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Famous Last Words

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The first two times his cousin’s ringtone had gone off, Castiel ignored it. After all, it was rare for him to have his dorm room to himself, and he had been looking forward to using the peace and quiet to finally get some writing done. But then, less than a minute later, “The Candy Man can ‘cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good…” filled the room, causing him to punch the “accept” button so hard, he felt it in his elbow.

“What do you want, Gabriel?” Castiel growled.

His cousin clucked his tongue, “Is that any way to talk to your family?”

Yes,” he responded vehemently—even if Gabriel was, by far, his favorite relative.

“Touché. Is that any way to talk to the person who just discovered the love of your life?”

Castiel looked back at his laptop screen—at the judgmental blinking of the cursor only one sentence into his fifth chapter. “I don’t have time for this.”

Gabriel’s sigh was long-suffering. “Look, this isn’t a joke, Cassie,” he said, dropping his voice. “I’m pretty sure I found your soulmate.”

Castiel’s stomach flipped like an undercooked pancake.

“I sent you a link,” Gabriel told him, still sounding far too serious.

Castiel switched his phone to his other hand since his right had suddenly become sweaty, but he made no move to check his email.

“How would you even know what my soulmark looks like?” he demanded, already suspecting it was a feeble argument at best. The only person he was sure had seen the tattoo over his heart was his mother—who spent the first two weeks after his sixteenth birthday demanding to know what it was before eventually barging in on him while he was in the shower, explaining it was her “parental right.” But this was Gabriel. Of course, he would have found out somehow.

“So, you really did blackout that night, huh?” Gabriel laughed, causing Castiel to grimace. One time…. He’d tried alcohol one time. And while it turned out he had a high tolerance, everything after Gabe brought out the second bottle of vodka had gone blurry.

Biting his lip, he opened the correct tab in his computer, but couldn’t make himself go any further. A soulmate….

It wasn’t that he didn’t want one, per se. He just didn’t think they were everything people said they were. The divorce rate among marked couples was only 12%, yes, but if those pairings were cosmically meant to be, shouldn’t it be zero? Shouldn’t things like abuse be impossible if you really, truly loved the other person?

And then there were Castiel’s…personal issues.

As socially isolated as he had been most of his life, he still knew it was strange to have never experienced physical attraction before. He might find curves on a woman—or the play of muscle on a man—gratifying to look at—but in the same way that he thought a painting or a sunset beautiful. A rough hand to his morning erection was occasionally necessary—the resulting orgasm pleasant and relaxing, but not the all-consuming rush of sensations that society proclaimed it to be.

And while that didn’t bother him so much on a personal level—just like he didn’t care if he forgot to take a shower or brush his hair so long as he was home alone—it was hard not to feel self-conscious once someone else was involved.

Dimly, he heard Gabriel start humming the song from Jeopardy.

“Assbutt,” he grumbled. Knowing he couldn’t put off the inevitable forever, Castiel closed his eyes and clicked on the only unread email.

When he opened them again, his first thought was that Gabriel was pulling a prank after all.

He may not know many celebrities—but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t recognize Dean Winchester. Castiel had never seen any of his movies, but he had seen trailers—had spotted the actor’s face on magazines when he went to check out groceries. Beyond that, the man was handsome in a way that demanded he had to be something—if not an actor than a singer or a model.

The photo at the top of the article looked like it had been taken in the midst of a family vacation to the beach—and it was clear by Dean’s completely un-staged smile that the man didn’t know it was being taken. Castiel immediately felt bad for spying on such a private moment—however unintentionally—when his gaze finally drifted to the star’s bare chest.

Though the camera wasn’t at a perfect angle to see Dean’s soulmark, it did look remarkably like…

“I’ll call you back,” Castiel shouted to Gabriel as he unbuttoned his shirt.

Holding his phone out as far as he could, he tried to take a picture of his own chest. However, he’d never used the camera setting before and winded up with one of his door instead. Switching it to “selfie” mode helped immensely. He zoomed in on the photo to get a closer look.

During the occasional moments he’d thought about it, Castiel had to admit he liked his phoenix tattoo. While it was mostly black, its wings were tipped blue, green, and purple—the colors of an oil slick—its tail surrounded by licking green flames. However, he’d never taken the time to really study the details of it before—like the way the sharp lines of its open beak contrasted the ribbon-like fluidity of the feathers, giving it the impression of motion.

And yet, in spite of the illusion that the bird changed position from one moment to the next, when comparing his picture to the one on his computer screen, the two images mirrored each other exactly.

Castiel pressed #2 on his speed dial.

“Dean Winchester’s my soulmate,” he informed Gabriel. “Most likely,” he added, willing to concede that there might be some small difference that was not readily apparent in the paparazzi photo.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Castiel could practically hear Gabe’s eye-roll. “Gotta say, Cassie, you suddenly became a hell of a lot more interesting.”

“This article also says that he doesn’t want one,” Castiel pointed out, ignoring his cousin’s last sentence as he continued to skim the text below the image.

“The actor recently began dating Red Hood co-star Lisa Braeden,” it read. “When asked how the public reveal of his soulmark would affect that relationship, Winchester replied, ‘Fate, destiny—it’s all a bunch of bull-crap. I want to be with someone who I choose to be with—who chooses to be with me. It’s that simple.’”

“So what?” Gabriel interrupted Castiel’s train of thought. “That’s what he thinks now. He hasn’t met you yet.”

“And he won’t,” Castiel decided suddenly, heart rate coming down, as he came to the end of the write-up. “He’s never even going to find out I exist.”

Gabe’s protest sounded vaguely like a chicken trying to drink a smoothie. “There is no way that I’m letting you miss your shot with Ken Doll. I don’t care if I have to drug you, kidnap you, and deliver you in a suitcase to his hotel room,” he announced, with the certainty of someone who had already thought about the matter in detail.

“No, you’re not going to meddle.”

“Have you met me?”

Castiel frowned at the phone. “You’re always telling me that I should be the one deciding what I want for my life and that anyone who thinks they know better should go screw themselves.”

“Like I haven’t screwed myself before.”

“Gabriel!”

“Why don’t you want to meet him?”

Castiel’s shoulders relaxed. Getting Gabe to listen was usually more than half the battle. “You know I’m ambivalent about soulmates to begin with and, clearly, Dean is too. Besides that, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to get in touch with him—especially in a way that didn’t involve the press—and not only does bringing the paparazzi down on my head sound unpleasant, from what I can tell from this article, Dean has never come out as bi.”

The write-up had included an overview of both celebrities’ dating history. Lisa was a few years older than Dean. At 20, she had married professional motocross racer, Benjamin Braeden, only for him to tragically die during a race, leaving behind their six-month-old son, also named Ben, who was now approaching four. Dean’s most significant relationship was with a TV reporter named Cassie Robinson—though the article also mentioned rumored flings with family friend Jo Harvelle and actress Bela Talbot.

For all Castiel knew, maybe Dean really was straight. After all, there was such a thing as platonic soulmates, and considering his own lack of sex drive, it made sense.

It also seemed clear to the college student that whatever they might have had in common in another life, it was not this life—where Dean regularly went out to A-list parties and drove around in his collection of classic cars while Castiel spent weekends in his room, interacting with friends he mostly met only over the internet and lying to his mother about how excited he was to become a doctor someday. “It’s better this way. I’m not attached to Dean, so it’s not like his absence from my life will change anything.”

“It shouldn’t be about maintaining the status quo, Cassie. Your life sucks. You should be aiming for better.”

Castiel knew most people would be offended by that—especially since he had made a lot of progress from where he was only last year—but spending time around his cousin required building up a tolerance for insults. “Promise me you’re not going to interfere.”

A minute ticked by. “Gabriel….”

Fine. But I reserve the right to nag you to change your mind from now through eternity. Think about all of the movie premieres you could have gotten me invites to! And the autographs! Do you know how much this guy’s signed anything sells for on eBay?”

“No,” Castiel replied.

“Way more than that piece of toast that looked like it had Jesus’s face on it, that’s for sure.”

And while Castiel couldn’t even begin to comprehend what that was referring to, he was more than happy to let Gabriel ramble for the rest of the call. A soulmate…

Chapter Text

Three years later…

“Thank you,” Castiel said to the random parent his mother had commissioned to take their photo. Naomi Novak was too busy squinting down at the screen.

“You look tired,” she remarked, frowning at the picture.

“I had a lot of studying to do for finals,” he reminded her, flicking the tassel of his graduation cap out of his face.

Suddenly, a small body collided with his, almost causing him to lose the cap altogether. “Congrats, my dude!” Charlie squealed when she pulled back from her deceptively strong hug.

“Congratulations to you as well,” he smiled despite feeling the heavy weight of his mother’s gaze. “When’s your first day at Google?”

“Got about three weeks left. When are you--” Castiel’s mouth firmed, and he tipped his head slightly in his mother’s direction, “headed to California?” Charlie finished. For all he knew, that was what she was planning on saying anyway.

“The day after tomorrow,” he replied, trying not to feel too nervous about the prospect. Charlie squeezed his arm in sympathy.

They chatted for a few more minutes—making promises to video chat regularly—before Charlie begged off to go find Dorothy.

“You could have introduced me to your friend,” his mother pointed out as soon as the bubbly redhead had left.

“Yes, that was rude of me,” he agreed, hoping that sounded enough like an apology. Together, they started walking out of the Chicago Bears football stadium, where the ceremony had been held.

“Has she met her soulmate yet?”

“They’re engaged,” he answered shortly.

Naomi pursed her lips. “I don’t understand you, Castiel. You’re 22 and haven’t even attempted to find your match. I was talking to my secretary about it and there are apparently ways to locate your soulmate on the internet now. If I had had access to your resources when I was your age…”

I wouldn’t have been born, yes, Castiel thought, darkly. “I just want to focus on my career right now,” he said out loud.

“Most people are capable of maintaining both a job and a relationship,” Naomi pointed out. “Or are you somehow less capable than your peers?”

Castiel grit his teeth. He knew from experience that if he just stayed quiet, she would leave the topic alone, content with having gotten her digs in, but that didn’t mean the temptation to argue wasn’t still there.

Contrary to some people’s (Gabriel’s) opinion, he didn’t run from all confrontation with his mother. He defended his friends—the ones she knew about—whenever she made disparaging comments. They often came to a head politically, too. But speaking in his own defense ultimately felt too exhausting.

Especially since all fights, regardless of how they started, always lead to a similar sequence of events. First, there would come a few hours or days of the silent treatment, followed by aggressive emails or text messages reminding Castiel of how much Naomi had sacrificed on his behalf—including paying for his very expensive private school education that got him his scholarship to the University of Chicago in the first place.

If this went on long enough, eventually her icy exterior would crack, leading to sobbing voicemails about how she was only trying her best—attempting to stop him from making the same mistakes that had led to her being so unhappy in life. Castiel didn’t know what lay beyond this stage—since this is usually when the two Novaks agreed to a truce.

Faced with this, he chose a quieter form of rebellion.

“So, tell me about your internship again,” his mother asked in the cab ride on the way to her hotel.

“It will mostly be doing administrative work. A few back-of-office medical duties,” he lied.

“For a dermatologist?”

“Yes, Dr. Cain.”

“And this is providing you with enough money to stay by yourself in LA?”

Castiel’s mind skittered, knowing she was right to be skeptical. “I also have some funds saved up from the job I had over the semester.”

“So, you’re going to be living at a deficit? That’s hardly responsible.”

“It’s only for a few months—until Stanford starts in the fall.” Lies, lies, and more lies.

“Well, perhaps I will visit you some time—once you’ve determined your new apartment doesn’t have bedbugs.” A pause. “That was a joke, Castiel,” she told him, flatly.

He winced a smile at her.

Five minutes later, he was thankfully dropping her off outside the Marriot with plans to meet her tomorrow for breakfast. She had originally wanted to have dinner, too, but his apartment still needed to be packed. Luckily, they were both self-aware enough to realize that hours of going through his personal items together would not be ideal for either of them.

As soon as Castiel got back in the cab, he loosened his tie with a sigh of relief.

“This might take a while,” the driver announced. “More traffic than usual today.” Castiel nodded absently.

Outside the window, grey skyscrapers stood bold and commanding against a grey sky. In the distance he could see Sears Tower, where he once stood on the 110th floor, feeling almost celestially tall as he watched the oblivious people shuffling on the sidewalk below.

“Gonna miss it here?” the driver asked, having obviously overheard the conversation earlier.

“I’m not really sure,” Castiel admitted. College had been good for him in so many ways. It was one thing to think that you could do it—live on your own and do your own grocery shopping, make your own problems and then fix them—and entirely another to have four years of proof under your belt.

He knew what Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were now, thanks to Charlie—had realized strip clubs were not the place for him thanks to Gabriel—and learned that he was resilient, all on his own. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to take the 78 rejections that he got for his first novel—the one he had poured his heart and soul into—and start all over again with a new concept. So, yes, it was safe to say that despite spending four years on a pre-med degree he would likely never use, the time had been a learning experience.

And yet, he’d still never quite fit in—not even with his cousin and his friends. He figured that was his fault more than theirs. A lot of times, he watched the world from the other side of a one-way mirror rather than participating in it. No matter how many times he tried to overcome the barrier, he was never quite able to. As for everyone else, he wasn’t sure if they even noticed someone was on the other side of the glass to begin with.

Even now, the cabbie seemed to conclude that he was the kind of person who liked to ride in silence and didn’t say anything else until they pulled up in front of his building. Castiel gave him an extra-large tip.

Inside his studio, the quiet continued; it almost seemed to echo—likely a symptom of the other college students in the building having already moved out. Opening Netflix, he set it to play a Dean Winchester movie he’d seen a dozen times for background noise and began assembling boxes.

Of course, he thought about Dean.

In the days following the public release of the actor’s soulmark, it would have been hard not to. Not only was a blown-up picture of Dean’s bare chest being circulated wildly, but several people also came forward claiming to be his match. Dean shut them down, decisively, even before the media was able to determine they were frauds.

But with so much coverage, Castiel figured it was only a matter of time before his mother saw the news, and then who knew what kind of chaos she’d raise? Luckily, his general lack of pop culture knowledge was genetically inherited, and Naomi Novak remained unaware.

And yet, even as the world slowly stopped caring about the identity of Dean Winchester’s mystery soulmate, the phoenix tattoo on his chest meant that it was always in the back of his mind. It burned, sometimes, when he was feeling stressed—but also, seemingly at random—making him wonder what was going on with the person on the other side.

The irony didn’t escape him—that here he was, struggling to make connections with others—while avoiding the one person that was supposed to be able to understand him better than anyone else. But Dean seemed happy with Lisa and Ben—at least from what Castiel could tell on the nights he couldn’t resist looking him up. And just because the actor was his soulmate didn’t mean he was obligated to be Castiel’s guide to the rest of humanity.

He’d come this far on his own—he would go further. Once I figure out how to get more boxes, he thought, when he saw that almost half of his supply was filled with nothing but books.

Chapter Text

Castiel tended to think that he was in shape. But jogging or doing taekwondo for the sake of exercise was completely different than hauling dozens of boxes up three flights of stairs to dump them in an apartment where he had no place to sit. Each breath felt sharp in his chest and left the vague taste of blood in his mouth.

It was hot, too, and he stumbled for the sink—only to realize he didn’t know where his glasses were—before just tilting his head and letting the water run into his open mouth.

Being tired made it hard to prioritize, but he figured he should make sure his internet was all set up first.

His stomach growled. Food, then work on the internet, he corrected himself.

He was so hungry, he ordered delivery from the first pizza place and the first Chinese place his phone suggested. Satisfied he would be able to feed a small army, let alone himself for the next few days, he finally dug out his laptop.

Castiel had his email set up so that messages he deemed important were pinned to the top, with unread emails below. There was the letter from Dr. Cain, offering him a position for the summer, followed by his acceptance to Stanford’s Medical program, both of which he had forwarded to his mother (and then subsequently declined).

Then, there were the three emails that had changed the entire course of his life.

It had been a Thursday afternoon last September when he first saw Fergus MacLeod’s name in his inbox. “Send me 100 more pages,” was all it had said, and yet, Castiel stared at those five words blankly for an hour—unconvinced they were real. After the failure of his first novel and a dozen rejections for his second, he had been slowly sinking into a depression that caused him to sleep more than usual—and to spend his waking hours planted in front of Netflix rather than doing his homework. He’d reread his first ten pages—all that you could send with your query—a dozen times, desperate to figure out what was wrong with them.

“Your dry-as-sand cover letter for one,” the agent, who preferred to go by his middle name, Crowley, told him in one of the many phone calls that came later. “I could sell it as a bedtime story—guaranteed to make your kids fall asleep.”

For several months after their initial correspondence, Crowley ripped his novel apart with the viciousness of a rabid dog, and Castiel used more expletives than he ever had before while trying to meet his demands. But for the same reasons Crowley wouldn’t make a good friend, he made an excellent agent—and Castiel was so thrilled to say he had an agent now that he was willing to hear the Brit ramble on about how writers were nothing more than “hoarders who think every sentence is a stray cat that they should welcome to live in their book until the whole thing goes to shit.”

Crowley was so exacting that by the time The Righteous Man met his standards, Castiel barely found himself worried about whether it was going to be accepted by a publisher.

As it turned out, he got several bites. But the email from Doubleday still caught him off guard—a $250,000 advance for this book and two future sequels.

Castiel had had the strangest urge to call his mother. He called Gabriel instead.

Of course, he knew that he would have to come clean to Naomi sooner rather than later. But…the book wasn’t even published yet.

Crowley had assured him that it would be a bestseller—arguing that the amount of advertising Doubleday was putting into its launch in just over two months was more than telling. But…what if it wasn’t a hit? What if the dozens of people that had thought his work was no good were the ones in the right? The advanced money would stay his—but, as much of a windfall as that was, it wouldn’t be enough to last him his whole life if the book flopped. He didn’t want to tell his mother until he had definitive proof that he could turn writing into a long and prosperous career.

And then there was the fact that, once Naomi knew about the book, she would read it. And that… wouldn’t be pretty. It wasn’t just that he had taken one of the most taboo subjects in Christianity and turned it into fodder for an adventure story—or the fumbling bits of romance Crowley had made him insert with a purr of “sex sells, darling.” It was that his main character’s search for the truth was simultaneously a search for his missing father—and Castiel knew that the part of his mother that did love him would hate him for that.

So, he would wait—until the end of the summer—until he was sure.

The last pinned email was why he was in LA now. “In light of The Righteous Man’s anticipated success and the highly visual quality of the prose… we would like to purchase the movie rights…”

Crowley’s smile over video chat when they discussed it almost looked genuine.

If receiving a quarter of a million dollars for something that hadn’t even hit bookshelves yet came as a shock, hearing that a studio wanted to bet on a movie without knowing if there was going to be an audience for it felt like being electrocuted. But a lot of the big superhero and book franchises had released their last films—and the industry needed to create a new fandom fast.

However, with the two sequel books still unwritten, they wanted Castiel around to advise on the script—make sure it didn’t contradict any plot points he had in mind for the future. They also thought it would be a good idea to have him there as they were casting so that he could offer his opinion on who best suited the role of Michael Gillies and his acquaintances.

Castiel could write from LA as well as anywhere else—so here he was, in a 1000 square-foot, one-bedroom apartment that cost over $3,000 a month.

He sent off a quick message confirming he would meet the producer, Balthazar, and his team next week—and wondered, not for the first time, if he’d gone insane and this was all an elaborate hallucination—that somehow was realistic enough to involve cramps from all the heavy-lifting.

Four hours, four slices of pizza, and a whole container of sweet-and-sour chicken later, Castiel had an IKEA desk assembled, most of his kitchenware in the appropriate cabinets and drawers, and most of his clothes in his closet.

He frowned at a box without a label—only for a helium balloon with Gabe’s face on it to rise out of it, revealing the dozen or so dildos it had been concealing. What was worse is that he had ten-foot-high ceilings and the balloon was stringless, meaning he was stuck with Gabriel’s smirk leering at him from above until he could obtain a ladder to get it down.

And yet, when he went to bed that night in a new apartment, in a new city—his mattress on the floor in the living room since he hadn’t yet bought a frame—he quietly admitted that it was comforting to see a familiar face.

Chapter Text

“You must be our author!” an accented voice shouted from only a few feet away. The man it belonged to was wearing a V-neck T-shirt and dark jeans, making Castiel realize that his suit was probably not necessary.

“And you must be Balthazar,” Castiel gave a closed-lip approximation of a smile and a handshake. Since getting on the lot, he’d already gotten lost twice, having to ask directions from workers who were halfway through their next errand by the time he processed what they said.

As if to confirm that everyone here was running on fast-forward, the blonde producer moved towards a set of double doors at the end of the room, seemingly expecting Castiel and the entourage that he surrounded himself with to follow.

“This is my assistant, Hannah,” Balthazar explained as he walked, nodding his head in the direction of a pretty, brunette woman. “If I’m unavailable, she can help answer any questions you might have. Including telling you who everyone is since I’ve been told addressing people as ‘you there’ is impolite.”

“Slightly,” Hannah responded, her eyes on the smart tablet she was writing on with a stylus. Castiel watched, fascinated, as she dodged the other people in the hallway without looking up.

“And God forbid anyone accuse me of being only slightly impolite,” Balthazar quipped, turning a sharp corner. At this point, Cas wished that he had brought along a ball of twine to this labyrinth of halls, figuring that, without a guide, he’d never find his way out again.

“So, the Casting Director is usually in charge of looking through early resumes and tapes,” Balthazar continued. “We’ll be reviewing four of their recommendations for Michael today. Once we have him cast, we’ll start looking into other roles, since those actors will need to have chemistry with the lead.”

He gestured Castiel inside a large, all-white room, partially filled with people. Three long desks were arranged to form a U-shape. “Over there in the corner is Chuck, our head scriptwriter. Best not to make too many loud noises. I’m never quite sure if he acts the way he does because he’s shy or hungover—but we want to avoid sending him into any fits.”

Considering that the small, darty-eyed man was within hearing distance, that definitely counted as less than slightly polite.

Balthazar then pointed at the man directly in the center of the U. “That’s Mo, our director. Bit of a bastard and impossible to understand most of the time--”

I’m hard to understand?” Mo drawled with a southern twang, “You Brits can’t even spell ‘color’, let alone say it properly.”

“I’m French, you fried chicken salesman,” Balthazar hollered back, causing Castiel’s shoulders to square.

He was trying to decide whether he should intervene when Hannah directed him to a chair with a quick, “Ignore them. They’re always like this.”

“I don’t think that’s quite the reassurance you meant it as.”

“Trust me, they’re a match made in Heaven. Or Hell. They both need someone to argue with—and they’re lucky they found each other.” Well, she would know best.

His chair was at the very end of the left section of the U. Nearby, a single chair took up the fourth side of the square. This is where he assumed the actor would sit while reading lines, facing the camera that was positioned behind Mo’s chair.

Hannah sat with perfect posture in the seat beside him, eyes still on her tablet, and Castiel felt himself relax slightly now that he was no longer under anyone’s direct scrutiny.

He’d been told before that he had an eerie way of just being. Most people fidgeted. He stayed so resolutely still that he could make himself practically invisible to people only a few feet away—so that even a slight movement on his part would cause them to jump in surprise. “We need to get you a bell,” Gabriel had snarked, but Castiel found this ability of his useful for people watching.

Now, as the last few seats were filled in, he played a familiar game with himself. He watched Balthazar and Mo continue to launch increasingly colorful insults at each other and wondered how a book would describe the smirk that was completely hidden by Mo’s beard? More importantly, how had he come by that smile? Was it one he had always had since he was a devious little kid? Or was it a face he grew into as he became more jaded with the world?

Most of the time he knew better than to mistake his musings with reality (except for that time Gabriel tried to buy him a lap dance with a stripper named Chastity and he’d just had to ask whether her choice of profession had to do with the loss of her father. But it had gotten her to leave him alone, so that was probably for the best anyway.) Still, he found it interesting to reverse-engineer people—to try to figure out Point A while looking at Point K.

All too soon, however, his musings were cut short by Balthazar’s return. The self-proclaimed Frenchman remained standing, but leaned over Castiel’s desk from the other side, once again drawing emphasis to the very low cut of his V-neck shirt. Castiel wondered if he often lost food down it when he took lunch.

“So, Cassie…” the producer grinned. Castiel groaned internally. “I have to ask… What kind of man did you picture Michael as? Have to say, I’ve never read a book that didn't mention what the main character looked like before.”

“You’ve…read my book?” Castiel asked with a tilt of his head.

Balthazar's forehead furrowed.

“It’s just…you’re only the seventh person I know of who’s actually read my book.”

“I could point out readers eight through twenty if you like. We are making a movie of it, if you recall.”

Right, Castiel thought, feeling suddenly stripped down in spite of the fact that he was wearing more layers than anyone else in the room. “I just… don’t feel like physical details are important. I wanted to give the audience the room to imagine Michael however they wish him to be.”

Balthazar sighed, exasperated. “That’s a good party line, darling, but the whole reason we’re here is to put a face on him—and you can’t tell me that you plotted out Michael’s whole childhood, his relationships, his motivations, and never gave him his own nose. You must have something—someone—in mind.”

Balthazar seemed like he wasn't going to leave until he got an answer, and Castiel closed his eyes, briefly. When he was first starting the book, he’d pictured someone much like himself. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, obsessed with religious history. But, over subsequent drafts, the character evolved—becoming someone funnier, more reckless, more assured of his place in the world than Castiel thought he would ever be. These changes in personality were also accompanied by physical changes.

“Michael was blonde as a child, but his hair darkened with age. Green eyes, strong jaw.” Castiel hesitated, “Freckles.”

Balthazar’s sharp smile was curved like a scythe.

Chapter Text

Before the first actor walked in, Castiel was surprised to be handed several pages from the script. It was even more disconcerting to glance over them and see pieces of his own writing given a slightly different shape—like being introduced to a long-lost twin brother named Jimmy who was both familiar and not.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” he asked Hannah.

“They want you to be the cop.”

Luckily, the confusion on his face seemed to ask the question for him.

“The actors will all be doing the same scene—but they’ll need someone to read the other character’s lines in order for them to continue with the dialogue.”

“I have no acting ability,” Castiel protested.

“Trust me, no one’s expecting you to perform,” Hannah shook her head. “I’ve been a reader before. Just make sure the actor is done talking first before you go. And try to enunciate. That’s all you need to do.”

Castiel frowned, but he figured he could manage that.

A few minutes later, the door opened, and a handsome, stocky man matching the photo on Hannah’s tablet strolled in. “Larry!” he greeted the director enthusiastically, the movement tossing his shoulder-length hair like a shampoo ad.

Now Castiel was even more lost. “I thought his name was Mo?”

Hannah choked a cough into her hand. “It is. Lee’s making a Three Stooges reference.”

Based on his expression, it appeared that Mo did not like being called ‘Larry’ any more than Castiel liked being called ‘Cassie.’ However, Lee didn’t seem to notice. He had a bright, full-faced smile. A few people in the crowd smiled back at him; he was obviously familiar.

He had just finished a joke about how his dog ate $600 of his girlfriend’s makeup—(“I told her, ‘Shit happens’ you know. Boy, did she make sure to remind me of that when Roxie woke us up at 2:00 in the morning to poop a damn rainbow.”)—when the cameraman said, “Ready when you are.”

Instantly, Lee’s posture changed, becoming less loose-limbed. Castiel was startled at how fast the room settled into a hush.

So, how can I help you, Officer?” Lee, as Michael, said, settling down into his seat.

Hannah elbowed Castiel in the side and he hastily looked down at his script. This was one of the character’s first real defining moments. Michael and his eventual love interest, Sarah, were strangers who had both been attending a new gallery opening at the museum when they—and 200 other guests—had suddenly started coughing and clutching their chests.

A few minutes later, cops and paramedics arrived with oxygen masks. The obvious conclusion was that there had been a biological attack.

The cop conducting interviews slid a photo across the table to Michael—containing the name “Judas” spray-painted across the museum’s video surveillance screen. “Tell me what you think this means,” Castiel read, in his natural low growl of a voice.

Surprise and anxiety wrinkled Lee’s brow for just a second before he quickly replaced it with a sardonic smile. “Boston is what…? 36% Catholic? Close to 60% of the people here consider themselves to be Christian.” He leaned forward. “I’m going to take a wild guess that you already know who Judas is.

I know who Judas is,” Castiel responded. “What I want to know is what message these guys are trying to send by leaving that name behind.”

“What makes you think I know?”

“Well, Professor, we had a talk with the museum director. Strangely enough, the first thing he said when he saw this picture is that I should talk to you. Something about a manuscript from their archives you’ve been translating on the weekends? A manuscript that, by the way, went missing earlier this evening.”

Lee’s body stilled. A handful of seconds passed as thoughts obviously whirled behind his eyes. Finally, he let out a sigh. “Any chance you’re one of the 36% of people in this city who are Catholic?

I am.

“Then I don’t think you’re going to like me—or what I have to say—very much.”

“Try me.”

Lee folded his hands over his lap. “The manuscript I’m translating. It’s a Coptic text, recently recovered from Egypt, but originally believed to have come from Israel.”

“About Judas?”

“By Judas. The Gospel of Judas, to be exact.”

Castiel had been worried that this scene would come across as clunky and exposition-filled on screen, but Lee managed to paint pictures out of his words. So what if his attempts to show the audience that he was holding something back involved making the same tight-cheeked expression a little too often? Castiel figured it must be hard trying to craft a moment when it kept being broken, awkwardly, by his own stilted recitation. The room seemed to hum with muted appreciation, like a generator powering up.

They ran a second scene—a lighter one. (“We’re on the run,” Sarah stated, slightly hysterically. “I tend to picture worst-case scenarios a lot, and I still never pictured doing something like this."

Liar,” Michael insisted, pulling the maximum amount of cash that the ATM would allow him to. “Everyone imagines running off. When I was ten, I fully intended to give my family the slip and go live at the laundry mat.

Why there?

Open 24/7, with heating, a bathroom, and a vending machine. The question is why don’t more kids who run away go to the laundry mat.”)

Given how naturally he had made the same audience laugh a few moments ago, though, here Lee only got a few light chuckles. Castiel frowned down at the words in his hands—already wondering what could be rearranged to get a larger response.

“So, can you picture him as Michael?” Hannah asked him, almost conspiratorially.

“Yes,” he said without elaborating, reaching into the pocket of his suit for a pen.

The same could not be said of the next person to audition.

Gordon Walker had a longer resume than Lee’s—apparently, he’d recently been in a Terminator reboot—but there was a quiet underlying menace to his performance that wouldn’t work for the role.

Michael Gillies was not only working on translating the Gospel of Judas for scholarly acclaim but to clear the apostle's name. The way the Gospel told things, Judas turned Jesus in, not because he was a traitor, but because Jesus had asked him to. Jesus’s sacrifice for humanity was his death. Judas’s was giving up his best friend.

The script would later reveal that the Gillies had been passing down Judas’s story for generations—that they were the long-lost descendants of Jesus’s most well-loved apostle—and the world’s most hated. This revelation would make both Michael—and the movie as a whole—loudly controversial. As such, for all his snark and deflection, Michael needed to come across as a good guy, one the audience would feel sympathy for, not wariness.

Castiel was alternating between scribbling notes for himself on the margins of the script and absently rubbing his chest when the door creaked open a third time. His eyes flicked up. Widened. His pen dropped to the floor.

He was almost grateful. It gave him an excuse to duck his head to pick it up.

“Dean!” Balthazar exclaimed in a way that should have echoed if it weren’t for the purposeful soundproofing of the room.

“Yeah, I still don’t do the kissing on the cheek thing,” the actor hedged.

“You can give me a manly slap on the back afterward if it will help.”

Castiel sat up in time to see Dean scrub the back of his neck. “Or not touching is fine.”

“Spoilsport,” Balthazar teased.

Dean rolled his eyes, glancing away from the producer then. “Hey, Chuck. How’re you doing?”

Chuck lifted his ‘Team Oxford Comma’ coffee mug in a sort of salute. “You know, the usual. Mildly terrible.”

“Well, points for consistency, I guess.”

Dean continued around the room, chatting here and there, before finally clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “So, who’s reading with me today?”

Somehow, his gaze found Castiel’s a second before Balthazar announced, “That would be our darling writer, Castiel,” and nodded in his direction. His eyes were really that green—it wasn’t photoshop.

“Nice to meet you,” Dean murmured, holding out his arm.

Castiel looked at it, uncertainly, before abruptly realizing he was asking for a handshake and meeting him halfway.

There weren’t sparks, no neon sign that appeared over them flashing “SOULMATE!”, no choir of angels singing. But Dean’s hand was warm and surprisingly calloused and Castiel thought that was more information than he could deal with at the moment.

And yet, if he thought he was going to get a reprieve when Dean started to do his scene, he was very much mistaken. As soon as Dean dropped his hand, he took his chair and spun it sideways. This way, when he sat down, he stared straight at Castiel with those incredibly green eyes. “So… How can I help you, Officer?” he asked, earnestly.

Chapter Text

“Fuck. Was that Cole Trenton? You know he hates me, right?” Dean muttered upon reentering the room. He’d finished his audition an hour ago, but Balthazar had asked if he wanted to hang around until lunch time to check out some new bistro.

“Dude, do I seem like the kind of person who eats pasta salad to you?” Dean asked, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket.

“Fine,” Balthazar huffed. “We’ll go to a steakhouse—so long as it has a ridiculously overpriced wine list.”

“Yeah, that still doesn’t sound great.”

“Dean, Dean, Dean. Haven’t you heard that flattery gets you everywhere?”

“And here I thought it was my perky nipples.”

Beside Castiel, Hannah made a slight choking noise but recovered amiably.

“Are your nipples feeling perky at the moment?” Balthazar questioned, with a dangerous grin. “Why that IS flattering.”

Five minutes of increasingly raunchy conversation later, Dean had agreed to lunch before disappearing to who-knows-where. Almost as soon as the door had closed behind him, the room was abuzz with talk. It appeared that Castiel wasn’t the only one who had been impressed with the man’s abilities.

Not only had his delivery of the jokes gotten a better response than Lee’s, but for every line he DID say, there seemed to be another dozen things he hadn’t—leaving Castiel, who wrote the character, pressing forward to learn more.

Dean was so convincing that Castiel's own performance improved as a result—his voice putting natural emphasis on words instead of just reading them like a grocery list.

In the end, Balthazar hadn’t even had Cole run the second scene.

“Well, if Cole Trenton already hates you then you won’t lose a friend by getting the job over him,” Balthazar said, dismissively.

“You guys decided already?” Dean questioned, seeming genuinely surprised.

“What can I say? You fit the role like a condom.”

“I see I’m going to have to file a sexual harassment suit against you before this is all over,” Dean grumbled, but Castiel thought he seemed pleased by the news, which was better than the alternative.

As for himself, Castiel felt…off-center, like a painting that was always tilted no matter how many times he tried to step back and set things straight. Dean was going to be Michael. His Dean was going to be his Michael. Which meant that they would see each other—at least occasionally. The word “destiny” came to mind, followed immediately by Dean’s quote from the article, “Fate, destiny—it’s all a bunch of bull-crap.” Very persistent bull-crap, it seemed.

He needed time to go home and think about…everything—maybe call Gabriel if he was desperate enough. With that in mind, he folded up the notes he had taken during the audition and stuffed them into his suit jacket pocket. Taking a deep breath, he walked over to where Balthazar and Dean were still locked in conversation.

“I’ll see you next week,” Castiel murmured, keeping his eyes firmly locked on the blonde producer. But a hand on his arm stopped him from leaving.

“Cassie!” Balthazar exclaimed with the same amount of enthusiasm he had the first time. “We were just about to head out. Why don’t you join us?”

The author did his best to hide a grimace. “I already have plans for lunch.”

And yet, something in his face must have given him away because Balthazar only hummed, thoughtfully. “And what would those be?”

Castiel knew he would be hard-pressed to make up a friend in the city that he just moved to. Not to mention, he was a terrible liar when he didn’t have time to prepare. “A peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my apartment,” he said, honestly.

“Well, doesn’t that sound pressing,” Balthazar said, voice droll, as Castiel managed to get his arm away.

Meanwhile, Dean made no attempt to hold in a laugh. “Man,” he told Balthazar. “You’re having a really hard time getting a date today.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Castiel told the producer. “But today’s been very—eventful—for me and I think I’d rather just go home now.”

“Come, where’s the fun in that? You have time to be boring when you’re dead.”

Castiel’s poker face turned into a glare. “I’m starting to understand why so many people dislike you.” Dean snickered again.

“I didn’t think it was a mystery, darling.” Balthazar turned to Dean. “You’re up, Mr. Celebrity. Convince him to come with us.”

Dean looked Castiel up and down as if his gaze was a security wand at an airport, before glancing back to the producer. “And how the hell am I supposed to do that?”

“I think whatever method you use to get out of speeding tickets would probably work.”

Dean rolled his eyes.

“Look,” Dean sighed, addressing Castiel directly for the first time since the reading. “I don’t know what kind of game this dick is playing—because it’s clearly something—but… if I’m going to do this part justice, I do have a couple of questions I want to ask you. So… do you think we can pick a time to get a beer or something? We won’t invite him,” he tilted his head in Balthazar’s direction, “if that helps.” His body language was open, expression genuine.

No, that definitely does not help, Castiel thought, and suddenly, the reality of what was happening hit him.

Throughout high school and college, Castiel’s mother had been constantly on the alert—worried that he would become one of “those kids” who threw away all the benefits of a white-class upbringing and a prestigious education for alcohol and drugs. As such, Naomi set highly strict rules about when he could go out (he mostly couldn’t) and who he could hang out with (mostly no-one)—never quite getting that Castiel had no desire to do those things no matter how often they were offered to him.

Even when he had tried alcohol at Gabriel’s request, its pull was over for him the next day. Given his track record, he assumed that addiction would just never be one of his vices.

But this was an altogether different temptation.

Castiel had never been in love. He didn’t know what it felt like, what it tasted like, but he had been told by the universe that it looked and sounded like Dean Winchester. And now that they were in each other’s world, he questioned for the first time if he would be able to stop himself from going too far. 

Impossible. That’s not the kind of person Castiel was. And yet, it also seemed inevitable.

He wanted to look at the painting that was this man until it made him feel something other than “it’s beautiful.” But he also didn’t want to understand—didn’t want Dean to mean something to him—not when he already meant something real and present to other people.

Beside him, Dean was waiting for an answer, his forehead furrowing slightly in concern as the seconds ticked by.

Castiel cleared his throat. “Of course, we can meet,” he said at last. After all, what reason could he possibly have for refusing? “Maybe after there’s been a Sarah cast.”

And with that, he finally made his escape.

Chapter Text

Of course, he got lost. It was so predictable that he’s surprised the weatherman didn’t announce it was going to happen when he turned on his TV that morning. Equally predictable is that after he took a left, another left, backtracked because he definitely didn’t remember seeing that mural before, a right, then another left, he somehow wound up blinking into the face of Dean Winchester, who had apparently only just emerged from the room where the auditions were held.

“Changed your mind about coming with us?” the actor asked with a playful grin.

“I don’t understand—how I could have circled—” Castiel responded, though he was mostly talking to himself.

“Come on, Cas,” Dean said like it was the hundredth time he’d used that nickname and not the first. He gripped the author’s shoulder with one hand and turned him to face the opposite direction. “I’ll help you find the parking lot.”

Irritated with the grand cosmic design as he may be, Castiel was still a practical person at heart. “I would appreciate that,” he sighed, pressing himself to remember the layout this time even if the sight of Dean, six inches away, was distracting.

“Where did Balthazar go?” the author asked as they walked.

“Oh,” the actor blinked. “He and Hannah are meeting me at the restaurant. Thank fuck. The last thing I need is for Baby to smell like eau de cologne for the next week. I might break out in hives.”

Castiel might think Dean was rude to talk about Balthazar like that behind his back—if he wasn’t already completely sure he would say the same thing to his face. His brain caught on one word, though, “Baby?”

“My car,” Dean explained, his chest puffing up with obvious pride. “A 1967 Chevy Impala. Restored her myself.”

“That’s…quite impressive.”

Dean gave him a side-eye. “Not a car guy?”

“I admit, I don’t know much about fixing cars. Although I do know how to hotwire one.” Dean’s steps faltered. Castiel’s stopped with him. “It occurs to me that I probably shouldn’t have admitted that to someone I just met.”

“No, actually, next time you’re at a party, you should definitely lead with that,” Dean chuckled as he fell back into pace.

“I haven’t put the knowledge to any nefarious purpose,” Castiel promised, feeling the back of his neck heat up. “I have this friend. She’s very… enthusiastic. And a couple of years back, she got it into her head that we should all be prepared just in case the zombie apocalypse actually struck. So, we… practiced survival skills.”

“And none of these ‘survival skills’ involved figuring out how to navigate?” Dean asked, with raised eyebrows, as Castiel attempted to go down a passage, only to be stopped by the actor—who pushed him through a door that Castiel hadn’t even noticed was there.

“I didn’t realize that coming here would require a map. Or a compass,” Castiel grumbled, though he was glad to recognize the stairs they were on as the ones leading to the parking deck.

Dean snorted but didn’t comment.

They made it down a floor.

“So, you seemed a bit twitchy earlier,” the actor pointed out, boots heavy on the steps. “But you’re fine now. Really was just Balthazar getting under your skin, huh?”

With a jolt, Castiel realized that Dean was right—that they’d fallen into an easy conversation and companionable silence together in spite of how anxiously he’d left the audition. He tried his hardest not to let that change now. “I don’t have a problem with Balthazar,” he said, slowly. “He actually reminds me a lot of my cousin. However, the attention—it’s not what I’m used to.” He supposed, in his best-case scenario—where the book and movie were both successful—the eyes on him would only get worse. Of course, being an author would never be as high-profile as being an actor. He glanced at Dean. “Did you…get used to it?”

Dean shrugged, the leather of his jacket squeeing. “I mean…yeah, for the most part. I’m gonna sound like a douche for saying this, but I’ve always had people looking at me. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up—so it just came with the territory of being the new kid.

“And then, you know, I grew up pretty. Some hotshot came into a diner where I was waiting tables and asked if I wanted to be on TV. I had bills to pay. Wasn’t gonna say ‘no’ to that.”

“How old were you?” Castiel murmured, having never ventured into Dean’s history. He’d mostly stuck to reading the headlines, feeling like it was wrong for him to know so much more about his soulmate than Dean would ever learn of him.

“Fifteen,” Dean said, nonchalantly.

“Seems young.”

“I only got small potatoes roles ‘til I was… nineteen? Twenty?”

Castiel meant that it seemed young to have bills, but a sudden instinct told him Dean wouldn’t like it if he said that out loud.

“Anyway, do I love it that my supposed ‘friends’ can make money selling me out to the press? Or that if I decide to go out to the store in my hot dog pajama pants, that’s suddenly front-page news? Hell no. But I guess it’s better than thinking those friends actually cared about anything besides my name and money. And you know what? I look damn good in hot dog pajama pants.”

“Undoubtedly.” The actor probably looked good in everything.

They reached the parking deck. Dean fetched his keys from his pockets and twirled them around his index finger but made no other attempt to move. “So… should I ask which one your ride is? Or do you want me to guess.”

Castiel felt the left corner of his mouth quirk up in amusement. “You’re free to try….”

Dean seemed to take the challenge seriously, scanning the lot, slowly. “That one,” he guessed, pointing to a blue Prius. Castiel shook his head. “Damn!” Next, he picked out a Ford Fiesta—also blue—with a “Honk If You Like to Scuba Dive” bumper sticker.

Castiel’s amusement grew. “Sorry, still wrong.”

Dean’s frown deepened. However, this time, during his sweep, he finally caught sight of the author’s barely-there smile. “You fucker. You don’t have a car here, do you?”

“I drove a U-Haul from Chicago and was waiting to see what the public transportation system was like before purchasing a vehicle. I was just going to call for an Uber.”

“Dude, the Metro here makes dial-up internet seem fast.”

“I’ve realized,” Castiel said, drily. Not to mention, it smelled like a gym locker room. “I’ll probably start looking for cars this week.”

“Well, if you--” Dean started, only to cut himself off. “…need a ride now, I can--”

“Dean, that would be going very out of your way…. And Balthazar doesn’t strike me as being incredibly patient. But I'm grateful for the offer,” he added, a little more quietly.

“Yeah?" Dean asked, turning to face Castiel more fully. His eyes were the color of peridot. "Maybe next time you can repay me by not letting me agree to lunch with Balthazar.”

Castiel felt his pulse pick up slightly at the thought. “Next time,” he promised.

Chapter Text

Castiel glanced up at the balloon with Gabriel’s face on it as he paced around his living room.

“I can’t believe it still hasn’t gone down yet,” he told his cousin, phone to his ear.

“What can I say? I’ve got stamina for days.”

Castiel pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger in the hopes it would make that particular mental picture go away faster. “Did you ever think the balloon might represent your overinflated sense of self-worth?”

Gabriel gasped dramatically. “Cassie. Is that any way to talk to your family?” That question had become a running joke between them at this point.

“Yes!” Castiel insisted, not quite able to disguise the good humor in it.

Gabriel gave a returning chuckle. “Seriously, little cousin. How goes it in the big city?”

“Los Angeles is not that much bigger than Chicago….”

“Avoiding the question,” Gabriel observed. “Must mean that something juicy has happened.”

Castiel bit his lip and began pacing in the opposite direction. “I—er….”

“Oooh, really juicy,” his cousin sounded as excited as a six-year-old that was told the birthday party they were attending had a bouncy castle.

“Actually, Gabriel, there’s—someone at the door. I’ll callyoubacklater. Bye.”

Castiel put his head to the cool granite of his kitchen counter as soon as he hung up. I’m sure he’s not suspicious at all, he thought, then groaned down at the floor.

Yes, he had briefly considered telling his cousin what was going on. After all, Dean’s casting would be in the news soon—and he knew Gabriel would be following updates like a hawk.

But even if Gabe generally meant better than Naomi, he was, in some ways, as bad as she was when it came to pushing the issue of his soulmate—and Castiel just didn’t want to deal with that right now.

No, he’d deal with it tomorrow when he had to go back to the studio to attend the Sarah auditions. He groaned again.

/////

As embarrassing as his terrible sense of direction was, Castiel was grateful to see Hannah waiting to escort him to the audition room just like last time.

For the most part, it looked the same—except more seats had been arranged around the U-shape “for Dean and some others who will be joining us,” Hannah explained. Castiel nodded, vaguely.

Adhering to the same rules he had back in high school, he chose the seat he had before and felt pleased when Hannah sank down next to him. For a moment, they just sat there, waiting, before Castiel remembered that small talk was often expected in situations like this.

“Are you… from the area?” he asked, figuring it was a better conversation starter than the weather.

“Not even a little bit,” she smiled, shaking her head. “My mom was the U.S. Ambassador to Germany during most of my childhood, so I grew up in Berlin. Then, when she moved on from that to chair the Office of Campaign Finance, we lived in D.C. mostly.”

Castiel tilted his head, “So, how did you…”

“Wind up here? Oh, the usual teenage rebellion story. I met a guy. Fell too hard too fast and found myself following him halfway across the country.” She shrugged, seeming unbothered by the memory. “We didn’t work out, but I was too proud to go home—and, in the long run, I’m glad I didn’t. I started here as an intern—and it felt good, you know—working my way up instead of having everything handed to me because of my mom.”

“Are you--” he was going to say “on good terms with her now”—when the door opened, revealing a familiar face. Familiar faces, actually.

“Hey, everybody!” Dean greeted, welcomed by the smiles and waves of a few people. Castiel was considering nodding—or something—in his direction when the actor stepped further into the room, leading someone by the hand. With gleaming dark hair and bright, dark eyes, Castiel had always thought that she looked like a shinier version of the girl next door. “I think most of you know Lisa.”

“Yes, but not nearly as well as we’d like to,” a voice purred.

“Charming as always, Balthazar,” Lisa laughed while Dean grumbled behind her.

“Lisa Braeden, Dean’s girlfriend,” Hannah explained unnecessarily as Balthazar enthusiastically offered Lisa and Dean the two chairs closest to him.

“That’s nice,” Castiel said. “So…how did you like Germany?” Hannah seemed surprised but pleased by the return to their previous conversation.

She was just telling him how much she missed this one bakery outside the Tiergarten when the first actress was led in.

/////

Four auditions later, Castiel was starting to get worried about finding an appropriate Sarah. Lydia’s performance had seemed too detached to him. Meanwhile, Amara… He wasn’t sure how she knew Dean, but there was definitely a story there, judging by the way the actor flinched when she came into the room and Lisa’s warm eyes tightened at the corners. Castiel couldn’t even remember the name of the other two actresses.

“Last one,” Hannah told him, pulling up a photo of a curly-haired blonde who had last played a nurse in the horror film, Thank God It’s Friday. Castiel had, unsurprisingly, never seen it.

“Enchanté,” Balthazar spoke up when Jessica Moore walked in.

“C'est aussi un plaisir de vous rencontrer,” the actress responded without missing a beat.

“Well, well, well,” Balthazar murmured appreciatively while Mo growled, “This meeting shouldn’t require subtitles.”

“Of course. Apologies,” Jessica agreed easily without looking like she was sorry at all. “And who is it my job to flirt with today?”

“That would be me,” Dean announced, uncrossing his arms to point at himself unnecessarily.

Jessica hummed, “Well, I suppose I can make that work.”

She turned to Lisa and winked. “Don’t worry, I know he’s taken,” she said in a loud whisper. Lisa waved off her concerns with a smile and, with that, they started the scene.

The light-hearted banter that it began with was similar to what Dean and Jessica had already been doing, but it took a sharp turn when Sarah warned Michael that life-or-death-adrenaline-high or not, she wasn’t looking for a relationship. “It’s nothing personal. I’m just…”

Waiting for your soulmate,” Dean as Michael finished with a wry twist of his lips. “Trust me, I get it.”

“But you’re not—waiting,” Sarah deduced, though it held a hint of a question in it.

“Got no one to wait for. She, uh, died. Car crash. Before I even met her,Michael explained, the words stiff in his mouth like he’d never said them out loud in that order before.

This had been important to Castiel. He knew that his wasn’t the only complicated soulmate situation out there and had wanted to make sure to feature the struggles that came with not having a perfect match.

“Well, that’s shitty,” came Sarah’s automatic response.

“Yeah, yeah, it is.”

“Did you… want a soulmate? Before--”

Michael gave a surprised laugh that almost sounded like he was gargling. “Wow, most people hear my sob story and take it as a cue to shut up, but you’re just diving in with the questions.” Sarah opened her mouth, but Michael cut her off with a wave of her hand. “No, it’s fine. A relief, actually.”

He leaned backward, fingers drumming in thought, “When I was younger, I thought the idea was… claustrophobic. Maybe, I still would if she was around. But the older I get, the more I wish… not for a soulmate, exactly. A partner, I guess.” He shrugged like it wasn’t a big deal, but emotions danced across his face the same way the sunlight streaming through the nearby blinds did, letting Sarah know exactly how big a deal it was.

“There’s a whole wide world out there,” she pointed out. “The chances of you finding someone who suits you are probably a lot better than me finding my one-in-seven-billion soulmate."

"Maybe," he told her, placatingly.

"And, until then…" she lowered her eyes to match where his were staring at the floor before she slowly drew them back up again. "Misery loves company, right?”  The silence marinated a moment.

And then, the scene was over—and Michael was once again Dean and Sarah was once again Jessica and there were claps from people seated around the U-shaped table.

Castiel, lost in his own thoughts, took a few seconds to join them.

Chapter Text

Castiel wandered over to the food table, justifying to himself that he could do another half an hour on the treadmill in exchange for loading his plate with a few more of the mini Philly cheesesteak sandwiches that the crew had put out.

With more staff and cast members being brought on, Balthazar had wanted everyone to mingle and get the chance to know each other better, so he’d arranged for a buffet-style lunch to be served. It seemed to be working—to some extent. Jessica finally coaxed a reluctant smile out of Mo over in the corner, and Dean and one of the P.A.s by the name of Kevin were arguing over some video game—every “Are you stupid?” somehow indicating a new level of respect for one another.

Although… Hannah and Meg Masters, the stunt coordinator, mixed about as well as orange juice and toothpaste. Or a bathtub and a toaster. And they both tended to turn to Castiel with a “Come on, Clarence,” or a “You can’t possibly agree with her, Castiel,” to coax him into supporting their points. Eventually, though, they got too embroiled in an argument over the morality of doctor-assisted suicide and he was able to slip away.

As a reader and a writer, he often marveled at the fascinating way humans’ minds worked. But, God, people were exhausting.

And it seemed like he wasn’t going to get a reprieve either, because as soon as he took his first bite, Lisa Braeden was by his side, wearing the gentle smile that he realized was her default expression. Ever since he had been told by Gabriel that he had “the bitchiest of resting bitch faces,” he’d been a bit jealous of anyone who seemed naturally friendly, approachable.

“You’re Cas, right?” she asked, scooping fruit salad onto her own plate. “Dean mentioned you.”

Cas never knew what to say in these kinds of situations, so he simply didn’t.

“He’s really excited about the movie. And your book. Balthazar lent him his copy for a little background research and I’ve never seen him so interested in anything besides Vonnegut. I’m guessing that any day now, he’s going to start bugging you for what happens in the sequel.” She gave a light laugh while spearing a pineapple.

“He’ll have a hard time of that.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure….” She rolled her eyes, fondly. “I’ve got a seven-year-old at home and it’s a close call who’s more stubborn.”

Castiel wiped crumbs off the side of his mouth with his hand and shrugged. “I can’t tell him what I don’t know myself. The original novel was meant to be a standalone. I’m still… formulating what comes next.” He knew this was something that he should worry about—was worried about—in a constant, background kind of way, same as he was always vaguely aware of the music being played over the loudspeakers when he went grocery shopping. However, he’d only been in the city for three weeks. He could reasonably tell Crowley he was still adjusting.

“Oh,” Lisa said, then reached out and gave his arm a little squeeze of reassurance. “Well, I’m sure whatever you come up with will be great.”

He nodded in thanks, knowing she was trying to be nice. He just wished that so much of what society called “niceness” wasn’t one step away from lying.

Of course, those same rules usually dictated that you needed to fill any silences with chatter. In this, Lisa pleasantly surprised him. Together, they stood with their backs to the buffet—quietly people watching. Rather than being awkward, Lisa’s presence was soothing—like drinking tea on the couch, like listening to rain against the roof. He figured that must be one of the things Dean liked about her.

Which reminded him, there was something he was wondering about. He gestured with his hands and she let him take her empty plate, along with his own, to the nearby bin. “I thought, when you first came in with Dean,”—he began upon his return— “that you might be auditioning. For Sarah.”

“Balthazar wanted me to,” she admitted.

Cas squinted at her, trying to read her expression. “You didn’t like the role?”

“No, no, I do,” she insisted—and he realized, belatedly, that it might have sounded like he was insulted on his character’s behalf when he was only curious. “But Dean and I decided not to do any more projects together once we wrapped Red Hood.”

She tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear. “Don’t get me wrong. It was nice working together,” she explained. “But, once Dean moved in, we promised we weren’t going to let Ben be raised by nannies—which means we can’t be shooting at the same time.”

“That’s admirable,” Castiel murmured. He, himself, hadn’t had a nanny so much as a series of tutors—one after the other—in the afternoons. Some of the skills his mother had insisted he learn, he found practical—languages, self-defense—though what use he would ever make out of the harp still wasn’t clear.

“Thanks. Of course, it’s not just Ben,” she admitted, leaning backward so she was half-sitting on the table. “When you’re dating your co-star, it just gives the press more reason to talk about your relationship. And since we’re not soulmates… the media loves speculating that we’re on the verge of a break-up.” Castiel tried not to feel guilty about clicking on some tabloid articles about her and Dean himself. “To be honest, I figure that’s part of the reason Balthazar wanted to bring me on board—it would create a lot of buzz if we were both in it—but when I said no, he said I should stop by anyway. Hang out for the party.”

Castiel considered his words carefully. “To be fair, I think most paparazzi assume the worst of every celebrity relationship—whether they’re soulmates or not.”

She waved it off. “I don’t mind all that much. And as I said, Dean’s stubborn. The more people who tell him he can’t make something work, the more he’ll prove them wrong. He once—” she started only to cut herself off with a laugh. “Once got told by his brother that there was no way he could even run a marathon, right? So, he immediately started training. Only Sam was staying at our house that weekend and he slipped bacon into Dean’s running shorts earlier that morning. One of our neighbors has this Yorkie—and even though the thing’s two pounds with a bow, Dean’s terrified of—” She laughed again and Castiel felt himself instinctively start to chuckle, too.

Which is when Dean appeared out of nowhere, slipping between them to grab a Philly cheesesteak sandwich of his own. “Lis, Cas. Not talking about me by any chance?” Dean asked with raised eyebrows, before putting half of the sandwich in his mouth.

“Maybe,” Lisa said, innocently, passing him a napkin for the cheese string already lingering from his bottom lip.

“In our defense, you are one of the few things we know we have in common,” Castiel pointed out.

Dean shook his head. “Yeah, don’t like that at all. Maybe you guys could talk about yoga. Or goats. Or goat yoga. That’s a thing now, right?”

Castiel tilted his head to the side. “That doesn’t seem as interesting as hearing about how you got chased by a Yorkie,” he said, seriously.

Dean flushed under his freckles while Lisa grinned at Castiel from behind Dean’s shoulder. “That settles it. You two…” Dean pointed between them. “Not allowed to be friends.”

“Pity,” Lisa murmured. “I was just gonna invite Cas to come to dinner sometime next week….” She faced the author again, “Dean really has been wanting to pick your brain about Michael.”

“Oh—” Cas started to come up with an excuse, then stopped. Dean had mentioned getting together before and it would probably be easier—better with Lisa there, maybe even Ben, too. “That’s… I think I can make that work.”

“Awesome,” Dean cheered and Castiel blinked at the thought that his presence seemed to make Dean happy. “Having company over means I can have pie.”

“I… don’t understand the correlation.”

“You know… Actor,” Dean scrubbed the back of his head. “Gotta watch the weight. Can’t have too much sugar. It sucks, Man.”

“Well, in that case… Since it’s customary for guests to bring something, should I supply the pie?”

“Nah,” Dean insisted. “Don’t worry about it. I make my own anyway.”

“He’s actually really good at it,” Lisa confirmed. “All the moms at Ben’s bake sale were fawning over me when they thought I made it.”

“Yeah, well—” Dean cleared his throat. “Here—” he made a ‘gimme’ gesture to Castiel. “Let me borrow your phone.”

Castiel knew he had the familiar furrow between his eyebrows again, but he handed it over, regardless.

“I’m programming my number, so…” Dean looked up, briefly, thumb hovering over the screen. “Don’t give it out to anyone, alright?”

“Of course not,” Castiel frowned.

“Sorry, Man, just’ve had some bad experiences.”

“Whoops, that’s your photo gallery,” Dean muttered under his breath, before turning the phone to the side to see a picture better, causing Castiel’s pulse to turn into Morse code. He leaned forward enough to see it was one of the ones from graduation. "Congrats," Dean offered.

A few seconds later, the actor's back pocket beeped, and he handed the phone back. “Friday, six o’clock work for you?”

Castiel nodded, letting out a sigh of relief.

“Wait,” Dean snapped his fingers, and Castiel tensed again. “Did you ever get a car?”

“No, not yet.”

“Then I’ll pick you up,” Dean decided. “Five then?” He must have been able to tell that Castiel was about to argue, but he beat him to the punch. “Dude, no offense, but I really don’t want you taking an Uber to my house.”

“Well, when you put it that way….”

“I do. Besides, you’re giving me an excuse to have pie and drive Baby. That practically makes you my favorite person." Castiel swallowed, thickly.

“I think Sam would be very insulted by that,” Lisa chimed in, leaning into his side.

Dean put his arm around her, easily, like they did this every day. They probably did. “He’ll get over it,” the actor promised, making it sound like the simplest thing in the world.

Chapter Text

Castiel was already waiting outside when Dean pulled up, the growl of the Impala making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

“Baby, meet Cas,” Dean instructed, leaning across the bucket seat to pop the door open.

Castiel scrambled inside. “Hello, Dean,” the author responded, fitting his messenger bag into the footwell. Then, after a seconds’ thought, he added, “Hello, Baby.”

Dean grinned appreciatively, fingers drumming along the steering wheel in time with the radio.

“So, how ya been this week?” Dean asked a few minutes later. Traffic was atrocious, as expected, but at least they were headed away from the city instead of towards it.

“Fine,” Castiel answered. “The studio wanted to consolidate a few of the minor characters into one, so Chuck and I reworked Acts 8-13 some. I also decided on a basic premise for the second book.”

“Yeah?”

“Something Rosetta stone-ish.”

“That sounds… complete.”

Castiel sighed, running his hands over his jeans. “It will come to me eventually. I hope.” It’s part of why he had brought his laptop with him—just in case an idea struck when he was at Dean’s. Castiel figured that he and Lisa would forgive him the rudeness, considering Dean’s own stake in the series.

“Well, can I… I don’t know… help?” Dean glanced from the road towards the author, then quickly back again. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m a crap writer, but you could… spitball ideas off me or something?”

“I tried that yesterday with my cousin, Gabriel.”

“And?”

“He thinks Michael should be abducted by aliens, who first probe him, then teach him to slow dance. What do you think, Dean? Interested in learning some choreography for the next movie?”

“This is the same cousin you mentioned before?” Dean asked, seriously. Castiel nodded. “Pass on a message for me,” Dean said, before flipping the bird. The driver next to them, apparently thinking the gesture was meant for him, honked his horn and flipped one back.

Castiel felt the left side of his mouth tick up. At the same time, Dean frowned as the music on the radio switched out for a Herpexia commercial.

The actor gestured vaguely in Castiel’s direction. “Hey, uh, open the glove compartment, will ya?” Castiel did. Inside was a box of old cassette tapes, obviously well-handled. However, the labels looked like they got replaced regularly. “Pick one,” the actor directed.

“You… don’t have a preference?”

Dean shook his head, “They’re my tapes, Cas. They’re all my preference.”

Castiel took a closer look at the options—Black Sabbath, Metallica—all of the lowercase a’s written slightly like 2’s—when a label caught his eye. “This one,” he decided easily, popping it into the player before Dean had a chance to see what it was.

A few seconds of instrumentals later, “Leaves are falling all around / It's time I was on my way / Thanks to you I'm much obliged / For such a pleasant stay…” crooned from the speakers.

“You a Zepp fan, Cas?” Dean grinned, obviously enjoying the opening lines of Ramble On.

“I’ve never heard them before. But this was the only cassette that had something other than just the band’s name written on it, so it’s obviously special to you. I wanted to hear what it sounded like.”

The back of Dean’s neck reddened. “That’s, uh… A lot of people are Zepp fans,” he tried.

Shh,” Castiel insisted and proceeded to rewind the song from the beginning. “I want to be able to hear the lyrics.”

By the time “I can't find my bluebird! / I listened to what my bluebird said, but I, I can't find my bluebird! / I keep rambling, baby…” petered out, Castiel felt his forehead scrunch up in confusion.

He turned the player off before it could move on to the next track. “This song is about… the Lord of the Rings?”

“Sorta yes,” Dean responded, biting the inside of his cheek. “But also no. At least not for me. I’ve always just thought about in terms of—taking a journey in general—finding a way to push forward.”

“And that’s what you enjoy most about the song? The message?”

Dean thought about it a minute.

“Do you… not know what draws you to it?” Castiel asked with a tilt of his head. A lot of people were like that—full of definitive likes and dislikes but with no real understanding of why something spoke to them. But when he was writing a character, the Why? of it was the most important thing of all, informing a lot of their future decisions. He had a hard time imagining that Dean, someone who spent so much of his life getting into characters’ mindsets, wouldn’t ask himself that same question.

“No, I…” Dean’s voice sped up. “Plant’s got a voice that can shatter glass, but in a way that feels… holy almost. And Page plays the guitar like he’s possessed. But it’s also, you know, my parents’ music—the stuff they had on in the kitchen when I was a kid. Dad said—said the only reason Mom ever gave him her number in the first place is because he knew all the lyrics to That’s the Way.”

“It’s a means of connecting to your family,” Castiel thought out-loud, unable to picture talking to his mother about something so… personal as the kind of music they liked. Speaking of... “You can tell me when I’m overstepping,” he informed Dean’s sun-and-shadow profile. “I won’t get offended.”

“I mean, maybe?” Dean sounded genuinely unsure. “To be honest, I’ve been in LA so long, having any kind of conversation with someone new that revolves around me, Dean Winchester, not—you know—what I do for a living, is pretty fuckin’ strange. But I don’t mind—at least not yet.”

Castiel nodded and pressed the play button again.

It took them the whole hour to Dean’s place to get through five songs, what with the author stopping the music after each one to question Dean more closely about the meaning. And, for a while after they passed the wrought-iron automatic gates and pulled into the garage of the modest Spanish-inspired mansion, they just sat in the car to listen to the closing lines of Travelling Riverside Blues.

Castiel’s hesitancy to get out of the Impala must have been obvious, the echo of the music somehow still audible even with Baby off. And yet, Dean didn’t make a move to leave either.

“We can, uh, listen on the way back, too, if you want?” the actor suggested.

Castiel blinked. He had somehow not considered that, once at Dean’s house, he had no way to get back to his apartment without another ride. “Yes,” he breathed. “I’d like that.”

Chapter Text

Castiel stepped into the open front room.

As the designer probably intended, his eyes were immediately drawn to the white brick fireplace, the light wood mantle a match for the wood beams crisscrossing the ceiling. Placed on either side of the fireplace were two white couches—one covered with a quilt, the other with an assortment of pillows. The air smelled like vanilla with a hint of chlorine—Castiel guessed that they had a pool somewhere.

All in all, there was a carefully maintained balance between the modern and the rustic, and Castiel really hoped he wouldn’t be invited to sit down for fear that he would mess up the magazine spread before him.

Thankfully, Dean guided him through an alcove-like opening. “Lis?!” he called in question as they entered a kitchen that looked more-recently lived in. A round, wooden table was set with four placemats and heavy, black-speckled plates—a tossed salad in the center. In the sink, there was evidence that a couple of bowls and a cutting board had been used.

Dean opened a drawer, grabbed an oven mitt in the shape of Thanos’ Infinity gauntlet from inside, and pulled a meatloaf out of the running oven on a billow of steam. “Lis!” he called again, kicking it shut.

“Be down in a minute!”

