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Don't Look Back

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In the aftermath of the big reveal, Dean’s on edge for a couple days, and Cas stares a lot more than he used to, which is saying something. 

Dean shoves his unwelcome feelings for Cas down deep and makes a point of going out at least once a week to interact with someone outside of work who isn’t named Castiel Novak. He doesn’t rub it in Cas’s face, as much as that would please the vindictive part of him, but he texts Cas to let him know if he shouldn’t wait up. 

Dean only regrets not spending the evening with Cas about half the time.

It doesn’t help that his track record isn’t what it used to be. He’s gotten pickier since he met Cas. He stays away from men altogether (not hard in Kansas) and tries to live up to his prime bachelorhood years.

Across the bar, Benny scowls at him. “You want another?” he asks, gesturing at Dean’s empty glass of whiskey.

Dean shakes his head as he casts another glance around the Roadhouse. “No thanks. I think I’ll settle up, if that’s alright with you.”

“No problem. Not feeling it tonight?”

“Am I that obvious?”

Benny's silent shrug is telling. As he turns around to ring up his bill, Dean fishes his wallet out of his pocket, a twenty already in his hand. He pauses as a flash of a familiar face catches his eye across the Roadhouse. He twists in his seat, staring at her.

Lisa idly swirls the ice in her empty glass around with the little cocktail straw. Her attention hardly stays on the man sitting opposite for more than a half second before she loses interest again. It’s only a matter of time before she spots Dean. 

He gives her a sheepish wave from his awkward position half-angled towards her. She smiles before quickly diverting her attention back to her date and saying something Dean can’t hear. She starts to get out of her seat, her hand curling around her empty glass, but before she can stand, her date grabs her hand across the table and calls over their waiter.

Lisa tentatively sits back down and rolls her eyes, a gesture clearly meant for Dean.

He could go over and rescue her from what all signs point to a terrible date. 

He pulls out his phone instead. Dean’s played the hero before and only got a drink thrown in his face once or twice for unappreciated gallantry.

 

Dean 8:17

U need a bail out call?

 

He watches as Lisa checks her purse, her face apologetic as she types out her response.

 

Lisa 8:17

If you can get him to leave yourself there’s a free drink in it for you.

I was looking forward to my salad and it hasn’t come yet.

 

That’s all the permission Dean needs to swagger over to Lisa’s table, a plan already forming in his head.

“Lisa, hey!” he calls. A couple heads turn in his direction. “Baby!”

Lisa’s eyes widen for a split second before she says, “Dean?” like she just saw him there.

“I just can’t take it anymore,” Dean tells her fervently, sliding down his knees next to their table. “You gotta take me back. I can’t live without you. I’m dyin’ here. Honest!” 

Lisa’s date is gaping at him, frowning at the display. “Come on.”

Dean ignores him. “Lis, I’ll be a better man for you.”

“Dude,” the date mutters, “you’re embarrassing yourself.”

Dean takes Lisa’s hand in his like he has eyes only for her. “I’ll do better this time, I swear. You and Ben - that’s it for me.”

Lisa gasps dramatically, looking like she’s about to swoon. Her date asks, his expression just shy of ludicrous, “There’s a Ben now too?”

He shuffles closer, still on his knees. Crumbs dig into his kneecap, and he’s going to murder Jo for not sweeping up properly. “You and your son are all that matter to me!” Dean proclaims, and he can tell Lisa’s struggling to keep a straight face. 

“Screw this,” the date says as he gets out of his chair. “I thought you were too good to be true. Fucking dating apps.”

Dean gets to his feet as he watches the departure, feeling mighty pleased with himself. Lisa bursts out laughing.

An older lady twists around in her seat, glaring disapprovingly. “Young lady, that’s no way to treat this man.”

“No, it’s fine,” Dean waves her off as he sits down in the vacated seat. He glances down at the still-empty table. “You promised me a free drink.”

“I sure did,” Lisa says, still grinning. “You can have his food too, if you like.”

“What’d he get?” Dean asks, intrigued.

“The steak, I think,” Lisa says, nose wrinkling. “Very manly.”

“Well, I am a very manly man,” Dean says, puffing his chest out. “Coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress? Nothing manlier than that.”

“As long as you don’t expect true love’s kiss at the end, then I’m happy,” Lisa says with a shrug.

Dean snorts. “True love. Hah.”

Lisa rolls her eyes. “Don’t knock it. It could happen to you.”

“Fat chance. I’ll have that drink now, though.”

* * *

Lisa does end up giving him a kiss that night, and a hell of a lot more. Ben is at another sleepover, so she has a rare night free of mom duties. After dinner, they migrate back to the bar. Dean shoots the shit with Lisa and Benny until the room goes fuzzy from the alcohol and all he can think about is his last night with her. They end up walking back to Dean’s place, since Lisa’s date drove them to the Roadhouse and Dean’s too drunk to get behind the wheel of his baby.

Dean wakes up to the smell of coffee. He takes a moment to get his bearings, wincing at the bright morning light. He pulls on a pair of pajama pants on and his bathrobe before he makes out of his bedroom.

Lisa is in the kitchen, tentatively pressing at buttons on the coffee maker. She’s wearing the flannel he wore last night and what he hopes is a pair of pilfered, clean, boxers.

“You don’t have to do that,” Dean says blearily as he sidles up behind her and presses a kiss to the back of her head. 

“Here.” Lisa hands him a mug of coffee. “I don’t know how you take it.”

“Black’s fine,” Dean says he takes a sip. It’s too hot, but at least it wakes him up some. 

“Who are – Dean?” 

Dean suppresses an internal groan. God, if only he’d gotten up fifteen minutes earlier to have coffee and be properly awake for this. Last night went a long way to putting him in a good mood, but even sex can only do so much for early-morning Dean Winchester. “Hey, Cas,” he says to the newcomer emerging fully dressed from his bedroom. “This is Lisa.”

“Hi,” Lisa greets with a hand not holding her own coffee mug. “You’re Dean’s roommate, right?”

“Dean would be highly circumspect if not,” Cas rumbles, signing along with his words. He casts Dean a doubtful look, “or maybe not, since it is before ten am.”

Lisa glances bemusedly at Dean, who merely grunts his assent. 

Dean asks, “You going somewhere, Cas?” Cas is in a regular shirt and jeans, no suit-and-tie combo Dean’s used to seeing on him.

“I have a meeting with my thesis advisor,” Cas explains.

“Oh, right,” Dean says as he sags back against the kitchen counter, half of his coffee already gone. He sets the cup down to sign, “Don’t let him give you any shit.”

“I try not to,” Cas says with the ghost of a smile. “Lisa… It was nice to meet you.”

“Yeah, same here,” Lisa says awkwardly, waving as Cas leaves. 

Dean drains the rest of his coffee and pours another cup, emptying the coffee pot. “Do you want another?” 

Lisa shakes her head. “I’m good.”

“Do you have to take off soon too?”

“Since Ben sleeps till two pm if I let him, probably not,” Lisa says, a smile spreading across her face. “Why? Do you have any plans?”

They spend the rest of the morning back in bed. By the time lunch rolls around, Dean’s feeling supremely disinclined to put on pants. They’re laughing, freshly showered, and partially dressed by the time the delivery man arrives. 

Dean flops down on the couch and hands out their sandwiches to Lisa, leaving the one he ordered for Cas in the bag. He wolfs down his first couple bites, not terribly conscious of his manners. From her stories, Dean’s got nothing on Ben, despite Lisa’s best efforts. 

Lisa nibbles at hers, picking at stray bits of lettuce and sprouts that are almost falling out.

“Hey,” Dean says after a few moments of silence. “You okay?”

Lisa sighs, and Dean stuffs another bit of sandwich in his mouth. “What are we doing?”

“Eating lunch?”

“Dean.”

He just shrugs. “I don’t know. Having a good time, I hope.”

Lisa manages a half-smile in return. “I shouldn’t have drank that much last night.”

Dean stares at her for a second, his sandwich drooping slightly. His stomach sinks, panic rising. “What? I mean, you seemed into it. Shit, I – uh, sorry if you didn’t want, fuck – I thought I asked –”

“No, no,” she says quickly as she places a reassuring hand on Dean’s bare knee. “I had a good time. And I wanted it. This morning was great. Just… hindsight you know? I just don’t want to give you any ideas that this can be a repeat thing.”

“Oh,” Dean says, and truthfully he hadn’t been thinking along those lines anyway. “You said that last time.”

Lisa blinks at him. “I did,” she acknowledges.

“Same deal now?”

“Same deal now.” Lisa shoots him a relieved smile. “Thanks. We can just call last night a fluke, since it was coincidence that I ran into you.”

