KIND OF A FOREVER DEAL

Chapter Twenty-Four

Day -40

Lisa, when Dean next sees her at school, is totally cool with it – with everything. She's still nice to him and she invites him, Jo, and Victor to sit with her friends in the cafeteria, and doesn't even mind when they politely decline since Charlie's already saved them a seat by the broken vending machine and is frantically waving them over. They eat pizza and talk about the latest episode of True Blood and Victor talks emphatically about his all-consuming love for the new biology teacher, and sometimes Dean catches Lisa's eye across the cafeteria and they smile at each other.

At times like this, things feel easy, and Dean can even forget that Castiel is around – he's not at Dean's school, and he's not at his lunch table, so for all intents and purposes, he does not exist.

It's not too bad a day on Thursday – smooth sailing for the first three periods, and even though the last two suck, he's at least in good company. After lunch he has to struggle through math, a task only made easier by the presence of Victor goofing off and seeing how many dice he could cram into his mouth before he laughed or choked to death. Unfortunately for Victor, he laughs before any choking action can occur, and so he still has to endure the remaining half hour, as well as the joy of being held after class to suffer the wrath of Mr. Turner for sullying classroom resources.

Dean and Victor are in different humanities' classes then, so they part ways, and since Jo is nowhere to be seen, Dean heads upstairs towards geography on his own. However, even when he gets to class, there's no sign of Jo, and when Mrs. Mills starts reading out from their textbook, ten minutes into the lesson, it becomes apparent that Jo isn't just late – this is a legitimate no-show.

While Mrs. Mill is distracted reading about volcanic rock formations, Dean gets his cell phone out under his desk and sends a quick text: where the hell are you?

There's no response, and ultimately Dean is required to pair up for a research project with Alfie, who is nice enough but has bad breath, and Dean also ends up being told to make sure the homework paper gets to Jo in time for her to read it before tomorrow's pop quiz. All in all, a freaking amazing class from start to finish.

He calls Jo when he gets out, but only gets her voicemail, and even when he heads out to the front lawn to find Victor, she isn't with him, and he's got no idea where she is either.

"Oh, hang on, actually, I think she might have said at lunch that she had some appointment last period today," Victor says thoughtfully.

"What?" Dean exclaims. "She didn't tell me that… and I'm the one she has goddamn last period with."

"I don't know what to tell you, man. Maybe she secretly hates your guts," Victor offers.

"Shut up. She loves me."

Victor flips the hood of his sweatshirt up and retreats into its warmth, huddling down into the fabric as a sharply cold breeze cuts up from the football field. "So what're you gonna do?" he asks.

"There's nothing I can do, I'm just gonna have to – oh shit."

"What?"

Dean drags a hand over his face. "God. I'm gonna have to go to her house."

"So? You go to her house all the – ohhh, shit." Victor's face changes as it dawns on him. "Well, maybe he'll be out. At the library. Or feeding the homeless, or something."

"What, with my luck?" Dean groans. "This is gonna suck."

He cycles over afterschool with Jo's geography papers in his backpack, plus a book in case he gets trapped with Castiel for a long period of time and desperately needs something to do before he loses his mind or kills them both.

Ellen Harvelle is, as usual, covered in dirt when he answers the door, and briefly enlists his help in moving a large potted plant from the kitchen to the back yard, with much grunting and frantic cries of "Left – left, no left! Further left! Don't tip it!"

"Looks good, Mrs. Harvelle," Dean says, once they're done, and he dusts his hands off on his pants. "Is Jo in?"

"Oh, of course – sorry, honey, yeah, she and Cas are just upstairs in her room," Ellen says, already squinting around for the next piece of foliage she wants to rip up and re-locate. "While you're up there, will you ask Jo to come down? I need her help with some cuttings."

Dean's heart sinks. "Can't I help with you with them?"

Ellen laughs and pats his arm. "Thanks, Dean, but no – Jo's the one who wanted to plant them and I need her approval to do something with them other than letting them sprawl over all the damn place... but thanks."

Goddamnit. Dean puts a brave face on, and after lingering around to check and double-check that there isn't anything he could possibly give Ellen a hand with, he goes upstairs.

"Jo?" Dean calls as he knocks on her door. "It's Dean. Can I come in?"

"Oh, hey Dean!" Jo yells back, her voice strangely distorted and slurred. "Come on in. Ignore the fact that I sound like Sean Connery."

Dean goes in. "Why the hell do you sound like Sean Connery?" he asks – because she does. "And where were you today?"

"Dentist's appointment, sorry. I forgot to tell you. I got some killer anaesthetic in my jaw though – I could probably suck off a whale right about now."

"Sounds fun." In spite of himself, Dean looks around the room. Jo is sitting at her desk working on something that looks like it's probably for her art class, since she's surrounded by chalk and scraps of paint-spattered craft card. There are some heaps of dirty laundry on Jo's floor, an assortment of DVDs stacked at the foot of her bed, and then, sitting neatly on her bed with an open textbook, is Castiel.

He looks cleaner, now, at least – he's clearly had a shower, and he looks better-rested – but he's still too skinny for his clothes, and his hair is getting too long. As Dean watches, he picks up a pencil from the bed beside him and starts underlining sentences. He pays no attention to Dean whatsoever.

"Uh, Jo, Mrs. Mills gave out some papers," Dean says distractedly, and he pulls him backpack to rummage through. "We've got a pop quiz tomorrow so, yeah. Read up quick. Also, your mom wanted you downstairs. Something about plant cuttings? I don't know."

Jo leaps up and nearly knocks a glass of water everywhere in the process. "Oh, shit! Okay – hang on two seconds, I'll be right back!" she exclaims, and dashes downstairs, leaving a faint cloud of chalk dust behind her.

Great. Jo is downstairs sorting out plant cuttings, and here is Dean, alone in a room with Castiel. This is just magnificent.

Dean resolves not to do anything rash or ridiculous. He stands around for a couple seconds, just reading through the papers that he has yet to give Jo. He can only read them so many times, though, and eventually he folds them in half and just sets the paper on Jo's desk. However, he still can't actually leave yet, since he has to also explain to Jo which parts of the paper the quiz is going to be focusing on.