Dean turned to Castiel. “I’m just going to make mashed potatoes real quick.”

“Would you like some assistance?”

“Nah. It’s basically a two-step process,” Dean insisted, pulling a pot from where a row of them was hanging above the kitchen island so he could start some water to boil.

With nothing else to do, Castiel found himself naturally wandering over to the refrigerator, where several photos were attached by national parks magnets. In one, a slightly younger Dean had his arm around Lisa. Another showed Dean and Ben in matching backwards baseball caps. Next came a photo of Lisa wearing oversized prop glasses next to a woman who looked too much like her to not be related.

“Is this your brother?” Castiel asked, taking in the long-haired man that he suspected would be taller than Dean if he wasn’t half bent over in laughter.

“The picture with the Impala?” Dean asked, without looking up from where he was chopping potatoes with a steady thwap, thwap, thwap against the wooden cutting board. “Yeah, that would be Sammy.”

“Does he live nearby?”

“Palo Alto, up at Stanford. S’further than I’d like, but at least I can book it over there in an afternoon if he needs me.”

“Had I not sold my book, I would have been headed up to Stanford to start Med school in a couple of months.”

“Yeah?” Dean asked with raised eyebrows, shuffling chopped potatoes off to the side. “Sammy’s just about to start at the law school up there. Wants to become a medical malpractice lawyer.”

Castiel gave a small smile, “The irony.”

“Bit of a coincidence, for sure. You want to know what else is ironic? Sam’s always telling me about these cases where surgeons like—left stuff inside of people—or where some physician completely ignored a woman who knew she was having a heart attack—but then he nags me for not going to see my doctor enough. I mean, at this point, I’m half-convinced that they go to check Web MD every time they leave you butt-ass naked in those stupid paper robes.” He paused chopping. “No offense.”

“Since I just admitted I won’t be becoming a doctor, no offense taken.” Castiel tilted his head, thoughtfully. “Though I will say I agree with your brother. You’re much less likely to need surgery or other forms of involved treatment—where the risk of accidents is substantially higher—if you seek out preventative care.”

“They always check me over before I do a new movie—especially one involving stunts,” Dean answered dismissively, gathering handfuls of potatoes, and sending them sliding into the water.

“So, why the career change?” Dean asked a minute later as if sensing Castiel’s thoughts starting to wander. “You just like writing better or what?”

“That and….” Castiel held the words in the space between his tongue and his upper teeth for a second before sighing. “How did you word it the other day? I’m going to sound like a ‘douche’ for saying this….”

“Dude. Air quotes. Really?”

“When I was younger, I was… gifted,” Castiel continued as if he hadn’t heard the interruption. “It was easy for me to win the school writing contest and the science fair, that sort of thing. I didn’t have to study for tests, didn’t have to practice between taekwondo lessons. I believe I was even considered fairly sociable until I was about nine.

“But that was just me being a big fish in a small pond. My mother—and I suppose me too—dreamed of me going to the Ivy Leagues, and we eventually moved when I was in seventh grade so that I could attend a private school that is known for… ushering kids in that direction.”

Dean capped the pot with a lid, looking over at Castiel with one eyebrow raised, clearly waiting for him to continue. The author rolled his eyes. “Long story short, I realized that I wasn’t nearly the genius I thought I was. My grades started slipping—and the more I messed up, the more I felt I had to prove, which only resulted in me stressing myself out enough I screwed up more.

“This isn’t—I’m not trying to say, ‘poor me’. I was far from dumb—or underprivileged—but where before I had—a confidence in everything I did, I was suddenly full of self-doubt. Even when I was able to pull my grades up again, that anxiety never quite left me.

“And being a doctor—as you said, it’s so easy to make mistakes. Life-changing ones. If there was ever a day I was—tired or stressed or simply human—and someone received less than the absolute best care because of it, that would haunt me. Writing—I have the chance to go back, to think everything through, to make a difference in the world—emotionally, rather than physically. At least, that’s the goal.”

For a second that might have been a minute, Castiel and Dean locked eyes. Then, the water boiled out from under the lid of the pot, hitting the burner with a hsss, and Dean rushed to pull it off. “I get it,” the actor said, speaking directly to the potatoes. “I’ve—you know—it sucks when your best isn’t good enough.”

Light footprints ran down the stairs, followed by another set of more measured ones.

“Cas, mind, uh, getting me the butter? Should be on the door of the fridge?” Dean asked as he strained the potatoes.

“Of course,” Castiel scrambled to comply.

“Sorry about that,” Lisa smiled as she appeared. Her dark hair was pinned up but still tumbled like a waterfall down to the nape of her neck. She had a hand on either one of Ben’s shoulders, “Somebody here wanted to have dinner in his karate uniform.”

“We talked about this, Bud,” Dean turned away from the counter to scrub the child’s hair. “Even Batman has to change outta the Batsuit sometime. Otherwise, people would figure out his secret identity.”

“They should know who he is anyway. People are stupid.”

“That they are—”

“Dean!” Lisa admonished.

But Ben had turned large, dark eyes—replicas of Lisa’s—at Castiel. “Who are you?”

“I’m—” he thought about it. “Cas,” he said at last, tasting the truncated version of his name for the first time.

“He’s a friend,” Dean added.

Ben’s considering frown stayed in place as he looked him over. 

“What’s your favorite dinosaur?” the seven-year-old finally asked, voice solemn. Castiel relaxed, marginally.

“A Quetzalcoatlus. It was one of the flying dinosaurs—capable of going for seven to 10 days at speeds of 80 mph.”

“That's cool,” he declared, voice easy now. “Mine is the Ankle-sauraus,” he added, before leading Castiel by the hand over to the kitchen table, Lisa and Dean following behind with the rest of the food. Castiel stopped himself from correcting his pronunciation or arguing why the Quetzalcoatlus was infinitely more impressive.

Dinner passed pleasantly enough. Ben talked about his karate lessons, Lisa mentioned—with a laugh at herself—that since Dean joked about goat yoga the other day, her sister had actually wanted to try it, so they had standing reservations for Wednesday. This was apparently in addition to the brunches she and Ben had every Sunday with her family. “Do you have any siblings?” she asked Castiel.

“Only child,” he said, around a bite of frankly delicious meatloaf.

The conversation then turned to places around L.A. he should visit when he had some free time. “You seem like someone who would like Griffith Observatory,” Lisa mentioned. “Besides the main telescope for looking at the moon and planets, they’ve also got some that let you look at the sun.”

“That does sound interesting,” he smiled, as Ben put ketchup on his potatoes with a long sqrrrrt.

“Eh, as far as I’m concerned, nothing beats driving out to the middle of nowhere to look at the stars with your own eyes. And a six-pack,” Dean argued, after taking the ketchup bottle away from Ben (“Are you trying to recreate the Red Sea there, Kid?”)

Lisa shook her head. “I can never understand how someone who gets impatient waiting for microwave popcorn to pop can stare at the sky for hours on end,” she marveled, rising to pour herself another glass of water.

“To be honest, the one time Dean and Sam took me out, I was back in the Impala reading a book with a flashlight after the first 30 minutes. But they just stood there—for four or five hours, maybe. Never spoke a word to each other,” she told Castiel.

The author shrugged one shoulder.

“It’s a big universe out there,” he murmured, thinking of the times he, as a teenager, had climbed onto his mother’s roof to do the exact same thing. “Of course it has some interesting stories to tell.”

Chapter Text

Castiel wasn’t usually a coffee drinker—especially after dinner—but Lisa offered, and the evening was proving a bit more tiring than he expected. The mental sluggishness was something he usually associated with family dinners, though before tonight, he thought that was limited to dealing with his own. Apparently, even when everyone around the table was being friendly and non-judgmental, he just had a limit for how much of other people he could deal with—and he was currently reaching it.

Still, even if a part of him wished he could go back to his apartment right now, he and Dean had never actually gotten around to discussing Michael, so the author obediently followed the actor to something dubbed “the Dean Cave.”

The minute he stepped into the room, it was like changing into sweatpants after wearing business wear for too long.

It’s not that the room was all that different from the rest of the house. But here, the brick hadn’t been painted white; it retained its dusty reddish-brown color. The luxurious elements—like the large wide-screen TV—stood in obvious contrast to the two almost-ratty plaid armchairs in front of it and the worn wood picnic table off to the side.

“The furniture’s all carried over from my first apartment,” Dean said with what might have been self-consciousness as he watched Castiel look everything over.

Sentimental, Castiel added to the list of things he was learning about the other man, as he sank into one of the seats with a barely repressed sigh. “I can see why you kept it. It’s very comfy.” He closed his eyes, “That’s a warning as well as a compliment. I might fall asleep.”

There was a padded thump as Dean took the seat beside him. “It’s not like I’ve never done it. Just don’t drool.”

“No promises.”

Dean reclined his chair, his body relaxing into a laid-back position like he was sunning on a beach somewhere. Castiel decided to do the same.

“Cas?” Dean eventually asked once the quiet had had time to fully settle into their bones.

“Yes?”

“I don’t—I’m not trying to make this weird, I swear—but I just gotta know. How much do you know—about me?” Castiel opened his eyes in order to read the ones across from him.

“I’m not sure how to answer that,” he admitted, figuring that it wasn’t a list of qualities Dean was after. “I’ve seen your movies—and watched a few interviews here and there. I believe in one you said that you would fuck Daphne, marry Scooby-Doo, and kill Fred.”

“Uh, right,” Dean coughed slightly, tips of his ears turning red. “I think I remember that one.”

“I knew you had a brother—because you mention him a lot in those interviews—but Lisa was the one who told me his name was Sam. Other than that, I don’t know much about your family. Well,” he conceded. “I know that you and Lisa aren’t soulmates.”

“Yeah, OK,” Dean breathed in what Castiel thought might be relief. “I’m serious. It wasn’t like a test or anything—but….”

“You feel more comfortable with the idea of people getting to know you through you, rather than through what’s published by the press. I think that makes perfect sense.”

Castiel tipped his head to the side, “Of course, if I was secretly a stalker, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to admit it.”

“Nah, I trust you,” Dean assured him, his more-relaxed body language in agreement with his statements. Castiel tried to focus on how warm that made him feel, and not the twinge of regret that came with it.

“So, the book,” he said to distract both Dean and himself. “What questions did you have?”

“Hold on,” Dean requested, holding up a finger—before standing up and grabbing something from a nearby bookshelf.

Castiel could only stare.

“What did you do to it?” he asked, looking at the beaten and battered edition of The Righteous Man. As an advanced reader’s copy, it had a soft cover—one that had been bent backward at the corner. There were also several cracks along the spine. As Dean flipped through it, Castiel noticed several pages covered in different colored ink and what he thought might be a macaroni and cheese stain.

“My mom always said that if a cookbook didn’t have grease or vanilla on it, it couldn’t be a very good cookbook,” Dean answered, nonchalantly.

“But it’s not a cookbook!” Castiel stuttered.

“I mean, it kinda is. This—and my script—are my recipe for how to play Michael.”

Castiel wanted to protest but couldn’t immediately think of an argument to make. “Wasn’t that Balthazar’s copy?” he remembered at last.

“Eh. I’ll buy him a new one. Maybe I’ll even convince the author to autograph it for him,” he mentioned with a wink.

Castiel sunk back into his chair, feeling slightly disoriented.

Dean flopped back into his seat, a thumb stuck into the book to hold whatever page he was using as a reference. “I guess the first thing I was wondering is… what’s Michael like when he’s mad? There’s really not a scene with that in either the movie or the book.”

“If there’s no scene of it, why are you asking?” Castiel questioned.

“It’s just a part of understanding him. People are—jumbled up messes, to be honest. So, like if he’s sad about something or… or frustrated… there’s a good chance that there’s a little mad mixed in too.”

Castiel considered this. “I think he has different kinds of angry. If it’s a bunch of small things working cumulatively to bring his mood down, I imagine he’d be—vocal, confrontative, a bruised purple, maybe….” The more he spoke, the more he inadvertently began talking to himself. “If it was something in particular that he was deeply furious about, he’d be—colder, sharper. Silver edged with ice green.”

“Dude,” Dean interrupted Castiel’s stream of thought. “What’s up with the colors?”

“Oh. I have—it’s called synesthesia,” Castiel explained. “There’s a lot of different variants of it. In my case, it means that the things I read—write—sometimes even people I meet—have a color association in my mind. There’s one scene—in the third to last chapter—that I was never able to get to the right shade of burnt orange. I’m worried I’m still going to be mentally trying to edit it 10 years from now.” As he said it, his fingers twitched at the thought of finally fixing the damn thing.

“You’re an interesting guy, Cas,” Dean observed.

He smiled, ironically. “I think ‘weird’ is the term most people would use.”

“And where has that gotten them?” Dean raised an eyebrow. “Where has weird gotten you?”

“That’s surprisingly profound, Dean. Maybe you should write fortune cookie messages.”

“You’re also a smartass apparently.”

Castiel hmmmed a response, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

For the two hours, their conversation wandered between topics like a drunk man trying to find a cab. Questions about whether Michael was actually religious turned into whether or not he was superstitious, which led to Cas discussing the reasons certain omens were considered unlucky—from black cats to broken mirrors to the ancient belief that sneezing risked ejecting your soul from your body, hence the need to be “blessed.”

This evolved into Dean reciting ridiculous state laws—“Who the hell pushed a moose out of a moving airplane in order for that to get put on the books?”—which somehow transitioned into Dean talking about his brother. Every once in a while, they’d realize how loud they’d suddenly become and settle down into whispers, only for the volume of their conversation to steadily rise all over again.

And once the actor started talking about the pranks that he and Sam used to play on each other, Castiel had to bring up Gabriel—chuckling through an explanation of how he once replaced his senior class sideshow—the one they played during graduation rehearsal—with one of his ‘home movies’. Dean clutched one hand to his stomach, laughing hard enough a tear leaked out of the corner of one eye.

Of course, mentioning his cousin eventually made Castiel think about his only other real friend, Charlie, and the time she woke him up in the middle of the night to spray paint one of the statues in the quad with rainbow colors…

Dean’s laughter died down. “Charlie? She’s… a girl?” the actor asked, skeptically.

Castiel frowned; he had thought—or maybe hoped—that Dean wasn’t someone who’d care about something as arbitrary as what names were ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. “Yes.”

“And she’s got red hair. Let me take a wild guess. She's also wicked smart with a computer, and will knife anyone who suggests watching the prequel Star Wars movies as a flashback in-between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi…?”

Castiel suddenly had the sense he was missing something. “…Yes…?”

“This Charlie?” Dean demanded, flashing Cas a picture on his phone—of the actor dressed in leather pants, a brown jerkin, and chainmail, his features half-way disguised by paint—standing right next to….

“That would be her,” Castiel admitted, throat dry.

“Huh,” Dean turned off his phone, stuck it in his pocket. “It seems like we were always probably gonna meet sooner or later.”

Castiel said nothing, his soulmark feeling tight against the skin over his heart.

Chapter Text

Castiel sat on top of the closed toilet lid, scrolling through his phone. The photo he was looking for was several years old, but—at last, he found it—the selfie he’d taken of his soulmark back when he’d first learned the truth. Staying away had seemed so simple then.

And yet, here he was. In Dean’s home.

Where he’d had dinner with Dean’s family.

Dean. His soulmate. And possibly his friend.

These facts were like scattered puzzle pieces laid in front of him. He wanted so badly to put them together—to see the larger picture. Except, he suspected, some of the pieces were superfluous; there wasn’t a place for them to fit.

He didn’t want to be an extra, throwaway piece.

(He didn’t know what he wanted, period.)

Clearly, the universe had orchestrated their meeting. Who was to say that anything he felt about Dean was genuine?

For the first time, he thought about Fate as an entity. What did it get out of setting people up? Biologically, it didn’t make sense to match same-sex couples. They couldn’t produce offspring.

Was it, honestly, then just trying to make people happy? That seemed strange when tragedy struck the world daily.

And why, of all couples, did it seem so interested in the two of them? Some people didn’t ever meet their soulmate—or, as in his mother’s case, they met them too late. But its hand seemed heavy here. Shouldn’t he walk away just out of principle?

He looked at the photo—at the beautiful, curving wings of his phoenix—and realized that, as messed up as it was, the person he most wanted to talk to about this was Dean.

Maybe he would tell Castiel they could ignore it. Maybe he would tell the author to stay away. But at least then the burden of keeping this whole—thing—in check wouldn’t just be on Castiel’s shoulders.

Pocketing his phone, he washed his hands even though he hadn’t really used the bathroom. Yes, he should confess.

After all, he liked Dean. Trusted him.

(Why? He wondered. He barely knew him.)

Castiel approached the Dean Cave, lips buzzing with the words he planned to say. He pushed the heavy wooden door open and…

“Eeeeee!” Charlie’s voice screamed over laptop speakers as she caught sight of him. Castiel winced, reflexively.

He wasn’t the only one. “Jesus, Red,” Dean admonished, hands to his ears. “You trying to summon dolphins or what?”

“Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m just… so excited that two of my besties are hanging out. You two, me, and Dorothy should totally do virtual game night, don’t you think? Or maybe Cas can come LARPing with us sometime—”

“Charlie,” Castiel interrupted.

She turned large green eyes in his direction. “You’re not mad, right? That I never mentioned I was friends with Dean? I mean, I know you watched all his movies and you never watch movies but—”

“Charlie,” he gritted his teeth, aware of Dean’s gaze on the side of his face.

She swallowed at Castiel’s glare. “It’s just, this one over here swore me to secrecy,” she finished, lamely, pointing in the actor’s direction.

“Charlie, I don’t expect you to divulge your every secret to me. It’s not like I haven’t kept some of my own from you—”

“Like what?” she demanded, indignantly, but Castiel only crossed his arms across his chest, raised one eyebrow.

“Fine,” she huffed, blowing red bangs out of her face. “But don’t think I won’t get it out of you later, Novak.” Ironic, considering what she’d just interrupted. “Now, seriously, LARPing…?” she asked.

/////

Following his visit to Dean’s house, Castiel threw himself into his next book with the fervor of a cat trying to escape a bathtub.

To Gabriel’s endless amusement, he’d reconsidered the alien idea—or at least, readapted it to his own needs. After all, how many people had speculated that the pyramids or Stonehenge were the work of another species during an exploratory mission of the Earth? Of course, researchers had mostly been able to explain the techniques ancient civilizations used to erect these monuments, but what if

What if archeologists discovered something they couldn’t justify—a hidden bunker or tomb—carbon-dated to thousands of years ago—and yet, containing advanced materials, like stainless steel, commonly believed to be developed in the 1900s? What would they think?

What would they do if they found writing no one had ever seen before on the walls—without any sort of Rosetta stone to help decode it? Perhaps, they’d quietly call on one of the world’s premier linguists to see if he could figure out what it said.

They wouldn’t ask just Michael, obviously. There would need to be a team. And what if, just to make it interesting, one of the cryptologists they called to help him was none other than the sister of Michael’s long-dead soulmate…

Unsurprisingly, Crowley’s immediate reaction was to ask if someone needed to be called to childproof Castiel’s apartment since the author had obviously gone around sticking his wet fingers into all the light sockets. But then he gruffly demanded an outline in two weeks’ time, so Castiel figured he didn’t hate it.

Unfortunately—and despite his best efforts—writing couldn’t occupy his mind every minute. Sometimes, the words didn’t want to come—all the colors turned mud-puddle brown—and no amount of pounding at the keys or changing the font could make them any better.

So, he cleaned. He did Sudoku. He tried reading and immediately put the book back down again because it reminded him too much that he should be writing. He looked up adoptable kittens on the internet. And, in spite of his better judgment—in spite of it being the very thing he wanted to avoid thinking about the most—he texted Dean.

The actor started it first—sending Castiel a screenshot of his recent text conversation with Charlie.

message1

“Is there a question in there?” Castiel typed out when no other message from Dean seemed forthcoming.

“U interested tues @ 2?”

Castiel worried his bottom lip between his teeth. He sent the thumbs up icon before he could change his mind and then put his phone into sleep mode.

Two hours later, he opened the thread up again. “Why are there cowboys in space exactly?”

“ima actor cas. kinda my job not 2 give spoilers”

“Is that so?” Castiel switched to Youtube and quickly found the video he was looking for. “What about this?” he asked, attaching the link to ‘Dean Winchester Accidentally Livestreams Premiere.’

“thot u were pretending not 2b a stalker”

“It’s hardly stalking when it was on the front page of Yahoo for a week.”

Castiel pondered sending a follow-up, but considering what Dean had just said, he forced himself not to—jolting only slightly when the phone rang only a few seconds later.

He should have checked the ID first.

“Hello?”

“Castiel,” Naomi Novak’s voice was as crisp as an ironed suit. “How are you? How’s your internship progressing?”

“It’s… going well.”

“That’s just as descriptive as ‘fine.’”

“It’s a dermatologist’s office,” he pointed out, pacing the length of the room. “I wasn’t sure how vivid a description you wanted of the various rashes that I see in a day.”

He took her silence as a concession.

“But this Dr. Cain says you’re doing good work?” she clarified. “Did he agree to write you a recommendation at the end of the summer?”

“I… think that’s something I should ask him about later. Once I’ve had more of a chance to prove myself.”

“You need to be proactive about these things, assertive…” she insisted, while his thoughts drifted in and out.

Castiel had wandered over to his computer, still open to the search results for “What is a bird’s sense of taste like?”, when he heard his phone ding. Considering Naomi had transitioned into talking about his cousin, Raphael, who—according to his Uncle Uriel—was on his way to being top of his class at West Point—he chanced a quick peek at his messages.

“sorry. hav 2 cancel tues,” Dean wrote, causing Castiel’s grip to flex around the phone. He felt like he’d just swallowed an avocado pit. Or three. A few more dings came through, but he pointedly ignored them.

“I’m glad to hear Raphael is doing so well,” he told his mother at last—which was decidedly not the point she had been trying to make. “But I’m afraid I have to go now. I’m headed towards the subway.”

She paused mid-sentence. “Alright then,” she started, but he hung up before whatever parting message was forthcoming. Instantly, he threw his phone onto the couch, stripped off his shirt, unbuckled his jeans.

A run, that’s what he needed, to work off some energy. He’d prefer to do it outside but L.A. was humid and people-filled, so the apartment gym would have to do.

And yet, it was only when he got back to his apartment an hour later—muscles achy and back sweaty—and picked up his phone again that he began to feel a bit better—not to mention slightly embarrassed by his overreaction.

message2

“I would like that,” he typed slowly—and whether he was getting manipulated by the universe or not—he’s pretty sure he meant it.

Chapter Text

Castiel slid into the back of the Impala, amazed at how the metalleatherspice smell was already so familiar—and soothing to the nerves that had been building in his stomach the last half hour.

“So, you’re Cas,” the man who must have been Sam Winchester greeted. He turned halfway in his seat to offer the author a handshake, just as Dean drove over a pothole that sent the whole car lurching a little bit. “Is that short for something? Dean didn’t say.”

“Ah, yes. Castiel. It’s--”

“The Angel of Thursday,” Sam supplied and Castiel had to blink a few times in surprise. “Are your parents religious then?”

“I can’t speak for my father,” he said slowly, steadying himself against another bump by pressing his left hand to the back of Dean’s seat. He briefly met the actor’s eyes in the rearview mirror before Dean refixed his on the road—and he returned his gaze to Sam. “He left either shortly before or shortly after I was born. I don’t know much—well, anything, really—about him.

“As for my mother’s side of the family—they attend church, at least on Christmas and Easter—but I’ve never been able to determine which of them are true believers and which just find the Bible to be a fascinatingly complex piece of historical fiction. I suspect that, at least in my mother’s case, she named me Castiel the way some people name their daughters Khalessi nowadays—it was just a homage to a character that she admired.”

“And? What was angel Castiel like?” Dean asked, sarcasm layered over what sounded like genuine curiosity in his voice.

“He was—a warrior,” Castiel responded, images of hand-painted wings in dusty-smelling books flashing through his mind. “He was said to have a sword that dripped lightning that he used to fight anyone who was unworthy to seek an audience with God.”

“He was a badass,” Dean summarized, ignoring his brother’s eyeroll.

“I’ve always thought so,” he admitted. “Though perhaps not in those exact terms.”

“I suppose I could ask the same question about your parents,” Castiel said, once more addressing Sam. “‘Samuel’ means ‘name of God.’ Were you raised religiously?”

“Uh, not really…. We were named after our mom’s Mom and Dad.”

“Dean and… Samantha?” Castiel guessed out loud before the slight tension in the car registered, and he realized he might have stumbled upon a sensitive subject.

And yet, just as he was about to apologize, Dean let out an involuntary snort of amusement.

Sam seemed taken off guard by his brother’s reaction too, though there was a pleased smile hiding in the twitches at the corner of his mouth. “I don’t know what you think is so funny,” he fake-grumbled. “It was Samuel and Deanna actually.”

For several minutes, Castiel watched the two brothers insult each other back and forth.

(“Maybe people wouldn’t think you look like such a Samantha if you cut your damn hair.”

“Uh huh. What magazine was it that called me ‘Dean Winchester’s even better-looking brother’ again?”

“The same one that thinks Elvis is still alive and working at a diner somewhere.”)

And yet, the smiles on their faces were so obviously fond that Castiel felt the last of his tension slip away—along with an unusual twinge of longing.

“Sorry, Cas,” Sam spoke up after a minute, causing Castiel to furrow his forehead in confusion.

“About?”

“Well, us. We never really learned how to turn the bicker switch off.”

“Yeah, it drives Lisa insane. Says she always feels like the third wheel when the two of us get together,” Dean joked.

Castiel pondered this. “Maybe you could tell her that third wheels offer extra grip and greater stability.”

Sam made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a cough.

“Yeah, somehow don’t think that would fly,” Dean hedged.

“Give it a shot,” Sam grinned. “Just give me fair warning so I can get my popcorn ready.”

Castiel leaned back against his seat, lulled by their camaraderie. He understood, to some extent, how witnessing such a close bond could make one feel ‘on the outs.’ But as someone who had been an outsider all his life, he knew… this wasn’t what exclusion felt like.

The brothers were talking freely in front of him—giving him a chance to clue in on some of their inside jokes. Sometimes, he would know a person for months and never get to this place where everyone felt like they could be themselves.

Dean cracked the window open, letting wind ruffle through the car and making Castiel glad he hadn’t spent more than five minutes trying to tame his typically unruly head of hair. Dean's seemed to stay firmly in place with some kind of gel. “So, Cas,” the actor asked with his elbow out the window. “Ever played laser tag before?”

“I’m afraid all of my fake battle experience has been with blades.” He hadn’t actually gone LARPing with Charlie yet, but that didn’t stop her from throwing a foam sword in his direction and telling him to be, “On guard!” every once in a while in the middle of a study session.

“I’m sure Sam will go easy on you.”

Castiel raised an eyebrow. “What about you?”

“Me? I plan to score on you so many times I’m goin’ to kick your Angel of Thursday ass into next Sunday.”

“Ew, Dean. I’m right here,” Sam insisted, barely dodging a slap Dean aimed at his ear.

“Not like that, Bitch.”

Sam shook his head. “Whatever you say. Jerk.”

/////

The laser tag place was apparently in the middle of a mall complex.

“Shouldn’t you be more worried about being recognized or something?” Castiel whispered to Dean from a step behind him. The actor was wearing sunglasses, but that seemed more about fighting L.A.’s persistent glare than obscuring his identity.

“In my experience, you wear a ballcap or try to cover up in layers, it just makes people pay more attention to you, thinking you must be someone important. Like this, most people won’t be sure if it’s really me—or someone who just looks like me. Besides, it’s not like we’re doing anything exciting. Abby Dawn and the other paps aren’t gonna be chasing me down here unless they’re super desperate.

“Someone will probably sneak some pictures—or outright ask me for a photo or an autograph—but that’s usually not a big deal for me. Do you—I guess I forgot you’re not used to all this crap—”

“It’s fine, Dean,” Cas reassured, mindlessly placing his hand on the actor’s left shoulder, before realizing Dean might not be comfortable with him encroaching into his personal space.

“How about you?” Dean asked, slowing down to match his pace better. "S’there any promotional stuff you gotta do for your book?”

“There will be a press event the day of, and I have a scattering of book signings around California for a month or so afterward. Plus, I’m supposed to sign a few thousand others to be shipped around the country,” Castiel mentioned, hand cramping at the thought. He wasn’t even sure what his handwriting looked like anymore, having switched over to typing almost exclusively since high school.

“I suppose if it does as well as anticipated, and I gain some name recognition, they’ll rope me into a tour.” He sighed, “I’m also supposed to have a talk with someone later this week about the branding for my social media pages. I’ve never had an online presence before—but I’m told it’s necessary.”

“Kinda,” Dean agreed. “S’not my favorite part of the job either. It’s why I have Charlie handle a lot of it.”

“She…?”

“Knows me pretty well. I mean, we go all the way back to high school—the third high school I attended, that is. So, when I got big, I asked her to run that stuff for me,” he explained. The two of them slipped through the door Sam had patiently been holding open and into the air conditioning of the mall, where they were instantly assaulted by the smell of Chinese food and lemon-scented cleaning solution.

“It’s not like I’m completely out of it,” Dean continued. “I post, sometimes, mostly the stuff with typos—and she makes sure to keep me in the loop. Sometimes, she’ll point me in a direction of a fan I can do something nice for. And then, back when my soulmark was all over the news, you wouldn’t imagine the fuckton of crazies that just appeared out of nowhere. Charlie background checked ‘em all—said I should at least know if any of them were legit….”

Dean cleared his throat, scratched the side of his neck. “Anyway… If you wanted, I’m sure she’d help you out too.”

“I… yes… maybe.”

Thank God for Sam, who chose that moment to grab Dean’s attention by snickering at a large cutout of Red Hood propped against the Hot Topic window. It gave Castiel a moment to think over Dean’s words, decide he had absolutely no idea what to do about them, and shove them firmly into a back corner of his mind for later.

/////

Luckily, compartmentalizing turned out to be easier than anticipated.

Dean had booked a whole laser tag arena just for the three of them. It seemed that in this, at least, he had taken some precautions to keep under the radar—using a credit card that was under his agent’s name, not his. He also pointedly stayed at the back of the waiting room under the guise of studying the posters on the wall while Sam approached the person at the front desk.

Soon enough, Dean was helping Castiel into his reflective vest and tightening the belt holding the hip holster for his laser gun in place, while Castiel remained resolutely still. “Feel OK?” Dean asked, two fingers under the strap around his shoulder.

“Uh, yes.”

“Good. Now the rules. Aim for any green targets—whether on me or Sam or up on the walls in the room.” He handed Castiel a ridiculously unbalanced gun with scratches along the plastic grip. “If your shot lands, the little reader on here will tell you who or what you hit and how many points you got. Otherwise, it will just show you your total score. If you get hit, you’ll feel a vibration in the vest and your gun won’t work for sixty seconds, but you won’t lose any points. Got it?”

Castiel nodded.

“Better hope you do. Loser’s buying lunch,” Dean said with a grin that lit up his entire face.

Castiel accidentally shot himself in the chest.

/////

While Dean’s predictions were correct—Castiel did come in last—they were also incorrect because his ass definitely wasn’t kicked. Turns out his ability to sneak up on people had some practical uses. Not to mention, he had a sixth sense for where Dean was even within this labyrinth of plywood walls and funhouse mirrors.

His worst mistake was getting caught in a hallway between Dean and Sam at one point. The brothers took turns shooting him immobile for several minutes until he suddenly dropped to the floor—flat on his stomach—right as his sixty seconds were up. This caused Sam to shoot Dean accidentally instead. From the floor, Castiel managed a potshot at Sam, before scrambling to his feet and away. He heard Dean's heavy boots attempting to follow him, but Castiel had climbed the stairs up to a second story without him noticing.

An hour later, breathless and laughing, they hung up their armor—and Castiel realized that this is probably what being a little kid felt like.

He thought about his nine-year-old self, dressed in his first formal suit at a kid’s table at one of his family's charity functions—a kid’s table that also included 17-year-olds Michael and Luke, 16-year old Anna, and 14-year old Gabriel (only Raphael, sullen and silent, was his own age)—understanding for the first time how much he might have missed out on without really knowing it.

“We should find some other people to play against next time,” Sam said, fingers running through his slightly sweaty hair as they poured out the door. “I think the three of us would make a pretty good team.”

None of them noticed the person taking a picture of them from across the way.

Chapter Text

Castiel was in the middle of describing a place called The Last Bookstore (built from of an old bank, the owners used books to create arches between pathways, as well as other forms of art) when Gabriel raised his hand up in protest. “How dumb do you think I am, Cassie?” he asked, his voice coming out slightly tinny from electronic feedback.

“…Not at all,” Castiel frowned at his computer screen, wondering where he might have implied that. Was it just because he mentioned a bookshop? Gabriel wasn’t a big reader, it was true—but, if anything, that made his cousin’s quick wit and creative pranks even more impressive. Frankly, the world couldn’t survive a Gabriel that was as clever as he was and well-read.

“You’re seriously telling me you were out with this… Hannah?” Gabriel scoffs.

Now, Castiel’s even more lost. “Yes…?”

The last audition for The Righteous Man had been held a few days ago, on the Friday after laser tag. This time, it was for the part of the story’s villain, Evelyn.

For a second when he walked into the usual room, he’d seen the empty place near Dean and thought—

But the actor, who was turned to the side in a conversation with Chuck, could have been saving that seat for anybody, so he proceeded to take the spot next to Hannah as usual.

All of the actresses were impressive. However, ballerina-footed Rowena with a dangerous glint in her eye to match her gold eye shadow had an undeniable gravity around her that secured her the role.

Afterward, Hannah asked if he felt like going out for coffee and maybe to do some book browsing—which he found to be an easy “yes.” Hannah, he thought, was a lot like him—a little stiff, a little too likely to use the correct word for something instead of the slang—so he could only assume they had other things in common, too, once they got to know each other better. Of course, a bookstore wasn’t really a good place to talk to Castiel; he lost track of her pretty much as soon as he spotted the art history section.

“Uh huh, and is Hannah a 6’1” man with a crew cut, green eyes, and an ass that looks great in spandex?”

Castiel’s mouth twisted into a frown. “Whatever it is you’re trying to imply, Gabriel, just say it already.”

“How about a visual presentation?” his cousin offered before dramatically punching his keyboard with his index finger. Up popped an image of—(Castiel felt his blood freeze)—of himself, Sam, and Dean emerging from the laser tag place. They all had smiles on their faces, but weirdly enough, he was most transfixed by his own.

As a general rule, he didn’t like having his picture taken. When he did agree to one—at the cajoling of his friends or family—he fixed a smile on his face—and had assumed that that was just what his smile looked like. But apparently, when caught in a genuine laugh, his nose crinkled up in the middle, his lips parted wide enough to show a flash of gums. It was an odd sensation, like listening to your own voice in a recording and realizing it’s not the same as you hear it in your head.

“I see you’re trying to think of something to say,” Gabriel said, smugly. “So, while you’re at it, you can also explain this—” He pressed another key and a second picture appeared slightly below the first. It was Castiel and the Winchesters the same day at a dim sum restaurant. Dean had forgone the use of chopsticks to eat his pork bun with his hands—and in this photo, his cheeks were stuffed full. Meanwhile, Cas looked on in amusement and Sam shook his head in reproach.

“Or this—” Gabriel continued, revealing a third picture—of Dean and Castiel standing outside the Impala two days after the Rowena auditions. Lisa and Ben had been at her family’s weekly Sunday brunch, so Dean had suggested breakfast at his place, followed by a few episodes of Firefly—but it turned out the actor didn’t have bacon, so they’d had to make a quick reroute to a grocery store.

Castiel slowly slid his eyes over to his cousin, who had one eyebrow raised expectedly. “Um, there isn’t more, is there?”

“More than this?” Gabriel’s eyebrows rose further up into his hairline. “You tell me.”

“It’s not what it looks like,” Castiel began.

“So, you haven’t been having a secret affair with your soulmate?”

What? Of course, not. We’re—Dean’s playing Michael in the movie. And we started talking and one thing led to another…”

“Oh, I’m sure it did.”

“And we became friends, Gabriel. That’s it—friends. Probably not even good friends—”

“Stop right there,” Gabriel insisted. “What’s his favorite color?”

Castiel’s tongue tripped over the rest of the words he planned to say. “Wha—Why does that matter?”

“Just tell me—what’s his favorite color?”

“Black.”

“Favorite movie?”

“Untouchables.”

“And do you want to bone him?”

Castiel crossed his arms over his chest. “No,” he insisted, through gritted teeth.

“Well, I think you’re lying.”

“You also think the moon landing was a hoax,” Castiel glared.

A second dragged into a minute—during which Castiel would have sworn he heard the tick of a clock except he knew he didn’t have one in the apartment, but eventually, he felt compelled to break the silence. “Where did those pictures come from anyway?”

“WheresDeanWinchesterNow.com,” his cousin said with a pop like he was chewing gum.

Castiel’s mouth dropped open. “You’re kidding.”

“For once, I am not. Your boy toy’s got quite an army of fanatics. Someone spots him somewhere, they post a pic and his location to the site so that the rest can hopefully follow the breadcrumbs to the picnic.”

Gabriel typed quickly, eyes roaming over the screen like he was reading something. “Looks like, at the moment, he’s picking up the squirt from school.”

That was… disturbing. On multiple levels. Especially combined with the knowledge that Gabriel apparently checked this site regularly. But at least that meant that the pictures in question weren’t paparazzi photos.

“I wouldn’t start celebrating just yet if I were you,” Gabriel insisted, which either meant that Castiel had said that last part out loud or his cousin could just read his face that well. “I mean, sure, Ken Doll gets a hundred photos taken of him in a day—doing all sorts of things, talking to all sorts of people. But the folks online are starting to notice you—starting to ask questions.

“Once they find out that you’re somebody too—yes, you are, you won’t be able to deny it for long—I doubt it will be long before some magazine takes an interest in your ‘friendship.’ And when the press finds out that you’re soulmates…whew boy!”

Castiel rose partway out of his seat. “You wouldn’t,” he growled a warning.

Gabriel’s face turned dangerous. “No. I wouldn’t,” he affirmed. “And you should know I wouldn’t.”

With a spike of guilt, Castiel relaxed his body language. Gabriel was right to be hurt. He had, after all, been keeping a pretty substantial secret from his cousin—the same cousin who’d snuck into his mother’s house after Castiel broke his foot, bearing cheeseburgers and an iPod preloaded up with Beyonce and Lizzo.

“I was going to tell you about Dean,” he promised, folding his hands into his lap. “I just… I wanted to know how I felt about everything before getting anyone else’s opinion.”

“And?”

“He’s my friend,” Castiel repeated.

“And how do you think your friend is gonna react to finding out that you’re the yin to his yang—the Bert to his Ernie—the eggplant to his peach emoji—the—”

Even if he wasn’t exactly sure of what Gabriel was saying, Castiel thought he got the general gist. “That won’t be a problem,” he insisted. “It’s not like he’s ever going to have an opportunity to see my bare chest, so we should be able to avoid the issue.”

“Oh, Cassie….” Gabriel soothed, “Sweet, naïve Cassie.”

“You realize I could start calling you Gabby,” he grumbled.

“There’s no hiding something this big,” his cousin continued unperturbed, almost as if he was giving a Shakespearean monologue. “I mean, celebs can’t even walk around without a bra without it winding up online, but this—this!—is Destiny. The sooner you accept that, the better. Because, let me tell you something, my dear, dear little cousin: that Bitch has a sense of humor.”

Castiel, once again, wondered why Gabriel—the breaker of all rules—the proverbial middle finger to all authority figures—seemed so sure that Castiel should embrace this particular course of action. A half dozen arguments and questions rose and died on his lips. But in the end, he settled for stating, “I’ll take my chances.”

“Good,” his cousin declared, abruptly back to his normal voice, as he reclined his desk chair and propped his feet up on his desk, one leg crossed over the other. “It’ll be much more entertaining for me this way.”

Chapter Text

The problem is, Castiel had spent years watching people ignore Gabriel’s warnings—only for them to wind up hoisted to the top of a flagpole or find their car meticulously disassembled and reassembled inside their living rooms. Admittedly, they were usually terrible human beings—and Gabriel had been directly responsible for their just desserts. The situations weren’t the same. But, still, Castiel replayed everything that his cousin said on and off for the rest of the afternoon with apprehension.

At one point, he started writing the word “Destiny” instead of his name on the 300-ish copy of The Righteous Man he’d been asked to autograph. He couldn’t just… scribble it out, could he? No, that would look awful.

He held the permanent marker suspended in mid-air. He’d only gotten as far as the “s,” which he could finagle into an “a,” so he did, followed by an “n.”

“Dean, Thank you for giving Michael added colors. –Cas”

He set it aside.

For dinner, he made spaghetti—in the sense that he boiled noodles and microwaved Prego tomato sauce—then sat at the kitchen island to eat it while scrolling through his text messages. His mother had sent him a link to an article about how people with blue eyes had a higher risk of eye cancer. Whether this was meant to be informative since she thought he was a doctor-to-be or a hint to get his eyes checked, he wasn’t sure.

Just below that was a message from Charlie—a video of a tiny black kitten making a pitiful but adorable attempt to leap onto a counter. She didn’t want pets herself but had been trying to stoke his own wistful thoughts of cat adoption, saying she would be the “Best Aunt Ever.”

And then, something from an unknown number… “Hey Cas. It’s Sam. Hope it’s OK Dean gave me your #? In case you wanted to keep bashing ancient philosophers.” Castiel smiled.

While he at first thought he wouldn’t see Sam at all when he went over to Dean’s last Sunday, the younger Winchester had shown up just as Dean was flipping the first few pancakes—and somehow, they had ended up getting into a debate over Aristotle.

Castiel believed that, in spite of the man’s lauded reputation, he’d actually set scientific development back decades if not centuries by perpetuating the idea that earth, air, water, and fire were the four basic elements; meanwhile, Sam argued that by teaching Alexander the Great, he directly contributed to the spread of Western culture.

“But who’s to say that was a net positive?” Castiel had exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air in exasperation.

“Alright, alright, get a room you two,” Dean had groused, navigating a hot pan between them on the way to the sink while Castiel didn’t quite get away with sneaking a piece of bacon behind his back.

Eventually, Sam had gone out for his run—and Cas and Dean were left to eat their weight in pancakes, though Dean grudgingly abstained from using syrup and Cas preferred honey anyway.

It was a good morning—one he had some hope of repeating in the future.

You are so screwed, little cuz, Gabriel’s voice resounded in his head, only to be forcibly shoved aside.

He was about to text Sam back when his phone dinged again. Speak of the soulmate…

“Would u rather be a reverse centaur or a reverse merman?” Dean wrote.

Castiel frowned at the screen. “Neither,” he typed.

“Well, 2bad, u have 2 pick. That’s how this game works.”

Castiel wandered through the maze of book stacks spread across his living room floor to plop onto the couch, while Dean sent a follow-up message. “Gotta go with half-centaur, right? If u don’t want to smell like fish 4 the rest of ur life.”

“Most people grow accustomed to their own scent to the point they can’t smell it anymore, so that wouldn’t be my problem. However, fish heads have gills, not lungs, and since I would prefer to live on land, I’d have to agree that half-centaur is the better choice.”

“Knew you were smart. OK. Would u rather every shirt u wear be kinda itchy or only be able to use 1ply toilet paper?”

Cas huffed, thumbs flying over his keypad. “Dean, what are these questions?”

“Found them on the internet + I’m bored. Entertain me.”

Castiel bit his lip, contemplating.

Then, taking a deep breath, he pressed the “Call” button.

It rang—five, six, seven times. “You have reached—” the automated voice intoned before Castiel hung up, uneasy. Had he misinterpreted a social situation again?

He was halfway through typing an apology when Dean rang back.

“…Hello? …Dean?” Castiel asked, uncertainly.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Dean murmured, with a sound like he was closing a door behind him. “Just moved to the Dean Cave so I wouldn’t disturb Lisa.”

“I didn’t mean to bother you—”

“No, Man, it’s totally cool,” Dean insisted, followed by a chair squeaking under his sudden weight. “Got me out of watching motocross.”

“Motocross?”

“Yeah, Lisa’s always been a big fan. Her ex—is it right to call a dead guy an ex?—Ben’s dad, he did it professionally. It’s kinda how they met. Anyway, she likes to keep up with the circuit—which I guess means I keep up with it, too. But, to be honest, I don’t get the appeal of watching a bunch of guys ride around in circles and occasionally eat dirt.”

“Do you enjoy watching any sports?”

“Nah,” Dean said, dismissively. “I mean, playing’s fun sometimes. But watching other people? Just doesn’t seem to have a point.”

“Was Ben’s dad—” Castiel began and then abruptly stopped himself. That would definitely be a social faux pas.

But guessing by Dean’s wry laugh, he hadn’t cut himself off soon enough. “Yeah, he was her soulmate.” He paused. “That’s what you wanted to ask, right?” And Castiel could almost see the pointed expression that came with it.

“Is that… weird… for you?” Castiel asked in a small voice.

“I mean… occasionally? It’s, uh, not something I think about much.”

It was nearing eight o’clock now—and Castiel’s living room was rapidly becoming dark—but the author felt grateful for it, just like he was grateful they were having this conversation over the phone.

“I know it’s none of my business. It’s just—I’ve been thinking about soulmates a lot lately,” he made himself say, heart lodged next to his Adam’s apple.

“Oh yeah?”

Castiel nodded, even though Dean couldn’t see, his throat dry. “I met my mother’s—Bartholomew—when I was six. He hated me,” he said, drawing random patterns across his couch with his finger. “He was deeply religious so, in his eyes, a child born out of wedlock—especially, his soulmate’s child—was an abomination. He’d get mad at her about not waiting all the time…”

“Dick—” Dean interrupted fiercely.

Castiel snorted. “To put it lightly. But the thing was—I know you don’t know my mother—but she never backs down, never lets someone else make her feel small. But she was different. Around him.

“Then, about three months after he showed up, I did something, I don’t remember what—but it made Bartholomew angry. He smacked me across the face at the dinner table, right in front of my mother. I thought… maybe she would let him get away with it, like she let him get away with all the terrible things he said about her. But then she stood up—so, so slowly—she just seemed to get taller and taller. And when she was at her full height, she told him to go, that she never wanted to see him in our house ever again.”

Castiel had gone from drawing on his couch to actively picking at a loose strand near one of the buttons. Dean allowed him the moment of silence, even though Castiel could feel him listening, like a thrum beneath his skin. “I assumed… for a while… that things would go back to normal with him gone. But she missed him. She’d get sad—and remember some small thing he’d gotten her or a joke they’d shared and I—I thought having a soulmate must be terrible to make you love someone like that.

“And now, she and my cousin keep on pushing me to pursue mine. And it’s not that I think my soulmate’s anything like Bartholomew, not at all—” he insisted, perhaps a little too vehemently. “But I just don’t understand why anyone thinks it’s a foolproof system. And if people are happy as they are, why chance making it worse?”

Dean let out a shuddered breath.

“I get it, Man. My--” he paused like he wasn’t sure how much he wanted to actually contribute to this exchange, but then he sighed again. “My parents were soulmates, right? Only, my mom died when I was eight—some drunk driver—and my dad, just stopped being Dad. Stopped being a functional human, really.

“He was in the military before—it’s why we moved around all the time, he kept getting relocated. But, after Mom, he had to resign—and I suppose that was hard on him, too.

“I thought we’d stick around some place—let Sammy make some friends he wouldn’t have to say goodbye to in six months. But having a house, looking after us—I don’t know if he just sucked at it or if it reminded him too much of Mom. But he decided we needed to keep moving. Some days, we’d come home from school and he’d already have our bags packed. He just… felt the itch, I guess.

“And then he started going off—and he wouldn’t take us with him. Just leave a couple of 20s and a note saying, ‘Be good.’ And the thing was, I didn’t blame him. For one thing, Sam blamed him enough for the two of us. And I just thought… Mom was a piece of him that died. How is anyone supposed to be normal after that? I mean, even now, I think, if I lost Sammy…”

The slight hitch in Dean’s voice didn’t go unnoticed. But then, he seemed to pull himself together, his tone turning almost light. “Anyway, long story short, found out on his death bed that he’d had a girl on the side when he was in the military. He didn’t put it that way, of course. Just dropped the bomb that we had a half-brother, Adam. It’s—it’s a fuckin’ joke is what it is.”

Castiel imagined Dean’s hands tightening into fists. His soulmark blazed like a sunburn.

“Soulmate or not, he chose Mom, you know—and to treat her like that. And then to play the fuckin’ grief card at every opportunity…” His voice rose again, sharp like a slap.

“Sorry, sorry, Man…” Dean concluded. “I—”

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Castiel insisted, gentle but firm. “I’m only grateful that you trusted me with all this.”

“Yeah, well…” Dean was barely audible. “You’re a good guy, Cas.”

Silence wrapped around them like a weighted blanket. The burning in Castiel’s soulmark eased to a warm glow.

“So…” Castiel began after they had spent a moment just basking in it. “Would you rather that the aliens that make first contact be robotic or organic?”

“Dude, what kind of question is that?” Dean wondered, but there was something pleased about it.

“A much more logical one than the ones you suggested,” Castiel pointed out.

“Fine. Uh, organic, I guess. If it bleeds, it means you can kill it.”

“And your first instinct upon meeting a new form of life would be to what—shoot it?”

“Or stab it in the heart. Come on. What are the chances aliens are really coming in peace and not to drink out our brains like a milkshake?”

“And is that how you would like humans to be welcomed should we ever discover another inhabited world?”

The actor scoffed. “It’s not about like, Cas—but if we ever show up to some alien Bar Mitzvah uninvited, it’s not gonna be to give ‘em a present—so, yeah, I fully expect them to disintegrate us or smite us or whatever they feel they got to do. What ‘bout you?”

“I would also choose organic—but only because I feel like intelligent life without the capability of emotion is an inherently more terrifying prospect than encountering a feeling species.”

“He says like Spock. What’s the point of debating with me if you have the same answer?”

“Because,” Castiel said, watching the patterns the moonlight made on the far wall. “Intent matters. Everyone makes bad decisions—look at Captain Malcolm—”

“Mal,” Dean corrected.

“He does the wrong thing for the right reasons and that, ultimately, makes him nobler than the people trying to bring him to justice.”

“You’re referencing Firefly now?”

“I’ve seen five episodes. I think that gives me the right.”

“Not arguing. Just proud,” Dean promised. “You wanna… I mean, I got the sixth queued up here. If you borrow my Hulu password, we could…?”

“Of course, Dean,” Castiel responded, digging out his remote from where it was buried and adjusting himself so that he was laying on his side.

He woke up the next morning, still on the couch, phone pressed between one of the cushions and his ear.

Chapter Text

“So, since production decided to keep Rowena’s natural accent, a few bits of dialogue were—hold on,” Chuck muttered to himself more than Castiel, shuffling papers as he talked. As usual, the script writer’s office looked like what would happen if a tornado went through a garage sale. In addition to the stacks of binders that were everywhere, loose pages covered the floor, some bearing footprints.

There were also at least eight half-drunk mugs of coffee in unlikely places throughout the room. The one on the windowsill said, “My Favorite People Are Fictitious.” The one on the desk read, “Tears of My Readers.” The plant in the corner had a jacket thrown over it and probably died several months ago.

Castiel sat in the only unoccupied guest chair, which smelled vaguely of mouthwash, and surreptitiously snuck a peek at his phone. He frowned when he found no new messages.

The day after he and Dean had shared their respective histories, he’d sent a text, apologizing for falling asleep, but he’d never heard back. Maybe, he thought, it wasn’t the kind of message people felt they had to respond to.

He’d debated for the rest of the afternoon before following up with, “Would you rather hibernate every winter or be nocturnal?”

That was two days ago—and there was still nothing.

Well, Dean’s probably busy, he reasoned. As are you, he reminded himself, forcibly tucking his phone away.

“Got it, got it!” Chuck exclaimed, at last, to jolt Castiel out of his thoughts. The screenwriter was brandishing a piece of paper over his head like a flag, seemingly unaware of the fact that his glasses were now hanging crookedly off his nose.

Castiel, red pen in hand, soon lost himself in reworking Evelyn’s monologue into something that would match a thick Scottish brogue.

/////

Three hours later, Castiel left Chuck’s office, balking at how bright it was in the hallway compared to in the closed-curtained room.

“Do you need help finding you way around?” someone with a clipboard asked, noticing him just standing there, blinking—but he waved them off. The last few weeks had made him at least passably capable of finding his way around the studio—especially since he’d noticed that the carpeting changed color by area.

Perhaps, it was because he was paying so much attention to the floor that he didn’t notice who was coming from the opposite direction until they nearly collided.

“Cas…?”

“Sam?”

It was then that he remembered that he never responded to the other man’s text message. So perhaps he was a bit of a hypocrite. Luckily, Sam seemed to accept his forgetfulness with grace.

“What are you doing here?” Castiel eventually got around to asking.

“Oh, I’m picking up Dean. He and some of the other actors are working through stunt choreography. Gives them a couple of months to train and practice before filming starts.” They paused at a fork in the hallway where Cas would normally take a left. “You wanna come say ‘hi’?” Sam asked.

“I’m not sure—”

“It’s actually really interesting watching how fights go down behind the scenes. I thought at first it would ruin movies for me—seeing how they’re made from the other side—but everything looks so much different post-editing.”

“I don’t want to interfere…” Castiel tried again, but Sam just waved him off.

“You won’t be. Lots of people bring guests, even once they move to set. I think it might help the actors sometimes—having an audience.” With that, Sam started down the right-hand side, Castiel hesitantly following.

The first thing they saw when they walked into the large dance-studio style room was Jessica—flipping a member of the stunt team over her shoulder onto a foam mat. In reality, the stunt member was doing most of the work—essentially initiating a tight somersault—but the overall effect was still impressive.

Castiel had been against the idea of any traditional action-style sequences in the movie to begin with; there weren’t any in the book. However, he knew and had accepted that a lot of the moviegoing audience found them ‘cool’. Judging by the way Sam looked at Jessica, blonde curls eagerly trying to escape the long braid she had put her hair in, he was among them.

“Did you know that she went to Stanford for a year?” the younger Winchester spoke up.

“What?” Castiel asked, catching sight of Dean on the other side of the room in an apparent spar with Meg. “No, I didn’t.”

“It was before my time, but I’ve watched the videotapes of some of her old mock trials. There’s this one slander case where she completely eviscerated the guy acting as the prosecution by producing similar statements from his social media accounts—” Sam continued to explain the case while Jessica grabbed her partner by the arm, attempting to whip him in a circle around her body. Castiel glanced at the younger Winchester; he realized that his acquaintance with Sam was relatively new, but he didn’t think the college student usually talked this much.

Eventually, Sam seemed to notice his rambling and abruptly cut himself off. “She would have made an impressive lawyer is all I’m saying,” he summarized with a blush.

“I’m sure she would be pleased to hear that,” Castiel answered carefully. “Have you told her?”

“No, I, uh—haven’t officially met her yet,” Sam confessed.

“I could… introduce you?” Castiel offered, almost positive that was the right thing to say in this situation. However, Sam’s nervous look didn’t give him any reassurance.

Fortunately, his interference turned out to be unnecessary.

“OK, people!” Meg’s voice called over the springy bouncing of the floor mats. “It’s becoming real hard to look at your punchable faces and not actually punch you so I’m calling it a day,” she declared, ignoring the fact that it was precisely the time that practice was supposed to end. “Remember, ice, then heat for anything sore. And Winchester?” Dean looked up from where he stood, hands on his knees, catching his breath. His AC/DC t-shirt clung to the small of his back with sweat. “If you need something for your wounded pride, I got some pink floral band-aids just for you.” With that, she threw a towel over her shoulder, heading for a back door.

Some people marked her departure by immediately flopping down on the floor and groaning, while others wandered towards where their bags were pushed up against the sides of the room. Jessica made straight for the two of them.

“Hi Cas,” she greeted easily, even though they’d only talked a few times since her audition. “Or do you prefer Castiel still? Dean just calls you ‘Cas’ so often, I think we’ve all picked up on it.”

“No, that’s—that’s fine.”

“Good. I think it suits you,” she smiled as she talked. “And who’s your friend?”

“Sam,” Sam answered for himself. “Winchester. Dean’s brother, actually.”

“Wow. The way he described you, I figured you were permanently stuck at the age of nine.”

“Yeah, well, don’t believe everything Dean says.”

“So, I shouldn’t take his word for it that you’re a sensitive genius with a huge crush on me?” she asked, sculpted eyebrow raised.

Castiel felt a chill go up his spine.

“I think what I actually said was that he’s a giant dork who cries when dogs die in movies,” Dean explained, words blowing past Castiel’s cheek as he came up behind the author. “And that he has the hots for you,” he added with a cheeky grin in Jessica’s direction.

“I’m going to kill you,” Sam warned his brother through his teeth.

“I don’t know…,” Jessica teased. “As wingmen go, he didn’t do the worst job…. I might even be convinced to take you out to lunch.”

Sam’s head wiped back around. “You… Really?”

“You free now?” she asked, pulling the tie from her hair and wearing the elastic as a bracelet.

“I… yes—absolutely,” Sam stuttered.

Dean shook his head in mock disappointment. “And stand me up?” he asked.

Metal flashed as it made an arc through the air. Sam tossing Dean the Impala keys. “You won’t be by yourself. You and Cas can go eat,” he reasoned, his attention already back on Jessica.

“Do you like Mexican…?” he asked as he led her away, one hand hovering near the small of her back.

“Well, that relationship is already doomed,” Dean muttered once they were out of earshot. “That kid eats half a burrito and he’s toxic.”

“I assume that’s a hurdle most couples have to get over eventually if they are to be successful,” Castiel observed. Dean gave a start at the sound of his voice, like he had somehow not noticed Cas had been there this whole time.

“Uh, hey Buddy,” Dean responded, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Somehow, that was all the confirmation Castiel needed. Dean hadn’t forgotten about his texts; he’d been purposefully ignoring them.

“We don’t have to go to lunch just because Sam suggested it,” he informed the actor, hefting his messenger bag higher up his shoulder.

“What? I’ve spent all morning working up an appetite, Man. We should definitely, uh, go grab something. Just let me change first before my pit stains end up all over People or some shit,” Dean declared, reaching for his own gym bag on the floor. “I’ll be out in five,” he promised, slipping back towards the door Meg had gone through without giving the author a chance to protest.

With him gone, Castiel realized how empty the room had become in the last ten minutes. A few scattered people lingered here and there, the sound of their voices, but not their words, echoing around the vaulted space.

“I’ll just… Wait here then,” Castiel muttered to himself, unsure how to feel about it.

Chapter Text

For the first time ever, silence with Dean felt awkward—and Castiel wasn’t sure if that was coming from him, from Dean, or if it was something that they made in the empty space between them.

“D’ya wanna pick a tape?” Dean asked—and so Castiel selected a cassette at random—The Beatles, apparently. Here Comes the Sun drifted sarcastically out of the speakers even though, Castiel noted, it was sunny out—in the hazy, slightly-shimmering way he’d come to associate with L.A.

Palm trees extended beyond what he could see through the window; groups of people in brightly colored shorts and sunglasses strolled by—faster than Baby could go at the moment—occasionally stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take selfies of something they deemed important. Tour groups, Castiel would wager.

“I don’t even know where we’re headed,” Dean admitted several minutes—and miles—later, once they’d left the studio lot behind them. “Whatcha in the mood for? Burgers? Italian? Mexican and spying on Sammy?”

“Whatever you’d like,” Castiel answered, honestly. “That doesn’t involve interfering with your brother,” he added as a precaution.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re no fun,” Dean responded as they pulled onto the highway.

“I told you that you weren’t obligated to have lunch with me,” Castiel pointed out.

Dean frowned as he passed a car that had been launching pebbles back at the Impala. “Dude. You know I’m kidding, right?” The actor darted a glance from the road to Cas and back. “You know that I like hanging out with you?”

The silence wasn’t silent. It rattled along with the heating vents.

Castiel tried to think it through logically. There was evidence to suggest that Dean did, indeed, enjoy his company—the half a dozen meals shared together, some genuine smiles.

But he’d been invited to the actor’s house originally to provide insight into Michael’s character—it wasn’t necessarily because Dean wanted to spend time with him. Charlie had then encouraged their next interaction. And Sam had suggested this outing. Maybe, Dean didn’t mind him—but he also didn’t value his presence the same way that Cas had slowly been learning to value Dean’s. In which case, getting upset about a couple of missed text messages was probably an overreaction.

Castiel nodded to himself. It was slightly disappointing, yes, but at least now that he knew, he could adjust his behavior accordingly.

“Well, shit,” Dean muttered when he told him as much. “And here I thought Sammy was the only one who could make me feel like this much of an asshole.”

Castiel’s forehead furrowed. “That wasn’t my intent. If anything, I should be apologizing. I have a tendency to misread people—and if that means that I’ve imposed on you in any way—”

“Shut up, Cas,” Dean said, pushing the speedometer up higher.

His jaw was tense, angry—but Castiel didn’t feel that anger, which only served to make him more confused.

“Look, I suck at this sort of thing, so just let me get this out, OK?” Dean asked, so Cas waited.

“I’m sorry for going radio silent on you,” the actor insisted. “I get weird about the family stuff. Sam and Lisa have learned by now not to go there with me. But we were talking and—I don’t know—it came out….

“But, at the end of the day, I’m still me and that’s still crap I don’t want to think about. So… I did what I usually do when something freaks me out.”

“You ran away,” Castiel surmised.

“I took some time.”

That seemed like a negligible distinction to Cas, but he figured that everyone was allowed their own self-denials.

“But, come on, Man, you’re a dumbass if you thought I was just gonna drop you. I mean, we met—what? A month and a half ago? And I’m pretty sure you’re already one of my favorite people.”

And with that, it seemed a switch was flipped. Wind whooshed beyond the window as it ran alongside the car, Baby’s wheels pounded against the asphalt, and the opening lines of Ticket to Ride played with a hint of a crackle as if the tape was made off an original record. These and a dozen more sounds came together until Castiel didn’t hear the silence anymore.

/////

In the end, they found a hole-in-the-wall place that claimed there were famous for their chicken wings. Dean looked completely at home sliding into a red vinyl booth, immediately reaching for the plastic placard displaying the specials. He relaxed even further when their waitress—a portly, middle-aged woman—didn’t seem to recognize him. She only raised a skeptical eyebrow when he ordered the Carolina Reaper wings.

“And for you?” she asked, turning to Castiel.

“I’ll take the Garlic Honey wings, a glass of milk, and a plate of lemon slices, if that’s possible,” he requested.

Her eyebrows lifted further, but she none-the-less wrote it down, dotting the “i” definitively.

“Please don’t tell me that you’re one of those freaks who likes pineapple on pizza,” Dean requested as soon as she left. “‘Cause I know we just got over our misunderstanding or whatever, but I’m seriously not sure if our friendship could survive that.”

Castiel preferred Meat Lovers’ actually, but “I don’t see why my choice in toppings should upset you. It’s not like I would be forcing you to eat it.”

“It’s fruit. On pizza. That’s just not right, Cas.”

Castiel slipped his straw out of its paper wrapper. “Need I remind you that tomatoes are also fruits? You eat them on pizza all the time.”

“That’s different,” he insisted.

“How?”

“It’s… under the cheese,” Dean argued, not very confidently.

“I see…” Cas said, tying his wrapper in a knot. He’d heard a superstition once that if you pulled from either end and the knot broke, it meant whoever you were thinking about was also thinking about you. In this case, he just set the wrapper to the side.  “And do you have any other ridiculous bars to friendship that I should know about?”

“Uh…” Dean said, ignoring his straw altogether to drink his water directly from the glass. “People who wear sunglasses indoors. If you’re not blind, that just makes you a douchebag.”

“Naturally….”

“Parents who completely ignore when their kid is throwing a tantrum in public.”

That one Castiel could agree with.

“Oh! People who ask if you want the good news or the bad news first. The fuckers should just say what they mean to begin with. Bad parkers. Jehovah’s witnesses. Girl Scouts, especially when they’re peddling their cardboard cookies. People who crack their knuckles—”

He was still going by the time the waitress returned with his order, apparently oblivious to the way the lettuce next to the wings was steaming slightly.

“Weathermen, people who like Coldplay, anyone with monogrammed bath towels—” he continued, taking an oversized bite. And that’s when he stopped.

It was almost amazing how quickly his freckles popped out on his reddened face. His widened eyes started watering, and it was obvious he was biting his lip to keep from making noise. Castiel supposed he was handling it admirably, considering that the Carolina Reaper was almost twice as hot by Scoville units as the infamous Ghost Pepper.

Castiel slid over the milk and the plate of lemon slices, both of which could combat the effects of capsaicin. “These should help,” he promised, then reached calmly for his own food.

Chapter Text

“I swear, Man, you’re not normal. I’m not even sure you’re human,” Dean insisted, speaking over the top of Baby.

“I said it was spicy,” Castiel reminded him, reaching for the passenger side door handle to get inside.

“Spicy?” he scoffed, mirroring the movement. “I can handle spicy. That was like—flaming acupuncture. On my tongue.”

“And yet, you’re still letting the restaurant display your picture as advertisement,” Castiel pointed out as Dean clambered in and adjusted the rearview mirror.

A few minutes after the two of them had dug into their lunch, their peace had been interrupted by a trio of girls who wanted Dean’s autograph. The author barely had time to process Dean’s brief apologetic grimace in his direction before it was replaced with a charming smile for the stuttering and blushing college students.

The commotion, of course, got the owner’s attention—and even though the balding man wrung his apron with probably more nervousness than the girls, Dean got the gist of what he was saying and agreed to have his photo taken to go up on the wall. Somehow, Cas had wound up included too—shyly looking at the camera, sitting in front of his plate of wings.

Strange as the encounter was, Castiel couldn’t help but feel weirdly proud of Dean afterward—not only because of the obvious happiness he’d brought to several people just with his presence but also because he handled it all with much less cockiness than Cas had expected.

“Yeah, well,” the actor murmured, still deflecting even now. “Your food was pretty good.”

Given how hot Dean’s dish was, they’d ended up splitting and sharing both of their wings, plus another order of BBQ.

Dean wrapped his arm around Baby’s bucket seat, close to Cas’s shoulder, so he could turn around and watch where he was going as he threw the car in reverse.

“What I don’t get,” he said as he backed out of the parking space. “Is why people try to give me free stuff—” Castiel guessed he was referring to how the owner had offered to comp their meals. “I mean, yeah, I’m famous and all—but that just means I don’t need any more money. Give it to the homeless guy down the street.”