“If that makes you happy,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t see the point in overanalyzing it. I had a good time. You had a good time. We’re square. No expectations.”

“You’re being very understanding about this.”

“What? A man can’t have layers?”

“I know you have layers,” she says, fingering the lapel of his flannel shirt. “You’re a good guy, Dean Winchester.”

Dean snorts. “You don’t have to flatter me. I’m not going to hound you for more sex.”

“I didn’t think you would,” Lisa says, a little offense in her tone. “I’m just saying that you should give yourself more credit.”

To Dean’s infinite relief, he is spared from answering by the sound of the door opening. They both turn around to see Cas standing in the doorway, a cup of coffee in hand and a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face.

“Hello Dean,” he starts, adding after half a beat, “Lisa. I hope you had a pleasant morning.” He barely holds back a grimace, and Dean can practically feel Cas’s eyes linger on his bare legs and Lisa’s lack of dress.

“And that’s probably my cue to go,” Lisa says as she hauls herself up from the couch. “Ben’s probably waiting by now. Dean, keep in touch, okay? I’d like to see more of you.”

“Sure,” Dean says weakly as she presses a chaste kiss to his cheek before disappearing into his bedroom to change back into her own clothes. He watches, warily, as Cas just hovers weirdly in the doorway. “You want to come in, buddy?” 

Cas gives himself a little shake. “If I am intruding… I can…”

“You’re not,” Dean says as he bends down to get the bag of delivered lunch. “Got you a sandwich and everything.” He thrusts it in Cas’s direction with little fanfare.

“You did?”

“What, did you eat already?” Dean asks, eyebrows raised. “Metatron always talks your ear off. And I know you’re too cheap to buy lunch yourself.”

Cas takes the sandwich from Dean, but he doesn’t sit down next to him on the couch. He grumbles instead, “You’d be cheap too if you lived off my stipend.”

“You’re welcome.” Dean grins as Cas rolls his eyes. He still doesn’t take a seat. “You waiting for a formal invitation here?” Dean asks, eyebrows raised. He shifts to make a little more room.

“No, I –” Cas breaks off, glancing at Dean’s still-closed bedroom door. He signs without speaking, “I don’t want to keep you.”

Dean waits impatiently until Cas is looking at him again. He signs back silently, “I’m not going to kick you out of your own apartment to have sex. You really think I’d do that?”

Cas shrugs helplessly. “It wouldn’t be ideal,” he signs slowly, not meeting Dean’s gaze, “but I would understand.”

“Really,” Dean says aloud, his tone as flat as a two-by-four.

Cas just gives him another despairing look as he signs furtively, “It’s not like I would hear any of your activities. And if you kept the door closed…”

“Not going to happen,” Dean signs back swiftly. “That’s a total dick move. And I am not a dick.”

Cas snorts a silent laugh. “That remains to be seen.”

“Does it?” One haughty eyebrow raises as he leans back against the couch cushions like they’re his throne. He signs, almost lazily, “Because, here I am, trying to be nice; kicking out my girl, giving you free lunch, and you just go and assume the worst.”

A corner of Cas’s mouth turns down into a half-frown. “I wasn’t assuming.”

“What?” 

“You’ve brought people back before,” Cas signs, jerking his head towards his room, “while I was here.”

Dean’s mouth falls open. “How’d you know?”

Cas signs, his face pained, “I can feel the vibrations of your bed through the floor if they’re forceful enough.”

“Fuck.”

Lisa emerges from Dean’s bedroom. She pauses on the threshold, her eyes darting back and forth between Dean and Cas. “Got awful quiet out here, boys.”

“Just telling Cas about lunch,” Dean says, forcing a grin onto his face as he signs the same to Cas.

Cas tips his head in a nod. “It’s from my favorite restaurant,” he says, like he has any fucking clue what Dean bought for him.

“Oh, good,” Lisa says before turning back to Dean, “I’ll be seeing you? Don’t be a stranger.”

“Of course,” Dean says, smiling, as he gets up to show her out. When he comes back, Cas looks anywhere but at his face as he sighs, “I wasn’t going to tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Because I didn’t want to interfere.”

“Interfere with what?” Dean asks. “I thought we talked about this, man.”

Cas gingerly sits down next to him and unwraps his sandwich. “Before, I always saw casual relationships as cheating, in a way.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dean mutters as he runs a hand down his face. His day had been shaping up so well: a fucking great night with Lisa, some good morning sex, and then a whole afternoon of Cas to himself after his advisor meeting. But no, Cas has to bring up fucking soulmates – just sit him down for a deep analysis of Jefferson Starship’s discography and make it real torture.

Cas takes one look at Dean’s face and quickly barrels on, “But with you, I know they’re not because of your,” he fumbles for a second before coming up with, “situation.”

“Gee, thanks,” Dean says sourly. “So glad to know you’re making an exception for me.”

Cas takes a bite of his sandwich, looking a bit sheepish. 

“That’s bullshit,” Dean continues, and Cas’s face falls like there was any way in hell Dean would be pleased to know Cas fits Dean into his apple-pie soulmate fantasy as some sort of acceptable deviant. “Soulmates aren’t the end goal of all relationships. They can fuck each other over just like anybody else, except it’s ten times worse because they have one more reason to justify it.”

Cas doesn’t disagree aloud, but his expression tells Dean he has serious doubts about what Dean’s saying.

Dean rolls his eyes. “And what are people like Lisa supposed to do, huh? If their soulmate kicks the bucket too early? Join the nunnery?”

Cas doesn’t have an answer for that either.

* * *

Two weeks later, Dean stumbles home late. Jamie (Jane? Janet? Janine?) didn’t ask him to stay over, but she did send him off with her number, so Dean counts that as a win.

He closes the door quietly behind him, conscious of his sleeping neighbors, and he’s unsurprised to see Cas exactly where he left him, poring over his laptop in the dark. His hair looks like he fucked an electrical socket, and deep purple bags sag underneath his eyes.

Dean certainly doesn’t find Cas sexier than Jamie at this very moment, looking as awful as he does, but the sight does pull at something tender in his chest, a place untouched by any of the random sex Dean has been having.

He flips on the living room light, and Cas winces, throwing up a hand to shield his eyes like he’s fucking Dracula. “Dean!” 

“Hey, Cas,” Dean signs as he approaches the kitchen table, strewn with printouts of his dissertation presentation and post-its scribbled in Cas’s spiky handwriting. “You gonna call it a night soon?”

Cas frowns. He glances down at the mess. “I needed to look up the airplay time of Aerosmith’s first album.”

Dean stares at him. “Seriously?” he signs. “That’s what’s keeping you up?”

Cas throws him a helpless look. “My thesis defense is tomorrow, and I’m not ready.”

Dean doesn’t hide his eye roll. “You’re ready.”

“You don’t know that,” Cas signs moodily.

Dean throws up his hands. “Yes, I do. Dude, you’ve been going over this thing for what, a month, now? And the panel’s not going to ask about that damn album.” He moves slowly, giving Cas ample time to stop him, as he gently shuts Cas’s laptop. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told Sam before he took the LSATs, which he aced, just like you will. Go to fucking bed, already. You can’t get jack shit done when you’re five minutes away from passing out and smell like you haven’t showered in a week.”

“But-”

“Go on,” Dean says as he crosses his arms across his chest, glowering down at Cas so he can read his lips clearly. “Take a shower and hit the hay. I’ll clear up here.”

“I can’t.”

“Take a shower. Then if you really want to keep working, I guess I can’t stop you.”

Cas casts one lingering glance at his work before hauling himself to his feet. He sways slightly, and Dean’s arm shoots out, alarmed, to hold him steady before gently pushing him in the direction of the bathroom.

Dean busies himself with re-attaching flapping post-its to their relevant pages and gathering up Cas’s dissertation into one big pile and binder clipping it closed. He snatches Cas’s empty bag slung over the back of the chair and stuffs his laptop into it. He closes Cas’s reference books and stacks them in the middle of the table. He takes Cas’s tea mug and washes it out in the sink, listening as the shower cuts off.

Cas emerges not too long after, wearing a bathrobe and still looking dead on his feet. “You put it all away,” he signs dumbly, gaping at the cleared table.

“Sure did,” Dean says as he wipes his hands with a dishtowel. He sets it down to sign, “But if you want to set up shop again, you’re welcome to undo all my hard work.” 

“Dean.”

“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”

Cas rolls his eyes. He looks away. “What if they don’t accept it?”

“They will.”

“But what if?” Cas asks quietly.