Castiel's pencil scratches faintly against his textbook.

Setting his backpack down on the floor, Dean begins to wander idly around the room – looking at Jo's art project, which looks violent and gruesome and uses a lot of the colour black; looking out the window at a cat hacking up a large hairball. Dean twangs the strings of Jo's out-of-tune, long-forgotten ukulele, which groans in faint distress, and he drums his fingers on the back of Jo's chair, and still Castiel continues writing as though oblivious. He holds his pencil at a different angle now, and the lead is beginning to squeak on the paper.

Dean stares at him.

He underlines a long section that crosses the entire page, squeaking softly all the way.

"Okay, are we gonna talk about this?" Dean bursts out.

Castiel doesn't look up, but with his head still bowed as though focusing on his work, his hand becomes still. "Talk about what?"

Dean exhales. Of course Cas was gonna be a difficult little shit about it. "This," he says, and waves an ambiguous hand around the room. "Like. Come on. What are you really doing here?"

Castiel lifts his head to meet Dean's eyes, now. "I don't understand," he says, but there is the giveaway shift of his throat as he swallows hard. "I thought I explained – I'm just saying here while I try to get in touch with my uncle in Wichita—"

"What's wrong with a motel? Or the YMCA?" Dean interrupts. His voice is cold.

Castiel flinches and looks away again.

"Don't bullshit me, Cas. That's not what I meant and you know it."

For several moments, there is silence. Then, when Castiel does speak, he is quiet. "You said once that what we had – was forever. A forever deal, you said—"

"Kind of," Dean corrects. "I said it was kind of—"

"Dean."

"Yeah, Cas, that was before you dumped me."

"Dean, I didn't have a choice."

"See, I don't buy that," Dean cuts back in, and his voice is shaking. It has been six weeks, and he has worked out and rehearsed what he would say to Castiel if he ever saw him again, muttered to himself when wide awake at two A.M with the shape of Cas' mouth in his head like an echo – and it never went like this. Every carefully planned word is gone from his mind and he is left with nothing but the shivering anger built up since August, and he doesn't know the words coming out of his mouth. "Because you just left. You didn't try to work it out, you didn't fight, you didn't even give me any of the usual 'let's be friends' bullshit – like, what the hell is wrong with you? You just – bye Dean, have a nice life – what the fuck is that? What the fuck is that? You didn't try, period!"

Castiel takes a long breath. "You said," he starts, raising his voice over Dean's, "that if I ever made a mistake, no matter how big or how stupid, I could always come back."

Dean's jaw tightens. "I guess we both said some things we didn't mean, then."

Castiel doesn't dignify that with a response. He just presses his mouth in a thin, pale line and looks away, down at his textbook and his stupid underlinings. Dean knows he went too far, but he doesn't want to apologise, either. A long few moments of silence stretch and thin between them, pulled taut to snapping point, while they don't look at each other.

Dean shuffles the toes of his sneakers on Jo's carpet; out of his peripheral vision, he sees Castiel's fingers curl into a fist between his knees and loosen again – curl and loosen. Again.

Quietly, Castiel says, "I made a mistake."

Dean glances up at him reluctantly, and then away, back to the carpet, because it's easier to pretend that he didn't see that furrowed brow and crumpled mouth than it is to deal with what that means.

"I had my reasons," Castiel continues, at last, "but I was cruel, and I was wrong. And I understand that I shouldn't have come here. I'm making an inconvenience of myself, and causing you unhappiness, and for that—" Here he pauses, lips parted, and Dean knows that the words 'and for everything else I've done' don't need to be aired. Castiel exhales. "I'm sorry Please take my word that I'm doing all I can to be gone as soon as possible – and then Jo can have her bedroom back, and you needn't feel awkward about seeing Lisa, and everyone can—"

Dean does a double-take. "Wait, what? I'm not seeing Lisa."

Castiel stalls mid-sentence. From across the room, he stares at Dean. "What?"

"I'm not."

"You went out with her—"

"To the movies – with, like, six other people, dude," Dean says defensively, a frown cut across his face. Of course, once at the movies, Lisa did try to put a move on Dean, but that's neither here nor there right now. He shifts his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Anyway, I don't really see how that's any of your—"

Castiel becomes flustered, clearing his throat and rubbing the back of his neck. "No, of course, you're right – it's none of my business, I'm sorry."

"Yeah," Dean follows up, but the victory is weak.

They fall into silence, then, with about six feet and the whole universe between them – Dean leaning against Jo's desk, Castiel perched on the edge of her bed with his textbook forgotten in his hands. After a moment, Castiel turns his book over in his hands, as though uncertain as to whether to continue with it and just ignore Dean. The room is hot with the early autumn sunlight through the windows, and the air feels heavy, stagnant. Even with Castiel on the other side of the room, Dean feels too close to him, like he's wobbling on some dangerous precipice between a safe place and doing something stupid, and Jo is still not back yet.

"Uh," Dean says, since he feels he needs to say something to fill the hush or fix the break between them. "So how's it going with the search for your uncle?"

Castiel lets out a laugh that is short and humourless. "It's… ongoing."

Dean hesitates. "Is that good?"

"I've put out feelers, so to speak, but I am not optimistic about anyone returning my calls," Castiel says drily. "There are three James Novaks in Wichita, of which any one could be my uncle – or none. He might have moved house, he might have changed his name, or even died… and even if I do find him, I don't know if he'll take me."

"Come on," Dean says. He feels bad about having been such an asshole when Castiel is having a less than amazing time, and even though he can feel that his tone is a little stilted, verging on insincere, he goes on, "I'm sure it'll be—"

"It's been ten years," Castiel interrupts. "Did you know that he was my godfather? After my father died, he was supposed to look after me – but instead, he left. He got as far away as possible and I never heard from him again. He no longer has any ties with my family, no responsibility for me… I barely even remember what he looks like. I would be an expensive burden." He looks down at his hands. "If I were in his position, I wouldn't have me."

