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Reflecting Light

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There she goes, there she goes again. Racing through my brain. And I just can’t contain, this feeling that remains…

            Castiel hates to turn off his music halfway through a song but he pulls his earphones out anyway as he crosses the street to enter Winchester’s. The familiar atmosphere and warmth makes him feel right at home, as it always does. He takes his hat off and puts it on the nearest free table right next to the door, along with his bag. He turns around and waits for someone else to finish talking to the diner’s owner and return to their table with a mug of coffee. Seeing his opening, he approaches the counter with a cautious smile.

            “Please dean, please, please, please.”

            “How many cups have you had this morning?” Dean asks, glancing up from wiping down the countertop. Castiel grimaces at this question, Dean’s deep voice is all too knowing.

            “None,” He says too quickly.

            “Plus.”

            “Five, but yours is better!” He says earnestly.

Dean looks at him, smirking. “You have a problem.”

            “Yes I do.” He says and watches Dean as he turns around, muttering the word junkie under his breath, to grab the coffee pot and pour some into a large mug. “Angel. You’ve got wings baby,” He praises Dean. He picks the mug up and savours the immediate warmth.

            “Funny, I could say the same about you, Cas.” He smiles but doesn’t respond, already turning away. Dean isn’t the only one in town to use that nickname but he is the one who came up with it.

Finally, he sits down at his table and starts waiting. Claire should be here any minute. He holds his mug close to his chest, focusing on the warmth. It’s lovely after the chill of being outside. He takes a sip of the almost-too-hot coffee and closes his eyes in appreciation.

            “You make that look really good.” Cas opens his eyes to find a complete stranger standing next to his table, grinning down at him.

            “Yeah well, it is really good. The best in town.”

             “I’ll have to get some then,” the guy says. Castiel doesn’t mention that he recognises the guy from when he came in, ordering a coffee from Dean. He does glance over to the stranger’s table however, and sees that the strangers mug is still there. Right where he left it.

            “I’m not from here, you know? Just passing through on the way to Hartford.” The guy continues standing there and talking at him. Castiel is vaguely sure now that they guy is attempting to hit on him but he’s been wrong before. However, the way the stranger seems to be leaning forward over Castiel as if he can keep attention by blocking out everything else seems to be a good indicator. Behind the guy he can see Dean giving the stranger a glare. Castiel smiles and then immediately he regrets it when the guy misunderstands it as an invitation to sit down. Now he’s pulling a seat over from another table and sitting on it. Backwards, much to Castiel’s chagrin.

            “I’m Joey by the way.”

            “Not Gulliver?” Castiel asks. He sighs when joey gives him a blank look, clearly not getting his reference. “I’m actually meeting someone.” Castiel changes the subject, gesturing at the seat across from him. It’s an obvious hint and he can’t tell if Joey is genuinely ignoring it or if he’s just that oblivious.

            “You don’t have a name?” Joey asks, hopeful.

            “I do have a name but it’s just that I really am meeting someone so…” Joey doesn’t look disappointed at the obvious dismissal but he does take a moment longer than necessary to respond.

            “Oh well, I guess I better be going then.” Castiel nods but can’t resist messing with him.

            “So soon?” He says, straight faced. Joey, halfway out of his chair, looks stunned and confused. Castiel has to hold back a laugh. “I’m just messing with you, Joey, it was a pleasure to meet you. Have a safe trip to Hartford.” Joey only nods warily as he makes his way back over to his own table. Finally. Castiel takes another sip of his coffee, already forgetting Joey’s interruption. He looks up quickly when Claire opens the diner door and joins him.

            “Hey Dad. It’s freezing outside.”

            “Aw, what do you need? Hot tea? Coffee?”

            “Lip balm,” she says firmly.

            “You’re just lucky I found it in the kitchen after you left this morning,” he says, pulling his bag towards himself. He shuffles his belongings around for a moment before triumphantly pulling out the small, yellow tube he’d saved from being kicked under the fridge earlier.