“Cas,” Dean begins, “You’re the smartest guy I know. You’ve been practically defending your thesis every night since I met you. You answered all my stupid questions and then some. They never tripped you up. You’ve got this.” He takes a step closer and cautiously wraps his arms around Cas. Beneath all the fluffiness of the bathrobe, he’s as tense as a board.

Dean resists the urge to inhale Cas’s scent like a creep, and instead breathes like a normal person as he holds on. Cas sags. “That’s it,” Dean says quietly even though there’s no way Cas will hear him. “You’re going to be alright.”

As the seconds tick on, Dean forces himself to clap Cas on the back and pull away before he does something stupid like kiss him. “Bedtime,” he says firmly as he walks Cas to his bedroom door. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”

With the air of a man marching to the gallows, Cas raises his hands to say something but drops them with a shake of his head. With a funny look in his eye, he turns away. “Thanks, Dean,” he signs instead before closing the door behind him.

* * *

Dean wakes up to his phone blaring the chorus of Back in Black, and for a second he can’t remember why he set his alarm so goddamn early on a Tuesday morning until – Cas.

Dean throws the covers off and jumps out of bed. After throwing on a pair of jeans and regular tee-shirt, he barrels out of his room and through the living room to the kitchen area. Cas’s door is still shut, and Dean thanks the gods above Cas won’t hear him banging around the kitchen. Attempting to cook before his first cup of coffee is a tall order, but Cas is worth it.

Cas’s vibrating alarm goes off half an hour later, and by that time the fried eggs are just the right amount of runny. 

Dean is halfway through slicing up a browning banana and bits of melon for the saddest fruit salad ever when Cas stops dead in the kitchen, staring at him.

“Hey,” Dean says with a wide grin as he puts down the knife.

“What’s all this?” Cas asks cautiously, peering down at the kitchen table, laden with far too much food for two people.

“I made breakfast.”

“I can see that,” Cas says before looking around. “Why?”

“Because I bet you didn’t eat at all yesterday. Don’t want you passing out in front of all the professors.”

“I had a few protein bars,” Cas says defensively, but his heart clearly isn’t in it.

“Not enough. Sit.”

Cas sits without another word, and Dean deposits a fresh breakfast burger, topped with a fried egg and bacon, in front of him.

“I know you usually just eat cereal,” Dean signs, looking away nervous, “But this is the most important meal of the day. And you need your strength. This has way more protein than the bars, anyway, and doesn’t taste like cocoa covered cardboard. Brain food, right? Wait, shit, I think that’s fish.”

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find quality fish in Kansas at eight in the morning,” Cas signs mildly. “Thank you.”

“You’re, uh, welcome,” Dean says as he hustles back into the kitchen for the bowl of fruit. “This is also for you, if you aren’t up for the burger.”

Cas stares at the burger for a moment, not moving to pick it up. He has a strange expression on his face Dean can’t read, so Dean pushes the fruit closer. He says randomly, “Come to my dissertation defense.”

“What?”

Cas glances up and then back down so quickly Dean almost misses it. But he doesn’t miss the pink tinge creeping up Cas’s cheeks which are going redder by the second. “My dissertation defense is open to the public,” Cas explains. He swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. “You don’t have to. And I didn’t mean to order you to. But you could come, if you wanted.”

“I could?” 

Cas nods, blinking a couple times in rapid succession. “If you don’t have work. It’s probably going to be an hour or two, and boring-”

“Dude,” Dean says, laughing, “of course I’ll go.”

Cas looks like somehow Dean’s answer catches him by surprise. “You will?”

“Yeah,” Dean pumps his fist in the air, “Like I’d miss it. This is awesome!”

"You don’t have to work?” Cas licks his lips, his small smile growing as he picks up his burger.

Dean shakes his head as Cas takes the first bite. “I took today off anyway.”

“Why?”

“You’re getting your P-h-fucking-D,” Dean says like the answer is obvious, “As if I wouldn’t take the day of to celebrate when you got back home.”

Cas bites his lip. “I wouldn’t get my hopes up. It’s not guaranteed,” he argues.

Dean snorts. “Fine. You can be the Debbie downer while I party in the back of the lecture hall.”

Cas rolls his eyes and tries to catch a bit of the egg yolk running down the back of his hand before it drips on the plate. Head bent, his tongue laves at the yellow trail, running up the side of his wrist and dipping into the divot between his knuckles. 

Dean coughs and stands up. “I’m just gonna go take a quick shower,” he signs tightly, jerking his head in the direction of the bathroom. “Don’t leave without me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Cas says, oblivious.

* * *

Dean feels a little stupid, flipping his hands back and forth in the last row of seats in the hall while everyone else claps, but the way Cas catches his eye and his widening smile as he spots him is all worth it. 

He hugs Cas again once the Dissertation Committee comes back from their weird sequestering post-defense and greets Cas with a, “Congratulations Dr. Novak.” Dean can’t help it. He’s never seen Cas so happy, beaming widely from ear to ear, as he accepts more well wishes from some of his students that attended the defense and his thesis advisor, Metatron. Cas is like a magnet, pulling him into the inevitable. 

“Dr. Cas, huh?” Dean says as he reluctantly pulls away, conscious of the others clamoring for Cas’s attention. 

“Just Cas is fine,” Cas says breezily.

Dean throws his head back and laughs. The whole academic thing is not in his wheelhouse at all. He'd been a little bored when they got to the question-and-answer portion of the defense - the hoops the committee made Cas jump through were complete bull - but Cas’s good mood can’t help but rub off on him now. 

Dean steps away as more well-wishers approach, listening with half an ear as Cas answers yet more questions about his research and receives a couple congratulatory handshakes from severe-looking academics.

The door squeaks behind him, and Dean turns his head to see a few people filtering out. He shifts his weight from foot to foot as Cas’s conversation with his colleagues goes on, growing more self-conscious of his worn-out jeans and flannel in the middle of all the blazers and tan slacks, some with honest to god creases. None of them looked like they rolled out of bed at seven-thirty in the morning and threw on whatever was in reach.

For fuck’s sake, the professor speaking is going on and on about the hegemony of the culture industry and dialectic of enlightenment. What the hell is a commodity fetish?

Dean’s so far out of his zone, he’d need several tow trucks to get him back on familiar ground. 

At least Cas doesn’t seem too enthused, judging by the slight frown and laser-focused squint. Cas replies to Professor Douche in kind, and Dean’s heart sinks as he only understands every third worth coming out of Cas’s mouth. Cas name-drops people that has the rest of the professors nodding along in agreement but leaves Dean without the faintest clue if Cas is talking about singers, philosophers, or travelling bards from the Middle Ages.

Dean is not usually aware of his height – the hazards of constantly being around Sam – but now, standing in the middle of all these university people, he feels like a stupid, lumbering interloper. 

The worst part is, he’s still interested even though he has no hope of understanding anything. Someone will mention CCR or Bob Dylan, but then, in the next breath, connect their work to Hebdige’s analysis of subculture. And he is lost again.

Dean licks his lips nervously as Cas catches his eye at the next lull in the discussion. “I’ll just-” he begins to sign, tilting his head towards the now-open door.

“Dean?” Cas asks, turning to face him fully. He looks a little dazed, like he’s surprised to still see Dean there.

“I’ll see you at the apartment, okay?” The corners of Dean’s mouth rise in a smile that feels more like a grimace. “Great job today, Doc.”

Cas frowns. “Did something happen?”

“No,” Dean signs slowly, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the over-credentialed hoard of well-dressed professors. “It’s just that – look, I’ll leave you to ‘em. I’m sure you got stuff to get on with.”

“I do?”

Dean nods stiffly before turning on his heel and beating a hasty retreat. He glances behind him at the last moment, barely heartened to see Cas once again deep in discussion with the other docs and grad students. It’s like Dean was never there.

He stalks back to the Impala, hands shoved deep inside his pockets and avoiding eye contact with any students crossing his path. He spends a minute sitting behind the wheel, making no move to start his baby. Just breathing.

He shouldn’t have come.

Cas might’ve let him think otherwise, softening Dean up by dumbing down his arguments in the safety of Dean’s apartment, but Dean sure knows better now. 

Cas isn’t going to be happy rooming with Dean forever – at the most, Dean is someone to shoot the shit with until graduation. Cas will move on, probably sooner rather than later now he’s a fucking doctor. Dean can see all Cas’s milestones laid out like boxes to tick off on the to-do list of Cas’s life. Finish degree. Meet soulmate. Move to a prestigious university. Have 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. Die surrounded by family within minutes of his soulmate. Meet the angels hand-in-fucking-hand. 