"Yeah, you would," Dean says. Castiel doesn't answer, so Dean walks over to sit down beside Castiel on Jo's bed. "If it was you, you'd bend over backwards for that kid – break your own back trying to give him the best you could." Dean nudges Castiel gently with his shoulder. "You know I'm right."

Castiel looks away from him, towards the wall.

"And if he's cut loose and run away from your family, then I think you've got more in common than you think. I bet he's just like you – and I bet he'll take you in, faster than you can say, you snooze you lose, Zachariah, you all-holy dickbag."

Castiel huffs a little in the back of his throat at that, and he finally looks at Dean. His eyes track across Dean's face like he's trying to read him, and Dean doesn't know what he's trying to find there, but a little crease cuts up between his eyebrows like it wasn't what he wanted to see.

"I… don't know what to do," Castiel says, his voice so quiet that he's barely audible. "If my uncle won't have me… I don't know. I have nothing."

"That's not true," Dean says gently, and shifts a little closer so that he can press his shoulder against Castiel's, let him lean on him if he needs it. "You've always got us."

Castiel's eyes lift to meet Dean's again, his expression caught somewhere between surprise and sadness.

"Look, I was being an asshole," Dean goes on, and he can feel himself flush hot at the admission. "Don't feel like I want you gone A.S.A.P, okay? Just… stay as long as you need to, take care of yourself and all that. It's gonna be fine."

Dean pats a comforting hand on Castiel's leg, and then, for a second, he forgets. Without thinking – about how close they're sitting to one another, leaning on each other from shoulder to hip; about their being in Jo's bedroom, who could come back at any second, or bring her mom in for some reason; most importantly, about the fact that this is Not A Thing That They Do Anymore – Dean goes to kiss him.

Then he remembers.

With a sharp exhalation like he's been winded, Dean pulls up short just in time, and freezes no more than an inch from Castiel's mouth.

They're not dating. Technically speaking, they never were. They were just good friends who fucked for a while, and now they're nothing.

Castiel doesn't move, doesn't breathe. Eyes open, lips parted, he is completely immobile; he just swallows thickly.

Dean breathes out, shaky, and he feels he can almost taste Castiel in the air between them.

The bedroom door crashes open – Dean and Castiel spring apart so fast that Dean trips over a heap of Jo's DVDs and nearly falls backwards onto the floor, while Castiel just stands bolt-upright as though at attention - and in comes Jo, with her hand cupped over the mouth-piece of her house-phone.

She frowns at them. "Sorry if I disturbed you or anything…?" she says, her tone suspicious as though to say, which I really hope I didn't because you two are Not A Thing anymore, and she flashes Dean dagger eyes. "But I've got someone on the phone for Cas."

Dean looks across at Castiel with surprise.

"For me," Castiel says.

Jo raises her eyebrows. She clamps her hand tighter across the mouth-piece, tilts her chin up away from the phone, and stage-whispers, "Yeah, doofus – I think it's your uncle. James Novak?"

Castiel lets out a long, shaky breath that almost seems to take his knees out from underneath him, and one hand moves minutely as though he's reaching for something to support his weight. He swallows. "Alright. Yes – I'm here. I'll answer. I just have to—"

He glances at Dean, wild-eyed.

"Do you need a second?" Jo whispers. "I can tell him you're peeing or jerking off or something, if you want."

"No – it's fine." Castiel tears his eyes from Dean and looks over at Jo. He takes a deep breath. "I'm fine." He holds out his hand.

Jo lifts the phone to her face and says brightly, "Okay, sorry about that – I've got him right here, I'll just pass you over. Nice to speak to you, too. Here you go."

She hands Castiel the phone.

"Hello, this is Castiel," he says. "It's good to hear your voice again."

Day -41

"Wow, this must be important," Victor says as Dean shows up, scowling, on his doorstep.

"What?" Dean demands. "I don't mind dogs. I've walked dogs before. Or like, watched other people walk dogs, in movies."

Victor raises his eyebrows. "Do you have your anti-histamines with you?"

"…Yeah."

Victor just laughs. He bends to snap a leash on the collar of his dad's dog, a hairy mountain of a creature called Bear, and tugs him along down the sidewalk. "So what's up?"

Dean shifts carefully away from the dog and comes to walk on Victor's other side, as far as possible from Bear's drooling jowls and shaggy fur. "Uh. Nothing. I just wanted to see how you were doing, I guess."

Victor looks at him hard. "Okay, mom."

Dean rolls his eyes and admits, "I mean – well, okay, I do want to talk to you about something as well, but like – I don't need to, or anything—"

"Just say it."

"Okay, it's about Cas."

Victor turns to gape theatrically at him. "No shit!"

"Shut up, dude."

They walk for a little while in silence, Victor waiting for Dean to speak, and Dean trying to figure out what he wants to say.

"So," Dean starts, and he takes a deep breath to steel himself. "You know I went over to Jo's house a couple days ago to give her some paper we had to read through for Mrs. Mills, and I while I was there – I dunno. I was talking to Cas while Jo was out and we got kinda… close."

"Close? What, like you were actually talking shit out?"

Dean clears his throat. "No, I mean like. Close. Like, physical… proximity, or whatever."

"Wait, what?"

Dean throws his hands up defensively in front of himself. "We didn't kiss, okay? I just kind of… breathed on his mouth a little."

"Jesus Christ, Dean."

As though to offer Victor some kind of emotional support, Bear waddles over to cock a leg up and pee right next to Dean's sneakers. Victor pauses to let him.

"Hey! Come on." Dean swats feebly at the dog and then rubs the back of his hand against one eye, which is beginning to itch and burn. "I did yell at him a little about everything, so I guess we did talk some stuff out, but… Look, it's not like either of us were gonna do anything. Anyway, yeah, Jo also came in, but—"

Victor sighs and walks ahead.

Dean jogs a few paces to catch up, and goes on, "I don't know, man. I was yelling at him and then he was telling me how he was worried about stuff with his uncle, and I was just gonna try reassure him because he's clearly super cut up about it…"

They reach the dog park, at which Dean wrinkles his nose, but he is determined not to sneeze, even if there are three spaniels running wild on the grass. Victor lets Bear off the leash, who shakes his fur out and then plods a few languid steps forwards in the direction of a large stick. Dean sneezes.

