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Duck Duck Boots

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duck duck boots art by deancebra - fic by almaasi

 

“So, long story short,” Dean said, as soon as Sam answered the phone, “I’ve moved into a motel.”

Sam sighed. He knew by now not to question his brother’s lifestyle choices. “At least tell me where.

Dean grinned, lifting his duffel bag onto the bed. “It’s this random town, middle of Colorado. They call it – uhh, what was it...” He fished around for the motel key, pulling it out of the pocket of his jeans. He read the engraved metal tag. “Ingen Steder Landsby. Swedish for—”

Nowhere Village,” Sam said, at the same time Dean did. “It’s Danish, not Swedish.” Sam sighed again. “Why there, Dean?

Dean bit his lower lip, still grinning. “Okay, so don’t jump down my throat for this, but—”

Oh, God.

“Come on, dude, it’s good.”

Hnnnnh.

Dean plopped down onto the end of his bed, stretching out his legs and locking his ankles together. “So I was driving along, right.”

On your bike.

“On my motorcycle. And I pass this turn in the road. Five miles to Nowhere Village. And I was like, sure, I could hop a fence and draw some crop circles in the barley, mess with the locals. But two miles in, I see a motel. Or an inn, technically. And right outside, there’s a car. The best car. My dream car, Sammy. For sale.”

Dean flopped back onto the bed, staring at the light fixture on the ceiling, one hand pressed to his forehead in awe. “Sixty-seven Chevy Impala, Sammy. She’s kind of banged up, but with a little TLC—? Might take me a couple months but that’s it.”

How much did you spend?

Dean gave a dismissive huff, rolling his eyes. “What’s money? I just bought my dream.”

Sam was gonna run out of air if he kept sighing like that. “Okay,” he said, calmly, although he was probably frowning and rubbing his forehead with his fingertips. “How long are you intending to stay in Ingen Steder Landsby?

Dean shrugged. He popped up off the bed, striding over to his motel’s TV set and picking up the traveller’s brochure beside it. “Who knows,” he said, flipping the brochure. “The place is tiny, so they’re short on help and I landed a kindergarten job already—” Sam snorted, “so maybe I’ll just stay here forever,” Dean said with a scowl. “Seriously, I start in two days, Monday morning. I finally get to use my teaching credentials!”

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about that.

“So what’s your problem?” Dean bent down, opening up one of the three cardboard boxes he’d transported in his motorcycle’s massive saddlebags. He picked out a golden trophy from the top, shaking underwear away. “Hey, you think kindergarten kids would appreciate the old Night Rider bling?”

I agree you really ought to think about settling somewhere, Dean. I just wish you wouldn’t choose your monthly motel because you saw a pretty girl out front, or a burger joint, or a broken car to fix.

“Hey, I take those things as a sign from the cosmos,” Dean argued. “Dean Winchester, thou shalt stop here. Anyway, you didn’t answer my question. Do I drop by the local school and flash my old credentials?” He waggled the trophy. “Think they’d be impressed?”

For once, Dean heard Sam smile. “Yeah,” Sam said. “Yeah, I think anyone would be impressed. Motorcycle daredevil turned kindergarten teacher sounds like a pretty interesting career change.

“Mm.” Dean pressed his lips together, admiring the trophy. He placed it next to the TV, running a fingertip over the letters stamped on the base plate.

Best Motorized Triple Backflip
Night Rider
Daredevil Championships 2014

“Anyway,” Dean said, turning his back on the trophy, kicking his laptop charging cable out of his path. “Wi-fi here is shitty, so I might not email as much. The cellphone range is mostly okay, thank God. Don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t check in with my baby brother.”

Get a wi-fi extender from the local tech shop, you can plug it into the laptop and it’ll pick up signal from satellites.

Dean blew a raspberry so hard that he spat a little. “Dude, you think they have a tech shop? Here? Sam, come on, they don’t even have a doctor; they have a local witch healer. I saw the sign on the way in. Herbal remedies and love spells and shit. This place is old-school. But,” he said, raising a finger, “the chick who gave me the room key kept talkin’ like she hadn’t seen a tourist in a month. She kept telling me stuff about how the Ingen Steder locals were among the only rural townsfolk who fought to free the slaves, way back when. I dunno, she seemed real proud of that. Guess the progressives stuck around. I saw an ‘Oprah for President’ sign stuck in a field.”

That’s cool.

“Tell me about it. It’s funny, huh. Whenever I see a cosmic sign, everything always turns out awesome.” Dean sat on his bed again and breathed in deeply, smiling to himself. “On that note, say hi to baby Jack for me. And, uh. Tell him thanks for being adopted. And making me question my life, and decide to do somethin’ less—”

Death-baity?

“I was gonna say dangerous, but sure,” Dean grinned, eyes darting sideways. His gaze landed on the baby photo book sticking out of the open cardboard box, and his smile faded. “Take pictures of him, okay? You know I never got to. Album’s still empty.”

I will,” Sam promised. “I miss you. We both do.

“Yeah, I miss you too, Sammy.”

Good luck with your new job on Monday?

“Oh! Yeah. You too.” Dean blinked. “Wait, I mean—”

Sam laughed. “Bye, jerk.

Dean grinned. “Bye, bitch.”

Ugh, that’s so offensive.

“Your face is offensive.”

Sam hung up – probably with an eye roll – and Dean laughed. He fell back against the bed, arms stretched out, hand loosening around his cellphone. He sighed, feeling good about this place, and whatever was coming next.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel let his bicycle wheels spin freely without pedaling, as he sailed past the Ingen Steder Landsby Inn. That Impala was still there, it hadn’t moved an inch in months – but beside it, there was a new black motorbike. It had giant silver-studded containers on either side, and its presence drew Castiel’s attention as he wheeled on by.

He was sure he’d seen bat wings on the motorbike. Like that superhero. The man who dressed up as a bat? Castiel recognised the symbol.

Once past the inn, Castiel focused on the pressed-gravel track again, feeling the Sunday morning sun on the back of his neck, warming his shoulders like a hug. He pedalled up the road, floating between overgrown hedges, slowing down for birds and rabbits who shot across his path.

He hummed to himself, making up notes that sounded semi-decent next to each other, in harmony with distant church bells. Sparrows followed his wheels, hoping he’d kick up grubs, but Castiel pretended they were captivated by his melodies.

The further he travelled, the thinner the hedges became, until they faded suddenly into grassland. Heaving springtime hills rolled across the landscape, their swells and dips shining in waves as the sweet breeze danced among the soft green blades. Fluffy white sheep looked up as Castiel passed, bleating to him.

Up embankments he cycled, cresting each gentle peak, on top of the world for a split-second before sweeping down the other side, following the path. Grass grew like a fat snake in the very centre of the lane, with two flattened channels on either side, carved out by car wheels. Castiel kept to the left, always ringing his bicycle’s bell before he got to the top of another hill, just in case anyone on the other side hadn’t seen him yet.

His trenchcoat fluttered out behind him, its belt waggling constantly like a flag. In summer, when the grass would turn golden, his coat would match the landscape completely, but this week, when the grass was still so naive, he shone like a flaming torch of sunlight, making his way through the fields.

He passed Ingen Steder’s oldest oak tree: a happy, thick trunk grew on the left, with great reaching branches and leaves that were just settling in, darkening to a fine green as the wheel of the year rounded towards mid-spring. The wind blew, and the leaves whispered promises of a fine harvest this season.

Soon the fields were hidden by arches of trees over the lane: the village lay ahead, all brown bricks and painted wooden signs in amongst the green. Castiel crossed the bump of a bridge, peering into the blue river below just for a moment before he went on his way, cycling into the heart of the little village, now riding over worn-down cobblestones. He called greetings and responses to villagers who waved to him; he smiled to the greengrocer, and rang his bell to alert the flower-seller to his presence.

The gushing stone fountain in the centre of the village square glimmered with sunlight, all the wish tokens at the bottom reflecting the sky. Castiel made his way around the fountain to the other side of the square, past the schoolyard’s open arches, up to the veterinary clinic.

Dismounting while moving, he wheeled his bicycle up to the clinic, and leaned it against the sun-warmed stone, careful not to damage the ivy.

“Morning,” Castiel called, waving to the witch who left her shop on the left, carrying an A-frame sign. “Nice day, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes, quite,” Rowena replied, a Scottish lilt on her words. “But,” she clucked her tongue, “if I were you, I’d be expecting a wee spot of rain in the next few days.”

Castiel squinted up at the clear blue sky. “Really?”

“Ach, well, you never know,” Rowena remarked, parking her familiar Love Readings & Magic Spells sign in the street, then wiping her hands against each other, either to brush away dust, or to signify her cunning. “But I know, don’t I? Perhaps all too well.”

Castiel’s lips parted. He managed an uneasy smile, then waved again and turned to go inside. The veterinary clinic’s door chimed as he pushed it open.

Inside was a bustle of subdued but thoughtful activity; the space was now crowded with five people in a small white room. Behind the desk was Billie, Castiel’s co-worker, writing on a clipboard, as well as Billie’s girlfriend, Charlie, who was here to drop off three new sacks of dog food and some chick feed, which was all piled onto a wheeled metal lifter.

“Good morning everyone,” Castiel said, taking off his coat and hanging it on the stand behind the door. Everyone replied greetings in a collective jumble, smiling as they looked up.

“Hi there,” said the first client of the day: Mrs. Beedle, who sat with her hands around her pregnant belly, cardigan draped over her thighs. Her husband sat beside her, arm over her shoulders. “How are you today, doctor?”

“Very good, thank you,” Castiel smiled, eyes unconsciously drawn to the dogs at her feet. “Oh— Oh dear.”

Mrs. Beedle’s two terriers were piled atop each other, mating very aggressively.

“Ahh,” Mrs. Beedle said, watching in concern. “Yes, that’s why we’re here.”

Castiel gave a quick nod. It was surely the strangest moment to feel such a thing, but he felt lonely. It struck him from the gut outwards, cold and sad and quiet. He looked from the excitable dogs to Mrs. Beedle stroking her swollen belly, her ringed hand joined by that of her husband. Castiel turned his eyes away, only to see Charlie giving Billie one more kiss on the cheek before she left to make other deliveries.

Licking his lips, Castiel cleared his throat, forcing up a professional smile. “Well then,” he said, stepping towards his examination room. “Mr. and Mrs. Beedle, if you’d like to bring Bumper and Chewy through, I’ll see what I can do to help with your... ah... predicament.”

He said the word ‘predicament’, but couldn’t help but think that those dogs were very lucky dogs.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

As Castiel cycled home in the late afternoon, he paused at the bakery at the corner of the village square, nearest the bridge. He loved the shade of periwinkle blue on the storefront; it made all the orange and brown and white inside seem even more special.

Inside was warm and pleasantly stuffy, and the air smelled like crisp sugar and Turkish pastry – just the sort of aroma to accompany an afternoon treat. There was another customer in here, a stranger in a motorcycle jacket, with a flaming white pentagram stitched into the back. Castiel assumed whoever they were, they were related to Rowena. She had a thing for pentagrams.

Castiel approached the glass counters, his trenchcoat hung over his arm as he bent to observe the desserts, trying to choose which one would be most appropriate for a day like today.

The soft hum of refrigerators suddenly became unnoticeable: the stranger yelped. “What do you mean you don’t have pie?! How can you not have pie?!”

“I— I’m sorry, sir,” the baker pleaded, eyebrows rising to meet the cap of her hijab, “nobody who lives here has requested pie in months.”

“But it’s pie!”

Castiel decided he would rather not be present for this. He waved to get the baker’s attention and pointed to a frosted chocolate cupcake the size of his fist, muttering, “To go, please.”

The baker packaged up Castiel’s cupcake while the stranger huffed and seethed to himself, looking somewhat distressed. Castiel considered comforting him, but decided against it; he just wanted a cupcake, not a conversation.

Castiel paid with an assortment of loose change from his coat pocket, uttering a word of thanks. He then hurried out of the bakery, and grabbed his bike from the tree he’d leant it against. He mounted the bike, soles of his shoes flat on the cobbles, but once his coat was on, he paused, and decided he’d rather eat the cupcake now than wait until he got home; squished cake wasn’t nearly as fun or important-looking.

So he unwrapped the brown bag, rolling the sides down until the swirled icing sat proudly in a nest of paper, showing off the colourful sprinkles atop the cake.

Castiel smiled. “Happy birthday to me,” he said.

He made a wish: that he’d find someone special to spend his life with. That had been his wish for so many years he’d lost count.

Breathing out, he lifted the whole bag and took a bite of the cake, not minding that he got icing on his lips and nose. Oh, that was a good cake. Sweet, but not too sweet, with that perfectly dark cocoa tang.

Castiel was still chewing, licking icing off his lips, when the stranger left the bakery. He looked very cross indeed, carrying something in a paper bag that was almost certainly not pie.

For a brief moment, the man paused, his hand on the bakery door, his eyes on Castiel.

Castiel met his gaze.

They stared.

The man was tall, and well-built, and had a very, very pretty face.

Castiel realised he had icing on his nose and bent his head to wipe it away, but when he looked up, embarrassed, the pie man was gone. A minute later, Castiel heard a motorbike engine revving, then fading into the distance.

He finished his cake, slowly, enjoying it as much as he could.

Once done, he folded the paper bag into a neat square and slipped it into his pocket. He waddled his bicycle out from under the tree, and pushed into a spin before starting to pedal. He glided from the square, up over the bridge, and began on his journey back home.

Every year he bought a different cupcake, but made the same wish. Every year.

His wish still hadn’t come true. He wondered when it would, if ever.

Castiel was forty years old today. He didn’t need anyone to tell him that his life was basically over by now; he knew it. He’d achieved all there was to achieve, according to everyone’s expectations. Once he’d graduated college, he carried on studying until he officially became a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, and he’d been practising animal care professionally for nearly fifteen years. Yes, he had a place to live... sort of. There were friends all around him. By all accounts, he was successful.

And that was the thing. The game had been won. He’d done everything he was supposed to do, but none of it really made him as happy as he wanted to be. Surely there was something else to feel besides lonely.

Of course there was infinite joy in the world, but in his lifetime, joy only lasted moments. One laugh in a good conversation; one moment when the sun caressed his skin and reminded him it was okay; one time he petted a kitten and it petted him back. He’d experienced high points of delight, but once they were over, they were only memories.

Castiel wanted to be happy every day. And he was just surviving every day. The best he could ever be was ‘okay’.

He was grateful for what he had. There were so many books in his house telling him that happiness was achieved through gratitude, so he was actively grateful. For everything. For his home, for his good eyesight, for the sky above him, for flushing toilets. For his friends, his food, his bank account, for his ability to learn constantly and work to self-improve. For kittens, and unburnt sugar crystals on the top of his homemade pastries. Castiel was grateful for every privilege he’d been born into, and each additional privilege he’d amassed over his lifetime. But no matter how grateful he was for what he had, he still longed for something else.

It wasn’t as though dating sites were any use, way out here. If the Internet even connected properly, all the available people in a fifty-mile radius were either twice his age, half his age, or were looking for something else besides friendship. Or, they simply weren’t his ‘type’.

He’d heard a lot about people having a ‘type’. He didn’t know what his ‘type’ was. He’d rarely found anything attractive in another person, at least in a romantic way. Or even the other, more basal way. People were just people to him, and nice people were friends. That was all.

If there was someone special out there, he wanted them to be his best friend. A companion. A partner. Someone who was different to his other friends, in that their best friend was him, not someone else first.

Castiel slowed his bicycle as he approached his cottage, and he hopped off, walking up the path with the bicycle by his hip. Moss between the flagstones squashed soft under his shoes, and he breathed deeply, listening to the bees buzzing through the wildflowers that surrounded the house.

He caught sight of his reflection in the three glass panels in the front door. Sometimes he wondered if he was ugly or mean. Just in case, he tried to smile to everyone, even to himself as he stepped up onto the porch, leaving his bike resting against the wall. He tried to be kind. But could he ever be kind enough to be considered beautiful?

Having unlocked the door, Castiel stepped inside and shed his coat, hanging it on the wall peg, where it hid the baseball-bat bash in the floral wallpaper.

Undoing his cuffs and rolling up his shirtsleeves, he went to wash his hands in the kitchen, getting ready to prepare dinner.

For his coffee, he used one of his two mugs. When he ate, he sat on one side of his two-seater table, feet resting on the other chair.

A slice of last night’s homemade boysenberry pie more than sufficed for dessert, and Castiel ate it while sitting outside in the sunset light, reading a chapter of How to Win Friends and Influence People for the tenth time over.

He brushed his teeth before bed, putting his toothbrush back in a holder that was made for two.

And when he went to bed, he slept on the right, using one of the two pillows.

He kept space in his life for someone else. But it had been forty years now, and he still hadn’t found them.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Slow down,” Sam insisted, trying to ease Dean’s nerves.

“I can’t slow down! I’m gonna be late,” Dean complained, hopping in place to pull his sock on, cellphone pressed to his ear with his shoulder. “I can’t be late on my first day. Some teacher’s gotta show me around the school.”

You’ll get there on time. If your head is full of chaos you’re just gonna make everyone around you nervous. Take it from me, okay, kids notice your energy.

“Sam, come on,” Dean tutted, fetching his leather jacket, cramming a socked foot into a boot as he did. “I drove Mad Max bikes through flaming hoops for a living. I think I know a thing or two about keeping a clear head.”

Children are not flaming hoops.

“Mmm,” Dean wondered, with sideways eyes and a head-tilt.

Sam chuckled. “Just stay in one piece, okay? You’ll be fine. And dress appropriately. Jacket, shirt and slacks, no leather pants.

“Hey, leather’s washable, and kids are sticky.” Dean said, while buttoning up denim jeans. He startled, spotting the pile of clothes he’d washed at the laundromat. “Oh, shit, the laundry!”

Gathering up all the wet clothes, he stumbled outside and pegged the items to the line outside the motel, scaring away sparrows. “Gonna be late, gonna be late,” he muttered to himself, dropping pegs everywhere.

Try saying ‘I’m right on time’ instead.

“What are you, my life coach? Cram it, little brother.” Dean rushed back inside, checked he had everything – trophy included – then he left the motel again through the sliding glass door. “Guess what I bought last night, Sam,” he said, smiling as stepped past his new purchase, on the tiny patio outside the motel door. “Got myself a pair of mudboots!”

Uhhh... cool.

“Totally.” They were hot pink with bows on, and Dean couldn’t even begin to explain how happy he was to find them in his size. He was pretty sure they existed by accident. He couldn’t wait to wear them later.

Locking up his motel room, Dean sighed. “Alright. I’m all set. I’ll call you later, ‘kay?”

Later.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

When Dean took the job as a new kindergarten teacher, he had expected... well, a kindergarten. But Ingen Steder Landsby’s school was, in fact, three classrooms and a playground.

Dean kept his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, smiling politely at the little old lady who apparently taught the super smart kids. Her classroom was set up in rows, with long desks spanning the room’s width, and bookshelves at the sides. The teacher remained at her desk, grading papers, the beaded chain of her horn-rimmed glasses dangling against her cashmere sweater.

Leaving that room behind and following – what was her name – Donna? – yeah – to her own classroom, Dean looked upon the kind of classroom he recognised from movies, with the folding desks and illustrations of famous inventors around the top border of the room.

“I teach the middly-level kids. Mostly eight to twelve,” Donna said, with a hair-tie in her mouth, her hands working to bunch up her blonde bob into a ponytail. “Greeaaaat kids, a bunch of fun to hang out with. Now, over heeere... We gotcha something special...”

She led Dean down the hallway, past wall displays of kids’ artwork and paper-mâché flowers – made for a spring celebration project, according to the sign stapled above.

“This one’s for you,” she said, finally getting her hair-tie in place. She tugged her hair so the ponytail raised higher atop her head, then both her hands gestured to an open wooden door.

Dean stepped inside first, and his jaw dropped. The room was bathed in sunshine, heat flowing through the folding glass doors on the far side. The windows opened up to grass. But most striking sight was the inside space.

The room was painted lilac. And it was basically empty. Just a rug – made from rainbow scrap fabric, twisted into a swirl – and a small army of beanbag chairs were lined up underneath the forest-green chalkboard.

“Awesome,” Dean breathed, peering in delight at his surroundings. “We’re gonna decorate this place so good.”

Donna squinted. “Don’t’cha mean... so... well?”

“Right, yeah,” Dean said, nodding, clicking his fingers at his new co-worker. “So freaking well.”

For a moment, Donna looked worried, but then she laughed, hands on her soft belly, and her eyes crinkled up tight, her pale cheeks blooming with a rosy pink. Her eyes were watering as she looked back at Dean. “Ohhh, you and I are gonna get along like a dollhouse on fire, Deanie.”

Dean chuckled, head ducked down. “Look, uhhh... Just so you know? I’m kinda new at this. This is actually—” he breathed out with a flash of a smile, “my first teaching job. I only got my certification a few months back. It’s Montana-based so – honestly I don’t think it’s even valid here.”

“Oh, I know, don’t you worry,” Donna said, batting Dean’s chest with her warm, chubby hand. “I hadn’t even finished my teacher training before I started here.” She leaned close, whispering, “Totally not legal. Don’t tell anyone.”

“Uh.”

“Hey, it’s the middle of nowhere,” Donna said, spreading her hands. “What can you do, eh? People take what they can get. Right now you stick out like a sore thumb, biker boy, but give it a couple weeks, handsome, and you’ll fit right in.”

Dean gave her an awkward grin.

As she led Dean from the classroom to show him the staff room (apparently they had donuts), he thought to himself that Donna was right. Last night he’d told that blonde chick at the motel he was a kindergarten teacher, and she’d shrieked and enthusiastically expressed there was a job available. He accepted on the spot, and was informed she’d let the school staff know – and now he was here.

Just like always, he took what he could get.

Maybe he just got crazy lucky, since this job was kind of perfect for him.

Or maybe there was something cosmic at play.

His money was resting on the latter.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Dean took a deep breath. He hugged his thighs, hands sweating on the beanbag’s corduroy material.

Before him were six children, sitting cross-legged on the rug. Five of them were aged five or six. One was probably eight, with Down’s Syndrome and adorable pink horn-rimmed glasses.

“Hi,” Dean said, with a smile. “So. I’m your new teacher. I’m— I’m Dean Winchester.”

He supposed he ought to write it out, so he got up, picked up some pink jumbo chalk, and wrote his name in all-caps on the chalkboard, sending chalk dust pouring into the tray below.

“There.” He sat back down. “You can call me Dean, or Mr. Dean, whatever you like.”

“Deeean... Win...ch...es...terrrrr,” the kids said together.

“Uh. Okay. You can read already. That’s a thing you guys do. All right.” Dean rubbed the back of his neck. “So. Guess I should... tell you a bit about me?”

When two of the kids nodded agreeably, Dean chuckled, relaxing a little.

“I’m, uh. New to teaching, I used to be a motorbike racer. You know,” he mimed a motorcycle’s handles, kicking the clutch and twisting the accelerator. “Vroom!”

A flutter of excitement ran through the tiny crowd, and Dean felt so validated that he grinned.

“You guys into that? ‘Cause I brought one of my old trophies,” he said, pulling the thing up from behind him. “See?” He handed the trophy to the oldest kid, so everyone could have a look. “I used to be known as ‘Night Rider’. Or sometimes I was ‘Nowhere Boy’, ‘cause I didn’t usually have a place to go after all the shows. Would crash at my brother’s place— Oh, no, not crash,” he amended, seeing the look of horror on one girl’s face. “I mean I’d go sleep on his couch. The only crashing I did was falling over into a pile of pillows.” He winked at the girl when she sighed with relief. “I was a careful driver. Always prepared.”

Dean glanced up, noticing Donna in his classroom doorway, her hands around a steaming coffee mug. Maybe her class was getting on with schoolwork and she had a minute to spare; she’d clearly come to watch him work.

Dean offered a smile. “Anyway,” he said, turning back to his students. “I gave up all the racing and the backflipping when my brother adopted a son. And I just thought, I don’t wanna be the guy who goes out in a fiery crash someday, and not be there for my nephew, you know? Wait— Is this too much?” He glanced around at his captivated audience.

“Naaahww,” said a little black boy with snot under his nose, blinking his big, round eyes behind his glasses. “Tell us!”

Dean grinned and shook his head. “I just thought, I’m still bouncing around, being Nowhere Boy, clinging to that part of me who’s still blowing wild. Dust in the wind. But, uh. Maybe I’m supposed to take root. Have some kids.” A crooked smile erupted on his face. “Got you guys now, don’t I? Six kids all for me.”

“Yeeah,” they said, in a giggly jumble.

The tiny girl who worried about the word ‘crash’ tugged on her orange pigtails, sitting up to ask, “Would you date my mom?”

Dean raised his eyebrows, hearing Donna laugh from the doorway.

Without a thought, Dean responded, grinning, “Well, I dunno. Depends. Might date your dad instead.”

The girl gasped. Dean laughed, eyes shooting to Donna, who had choked on her coffee and was now desperately trying to recover.

Shaking his head, Dean looked back at the little girl. “Nah, I’m kidding,” he assured her. “Parents are totally off-limits. Sorry ‘bout that, sweetheart.”

“It’s Madeline.”

“That’s a real pretty name, Madeline. You guys gotta tell me about you, now!” he said, slapping his thighs. “I wanna know all your names. And your favourite colours, and foods. We can even turn it into a game, how about that?”

As the kids started to get excited, chattering all at once, Dean peered over at Donna, who looked back, pleased.

She gave him a friendly two-fingered salute, and Dean grinned.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

“Hey, you,” Donna said, cornering Dean in the teacher’s room after classes. She ripped open a pack of rainbow-sprinkled cookies, and offered one to Dean, taking one herself. “Seems we have a little something in common.”

Dean raised his eyebrows, cautiously taking a cookie. “You also... teach kids?”

“Aaaand find the occasional dad kinda good-looking,” Donna said sneakily.

Dean ducked his head, huffing nervously. “Uhhh. Yeah. I just figure, if kids assume I’d date women, I gotta at least let them assume something more accurate. Widen the assumption pool. Or whatever.” He fiddled with his cookie, looking at the glaze on the top.

“Mm-hm,” Donna said. “I have a girlfriend.”

Dean looked up. “You do?”

“Or I did. Sort of. She wasn’t exactly—” Donna shrugged and tucked into her cookie. “Anyway, you ‘n me got some stuff in common, is my point.”

Dean grinned. “Awesome.”

“Another commonality being the fact we ran away,” Donna added, brushing crumbs from her fingertips. “And came to hide out here.”

Licking his lips, Dean paused. “I didn’t run away—?” He sucked on his tongue, going quiet for a moment. “Well.” He inhaled. “Guess I... did. Wow.” He shrugged a shoulder, leaning on the counter, lost in thought. “I quit the daredevil thing to support my brother and his kid. But... I’ve been travelling around all the time, trying to find a place that doesn’t suck. Haven’t actually been around for Sammy any more than before. God. Dunno what I’m looking for, if I’m bein’ honest.” His eyes dropped to his knees. “I feel like I’d know it when I find it, right?”

“Maybe you’re looking for a someone rather than a something.”

Dean felt his lips twitch up. “Yeah? You think?”

Donna nodded. “Aren’t we all?”

Dean scoffed, ready to disagree. But upon reflection, he soon admitted, “Now you mention it, dating someone doesn’t sound like a terrible idea. Like, I’m not looking. But if I found someone... Huh. Might give me a reason to stay.”

“Sure would,” Donna said encouragingly. “Heck, this might be the place you finally stop running. Settle down. Was for me.”

Eying his co-worker carefully for a few moments, watching her take another cookie, Dean began to properly relax.

Donna was right. He could feel it.

Part of him had already taken root.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

If anyone were to pass the motel, they’d see Dean, ass-up, with his face and torso inside the Impala’s engine. At least his ass looked good in these jeans. He poked around a little more, then straightened, wiping his oily hands on a leftover diner napkin. He reached for his cellphone and lifted it to his ear, other hand sheltering his eyes from the sun.

“Sam, you still there?”

Yeah, you’re on speakerphone. Jack, stop— That isn’t food! I know it’s berry-scented, but— No! Give me that!

Dean grinned, peering into his engine. “He reminds me of you.”

What? Jack, come here!

“You put strawberry cough syrup on your pancakes, one time. You remember?”

Oh my God. Jack—

“You were a shitty kid,” Dean remarked, reaching for a wrench. “And that’s coming from a brother four years older and twice as shitty. Here’s hopin’ you raise your devilspawn better than I raised you. Don’t people usually overcompensate on what their guardians failed at?”

Pff,” Sam said. “Yeah. No pancakes for Jack.

Dean almost dropped his wrench in the engine. “Oh, hell no. You are not doing that to him.”

Who said you get an opinion?

“Opinh—!” Dean stood straight, immediately fuming. “Why do you think I call you every damn day? Dude, I’m trying to weigh in. I’m trying to be there.”

Yeah? Well, maybe you could be here instead of God-knows-where. Jack, there you are. Give me that, right now.

“I thought you wanted me to settle?” Dean seethed, hand gripped tight around the Impala’s lifted hood. “Put roots down. I’m doing that.”

You’ve been there one day, Dean—

Dean heard the scrunch of approaching wheels, and his head whipped around, only to spot the guy he’d seen scarfing cake outside the bakery, coming down the lane on a blue bicycle. He was going to pass within earshot, and Dean had no intention of arguing in front of a stranger.

—like for God’s sakes, Dean, you weren’t here when Jack turned three, and you’re not here now, almost a year on, so what the hell would make me believe you have any intention of—

“Yeah, I love you too,” Dean said, as Cupcake Guy came close, eyes set interestedly on Dean. “No, I love you more.”

Dean, what the hell are you talking about?

“No, I love you more,” Dean smiled, sweetly, head turning from one shoulder to the other as Cupcake Guy whizzed past. “No, I love you the mostest.”

Dean, are you talking to me?

Dean went silent: Cupcake Guy stopped dead in his tracks, fifteen feet down the lane. He sighed to himself, shoulders tense, and Dean faintly heard him snap, “That is it. I’m not putting up with this any longer. I’m going to do something about it.”

With that, he lifted his bike between his legs, waddled around in a circle until he was facing back the way he’d come. With a ferociously determined expression, dark brows drawn together, he sat on his bike seat and pushed down on the pedals, over and over until he sped up, whooshing past Dean again.

Dean turned to watch him go.

Dean? Dean, are you still there? I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say all that, I was mad at Jack, not you. It’s just hard by myself sometimes. Kind of overwhelming.” Sam sighed slowly. “I know I never really say it, but – I do love you. And I get why you’re not here. I found my soul-nourishing forever-project. You didn’t yet. You’re still looking. I get it.

Dean blinked back into full awareness. “What? Oh— Oh. Right. Yeah.” He nodded, feeling out of sorts, like something important just happened. “I... I guess I love you too, little brother. You weirdo.”

Sam chuckled. “Listen, I’ve gotta go. Berry hand-cream to wash down. Non-toxic, apparently. Yay.

“Yeah.” Dean bit his lip, smiling with his eyes set on the bicycle and its rider, who shrank into the distance, obscured by the grass in a nearby field. “Bye, Sammy. Talk soon.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel saw his reflection in the glass door of Rowena’s shop, his expression stubborn and fearful at once. The sign hung on the glass was hand-painted in black with white letters, and it said ‘OPEN’, with a five-pointed star inside the O.

He approached the door, eyes on the cauldron in the purple-framed window, the black pot stuffed with herbs and surrounded by giant, glistening geode crystals. Swallowing, Castiel reached for the golden doorknob. It was hot from the sun, and stung his hand as he pushed the door open. He let it go quickly, and eased the door shut behind him.

“Hello?” he called.

Tiny windchimes still sang beside his shoulder, announcing his presence. The smell of fifty different kinds of incense sticks filled his nose, bathing him in a cool, calm feeling that somehow felt like the colour purple. The decor in here was dark, most shelves painted black, hung with bunches of herbs and decorated with stars.

Castiel stepped forward unsurely, eyes dancing across the multitudes of tarot decks for sale, triple-stacked in the shelves, then examining the sign that advertised the shop’s online store, and offered a discount code for the shipping and handling fee.

“Is anyone in here?” Castiel called again, looking into the darker depths of the shop. He saw a draped velvet curtain, hiding another room from view. “I— I’m looking for a... a love reading. Like the one on the sign outside?”

Somehow he didn’t feel strange, speaking aloud to an empty room. Someone was listening.

“Rowena?”

Suddenly, Rowena stepped out through the curtain, holding a china teapot. She lifted it. “Tea?”

Castiel smiled nervously. “Um. Okay. Hello.”

“Come through, I’m just setting up.”

Castiel followed her behind the checkout counter, through the curtain. The back room was draped in swathes of glossy fabric from ceiling to floor, with a round table in the very centre. Rowena had two teacups set there, in the centre of a velour tablecloth stitched with a pentagram.

“Were you expecting me?” Castiel asked, confused, as Rowena sat him down at the table, then poured him some tea.

“Ach, I’m always expecting people,” Rowena said, pouring her own tea, then taking her seat opposite Castiel. She reached to the nearby lampshade, and wrenched off a dusty, tasselled shawl, so the light turned from dim rouge to golden.

She smiled, eyebrows pressing into her straight orange bangs. “Now,” she said, in a preparatory way, “What can I do for you? Has the time finally come, when our local animal doctor turns away from science and indulges—” Rowena leaned forward, lifting her hand and wriggling her fingers mysteriously, “in a wee bit of magic?”

Castiel licked his lips. Without a reply, he picked up his teacup, held it to his lips, blowing away the heat, then took a sip. Chamomile. His favourite.

“I need,” he started, setting his wrists down on the table, “help.”

“Aye. Don’t we all.”

Castiel smiled. “I want a— What do you call it? A fortune reading. About my life. I want to know how to bring my... soulmate... how to bring someone special into my life.”

“Aha, yes, that’s something I can do,” Rowena said, reaching blindly to pick up a hand-sized box. She lifted out a thick stack of cards, bigger than playing cards, all with gilded sides. She looked at the top card – a pentagram, right-way-up to Castiel but upside-down in her view – and she huffed. “Or not.”

She put the deck down again, humming thoughtfully. “I know,” she said, clicking her manicured claws together. “How about you and I cut right to the chase,” she said, her grin seeming cat-like, eyes friendly but ravenous as they looked into Castiel’s. “Let’s skip the part where I ask the universe how your paths will cross, and what they’ll be like, and instead, I can summon them to you.”

More carelessly, and quickly, she added, “Price is three times that of a love reading but is guaranteed to call forth your dream lover, either temporarily, or for either of your lifetimes. I take no responsibility for any upset or harm suffered at the hands of said lover, as their personality depends on what you crave, not my magic. My witch’s guarantee lasts a year and a day, and if your lover has not appeared in that time, then I forfeit the price of the spell, precluding any financial inflation incurred between the dates.”

She then peered at Castiel through her mascaraed lashes, and fluttered them. “Do you accept the terms?”

Castiel gaped for a moment, then nodded. He couldn’t begin to doubt Rowena’s confidence that such a thing would work; not now, not when this could be his last chance to find someone. Forty years, and nothing. He was desperate. As hard as he’d tried, his people skills remained rusty. If logic, scheming, and hard work never prevailed for him in the social department, perhaps something else would work better.

Humming and muttering to herself, Rowena went around the room, collecting herbs from a cabinet at the side of the room, tipping things from glass jars and into a stone bowl. She brought crystals, and incense, and a box of matches.

Sitting before Castiel again, she lit the incense stick with a match, and wafted the red-hot tip around with a rooster-feather fan, until the twirl of smoke folded over the table, cloaking everything in its umber scent.

She set the incense in a holder, then took a decorated twig – it looked like a twig, maybe it was a wand – and she drew an invisible circle around herself and Castiel, sweeping around and around over her head like a lasso, the beaded sleeves of her ballgown clacking and swishing as she went. Castiel didn’t see a bubble forming, but he felt safe and enclosed in this space when Rowena lay down her wand.

Tickles of excitement rose in Castiel’s belly. He was about to be part of something incredible, he just knew it.

“And now,” Rowena said, placing her hands over Castiel’s. “We shall begin.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

To celebrate his first day at work, and, incidentally, to unwind afterwards, Dean pulled the drapes in his motel room tightly shut, flipped the TV on with the remote, fetched a beer from the fridge, then sat down at the end of his bed, undid his jeans, and slipped his hand into his underwear.

He sighed, shutting his eyes. “Yeeeah. Perfect.”

Working his fist until he got himself hard, he flicked opened his eyes and skimmed through channels until he saw something agreeable.

Scooby Doo? No, that was weird.

But maybe Daphne... and Fred...

Dean snorted and changed the channel, unwilling to sully his childhood memories.

Casa Erotica XII? Ehhh. He’d seen that one twice already.

Gunner Lawless’ Wrestling Wins – A Compilation: Then and Now.

Ah, a classic! Dean grinned and tossed away the remote, sinking back on his free hand, starting to relax.

Onscreen, his favourite wrestling champion pounded the other guy into the dust, and Dean bit his lip, hot just from the sight. All those hard muscles. That face. He tilted his head, purring to himself as Gunner put his opponent in a leglock, spinning the guy right out of the ring like he was a ragdoll.

“Hmmmhhh...” Dean shut his eyes, tipping back a swig of beer as he jacked off, blissed by the sound of the TV. Roaring crowds. Explosions, fire, hard rock, and booze? Hell yes. Tough girls, butch guys... Mm. That was his element. That was his happy place.

He opened his eyes, and looked upon Gunner Lawless’ handsome, smirking face.

“Oh, yeah,” Dean sighed. “Even better.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

“What I want you to do,” Rowena said, “is imagine your perfect lover.”

Castiel’s mind flashed with the sight of Pie Man, ass-up as he examined that old car outside the inn, looking up when Castiel passed. But Castiel shook his head. “I don’t know what I like.”

“What kind of person could you imagine... giving yourself to? Laying down your body, and your life, and spreading yourself bare for. Spilling every secret to. Laughing with. Growing old with. Someone who could tell you they want to do something wild and fantastic, and you’d take their hand and say ‘oh, my love, of course – but only if I come with you’.”

Castiel looked down into his cooling teacup and shook his head.

“Well,” Rowena said curiously, “Do you want someone strong and handsome – or, let’s say, soft and pretty? Bold – or delicate? Fiercely independent? Or perhaps family-oriented instead? How about confident? Or maybe shy.” She shrugged a bony shoulder. “Outspoken... or demure,” she suggested, in a sultry way. “Aggressive? Or gentle? Emotional, or stoic?”

When Castiel didn’t answer, Rowena tutted, “Let’s try the easy one. Feminine, or masculine?”

Castiel wet his lips. “Yes.”

“Yes?”

“All of the above. Every single one.”

Rowena seemed stumped. “How can someone be all of those things? They contradict, my darling.”

Castiel shrugged. “They all sound good.”

Rowena puffed out a lungful of air. “I’d imagine someone with all of those traits might have a wee personality problem, don’t you think?”

Raising his eyebrows, Castiel replied, “Well, if that’s what they’re dealing with, then I’m willing to deal with it too. Maybe I could help them. Maybe they could help me.”

Rowena drew a breath through her teeth, like she didn’t think this was a good idea at all. But she shook her head and the expression melted; she gave in to Castiel’s word. “Close your eyes, angel. Close them. Hold my hand. And hold in your mind the idea of your love.”

Again, Castiel’s mind flashed with the only unfamiliar face he’d seen in months. Pie Man. A total stranger. He frowned and shook the image away, focusing instead on the feeling of being loved by a friend, the ache he’d had in his heart for so long. He wanted someone to soothe his ache. And he wanted someone to care for in return.

“Breathe the smoke deeply, now,” Rowena purred. “You and I are going to braid the strings of Fate.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Dean lay back on the bed, fist hitting his pelvic bone on every downstroke. “Hm,” he moaned, head pushing back into the bedspread. “Hmm, mm—”

On the screen, Gunner Lawless thrust back the ringside ropes, and used their elasticity to launch himself to the other side, showing off. Dean grinned, watching through blurry eyes. “Yeaah...”

The TV glitched, fuzzing with frantic stripes. Dean frowned, perking his head up. Interference?

From outside the motel came a low drone, and Dean peered towards the drapes, wondering if a car was approaching, or a plane was flying overhead. But the drone became a crack, and then a thrum, shaking the ground, and Dean realised it was thunder.

The lights flickered, the TV snapping off, screen dark as the electronics whined into silence.

Thunder rolled again, and the lights turned off completely, leaving Dean in the blackness, his hand around his erection.

He heard his breath in the silence. Felt his heartbeat in his throat.

He licked his lips and pushed himself back into his pants. Lightning struck outside, spiking three flashes of cold white luminescence up all the walls. Alarmed, Dean sat up.

The rain started. It pitter-pattered on the tin roof of the motel, already gushing down the drains in the walls; Dean could hear it. A hard wind joined the cacophony, whoooing through a gap in a window and rattling a nearby gate.

Dean stood up, feeling spooked. In total darkness, he felt alone in the universe. Floating. Weightless in empty space.

Lightning struck again, and he saw his way to the motel door, yanking open the curtain. Rain slashed against the glass, pouring in waterfalls and rivulets, too fast and manic for Dean to sit and race raindrops. He stepped back, feeling chills falling from the glass, cool on his face, washing out across his socks like dry ice.

Thunder cracked, then boomed, and the glass door shook inside its frame. Dean saw his wide-eyed reflection in silver as lightning came down, striking once from the clouds but not meeting the ground.

But in the light, Dean saw something. “Shit, the laundry.”

It wasn’t too late, right? His clothes might not be soaked through yet.

He opened up the motel’s glass door, toeing at his new mudboots to get them upright, slipping his feet in one at a time. They were damp inside.

Dean hurried across the grass, past his motorcycle, past his Impala. He ran to the washing line, shaking water off his open palms – hey, rainwater counted as hand-washing, right? – and he began yanking items off the line, bundling them over one arm. His scalp was cold and tickly now, hair and face dripping with water.

“Come on, come on,” Dean uttered, grabbing for things, flinching as a great boom of thunder ate up the sky, followed immediately by a slash of white lightning, striking the ground in the nearest field. Dean gasped and swept up the last of his laundry, turning to flee, kicking his mudboots back outside without caring how they landed, then slamming the door and locking it. All the laundry fell to the carpet, and Dean pulled the drapes shut on top of the pile.

“Nope nope nope,” he breathed, shaking his head, pacing deeper into the motel room. “Fuck that. Fuck that. Nope.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

This seemed like a scene from a movie, Castiel thought. Rowena rocked back and forth in her chair, chanting something that certainly wasn’t English, or Latin, but the sounds were bright and rounded in his mind, like marbles. Though Castiel kept his eyes closed, he could easily imagine that only the whites of her eyes showed, that a light grew around her form without an obvious source, and – then! – as she tipped her head back, shouting her chant to the universe, her voice carried further than the cloaked ceiling of the back room. He heard the echoes. He felt the tremors in the Earth. He heard the thunder rolling, when the sky had been clear only minutes ago. Even through closed eyes he could tell that the light was flickering, flashing red and black across his lids.

The ground quaked, and Castiel’s heart quaked—

And in the rolling, shaking chaos, a name came to his mind out of nowhere.

D e a n...

He knew nobody by that name.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

The lights came back on. Dean stood in the middle of his motel room, hands latched behind his neck, out of breath. He glanced around. The TV was back on, Gunner Lawless raising his hands around a victory belt as the crowd cheered. The lampshades in the corners of the room glowed a pleasant amber.

Dean looked towards the glass sliding door, still able to hear the rain past the drapes.

Thunder growled from outside.

Dean had never been afraid of storms. He wasn’t afraid now, either, not really. But that didn’t make him eager to go outside and dance in the rain, or anything. Even though it had been kinda... thrilling, being out there. Kind of electric. Like he was the switch in a circuit, just waiting for something or someone to turn him on.

With a wary glance to the TV, he picked up the remote, ready to turn the screen off.

Gunner looked so damn good there, all sweaty and strong. But Dean’s arousal had well and truly faded, and he smirked a farewell before plunging the screen back to a comfortable blackness.

Shaking his head, he pulled off his shirt, undid his jeans, and started to get ready for bed. He didn’t even want to finish his beer.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

It had all stopped so suddenly. The rumbling ground felt steady again, Rowena’s clenching hand went lax in Castiel’s, and when Castiel snapped his eyes open, the lampshade nearby was no longer flickering, or rocking on its perch.

Now Rowena relaxed, smiling, pulling a lock of her hair out of her mouth, thumbing away the streak of red lipstick. “Ah, well then,” she said lightly.

“Is it— Are we done?” Castiel asked.

“Drink your tea,” Rowena advised, rather tiredly, as she scooped up her own teacup and sipped it, eyes closed. “Oh my Goddess. Time for beddy-byes, I think.”

Rather stunned, Castiel sipped his lukewarm chamomile infusion. It rode smoothly down his throat, quenching a thirst he’d been unaware of. He drained the cup in six seconds, then lurched forward, puffing out some air to blow away the flower petals that clung to his lips.

“Ah, yesyesyes, let me see,” Rowena beckoned, taking the teacup from Castiel. She looked inside, while Castiel plucked another petal off his tongue.

“Mmm... mm-hm,” Rowena nodded. “A good sign. A very good sign. See?” She showed Castiel the cup. He peered in, and saw immediately what Rowena had seen.

“There’s a loveheart in my cup,” he frowned. “Made out of tea leaves.”

“My darling, have you ever considered that you might have some power of your own?” Rowena smiled. “My spells are only ever as good as the person who opens their mind to them. You, my dear, are wide open.”

Castiel pressed his lips together, looking down. “Umm. I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.”

“Go home,” Rowena said kindly, touching Castiel’s hand. “And if you feel the urge to do something strange and dramatic – something magical – something you’d never thought about doing before? You do it. Don’t question it.”

Castiel thought about that, then nodded.

“You can pay me on your way out,” Rowena said, standing up, tossing back the rest of her tea. “I take cash, credit, or check.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Dean got into bed. He stared at the darkened ceiling, hearing the wind howl. Every few moments, the room hummed with a roll of thunder, and flashed with lightning.

How was he meant to sleep like this?

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel rode home in the rain, cycling with his head down, the LED on the front of his bicycle lighting the lane ahead of him. The beam broke and scattered as the rain swept his path, and his bicycle wheels spat up puddles as they went, but he didn’t slow, just kept going.

His trenchcoat soaked through. His hair stuck to his forehead.

He didn’t stop until he reached home.

Thunder collapsed down around his ears, but he felt no fear, knowing somehow that the noise and the great release of the sky were his own fears and trauma being released. He let himself bathe in it, wheeling his bike up his cottage path in a state of serenity.

He rested his bicycle on the porch, then turned to the sky.

He raised his arms at his sides as lightning struck the ground, and he smiled, speaking aloud to the universe, whatever cosmic fates ruled the lives of mediocre humans in villages in the middle of nowhere.

“Bring me the love of my life,” Castiel said aloud, his voice deep, eyes shut. “Bring me the love of my life.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

For the second time now, Dean felt a weird urge to get out of bed and watch the storm. Maybe stand in it.

No way was he actually going to do it. Only crazy people let themselves get wet and struck by lightning.

He rolled over in bed, covered his head with his pillow, and shut his eyes tight.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel opened his eyes, and as the thunder went silent, he whispered one more time. “Bring me the love of my life.”

He looked up, as light bloomed in the clouds above. After forty years... at last, the universe had heard.

Everything was going to change.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Four hours was the minimum amount of sleep Dean needed to exist like a real human person. He’d had two fewer hours than that.

Motel coffee contained enough caffeine to lift his body to a stable level of functionality, where he wouldn’t be walking into doors or dropping things in the toilet. Breakfast of bacon and eggs made his brain work, so maybe he wouldn’t insult someone if they spoke with a slightly arrogant tone. But the extra slice of cake he’d bought from the bakery was exactly what he needed to acquire the ability to smile at people who were nice to him.

He stepped out the door, and realised the nice sunny farmland had turned into the land of mud overnight.

And he was immediately Done With Everything again.

“Fuck.” He stuck his hands on his hips and glared at the view. Everything was wet and mushy.

He glanced to the leather combat boots he wore. Not willing to dirty them, he looked around for his mudboots, supposing the kindergarten kids and Donna wouldn’t judge him too hard for pink footwear.

He spotted them ten feet from the motel, one leaning against his Impala, the other flat on the grass.

With a sigh, Dean tiptoed across the grass in his leather boots, grimacing when he slid in place with every step.

He lifted the upright boot, tipping out the collected rainwater.

Making his way to the other boot, he bent down, ready to swipe it up – but he paused.

The boot was chirping.

Cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep.

Birds?

Crouching down slowly, Dean lifted the open end of the boot with a single finger so he could see inside. He felt a soft, tumbling weight fall to the bottom. There was something alive. In his boot.

“Great,” he said, straightening up, taking both boots with him. He went back to the motel, sitting on the carpet inside with his feet outside, taking off his combat boots.

He stood inside his room again, and took a proper look in his mudboot, expecting something injured or gross.

“Oh,” he said, eyebrows rising. “Hiii.” He couldn’t help but smile.

Three little ducklings. All of them were brown with a yellow stripe across their eyes, which merged with a fluffy bib on their chests.

They were cheeping nervously, aware they had been moved, but not old enough to think of Dean as a threat. He didn’t know a whole lot about birds, but he knew the size of an egg, and these guys were only twice that size, and half of them was fluff, which meant they were probably only a few days old.

Dean felt his heart melting. This was better than coffee, breakfast, and sugar. He was fully awake, now. A handful of baby ducks to look after? Caffeine for his soul.

Dean did spend a good ten minutes looking for their mother, but she was clearly nowhere around. And so, after he’d carefully tipped the ducklings into one of his cardboard boxes, he took the box under his arm, started up his motorcycle, and drove to work with his new babies held safely on his lap.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

“Donna!” Dean whispered across the staff room, eyes darting around to make sure the other teacher wasn’t in earshot. Nope; she was out monitoring the playground right now. “Donna, come look.”

Donna came close, offering Dean a donut, then getting distracted and eating it herself. “What’cha got there?”

Dean bit his lip, hand protectively over the cardboard box. He slowly lifted the lid, and smiled when Donna gave a soft gasp.

“Oh my gooooosh,” she trilled, dropping her donut on her plate, brushing the sugar away to hold the box flaps. “Where did you get these?”

“Found ‘em,” Dean said, waggling his boot. “In these suckers this morning.”

“Have you fed them?”

“Not yet. Dunno what to give ‘em. Tried looking it up online, but it took me longer to load Google on the school computer than it took me to drive here.”

“What I always do is call my friend Jody,” Donna said, reaching to tickle the cheek of one duckling, who shuffled away to sit on its sibling, keeping warm. “Or used to do, when us two were still talking. She lives outta town, she’s got a better connection. She’s got broadband.”

Dean snorted. “Yeah. Guess I could call my brother.” He lifted his phone from his pocket, starting to dial.

“Maybe don’t share the duckies with the kids,” Donna suggested. “Not until the vet’s taken a look. Don’t wanna pass on a germ, or let the kids handle something that’s too fragile.”

Dean nodded, hitting the call button and lifting the phone to his ear. It rang a few times before Sam picked up. “Heya, Sam.”

Hey. Aren’t you working? What is this, your morning break? Is this an emergency?

“Kinda? I need you to find out what ducks eat. Baby ones.”

Uhhhh... why?

Dean snorted. “I’m starting a new diet. Why’d you think, smartass? I found some ducks in my boots without a mom, need to keep ‘em alive until the vet can take them.”

Oh... kay...?

Dean gave Sam a minute to look it up, no doubt juggling a healthy snack for Jack and a dishcloth at the same time.

Chopped veggies,” Sam said eventually. “And bugs.

“Ew,” Dean said. He repeated Sam’s answer to Donna, who was still fawning over the ducks.

Donna smiled. “What got your goat, the veggies or the bugs?”

“Both. Equally.”

Who’s that?” Sam asked, apparently overhearing Donna.

“Co-worker,” Dean said. “Donna, say hi.” He offered her his phone.

“Oh— Oh. Hello,” Donna said. “Sam, right? How’s it goin’?”

Dean didn’t hear what Sam said, but he heard the jibbering of his phone voice for a good thirty, maybe forty seconds, and Donna laughed, scrunching up her nose. “Oh, please, I already figured that one out. He was so happy about those pink boots’a his. Not too hard to make the leap.”

Dean pulled back the phone, smiling. “Thanks, Sammy. I’ll raid the staff fridge. Probably got some lettuce in there somewhere.”

Alright. Let me know how things go. Hey— Are you really not gonna keep them? The ducklings?

“Pff. Come on, I don’t know the first thing about raising babies.”

Well, you seem like you’re on the right track. Feed them, keep them warm and safe. See what the vet says, but – maybe don’t be so quick to give them up, you know? Being responsible for something tiny and cute... it could really help you grow as a person.

Dean pulled a face. “Right. Noted.”

Get back to work, Dean.

“Ye-huh. Bye— Bye.” Dean hung up, tutting. “Lettuce.”

“I got a carrot stick and some cucumber?” Donna offered.

“That’ll do. Just to tide ‘em over until after work, right? They’ll be fine.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel had not felt this hopeful in years.

This wasn’t the sort of ‘hopeful’ where he sat quietly, fidgeting, doing odd jobs without much substance, trying to take his mind off things in case today really was the day Charlie delivered a parcel he’d been waiting for for weeks.

This was the kind of ‘hopeful’ where he all but forgot what he was waiting for, where everything he saw seemed radiant, where breakfast tasted glorious even when it was identical to what he’d eaten daily since mid-winter. The vet clinic seemed to be filled with sunshine, and dog howls sounded melodic.

Castiel gave an old lady a free consultation because she’d misplaced her coin purse; he showed two women how to use the dog-weighing machine, and helped them weigh their guinea pig on the scales, smiling the whole time. He rode out on his bicycle to vaccinate a horse, examine a pregnant sheep, and help deliver her stuck lambs. Once he returned to the clinic, the rest of his day passed in a hop, skip, and a jump, and when he first looked up at the clock, he was startled to realise it was time to go home.

Rather bewildered, he collected his coat and loosened his necktie, filing away the last of his patient notes on his way out. He was about to bid his co-workers adieu when he overheard Billie on the staff phone, talking while she reapplied her dark red lipstick.

“I’ll be there soon,” Billie said quietly, eyes flicking to Castiel when she noticed him looking. She smiled at him, averting her eyes. “There’s one patient left in the waiting room, I’ll be home after that. You put the movie on, I’ll bring the popcorn, yeah?” She grinned.

“Billie,” Castiel said, approaching. “I can take your patient. Go spend time with Charlie.”

Billie looked up, her soulful brown eyes first alarmed, then softening with gratitude. “Hold that thought,” she said to Charlie, grinning as she capped and pocketed her lipstick. “I’ll bring ice-cream too. Prepare the spoons.”

Castiel nodded, taking the phone from Billie; she handed it over and moved away to pack up.

“Charlie?” Castiel said into the phone, feeling the lingering warmth from Billie’s hands.

What’s up, hot stuff? What’s this about ice-cream?

“It’s no problem,” Castiel smiled. “I don’t mind staying late.”

Aw. Anyone ever tell you you’re the bestest? ‘Cause you so are.

Castiel smiled wider, bowing his head. “Anything for the world’s best post lady. How are things at your end?”

Ah, pretty decent, actually. Eddie’s got a new schoolteacher, did Donna say—?

They had a short conversation, then said their companionable goodbyes. When Castiel hung up, he went straight through to the waiting room, still holding his coat. Indeed, one man – Pie Man – sat alone on the seats against the wall, his head down so he could peer into a cardboard box. The box had ‘NIGHT RIDER CRAP’ on its side in thick marker. He was wearing pink waterproof boots.

Castiel blinked twice, feeling a stir of recognition from last night. “Dean?”

Pie Man looked up. “Cupcake Guy?”

Castiel gave a stunned, breathy laugh.

Pie Man – Dean – stood up, holding his box carefully. “So – do I come through, or...?”

Flustered, Castiel came to his senses, and nodded, gesturing to the examination room. “Yes,” he nodded. “Yes, come in.”

Dean went first, leading a wave of an incredible scent that struck Castiel’s heart with its potency. Dean smelled otherworldly. Castiel’s mouth started to water.

He shut the door, sealing himself and Dean into the white linoleum cube. Dean set his box down on the stainless steel table, licking his plump lips, his eyelashes fluttering slightly as he watched Castiel move opposite, laying his coat on a wheely stool.

“So you’re the vet, huh,” Dean said. “What do I call you? ‘Cause ‘Cupcake Guy’ ain’t too flattering, gotta be honest. You look better without the icing on your nose.”

Castiel laughed, chin to his chest. He felt his skin heating up.

When he looked up again, Dean was peering at him expectantly.

“What?” Castiel said, confused.

“Name?” Dean smiled.

“Wh— Oh! Oh, yes. Castiel. Castiel, that’s me.” Castiel stuck out his hand.

Dean took it, over the top of the box. He held it tight, but didn’t shake.

Castiel exhaled and pulled back, curling his hand into a fist.

“Ahhh,” Dean said. “Alright, guess I better explain the situation.” He pushed the box towards Castiel, and Castiel peered in to see three chirping mallard ducklings, crowded together in a corner of the box. There were little spots of poop on the paper towel under them. “Um,” Dean started. “Found these in my boots.”

“After the storm, I imagine,” Castiel remarked. The ducklings scampered away from his hand as he reached for them, but he lifted one, and it relaxed on his fingers, one black webbed foot dangling. “They were looking for shelter.”

“Yeah.” Dean pushed up a sad smile. “Guess they lost their mom.”

“Or moms,” Castiel said, setting the first duck on the table, then reaching for the other two. “One of these is a couple of days younger than the others. Mmm, three to five days, I’d say. The smallest is only two days. Eggs tend to hatch all on the same day, and ducklings follow the first creature they see. Except sometimes, if they get lost, they get confused, and they’ll tag onto another mother duck with her babies.”

Castiel took Dean’s hand from behind – oh, big knuckles and soft skin – laying it palm-up so the youngest duck could be tipped into his hand.

“This one is not as strong as the others,” Castiel said, “See how she sits down in your palm right away? She needs some food, some warmth, and some rest.”

“Yeah, I gave ‘em cucumber bits and some chewed-up carrots,” Dean said with a grimace. “Had to get through the school day before coming here.”

“Aha, you’re the new schoolteacher,” Castiel realised. “Not three minutes ago, Charlie told me she delivered something to your classroom today, and saw you dancing the— The ‘macarena’? In a cowboy hat. The children were in stitches, laughing while they tried to copy.”

Dean’s cheeks turned a very bright shade of vermillion within two seconds flat. “Heh.”

“The children clearly love you,” Castiel assured Dean, holding his wrist for a moment, then moving away to examine the older ducklings. “Anyone who’s ready and willing to make a fool of themselves for entertainment is likely to be... ahm.” He met Dean’s green eyes, then avoided them, as he seemed very interested in the rest of Castiel’s sentence. “A lovable person.”

Dean blushed some more.

Castiel drew a shaky breath. “Anyway,” he uttered, “Your ducklings are fine, if hungry. That squeaking sound they’re making – and all the nibbling they’re doing to your hands, that’s them asking for food.”

“So what do I feed them?”

“Right, yes. We have chick food available here; it’s almost nutritionally complete, but I’d recommend adding occasional mealworms and lettuce. You take a little of the grain and mix it with water until it becomes a paste; they’ll eat that until they can handle dry food. Make sure they always have water, but put a stone in the trough. They may be ducks but they can still drown.”

Dean nodded, and nodded, and looked worried, then assured, then worried again.

“You’ll need to invest in a heat pad, so they don’t get cold at night; they need their mother’s warmth. Their enclosure needs cleaning out every day – keep them inside for a while, perhaps in a bathtub or sink—”

“I don’t have a bath,” Dean said, apparently to himself.

“A sink will do; anywhere washable, unless you intend to use up Ingen Steder’s full stock of paper towels in a single week. I’m sure you’ve noticed, they poop a lot.”

Dean fretted, shifting on his feet. “Ah... Okay. My sink’s not real big either, but— Where do I get a heat pad? And what is a heat pad? Is it expensive? Like, is there a budget-friendly version? And – don’t I need to teach them how to swim or somethin’? H-How do I know they’re getting enough nutrients? How do I know when they’re ready to get outta the sink? How do I make sure they don’t peck each other, too – ‘cause the bigger ones were kinda bumping on the little one, and it gets tired real quick—” Dean silenced himself by biting his lower lip, putting white dents in the red.

Castiel began to smile. “Well, you’re asking the right questions.”

Dean raised his eyebrows, expecting answers.