Really, Dean is barely a blip on Cas’s radar. A footnote squished in between the important parts of the schedule. And it’s not like Cas hasn’t made it clear he’s waiting for the one. The one whose songs he hears in his head day in and day out. The one playing all of his favorites. The one who knows Cas in a way Dean can’t ever hope to match.

Hell, with all the time Cas’s soulmate devotes to classic rock, she can probably step up where Dean disappoints. She’ll understand Cas’s dissertation like everyone else did, praise Cas’s intelligence in more words than just “awesome.”

Eventually, Dean starts up the Impala. He drives for hours in silence.

* * *

Dean has a liquid dinner on the couch that night. He keeps his eyes stubbornly glued to Jeopardy! and then Dr. Sexy instead of the clock. When Cas gets home shortly after eight, Dean is shamefully pleased to see him looking a lot less happy than the last time he saw him. 

“Hello, Dean.” Cas drops down on the couch next to him, eyeing the three empty beer bottles on the coffee table with a small bit of distaste. “You started the party without me, it seems.”

“What?” The alcohol makes Dean’s movements a little clumsier than normal, but he still tries to sign, “Isn’t the party over? ‘S why you’re back here, right?”

Cas shakes his head slowly. “My colleagues insisted on taking me out for lunch, but it was hardly a party. And then dinner with the Dean of the History Department and President with the other doctoral fellows.” He slumps back in his seat. “Too much glad-handing for my taste. But that’s the way of academia,” he adds sourly.

“Oh.”

Cas’s gaze slides to him for a moment but slips away. “It’s fine,” he says dismissively as he begins loosening his tie – backwards, as usual – and undoes the top button of his shirt. “A necessary evil, really. I’m just glad you didn’t have to sit through it too. Although you would have appreciated the dinner. There were excellent canapes.”

Dean doesn’t know what to say, so he keeps his mouth shut, all too aware of the alcohol sitting in his stomach and loosening his tongue if he lets it. He takes a drink to stop himself from saying something stupid, like he would have loved to sit through an absurdly boring dinner if Cas was there next to him. Or how hot he looks, half-undone and unguarded with his professor getup dismantled.

Cas just shakes his head at Dean’s silence and grabs Dean’s empty beer bottles with one hand, hauling himself up off the couch.

“Hey,” Dean protests a beat too late. “You don’t have to do that.” But Cas is already walking away, not looking back to read Dean’s lips. Cas comes back with a beer of his own, though. “Sorry your evening sucked,” Dean tells him as Cas sits back down.

Cas shrugs, an unreadable look in his eyes. “Couldn’t be helped. I’m just glad you didn’t have to suffer through it with me. The other spouses and partners looked absolutely miserable. Metatron does tend to be long-winded, after all.”

Thank god Dean didn’t say anything about wanting to be there. He swallows, shoving down the sharp spike of disappointment. “Anyone got a hot wife?” he asks in a terrible attempt at humor.

Cas makes a face. “I wouldn’t know. Akobel’s wife is aesthetically pleasing, I suppose.”

“Aesthetically pleasing?” Dean repeats. “You say some really weird things, man.”

Cas rolls his eyes. “I don’t think of women as ‘hot,’” he says, with real goddamn air-quotes. “I never have.”

“Wait, you don’t think people are hot?”

Cas looks away, signing, “Not usually women,” his movements almost too quick for Dean to catch. Shoulders stiff, he takes another long drink from his beer.

Dean blinks, his sluggish brain trying to catch up with Cas’s words. “How about men?” he sets down his beer to sign, waiting until Cas looks at him to ask the question.

Cas gives a jerky nod, eyes skittering away again.

“Dude,” Dean says, grinning broadly, euphoria rising to take the sting off the lingering disappointment, “I had no idea!” He claps a hand down on Cas’s shoulder and gives him a little shake. 

“I don’t tend to spread this knowledge around.”

“Nobody will hear it from me,” Dean says, miming zipping his lips shut. He bites his lip before asking, “Any hot husbands, then?”

Cas exhales loudly. He squirms in his seat, his expression growing increasingly uncomfortable as Dean does his best to send out encouraging vibes. Like the time last year he got Sam to admit, aloud, that his hair was getting out of hand. “I find Akobel very attractive.”

“Well then, don’t Mr. and Mrs. Akobel have it all.” Dean smirks. “Think they could swing a third?”

“Dean,” Cas says in warning.

“Hey!” Dean says, hands in the air, “Asking for me. Not you. I know you’re not into that.”

“Wouldn’t you rather be with two women?”

“Been there, done that,” Dean says with a lascivious leer. “Isn’t Akobel the blond one? With the glasses and the long hair?”

Cas nods dumbly.

“I’d tap that,” Dean declares, deliberately crass.

Wide, blue eyes stare at him. “You would?”

“Sure,” Dean signs, waggling his eyebrows as he meets Cas’s gaze. “Wouldn’t be the first time, either.”

“Not the first time?”

“I wasn’t in college for long, but damn, it was an educational experience.”

Cas just sits there dumbly, so Dean has no choice but to go on, “Dad wasn’t the most… liberally minded.” He signs, his bravado wavering, “Marines, you know? And Mom was a lot like you. Wait for your soulmate and all that shit. She didn’t care who I slept with, just that I was sleeping around at all. In college, though, I didn’t have to sneak around them. Could do whatever I wanted.”

“Whoever you wanted,” Cas adds, and Dean manages a snort of laughter before sobering. 

“Anyway, then they died, and I dropped out. Couldn’t really keep up the experimentation when I had to look after Sam. By the time he could look after himself, I just didn’t see the point anymore. Too much effort, you know?”

“No, I don’t really,” Cas says blandly.

“Course you don’t,” Dean says, almost fondly. “You’re like a baby in a trench coat.”

Cas scowls, and Dean laughs for real. “After that, I guess I settled down. Whatever settling down for me is, anyway. Normal one-night stands and stuff, mostly with women. Like Sam warned you about.”

Cas is silent for a moment, mulling over Dean’s story. “And are you satisfied with that?”

“Sure,” Dean says with a lightness he doesn’t feel. He pivots, gesturing up and down Cas’s general being. “And are you satisfied with what you’ve got going on? Um, waiting for your soulmate?”

Cas nods a yes, but his face looks anything but decisive. “I was,” he says, his gaze darting away. “But lately, I’m not sure.”

“Not sure?” Dean echoes, his common sense desperately clawing back at the hope springing in his chest.

Cas’s mouth twists. He doesn’t answer immediately. Instead, he tugs at his loosened tie until it comes completely off. He winds it absentmindedly around his hand. He signs as his speaks, his motions slow and hesitant, “I’ve obviously been looking forward to finishing my doctorate… but now it’s over, I’m not sure what to do.” He heaves a great sigh. “I told myself I wouldn’t go looking for my soulmate until I got my degree. My work always came first. And now that it doesn’t…”

Dean hesitates a split second before reaching out and giving Cas’s hand a quick, reassuring squeeze. “You’ll figure it out. You’re a smart dude.”

“You keep saying that,” Cas signs, his face wry, “But I’ve never felt so ill-equipped in my life.” At Dean’s curious look, he explains, “My people skills are… lacking. I don’t understand a lot of humor, and my pop culture references, as you know, are terrible.”

“So you suck at small talk. Everyone hates small talk anyway. And, hey, you managed just fine with me.”

Cas huffs a despairing laugh. “But not everyone is you. Not everyone is forced to spend time with me until we get along.”

“Nobody forced me to spend time with you, man,” Dean counters gently. “And we always got along just fine. I stuck around because you’re interesting and you have awesome taste in music.”

Cas doesn’t say anything about that but does go a little red in the face. “That’s very kind of you to say.”

“It’s true,” Dean says easily, waving off Cas’s words.

“But with everyone else,” Cas adds, his signs a little frantic, “I don’t know how. For instance, at the dinner tonight, I could have – I should have – been making connections. Commiserated, even, with the others forced to be there and suffer through Naomi’s presence and Metatron’s blabbering. But I froze. All I could think about was how I wanted to be back here with you instead.”

Dean’s mind goes completely and blissfully blank as a heady warmth spreads through his chest. Without conscious thought, a grin spread across his face. He slaps a hand to Cas’s knee. “Ain’t you a flatterer,” he manages, even though his head is repeating here with you instead, in Cas’s voice over and over like a mantra. He gets up. “Come on. We can’t work on your small talk in here.”

“What?” Cas’s eyes narrow suspiciously.

“We’re going out,” Dean announces, adding at Cas’s immediate scowl, “This isn’t for picking up guys. Relax. You’re going to meet a couple of the regulars at the Roadhouse. If your small talk sucks, then you’ll have plenty of chances to run into them again and get better.” He whips out his phone to text Benny to make sure he’s behind the bar, and that Jo’s either working or free to stop by. He sends an emergency text to Sam to show or else.