With a hand wedged against the base of his nose to keep himself from leaking, Dean says hesitantly, "And he said he made a mistake."

"Well, we already knew that," Victor says.

"But, Victor – no, go away," Dean tells Bear as he wanders over with his stick in his mouth, which he drops proudly at Dean's feet. Dean pushes him away with his knee and sneezes again. "Christ, get lost!"

"Thought you didn't mind dogs," Victor teases, but he does take the stick and toss it into some hedges to temporarily get rid of Bear.

"Screw you. Victor, I think he was like – still into me."

Victor looks at him. "Okay."

"I mean, obviously he's still an asshole and I'm still mad at him, but… I don't know." He sniffs, feeling his nose itch, and kicks at a loose clump of grass. "Like I said, we got close."

Bear runs back to Victor with his stick. Victor doesn't say anything straight away.

Dean squints at him. "What? Say something, dude," he says. "This is the part where you're meant to be like, 'nahhh, babe, it's all cool—'"

"Babe?" Victor echoes incredulously.

"Honeybunch," Dean insists, and sneezes.

Bear patters his feet in front of them and looks pointedly at his stick. Dean's nose is running all over the place, his eyes bleary, but through his tears he is aware of the thin, opalescent wisps of cloud letting the sunlight through in a faint shimmer, of dandelions tearing themselves gently to shreds in the wind. It's a nice day out, the air cool for September. Dean bends, takes Bear's stick, and throws it.

"He messed you up," Victor says, and sticks his hands deep in his pockets.

"Yeah, I know, but—"

"And you messed him up," Victor interrupts.

Dean looks over at him, startled.

"Whether you want to admit it or not, you got him outed to his family, you made him have to leave home, you know? And even if the life you fucked up for him was terrible and shitty, it was his life, and he was doing just fine in it for the meantime. And you did fuck it up, even if you didn't mean to." Victor lets out a long breath. "Dean, you changed his entire world, and didn't really give him all that much reason to believe that you even gave much of a damn about it, with all your crap about Lisa goddamn Braeden."

"I didn't want any of that," Dean says. "I didn't want him to end up—"

"I know, man, I'm not an idiot. But you did." Victor shrugs, watching Bear trot across the park to sniff some poodle's asshole. "I'm not gonna say that what he did was great either, because that was kind of a dick move, but his options were pretty limited at that point."

Dean stares at him. "So… what, then?"

"I don't know, man. You two are good for each other – but you fucked up. Both of you," Victor says bluntly. "And you need to talk to him."

Dean doesn't have a response for that. Instead, as he feels a sneeze coming on and he thinks he needs some kind of distraction technique, he sneezes into his hand, and then extends that same hand towards Victor. "Okay. Let's shake on it."

Victor jerks away. "Jesus – no! That's disgusting."

"Come on, this isn't even the hand I wipe my ass with."

Victor shoves him hard, so that Dean stumbles backwards into Bear, who has appeared again with his stick, and so Dean ends up with two handfuls of dog fur. The consequent sneezing fit isn't fun, but at least Victor tosses the stick for Bear and gets him out of the way again.

"I don't know what Cas sees in you," Victor says, as he extends a hand to pat Dean on the shoulder while he rummages in his pockets for anti-histamines.

"I'm charming," Dean retorts as he wipes his eyes. "And I have the ass of a Greek God."

Victor grins. "Alright, Zeus, let's head back. I can walk Bear again later, but you need to get back to Olympia for a couple hundred tissues, stat."

Dean mutters some profanities about the Henriksens' dog, but gratefully waits for Victor to clip Bear back onto his leash and lead him away from the dog park.

They don't talk about Castiel anymore – there's only so much romantic advice Victor can give before he starts getting bored and wants to talk about literally anything else – and head back to his house for one of his dad's addictive banana smoothies. They play Xbox until Marie kicks up a fuss that she wants to watch Totally Spies, and David helps them with some calculus questions while Victor's other dad puts together a vegetarian lasagne, but Dean isn't allowed to stay for dinner. John got a raise at the garage and his mom is making cheeseburgers to celebrate; he cycles home in the thin orange light of sundown, his bike light flashing indistinctly with every pedal.

When he gets in, his mom drags him into the yard to peg up laundry – which he does, but not without calling through the window to Sam that his lacy bloomers look magnificent billowing in the moonlight – Sam calls back, in a moment of sharp wit, that he's gonna take a dump in Dean's closet.

Dean sticks another washing load in the machine, helps Mary find the garlic when her hands are sticky with raw burger meat, and goes upstairs to take another anti-histamine since his nose is still itching like crazy. He goes back down to the living room, where Sam has found a re-run of the Breaking Bad pilot, which he excitedly insists Dean should watch with him so that they can see how far Walter White fell by the finale.

It's a good episode – one of the best, and as Sam never fails to remind him, probably the greatest exposition ever for some of TV's greatest storytelling in all of TV – but Dean is a little distracted. It's hard to focus on cancerous science teachers when Castiel is less than a mile away, and possibly still into him… and possibly still mad at him? Dean doesn't know.

Up until last week, he had thought the whole thing was so clear-cut – he'd been into Cas, he'd thought Cas was into him, Cas had been an asshole and had dumped him without a second thought as soon as the going got tough – but now he's not so sure. If anything, he's pretty sure he fucked up, big-time.

When the burgers are T-minus-ten to being ready, Mary shouts for Sam and Dean to come in and lay the table, so even though there are still fifteen minutes left on Breaking Bad, they reluctantly switch off the TV set and come through for crockery.

As Dean sets out the salt and pepper shakers on the dining table, he puts on an attitude that is so casual it almost hurts, and he asks Sam, "Did you like Cas?"

Sam looks over, pausing in the middle of laying out the glasses. "What? Why?"

"No reason."

Sam squints at him.

"Seriously, no reason. Just… you know, did you like him?"

"My position on him is relative to whether or not he's recently kicked my brother's heart in the butthole." Sam raises his eyebrows. "He's the worst." He resumes setting out four glasses, and then returns to the dishes cupboard to fetch plates.