Castiel hummed in thought. “To be fair, you don’t know that they aren’t. Many restaurants are involved in programs that donate leftovers to those in need.”

“I guess.”

Cas tapped his finger against the window armrest.

“Ever since I got my book deal, I’ve had moments where it truly hits me—how lucky I am to be able to pursue my dreams and support myself. It’s not something most people have the means to do. But it’s only occurring to me now that I haven’t done much to pay that forward. Once I know the long-term success of The Righteous Man, I should research some charities I can give to.

“For that matter, my schedule is very flexible. I could probably volunteer a few times a week….” He’d gotten quieter as he talked and, by the end, he realized he was mostly thinking out loud.

“As I said,” Dean responded, not looking at Cas as he merged onto the highway. “Not normal at all.”

/////

They hadn’t discussed what they were doing next, but Dean seemed to be driving in the direction of Castiel’s apartment. The author had a moment of melancholy at the thought, but he pushed it aside as Dean started recounting a story about how Sam had agreed to participate in a charity event where he got auctioned off as a date.

“It was a coupla years ago, right? And the girl that won, Becky… let’s just say, she makes my fans look tame,” he promised, grinning the smile of someone younger. “She came to the restaurant with a whole ass wedding album, including a page filled with pictures of fuckin’ elaborate man buns—”

By the time he got to the part about how Sam had escaped out of the bathroom window—(“Somehow, the idiot lost both his phone and one of his shoes so that he couldn’t call for a ride and had to walk home half barefoot”)—Castiel felt both incredibly amused and a little bad for laughing at his friend’s expense.

“He’ll get over it,” Dean snorted. “It’s not like he doesn’t enjoy telling all my embarrassing stories every chance he gets.”

Oh? “If that’s the case, you could always tell me about them yourself before your brother does—that way, I’ll at least hear your side of things.”

Dean slid to a smooth stop behind several other cars at a traffic light. He gave Cas a look. “Nice try.”

Castiel had thought so, but he wasn’t going to push the matter.

For the return trip, they’d switched tapes, and now Christian Kane’s House Rules played—both growly and smooth at the same time. “We don't tolerate no sitting around / Everybody's dancin', groovin' and getting on down. / So before you come in here with some kind of attitude / You better read the house rules.”

“So, hey,” Dean said, breaking through the chorus, his tone of voice so different from a few moments ago that Castiel’s curiosity instantly piqued. “Maybe you got other plans, but I know a place around here that—”

“I’m free.”

Dean’s slightly nervous expression rearranged itself into a smirk. “Just like that, huh? You didn’t even hear what I was gonna suggest…”

Castiel shrugged. “I trust you to select an activity I won’t hate. And I’d rather spend time with you than in my apartment by myself.” He wondered if that should worry him. But… he’d also been talking to Gabriel and Charlie more now than when they all lived in Chicago together. Maybe, he was just becoming a more social person.

“Cool,” Dean summarized, shifting into driving mode again, and the accompanying light, floaty feeling in Castiel’s chest was so different from what he’d felt this morning that it seemed several weeks had passed since then.

Thirty minutes later, Dean parallel parked them outside a place called Walt’s Bar, the word “PINBALL!” painted in large, colorful letters underneath the green neon logo. The front door was propped open so that as soon as Castiel got out of the car, he could pick up faint cheers coming from the building, as well as a general smell of fried food.

“I don’t know if you like arcade games at all….” Dean started.

“Neither do I. I haven’t played any before.”

Dean, who had been walking around the car, stopped in his tracks. “You’re joking, right?” Then, answering his own question, “Of course not. That’s… really, really pathetic, Cas.”

The author gave him an unimpressed frown. “Today alone, you’ve called me a dumbass, not normal, and now pathetic. I feel like I should be offended.”

“Great. And you’ve got a chick’s memory,” Dean grumbled.

“Considering that women, on average, can hold twice as much verbal information in their short-term memory as men, I’ll take that one as a compliment,” Cas decided.

Dean grabbed the author by the shoulders and steered him through the entrance.

Once inside, it took Castiel a few minutes for his eyes to adjust to the rather dark surroundings. On the right, a curving white-and-red counter was surrounded by about a dozen mint green stools all fixed to place on the red tile floor. Only about half the seats were filled. Across from them, along the right-most wall were several pinball machines. The room then opened at the back. Castiel suspected that there was another area he couldn’t see with sit-down tables, perhaps a pool table.

“You want something? Turkey sandwich? Hot dog?” Dean asked, pointing at the menu board on the wall next to a giant, neon chicken.

“Dean, we just ate.”

“And?”

As annoyed as he wanted to be, Cas conceded that he could, in fact, eat. “I’ll take a pretzel.” Dean chuckled.

While the actor dealt with placing their order, Castiel found himself wandering over to the nearest game station. He had no idea who the cartoonish people all over it were, but he hesitantly pulled the knob thing on the front panel to see what it would do.

Nothing, apparently.

“You might be more successful with this,” spoke an accented voice surprisingly close by.

Castiel looked up from the hand holding out a quarter to him to the man in question. He was shorter than Castiel, with dark hair and a heavy layer of scruff that, none-the-less, looked neatly groomed. Added to that were hazel eyes, a long nose, and slightly pointy ears.

“Still can’t get over how light American coins are,” he said casually despite Castiel’s silent appraisal. Deftly, he flicked the quarter into the air only to catch it on the back of his knuckles. He flicked it again and it landed back in his palm. “Mick,” he introduced himself, once more holding out the coin in offering. “Mick Davies.”

“Castiel,” the author responded but didn’t take the money.

“Castiel. Angel of Thursday. In the City of Angels, no less. How appropriate.”

Cas found himself just as surprised as when Sam knew the origins of his name. However, despite his interactions with both Winchesters and the people from the movie, his people skills were still rusty, leaving him with no idea of how to respond.

Mick didn’t seem to mind. “Do you live in town or are you just visiting?”

“I recently moved here,” Castiel admitted after a moment’s pause, figuring that it was a safe enough detail to share with a stranger.

“Hmmm… Well, as good-looking as you are, you don’t strike me as an aspiring performer—so…” Mick took the liberty of pushing the quarter he’d been holding into the slot in the pinball machine. The image on the back panel lit up, and there was a rush of different sounds—bells, whistles, something like a zoink. He indicated to Castiel to grab the knob again, which he did, and a ball came flying out of one of the side aisles to bounce between different targets. “What brought you West?”

The answer to that question was far more complicated than Castiel was willing to get into. “Work,” was all he said.

Feeling around the side of the pinball machine, Cas discovered two buttons that, when pressed, worked the flappers at the bottom of the table. As the tiny silver ball edged toward the bottom of the playing field, he experimentally hit one, causing the ball to fling upward, travel over a ramp, and into a hole drawn to look like the center of a hurricane. His score went up.

“I’m here for a job as well,” Mick offered.

The obvious question would be to ask him what he did, but wouldn’t that be rude considering how Castiel had just evaded the same question? Mick apparently didn’t think so because he continued without prompting. “I work for a hotel chain in the EU that’s expanding its operations overseas. I’m scouting out potential locations, vendors, staff... It’s all terribly exciting stuff,” he said, with a light chuckle.

Castiel only nodded. It’s taking Dean a long time to get a pretzel, he thought, looking over his shoulder for the actor. He found Dean easily—hovering barely six feet away. When he caught Cas looking, he mouthed a question, but it was impossible to make out the words, and Castiel was more concerned with the way the two beers Dean was balancing sloshed slightly since, even laden down with food, the man couldn’t help but talk with his hands. In any case, Dean seemed to take Castiel’s confused expression as some sort of signal, because he began walking toward him.

Satisfied, the author turned back around, only to find Mick frowning and the pinball game flashing the words, “GAME OVER!” in bright red letters.

“Think that’s a message for you, Buddy,” Dean said, gesturing with his chin at the display. Mick tugged sharply at his open blazer.

“Apologies,” he muttered, sounding annoyed if anything. He turned to leave, only to give Dean a second glance, “Are you—that actor—?”

“Nope,” Dean answered before he even finished his sentence. “Well, unless I’m dressing up as the Red Hood for a 10-year old’s birthday party. On one hand, the kids are ankle-biters, but on the other, you get tips and cake.” Mick nodded vaguely, obviously having lost interest, before he retreated to the back of the bar.

“Dude,” Dean said, once the Brit had wandered out of earshot. “If you wanted him to fuck off, you coulda just said you don’t swing that way or something.” He handed Cas a pretzel but then proceeded to tear the top off for himself.

For a few seconds, Castiel was busy trying to stop the tiny paper cone of cheese from falling, so it took him a moment to process what Dean just said.

He tilted his head. “You think Mick was trying to... to flirt with me."

“Uh, yeah.”

Castiel squinted.

“Are you telling me you didn’t notice?” The actor asked it like a question but didn’t give Cas any time to respond. “Here's a little tip, Dude. When someone gives you about two inches of personal space and calling you handsome, he's making a move.”

Cas opened his mouth.

“Wait,” Dean interrupted again. “Please tell me you at least get that that Hannah chick is into you.”

Now, Dean was just being ridiculous. “Hannah’s a friend.”

“You sure about that?”

Castiel crossed his arms over his chest, letting out a huff of air. “You sound like my cousin.”

“What? He thinks she’s trying to get in your pants, too?”

If Cas wasn’t so exasperated, he probably likely wouldn’t have said what came next. “No, actually, he thinks I’m secretly dating you.

The silence was suddenly back, nearly screeching.

“OK, well, you’ve said your cousin is a toucan short of a bowl of fruit loops,” Dean declared after a moment. “But I’m not and I’m telling you that Hannah definitely wouldn’t mind saving a horse, riding a cowboy if you know what I’m saying.”

“Not really. Most of that was incomprehensible.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “You know what, forget I mentioned it. Let’s just… play pinball, alright?” Putting both the beers on top of one of the other game machines, where Castiel was absolutely sure they shouldn’t go, the actor reached into his pocket, looking for change. What he pulled out was a pile of coins, several balls of lint, mint wrappers, and a fortune cookie message that read, “Ignore previous cookie,” but at last, he separated out just the quarters. “Here,” he gestured and Castiel obediently opened up his palm.

“Game On,” the machine read.

Chapter Text

Sinking into the plushy leather of the Impala, Castiel couldn’t help but wonder how he got so sweaty playing pinball of all things. At first, he’d tried to be smart about it—to incrementally test out the best time to hit the flapper once the ball made contact with it. But Dean’s repeated snorting had gotten distracting, and he eventually gave into the actor’s instructions to “just feel it,” which was admittedly more fun.

Dean, meanwhile, managed to get a new high score on the machine, which they celebrated by sharing an order of chili fries that Cas wasn’t allowed to tell Lisa or Sam about.

Cas was so caught up in the memories of his pleasant, calorie-intensive afternoon that it took him a minute to notice that the actor had yet to leave the parking lot. “Dean?” he questioned.

Dean gave a little start before he seemed to realize his own inaction and finally turned the ignition on. “Yeah Cas, what’s up?”

“Nothing. You just… looked concerned.”

“Nah,” he promised, navigating out of the parking lot and onto the street with one hand.

Castiel frowned. He often took people at their word—sometimes to his own detriment—but this was Dean. Whether it was the soulmate connection or not, he knew that there was something bothering the actor.

He was trying to figure out what could be wrong when Dean glanced over and rolled his eyes. “Do you think you can turn those laser beams down a notch there, Buddy?”

“What?” Castiel was confused.

“You’re staring,” Dean clarified.

“And you would like me to stop?”

“Kinda.”

Obediently, Castiel directed his gaze out the window. The view wasn’t as interesting, but he got the sense that Dean was processing something and would get back to him when he figured it out, so he let his mind drift.

He was halfway through mentally preparing a grocery list when Dean cleared his throat. “So, uh, earlier, when that dude was chatting you up, I sorta assumed some things that I shouldn’t’ve….”

The actor looked over at Castiel for a second, then went back to watching the road in a repeat of their first drive of the day—and Cas wondered if this was something Dean did—had hard conversations in the car where maintaining eye contact wasn’t expected.

Regardless, he had no idea what the other man was talking about and said so.

“Trust me, I’m not trying to put you on the spot or anything. I just… assumed you were straight.” Another quick look-over. “But if your cousin is yanking your chain about spending time with me, I’m guessing it’s ‘cause you’re not.”

Castiel considered this. “That’s… a fair assessment.”

“Yeah well, I don’t want you to think I’m some homophobic asshole.”

“That didn’t even cross my mind,” Cas answered honestly. Dean looked relieved. “Because I know you’re friends with Charlie,” the author reasoned. “Of course, there are plenty of men who are more accepting of female-female relationships than male-male ones, so I suppose you could fall into that category—”

“What? No!” Dean interrupted, hands clenching around the wheel. “I’m saying I’m not.”

Cas put a calming hand on the actor’s shoulder. “I wasn’t accusing you. I was only admitting a fallacy in my own logic.”

But Dean seemed to have worked himself up. “Look, I don’t exactly go around advertising. But my friends know that… I’m bi, OK?” The actor swallowed, thickly. “I mean, I lean more towards chicks. But, yeah, I’m perfectly cool with guys doing—whatever.”

For a second, Castiel flashed back to the article he’d read, listing Dean’s former girlfriends. He’d wondered then—but no, this wasn’t the time for that.

Dean,” he chided softly, squeezing the shoulder he still held. “I appreciate you sharing that with me, but I hope you know it’s unnecessary. It never occurred to me that my preferences would make any difference to you. Just as yours don’t change anything for me.”

“Well, good. That’s… good.”

“Besides….” Castiel began, but then paused, thought through what he had planned to say, and shook his head, “Never mind.”

“Nuh uh, you can’t go pulling that crap. Spit it out, whatever it is.”

Cas huffed, equal parts fondness and exasperation in the sound. “I was just going to point out that if I did have reason to believe you were homophobic, being bisexual isn’t particularly a strong argument for that not being the case.”

“What are you talking about?” Dean demanded. “It’s kinda the B in LGBT+.”

“Yes,” Castiel agreed. “But there are plenty of people who are gay or bi who are still against same-sex couples. Those who were brought up in the church, for example, or in families that support traditional gender roles. For that matter, there are many individuals who accept homosexuality in others but not in themselves. But just because the homophobia is directed inward doesn’t make it any less wrong.”

They passed under a tunnel—there was darkness, darkness, then light.

“Well, anyone who believes that is an idiot,” Dean finally declared, tone harsh, as they finally got to a stretch of open road. “Like, we live in a world with fuckin’ soulmarks and people somehow still try and argue ‘it’s not natural’.”

“Yes, but, as illogical as it may be—”

“You know, my dad was one of those guys—” Dean interrupted and Castiel instantly closed his mouth to let him “—who used to think anyone who said they were gay was doing it for the attention. Or maybe they’d taken too many drugs, had a traumatic brain injury, were brainwashed by their hippie parents… This was the same man who hated conspiracy theorists because they ‘twist everything to suit their own story’.”

Cas approached the conversation the way he would a dilapidated wood porch, testing the weight of each word carefully, aware of the risks of misstepping. “I… presume that means you weren’t… out to him before he…”

“Yeah, right,” Dean muttered. But at least it was proof that he was having this conversation with Castiel, not just himself. The author had wondered….

Dean took a breath, which seemed to help him unclench slightly. “It’s not like you think,” the actor continued. “I woulda said something to him if—if there was anything to say. Someone. You know.

“But there wasn’t, so what was the point in getting him all riled up? And then… well he got diagnosed—prostate cancer they didn’t find soon enough, probably because he was so full of bullshit—and, well, it’s not like I wanted to give him a heart attack on top of all of that. ‘Specially since he and Sam were trying to bury the hatchet.

Plus, I’d just started dating Lisa—casually, but still. He knew about it. Gave his stamp of approval or whatever. So, even if I had pulled out my rainbow underwear, it’s not like he woulda believed me. No, he’d say I was just trying to get out of commitment or something…” he trailed off.

Castiel afforded himself the luxury of watching the actor again since it seemed Dean was lost somewhere in his own head. Late afternoon sunlight outlined the profile of one cheek and left the rest in shadow. “If that was truly the opinion he had of you, I feel quite bad for your father.”

Dean looked up, startled.

“What I mean to say is, it’s been a privilege getting to know you these last few weeks. It’s sad that he, apparently, never took that opportunity.”

Of course, Cas had already imagined several ways Dean could possibly respond to his comment—a throwaway joke and silence being the top two contenders.

Instead, Dean used his thumb and forefinger to massage his eyes—a fact that should concern the author considering the other man was driving—and let out a hollow laugh. “Look at you, Man. It’s been—what? Four hours since I said I don’t talk about family shit and—here we are again.”

“Dean, no, I didn’t mean to—”

“Dude,” Dean cut him off, finally lifting his head to take stock of the road again. “Stop acting like it’s your fault. This was totally me. I’m just—asking myself when I became Ginny Weasley, who can’t stop spilling my guts all over my new book friend.”

Charlie had made him watch those movies once. “Are you… comparing me to Voldemort?”

“I, uh—technically, Tom Riddle.”

“Those are the same character.”

“Fine, they are. But I didn’t mean it like that. I meant it, you know, in a good way.”

“I believe most people would simply say that they were glad to have met me, too.”

“I might be a lot of things, Cas, but ‘most people’ s’never really been one of them,” Dean pointed out with one raised eyebrow.

I’m well aware.

Chapter Text

“Cas? Cas…?”

It took the author a moment to realize that someone was calling his name. A few seconds more to reorient himself. He was at Dean’s house, halfway through his second eggs benedict, and hazel eyes were looking across the table at him, questioningly.

“I’m sorry, Sam,” Castiel said, trying to rack his brain for what the college student had been talking about but coming up short. “I’m a little distracted.”

“I was just asking if you’d be interested in doing an escape room sometime? We need six to eight people, so I figure you, me, and Dean,” he counted on his fingers. “Jess, Lisa, and—” He turned to his brother for ideas.

“How ‘bout Little Sammy?” Dean suggested, around an open-mouthed bite of sausage. “Since you’re not letting him be a player in anything else.”

Sam’s open expression instantly transformed into a scowl. “You know what, Dean, you’re not invited. Cas, d’you know two people who’d want to come?”

Dean chucked a muffin at Sam’s head, which his brother caught easily.

He was less prepared when Sam threw it back, causing it to glance off the actor’s ear and onto the floor. “If we get ants, I’m blaming you,” Dean muttered, stabbing the air in Sam’s direction with his fork.

In the end, Cas was the one to pick the muffin up.

“You’re being terrible, you know,” the author informed Dean, sternly. It was about ten o’clock on Sunday, a few days after pinball. Lisa and Ben were, once again, at her family’s brunch, so Dean had invited Cas over for breakfast—an invitation Cas thought he would enjoy more than this. “In fact, you’ve been an assbutt all morning.”

Like last time Cas was over, he and Sam had hovered in the kitchen while Dean was cooking. At first, they had talked about a new unsolved murders podcast that Sam had been listening to—but somehow, Dean transitioned the conversation to Sam’s burgeoning relationship with Jessica—specifically how he hadn’t “sealed the deal” yet. Not only did the actor completely ignore Sam saying they were taking things slow, but Castiel also found that particular euphemism for sexual relations to be more distasteful than most. He might not have personal experience, but he doubted sleeping with someone ever cemented anything.

He was brought back to the present moment by Dean mouthing the word “Assbutt?” to Sam.

“Yes,” Castiel asserted, leaning back and crossing his arms over his chest. “May I ask what your goal is when you criticize Sam like that? Is it to pressure him into a physical relationship that he—or possibly Jessica—is not ready for? Or is it prompt him to lie to you about the status of said relationship so that you will leave him alone?”

“Dude,” Dean marveled. “Calm down. Sam knows I’m just messing around. Right, Sam?” he prompted, smacking his brother in the chest without looking at him.

“Uh, yes and no?”

Dean’s eyes swung around, startled.

“I mean, I know you aren’t trying to be a dick exactly, but you also think I’m—naïve or stupid or somehow less than—because I don’t want to fall into bed with every girl I meet. I get it, OK? You and Lisa started as a one-night stand, and if that works for you, great. But I’m not you—and that’s not my kind of thing.

“I mean, I really see some good things in store for me and Jess. And I would like you to be excited for me. But I’m pretty sure you were prouder that time I had a drunken hook-up in the backseat of Baby because I was upset about my break-up with Ruby.”

Sam resolutely turned away from where Dean looked like he’d been hit in the face with a waffle iron.

“So, Cas…,” the younger Winchester said, obviously tense but trying to speak casually. “Anybody you think would be good for an escape room?”

“Actually…” Castiel began. “My cousin, Gabriel’s coming out in two weeks. Considering I’m unlikely to survive five days of trying to entertain him myself, any distractions you can provide would be appreciated.” He paused. “I should probably warn you that he might literally blow up the door if he thinks that’s the easiest way of winning.”

“This is the guy Dean’s told me about? The one who switched out all the pregnancy tests at one of his local drugstores with ones that gave false positives?”

Castiel sighed. “Yes.”

“The one who messed with the delivery request at your high school, so they had nothing to serve but hot dogs during pig dissection week?”

He nodded.

“The one who—”

“I think it’s safe to say that, regardless of how that sentence ends, yes, I mean that Gabriel.”

“Well, I’ve gotta meet him,” Sam muttered, typing a quick note into his cellphone. “Let me do some research and I’ll get back to you about a time and place,” he added before pushing back his chair and standing. “And let me know if you think of anyone else who’d like to join, OK? I’m going upstairs to change for my jog.”

Castiel hummed in acknowledgment even though he doubted he would be able to add any more to the guest list.

Soon enough, Sam had vanished up the stairs and he was able to turn his attention back to his food.

A tense moment passed.

“I, uh—” Dean started, the first sign that he hadn’t transformed into a statue.

“Should go apologize to him?” Castiel suggested with a raised eyebrow as he sipped his orange juice. “Yes, I think you should.”

“Fine, fine. I’m going,” Dean muttered, getting to his feet. Despite being slightly smaller than Sam, his steps were louder against the tile floor, likely because he favored boots.

For a second, Castiel remained where he was, trying to soothe the headache behind his eyes by rubbing circles into his temples with his fingers. Eventually, though, he began to feel strange lingering in the kitchen by himself and began gathering everyone’s finished plates.

Logic stated that he should put them in the dishwasher, but the large, German, stainless steel contraption had more buttons than an elevator, and he didn’t want to risk breaking something, so he just rolled the sleeves of his shirt and began washing them by hand.

About halfway through his task, he heard a low murmur of voices signaling the brothers’ imminent return.

“So… we’re cool?” Dean asked from the direction of the stairs, his unusually tentative voice unintentionally magnified by the half-domed ceiling.

“Yeah,” Sam agreed, tone noticeably happier. “S’long as you don’t pull that macho man crap again.”

“Well, now that I’m aware that it upsets your delicate sensibilities—” A smack. “I was kidding that time! For real.”

“I know. I just don’t think you’re funny. Now go make up with Cas,” Sam urged, with what sounded like a light shove to the shoulder. “I’m 22 and I feel like I only now discovered what it’s like to see Mom and Dad fight.”

Dean snorted. “Tell me about it.” There’s a pause, where the only sound was someone shifting their weight slightly on the steps. “Is it just me—or is Cas actually terrifying?”

“Oh, it’s definitely not just you.”

Both brothers then descended the last few stairs in silence while Cas towel-dried the last plate and pretended like he wasn’t eavesdropping.

“Man, you didn’t have to do that,” Dean exclaimed once he re-entered the kitchen. Cas glanced over his shoulder to see Sam give a half-wave on his way towards the door at the opposite end of the room—the one that led to the yard.

“I find chores soothing sometimes,” he replied simply, turning over a glass so that the soap bubbles drained out of it.

“Well, whatever makes you happy, I guess,” Dean grumbled, relocating the clean plates to the appropriate cabinet and letting the door shut with a quiet snick.

“So, uh, Sam and I worked out our thing,” he mentioned, turning so his back was to the counter, arms crossed.

“I’m very pleased to hear it.”

“Right. So, I just wanted to check that you and me are also—you know—good.”

“I have no reason to be angry with you if Sam’s not,” Cas reasoned.

“True,” Dean replied. “But I kinda get the impression that there’s something else that’s bugging you.”

Cas opened his mouth to protest.

“I’m not saying you didn’t have a legitimate reason to be annoyed at me,” Dean inserted quickly. “And, hell, I’m glad someone here is calling me out on my crap—but you’ve been doing this—” Dean made the same headache-soothing motion Castiel had been performing a few minutes ago—“all morning, even when I had my trap shut, so I figured I’d ask.”

Not for the first time, Castiel felt the strange combination of warmed and annoyed that came with having a soulmate who picked up on these kinds of things now.

“I—” he started, only to feel his phone buzz. “I have a lot on my mind is all—between the book launch—and Gabriel’s visit—and the realization that I absolutely must tell my mother the truth soon.

“I have writer’s block,” he continued, reaching into his pocket to grab his cell. “I’ve used the ‘backspace’ button on my laptop so much that the key is starting to come loose and, on top of that, my agent, Crowley, has recently discovered WheresDeanWinchesterNow.com—so he’s trying to get me to pressure you to come to the launch for the publicity. And—” he risked a glance down at his phone screen, only to let out a groan. “Apparently, there’s been a gas leak in my apartment building. Residents are being told to find temporary lodging for the next two days while they get it fixed.”

Chapter Text

“Yeah, OK, that’s a lot,” Dean conceded, as Cas looked sullenly at the floor. “But it’s like memorizing a script, right? All you gotta do is take it one line at a time. So,” he clapped his hands together. “First things first. You’re crashing here.”

“Dean—”

“You ever get tired of saying my name so much?”

Dean,” Cas repeated. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with me lately. I wouldn’t want to take advantage of your—or Lisa’s—hospitality by—”

“Dude,” the actor marveled, arms still crossed but body language much more relaxed now that Cas was no longer mad at him. “Have you seen this place? It’s a colossal waste. You could hole up in one of the guest rooms for years and there’s a chance neither of us would even notice.”

Despite his upper-middle-class upbringing, Castiel took a moment to process this. “I suppose it’s good you don’t have any pets then.”

“Well, that and I’m allergic. To cats, at least.”

The author chose not to process the slight twinge of disappointment he felt at that.

“The point is, it’s two days—you’d hardly be putting us out.”

“I don’t have any things with me,” Castiel argued. Well, except for his laptop, which he brought along with him in a messenger bag like always. “I’m sure I can find a hotel closer to the center of town—at least, that way I can purchase some clothes and—toothpaste.”

“Wait for it,” Dean instructed, steering him by the shoulders up the stairs that he and Sam were on just a few moments earlier. When the actor had asked if Cas had ‘seen this place’ he assumed Dean had been speaking rhetorically, but Castiel quickly realized that there were many areas of the house that were unknown to him—including the entire second floor.

To his surprise, at the top of the landing, there looked to be a whole other living room, complete with a sage-colored, U-shaped couch and a flat-screen TV. There was also a new-but-made-to-look-old trunk that doubled as a coffee table, tastefully covered with books and magazines. Only the plastic bin of toys in the corner indicated that the space wasn’t copy-and-pasted directly from an in-store display.

“Why?” Castiel blurted out, brain-to-mouth filter temporarily fuzzing into static.

“Hell if I know. We also have shrimp forks. If my fifteen-year-old self wasn’t such a lightweight, he’d totally kick my ass for becoming a hoity-toity rich person. But big cities like L.A. were never my thing, and if you want a property with some green grass and a little breathing room from your neighbors, you also—apparently—need 7,000 square feet per person.”

As he was talking, Dean continued to maneuver Cas through a hallway and then left at the first fork. Dean pointed to the door closest to them. “Bathroom,” he declared, cracking it open so Cas could look inside. “Mrs. B keeps the place stocked like a hotel pretty much. There’s little mini shampoo bottles in the shower. Under the sink, here, you’ve got spare toothbrushes, toothpaste, uh looks like lady’s deodorant—but you can probably deal with your pits smelling like flowers for a few days, right?” He didn’t turn to see Cas’s answer—just closed the door again with what sounded like a sigh from the wood.

“And this,” the actor declared, dragging Cas to the next door over. “Can be su Cas-a.”

Cas only got a brief impression of light grey walls and fluttery white curtains because he was too taken up by the sight of Dean moving over to the wrought-iron bed. Sitting on the edge with his feet on the ground, the actor bounced on the mattress a few times as if checking its quality, which only served to emphasize his bowlegs. “Ah, memory foam,” he sighed, leaning back and proceeding to make a snow angel across the bedspread. “Come on, feel it. You know you want to,” he teased.

Castiel sighed loudly, but none-the-less, sunk onto the bed, a few safe feet away from Dean.

“So, these digs OK? I can get you some of my clothes, too. Figure we’re the same size-ish.”

“The room is more than adequate,” Castiel admonished. “That was never the issue. I just don’t want to impose…”

“Nah,” Dean promised, propping himself up on one elbow and turning to face the author better. “I mean, I probably won’t be able to hang out with you much today. The kid’ll be home soon, and I promised Ben we could work on the treehouse we got going out back. Then, I have a meeting with my agent to discuss what interviews I’m up for in the next few months. And Lisa and I have this charity thing tonight. But I mean, Sam’ll be here—he’s the room at the other end of the hall—and he’s already planning on ordering pizza, so…”

“Dean—” Cas interrupted.

“I’m telling you, that would make a good drinking game.”

Castiel rolled his eyes. He had planned on reminding Dean that he was an adult who was perfectly capable of spending a few hours alone. However, the actor was looking at him with a gentle smirk on his face and what he ended up saying was, “Thank you.”

“Any time,” Dean said, voice quieter than Castiel expected.

Their eyes caught, like the soft cling of laundry coming out of the dryer.

“I’m coming to your launch too, by the way,” Dean informed him. “And don’t tell me I don’t have to,” he added when he saw Castiel’s expression. “I want to go. ‘Sides, that Crowley guy’s not wrong. Me being there can get your book more attention, so why not?”

“I’m not going to be one of those people that takes advantage of you, Dean. You’re my friend, not my—” Castiel searched for the right word. “—spotlight.”

“Who says I can’t multi-task?”

At Castiel’s scowl, Dean at least tried to rearrange his features to appear more serious. “Look, I’ll go in full-on stealth mode if that’s how you want to play it. But this is a big deal for you, even if you’re trying to act like it’s not, so I’m gonna be there. Capiche?”

Where Cas was apparently ‘terrifying’, Dean was charmingly persuasive, and it only took one more prodding smile on the actor’s part for Castiel to sigh an “I capiche.”

“So that’s two things taken care of,” Dean reminded Cas, who was surprised to realize his shoulders did feel a little lighter. “And writer’s block is kinda like kidney stones, right? You just got to wait for it to pass. So that leaves what? The stuff with your mom. Which, not gonna lie, I don’t get. At all.”

“She wants me to be a doctor,” Castiel explained.

“Yeah, I heard you the first time. But… why? Is she a doctor?”

“She’s the vice president of distribution for a pharmaceutical company.”

“So, lots of pants suits.”

Castiel tried—and failed—to suppress the quirk of his lips.

“I don’t think she would have minded if I pursued law or accounting—something she deems ‘important’,” he admitted after a pause. “That’s not to say that she discredits the value of the written word—she does like to read—but her opinion of writers is usually worse than her opinion of their works. In her mind, to be an author—or any kind of creative—is to be unstable. She thinks of Virginia Wolfe, drowning herself, or Sylvia Plath, sticking her head in the oven. Van Gogh cutting off his ear. In short, she’ll believe that me doing this is a sign I’ve literally gone crazy.”

“OOOOOkaay…,” Dean said, tone still skeptical. “Fine. So, she’s got a stick up her ass. That kinda prompts an obvious question.”

“Hmm, What’s that?”

“Why do you care?”

“I—what?” Castiel questioned, tripping over the sentence he had been going to say.

“So she might crap on what you do for a living. But she can’t do anything about it, can she? You’re already supporting yourself. From what you’ve said, you avoid her phone calls anyway, so what’s it matter if you have to dodge a few more?”

“It matters,” Castiel explained slowly. “Because she’s my mother.”

Dean started to scoff, but Castiel wouldn’t let him. “Just because I have a strained relationship with her doesn’t mean that a part of me doesn’t seek her approval—the way I imagine all children seek their parents’ validation—whether it’s healthy for them or not. If she were to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was… going down the wrong path, that I was disappointing her… it wouldn’t change the fact that I’m a writer, not a doctor. But it would make me feel worse about not being that other person.”

“I’m sorry, Man, I just don’t get it,” Dean admitted. “You’re not hurting anybody—you’re doing something you love…. If she can’t accept you for you, that’s on her to deal with. Why hide?”

Castiel felt an argument building on the tip of his tongue, held it back for a second, and then said it anyway. “Are you telling me that if there hadn’t been any extenuating circumstances with John, you would have taken the opportunity to tell him about your sexuality—without any hesitation?”

“Woah, woah, woah,” Dean protested, a frown between his eyebrows. That’s not—”

“It’s not the same situation, I agree, but the underlying fears are similar. The worry that you will be disdained for being yourself. That you will alter a relationship that—while volatile—has also been one of the constants of your life. I’m not saying that I should care, I’m saying that I do—and—” He began rubbing at his temples again, feeling his headache like a drumbeat.

The two of them let the moment relax a little.

“Well, we almost made it half an hour without you looking like you want to punch me,” the actor joked after they both had a chance to settle.

“I would never hurt you, Dean,” Cas told him, sincerely. “As I said—I’m a bit—on edge this morning. I shouldn’t bring up things you’ve been open enough to share with me just to make a point.”

Dean cleared his throat, “Yeah, it’s….” But whatever thought he’d been formulating was left to trail off like breadcrumbs.

“Hey,” he said, suddenly. “Does your mom know about—that you’re—”

Oh. Cas blinked, realizing that as much as he steadfastly avoided discussing soulmates with his mother, he’d never once wondered how she would react to learning that his other half was male. “It’s never been brought up,” he admitted. But, “I don’t really think that will be an issue though.”

Dean shook his head, marveling. “You’ve got a strange fuckin’ family, dude.”

Castiel tilted his head. “Doesn’t everybody?”

“Not really—”

“Dean!” a woman’s voice called from down the hallway, cutting the actor off.

“Dean,” it repeated, softer but coming closer—until Lisa was standing in the open doorway. Her hair was straight today—with a gold clip in it to hold the left side of it behind her ear. “Oh, hi—Cas. What’re you guys doing?”

“Uh, I was just helping Cas get settled in. There was a maintenance issue at his place, so he’s gonna stay here for a coupla days.”

“If that’s fine with you,” Castiel hurried to add.

She shook her head. “Of course,” she responded with a smile. “But Dean, we’re still on for tonight, right?”

“Yup. I got the monkey suit and everything.”

“Come on,” Lisa protested. “You look great in a tux.”

“Possibly even better than you look in hot dog pajama pants,” Castiel quipped automatically, thinking back to their first conversation. Dean flashed him a remembering grin.

“Maybe I should split the difference. Wear the pajama pants but add the suit jacket.”

“And the bowtie.”

“Well, I am classy like that,” Dean insisted.

Castiel glanced over to where Lisa was still standing, watching them. “In any case,” he said, clearing his throat. “I shouldn’t keep you any longer. It sounds like you have a pretty full day planned.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed. Shaking himself, he performed a half sit-up from which he could maneuver off the bed. “Yeah,” he repeated, picking up one of the pillows he’d accidentally knocked to the floor and tossing it across the mattress. “I’ll… see you around later, then…” For some reason, it sounded like a question.

“You do know where I live,” Cas reminded him. “Both usually and temporarily.”

Dean let out a light chuckle as he followed Lisa out, knocking twice on the doorframe as he went.

Chapter Text

Castiel groaned, throwing his blankets off. It was his second hour of trying to fall asleep and, so far, he only seemed to be getting farther away from his goal. Padding over to the doorway on his socked feet, he peeked out into the empty hall. It made sense that he would be the sole person up—it was past midnight.

Cas always had a hard time resting someplace new—and, unlike when he first moved to his apartment—he didn’t have physical exhaustion weighing him down. No, instead he’d spent the day painfully adding 392 words to The Righteous Man sequel and watching Jeopardy with Sam, while soothing heartburn from too much pizza. Maybe tomorrow morning, he’d join the younger Winchester on his run.

It also didn’t help that he was used to sleeping shirtless, but no matter how illogical his fear, he couldn’t help but imagine some scenario—a house fire or some nonsense—where he’d forget to slip one on and Dean would see his bare chest, so instead, he was wearing a worn Led Zeppelin shirt. He’d found it, with a pile of other clothes, on the desk in his room when he’d come back after dinner.

The fabric was softer than what he was used to wearing—having developed a habit for dress shirts in private school that he never really grew out of—though he had switched mostly to polos since his move to L.A. Beyond that, it smelled vaguely like Dean—like sunshine on leather and the color blue dipped in green that he attributed to Dean’s shampoo. It was… strange, sensing Dean so close when he wasn’t nearby. Cas tried not to think about it.

His first instinct was to go sit outside for a while, but, when he got to the kitchen, he realized that a celebrity of Dean’s caliber probably had an alarm system that had already been primed for the night.

He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, contemplating his options, when a familiar voice spoke from behind him, words roughened like they’d been gone over with sandpaper. “Planning on raiding my fridge?”

Castiel looked over his shoulder at Dean, who was dressed for bed in light grey sweatpants and a slightly darker grey T-shirt with a hole in the sleeve. “Wanting some fresh air, actually,” he admitted.

“Well, come on then,” the actor said, walking past him to get to a red-lit panel by the doorway and pressing buttons until it turned green. He pushed the door open, “After you.”

The barely-cool air was still a relief to the author as they stepped onto the porch and walked over to the railing. From there, Cas could see a large swath of lawn and shadow-formed trees in the distance, but his eyes immediately turned upward, seeking stars that were invisible due to haze. “The moon’s beautiful,” he conceded though, “Even if first quarter moons are my least favorite.”

“You have most and least favorite phases of the moon?” Dean asked incredulously, before scoffing. “Don’t really know why I’m surprised.”

For a minute, they just listened to the voice of dozens of insects.

“Fine, I’ll bite. Why is it your least favorite phase of the moon?” Dean asked, with what seemed like genuine curiosity. Cas couldn’t help but smile at that.

“I suppose I find the symbolism sad. It’s half what it once was and half what it will be. Plus,” Cas conceded with a shrug of his shoulders, “I just think it looks strange.”

“Ha,” Dean announced into the still night air. “Good to know you’re not poetic all the time.”

“Why are you up, Dean?” Cas questioned, turning to lean his back against a pillar so that he could look the other man in the face.

“I’ve always been a bad sleeper,” the actor confessed, running his fingers through his hair, which looked softer than usual, sticking out in tufts like Castiel’s hair did normally. “Usually only get in about four hours a night.”

Castiel waited.

“And, uh,” Dean admitted, slowly. “I’ve kinda been thinking about what we were talking about this morning. The dad stuff.”

He let out a breath that rattled in his lungs. “I coulda told him before—before shit went down. There was this thing with a guy named Benny once—I met him while location shooting in Louisiana and—point is, I coulda told him. But any time I thought about it, it was either when he was pissed and I figured it wasn’t worth making him angrier—or we were good, and I didn’t want to mess that up.

“Because—there were good times. I don’t think about ‘em much anymore because I was so angry with him when he kicked the bucket. But I did—I used to worship the guy. And for the first time in a while, today, I remembered him teaching me to shoot and the coupla baseball games he took me to—and. I do get it. Is what I’m saying. Why you don’t want to tell your mom.”

Castiel’s chest burned again, except he had a better idea what it was about this time and tried not to copy the movement of Dean’s own hand as he rubbed at his shirt over the area of his heart.

“I really don’t intend to make you continually think about distressing subjects. It just seems to… happen,” he said, weakly.

“Well,” Dean gave a half-smile that looked like a half-moon. “You got any embarrassing shit you want to share? Help even the playing field some?”

“That implies that we’re playing a game, and we’re not,” Castiel chided but still gave the matter some thought. A minute passed.

“Everyone hated my novel,” he confessed eventually. At Dean’s look, he added, “Not The Righteous Man. My first one. It went through various titles, none of which ever felt quite right, but—” He sighed, “I never wanted to be someone with an overinflated sense of my own importance. But I knew—well, I thought I knew—I was a good writer. I was sure that, even if the book wasn’t a bestseller, that it would be fairly easy to get it published.

“And then the rejections came pouring in. The kind where they don’t even put your name up top. Just address it to ‘Dear Author.’ I can’t tell you how…” He stopped, steadied himself. “Ever since then, I feel like I’m just guessing when I write. Maybe this sentence is good, maybe it’s not. Let’s see what Crowley thinks. He liked The Righteous Man, but maybe that was just luck, maybe he’ll think the sequel’s terrible. And I hate that I went from writing for me and assuming other people would just… enjoy it—to asking myself what someone else’s opinion might be every second sentence.” There were moments, of course, when he lost track of that particular insecurity, but then it would pop up again in the rearview mirror, closer than it first appeared.

“Dude,” Dean interjected, with almost a laugh in the sound. “That’s just imposter syndrome. Loads of people have it.”

Castiel raised his eyebrows, “Is this you being supportive or dismissive again?”

“Both?” Dean suggested. “I mean, I’ve been there—when I was auditioning as a kid. You know, my agent said I had the stuff, and I got that first commercial, but then there was nothing. For months. I auditioned a ton—and some of the times, I thought I kicked ass. Zilch. Nada. Crickets. I had to go back to cutting people’s lawns and hustling pool. And then I went to this one audition where I bombed—and bombed bad—and I got the role. It was the most confusing fuckin’ thing in my life. For a while after that, I tried to be bad on purpose—until my agent called me out on it.”

He blew out a hard breath, leaning more of his weight against the railing. “It sucks, but sometimes, that’s just the way the world works. You get big by being good—or sometimes being hot—but also by trying again. When everyone else out there is busy nursing their wounds, you stitch yourself back up—‘til you get the break you’re looking for.”

Castiel knew, factually, that many success stories started as failure stories—he’d just always had a hard time applying that to himself. “You’re probably correct,” he conceded.

“Course I am,” Dean said, with all the confidence he just claimed to not always feel. They went back to watching the moon.

“So, what’s this other book about?” Dean questioned after ten, maybe twenty minutes passed, his freckles almost silver in the light.

Cas leaned his head against the pillar, feeling for the first time tonight that he might be able to fall asleep. “Oh, it’s fantasy.”

“OKKaaaay. Fantasy about what?”

“You don’t have to placate me, Dean,” Cas said, opening one eye he had inadvertently closed.

“What about me would ever make you think I’d do that?” Dean demanded. “Hell, I don’t even let Ben beat me at Monopoly—it’s not my fault if the kid hasn’t learned not to waste all his money on railroads. If I’m asking about your book, it’s ‘cause I want to know.”

“It’s—” Castiel tried, before coming across the same block he always did when he thought about it.

“What, Cas?”

Castiel sighed. He supposed he was doing this. “I’m sure you’re aware of what a typical hero in fantasy is like. They usually learn they have magical powers late in life but find out they’re especially gifted compared to their peers. There’s often some sort of prophecy about how they’re going to stop the evil, save the world.”

“Yeah…”

“This is—the sidekick’s story, I guess you would say. In this world, everyone is born with a unique ability—to fly or to make plants grow—what have you. And my main character is the one left out—no powers, no abilities. Nor does she acquire them at any point. There’s a war going on—and when she has to sneak into enemy territory, she encounters the ‘hero’, the one all the prophecies are written about. Except the hero is running away from all that.

“He’s been told that he’s the one who is supposed to win the war for his side, but he thinks that just because he has the power to do so doesn’t mean he has the right. He sees his gifts as a curse—where people elevate him to a god, when really he’s just an 18-year-old kid. So, there’s—balance between them, in a way—their differences contribute to similar struggles—where they don’t feel like they belong. It’s—I’m rambling now, aren’t I?”

“Are you kidding, Man? I was into it.”

“You were ‘into it’,” Castiel repeated the words carefully as if that would make them clearer. “And you’re not just placating me?” he double-checked.

“Nope. In fact, email it to me. I could use something to read when I’m up at 2 in the morning, since Lisa can’t sleep with the TV on.”

Castiel was tempted to ask one more time if Dean was sure, except his soulmark was calm against his skin—and part of him felt he would know if Dean were lying about this.

“I… can do that,” he finally made himself say, painfully aware of how grateful he was to have Dean Winchester in his life.

Chapter Text

At this point, Castiel was somewhat prepared to wind up in emotionally intimate conversations with Dean. He was not prepared to walk into him, wearing nothing but swim trunks, clearly on the way to the pool.

“Cas?” the actor asked.

“Yes, Dean.”

“Why do you have your eyes closed?”

“Sorry, you—startled me.” He forced them open again. It wasn’t so much Dean’s uncovered skin that was distracting to him—although the other man was every bit as beautiful as his reputation. Rather, it was the sight of Cas’s phoenix in such intricate detail—on someone else’s body. The image was reversed compared to what he saw in the mirror—the flames surrounded by a halo of freckles—and yet, it was undeniably the same.

“Uh….” Dean murmured from too close by, startling Castiel into giving the actor his personal space.

“Apologies,” he said, trying to keep his face as neutral as possible. “I’ve just… never seen someone else’s mark up close before.”

“Dude, how is that possible? You only do it doggy style or something?”

Castiel glared. “What did we just go over in regard to casting aspersions on someone else’s sexual choices?”

“Fine, fine,” Dean muttered, throwing his towel over one shoulder. “But, really, you’ve never…?”

Castiel had spent enough time around Charlie and Gabriel to know that this, unfortunately, was something friends talked about. “I suppose I’m… waiting for the right person,” he conceded, helpless to stop himself from briefly glancing back down at Dean’s chest and the long line of flight feathers.

“I thought you said you didn’t believe in the whole soulmate schtick,” Dean reminded him, voice part confusion, part accusation.

“I can want my first time to be with someone meaningful without that person having to be my soulmate,” Castiel pointed out. He remembered his cousin and friend again. “That is not an invitation to set me up on blind dates.”

Dean put his hands up in surrender. “Trust me, wasn’t even thinking about it.” He looked behind him in the direction of the pool. “So, hey, you want to do some laps with me? I can loan you a pair of shorts.”

No!” Castiel responded, too sharply. “…thank you. I was actually trying to find Sam.”

“What? You’re benching me already?”

Castiel furrowed his eyebrows. “I’m not sure what you mean. Sam discovered during our morning jog that I haven’t watched a movie called ‘Seven’—and apparently, this is something that needs to be rectified immediately.”

“What? Hell no,” Dean declared, increasing Cas’s confusion. “No way you two are watching that without me. Look, let me get my workout in, drop Ben off at baseball practice, then we can all do it together, OK?”

His green eyes were large and beseeching, and Castiel found himself agreeing automatically. It’s not like he thinks Sam would mind.

“Cool? Two hours then. I’ll bring popcorn,” Dean grinned, turning with a flex of back muscles.

It took Cas a few minutes of standing there to realize that that meant he had two hours to find something to occupy himself with. He wandered back to ‘his’ room and his open laptop.

/////

The Dean Cave only had the two plaid armchairs, so Sam dragged an extra from the kitchen.

“Maybe you should consider a couch in here,” the youngest Winchester said, arranging the chair backward and swinging a leg over it. “It would make sense if Cas is going to be joining us on movie nights.”

“Look some options up if you want,” Dean responded, mouth already half-stuffed with popcorn. “S’long as it’s still got built-in recliners.”

Cas stared.

“What? I got butter on my chin or something?” Dean asked. He did, but that wasn’t Cas’s issue. “You’re going to purchase furniture so I can watch movies with you?”

“It’s not like it’s a big deal,” Dean said, squirming slightly in his seat. “These’re old.” Because he’d carried them from place to place for nearly a decade, Castiel thought. “Lisa’ll be happy to have them gone anyway.”

He held the popcorn bowl out and Castiel accepted it, automatically.

“So, are we doing this thing or not?” Dean said, rubbing his hands together. Sam responded by maneuvering a few buttons on the remote until the opening credits started playing.

Castiel tried to pay attention, he did—but as the story introduced Brad Pitt’s character and his soulmate, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Cas’s mind continued to whirl. He didn’t know what it was about Dean buying a couch that was affecting him this strongly—certainly, the actor had the money for it. But it seemed so… permanent. He was going to be changing something about the way he lived because of Castiel and that made the author think, really think about how much he’d done the same.

He’d been spending at least a few days a week with the actor for a couple of months now. He was in another one of Dean’s shirts, holey jeans, and a pair of his boxer shorts. He’d pretty much given up on the idea of purchasing a car because, he admitted, he liked when Dean came to pick him up. Then there was last night’s conversation.

Castiel still couldn’t express how much Dean’s reaction had meant to him. They’d spent probably another hour talking—about Cas’s complicated relationship with writing, but also about Sam, and mythology, and their childhood hiding places—and on a wave of that support, he’d gone back inside and composed an email to his mother.

Perhaps what he had to say should have been done over the phone, but he wanted to be able to choose his words carefully—to explain not only his real reason for being in L.A. but also why he thought lying was necessary without having to actively combat her attempts to speak over him. At the last minute, he’d also purchased a roundtrip plane ticket and expressed the hope that she’d come to his launch.

The silence from the other end felt ominous—prickling his skin at random intervals in the hours since—but he’d done it, and he was proud of himself for doing it, in part because he knew that when he told Dean, Dean would be proud of him too. And that was bad, wasn’t it? Was it bad?

He didn’t think he’d fallen in love with the actor—certainly, he hadn’t been that reckless—but he did care about him. More than he cared about most people in his life. Enough to see something and to mentally file it away to tell Dean later. Enough to miss him when he wasn’t there. And when, exactly, had he gone from fearing getting too close to Dean to being scared that one day, he’d lose the closeness that they had built?

Dean’s face was locked in concentration on the screen, investing himself in the story the same way he did his acting. But he must have felt the weight of Cas’s gaze because his eyes flicked over. And Castiel, curious, watched to see what he would do. Dean stared right back, a question in his eyes that caused the wings of Cas’s soulmark to beat once against his chest. He shook his head and faced the screen again. A second later, he sensed Dean do the same.

He still didn’t believe in soulmates, Castiel told himself, firmly. Not the way other people did—not enough to change anything. But it was getting harder and harder for him to doubt that Dean was his.

Chapter Text

“Woah, hey Cas,” Dean’s voice suddenly came from behind him, causing the author to whip around. He’d been holed up in one of the backrooms of L.A.’s largest Barnes & Noble for the last half an hour while Crowley harassed the workers setting up for his book launch in the main area.

“How did you…?”

“Your cousin told me where you were,” the actor explained, which decidedly did not make Castiel feel better.

Gabriel had arrived in the city two days ago and had, for the most part, been a useful distraction from his growing nerves. But this morning, he’d said Castiel’s pacing was making him antsy and left, mumbling something about finding a drug dealer to take the edge off. He was joking, Cas thought. Hoped.

Please tell me he didn’t harass you too much,” he asked.

“Depends on if you think asking me how much ‘manscaping’ I do for roles counts as ‘too much’.”

Castiel groaned.

“Hey, it’s not like you didn’t warn me. And I was able to load him off on Sam pretty quickly.”

“Sam’s here?”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Of course, Cas. Not just Sam. Charlie and Dorothy too.”

“But—” Cas argued, finally coming to a standstill. “They live five hours away.”

“Yeah, they do. And don’t let Charlie hear you talk like that. She’d kick your ass for thinking they wouldn’t drive five hours for this.” Dean’s posture changed slightly so he was standing a bit taller. “Any, uh, word from your mom?”

Castiel shook his head.

“Well, screw her,” Dean responded vehemently, putting steadying hands on either one of Castiel’s shoulders. “Now, how can I get you to chill out?”

Of course, it was at that moment that one of the pens in his dress shirt pocket decided to explode, quickly soaking a fist-sized area of the fabric in dark blue ink. “Fuck,” Cas said decisively.

Wow, it’s weird to hear you curse,” Dean mumbled, but quickly shook himself out of it. “OK, damage control. Er—”

“There’s t-shirts for sale in the store. I suppose I can go grab one of those,” Cas strategized, already heading in that direction.

Dean headed him off. “No, Dude, it’s your big day. You want to be… put together.”

It wasn’t like this was Castiel’s preference either—but it was better than looking like a human Rorschach test.

“Here,” Dean offered, stripping off his jacket to reveal a shirt similar to the one Cas was wearing, and began undoing buttons. His arms were out of the sleeves and he was starting to peel off his undershirt when Castiel developed the sense to stop him.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving you a peep show. What do you think I’m doing? I’m switching clothes with you.”

“I—”

“Come on, Cas, your shindig starts in 20 minutes. You don’t really have time to argue with me,” Dean pointed out, one eyebrow raised and about three inches of bare stomach showing.

Gabriel is right. The universe official hates me, he thought as Dean resumed undressing, revealing his phoenix again for the second time in two weeks. It was the greens in the feathers that stood out the most against the dim lighting.

“Fine,” the author grit out at last—because what excuse could he give?—before turning so his back was fully to Dean. A hundred different possibilities played behind his closed eyes, very few of which turned out well for him.

The author took a deep, steadying breath and began to take off his shirt.

Seemingly in no time at all, he was naked from the waist up, eyes closed, muscles tense—waiting for Dean to develop X-ray vision or, more likely, walk over to him where it would be very obvious that they had something in common.

Instead, he felt a soft thump against the back of his head. Dean had tossed the clothes at him.

Fingers scrambling, he snatched them out of the air before they hit the ground and slid the undershirt over himself quickly.

“Thank you,” he breathed to Dean and a God he didn’t really believe in once he was dressed.

“Yeah, sure, no problem,” Dean responded—and if Cas’s heart had calmed down at all, it sped right back up again as the actor stepped forward to adjust his collar and wind Cas’s discarded tie back around his neck. “At some point, we’re gonna have to sort out all our laundry.”

“Right.”

Castiel still had Dean’s clothes that he had worn home from his overnight stay. Meanwhile, his polo shirt and jeans had gotten lost with Dean’s when the housekeeper had put them in with the wash and then gotten called away unexpectedly.

Dean gave him a lopsided grin as he stepped back.

Somehow, neither of them noticed Gabriel until he was right beside them. “Well helloooo Cassie.” He looked Dean up and down, “Cassie’s boy toy.”

Castiel stopped trying to tame his tufted-up hair. “We weren’t—”

“Weren’t—what? Sneaking in a quickie? Wetting the willie? Dancing the goat’s jig? Going heels to Jesus?”

“Gabriel!” Cas interrupted, hopefully not loudly enough to be heard outside. “We’re not characters in Casa Erotica. Dean just came to help me relax.”

Dude,” the actor groaned over Gabriel’s sharp laughter, running a hand down his face. “That really doesn’t sound any better.”

Castiel thought over his sentence again. When he realized what they were both going on about, he hoped the glare he shot their way remained effective despite the heat he could feel staining his cheeks.

Suddenly, he wasn’t worried about speaking in front of a crowd anymore. It would at least get him out of this.

/////

The bookstore had a large pit in the center, with stairs rising up in a circular design, sort of like stadium seats. “Hey, I should probably let you—you know,” Dean said, when the three of them were a few feet from the main body of the crowd. There were eyes on them, of course—whispers growing louder—but now that the moment was almost upon him, Castiel felt oblivious to that. For one, their attention seemed to mostly be on Dean—and for another, that’s just how he was built. Often restless in the face of something looming, he found calm in being—in doing.

“Any last words of advice?” he asked, glancing down the stairs where a cloth-covered table was situated at the bottom. It appeared to have about fifty copies of The Righteous Man on it, stacked like bricks to form two columns. Only the top two were displayed vertically—one with the front cover facing the crowd, the other turned to show his close-lipped author photo.

“Yeah,” Dean smiled. “Don’t picture the audience in their underwear. That goes all kinds of wrong.”

“I don’t know, Dean-o,” Gabriel started, hands stuffed into his pockets. "Don’t think he’d mind seeing some people—” The singsong of his voice suddenly cut off as he pitched forward slightly, face now an interesting shade of red.

“Thank you. I will take that under advisement,” Castiel responded, looking evenly at Dean as if he hadn’t just forcefully jabbed at his cousin’s solar plexus.

“Yup, still terrifying,” the actor muttered almost to himself, before reaching over to grab Gabriel under the armpit and haul him up. “I’ll find him a place by us,” he offered as he pointed to a group near the front-left, as if Castiel hadn’t already spotted Sam, a foot taller than everyone around him, and Charlie’s bright red hair.

Still, he nodded his appreciation before Dean walked away, letting himself have a moment to look over the rest of the crowd from up high. He knew the people here weren’t fans really. But it seemed his agent had been able to lure in a few reporters, wearing badges around their necks or clipped to their shirts. The rest, he assumed were the kind of people who liked to be ‘first’ to new things. Idly, he wondered if any of them had stood in line for the cronut.

By the time he descended the center aisle, most people that had been standing had taken their chairs or a spot on one of the steps.

“Try to be at least charmingly awkward, alright?” Crowley insisted when he approached the display table, eying the slightly too-long length of his shirt sleeves with interest.

Castiel frowned. It wasn’t like being charming was an objective quality. What one person might find amusing or pleasing could easily be unattractive to someone else. He said as much to Crowley while picking up one of the books perched at the top of the column. New ink always smelled like berries to him, undercut by the scent of plastic from the jacket.

“Oh, for the love of—” his agent said, with the force of a small explosion, before seeming to steady himself. “Just—don’t take longer than a minute to answer a question, don’t use words with more than three syllables, and try to have an expression other than that of a dead sex robot. Understand?”

“Why would I—” he began with a tilt of his head, only for a high-pitched squeal to draw his attention. Turning, he saw Charlie with a hand over her mouth—apparently in response to something Gabriel had said. Sam was also mid-snort and though Dorothy’s lips were only curled slightly at the corners, that’s what counted for amusement with her.

The author only had a second to wonder what that might be about when he met Dean’s eyes. Hold on, Dean said without words, holding up a finger. Then he pulled out his phone and started texting. Automatically, Castiel started patting his own pockets.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Crowley admonished, snatching the device away from him with deft fingers just as he’d unlocked the home screen. “Not the time for distractions. I’ll be taking this until after you’re finished.”

While he didn’t appreciate having his personal property confiscated, ultimately, Cas decided it wasn’t worth the protest—especially since Crowley was ushering him into his seat and ordering someone to adjust the lighting. (Who even knew there was accent lighting at a bookstore?)

And with that, the launch officially kicked off.

/////

For the next several minutes, Crowley talked to the audience about The Righteous Man with a voice that could belong to the serpent from the Garden of Eden. Castiel could see the growing interest in the gathered faces, and yet, he still thought the agent milked far too much out of Castiel’s own father-less history when describing Michael’s search for answers in his dad’s old, leather-bound notebook. At one point, the author barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes.

Dean showed no such restraint—and Cas fought a smile as Dean continued to mime his agent whenever Crowley was facing the other direction—though, judging by the way the older man rolled his shoulders from inside his immaculately-tailored black suit, Crowley knew anyway.

Eventually, it was Cas’s turn to step up.

He and Crowley had already discussed which chapters he was going to be reading as a teaser—so he pulled out his own post-it noted copy of The Righteous Man and tried to remember what he’d learned about dramatic recitation from participating in the Michael auditions—to slow down, to add emphasis. Somewhere in the process, he found himself accidentally immersed in his own story of the original attack on the museum. “Michael tried to breathe, but his lungs felt as if they had been packed with wet towels. His vision was also blurry like he was underwater, but he could make out the intermittent flash of the emergency lights and stumbled in that direction….”

When he finished to polite applause, Charlie’s overenthusiastic claps were definitely the most notable.

He was less sure what to expect of the Q&A portion and nodded in the direction of a reporter mostly at random.

“What kind of research did you do while working on The Righteous Man?” she asked, cell phone held out in front of her to record his response.

In the strictest sense, he’d studied a lot of Gnostic texts, archaeology practices, paper preservation techniques, and etymology—but “charmingly awkward,” Crowley had said—and that reminded him of Dean calling him, “a sarcastic little shit.”

“I once spent three hours watching videos of rabbits eating various snacks. However, while it was research I did while writing the book, I can’t honestly say it was for the book.”

The woman who asked the question flashed an unwitting smile, so he guessed he’d accomplished his goal.

Many of the follow-up inquiries were also fairly easy to answer—questions about his writing process, his favorite authors, if there had been any significant ‘deleted scenes’ from the book—up until—“There’s a rumor going around about a movie starring Dean Winchester as Michael,” spoke a balding, dark-haired man, pen poised over a notepad.

“That’s… not something I’m at liberty to discuss,” Castiel answered carefully, knowing that that information was still about a month away from being released.

“But he’s here today…?” the reporter asked with skeptically raised eyebrows.

Cas nodded. “As a friend.”

“And how did you two come to be ‘friends’ exactly?”

Castiel steepled his hands together where they rested on the tabletop, looking at the reporter straight on. “I imagine like most friends do. We wound up at the same place at the same time and discovered that we had interests in common.” He purposefully turned away from him to someone else with their hand up. “Next question.”

“Since Dean is here today—as a friend to support your book—what are his thoughts on it?”

Castiel felt a weight settle in his stomach, but he refused to let it show on his face. “It seems like he would be the person most qualified to answer that question.”

And yet, despite his clear and repeated shutdowns, the crowd only seemed to take more to the subject, even going so far as to talk over each other.

(“The pictures of you together seem to go back to about two months ago—”

“How would you define Dean’s relationship with—”

“Was the character of Michael inspired by—")

He hoped, for a brief moment, that Crowley would intervene. However, the agent seemed all too pleased with the proceedings.

Building up his courage, Cas risked a brief look in Dean’s direction. The actor’s arms were crossed—his jaw clenched tight—causing the sinking feeling in Cas’s gut to grow so much worse. Carefully, the author rose to his feet.

“I understand all of your interest in Dean. He is an extremely talented performer. But more than that, he is a genuinely wonderful person—someone who, yes, inspires me in many ways. However, Dean is not the reason that you or I am here today. As such, I will not be accepting any questions related to him at this time.”

The room dissolved into sparks of conversation like what happens when two pieces of metal scrape together, in which everyone seemed to stop paying attention to the author altogether. Even Crowley was occupied by his cellphone.

Unable to stop himself, Cas glanced over at Dean again, wanting to know if anger was still chiseled into every line of his body. Instead, he found the actor looking at him worriedly.

What? He thought in the other man’s direction, furrowing his eyebrows in confusion—until Dean tilted his head significantly towards the top of the stairs. More specifically, towards the woman standing there, lit from behind.

She was in her 40s, dressed in a slate grey pantsuit, her hair a few shades lighter than Castiel’s and tucked up into a severe bun. He couldn’t see her eyes from here, but he knew they were a familiar blue.

Apparently, his mother had come after all.

Chapter Text

Shit, shit, shit, Dean thought, looking at a woman who must be Naomi Novak. It was weird—he’d never seen a picture of her, but it didn’t even cross his mind that she could be anyone else. The way she looked at Cas—obvious judgment in her eyes—well, that just screamed family.

As did the bad timing.

Because holy shit things had gone off the rails fast—right in time for Mother Dearest to walk in.

God, he was such an idiot. Cas had tried to tell him not to come to the launch, but he figured the author just wasn’t used to having a support system, so he didn’t expect one. Now, he realized Cas knew Dean’s presence was going to screw everything up—but had been too polite to argue with him when he insisted on showing his face. Guilt made his chest sting like the top layer of his skin had been sanded off. He only hoped the other man was in a forgiving mood.

Naomi continued to stand at the top of the steps imperiously—which, for some reason, made the painful burning in his chest worse.

Dean turned to get a look at Cas. Part of the author was probably hoping his mother’s last-minute appearance was a good sign—but it was clear that most of him was freaking out. Well, Dean could at least do this one thing for his friend—and if it got the actor away from the hellhounds calling themselves reporters, then that was just a bonus.

“I’m gonna—” he muttered vaguely to his brother and friends—before sliding off the bench seat and making his way up the left-hand stairs as unobtrusively as possible.

The closer he got to Naomi, the more he could see she looked like Cas. Only not at all. Usually, girls’ features were softer than guys, right? And technically that was true here, too, but everything about her gave the impression of hardness instead. Like if Cas got all weird and statue-like sometimes, he was still a statue of a person and you could kinda tell what he was thinking. Naomi looked like a statue of a statue—cold and marble all the way down.

It was pretty obvious the second she noticed him beside her. But she didn’t speak, didn’t gesture—the Who are you and why should I care? was just obvious in the space between them.

“Dean. Winchester,” he added belatedly—and then immediately felt stupid for doing so. He couldn’t even remember the last time that he’d had to introduce himself by name to someone—and didn’t that make him sound like a pompous jackass? “I’m Cas’s friend,” he said a little more easily.

“You’re the one they’re all harassing my son about,” Naomi observed, causing him to flinch instinctively.

“Uh, that was—unintentional. But I figure maybe it’s best if I get out of the way. He’s only got a few more minutes of questions left—then some books to sign—so if you wanted, we could wait in the backroom together for him to get done…?”

“And why would I do that when I could wait for Castiel right here?”

Dean glanced down at Cas to find the author looking back at him—younger than he’d ever seen him—and gestured to explain where the two of them would be. Instantly, the author’s shoulders relaxed, and he nodded.

“Because—” Dean responded, facing Naomi again. “It’s what’s best for Cas right now.”

Naomi pursed her lips but did let herself be led towards the same room he and Cas were in earlier, glancing distastefully at the grey concrete walls and stacks of boxes everywhere. Dean would kinda pay big money to see a spider fall on her head right about now.

“So, since you and my son seem to be—close,” Naomi mentioned, pacing like Cas had—but slower, the sound of her heels punctuating every word, “Perhaps you can explain to me why he’s decided to throw away his education—everything he’s wanted and worked for his entire life—in order to indulge in a… a hobby.”

“First off, lady, telling him that he wanted to be a doctor his entire life is not the same thing as him wanting to be a doctor. And second off—hobby? Really? As far as my family’s considered, if you make money from something, it’s a job. Just ‘cause he happens to like it, doesn’t mean it ain’t work. Frankly, you should be proud as hell of him.”

“I should, should I?” She scoffed, arms crossed over her chest. “Proud to tell my friends, my colleagues that my son has been lying to me for months? Proud that, with all the opportunities he’s had put at his feet, that what he’s going to contribute to society is nothing more than an—an airplane read that someone’s going to forget about as soon as they land? Proud of that display out there—where instead of being a respected medical professional, he’s being walked over by a bunch of paparazzi who couldn’t seem to care less about his supposed accomplishments?”