Castiel chuckled, shaking his head as he looked down. “I, um. I have all the food and necessary equipment at my house. I have no need for it, you can have it if you want.”

“How much—”

“No charge,” Castiel said kindly.

“It’s no problem, I got my wallet—”

“Dean, really,” Castiel said, touching Dean’s arm as he put his ducklings back into their box. “I only need to lock up this building and we can go collect everything you need. I can answer your questions once we’re there.”

Dean hesitated. But then nodded, and smiled. “Awesome. Thanks, man. ‘Preciate it.”

Castiel went to wash his hands in the sink at the side of the room, soaping twice and scrubbing up to his wrists. He dried his hands on a rough paper towel, turning to Dean with curiosity tickling in his chest. “Your name is Dean, isn’t it,” he inquired.

Dean looked up from the box, lips parted. “Uh? Yeah? You got it in your records already, the chick at the front desk double-checked the spelling.”

Castiel blinked twice, lowering his eyes, nodding. He hadn’t seen the records, or overheard the conversation. Charlie hadn’t mentioned such a detail. He only knew Dean’s name by the shape of the sound that had formed in his heart last night.

He looked away, hiding how on edge he felt. “Give me five minutes,” he said quietly. “Wait outside and I’ll join you as soon as I’m done here.”

Dean smiled, eyes gleaming as he lifted away the box.

Castiel opened the the examination room’s door for him – and breathed in his scent as they left together.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Brilliant sunlight warmed Castiel’s shoulders and forehead as he stepped out into the village square. He pocketed the key for the clinic, reaching for his bicycle.

Peering over his shoulder, he saw Dean near the fountain, sitting on the outer edge, head down. Castiel could just about hear him muttering soft, affirming things to the ducklings in the box on his lap. A smile graced Castiel’s face, just as warm as the sunshine.

“Any luck?” came a curious voice.

Castiel looked over to see Rowena loitering outside her shop, hands around a cup of tea. As per usual, she wore a full-length ballgown, tight around her hips and flared at the sleeves.

“With your lover,” Rowena clarified. “Any signs from the universe yet?”

Still smiling, Castiel looked over at Dean. He drew an unsure breath – was Dean the one? Was he the answer to a forty-year question?

“Ahhh,” Rowena said, knowingly. Castiel’s eyes shot her way, observing her sly smile. “Better snatch him up quick! Before someone else gets him. Miss Donna from the schoolhouse told me he’s quite the rapscallion.”

Castiel raised his eyebrows. “I-I thought your spell guaranteed Dean would be – whoever would be... my soulmate...?”

Rowena sipped her tea pointedly. “Aye. But it’s not a love spell, my dear. I don’t make him fall for you. I haven’t created a person out of thin air. I simply helped to rearrange circumstances so you would meet. If he’s the sort to wander, there’s no telling how long you have before he slips away.”

Castiel frowned. “But the pentagram on his jacket. He’s not a friend of yours—?”

“Heavens, no. I’ve never seen him before in my life.”

Dean stood up from the fountain, spying Castiel across the square. He raised an arm to wave, and Castiel waved back. He began wheeling his bike over, but slowed down, calling back to Rowena, “Thank you.”

“You’re completely welcome, my child. Recommend me to your friends; I do events!”

Castiel went to Dean’s side, smiling wider when he saw Dean’s grin.

“So, where do you live?” Dean asked. The sun played up the astonishing green pigment of his eyes, and Castiel now noticed just how many freckles Dean had on his face, across his cheeks and nose and forehead.

“Ah... Down the lane, a few miles,” Castiel said, gesturing with his chin towards the bridge that led out of the square. “Where’s your motorcycle?”

“Over the bridge,” Dean said, walking beside Castiel as they made their way there. “Didn’t seem polite to bring anything with that kind of horsepower into a delicate little place like this.” Dean shoved an elbow towards Castiel, then nodded at all the pretty flowerboxes and newly-leafed trees in planters. “Talk about a bull in a china shop. I got expert control but I’d hate to break somethin’.”

“Considerate,” Castiel said, unable to tear his gaze off the other man as they walked, Dean holding his box of ducks carefully. His skin glowed in the sunshine, apparently bronzed by years on the open road.

Dean tucked his lower lip under the tip of his tongue, making it shiny. He glanced at Castiel as they neared the foot of the bridge. “You know anythin’ about motorcycles?”

“Not a bit,” Castiel said honestly. “I only know they’re loud and fast.”

“And sexy,” Dean grinned, tilting his head. “No?”

Castiel chuckled, head down. “Perhaps. I’ve yet to see your bike in action.” He lifted his chin as they ascended the bridge. “I’m quite impressed, Dean. I saw you examining it but I didn’t find out until today— Rumour is you purchased the Chevy Impala outside Ellen’s inn.”

Dean scoffed. “Wow, word really gets around in this place, don’t it? Yeah. Yeah, she was the whole reason I even stopped here.”

“Ellen?”

“No, the Impala.”

“Ah.”

They slowed to a halt on the apex of the bridge, as Dean had lain a hand on the stonework, eager to peer over to see the river. Just outside the village square, the deep channel ran past central Ingen Steder Landsby like a moat, carved three feet under ground-level. Two swans sailed out from under the bridge, their shapes searing white on blue water. Willow tree roots hung into the water further along, and the line ran into the distance, masked by trees and bends in the river.

“God, this place is so beautiful,” Dean breathed.

Castiel felt a funny shock, deep inside: the static of realisation.

It was, wasn’t it? This place was Heaven on Earth. Castiel had always counted himself lucky to live here, and he’d been trying to practise gratitude – this was beautiful, he was lucky to see this – but it wasn’t until this very moment, standing within touching distance of Dean, hearing him speak as an outsider, that Castiel realised how blessed he really was.

He’d grown up here. This river, that bakery, the tiny schoolhouse; it was all he’d ever known. Even when he lived in Boston to study, his roots never left this peculiar Colorado hamlet. And even now, he stayed, despite the craving for new company having become unbearable. Why? Because he’d always felt, deep down, that Ingen Steder Landsby was the only place in the world he ought to be.

Castiel stared at Dean, thankful for being shown something he’d never seen before, simply because he’d seen it too many times.

Dean swallowed, then started down the slope of the bridge. Castiel went after him, trotting to catch up, wheeling his bicycle along with him.

Dean had parked his motorcycle under a big tree. Castiel was sure most outsiders would have chained the bike to the trunk, but Dean had not. He kicked up the metal stand and climbed aboard, settling onto the wide leather seat, taking a bulbous black helmet in both hands. He looked over at Castiel’s bike and chuffed.

“No helmet,” Dean observed.

“I’ve never crashed,” Castiel said.

“Yeah? Well, it only takes one mistake. Here.”

Castel looked over; Dean offered him a spare motorbike helmet, this one without a visor, just ear flaps and a chin strap. There was a skull printed on the back.

“Oh, no thank you, I’m fine,” Castiel said.

“Wear it, or I toss these weak, hungry ducklings in the river.”

Castiel snatched the helmet. “You wouldn’t.”

Dean grinned, all straight teeth and insufferable charm. “Got you to put the helmet on, though.”

Quietly seething, Castiel buckled the strap under his chin.

“Look, no offense, I’d just rather nobody died on my watch,” Dean said, seriously. “It doesn’t even look half bad, you know?” He knocked his wing mirror in Castiel’s direction, and Castiel bent to see.

“I look like a rowdy youth at a skateboard park.”

“On his way back from the library? Yeah.” Dean bit his lower lip, still grinning. “Like I said. Good look.”

Rolling his eyes, Castiel mounted his bicycle, and set one boot on the pedal. “Give me the ducks.”

Dean handed the box over, then did something fast and aggressive with his feet, turned a key with his fingers – fingerless gloves being a new addition – and the motorbike growled to life, setting Castiel’s hair on end.

Dean shouted over the noise, “You ready?”

Castiel settled on his bicycle with the ducks on his lap, then nodded.

Dean dunked his visored helmet over his head, shielding his entire face in black, except his eyes.

Dean shot off across the grass in a roar of smoke and fury, bumping down into the left track on the lane. Castiel pushed after him, pedalling to his usual speed. Dean was already over the first hill. The sound of the engine faded.

Castiel sped up and over, shooting past Dean, who had stopped to wait.

Dean slowed and sped up to keep pace with Castiel. He quickly worked out the best speed, and maintained a parallel course.

Castiel found himself speeding up, cycling faster than normal. He kept a wary eye on the box in his lap, unable to hear the cheeping over the motorbike’s grumbling.

Faster and faster they went. Castiel felt like he was flying, ascending slopes and lifting from the ground as he crossed their peaks. His wheels slammed back to the dirt in the lane, and he grinned as they rose up again, Dean by his side.

He began to pant, heart racing. He looked over at Dean – but was suddenly unsettled by the unfamiliar weights of the helmet and the box; his front wheel snipped the grass dividing the two tracks. He flinched, immediately correcting his wobble – but Dean had noticed.

Dean dropped back to a sluggish pace, and as Castiel slowed down gradually, Dean crawled up to meet him.

They stopped beside a hedgerow. Castiel heard a bird fluster, crying out, “scree!-chak-chak-chak!” before fluttering away in a hurry. Dean’s engine dropped to a lazy putt-ttptputt-puttptutt, then went silent.

Dean removed his helmet. His teeth were clenched, his eyes steely. “Ditch the bike.”

“Pardon me?”

“I don’t know where we’re going. I can’t maintain this speed, bikes like this hate chugging along. Plus, dude, you’re all over the place. It’s not you I’m worried about, it’s the ducks.” He jerked his head, inviting Castiel onto his own bike. “Get on behind me. We’ll come back for your bike later, when the babies are safe.”

Castiel climbed off his bike and led it to the side of the road, laying it in some long grass. “I’ve never been on a motorbike,” he said, carrying the box to Dean’s side.

“I’ve got you,” Dean assured him, shrugging a shoulder. “Hug my waist, stay relaxed, and just trust me. All right? I used to do this all the time with my little brother.”

Castiel nodded, lifting his leg over the rear of the cycle to mount the back seat. He shuffled up close, his legs in tandem to Dean’s, the box of ducks on his lap, pressing between Castiel’s abdomen and Dean’s lower back.

“Hug me and don’t let go,” Dean said. “You got everything?”

“Besides my beloved bicycle, you mean.”

Dean grinned. “Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

Dean put his helmet back on. He patted around for Castiel’s hand, found it, squeezed it tight for reassurance, then leant forward, turning the ignition key. The bike grunted, and shuddered to life.

Castiel gasped at the fierce vibration, clinging tighter to Dean. The beast was as loud as a lawnmower.

Dean started off slow, and Castiel felt unnerved by not being the one in control of gravity, of the way the vehicle moved – but as they rose and fell smoothly over two soft hills, Castiel felt more at ease. Dean had perfect control.

The box on Castiel’s lap tickled at his thighs; he could feel tiny duck feet tumbling about on the cardboard. Castiel began to grin, and curved himself closer to Dean’s back, arms banding tighter around his waist.

He felt Dean breathe, his torso growing, then shrinking.

Just at that moment, Castiel noticed they’d overshot his house. “Dean!” he shouted. “We missed it! We missed our turn!”

Dean’s body spasmed, and it took Castiel a handful of moments to realise he’d laughed.

They slowed, then rotated at a low point of the road, squashing two heavy tire tracks into the bulging grass bump. Turning back the way they’d come, Castiel kept a closer look out for his driveway.

He patted Dean twice on the right arm. Next turn.

Dean performed a graceful entrance, pulling the motorbike easily up to the garden path, stopping before they got to the flowers and the mossy stepping stones.

When the bike halted, Castiel climbed off first.

Dean lifted away his helmet and sighed. “You live here?” he asked, looking incredulous as he unbuttoned his fingerless gloves.

“Yes?” Castiel looked at his cottage, trying to find what made it so unusual. Its wooden outer was all painted white, which looked pale lilac in the daylight. The raised front porch went all the way around the cottage, its overhanging roof held up by dainty white pillars, with Victorian floral embellishments joining them together, also white. Each window had a flower box below, all full of perennial blooms, and the welcome mat said ‘home sweet home’. The whole place was only one level.

Castiel shook his head. “It’s my mother’s place, really,” he said, with a small chill in his stomach. “I’ve lived here all my life. Since I was six.”

Dean had climbed off his bike, propped it up, and now hung his helmet on the handlebars. He reached blindly for the second helmet, still staring at the house with his mouth open.

“What?” Castiel pried, handing over the borrowed helmet.

Dean wet his lips. “Nothin’,” he said. “Well. Something.” He smiled uncertainly. “Gonna sound crazy, but I think I actually had a dream about this place, once. Not recently. Like, when I was a kid.”

Castiel raised his eyebrows. Was the universe really so kind so as to plant seeds, that far back?

“Ah— Anyway,” Dean said, looking down. “Ducks.”

“Right! Yes. Ducks.”

Castiel handed the box to Dean as they went up the path together. Dean waited patiently behind Castiel as he unlocked the door, admiring the flowers, smiling to himself.

Castiel entered first, calling back, “Come in! Take your shoes off, if you wouldn’t mind. Country life tends to leave marks on the carpet.”

Dean entered, removing his pink mudboots with one foot stomped on each heel, left, then right. Black socks on the wooden floor, he straightened – and only when Castiel straightened too did he realise Dean was looking for somewhere to hang his leather jacket. He’d gone still, seeing the damage behind the front door.

“Don’t look at that,” Castiel said, hanging his trenchcoat in front of the dented wallpaper. “Sports equipment mishap.”

“You play sports?”

“No. Hence the mishap.”

Dean chuckled, hanging his jacket so it overlapped Castiel’s coat. He adjusted the box in his hands, then waited to be shown through.

Castiel entered the main living area, all of a sudden feeling shamed by the state of the house. Books lay everywhere, on every surface; the rug was wrinkled, there were Kleenexes out of the wastebasket; the lampshade was dusty, the couch in the centre of the room still had last night’s dessert bowl balanced on the arm.

“I— I’m sorry about the mess,” Castiel said, unable to find a place for Dean to sit. Even the dining table had empty glasses and an unfinished jigsaw puzzle spread out.

“What mess?” Dean said.

Castiel’s eyes shot to him, only to realise Dean was being polite.

“I haven’t had visitors in a long time,” Castiel explained, before realising that was quite possibly more shameful than having a messy house.

Dean’s mouth quirked into a small grin. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve lived here all your life, right? Thirty-something years of clutter. Understandable.”

“I’m forty, actually. Two days ago. That was what the cupcake was for.”

Dean blinked. “Well. That solves it, then.” He lowered his head, smiling as he slid the duck box onto the table, careful not to disturb the jigsaw. “So, Aries, huh? You’re really forty? You look thirty-five.”

“How old are you?” Castiel asked.

“Ah.” Dean shrugged. “Thirty-eight. Aquarius. Had my birthday a few months back. January.”

“Mm. Thirty-eight...” Castiel examined the laughter lines beside Dean’s eyes, the slight pudge under his chin, the thirst for adventure in his eyes tempered with wisdom. “Yes, I suppose I can see that.”

“Heyy,” Dean grinned, reaching to bat Castiel’s chest. “Easy, tiger.”

Castiel laughed, quickly turning to the ducklings, who were cheeping and chirping rather desperately now. He opened up the box, glad to see the ducks were all alert and fine, if rattled.

“I’ll go around the house and gather up all your equipment and food,” Castiel said to Dean. “If you can find a small dish in the kitchen, fill it with water, and let them have a drink. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Gotcha,” Dean said, rolling up the sleeves on his cotton henley. “We should probably give them names, huh.”

“We should?”

“Y’know – Huey, Dewey, and Louie?” Dean pulled a face. “Nah. Too cliche. Let’s think on it.”

As he left to fetch the things Dean came to collect, Castiel wondered why on Earth Dean had said ‘we’. As the ducks’ guardian, surely the naming was up to Dean?

When he returned, he found Dean sitting at the table, cooing softly to his ducks. “Aw, c’mon, lil buddy. The vet’s coming back. He’s right here, look. Gonna get you some food. Nice full belly, how ‘bout that? You’ll be doin’ better than I am, any rate.”

Castiel bent close and scooped his unfinished jigsaw back into its box, not minding that he erased all his progress. He set the thing aside, lifting all the duck equipment onto the table instead.

He listened to Dean’s calming assurances, and when Castiel had made up a paste of chick food in a spare dish Dean had found, he offered it to Dean, watching him set it into the box beside the ducks.

Dean and Castiel stood shoulder-to-shoulder, necks craned to watch the ducklings nibble and snap up all the mush, hungry as anything. Dean let out a happy sigh.

“Dean?” Castiel said, looking softly at him, seeing the sparkle in his eyes, and the obvious relief and contentment he felt from seeing the ducks being fed at last.

Dean drew his eyes away from the babies, and met Castiel’s gaze. “Yeah. What’s up, doc?”

With a smile, Castiel asked, “Would you... like to stay for dinner?”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Dean ate like he hadn’t eaten in days, leaning his torso onto the table, head down, licking his lips after every mouthful. He reached periodically for another bowl, another serving, another pinch of seasoning. He made content noises – hums and chirps, mostly – and occasionally muttered something like, “Oh my God, yes, gimme that,” before snatching the basket of bread rolls out of Castiel’s hand.

Castiel snatched it back, taking his own bread roll, then handing the basket to Dean.

Dean grinned sheepishly, still chewing in his cheek. “Seriously. These baby potatoes. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside? You really made this from scratch?”

“I made it from ingredients.”

“Your dad teach you how, or...?”

Castiel eyed Dean with a curious frown. “I learned from Jamie Oliver. The TV chef. Did your father teach you?”

“Yeah,” Dean said, slathering butter on his roll. “I’m an expert-level microwaver.”

A smile tugged on Castiel’s lips.

“You know what,” Dean muttered, shaking his head as he dipped the roll into the sauce left over from the beef stew, “I’m gonna learn. While I’m here, I’m gonna fix up that car, and I’mma learn to cook for real – good enough to impress Jamie Oliver, not just good enough to appease Sammy.” With that, he stabbed the last piece of asparagus from the steaming pan, and hummed as he ate it. “You even made vegetables taste good.”

Castiel felt like he was glowing a bit.

“Only thing that would make this better, Cas? Pie.”

Castiel grinned. “I have some leftovers. Boysenberry.”

Dean’s eyes shone as he drew in a deep breath. “Marry me.”

Castiel laughed, head back, hand on his full stomach. “Maybe someday,” he smiled, getting up from the table, taking his empty plate and the serving dishes. He reached for Dean’s, but Dean stood up too, taking everything from Castiel.

“C’mon, man, you get the pie, let me handle this,” Dean said, finally swallowing his last mouthful, leading Castiel to the kitchen and ignoring his protests. “Guest or not, I know how to wash dishes.”

Opening the fridge, Castiel called over his shoulder, “Do you want custard? And I have some chocolate shavings to sprinkle on, too.”

“On my pie?” Dean put all the dishes in the sink with a clank. “Okay – Cas? When you marry me, make that your vow. Just offer me custard and chocolate for your homemade pie. And I’ll stand by you forever. No joke.”

Castiel chuckled, shaking his head as he pulled a custard carton out of the fridge. “The custard isn’t homemade.”

“Sometimes that’s better,” Dean said with confidence, spritzing dish soap on the cleaning brush. “Leaves all the guesswork out of it; you know what you’re getting.”

“Agreed. That’s why I bought it,” Castiel said, putting the dessert on the table. He paused for a moment, admiring the pink sunset outside his living room window. “Hmm,” he sighed. “It’s beautiful tonight.”

Dean was already peering out of the window above the sink, smiling. “Ain’t it, just.”

Castiel averted his eyes from Dean’s handsome figure, going to fetch bowls and spoons.

“Come on,” Castiel said, touching Dean’s back when he had the spoons. “Pie’s waiting.”

“Almost done, gimme two minutes,” Dean said over his shoulder. “You write out a list of instructions or something. Tell me how to look after those ducks.”

“Good idea.”

“I’m full of those.”

“Clearly.”

Castiel did as Dean suggested, fetching a notebook and pen. He sat at the dining table, trying not to look at the pie or the custard. “The heat pad is pretty self-explanatory,” Castiel called to Dean over the noise of Dean rinsing everything in the sink. “Plug it into the mains, it’ll warm up. Cover it with a blanket or all the heat just floats away.”

“‘Kay,” Dean called back.

Dean finished up in the kitchen and padded over to the table just as Castiel finished his notes. Pushing a bowl towards Dean, Castiel set the notes aside and reached for his own dessert.

“For the record,” Dean said, catching Castiel’s eye, then glancing down as he took his seat, “I was kidding. About the marriage thing. I was just – goofing around. Don’t mean to... lead you on, or anything.”

“I understand,” Castiel said sweetly, pouring custard on Dean’s pie, then offering him chocolate shavings in a pretty glass dish. “You barely know me, Dean, it would be irresponsible to enter into a relationship so soon after meeting.”

“You think?” Dean grinned, forking out a lump of pie. “I dunno, most of my relationships are over and done with by now.”

“You only met me today.”

“Yeah,” Dean put his fork in his mouth. “But like three whole hours agoooooHOOly shit holy shit.” Dean stared at his fork. “Oh my God?” He stabbed his bowl and shovelled another mouthful between his gasping lips. “Oh, I’m gonna come. I’m gonna come. Jesus Christ. Mmm. Hmm. Mm.”

Castiel stared, mouth open. Sudden heat and something that felt like sparkles had accumulated between his thighs, and he kept watching, dazed by the sight and sound of Dean making love to his fork, eyes closed, purring and squirming in his seat – actually touching his crotch. Pressing himself, really, but enough to prove he meant what he said.

“So... I take it you like the pie?” Castiel said quietly.

Dean whimpered, sticking his thumb into the bowl and swiping up the sauce, shoving the same thumb into his mouth and sucking. His face was flushed, his lips plump. “Mmh! Mm-hm.”

The way he licked sauce off his palm was obscene.

“Okay,” Castiel whispered. “Good.”

Dean’s eyes darted to Castiel’s bowl. “Are— Are you gonna eat that?”

Castiel forgot to want it. He pushed it closer to Dean.

He wanted to see him eat it. And he didn’t know why.

No... No, that’s wasn’t true. He knew exactly why.

The way Dean ate... It made Castiel want to be touched like that. Licked like that. He wanted to make someone whimper and melt under his hands. He wanted to be looked at and wanted the way Dean looked at and wanted his pie.

Even thinking it felt crazy to Castiel. Dean had all but said he wasn’t the sort of person who invested in long-term relationships, and that was the only kind of relationship Castiel wanted. Dean wasn’t going to stick around long enough for Castiel to be certain he wanted him that way.

But even... just once...? To know the touch of his soulmate, and be adored like that, even for a moment—

Dean met Castiel’s eyes, darkness and contentment basking within him like a happy bed of embers. Dean couldn’t speak; his lashes fluttered, his lips red under his tongue as he swiped across them. He gazed at Castiel.

For a long time.

A very long time.

He smiled, slowly.

“Thank you,” Dean said, his voice husky, his gaze languid as he peered at Castiel’s lips, then back to his eyes. “That was maybe the best thing I’ve eaten. In my life.”

Castiel’s heart was pounding. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

Castiel nodded. “I— I’m pleased. It was my mother’s recipe, she left it here when she died. Like everything else.”

“Everything else...?”

Castiel turned his eyes away. “No, don’t worry.” Pressed his lips taut, he got up from the table, taking the dishes. “This has been – a lot of fun. I’m glad you came, Dean.”

“I didn’t yet,” Dean uttered.

“Excuse me?”

Dean glanced over his shoulder, then laughed, looking away. “Nothin’.”

Castiel went to the kitchen, thankful the sun had set, so the kitchen was gloomy enough to hide his blush.

His heart was still racing, his hands hot and shaking. Dean clearly wanted more, yet he’d eaten enough. So what did he want?

Castiel knew.

He didn’t do this. He’d never done this. He’d never felt definite sexual attraction before, and he wasn’t even convinced he felt that way now.

But like Rowena had said... if Castiel didn’t make a move, he couldn’t keep a man like Dean. Dean lived his life so untethered he was a phantom, and without a promise for more, he’d be gone in a blink.

There was always the possibility that Dean and Castiel were platonic soulmates. For many years, Castiel had not considered anything else. But since the moment they met, their connection felt... different than that. Castiel’s body was reacting. As was his heart, in a way he’d never felt for even his closest friends. Not Charlie, nor Billie, nor Donna.

Dean was already standing up, taking a deep breath to refresh himself. He admired the ducks, snuggled up and sleeping in their box, then admired the view from the glass doors, looking out at Castiel’s land, past the flowers, where the space was unfenced, just rolling blue hills for miles.

Castiel returned to him, handing him the list of instructions. Dean took it with a mutter of thanks.

“So,” Dean said. “Guess I’d... better be going.”

Castiel hesitated. But then nodded. “It is late. We both have work tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” Dean rolled his lower lip under his teeth, sucking it, like he was withholding another word.

When Castiel said nothing else, Dean forced a smile and turned away. “Okay. Better, uh. Get my jacket and stuff.”

He went to the door, pocketing the list, reaching for his leather jacket. He held it, but didn’t put it on. “Hey,” he said.

“Yes?” Castiel hovered behind him.

Dean caught his eye. “So. Uh. Your bike. It’s sort of – several miles away from here.”

“It is,” Castiel agreed.

“You usually cycle to work.”

“I do.”

“Long walk.”

“Yeah.”

“And if I leave,” Dean said slowly, holding Castiel’s eyes, “on my motorcycle right now... how would you get to work?”

“Good question,” Castiel said, with an acknowledging tilt of his head.

“It would be great if I could... y’know,” Dean smiled. “Drive you out there again. To get your bike.”

“But it’s dark now,” Castiel said, with genuine caution, but an underlying knowledge that it didn’t matter that much.

“Sure is. Gettin’ darker by the minute.”

Castiel wet his lips, and finally mustered up the courage to say what he’d been aching to say. “You could stay the night?”

A tiny smile flickered up one side of Dean’s mouth. “I... I mean, if that’s okay by you.”

“Perfectly,” Castiel said, as his heart surged with excitement. “I’ll set up the couch for you.”

He turned away to do exactly that.

But he felt a sudden, strange awareness: the couch wasn’t what Dean had in mind at all.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel pulled a mattress out of the couch like a magic trick, and Dean pretended he wasn’t impressed. The couch had been a boxy moss-green turtle, and suddenly it was a normal-looking bed, with a plush velvet headboard.

“I hate to ask,” Dean said, “but can I borrow your washroom? Working with kids all day... macarena... ducklings. Could do with a refresh.”

“Oh, of course,” Castiel said. “There’s a room with a full-size bath down the hall, and separate one with a shower. Towels are in both rooms already. If you use the shower, turn the knob all the way to hot before you get in, then adjust down when it heats up. Otherwise it’ll never warm up. And don’t worry about the dripping, it always drips.”

“Gotcha,” Dean said, shooting a pair of finger guns.

Dean wandered the main hallway of the house, trying to find the bathroom.

He opened the door to Castiel’s room first: it was painted navy blue, a vintage golden lamp already lit on the nightstand. Dean stood, enticed for a moment, before shutting away the sight, reminding himself that Castiel obviously wasn’t a one-night-stand kinda guy, and Dean wasn’t destined for that bed. The guy had offered the couch. Despite all the prolonged eye contact, hand-touching, back-touching, food offerings, smiles, flustering, and blushes, he apparently wasn’t interested.

But still; it was the mark of Dean’s sex-centric optimism that he opted for taking a shower anyway. Just in case something did happen later.

Dean opened a second door, turned on the light, and found a room completely full of things. Board games, a Christmas tree, old chairs, a pool table piled up with books, floor lamps, a beige desktop computer from the 90s, overshadowed by a dead plant in a giant fancy-looking vase.

“Not the bathroom,” Dean said, closing the door. He couldn’t imagine why all the good stuff was hidden away, so cluttered it was impossible to access – but it wasn’t his place to judge. After thirty-four years in one house, things were bound to accumulate. Dean couldn’t imagine sticking around that long, nor wanting to. But he could see why people did. It must be nice to have a home.

The third door was the bathroom. A drying frame was erected in the bathtub, and Dean smiled when he saw Castiel’s white boxer-shorts hung in neat rows. Dean locked the door and began to strip, eyeing the tidy collection of body washes, exfoliants, and hair products in the shower rack, deciding which one he’d like to use first. He had every intention of sniffing everything.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Dean never liked wearing old clothes after having a shower, but he didn’t have anything else with him, so he put his henley and jeans back on, scowling. His saving grace in this situation was the fact he always kept a toothbrush in his jacket’s inner pocket.

Barefoot and heat-flushed, he went to the front door, towel over one shoulder. Through the open door to the living area, he heard Castiel speaking, and realised he was talking to the ducks.

Beaming, Dean lifted his leather jacket from the hook behind the door, rummaging to pull out his toothbrush. He paused before he put the jacket back, attention drawn by the damage in the wallpaper.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do, bashing a hole through a wall. This wasn’t chipboard, or drywall. No signs of woodworm or termites. This was solid, solid wood. No ‘sporting mishap’ could be that violent, even if someone was just testing to see how to swing a golf club. Inside. Right in front of a glass door.

For that matter... Dean took a look at the front door, running a finger around the painted edges where the glass met the frame. Two of the three panels had wrinkles of paint around their edges; the door had been painted after they were put in. The last pane of glass, however, nearest the damaged wall... The paint was chipped and scratched. The glass had been replaced.

Dean stood back, lips together.

He didn’t know what to make of it. He could believe a piece of sporting equipment had been misused, as Castiel implied. But there was definitely something in the walls, here. History. Dean touched the floral paper, hearing it hiss under his fingertips, scritching where the unglued sides peeled up, crisp from age.

No, Dean didn’t know a whole lot about his new veterinarian friend. But he knew this wasn’t wallpaper he’d chosen himself.

If his mother had died, maybe it was hers. Dean felt sad, now. He and Castiel had that loss in common, but Dean didn’t have a house to remember his mother by. Only his green eyes, and the smile he sometimes saw in the mirror.

Dean went to brush his teeth, pondering, then returned to the living room.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

“And you’re going to grow up into mighty ducks,” Castiel told the babies, sitting cross-legged in his pyjamas with the box in his lap. “You’ll peck curious cats on the nose, and you’ll be wise around moving vehicles.”

He looked up when he saw Dean approaching, barefoot, his hair spiked up with water, his face somehow more pretty than before.

“You have the best moisturiser,” Dean said, kneeling down on the fluffy rug beside Castiel. “I kinda borrowed some, hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Castiel smiled. “It has a shimmer in it. I think that’s why you look so radiant.”

Dean caught Castiel’s eyes, stunned.

Castiel smiled, gazing at him without breaking eye contact.

Dean was the first to glance away, smiling shyly. He crossed his legs, pressing a hand against his blushing cheek, no longer able to look at Castiel.

For someone so confident with his loud bike, so brash with his words, so unapologetically aroused by good food – it struck Castiel how interesting it was to see Dean falter under a simple compliment.

Suddenly, Castiel realised... he’d asked for this. He’d wanted someone who could be both outspoken and demure. Dean rode that line perfectly.

To ease the silence, Castiel showed Dean the box, lined with fresh paper towels. “I was just giving the ducks some encouragement,” he said. “They’ll assimilate it as they sleep.”

“You learn that doing your animal care degree?” Dean asked, quirking up an eyebrow.

“I learned that raising chickens,” Castiel said. “And ducks, and geese, and one swan. And a family of housemartins, once.”

“Bird guy, huh.”

“I love anything with wings.”

Dean inhaled through his nose, eyes darting to Castiel.

“What?” Castiel said.

Dean grinned, but cast his eyes away again.

“I see,” Castiel said, with a teasing tone. “Not a secret you’re willing to share.”

Wetting his lips, staring at his bare feet, Dean cleared his throat and said nothing, but kept smiling.

“Oh—” Castiel looked down. “They’re waking up.”

The duckling trio stirred from the fluffy brown pile, toppling off each other, bumbling to different corners of the box. The smallest one shook its head, snapping its black beak – which made a faint pupupupup sound. Dean and Castiel both chuckled.

Dean began to hum, low and melodic, something Castiel recognised but didn’t know the name of.

“What is that?” he asked.

Dean answered by singling lyrics, still deep and rough, “Now and theeehhn, when I see her faaa-ace – She takes me awaaay to that special plaaace – And if I'd stare too long, I'd probably break down and cra-hyyy...

“I don’t know it,” Castiel said, as his heart warmed, his skin tingling, enticed and lulled by the devotion in Dean’s singing voice.

“‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, dude,” Dean said. “Axl Rose is kind of a jerk but I love the song.”

“Who—”

“Guns N’ Roses?” Dean looked at Castiel hopefully, then laughed, shaking his head. “It’s a band. Eighties.”

“Ah.”

Whoooah, oo-oh, sweet child o’ mi-iine. Whoooah, oooo-oh, sweet love of mi-hiine...

Perfect contentment settled in Castiel’s heart, as he watched the ducklings fall back asleep, safe under watchful eyes, calmed by the rolling thunder of Dean’s voice. Castiel’s watched and listened as Dean made his way through the rest of the song, going slow, keeping quiet, some notes barely a rasp of a whisper over his tongue.

It was too soon to fall in love.

Yet this feeling, it was so potent, and so obvious. Castiel felt himself falling anyway. Maybe he was so desperate to not be alone that he was conjuring feelings for a stranger out of nowhere. But... Dean had to be the one. He had to be. What else would it take to prove it?

Dean chuckled as the ducklings woke again, the moment he stopped singing. They started a little fight, bopping each other with beaks – and the smallest one leapt away, accidentally twirling as it tripped.

Dean purred. “Keep your leg up the whole way around, and add a little kick? That would’ve been a perfect fouette turn,” he informed the duckling. “Thirty of those and you could be in Swan Lake.”

When he noticed Castiel looking at him, Dean coloured, eyes darting away. “What? I thought we were encouraging them.”

“You’re teaching them ballet?” Castiel grinned.

Dean scoffed. “They know the basics, I’m just giving them pointers.”

Castiel kept his eyes on Dean, growing fonder of him by the second. If the pink rainboots hadn’t been enough, surely the love of Castiel’s food, or the confidence with his motorbike, or the care he showed for hungry ducklings and helmetless cyclists or dirty dishes ought to have been enough.

But the moment Dean gave a duckling ballet tips, speaking with perfect French pronunciation—? Castiel’s poor heart had no chance.

Dean was the one he’d been hoping to meet all this time. If he let him slip away, he’d never forgive himself.

After a little while, Dean turned his attention from the ducks to Castiel. “Cas?”

Castiel blinked, realising he’d been staring. “Yes?”

Dean licked his lips slowly, as if thinking. “So, that couch bed...”

“What about it?”

Dean fretted, eyes darting about. “Um.” He took the box of ducks in his hands, adjusting himself to kneel, ready to push to his feet. “How— How does it... work?”

“Work?”

“Yeah.” Dean got up, wandering away. He put the ducks’ box on the floor by the window, then went to the kitchen sink, and Castiel followed, waiting to wash his hands after Dean.

“You mean the mechanism of it?”

Dean shook water off his hands, then dried them on a towel as Castiel stepped up to the sink.

Once Castiel dried his hands, he looked around, only to realise Dean had vacated the kitchen.

Joining Dean in the living room, basking in the glow of the lampshade Dean just turned on, Castiel explained, “It folds up like a zig-zag. You watched it open, and you clearly understand mechanics and physics – so why are you asking?”

Dean shook his head, hand behind his neck. He looked at the pillow and the bedspread, then down at his feet. “I mean... how... does it work. Umm.” For all his eloquence earlier, he seemed stumped for words now, like he was trying to talk about something else entirely.

Castiel frowned. “It’s a bed, Dean. You sleep on it.”

“But...” Dean met Castiel’s eyes, tilting his head, a languid smile lifting one corner of his open mouth. “You ever use it for anything else?”

“Like what?”

“Like.” Dean licked his lips, gazing at Castiel’s mouth. “I don’t know. Yoga.” His attention snapped back to Castiel’s eyes. “Sex?”

Castiel curled his arms around his middle, hugging wrinkles into his bed shirt. “This one hasn’t been used for any of that. I bought it, in case I ever had someone stay the night. But, that never...”

Dean’s shoulders sank down, understanding. “Never happened, huh.”

“Never.” Castiel swallowed. He realised he was close enough to Dean to feel his warmth, so maybe that meant he was close enough to kiss. He thought about it. He looked at Dean’s lips and saw how they shined, how they looked soft, and he wondered if he was brave enough to kiss him. Dean wasn’t subtle; he had ideas for the rest of their evening, but spared Castiel the worry of having to answer directly.

But for every moment Castiel went without replying, or moving forward to press their lips together, he was giving Dean his answer.

It wasn’t the answer Castiel wanted to give, but he couldn’t make himself do anything else. His body wouldn’t move. His brain wouldn’t work. He just wanted to be close to Dean and feel his skin and look deeply into his eyes but Castiel’s own eyes betrayed him, his feet betrayed him, his heart betrayed him as he turned away.

“Goodnight, Dean.”

“Cas— Cas, wait.”

Castiel turned his cheek over his shoulder, listening, but he did not lift his eyes.

“This bed,” Dean said.

Castiel looked at him now.

Dean gulped. “You wanna... try it out? You ‘n me. Right now.”

He knew Castiel wanted him. The knowledge was there in his eyes; the only question was whether or not Castiel would say yes.

Dean flustered, head dropping. “Actually, you know what, never mind. I should take a hint. I’mma— I’mma take off, this is gonna get awkward otherwise. Lemme grab my stuff, get outta your hair—”

“No... Dean, no, don’t leave—”

Castiel rushed at him, grabbed his shirt, slamming him with a kiss. He grasped Dean tightly, hand vice-like around the back of his neck; he breathed hard, furious, eyes tight shut, grunting out a breath.

Dean lay his hands softly on Castiel’s waist, a sigh of relief exhaled through his nose, warming Castiel’s cheek.

Castiel relaxed. Dean kissed so nicely. Castiel sank into his embrace, hands loosening, one stroking through Dean’s hair. He smelled like that body wash Castiel hadn’t used in a long time, an old favourite.

Dean moaned a short note, pressing his hips to Castiel’s. Through Castiel’s cotton pyjamas he felt the push of Dean’s semi-erection – Castiel gasped, flushed head to toe with alarm, immediately followed by an electric thrill. “Oh,” he whispered, lips parting sloppily from their kiss.

Dean smiled, eyelashes fluttering on Castiel’s upper cheek.

Castiel pulled back so their eyes could meet. Dean’s pupils had grown dark; upon seeing that, Castiel felt hot and dense like lava, and hungry in a place too low for his stomach, and he wondered if his own eyes were darkened, too. Bedroom eyes, he realised. True, even out of the bedroom.

Dean took Castiel’s jaw in both hands, kissing him deeply, so smoothly, mouth open, breaths vocal, tongue warm and tender on the inside seam of Castiel’s lips. Dean smooched, and nosed at him, then smiled, purring.

He broke their kiss; he sat down on the side of the couch bed, weight back on his hands. He bit his lower lip, red, cheeks flushed the same red, his eyes gleaming with the shadows of lust and desire. He parted his lips... then lay down, never breaking Castiel’s gaze. He opened his legs, inviting Castiel closer.

What reason was there to resist?

Fierce sexual attraction, deep romantic love... Those were prerequisites for physical intimacy, Castiel always believed so. But what about simply wanting to experience a special act with someone he feared he might never see again?

There were many reasons to resist. ‘Too soon’ was one of them. But Castiel decided to do this anyway.

So he bent forward, weight on his hands as he walked his torso forward, craning over Dean, lining up their bodies.

Castiel lifted his knee onto the mattress, then lay himself down on top of Dean.

He sighed, enjoying the placement of his clothed erection against Dean’s hot skin, right where his henley rode up. Dean’s eyelids fluttered in his pleasure, hands finding Castiel’s hips, holding tight.

They kissed, eyes closed. Castiel felt himself searing from the inside out; Dean was soft and malleable, no tension in him at all. He lay with his eyes closed, mouth open, waiting for Castiel to kiss him again, and again, turning Dean’s head for him. Dean relaxed completely.

Eyes hooded, he gazed up at Castiel and smiled. An honest, delighted smile.

Castiel wasn’t sure what to do now.

Dean sensed his worry; maybe he felt how his hands clenched. Gaining some strength, Dean sat up on his elbows, using one hand to wrinkle up his henley, then lift it, showing Castiel his tattooed belly, his nipples, then his collarbones as he removed the shirt. He left it tied around his biceps, thighs still spread, erection becoming more and more obvious.

Hesitantly, Castiel reached to touch the bulge in Dean’s jeans, placing a fingertip on it – seeing it pulse – then resting his whole hand atop it.

Dean threw his head back against his shoulders, giving a soft, “Yeahhh... Mhmmm.”

Oh, he liked that.

Castiel pushed down on the rise, and Dean grunted, squirming until he collapsed onto the bed, giving a quiet cry.

Lazy hands moved to undo his jeans, and Castiel watched, mesmerised, as Dean removed them entirely, kicking away the denim and a flash of something pink.

Castiel lay his palm on Dean’s inner thigh, wondering how they got here, what he’d done right in his life for him to deserve this man, to deserve that delicious whimper of pleasure Dean gave as Castiel stroked his erection for the first time.

“Cas... Hnnhaaaa....”

Castiel smiled, bowing to put a kiss on Dean’s chest, on the tattoo of a flaming pentagram over his heart. It was the same symbol as the one on the back of his jacket.

“Dean?” Castiel asked – immediately shocked by how deep his voice came out.

“Yeah?” Dean perked his head up.

“I don’t—” Castiel looked about. “Well, I know what to do. I just... I’m not sure how to do it. I don’t own, um... supplies? Or anything—”

“Hey, hey, don’t worry,” Dean chuckled, darting up to kiss Castiel’s cheek. “We’re not going that far. C’mon, we’re just playin’ around. So...” He bit his lip, then shrugged a shoulder. “Go with what feels good? Rough me up maybe.”

Castiel squinted.

“H-Hold my wrists, or...?” Dean blinked. “You wanna fuck me, right? So maybe if we did it so it feels like it— Here.” He wriggled on the covers, rolling over so he lay face-down, weight on his knees and elbows, legs apart, blushing face turning back over his shoulder. “Like that.”

“Like this?”

Castiel came up behind Dean, placing his hipbones against his round, warm ass. Castiel shot through with excitement; not simply because of the pressure Dean gave him, pushing back in bump-bump-bumps like Castiel was deep inside him – but because here, under Castiel’s roaming palms, Dean had tattoos of bat wings, black-blue ink on his pale, freckled skin. His back was textured with scar tissue, and the tattoos hid it all.

“Ah— Yeah— Yeah—” Dean gasped, thrashing as he rode himself against Castiel, thumping his ass on his cock. The contact was sharp and stung a little; Dean seemed to most enjoy the movement, rocking fast, hand tight on his own erection, little gasps of pleasure escaping him.

Castiel knelt there, not doing much, not sure what to do. He just held Dean’s shoulder bones, adoring the wings.

“Oh, this—” Dean whispered. “Feels good. Feels good.”

“Does it?” Castiel asked, honestly. “How? Is it because I’m watching you, do you like being watched?”

Dean slowed down, looking up and back. “You... not having a good time back there?”

Castiel shrugged. “I like seeing your wings?”

Dean grinned, hanging his head. But he then licked his lips, and rolled onto his back again, still masturbating. His entire chest was flushed, and he was panting a little. “What do you like?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel told him. “Um... I liked the kissing?”

Dean smiled. “Okay.” He beckoned. “We can do that. I like kissing.”

Castiel snuggled up on top of him again, and sighed as they kissed. Castiel stretched his fingers through Dean’s hair, rounding his ear, touching his throat.

Dean moaned, starting to move his hips. He went slow, and wrapped his legs around Castiel’s ass, still squirming, pushing, humping. “Ohhhh... Cas...”

Castiel’s skin sang with pleasure, hearing his name said like that, shortened like that. He lifted his head so he could look into Dean’s eyes, feeling – oh, so much pleasure. Gallons of cosmic energy rode up through his system, sparkling like starlight, burning like fire. He cried out in bliss, kissing Dean again.

This felt so strange. He liked Dean. He really did. He liked how he moved, and was intrigued by the sexual energy between their hips, excited by the thrusting and the wriggling. He liked the hot, wet fluid Dean’s erection was leaving everywhere it rubbed. Castiel loved the kissing, and even more so, the eye contact.

But did Dean realise they were soulmates? Did he know they were going to fall in love, someday?

Did he know that Castiel was only here, pushing against him, simply because he feared losing him? Castiel had wished for someone divided in every way, and he got his wish: he and Dean could only ever be in two minds about anything. Dean wanted sex – but to Castiel a sexual gesture was a signifier of deeper love, a way to bond with someone he intended to keep. But for Dean, sex was something he did to say hello. And goodbye, in the same act.

Castiel cradled Dean in his arms and wished, wished, wished that this wouldn’t be a goodbye.

He couldn’t give himself to a stranger after forty years and have it be the last time. He couldn’t.

“Cas?”

Castiel searched for Dean’s gaze, and found it. “Yes?”

“Why do you look kinda sad?” Dean raised an unsure grin. “You wanna change it up?”

Castiel looked away.

“Hey... Hey. Cas.” Dean patted his arm. “Pause for a sec.”

Castiel sat up, looking down at his erection. It seemed to enjoy the activity, even if Castiel himself felt odd.

Dean licked his lips. “You wanna stop? Like, it’s one thing for me to get a guy in bed after one date, but if he doesn’t wanna be there then...” He shook his head, giving a kind smile. “Seriously, are you all right? You don’t seem that into it any more.”

Castiel breathed out and lay down, staring at the ceiling.

Dean lay beside him, taking his hand, looking closely at his face.

Castiel gulped, then asked, “Do you believe in fate?”

Dean shifted his head on the bedspread, frowning. “Yeah, actually. I let it rule my life, sometimes.” Castiel looked over, seeing Dean’s eyelids flutter, as he then admitted, “Any excuse to absolve myself of responsibility, I guess. Grew up bein’ told I made bad decisions. So I fought back by making none.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. “But you chose to buy the Impala.”

“I chose to empty my bank account,” Dean corrected. “It was easier to tell Sam I stopped here ‘cause the universe told me to.” His eyes lowered, and he sighed. “Weird thing is, I don’t regret it. I’m dirt-poor now. Job I landed pays enough for the room at the inn and microwave dinners. Maybe I could save up for car repair stuff. But as-is, unless I get that baby working, or I abandon it, I’m stuck here for a good number of months. It doesn’t even need that much work, Cas. Just a tune-up; couple new parts. The gasket’s blown. It’s kind of a hassle to replace, gotta take the engine apart – but it’s not that big a deal. But I told Sam the whole car was banged up and broken.”

Castiel listened, then squeezed his hand. “I made a choice. A few days ago. I cycled past you, while you were repairing the car. At the time I thought you were talking to Rowena, saying you loved her—”

“Who’s Rowena?”

“The witch,” Castiel said. “The witch I paid to do a spell to bring my soulmate to me.”

Dean stared. “The... what?”

“Witch.”

“I heard that part, Cas. I mean— Soulmate?”

“I just thought—! Everyone else has someone to love. I’ve been alone, waiting, waiting all this time. But then you arrived. I saw you twice in two days, and you were just a stranger. But Rowena did her spell, and the storm happened – the storm washed up the ducklings, you brought the ducklings to me—”

Dean sat up on his elbows, mouth open.

“And I realised it was you,” Castiel finished, eyes soft on Dean. “I hadn’t paid enough attention when the universe kept giving me signs. You were already here, you’d already crossed my path, twice, and I didn’t notice. The spell did nothing except force us to interact. You’re the one Rowena meant when she said I would lay down my body, spreading myself bare for you, spilling every secret to you. I didn’t want you to leave before we tried having sex. In case I liked it.”

Dean raised his eyebrows. “And?” He rolled a shoulder. “Do you like it?”

Castiel huffed out a breath, tilting his head as he rolled closer to Dean, placing a hand on his beating, tattooed heart. He watched himself stroke it. “I like you.”

“But not sex.”

Castiel hesitated. “I want to like it.”

“Do you want to stop?” Dean reached to stroke his fingers through Castiel’s hair, pushing it off his forehead. “Look, I’m not gonna be let down, Cas. You consulted a freakin’ witch just to meet me, and it worked. That’s pretty satisfying to hear. What’s one orgasm next to that story?”

Castiel snuck up close to Dean, heart to heart, arms around him, their fuzzy thighs pressing together. “You like rough sex,” he remembered.

Dean smiled bashfully. “Kinda.”

“Describe it to me.”

Dean’s lashes fluttered, and he curled his hand against Castiel’s, slipping finger between finger. “Fast. Angry. Me bound, them in control. So aggressive it doesn’t really feel like sex, just – takes away the little feelings. All the pain.”

“Pain,” Castiel repeated.

Dean avoided his eyes, maybe realising his words didn’t sound right, said aloud.

“Years of hurt,” Castiel said, watching Dean’s closed eyes. “Feeling unloved. Untrusted.”

Dean looked at him so sharply that Castiel knew he was right. It was his own story, too.

“Being touched,” Castiel went on, “It makes you feel loved. And trusted. But it can’t be too soft, too gentle... because...”

“Because that hurts even worse,” Dean finished, a shake in his lips that gave away his emotion. Fear, longing.

“Loving and then moving on,” Castiel said, caressing Dean’s cheek. “It hurts you to do that but you do it anyway. Why?”

Dean frowned at him. “Why do you care?”

“Because it’s what I do, Dean,” Castiel said, kissing Dean’s lips slowly, then lifting away. “I’ll care for anything with a heart. Anything with wings. Anything that looks at me as desperately as you’re looking at me right now.”

Dean shut his eyes.

“I still see it, Dean.” Castiel kissed his ear, and whispered, “You can’t hide it. I feel it in you. It was you who needed to stop, not me.”

Dean placed a hand over his face, but couldn’t keep a tear from falling; Castiel felt it press sticky to his own skin, wet beside his eye.

“Why do you leave, Dean?”

Dean tearful glare steadied on Castiel. “Because, Cas. It’s what I do.”

Castiel kissed him, thumbing away that solitary tear track. “All right,” he said. “So you’ll leave me.”

Dean’s breath shuddered.

“But in the meantime,” Castiel whispered, kissing Dean’s cheek. “Let me love you tonight.”

Dean gazed at him, eyes soft and hopeful again.

“Just tonight.” Castiel kissed Dean’s jaw. “One night.”

Dean smiled, hand stroking Castiel’s neck. His eyes slipped closed.

They pressed together, bodies bound in heat. They kissed, their breaths tumbling between their throats, into each other’s lungs.

They searched for comfortable positions, legs twisted, bodies tickled until they laughed; they held hands, and Dean lay on his front again, and let Castiel press between his thighs.

“Close your legs,” Castiel instructed.

Dean chuckled as he did, squeezing. “You sound like my dad.”

Castiel raised his eyebrows.

“I— I mean,” Dean breathed, “He never approved. The way I lived. The people I liked. Ah-huh—” He surged into the bedspread, Castiel’s weight on his ass. Castiel’s erection sank between the tops of Dean’s thighs, causing Dean’s breath to shudder, his body to tremble. “Cas...”

“Shh, gently,” Castiel eased, kissing Dean’s neck, cradling his throat with his hand. “Trust me. It’s okay. You can trust me.”

Dean did.

He let Castiel use him, touch him, explore his skin and touch his darkness, in words, in kisses, with fingers and with breath.

And every part of it was gentle. Castiel was careful not to push Dean even once, nor scratch him, nor stifle his movement.

He asked Dean, “Does this hurt?” and Dean replied in the smallest whisper.

“No.”

Castiel could tell, just from the surprise in Dean’s voice: this was new for him.

Though he lay chest-down on the bed, legs outstretched, thighs squeezing and locked at the knees, Dean twisted his arm back, finding an easy way to lie, hand open. Castiel placed his palm against it, and smiled; Dean made a sound of happiness, holding Castiel’s hand.

“Dean?” Castiel asked, kissing his ear. “Is it okay if I finish?”

Dean smiled, nodding. “Uh-huh.”

Castiel kissed his shoulders, his neck, the knot at the top of his spine. He came with a sigh, eyes closed. It was funny; climax felt the way snowflakes made him feel. Floating, gently, drifting upon a pastel world of light and warmth. Euphoric; experiencing the brightest time in a dark season.

He felt the slide of his come between Dean’s thighs; Dean seemed to enjoy it, squirming a little so Castiel sank deeper between his legs.

Castiel sucked Dean’s neck gently, nosing at his heat. “Now you?”

Dean huffed, biting his lip. “Already came.”

“You did?!” Castiel lifted his head. “When? How?”

Dean shrugged a shoulder. “A while back. You were sucking my ear. Felt awesome. Just let it happen.”

“Oh.” Castiel kissed his ear again. “You have sensitive ears. Noted.”

Dean chuckled. He was so relaxed it was unbelievable; even his biggest arm muscles were squashable under Castiel’s palm. His cheek – his visible one, anyway – was painted with rouge, the healthy flush of a man well-pleased.

Castiel kissed the apple of Dean’s cheek, nuzzling him a little.

“Cas?” Dean parted his legs now, rolling onto his back, hands reaching to hug Castiel. “I really liked that.”

“Yeah.” Castiel kissed his nose. “Me too.”

Dean took a big, deep breath, then let it go, shutting his eyes. He wore a content smile.

“Dean?”

“Yeah, buddy?” Dean uttered, peering out under hooded lids.

“What now?”

Dean grinned lazily, and started to shift through the sheets, rotating himself until he aligned with the length of the couch bed. He gave Castiel the end of the blanket, while he himself shuffled underneath, stark naked, eyes set adoringly on Castiel.

“Now,” Dean said, “You get in with me, and we keep each other warm.”

Castiel cocked his head to the side. “I have my own bed...?”

Dean shook his head, pulling Castiel until he wriggled up close, and Dean could wrap his arms around him, both snug under the blanket, bathed in gold from the lamplight.

“Key part of the process, Cas,” Dean promised, kissing Castiel’s chin. “Trust me, sex is never worth it unless there’s a cuddle.”

“Ah,” Castiel said, after a few quiet moments. “Yes, I think I get the appeal. This is very comforting.”

“Huh?” Dean nodded agreeably, eyebrows up, grinning. “Told ya.”

Castiel reached to turn out the light, and smiled when it was out. He cuddled up to Dean, noses almost touching.

The best part about this, Castiel thought... if Dean was in his arms, it wouldn’t be so easy to sneak away. Maybe, if he was lucky, Dean would still be here in the morning.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Not knowing what time Castiel usually woke up for work, Dean allowed him to sleep past seven. School started at eight – at least for the teachers, who convened every day for a mini update about allergies, kosher versus halal food, guardian permission slips, and where the emergency kits were being kept now. That had been yesterday’s meeting, anyway.

Today, Dean spent his morning hour in Castiel’s kitchen, wiping the dust out of the back-shelf crockery, putting all the spiders outside, and washing the dishes. Dawn light streamed through the side window, its gleaming yellow beam a stark difference to the softness of the sunset, fading over the sink last night.

Dean was just about done in the kitchen when he heard Castiel call from the living room, “Deeean?”

Drying his hands on a dishcloth, Dean went to find him. He saw Castiel sitting up on the couch bed, pulling his t-shirt over his head.

“‘Sup, Cas—”

Castiel yelped and leapt where he sat, turning to stare at Dean. “You’re here!”

Dean frowned. “You called me.”

“I— I know but—” Castiel was wide-eyed and his focus was intense. “You’re still here.”

“Where was I meant to go?” Dean flipped the dishcloth over his shoulder, bending to pick up Castiel’s discarded pyjama pants, handing them to him. “Still gotta deliver you to your bike, remember? I fed the ducks, by the way,” he said, turning his back.

“Dean—”

Dean paused, hearing something fragile in Castiel’s voice. He returned to him, angling his head to examine Castiel’s hunched form, blue eyes flicking across the tangled sheets.

“You really expected me to leave, huh,” Dean surmised.

Castiel swallowed. “I’m glad you’re still here.” He shut his eyes and covered his face with both hands, hiding a break in his emotions.

“Hey.” Dean reached to grip Castiel’s shoulder. “Dude, you all right?”

Castiel shook his head, breath shuddering. He spoke into his hands; “All my life... All my life, and then you and I— In a single night—?” His hands fell to his lap, watery eyes rising to the ceiling. “It feels like— It’s crushing my chest.” He rubbed his heart, swallowing a breath, then exhaling. “As— As-as as much as I wanted this, I wasn’t prepared for you to still be here. I h-have— I have... new relationship overwhelm. This was so sudden.”

Dean sat on the side of the bed, hand still on Castiel’s shoulder. “Well... if it makes you feel any better...? I’m not exactly looking for anything long-term. Sooo...”

Castiel looked at him, exasperated. “Dean, that’s worse! That’s so much worse!”

Dean threw his hands up, getting to his feet. “Okay. Okay, you wanted comfort, not solutions. That’s fine.”

“Dean, where are you going?”

“To get you some coffee,” Dean said firmly. “No panic attacks allowed before breakfast.”

As he left the living room, he was sure he heard Castiel give a small grunt of relief.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

While Castiel took a post-breakfast shower, Dean moved from tidying the kitchen to tidying the bookshelves in the living room. He put the books back where they belonged, firstly, then progressed to removing things from the shelves which were not books.

His prize find was a vintage Polaroid camera, the kind that actually printed big square pictures rather than the tiny rectangle ones. He grinned, setting aside all other tasks just to fiddle with the contraption, checking it had photo paper, then turning it on and off a couple times.

Aiming the camera lens at the three ducklings in their box, he snapped a photo, watching the square spit out the front. He waggled it in the air, checking every few moments to see if it had developed.

When it did... “Damn, not bad,” Dean said to the ducks. “A little light leakage, but filters are all the rage, right? That’s one for the album.”

Castiel returned to the living room, dressed in his suit and tie, ready for work. Dean grinned and pointed the camera at him, taking a shot with the flash.

Castiel startled – squinted – his neutral face clouded with hurt. “Dean—”

“Give it a second, it’ll come out great,” Dean assured him, showing Castiel the blank white square. But Castiel snatched the camera.

“I didn’t say you could use that,” Castiel growled, eyes hard on Dean. “I didn’t say you could touch anything here. I forgave what you did in the kitchen – I’d been meaning to do that for weeks. But—”

“Cas— Wow, I’m sorry,” Dean said softly, eyes down. “Seriously. Shit.” He cast his eyes away, stomach curdling. “You’re right. I didn’t ask.”

“I haven’t touched this camera in—” Castiel looked at it. “Fifteen years...”

His knees seemed to buckle, and he fell into a dining chair, one hand clutching his forehead. “It’s been fifteen years.”

“What has?”

Castiel stayed silent, shutting his eyes.

Dean sat beside him, scooting his own chair closer, so their knees touched. “Cas? I’m sorry about the camera. I just thought... I dunno.”

“You thought what?” Castiel eyed him, both curious and angry.

Dean swallowed, brushing his own throat with his fingertips. “The only stuff I ever take with me when I travel, it’s shit I need, and use often. Or shit I really, really love. Never really... occured to me that...”

“That something I own wasn’t for use,” Castiel finished. He looked down at the clunky piece of machinery in his hands, brown plastic and a faded rainbow stripe on the side.

“What’s it for?” Dean asked.

“What?”

“If it’s not for using, what’s it for?” Dean pried, nudging himself forward.

Castiel blinked, confused, then thoughtful. “Collecting dust.”

Dean began to grin. “Was doing a real good job, then.”

Castiel saw the photo in Dean’s hand, and reached to turn it over, taking it from him. He gazed at it, his expression softening. He started to smile, and that smile melted the worry from Dean’s heart.

With a slow exhale, Castiel lifted the camera from his lap, and gave it to Dean. “Have it,” he said.

“Excuse me?” Dean raised his eyebrows.

“Take it. Take it away. It’s yours now, I clearly don’t need it.”

“But do you love it?” Dean asked.

The tip of Castiel’s tongue breached his lips, and he shook his head. “I loved the person it belonged to.”

Dean stared at him. Did he mean romantic love? Or... familial?

“Cas, I can’t take this,” Dean said. “Photos are cool and all, but I don’t—” He hesitated. “I don’t have anyone to photograph. It would’ve been my nephew, but I wasn’t there.”

Castiel frowned at the duckling portrait. He then examined the photo of himself, which had now developed: framed in a white border, his past self walked into the room in his black suit, his movement elegant, his blue eyes set on Dean above the camera.

