh crackles over the line. "Also, you might not have noticed this, but I'm severely attracted to you."

"News to me," Sam teases, feeling warm. "I might, kinda sorta be attracted to you, too."

"Then you should come to back to the club and take your shirt off again. I liked that. That was fun."

Sam smiles. "I'd hate to be a distraction."

It's not his imagination thinking that Gabriel sounds a little whiny when he answers. "Moose, the whole purpose of a campus dance club is to be a distraction. From your studies, from your problems, from the fact they only serve bottom shelf swill."

"And you and your music are a part of that elaborate deception," Sam points out, not really sure why he's arguing. There are few things he's loved better than watching Gabriel controlling the crowds.

Clearly Gabriel is of the same mind because he groans. "Why couldn't you be pretty and stupid like a normal person?"

The first thing that springs to mind is, "because if I was, you'd still be spending your weekends putting your hand print on other people." His fingers spasm over his chest and then spread to where the memory of that first meeting is still impressed deep within his chest. "Unless you still are," he ventures, unsure.

Gabriel's voice is low and smoky. "Sam Winchester, you're the first, last, and only."

Sam buries his face in his pillow briefly to cool his burning cheeks. "Don't even," he mutters. "I'm not... I'm not jealous that you've been with other people. That happens with age and experience."

"Got both in spades," Gabriel answers. "But I don't make a habit of touching and running."

"I am not the first person you've flirted with that way," Sam argues weakly, though he'd love nothing more than to believe he was the only one in that silly, romance novel heroine kind of way.

"No," Gabriel admits. "But... you were the first one I wanted to come back for more."

"And here we are," Sam says, because that much he can believe.

"Here we are," Gabriel murmurs.

Sam likes this. He likes it so much that he doesn't care if Gabriel is lying to him about the flirting or what he does at the club or not. Just from being around him and hearing how he talks; seeing how he treats people on the whole, Sam's convinced Gabriel wouldn't cheat on him. He's far too caring of others, though he'd scoff at the accusation, and far too careless with himself to bother with something as stupid as infidelity. He'd call it all off without a second thought if he felt himself straying. And honestly, it's one of Gabriel's top five character traits, as far as Sam's concerned. He pokes and teases and acts the fool sometimes, but he doesn't play games with people's minds or hearts. That's a rare quality. And one for which Sam is reaping the benefits. At the very least, it's one major thing that won't ever trigger his anxiety.

And Gabriel has just... made himself fit somehow. Whether it's the psychiatric training or simply his uncanny ability to read people, Gabriel seems to know where all the lines are now that he has Sam's whole sob story after the very first misstep. He texts dirty, flirts dirty, and even talks dirty, but all from a distance. In person, he's comfortable amounts of personal space and gentle touches. None of it has gone unnoticed.

Sam's pretty sure that Gabriel would be offended if he pointed out, or worse, complemented the chivalry. He'd say it's just who he is. He'd say it's what Sam deserves. He'd be wrong about both, and then they'd argue about it until Gabriel's more advanced degree in bullshitting won the day. Sam doesn't mind that, either, but he doesn't want to fight at one in the morning. He wants to keep feeling the way he is right at this very moment.

So he splits it down the middle and says, "thanks for helping with Dean. And thanks for helping me."

"Thanks for popping my head out of my ass," Gabriel answers, deftly deflecting the compliment without outright denying it. Damn he's good at knowing how Sam operates and toeing the line so he can't force the issue. "That's not always an easy thing to do."

"I didn't do much," Sam says airily. "I just sat there looking pretty and you caved."

Gabriel laughs, sounding genuinely pleased. "Sounds like a huge win for the home team."

"It might be," Sam says. "Guess we'll have to see."

"You're good at flirting when you're sleepy," Gabriel muses. "Call me anytime you're feeling this frisky again."

"Will do. G'night, Gabe."

"'Night, Sam. Sleep sweet."

Sam ends the call and drops the phone next to him. He punches his pillow into a ball and sinks down into it. "I always do," he yawns to himself.

Chapter Text

In all of his infinite wisdom, Dean decides that seeing Castiel as much as possible during the week will be the thing that keeps him from freaking out the most on the weekend. Of course, since he already visits Espresso Lane every day, there's not a lot he can do in that arena, except beg Bobby to let him start work later so that he can get to the coffee shop at 10:00 instead of 9:00, when it's completely dead until lunch. It gives him time to relax without the threat of the uncaffeinated hordes descending, and also guilt-free time to talk to Castiel for a while since he's often got nothing better to do for an hour before lunch prep begins. Most of the time he seems relieved that Dean is pulling him away from paperwork or restocking.

And the way that Castiel's face lights up as soon as Dean shoulders through the door, Dean can tell that the added time together is definitely well-spent.

Castiel removes his apron and greets, "Dean! Good morning-ish. The usual?"

Ignoring the knowing smiles and stares from the rest of the retreating employees, Dean finds himself feeling a little frisky. "Actually, if you wanna, you can surprise me?"

Castiel's brilliant blue eyes widen and a beaming smile dawns on his face. "That's music to my ears. Have a seat and I'll join you in a minute."

Dean goes to the small table by the window and slides into a seat to watch Castiel work. Privately, he marvels at how brave the man makes him feel. The anxiety over not knowing what drink is coming doesn't even spark a single ping on his panic radar. No intrusive thoughts, no catastrophic repercussions. Nothing. He trusts Castiel that much.

Nothing bad will happen, he tells himself firmly. Castiel is safe. Nothing bad will happen with him.

Castiel brings over the coffee and places it in front of Dean with a bow and a flourish before sitting across from him with a blueberry scone. He doesn't bother to offer Dean anything to eat since he knows he won't take it not having made it himself. "Enjoy."

Dean picks up the cup and takes a sip. "Hmm."

Grinning wider, Castiel asks, "what do you think?"

"Cinnamon?" Dean asks. "Is this one of your experiments?"

Castiel shrugs non-committal. "More like, something I thought you would like. Since you're so willing to let me serve you whatever I want, I'm trying to figure out your palate."

"I like it," Dean assures him. "I don't usually do flavored coffee, but this is good. More spicy than sweet."

"It has real cinnamon and only a tiny dash of sugar. The trick is to season the coffee after its brewed, or sometimes while its brewing. Flavoring the beans or grounds and letting them sit can make the flavor overwhelming. In my experience, anyway."

Dean likes the shy pride Castiel exhibits when he schools him on the diner points of making the perfect cup of coffee. "Good on a rainy day," Dean says, nodding towards the nasty weather outside.

Castiel props his elbow on the table, chin resting in his palm. "Coffee tastes better on rainy days," he muses. "I've always thought so."

"That's because you're a sap," Dean teases. He reaches into the inner pocket of his leather jacket and pulls out Jody's letter. He slides it across the table. "As promised, here's your cheat sheet."

Castiel picks up the envelope. "Should I read it now?"

Last night Dean had decided that it would only stress him out further to know exactly what Jody was suggesting, and he'd always be on the lookout for Castiel trying to integrate the tips into his treatment of Dean, and he'd rather not go there. Even the illusion of normalcy is good enough for him. There's too much good stuff that he doesn't want to miss. "Nah, keep it for later."

Castiel arches an eyebrow. "You don't want to know what she said?"

"Nope." Dean lounges back in the chair. "It's better if I don't."

Not pressing further, Castiel pushes the letter to the side. "That's fine with me, if it's fine with you. I'd much rather talk about what you're bringing on Saturday for dinner."

With a smile, Dean asks, "you allergic to anything? Anything you don't like to eat?"

"No to both. You'll soon discover that I'm hardly picky."

"Thanks for narrowing it down," Dean rolls his eyes good naturedly. "Okay, then, what's your favorite?"

With a laugh, Castiel admits, "peanut butter and jelly."

"Not much of a date food," Dean grins.

Castiel shrugs. "I also like hamburgers, tacos, and lasagna."

That makes Dean grin even wider. "So, beef anything, basically."

Castiel taps his nose with an answering grin. "Yes."

Sighing dramatically, Dean says, "I guess I can work with that."

"I'll provide dessert," Castiel offers magnanimously. "Pie, right?"

"Any and all," Dean confirms.

Smiling at Dean with something that looks suspiciously like fondness, Castiel says, "when I was younger, I would have made fun of you for how many 'red blooded American man' stereotypes you fit into."

Dean rolls his eyes. "And I would have made fun of you for the unironic air quotes. You've gotten more accepting with age?"

Castiel leans forward, grin skewing wicked. "No," he says, eyes shining. "I think you unapologetic bisexuality makes up for most of it."

Dean laughs at that and he laughs hard. He swipes at his watering eyes and shoots Castiel with finger guns. "So, you're saying you like my car."

"I love your car," Castiel answers, infected by the mirth and laughing himself.

"I think you're secretly jealous," Dean says once he's calmed down enough to talk without giggles interrupting him.

"Why on earth would I be jealous?" Castiel demands, arching an eyebrow.

"Because you keep bringing it up!" Dean insists, unable to stop smiling. He takes a sip of his coffee to hide it. "Why else would you do that unless you wish you were like me?"

Castiel wags a finger primly. "Admiring something and desiring to be something are two completely different things. I don't wish to wear cowboy hats and boots every day."

Eyes widening over the rim of his cup, Dean studies Castiel and then scoffs. He mutters, "not every day."

Castiel points his wagging finger at Dean, raises his thumb, and very pointedly shoots a finger gun right back at him. "Just to be clear, I'm not judging you for doing what makes you happy."

"Even if it's predictable?" Dean asks, a thread of unease curling through him. He's okay with teasing, and he's okay with people thinking they know everything about him judging by what they find on the outside. It's deliberate, anyway.

Of course, he wouldn't wear clothes he hated, or drive a lame car, but he knows how he seems. He likes it, in a way. People look at him, his job, his hobbies, and they think he's some cowboy wishing for the bygone days. That he's confident and sure of everything. That he'd sooner throw a punch before talking it out.

Sometimes, sure, he is that way. He's gotta be that way. But other times, he's awfully glad that he can hide how he really is behind all the plaid and calluses.

"There's nothing wrong with being predictable," Castiel says, expression softening. "I like to think I'm capable of giving people the benefit of the doubt and not judging a book by its cover."

Dean's smile returns. "Sometimes I wish I was more like the stereotype. It'd be a lot easier with a more normal brain. But everyone has some kind of armor to wear, right?"

"I suppose they do," Castiel answers steadily. "As for me, I know I have an image to uphold here." He casts his eyes around the cafe. "I can't compete with bigger coffee chains, so here I am with free trade beans and an in house bakery."

"But you're not a tree hugging hippie?" Dean asks, dripping with disbelief.

"I wouldn't hug a tree," Castiel snarks. "They don't hug back." Dean snorts and he continues. "However, I'd say some of it's true. The coffee and the locally sourced ingredients that I use here. I don't wear sandals though. I hate them and they're dangerous and unsanitary in a food production environment. I'm also not a vegan." He taps his chin thoughtfully. "What else?"

"No free love and peace signs in the decor?" Dean offers.

Castiel snaps his fingers, eyes lighting up. "Yes! Though I have participated in an orgy before."

Dean's mouth drops open and his dick, which has thus far been extremely well behaved, decides now is the time to offer an opinion on the matter.

Oblivious to Dean's sudden suffering, or more likely, enjoying Dean's sudden suffering, Castiel waxes on. "It was when I was in college, and had far more energy than I do now. But it was fun. And only the once. Let's see... oh! Yes, I also am firmly against communal living and I like making money. I can't share my living space with too many people. I can be very particular about it."

"Sure," Dean croaks.

His tone seems to snap Castiel back to the present. His eyes unglaze from the vague spot they'd been pointed towards out the window and focus back on Dean. He frowns. "Did I say something to upset you?"

He looks so genuinely concerned that Dean's heart thuds. He scrubs his palms on his thighs. "No," he says far too quickly. He clears his throat. Makes an A+ attempt to sound casual, and ends around a C-. "No, it's just... uh... an orgy? Come on."

Castiel's gummy smile returns in a flash. "It was a long time ago."

Eyes narrowing, Dean says, "you mentioned it because you want to brag."

Castiel sighs blissfully. "Can I? Just for a minute?"

Sipping benignly at his coffee again, Dean says, "might as well."

"There were eight of us total," Castiel says immediately. "And it began as a cocktail party."

"A cocktail party?" Dean cuts in. "What sort of rich Republican country club did you escape from?"

Patiently, Castiel says, "shut up, I'm talking. It was a cocktail party. Then it turned into beer pong. Then a lot of food. Then some party games. Then... I can't remember what happened first; strip poker or strip Twister. One of those."

Dean feels a little bit like he's been harpooned with about thirty conflicting emotions from arousal to disbelief to pride to jealousy. He should have gone to a different college. "One of those," he echoes.

Castiel shakes off his musings. "Either way, we all ended up naked and talking and playing games. It got quite... intimate. At first we sort of paired off, kissing and touching in full view of each other. Then..."

"Sounds like a really good porn," Dean says, unsure whether he wants to hear every last detail, or nothing at all about it ever again.

Thankfully, Castiel goes for the middle ground. "It was very messy, and slightly confusing, but a lovely memory. Strangely, they're some of the only people who I still talk too, even after graduation."

Dean nods sagely. "Group sex can cause a pretty profound bond."

"You're probably right about that," Castiel agrees. Then he waves a dismissive hand. "I've definitely aged out of that. I haven't got the stamina anymore. Good, old fashioned monogamy suits my poor, ageing body."

Chuckling, Dean says, "if you're fishing for a compliment, I'll give you one and tell you that I think you have a great body."

Castiel perks up, shuffling straight backed in his seat, preening. "Why, thank you, Dean. I'd like to return the compliment tenfold to you."

Dean's eyes drop to his lap where his half-chub is finally flagging. "Yeah, whatever, man. Blue collar work keeps the body strong, y'know?"

"I do know," Castiel chuckles. "Half the supplies I carry every day weigh almost as much as I do."

Once again, Dean sees that he's laid an exquisite trap for himself. He glances down to Castiel's bare, muscled forearms, and for the second time, his dick decides it's needed here. He has a physical urge to say something damningly regretful about testing their strength with wrestling now that the image of naked Twister has embedded itself in his mind, when the door clangs open. He sighs with relief when Sam the Boner Killer Winchester breezes in, Gabriel stumbling in behind him and giggling incessantly.

Sam spots Dean and Castiel immediately and beelines for them, grinning wide. "Hey, Cas! Dean! Aren't you supposed to be at work?"

Though grateful for the distraction, Dean is still a big brother, so he says, "making money for you to waste on the classes you're not at right now?"

"English was cancelled," Sam says. "I don't have another class until three."

Gabriel taps the bell on the counter repeated and hollers, "coffee!"

Castiel scoots his chair back with a disgusted noise, but his employees materialize from the kitchen to help out instead.

Sam drops his cock blocking ass into the chair beside Dean. "Seriously, are you okay? Still off work?"

"I've got the later shift for the time being," Dean answers, and he's even telling the truth. He also fights down his instinct to hide his problems in front of non-family, but figures in a split second, in for a penny, in for a pound. "Since I still can't do walk-ins, I can sort of come in and out as I see fit as long as the work gets done."

To his credit, Castiel says nothing, though he appears insanely curious.

Dean hates to admit that this is definitely a test.

Sam shrugs easily. "Bobby gives you too much leeway."

"Oh yeah, sure he does," Dean teases sarcastically. "Treating his employees well. The nerve of that guy."

"Is Bobby your boss?" Castiel queries with the tone of a man who has a million questions that he'd rather be asking.

"Yeah," Dean answers. "Sort of an uncle, if I really had to say. He took care of me and Sam a lot when we were kids and Dad was on business travel. Then after he died..." he trails off. He glances to Sam, and his gaze drops down, shuttering.

"I'm sorry," Castiel says, truly regretful.

He'd thought he was over being emotional about it, but all the same, Dean's throat closes and he can only nod.

"It's all right," Sam is the one to say. "Bobby's probably the best of our family. He dragged our asses out of the fire too many times to count."

That makes Dean smile again. "Yeah, he has."

"Supportive family is very important," Castiel says. He doesn't elaborate.

He also doesn't seem to notice that Dean has suddenly and ineffable, fallen for him just a little bit more.

"Speaking of which," Sam ventures in a way that draws Dean's full focus. "I was thinking again about a small, part time job-"

"No," Dean cuts him off sharply.

"Maybe twenty hours a week, just for a bit more income-"

"Forget it, Sam." Dean's lost count of how many times he's had to say it.

Sam opens his mouth to protest again for the hundredth time, but Gabriel interrupts them, placing Sam's coffee and a bagel in front of him with slightly more force than necessary. Sam glares up at him, but Gabriel is looking at Dean. "I told him not to do this," he says. "He thought ambushing you in public would magically make you agree."

Sam puts on an affronted face that is one hundred percent fake. "I did not!"

Gabriel is, for at least this single moment in time, Dean's best friend. "He told you about it?"

"I'm not a fucking kid anymore," Sam says over them.

"What's going on?" Castiel asks looking back and forth between them all like he's barely following a ping pong match.

Without thinking about it; without needing to think about it, Dean's hand flies out and grabs Sam's sleeve. "Come on," he demands. He shoves to his feet, dragging Sam out the door with him. Once away from curious ears, Dean swings Sam around slightly more roughly than intended.

"Dean..." Sam starts.

Dean holds his hand up in a stopping motion. "Sam, we've been over this."

"Yeah," Sam huffs. "We have, but it's time. I'm doing a lot better. You're doing a lot better. It's high time I started helping out more. I should do that much."

It's the "should" that makes Dean more certain than ever. "Sammy, I need you to stop thinking that you're not doing enough."

"What are you talking about?" Sam demands, irritation obvious and building.

Dean crosses his arms. Uncrosses his arms. Searches fitfully for the right words. He's never been good at words the way that Sam is. He's never known how to calm anyone down or make them feel better. It's well outside of his wheelhouse, but he knows he needs to try. "Your internship is about to start up, you've got a full course load, a ton of anxiety to get under control, and you're doing exactly what you would have been doing if Dad was still alive. Just because he's gone don't mean you need to push yourself beyond your limit. Not for my sake or anyone else's."

"But it's putting it all on you," Sam says pleadingly. "That's not right, either. You're dealing with a lot more than I am. Mentally, at least."

"So what?" Dean counters. "First of all, I don't think that's true. Second of all, even if it was, it's fine. We're not hard up. My salary is plenty to keep us afloat. Once you're done getting your fancy degree, you can get some huge, smarmy lawyer job or whatever, and pay back your loans yourself. Your worth isn't measured by money, man."

Sam deflates a little, wavering. "I know you hate it when I bring this up, but it doesn't stop me from feeling inadequate."

"You're fucking smart," Dean insists. "You should be tuning up that brain of yours instead of wasting your time at some part-time gig. Money's tight, but we're nowhere near drowning. Please, Sammy." He claps both of his brother's shoulders. "We're taking care of each other exactly like we're supposed to. Don't think you're putting too much on me, 'cause you're not."

The last of the tension leaks out of Sam's large frame. "Okay, Dean," he says softly. "Okay. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ambush you and cause a scene."

Dean shakes his head. "Don't worry about it. At least I know your boyfriend's on my side now."

Sam snorts, starting back towards the cafe. "For now. I'll wear him down."

"I'm sure you will," Dean mutters, following along behind him.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

"Thanks for selling me out back there," Sam gripes, tromping through the parking lot.

Gabriel practically has to jog to keep up with him. "I said I was sorry," he protests.

"That doesn't make it better," Sam shoots back. He plants his arms on the hood of the car, giving Gabriel is a hard glare over it. "I told you all that shit in confidence."

"I know," Gabriel answers, sounding contrite. "I really tried to keep my mouth shut, but your brother is right. You've got enough on your plate already."

"I can handle it," Sam bites.

"Can you?" Gabriel challenges, just as sharply.

"Fuck you."

Gabriel sighs. "I'm not trying to go over your head or suggest that you can't take care of yourself."

Sam yanks the driver's side door open. "That's exactly what you just did. You thought you knew what was best for me and made my decision for me." He drops into the car and then slams the door behind him.

Gabriel slides in next to him, shutting his own door quietly and attempting to make himself look as small as possible. "I'm sorry," he murmurs again.

"You're sorry, Dean's sorry, everyone's fucking sorry all the time," Sam mutters. "You know what I'd really like? That instead of being sorry, people stop doing shit to be sorry for."

After a beat of silence, Gabriel says, "I overstepped. It was the wrong thing to do."

"You're damn right it was," Sam answers, scowling out the windshield. "Do you really think I'm incapable of taking proper care of myself?"

Gabriel shakes his head. Slowly, he says, "I think you don't always realize when you're running on empty yet. And while you're getting yourself squared away, I wanna be here to fix whatever I can."

"Gabe!" Sam shouts. Then chokes it back down. "Gabriel," he says more calmly. "You can't fix me. That's not your job. I get you wanting to help, and that's fine; that's what people should do in... in... relationships, but you gotta stop thinking you know best. That's not helping. That's interfering."

"I don't know what you see in me," Gabriel answers wearily. The worst part is that he sounds like he absolutely means it.

He can't tackle that right at the moment, so instead he turns it around. "What do you see in me? A project, or an equal share of the relationship?"

Since they don't seem to be going anywhere soon, Gabriel forgoes buckling his seat belt in order to turn to face Sam more fully. "I don't want a project," he says firmly. "If I did, I would have finished medical school and become a psychiatrist. I want a partner, not a fixer upper. I overstepped, and that's on me. I don't ever want you to think that I'm with you for any other reason besides wanting you. I screwed the pooch on this one, and I wanna make it right. Tell me how to make it right. I'll never do it again."

Sam sighs against the impassioned apology. He reaches out and tucks a lock of Gabriel's unruly, windblown hair behind his ear. "Just trust me, okay?" he asks softly. "I realize my brain chemistry is still working itself out, but I got this. I'm not ever gonna go back to how I used to be. I can tell you're worried about that. Not like you shouldn't be. It's probably easy to stop being clean. A lot of things are easier when I'm too fucked up to have any thoughts or worries at all."

Gabriel's fingers brush over Sam's hand. "I need to get better about my unreasonable protective streak. I'll work on it, I promise. I don't think that'll happen. I know you don't wanna go back there, and I believe you. I want to find that middle ground of helping you without doing too much."

"I can't always," Sam says wryly. "But I swear I'll ask for help when I need it."

Gabriel can obviously sense Sam's burgeoning forgiveness, because his face relaxes and he says, "well, that's better than I do most of the time. Caretakers like us are famously bad at it when the tables are turned."

"Everyone makes mistakes, but I want you to promise me you'll learn from them. Otherwise, an apology doesn't mean anything."

Gabriel squeezes his fingers tightly. "I promise, Sam. I swear."

Sam leans towards him. "I wanna kiss and make up now."

Gabriel fists the lapels of Sam's coat. "What the hell are you waiting for? My lips are cold."

"Super." With a trip in his heart, Sam closes the minor distance between them, kissing Gabriel lightly. Just a small taste. That's all he can have unless he wants to waste the rest of the day either making out with Gabriel, or thinking about making out with Gabriel. A blissful way to spend the time to be sure, but he has chemistry later, and he got a C on the last quiz. But he takes a minute anyway, closing his eyes and sinking into the sensation of Gabriel's cold lips on his.

Gabriel barely moves, soft kiss after soft kiss peppering Sam's mouth. He doesn't push for more, Sam idly hoping it's because he'd end up in the same predicament if they let themselves get carried away.

Gabriel's hands slide up Sam's neck to the sides of his face as he pulls away, making Sam shiver. He rests their foreheads together. "I guess we've both got a lot to learn," Gabriel rumbles.

"I agree," Sam answers. He sits back in the seat, finally putting the keys in the ignition. "Now back to the literal learning."

Gabriel sighs, gesturing wide. "Lead on to our hapless deaths."

Sam chuckles. "Drama queen."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

After Sam and Gabriel leave, Dean spends some time trying to get himself back in order. He hates the unexpected, but even less so in public. He never handles it well, but working through it without the comfort of familiar surroundings is absolute bullshit. Even worse, Castiel is front and center to witness it. "Are you all right?" he asks.

Dean grits his teeth so hard they squeak. It takes him a moment to unclench enough to answer. "Just need a minute," he mutters. "Please."

"Of course," Castiel replies immediately. "Would you like to sit in my office? No one goes in there."

Dean shakes his head vigorously. More privacy means more ability to freak out. The threat of people walking in and seeing him this way will force the episode away faster. Hopefully.

Without another word, Castiel stands, taking the envelope and the dirty dishes with him and retreating behind the counter to do whatever he does back there when there are no other customers around.

Dean wishes he had it in him to appreciate the gesture, but he's currently in a thought spiral for the ages telling him that Sam did that shit on purpose. That he wanted to show his big brother how useless he is. That he needs Sam to take care of them or else no one will. No one can.

He stares out the window, focuses on a tree across the four lane road, and he breathes. Sam didn't mean anything by it. He didn't plan an ambush in public just to hurt you. He didn't know.

He didn't know.

He didn't know.

That's the only thought he can wrangle. But he clings to it. His heart thunders in his chest, his palms prickles with pins and needles.

He clings and clings and clings.

The anxiety doesn't spring forward to panic. Not today. He's had enough of it. He steadfastly refuses to wonder whether he's getting better at destructive thought stopping, or if he's simply too mentally exhausted to be able to have a true panic attack for the time being. Analyzing in the moment never helps.

Breathing does. So he does that. And when he's sure that he won't drop all of his pills because of his shaking hands, he digs in his jacket for a Xanax and downs it with the dregs of his coffee, now gone cold. Just the act of taking it helps.

It must be a miracle that no one comes in while he's stewing, though someone might have and he wouldn't have realized. The world tends to wash away into background watercolor when he's trying to put himself back together. It takes every ounce of brainpower to clear his mind and count the drops of rain sliding down the window until he feels that first wave of medicated relief that washes over him like a warm blanket. It's gonna be okay. He doesn't believe it for a second with his current mindset, but Donna told him to tell himself that in case it became true one day.

His mouth is really fucking dry. "Cas," he croaks, sure that he can be heard across the room even though the satellite radio had given up in the weather and it's quiet enough to make his ears ring.

But there are footsteps and another cup, this one paper, being slid in front of him. "Chamomile tea with mint," Castiel murmurs.

"Thanks," Dean tries to say.

"I like it more than the cinnamon coffee on dreary days," Castiel says.

"It's really coming down out there," Dean replies when his voice finds him again. They lapse into silence, and though Dean can feel Castiel standing behind him, it doesn't bother him like hovering or looming. Dean keeps counting the raindrops for a minute. He takes a sip of the tea. He doesn't like tea, but it's nice on a day like today. "I need to get to work."

Castiel shifts behind him. "Would it be... um... could I touch you? I just washed my hands. Or..."

"You can. A little," Dean answers.

A clean, warm hand presses against the back of his neck, resting. Thumb tracing the shell of his ear briefly. The touch retreats just as Dean realizes that it doesn't bother him. He can't see it and it doesn't bother him. Not this time. "Is there anything I can do?"

Dean bows his head. "It might not seem like much... but you did a lot."

"I'm glad," Castiel says like he means it. "Have a good day at work."

Dean stands up, pops up his collar, and gathers his drink. "What do I owe you?" he asks, still unable to look at Castiel directly.

"On the house," Castiel answers. "It's from my private stash."

It's probably not the truth, but Dean will take any kind lie given to him today. He nods once and glances over his shoulder at Castiel, who is standing there placidly, looking for all the world that the guy who wants to date him didn't just have a meltdown, private or not. His heart lurches. "See you tomorrow?" He can't stop himself from sounding so hopeful.

Castiel smiles without pity. "I look forward to it."

Chapter Text

The drive to campus is short. Sam had meant what he'd said about giving Gabriel another chance to redeem himself, but he's still rather clingy. He takes Sam's hand the second they're out of the parking lot and doesn't let go the whole way. He doesn't let go when they get to campus, once again abusing his privilege as a TA, and letting Sam use his parking pass for the faculty lot. He doesn't even let go when they're in full view of everyone on campus, running through the rain together towards the student center. It figures that both of them would have forgotten their umbrellas even though it's been raining for three days already with no sign of letting up.

Gabriel shakes the rain out of his hair like a dog once they're indoors, making Sam grin. Then he reaches out and brushes the water off of Sam's jacket, down his arms.

"One of us needs to get an umbrella," Sam notes.

Gabriel gives him an incredibly fond look. "So we can share it like a couple in a cheesy romance movie?"

"And not catch our deaths."

"That, too."

Sam shivers and pulls his jacket around himself more tightly with a small laugh. "It'll be much nicer and more romantic in the snow."

"Yeah, that blue tint to your lips will be so much sexier when it's even colder out," Gabriel teases as he drags them towards the cafe.

"I get cold easily," Sam complains lightly.

"Fucking how?" Gabriel demands. "You're a thousand feet tall and built like a brick house. Your metabolism must be insane."

"Thinner air up here."

Gabriel laughs. Then his whole face scrunches. Then he sneezes loudly enough to turn everyone's head in the vicinity. He orders them both a hot chocolate. "I'll get an umbrella," he mutters, wiping his nose with a handkerchief.

Sam slings an arm over Gabriel's shoulders, dragging him to the far end of the counter to wait for their drinks. "I was kidding about the catching our deaths thing."

Gabriel gives him a thumbs up, sneezing again. "This better not be Cassie's flu."

"Gross, no," Sam says, but he doesn't move away until their drinks are ready.

He's just handing Gabriel's whipped cream monstrosity over when a voice to the side calls out, "Sam Winchester!"

He turns and consciously has to school his face to neutral when he catches sight of Nick approaching from the lounge. He's so attuned to Gabriel's warnings and their conversations about Nick that he doesn't miss the way that the TA subtly shifts away to a respectful distance. "Dr. Pellegrino. Good afternoon."

"Nasty one, but I appreciate the sentiment!" Nick says cheerfully. "Ah, Milton. What brings you to campus so early? Aren't you usually still asleep right about now?"

Gabriel smiles winningly. Sam blinks at him. He's not sure exactly how he can tell, but it looks absolutely venomous. "That old adage you reminded me of. TA's have to work twice as hard because of the degrees we don't have, right?"

Sam balks but Nick chuckles. "That's why you're the best one, my friend." He claps Gabriel on the shoulder. "We should let you get to it, then. Sam, a word, please?"

"See ya later, Sam," Gabriel mutters, jaw ticking. He gives them both a careless salute and turns abruptly, disappearing into the crowds.

Once he's gone, Nick turns his shark bite smile on Sam. "Excited to start that internship, champ? 'Cause I gotta say, I'm pretty pumped to have you."

"Yeah," Sam smiles back weakly. "Sounds pretty interesting."

"Good! So. Five to seven starting tomorrow and I'll get you all set up. Drop by my office and we can get the show on the road."

"Sure, yeah. Um. That'll work." He adjusts the strap on his bag.

Nick moves to take a step back, but stops like he's just thought of something. "Milton hasn't been giving you any trouble, has he?"

Eyebrows furrowed, Sam answers, "no. He's pretty helpful, actually."

Nick's face pulls into an expression that Sam would probably call pity if he knew better. But there's nothing to pity him for. "I'm gonna look out for you, Sam," he says with a kindness that digs right into Sam's skin like a paper cut. "Gabriel has been my TA for a few years now, so I can recognize the signs."

Sam shuffles his weight to his left foot. He tells himself that he's only asking a question he doesn't want to know the answer to so that he can get a better read on what bothers him about the professor. "I'm sorry, but what are you talking about?"

The pitting look sharpens further. "I like you, so I'll be honest with you. Gabriel Milton has a bit of a reputation." He holds up a hand like Sam is about to protest. "Nothing crazy, sure, but he has a thing for vulnerability. Unfortunately, he's not much for hanging around once he gets a taste. He's a playboy and a trickster. But if you've been to the club even once you'd know, right? I'd hate to see anything happen to you, Sam. You seem like a great kid with a good head on his shoulders. That's why I picked you for this internship. I just don't want to see you go down a bad path."

As much as he doesn't want to give himself away, Sam says, "if Gabriel is such bad news, why haven't you reported him or something?"

"You can't report someone for being a heart breaker," Nick answers.

Sam resists rolling his eyes only barely. "Well, that's fine with me. I'm only trying to graduate with the best grades I can get."

Beaming, Nick says, "that's excellent news. I knew you were smarter than the average bear, Winchester. I only want what's best for you, and you don't deserve to be manipulated. See you tomorrow."

"Yeah," Sam answers, raising his hot chocolate in a clumsy salute and retreating to the library as quickly as possible. He tucks himself into the quiet section in an armchair by the window, staring out at the pouring rain and trying desperately not to take Nick's words to heart.

It's not as easy as he'd like it to be.

And maybe the guy does have it out for Gabriel. To what end, though? Sure, Nick is an egotistical jackass on the best of days, so what would be the purpose of feeding Sam a bunch of bullshit about his TA? It doesn't make sense. And furthermore, he hadn't actually said anything that was exactly hard to swallow. In fact, what he'd said was stuff that Gabriel himself had admitted to.

Being a player, running from commitment, hell his Facebook status still declares him single.

He wants to trust Gabriel more than anything, but trust takes time.

Sam likes to think of himself as someone who is always willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. It hasn't always worked in his favor, but in general he's found that it reaps more benefit than disaster. But that doesn't make it easy to believe everything that his boyfriend says just because he sounds sincere when he says it. Splatter's website and social media pages are covered with photos backing Nick up. Even Gabriel's personal Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are a testament to his lack of desire to settle down. There's a whole album dedicated to Gabriel judging a wet t-shirt contest, for God's sake. Hundreds of pictures of Gabriel hugging, touching, kissing, having the time of his damn life. And they hadn't stopped when he and Sam had started their relationship. Gabriel is completely open about his weekend job. He invites Sam all the time. But.

What's the point?