Dean should have given Cas more credit. His mother was everything he said she was—and it was pissing him off. “Yeah, actually,” he exclaimed, his anger firing up like an engine. “Because if you were able to look at the situation through your eye holes and not like an asshole, you’d know that Cas is fuckin’ awesome, and his book—which is gonna be a movie by the way—is about to get the recognition it deserves. He’s 23—and he’s done that for himself. I—” With an effort, he made himself calm down, not because he cared if Naomi Novak hated him, but because he’d already disrupted Cas’s launch once today and he didn’t want to do it again.

“Listen,” he insisted, scowl firmly in place. “I don’t think it’s any surprise to you that you and Cas aren’t exactly The Brady Bunch. But,” he paused. “I know you’ve shown up for him before. When it really mattered.

“This—today—it’s a big day for him. One he’s always gonna think back on. You can choose to be a bitch about it—but that’s not going to stop him. Or you can show up for him again. Either way—he’ll remember that too.”

With that, he wandered over to where a single orange chair was propped underneath a fire alarm and sat.

The next 30 minutes of silence weren’t exactly the most fun he’d ever had, but to be honest, waving sarcastically or winking every time Naomi stopped pacing to glare at him probably beat going to Lisa’s niece’s Christening.

It was possible he fell asleep at some point since the creak of the door jolted him back to his senses. A dark figure emerged from the shadows. What was Cas’s agent’s name again? Growly?

Dean snorted to himself, positive that wasn’t it—but figured it suited the typically-angry Brit.

“It’s refreshing when children not only put themselves in the corner but then actually stay there,” the man purred, adjusting his cufflinks as he stepped under one of the swinging metal lights. “I was talking about this one, of course,” the agent told Cas’s mother, indicating Dean. He offered her his hand. “Name’s Crowley.” That was it! “And you, lovely creature, must be Naomi.”

Cas’s mom raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “Are you someone else my son has sent to argue on his behalf rather than building up the courage to talk to me himself?”

“Quite the contrary. Feud away,” Crowley responded with a flourish. “That boy could do with being a bit more interesting—and a story about how he was forced to write in secret from his disapproving family will make great interview fodder.” He turned back to Dean. “Actually, I came to fetch you. Your boyfriend wants a word.”

“We’re not boyfriends,” the actor clarified for Naomi’s benefit, but he got up, nonetheless. “Where is he?” he asked Crowley.

“Around… somewhere. I’m sure you’ll find him,” the agent answered dismissively like Dean was a fly on the wall he was trying to shoo away.

“Oh, and Dean,” the agent’s voice stopped him just as he was about to reach the door.

“Yeah?” he managed to say without letting too much frustration leak into his tone.

“Give this back to Feathers, would you?”

Dean spun around in just enough time to snatch Cas’s cellphone out of the air.

“Feathers?” He thought about it. “‘Cause of the whole angel thing?”

“Among other reasons,” the agent smiled in a way that made the hairs on the back of Dean’s neck stand on end. “Ta ta for now. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of each other in the future.”

Sufficiently dismissed—and sufficiently weirded out (Who says ‘ta ta’ in real life?), Dean reentered the main body of the store, giving himself a moment to adjust to the brightness.

As it turned out, he did find Cas pretty quickly—leaning against a pillar-like thing in the geography section. The actor’s borrowed shirt stretched across his shoulders and Dean had to admit, he looked good in it. Better than when Cas wore his own slightly oversized clothes.

“Dean!” Cas exclaimed as soon as he saw him, probably far more enthusiastically than he deserved. Guilt bobbed back up like a single piece of ice in a glass of whiskey.

“Cas,” he muttered back. “About what happened earlier—”

“I’m so sorry,” the author interrupted, eyes large, blue, and pleading.

“I—” It took a second for Cas’s words to register. “What are you talking about, you’re sorry. I’m the one who fucked everything up,” Dean stated, bewildered.

“I—no you didn’t.”

The two of them stared at each other, trying to understand a conversation where they were both apparently speaking different languages.

“You’ve said before that you don’t appreciate it when people talk about you to the press,” Cas explained at last. “I thought that you might have been angry that I couldn’t—dissuade them properly or that it seemed like I was using you for the recognition…?”

Cas. I can be a jerk, but not that kind of jerk,” he promised, feeling a weird combination of relieved and insulted. “They blindsided you—and that’s my fault. I shoulda known better…. That moment was supposed to be about you and your book and I—I ruined it, I’m sorry.”

By this point, he should just expect Cas to have the most random reactions to situations—but still, the soft smile caught him off-guard.

“Dean,” Cas insisted, stepping closer and grabbing his shoulder. “I don’t mind that they were more interested in you than my book. They haven’t read The Righteous Man yet, for starters—but regardless of if it ends up reaching only a few people—or touches hundreds of thousands of them—being known as your friend is far from the worst legacy to have.”

“Dude—that’s—” Ridiculous. Unfair. So very Cas. “Really sappy, I’m not gonna lie.”

“Perhaps,” Cas murmured with a tilt of his head. “But it’s also true. There was a time when I didn’t think what I said or did mattered much to people—and I hoped to change that with my writing. But spending time with you… and with Sam and Charlie… seeing that I have some power to make you smile in a moment you might not have otherwise, that’s not a small thing to me.”

Dean considered all the movies he’d made, the number of autographs he’d signed, the magazine covers he’d been on—and knew those weren’t his greatest achievements either. Not compared to teaching Sam to drive or Ben how to throw a baseball, to being there for Charlie when her mom died or encouraging Cas to look at his first novel again. So, he supposed the other man had a point—not that he was gonna admit it out loud.

“Here,” he said instead, handing over Cas’s phone. “Your agent gave me this. Also, he’s currently left alone in a room with your mom, so—”

“Yes,” Cas winced. “I suppose I should take care of that. Did she seem—”

“A bit like a Rottweiler in human form?”

Cas grimaced a smile.

“If it makes you feel better, Crowley was doing some pretty good reverse psychology on her before I left. Maybe he’ll get through to her. And if not… you can always come and hang out at my place this weekend. Charlie and Dorothy are already staying over.” He rocked back on his heels. “Hell, you can come over even if things go well.”

“You know I’d have to bring Gabriel, right?”

“Eh, I’m not too scared. Got you to protect me, right?”

Cas smiled at him again—a real one this time—in the way that transformed his whole face, and Dean felt his last traces of anxiety disappear. The launch hadn’t changed anything between them.

“Of course, I will, Dean. Always.”

Chapter Text

“You’ve heard of the Nobel prizes, I presume,” Cas told Dean, voice low on the other end of the phone to avoid disturbing Gabriel. “There are also comparable awards known as the Ig Nobel prizes. They’re for research that’s a bit—unorthodox—even laughable at first glance. And instead of clapping, audience members throw paper airplanes at the recipients. However, the studies that win all have real merit.”

Dean, who had been rummaging through his fridge, peeked his head out to glance at the clock display on the oven. “It’s… 12:07 AM. You really think my brain can understand what you’re talking about right now?”

“Yes,” Cas responded instantly. “Because you are far more intelligent than you give yourself credit for.”

Dean finally found the maraschino cherries—in, of course, the farthest back corner. “Fine,” he huffed, accidentally knocking over a jar of pickles to get to them. “Give me an example, then.”

“Last year, the Physics prize went to a couple of university professors for discovering why items like string, or necklace chains, end up tangled in knots when left alone.”

“Huh,” Dean muttered. He’d untied enough of Lisa’s jewelry to know that that shit happened but had never given it much thought before. “I’m guessing the answer isn’t fairies.”

“Stiff, string-like objects tend to coil when confined—often due to a reaction to moisture. If the string passes over itself enough times due to this phenomenon, it results in a knot.”

“Okaaay…,” Dean responded, moving the phone to his other ear, and holding it with his neck so he could more easily grab the whipped cream and close the fridge door. “That’s good and all—but what did these dudes hope to gain by working this out? Like what use is there?”

“There’s use for every piece of knowledge.”

“So then tell me what it is.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “I suppose—to not leave strings in a position where they can easily tangle.”

“But didn’t people figure that out without the scientific mumbo jumbo?” he questioned. Even Lisa had bought a jewelry tree eventually.

Somehow, he could feel Cas glaring at him from all the way in his apartment.

“Stop it,” Cas grumbled, his voice like gravel being sifted in a mining pan.

“Stop what?”

“You’re smirking.”

Dean’s smile only grew bigger.

He spun around to grab a spoon when—“Dean? What are you doing?”

“Talking to Cas,” he told Charlie, who was dressed in a Stranger Things shirt and Chewbacca slippers. “Charlie just came in,” he explained for Cas’s benefit.

“That should probably be my cue to hang up then,” Cas responded. “It has been an eventful day.” He did sound tired, but weirdly enough, Dean couldn’t remember ever seeing or hearing the author yawn. Further proof that the guy wasn’t human, he guessed.

“Get some shut-eye, Cas,” he scolded like he wasn’t the one who kept him up past midnight.

“You too, Dean,” the author responded sincerely.

“Night!” Charlie chorused, just as Dean’s phone went dark.

She looked at him curiously. “It’s kinda late. Everything OK with Cas and his mom?”

“Yeah, I mean—” He hesitated, uncertain how much to tell her.

Obviously, Dean had wanted to stick around at the bookstore while Cas talked to Naomi, but the author had insisted that he go ahead. “I don’t know how long this will take and the others are waiting.” Unspoken was the fact that the reporters were, too. “I’ll let you know how it goes and see if Gabriel and I can make it over there later,” the author promised.

And so, Dean had reluctantly piled everyone else into the Impala. Conversation had ebbed and flowed around him—but he didn’t really pay attention to it. For a second, he thought he’d forgotten his jacket at the store, but no, it was lying on the bench seat between him and Sam. Then he suddenly had the sensation that his wallet was missing, but patting his pockets, he had that too. Eventually, he had to concede that he just felt weird leaving Cas behind.

The unsettled feeling carried with him all the way into the house, where he started assembling deli sandwiches for everyone’s lunch on autopilot.

“I didn’t know that Cas’s launch was today,” Lisa said when she joined them, leaning against the counter. “I would have come.”

“Sure you did,” Dean responded, slathering mustard on a slice of honey wheat. He didn’t exactly remember when he told her, but there’s no way it hadn’t come up.

“No. You said Charlie and Dorothy were visiting—but I just assumed that was a LARP thing.”

“The next battle for Moondoor isn’t until next month,” Charlie supplied, which totally reminded him he needed to invest in some new face paint since his old stuff had gone tacky and smelly.

Of course, now that Lisa had made the mistake of bringing up LARPing, Charlie full-on lost herself in a rant about some online campaign being run by the orcs, speaking between mouthfuls of food. Then Sam asked about the ruling structure of each clan, and Dean couldn’t help but feel his mind wander. Just tell him who to stick with his fake sword, and he was good to go.

“Are you waiting on a call from Missouri or something?” Lisa asked when she spotted him checking his cell under the table.

“Uh, not really. I’m just—” His phone suddenly erupted with the opening lines of ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’—“Gonna take this,” he finished, heading for the empty living room.

“Cas, Man, how’s it going?” he asked, once he got a safe distance away from the kitchen. Through the sliding glass door, he could see a squirrel go spinning off the birdfeeder they had up in the yard.

“Well—”

“That good, huh?”

The author sighed. “We kept on going back and forth over the same arguments for an hour. Eventually I—” His voice wavered the same way air shimmers over hot pavement in the summer. “I told her that I hated her.”

Dean didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything.

“It was terrible of me—but also… strangely freeing? I just kept on thinking about all the fights we had when I was a teenager when I contemplated saying it. I knew I could have gotten away with it—because I was young, and that’s something teenagers said, and she wouldn’t have believed me anyway—but I would have known I was telling the truth.

“I used to wonder what kind of person that made me—that I could hate someone who brought me into this world—someone who loves me, even if she doesn’t like me very much.” He took a deep breath. “But today—today, she just kept talking about how I didn’t even have the courage to be honest with her and—it came out.”

Dean pictured his dad as he had last seen him—sunken in on himself, skin and hair prematurely grey and still, somehow, the most bull-headed son of a bitch he’d ever met. He cleared his throat. “You do know that hating someone doesn’t mean you don’t love ‘em, right?”

“I do,” Cas said, smally. “And I told her that too—something else I’d never said to her before—or if I have, it’s been so long ago I don’t remember it. And I could tell that—it got to her somehow. I thought she would be angry, but—” There was light shuffling from the other end of the line like Cas was looking over his shoulder. “Frankly, I don’t know what she is at the moment. She wants us to go for lunch.”

Dean leaned against the door, feeling the cool glass soak through the thin layer of his shirt. “You’re going, I’m guessing.”

“Yes.”

“What about Gabriel?”

“He said, and I quote, ‘I plan to die from a sex-related heart attack in my 80s and the more time I spend with people named ‘Novak’, the more years it takes off my life. So thanks, but absolutely no frickin’ thanks.”

By this point, Dean had heard Cas try to mimic other people’s voices several times—and it was always simultaneously the best and worst thing he’d ever heard.

“Make sure she samples the food first in case it’s poison,” he suggested, only half-joking.

“If we order separate menu items, I don’t think that would be much reassurance.”

Dean saw his reflection roll its eyes. “Just don’t get dead. Smartass.”

Castiel huffed fondly. “I’ll try my best,” he promised.

/////

To prove he was still alive, Cas continued to give Dean text updates throughout the day. Apparently, in lieu of Gabriel, Crowley decided to invite himself to the restaurant.

“I can’t be sure, but I think he exchanged flirtations with my mother,” Cas typed from the bathroom.

“Ew,” Dean responded, once it was no longer his turn on the game controller. Judging by the fierce look in both Charlie’s and Dorothy’s eyes, it wouldn’t be his turn again for a while.

“It’s quite disturbing. However, in-between criticizing the waitstaff, comparing various rare vintages of alcohol, and talking about Renaissance art, she asked him about my book. It seems she thinks he’s a more reliable source of information about it than I am.”

“And?”

“She has now accepted that I might not be completely wasting my time while ‘taking a gap year from my medical studies’.”

Dean snorted, looking up to see Charlie throwing a hand grenade at her fiancé’s avatar. “You better hope being nuts doesn’t run in the family, Man,” Dean wrote back.

“To be fair, she’s being more accepting than I expected.”

“Your expectations are fucked up.” Not that Dean couldn’t relate.

/////

Unfortunately, the thing with Cas’s mom stretched on for hours. And even after Naomi announced that she had to get to the airport for her 7:00 flight back to Illinois, Cas had to track down Gabriel—meaning “I probably won’t be able to make it over tonight,” the author wrote after Dean’s group of friends had switched over to playing pool.

“How about staying over tomorrow? After the escape room?” Dean texted, before setting down his phone on the edge of the table to line up his shot. By the time he cleared the floor with Sammy—“Ha, told you I was still better, Bitch”—Cas had responded with an “Alright” followed by a completely unnecessary string of emojis.

And yet, despite Dean thinking his “See you then,” was probably the end of their conversation for the night, when the actor found himself staring at his bedroom ceiling several hours later—mind wide awake as he listened to Lisa’s quiet breaths—his attention drifted back to his phone.

“Dean?”

He half expected Cas not to respond to his text message until the morning, but it turned out the author was still up too—and before Dean knew it, they went from talking about Ben’s desire to build a baking soda volcano to the kinds of pyrotechnics used in movies—though how they winded up discussing weird scientific contests he wasn’t quite sure.

“Dean…?” a voice repeated.

“Huh? Oh,” The actor’s mind abruptly wandered back to Charlie, who he’d left hanging mid-sentence.

He cleared his throat. “Cas’s fine,” he insisted, figuring that the author could tell their mutual friend anything he wanted himself. “We just lost track of time.”

He looked at the various food items he had spread out along the counter, only missing the main ingredient. “I was gonna pretend that this frozen yogurt crap we have is ice cream. You in?”

“I don’t know. Is this secretly The Bad Place?”

“What?” Dean wondered out-loud, his hand hovering over the handle of one of the upper cabinets.

“Come on, Dude,” Charlie chided, tucking a strand of red hair behind her ear. “Nerd cred isn’t something you earn once and get to keep forever. It needs to be maintained—meaning you have to keep up with the new fandoms.”

He let out a snort. “Sorry if I’ve been a little too busy to know about—whatever you’re talking about,” he said, finally reaching inside the cabinet for bowls, still mildly surprised that all the ones they had were matching instead of the random assortment of discount dishware he’d grown up with. “You want some or not?”

“I probably have room for a couple of scoops,” she conceded, sinking onto one of the bar stools.

“Shouldn’t you be the busy one?” Dean asked a second later, as he placed a bowl and spoon in front of her, then pried the lid off the fake Cookies & Cream. “New place, new job, wedding to plan? How’s all that coming, by the way?”

“What can I say? I’m a multi-tasker,” Charlie smiled, lining the empty bowl with chocolate syrup like the weirdo she was. “Everything’s been good, mostly. Dorothy and I ran into this one asshat baker when tasting wedding cakes, but—”

“Let me guess, he suddenly found out he’d made a very large donation to the Trevor Project without realizing it.”

Actually, his entire web presence disappeared overnight. No one could place online orders, or call him, or even find his store address—and I guess, he just… went out of business,” she said, shrugging her shoulders, innocently.

The two of them looked at each other—before clinking their spoons in solidarity.

“Any other dicks—or just that one?” Dean asked, dumping approximately half of the carton of frozen yogurt in his bowl before nudging the container over.

“Nope, just that one very tiny dick,” Charlie promised, also serving herself.

For a moment, it was just quiet. That was rare with Charlie—she usually was going off a mile a minute—giving the Energizer Bunny a run for its money. Under other circumstances, he might appreciate the silent camaraderie, but as the clock flipped over to 12:31, he could feel it—the need to get this thing off his chest that he’d been turning over for weeks now. If there was anyone who’d understand where he was coming from….

“I’ve actually been thinking about that sorta stuff a lot lately,” Dean mentioned, as casually as possible.

Charlie coughed on her frozen yogurt. “Marriage?”

“What?” Dean looked up from his dessert, “No. I meant the whole—” he gestured vaguely until it was clear that she was going to need him to use his words. “People being homophobic crap.”

Her body language turned concerned in an instant. “Why? Did something happen?”

“No. I mean, yes. Not the way you’re imagining.” He sighed. He needed more than icy air with chocolate dust in it for this conversation, so he returned to the fridge for a beer. It was cold and soothing against the back of his throat, and he wondered why he didn’t just start there in the first place.

“So, I was talking to Cas about, well, me. Liking dudes,” he admitted.

Charlie raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment.

“And—I don’t know—some of what he said just got me wondering. I always told myself I never came out to the press for the same reasons I didn’t tell my dad—I’m with Lisa, so what’s the point?” He glanced over at his friend. “Except that’s kind of a lame excuse, isn’t it?” Still no comment. “The point is that I’m bi—whether I’m with a woman or not—and what seemed like playing it smart now just feels like I’m hiding or—or ashamed.”

Charlie took a deep breath, like the kind you took before diving into a pool or stepping out onto a stage. Dean tried not to copy her.

“Are you talking to me as your friend or as your sorta-social media manager right now?” she asked.

“Uh… both, maybe?”

She considered this, hands folding together in front of her on top of the kitchen island. “You know I’ve never judged you for keeping quiet, right?” she questioned with big, green eyes. “Everyone deserves to come out of the closet at their own pace.”

He looked down at the counter again. “Yeah, I know.”

“Just like I’m guessing you know that, from a marketing standpoint, being openly bi will cost you some fans. Backwards, Bible-thumping, MAGA-hat-wearing fans, but still…”

He smiled, sadly, and nodded.

“There’s also the soulmate thing,” Charlie mentioned, and that caught his attention. “If you were to go public—that spotlight you always have on you would get more intense for a while. Most of the paps have gotten bored of dissecting your relationship with Lisa. But after this—they’ll be back in full force. Plus, there will definitely be new people coming forward claiming they have your mark.”

“Makes sense,” he mumbled, trying to hide the anxious clenching in his chest.

“And,” she added—the emphasis she put on that one word sending his blood pressure soaring higher than this whole conversation so far. “You’ll have to be prepared for the possibility that your real match might show up this time. Either because they missed the news during the first go-around or because—”

“Because it’s a dude who didn’t want to shoot their shot before,” Dean finished for her, trying not to remember what it was like to be sixteen—to first see the phoenix on his chest—and hope to God that some random guy didn’t show up on his dad’s doorstep to blow all his plans out of the water before he had enough to properly support Sammy.

He closed his eyes. What she was saying was—a lot. Possibly too much risk to introduce into a life that he’d worked so hard to make stable. And yet, now that he’d brought the subject up, how was he supposed to tell Charlie that it sounded like too much trouble to put himself through? She had to deal with this sorta crap so much more often than he did—just because she loved Dorothy and was proud of it.

And there were other Charlies and Dorothys out there—other Deans, whose dads called guys they didn’t like ‘fags’ or ‘fruit loops’ and asked what the world was coming to when they saw two guys holding hands on TV.

“Do you think me doing this… You think it’d make a difference?” he asked his friend, voice so low he couldn’t even be sure she heard it.

Charlie stood up and moved so she was right beside him—leaned her head against his shoulder, tucked in against his neck. Automatically, his arm came up to give her a reassuring squeeze.

“Yeah, I figured.”

Chapter Text

Dean stared at the text message from his agent, Missouri—Are you sure, sugar?

Not really, but he typed Yes before he could change his mind.

Lisa bumped him lightly with her hip. “Hey, we’re heading in now,” she murmured, bringing his attention back to the waiting room where some guy in a The Great Escape polo shirt was encouraging his group of friends through a door to the right.

Sam was in the lead—Gabriel and Jessica both checking out his ass from a few steps behind. “Did not need to see that,” the actor groaned, shuddering slightly as he slipped his phone back into his pocket. Lisa just grinned.

The room they entered was dark and about the size of a large janitor’s closet, so Lisa nestled in front of him. Automatically, his arms came up to wrap around her waist, causing her hair to tickle his nose with the scent of orchid shampoo. Cas was to his left, the blue light of the blank TV screen highlighting the tips of his dark hair and making his eyes look even more intense than usual.

“So, has anyone here done one of these before?” the staffer asked to a chorus of “no”s. “Well then, you better hope you’re good problem solvers—if you want to escape alive!” From the overhead speakers came the prerecorded sound of bats shrieking. It was followed by metaphorical crickets.

Dean raised an eyebrow at Sam across the room. His brother’s responding look clearly said, Don’t pretend you’re too mature for this.

“Wow, tough room. How about I just… roll the tape?” the employee offered.

On the screen appeared an old guy—well, fine, he was probably in his 50s—wearing flannel.

He was, apparently, a supernatural monster hunter—just like the people watching his tape were supposed to be. He’d heard reports of people going missing in the area and, after a couple of days, concluded that the disappearances had to do with the old, creaking mansion on the hill.

“Days?” Dean snorted, leaning toward Cas. “Did he look under every rock first?”

Cas opened his mouth to answer but seemed to take Lisa’s quiet shushing of Dean to heart and changed his mind.

“I’m still not sure what kind of creature it is,” the hunter sighed through the TV. “Based on a combination of bite and claw marks, it could be multiple monsters working together. In any case, I hope to report back soon.”

“Unfortunately, that was his last communique,” the staffer said once the tape ended. His voice was so unbelievably solemn-sounding that it caused Dean to snort again.

“It’s suspected that he was captured by the monster. You and your team have been assigned to follow in his footsteps—to venture into the mansion and find any clues he left behind. Using these, you can hopefully defeat any enemies you might encounter and make it out before darkness sets in an hour since that’s when most creatures become more powerful.” Actually, it was 3:00 in the afternoon in the ‘real world’, but whatever.

“If you find that you need help in there, you can use this to reach me,” the employee said, bypassing Lisa to hand the walkie-talkie over to Dean. “I’m Aaron,” the guy followed up with a wink, which definitely did not make Dean blush. Lisa patted his hand where it rested over her stomach.

“Keep in mind, you only get three clues,” Aaron explained, slipping out of the ‘story’ as he addressed the room at large. “We encourage you to pick things up, move them around—unless they’re nailed or glued down, which should be pretty obvious. Now, are there any questions or do you just want to get started?”

“Get started!” Charlie insisted, grabbing Dorothy’s hand.

“Well, come on, then,” Aaron said, leading them up to yet another door. “Your time starts once everyone is inside and I lock up behind you. Good luck! Especially you,” Aaron added to Dean—who at least managed to roll his eyes this time.

This new room was set up to look like a cross between a dungeon and a laboratory. Fake stone padded the walls. There were tables and shelves lined with beakers, books, and small, locked boxes. And yet, what caught Dean’s attention first were the four pedestals set in a square pattern, topped with glass boxes each containing a different item. Only, none of it made sense.

He walked over to a pedestal with the word “Vampire” etched into the wood, picked up the box resting on it. It contained an obviously fake gun and a silver bullet.

Yeah, no, he repeated to himself, sliding the box off the “Werewolf” pedestal and replacing it with the one in his hand. Now, he was holding a box featuring a saltshaker and matches. He put that on the “Ghost” pedestal, placed the flask of Holy water on the “Demon” one, which left the box with the wooden stake to go back on the original “Vampire” stand.

As soon as he placed the last box, he heard a clicking sound—probably a weight sensor in each of the pedestals going off.

Everyone else that had been scrambling around for clues turned to look at him just as a secret drawer slid out from each column. “Way to go, Dude!” Charlie shrieked, running over to examine the contents of the one closest to her. Eventually, they came up with a haul that included several different kinds of keys and a CD.

It was kind of a mad dash after that. Jessica found out that one of the keys went to a trunk over in the corner of the room, which featured some sort of word puzzle inside a wooden box and another CD and player. The first CD was already playing in the background—Dorothy’s doing—however, the recording kept cutting off in weird places. Sam figured out pretty quickly that if you started both CDs at the same time, they synced up to produce a complete message.

Cas and Jess looked like they were demolishing the word puzzle at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, Charlie started bouncing up excitedly, talking about something with the synced CDs, so he figured the three of them had those handled. Gabriel was doing—well, absolutely nothing—but he didn’t have time to focus on him right now.

It was kinda crazy how much adrenaline he felt running through his veins—especially considering they still had 45 minutes to go. His whole body was buzzing like an electric fence.

He found another one of the keys fitted to a slot in the wall, and when he opened up the tiny metal door, a green beam of light shot out, bouncing off a mirror a few feet away. Actually, now that he was looking, there were several mirrors around the room—most fixed in place—but two appeared to be on movable arms.

“Sam! Cas!” he yelled out—they were both on the other end of the room, Sam talking to Lisa and Cas still on his word puzzle. He gestured to the laser, then at the two mirrors. Cas’s frown of concentration brightened into understanding. “You get me?” Dean asked anyway.

Both men nodded, running into position. With their help, it took about three seconds to position the two moveable mirrors so that the laser light bounced from one to another and ended up shining directly at an almost-invisible hole in the wall that likely contained a sensor. Suddenly, a bookshelf on their left swung open.

“Oh my God!” Charlie exclaimed, opening it more fully and peeking inside. “It’s a whole other room, guys, with more puzzles!” Gathering anything they hadn’t been able to solve from the first room, they all scrambled into the new space.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, of course. Dean just stood there, wondering what to do a couple of times—which is when he tended to get the maddest at Gabriel. “Aren’t you supposed to be—figuring things out?” he asked Cas’s cousin, who was sitting in a fake electric chair like it was a throne.

“Oh, I’m figuring out plenty, don’t you worry Dean-o,” he said, resting back with his arms behind his head. Dean decided to just pretend he wasn’t there.

At one point, Lisa suggested they ask for a clue. “Hell no!” he responded, louder than he meant to, and yet, he was still drowned out by similar answers from Charlie, Dorothy, and Jess. Then Cas noticed that there were colored numbers on the floor, which seemed to match a colored pattern from the first room—and then half the group was scrambling back there, screaming excitedly.

“12 minutes left!” Jess announced a few moments later after they had that problem solved.  

“Cas, c’mere,” Dean called, drawing the other man to his side. Someone else had found a bag of 24 glow-in-the-dark stones—each with a different symbol drawn on it. The tag for the bag read, “Split evenly.” The actor figured it had to do with the set of scales set in the far corner of the room, but when he tried putting twelve on one side and twelve on the other, he got nada.

“10 minutes!” Jess shouted.

“If it gets down to five, I’m just picking the damn lock,” Dean grumbled.

Cas looked at him, squinting. Suddenly, Dean remembered their first conversation where the author admitted to knowing how to hotwire cars.

“What?” he said, with one of his more devilish grins. “You thought you were the only one who could break into places? Psssh, I’ve known how to pick locks since I was eight. Sammy does too.” Sometimes, when they had nowhere else to go growing up, they’d snuck into empty motel rooms to spend the night, just like he’d sometimes break into vending machines for snacks and to steal money. Luckily, 1-star places in the middle of nowhere tended not to have security cameras—otherwise, it would probably be a less fond memory. “Actually, we should compete sometime—see who’s faster.”

Lisa wandered over to them. “What’re you guys working on?”

As if on cue, Jess called “Eight minutes!”

“Oh, uh, we were just trying to figure this out,” Dean said, gesturing at the stuff on the table. Cas had picked up one of the stones and was carefully examining its markings. He picked up another to compare.

Moments later, he was sorting them into two piles.

“Whatcha figure out?” Dean asked, watching in fascination.

Cas indicated the scroll. “Split evenly. It wasn’t just talking about dividing the total number of stones by two.” He held one of the pieces up for Dean to look at—and all at once, saw what he’d been missing.

His fingers brushed Cas’s as he began helping him to sort through the pile faster. The symbols on the stones—they were all cut in half. By imagining the mirrored side, he realized some of the rocks featured letters—while the others made out shapes like a star or a cross.

Similar to the boxes on the pedestals from earlier, one set of stones was probably slightly heavier than the other, so when they dumped both piles back on the scale—

The lighting turned from a normal fluorescent color to a deep red. As one, the group turned to the left-hand wall, where sudden writing had appeared:

I am like a feather
Not heavy like a stone
And monsters flee
Every time I’m shown.

I fill a room
without occupying space
and am the final key
to escaping this place.

What am I?

Dean barely had time to read it over before—

“Light! It’s light!” Jess shouted with the same intensity of a soccer coach yelling at their team, and whew, boy, Sammy, you better not get on her bad side. “Punch the—” she continued to yell, pointing at the electronic keypad by the exit door.

Everyone converged at the same time, but it was Dorothy who actually managed to put the password in. And suddenly, they were all spilling into the actual light, breathing surprisingly heavily through their smiles.

Chapter Text

The restaurant they found to go to afterward had a private dining room in the back. Unfortunately, the table was only meant for six—but they managed to squeeze in two extra seats anyway.

“Hey, whatcha thinking about?” Dean asked Cas, nudging him where their arms already touched from shoulder to elbow. The author had had a faraway look in his eyes for about a minute.

“Oh, nothing of import,” the other man insisted, reaching to pull the paper ring off his silverware bundle.

“So? Tell me anyway.”

Cas gave him one of his sideways smiles—the one that reminded Dean of the way sunlight flared off the metal rim of Baby’s side-view mirror. “The chairs, for starters. An interesting factoid is that restaurants order ones that aren’t overly comfortable on purpose. Otherwise, people would be inclined to linger longer after their meals, which reduces the staff’s ability to turn the table over. Clothes are similar. They’re made to wear thin after a while so that you’ll buy more. Which made me remember I still have shirts I need to get back to you.

“That, in turn, had me thinking about a book that I never returned to the library when I was twelve because I borrowed it a few days before we moved and ran out of time. Only Ender’s Game is my favorite book, so did I really forget to give it back? Or did I subconsciously want to keep it?

“From there, I got lost contemplating Freud’s theories on the id—although most of his work has been discounted anyway. Did you know that he made the publisher write the copyright date of Interpretation of Dreams as 1900, even though it was released in 1899, just because he wanted his book to be a herald for the new century?”

Dean blinked rapidly. “…That’s you thinking about nothing?”

“Of import, I said.”

Dean shook his head in disbelief as he finally opened up the menu everyone else had already started examining.

“I’m getting the balsamic chicken. What about you?” Lisa asked from his other side after a few minutes.

“Either the BBQ bacon cheeseburger or the pork chops.”

“That’s what I was deciding between as well,” Cas murmured.

“Really?” Dean asked, eagerly. “Wanna split? And one of us can get fries while the other gets onion rings.”

“Dean—I need at least one vegetable,” Cas said, exasperated.

Fine. Fries and a side salad.” His trainer was going to kill him anyway.

“That is… acceptable,” Cas decided, and then they actually shook hands on it.

Dean closed his menu, only to find Lisa frowning at him slightly and Sam with a strange look on his face. “What?” he asked.

“Uh, nothing,” Sam promised, glancing back down at his own options. “I’m going to get the black bean burger.”

Dean decided not to push it, swinging his arm up and over Lisa’s shoulder so that everyone wouldn’t be so crammed in.

Luckily, whatever weirdness was there dissolved pretty quickly once orders were placed as the people who didn’t know each other well took the opportunity to introduce themselves. In the process, Sam and Jess ended up recounting the story of their third date, when they’d gone to stomp grapes at a nearby vineyard. “It was fun, but honestly, it’ll be a while before I can drink wine. It all smells like feet now,” Jess said, wrinkling her nose through her smile.

There was an ease between her and Sam that Dean hadn’t noticed before. And it wasn’t just the way she leaned her forehead against his shoulder when she got caught up in laughter. The times they weren’t touching or even looking at each other, Sam still seemed super aware of her. They were like—like a piston and a crankshaft. Two separate parts of an engine—that moved differently, had different tasks—but were both working toward the same goal.

“So, you guys soulmates or what?” Gabriel spoke out, jolting Dean out of his reverie. Considering everything Cas had told Dean about his cousin, he’d expected the guy to be a lot chattier—but just like in the escape room, he’d mostly been sitting back, watching.

“Gabriel—” Cas hissed.

“Well, er…” Sam started, cheeks flushing red.

“They don’t know yet,” Dean interrupted his brother’s stammering, reaching across the table for the basket of bread.

Sam and Jess glanced at each other, guiltily.

And it was like a circuit breaker in Dean’s brain tripped, lights going out all over the place. “You don’t know yet, right?” he asked, not sure why he bothered. Sam’s face already gave it away.

“Dean,” Sam murmured. “We were going to tell you. Soon.”

“Uh huh.”

“You know I wouldn’t keep something like this from you long term. But we only found out a couple of days ago and we just… wanted to soak in the good news on our own for a while. Without…”

“Without what, Sam?” he asked, testily, even though he knew the answer to that, too. Without worrying about he’d react. Because apparently, he’d gone from the being the one Sam turned to when he was nervous about asking Amy Pond to the middle school dance to the one that he needed to hide that shit from.

A warm hand settled on his knee, squeezing slightly in support before it was retracted again. “Well, I suppose that means congratulations are in order, Sam, Jessica,” Cas said, smoothly.

“Thanks, Cas,” Sam muttered, diverting his sad, hazel puppy dog eyes away from Dean. Thank fuck. “We’re, uh, pretty excited—even though we still have to get to know each other better.”

Dean bit back a remark that would definitely have Sam staying over at Jessica’s place for a while just to get away from him.

“Hey, you OK?” Lisa asked, leaning over to brush the words against his ear.

He shrugged his arm off her shoulder. “Yeah, fine,” he murmured, but he was looking at Sam and Jess again and the fact that they seemed so in sync now took on a slightly creepy edge.

He wasn’t anti-soulmate. Clearly. He was happy for Charlie and Dorothy, right? And he was glad when Benny found Andrea a few years after their… thing… in New Orleans. Yeah, okay, it kinda sucked when his ex-girlfriend, Cassie, threw away the good thing they had going just because she met “the one,” but he’d gotten over that—her—ages ago.

It’s just—all this destiny stuff. Didn’t it seem a bit like a “Get Rich Quick” scheme to anyone else? The universe guaranteeing the perfect partner for you. Better buy-in as soon as possible—and don’t bother asking questions because it’ll all work out.

What about free will? Wasn’t it more—romantic or whatever—to choose someone you actually liked instead of some rando you barely knew but were told you were meant to be with?

From her corner of the table, Charlie was asking what Sam’s and Jess’s soulmark was—a pretty common question for people who’d already found their match. “An arrowhead,” Sam explained. “We were thinking it might be because…” he started, before going on a rant about how he and Jessica were both focused personalities, long-distance thinkers, blah, blah, blah. Most people believed that the tattoos were symbolic of the people who wore them, but that could be horoscope-crap as far as Dean was concerned.

Of course, Sam had always eaten that stuff up. Even went so far as to write a paper when he was 14 about how he thought Dean’s soulmark represented his ability to “face hardship and come out stronger on the other side.” Luckily, Dean had found it before his brother submitted it—otherwise, the things he talked about would have had CPS called on Dad for sure.

Apparently, Sam’s interest in the subject hadn’t dimmed though, if the way he asked Dorothy about her and Charlie’s soulmarks was any indication. Dean tried to tune the conversation out—having already heard the answer from Charlie before—but it was hard to ignore the redhead’s enthusiasm. “It’s a design based on a mathematical construct called The Painter's Cup,” she beamed, using her phone to pull up a picture from Google. “Where the inside of the ‘cup’ has a finite volume, but the outside has an infinite surface area. Actually,” she said, gesturing towards Gabriel. “Another name for it is Gabriel’s Horn.”

Even Lisa, who’d found and lost her soulmate, was leaning her chin on her hands in interest. Yeah, Dean thought, he was definitely in the minority here.

Automatically, he turned his body more toward Cas—the only person who might get why he wasn’t treating Sam like he’d just won the lottery. But Cas’s face was as neutral as Dean had ever seen it.

“Gabriel!” the author suddenly scolded—startling Dean more because Cas had been so expressionless.

The actor whipped his head around to see what was up—and then almost immediately regretted it. Over at the far end of the table, Gabe was teasing off his shirt, presumably to give everyone a look at his own soulmark.

“Yes, Cassie?” Gabriel asked, but he didn’t stop. In fact, once he removed the shirt completely, he proceeded to whip it like a lasso over his head.

“We’re going to be eating soon. I’m pretty sure there’s a no shirt, no shoes, no service sign out front.”

“Yeah. What he said,” Dean agreed.

“Like this place is gonna kick the lot of them out,” Gabriel retorted back to his cousin, gesturing from Dean to Jessica. “They’d let them trash the dining room just so they can charge them double for the repairs. Besides,” he said with a grin. “You know this is my favorite party game.” He clapped his hands once before rubbing them together. “Now tell me, what color do you see?” he asked the assembled party.

Against his better judgment, Dean found his gaze moving over to where Gabe was shimmying his upper chest—more specifically, to the eye tattoo embedded into the skin just over Gabriel’s heart. In place of a standard black pupil, it featured a swirling pattern in dark blue ink that seemed to move clockwise. The iris part was the same, only the spirals went in the opposite direction. Dean knew that it was an optical illusion—that the mark wasn’t actually moving—but goddamn did it make him dizzy to look at. Two seconds of staring at it was worse than any night of binge-drinking he could remember. “What do you mean what color is it?” he grumbled, rubbing his head.

“Gabriel’s mark is… unique. It appears as a different shade depending on the person,” Cas murmured.

“I see blue!” Charlie chirped up.

“Same,” said Sam, in his huh voice.

Dorothy thought it looked green, Lisa brown, and Jessica somewhere in the middle.

“What about you, Cas?” Charlie asked, but the author had pushed his chair back, looking a bit less composed than he had before.

“Apologies. I’m going to find the restroom,” he said, getting to his feet.

Gabriel slipped his shirt back on. “If that’s my party trick, he’s my default party pooper,” he muttered, but there was something distantly worried about it.

Charlie and Sam were quick to tell him his mark was all kinds of cool and to ask follow-up questions, but Dean still felt off, the claustrophobic table setting finally getting to him. “I need to get some fresh air for a bit,” the actor announced.

Both Sam and Lisa asked him something, but he waved them off, hunching as much as possible to avoid being recognized by any of the restaurant’s other patrons as he walked through the main dining room and out the entrance doors.

Of course, it was busy outside too—with groups of people getting in and out of their cars and some smokers lingering by the entrance.

He ducked around the corner, drifting closer to the smell of the dumpster. That’s one of the things people had never told him about being a celebrity. You spent a lot of time hanging around dumpsters, searching for a bit of privacy.

Dimly, he wondered if he should be surprised to find Cas already there—staring at a brick wall and frowning to himself—but he wasn’t. It was what happened every time they exchanged ‘Would you rather?’ questions. They may each approach the issue in a different way, but they wound up with the same answer a lot. Speaking of…

“Would you rather thirty butterflies appear every time you sneeze or have one very angry squirrel pop into existence every time you cough?” he spoke up as he approached his friend. Cas didn’t tense or startle—he probably wasn’t surprised Dean came either.

“Would I get to choose the species of butterflies?” he asked, taking the matter as seriously as always. “Some variants are quite endangered.”

Dude. Even if they were the most basic butterflies ever, it’s gotta beat unleashing angry squirrels into the world. Do you know how much damage those motherfuckers do to cars? Not to mention gutters?”

“I have somewhat of a fondness for them,” Cas argued. “But yes, I suppose I would choose butterflies. They’re pollinators, like bees.”

And Dean knew by now how much Cas loved bees. Even if he sucked at Christmas gifts normally, he figured all he’d have to do is buy the author something bee- or honey-themed and he’d be good to go.

Already, his headache was lessening slightly. Cas, too, seemed to be relaxing into the moment.

“So, there’s—uh—a lot of soulmate talk going on in there,” Dean pointed out since he assumed it was the reason that they were both out here.

Castiel hummed in acknowledgment.

“And now Sam and Jess are a thing. Or, more of a thing, I guess,” he kicked a pebble with the toe of his boot, sending it skittering into an open soda cup lying on the ground. “That dumbass better wait ‘til he’s done with school to propose or have her babies or whatever.”

“How would he…?” Cas began with a head tilt before obviously choosing to let it go.

“Sam is very intelligent—and far from impulsive,” he said instead. “Admittedly, I don’t know Jessica very well, but I’m sure they will think long and hard before coming to any major relationship decisions. And at least, so far, they seem compatible.”

“Yeah, well, that’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?” Dean observed, unable to keep the slight tinge of bitterness out of his voice.

Cas frowned at him. “In theory, yes. We both have examples of it failing. However, even if I don’t believe in the permanency of all soulmate couples, I wouldn’t go so far to say that two people who get along well should stop exploring that relationship just because they happen to be soulmates. After all, if you let the fact that someone has the same mark as you stop you from getting to know them, you’re still letting the mark rule your choices, aren’t you?”

It was a valid point but didn’t really make the actor like the situation any better.

“Dean,” Cas’s voice was exasperated—and what did he do? He didn’t even say anything. “You know that Sam having a soulmate doesn’t change anything about you and him, right? Your role is not going to be any less significant now that Jessica is in the picture.”

Dean found another rock—slightly larger than the first. When kicked, it rebounded off the metal dumpster with a distinct clang. “The kid’s 22,” he muttered, shrugging. “I knew he was gonna have to go his own way eventually. Hell, it’s not like I see him that much now—just summers and Christmas breaks. Maybe a weekend a month during the school year.”

Dean,” Cas said in the exact same tone as the last time, except now he waited for the actor to look at him.

“You’re right, he’s 22. He already has his own life. And he’s chosen to make you a big part of it. If Jessica is the right person for Sam, she’s not going to interfere with that. If anything, she’ll encourage it—because she knows how important spending time together is to both of you.”

Dean wanted to believe him. Of course, he did. But looking back on his track record, it seemed like the more he cared about something, the more likely it was to disappear on him. His Mom. His Uncle Bobby. Even Sam had run away for two weeks when he was a kid. Nearly sent Dean into an early grave looking for him…

By contrast, the acting stuff—it’d never been something he’d ever wanted for himself—until, one day, it just fell into his lap.

Maybe it was a stupid superstition, but it was the one Dean came the closest to believing in. Not that it was particularly fun to think about.

“You’re probably right,” he said to change the topic. “I guess it’s just a lot of new stuff popping up all at once.”

Cas’s eyebrows furrowed, and he took a step closer—coming near enough for Dean to see the tiny shaving cut at the bolt of his jaw. “Is there something else on your mind? Besides—” He gestured back towards the restaurant. Then, a thought seemed to occur to him. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” he promised.

“Actually, uh—” Goddamn, Cas’s eyes were piercing.

Dean had had an out-of-body experience once—after a stunt went wrong on set a few weeks after he turned 21. Suffice it to say, it had been beyond strange—floating around the hospital, looking down on himself or wandering the halls, unnoticed by everyone.

Being under the searchlight of Cas’s gaze had the opposite effect. He felt almost too real, too solid, too… seen.

He cleared his throat, tried again. “I talked to my agent,” he explained. “She’s setting up an interview for me to—to—” For fuck’s sake, Winchester. If you can’t even say it to Cas, how are you gonna do this in front of a live audience? “I want to publicly come out as bi,” he managed, pushing through the statement like it was a line from a script.

Cas just stared at him.

Maybe for only a few seconds, possibly for several years. The palms of Dean’s hands started to sweat. But then a new smile appeared on the author’s face—one that lived more in his eyes than anywhere else—and it was amazing how quick Dean went from, Shit, what did I do? to Of course, Cas was going to be cool with it, you moron.

“That’s—” the other man started.

“Dean?” Lisa questioned from behind him.

Chapter Text

Lisa was rarely pissed.

It was one of the things Dean liked the most about her. She got annoyed, yeah—like when he wasn’t “sensitive” enough to her friend that was going through a divorce or the time he told her that her red-carpet hair looked like a poodle’s—but that was about it.

He figured part of it had to do with their circumstances. They both made a crap ton of money, so if she decided to spend hers on an $80 hand-stitched pillowcase for the living room, he might grumble about it in his head, but it wasn’t really any of his business. The same way she didn’t comment when he bought a remote-controlled drone and then accidentally flew it into a tree a few hours after he got it. It was a far cry from what his parents had to deal with—trying to raise two kids on one income.

Part of it was just Lisa though.

The first year they were together, Dean forgot her birthday. By the time he realized his mistake, it was 9 o’clock at night. He expected her to be fuming—because literally any other girl in the world would be. Instead, she accepted his offer of a make-up dinner the first time he’d offered. Then, she’d helped him program his phone to remind him of the date next year while telling him about her girls’ day at the spa.

Whenever she poked too close to a sensitive topic and he lashed out at her, she’d call him out for being a jackass and then walk away to let him stew in silence. When the next day rolled around, she didn’t ask questions or demand an apology—she’d just pretend like it never happened.

He didn’t think he’d ever heard her say, “We’ll talk about this later,” in the ominous tone feared by boyfriends everywhere. Which meant that when a pimple-faced teenager—clearly trying to sneak a picture of them from the end of the alley—interrupted their heated whispering and she’d said—that—Dean knew he was in for it.

Of course, Dean being Dean, he did everything he could to make sure “later” was as much later as possible.

The group back at the restaurant was probably confused by his sudden mood swing. He told stories, cracked jokes, and laughed at everyone else’s. When the topic of poker came up, he proposed they play a few rounds when they got back to his place—ignoring Lisa’s quiet seething beside him.

Of course, Sam knew something was up—because that’s how annoying little brothers worked—and judging by Cas’s frown, he did too—but they weren’t calling him out on it. And if what was supposed to be a no-stakes poker game somehow turned into him owing Gabriel three pairs of his boxer shorts (signed), then the delay was well worth the (weird) price.  

The problem came around nine o’clock. Because he wasn’t going to skip out on tucking the kid in just because his mom wanted to tear him a new asshole.

“Hey, Bud,” he murmured as he pushed the door open, finding the kid hopping around on one foot, trying to get his socks off—the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling shining on his familiar freckles. Ben looked more like Dean than he did his real dad—a fact that made him kinda happy and which he thought made Lisa kinda sad, even if they’d never discussed it.

“So, song or story tonight?” he asked as Ben finally got his toes free and Dean helped him slip under the covers. It was then that Lisa came in.

She was dressed in silk pajama bottoms and a tank top, having excused herself from the group hours ago. If he looked closely, he could just make out the top edge of her mistletoe soulmark.

“Uh, song,” Ben decided after a minute. “But I think I should get three. It’s only fair ‘cause they’re so much shorter.”

Dean raised his eyebrows, going for the guitar he kept in the corner of the room. “How about two?”

“Two and a half,” Ben insisted, causing both him and Lisa to let out involuntary chuckles.

“Well, you drive a hard bargain, but I think we can manage that,” Dean said, starting on the opening chords of Hey Jude. After a second, Lisa’s voice joined in. Neither of them had a particularly amazing range or anything, but you didn’t need that for singing softly to your kid, who was still young enough to think they were the coolest things ever.

Next, they performed Wildflowers by Tom Petty while Ben’s eyelids started to droop—followed by exactly half of Sweet Child O’ Mine, stopping just before all the “Woahs.”

Ben was still awake but fading—so he didn’t protest when Dean reached over to turn off his lamp. Then Dean switched places with Lisa so that she could press a barely-there kiss to her son’s forehead. It was a truly nice, peaceful moment.

Then, Lisa turned to face him—and yup, there was the anger, hardening all her usually soft edges. He set down the guitar.

This time, it was clear she was giving him no choice but to follow her—out of Ben’s room, down the hall, and into their bedroom, where normally, the sight of his memory foam mattress made him happy.

Instead, he was met with a “What the hell, Dean?” as soon as the door was closed.

“Lisa—” he started, but she was already pacing away from him, still with a bit of the ballerina’s poise that she’d had ingrained in her since she was a child.

The thing about them not having fights is he wasn’t really sure what his role was here. Talk? Let her talk? Stay standing where he was? Go sit on the bed? Would she get mad if he changed into sweatpants right now? Probably, right?

The glare she aimed at him told him not to risk it.

“You understand why I’m upset, don’t you?” she demanded, hands on her hips. “Not only did you make a life-changing decision without discussing it with me first, but you didn’t even tell me at all.”

Dean tried his hardest not to flinch.

“I hadn’t brought it up yet,” he argued, feeling her scoff as much as he heard it. “But it’s not like I was hiding it from you. I was going to say something—”

Before or after your coming out was front-page news?”

“Oh, come on, Lis. I’m not an idiot.”

Lisa looked like she was begging to disagree.

“I haven’t even told Sam yet,” he pointed out. Mostly because he knew his brother would get all weepy on him—call him an “inspirational figure” or worse, buy a bunch of Pride merch for Baby. Dean thought he’d rather take on a bar full of homophobes than deal with Sam’s unfiltered support.

“This isn’t about Sam, Dean,” Lisa insisted, tone even sharper than before. “It’s about you and me. I know we’re not exactly the kind of couple that compares diaries every night, but this isn’t something that slipped your mind. Obviously, there’s been big changes going on with you. I mean, you’re going public with something that you’ve only told—what? A dozen people? And I had no idea. Considering we share a home and raise a kid together, I think I have a right to know where your head is at.”

About mid-way through her speech, her voice had gentled again—sounding more concerned than furious.

He risked a step forward and she let him, one of her arms coming up to touch the outside of his elbow.

“It’s not like I had a big come-to-Jesus moment or anything,” he murmured over the top of her head. “Cas and I were just—”

The corners of his lips tightened, and he stopped.

“What was that?” he asked, forehead furrowing.

“What was what?” Lisa questioned—though judging by the way her eyes dropped from his down to his chest, he was pretty sure she knew.

“That face you just made. You got a problem with Cas too, now, or something?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t have a problem with Cas—”

“Well… good,” Dean said, definitively.

“I am a little concerned about how close you two have become.”

Dean stepped back, sensing some of his own anger starting to creep in now.

Lisa sighed, walking away from him again to lower herself onto the tiny bench seat they had at the foot of their bed. “I don’t want this to be a fight,” she insisted.

“Well, you coulda fooled me.”

“I mean it,” she insisted, tucking dark brown curls behind her left ear. “I’m not accusing you of anything. But. I have to ask…” She looked up at him in earnest. “Do you have feelings for Cas?”

Dean felt like he’d fallen asleep on a beach, gotten sunburn, only to be slapped awake. “If this is some ‘bis are promiscuous’ propaganda bullshit—”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “You know I don’t believe in that.”

He did. Or he thought he did. But, “You find out I’m going public and now out of nowhere, you’re—”

“Dean!” Lisa yelled, springing to her feet again. “You better think long and hard about what you’re implying before you do it. We’ve been together for over four years—I’ve known you’re bi for three of them—and I have never once played the jealous girlfriend. No matter who you’ve had in your life. If I’m bringing something up, maybe consider that it’s not because I’m prejudiced, it’s because I’m worried.”

“I’m not my dad,” he growled, but low so that Ben wouldn’t hear them. He could feel his shoulders squaring off.

“You’re not, you’re not,” she soothed, which somehow only made him more annoyed. If she knew that, then what was this crap she was going on about?

“You would never step over that line,” Lisa reaffirmed. “But you don’t have to be in a physical relationship with someone to—to care about them that way.”

He didn’t have to listen to this.

Instead, he brushed past her, taking five long strides over to his dresser, which was nestled against the far wall. His plan had been to get something to change in to, but pulling out the top drawer, which contained all his underwear, he dutifully began setting some aside for Gabriel. His newest boxers, though. It somehow seemed weirder to part with the really worn-out ones, especially when he guessed they were all gonna wind up on e-Bay at some point.

Lisa wasn’t giving up though. “You’re with him every other day. And even when he’s not around, you guys are always calling, texting for hours.”

“Well, yeah, we’re friends,” he said, clear emphasis on the word.

“So, you don’t think he’s good looking?”

His tongue felt clumsy in his mouth, words tripping out of him as he balled a pair of his boxers in his fist. “Am I only allowed to have ugly friends or something?”

“You guys share clothes—”

“Only one—OK, three times.”

“You split meals like it’s no big deal. And sometimes, you just… You look at each other, and it’s like you’re having a whole conversation no one else is a part of.”

“I’ve seen you do all of that with your girlfriends,” he fired back, having retreated to the Dean Cave more than once to escape their cloud of laughter over inside jokes that he’d never understand.

“And there’s nothing wrong with that—any of it,” she responded. “But what you two have, it just feels different to me.”

Dean snorted. “I can feel like Led Zeppelin should get back together. Doesn’t make it a reality.”

“You realize we haven’t had sex in a month, right?” Lisa asked, and okay, that pulled him up a little short.

“Is that what all this is about?” he asked, taking in everything from her cascading hair to the tank top—obviously not concealing a bra—all the way down to her pink-painted toenails. “‘Cause we can do it right now.”

“No, Dean, that’s—” She steadied herself, clearly using one of the breathing techniques she’d picked up at yoga. “The point is that our relationship shouldn’t be an afterthought.”

Before he could open his mouth to protest, she continued. “I’m not saying it’s your fault. Or only yours. I’ve been so busy trying to launch my cosmetics line, I haven’t been around as much.” It was a project she’d started about a year ago. The makeup was supposed to be organic or all-natural or something. To be honest, Dean wasn’t sure if those were different things or the same thing. Or why the world needed yet another kind of lipstick when it seemed like there was already a whole aisle devoted to them in the grocery store.

But rather than go there and possibly open up a whole other can of worms, he focused on the main issue here. “So, we’ve both had a lot going on…. That doesn’t mean I’m fooling around with Cas—or picturing fooling around with Cas—or whatever the hell it is you think I’m up to.”

Lisa pressed her lips together but nodded. “Maybe… we just need to prioritize spending more time together. Reconnect some before your shooting starts,” she said. He didn’t quite buy it. The two months before she’d started her cosmetics thing, he’d been in Vancouver, filming a six-episode series for Netflix and she hadn’t been like this then.

But if this was her way of calling a cease-fire, he’d take it. Especially considering how exhaustion was settling heavy into his bones. He might even get eight hours of sleep tonight.

“Yeah, sure. We can do a date night sometime this week.” Neither of them mentioned that they still had a house full of people to deal with in the morning.

“And maybe you’ll join me and Ben at my parent’s next weekend.”

He must not have hidden his grimace too well.

“I know it’s not your favorite thing,” she admitted, leading him over to the bed. Pajamas forgotten, he shucked his jeans off, giving a groan of appreciation when his back hit the mattress. “But it’s been a while, and they’d like to see you. Plus, I thought you and my dad really hit it off last time.”

By which she meant Dean had managed to get through most of a conversation about golf without embarrassing himself. Still, he agreed—because he knew it was important to her. And when she rolled over toward him, he opened his arms and stroked her orchid-scented hair when she nestled her head on his chest.

“Dean?”

“Hmmm?”

“I am proud of you for coming out,” she whispered into the gathering darkness.

“Thanks,” he muttered, even though his insides still squirmed at the thought.

Eventually, her breathing evened out, which prompted him to let out his own deep breath of relief.

Hopefully, everything would be less weird tomorrow.

He stared at the ceiling—wide awake.

Chapter Text

Dean knew that, tonight of all nights, it was probably best for him to stay in bed and wait things out until morning. But Lisa’s small weight on his chest was starting to make him claustrophobic and overly warm—and he needed to walk around some if he was ever going to get his brain to turn off.

It took several minutes, but, at last, he was able to slide his body out from under Lisa’s grasp by wrapping her arms around one of their fluffier pillows instead. He relaxed when she only gave a slight sigh into the fabric, apparently still asleep.

The house was deceptively quiet considering how many people he knew were inside it. He just had time to half-hope, half-stress about running into Cas again when he caught sight of another figure at the foot of the stairs, carrying a glass of water.

“Dean,” Sam said, wiping his eyes as if to make sure it was really him. His brother had clearly been to bed already, judging by how messed up his hair was—with strands sticking up on one side and flat on the other, like he was half Albert Einstein. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Dean shrugged. “You know me.” In fact, Sam was probably more familiar with his sleeping patterns than anyone but Lisa, considering they had shared a room—and sometimes a motel bed—for years. Idly, Dean wondered if Jessica knew about that yet. The more she learned about Sam’s history, the more she’d learn about Dean’s by extension, which he wasn’t exactly thrilled about.

Apparently, some amount of brotherly telepathy still worked though, as Sam whipped his puppy dog eyes out for the second time that day. “I’m glad I caught you. I really wanted to apologize for—”

But Dean cut him off by raising his hand. “No, we’re not doing this,” he stated. If anything, Sam’s expression only turned sadder.

Dean sighed, wiping his palm down his face before scrubbing at his cheeks. “What I meant was—I already had a chick flick moment with Lisa today. I can’t deal with one from you too.”

He walked past his brother to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator door.

Completely unsurprisingly, his brother followed right after him, curiosity mixed with the concern now. “Why? What happened with you and Lisa?” he questioned, leaning over the counter. Dean could almost see 12-year-old Sam doing the same, chatting with Dean as he made Hamburger Helper for dinner.

“Nothing. It’s no big deal.”

“For an actor, you suck at lying.”

“Come on, I’m great at it.”

You don’t even believe you right now.”

Dean raised his bottle to his lips, drinking about half of the contents down while Sam just sat there, waiting. “Fine,” he muttered when that excuse had run out. “Lisa might’ve found out that I was planning on coming out to the press before I could tell her.”

A beat of silence passed. Then—

“You dick,” Sam snorted, shaking his head as he took a sip of his water.

“Hey—”

“You made me feel terrible for not telling you Jess was my soulmate when you clearly haven’t been filling me in either.” Sam didn’t sound like he was actually mad though, which was a win considering Dean’s night so far.

“And here I thought you were going to be singing me ‘Over the Rainbow’ with how proud you were.”

“First off, that’s not what that song is about. And second, I’ll throw you a Pride parade tomorrow.”

“Gee, thanks. I’ll make sure to be anywhere else,” Dean promised, but the weight in his chest felt lighter. He pulled out one of the island barstools.

Sam claimed one on the opposite side. “So, how’d she find out anyway?”

“Uh, she overhead me talking to Cas.”

Sam raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, not you too.”

“You realize I didn’t actually say anything, right?”

Dean took another sip of his drink. “You looked like you were going to.”

“I’ll always be glad you have more people in your life you can talk to. And Cas is one of my best friends, too.”

“But…?”

But I can understand why Lisa would want to hang you out to dry. Kind of a huge decision to make without her. And then not loop her in on.”

Dean examined his beer bottle, especially the corner where the label was starting to peel away. “I know.”

Sam seemed genuinely taken aback by that.

“If you know, then why’d you do it?”

In the distance, the air conditioner started up again with a whir, joining the faint buzzing from the refrigerator and the creak of the porch swing outside.

Dean sighed, bending his head towards his hands where they rested on the cool granite. “So, maybe—for a second—I thought she might try to talk me out of it,” he admitted. Sam’s forehead furrowed.

“Not to be a dick—just because there’s probably gonna be extra press and sometimes that crap affects Ben. But, uh…” Dean hesitated. Sam got his eyes from their dad—the color at least—definitely not the patience in them. “I also think it’s easier, you know? Talking to Cas and Charlie instead of you and Lis about that sorta stuff. Not because I trust them more, OK?” He quick-glanced at his brother again. “But there’s less pressure since they don’t have to empathize with me or whatever. They already get it.”

“Get…?” Sam started. Then, understanding dawned on his face. “Oh… oh. I didn’t realize Cas was—”

Shit, Dean thought. He was really on a roll tonight.

Don’t go spreading that around, alright?” he practically ordered his brother. Fuck. He’d spent nine years dodging questions about his sexuality in interviews only to practically take a billboard out on Cas’s. “He didn’t act like it was a secret, but I can’t go assuming crap.” The last thing he wanted was Cas pissed at him, too.

“Of course,” Sam replied, already nodding, but Dean could see the calculations running through that big head of his and there was no way Dean was gonna like what spit out.

And since he had obviously done enough sharing—and oversharing—for a lifetime, he figured it was time to turn the tables.

“So, you have a soulmate,” he mentioned, making at least some effort to hide his skepticism of the whole concept. “What’s that like?”

His brother wasn’t fooled, but he didn’t seem inclined to call Dean out on it either.

“Not like I expected it to be,” he admitted.

Well, color Dean intrigued.

“For the most part, it feels a lot like before I knew I had a soulmate. I mean, Jess is amazing and beautiful and—get this—she draws, but she’s ambidextrous, so she can start from two different sides of the paper at once—”

“Dude, you’re drooling.”

Sam wiped the corner of his mouth.

“I meant… metaphorically.”

Sam blushed while flashing Dean the middle finger. “What I’m saying is, it doesn’t seem all that different from any other time I’ve met someone I really liked and was excited to spend more time with.”

“Huh,” Dean’s mouth stalled over another sip of beer, unsure of what to make of that.

“I suppose we’ve covered some topics it took me a couple extra months to discuss with previous girlfriends. But, honestly, that still feels more about Jess than about her being my soulmate. She’s good at putting things into perspective.

“Like the other day, we were talking about—” Sam waved his hand, “Dad and everything.” Dean felt his body stiffen. “And I just started getting worked up about all the stuff that he did—or didn’t do. And she reminded me that even if he sucked, I had you basically being my parent. Making my lunches, picking me up from school, asking if I did my homework.

“You remember that Fourth of July you took me to set off all those fireworks in Potter’s field?”

Obviously, Dean remembered. He was surprised Sam did.

He chuckled. “There’s a chance I still have hearing loss from that night, but it was worth it. And it got me thinking—maybe we should do something like that again? With Ben?”

“I, uh,” Dean cleared his throat, which was running suspiciously dry. “That would be awesome actually.”

“We can even videotape it,” Sam said with a smile, and Dean could see 12-year-old him then, too.

For a minute, they sat in companionable silence, sipping their drinks as the night grew heavier.

“Hey, Sam?”

His brother didn’t have to say anything to indicate he was listening.

“For what it’s worth, Jess is alright.”

“Yeah,” Sam responded, confidently. “She is.”

/////

Before, Dean had felt too wired up to sleep. Now, he almost felt too content. It was nice hanging out with his brother—the only person left who really knew what he was like back when his jeans had both holes and grass stains on the knees. Back when he came home from the diner smelling like the coffee some customer had spilled all over him, his jacket pockets lined with crumpled tips.

Of course, then Sam had to ruin it.

“Can I ask you something without you biting my head off?” he asked.

“You can try.

“You ever think about your soulmate?”

Sam was brave, Dean had to give him that. And lucky that all Dean’s talks with Cas had made him a little less trigger-happy on the subject.

“I figure everyone has at some point or another,” he grunted, draining the last drops of his beer and standing to go wash out the empty bottle.

“Ever picture anything in particular?”

Dean snorted. “When I was 14? Whoever was that month’s Playboy centerfold.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “And after 14?”

“You really want to have this conversation?”

“Yes,” Sam said definitively.

Dean rested his hands on either side of the sink, face turned to the window. He wondered what kind of moon was out tonight and where it ranked on Cas’s list of favorites.

Then, he grabbed a nearby dish towel to dry his hands on. “I guess, whenever I found someone I was into, I assumed that my soulmate had to be a little like them, right? Benny wasn’t it—but maybe they had blue eyes like he did. Maybe they had Cassie’s no-bullshit attitude.”

“You could be right.”

Dean snorted, slapping the towel over his shoulder. “Yeah, no. First off, those relationships kinda imploded. And second, if people’s soulmates were exactly what they already knew they wanted, why have magical assist at all? The whole reason the universe puts big ‘I’m with stupid’ signs on everyone is because it doesn’t trust us to know what the fuck we need.”

“But you never tried to find your match…?”

Dean turned towards his brother, who immediately held his hands up. “I’m not saying you should. I’m just curious—why not?”

“Simple,” Dean said, crossing his arms over his chest. “I don’t trust the universe either.”

Chapter Text

“Ngh nuh, yeah! Nuh.”

“Dean!” Lisa gasped, sinking down on him further as he strained his thigh muscles to meet her halfway. That was one thing against memory foam—didn’t exactly have—ngh!—bounce. “M’hmm, yes, yes…!”

“Yeah, m’ –ahh- right there—ng—with you,” Dean promised, just as he felt her body clamp down on him. The tight got tighter, the hot got hotter, and suddenly he could feel his own tension leaving his body through half a dozen increasingly lazy thrusts.

Panting, Lisa rolled back over to the other side of the bed, dragging some of the blankets with her to wrap around her body like a toga.

Dean flashed a grin. And here, he thought his morning was going to suck.

“That was…” Lisa shook her head, but she was smiling too. “I think we needed that,” she murmured.