Castiel didn’t even need to say anything. He put the photos together, then turned them around so Dean could see.

He’d taken two perfectly good photos.

He could take more.

With a small smile, Dean nodded, accepting the gift. “If you’re sure.”

“I am. I have enough memories of my mother.” Castiel tipped his head, eyebrows jumping, “Given the reminders only serve to sadden me to begin with, I can’t imagine seeing them covered in dust is any good for my well-being.”

“Was she nice?” Dean asked, holding Castiel’s eye. “My mom was an angel.”

“My mother was...” Castiel inhaled, lips together. “Protective.”

“In what sense?”

“In the sense that when she died, I was left defenseless.” Castiel stood up, turning to leave. “It’s almost eight, we need to go.”

Dean got to his feet, scrambling to put the camera on the table and pick up the ducks instead. He carried them to the front door, handing the box to Castiel as soon as he had his coat on, leaving Dean’s hands free to don his leather jacket.

Castiel stared at the dent in the wall.

Dean didn’t ask. There was clearly a lot Castiel hadn’t said, and wasn’t prepared to say. But now was not the time.

There might never be a good time, really. Some stories didn’t need to be told, Dean decided. He wanted to know, sure, but he didn’t want to hurt Castiel by helping him. If Cas came to expect anything, it would only break his heart when Dean eventually had to leave.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

They rode out on Dean’s motorcycle, the sun on the opposite side as it had been last night. Dean slowed down when they reached the area they’d left the bike, and Castiel hopped off behind him, leaving Dean’s back unexpectedly cold.

Castiel smiled when he found his bicycle, wheeling it out of the dewy grass and onto the twin paths.

“Go on, Dean,” Castiel said. “They’ll be waiting for you at the schoolhouse.”

“Yeah.”

It was too hard to look away from this beautiful man, Castiel’s eyes like ice and his skin like baked summer earth. He’d said they were soulmates, and even though Dean wouldn’t quite let himself believe it, he did feel a pull between them, and it made his heart ache to stretch their tether, even for a few hours.

“Am I gonna see you again?” Dean asked.

Castiel mounted his bicycle. He reached up and knock-knocked his borrowed helmet. “Undoubtedly.”

Dean smiled. He looked down at the ducks in his lap, then set his motorcycle in gear and sped away down the lane without another word.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

As calm and collected as they’d been previously, kindergarteners proved to be wild at times. First thing when they arrived, whenever they changed activity, while they ate, after they ate, when there was a mere hour before hometime, and especially – especially when Dean told them, very calmly, “I might have a surprise for you guys...”

He’d kept the ducklings a secret all day, checking on them in the staff room whenever he got a chance. He’d been waiting... waiting... biding his time until the right moment, hoping there’d be a window when the class wasn’t too rowdy, and could actually pay attention.

But now half the school was in uproar, as the kindergarteners had been joined by Donna’s class, and the room was loud, beanbags were taken, and the children provided a constant hubbub of excitement as Dean stood near the front of the class, hugging the box, convening with Donna before he dared show anyone.

“Don’t let anyone touch the small one,” Dean said quietly, showing Donna which one he meant. “It’s a little weak.”

“Is it okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” Dean said with forced confidence. “Yeah, it’s fine. Just younger than the other two, might not take well to being poked at yet.”

“Looks a little scruffy, huh,” Donna observed, gently holding the small one in her palm, still hidden inside the box. “Kinda like you.”

“Kinda like— What?”

“The stubble?” Donna eyed the fuzz on Dean’s jaw. “Suits you.”

“Oh... thanks.” Dean smiled.

“I notice you’re wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday, too,” Donna said, separating the bigger ducklings into a plastic trough with a see-through lid. There were pine shavings, water, and some food in there already. “Is it an Einstein thing, so you don’t hafta think about clothes every day? Or didn’t you get home last night?”

Dean looked down at his henley and jeans. He snorted, catching Donna’s eyes again. “You judging me?”

“Jeez, are ya kiddin’ me, of course not,” Donna grinned, punching Dean gently on the chest. “I love people who aren’t obsessed with wearing a new outfit every day. Not like the thing’s dirty, eh?”

Dean cooled with relief. “Oh. Naw, it’s... Uh.” He swallowed down his correction; he would’ve changed after his shower, if he hadn’t stayed the night in a stranger’s bed.

“Listen up, class,” Donna called to the room, giving Dean a private moment to compose himself. “If you guys can keep vewwy, vewwy quiet,” she said, in a perfect Elmer Fudd voice, “Dean’s broughcha something real special he’d like to share with you. Dean?”

Dean drew a breath. “Yeah. So. How many of you have seen ducklings before?”

Amid gasps and shrieks, half the room raised their hands.

Dean grinned. “Alright. But how many of you have held ducklings before?”

Only two kids raised their hands; the Jewish-Muslim pre-teen twins, hiding in the back row.

Nodding, Donna called to them, “So you must know all about how gently and softly and carefully you have to hold them? And how if anyone even thinks about pulling their wings or squeezing their little duck bodies, they are immediately banned from any and all fun things, forever.”

Dean folded his arms and nodded. “Seconding that. No field trips for duck-hurters. And no lunch.”

Donna uttered to him, “We can’t stop them having lunch.”

Dean corrected, “No lunch outside.”

“Better.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel returned home from work, slowing as he came up the driveway. Dean’s motorcycle was parked out front.

“What are you doing here?” he asked in a hush, wheeling his bike to the front door, eyes still on the motorcycle.

Castiel looked around at the soft oranges and greens of the garden in the evening sun, the jasmine and honeysuckle flowers with their petals wide, the birds in the fruit trees singing their lullabies. But Dean was nowhere to be seen.

“Dean?” he called.

No response.

Castiel reached into his pocket for his front door key, but when he turned it in the lock, the door opened by itself. Entering his house with a tingle running up his spine, he called again, “Dean? Are you here? Or do I need to call the sheriff?”

The house was quiet... but it was not deathly silent, or still. There was movement in the air, and the warmth of someone else in the hallways. Castiel had not felt that kind of life in this house for longer than he could remember. The smell of dinner, baking; the sound... of distant music...

Was it Dean?

Or was it a hallucination? Fifteen years of nothing, and now... this place felt real again. It felt welcoming. There were spirits among the voids, slowly filling in the empty spaces, retrieving light to brighten a dark, lonely shell of a home.

Castiel felt his mother here. She was smiling. She’d made dinner; she kissed him on the forehead—

Castiel turned into the living room, and gasped, hand on his chest. “Dean!”

Dean waved an oven mitt, grinning as he came forward. “Heyy. Sorry, man, didn’t meant to scare you. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Castiel’s heart was pounding under his hand. “I did. I—” He frowned. “I smelled a ghost.”

“If you mean my piña colada custard sundaes and the meatloaf—”

“Yes. Pineapples. Those were her favourite.”

Dean’s mouth hung slightly open. “I made dinner, is my point. Kind of felt obliged to, after breaking in.”

“You broke in to cook for me?” Castiel said in confusion, tossing his coat onto the couch-bed, which was still folded out, sheets rumpled.

“What? No. Dude, I left this morning, and I forgot everything here. The chick food, the heat pad, the weird, gross box of live mealworms? Ergh.” Dean’s expression of disgust wiped away, and he added, “I came up here to grab that stuff, but you weren’t home yet, and the babies were cheeping at me...” Shrugging, Dean rubbed the back of his neck, looking down. “My nesting instinct took over. So I jimmied the lock, got their dinner ready. They’re hanging out in the bath. Hope you don’t mind. But just in case you do? I— I cooked us up a lil something. To apologise.”

He gave a tense, hopeful smile, eyes set directly on Castiel’s.

“Piña colada sundaes,” Castiel said.

“Yeah. Cool Whip. Cherry on top. There’s a little mango layer mixed in – that’s the secret. Otherwise you get sick of the taste halfway down.”

“And meatloaf?”

Dean hugged his middle, shoulders raised. “Surprise?”

Castiel hung his head, chuckling. “A good one.”

“Thank God. Y’know. ‘Cause I worried.” Dean patted the oven mitt against Castiel’s shoulder, turning away. “So I took the ducklings to the school today. Some of the kids handled them, real gentle-like.”

“And how was it?” Castiel asked, going to wash his hands and face in the kitchen sink.

“They were good. The kids, I mean. And the ducks. I left mini-duckie out of it, didn’t wanna add to the stress of existing. I really worry about that one. It’s two days younger but it doesn’t seem younger, it seems weaker.”

“Yes,” Castiel agreed, quietly, soaping his hands. “Most ducklings don’t survive to adulthood. Don’t be surprised if that one doesn’t.”

Dean gritted his teeth, forcing out, “It’s gonna be fine.”

“Yes, I hope so too. But survival is not a sure thing.”

“That’s not what we’re talking about,” Dean said roughly. “Like I was sayin’, this one kid, this little four-eyes from my class, he asked what their names were, and I realised – we should really do that, huh. We gotta name them.”

“Did the children name them?” Castiel asked, drying his face on the towel Dean handed him.

“We brainstormed,” Dean smiled. “Kind of all over the shop, as you can imagine. Everything from Disney references to poop jokes. But we got a good one for the littlest duck.”

“Oh yes?”

“Uh-huh.” Dean handed Castiel a lumpy appetiser, something small and crisp and warm, and Castiel only realised upon crunching it that it was a miniature samosa, wrapped badly. “I told the kids how I found the ducks, all huddled together in my boots. And four-eyes—”

“Dean, his name is Eddie,” Castiel said with a smile. “His aunt Billie works with me at the clinic.”

Dean pointed knowingly at Castiel. “That kid. Snotball. He came up with the perfect name. And soon as I heard it, I didn’t even need to take a vote.”

“What was the name?”

“Take a guess.”

“Ducky McDuckerson.”

Dean snorted.

Castiel sighed, eyes rolling sideways. “Enlighten me, Dean.”

Dean could barely subdue his grin as he mouthed out, “Boots.”

Castiel hummed lightly.

“Right? Right?” Dean was ecstatic, offering Castiel three more samosas. “Gave that boy a gold star for sure.”

“Yet you couldn’t stoop so low as to learn the boy’s name?”

“I’m getting to it,” Dean said, turning away to put the samosa dish on the side. “I’ve only been working there, what, three days? Give me chance. Not that there’s much point learning names, though. Track record says I’m probably gonna take off before the end of the semester. So do you want dinner now?”

“Oh— I suppose? If it’s hot now.”

“Anyway,” Dean said, still conversing as he began serving food into bowls, “One duck name down, two to go. I’ve decided to start charting their growth. You know those photos I took? Put ‘em in the baby book I bought for my nephew, way back when. Finally got a use for it. And your Polaroid camera too!”

“Congratulations,” Castiel said, smiling as he watched Dean move around the kitchen like he lived here.

“Throw some ideas at me,” Dean said, slapping the oven mitt on the dining table, then sitting down. He shot back up, and pulled back Castiel’s chair so he could sit first. Dean tucked him in, then sat again. “Seriously, duck names. Go.”

“Ducky McDuckerson not up your alley?”

Dean grinned, handing Castiel the ketchup for his meatloaf. “Actually, one of the kids said ‘Duckasaurus Rex’, and I didn’t hate that.”

“Rex for short?”

“That’ll be the biggest one,” Dean nodded, cramming food in his mouth, chewing in his cheek as he added, “Always bumpin’ up on the others? Try’na sit on them like they’re fluffy chairs or somethin’.”

“Ducklings don’t tend to mind that,” Castiel advised, taking his first bite off his fork, chewing. “They like keeping warm. And it’s not as if the weight of another duck is too much.”

“Light as a freaking feather.”

“I was thinking more of their mother, sitting on them to keep them warm.”

“Even after they hatch?”

“Even after.” Castiel took the salt shaker out of Dean’s hand, and seasoned his own dinner. “You know, this food is actually very good, Dean.”

“‘Actually very good’? Pff. Nothin’ normal in your fridge except lettuce, horseradish, and a loaf of bread that probably cost less than a pack of gum. For a meatloaf, ‘very good’ is probably a compliment coming from you.”

“It ought to be a compliment coming from anyone,” Castiel frowned. “You’ve never cooked before.”

“Well... I’ve dabbled,” Dean said humbly, hunching over his plate and mushing some baked cherry tomatoes into a red puddle with his fork. “A stir-fry here, an apple crumble there.”

“Your first time making samosas?”

“Can you tell?” Dean grimaced.

“If I closed my eyes, Dean,” Castiel smiled, “I would’ve thought they were store-bought.”

Dean breathed out. “Okay. That’s definitely a compliment. I’ll just blindfold you next time, hand-feed you, how ‘bout that.”

Castiel raised his eyebrows. “We could try that if you want.”

Dean looked at him sharply. “Uh. Wh-wh—?” His lower lip bobbed, speechless. “I w—” He cleared his throat, and rasped out, “Was... kidding. Dude. Seriously. That’s... kinda kinky.”

“You suggested it, not me,” Castiel said, face suddenly hot as he looked back to his food.

Dean shifted in his seat. “You were really up for that?”

Castiel shrugged a shoulder. “I have nothing against the idea.”

“You wanna try it?”

Castiel met his eyes, seeing a blush on Dean’s cheeks that probably matched his own.

“The dessert,” Dean said. “We could...? If you want...?”

Eyes returning to his dinner, Castiel replied, quietly, “Okay.”

Dean grinned around an exhale. “Wow. A’right.”

It was absolutely not Castiel’s imagination: Dean ate the rest of his first course in a rush. Eager. Excited. It was hard not to notice.

Castiel wondered what he’d gotten himself into.

But, the moment he was done eating, he cleared up the plates, aware his heart was beating too hard. His work pants felt tight, their fabric loops straining on his belt. He didn’t need to touch himself to know he was already aroused.

There was something about Dean...

Something.

Whatever it was, it made it easy to change years of habits within days. Effortlessly, Dean had reworked his mind, recalibrating what Castiel knew about himself, what he assumed might be true. Given how long he’d been unattracted to others, he’d supposed he might have been asexual, aromantic – or at the very least, needed a good amount of time before he began to feel something for a friend. But he’d never had a friend close enough for long enough to prove that theory.

Everything Castiel believed about himself then... that was the old him. The past him. Maybe it had all been true until now, but those terms no longer applied.

The Castiel of today? He was immediately, unapologetically attracted to Dean. It was a startling realisation, and the panic of the morning remained, somewhat: this was so sudden, so life-changing for him. Would these feelings fade, someday? Would they vanish once Dean left? Did this sensually adventurous side of him exist solely for Dean, or would he someday feel the same for someone else?

Had he ruined the universe’s plan by bringing Dean to him before he was ready? What if they were supposed to have met years from now, and fall in love slowly? Had Rowena’s spell cancelled out an alternate future, one where Castiel didn’t feel rushed?

Castiel wasn’t ready to think about those things. He didn’t need to. All he needed to do was allow it to happen, to chase his urges and find out where his boundaries lay. Maybe he’d find a place on his body he didn’t want Dean to touch. Maybe Dean would ask for Castiel to do something, and Castiel wouldn’t want to. Maybe there were still limits.

But as of yet? Castiel had not found them. And he wanted to find them. So he would try whatever he could with Dean until he knew for certain what kind of person he was becoming.

“Where should we do this?” Dean asked, his eyes hungry and dark, fingers reaching to hold Castiel’s necktie, knuckles against his stomach. He held a single piña colada sundae in his other hand. “Table? Bed?”

“Bed.”

Castiel went to the pull-out mattress, walking backwards as Dean followed, led by Castiel’s tie.

“Sit or lie?” Dean asked.

Castiel sat, then scooted back to rest with his head propped against the high couch back, dense velvet padding under his neck.

Dean nodded, crawling to kneel on the mattress before him. He reached with a shaking hand, undoing Castiel’s tie. He unravelled it, handled the tie to straighten it, then reached up to cover Castiel’s eyes. “You ready?”

“Yes.” Castiel breathed out, letting darkness enfold his sight. Dean’s hands were warm, and moved gently to blindfold him, wrapping the tie twice before knotting it at Castiel’s crown. “What is this to you, Dean?”

“To me?”

“Do you enjoy feeding people?”

Dean chuckled, headbutting Castiel’s cheek, then kissing his jaw. “Not like this.”

“Why do you want to feed me?”

Why?” Dean breathed out, unbalanced by the question. “I dunno. Seems like it would be hot. Your mouth...?”

Castiel heard Dean lick his lips, then gulp.

“Yeah.” Dean whispered. “I don’t know. And I don’t need to know why I wanna. Just need to know whether you wanna too. So.” He cradled Castiel’s jaw with his hand. “You ready?”

Castiel opened his mouth, ready to taste something.

“Taking that as a yes. Here it comes.”

Castiel startled at first; chilled fluff touched his lip... but then it was soft on his tongue, and he closed his lips around it – only to feel Dean’s finger there, offering a taste of whipped cream.

“Hm,” Castiel said, lapping the cream off Dean’s withdrawing fingertip. It faded into nothing on his tongue.

Dean breathed. He got closer on the bed – then climbed into Castiel’s lap. His exhale shook, trembling, deeply excited.

“Here. Open. It’s the cherry.”

Castiel took the glace cherry between his teeth, grinning when he caught it perfectly. He bit down, chewing – then felt Dean kiss him, mouth open, tongue inviting itself in, stealing away the sugary flavour.

“Mmh,” Dean sighed, kissing Castiel again, hand open on his cheek. “Hmm.”

Dean slid a thick finger between Castiel’s lips, a cool lump of custard smeared between another kiss. Dean pressed his stiff, denim-clad crotch against Castiel’s belly, groaning; Castiel took his waist, stroking upward, lifting his henley, then lowering it again.

“Yeah,” Dean breathed. “Another one.”

Castiel swallowed, clearing his mouth. Dean gave him a spoon this time, withdrawing it smoothly under Castiel’s top lip. Castiel smacked the flavour against his soft palate, smiling. “Hm! I taste the mango.”

“Good?” Dean asked.

“Surprisingly, yes. Tangy.”

Dean grinned, kissing Castiel’s lips, licking sweetness from them.

Dean humped against Castiel, their thick, swollen shapes nudging through their pants. With a pleased hum, Dean squirmed in place, then parted Castiel’s lips with two fingers, leaving cream against his cheek as he offered another taste.

“Suck my fingers,” Dean whispered.

Castiel closed his lips around Dean’s fingers, swallowing around them, then starting to suckle them together like a teat. These fingers belonged to giving hands, belonged to the man who could provide more for him, like a river in the land of milk and honey that could never run dry. Their quaking landscapes were luscious under Castiel’s palms; their flowers were blooming, his sky was full of stars even in this blind moment of the evening.

Castiel moaned aloud, lifting his lips to push against Dean. “Aauh’h...”

Dean chuckled. “Mmm. God, you angel. Fuckin’ angel, look at you. Hah.” He kissed Castiel’s cheek, then moved to his ear, biting the lobe and stretching it. “Nmh.”

He sank saliva-wet fingers into Castiel’s hair – both of them, no telling where the sundae glass had gone – and he began to hump in a rhythm, hips working in a languid grind, pelvis circling to press, press, press against Castiel’s arousal.

“Dean—” Castiel squeezed Dean’s hips, eyes tightly closed under the blindfold, breath shaking from him. “Oh...”

“More,” Dean whispered, not even trying to place the dessert into Castiel’s mouth; he wiped it against his lips, under his nose, then groaned as he leaned close to kiss it away, sucking, licking, a slow and deep sound escaping his throat as he did. “Auh, Cas. Kiss me. Kiss me.”

Castiel ran his gripping palm up Dean’s back, taking his head and turning it; he forced a kiss against his lips, grunting, mouth wide, not trying to be gentle or delicate, just pushing, and biting, and dragging Dean’s lower lip as he finally let him breathe.

“Gotta—” Dean hushed, his breaths humid, his body taut as he rummaged between their bodies, unbuckling Castiel’s belt, tightening it first, then whipping it out the other way, loosening it completely. Castiel lay his head back against the couch back, chin up, relaxing as Dean undid the zipper on his pants.

Finally, with a sigh of relief, Dean slid his whole hand into Castiel’s pants, inside his boxers, palm against his erection. Castiel shuddered, legs tense and pushing into the bed. He cried out in a guttural kind of way, enjoying how carnal the sound was, how low and akin to a roar it seemed.

“Yeah,” Dean whispered. He started to tug, his fist closed around Castiel’s loose foreskin, pulling up, then sinking down, letting the skin play on the sensitive, blood-firmed edge.

Castiel grunted, writhing under Dean’s weight, hands slammed into the couch back, clawing at the velvet. He gasped and struggled for breath, relieved whenever he managed to make a sound; he wanted Dean to know, he wanted him to feel how bizarre and confusing and exciting this was for him, how new every feeling was, how thrilling it felt to lose control and give it away, not to worry whether he was going to be hurt.

Suddenly Castiel sat up, drawing a breath, gripping the tie and wrenching it off his head. Dean stopped touching him immediately; when Castiel met his eyes, Dean had his hands raised in surrender, looking spooked.

“I trust you,” Castiel said, awed by his realisation. “Dean, I— I trust you.”

Dean searched Castiel’s eyes, left to right, right to left. “Okay. But did I do something wrong?”

Castiel shook his head. Dean wasn’t understanding. Reaching for his cheeks, holding him, Castiel shut his eyes and kissed Dean, briefly licking the smear of cream on his upper lip. Pulling back, Castiel let go of a huge sigh of relief. “You’ve done the opposite of wrong,” Castiel promised him. “Now, or in some fictional future, it doesn’t matter: you’re very, very right for me. Thank you.”

Dean blinked.

With a smile, Castiel shut his eyes and lay down again. “Finish pleasuring me.”

Dean hummed, sucking his lower lip, then letting it free. “Your wish is my command.”

He snuggled up now, his body close and warm against Castiel’s chest, his hand working quickly between their thighs. He purred occasionally, and gave soft sounds of satisfaction, applying kisses and the gentlest tooth-nibbles to Castiel’s skin.

“You got another clean work shirt, Cas?” Dean asked.

Castiel raised an eyebrow, keeping his eyes shut. “Why?”

“Because I wanna know if I can ruin this one.”

Castiel smiled, peeking out under his lashes to see Dean looking back, his gaze intense with desire, his grin playful and devilish at once.

“I have something I can wear,” Castiel assured him.

“Good.” Dean bent to suck Castiel’s neck. “Because you’re about to come.”

“I am?”

Dean nodded. He dipped his tongue behind Castiel’s ear, and whispered, “In five. Four. Three...”

Castiel felt amused. He felt the build-up, but surely he wasn’t anywhere near climax...?

Dean bit his lip, and moved so he could look Castiel directly in the eyes, lustful gaze full of absolute determination. “Two and a half...”

Castiel kissed him, breath shaking. “I-I think... you must be... mistaken... wH-HMM—” He shut his eyes and his head fell back, abruptly overtaken by core-deep, gut-wrenching pleasure. Dean must’ve done something; his thumb was squashing into Castiel’s cockhead, that movement was too fast, too tight, too much like fire exploding across oil on water—

“One... Aaaand... bang,” Dean murmured.

Castiel grabbed Dean’s hair and yelled, sobbing over and over into the living room until his cry echoed back, ears ringing. He felt the heat of orgasm shoot itself through his system, tight scrotum spasming, cock thumping in Dean’s confident fist. The splash of fluid on Castiel’s shirt was shockingly hot, so hot it took him a moment to realise it wasn’t recompense raining down from the heavens in liquid form.

“Aauh— Ahh— Dean... Deeannn... Dhhhh...”

Dean kissed his cheek slowly, smiling. “And there’s my dessert.”

“What...?” Castiel panted and shuddered, chest heaving, weak hand holding Dean’s arm. “Ah-h... haa... Wh— Whadd’re you talkinnhh... about? Ahh...”

He opened his blurry eyes, and lighted upon Dean sucking his own fingers, looking smug.

“You didn’t,” Castiel said dangerously.

Dean bit his lip, grinning. “The plan was to suck you off tomorrow,” he admitted, eyes shining. “At least then the pineapple would’ve had some time to improve the flavour.”

Castiel snorted. “And? Wh— What’s the verdict, pre-pineapple?”

Dean nudged himself close, allowing his henley to press against Castiel’s mess. Castiel had never seen Dean look as self-satisfied and smirky as he did now. “Mmm,” Dean said, kissing Castiel’s neck, “Not great. But good enough that I’d have it again.”

“Hm,” Castiel said thoughtfully. “I wonder, Dean...” He stroked his fingers through Dean’s hair as Dean sat up a bit, wiping his mouth with the side of his hand. “Whatever happened to all your previous relationships – being over by now? Did you ever have time to plan other people’s pineapple puddings a day in advance?”

Dean smiled a genuine smile, but he pouted to hide it, just a moment too late. “Maybe it’s just common sense, Cas,” he shrugged. “I’m stuck here until the car’s fixed, since I invested whatever life savings I didn’t already give to Sam. What’s the point in breaking your heart if I still got a few more months to slog through?”

“So it’s not that I’m beautiful, that I put out, or that I have a good kitchen,” Castiel said teasingly. “It’s not that all the duck-care equipment is in my house. It’s that you don’t want to break my heart. That’s why you’re still here.”

Dean chuckled. “Mmmmaybe it’s that other stuff too.”

The levity in the conversation faded as Dean’s smile vanished. He wrapped his arms slowly around Castiel’s waist, kissing his lips. “Honestly, though?” Their eyes met, and Dean applied Castiel a soft, tender kiss to his nose, smiling. “I actually like you, Cas. Like, as a friend. That’s pretty rare for me. Don’t usually stick around long enough for that.”

Castiel exhaled, satisfied. Even when Dean shut his eyes, and lay his head to rest on Castiel’s heart, Castiel kept watching him, stroking his hair.

“You know, Dean, you’ve made me come twice now,” Castiel observed. “I haven’t seen you come even once. Don’t you want—”

“Later,” Dean said sharply.

Castiel blinked a few times. “Um. Okay.”

Realising he’d been harsh, Dean’s lashes fluttered, and his sorry eyes peered up at Castiel. He looked down, ashamed. But then... slowly... he took a breath to amend, “Next time. I promise.”

There was a sensitivity there, something to be poked at, Castiel realised. He didn’t want to poke it.

But now he smiled, because Dean had promised a next time.

Something on the bed began to buzz, playing a jaunty tune. Dean inhaled, blinking, then sitting up.

“What is that?” Castiel asked.

“My ringtone,” Dean uttered, patting his pocket, then straightening his bowed leg to retrieve his cellphone. “That’s Sammy’s one. Theme song from ‘Elmo’s World’.”

Castiel’s eyebrows wrinkled, but he smiled as Dean answered the phone with, “Yo, Sammy, how’s the devilspawn treating you?” He glanced at Castiel, then shrugged. “I meeeeean, it’s not the best time, but still better than a minute ago. What’s up?”

He grinned. “Yeah.”

He snorted. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Castiel, his grin fading. Licking his lips quickly, he pushed away, shuffling to the edge of the bed. “Uh-huh.”

He stood up. “Yeah but—”

He began to walk, stepping three paces one way, then turning slowly, frowning as he paced back. “But, you told Rufus, right? He knows I retired for good.”

Castiel watched closely now, ears pricked for more information. He couldn’t hear Sam’s words, but he could sense a stern, important tone.

Dean stopped pacing, standing with his hand on his forehead. “Sam—”

He took a breath like he wanted to speak, but Sam interrupted again. Fury descended across Dean’s face, and his hand slapped to his thigh. He turned and stalked out of the room, shaking his head. “Sam, I don’t care. I don’t care.”

Dean retreated to the hallway, storming up and down as he growled, “I don’t care if they double the pay, I’m not doing it! Tell Bobby to talk some sense into Rufus already!”

Castiel sat up, head forward, eyes shut, straining to hear.

Dean was trying to keep his voice down, but even a shout under his breath carried in the hall. “No! Sam, I retired for a reason! Besides, I’m out of practise – doing it now would be so fucking dangerous I don’t even know where to start.”

Castiel heard him sigh, and his socked feet went still.

“A month and a half?”

There was curiosity in Dean’s tone, now. Wonder. As if he was thinking... well... maybe...

“God, I don’t know. I’ll think about it. Just— Don’t let either of them think it’s a yes. It’s not a yes.” A pause. “Yeah. Bye, Sammy. Thanks. Say hi to Jack for me.”

Castiel heard the faint bleep of Dean ending the call.

Then came a long, stressed sigh, muffled, presumably by Dean clawing at his face.

He returned, looking wearily at his cellphone. He tossed it onto the foot of the couch-bed, then sighed, sitting heavily beside Castiel. He bent forward, elbows on his thighs, head so far down he could latch his hands behind his neck.

“Guess you heard all that,” he intoned.

“One half of it, yes,” Castiel said.

Dean managed a smile, lifting his head and gazing serenely at Castiel. “My old daredevil manager’s got this bee in his bonnet about me doing one last show. Some sellout gig six weeks from now, they need a replacement performer ‘cause the headliner dropped out. Broken spine.” Dean shook his head assuringly when Castiel gasped. “Hey, he’s fine. Recovering. Not dead, just paralysed in one leg.”

“But still—”

“Cas, he got off lucky,” Dean said sternly. “So damn lucky. I almost tore my head from my neck, maybe fifteen different occasions. Worst I ever got was a month in bed after surgery for a torn tendon, then half-year of rehab. Caught fire by accident a couple times – once on purpose.” He snorted. “Look, every time I lived to see the audience put on their coats and head out to the parking lot at the end of the night, I counted myself lucky. Figured some great, almighty presence in the universe had to be lookin’ out for me, right? I had to have some important purpose, some destiny. Why else would I still be alive when I went around asking for death to find me?”

He shook his head, looking blankly at Castiel’s hand on his knee. “Anyway, my old crew want me to take the spotlight. Double the old pay. Nearly doubled again if I race and win. Not as much as Evel Knievel made jumping shark tanks, but I’m still lookin’ at a small fortune if I went for it.”

“But you won’t.”

“I’d have to be outta my mind to do it, Cas. I ain’t flipped a bike in nearly three years. Sam adopted Jack, I went to college, and I never looked back. The thing I got parked out there on your lawn? The road bike. That thing handles completely different to the one I use for shows. The handlebars ain’t even in the same place. You ever fast-typed on a laptop, then borrowed someone else’s keyboard, and typed nothin’ but typos? It’s like that. Maybe it’ll be second nature, and I just drive on autopilot when I hit the arena. Or maybe I die. Flip a coin to find out.”

He sat for a while, thinking, his expression grim.

“If I did it,” Dean said, “I’d have enough cash to fix the car. And I could take off again, go wherever. Back to Sammy and baby Jack.” He gritted his teeth and a muscle jumped in his jaw. “God. Been gone so long Jack ain’t even close to being a baby any more. He doesn’t talk or read or write yet – I mean, he’s autistic, so he’s not ready for that crap at the moment – but still. Kid’s growing up.”

Castiel said nothing, unwilling to sway Dean’s decision. If it was his nature to leave, it would only cruel to be trap him like a bird in a cage. Some birds needed to fly free, even if they were to fly straight into the open jaws of a monster. Dean knew that old monster better than Castiel. It wasn’t his place to dissuade him.

“Nah.” Dean shook his head. “I grew up. I grew up, and I gave up that life.” He smiled flatly. “What good is money, anyway? I don’t need it. I’ll make do without it.”

Castiel stilled his tongue, swallowing his desperate exclamation about his own financial situation.

“Aaackhhh,” Dean said dismissively, scratching his stubble. “Moving on.”

He glanced at Castiel. “Should I leave the ducks here overnight? They seemed pretty happy in the bath. God knows I don’t have that kind of space in my place.”

Castiel shook his clinging thoughts away, breathing in. “You can. I wouldn’t mind.”

“Can I come back here in the morning to feed ‘em? Inn’s not so far from here.”

“And the evening,” Castiel suggested. “Dinner’s on me tomorrow night.”

Dean grinned. “So do I just pick your lock again, or—?”

Castiel looked away, struck by a thought. “Nooo...” he said slowly, pondering.

He got up from the side of the bed, and wandered to his bedroom, opening the door. After a minute rummaging in his nightstand, he knelt back with a house key in his hand. There was old tape stuck to it, which had kept the key hidden on the underside of the drawer. Castiel peeled the tape off as Dean came to lean in the doorway, watching.

“My family would kill to get hold of this,” Castiel said quietly, standing up, still considering the key in his hand. “And that’s not an exaggeration. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them has gotten away with actual first-degree murder at some point.”

Dean huffed. “Reassuring.”

Catching Dean’s eyes and holding his gaze, Castiel asked, “Can you promise me you’re not a spy sent by my siblings to seduce me and steal this key?”

Hands up, Dean pressed his lips together. “If I was, you think I’d tell you? But— Naw. C’mon...” He let his hands fall, reaching to hold Castiel’s. “I came here of my own free will. I’m not under the influence of blackmail, bribery, witchy love spells, or a death threat from your siblings. Just me. Dean Winchester. Only reason I’d need that key is so I can feed our duck babies. And— And you. If you want.”

Breathing out, Castiel cupped Dean’s hand and placed the key in his palm. “Guard this... not with your life. It’s not as important as that. But treat it with the protectiveness that you might give something... invaluable, irreplaceable, with such, such – intense sentimental value... that parting with it would be... utterly unthinkable.” Castiel swallowed, feeling his throat tighten with emotion. “Like you might protect... um, your favourite plush toy, growing up.”

Dean gave a lopsided grin. “Heh. That would be Banjo. Fat little rainbow unicorn with suspenders. I loved that thing. God—” Dean looked away. “I wonder where he went.” He chewed his lip, thinking.

“Be as careful as you would be with Banjo,” Castiel said, closing Dean’s fingers around the key. “This house means everything to me.”

Dean swallowed, holding Castiel’s eyes. “Got it.” He raised their joined hands to his lip, and kissed Castiel’s knuckles, smiling.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Although he left on Wednesday night, declaring, “No point payin’ for a room at the inn if I’m not sleeping there, Cas,” on Thursday morning, Dean returned to Castiel’s house to feed the ducklings and clean out their bathtub. He gave them each an individual cuddle, softly cupping them between his palms, and then took their portraits.

Sitting at the breakfast table, still brushing toast crumbs off his face, Dean gave the Polaroid photos to Castiel, who had a marker pen.

“Duckasaurus Rex,” Castiel said slowly, handing the labelled photo back to Dean, who tucked it into his baby book.

“Boots,” he said, labelling the photo of the littlest duck with the name and the date.

Dean held the third photo unsurely.

“No name yet,” Castiel murmured.

“Leave it blank,” Dean said, putting it into the photo album anyway. “Just call it Middle Duck for now.”

“Initials ‘M.D.’. Like Doctor Sexy, M.D.”

“Doc?” Dean grinned. “Doc Duck.”

“A duck, a duck, and a Boots,” Castiel mused. “Duck-duck-boots.”

By the evening, Dean returned, full of stories about the children in his class playing ‘Duck Duck Goose’ with a twist. One kid would go around, patting everyone sitting in a circle on the head, until they suddenly exclaimed, “Boots!” and starting a waddling race around the classroom.

Hearing this, Castiel laughed for a long time, hands on his aching stomach, leaning on the couch backrest. He laughed until tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes, and he had no breath left to laugh with.

He opened his eyes, and saw Dean smiling, watching him, mesmerised by the sight.

Castiel leaned over to kiss Dean, holding his cheek. He wriggled to lie halfway on top of him, straddling a thigh... but Dean breathed in, breaking the kiss.

“Maybe, uh... I should get back,” Dean shrugged, avoiding Castiel’s eyes. “Like I said last night. Still payin’ for that inn.”

“You don’t have to stay the night,” Castiel said, holding Dean’s neck, tilting his head. “Just... play ‘Duck Duck Goose’ with me.”

Dean chuckled. “Naked?”

“If you like.”

Dean looked down and away. “Tempting.”

“But...?”

Dean eased Castiel off his lap and stood up. “But I’ve gotta get back. Prep for tomorrow. Groceries to buy. Sammy to call. Y’know. Bunch of stuff to do.”

“Of course.” Castiel stood up and went to help Dean put on his jacket. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning?”

Dean nodded, and leaned to kiss Castiel’s cheek. He breathed out, lingering, like he did want to stay. But he pulled back, eyes cast down.

And he left on his motorcycle, riding off with a roar into the sunset.

He came back every morning and evening for a week.

He’d come for breakfast – sometimes bearing a gift he bought from the bakery the day before, sometimes purloining Castiel’s cereal and toast. He and Castiel conversed over their food, and then Dean would take the ducklings in a box, they’d wish each other a good day, and leave for work.

Castiel often peered across the village square at lunchtime, when he shared tea with Rowena. Dean would be out in the schoolyard, minding the children, shouting instructions or warnings, or crouching to hear what a child had to say. Sometimes Dean noticed Castiel watching him through the brick arches and past the fountain, and he’d wave. Sometimes he didn’t notice he was being watched, too busy watching others.

When Castiel left work in the evening, he’d ride home to find Dean’s motorcycle parked outside, the house thick with heat from the oven and the rich, tangy smells of a well-cooked meal.

They ate, and talked about their days. Dean talked about what needed fixing on the car, or explained the physics of a wheelie, and Castiel talked about the dogs and cats and rabbits he cared for that day, or the sheep and pigs and horses he was called out to help on nearby farms.

Every day that week, Castiel invited Dean to stay a little longer... just another hot drink, just one more episode of Dr. Sexy, M.D., since they’d started watching together. Dean agreed to fix the dripping shower, but flustered and babbled excuses when Castiel invited him to try it out and stay the night. Dean was gone within five minutes, and the house was left utterly silent, now sans the dripping sound.

It felt good to flirt, Castiel thought. But as often as he asked, and Dean hastily yet politely declined, Castiel began to see a pattern, and by the time the following Thursday came along, he had resolved not to ask. Perhaps if Castiel wasn’t so eager for Dean to stay, it would be easier for Dean to do so.

But Castiel did not ask. And still Dean did not stay. He didn’t make excuses this time, he simply got up after dinner and said, “Well, time I got goin’. Have a great night, Cas. See you tomorrow.”

And then he was gone.

Castiel sat in the bathroom and watched the ducklings snuggle up on their heat pad, their little eyes closing sleepily. He smiled to himself, but deep down, he wondered: what if this part of his life was yet another peak, concealing the endless low valleys that came after? Was it worth smiling, if the reason for his smile was already becoming distant?

Dean didn’t want him any more.

He kept coming back for the food and the ducks, but his wandering heart was already gone.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

On Friday evening, Dean showed up late. Castiel had already made dinner, and only pulled out a second plate when Dean let himself in with his key.

“You didn’t wait,” Dean grumped, taking off his fingerless gloves. He had glitter glue in his hair.

Castiel retorted, “I thought you weren’t coming.”

Dean’s eyes softened. “Cas, come on. What’s gonna keep me from looking after my babies, huh?”

“You mean the ducks?”

Dean leaned to kiss Castiel’s jaw. “Among others.”

He turned to take the box of ducks to the bathroom.

As Castiel piled up Dean’s plate with food, he noticed a delivery truck backing up his driveway. He put down the plate, wandering towards the windows to peer out. Was that Charlie’s truck?

Dean returned to the living room, freshly washed, but looking bothered. “You know, I thought Boots would be doing better by now. She’s barely bigger than the others were when I first found them. A duck that age should be growing better, huh. You’re the expert – doesn’t she seem frail to you?”

“Yes,” Castiel said, taking Dean’s hand. “Like I told you before... nature runs its course. We can care for them as much as we can but there’s no fixing a birth defect.”

Dean looked sullen. He turned his eyes to the sunset, and raised his eyebrows. “Charlie?”

The t-shirted redhead outside on Castiel’s porch waved at them, balancing a heavy box on her thigh. She punched her face with the back of her hand to keep her glasses from falling – and sighed in relief as Dean rushed out and helped her steady the box. Together they lowered it to the ground.

“God, this weighs a ton, what the hell’s in here?!” Dean asked.

“Special delivery!” Charlie sang, as Castiel joined them on the porch. “A little birdy told me you were after a whatcha-ma-call-it for your Impala engine.”

“What?” Dean crouched, ripping the packing tape, looking into the box in awe. “Wait— No. No. That’s the right size and everything! Pre-oiled! Charlie, what the hell, I can’t afford this!” He stood up, gawping.

Charlie puffed her hair out of her face in a dismissive way. “No charge. I knew a guy who had one going spare.”

“Nonono, come on, I gotta pay you, these things are rare as fuck— The car’s from the sixties—”

Castiel inhaled, touching Dean’s wrist. “Dean, this is what we do in Ingen Steder. It’s a favour. You owe Charlie nothing except a favour in return.”

Charlie winked. “I’ll take signed posters. Night Rider in action. Make one of ‘em out to Granger Girl three-six-five, leave the rest blank for Ebay.”

Dean wet his lips. “Oh. Well— I actually don’t have any of that stuff any more.”

“Bummer.” Charlie crossed her arms, cocking her hip and wrinkling her purple skinny jeans. “Well, then, guess we’ll call us friends and let it be forgotten.” She smiled, punching Dean’s arm. “Hi, new bestie.”

“Hi,” Dean croaked. He stared at the car parts, then blinked. “One question. Why are you delivering here?”

Charlie looked at Castiel. “You wanna explain, little birdy?”

Dean’s eyes shot to Castiel so fast he probably got dizzy. “You ordered this? Cas?”

Castiel avoided eye contact, but put on a smile. “I thought... you were eager to move on. Fix the car and leave.” He looked at Dean steadily now, seeing how taken aback he was. “I don’t feel right asking you to stay here, Dean, obliged to spend time with me if you’re longing to be somewhere else. Back with your brother and nephew. If you want to be with them, you should be with them.”

Slowly... Dean touched Castiel’s lower back.

His hand slid up... up, and Dean folded himself against Castiel’s front, crushing their chests together, biceps wrapped behind Castiel’s neck. Castiel felt Dean’s breath gush down under his shirt, warm and swift.

Then Dean stepped back. His eyes were misty, his lips unable to smile. “Thanks.”

Castiel waited for another part of that sentence, one beginning with ‘but’...

“But,” Dean said, and Castiel rushed cold with relief, “having the parts is one thing, getting them to work is totally different thing.” He nudged Castiel’s side, smiling. “Guess I’ll be dropping by your place for a little longer. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not a bit,” Castiel beamed.

Charlie sighed. “And there I was, thinking I delivered here because you’d moved in together. Billie and Donna both said you talk about each other basically non-stop during work breaks.” She grinned. “Anyways, I’ll let you lovebirds enjoy your gross oily car bits. And your dinner! Mm, smells good. Reminds me, I’ve got a girlfriend and a snotty nephew of her own to get to. See ya, suckers. Live long and prosper.”

She turned and leapt into her truck, started the engine, and rumbled back the way she’d come.

Dean breathed out, holding Castiel’s hand now. “Cas?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you for the... favour.”

“You’re welcome.”

Dean swallowed. “Why did you do it, really? Ask Charlie to get me this.” He nudged the box with his socked foot.

Castiel watched the setting sun, lilac and fuschia clouds stretching from horizon to horizon. “I assumed you were getting bored of me.”

Dean frowned. “Why?”

Castiel looked at him, and saw grace and magic in his face, equal to that of the sunset. “You know why.”

Dean shut his eyes, sighing. “It’s not you,” he promised. “It’s really not.”

“Then what is it?”

“I’m paying for the inn,” Dean said, as he had said so many times before. “And—” He covered his mouth, breathing out through his nose. “And God, I can’t even say it. But not saying it is making you think I don’t wanna be with you any more, and that’s so not what this is.”

Castiel waited.

Dean exhaled, eyes rising to the sky, where the first star was just appearing through the purple veil. “Shit. I can’t. I just can’t, Cas. I’m sorry. Just believe me when I say you’re not the problem.” He turned to go back inside, but paused in the doorway. Apologetic, he turned to look back over his shoulder. “You coming?”

Castiel reached for his hand, smiling as he followed.

Dean led him in, closing the door behind them.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

A quiet weekend seemed expected. A given, almost. Yes, Dean had shown up, morning and evening, but Castiel worked on both Saturdays and Sundays, and since the school was deserted those days, Castiel hadn’t spent any time with Dean during work hours. He expected the same for this weekend.

But, come Sunday?

Castiel woke with a jolt, hearing Dean’s motorcycle revving up his driveway. It juddered just outside, rattling the window panes, then went silent.

Examining his alarm clock, Castiel scowled. Still frowning, he swung his legs out of bed, shuffling from his bedroom and into the hallway.

He saw the shadowy figure in the front door’s glass panels, dark against a yellow dawn; he heard the key fit the lock. He heard the lock clack, and he watched Dean’s leather-clad figure enter the house as quietly as he could.

Dean startled when he saw Castiel standing there in his underwear, squinting.

“Sorry,” Dean rasped. “Trying not to wake you up.”

“It’s Sunday,” Castiel said. “I start work late on Sunday. It’s six in the morning.”

Dean grinned awkwardly, raising one shoulder as he took off his jacket. “Was gonna surprise you. Make you breakfast in bed... wake you up with a kiss... sneak in for a cuddle. You know, weekend stuff.”

“Did I mention it’s six in the fucking morning,” Castiel intoned.

“You did.”

Castiel snorted, unfolding his arms and turning away. “I’m taking a shower. Make me coffee.”

“Aye-aye, captain,” Dean said, laughing to himself as he headed for the kitchen.

When Castiel entered the kitchen, damp-haired and wrapped in his robe, he found hot coffee, but he did not find Dean. Hands around his steaming mug, he went to the other bathroom, the one with the ducks. He found Dean kneeling by the tub, Boots in his hands.

“How are they?” Castiel asked.

Dean hummed. “Boots is fine. God, I actually thought we might be in trouble last night. But—?” He put Boots down in the pine shavings, and the duckling patted off in a rush, beeping and cheeping, chasing Rex behind the food bowl. “False alarm.”

Castiel smiled, sipping his drink. “Hmmmmm. You make good coffee.”

“I tried extra hard,” Dean said, getting up to wash his hands in the sink. “To make up for the six a.m. thing.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me.”

“So I was thinkin’,” Dean said, drying his hands, then moving the towel to hang straight, “after breakfast, you and I should take a ride on my motorcycle. Go chase sheep or make some crop circles.”

“Is that what you do during the weekends? Ruin farmland?”

Dean grinned, heading back to the kitchen with Castiel in tow. “I was working on my car yesterday.”

“And?”

“And I would rather do something else today,” Dean said simply. “We don’t have to chase sheep, it was just a suggestion.”

“Mm.” Castiel put his coffee on the bread board, taking Dean in his arms instead, winding himself around his waist and kissing his chin. “Hmmm... I can think of a few very fun things we could do.”

Dean inhaled, but withheld his response.

Castiel let him go. “You... really don’t want to have sex with me, do you?”

Dean breathed out, pushing past. “Let’s just have breakfast, okay? Pancakes, eggs, toast. I’ll do this, you set up the TV and we’ll finally see what Dr. Sexy thinks of his ex-boss’ new intern.”

“Hm,” Castiel teased, eyes narrowed. “Attractive enough to seduce in the elevator upon first meeting, not good enough to join his team permanently.”

“Cas,” Dean said dangerously. “Stop.” He slammed a frying pan onto the stove. “This is not about you.”

“I wasn’t talking about me.”

Dean swallowed. “Well, it sounded like it.”

Castiel watched Dean’s shoulders slowly deflate. Reaching to touch him, Castiel stroked his back reassuringly.

“I don’t mind,” Castiel said softly. “I’m not desperate for sex with you. I’m not even convinced I have much of a sex drive, so it’s not that. It’s just— We started one way. And now it’s different. And I don’t know why.”

“Yet.” Dean dropped some butter into the frying pan. “You don’t know why yet.”

“So you will tell me.”

Dean nodded. “I’m working up to it. I was gonna grease you up with food and snuggles first.”

“Did I ruin your plans by getting up early?”

Dean smiled over his shoulder. “Yeah. But there’s still the whole morning to go.”

“Afternoon, too.” When Dean turned, about to ask, Castiel answered: “I’m calling in sick.”

“Motorcycle-ride-itis?”

“The Winchester ‘flu,” Castiel smiled. “Symptoms unpredictable. Might be best to ride around all day just in case.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

At nearly nine o’clock, when the sun was high enough to smother the land in heat, but the humidity of evaporating dewdrops still lingered low, Dean and Castiel rode out on the motorcycle. Castiel slung his arms around Dean’s waist, Dean grinned with his head down, shoulders strong, hands gripping the handlebars tight.

Riding a bicycle was similar, but it was always sluggish on the upslopes, and the rush only came once the wheels were over the peak. With the motorcycle? Every moment was exhilarating for Castiel, every rise and fall was exciting. His stomach leapt and sank inside him, and he laughed, tickled by it; he pressed his cheek and borrowed helmet to Dean’s shoulder and watched the fields slash by.

Green, yellow, red. The shoots had turned to bold, leafy things now, reaching towards the light. Sparrows swept from one crop to another, hunting for grubs, their stretched-out wings only black flecks on the blue canvas of the sky.

Dean and Castiel rode towards the village, the big oak tree approaching on the left. Without warning, Dean yanked the cycle off the road, and drove through an open gate. Castiel clung tighter, looking around as long grass stalks pattered and whipped at his knees, folding and waving forward and back, forward and back; he looked behind him and saw a thin path cut through the grass, a steady line all the way back to the gate.

“Dean!” Castiel called. “We’re trespassing!”

Dean laughed, angling the front wheel towards the great tree.

As they wound in a big circle in the middle of the field, Castiel laughed too. The sky was so glorious from here, endless in every direction. The forest at the sides of the fields gushed in the breeze, the wind whispering in ecstasy; summer was on its way. Castiel could smell it in the air, the sweetness of blossom was just about fading.

Bruised petals chased them as they circled clockwise, their journey becoming tighter, the motorcycle so perfectly controlled that Castiel could see the spiral they left behind, neatly carved like a snail’s shell.

“Do this often?” Castiel asked over Dean’s shoulder.

“Often enough,” Dean answered.

The bike suddenly tipped right, still moving forward— Castiel sprang off, hopping on one foot as Dean tumbled, falling to his hands and knees. Castiel dropped beside him, taking his arms and pulling him away from the fallen vehicle before he could get hurt.

“Dean—”

“I’m fine!” Dean got up, stumbling to his motorcycle and switching off the engine. The field went silent, save for the hushing, the tweeting, and the huffs of Dean and Castiel’s alarmed breaths.

“That’s never happened before,” Dean said, looking at Castiel closely, pushing a hand in a downward gesture. “I swear.”

“Okay,” Castiel said, warily.

“Once the thing’s up, it stays up,” Dean insisted, still looking at Castiel. “I got better physical control than Philippe Petit. Stamina like Beyoncé. Horsepower like a herd of fuckin’ stallions.”

“Okay, fine – I believe you. So what happened then? Why did we fall over?”

Dean looked away, huffing in defeat. His tongue covered his lower lip, and he sighed, gnawing on his inner cheeks.

“Dean...”

Dean sighed, head falling into his open hands.

“It’s not you,” he said.

“What?”

“The sex thing. Avoiding it. It’s not you, Cas.”

Castiel tilted his head. “I’m not following. Are we still talking about the bike?”

Rolling his eyes, Dean swept his hand into Castiel’s, walking with him as they headed towards the oak tree. “I’m gonna have to spell this one out, aren’t I.”

“Full words will do,” Castiel said. “You don’t need to spell anything.”

Despite his obvious uneasiness, Dean found it within him to laugh. He kept smiling, taking a deep breath as they marched high-booted through the field, leaving the fallen motorcycle behind.

“Um,” Dean started. “Look, it’s like this. The Night Rider thing? There was a lifestyle that came with that. You wear the leather, you dress in black, you move your body like you’re trained to kill. You drink beer and vodka, you chew gum, you fuck and get fucked in the back room in the dark. Neon lights. Blood. Fire. You get the picture. It’s a perfect hellscape of masculinity, and I fucking loved it. Life was one endless rage orgy.”

Castiel watched Dean, listening closely. Seeing the breeze catch his ungelled hair, the sun on his freckles, the sight of green trees and fluffy clouds behind him... “It’s a very different world,” Castiel realised. “You left that behind and you came here.”

“Yeah.” Dean pressed his lips together. “I did. Became a kindergarten teacher. Learned to cook. Got myself a... boyfr— A Cas.” He smirked, squeezing Castiel’s hand. “If what I had before was the spiritual manifestation of a boner, what’ve I got now? Pfft. Rolling Stone was right. Dean Winchester’s gone soft.”

Dean looked away, sighing. “Maybe that was part of the reason, you know? Why I left in the first place. Wasn’t just Sam’s kid that threw me off my groove. The fire burned out. Every show I did those last couple years, never got me dead, but I couldn’t keep up with the life, either. Just existed in this weird sensual purgatory. Half-up, half-down. And ever since I left I’ve just been... running, honestly. Running away from the shame of it. Can’t stay in one place two seconds once someone figures it out.”

A spark fired in Castiel’s mind; he understood what Dean was really talking about. “Oh.”

Dean glanced at him, as if checking.

“You’re impotent,” Castiel said.

Dean looked away, jaw clenched. He looked furious, at first, his hand clenched into a fist around Castiel’s fingers – but then he shuddered, and slumped, covering his eyes with a hand.

“Dean...” Castiel stood before Dean, touching his cheek. “Dean, you should’ve just told me.”

“How? Why?” Dean spread his arms, a sharp, angry motion. “What would be the point? It was just meant to be one night. I kept it up long enough to roll onto my hands and knees, so maybe you wouldn’t notice I was fading already. But then last time—” His breath hitched, upset. “I promised. I promised you, next time you could make me come.” He hung his head and thrust away angry tears with the inner heels of his hands. Angry, but not with Castiel – with himself. “I’ve been putting it off – ‘cause, fuck, I know I can’t keep that promise.”

He swallowed. “I’ve never been with anyone this long in my life, Cas. What’s it been, two fucking weeks? Since Night Rider retired I’ve never needed to get hard, I just... I just take what people give me. I just let it happen, I let it hurt so I feel something, so it distracts from the noise in my head, the knot in my belly, and I convince myself it feels amazing, even if it’s killin’ me, even if I can’t fuckin’ bear it another goddamn second—”

Castiel wrapped Dean in a hug, squeezing. He stared at the field beyond Dean’s shoulder, baffled at how such a small problem could become so upsetting, so all-consuming when it came to Dean’s choices and actions. How much value had Dean placed on his simple ability to become erect and stay that way until climax? Night Rider’s sexual nature must’ve been his greatest trait, in his own opinion. Sex represented glory, success. And to lose that power...?

“Does it makes you feel... weak?” Castiel asked in a whisper.

“I’m barely a slight on what I was, Cas,” Dean uttered, the bridge of his nose tucked softly against Castiel’s shoulder, breathing into his trenchcoat. “What is a wilted flower to a wildfire, anyway? Nothing. I’m nothing.”

“How can you think that?” Castiel held Dean’s shoulders, pushing him back so their eyes could meet. “The person you are now... this must’ve been within you all along, surely. Nobody becomes a career nurturer out of nowhere. You didn’t become a children’s teacher for the money or the fame, you did it because you always had love in your heart and wanted to share it with understanding, non-judgemental minds.”

“Oh, yeah, make it worse, why don’t you,” Dean sneered. “I was soft all along, I was just posturing the rest of the time. Like fuck.”

“Weren’t you, though?” Castiel raised his eyebrows. “I haven’t seen you move like you’re ‘trained to kill’, not once. Three years away from fist-fights, and you flick your wrists without thinking. You talk about pastry and cuddles and futon couches, Dean. You told me that— That when you were ten, you wanted to be a ballerina when you grew up, but you gave up the dream when your father said you couldn’t wear a tutu.”

“Cas, I was joking. Obviously I was joking.”

“No, you weren’t,” Castiel said firmly, staring at Dean. “You laughed but you meant every word.”

Dean blinked a few times, looking down, and Castiel nodded, his assertion confirmed.

“This kind, gentle person was in you all along,” Castiel said, taking Dean by the back of the head, scrunching his wind-ruffled hair, feeling his palm warming. “There’s nothing wrong with your softness, Dean. Inside or outside. It doesn’t make you weak.”

When Dean met Castiel’s eyes, helpless, Castiel simply kissed him, breathing out slowly.

They parted, and Castiel smiled. “I can still help you to feel good, you know. We can try it. We’ll find a way.”

Dean swallowed, holding tight to Castiel’s coat lapels, as if keeping him from blowing away. The faintest, rough whisper escaped his throat. “Okay.”

Castiel scrunched his hand in Dean’s hair again. “Are you all right?”

Dean let go of a breath, thinking about the question. But, soon, he nodded. “Yeah.” He glanced at Castiel, and nodded again. A smirk quirked up one side of his lips. “Maybe there’s something to that soulmate thing. Can’t imagine a single other person on Earth I could’ve had this conversation with, and had it end this way.”

“End what way?” Castiel asked, smiling.

“Me not feeling like I wanna kill someone, or puke,” Dean said. “It’s weird. I actually... feel... better?”

“Oh. That’s a good sign, then?”

Dean nodded. “Definitely.”

Taking Castiel’s hand, they resumed their stroll towards the tree, Dean slowly relaxing.

Castiel could hear Ingen Steder’s river now, water tumbling through the grassland, heading downstream to the next field below. Distantly, the sound of someone’s conversation drifted in on the wind, but there was no telling how close anyone else was. Golden swirls rushed through the grass, coming up dancing, nearing Dean and Castiel.

All of a sudden the sweetness of the air overtook Castiel, his ears and eyes and mouth filled with the breath of the world, passion and energy that came from nowhere. He bounded forward, turning to smile at Dean; he reached for him, patting his chest. “Duck,” he said.

Dean raised his eyebrows. “What?”

“Duck!” Castiel said again, pushing Dean this time.

“Uhhh...”

Now Castiel laughed, and flung himself against Dean, kissing his lips. He paused there for a split second, long enough to whisper, “Goose.”

And he ran away, stumbling and laughing as he went, the wind at his heels, tangling his hair, lifting his untucked shirt from his waist. He heard Dean start to chase him, and with a playful shout, Castiel darted out of the way, trotting backwards—

Dean charged for him, eyes bright with sunshine and mirth, his hands open to grab.

But Castiel tumbled away, falling from the peak of the grassy hill, crying out in surprise and exhilaration as he skidded down the hill on his heels, heading for the stream at the bottom.

“Cas—” Dean leapt after him, skidding faster, grass whipping at him as he shot to meet Castiel, taking his waist and stopping him on a rise, still some way away from the water.

They were both out of breath. Castiel was alive like he’d never been alive before, head falling back, sighing, “Ah-ha!” in joy, in exhaustion, in pleasure. He grinned, holding Dean’s gaze as they sank close to kiss.

Dean shut his eyes and relaxed, still smiling as they connected, lips and tongues; hand in Castiel’s hair, curling fingers; Castiel’s palm under Dean’s t-shirt, cool to hot.

Dean purred a note of satisfaction, lips clicking apart.

A slow, deep stare...

There was something in his eyes now. Something Castiel had seen hints of before, but... never as potent as it was now. It was softness. It was darkness. It was desire. It was comfort to Castiel, like he was protected, and safe, and...

And...

Loved.

“Oh,” Castiel realised aloud, stroking Dean’s cheek.

“What?” Dean smiled, gaze lowering to Castiel’s lips, then back to his eyes. He framed Castiel’s face with his hand, caressing him to ease away a strand of hair. “Why you lookin’ at me like that?”

Castiel’s breath stuttered. “Like what?” he asked.

“I dunno. Like...” Dean licked his lips, tilting his head. “Like—?” He blotted out the sun, and Castel’s world went silent for a moment, shrouded in the peace of shared exhales, holding hands, tickling grass and the nearby trickle of the stream.

“Like,” Dean said again, gently now. He stared at Castiel, trying to figure him out.

Castiel held his gaze.

He couldn’t say how long they lay there, peering into each other’s eyes, as the Earth turned, and the clouds in the sky reformed into new shapes, and the grass grew beside them.

Eventually, Castiel just smiled. “Maybe it is what you think it is.”

Dean hesitated, eyes darting down, but then he breathed in, and smiled. “Yeah?”

“Maybe.” Castiel reached up and spread his fingers through Dean’s hair, pushing back from his forehead to his crown. “For you and for me.”

Dean smiled, but he didn’t seem certain. “How would I know for sure? It’s kind of... soon, isn’t it? Not for me, but for... people. Most people.”

Castiel shrugged a shoulder. “So, wait.”

“How long?” Dean asked.

“However long it takes until you’re sure.”

Dean seemed content with that. He nodded, kissing Castiel again. He rested there, holding him, eyes closed.