Nick sure isn't winning any popularity contests, but the more Sam thinks about it, the less he can come up with any plausible reason for Nick to try and throw a wrench into a relationship that he doesn't even know about. All he knows is that Sam and Gabriel are friends. So why be so careful to jackknife something as simple as that?

Doubts suck. Too bad he won't be able to talk to Gabriel again until after classes. That's a lot of time to let his anxiety come up with a dozen different scenarios.

He should never have taken this internship. But it'll look good on his resume, and he needs to beef it up as much as possible if he wants to get into a good law school after graduation and convince most schools to look beyond his hiatus. He'll do anything. Even if it means pushing through a half a semester with Dr. Pellegrino.

What the hell has he gotten himself into?

Sighing, he digs out his phone and texts Gabriel asking to see him tonight. They won't have a lot of free time together once the internship starts, and missing him aside, Sam wants - needs - to make sure that they're both in this relationship fully, all cards on the table. They've both expressed a desire for nothing but each other, but that doesn't stop the anxiety from needing reassurance. Especially after their brief argument this morning.

Gabriel texts back that he's throwing in the proverbial towel and going home after collecting some papers at his office to sniffle in peace. However, he also sends his address if Sam wants to see him at his absolute worst.

Sam wishes him well and says he'll stop by after classes. All he needs to do is survive the rest of the day.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean is just extracting himself from the bowels of a Civic when his phone starts vibrating in his pocket. He takes a moment to scrub his hands as clean as he can get them and then answers. "Hey, Sammy, what's up?"

"Don't freak out," Sam says.

That gives Dean pause. He's glad he's taken his panic medication already because otherwise his pulse would be pounding out of his body. It's not like "don't freak out" is a go phrase for them specifically to signify to Dean that news is coming that might worry him, but is nothing to get overworked about. Too bad neither of them have used it enough that his brain gets the message properly. He clears his throat. "What happened? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Sam assures him quickly. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm stopping by Gabriel's after class today."

"Why would I freak out about that?"

"He's, uh... he's got a cold or something. I was gonna take him soup or whatever."

Grimacing, Dean answers, "thanks for the heads up. Don't take my behavior afterwards personally."

"I promise to follow all containment and quarantine protocols," Sam says, and he doesn't even sound sarcastic.

Dean sighs. "I try not make life harder for you."

Sam huffs a laugh. "You're not. Hell, it's not like I wanna catch something right before midterms, either. I'm fine with it unless you wanna start installing hermetic seals or ultraviolet sterilization units or something."

Dean scoffs. "I'm not that bad about... wait, could we do that on a normal house?"

The eye rolling is audible as Sam says, "goodbye, Dean," and hangs up.

Dean shrugs. Resists the urge to start Googling better cleaning methods on his phone. Has a hard time resisting the urge to Google them. He groans. Swipes the screen back on and pulls up his contacts. He should probably call Jody or Donna right about now. The spiral is starting, his brain rapidly draining from desire to make it all worse on the internet, to the need to do so.

He waves to Bobby across the shop, goes to the back parking lot, tucks himself into Baby, and he calls Castiel.

Like a warm summer breeze, Castiel answers with an affectionate, "hello, Dean."

"Hey, Cas," Dean breathes, sinking down into the leather seat. "You got a minute?"

There's some clanging on the other end of the line, doubtlessly Castiel going to his office from the kitchen, a door shutting, and silence. "I do."

Dean chafes his free hand over the steering wheel. "Did you get a chance to read Jody's letter?"

"I did right after you left," Castiel admits. "Thank her for me, please. It was very insightful."

Dean starts drumming his fingers rapidly on the steering wheel. "Did any of it happen to mention anything about distraction?"

"Um... yes! Yes, it said that sometimes you can be distracted out of a thought spiral if it's caught before it really gets going."

"Good. Awesome," Dean says, leg starting to jiggle now. "So, hey, wanna help me with that? 'Cause I've already had a panic attack this morning and I'm not so keen on another one."

Instantly sounding worried Castiel asks, "are you all right? What happened?"

Dean squeezes his eyes shut, whole body vibrating. "Don't wanna talk about that right now. Distraction, okay?"

He can hear how his frantic near-panic causes a similar response in Castiel and he desperately tries to come up with a conversation topic. "I... uh... it's always like this. Like someone asking a comedian they meet on the street to say something funny. Um... oh!" Triumphantly he announces, "I blew up the espresso machine!"

Startled, Dean laughs. "Wait, what?" His shoulders loosen minutely.

With a relieved laugh, Castiel says, "I did. I blew it up. Not the new one, but that vintage steamer one I have behind the counter."

"Come on," Dean says, starting to smile. "Are you making this up?"

"No!" Castiel insists. "It happened! I bought it at a liquidation sale and everyone has always told me not to use it. I had it serviced professionally, and it seemed like a waste to spend all of that money on it and never use it!"

Dean sinks further into the seat as his burgeoning panic begins to abate with Castiel's enlivened voice. "Yeah, but it's a coffee maker. Those things can't just explode."

"You're right, but it was rather dramatic," Castiel concedes. "I don't normally use it, but every now and then I crank it up to keep it in proper condition. The pressure gauge or something must have been off, and..."

"Kaboom," Dean finishes. "Is everyone all right? Your shop?"

"Yes," Castiel confirms with a sheepish laugh. "It was mostly loud and nothing really exploded. But the cafe did turn into a bit of a steam room for a while."

Dean laughs at his expense. "That's one way to get your store noticed."

"Clearly I have too much time on my hands between the morning and evening rushes. Perhaps I should consider some sort of lunch option."

"If you put BLT's and pie on the menu, I'd be there every day."

Castiel chuckles. "You'd actually eat the L and T?"

"Cas, there are some times when vegetables are necessary." Castiel snorts. "Okay, fine, that one time."

"If you say so."

"I do say so."

There's a minute of silence on both ends, though, at least for Dean, doesn't seem awkward in the slightest. Like they're both just relaxing together in their own thoughts.

Castiel is the one to gently end it. "You sound better now. Did I help?"

Dean lets out a huge sigh, one that sinks him fully into the seat. "Yeah, you did. Seriously, thanks."

"I don't mind helping however I can," Castiel promises in that soft, earnest tone that Dean's working on trusting the sincerity of. "But it felt a little easier than I was expecting it to be."

Dean huffs another small laugh. "It's not always," he admits. "But I already had a meltdown this morning and took those meds, so exhaustion and chill pills combined make for a pretty easy derailment."

"Please take care of yourself," Castiel answers. "I've read quite a bit about the physical taxation that anxiety and panic can have. I'm telling you now in the interest of full disclosure, that I'll worry about that since you don't come off as one of those people who slows down much."

"Got me figured out already," Dean smiles. "Yeah, I'll be leaving a little early today, and I'll take a nap. Trust me, my body shuts its damn self down pretty nicely when it needs to."

"I love naps," Castiel muses wistfully. "They're very healthy. They help with restoring energy, brain chemistry, lower blood pressure..."

"I get it loud and clear, Doc," Dean says dryly. Then after a pause, hesitantly adds, "if you like 'em so much, you're more than welcome to share if I can ever get over the touching thing."

He expects some sort of careful, yet pointed demand to work on it, but instead he gets more unbelievable kindness. "That would be wonderful someday, if it's a goal you would like us to work towards."

Dean's smile softens. He really had taken whatever advice Jody had given him as gospel. "Yeah, it would."

"In the meantime, if you ever want a bedtime story..."

"I'm hanging up now."

Castiel's laughs is genuine and full of joy. "I have a lot of books, and I'm home by eight-"

Dean hangs up on him.

Castiel must have been expecting it because a text pops up a second later. I do all the voices and everything.

Dean rolls his eyes, but can't stop grinning. Go explode another espresso machine, asshole. In return he gets a stupid kiss emoji and he sends back the middle finger before stuffing his phone back into pocket. He's got to admit that if he's picked anyone to possibly fail at a relationship with, Castiel's an awesome choice so far. He hadn't even asked for details afterwards. Didn't push for the reason of the meltdown or anything. He might have just forgotten, but Dean suspects that's not the case. In reality, Jody had probably noted that rehashing the trigger soon after it's pulled can do a more harm than good. She had probably instructed Castiel to wait for Dean to come to him. And he'd actually followed through. That's a huge thing for morbidly curious people to back down in such a way. Every bit of it is deeply appreciated as far as Dean's concerned.

And when he climbs out of the Impala, he doesn't feel like he's about to suffocate again. He pats her hood as he shuts the door. "Thanks for helping, Baby."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

For once, Sam doesn't hang out on campus after classes to get doughnuts with Charlie and Dorothy or something, but instead gets out as fast as he can so he can get to Gabriel's apartment. He's never been there before, but doesn't have the time or energy to get anxious over it. Gabriel really hadn't looked well when he left campus, and being the care taking worrier that he is, Sam can't stay away from the care taking or the worrying. At least that's what he tells himself as he stops by the deli for homemade chicken noodle soup and fresh rolls on his way. He's pretty proud of himself for resisting the urge to stop by the pharmacy as well, though the only thing that really stops him is reasoning that he should probably assess Gabriel's stock of cold medicine and tea before wasting money on more.

His GPS guides him to a nice looking condo complex near campus that's pricey enough to keep away the students, but probably not spendy enough for the tenured professors. There's a pool that's closed for the season, a playground surrounded by unobtrusive fencing, and the grounds are well kept. Sam takes a minute to admire the antique flavor of the brickwork that fits great with the old college town aesthetic.

A flowered walkway leads to the front door with a security camera overhead and a line of labeled buzzers. Sam presses the one for 504 and holds his breath.

There's no direct answer, but a minute later, there's another buzz and the door clicks. Sam grabs the handle quickly before it can lock again, and slips inside to the atrium. It's immaculately clean and brightly lit inside. Sam takes several slipping steps across the shined marble floor in his wet shoes, but blessedly makes it to the elevator before he busts his ass and spills hot soup all over himself. That's the last thing he needs on top of everything else.

The trip to the fifth floor is uneventful thanks to being carpeted on his way down the hallway. He notes the long stretch of space between the doors, impressed. "Bigger on the inside," he murmurs to himself.

504 is at the far end of the hall, and Sam clears his throat before knocking firmly.

It takes ten seconds of shifting from foot to foot before the door opens.

Sam prides himself on his empathy most of the time. But not this time. "Are you trying to look that pathetic, or is it natural?" he asks.

Gabriel, with his pink nose, pink fluffy bathrobe, and even pinker unicorn slippers, does his best to glare. He closes the door in Sam's face.

Sam opens it and Gabriel is only five steps away. "Sorry," he says sheepishly, holding up the bag. "My brain to mouth filter needs some real work. Will you forgive me since I brought soup?"

Gabriel continues to glare, tying the belt of the bathrobe smartly around his waist. "It's like you never you want to get laid ever forever for the rest of your life."

Sam laughs, though it's 96% at himself. "I'm sorry. You're sick and I was surprised. You always seem so... I dunno. Put together."

Gabriel's scowl thaws slightly. "I can understand how you'd be shocked," he says as airily as possible with a completely stuffed up nose. "I am a ten a hundred percent of the time in public."

"Yeah, ya are," Sam agrees with a grin. "So. Apology soup?"

"Kitchen's this way," Gabriel answers, gesturing over his shoulder.

Sam follows behind, absolutely hardcore snooping for every detail he can see of Gabriel's private life. The living room alone is a good indication that Gabriel is into... everything, really. There's a long TV console stacked neatly with video games, Blu-ray discs, and an impressive stack of board games. The bookshelves flanking the large screen TV are packed solid with thick academic tomes, though the bottom shelves appear to be... upon closer inspection, romance novels.

The furniture looks comfortable and plentiful, suggesting that Gabriel probably entertains at least sometimes. The kitchen beyond is fairly small, but has a lot of counter space, and it's all granite and stainless steel.

"Nice place," Sam says as he puts the container on the table.

"You sound surprised," Gabriel smiles, inelegantly blowing his nose before grabbing the kettle off the stove to make tea.

Through the frosted glass cabinets, Sam spies the bowls and takes it upon himself to grab one to heat the soup in. "I know it's rude to stereotype, but I kinda figured your home would be as ostentatious as you are."

Gabriel wags a finger at him. "That's only on the weekend. I'm practically a choir boy at school."

Sam laughs. "Yeah, that sounds about right-ish."

Gabriel plops down in one of the kitchen chairs, suddenly looking worn out with slumped shoulders and a wincing sigh.

"Is it the flu?" Sam asks, switching from amused to concerned in an instant.

"Nah," Gabriel assures him with a less-than-assuring fit of coughing and sneezing. "Onset was too slow," he wheezes once he recovers his breath. "My throat's been hurting a couple days and I've been tired. Thought it was just the weather changing and stress."

Sam puts the soup in the microwave and then turns the stove off on the boiling water. He pours a cup for Gabriel and brings it to the table with the honey and the box of assorted fruit teas. "That's good," he says, setting the mug in front of the ailing TA. "Dean would kill me if I brought home flu germs."

"Ah, classic mysophobia," Gabriel muses. "How far's the apple from the tree, if you don't mind my asking?"

It takes three tries to find the silverware drawer, but Sam does and brings the hot soup over with a spoon. "I mean, try not to sneeze right in my face, but otherwise I'm not super squeamish."

"Good," Gabriel says, breathing in the steam from his mug before trying the soup. "I'll have you know I love being pampered when I'm sick, and often resolve to being a big baby in order to achieve that goal."

Rolling his eyes, Sam says, "I couldn't be more surprised. Who usually babies you?"

Gabriel shrugs then hunches further over his bowl. "My cat, mostly."

Sam takes a seat across from him. "You taught your cat to cook and go shopping for medicine? Impressive."

"Even better," Gabriel answers with a phlegmy laugh. "I taught him how to sleep on my bladder and step on my junk in the morning."

"Aww, the perfect nurse. Is he shy? I haven't seen him yet."

Gabriel nods over his shoulder. "He's still assessing your threat level."

Sam glances around, but still sees no cat. "Are you fucking with me?" he asks suspiciously.

Benignly sipping his soup, Gabriel says, "sniper."

Sam looks up. On top of the cabinets, at least eight feet off the ground, is a cat. It sits calmly like a loaf, and with huge, owl eyes, staring unblinkingly at Sam. "Hi," Sam says.

"You and Loki should get along fine as long as you don't try and usurp him."

Sam grins, "so I can't sleep on your bladder or step on your dick. Got it."

"Hey, some people are into that sort of thing."

"Yeah, no, I think I'll leave the dick stepping to the professionals. Just thinking about it kinda makes my eyes water."

Gabriel laughs again and then coughs into another stack of tissues he's magicked up. "Well, get used to it because if he decides to like you, he'll be doing the same to you if we decide to have slumber parties."

"Your cat is huge, by the way," Sam notes.

"Big and fat Maine Coon," Gabriel says proudly. "Just the way I like 'em. He's gotta go on a diet, though. I just don't have the heart."

Sam grins. "You both need some discipline." He watches the cat yawn, jump down onto the counter, and then to the floor with a thump that's bigger than one would think with most cats. He's a beautiful tortoise shell, probably over 30 pounds, and though naturally long haried and large like rest of his breed, he definitely jiggles a bit more than he should. "I can help if you want."

Gabriel eyes him. "Do you know anything about cats?"

Sam shrugs. "Not really. But I can learn! And I love exercise."

"Ugh, we'll probably never work out," Gabriel groans, cheek dropping to the table.

"That's a terrible pun."

"Both meanings are true. How do you expect me to be with some health nut?"

"I've never said anything about all the doughnuts," Sam protests. "You look great how you are."

Gabriel beams. "Cookies in bed?"

"That's how you get ants. Plus crumbs. That bring ants. If you bring crumbs and/or ants into the bed, I will carefully vacuum them all up, and then deposit them on your pillow."

"Sounds like a plan," Gabriel grins. Then, "speaking of bed, I'm dying. I should do that in my bed."

Sam stands up, rolls his eyes, and clears away the dishes. "Get to it. You want me to bring you more tea?"

"You would be my hero if you did," Gabriel answers.

"Coming right up." As Gabriel shuffles away towards the back of the condo, Sam heats up the water in the kettle again and lurks around the kitchen a bit. There are photos taped to the fridge. Nothing super incriminating, but there are a lot of photos from the club and several of Gabriel and Castiel in what appears to be a vacation in Europe. Sighing at the amount of beautiful women and men on Gabriel's arm, Sam refills the mug, drops in a new teabag, and brings it with the honey to Gabriel's room.

The TA is already ensconced in the bed, covers to his chin, Loki spread out beside him. "No silk sheets?" He sets the mug and honey on the nightstand.

Gabriel scoffs. "Waste of money. They're only comfortable when you're awake, cost too much, wear out too quickly, and are impossible to wash."

"But you haven't thought about them at all," Sam smiles, taking a seat on the bed next to Gabriel's knees.

"I had some during my more wayward years," Gabriel admits.

Rubbing Gabriel's leg, Sam says as mildly as possible, "I saw your pictures on the fridge."

"Good times," Gabriel sneezes.

Okay, that's about as far as he can go with beating around the bush. "Have you really never cheated on anyone before?"

Gabriel frowns. "No, of course not. I'm always upfront. It's too pointless to be any other way. Why?" His watery eyes narrow. "Did Old Saint Nick say something to you?"

Sam bows his head. "Yeah, a little."

"Of-fucking-course he did. Sam, I would never cheat on you. I wouldn't do that to anyone. I like you, and I promised to be upfront with you. I'm sticking to that. Nick... he's a jealous type."

Sam's face twists. "Gross. Are you suggesting he has a crush on me?"

Laughing, Gabriel says, "you deserve that mental image for a minute. But, no. He doesn't. He just doesn't like me much and will go to great lengths to make my life miserable, and to make sure I don't steal away his pet projects. That you are."

"I figured as much," Sam admits. "If I didn't need as good of a resume as I could get, I wouldn't bother with him. I didn't mean to doubt you or anything. It's just... anxiety."

Gabriel's hand snakes out from under the covers and he rests it on Sam's knee. "I'm into you. Pretty hardcore. He probably told you about how I haven't been serious about anyone since he's known me. Which is true. Full honesty, I've been perfectly happy single and mingling up until you. But I like you better than my solitude, so here we are. My best advice to you is to not let that snake get under your skin."

"I'll try not to. Maybe up my daily dose of medication."

"You'll be fine," Gabriel says firmly. "I promise. I'll be with you every step of the way."

"I really appreciate it," Sam says sincerely.

"Good. Now, c'mere and watch TV with me for a while."

Sam kicks his shoes off and slides onto the bed on top of the covers on the other side of Loki. "Thrill me."

"That's the plan," Gabriel says. "That's definitely the plan."

Chapter Text

When Dean gets home he experiences a slight sensation of unreality. It sinks in that Sam won't be home until very late, if he decides to come back at all. "Maybe he'll finally lose his virginity?" he muses to himself as he sheds his jacket and unzips his jumpsuit. He wrinkles his nose. "Maybe I shouldn't think about that." That's a gross thing to think about.

For the moment cleanliness is important and then deciding how to spend his evening. He smirks a little as he passes Sam's room. Back when they were teenagers and Dean's mental illness hadn't achieved its fully aged bouquet, they would sabotage the shit out of each other when one of them wasn't around to guard the homestead. Dean fondly recalls some epic stunts ruining Sam's toothbrushes and adding a bit of danger to his shampoo. These days he wouldn't go in someone else's bathroom for a million dollars, but at least he has the memories.

He's more focused on the silence, anyway. He knew times like this would happen. Sam was going to make friends, go to parties, stay out all night. That's what college kids do. Dean doesn't want the guy to not have those experiences, but that thought doesn't make them easier to deal with.

He blasts his music while he showers, half of him waiting for Sam to bang on the door and yell at him to keep it down.

He uses up almost all of the deli meat making himself a monster sandwich for dinner, and Sam's not there to remind him of his cholesterol and the fact that there won't be anymore sandwich meat until the weekly shopping trip, which is still five days away.

Sam won't complain about feet on the coffee table, eating on the couch in his robe, or watching TV too loudly.

It feels wrong on a base level. But it's not Sam. It's all Dean. It's all Dean's head. It's all Dean's need to have everything the same way all the time to stave off the anxiety and rituals. That sucks far more. He wants to be happy for his little brother. He is happy for his little brother. He just can't convince himself to be happy about it. The feeling is easy. The actions are hard. It's so fucking hard. Sam deserves way more than being one of Dean's calming rituals, after all.

He flops his head back on the couch, staring at the ceiling, counting slowly. However, his body's had enough panic for the day. Instead, it decides to stick on being sad and disappointed in himself. He's probably going to have to get used to that.

"Think of something positive," he mumbles. Right. So fucking easy. His brain is pretty good about making the good stuff into bad shit if it wants to.

He thinks about Castiel. Their conversation earlier. Sure, the morning had gotten off to a rocky start, and Castiel hasn't seen the worst of anything yet, but he's been pretty unflappable so far. That's a good indicator. Plus, they're ages away from dealing with the bad stuff together. Walking before running and all that trite bullshit.

It's good to have someone so easygoing, though.

Plus, they'd had a successful first date. No reason to think the second will crash and burn.

At the same time, it's really hard to deal with dreading things that he's absolutely looking forward to. That's probably the worst part. Definitely the most difficult to wrap his head around. He keeps trying, but always ends up concluding that it could simply remain one of his personal life's greatest mysteries.

And it really makes him zone out because he jumps out of his skin when a voice over his shoulder says, "didn't take you long to go feral, did it?"

"Jesus Christ!" Dean yelps, swiveling around on the couch to glare at Sam. "When the hell did you get here?"

"Just now. Didn't mean to scare you. You must have really been into that Murder She Wrote marathon."

Dean turns back around quizzically. That's what he'd been watching? Huh. Yep. That's what he'd been watching. "How's Gabe?" he deflects.

"You don't wanna know until I'm bathed and changed." Sam shrugs and makes a show out of not touching anything as he ambles out of the living room towards the stairs.

Once he's out of sight, Dean scrambles up and follows behind with Clorox wipes for the door handles in the kitchen and Sam's bedroom. Then, with nothing left to satisfy the fidgeting, he returns to the kitchen to wash the dishes by hand just to kill more time. He's not truly at ease until he hears his brother tromping back down the stairs straight to the laundry room to toss his dirty clothes in. Then he comes to the kitchen and grabs the orange juice out of the fridge.

"Gabriel just has a cold," Sam assures him. "Nothing too catastrophic. But, me being around so many people every day, especially in the winter... Someone's gonna sneeze on me the wrong way someday."

"There's no right way," Dean answers, drying his hands. "I'll deal with it. I've been sick before and so have you."

"I'm not trying to be a dick about it, but the last time I had a runny nose, you quarantined me and yourself for days."

Grimacing, Dean says, "yeah, I get it. Trust me, man, I don't wanna go there again either. So, just lemme stock up on Vitamin C and Clorox, and it'll help."

"Okay," Sam agrees. "But... um... you're okay now? After this morning and everything... I'm sorry."

Dean shrugs like he's trying to resettle an ill-fitting shirt on his shoulders. "It's cool. I'm fine. Wasn't the best day, but it's miles away from the worst. We're all allowed to not be perfect sometimes."

Sam nods along like he both expected and doesn't deserve the response he gets. "Okay," he says again. "So, we're good with my new schedule? Internship and everything?"

"As long as you check in, we're good," Dean agrees. "Sammy, you do what you gotta do, and I'll make it all right."

"Got it. Thanks, Dean."

"Anytime."

"And, hey. Good luck with Cas."

Dean grins over his shoulder and lies with a smug face, "never needed any luck there."

Sam laughs. "Whatever you say. 'Night." He makes a big deal of yawning and stretching before clomping back up the stairs. It's still a bit too early for bed, but Dean appreciates the gesture. For as well as Sam had probably cleaned himself up after being at Gabriel's, the possibility of germs is still enough to make Dean squirm. At least this way they're contained and he won't have to worry about it more than necessary. He's got a lot better things to worry about. Like his next date.

"Knock it out of the park, Winchester," he tells himself. Whether he does or doesn't, it's good to think he might.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

"Oh, God, that smells so good," Sam moans from the kitchen table where it looks like he's moved in. His laptop, probably every textbook, and all his notebooks cover the surface. Normally Dean would protest the mess, but it's the biggest table they have, and the poor guy needs to sprawl these days.

"I can literally hear your stomach growling from here," Dean says smugly. "You just ate."

"I know," Sam says miserably, forehead thumping down on top of his open book. "Maybe I'm hitting another growth spurt."

"Please don't," Dean grins as he layers his fucking masterpiece of a lasagna together. "If you get any bigger, you'll be kidnapped by the government for study. They'll think you're some sort of mutant or something."

"Really?" Sam says excitedly. "There's no midterms in top secret government black sites. I'll go."

Dean grins wider, savoring his giddy mood like a finely aged whiskey. "I'll save you leftovers if there are any," he promises.

"How could you and Cas possibly eat an entire lasagna?" Sam asks with hopeful incredulity.

"Says the guy who ate an entire pizza by himself," Dean points out.

"Braining takes a lot of energy," Sam laments.

"That's why I don't do it," Dean laughs. He shoves the pan into the oven and then turns around, resting his hip on the counter. "You gonna be okay tonight or am I gonna have to text you to make sure you're still alive?"

Sam raises his head just enough to shoot Dean a dirty look. "I hate you."

"That's the spirit. Keep up the good work, nerd. I'm gonna go get ready."

He hears Sam mutter, "rub it in some more." And that makes his feet feel light. Sam's got plenty social life going on. No need for Dean to feel bad about getting out of the house for once. Plus, Sam, for all his grumbling, is beaming at his brother as he goes to get ready for his date.

Dean had done the smart thing by putting the lasagna in to bake before going to shower and change, otherwise he'd never get ready. He's sure that Sam would do the decent thing and pull it out if he smelled burning, but all the same. He's got a little under an hour to not let his brain pull him into a pit of unfinished business.

Of course, he still doesn't rush his shower. Smelling good and being clean on a date is of the utmost importance, regardless of what the end goal is.

And he does smell good. For years Sam has insisted on fancy-ass shower products. Dean was pretty dubious to the whole thing; if it makes you clean, who the hell cares how expensive it is? But his little brother had hit on the motherlode one day with some ginger and jasmine shit and if Dean Winchester doesn't smell fucking edible using it, then he'll eat his hat. The metaphorical one, not the literal one. The literal one was a birthday gift from his dad years ago and it's some of the finest Texas leather in the world.

He washes himself from stem to stern and then dries off quickly, chilled in his cold room. He stands shivering just slightly in front of his closet, hoping the cold will inspire him to get dressed more quickly, but of course it doesn't. He suddenly realizes that he owns the same fucking outfit a dozen times over.

He sighs. Being poor sure breeds monotony in some areas. Whatever. If Castiel can't appreciate him for his sparkling wit and nice smelling hair, he ain't worth it anyway.

He grabs his least worn in maroon flannel and pairs it with his newest jeans and black t-shirt. He's been told he looks good in this particular combo platter, so he goes for it, adjusting his collar in the mirror over his dresser and swiping his hair a bit to the side. Then he gives the final verdict a once over. He can't tell, but hopes it doesn't look like he's trying too hard.

But there's no more time to worry about that since his cell phone starts beeping with the timer. He shuts it off, a little amazed that he actually wasted 45 minutes getting ready for a date. Who is he? Sam?

With a wry shake of his head, he trudges back downstairs in his socks.

Sam is still set up at the kitchen table, though he's got a beer and a bag of chips to keep him company now.

Grinning, Dean gives the kid a quality noogie as he passes behind him to pull the lasagna out of the oven. He sticks it on the rack to cool down enough to carry, and while he waits, wraps up a fresh garlic baguette in aluminum foil and grabs the bowl of salad from the fridge.

"You're taking a salad?" Sam asks incredulously. "It's the second date. You probably don't need to try so hard."

"Ha ha," Dean deadpans.

"Did you make the dressing? Dean, if you set the bar too high now, he'll think you're not interested later when you really start acting like yourself."

"I know jealousy when I hear it," Dean counters breezily, unwilling to give into the nerves just yet. "You can just sit there sulking with your books and potato chips, loser."

Sam smiles and it's softer than it normally is for the typical ribbing they're giving each other. "I hope you have fun tonight."

Dean slips on his shoes and jacket and pats the pocket. "If I can't, 'ol Xanax here'll help me."

"Good luck," Sam laughs.

Dean takes the salad and bread out to the car then comes back for the lasagna. It's cooled enough to put the cover on and carry with oven mitts. "Don't wait up," he says over his shoulder. Sam just shrugs and shuts the door for him.

Precious cargo all tucked in so it won't spill, Dean backs out of the garage. He waits for the door to close before fully pulling out of the driveway. Breathing for a minute. Just breathing. Sam had really helped distract him, but now it's up to him, his meds, and all the therapy.

He tells himself not to stew. Not to take more time than necessary. If he gives himself a minute to think, he'll be done for until he gets in there and actually starts the date. The worrying and imagining is the poison. Therefore, he drives a tad over the speed limit, thankful it's against traffic, and rush hour is ending anyway, for what it's worth in a town their size.

He's pulling into the empty lot at Espresso Lane with two minutes to spare, and feels a wash of relief seeing Castiel sitting at one of the patio tables out front, waiting. No time to stew after all. He kills the engine and Castiel stands smiling and approaching.

"Dean," he says, stopping at a sociable distance. "You look wonderful." He pauses and his nose wrinkles. "You smell wonderful. Like pasta sauce."

Grinning easily, Dean gestures to the passenger door as he gets out of the Impala. "Homemade lasagna."

Castiel pulls the door open and retrieves the salad and bread. "Man after my own heart. I thought you were joking when you mentioned it."

Dean holds up a stern finger. "Two things I never joke about: good food, and rock n' roll."

"Can't argue with that," Castiel says, the grin making his voice rich.

Dean carefully grabs the still-hot dish and hip checks the car door closed. "Can we use your oven? Didn't wanna cook the bread at home 'cause it'd get all soggy."

"Not a problem," Castiel answers. He holds the cafe door open for Dean and directs him through the staff door to the kitchen.

Dean pauses and then laughs. "Chef's table?" One of the smaller wooden tables and two chairs have been dragged into the center of the space from the front. There's a red checkered table cloth, candles, and two sets of plates, bowls, and cutlery. Even the overhead lights have been set to half; as romantic as its possible to get in an industrial kitchen with tons of fluorescent bulbs.

Castiel shrugs as he passes by to but his burden down on the prep table and preheat the large toaster oven. While that's working, he turns to Dean. "Red wine would be good with this, unless you don't drink it?"

"My family are beer drinkers, but if you've got something to impress me with..."

Castiel picks the bottle up off the counter. "I already have a pie to impress you with for dessert, but I suppose there's nothing wrong with earning bonus points." He crosses to the table and they both sit opposite one another, though with how small the table it, it still feels intimate.

"I dunno," Dean teases with a crooked smile, "a fancy setup all for me? I'm already impressed."

Castiel breathes a small laugh. "I thought the privacy would be good. This way, no one would wander by the window and think I've added a dinner service."

"I do like being special." He holds up his glass for Castiel to fill with a bold red wine, ignoring the small twinge in the back of his mind trying to warn him that he doesn't really know how clean any of the dishes are. He's seen how fastidious Castiel is in the cafe. This non-productive anxiety can fuck right off now, thanks. Instead, he takes a cautious sip of the wine, eyebrows shooting up. "This is good!"

Castiel snorts. "You sound surprised."

"Kinda am," Dean admits while Castiel goes back to the oven to stick the bread in. "I mean, I've had a couple of few glasses of wine in my day, but they always just tasted like weird, dirty grapes."

With a sigh, Castiel sits back down and samples his own wine, giving it a pleased nod. "My parents enjoy wine a lot. Frankly, they're pretty pretentious about it. But I've learned a lot over the years. Most importantly, that cost does not always equal quality, and people will disown each other over their own opinions of red or white."

Dean grins fully. "That's what rich people fight about?"

"Well, that and imported Japanese toilets," Castiel answers with a mischievous gleam in his eye. "Does the lasagna need to be reheated too?"

Chuckling at the redirect, Dean shakes his head. "Nah. It's only been out of the oven for about fifteen minutes. Should be perfect by now."

"Thank you for making it," Castiel says with far more earnestness than is really warranted.

"Sure," Dean brushes off. "Lasagna isn't hard to make, just a little time consuming."

The timer dings and Dean gets up this time to retrieve the bread. "Go ahead and toss the salad, unless you want the dressing on the side."

"You made the dressing, too," Castiel observes with passion. "I'm so glad that you can cook."

Dean puts the bread down and carefully peels back the aluminum foil. The he shakes out the napkin on his plate and puts it in his lap like a decent, well-mannered adult. "Why?"

"Because I both hate it and am terrible at it," Castiel answers sincerely.

"Well, dig in since it sounds like you don't get a decent home cooked meal all that often."

Castiel starts with the salad and bread while Dean cuts the lasagna into generous squares. Castiel offers up his plate for a serving and he looks absolutely blissful when he surveys his full dish. "I'm very happy right now," he sighs.

With a snort, Dean says, "you're so easy to please. You haven't even tasted it yet."

But Castiel is already stuffing a huge bite of the lasagna into his mouth. He makes a loud, savoring sound that makes Dean almost forget he's hungry, too. "So good," Castiel swoons.

Dean can only pray that the heat in his cheeks isn't actually visible. "Wow," he coughs to cover his embarrassing arousal, "you'd think you never had a home cooked meal before."

Castiel appears to be forgoing the politeness Dean has come to associate with him, in favor of not pausing for a second while eating. At least he isn't shoveling it in like a starving man, but Dean does actually appreciate the compliment. Castiel takes in every mouthful like it's the first bite ever. "I haven't since my divorce regularly. Gabriel comes over and cooks sometimes when he's bored or done something to anger me, and Amelia's cooking was good, but this is incredible. Did you go to culinary school?"

"No," Dean answers, surprised by the question. "It's just... I dunno... when Sam and I started having to make our own meals, we sorta... decided that if we had to cook, we might as well be good at it." He clears his throat, thrown by the glowing critical acclaim.