“Hell of a wake-up call, for sure,” he murmured, having emerged from his dreams only to find lips already covering the head of his dick, tongue skimming over the slit.

“Mhhm, and since—” she reached out to place a warm hand over his hard-beating heart, “—we’ve built up an appetite… maybe you can make those breakfast quesadillas of yours…?” she asked hopefully.

Now we get to the ulterior motive,” he joked while carefully grabbing her hand in his own, moving it closer to the center of his chest instead. He’d learned a while ago that if he did that, it would stop her from absently tracing his soulmark with her fingers.

She didn’t seem to mind—or maybe didn’t notice the subtle redirect.

“I want berries, too,” she insisted.

There were enough people in the house that he’d probably just make the works. “You got it,” he promised.

/////

A half an hour later, Dean was freshly showered and headed to the kitchen while Lisa did—whatever it was girls did that made them look mostly the same but sparklier.

First thing first, he thought, rummaging through the refrigerator. I need a fuck ton of eggs.

He was still riding high on his post-orgasmic good mood, which might explain why the sound of the exterior side door bursting open caught him so off-guard. He jerked his head up, hitting it against the top of the fridge.

“Dean?” Sam’s voice called out in concern after he let out a string of curses.

“M’fine,” Dean muttered back, straightening.

His brain, already scrambled, then took another moment to process what he was seeing. Sam looked ridiculous in his jogging gear as per usual—wearing a tank top with armholes large enough that you could see half his chest and a headband to hold back his bangs. Cas also looked different—but not in a bad way. Dressed down in a dark green T-shirt and fitted black shorts, Dean figured there was no way someone watching him run past would suspect he was such a nerd at heart. His gaze swept back up Cas’s body, coming to a halt when he caught sight of blue eyes staring back at him.

“I—uh…” he started—only to get cut off by a wolf-whistle sounding from the other side of the room.

“Sam!” Gabriel exclaimed, stepping into the kitchen in an open bathrobe. “If you’re going to put on a show in the mornings, you could at least post a schedule somewhere.”

“Nice to see you, too, Gabe,” Sam responded with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. “Slept well, I hope?”

“Always do,” he answered, cockily. “And trust me, I’ve nodded off in some weird places. Did Cassie ever tell you about the time I woke up in a body bag, headed for a morgue in Paris—”

“How would that even—" Sam sputtered, but Dean was quick to tune them out. Gabe was much too exhausting to listen to before coffee.

Speaking of, he set up the machine to begin brewing a pot and then went back to rummaging through the refrigerator for meat, onions, and cheese—lots of cheese.

“Can I inquire what you’re making?” Cas asked, having come over to Dean’s side. Bent in half the way Dean was, this meant his gaze was pretty much lined up with Cas’s crotch—and the actor barely avoided hitting his head again while attempting to stand.

“Uh… Lisa likes a bunch of Tex-Mex stuff. So, I’m doing some breakfast quesadillas, burritos, that kind of thing…”

“And are they difficult to prepare?” Cas questioned, body language still that of someone leading a board meeting, despite the way his shirt pulled off a little more to one side, revealing his left collarbone. “I’ve been trying to make an effort lately not to just order in or eat microwave dinners all the time.”

“Not really. I mean, er—” Dean could feel a package of bacon he had tucked under his elbow starting to slide towards the floor. Apparently, Cas noticed, too, and moved forward to catch it, his fingers skimming the inside of Dean’s arm in the process.

“Dean?” Cas asked, attempting to hand it back to him.

“Uh, can you put it on the counter actually? Hands full,” Dean said, lifting his supplies in demonstration.

“Oh, of course,” Cas replied, but his brow was furrowed. Which made sense. Because Dean was acting fuckin’ weird and he knew it. Part of it was lingering guilt over what he’d told Sam without Cas’s permission. But then there was the stuff Lisa had implied….

He glanced over to where Sam and Gabriel were still quietly talking about two feet apart—nothing wrong there. So why was that fine for them, but apparently not for him and Cas?

“Maybe I should go shower before breakfast,” Cas offered, seeming uncomfortable. “I fear I’m—very sweaty.”

“What? No!” Dean protested out of instinct. Then, he got another whiff. “I mean, okay, you are a little, but your BO smells about a thousand times better than Sammy’s.”

“I heard that, Jerk!”

“Don’t care, Bitch,” he responded, eyes never leaving Cas’s. “And if you want to learn to cook, there’s no time like the present, right?”

“Are you sure?” Cas asked.

Dean felt only a half-second of hesitation, but even that was enough to raise his annoyance with Lisa more. She’d admitted that he and Cas hadn’t stepped over any lines. He shouldn’t have to change his behavior based on her conspiracy theory. Besides, it’s not like she could accuse him of anything when they had two brotherly chaperones.

“Obviously, Cas,” he said, setting the rest of the ingredients down beside the stove. “I mean, what are friends for?”

/////

After he made the decision to get over himself, being around Cas was as easy as it always was.

Except that, if he thought Cas was terrifying before, it was nothing compared to seeing what he could do with a blade in his hands. Not only did he fly through a huge number of peppers and onions in the time it took Dean to get two cast iron pans on the range, buttered, and heated, but all of the pieces were so remarkably identical that Dean had the urge, for the first time in his life, to take a picture of food.

Unfortunately, that was also where Cas’s cooking skills started and ended. He cracked eggs with a knife, which Dean found to be one of the most bizarre things he’d ever seen—not to mention, this method ended up with shell in the bowl and more dirty dishes to clean. Lumps seemed to actively hide from the author as he stirred batter and his first attempt at flipping over a quesadilla ended up with it landing on the kitchen island behind them.

“You’re not trying to lift with the spatula really. You’re trying to flip it in place,” Dean instructed Cas on his third attempt, coming behind the other man. He hadn’t been lying before when he said Cas smelled fine. A bit like sweat, but also like fresh-cut grass, and even more strangely, like the Impala. “Imagine it like… turning over a page in a book real fast,” he added.

He waited for the egg mixture on top to almost stop bubbling…. “And… now,” Dean ordered, watching the intense look of concentration on Cas’s face as he slid the spatula under the concoction and turned it over, revealing a perfect half-circle with a golden-brown surface.

“Dean!” Cas sounded so excited that the actor couldn’t help but chuckle a little. “Dean, I did it.”

“Congrats, Sunshine. At this rate, you might even be able to handle omelets.”

“You should let me know when the next cooking lesson is,” a voice from behind them said, and despite the obvious warmth in the tone, Dean felt the muscles in his back unconsciously tense. “Omelets also sound delicious.”

“Hello, Lisa,” the author replied easily, even as Dean became painfully aware of the not two feet between him and Cas. Instinctively, he shot a look at his brother, only to notice that Gabe and Sam had stopped talking, as if they, too, were watching the scene play out.

“So… what can I do to help?” Lisa offered, already pulling her hair back into a ponytail.

/////

It took Dean a while to relax after that. I mean, “Omelets also sound delicious” had been ominous as shit, right? And yet, if Lisa was upset by the scene she found in the kitchen, she did a damn good job of hiding it.

Charlie, Dorothy, and Jess came down for breakfast shortly after her arrival, all three of them with their hair elaborately braided the way Dean recognized from Renn festivals. And well, Dean could be dying, and he still wouldn’t miss out on such a perfect opportunity to mess with his little brother. “You should do Sam’s after breakfast,” he suggested—an idea that they took to instantly.

By the time that they had bullied him into agreeing, Charlie had already halfway changed the topic to ComicCon, where Dean was a regular guest and, therefore, had seen some crazy shit go down. Of course, Lisa, Sam, Charlie, and Dorothy all had their own anecdotes that they threw in until the whole table was laughing.

Eventually, Dean had to concede that he might have been a little paranoid about his girlfriend’s behavior. After all, she’d been upset last night—especially by the time she got to the Cas stuff. In the light of day, she probably recognized how ridiculous that particular fear of hers had been and was trying to move past it, same as he was. The tension in his shoulders loosened slightly.

Eventually, a general discussion of costume designs devolved into two separate conversations—one about the plausibility of superhero costume changes, the other about Halloween.

“What can I say? It’s just not my favorite holiday!” Sam threw his hands up in frustration, which prompted both Jess and Gabriel to talk over each other to explain how very wrong he was. Eventually, Jess told her boyfriend in no uncertain terms that she was forcing him to go to a Halloween party with her this year—"in a costume.” Yeah, Dean was liking her more and more.

He almost leaned over to say as much to Cas—only the author was on the other side of the table for once. So, instead, he caught Cas’s gaze, nodded his head in the new couple’s direction, and then rolled his eyes, fondly.

Cas raised one eyebrow in surprise. What made you change your mind? That look seemed to ask.

Dean shrugged his shoulders. Soulmates might be too fairytale for him, but Sam was practically a Disney princess, so…

“Dean?” Lisa prompted, and it took him a minute to mentally rewind and figure out what she might be asking him.

“Oh, yeah, getting in the Red Hood suit took like two hours,” he said at last, in support of her point. But, over in his silent conversation with Cas, he couldn’t help but notice that the other man seemed pleased.

/////

Two hours later, Dean was drying off his hair after some laps in the pool when—“Son of a bitch!” he exclaimed when he got his head out of the towel only to find himself face-to-face with Gabriel.

“Now, now,” the shorter man chided. “I’m sure my mother was a lovely woman.” He tipped his head, “—who just so happened to ding-dong-ditch a baby on her ex’s doorstep.”

“Are you sure you and Cas are even related then?” he asked, mostly sarcastically. The cousins might not look alike, but the popping out of nowhere definitely seemed like a Novak trait.

Gabriel snorted. “You clearly don’t understand our family yet if you think I’d pretend to be part of it willingly. No, my old man had a DNA test run about five minutes after he knew I existed. He gets another performed every birthday just to make sure there wasn’t a mistake.”

“Well, it’s nice you guys have traditions,” Dean quipped, as he went to fetch the shirt that he’d left on one of the pool chairs. He’d never been alone in a room with Gabe before, and it was putting him more on-edge than he’d like—especially the way that the other man was staring at his bare chest. And here he thought that the guy just had a thing for Sammy.

The right corner of Gabriel’s mouth twitched into a smirk as if he could read his thoughts. “I think I’ve been fairly nice to you, haven’t I, Deano?”

“I’m not sure there’s a word for what you’ve been, Gabriel. ‘Weird’ is as close as I’ve got.”

“Come now, I know you’re aware of my reputation. Have I adopted any shelter pets and let them loose in your house? Have I filled your car with ghost pepper-coated packing peanuts? Have I set up secret cameras in your bathroom and put the videos up on OnlyFans?”

Dean paused in his movements. “You better not have,” he growled at last.

But Gabriel swatted the idea away. “I’ve been a Boy Scout. So… the next question to ask yourself is… why have I been on such good behavior?”

Dean finally got the shirt over his head, even though the feel of damp fabric kinda drove him insane. “The way Cas tells it, you’re a douche but a vigilante douche. And newsflash, I haven’t done anything deserving of being pranked,” he reminded the other man.

“Not yet,” Gabriel said the words lightly, but it was amazing how quickly his eyes darkened in the span of that single syllable. “Now, I’ve been watching you the last couple of days—and you’re not stupid.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“An idiot, but not stupid. So, I have hope that even if you don’t understand me now, you’ll find the appropriate brain cells to rub together in the future.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Cassie’s the only person in my family who I give a shit about. But he’s always been an island. Not on purpose,” he added. “He’s just built in a way that makes it hard for even the people who love him to get to know him.

“But he’s been different since he’s been out here. Good different,” Gabriel conceded. “Maybe it’s because his career is taking off. Or maybe he just really needed a change in scenery and the wondrously smoggy air of L.A. is where it’s at. But if I had to guess… It’s because someone finally made a bridge over to that island of his and brought along all their misfit toys. Probably didn’t even realize what an accomplishment that was because they made it look so easy.

“Now, I find that heartwarming—truly I do. But it also occurs to me that an island that starts relying on another person to keep it afloat might have a hard time if that support ever goes away. And I’m telling you right now, you cut my cousin adrift, I’m cutting you.”

For several minutes now, Dean’s mind had been floating between postcard-like images of beaches and Claymation-style Christmas cartoons, but suddenly, the other pieces of what Gabriel was saying fell into place. “Are you seriously giving me the ‘you hurt him, I’ll hurt you’ speech?” he asked, incredulously. “What? Am I picking Cas up for prom?”

“If that were the case, I’d give you some condoms and say not to bring him home ‘til the next morning,” Gabriel insisted with an eye roll. “But you’re a much bigger part of his life, aren’t you? I mean, everything—the book, the movie, this city, your little sleepovers—it’s all tied up with Dean Winchester now, isn’t it?

“So, here’s the deal. When the day comes that you have to make a decision—and your mind is weighing all the possibilities, factor in this. If you ever screw over my cousin, then what I will do to you won’t be cute. It won’t be a fun dinnertime story. It will not be anything you will laugh about later. You comprende?”

Dean scoffed, even if the sound had a little more air in it than usual.

“He’s my family too,” he announced, unaware until this moment that that was how he felt but acknowledging the truth of it regardless. “And I protect my family. I don’t hurt them.”

“Oh, someone’s gonna get hurt, Deano,” Gabriel reached up nearly a foot to pat Dean on the shoulder. “But I’m glad we had this talk.”

He smiled before turning on his heel and leaving. And Dean—Dean was halfway caught between calling him back to ask what the hell he meant and feeling relieved that whatever ‘moment’ they’d just had was over.

Chapter Text

If he had to put a label on it, Dean figured he and Pamela Barnes were friends. He’d been on her talk show a dozen or so times. She flirted as shamelessly with him as she did most of her male guests, and once, when asking him about his dating history before Lisa, almost got him to mention his thing with Rhonda Hurley of the pink satin panties. And yet, when he caught himself last minute, she’d smoothly transitioned the conversation away rather than going in for the kill—so as much as she scared him occasionally, there was mutual respect there.

“So, what made you decide to speak out about your sexuality now?” she asked from her red, studded armchair. The set they were on resembled a living room, with red brick walls, a squeaky leather couch, and a coffee table that looked like it was made from part of a bar counter. A bright neon sign that read Star Sighting was affixed between the two fake windows.

Dean tugged at the neck of his shirt. He was used to being under studio lights, but they were still a goddamn pain, and the uncertainty rolling around in his stomach reminded him of being sixteen again. “Don’t know. Seemed like the time, I guess.”

“You guess?” Pamela’s voice was flat—dangerous.

Truthfully, he couldn’t blame her. They’d been at this for about half an hour already and it was clear her hostess’s smile was wearing thin. He wasn’t going to admit that though. “Yeah, I guess. What do you want me to say, Pamela?”

“Anything remotely honest,” she responded, throwing her hands into the air. “I’d even take something close to interesting.”

She sighed, the fingers of her left hand drumming a pattern on her opposite arm. “Thank whatever God you believe in, plus The Beatles, that this isn’t live,” she muttered. Usually, Pamela’s show was filmed in front of a studio audience and aired directly to viewers.

When Missouri had first told the execs for The Righteous Man about his coming out, some weren’t happy about it. However, most saw it as an opportunity to generate even more buzz about the project. So, a plan had formed where he and Jess would do some interviews, talk about the movie, and Dean would slip in somewhere that he was bi. Let the press do the rest.

“And then what?” Pamela had demanded when they’d approached her about the idea. “This isn’t like flashing a fake ID at a bar. If you’re going to say you’re a card-carrying member of the queer community, people are gonna have questions—and they’ll find answers—by digging through your past, harassing you, or flat-out making up their own. The only way to control the story is for you to tell it.”

She’d offered a counterproposal. “We do everything you said—but you also come to the studio earlier that morning. We’ll do a pre-recorded interview, scraping the surface of the nitty-gritty. That way, after the news drops on the live show, we can beat the paparazzi to the punch.”

Was it self-serving on her part—securing this kind of exclusive? Absolutely. Unfortunately, it also made too much fuckin’ sense.

So here he was, sweating under million-degree lights, throat dry, feeling more like an animal on display at the zoo than he had in a while.

Pamela looked him over carefully, dark curls just brushing her shoulders. “What can I do to make this work?” she questioned at last.

“Trust me, if I knew, I’d tell you,” he mumbled, leaning forward until his forehead touched his folded hands.

Dean was no stranger to doing crap he didn’t want to do. Whether it was finding money to feed a teenage Sam, flying to location for shooting, or putting on a brave face for Ben at the hospital after the kid’s appendix burst, it wasn’t like he had any other option, so he shut his mouth and just dealt. But this was different—it was self-inflicted.

He didn’t need to put himself through this.

“You don’t need to do this,” Lisa echoed from where she and the others stood, off to the side in the mostly empty studio. Being ‘moral support’. Dean would have tried to talk them out of it, but Jess had to be there for the movie stuff in the afternoon, Cas deserved to be there because it was his book that they were making a movie of, and once those two were coming, it wasn’t worth trying to argue with Lisa and Sam.

Dean grunted but didn’t respond. Of course, he had to do this. He was already frickin’ here.

“She’s right, Dean,” Cas spoke up from about twenty feet away. “But can I ask… What exactly are you worried about happening?”

Dean glanced at the author—who looked unfairly calm and collected. His dark grey dress shirt had the sleeves rolled up. Weirdly enough, it fit him well. Combined with the black vest and red tie, Dean was 90% sure either Jess or Charlie had blackmailed him into a shopping trip.

Dean didn’t answer him either, but Cas seemed undeterred. “I suppose some people on the internet might call you a faggot,” he mentioned helpfully. “It was originally a 13th-century French word, meaning ‘bundle’, usually ‘of wood.’ It was a reference to the pyres the church used to burn homosexuals on.”

“Cas, I don’t think—” Lisa started, only to be cut off by Dean’s snort.

“So, it wasn’t because the gay guys were packing some thick wood?” he wondered out loud.

There was definitely a smile hiding somewhere on Cas’s face. “See? You’re very creative. I have no doubt you would be more than up to the challenge of defending yourself in any verbal confrontation.”

Dean sat up from where he’d been hunched over, vaguely aware that this was holding up the interview even more, but not really caring. “Yeah, I’m a real Shakespeare,” he said, sarcastically.

Cas raised one eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest, which made him look—taller somehow. Or something. “Shakespeare was quite good at insulting people. I suppose you could borrow a few of his one-liners if necessary. ‘Your brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage’ or ‘I do desire that we be better strangers.’” The author paused. “There’s also the very famous line, ‘What an ass!’”

Distracted as he was, Dean still felt a laugh punch out of him. “That’s Shakespeare, huh?”

“Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.”

“Well, gotta watch that one nowadays. The homophobes will think I’m checking them out.”

“I’d wager that would also get them to leave you alone.”

The rare bit of mischief in Cas’s eyes eased, replaced by something softer. “You’ll have support too, you know. From fans, but also from your friends, your family. You have so many people who care about you.”

Something in Dean’s chest tightened, relaxing again when he let out a breath. “Come on, Man. Don’t get all sappy on me.”

“I’m not,” Cas protested. “Seeing as I am not a tree.”

Dean groaned, “That was so lame, Dude.”

“Who are you again?” Pamela’s voice suddenly reinserted itself into the conversation as she examined the other man. In her defense, Dean had been a little short in the introductions earlier. In his defense, the last thing he needed to deal with today was her hitting on either Sam or Cas, which she’d clearly been about to do a half-second after meeting them.

“I’m… Castiel? …Novak?” the author said it like a question.

“Well, Castiel, I’m going to need you to come over here,” Pamela instructed, already getting to her feet. “And someone bring me a second chair!” she ordered in the vague direction of her crew.

“I don’t understand…” Castiel began, giving Dean some comfort. It meant he wasn’t the only one confused. “What am I doing and why?”

“You, Blue Eyes, are going to sit behind me so that when I ask Dean questions, he can direct his answers to you. We’ll crop the shot in post so that no one will ever know you were there,” she explained.

“Uh, Pam—” Dean started.

“No arguing, Pretty Boy,” she told him firmly. “We don’t have time for that. We’re already behind schedule with absolutely nothing that can be edited together for tomorrow’s release.”

“I get that but—”

“Dean, you and Missouri picked me for this gig for a reason. It’s because you trust me not to make you look bad. Well, I’m telling you this is the way…. That banter you two just had? Is the first time you haven’t looked like you were about to upchuck since you got here.”

“Dean,” Sam murmured, arranged like the world’s most awkward coatrack in the corner. “I think she’s right. I mean, you’ve said before that Cas was easier to talk to about—certain things.”

Cas turned to Sam sharply. At the same time, Lisa tensed in Dean’s peripheral vision. Maybe he should have told Sammy that Lisa was a bit more… sensitive to Cas these days.

Still, Sam’s words seemed to have only spurred the crew into faster action, finding a simple wooden chair from some back office, and touching up Pamela’s makeup quickly. Then, Cas was hesitantly stepping onto set, his earlier confidence gone a bit stiff.

“So, Dean,” Pamela said a few moments later, her voice back to bright. “You’ve been in the public eye for quite a while. Tell me—why did you choose now to speak up about your bisexuality?”

He wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans. “I—um—er…"

The hostess tilted her head almost imperceptibly to where Cas was sitting slightly behind her and to the left. Dean swallowed. He was 1000% sure it was too hot in here and his pulse was jumping like a bunch of Pop Rocks, but slowly, slowly—he turned to meet the author’s gaze.

Cas. It’s only Cas, he told himself.

I think it was a combination of a lot of stuff,” he spoke at last, voice rough. “But, when it comes down to it, I just realized… I’ve been labeled by other people my entire life, you know?

“Teachers at school automatically thought I was a troublemaker, and I guess I was, but that wasn’t all of who I was. And my dad…” He squared his jaw. Nope, not getting into that. “Even now, being an actor—people perceive you a certain way—especially when you let them.

“And I was okay with that for a while because who cares what version of ‘Dean Winchester’ the rest of the world sees? But I was—” He paused, but only for a second “—talking to a friend recently about what kinds of things in life are worth being proud of. And I—this sounds really stupid—but I wanted one of those things that I was proud of to be me. All of me. Including the part that thinks someone with a dick can be attractive.

“So, yeah—that’s my answer.”

Silence followed. But it was a mesh of different silences coming off of each person—stunned silence from Sam, thoughtful silence from Cas, and Dean wasn’t an idiot—hurt silence from Lisa.

It was a silence that filled the space between two heartbeats.

Then Pamela grinned. “And what was your earliest memory of you questioning your sexuality…?” she asked.

Chapter Text

Dean’s life was pretty much crap at the moment, and to top it all off, they were taking Lisa’s car to her parents’ place on the outskirts of the city. He got her point about leaving the Impala behind, even if he hated to admit it. His Baby was kind of conspicuous and they were avoiding the press as much as possible right now. But she could have at least let him drive.

He knew better than to push it, though. They’d been in a weird place since his talk with Pamela on Monday.

Well, to be honest, they’d been in a weird place since the escape room two weeks before that. But the last few days were about as fun as wisdom teeth surgery without the drugs.

“You understand why I’m having a hard time?” Lisa had asked in the guest dressing room of Star Sighting, while Sam, Cas, and Jess had been on a sandwich run.

His first instinct was to ask, “What else was I supposed to do?” That interview had been heading for disaster fast, and he couldn’t help it if Cas was able to pull him back when he was spiraling. It was just who the author was—what he did—which was make Dean better.

But that wasn’t going to help his case, so he’d just cleared his throat and said, “Yeah, I get it.”

Then both of them pretended to forget the whole thing.

They went home afterward and tucked Ben in together, went to sleep in the same bed, and woke up the next morning in a house that had always been too big but was even more so now. They went to date night on Tuesday—some Italian place with white tablecloths and too small portions—and talked about the new belt Ben earned in karate and where they should go on vacation when they got a chance.

Dean felt like he was at work. Like he was playing a part.

“Maybe, if you give it some time, everything will go back to normal,” Sam suggested when he found his brother in the Dean Cave at 2:40 Wednesday morning. “I mean, Cas has to stay away for a while anyway because of the—” he gestured vaguely in the direction of the powered-down TV screen.

Dean grunted noncommittally, pulling the lever that made the couch recline. The angle felt good against his back.

He had just closed his eyes, thinking he could nod off there for a few hours when Sam spoke again, voice hesitant. “Dean?”

“Yeah?”

“You think it’s possible that everything is back to normal—and that whatever feels off is… something that’s always been there?”

That woke him up real fast. “What are you trying to say, Sammy?” he asked, sharply.

Sam shook his head. “I… Nothing, never mind.”

“No Sam, what?”

But his brother had already gotten to his feet. “I’m always here if you need to talk,” he’d murmured, before patting Dean on the shoulder and leaving.

The door closed with an ominous sound behind him.

“Okay, Ben, we’re here,” Lisa told her son, as she pulled her SUV into her parents’ garage. It was enough to startle Dean out of his thoughts, but Ben still didn’t look up—until Lisa tugged one of his earbuds out. Dean could vaguely hear the closing notes of Kashmir coming from Lisa’s borrowed phone.

“They’re not gonna try to get me to eat spinach again, are they?” Ben asked a minute later, as he took a fairly substantial jump out of the car, hitting the ground with both sneakered feet at the same time.

And while Dean was always thankful to have Ben in his life, he really couldn’t love him more right now if he tried.

Dean had been coming to the Sampsons’ family estate every week since his and Lisa’s first Cas-related fight, meaning this was officially his third time in a row. And frankly, if it weren’t for the kid, he’d probably have gone insane.

Both Lisa’s parents—Richard and Mariah—came from money. They knew they were soulmates since they were eight and predictably got married, moved into the house their parents bought for them, and had two kids. Kids who, to this day, had brunch with them every week. They were basically the Partridge family. Richard even wore cardigans.

It was something that Dean, who had mommy and daddy issues coming out of the ass, couldn’t understand. To be fair, they didn’t understand him much either. But they’d worked out a kind of agreement over the years.

They stuck to polite questions about his latest acting project and Sam, which he’d answer in the most boring way possible. And then, with that social obligation out of the way, their conversation would turn to life at the country club or Lisa’s sister’s teaching gig, and he and Ben would get into their own thing. Last week, the two of them spent most of the time talking about which fast food mascot was the creepiest. Ben’s vote was for the Burger King—but Dean had seen enough horror movies to know that Wendy was definitely a serial killer.

Lisa rolled her eyes at her son’s question. “If they do serve the spinach muffins again, you can just hide yours in your napkin like Dean did,” she told him.

“You know me so well,” Dean joked on reflex. He regretted it when Lisa’s smile tightened at the corners.

“Hmm, I guess,” she murmured.

She then grabbed Ben’s shoulders to guide him up to the front porch. “Let’s go get some food, shall we?” she said more cheerfully, before letting them in with her key.

The entryway was large and echoey—imposing in the way only museums usually are.

The dining room was homey by contrast—the ceilings lower with lots of natural light coming from the big picture window on one end and a big, hotel-style buffet laid out on the large mahogany table. Now, in Dean’s opinion, food should mostly be brown, ranging from the ‘golden’ brown of pies and pancakes to the darker brown of steak, burgers, brownies, and potatoes. The Sampson’s spread included way too many colors—starting with the million and one kinds of fruit and ending with a platter of avocado toast. Ben wrinkled his nose for the both of them. Guess this was a napkin day after all.

A second later, Richard came into the room from a side door. “Lisa, Ben,” he greeted, followed by a “Dean.” And maybe the actor was imagining things, but he thought that there was a harder edge to his name than usual. “You’ve been making quite a splash in the press this week, haven’t you?”

Not imagining things then.

“Who’s this—Novak—that you have all the pictures with?” Richard asked, just as his wife and other daughter, Christine, came to join them. Dean tried not to flinch.

“A friend,” Dean responded, feeling like he’d said the word so much recently that it had lost all meaning.

“Is that so?” Lisa’s sister asked with crossed arms and a disbelieving raised eyebrow.

“I don’t think I stuttered.”

Luckily, Lisa broke in before things could escalate. “Everyone lay off him, alright?” she demanded with her hands on her hips, sending a rush of relief through him. “He’s had a hard week and he doesn’t need you piling on. Besides, you should know better than to believe everything you read in tabloids. If I were pregnant as many times as the media said I was, I’d definitely be a reality TV star by now.”

“Why? What are people saying?” Ben piped up—and that, at least, seemed to make the adults in the room stop short.

“Nothing, son,” Richard promised, tucking his hands into the pockets of his cardigan. “Your mother’s right. We shouldn’t be discussing gossip at brunch.”

No, brunch was for talking about the housing market or which members of the family Lisa’s niece looked the most like. God, he wished he was with Sam and Cas right now, he thought, only to immediately lock that down. Not the time.

Eventually, Christine’s husband, Todd, joined the party and they all took seats, Dean grabbing a handful of bacon for himself and Ben before anyone else could get the chance.

“So, anything new with you, Mom…?” Lisa asked to fill the lull in the conversation.

“Oh. Well actually, I was thinking of taking up beekeeping…”

“Carniolan or Caucasian honeybees?” Dean asked with his mouth full.

“I—” Mariah gave him an almost startled glance. “I’m not sure yet. Also, I didn’t know that was an interest of yours, Dean…?”

He swallowed. “Uh, it’s not. I—” just have this friend who’s crazy about them. “—really love this bacon. Is it beef?”

Lisa’s parents looked even more confused by his change of topic. Unfortunately, Lisa didn’t.

“I… believe so,” Mariah said, slowly. “But you’ll have to ask Tara.”

He shut up after that. Ben, beside him, was also more quiet than usual—and he figured that wasn’t exactly a coincidence. Kids could always tell when people were acting weird, and he and Lisa probably owed him an explanation later—even if he didn’t know what the fuck to say.

“It’s not even that you spend so much time together,” Lisa had half-yelled when the dam finally burst Wednesday afternoon in the wake of yet another flood of social media notifications. “It’s that, even when he’s nowhere nearby, he’s more here to you than I am!”

“That’s not true—”

“Bullshit, Dean. If you can’t be honest with me, at least be honest with yourself.”

Dean set his fork down a bit louder than he intended to, suddenly not hungry anymore. He looked up to find Lisa moving her eggs around rather than eating them, so he supposed that made two of them.

“Hey, Lis,” Christine suddenly spoke up, nudging Lisa with her elbow. “I have that bracelet that you wanted to borrow. Why don’t you come with me to get it before I forget…?”

Lisa took in her sister’s expression while biting the inside of her cheek. “Fine,” she sighed at last, setting the napkin from her lap beside her plate.

Somehow, even though Lisa hadn’t been talking, the table grew noticeably quieter in her absence.

“So, Dean—” Todd began, and nope, no, he couldn’t do this.

“I’m gonna grab some more orange juice,” he announced, getting up from his chair abruptly. “Ben, you want some? No, okay.” He didn’t even bother to grab his glass before he left the dining room. Whatever. He’d just steal another one.

The Sampson’s kitchen was separated from the hallway by a couple of saloon-style doors that did nothing to block sounds from the other side. It was as he was about two feet from them that Dean realized how stupid he was. Obviously, “borrowing a bracelet” was code for “girl talk away from the boyfriend.”

“What the hell, Lisa?” Christina’s whispers were practically a hiss. “You told me weeks ago you were worried about Dean and this author guy. And then, suddenly they’re all over the news and in the tabloids—and I called you a dozen times with no answer. Now you’re defending him…!”

Lisa’s voice was just as angry. “Look, Dean and I might be having some problems right now. But it’s not what the media is making it out to be. He’s not sleeping around. He wouldn’t do that. Not to me—or Ben.”

“So, they just—wear each other’s clothes for no reason?”

Dean winced. He hadn’t seen all the pictures out of self-preservation, but Charlie had filled him in on those. Apparently, there was a couple of Cas in Dean’s AC/DC tee that he’d borrowed from his overnight stay—and a few others clearly showing Cas in a different shirt before he and Dean left the backroom of the Barnes & Noble the day of his book launch. Naturally, people started assuming the kind of stuff that made an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”

He heard Lisa explain all this—before abruptly deciding that he couldn’t listen anymore. But like hell if he was going back to the dining room either.

He ended up traveling most of the circumference of the house to get back to the front door and then kept walking outside until he reached the side porch swing—his mind thundering like an unbalanced washing machine.

He hated this.

Every day since that interview had been mild torture—even before the Cas photos came out. As predicted, there were some fans out there who shouted from the rooftops that they were never gonna see a Dean Winchester movie again—and who the fuck cared? He didn’t. But other stuff got to him more. Old dates and one-night stands wanting to rehash their night together. Rumors that he slept his way to the top. He could sleep his way to the top and be straight, dammit.

(He could also punch some dick reporters in the face and be bi. People were versatile like that.)

What cut the deepest were things he felt guilty for being offended by. Like the people who claimed “it was obvious” just by looking at him—even though he spent years burying that part of him down as far as it would go.

And, on top of that, he fuckin’ missed Cas, alright?

For the first couple of days after his coming out, Dean was too busy dealing with Lisa’s stuff to talk to him much—plus, Cas had a few book signings in northern California to deal with now that his book was closing in on a month on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

Then, the press started scouring WheresDeanWinchester.com for dirt and the idea of picking Cas up at his apartment or going out for lunch seemed destined to fuel a still-raging fire.

Of course, that shouldn’t stop Dean from calling or texting the guy—but Lisa’s voice in his head made him paranoid about everything he said or wrote. And it wasn’t the same as talking to Cas in person—where the author had this way of looking at Dean like he could see down to his soul or some shit.

Distantly, he heard a door opening, a door closing. He buried his head in his hands, waiting.

Eventually, he felt the porch swing move as someone sat beside him. Orchid shampoo. Lisa.

She didn’t say anything though. Just sat.

In the distance, a bird chirped because they were assholes like that.

His breath turned shallow, each one stabbing at his ribs like a knife. “I’m—I’m trying,” he whispered, hating his voice—and himself—for the way the words cracked down the middle.

“I know,” Lisa murmured, and when he glanced up, it was to see her eyes softer than they had been in days. She scooched closer, tucking Dean’s head into her shoulder and petting his hair, the way he’d seen her do with Ben. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Dean frowned as he took in Lisa’s outfit—from the white and purple sneakers to her hair up in a simple ponytail. “Uh, did we get our wires crossed? You look like you’re about to work out.”

“I am,” she said, lifting up the yoga mat under her arm in demonstration. “It seemed like a nice day to spend some time outside.”

“But we’ve got that uh… thing.”

She raised her eyebrows in expectation.

“You know,” he coughed. “With Charlie and Cas. They’re calling on Zoom in twenty minutes.”

“I remember, but you don’t really need me there for that, do you?”

“I mean, I figured you’d want to be… involved.”

She rocked back onto her heels. “I did… before. But I’ve done some thinking since my parents’ yesterday—”

“Uh oh,” Dean accidentally said out loud.

A tiny smile crossed her face, and he felt himself unclench slightly at the sight of it. “I didn’t mean that to sound like a bad thing. But we’ve been in a rough place lately. Maybe even longer than we’ve realized,” she murmured under her breath.

Dean opened his mouth to argue. Only arguing’s pretty much what they’d been doing all week. And just because he didn’t want to admit it didn’t mean she was wrong.

“The truth is, I’m still not sure where we go from here,” she continued. “But I do know it’s not helping to have me hovering by your side anytime you’re with Cas.”

Dean opened his mouth again.                                

“We’re being honest, Dean,” she reminded him, before looking out towards the garden and biting her lip.

“You guys have a bond—one that I’m a little bit jealous of,” she murmured. “But. Inserting myself into the middle isn’t doing you or me any favors. Just like making you hang out with my family was never going to solve anything.”

“So,” she concluded, turning back to him with clear, brown eyes. “I am going to practice my downward dog out in the sun. You are going to talk to your best friends about the social media shitstorm—and if you guys think of something that I can do to help with that, you let know at dinner, okay?”

“Okay….” Dean said hesitantly and, also, a bit confused. “You do know that dinner’s like… eight hours from now, right? You going to be downward dogging all day?”

“No, actually, I was going to see some of my friends for lunch. Maybe do some shopping.”

The muscles in Dean’s shoulders unwound further. “That’s… yeah. A good idea. You probably need a break from—well, everything.”

Lisa patted him briefly on the arm. “That’s the plan,” she said before moving past him towards the door.

/////

Dean felt more anxious than he’d like to admit while he waited for the call to come through. When his laptop finally did erupt in a series of whooping beeps, adrenaline spiked through his veins faster than fruit punch got spiked at college parties.

His pulse calmed down a little when he realized it was only Charlie asking to be patched through.

“Hey, Red,” he greeted.

“Dean!” she replied, as enthusiastically as ever. But then her voice dropped off for the next sentence. “How have you been holding up?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Eh, mostly fine.”

“Ouch. That bad, huh?”

He was starting to wonder why anyone asked him questions at all, since they just heard what they wanted to anyway—when the beeping noise resumed.

“Hold that thought,” Charlie exclaimed, before doing something on her end—and then, suddenly, Cas was filling the other half of Dean’s screen.

And goddamn, it was good to see him again.

Of course, what he said was, “You look like shit.”

It wasn’t entirely accurate. The combination of dark bedhead and strong, stubble-lined jaw was definitely still working for the author, but he was notably worse for wear than the last time Dean had seen him.

“I’ve been a restless sleeper lately,” Cas admitted.

Guilt that Dean had been trying to ignore all week suddenly came to punch him in the gut. “I’m sorry, Man. For dragging you into this,” he murmured.

Cas shook his head. “I know that the chances of you believing me are slim to none, but I think I dragged myself into this.” He hesitated. “Insomnia aside, I can’t quite bring myself to regret it either.”

It really must have been a while since he’d talked to Cas—because that made absolutely no sense to Dean. But whatever—the important thing was that they were here and now, and they’d figure shit out.

“I’ve, uh, been reading your book,” Dean mentioned, a bit self-consciously. “The untitled one. It’s really good.”

That was clearly not what Cas had expected him to say. “I—you—”

“Well, I’ve needed something to get my mind off things and—to be fair, I’m a slow reader, so I just got to the part where Darien comes in, but—yeah, I’m digging it.”

He scratched the back of his neck. “I—maybe this is weird, but you know how you said you write different sections in your books to match different colors? I’ve been trying to guess what shade each chapter is…. I think I’m pretty much just picking whichever color gets mentioned the most, though. Like you said Darien’s eyes were blue when he showed up, so I feel like the chapter is blue,” he said, looking into the author’s also very blue eyes.

“I….” Cas stuttered. “That chapter is blue.”

Dean couldn’t but feel a weird sense of pride at that. So that’s at least one thing I got right this week, he thought.

“Uh, guys,” Charlie spoke up, hesitantly. “I hate to interrupt whatever moment you’re having, but we’re trying to convince the press you’re not secretly sleeping together, so… the staring deeply into each other’s eyes thing—is kinda not helpful.”

“Apologies,” Cas said, clearing his throat, at the same time that Dean grunted, “Quit joking around, Char,” only to do a double-take in the author’s direction.

Charlie let out a huff halfway between amusement and exasperation. “I’m not joking, Dean. How much of the press coverage have you been following?”

“Whatever you sent me basically.”

“I was worried you’d say that.”

She sighed. “I know that both of you were probably just hoping that this would blow away, but it’s kind of doing the opposite.”

“What? Why?”

“I mean, look at you guys,” she exclaimed, a second before she minimized herself to a corner of her screen. In her place, a picture appeared of Dean with his arms around Cas’s shoulders, laughing at a joke the author just made. It was followed by another image of Cas pulling a leaf out of Dean’s hair on a windy day. A third showed Dean, Sam, and Cas walking down the street, Dean’s and Cas’s shoulders obviously much closer together. “You’re kind of adorable. If you were single, Dean, I’d totally be shipping you right now. Plus, some of the fan art is—”

“Charlie!” Dean interrupted, not knowing if it was better or worse that Cas looked as uncomfortable as he felt.

She held up her hands in surrender. “Right, you’re right, I’m sorry….” Although, it was clear she added something under her breath.

“So, what’re the options here?” Dean asked, once she’d put on her rarely-seen “Kara Danvers” glasses. The ones that indicated she meant business.

“You could continue staying apart for the next couple of months—” Charlie started.

“No! No way,” Dean butted in.

Then he realized that it wasn’t up to him. “I mean, if that’s what you want, Cas, I’m not gonna kidnap you to hang out. But, Man,” he felt his throat tighten slightly, “If I thought this whole thing was gonna make it so we had to put a duct tape line down the middle of the city, I wouldn’t’ve done it.” In fact, he might be selfish enough that even if Cas chose to loosen ties, he might try to talk him out of it.

Instead, something surprised and pleased drifted over Cas’s features, like the shadow of a tree moving across a pond. “I’ve missed you too, Dean,” the author said softly.

I never actually said that, you know.

Of course, you did. I’m awesome.

But only for my cooking, right?

These and a half a dozen other responses all disappeared at the shy little smile Cas gave.

“Gah!”

Dean and Cas both noticeably startled upright at Charlie’s voice.

“You guys are too cute! And I mean that both in the good and bad sense.” She shook her head, pulling out a separate tablet and jotting down notes, while Dean tried to get his heart rate down.

“Keeping you separate probably wouldn’t have been feasible anyway since the movie stuff is picking up soon,” she admitted. “Although…” she tapped her e-pen against her cheek, “You guys shouldn’t do any joint interviews if you can help it. Not after what I just saw, and not after what Sam told me about how the last one went with Pamela.”

“Come on, Charlie, we’re not that bad—” Dean protested. Although, he’d have an easier time believing himself if the laptop wasn’t still flashing a slideshow of their pictures—Dean holding a door of the Impala open for Cas; them eating sandwiches on her hood; standing on either side of Baby, talking, while Dean pumped gas….

Charlie opted to ignore Dean altogether. “We could try setting Cas up on some dates, and hope the paparazzi get wind of them—”

“I have problems with that on multiple levels,” Cas interrupted. Which, yeah... good...

Charlie let out a loud exhale. "That one put an icky taste in my mouth too.”

She considered the author carefully. “I know you’ve always been top-secret about what your soulmark is, but I have to ask…. Would you think about publicly releasing it—or at least making a statement that you’re not Dean’s?”

Pain flared in Dean’s chest—bright and sharp—and he grunted, rubbing at his chest instinctively.

“Why would that be useful?” Cas questioned, sharply.

Charlie looked between the two of them in concern. “Well…” she began, “People know that Lisa isn’t Dean’s soulmate. And now that he’s come out and you two have been linked so closely, it’s really only a matter of time before… Dean?” she cut herself off. “Are you okay over there?”

“Yup. All good.”

He felt like someone had put his heart in a suitcase that was too small for it and was now bouncing up and down on the lid, trying to force it to close. That combined with the continued cycle of images on the laptop did make him feel a little as if his life was passing before his eyes. But he wasn’t dying. Probably.

He’d had a salad and avocado toast this week. He’d be really pissed if he died in his 20s after eating a salad.

“Charlie?” Cas’s voice was calm. Too calm. Maybe Dean was dying after all. “Where did that picture come from?”

Wait. What?

“Uh, what picture?” Charlie asked, sounding just as confused, but she obediently paused the slide show.

“Four back,” the author requested.

Slowly, she rewound the footage.

At first, Dean didn’t get what the big deal was. He even remembered the day that it was taken—a couple of weeks before The Righteous Man launch. Cas had seen some ducks that he wanted to take pictures of, and then cautiously asked if he could have one of him and Sam too.

“Only if you’re in it,” Dean had said. Which is how he learned that Cas was the worst person at taking selfies on the planet—needing half a dozen shots to get one that had more than half his head in it.

The one up on the screen was the best of the bunch—and even it still featured a sliver of thumb.

And that’s when it hit him—figuratively, but also literally, because holy hell, his chest hurt.

“That photo isn’t a paparazzi—or a fan—shot. It’s from my phone,” Cas stated, his calm edged with something else now. “How did anyone else get a hold of it?”

“Oh!” Charlie’s voice startled. “Well, assuming you didn’t give it to the press—”

Dean snorted. Cas would never.

“—or messaged it to someone who then gave it to the press, that probably means someone hacked your phone.”

Cas became very still.

“It’s not really that hard to do. And considering how technology-illiterate you are—no offense, my dude—you probably have next to no security measures in place. But at least, this picture seems harmless and I can totally upgrade your system if….” However, it was clear Cas was only half-listening to her.

“Cas?” she asked. “Seriously, what is up with you two? It’s like Dean’s having a heart attack and you’re having a seizure at the same time.”

“If someone got access to this picture, that means they would… have had access to my other photos as well? At least theoretically?”

“What, Dude?” Dean managed to say. “You worried about someone leaking your nudes?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Cas gritted.

“Wait, really?”

But Cas wasn’t looking at Dean anymore. He was looking at Charlie. “Could I speak with you—privately—please?”

Chapter Text

“And then they just—hung up! Like, what the hell?” Dean yelled, though the sound got soaked up by the carpet and padded walls almost instantly—the way spilled beer gets absorbed into a paper towel.

“Interesting,” Sam conceded, tipping his head back where he already leaned against the nearest wall.

Dean scoffed. “Interesting. That’s all you’ve got to say about this?”

“I mean, it sounds fairly straightforward to me. Cas has something on his phone that he doesn’t want to get released. Charlie’s the tech genius, so he asked for her help figuring out what happened.”

Dean started pacing, feeling the heavy thump of his boots all the way in his knees. “Dude, it’s Cas,” he said, knowing that Sam wouldn’t be able to understand all that meant, but figuring he’d try anyway. “The guy still feels guilty that he stole a library book back before his voice cracked. What dirt could he possibly have on his phone that I don’t know about?”

Sam’s face twitched.

What? What is it?” Dean demanded.

“Nothing…. It’s just…” His brother’s mouth quirked again. “Interesting.”

Dean reached the end of the room before he began pacing in the opposite direction. “Okay, time to add a new word to your vocabulary.”

Sam huffed out a breath. “Don’t you think it’s a little weird that you expect to know all of Cas’s big secrets already? You’ve only been friends for—what? Three months now?”

That pulled Dean up a little short. Three months, seriously? A part of him felt as if Cas had been around for forever—like if he squinted just a little, he could make him out in old memories of road trips or visiting Sammy at Stanford. But yeah… three months. He guessed that was right.

Still, “We talk about a lot of stuff. If he’s worried about—” (Cas had said ‘nudes’ but there’s no way that was actually what it was, right? Almost on instinct, his mind started forming a mental picture—but no, he wasn’t going there, Dean told himself, tugging roughly at the neck of his shirt.) “I just don’t know why he's trying to hide it from me of all people,” he muttered, trying to get back on track.

Sam looked at him for a minute without blinking.

“Wow,” he said once he broke out of his trance. “Really. Wow. Dean, do you even hear yourself? You sound like—”

Dean turned back around. “Like what?”

Silence.

“Like what?”

Sam tilted his chin up, defiantly. “Like a jealous boyfriend.”

Dean’s chest pain flared again, squeezing hard like his heart was a stress ball. “Yeah, whatever, Sammy,” he muttered dismissively, trying to rub the sensation away.

“No Dean. It’s not ‘whatever.’ And it’s not ‘Sammy’ either,” his brother declared, tossing his hair slightly. “Sammy is the twelve-year-old that you used to threaten bullies not to mess with. Sammy is someone you signed field trip permission slips for. Sammy was the kid you had to take care of. But I’m not your responsibility anymore. I’m your brother. And I’m trying to talk about this like adults.”

Dean threw his hands up in the air. “Talk about what?” he demanded. “‘Cause, from where I’m standing, it seems like we’re having two very different conversations.”

“Dean—”

“I thought you liked Lisa,” he said over the sound of Sam’s exasperation.

Instantly, Sam’s eyes widened, becoming younger. “I—I do.”

“Then what’s this all about?” he questioned, rubbing his hand over his still-burning chest.

Sam’s frown firmed as he finally pushed off the wall. Reaching towards his back pocket, he pulled out his phone. “I’ve been paying attention to the press coverage too, you know.”

“Charlie already showed me the pictures,” Dean reminded him.

“Of you and Cas, right?” Sam said, without looking up. “What about these?”

And then, suddenly, a screen was being shoved in Dean’s face—and his eyes were struggling to focus against the light. When the spots finally cleared out of his vision, he found himself looking at a picture of him and Lisa on date night at that Italian place, talking down at their food instead of each other.

Sam thumbed through to the next image—of Lisa with her arms crossed and Dean’s hands fisted at his side. It was taken in the alley where she’d stumbled across him telling Cas about his coming out.

Next picture. The official shot that the people running the escape room had taken after their group victory. Most everyone was breathless, smiling, sweaty—Cas even had one tiny dark curl plastered to his forehead. And then there was Lisa, head turned to look at him and the author, a frown between her eyebrows.

“I do like Lisa, okay?” Sam mentioned, much more quietly than he had before. “But it doesn’t seem like she’s too happy with the situation either.”

Dean pushed the phone away with something like a growl.

“We’re fighting, Sam. Couples fight. You might not realize that ‘cause you’re so hopped up on soulmate juice—but this is what real life is like.”

“Don’t do that,” Sam insisted, voice snapping back to aggravated just as easily. “Don’t act like because I so happen to be dating my soulmate that I’ve suddenly lost all ability to think for myself. I’m not claiming to be a relationship expert here. But guess what I do know? You. Better than you know yourself sometimes—”

“Yeah, no,” Dean interrupted Sam, feeling, in spite of what his brother said, like he needed to give the kid a lecture. “I’m the only one rattling around in my own brain, meaning I’m the only one who’s got any right to say what I’m thinking.”

He was bi, for fuck’s sake. Why? Because he was. Because he said so. No one else’s opinion mattered on the subject. And the same thing went for his relationships.

He told Sam as much.

They stared at each other.

Eventually, Sam’s shoulders slumped, bringing him down from his full 6’4” height to a barely-more respectable 6’3”. “You’re right.”

Thank you.”

“You have to be the judge of you. But can you honestly tell me that you and Lisa are—”

“We’re fine, Sammy,” Dean insisted, even though those words tasted a bit like iron on his tongue. “Or we’ll be fine,” he corrected. “It’s… fine,” he tried again.

Sam’s face took on a look of pity. And goddamn, he hated that so much. “Don’t you think that you deserve better than ‘fine’?” his brother asked, gently.

Dean clenched his jaw. He didn’t want to listen to this.

“Funny how this is the first time you’re bringing this up in four years,” he pointed out, sinking down onto the couch, heel of his palm pressing down on his heart like that could stop it from spasming.

Of course, Sam just took the seat next to him. “I mean, I was a bit… surprised… when you two moved in together.”

“You and everyone else,” Dean muttered, bitterly.

“Not like that,” Sam scowled, brushing the hair by his ear. “I’m not saying you can’t do commitment. But you guys were pretty casual for a while. I remember, you even seemed freaked out that she had a kid. But then you met Ben—and suddenly, you did a 180. And that actually made sense to me. I was at college, Dad had just died—and you like having people to take care of.”

“Woah, woah, that’s not—”

“It made being away at Stanford easier—thinking you had them. But maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see…? You know, I’d come visit, and we’d all try to hang out, but it was weird. And then, eventually, you and I just started doing our thing and she’d do hers—and I wondered if… but I figured you two might be acting that way because I was around.

“That wasn’t it, though, was it?” he asked. “Ever since that night in the kitchen—and I guess since talking to Gabriel, too—”

Of course, that fucker was involved.

“—I’ve been paying more attention to the way you are around each other. And it just seems like… you guys live side by side, but not… together.

“And don’t say ‘that’s how real couples are’ because I know—I know—that couples can have different friends and interests. That’s normal. Healthy. But, Dean, there’s gotta be overlap, too. You need to care about the same things or at least want to care about the same things. More than that… you need to be able to talk to each other.”

“And this is the part where you bring Cas back in, right?” Dean asked, trying not to hunch over too badly. “I want to be prepared so I can get ready to hit you.”

“You let me get this far,” Sam said with a sad smile. “You wouldn’t let me do that if you weren’t already thinking about it.”

No,” Dean insisted. “I’ve just learned that when you have verbal diarrhea, it’s best to let you get it all out before worse shit happens.”

Sam rolled his eyes, but there was still something too serious about it. “In every interview where someone brings up soulmates, you pretty much say the same thing. That being with someone should be a choice—not a mandate from the universe. Now, you won’t believe me,” he cautioned. “But I agree with you.”

His brother looked down at his hands—cleared his throat. “When I imagine who I want me and Jess to be someday, it’s not Mom and Dad. Or any marked couple I remember from when we were growing up. It’s Bobby and Ellen.” Their surrogate aunt had lost her first husband to a freak hunting accident, while Bobby and his wife Karen split when they couldn’t agree on kids.

“But, Dean,” he mentioned, softly. “I don’t think that Bobby and Ellen decided to be a couple one day and that was it—forever. I’m pretty sure that was a choice they made every morning when they woke up. And when life was hard or they got fed up with each other, they still choose each other anyway—because that is what a relationship is supposed to be.

“So, look—tell me I’m stupid—”

“You’re stupid,” Dean responded automatically.

“But hear me out,” Sam insisted around a scowl. “You said that you and Cas play ‘Would you rather?’ a lot, right?”

“Now I’m completely lost,” Dean muttered.

Sam ignored him. “Just—ask yourself this. Would you rather spend Sunday morning having breakfast with Cas or Lisa?”

Cas, his mind supplied automatically, but that was for a lot of reasons, including avocado toast and cardigans.

“If you needed someone else to drive Baby for you, who would you rather it be—Lisa or Cas?”

Cas, his brain repeated, even as he winced away from it.

“If you were—stranded on a deserted island, who would you rather have around then?”

Cas.

But “that’s—” Dean shook his head, frustrated. “—not even fair. Cas would probably be able to build us a radio out of, like, some palm fronds and a turtle,” he argued.

“Hmmm, and what if something bad happened? What if… I got hurt? Who’d you call first?”

Dean’s mind skittered for a minute. “Jess,” he said at last, but Sam looked at him like he was lying.

His chest ached.

Probably because he was.

“And what if Adam called out of the blue one day—wanted to meet, and I wasn’t around—who’d you rather take with you to deal with him?”

Dean didn’t answer.

“What if Mom were still alive, who would it be more important that she like?”

“I—" Dean began. Stopped.

His nails dug into the meat of his thighs through his jeans.

“Dean,” Sam pleaded. “I get that you want to do things of your own free will. I respect that. It’s why I’ve never pushed you to look for your soulmate. And if you want me to shut up about Cas and Lisa, I’ll do it—I promise I will—but Dean,” he repeated. “Really think about it. If who you’re with is a choice—who are you choosing every time?”

The pain in Dean’s chest was so constant now that he could ignore it—he almost felt numb.

Meanwhile, Sam’s words washed against his ears, then washed away. The room seemed strangely drained of color. He didn’t—he wasn’t—he couldn’t—

Please, he thought. He didn’t know why. Didn’t know who he was asking or what he was asking for.

But whatever it was he was begging for, it was not the vaguely doorbell-ish sound that burst—too bright and cheerful—from his computer.

Charlie was calling back.

Chapter Text

“Dean, where are you going?!” Sam questioned over the laptop’s incessant ringing.

“Out!” he responded shortly, wanting—no, needing—to put some miles between himself and everything his brother just said.

“But Dean, what about Charlie?”

“You answer it!” Dean yelled back as the heavy wooden door closed between them. A part of him was still curious to know what the fuck had made her and Cas drop their earlier call. But it was loudly shouted down by the part that didn’t want to look at another person he cared about while they tried to break him open and read him like a fortune cookie.

Sam must have followed his advice because the next thing he heard—from halfway into the living room—was Charlie yelling, “Oh thank God!”—the sound amplified by the Dean Cave’s surround speakers. “Sam, you will not believe…”

But then her voice faded again.

At least, he now knew he could bug Sam about the details later.

He was halfway to the kitchen, where the Impala’s keys hung on a hook by the entrance, when a thought stopped him in his tracks. He took the steps two at a time.

“Hey Ben!” he called, bursting into his room without knocking. The kid was lying on his back in bed, looking at a comic book sideways, but he dropped it to his stomach at the interruption. “How'd you feel about going for a drive with me?”

“Do I get to sit shotgun?” he asked with interested eyebrows.

“Yeah. You can even pick the tunes.”

“I’ll go get my shoes,” Ben cheered, scrambling to his feet.

/////

Dean never hated L.A. more than when he wanted to be cruising down a road to nowhere at 90 miles an hour and was, instead, forced to start and stop every thirty seconds, the wind that should be blowing through the windows growing stale and humid. Cas once questioned where he’d live if he had the choice.

“Somewhere the opposite of this,” he’d muttered, honking at the person not moving as the light turned green.

“Do you mean—the clear opposite side of the world? Because I believe that would place you in either France or Madagascar.”

“Cas,” Dean said flatly. “No one’s that literal. Even you.”

“Well then, explain what you meant.” It was clear the author was feeling a bit overheated and restless himself; he just handled it more gracefully than Dean. His only concessions to the soaring summer temperatures were to undo a few more buttons of his polo shirt—showing off skin that Dean always found surprisingly tan—and sweeping sweat from his forehead into his hair at regular intervals so that it spiked outrageously.

His lips were also a bit chapped—but that was usual. Not that Dean really paid that much attention to them.

“Dean?” the author prompted, causing Dean’s eyes to jump from the side of Cas’s face to the road.

“Right, uh, I guess I just miss small towns—like the kind Sammy and I used to live in when we were little. The types of places where the people at the grocery or hardware store know who you are—and not because you’re on the front cover of Entertainment Weekly. Where kids play with old tires and charge 300% for crappy lemonade in the summer.”

He thumbed the steering wheel. “Don’t know if places like that actually exist anymore. I’d probably need a time machine, not a moving van. Or who knows? Maybe I’m just making crap up in my head—thinking it was all a lot nicer than it was.”

“Hmmm,” Cas murmured, consideringly. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never lived somewhere as small and as quaint as you’re describing, but it does paint quite the picture. Maybe after the movie’s done, I’ll look into other parts of the country.”

The sky was as cloudless as it had been before, but Dean felt a shadow fall over him anyway.

“Wait, wait, wait. You’re leaving?” he exclaimed, barely stopping the car from swerving as he stared at Cas again.

Cas’s expression went from confused—to concerned—to soft—in rapid succession. “No, no—I meant recreationally,” he promised once his face settled on a timid smile. “Like a vacation.”

“Oh. Good. That’s—” Dean cleared his throat. “I mean, yeah, L.A. sucks, but it’s got its perks, you know. Lots of things worth—sticking around for,” he murmured, trying not to flush or squirm as Cas took his turn examining him.

Eventually, the author let out a sigh that could mean it was really hot out—or something else. “I’m not sure I could leave at this point if I tried,” he said quietly as the Impala inched forward half a block.

Just for a second, Dean thought about asking Cas what he meant by that.

But only for a second.

Then, he crumpled up the words like they were an early draft of a script. So long as Cas wasn’t going anywhere, there wasn’t any need to think too hard about why.

Or at least there wasn’t before. Now Sam—Sam had fucked everything up.

It was his voice in Dean’s head that asked what about L.A. Cas felt he couldn’t leave.

And what the real reason was that Dean wanted him to stay.

/////

Ben’s voice jolted him back to the present like pepper spray to the face. “Dean, are you… okay?”

“What?” Dean asked, shaking his head a little and forcibly pushing more memories back. “Yeah, Kid, I’m fine. Just trying to figure out where we’re headed.”

The second part, at least, wasn’t a lie—and Ben seemed to accept it all at face value as he went back to watching the road. At 4’2”, he was finally tall enough that he didn’t have to struggle to see out of the windshield.

“Do you think you or Mom s’gonna be the one to teach me to drive?” he spoke up as someone on a scooter passed them.

“I’m not sure, Kid,” Dean’s voice scratched like a damaged record even as he tried to smile. “You know she’s big on all that ‘first’ stuff.”

In fact, Lisa had scrapbooks and scrapbooks, documenting Ben’s first step, first word, first time eating solid food. Both he and Ben made fun of her for it but, honestly, Dean was grateful—that he got a chance to catch up on those early years that he hadn’t been around for.

Now, though, that reminder just caused Dean’s chest to hurt for the nine millionth time that morning.

“Hey, I have an idea,” he offered, knocking the kid’s shoulder lightly with his elbow. “What do you say we get out of the city—someplace you won’t be able to hit anything and—I’ll teach you some of the basics?”

“Really?” Ben’s brown eyes went wide. “That would be—awesome.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do. Anything you want, Bud.”

/////

It took them three hours to find a sufficiently abandoned field. The whole way Dean had been explaining to Ben how to use the brakes, turn signal, and gear selector, so that by the time they had a few jackets stuffed under Ben’s butt to ensure he could definitely see from behind the wheel, Dean figured there was a chance that this all wouldn’t go horribly wrong. Although, “If you scratch her up, I will make you help me buff her out,” Dean told him sternly.

“Works for me,” Ben exclaimed before flooring it, sending a cloud of dust and broken soybean stalks into the air behind them.

All in all, he did better than Sam had on his first try. “And you can tell him I said so,” Dean added while Ben gave a flush-faced grin that helped Dean to not think about things for just a little bit longer.

/////

They’d had lunch on the road earlier, but for dinner, Dean found an out-of-the-way diner that looked like it was definitely a Ponderosa at some point.

They placed their orders for burgers while Ben did his eight-year-old best to flirt with the waitress, which turned out to be a pretty damn good effort since she promised him a free milkshake at the end of the meal.

“Hey, why don’t you wash up?” he asked the kid, gesturing with his head to the bathroom.

“What about you?”

“I—uh—will in a bit. You go first.”

Ben huffed. “Or you could just tell me you want me to go away for a while.”

Dean ruffled his hair. Kid was too smart for his own good. “Fine. I want to talk to your mom about something.” He’d worry about the missed calls from Sam later.

“I’ll take a leak,” Ben agreed, only somewhat reluctantly, before sliding out of the seat. Dean made sure to keep an eye on the bathroom door as he dialed.

“Dean?” Lisa picked up almost immediately. “Where’d you go? Where’s Ben?”

“So, funny story—” he began—only to feel her eyes narrow from the other end of the line. “Okay, well maybe not funny, but I—uh—just needed to clear my head for a bit and ended up taking Ben with me. One thing led to another and we’re kinda in the boonies right now. We probably won’t get back until late. Or…” he hesitated. “I was thinking that maybe Ben and I could spend the night?”

All he got in response was dead air.

“Lis?”

“Dean,” Lisa finally answered—very seriously—in the same tone someone would use if they were telling you there was a bear behind you. “You are planning on bringing him back, right?”

“I—” He did a quick glance around the diner to make sure there wasn’t anyone aiming a cellphone or camera in his direction. “What sort of question is that? Of course, I’m going to bring him back. Just… maybe tomorrow?”

Another pause, but he decided to wait it out this time.

“I want to talk to Ben before he heads to bed, and I want him home by 10 AM,” she instructed at last. “You understand me, Dean?”

“I—yes—we’ll be there.”

“You better,” she warned.

But then the fight seemed to go out of her. “Can I ask what you wanted to clear your head from? Did something happen since this morning?”

He gripped the phone tighter, going through his options. But she’d asked for honesty only a few hours ago, and he owed her that much at least. “Yeah…” he breathed. “Yeah, something did.”

“But you’re not ready to talk about it,” she surmised.

“Not really.”

“But… later?”

He was pretty sure he’d never be ready for this particular conversation, but that didn’t matter. It was one they needed to have eventually. “Sure.”

The creaking of the bathroom doors let him know they were soon to be interrupted. “Hey, Lisa, Ben’s almost back, so—” He let the sentence trail off.

“Right. Have fun, I guess?”

“We will,” he told her, thumb already hovering over the ‘end’ button. Instead, he put the phone back up to his ear. “Lis?”

“Yes?” she asked hesitantly.

“M’Sorry,” he muttered. “For not being there.”

“It’s only one dinner, Dean,” she pointed out, as understanding as always.

“We both know it’s been more than that,” he corrected her, quietly. And then he hung up.

/////

The two of them went stargazing.

Dean thought about pointing out the different constellations in the sky, but in the end, he just let Ben watch the stars. Meanwhile, Dean watched Ben.

Later, Dean found them a hotel—a step up from the kinds of places he, Sam, and their dad used to stay when they were on the road. He was even able to buy toothbrushes and toothpaste out of the little convenience shop in the lobby.

Ben talked with Lisa that night as promised—and she only yelled at them a little for how late it was. And then Dean, since he didn’t have his guitar, sang along to Youtube videos until Ben’s eyes started drooping.

“Thanks for today, Dean,” he murmured just before he fell into unconsciousness. “You’re the best.” And for all the weird things that the actor’s chest had done in the last twelve hours, those words caused his heart to clench the most.

Because with Ben asleep, and his insomnia as rampant as ever, he had no more distractions—no more places to hide. Just the truth.

The same truth that everyone else had been telling him for days now—weeks—but which he’d fought not to see. Because, deep down, he knew how much it would blow up his life.

He cared about Lisa. A lot.

He loved Ben like his own.

And…

He breathed out through his teeth—a wet sound that came straight from his lungs.

He was in love with Cas.

Now, what the hell was he supposed to do?

Chapter Text

The kitchen was quiet.

As soon as they had gotten home, Ben had raced off to find Lisa, but once his footsteps faded away, it was like all the other sounds vanished with him.

If anything, it reminded Dean of a waiting room.

So that’s what he did. He waited.

Eventually, Lisa came down the stairs—wearing yoga pants and a too-big sweater that exposed one slim shoulder. Her dark hair was up in a ponytail again—messy in a non-messy way—and her dark eyes gleamed a little. In short, she was as beautiful as she always was—even if this was the first time in a while that Dean felt like he was really appreciating that fact.

“Hey,” he murmured, breaking some of the spell that laid over the kitchen.

“Hey,” she echoed, turning towards the cabinet that contained the coffee cups. “You want any?”

“Sure,” he responded, venturing a little farther into the room. After a moment’s hesitation, he pulled out one of the chairs at the kitchen table, even if it gave a loud crrrk as he sat down.

And then they were both waiting—this time for the coffee to be done.

“Sam around?” Dean asked after a beat.

“Not since yesterday. He said he was going over to Cas’s place—and I guess he must have stayed overnight.”

“…Oh,” he said. Which was much more PG than the “Fuck” he was thinking, considering everything that went down yesterday.

“I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”

“Right,” Dean muttered.

He remained lost in thought until a mug was set down in front of him, steam wafting directly up his nose. For lack of anything else to do, he took a sip, though the drink was currently more a temperature than a flavor.

“So—” Lisa began, two hands wrapped around her own mug. “Ben seemed to enjoy your trip.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Yeah, he did.”