Castiel breathed out, shutting his eyes to the glare of the sun, cheek warming against Dean’s head. He stroked his hair, over and over, breathing in his scent, mixed with the dirt and greenery under them.

After a few minutes, Dean lifted his chin, and then sat up. He faced the river, grinning, and began to untie his boots.

“What are you doing?” Castiel said, sitting up too.

Dean didn’t answer. He just rolled up his jeans to his knees, tossed away his jacket, and went scooting down the remainder of the hill to land with a splash in the water. Castiel heard his gleeful yelp carry up; Dean beckoned, his grin wide. “Water’s all right!”

Rolling his eyes, Castiel took off his trenchcoat, unbuttoned his shirt sleeves and pushed them to his elbows, then did what Dean had done, leaving himself bare from the soles of his feet to his knees.

He followed Dean down to the creek, taking his hand as Dean offered; and he hopped into the gushing water, arms falling around Dean’s waist, Dean grasping him too. They laughed, nose to nose, sharing kisses.

Castiel looked down between their bodies, their connected arms framing the image below: clear water tumbled around their ankles, wetting down their leg hair. Pebbles and mosses moved under their toes, brown and green, shifting when Castiel wriggled, feeling the current on his skin.

Dean chuckled, giving Castiel a small push. They separated, and Dean took three big steps upstream, his feet sploshing and splashing as his heels met the water’s glimmering surface. “Aha-haha—!” He turned back, arms wide to balance himself. He looked childlike, a winter boy coming back with the springtime.

Castiel went to him, stomping through the water, eyes on Dean. He stumbled – but Dean caught him, hands warm on his elbows, hauling him back upright.

There was immeasurable joy in Dean’s gaze. Castiel laughed out loud, tipping his head back – not quite sure why, but when he felt Dean’s arms wrap around him from behind, and felt his kisses on his neck, and his hand sneaking under his shirt, other hand holding Castiel’s – Castiel then understood why he laughed.

He was happy too. There was elation in his heart. It tickled under the soles of his feet like fishes, it soared up his spine like a skylark on its way to the stars. It rang in his ears like church bells, whispered through his spread fingers like petals on the wind. And it thumped in his heart, making him a promise, again and again and again...

This was in you all along.

Dean had been gentle since the beginning of his life. He’d been full of love, craving beauty in its most elegant forms. In his purest state, today, he was wild, raw sunshine; gold in the riverbed, catching the light.

And Castiel had carried joy with him every moment of his life. He’d loved the sky and the Earth and the wind, he’d let it tangle his hair and kiss his skin but he’d never let it love him since his mother left. He’d pushed happiness down, not allowing it to affect him. Then he’d sought it out, not realising he was looking the wrong way.

Dean was not the one to make Castiel happy. He was the one to show him where to look.

Now Castiel was free.

It had been within him all along. Here, with his bare feet in the water, happiness swam to the surface and took a breath of air. Colour flooded back into him, brightening every corner of his vision, making the universe glow.

Castiel kissed Dean, both hands cupping his neck. He tilted his head, deepening the kiss with an open mouth; he pressed his thigh between Dean’s, he slid a hand down to take Dean’s lower back, holding him closer, wanting to thank him for this moment.

They fell against the riverbank, a tall slope of grass stuck with reeds. Dean pressed his body against Castiel’s, adjusting their feet between each other, careful not to let steadying pebbles tumble away. They breathed deeply, exhaling into each other, breaking and mending kisses in gulps, in sighs, in smiles and soft touches.

They opened their eyes to look at each other, and Castiel sighed yet again, so at peace now. He could live in this moment forever and be content.

“Thank you,” Castiel managed to say, so Dean would know, would really know what had changed.

Dean’s eyebrows wrinkled, but he smiled. “What for?”

Castiel chuckled, head down. He took Dean’s hand and lifted it, kissing it. “For helping me find myself again. For helping me let go. Not to care. Not to worry. Just to be.”

Dean seemed stumped, but then he grinned. “Right back at you.”

“Really?”

Dean nodded. He kissed Castiel’s cheek, and nodded again. “Really.” When he pulled back, he remarked, “I haven’t messed around like this since I was a kid.”

“I was sixteen,” Castiel said, thoughtfully. “The last day before I left Ingen Steder to go to college, I came here.”

“Yeah?”

“The oak tree was shorter then. I sat on the riverbank and threw stones, thinking I’d never come back here.” Castiel looked away, baffled by his younger self. “I intended to stay away. This town was too small for me.”

“So what happened? Why’d you come back?”

Castiel swallowed. “Well. I was gone for eight years; I became a veterinarian. But then my mother got sick, and my family converged on our house.”

“Oh.”

“I came back immediately,” Castiel went on, looking Dean in the eyes. “I came back; she died when I turned twenty-five, and I never left again.”

“Never?”

“Not once.”

Dean didn’t seem sure what to say, or do.

But Castiel smiled, bringing him in for a hug. “Dean, this is the first time in fifteen years I’ve stepped away from my routine, off the same road going back and forth. I didn’t even think about it when you asked me to come out today.” He squeezed Dean, then let him go. “It saddens me to think about her but—” he frowned, confused, “it doesn’t hurt.”

Dean watched him closely.

Castiel shrugged. He was about to say something else, but he lost his train of thought; people’s voices came along on the breeze again, but they seemed much closer now.

If we don’t move the whole celebration up next to the hill we’re going to run out of lights,” said a bold, insistent voice. “This oak tree has overseen every festival in Ingen Steder Landsby since the village’s founding, and I will not stand for it being left out, just because nobody had a cable long enough!

Mayor Weatherbee, I completely agree, but we don’t have a cable long enough.

Then get one!

Dean and Castiel crawled up the opposite riverbank, peering through the grass to see a big, round person of indeterminate gender and race, and a smaller, more nervous person carrying a clipboard and a measuring tape.

“What’s that about?” Dean asked Castiel, ducking behind the slope before they were noticed.

“Ahh, they’re preparing for the summer festival, it’s an annual thing here,” Castiel said, waving a hand. “Stalls of handmade things – soaps, talismans, jewellery, et cetera. It gets the tourists in, which is really the main reason we do it. Last year I ran a lamb-feeding stall for the children to enjoy.”

“Awww,” Dean crooned.

Castiel snorted. “The festival is still nearly two months from now. Plenty of time to hear fifty farmers tell me their lambs will be all grown up by then.”

“What about duckling-feeding?” Dean suggested. “Kids love ducklings. And we got us some of those.”

“Dean, how slowly do you think baby animals grow?” Castiel asked, amused. “In two months our babies will be young adults.”

Dean looked alarmed. “That quickly?!”

“Yes, Dean, that quickly.” Castiel stepped back into the river, smiling as he saw a fish dart away.

“We gotta get back!” Dean puffed, sploshing through the river and climbing up the other bank. “Quick! Before they freakin’ double in size!”

Castiel laughed, taking Dean by the waist and pulling him back to the water. Dean almost fell, but straightened, damp and disgruntled.

Castiel shook his head. “They’ll still be babies if we stay out a few more hours, Dean. They grow fast but not that fast.”

Dean hummed. “My nephew Jack grew up way too fast and I missed it. Just—” Dean hung his head. “Just promise me we’ll still have three tiny bundles of joy waiting for us when we get home. I want them to be small and cute forever.”

Applying a kiss to Dean’s cheek, Castiel assured him, “Things happen when they’re meant to happen.”

Castiel thought about himself, brought back to life by the rush of the stream.

He stroked Dean’s hair soothingly. “Whatever you believe, Dean,” he said, “trust that the universe has already arranged things exactly the way they’re meant to be. Whatever comes next – obstacle or open gate, whatever choices you have to make, whatever changes are thrust upon you – know that it’s still your path, and it’s meant for you.”

“Pff. Right,” Dean muttered.

Castiel smiled. “Our paths have joined, Dean. And I get the feeling they’ll stay joined for longer than either of us can envision.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

There was only one thing on Dean’s mind as they pulled up to the house.

Well... two.

“You get the oven running,” Dean said, lifting away his helmet with a sigh. “I gotta take a piss and then I’ll help you make dinner.”

“So crude,” Castiel complained, handing over his helmet.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Cas,” Dean smiled. “You get the oven running, please, and I’mma take a piss and then help you make dinner.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. “That wasn’t what I meant and you know it.”

Dean just grinned, climbing off his motorcycle and lowering the kickstand. “What can I say? You can take Nowhere Boy outta the arena, but you can’t take the arena outta Nowhere Boy.” He slapped Castiel’s ass and overtook him on the front steps, unlocking the door before Castiel could even fumble for his key.

Flashing a grin back over his shoulder, Dean left Castiel in the hallway and went straight for the bathroom.

He did as he planned, as crudely as he liked since nobody was listening, and then went to wash his hands.

He then peered into the bathtub with a grin. “Heyy, duckies. How you guys doin’?”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Dean was longer in the bathroom than Castiel expected, but there was no need to wait; the oven was heating, so he began slicing potatoes to make some of those chunky fries Dean loved.

The paprika was somewhere around here – oh, there, next to the cereal box Dean left open beside the microwave, with little colourful remains scattered all around.

And was that syrup? Out of the fridge?

Charming.

Castiel was halfway through shaking his head and sighing when he heard Dean call for him. Castiel dropped his knife and the potato instinctively; the terror and anguish in Dean’s voice was bone-chilling.

Castiel rushed from the kitchen, heart already pounding. “What?” he breathed. “What is it?”

Dean entered from the hallway, his face gleaming with tears, his mouth trembling, his eyes glossy and wide as he looked up. In his hands was a dark shape. He went to the couch mattress, and sat down as his legs gave out.

“Dean, what happened?” Castiel breathed, watching his face, eyes darting to his protective hands.

“She’s gone cold,” Dean whispered, as fresh tears poured from both eyes at the same time. He showed Castiel, opening up his hands.

Boots lay there, the same size as Dean’s palm. She didn’t move. Her head was down, her eyes half-closed, her eyelids crusty and dry.

Castiel’s soul had sunk to his knees, his chest tight, his breath short. “Oh, no.”

“S-She must not’ve had enough to eat,” Dean whispered, shaking his head, over and over, gasping for thin breaths, his hands visibly shaking. “She was so small. The others didn’t let her share, they were so much stronger, they kept pushing her away – we should’ve kept them apart—”

“Dean,” Castiel breathed, turning his face away from the dead duck and towards the window behind him, pressing his head to Dean’s. “Dean, we did the best we could.”

“No we didn’t,” Dean sobbed, desperation and pain strangling his words. “No we fucking didn’t, Cas. We saw it happening. We worried but we didn’t do anything.”

“Shhh, shh,” Castiel said, eyes closed, tears flowing from him as he began to rock Dean, arms around him, back and forth, trying to soothe him. “It happens, Dean. This is just what happens.”

“You’re a goddamn vet,” Dean cried, shouldering Castiel away, glaring at him. “You’re trained to help animals, why didn’t you tell me what to do? Why didn’t you do it?”

“I did, Dean. We fed them what they needed, we gave them water, we gave them a warm place to sleep. Boots was weaker, I can’t fix that. Nobody could.” He swallowed, taking Dean’s wrist and squeezing. “In the wild, duckling survival rates are so low that – Dean, a mother duck could have twelve babies, maybe even twenty-four or more over a summer season, and by winter only have raised a single duck to adulthood, if that. Ducks die, Dean. A lot. They get picked off by predators, lost in rivers, lost in long grass, blown away by strong wind. They die of exposure, and exhaustion, and injuries; they starve, and they get left behind if the others walk too fast. They get stuck at the bottom of hills and stay there forever. You and me, we’re not God, we can’t change that just by wishing.”

Dean stared at Castiel like he was disgusted by what he said. “Where’s the predators, here? Where’s the strong wind? These three survived a storm that took out their parents and siblings, and they’re kept in the safest place a duck could be: with an animal doctor. Tell me how she died of exposure, Cas. ‘Cause I can’t fucking figure it out.”

“Dean, you’re not listening to me,” Castiel said softly, as another tear dripped from his chin. “She was weak to begin with. I thought she was younger but in hindsight, she was just smaller. It’s so hard to tell with ducks – I don’t even know for sure whether Boots is a ‘she’.”

“Was,” Dean corrected, coldly. “Whether she was a ‘she’.”

Castiel rested his forehead on Dean’s shoulder, letting his shirt absorb his tears. “I’m sorry, Dean.” He curled up tighter and shook, sobbing as loss overtook him completely. He held Dean and cried into his warmth, as they both went quiet, pressing against each other, hearts going dark and empty.

All Castiel could manage was, “I... ‘m... s...”

And the rest was crackling and too-hard breaths, each wetter than the last.

They lay back on the bed, legs dangling to the carpet, socked feet between each other. Dean rested Boots’ body on his chest and Castiel cupped her with his hand, hiding his eyes against Dean’s cheek. He couldn’t look. It hurt too much.

Dean sniffed and turned his head, wet lashes tickling on Castiel’s temple. “It wasn’t your fault,” he breathed, voice thick. “It wasn’t.”

Castiel was so relieved to hear Dean say it. He’d started to wonder...

He wiped his wet nose on Dean’s shirt, kissing his neck. “Dean, I—”

Dean sat up suddenly, inhaling.

Castiel sat up too, cheek burned by Dean’s shirt fabric slashing past him. “Dean, what—?”

“She moved.” Dean stared at his open hands.

“No...” Castiel kept his eyes on Dean, holding his shoulder. “Dean, she didn’t... It maybe felt like it, but I promise you, she didn’t.”

“Cas...” There was hope and awe in Dean’s voice. “Cas, she blinked!”

Castiel’s heart hurt so much he thought it might burst. “I know that’s how it looks. Believe me, I saw the same when I lost my mother. I saw her hand move, I saw her breathe—”

“Cas, shut up and look.”

Dean shoved the duckling under Castiel’s nose. Castiel looked, although the sight of the fluffy lump hurt him to the core.

Boots stretched a leg, and it vibrated.

Castiel stood up. “She’s—”

“She’s alive?!” Dean hugged her gently to his heart again, cradling her, crying even harder than before. “Oh, thank God. Thank God. AAh-a-ah...” He shook like someone was punching him from the inside; he sobbed in silence, head down into the blankets. Castiel folded himself over Dean’s back, grinning, hands clutched in his shirt.

He’d never felt relief like this.

Was this real? Was this happening?

He could barely see through his tears; everything around him seemed to be a shade of white, his insides felt fluffy like clouds, glittering like sparkles thrown off a waterfall, catching a sunset in a rainbow halo.

He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. He just held Dean and sat beside him, cradling their baby together.

“Our hands,” Dean whispered, his throat so raw now that his voice turned husky. “We warmed her up. S-She was dying and we—? We warmed her up.”

“She needs immediate intensive care,” Castiel said, finally able to think.

He stood up, pacing. “She’s so weak – she needs food and water – I’ll make a paste, add extra nutrients, I have some somewhere, I’ll put it in a syringe so we can make sure she eats it all – we’ll need to stay up overnight and keep feeding her, keeping her warm. You’re right, she needs to be kept apart from the others. At least until she’s stronger.”

Dean shook his head and nodded, sniffing, wiping tears away with the back of his hands. He smiled in a fragile, helpless kind of way, looking up at Castiel.

Castiel swallowed, taking Dean’s cheek in his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

“Cas, it wasn’t your faul—”

“It never occured to me to even try to change her fate,” Castiel whispered darkly. “Like I said before, out by the river. I trust the universe’s path. I let things happen to me. The same way you do when you’re having sex. I just accept things, accept that’s how they are. I think, ‘well, this is what I’m dealing with, now’. I didn’t try to fight it. You were right.” He hung his head. “You were right, Dean. I didn’t try.”

Dean stood up, resting his forehead against Castiel’s. “Universe gave us both a second chance, Cas. So let’s not fuck this one up, ‘kay?”

Castiel smiled, standing back to meet his red-rimmed eyes. “Okay.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

They forgot to eat dinner.

Dean forgot to go home.

Late at night, he sat cross-legged on Castiel’s fluffy rug, a shoebox on his lap stuffed with a towel. In his left hand, he held Boots, her dark, warm head bobbing on his fingertips, neck supported by his cupped fingers. In his right hand, he held a plastic syringe, its tip just thick enough to fit between the two halves of Boots’ rubbery-soft bill.

She fought him, not willing to open her mouth, but as Dean spoke, encouraging, “Open wide, baby. There you go,” she nibbled on the end of the syringe, her mouth gently filled with soft, nutritious goop.

She pulled back, smacking her bill, little pink tongue poking around as she worked to swallow the food, head tipped.

“Theeeere you are,” Dean whispered. “Not so bad, huh?”

Castiel returned from the kitchen, a miniature hot water bottle in his hands. “It’s hot but not too hot. If it’s under the towel it shouldn’t burn her.”

“Thanks,” Dean said, helping Boots take another mouthful. “Aww, her little baby wings! Flapping them around. Cas, look.”

Castiel knelt on the rug in his pyjamas. “If she survives the next few days, she’ll start growing real feathers soon. White sticks poke through the downy fluff. It’s a very ugly phase for baby birds.”

“Naw, she’s always gonna be beautiful,” Dean said, stroking Boots’ throat with his thumb, helping her swallow. “What a cutie.” He looked over at Castiel. “And man—? You have no faith. What d’ya mean, if she survives. Quit talking like that. It’s when she survives.”

“Mm.” Castiel looked down.

“Ever heard of the concept of positive thinking?” Dean grinned. “It’s this thing Sammy keeps trying to get me to do. I always thought it was bullshit, but the second I hear nothin’ but negatives coming out of your mouth, maybe I start to get it. You’re bringin’ yourself down, Cas. Convincing yourself stuff’s not possible before you even try. Not even that – before you even think about trying.”

Castiel watched the duckling settle softly on the towel, and said nothing.

“Why do you do that?” Dean asked. “You’re not playing the game, dude, you’re just hanging onto the cards you were dealt and hoping you’ll magically break even. How come?”

Castiel picked at a tiny duck feather stuck on his sock. “I’m depressed?”

Dean snorted. “And?”

Castiel looked up at him. “And what?”

“And how does that stop you, exactly?”

Castiel frowned. “It... literally prevents happiness? It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain and the gut that – stops me. Stops people. It’s a... disease. It’s a physical disease which affects the mental perception of reality.”

Dean didn’t seem convinced.

So, Castiel went on, “It makes good things look like they’re... not worth the effort to achieve. And good moments feel wrong, or disappointing, or— Colours are dull. Food tastes boring. Pleasure seems pointless. Getting out of bed is the worst. I’m always tired, I’m always trying to look on the bright side, be grateful for what I have, and I’m always failing through no fault of my own. I struggle to recall things that happened last week. I want to do things, but forget to do them, avoid doing them, or just look at them not being done, and simply continue to not do them. Sometimes I smile or laugh and I’m not sure if I’m doing it because I’m happy or because other people are happy, and the situation is amusing so I’m just trying to fit in. Joy is almost impossible to recognise, and even if I do, by some miracle, feel it, it’s hard to believe I deserve it, or that I’ll feel it again in the future. That’s what depression is. Do you really not know this?”

Dean shrugged. He watched Castiel’s face, evidently hearing this information for the first time. “So you’re not just down in the dumps, huh.”

“No, Dean,” Castiel said. “I’m actually sick.” He frowned at his socks again. “There’ve been moments when I think I’m fine. I... I start to trust myself again, trust that the decisions I make are rational, and the things I say and do are coming from a place of... wanting to be better. Seeing things in a good light. But—”

He cast his eyes away. “But it’s been fifteen years and I still haven’t left this village. I have a panic attack near the border and I come home.

“I try and help people, and animals, hoping – praying – that if I put enough goodness out into the world, karma might notice me and get back to me, at last. Then I worry, is it really a good deed, if I expect a reward? A reprieve of some sort? I see the nice things around me, the house, the land, the village, my job, and I know it’s all incredible, but I always – always feel like it’s missing something. And I hate myself for not appreciating it, when so many people have so much less. And that in itself is a symptom. Whenever I become aware of those kinds of thoughts, I realise I haven’t improved at all.”

Castiel swallowed, and added, quietly, “Depression is when you live in Heaven... and you wonder if it’s secretly Hell. And it’s only you that’s noticed.

“Everyone else seems happy, and you think it’s a conspiracy; you think there’s some trick to achieving contentment that they’re not telling you; you assume they must quietly be dying inside too. But they’re not. They’re not keeping any secret back. No, they don’t have it better off; their grass isn’t greener. They have problems. Maybe they struggle, maybe they’re poor, maybe they’re dying, maybe they’re in mourning. Maybe they’re tired, but for different reasons. Somehow they can be content with less. You think that’s strange – but it’s not strange, it’s normal. It’s you— It’s me who’s missing out. My brain is playing tricks on me, Dean. I’m being lied to from the inside.”

Dean stared. “Isn’t— Isn’t there, like... medicine? To fix depression?”

“To help with the symptoms? Yes.” Castiel chewed his tongue, breathing out. He watched Boots snuggle the towel, ready to sleep, and he wished he could be that comfortable.

“So... why don’t you get some?”

Castiel smiled grimly. “I have. I do.”

“Doesn’t it help?”

“Maybe it would help more, if I had the right medication,” Castiel said. “I take something intended for horses.”

“You— What?”

“The nearest qualified doctor is seventeen miles from this village,” Castiel explained, unwilling to look up at Dean. “I have medical knowledge; I know what I need to take, I just can’t have access if I don’t have a doctor to prescribe it.”

Horse medici— How the fuck do you—”

“I pay for it when I sneak it out of the vet clinic,” Castiel said quickly. “And I take it on a strict schedule. But it’s really not meant for humans.”

Castiel didn’t need to look up to know Dean was staring at him in horror.

“The little white plastic baggies in your medicine cabinet,” Dean said. “I thought it was weird your meds weren’t in orange bottles. And the pills looked so big.”

“You went through my bathroom cabinet?” Castiel looked back at Dean now.

“The first night we met.” Dean grimaced, shrugging a shoulder. “Lookin’ for mouthwash.”

Castiel sighed, feeling a dense weight in the pit of his stomach.

“You’re not addicted, or anything, right?” Dean asked.

Castiel shook his head. “My acquisition methods may be illegal – but I know how much worse I was before I took anything, and... this is better. This is the best I can do.” He ran a hand back through his hair, stressed. “There’s doctors who do online consultations. And even then I—”

“The Internet is too shitty to hold a connection,” Dean finished. “Wow. Sorry, man.” He pressed his lips together. “And there I was thinkin’ you’d just given up.”

“I have,” Castiel answered. He inhaled, and corrected, “I had.” He reached to take Dean’s hand, holding it. “I’ve un-given up, now.”

“Yeah?”

“Someday...” Castiel wet his lips, and formulated his words so they came out as positively as he could make them. “Someday... I will leave this village again.”

“Someday soon.”

“Yes.”

“Within the next six months.”

Castiel looked at Dean in fear.

Dean raised his eyebrows, expectant.

Castiel let go of his hand, shrinking back.

Dean insisted, “We can take a ride to the border. And stop. No intention to leave. Then we come back here, and that’s it for the day. Next day, we go again. We stop. We come back. Third day? We go one foot further. Barely even a difference, right? You probably went further than that already.” He took Castiel’s hand again, stroking him with his thumb. “One week, we go as far as you can. Two weeks, even further. I promise you, Cas? Six months time, you won’t even remember where the border is.”

Castiel held his gaze, finding comfort in his confidence.

“What d’ya say?” Dean asked.

Castiel smiled. Whether or not it was possible to meet that goal, there was one thing he was certain of: if he agreed, Dean would feel obligated to remain in Ingen Steder Landsby for a significant portion of that time, if not all of it.

So Castiel nodded. “Six months. Seventeen miles. I’ll see a doctor.”

Dean leaned in and kissed him. “Just sayin’ that was huge for you, Cas.” He sat back. “I fucking know it was.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel prepared to sleep on the pull-out bed just so Dean wouldn’t be alone. He lay with his face turned towards the lamplight, and he watched Dean cuddling Boots as his eyelids grew heavy....

He opened his eyes again. Dean hadn’t moved; he still watched his duckling, thumb stroking her head as she slept.

Castiel shifted, but found his body was stiffer than a moment ago. His voice came out rough as he asked, “What time is it?”

Dean patted for his phone, and read the time. “Almost four.”

Castiel grunted. “I just shut my eyes...”

Dean smiled. “You go back to sleep, Cas. I got this.”

“Is she okay?”

Dean nodded, gazing at her with love and devotion unmistakable in his eyes. “Good as new. She stood up and walked around about an hour ago. Wiggled her tail and pooped a lot.”

Castiel smiled, eyes falling shut again. “Tha’s... hmm...” He felt warmth enclose his mind again, and heard Dean chuckle.

“Night, sweetheart.”

In his blind, sleepy haze, Castiel couldn’t be sure whether Dean was talking to him or their duckling.

Whichever it was, he liked it.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Dean almost hit his head on the Impala’s raised hood when his phone rang. Hand gripping the metal edge with a rag, Dean stepped back, pulling his cellphone from his back pocket. He answered it, feeling the sweat beading on his temples as he peered out across the garden. “Hello?”

D—n? I was jus—k kkhhhckk—

“Sammy?” Dean looked at the phone screen, but the evening light was too bright to see the screen. Putting the phone back to his ear, he called, “Hang on, signal’s shitty... CAAAS!”

After a few moments, Castiel opened a window; the sun flashed on the glass. “Did you set fire to something?”

“Phone,” Dean said, waving his cellphone. “I think it’s Sam. Here.” He trotted up the garden path to pass the phone through the window.

Castiel looked at it like it was foreign. “What do I do?”

“Get him to call back, I dunno.” Dean thumbed over his shoulder, walking backwards. “I gotta get the engine sorted, I’ll be done in five. Keep him busy!”

Castiel faded into the shadows, still looking at the phone.

Dean hurried to finish the job, but in the end gave up, throwing the rag into the backseat through the open window. He went inside, wiping his oily hands down his oldest t-shirt, sauntering into the sunny kitchen. He could hear Castiel’s voice.

“Pastry’s not my favourite, not really. Oh... Mm. Probably bread. Even when it goes wrong it’s usually still edible. Toasted. Some butter. Marmalade if it’s breakfast. Dean loves my marmalade, my mother’s recipe. I actually think she stole it from a cookbook. She liked getting away with things like that.”

Dean entered the kitchen, finding Castiel grasping the house’s old bakelite phone with a floury hand; the coiled cable wobbled, stretched right across the kitchen from the wall holster to the receiver against his ear. Dean ducked, but bumped the cable; feeling the movement, Castiel turned to look over his shoulder, his blue eyes bright with a smile. “Oh, he’s right here, actually, you can tell him yourself.”

Castiel passed the phone to Dean, and Dean took it, grimacing at the car oil and flour mixing on the plastic. “SammEYy!” he called. “Hey, what’s up.”

I thought you hated marmalade.

“Who, me? Hate sweet things preserved in sugar? You’re kiddin’ me.”

Sam laughed, genuine delight in his voice. “Small town life is treating you nicely, huh. You seem to be getting along pretty well, you and this Cas guy.

“Oh, yeah,” Dean said, leaning back against the kitchen counter, stepping away sharpish when Castiel flapped a dishcloth at him for his dirty clothes. “Yeah, me n’ Cas, we’re a regular Bert and Ernie.”

Oh, God, don’t call me Big Bird. Not this routine again.

“Wasn’t gonna say it, man, but since you brought it up—”

It was one semester! I needed participation points for my resume! Dean, I swear to God—

“Hang on, I gotta put you on speaker, Cas can’t hear you,” Dean said, picking up the wireless phone from its cradle. It only had half a battery, and it usually drained quick, but it had a loudspeaker. Dean thumbed the call button on the wireless phone and hung up the wall phone. “Okay, what were you saying?”

I was saying, all sports teams worth a damn have a fursuited mascot—

Castiel raised his eyebrows as Dean held the phone between them, so Castiel could listen while he kneaded his dough.

And – God, Cas is judging me, isn’t he? I can hear you judging me. For the record, Dean, me dressing up as Big Bird to cheer on the Maventown High football team is not as embarrassing as the time you spilled raspberry juice on your trackpants and wore a skirt out onto the field.

Dean chuckled. “Pick a different story, Sammy, I already told Cas this one.”

Oh yeah? Well, Cas, did he tell you he stuffed his bra and let the cheerleaders flip him?

“He strained his hamstring doing so, yes,” Castiel said, sharing a fond smile with Dean. “I believe the bra was something he had ‘lying around’ when someone else left his motel room in a hurry.”

But—

“But it was in fact carted from motel room to motel room for two full years, yes,” Castiel said. “Until he grew out of it.”

Sam went quiet for a while. Then he said, “Really? He actually told you all that?

Castiel shrugged. “We talk. I would be more concerned as to why Dean’s supposedly ‘kind and caring’ brother feels so utterly betrayed at the reminder that he once did an amusing public service, that he feels the need to viciously out his crossdressing brother to a new friend.”

I— I didn’t— That wasn’t— Dean, tell him!

“He was testing you, Cas,” Dean said softly, patting Castiel’s shoulder. “Sammy, don’t worry about it, I know what you were doin’.”

You really like this guy, huh.

“Really-really,” Dean agreed, looking slowly at Castiel, appreciating how he’d stuck up for him. He touched his back and rubbed it.

So you’re like best friends now?

Dean grinned, teeth denting his lower lip. He caught the glint of mischief in Castiel’s eyes, and smirked. “Could say that.”

Like a Benny Lafitte kind of best friend, or a Cassie Robinson kind of best friend?

Dean wet his lips, lowering his eyes.

Dean?

Dean could feel Castiel’s eyes on him, curious.

His heart had started to pound.

Dean, are you still there? Did the line cut off? Dean—

“I’m still here,” Dean said lowly. He inhaled and moved a step away from Castiel, then turned back. To Sam, he answered, “I don’t know.”

What?

“I don’t know,” Dean said again. “M— Maybe like Benny. But, uh.” He managed a smile, sliding his grubby hand into the pocket of his grubby jeans. He curled a fist. “Maybe like Cassie. Haven’t figured it out yet.”

Okaaay... But are you—? You know... You ‘n Cas—

“Banging? Yeah.” Dean lowered his chin to his chest, hand behind his neck. “Yeah. It’s pretty intense.”

Oh-kayy! We found the line. Halt right there.

“Intense emotionally!” Dean explained. “Dude, it’s not kinky.”

“Except that one time,” Castiel said.

“Except that one time,” Dean repeated, grinning.

SoOOo do not want to know.

“It was a food thing,” Dean shrugged.

Urrghhhhh. You’re disgusting. You are actively disgusting me right now.

Dean cackled, moving to lean beside Castiel’s workstation, resting their shoulders together. “Naw, sorry, little brother. Just trying to get rid of you, man! I gotta help with dinner, so I can keep workin’ on the Impala while there’s still daylight. I had this delivery chick Charlie tow the car up to Cas’ place after work today. She’s pretty cool. And she’s in a class all her own, too. File Charlie Bradbury under ‘lesbian computer nerd who hacked into the CIA for fun’. Now when I meet new people I can weigh their awesomeness up against hers.”

How often are you going to meet lesbian hackers? Who would even compare to that?

“Right?” Dean snorted, kicking at the rug on the kitchen floor. His smile faded, as realisation became a bubble of contentment in his chest. “Hey, here’s an idea,” he started.

What?

Dean watched Castiel twirling dough into neat little knots, letting them fall perfectly onto a baking tray. Dean smiled serenely. “How about we put Cas in a class all his own, too. He’s not a Benny, he’s not a Cassie, and he’s not a Charlie.”

He’s a Cas?” Sam said.

“Damn straight.” Dean caught Castiel’s gaze, and gave him a lopsided smile. “Way I feel about him is totally unique. Where’s the Hallmark card for that?”

Sounds pretty special.

“Yeah.” Dean took a deep, happy breath, drawing it all the way to the bottom of his lungs. “Yeah, it is.” He cocked his head, adding, “Co-father of my duck babies, for one thing. Cassie never did that.”

Oh yeah, how are those ducks?

Castiel looked up sharply, but Dean touched his arm and shook his head. “We had a little scare the other night,” Dean said. “It’s a long story. But everything’s fine now. Boots is growin’ up big and strong. She’s happier away from the other ducks, actually. She’s more of a baby than a pet, you know? Other two, just let ‘em paddle in the tub for a half-hour, they’re fine. Boots needs her cuddles and her bedtime singalong or she won’t sleep. We’re gonna teach her to swim while dinner’s cooking.”

Uh. This is a duck we’re talking about, right?

“Hey, you look that devilspawn you call a child in his glowing eyes and get back to me on that,” Dean said. “For a four-year-old who eats toothpaste, collects hair, and barely speaks, I’m hard-pressed to believe you’re not actually raising a house-trained werewolf.”

Jack’s... human. I think.

Dean laughed, as Sam chuckled.

“Okay,” Dean said, rolling his eyes. “I got dinner to get to. And the phone’s bleeping, battery’s out already.”

Oh, is that what that noise was. I thought the trash guys had the wrong day. I was looking out the window and wondering why I couldn’t see the truck.

Dean grinned. “Talk soon, Sammy.”

Yeah. You and Cas have a good evening, all right?

“Will do,” Dean promised. He offered the phone to Castiel. “You wanna say bye?”

“Oh—” Castiel got up from where he crouched, pushing the oven door closed. “Sam?”

Still here.”

“You weren’t trying to... hurt Dean by telling me he likes to crossdress, were you?”

Sam chuckled. “Nah. We do that little bit when Dean makes new friends and he passes the phone over. I joke about it, just to check how they’d react if they ever found out. Dean finds it super hard to tell people stuff like that. Me, I only found out by accident.

“But he’d already told me.”

But he already told you everything. That’s actually a first. I’m pretty impressed, not gonna lie. He must trust you a lot.

Castiel met Dean’s eyes across the kitchen, and Dean nodded quickly, pursing his lips and smiling. Castiel smiled.

Sam went on, “How long have you known each other, for the record? Did he know you before he arrived there, or...?

Castiel looked away to calculate. “Nearly three weeks?”

Sam choked. “Are you serious? What do you do, stay up all night talking? All night, every night?

“Over breakfast and dinner, daily,” Castiel smiled, now taking the phone with freshly-washed hands. “Sometimes Dean stays late.”

Wow. This is— Heh. This is gonna sound crazy, and I don’t mean to freak you out or anything, but... you might actually be his best friend. Of all time. Ever. Like, he didn’t even talk to Cassie that much and he was in love with her.

Castiel inhaled, looking at Dean as Dean looked away.

Anyway,” Sam said, “For three weeks? You pretty much got the full works. That’s about as much Dean Winchester anyone’s ever been able to handle. Cassie threw him out after two.

Castiel placed his hand on Dean’s back, catching his gaze when Dean glanced his way. There was something tender in Castiel’s eyes, and contentment in his smile. “Sam, if there’s one thing you take away from this conversation... it’s that I am absolutely prepared for all the Dean Winchester there is. Three weeks is just the beginning.”

Um. Okay. Listen, you ever hear of the concept of soulmates?

Castiel smiled, lowering his eyes. “The phone’s dying.”

No, really, ‘cause, I have this personal theory that ha— be – eh—”

Castiel ended the call, chuckling. “Bye, Sam,” he said to the blank-screened phone.

Dean sucked his lower lip, watching Castiel carefully. “‘All the Dean Winchester there is’?” he repeated. “You sure about that?”

Castiel leaned close to kiss him, slowly, deeply, breathing out against him. He pulled away just as softly as he’d pushed in. He nodded. “Absolutely.”

Dean smiled, chin to his chest. “Awesome.”

Castiel pecked his cheek, then patted his chest. “Come on. Dough’s in the oven, need to make some actual food to go with the side dish.”

“On it,” Dean said, suddenly light on his feet and full of smiles. Over and over in his head played the memory of Castiel’s confident assurance to Sam.

Three weeks is just the beginning.

It should’ve scared him. Nowhere Boy was allergic to things like that. Commitment, to a person, to a place. Projects were fine to commit to, because projects could travel. But people – especially people as firmly rooted as Castiel – they were a different matter.

But maybe Dean wasn’t Nowhere Boy any more. Maybe he was someone else now, and he’d changed without even noticing.

The little root he’d grown was sinking deeper into the soil.

Stretching down into the dark, he’d found gold.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Over a week ago, Middle and Rex had first seen a bowl of water and knew instinctively what to do – they’d rushed towards it, hopped in, and waggled their feet until they figured out how to paddle properly.

But Boots had remained at the edge, pecking the water as it flowed over the side of the bowl. Dean had tried helping her up, but she fell back out, looking upset.

Cas had tried again, a few days after Boots recovered from her near-death experience, hoping that a swim would revive her spirits. But that little duck clearly preferred dry land, and towels, and the warm, secure hands of her parents.

“Third time’s the charm?” Dean said hopefully, bending to kneel on the bath mat with Boots tucked safely in his hands. Castiel was already kneeling, making sure the flowerpot island in the middle of the bathtub was secure.

Middle and Rex squeaked in delight, kicking their tiny flippers as they shot from one side of the bath to the other, their downy black feathers all wet, but waterproof enough that the droplets slid from them, leaving dark stripes.

On a footstool beside the towel rack, Dean’s tape deck crooned out the lulling, smooth sounds of Led Zeppelin. Castiel asked why it was there, and Dean answered, “People always say classical music is great for babies, don’t they? Zepp is classic rock, right, and orchestral music equals ‘classical’, in my books. Violins and shit. Ergo, symphonic Led Zeppelin is the best music for helping tiny brains develop. The kids at the kindergarten love it, besides. It’s good tidying-up music.”

Castiel opened his mouth, clearly about to offer a note of dissent, but registered Dean’s expression of optimistic determination, so smiled, and let the tape deck play on.

“Okay, listen up, Boots,” Dean said to the duckling sitting on his palm. “Promise me you’ll at least try. I know the bath is big and scary, but we’re right here with you, all right? We’ll be watching your every move. We’re not gonna let you get hurt.”

Boots looked at Dean’s fingertip, and pecked it. Then she looked at Dean, tilting her head and angling her neck so she could meet his eyes.

“Hmm,” Castiel said gladly. “See that? She’s becoming more aware of her surroundings. You’re not just her warm-bodied food-finder any more, you’re a living being to her, and she’s... look at that, she’s considering your movements. She’s figuring out what to do.”

“So, what do I do?”

“Be relaxed,” Castiel said. “Tell her softly that it’s okay.”

Dean smiled, melting inside. “It’s okay, baby,” he told Boots. “You’ll get in the water and it’ll come naturally, I promise.”

Boots stood up, looking at Dean. She quacked silently, and Dean sighed. “All right,” he said. “Here we go.”

He lowered his hand to the water, knuckles breaching the surface... letting lukewarm water flow into his palm, washing up against Boots’ webbed feet. Boots startled, and tried to hop up Dean’s forearm, but Castiel blocked her with a hand, and together, he and Dean left her there, paddling frantically in the water.

It took a number of seconds before she realised she wasn’t drowning, and a few more moments before she figured out that paddling could make her change direction. She scooted a few inches forward, beeping in surprise.

Dean and Castiel laughed in content, resting their heads together, sighing joyously.

“She got it. Like a duck to water,” Dean said quietly, chest bursting with pride. “Where’s the camera?”

“Other room—” Castiel grabbed Dean’s arm, keeping him still. “Don’t go yet. Just watch. I don’t want you to miss this.”

So Dean stayed, beaming, watching little Boots nuzzle the water with the rounded tip of her bill, snapping at it, learning its texture. She paddled to the side of the bath, pecking that too, alarmed by its smoothness. She tilted her head, looking at it curiously.

Then she paddled away, rushing with her head set forward, leaving jagged ripples in her wake. She bumped into Rex, was circled by Middle, and beeped happily when they were all together.

“Here, duckies,” Castiel said, leaning down to place a hand in the water. “Come to me.”

Dean laughed, stomach leaping in delight as the three ducklings rushed to Castiel’s hand – and as Castiel dragged his wrist through the water, fingers wriggling, the ducks followed him in a line, with Rex, Middle, and Boots chug-chug-chugging along like a fluffy tugboat train.

As Castiel stopped his hand still, the ducks gathered to him, pecking him, swimming around him, then drifting apart, going to explore the bath again.

Middle hopped up onto the upturned flowerpot, standing for a while to nibble some wet feathers, stripping them dry.

“It’s amazing how they know this stuff by heart already,” Dean mused, handing Castiel a towel to dry his hand. “Every single thing, the rule book on how to be a duck, it’s part of their DNA, it’s written inside them. Science is so freaking cool.”

Castiel nodded, eyes still on the ducks. They’d all conglomerated on the flowerpot now, instinctively wanting to group together.

Castiel turned his head when he heard a distant trilling coming from the other end of the house. “Oh. Phone.”

“I’ll get it,” Dean said, patting Castiel’s shoulder as he got up. “I’mma get the camera too. You keep an eye on them.”

Dean jogged to the living room, spying the Polaroid camera on the back of the couch. He lifted it, then followed the ringing to the phone cradle. It only had a quarter-battery, since every charge never filled it as well as the last.

He answered, and held the phone to his ear. “Yo.” No answer. “Hello?

Did I get the wrong number? Is this Cassie’s place?

“Cassie— Castiel? Oh. Yeah. Who’s this?”

It’s Gabriel. His brother.

Dean raised his eyebrows, walking back to the bathroom. “Brother, eh? Wow, your mom sure did name you guys creatively, huh. You wanna talk to him?”

Oh, nope, I just called in the hope nobody would pick up. Yes, I want to talk to him. God, who are you, the worst secretary ever?

Dean scowled, but a hint of a smile tugged at his lips. “I’m not his secretary, dude.”

Then who are you? Because as far as I remember, Cassie didn’t have a whole lotta friends.

Dean wet his lips, returning to the bathtub, catching Castiel’s eyes. “There’s some asshole on the line for you, says he’s your brother.”

Castiel’s breath hitched. “Wh— Which one?”

“Gabriel?”

Castiel sagged in relief. He reached for the phone, taking it and placing it against his ear, eyes returning to the bathtub. “What?”

Dean knelt down, still watching Castiel curiously.

Castiel sighed, rolling his eyes. “I’m fine, Gabriel. Dean did not break in, he didn’t kidnap me, he’s not holding me under duress. Yes, believe it or not, I actually have friends. Several, in fact. Dean is one of them.”

Dean smiled, but Castiel only half-smiled.

Castiel listened to whatever Gabriel said, and he ran a finger along the smooth edge of the bath. “He’s here because we’re raising ducks together.” Castiel lowered his eyes. “No, it’s not a business venture. Yes— Yes, it’s personal.”

He frowned, then smiled, eyes flicking to Dean. “He is a good friend.”

Dean bit his lip, grinning. He watched the ducks, preparing to take a photo, but couldn’t help glancing back at Castiel, hearing him sigh.

“He’s— We...” Castiel gulped. “We’re in a relationship.”

Dean’s heart beat just a bit harder, hearing that. He acted casual, taking a photo of the ducks, but still his pulse jumped, his ears burning, his skin tingling all over.

“Um. We haven’t really discussed that,” Castiel said. “‘Boyfriend’, I suppose?”

He huffed. “No, I’m not rampantly gay now. Nothing’s suddenly different, I just— We just found each other, I don’t know. He’s my soulmate.”

Dean tried not to look, but he looked. He saw Castiel gazing at him, and Dean grinned, soft inside, leaning to nudge his shoulder against Castiel’s.

The twanging, sliding rivers of Led Zeppelin’s sweet sounds filled the bathroom for a while, punctuated by the splishy-splashy noise of three ducklings having a grand old time.

And then Castiel smiled, and chuckled, and nodded. “Dean Winchester.”

WINCHESTER?!” came a yelp from the other end of the line, so loud that Dean heard it. Castiel almost dropped the phone into the bath in his shock. Gabriel babbled for a while, but given how much Castiel squinted, Dean imagined that not much explanation was given.

“Wait— You’re going?” Castiel shook his head. “Gabriel, what—?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Um. Okay. Bye then?”

He looked at the phone, then ended the call. “He left.”

“What was that about?” Dean asked, amused and concerned in equal amounts.

“I don’t know.” Castiel set the phone aside, taking Dean’s new Polaroid picture and admiring the image: three ducks having their swim. “Maybe he knows you’re ‘famous’ and finds it difficult to process. Which would be odd, given he entertains famous people every other week at his business.”

“Oh yeah? What does he do?”

“Oh... just...” Castiel shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. He’s rich and careless, and I take his calls mostly to make sure he doesn’t drop off the face of the Earth for a second time.”

Dean knew a brush-off when he heard one, so he let it slide.

“C’mon,” he said after a while. “Better drain the bath so we can let these ducks have a nap. They’re gonna fall right to sleep.”

And so, while Dean prepared a towel-lined shoebox, Castiel wiped the empty bath down with another towel, and replaced the duck’s night-time bedding with fresh pine shavings, along with their heat pad, a jersey blanket folded over it. It was too early for a proper bedtime, so that stuff wasn’t going to be used until later.

For now, Dean helped the damp ducks into their carry-box, kissing them each on the head before he let them go.

He and Castiel washed their hands – Dean washed his face too – and soon they were ready to leave... but Dean took Castiel’s hand, silently asking him to stay for one more minute.

Kashmir played on the tape deck, enchanted sitar strings echoing in the bathroom. Dean breathed out, and took Castiel around the waist.

“What are you doing?” Castiel asked, eyes gleaming with amusement, letting Dean sway him.

“Dancing,” Dean shrugged.

“I’ve never danced.”

“Well, you’re doing it now,” Dean smiled. “Mm-mhmmm... My Shangri-la, beneath the summer moo-on... I will return aga-ain...

“You know all the words,” Castiel observed. “There’s no lyrics in this recording.”

“I’ve been listening to this song since birth, Cas,” Dean said, eyes closed, forehead resting on Castiel’s temple. “Shhh. Just dance with me. Nothing crazy, just rock. Song’s half over.”

Slow. Soft steps in place, pacing side-to-side with trumpet blasts and the sound of adventure, riding a horse in a desert and discovering ancient ruins between thick jungle vines.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Holding hands.

When I'm oo-on... Oh, when I'm on my waaaaaayy, yeah!” Dean smiled. “When I see-ee... When I see the way, you staaaayyyyyy, yeah!

Castiel stepped with him, moving with the motion of Dean’s body, hips together, hands clutched, kissing softly and intermittently.

Ooh, my baby...! Oo-ooh, my baby, let me take you theeeeee-ere...” Dean’s voice droned low, humming and singing at once.

Come on... Come on, let me take you there... let me take you there...”

The song had faded out, and the tape went silent, at an end. Dean still swayed, loving Castiel’s body against his own, every natural response to movement. Wanting to be this close, it was as much a part of their DNA as swimming was for ducks, he imagined.

They went still, and quiet, and just held onto each other, sharing warmth and a heartbeat.

Castiel kissed Dean’s cheek. “Dean?”

“Yeah,” Dean whispered.

“I think I’m... I’m falling in love with you. Genuinely.”

Dean met his eyes, heart floating.

He breathed out, and he smiled. He nodded, glad and accepting.

He kissed Castiel’s cheek too, staying there for a long moment, eyes closed against him.

“Do you want dinner now?” Castiel asked.

Dean grinned, backing away but keeping Castiel’s hand. “Yeah.”

So they went. Dean turned off the tape player, took the camera, and as he left, he brought along the new photo, ready to add it to their collection.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

It wasn’t quite sunset; the sun wasn’t close enough to the horizon to declare it evening. But the air was cooler than before, the wind was calmer, the insects and birds flew higher in the soft blue sky, and as Dean and Castiel ate their dinner, sitting thigh-to-thigh on the wooden ledge of the front porch, they watched the beaming orb sink towards distant mountains. Crickets hissed in the long grass, simmering as the heat collected.

Dean offered Castiel an uncapped bottle of beer, beaded with condensation, still fizzing. Castiel hesitated, but took the bottle and sipped it, wrinkling his nose and shutting his eyes as he drank a few sips.

Dean chuckled, uncapping his own beer against the porch ledge. “Not a beer guy, huh.”

“I’d prefer ginger ale,” Castiel said, examining the label. “This isn’t the worst I’ve had, however.”

Dean snorted a laugh, then tipped back a long, quenching swig – gulp, gulp, gulp. He folded forward as he dropped the bottle from his lips. “Ahh,” he sighed, licking his lower lip. “Not the worst I’ve had, either.”

He smiled to his right, where Rex, Middle, and Boots shared a box. There was a towel divider between Boots and the other two, but they were close enough that they could see and hear each other, so Boots wouldn’t feel alone.

Middle liked to poke up from the side of the box, looking around. A very curious, inquisitive duckling, that one. They were all a little dopey, still tired from their swim.

“We should be celebrating,” Castiel said.

Dean turned back to look at him. “Boots surviving a whole extra week? Learning to swim?”

“That. Yes. And you finishing the car engine.”

Dean pulled a face. “Still got the doors to fix, the window things to oil, the tank to clean, the wheels to—”

“You made significant progress,” Castiel interrupted, firmly. “The engine was a big part of the job and now it’s done.”

“Yeah, mostly,” Dean said, shrugging.

“We should celebrate,” Castiel said again, offering Dean his beer. “To a job half-done.”

Dean laughed, head back. Stomach full of flutters, grinning fully, he nodded, clinking his bottle against Castiel’s. “To progress.”

Castiel held his eye, nodding once. “Progress. Inside and outside ourselves.”

Dean drank, thinking about how bravely Castiel had stood at the edge of the village less than two hours ago, looking upon the journey still to be made. The road had stretched almost endlessly, but he stopped his feet where the signpost was planted.

Welcome to Ingen Steder Landsby, it read. Put down a tether and stay for-ever!

“I’m proud of you,” Dean said, looking at his beer, but speaking to Castiel. “First steps are always the hardest.”

“In my case that’s not true at all,” Castiel smiled. He put aside his beer, rubbing wet fingers on his black pants, leaving stripes. “I start out thinking I’m fine, and I can do it, but the further I go, the farther I get from home, the more scared I get. It’s not even fear, exactly— It’s... It’s just impossible. I can’t physically move. I can’t walk. If I ride my bike my wheels lock up. It’s like the only air I can breathe is within the village limits, and leaving the bubble kills me in seconds.”

“Well I’m still proud,” Dean said, batting Castiel’s thigh with his hand, leaving it to rest there. “We can make that bubble bigger.”

“You have more faith in me than I do,” Castiel said.

“I have more faith in you than I have in myself,” Dean agreed. “Call it a fault of mine.” He downed the rest of his beer, then picked up Castiel’s. “You gonna drink this?”

“No.”

“More for me then.”

“No—” Castiel took the bottle from him and set it out of his reach. “You’re not driving back to the inn after two beers.”

Dean licked his lips, eyes down. “Good point.”

He squinted up at the sky, checking how low the sun had gotten. The ambience all around had become a shimmering golden, neutral enough that the sky was still blue, but it was definitely evening now. The birds trilled from nearby trees, singing sweetly.

“Hmm,” he sighed, forlornly. “Guess I should head off.”

Castiel turned his head to look at him closely. “You could stay?”

Dean nodded, rubbing his palms together between his thighs. “Couple more hours? Yeah. But, uh. It is kinda late already. Should go before the rabbits start jumping out in front of the wheels. I don’t wanna hit anything.”

Castiel reached over and took Dean’s left hand, holding it, fingers latching together.

“So... stay,” he said again, looking Dean in the eye.

Dean smirked. “Overnight?” He lowered his eyes to Castiel’s lips.

If he stayed, he knew he’d end up sleeping with Cas. He’d resisted long enough, and it wasn’t hard to admit to himself he wanted to find out what Cas had in mind, when he’d said there were ways to feel pleasure that didn’t involve getting hard. There was intention in Castiel’s gaze now, in the stroke of his thumb over Dean’s hand, and Dean had no will to resist.

But Dean sighed, looking away. “Cas... listen. I know you don’t wanna hear it, but... I’m not stayin’ here forever, whatever the Ingen Steder sign says at the entrance.” He looked back, holding Castiel’s eyes, seeing how his blue irises turned pale yellow in the light. Dean swallowed, and lowered his attention to their joined hands. “I don’t wanna hurt you. I don’t wanna get in so deep that we can’t separate without your heart breaking. I don’t wanna start something, I don’t wanna fuckin’ – make love with you if I’m gonna leave someday.”

He breathed out, meeting Castiel’s eyes yet again, expecting to see sadness.

But Castiel just looked determined. “I know,” he said. He squeezed Dean’s hand, leaned close, and kissed his jaw. “So,” he said, sitting inches away, looking deeply into Dean’s eyes, “Stay.”

This time he meant forever.

Dean’s breath caught in his throat; his heart jumped in terror and hope.

Nowhere Boy wanted to leap out of Dean’s skin and sprint down the lane, forget the bike and the car and the things Dean felt for Cas, and the schoolchildren, the ducks, and the other friends he’d made here. Nowhere Boy wanted to pack a bag and steal a car and leave, with no plan, no goals, and no regrets.

Night Rider wanted to laugh, mount his motorcycle, light a cigarette, blow Castiel a smoky, poisoned kiss, then drive into the sunset and never look back. Night Rider wanted to be the best lay of Castiel’s life, and nothing else.

It was too late to be Night Rider. And Nowhere Boy was gone already.

So who was this man left behind, on Castiel’s front doorstep? Who was this part of Dean, who bit his lip, and smiled, and let Castiel kiss his cheek? Who was this man, who nodded?

Who was he now?

Who was he becoming?

Who had he become?

This man took Castiel’s hand and let himself be pulled to his feet. This man left a second beer out on the porch, and brought a box of ducklings inside under one arm, dirty dinner plates in the other.

This man carefully fluffed up the ducklings’ bedding in the bathtub, changed their water, refilled their food bowl, and washed his hands the medical way, using a nailbrush too.

This man smiled at himself in the mirror, brushed his teeth, then went to find his lover.

He found Castiel in his bedroom, navy blue walls bathed in evening sunlight. The wall behind the headboard was just a bright rectangle, light filtered by the watery, moving shadow of the privacy curtain. The windows on the far side of the room were open, and a warm breeze glided inside, making the curtain billow in slow motion.

Outside, a small metal wind-chime tinkled with easy, heavenly notes, radiating calmness, peace; the breeze wrote them a song that would never again be repeated.

Castiel looked up, smiling, just finishing making the bed. He’d tucked all the covers under the sides of the mattress, so there was no chance of snuggling up under them. The pillows were gone. The tribal-esque pattern of the bedspread was covered over by a thick black bath towel. There were two more folded towels ready at the side of the mattress.

Dean inhaled, feeling a flip in his stomach, but serenity quickly overtook.

Castiel came close, shutting his eyes to kiss him.

They held hands.

Who was this man?

Castiel broke the kiss first, and spoke, shaping the cool evening air into a command. “Make love with me, Dean.”

Oh.

That was who he was.

He was the little boy who wanted to be a ballerina. He was the youth who had nowhere to live, so made nowhere his home. He was an adventurer, a fighter, a lover. And now he was a man, wiser and kinder and more loving than ever before. He was changed forever.

His name was Dean Winchester.

Dean Winchester took off his clothes.

Shirtless...

Skin, scarred. Tattooed. His chest was both slick and textured under Castiel’s warm hands.

Beltless.

Bare legs.

Bowed legs. Scarred. Tattooed. Nearly hairless.

His breath shivered as Castiel embraced him, hands warm on his cheeks, lips soft on Dean’s.

“Cas...” Dean kissed back, but lowered his chin. “How is this even gonna work? You know, if I can’t—”

“There’s no rush,” Castiel assured him, a fingertip pressing softly to Dean’s mouth. He shook his head. “It’s not about feeling physical pleasure, or... or pleasing me, or satisfying yourself. Our goal here, it doesn’t have to be climax, Dean.” He smiled, eyelashes splayed; he gazed at Dean’s mouth, thumb stroking across, making his lips tingle as they parted. “Our goal is intimacy. To touch...?” Castiel tilted his head, eyes meeting Dean’s again, his gaze loving and dark and trustworthy like nobody’s else’s. “To talk. To spend time together and be connected. We don’t need to achieve orgasm at the end.”

“But it’s sex—?”

Castiel explained, “The slower we go, the less the destination matters.”

“It’s about the journey,” Dean said, nodding when Castiel smiled. “Alright.”

He undid Castiel’s button-down shirt, smoothing it from his shoulders. Castiel sighed when it was gone, stepping against Dean’s front, letting Dean hold him, arms around his waist, both their eyes closed.

Dean nuzzled Castiel’s temple, kissing him, breathing in, then out.

“How d’you wanna do this?” Dean asked. “Me underneath, or...?”

“In a minute,” Castiel whispered, stroking the hair at the nape of Dean’s neck. “Shhhh. Just breathe. Don’t think.”

Dean kept his eyes closed, hugging Cas, listening to the crickets, the windchimes, the soft breath of the wind across his bare shoulders. As the curtain hem rose, sunlight warmed his skin, and Dean smiled. “Mm,” he sighed, feeling himself... relax.

“There, like that,” Castiel said, as Dean’s shoulders dropped, his buttocks unclenched, his bare feet sliding a few inches further apart. Dean also felt Castiel unwind, a tension leaving his back muscles in a nigh-imperceptible way.

After a few minutes – quiet, empty minutes – Castiel pulled back, his eyes gleaming with promises, a smile curling his lips. Dean smiled back without thinking, holding his hands.

Castiel only need tilt his head to the side, and Dean led him to the mattress, sitting, then lying back. He lay with his legs open, wanting. His cock was plump, not hard; he didn’t touch himself, only let the thickness grow of its own accord, eager for something to begin.

Castiel went to the nightstand, turning on the golden lamp. As he undressed his lower half, the light illuminated what was set out on the surface: condoms, lubricant. Dean grinned, stretching back on the bed. “Mmm. You’ve been scheming.”

“Planning,” Castel corrected, lightly. He crawled onto the bed, totally naked now; he was half-hard and his movements were all languid, like a lazy cat. He lay beside Dean, head on his bicep like it was a pillow. They gazed at each other, Dean’s heart tapping on his ribs, Castiel stroking across it just to feel the pulse on his palm.

They kissed... slowly... deeply.

They held each other and tasted each other’s lips for as long as it took to shut Dean’s brain up completely. His head became empty, his hands relaxed, his body all but ready for sleep.

“Would you like to try something, now?” Castiel asked in a whisper. “Are you ready?”

Dean blinked a few times, drawing a deep, calm breath. “‘Kay.”

“Me first,” Castiel said. He reached for the supplies, and handed Dean a condom.

Dean looked at the condom packet, then at the lubricant Castiel put in his other hand. He then glanced down between his legs – but Castiel caught his chin, tilting his gaze back to him.

“Fingers,” Castiel said. “They’re sensitive. Not everything needs to be about your almighty penis.”

Dean chuckled, nestling his head against Castiel’s neck. “‘Kay.”

He sheathed his forefinger and middle finger in a condom, just for cleanliness’ sake. Castiel drenched the condom tip in lubricant, then set aside the bottle. He nodded to Dean.

Dean wet his lips, rolling halfway atop Castiel, left arm under Cas’ waist to hold his lower back, right arm moving down...

Castiel opened his legs, holding Dean’s eyes as they wriggled together, helping Dean align his fingertips with Castiel’s hole.

Dean smiled; Castiel gasped as Dean pressed inside. Tight... Tight and warm and clearly new to Castiel.

Castiel shivered, his breath trembling, hands going to Dean’s shoulders, eyes wide; his eyebrows rose and twitched with his gasps, as his cock thumped, showing intermittent interest and involuntary reaction.

“How’s that?” Dean asked, as he slowly... slowly pushed deeper. The tight ring of muscle hugged his fingers, unwilling to stretch.

A light croak escaped Castiel’s throat, then he chuckled, breathy. Still wide-eyed. “Unexpected.”

“Good?”

Castiel shrugged. “Strange.”

Dean kissed him softly. “You’ll get used to it.” He grinned. “Feel the wiggle?”

Castiel yelped, laughing, tense all over, then relaxing, rolling his eyes. “AHhh—” he groaned, in shock and confusion. He relaxed again, sighing, biting down on his lower lip.

Dean fucked him slowly, as deep as his fingers could go.

He pushed...

Then withdrew...

Then pushed again.

Castiel began to acclimatise, and nodded when he felt more comfortable. “Hmm... ‘s not so bad.”

Dean smiled, content to watch Castiel’s face as he experienced this new sensation. Every stretch Dean gave those inner muscles sent a tiny spasm onto Castiel’s face – whether it was a twitch in his lip, a small gasp, the fluttering of his eyelids, or a lip-bite – it was all good. Dean ate it all up with delight, still hungry for more.