            “Gee thanks.” Claire’s sarcastic tone makes him raise an eyebrow. He squints a little and tilts his head to the side, assessing her mood. He hoped that she was only bothered by the cold and hadn’t had a bad day at school.

            She gives him a guilty look. “Sorry, I’ve lost my Macy Gray CD and I need caffeine.”

            “Oh!” He leans back into his bag and pulls out what he’s looking for, “I have your CD.” He slides it across the tabletop.

            “Thief,” Claire says as she picks it up.

            “I borrowed it to play in the car. A thief wouldn’t return it,” he points out, “but now I will get you some coffee.” He stands and approaches Dean more confidently this time. He smiles but feels it fall from his face when Dean gives him a look that says, you finished that already?

            “It’s not for me this time. It’s for Claire, I swear.” Cas does his best to feign annoyance at Dean’s disapproval. Ever since Dean had become his friend, they’d had a long running joke that Cas didn’t have healthy enough eating habits. This was only perpetuated by the fact that Castiel and Claire ate at Winchester’s diner almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Cas has never been the best cook anyway so he saw no real issue with the fact. Particularly since his best friend in the world was Charlie Bradbury, a chef at the inn he works at. Either way it wasn’t like he and his daughter weren’t eating their greens with their friends around.

When Dean doesn’t reply Cas turns and waves his arm at their table. “See? She’s right over ther- Wow. He has got quite a pair this guy.” It appears that, in Castiel’s absence, Joey has sidled up to Claire and is clearly trying some lines on her. Given how she’s leaning away from him, they’re not working. He turns back to Dean to find that he has a mug of coffee ready and waiting.

            “You want me to come over there?” Dean asks kindly, he dislikes seeing Claire uncomfortable as much as he himself does.

            “No, I got it. Thanks though.” He lifts the mug to indicate both the drink and the offer for help before turning back to Claire.

            “Yeah, I’ve never really been here before.” Castiel catches Claire’s eye over Joey’s shoulder and winks. She visibly relaxes.

            “Oh, you have to,” Castiel interrupts. He steps forward, placing Claire’s mug in front of her, then situates himself behind Claire’s chair. He deliberately walks around Joey to get there, rather than go around the other side of the table. Joey has enough sense to look vaguely caught out.

            “I was just-” Poor Joey starts with the excuses.

            “Getting to know my daughter,” he says cheerfully. He enjoys watching the way Joey flounders for a moment. Eyes widening as he looks between the two of them.

            “Are you my new daddy?” Claire asks in a moment of true genius. He couldn’t be prouder.

            “Wow. You do not look old enough to have a daughter and you do not… Look like a daughter,” He says gesturing at them both in turn.

            “That’s possibly very sweet of you,” Castiel says wryly. Joey takes a very obvious step back, clearly unsure of what to do now. Castiel decides to wait out the indecision.

            “You know I am travelling with a friend.” Joey waves his friend over before he has a chance to stop him.

            “She’s fifteen,” He says with a too-cheerful smile. He puts a comforting hand on Claire’s shoulder while Joey’s cheeks flush with embarrassment. Behind him, his friend is already gathering up their coats from the table. Smart.

            “Bye,” Joey says, visibly cringing.

            “Drive safe,” he says, voice dripping with sarcasm. They watch Joey and his friend leave in a rush and burst out laughing as soon as the door closes behind them. Cas glances over at Dean, who had clearly been keeping an eye on the situation, and shares a small smile, letting him know that everything is ok. He feels a warmth in his chest as he rejoins his daughter at the table. It doesn’t matter that it’s cold outside or that Joey was a bit desperate. Right now, everything is ok and for as long as he can help it, it’s going to stay that way.

Chapter Text

Claire’s second last day of school at Stars Hollow High was still fairly normal. She’d gotten up, got ready for the day and walked to her best friend Jack’s house near the centre of town. Going to Jack’s house actually meant walking past the school to get there but they’d already decided yesterday to meet up early to get some coffee at Winchester’s.