Dean sighs and follows him. "Aside from all that," he says, and stops talking so that their mom won't overhear from the other side of the kitchen, where she is grilling burger patties. He grabs cutlery and returns to the dining room with Sam, and starts putting forks out. He continues: "I mean, did you ever like him? Even before all the complicated stuff."

"What does it matter, Dean? He's not gonna stay here in Lawrence forever – even if he magically stopped being the worst, somehow," Sam says.

Dean is quiet for a moment as they lay the table together. Then he says, "He's not the worst."

Sam heads back into the kitchen for condiments while Dean is left behind to finish the cutlery, and when Sam returns, his face is all twisted up in that way he has when he's worried. He exhales sharply. "Okay, Dean, yeah, I liked him," he says, his voice blunt as though it hurts him a little to say it, like maybe he misses Cas too. "You know, he… I don't know, he asked me about whatever I was reading, and he helped me with homework sometimes, and he was, like, genuinely interested in hearing about Jessica, and my theories about Jon Snow's actual lineage… he was nice to me." Sam looks up at Dean with a sadness to his mouth. "Yeah. I liked him. Before all of that."

Dean finishes with the last bits of cutlery and just stands there, looking at the knives and forks in their neat rows. "I think I owe him an apology."

Sam just stares at Dean, not having an easy answer to give him, but even if there was one, there isn't time to say anything, because by that time dinner is ready and being served. They sit down.

The cheeseburgers are delicious, the perfect ratio of cheese to meat, and it even has Dean's favourite onion relish in it, but Dean's mouth is dry. He skips on dessert and helps Mary to clear up, wanting to just get everyone out of the dining room and back to their own activities so that he might be left alone for a while.

Thankfully, by eight o'clock, Sam is curled up on the windowsill to re-read The Silmarillion, and their parents are settled down to watching the latest episode of House of Cards, so Dean decides that everyone is suitably occupied that he can disappear without being disturbed anytime soon.

He grabs his backpack from where he ditched it at the foot of the stairs when he first came in, and heads up to his bedroom. As he walks, he fishes his cell phone out the front pocket and clicks through his contacts. Once he gets to his room, he shuts the door, and then shuffles his desk-chair across to sit under the door handle, just for added security.

Then he calls Castiel.

It rings four, five times, without any answer, until:

"Hello, this is the phone number of Castiel Novak. For some reason, I am currently unavailable, but if you leave your name and—"

Dean hangs up. He scrunches his face up, indecisive as he tries to figure out what to do now. He hesitates, and then presses the redial button. The phone picks up on the third ring.

"Dean?"

Castiel's voice is quiet, uncertain, but it is still Dean's name in his mouth, and there is such a familiarity to the sound of it that this conversation seems a little easier somehow. Dean is doing the right thing – finally.

"Yeah, it's me – hi. Sorry to bother you – you're not busy, are you?"

"No, it's fine. I was just reading."

"Okay, cool. Uh – what were you reading?" Dean asks awkwardly, straining for some kind of normality. "War and Peace?"

"Actually, yes… I never quite finished it over the summer," Castiel says.

"Oh, yeah."

Neither of them push the topic any further, but there is a brief silence between them, and Dean is pretty sure that they're both remembering.

With the strong that he is way over his head here, Dean clears his throat. "Is it …any good so far?"

"Do you want to borrow it?" Castiel asks pointedly.

Dean swears at himself inwardly for being so transparent. Of course he isn't calling to join Castiel's freaking book club – and he was an idiot for thinking that he'd be able to fool Cas with thinking there was anything casual to this conversation. "No, it's cool. Sorry. I just – yeah, sorry. No, I actually wanted to… talk to you."

"Alright."

"Uh," Dean starts. "Well." He hasn't rehearsed this. He doesn't know what he's going to say or whether it's even going to fix anything, but it's worth a shot – and anyway, it's not exactly like things can get worse between them. He takes a deep breath. "I guess I called to say I'm sorry."

For a long time, there is nothing but silence and static down the line; the sound of Castiel breathing. Then he says, "What?"

Dean forces a short, nervous laugh. "Yeah, seriously."

"You don't have to—"

"No, I think I do," Dean interrupts. "And – I want to."

He sits down on his bed and pulls his feet up underneath him to sit cross-legged. He might as well get comfy. He lets out a long breath to steady himself.

"Look. I like to think I had good intentions but the fact is that I really fucked things up for you. And you know, you were right – your life was a hell of a lot easier before I was in it. I mean, I dunno if it's more difficult now that I'm back in it again – although, actually, I don't even know if I am in it again," Dean rectifies, a hot flush coming up over his cheeks as he realises that he might just be rushing ahead – hell, maybe Castiel doesn't even want Dean in his life anymore. Maybe he's just biding his time to get shot of Lawrence and leave this whole shit-storm behind him. "But… I get it."

On the other end of the line, Castiel is very quiet.

"I mean, I'm not gonna shy away from the fact that you fucking hurt my feelings or whatever but – I do get it, now, I think," Dean says. "And I'm sorry that I put you in a position where that kind of shit was necessary. And I'm sorry for being an asshole about it. I mean, in hindsight, I figure it probably didn't seem very fair that I got to go on hanging out with Jo and Victor and Sammy, and having a good time, while you had to go back to, like… Sunday school and differential equations in Philly…"

Dean takes a second to steel himself; he's no good at talking, and especially not about his feelings, and definitely not when it's something that matters to him. He rubs a palm anxiously over the fabric of his jeans where they stretch over his knee, and tries not to let his voice shake.

"And… I'm sorry that it's taken me this long to realise that yeah, you dumped me, but you were the one who got the shitty end of the stick. And all I could think about was, what an asshole, he broke my stupid heart kind of shit – when maybe that was actually when you needed me the most. And I wasn't around." Dean swallows hard, shifts the cell phone in his hand. "I was too caught up in my own feelings to think about yours, and I shouldn't have let the fact that I was a little super in love in with you mess things up, so I'm just – I'm really sorry, okay. I'm sorry."