Dean felt the sunset on the soles of his feet. His leg hair was warm, his right arm hot from the sun, his left hot from being pressed between Castiel’s waist and the towel on the bed. He kept going, kept stroking Castiel’s smooth insides, kept kissing him.

They became blissfully careless; Dean forgot to pay attention to his fingers, instead devoting his time to Castiel’s neck, sucking kisses, biting him, purring and breathing against his throat.

Castiel groaned occasionally, adjusting his position – legs apart, legs thrown over Dean’s hip, one leg up, one down – but largely, like Dean, he focused on their kisses, on the nuzzles, and shared his smiles, the warmth in his eyes, and laughed under his breath when a random surge of happiness hit him.

This wasn’t sex like Dean had ever known it before. Did this still count as foreplay? He wasn’t hard. Cas wasn’t hard. They weren’t working towards anything.

Castiel finally shifted to remove Dean’s fingers from his ass, hand pulling his wrist. Cas winced as Dean pulled out, but smiled in satisfaction when Dean flicked the condom inside-out and tossed it onto the floor.

“Ooh,” Dean said, one eyebrow raised, lying with his cheek against the towel. “Fingers feel all cold and floaty now.”

Castiel ran the back of his hand against Dean’s cock, watching it flop with the nudging movement.

“Now what?” Dean asked, stroking his cold, floaty, yet perfectly clean fingers through Castiel’s hair.

Castiel hummed deep in his chest, a sunlit twinkle in his eyes. He reached for another condom and more lube, then rolled himself on top of Dean, sitting on his upper thighs. He looked down, all domineering and smug, but there was enough intrigue in his gaze to convince Dean this was still a game of testing and trying and discovery.

Taking Dean’s cock in hand, Castiel began to tug it, watching the foreskin stretch back, exposing the pink tip. Dean growled in interest, lying flat on his back, hands locking behind his head. “O-kayyy,” he said agreeably.

“You don’t need to stay hard,” Castiel said, as Dean started to stiffen in his hand. “I’ll be quick. Once you’re up... Condom. And then—?”

Dean nodded, both hands rushing to take Castiel’s waist, thumbing the V of muscle above his hipbones. “You’ll have a minute.”

“Okay.” Castiel pulled and pulled and pulled, stimulating Dean’s erection until it was hard enough not to sink down when Castiel let it go. Tearing the condom packet with his teeth, Castiel arranged the latex circle over Dean, and rolled it down, tugging twice to make sure the condom was firmly in place.

Dean’s breath trembled; he shut his eyes at the first cold touch of lube, expressing a note of discomfort.

“Sorry,” Castiel said. “Didn’t think.”

“Don’t rush,” Dean said, peeking between his lashes, smiling as he saw Castiel lifted over him, thighs apart around Dean’s middle. The sun shattered around his wide-shouldered form, no doubt warming his entire back. His hair split the light, lock by lock as he bowed his head to look down, his body descending to engulf Dean’s manhood like lava claiming an ocean; Dean sighed deeply, eyes shut, losing himself at once in the heat.

Castiel moaned aloud, head back, body sealing to Dean’s waist. “Auhhhhh, Deeeean...”

Dean smiled, moaning back, incoherent.

Castiel’s head was loose on his shoulders as he rolled his gaze to Dean’s; he breathed out through his mouth, a guttural growl rising from his chest. “Grhhhh... fuck...”

Dean grinned, stroking Castiel’s waist. “How ‘bout you move a little?”

Castiel concentrated, both palms flat on Dean’s chest. He tried squirming, and instantly yelled, eyes shut, his bliss obvious in the way his face relaxed, his mouth in a wide ‘O’. He soon bit his lip, shifting again, a wrinkle between his brows. “Hnmnhh...”

“Good?” Dean asked, the word coming out shaky as pleasure seared in his gut.

“I... I— Ah—”

Dean smirked. “Can’t even speak, huh?”

“Hmm— Hmm—” Castiel rocked on Dean, eyes shut, moving enough to set fires in them both, not enough that their joining made any sound at all.

Dean worried that if Cas took this long to get started, still adjusting to the feeling, Dean would be flaccid again before they even began to bounce.

But then... he wondered if they needed to bounce. He kinda liked this. This was nice. Cas was just keeping him warm while Dean watched him. Castiel tilted his head to the side, sighing. He was clearly experiencing pleasure, even without massive amounts of physical stimulation.

Cas just sat there, completely hard, completely filled with Dean.

Maybe it was enough to be filled, Dean thought. It had never quite occurred to him before now... but wow, this was kinda intense.

“I’m... in you,” Dean said, as a flicker of awe flashed across him, on his face and in his chest. “I’m like... inside you. Holy crap. That’s—? That’s crazy.”

One person. And another person. Their bodies were interlocked, fitting together, one inserted into the other. It was warm, and wet, and strange. And silent.

They were not male and female; they were not mating for the sake of procreation. They were not asserting their dominance. They were not seeking self-satisfaction, nor seeking to please each other – not to reward, to apologise, or to gain.

This act had no purpose but intimacy. The only reason they did this was to feel close, and to share each other’s personal space. Get closer than they could any other way.

“Oh,” Dean said, meeting Castiel’s eyes, when Castiel peered down to look at him. Dean flustered, then grinned. “Oh.”

He got it now.

This felt... new. This felt unspeakably intimate all of a sudden.

The point of this was very much illustrated at the moment Dean lifted his arms, asking for a hug. And Castiel leaned down, still holding Dean’s fading erection inside him, keeping it. He accepted Dean’s hug, and his long, deep kiss.

This wasn’t sex.

This was lovemaking.

They lay together for a few more minutes, breathing, kissing, occasionally letting out a quiet moan, just from the joy of holding each other like this.

And then, as Dean smiled and nodded his satisfaction, Castiel lifted away, and let Dean flop out of him.

Dean had gone flaccid, and it still felt good.

There was no space for Dean to feel embarrassed, as Castiel whispered, “I felt you go soft,” as if saying such a thing was magical, and special, and exciting to him. Maybe it was.

“Is that a turn-on for you?” Dean asked quietly, as Castiel pulled the condom off him, tossing it to the floor with the first. Dean looked down, holding his warm cock, showing Castiel its softness in his palm. He shook it, then pulled down the foreskin to show off the gleaming-wet tip. “This floppy thing?”

Castiel kissed Dean’s cheek, shrugging. “I enjoyed it because we experienced it together.”

“Yeah?”

Castiel nodded.

They cuddled up, lying in the last of the sunlight, shutting their eyes for a while. Castiel kissed Dean’s shoulders, and Dean stroked Castiel’s back.

Dean listened to the crickets, and felt like their skittery sound mirrored the shimmering feeling in his belly, sunlit ripples on a lake, smashed into sparkles that were too bright to see clearly. He was at peace for these moments, gazing at Castiel in his arms, holding his stare and being part of him.

There was no clock visible from the bed, but the sun was fading...

Castiel reached yet again for the condoms and lube, and Dean knew it was time he got his wish. He spread his legs, feeling the bottoms of his thighs and his ass cradled by the sunlight, watery and paling gold as the star sank into the hills.

The windchimes’ random notes played on, sing-song, as Castiel filled Dean with his fingers, going as slow as Dean had for him.

They watched each other, playing with each other’s hands, eyes locked.

The pearl of the moon soon followed the sun behind the blackened hills.

Twilight faded to dusk.

Dean lay in Castiel’s arms and felt those fingers sink in for the thousandth time, so rhythmic it had become meditation. Dean let himself fall asleep for a while, as Castiel stretched him.

He was woken with a kiss.

The room was lit only by the lamp now. Golden arches rose up the wall, a moth or two battering at the vintage glass. Outside, it was night; the stars had come out. Dean watched the curtain drift, dazed and sleepy. Then he watched Castiel, dressing himself in a fourth condom.

They shared a smile, Dean stroking the back of Castiel’s neck.

“Are you ready?” Castiel asked.

Dean nodded. “Never been this relaxed in my life.”

“Good.” Castiel lay himself on top of Dean, kissing his chin. “Here we go...”

He sank in, and Dean didn’t move, or react. He didn’t need to move, or react. Being filled up wasn’t a big, exciting burst of sensation for him, the way it had been in the past. It was barely different from Castiel’s three fingers. Dean remained languid, fingers in Castiel’s hair, admiring his shape against the darkened ceiling. There was adoration in his eyes, and Dean was perfectly at ease, seeing it.

Castiel began to push... slowly.

So slowly.

Lips touched, brushed; they sank deep.

Dean sighed; Castiel purred; they pulled back.

They moaned at the same time; they laughed; they gasped again as they pressed tight, Castiel’s thighs on Dean’s ass, Dean’s legs around Castiel’s waist, holding hands between their chests.

The crickets’ constant chittering had turned to a lazy, distant hiss, punctuated by the occasional chirp. The breeze died down, and though the curtain kept up its wafting, the night air no longer reached the bed, and Dean and Castiel were spared the chill.

The room became warm and comforting, snug around them like a den.

“What time do you think it is?” Dean asked, as Castiel surged his weight onto him, sliding deep and sliding back. “It’s dark out.”

“Does it matter?” Castiel asked. “I have no other plans for tonight, do you?”

Dean chuckled, shaking his head. “Nah, I just— Auohh...” He sighed, eyelashes fluttering as Castiel brushed a good spot on his well-stretched rim. “Just.” He licked his lips. “Wondering how long we’ve been going.”

“Sun set at seven-something,” Castiel recalled. “Dinner was at six. We came inside soon after eating, so—”

“Must be almost nine,” Dean said, amazed. He gazed at Castiel, knowing there was a gleam of astonishment in his eyes. “Time flies, huh?”

“So you’re having fun, I presume,” Castiel said, a cocky sparkle in his eyes.

“Oh, yeah, tons,” Dean grinned, before grunting, adjusting his hips on the towel so Castiel didn’t get his sore spot. “Only a little bit raw.”

“More lubricant,” Castiel decided. He made sure to warm it in his palm before dripping it onto Dean’s perineum this time.

“Ah— Aihhh—” Dean squirmed, head thrown back. “Yeeeah... Yeah. Nhhh.”

“Smooth,” Castiel observed, setting the lubricant aside, wiping his wet hand on the towel. “Oh, that is better.”

“Hmmmm! Mhhm, Cas— Cas,” Dean breathed, grunting and grinning with his mouth open. “Aauhhh...”

“If you feel climax approaching, don’t tense,” Castiel advised. “Stay relaxed. The longer you hold off, the more pleasurable it’ll be.”

“I th— I thought...” Dean shivered. “Not the point. Coming’s not the point.”

“No,” Castiel agreed. “But to spend three-plus hours working up to it, and then forego it, seems like it would be a waste, no?”

Dean peeked between his lashes, grinning. “Aww. You just wanna come inside me, don’t you, Cas?”

Castiel scoffed. “It— It would merely be a nice bonus.”

Dean patted his arm. “Sure, buddy.”

They deepened their push, adjusted their angle, and kept going. Slowly. Steadily.

A while later, Castiel asked, quietly, “When I come... can I come in your mouth?”

Dean flushed hot. He bit his lip and nodded. “You want me to swallow?”

Castiel’s eyes flickered away, but he glanced back and nodded.

Dean moaned, lips pressed together. “Dirty.”

A few more pushes. Thrusting, sinking, clinging to each other.

And then, Castiel asked, “Where do you want to come?”

Dean looked at him, unsure. “What?”

“If you climax. Do you want me to taste it?” Castiel tilted his head, his gaze burning into Dean with its intensity. “Do you want to mark me? Or do you just want to... let it happen as it happens? I know it’s been a long time for you. Maybe we shouldn’t do anything special, just let you experience it.”

Dean’s cast his gaze away from Castiel’s, and he stayed silent, not knowing what to say.

“I think you can do it, Dean,” Castiel said. “I’ll help you. We’ll keep going until it happens. And I’ll find a way to make sure you’re still satisfied if it doesn’t. Positive thinking, yes? Believe you’re capable, and maybe you will be.”

Dean snorted in disbelief, frowning now. He said nothing. He let Cas fuck him, just allowing him to take what he wanted. Cas could use him whatever way he liked, but between the two of them, Cas was the only one who was going to finish tonight.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

It wasn’t hard to miss the change in Dean’s mentality. As the minutes went by, he descended from merely bothered to bored. He started to flinch as Castiel pushed close; he grunted in discomfort rather then pleasure, but made no attempt to speak aloud his complaints. He’d become closed off; he lay with his legs open and his eyes unfocused, not caring anymore.

So Castiel stopped.

“Nnn... No...” Dean complained, tiredly reaching for Castiel’s hand. “Hey, don’t stohhpp...”

“Do you want me to pull out?” Castiel asked him softly, cradling his cheek. He met Dean’s surprised gaze, looking at him carefully. “We don’t have to keep going if you’re uncomfortable.”

Dean shook his head, genuinely worried. “No? No— No, I don’t wanna stop, Cas. No way.”

Castiel hesitated. “Do you need me to change something?”

Dean shook his head again, holding Castiel’s eyes. “Sorry,” he uttered, looking down. “It’s like I go into autopilot. Start feelin’ bad and I just—” he flicked his fingers vaguely past his ear, “disappear.”

Castiel pushed close again, falling deeper into Dean’s warmth. Dean shuddered, crying out softly.

“Why do you do that?” Castiel asked him, kissing his forehead. “Disappear. Why don’t you say what’s wrong so it can be fixed?”

Dean looked at him, then let his eyes wander.

Castiel let him think.

Dean squinted, then scoffed, eyes shut, a dent between his brows. “My dad.”

Castiel buried his face against Dean’s neck, not wanting to ask about it at a time like this.

But Dean volunteered. “If I ever mentioned that there’s a problem, or room for improvement, or maybe I need something unexpectedly – there’s suddenly a bigger problem,” he said, with a bitter sigh. “And that problem is me. Only way to avoid an argument is to not complain.”

Castiel lifted his head to meet Dean’s eyes. “You’re not a problem.”

“Sure feels like it sometimes.”

“You’re the opposite of a problem,” Castiel said, kissing Dean’s nose. “The anti-problem, if you will. You’re the one I’d call for help if I had a problem. Because you fix problems.”

A smile travelled up one side of Dean’s face. “Shucks.”

Castiel chuckled, giving Dean a gentle headbutt as he penetrated him deeply, cocking one knee into the covered mattress so he’d get a new angle. Now he pushed downward into Dean, beautiful bowed thighs parted by Castiel’s firm hands, all Castiel’s weight resting on Dean’s abdomen.

“Ah—?!” Dean began to huff with every push, hands tense around Castiel’s arms. “Ah—! Ah—” His face became tight with an incomprehensible expression. Was it pleasure or pain? “Shit— Shit— Oh my Goddhh shh-hhhit-shit-shi-II-HIIIT—”

He was sobbing now, breathing fast, trembling. Whining. Crying out loudly, tense all over.

“Relax,” Castiel hushed. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Cah— Ah— AH!” Dean spasmed – but when Castiel looked down, Dean wasn’t hard, nor had he ejaculated. “AAahh—”

Relax,” Castiel insisted.

“Can’t!” Dean gasped. “Can’t! Ah— Jeez. Je-he-heez...”

“Dean – are you all right?” Castiel asked, slowing down. “Talk to me. Am I hurting you?”

“Don’t stop!” Dean went wide-eyed, grasping Castiel’s bicep. “Keep going! Keep goin’, oh my God.”

“Dean, is this hurting you?”

“Y-Yeah kinda, but— NO don’t stop— Don’t fucking sto-ho-oop, ple-he-heeease...”

Castiel kept going. Thrusting deep, making Dean yell; pulling back, making him cry out; again, again, again.

“Dean,” Castiel said lowly. “Speak. What are you feeling?”

“It’s—?” Dean was fevered, shaking like he was in shock. He kept spasming, his face flickering between pain and pleasure, and his blush grew intense, across his cheeks, on his forehead, flushed down his neck and chest. He whined loudly and for a long time, sobbing at the end.

Dean—”

“I need to pee,” Dean forced out. “Like, really, really bad. But don’t stop. Don’t stop—”

Castiel’s mouth opened in confusion. “We can take a break—?”

Dean shook his head, eyes dazed. “No. No. N-nn.” He looked down, panting. “Ahh— Cas— Y-You’re getting my bladder. Oh— Ouhmmm....” He gnawed his lower lip until it left a mark, eyes watering.

“Does this—?” Castiel squinted, so perplexed. “Wait, does this feel good?”

Dean nodded madly, sobbing, his breathing erratic. “Oh God, I need to piss so bad.”

“Dean—”

“Don’tstop-don’tstop-don’tstop,” Dean begged, barely breathing. “Harder.”

Castiel pushed harder, suddenly feeling a spark of pleasure as Dean gasped. This was driving Dean crazy and he didn’t understand how, but he couldn’t argue: Dean was very clear he wanted more.

“Yeah—” Dean cried out, guttural, shuddering violently in the bed. “Ahh. Cas— Cas—!”

Castiel looked down – and just in time, too. “Dean— Dean, you’re leaking.” Castiel darted for the other side of the bed, stretching his torso enough to grab a folded-up towel. He pressed it over Dean’s little puddle beside his navel, hiding it and soaking it up.

“Shit,” Dean whispered, trembling. His eyes were fearful and shocked as he looked up at Castiel. They’d ceased their rhythm through necessity; they needed to figure out what to do. “Cas, I don’t think I can move. The beer— And then I had a nap – and the rocking—”

“Shh, it’s okay, I understand,” Castiel assured him, keeping the towel in place. “What do you want to do? The bathroom’s just across the hall.”

Dean was already shaking his head. “Don’t wanna stop.” He swallowed, then licked his swollen lips. “Fuck. Don’t even think I could make it, even.” He was blushing, avoiding Castiel’s gaze. “I was kinda... putting it off already. Thought we’d be done by the time I needed... y’know.”

Castiel raised his eyebrows, prompting, “So you don’t want me to pull out, and we can’t keep going without you making a mess. So what does that leave?”

Dean met his eyes now, eyebrows angled outward, pleading.

Castiel adjusted himself, pushing once more into Dean; Dean tensed, gasping – Castiel heard another spurt escape him and soak into the towel. Castiel felt no warmth through the towel fabric; it was thick and tightly-folded.

Castiel wondered...

He looked down, then back into Dean’s eyes.

“Let go,” he said.

Dean grinned, but the grin immediately faded. “What?”

“Just let go. I’ll take care of it.”

Dean looked down, at Castiel’s hand holding the towel firmly over his cock. He flustered, and looked quickly up at Castiel. “No... No, I’m not gonna—”

“You’re out of options,” Castiel said. “Would you rather stop and hobble to the bathroom?”

Dean shook his head.

“Then let go.” Castiel bend his head and kissed Dean’s hot cheek. “I’ve got you.”

Dean breathed out, staring at Castiel in alarm. Castiel held his gaze, but dipped his eyes low to check on the towel. Nothing yet.

“I— I’m not— Cas, I can’t—”

“Relax,” Castiel reminded him. “Here.” He tried pushing into Dean, and Dean moaned – and with the moan came a flood into the towel. Castiel pressed it tight to Dean’s skin, hearing the hiss, feeling the warmth bleeding through the folded layers.

Dean whimpered, looking down, panicked. “Shit, I can’t stop—”

“It’s okay,” Castiel smiled. “Let it happen.”

Dean lay back, finally relaxing. He breathed out through narrowed lips, watching Castiel while Castiel watched his hand, making sure nothing escaped.

Dean just let it all gush from him, relaxing more with every passing second.

“Okay, slow down,” Castiel said in concern, as the navy towel started to grow noticeably warm and dark. “Whoa— Stopstopstop—”

Dean grunted, concentrating hard to pause his flow. Finally, he managed it.

He breathed out, then gulped hard. “We still good?” he rasped.

Castiel nodded, shifting the now-heavy towel, mopping up a drip that tried to roll from Dean’s belly. “How much do you still have in you?”

“About half done,” Dean whispered. He wet his lips, breathing out a warm huff. His hand curled by Castiel’s neck, stroking him. Castiel could feel Dean watching him, watching his face, his movements.

“You could get to the bathroom now without an accident,” Castiel said, reaching over the side of the bed and letting the wet towel drop onto the wooden floor. He checked Dean, but raised his eyebrows when Dean didn’t seem relieved.

Dean tilted his head. “Can we keep going?”

“I start moving again?”

Dean shook his head. He looked towards the other side of Castiel’s bed, and reached to take the second folded towel. He handed it to Castiel.

Castiel felt tingles run up his spine. “You... You want to...”

Dean gazed at him slowly. He shrugged a shoulder. He didn’t blink.

Castiel swallowed. “Okay,” he said softly. Part of him was confused, but another part understood completely. He didn’t want to separate either.

He put the towel in the same place. But then he took Dean’s cock between his fingers and lifted it atop the towel, leaving it exposed.

Dean looked down, seeing how this was different. He observed, then looked up at Castiel, expecting an explanation.

“Let it out slowly,” Castiel said. “This way I can see where it’s going.”

Dean sucked his lower lip, eyes set fully on Castiel’s, utterly dark and captivated. He let his lips part, and he breathed out—

First came a spit of clear liquid, making Dean’s cock twitch; Castiel took the tip between his fingers, keeping it steady. Then came a thick spurt, leaping into the towel and vanishing at once, leaving a shadow. Then Dean breathed out; his stomach sank, and his flow became constant, hissing softly, falling directly into the towel underneath.

Castiel watched it carefully.

But after a few seconds, he flicked his eyes up to Dean, and they watched each other, both aroused and unable to look away.

Dean moaned softly; his cock pulsed in Castiel’s hand.

Castiel looked down, adjusting the towel so it soaked evenly. Dean was getting hard in his fingers, as he emptied his bladder and heat rushed through him.

Castiel began to pleasure Dean, tugging his foreskin down, then up, covering the head. Dean sprayed a little, dotting his chest; Castiel shook his head, uttering, “It’s all right.” He kept rubbing Dean, thumb and fingers sliding over the head, up and down, careful not to cover his slit this time.

Dean squirmed in place, humming a note of pleasure. “Auh... mmmmm...”

His flow slowed to a trickle, then ceased completely, and he sighed in relief. He was almost fully erect now – and if his bladder was empty, it didn’t matter if he rose away from the towel, so Castiel let him rise. He kept up the rhythm on Dean’s cockhead, seeing how Dean’s sleek, silky foreskin had become all shiny and wet. Dean moaned aloud now; hands stroked Castiel’s skin, arms and neck and chest, whatever he could reach.

He was shivering. Shaking again. Sucking his lower lip, flushed all over.

“Cas... Caaaaaas... I think—? Th-think I’m gonna—?”

“I’m watching,” Castiel assured him. “I’ll keep rubbing until you come.”

Dean whimpered, sobbing, hips moving on the big towel under him. “Auuhnmhh...” He suddenly gasped, head rising; he looked down in shock, then flung his head back and stared at Castiel, gasping deeply—

Castiel glanced down and saw Dean come. A thin, pale stream splattered itself across Dean’s chest, soon followed by white fluid heaving from his slit in a thick, gloopy rope. Castiel met his eyes, grinning as Dean kept coming. “This was what the towel was originally for,” Castiel remarked, as Dean cried out, yelping and gasping as he orgasmed for the first time in years.

He was soon coming dry, and with a whisper of, “Oh— Oh my God,” he gripped Castiel by the back of the neck and pulled him in for a brutal, desperate kiss.

They worked their lips together, breathing hard, Castiel still stroking Dean’s cockhead, Dean moaning into the kiss. They began to rock again, Castiel sinking into his hole as if he’d never stopped in the first place.

“Ah—?” Dean broke the kiss, noticing a new warmth; Castiel noticed it too, wet through his fingers. They separated their lips, looking down.

“Shhhhhit,” Dean hissed, as he realised he was still peeing. It flowed off his chest and onto the big towel underneath him. Castiel didn’t stop him; he threw away the smaller soaked towel and just let Dean finish, letting it all gush off his side and onto the bed.

Dean covered his face with both hands, moaning in complaint, too embarrassed to speak.

“Dean, look at me?” Castiel said, touching Dean’s wrist gently.

Dean lifted his hands from his face, and gazed at Castiel, appalled.

Castiel just smiled at him, pushing into Dean slowly as he finally finished. Castiel felt the last spurt against his own belly – warm and soft and smooth; and then it was gone.

“Cas, I’m sor— I didn’t mean to— I swear, I fucking swear, I thought I was done—”

“Dean,” Castiel cupped his cheek, looking into his eyes. “It’s okay.”

“No, but it’s— Fuck! Fuck, everything’s wet— Oh my God, this is so gross, I’m all sticky— And it smells like beer— Aauh—”

“Dean?” Castiel gave him a long, gentle look. “I put down a towel for a reason. I knew we’d be here for hours. Look what we’re doing. And with which parts of our bodies?” He smiled, almost grinning. “You don’t need to be ashamed, Dean. This was part of the experience.”

Dean pouted, scowling. “But— So fuckin’ disgusting—”

“Did it feel good?” Castiel interrupted.

Dean looked at him. “What?”

“Did it feel good?” Castiel repeated, still fucking Dean, not caring to stop. “Urinating. Coming halfway through.”

Dean cast his gaze far away, his huff of breath sounding utterly aghast, like he couldn’t believe Castiel would even consider such a thing—

“Did it. Feel. Good,” Castiel said one more time, kissing Dean in beats as he thrusted inside him.

Dean stared up at the ceiling with gleaming, shamed eyes. “Y-Yeah? Kinda. A little.” He gulped, shut his eyes, and whispered the truth: “S... So f-fucking good. Fuckin’ out of this world, Cas. I mean— It made me come.”

Castiel kissed him slowly, licking his lips as he pulled up. “Then it’s not disgusting.”

Dean clearly wanted to argue. He tilted his head, anxious and angry, but...

But he mellowed. He gazed into Castiel’s eyes and began to trust his word. Trust that what he said was the truth.

“Were you into it?” Dean asked, curious.

Castiel hummed considerately. He took Dean’s thigh in his hand and lifted it, pushing into him more deeply. He hummed again, thinking. He let go of Dean’s thigh, and began humping him without pulling back, lips to lips, Castiel wearing a thoughtful expression.

Dean laughed. “You’re teasing.”

Castiel laughed, nodding. “Yeah. Of course I liked it.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Forty years a virgin worked wonders for you, huh. Kinky bastard.”

“Mm,” Castiel said, discerningly. “No— No, it wasn’t the... Kinky...? Um.”

“Full sentences, Cas.”

“I— I wasn’t aroused by the act... or the means? It was – how it felt,” Castiel explained. “I don’t know. Doing that with you. Being with you. You trusting me enough that you let go. You relaxed completely, Dean. You let me do that for you. And— And the closeness between us, you releasing control, letting me care for you – that’s what made you climax, I’m sure of it.”

Dean breathed out, subdued and understanding, now. “Kinda... intimate, huh.”

“Very.”

Dean smiled, content.

And so passed a couple of quiet minutes...

“So,” Dean said, suddenly smirking. “You wanted to come in my mouth?”

Castiel chuckled, headbutting Dean’s chest, not caring his hair ended up wet. “Are you still willing?”

“Chuh!” Dean grinned. “You underestimate how much of a slut I am, Cas. Sit on my face, I’ll deepthroat you.”

Castiel chilled with shock and arousal. “Are you sure? I mean— I’m not convinced I know what that means, but if it means what I assume it means, then—”

“Pull out,” Dean said, patting Castiel’s shoulder.

Castiel did as he was told. Slowly. Dean yelped, eyes tight shut. His hole was tacky and sore; the lubricant had nearly gone dry. Dean panted when he was empty, and he lay frozen to recover, while Castiel carefully removed the condom without touching the inside or the outside, only the white rim. He tossed the condom on the pile of wet towels and other condoms, then returned to Dean, only to find him rearranging himself on the bed.

Dean lay with his head towards the windows, legs stretched out so his feet could rest where Castiel’s pillows usually went. Castiel tilted his head from side to side, trying to figure out where he was supposed to lie.

“Face me and kneel with my head between your thighs,” Dean said, flicking a hand, giving a lazy smile. “Then fuck into my mouth.”

“Really?” Castiel arranged himself as he was told, kneeling with the warm curve of his ass in the arches of his feet. He shuffled closer on the wrinkled towel, avoiding the wet patch.

Dean met Castiel’s eyes, then smirked. He opened his mouth, tipped his head back, and with one hand, he fed the tip of Castiel’s erection into his mouth.

Castiel sighed and gasped and hiccuped at once, all his skin sweltering, his body vibrating with pleasure. He bent forward the slightest bit, no longer able to see Dean’s face; Castiel leaned forward and set both hands on Dean’s hipbones, gasping; Dean’s skin was still wet and slippery, but Castiel paid the mess no mind. He rocked his hips forward, as Dean sucked on him; his cock slid to the back of Dean’s throat, then back out. In... out.

Castiel groaned, only hearing Dean’s name in his voice after the cry faded. He moaned another long, wrecked note, shutting his eyes in bliss.

Dean merely sucked on the tip now, moving himself enough to work Castiel’s cockhead in and out between his soft lips. He grunted and mumbled and purred delighted sounds, one hand sliding to stroke his chest, smearing semen against his nipples.

“Dean,” Castiel whispered, his vision growing blurry. “Oh...”

Dean’s tongue was monstrous. He knew tricks that were surely only permissible in Hell. He did something devilish to Castiel’s foreskin, and something even more exciting to his open slit, and Castiel was none the wiser as to what it was; he only knew it was maddening. He was shivering in place, breathless, knowing he was moments from climax and unable to warn Dean.

All he could do was gasp—

Dean moaned as his mouth filled; Castiel moaned as his body lit up, as his muscles tensed, his skin singing, his hair on fire; he screamed low, keening as he bowed his head in prayer, mind empty, body rushing with electricity.

He felt the lingering impact in the soles of his feet and the tips of his fingers; his heart had flipped in place.

And he kept coming, and Dean kept swallowing, and sucking, and didn’t stop until Castiel begged him, “Please... please, no more, no more, I can’t—!”

Dean slipped away, huffing a warm breath on Castiel’s perineum and inner thighs. Castiel didn’t need to see him to know he was grinning.

Castiel collapsed beside him, head in line with Dean’s knees, his weight jolting the bed. “Uhf.”

Dean kicked Castiel’s shoulder gently. “You good?”

Castiel nodded, out of breath, eyes closed. “Uh-huh.”

Dean cackled, snuggling up to kiss Castiel’s thigh. “That was beautiful. You taste like rain. You know when it hasn’t rained for months, and then—?”

Castiel nodded.

“Yeah.” Dean kissed Castiel’s hip. “Rain beats pineapple.”

Castiel snorted. He reached out a hand and stroked Dean’s thigh, feeling the ridges of a scar. He opened his eyes, looking at the Latin tattoo that surrounded that scar, binding Dean’s entire leg mid-thigh like a tourniquet. Et morietur, ut vivere!, it read, in a dense Blackletter font. You will die, so live!.

Dean felt him touching, and looked down. Castiel looked up.

Dean smiled. “How about we lie in the same direction, huh?”

Castiel sat up, and lay down again, this time with his heart aligned with Dean’s. Dean reached to stroke his fingers through Castiel’s sweaty, sticky, beer-scented hair. After all their initial efforts to keep themselves clean, free of muck, they’d finished like this. Dean chuckled, and leaned in to kiss Cas, eyes closed.

Castiel relaxed back, stretching out his legs. He looked up at the ceiling, watching a dozen moths bouncing around in confusion.

“Dean?” Castiel asked.

“Yeah.”

“I was wondering...”

Dean perked up. “You wanna pee too?”

Castiel looked at him. “What?”

Dean’s face turned serious. “What? Nevermind. What were you gonna say?”

Castiel squinted at him for a moment, trying to figure him out, but then shook his head, and asked, “When you were a daredevil... it was very dangerous, wasn’t it?”

Dean rested his chin on his hand, shrugging a shoulder. “Yeah.” He frowned, nodding. “Yeah, it was. That was why it paid so well. And... And why I gave it up.”

Castiel touched Dean’s cheek, stroking him. “So you won’t ever do it again,” he said, wanting to make sure.

Dean pressed his lips together, pondering. “I sometimes, kinda... wonder if would. I mean, it was awesome, and fun, and – y’know – financially lucrative, despite all the pitfalls. But, uh,” he said, catching sight of Castiel’s bothered expression. He cleared his throat. “Men my age are dangerous as hell on the roads, to other people and ourselves. Not just performing daredevils – I mean guys having their mid-life crisis, buying a car they’re not sure how to drive, riding motorcycles around, pretending they read the instruction manual. Most common road deaths? Kids who just got their license, and guys like me.”

He looked away. “Pff. What kind of pillow talk is this, Cas? Why you even asking?”

“Why would you go back?” Castiel asked him. “What would make you decide you needed to return to that life? Risk that danger?”

Why?

“Because—” Castiel looked away, huffing. “Because I want to arrange circumstances so you never have to, and you never want to. I want to make sure you’re... excited by me. By this place. Somewhere safe.”

Dean swallowed, letting his supporting hand flop back to the bed. He rested his chin on his paws like a cat, gazing serenely at Castiel. “I’d need a damn good reason,” Dean told him. “Like, damn good. So far, not seeing one.” He reached out, taking Castiel’s hand. “Way better reasons to stick around here.”

Castiel smiled, glad to hear it.

He lay down close to Dean, kissing his shoulder, then stroking him, bare skin pressing together. “Just know,” Castiel said softly, “if you ever feel like you need something else, something other than me and this place... and you feel the call to – I don’t know, to drive, or to run away, or to travel—? If you ever want to do something wild, and fantastic, Dean... Promise me you won’t do it alone.”

Dean gazed at him, taking his hand.

“Wild and fantastic, huh?” He kissed Castiel’s knuckles, and shook his head. “Cas... Only thing I need to promise you – is that I got all the wild n’ fantastic I need. Right here.” He indicated the bed, and its wet towel puddle, then Castiel. He kissed him on the lips, breathing out. “Right – fuckin’ – here.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

It was pitch black in the room when the phone rang. Dean inhaled, shifting in the bed. He felt unfamiliar sheets under his cheek, and he remembered where he was – Cas’ actual bed, not the couch. He’d never slept here before. He was still naked, freshly showered; the clean covers were wrinkled around his waist, covering his ass.

The phone was still ringing.

“Mmm,” Dean complained. Frowning, he turned to lie on his other cheek, pillow cool on his skin. “Caaaas.”

Castiel shuffled, one hand stroking Dean’s lower back.

Ringing. It needled into Dean’s hazy, comfortable darkness, each wibbling note waking him up further, ruining any chance of ignoring it until it went away.

“What time is it?” Castiel asked, his voice crisp from dehydration.

“D’nno,” Dean murmured, pushing up on his torso, slinging his legs out of bed. He toed at the polished wood flooring, finding it low down. There were no wet towels to step in; Castiel had cleaned up before they went to sleep. Instead Dean found his discarded boxer-briefs, and he blindly pulled them on.

He shuffled on bare feet, leaving the bedroom and patting the walls as he went.

He followed the ringing. It didn’t stop. Whoever was calling at this time of night really wanted someone to pick up.

Dean turned on the living room light. He squinted, grunting, covering his face with a hand.

He stumbled towards the cradle of the cordless phone, as it rang more shrilly and insistently than the wall-mounted landline. Behind him, he heard Castiel stumbling out of bed in a hurry. Scowling, Dean picked up the phone and hit the button to answer it.

“H’llo?”

Ah, Cassie!” said a smug British man. “You’re awake! Splendid. We do have lots to catch up on, don’t w—

“DON’T ANSWER IT!” Castiel shouted, bursting into the living room, wrapped in a bathrobe. His arm was outstretched, his eyes wide. “It’s two a.m.! He’s calling from England!”

Darling, who is that in the background? Do you have a friend over?

Dean stood in silence, lips parted, hand slowly gripping the phone tighter.

“Uh,” Dean said. “No offence, but...” He licked his lips; Castiel had sagged in defeat, sighing as he approached. “Who is this?”

You’re not Cassie,” the man realised. “Damn, and I thought I got lucky when someone answered. First time someone’s picked up in months, I’ve been calling every other week.

“Cas is right here,” Dean said, staring at Cas, feeling his stomach curdling. “But goin’ by the look on his face, I’m thinkin’ he doesn’t really wanna talk to you.”

Oh, he never does.

“Balthazar—” Castiel said primly, frowning. He gritted his teeth and snatched the phone from Dean, jabbing the loudspeaker button. “I told you not to call me. Ever. I blocked your number. I blocked all of your numbers.”

You know someone can just... buy a phone, don’t you? I can go to any old corner shop and pay a few quid and suddenly, what a miracle, I now have the ability to—

“What do you want, Balthazar,” Castiel interrupted, glaring at the handset, staying close to Dean.

You know what I want, Cassie.

“Well, you can’t have it,” Castiel replied. “I’m hanging up now.”

Wai-wait—!

Castiel met Dean’s eyes, and Dean peered back, curious and worried. Castiel gulped.

Who is he, Cassie? The man who answered.

Castiel glanced away. “Nobody.”

Dean swallowed and curled a fist by his thigh, but let the dismissal slide. This Balthazar guy clearly wasn’t the sort of friend Castiel wanted to open up to.

He didn’t sound like nobody. He sounded like he’d just woken up. Which means he was sleeping at the house. Which means—

“Goodbye, Balthazar.”

Are you seeing him? Are you sleeping with him?

Castiel’s breath hitched twice. He held the phone but didn’t seem able to hang up. Or speak. Or move.

Is he living with you? In our house? Is he sleeping in our mother’s bed with you?

Castiel’s eyes filled with tears. He stared at the phone, his expression and body locked up.

Dean reached for him, wrapping his hand around Castiel’s, around the phone.

Do you love him, Cassie?” Balthazar sounded a little too cheerful. “Does he remind you of Mummy?

Castiel’s face turned to stone. “You know nothing about me,” he said coldly. “You know nothing about Dean. I don’t care what you think, or what you believe you can gain from hurting me. You’re not getting the house. You’re not getting anything. Not after what you did.”

Careful, Cassie. Holding onto resentment for such a long time leads to wrinkles. You just had your fortieth, didn’t you? Coming along in years now, baby brother.

Castiel almost laughed, fire in his eyes. “If you really believe I’m worse off, staying here while you and Hester and Lucas spend your time ruining other people’s lives, you’re out of your mind. I maintain all the resentment I need – to keep you away from me, away from this place. Fifteen years is nothing for me. I will defend this land from your hatred until my days on Earth come to an end. I will bury myself in this house. I would rather burn it to the ground with me inside it than let you come within a hundred miles of it.”

He began to pace, furious. “If you come for this house, you come for me. And dead or alive, neither my body nor spirit will rest for a second until the three of you are cold in your beds. Our mother left this house to me, and Gabriel. Not you. Not Hester. Not Lucas. No matter what you offer, what you threaten, whatever you dare to do to me, or anyone I love, you will not claim this house. Our mother gave up her life to keep it from you, and I will not back down, not ever. Do you hear me?” There was poison in his breath, his hand gripped white around the phone. “Do you hear me, Balthazar? You come near this house, you die.”

He looked at the phone when there was no reply. Dean saw the screen was blank; the phone battery had emptied without a single bleep.

Castiel yelled, hurling the phone against the wall, where it smashed, pieces exploding across the living room, speckling the couch and the fluffy rug with bits of plastic and metal.

Castiel stood, hunched, hands over his face, breathing hard. He growled with every exhale. Dean had never seen him look so angry.

But then his hands fell, and Dean saw he wasn’t angry – he was terrified. Broken-hearted. Dean rushed to him, enveloping him in a hug. Castiel collapsed against Dean’s chest, weeping.

“Shhhh,” Dean hushed, staring at the ceiling as he stroked Castiel’s hair. “Sh-shh...”

“I never answer,” Castiel sobbed, palm against Dean’s beating heart. “I know when it’s him, he only calls after midnight so he knows I’m home—”

“I’m so sorry,” Dean whispered. “I didn’t know.”

Castiel shook his head. “I didn’t tell you. I didn’t—” He breathed out, tears tracks dripping down Dean’s bare shoulder. Swallowing, Castiel lifted his head, meeting Dean’s eyes. “There’s so much I haven’t explained.”

Dean pressed his lips together in a nervous, reassuring smile.

“Balthazar,” Castiel said, taking one deep breath, then letting it go, “is my older brother.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that. Not a great relationship, I gather.”

Castiel managed to laugh, eyes darting away. “No,” he agreed. He swallowed, wiping his face with the back of his wrist. “Um. I have— I have three brothers and one sister. We grew up here together. Lucas is the eldest. We always used to call him Lucifer— He’s trouble.”

“The kid named after the devil is baaaad news, got it,” Dean nodded.

Castiel smirked, sniffing as he went on, “Then there’s Hester, my sister.” He turned away, taking Dean’s hand and leading him out of the living room and into the dark corridor. “We got along most of the time, but she... She wanted to be our mother’s favourite, and she never was. I tried to help her – she needed to be kinder, that was all. Don’t bite back at every word my mother said to her. But her bitterness overtook her and she sided with Lucas in the end.”

Castiel went to the door in the hallway that Dean had only opened once. Castiel touched the handle, pausing to breathe. Then he turned the knob and opened the door.

“This was our bedroom,” Castiel said, eyes down as they entered the room full of junk. As the ceiling light warmed up, the absolutely staggering number of things in the room became clear. There was enough in here to fill a mansion. Only now did Dean realise how deep the room was – two or three times what he’d thought before. The side with the blocked-up window was fifteen feet long, at least.

“Balthazar and Gabriel were born a year apart but they were almost inseparable until they were teens.” Castiel sighed, reaching to touch a splintered chair leg, sticking out from underneath a piano lid. “Then the fighting started. Balthazar wasn’t even that bad—” Castiel’s face crumpled in anguish. “We used to feed birds together.

“But Lucifer’s influence was... too powerful. There was something evil in him. He wasn’t careless and destructive in the usual way teens can be – he was cruel, and took— Took pleasure in hurting people. Manipulating us all. He corrupted Balthazar’s bright mind and turned him into... someone else. Someone hungry for power and money and luxury, who didn’t care who they hurt to get it.”

Gazing forlornly into the piles and piles of things, Castiel said, “Gabriel was the only one who resisted, but only because he was too self-involved to consider teaming up with the other three. He wasn’t like me – he didn’t stay. But he’s not part of their con-artist group now. He’s... somewhere in Vegas. Running stage productions, or a strip club. A casino. I don’t know exactly. He’s making a lot of money, and he calls me sometimes. He says he wants to come back to visit, but he won’t live here.”

“You were the youngest,” Dean said.

Castiel nodded. “I’m their half-brother. Different father. The only one with dark hair, and any reasonable sense of morality.”

Dean lifted a box of catalogues from an armchair and set it on the carpet, brushing dust from the years-old square dent it left behind in the cushion. “Sit,” he commanded, helping Castiel to the chair. Dean crouched before him, holding his hands.

Castiel sighed, leaning forward over his thighs. His eyes moved to the box of catalogues. “Here, look,” he said, reaching for the box. He shuffled out a bent, ripped magazine, laying it in his lap. It was an inch thick, and filled with photos of houses for sale across the United States. Dean recognised the publication but couldn’t remember why.

Castiel flipped through the phonebook-paper pages, soon finding a particular one.

“This was the house when my mother bought it.” Castiel showed Dean a black-and-white photo of the house they were currently in. The trees weren’t there, and the front path had no moss, but the sun was shining just the same, and the house looked like a magical Victorian cottage.

“She took out a huge mortgage. Uprooted all our lives to get away from... their father.”

Bowing his head, Castiel rubbed his forehead. “She’d already left him, years ago, after she had Gabriel. He’d hurt her, mistreated her, and she just needed to escape. All of us took refuge with my own father, for the first six years of my childhood. But my mother’s husband – he kept coming back, wanting to see his children, imposing in our lives. He scared my father away. And the only way for us to escape was to go into hiding.”

Dean frowned. “Wow.” He raised his eyebrows, scratching a thumb past his temple, his other hand stroking Castiel’s hand. “So... your mom moved all the kids here? Off the grid?”

“Yeah.”

Glancing at the magazine, Dean felt another pang of recognition, deep in the pit of his stomach...

He began to turn the pages, back, then forwards, searching for something familiar.

“It’s mad, isn’t it,” Castiel said carelessly. “The concept of a mortgage. Mort-gage. Pay until you die. And even after you die, someone needs to keep paying, or everything you worked for disappears.”

Dean only half-registered what Castiel said.

He’d found the part of the property magazine he was looking for. There, in the top left corner of the backmost page, he saw a photo of a dark-wood house with a crooked tree in the front yard. Dean’s bones chilled at the sight.

“That...” he croaked, a broken sound escaping his throat.

“What?” Castiel asked.

Dean angled the magazine so Castiel could see. “That’s my house. That’s where I grew up. The top floor caught fire and my mom died, w-we had to sell the place.” His hands were shaking, and he curled them into fists. “I was – four. We put the house up for sale, then got in the car, my dad was driving. Drove for days. Had a copy of this catalogue on my lap. I thought— I thought we were goin’ somewhere nice. New house. New life. New start...”

He swallowed, chin dropping to his chest, needing a moment to gather his emotions so he could keep speaking. The pain inside him was crowding his thoughts. He took a deep breath, touching Castiel’s exposed knee for reassurance. “Spent the whole journey – lookin’ through the property magazine. Visualising each house, pretending we lived there. Me, Sammy. Daddy – and Mom. I thought she was gonna meet us there.”

Castiel met his eyes, mouth open. There was endless compassion and sorrow in his eyes, and seeing his understanding strengthened Dean to continue.

“My favourite house, the one I liked best?” Dean stuck his thumb between the pages and flipped back to the photo of Castiel’s house, which had a full-page photo and a brief, imaginative description below. “Pretty little cottage in Ingen Steder Landsby. And the way I imagined it? Mom loved it, and wanted to stay forever.”

“You told me you dreamed about this place,” Castiel said quietly.

Dean nodded. “Close enough. It was my... dream house.” He pouted, looking away. “Reality hit, though. New home was a motel room. Thought it was temporary.” Glancing at Castiel, he forced up a tiny smile. “Wasn’t temporary.”

“I’m sorry,” Castiel said.

“Don’t be,” Dean said. He took the magazine and closed it. “Nowhere Boy became Night Rider. Night Rider became Dean. And Dean’s right here. In his dream house. Lookin’ at you.”

Castiel smiled. There was sadness in his eyes but that didn’t detract from the genuine gratitude he showed Dean, now.

“So what happened,” Dean prompted, leaning forward, squeezing Castiel’s hand. “Your mom. The mortgage.”

Castiel took a deep breath, then sighed.

Finally he found the words. “To pay for the house over the years, my mother had to work. She’d been head nurse at a hospital before. When I was six, she became a teacher. When I was ten, she was also a bookkeeper, and a nurse again, and a farmer. She did anything and everything the Ingen Steder locals needed her to do. Every month she’d pay the bank via a check in the mail. It went to some branch in Denver.”

Dean listened, stroking Castiel’s knee.

“In this house... there was no safe place for valuables. Things would mysteriously vanish, and we’d blame... ghosts. Ghouls. Surely we just... misplaced it. But as a child I ‘misplaced’ a jar of loose change the size of my head. As a teen, a ‘ghost’ took my suitcase of rare and collectible comic books from under my bed, leaving the more common ones. And thus vanished, in the same manner, a modest travel fund I’d saved for most of my life.

“Lucas became more of a problem,” Castiel said. “He was eighteen, and he wanted to see the world and start fires and put hard drugs in old people’s Ovaltine to see what would happen. My mother was at her wit’s end with him, and she told him he could do whatever he liked, so long as he didn’t hurt anyone else, and paid for it himself. So... he did.”

“He did?”

Castiel smiled grimly. “He stole her mortgage checks before they posted, cashed them himself with Hester posing as our mother to fool the bank teller. Started racking up thousands upon thousands in his own bank account. The bank sent notices in the mail, telling us our payments were late, but the notices never reached us. Months passed. Years. Lucas and Balthazar and Hester, they were letting one or two checks slip through occasionally, to keep the bank’s whining at bay. But my mother was deeply, deeply in debt and didn’t realise. Neither of us did. The others hid all their scheming from me, too.

“But then something changed. I don’t know what. I was off in Boston, at college, about a year or so from graduation. Lucas was... thirty-two. Somewhere around that age. He claimed he had a job but I’m not convinced he did. Unless you count peddling stolen farming equipment as a job.”

“What changed?” Dean asked. “What happened?”

Castiel shrugged. “They stopped letting checks slip through. Instead they took every single one. Maybe they were nearing their goal, I assume they needed funding for something big. But suddenly, mere days after I graduated, I got a phone call from Gabriel. He worked at the convenience store in Ingen Steder – and filmed pornography on the side. Just— Don’t ask.”

“But what—?”

“A letter had arrived at the house, and Gabriel had found it, already opened. Final notice from the bank. It said if we didn’t make another payment, the bank’s debt collectors would foreclose on the house, and reclaim it to resell. Lucifer was gone. Hester was gone. Balthazar was gone. The beds weren’t slept in, Gabriel’s car had been stolen. That wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part—”

Castiel covered his mouth, sobbing. He shut his eyes and cried out, hands in fists, devastation darkening his face and making his body curl up. “S-She was— Our mother had—”

Dean’s heart began to pound. Thumping, thumping, dreading what he was about to hear.

“S-She’d left too. But she was back by the evening.” Castiel gasped, tears dripping from his cheeks. “Pale. Shaken. One fucking kidney gone.”

“Kid— What?!” Dean held Castiel’s arms. “Cas, what?!”

“She sold a kidney on the black market to pay the bank as quickly as she could. To keep the house. To keep her name on the deed, to say this property was still her own. She could’ve let the debt collectors take all the furniture, the computer, the toys and the games, but she didn’t. She didn’t want her darling Lucas, or sweet Hester, or gentle Balthazar to lose their things. She couldn’t let herself believe that they really did what they’d done, Dean— What they’d done—”

Castiel wiped his tears quickly, breathing so he could explain. “They wanted the bank to foreclose on the house. They wanted the bank to think we couldn’t pay, so the bank people would sell the house to regain their losses. When the bank does that, they don’t care about getting the best price, they just want the thing out of their hair. They’d sell low. And Lucas and Balthazar and Hester intended to use the same money my mother posted to buy it cheaply. So they’d own it. And her name wouldn’t be on the deed any more.”

Dean stared, aghast. “But— But they were her kids— What the hell—”

“She was a sweet, kind woman, Dean,” Castiel said, his smile contorted with grief. “She trusted them. She let them live in her house. But they wanted control, the way their father wanted control.

“Our mother died two weeks after Lucifer and the others left. It wasn’t the surgeon’s fault. Forget the kidney— Her heart was broken. She died of sadness. Anguish. She was in agonising emotional pain for those weeks. Just knowing that three of the five people she loved most in the world had betrayed her utterly for over a decade – it destroyed her. And there was nothing anyone could do or say to repair that. One morning sh— sh-she didn’t wake up. Post-mortem showed the cause was heart failure, technically – but I know she died of sadness. Her heart was just the easiest thing to break through willpower alone. I believe – she wanted to be free of her pain so badly that her body granted her wish. I believe she committed suicide.”

Dean shook his head, unable to speak.

“I called them,” Castiel said. “I called Hester, I told her what had happened. I hoped... I hoped they’d see the terrible results their actions had, and would change their ways. It was such a mistake of mine, calling— I thought maybe they had some compassion left in them. Maybe they’d... come to the funeral. Pay their respects. Maybe they’d take back the wrong they’d done. Apologise. Return the money they stole, even.

“But do you want to know what my siblings did instead, Dean?” Castiel smiled again, but this time it was crooked and disturbing. “They sued the doctor who performed her surgery. They destroyed the practice, an entire company that also provided safe abortions and emergency healthcare to people who couldn’t afford it or didn’t have access. They sued the shit out of them – using the stolen mortgage money to get a good lawyer – won themselves the better part of three million dollars. They flew to Europe— But... not before coming back here, one last time. For one more fight.”

Dean breathed out, looking down. “The damage in the wall behind the door.”

“I broke Lucas’ nose that night,” Castiel said with dark intensity. “And a few fingers. Gave Balthazar a concussion. Gabriel set fire to his own car to stop them from taking it again. And I swore to Lucas, if any of them ever came near this place again I would murder them, the way they murdered our mother with their trickery.”

Sniffing, Castiel swiped at his tears again. “Everything my siblings owned, I locked up in this room. The house became mine and Gabriel’s. But Gabriel left within a month. It hurt him too much to live here. Every moment existing between these walls was torture. And I... felt the same. Exactly the same. But I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t! She died making sure I had somewhere safe to live, had an investment for the future, and I could keep what she’d worked her entire fucking life to have. Would you believe it, I’m still paying for that goddamn mortgage, fifteen years on. I had student loans to repay and over ten years of missed payments to catch up on.”

Reaching into the box of magazines, Castiel lifted out a photo frame with no glass in the front. He showed Dean. It was a photo of the family in the backyard of their previous home, all four kids around their mother, who sat on a bench.

“That’s ten-year-old Lucas, with that horrible smirk and the spiky blonde hair. Hester, looking ever-so-longingly at our mother. Gabriel, blowing bubblegum – Balthazar popping the bubble with the stick.”

“And that’s you.” Dean stroked the chubby cheeks of the little boy on a woman’s lap. He rotated the image. “Date on the photo says... nineteen-eighty. That’s the year I was born. So you’re two years old?”

“Yeah.”

“And this...” Dean touched Castiel’s mother’s hair. “Your mom.”

Castiel gave a wistful sigh. “She was beautiful, wasn’t she?”

“So was my mom,” Dean said. “Inside and out.”

They sat in silence for a little while.

But the silence stretched on.

Eventually Dean put away the photo, and took Castiel’s hand. “Come on,” he said, standing up. “Back to bed.”

“I suppose you’ve heard enough,” Castiel said blithely.

“Is there more?” Dean asked, leading Castiel from the room of bad memories. He closed the door behind them. “How much worse can it get?”

Castiel snorted. “I’ve fallen behind in the mortgage repayments. If I told you the interest rate, it would make you sick to your stomach. And there’s no longer any chance of refinancing. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“Christ.”

“I make exactly the amount of money I need to send,” Castiel said. “Going forward, in the next few months, I can choose between food or having a house.” He paused before entering his bedroom, holding Dean’s hand. Dean watched him in concern. Castiel hung his head, his sadness illuminated by the light on his nightstand. “The days you bring ingredients home and cook for me... I can’t tell you how relieved that makes me, Dean. I just—”

He shut his eyes, and explained, “This plot of land is forty acres. Everything you see out of the kitchen and rear windows belongs to me. The government laws for this area allow for subdivision. Which means if my siblings took this house, they’d demolish it, cut up the land into tiny chunks, and auction each part off to a developer, or a farmer, or – God knows. Anyone who wants land. They’d charge wild animals to camp here if they could. They’re not interested in the house, they want the money. And it’s not like they couldn’t get more money elsewhere – they want this land, where I live, because they want revenge for whatever wrong they feel I’ve done them by existing.”

Castiel rested a hand softly on the door frame, where there were cuts in the wood, markings every inch or so. Dean looked closely, and saw ‘Castiel’ written beside one at eye-height. The door frame charted Cas and his siblings’ growth since childhood.

“I love this house,” Castiel said, as if it wasn’t obvious. “For a long time, this village was the only safe haven I’d ever known. My siblings ruined that for me. But now you’re here—” He met Dean’s eyes, his gaze weighted with emotion. “I’ve finally begun to make pleasant memories here again. If it was hard to leave before, it’s harder now.”

He leaned in and kissed Dean chastely, eyes shut, holding still for a while.

He fell back, sighing. “I don’t know what to do, Dean. I want to leave but I can’t yet. And I want to stay, but soon I won’t be able to do that either.”

Dean watched him, gently cupping the back of his neck.

“So... forget thinking about what you want,” Dean said. “What do you need? Deep down. Your mother’s intentions and dying wishes aside. Your family’s manipulation aside. What do you need? In order to heal. To get closure, and move on. To feel safe, you know? Be able to breathe.”

“I... need...” Castiel looked helplessly at Dean. “You.”

Dean kissed him, but then shook his head. “There’s nothin’ I can do for you that you can’t do for yourself, buddy. Promise you. You just want me, that’s all. I can help you, sure, but you’re just as strong alone.”

Castiel breathed out, thinking. “Then...? I... need...” He swallowed. “To— To buy the house. Complete the mortgage payments – finish what my mother started. Then sell the house to someone else – though the actual housing market, not just giving it up to the bank, since they always undersell. And then—? Then I’d leave.”

He realised what he’d said, then collapsed against Dean’s shoulder, shaking his head. “I can’t. I can’t, I—”

“Hey,” Dean whispered, stroking the back of Castiel’s head. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out, Cas. We’ll get the money. How much do you need to buy the house? After fifteen years you must be pretty close, right?”

“Fifty-four thousand, seven hundred and twelve dollars,” Castiel breathed, not even a whisper. “And fifty two cents.”

Dean raised his eyebrows. “Whew. Okay. Okay... I can do most of that. Not all of it – but most of it.”

Castiel lifted his head, wide-eyed. “How? You bought the Impala, you have no money left—”

Dean poked his tongue between his lips, gazing at Castiel’s left eye, then his right, seeing his alarm turn to realisation, then gratitude and distress.

“No... No,” Castiel said, shaking his head. “Dean, you can’t! She’s the car you’ve always wanted, you cannot possibly—”

Dean just hugged him. He’d let Cas think whatever he needed to think. It was easier to let him believe Dean simply intended to sell the car.

He’d get the money.

“Let’s get back to sleep,” Dean said. He led Castiel to the bed, helped him take his bathrobe off, then lay down beside him. He kissed Castiel’s shoulder, rubbing his stomach. “We’ll sort this out, okay, Cas? Get your family off your back. Get you outta Nowhere Village. Get you your meds. Everything. We’ll do it.”

“How can you believe that?” Castiel seemed incredulous. “How can you have that much faith, Dean? And how can you be so willing to give up something so precious for someone else?”

Dean smiled. “Well, I’m not convinced I believe in God.” He kissed Castiel’s cheek. “But I do believe in someone. He’s real special to me. Dark hair, blue eyes, about yea high? Maybe you’ve met him?”

Castiel laughed, rolling his eyes. His laugh faded, but his loving gaze continued. And continued.

Dean kissed him again. “‘Night, Cas.”

“Goodnight, Dean.”

Dean turned out the light, and cuddled up around Castiel.

He listened... paying attention... aware of the moment Cas eventually fell back asleep.

But Dean stayed awake.

He was going to get that money. And he was going to free Cas from the bonds of his thirty-four-year mortgage, this dream house full of nightmares, his toxic family, and his countless years of mental and emotional trauma, all in one fell swoop.

But he couldn’t tell Cas about it – at least not yet. Because despite Cas claiming he didn’t understand how someone could give up something precious for someone else, Dean knew Castiel would do precisely that. He’d surrender the house and live the rest of his days without closure if he knew what Dean was willing to risk to help him.

Cas had said once, the key to the house was not to be guarded with Dean’s life – because it wasn’t as important as that.

Even so long ago, he’d valued Dean’s safety over the house.

But Dean valued Castiel’s freedom more.

There was still a month left until the daredevil show. Surely that was enough time to prepare.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

In Castiel’s experience, the only way to avoid being overwhelmed by the passage of time was to take each day as it came. He woke up, experienced the day, slept, and then repeated the process until he realised, oh, it had previously been spring, and now it felt a lot more like summer.

He stood on the porch in the evening, sipping ginger ale, leaning his shoulder against one of the ornate pillars keeping up the overhanging roof. Sunshine nourished his cheeks and the skin exposed by the open collar of his button-down shirt, and he shut his eyes to enjoy it.

Dean’s tinkering and clanking continued, as he finished up the last few fixtures on the car’s front bumper.

This had been their routine for over a month now. Dean still slept at the inn, but he spent all his out-of-work hours here, fixing his car, doing push-ups and outdoor yoga, and teaching the ducks to come when called. Every evening – usually while dinner was cooking – they walked, cycled, or drove to the border of the village. Castiel could now get beyond the border, but for quite some time now, the panic attacks started when he could no longer see the welcome sign to the village. As soon as it was out of sight, Castiel’s body shut down.

Earlier today, Dean had had to carry him back until Cas’ legs stopped shaking and he could walk again.

Once home, Dean awarded him a cool, sugary drink as a treat for doing so well. The ginger was... helping.