“I’d appreciate some heads up if I have to meet people,” Cas grumbles.

“You got thirty minutes. I’ve been dying to get a drink with you for forever.”

“We drink together all the time.” Cas holds up his half-empty bottle as evidence.

Dean rolls his eyes. “Yeah, no, I’m talking about going out. Being sociable just to see new people – I do that too, you know. It’s not all about picking up chicks.”

Cas mulls that over for a moment.

“Come on, man, we’ve never had a drink together. It’s starting to get weird at this point.” He doesn’t overthink it before he blurts, “Come out with me. I swear you’ll have a good time or we can come straight back here.”

“You swear?” Cas presses. “One word, and it all stops?”

“Cross my heart,” Dean says, grinning broadly. “You in?”

Cas exhales a weighty sigh, like Dean just signed him up to chauffeur Sam to and from Chipotle for a month. “I’m holding you to your promise, Dean Winchester.”

* * *

When they get to the Roadhouse, Jo jumps on Cas like a shark smelling blood in the water. She challenges him to a drinking contest,  justifying they – meaning Charlie, Ash, Victor, and Pam – started drinking a half hour ago and he needs to catch up. Dean begs to be left alone, citing the need for designated driver, and Jo lets him off with a warning.

“So,” Jo asks after she motions for Benny to bring over shots. “I hear from a little birdie we’re celebrating tonight.”

“Like you need an excuse to drink,” Charlie says, elbowing Jo in the side before offering her hand. “Hey there, I’m Charlie.”

“Castiel,” he says before casting a fleeting, panicked glance at Dean who is still waiting for his beer at the bar.

“Hey, no, no, no,” Jo says, snapping her fingers in front of Cas’s face like he’s a misbehaving four-year-old. “Dean’s had you all to himself for months. It’s about time we figure out why he’s been stashing you away.”

“It’s ‘cause y’all are a bad influence!” Dean calls.

Jo flips him off behind her back as she practically drags Cas back to their section of booths in the dining area. It’s a little quieter back there than at the bar, not that the noise level matters at all to Cas.

Just as Dean’s about to follow, he spots Sam’s tall silhouette pass the front window. He gives Sam a wave and Sam’s long strides get him to the bar in no time. He greets Dean with a firm hug, and calls Benny over to order his single beer for the night. 

“Where’s your better half?”

Sam pulls a face. “Her old college roommate is in town – road tripping across the country or something. Girls night tonight.”

“And you weren’t invited, Sammy? Aw, how’s it feel to be the ugly girl left out at prom?” Dean doesn’t wait for Sam’s bitchface and instead grabs a beer and starts walking back to the table in the back where Jo, Charlie, and Cas are already sitting. In the next booth over sits Ash, Victor, and Pam. 

“I had to drag him out tonight. You know he never socializes?” Dean says to Sam.

Sam throws him a look. “Dude, I knew him before you did. We met in a library. The bookstacks don’t really attract the rager types.”

Dean doesn’t have anything to say to that, so he takes a long drink of his beer, listening with half an ear in case Cas suddenly calls it quits and they have to beat a hasty exit. But right now Cas is all smiles, proclaiming to a riveted Jo and Charlie, “I think I’m beginning to feel something.” There’s already a line of empty shot glasses in front of him.

Jo lets loose a derisive, “Hah!” and pushes another shot towards Cas. “Not enough then. Drink up!”

Cas obediently tips his head back and sets the empty glass upside down.

Because of how the booth is set up and Cas’s field of vision, he can only really concentrate on the people across from him – Jo and Charlie. Dean, unused to not having Cas’s full attention, tries to focus on Sam instead, but he can’t help the way his gaze slides to Cas like a magnet every couple of seconds. 

Sam kicks him beneath the table.

Dean scowls and looks his way. “What?” he barks.

“You’re like a protective mother hen,” Sam coos. “You’re adorable.”

“Shut up.”

Sam grins. “This is his first time at the Roadhouse? I’d have thought that you would have brought him around sooner. You know – to meet the gang.”

“What do you mean?” Dean asks. “I brought him now, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, and it’s been, what, four months?” Sam points out, eyebrows raised. He sighs theatrically. “I guess the honeymoon period had to end sometime.”

Dean chokes on his beer. Spluttering, he hisses in a low voice, “What the fuck. There’s no honeymoon period, you dick.” He gasps for air and sets down his glass with a little more force than necessary. The beer sloshes against the glass, almost spilling out.

Sam just shrugs, apparently unconcerned with the sight of his brother dying across the booth. “You know, that time when you’re all couple-y and don’t want to be around other people.”

“He was busy with his PhD!”

Sam rolls his eyes. 

Dean listens for a moment as Charlie grills Cas on his status on Harry Potter (read), Lord of the Rings (read), Star Wars (watched, but only because of Dean), and Game of Thrones (currently watching with Dean). Charlie throws Dean a scandalized look and invites Cas to her Game of Thrones watch parties Dean ditched last month to watch with Cas instead. He gives a little shrug in return. What can he say – Charlie talks too much during the episode, and Jo’s even worse. 

“Dean.”

“What?”

Sam just shakes his head. “You gonna do anything about that?” he asks in a low voice, tilting his head in Cas’s direction.

“He’s waiting for his goddamn soulmate. Not much I can do to compete.”

Sam’s face is positively tragic. “Dean.”

“Don’t Dean me.”

Sam sighs. “Are you okay?”

“I’m awesome.”

Sam’s brows draw together, and Dean knows he’s a second away from being psycho-analyzed by Sam Winchester, future attorney at law and current pain in Dean’s ass, but he breaks off as Charlie lets out a loud groan and thumps her head on the table.

“You okay?” Dean asks, leaning over Cas to get a good look at her.

“’M fine,” she mumbles, eyes squeezed shut. “Just my soulmate.”

Dean retreats further back in his seat as Jo and Sam converge on Charlie instead.

“What’s she playing this time?” Jo tuts sympathetically.

“Country music,” Charlie says, her face grave. “It’s not even good country music! Early Taylor Swift, I think.”

Jo guffaws and pushes the last shot at Charlie instead.

“Taylor Swift? Teardrops on my Guitar or Tim McGraw?” Dean asks before he can stop himself.

Jo, impossibly, laughs even louder as Sam whips his head around to stare at Dean. He rolls his eyes. “I work at a radio station and a record store,” he says, scowling at his weak excuse. “I have to know more than rock music.”

“Sure,” Jo says, eyes dancing, and Dean knows with a sinking feeling he’s going to be paying for this for a while.

“My soulmate is quite fond of Taylor Swift too,” Cas says, unprompted.

Dean frowns. “I thought they were all about good music.”

Before Cas can respond, Sam tips his head in Dean’s direction, asking, “His kind of good music, or actual good music?” 

“Good music,” Cas inserts firmly. “Ninety percent of my soul songs are classic rock.”

Jo tuts, “Sorry, dude,” and pats his arm sympathetically.

Cas huffs, shifting in his seat like an irritated bird. “I like classic rock.”

Jo snorts. “You’d have to, living with this one,” she says, jerking her thumb at Dean.

“No, he doesn’t,” Dean argues before Cas can respond. He signs along, “Cas is deaf. He doesn’t care what the hell I’m playing in the apartment. Y’all just have shitty taste in music.”

Jo punches Cas in the upper arm, and he turns to her, aghast. “No wonder you wouldn’t bring him around,” she says, grinning. “You’ve been brainwashing him before we could stop you.”

Cas gapes at her. “Dean hasn’t been brainwashing me,” he says, playing into Jo’s hand like a piece of putty.

“Sure he hasn’t,” Jo says, looking at the pair of them askance. “How else would you have the tolerance of an elephant and the music taste of one too?”

Charlie rubs her temples, mouthing along to lyrics none of them can hear.

“Dean’s a wonderful roommate.”

“Aw, thanks, Cas,” Dean simpers, kicking Sam under the table as he makes a kissy face behind Cas’s back.

“Ow.”

“Have you found your soulmate yet?” Cas asks Charlie gently.

“Yeah,” she mutters. “This is punishment for missing our video chat yesterday. She’s in Oklahoma doing research for another month.”

“How did you two meet?” Cas asks politely.

“Internet,” Charlie says with a grin. “I signed up with one of those soulmate-finder sites the minute I turned sixteen. You know, the ones that ask you for a playlist of what you hear every day. Took two years of logging into that stupid site, but damn, was it worth it.”

Cas turns to Jo. “And have you met your soulmate yet?”