Castiel smiles. "Sharing a great meal is one of life's greatest and most intimate pleasures."

Dean's eyes narrow. "Is my lasagna turning you on?"

Castiel laughs into his napkin, coughing a little. "I don't mean it that way, though I imagine some food kinks are like that. What I meant was that sharing meals is such a wonderful sign of love and friendship. Eating together, talking, enjoying the people you're with while doing something to sustain life. Have you ever been to a restaurant with someone, or a group of someones, and felt like you've created your own little world in a crowd?"

Dean shrugs, heart softening at the sentimentality. "Yeah, sure. Long time ago, me and my buddies would go out to this Roadhouse on Thursday nights. Every time, same burgers, same beer, same jukebox. Maybe even the same crowd. But it was..." he searches for the words until he realizes that Castiel has already said them. "Yeah, it was like that."

"You don't do that anymore?" Castiel's lips turn down in a tiny frown.

"Can't." Dean leans back in his chair a bit. "It's uh... not in cards once my OCD got this bad." The familiar squeeze of fear overtakes him at the mention of it out loud to a near stranger, and he acknowledges it's going to take some time before his brain accepts that Castiel already knows the worst of it.

"Ah," Castiel says, expression clearing. "I suppose that would be an issue, yes."

And he leaves it be.

Dean stares at him, waiting.

Nothing happens. The silence stretches. Castiel keeps eating calmly, not at all looking as though he's willfully keeping a million questions or well meaning, but ultimately unhelpful, observations at bay.

"You really are cool with it," Dean says wonderingly.

Castiel blinks up at him mid bite, a string of cheese dangling from his mouth. He raises an eyebrow in silent question.

Dean can't help an indelicate snort at the guy's expense. Castiel remains completely unrepentant as he wipes his chin. It's starting to get really easy to fall for the guy. "My OCD," he finally clarifies. "It's not really bothering you."

For the first time since they started eating, Castiel puts his fork down. Dean sees the significance in that. Slowly, Castiel says, "the fact that you have OCD doesn't bother me."

Interesting choice of words. "Something does?"

Castiel peers at Dean with an odd expression for a moment. "You say things sometimes... like just then about your friends. I... get the impression that your OCD has dimmed your light quite a bit. That you used to be able to live a lot more brightly, with a lot less effort. It's difficult to see because what I feel when I look at you, is a remarkable man who has to struggle more than most people for even a night like tonight. It's not fair. And I don't know how to tell you I think it sucks without sounding like I'm making it about me, or only spending time with you because I want to 'fix' you. But..." He shrugs both shoulders up dramatically and lets them fall on a large exhale. "It sucks. And..." This time his gaze falls to the table, small blotches of pink on his cheeks. "If you think I can help in any way, as your friend, or... or boyfriend... well, I'd be honored to."

Dean drinks in every word like he's been stranded in the desert for days. The lump lodged in his throat doesn't let him answer immediately. For a second he hates it, but then he thanks it because his desire to tell Castiel some way, that he appreciates every word, allows him to do something he had no idea he was capable of at this point. He needs to express his gratitude, and with words not coming...

He places his hand palm up on the table right next to Castiel's, an unmistakable invitation.

Castiel blinks owlishly at the hand. Then his gaze shoots up. He opens his mouth to speak, then his nose scrunches like he's about to sneeze. He clears his throat, makes another attempt to say something, and gives up.

It's a fascinating process to watch the poor guy get as lost as Dean. At least Dean's used to it.

But it all stops being weird and too emotional when Castiel very gently places his palm over Dean's. He holds perfectly still once settled, his touch light.

The shudder that wracks him isn't from his repulsive fear of germs. It feels so good to be touching someone again. Dean squeezes Castiel's fingers, probably too tightly. Neither one of them seem to be able to make eye contact anymore.

Dean holds his breath, waiting. Waiting for the anxiety. Waiting for the warning or else to get him back in line.

The only thing that happens is his heart rate picking up slightly. Might be because of the company he's keeping. He sighs long and loud. After another minute, he can talk himself into looking up again. Castiel is still staring down at his half finished dinner. Smiling. A tiny thing that is as pleased as the pink in his cheeks.

Strangely embarrassed by it, Dean says, "shut up and finish your food before it gets cold."

The smile turns up a single watt. Fumbling his fork into his left hand, Castiel resumes eating, awkward with his off hand, though when Dean tries to pull away to give the man some dignity back, Castiel refuses to let go, keeping them joined right where Dean had offered until there isn't a single crumb left. They say nothing at all the rest of the meal.

Castiel pushes his empty plate to the center of the table. "Thank you," he says softly in a tone that suggests it's least of all for the best lasagna he's ever had.

"No problem," Dean says the same way. He stacks his plate on top of Castiel's.

"Is this difficult for you?" he asks, clarifying the question with a light squeeze of his fingers.

"Not right now," Dean answers truthfully. "I have no idea if it'll be a permanent thing since I've broken the ice, so to speak, but... not right now."

"So, you're good for pie?" Castiel asks like a man who is positive of answer, and thus looking forward to the reaction.

Naturally he has to play along because that part is easy. He scoffs. "I'm always good for pie," he says with all the played up offense in the world.

Grinning, Castiel stands and collects their dishes, leaving only the dessert forks. "That's good because this is going to be the best pie you've ever eaten."

"Challenge accepted." He watches Castiel place the dishes in the sink and then turn to one of the ovens behind him. From there, he uses a tea towel to extract a dish and presses the button on the oven to turn it off. Then he approaches the table again and sets the dish down with a flourish.

"Apple pie?" Dean asks dubiously.

Castiel nods imperiously. "I can guarantee you that it's the best apple pie you've ever had. Nay, as I said before, the very best pie ever."

"I've eaten a lot of pies," Dean smirks.

"So you've told me," Castiel answers confidently. "And I'm still positive. This is the best apple pie you will ever eat."

"Let me at it, then!" Dean grins. He raises his fork, but Castiel blocks the move with his own. Dean arches an eyebrow.

"There's a catch," Castiel says primly.

"But it's pie," Dean argues, edging towards a whine.

"We're going to share this piece," Castiel says.

Dean flashes hot. What? He can't do that. He can't. The germs. He can't share someone's germs. Even if they didn't share the same fork, he can't. He has to eat his own food, or else. He slams his eyes shut and drags in a deep, shaking inhale. They've been having such a damn good time, and now he's gonna be the asshole to ruin it. Every fucking time. But if he doesn't...

He hates this particular invasive thought. They're all bad, of course, but they're old and familiar. That makes them easier to push through and will away. But this one with the smell of old fire and ash and Castiel splayed out dead... it's new, and therefore extra terrifying.

"You don't have have to," Castiel says gently.

"Cas," Dean whispers. Just to hear an answer. Just to let the way Castiel's voice sounds wash over him again. It somehow sounds like a cool breeze. It helps the shaking.

"Can I touch you?"

Before he can overthink it, Dean's hand flies out. He knows it's trembling awfully. He knows it's sweaty. He knows it's cold. He knows it's the complete opposite of ten minutes ago. But Castiel takes it without hesitation and holds on.

"Jody suggested we try it this way. She said in her letter she thought you might be ready. It's entirely up to you."

"What exactly did she say?" Dean whimpers. Maybe her reasoning will help. Sometimes it does.

"She said with us dating, a good place to start might be with the germs. But that it should start smaller, like a shared dish using different utensils. I thought it was a good suggestion, so I... um... and since pie is your favorite." His hand briefly grips tighter in agitation. "However, now that I'm thinking about it again, it might be too much. We're already holding hands, and you said that's huge for you, so... and! And what if I ruin pie for you? I'm such an ass. This was a terrible idea."

Dean doesn't realize that he's smiling until his lips move to talk. "You're awesome, did you know that, Cas?"

He can feel the surprise in the way that Castiel's arm pulls a little as he sucks in air. "I don't want to upset you in any way. I know so little about what you're dealing with, to knowingly cause a reaction, I..."

Dean opens his eyes. The distress he finds on every line of Castiel's face is awful, but he's so sincere. He's trying so hard. "It's okay," he says.

Castiel frowns more. "Are you saying that because it's true, or because you're worried that your distress is upsetting me?"

A small shrug of one shoulder. "It's okay," he repeats. "Look, Cas, if we're gonna be in this, the things I do... who I am, it is gonna upset you every now and then. It does for Sam, and he's been putting up with me since he was born. But as long as he doesn't use that to push or guilt trip me, then that's just the way of the world. If I'm working my hardest, and so is he, well... people have feelings. You're allowed to feel how you feel."

Castiel leans into the table. "I'm not at all trying to use my concern to manipulate you."

"You'd need a lot more practice to accomplish it, anyway," Dean answers with a wry, half smile. "It's not all on you," he continues, smile fading. "Relationships are hard. I get it. Both of us have to be able to say what we want without worrying about scaring each other. It's just... you already know that I'll react badly sometimes. And... to be blunt, you're gonna have to square with that to be with me. You can't put yourself second to my goddamn mental illness. When I told you that I was willing to go out with you, I also meant that I was willing to deal with the fallout my brain is gonna dish out. If I freak out, or have a panic attack, or can't handle something, it's okay with me. I'm used to it, and the only way out is through. The only thing I'm not okay with is you someday feeling like your needs aren't getting met because of me."

Eyes soft in the low ambient lighting, Castiel says, "did you rehearse that speech?"

With a short, startled bark of laughter, Dean says, "what if did? Fuck off, it was a good one."

"It didn't sound like you, is all," Castiel muses, grin spreading.

"Yeah, well, my psychiatrist is a lot better at the brain shrinking mumbo jumbo than I am. All that touchy feely crap is still true, though."

"Then, I guess we're on the same page."

Dean searches Castiel's face. Once again, he sees nothing but the same open sincerity. He sighs. "I'm ready to try the pie."

Castiel's whole body beams with his smile, sitting up straighter like he's ready to take on the world. "Me, too," he says.

Dean picks up his fork and stares at the delicious smelling confection between them. He spears the first bite and thinks, anything. I'll do anything to keep this, and he eats.

Chapter Text

Sam deeply, deeply wishes that he had someone he felt completely comfortable venting to about his pending internship with Dr. Pellegrino. Gabriel knows the professor too well and has been quite vocal with his opinions, so Sam can't count him as a neutral party. Charlie and Dorothy would be sympathetic and listen of course, but he's not as close to Dorothy, thus not comfortable showing what a mess he is to her, and she's the only one who's had his class. Charlie wouldn't completely understand his - somewhat nebulous, granted - concerns. Ash has also had him, but he's basically the embodiment of the shrug emoji, so might not be much help, either. Unless Sam might need to hide a body one day. For some reason he can't put his finger on, he suspects that Ash knows just the place. That's a thought for another day. Today, he's got three hours until his internship, and he's practically sweating bullets over it.

It's no use telling himself not to worry. His trepidation at being alone with Dr. Pellegrino coupled with his desire to have an impressive CV after graduation is making it impossible to keep a completely clear head. Then again, maybe this is just practice for the actual adult world. Mild terror of uncaring overlords holding his livelihood in their hands, ready to crush it at the slightest screw up. Grim thought, possibly valid.

Or just crushing mental insecurities rearing their ugly head at the smallest provocation. That's also a recurring theme. Fuck.

He can do this. The internship is only for a couple of months, and the hours aren't unmanageable. In the end, his name will get out there with other professors, which might give him some networking options, regardless of his major. God, being an adult sucks. Thinking about his future sucks. Dealing with his own shit sucks. Suddenly he understands what Dean's always talking about when he says, "life is just a constant string of trying to figure out which decision is the actual lesser of two evils." He'd been talking about his OCD, but the theme still applies.

It applies so hard.

Somehow he makes it through the day, the sun starts to set, and it's time to meet his maker.

Sam grips the shoulder strap on his bag tighter, straightens his shoulders, and knocks on Nick's office door.

A moment later there's a distant, "come in!" and Sam slips into the room, surreptitiously leaving the door open halfway behind him.

Dr. Pellegrino isn't in his office. Instead, there's a short woman at the far end of the room, tossing books around. She whips around to face the door, brushing her frizzy brown hair out of her eyes and giving Sam a pretty decent "found some roadkill" look. "You the intern Nick's been drooling over?"

"Uh," Sam answers, stomach dropping.

She waves a hand dismissively. "Fuck it, like I care. I'm Meg Masters. You're Sam Winchester. Great, we're besties now, hurray."

Sam almost smiles at her absolute deadpan. "I'm probably about to insult you, but are you also an intern here?"

That earns him a dangerously toothy grin. "No way, sweet cheeks. I'm just the... Jesus, what am I? The goddamn maid, is what I am. Like I don't have my own PhD. Like I don't have my own damn research to do. But Dr. Pellegrino is the top fish in this tiny ass pond, so he can have whoever he needs, damn the consequences." She rolls her eyes. "Just put your shit anywhere and find table space, if there is any. There's nowhere to be out of the way when Nick gets like this."

Carefully, Sam slides his bag into the corner by the door and pockets his phone after putting it on vibrate. "Gets like what?"

With pinched lips, Meg answers, "research-y. Publish or perish, right? Nick hits critical, and this is what it looks like when reactor melts down. At least my office has breathing room because I'm not a freaking scatterbrain."

To be fair to Meg's annoyance, there are probably a hundred books scattered around and packed onto shelves. "He could have just gone to the library instead of bringing the whole damn thing back here," he offers in what he hopes is a measure of solidarity. Brownie points can go a long way with some people.

Meg barks a startled laugh. She points at Sam. "I like you. At any rate, I help with the library relocation, but I got better shit to do, so the rest is in your hands. Nick'll be back in a few minutes, so until then, just start with that stack in front of you and alphabetize by author. Organizing is pointless because Nick'll never put anything back where it was, but he'll also yell at you if you don't try, so." She shrugs expansively. "May the Force be with you."

"Yeah, thanks," Sam says, really wishing she'd just stay. She seems like the kind of person who has things like hidden knives on her person. She'd be a good ally, if not for killing someone, then for his peace of mind. Too bad that ain't the way of the world. "See ya." Resigned, he drops into a chair and starts sifting through the books that are in front of him. Meg was right about the mess. There don't appear to be any real themes or order to the stacks. They're all religious studies, sure, but other than that, there's every genre.

He has no clue what sort of system that Dr. Pellegrino is trying to set up, so he contents himself by opening a book at random and scanning the table of contents.

Thankfully or not, he doesn't have long to dither. Nick breezes in five minutes after the hour looking windblown and carrying another armload of books.

Sam frowns a little. It's like JSTOR doesn't exist for this man.

Beaming, Nick deposits the books right in front of Sam with a resounding thump. "Welcome to the War Room!"

"Clearly," Sam answers, eyeing the titles. "This is, um... a lot."

"Don't you know it! Academia sure does build up the arm muscles after a while."

"I can see that. Uh... Meg Masters was here a little while ago."

Nick chuckles. "She's a peach, isn't she?"

"That's a word for it," Sam mumbles, almost smiling again.

That brings out a heartfelt laugh. "Abrasive tends to work for me, and she's really good at her job. I was her thesis advisor. Quick mind on her, and a million better ideas. At any rate, it's time to get down to business if you're ready?"

"More than ready," Sam answers, truly meaning it.

"Good news," Nick says. He sidles around the table and sits down across from Sam, kicking his feet up into the chair across from him. He threads his fingers and rests them against his chest as casual as you please. "So, you'll be helping me out with research, but we're gonna start out in the shallow end for ya. Kiddie pool, even." He holds up a hand briefly in a stopping motion almost like an afterthought. "Not insulting your intelligence, either. Since this isn't your current preferred area of study, I'd be interested to see what jumps out at ya before we really knuckle down."

"Meg told me to organize all these books first," Sam says.

Nick grins. "That'll help, sure, but I also don't want you wasting your time and brains on menial stuff, though..." he glances around. "It's probably best to have a system here. It's a pretty big mess I've got going on."

Sam nods. "Can I ask what your project is about? I mean, I've seen some of your papers thus far so I could get a read on what you're doing, but you do a lot. Especially about Christianity."

"Astute as expected, Sam. So, what's your best guess this time?"

Sitting up straighter, Sam looks at the titles of the books in front of him again. Frankly, he's got no clue, but he knows that this is some sort of test. And he doesn't want to lose his job on the very first day. "These are occult books," he muses, more like a question. "Not really... Christian... exactly."

"They're not," Nick agrees, grin starting to morph with a bite. "I mean, lots of this stuff is mired in Christian beliefs and stuff, but you're right on the money. Occult. Or more specifically, demonology."

Somehow, it's completely unsurprising. Neither is the gleeful glint in Nick's eyes. Clearing his throat, Sam says, "seems off brand."

"That's good then," Nick says breezily. "I've been looking for a way to shake up my image. In fact, I've always wanted to really delve into this stuff more, but I haven't had the clout to be taken seriously before now."

"I mean, if this is all the same subject matter, it's a pretty big area of study," Sam muses.

"It is," Nick confirms. "Very much so. The coolest thing about it is that it tends to cross a lot of academic barriers. That's something I like about it. Among other things, as we'll both discover."

Rolling his shoulders in resignation, Sam says, "okay, well, what's my role here?"

"Don't worry, I'm not gonna waste that beautiful mind of yours on nothing. However, the first few days or so, we need better order than nuclear bomb chic."

Grinning, Sam finds himself agreeing. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea."

He pats the books that he's just set down. "These and the ones with you already sorted. Just put them alphabetical by title. I'll start making other mountains and you can do those. Once we're settled, we'll really start getting our hands dirty."

"I can do that."

Nick jumps to his feet. "Good all around." He points towards some space behind him near the windows. "There's coffee somewhere over there. Meg makes it. It's sludge, but it'll keep ya from nodding off in the tedium. It's a necessary part of the process to glory."

Sam can appreciate that. Not that he figured research for academic papers would be fun and games the whole way through, but sorting through a hundred books for hours isn't anyone's idea of a good time. He can get used to tedium, though. He's done it plenty of times before. He hates to think about it, but it had happened a lot his first couple weeks in rehab when his head had been little better than wet cotton. He'd learned how to fold origami cranes and made about a thousand of them over a two week period. This is better than that. At least it requires a modicum of brain power.

He also hates to admit that he's enjoying not having to interact with Nick too much. The professor appears to be deeply into his stacks, barely giving Sam a second look as he wanders back and forth, tossing books around. Even so, Sam remains as inconspicuous as possible. He diligently sorts the stacks that he's given, and the ones he's finished, Nick shoves towards the end of the long table.

They've made it through almost half of it before Nick calls time, rubbing his eyes. "Not too fun today, huh?" he smiles.

"It's okay," Sam assures him. "Getting a handle on what the work is actually like for you PhD types is pretty interesting."

Nick laughs. "Yeah, and if you decide to stay in law for the long term, you'll be doing a lot more like this."

"That was a day one lesson," Sam confirms. "That's why this internship is really good for me."

"Good, good," Nick says distractedly. He taps a book on top of one of the stacks, then picks it up. He hands it off to Sam. "Give that a read and tell me your thoughts when you're done. No huge rush. I'd like to hear your thoughts on it."

For some reason he can't define, Sam doesn't even bother to look at the book before taking it over to his messenger bag and stuffing it in. "Thanks," he says. "I will."

He's almost out of the door and ready to breathe easily again when Nick grabs his arm and turns him back. Sam pins his lips shut to keep in the gasp of surprise that he absolutely doesn't want the professor to notice.

"You're gonna be awesome, Sammy," he says with an unreadable expression that makes Sam's skin crawl. "Just don't let anything - or anyone - get in your way. All it takes is one bad apple to ruin a lot of futures, you know what I mean?"

"I guess," Sam deflects slowly. He refrains from adding, mixing metaphors doesn't make you sound as smart as you keep reiterating you are.

Nick shakes his head in some semblance of sadness. "Don't let people who hit their ceilings before their time, convince you that you oughta do the same."

Of course he needs to take a dig at Gabriel before the end of the day. Sam's only surprised that it hadn't happened sooner. "Got it. Thanks." Finally, with that, he's released and escaping down the long, echoing hallway and into the fresh air.

There's no thinking about it. He grabs his cell phone out of his pocket and immediately texts Gabriel while ignoring all of the other notifications that have popped up since he'd stuffed it in there to be ignored for the duration of work. I want to come over.

Gabriel's response takes less than a minute. Sam's almost positive that he was waiting for the text after the internship. Sounds more like a want than a need. Door's open. Figuratively.

It takes a supreme amount of effort not to sprint to the parking lot. Sam can't really explain the dread and exultation absolutely swamping him. He's not sure if it's pure relief like one gets after a near-death miss, excitement to see his boyfriend, adrenaline, pride that he didn't lose his shit once during the past two hours. It's something, and it's powerful, whatever it is. And it hauls him to Gabriel's condo in record time.

The TA is grinning fit to burst when he opens the door for Sam. "Nick's already texted. It appears that you came out of the snake pit an actual snake charmer."

"Your cold?"

Going with it like a pro, Gabriel shrugs. "I'm medicated, but I'm never down for long. Fever went away after a full night's sleep. Why?"

Sam lunges forward and kisses him. Hard, stumbling, and sloppy.

Gabriel takes it like he was expecting it all along; hands firm against Sam's back and his body pushing forward against the inertia to keep them from toppling over.

Between ragged breaths and loads of kissing, Sam manages to get out, "he hates you. I hate him for hating you. He says something every time. I hate him. He hates you, and I hate him."

Gabriel laughs all the while, interspersed with a little bit of coughing still, taking the words against his neck and lips, slowing the momentum of their stumbling, but not stopping it. And the kissing doesn't end until his back hits the bedroom door. It's only then he stops them by so very gently sifting his fingers into Sam's long hair and pushing it out of his face. "It's like you don't even know me at all," he says affectionately.

Sam frowns. "I think I do."

Gabriel tilts his chin down, tapping his forehead against Sam's chest. "Why in the Sam Hill do you think I work for that guy? I love that he hates me. I adore getting under his skin. It's a great hobby of mine."

"It's a terrible hobby," Sam snorts.

Gabriel slides his hands down carefully over Sam's shoulders, down his chest. "You're really tense."

"So much anxiety," Sam moans, finally breathing out fully. "I'm really stressed."

Gabriel stretches up, just shy of rising up on his toes. It's enough to get to ear level. "I've got a condom for that," he murmurs.

"Fantastic." Groaning, Sam dives down. Dives for the door handle. Throws them both across the threshold.

Gabriel appears to be the same amount of talk as action because despite him absolutely locking up in surprise, he doesn't stall. In fact, he forwards the action. He trips back a step, and rather than chancing to bust his ass, jumps up a little, folding his legs around Sam's waist.

God, it's hot. And Sam is rock hard in his jeans, more than ready for whatever they're about to get up to. Into. He wants into Gabriel like, yesterday. He barely has any idea what he's doing, but it doesn't seem to matter. Inexperience clearly isn't a show stopper for Gabriel. And it certainly isn't a deterrent. Even more surprising, is that when Sam realizes he's out of his element, it doesn't worry him in the slightest. Not with the way Gabriel is squeezing his waist with his thighs, writhing against him, making the trip to the bed the sexiest one Sam's ever had. He releases Gabriel, who goes down with a whump and a laugh, making grabby hands up at Sam.

He goes willingly, shucking off his jacket as he kneels down onto the mattress, getting in Gabriel's way when he tries to push up. "Elbows!" Gabriel giggles, nearly getting clocked as Sam tries rushes to divest.

"Sorry about my long monkey arms," Sam chuckles. "Move back so I can get naked."

"Ooh," Gabriel coos, scooting all the way back up the large bed to rest against the headboard. "Is it too much to hope for a strip tease?"

"Next time," Sam promises with a rakish grin, ripping his hennely over his head, making his hair look like it's already been thoroughly messed up.

"Hot damn, I forgot how beefcake you were," Gabriel muses, awed and sitting up with interest.

"Join me," Sam answers, crawling up on the bed as sexy as he knows how, trying really hard to cover his embarrassment. He's unused to being studied so closely. Frankly, he's never considered his own sex appeal. Somehow he thinks it's easier with a woman. Maybe it's not a fair judgement, but as Gabriel starts to undress in front of him, he muses that, fair or not, he's a lot more discerning as he studies anatomy that's so similar to his own. He's definitely pleased with what he sees. Gabriel isn't gym cut by any stretch of the imagination, but he's solid. Obviously takes good care of himself.

It's completely irresistible. He can't think of a single reason why he is resisting. So he doesn't. He knee-walks over Gabriel's legs and kisses him again, nipping at him and sliding his lips to the side over his lightly stubbled cheek, to his ear. Gabriel's hot breath rushes over his face, sending fireworks up and down his spine.

When he finds a sensitive spot under Gabriel's ear, they both shiver. In a wavering voice, Gabriel mutters, "not to start off with too high expectations here or anything, but you're gonna rock my world, Samshine. I can tell."

"That's certainly a goal worth aiming for," Sam murmurs, taking his time to taste the salt of Gabriel's skin, slipping off the unbuttoned shirt slowly to let his fingers wander over the warmth he reveals. Gabriel stays totally on board, pushing up into Sam's hands with every heaving breath. "But, full disclosure, you're super hot, and I'm not so sure about my staying power tonight."

"Even hotter," Gabriel promises in a strained voice, arching up under him, unhelpfully pressing their dicks together, though helpfully raising his hips to get his pants off with more alacrity. Sam squirms up trying to get their pants out of the way. "Watch the balls!" Gabriel yelps, jerking back slightly.

Rolling his eyes, Sam says, "I'm not gonna knee you in the balls. Stop making excuses and get your damn clothes off!"

With a huff, Gabriel falls flat onto his back, yanking his boxers down and taking his socks with it. "Sure thing, bossy. What's the rush?"

"Horny. Adrenaline."

"Understood. C'mere."

Sam does so. Greedy hands reach for Gabriel. He gets his handfuls and then rolls them swiftly until Gabriel is seated on top of him. "You feel really good."

"We're in total agreement." His fingers swipe up Sam's body from navel to shoulders. Back down with blunt nails scratching just hard enough to leave behind a trail of light red marks that disappear under the flush that works down Sam's chest. He doesn't bother with the foreplay much, which is totally appreciated for now.

"Oh, God!" Sam hiccups when Gabriel's hand closes around his cock.

"I'm thinking you want the fast and dirty," Gabriel rasps, though he licks his lips with a grin. "First time doesn't have to be magic. Can't be, sometimes."

"Nope!" Sam gasps, involuntarily thrusting up into Gabriel's fist. "I just need... tonight I need..." His teeth lock together on the last, jaw muscle working.

Gabriel leans over, filling Sam's vision with an oddly tender look for as rough as his hand is pumping Sam relentlessly. "I understand. Trust me, Sam. I'm happy with this."

The whine sticks in the back of his throat with all the overwhelming emotions crashing through him. The anxiety that had been chasing towards fear for hours. The deep-seated need for something he can't put his finger on, like a frustratingly vague food craving. The unexpected ferocity of the anger he'd felt when Nick had taken yet another thinly veiled dig at Gabriel. Gabriel Milton is a fucking treasure.

Gabriel. Jesus, but Sam wants every bit of him like salt in a wound. It aches on some fundamental level that tears at him with a rip that feels better than the orgasm he's about to have. It's probably love, the back of his mind attempts to get him to recognize.

But he's not ready for that. And he figures that's okay because the life pouring into him via Gabriel's mouth, fingers, tongue, trembling voice; it's manna from heaven. It's brain chemical ambrosia that forces him to a level of euphoria previously unknown to him. A level that he almost destroyed himself a few years ago failing to meet. It was here all the time. And it's healing.

When he comes, it's hard, and it's loud. Gabriel never relents, shuddering above him with his head thrown back like he felt at least a fraction of the possible miracle Sam did. But not the whole thing because when his chin tilts back down, Sam doesn't see any of the wetness on his face that he feels on his own.

It makes Gabriel smile. He wipes his hands off on his discarded shirt, then sneezes into it, then recovers and cups Sam's cheeks, thumbing at the tear tracks.

"It's not a bad thing," Sam says thickly, stupid with the afterglow plus his cup running over. "It's not 'cause I'm upset."

That beautiful, satisfied smile softens. "Nah. Just hit the spot is all, right?"

"Yeah, I... huh." He contemplates that for a second. It shouldn't be so surprising. Then again, he's never felt so honestly fulfilled. Like all of his needs for once have finally been met. Which is something to unpack later in a safe space with a smiling therapist rather than a smiling boyfriend. "It hit all the spots."

"My ego appreciates it," Gabriel says, tipping out of Sam's lap to cuddle up next to him.

Sam rolls onto his side, resting his head against Gabriel's chest. It's weird. Their legs don't fit together right and Gabriel's sternum is like laying against a rock. Any further down though, and Sam suspects he'd have Gabriel's knees way too close to his dick. "You're too short for this," Sam chuckles, wiggling down more against Gabriel's chest.

Gabriel grunts and coughs some more in response to Sam's elbow accidentally digging into his side. "Quick fucking fidgeting and it'll be fine," he protests.

Sam lays his head back. Lifts it up. Plants it back down. Rolls it around a few times until Gabriel smacks his thigh. "Hey, I can't help it," Sam whines half-heartedly. "Your shoulder's all bony."

"Everyone's shoulders are bony!"

"Yours are extra bony."

"Stop bitching."

"Grab me a pillow."

Gabriel smacks him in the face with one, leveling him with the frown that's never a frown. "You killed the mood in less than two minutes. That has to be a record for me."

"At least it sets me apart," Sam answers blithely, shoving the pillow above Gabriel's shoulder and settling his head on it. That's marginally better. "I suck at cuddling."

"Ya think?" Gabriel snorts, though he starts to settle, too. "Whatever. Everything takes practice, I guess."

"Haven't had much of it," Sam answers, distracted by Gabriel's absent minded fingers twirling a lock of his hair around his fingers, releasing it, and stroking the strands in an almost-rhythmic pattern. "Feels good," he breathes, quickly beginning lulled closer to sleepy than sated now.

"What does?" Gabriel asks with the exact same tone.

"You do," Sam yawns. His eyes drift shut until he's left with just the rise and fall of Gabriel's chest under him. His deft fingers petting through his hair. "All of this. You do." It's the most calm he's been drifting to sleep in years.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean is in bed yawning his way through a trade magazine when his phone rings, startling him a little. He flips it over and swipes on the speakerphone. "Hey, Cas. What's up?"

In an amused rumble that sets off the good kind of sparks in the back of Dean's skull, Castiel says, "Gabriel asked me to call you."

Dean blinks down at his phone. With no further information forthcoming, he prompts, "what the fuck for?"

Castiel chuckles. "Apparently Sam fell asleep at his place. Gabriel said he seems exhausted and doesn't want to wake him up. But he didn't want you to be left wondering."

It's very weird being both touched and grossed out. "Gross," he says.

Castiel makes a questioning noise.

Rolling his eyes, Dean clarifies, "you're calling to tell me my brother just got laid, Cas."

"Oh!" The horror is unmistakable. "Really? I apologize! Vehemently!"

Dean laughs. "Trust me, there are worse things. Thanks for letting me know, though. I woulda worried."

"How do you know that's what happened?"

Dean lays back more comfortably. "Because Sam would never pass out somewhere without letting me know first, unless he was doing something exhausting that he didn't want to let me know about beforehand, and it being with Gabe?"

"I see your point. I'm... sorry to pass the message on this way. I've noticed that you and he aren't exactly... friends. But I also remember you telling me how important it is for you and Sam to keep track of each other."

Dean can hear the uncertain edge to Castiel's tone laced with disappointment. He knows that Cas wants his best friend and his boyfriend to get along, but Dean's jury always stays out for long deliberations. Nothing personal. "It's fine," he says after a moment. "I really got nothing against Gabe. I mean, I know I'm protective of my little brother, but it's not that. You trust him, and I trust you trusting him. I just don't know him, and with me being who I am..."

"The instinct is to push away, whether you want to or not," Castiel finishes.

Dean smiles wryly. "You shoulda been a shrink."

"No," Castiel returns, warmth seeping back into his voice. "I'm simply familiar with the impulse."

It's a loaded statement that Dean sure does want to delve into. Later, when he's not feeling so comfortable, for once not freaking out about the possibility of Sam being out of his reach overnight. So he lets it slide. "The pie yesterday? It was really good."

Castiel's laugh this time sounds more like a puffed breath out. "I told you."

"I didn't say it was the best," Dean clarifies, crossing his ankles.

"But it was the best," Castiel says confidently.

Grinning, Dean says, "okay, maybe it was the best apple pie I've ever had, but apple pie isn't my favorite. So, technically it's not the best pie ever."

Castiel's hum crackles over the line. "I suppose there's a level of subjectivity to the matter. I should have asked you what your favorite pie was. What is it?"

"Pecan," Dean answers immediately. "And I'll tell you now, I'm not super picky about it. My mom couldn't cook worth a damn. She'd always get these prepared meals from the Piggly Wiggly, right? They had this meatloaf and a pecan pie that I could have eaten every day. She bought it all the time. In retrospect, it probably actually isn't all that good, but the memory makes it the best, you know?"

"I do know," Castiel agrees. "For a few years in my childhood, my family lived in the most typically idyllic mountain valley town you can imagine. There was an old fashioned candy shop. Barrels of caramels, homemade fudge, the works. They had taffy they made in store, too. I used to eat that stuff by the pound. Spent my entire weekly allowance on it. I went back several years ago... the taffy was awful. Ruined my memory of it."

Dean laughs. "So, you're telling me not to eat any Piggly Wiggly pecan pie ever again."

"If you want your rose colored memories to remain intact, yes, that's exactly what I'm saying."

Dean takes a breath in. "Hey, you wanna come over?"

There's a long pause thanks to the non-non sequitur. "I... yes, I'd love to. When?"

"Um. Now? Or. Not now, I guess. It's getting... kinda late." He rubs the back of his neck. Idiot.