Nowadays the ducklings hung out wherever Dean and Cas hung out; today they gathered in a fluffy brown pile, a couple of paces away from Castiel’s bare feet, quacking softly to each other. The three of them made a collective lump that was approximately the size of a house cat. Their waterproof feathers had grown in, so now they appeared to be adults, but they were still far smaller, more gangly, and more awkward-looking than they would be later.

Eventually Dean straightened up with a deep grunt, then a sigh as he wiped his hands on a rag. “Yup!” he said brightly. “That oughta do it. Now just gotta give this baby a wash, and... she’s all set.”

Castiel finished his ginger ale with one last swig, feeling it burn down his throat. “Are you washing her tonight, or do we have time to watch more Dr. Sexy, M.D. before you head back to the inn?”

Dean pushed his lips into a thoughtful arch, head tilting briefly before he smiled. “I got laundry to finish. And I gotta take a shower, but— Sure. I could go for some Sexy. I’ll be in in a sec.”

Castiel smiled. He looked down at the ducks. “Come on, you three. Inside!”

The ducks looked up, recognising they were being addressed. Boots jumped up first, knocking Rex and Middle and forcing them to stand up too, all shaking feathered tails side-to-side. All three went, quacking lightly, following Castiel to the front door. He held it open for them, and they hopped up the doorstep – Rex... Middle... Boots! – and Castiel turned back to smile at Dean one more time before closing the door.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel noticed Dean heading down the hallway and out the front door, whistling to himself. Castiel left the ducks in their baby playpen, where they were still trying to hunt down the bits of carrot he’d hidden under towels and inside toilet paper rolls.

Heading out the door too, Castiel grinned when he saw Dean making his way to the washing line, bare feet on the green grass, dancing slowly on his way there.

He spun on the spot, tipping his torso back and then snapping straight; he held out the laundry basket like it was a dance partner. He jumped forward: bam! Feet flat to the lawn. And then a slow tiptoe, theatrical – big, sweeping, elegant steps up to the washing line, pointed toes moving in half-circles, skimming through the grass. Chin held high, posture perfect, he pirouetted when he reached his destination, spotting against the house so he didn’t get dizzy.

He raised the washing line’s spread arms so they became an umbrella frame, and the cords between the arms pulled taut. He kept whistling, swaying his hips in his black boxers, pulling gentle wrinkles into his black t-shirt, which had a cracked and faded Batman logo on the front.

Castiel leaned on the pillar again, arms folded, watching Dean and smiling. He always loved this little show.

Dean began pegging up Castiel’s work shirts, kicking with pointed toes, spinning around before pegging up the second halves. Castiel heard him singing to himself, “Bah-bah-BAh—” without any real tune, just enjoying his task.

His movements had become so precise over the last few weeks, so much so that Castiel would have to be blind not to notice. Dean’s biceps and chest filled out his t-shirts more tightly, his stomach had firmed; he seemed more inclined to do acrobatics in bed, even if they didn’t plan to have sex. Castiel had walked in a couple times to find Dean doing a handstand on the mattress, feet on the ceiling – but falling into a roll before innocently pretending he hadn’t been doing anything at all.

Castiel could see he was happy. He danced like a ballerina, adding feminine twirls and kicks and hair-flips to his laundry dance as he went around the pole.

Now Dean emptied out the delicates bag, and fished around in the laundry basket to peg up his panties. He hung them in colour order – from the thin, lacy white ones that had a good stretch, to the four pairs of pink, satiny ones he wore most often – then some dark, glossy black ones that Castiel had never seen before.

“What are those?” Castiel called across the garden. “The black ones.”

Dean looked up, then grinned when he noticed Castiel watching him. “Lucky panties,” he called back. “Gonna need ‘em in a couple days.”

Castiel looked down, wishing he hadn’t asked. His eyes swept forlornly to the Impala, with her beautifully-shaped trunk and newly-replaced tail-lights. She was as good as new after all Dean’s hard work. Castiel ached to think he intended to sell her just to help him.

There had been so many times Castiel asked Dean not to do such a thing, begging that they could find another way... but Dean eventually stopped him, took his hands, and had said he wanted to help.

So Castiel never mentioned it again. By whatever means Dean intended to help, it was his choice. If the car no longer took up space on Castiel’s lawn... well, at least the grass wouldn’t die. After so many weeks under the massive chassis, that patch was starting to look crispy.

Perhaps Dean found a buyer for the car, and that was why he needed lucky panties.

Oh, whatever.

If Dean was happy enough to dance about it, then Castiel vowed to share his happiness too. He took Dean’s hand when Dean returned to the porch, and he led Dean in a turn, their hands linked over their heads as Dean twirled, grinning. He curled in on Castiel’s arm until they were pressed close, then he allowed Cas to dip him, laundry basket still pressed to his hip.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel smooched his cheek, pulling Dean back upright. “How about... instead of watching Dr. Sexy... we play a little bit.”

“Play...? Like Scrabble?”

Castiel tilted his head. “Stay the night?”

Dean lowered his chin, grinning. “Ohhh. Play. I getcha.”

Castiel wrapped a hand around Dean’s waist, sliding his palm under his shirt, holding his eyes seductively. “You won’t need your lucky panties,” he told him, making Dean’s entire body tingle.

“I won’t?”

“Not tonight.” Castiel led him inside, and made him drop the laundry basket. He pulled Dean straight through to the bedroom, walking backwards, nose to nose all the way. Once in the bedroom, he shut the door without breaking eye contact. Dean revelled in the intensity of Cas’ cobalt stare.

“So what are we doing, exactly?” Dean asked, voice already husky, aching low in his throat.

Castiel pressed their lips together, smiling. “Getting lucky?”

Dean laughed, eyes shut, feeling wrinkles pull straight through his summer freckles.

He opened his eyes, and exhaled, gazing at Castiel with adoration hugging his heart. “All right. Let’s get lucky, then.”

Castiel hummed in thought, then denuded Dean without warning, expecting him to raise his arms – which he did – and Castiel tossed the Batman t-shirt onto the foot of the bed.

He then took hold of Dean’s boxers and wriggled them off, holding Dean’s gaze as he knelt down.

“Oh...” Dean felt abrupt surges of excitement in his chest, observing Castiel kneeling at his feet. “Are we—? Are you gonna...?”

Castiel waited for the rest of the sentence, holding Dean’s hips in his big, warm hands.

Dean’s breath fluttered. “You want me facin’ forward or back?” he asked, hoping that would answer the question.

Castiel kissed Dean’s navel, kneeling up. “You have something in mind?”

“N-No, I just—”

“Speak to me, Dean,” Castiel smiled. “What did you want?”

Dean was blushing now. “I-I dunno, you just knelt down and my brain jumped to – you suckin’ me off... or... rimming...” His voice went quiet by that last word. He swallowed.

“Rimming,” Castiel said, squinting. “What’s that?”

Dean’s breath hitched completely, his lips prickling with blood as his heart pumped harder, his cock swelling against Castiel’s throat. “Mm...”

Castiel stood up and unbuttoned his shirt, then yanked off his jeans in fast, practised movements. “Show me.”

Dean’s heart flipped. “You want—?”

“Whatever it is. Do it to me.” Castiel stood back with his arms open, naked and willing.

Dean whimpered, taking hold of his cock, stroking it hard. He sucked on his lower lip, taking deep breaths. He nodded. “Okay.” He stepped aside, indicating the bed with a turn of his head. “Um. Face the bed. And like— Bend forward. And...”

Castiel did as Dean told him, holding his torso high, palms pressing dents into the mattress.

Dean breathed out, approaching, then easing Castiel downward, making sure he relaxed against the bed. “Spread your legs open.”

Castiel did.

A whisper of, “Shit,” escaped Dean’s mouth, followed by a flustered eye-roll and a grin.

He knelt behind Castiel, between his legs.

“I’m ready,” Castiel said. “...I think?”

Dean hummed, slowly jacking himself as he wet his lips. He nudged up close, close enough to see the blonde peach fuzz on Cas’ ass, all that the pale, meaty muscle, divided into two square buttocks, bulging to look rounder. Dean sighed, mouth open, letting the hot air gush between Castiel’s crack.

Castiel squeaked. Then he sighed. “That was nice. Is that rimming? Is that what you want?”

Oh, Dean felt dastardly now. He didn’t warn Castiel, he just leaned in and lay his tongue against his hole – and gave him a deep, wet, upward lick.

“DeAAAAAAAH—” Castiel melted and spasmed, clawed hands pulling huge wrinkles into the bedsheets and he yanked them all close. Suddenly he was panting, whimpering, legs spreading wider. “Dean,” he breathed. “Dean—”

Dean sank his muzzle between Cas’ cheeks and sucked his hole, eyes closed, tongue roaming, pushing, surging against him. He masturbated faster, harder, humming notes to himself in response to Castiel’s helpless vocalising.

“Gaa-ahah— Deehah HHHouuh oh Lord oh my FUCK—”

Dean pulled back to laugh, kissing Castiel’s upper thigh. “You good?”

Castiel whined, sweet, wrecked sounds flying from between his lips. He nodded, shaking his whole body. “I like rimming a lot.”

Dean grinned. “You want more?”

“Yes.”

Dean went slow this time. He kissed Castiel’s hole, open-mouthed; he tongued it, and smooched it, and hummed into it, knowing the vibration would tumble through sensitive nerves.

Castiel sobbed into the bedspread, hands in fists. His thighs shook as Dean grasped them and lifted them further apart.

He was strong enough to take Castiel’s weight now; he held him up off the floor by his thighs, Cas’ torso flat on the bed. Dean fucked into his perineum with his tongue, tasting salt and skin and sweat, tangy in his throat like a gust of sea air. He jabbed a couple of times, just to see how Castiel would react, and quickly discovered Cas had a pretty sensitive taint.

“Deeeee-eeea-aannnnn...”

It was easy to do this. Easier to do this than to keep hard; he faded against his own thigh, yet paid his impotence no mind. It was easy not to pay attention to himself when Cas was screaming.

Castiel came hard against the side of the bed – Dean felt the fluid drip onto his knee, making him jump. Wow, Cas had barely lasted thirty seconds. Either he’d been pent-up and horny – or he really liked rimming. Maybe both. Dean let Castiel take his own weight again, then pulled back, tasting the inside of his mouth and finding it weird. He smacked his lips, wiping his face on his inner elbow.

Cas had rolled onto the bed now, lying on his back and panting. “Tha... Hnnhh... Deh...”

“So, that’s rimming!” Dean said cheerfully, cocking his head.

Castiel nodded. He lifted his head and sat up with fierce determination in his eyes. He swung his legs out of bed and stood up.

Dean still knelt. “So, are we—?”

“Stand up and face the bed,” Castiel said, his voice insufferably deep, cock still thick with lingering arousal. “Bend over.”

Dean scrambled to do as he was told. He flopped face-first into the mattress, biting his lip, eyes shut. He felt heat in his face, pressure between his legs. He reached back and grabbed his left buttock, pulling it to show off his hole.

He was shivering. Excited.

He heard Castiel’s kneecaps bump the floorboards as he knelt. Dean began to breathe harder, pushing his hips into the side of the bed, wanting to be fucked. He waited for Cas to touch him.

“C’mon,” Dean whispered. He pulled his buttock further, holding it open. “Spit on me.”

He blushed. The lack of reply or action following that request made him worry it was taken badly. “I just—? I like bein’ wet.”

Castiel placed his hand on Dean’s right buttock, pulling it as Dean pulled the other.

Dean’s eyelashes fluttered against the crumpled sheets. “Hmmmm...”

Castiel got close enough that Dean felt his heat, soft and comforting on his skin. He felt breath...

“Aaughh...” Dean moaned, tingling from head to toe as Castiel filled his crack with an exhale, purposefully hot and humid. “Yeaah...”

His heart leapt as he heard Castiel shift closer, and Dean braced for pleasure, but it came only in the form of a kiss on his ass.

“Hm?” he asked, turning his face, left cheek cooling on the sheets.

Castiel kissed above Dean’s ass, now; his stubble pricked the skin. Dean relaxed, finally realising this was foreplay. Cas was gonna make a big deal out of this.

Castiel kissed Dean’s back. Soft, wet smooches trailed up Dean’s spine, nose pressing sleek muscle as he travelled, kisses unbreaking; Castiel placed a hand down, and his weight massaged Dean for a while, making Dean purr.

Dean let go of his buttocks and just relaxed, hands under his chin, eyes closed.

He let his feet trail out across the floor, legs hanging freely from the side of the bed.

Castiel rubbed Dean’s thighs, he nosed his tailbone. He kissed his hips, and then – oh – he slipped a saliva-wet finger between Dean’s thighs, sliding it to stroke Dean’s taint.

Dean made no sound, concentrating on how it felt. Castiel stroked him with one finger, smooth in the dip. Dean murmured, feeling how that wet finger made the groove slippery.

Castiel pressed both thumbs in Dean’s taint now; his palms held Dean’s ass and pushed him open; and at last – he put his tongue on Dean’s anus.

Dean gasped, bolting through with lightning. The foreplay had lulled him into a false sense of security, and since his hole was relaxed, the first touch had made him clench— The spasm was glorious, pulsing through his lower half, relax-clench-relax-clench, over and over until he felt like he was glowing.

By the time Dean realised he was moaning aloud, he’d moaned a tenth time, this one deep in his chest and raw in his throat; he rocked forward into the bed, sinking back into Castiel’s tongue; his eyelids fluttered, his lips plumped; he sank down, and rose up, and gave himself to Castiel’s play.

He wasn’t hard, but he could feel pre-come wetting the mattress. He squirmed into the wetness, loving it, loving that it was too viscous to sink into the sheets, so spread back onto Dean’s skin.

Dean moved his hips in hungry circles, halfway off the bed, partially standing. He gasped and groaned and threw his head down, humping nothing as Castiel slurped obscenely.

“Please,” Dean urged, not able to handle the moments when Castiel pulled back to breathe and wipe his face. “Cas, pleaseplease—”

Castiel hummed against skin the way Dean had, but deeper and louder; he sent shocks through Dean’s system, making him cry out, sobbing a little. Dean grinned and laughed and nodded frantically, hoping Cas would get the message: he was into it. “Hgnhhhyeah...”

Now Cas held Dean still with both hands, pressing him to the bed and making sure he couldn’t squirm. One palm weighed down Dean’s lower back, while the other... curious... gripped the back of Dean’s neck.

“What...?” Dean breathed.

Castiel was half-hard again. He simply rested his cock against Dean’s wet ass, leaning all his weight there. Dean yelled, mouth wide, blinded by the bliss of Castiel’s first few pushes, taking his cock straight past Dean’s over-sensitive hole.

“Haahghh—”

Castiel laughed at Dean’s noises, bending to kiss his ear. “How about this?” he asked, adjusting his cock with one hand, now sliding under Dean’s ass, pushing into his slick taint, all the way to touch his soft, tightened scrotum. Dean let Cas fuck him like that, moaning on every thrust – but the moans soon turned to breathless, silent shivers as Castiel began to suck his earlobe, too.

“When I last did this...” Castiel murmured, kissing Dean’s ear, “you told me you came. You... You lied, didn’t you?”

Dean nodded, too distracted to feel guilty or apologetic.

“Do you like it, though?”

Dean nodded again. “Gaahhhnnnmm...”

Castiel chuckled, sucking the hard ridges of Dean’s ear, soft-mouthed and slick-tongued. He did that for only a few moments – probably a minute, but it wasn’t long enough when he pulled away again.

Dean whimpered in complaint – only to sigh in immediate relief when Castiel closed his mouth around his anus again, hot tongue to cool skin, searing liquid lava pouring against an abandoned crater. Dean was reawakened, his skin prickling with pleasure, his legs turning weak and his hands reaching to hold the bed, just trying to remain stable.

“Yeah— Yeah-yeah...” Dean purred, giving delicate humps against Castiel’s face, even enjoying when he bumped Cas’ nose. “Fuck me, fuck me— Yeeeaahh, I’m so wet...”

Castiel’s chuckle ticked between Dean’s cheeks. “Is this what I sound like when you’re pleasuring me?”

Dean raised an eyebrow. “Wha?”

“You lose all sense of decorum,” Castiel uttered, between kisses. “You— Mm.” He breathed out into Dean’s crease, too hot – then he smooched, and nibbled a little, making Dean screech. “You say things you’d never say in another context.”

Dean laughed. “Cas, what— Wh-what other fff context would— Aughh... When would I—? AAH.” He buried his nose in the bed, reaching blindly for a pillow, shoving it under his face, and sobbing into it. He lifted his head again just to shout, “CaaaaAAAAS—”

Castiel sucked harder, licked deeper, pushing his strong tongue directly against Dean’s hole. He curled his tongue like a hook, then stroked soft like a kitty tongue, and then pummeled, tongue arched, directly against Dean’s perineum. Dean couldn’t figure out what to do with the rest of his body; he was stiff and collapsing and wet and weak, his voice crisp and dry, his insides soft and fragile, and he was so close to his peak.

“Cas— Cas— Yeeeah—”

Castiel didn’t cease whatever semblance of rhythm he had; he kept pushing, and licking, and rubbing Dean’s hip with a hand; he hummed notes that sounded pleased, which served to heighten Dean’s own experience – Cas liked this, he was gonna keep going until Dean came.

Keep going, Dean thought. Keep going—

“Keepgoin’keepgoin’— Cas— CasCasCas oh shit oh shit hmmmmm—” Dean bit hard on his lower lip, eyes watering as he strained for the ceiling. “It’s happening, shhhh—”

He looked down, seeing his one knee up on the bed, the other leg hidden as it was stretched off the mattress. His cock was half-hard, drooling pre-come into a little wet patch on the sheets... Dean could see himself thickening, and pulsing, ready to let go—

“Don’t stop,” Dean gasped. “Please, Cas, c’mon, c’mon— Aauh— Aughh— Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah—” He started to whine, cock pumping itself. The pressure in Dean built, the heat gathered, lightning struck—

Dean shut his eyes and sighed, crying out, “AHYhhh,” in utter relief as he felt orgasm spurt from him, in huge rushes of heat, wet, spilling out in heavy lines. “Aaaauuuhh....”

Three... four pulses... He opened his blurry eyes, biting his lip as he saw the very last spurt leave him, trailing in a wriggly, glossy track down his veined erection. “Ahh... Mmmm...”

Castiel moaned, licking and licking and licking.

Dean sank back against him, shutting his eyes in the relief and delight, feeling Cas’ warmth right where he liked it.

“Cas,” Dean whispered, voice shaking around his grin. “You can... ahh...” He gulped, mouth dry. “You c’n stop now.”

Castiel whimpered, kneeling up as Dean stood; he hugged Dean’s middle from behind, still sucking and spitting... but finally broke away to sigh, wiping his wet face on Dean’s lower back. “Hmmmh,” he breathed. “Did you come?”

Dean nodded, biting his lip and smiling as he turned around. There was spit sliding down his inner thighs. He cradled Castiel’s skull in both hands, locks of hair soft between his fingers. Castiel rested his chin on Dean’s abdomen, eyes up to see Dean nod.

“I got hard. And then – I came. Did’hh... Didn’t even... need to touch.”

Dean sat down, wet ass to the wet bed. Castiel got up and sat sideways in his lap, legs off to the side, all of him heavy and naked and perfect to hug. Dean kissed his warm neck, sighing in satisfaction.

“So – are you no longer impotent?” Castiel asked, still wiping saliva from his cheeks with his hand.

Dean shrugged. “I mean... all evidence says yeah.” He grinned. “You cured me, doc!” He bounced Cas in his lap a couple times to celebrate.

Castiel chuckled, eyes twinkling as he gazed closely at Dean. Brushing Dean’s hair from his forehead with his sticky hand, he remarked, “I thought perhaps... you had some physical damage. From a biking accident.”

Dean bit his lip, eyes down. “More, uh... psychological.”

“Do you know what it was?”

Dean shrugged, eyes roaming. “You said it a while back. Needed the intimacy, and... the trust, and... to be able to properly let go. I never really had that before. I had the opposite, even. So.” He shrugged again. “Pretty sure if someone else banged me I wouldn’t be able to get it up. Not that I’d even want to. And I guess that’s the point.”

“It’s just me.”

“It’s just you.” Dean kissed Castiel’s heart, smiling. He took a deep, filling breath, and sighed as he lay back onto the bed, taking Cas with him. They cuddled, close and tight, Cas nuzzling Dean’s shoulder to get rid of a tickly wetness.

“Hey, Cas?”

“Hmm?”

Dean breathed out, looking away. “Listen, I, uh... I don’t usually say this to people but... I figure—? Maybe this is one of those relationships where we gotta... say stuff. Important feelings ‘n stuff. So you know. And so I know. And so we can hold each other accountable, and we know where we stand, and shit like that.”

“Um. Okay?”

Dean pressed his lips together. “For a while... I’ve kind of... I dunno. I know I do. But I’ve wanted to say it, maybe. Thinkin’ about it. Because— Because there’s only, like, a handful of people I’d be happy to change my entire life for, you know? Sammy. Jack. My dad, way back when.” He stroked Castiel’s shoulder with his fingertips, softly. “And then there’s you.”

“Okay...?”

Dean blinked. “Y’know?”

“Do I?”

“I—” Dean gulped, realising he hadn’t actually said the words. He sighed, eyes flicking up. “I love you, or whatever. And— I was thinkin’ maybe if you were okay with it and it didn’t feel like it’s too soon maybe I could – like, potentially – move in with you—?”

He searched Castiel’s eyes desperately, looking for the first sign that he’d overstepped his bounds and overstayed his welcome and asked too much.

But Castiel just smiled, and his eyes gleamed, and he seemed to fill up with quiet glee.

“Yeah,” Castiel said, kissing beside Dean’s lips.

Dean could ignore the stench of saliva – because— “Wait, was that a yes?”

“Yes,” Castiel grinned. “Move in with me.”

Dean exhaled, relieved and ecstatic in equal amounts. “Really?”

“Yes.”

Dean flopped back, grinning at the ceiling. “Holy shit.”

“Dean?” Dean turned to peer at Cas, who still looked at him with stars in his eyes, as he replied, “I love you too.”

Dean laughed and wrapped his arms around Cas and gave him the biggest, happiest naked hug he’d ever given anyone. They rolled over in the bed, laughing, giggling almost, and Dean was so bubbly and bright inside that he almost didn’t realise that this was the first time he’d ever explicitly said those three words aloud to anyone who wasn’t Sam or Mom.

He’d felt the feeling before, of course.

But Cas was the first person he’d told.

Now they lay in each other’s comfort, hands entwined, sunset light just touching their elbows as they stretched out to relieve their aches together.

And Dean felt glad. And grateful. Whatever psychological barrier had kept him down all these years, and kept him from speaking, and releasing – it was gone. Well and truly blasted into space.

He held Cas’ hand, kissed his fingertips one by one, and let himself just be.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Castiel served the breakfast Dean had made: eggs, bacon, and a whole heap of well-dressed lettuce-and-tomato salad for the people, and one bowl of mealworm salad for the three hungry duckies who flapped their wings and jumped onto Dean’s lap, immediately quacking.

“Down!” Castiel instructed, as Dean laughed, head back.

The ducks quacked and quacked, wanting their breakfast.

“No, I am not feeding you at the table,” Castiel said, wafting a hand to push the ducks off Dean’s lap. They plopped back to the floor and waddled after Cas, and he placed their food bowl down by the back door, where there was newspaper to protect the floor from poop.

“Wait... waiiiiit...” Castiel held up a finger, making sure the ducks all looked at him. “Rex, don’t you dare...”

He maintained eye contact, and then nodded. “Eat.”

The ducks bowed their heads and began nibbling their breakfast, little beaks snapping up the mealworms before any could wriggle away.

With a sigh, Castiel went to wash his hands, then returned to Dean, smiling.

Dean gave him a fond look. Castiel just chuckled, and muttered, “Eat your breakfast.”

The journey to work was familiar and easy, with the ducks in a cat carrier on Dean’s lap. They didn’t panic about the cage any more; they understood it was a safe place. There was padding duct-taped (duck-taped?) to the inside and outside, in case of a crash.

Castiel had tea with Rowena at break time, and watched Dean across the village square. Dean stood in the school yard, shouting at a kid to quit climbing the brick archway – and as he strode across the grass, the three little ducks waddled after him, bills down to their chests, bodies round and webbed feet hurrying.

By the end of the work day, Castiel returned to his house, sliding his hand along the Impala’s sleek roof as he went up the path. He’d miss this car terribly. She’d become... part of the building. Part of his idea of home. But the house was bigger, and he knew it better; surely it was important to sell the car to keep the property.

Something about the idea didn’t feel right to Castiel. He wished there was a way to make Dean change his mind about selling the car, but what other option was there?

He thought about a phone call he’d overheard, so long ago... There was a job opportunity for Dean, performing at another daredevil show. But that show was too soon, and Castiel flushed with worry at how easily he’d considered it. He couldn’t ask Dean to do that. It was too dangerous. Selling the car was safer... wasn’t it?

As Dean’s body had become stronger, as he’d eaten more protein and exercised so aggressively and so often, Castiel had seen how lithe he was, how fast his reactions were, how easily he could maneuver in an emergency. He’d stopped Boots from waddling into the road, and he’d caught a spinning knife by the handle when Castiel dropped it, and Charlie had mentioned that Dean performed a double-backflip for his class the other day, and he did it all without a thought. Castiel had never known anyone so agile.

Castiel thought... maybe Dean could do it. He could do the show and survive. He wasn’t soft any more. At least not on the outside.

But Castiel couldn’t ask. He’d rather lose the house and the car than lose Dean. It didn’t matter how much he trusted Dean to drive a motorcycle through a flaming hoop; he didn’t trust gravity, and he didn’t trust fate. If Dean would rather sell the car, and never considered doing the show, then Castiel would allow it.

So he stroked the Impala goodbye, and sighed.

He went inside, and pondered the passage of time yet again.

Once upon a time the car had been a broken stranger, and now she was a beautifully restored friend.

Castiel kissed Dean hello in the kitchen, and then kissed each of his duck babies in turn... and supposed they were like the Impala.

What if he was the same too? He’d once felt broken.

Maybe he was whole, now.

Maybe the five of them were a family. Maybe they were... happy.

Dean and Castiel snuggled up in bed together that night. Dean snuck his hands behind his head, face turned to gaze at Cas, showing off his fluffy armpit hair.

“What are you smiling at?” Castiel asked.

“I live here now,” Dean said, smugly.

Castiel raised his eyebrows. “Where did you put all your things, I didn’t see anything...?”

“It was three boxes, Cas,” Dean smiled. “Clothes are hung in your closet – you have way too many blue neckties, by the way – panties were in the drawer you gave me already. And I put my Night Rider trophies on your bookshelf.”

“Oh, I didn’t notice.”

“Bookshelf’s kinda crowded,” Dean said forgivingly. He grinned, then reached for the nightstand. Castiel realised he’d brought the Polaroid camera in with him. Dean wiggled closer, then held up the camera. “Say ‘ducklings’!”

“Ducklings,” Castiel smiled.

The flash blinded him for a few seconds. Dean set aside the camera, waggling the print-out over their heads.

“The women who run the inn,” Dean said. “Ellen and Jo?” When Castiel nodded, Dean went on, saying, “They seemed real excited when I asked to check out of their place today. I think I was the only person staying there. Business is pretty low-key in a tiny town like this, at least in the off-season. But still...” He huffed. “Me paying for that room at the inn still cost less than what you’re paying for this place. Seems crazy, huh.”

“Very.”

“You never considered just... cutting your losses, did you? Give up. Selling this property and buying a cheaper place.”

Castiel looked at Dean in concern. “Give... up? Excuse me, have we met?”

Dean laughed, shaking his head. “Guess I don’t fall for quitters, huh.” He showed Castiel the developed Polaroid. “Here.” In the photo they lay with their shoulders bare of the bedcovers, Dean’s arms outstretched to the camera, Castiel leaning his head against Dean’s. There was love in the picture. It was not sexual in that moment, nor distinctly romantic, but... deep, nonetheless. Unyielding. They were best friends.

With contentment warming him, Castiel watched Dean lay the photo down beside the camera.

“Dean?”

“Yeah, bud.” Dean scooped his arm around Castiel’s head, sneaking his thick bicep under his neck, making him a new pillow.

Castiel parted his lips with the tip of his tongue. “Are you really planning on... sticking around, long-term? Are we in a – ‘relationship’, now?” Castiel made finger-quotations around the word, in case Dean didn’t like it.

Dean grinned lazily. “Dude, I think we’ve been in a ‘relationship’ since the day we met.”

Castiel lowered his eyes, breathing out. “But... is this how we’ll be living now? Will you be here, every morning and evening? Are we going to continue making a home together? Making love?”

Searching Castiel’s eyes softly, Dean began to smile. “Yeah, Cas.”

“So you don’t intend to leave me.”

Dean shook his head. “Cas? Hey... I promise you: I intend to do what whatever needs to be done so we can stay together. So we can live together. Raise a family together. For as long as I fucking live.”

Castiel became breathless. He stared.

Dean kissed him. “God, I can’t believe I actually mean it. I actually fucking mean it.” He shut his eyes, gentle fingers holding Castiel’s chin as he kissed him again. And again. And again.

Castiel let Dean kiss him to sleep.

He fell asleep happy, and assured.

They were going to be together. As soulmates. As lovers. As partners and best friends.

Dean wasn’t going to leave him.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Castiel woke up just before dawn. The room was dark, but the faintest hint of blue eased underneath the drapes.

He inhaled, and rolled over in the bed, smiling, wanting to wrap his arms around Dean.

But the other side of the bed was empty and cold.

Dean was gone.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Dawn hadn’t broken yet. Cool air rushed against Dean’s leather jacket, chilling his collarbones. Through the narrow visor of his helmet, he saw the fields rushing past, blue and black slashing in blurs either side of the lane. The grass was growing tall, starting to seed.

The first harvest would be soon.

Dean hoped, prayed he’d be home by then. He wanted to see the land renewed and the sun raising a second crop before the fall harvest. He wanted to turn his head and see Castiel beside him, laughing as they raced over the next hill. Over the next hill.

Past the sign.

Welcome to Ingen Steder Landsby
Put down a tether and stay for-ever!

Head down, Dean rode out the way he’d come in, for the first time in two months.

He never beat his record, he realised. If he never returned after today, he hadn’t stayed in Ingen Steder Landsby any longer than he’d been anywhere else. Two months was usually the longest he could survive before he left.

This was different. This was different.

This was different.

Dean blinked away his tears, desperate to keep his eyes on the road.

The stars were fading; the blue was melting into lilac in the east.

The roar of his motorcycle cut through the silence, shaking the ground and the air and leaving a track in the dirt behind him. His jacket was zipped, his jeans wrinkled behind his knees. His combat boots were laced tight; he’d forgotten how they clung to his ankles. He’d gotten used to wearing the pink mudboots.

This felt wrong. This wasn’t him any more. Night Rider was dead. Dean was filling out a costume, reanimating a puppet who never wanted to come back.

But this was what he needed to do. If he died doing this, then it was meant to happen. He’d done everything in his power to make sure he would survive, made every preparation possible in the time he had, but there was no fighting gravity. There was no fighting fate. His life intertwining with Cas’ since childhood was enough to prove that. Falling in love was enough to prove that. If he was going to fall, he’d fall.

He needed to go.

He needed to return to the old life he’d always known. It was the only way to win the new life he’d always wanted.

And then he could keep living.

That was all he wanted.

To keep living.

And so he kept driving.

Behind him, the sun rose, pink and glittering over Ingen Steder Landsby.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

I promised you I wouldn’t
do crazy shit on my own.
So Sam’s gonna be there.
                    Pray for me.
                         I <3 you.
                           Dean. x

There was a Post-It note on the dining table, stuck to a glossy poster. The poster was black and blue with a dynamic red font across the top: Double Dare, it read, with lightning bolts through the Ds. Below, in white all-caps, it read Hale Arena, Kansas, and today’s date.

The words Night Rider were on the poster, in bold sans-serif lettering. Underneath were smaller titles like Messiah Flames, VamPirate, K3v1n Solo, and Deadwøman.

It took Castiel a few stunned moments before he saw the image in the background, obscured by darkness so it didn’t distract from the text. There was movement in there, a motorcycle mid-backflip, one brief flicker of fire, the flare frozen into immortality by the photographer. Castiel saw the art on the back of the rider’s jacket. A flaming white pentagram.

Castiel sat down, shaking with cold. The sun had only just risen, and Castiel hadn’t thought to get dressed before searching for Dean.

Dean was gone. He was gone and Castiel couldn’t follow. He couldn’t summon him back. He didn’t know his cellphone number. He couldn’t stop him.

Castiel had been left powerless.

Powerless?

Impotent?

No...

No, he wasn’t powerless. He was strong enough to follow. He turned his face to the dawn light through the glass door, and he let the pink sunrise give him courage.

Castiel ran to the front door, opening it – the Impala was still there. He ran to the bedroom and searched his own nightstand – and sighed in relief when he found the Impala’s keys, exactly where Dean usually kept them.

He ran to the bathroom and opened the door, letting the three ducklings out, who were already waiting to escape. They rushed over his bare feet, quacking, hurrying down the hall in anticipation of breakfast. Dean usually fed them, and he was often up this early.

Castiel prepared their food in a rush, placed it down so they could eat – then he got dressed, and sprinted outside in his softest jeans and one of Dean’s black t-shirts, fiddling with the car key to turn it the right way up. He got into the driver’s seat – strange, alarming, he’d never been on this side before – and he jammed the key in the ignition. He turned it, shutting his eyes and praying.

The car came to life with a g’krooOOmm. It thrummed and vibrated beautifully under Castiel’s thighs, and he gave a sigh of relief. Then he frowned, and switched the car off. “I can’t drive,” he said, only just realising. “Crap.”

He got back out of the car – suddenly noticing he’d forgotten his socks, shoes, and had left the front door wide open. He rushed back to the living room, reaching for the cordless phone only to find it was absent, so instead went to the kitchen. Lifting the phone from the wall mount, he breathed heavily into the receiver, dialling the number pinned to the corkboard in front of him.

When he’d dialled, he waited for someone to pick up.

He wasn’t sure who he’d called.

On the tenth ring, someone answered.

“...Ahh... h’llo?

“Charlie?”

Cas?

“I need you to drive me to Kansas,” Castiel stated. “Now.”

Cas, it’s five-thirty in the morning?

Castiel breathed out. “I know. Dean— Dean’s gone to a show. He’s going to perform, his name is on the poster. He didn’t tell me.”

Charlie’s breathing changed; she was now more alert, and her rustling suggested she was out of bed and moving. “Kansas? Long drive.

“The show starts at six tonight.”

Okay. We could make it if we leave by seven a.m., accounting for bathroom breaks and traffic. And the time zone change. Shoot, I can’t take the delivery truck. It’s company property, it’s not supposed to leave the designated Ingen Steder area— Trying not to break the law this year—

“You can take the Impala,” Castiel said. “It’s running smoothly.”

Billie... Billie, wake up. Emergency away-mission. Daredevil show in Kansas. Dean took off and Cas needs to do his big dramatic rescue thing.

Castiel heard Billie’s confused murmuring, and then Charlie’s breathy grin. “She’s on board.

“Meet me at my house,” Castiel told her. “I’ll make sandwiches.”

Aye-aye, Cap’n.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Charlie arrived in her delivery truck, with Billie in the passenger seat, her little nephew Eddie sleeping on Billie’s lap. They exited the truck with smiles on their faces, though Charlie had a fire in her eyes that made Castiel very glad he’d called her instinctively. If anyone was going to get him through this, it was her.

He raised his eyebrows when Donna hopped out of the truck too, her hair tied in a smart ready-for-anything bun, carrying a picnic basket, wearing a bomber jacket with a tiger print on it.

“What, you think I’d miss the adventure of the century?” Donna said. “Nothing this interesting’s happened in this tiny village since the pigeons nesting on the church roof made all the tiles fall off. At least all the kids at the school thought that was hilarious.”

Castiel bit back a retort about his life not being an episode of Dr. Sexy, M.D., available for anyone to invest in and scrutinise for entertainment. “I suppose I could use your help,” Castiel said, with a funny feeling in his gut that he would very much need Donna’s assistance for something.

“I’ll drive,” Billie announced, catching the car keys when Castiel passed them to her. “Fair warning: when I’m not driving sick animals around, I drive fast.”

Charlie smiled. “Me, I read maps and find the quickest routes through the traffic.” She winked at Castiel. “Can’t do anything straight-up illegal, but nobody said a little dubious traffic cam observation was off the menu.”

The women took their seats in the Impala: Billie in the driver’s seat, Charlie beside her, immediately opening her laptop over her thighs. Donna cradled the sleeping Eddie to her shoulder, accepting Castiel’s help to climb into the backseat of the Impala without bumping either of their heads.

Finally, Castiel breathed out, taking one last look at the house. He went to lock the door, assuring himself in his mind that the ducks would be all right without him. If this journey was destined to be a lot for Castiel, he couldn’t imagine it would be any less stressful for three small birds. They’d probably gone back to sleep. There was food for them in their bowl. So long as Castiel was back by tomorrow morning, they’d be fine.

Castiel took a seat at the back of the Impala, next to Donna and Eddie. The car seemed more crowded than he’d expected for just five people, but his head was full of buzzing, and his hands were trembling, so he couldn’t trust any sensation, real or imagined. He snuck his hands under his thighs, shut his eyes, and felt the car rolling out of the driveway.

Billie guided the Impala’s wheels off the gravel driveway and onto the road. They made a turn, aiming for the edge of town.

Charlie stayed silent until she saw the road ahead was clear, then she sighed. “Okay! So! I’m trying to access the Double Dare website,” she said, waving the poster Castiel had left on the driver’s seat. “Connection’s... still loading. God knows why they’re using Flash Player. Who the hell uses Flash anymore? There’s not enough wi-fi for this! We’re gonna be buffering forever.”

“There’s plenty of time, love,” Billie said calmly, changing gear as they ascended a slope.

“Pff,” Charlie complained. “In the amount of time it’s gonna take to load the title, I could’ve gotten in and out of the CIA’s encrypted files – and the FBI’s, just for fun.”

“Jeez,” Donna chuckled. “For someone who gets her jollies breaking the Internet, I never did understand why ya settled down in a nowhere town with basically no connection to the outside world. You must like Billie here a helluva lot.”

Charlie shot Billie a fond look, but to Castiel, her smirk seemed more secretive than smug.

“Guess I’m running head first into danger, today,” Charlie mused, looking back at her laptop screen. “Never thought I’d leave this town again, honestly.”

“If you get caught,” Billie said deeply, glancing at Charlie, “I’m going down with you.”

Donna sighed dramatically. “Welp, guess I’ll play fairy godmother to little Eddie here. At least until his parents show. And they’ll take him back to civilisation, where the air’s so dirty he can’t breathe. Ugh.”

Charlie looked back over the seat. “We’re not getting caught.”

“Caught for what,” Castiel said, trying to distract himself from the nausea. They were only a few minutes’ drive away from the village border.

“I’m ‘on the run’,” Charlie said, with an eye roll. “Living on the lam. In hiding. Whatever people like to call it in movies. Did some illegal shit and went to lie low in the one place the fuzz can’t track me down.”

“Then why are you leaving Ingen Steder now?” Castiel asked, frowning.

Charlie looked back. “Because you asked me to, silly.”

Castiel raised his eyebrows. “Oh.”

“Isn’t that what friends do?”

Castiel swallowed. Then he smiled, feeling his nausea settle, just a bit.

Then he heard a quack, and he jumped in his seat. “What!”

Quack!

Quack!

“Boots,” Castiel said in deep concern, seeing the teenage duck wriggle out from under Charlie’s seat. “Boots, what in God’s name are you doing here?”

Donna yelped, and Castiel realised Middle had bumped her shoe, clambering over her foot to join Boots. Then came Rex, shaking his head and quacking.

Castiel breathed heavily, welcoming the ducks onto his lap but scowling at them in despair. “Why are you here? I thought I left you at home—” He cut himself off, exhaling in realisation, eyes falling shut. “I left the car door open. When I ran inside to call Charlie.”

Of course they’d hopped in and made themselves comfortable. Dean’s scent was all over this car, and it smelled like home.

“Hi-ho, stowaways,” Charlie remarked, lifting her cellphone up to take a quick picture. “Don’t look so worried, Cas, they’ll be okay. Adventure of a lifetime.”

“But—”

“WHOA!”

The car swerved violently, its front grill crushing a row of maize stalks, then another, then another, sending shreds of leaves flying against the windshield, startling some nearby birds. The car stalled, and Castiel uncurled from his protective position, three bothered ducks all ruffled on his lap. Eddie woke up, murmuring, soothed by Donna.

“Everyone all right?” Billie asked.

Castiel uttered a positive response, and so did everyone else. Eddie whimpered.

“What the hell happened,” Donna breathed.

Billie reversed the Impala, backing out onto the grass. She straightened the car, then let her shoulders slump. “That. That happened.”

In the centre of the lane stood Rowena, wearing a sequined blue dress, her high heels surrounded by dropped branches and wreaths of leaves and flowers. She threw her hands up in admonishment, looking frustrated. Castiel faintly heard some Scottish words, the tone of which implied they were curses.

Billie hit the car horn, winding down her window. “Move your ass, witch!” she yelled.

I beg your pardon!” Rowena scoffed. “I’m in the middle of a very important magical gathering, I’ll have you know! These leaves can oooonly be collected at dawn on a full moon during the fortnight before midsummer—”

“Hey! We’ve got places to go, lady,” Charlie yelled out of the other window. “Either grab your stuff and budge up, or we’re mowing you down.”

With a hefty sigh, Rowena began to gather her branches. “And where are you all in such a hurry to go, dare I ask?”

“Dean left,” Billie called.

“And Cas is going after him,” Charlie finished.

Rowena straightened, shock obvious in her expression. “Our animal doctor is leaving town? Are you quite certain?”

Castiel swallowed, not being certain himself.

But Charlie nodded. “Damn right he is.”

Rowena went to the side of the road, dumped her collection without care, picked up the hem of her dress and scurried to the car. She opened Castiel’s door, fluttered a manicured hand to invite him to move over – and when he did, her slight figure took a place beside him, pulling the door closed.

“Well?” she said expectantly, her dainty brows disappearing into her red hair. “I thought you were in a hurry.”

Billie and Charlie looked at each other, then turned back to the road.

They drove on. Castiel watched Boots waddle from his lap and onto Rowena’s, pecking at a sequin.

“Ah,” Rowena said fondly. “Such beautiful feathers. They’ll be glorious and iridescent once they’re grown. I’ve found the purple feather on the lassies is especially magical.”

“God-dammit,” Charlie said in disapproval. “This page still isn’t loading. At this rate we’ll have to buy tickets at the door. Ugh.”

“You know,” Donna said slowly, “there might be another option. To get tickets.” Her nervous eyes darted to Castiel. “I-I-I mean, I haven’t had a real conversation with her in years, but—? My friend Jody. She’s good at getting things. She might be able to help us, if... you know, if she’s not still mad at me.”

“Hold up,” Charlie said, placing a hand on Billie arm. “Who’s this?”

The car slowed to a halt.

Castiel could see the sign on the edge of the village. It was less than twenty feet away. But that wasn’t what they stopped for. They’d slowed down because another car was idling at the side of the lane, two of its wheels on the path, two nestled in overgrown weeds. The engine was still running, the roof-rack piled up with various boxes and cases, all lashed on with buckled orange straps.

“That’s Ellen and Jo’s car,” Donna said, stroking Eddie’s tightly-curled hair. “Where are they off to, don’t they have an inn to run?”

“Hey,” Charlie called, window rolled down again. “Hey! You guys okay?”

Ellen rolled down her own window on the driver’s side. “Morning,” she called. Castiel thought she looked tired, but her smile was bright and hopeful. “Wow, you’ve got a crowd back there. Where’re y’all headed?”

“Kansas!” Charlie answered. “You?”

“Bought an inn further north, heading up there to deck the place out.” Ellen cocked her head back the way they’d come, towards the Ingen Steder Landsby Inn. “This-here inn’s up for sale.”

“Wait, so you’re moving?” Donna called out of her own window, early-morning light touching her blonde hair as it craned over the hills. “Without letting us give both of yous a big ol’ farewell bash?”

“We’ll be back for the Summer Festival,” Jo called in a light, enthusiastic voice, leaning past her mother, smiling hugely. “Still got a hundred and one things to pack up.”

Castiel put a hand on his stomach, breathing out through narrowed lips. His eyes kept darting to the village sign. He could see it, he could see the furthest point he’d ever gone with Dean. But Dean wasn’t here now. How was he meant to do this? Who was going to carry him back when his body locked up? The women around him seemed determined to see his plan through, but what about Plan B? What about the escape clause? It didn’t matter how badly he wanted to follow Dean; if he couldn’t breathe then what was the point?

“There’s decent money in hospitality here, but we wanna go where there’s more people,” Ellen explained, as the cars rumbled, unmoving. “We’d been meaning to go for years, but the time was never right. We were just waiting for the last guest to pack his bags.”

“That was Dean,” Billie said, thoughtfully. “He left, so now Ellen and Jo have no reason to stay.”

Castiel thought he was going to throw up. He passed the other ducks to Rowena, taking the back of the front seat in both hands, breathing heavily, head down against his biceps. “Oh, God, I can’t. I can’t.”

“Hey,” Donna said sharply, alerting the others. “Guys, I think we’ve got a lil situation here.”

Charlie looked back, then called to Ellen, “You ladies go ahead whenever you’re ready, we’ll be a few minutes. Good luck at your new place!”

With that, she wound the window up, knowing the smaller space would feel safer for Castiel. “Alright, what’s going on?”

“Panic attack,” Donna said, helping Eddie clamber over to his aunt in the front seat, so she could wipe his wet nose with a tissue. With her hands free, Donna now patted Castiel’s back, rubbing through his trenchcoat. “It’s gonna be okay, Cas, you hear me? Nothing bad will happen to the house while you’re away. And we’re gonna look after you.”

Castiel just shook his head, unable to speak, or think.

Rowena began to mutter to herself, and despite not knowing what she said, Castiel felt instantly soothed by her chanting. She took his left shoulder in her hand and squeezed.

“We’ve got you, Cas,” Charlie said softly. “You can do this. We’re so close to the border, okay? We’re all around you. You’re safe.”

Castiel nodded. He knew. But he shook his head. He couldn’t. He hadn’t left in fifteen years. His ties to this part of the world were too strong. Fear, desperation. Loss. His mother’s ghost bound him to their home, to her bed, to their pretty, comfortable prison.

“Billie,” Charlie said under her breath. “Let the car roll forward. Go slow. Eddie, you come here, okay? You can sit by me.”

With his eyes shut, Castiel had no idea whether Billie obeyed. The car still rumbled under his thighs, and he was so seasick that he felt like he was moving anyway.

“Wha’ss going on?” Eddie asked, as Charlie settled him in the front seat. “Is he okay?”

Rowena answered first, “Our friend here is having a wee bit of trouble with leaving home.”

“You feel like that sometimes, don’t you,” Charlie smiled, speaking to Eddie. “You felt like that this morning.”

“Yah.”

“Didn’t want to get out of bed when it’s still dark,” Billie smiled. “Understandable.”

“But sometimes,” Donna chimed in, “if something’s super-duper important, we can all somehow manage to do things we don’t wanna do, right? Cas?”

Castiel nodded, matching his breaths to duck quacks. Boots, Middle, and Rex kept up their racket, comfortably settled on Rowena’s lap now.

“Keep your eyes closed, honey,” Donna said to Castiel, stroking his back. “We’re gonna speed up in a second, okay? You don’t need to know where we are, just that we’re going to where Dean is.”

“Dean,” Castiel repeated, relieved by the shape of the name in his mouth. “Okay.”

He didn’t feel the car turn, but he knew it must have; the texture under the wheels had become tarmac, and that meant they’d gone well beyond the Ingen Steder Landsby border.

Castiel sobbed, gasping for air, curled up tight over his lap.

Donna hushed him, hugging him, while Rowena went on chanting. Castiel had never felt so helpless. He couldn’t believe this was happening – not that they were on this particular journey, nor that he was this fragile, nor that his mind was so full of nothing and everything at once. “Can’t— Take me back, I can’t—”

“You can,” Donna whispered. “Cas, you absolutely can. We’ve got you. We’re all right here.”

“But Dean— Dean’s not— Need Dean—”

Firmly, Billie said, “Dean’s not the only one who cares about you, Castiel. And he’s not the only one who can help you. You’ve got this.”

“Beautiful lilac sky outside,” Charlie whispered. “That cloud looks like a duckling. It’s yellow and everything.”

Castiel coughed out a laugh, rocking in place.

“My friend Jody,” Donna said, “we had a fight a few years back.”

Castiel tried to listen, knowing the story would distract him.

“I don’t even remember what it was about,” Donna confessed. “All I know is that it was trivial. Pointless enough that I don’t recall nowadays. But we split, and we haven’t talked a whole lot since. Of course we’ve called a few times – she has fast Internet, and she loves to help, but—” Donna sighed. “God, I miss her.”

Something bumped the back of the front seat, and Charlie said, “Here.”

Donna scoffed. “What’s that for.”

“Call her,” Charlie said. “There’s four bars and a full battery. Tell her to buy tickets for Dean’s show and we’ll pay her back later.”

Donna took what Charlie offered; Castiel glanced to her lap and saw it was Charlie’s cellphone, its case emblazoned with cartoonish art from those books about British wizards in a school. The featured character looked an awful lot like Billie, with dark skin, and big, bushy, black hair.

Castiel’s voice came out frail, and broken, but he managed, “If I can – do it, you – can do it – too.”

Donna made a smiley sound.

“Cas is right,” Charlie said. “I mean, hey, maybe this road trip’s gonna be about all of us, not just Dean. We all came to Ingen Steder to run from something, right?” Castiel looked up enough to see Charlie looking between them all, inquisitively. “I’m on the run from the feds, but I never actually stopped to figure out if they were after me, if I’d been a bad enough hacker that I’d even left a trail. I just got so paranoid that I fled. Billie had a run of near-death experiences and came out here to deal. Donna—”

“My relationship with Jody folded and I went to the one place I figured nobody would know me,” Donna answered. “Start over. New friends. No baggage.”

“But not actually dealing with the problem,” Charlie finished. Donna shrugged, then nodded, ashamed.

“Aye,” Rowena sighed witheringly. “Me too, I suppose.”

“Care to elaborate?” Charlie prompted.

“I’d really rather not, my darling.”

Smiling, Charlie looked down at Castiel, who had recovered enough to look back. She smiled more. “Cas is facing his fear by leaving. So. Maybe we all should, too.”

“If I can do it, you can do it, too,” Castiel said again, dry-mouthed, but trembling less than before.

Donna let out a breath, and began to dial. “Still know her number by heart.”

Castiel heard the phone ringing. It became louder over the sound of the engine as Donna set the phone to loudspeaker.

“Come on, come on,” Donna uttered under her breath. “Pick up pick up pick up—”

You’ve reached Sheriff Mills’ private number, what can I do ya for?” came a blunt, yet optimistic voice.

Donna breathed.

“Say something, girl,” Billie demanded.

Donna breathed again. “Jodes?” she squeaked. “It— It’s me.”

Silence.

Hey,” came the reply. “Wow. Uhhh. Didn’t think you’d ever call again.

“Chuh, yeah, well, needs must,” Donna mumbled, shifting in her leather seat.

Oh. Uh-huh. Right. Well, I’m at my computer, so what d’ya need, Donna?

Donna gulped. She hesitated... then hesitated again.

Donna, you still there?

“Yep.” Donna ran a hand down her face. “I need – five adult tickets, and a kid’s ticket. To a daredevil show in Kansas. Tonight. It’s called ‘Double Dare’, Hale Arena. You’ll probably find it if you Google it.”

The faint sound of a keyboard just about escaped the phone’s speakers. “Any particular reason?

“Yeah. So, a friend of mine. Castiel. He’s gone and fallen head-over-heels with the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em type.” She caught Castiel’s darting eyes, and gave him an assuring smile. “His name’s Dean Winchester.”

Dean Winchester— Like THE Dean Winchester? That motorcycling nutjob who asked my county office permission to do some kinda crazy acrobatic stunt performance in the actual Sioux Falls waterfall?

“Sounds about right,” Donna replied. “Anyways, Dean took off to go to this show without forewarning. And now Cas is on a mission.”

Gotcha. Five adult tickets, was it? And a kiddie entry?

“Yup.”

Ahhhh.

“Something wrong?”

Well? They kind of look like they’re sold out. And all the V.I.P. seats are coming up as ‘reserved’.

“Shoot,” Donna said, as Castiel’s stomach acid curdled. He shut his eyes so the sudden flood of tears wouldn’t escape.

“Dammit,” Charlie uttered, throwing up her hands. “If I had a better connection I could get us staff passes, easy! I can hack anything, but I can’t hack a better signal if there’s no signal to hack.”

“I can help you with that,” Rowena said slyly. “For a price.”

Who’s that?” Jody asked.

“That’d be Rowena: local witch,” Donna said.

Jody snorted. “You weren’t kidding about going off the grid.

“I really wasn’t.”

“What price,” Castiel asked, finally feeling brave enough to lift his head. He saw through the windows and recognised that they were well-clear of the Ingen Steder Landsby region; the fields were short, the roads were lined with different sorts of fences, and there were no more hills.

“Och, I don’t knoww,” Rowena said lightly, in a way that seemed to imply she knew perfectly well. “Maybe just a few duck feathers. Those pretty purple ones.”

“Hey,” Charlie said sharply. “Don’t start asking Cas to pluck his children just so I can get a signal-booster spell. Keep in mind that if we can’t get tickets, Rowena, you’ve gone and missed your magic harvesting morning for nothing, and we’ll be standing outside an arena doing nothing for hours.”

“Aye,” Rowena said softly. “Ye have a fair point there.”

Charlie raised her eyebrows.

Rowena sighed, smiling her lipsticked smile. “Well, all right, then. But only because I’m so fond of talented redheaded lasses,” she added, winking at Charlie.

She began to chant again, this time loudly, with her eyes shut and a grin on her face. Castiel looked away, far too unnerved by the show.

“Wha’ss the shiny lady doing,” Eddie asked, tugging on Charlie’s sleeve.

“Well, I’m not exactly sure,” Charlie said, looking back over her shoulder. “But she is very shiny, isn’t she.”

“Easy,” Billie grinned. “At least sign off with me before you go flirting with other women.”

Charlie smirked, looking back to her screen. “Wait— Great Scott!” She grabbed the laptop with both hands, raising it. Castiel saw the website had loaded, sharing the same dark colours and red lettering as the advertisement poster. A high-definition video clip played in the background, with little motorbikes shooting across from one side of the screen to the other. “Wow, Rowena gets shit done!” Charlie lowered the laptop to her thighs and began clicking and typing. “Okayyy... Tickets are sold out, Jody was right. Gimme five minutes. Talk amongst yourselves but nobody talk to me.”

The sound of typing became intense.

Am I... currently becoming a witness to crime?” Jody asked.

“Maybe it’s better not to think about it,” Donna said.

Rowena’s chant faded out with one long hum, and then she sighed. Eddie peeked up over the front seat, his glasses making his bug-eyes look even more curious. Rowena shot the kid a wink, and Castiel smiled, seeing Eddie duck down to hide.

For a few minutes, the car was all but silent. Jody stayed on the line, for whatever reason, and Charlie kept typing, and Billie kept driving. The ducks no longer quacked, having been lulled by the drive and Rowena’s voice, and now they’d settled down to sleep, safe under Rowena’s hands, big enough as a trio to take up space on her whole lap.

Castiel took the opportunity to look around.

He recognised this road. He’d ridden his bike along it many times, so many years ago. The trees had all been shorter, and thinner; the fields had been different colours, or planted with different crops. The cars had generally looked squarer back then, and the lines on the road had been more faded; they had apparently been repainted recently.

It felt good to be here. Breathing. Secure and protected, flanked on every side by friends.

He was calm now, and he was convinced everyone around him had a lot to do with that.

“Thank you,” he said solemnly. “All of you. I couldn’t have done – any of this – without you.”

Donna took Castiel’s hand and squeezed it. “Neither could I.” She stroked the side of Charlie’s phone with a thumb. She wet her lips, then she said, gently, “Jody?”

Ye-hah?

“I didn’t call just for the tickets.”

I know.

“I called – because—”

Jody exhaled, waiting.

“Because I think we owe each other an apology,” Donna said. “For something. I don’t frickin’ remember what, though, so don’t ask me.”

Jody snorted, seeming tense for a number of seconds. But then she huffed a laugh, and said carelessly, “I barely remember myself. I just know you left and it—

“Broke your heart,” Donna finished. “I know. I know, I know, I never meant to—”

You did what you needed to do,” Jody said softly. “I never stopped loving you, though. I never have.

“Will you, though? Someday?” Donna’s voice became taut, breathy, rising to the roof of the Impala.

Will you?” Jody asked in response.

Donna smiled down at her lap, as a single tear ran, shining, down her cheek. “Never.”

Same here.

Donna burst out with a giggle, covering her face with a hand. She tried to speak but couldn’t, and tried to apologise but sobbed, and tried to pass the phone to Castiel but dropped it. Castiel retrieved it, holding it for Donna as she dried her tears.

I can meet you there,” Jody said. “Hale Arena, Kansas? I’m looking up a map – it’s a six-hour drive from South Dakota, nearly. It’s still early; I can make it before the show.

“Would you?” Donna said gratefully. “God, I’d love to see you.”

“Jinkies!” Charlie shouted, hands punching the air. “Guess what, everybody? Guess who reserved us the entire V.I.P. front row?”

“You?” Castiel smiled.

“Nope!”

“No?” Castiel frowned.

Charlie looked back at him, rosy-cheeked and eyes gleaming. “They’re all booked under the initials ‘D.W’.”

“Dean,” Castiel breathed.

“Dean,” Charlie confirmed. She put her palm against her laptop lid and slapped it closed. “Maybe he was holding out for an audience all along. He oughta have someone cheering for him, right? Massive race like that.”

“Race?” Castiel shook his head. “He’s not racing. He gets paid just for showing up.”

Charlie tutted. “Website says he’s racing. Also mentions a fifty-grand cash prize for the winner, too. Wonder what he’s planning on doing with that money.”

“Fifty thousand—?” Castiel’s breath came short again, for wholly different reasons than before. “That’s almost as much as I— No— No, no, he— Oh, God.”

Realising Castiel hadn’t been informed of any of this, Charlie reached to touch his shoulder. “Hey... Why didn’t Dean tell you, Cas? About the show, about the race, about leaving? Any of it?”

Castiel laughed, head down. “He didn’t want me to worry. And – his intentions paid off, I suppose. He’s spared me weeks of anxiety and guilt. But now—?!” He wrapped his arms over the back of Charlie’s seat and yelled into his coat sleeves.

Rowena sighed. “One soothing spell, coming right up. I suppose you’ll just have to owe me.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Being back in the arena felt equally familiar and abstract. Dean had been welcomed at the door by security, and directed through long, blank, concrete-floored hallways. The smell of fairground food had begun to permeate the air, fry cooks in their alcoves preparing to feed five thousand hungry people.

Dean recognised this place, even though he’d never been to this exact location; this was a mirror for every arena, the set-up to every show. A draft came from a long way down the endlessly wide hall, and Dean followed the smell of engine fumes and dirt, duffel bag slung over one shoulder, each stride bowlegged and confident.

He pushed open a fire door by its horizontal bar, and strode into the sand. The triangular blocks of the bleachers shortened as he walked past between them – and, as he emerged out into the massive oval arena, he grinned.

The sky above was a black metal dome, fixed with gleaming spotlights. Dean’s horizon was made up of five thousand seats, arranged in a curve. Underfoot, the ground was hard-packed sand, patterned with boot tread and tire tracks.

This was it. This was his world for tonight. He was back home.

“BobbEY!” Dean called, raising an arm and jerking it in greeting. Across the dirt came Bobby Singer, his grey beard ruffling as he began to smile. He wore the exact same blue baseball cap he’d worn last time Dean saw him.

They collided in an embrace, not half a minute later; Dean grasped the back of Bobby’s head, sighing. “Heya, old man.”

“Who you callin’ old,” Bobby grouched, taking Dean by the shoulders and leaning back, scouring Dean’s face with intent grey eyes. “You grew up,” he said, eyebrows disappearing below his cap. “The hell’d you do that for?”

Dean grinned and laughed and clapped Bobby on the back again, chest-to-chest. “How you been, huh?”

“Ah, same-old,” Bobby said, eyes gleaming with joy. He lifted his cap and set it down again. “Less fun without ya, I’ll tell ya that.”

“Where’s Rufus at?”

“Right over there.” Bobby nodded upward. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled, catching his partner’s attention.