            “Do you think you’re gonna miss it here?” Jack asks as they walk out of Winchester’s and backtracked down the street. Before today Claire had thought she might feel different, nostalgic maybe, walking towards the high school, knowing that this would be one of the final times she did so. Really it was just like any other Thursday.

            “I don’t know. I won’t miss being judged for my outfits every day because everyone will be wearing the same boring uniform there.” Today she was wearing combat boots, a black skirt and a plain, red short sleeved shirt. Vaguely she wondered if she should’ve gone with shorts but she pushed the thought aside when she thought of her brand new uniform back home, waiting to be worn.

            “I get that. It’ll be weird not having you around though.”

            “Only during school days, we can meet up after school every day if we want to.”

            “We do that now.”

            “Then I suppose not much is really changing then, is it?”

            “I suppose not,” Jack says with a grin. Claire knew that they had been friends for long enough that moving schools wouldn’t mean that they would drift apart. She smiled back at him and together they walked up the steps into the school, heading for their lockers.

 

            Unfortunately, Thursdays mean that Claire only has one class with Jack in the middle of the day. So now, during the last few minutes of the last class of the day, she tries not to be too obvious as she keeps glancing up at the clock on the wall. The scent of drying nail polish is still strong in the air from the girls who had spent their class time painting their nails instead of reading the book for class. Claire, having already finished the book, had worked on the assignment anyway. Despite the fact that she wouldn’t have to hand it in to be marked.

At 3.25 the bell rang loud and sharp throughout the school. Claire was the first one out the door, going directly to her locker and waiting. After a few minutes she sees Jack approach from the other end of the hall. Together, like so many times before, they walk out of the school and towards his house. When they arrive they don’t stay for long. Jack merely opens the front door and grabs a cardboard box that had once carried an antique vase to his house in the mail. He hands it to her and shuts the door again behind him.

“Thanks,” she says.

            “No problem. My dad found it under one of the tables and said you could use it. He doesn’t want it back.” They go back to the school, back to her locker and empty it out into the box. Part of it ends up being rubbish anyway. Scrunched up bits of paper that she won’t need anymore and a few chocolate bar wrappers. He shuts the door for her and follows as she heads down the hall.

            “I have to go in a minute, my dad wants me to help out at the store this afternoon,” Jack announces, twisting his arm so that Claire could see the time on his watch.

            “That’s ok. You can shout the coffee tomorrow morning,” she says.

“Bye!” He waves as he walks out of the school without her. She goes to wave back and almost drops the box, spilling a couple of books onto the floor. Sighing she crouches down to pick them up.

            “Need a hand?” A shy voice asks from behind her. Claire turns around and looks up at the prettiest girl she’s ever seen. Her dark hair is long and curly, framing her face where her features are a little sharp but in a way that suits her.

            “Uh, I guess,” she stammers out and then inwardly kicks herself for not saying something better. She stands up and tries not to stare.

            “Are you moving?” The girl asks. Claire glances down at her box of crap on the floor, then back at her.

            “No. I’m not moving, just the inside of my locker is.” The girl raises an eyebrow.

            “I’m new here, we just moved from Chicago. Today was my first day.”

            “Oh. Chicago. Windy… Oprah…” Claire’s brain is short circuiting. She wants to get to know this girl, befriend her, maybe more. She also has no idea how to do that.

            “That’s the place,” the girl says, a small smile working its way onto her face. Claire suddenly feels incredibly awkward. Why did this girl decide to talk to her and how can she make her decide to stay and do it again?

“I’m Kaia,” she says, looking at Claire expectantly. She seems a little nervous.

            “Oh, I’m Claire.”

            “Claire,” she repeats, making Claire feel apprehensive as she realises, again, that she’s leaving Stars Hollow High. She won’t be able to see Kaia again unless she bumps into her in town, which she doubts. She wonders how hard it would be to convince her dad to let her stay. Just for a little while longer. She still wants to go to Milton but she doesn’t want to lose the opportunity to get to know Kaia.