“Nope,” Jo says with a grin. “No promises if he starts making me listen to Taylor Swift, though. Then I’ll probably try to track him down just to stab him with a rusty spoon.”

“Vivid,” Sam deadpans, shuddering.

“I know what I like,” Jo says archly. “And I do not like Taylor Swift.”

Dean chuckles. “You just don’t like her ‘cause she’s got better legs than you.”

Jo glares and Charlie smacks him in the arm. “Stop being a sexist jerk.” Sam even throws Dean a withering look too. Thank god Cas didn’t seem to catch what Dean said; he’s still staring at Jo.

Appropriately chastened, Dean apologizes as his brain catches up with his mouth. “My bad.”

“You’re bad is right,” Jo sniffs. “And I don’t like her for a lot of reasons. Not because she has better legs than I do, because she doesn’t.”

“Damn right,” Charlie says, raising her hand for a high-five.

Cas looks a little confused, and damn, it must be hard to catch everything when four people are talking over each other. “Should I get another round?” he asks after a beat.

“I like him,” Jo declares as everyone scoots aside to let Cas out.

Cas ducks his head, face reddening as he hurries to the bar. “I’ll see if he needs help,” Dean mutters, sliding out of the booth to follow Cas.

Dean leans forward over the bar, bracing his weight on one elbow. “How’s it hanging?” he asks Cas. “You doin’ okay?”

Cas turns to him, nodding slowly. “I don’t think I understand everything, but your friends are very accommodating.”

“Good,” Dean signs with a grin, “Because if they’re jerks to you, I’ll have to kick their asses.”

Cas stares at him, stunned. “Please don’t do that.”

“Do you want to leave yet?” 

Cas waits a beat before signing, “No, I’m happy to stay a little while longer.”

“Awesome. Apparently, they all wanted to meet you, so you have to stay for at least this round.”

“They did?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Charlie invited you to her Game of Thrones night, right?”

“Yes,” Cas confirms. “But people often invite me to things or mention events they really don’t intend on following up on.”

“That’s some bullshit we don’t do here,” Dean signs as he catches Benny’s attention with a look. “If Charlie invited you, she wants you there. You’ll probably like it since you don’t have to hear her yammering on during the entire episode like the rest of us.” He glances at Cas out of the corner of his eye. “I mean,” he rubs the back of his neck, “You don’t have to go at all. I’m just saying, you’re welcome to come if you want. No pressure.”

“I think I’d like that,” Cas says, cutting off Dean’s stupid rambling. “I do find myself with a lot more free time on my hands than I’m used to.”

* * *

“Got the licorice!” Dean announces as soon as Charlie opens the door. “You know,” he adds, grinning at her scowling face, “cause you never have any.”

“She doesn’t have licorice because it’s gross, Dean!” Sam’s voice calls from inside Charlie’s apartment. 

“We also brought kettle corn,” Cas says, holding up his own bag of goods.

“Thank god,” Jess adds loudly as Charlie drags them both inside. “At least one of you has common sense.”

Dean waves to Sam, Jess, and Jo squeezed on the couch. Garth lounges on the floor, legs akimbo and looking like a deflated tube man from the garage down the road. Pam hogs the whole lounge chair to herself. 

“Damn,” Charlie whistles behind him as she rifles through Cas’s grocery bag. “Dude, you were holding out on me! There’s kettle corn, cheese popcorn, low fat popcorn too?”

Cas looks to Dean, who summarizes what Charlie just said in sign.

“I didn’t know what to get,” Cas replies uncomfortably.

Charlie slaps him on the back. “Right move, getting them all, then.” She raises her voice, “Babe, we’re going to need more bowls!”

Dorothy steps out from behind the kitchen island, holding a half-empty liter of soda and a rueful expression on her face. “It exploded.” The whole front of her jeans is soaked. 

Charlie doesn’t bother muffling a laugh and tugs a scowling Dorothy closer to press a kiss to her cheek. “Cas, meet my soulmate, Dorothy.”

“Nice to meet you,” Cas says, holding out his hand.

Dorothy shakes it with a grin. “Back atcha. Now that’s done, if you’ll excuse me, fellas, I have to change.”

Dean follows Charlie into the kitchen as Cas splinters off to catch up with Sam. “When did she get back?” he asks, casting a worried glance into the living room to make sure Cas is getting on okay, before rifling through Charlie's cabinets for bowls.

“Two days ago!” Charlie sighs happily. “She thought she’d have to be away longer since it’s the middle of tornado season, but the write-up of her research can be done anywhere. And the rest of her team is still in Oklahoma, so they can take care of any last-minute science-y things if an emergency happens.”

“Good for you, kid.”

“Yeah,” Charlie grins. “If we didn’t have this already planned, I’m not sure I would have gotten out of bed.”

Dean smirks and raises a fist for Charlie to pound. “Get it, Charlie.”

Charlie obliges. 

“Who else are we waiting for?” Dean asks as he opens the bags of popcorn.

“Just Benny. Victor had to take the late shift today.” She gives him the stink eye. “You’ll see him next time, right?”

Dean merely shrugs. “Dunno. Depends.”

“Depends on what?” Charlie asks, hands on her hips. “You’ve missed the whole season so far!”

Dean cringes. “It’s only been two episodes. I watched ‘em with Cas, anyway.”

“And not with us?” 

Dean bites his lip. “Cas didn’t have the time. He was writing his dissertation, you know.” The excuse sounds weak even to his ears.

Charlie’s not buying it. “The episode’s only an hour long!”

“And he’s been really stressed the past month!”

Charlie pokes him hard in the chest. “What’s a better way to let off steam than watching a bunch of stabbing and the occasional beheading?”

Cowed and running a big fat blank on any other reasons, Dean hisses, “I just wanted to watch it with Cas, okay? It’s not a big deal.”

Charlie blinks at him for a second, absorbing his words, before her eyes light up. “Not a big deal?” she says, her voice low but Dean can hear how she’s barely restraining herself. “I think this is a huge fucking deal!”

“No, it’s not,” Dean pleads, sending a panicked glance to where Cas is still talking to Sam.

“Uh huh,” Charlie says, actually rubbing her hands together like a cartoon villain. “So I’m not the only one who’s been getting it lately, huh?” She holds out her fist for him to bump.

He doesn’t make a move. “Me and Cas…” Dean starts, “We’re not like that.”

Charlie’s face falls. “You’re not?” she asks. “Why? Is he ace?”

“No, he’s got a soulmate,” Dean says in a hushed voice. “And he’s the traditional type.”

Charlie drops her fist and instead gives him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “That’s rough, buddy.”

Garth interrupts them soon after, and they meander back into the living room to wait for Benny. Everyone more or less finds a place to sit. Dorothy kicks Pam out of the lounge chair, so she perches on the armrest of the couch so Dorothy and Charlie can squash together. Garth lays back down on the floor, and Dean and Cas take the chairs from Charlie’s table. When Benny comes around, he snags a beanbag from Charlie’s bedroom.

As usual, there’s no hope for Cas once the show starts. He’s riveted, jerking out of his trance only as Jo throws popcorn at Joffrey’s head with unerring accuracy as he moves across the screen.

Dean blocks out all the commentary around him and tries to get into the zone like Cas.

He zones out until the sex scene.

Blinking, Dean smiles to himself as he glances around the room; Cas is red in the face; Garth is peeking out from between his fingers; Benny is asleep; Sam and Jess are giggling behind their hands; Jo is scarfing popcorn like it’s her last meal; Pam is people-watching, like Dean. She catches his eye and winks.

Charlie and Dorothy are making out. The slick sounds of their kissing barely register over the harsh slapping and muted moans from the television.

Dean so rarely hangs out with couples – Sam and Jess don’t count, since they somehow skipped all the handsy, gross PDA parts and headed straight into the boring, date-night on Friday bits – he’s forgotten what it looks like. The gentle way Dorothy cups Charlie’s face. How Charlie’s thumb swipes back and forth just under the hem of Dorothy’s shirt. 

Dean has to look away. He’d rather see the porn on screen. 

At least he can relate.

* * *

Cas starts going to more and more group events, some even without Dean. It’s a bittersweet sting. On one hand, Cas is making more friends, seeing more of the world than their apartment and KU buildings. On the other hand, he has much less time to spend with Dean. 

Cas gets dragged to the self-defense class Jo teaches when she’s not waitressing. He especially likes her krav maga courses. 

Charlie shepherds him along to the local PFLAG chapter and he bonds closely with Dorothy since she’s quite similar to you and provides good commentary on the meetings. Cas doesn’t do well with the group sessions but dives headfirst into a one-on-one mentoring program Charlie is pioneering. 