"It's barely eight," Castiel points out.

"You probably need to be up early tomorrow."

"I own my own business. I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. Dean, do you want me to come over? I'd like to, if you're sure."

He gives the statement a serious amount of thought. He'd offered at the spur of the moment, preventing his brain from getting in the way. It's a craps shoot usually, but he does actually want Castiel to come over. He's not sure what'll happen opening up his own space to someone who doesn't know how to control it the same way that he and Sam do.

He's so fucking sick of going slow. A step at a time is good in theory. It might blow up in his face if he goes too far too fast. But Sam's not here so he's already got anxiety about that, and Castiel is completely respectful. Almost too cautious about OCD.

They both need some desensitization. Hopefully, no matter the immediate repercussions, it'll turn into a good thing eventually.

"Come over," he says. "Please."

There's barely a second of a pause. "I'm on my way."

Chapter Text

The entire drive to Dean's house, Castiel wonders if he made the correct choice accepting Dean's offer to come over. He's not sure where it came from. Sam's out, so perhaps he needs help with handling the anxiety since neither of them have been out overnight for years, according to Dean. Or perhaps he hadn't been thinking about it much at all. Spur of the moment that he's likely to regret? He doesn't know. There's no way to know until he gets there.

Wait.

Yes, he does know. He needs to stop being an ass. Mental illness or not, Dean is still a regular human being who has regular human being feelings. He's asking to be treated thusly. Anticipating the problems is doing Dean a disservice without him being the one calling the plays. He'd asked very pointedly to be treated as normally as possible. Furthermore, he'd promised that he would ask for help when he needed it, and Castiel has to respect that. He prefers to offer trust until it's betrayed, rather than the other way around with Dean. At his core, Dean Winchester is a great man. He may struggle to see it in himself on his bad days, but it's there, and Castiel will do whatever he's asked to do to support that. No rush judgments, no heading anything off at the pass. The pace they're moving at works for the both of them. It's healthy and it's nice.

Dean doesn't want Castiel to be there to stop upsetting things from happening. He's not a shield or a parent or even a brother. He's a potential lover, early-stage boyfriend, and for now? Dean needs someone to treat him as though that's the only thing that matters.

Because it is. Castiel is falling in love, and while it's never simple with anyone, he's ready for the challenge of having that with Dean.

Yes, he's curious by nature. His innate desire is to fix things. Needs to make things better for the people he loves. He'd done it with Gabriel, and while it had paid off then, not everyone is so favorable to meddling and the amount of pushing Castiel sometimes selfishly insists on. It takes a certain personality type to allow it with grace, and Gabriel has such a personality.

Conversely, it's going to piss Dean off a lot if Castiel lets himself get carried away like he wants to. Amelia had hated his overbearing tendencies. He can only guess how Dean would feel the same... times a hundred since he'd likely to attribute Castiel's over protection to some failing on his OCD. It couldn't be farther from the truth.

With any luck, he's not quite old enough to be unable to change. Otherwise, he has the sneaking suspicion that he'll lose something potentially more profound than anything he's ever had before with anyone.

The least he can do is to put in the same amount of effort that Dean is since they're both so far out of their element.

It'll be worth it.

He truly believes that.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

It'll take Castiel fifteen minutes to get to the house. No more than twenty if he drives like a normal person and less like a Winchester.

Dean does not want to still be washing his hands incessantly when Castiel arrives. But it's been eleven minutes so far, and he can't stop.

"You wanted this," he reminds himself uselessly. "You asked him to come over, and in that fucking second, you wanted it. Don't stop wanting it now."

He flexes his fingers under the spray, adds another squirt of soap to his hands and curses when the scrubbing splits the skin on his always dry knuckles. "Goddammit." He scrubs and scrubs and scrubs, then slaps the water off at the speed of light before his brain can catch up to protest. Then he keeps standing in front of the sink, twitching from foot to foot. Fingers tingling to reach out and turn the water back on. He can't do that. Maybe he should take his emergency meds. Of course, at this time of night, it would probably just knock him out. He doesn't want to do that yet. He needs something else. He doesn't know what, but he's pretty positive that it wouldn't make any of this easier, anyway.

The doorbell ringing smacks him like a brick to the chest. He grips his shirt just over his heart. Sucks in a huge breath.

He's not sure what expression he has when he opens the door, but it prompts Castiel to say, "would it be best if we stayed outside for a while?" instead of something like, "hello."

Dean sighs, the rubber bands around his chest loosening. "Nah, but... would you mind like... washing your hands, or whatever? We don't do shoes either, 'cause both me and Sam hate vacuuming." He takes a generous step out of the way.

Castiel comes over the threshold and immediately bends down to untie his tennis shoes and line them up neatly side by side next to Dean's old work boots right where the tile meets the carpet. He also hangs up his coat on the hook next to the closet. Then he follows Dean to the kitchen and washes his hands thoroughly.

"Thanks for doing that," Dean mutters, attempting to push down the humiliation.

"Everyone has house rules," Castiel smiles.

"Most of them are based on practicality, though, not mental issues," Dean smiles back. "Want something to drink? I'm gonna have a beer."

"I'll have the same."

Dean grabs two from the fridge, knocks the lids off against the edge of the counter, hands one to Castiel, then gestures to the living room. He plops down on his designated side of the couch, but simply watches Castiel as he wanders the space, taking it all in like he's in a museum, being so careful not to touch anything without permission. "You have a lovely home," he says softly.

Dean glances around, trying to see it all with new eyes. Neither he nor Sam has thought twice about decorating or re-decorating since their dad last replaced some of the more worn furniture a few years before he died. The rest remains, from the faded blue drapes to the demurely flowered wallpaper Mary had chosen back in the 70's. It's not embarrassingly bad, but it's certainly outdated. Except for the huge widescreen TV. Dean had bought that monster with his second paycheck. "Nothing's changed here in decades."

Castiel turns around from where he'd been studying the DVDs and Blu-Rays. "The life shows in the walls in places like this. It's why I like older houses. They have a spirit that you can feel. It's really nice."

Dean rests his chin on his hand and says affectionately, "I don't know how I keep forgetting this, but you're a really real hippie."

"That's surprising considering how often you like to bring it up," Castiel teases.

Dean pats the cushion beside him. "Come on and have a seat."

To his benefit, Castiel moves over immediately and puts himself down next to Dean less than a foot away without hesitation. "I mean it. This house is beautiful. Lived in. I love it. It made me feel incredibly comfortable just walking in."

"And you've only seen two rooms," Dean quips, clearing his throat against the uncomfortable waver of nerves that threatens it.

"I'll see however many you let me," Castiel answers, sipping his beer benignly. "I always make it a point to never insinuate myself into other people's private spaces without permission."

"Is that you asking for a tour?"

Castiel grins over the lip of his bottle. "What else did you bring me here for?"

"I wish I could say sex," Dean admits with a dramatic sigh. "That would'a been true about five years ago, though."

"I'm not complaining," Castiel assures him. "Spending time with you is my top priority. Just getting to know you is good enough."

Dean kicks back, socked feet up on the coffee table. "Did you just admit to having no sex drive?"

Castiel coughs, covering his mouth in surprise so as not to indelicately spit out any of his mouthful of beer. "Of course I do. I would have divulged if I was asexual long before now. I'm saying..." he squints over at Dean. "You're teasing me."

Too bad he's terrible at keeping a cap on his mirth. "Yeah, I'm teasing you."

"I meant to express my thanks for the invitation."

"You don't have to talk around it," Dean says. "You thought you'd never get one without a year of planning for it."

Grimacing, Castiel says, "not that long. I'm sorry. I'm trying to be as normal as possible about all of this. But I still don't know what is appropriate and what's too much to make you feel like I was belittling you. I never want to do that, Dean. Not ever. Do you understand? Or... more importantly, do you believe me?"

"I believe you," Dean says quietly. He takes down the rest of his beer with a quickness and deposits the empty bottle onto the coffee table. "I'm as out of my element here as you are. This shit really sucks, and that's why I'm doing this. It's why I wanted you to come over, and also why I freaked out while you were on the way." He holds up his hands.

Castiel doesn't even flinch. He's exactly like Sam that way. Dean appreciates it. "You're bleeding," he observes.

"It happens a lot."

Frowning, Castiel says, "bandage it up, please. You're a mechanic. You'll get an infection really quickly digging into car engines like that."

"Got the toolbox in my bathroom. I'll just..." He jerks his thumb over his shoulder.

"Can I help you?" Castiel interrupts. "Your hands look swollen. It'll be difficult to do alone."

Eyes wide, Dean asks, "you... want to?"

"I'm adept at first aid thanks to Gabriel being as strict about it as he is, medical school dropout or not. I'm happy to help, if you'll allow it."

Dean stands. He tilts his head towards the doorway. "Come on, then." Slowly, every step screaming at him to stop, he leads Castiel down the hallway to the stairs. He pauses at the bottom, gazing up to the landing, breath getting awfully sticky in his lungs. It shouldn't be this hard. God, he wishes it wasn't this hard. A tremor rumbles through him at the same intensity of Baby's distinct vibrations. He wonders what made him draw the comparison. "Sorry," he mutters.

"I can wait down here," Castiel offers. "Will that help?"

"I don't want it to help," Dean blinks decisively, shaking himself out of it. "I want to feel it. I want to know what it's like, and then I want to get over it. This is the only way. Can you handle it?"

"I came over prepared to move exactly at your pace. I've said I'll try my best, and I will. And like you mentioned before, I'll let you know if anything makes me truly uncomfortable. Being a caretaker does not in the least. I'll admit it's part of my nature."

It feels like his muscles are melting like butter in the sun just hearing Castiel's calm, sure voice behind him. It's nearly a physical touch of comfort, and it starts to ease the pinpricks of panic out of his system. Without another word, because hearing himself would likely shatter the illusion, Dean walks up the steps, counting each one silently. Castiel follows two behind.

To keep his mind from shouting at him louder than he can talk over it, he narrates as he goes. "Sam's room is that door. His bathroom is across. He keeps his doors locked to keep me out."

For the first time, Castiel balks. "That seems a bit... disrespectful."

Dean shakes his head. "Nah, it's part of the deal. When I get into a really bad way that even the meds don't hit, I organize. Clean. The issue is that I don't care where he puts shit. Or... my mind doesn't care. It says something's in the wrong place, so I move it. And it ain't my right to mess up his order." He stops out front of his own bedroom door, not opening it. "One time it got so bad, I even went through his drawers and closet. With locks that only he has the key to, I can't invade his privacy so badly."

"That's a good system," Castiel relents. "I suppose the both of you have a lot of creative problem solving skills."

Dean chuckles a bit. "I guess so. My room's here. In case that wasn't clear."

"Yes."

When he turns around, Castiel is standing just outside of touching distance, hands in his pockets, casual as ever. Dean's not sure if he's irritated by the lackadaisical attitude or thankful for it. It takes a minute, but he recognizes it's the same feeling he'd had with Sam and Bobby once upon a time right after he'd been released from the hospital. They'd been so determined to be okay with his increasingly problematic diagnosis, that their easygoing attitude had been grating with how forced it was. Of course, he's not familiar enough with Castiel yet to know if he's doing the same thing or not. In theory, it's easy to give him the benefit of the doubt, but certain mental states just hate for the sufferers to be rational like that.

He touches the doorknob. "Straight to the bathroom, okay? Just follow me. Don't touch anything." He sighs. "Please."

"Done," Castiel agrees, tone unchanged.

Dean turns the handle and pushes the door open. One step in, his palms start to sweat. Two steps, and his heart is convinced he's sprinting. Three, and his entire body begins to shake. Five steps, and he can hear Castiel tread on the creaky floorboard a few feet inside the room. He feels like he's going to barf.

The bathroom door is open, so he flees inside, dropping to sit on the lip of the tub facing the toilet. There's no heave, but better to be safe than sorry. "I'll be fine in a minute," he croaks to the movement in his peripheral vision.

"I trust you'll tell me to leave if you really need me to," Castiel says firmly.

Dean nods once.

"Good. Is it okay for me to stand here?"

Dean nods again. Slowly, he reaches past the toilet and paws the Xanax bottle towards himself until he can reach it. He pops the cap and takes one dry. It sticks for a second and he coughs to clear it down. "Would you count for me?" he rasps.

"Yes. To what number?"

"Just go until I tell you to stop."

Measured in a soothing, unwavering timbre, Castiel starts to count. Dean's head bobs along. He rests his elbows on his knees, hunching over, breathing deeply in time with the rhythm. Randomly, he muses that he should get Castiel to record himself counting like this. It's better than a bedtime story. After a while, he can't even hear what number Castiel is on. But it's gotta be up there when he finally says he's fine.

"Can I help with your hands now?"

Sighing, Dean closes the toilet lid and waves at Castiel to come in. Once again without pausing, Castiel breezes into the bathroom and lowers himself onto the toilet lid, first aid kit in his lap. "Salve, Neosporin, then bandages?"

"Got it in one," Dean says. He holds out his left hand, palm down. Still shaking like a leaf in the wind, but not as badly as before. Not as badly as usual.

Gently, Castiel takes his hand and moves it to rest in his lap so that he can work on it easier. The antibacterial spray makes Dean hiss at the sharp sting, but Castiel is as gentle as air, blowing over the spot to dry and cool it before moving onto the salve. He studies the label for a moment. "This is the good stuff," he says, pleased.

Dean shrugs his right shoulder. "Well, when ya fuck up your hands as much as I do, it's worth the expense."

"Good point." He takes his time massaging the salve into every crevice of Dean's hand. It feels incredible. Coupled with his relaxing medication, it puts Dean into a half-doze of pleasure. It must show on his face, because he highly suspects Castiel takes longer than strictly necessary to put the salve on both hands. Then he dabs on the Neosporin. "Do you want full bandages or just Band-aids?"

"Band-aids are fine. It's not as bad as it gets sometimes."

Castiel digs into the kit and grabs the box. He carefully selects the proper sizes and finishes his work. "Good as new," he beams when he's finished.

Dean turns his hands over. "Gold star."

"Thank you for letting me help," he says solemnly.

"Ain't no thing," he deflects. Then he yawns.

"You look tired," Castiel says kindly. "Maybe it's best to call it a night this time."

Strangely, that's the last thing in the world he wants for the time being. He doesn't understand it, so he falls back on the tried and true method of going with his instinct. "I want you to stay longer."

Castiel says nothing. He stares at Dean long and hard. Then he nods slightly.

"I'm kinda on a roll right now, and I haven't dropped dead from panic yet, so would you mind trying something else?"

Castiel is starting to smile. "Of course."

Dean tries his best not to fidget without disturbing the bandages. "Wanna be a couple'a teens and hang out in my room?"

Castiel stands up, laughing outright. "I'd love to. It's been like, twenty years since I've 'hung out' like a teen."

"That sounded really weird coming from you," Dean says dryly. "Caveat, though. You can say no."

"Yes, I'm familiar with that word."

Dean scowls dangerously. "Always with the smart mouth. Fine. Super weird question. There's only my bed to sit on, so um... germs and all..."

"Ah," Castiel says, realization dawning. "The clothes I'm wearing are clean. I put them on before leaving since I was already in my pajamas when I called you. However, I'm fine with changing clothes again, if you have some you're okay loaning me."

"After a shower," Dean rushes to add, heat burning his entire face.

Castiel leans closer. "Why, Dean Winchester, are you making a pass at me?" he sing-songs.

Dean jumps up, shoving Castiel in the chest with a snort. "Enjoy your blue balls. I'll bring you clothes. Towels are on the shelf."

"No peeking," Castiel says sternly, maintaining the same mischievous glint in his eyes.

Dean sweeps by him and shuts the door firmly behind him. A minute later, the shower turns on and Dean breathes easier. This is weird. This whole situation is weird. He's asking Castiel to do something totally weird just to hang out like normal people do. Showering without even the hint of a promise of sex. So weird. He's so goddamn weird.

But.

Castiel had deflected Dean's humiliation with a joke. Like this is no big deal. Like he honestly doesn't mind and isn't trying too hard to make himself not mind.

He's a rare bird, Castiel Novak. Almost makes Dean believe that there really is someone out there for everyone. Him included. How wild would that be?

Stay on task.

Cas'll need something to wear that won't accidentally - or intentionally - bring on the only good kind of dirty thoughts that Dean can stand. Track pants and a gray henley along with a pair of boxers that he hasn't used yet. Good enough. He knocks once on the door and slips the clothes onto the sink counter. "Comfy clothes," he says.

"Thanks!" Castiel calls, and that's it. Like Dean's not doing weird things and acting super weird.

Jesus.

Dean closes the door.

He throws himself onto the corner of his bed and drags his record box out from under it. Then he gets to sorting. They're currently arranged by year of release, so maybe it's time to go back to alphabetical. Of course, he's done this so many times in the past that it takes less than ten minutes to get fifty records resettled by their new neighbors. It helps. And by then, Castiel is done with his shower.

Levity. Levity is the only way to get through this with even a modicum of dignity intact. "Well, now you're sanitized enough to actually hang out with me," Dean quips when his boyfriend emerges.

Castiel smiles softly. "The clothes are comfortable, thank you. May I sit down with you?"

Dean tucks his legs up and rests against the headboard. He crosses his arms over his chest. "Yeah. Please."

Castiel comes over to the bed and sits on it exactly how Dean is. Before that, he points up. "I love that you have a skylight. It must be soothing when the stars are out, or when it's raining."

Dean's eyes trail up. It's been dark enough that a few stars are visible, though they'd see a lot more if he turned off the lights. Which he absolutely isn't going to do right now. This is terrifying enough. He's fucking terrified. Therefore, he scares himself further by reaching out to squeeze Castiel's hand briefly and then pulling away like it's a hot stove rather than soft flesh.

"You're having a hard time with this," Castiel observes.

Dean snorts. "How can ya tell?"

"Your humor in the face of it. Or perhaps it's the fact that your shoulders are up so high they're almost touching your ears."

The second snort is more like a laugh. "You're right. It's hard. Really goddamn hard." His shoulders slowly relax down.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"I just... I just don't wanna feel like I'm two seconds away from losing it all the time."

Castiel reaches over blindly, hesitantly touching the tips of Dean's lax fingers. Dean moves them, tangling them together. "Do you really feel that way? All the time?"

"No," Dean sighs after a short pause. "Not always. Just when it's important. Just when things start to get good for me."

Carefully, Castiel ventures, "isn't the clinical term, 'self-sabotage'?"

"Please don't walk on eggshells with me," Dean groans lightly. "Please don't, Cas. I don't want you to have to do that with me. I can't take it."

"I don't mean to," Castiel assures him softly, watching the stars through the skylight. "I'm not sure of the protocol here. I don't want to insult you."

"You won't," Dean promises. "Ignorance doesn't insult me. I know you're not trying to be an asshole, so it's okay. You've always treated me... I hate to say, 'normally,' but..."

"Normally," Castiel muses with a smile. "Does it bother you thinking so often that you're not normal?"

Dean shakes his head, hair rustling on the pillow. "Nah. I haven't been normal since I was like, six. It started with the fire, and just kept building. Then I hit puberty and my brain..." He presses his fist against his forehead, making an explosion noise as he tosses his arm out, wiggling his fingers. "It's like... everyone else in the beginning was so worried about messing up and making me go over the edge again, that they kid gloved me worse than a kicked puppy. All it did was piss me off for being crazy."

Castiel gives Dean's hand a warning grip. "We're going to come up with a way to discourage you from calling yourself crazy. I hate it when you do that."

"I'll work on it," Dean answers, shocked into immediately agreeing because no one's ever been so direct with him right off the bat.

Castiel turns his head on the pillow, to show him the entire wattage of his smile. "Thank you. But I like the way you'll hold my hand much more easily now. I'm usually quite tactile."

"I've noticed that. Super touchy-feely."

"Why are you saying it like it's a bad thing?" Castiel chuckles.

"I'm not. You're like Sam and I think it's funny," Dean answers grinning. "It ain't a bad thing."

"I can't help it," Castiel admits. "It gives me a connection, you know? I'm tactile with everything. It feels... I don't know. Like I can be closer to the whole world around me if I use as many of my senses as I can to experience it. It makes me happy to use all my senses with people and things that I care about. It's important to me. That's something you should know. I wouldn't ever demand anything from you that can't give, but it's... yes, it's part of what makes me, me."

Like a bolt of lightning, Dean realizes that Castiel's just laid himself bare. Told him exactly how he is. How he relates to the entire world. And what's most imperative to him.

How he loves.

How he wants to be loved.

He deserves it. Everything he's said, he deserves.

Dean rolls over onto his side and kisses Castiel on the mouth.

His first thought is that he thinks this is what it probably feels like to get shot.

His second thought is that Castiel borrowed his mouthwash.

His third thought is that he can only do this because the Xanax is in full swing.

But then Castiel's miraculous fingers are on the side of his face, and the second bullet hits. And it feels fucking fantastic in every sense of the word because Castiel is kissing back, but he's doing it the way that Dean needs. The only way that Dean can handle it.

A double point of contact. Hands on his face, lips touching, yet nothing else.

He's scared. He's so very, very scared. He's scared that he's about to flip out. Maybe even in the good way.

He's thrilled. Elated. He's kissing the man he's falling in love with, and when he pulls back and opens his eyes, Castiel is still there. His eyes are closed, lips still a bit pursed, cheeks lightly flushed, and looking like he's savoring Dean's homemade lasagna again.

"I wasn't expecting that," Castiel murmurs, not moving a muscle except for his perfect lips.

"Me either," Dean answers. "Was it...? Should I not have?"

"You should have," Castiel whispers in a single breath. "You have my permission to kiss me whenever you feel the desire to do so. It was lovely. I very much enjoyed it."

"No offense, but I'm trying really hard not to think about it too hard right now. I don't wanna ruin it. I can't."

"Close your eyes, Dean," Castiel orders quietly.

Dean does so. Now he's in the dark with his racing thoughts. It's a terrible place to be.

"Don't freak out," Castiel whispers. And once again, he starts to count. His fingers press a little bit harder onto Dean's cheek. Dean's hand flies up and grabs Castiel's wrist. But he can't bring himself to deny the beauty of the touch because he can't let the terror win here. Not when he finally has something great. He's done that enough. It's been long enough.

He's probably hurting Castiel with how hard he's holding. The pulse against his thumb is slow and steady. Just like Castiel. Just like the way he's counting.

It's been long enough. He can try for something he wants rather than only the basics that he needs to function now. He can have this. He can make it happen.

He can't stop the tears. He doesn't need to. He syncs his breathing again to Castiel's numbered rhythm, and for once, he chooses to believe in himself.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

It's 1:46 in the morning when Sam trudges into the house after having fallen asleep at Gabriel's. He's bleary-eyed and wishing that he would have just stayed the night, but he's got an earlier class and it would be impossible to borrow any of Gabriel's clothes.

However.

He freezes solid in the living room on his way to the stairs when he spies someone who is actually capable of borrowing his boyfriend's clothes straightening up from putting his shoes on. And he is absolutely wearing Dean's clothes. And his hair is a mess.

"Cas?" Sam says, dumbfounded.

"Hello, Sam," Castiel answers, voice suspiciously more gravelly than normal. "Please tell me Gabriel didn't kick you into the cold in the middle of the night."

Despite his confusion and denial of what he can't possibly be seeing, he says, "no, he... I came home myself. Early class and all."

"Ah." He slips on his coat like he doesn't have a care in the world.

This cannot be happening. "Um... are you... uh... kicking yourself out into the cold in the middle of the night?"

Castiel smiles. It looks sappy and pleased and romantic. Kinda exactly like Sam had been smiling a few hours ago.

What the HELL is happening?

"I'm not," he says softly. "Dean said he wasn't ready to change his morning routine just yet, so I said I would return home once he fell asleep."

"I see," Sam nods like this situation is all perfectly reasonable.

"Thank you, by the way," Castiel says like that logically follows. Like anything logically follows. "Dean was grateful that you had planned an alternate method of contact to check in earlier."

The normalcy of it turns the entire thing into an Absurdist masterpiece.

Sam doubles over laughing so hard that he could probably wake the neighbors. It's so surreal. He's standing in his house at 1:50 in the morning, trying to complete his walk of shame peacefully, while having a perfectly civil conversation with his brother's boyfriend, who is probably trying to achieve the exact same goal of gracefully departing after who knows what, to get some well-earned sleep.

His brother, Dean, who had taken three years to let Jody and Donna in. He wipes the tears of laughter out of his eyes and notices that Castiel is staring at him in an extremely self-satisfied manner. "You're not gonna tell me anything, are you?" he accuses.

"No, I"m not," Castiel answers.

"Good for you," Sam beams, though he'd really like to know how many steps forward Dean had managed today. It wars with his desire for all of them to have privacy, and he wants to know absolutely nothing about his big brother's sex life. He shoves his hands in his pockets. "Well, I won't keep you. It's way past my bedtime."

Castiel buttons up his jacket. "Good night, Sam. I imagine I'll see you again soon."

With a wink, Sam says, "count on it. 'Night." And he very casually, the most casual, locks the door behind Castiel, turns back to the stairs, and makes his way up to his room. He glances down the hallway and sees that Dean's door is closed, no light coming out underneath.

He feels a bit stupid, but it makes him smile. "Smooth move, Dean," he murmurs before unlocking his own bedroom door slipping inside.

Chapter Text

Sam slams his tray down onto the table. "Dean and Cas had sex last night," he announces.

The pasta noodles fall right off Gabriel's fork. His mouth remains hanging open. "What? Do you and your brother collaborate on milestones or something?"

Sam falls heavily into the chair across from him and stabs agitatedly at his salad. "Ew, no. We've had some codependency issues in the past, but nothing that bad. Anyway, Cas was over at the house last night. With Dean. In his room. He was leaving when I got back there and he was wearing Dean's clothes."

"That... doesn't have to mean anything," Gabriel says carefully and skeptically. "Did you ask either one of them if they did more than... I dunno, necking?"

"Necking? Really? How old are you? I didn't ask, and come on. You know what it means," Sam answers moodily and undoubtingly.

Gabriel pushes his plate aside and leans over the table, lowering his voice. "It means Dean's found more reasons to improve his mental state. Why do you look so pissed?"

"I'm not pissed!" Sam argues, pissed.

Gabriel arches an eyebrow, obviously not believing Sam and showing him so. "Should your brother not being having sex for some reason?"

"I have no fucking clue," Sam mutters. "I mean... he can't let anyone, including me, into the house without like, a total decontamination, and he's having sex? Dude, he wouldn't even talk to me this morning. He was gone before I was even dressed and downstairs for breakfast."

Gabriel shrugs. "And that's unusual?"

"It's part of the routine. The important routine that Dean can't deal without," Sam answers. "I mean, yeah, I was a bit late getting up from cutting up my sleep like that, but still. He was definitely out of the house earlier than he always is."

"Please try not to take this the wrong way, but right now, it sounds like you're the one who can't deal without the routine."

He's not exactly wrong. Sam is loathe to admit it, but if there's anyone with whom he can be honest without feeling suffocating guilt or expecting judgement, it's Gabriel. "That's probably part of it," he allows carefully. "But it's really sudden, and no matter my opinion on the situation, Dean can't do anything spur of the moment. Not with how his condition works. I'm not projecting that."

Gabriel steals a few croutons from Sam's plate to snack on, obviously mulling over. Though, in the end, he can't come up with any further insight. "I'm sure he'll go over it with his therapist, but maybe he can now. Maybe he's found something with Cas that's been able to pull the rope. Only time will tell, naturally. Be that as it may, Dean's mental health stabilizing and improving isn't a bad thing."

"I know that. I'm just saying... what if it's not really stabilizing and improving?"

Gabriel rests his chin on his hand. "Samuel, I only made it halfway through med school, but as far as I know from what I did glean from my psych specialization, is that if Dean isn't comatose in bed, he's at the very least, stable. And you gotta let loose the reins a little at this point. If he needs real help, he'll ask for it. He has a great support network which he actually uses, from what you've told me."

Sam sighs, poking at a cherry tomato. "You're right. Mostly. It's true. I know you're right. It's just... there's never anything so out of the blue with him these days. I guess I'm more worried about some sort of delayed reaction. I mean, if that's a thing. He doesn't always ask for help when he needs it. Even now, he sometimes only asks because it's too obvious to ignore and he doesn't want me to get mad."

"It's a thing," Gabriel concedes. "But I doubt it's a thing in this case." He glances at his watch. "It's the middle of the afternoon. If it was gonna happen, you would have had a call by now."

Dropping his fork down onto his tray in consternation, Sam says, "I'm being irrational."

"He's your brother," Gabriel smiles. "That's sometimes how families do."

"I don't know why I can't be cool about this," Sam groans, picking up his fork again to poke pathetically at his food.

"Because it's new and scary, and neither you nor Dean do new and scary," Gabriel says reasonably, and without a single hint of irony. "You've been told by smart professionals to go slow and methodically through new situations. But I don't think any of them would put y'all in timeout for reasonable amounts of impulsivity."

"Yeah, okay," Sam snarks, rolling his eyes. "So, what kind of impulsivity is good? What kind is bad? What won't lead to months of setbacks?"

Gabriel shrugs again, scooting his plate back in front of him and drowning his fries in ketchup. "Probably things that most people find harmlessly impulsive. Adding a piece of candy at the checkout line, a weekend road trip." He pins Sam with a knowing smirk. "An unexpected, but extremely amorous evening."

Sam flicks a crouton at his boyfriend. "Fine, I get it. But I can still worry, right?"

"'Course," Gabriel answers, mouth full. "Just keep it to yourself and let Dean-o have his fun if it's not self-destructive. Let him and his therapists figure out the rest. You're not your brother's keeper, and you don't need to feel guilty about that."

Sam leans back, stupidly stunned at the casual remark. It should have been obvious, really. However, through his own counseling sessions and self-discovery, he's become rapidly aware that all of his strict routines at home are not equivalent to support and forward movement all the time. Some of them are simply maintaining the status quo. Which is only healthy when neither he nor Dean has anything they're trying to move forward with. That's what he feels guilty about. Getting so caught up in keeping their lives stress-free with the same routine day in and day out, that there's no chance for growth. No chance of setbacks, either, but that's not living. Not anymore.

They're both past just surviving the day to day. Now they need to learn how to find their reasons for living. Sam thought it would be a more positive experience. Exciting. Growing and changing and dating and partying and having a social life should all be things that make him happy to get out of bed in the morning. But instead he's sitting here with his amazing boyfriend, staring him in the face, and trying to find reasons to be unhappy about all of it. He grimaces, appetite gone.

Gabriel reaches over the table and takes Sam's hand. "It's okay to not be as ready as you wanna be."

"Good," Sam sighs. "'Cause I'm not."

"What about you and me?" Gabriel asks.

Sam binks at him. Studies the TA carefully. He looks completely nonchalant, but there's something... underneath. Again, he's unsure how he can tell. He's never fancied himself good at reading people. It's just... something about Gabriel. Something about the way he feels about Gabriel makes it instinctively easy. The poor bastard's worried about them. About what's gonna happen to them because Sam can't get his shit together and let go of his brother growing up.

"I'm falling in love with you really fast and really hard," Sam says softly, boldly. "I hope that answers your question."

Gabriel's body relaxes minutely with the sincerity of his easygoing grin. "It does."

Just to be sure, once they're finished with lunch, Sam drags Gabriel along with him towards his next class, then redirects to a small scattering of pine trees behind the building. There he enthusiastically drives his point home by kissing Gabriel in the shade of those trees until they're both shivering with both desire and the cold.

"Saturday," Gabriel murmurs as they pull apart for the fourth time, insisting that Sam has to go or he'll be late. "Come to the club."

"Why?" Sam grins, leaving light pecks across Gabriel's jaw. "Can't get enough of my bare chest?"

"Hell to the no, it'll never be enough." He leans back, arms linked around Sam's neck. "I wanna see you let down your hair again. Figuratively. Dunno if you've noticed, but you're the sexiest man on earth when you're allowing yourself to have a good time free of charge."

It's a good point. One last, long kiss later, Sam releases Gabriel and says, "betcha love being right all time, huh?"

Gabriel winks. "See you there. Bring all your friends."

Sam tosses a wave over his shoulder, smiling harder than he should be when about to face down a chemistry class. It's good. Things are good. He can let them be good.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Gabriel thinks about fucking a lot. Generally, he's a pretty sexual guy. He likes the idea of sex, the feeling, the foreplay, the anticipation, the taste, the smell, the works. Sex is awesome. It helps him at the club for sure. He rakes in the tips just being a sexual guy. If anyone asks, excluding Sam, he'll lie about how many partners he's had. It helps his image making him seem like there's a chance. Making his sexuality part of the act. Well, it's not totally an act. He loves to watch how the urges play out. How people react to his music, find some sensuality with each other. The whole mating ritual that happens in his club, to his music, because of the atmosphere he sets. It's rewarding in its own way. He's not some sort of voyeur, not really. He just likes knowing that he can make people feel good, even if he's only setting the scene.

And sure, with Sam, and at a certain point in his life many years before Sam, there'd been a time where he'd been devoted to romance and whatever love happened from it, but in between, he'd taken what he'd wanted when he wanted it. No strings, no misunderstandings, no hard feelings.

But holy shit, Sam Winchester. That guy is Next Level. It's a damn fine line they walk considering the TA/student scenario, but thanks to Nick, there's no true conflict of interest. The dude hates him, and actively does everything he can to make Gabriels' academic and private life as miserable as possible. However, the fringe benefit of giving his own TA so little power in the classroom, inadvertently means he's allowing Gabriel to have whatever private life he wants with Sam without getting into any real trouble. There's no way to blackmail him or cook the books for his grades. Nick would kick himself in the nuts if he knew what his star pupil and his TA were getting up to.

It's part of the appeal. Less and less of the appeal as he gets to know Sam better, but for once he's glad for his terrible personality. He'd be lying if he said that he hadn't been thrilled to find his clubbing flirt victim in the classroom. It's the vast majority of the reason he'd considered continuing the flirting in the first place.

Now, though?