“You don’t—really sound happy about that,” she observed.

“What?” The actor protested. “I do. I am.”

“Dean—”

“I’m always glad when he has a good time. It just turns out…” He pulled his hands away from the mug to fist them against his jeans. “I can feel more than one thing at a time…. Sometimes, without even realizing I’m doing it.” He glanced from the table up to her face. And waited for her to get it.

When she did, she leaned back in her chair, hugging her sweater around her more closely the way that she tended to when she was cold. “What are you trying to tell me, Dean?” she asked softly.

That was the thing. He didn’t have a clue. He recognized that words like ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I never wanted to hurt you’ belonged in there somewhere, but his throat was tight like he was wearing a boa constrictor for a necklace, his breath coming out in short stutters, and what he ended up saying was. “I can’t lose him, Lis. I can’t lose Ben.” Somehow, he managed to make “Ben” into two syllables.

“I get that it’s messed up,” he continued, leaning forward now, “—to ask you for anything after what I… But I swear, I didn’t mean for this to happen. When you said—all that stuff about me—and Cas—I didn’t—I really didn’t know it was true.”

He waited for her to react. To yell at him. To storm away.

Instead, she blinked rapidly, turning her head to the side to swipe roughly at her cheek. She didn’t even make a noise. And that was worse. So much worse.

When she faced him again, he could see the tears on the edge of her sleeve. “I’ve got to give you credit. I honestly thought it would take you longer to figure it out.”

“I—” He swallowed because what was he really supposed to say to that?

Instead, he watched her idly trace the wood grain pattern on the table while she gathered herself. He waited a long time.

“I didn’t expect to feel this way. About you,” she admitted after several minutes had passed. “Not when we first met. It had been years since Ben’s dad, but he—he was the love of my life and then he died—and I couldn’t imagine ever letting someone get close like that again.

“When you and I started hooking up—I figured it was like any of the other dates I’d been on. A bit of company, a bit of fun, but that was it. I didn’t need another man in my life—not when I had Ben to focus on.

“But then John passed away and you were so… I began to see you as a person, not just a fling. Your grief—it was completely different than the grief I felt—but it was also the same, too. Everyone—my family—they saw me mourning, but they hadn’t lost anyone like that. So, when they looked at me, they saw the sadness because that’s what they expected to see. They didn’t notice the anger.

“I was mad at him for—for leaving me like that. To wake up in the mornings by myself, and come home by myself, and be a parent all by myself. And then I would feel guilty for being so angry—because it’s not like he chose to walk away. It was an accident.

“Of course, in the middle of all of this, we were doing the movie together—hanging out nearly every day—and I told myself it was good. If we could be friends.

“Only Ben started visiting the set—and you were—I can’t describe how amazing you were with him. And piece by piece, I started to think that, even if I could do it alone, maybe I didn’t have to. Maybe I didn’t want to.”

She gave a wet laugh.

“By the time I realized that I’d fallen for you a little bit, it almost didn’t matter that you weren’t in love with me, too—because you were here, and you loved Ben so much, and you also weren’t—” She bit her lip, drawing a prick of pink blood to the surface. “You’re not like his dad was—and that made it easier, in some ways, to not—not feel bad—because I was supposed to be his forever.”

She glanced at him from underneath her lashes, and Dean moved on instinct, putting a hand on her shoulder. To his relief, she leaned into it, rather than moving away. And maybe that gave him the bravery to say what he did next. “You, uh, never mention Ben Sr. much.”

“No, I—” she shook her head so that her cheek brushed his hand. “I talk to Ben about him sometimes, just so—so he knows who his father is—”

Dean tried not to wince at that.

“—but other than that, I don’t—it’s hard to think about him. Every once in a while, it just hits me out of the blue. Like the day I realized I forgot how he liked his coffee because I got used to making yours. I told you I was going out with my friends and then I spent the whole day hiding in one of the guest rooms, bawling my eyes out.”

“I’m sorry,” he confessed at last. And God, that wasn’t enough, was it? Not nearly enough. “I’m sorry I didn’t know that was going on with you.”

“Dean,” she said, pulling back to look him in the eyes. “I didn’t want you to know. And, frankly, I don’t think there’s much you could have done to comfort me at that moment.

“Just like there are things that you’ve been going through that I couldn’t help with. I’m not—I wasn’t the right person.” They had a slicer in the kitchen that cut vegetables into pieces so thin that you could see right through them. And that’s what her voice sounded like right now.

Suddenly, Dean heard Gabriel in his head. “Someone’s gonna get hurt,” he’d predicted, almost casually—and he should have punched that smug bastard in the face the second he did. Because what he was really trying to say was that Dean was going to end up hurting someone—someone he cared about—and he hated that little imp for believing that of him almost as much as hated himself.

“You should be the right person, Lis,” he declared, pushing his chair away to pace back and forth between the window and the table. “You’re—you’re gorgeous—and strong—and you put up with so much crap you shouldn’t have to—and Ben—is basically the greatest kid in the world, and you—you did that. You—”

“Dean, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but telling me how great I am isn’t—I don’t need to hear that right now.”

“You deserve better.”

She looked at him—eyes soft and aching, and he knew that, even if it was true, that wasn’t helping either.

He stopped pacing.

He pushed his chair away so that he could squat down near her legs. “Tell me—” he pleaded with her. “What’s the right thing to do here? Because I… Everything’s a mess—and no matter how I look at it, it just gets messier. And I may not be Ben’s father, but I’m for damn sure his dad, and—I can’t—I can’t leave him the way that my parents left me. The way that Ben Sr. left you. I can’t. So, you gotta—gotta—" he gulped down air. “Lisa, I gotta know—where do we go from here?”

He stared up at her through his own blurry vision. And he waited.

/////

An hour later, he pushed tiredly against the door to the Dean Cave—the hours, heck years, of sleepiness catching up to him and making his limbs feel like they were weighted down with sandbags.

His laptop was still on the table in the center of the room—and when he flipped it open, he was greeted by a half dozen notifications—mostly Cas asking to speak to him. And that sent adrenaline and something close to panic spiking through his veins.

He pulled out his phone—no messages from Cas there—but Sam’s earlier calls flashed back at him and those, too, set him on edge, like he was balanced on a knife blade. Too much. Too much going on in too short of a time. He didn’t know how much more he could handle.

So, he didn’t.

He sat on the couch, reclined the seat, and waited for unconsciousness to take him.

And it must have worked, because when he came to, it was to a hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. “Sammy?” he asked automatically, the hand far too large to be Lisa’s.

The person didn’t answer. Not at first.

But by that time, Dean had picked up the smell of fresh grass and the deeper scent of thunderstorms—causing his heart to start pounding like rain on a roof. And he realized that despite everything else he’d had to deal with this morning, this—this was what he’d been waiting for all along.

“No, it’s—it’s Castiel, Dean. I’m sorry to disturb your rest. But. I really must talk to you about something. And I’m afraid—you’re not going to like it.”

Chapter Text

24 Hours Earlier…

“Geez, Cas, what’s the 911 call about?” Charlie asked as soon as they reconnected over Zoom. “You know Dean’s gonna hate that we hung up on him like that.”

He did, but he knew something that the actor was going to hate even more. “He can no longer see or hear us, correct?” he made sure to confirm, unwilling to risk yet another massive technological blunder on his part.

“No. But I still don’t—”

“I’m his soulmate,” Cas cut her sentence off at the root. “Dean’s, that is. I’ve known all along and chose not to say anything. But given recent circumstances, it’s very likely that some unknown deviant has a picture of me with my soulmark on display and may leak it to the press, meaning I will have to disclose the truth to him soon. However, as his friend and social media manager, I thought I could discuss it with you first.”

“You—” she started.

“Are Dean’s soulmate, yes,” he repeated.

“—Can’t just say it like that!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air.

“I… What?” Cas asked, deeply confused.

“Dude!” Charlie was almost yelling. “That is major news! You need to—build up to it some! Haven’t you seen any superhero reveal their secret identity—ever?”

“I… wasn’t going for effect,” he pointed out.

“Well, you should’ve been! How many more times in your life are you going to get to drop a bomb like that?”

He thought about Dean again—not that he could really stop, considering his heart was burning through his chest like a falling star. “At least one too many times for my liking.”

But it appeared Charlie was only half-listening to him. “Did you ever watch Charmed? People finding out that Chris was Piper’s son—now that was a reveal. And they did it for, like, five episodes in a row.”

“Charlie,” he growled a warning, feeling very close to the end of his usually long-lasting patience.

Her green eyes snapped back into focus. “I’m sorry,” she said, and at least had the decency to look appropriately sheepish. “You’re sharing something deeply personal—and potentially explosive—and I should stop treating it like it’s a TV show.”

“That would be appreciated.”

Charlie nodded, a little slowly. “It’s just that I’m not surprised, really. Or at least, probably not as much as I should be. I know I haven’t spent that much time around you two together, but you do seem to—click. Not to mention those pictures.”

She bit her lip in thought. “I suppose I still have to ask, though—are you absolutely sure that you’re a match?”

Another wave of hurt rocked into him—and now that Dean was no longer around to see it, he allowed himself to rub at the offending place on his skin. “Yes, I’m sure. And, as you predicted, he’s very upset.”

“Wait,” Charlie commented, her eyes widening as they darted between his face and his hand. “Are you saying you can feel him right now? That that’s what the twin spazzing was all about?”

He nodded.

“Wow,” she muttered, her lips forming the ‘O’ shape for much longer than it took to get that single syllable out. “So, you’re not only soulmates. You’re soulmate-soulmates.”

He really must have been spending a lot of time around Dean, considering his first thought was, How about trying that again in English? “What do you mean by ‘soulmate-soulmates,’?” he questioned instead.

“Why don’t you sit down first? You look like you shouldn’t be vertical.”

It didn’t sound like the worst idea, so he pulled out his rolling desk chair.

“Most soulmate pairs aren’t—attuned—like that,” she explained while he sunk onto the padded seat. “They would probably feel something if the other died or was seriously, physically injured—like in a car accident—but you shouldn’t be able to tell Dean is—what? Peeved? Annoyed?”

“It’s more than that. I would say—distressed.”

“Still, he was clutching his mark—with what I’m gathering was your anxiety—even before you realized your phone was hacked.”

“I’ve always been able to feel him though,” he couldn’t help but mention. “Through high school, college. Not—like this—” he said, rubbing his chest in emphasis. “Not very often and not particularly strongly, but now that I know approximately when his father passed away—” He could remember the heartburn he’d had that week. He even went temporarily vegetarian, wondering if all the fatty meats he’d been eating were responsible.

Charlie stared at him. “Cas, I love you, and it’s been an eventful day, which is the only reason I’m not rolling my eyes here. Of course, it wouldn’t have been as strong when you were younger. You didn’t know each other then. Yeah, soulmates are about natural compatibility but it’s also about how you interact and grow your connection.”

He paused—a few seconds too long. “Well, it doesn’t matter,” he declared.

It did though. It mattered to him.

Even through the fog of his other emotions, Castiel felt warm at the thought that the bond between him and Dean was something special—profound—despite all of his failed attempts to distance himself. And that was wrong on so many levels. Dean—he had a family—one he loved. One that Cas had already brought distress to simply by being in Dean’s social circle. And now this blazing tattoo on his chest was probably going to upset Dean’s life even more.

“Charlie? Is there any way to figure out who accessed my phone? Or how much they got off of it?” he hoped out loud, even if that hope was likely in vain.

“The chances would definitely be better if I could examine it in person,” she admitted, blowing out a breath that sent strands of her hair flying upwards like the inflatables at a car dealership. “But—let’s see if I can talk you through some things.”

For several minutes, the author mindlessly pressed the keys that she told him to. When that apparently didn’t produce results, she had him open up the casing.

Surprisingly, it was Cas who noticed the problem first. “This isn’t my original SIM card,” he observed, picking out the small, blue chip. “When I upgraded phones, I had to transfer my old SIM card over. It was black.”

“The plot thickens. Since your phone still works and has all its contents, that means that someone took out your SIM card—probably to copy it—and then left behind the copy, not the original. They could only do that if they had physical access to your cell.” She flinched slightly, “If that’s the case—”

“Then they have all of my photos,” he finished, the dread he’d been feeling going from a liquid to a solid in his stomach.

Of course, none of this explained why—whoever it was—chose to give the press such an innocuous picture when they had a much more lucrative one on their hands. Was it possible the person didn’t recognize Dean’s soulmark? That seemed highly unlikely.

“I should at least be able to tell you when the switch happened,” Charlie continued apologetically. “Considering the SIM card would have been blank before that day. Just, um, pop it back in—”

He did so. Just as he followed all her other instructions. All the while doubting that, even with narrowed down parameters, he’d be able to single out the person who—

A date appeared on the screen. Simple black text on a white background. And yet, he could feel his back molars grinding together in disbelief.

That—that—perhot’ podzalupnaya, he thought, switching to Russian for the appropriate insult.

“Either you just solved the mystery and you’re about to kill someone—or you didn’t solve the mystery and are about to kill someone. But, either way, that’s definitely your ‘I will mess you up’ face,” Charlie informed him, distantly.

He didn’t bother answering. Only swiveled his chair around so that he was no longer facing her directly and selected the right contact from his address book.

It didn’t even ring once before the call was picked up. “Castiel, my fine feathered author,” the person on the end of the line exclaimed, voice curling luxuriously like smoke. “I’ve been meaning to check in on you.”

/////

It took Cas almost a minute of quiet seething before he could get two words out. “Why, Crowley?”

He could almost see the agent picking at an invisible thread on his suit. “Even you aren’t this socially unaware. The press is raving about you and that—special friend of yours. However, since you’re calling, I’ll take it to mean that none of the paparazzi has literally eaten you alive.”

“Why did you take the pictures from my phone?” Cas clarified, remembering the day of his book launch vividly—how the Brit had confiscated his cell for over an hour while he was distracted by interview questions.

There was only a half second’s pause on the other end to let him know the other man was caught off guard before Crowley responded as casually as ever. “Wanted to thank me for that, did you? The Righteous Man was about to fall off the bestseller’s charts and now it’s guaranteed—oh—another three weeks. At least. More if you actually did sleep with him.”

Castiel had never particularly wondered if his strength was enough to crush a cellphone, but if he wasn’t careful, he was about to find out. “There was no need to stoop to these kinds of tactics. The book was doing fine on its own.”

Fine? Yes. But in case you were unaware, I’m Crowley. I do better than fine,” the agent informed him. “Besides, you and that pretty denim-clad nightmare created most of the sensation yourself. I merely—helped fan the flames a little bit.”

Cas could feel his frown deepen further at the insults to Dean. “Well, I hope you enjoyed whatever profit you’ve made from this little stunt. I assure you I will be seeking new representation immediately.”

He went to hang up.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Crowley cut in—a sound that would undoubtedly have been accompanied by a waggling finger if he were there in person. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. According to the agreement you signed when you joined my agency, I represent your next two books in the Michael Gilles series with an option—on my part, of course—to take on your next two independent novels after that.”

“I would imagine that contract becomes null-and-void if you are facing legal charges for stealing my personal property,” Cas argued.

“Hmm, funny thing. The law isn’t as quick to adapt to modern times as technology is. Now there are rules making it illegal for someone to take your phone—but you willingly gave it to me in front of witnesses. There are also rules that say I’m not allowed to take your photo without your consent and then use it for my own purposes which, I assure you, I would never do. But there’s no rule saying I can’t—help myself—to pictures I just so happen to stumble across while babysitting your device.”

Castiel’s mind whirled like the inside of a tornado. That couldn’t possibly be true. “Surely, this counts as blackmail. Extortion.”

“Neither, I’m afraid, because I’m not asking you for anything—neither money nor favors—in exchange for the pictures. It’s a wonderful loophole. Definitely one of my top ten,” he mentioned with an audible grin.

Wherever Dean was, Cas apologized for the painful clenching in his heart that the actor was sure to feel. “I’m not going to let you get away with this,” he declared—equal parts unsure what he could do about it and absolutely certain that he would find a way.

Crowley gave a short laugh. “Even in the—near impossible—event that I overlooked something, need I remind you that I have one very interesting picture in my possession that you do not want the media getting their hands on?”

“I thought you said you weren’t blackmailing me,” Cas gritted in return.

“I wasn’t. Now I am. Try to keep up, Feathers,” he chided, along with the sound of shuffling that indicated the agent was rising to his feet. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Castiel, I have a lunch date to get to. Don’t worry. I’m sure that I and your righteous anger will be talking again soon.”

With that, Castiel was left with a dead phone-line—and Charlie watching him with concern from the computer.

Chapter Text

Cas felt far too tired for 12:30 in the afternoon, shoulders weighed down like he was carrying invisible wings.

“How much of that did you hear?” he questioned Charlie.

“Enough to know that your agent is now on my hit list. And trust me when I say, that besides being on Arya Stark’s hit list, there is no worse place to be,” she muttered over the sound of her typing.

“Could you do me a favor?”

“Didn’t you just hear me?” she said, raising her eyebrows but not her eyes in his direction. “I’m already on it.”

“Not that. Well, yes that, if you honestly think you can help. But Dean’s probably still waiting for us to call back and—I’m not prepared to talk to him right now.”

The clacking stopped.

Only to abruptly start back up again. “Yeah, I think I’m just gonna stick to the hacking.”

Charlie—”

“Nope. Not going to listen to your impassioned speech or look into your big, pleading blue eyes. Because you’re either asking me to tell Dean what’s going on for you, which—sorry my dude, not my place. Or you’re asking me to lie to him, which I have never successfully done in my life—especially about something this big—and especially over something he deserves to be looped in on.”

And with that, she went back to work, ducking her head slightly so that Cas was staring down the part of her hair.

He waited.

Even without him saying anything—or possibly because of it—it was obvious that her typing grew more and more agitated as the seconds passed. Eventually, she flicked her gaze up to his.

“Drat,” she muttered under her breath when she caught his expression. “Those eyes really should be illegal.”

Despite the situation, Cas managed a half of a smile.

“Unfortunately for you, the only other person with eyes that pretty is Dean.” (Cas would argue that Dean’s were much nicer.) “I mean it,” Charlie warned. “You make me look at those bad boys and I’m going to spill faster than Han Solo draws. And we all know he actually shot first, so—”

“You can explain that Crowley was the one to sell my pictures for the publicity. That should be enough truth to satisfy him for now.”

She opened her mouth to protest.

“I’m not going to keep the rest from him, Charlie,” Castiel promised sadly. After all, it was one thing to maintain his secret when the only person it meant hurting was himself. It was another to leave Dean in the dark with the current threat looming over their heads. “However, I’d prefer to do so in person.”

He hoped that would also give him some time… to gather himself together, to think of some way to soften the blow that Dean couldn’t possibly expect coming.

Speaking of blows—sudden, arching pain shot through his soulmark.

“Cas?”

“Dean’s upset,” he explained. (More than upset.) The balloon-like pressure in his chest felt almost like desperation. (Perhaps more than ‘almost.’)

But… why? Surely, this had to be about something more than being hung up on abruptly.

“Please, Charlie,” he pleaded lowly, a bright mauve thread of worry working into his voice.

She purposefully looked over his shoulder rather than at his face, but like a magnet, she was slowly drawn back to where she started.

Ugh,” she groaned in defeat.

/////

Ten minutes later, Charlie called Cas back.

“How is he?” he questioned first thing—only to have another notification pop up, saying that “Dean Winchester is requesting to join the meeting.” His heart rate shot up so dizzyingly fast, it could be mistaken for altitude sickness.

“That’s not him,” Charlie was quick to inform him. “It’s Sam on Dean’s account.”

“Sam?” he repeated, dazed.

“I mentioned the Crowley thing and he was outraged, obviously. Started talking about different legal precedents. Eventually, he just said he’d call you himself.”

“Oh.”

“So… are you going to answer him?”

For a second, he seriously considered not.

Then, he selected “Accept.”

“Cas!” Sam’s expression was open and concerned, and Castiel felt a rush of fondness for the youngest Winchester, who he hadn’t seen for close to two weeks now. “Charlie filled me in. I’m sorry that your agent turned out to be an unethical dick bag.”

“It is… quite an unfortunate circumstance.”

“But definitely not as bad as this Crowley guy’s making it out to be. At least I don’t think so. Okay, yes, cellphone laws are still in their infancy. No one’s quite sure if personal photos that aren’t copyrighted count as intellectual property or not. But if he switched your SIM cards, that means he took your physical property, which is for sure stealing—”

“So, I shouldn’t be trying to fry that?” Charlie broke into their conversation.

“Uh, what do you mean?” asked the pre-law student.

“SIM cards are attached to phone numbers. Meaning not only does Crowley have the data he originally copied off of Cas’s phone, but anytime Cas receives a call or a text, he has the ability to read it if he wants to.”

Cas’s jaw worked side to side, back molars grinding.

“That’s a good thing,” she informed the author.

“How?” he gritted.

“It means that if I send a spam text to your number and Crowley opens it, I can wipe his whole system. Now, that wouldn’t do anything for any photos he backed up to his computer or the Cloud, but—one problem at a time. That is—if you don’t mind me scrubbing the evidence?”

Sam hesitated over that. But Cas didn’t. “I want his access curtailed as much as possible.”

“This will probably put your cellphone out of commission too,” she warned.

“That’s fine. I have all important numbers memorized. I can purchase a new device.”

Charlie nodded, definitely. “Give me a few minutes then.”

The thing about Charlie is that it always became incredibly obvious when she stopped talking—and in the quiet she left, the questions that Sam wasn’t asking sounded loudly in Cas’s ears. The barely audible whrrrrl coming from the fans inside his computer sounded like Sam’s anticipation.

“I probably owe you an explanation,” the author sighed in the direction of the other man.

“Hey, Cas, if there’s something you’re not ready to share, you don’t have to,” Sam responded. He said it as if he meant it—but also like he really wanted to know what this was all about. The suspense Charlie had been wishing for earlier built in Cas’s stomach.

“That’s the problem,” he admitted. “It’s not just about me. I’m…”

Sam leaned forward unconsciously, but for some reason, the words that had poured out of Cas before wouldn’t come this time.

Huffing in annoyance at himself, he picked up his soon-to-be out-of-commission phone, found the right picture, and shoved it toward the computer screen, watching as Sam tried to take in what Cas was showing him.

Now, logically, Cas knew that time didn’t actually slow down for significant events. Instead, the spike in adrenaline caused one’s brain to pick up on more details than normal, encoding the memory more fully so that a person perceived the incident as taking longer. However, knowing that didn’t stop the next five seconds from being some of the most drawn-out of his life.

Eventually, Sam covered his face with his hands.

Cas believed he had been getting better at reading people’s expressions lately—but how was he supposed to interpret that?

And then—even more bewildering to him—was the realization that the soft rumbling sound he could hear growing louder was Sam laughing.

“I—don’t understand,” he stuttered.

“You’re Dean’s soulmate.”

“That wasn’t the part I was referring to,” Cas informed him.

“God,” Sam exhaled, moving his hands, and wiping a tear from his eyes. “Dean hates chick flicks. Do you know how pissed he’s gonna be to find out his life has become one?”

“I don’t anticipate him taking the news well, no,” Cas admitted, testily, feeling like his heart was an overripe grapefruit that someone was ripping open. Still, that was something to think about—later. “Are you angry, Sam?” he asked, tentatively.

“At you?” Sam clarified, then shook his head. “No. At your agent? Hell yeah.”

“I lied to both of you—by omission—for months,” Cas reminded him.

“And if I was in your position, I probably would have done the same thing,” Sam told him, suddenly serious. He ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s actually something I thought about,” Sam acknowledged. “Before I met Jess. What I’d do if I found my soulmate and they were dating someone else. When I was with Ruby—I wondered what I’d do if I bumped into my match by accident. I mean, it’s hard not to think of things like that, while you’re waiting.”

“I didn’t,” Cas told him. “I never imagined any of this happening. And I especially didn’t want you—or Dean—to find out this way.”

“Did you want us to find out at all?” Sam asked.

Cas figured that the question was rhetorical, so he didn’t bother answering it. Instead, he switched topics. “Crowley implied he wouldn’t give this photo out as long as I didn’t provoke him. But I find it difficult to trust his word at the moment.”

Sam unrolled his shoulders. “So… we’ll find a way to stop him.”

“What if we can’t?”

“Then the press will know,” Sam stated the obvious. “Believe it or not, Cas, it’s not the worst thing that could happen. I honestly expected this all to come out years ago when Dean’s soulmark got released… Dean did, too. I mean, the media had a lot of motivation to find you.”

“I was careful. Or… I thought I was,” Cas muttered, wondering for the hundredth time in the last hour why he hadn’t deleted that photo ages ago. It had just seemed… wrong somehow. Especially when he thought he and Dean were never going to come into contact—it was a pleasant reminder that he did have a soulmate out there. Someone who woke up every day and saw the same phoenix he did.

When Sam spoke again, his voice was soft. “Now I was going to ask you to email me your literary agency contract to review—but now I think it might be better if I just come to you.”

“Why would that be better?” Cas asked, aware he only had a digital copy of it.

“Well, for starters, Dean went for a drive, so it’s not like he’ll notice I’m gone. And… it sorta seems like you could use a friend right now.”

“Hey!” a bright voice interrupted—Charlie inserting herself into the conversation for the first time in several minutes, even though it was likely she had been listening intensely the whole time. “No fair. I would totally go there to hug Cas if I could.”

“I’m sure you can make it up to him later,” Sam countered. And even though Cas was still stressed, their banter let a few beads of tension run off him—like water in a shower.

Cas knew that what he felt for them wasn’t quite as intense as the way he cared for Dean—which made sense, considering the near-impossible scope of the latter—but at that moment, he couldn’t help but think that he loved them both very, very much.

Chapter Text

Cas remembered just as he was opening the door that he’d never had Sam over to his place before. But he figured that if the other man didn’t care that he was secretly his brother’s soulmate, then he probably wouldn’t mind if Cas’s apartment was messier than usual.

Maybe Sam noticed and maybe he didn’t. However, the only thing he commented on was the 7 ft. tall crossword puzzle that Cas had taped to one wall. It was something he tended to work on during periods of writer’s block. “I think 18 across is ‘Purgatory’,” the taller man said, tapping a spot high enough up on the poster that Cas couldn’t even read it. Cas had enough faith in Sam to let him fill it in with pen.

“Uh, guys?” Charlie called from Cas’s computer screen. “Bigger fish to fry. And serve with a side of chips in true British fashion,” she reminded them.

“Right.” “Apologies.” Sam and Cas said at the same time.

For the next several hours, Charlie worked to implant bugs in the agent’s home computer network and scoured bank and court records for useful information (“Oh, look who used to go by a different name and is ten years behind on child support payments?” she announced, upon finding out about Crowley’s son, Gavin) while Sam went over the frankly insane number of pages that was Cas’s contract with the agent, trying to look for loopholes.

It made Cas feel better and worse at the same time. Better because they obviously did have some things to hold over Crowley, but nothing that could reverse time and stop the other man from having the soulmark picture in the first place. Meaning they couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t be leaked.

Eventually, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, Charlie’s job called—needing her help with an emergency patch of their systems—“But I promise, before long, we’ll have so much dirt on the guy that he’ll look like a vampire does after meeting Buffy.”

Cas supposed that was meant to be positive.

In the slight emptiness she left behind, Cas saw Sam check his phone. He’d sent a couple of texts to his brother throughout the day, trying to gauge when he would be home.

“Still no word from Dean?” Cas asked, trying for casual and fearing he failed miserably.

“No,” Sam conceded, setting his phone down beside him where he sat on the corner of Cas’s bed. “But to be honest, I never really expect him to answer when he’s like this.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, you know…” Sam answered after a beat. “He just has some things on his mind.”

“I don’t know, actually,” Cas informed him, still feeling the echoes of Dean’s sudden distress in his chest. “I would’ve thought Dean would be impatient to hear what Charlie and I discovered—but now he’s avoiding talking to anybody. Did something happen?”

The overhead fan in the room spun, casting strange shadows over Sam’s face while he seemed to weigh his options. “Yeah. Something did,” he admitted at last. “…but I can’t tell you what.”

“Not because of your mark or because Dean doesn’t trust you,” the other man was quick to specify, as if he was seeing directly into the paranoia in Cas’s mind. “It’s just—you deserve to be the one to tell Dean that you’re soulmates, and Dean deserves to be the one to tell you about his thing, okay? It’s not my place to meddle,” Sam declared. “…More than I already have,” he muttered under his breath.

Unfortunately, Cas couldn’t fault his logic there. Still, he found it hard to focus on his own task—which involved combing through his emails and other correspondence with Crowley for anything potentially useful. The hand-shaped icon indicating where his mouse was on the screen almost looked like it was giving him the middle finger.

“How… do you think Dean will react? …To this? To me?” he braved asking Sam after a moment.

Sam sighed heavily, also giving up the pretense of working. “Honestly?”

Cas nodded.

“I don’t know. But… probably not great.”

Cas’s spirits sunk as heavily as a stone being dropped into a lake.

“It’s not you that would be the problem,” Sam tried to reassure him. “But Dean and the whole soulmate thing….”

“I’m aware,” Cas murmured, looking beyond Sam to the far wall.

“Hey,” his friend said, to draw his attention back again. “Even if he does freak out, he’ll get over it.”

Cas wanted to believe that—more than he had possibly ever wanted anything—but it just seemed like it was too much to ask. Even if Dean kept talking to him afterward, he worried it wouldn’t be the same—that Dean would constantly have the sense that he was being manipulated—either by the universe or Cas—whenever they were together.

“I’m serious,” Sam spoke up when Cas had been quiet for a while. “There’s no way he’s gonna cut you out.”

“Even if Dean is able to overlook that we’re matched, I doubt Lisa will be comfortable with me being around as much,” Cas argued. “She’s seemed—more cautious—of me lately,” he explained, choosing his words carefully.

He recognized his own fault in that. The day of Dean’s interview, he’d had good intentions when he tried to soothe Dean’s nerves. But a guilty, selfish part of him liked being singled-out as someone who could help Dean when others couldn’t. When Lisa couldn’t.

Sam seemed to acknowledge the complexities of what Cas didn’t say with a half-smile, half-grimace. “I still think that, no matter what, you and Dean are going to be in each other’s lives. He’s more… himself when he’s with you. And he’d be less of himself without you. No one who knows him and cares about him can be immune to that.”

Cas hesitated, then nodded, but it was more to placate Sam than because he agreed with him.

Reluctantly, he went back to digging through his email log, uncomfortably reminded that Crowley was a good agent—at least when it came to editing and remolding some of Cas’s weaker plotlines. Who knows what would happen to the half-finished novel he had on his desktop now?

“Cas…?” Sam prompted, after about ten minutes.

“Yes, Sam?”

“I know you’re picturing worst-case scenarios, but… What would you like to happen between you and Dean?”

Cas had often been told by Gabriel that he looked like he had a metal rod shoved up his ass into his spine because of how straight he sat. But now he felt as if that metal rod had been electrocuted.

He should have been expecting this question. But, for some reason, he’d imagined it coming from Charlie—someone who didn’t live in the same house as Dean and Lisa, seeing first-hand how happy they were together and why Cas’s fantasy could never be reality. “I enjoy being Dean’s friend. Being a part of his life is more than enough,” he responded slowly—but truthfully.

“Alright, but… how do you feel about him?”

Cas’s forehead furrowed. Was it fair for Sam to be asking him this? Probably not—but Cas at least thought the other man would back off if he told him to.

(Did he want him to?)

These last few months had been wonderful and exhilarating and also extremely difficult for the author. So much had changed. He was more sociable than he was in college—and yet, this one secret had made sure that at least some of the barrier between him and other people remained. Even when he was talking to Gabriel about his developing connection with Dean, he wasn’t as honest as he longed to be—just because he knew what his cousin would push him to do about it.

Here, in the relative safety of his apartment—Sam just seemed to want to listen.

“Do you ever consider how miraculous life on Earth is?” he began.

Sam frowned confusedly as he continued. “It required a near-endless number of things to happen at exactly the right place and time. The correct combination of dust and gases had to be drawn close enough to each other to form the planet and to create a magnetic field to protect us from the sun’s rays.

“The sun had to be the right size to be stable, and far enough away to warm the surface without frying us. The moon had to get caught by the Earth’s gravity to help preserve our orbit. And from this highly improbable series of events, we got liquid water, which in turn spawned microscopic beings that had to evolve for billions of years before plants and animals and humans could even be dreamed of.”

“That is… something—” Sam agreed, still clearly wondering where he was going with this.

Cas’s lips barely turned up at the corners. “I think about it sometimes when I visit the Botanical Garden or watch bees flying around: how things like flowers and insects probably shouldn’t exist at all. Our world is filled with endless miracles.

“And yet, there doesn’t have to be a reason for a miracle. Probably a lot of times there isn’t. The presence of life on Earth can be attributed to chance—or coincidence—with no clear goal in mind. At least, I always assumed so.”

He turned to Sam steadily, his sad smile growing both wider and sadder. “But I don’t really believe that anymore. Because if none of those things happened, your brother wouldn’t be here, and I can’t imagine that.”

Worse, he didn’t know when that shift occurred. When he went from believing he had his emotions under control to realizing that his universe—at least partially—revolved around Dean Winchester.

And yet, he shrugged his shoulders, as if he was talking about nothing more than the weather.

“How do you think Dean would like that as a ‘chick flick’ moment?” he asked wryly.

“Cas…” Sam began.

But Cas’s face must have warned Sam that this was not a topic he wanted to linger on because the pre-law student then shook his head. “You, uh… You want to order in something to eat? Reading ‘mutuality of agreement’ and ‘mutuality of obligation’ over and over is lowering my blood sugar.”

The author let out a relieved breath. “There’s a Thai place I order delivery from that I think you would enjoy,” he suggested.

“Yeah. Good. Great,” Sam replied. “Whatever you want, Cas.”

/////

45 minutes later, the two of them took a break from Crowley research to eat and watch Nicolas Cage’s The History of Swear Words on Netflix. They were in the middle of an episode when they got done with dinner and somehow staying on the couch to finish it turned into watching two more.

Maybe because of this, when they did go back to work, they weren’t as silent as before. Instead, Cas would read out loud some of the more colorful things Crowley wrote in emails and Sam would interrupt his review of the contract to tell stories from his time at Stanford.

It helped. While the stomach-churning worry Cas had about confessing to Dean didn’t ever really disappear, he was able to forget about it for several minutes at a time whenever he was chuckling at one of Sam’s jokes.

The youngest Winchester was in the middle of talking about how he and his dormmates hid a dog in their room for two semesters when Sam’s phone buzzed.

Both sets of eyes snapped to it instantly.

“Dean?” Cas asked as Sam went to pick the device.

“No. Lisa,” Sam responded.

That didn’t particularly make Cas feel better about the situation.

“She said that Dean’s not planning on making it home tonight,” the other man said with a frown. Then, his expression turned around. “But, hey, if you don’t mind me crashing in your guest room, that means that we can keep doing this—or just hang out—and then I can drive you back with me in the morning?”

In other words, Sam knew that this was going to be a hard night for Cas—and he was offering to not let him deal with alone.

“I—” Cas cleared his throat where it had swollen up with gratitude. “Of course, you can stay, Sam.”

Chapter Text

The next morning…

Cas paused outside the door to the Dean Cave. He’d tried knocking. No response. Eventually, Sam pushed him forward—a silent entreaty to go in anyway. So, taking a deep breath, he did.

Dean was fast asleep on the couch, still in his jeans.

His hair was sticking up on one side and flat on the other; there were lines on his left cheek from where he’d likely had it smashed against the couch cushions; and there were dark circles under his eyes that indicated he probably could use all the rest he could get.

In short, the actor was as beautiful as he always was.

But even if Cas wanted to, he couldn’t spend forever watching him nap. So, rather than give himself time to think about what he was about to do, he fit his hand to Dean’s shoulder and shook him awake.

“Sammy?” the actor mumbled, stumbling over the syllables like someone trying to find their way around an unfamiliar room in the dark.

“No, it’s—it’s Castiel,” he said, flinching slightly at his return to his full name, as if he was mentally preparing himself for Dean to take back the closeness a nickname implied. “I’m sorry to disturb your rest. But. I really must talk to you about something. And I’m afraid… I’m afraid you’re not going to like it.”

Green eyes finally opened, dark pupils growing larger and smaller again as they tried adjusting to the light and Cas’s presence.

Belatedly, Castiel realized he probably shouldn’t be hovering over the other man like this and took a half-step back. Or tried to. Dean’s arm shot out to grab his—fingers circling his wrist. “Cas?”

For whatever reason, Cas wondered if the actor was trying to take his pulse. If that were the case, he’d probably find it was very fast at the moment.

“Whatcha, uh, doing here, Man? Thought we were keeping a low profile?” Dean’s voice was still husky but getting clearer.

“I know,” Cas said. “But I had something pressing to speak to you about, and Sam and I weren’t able to reach you—”

Alarm caused Dean to shoot up.

Shit. No one’s hurt, right? Or… wait—” He appeared fully awake finally. “Is this about the hacking thing? Did something go down?”

“That is… a part of what I wanted to discuss with you,” Cas conceded—stomach twisting so much that he was even more sure he’d made the right call refusing breakfast.

“Okaaaaay…” A frown formed between Dean’s eyebrows to match the one on his lips. “Well, are you going to tell me what’s up or just Van Helsing me some more? ‘Cause I gotta say—you look hella nervous right now and it’s kind of freaking me out.”

Despite his words and furrowed forehead, the rest of Dean’s body seemed fairly relaxed; his hand was still on Castiel’s wrist, thumb unconsciously running back and forth over a quarter-inch of skin, and… This is not the time to think about how nice that feels. Instead, Cas slowly extracted himself from his grip.

Dean flushed when he realized that Cas was trying to get away—snatching his hand back like it had been burned. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“No, that was… I didn’t mind,” Castiel insisted. “I just need two hands for this,” he explained, reaching for the topmost button of his shirt.

“I suppose I should start by saying that it was my agent that accessed my phone records,” he mentioned, slipping the button out of its hole. “The day of my launch. He confiscated it before my reading.”

“Uh… what?” Dean asked, distracted.

Cas’s fingers shook slightly as he worked to open another button. “Crowley. He wanted you to give it back to me, if you recall?”

Dean looked up at him, dazed.

“Do you… not remember that?”

“I’m sorry,” Dean responded. “Can we, uh, rewind for a moment? Maybe start with why you’re stripping for me?”

“I’m—” not. Was Cas’s automatic thought. Except, he realized, he sort of was.

“I mean, if you just felt like putting on a show, that’s cool. But at least let me turn on some music and grab a beer first,” the actor tacked on, jerking his thumb in the direction of the kitchen.

Of course, Dean was joking.

Here Cas was, worried about the possibility of breaking his and Dean’s friendship forever, and the actor was making jokes about it.

At least, his glare seemed to get the point across as Dean held up his hands in surrender.

“Alright, alright, start again,” he instructed. “I’m listening.”

“My agent took my phone on the day of The Righteous Man’s release so that he could copy its contents,” Cas repeated slowly.

At last, dark understanding seemed to replace the teasing light in Dean’s expression.

But Castiel knew that was far from all of it. “Among the pictures he now has at his disposal is…” He braced himself, “…one of my soulmark. There’s a chance he’ll give it to the media to stoke the press coverage around us.”

“I’ll kill him,” the actor said immediately.

“Dean—”

“No, don’t ‘Dean’ me. It’s one thing for some sleazebag to send a drone to get photos of me half-naked on vacation. I kinda signed up for that. But this asshat works for you.”

“Technically, it’s more of a partnership.”

“The fuck it is! You know, it’s guys like this that are the reason that Brits are villains in every TV show and movie ever.”

The actor got up with a growl to pace, the bow of his legs somehow even more prominent than usual. “What’s his angle? Get your soulmate to pop out of the woodwork to cause more drama? That’s not even smart. The media is all hot for us right now. Not some redshirt.”

Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Dean hunched over, clutching his chest with a muffled, “Ow.

The author was there within a few seconds to support him. “I’m very, very sorry,” he murmured.

“It’s fine. With any luck, I just swallowed a meteorite in my sleep,” Dean hissed—and yet, it wasn’t pain, but worry in his gaze when he looked up at Cas again. “The crap that happened after my mark came out… You shouldn’t have to deal with that,” he said, softly, and all Castiel could do was hope—with every fiber of his being—that Dean’s empathy for his situation would hold through the next revelation.

“Do you think…” Dean started, then roughly adjusted his tone to sound more casual. “I mean, I know you’re not big on the soulmate stuff… But if you find out who they are, would you… want to give that a shot?”

Castiel swallowed. This was it. He couldn’t ignore a direct question, and so far, he’d never once lied to Dean. He wanted to keep it that way. “Dean, I know who my soulmate is,” he admitted, as steadily as he could manage. “I have for years.”

Dean blinked. “You—Really?

“Yes.”

Dean’s lips began to form a question. But then he hesitated, pausing to wet them instead. This happened several more times before he settled on, “Have you… talked to them?”

“I have,” Castiel conceded, which didn’t seem to be the answer Dean was expecting either.

Nerves pounding through his blood, the author went back to undoing buttons, working faster this time so that Dean couldn’t interrupt him.

“Cas—" the other man tried anyway, something undefinable in his voice.

But with the third button finished, Cas simply wrenched the left side of his shirt open, ignoring the way the fabric stretched and tore a little.

Dean’s eyes dropped automatically and almost-guiltily to his now-bared chest.

And then froze in place. In fact, all of Dean’s body was suddenly, unnaturally rigid.

Castiel tried not to move either. But half-exposed in the air-conditioned room, a shiver wracked through him anyway, causing the phoenix’s wings to rise and fall. And just like that… Dean’s jaw clenched.

The hope Cas had been carrying burned.

“If you just let me explain—” he began, almost tasting the ash in his mouth.

Let you? Let you explain?” Dean snapped, throwing his hands up in the air. “Seems like you’ve had plenty of time to explain in the last three months. Heck, you said you’ve known for years!”

“It’s not that simple—"

“Bullshit!” Dean interrupted. “We talked about this—about soulmates—for hours. I told you things that I’ve never told anyone. And meanwhile, you didn’t think that this—” he pointed between them— ”was worth sharing with the class?”

“You’ve made it very clear to the public how you feel about finding your match,” Castiel argued over Dean’s scoff. “When you came in for the Michael auditions, I was shocked. I didn’t know how to react. And then by the time we became friends, I—I didn’t want to lose you.”

Dean’s scowl only deepened. “Newsflash, Cas—if you can only keep someone around by lying to them, you don’t really have them to begin with.”

That hurt. Sharply. Like the metal tip of a spear just out of the fire.

“Goddammit!” Dean cursed in unison. And then his eyes caught on Cas rubbing his soulmark in synchronicity and his expression got even darker. “Wait. Are you the reason for this—this—whatever the hell this is?”

Castiel nodded, reluctantly. “The universe has a sense of irony. It seems to take the ‘what hurts you, hurts me’ philosophy to soulmates quite literally.”

“Well, that’s just fuckin’ fantastic.” The actor flopped back on his recliner, folding his arms over his face.

And yet, Cas took it as somewhat of a good sign that the actor hadn’t completely stormed out of the room.

“Please don’t act like this,” he practically pleaded. “You have to know I would never harm you intentionally. Being your soulmate—it’s not something I chose. And if I could change it, I would.”

Apparently, it was the wrong thing to say because Dean’s posture went from forced-casual to radiating tension in a heartbeat. “So, you don’t… want… to be my soulmate then?” he asked.

“I… I want to be someone you trust,” Cas responded at last, pacing his response slowly. “Someone who’s allowed to be there for you—and care about you. That seems mutually exclusive with being your soulmate.”

Dean rolled his head back again. “Are you sure you even do? …Care?” he muttered, going for dismissive.

But Castiel could see the underlying colors in him. “Of course, I do,” he said, as sincerely as he could manage.

“You basically admitted the universe shoved us together with this whole movie deal. Who’s to say that you don’t just have weird soulmate Stockholm syndrome? What if none of this was ever real?”

And even though Castiel had predicted that this was where Dean’s mind would go, now that the moment was here, he couldn’t believe that the actor had so little faith in him. In them. “It might have been destiny for us to meet, but the journey we took afterward was ours.”

Dean snorted, “Yeah, right.”

“You’ve seen your father choose a path that led him away from his soulmate. So did my mother. We’re not—following a script.”

“Maybe, maybe not. With the last 24 hours that I’ve had, I don’t know if I could tell the difference between up and down anymore.”

That gave Cas pause. He’d forgotten Dean’s sudden need to take a road trip. And whatever triggered the actor’s fight-or-flight instincts was piled on top of an already stressful week.

But while the hollowness in his voice made him more empathetic, it didn’t make him any less sure that he was right. Stalking over to where the actor rested, he grabbed the arm that Dean was using as a visor and lifted it off his face. “If you want to reconsider our friendship in light of this new information, that’s your prerogative. I can’t force you to do otherwise. But you don’t get to think I don’t care about you.

“I do. So much.

“And it has nothing to do with the mark on your chest and everything to do with the kind of person you are. The way you smile every time you talk about Sam or Ben like their victories are your victories. The way you connect disparate ideas together to make me think about situations in a new light—all while never giving yourself credit for it. The way you get excited riding in Baby or eating your favorite burger no matter how many times you’ve done it. Those are things I would admire in anyone, but I found them in you.”

“Those are pretty words, Cas,” Dean spoke wryly, as he took his arm back. “It’s almost like you’re a writer.”

Suddenly, Cas knew that even if Dean was hearing him, he wasn’t listening. Maybe the news was too fresh… Maybe Dean was just too stubborn… But he wouldn’t find out which right now.

He took a final look at the actor, who was in a similar position to when Cas had arrived—except, instead of napping peacefully, his body language was all a lie. Dean looked like one of his magazine spreads—muscles tight, smirk in place—exactly the way Cas didn’t like to see him. And yet, he was still beautiful. Because he was Dean.

“Charlie, Sam, and I will deal with Crowley,” he promised, before taking a step back.

And Dean didn’t stop him.

Not when he reached the door either. Or when he turned the knob.

And then, when he finally did hear his name—“Cas,” the surprised voice said—it wasn’t Dean speaking, but Lisa, who stood just outside in the living room. Immediately, her eyes drifted to where his shirt was still open and flapping behind him on an invisible breeze.

Cas had had many awkward moments in his life—but perhaps, none so awkward as this.

“I was just leaving,” he stated before side-stepping to go find Sam.

Chapter Text

Castiel would like to say that he was taking Dean’s sudden absence from his life well. However, by most accounts, he was not. For the first few days after the reveal of his soulmark, he tried to stay busy. Unfortunately, he was used to filling his time with writing, which was also a pain point at the moment.

So, he jogged; he deep-cleaned his bathtub and reorganized his kitchen; he worked on his crossword puzzle; and, at one point, decided to buy every strange kind of Oreo he could find at the grocery store to decide which flavor he liked best. So far, everything but the original and the Double-Stuf varieties was disappointing.

Eventually, he gave up attempting to be productive; he stayed in sweats and tried to take naps to make up for the sleep he wasn’t fully getting at night; he ate more of the Oreos he hated and spent way too many hours watching a show called Orange Is the New Black. The apartment he had recently made spotless turned messy again.

A voice in his head told him he was being pathetic. He didn’t argue with it—it was true. Also, the caramel apple Oreos were definitely the worst, he decided, wrinkling his nose as he chewed.

His social interactions had also decreased substantially; he answered Sam’s and Charlie’s messages, insofar as they were Crowley-related, but ignored any questions they had that veered into the personal.

At one point, Sam must have gotten fed up because he showed up outside of the author’s apartment. He could tell it was Sam because of how much higher up on the door he knocked than other people.

Castiel pretended that he wasn’t home.

Before, he’d been worried about losing the younger Winchester’s friendship if Dean decided he didn’t want anything to do with him. And yet, here he was, doing the pulling away.

He didn’t believe his current inertia was permanent. He would be pathetic for a little while—and then, he’d get better—because that’s what life was. A series of ups and downs—and even going through the motions, he’d find himself up again eventually.

But for now, he allowed himself to be sad. And angry. And sorry. And regretful.

If only at a distance.

If only like an echo.

/////

Just because he had given himself permission to wallow didn’t mean that others had.

As he discovered either Sunday or Monday when the peace of the morning was broken by, of all things, accordion music.

Almost immediately, voices were added to the mix—Castiel’s neighbors yelling “Shut up!” and “What the hell?” from down the hall.

Castiel paused in the middle of shuffling around his kitchen, curious despite himself. Then, the playing got louder.

“Castle Novak?” spoke a man’s muffled voice from right outside his apartment. “I was paid a lot of money to keep going ‘til you answer,” the mystery man announced over his spitting rendition of nails on a chalkboard.

Cas dropped his tea mug on the counter awkwardly enough that it tottered in place for a few seconds before settling. But by then, he’d already made it across the living room.

“By who?” he demanded, swinging the front door open. Only to regret that decision instantly.

There was a bright pink gorilla standing on his welcome mat. Or at least a person dressed as one. He blinked to see if that would make the sight go away, but the color was so vivid, it burned into his retinas.

“Some guy named Gabriel,” the gorilla answered.

An instinctive growl came out of the author. Of course, Gabriel was involved. Only agents of his cousin could be this annoying.

“Well, seeing as I’ve answered, you may go now,” he told the intruder, attempting to swing the door closed again. The creature blocked him by sticking one of its neon-colored feet through the opening.

Castiel glared past the mesh red eyes to whoever was inside the costume until he snatched his leg back.

Technically, the deal was that I had to get you to call him. Or else, he said, he was going to buy a plane ticket to check on you himself.” Castiel glared harder. “Sir?” the gorilla tried, as if that would in any way improve his mood.

“Leave. Now. Please,” Castiel said, tacking on the last word as his only concession to civility—before slamming the door shut. Then, grumbling under his breath, he stalked over to his bedroom—and his computer desk—where the new cellphone he’d had for two days sat barely touched.

“What do you want, Gabriel?” he asked testily as soon as the line connected.

His cousin clucked his tongue. “Is that any way to speak to your family?”

A chill went up Castiel’s spine. Déjà vu.

“Yes,” he’d responded vehemently three years ago, sitting on the twin-sized bed of his college dorm room.

“Touché,” his cousin had responded before adding, “Is that any way to talk to the person who just discovered the love of your life?”

Castiel’s throat swelled up.

Blinking rapidly, he cast his eyes to the ceiling and left them there.

“Seriously, Gabriel,” he said, trying to keep his voice as low and even as possible. “There are easier ways of contacting me than enlisting a… a… sing-a-gram… to come to my door.”

His cousin gave a loud snort. “You say that as if I haven’t called you a dozen times in the last week.”

He winced—not having thought of that. “I procured a new phone recently,” he mumbled.

“And you didn’t think I’d like to know the number?”

“I was going to give it to you, obviously. I just… hadn’t yet.” In fact, only two people had it; and he figured Dean could get it through Sam if necessary.

There was a surge of inaudible background noise; followed by a strong huff. “Look, little cuz,” the other man said, voice somehow cutting and soft at the same time—the way a sword was still sharp inside its sheath. “As much as I’d love to ask a bunch of questions and have you come up with a ton of excuses that I’d crumble into dust, I’m sort of on a time-crunch here. So… what do you say we skip all that and you tell me what happened between you and boy toy, huh? While you’re at it—do you know how much home insurance he’s got? Because I was thinking termite-carrying drones.”

Castiel’s eyes snapped front again—even though Gabriel wasn’t present to examine. “Wh-what do you mean?” he stuttered. More like How could he know? Had Sam told his cousin that he and Dean were fighting?

Gabriel’s sigh was long and deep-suffering. “Cassie… I haven’t heard from you in a week,” his cousin reminded him. “Then I wake up this morning to see Ken Doll’s face plastered over half of my timeline. It didn’t take much to put the right balls in holes.”

Castiel’s feet moved him over to his computer chair before he consciously thought about it. “What’s being said about Dean?” Castiel asked tightly, realizing that he hadn’t used the computer in so long that it had completely shut itself off. He punched the power button harder than necessary. Did Crowley release the soulmark picture? Why wasn’t I paying attention?

And yet, even with the nervous churning in his gut, he realized that didn’t make sense. Charlie would have told him if the picture went public before Gabriel could send a bright pink ape to his apartment. Right? Right?

The pause from the other end of the phone was like the sound a drum makes the moment before it gets played. “You… haven’t seen the news yet?” Gabriel’s tone was cautious—never a good sign.

“I’ve been… unwell… the last few days,” he explained, as icons started popping up like flowers on his desktop display.

“I bet you have,” his cousin muttered darkly under his breath. “I also bet you’d feel much better if a certain someone’s dick were to just—fall off. I can absolutely make that happen, you know.”

“Gabriel!” Castiel snapped, squeezing the phone hard enough that it almost slipped through his fingers since it didn’t yet have a case. “Tell me what’s happened.”

Another pause.

“I sent a link to your email,” Gabe offered, resigned. It was yet another echo of that long-ago conversation.

And just like back then, Castiel shook slightly—wondering if this was going to be another one of those moments where his life would become something a little different on the other side.

He clicked the URL.

And then read and reread the heading at the top of the page, struggling to understand the words even though they were written in stark black and white:

Dean Winchester Marries Lisa Braeden, the heading repeated each and every time.

Chapter Text

 

For weeks, speculation has run rampant that Dean Winchester and Lisa Braeden—one of Hollywood’s most talked-about and most private couples—were on the verge of a breakup. However, it seems that the Red Hood actors are putting those rumors to rest with their surprise nuptials.

A source inside the Beverly Hills Courthouse confirmed that the two visited the clerk’s office last Thursday—likely for their wedding license. They returned Saturday morning for a simple ceremony, performed by Judge Ishim Sunder in the presence of their close family…

Castiel read the rest of the article, feeling increasingly numb.

It mentioned Lisa’s first husband and gave a timeline of her relationship with Dean. Castiel’s name was not forgotten—as the magazine writer detailed the public’s recent interest in his and Dean’s friendship and his apparent absence at the wedding.

And yet, what drew Cas’s attention the most were photos supposedly taken in front of the courthouse by passersby just yesterday.

They featured Lisa in a pale pink dress with three flowered clips in her hair and Dean in a charcoal grey suit. They both were flashing shy smiles down at Ben, who walked between them in a button-down shirt and slacks.

Out of focus of the frame but still noticeable was Sam.

For a second, Castiel absorbed the idea that Sam hadn’t bothered telling him this was happening. In the next, he remembered the younger Winchester’s impromptu visit to his apartment. And somehow, that made it much, much worse.

“Cassie? …Cassie?” he heard as if from far away.

“I’m—here. I’m—sorry.”

“From where I’m standing, it’s not you who should be sorry,” his cousin retorted.

But Castiel was already shaking his head. “I’m grateful for your bias in this situation, but that’s not true,” he said. Three years ago, he’d made a choice. And he’d made the same choice again when he met Dean—and every moment they’d spent together since then. He did it with full knowledge of the potential consequences. And now he had to live with them.

Although, he reminded himself, Dean marrying Lisa had nothing to do with Cas’s soulmark.

Logically, it had nothing to do with Cas at all.

Dean and Lisa had been dating for four years… Maybe they thought it was time.

And yet… and yet…

Dean would have told Cas if this was any kind of long-term plan. That he didn’t meant that it was a sudden decision—something that had happened in the last week or so…

Everything he had been trying not to feel for days seeped into the edges of his consciousness like a piece of paper laid out on water. And this time, he couldn’t push it away.

Dean and Lisa don’t belong together, he whispered, guiltily, inside his head.

Not because she wasn’t wonderful. (She was.) And not because she didn’t love Dean (How could she not?) But because—because.

The sense of wrongness may have started in Castiel’s soulmark but went all the way down to his bones.

If Dean was happy with her, that should be all that mattered, he told himself. But he could be happier, a voice argued back.

Probably, it was born of wishful thinking—but it felt like the truth.

Lisa didn’t see Dean. Not his full spectrum, at any rate. She might glimpse his bright greens and his burning golds and his crackling reds—but not the subtle orange or the camouflage brown or the black so dark it was almost purple. And if she noticed his every pastel blue had a hint of storm-cloud grey in it, she acted like she didn’t.

No, no. You’re not being fair, Castiel thought, angry at himself and Lisa and Dean all at once, even though the last two were unjustified.

Or maybe he was just sad, he didn’t know. Earlier, he’d thought of himself as an echo. He’d forgotten that for pain to have an echo, it must first be very, very loud.

Vaguely, he was aware that Gabriel was talking to him again.

“Apologies. Could you repeat that?” Castiel asked, eyes refocusing on the picture on his screen and then away.

Gabriel gave a groan. “You’re in rough shape, cuz.”

“Yes,” he responded simply. “But I don’t see why you have to mention it.”

“Have you met me?” Gabe countered, as background noise ebbed and flowed around him. Shuffling, like he was in a crowd of people. A crackle of static like someone giving an announcement. It was a puzzle that Castiel could probably figure out—but it didn’t seem important to.

“Look,” his cousin sighed when it was clear Castiel wasn’t going to answer. “I hate to do this when we just reached your chewy caramel center, but I have to go.”

“That’s fine,” Castiel answered, preparing to hang up.

“Woah, woah, woah. I don’t mean this conversation was over. My plane lands in thirty—and then I should be in L.A. about eight hours after that.”

It took Castiel a moment to process what his cousin was saying. “Wait. You’re coming—here? But I thought the gorilla said—”

“What he needed to say to get you on the phone,” Gabriel cut in with an audible eye roll. “Did you seriously think I wouldn’t come down for this?”

Castiel’s feelings were still shouting from inside his chest, but they didn’t overwhelm the quiet fondness that came with those words. “You’re a good person, Gabriel,” he murmured softly.

“Well, you don’t have to sound so surprised about it.”

“I don’t,” he argued. “You’re not coming here, though.”

“What? ‘Course I am. That’s why I’m holding one of those ridiculous airport pillows and scoping out which of the flight attendants looks most willing to join the mile-high club.”

“No,” Castiel repeated firmly. “You’re not.”

“Give me one good reason,” his cousin countered.

Fortunately, the author had several. He started by telling Gabe that Dean now knew about their matching soulmarks.

“And it sounds like he was a dick about it. How is this supposed to convince me he hasn’t earned some just desserts?”

“He sounded upset,” Castiel reprimanded his cousin. “Which he had a right to be. And like he needed time to process. Maybe, once he has, he’ll…” But, no, it wasn’t for Dean to do anything. “Maybe I can try to rebuild trust and our friendship. I’m not going to let you sabotage that even if it’s from a good place.”

“Cassie, you know you don’t want that guy’s friendship. You want his dick—and it’s time you face that fact.”

The author flinched at his cousin’s crudeness. “I want Dean in my life—whatever form that comes in.”

“You’re saying that you’ll be fine watching him make kissy-faces at his now-wife? That you’ll be cool with him knocking her up with a few more kids? While you—what? Linger on the sidelines. Not looking for anyone else—because you know you won’t. That’s not right, Cassie. You—you deserve more, okay? More than seeing other people have what you want.”

Castiel tilted his head instinctively at that.

The memory—when it came to him—was an unexpected one.

He’d been in his junior year of high school, writing a paper, when Gabriel called to talk.

“Just type nonsense between the paragraphs and turn the font white,” his cousin had instructed, dismissively, when Castiel explained he was 200 words short and would call him back later. Of course, Castiel hadn’t taken his suggestion.

But here. Now. That’s what Gabriel sounded like—like there was something extra in the white spaces of what he was saying.

“Gabriel,” he hesitated. “…do you… know who your soulmate is?”

It was something he’d never asked before, assuming he already knew the answer—but by the tension he could hear on the other end of the line, he knew he’d been wrong.

“Her name’s Kali,” he spoke in a sigh that reminded Castiel of petals falling off a tree.

“When did you meet her?”

“Spring break freshman year of college. That time I went to Nepal.”

“What happened?”

“A lot of sex mostly.”

This time, Castiel didn’t even bother to scold him. Simply waited for Gabriel to get the rest out in his own time.

“I’m telling the truth,” Gabriel continued after a beat. “We had a good time together—but anything else woulda been long-distance—and that didn’t really work for her—and you know, relationships give me hives, so we said ‘Sayonara’ and that’s it. She’s married to some guy named Baldur now. She better hope that his name isn’t a predictor for the future.” Once again, his words sounded normal—it was just the breaths between them that seemed charged.

Castiel felt himself nod, slowly. “So, all this time with Dean…?” he prompted.

He could hear Gabriel’s smile. It was a sad one. “You’re not like me, Cassie,” he commented quietly. “You could actually make it—if you stood up for yourself. If you just—tried.”

Cas’s heart broke for his cousin—the way a car windshield cracks—a separate and distinct pain from everything else he had going on. But it didn’t change his mind, “What’s going on out here, it’s something I have to handle on my own,” Cas told him, solemnly.

“Cassie—” Gabriel almost whined.

“Please respect that,” the author slid in smoothly. “However, there is another matter that might benefit from your attention.”

Gabriel paused. “I’m listening.”

“You know my agent, Crowley?”

“Black suits? Smoker’s voice? Angry seagull eyebrows?”

“I… suppose…”

“What about him?”

And as he heard the wheels turn a little faster in Gabriel’s head the longer that he kept on talking, Castiel almost felt bad for the Brit. Almost.

/////

For a minute after he hung up with his cousin, Castiel remained slumped at his computer chair, unsure what to do next. A part of him wanted to see what other information he could find out about Dean and Lisa—and another thought that was the last thing he should do.

So, he did nothing—and felt everything—and when he finally got up, he only made it as far as the couch in his living room before he sat back down again.

His chest hurt. It hadn’t stopped hurting for the last week. Not even yesterday—when Dean was supposedly getting married—which meant that no matter what those pictures showed, some aspect of Dean was hurting too. And that just confused his emotions further.

He leaned forward, grabbing the Caramel Apple Oreos where they lay on his coffee table.

They weren’t so bad, he decided, idly wondering if he should get some more of them.

And then, he heard a knock. And a voice.

“Cas!” it yelled. “I know you’re in there. Open up or I’ll climb up your fire escape.”

And even though he should feel annoyed that yet another person was threatening their way into his apartment today, this time, he knew exactly who it was.

“Dean,” he stated, somehow more stunned by his presence in the hallway than the mascot’s.

The actor dropped the fist he’d been using to knock, stuffing both hands in his pockets. “Cas,” he repeated, staring at a point over the author’s left shoulder rather than at his face. “We need to talk.”

“We do,” Castiel agreed, wishing Dean would look at him.

And then he did. Still with some of the anger that had been there in the last meeting, but something else too. And the more they looked at each other, the more Dean’s eyes changed—until finally, all the tumblers matched, and something closed off unlocked between them.

Castiel wasn’t naïve enough to think it was an understanding. But it was a connection, and for right now, for Castiel, that was enough.

He stepped aside to let Dean pass.

Chapter Text

Dean made it about five paces into the apartment before he paused, hovering half-way between the open kitchen and the living room. His back was to Cas, shoulders visibly squared underneath his green canvas jacket. “I’m still pissed,” the actor spoke after a moment.

For some reason, Cas found relief in those words. “I know,” he responded simply, his own back pressed against the door. “But it’s good to see you.”

Dean snorted, finally turning around to face the author.

His eyes swept from Cas’s epic behead to his bare feet, as if taking them all in for the first time. “I didn’t even think you owned a hoodie. Or sweatpants,” he muttered, almost unconsciously. Then, he glanced away again. “Just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

“Not any major ones,” Cas countered, refusing to rise to the obvious bait. “…not anymore, at least.”

“Guess that’s something,” Dean conceded. The hand that he wiped over his face lacked a wedding ring.

“Dean—” Cas started then—since it seemed like the other man wasn’t going to. “Is there… Is there something that you came by to tell me?”

“Depends,” Dean shot right back. “You didn’t happen to buy into some tabloid crap about me getting married, did you?”

Cas froze; and then, like one of those commercials where the drink un-spills or the glass un-breaks, he didn’t so much unfreeze as he reset. “I… may… have considered the possibility.”

“After all the crap that the press has been spreading about us the last couple of weeks? I woulda figured you knew better than to trust the headlines.”

“There were pictures—” Cas protested.

“Yeah, there were photos of us too. Doesn’t mean they tell the whole story….”

Castiel’s mind turned back to the article he’d read—trying to figure out what he might have missed…

But Dean didn’t let him get that far. “You know, I’ve pretty much been Ben’s dad for four years now. I don’t think he remembers a time when I wasn’t around. But Lisa and I—we never made it official. Didn’t even… I mean, her sister was still set as guardian in her will.”

Dean’s throat bobbed like a fishing lure in his throat, and Castiel wanted to reach out and touch his arm, but he didn’t. He was surprised when Dean took a step closer to him instead. “And there’s always been other stuff that bugged me, too,” the actor added. “What if Ben needs to go to the hospital while Lisa’s in Italy for a shoot or something? I mean, yeah, she’s his mom—and she should be making medical decisions for him—but what if I’m here and they won’t let me because I’m not his guardian?

“Technically, I wasn’t even allowed to sign his school permission forms—not that the teacher really cares if there’s a scribble on the dotted line, but… I forged all Sammy’s forms when he was a kid. Figured I should be allowed to do it legally just once.”

Castiel didn’t know much about parenthood—at all—but he recognized that Dean was a good dad, with Ben’s best interests at heart. He assumed Lisa did as well, which is how he was able to predict where this story was going about a half-second before Dean said it.

“Anyway… that’s what we were doing at the courthouse,” the actor concluded with a somewhat proud set to his jaw. “I was adopting my kid.”

Usually, the process takes a bit longer,” Dean admitted, “And yeah, they like it if you’re married—but it’s not required. Besides, are you even rich if you don’t bribe a government official every once in a while?”

Cas tilted his head, the relief in his chest giving way to the soft smile on his face. “Dubious practices aside… That’s wonderful news, Dean.”

It was still a lot to process, of course, but not as much as what Castiel was thinking before. And when Dean took another step forward, all his attempts at analysis just… stopped. The actor smelled like the AC/DC shirt that Cas still had in his closet, the one he wore on days he didn’t plan to leave the house.

“Look,” Dean sighed, the gust of air he let out brushing more of that tip-of-the-tongue spicy scent past Cas’s cheek. “I’m not sure how much this matters to you really, but…. Lisa and I broke up.”

Cas’s bodily systems shut down—one right after the other—like the lights turning off at a supermarket.

“You—” he heard himself say.

Dean nodded. “A week ago. Before you…. Before our stuff even happened.”