That's all Dean's got, so he just shuts up and waits – for what, he doesn't exactly know, since he isn't expecting Castiel to fall down crying for Dean to take him back or anything – but Castiel is silent for a long time.

After a couple seconds, Dean starts getting jittery, his stomach pitching like he might throw up, and he says, "Uh – Cas? You still there?"

"You've never said that before," Castiel says, at last, and his voice is hoarse.

At first, Dean thinks Castiel means the whole speech, and he's just thinking, well, fucking hell, I should hope not, because that was like my entire soul on a buffet table there, but then he rewinds and realises what he's actually said. The weight of it hits him like a truck. He's a little super in love with Castiel. And yeah, it's true, but it doesn't mean he had to open his stupid freaking mouth and say it, for Christ's sake. For Christ's goddamned sake. Good going, Dean, he tells himself. Way to fucking go.

"To be honest, I'm kinda regretting that I said it now," Dean says feebly.

"It's okay, Dean," Castiel says, his voice soft, and for some reason it doesn't feel like the rebuttal it should be – it's not an absence of him saying it back, because they're not saying I love you right now. They're just talking, and Dean made a mistake, and Cas made a mistake, and they might be in love with each other, and it's all okay.

"Cool," Dean says, when he pulls himself together. "Well… thank you. Yeah. That was all I wanted to say, so I'll, uh. I'll let you get back to your book."

"Dean, wait."

Dean sits up a little straighter. "What's up?"

Down the line, Dean can hear Castiel breathe in deep. "That was my uncle on the phone the other day, and… he said he'd be happy to take me in, for however long I like."

"Dude, that's amazing!" Dean exclaims. "He sounds really nice – definitely better than Zachariah, anyway. I bet he won't even be an axe murderer or anything."

Castiel makes a short sound like a laugh. "Hopefully not." He pauses. "He's coming for me on Saturday."

Dean stops short. "Wait, like tomorrow?"

"Yes."

There are a hundred protestations Dean wants to make – but Cas has only just got here, but he and Dean have only just sorted out their issues, but that's only a day away and Dean feels somehow as though he's missed a whole lifetime - and he doesn't say anything. He knows the difference now between the things he wants and the things Castiel needs. He just says, "Whoa – okay. Well, good luck, then!"

"I was wondering if you'd like to be there," Castiel asks tentatively. "You don't have to see me off, but I'd like to say goodbye, at least. I know I'm not very good at that, but… I'd like you to be there, nonetheless."

Dean flops back onto his pillow, a smile spreading slowly across his face. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Day -42

James Novak arrives at Jo's house just before dinner. He drives a beat-up old hatchback with a 'baby on board' sticker taped to the back window, which he doesn't park quite straight, and when he climbs out of the driver's seat, there's more than a little of Castiel to him. He's taller, more solidly built, with dark hair neatly combed and crows' feet, but they have the same slope-shouldered stance, the same jawline. He loosens his tie.

From his position at the window, Dean glances back towards the others. "Cas."

Castiel looks up so quickly that for a second Dean's concerned he'll get whiplash; he's on his feet almost even faster, and takes one step forwards before he hesitates. "He's here?"

Dean nods.

Somehow Castiel's careful organisation seems to scatter now. He gives a curt nod in response to Dean, but doesn't make any further movement, except to pat distractedly at his pockets.

"You okay there, bud?" Jo asks.

"Yes, I'm just – I don't know where I – I'm not sure—" Castiel sticks one hand into a pocket and pulls out a handful of lint, which he stares at for a second as though he's glimpsed a hole through space and time. "My—"

"Phone?" Victor guesses. "In your backpack."

"Yes, but my—"

"Money, spectacles, testicles?" Jo tries. "It's all good. Wallet's in your backpack. Passport, too. Your old exam papers, even…"

"My bag?" Castiel says, beginning to spin around.

"And your giant duffel bag isn't gonna vanish anywhere without us noticing. You've packed and unpacked and re-packed like seven times, I think you're good."

"I don't know if I've…" Castiel trails off, and one hand lifts to float indecisively in the air as he stares around the room with an expression so completely vacant that it can only be rooted in deep panic. His hand at last comes to rest on the back of his neck. "Have I combed my hair?"

"Cas," Dean says, taking a step closer. Castiel's eyes flash up to look at him – all wide-eyed and uncertain and straight-up scared - and Dean just smiles. "It's fine. You look great."

Castiel holds Dean's eyes; he takes a deep breath to steady himself. "Okay," he says. "Okay."

"You ready to do this, big guy?" Jo asks.

Castiel just nods.

As he turns back to get his duffel bag and check his backpack, Dean heads through to get the front door before Mr. Novak can ring the bell – for convenience, of course, and not so that he can screen the guy before he gets anywhere near Castiel or anything like that. He pulls it open just as Mr. Novak is coming up the garden path, and exclaims a loud, "Hi! Mr. Novak?"

The guy looks up, startled, and there's a strangely comforting echo of Castiel's deer-in-headlights expression there. "Sorry – hello." He straightens his lapels and hurries up the path, careful not to tread on any plants where Ellen has left them strewn all over the sidewalk, and then he comes to an unsure halt just before the doorstep. "Sorry if I'm late – traffic was hell," he starts, and then, uncertainly, he peers at Dean and says, "You… No – you're not—?"

"Oh, no – sorry, I'm Dean Winchester, just here for moral support. I'm a friend of Cas' – Castiel, that is. Nice to meet you, sir," Dean says, a hot flush coming up over his neck and cheeks, and before he knows what he's doing, he has stuck his hand.

Castiel's uncle smiles anxiously, and he shakes Dean's hand. "Hi, I'm Jimmy. Nice to meet you, too." He looks up past Dean, then, and Dean turns backwards to see Jo come through the door and then stand to one side to let Castiel come through.

Dean looks at Castiel with new eyes, tries to imagine what he would think if he had never seen him before now – the tidy hair, the worn-out button-up shirt and the giant sweater hooked through his elbow, his nervous face, one hand jittering on the handle of his duffel bag. He looks good, but more important is that he looks homely, somehow. Like the kind of kid a mom would want to invite around for dinner – or invite to live with them, maybe.