Rufus – the tall, dark, lanky figure holding a clipboard and talking to a gang of bikers – looked up, and lifted a hand. He made his way over immediately, leaving the bikers to raise their arms at their sides in confusion.

But then the bikers saw who had arrived, and they began to holler, pushing each other and pointing – then they collectively stampeded right past Rufus, heading towards Dean.

“Oh, boy,” Dean said under his breath.

“They missed you a helluva lot, boy,” Bobby said. “Brace yourself.”

Dean took off his duffel bag and handed it to Bobby for safekeeping.

He took a deep breath, relaxed his shoulders, and opened his arms.

Benny hit him first; Dean was swept into the air and spun around over his friend’s shoulder. Kevin yelled, grabbing Dean around the head as they spun. Tamara tackled Dean around his middle, squeezing the breath out of him, while Christian and Victor and the camera guys Harry and Ed simply surrounded the mob and shoved whoever was in shoving distance. The yodelling and the yelling echoed across the whole arena, and Dean was dizzy and his ears were ringing by the time they tossed him back to his feet.

He grinned and hugged them each in turn, then again, two or three at a time.

“I thought we’d never see you again, brother,” Benny said, holding Dean’s jaw between his fingers and thumb. “Mighty glad you came back, man.”

“It’s just this one show,” Dean explained, pressing a kiss to Kevin Tran’s forehead, accepting a cheek kiss from Tamara, who had cut her dreadlocks back to a short afro in their time apart. “God, you all look so good. Who let Kevin grow stubble? Kevin, who let you grow stubble?”

“What, you don’t like it?” Kevin grinned, bristling his cheeks with his fingers. “Looks good on Night Rider. Thought maybe Kevin Solo could do with some of that big dick energy.”

Dean snorted and gave the kid a friendly arm-punch. “Looks awesome, Kev.”

Rufus had finally made it over, and he stood beside Bobby, eyebrows up, looking stern and expectant. There was more grey in his hair than Dean remembered. Dean approached him, offering a handshake. “Good to see you, Rufus.”

Rufus stared at Dean, ignoring his hand. “Just this one show, huh,” he intoned, coolly.

Dean dropped his hand, shrugging. “I, uh.” He lowered his eyes, then looked back at his friends. He smiled. “Hate to break it to y’all, but I kinda got myself an actual life outside of this crap.”

“Then why’d you come back?” Tamara demanded, folding her arms, showing off the crossbones on her leather lapel, subtitled with her performance name, Deadwøman.

Dean swallowed. “Just want a cut of that prize money,” he said, perfectly honest, but keeping his tone light. “I mean, don’t we all? Got bills to pay. I didn’t let Bobby induct me into the world of performance stunts just ‘cause I look hot as shit doing it. I’m here to mak-ah de moolah.”

He turned back to Rufus as the others began discussing what they’d do with the fifty-thousand dollars if they won. Taking a breath, Dean offered a handshake again.

Rufus grinned, shook his head, and grabbed Dean by the shoulder and wrenched him in for a brutal hug. “Welcome back, kid.”

Dean fell back, taking his bag from Bobby again, uttering a word of thanks. He smiled, feeling light in the heart, glad to fall comfortably into place with this crowd.

“Alright, enough of the fuzzy-wuzzies, everyone get back to work,” Bobby barked. “Got a show to finish setting up and four hours to do it in, so get goin’! Safety first! I want engine checks and the course mapped out in neon!” He clapped twice, and the group partially disbanded: Victor and Christian and the camera crew were the first to leave.

But Dean’s closest friends remained, clinging to Dean’s sleeves and chattering amongst themselves.

Dean wandered away slightly, drawn to the line of parked bikes, wheels jammed in the dirt. He touched the handlebars as he strode along the row. The setup crew drove past on a golf cart, shaking cans of pink spray-paint as they went.

Victor’s dirt bike sat alongside Christian’s, beside Tamara’s, beside Kevin’s. Dean touched one he didn’t recognise, but then saw Benny’s VamPirate flag upholstering the seat.

“Got myself a new one,” Benny uttered, placing his hand on Dean’s back. “Jumped ten trucks a while back, landed front-wheel first.” Dean cringed, but Benny smiled wryly. “Just a couple broken fingers, no big deal. Jumped again the next week.”

“Where’s your bike?” Kevin asked Dean, approaching with Tamara’s arm hung over his low shoulders. “How’d you get here?”

“Brought my Indian Chief,” Dean shrugged. “She’s parked out front. But—” His eyes darted along the row of parked bikes, and his stomach flipped when he saw his racing bike. “Theeeere she is.” He went to touch his old friend, the red Harley-Davidson with bat wings erected on the sides. “Hey, girl.”

Kevin snorted. “You’re still riding that thing? She’s nearly as old as you are.”

“Hey, we get along fine,” Dean complained. “Besides, if she’s good enough for Evel Knievel, then she’s good enough for me.”

Funny, though – this bike looked like a remnant of times past. The old Dean loved her, but the new Dean thought... she needed a little something. Something new. Something fresh.

Something... pink.

He caught sight of the golf cart on its way back. Rufus halted them, showing the crew his clipboard and explaining how to correct the rudimentary racetrack markings. Dean’s eyes landed on a well-shaken can of spray-paint one crewmember held.

He marched past his friends and tapped the crew guy on the shoulder. The boy yelped, immediately blushing, unable to handle being smiled at by Night Rider. “Hey, man,” Dean said kindly, “do you mind if I borrow—?”

He plucked the spray-paint can out of the kid’s unresisting hand. “Thanks.”

Making his way back, Dean shook the spray can, making the ball rattle inside. He cocked his head to Kevin and Tamara, asking them to stand back. They murmured to Benny, who looked offended; Dean bent close and sprayed straight across his Harley with no care as to what the end result might be.

He painted everything except the wheels, the seat, the silver bits, and the bat wings flared out on either side of the bike. His finger began to ache, his throat began to sting from the fumes, and he coughed a few times, but finally – he stepped back, smiling in satisfaction.

Luminous pink paint dripped down onto the sand.

“Hm!” Dean said, tossing the empty can to the kid in the golf cart, who caught it, gaping.

Then Dean noticed Rufus staring. And Bobby. He glanced over at Benny and Kevin and Tamara, and saw they looked horrified.

“What,” he said. “What’s wrong with all of you?”

“It...” Benny gulped. “It’s pink.”

Dean smiled. “Yeah. Fuckin’ love pink.” He put his hands on his hips and beamed at his artwork. “God, I should’ve done that years ago. I mean, I wanted to! Never did.”

He could feel the others staring at the back of his head, and at the pink bike – but he knew them, and he loved them, and whatever apprehension or confusion they felt at first... it was gone before he turned around again. Now they smiled, and shook their heads fondly, and Kevin went off, already asking the setup crew if they had any electric blue paint going spare.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Billie parked outside the arena.

Well. She drove for ten minutes around the parking lot, trying to find a space. She honked at pedestrians and growled at reversing cars, then butted her way into a half-vacated spot before the car behind could snatch it.

And then she parked. She sighed in satisfaction. “Not a scratch on her,” she said proudly.

“Alright, everyone out,” Charlie commanded, while Donna helped Eddie clean his glasses with the corner of her bomber jacket. “Cas, you too.”

Castiel nodded, letting go of a long breath.

“How’re you feeling?” Charlie asked him.

Castiel nodded. “Fine. I’ve come this far. And I’m still breathing.”

“If you need anything, ask us, okay?” Charlie took his hand over the car seat, giving it a shake. “We’ll be right by your side the whole time.”

Castiel nodded once more, and shuffled along the tan leather seat, following Rowena out. The evening light caught her hair and set it aflame, making her bold eye makeup look even more striking. She was holding all three ducks under her arms like they were footballs.

“Everyone take a duck,” Billie said, locking the car. “I don’t trust the witch.”

“Whyever not?” Rowena retorted, while allowing Charlie and Cas to pry Boots and Middle away. “I’ve only ever helped you.”

“You look like you’re capable of less kindly things,” Billie said. “And besides, I prefer muggles.”

“Oh, I see, you’d rather get by without magical aid, is that it?”

Billie quirked up her well-groomed brows. “That’s about the long and short of it.”

Rowena harrumphed in surprise. Even so, she began muttering under her breath. She huffed at the end, moving a hand like she was throwing something.

“Excuse you?” Donna asked her.

“Protection spell for the ducklings,” Rowena explained, picking up the hem of her spangled dress and following Billie across the parking lot, towards the arena. “A glamour. I really want those feathers someday, and they’re no use if the wee duckies are squashed under someone’s galumphing great feet, now, are they?”

Castiel snuffled a laugh, eyes meeting Charlie’s as they grouped together, all swapping ducks to keep them from wriggling.

“Her heart’s in the right place,” Castiel assured Donna out of the corner of his mouth. “She’s really very fond of these three.”

He spoke smoothly. But inside his heart was pounding for different reasons. The stadium loomed ahead, and crowds milled at the entrances. With every step, Castiel moved closer to that crowd, and that foreign experience.

Burning engines, smoke, fried food – the smells mingled and grew thicker. Enticing and exciting, yes, but terrifying at the same time.

“Deep breaths, angel,” Rowena said, eyes on Castiel. “Deep breaths.”

Following the others’ lead for the next five, ten minutes, Castiel allowed himself to be swallowed up by the mass of warm, moving bodies, focusing on the ducks’ safety rather than his own experience. But as they reached the ticket booths and were informed that their V.I.P. tickets had already been claimed, Castiel began to fret again, eyes darting around, looking for an exit – from this building and from this situation.

Music thumped in the background, over the endless chatter of people and the distant revving of engines and the purr of a commentator. The show was only minutes from starting, he realised. They’d made it in time – but what was the point if they couldn’t get in? They didn’t have tickets!

At that moment, a grey-haired, determined-looking individual pushed through the crowd, her eyes set fiercely on Donna.

Donna handed Middle to Castiel and shrieked, arms up in the air. “Jodyyyyy!”

Jody laughed, her eyes wrinkling as she wrapped her strong arms around Donna’s soft middle, all the way to her back. They embraced tightly, swaying in place, faces buried in each other’s shoulders.

“I never thought—” Donna sobbed, the fresh mascara she’d borrowed from Charlie running onto her cheeks. “Jeez, woman, you— Oh my gosh.” She hugged her friend again, shaking her head.

Jody lifted away first, smiling. She placed both thumbs under Donna’s eyes and cleaned up the blackened tears. “Great to see you, too.”

“You didn’t happen to pick up our tickets, did you?”

“V.I.P., registered under the initials ‘D.W.’? Sure did,” Jody smiled. She dug into her pocket and pulled out a wad of perforated tickets, each one flashing with gold foil. “We can go right in.”

Castiel reached for his ticket. He took the first one Donna handed out, eyes watering in relief as he looked at it. Then his heart flipped in his chest.

It had his name on it.

“Charlie, he—” Castiel breathed, too choked up to speak. “Dean put—” He showed Charlie his ticket. “He knew I’d come.”

Charlie grinned. “Talk about a leap of faith, huh?”

Castiel only shook his head in awe, looking down at the quacking duck under his arm. Middle looked up at him, curious, then pecked the shiny ticket. “No, that’s not for eating,” Castiel told Middle. “Come on, let’s find where to go.”

“Y’all want some donuts?” Jody asked, placing a hand on Castiel’s shoulder before he turned away. “You look like you could use an energy boost.”

Castiel smiled, and gratefully accepted. “Chocolate, please.”

“I’m coming with,” Donna said, taking Jody by the arm like she had no intention of letting go. “Donuts are my jam. Hey – jam donuts! Ha-hah!”

Donna and Jody left, squeezing past a gaggle of heavily tattooed middle-aged women dressed in long black cloaks, who were being patted down by security guards.

“Ach,” Rowena spat, clinging to Boots and her ticket. “Blast!”

“Wow, it’s really crowded in here,” Charlie realised. “Getting more crowded by the minute.”

Billie had noticed; she bent to lift Eddie up so he wouldn’t get lost in the forest of legs. He wiped his dribbling nose on his sleeves, looking around at all the faces.

“Here.” Rowena handed Boots to Castiel without fanfare. “Perhaps I’ll see you later, who knows.” She stepped back, looking spooked.

“Wait—” Charlie darted after her. “Rowena, where are you going?”

Rowena looked back, huffing. “My old coven is here,” she murmured, her voice quiet and strained. “Those hags. I went to Ingen Steder Landsby to hide, and then I come out here for one day and here they are again! Curses!” She backed away, shaking her wavy red mane. “I am not in any mood to come face-to-face with those witches ever again. I wish you good luck, but— Goodbye.”

And with that, she vanished between shoulders and hairdos, leaving not so much as a wisp of perfume behind.

“And then there were four,” Charlie frowned.

“Seven,” Castiel corrected. “Ducks count.”

Billie tutted. “Enough of this,” she said, shifting Eddie higher on her hip. “Let’s get snacks and then find our seats.”

“Can we get the ice-creams?” Eddie said, wiping snot onto his glasses lenses.

“We should get merch,” Charlie said, eyeing a stall selling black t-shirts. She nudged Castiel in the side. “For memory’s sake. The time Cas left home and survived.”

“I don’t mind, but hurry up,” Castiel said, looking around. “I think the show’s nearly about to start.”

The crowd filtered through the big doors, tickets checked as they went. Although the concrete concourse emptied, Castiel imagined it would be harder to find their seats once the auditorium filled up.

Castiel followed Charlie to the t-shirt stand, but as his heart thumped, his eyes kept moving to the half-cleared hallway. He saw an arrow for the V.I.P. section, and he let out a relieved breath. Leaving Charlie to get her shirts, he pried the duck from under her arm and left with all three.

Now it was just him and his ducks.

“What is there to be afraid of?” he asked the ducks, hearing assuring quacks in response. They didn’t mind being carried, and they seemed as curious about the events unfolding as any child might be.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Castiel answered himself, nodding. He turned where the sign told him to turn, and he followed that corridor, hearing less and less as he left the crowds behind. “Everyone else went to Ingen Steder to hide,” he said quietly, trotting up a staircase with a white double-door at the top. “They went to Ingen Steder to run away. My mother included. But—”

He stopped talking, showing the security guard his ticket. The guard saw the gold flash and nodded, but stared at the ducks in confusion. Castiel waited for a complaint, or a stern word about how ducks were not allowed inside – but the guard blinked, smiled, and opened up the door. It was almost like they hadn’t seen the ducks at all.

Rowena’s glamour was clearly working, Castiel realised in relief.

Confident now, Castiel strode through the doors and up a few more stairs, onto the raised viewing platform. This place hung above the darkened arena, with maybe thirty seats laid out on the right, in three layers. A tall, long-haired man and a child were already seated, waving black triangle flags emblazoned with Night Rider’s flaming white pentagram.

Echoing around the arena came the commentator’s voice, “—And if y’all could take your seats, we’ll dim the lights and let the show begin, because we are ready to rumb-AAAaalll...

“But,” Castiel said quietly, as the crowds screamed and flares set off from all four corners of the arena, neon lights searing bright around the oval pitch, illuminating a blood-red figure-of-eight and an erected blue ramp in the very centre.

A cry of “AAARE YOU readddddAAAYYY?” came thrumming underfoot. The crowd bellowed a response, stomping feet shaking the ground.

“But the only thing I’ve been running from is right here,” Castiel said, shutting his eyes. “This is my worst fear. This is my nightmare come to life. I’m away from home for the first time since my mother died, my ducks are with me and I’m unprepared, Dean’s about to do something life-threatening and he didn’t tell me. But I’m here. My friends are here. And my friends... they left safety too. Didn’t they? They left home. If they can do it, I can do it, too. I trust Rowena’s spell protected you,” he added, looking at his ducks.

—And so, without further ado, we at Double Dare present to you – back out of retirement for – One! Last! SHOW—!

“And I have faith in Dean.” Castiel walked towards the bleachers, heart in his throat. Neon and fire lit up in his eyes, as he breathed, “And I have faith in myself.”

He sat in front of the other viewer and their child, and the front row seats were low enough down that Castiel wasn’t worried about blocking the view. He bent to let his ducks go free, and they pattered onto the concrete, quacking, shaking their tails, flapping their wings. The child behind Castiel cried out in delight, running around the seats, crouching down to say hello.

The crowd’s roar reached a crescendo; the commentator had revved them like an engine and they were on fire

“NIGHT! RIDERRRRRRRRRR!”

The lights came on. Spotlights from every direction. Neon. Erupting flames.

There he was: Dean Winchester. A pink road bike perched upon its back wheel at the apex of a fifty-foot ramp; Dean held the bike between his thighs like it was a bucking horse, but he didn’t move, he didn’t wobble. His grinning face was projected onto a screen on the opposite side of the arena. Sweat gleamed on his upper lip, black makeup smudged around his eyes. Castiel had only ever seen that devilish hunger in his eyes in the moments before sexual climax – and there it was again.

Dean pulled down the visor on his helmet. He was ready to burn.

The sound of Dean’s engine was somehow exaggerated; Dean revved twice, three times, amping the audience up further. Before him, the ramp caught fire, blazing up in purple and blue, then fading to yellow, lashing up in flares of heat.

“Dean,” Castiel whispered, terror taking over him.

“YeeAAAH! Go Dean!” yelled the man behind Castiel. Castiel turned to look, and saw the man slamming his hands together in aggressive applause, delight and pride in his eyes. The man noticed Castiel looking, and he pointed to the arena, grinning, “That’s my brother!”

Castiel gasped and stood up, facing Sam Winchester. “Dean didn’t tell me he was coming— He left this morning with just a note, I never would’ve let him come if I’d known what kind of show— Sam! I’m so scared— I’m so scared—” His voice broke and he shook his head helplessly, accepting the strong arm that came banded around his shoulders. Sam had rushed down to be beside him.

“It’s okay. Hey. It’s ‘Cas’, right?” Sam breathed out, grinning. “It’s all fine. Dean’s a professional. This is his job. All right? Bobby would never let him do these things if they hadn’t practised a thousand times already with safety nets and three inches of body padding. LOOK!”

Sam pointed, and Castiel looked – flinching as Dean let the front wheel drop and his bike shot down the ramp – then lifted into the air, suspended for what immediately seemed like forever, turning upward, wheels launched over Dean’s head... rotating...

Up and over, elegant and smooth...

Wheels parallel to the ground again...

Breathless— Silent—

The bike came down on the other side of the arena, back wheel first; Dean bounced twice, then swivelled easily around the arena’s bend, one fist rising in the air in victory as the cacophony of manic cheers turned the dark arena into a howling jungle. Sam’s arms were over his head, his shouts of exhilaration raucous enough to deafen Castiel for a good number of seconds.

Castiel collapsed to his seat, shaking. Thrilled.

That had been thrilling to watch.

But it wasn’t over yet. Music with a heavy bassline pumped through the loudspeakers, and the audience sang along, deeply and incoherently, although Castiel had never heard this song before.

Down in the dust, Dean kicked the back of his bike into a dance, painting zig-zag waves through the sand. The motorcycle’s back end shimmied like a trout’s tail, flicked one way, then the other. Dean lifted onto the front wheel, facing the ground as he rode forward, then shot his weight backwards to rise up on the back wheel, and he turned, the entire bike spinning like a ballerina. He cut spirals into the dirt, his every move flashed by cameras and disco lights in every colour, leaving the audience swooning.

“Wow,” Castiel whispered.

“Right?!” Sam agreed, shaking his head. “Never seen that one before.”

Castiel looked up, suddenly surrounded by friends as Charlie and Billie and Eddie and Rowena and Donna and Jody all swarmed to his sides, leaning on the see-through barrier ahead, taking seats, handing out donuts and tossing t-shirts.

“Did you see—?” Castiel asked, only to hear positive replies.

“It was amazing,” Charlie breathed, shaking her head. “Full flip!”

“It was up on the big screen in the hallway,” Billie explained, as Eddie rushed to play with Sam’s kid and the ducks. “Slow motion replay. We probably got a better view than you did.”

“Oh, hello,” Rowena crooned, noticing Sam as he took a donut. “And who are you?”

“Uhhh. Sam Winchester. I’m—”

“Eeeee!” Donna clamped Sam in a tight hug. “I knew it! I knew it! You’re Dean’s baby brother.”

“Not much of a baby any more, I see,” Rowena said slyly, curling a hand around Sam’s bicep. “Ach! What a man!”

Sam blushed. “Uhh. Thanks?”

“Rowena, leave him alone and watch the show,” Charlie grinned. “You’re missing the good part.”

“Jealous, my dear?” Rowena teased, fluttering her lashes at Charlie. Billie harrumphed.

The heavy beat of the music faded to an electronic whizzing, and with the fade came darkness.

The audience went silent, expectant.

Castiel stuffed a donut into his mouth, in want of something familiar. He could barely taste it, so overwhelmed by nerves and the stink of his own exhilaration. Yet he ate another, without a breath after the last, hearing the commentator purr about the race about to start.

The neon in the arena began to flicker. Red turned yellow. Yellow turned green. The figure-eight became obvious: there were two big curves either side of the oval, and they crossed in the centre, making up a thick road, bordered by that smooth strip of green light. The ramp was gone. Noise played over the speakers: lifting, loudening, zipping higher and tighter as if the bass was about to drop...

One by one, individual lights came on inside the green road. Lined up, staggered side-by-side, cutting diagonally across the track.

The big screen’s camera panned across the row. Each of the neon lights were revealed to be motorcycles.

A blue one, with an Asian boy atop the bike, eyes shining with determination.

A purple one, with a black woman in the seat, blowing a kiss to someone unseen.

A red one, mounted by a fanged pirate with a short beard, a sense of darkness in his grin.

A yellow one: a flaming crucifix adorned the bike, ridden by a pale man with yellow hair, crossing his chest and offering a kiss to the Heavens.

And then: pink. Night Rider. Dean wasn’t looking at the camera, and he wasn’t properly on his bike. His back was half-turned, and he seemed to be searching for something in the crowd.

It was only when Castiel looked away from the screen and to the real-life Dean, small and pink and glowing on the racetrack, that Castiel realised Dean was looking at him and Sam.

Castiel raised his hand.

Dean raised his hand back. His smile was weak and never became a grin, but Castiel saw the gladness in him. No surprise at all. Just gratitude and relief.

Dean had more faith in Castiel than anyone he had ever known, or could imagine.

Now Dean settled onto his bike. The racers revved their engines, heads down, grinning and praying and latching their helmets in place.

Dean covered his head with the black bulb he always wore back in Ingen Steder. The glossy sphere reflected the rainbow of the other racers, and as Dean pulled down the face shield, he disappeared behind the mask.

This was no longer Dean Winchester. This was Night Rider. Nowhere Boy. The boy who didn’t care if he lived or died, so long as he drove the audience wild.

Breathless, Castiel turned to his friends for desperate reassurance, and found his left hand immediately taken by Sam, his other by Charlie, his arm by Billie, his back warmed by Donna, and his shoulder by Jody. Rowena muttered a spell or a prayer while Eddie and Jack pressed their noses to the plastic screen, eager for the race to start. The ducks sat, watching too, captivated by the lights. Boots pecked at the divider just to see if she could eat the pretty colours.

And then came the countdown.

Riders! On your marks...” the voice boomed through the space, serious and gleeful at once. “Get set...

Castiel breathed out, preparing, and knew Dean did the same behind his helmet.

The safety-green neon around the track flickered back to danger-yellow.

Then it glowed a steady, furious red. It became thicker, and bolder, and more important.

GOOOOOO!

In a single blink of the eye, the riders’ motorcycles sped out in a roar, crossing a quarter of the arena, sand spitting up behind their wheels. The big screen flashed up with fast-changing camera angles, the right side of the projection taken up by a colour-coded lap counter for each rider.

K3v1n Solo | 0 of 50
Deadwøman | 0 of 50
VamPirate | 0 of 50
Messiah Flames | 0 of 50
Night Rider | 0 of 50

In thirty seconds, the order had changed, the lap counter had gone up by one each – and Castiel realised just how worried he ought to be.

The racetrack was a figure-of-eight.

It crossed in the middle.

To complete a lap, the riders had to cut through the path of the others. A split-second of mistiming and both could be killed in an instant, in an explosion of flames and spinning wheels.

And that was the point. It was death-defying. This was a performance for people who wanted to prove they were immortal. Strong. Fearless and brave, willing to kill and die just to prove they could win. This arena was full of fire and death and shouting, it smelled like metal and beer and sweat, and it had none of the comforts of home.

In that moment, Castiel realised why Dean had come back here.

It wasn’t for the prize money. It wasn’t just to save Cas from his mortgage, and thus from his family.

Dean wanted to prove he wasn’t impotent any more. He’d returned to reclaim his abdicated crown.

What was a wilted flower to a wildfire, anyway?

Nothing. He’d been nothing.

Dean was all things; kind and generous and feminine and brave; wounded and recovering and full of love and fury because of everything he’d been through and survived. But through all the softness there was still a drive to risk everything, to seek danger. To seek closure in a part of his life that he wasn’t done with when he left.

Dean felt he had lost something of himself, and he was here to get it back.

And so, in that moment... Castiel understood.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

They didn’t slow down. They didn’t slow down. The riders approached the X in the centre of the track and they seemed to cross it without looking both ways first.

At first, they’d eased up; they’d changed gear; they’d glanced quickly to see if another rider was coming. They’d hit the brakes or swerve to maneuver around oncomers.

But basic safety had gone out of the window around lap thirty. None of them cared any more – at least it seemed that way to Castiel. The prize was too great. The urge to win was too strong. The riders approached the crossing and they just kept going.

Night Rider | 37 of 50
K3v1n Solo | 37 of 50
Messiah Flames | 36 of 50
Deadwøman | 36 of 50
VamPirate | 35 of 50

For most of the race, Kevin Solo and Night Rider had been neck-and-neck, riding parallel. They overtook and they fell back. They blocked each other at turnings, and were forced to wait until they were on the straight part before overtaking.

But the straight part was the crossing. To get ahead they had to shoot past, dodging their opponent’s zig-zagging motorcycle as well as the bullets that were other racers, crossing their path.

Castiel’s stomach was full of donuts but he took another one, not even noticing the jam drip onto his lap until he licked his lips and felt jam there. He glanced down, but glanced back up, too terrified to let Dean out of his sight.

Charlie’s vice-like grip on Castiel’s arm was meant to be comforting, but he could tell they both felt equally tense. Charlie’s breath caught every time Dean passed the X, and she exhaled when he turned.

Coming up on the left: Deadwøman, passing within inches of Messiah Flames. He looks over – realising he’s been forced out of third place. Can he take back his spot—? Approaching the track’s centre we see Night Rider — OOH!

The crowd saw two bikes collide as the commentator did, and the cringe ran through the arena in a truly visceral way. Castiel stood up, as everyone stood up, desperate to see the damage.

Castiel scoured the track for pink neon, and breathed out as he saw Dean slowing to a halt at the leftmost turning. Kevin came up behind him, taking off his helmet. On the big screen, Castiel saw Kevin’s wide, fearful eyes searching the arena, then his mouth move as he shouted to Dean. The camera swung to Dean, and Dean shook his head. “I’m fine,” he mouthed back.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re pausing the race for a few moments as we get the medical crew in to check everyone’s okay. As we see it now – Messiah Flames’ front wheel appears to have collided with Deadwøman’s back wheel. Both spun off the track— I see Harry’s trying to get another camera on that. Okay...

Castiel saw blurs on the big screen, cameras refocusing. Medics poured onto the scene in green clothes and reflective stripes, while a crewmember dragged away the crumpled bike.

Well, that one’s a write-off,” the commentator joked, to lukewarm laughter from the audience. Camera flashes and whispers filled every space under the black roof.

Finally, the medic blocking the view moved, and the camera spied Deadwøman sitting up, nodding, wiping her bloodied chin with the back of her hand. Another person – perhaps her partner – dropped to her side, kissing her forehead. The attending medic politely put a hand up, and Deadwøman’s partner backed away. The medic shone a light in Deadwøman’s eyes, then sat back in satisfaction. Deadwøman smiled and stood up, and the camera panned back to watch her embrace her partner, clinging to his shoulders in relief.

The crowd cheered, applauding, and Castiel applauded too, nodding gladly.

The camera shifted to the other rider – and Castiel’s heart dropped. The man was on a stretcher, his helmet carefully being removed by a medic.

Ed— Ed, is he okay?” the commentator asked, worry in his tone. Then came a quick sigh. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very glad to inform you that Messiah Flames only has a mild concussion. Give us a wave, Christian— Ahh, there we go.

The audience applauded again: the man in the stretcher waggled a hand as they carried him off, looking annoyed.

Well, he’s out of the race now, which leaves us with only four riders. In the lead we have Night Rider, with only seven laps to go until the end. Kevin Solo sits in a close second place, only a fraction behind. I’ve just got word that Deadwøman is choosing not to continue the race—

The audience gave a collective groan of disappointment, but the sound was half-covered by applause for a good show – and Castiel clapped too, relieved that she chose her safety as a priority. He only wished Dean could do the same, as Castiel had seen what happened. If Dean had crossed the track’s centre a single breath later, the devastation would have included him, and there was no telling how much worse a three-bike crash would have been.

And so that leaves us with the rider in third and last place: VamPirate. Arr, matey.

The audience laughed, and Castiel sank down to sit. The ducks in front of him quacked gently, allowing Jack and Eddie to pet them. The kids were soon distracted, as music played on the speakers, winding up again.

The three riders still in the race took their places on their vehicles, and restarted their engines, protective helmets back on. They began a full lap, speeding up as they went, making sure not to overtake. A second speeding circuit created a sort of purgatory between the first part of the race and the final few laps. They were almost at full speed now. The lap counter on the big screen remained stationary.

Now: our riders complete their final warm-up lap – and they’re OFF! Night Rider’s in the lead with Kevin Solo tailgating just a moment behind – VamPirate gaining on them both in a wild rush to catch up.

Night Rider shoots across the centre of the track, hitting the brakes to avoid VamPirate: nobody’s in any mood to crash tonight, not after what we’ve just seen.

Night Rider and Kevin Solo take the turn, heading back to centre. VamPirate is out of harm’s way, closing the distance between the riders with every passing second.

Castiel sat forward in his seat, eager and fearful, heartbeat tasting bloody in his throat. He heard mutterings beside him, and murmurs seeping through the arena, but he paid it no mind at first...

But then Dean’s motorcycle began to splutter. Puffs of black exhaust emerged from the rear, and Dean looked down to examine the handlebars – he was losing control. The bike wavered across the track, slowing as he crossed the centre. Kevin overtook easily, standing up on his bike as he turned his head back to look, unsure what was happening to Dean.

Night Rider appears to be having engine trouble,” the commentator said in concern. “He shakes his head, refusing to pull over. He forces the accelerator, determined to pick up the pace! He rushes forward in a burst of speed – he overtakes Kevin Solo and retakes his first-place position! But his vehicle is stalling... He falls back immediately— What’s going on?” The last past was spoken away from the microphone, as if the commentator turned to ask someone else.

“Bloody hags,” Rowena uttered. Castiel glanced at her, and saw her glaring across the arena, apparently focused on another part of the audience. “Cannae ever mind their own business, always going aroun’, interfering!”

“What’s up?” Charlie asked, looking at Rowena in concern.

“Them! My old coven,” Rowena gestured with her flowing, glittery sleeves. “They clearly placed a bet against Night Rider and now they’re forcing the hands of Fate in their attempts to win. Aye, now – that’s all fine and dandy, except I myself am rather a fan of Castiel and I cannae see him shrivel up into a sad wee coffeebean just because those witches wanted to watch someone explode.”

Castiel stared at Rowena in horror. Then he stared across the arena at Dean, who continued forcing his bike onward, despite its obvious protests. He saw the coven, too. Seated between the regular beer-drinking, baseball-hat-wearing audience members were six black-hooded figures, all holding hands, as if in prayer.

Only two laps remaining, folks – and Night Rider falls behind, into third place. VamPirate and Kevin Solo are battling for first place – who will take the trophy and the fifty-thousand dollars of cash awaiting the winner? After forty-eight laps with Night Rider in the lead, it appears to be anyone’s game now!

Rowena stood up, raised her arms, and bellowed, “BURN IN HELL, you insufferable HARRIDANS!”

Shock gripped the audience immediately; red flames burst into existence in the bleachers and a hundred people flinched away, some running from their seats and leaping into other people’s. Chaos took hold; the six witches were burning alive.

Dean’s engine was working fine now, but as soon as he sped up, he slowed down again.

Uh— Folks, we seem to have a small emergency—? If you could – please remain calm— Stop the race—

Rowena sat down, crossing over knee over the other, hands clasped on her lap. “Hm!” she said haughtily.

Everyone in the V.I.P. stands stared at her in awe.

Except Castiel.

Castiel saw the racers slow to a sluggish crawl, finally halting. Dean paused with his boots in the dirt, right up alongside this side of the arena. If Castiel could just get down there, he’d be able to speak to him.

Castiel rushed from his seat, taking hold of the plastic barrier. “Dean!” he bellowed. “DEAN!”

Dean had just removed his helmet. Even amidst the clamor and the clangor, he heard the call. He turned to look at Castiel. Castiel fled the V.I.P. section, finding a set of stairs. He bypassed other people’s bleachers, hearing people wonder aloud if they were supposed to stay and watch the firefighters extinguish the flames, or vacate the building. Many people had their phones out to take pictures.

Castiel reached the base of the steps, flashing a security guard his gilded ticket. He hopped over an advertising barrier with his weight on one hand, too fast for anyone to stop him. The guard called after him, but Dean gestured to the guard that it was all right – and Castiel fell into his embrace, arms around Dean’s leather-clad shoulders, breathing in the smell of burning oil from his skin and hair. One more barrier separated their waists, but Castiel did not jump this one.

“Dean—”

“Cas,” Dean grinned, eyes full of love and exhilaration. “You came.”

“You didn’t tell me,” Castiel scowled, gripping the collar of Dean’s leather jacket. “You left without telling me, you practised for a month without telling me, you gave me no warning, no anything, no—”

Dean kissed him on the lips, far too softly. The affection silenced Castiel, but did nothing to soothe him.

“Why are you doing this, Dean?” Castiel breathed, gazing intently into Dean’s apologetic eyes. “What can you possibly think will come of this?!”

“Fifty-thousand dollars, Cas,” Dean said easily, with the tiniest shake of his head. “I’m a lap behind now, but – I can catch up. And then you’re home free. We buy your house. Pay off your Mom’s debt. Put that shit to rest. We sell it, rent it, move out – whatever it takes to get your family off your back.” Dean took Castiel’s hand, a dirty fingerless glove between Dean’s palm and Castiel’s knuckles. “I’m gonna set you free.”

“All this for me?” Castiel said, eyes lowering.

“Ah— And for me,” Dean said. Their eyes met, and Dean gave a quiet smile. “I want a real place to live. I’m not a city boy, and I’m not a country boy; I’m a nowhere boy. I don’t want to be Nowhere Boy. Motels are my home, they’ve always been home. I want a place, Cas – and I want it to be your place too.”

When Castiel couldn’t find the words to speak, Dean kissed him again. “Hundreds of miles, Cas,” he said proudly. “You crossed state lines today. Just so you could come yell at me.”

“You bought me a ticket,” Castiel replied, eyebrows raised, a smile sneaking its way onto his face. “You knew I’d come?”

Dean rolled a shoulder. “IIII... I hoped,” he smirked. The smirk faded, and he nosed forward, asking, “How come you can go hundreds of miles for me but you can’t go seventeen miles for yourself?”

Castiel frowned, since the answer was obvious. “You’re more important.”

Dean looked at him blankly, daring him to reevaluate how nonsensical that answer sounded.

Castiel huffed. “You did the same thing,” he said in defense. “What did you do today, if not act under the assumption that my freedom is more important than your safety? I’m more important? Is that not precisely what you believe?”

Dean swallowed, glancing away.

The commentator rambled on, now expressing relief that the fire was out – and had been out for some time, it seemed. Dean and Castiel both looked up into the stands, and saw the six witches sitting back where they’d been before, shooing the fire attendants away – miraculously unharmed, but dripping wet. There was a ten-seat radius of empty space around them, and the crowd had gathered along the walkways and against the barriers, looking warily at where they’d come from.

“Dean,” Castiel said lowly, drawing his attention. When Dean tried to meet his eyes but didn’t quite make it past his nose, Castiel whispered, “Give up the race.”

“What?” Now Dean met his gaze, alarmed. “Are you kidding me? I’m so close to the finish line.”

“And I’m close to paying off the mortgage, too,” Castiel agreed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you to finish the race, alive and unharmed. I know you can. And I know you love racing. But you didn’t tell me about your return here because you knew it was the wrong thing to do. For you and for me. You could’ve died today and you know it. And had I not followed you here, against all odds, I could’ve been left alone for the rest of my life for no good reason.”

Dean tried to argue, but Castiel quieted him with a simple touch on his cheek, holding his jaw in his jam-sticky hand.

“What are you trying to prove, exactly?” Castiel asked. He tipped his head and looked deeply into Dean’s eyes, not searching for the answer, just hoping Dean would find his own. “Because it’s not about looking after me. If you were trying to look after me, you wouldn’t have come.”

Dean swallowed, hanging his head.

Castiel kissed his forehead. “Not every race has to be completed. Sometimes it’s about the journey.” He rested his cheek against Dean’s temple, whispering to him, “Be soft. Even in a hard world, Dean. Be soft.”

Dean inhaled, straightening up. “If I don’t win, you’ll lose the house. I get a pretty hefty paycheck just for bein’ here tonight, but even so, it’s not enough to pay your debts.”

Castiel inclined his head, assuring Dean, “Failure’s not always the end. Stopping before we’re done – wouldn’t that be the stronger choice? If you finish the race, and win, what do either of us learn? To fall back into old, self-destructive patterns just to get what we need? For me to rely on you to save me from easily-avoided problems? It’s easier, yes. We’re one lap away from victory. But— Imagine if we stopped. Imagine if, rather than continuing to do what we’ve always done, we do something new, together. We find some other way to move forward that doesn’t require self-sacrifice or keeping things from each other.”

God, Cas, I’m sorry—”

“It’s all right,” Castiel said with a smile. “For once in my life I’m glad I was lied to. But don’t you ever do it again.”

Dean smiled gratefully, eyes gleaming.

“I need you to understand,” Castiel said, “your safety is more important to me than my mother’s house. More important than anything. And I— I need to prove to myself that it’s true. Let me fail. Please. Let me lose. And let yourself lose. For once. Let everyone see how you’ve changed, and why. There’s no shame in being safe.”

—And so, with only a couple of laps to go, Kevin Solo and VamPirate ready themselves to get back in the race. We wait for Night Rider, who seems to be deep in conversation...

The camera on the big screen filled up with Dean and Castiel’s faces. Castiel turned his head, shy of the audience, but didn’t look away completely, as Dean still held tight to his hand.

“Dean,” Castiel said deeply, a wrinkle between his brows. “Everyone’s waiting.” He gulped. “Are you going to finish the race?”

When he looked up, Dean met his eyes, smiling.

Suddenly Dean hopped over the barrier between the track and the front of the audience pit, slinging his arm around Castiel’s shoulders, smiling at him. He looked out into the arena, knowing the cameras were watching; he sliced his hand past his throat, shaking his head. “I’m out!” he called to nobody in particular.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re down to two: VamPirate and Kevin Solo. They start their engines, beginning a warm-up lap. Before we return to the race, I must address Night Rider. All of us here at Double Dare truly hope you know what you’re giving up tonight. Fifty-thousand dollars on the line. Your last ever race, conceded on the final lap. Is this how the legacy ends?

Dean smiled, squeezing Castiel, adoration obvious in his eyes. “Psh,” he said to Castiel. “They don’t know what I gained.”

“What did you gain?” Castiel asked, curious.

Dean kissed Castiel, then hugged him tight. He pulled away, and exhaled with a smile, “Almost everything I’ll ever need. For as long as I live.”

“My trust is worth that much to you,” Castiel mused.

“More than your trust,” Dean said, patting Castiel’s neck. He swallowed, then nodded. “My own self-worth as well, I guess. Got nothin’ to prove, now,” he shrugged. “Night Rider’s disappearing into the sunset. Now I’m just... me. For real. Forever.” He smiled in relief. “I can lose but I’m not a loser. I’m Dean goddamn Winchester.”

Castiel watched Dean. Stared at him. Something immense passed between them in those few seconds. Spotlights and neon shone in the whites of Dean’s eyes, red and yellow, and pink from his bike, parked several feet from the racetrack. But after a moment, the only colour Castiel paid attention to was the green of his irises. The darkness of his pupils, staring back.

Beside them, the race began again. Up came the revving engines and thickening fumes and dust and rumbled cheers. It was all deep and muffled and slow. Blurry, like slow motion.

Castiel saw the riders pass – yet Dean was here. Right beside him. Watching the others go on without him, smiling in contentment.

Dean gave up this performance years ago, because he loved his family too much to dare risk his life. He gave this up for them. For years he’d wandered, unrooted, unsure of his purpose. He found a purpose and a paradise in Ingen Steder Landsby, but then returned to the underworld he once knew – maybe just to double-check. To make sure he’d rooted himself in the right place, with the right people.

And tonight? He gave up this performance for a second time. Tonight he chose Castiel as family.

The realisation came and went within a breath.

And the race starts from where they left off! One lap left to go, VamPirate takes the lead!

Castiel inhaled, eyes darting to the arena, the glowing red track only ten feet away, past the barrier. The approaching engine was furious, whining – it grew louder and louder and more terrifying until VROOMmmm – it was gone in a flash of red.

A shot of electric blue passed by a split-second later, and Dean cheered, a fist pumping the air.

They take the corner in tandem, Kevin Solo careful not to jolt VamPirate’s back wheel – we all know how that would end. They glide around the figure-eight’s curve and approach the centre. Nothing to slow them down, nobody to dodge – Kevin Solo picks up speed—

Castiel’s breath lodged in his throat, hand tight around Dean’s as he saw the flare of red and blue merge into a lilac streak in the centre of the X. Kevin tilted his bike into the curve as it came up. They were within seconds of the finish line.

“Come on, Benny,” Dean whispered, eyes wide and fists shaking. “Come on, Kevin!”

Neck and neck! The checkered flag is at the ready. VamPirate in the lead! Now Kevin Solo! VamPirate again! Their front wheels run in parallel— VamPirate on the outer curve, the finish line approaches – THE FLAG IS DOWN! THE RACE IS OVER!

“Who won?” Castiel breathed, eyes flicking back and forth between VamPirate’s red bike and Kevin’s blue one.

The victorious racers both took the next curve with grace, high-fiving on the big screen as they moved.

Dean leaned over the barrier, letting go of Castiel for a moment. “Kev!” he shouted, as Kevin’s motorcycle eased to a stop nearby. Kevin let it run farther ahead to meet Dean, and he took off his helmet, revealing messy black hair and a massive smile. Breathing heavily, he clasped Dean’s hand palm-to-palm and waggled it, fingers locked between each other.

“Who won?” Dean asked, shouting over the commentator and the roaring of the crowds.

Kevin shrugged, as Benny pulled up beside him, equally sweaty and happy-looking.

“Kevin did,” Benny said, striding to the barrier, accepting the bottle of water a crewmember handed him. “Split-second difference, but this ninja here was on the inner curve, he had less ground to cover.” Benny uncapped the water and poured it over his head. He blasted a spray off his face with a breath, shaking his head like a dog. He grinned, then handed the water to Kevin. “Good ridin’, Solo.”

Kevin gulped the remainder of the water down, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Thanks for backing out, man,” he said to Dean, still short of breath. “Can pay back those freaking college loans now. And take my mom on vacation! She’s wanted to go for twenty years.”

Dean smiled. He looked at Castiel, saw the pride in his eyes, and smiled more.

They shared an understanding in that single glance: Dean may have pulled out of the race – but this? This was a win for everyone.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Dean disappeared with the rest of the crew, promising he’d be back out soon. He had to see Christian and Tamara and wish them both well, and congratulate his fellow riders – especially Kevin. He had to talk with the people who ran the show – the names Bobby and Rufus were mentioned as he left.

So Castiel sat among his friends, waiting in the V.I.P. section for just shy of an hour.

He felt very sick after eating so many donuts. But, as always, ginger ale helped. He sipped it slowly, letting it burn his tongue.

The audience had left for the night. Rowena stayed out of sight until Jody assured her that her coven was gone.

Cleaners came out and began sweeping under the seats, dragging giant wheeled trash bins behind them. The ambience in the arena became... quiet. Subdued. But it retained its air of excitement; the night was not over yet.

In an empty moment, Castiel asked Rowena, “How much do I owe you? For all the spells. And for saving Dean from your old coven.”

Rowena’s eyes twinkled. “That last one was on the house,” she said, giving Castiel’s hand a squeeze. “I won’t allow harm to come to my friends.”

A genuine smile warmed Castiel from the inside. “If... say, at some point, one of my ducks does happen to lose a purple feather...”

As she grinned widely, pale lines shattered Rowena’s perfect lipstick. “Aye,” she said. “Aye, I’d be happy to accept.”

The ducks fell asleep on Jack and Eddie’s laps, and Eddie and Jack fell asleep on Billie and Charlie’s laps. Castiel almost craved a lap to sleep on; he’d had a long, exhausting day, and only remained upright and alert through the power of lingering adrenaline combined with his sugar high. Jitters kept his foot jumping and his fingers tapping to the faint country music that went on playing in the background, keeping the cleaners motivated.

Finally, a dark figure came bounding up the stairs beside the bleachers, a grin on his face.

“Dean!” Castiel cried, falling out of his seat and tumbling into Dean’s embrace. Sam came after him, then Donna, and they squeezed Dean in the middle until he was chuckling and yelping, begging for air.

They backed away, but Castiel stayed in contact with his hand around Dean’s arm. The leather jacket he wore was cool to the touch but quickly warmed.

“So,” Dean said, glancing between Castiel and Sam. “You two met already?”

“Yeah,” Sam huffed, grinning. He glanced at Castiel. “We met. Cas is a pretty neat guy.”

Castiel’s eyes fell to little Jack, who was just waking up, disturbed by the voices. Charlie hushed him, but Jack had seen Dean’s tall, imposing figure, and began to cry.

“Whoa— Whoa, heyyy,” Dean said, dropping to a crouch, reaching out a gloveless hand. “Hey, little man, don’t you remember me? We talk, like, three times a week. Well – I talk and you get distracted.”

Jack squirmed away, hands wrapped behind Charlie’s neck. Charlie smiled, looking apologetic.

“Jack, it’s Uncle Dean,” Sam said softly. “You like listening to him talk about his ducks, you remember?”

Jack didn’t respond.

“He’ll get used to you,” Sam promised Dean. “He knows your voice, you’re just different in person. He makes friends pretty easily, too – he and Eddie were sharing ducks in ten seconds flat.”

Dean bit his lower lip, standing up again. Castiel could see how hard it was for Dean to put a smile on his face again, but he managed it.

“He grew up so fast,” Dean said quietly, turning his face towards the empty arena and its five thousand seats. “I kinda remember him baby-faced. Now he looks like—?” He glanced back, frowning. His frown deepened. He glanced at Castiel, then back. “Hey.”

“What?” Sam asked, as Donna handed him a juice box to stab a straw into. “Dean, what’s up?”

Dean inhaled, taking Castiel’s sleeve and tugging it. “Call me crazy, Cas, but— Does Jack look like your mom, to you?”

Castiel’s eyes shot to the little boy, who now sat on his own seat, accepting the juice box. Castiel examined Jack’s face: those straight yet angular eyebrows, the jawline – the widow’s peak in his hair. The dark, dirty-blonde tresses; the squinty, ever-so-solemn stare of concentration. Now that Castiel looked closely – there was a certain resemblance.

Parting his lips, Castiel turned wary eyes to Dean. Dean stared back.

“He does, doesn’t he?” Dean said, certainty weighing on his voice.

“Sam,” Castiel said quietly, not meeting Sam’s eyes but staring at his orange plaid shirt, and the hands tucked into his windbreaker. “Do you know who Jack’s birth parents were?”

Sam let out a curious huff. “Not by name,” he started, and Castiel’s stomach sank. “But—”

Castiel met his eyes.

“But,” Sam went on, speaking slowly, “when I adopted him, I met the uncle. He told me a story about Jack’s father. Really unruly teenager. Used to start fires and poison people for fun.”

“Lucas,” Castiel whispered.

Sam hesitated. “I, um. Don’t really know what happened to him. But Jack was apparently the result of a one-night-stand in Vegas.”

Dean uttered to Castiel, “Isn’t your brother in Vegas?”

“Gabriel is,” Castiel confirmed. “I didn’t realise he’d had any contact with Lucas, not in a long time. Jack is... three, nearly four. And then a nine-month pregnancy— Yes. Yes— Gabriel moved to Vegas— Four and a half years ago. There must be some connection..”

“What?” Sam urged.

“It’s a common enough story for adopted kids, Cas,” Dean said, tilting his head reassuringly. “Jack’s dad could be any random bed-hopping maniac from Vegas.”

Castiel gazed at Sam, and informed him in a level tone, “Jack is my nephew. My eldest brother’s wayward son.” His eyes immediately welled with tears, and he bowed his head.

“Cas—” Dean touched his back. “He might not be.”

“He is,” Castiel glanced at him through tear-filled eyes. “You saw it first, and you’re right.” He looked down and saw Jack standing beside him, barely as tall as his thighs, sucking on his juice box. He had startlingly blue eyes, and the sight of those eyes made Castiel feel like he was peering down into a mirror that saw into the past. Aside from the blonde hair, this boy looked like him.

“Jack,” Castiel said, crouching down to bob at Jack’s level. “Hello. My name is Castiel. I’m a good friend of your Uncle Dean. And—” He exhaled. “And I hope you and I will get along very well in the future. You’re going to be a good boy. Full of love for the ones around you, and the world. I know you’ll want to help people, and animals. As many people and animals as you can.” He smiled, glad Jack seemed to be listening. “I understand you don’t like to talk. I didn’t either at your age. But someday—” His breath shook, and he lowered his head. “Someday you’ll impress us all. I have... faith in you, Jack Winchester. So much faith.”

Jack blinked. He looked up at Sam, and apparently Sam smiled, because then Jack smiled, and blinked again. Then he turned to see the ducks, and sit with Eddie. He held out his juice box, trying to get Boots to sip it. Boots woke up, quacking in offense, but re-settled, and opened her beak wide to yawn.

Castiel moistened his lips, standing up, comforted by the warmth of Sam and Dean beside him.

“What are the chances,” Sam said, awed. “How did that even—? The guy my brother’s dating. And my adopted son. Related by blood. How can the world be that small?”

“Aah,” Rowena said from nearby, leaning on the barrier, overlooking the arena. “Sometimes the universe provides us gifts in the form of coincidences. And these coincidences are all but random.” Her eyes went to Castiel, gazing at him through her fake lashes. “We ignore the signs, we miss the offerings we’re presented, or we turn them away, hoping someone else would enjoy them more – and they return once again, in some other form. When the universe wants you to have something, you will have it, no matter how much you resist.”

Dean asked, “Like fate?”

“Aye, like fate.”

Donna nudged Sam with an elbow. “Like those stories you hear, where someone narrowly avoids a weird and unusual death, but then dies some other kooky way the same day, maybe only minutes later.”

Jody nodded, arms folded. “Heard plenty of those stories. Investigated a few of them personally. Swear to God, I’m running the Sheriff’s Department of Crazy, sometimes.”

Billie stood up. “Personally I prefer the tales where people narrowly avoid death,” she said. “As I did, a number of times.” Soon realising everyone wanted the story, she explained, “Before I moved to Ingen Steder Landsby, I... experienced a chain of events. Three times in three days... I was one step away from a swerving car. A ten-foot bookcase smashed to the ground beside me. A live wire erupted into spitting flames and struck my car as I drove past. And I survived. Unharmed.”

“But shaken, obviously,” Charlie smiled, taking her hand. “Can’t help but think you were, like, Wile E. Coyote in another life. Good thing the universe failed, huh? Now I get to have you.”

“There are no failed attempts,” Rowena said, joining the circle of friends and closing it with her shoulders between Jody’s and Billie’s. “Billie, your fate guided you to the sanctuary village. The same place we all went to hide.” She managed a frail smile. “Even I discovered today why my coven once betrayed me. Simply put... they were not especially good friends. I can only recognise it now, having made... better, much dearer friends.” She nodded at Castiel. “Sometimes a witch just needs someone to share a cup of tea with. For so long I’ve wondered – did I make the right choice, leaving them all behind, cutting my losses? Well... finally – finally I have some closure. If someone is in want of my presence, for nothing more than what my power can do for them, they’re no good for me.”

Sam took a breath, apparently rattled. “I’ve heard so much about this... sanctuary village,” he said. “Ingen Steder Landsby. Seems like a nice place, huh.”

“You should come visit!” Donna said. “Or heck, just move there. Great place for little Jack to grow up.”

“Sure,” Sam smiled, glancing at Dean, eyes wrinkling in gladness when Dean smiled back. “If Dean won’t come to me and Jack, we can go to Dean. That makes sense. We can lodge at the inn for a few weeks.”

“But the inn is being sold,” Billie said. “It’ll be closed for business.”

Dean snorted, head down. “Yeah. But Sammy and Jack can stay with us. Right, Cas?”

“Of course.”

Sam raised his shoulders, hands sinking deeper into his pockets. “Uh. Okay. Well. That’s great, and all, but what if I want to stick around? I’m not like Dean, I don’t uproot every other week, and I’m not doing that to Jack. And I don’t wanna be that houseguest who outstays his welcome. And... I gotta be honest, I can’t afford to buy a house out there.”

Castiel immediately felt slightly hysterical, but his chuckle was tinged with relief as he took a tight hold of Dean’s hand. “Neither can we,” he admitted. “Fifty-thousand short, as it turns out.”

Dean looked at him with patience and assurance. “We’ll figure something out, Cas,” he smiled. “But in the meantime—” Dean turned his attention to Sam. “Come stay at Cas’ house, Sammy. Just for a few weeks. While we still have the place.”

Sam nodded. “Alright.”

Dean smirked back. “Alright.”

Castiel drew a deep breath, smiling to himself. His eyes went to Jack, who lifted Rex’s wings to examine them. Middle quacked, pecking Jack’s fingers, making Jack giggle and let go of Rex. Boots bopped him too, in a way that seemed... fond.

Did it even matter if Jack was Lucifer’s son?

No, of course not. Any child raised by someone who shared Dean’s emotional intelligence, nurturing ability, and softness, would turn out fine.

Did it matter if fate had led their families to be connected this way?

Yes. It mattered. It was of import, and it would have repercussions. It mattered, but Castiel chose to believe it only mattered in the best way.

Because this felt like a gift. Even the pang of dread and worry in Castiel’s stomach was a gift, because it reminded him he still had fear to release, and pain to forgive. He looked forward to the day he could look at Jack and not ache for his absent mother, or worry the child would take after his brother. Someday Castiel would be free of that trauma, and cultivating unconditional love for Jack would surely help him get there.

And did it matter, really, that Dean had pulled out of the race, losing Castiel’s biggest chance at completing the task his mother started?

Maybe, for now, it did matter.

But maybe, ultimately – it didn’t.

For a long time Castiel had trusted that the universe had something planned for him. But now he realised, the not-so-random happenstances were not limited to him. The universe also had designs for all of his friends.

For all of his... family.

A sparkling rush of emotion stole through Castiel as he stood there in the V.I.P. section, digesting donuts and ginger ale, conversing further with the people he loved. He was so immensely grateful – but not for something he had to begin with, or had acquired, or was simply in the right position to appreciate. This time Castiel was grateful for every gift and curse ever bestowed upon his life, every obstacle thrown in his path, every gateway pried opened for him – every moment of bliss and suffering that made it possible for him to be amongst friends like these. To have a new family, after the last one failed him.

As Rowena had said: missed gifts would return once again, in some other form. When the universe wanted someone to have something, they would have it.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Riding at night was an experience barely comparable to riding during the day. The roads flowed smooth under the tires of Dean’s Indian Chief, the gloss of storefronts and traffic lights blurring past in glorious hazes of emerald and turquoise green, dappled on black.

Sometime during the show, it had rained in Kansas. The hush of wheels cutting through puddles became meditative for Castiel. He hugged Dean’s back, chest warming at their main point of contact. He rested one ear against Dean’s shoulder, his eyes unfocused, just watching the urban streets pass by.

He was floating. Flying. Drifting in a world he hadn’t seen in fifteen years. The journey felt dreamlike, not quite... real. But equally, it was real enough, tangible enough, that Castiel tasted the bitterness of rain upon stale tarmac; he tasted fried chicken on the back of his tongue, then moo shu pork and noodles as they drove through a set of lights. Every part of the world seemed to approach on the breeze, filling Castiel up with memories.

Dean drove slowly – well, slowly for him – making sure that the Impala could keep up. Charlie drove the car, her passengers including the ducks, Billie, and Eddie. Sam’s car followed not too far behind, with Jack in the back. Rowena insisted on tagging along with Sam and Jack, for some reason.

Donna had begun the journey following in Jody’s patrol truck, but they had already turned off, on their way north to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They had a lot to talk about.

Dean led the remaining convoy with confidence, but Castiel noticed when his certainty seemed to waver; Dean turned his head at every intersection, as if he wasn’t sure where to go. Sam had satellite navigation, so Castiel wondered if they should pull over and ask—

Dean slowed to a stop at the side of the road. He took off his helmet, looking back.

Sam and Charlie pulled up behind him, leaving their engines idling.

Castiel got up to stretch his aching legs. Sam left his car and approached, brows wrinkled in concern.

Castiel expected Dean to ask for help, but when Sam was close, Dean wet his lips and said in a forthright tone, “I’m gonna take a detour.” His eyes darted to Castiel. “I’m just lettin’ you know. You guys keep driving – Cas, hop in with Sam, I’ll catch up.”

Peering at Dean, Castiel shook his head. “Where are you going?”

Dean swallowed, lowering his chin. “Look— We’re gonna pass through Lawrence. It’s, uh. Where we grew up.” He caught Sam’s eyes, giving a tense smile. “I just wanna drop by the old house. Check on things.”

Sam sighed, glancing at his watch. “Dean, it’s nearly eleven. Whoever’s there would be asleep. It’s just a house.”

“Yeah.” Dean nodded. “And I wanna see it.”

“I’m coming,” Castiel said firmly. He looked to Sam. “You should come too.”

Sam shook his head, offering a flat smile. “I don’t remember living there, Cas. I was a baby when Mom died. Besides—” He thumbed over his shoulder at the waiting cars. “Whole bunch of tired people and children. Not a good time for a field trip.”

“We’ll catch up,” Dean said, replacing his helmet, then mounting his motorcycle again. “C‘mon, Cas.”

And so, they left everyone at the next turning, and followed the side roads. Dean knew the way home by heart; he didn’t second-guess or pause to think before he made his turns. Castiel leaned into the corners, not afraid of falling. He flew, with Dean as his wings, holding him secure.

They slowed to a crawl, halfway down a residential street, drenched in darkness but spotlighted by amber streetlamps.

In front of one particular house, they stopped.

Dean removed his helmet, and Castiel removed his own, too.

Sam was right: it was just a house. The tree in the front yard was leafy and thick, bigger and bushier than the photo in Castiel’s catalogue. The place was dark, silent, and still.

Then a light came on upstairs.

Dean shifted in his seat, and Castiel took the movement as a cue to get up. Dean tucked down the kickstand for the bike, and they stood together on the sidewalk, placing their helmets on the motorcycle’s seat. Dean hadn’t taken his eyes off the light inside.

They saw a large silhouette of a person pass the window – and then another light came on in a hallway, illuminating the side of the house.

Dean’s breath hitched, his exhale coming out shaking.

Castiel took his hand, unsure what Dean was feeling or experiencing, just sure it was overwhelming.

Finally a light came on above the porch.

Golden. Inviting.

Dean took a step forward. Then another. Castiel went after him, and they drifted together, up the front path.

They stood together on the doorstep, and Dean shook his head. Was he having second thoughts? Castiel glanced at him, and saw with surprise that Dean was smiling.

“She knows,” he said under his breath. “She was waiting for us.”

“Who?” Castiel asked, just as quietly.

The front door opened, and Castiel and Dean met a smiling black woman in a pink satin nightgown, her hair in curlers, her hand on her massive bosom.

“Well?” she said in a thick, airy voice, her tone expectant. “Are you coming in, or are you gonna stand out there all night? The moths are makin’ themselves at home.”

She turned her back and strode slowly down the hallway, shaking her head and chortling to herself.

Castiel glanced at Dean – again surprised to see him smile.