            Claire snaps back to reality when she realises that Kaia has reached down and picked up her box.

            “Where do you need to take this?”

            “Um. Back home.” Claire’s house isn’t actually that far away. She could definitely carry the box herself but she realises that she’s ok with the way this is going.

            “Oh, yeah? Why don’t you show me some of the town on the way there?” Kaia asks while taking a step towards the exit. Claire can’t help but smile widely as she nods. She follows Kaia out of the building and through the town, pointing out things as they go.

When they arrive at Claire’s house Kaia passes over the box with a smile.

“See you round!” She calls as she leaves. Claire watches her go before heading inside.

 

--

        Castiel has been sitting in his car staring up his parent’s driveway for fifteen minutes now. The last time he had seen his parents, let alone been inside their house, had been at Christmas two months ago. He’d been hesitant to entertain this idea in the first place but Charlie was right. This is his best and only option. Still. He hesitates, knowing his parents, in particular his mother, he knows that asking for help from them will have strings attached.

         He clutches the damning Milton school letter tighter in his hand before sighing and putting it back down on the passenger seat. Claire had no idea about its existence and he wanted to keep it that way.

         Picking up his reusable coffee cup, he quickly drains the last of the coffee. Stalling for time. With another sigh and one last glare at the letter, he gets out of the car.

         The sound of the car door slamming bounces off the perfectly tiled driveway as he approaches the front door. Ever since he moved out at 17 this place hadn’t been his home. For a long time before that it hadn’t felt like home either. So many memories are threatening to rise to the surface and overwhelm him. He very suddenly just wants to get this over and done with so with a sudden rush of adrenaline he reaches out to ring the doorbell.

         The high pitched bell rings only twice in the traditional ding-dong, announcing his presence. He waits, unable to stand still, running his hands down his coat in an effort to smooth it out and be more presentable.

         His mother opens the door, her surprise evident on her face.

         “Mum, hi…” He says with slightly too much gusto.

         “Oh, Castiel. This is a surprise. Is it Easter already?”

         Castiel lets out an uncomfortable laugh, “no. I was just in the neighbourhood after my business class and thought I’d stop by and see how it’s going at the Novak house.”

         “To see me?” The fact that she does sound so surprised make this whole thing just a little bit harder. For a split second he wishes things were different between them. That the years of friction between them didn’t exist.

        “Yes.”

        “Well, isn’t that nice. Come in.” She opens the door wider and taking a step back to welcome him in. Always the example of politeness.

        “Great, thanks,” he says. He follows her through the foyer and into the lounge and tries to make conversation, as if this was normal. “So how are the girls at the DAR?”

        “Old.”

        “Well, that’s… Good.” Cringing inwardly, he wishes he’d never said anything. The quiet in the house is stifling when they sit down on opposing couches.

        “You said you were taking a business class?”

        “Yes, twice a week at the college. I’m sure I told you,” he says in a rush. Now that he thinks about it he’s pretty sure that he’s never actually told them about the class before.

        “Well if you’re sure then you must have,” Naomi responds pointedly. Castiel starts looking around the room with fascination. He already knows what this room looks like. It hasn’t changed very much in his 32 years of existing but he acts like he’s never seen it before so that he doesn’t have to look over at his mother and see her analysing him. No doubt trying to figure out why he’s really here. Never could get much past her.

        It isn’t long before she asks, “would you like something to drink?”

        “I would love some coffee.” Naomi moves to get up but stops when they hear the front door opening again.

        “Naomi? I’m home.” Oh good. His father’s home. At least now he didn’t have to ask where he was, since he needed both of them in the room for this.

        “We’re in here,” his mother calls. He shoots a glance in her direction just before Charles walks in. He’s as tall as ever. Wearing a grey suit and his reading glasses for the newspaper in his hand as he walks in. He doesn’t notice Castiel at first.

        “Hello dad.” He looks up and for a moment seems genuinely stunned to see his own son in his lounge.

        “Ah, Castiel you’re here. What is it, Easter already?” Castiel has to hold back an eye roll.