He's gone. A goner. All Sam's, and that's that.

He thinks about having sex with Sam and the sex he's already had with Sam, a lot.

In fact, he thinks about it and smiles about it so often that right now he's pretty pissed that he keeps getting distracted from it.

By Castiel, of all people. He's thinking way too much about Castiel Novak and Dean Winchester having sex. Wrong Winchester. Wrong not-Winchester with wrong Winchester.

Gabriel (5:07 PM):
Why did you have to fuck the short Winchester?

Castiel (5:10 PM):
Well, for one, because you're fucking the tall Winchester. For two...

His phone rings. He rolls his eyes with a whiny sigh. "Castiel," he says primly.

"How is my sex life any of your business?"

"Because I keep thinking about it."

"You disgust me in new and interesting ways every day, Gabriel."

He uses an entire breath to groan loudly. "You and your smooshy boytoy sent Sam over the deep end."

There's quite a significant pause. And then a thoughtful, "Sam acted perfectly normal when I ran into him as I was leaving last night."

"Oh, Christ on toast, he saw your walk of shame?"

"I wasn't shamed in the slightest," Castiel argues, insulted. "I had a lovely evening with Dean and then I went home. Why is Sam concerned with that? And why are you concerned with that?"

"Sam's worried that Dean's going to have some delayed reaction freak out after the fact. I told him that it probably would have already happened if it was gonna, but... y'know. I gotta look out for my boyfriend, and you gotta look out for yours. I'm not saying we betray any confidence here and share trade secrets, but... we might as well be brothers the same as the Winchester demigods."

Castiel laughs a little. "You're right about that. Gabriel... in strictest confidence, I didn't have sex with Dean. Neither of us are at that stage yet. I'm a slow mover when I'm in an actual relationship, anyway. That won't change no matter who I'm with."

"Loud and clear," Gabriel says, feeling strangely relieved. "I won't open my mouth about it since it's none of my business, buuuuuuuut..."

"Loud and clear," Castiel echoes. "I might drop a hint or two to Dean to perhaps ease Sam's mind. Will that suffice to help you get back to thinking about your own sex life now?"

"Plenty. You're the best friend a loser like me could ask for."

"Of course I am," Castiel answers. "May I please get back to work now? It's busy before closing."

"You may. Have a lovely day, friend."

"And you."

Gabriel hangs up the phone, hoping that he hasn't overstepped horribly. Of course, he'll keep his peace now that his own mind has been set at ease. The last thing in the entire world that he wants to do is create some weird romance circle where they're all up in each other's business. That would be awful. Incestuous on way too many levels.

However, he had been honest with Castiel. He's perfectly able to focus on his sex dreams with Sam now, and currently, that's absolutely his happy place. He leans back in his chair as far as it can go, feet up on his office desk, closes his eyes, and dreams a little dream of six feet and four inches of awkward-limbed sex appeal.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

When Sam gets home from class, he immediately goes to the coffeemaker to put on a pot. He's gonna need it. Quizzes and tests are about to start firing up, and he's got that whole freaking book from Nick to dig into. He's not sure exactly how much he's expected to get through before his next session, but regardless, he doesn't want to start off on the wrong foot. It's going to be another late night, probably.

The pot's almost finished brewing when Dean ambles into the kitchen scrubbing his hair dry and dropping the towel around his shoulders. "Coffee? Got another late one coming up?"

"Yeah," Sam hums. "Dr. Pellegrino gave me some extra reading to do for the internship."

Dean grabs two cups from the cabinets. "Since you're a big 'ol nerd, you oughta love that."

"Dunno yet," Sam admits. He drags the sugar over and scoops some into his mug. "I'm not really sure what he wants from me."

"Free labor, usually," Dean quips. "Isn't that how it is with all interns?"

Sam huffs a laugh. "Maybe. Probably. He's just... he's got a weird vibe is all."

Dean leans against the counter, eyeing his brother shrewdly. "There something I need to know about?"

Rolling his eyes, Sam sips at his coffee. "Dude, I'm like a decade away from needing my big brother to knock heads around for me."

"You were kicking ass by the time you were ten," Dean scoffs. "I'm not saying that. I was wondering if it was adding to the pile, is all."

Bowing his head, Sam says, "dunno. I mean... yeah, okay. It is. It's not the internship itself. It's the professor. I still can't really get a read on him, and it's bothering me."

Dean jerks his head towards the table. They both take a seat, not quite meeting each other's eyes. Slowly, he says, "Sammy, you've been really good about doing the heavy lifting the past few years, right? I need you to know that."

"I know that," Sam rushes to say, sitting up straighter. "It's no big deal."

Dean holds up a hand and Sam dutifully stops his usual tirade of support and appeasement before it hits the launch button. It's a knee jerk reaction now, but he still hates that Dean cares so much about the emotional heavy lifting. Sam's actually good for that part. He likes that part. Then again, Donna has also told him to share and share alike rather than assuming Dean isn't willing or able to reciprocate. Clearly he can. Yet another habit that's morphed from being therapeutic in the early years, to burdensome as the healing has progressed. So, he gives his brother the floor patiently while Dean silently arranges his thoughts.

"The way you said it," he ventures finally. "Sounds like you've got some issue with this guy. Some sort of issue that ain't as simple as a teacher you don't like."

"Nailed it," Sam admits, thin lips twisting. "To be blunt? Dr. Pellegrino gives me the fucking creeps." It feels good to say that out loud. Terrible to admit that he's got the heebie jeebies from instinct alone. He's not a fucking kid. Even so, it feels like setting his mind at ease in no small amount. Plus, seeing Dean's warningly murderous expression like when he was a kid coming home with a split lip, is sort of gratifying. He'll never admit it out loud, but it's good to know that their old relationship is still in there no matter how old they get, or what life throws at them.

"What's he done?" Dean demands.

Sam smiles. Same old Dean. Dean scowls harder in response. "Nothing," Sam says. "He's just one of those guys with a bad aura, you know? And he... well..." Sam's gaze drops to the table and he traces the wood grain with his fingernail. "He talks shit about Gabriel every chance he gets."

Tilting his head a little, Dean says, "somehow I'm under the impression a lot of people talk shit about Gabriel."

"You're not wrong," Sam chuckles. "Gabriel can be pretty abrasive. It's more than that, though. I'm not pissed because someone hates my boyfriend. Nick put me off way before Gabe and I were a thing. First day of class Nick felt... off. And you probably don't believe me, but Gabriel's actually incredibly professional at school."

If this Nick dude really does turn into something else, you tell me and we'll work it out," Dean answers, crossing his arms over his chest. "I believe you about Gabriel. It doesn't actually surprise me. Cas's gotta be friends with him for a reason."

Hearing that alone causes a tidal wave of relief. Sometimes all he really needs still, is to hear that his big brother has his back. With that taken care of, Sam grins harder. "Speaking of which..." he trails off significantly.

"Jesus," Dean mutters.

"Did Cas tell you I ran into him last night?"

"Sonofabitch."

"Wearing your clothes."

"Oh, for fuck's-"

"Sex hair."

"Sam, I swear to God."

"Pleased look on his face."

"I will punch you in the nuts."

"When two consenting adults love each other very much..."

Dean kicks Sam under the table.

It's worth the shin bruise to make his brother's face turn so red. "I'm genuinely happy for you."

"Then why do you look like you're sucking on a lemon right now?"

Sam sinks down more in his chair. "Okay, I'll admit I've been worried about you having sex again since all the germs and stuff, but clearly you're okay. I realize we both want absolutely zero input on each other's sex lives. I only wanna make sure you're cool mentally and all. Sorta. Kinda. Uh. You know what I'm asking."

"Cas and I didn't fuck," Dean says like he's chewing glass.

Oh. Oh. "I'm sorry," Sam says.

Dean lifts both eyebrows. "You're what?"

"I... I guess I jumped to conclusions, and... I'm sorry. And I'm also sorry if it was something you were trying to.... like... I dunno... work on, and it didn't happen..."

Dean scrubs both hands over his face vigorously. "Arg, all right. It's fine, Sammy. I didn't invite Cas over here last night to see if I could fuck him. It was some spur of the moment decision. We drank a beer. Hung out in my room with all our clothes on. If you really wanna hear the truth, I was kinda testing him."

"Why?" Sam breathes. "Dude, at the risk of sounding too much like Donna, that's not a healthy way to build a relationship."

"God, I fucking know," Dean sighs. "D'you think it makes any difference if I was testing myself equally as much?"

"Maybe," Sam smiles. "So, what? Obviously you wanted to see what would happen letting someone new into the house. It's been a while since you've done that. But you handled it great, right? What about Cas?"

Dean twirls his mug around on the table a few times. "Everything he did... man, it was something. He was wearing my clothes 'cause I made him shower before hanging in my room."

"Oh!" Hearing the whole story slots all the puzzle pieces into place satisfactorily. He picks up his coffee again, sipping thoughtfully. "He told me nothing when I saw him leaving. All he said was that he wasn't sneaking out in the middle of the night."

Dean barks a laugh. Then it softens his whole face. His whole being. "I'm falling for him, Sammy. Like, a lot."

For no reason at all, his coffee tastes even better now. "Congrats."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

"You're looking mighty happy and relaxed today, Sam!" Donna chirps as she and Sam get settled into her office.

"I'm okay," Sam summarizes. "Classes are good, my internship isn't too much to handle, my love life is solid, Dean's doing great. It's good all around."

Beaming, Donna taps a bit on her tablet. "Pleased as punch to hear it, cutie! Your smile is something I've been missing for a month of Sundays!"

"You're hugely responsible for it," Sam says. "The meds are definitely working."

"Let's chart that a sec," Donna suggests. "Then you can regale me with all the thrills and romance."

"Shoot," Sam says.

"All righty, then! Same as always. One to ten on the scale, if you please. Sopor?"

"One now that I've switched to taking it at night. No problem waking up or staying awake."

"Mood swings?"

"Maybe a three now? Nothing as pronounced as a few weeks ago."

"General anxiety levels?"

Tilting his head from side to side, Sam ventures, "probably a solid four. Five some days. It's never totally gone still."

"That's okay," Donna reassures him. "If all the side effects are tapering off, but you're still feeling a bit too jumpy at full efficacy, we can up the dose a bit. Before that, how are the spikes? Panic?"

"No more panic attacks since I last saw you. I have some anxiety spikes, but the breathing exercises and stuff really helps shorten the duration now."

"All good!" Donna enthuses. "So! Official business covered, let's get to the fun stuff! Whaddya wanna talk about this week?"

"It's been busy," Sam reveals. Then he proceeds to tell Donna everything. About Gabriel, about his classes, and lastly about Nick. She goes unnaturally still, watching him seriously when he gets to that part. He's in for it, he's certain, and pretty damn okay with that. If anyone can help him with handling a tense academic situation, it's her.

When he's finally done with his part in the talking, Donna nods a few times, finishes up her preliminary notes, and then says, "so, from where I'm sitting, I'm hearing only one big problem area this time around."

"I agree," Sam answers, squishing his hands under his legs to stop himself from fidgeting too much.

"Why did you accept this internship?"

"Because I need it."

"This specific one?"

Sam shifts slightly. "I mean, no. It's not a part of my major."

Donna gives him the deep dimple frown. "So, why deal with it?"

Shoulders rolling forward Sam says, "'cause Nick asked me specifically to do it. It was an easy win. Internships can be hard to come by, and they're super competitive. I would have been stupid to turn it down. If I do well, then I'll have a leg up if other, more pertinent ones show up in the future."

"That's true," Donna says. "And I can tell ya thought a lot about it before accepting. But plenty of people go through college and beyond just fine without taking on internships. Is this for an advanced degree? Are you planning something else if you don't get into law school later?"

"No," Sam answers. "I'm solid on law school. If I don't get in right after graduation, I'll work, save money, keep studying, and keep trying."

"That's totally reasonable. I also understand where you're coming from. But the way you've been talking about it... I gotta wonder if you're punishing yourself a little bit."

"Why the hell would I be doing that?" Sam demands, starting to rankle. "This isn't self-sabotage. Look, Donna, people are gonna ask me why it took me so damn long to finish my Bachelor's. Why I took time off. If I want to set myself apart in a good way, I need to beef up my CV. Show everyone that I'm committed to my education and my future."

Donna starts to smile, though Sam prefers it when it has less pity to it. "Getting good grades and graduating will show that. Sam, lots of people these days take more than the standard four years to finish their degrees. It's pretty normal. Life happens. Or bad health. Or money issues. Or family issues. And don't think for a second that you have to spill your whole life story to get a job. In fact, even interviews to law programs aren't owed the dirty details. Nor will they necessarily be expected. This is law you're going into. You schmooze them with the vague details, then push past it and sell your strong points. And maybe I'm biased here, but I fully believe you have a ton more of those than guilt at your past mistakes."

Sam rocks back and forth over his fingers. "You're making perfect sense as always. But... like... this is proving myself, isn't it? I shouldn't have to quit because it's hard all the time. Things aren't always gonna be easy. I might as well hit it head on."

Donna is full on grinning now. "You're a tough cookie, Winchester," she says affectionately. "You're really good at working things around to support your argument."

The corner of Sam's lip curls up. "I weigh the pros and cons. Are your conclusions different than mine?"

"I'm not necessarily trying to convince you to change your mind on anything," Donna promises. "If you don't want my opinions, that's cool, too."

"I always want your opinions," Sam says, defeatedly. "I hate being wrong, and I hate changing my mind when I'm this stubborn about my decisions. But I'm also sick and tired of screwing up, so since I like you and value your help, let out the hounds."

He likes the way that Donna laughs. It shakes her whole body. She also hides none of it. She doesn't cover her mouth or try to be quiet. She lets it overtake her long enough that it infects Sam, too. He starts laughing softly. Donna leans forward and smacks Sam's knee. "Like I said: total lawyer. Charming, smart, and flattering. That'll be lethal later on. What I think is that you've convinced yourself of the more practical reasons for taking this internship. Those reasons are valid, by the way. However, I think the why is much more complicated. You think you deserve the hard road. You knew this Nick fellow was a piece of work before you took the internship. Yet you did it, anyway. You also know not taking it wouldn't ruin your future. You're not that dumb."

"Your conclusion is that I am punishing myself?"

"Little bit," Donna nods. "Are you having any other challenges in your other courses? Bad grades, problem professors, studying all night just to pass?"

"No," Sam answers. "Everything else is... actually pretty easy, all things considered."

"That's 'cause you're a smarty pants. So, answer me this: why do you feel like something has to be hard to be worth it?"

Sam groans. "Because otherwise I'll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Donna beams. "You've come a long way on inner reflection, Sam. It's okay to be worried about your future. It's okay to feel like you need to make up for the mistakes you made, but Sam Winchester, I will tell you one thing that I will not let you forget, okay?"

Sam nods seriously, uneasy.

Donna jabs her stylus towards him. "Do not punish yourself. Yes, do hard things. Struggle all you need to. Never shy away from stuff because it sucks and you gotta get through it. Just, do not punish yourself and convince yourself it's necessary. You're in therapy now, so punishment ain't an option."

"I can make that deal," Sam says.

"Good," Donna answers, all smiles again in an instant. "Anything else ya wanna talk about?"

In for a penny, in for a pound. "What do I do about Dr. Pellegrino?"

"Are you worried he'll pull something shady?"

"No clue," Sam says. "He's got a really off putting personality, and he shit talks my boyfriend all the time. It's not just me, either. My friends think he's creepy, too."

Donna frowns thoughtfully. "Is it just a clash of personalities? Some people are kinda ick naturally."

"There haven't been any real complaints against him at the school," Sam admits. "Maybe I just don't like him. I'm not used to not liking people for no discernible reason."

"You do have a reason," Donna reminds him. "He hates your boyfriend. At any rate, my suggestion is that you stick with it as long as nothing happens that causes you too much distress. There's no harm in calling it quits if the cons outweigh the pros. That's what being an adult is."

"As long as I know I'm not just over analyzing because of my anxiety."

"Could be too early to tell," Donna says. "Keep your guard up, but don't go looking for every little reason to confirm your suspicions. All that'll do is have you jumping at shadows."

"Understood," Sam murmurs. "I'll do my best."

Donna holds out her bowl of lollipops. "If you wanna, keep a list of those uneasy feelings. Run 'em by me, and then you and I can talk though 'em and see what's what."

"I appreciate it," Sam sighs. He reaches for a green lollipop. At least with Donna's help, he won't accidentally become some strange conspiracy nut. Lists help. Homework helps. He's good at those. He pockets the lollipop to save for Gabriel later, still unsure whether he feels better or even more suspicious now.

Chapter Text

At breakfast, Sam breezes into the kitchen, all business, and says, "I've got plans on Saturday."

"Study group?" Dean asks lightly, slathering butter on his toast.

"Your nerd jokes are never going to be funny," Sam answers moodily.

"I'm hilarious," Dean disagrees. "You're just a stick in the mud. But, if not, what's up? Hot date? Hot-ish?" He puts his toast down, eyes unfocusing. "Hot-ish," he muses softly. "Something about Gabriel's nose is just... weird."

"You done?" Sam snipes.

"Sometimes," Dean answers. He grins at his brother. "Come on, what's got your panties in a twist?"

"Sorry," Sam mutters. He uncharacteristically drags feet over to the coffee pot and pours himself a generous cup. "I haven't been sleeping well, and I'm at the end of my rope with people shit talking Gabe."

Surprised, Dean answers, "I'm not! I'm just teasing. He's not that bad a guy. I'll lay off. But, seriously. Awfully snippy there, Samantha."

Sam whips around. "Yeah, you think so?" he growls moodily. "Well, I'm in love with him, so I'm gonna defend him. How would you feel if someone constantly talked crap about Castiel wearing flip-flops and smelling like patchouli all the time?" He thumps down onto his chair, glaring moodily at the table in a way that immediately throws Dean backwards in time to about the year 2000. Adorable.

Thus rolling his eyes, Dean placates, "okay, okay, I get it. Only make jokes about your long girl hair from now on. Whatever." Half to himself he grumbles, "if Cas smelled like patchouli all the time, I wouldn't be dating him." Then louder, "if you're so touchy about it, bring it up with Donna. But, in the meantime, uh... love, huh?"

Sam wiggles around in his chair exactly as he'd done when he'd been caught out as a kid and very much still channeling a little bit of his sulk. "I said so, didn't I?"

"That's why I'm sayin'," Dean says, not giving in to the pout. Sam had abused that weakness way too much before he'd hit puberty.

"Might be," Sam half-deflects, red to his roots. "Getting there. I want you to like him."

He couldn't sound more middle school if he tried, and Dean is living for it. "I like him enough for you to not have a fit about it," Dean answers, going for another piece of toast and a mound of bacon.

"Sorry," Sam sighs.

"Don't be sorry, I'll give it a rest," Dean also relents. "It's okay to tell me to fuck off. I'm a big boy. I can handle it."

Sam drags the bowl of cut fruit towards himself, directing the last remnants of his mood into stabbing pieces one by one with slightly more force than necessary. "Thanks. So, anyway, back to the original topic; yes, it's sort of a date. Gabriel asked me to come to the club with everyone, so we're gonna go. He's playing and I haven't been since that first time."

"Sounds good," Dean answers as casually as possible. In fact, upon a second's reflection, he realizes that he doesn't feel a shred of anxiety about it at all. Maybe it's because it all worked out just fine a couple months ago when Sam had gone to the club, but it's still a huge relief. For once not having to work at being happy for someone else is great. Gabriel is obviously being a peach to his brother, so he might as well do his best to keep his mouth shut about his opinion on the guy's attitude towards everyone else in the world. Clearly, Sam knows a lot more about him and sees good there, and if there's something that Sam Winchester has always been, it's a fantastic judge of character. "Guess I'll just hang with Cas, then."

Sam smiles. "Sounds like an excellent weekend for the both of us."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean's new routine is not ordering anything at Castiel's cafe anymore. In fact, he's pretty sure that Castiel's favorite part of the day is trying to match a coffee of his own creation to whatever mood he perceives in Dean. They've got the time for it thanks to post-industrialist schedules and Dean hating rush hour traffic, as well as Bobby not giving a shit when his employee shows up as long as he does and puts the work in.

Today's concoction tastes a little bit like Christmas. "What's in this?" he asks, taking another large sip. His taste buds are hopelessly untrained, so there's no way that he could figure out what Castiel calls "the nuances."

Castiel knows that, so he just shrugs with his enigmatic eye-smile. "A few ingredients that I thought you would enjoy. Especially since you seem so happy the past few days. If I had to describe it in a word, I'd call it 'cheerful.' What does it taste like to you?"

"Christmas," Dean answers, already knowing there's no stupid answer. In fact, Castiel often seems delighted with his clumsy attempts at describing coffee.

This time is no exception. He takes off his apron, signalling his break, and comes out from behind the counter to sit with Dean at "their" table by the window. "It's getting colder. I thought it would be appropriate."

"Do you ever end up selling any of these concoctions to anyone besides me?"

"I might. You're an excellent guinea pig, but you'd probably be polite even if you hated it."

"I'd tell you," Dean protests. "I figured your feelings weren't so easily hurt."

"You're a very smart man," Castiel says, raising his mug in cheers. "So, what's your schedule this weekend?"

"Sam's going out Saturday again, and I got nothing going on. You can come over if you want."

"Desensitization?"

"I'd rather not pile on other stuff for now, if that's okay with you," Dean admits. "Maybe we could go out somewhere some other time."

"It is," Castiel agrees. "Quality time for me is much more important than what we're doing or where we're going."

"That's good," Dean answers restlessly. He pushes his mug further across the table a little, then pulls it back towards himself. "Also... d'you think you might be able to make some time on Thursday around three? I know it's business hours and all, but Donna and Jody asked to meet you, and I told them I'm down."

Castiel carefully puts his croissant onto the plate. "Have I been acting in a concerning way recently?"

"Nah," Dean answers, tracing his fingertip around the lid of his coffee cup. "But, um... since we're in it to win it now, I figured maybe Jody and Donna could talk to us together to kinda... ease the way. Or something. You don't have to. There's just some stuff about us I wanna ask them about, and maybe you'd like to be there, too."

"I'm more than willing to," Castiel answers. "Gabriel says that relationship therapy can be quite helpful. Let's do it."

Dean snorts. Chuckles. Laughs. "We're not a forty year-old married couple in crisis, y'know."

"I'm thirty-three and divorced," Castiel sniffs imperiously. "I'm sure I could use advice at any rate."

"Won't be a big deal. If we can make sure we're on the right track, then maybe..."

"In my opinion, we are," Castiel says.

"Sure, yeah," Dean answers, ears getting hot. "But... not to throw this at you outta nowhere, but... Cas, do you wanna have sex with me?"

Castiel coughs so hard, coffee nearly comes out of his nose. He has to clear this throat several times and blow his nose twice before he can talk again. Hoarsely, he asks, "I beg your pardon?"

Swallowing his mortification and covering it with his usual bravado, he plows ahead. "You wanna fuck me at some point, right?"

Castiel closes his eyes and leans back in his chair. He tilts his head up towards the ceiling, open like he's praying. Breathes slowly through his nose a few times.

Dean can feel a bead of sweat trickle down the center of his back. "Cas?"

"Dean," Castiel says calmly. "I want to fuck you into next week. I could either ride you, or dive into you for hours. If you asked me to, I would take a week long vacation right now to whisk you away to some remote beach shanty or rundown mountain cabin where I would do my utmost to make you scream the walls down in ecstasy."

Dean only blinks when his eyes being to burn from not doing so. His throat is as a dry as a desert. "So... that's a yes?"

Castiel opens his eyes. Meets Dean's burning gaze with his own. "In a minute. Right this minute. Any minute. Dealer's choice."

"Thursday. Let's... joint session... three on Thursday."

Castiel smiles serenely. "Perfect."

Dean shifts in his seat. It can't possibly come soon enough. No mental pun intended.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Donna is visibly vibrating with excitement, and probably more than a dozen obvious questions when Dean and Castiel settle on the sofa side by side in her office. Jody has the decency to sit still, though her lips have that funny little tilt that almost looks like a smile.

"I was so right," Donna begins, smiling hard enough that it nearly splits her face. "Castiel, you are definitely a cutie!"

Castiel dips his head down, pink in the cheeks; of all things, embarrassed by this. "Thank you," he murmurs.

"It's nice to see you again, Castiel," Jody says kindly, surreptitiously elbowing Donna.

"And you."

"I am pumped about this!" Donna explodes.

Jody reaches out and puts a hand on Donna's shoulder. "Let's settle down, or you'll run out of steam before we get to the fun part."

Donn's eyes widen at her counterpart. "That is so true!"

Castiel leans in towards Dean. "Are they always like this?"

With a wink, Dean answers, "now you know why I am how I am."

"Can I start?" Jody asks, looking to Dean to set the pace as they'd all agreed.

"Sure," Dean answers.

Jody turns her attention to Castiel. "First off, thanks for coming in today. It's a big deal to agree to this. I'd like to begin by saying, while also respecting doctor/patient confidentiality, even with Dean in the room, that it seems like the letter of suggestions I gave to you has been working out."

"It has," Castiel agrees gamely. "Everything you suggested for the early days of our relationship has been incredibly helpful. It was very enlightening, and helped me in no small measure to understand Dean's situation and meet him on more even ground."

Donna cuts in. "Can I ask how that's going for you? Obviously you're being a rockstar about it so far, but are you comfortable talking about the stress it might be causing you? Totally cool if you don't want to with such an audience. Lots of people have a hard time really opening up the first time in therapy, and even more so in a pair or group setting, so we're not gonna push you or anything. If there's anything you wanna keep to yourself, please say so."

Castiel draws up beside Dean, and Dean reaches over to take his hand to pull his attention. "For real. You only have to talk about what you wanna talk about. I won't get upset if there's stuff you can't say."

Castiel gives Dean a searching look for a moment, then squeezes his hand back. "Thank you. Thank all of you. I'll admit I have little experience in this area, so I'm a bit nervous." He smiles encouragingly once more at Dean before turning his attention to Donna. "To answer your question, yes, I feel some stress about this relationship. Probably more than I have with my past partners. I can't lie about that. However, none of it feels insurmountable to me."

Donna nods. "Can you elaborate?" She gestures between them with her stylus. "Holding hands is a huge deal for Dean."

"I know," Castiel answers proudly. "When Dean and I first agreed to date, I had some trepidation. He was open about his OCD; about the severity of it. In fact, he tried to dump me very quickly after our first date when he explained his most common symptoms and how worried he was about displaying them in front of me."

"That totally happened," Dean answers.

 

"I remember talking about that," Donna confirms. "That issue's out of the way, though, right?"

"It is," Castiel answers. "I'll admit that I've chosen my words and actions around Dean a lot more carefully than with anyone else, but I hardly consider that to be a problem. A challenge, yes, but not a problem. My boyfriend has OCD. It's a part of who he is, and how his brain works. And we've agreed to pursue a relationship. If he was blind, I wouldn't take him to a regular art museum on a date. I'd make any accommodations necessary to our combined fulfillment in the relationship. This is the same kind of thing. Everyone's needs are different, and some people's - like Dean's - are possibly more strict, but either way, I have found our relationship thus far to be worth the effort."

Everyone is staring at him. He keeps his eyes trained on Donna because he feels as though he might combust with embarrassment saying all of this so plainly. It's important, though. He's long been aware of the necessity of proper communication between him and Dean. He's long had time to put his feelings into words. Words that have remained in his head until now. He kind of hates how overly formal he sounds saying them, though he's happy that he's been able to put them out there because they're entirely true. Awkward or not, they're true.

He can still see Dean in his peripheral vision. The unrelenting gaze is practically boring into him. Jody and Donna also look quite stunned. Has he said something wrong? He'd been under the impression that there weren't really any wrong things to say in therapy as long as those things are honest expressions of his thoughts and feelings. He rubs the back of his neck reflexively.

Jody shakes off the spell first. "I feel like Dean's won the lottery, and it sort of pisses me off."

"Right?!" Donna enthuses so loudly that both Dean and Castiel startle.

Even more red now, Castiel mutters, "I'm not a saint. I just don't want to lose such a remarkable person from my life."

"Jesus, Cas," Dean whispers. His face is scrunched in that way he sometimes gets when he's at a loss and trying not to react to his emotional confusion with instinctual frustration or anger.

"This is the good stuff," Donna says passionately. "I mean, from all accounts so far, it's sounded pretty good, but this is good good."

Dean can't look anyone in the eyes directly. "I've been trying to meet him halfway here," he says softly.

Jody perks up. "How so?"

"He came over to the house the other day. We hung out in my room."

Both Jody and Donna looked even more gobsmacked, if that's possible.

After a solid thirty seconds of pregnant silence, Donna demands, "and?"

"Don't be gross," Jody warns.

Castiel coughs a laugh. He covers his mouth. He catches the strange look Dean gives him. It shoves the laugh into his nose and he snorts. Swallows it back into his chest where it spasms. There's no saving himself from it at that point, so he gives in, chuckling helplessly. Then Dean starts to snicker, too.

"I'm trying to be professional! I was asking a professional question!" Donna insists. "I swear I wasn't asking about anything over a PG-13 rating!"

Jody joins in the humor at Donna's expense, laughing quietly. "I'd say something about the lack of maturity in the room, but our Dean's growing up so fast."

"I like therapy," Castiel grins.

"My two moms over here are probably really happy to hear that," Dean chortles.

"Tryin' to be proud of you here, Winchester," Jody says dryly. "Don't ruin it."

Donna finally starts to laugh a little, too. "I apologize, Castiel," she says primly. "Sometimes we're more professional. I was hoping for that on your first visit..."

"She has such high standards," Dean leans into Castiel conspiratorially. "She's always telling me not to set my sights too high. Therapists are terrible at taking their own advice."

"Hey!" Donna protests. "It's not gang up on Donna day! Safe space!"

Castiel keeps laughing, completely put at ease now and only vaguely wondering I'd they're all doing this on purpose for his benefit. It's a lovely gesture if they are.

Jody keeps them in line, though she's also grinning. "Okay, kids of all ages, why are we're having this session free-for-all?"

Here, Castiel keeps his mouth shut, relying on Dean to lead the way. In fact, he's not entirely positive himself. Dean had mentioned sex, but that's extremely personal, and perhaps not the first step. He'd gone in expecting that they'd talk about the strides they'd been making together, and perhaps asking for further suggestions to acclimate Dean to another loose variable in his life, but other than that, so far nothing here has gone as he'd expected. He's pleased with that since it doesn't appear to be abnormal for Dean in the slightest. And of course, his boyfriend does not disappoint.

"I wanna be able to fuck Cas," Dean says, voice full of candor.

"Okey doke!" Donna answers brightly. "That's a worthy goal, whaddya think, Jody-o?"

"Agreed," Jody says evenly.

"You both have heard everything before, haven't you?" Castiel asks.

Jody and Donna share a laugh. "Yes," they say in unison.

"Sexual issues are common in many mental illnesses," Donna elaborates. "With mysophobia, it's pretty much guaranteed. It's not rare or unexpected."

"Fair enough," Castiel says. "I have no sexual issues. I've told Dean that we can go at his pace as far as that's concerned."

Donna smiles over at Dean. "You're ready to be sexually active?"

"No idea," Dean drawls lazily. "I'm horny, but that don't mean nothing."

"It means lots of things," Donna disagrees. "You know that as well as I do. Desire to do something affects motivation. The more motivation you have, the better the chances of success."

Dean leans forward, elbows on his knees. "I'm just trying not to let my dick do all my thinking for me. Should I be having sex?"

Castiel snickers, then slaps his hand over his mouth again. "Sorry," he murmurs.

"So immature," Dean smirks.

Jody takes the baton. "If you wanna have sex, you should be having sex. You're a big boy, it's up to you."

"You think I can handle it?" Dean asks pointedly.

Jody shrugs. "This is probably something you won't know unless you try." She holds out a hand, palm up. "You've been holding hands with Castiel the whole time, and you aren't so much as breaking a sweat."

Dean holds up their joined hands. "Desensitization. Works almost every time. I've kissed him, too."

Donna beams and Jody smiles smally, too. "That's so middle school. Congratulations, you guys."

"You suck, Jody," Dean chirps.

"He's wonderful at kissing," Castiel says, trying to be helpful.

Of course, all that accomplishes is Jody's smirk growing more sly. "I'm having such a moment right now," she says.

Castiel has no idea what that means, but it makes Dean groan and Donna laugh delightedly. "I said something wrong," Castiel surmises.

"You're adding gas to the fire," Dean explains.

"I apologize."

"No worries, they live for this shit, so they'd find a way to make it happen, anyway."

Jody actually laughs out loud. "You're right about that. Okay, now that poor Castiel is beet red, and Dean is about to strangle us for having no manners, let's get on track. With the sex thing. Which Dean and Castiel want to have."

"I have no objections," Donna offers in an official tone, still grinning fit to burst, but now, at the very least, consulting the notes on her tablet. "The general upward trend to Dean's mental health over the last few months, plus his willingness to get out of his comfort zone repeatedly, shows both commitment to treatment, and measurable success. Jody-o's also reported that all of the new things you've tried have been positive outcomes. So, I'd say keeping going for it."

Jody nods along. "What do you both need from us?"

Dean clears his throat. "Honestly? Some ideas for how to not freak the hell out in the middle of it, and contingency plans if and when I do."

"We can do that," Jody promises. "Let's figure it out."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean notices, upon leaving the appointment, that Castiel is awfully quite on the walk to the car. He's often contemplative, but this time seems a bit more... stifling, for lack of a better term. Like he wouldn't much appreciate it if Dean tried to say something or start a conversation. In general he's fine with Castiel's silences, however, he's often better with them when he isn't absolutely positive that he's the cause of them. And in these dazes, Castiel's face falls blank, so there's no tell as to whether his musings are good things or bad things.

Once again, now that he's not having to focus on something to draw his attention away from his body, he acutely feels the anxiety start to slither back in.