Dean grinned now, stepping inside. He tugged on Castiel’s hand, cocked his head, and pulled Cas inside too. Castiel closed the door behind him, perplexed – and a little frightened. He’d never been greeted this way, except by people he’d known all his life. As he understood things, Dean had never once been back here, or met the house’s occupant.

“Dean,” Castiel said, eyes catching on vintage photographs, framed all the way down the hall. He looked up the staircase and saw that wall was covered with old photos too, all of them populated with people. “Dean, who is that woman? What’s— Who—”

“Boy, you grew up handsome,” the woman said, when Dean and Castiel reached the kitchen. She took Dean’s jaw under her thumb, cupped in her hand, and turned his face side to side. “Lemme look at you in the good light. Ahh. A lil scratched up, no biggie. You’ll heal quick, scar slow.” She let him go, beaming – and Dean looked amused. “Gotta be honest, baby, I wasn’t expectin’ you for a few more years. Maybe Fate got her calendar messed up, who knows. I figured you had a whole lotta healing to do before you showed your face here again.”

Dean bit down on his lower lip – not nervous, but attempting to restrain a smile. “Yeah,” he admitted, as if he understood what she meant. “Yeah, I—” Dean drew a proud breath, eyes skipping to Castiel. “I had a lot of help. Cas here,” Dean lifted their joined hands, showing the woman how their fingers locked, “he contacted a witch. Asked her to summon his soulmate.”

The woman looked at Castiel, and apparently saw him for the first time. She let out a cry of surprise. “Oh! My-my-my-my-my, you are special,” she tutted, reaching for his cheek.

Castiel stepped back, not wanting to be touched by a stranger.

“Aw, my apologies, angel,” the woman said, the interest in her eyes softening to a flowery sort of kindness. “You don’t know me yet. My name’s Missouri. Like the state.”

“She lives here,” Dean said – either to Missouri herself, or to Castiel – or to himself. Castiel wasn’t certain which. “She’s lived here... since we sold the place.”

“A few months after, yes,” she nodded. She turned away. “Either of you a fan of sweet tea? My granddaughter makes it better than I ever did. She has the Gift too. I saw her pick out Dean’s photo first thing, when she came to visit. She said ‘This boy, he lived here, din’t he?’, and I said, yes. Yes, he did. That lost lil boy, this was his home, once.”

Dean licked his lips, nodding. “I’ll take some sweet tea, sure.” Castiel nodded, and Dean added, “Plus one for Cas.”

“Cas... Beautiful name,” Missouri remarked, pouring tea into two tall glasses. “Your momma knew you were different, sweetheart. All the others... named after angels, weren’t they?”

Castiel swallowed, feeling chills wavering down his spine. But he did not feel terror. He was still dreaming, perhaps. Dreaming in real life.

“She made up your name,” Missouri said, handing him a cool glass, holding his eyes. “She wanted you to be different.”

Dean’s eyes were on Castiel, loving and glad. He sipped his tea, and purred. “Oh, that is good.”

Castiel sipped his own drink, taking a seat at the dining table when Missouri offered. Dean sat beside him.

“Ma’am...? I... wanted to ask,” Dean said, both hands on his tea glass now. He looked up at Missouri across the table. “Besides the photos... we left some things here, didn’t we?”

Missouri nodded slowly. “I kept it all safe. Up in the new attic.”

“Mind if we take a look?” Dean asked.

Missouri smiled. “Honey, I been waitin’ for you to take your treasures to a real home since the day I moved in. No amount of sage and pot-banging is takin’ that bad vibe away. Your things are pinin’ for you, child. You loved them so much and you left them so sudden.” She reached over the table to take Dean by the back of the hand, shaking him imploringly. “Take what you want. But I gotta ask you one favour.”

“Anything,” Dean said in a breath.

“Leave me your photograph,” Missouri said. “The second I held that picture, I— Oh...” She touched her heart, eyes filled with tears. “That little boy looked out at me from the frame and asked me to guard his precious belongings. Because he— He’d be back someday. All grown up. His broken heart healing over.” Missouri sighed slowly, out through her nose. “And here he is. Here he is.”

Castiel swallowed a mouthful of tea, attention hopping between Dean and Missouri. He could not understand everything, but he understood enough. This was no dream. This was the true magic of real life: full conversations did not need to be had.

Dean had never met this woman before in his life. Missouri knew him from an image left behind when his family moved. The two of them were connected through the house. That was all. They knew each other’s souls through the walls, the spreading branches of the tree in the yard, the porch light, the creak of the hinges in the front door.

And of all people, Castiel understood what it meant to be connected to another’s soul, just through the walls of a home. He knew it was possible to know things without asking, as he did when he saw a wounded rabbit, or a startled cat. He knew how creatures could move, and share their most vulnerable secrets in a single glance.

There was magic in this woman, oh yes. But only as much as he had in himself.

There was magic in the whole world. In every home, in every photograph, in every breath shared between strangers.

And there was magic in the tea. He was not dreaming. This was the best tea he’d ever tasted.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

An attic was an attic, and there was not much to differentiate it from other attics. It was dry, dusty, and dim, far too warm, and smelled like wall insulation and wood. It was full of taped-up boxes; a big, ornate mirror leaned against the sloped beams of the roof, and the batting on the floor was covered by chipboard, still printed with batch numbers from the hardware store.

The only thing that made it special was one box: Dean’s box.

NoOBiE sTuFFs, read the label.

Dean chuckled, kneeling before the box like it was a shrine, his arms surrounding it. “Before I was Nowhere Boy,” he said, glancing at Castiel, “I was Noobie.”

“Noobie,” Castiel repeated.

“Yeah, like ‘newbie’. My Mom used to call me that. Heya, Noobie.” Shrugging, Dean said, “Guess it was what they called me before they named me, when I was a baby. You know? New little thing. And it stuck, but I couldn’t spell, or say it right.”

Castiel knelt by him, looking into the box. “So what treasures did Noobie prize above all?”

Dean smiled a wonky smile, lifting out a knitted white rag with tattered ends. “Baby blankie. Snuggled with it every night— Oh my God, that’s soft. Cas, feel how soft that is.”

Castiel took it in his hands, and kept it, because it was soft enough to make his rubbing thumbs feel like they were in Heaven.

“Reading log,” Dean chuckled, pulling out a folded wallet of cardboard, drawn on with crayon. “Not that I could read. Dad said I could write the alphabet, and Mom would read to me. I was keeping a reading log – drew illustrations from the books.”

“Ah, yes,” Castiel said, nodding studiously, taking the log in his hands. “We all remember the tale of the giant pancake bug being shot into space by an angry circle.”

“A total classic, Cas,” Dean joked smoothly, nudging his side. “Probably my favourite, next to the... uh... diseased plant pooping out money.”

Castiel laughed, headbutting Dean’s shoulder. “What else?”

“Arcade tickets,” Dean chirped, stretching the collection high over his head. “I think I won a Nerf gun once. OOH! Roller-skates— Aww, Cas, look how small?!” He waggled the skates, making the dirty red wheels rattle in their sockets. “I could put these on the ducks, they’d probably fit.”

“Now that’s a children’s book I’d remember reading,” Castiel smiled. “Ducks in skates.”

Dean rummaged through an assortment of action figurines, finding a rock with painted eyes, a handful of board books, and soon discovered a gem: an exercise book filled with rudimentary lettering.

Opening the book at a random page, Dean burst out laughing. He leaned back, then folded forward, guffawing so heavily that he went pink-faced and weak-fingered, almost dropping the book. He gasped for air, nodding – aware that Castiel laughed helplessly, without the knowledge to make his chuckles into real, proper laughs.

“The— This—” Dean waggled the page. “Ohhmhm... Ah-ha-HAA!” He sat up, sniffing, pushing tears from the corners of his eyes. “My favourite food. Oh my goh— Read it. Read it, Cas.”

Castiel squinted, trying to decipher the malformed letters.

My... favourite... food... is...” Castiel snorted. He looked at Dean in amusement, and started to chuckle.

My FeVORit FOOb is piSS.

Dean was in silent hysterics, dust pressing to his forehead as he rested his head on the floor. “I can’t— I canhghh— Pies!” His eyes were streaming, pink around the rims as he looked at Castiel. “My favourite food is pies.”

Castiel gave over to the joke, and laughed with Dean, collapsing, breathless, heads burning, skin prickling, dust in their eyes, tears down their faces. They lay together on the floor, unable to breathe, just laughing and holding each other and shaking their heads, trying to stop.

Little Noobie’s book was set aside; Castiel’s hands moved to hold Dean’s waist, trying to regain composure and failing.

Oxygen returned to their lungs eventually, both of them exhausted and thrilled and still dizzy. They gazed at each other on the gritty floor panels, staying still and silent until they’d caught their breath.

Dean sat up, resting back on his hands, still grinning.

Castiel sat up too, feeling debauched and enchanted by this peculiar moment in a peculiar night.

“I suppose,” Castiel said, with forced solemnity, “your love of pie stuck around as you grew up. I knew you as Pie Man for some time, if you recall. And— Um.” More shyly, Castiel lowered his head and glanced in Dean’s direction. “Either way of reading the last word in that sentence... it’s not wrong. I do recall you being eager to... play, a little more than we did. That night we made love.”

The laugh had gone out of Dean, and he came over all bashful, but not altogether sobered. He smiled, blushing, and shrugged.

“Would you?” Castiel asked, too quietly for even a nosy mouse to hear. “Do what we did... again, someday?”

“Like... on purpose?” Dean asked, eyes darting away, then back.

Castiel tilted his head.

Dean swallowed, smiling. “Maybe.”

“Maybe,” Castiel repeated.

“Yes,” Dean whispered – and then in a rush, exclaimed, “Oh-kay, what’ve we got here!” while rummaging loudly. “Cassette tapes! Baseball cap – oh my God, yeah, I did baseball, always scuffed my knees up— Oh, shoot, the tutu.”

He lifted out a tiny, raggedy, pale-pink tulle skirt with a chiffon wave around its top. His lips twitched in a smile, his eyes glazed over with something... tender, something hopeful and longing and sad and joyous, all at once.

“I stole it from our neighbours,” Dean said quietly. “We went over there one time, one afternoon after... playgroup, or somethin’ like that. The thing was right there on the clothes rack, in the living room. I put it... in my bag, I think. Didn’t even really know why, honestly, just... Pretty.” He pouted gently, giving a tiny smile. “Hid it under my mattress. Would pull it out every so often... try it on. Dad – found it one day. Thought he was gonna explode. I guess Mom must’ve saved it from being thrown out. Can’t believe it’s still here. Man.”

He licked his lips, letting the skirt fold back into the box. His hand wavered, then sank deeply, pulling out something even more colourful.

A breathy laugh escaped Dean, eyes immediately swimming. “Banjo,” he said, showing Castiel.

“Your childhood toy,” Castiel said with reverence, taking the unicorn in his palm. Banjo’s body was fat and round and rainbow-tie-dyed, and he wore denim suspenders, had green button eyes, a gentle smile, big ears, and a lopsided horn.

“I gotta give this to Jack,” Dean said. “I wanna see his face when he meets this lil guy. God.” He sat back, glowing. “I’d forgotten about half this crap. But now I’m lookin’ at it, and... everything, it’s coming right back. I remember all these things. It’s like... the memories, they’ve been left untouched this whole time. One little trigger and I’m right back there, I’m knee-high again, I’m in my bedroom. It’s still a nursery. Pastel blue. Rug on the floor that I liked to lie on to look at picture books. I’m not old enough to want posters and stuff yet, maybe. Or maybe... Mom was gonna decorate sometime. And she never got the chance.”

Castiel took Dean’s hand, expecting him to cry. But Dean smiled, looking purely glad.

“She’s still here,” Dean nodded. “All the times I fantasised that she’d meet us at our new dream house, or she’d turn up at the motel... Nah. She’d never left home. She stayed, Cas. Her ghost, her spirit, whatever. She lives in this house. In the nursery. Just... reliving the good times, I guess. She probably redecorated a hundred times before she found the perfect drapes.” Dean’s smile trembled, but he only let a single tear fall. “She loved us. For the time she had us, she loved us. And her happy place was right here.”

He wiped his tears, letting go of a deep breath. He kept smiling.

“Are you all right?” Castiel asked, stroking Dean’s hand.

“Oh, yeah,” Dean said softly. “Yeah, I’m...” He looked around at the attic, its exposed lightbulb, and then at the boxes of things. He finally returned his gaze to Castiel’s. “Yeah, I’m good.”

He started to return things to Noobie’s box. Castiel helped.

Dean stopped on the last thing: precious Banjo, smiling sweetly up at him. Dean smiled back.

“I never learned stability,” Dean said, speaking to the toy but intending Castiel to hear him. “We left here in a rush. Never settled. I was a new person in every place. Master of reinvention, right? Noobie. Nowhere Boy. Night Rider. I never learned the feeling of... being rooted somewhere. Having a home.”

He drew a fragile breath, turning his eyes to Castiel. Here was a vulnerable animal, fearful but determined. “You asked me once,” Dean said. “The night we met. You asked, why do I always leave?”

“It’s what you do,” Castiel remembered. “That’s what you said.”

Dean nodded. “It’s what I was taught to do. It’s what I was told to do. So it’s what I did. And it hurt me every time. It hurt me last night. I fell apart last night, Cas, I hated leaving you. It hated it. I never want to do it again. That’s not me anymore. I don’t leave. You taught me—” Dean shuddered, and he finished, forceful: “You taught me stability, Cas. You taught me what it’s all about. Finding your place and staying.”

“I take it to an extreme, though,” Castiel said.

“But you’re here, aren’t you?” Dean smiled. “One state over from where you started. Your roots are down. You can go, but then you can go back. And it’s home. It’s home. It’s—” Dean’s face crumpled, and he collapsed to Castiel’s shoulder, breath shivering warm against his chest. “Cas, let’s go home.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

As much as Dean wanted to, he could not go home tonight. It was after midnight; Ingen Steder Landsby was half a day’s journey away, and Dean was exhausted. He’d been up nearly twenty hours, and although that was usual for him, entertaining five thousand people and nearly dying a few times was not such a regular occurrence. And funnily enough, it was tiring.

So they found a motel room. Any motel room. Dean wasn’t picky, and Castiel was more hungry than tired, so they chose the nearest motel and the nearest food court, and within half an hour, they had a room for the night, and inside, they spread out a table-wide smorgasbord of boxed noodles, crunchy battered shrimp, three burgers, six portions of fries, chocolate cake, and last but not least, cherry pie. (And hand soap.)

“So, life lesson, here, Cas,” Dean said, lifting a finger, “don’t buy food when you’re hungry.”

“The hand soap isn’t for eating,” Castiel retorted.

“I know I’m a big guy, Cas, but six bags of fries?!”

“Only two are for you,” Castiel frowned, taking a seat and pulling four greasy white pockets possessively towards him. “They’re very thin fries.”

“Yeah, and do you know how much saturated fat and salt is in these?”

“Enough to make them taste good,” Castiel said, in a fuck-you sort of way. He ate seven fries at once, then took a sip of bottled water, glaring at Dean.

Dean grinned. “Ahh. Feels like old times.” He went to wash his hands, taking the soap with him. He whistled a tune, returning without his jacket, plaid shirt rolled to his elbows, eyes gleaming with mirth.

They sat together at the table, sharing out food between their polystyrene boxes, eating with plastic utensils and dipping between sauces from five different world continents.

“You’ve basically seen how I grew up now,” Dean realised, dunking a shrimp into Castiel’s fancy sauce that looked like mayo but was not mayo. “You’ve seen the old house. I mean, the roof is all new – the original burned down, but the foundations were the same. And...” he glanced around, “you’ve seen the motel. This is pretty much what they’re all like. Boxy TV with fritzy cable. Starched sheets with ugly covers from thirty years ago. That paper globe lamp up there. These funky themed dividers between the door and the rest of the room. Pff. I saw a corn-themed one once. Horse-themed. If they were wood I used to carve my name at the bottom.”

Dean tossed a fry into his mouth, chewing as he turned in his seat, observing the room. “Carpet’s fairly standard. I’d always check under the bed, see if there was anything cool. Sometimes people left stuff behind. My first cellphone was one someone lost. I read the whole King James Bible using a couple dozen different Bibles. Wrote in the margins. Would go hunting for other people’s marginalia, and I’d say hi.”

He kicked off his shoes, and leaned back in his chair, arm hooked over the backrest, sighing contentedly. “Microwave – always a fifty-fifty chance whether it’ll work. The real good places would have an oven, or a stove. Couple times we stayed in places with a tiny dishwasher, and man, I freaking loved those things. You know, I always had this stupid fantasy of... like, running a place like this. I’d have a tiny dishwasher in every room. And an on-site laundrette for the guests. And hey, now I’m learning how to work a kitchen, maybe I’d even serve home-cooked dinners.”

“Oh—” Castiel glanced down, startled by his ringing phone. “Someone’s calling me.”

“Well, it ain’t me,” Dean said, smiling.

Castiel put down his burger and wiped his fingers on a napkin, then began pawing inside his discarded coat for his phone. He pulled it out, saw the screen – huffed when he saw the name. He answered it, and held it to his ear. “Hello?”

Heya, kiddo,” Gabriel said. “How’s things?

Castiel smiled, bowing his head. “I’m in Kansas.”

There was a pause. “You joined the band? Or is this some kind of secret code I’m meant to know? Bark once if you’re in trouble, Toto!

Castiel laughed, shaking his head. “The state. Kansas, the state. I left home. I’m in a motel with Dean. I haven’t had a panic attack in about four... maybe five hours now.”

Hoo— You’re serious? You left the convent? You dirty, dirty girl, Cassie.

“Is there any particular reason you’re calling me, Gabriel?” Castiel asked, darting forward to slap Dean away from his burger. “Get off, Dean, I’m still eating that.”

“I just want the pickle!” Dean complained.

“I’ll give you my pickle later,” Castiel frowned.

Hardcoare third-wheeling over here,” Gabriel said. “You should be charging me by the minute.

“What?”

Sign a few consent forms and Dean eating your pickle can be a moment preserved forever in a new Casa Erotica movie classic.

Castiel rolled his eyes. “We’re not filming pornography, Gabriel,” he said, while Dean’s face blanched.

What else are motels for?

“Is this a social call?” Castiel asked, slapping Dean away from his burger again. “Do you need something?”

Ah... No, not exactly. I was more wondering if you needed anything.

Castiel snorted. “Do I need anything? Oh! Well! Let’s see: world peace, a tiny crash helmet for a duck learning to roller-skate, a pre-paid appointment with a mental health professional; fifty-four thousand, seven hundred dollars – or alternately a new place to live – a haircut, quite frankly; a clean pair of underwear, a driver’s license, a full night’s sleep, and Dean to stop – trying – to steal – my fucking – pickles!”

Uhh. All I got was a broke professional roller-skating duck stealing some pickles.

Castiel simmered in annoyance. “Dean, there’s a table full of food, why do you want my pickles?”

“Because you have the best pickles,” Dean whined.

Castiel snorted. “Gabriel—”

I received a phone call,” Gabriel said, suddenly serious. “About an hour ago.

Castiel sat up straighter. “From whom?”

Rowena.

“How did she—”

The phone she used had my number,” Gabriel said. “And I told the owner of that phone to call under emergency circumstances only.

“Is someone in trouble?”

It’s not an emergency. But it is important. It’s about... It’s about Jack.

Castiel went still to listen. Dean saw an opportunity and stole the pickles, and Castiel barely glanced up.
Look, uh...” Gabriel gulped. “Some shit went down. Some years back. Lucas, Hester, Balthzy, they crashed my club a few weeks after I set up. I mean, it’s Vegas, they apparently thought I could be bribed and-or blackmailed and I’d give them an easy score at the craps tables. But they walked in thinking they were Ocean’s Three and left as close to swimming with the fishes as I could legally allow.

“Gabriel,” Castiel said slowly, “How did Jack... happen?”

Dean paused his pickle-chewing to listen.

You... don’t want to know,” Gabriel said sadly. “You really don’t.

“Lucifer is the father.”

Yeah.

Castiel closed his eyes, the intense shock of confirmation flooding its way down his body, tingling. He nodded, and exhaled. “How did Jack end up with Sam?”

Gabriel sighed. “This is gonna sound crazy.

“I’ve seen, heard, and done enough crazy things tonight; I doubt anything you can tell me will rank especially high on the list,” Castiel intoned, pushing his entire burger towards Dean.

I looked after the girl,” Gabriel said quietly. “Helped her get that baby out into the world. She didn’t want anything to do with it. And why would she, you know? I’d thought maybe she would. She was a sweet girl. Really going places. So... no. No. I, um. I looked after baby Jack for a while. A few months.

“Then—?”

Then one day this circus rolls into town. Some kinda... magic, voodoo, witchy something-or-other. I had them perform at my club. Seven middle-aged chicks in black robes. Fortune tellings, palm readings, tarot cards, guess your grandmother’s name, predict the day of your death, yadda yadda. It was just a bunch of wacko party tricks, I was only in it for the flash and the bang. But after the show, this redhead... comes up to me. Scottish. Sexy. We had a quick thing but— But that’s not the point. She saw the adoption papers I’d buried in my desk. She saw I kept hopping outta bed to feed and burp the baby. She saw what I was thinking of doing, but didn’t have the guts to do.

“You wanted to give Jack up for adoption.” Castiel felt anger, but it was faint and quickly turned to gladness. If Gabriel hadn’t given up the child, Jack would have been raised in a casino rather than Sam’s local library. Perhaps the flamboyance of Vegas would’ve provided Jack a unique insight into human nature, but still: if Jack was anything like Castiel, a library was more ideal.

Gabriel took some time, readying himself to explain... “I... look, I don’t even believe in this stuff, okay? Just gotta get that out. I am, in no way, shape, or form, a believer in magic, or fate, or anything even remotely in that vein. Except tonight I got a call from that same sexy Scottish redhead witch. I’d suspected ever since you told me your boyfriend was named ‘Winchester’, but tonight my suspicions were confirmed: the guy who adopted my kid is your boyfriend’s brother. And you know how that happened? Four-and-a-half years ago, Rowena told me to offer the child to the universe’s care and know that Jack would find his way back to me, back to the family he was meant to be part of, at exactly the right time, when I’m ready to care for him. It was bullshit, right? Totally. But then she closes her eyes and writes down a name in the margin of the form. Initials. S.W. Told me to look for people wanting to adopt with those initials.

Castiel shook his head. He couldn’t believe it. Yet he knew it was precisely what had transpired. It was the only way for this to make sense.

That’s an awful lotta people, Cassie, gotta tell ya. This S.W. could’ve been anyone. So... I gave up. Bullshit, right? Bullshit. I let the adoption people do their job, and I just waited. And then—

Castiel offered the phone so Dean could hear better, since he was eavesdropping anyway.

Then I’m introduced to this guy named Sam Winchester. S.W.

Castiel and Dean met each other’s eyes, chills running under their skin.

Have you ever just... met someone, and known? There’s something. Deep down. Primal. Like you met them before. Like you’ve known them for years. Like you could hand them your baby and leave forever and know with absolute certainty that your kid is in good hands.

Castiel smiled at Dean. “Yes.”

I didn’t hear from Sam in over four years, because I asked him not to call. I deleted him from my contacts. Then tonight Rowena calls. From Sam’s phone. Jack’s sleeping on her lap. And—? And I— I just need to know what you need, Cassie. What Sam needs. Jack. Rowena. Dean. Any of you. I missed the first four years of this kid’s life, okay, and I have never regretted anything as much as I regret not being there for him. I wanna be there for him again. I missed seeing him grow up. I just— I wanna help. I wanna help. Let me stay with you, please. Let me come back to Ingen Steder. I know I left but— I have to come back. I never dealt with the shit I left behind, or what I gave up, and I – need to do that. I’ll bring whatever you need, bro. A crash helmet for a duck, even.

Castiel rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. Trembles had taken him over, but he smiled, and nodded. “It’ll be crowded. Sam’s already planning to stay at the house too. But we have room.”

I’d rather stay at the inn. I can’t be in that house yet.

“Inn’s being sold,” Castiel said, shaking his head. “And the house— Gabriel, I can’t afford it anymore. I’d love for you to stay with me for as long as you want. But – as is, I don’t even know if I can stay long myself.”

So... where are you gonna go, then...?

Castiel looked solemnly at Dean. Dean pressed his lips together, apologetic.

Then Dean’s eyes lit up, all of a sudden. He drew a small breath. Castiel examined his expression, unsure – then saw the grin start to spread across Dean’s face.

“What?” Castiel asked.

Dean beamed. “You wanna sell the house, right? We need multiple rooms for multiple people. The family’s growing. We don’t have enough cash to pay the mortgage... but we can swap the mortgage, right? Hand the bank the house and have them mortgage a different property. But with big-bucks investors on our side, we can make it a business, not just a home. You have Gabriel. I have Rufus and Bobby.”

“I’m... not following,” Castiel squinted. An idea floated just before his eyes, drifting into his ears and tickling the back of his tongue, but he couldn’t quite grasp it...

Dean’s grin was absolutely massive now. “I always fantasised about running a motel,” he said. “And the inn at Ingen Steder Landsby is up for sale.”

Castiel now sucked in a lungful of cold, reality-shattering air. His world lit up in fiery colours, his hands began to sweat, and his insides flipped twice like a school of caffeinated dolphins. He laughed, then grinned, then laughed again. “Who better?” he smiled, taking Dean’s hand. “Who better to run a motel than the boy who grew up thinking of motels as home?”

“I know what works and what doesn’t,” Dean nodded. “I know what to avoid. And I know what makes guests feel at home.”

“It’s perfect,” Castiel breathed. “Dean, it’s perfect.”

Ooookay... So...” Gabriel chirped in Castiel’s ear, “Am I allowed to stay over, or what?

“Yeah, Gabriel,” Castiel said, both calm and elated inside. “Once we’re settled... you can stay as long as you like.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Leaving the motel bathroom in a cloud of steam, Dean took the cellphone that Castiel offered him and held it to his ear. “Hey, what’s up, Sammy? I heard Elmo’s theme song from the shower.”

We’re somewhere between Junction City and Abilene,” Sam said, fatigue dulling his voice to monotone. “Charlie picked a motel and we’re crashing. How far behind are you?

“Still in Lawrence,” Dean smiled, dropping his towel and crawling onto the bed, lying down next to Castiel, who sat up, reading. “We— Aughh...” Dean yawned, blinking hard to banish the twitch from his eyes. He lifted Banjo from the bed and rested the unicorn’s bean-filled legs on his stomach. “We’ll head home tomorrow morning.”

It is the morning. Two.

Later in the morning, then, smartass,” Dean smiled, flicking Banjo’s ears. “How’s everyone holding up?”

Asleep,” Sam said fondly. “Everyone except me.

“All right. Well. Get some shut-eye, little brother. We’ll see you soon.”

How was the house?

Dean smiled, inhaling deeply. “It’s being looked after,” he said. “I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

’Kay. Bye, jerk.

“Bitch,” Dean said, smirking as he ended the call.

He tilted his head chin-up to meet Castiel’s eyes. Castiel looked at him rather discerningly, and Dean waved a hand. “I mean ‘bitch’ in a good way.”

“Mm,” Castiel said. “Are you intending to sleep naked?”

Dean looked down at himself, lifting Banjo away. “Why, what’s wrong with naked? You sick of the tattoos? Think I need some new ink?” He rolled over, pressing his front to the sheets.

“Your tattoos are beautiful. Do you have clean underwear I can borrow?” Castiel asked. He was still wearing his towel around his waist.

Dean got up, put Banjo on his pillow, then bent to fetch the duffel bag he never travelled without. He hadn’t unpacked fully in years. There were always spare clothes, cash, some batteries, a flashlight, condoms, toiletries, a first aid kit, and a phone charger in there. It was his getaway bag. As he dug around inside, he wondered if it was out of pure practicality that he always kept it around, or whether he was still clinging to the thought, the possibility of leaving again.

Maybe he’d empty it when he got home. Wash everything. Put back only the essentials. Then call it his ‘emergency kit’, not his ‘getaway bag’.

“Panties or boxers?” Dean offered, tossing one of each into Castiel’s lap.

Castiel lifted both in turn, examining the stretch in the fabric. He chose the boxers... then swapped. “Just once,” he said, standing up to put on the panties. “To see what the fuss is about.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say,” Dean smirked.

Castiel discarded the towel, looking down at himself. “Hm.”

“Don’t like them?” Dean sat on the bed, tilting his head to admire the little bow, stretched out a good four inches under Castiel’s navel.

“The elastic bites into my skin,” Castiel said, taking them off again. “If they fit me better perhaps I wouldn’t complain.” He put the boxers on, and even Dean had to admit, he looked much better in dark colours.

Now Castiel got onto the bed beside Dean, still atop the covers. They lay together, staring at the ceiling, bare legs touching, heads full of fuzzy thoughts.

“Have your brothers always called you ‘Cassie’?” Dean asked, turning his face to peer closely at Castiel.

“Um.” Castiel thought. “As far back as I remember, yes.” He looked back at Dean. “Why?”

Dean breathed in, licking his lower lip and shrugging a shoulder against his pillow. “First girl I fell in love with was called Cassie.”

“Yes, you’ve mentioned her a few times,” Castiel said, touching his forehead to Dean’s, tufts of their damp hair intersecting, while Castiel stroked the flaming pentagram on Dean’s heart.

“You remember what Rowena said,” Dean uttered, a hand sliding over Castiel’s warm hip. “About gifts from the universe. You miss them, you reject them... they don’t work out. And the universe offers the same gift again. Just hoping you’ll do it right this time around.”

Castiel began to smile, kissing Dean softly.

“Guess I was always meant to fall in love with a Cassie,” Dean chuckled, stroking Castiel’s bristled cheek. “And... it kind of makes me think...”

“What?”

Dean sucked his bottom lip and then released it, leaving it shiny and plump. “Destiny. Fate. That shit. We’re not... bound to it, you know? Stuff’s written in the stars or whatever. Everything’s predestined. But we still have free will. What we decide – it still makes a difference. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book. The story’s contained, and there’s a set number of options. But we pick how we play the game.

“And we go in cycles. I lose one Cassie, I gain another. Your brother gives up his nephew. Then my brother and you gain the same nephew. Gabriel stepped off the childcare path. And now he’s ready to step back on, pick up where he left off. He wants to be there for Jack. And I wanna be there for Jack. Rowena was there at the start and she’s with us now, still. We’re all... connected. Everything is connected.

“And—” Dean’s breath caught, and he stroked Castiel’s cheek again. “And we don’t know what we’re doing, do we? Any of us. We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s gonna happen, not for sure. But... we do know where we’ve been. And everything we leave behind will come back again, in some other form. We just gotta deal with the shit and – release it. Get through it. Move on. Then when it comes back around, we know what to do. We know where we went wrong before. And there’s no rulebook for this kind of choose-your-own-adventure. Stuff just happens and we gotta roll with it. We can surrender our fates to the universe, sure, but if we don’t make the right choices we’re still fucked.” Dean held Castiel’s hand and kissed his knuckles, frowning slightly, feeling out of sorts.

“We’re making it up as we go along,” Castiel said softly. He met Dean eyes and nodded. “I think I remember telling you once that... our paths have joined. Our adventures... collided. So we can tackle the next pages of our adventure books as a team, yes? And we can make choices that are good for everyone.”

“Us,” Dean smiled. “And our whole extended family.”

“Exactly.” Castiel wrapped his arm over Dean. “All of us together.”

“Team Free Will?”

Castiel chuckled, then agreed, “Team Free Will.”

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

Three weeks passed.

Down in the valley beyond the river, the people of Ingen Steder Landsby raised a second village. This one was temporary, sheltered under eggshell-white canvas tents that bubbled and flapped in the brewing storm. Bulb lights were strung from corner to corner, bunting draped across the aisles, all bobbing in place.

Cables stretched along to hidden generators, powering the ice-cream machine, the cotton-candy wheel, the popcorn-maker – but the cables were not long enough to reach the oak tree, despite Mayor Weatherbee’s clearest demands.

However, the Mayor’s assistant had not failed their task, as the oak tree had lanterns of its own, glowing orange paper squares with tassels hanging from its branches, fluttering as the wind came by. The tree watched over the townsfolk, standing tall on its hill, every dark green leaf turned proudly upward, made to rustle in the humid summer heat.

Hundreds of people had come in from out of town for the summer festival, driving from Boulder, or Denver, since both cities were within fifty miles of the village.

Crystalline blue skies had grown dense with grey clouds, as the sun neared the horizon. Even the breeze grew eager at the festivities, warm winds sneaking between shoes and rustling up the trampled grass.

Late-season lambs bleated from Billie’s paddock, where she offered milk bottles to the children, helping little ginger-haired Madeline down off the hay bales to touch a baby sheep’s woolly back.

Charlie excused herself, kissing Billie’s cheek, then taking Eddie from the paddock and making their way towards the oak’s hill.

They ascended, walking a path carved into the dry grass by the cloven hooves of sheep.

Dean spotted Charlie’s red hair against the desaturated green immediately; he was already on his way to the tree, and he waved, then hurried up the riverbank, chasing after Castiel. He laughed, far more excitable than normal.

“I didn’t think it was possible to get drunk on Ellen’s elderflower wine,” Castiel smiled, snatching Dean’s hand and helping him to the peak of the hill before he tumbled. Their hair was caught in a gust, flaring and fluttering over their heads. “I think you’ve just had a sugar overdose.”

“Naw, I’m just excited,” Dean said, patting his pocket. “Got more paint samples here than you can shake a stick at. Oh, hey, Donna! Was wondering where you were.”

Donna looked away from Jody, her smile turning to a grin as they left the shelter of the oak tree. “Hey there, you lucky boy.”

“Lucky?” Dean raised his eyebrows.

“He clearly doesn’t know yet,” Jody smiled, gripping Donna’s hand. “C’mon, let’s see what else is good to eat down there.”

“What don’t I know?” Dean asked.

“A million things, probably.” Donna offered Dean and Castiel a basket full of donuts. “Want one?”

Dean took a donut, but Castiel pulled a face, politely waving his hand and swallowing nothing. “Not for me, but thank you, Donna.”

Jody chuckled. “Stuffed your face with too many of those at Dean’s show?”

“It’s not that,” Castiel admitted. “Well, it’s partly that. But mostly it’s, um— I’m taking some new medication, and I’ve been told it’s... going to take some adjustment.”

Dean clapped Castiel on the back. “Feeling woozy from dusk to dawn.”

“Antidepressants,” Castiel said, when Donna looked curious. “We made it to the doctor.”

Dean took Castiel’s hand and squeezed it, gazing at him with pride. “After a six-hundred mile road trip and a night away from home, a seventeen-mile day trip is barely anything, huh.”

“It wasn’t too bad,” Castiel nodded at Jody.

Dean patted Donna’s arm before she left. “So, really, what don’t I know yet?” he asked. “What’s going on?”

Donna’s eyes darted to Castiel, then back. “Nothing! Bye!” She ran off, and Jody sighed, shaking her head, sticking her hands in her pockets as she went after her.

A stir of excitement began in Dean’s stomach, and it had nothing to do with the donut. Was he in for a surprise? A nice surprise?

Once they were alone, Dean glanced at Castiel and asked, “Y... You’re not proposing to me, are you?”

Castiel looked startled. “What? No?”

“Oh,” Dean said, both relieved and disappointed, but not sure which emotion ought to carry more weight.

“Not today, anyway,” Castiel added, glancing towards the lantern-hung tree, smiling slightly.

Dean smirked, he couldn’t help it. “So... what’s going on, then?”

“Beats me,” Castiel said, in a very Sam-like sort of way. Dean smirked. They’d been spending way too much time together, clearly.

There he is,” Charlie said, approaching with Eddie, finally at the top of the hill. She tucked her windswept hair behind her ears. “Hey, Dean. Eddie wanted to see you.”

“Oh, hey there, little man,” Dean said, crouching to high-five Eddie. “How are you enjoying the festival?”

Eddie wiped his nose on his sleeve, then announced, “I’m going to be a dare-devil when I grow up.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean grinned, eyes rising to Charlie. “Is that so?”

“He loved your show,” Charlie said, one hand on her hip. “He’s a big fan. His school teacher has a superhero-worthy alter ego, and there’s literally nothing cooler in existence if you’re five.”

“Uh-huh.” Dean winked at Eddie. “Well, if you’re serious about that career plan, you want some tips?”

Eddie pondered, then nodded. “Yeah.”

Dean grinned. “First thing, get yourself some ballet lessons. Really helps with the physical strength, and balance, so you don’t fall over. And take science classes when you’re in big-kid school, alright? Physics in particular.” He let his smile soften. “And don’t ever be too proud or determined to stop what you’re doing, and really think about the people who love you. Okay? Doing tricks on bikes is fun but it’s real dangerous too. And if you get hurt...” He glanced back, seeing Castiel’s waist beside him. “If you get hurt, you hurt other people’s feelings too. Because they care about you. So.” Dean patted Eddie on the top of his head. “Good luck.”

Eddie nodded. “Thank...ss.”

“You’re welcome, Eddie. Catch you on the flip side, a’right? And hey— Thanks for naming Boots for me. It’s the perfect name.” Dean stood, grinning. He reached to bat Charlie’s arm. “Awesome kid.”

Charlie nodded upward, towards the tree. “Are they waiting for you?”

Dean glanced over, and saw Sam leaning against the tree trunk, Jack holding his hand at his side. The daylight was growing dim, but in the oak tree’s friendly glow, Dean spotted the ducks sitting around Sam’s feet, nibbling at the grass. Sam noticed Dean looking, and raised a hand to wave.

“Who’s that other guy?” Dean asked, eyeing the glittering figure beside Sam, half-hidden behind gushing oak leaves. “Looks like a walking disco ball.”

“I’d say Rowena but that’s definitely not Rowena,” Charlie said, quirking an eyebrow. “Hey, maybe you could ask.”

Sam approached, Jack hurrying beside him. The ducks came after them, quacking, recognising Dean and Cas and hurrying ahead, overtaking Sam.

Sam chuckled, watching Jack and Eddie team up to chase the ducks, who hop-hop-flew away, wings flapping, crash-landing a few feet further down the hill.

“You know,” Sam said, “I don’t understand what the problem is.” He showed Dean his cellphone. “I have an Internet connection. It works fine. What were you even complaining about, Dean?”

“Mine’s fine too,” Charlie said. “Ever since Rowena did her hubbly-bubbly-toiley-troubley thing on the way to the daredevil show, I get uninterrupted wi-fi in the middle of nowhere.”

Sam raised his eyebrows.

“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Castiel said, eyes on the festival at the bottom of the valley, squinting against the very last of the sun between the clouds, eyes relaxing as it dipped behind the mountains. “Rowena enjoys gifting her favourite people with all sorts of unusual, magical things.”

Sam huffed, smiling. “Well, that explains it.”

“Oh boy,” Charlie smirked. “Let’s see me explain this one to Billie.”

Dean stuck his hands into the pockets of his green canvas jacket, bright gaze set on Jack, who sat beside Eddie on the edge of the hill, eating nougat, then offering a bite to Banjo, the fat rainbow unicorn on his lap.

“He loves Banjo,” Sam said softly, seeing where Dean’s attention had gone. “You’re not gonna believe this, but today... he was talking. In third person, actually. He does Banjo’s voice and tells me what he needs. Banjo wants some juice. Banjo doesn’t like that music. Banjo is building a nest of hair in Castiel’s laundry basket because of... uh, indeterminate, mumbly reasons.”

While Dean grimaced, Castiel smiled widely.

“I used to collect dust bunnies,” Castiel told Sam. “I’d keep an eye on the ones under the bed, and I’d feed them with more dust. I became an expert at making sure they rolled into perfect balls.”

Dean looked horrified. “And I love you, why, exactly?”

Castiel raised a defiant eyebrow. “Because I used to do those things. And that’s exactly why you love Jack, also.”

Dean took a breath, but found he didn’t actually have a valid argument against Castiel’s statement. Eyes unfocused, he tipped his head, conceding.

“He’s going to grow up faster than I did,” Castiel assured Sam, “with you as a parent.”

Sam looked back at the glowing oak tree, at the glittery silver jacket of a stranger. “Yeah,” he said softly. “He does have some pretty good parents.” He looked at Dean and Castiel again, then at Charlie, smiling. “Seriously. He has the best family.”

“Oh, now who’s talking in third person,” Dean grinned, clapping Sam on the arm. “Go on, go collect your offspring, he’s bothering my daughter.”

Sam snorted, seeing Jack trying to offer Boots some of his nougat. “Jack! She doesn’t eat that!”

As he stepped towards Jack and Eddie, he patted Dean on the bicep – and Dean yelped, “Ow-ow! New ink, dude! Jeeeeez. Go easy.”

“Sorry,” Sam smiled.

“Sam?” Dean turned to call after his brother. “Go check out Rowen’s stall! She’s selling duck-feather talismans, she said she reserved somethin’ for you. You too, Charlie.” He fished in his pocket and pulled out a purple keyring, with an iridescent feather hanging from it. “I got mine already. Apparently it’s for a real special key, but God knows which key that is. I put it on the house key.”

As Sam and Charlie waved and left, Dean slipped the key back into his pocket. He felt the hard edge of paint sample cards in there too, and stroked them, humming a note. “How long do you think it’ll take?” he asked Castiel. “Until we know for sure about the inn. Ellen’s word is one thing, but... the finances, you know?” He showed Castiel some of the paint samples, his favourite being the pale, mint green. “Am I crazy for carrying these around? It’s just... I’m looking forward to... having a place. Our own place. Somewhere we can paint and refurnish without having to apologise to a ghost.”

“I heard there were ghosts in the Ingen Steder Inn,” Castiel said.

“Yeah, but they’re not your mom.”

“That’s true.”

Dean and Castiel both looked up, eyes drawn by a flash of reflected moonlight. Out from under the oak tree came a man in a shining silver jacket, beads or sequins making him sparkle as he walked. He was Jody’s height, light-coloured hair pushed up in a big quiff, and he seemed to be smirking.

“Friend of yours?” Dean asked out of the corner of his mouth.

“Gabriel,” Castiel said.

“Oh,” Dean realised.

Gabriel stuck his hands in the pockets of his tight jeans, stopping when he got close, leaning back on his heels and bouncing once in place. “So this is the famous Dean Winchester,” he said. “You’re prettier than I expected.”

Dean wasn’t sure what to say. “Uhh. Thanks?”

Gabriel winked. “Don’t let it go to your head. Your brother’s cuter.”

Dean huffed out a laugh, glancing at Castiel for some cue on what to do. Castiel just stood, hands in his trenchcoat pockets, staring at his brother.

“How... are... you?” Castiel asked.

Gabriel smiled, caught off-guard by the sentiment of the question. “I’m good, bro,” he said, and clearly meant it. “I’m real good.”

“I’m glad,” Castiel said, eyes downcast. “I— I don’t mean to be rude, but... why are you here?”

“Yeeeah, we don’t really do social visits, do we?” Gabriel said understandingly. “Well. You’re right. What’s the point? Let’s quit the small talk and cut to the chase: here.” He pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and handed it to Castiel.

Castiel unfolded it, and frowned. “What is this?”

“Now, let’s see,” Gabriel said with an eye-roll. “That first S with a line through it is a dollar sign, which means all the itty-bitty numbers afterwards all add up to be a big, big number. It’s money, genius. It’s what I’m giving you. That’s post-taxes.”

Castiel’s expression changed to one of true shock: eyes wide, cheeks slack, mouth open. He stared at Gabriel in awe. “No... You can’t...?”

“What, I can’t have that much? News flash, little brother, I make that in a week. I can’t give that to you? Well—” Gabriel shrugged, looking sheepish. “Call it repayment for a loan. With interest.”

“Loan— What loan?” Castiel squinted. “I never gave you money.”

Gabriel scrunched one cheek back towards his ear, clicking against his teeth. “Welp. That’s where you’re wrong. I mean have... borrowed... some of your savings.”

A lungful of air blasted out of Castiel, fluttering the scrap of paper in his hands. “You. You stole my jar of loose change.”

“Um. Think bigger. And further along our familial chronology.”

“The... suitcase of comic books under my bed?”

Gabriel bit his lip.

“The travel fund.” Castiel almost crunched up the note. “You stole my travel fund.”

“You were the one who launched my porn-movie career,” Gabriel shrugged like it wasn’t a big deal, but Dean saw the guilt in his eyes. “Seriously, I wouldn’t be running a club in Vegas without you. I always knew I’d get you back someday. I assumed you didn’t need it yet, because... ah-hah, fifteen years a shut-in, oh boy. But you’re going places now. Seeing people. Figure you could do with the cash.”

“Maybe if I had the money before I wouldn’t have stayed so long,” Castiel growled.

“You’re missing the point,” Gabriel muttered. “You made an investment many years ago. And now you get your return. It’s not a gift, Cassie, it’s just good manners. And you can use it for whatever you want. It’s a road trip. It’s a new car and driving lessons. It’s new furniture and carpets for that weird little inn you’ve got your heart set on. It’s an engagement ring for your pretty-boy. It’s a skating ramp for your duck – which, by the way—” He pulled a football helmet the size of a walnut out of his pocket. “The bobblehead doesn’t need it. Here.” He handed Castiel the helmet, and withdrew his hand. “I’m sorry for what I did. But I’m proud to say I’ve never done it again.”

Castiel sighed. He looked at the figure after that dollar sign, and showed Dean. Dean shook his head dismissively, not believing it would be that much.

“Oh, you doubt?” Gabriel smiled, seeing Dean’s expression. “It’s in Cassie’s bank account already. Do me a favour: call the bank when you get home. And speaking of home...”

He again reached into his pocket, and pulled out a golden key, an old-fashioned one with a loop at the end. He handed it to Dean. “Rowena tells me you have a talisman that’ll fit this perfectly.”

Dean touched the feather in his pocket, unable to speak.

“What’s this for?” Castiel asked, touching the key. “If there’s a key, then there has to be a lock— Gabriel, wait, don’t leave! What is this?”

Gabriel turned to look back over his glitzy shoulder, already on his way down the hill. He waved. “All yours, bro! Bought and paid for!”

Gabriel!

Dean looked down at the key. There was an engraved metal dog-tag attached to it by a tiny chain, but the waxing summer moon beamed too faintly to read the cursive lettering. So he led Castiel towards the oak tree, and they stepped into the amber luminescence of its lanterns, where the shrieks and music from the festival faded amongst the soft, calming hush of the breeze through the leaves.

“Dean,” Castiel said, touching Dean’s wrist. “What’s the key for?”

Dean read the metal plate, then showed it to Castiel, heart in his throat, stomach full of butterflies. “The inn,” he breathed. “It’s for the Ingen Steder Landsby Inn.”

“The inn—? But—?” Castiel shook his head. “But our mortgage... the house—” He flapped the bit of paper Gabriel had given him. “What about this, isn’t this money for buying the inn?”

Dean began to smile, sucking his lower lip. “Maybe not,” he said. “Maybe it’s... the universe’s gifts. Returning again some other way.”

Castiel took a moment to ponder. “You... pulled out of the race. Gave up the money—”

“And here it is again. Your old travel fund?” Dean grinned, rushing to hug Castiel. “Cas, we could go anywhere. Friggin’ anywhere. And then—” He pulled back, grasping both of Castiel’s shoulders, eyes wild and breaths hurried, “We can come back here. And still have enough to renovate the inn. Set up the business.”

Castiel’s shock had turned to a smile, and tears filled his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, okay, I’d like that.”

He rushed at Dean, enveloping him in a tight, fierce hug. But Dean cried out in pain, gasping as Castiel let him go. He breathed hard, scowling as he took off his jacket.

“Oh... I’m so sorry, I got caught up in the moment—”

“It’s fine, Cas,” Dean breathed, smiling. “It’s just a lil tender, that’s all.” He hung his jacket on a tree branch, showing Castiel his bicep. The tattoo was dark-outlined, fresher than the surrounding ink. The subject was Dean’s pink Harley-Davidson dirt bike, mid-jump, ridden by three ducks. From the back of the bike shot two red hearts, enshrouded in yellow flames.

“God, I freaking love it,” Dean said. “Remind me to tip the artist again, next time we visit your doctor.”

Castiel smiled, bowing his head to kiss the tattoo softly. “Does it hurt less, now?”

Dean snickered. “Way less. Thanks, bud.”

Along came a quacking herd: the three ducks waddled under the tree, finally having found their parents, berating them for wandering off.

“You guys having a good time?” Dean asked, as Boots came to stand on the toe of his pink mudboot for comfort. “What? Why’re you lookin’ at me like that?” He listened to the quacking, then said, “Heyy, don’t worry about it. Give it a month, you’ll all be able to fly just fine.”

Middle pecked at some tree bark, then spat it out. Rex quacked once, very loudly, flapping those big wings and letting a few baby feathers escape, swirling around in the gust.

“So, what now?” Dean said, leaning his back against the tree trunk, eyes on Castiel. “And I don’t mean right this second, I mean... the future. What the hell do we do, now? Sell the house, take a trip, start an inn? But then what?”

Castiel shrugged. “I’m not used to thinking that far ahead.”

“Maybe you can learn,” Dean said, taking his hand. “The meds oughta help, too. You can stop just trying to survive the day, and start living.”

Castiel nodded. He soon smiled, eyes shining. “Dean...? It’s funny... not too long ago... I truly believed the best part of my life was over. But,” he tilted his head, and kissed Dean against the tree, breathing softly as he broke away. “But it’s only just beginning, isn’t it? The best part has yet to happen.”

Dean gazed at Castiel with immense pride. This guy had come such a long way. Dean was convinced that whatever improvements Castiel made for himself, Dean would be right there with him, healing and growing too. Just having Cas around made everything seem so easy. Even the tough stuff could be a good experience, in his company.

There came a deep roll of distant thunder, and Dean’s eyes skipped to a shadow: the tall, long-haired figure of Sam approached, hands in the pockets of his suede jacket, no Jack in sight. The kids were hanging out with Charlie and Billie and the lambs, no doubt.

“Hey, Sam?” Dean said. “You’ll never guess what just happened.”

Sam chuckled like he did know, but he said, “Enlighten me.”

Dean looked at Castiel, grinning, eyebrows jumping to ask: could he tell Sam? Castiel nodded, bending down to pick up Boots.

Voice brimming with excitement, Dean informed his brother, “Long story short? We’re moving into a motel.”

Sam huffed, surprised. Apparently Gabriel hadn’t shared that information. “Who is?” he asked. “You two?”

“All of us.” Dean bent down, and picked up Rex and Middle, holding them under his arms. “You, Jack. Gabriel. The whole family. The inn is ours now.”

Dean and Castiel met each other’s eyes again, sharing a smile.

For just a moment, Dean marvelled at how the universe could be so kind. Was this just a gift for him, and the people he loved? Or did other people’s lives have the same balance, the same cause-and-effect? The same remixed, musical echoes of the past, with chances coming back around again? He knew for sure he’d made a lot of wrong choices. But maybe he’d paid his dues in all his years of dissatisfaction, and this was where he got to start fresh. The save point in the game of life. Reset.

His second chance began today. And if the best part of his life was about to begin, there was nobody – absolutely nobody – who he would rather spend his time with than the people here: his family, who, like him, had found sanctuary and salvation in a tiny little village in the middle of Colorado.

Like the eldest oak tree of Ingen Steder Landsby, they put down their roots. Soon those roots would be firm, deep, and Dean’s loved ones would, as a people, stand proudly on their peak, looking over their domain.

This place was home. These people were family. And someday, Dean thought, as he looked at Cas with so much love just aching in his chest, he was gonna freaking marry this guy.

Yeah.

No joke.

The pretty Sunday church bells of Ingen Steder would ring for them, someday.

Someday...

But, heck – they were both already thinking about it, weren’t they?

Someday? Call it someday soon.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Chapter Text

2 MONTHS LATER

“I don’t need a break, you need a break,” Dean complained, hunched in the shade of the tree nearest the bridge, cat carrier in hand. “Can’t believe you dragged me all the way out here, Cas. Didn’t even give me a moment to change, either. Booty shorts, man. Not appropriate for the public eye.”

“Charlie can paint a room without your help,” Castiel said firmly. “Besides, it’s nothing you won’t try and re-do once you get back. You’re missing nothing.”

“I’m missing my mid-afternoon snack, that’s what I’m missing.”

“Oh, really?” Castiel said, smiling. He opened up the studded saddlebag on Dean’s motorcycle, retrieving a small wicker picnic basket from inside. “Honestly, Dean, it’s as if you don’t realise how well I know you.”

Dean tried to maintain a frown, but it shattered into a helpless smile, and he looked away, half rolling his eyes. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever.”

“Let’s sit by the river,” Castiel stated, leaving no room for argument. “The ducks can have a swim while we eat.”

They climbed down past the foot of the bridge, Castiel taking Dean’s hand so he could jump first. Once his sandals were steady on the dry riverbank, he reached up to help Dean down too.

They wandered some way along the river, until the stone bridge and the outer walls of the village square no longer loomed.

Under a willow tree, where the sunlight was golden and dappled, and the earth smelled of summer, they crouched. While Castiel spread out a picnic blanket, Dean opened up the cat carrier to let Rex, Middle, and Boots toddle out, stretching their wings before plopping into the blue water. The ducks chortled in delight as they swam with the current, then against it, dipping their heads under the water, then dunking their whole bodies.

Dean sighed as he sat on the blanket, bowed legs stretched out before him. For comfort’s sake, he kicked off his mudboots, leaving his feet bare, glowing pale in the sunlight.

“So what did you really bring me here for?” Dean asked casually, accepting the plated pie-slice Castiel offered him. He took a fork, and poked around at the blueberries, not yet eating. He looked at Castiel, waiting for an answer.

Castiel shrugged. “Like I said. You needed a break. Decorating one room is stressful enough, but twelve?” He smiled, undoing another button on his white shirt, leaving half his chest exposed. “I know you enjoy painting, but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.”

“Lies,” Dean said carelessly, lavishing attention on his pie. “Mmmh. Never too much pie.”

Castiel chuckled. His blue eyes shone with light, wrinkles forming to show his joy. Dean smiled at him with a full mouth.

They ate in companionable silence for a while.

“Oh—” A white shape on the water drew Castiel’s attention, and when Dean looked, he grinned.

“Swans,” Dean said. “Must be a pair. I remember seeing them here, way back.”

“Boots, be nice!” Castiel called, as Boots rushed around the swans in a circle, quacking loudly. “Don’t scare them!”

Despite being a tad distracted by these rowdy mallards whirlpooling around them, the swans seemed perfectly at ease. Yet, within a handful of seconds, the ducks were calm, and seemed to mimic the swans’ elegant drift, heads high, bills tucked to their chests. Dean hummed a laugh, fork tines between his lips.

“Hey, don’t swim too far,” Dean told the ducks. “Stay where we can see you, all right?”

The ducks quacked a response, but they were too enthralled by the swans to pay attention.

“They’ll be back,” Castiel smiled, looking down at his pie. “And if they’re not, they’ll fly home.”

Dean nodded, scraping his plate clean of purple sauce. “Rex has a better sense of direction than the freakin’ map on Sam’s phone.”

Castiel didn’t respond straight away, as he finished his pie and cleared away his plate, then began pouring drinks into tall glasses. Dean raised his eyebrows as he noticed it was champagne.

“What are we celebrating?” he asked, accepting the glass.

“Isn’t it enough to enjoy the moment?” Castiel said softly, tilting his head, a sparkle in his gaze. Dean knew he was teasing, but he wasn’t sure why, or what about. “What’s the good in saving something for a special occasion? We can make this occasional special.”

“True,” Dean said, with a hint of amused suspicion in his voice. “But...?”

Castiel offered his glass for Dean to clink. Dean clinked.

They drank. Dean swallowed, eyes on Cas, wondering if Cas was second-guessing his plan, and trying to cover his tracks by pretending this was a typical afternoon excursion. Did they really need a break? It seemed unnecessary, and therefore Dean questioned Castiel’s motives. Granted, they’d never gotten around to taking their road trip, as the inn needed so much work first, so technically the past two months had been non-stop planning and decorating and talking to banks and visiting the therapist and moving house and making space for the family and getting Internet set up and gardening, so... okay... maaaaybe a break was in order. They might as well make use of the fact school was out for summer.

But that didn’t explain the champagne.

“I once thought,” Castiel said, bowing his head, hands around his champagne flute, “that if I ever realised I was... thinking badly of myself, if I recognised a negative mindset, if I realised, suddenly, that I was allowing depression to overtake me... it meant I wasn’t improving. Because I was aware of it, you know? If I know it’s there, that means it’s there, and that means it hasn’t gone away. And I thought that meant I’d made no improvement whatsoever.”

Dean remained silent, unsure where this was going.

Castiel took a sip, swallowed, then sighed and shook his head. “I was wrong.” He looked over at Dean. “Recognising it is the necessary first step. Knowing it’s there, being aware of its presence and its effects – that meant I could fight it. I’d despise myself for something I didn’t do perfectly, for not being good enough, held back by my sickness. But then I found I could tell myself – no, I did especially well. I did the best I could do despite being sick. And that hatred, the carelessness inside me, it’s the sickness talking. It’s not reality.

“And recognising depression... that was one or two steps away from recognising joy. Even if it was faint. And instead of basking in the bad, I made sure I basked in the good. It’s about more than being grateful for being okay every day, it’s about taking the time to feel good.” Castiel enlivened as he spoke, his eyes animated, his smile broad. “Putting myself first, sometimes. Being selfish on purpose. Prioritizing my mental health over my job, over other people’s needs, over the house, over... everything.

“Sometimes that means... tidying the house. Sometimes it means having a routine and sticking to it; sometimes it means breaking that routine and doing something else. I need to see friends. I need to leave my comfort zone – but sometimes I need to stay inside it, too. It’s about balance. You and I, our opposites, our extremes – we met in the middle, Dean. And I’m so grateful to you for helping me shake out the dust. If I take care of myself first, and if I let you care for me – then I can take care of others more easily. And I still do. I still want to. I still have to. I will continue to. Every day.”

Castiel looked at Dean with tender eyes, a soft smile, the side of his face edged in white gold, rippling with reflections from the water.

“You make me happy, Dean,” he said. “Your presence, your words, your... your love, it causes endorphins to flow through my body. The ducks do the same, but... You. In all the time I’ve known you, you’ve been healing me.” He glanced away. “You’ve... allowed me to heal myself. Assisted me. Supported me.” He met Dean’s eyes again, and exhaled. “And I want to continue healing. I want to do whatever is within my power to help you feel as good as I feel in this moment, Dean.”

Dean inhaled, trembling. “Okay,” he whispered.

Castiel tilted his head. He began to squint. “Why do you seem nervous?”

Dean flashed a grin, eyes down, thumbing his champagne. “Aren’t you?”

“No. Just... blissful.”

“Heh.” Dean sucked his lower lip. “I dunno. I just— Guess I’ve been waiting. For this. And as much as I prepared myself I’m still not—” He had to put down his drink, breathing out, one hand over his eyes. He grinned wildly, letting his hand fall as he looked back at Castiel. “I’m ready,” he said.

“For what?”

“For you to ask,” Dean gulped.

“Ask... what, exactly?”

Dean gazed at Castiel discerningly. “For you... to ask... if you wanna marry me...?”

Castiel grinned all of a sudden, eyes glistening. He lay his champagne glass down, accidentally spilling what was left into the grass. His breath shook, and he nodded. “Ah— All right. Yes. I will.”

“Will what?”

“Marry you.”

Dean stared at him.

Castiel stared back.

Slowly, a grin rose on both their faces, each of them mirroring the other. They chuckled, and then burst out laughing, arms grasping each other, torsos toppling sideways to lie on their picnic blanket. They held each other tight, Dean’s bare legs stretched alongside Castiel’s, feet touching.

Soon, amid a smile and a kiss, Castiel whispered, “We’ll travel for the honeymoon.”

Dean grinned. “Good an excuse as any.”

And they lay, serene in the flickering light, gazing up at the bright sky through the braided leaves, hearing their ducks swimming back to see what the ruckus was about.

Dean rested his forehead against Castiel’s hair, shutting his eyes for a moment, lost in a garden of inner ecstasy.

He heard Castiel snap the Polaroid camera shutter above him, and simply smiled wider.

The ducks waddled up onto the riverbank, quack-quack-quacking. Their cool, wet bodies brushed up Dean’s legs. He felt them nestle against his waist, and he placed a hand on a duck, hearing it quack. Little Boots, of course. It was always Boots.

It would always be them.

Dean, Castiel.

And Duck, Duck, Boots.

⌁ ♥ ⌁

Long story short, they moved into a motel.

Technically, it was an inn.

But, oh...

(Oh.)

They made it a home.

{ the end }