Looking at him, Jimmy lets out a sharp breath like he's been struck, and then he just says, "God, you look just like my brother."

For a second, Castiel flinches at the blasphemy, a knee-jerk reaction long trained into him, but in the moments that follow, he eases up, and a kind of relief seems to take the tension out of his spine. "You look very like my father," he offers awkwardly, as a kind of middle ground.

Jimmy smiles. "We twins have an annoying habit of doing that, yeah."

Castiel gives a small laugh, a little nervously, but he sets down his duffel bag, and steps forwards. "It's good to meet you," he says, takes a deep breath, and puts his hand out. "I'm Castiel."

With a curious expression, Jimmy's eyes move from Castiel's hand to his face and back again, as though not quite sure what's going on here, and then he takes two steps forwards and crushes Castiel to his chest in the most aggressively affectionate hug Dean has ever seen in his entire life.

Instantly, Castiel locks up, body going rigid, but then something changes – the stiffness goes from his spine, the tension leaks out of his shoulders, and he lifts his arms with slow precision to put carefully around his uncle.

They just stand like that, and Dean feels a little like he's intruding on something private; he looks back at Jo and Victor to find them already in quiet conversation with Ellen, so as not to interrupt the moment.

"How do you think it's going?" Jo whispers to Dean once he joins their little circle.

Dean glances back at them. "I think… it's going well," he says, and he doesn't know why that feels like a bad thing.

Ellen invites Jimmy in for a coffee, once he and Castiel have finished their reunion act, but he regrets that he doesn't have time – saying that he hates to seem like he just showed to steal away his nephew and disappear again, but his wife has drinks with her friends after yoga on Sundays, so it's his turn to pick up their kid from her playdate.

"Is that okay?" Jimmy checks with Castiel, concern coming over him. "I mean, if you're not ready to go or it's too soon, I can always come back another time. If the Harvelles don't mind, we can always do this more slowly – I could take you out for dinner sometime, we could see a game in Kansas City, get to know each other better before you come over, or—"

"No, it's okay," Castiel says, and smiles at Jimmy, although to Dean it seems stretched too thin – it's not his dumb, gummy grin, and somehow, it's not right. "Should I put my stuff in the car…?"

"Oh, yeah, of course – sorry, hang on, I'll beep it open."

"Thank you," Castiel says, and then, abruptly: "Wait – sorry – I just remembered… I've forgotten something." He stands there staring at Jimmy's car for several moments, and then, without any further warning, he turns tail and goes back inside.

Dean looks over the stuff packed into the trunk of Jimmy's car: Castiel's duffel bag, his backpack, his winter coat… and that's all there is. That's all Castiel brought. He peers up at Jo's house to see if there's any movement inside that might suggest what Castiel is doing – raiding the fridge, maybe, or stealing their TV – but there's no sign of anything.

"One sec, I'm just gonna go see if he's okay," Dean says, jerking a thumb back in the direction of the house, after a couple awkward moments of the five of them standing together in silence.

He jogs up the front path and into the Harvelles' porch – not even pausing to toe his sneakers off. Glancing through the house, he can see that the kitchen and living room are empty; there are no lights on in the bathroom or up the stairs, either.

"Cas?" Dean calls. "Is everything o—"

"Dean—"

As Castiel appears seemingly out of the shadows in the hallway, Dean nearly shits his pants and lets out a loud exclamation to the tune of fuck you, you fucking fuck, what the fuck.

"Sorry – I didn't mean to frighten you," Castiel says feebly, and gestures towards the closet just beside the front door. "I was just… getting my jacket."

"Your jacket's already in the car," Dean says. "And nobody keeps their jackets in that closet. What are you doing?"

Castiel looks down at his feet. "I don't know. Just… delaying the inevitable, I suppose."

Now that Dean has composed himself, he realises just how small and downtrodden Castiel looks. "Whoa, what's wrong?" he asks, taking a step closer.

Castiel jerks his shoulders in a non-committal shrug and looks back towards the door. "I don't know. I just feel like… I don't know that this is going to be any better than I was before," he says quietly. "He feels… good, somehow – and I have a feeling that he is good, but what if he's not? What's if he's as bad as Zachariah, or worse? What if I just get trapped all over again?"

"Come on, he seems great," Dean tells him. "And Zachariah had creepy, awful vibes from the get-go, so I'm gonna call it and say that he's gonna be just fine. Besides, he's got a baby-on-board sticker, so he's clearly concerned about child safety. He must be cool."

"Dean."

He steps closer and takes Castiel's shoulders in his hands, holding him steady at arms' length. "Look, everything is gonna be just fine, okay?" Dean tells him.

"You don't know that."

"No, I don't. But I believe it like I believe that Cobb got to see his real kids at the end of Inception, and I promise you," Dean says, "I promise, that we're gonna be here whatever happens. I promise you. This is gonna be good, and we're only two hours away by car and you can see us whenever, so if like – I dunno, if they have some toddlers screaming or your aunt's doing some crazy yoga class all over the living room or something, you can hide out here for an hour or a weekend or a month. Whatever you need."

Castiel just looks at him, his brow crumpled with fear, and although there is a slight smile to his mouth at Dean's dogged insistence, he still looks all torn up with worry. "And," he says, and hesitates.

"And what?"

Castiel's hands are loose at his sides, but even from here, Dean can feel him jittering nervously.

"And I don't want to leave you again," Castiel says.

If that answer surprises Dean, he doesn't let it show. He keeps his hands on Castiel's shoulders; he curls his hands a little tighter, his fingers caught in the fabric of Castiel's shirt. He swallows, breathes steady, and tries not to feel the warmth of Castiel's skin underneath his hands. "You're not going far, dude," he says, and tries for a reassuring smile. "I mean, it's not Pennsylvania."

Ellen's voice comes, sudden and loud, from outside, ringing through the doorway and against the glass windowpanes in the front porch like a warning bell. "Hey, everything alright in there? You guys coming, or what?"