He can Castiel climb into the Impala, but Dean doesn't start it immediately. He stares out the windshield, breathing as slowly and evenly as possible, willing his heart rate to stay down. The second it gallops away, they'll be stuck for thirty minutes until an actual panic attack blows itself out.

The fact that they're not going anywhere shakes Castiel's stupor loose and he turns his head to look at Dean. "Are you all right?"

Dean swallows hard, knuckles white on the steering wheel. "Are you?"

"Yes. Just processing. That was quite overwhelming."

"Sorry," Dean mumbles, humiliated for reasons he can't fully process into words.

"Not in a bad way," Castiel clarifies. "It's a lot of information I've never had before. I've never been to proper therapy, so my brain feels like it's gone through the spin cycle and hasn't fully stopped yet."

Dean huffs a laugh, grip loosening on the wheel. "That's an accurate way to put it."

"You go through that every week?" He sounds impressed.

Shaking his head, Dean says, "nah. Not always. Usually I see them separately. But, I guess it depends. Some sessions are easier, like when I've had a good week. Some are harder. You still on board? Y'know. For... uh... everything?"

Castiel reaches out boldly, resting his warm hand on Dean's thigh. Dean's gaze flicks from it up to his boyfriend. He's shocked by how grounding the physical contact is, and how calming Castiel's steady gaze is. Miracle of miracles, touch ain't so bad for once.

And Castiel says with the utmost sincerity, "yes, I am."

That's enough for Dean to put the key in the ignition and get them on their way back home. They'd left for the appointment from Dean's house, so he takes them there, pulling up next to Castiel's godawful Continental and killing the engine.

He listens to the engine tick as it cools for a minute, then slowly ventures, "so. Saturday."

"Saturday," Castiel echoes.

More silence.

Jesus.

"Just to be clear," Dean blurts. "I'm ready to have sex with you. I'm just feeling really weird putting it on the calendar."

Castiel laughs softly. "I suppose it is a bit strange." He unbuckles his seat belt so that he can shift in the seat to face Dean fully. "Whatever the experience turns out to be, I'm looking forward to it."

Dean ignores how shaky his smile is. "Me, too."

Castiel tilts his chin forward slightly. "May I kiss you?"

It's already been such a big day. "Hell, yeah you can," Dean whispers. "But, uh. Lemme do the touching since you... y'know... all the door handles..."

Castiel pointedly shoves his hands under his thighs with a grin. "If you're making me hold back, you're the one who has to pick up the slack."

Easing into a more genuine smile as he leans forward, Dean murmurs, "I can do that." His palms slide lightly over Castiel's stubble, drawing him closer. Their lips meeting is almost effortless. Soft and sweet at first. Exactly like last time. And it was so awesome last time. For once, Dean's brain decides to run with that instead of a dozen hazard protocols and warning alarms. It makes him bold.

He pushes forward further, tongue prodding at Castiel's mouth. He parts his lips with a sigh, inviting Dean in. Letting him take the lead completely.

If this is how it is, Saturday might just work out after all.

It leaves him with a natural high that carries him through the rest of the afternoon. He was winning this war. Slowly but surely. God, it felt awesome.

Naturally, Sam ruins it by noticing Dean floating on cloud nine the second he walks in the door from his internship, and drops his backpack by the door. "Amazing what therapy does for you," he teases.

First shots have been fired, so Dean feels completely justified by being a snarky asshole right back. "I'm getting laid this weekend," he announces, plopping Sam's dinner down on the table.

Goddamn little brother doesn't have the decency to take the bait correctly. "You see what happens when you stop worrying about my non-existent virginity and attend to your own?"

"You watch your damn mouth, or I swear to God I'll tell you every nasty detail."

Sam rolls his eyes, pulls out his chair, and immediately begins stuffing his face as though he's never eaten before. "You'll probably do that anyway, so I might as well have some fun while I can."

Dean laughs. "Fair enough. Spend the night out, if Gabe'll have your sorry ass for a sleepover."

"'Course he will," Sam says around his hamburger. "You won't see me from Friday night until Sunday morning."

"Romantic weekend?" Dean asks, squirting a load of ketchup on his own burger.

"Sort of. Charlie texted and said she wanted to have some huge slumber party or something. Make it an overnight thing on Friday and then hang out until the club opens on Saturday. I'll swing home to drop off my school stuff and grab a change of clothes, then I'm out."

Dean chuckles. "I've never met Charlie, but every time you talk about her, I like her even more."

"I think you two would be actual friends," Sam muses. "Never been to a sleepover before."

"Paint each other's nails and dish about boys," Dean sing songs.

"Charlie and Dorothy are lesbians, remember?" Sam intones.

"And y'all are all geeks. No dishing, then. You'll end up doing something like making a DnD drinking game or watching weird movies."

"I'd hold the sarcasm if I were you. You're the anime porn addict."

Dean sniffs. "I'm not an addict. I'm a connoisseur."

"Whatever you need to tell yourself," Sam grins. "But, anyway, I'll be out until Sunday so you and Cas can have all your icky sex without worrying about any interruptions from me."

"I think I preferred the sock on the door days," Dean says, nose wrinkling. "All this prep makes it weird."

Sam grins. "Dude, if you really think about it, sex is kinda weird, anyway. Just think about it as giving your long suffering brother a bit of courtesy."

Dean purses his lips thoughtfully. Idly he picks up a fry. Then he points it toward Sam. "That. I like that. I'm gonna roll with it."

"That's what I'm doing," Sam agrees. "Just remember that I want to hear nothing about it later."

"Deal. The subject is closed and dropped."

"Thank God," Sam answers.

Now all that's left to do is keep his cool from today until then.

Chapter Text

Sam is convinced that Charlie has some sixth sense about knowing the second he gets to campus. She practically teleports to his side when he's halfway to the student center, grabs his arm, and jumps up and down a few times, making his teeth rattle.

"Are you so pumped for the P squared evening tonight?"

Sam laughs. "The what?"

"Pamper and party!" she nearly yells. "I haven't done one in such a long time. It's gonna be awesome."

"You seem like the kind of person who does them like, every other weekend," Sam observes.

"I wish," Charlie laments. "But it's just that sometimes they can get... shall we say, a little out of hand. Dorothy put the kibosh on my having them too regularly when we moved in together, because wow, they can get messy. It was much easier in the dorms when everything was already nasty all the time, anyway. But I promised to keep this one chill. Dorothy is calling it a 'trust test run.'"

"She's really strict. But I guess there are plenty of ways to have fun without blowing anything up. What the hell are you planning to have us do?" Sam demands with mock suspicion. Honestly, he doesn't even care. Letting loose with his merry band of misfit friends had been one of the best nights he'd had in years, so he's positive that the theme will continue as long as he's friends with all of them.

"Little bit of this, little bit of that," Charlie answers in her most secretively blase tone. "It'll be fun, though! And legal. In case you were gonna be all lame and worried."

Sam huffs a laugh. "I know I've got a stick up my ass a lot, but I'm never worried about what'll happen when I hang out with you and the rest of the Scooby gang."

She clenches him tighter, resting her head on his arm. "Dreamy face and dreamy personality. This is why I love you, Sam."

"You wanna buy me a coffee to get me ready for staying up all night?"

She scoffs good-naturedly, but hauls them both indoors, anyway. "Why aren't you being a real gentleman?"

"Two reasons," Sam says airily. "One, because I'm broke and have no job, and you are gainfully employed. Two, you're a lesbian. What use do you have for gentlemen?"

She squints up at him as she blindly drags them into the cafe's line. "You really are gonna be a lawyer. But you're right, and I'm gracious, so fine. Go wild. Get the most expensive thing on the menu; that's how much I love you."

Sam laughs. "That would mean so much more if the most expensive thing wasn't five dollars."

She laughs, too. "Neither one of us are going to win with chivalry, are we?"

"I highly doubt it."

"Fun!" She leans her arms on the counter to address the barista. "Two chocolate espresso mochas, please!" She pays and they step to the pick up counter. "Hey, what's your favorite color?" She asks randomly, because that's how Charlie Bardbury operates.

Of course, over the past few months, Sam has gotten used to it, so he answers, "orange. But I also like green."

Charlie giggles. "What, are you like a hunter, or something?"

"Maybe in another life," Sam answers flippantly. "But I do know how to use a gun 'cause my dad was in the Marines."

"Nice!" Charlie beams. "That'll come in handy if I decide you're worthy of joining a marshmallow gun war." Then as an aside mumbles, "if Dorothy ever lets me have one again."

Sam accepts their drinks and hands Charlie hers. With a haughty tilt to his chin, he declares, "I'd annihilate all of you."

"Them be fighting words!" Charlie answers with a shine in her eyes that suggests she was hoping for that exact answer. "It's on like Donkey Kong! Once I've passed the trust exercise, of course."

"You are so lame," Sam chuckles.

"Don't you forget it, Winchester!"

Since the student center isn't too crowded yet, they manage to grab one of the coveted corner booths, expecting the rest of the gang to show up shortly. It's barely ten minutes later when Dorothy and Ash appear with their own drinks, shedding their jackets as they sit down.

"It's gonna snow before Thanksgiving," Dorothy laments, wrapping her hands around her paper coffee cup and shivering.

"Maybe we'll get some snow days off," Charlie says wistfully.

"When has that ever happened?" Ash says moodily, eyes only half open.

"I'm praying for a blizzard, then," Charlie says.

"You'd go stir crazy," Dorothy snorts.

"I would not!" Charlie protests. "I'd just download some choice games on Steam and play forever. Forget to eat. Forget to sleep. Forget the rest of the world exists." She sighs happily.

"Wow," Sam says dryly. "That sounds totally unlike you."

"Psh," Charlie scoffs. "I'd do some MMO's or shooters or something for some human interaction."

"And you'd forget about your girlfriend," Dorothy snarks. "The woman who lives with you, and loves you, and will actually have real world sex with you."

Ash laughs. "Charlie, maybe you should just quit this monstrous show of elitism we call higher education and become a professional gamer."

Grinning, Charlie says, "don't think I haven't considered it. But all the good money's in South Korea, and Dorothy here doesn't wanna move halfway around the world."

Dorothy rolls her eyes. "The only thing I'd be able to do in South Korea is rely on my sugar mama. That would suck. I'd be bored to tears."

Sam shrugs. "I mean, quitting school to move halfway around the world always sounds nice when all the professors on campus start drowning us in tests and papers before midterms. I'd let you be my sugar mama, Charlie."

She winks. "You bet your ass you would."

"Speaking of tests and papers," Dorothy redirects, "how's the internship with Nick the Dick going?"

"Weird," Sam grimaces. "Would it help or hurt your image of him if I told you he was researching the occult and demonology this time around?"

"I would have been surprised if you'd said anything else," she answers.

Sam sighs. He'd figured as much. "He's got me reading this huge old grimoire thing that basically gives me a migraine just to look at for more than two minutes."

"Probably cursed," Ash says.

Charlie grins. "Dude, at least swipe a book or two with like, exorcisms or something so you can protect yourself. Y'know. Just in case."

Sam smiles a little despite the slightly irrational discomfort he feels. "I know you're joking, but I half believe he might actually want to curse people."

"He already does that," Ash intones. "That man lives to make the academic masses weep and wanna sell their souls just to clear his class."

"I know that feeling," Sam answers with mocking solemnity.

"That's why the party!" Charlie chirps, always unable to stand for a down mood or depressing topic for too long. "It'll be a great weekend. Seriously cleansing for the soul. We'll all come back bright and shiny and less likely to lay face down on the floor and cry until Christmas."

Ash salutes with his cup. "You are a gentlewoman and a scholar. The floor here is so fuckin' gross."

"Eight sharp," she reminds them all. "Don't be late; I bought fireworks."

"No," Dorothy intones. "It hasn't rained in weeks. No fireworks this time."

Sam laughs. Yeah. This weekend is exactly what he needs.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

As promised, Sam arrives home after classes to clear the academia out of his bag and replace it with all the necessities of a sleepover. Truth be told, he's really stoked about the whole thing. A small part of him is cringing at the fact that he's not studying or catching up on his reading, but the rest of him doesn't fucking care. He deserves some time off. Hanging out with his best friends with no pressure on him for a whole day, and then capping it off with his boyfriend. If he needs to, he'll take Sunday to catch up on anything critical if he's not too partied out, but he refuses to let his anxiety demand more of him than he needs to be giving to the world. His grades are fine, he's not behind in any of his classes, Nick remains pleased as punch with him at the internship, so there's nothing to worry about right now. Plus, even if did actually want to be the nerd his brother keeps accusing him of being, Dean has plans that Sam doesn't even want to be in the same zip code for. Retreat is both honorable and required. He doesn't begrudge either of them that.

When he gets home, there's no sign of Dean in the house, but some of the lights are on, and the Impala's in the garage. He tromps up the stairs, but Dean isn't in his room, though the door is open. Huh.

He doesn't seem to be anywhere.

Sam's just starting to go from curious to mildly concerned, when a gigantic snore erupts from the living room. He tiptoes in, peeking over the back of the couch. Sure enough, there's his brother snoozing away like a cat in a sunbeam, body contorted in the most efficient way to give him the worst backache in history if he stays there too long.

Sam grins.

Never let it be said that Sam Winchester wastes opportunities. He shuffles to the kitchen as quietly as possible and digs his cellphone out of his pocket, pulling up the app store. He searches for a foghorn app. Frowns. "Why the fuck are there like, twenty of these things?" He downloads the first one on this list since they're all probably the same. Then he saunters over to the fridge and grabs the can of whipped cream that Dean drowns his pancakes in.

Then it's back to the couch. Very, very gently, he leans over the back of it. Dean has flipped onto his side, both hands dangling off the sofa, palms up. Gingerly, Sam squirts generous dollops of the cream into both hands, holding his breath.

Dean does not wake up.

Satisfied, Sam opens the foghorn app, holds his phone about a foot away from Dean's ear, and presses the "launch" button.

The alarm is shockingly loud. It even makes Sam jump a little.

Dean shouts, flailing, and slaps one hand against his forehead, the other against his chest. "What the fuck?!" he hollers.

Sam doubles over laughing to the point of tears. That went so much better than expected.

Dean flails more, scrambling to a sitting position, owlishly studying his hands. It takes him a second to put two and two together.

Slowly, he turns his upper body, giving his brother a dangerously blank look. "I am going to fucking kill you." Granted, some of the heat is burned off by the huge handprint of whipped cream dripping off of his chin.

Sam leaps back a step, palms out. "I couldn't help it!" He defends himself for the sake of it, voice filled with false contrition. "I'm still young and have poor impulse control!"

"You're twenty-three! You're just an obnoxious little brother!" Dean corrects, stomping to the kitchen for a dish towel. He scrubs the sticky fluff off of his hands and arms. "If you used all of the whipped cream, I really will kill you."

Grinning, Sam asks slyly, "why? Was it to put on your waffles, or Cas?"

Dean whips around and Sam takes flight on pure instinct. But despite being taller with longer legs, Dean is faster, and Sam only makes it to the second floor landing before he's tackled and the pair of them hit the hallway floor in a vicious pile of wrestling limbs.

"You sure you wanna start this with me?" Dean grunts as he manhandles Sam into an impressive headlock.

Gasping for air and pounding Dean's forearm, Sam realizes that he does actually want to start this. It's been a long time since there haven't been any eggshells for either of them to walk on. "Yes, I do, you loser!" he chokes with the last of the air in his lungs.

Dean hauls him up and flips him over in a dizzying rush, pinning Sam to the floor and hovering menacingly. "You can never win against me." Then he sucks in a wet breath, and Sam feels the horror of a seven year old creep over him as Dean very slowly, let's a huge, disgusting line of spit dangle out of his mouth until it's an inch away from Sam's nose.

Sam doesn't move a muscle. Frozen solid. The most solid of solids. Nothing is more solidified that Samuel Henry Winchester. "This round is yours," he mumbles barely moving his lips.

Dean sucks the loogie back up with a triumphant grin. "Goddamn right it is."

With a final hard pat to Dean's arm, Sam is released and scrambles to his feet. "I can't believe you can still do that. It's so gross."

"I know," Dean grins. "Wasn't sure I could. You got lucky."

"Noted," Sam answers, grimacing. "Why can't your mysophobia extend to that, too?"

Dean laughs. "Because nothing can overcome an older brother's desire for vengeance."

"Of course not," Sam says flatly. "Anyway, I'm gonna get my stuff and head out." He unlocks his door and then whips back around. "Rooms are off limits to pranks!"

Dean shrugs. "No shit. House rules are sacred, man."

Sam nods, satisfied with that, and leaves Dean to the rest of his nap, or whatever he has planned, and fills his small travel duffel with extra clothes and his toiletries for what he expects will be a fairly messy weekend since, at the very least, they're going back to Splatter. There's still time before he has to leave, so he joins Dean for dinner before departing into the great unknown of having a real social life that doesn't revolve around getting high and staring at a wall for hours. Maybe anything would be an improvement over that, but he's gone past the need for improvement to measurable fun and lasting healthy friendships. It's an awesome feeling. One for the books.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Gabriel is the first to arrive at Charlie's sleepover. He'd been a little bit surprised by her offer at first, but she'd insisted that he should come since he was awesome, and Sam was going to be there. And since flattery gets everyone everywhere with him, he'd agreed, and is presently in charge or ordering more pizzas than an elementary schooler's birthday party. The only rule, nay, law, is that pineapple is banned. Shame, really. Gabriel can appreciate the charm of a Hawaiian pizza. But he follows house rules, so he orders a smorgasbord of everything else imaginable from the local gourmet place on his tab. Supporting local businesses is good for the economy, and excellent pizza is good for the soul.

Charlie is loading up a cooler with beer and soda and says, "I'd really rather we make them all ourselves, but the last time that happened, Dorothy and I were cleaning marinara out of every crevice in the kitchen for like, a month."

Gabriel laughs as he finalizes the order on his phone app. "Yeah, I can see the appeal, but scraping up pizza sauce for the better part of a month ain't worth it. Just barely, but it ain't."

"Amen."

"I promise this shit we're getting is the best possible compromise. You'll never order from anywhere else ever again."

"I'll eat anything I'm not paying for and love it, regardless. I'm not rude."

The doorbell rings and Dorothy yells that she'll answer it since she's in the living room, in charge of mustering up all the pillows and blankets in the house. She's promised the most kickass blanket fort ever.

Ash and Garth have arrived loudly, kicking off their shoes in the entry and stowing their bags by the couch. Ash hauls in the PBR that no one but him will drink just in time for Sam to show up right on the heels of the others.

Gabriel bounces out of the kitchen at that, thrilled to see his main squeeze looking more relaxed than a lifetime of beach vacations. He grins easily and leans down to kiss Gabriel briefly before also tossing his bag near the sofa, as out of the way as he can get it in the narrow-ish townhouse.

"The crowd's all here!" Dorothy announces.

Charlie appears from the kitchen then. "Drinks are in there," she chirps, gesturing behind her. "Pizza will be here in about an hour. Until then, what are we doing?"

"No Truth or Dare!" Dorothy demands. "Hard stop. I'll never recover from the last time."

"You're no fun!" Garth complains, but he's smiling.

"You're the whole reason for the ban," Dorothy reminds him.

Garth crosses his arms over his chest. "Well, you knew I had a whole beer, and you still dared me juggle fireworks!"

"Who woulda done that?" Dorothy demands incredulously. "No one! Not even when they're drunk!"

Everyone else is laughing except Sam, so Gabriel leans into him and murmurs, "the ER visit was so worth it just to see the doctor's face when we explained the burns."

Sam barely catches his own horrified laugh.

"I hate all y'all," Garth gripes, plopping down on the couch.

"You can't hate us yet!" Sam protests. "It's only been, like, five minutes since we got here."

"That's right!" Charlie says. "Okay, fine, let's start off tame. Tapas and video games. Standard party rules. Loser gives up their controller."

The proclamation goes over well. The coffee table is loaded down with junk food, drink orders taken and retrieved, and some seriously hot debates ensue over what games should be played. As it turns out, Charlie has almost every game there is, and prides herself on that. Dorothy, Sam, and Gabriel bow out of the argument since they couldn't care less, but are far more amused to watch Charlie win over Garth by promising he can drink two beers, and Ash is subdued when she threatens to cut off his mullet in his sleep. Mario Kart it is.

They all roll a D20 to determine play order, three at a time to account for the TV screen, with Sam, Gabriel, and Garth coming in last.

Gabriel doesn't seem a bit perturbed by this at all, in fact. He disappears for a minute and then he's back with a shallow plastic tub. "I'm borrowing this," he says to Charlie, shaking it.

She doesn't even turn away from the screen. "If you distract me, I'll kill you, so borrow whatever you want."

Gabriel plants himself facing Sam with a shit eating grin. "Charlie says your favorite colors are green and orange."

Sam looks at the small tote. He sighs. "You can only paint my toenails. I can't be seen with my fingernails painted."

"Don't be sexist," Dorothy laughs.

Ash perks up. "I'll take the fingers. Blue sparkly if they've got any."

Sam yanks off his socks. "I'm serious. It's not a sexist thing. It's a Dean thing. Do you think I'd ever hear the end of it?"

"Point taken," Gabriel says. He digs into the stash for a noisy lime green polish, humming to himself all the while. "At least your feet don't stink!"

"You should do a full pedicure," Dorothy suggests distractedly. "There's a great foot cream in there, too."

"The royal treatment," Gabriel sing-songs. "Can do."

"Did you have to pick the ugliest green in the world?" Sam gripes mildly, but he's unexpectedly distracted by the impromptu foot massage with the lightly scented cream. It feels... really freaking amazing. Almost... arousing. It's not making him hard or doing anything inappropriate in public, but it's... it's something.

Gabriel must catch some sort of weird look on his face because he responds with a weird smile. Sam doesn't recognize it yet, but there's something in it he's not sure he likes. As if he's about to be teased. Instead, though, Gabriel asks, "never had a pedicure, I take it?"

Sam cracks an uneasy grin. "I'm poor. Why would I?"

Breezily, Gabriel answers, "life's pleasures are multitude, and you deserve to experience them all," and he redoubles his foot massage until Sam is slumping back against the couch cushions with a groan that he doesn't even bother to hide since everyone else seems to be so amused by his and Gabriel's antics.

But the guy is skilled. He works his fingers over each toe in turn, digs into the arch, and too easily turns Sam into a 6'4" blob of jello.

"You have extremely nice feet," Gabriel says. "I shoulda known you'd be sexy from top to bottom."

Sam chuckles a little. "I have normal feet."

"Nah," Gabriel traces the points with his miraculous fingers as he talks. "Long toes, but not weird-long. Elegant arches. Nice tendons. You seriously don't do anything with them?"

"I cut the nails," Sam shrugs with one shoulder. "I didn't realize good feet genetics were something people got jealous over."

"Your porn tastes obviously run more general than specific," Gabriel winks.

"If you don't like vanilla, now's the time to say," San says carefully.

"I like vanilla in my coffee and perfectly fine in my sex. That's what porn is for. Spicy stuff." Then he keeps up the foot massage until Sam is so lax he'd let Gabriel do whatever the hell he wanted to his entire body forever and ever, amen.

The rest all whoop their support and then resume yelling at the TV screen until the doorbell rings. Ash valiantly offers to collect the pizzas. It's clear why when he brings them into the living room. He's got two slices stuffed into his mouth before he's even but the boxes down.

"In the kitchen!" Charlie protests, pausing the game. She jumps up and shoves him towards the other room. "Getting pizza grease out of the carpet would take forever." Like adults, they all grab paper plates and napkins with their dinner, but reconvene in the living room after swearing they won't make a mess.

The game stays paused while they curb at least the front end of their hunger.

"Is this how these get-togethers always are?" Sam asks.

"Ain't it grand?" Garth says.

"I can definitely see the appeal."

Charlie giggles. "I love me some good, clean fun! After this, we're setting up the blanket fort and get back to me kicking all your asses at games."

She's not kidding about the good clean fun, either. Sure, they all end up a little drunk and raucous about the video games, and then the board games, and then the movies they watch while painting each other's nails. Sam would be amused by how middle school the slumber party is, but he it's awesome. They cap off the night with mud masks at 3:00 AM, and Sam can't remember the last time he had so much uncomplicated fun.

But after they've washed their faces and changed into pajamas, Sam is yawning and bleary-eyed. Dorothy announces bed time, and pulls a protesting Charlie along up the stairs to their bedroom. The rest of them tally up their Scrabble points for who wind the honor of the guest room, Ash clearly having swept the floor with all of them. Garth folds himself into the recliner by the window with a knitted blanket, lightly snoring almost immediately, leaving Gabriel and Sam to spread out a sleeping bag under the fairy lights in the blanket fort.

Gabriel digs Sam's hand out from under the sleeping bag, kissing his knuckles. "The orange looks great on your fingernails," he whispers.

Sam pushes forward for a light kiss on his lips. "I'm taking it off before I go home," he warns.

Gabriel leans close enough to tap their noses together. "Big scary brother. I get it."

"It isn't my color," Sam murmurs back, kissing Gabriel lightly.

Of course, Gabriel isn't as good about being teased as he is teasing, so he commandeers the kiss straight away. Sam's good at being teased; his while life as a little brother is proof of that, so he parts his lips easily, Gabriel's tongue flicking in for a quick taste before retreating.

He bumps their foreheads together, his regretful sigh ghosting over Sam's wet lips. "If we make out, I'll get all worked up."

Grinning, Sam wiggles closer, hand purposefully on Gabriel's hip. "So?"

Gabriel moves only enough to crane his neck and get a good look at his boyfriend. "Trying to prove you're really not vanilla?"

Sam rolls his eyes. "I kinda am, but who cares? Garth had two beers. He wouldn't wake up if we dropped a nuke next to him. He can't see past the curtain, anyway."

"Your topic of debate was well-documented, and well-thought out," Gabriel says primly.

Grinning harder, Sam dips down to run his finger along the edge of Gabriel's boxer shorts, half over his belly and satisfied with the small moan it earns him. "Yeah, talk teacher to me," he croons. "So hot."

Gabriel snorts, but doesn't brush him off. He snuggles closer, done with teasing apparently because he goes right into Sam's pants, taking his half mast dick in hand.

Sam nearly shouts with surprise, biting his lip hard at the last minute to keep it in. "Fuck you!" He whispers murderously. "Your hand is freezing!"

Gabriel giggles. "Payback."

"For what?! Holy shit, my balls are retreating!"

"No teacher kink!" Gabriel admonishes. "I can't be chubbing up all the damn time when I'm at the podium."

"That would be hilarious," Sam says against Gabriel's neck, rutting against him as hard as is comfortable to warm up Gabriel's damn hands quicker. It doesn't take long. Thankfully. Fuck, that was horribly cold. "But, seriously, dude is it poor circulation or something?"

"Maybe," Gabriel grunts. He pulls them both out fully, stroking them loose and slow.

Sam's eyes flutter shut and he moans. Immediately, another cold hand presses over his mouth along with a soft, "be quiet."

Gently, Sam bites down on Gabriel's palm, hanging on for dear life. This shit is hot. He's never been the type for kink - he hadn't been lying about that - and sure, this is probably super vanilla, but they could get caught. Too loud of a noise that might wake Garth up. Maybe a thump or something that brings Charlie or Dorothy out of bed. Anything. Anyone. He'd hate to be caught. Really embarrassed and he'd have to hide out for like, a solid month, but for the moment, the danger is really doing it for him.

His hand joins Gabriel's smaller one. He marvels at how his long fingers curl perfectly over Gabriel's. He doesn't push them harder, but together.

Gabriel arches his back with a sigh, kissing Sam, biting his lips, murmuring endearments onto his skin.

And clearly both of them are thrilled with the circumstances because Gabriel is inhaling sharply only a couple of minutes later and scrambling with his undershirt to cover their dicks as they come nearly together.

"Oh, my God," Sam whispers, kissing Gabriel again and again.

"You're the greatest," Gabriel giggles.

"Damn right," Sam answers. He yawns. "You fucked me to sleep."

After wiping his hands, Gabriel's fingers find themselves tangling into Sam's hair as he kisses him again and again. "You're very welcome. Sleep sweet, Samshine."

With a grunt and a heave, Sam pulls Gabriel on top of him, cuddling him like an oversized teddy bear. "You too, Gabe."

Chapter Text

It's a lot easier to invite Castiel into his house the second time around. It's not easy easy, but easier, and that's really the best case scenario.

Dean opens the door for him and the early evening breezes in the sunset, Castiel's beaming smile, a jolt of cold air, and something spicier. The spicy gets more pronounced as Castiel brushes by him to remove his shoes and hang his coat up.

"You smell good," Dean says, mouth watering a little more than usual for some reason.

"Thank you," Castiel grins up at him. "I know I'm going to shower it off in a few minutes, anyway, but I figured that I'd make an effort. It's a cedar and cinnamon oil I get from the farmer's market vendor."

"Of course it is," Dean says, trying to sound dry about it, but it does actually smell fucking great. He'd love to bury his nose in Castiel's neck to catch all the high notes and low notes for about an hour while it mellows on his skin. The thought alone sends goosebumps racing up his arms. He's not sure if they're from nerves or years of sexual frustration, but his inability to tell probably means that it's a good thing. He follows along as Castiel, without prompting, goes directly to the kitchen to wash his hands.

The second he turns around, Dean is on him like a freight train, kissing him like there's no tomorrow. Goddamn contentious asshole. What is he supposed to do about this? How is he supposed to keep himself in check around this nerdy hippie dude who just does this shit for them like it's nothing at all? Like it's good? Like it's so good that it's morphed into being important? He doesn't know what to do with all this. It overfills and overflows until he's got his tongue in Castiel's mouth and that man - his goddamn sexy boyfriend - is melting against him like butter at the attention. But he's not pushing. He's not demanding. He's not letting anyone but Dean drive the car.

There's only one problem with it. It's that Castiel doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands. Or more accurately, assuming he can't do anything with his hands.

They're clean, though. They're so clean. No germs, no problem.

"Fucking touch me, Cas," he moans against his mouth.

"Where?" Castiel gasps back.

"Anywhere," Dean says boldly. He's going to regret it. Later. Much later.

Castiel's hands are in his hair. Pressing against his scalp, grabbing hard then relaxing as his body heaves in a huge breath then releases it.

It's incredibly intense for all of two minutes before Castiel draws back, flushed, dazed, breathing heavy. "We don't have to... right this second..."

Dean blinks at him. Mentally tries to shake away the cobwebs. "What?"

"We don't have to jump into the deep end right away."

Dean's eyes narrow. "What are you talking about? You don't wanna make out with me?"

Castiel huffs out an incredulous laugh. "Of course I want to make out with you. I want to do a lot of things to you and with you."

"Then do them," Dean demands, anxiety and a string of impatient anger zinging through him.

"We've got all night," Castiel says gently. "I'm not trying to upset you."

"No, I get that," Dean says, trying to unclench his jaw. "But lemme ask you something. If I had a normal brain, would you be pumping the brakes? Be honest. The only way that either of us do any of this is being honest about it, right?"

"Right," Castiel nods firmly. Face set, he stares at Dean. For a minute it looks like he's carved of stone, but there's a lot going on behind his eyes. Finally, he says, "you're right. If you had been anyone else, I'd have your clothes off and dick in my mouth right this very minute."

Dean sighs, head hanging. "Cas..."

Castiel's hands tighten on his. "But, I also think you're being a little unfair. You have a mental illness. There's obviously nothing wrong with that, but we can't go about this like normal people would. We went over this at the therapy session and everything. I want us to find joy in tonight. There's nothing wrong with having to find it in a different way to make sure that we both love it."

Dean's head hangs lower. "I'm sorry," he mutters.

Castiel leans slightly closer. "For what?"

"For blaming you for me wanting to be normal. I know that ain't gonna happen. I just... I wish it would."

"I'll follow your lead," Castiel says. "But we both have to be comfortable. I'm going to keep checking in, though. I don't want you to suffer any trauma because of me."

Dean scoots forward. They're only a breath away now. "It'll probably happen, but the fact that you're willing to try not to is enough."

Then they're kissing again, both of them satisfied with the small heart-to-heart. It's certainly enough to rekindle the tiny flame they'd built before. It's good. It's so very good. Dean couldn't even dream about having someone's mouth on his; someone's hands on him, even just a year ago. Six months ago. But here he is. Castiel's warmth against him. Tongue in him. It's a goddamn miracle.

And then Castiel is making it better by growling against him.

Then it happens again.

Then it sounds a little bit weird.

Then Castiel is pulling back again, though this time he looks quite sheepish. "I'm so sorry," he mutters.

The noise registers. It wasn't Castiel groaning. It's his stomach growling. Dean laughs. "You hungry?"

"Yes," Castiel says, face getting even redder.

"Sex requires calories," Dean reasons good-naturedly. "I'm actually kinda hungry, too. What do you want?"

"I'm not picky," Castiel assures him, moving back. "Should I have eaten before I came over? We hadn't made dinner plans, but it was kinda early for it, so I..."

"No sweat," Dean assures him. He plants a kiss on Castiel's temple, puts their hands together, and guides them both to the kitchen. "I'm one of those guys who can pretty much eat all the time. I haven't had dinner, either." He opens the fridge. "Seriously, narrow it down for me. We got everything from sandwiches to breakfast food."

"Breakfast for dinner?" Castiel suggests. "I haven't done that in ages. Shall I help?"

Dean grabs the carton of eggs and passes it off with an arch look. "Can you cook?"

Castiel huffs, though there's no real insult in his face. "I live alone. I can cook."

Even more haughty, Dean asks, "can you keep up with me?"

At this, Castiel yields a little bit. "Just give me the least complicated parts, or the parts you'll complain least about."

Dean laughs. "Fair enough. Okay, bacon, eggs... pancakes or waffles?"

"Pancakes."

"Done deal." He puts Castiel in charge of the eggs and bacon while he fires up the griddle and measures out the pancake mix. They lapse into silence, and though it's not exactly awkward, Dean finds his head kind of full. Questions, concerns, random bits of anxiety that flit through and are gone before he can catch them. "What was your ex-wife like?" he asks, immediately regretting the intrusive question.