Dean’s annual trip to Vegas with Sam creeps up on him. It isn’t until Sam sends him an email a week before with about a billion choices of itinerary, that Dean realizes it had completely slipped his mind. He pulls out his phone to text Cas immediately, even though he’s technically in the middle of his show at KAZ. It’s fine, he just put on Man in the Wilderness by Styx and guaranteed himself six minutes of no interruptions.

Dean 6:10

I’m going to Vegas with Sam next week, fyi

 

Cas 6:10

Have fun?

I hope this doesn’t mean Sam and Jess are eloping

 

Dean 6:11

Fuck, I hope not

If Sammy thinks he can get rid of my embarrassing best man speech that easy

He has another thing coming


Cas 6:12

When are you leaving?

 

Dean 6:12

Thursday morning

Early. We’re driving.

 

Cas 6:12

From Lawrence?


Dean 6:13

No from Timbuktu

Of course from Lawrence

I don’t go anywhere without my baby

 

Cas 6:13

How long is the drive?

 

Dean 6:13

19 hours straight through but

We split it up over two days

 

As the last notes of Styx fade out, Dean checks the queue and grins to himself. Another six minutes of freedom to text Cas. “And up next,” he announces into the mic, “we have a personal fave of mine, Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Nothing better than this song and the open road, if you know what I mean.”

 

Cas 6:16

A 19 hour car ride? Is this some kind of punishment for Sam?

 

Dean 6:16

No! This is how we’ve always gone to Vegas.

We had a lot of long road trips growing up before we came back to Lawrence

Sam doesn’t mind 

He’s not a fan of my music tho

But he knows driver picks the music and shotgun shuts his cakehole

 

Cas 6:17

If you say so.

Hydrate adequately and get a good night’s sleep.

I wouldn’t want you to pass out behind the wheel and die in the desert somewhere.

 

Dean 6:18

How sweet of you Cas

 

Cas 6:18

Do you know how many car accidents happen due to exhaustion?

 

Dean 6:18

No idea

But I have a feeling you might

 

Cas 6:20

Upwards of 72 thousand crashes.

 

Dean 6:20

How do you know that?

You don’t even drive anywhere!

 

Cas 6:20

Just because I don’t drive often doesn’t mean I’m not a well-informed citizen.

 

Dean 6:21

Nerd

 

Cas 6:21

That’s Dr. Nerd to you.

 

Dean laughs so loudly, he barely hears Gabe banging on the glass, mouthing DEAD AIR, ASSHOLE. Still snorting to himself, Dean flips on the mic. “Whoops, sorry we’re back!” he says with false enthusiasm. “And I think we have a caller with a request.” He eyes narrow as he watches Gabe, now back in his booth, shaking his head and showing off his middle finger.

There’s a beat of silence. “Uh, hi Dean, my name is Ben. It’s my first time calling.” 

“Hey,” Dean says, his eyes widening with recognition at the voice. “What can I do for you?”

“Can you please play Deep P– I mean, Smoke on the Water?”

Dean grins. “By Deep Purple?”

“Yeah.”

“You got it,” Dean says. “Why Smoke on the water, Ben?”

“I just like it,” Ben says. “I’m learning how to play it on the guitar. It’s not too hard.” 

“That’s a personal favorite of mine too,” Dean says. “They don’t make hooks like that anymore do they?” he asks rhetorically, singing an exaggerated, “do do dooo, do do do-do, do do dooo,” he pitches deeper, “do do. Do you know anything about the history of the song, Ben? It’s a true story. Deep Purple were supposed to record Machine Head in a studio in a casino, but before they could play anything, some jerk fired a flare gun – mentioned in the song if you listen carefully – and set the whole place on fire.”

“That’s so cool,” Ben breathes.

“The title is from the image of smoke from the fire over Lake Geneva,” Dean continues. “And without further ado, listeners, this is Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple.”

He listens for a moment as the into plays, only looking at his phone as Ian Gillan starts with the lyrics.

Cas 6:21

How long is your trip?

 

Cas 6:22

Can I get a guinea pig while you’re gone?

 

Cas 6:24

I think my soulmate is listening to KAZ

 

Dean 6:24

How do you know?

 

Cas 6:25

I just heard the riff from Smoke on the Water. 

That’s what you’re playing now, right? 

Your website says you are.

 

Dean 6:25

Yeah Lisa’s son just called in and requested it

 

Cas 6:25

So that’s a no on the guinea pig 😊 ?

 

Dean 6:26

What have I said about the emoticons man

 

Cas 6:26

Claire says they’re “cool”.

 

Dean 6:27

She’s lying to you 

I don’t know what her endgame is

But she’s got one

And it starts with the emoticons

 

Cas 6:27

Dean, for the last time, Claire has no ulterior motives.

I’m frankly grateful she’s giving me instructions at all.

 

Dean 6:27

Its cause she knows an easy mark when she spots one

 

Cas 6:28

She’s a questioning youth, not a con woman.

 

Dean 6:28

Yet

 

* * *

“Jess is gonna kill me,” Sam says, bracing his hands on the table as he drops down into his seat.

“Yeah, sucks to be her,” Dean agrees heartily. “Sucks to be me too. I had to hear you in-person. Why the hell did you choose Billy Joel? She’s Always a Woman?”

“It’s in my range!” Sam protests, wincing as the next singer in the karaoke bar tries (and fails) to hit a high note. “Maybe she liked it?”

“Fat chance. What’re you gonna sing next?” Dean snickers. “Elton John?”

Sam elbows Dean, nearly knocking him out of his chair. “Shut up. Maybe.” He sighs and lets his head fall into his hands. “I can’t believe you talked me into this.”

“It’s tradition!” Dean says as he nudges Sam’s half-drunk beer, his fourth of the night, under his nose.

“A tradition I don’t need now that I found Jess. Two years ago.”

“Bah,” Dean waves him off, nearly swatting Sam in the eye as his casual dismissal goes a little wide. “Traditions don’t die just ‘cause you got boring.”

Sam inhales the rest of his beer and grabs Dean’s already empty glass. “I’m getting us one more round. One more. Then we’re out.”

Dean sulks as he pulls the binder of available songs closer. “Then I’m gonna go up one more time.”

“No more AC/DC. You’re gonna kill your throat, man,” Sam warns before he takes off towards the bar.

“Yeah, sure,” Dean mumbles, squinting as he tries to make out the text in the flickering pink and blue lights. When they had started coming here, about five years ago now, Dean had been drawn by the advertising. He’d never stepped inside a karaoke bar before, but the images of smiling Asian women holding microphones sent him back to his first Busty Asian Beauties issue, so he dragged Sam inside with him for brotherly bonding time. Plus, they had a killer happy hour special.

Karaoke bars are usually pretty popular, and this place is no exception, especially for would-be soulmate pairs. 

When you sing, you bare your soul, as the saying goes.

The most exclusive karaoke place on the strip posts what songs are sung daily and boasts the number of people who sang soul songs on their premises.

That’s… not where Dean and Sam are. They’re about a mile down the strip, sandwiched between a spa and a mini-golf course. The place is still pretty nice, and the waitresses provide plenty of eye candy for Dean and shitty soft-rock songs for Sam. There are more than enough people to provide some variety to the tunes, and it’s not overly couple-y like other karaoke places can be. 

It’s a good compromise between the gambling (Dean) and desert hikes (Sam).

Sam comes back to the table carrying two beers and a sappy expression on his face.

“What’s up with you?” Dean grouses.

“She’s singing Shut Up and Dance,” Sam says dreamily, going misty-eyed.

“Hah. Looks like Jess hated your singing as much as I did.”

Sam bounces in his seat in time to the beat only he can hear. “She’s got such a nice voice.”

“No, she doesn’t,” Dean says, frowning. “She’s even worse than you are. I remember.”

Sam punches him in the shoulder. “Shut up,” he sings, a little off-key.

Dean takes a sip of his beer. “You want me to put your name in too?” he asks, holding up a little strip of paper with his first name and song choice. “I’ll even let you go first, get it over with.”

“Nope, I’m good,” Sam says as he leans back in his chair, relaxing like a long-legged savannah cat in the sun.

“Jess done singing?”

“She knows we’re at karaoke. Hearing two songs at once makes it hard to think,” he says, tipping his head towards the stage where a group of twenty-somethings are doing a decent job of Queen.

Dean watches, humming along as the song winds down and a young girl take the stage to belt out a very impressive cover of that one Adele song Dean always forgets the name to.

Then Dean’s up next. He waits, tapping impatiently his fingers against his jean-clad thigh, as the guitar intro thrums through the bar in sharp bursts. “Lonely is the night,” he sings, avoiding Sam’s gaze and instead staring out through the crowd, “when you find yourself alone… Your demons come alive, and your mind is not your own.”