Dean sighs. "Yeah – coming!" he yells, twisting halfway back towards the door. "Just a minute, sorry!" He turns back again and lowers his voice. "Cas."

Castiel's mouth twists, uncertain, and his eyes drop to look at the floor between them. "I know it's not Pennsylvania - but it's not here, either," he mumbles, voice low and rough. "Dean, I made the mistake of leaving once already, and I don't want to make that mistake twice."

"But you're not really leaving," Dean points out, and he tilts his head over to catch Castiel's gaze and drag it back to him. "Hey – Cas. Look at me. You're not leaving, okay? You're just starting again, and I'm not exactly going anywhere."

Reluctantly, Castiel lifts his head to meet Dean's eyes again.

"So hear me out," Dean says, and he takes a step closer. "You go with Jimmy. You start over, you get a new family, a new life, all that jazz. You can be who you wanna be, do what you wanna do – if you're comfortable with it, that is," he adds as a hasty afterthought. "If you're ready. And I'll be here."

Castiel looks at Dean, all big eyes and worried mouth, but the unhappy crease that usually lives between his eyebrows like the world is on his shoulders is gone, and there is something to his face as though he's finally figuring it all out, and like maybe it's easier to bear with Dean next to him.

"And we'll work on it," Dean says.

Castiel nods, lips pressed tight together, and then he draws in a deep breath that draws him up to full height – still shorter than Dean, but he's growing. He's getting a little taller. "Alright," he says, and Dean reads it like Friday's okay: somewhere between we are and everything is.

Dean steps back, and holds the door open for him. "Go get 'em."

With his shoulders braced like he's heading out to war, Castiel goes out the front door and down the path to where Jimmy is waiting with his hatchback, with Ellen, Jo, and Victor all crowded around to see him off.

Castiel thanks Ellen for having him, and Jo for looking after him; he thanks for Victor for his support; he gives them all hugs. He doesn't thank Dean for anything, but just throws him a soft look that doesn't need any one word with it. Dean smiles.

"Don't forget to call me when you get there and let me know when you got back okay!" Jo insists, throwing her arms around Castiel. "And text me sometimes, keep me updated and everything. Tell me how it's all going." She steps back, and wrinkles her nose. She flaps a dismissive hand. "Not that I actually care, but you know. Old habits die hard."

"Oh crap, we still haven't actually shown him that movie," Victor exclaims as he pulls back from hugging Castiel so hard that his back pops.

Jo pulls a face. "Next time."

As Castiel rolls his shoulders to ease up some of the pain of having Victor possibly dislocate part of his spine, his mouth turns up into a faint smile. "Next time, definitely."

"Be careful, though, dude," Victor tells him. "Don't crash anymore bikes. And I'm gonna say no sugar, just in principle. Don't die before I get to see you again."

Jimmy seems slightly amused by the entire exchange, but he thanks them all again for looking after his nephew, and then he pops open the driver's door to get in.

Dean follows them to the car, not really sure what he's doing, but words are coming out of his mouth. "Oh, and Cas, uh – just so you know, my mom's really big on Thanksgiving, and she always throws these giant parties with like fifty people, and does turkey and a giant pecan pie which is amazing, and I think she'd really like to meet you, so if that's a thing that you wanna do, then that's probably gonna be in like… November."

Castiel stands with one foot in the gutter as he set off to get in the car, and he straightens up to look at Dean. "Thanksgiving is usually in November, yes."

Dean shoves at him. "Okay, smartass. It's in November. But if you wanted to come to that, then… that'd be cool, maybe."

"I'd love to." Castiel comes back up onto the sidewalk, to stand level with Dean. He looks over at Jimmy, who is messing about with a sat-nav in the front seat. "I'll have to ask Jimmy, but it should be fine."

"Okay. Bring food, or my mom will kill you," Dean says, and his face splits into a grin.

Castiel gives a curt nod. "Noted."

With that, and a last half-smile, Castiel moves as though to step off the curb, but doesn't – like he's hovering on the edge of saying something – but before he can say anything, Dean is seized by a rush of urgency.

"And Cas?" he says quickly.

Castiel looks up at him.

"Just—"Instinctively, Dean reaches out and straightens the collar of Castiel's shirt, without even thinking about it. "Take care of yourself," he says, and is almost taken aback by how gentle his voice comes out – because he isn't telling him he loves him, but he's running quite close.

Castiel doesn't say anything. There's no need for goodbyes, and he's already said all that he needs to for now. He just touches Dean's hand where it hovers by his collar, and then he gets in the car.

Jimmy's old hatchback starts, and then stalls, and then starts again, and Castiel waves out of the window as they rumble away into the cooling lilac skies of evening, and Jo makes a choked noise that their engine doesn't quite drown out.

Victor looks at Jo in horror. "Are you crying?"

"Fuck you," she snaps, and she punches him in the arm.

Day 0

Dean and Victor sleep over at Jo's that night – partly out of boredom, partly because they feel like it's somehow the end of an era, and partly just because Victor still hasn't seen The Exorcist and doesn't want to watch it alone.

Castiel texts them all when he arrives safely to Wichita, a message that is typically blunt but also lets them all know that everything is okay:

I'm in Wichita. Amelia is very kind. I've had a lasagne made with home-grown ingredients (except for the cow and the pasta). The baby's name is Claire and she put a booger in my hair. Tomorrow we're going to look at schools.

Another text comes in to the three of them a moment later:

Jimmy and I are going to look at schools. Not Claire and I.

Dean's text has a couple of extra lines, which he doesn't share with the others.

They say it's okay for Thanksgiving, so I'll see you soon. I miss you.

The three of them get Chinese food and they watch not only The Exorcist, but also Mulan, since Victor got too frightened to sleep after watching Linda Blair's head spin around, and Dean texts Castiel back, and Castiel sends Dean a picture of the Novaks' cat, and after five episodes of True Detective, the sun starts to come up, spreading its first thin pink rays through Jo's windows.

It's 6.A.M. The weather is turning colder, and the first leaves are curling russet-coloured on the sycamores down the boulevard, but in the early hours of the morning Dean has the sense that things are beginning again, afresh.

THE END.