But Castiel just smiles from over by the stove where he's rolling the sleeves of his sweater up. He begins breaking eggs into a bowl before answering. "She's still alive, so we can talk about her in present tense," he says slyly.

Dean's lip pulls to the side in an embarrassed smirk. "We don't have to talk about her at all. Not even sure where the random question came from."

Castiel shrugs. "She's a part of my past, and very occasionally a part if my present, so unless it bothers you, I'm fine with speaking about it. Our divorce wasn't entirely amicable at the time, but we've both come to an understanding about it now."

"What happened?" Dean asks, eyes on the griddle now that he's put down some of the mix to cook. Donna would see the avoidance of eye contact for what it is, but Castiel either doesn't, or is willing to roll with it.

"Amelia didn't want me to open my cafe. She couldn't understand why I would want to quit a perfectly respectable and good paying job to risk our livelihood on a maybe. Especially because coffee shops are a dime a dozen these days, and there's no way to out-sell Starbucks."

Dean tilts his head from side to side. "I mean, opening a business is a huge risk. Time, money, and most businesses go under in a year or two. Sometimes that leaves the person even worse off than before."

"I know," Castiel agrees. "That's why I had a thorough business plan. I put most of the financial burden on myself. Her salary was plenty to sustain us should I have failed, and end up job hunting again. It was all very practical." He pauses moving the scrambled eggs around the pan to stare into the middle distance for a moment. Then he shakes himself out of it and moves the eggs to a serving bowl before turning the heat up and starting on the bacon.

"We fought a lot. No matter how practical I was about it, she was convinced that I was having a mental breakdown leading to a midlife crisis. Never mind that I was only in my twenties. I just..." Both shoulders shrug up and then down. "We had conflicting ideas of what happiness and fulfillment were. She measured them by her paycheck and her position in her company and the house and where we went on vacation. Liking her job never factored in for her. It sustained the lifestyle she wanted, and that was good enough for her."

"It's not for everyone," Dean surmises. "I can understand that. The other side, too, I guess."

"I agree. I understood her point of view. And few people have the luxuries that I've been given financially. Stable income and a home before I was thirty. However, her way wasn't for me. There wasn't anything wrong with my job," Castiel concedes. "It's just that it wasn't something I loved, and I got depressed. I'd wanted to run my own business since I was a kid. That's why I explored accounting and business management when I was in school. Maybe I couldn't make as much money as I used to. Maybe I wouldn't succeed at all. Maybe it wouldn't make me happy in the end, either. But, living with that regret forever? I couldn't do that."

"So... divorce."

"Yes," Castiel sighs. "There were other problems, too, but that was the biggest hurdle we simply couldn't get over. She stuck to her guns that I was having a breakdown, and wanted me to go to therapy and get on medication. We separated, got ourselves in order, and eventually agreed that divorce was the only way. It all worked out, though. And she and I are friendly. We both celebrate each other's happiness. No hard feelings."

"That's good," Dean smiles. He turns off the griddle and brings his creation to the table. Castiel follows with the eggs and bacon shortly thereafter while Dean digs out plates, glasses, and silverware. "I'm glad it all worked out."

"There are ups and downs, but I'm happy, and that's what life is all about."

Dean raises his glass of orange juice in cheers, and Castiel taps the rims together. "Life's short. Live it while you can." He grins breezily. "Plus, you met me, so that's the biggest win."

Castiel laughs. "That's a definite huge bonus," he says teasingly.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Despite the somewhat awkward start, dinner eases into a nice atmosphere. Castiel plays a lovely game of footsie under the table that makes Dean smile and laugh a little at the pure childishness of it. They talk idly of work, of the week they've had, of their plans for the following week, or the lack thereof. Castiel expresses a desire to go to the farmer's market to see if there's anyone he might be able to partner up with to sell some of their artisanal items at his store.

"Oh," Dean says. "Like the honey and the paintings you have the local artists hang up to sell, right?"

"Exactly," Castiel smiles. "Small businesses need to stick together. These days, it's really hard for people to open their own business. No capital, no collateral, no ability to get a loan. The economy sucks. It's harder than ever for people. I was lucky that I'd had a job with benefits that allowed me to save up enough only require a smaller loan. I'm not sure if I can do much, but I like to help as much as I can. Some of these people have amazing products, but an inability to secure a storefront. I can at least do something small like giving them a physical space."

"I think that's awesome," Dean beams. "I can't pretend to be some sort of do-gooder myself. It's hard enough taking care of Number One, right? But people like you? People who honestly love people and wanna help? It's a pretty unforgiving world out there. Acts of kindness are incredible."

 

Castiel laughs. "That sounds like something Donna would say."

He shrugs, stuffing his mouth. "It probably was. I feel like half my brain belongs to Jody and Donna at this point. I think I channel them sometimes. It's a weird kind of telepathy. That's what therapy does after a few years, in case you were wondering."

Castiel laughs harder. "They do know your brain better than anyone else besides you."

"Oh, you don't need to be nice about it. They probably know me better than me most days."

"Maybe they did," Castiel allows, "though I don't think it's true anymore. They weren't shy about telling you how far you've come in the last five years."

"Guess so." Dean's smile fades to something much smaller and warmer as he allows himself to sink into the praise. All the more when his brain doesn't fight him to think of a way to deny what Castiel is saying to him. A way to deflect the compliment. This time, he allows himself to have it.

"Thank you," Castiel says, apropos of nothing.

"For?"

"Supporting my dream," Castiel answers in that light way that indicates huge weight.

Dean drops his fork onto his empty plate. "Cas, I'm a huge supporter of trying to be happy." He taps his forehead. "This slimy glob of jello up here? It doesn't often like me to have that. So when someone says they're chasing the dream or whatever? To me, that's hardcore shit. It's really fucking brave. One thing you neurotypicals like to take for granted is how hard it can be to move forward every day. The bar might feel easier to get over for you, but that don't mean it ain't there."

Castiel's eyes widen. "I suppose..." his lips purse in a pleasingly thoughtful manner that draws Dean's eyes immediately. Then the killer smile blooming. "You're right. It can certainly take less conscious effort on my part, but that doesn't make it any less significant. Or brave."

"Where were you ten years ago when I needed this the most?" Castiel says fondly.

Dean winks. "I like to be fashionably late."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Cleaning the dishes also turns out to be more fun than Dean's used to having doing something so mundane. He can admit to a lot of anxiety and even a little trepidation at the thought of the rest of their evening plans, but it's not overwhelming. It's barely even distracting. At the very least, it doesn't make him regret eating something.

When they're done scrubbing the pans and loading the dishwasher, Dean takes Castiel's hand, gently tugging him away and towards the stairs. His boyfriend definitely follows willingly enough, but he can physically feel the tension building, as well as Castiel's quickening pulse under his fingers.

And rather than brushing it aside, Dean murmurs, "you as nervous as I am?"

He doesn't turn to look over his shoulder, but as easily as he felt the tension, he can feel the release of some of it now. "Yes," Castiel admits. "It's the good kind of nervous, though."

Dean smiles to himself. Yeah, for now he feels the same way. So he leads the way into the bedroom, to the center of the room, and he pauses. Still facing away. Still assuring himself that the palm sweat and the racing heartbeat are nerves and not a panic attack. Deep breaths in and out.

After a minute, Castiel's hand never leaving, he asks softly, "shall we take a shower?"

Dean turns slowly. Drinks in the sight of the man standing in front of him. Willing to go through all of this with him. It's a fucking miracle.

But he also knows what Castiel is implying and that's... it just can't happen. "Um... you could... first."

"Of course," he answers smoothly. Then with an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes, asks, "do you mind if I undress here?"

Dean swallows so hard that his throat clicks. "You... yeah... you can... yeah."

Grinning slyly, Castiel whips off his sweater. There's nothing particularly sweet or sexy about the way he undresses, but his gaze doesn't leave Dean's for a second. For all he's looking like he's just removing his clothes the way that he always does at home on his own, the eye contact is intense, and Dean is into it.

Totally into it. He can feel his whole body heating as his dick starts to swell under the zipper of his jeans. The most unsexy sexy strip show ever is right in front of him.

Castiel must be doing it on purpose because a slow smile starts to creep over his face. "I was wondering if this would work."

Dean clears his throat and crosses his arms over his chest. "Are you..." he clears his throat again against the embarrassing crack. "You're doing this on purpose?"

"Yes," Castiel grins. "I have absolutely no rhythm or anything, so this is the best you're ever going to get." He undoes the button on his jeans, slowly working them down. "Also, there's no way to be sexy about removing socks."

Dean laughs. He covers his mouth to keep it down. "Sorry. But... you're so weird, and I'm digging it."

"I believe you told me on day one that it was part of my appeal."

"True."

All that's left is his Henley as Castiel straightens back up. At his leisure, Dean watching the flex of Castiel's thighs when he straightens. Damn, he's hot. "Yoga's responsible for all this?" he asks, waving his arm vaguely in Castiel's direction.

"Running and yoga," Castiel says casually, lifting his shirt up and off, revealing abs, firm pecks, and a small smattering of hair that dusts from his bellybutton down to his dick. It's a fine dick. A beautiful dick. Not fully hard yet, but getting there. "See you in a few minutes." Then he's disappearing into the bathroom. He doesn't shut the door so the sound of water rushes in uninterrupted.

And Dean is left alone. With his thoughts. That's usually bad news, except tonight... he has no thoughts. None. The after image of Castiel's naked body lines back of his eyelids, the taste of his tongue lingers, and the smell of that perfect hippie cologne. It's his undoing.

Quick as he can, Dean shoves and yanks his clothes off and storms the bathroom.

Castiel looks surprised to see him, but he's just rinsing himself off, which means he's clean. He's very, very clean.

With a groan, Dean makes a grab, hauling Castiel against him and kissing him like there's no tomorrow. There might not be at this rate. People don't survive this kind of stuff. They just don't.

There's so much joy in this connection. He didn't know there could be. Castiel simply radiates it. It's not about the actual orgasm to him. In fact, it's probably not even in his top five. He wants to be close. To touch. What he wants.

Castiel is ginning, laughing, as he pushes Dean back under the spray, but Dean keeps launching himself forward again and again. "Your skin is freezing," he chuckles. "Let's get you clean."

He tries to help, but Dean has his routine and gets to it as fast as possible. Before long, they're done, the water shut off, toweling off. Toweling each other off. Stumbling back into the bedroom. Right into the bed. It's so nice and clean in Dean's head. Castiel has his mouth everywhere. Dean has his mouth everywhere. Warm skin and warmer hands. Skimming his waist and sides.

It's making his heart pound. His hands shake.

It's so much. He's so hard and aching, and it's so much.

It's too much.

He shoves. Castiel falls back against the pillows with a small cry of surprise, and Dean nearly falls off the edge of the bed.

"What's going on?" Castiel asks breathlessly.

Dean curls in on himself, brain finally slamming into full gear. It's too much. There's too much. It's so much touching. Kissing. Germs. Fucking dirt and bodily fluids. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. He startles when a hand touches his shoulder.

"Dean?"

"I wanna fuck you," Dean groans miserably, hands fisted in his wet hair. "I wanna fuck you so bad, Cas, do you understand that?"

Castiel tilts his head to the side. "Um... I do. I did? I'm... up until a minute ago, I did. Dean, what's going on? Do we need to talk? I think we should talk." Carefully, hands up like calming a wounded animal, Castiel side steps to the bed. Dean watches him with his heart breaking. "Is it okay that I'm sitting here?"

"Yeah," Dean croaks, voice crackling with emotion. "I'm so goddamn sorry about this."

Castiel's open gaze suddenly hardens. "Don't you dare apologize. You've got nothing to apologize for."

Dean spreads his arms, feeling ridiculous. And naked both mentally and physically. "I've got everything to apologize for, man. I invited you here, started this whole... thing, and now? Aren't I giving you whiplash or something?"

Unconsciously like he's physically felt the whiplash, Castiel rubs the back of his neck. "A little," he admits slowly.

Dean goes down on his knees in front of Castiel, face upturned in supplication. "And you're not mad?"

"No." Castiel shakes his head, a wry smile on the lips Dean had been okay kissing five fucking minutes ago, what the hell is the matter with him? "I'll never be mad with you for being honest with me. That's what I said from the beginning, right? Honesty never makes me angry."

A huge breath out deflates Dean, head hanging now. "I thought... I thought it'd be okay. Because you're awesome, Cas. You've been awesome this whole time. I thought it'd be okay. It was supposed to be okay. It felt okay."

Hesitantly, Castiel reaches out and touches Dean's chin, urging his head back up. "It'll be fine. If you're not ready to have sex... if you're never ready to have sex, that's okay."

Rocking back on his heels, Dean falls back on his ass. Scoffing, he says bitterly, "sure, it's okay. My body, my rules, whatever they are is o-fucking-kay. That doesn't mean it is with you."

"Now I'm angry," Castiel says. And he looks it, a little bit. "Don't presume anything about my body or feelings."

Dean's own hackles rise in response to the agitation. "Seriously? You're gonna sit there and tell me you're cool with just holding hands and light making out forever? If I can never get over this part of my crazy?"

"You're not crazy!" Castiel shouts suddenly. Dean jumps at the sudden outburst. Castiel's eyes immediately soften, lips thinning in guilt. His fists ball in his lap, though. He sounds far too calm when he says, "I apologize. I don't mean to yell. But I can't allow you to say those things about yourself. Nor can I allow you to lash out and assume things about me to protect yourself. It's unfair."

"I know," Dean agrees, voice barely there. "Don't let me keep screwing up."

"I won't," Castiel says with the smallest hint of warmth returning to his voice. "You being able to handle yourself isn't my problem. Me being able to handle you is. And, Dean?" He pauses, waiting until Dean is able to look up and meet his eyes. "I can handle you. I wouldn't have entered into a relationship with you otherwise. If it means never having the sexual component, I'm okay with that. To me..." His eyes turn up towards the ceiling. The smile never leaves. "To me, you're worth far more than your body. I'd never find sex to be more important than just having you any way that I could." He glances back down, easily meeting Dean's shocked gaze again. "I'm in love with you. That's the only thing that matters. If you let me have that, the rest is incidental. It always was."

Hands shaking, Dean reaches forward. Castiel's confident grip meets him halfway. A soft, "c'mere," is the only warning before Dean gives a tug that sends Castiel sliding off of the bed and straight into his lap. His hands shoot out to brace himself on Dean's shoulders, but when he moves to pull back immediately, Dean heaves himself up to a fuller sitting position, wraps his arms around Castiel's torso, and arches his chin up for a kiss.

Castiel threads his fingers into Dean's hair, holding him closely as he raises up onto his knees, Dean stretched out below him, but Castiel holding his own weight up so he doesn't pin him.

Amenable to that, Dean deepens the kiss head tilting to the side. Castiel's lips part for him immediately and Dean swipes his tongue inside, quick and more than an little squeamish, but he wants to get over it. He wants this so badly he can't stand it.

Get out of my head!

Get out of my damn head!

Get out of my goddamn head!

Hands sliding down his neck to press against his chest, stall him abruptly. "Dean."

"Cas," Dean gasps, snapping back to himself. He didn't realize his breathing had become so ragged, and not in the good way.

"We can stop," Castiel says softly.

Dean grabs hard at Castiel's forearms. "No, I don't want that," he insists quickly. "I just gotta... get outta my head."

Castiel rests his weight back on his shins to put them on a more even height. "Kissing you is amazing."

Dean huffs a strangled laugh. "What the fuck."

"Your lips are magical," he says wistfully.

The laugh bubbles in his chest, but not enough to actually make it out. "You're so full of shit."

"Not even." He touches the tips of his fingers to his bottom lip. "I can still feel it. How do you keep them so soft?"

Dean shrugs. "Burt's Bees? I dunno, man." He crawls to the nightstand draw and grabs his Xanax. Shakes one into his palm and takes it dry. Then he gets back to his former position next to his boyfriend. He pulls his legs up, draping his arms over his knees. "It's the only stuff that works in the winter here when I'm working outside all day. I hate it when I yawn and it gives me like, four different cracks, y'know?"

Castiel laughs. "Very true. Your skin must get quite dry all over being outside all day. What moisturizer do you use?" He offers his hand.

Dean takes it without thinking. "Sam buys it. He loves all that research shit, so he knows all that crap about what's the best, and won't cause cancer or whatever he's worried about."

"Smart."

Dean gazes down at their joined hands. "Huh." He watches them some more. Then he smiles gently. "I know what you're trying to do, and it's working."

"Good," Castiel smiles right back, not shying away. "It's calming you down. And I like being able to help."

"Gotta hand it to you; you've got a gift. Talking about liking my body in a way that won't make me feel even more disgusting."

"Should I stay here tonight, or go home?"

"Stay here," Dean answers firmly. Immediately. There's silence for a minute. "Hey. Are you okay? How bad did I freak you out?"

"Confused, not freaked," Castiel corrects. "I mean it, Dean. I'm happy with how things are turning out. You've done everything for me tonight, so let's do the rest of the evening for you. How would you like to spend the rest of the night?"

"Cheap date," Dean murmurs. Before he can panic worse now that it's subsiding, he wraps his arm Castiel's shoulder and drags them into the bed. All the way up to the pillows. Scoots them under the covers. "I want to cuddle. I want to sleep."

Castiel curls against him, letting Dean arrange his body in any way that he wants. Once settled, he says, "lucky for you, I'm good at both of those things.

Dean reaches away just long enough to flip the bedside lamp off. "You're amazing, Cas. Good night."

"Good night."

Chapter Text

When Sam wakes up he feels fucking great. It surprises him a bit. He's never been good about sleeping on the floor. He has a old man's back, so he'd been expecting to get up with a lot of creaking and groaning. However, the sleeping bag appears to have saved him. He's warm and cozy, wrapped around Gabriel, who is pressed against him tightly and snoring softly. Sam shifts his shoulder back a little bit so that Gabriel's nose un-squashes from his armpit and the snoring stops. It makes him smile. He's such a dope falling in love. Everything about it feels good. His arm is asleep, and he does have a small twinge in his neck, but it barely registers to the quiet way his heart warms with affection for the whole situation.

He wants to stay like this forever. Or, he does until Gabriel shifts on the pillow, treating Sam to a face full of his hair.

He sneezes forcefully, waking Gabriel up with a start.

Bleary hazel eyes crack open to glare at him.

"Sorry," Sam murmurs sheepishly, voice rough with sleep.

"It can't possibly be time to wake up."

Sam grabs his cell phone from behind his head, squinting at the screen's brightness as he confirms the time. "Not if you don't wanna, but it's definitely morning."

Gabriel groans, flopping over top of Sam to pin him. "Mornings are for students and people with good personalities."

Sam smiles, raking his hand through Gabriel's hair and giving him a scalp massage to hopefully ease away some of the grump. It appears to work in short order. "Some mornings I even go running."

"Jesus Christ," Gabriel mutters against Sam's t-shirt. "People like you actually exist."

"Maybe you're still asleep."

"Gotta be."

"I smell coffee."

Gabriel groans piteously. "My money's on Charlie. She seems like the same kind of damnable morning person that you are."

Sam laughs softly. "I told you; it's Saturday. You can hang around in the blanket fort all you want."

"I don't wanna lose my pillow," Gabriel grouches. "Or my magic fingers. That shit usually costs a dollar."

Sam redoubles his scalp massage with an eye roll. "At least I'm useful."

"And sexy."

"Well, duh, that's a given. You're sexy, too."

"Duh," Gabriel answers, a smile tinging his voice.

Garth's exhausted voice filters through their bubble. "No sexy. No sex, y'all. The coffee's not even done yet."

"Ain't putting on a show," Gabriel answers.

"Morning sex sucks," Sam adds. "It's early and I have no energy, and then afterwards I end up falling asleep again, and then my sleep schedule gets screwed up, and then I have insomnia..."

"I get it, you're a square," Gabriel says. "Shall we see about that coffee?"

"We shall," Garth pipes in.

Sam allows a short kiss and then they're groaning and stretching out the kinks as they crawl out of the blanket fort.

"At least we're not all super hungover," Garth says cheerfully.

"That's tomorrow morning after the club," Sam grins.

Sure enough, Charlie is in the kitchen brewing coffee in a huge coffee maker.

"Did you rob a restaurant for this thing?" Sam comments, going for one of the mugs she's lined up on the counter. It's a black mug with Captain America's shield on it. Classic.

Charlie grins over her shoulder. "Ebay, baby! Trust me, it's necessary or neither Dorothy nor I would finish college. Doesn't even matter how long she sleeps, if she hasn't had like, three cups, she won't wake up. I'm not much better."

"I get that," Sam yawns.

"You're a fucking liar," Gabriel adds, sliding in around Sam to grab a bright purple mug with a smiling sunshine on it. "The second you woke up you were speaking coherently."

"A rare breed of college student," Charlie teases, knocking her shoulder against Gabriel's.

Sam shrugs, adding non-dairy creamer and a tiny bit of sugar to his coffee. "Maybe just give it some time. I've only been back for part of a semester. I'm the kind of person who drags as the day goes on."

Charlie snaps her fingers. "That's right! I remember at the beginning of the semester when you were sitting outside the student center looking all lost puppy, so I bought you pity coffee." She opens the fridge to start pulling out a couple of breakfast platters.

Sam and Garth move to help her as she shoves condiments and trays into their hands. It's a really nice spread. Fruit and jams, crepes, two bowls of what looks like homemade whipped cream, and there's sliced whole grain bread already on the table.

"You made extra cream," Gabriel grins as he pulls the plastic wrap off of the two bowls.

"After last time? You bet your butt I did," Charlie quips. She deposits the plates, serving spoons, and cutlery onto the table and they all sit together. "I made one the normal way, and then one with the coconut creme with honey, too." She points between them.

"I love you," Gabriel sighs, going immediately for a crepe and the coconut creme.

"I know," she answers breezily.

Ash and Dorothy are the last to shuffle in, both still looking almost completely asleep. They go straight to the coffee maker side by side and pour their cups, joining everyone at the table without a single word.

Charlie kisses Dorothy on the temple, earning her a palm to the face shoving her away in a move that appears like a normal routine.

Garth ruffles Ash's mullet and receives no response.

They barely talk through breakfast, but it's nice. They fill each other's plates with the things they can't reach, and eat companionably. It's one of the most peaceful mornings in Sam's memory, and he loves every second of it.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Dean's not sure whether he can't move, or whether he doesn't want to. He'd fallen asleep big spooning Castiel, and apparently neither of them are wigglers, because they've woken up in the exact same position. His arm is crossed over Castiel's ribs, palm held loosely against his chest so that he can feel the even rise and fall of his chest as well as the warm puffs of breath on his fingers.

His heart is thundering, and it makes him pretty glad that he's woken up first because for as tolerant as Castiel has been, no one should have to deal with waking up to someone else's panic attack.

He does his best to remain still, but his stomach is roiling with nerves and he's starting to sweat.

Calm down, he tells himself. Breathe. There's nothing scary about this. You wanted this.

He has no idea how to talk himself down in this particular situation. The only course of action is retreat. Slowly, he tries to extract himself, arching away and painstakingly dragging his arm out from under Castiel's.

The movement stirs his sleeping boyfriend, though, and Castiel makes a small snuffling snort, rolls onto his back, and promptly starts snoring like a chainsaw.

Dean's eyes widen to saucers. Castiel does not stop snoring.

It's worse than Sam when his allergies are bad.

Momentarily distracted away from his mounting anxiety, Dean bites his bottom lip to keep in the laughter because holy shit. On a new mission now, he carefully rolls over and grabs his cellphone from the end table charger.

He proceeds to record a twenty second video of the swine orchestra beside him, and murmurs, "thank you, God for this bountiful gift," before shutting it off. Then he puts his phone back and props himself up on his elbow to stare down at Castiel.

The whole right side of his face is covered in pillow creases. Half of his hair is matted to his forehead, the other half a mess of static. His mouth is wide open to the world as he contentedly saws logs.

Dean reaches out and pinches Castiel's nose.

The snoring does not stop, it simply transfers down to the mouth.

He pushes Castiel's head to the side.

The racket continues.

Dean tackles Castiel, bodily rolling him back onto his side and effectively waking him up.

The snoring is replaced with an absolutely sullen, "what the hell?"

Dean grins. "'Morning, sunshine."

Castiel knocks his shoulder up, wiggling underneath Dean to shove him back. "Don't do this to me. Don't be a morning person. I liked you so much up until this very second," he gripes.

Dean laughs right into Castiel's ear. "Says the dude who wakes up at like, five to work in a coffee shop."

"I never said I was happy about it."

"Speaking of which... you're not gonna get in trouble, are you? It's already eight."

Castiel glares bleakly at Dean's desk clock. "No," he clips. "I've given my assistant manager more weekend time. She's happy for the extra hours and I trust her."

Dean cuddles up to Castiel's back again just for the joy of getting shoved away a second time. "More for me, then."

"I hate mornings," Castiel says as though he honestly needs to clarify.

Dean's having the time of his life. "You sure do. Want some coffee? I'm buying. I'll even bring it to you in bed."

For the first time, Castiel deigns to soften a little. He turns towards Dean, eyebrows raised in question and chin tilted up.

Dean kisses him lightly. Then he pushes out of the bed, stretching hard.

Castiel makes a noise behind him but Dean won't turn around to show him his smile. "Now, that is a wonderful sight first thing in the morning. There might be something to early rising, after all." He pauses. "Pun unintended."

Dean laughs and digs into his dresser for boxer shorts. Sam won't be home, but even so he's always felt weird wandering outside of his room naked. "You can sleep again for about twenty minutes. I'll be right back."

He listens to Castiel shuffle back under the covers with a piteous moan as he exits his room and trudges down the stairs. It's amazing how Castiel, just by being his natural self, can make Dean launch from panic to happiness in seconds. He's a goddamn human SSRI. Or, really, just one of those people who can diffuse a bomb in less than a minute. Of course, to be fair to the both of them, it's not why Dean's keeping him around, but it's one of the myriad of reasons that he's falling in love without it terrifying him. Castiel isn't scared off by his moods and his compulsions. He's not an enabler, and he's learning when he needs to stand his ground and challenge Dean's issues, and when he needs to keep to a softer touch.

Only Sam has been so talented at it up until now.

It's getting easier to fall in love every day.

It's good.

He's... actually happy. Right here and now, he's really goddamn happy.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Having days where nothing happens are rare and really appealing. Sam sticks with his friends. After breakfast they all dress for a day out, and nothing is lacking.

In fact, from Sam's perspective, time flies.

Charlie is a pro at staying away from the weekend crowds so that they can all be together and as rowdy as they please. There's more coffee and then bowling and then a throwaway action movie at the cinema with terrible popcorn. That's followed up by shopping, a late lunch, and Gabriel bowing out to get ready for his shift at the club. They agree to meet there again at ten.

From there, it's back to Charlie and Dorothy's house where the promised fireworks are brought up from the basement to the back lawn right after sundown. Charlie appears with a bucket of water and slams it onto the porch with a pointed glare of warning at Ash.

He simply shrugs and continues to shove piles of bottle rockets into the ground and tie the fuses together.

"Please don't burn their beautiful old house down," Sam pleads as he helps because he's a fucking sucker.

"Like I would," Ash scoffs. "Why would you accuse me of such nefarious things?"

Sam sits back on his heels, studying his friend. "Hmm. You know, it's because it's impossible to get a good read on you. I feel like if I ever betrayed you, there'd be a lot of trouble finding my body afterwards."

Ash stares at him silently for a full minute. His expression is so impressively blank that Sam has no clue whether he's insulted the guy or not. But then Ash laughs and smacks Sam's shoulder so hard that it knocks him over. "Nice of ya to say, buddy! This is why everyone likes you! You give the nicest compliments."

"I also can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not."

"Part of my charm," Ash winks. "Not bein' sarcastic, either. You get me. I like that." He finishes tying off the fuses and then brushes his knees as he stands up. "All righty, let's light this puppy and make some magic!"

"Away from the tree line!" Charlie hollers from the porch.

"I'm not an amateur!" Ash yells back. He clicks on a grill lighter, taps the flame to the fuse, and then shoves Sam back several steps with him.

The bottle rockets go off nearly in tandem, save for one dud that just fizzes out and falls over. The rest pepper the dark sky with pops and sparkles of blue, red, green, and white. Ash whoops and moves down the line of carefully arranged Roman candles, more bottle rockets, and a couple more substantial tubes that probably aren't strictly legal.

Dorothy runs down to the lawn, twirling four sparklers, Charlie following shortly now that she's confident they won't have to call the fire department.

The cheering and merrymaking only goes on for about ten minutes, but it feels like an entire Fourth of July display by the time it's over. In fact, they can hear distant clapping from some of their neighbors down the street.

"That was awesome!" Garth enthuses as he begins to pick up the remnants of the fireworks and drop them in the water bucket to cool off before throwing them away.

"Yeah," Sam agrees wistfully. "I don't think I've seen fireworks up close... gosh, since I was a kid and Dean and I nearly burned a field down with them."

"That's what childhood is all about!" Charlie laughs. "Property damage!"

Dorothy scoops up the used sparklers. "Let's have some snacks and get going. I'm ready to party!"

Everyone shouts their agreement, tumbling back inside to finish off the fruit trays from the morning as well as some other snacks they hadn't demolished the night before.

Afterwards they pile into two cars and make their way to Splatter, arriving just a few minutes after ten. It sounds like the club is already in full weekend swing.

For a moment Sam pauses behind his friends on the sidewalk, peering up at the club's sign. He smiles. "Great day," he murmurs before following everyone in.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

"What do you usually do on your lazy days off?" Castiel muses from the mound of pillows he's stuffed behind himself, comforter pulled almost up to his chin. Only his hands poke out far enough to accept the cup of coffee Dean hands him.

"Similar to what you're doing now," Dean admits with a fond smile. "Hang out in bed, watch Netflix, ignore the rest of the world."

"That surprises me," Castiel answers, lifting the mug up high so nothing spills as Dean flops back into the bed beside him. "You seem like a man of action to me. Like someone who'd get awfully bored doing nothing."

Dean shrugs, sipping carefully at his coffee. "Sometimes. Well, okay, I used to be, but man, mental illnesses are exhausting." He tilts his chin up, indicating his room. "Here's my sanctuary. Everything just so, all the time, day or night, rain or shine, right? It's a freaking oasis for a reason. In here, with everything the way I need it to be, I can take a real breath and my brain stops over processing. I can actually relax. Be myself. And since I can only have that for a whole day when I'm not working, well... you get why I don't have many friends anymore. I usually pick this over showing my face elsewhere."

Castiel's lips thin. "I don't enjoy disrupting that for you since it's so important. Everyone needs inner peace."

Dean grins. "No trees to hug in here, hippie."

Castiel scoffs. "I'm trying to be serious."

"No need," Dean assures him. "You're not freaking me out. I'm fine. Dunno why. Exposure therapy or something, but I feel good."

Castiel sets his mug on the night stand then leans towards Dean. "Is that your roundabout way of asking me to spend the night more often?"

Dean leans in as if for a kiss, but instead of giving Castiel what he's clearly asking for, sticks his cellphone up between them and presses play.

Castiel goes cross eyed for a second. He leans back with a scowl. "What the hell," he grumbles for the second time in thirty minutes.

With a lusty sigh, Dean explains, "this is my most treasured possession now." It's easy to play keep away with Castiel trying to swipe the phone out of hand since he's had decades of practice with Sam. "You should go to an ENT and have that snoring checked out."

"I'm going to kill you," Castiel counters, half laughing, half mortified.

"'Ode to Memory Foam.' What key is your nose whistle? G?"

"I hate you and I'm good at using knives."

"Aw, don't say that, sweetheart! You can't threaten me when I'm the one with the blackmail material."

Castiel swipes again for the phone, misses, and plows over Dean's lap, still flailing for the phone. "Erase that video," he grunts. "I want a divorce."

Dean flips the phone back onto his nightstand, barely missing his coffee cup, and grabs Castiel in his arms, pulling him up and kissing him hard. After a minute, Castiel goes limp against him, kissing back with fervor. "Divorce?" Dean murmurs.

"You're so manipulative," Castiel answers, not pulling away an inch.

"Love it when you talk dirty," Dean growls.

"Insult," Castiel corrects, just as low, climbing further into Dean's lap, shoving Dean's boxers away. "I was insulting you."

"Love it," Dean repeats. "Be mean to me."

Castiel whips away the covers, straddling Dean. "Are you a masochist?"

Dean's broad hands sweep up Castiel's back, making his spine arch pleasingly. "Maybe a little."

Castiel groans at that, falling down into Dean's neck, biting hard once, kissing the spot.

Dean's fingers tangle into Castiel's hair and yank.

Castiel's head snaps back and he moans beautifully, eyes half closed in bliss, flushed down to his chest.

Jesus. Dean's dick throbs almost painfully at the sight of Castiel just... lost in this. This thing between them. Some false starts. Some confusion. Some doubt. Some fear. For the first time in his life, Dean is actually able to internalize the irrationality of his fear. How badly he doesn't want it right now. Intellectually, he's always been able to understand that most of his fears are absolutely, catastrophically irrational. But he's never been able to truly feel it within himself. There's always been that sliver of what if that's plagued him into compliance or else.

But here? Now? Castiel is on him, breathless and gorgeous and hard and waiting, and Dean slams the door on his fear. Just give me a minute, he begs. Just give me this. "Condoms," he gasps. "Wanna... God, fuck, condoms."

Blindly, Castiel's hand smacks down on the end table, scrambling for the drawer when Dean can't seem to pull away. He gets his hands on them in almost no time, very nearly slapping Dean in the face with the box.

Dean rips the box away with trembling fingers, pulls two out. He does manage to accidentally hit Castiel on the cheek with one, though. "Sorry," he breathes. "I'm kinda... worked up. These your size?"

"They're fine," Castiel assures him, just as breathless. "Gimme." He rips the foil off and rolls the latex over his dick with an almost drunken sigh of relief. "Lubed. You are an excellent planner."