He struts around the stage, basking in the eyes on him. Dean’s voice won’t be selling out stadiums, but it’s not bad. He can carry a tune and knows his limits. In the car with Sam, he’ll sing too loud and miss the high notes, but that’s just to see the way Sam’s face pinch. 

Dean won’t ever tell a soul, but if he was any better at singing, he’d have probably tried to do it full time. Music is in his blood, the first thing he turns to in the morning and the reason he can go to sleep at night.

There’s no soulmate out there to hear Dean's soul songs in their head. He’ll never have that true connection that lays his soul bare, no matter how loudly he sings or how much emotion he pours into his lyrics.

But Dean will take what he can fucking get.

* * *

Dean’s hangover pounds as he drives out of Las Vegas the day after karaoke and bar hopping. Last night, Sam, drunk off his ass like Dean, called Jess for over an hour and then spent the next two hours complaining to Dean about how much he missed her. 

Dean pointed out (many times) they were only in Vegas for three nights.

Sam ignored him. 

Then he sang the chorus to Bruno Mars’s Marry Me, eight times in a row until Dean shut him up with his pillow.

Nothing like a light smothering to switch up Sammy’s priorities.

Unfortunately, the next item on Sam’s shit list after his own inability to propose was Dean’s hopeless pining. Once Dean removed his pillow from Sam’s face, Sam was off like a shot, delivering a surprisingly coherent lecture about the steps Dean needed to take to win over Cas.

Sam had obviously put considerable thought into it before drinking himself stupid.

The next morning, hungover as fuck and mad as hell, Dean left Sam in the hotel room and went out for a drive to clear his head. He put in his most morose cassette, a mix of sad, slow songs. Dean sings along as the highway disappears under the Impala’s hood.

“Come down off your throne and leave your body alone. Somebody must change…”

The sun is slowly rising in the east over Sheep Range, and boy are Dean’s drugstore sunglasses not enough. The rays of sunlight come down like knives to his eyeballs. He’s truly in the desert by now, nothing but red dirt and shrubs as far as the eye can see.

“And I’m wasted, and I can’t find my way back home.”

His head gives a nasty throb, so he pulls over to the side of the road with a crunching rumble of dirt on tires. He resettles in his seat, facing away from the sun. The dry heat hasn’t settled in yet, but it’s quickly rolling in as the sun climbs higher in the sky. Dean reckons he has about twenty minutes before he has to hightail back to the AC-blessed hotel room.

He tilts his head back against the window and closes his eyes as Can’t Find My Way Home ends and the beginning notes of Man in the Wilderness start up.

“Another year has passed me by, and I look at myself and cry, ‘What kind of man have I become?’”

Dean really gives it his all, voice still slightly hoarse from the karaoke and many, many arguments with Sam last night. Nobody’s probably around for miles, especially at this hour of the morning.

“Sometimes it makes no sense at all!”

His phone pings with a new text as Behind Blue Eyes by the Who comes on. He picks up the phone, ready to text Sam that he’ll be back in an hour and chuck his phone in the back seat, but his text isn’t from Sam.

Cas 6:06

Do you ever look up at the stars and ponder how small you are in the grand scheme of things?

 

Dean 6:06

Gettin real philosophical at 6am?

 

Cas 6:06

You’re awake?

 

Dean 6:06

Unfortunately

 

Cas 6:07

My apologies if I woke you up. It’s already 7:07 here.

 

Dean 6:07

Don’t worry about it

I’ve been up for an hour already

 

Cas 6:07

Why? Is everything OK with you and Sam?

 

Dean 6:07

Oh yeah, everything’s fine.

Samsquatch is sleeping in the hotel 

I went on a drive. Couldn’t sleep.

 

Cas 6:07

I couldn’t get back to sleep either. 

 

Dean 6:08

Please don’t tell me you’re going on a morning run

or something else insane

 

Cas 6:08

No.

My soulmate started singing a little while ago.

It was pleasant at first. My dreams had a soundtrack, which hasn’t happened before.

But then I woke up. And here we are.

 

Dean 6:08

Sorry man

 

Cas 6:09

Have you ever heard of emotions coming through the soul bond?

 

Dean 6:09

I’m really not the person to ask about soulmate stuff

 

Cas 6:09

My apologies. I don’t know who else to ask.

 

Dean 6:09

The internet?

 

Cas 6:09

I tried. There’s just so much out there on soul songs. It’s hard to wade through it all.

 

Dean 6:09

Ask Sam. He did a lot of research into soulmates the year before he met Jess

Drove me fucking nuts

 

Cas 6:10

OK

 

Dean squints at his phone screen, mouth pursing as he rereads the two letters of Cas’s most recent text. Cas is usually much wordier. It’s fucking endearing; the way he types is exactly the way he speaks.

 

Dean hums along as the chorus to Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters as he waits for Cas to elaborate. 

 

Cas 6:11

I’m sorry if I brought up an uncomfortable topic for you.

It’s just that you are much more adept at deciphering human emotions and behaviors than I am.

 

Dean 6:11

You’re not a robot dude

You’re doing just fine

 

Cas doesn’t respond, and Dean frowns at his phone.

 

Dean 6:12

What are you worried about not getting right?

 

Cas 6:13

I’m worried about my soulmate. Their song choices this morning indicate they’re unhappy.

There have been incidents like this before, but not in years.

It made me wonder, what would I do if I was there with them?

And I don’t know.

 

Dean 6:14

Comforting people is never easy. There’s no rule book for it

You can ask them to talk about it, but sometimes people don’t wanna talk

You could distract them.

 

Dean 6:16

When Sammy didn’t get a full ride to Stanford Law, I took him on a road trip to LA

Saw the sights, ate like kings on a shit budget

He was ok after a couple of days

But sometimes all you can really do is sit there in the same room as them

Tell them “that sucks”

And wait it out

It’s not fun and you do feel useless

But better to be useless than make them feel worse

 

Cas 6:16

That makes sense.

When you feel poorly, what works best for you?

 

Dean 6:17

Me? Distractions, probably. Frisky women. Lots of booze. 

You name it, I’m probably up for it

 

Cas 6:17

That doesn’t sound very healthy

 

Dean 6:17

It works.

 

Cas 6:17

I have a hard time believing that.

 

Dean 6:17

Sam too. You should’ve heard him after I showed up piss ass drunk to meet Jess for the first time

Decked me across the face

 

Cas 6:18

That doesn’t sound healthy either.

 

Dean 6:18

When have I ever indicated that the Winchesters are a well-adjusted bunch?

 

Cas 6:18

You extol Sam’s virtues all the time.

 

Dean 6:18

Cause it's not polite to mention his toxic burrito farts 

 

Cas 6:18

You know what I mean.

 

Dean 6:19

Come on

Nobody wants to air all their dirty laundry

 

Cas 6:19

You were upset when you met Jess?

 

Dean 6:19

I’m not proud of it

You know how I get around the whole soulmate crap

 

Cas 6:20

I guess I do. I did not realize that would extend to Sam’s soulmate, however.

 

Dean drops his phone in his lap and thumps his head back against the window, wincing as the motion knocks his hungover brain against his skull. He eventually types out a response.

 

Dean 6:21

Yeah, well, now you know that I couldn’t even get over my own shit to meet the love of Sam’s life

 

Dean groans as he recognizes the opening of Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way because that’s what he deserves for choosing this playlist when he’s feeling like such shit. Dean just breathes for a moment, letting the music wash over him. He shouldn’t have sent that last text, but it’s too late now. 

Dean’s torn.

Being around Cas makes him want to open up, reveal all of his deepest, fucked up parts. Test Cas, see how much he can get away with before Cas draws the line and says goodbye for good. Dean’s not a dreamer. He doesn’t have a goddamn romantic bone in his body. He had enough of that waiting desperately to hear his first soul song at 13, then at 14, and even at 17, when only two-percent of the population, the latest of the late bloomers, hear their first. 

Even when sitting in the emergency room at 20, praying with everything he had for the angels to give him this one thing to help him get through losing both his parents in one week.

At 28, Dean’s a realist.

But Cas is like a black hole, inevitably sucking Dean into his orbit. Eventually Dean is going to fall all the way and be lost forever.

At the same time, being around Cas also makes him want to keep all that shit buried so fucking deep it will take a whole excavation crew to unearth it. If Dean can keep those parts to himself – despite his crap record so far – then maybe he can hold the inevitable off. Squeeze out as much time as possible with Cas since he already knows how this’ll play out.

Dean 6:21

Heading back to the hotel to pick up Sam

TTYL