There was a thunk, which Castiel distantly recognized as his head connecting with the door behind him. He had so many questions. Did Lisa break up with Dean? Or him with her? Over what? How was that going to work with Dean adopting Ben?

And why was Dean looking at him like that? As if he was waiting for—something?

“I am sorry to hear that,” Cas spoke slowly, feeling barely able to move his mouth to form the words.

Dean raised his eyebrows.

“You sure?” The actor asked, managing only a half-step this time since there wasn’t that much space left between them.

It was… strange to be close enough to see every freckle on Dean’s nose, the curl of his long eyelashes. It was… definitely not conducive to listening to Dean's question.

“What?” Cas managed, his throat more gravel-gargled than usual.

“Are you—sorry—to hear about me and Lisa?” Dean disassembled his own sentence with the efficiency of someone taking apart a gun.

“I—It must be difficult for you,” the author finally responded, “—to sever such a long-term relationship.”

But Dean only shook his head. “Not the question, Cas.”

“I’ll always be upset by matters that distress you," Castiel tried a second time. 

Dean did not seem impressed.

"Wow,” he scoffed, the sound both the closest and farthest thing from a laugh at the same time. “You really don’t want to give me an answer, do you? This what you been doing all these months? Talking me in circles while I didn’t have a clue?”

“Besides the soulmark, I haven’t hidden anything from you,” Cas protested.

“Kinda hard to believe, considering what you’re doing right now.” Dean's voice shot loud at the end. He was glaring—eyes jewel hard, but sun-flared at the center.

An old axiom rang in the author’s head. Don’t look straight into the sun.

It was a concept everyone knew. And one lesson that Cas had long since learned to ignore.

No, he would always look at Dean—when he was softly shining and when he was blazing like this. Either Dean would hide again, or his stare would burn Cas up entirely. But the author would soak in every second of it.

But he waited and waited, and Dean did neither.

Instead, his gaze dropped to Castiel’s lips. Still scorching.

Castiel’s heart sped up. Or maybe it stopped. He couldn’t be sure which.

Is Dean…? he wondered—

But no, no, he couldn't be.

Except he was.

Leaning closer.

And closer.

Burning bright.

Even brighter.

And suddenly, Castiel was acting on instinct.

Grabbing Dean by both shoulders, he spun the actor around—so that between one blink and the next, it was Dean pressed up against the door, not Cas—the actor’s wrists pinned against the wood on either side of his head.

“Uh—” Dean managed.

“You—you were going to kiss me,” Cas stated, shocked, breathing more erratic than it should be. In his defense, so was Dean’s.

“A little bit, yeah.”

“I—you said you were mad at me,” Cas reminded him.

“Oh, I am,” the actor promised.

“That’s very confusing.”

“Well, you’re not the only one getting some mixed signals here.” Dean quipped, trying to squirm out of the author’s grip but not succeeding. If anything, his pupils only grew larger and darker—an eclipse taking over the sun.

Cas let Dean’s wrists go, eager to get to the other end of the room, a flush burning from his cheeks to his neck. “Explain,” Cas insisted when he thought he’d gotten a fair distance away.

Hell no. I asked you first. So, spill, Piñata Boy.”

Castiel didn't really think that this was the time for Dean to be adding his unique brand of metaphors to the mix; he was discombobulated enough already.

"Spill what?” he asked, pacing. Dean opened his mouth, a frown between his eyebrows.

“I'm not trying to be difficult, I promise,” Cas slid in a second quicker. “But, Dean, there’s been a lot that’s happened today—my cousin, the news, the gorilla—” Dean mouthed the last word silently “—I just genuinely don’t know what you want from me.”

It was like watching a building collapse in slow motion—the way the actor’s confidence seemed to get cut out from under him.

“I want… I want to know that I’m not all alone over here,” he stated, voice desert-dry and crumbling. “That if I’m going to make an ass out of myself tripping over feelings for my soulmate—the one person I swore I’d never get involved with—that he’s at least doing it too. And if that’s not the case…” Dean’s jaw tightened, “If you aren't—interested—in me that way, I want to know. Now. Not tomorrow or the next day.”

The more Dean talked, the more Castiel had to wonder if he was dreaming. If the nights of tossing and turning were catching up to him and he was walking around in a daze. But he’d told Dean that what the two of them had between them was real, and he wouldn’t be the one to cast doubt on it now. “Dean…” he murmured, awed.

“Cas,” Dean responded, more warily.

And that was just… unacceptable… the author decided, closing the distance between them again, fingers hovering over—but not actually touching—Dean’s cheek. “I… am very grateful you aren’t married,” he confessed, quickly. “I thought you were and I… didn’t enjoy it at all.”

“Okay, that’s a start,” Dean said, and, indeed, he seemed a little more relaxed. "Anything else?”

Castiel pulled back—just so he could track every flicker of emotion across the actor’s face. “Everything else. Dean, I thought… I thought you knew that.” He brushed the air near Dean again, a little surprised when the actor tilted his cheek in the direction of his palm. “I figured, it was obvious—and even if it wasn’t, that Sam would have told you…” Cas shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Everything else, Dean.”

Instantly, Dean’s confidence rose again, self-consciousness fading behind a smirk.

“Had my suspicions, of course,” he murmured past Cas’s huff. “Considering that this thing,” the actor tapped the area over his own heart, “—started up a forest fire in my chest about an hour ago. ‘M guessing that’s around the time you saw the press.”

Dean’s nose almost—but not quite—slid down the side of Cas’s face. “‘Course, this mark stuff seems only slightly better than a mood ring—without the decoder sheet. Just because you were upset didn’t mean it had anything to do with me. Maybe you stubbed your toe.”

Cas remembered all too well the pain that that headline had caused him. He wasn’t exactly sure what the actor sensed on his end, but “What I felt was definitely not the equivalent of accidentally kicking the coffee table.”

“Hmmm, burned your tongue on some tea then? Found out your favorite show is being canceled?”

“I’m not sure whether you are trying to trivialize me—or trivialize how I feel about you. If it’s the first, it’s annoying but I’ll accept it. If it’s the second, you should stop.”

“I’m talented, Cas,” Dean spoke against Cas’s ear, causing the author to shiver. “I can multitask.”

“Well, I’d rather you put that ability to better use.”

“Cas,” Dean fake-gasped. “Is that your way of trying to get me to kiss you again?”

Castiel finally let himself touch Dean—the curve of his jaw down to his chin, the slight trace of stubble. He was warm, and soft, and strong.

“No,” he answered honestly before pulling back.

He turned towards his kitchen, ignoring Dean’s sputtering behind him.

Chapter Text

“Wha—Why not?” Dean questioned, following the author into the kitchen.

“You said you were still angry,” Castiel reminded him, squinting at the actor from around the now-open freezer door. “I understand why you feel that way, but I also don’t want to start any kind of physical relationship under those circumstances.”

“Okay, but—”

Castiel straightened up and raised one eyebrow. “But?”

“Nothing, I guess,” Dean sighed, leaning with one hip against the counter. “It’s just not quite the response I’m used to getting when I try to kiss someone.”

“I’m not used to kissing anyone at all,” Castiel couldn’t help but point out as he switched to searching the refrigerator instead. The yellowed plastic light shone on half a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, and some Honey Bunches of Oats that shouldn’t be in the refrigerator to begin with. He picked up the box, frowning.

“Hold up a second—” Dean’s voice was a little thin like it had been run through a strainer. “When you say you’re not used to kissing someone, you just mean it’s been a while, right? Not that… This wouldn’t be your first?”

“It wouldn’t,” the author confirmed, remembering a few experimental dates with girls in high school, plus Charlie’s attempts at setting him up during college. Except for forming a distant friendship with a fellow student ironically named Benjamin, he didn’t get much out of the experience. “However, it would be close to it,” he admitted.

“Oh,” Dean’s voice, if anything, was even more unnatural than before.

“Is that… a problem?”

“No. Nope. Absolutely not.”

“That’s a few too many ‘no’s for me to believe you.”

“No,” Dean repeated, only to wince. “I mean—uh—that’s… I wasn’t thinking of that before, by the door. And you’ve told me in the past that you’re a vi—that you hadn’t done… certain things—so that’s probably something I should have remembered is all.”

Castiel set the box of cereal on the counter to study Dean more closely. “My inexperience makes you nervous,” he observed with a head tilt. “Isn’t it typically the other way around?”

“I’m—not—” Dean protested, a dozen different colored emotions passing over the actor’s face.

Eventually, Dean sighed, running his hand across the back of his neck like it was a towel. “There’s just more pressure, I guess, being someone’s first time. They’re always gonna remember you. Not that I’m not always memorable when it comes to that sorta stuff, but—” Dean’s face was beet red. “You know what, I’m gonna shut up now.”

“That seems wise,” Castiel stated with a hidden spark of amusement. However, it trailed off after a moment, like the light line left behind by sparklers.

“This is part of why I want us to wait,” he told the actor quietly. “Not because I think you’re not good at ‘stuff’, but because this does matter to me. You matter to me.”

He paused, feeling his own blush rising. “I haven’t been… attracted to many people in life. But you make me feel—” He struggled for the right word and then realized he’d already said it. “You make me feel. And when—if—we do kiss at some point… I want it to be something that I can enjoy—instead of being worried that there’s a fight looming afterward.”

He stepped up to Dean to brush his cheek again—and it felt like a taboo—like touching one of the great masterpieces at a museum.

“You also just broke up with someone you’ve been with for four years—the mother of your child,” he reminded the other man. “It seems possible that you might change your mind. And if you do—I think I have a better chance of staying in your life without—” His thumb grazed Dean’s bottom lip in explanation, only to watch, fascinated, as Dean’s eyes darkened again.

“Uh, Cas?” the actor said in a gruff voice, words moistening that bottom lip slightly. “Just in case you ever consider switching career paths, don’t become a hostage negotiator, alright? ‘Cause, frankly, you suck at deescalating situations.”

Cas attempted to pull his hand back, embarrassed, but Dean was quick and caught it—intertwining their fingers together. The sensation of their palms pressed against one another felt just as new—just as intimate.

“Hey,” Dean called, drawing Cas’s attention to his eyes again. “I didn’t mean it like a bad thing. You pretty much have blanket permission to touch me how you want…. As for the rest of it,” he shrugged. “I’m not a saint, but I’m also not into kissing people who don’t want to be kissed, so we go at your pace, okay?”

“Thank you,” Cas said sincerely, heart going a little faster than the two quick squeezes he gave Dean’s fingers in emphasis. “And thank you for not dying over five years ago, which is one of the requirements for sainthood in the first place,” he added.

Dean smiled then—the first real smile that Cas had seen since he’d told the other man about the soulmark—and just like that, one of the things that was wrong about the world got set a little more right.

“So…” the actor broke the spell at last, picking up Cas’s abandoned box of cereal and shaking it. “You’re hungry, I’m guessing?”

“A bit,” Castiel admitted reluctantly. “And it’s near lunchtime, so I’m sure you are too. Unfortunately, my grocery shopping has been a bit more whimsical than practical of late.”

Dean stood with his chest to Castiel’s back so that he could view the open fridge’s contents for himself. He was very warm in contrast to the cold air leaking out of the appliance. “Wow. No kidding. What the hell is a… tapioca loaf?” he asked, pointing to the bright red label.

“I honestly have no idea. If you want, I could order something?”

“Or…” Dean suggested. “We could go to the store and get you some actual food that you could make into actual meals for the future.”

Of all the things that had happened today, it was ridiculous that the idea of going to the grocery store was the most mind-boggling, but it absolutely stopped Castiel in his tracks. “We can’t do that!”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re not supposed to be seen together in public. And the news thinks you’re married, and you always pre-screen the places you go to minimize attention and this—this would not be doing that.”

“I’m pretty sure those are all reasons we should do it,” Dean replied.

Castiel closed the fridge door, curious.

“Look, Charlie knew I was coming here. She’s been running interference, posting old pictures of me across town so that, hopefully, the papps will look there for me instead. But that’s no guarantee that someone didn’t follow me—or that there wasn’t already someone staking out this place, trying to get photos of you. If that’s the case, we’re making the news, Buddy, one way or another. That’s how my life works.

“Now you got apprehensions about this whole me-you deal, and I’ve got mine. Not just the soulmate stuff, okay? I know these last few weeks of media speculation haven’t been your idea of a good time either. So, if getting our picture taken and having made-up stuff come out about us is gonna be a dealbreaker for you…”

“It’s not.”

Dean crossed his arms. “And Lisa and I aren’t getting back together. But me saying that and you believing it are two different things, I’m guessing. Well, the same holds true for me about this. Going out, doing normal shit, is kinda like a trial run.”

The author could admit there was logic there, but it didn’t help much with the daze he was still in. “You want to go grocery shopping,” Castiel repeated.

“Yup.”

“Can I take a shower first?”

/////

Twenty minutes later, Cas was dressed in jeans and a light blue polo shirt, his dark hair like a nest of wet feathers, which was enough to make him feel somewhat normal again.

What wasn’t normal was that Dean didn’t have the Impala with him, but Lisa’s SUV.

It was so clean. Not in the Impala’s lovingly cared-for way, but almost sterilized, like it just rolled off the car lot. Cas didn’t like it.

Dean chuckled when he noticed the author’s nose scrunch of disapproval. “As I said, I was trying to be under the radar.”

“And Lisa was okay with you taking her car? To see me, of all things? Or… did she not know that you, er…?”

“Oh, she knows,” Dean promised. “She called me out on having a thing for you weeks ago.” Castiel thought he handled that news about as well as could be expected.

“‘Course it took me a while to realize she was right. It’s part of why this—” Dean gestured between the two of them, “—hella awkward conversation doesn’t actually seem so bad by comparison. I’d rather tell you that I want to kiss you and get shot down a hundred times than have to go through telling her that again.” He sighed, thumbing the wheel. “She deserves better. She really frickin’ does.”

Castiel reflected on that for a minute. He had assumed he might have been a contributing factor in Dean’s and Lisa’s breakup considering the timing of it all, but it was different having it confirmed. “Does she hate me?” he asked softly; he wouldn’t blame her if she did.

“Nah,” Dean said, almost dismissively, but with a sad smile. “I mean, I don’t think you’re her favorite at the moment—me neither—but, uh, she’s not the kind of person to resent others if she can help it. Especially for finding their soulmate. She puts a lot more weight on that crap than I do.”

“You put weight on it,” Cas reminded him. “Just in the opposite direction.”

“I’m here, ain’t I?” Dean grumbled as he turned a corner. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

“If anything, it probably counts for more, considering how opposed you are.”

No music played in the silence between them, but the author hardly noticed—too many thoughts vying for attention in his head all at once. “Can I ask what you’re most angry with me about? Is it the mark or that I kept it from you?”

Cas could see the subtle grinding of Dean’s jaw. “Depends on the day,” he admitted.

“Today then?”

“Today, I’m mostly glad to be hanging out with you,” Dean gave him the side-eye. “And that’s part of what’s messing me up. I should be angry. Not just because you lied about shit but because that’s who I am—I’m someone who gets pissed at people and stays pissed for a long time. Instead, I’m playing domestic. Doesn’t that seem a little wonky to you?”

Castiel bit his lip.

“What? You’re not going to fight me on that? Really?” Dean scoffed, but he almost sounded worried.

“I have points I could make. I’m just concerned it will send you into even more of an existential crisis.”

Dean’s laugh felt ironic. “Okay, you shouldn’t be a doctor either. Terrible bedside manner.”

“I already made that decision for myself, if you recall.”

“You’d probably look hot in scrubs, though.”

Castiel stumbled mentally a little bit at that. Based on Dean’s sideways grin, he noticed.

“Just say what you wanna say, Cas. I promise not to let my brain turn into pudding or whatever it is that you’re worried about.”

Cas tipped his head. “…Alright. Let me start by asking you a question.”

“Let me guess: Would you rather?” Dean said, with an eye-roll.

“No,” Castiel responded, confused. I thought Dean liked that game. “Why do you love Sam?”

Dean’s frown was instant. “Because he’s my brother…?” he spoke slowly as if Cas might have forgotten a few IQ points at home.

“So, because the two of you happened to be born into the same family where you were destined to spend a lot of time in each other’s company.”

“What? No,” Dean responded automatically—defensively.

In the next second, his scowl deepened. “Okay, yeah, but—”

“But you don’t feel confined by it the same way you do a soulmate.”

“Lots of people have siblings they aren’t close to. That they don’t even talk to. It’s not the same,” Dean rebutted.

Cas huffed. Stubborn, stubborn man. “You already know of soulmate pairs who choose to go their own separate ways, who don’t interact. You’re right. The situations aren’t the same but they’re not that different either.”

And then, as a follow-up, Cas asked, “Why do you think Lisa loves Ben?”

“Because he’s the coolest kid ever,” Dean insisted, tone daring Castiel to argue with him.

The author’s lips only twitched. “That may be true, but as a baby, he would hardly have the same personality that he does now, and I bet she loved him from the moment she saw him.

“Mothers of newborns often undergo hormone changes that enhance that feeling of connection. Fathers, too. They experience lower testosterone levels for months after becoming a parent, thus allowing them to better absorb oxytocin, also known as the love hormone. Their brain chemistry literally changes to motivate them to keep their child happy and healthy. Is that brainwashing? Does that natural process make every parent’s love for their child invalid?”

Dean’s hands tightened on the wheel. “Are you sure that’s real science? Not a sci-fi horror flick?” he questioned the author, looking genuinely spooked.

“Everything I’m telling you has been researched extensively,” Castiel affirmed.

He gave the actor a moment to sit with the information before asking another question. “Why do you love Baby?”

“Oh, come on, Man, not my car…” Dean whined.

Castiel pivoted easily. “Fine then, why do you love pie?”

“Because it’s flaky and delicious and it’s even got fruit in it, so I can tell Sam to shut up about my health,” Dean stated emphatically—almost triumphantly.

“And when you’re having a bad day, does it make you feel better?”

Now, doubt flickered in his eyes. “Yes…?”

“There are also scientific reasons for that. Everyone’s taste buds are configured uniquely, which alters the perception of flavors. Your taste buds were, to some extent, preprogrammed to like pie. Does that mean you won’t let yourself enjoy it?

“For that matter, you probably also have positive sense memories attached to pie—your mother making it for you, having it on special occasions—so you eat it now to evoke those same feelings. Should you deny yourself that specifically because it makes you happier than you would be otherwise?" Castiel shrugged. “I’ve come to think of soulmates in much the same way.”

“As pie?” Dean questioned.

“As metaphorical pie, yes. I may be pre-inclined to enjoy your company—and you, mine—but we also cultivated a good friendship. So even when you’re upset with me, remembering those good times helps alleviate negative emotions. Simply put, you’re not as angry as you feel you should be because, when you’re here, you remember that you like me.”

Cas considered stopping there, but Dean didn’t say anything. In fact, the actor continued not saying anything for several minutes, and, in that pause, the author realized just how much more he had to add—how many points his restless brain had come up with during the last week of tossing and turning.

“You’re concerned that being around me has changed you,” he restarted slowly, feeling the vibration of the car's frame in his hands, resting on his thighs. “I know for a fact that being around you has changed me. But Dean, I’m pretty sure that’s what love is,” he explained, tone beseeching.

“It’s changing, it’s growing. It’s learning to see Baby the way you see her and coming to value Ben and Sam through you. It’s looking around at other people—and not viewing them as some stranger—but knowing that they’re someone’s Dean and wanting the best for them because of that.

“I care about the whole world because of you. And something as beautiful as that can never be bad, Dean. Loving you—it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” he promised with an unconscious smile, turning toward the actor.

It was almost immediately whipped off his face by the motion of the car pulling over to the side of the road—by the loud, honking protests of the people in the lane behind them—by Dean’s dark, almost murderous expression.

Cas’s side of the car dipped as the wheels came to a stop on an incline.

“Jesus Christ, Cas! Did you really just—just—say all that on a milk run?” Dean demanded.

“Yes...” Castiel admitted, nervously.

“And you seriously aren’t gonna let me kiss you now?”

Castiel reevaluated the look in Dean’s eyes. It wasn’t angry—it was almost desperate. Dean’s need to act because he didn’t have the words. There was also a new, longing feeling in Cas’s phoenix he hadn’t experienced before—or at least not this way—like the sun again, but this time, burning him from the inside out.

Decision made, he grabbed the back of Dean’s neck, pulling the actor toward himself.

He missed his mark a tiny bit—bumping their noses together. But then Dean’s hand was sliding through his hair, guiding their mouths to meet.

And it made no sense—how Cas could feel his heartbeat in his ears, his stomach in his chest, and his soul possibly floating outside his body—and yet, still know with absolute certainty that the lips moving against his own—soft in contrast to the tiny scrape of teeth—were exactly where they were supposed to be.

Chapter Text

Thirty-five minutes later…

Cas slid out of the SUV, closing his door a half-second before Dean did the same on his side. They flashed small smiles at each other.

“So… you still up for this?” the actor asked. Despite nodding toward the store, Castiel couldn’t help but wonder if there was a double meaning to his words.

“Very much so,” Castiel responded, just in case.

They started walking across the crowded parking lot, an acceptable four feet of space between them. It was only when Cas’s left shoulder brushed Dean’s right that he realized that they’d unconsciously drifted toward one another. Quickly, he took a step to the side.

They bumped together again just outside the automatic doors.

Then again as they both reached for a cart from the rows filling the entryway.

Dude,” Dean exclaimed. “You want to explain why you’re jumping like you’re a cat and I’m a bathtub every two minutes?”

“I’m… trying to respect your personal space…?”

Dean raised both eyebrows. “Uh, pretty sure we’re past that, Buddy.”

“Cas,” Dean groaned as he pulled away. But the author tugged him back in by the hair for a second kiss that was really just an extension of the first.

Dean didn’t seem to have a problem with it, especially when Cas copied the actor’s move from earlier—swiping his tongue against the seam of Dean’s mouth until his lips parted slightly—

A loud snort broke the author out of the memory.

“And here, I used to think you were so hard to read,” Dean commented. Although, when Cas met his eyes, the actor turned shy again almost immediately.

“I didn’t mean… that,” Dean specified with an almost-cough and a blush. “Just, uh, you’ve always stood close before. Seems kinda weird for you to change your mind now.”

“Have I?” Cas asked over the rattle of Dean pulling a cart out.

“You’ve seriously never noticed?”

“I—” Cas started to protest, then stopped himself. He had mostly been concerned with maintaining emotional—rather than physical—distance from Dean. And God knew how hard he had failed at that.

“My point is that the papps already have pictures of us rubbing shoulders or whatever, so… stop freaking out, okay? If you act like we’re doing something wrong, it’s only gonna look more suspicious if someone does recognize us.” There was a slightly nervous quality in Dean’s voice—an acknowledgment that he wasn’t quite sure how the two of them were supposed to work now either.

Strangely enough, that was what calmed Cas down. It was the same way he’d reacted to Dean’s anxiety at Pamela’s interview—the same way Dean had been the steady presence at Cas’s book launch. The two of them seemed positioned on opposite ends of a teeter-totter, always ready to balance the other out.

And if there was something he’d noticed—and been jealous of—regarding Dean’s relationship with Lisa, it was the frequent, casual touches they exchanged. Maybe that spoke less about who they were as a couple and more about who Dean was—the kind of reassurance he needed.

The next time Cas bumped Dean’s shoulder, it was on purpose, and hard enough that Dean stumbled slightly.

“Smartass,” Dean muttered—but it was through a smile.

/////

Shopping with Dean was definitely… educational, as Castiel discovered within the first ten minutes.

Cas was already surprised that the actor didn’t skip the produce section altogether, but then—“You’re getting sweet potatoes?” Castiel questioned, once again contemplating the idea that this whole day was an elaborate dream.

“I figured I’d make you burgers and fries.”

“Sweet potato fries?” Cas clarified.

“Yes…”

“You hate those. You say that if something smells like feet and tastes like feet, then people shouldn’t call it a potato.”

“Yeah, well, that’s why these are for you—and why I’m gonna get myself some normal ass Russets,” Dean clarified, grabbing two of the fist-sized potatoes from the top of the pyramid they’d been stacked in. He glanced over at Cas as he placed them in the cart. “What…’s up? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Castiel felt a fond smile growing at the corners of his lips. “The first day I met you, I knew that you weren’t the nicest person—”

“Excuse you—”

“But I realized quickly that you were one of the kindest. That doesn’t mean it still doesn’t catch me off-guard sometimes.”

It was amazing how quickly Dean dropped his fake outrage. He stood up straighter but brought his shoulders in. His eyes darted to the ground, and the tips of his ears burned. “Man, it’s just potatoes,” he mumbled.

“No, it’s not,” Castiel insisted, but he did Dean the favor of turning toward the nearby mango display so that the actor could fight his blush in peace.

That didn’t mean the matter was dropped though. He was fully prepared to tell Dean that he was thoughtful and good every day until Dean believed him… and then continue telling him every day afterward.

/////

Not even thirty minutes later…

“Dean, you are being incredibly annoying.”

“Me? Me?

“I don’t see anyone else standing here, so yes, you.”

“For ten minutes.”

Castiel squinted, confused.

“That’s how long I’ve been standing here. Ten minutes. While you sniff shampoos,” the actor told Cas with his arms crossed. “They’ve got labels for a reason. You know what oranges smell like. You know what mint smells like. Why do you have to stick your nose in every single one?”

Castiel defiantly picked up another bottle. “Just because they claim to have a certain fragrance doesn’t mean that they are mimicking it accurately. And that’s not counting those with metaphorical names like ‘Mountain Breeze.’”

The one currently in his hand was Lavender Dream and was supposed to have calming properties. Considering the way his blood pressure was currently elevated, it wasn’t very effective. He set it down again. “If I’m going to be using the same kind of shampoo for a couple of months, I’d like it to have a pleasant scent.”

“Why don’t you just get whatever you bought last time?”

“Why don’t you shop in another part of the store if my methodology is bothering you?”

Dean’s eyes narrowed—and Cas’s did too—as the actor pushed off the row of shelves he’d been leaning against.

Still maintaining eye contact, he reached up slightly over Cas’s head, plucking a dark blue bottle called “Storm Surge” from a line of almost identical plastic containers. He popped the lid with his thumb.

“This is what you’re using now, right?” Dean asked, after sniffing the contents.

Castiel nodded.

“Well, you can change it if you want, but…” Despite being slightly taller than him, Dean still managed to look up at Cas from under his eyelashes, biting his bottom lip slightly. “I happen to like the way you smell,” the actor admitted, softly, before replacing the bottle.

Then, he walked away—his own spicy scent fading with him.

Cas watched Dean’s retreating back—the sway of his bowlegs heading for the end of the aisle.

Grumbling to himself, he knocked the bottle Dean had picked into the cart and followed—ignoring the way he could feel Dean smirking.

/////

Five minutes later…

“Cas! Cas! They’ve got free samples of cocktail weenies!”

The author cast his eyes to the ceiling and shook his head.

/////

“Uh, Dean,” Cas whispered a few seconds afterward, nudging the actor’s side.

“Hmmm?” Dean asked, cheeks stuffed with mini hotdogs.

Cas tilted his head in the direction of the paper towel aisle, where two people in bright blue vests were staring in their direction, one of them fumbling with their phone until it fell to the ground with an overly loud thud.

When the actor and author looked back at the person manning the sampling booth, her phone was also lit up next to her and her expression had gone a little pink. “Dean… Winchester?” the approximately 35-year-old woman asked, voice going squeaky at the end.

Dean winced through a smile. “That’s me. Nice to meet you—” he glanced at her nametag. “Wendy.”

Pulling Cas slightly to the side, he dropped his voice low, “We should probably try to get out of here soon. No one wants to be the first to ask for a picture or an autograph, but as soon as they see someone else do it… Well, you’re gonna end up with melted ice cream.”

“Dean.”

“Yeah?”

“We didn’t get ice cream.”

Dean surveyed the half-empty cart. “Right. Well, I’ll get that, some eggs, butter, cheese. Uh, can you grab some macaroni noodles and a couple of cans of black beans and kidney beans?” Dean was already moving away before Castiel could agree.

However, he’d only gotten a few steps away before he rolled the cart backward—"Thanks for these,” Dean told Wendy, grabbing one more cocktail weenie on a toothpick off of her plastic tray and winking. “Cas? I’ll meet you by the checkout in fifteen.”

Then, he was gone again.

Cas just stood there for a moment, getting his bearings.

“His eyes really are that green,” Wendy said in awe. Then, she quick-glanced over at the author and flushed further. “Please don’t tell him I said that.”

Castiel remembered his own first meeting with Dean—and felt a strange sense of connection to her. “I won’t,” he promised. He pointed a finger at the samples. “Do you have a package of those I could purchase?”

/////

Like with the shampoo earlier and the Oreos the week before that, Castiel could easily get distracted while shopping. But now that he was aware that people had spotted them, it was hard not to feel like he was being watched even though he was no longer with Dean.

A couple of women, whispering with their carts side-by-side abruptly stopped talking when he got closer to pass them. He then saw one of the employees from earlier poking his head into every aisle, freezing slightly when he spotted Cas debating between a couple of boxes of tea. The author decided to just get both for efficiency’s sake.

Cas was so unsettled that when his phone started ringing, he was almost grateful for the distraction.

“Gabriel—” he breathed out, wondering if his cousin had new news about Crowley already.

“What. The. Fuck. Cassie. You’re grocery shopping with him?!” Gabriel screamed, loud enough that Castiel had to pull the phone away from his ear.

No. Well, yes. But—there’s been a misunderstanding,” Castiel rushed to say.

“There better be! Otherwise, I’m gonna cook his cocktail weenie.”

Castiel unexpectedly choked on nothing. “That picture can’t have been up for more than ten minutes. I’m really starting to worry that you spend too much time on that website.”

Pssh, I don’t even need to monitor the site anymore. People have started tagging the pictures, so I set an alert for when your name comes up.” Somehow, that was even more disturbing. “Now, tell me what you’re doing playing Stepford Wife to the guy who’s already married! I mean if you just decided to have an affair with him, that’s one thing—but doing chores—” Castiel could practically hear his cousin shudder.

Grimacing, Cas tried to explain as much as he could using as many code words and vague phrases as possible in case someone was close enough by to overhear.

They’d just gotten to the part of the conversation where Gabriel—no longer mad, but worse, excited—was asking for the details of their non-existent sex life when a crsssh sound of striking metal made Cas realize that he’d run into a cart.

He looked up to see Dean, as flush-faced as he felt, head pressed against his shoulder so that he could talk into his own phone hands-free.

Dean furrowed his eyebrows in question at the author.

“I’m talking to Gabriel,” Cas volunteered.

“Sam,” Dean explained, pointing to his own phone.

“Who’s that?” Gabriel asked into Cas’s ear.

“Dean,” he responded—at the same time, the actor said, “It’s Cas,” to his brother.

“Ooooh.” Cas sensed Gabriel vibrating from several thousand miles away. “Hand the phone over. I want to talk to Boy Toy.”

“Absolutely not,” he insisted—just as Dean said, “No, Sammy.”

“Hand the phone over or I will tell Naomi that you have a boyfriend now,” Gabriel sing-songed.

Castiel felt his muscles turning stiff. “You wouldn’t.”

“Are you positive?”

About 80%.

Meanwhile, Dean was still arguing with Sam. “If you want to have a chit-chat, you can do it on your own time…. No, Bitch…. Because I said ‘no,’ that’s why.” There was an extended pause. Then, “I hate you,” Dean growled out. He looked back up at Cas with resigned eyes. “The Jolly Green Giant wants to talk to you.”

Castiel could at least appreciate the irony. “Gabriel would also like a word.”

“Of course, he does,” Dean complained, wiping a hand over his face before making the “gimme” gesture. He pressed his own phone into Cas’s hand at the same time.

“Sam?” Cas questioned—just as Dean shouted, “You were gonna send what to my house?”

“Hey, Cas,” Sam smiled from the other end of the line. “I just wanted to check-in with you. It’s been a few days.”

“Yes, I’m sorry about that,” Cas admitted, trying to infuse his voice with as much sincerity as possible.

“Dude, you’re not my Yoda,” Dean told Gabriel. “Your weird-ass metaphor didn’t inspire me to do shit.”

“I know. I get it,” Sam promised Cas. “But you and Dean… you’ve actually talked about things? He said you did, but—it’s Dean, so….”

“We’ve talked some. I believe we have a lot more to discuss, but that will come with time.”

“No, I’m not giving you any more signed underwear,” Dean hissed, earning an interested look from someone digging through the discount rack nearby.

“Apologies, Sam—but I really do think Dean and I should be going now. We’re in public and attracting attention.”

“Right, right. Sorry. I should—let you get back to that,” the younger Winchester said, though it was clear he was still burning with curiosity.

“I will call you back later. And Charlie,” Castiel told him, feeling better than he had in days because he knew that he would actually follow through on his promise.

“How the hell did you get that much for my boxers?” Dean was now saying much too loud.

“Looking forward to it,” Sam responded a half-second before Cas pressed the “end” button. The author then plucked his own phone back from Dean’s hands.

“We’re hanging up now, Gabriel,” he told his cousin over the sound of his loud protests.

Dean’s mouth opened and closed around whatever last word he’d been planning on saying.

“He was offering to send me a video review he got from one of his ‘satisfied customers,” the actor managed eventually. “After telling me he was glad I didn’t betray you or whatever. Seriously—how do you put up with him so much?” Dean asked, turning to Cas with exasperated eyes.

“Well, as Gabriel is always reminding me, he’s my favorite relative.”

Dean snorted but seemed to accept that as an answer.

However, their brief moment of calm was interrupted by a flash of light in their peripheral vision.

A glance to the side showed some familiar-looking employees hiding behind a stack of soup cans and the other patrons around them trying too hard to act casual.

“So… self-checkout?” Dean suggested, even though they definitely had too many items for it.

Castiel caught sight of one of the manned aisles, where a row of magazines over the conveyer belt included a familiar one reading, ‘Dean Winchester Marries Lisa Braeden.’

“Self-checkout,” he agreed.

/////

By the time they made it back to the SUV and loaded the trunk, Cas felt more tired than he had any right to. Dean looked similarly wiped, leaning heavily against the plush seats, and it idly made Cas wonder what Dean had been like the last week while they were separated.

The actor rolled his head in Cas’s direction. “You still up for this?” he echoed his question from an hour ago, motioning between the two of them. The car key was still in his hand rather than in the ignition.

Cas glanced around them quickly. They’d parked in the far back of the lot, away from other vehicles—and it was the middle of the workday, so the area wasn’t too crowded.

Spotting no one, he planted a quick kiss to Dean’s mouth—paying perhaps a bit more attention to Dean’s bottom lip before retreating. The other man still looked dazed anyway.

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Cas informed the actor—before turning to grab his seatbelt.

Chapter Text

Cas looked down at his hands. His skin, especially the lines of his palms, was dyed a translucent red and there were squiggles of ground beef still clinging to them like slugs. “Dean, what happens now?” he asked the actor, who was laying the hamburger patties they just finished shaping into one of Cas’s seldom-used pans with a hszzz.

“Hopefully, you washin’ your hands,” Dean drawled with a quick glance over his shoulder.

“That’s not what I meant,” Cas pointed out with a huff. But he did make his way over to the sink, lifting the faucet with his elbow so that he could run his hands under the tap.

“Then try being more specific,” Dean prompted, although judging by the downward turn of his mouth, the actor knew exactly what Cas was talking about.

Even though their trip to the store was by far the most eventful shopping excursion Cas had ever been on, he’d felt an almost-giddy rush afterward… the same kind of adrenaline spike he imagined teenagers got from sneaking out of the house under their parents’ noses or taking their first illicit sip of alcohol. Except, in Cas’s case, part of the thrill was knowing that he and Dean weren’t doing anything wrong. In fact, everything was very, very right.

He thought Dean was in a similar state of mind—and perhaps he was—until they got back to Cas’s apartment building, where someone with an obscenely sized camera was clearly waiting by the red brick steps. Instantly, the actor’s expression closed off.

Cas did what Dean had instructed—kept his head down, didn’t answer any of the questions directed his way. But half an hour later, he couldn’t help but wonder if Dean’s advice had actually been for himself—because he’d barely looked up or said a word to Cas beyond giving the occasional cooking instructions since then.

“Dean,” Cas murmured—hesitating but only for a moment—before putting his hand on the actor’s arm. “Please tell me what you’re thinking.”

The physical touch seemed to ground Dean—enough that he met Cas’s gaze for a long moment. Then he went back to staring at his cooking. “Right now?” Dean questioned, “Right now, I’m wondering how much time you’ve spent with Sam behind my back for you to learn those puppy dog eyes.”

Cas frowned, minutely. “I spend a lot of time with Sam. None of it has involved lessons in facial manipulation.”

“You sure? Maybe you picked it up by osmosis.”

Castiel tried very hard not to roll his eyes—but he was at least glad to hear some humor back in Dean’s voice. “If there is any correlation to speak of, I think it’s more likely that being around you and Sam so much has somewhat endeared me to you, making you more susceptible to my normal face and its normal range of expressions.”

Dean glanced at him again. “Nah, that can’t be it,” he stated, dismissively. Then, as if coming to an internal decision, he finally raised his head fully. “And I’m more than ‘somewhat endeared to you.’ Asshole.”

Cas squinted at him, but considering Dean’s and Sam’s usual nicknames for each other, he chose not to take that last part at face value. “Tell me what you’re thinking then,” he requested again. “I know the press is… persistent and opinionated. But is that all that’s bothering you or…?” He didn’t finish the sentence. Part of being a writer involved imagining way too many possibilities for every scenario. Was Dean having regrets already?

The actor moved a burger patty a few inches with his spatula unnecessarily.

“I didn’t really think before coming here—” Dean muttered, eventually, and Cas felt his heart sink a little. “I mean, I did—but I didn’t. I just felt how upset you were, and I couldn’t—sit still. And maybe I wanted an excuse to see you too, I don’t know.” Dean shrugged. “And then I did see you and everything I’d been trying to push back for a week came flooding back in and—I just… acted. Even though I should have learned by now that I can’t do impulsive shit. Not with my life.”

Cas crossed his arms over his chest—whether offensively, defensively, or both, he wasn’t certain. “You said you weren’t going to do this. That you weren’t going to change your mind or—”

Dean’s gaze snapped back to Cas’s face like a rubber band. “Woah, woah, woah. I wasn’t… I didn’t….” His struggle for words was clear across his face. “C’mere,” he murmured at last, looping one finger into Cas’s belt loops, and tugging him closer. The author probably could have stopped himself from being moved, but instead, he let himself fall into Dean’s chest, recently washed hands pressing wet handprints to the back of Dean’s shirt.

“Cas, I told you I suck at this. But I’m not… I was always coming to get you, you hear me? Even when I was pissed, I knew deep down that someday, I’d wind up banging down your door, asking you to give this a shot. I just—” Cas, relaxing slightly, pressed his cheek against Dean’s collar bone.

“—I said that we should go out to see how you could take it,” Dean muttered. “And that wasn’t me thinking straight—or at all. You won’t be able to go anywhere now without being harrassed… And Lisa’s gonna get even more questions that she shouldn’t have to deal with. Not to mention how much fun Charlie’s gonna be when she finds out I created all this crap to clean up. And I don’t—I don’t know what I’m doing, Man. I messed up. Already. Again. Whatever.” The actor was breathing kind of heavily at this point and where before Dean had seemed to be soothing him, Cas now felt like their roles were reversed, even without switching positions.

“Dean, I haven’t been in a relationship before. You haven’t been in a new one in over four years and never had to deal with this kind of situation. We’re… making it up as we go. And under those circumstances, I think… some missteps are to be expected. If this even is one. Regardless, beating yourself up about it isn’t going to resolve anything.”

He slid his hands up and down Dean’s back, feeling firm muscles first contract slightly and then loosen under his touch. “You’re probably right that a plan going forward is necessary, so… let’s work on that.”

Dean pulled away, but he didn’t go far—staying close enough to touch. “That conversation can’t just be you and me, Cas, and—in case you weren’t aware of this—it’s kinda bad form to mention your ex on the first date—let alone try to get them on Zoom.”

Castiel winced. He was known to make normal social situations uncomfortable; he could only imagine how much worse a situation like that would go. “Perhaps we can start with you telling me about the plans that are already in place. I presume you and Lisa have discussed some of what the future looks like.”

Dean nodded absently, perhaps nervously, as he finally disentangled them to flip the burgers. “So, here’s the thing,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’m not—moving out. And that's not about Lisa, it's—”

“You want to provide stability for Ben,” Cas thought out loud, going from frowning to worrying his bottom lip. “Is he okay? I’ve never known what it’s like to see my parents together, but—” He was suddenly reminded of a few dozen memories of Dean and Lisa smiling at each other, eating meals side-by-side, looking—for lack of a better word—united. If it was still difficult for him to shift his understanding of their relationship, how much more confusing must it be for a child?

“You—” Dean’s expression looked stunned for the split-second Cas got to process it— before warm lips pressed against his forehead, sending something happy and dizzy through the author’s veins.

“Me, what?” Cas prompted, tilting his chin up in question like a sunflower angling itself towards the sun.

It seemed Dean took that an invitation to kiss Cas’s mouth instead—and just like that—any thoughts of Lisa and Dean and the perfect couple they had seemed to make—vanished. This wasn’t like any of their kisses in the car—which had involved them being separated by a drive stick. Instead, Cas went from feeling only that one point of heat—Dean’s mouth near his hairline—to feeling a wall of it along the front of his body—pooling hotter by the second.

“Sorry,” the word burst out of Dean the second he backed away. “Sorry. I just—I thought you might be pissed about me and Lisa still living together…. But you jumped to thinking ‘bout Ben instead and—I, uh—never mind, that sounds weird. I promise I heard you before about going slow—and I’m—gonna, you know, respect that. Better.”

Dean was very cute when he was flustered.

“You’re very cute when you’re flustered,” the author said out-loud, figuring that there was little point in censoring his thoughts.

“’Course I am. Shut up,” Dean said, cheeks pink.

“No, I will not ‘shut up.’ Because it seems like you need to be reminded that I explicitly consented to you kissing me the first time and initiated the second. As for this—well, I could have easily stopped you if I wanted to, but I didn’t. I find kissing you to be… very pleasant.”

Cas could almost see the scales tipping back and forth in Dean’s eyes—and the moment that the actor chose to believe him. “Very pleasant, huh?” he said, with a sideways smile. “You sound like you’re giving a Yelp review. How many stars do I get?”

“Fewer by the minute. Besides, I’m opposed to the idea of recommending you to others,” Cas commented, at last approaching the station where a tomato and an onion had been set on a cutting board for him to chop.

“Aww,” Dean teased, also going back to his own cooking. The thick steak patties were starting to brown nicely, carrying the scent of oregano the actor had sprinkled on them. “Does that mean you actually have a jealous bone somewhere in there? If I wasn’t so thrilled that you’re cool with me staying with my ex, I might actually wind up being kind of pissy about it.”

“You said you didn’t want to be in a relationship with her anymore.”

“I don’t.”

“And I presume that means you two are also not sleeping together?”

Dean made a half-cough, half-choking noise. “‘Course not. I claimed one of the guest rooms, but I mostly just sleep in the Dean Cave, to be honest.”

Castiel raised one eyebrow. “So why should I be jealous?”

“Because… you’re human?” Dean offered, waving his spatula around in a way that came dangerously close to getting beef juice on someone’s clothes—but never did. “At least, I’m pretty sure you are. Do aliens have soulmates?”

Castiel sighed, loudly and long-suffering. “I’m not an alien. I can be jealous. But I find myself trusting your word over my own insecurities. Now,” he prompted. “We were discussing Ben. I’m guessing you wouldn’t be here if he was too badly off, but I’d still like to hear how he’s doing.”

And in that moment, Castiel felt it—the last lingering tightness in his soulmark—unwind like it had been massaged away. He hadn’t even realized it was still there until it was gone. And just like that, they were Dean and Cas again, completely. They might be other things too—soulmates or maybe lovers-to-be. But they were most importantly friends and could act like it.

Through the process of cooking and eating, Dean explained that Ben was doing “Alright, all things considered.” They’d told him about the break-up and the adoption at the same time and because Dean was around just as much as before, he didn’t seem too torn up about it. In some ways, he actually seemed more relaxed, now that Dean and Lisa weren’t fighting the way they’d been for the last few weeks.

Part of Dean worried that Ben just didn’t get it—what a break-up meant—but no nine-year-old really wanted to hear that his dad used to make-out with his mom but wasn’t going to anymore—so he and Lisa figured they’d keep on checking in with him and cross those bridges when they came to them.

Cas asked some other questions, too—about Dean’s relationship with Lisa—and more hesitatingly—when he’d developed feelings for Castiel—but Dean’s answers were somewhat vague on both accounts.

“I get that the exes talk is kinda standard—but it feels—weird? a little bit—to talk about her that way. Like it’s even more of a betrayal than….” He sighed, fingers crumbling the paper towel he was using as a napkin. “Is it okay if I… don’t? At least not right now. I owe it to you—but—later?”

Castiel agreed, easily.

“As for the other thing—I don’t know, Man. One minute, you were a stranger, and then you were my best friend, and then you were my choice to go to a deserted island with—and I don’t really know when it changed from being one to the other because, by the time I figured it out, I couldn’t remember what it was like before—to think about you as just ‘some guy.’

“Now, your turn to talk some,” Dean interrupted himself, pausing only to stuff his mouth with another overly large bite of burger. “I feel like I’m being the only Fruit Gusher over here.”

So, Cas did the best he could—going back to the very first day at the auditions and how blindsided he’d been by Dean’s presence, all the times he’d thought about telling Dean the truth only to back out, Gabe’s constant prodding….

How he believed he had his feelings all under control until that day “you told the really bad joke about… mimes, I think it was?” Cas murmured, with a tilt of his head.

Dean’s mouth worked up and down, disbelievingly. “Screw you—that was a great joke—” he argued at last.

“No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t funny at all, but I laughed anyway—”

“Yeah, ‘cause it was a good joke,” Dean insisted.

“And I went back over it later and realized that I wouldn’t have reacted that way if it were anyone else who told it. But you get so—excited—when you think your joke is good—”

“Dammit! It was a good joke.”

“That I can’t help but feel happy that you’re happy,” Cas concluded, ignoring all of Dean’s interruptions.

The actor paused his ranting to consider that for a moment. He licked his lips, “So, what you’re saying is… a joke about mimes helped you figure out that you wanted to do unspeakable things to me?” Then, his face split into a grin.

Castiel groaned, deeply.

/////

A couple of hours later, Cas closed his laptop, where the ending credits of Tombstone were still playing. Dean had to leave soon. He’d said he didn’t want to miss dinner with Ben, but for a minute more, in the sudden silence of the apartment, they just sat there.

Eventually, Dean pulled Cas back to rest his head on Dean’s shoulder, the way it had been during the movie. “The last time I said goodbye to you, we didn’t talk for a week,” the actor whispered like a confession. With the surprising crack in his voice, maybe it was.

“We’ll do better this time,” Castiel reassured, unconsciously signing his name on Dean’s shirt. “Even if we can’t see each other in person because of the press, we can still call each other like we used to. Text.”

“There’s a problem with that too,” Dean murmured against Cas’s hair.

Cas almost smacked him on the lip with his head in his scramble to sit upright. “What kind of problem?” he asked, concerned, trying to read Dean’s expression for clues.

Dean smiled. “Somebody never gave me their new phone number.”

Chapter Text

The first time Dean and Cas met, Cas mentioned that one of his friends (it was Charlie) was big on zombie apocalypse preparation. Now, watching several delivery people traipsing into his apartment, with bags and bags of food only days after his and Dean’s trip to the grocery store, he couldn’t help but feel like he was in one of her training scenarios.

“And where should I put da kielbasa?” came a ridiculous-sounding fake German accent.

Castiel froze—halfway in the process of placing lemonade into the fridge. He would recognize that voice anywhere. Sure enough, when he whipped around, he found Gabriel, standing in the middle of the men in uniform—none of whom had apparently noticed that someone had followed them in through the open door.

“Wh-what are you doing here?” Cas asked Gabe, mind racing to fully process his cousin’s presence—especially since the man in question looked… different—wearing something resembling a waiter’s vest, his slicked-back hair a couple of shades darker than usual. “I thought you were in New York.”

Gabriel raised both eyebrows. “How long did you think it would take me to deal with your agent?”

“Longer than 48 hours.”

Pshttt,” Gabriel said with a dismissive wave of his hands. “M’always underestimated in this family. I took care of him, shopped around Chinatown some, got a massage with a very happy ending, and managed a lifetime ban from the Met—all with time to spare before my flight.”

Despite having been the one to send Gabriel on this particular mission, Castiel couldn’t help but feel nervous at his cousin’s casual tone. “And what did you… do… to Crowley?”

“Nothing yet. I just set up the dominoes. It’s all waiting for you and your little friends to knock the first one over.”

Apparently seeing the worry on Cas’s face, his cousin rolled his eyes. “I followed all your rules. No bodily harm, blah blah. Nothing that hurts innocents, blah blah. Just trust me, okay?”

And weirdly, Castiel did. It occurred to him that as—chaotic and loud—and insistent—as Gabriel could be, he really had Castiel’s best interests at heart this year—for much longer than that, to be honest. Even more significant than that—he’d listened to Castiel’s limits—never pushing him further than Cas was willing to go.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he told his cousin, thinking that his planned week of self-isolation was about to get even more interesting than expected. And then, without giving himself a chance to overthink it, Cas stepped forward to give his cousin a hug.

It was more awkward than hugging Dean—Castiel wasn’t quite sure what to do with his arms—and Gabriel also seemed to be taken by surprise—but when Gabriel finally pulled away with an “Alright, alright. You’re squishing the merchandise,” there was something secretly pleased in his tone.

“Mr. Novak,” the head of the delivery people stepped in then, an invoice in his hand. “We’ll be going now.”

“Thank you,” Cas told him, handing over a tip. He’d thought before that he’d ordered far too many supplies for one person—especially combined with Dean’s cooking leftovers—but now, there would apparently be two of them.

As if in demonstration of the fact, his cousin was already rifling through the reusable bags. “You got popcorn, right? ‘Cause this is gonna be one hell of a show.”

/////

“Hey, Cas!” Charlie spoke cheerfully from Cas’s laptop screen. “And… Gabriel, apparently. It’s awesome seeing you again!”

His cousin opened his mouth but didn’t get the chance to respond before Dean and Sam popped up in another box beside hers.

“This is stupid,” the actor was telling his brother, seemingly unaware that they now had an audience. “Why the hell are we doing a watch party for?”

“Because you don’t just drop news like and then not pay attention to the public perception,” Charlie huffed, exasperated. Dean’s neck snapped around. “And if we’re all going to be watching the news, biting our fingernails, we might as well do it together.”

“Don’t take it too personal, Red,” Gabriel insisted, leaning toward the screen conspiratorially. “He’s a little slow to pick up on… well, everything, as far as I can tell.”

Cas glared at his cousin. “That was uncalled for. And also untrue.”

“What is he even doing there?” Dean asked.

“Saying ‘hello’ to your brother,” Gabriel answered for himself. “Lookin’ good, Sammy,” he purred.

“Thanks, Gabe,” Sam responded with a wide grin. “I’m having a really good hair day.”

Dean pointed a finger at Sam. “You, don’t encourage him.” He swung the finger toward Gabriel. “You, stop hitting on my little brother.”

“Have you or have you not had your tongue in my cousin’s mouth?”

The reddish-purple shirt that Dean was wearing over his black tee complemented his blush nicely. “Cas,” he hissed. “I thought we agreed not to talk about that kinda stuff with our nosy family members.”

“Not that I want to hear about that anyway. Gross,” Sam declared, with a wrinkled nose.

“I haven’t,” Cas told him, pointedly. “I would presume he’s just making an educated guess in the hopes that you’ll confirm his assumptions.”

“Well,” Dean sputtered. “Get him to stop.”

“Oh, you’re definitely a bottom,” Gabriel snorted.

Sam, Dean, and Cas all made different, indistinguishable noises at that—the sounds overlapping like the cacophony at an amusement park—where the staticky pumped-in music met the roar of passing trains and the whisper-shouted conversations of passersby.

“Sorry to interrupt all the boy gossip,” Charlie cut through the general hubbub. (She didn’t seem sorry at all.) “But I thought you should know… the posts just went live.”

/////

The day after Dean’s and Cas’s reconciliation, they did get around to that uncomfortable Zoom call with Lisa and Charlie. Unfortunately, with the press still hungering for details about Lisa’s and Dean’s relationship status, they didn’t really have the luxury of waiting.

They needed to tell people that the celebrity couple wasn’t married—was, in actuality, broken up—but that was pretty much guaranteed to revive the infidelity rumors that the tabloids had been running with before.

“There’s kind of an obvious solution here,” Charlie said, once her warnings had a few minutes to soak in.

“Which is?”

“We leak Cas’s soulmate picture.”

Instantly, Dean’s posture went ramrod straight and his shoulders squared—one of the few reminders besides his military-style haircut that he was still an army brat at heart. “You want to do the exact same thing Cas’s dick of an agent is blackmailing him with?”

“Dean—” Charlie started with a sigh.

“No, don’t ‘Dean’ me,” he growled. “Cas said he didn’t want that picture out in the world—so we’re keeping it quiet. End of story.”

“I actually have no problem with releasing it,” Cas announced, causing Dean’s eyes to snap to his. They weren’t as vibrant over the internet feed as they were in real life—making it hard to make out the kaleidoscope of emotions the author usually found in them—but he could still see Dean’s surprise and hoped that Dean could, in turn, read the honesty in his own expression. “My primary concern with Crowley having that picture was you finding out about it. In general, I don’t care much about what the public knows—or thinks they know—about me. So, if Charlie believes disclosing my mark would be helpful….”

“It definitely would be,” Charlie piped in.

“Then I am willing.”

Dean ground his teeth, clearly holding back some choice words about this idea.

“Look, I know you hate it,” Charlie tried soothing the actor. “But the reality is that most people are suckers for a good soulmate story. If they knew about the mark, it would soften their opinion of you and Cas moving forward—because, well, it’s sort of what’s expected to happen when you meet your match.”

“That’s bullshit,” Dean grumbled—although Cas noticed the guilty glance that he threw at Lisa and Lisa’s too-neutral expression.

“Absolutely. But if it gets some of the heat off you, I say use it to your advantage.”

Charlie paused, biting her lip. “Letting the world in on your little secret also benefits Lisa and Ben,” she said, with a head nod in the brunette’s direction. “You’ve got a lot of fans, Dean—who’d come to your defense if the media started saying shit about you—but some would take it too far and try to put the blame on Lisa instead.

“The media will also be after all three of you to get the exclusive on what ‘really' happened. We let the soulmark picture out—Boom—they already have a story to run with. That’s not to say they won’t still harass you—but—” she shrugged her slim shoulders “—they’d be slightly less rabid about it and more inclined to show all of you in a sympathetic light.”

The actor groaned, uncrossing his arms and putting them both behind his bowed head. “God, the things I didn’t think I’d have to deal with when I was a teenager.”

To his point, this hadn’t exactly been what Castiel had expected either. His imagined future had always been… rather boring, if he was being honest with himself.

Eventually, Dean straightened. “Lis? Cas?” he asked. “You up for this? Really?”

“Charlie’s plan makes sense from where I’m standing,” Lisa responded. She shifted her gaze over to the author—and he admired her for the steadiness with which she kept it there. “Castiel?”

“I agree,” he repeated—though, for Dean’s benefit, he tried to send as much confidence and reassurance over the soulmate bond as he could. He didn’t know if it was actually capable of that in the same way it could transfer negative emotions—but it would seem… somewhat cruel if it could not—so it was at least worth the attempt.

At last, Dean nodded, reluctantly.

“Excellent!” Charlie said. “Because I was also thinking that with a little technological redirecting, we can totally make it seem like the leak did come from Crowley. If we sell the pic to a tabloid and make sure the funds go to one of his accounts, we’ll have a neat little case for extortion after all.”

/////

“Sorry to interrupt all the boy gossip. But. I thought you should know… The posts just went live,” Charlie announced to the group.

“How anti-climactic,” was Gabriel’s first response, unwrapping a lollipop and immediately fitting it to the apple of his cheek.

Secretly, Castiel couldn’t help but agree. He and his cousin were still sitting in his familiar, two-bedroom apartment. The normal sounds of traffic were still filtering through the window. By all accounts, it was a Thursday afternoon that was probably not going to be particularly remarkable for most people in the world.

And yet, even if he didn’t feel the changes yet, Castiel was still aware that his world was probably never going to be quite the same again. People he passed on the street would look at him and some of them would know—know that he was Dean Winchester’s soulmate.

For someone who had been told, repeatedly, that he had a tendency to wear too many layers or bulky clothes that didn’t fit him particularly well, it was a strange concept.

The idea of metaphorically wearing his heart on his sleeve.

/////

Five minutes later, notifications started going off on all of their computers and phones simultaneously. It sounded like the pop of popcorn or the rapid-fire crackle of fireworks.

Charlie instantly went into work mode. She had some sort of program that automatically sorted comments and reactions for easier analysis. Meanwhile, everyone else was just checking social media randomly.

Castiel will admit that he wasn’t prepared for the commentary he saw. Many individuals seemed to find the idea of him—or Dean—or the idea of him and Dean as a couple to be… stimulating.

“So, Cassie—how many people do you think are going to be getting off to that shirtless pic of you tonight?” Gabriel asked, waggling his eyebrows.

“Don’t be crude,” he muttered, grateful—not for the first time—that he didn’t tend to fidget when uncomfortable.

“And I would hope none,” he added before his cousin got the chance to speak again. “I’ve tried it in the past, but—frankly—I’ve never really understood the concept of using a complete stranger’s likeness as a masturbatory aid.”

Castiel couldn’t be sure which came first: the weird choking noise Dean made from deep in his throat—or Sam clapping his brother on the back repeatedly like he was trying to get him to cough up a hotdog.

“And just like that, I feel much more entertained,” Gabriel said, reclining against the couch with both of his arms behind his head.

Chapter Text

“Really, though—why the hell are we video chatting for this?” Dean repeated after he’d recovered his breath.

“We’re keeping our finger on the pulse of public opinion,” Charlie huffed. “It just so happens that that pulse is a little bit, uh—elevated—at the moment.” She and Gabriel exchanged not-so-secret smiles.

“Yeah, well, I never needed to know that ‘RedH88die’ wants me to ‘break her in half like a hard taco shell’.”

Cas cocked his head to the side, confused.

“Hear that, cuz?” Gabriel asked, nudging him in the side with his elbow. “Soft taco shell lovemaking only.”

Dean’s eyes narrowed. “I will come over there and punch you,” he told his cousin, seriously.

Then again, seriousness bounced off Gabriel like a quarter off a smooth hotel bed. “Ooooh, Cassie—watch out. Your boyfriend wants to visit so he can pound me instead of you.”

“Do you never shut up?” Dean demanded. He turned to Cas. “Does he have an ‘off’ switch somewhere?”

“In my experience, it only appears after he’s consumed an excessive amount of alcohol,” the author answered, wryly.

“Which you didn’t buy any of,” Gabriel couldn’t help but rant. It was the first thing he’d looked for after the popcorn.

“In that case…” Dean stood up and walked off-frame for a moment—only to return with a tumbler full of whiskey. “I’ll just have to enjoy a glass for you, eh, Gabriel?” He took a dramatic sip, “Aaah.”

“I feel like we’ve gone off-topic,” Sam pointed out, trying to break up what was now clearly a staring contest between Dean and Gabe. Well, for Dean ‘glaring contest’ might have been more accurate. Cas’s cousin was making any number of over-the-top expressions while maintaining eye contact.

Sam sighed. “Charlie—how’s it looking? And please, skip the innuendos before I need any more brain bleach.”

“Alright, alright,” Charlie muttered, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Castiel’s nerves jittered in time with her rapid clicking of the keys. “This is what we got,” the tech genius announced—throwing a pie chart up on all their screens. That, at least, seemed to get Dean and Gabriel to blink.

“According to my online sniffers, 68% of the first wave of comments seem pro-Destiel. Then we got 22% anti, followed by 7% who are criticizing Dean but don’t seem to have an opinion on Cas. The rest is all over the place. Some people saying it’s stupid to care about the private lives of celebrities in general. Others reminding people that you guys could be platonic soulmates—that sort of thing.”

Dean’s face scrunched up in a way that Cas was used to only seeing in the mornings—when he’d stayed over at Dean’s house and found out the extent to which the actor’s mind did not like to process things before coffee.

“That doesn’t seem… bad?” Dean spoke eventually, although the question in his voice was obvious.

He was rewarded by a bright smile from the redhead. “It’s not,” she agreed. “I mean some of the people against it are clearly just homophobic assholes—which it sucks that there are still so many of them—but overall, these are better numbers than I was expecting. And based on past trends for celebrities in a similar situation to yours, they’re likely to improve the more you and Cas are seen spending time together—so long as you and Lisa don’t go nuclear in the process,” she tacked on carefully.

“I think we’re safe there…?” Dean muttered, scratching the back of his neck. “She’s, uh, spending the day at her sister’s—so I guess I’ll see how she’s feeling when she gets back.”

“Of course, now we have to think about what comes next. It’s probably best for you to like some of these posts—set a precedent for the kind of comments you’re okay with versus the kind that you’re not—”

Dean let out a long groan that seemed more appropriate for Ben than someone in his mid-20s to be making. “Can’t I just stick pins in my eyeballs? That sounds like more fun.”

“Dude, stop pouting.”

“I don’t pout,” Dean argued with Charlie, pout prominently in place. “I just don’t know how to do all this public relations stuff. With my luck, I’m gonna like the posts of someone who called Lisa nasty things in the past or not-so-secretly donated to Dick Roman, and then the media will be all over my ass about that. Can’t you… do it for me?” he asked, casting hopeful green eyes at the techie.

Charlie crossed her arms over her chest. “I do have a life, you know. And you don’t pay me enough for this to be my full-time job,” she pointed out.

“I can totally fix that,” Dean responded instantly. “I’m loaded, you know.”

“I—” Charlie blinked. “Are you serious?”

Dean seemed just as startled. “I mean—yeah. If you’d be up for it. It’s not like this shit storm is gonna die down anytime soon. And Cas is gonna need just as much help—if not more—than I do.” His shoulders shrugged like he was putting his hands in his pockets. “To be honest, I was gonna ask you to come work for me before you graduated, but then you were all excited about the Google gig and the fact they had nap pods in the office. Figured you wouldn’t be interested.”

Charlie narrowed her eyes at him. “Would I have to move?” she questioned after a minute.

“No…?” Dean was clearly guessing. “I mean, it would be cool seeing you around more, but you could work remote, too. I know Dorothy’s got her park ranger stuff.”

And then, suddenly, the two of them were discussing salary and duties and vacation time (or Charlie was. Dean mostly just said “Sure, yeah,” several times in a row). “And I want to meet Gal Gadot!” Charlie added.

“Well, that makes two of us,” Dean answered, throwing his hands up in the air, finally reaching the point of exasperation. Castiel’s forehead furrowed a bit.

Charlie tilted her head to the side. “I will accept best efforts,” she decided.

Fine,” Dean huffed, with an eye-roll. “I will try to be your wingman with Wonder Woman—but you have to be the one to tell your soon-to-be wife.”

“Like she wouldn’t be thrilled if I was best friends with a superhero.”

Dean let out a mildly offended noise at that. “Shows how much I mean to you. What is the Red Hood, huh? Chopped liver?”

“Anti-hero. Very different.”

“Yeah. Cooler.

A loud ding interrupted their tangent.

“You leave the oven on, Charles?” Dean questioned.

“Nope,” she announced, popping the ‘p.’ “I set alerts on all Crowley’s social media activity. He must have just found out about the soulmark pic going viral—the lit agency’s Facebook and Twitter page are sharing the article and boosting posts related to The Righteous Man.”

Ooh, that sounds like my cue,” Gabriel inserted, cracking his knuckles, before drawing Cas’s laptop into his own lap.

He immediately navigated to a website with a plain orange background, the words ‘Go Ape FanCam’ written above a box containing a video feed. Castiel would have assumed that the footage being displayed wasn’t live, except that, every once in a while, the image of the hotel-style hallway jostled a bit from the camera being moved.

“Gabriel…?” he asked, cautiously.

“What’s going on?” Dean questioned. “Why are we just looking at Gabriel’s double chin?”

“I do not have a double chin!” Gabriel protested, jutting said chin out to emphasize his jaw. “And both of you have the patience of mealworms.”

“Us?” Dean exclaimed in disbelief. “I’m surprised you even know the meaning of that word.”

“I waited three years for my cousin to get his head out of his ass and tell you that you were soulmates, so, yeah, I think I deserve a damn patience award,” he countered, dryly.

Sam’s eyes looked like they were going to boggle out of his head. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed. “I could barely put up with Dean being an idiot over Cas and it was only a few months.”

“Hey!” Dean protested. Cas, though silent, glared slightly at Sam as well.

“Let’s be real, Sam-squatch,” Gabriel murmured, pressing a few more buttons. “I’m pretty sure your brother was an idiot loooong before Cassie came around.”

“Aha!” he declared, not a second later, before Cas could scold him—again. “There. You guys should be able to see what we’re seeing now,” he told the Winchesters and Charlie.

“You mean… an apartment door?” Sam asked as he and Dean both squinted at their screens.

“Crowley’s, to be exact,” Gabriel specified and, just like that, the coiling tension in Cas’s gut got tighter.

Gabriel picked up his cellphone, dialed a number. “All clear,” he informed whoever was on the other end of the line.

That’s when a bright pink, furry hand reached for the golden brass knocker above the number 3.

“The fuck!” Dean exclaimed.

By contrast, Castiel’s voice was as flat as a parking lot. “The gorilla again? Have you finally run out of original ideas?” he asked, realizing that the video feed must be streaming from something similar to a GoPro worn at about chest height.

“He’s got a name, you know—” Gabriel huffed. “It’s Monty. And I’ve found him to be very effective. I’ve hired him to work for me permanently—as sort of… a personal assistant.”

“A personal assistant gorilla?” Cas repeated.

“The fuck do you do for a living, Man?” Dean questioned.

He operated the largest casino chain in the Midwest actually, but before Cas or Gabriel had the chance to answer, Crowley’s door was opening and the man himself was standing there, his shorter frame wrapped in an expensive-looking red bathrobe.

“Bloody hell!” Crowley yelled, taking in the atrocious pink sight before him—although Cas had to give him credit for his quick recovery. “I’m calling security” the Brit informed Monty dryly before attempting to shut the door.