Dean laughs a shaky sound as he gets himself situated. "Definitely a strength of mine. Okay, I'm ready, just... need you to... want you to - ah, fuck yeah."

Castiel's hand closes around the base of his cock then drags up with long, slow pull.

Instinctively, Dean reaches out for Castiel, left hand bringing him closer, right hand circling his dick, jacking him off to the tempo that Castiel has set.

It's fast and dirty when they both get a rhythm going. Castiel tries kissing him for a minute or two, then gives up to simply gasp lovely sounds of pleasure past Dean's parted lips.

Dean favors filthy encouragement; a litany of, "faster, Cas, don't stop, make me come just like that," along with a few choice swear words sprinkled in.

On a regular day, it might have been embarrassing how quickly both of them seize up, orgasms swelling over them one after the other, but after last night, Dean at least, marks it down as long overdue release.

Castiel slumps against him, hot, heaving breaths dampening Dean's neck. "That was..." he groans, voice scattering gravel. "Dean, I'm... hnn."

"Yeah," Dean sighs, fingers combing through Castiel's sweat-dampened hair gently now. "Me, too." He doesn't mind staying just like this for a while. He wants to stay like this for a while. He holds Castiel tighter against him, neither of them letting go.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Entering Splatter for the second time is so similar, yet so different from the first time. Just like before, Sam takes his time to scan the place, drinking in the sea of bodies, the flashing lights, the pulsing energy. However, unlike last time, there's no announcement from Gabriel upon his arrival, and instead of being singled out, their group is melted into the lava flow of dancers.

Instead of trying to elbow his way through to get to a table, Sam allows himself to be swept away at least for a few minutes. It's a strangely unique feeling, becoming one with a mass of humanity in such a joyful way. Everyone seems to be having a good time. There aren't any people trying to shove around or even single out their dance partners for the time being. Someone turns and suddenly Sam has a buddy for a few seconds. Brief eye contact, a shared smile, a few beats of movement together before the ocean swallows them both again.

On and on through the crowds to the point where Sam blinks in surprise when he hits the shore right at the edge of the dance floor near the booths where he'd been the first time.

Ash and Garth have already claimed one and hailed a server to put their drink orders in.

Sam slides onto the vinyl seat beside Garth, who beams at him.

"First one to the table gets to order whatever they want for the group and you have to drink it."

"Them's the rules," Ash confirms.

Grinning, Sam says, "fine with me. I'm not super picky."

Ash points a finger right in his face. "Say that after you've had a glass of that blue wine cooler spritz whatever bullshit Garth always orders."

He laughs. "One round won't kill me. Or you."

A noisy smack of lips on his ear makes him jerk to the side, but it's only Gabriel, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "You looked good at there, Samsicle," he purrs.

"Can't bring shame upon your household," Sam quips, for once ignoring the audience and kissing Gabriel full on the mouth just to share some of the warm, giddy secondhand high he's riding on thanks to the atmosphere.

Gabriel hums against his lips, the sound lost to the music, but the buzz distinct. "What'd I tell you about letting your hair down? Nothing sexier."

"Totally agree," Ash says flippantly.

Gabriel turns his head only enough to see him. "You're ten years too early to steal my boyfriend."

"Who said I wanted to?" Ash asks, draping his arm over the back of the booth. "I'm here to enjoy the show."

Sam makes a gagging noise. "While I appreciate some good, old fashioned objectification of my person, let's not, okay?"

"So much for my getting rich off of live cams dreams, thanks for nothing, Sam," Gabriel grouches insincerely.

Garth chuckles. "Must be nice to be so in love that you gotta be gross about it." He nods to the server who has brought their drinks.

Gabriel scoots to the side to allow her to deposit the tray. "What in the seven seas?" he laughs.

Sam slides one of the fishbowl-sized blue monstrosities towards himself. "Apparently Garth is a poor winner and enjoys punishing his friends."

"Za Zdarovje!" Garth yells, chugging about half of the concoction through a bright green crazy straw in one go.

"This is either going to make me radioactive, or give me cancer," Sam mutters. But he takes one for the team, also downing a huge portion in a single go, silently admitting that it's not so bad. Way too sugary for his taste, but he's had worse mixed drinks. "Where are Charlie and Dorothy?" he asks after a chaser of ice water.

Ash points towards the middle of the dance floor. "Avoiding their fate."

"Good for them," Gabriel says. He lays another sloppy kiss on Sam's cheek and stands fully, straightening his hat. "I'm off to work, honey."

Sam stands with him. "I'll be watching."

Gabriel's gaze heats. "You staying 'til closing?"

"Only if you're gonna take me home with you."

Gabriel sways forward, kissing him long, slow, and sensual until Sam's head is swimming with more than a wine cooler cocktail. "Bet your sweet ass." Gabriel punctuates the promise with a smack to Sam's butt before sauntering off to the stage.

Though Sam would be content to sit all night sipping a drink and watching his boyfriend perform dance club miracles, the music makes him itch to move after a while. Charlie and Dorothy find their way to the booth after a time, and for the first couple rounds of drinks, content themselves to laugh, paint the bare wall beside the booth, paint each other with neon blacklight paints, until they're satisfied and ready to add to the din over at the paint drums, which Gabriel graciously grants them access to with an exaggerated wink.

The night couldn't possibly be more perfect. Well. It will be, Sam reminds himself as Gabriel makes the last dance announcement, jumps off the stage as he always does, and begins to leave his mark on those wanting to have it.

Instead of last, Sam is first this time, having somehow migrated to the front of the stage in the crowd's thrall.

Gabriel dips his finger into his small pot of purple paint and draws a heart on Sam's cheek.

As thanks, Sam kisses him boldly and messily to the absolute thunderous support of the remaining club goers. They pull apart laughing delightedly.

"Wait for me by the back stage entrance," Gabriel says over the noise, inclining his head towards the staff only door near the restrooms.

Sam kisses him briefly once more in confirmation and begins to make his way over. He needs to pee, anyway.

The bathroom is quiet enough that it makes his ears ring, and starts the adrenaline crash that always leaves him mildly depressed after such an awesome time, despite the fun promised to follow back at Gabriel's. Even post-party letdown can't kill his grin as he relieves himself and moves to the sink to wash his hands.

What actually kills his smile is catching sight of a familiar face reflected in the mirror when he glances up.

"Hey, Sam," Nick greets with his usual false levity. "Having fun tonight?"

Chapter Text

"Dr. Pellegrino," Sam greets politely with a polite smile and a polite nod. Mentally he catalogues every single warning bell sounding off in his brain, and with a quick glance at himself in the mirror again, confirms that his expression is friendly-neutral. Thank God for the drama club back in high school. He'll take any small favors to get himself out of this with any grace possible. He clears his throat and focuses back on his hands, scrubbing them much more thoroughly than necessary. "I'm a little surprised to see you here. You never struck me as the clubbing type."

Nick joins him at the sinks, idly washing his own hands. "I'm not," he confirms lightly. "But every now and then I like to support our local establishments. Small business is so important to a vital community, don't you think?"

"Yeah," Sam agrees slowly, more wary than ever about giving Nick a concrete response to anything. "Of course."

"I've seen a lot of my students and former students here tonight," he continues conversationally. He laughs softly, briefly. "I suppose it's odd running into an authority figure off campus, isn't it?"

More warning bells at the strange choice of words that Sam is positive are deliberate. "Well, not as weird as it was in elementary school or something," he answers, shutting off the sink. "I thought teachers lived in the school back then."

Nick laughs again, the sound like nails on a chalkboard to Sam's ears. "True enough. We're all adults now, and this isn't a large town, so we're bound to run into each other on occasion."

Cautiously, Sam moves to the paper towel dispenser and grabs a handful, hastily wiping away the water and the anxiety sweat. "Guess so. Anyway." He tosses the paper towels into the trashcan and gestures towards the door. "Nice to see you, but I need to get going. My friends are waiting."

"Of course," Nick says agreeably. "Have a good night, Sam. Be safe out there. I'll see you on campus."

Sam doesn't answer, just gives a small nod and gets out of the restroom as quickly as possible without making it look like he's hauling ass. To his astonishingly huge relief, Gabriel is by the staff entry waiting for him with Sam's overnight bag that he'd left in the booth. Without another word, Sam grabs his arm and drags him through the door, only breathing easy once it has closed behind him.

He only realizes that his hands are shaking when Gabriel removes it from his arm, squeezes, and gently asks, "hey, what's up?"

Sam swallows hard, throat clicking. "Dr. Pellegrino is here," he says hoarsely. "I think... um... I think he saw us. Y'know. Together."

Gabriel steps in front of him, lips thinning, eyes narrowing. "What did that ass clown say to you this time?"

"Nothing!" Sam hastens to assure him, probably too loudly. "He just... he just said hi and, and some small talk, and... fuck, I don't know why I'm freaking out right now. Sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Gabriel says severely. He grabs both of Sam's hands, forcing his full attention. "It's okay. Nick's favorite pastime is making people uncomfortable, and I think he's trying to get a read on your anxiety since you've had trouble hiding it until recently. Just breathe for a second. You're fine. You're with me."

Sam does as bid, following the excellent advice and pulling large lungfuls of stale club air. It clears his thundering thoughts somewhat. Then Gabriel's words sink in. "Is Dr. Pellegrino trying to scare me? Why?"

"Because he's a soulless son of a bitch," Gabriel bites. "He's used to getting what he wants, and uses all kinds of manipulative tools to do it. If you don't fall in line immediately, he'll find another way. He always does. For as much as I wish he wasn't smart as hell, he is. And he can find anyone's weaknesses." He looks like he's got an awful lot of personal experience here.

Sam shakes his head vigorously. "I'm gonna quit the internship. I can't do it to me or to you."

Gabriel rubs his hands up and down Sam's arms. "He's that far under your skin, huh?" he says sadly.

"I'm sorry," Sam says again, inexplicably close to tears. Since when did he become such a goddamn coward? Since when did he reach the point that he was willing to throw away a perfect opportunity for his future because his professor was being vaguely unsettling? He's known since the beginning that he and Gabriel should be careful, and what did he do? Screwed it all up by throwing caution to the wind just once because he was feeling good. Every fucking time he stops thinking for a second, he ends up making the wrong choice. Hurting people who don't deserve it. "I'm really sorry."

Two warm hands cup his cheeks, thumbs dragging comfortingly back and forth. Sam takes Gabriel's wrists, desperate for the grounding connection. "No reason for an apology. You didn't do anything wrong."

What a nice lie. "If... if Nick..." his voice cracks. He clears his throat and starts again, eyes on his paint-stained tennis shoes. "If Nick really saw us and he's that manipulative... it'll... it'll be bad for you. He could... he could do something that would hurt both our academic futures." The thought alone makes him want to hurl. Something like that can't happen. Not after he's tried so hard to get back to where he is.

"Where's your anxiety at right now? One to ten?"

Honestly? "Seven," Sam admits softly.

Gabriel's fingers press in harder. "Then you're only gonna spiral with worst case scenarios for now, right?"

With a sigh, Sam returns the pressure. "Probably."

"Then let's try not to. Still wanna come with me, or should I drop you off at home?"

Sam looks up, caught by Gabriel's open, soft expression. "Don't leave me, okay?" he pleads, voice small.

Gabriel's lip tips up in a crooked smile. He rises up on his toes to kiss Sam, short and chaste. When he pulls back he starts to sing softly, "you are my Samshine, my only Samshine. You make me happyyyyy when - ow!" He scowls, yanking his arms back and rubbing his shoulder where Sam had punched him. "My singing isn't that bad."

"You're an idiot," Sam says with the beginnings of a smile.

"You knew that going in, dumbass, so that's on you," Gabriel counters with false solemnity. He holds his hand out again, wiggling his fingers. "Come on. Let's blow this popsicle stand."

Sam entwines their fingers, shuffling after Gabriel through the maze of narrow hallways to the exit into the staff parking lot. Once tucked into Gabriel's car, he texts his friends and Dean to let them all know where he'll be, that he will be out of contact until the morning, then shuts his phone off completely. It's one less thing to worry about, though the chances of anyone bothering him for the rest of the night are slim. If Dean really needs him for something, he's pretty sure that Castiel will be able to get a hold of Gabriel.

It's worth the risk. He needs to be sure that tonight doesn't so much as lend him the possibility of anything else bad happening. A little more peace. That's all he's asking for. Maybe not all he needs, but if it's all he gets, he'll take it. It's worth it. So he watches the scenery pass as Gabriel drives them home, and he breathes. Just breathes.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

"I'm hungry," Castiel says, apropos of nothing, except that it's starting to get late.

"You wanna order something or make something?" Dean asks, pausing the movie they're watching. "Maybe we should make something. We've literally been in bed all day."

"I'm enjoying that part," Castiel smiles.

Dean glances over with his own smile. "Me, too. So, what are you in the mood for? Sam already went grocery shopping, so we've got pretty much everything plus some leftovers."

"Nothing heavy," Castiel answers. "Since we haven't done much, I'm not starving." He frowns thoughtfully. "Sorry, that narrows it down exactly not at all."

Dean grins. "Cold pasta salad with chicken? We've got some left over. Sam made it so it's healthy. Pretty good, too."

"That sounds wonderful."

They climb out of the bed, stretching and yawning, Dean taking the time to appreciate Castiel's mostly naked body on display just for him. He'd loaned Castiel a pair of boxers, but neither of them had been eager to dress fully, especially since the room got nice and warm thanks to the closed door and a ton of afternoon sunlight.

Of course now that they're both in the open air and the sun has gone down, Castiel's yawn cuts off into a shiver. "Cold!" he gasps.

Dean digs in his drawer for a pair of track pants and a worn hoodie. He tosses both across the bed to Castiel. "We keep the temperature pretty low around here," he says apologetically. "Want me to turn up the heat?"

Castiel pulls the clothes on, the hoodie messing up his bed head further. "No, thank you. It was just a shock after being under the covers for so long." He does nothing to hide his interest as Dean puts on a henley and sleep pants. "Damn you, you look good even dressed down."

"I like you in my clothes," Dean returns blithely. "Caveman instinct."

Castiel rolls his eyes, following after Dean out of the room and down the stairs to the kitchen. "I've always thought that was more about men finding women cuter in clothing that's too big for them, but we're almost the same size."

"I think you're adorable," Dean says with syrupy sweetness, grinning wider as Castiel shivers again and buries his hands in the hoodie's pockets, hunching his shoulders so he inadvertently looks smaller in the clothes. They are about the same size, but Dean's always bought his hoodies a size too big and Castiel definitely fits the description he himself mentioned.

"I think I'm adorable, too," Castiel says with a haughty sniff.

"Then the council is in agreement," Dean answers with a laugh. He opens the fridge to retrieve the tupperware while Castiel makes it look like he's been here a million times, going to the cabinet without hesitation to get them bowls and utensils. He sets the table neatly while Dean scoops them both generous helpings of the pasta salad and opens two beers. He offers one to Castiel and taps the necks together in cheers. "To an awesome lazy day."

"Agreed," Castiel smiles. "Would you like me to stay the night again?"

Dean leans back in his chair, shrugging. "Up to you. Can't say I'd hate the company."

"Then you'll have it," Castiel answers, expression softening further. He picks up his fork. "I never realized that a weekend with nothing to do could be so enjoyable."

"You're a workaholic," Dean surmises, digging into his food.

"I've been accused of it once or twice," Castiel agrees. "Both Gabriel and Hannah have been bothering me for at least a year to take more time off."

"Why haven't you?"

It's Castiel's turn to shrug. "When you build a dream from the ground up, it's difficult to step away. There's always the concern that if I'm not there to nurture it at every step, it'll all fall apart."

"I thought your shop was doing well," Dean frowns. Not like he knows anything about the overhead for a fancy neighborhood coffee shop.

"It is," Castiel says, flicking his wrist dismissively. "As with every new business, it took a few years to get it completely out of the red, but I got it there. It's still just ingrained in me."

Dean smiles humorlessly down at his bowl. "If there's one thing I can understand better than anyone, it's trust issues."

Castiel sighs with a mild sound of disgust at himself. "Irrational trust issues of my own making. I've hired wonderful people; loyal people. I didn't do any of it alone. Hannah's been with me and believed in my dream since the beginning. And even though he's not a part of the business, Gabriel has, too. It never escaped my notice for a second that he kept a savings account specifically to loan me money if I ever needed it."

"You guys really are like siblings," Dean muses softly.

"They're family," Castiel agrees. "They're pushy and nosy and meddlesome, but now that I actually want to have a work/life balance, they're making sure that I get it."

"A hot boyfriend'll do that to ya," Dean laughs.

Castiel chuckles with him. "Hannah says we're going to have beautiful babies, you and I."

Dean laughs harder. "She's reading the wrong romance novels if she thinks that'll actually happen."

"Don't laugh," Castiel admonishes teasingly. "She reads at least two or three a week."

"I couldn't be less surprised," Dean says dryly. "No one except romance novel addicts get that excited over someone else's love life."

"That's true," Castiel says, scooping himself more pasta salad. "People who are truly happy want to spread it to everyone they care about. I'm flattered by her support."

Dean clears his throat softly. "Then, uh... how's it working out so far?"

Castiel's eyes are full of light when he looks up at Dean. "Very well. I'm extremely happy."

Dean shifts in his chair, feeling weird about having brought it up, but he can't deny the way that Castiel's straightforward confessions and personality give him a hell of a boost. "Good," he says roughly. "Same."

And Castiel beams at him as though he'd been given a sonnet rather than an ode to awkward.

"Shut up and finish your dinner," Dean mutters, while Castiel silently grins at him even louder.

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

Upon entering Gabriel's condo, Sam immediately pulls off his coat and hoodie. "Are you my grandmother?" he asks in disbelief. "It's like, eighty degrees in here!"

Gabriel uses Sam's arm for balance as he removes his shoes. "Yeah, yeah, it'll cool down in a few. I have the thermostat set on a schedule for Loki. Cats like it warm, so when I'm not here, might as well give him what he wants instead."

"You're such a loving father," Sam says with an affectionate smile.

"Goddamn right," Gabriel says. They kick off their shoes in the tiled entryway, and then Gabriel is dragging Sam bodily towards the back of the condo.

Sam stumbles and trots along behind. "What's the rush?"

"I've been wanting to wash the paint off you since the very first time I saw you covered in it."

He throws his bag into the bedroom as they fly past it, barely making the shot through the doorway. "Too bad I left my shirt on this time!"

"I'll never forgive you about that later," Gabriel says as he blasts into the bathroom and turns on the water in the envy-worthy shower.

"It's like freaking Star Trek," Sam murmurs as he begins to strip out of his clothes.

"My true pride and joy," Gabriel smiles indulgently as he turns away from the keypad controls and watches Sam get undressed. "Half this shit is imported from Japan. And all totally worth it."

Sam takes off his socks, wiggling his feet. "Heated tiles and everything?"

"And towel racks, and toilet seat, and the shower has a sauna mode. My power bill is insane even though the building is on solar."

Sam steps into Gabriel's arms now that they're both fully naked. "At least you're being green about your ridiculous amounts of power usage." He takes Gabriel's shoulders and uses his body weight to move his boyfriend backwards through the open shower door.

Gabriel goes along willingly with the gentle manhandling, smiling wider and wider.

The shower is probably bigger than Sam's walk in closet, and he'd love to explore the settings on the shower and sauna, but Gabriel's hands are on his ass, kneading, begging silently, and yeah, it's a good distraction. He bends down for a kiss that's wet and messy and wonderful.

Gabriel takes over the movement after that, guiding Sam backwards now without breaking the kiss until his calves touch something slightly cold. Belatedly, Sam realizes that the shorter back wall and half of the side wall are benches, probably for relaxing in sauna mode. He sits down, trusting Gabriel to follow without knocking him over.

He does, straight into Sam's lap, still kissing him deeper and deeper.

One hand leaves Sam's hip for a moment. There's a beep on the wall, then perfectly heated water is pouring over their shoulders. Sam would be startled, but for some reason, it feels like a natural progression to the making out.

And by the time Gabriel is satisfied enough to pull back just a little, Sam feels like he's harder than he's ever been in his life.

"You still seem kinda really tense," Gabriel notes.

Sam rolls his shoulders. "Sorry."

"Nah," Gabriel brushes away the apology. "I'll help ya take care of it." He leans to the side and scoots over a few bottles on the bench. "Just try to relax, okay?"

He tries until it becomes absolutely effortless. Gabriel is both determined to help and very good at it.

He's also very thorough. He starts with a shampoo that smells faintly of apples, massaging it into Sam's hair with all the care in the world, but then his own haphazardly, rinsing them both off with the detachable shower head.

Next is the body wash that smells a lot like the shampoo, only with an added dash of ginger. Gabriel takes his time here, and Sam is completely helpless to do anything else besides watch and feel incredible.

Gabriel uses his hands and the loofah to smooth the soap over every inch of Sam's body with reverence. From his shoulders to his back and down. He makes small breathy noises every time he encounters a spot that makes Sam's muscles unintentionally flex.

"You are a work of fucking art," he says softly as he goes on his cleaning exploration. "Sculpted by God and brought down from the heavens into my fancy shower."

"Lucky me," Sam gasps as Gabriel's fingers wander over his belly.

"Lucky me," Gabriel corrects when he drags out a mournful moan from Sam avoiding his dick in favor of venturing down his firm thighs first. "If I didn't get to touch you all over and have you all to yourself, I'd probably be jealous of you with the perfect hair, and the height, and the body. Fuck you've got a body."

He slides out of Sam's lap, kneeling on the tiles, thoroughly washing each of Sam's feet in turn. Toe by toe.

Sam's surprised that it's not ticklish in the least, but his blood is boiling so fiercely that he probably can't even register anything besides pleasure. Especially when Gabriel anoints the top of each foot with a kiss as he finishes.

He grabs the sprayer from the holder and rinses himself once Gabriel is finished and taking a minute to wash himself off.

Then, finally, torturously, Gabriel is leaning forward on his knees again, and this time, slides Sam's slick cock into his mouth.

Sam's moan echoes off the walls and he struggles to keep his hips from bucking. Gabriel helps a little, running his hands up the outside of Sam's thighs to rest against his hips loosely. The touches send lava through Sam's veins. There's nothing at all tentative about Gabriel sucking him off. It's pure, enthusiastic sensuality. His cockhead slides against Gabriel's soft palate, Gabriel's tongue firm against the bottom, and it keeps going back, and back, and holy shit of course Gabriel has no freaking gag reflex.

Sam fists into Gabriel's sodden hair, grabbing too hard, but the response he gets is a moan that sends vibrations all along his length, and the only action left to him is holding on for dear life. One of these days he may last more than a couple of minutes with this man, but today cannot be that day.

"Gabe," he gasps. "I'm gonna... gonna..."

Gabriel pulls off right as Sam's legs spasm, orgasm hitting him so suddenly that he curls forward with the force of it, hot splashes of come splattering against Gabriel's neck and chest, only to be washed way immediately by the water.

"How do you do that?" he huffs, head thunking back against the wall, eyes closed in bliss.

"Loads of practice," Gabriel answers, sounding flattered a teasing. "I can teach you."

Sam bobs his head a few times. Opens his mouth and licks his lips. Offering.

"Oh, Sam," comes the quiet reverence. "You have no idea what you do to me."

Eyes still closed, reaching out blindly, Sam grips Gabriel's waist, dragging him in. Gentle hands frame his face, pushing his hair away, followed by the silky pressure of Gabriel's dick against his bottom lip. He opens his mouth wider, loving the slow press of warm flesh into his mouth, stretching his lips. He can't take in nearly as much as Gabriel can, but it doesn't seem to matter by the hoarse curses that spill from Gabriel as he very slowly, very deliberately, fucks into Sam's mouth over and over.

Up until now, Sam has considered himself to be a take it or leave it kind of guy about blowjobs. But, lulled boneless in the afterglow, letting Gabriel have his way, it's a wonderful kind of satisfaction. His own lust quenched for the moment, it's easy to get lost in the sensations tingling across his tongue, pressing against the tender skin on the inside of his cheeks. He could do this all night if Gabriel wanted.

However, as it turns out, his boyfriend is just as worked up as he is, because it's not long before Gabriel's losing his rhythm to faster, shorter thrusts, and his muscles start to tense. And before he can pull off, Sam follows the movement forward, palming Gabriel's balls and rolling them in his large hand.

"Shit!" Gabriel yelps, and he comes into Sam's mouth; down Sam's throat.

What he can't swallow, he spits towards the drain, then welcomes Gabriel's limp weight on top of him, rubbing his back as he trembles through the aftershocks.

"Dizzy," Gabriel mumbles against his collarbone.

Sam chuckles softly. "We should get out of the shower."

"You're right," Gabriel agrees, voice muffled. "We still got a bed to mess up."

~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~

"How do you feel about intercourse?"

Dean snorts, rolling onto his side to better level Castiel with his infamously dry look. "Seriously?"

Castiel flips over the book he's reading and rests it against his chest. "I thought we should talk about sexual expectations."

"You sound like you're writing an Op-ed."

Ignoring the sarcasm, Castiel continues, "there's a lot of variation between men. Some who don't like oral, some who don't like anal, some who prefer certain positions... I thought it would be best to talk about our expectations so neither of us is unpleasantly surprised later."

A slow grin starts across Dean's face. He pushes up to sitting, then to standing. He saunters around the side of the bed to Castiel and offers out both his hands.

Castiel sets his book down on the mattress and allows himself to be hauled up.

Dean begins to remove their clothing as he backsteps towards the bathroom. "So, you're not writing, you're fishing."

Castiel is frowning when his face is revealed again after pulling off his hoodie. "I'm not doing either of those things."

Dean makes a dissenting hum. They cross the threshold into the bathroom where Dean releases Castiel's hands to turn on the shower. "Well, it sounds like you're asking me something when you'd rather be telling me something instead. I'm a pro at that, so I'd know."

Castiel sighs, leaning his hip against the counter. "You're probably right. It's on topic, though. I'll admit I have an extremely dirty imagination concerning you these days."

Dean barks a laugh. "Yeah, you seem like a guy with a lot on his mind."

Proper water temperature achieved, Dean steps into the tub, gesturing for Castiel to follow, who does so presently. "I am."

Dean kisses him long enough for them to get fully soaked by the water. His eyes are as warm as the summer when he draws away. "How come you can be so blunt about all kinds of embarrassing thoughts you have, but still hold back on other stuff? Don't mind me. My pretty little ears can take it."

Castiel stares for a moment. He nods once. "In that case, I was thinking before that I would very much like to suck your dick, please."

Dean's smile fills his whole face. "That was so awkward and weirdly formal that I should be soft, but holy shit, it kinda turned me on more."

Castiel shrugs one shoulder. "You said before that you're attracted to my odd personality quirks."

It's true. As before, they wash themselves thoroughly and then fall into each other's arms. Castiel lets Dean decide what they can do, seemingly content with any sort of contact at all.

He's so grateful for that carefree attitude. Castiel had stated his desires plainly and clearly, yet never tries to push for them. It helps the anxiety that keeps trying to shove its way into the forefront of Dean's brain from fully taking over.

The red flags and sirens are still there, of course, but each time that he resists answering them, they get softer. Each swipe of Castiel's fingertips along his skin, each brush of his lips, each whispered word of adoration into his ears, settles him.

Castiel won't do anything to hurt him. He won't disappear, nothing bad will happen to either of them. He's safe. He's healthy. He really means it when he says that whatever Dean is able to give, is exactly what he'll be perfectly content to receive.

It's so easy to try and so hard to succeed sometimes.

He tries, though. He brushes his hands over Castiel's shoulders, swiping down to cup his elbows, carefully drawing him closer. Slowly he lowers his head down, forehead resting against Castiel's right shoulder. He stops moving then, breathing starting to elevate, the panic wanting to claw out.

Castiel doesn't really move, either. He leaves his hands where they are lightly resting against Dean's sides. Dean's hands keep roaming around. He actively resists the urge to jump away. Over Castiel's shoulders, down his back and sides, over his arms, around to his ass.

It's a really nice ass.

He squeezes softly.

Castiel groans, burying his face in Dean's neck. "Sorry," he murmurs. "It's really..." His hard dick brushes against Dean's thigh. He leans his hips away, but Dean brings him back.

"It's okay, Cas, just... you're okay." His skin is crawling like so many bugs. Heat burns all the way through his skull.

But vaguely the things he wants begin to filter in against the unwelcome noise. The heat in his head is replaced by the heat on his neck from Castiel's breath. The bugs start to dissipate to tingles.

It's better. It's getting better again. He sighs deeply. He turns his face and presses his lips against Castiel's temple. "You still on board?"

"Always," Castiel answers immediately.

"Blow me, Cas," Dean says with a wicked grin he hopes can be honest if he keeps trying.

Castiel's dirty smile in return is a gift. "My pleasure," he says, voice low. He drops to his knees under the spray.

Dean presses his palm over the crown of Castiel's head. "Hey," he stops.

Castiel looks up. His face is a mix of attentive and hungry.

"You don't have to if you... uh... I don't think I'll be able to..."

Castiel's expression relaxes. "This isn't about reciprocation. As it so happens, I enjoy giving oral pleasure."

Dean snorts. "I mean, if it's all good for you..."

Castiel winks and it sends a jolt through Dean straight to his softening cock that bobs up again, eager now that his concerns have been addressed. "I'll make it good for you, too."

And he sets about proving his point. Deans holds himself against wall, knees already weakening to the onslaught of his boyfriend's lips and tongue.

Dean tilts his chin down, water pounding against his head and pouring down his face. He blinks it away as much as possible so that he doesn't miss a minute of Castiel sucking him with a close-eyed pleased expression.

"Touch yourself," Dean begs breathlessly. "Wanna see it."

Castiel shifts his legs, widening them. His dick perks up and he takes it in hand loosely, stroking in a frustratingly ineffective way.

Dean stares. And he keeps staring. Bites his bottom lip. It feels incredible. The pleasure centers of his brain light up with a million colors and hundreds of sensations. The wet heat around his dick, the hot water pounding down onto him like a waterfall, Castiel pumping himself as he bobs his head, faster and faster.

The moment he comes, his legs give out. Thankfully, having braced himself against the wall, he slides down without breaking himself. Castiel falls back onto his ass before he can be toppled, startled into his own orgasm. He cries out, his come splashing against Dean's arm.

Without thinking, Dean smacks his hand over the spot before the shower can clean it away.

Castiel swipes water and hair out of his eyes roughly. "Sorry!" he apologizes quickly. "I didn't mean to."

Trembling with nerves, shivering in the afterglow, Dean shakes his head vigorously. "It's okay," he breathes. "It's okay. It's okay. This... I need this."

He's positive that it's all been washed away thanks to the water pressure and him being in the direct line of fire from it, but still. It could be there. It could.

He grips his arm tighter until his knuckles turn white.

Everything slows down while he and Castiel stare openly at each other.

After what feels like a long time, Dean helps them both to their feet and shuts off the water.

Castiel steps out first and grabs the towel from the rack, holding it open. Dean steps into it, and Castiel wraps it around him before getting his own.

As quickly as he can, Dean scrubs his hair and body. "It was awesome, by the way," he says sheepishly.

Castiel turns around to face him, hair an absolute rat's nest. "Thank you."

Dean laughs. Shakes his head wryly. "Nah, thank you."

A full body shiver wracks Castiel from head to toe. "Can we be back in bed now?" he whines.

Dean wraps an arm around him, tugging him back into the bedroom, now gone humid with all the steam from the open bathroom door. He'd open a window for a few minutes, but Castiel looks like he'd murder him if he let more cold air in, so he ignores the fog and retrieves two sets of track pants and hoodies.

Unfortunately, Castiel wastes no time at all getting dressed. He throws himself back into the bed when he's done, huddling up as though Dean had turned on the A/C in the middle of January.

"You really are sensitive to the cold," Dean chuckles, tucking himself in and immediately getting an armful of Castiel trying to leech his body heat.

"Spring and Fall are the only tolerable seasons," Castiel confirms.

"So, you complain constantly about the weather for half the year?"

"Essentially," Castiel answers, pulling the comforter up to his chin. "And you're just going to be nice and suck it up."

"Yeah, yeah." Before Castiel becomes a dead weight against him, Dean angles himself towards his nightstand to collect his meds and a bottle of water. "You should probably know about these," he muses.

Castiel props himself up to allow Dean to sit up fully. One by one Dean deposits the orange bottles into Castiel's hands. "This one makes me sleepy, this one makes me barf, and this one stops the panic attacks."

Castiel studies the labels. "Okay?"

Dean grins. "Right, better description. The daily SSRI makes me sleepy, so I take it at night. That second one is a heavy sedative for emergencies only because I always get sick when I wake up. The third is the one I usually keep on me just in case. Short acting. You've seen me take it a few times."

"Got it," Castiel says seriously.

Scratching the back of his head, Dean says, "you won't have to keep track of them or nothin'. It's more so you're aware. I guess the more time we spend together, the more likely I am to get off my set schedule, so I might forget to take the SSRI. You can remind me if you notice, or whatever. I won't get mad. And it's best to take them at the same time every day." He holds his hand out, and Castiel deposits the first bottle into his palm. Dean shakes one out and takes it with half the bottle of water.

He collects the other two and puts them back on the nightstand. They settle again, both looking up through the skylight at the stars. Dean flicks the bedside light off to cut down on the glare. After several minutes he says quietly, "you can also tell me if you think I should take the other meds, too. I might not react too good about it, though. Sam gets an earful sometimes, but he's usually right. I just hate to admit it when I'm getting especially bad."

Castiel shifts against him, pressing tighter to his side. "When should I?"

"If you see me getting... I dunno... catatonic from a panic attack, I probably need the Xanax. Sometimes I need to take it after the worst has passes so that I can rest." He taps his knuckles to his forehead. "It's like a reboot for the brain. Calms me down enough to be able to rest. The sedative... to be honest with you, I hope you never see me get bad enough to need that one."

A warm kiss against his shoulder is the response. He watches the stars for a long time after.