“I was sent to deliver this,” the gorilla waved a manilla envelope out for the agent to take a second before the door could snick shut. “It’s a copy of your contract with Cas-steel Novak. My boss said you’d need the doc for legal purposes.”

The agent paused. He looked Monty up and down the way a potential home buyer might examine wallpaper he found particularly ugly.

“I don’t know what’s going on here,” he said at last, words rolling elegantly like cigar paper. “Perhaps Castiel has decided to revisit his college years with some… frat-party style prank—although I will admit, this seems a bit… colorful for him. Regardless, you can assure your boss that I have a copy of that contract in triplicate and that he still owes me two sequels to The Righteous Man and two standalone novels. Now… leave my building before I decide to call animal control to take you to the zoo. I’ve heard some have rather aggressive breeding programs.” He went to close the door again.

Castiel had to give Monty credit. He seemed much more confident than when he’d dealt with Cas under similar circumstances. “I was told that the version you had was an outdated copy. This is the revised one.” Again, the manilla envelope was waved, a little less like a white flag this time and more like a bullfighter’s red cape.

Crowley’s eyes became snake-like slits.

Meanwhile, Gabriel set the laptop back on the coffee table so he could pull the bowl of popcorn into his lap instead. “Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do… When they come for you. Bad boys, bad boys,” he started singing, loudly and obnoxiously. For the first time, it occurred to Cas to wonder if Gabriel had also been spying on him during Monty’s visit to his front door.

Fortunately or not, he didn’t have time to wonder long as—

Crowley snatched the envelope out of the gorilla’s hand. “Absurd,” the agent muttered to himself under his breath.

The Brit’s bright hazel eyes darted back and forth over the first page, scanning lines more quickly than seemed humanely possible. “Blah, blah… yada, yada” he continued speaking aloud, clearly not seeing any cause for alarm.

Then, his jaw clenched.

“What is this nonsense?” Crowley demanded, wetting a finger and flipping to the second page. His eyes moved even more quickly over the text—and then he was moving on to the third and the fourth pages, the rustling of the paper sounding like the disgruntled flapping of a bird’s wings.

“Uh, Gabriel—care to fill in some blanks?” Charlie asked, hand raised, as they all watched the scene playing out intently.

“Well, you see,” Gabriel explained, leaning forward, “I consider myself something of an artist…”

“‘Course you do,” Dean snorted.

Custom jobs,” Gabriel said, talking over the actor easily. “Some pranks will get under anyone’s skin—but if you want to make someone spit out their own teeth? You gotta study them from the inside out—find out what makes them want to drink themselves so far under the table they end up in China…

“So, I asked myself… a man like Crowley. How did he get to be the jackass he is today? What’s his villain origin story, so to speak?”

Dean shook his head. “Let me guess? Not enough hugs as a child,” he muttered, sarcastically.

Gabriel flashed him an almost-fond smile. “Boringly enough… yeah. He grew up with a con artist of a mother who married a bunch of rich men just to take their money. So, I’m guessing she wasn’t the type to cut the crusts off of his sandwiches. Point is, the pair of them probably thought the step-daddies had it coming because they were all too stupid to get a prenup. In response, wee little angry gremlin Crowley made sure he was damn good at writing contracts.”

On-screen, Crowley’s eyebrows were pushed so close to the center of his forehead in rising anger that it looked like two sections of a bridge coming together.

“So, I thought to myself—hmmm, well, how to give him a taste of his own medicine? How do I make his own superpower work against him?”

“I think we’d all very much like to know the answer to that, Gabriel,” Castiel uttered, as calmly as he could through slightly clenched teeth.

“Not all of you,” Gabe clarified. “Sam already knows what’s going on. I enlisted his help for this one,” he said with a wink at the youngest Winchester.

Dean’s head snapped in his brother’s direction. Meanwhile, Sam—Sam was grinning a different kind of smile than the author had ever seen on him before. Frankly, it was far too much like Gabriel’s for comfort.

“We started digging around for the most absurd contract clauses that have ever been upheld in court. You know, for inspiration.” Gabriel pointed at the screen again, where the literary agent looked like he had steam coming out of his ears.

“How much do you think Crowley weighs?” Gabe asked, before swatting the question away like it was a fly. “Doesn’t matter. According to that contract, Crowley owes you five percent of his cut of The Righteous Man for every 10 pounds he is over 150.”

Castiel raised both of his eyebrows dubiously. “That… can’t be legal.”

“Psssh, weight requirements are a surprisingly common thing in prenups. And acting contracts. Just ask Dean-o.”

Castiel’s soulmate gave a one-armed, awkward shrug. “I guess… yeah.”

“Oh, and he’s also not allowed to drink either,” Gabriel said, ticking off his fingers as he went down his mental list. “So that 30-year-old Craig he loves so much—he’s gotta throw it out to avoid a penalty. What else? What else? Sam, jog my memory.”

“I mean, there were some pretty strict instructions on what kinds of clothes he can wear when promoting Cas’s book. No black, no suits, nothing Italian. Oh, and he has to schedule at least some of the book events on your tour at rodeo bars—you know, the kind with the mechanical bulls in them?”

“Right, right—” Gabriel nodded. “Not to mention, he’s required to do some volunteer work reading children’s books to disadvantaged orphans. At least five afternoons.”

“Then, there was all the anti-slander clauses…”

“Yup. Can’t forget those. Cas is allowed to call him ‘Puppy’ in interviews and affectionately tell the story of how he got so drunk one night, he started licking the floor—”

“That—didn’t happen,” Cas couldn’t help but interrupt.

“Doesn’t matter. That contract basically gives you permission to say that it did.”

Castiel felt like the shock on Dean’s face spoke enough for the both of them. “None of that can possibly be binding,” he found himself repeating once he had enough saliva in his mouth to form audible words.

“As I said, all of the stipulations we included had legal precedents. Weight requirements, sobriety agreements, promotional obligations? It’s all been done in the past. We can’t necessarily force him to uphold any of his end of the bargain—but if he doesn’t—it’s money that he has to give back to you. That contract will nickel and dime him to the point he’ll be paying you for the honor of being your agent. Which is justice as it should be, I think. Or, you know, he could agree to cut ties altogether.”

Castiel felt the gears in his mind turning—too slowly—like all the parts were rusted. “If that is—quite horrifyingly—true, I’m still pretty sure he has to sign the contract for it to mean anything.”

“And he did,” Gabriel promised, with a dismissive shrug. “He just wasn’t paying much attention to what he was signing at the time.

“See, I had it on pretty reliable authority that your agent had a lunch date with a lady friend in New York,” his cousin continued. “And well… he might have thought I was the waiter coming back with the meal receipt to sign when I showed up with my iPad asking for an electronic signature. But that’s totally his fault,” Gabriel announced, with an air of protest, as if anyone was blaming him. “If he’d bothered leaving a tip, he might have noticed something was up.

“‘Course, things like this need several signatures on different pages—so I might have also given him the impression I was a UPS worker dropping off a package that required DocuSign. And now that I think about it, when I ran into him later that evening, in another one of my outfits, we got into a talk about how food trucks definitely shouldn’t be allowed to set up shop outside his apartment complex. It’s possible that he thought I was a fellow tenant asking him to sign a petition.”

Castiel felt the weight of several stares all examining him closely. “Even if that is true…” he said slowly. “Crowley could just claim he didn’t sign anything. There’s no proof. It would just be our word against his.”

Except that I used a fingerprint scanner on the iPad to electronically notarize it. And I recorded video footage of him signing at the restaurant. And I have a witness who also signed the contract, confirming that she saw him do it. Of course, if this ever went to court, her testimony would probably be considered a little biased. But we have a hell of a lot more going for us than Crowley does.”

There was a lot to unpack about that. A lot. And yet, Castiel was caught on one part of it. “What witness? Why would she be biased?”

Gabe’s suddenly nervous expression managed to kick Cas’s heart rate up a notch again. “Well, about that.... Uh. Crowley’s date was—sort of… your mother.”

Chapter Text

“So, uh, how’re you holding up?” Dean asked from Cas’s laptop, as the author closed himself inside his room.

“Mostly fine,” he responded, adjusting himself so that he laid down sideways on top of his dark blue comforter, one hand holding up his head. It had been a few hours since Crowley had finally slammed the door in Monty’s face, and with nothing else to do but wait for the agent’s next move, their little group of five had dissolved to take care of their own matters. Dean, for one, had had a last-minute fitting with the wardrobe department while Castiel added a few measly paragraphs to The Righteous Man sequel, even if his heart wasn’t in it.

“I’m a bit anxious waiting to see what Crowley’s response to everything is. And I’m a bit… concerned that my mother has apparently been dating him for several months without telling me…. Then, there’s a mix of surprise and guilt that she agreed to sabotage her relationship with him on my account….” He chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. “It reminds me of what happened with Bartholomew all over again.”

“You fit a lot more feelings into ‘fine’ than I do,” Dean pointed out wryly.

Castiel doubted that was true, considering the word “fine” only passed his soulmate’s lips when he was decidedly not okay. But that seemed like a fight to pick another day.

“And, hey—don’t feel bad that you’re the reason she keeps on dumping assholes,” Dean added, his voice somehow evoking the gentle way he sometimes lifted Castiel’s chin up with his finger. “Seems like you’re doing her a favor as much as the other way around.”

Castiel hummed noncommittally, knowing his thoughts were too knotted up to be made into a straight line at the moment. Dean let him have a minute, eyes warm on his face, and maybe Castiel was imagining it—but there also seemed to be a balm-like feeling of calm emanating from his soulmark.

The author liked that he and Dean had gotten back to this level of ease with each other.

Although Dean had spent several hours in Cas’s apartment after their first kiss acting like his usual self, the first few times they’d video-chatted afterward, he’d started off weirdly shy—turning red, stuttering, and generally putting his foot in his mouth. It was like—of the two of them—Dean was the one acting the most like he’d never been in a relationship before and even if he was able to relax after a while, whatever progress he made reset at midnight.

/////

“Why are you so nervous?” Castiel had asked him after Dean had called him ‘Castiel’ and then winced at himself so hard, it looked like he gave himself a toothache.

“I don’t know, Man… I’m just… used to thinking about you—talking to you—a certain way and I guess I’m having trouble changing gears.”

“Then why are you?” Castiel questioned, frowning slightly down at the screen.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean… if it’s uncomfortable to think of me in a romantic context, why are you pushing yourself to?”

“No, Cas, no,” Dean began, hands sweeping out in front of him like he could wipe that idea from Cas’s mind. “It’s not—like that… Shit, I’m screwing this up already, aren’t I?”

Castiel knew that the past few weeks had been hard for Dean—that there was still a lot that the actor hadn’t figured out for himself. However, “I’d really like to understand where you’re coming from.”

“Okay, okay—just give me a minute,” Dean said, closing those eyes that Cas loved so much.

Thankfully, he didn’t keep them closed for long. “So, it’s like this, right? When I was little, my parents found out I was left-handed—and my mom, she worried that it would make life harder, since scissors and desks and stuff aren’t designed for people like me. So, she’d—you know—correct me. Tried to fix it.”

Castiel’s frown, if anything, deepened. Compared to his dad, Dean only spoke the most glowing praise of his mother—and Castiel believed him when Dean said that Mary Winchester was a lovely woman. But aside from the fact that nothing about Dean needed to be “fixed”—except for, perhaps, his painful self-esteem issues—trying to forcibly change a child’s dominant hand could have severe consequences. Studies linked it to poor concentration—speech problems—even reading difficulties.

Luckily, Dean seemed oblivious to Castiel’s train of thought.

The actor sighed, ruffling his hair so that it spiked up even more than normal. “So, then she died, and it took me a while to realize my dad didn’t really care about that sorta stuff. I mean, he didn’t pay a lot of attention in general. But the times he was in a good mood, and he’d… take me out to the gun range or to throw a baseball around or whatever—I still tried to use my right hand if I could help it—just in case he noticed and… didn’t like it.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is—some things can come natural to me. They can feel… right. But if I’ve spent a lot of time telling myself that’s not what I’m s’posed to be doing… it can be just as hard—harder—to switch it up and give in to what I want. When something feels too good, a part of me thinks that I’m… getting away with something I shouldn’t…”

Cas’s heart crushed a little on Dean’s behalf at that, but he made himself speak steadily. “I know there’s a part of you that wishes it had worked out with Lisa,” he said, softly.

Dean instantly made a noise of protest from deep in his throat, but Castiel merely held up a hand. “For Ben’s sake at least,” he specified. “But it’s never wrong to be honest about your feelings.”

Dean’s face showed how much he disagreed with that statement. And yet, the more Castiel watched, the more he saw a range of emotions flickering across his features, like a radio caught between different stations.

Finally, the actor let out an exasperated breath. “Ugh,” Dean groaned, tipping his head forward—and Cas could picture, if he were there in person, the way that their foreheads would touch. “I’m pretty sure that the two of us have never just had a normal conversation about the weather and I fuckin’ hate you for it.”

“I’m sorry,” Cas responded, although he found he meant it less than usual this time. Yes, he liked being around Dean when the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders and he just seemed buoyantly, almost childishly happy. But these moments, where Dean trusted him enough to open up, were pure in their own way.

“Don’t… apologize,” Dean groaned, both hands clasped together behind his neck. “Because if I am… being honest about my feelings…” he said, rolling his eyes at himself before lifting them up to meet Castiel’s, “—I love you for it too.”

It took Castiel a moment to process what Dean had just said, considering the casual manner it had been delivered in. It took yet another moment to realize that it wasn’t an expression—or a slip-of-the-tongue… The weight of Dean’s gaze was too strong for that. Dean had said those words with meaning.

“You—” he began.

“Me,” Dean agreed.

“—haven’t said that to me before,” the author observed.

“Well, I’m a bit of an asshole,” Dean declared with a shrug of his shoulders. And then, a bit quieter, he admitted, “I shoulda told you after that big speech of yours in the car, but, er, that was already kind of a big day for me. And it’s not something I say a lot. Not to Sammy or—anyone.”

“Oh,” Castiel commented, mouth dry, heart still racing. “You know you don’t have to—”

“I want to,” Dean cut in quickly. “It’s just—that’s the other hang-up I have when something feels too good. I worry that it’ll up and disappear on me.”

“I won’t,” Cas responded instantly. “Dean, I would never—"

“I know. I know you mean that now,” the actor interrupted. “And trust me, I’m gonna hold you to it. But… I told my mom I loved her and then she got slammed into by a drunk driver. Told my dad the day his cancer finally snuffed his lights out and…” Dean cleared his throat roughly. “Sometimes people leave even if they’re trying to stay.

“So, call me paranoid or whatever for saying this now—when you’re… about to be on lockdown, but uh… Just know. Even if I don’t mention it a lot… It doesn’t mean I’m not thinking it, alright? Or feeling it.”

Dean was so green-gold in his intensity. And Castiel had the sudden urge to paint his wall that color so that he’d always remember exactly what this moment felt like.

It humbled him. Cas spent a lot of his time trying to put words to sensations. But Dean felt things so fiercely. And he had the ability to communicate that pain, that strength, that… love loudly and clearly—in spite of the words he couldn’t find.

“I don’t need you to say it,” Castiel repeated, giving Dean his softest smile. “But… I admit, it was… satisfying to hear.”

And then, because he could sense that Dean had reached the cliff edge of emotionally draining topics for the day, he abruptly changed the subject to different kinds of cloud formations, starting with Cirrus.

Dean let him go on for about a minute before shaking his head in disbelief.

“What?” Cas questioned, innocently. “You said you wanted to talk about the weather.”

“God, you’re such a weirdo…” Dean muttered.

“Would you like me to stop?” Cas asked pointedly.

“Nah…,” Dean said, trying for dismissive—but as he leaned back against his couch in the Dean Cave and Cas continued to ramble on about clouds—using unnecessarily formal language, even for him—Dean’s gold shone even brighter.

/////

Castiel was jolted out of the memory by the first words that Dean had spoken in several minutes. “What’s that look about?” the actor asked, pointing vaguely in the direction of Cas’s mouth. “Figured that with the papps at your door and Crowley and everything, it’d take a lot to get you to smile today.”  

“You know that you’re more worried about the media than I am.”

“That’s because I’m older and wiser and all that shit,” Dean informed him, voice as dry as a glass of bourbon. “Can you see any of ‘em?”

Castiel got up, pulling aside his thick blackout curtains to look out the window. There was a group of four individuals clustered together that seemed to fit the bill—two with large cameras around their necks, three holding cups of coffee. He wondered what they would do with their drinks if he were to come down right now unexpectedly.

“Spill on themselves hopefully,” Dean muttered when Cas passed his observations on.

Castiel sighed, letting the curtain fall back into place. “It took a long argument with Gabriel to convince him not to shoot them with red dye-filled water guns.”

“Why the hell would you talk him out of that?” Dean demanded.

“Aren’t we currently trying to win the media to our favor?” he questioned, taking long strides back over to the bed.

“I mean… yeah,” Dean conceded. “But that might be worth it.”

Suddenly, Gabriel’s angst-filled “Ay, Dios Mio, Miguel!” sounded through the apartment—likely a response to the Spanish soap opera he had on in the living room, which Cas knew he’d also seen Dean watching on occasion. “It occurs to me that if you and Gabriel didn’t bicker so often, you’d actually get along,” the author commented.

“Hell no!” Dean exclaimed as Castiel returned to the bed, the springs groaning under the weight of his knee. “Cas, you take that back!”

The author just raised one eyebrow challengingly, kneeling over the laptop.

“Uh, Cas?” Dean mentioned, looking him up and down.

“Yes, Dean.”

“I’m just gonna tell you that the, uh—combination of the Dom brow and the crotch shot is giving me some serious porn vibes,” Dean declared.

And now that the actor mentioned it, Castiel supposed that the laptop was aimed a little… indiscreetly.

“We should talk about that,” Cas said, even as he rearranged himself and tilted the screen for a better angle.

“About… your secret porn career?” Dean asked nervously.

“No,” Castiel huffed. “About… sexual expectations. Seeing as it’s a topic that’s already been brought up by cousin several times today.”

Dean’s nose instantly scrunched up like he had smelled something bad. “Okay, no, nope. Never put those two thoughts anywhere close together in my head ever again. That’s like… putting your toothbrush next to the toilet.”

Castiel, who knew the average spray radius that came from flushing, could admit that that sounded unpleasant, but “I’m serious, Dean.”

“I’m serious too. My head’s already a messed up enough place as it is.”

Cas sighed again—and waited, knowing that silence often worked best for getting Dean to drop the kind of banter that was most natural to him when he was nervous.

“What’s there even to talk about?” the actor asked, not even a minute later, eyes skittering away from Cas’s like pool balls ricocheting away from each other. “I know you haven’t, uh, broken that particular lawn chair yet and I wasn’t planning on pushin’ you, if that’s… what you’re worried about.”

For someone who flirted as easily as breathing and added “Kinky!” to discussions that absolutely did not call for it, Cas was kind of bewildered at how uncomfortable Dean suddenly seemed. “That was never my concern. Also, why must there be so many strange metaphors for sex? It just makes everything more confusing.”

“It’s ‘cause most people don’t just—talk—about this sorta stuff straight out, Cas—not outside locker rooms or, I don’t know, drinking games—”

“Maybe people don’t. But couples should.”

“Fine—fine,” Dean said—which in Winchester translated to “Not fine—not fine.” “What… did you want to talk about?”

“Well, first, just to clarify—you are interested in having sex with me at some point?”

“I… Yes,” Dean conceded, rather miserably.

“Alright—what is your sexual experience with other men?”

“I mean… I told you about Benny,” Dean pointed out.

“You weren’t very elaborate. And just because he was the only man you expressed a… somewhat serious interest in doesn’t mean that you had sex with him—or, if you did, that he was your only male partner.”

“I—yeah—but… What do you want me to say?” Dean asked, tugging at the neckline of his Henley, his voice walking the razor-thin edge between aggressive and defensive. “I like sex, okay? So… if you gave me a list, I might not be hitting the ‘Check All’ box, but I…” his shoulders inched toward his neck just slightly, making himself smaller. “I’ve… tried a lot of stuff.”

“This isn’t meant to be… an interrogation, Dean,” Cas promised him, earnestly, wondering if Dean was always this self-conscious about his history or if Castiel’s own lack of experience was making him feel more… impure by comparison, as outdated as that idea was. “I don’t judge you for having enjoyed your life as you saw fit. I’m merely trying to gather information so that I can make informed choices. If it helps, you can… see it as a form of foreplay. People talk about sexual preferences as a way of… setting the mood, right?”

Dean made a concerning coughing noise.

“Wow…” he said when he had regained equilibrium. “Um, Cas, I hate to break it to you, but no… this is not… no.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Foreplay involves like… dirty talk and… touching and… clothing removal—at least a lot of the time.”

Castiel considered that.

Then, stretching his torso, he deftly whipped his shirt off his head. “Better?” he asked.

“Uh…” Dean started—his gaze caught on Castiel’s bare chest the way a sweater sleeve might get caught on a branch. “Yeah… that’s….”

Castiel felt himself flush with the attention—which, to be honest, caught him by surprise. He may not necessarily be the kind of man who spent a lot of time with his shirt off—but it was societally acceptable for men to jog or play sports that way. Sam did, for one. And it had never seemed particularly arousing to him. But the look in Dean’s eyes was… different than how he usually looked at him… and against all logic, it made the author feel both proud and somewhat nervous about his naked chest.

He flashed back to seeing Dean in a similar state on his way to the swimming pool that one time. Okay, so maybe he understood Dean’s current condition somewhat

Dean’s eyes had been roaming mostly aimlessly but—as was somewhat inevitable—they were eventually drawn to the soulmark on Cas’s chest. The phoenix was large, compared to a lot of other marks—about the size of Castiel’s closed fist. Almost unconsciously, Castiel lifted a finger to his own skin, following Dean’s visual journey as his stare raked over the long line of flight feathers.

“I feel like I should hate seeing that on you,” Dean stated—almost groaned. “I mean I’ve always said these frickin’ marks don’t mean anything, except maybe representing a rule to be broken… But, uh, is it weird that I kind of like it?” Dean licked his lips. “God, I really like it.”

“I don’t think it’s weird,” the author murmured, goosebumps erupting under his own touch. “And if I don’t and you don’t—I’m not sure anyone else’s opinion matters. I did always wonder though—why you didn’t remove yours. You were famous enough—you knew keeping it risked exposure… and since you were so against the idea of meeting me….”

“I thought about it…” Dean admitted. “Even… went to a place to have the procedure done, but… uh…” Castiel’s hand had stilled at the point of the tail, the smooth skin of his wrist just brushing his pebbled nipple. It had never felt particularly good to pinch them during the times he’d pleasured himself—but out of curiosity, he tried again, now—letting out a slightly punched-out breath at the sensation.

“Okay, you’re making it kind of hard to concentrate,” Dean breathed, a hint of accusation in his voice as he shifted slightly on the couch.

“First I was doing things wrong because I wasn’t taking off my clothes. Now there’s a problem because I’m shirtless. You seem very difficult to please,” Castiel commented.

Dean’s eyes snapped up to his face at that, instantly contrite. “Hey, you’re not… I shouldn’t have said that before. You being you—is always hot, okay? And, yeah, you like this is distracting in a really, really good way. But if you seriously just want to talk about things… I’ll be less of a dick about it, I promise.”

“I haven’t done this before,” Castiel reminded him.

“I know.”

“But I want to… some day with you… and I know how some people value… the heat of the moment, but I have a lot of questions. Some mechanical… things that I never really bothered learning about before… and then other questions about you and your… preferences. I think knowing what you like and don’t like beforehand can help make me… more confident and comfortable when the situation does arise.”

“Sweetheart,” Dean’s voice turned suddenly soothing, like a hot shower after a long day. “I’m gonna do my best to make it... I won't hurt you."

"I'm not worried about me."

Dean's forehead furrowed. "Well, I'm pretty sure I’m gonna like anything we do together.”

“And while I appreciate that sentiment, I still want something more solid than that. I want to know where your erogenous zones are—your inner wrist? The small of your back? The shell or the lobe of the ear? Do you like a light or a firm touch when you’re being stroked? Do you make noise when you really like something, or should I be paying attention to something subtler than that—the way your breathing changes or your toes curl?” His voice turned a little more pointed. “Also, I’d really like to know whose penis is going to be in whose anus, at least for the first time around.”

If Dean was going to continue to keep choking on nothing, Castiel was going to insist that he go to see a doctor.

“For the record…” Dean declared once he was breathing normally again. “All but that last sentence was actually pretty good dirty talk.”

Castiel was still watching the actor in concern. “Thank you…?” he said at last.

Dean grinned. “You want the Dean Winchester 101? …I’ll give it to you,” he promised.

And then, before Cas could utter another word, he’d crossed his arms and grabbed the hem of his own shirt with both hands.

He teased it upward much more slowly than Castiel had done—(or maybe that was just time slowing down around him)—first revealing lean stomach muscles, then a strong chest emblazoned with the familiar phoenix, shadowed collar bones, and, finally, defined arms covered in sun-dusted freckles—before tossing his shirt into some off-screen corner of the room.

And okay, yes, this was both better and worse than the last time Castiel had seen him shirtless—because now he had permission—from both himself and Dean—to look, to… savor.

“But…” Dean cautioned, his stomach clenching and unclenching slightly. “Don’t think you’re getting out of this without spilling a few secrets of your own.”

Castiel found himself nodding automatically.

Chapter Text

Obviously, celebrities had to take a lot of precautions to ensure their privacy. However, Castiel was fairly sure that this security measure was more for Dean’s pleasure than because it served an actual purpose. “Who is it?” Dean called from the other side of the solid wood door, doing a very bad non-Dean impression.

“I’m… your Huckleberry,” Cas spoke their predetermined passcode reluctantly.

“Why, yes. Yes, you are,” the actor agreed, opening the door with a wide grin that made Cas forget all about formulaic cowboy movies or the duffle bag strap that was currently digging into the meat of his shoulder. Because Dean was here…. Not across the city. Not a pixelated image on a laptop that froze at… ahem… very inconvenient times. But actually physically present—and somehow taller than Castiel remembered him.

Cas took him all in—from the socked feet to the stylishly faded jeans to the genuinely faded Stairway to Heaven t-shirt that highlighted Dean’s upper arms—finishing the ritual with just enough time to notice Dean doing the same to him.

Their eyes locked. Castiel’s stomach swooped like a plane finally touching the ground again, and he wondered how he was going to survive years of this, if every time he saw Dean was somehow more intense than the last.

It was only when they heard the rumble of someone else’s suitcase from the other end of the hallway that Dean hurriedly stepped back to let Cas into the suite.

“You find the place okay?” Dean wondered aloud, his sudden awkwardness reminiscent of when the actor had proposed this idea in the first place.

“I know it’s weird—asking someone to hole up with me in a hotel for three days as a first sorta date,” Dean had said, mouth twisted, biting the inside of his cheek, “But—even if we’re ‘public’ now or whatever, we never got a chance to be private. You know how many ways you can fuck up holding someone’s hand? A lot. And I’d prefer not to do that with half the world watching.”

His defensiveness was endearing but unnecessary. Castiel was always going to say yes.

“Do you remember how much trouble I had navigating the studio the first few weeks?” Cas mentioned to Dean dryly as he stepped onto carpet so pillowy, he could feel it through his shoes. The actor nodded, a smile already lurking around his lips. “It was like that. But that’s the point, isn’t it?”

According to Dean, this building, which took up an entire block, catered specifically to the rich and famous. The ground floor was more of a luxury mall than anything else, having a dozen different entrances, leading to small, boutique shops selling fine jewelry, clothes, perfumes…

Basically, even if a photographer had followed Cas from his apartment, they couldn’t know what he came here for and would be hard-pressed to know when—if—he left. And the same was hopefully true for Dean.

Cas shook his head. It was such a strange world that the author had suddenly found himself in.

His family was well-off but in a corporate way. Every person had a job—if a lucrative one—and no one besides gossips within their own social circle cared who dated who. And his outsider-ness must show here because people kept giving him strange looks as he hunted for the large, echoey hotel lobby—its chandelier hanging like a guillotine overhead.

It reminded him of the first time he had walked into Dean’s and Lisa’s glossy house and how he was afraid to touch anything—to disturb it. Even before that, in a college room in Chicago, he’d dismissed the idea of ever reaching out to Dean because the actor belonged to a separate sphere than he did.

Cas had been wrong, though. Because Dean didn’t belong to this world—even if he pretended that he did. If Cas was trapped behind one-way glass, Dean was the kind of person who made faces at the mirror from the interrogation room, knowing that Cas was on the other side.

Therefore, when the actor offered to give the grand tour with a slightly sarcastic drawl to his voice, the author followed behind him easily.

“So, this is, I guess, the living room,” Dean said, spreading his arms out wide to encompass the coffee table, the two chairs, and a couch that looked more like a Renaissance painting in the shape of furniture than something to sit on. “There’s a kitchenette over that-away,” he thumbed over his back before indicating a long, mahogany table, “And I’m not really sure if this is supposed to be a dining table or, like, a conference area, but if we get bored, we can probably use it to play paper football or something.”

Castiel raised his eyebrows. “Did you bring paper with you?”

“Eh,” Dean shrugged. “We could always steal it from the business center.”

That would definitely help us not draw attention to ourselves, Castiel thought, amused, as the two of them got farther away from the dining area with every step.

Eventually, Dean came to the right wall, where he paused between two white French doors like Vana White waiting to activate letters on Wheel of Fortune. Only he looked a lot more nervous about it.

“There’s a couple of bedrooms,” Dean murmured, hands in his pockets. “I, uh, put my stuff in this one,” he explained, nudging open the partially open door on the left with his foot. “But they’re pretty much alike.”

And ah, Castiel got it.

For all that he liked to make Dean talk about things, the actor still preferred utilizing non-verbal cues. Like here, he’d cracked the door open enough that Castiel would feel welcomed into the room if he wanted to go in—but hadn’t left it gaping open, so it wouldn’t seem like an obligation.

The combined weight of his bag and Dean’s stare was heavy. However, Castiel ignored both as he pushed the door open further.

He glimpsed only the basics—a large bed, double nightstands, a flat-screen TV—before dropping his duffel bag next to Dean’s beside the closet. For good measure, he kicked off his shoes to match the actor and then sat down on Dean’s bed like it was something he’d done a thousand times before.

Dean bit down on his bottom lip.

“So… What do you want to do first?” Cas asked, lowly.

/////

Hector Mercury had been a bellboy at The Elysium Fields Hotel for ten years. His job was a lot of things—demanding, underpaid, but rarely dull. Just a few months ago, an influencer had snuck a baby tiger into her room—where it had quickly claimed the four-poster bed as its new scratching post. Last year, Vince Vincente broke his penis while sleeping with his wife’s stunt double.

Of course, the hotel helped to keep everything hush, hush—and Hector was forced to sign NDAs until his hand cramped—but that didn’t stop the thrill he got from seeing the chaos unfold. He was essentially a member of a live studio audience, watching the best reality TV show on the planet. Plus, every once in a while, he was able to swipe a little something, something that supplemented his income nicely.

Compared to some of the things he’d seen and heard, the distant sound of a headboard thumping against the wall coming from Dean Winchester’s suite didn’t even rank in the top 100. Although, he remembered, the actor had been all over the news lately—something about dumping his girlfriend?

“De-an!” sounded a deep, somewhat breathless voice.

“What? That all you got, Angel?” came the equally affected reply.

Well, celebrities were known to move on fast, Hector thought.

/////

“Dean!” Cas screamed—higher and louder than he intended to—as Dean landed on the bed, creating a temporary dent in the pillowtop mattress that caused Cas to pitch forward as he came down from his own jump. Dean held out his arms to steady him.

“Just need to get a rhythm is all,” the slightly taller man winked, hands falling to Cas’s waist as he encouraged them to jump together.

That’s when they heard the distant sound of a brass knocker hitting a metal door plate, followed by a cheerful voice shouting, “Room service!”

“Oh, awesome!” Dean exclaimed, as the spikes of his hair came dangerously close to brushing the ceiling. He locked his legs upon landing, trying to stop himself from bouncing back up, but he wound up sprawled across his back on the bed instead.

“Dean!” Cas repeated in warning, just in time for the other man to get his leg out of the way before the author came crashing down on it. Instead, Cas ended up with his right knee trapped between both of Dean’s, dangerously close to straddling his thigh. “I think that, even if we weren’t too old for this, we might be too large,” Castiel admitted through a slight gasp.

“We could get the bed from the other room and stick ‘em together,” Dean offered.

“They’d split apart,” Castiel pointed out. “And likely result in one or both of us getting severely injured.”

“Spoilsport.”

“I believe the severe injury would be the spoilsport.”

Dean huffed, though he seemed distracted by one piece of Cas’s hair that had stuck to his forehead and curled from sweat. He brushed it to the side. “You having fun though?” he asked.

Castiel could taste the salt on his upper lip—hear his pulse thundering in his ears. “Was there ever any doubt?”

Dean’s smile was like the crack of a refrigerator door when sneaking to the kitchen for a midnight snack—bright and tempting—and without being aware of who moved first, Cas found it suddenly just millimeters from his own, Dean’s breath a puff against his cheek.

“Sir?” the bellboy called again.

“Shit. Forgot about him,” Dean exclaimed, scrambling to get out from under Cas.

The author followed only a minute later, feeling slightly dizzy.

The man at the front door wore a pressed, red uniform that emphasized how tall and thin he was. Lively brown eyes danced within a square face that was probably 40 or so years old. “Sorry to… interrupt,” he mentioned—and only then did Castiel realize how the two of them must look—rumpled and wild-haired, cheeks still flushed. “If you just tell me where to leave this…” He gestured behind him to where a gold-plated double-layer cart was stacked with covered dishes, “I can be on my way.”

They both retreated in synchronization to let him through, Dean pointing vaguely in the direction of the mahogany table.

“How much did you order?” Castiel marveled when he got a better glimpse of the cart. “Dean, this is enough food for approximately half a dozen people,” he argued, even though the smell of some sort of beef dish was incredible.

“Excuse me,” Dean scoffed, offended. “Have you seen me eat?” He gave Cas a once-over. “Have you seen you eat?”

“You mean, have I seen you chew with your mouth open?” Castiel asked, ignoring the second question. “Yes, and it’s not particularly attractive.”

“Fuck you. I can eat sexy if I want to,” Dean declared.

The actor looked over the plates, where two slices of chocolate cake were topped with cherries—stems and all. Cas knew a bad idea when he saw it.

“Dean, you don’t have to—” he started, just as the actor tore the stem off one of the pieces of fruit and plopped it into his mouth, presumably to show he could knot it with his tongue.

He almost immediately started choking—then started pounding on his chest harshly. Both Cas and the bellboy were tense with concern—and Cas was just about to get in position for the Heimlich maneuver when Dean gave out a ragged breath, like a dry vac sucking up the last bit of water out of a pool, making it fairly clear that he swallowed the stem. “I’m good… Totally fine,” Dean promised, still coughing around the words.

That’s my soulmate, Cas thought, shaking his head.

/////

They ate their food sitting catty-corner to each other, Dean jokingly attempting to play footsie. Unfortunately, Castiel didn’t understand the concept at all and ended up kicking Dean too hard in the leg, after which, they agreed it was in everyone’s best interests to stop.

“You talk to your mom?” the actor questioned, suddenly serious, as Cas dipped a steak fry in honey mustard.

“Yes,” he admitted.

For the first few days after Gabriel’s revelation, he only had his cousin’s explanation of events to go off of—that Naomi and Crowley had kept up contact ever since the book launch, meeting up whenever the agent’s work took him to the Midwest or hers took her to New York City.

To be fair, Cas didn’t get even that much out of his mother—who only said she didn’t appreciate people who tried to go after “the family name” and so had agreed to facilitate Gabriel’s and Crowley’s first chance encounter. No mention of their supposed relationship—or why Crowley would be interested in meeting up with her in the first place. Somehow, that only made Cas feel worse.

“I think that maybe… she’s been really lonely,” Castiel explained, guilt inflating like a balloon inside of him. “My father left. Bartholomew didn’t work out. And she’s too abrasive to have many friends. Perhaps, with me gone off to a different state, she just wanted companionship… and now that’s ruined too.”

“Hey,” Dean chided, pointing an accusing figure. “Don’t do that, alright? That self-blame crap. Crowley was a douchebag outside of what he did to you—and it’s better that Naomi knows that sooner rather than later.”

That was true, but… “Maybe I shouldn’t have dodged so many of her calls. Maybe if I had been more open with her about my life, she wouldn’t have hidden Crowley from me and—”

“And what?”

Cas bowed his head. “I don’t know.”

“Seriously, Man, what’s this really about? Because you’re not making much sense to me.”

Castiel sighed—reaching for another perfectly crispy fry. “I guess, I’ve just realized how lucky I am. My mother is—well, terrible—at connecting with people. But I’m starting to think that’s it’s not all intentional. That her criticisms and censure might be her way of… reaching out, so to speak. I mean, I’m not the most socially adept either. And overcoming that… takes practice.

“It’s only since I’ve been here and gotten to know you and Sam—and grown closer to Gabriel and Charlie as a result—that I realized how isolated I was before. And if I had that—people—who I thought were going to be in my life forever and then lost them…. I feel like I can understand the reason that she is the way she is.”

“Come on, Cas,” Dean scoffed. “You gotta know that without any of us, you’d still…. You wouldn’t be the kind of person to shit on someone else first, ask questions later.”

“I would hope not,” Cas agreed. “But I do want a better relationship with her—and I think that might start by… trying to see past some of her idiosyncrasies.”

“She’s not allowed to make you feel like crap.”

“I’m going to establish boundaries. No trying to talk me out of my career… or you. I’m pretty sure she still doesn’t like you.”

“Well,” Dean shrugged, “Feelings mutual.” He brushed crumbs from his hands, “So… what? You’re gonna call her more or whatever?”

“I suppose. Perhaps see her for weekends here and there…. She really has been looking out for me—in her own way,”

“As long as you come back,” Dean muttered, gruffly, and even though Castiel never liked the insecurity in Dean’s voice, he would admit that this time, it sent a warm feeling curling through him.

“Always,” Cas promised.

Dean grunted an acknowledgment, turning back to his food. He held his sandwich with both pinkies out. “Is this fancier?”

Castiel rolled his eyes. “You know that I don’t actually care how you eat, right? And that you’re unfairly attractive no matter what you’re doing?”

The author barely caught a glimpse of the white cloth napkin Dean threw before it collided with his face. “Wha—” he sputtered.

“Thought you might need that. You got some bullshit right… here,” Dean explained, pointing at the corner of his mouth as if telling Cas where to wipe.

Cas plopped the napkin off to the side of his plate where it caused the silverware to clang together, menacingly. “You truly take compliments the worst of any person I’ve ever met.”

“It’s one of my special skills,” Dean responded, cheekily.

Castiel decided to leave that alone—for now—but only because he had something more pressing on his mind. “What about you and Ben? Is he fine with you… being away this weekend?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m gonna call him before bed—do our little ritual. But Lisa and I have each been away for months at a time for shoots, so he’s used to this, to some extent.”

“But you’re not on a job… You’re with me.”

“Very astute, Sherlock.”

Cas huffed, “I’m just saying… I can see how that might change his feelings about your absence, depending on how much you’ve told him about why you’re gone.”

“He knows I’m with a friend—and that friend is you—and he’s okay with it,” Dean grumbled into his food. “I feel like we can save the nitty-gritty for a little later down the line… like if we decide to make weekend sleepovers more of a regular thing.”

It was Castiel’s turn to almost choke to death on something. “Is that… a possibility?” he wondered out loud.

Dean gave him a wary look. “That is usually how things—” he made a vague gesture between the two of them “…work. Unless… you’re having second thoughts or something?”

“What? No, of course not. But you….”

Dean was staring at him like he was a computer, blowing sparks.

“I just wasn’t expecting you to be thinking that way—considering what you said about giving Ben stability.”

“So, you thought that I broke up with Lisa for you—but that I wasn’t gonna spend any time with you?” Dean snorted. “And you say my self-esteem needs work.”

“No,” Cas hastened to clarify. “I just… figured it would be like before—for a while. Obviously, not exactly like before. It wouldn’t be very appropriate for me to spend time at your house with Lisa around, but you could come ‘hang out’ at my place some afternoons or we could partake in outside activities occasionally. I don’t want you to feel like I’m taking you away from your family,” Cas explained.

“Woah, woah, woah—” Dean countered, holding up both hands. “First off—you’re my family too. You were that long before I knew you were anything else. And second, I’m pretty sure you get to ask for stuff in a relationship. Both of us do. Like me—I need time to make things as easy on Ben as possible. But I don’t… I’m not planning on living with Lisa forever. I mean, what if she meets someone she wants to bring over? Not exactly comfortable if I’m around for that either.

“But in the meantime, I figured we’d be finding ways to spend more time together, not less. Maybe do some things with Ben, too. Not right away, but… eventually—so that he gets to know you as something besides the guy I play video games and watch TV with. If that’s not… If that’s not what you want or what you’re up for… You gotta tell me, Man…”

It was terrible irony, really—how easily they could understand each other sometimes without speaking. And how equally often they could misunderstand each other even when they talked. “I want you—that—all of it,” Cas promised. And then, because Dean didn’t look convinced. “I want every hectic Thursday afternoon and lazy Sunday morning that you’ll give me. I want to know what chores you insist on doing right away and which ones you let sit. I want to know Ben’s favorite kind of ice cream and how he’s doing in karate. Everything I don’t know yet, I want to, Dean. I want you in my life as much as you want to be there.”

“You sure?” Dean asked, a hint of wariness around his eyes.

Positive,” Cas insisted, extending his hand in an offer to shake on it.

Dean looked between Cas’s face and his hand, wryly—but there was amusement coming back into his expression. “Such a dork,” he murmured at last, but he reached out anyway. Only when their hands came in contact—Dean’s fingers touching Cas’s wrist and vice versa—Cas tried to make it so that they were holding hands instead.

He quickly discovered that it didn’t work at this angle—not without having to contort his wrist to a ridiculous extent—and Dean gave out a snorting laugh.

“What did I tell you? Easy to fuck up,” the actor murmured, scooting his chair a few inches over and then picking up Cas’s opposite hand instead. Their fingers entangled, then folded back against each other.

“This is nice,” Castiel declared, as Dean rubbed soothing circles into Cas’s skin with his thumb. Better than nice, really.

“Uh-huh. Now, I dare you to each that sandwich one-handed,” Dean challenged, reaching for his already-toppled French dip.

/////

The rest of their afternoon felt like it passed in a highly saturated blur. Dean suggested they could go down to the spa for massages, but Castiel didn’t like the idea of strangers touching him, so they strolled through the shops downstairs instead—Dean pretending not to be thrilled when he found a pair of cowboy boots in the leather goods store and pretending even harder that he wasn’t horrified by the cuckoo clock Cas took an interest in later.

They found the hotel arcade and while Cas appreciated the solidness of Dean at his back, offering to “teach” him to play Skeet ball, “The rules and concept seem relatively simple, Dean. I’m not going to pretend ignorance just for the sake of flirtation.”

Dean’s pout only intensified after Cas won a few rounds.

However, the competition between them took a turn for the heated after they decided to switch to air hockey. Dean’s eyes narrowed down to slits and Cas rolled his shirt sleeves up, prepared to defend his goal at all costs. On occasion, this meant that the puck went flying across the room—and once, it rebounded off one of the racer machines, but both of them continued to fight harder the sweatier they got. In the end, they eventually had to concede the table to a twelve-year-old and his brother, whose mother eyed them suspiciously as they sped-walked out of the arcade.

However, the adrenaline rush from the game didn’t dissipate. And when the elevator they needed to take back to their room was unusually crammed, Cas let Dean guide him to the corner with unnecessary hands on his waist, Cas pressing back against his warmth just as unnecessarily.

After a dinner of leftovers, they settled in to watch a movie whose plot Castiel remembered much less than Dean’s lips against his hair, reciting the lines way too close to his ear.

Eventually, Dean excused himself to go call Ben and Cas felt all of the nervous excitement that had been running through him in full force now that he didn’t have the actor’s presence to distract him.

I’m dating Dean Winchester. I’m in love with Dean Winchester, he thought to himself in wonder. And even if he could recall every step along the journey that had brought him to this moment, that didn’t stop him from wondering when and how it all happened.

He began to pace the long length of the room unconsciously as, outside, the sky turned orange and dusky pink.

Technically, this room didn’t have any windows. Instead, it had a large sliding glass door that let out onto a balcony, where a hot tub sat behind a half-wall. Brimming with energy, he made a decision, stepping outside to determine how much privacy this spot had.

Satisfied, he reached down to fiddle with the knobs on the hot tub—wondering idly why it even had a “cold” setting.

By the time Dean came back into the bedroom, Cas had already put on swim trunks from his duffle bag and was standing, hopefully only a little self-consciously, off to one side. “I thought we might—” he pointed to the still-open door where the tub was continuing to fill, the sound like a waterfall off a soothing sound CD—even if it did little to settle Cas’s nerves.

“Uh, yeah,” Dean agreed instantly, although the words came out a little sandpapery. “Yeah… Sure.”

/////

Electricity and water aren’t supposed to mix, Castiel couldn’t help but think, as he slid first one leg into the hot tub, then the other, very aware of the current running through him from feeling Dean’s eyes on his back.

And then he was crouched down to his chest underwater—the flames of his phoenix still burning bright green under the clear surface—and wading to the other side of the tub to make room.

Instead of being round, the jacuzzi was maybe 5.5 feet long, and 3 feet wide—vaguely kidney-shaped—with a seat along the side closest to the building to encourage people to look outward at the view. And what a view it was. The sky had darkened to a dusky almost-purple, but the buildings all around them shone with electric lights, like beacons.

“Hey,” Dean murmured, once he finished getting in himself. He could have stuck to one corner—leaving space between them—but instead, he’d fitted himself to Cas’s side—his right leg up against Cas’s from hip to ankle—the water causing the bottoms of their swim shorts to billow out and brush each other.

“Hello, Dean,” Cas whispered back.

And then, Cas kissed him.

It was—surprisingly enough—their first kiss of the day. Maybe their fourth or fifth kiss overall. It was also perfect, as far as Cas was concerned.

With one million nerve endings, the lips were often considered the most sensitive part of someone’s entire body—and Dean’s pressed against his—hard at first, the actor’s hand coming up to grasp the back of Cas’s neck, drawing water across Cas’s shoulders. And Cas pressed back, one arm winding around Dean’s waist—fitting into the slight dip just left of Dean’s spine, shivering at the feeling of touching bare skin.

And then… then Dean’s lips became softer—more giving than taking—as he shifted from covering Cas’s mouth with his own to focusing on just the top lip, then just the bottom lip—alternating—sucking lightly—the kiss sliding smoother the wetter it got.

“Cas,” Dean breathed just once—prompting the author to open the eyes he’d closed somewhere along the way—but only for a moment. Because as soon as he caught sight of the shine on the actor’s lips that he’d put there—he found himself leaning forward again.

Dean didn’t seem to mind, groaning low in a way that made Cas feel like his insides were burning hotter than the water around him. This time, Dean’s mouth was open—and Cas could taste the salt from the popcorn they’d shared—and wondered what Dean was tasting as the actor’s tongue invaded his mouth, curling wet against the roof of it. And yes, yes—Cas wasn’t ambivalent to this at all. In fact, he felt very much invested—as Dean shifted impossibly closer on the bench seat.

But it still didn’t seem like enough. Without thinking, Cas swung his right leg over so that he was hovering over Dean’s lap—all without breaking the kiss. His knees nudged the tiled back of the hot tub a little uncomfortably, but that hardly registered—as both of Dean’s hands moved to either side of Cas’s hips, thumbs running hot circles into his skin.

“Dean,” Cas exclaimed, nearly vibrating, stomach muscles clenching as Dean’s lips moved to his neck, starting at the pulse point where his scruff ended—moving up toward his ear. And “Oh, oh, that’s good,” Cas made sure to tell Dean, tilting his head back.

“Not as good as it could be if you’re still making full sentences,” Dean murmured against his skin—a smile with a hint of teeth. And then he was sucking—right at that same spot he’d kissed before—and “Nhgnnnn.” The noise that left Cas was practically inhuman.  

“That’s more like it,” Dean teased.

Even with a good portion of his brain cells not working, Cas wasn’t going to let that comment go by without retaliation. And so, he dropped his weight onto Dean—the actor’s bowlegs parting slightly to better accommodate him automatically.

Cas had already known that the actor was aroused, of course—had been able to feel the twitch of something against his stomach while they’d been kissing. But now, there was a very distinctive hot length beside his own—and with the way Dean’s swim trunks had ridden down slightly, he could just barely see the pink head of Dean’s cock sticking out.

He was fairly sure Dean was the one who moaned—but it could have been either—or both—of them—as Cas’s hips moved instinctively forward.

“Cas…! Cas…!” Dean called out, the syllables clipped off as he gripped tighter to the author’s sides. “Mnnhhh… You’re… Either more wriggling or less wriggling, Man. It’s your choice—but—uh—the way this is going is—we’re gonna get somewhere—so—nhh—if you don’t—Casss!”

Cas barely remembered Dean’s preferred word choices for these kinds of situations, but words can bubbling to his lips anyway, “I’d really like to make you come, Dean,” he growled, not even having to try to make the words throaty. He brushed his lips over the same spot on Dean’s neck that had left him so affected when their positions were reversed. “Want to take care of you—want to feel you fall apart in my arms and see your eyes roll back in your head—knowing that I was the one to give you that pleasure. May I?” he asked, licking along one of the cords in Dean’s neck, feeling Dean’s stubble scrape his cheek in the process.

Fuckfuckfuck,” Dean let out from between his teeth, his bare feet planting firmly on the bottom of the hot tub as he thrust up at Cas, once, sharply.

“Consent, Dean.”

Yes! For fuck’s sake—” Dean yelled, thrusting again, more of his cock peeking out of his shorts now—smearing precum against the area right below Cas’s bellybutton that he could still feel, despite the water.

Mmmmnn ah,” Cas stuttered incoherently, in response.

Dean moved his hands lower then, cupping Cas’s ass through the water-heavy fabric, coaxing Cas’s hips into a dirty grind that left them both with their mouths open and no sounds coming out.

“I—” Cas started, his hips still being guided in a slow circle. “Dean, take them off,” he suddenly demanded.

“You’re sure?”

Rather than answering, Cas scrambled up to attempt to do it himself, but he wasn’t in a good position for standing, only able to rise half out of the water before it came sloshing back around him, trying to knock him down.

Shit, okay,” Dean groaned at him, taking his hands off Cas’s ass—which seemed so counterproductive—to hook his thumbs underneath Cas’s waistband.

The actor hesitated again—a question clearly on his lips—but Cas put his hands over Dean’s, encouraging him to push the fabric down—over the vee of his hipbones—then lower. The material caught partway down, hanging on his erection like a towel on a hook—until Dean pulled the waistband wider. Cas’s cock jerked as soon as it was no longer confined.

Obviously, Cas had seen himself naked before. Every day in the shower, for example—but it was strange how suddenly salacious he found the sight—his long, straight member standing out and proud, waving slightly in Dean’s face.

Dean swallowed heavily, maneuvering himself even closer as he worked to get the shorts completely off Cas’s legs—Cas’s cock sliding obscenely along his cheek in the process—and then Cas was standing there, completely unclothed, feeling Dean’s eyes like hands on every part of him.

Dean’s breath was shallow as he turned almost ninety degrees, then scooted back—so that he was laying out almost flat along the bottom of the tub—before he began rolling down his own swim trunks.

Technically, this was something that Cas had seen before. Over the last week and a half of self-imposed quarantine, he and Dean had had a couple of “lessons” that had… fairly naturally evolved into each of them grasping themselves in hand, gasping the other’s name as they worked themselves over—until they finally erupted over their own stomachs or bedsheets.

It didn’t compare to the real thing at all. Castiel has never felt this turned on in his life—and his blood almost boiled with it.

“C’mere,” Dean murmured—fully exposed—his own cock thicker at the base than Castiel’s, tapering more toward the end.

Cas tried to figure out how best to do this—and ended up on his hands and knees, crawling over Dean’s prone form, his member sliding across the inside of Dean’s thighs—providing wonderful friction. Cas felt his teeth biting hard into his bottom lip, fighting in vain to stifle the moan that elicited.

Apparently, Dean couldn’t take the teasing anymore either. He reached out to help haul Cas forward that much quicker. And then, they were kissing again—deep and hungry—Cas digging fingers into Dean’s hair to help the actor keep his head upright, while simultaneously helping control the angle of his mouth—Dean snaking a hand between them to keep their cocks slotted together—and—ungh, m-ah—Cas simultaneously wanted to live in this moment forever and get to the finish line he could feel building under his skin.

“Cascascas…”

Deaaan!”

In only a few minutes, their thrusts were getting sloppy. Every once in a while, Dean’s dick would slip against his, just barely pushing into his scrotum, the space where the base of his penis met his balls, and Cas saw stars.

“Cas!” Dean whisper-shouted again—and without thinking, Cas leaned up slightly, putting all weight on one of his hands, so that he could use the other to hike Dean’s leg up slightly over his hip.

—“Mnhm nggggg”—

The slap of their skin was amplified by the sound of the water—and if there was no going back before, there really wasn’t any going back now—as something inside Cas coiled tighter and tighter. He felt the way a black hole must feel—collapsing in on itself.

—"Oh, please, please, ah,” Dean continued to whimper under him—meanwhile, Cas had just been reduced to grunts—

And then—trembling, shaking—Cas felt himself come—whiteness clouding the water. Not that he noticed at first because the force of it had temporarily whited out his vision.

He came back to Earth to the feeling of Dean still thrusting against him, more incomprehensible sounds pouring from the actor’s lips.

Instantly, Cas dropped Dean’s leg—reaching for where Dean was still hard and pulsing in the water—and then, with just a few strokes—long and smooth, the way Dean liked, twist at the end, tiny bit of pressure to the slit—he felt Dean explode as well—the aftershocks pounding like a heartbeat in his palm.

For a second, there was only the sound of their harsh breathing.

Then, Cas lifted his head to see Dean’s slack mouth, his darker-than-usual eyelashes fluttering wildly against his cheek.

“That was—something,” the actor announced when he’d finally caught his breath, his muscles looking loose and relaxed.

“A good something?” Cas had to clarify, even as every part of his body was saying, “Yes!”

Pssshhh…” Dean muttered, bringing Cas forward for yet another kiss—slow as honey this time. “Yeah,” he answered at last. “Really fuckin’ good, Cas.”

/////

Later, they curled up in bed in pajama pants—their hair drying in crazy patterns that they’ll have to deal with in the shower tomorrow morning—bare chests pressed together so it looked like their phoenixes were talking to one another. Idly, Cas wondered what they were saying.

“Do you… still get angry that I didn’t tell you that we were soulmates?” the author asked quietly as Dean’s fingers ran up and down his back. It was something that he wondered about occasionally—even as a part of him realized that being a couple wasn’t about never being angry with each other; it was about loving each other through the mistakes.

“Maybe for a half a second, sometimes,” Dean responded—his fingers never halting in their soothing route. “But then I think about what you said—and Sam said—and pretty much everyone who’s ever met me said—which is that I’m a dumbass who woulda locked you out the second we met if I knew. And… they’re right. I am a stubborn son of a bitch,” Dean admitted, his hands reaching the soft baby hairs that grew at the base of Cas’s neck. “So even if I wish we’d gotten here a different way, if I could go back in time and tell you to do it different… I don’t think I would. Too big a risk. Which means I can’t really hold it against you either. At the end of the day, I’d rather have you—soulmate or not…”

Dean looked down slightly, putting Cas at about eye level with his lips. “How ‘bout you? I’ve been an asshole to you more than once. Should I look forward to you bringing that stuff up during fights in the future?”

Cas wrinkled his nose in protest. “No. If I’m angry, I keep the subject to the topic I am angry about. I don’t bring past issues into it.”

“Well,” Dean scoffed. “That’s ‘cause you’re an angel. I’m just a lowly human.”

“That sounds suspiciously like excuse-making.”

“S’possible,” Dean acknowledged, almost humming—and Castiel thought that they’d fall asleep like that—half-hugging, legs tangled. It would probably be the nicest way of falling to sleep he’d ever experienced.

Only Dean chose that exact moment to stiffen in his arms.

“Dean?” Cas asked, alarm fighting off the tiredness that had just started to settle in. “Dean, what is it?”

“Nothing bad,” the actor murmured unconvincingly. “I just… I got you—a present, I guess—that I just sort of remembered now.”

Cas settled down a bit, felt his heart rate slow—“And this makes you nervous, why?” he questioned.

“Because I’m really fuckin’ messed up in the head.”

“Well then, why don’t you give it to me so that you can see my reaction and stop worrying?” Castiel proposed, in part to soothe Dean and part because he could feel his own curiosity brimming.

“Ugh,” Dean muttered, rolling over so he could get up and walk over his luggage—so entirely petulant about the idea when Cas never needed a present in the first place. “I can feel you checking out my ass,” the actor added as he bent over to rifle through his bag.

“Good for you,” Cas quipped back—and that seemed to improve Dean’s mood, causing him to give his hips a little shimmy.

“Here,” he declared at last—tossing a plain, yellow envelope on the bed.

“It’s a card,” Cas observed, picking it up by the corners.

“Yeah—but it’s about what’s inside the card—” Dean mumbled, ears turning redder by the second.

Interested, Cas slid his finger underneath the flap of the envelope to tear it along the seam.

The card inside was fairly simple looking: a picture of a bee on the cover with a pink heart reading “Bee My Valentine” in loopy letters above it.

“But Valentine’s Day is months away,” he protested.

“Yeah, well, I was looking online, and they didn’t have many options available for what I wanted. Open it,” Dean instructed.

So, Cas did. Instantly, a crackling recording started playing. “Hey, Cas,” Dean’s voice called out from a thin, circular device embedded in the paper. “I know I told you that… there were some things I had trouble saying. But I figured if anyone deserved to hear it every day, it’s you. So—just for the record—okay? I… love you. God, Cas, I love you so much,” he declared, followed by static—then nothing.

The Dean in the room with him shifted from foot to foot anxiously, as Cas’s throat swelled up tight.

“So, it’s cheesy, I know, but I figured you could keep this. And the next time I’m a dick, and you’re wondering what the hell you’re doing with me, you could… uh, listen to it—and remember. Maybe? If you wanted to,” the actor rambled as Cas blinked, rapidly, in the direction of the ceiling fan.

Impatient with himself, he grabbed Dean by the hand to drag him back onto the bed, pressing kisses to the actor’s chest and his neck and his face until he could speak. “I love you, Dean Winchester,” Cas said at last, as clearly as possible. “More than words can describe.”

Chapter Text

Six months later…

“You two are real pains in my ass,” Pamela declared as, behind her, workers scurried to get Dean a chair just out of frame. It was Castiel’s turn to get interviewed for Star Sighting. Considering the way his book launch went and the increasing frustration he’d had with the media since, it probably wasn’t too surprising that he was awful at it. “You know, Deano, you could just sit on the couch with him. We could turn this into a two-for-one.”

“Nice try,” Dean snorted, pushing off the low brick wall he’d been leaning against. “We already agreed you get to ask three questions about me, max. This is about Cas’s book stuff, not what we get up to in the bedroom.” Unspoken was the fact that authors weren’t usually considered high-profile enough to get on this show at all—that it was Cas’s involvement with Dean that had made the public eager for whatever personal details they could get.

Castiel’s natural instinct was to retreat from the attention, but his new agent, Billie, insisted on capitalizing on the press. “The media are like dogs,” she’d said, words long and smooth like a knife blade, “If you want them to be loyal to you, you have to feed them when they’re hungry.”

“Hmmm,” Pamela responded, an insinuating smile playing around her lips. “And what if I was asking off the record? As a friend?”

Castiel narrowed his eyes.

Dean laughed. “Then I’d say you were even more out of luck,” the actor teased, stepping onto the set. He took one look at the wooden chair the assistants had just placed before turning it around so that he could straddle it backward. He jutted his chin in Cas’s direction. “This one’s kinda possessive.”

Pamela raised her perfectly sculpted eyebrows. “Interesting quality for someone who let his soulmate walk around with someone else for years.”

Castiel scowled. “I am not possessive,” he told Pamela, before turning to his boyfriend. “That would imply I view you as a possession—which I do not.”

“Semantics, shemantics.”

“That second one is not a word, Dean.” This had been an ongoing point of contention between them—Dean inventing new words and trying to get everyone else to adopt them, even pressing Cas to include “Jefferson Starships” as a term for aliens in Earthly Devotion, his Righteous Man sequel.

“That’s not…” Dean sputtered. “It’s an expression, Cas! Besides, you’re always quoting Shakespeare. Didn’t the dude make up, like, a bunch of new words?”

“Yes,” Cas conceded. Dean’s just sounded sillier, as a rule.

“Okay, so loosen up, Man. I know that this isn’t your kinda gig, but you don’t want to be on camera looking like you have a stick up your ass.”

Castiel tilted his head. “I don’t have a—”

One of the cameramen tried and failed to hide a laugh as a cough.

Dean rolled his eyes. “Again, you are being way too literal today. The faster you get this shit done, the more time we can spend together. I looked… There’s like a butterfly thing? Okay, so I don’t really know what it’s about, but—you’ll like it, I promise.”

The butterfly release at the botanical gardens? Castiel could feel his mood improving just at the thought—and Dean smirked, knowing exactly what was going through his head.

Perhaps the author was a little more… irritable than usual—now that Dean was on set for twelve to sixteen hours a day, shooting four to six days a week, they hadn’t had the “more” time Dean had been talking about—and he’d hated using one of Dean’s precious days off like this, sitting in front of a camera ten feet apart.

“Well, aren’t you two sweet?” Pamela cut in, dryly.

Dean and Cas exchanged glances.

“Yeah… I think we are actually,” the actor murmured, voice turning soft around the edges like the point where waves spread out along the beach.

Castiel couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

He’d heard the expression “honeymoon phase” before. From what he understood, it was a time of carefreeness—when individuals overlooked their partners’ flaws because they were so enraptured by how good it felt to be together. He’d also been told by Sam that he and Dean had skipped that, and the wedding, and about thirty anniversaries to go straight into “married couple bickering.”

Cas didn’t take that as an insult. Rather, he saw it as a sign that neither of them entered into their relationship naively.

Dean knew and accepted that Cas had lied to him about their soulmarks—just as Cas was very aware that by being around Dean, he was stepping into a life where one wrong step could get blown up to epic proportions. Dean knew Cas had a habit of overthinking everything, just like Cas recognized that Dean usually only kept in touch with his emotions using a ten-foot pole. And both of them tended to make assumptions about the other without verifying first, which lead to misunderstandings that Dean called fights.

And yet, Dean confessed, that was one of the things that his relationship with Lisa had been missing—caring enough about what the other person was doing or saying or thinking to get all tangled up inside about it.

And Cas wouldn’t have it—Dean—any other way.

He loved Dean when the actor was making him laugh so hard his cheeks and stomach hurt and when he was annoyed at him and when he missed him and when he wasn’t even thinking about Dean at all.

“Okay, okay, stop with the staring. You’ve made your point—and I’m running on a clock too, you know,” Pamela interrupted.

“I’m sorry,” Cas said, and even meant it. “Let’s proceed….”

The hostess gave him a considering look—before nodding towards her cameraman. After a minute adjustment, he gave her a thumbs-up, as Cas attempted to fix his posture.

“Castiel,” she began again—and he expected her to ask the same question that she had before—about what the hardest scene in The Righteous Man was to write. “Several authors have recently started having open discussions about issues they perceive with modern publishing. In your opinion, what are the most unethical practices in the industry?” The way she had her legs crossed, with the triangular-shaped point of her high-heeled shoe aimed directly at him, suddenly seemed much more dangerous.

“Damn,” Dean mouthed behind her back.

Pamela smirked in a way that clearly said, You asked me to stick to questions about the book.

He supposed that they couldn’t expect her to pull her punches when she’d already made several concessions on his and Dean’s behalf.

Of course, purposefully not understanding what someone was hinting at was one of his specialties—so, looking straight at Dean, he began to talk about how he felt the publishing industry should be doing more to give voice to marginalized authors and stories. All the while, he wondered who exactly had tipped her off about Crowley.

/////

Two hours later, he and Dean stepped out onto the alley beside the studio, which was also attached to the private parking garage where the Impala was waiting for him.

“What do you think Billie’s going to say?” Cas asked when his eyes adjusted to the light enough that he could follow Dean across the way to the keycard-activated glass door.

Dean opened it for them using his guest pass and then ushered Cas in first, hand to the small of his back. “I mean, you didn’t say anything that needed to be bleeped out, so I think you did great.”

“I’m being serious, Dean.”

“I am too. You know you were a little stiff in there, and it’s kind of obvious which questions you were tiptoeing around, but when she got you going on a topic you were passionate about, you spoke really well and did that little sideways smile of yours that probably makes traffic stop halfway across the world, so I’m pretty sure you won’t be in Billie’s bad book. Hell, you even navigated that Crowley question pretty well.”

Castiel’s former agent had not only agreed to break his original contract with Castiel after Gabriel’s little stunt—he’d also quit his firm, selling his controlling stake in it to Billie. Cas had been suspicious—thinking it was too good to be true… and he was quickly proven right.

Turned out, Crowley had been offered a new position—as a partner at the publishing company Cas’s book was being run through—so they still had to work together for promotional purposes. (“Oh, he’s good,” Gabriel had practically purred when he heard the news before rubbing his hands together, ready to gleefully concoct another scheme.)

Cas had sighed and mostly accepted it. After all, Crowley’s actions—while extremely manipulative—hadn’t actually cost Cas in the long run, and he had far too much going on in his life to waste energy thinking about what could have gone wrong.

Not only was he close to finishing the first draft of Earthly Devotion and trying to spend as much time with Dean as possible, but he occasionally tutored Ben in math, had started teaching weekly self-defense classes alongside Meg, was taking cooking lessons with Sam, and had a monthly book club with Hannah. Not to mention, he would be helping both Charlie and Dorothy and Gabriel with their moves to L.A. in the near future.

“Your calendar is going to need some looser sweatpants, Cuz,” Gabriel had said when the author mentioned it. And Cas silently conceded that he had a point.

But when, after a happy afternoon at the botanical gardens, Dean dropped him off at his apartment with a lingering kiss—and then called later that night, talking to Cas until his every other word was punctuated with a yawn but still insisting on staying on the phone until Cas played his card—Castiel couldn’t help but be thrilled by how full his life had become.