         “Castiel was taking a business class in the area and thought he’d stop by after.”

         “A business class you say?” Castiel watches his father pour himself and Naomi a drink at the cart. His usual after-work scotch and a gin and tonic for Naomi.

         “Don’t you remember dear? She told us about it.” His mother says lightly as she takes the drink his father is offering her.

         “No,” he says looking over at Castiel with expectance.

         “Actually I do have something to ask of you. Um, Dad? Could you sit down. Please?”

         “You need money.” His father says definitively. Castiel wished he didn’t have to do this.

         “Well, yes. But it’s not for me, it’s for Claire and I absolutely intend to pay you back every cent, I don’t ask for favours or anything, you know that.” His parents share a look at that. Disappointment, anger, every awful memory that he created passes through that look in a matter of seconds.

         “Tell us, why you need money enough that you’ve come here.” Castiel’s father looks at him over the rim of his glass.

         “Claire got into Milton.” Their excited surprise is palpable.

         “That’s a wonderful school! It’s only a few minutes from here,” his mother gushes, a wide smile spreading on her face. Of course, she’d notice how close the school is immediately. They’ve never had much contact with Claire but they’ve always adored her.

          “Well, that’s exactly right. It’s not that far from here but the thing is, they want me to pay an enrolment fee and part of her tuition by Monday or she won’t be able to go and they’ll give up her spot to someone else.” Castiel watched as his father smiled at him, almost like he was proud?

          “So… You need money.”

          Castiel feels himself falter but he still manages to say, “yes.”

          “I’ll get my check book,” he says, standing up. Castiel feels an immense wave of relief and quickly lets out a deep breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding.

          “Thank you so much! You have no idea. Thank you.”

          “Wait.” Castiel sighs inwardly when his mother holds up her hand, interrupting him effectively.

          “So close,” he mutters under his breath.

          “Since this means that we’ll be financially involved in your life, I want to be actively involved in your life.”

          “Meaning?”

          “Meaning I want a dinner. Once a week, you and Claire come here for a civilised, family meal. Also a phone call, we should be able to see where our money is going and how Claire is doing at school, as well as updates about your life. If you agree you can come here for dinner tomorrow night and leave here with a check. If not then, I’m sorry but we can’t help you.” Castiel observes his mother. This was the catch. The reason for his hesitation in even coming here. The reason he hesitates once more now.

          “Mum,” He starts but he knows he doesn’t have a leg to stand on here. Claire deserves to go to that school and he knew that she would not waste the opportunity. However, this deal means essentially handing his mother a key to his life. A life that he’s worked very hard to keep separate from his parents thus far. Still, it would only be for four years at the most. He could deal with it for the sake of Claire and her education. Her expensive education.

           “Could we just… Agree to keep this between us? I don’t want Claire to know I borrowed money from you guys,” he asks quietly. Looking up in time to see his mother smile smugly.

           “Does seven o’clock work for you?”

           “We’ll be here,” Castiel assures her, solidifying the agreement further. After that the quiet isn’t as overwhelming as it is loaded. He could see his mother’s happiness at having found a way into his and his daughter’s life and he was sure the absolute relief of not having to find a way to tell Claire that he couldn’t afford to send her Milton after all was obvious to her. Neither of them commented on it.

            He stayed for a cup of tea, even though he would have preferred coffee and left feeling somehow both lighter and more tense than before. The new problem he faced was telling Claire that they would be going to her grandparent’s house for dinner every Friday night from now until she graduates. He decides that dinner at the Winchester’s tonight would be a good a time as any as he drives the half an hour trip back to Stars Hollow. By now Claire would be home from school but doesn’t stop by the house on his way to work. He does call though and leave a short message on the answering machine for her to meet him at Winchester’s once he’s done with work at 7.

            He feels his mood becoming more sour in the aftermath of the situation. His mother knew he needed that money for Claire and that he would pay them back every cent as soon as he was able to and yet she still had pushed him into a corner to force him to let her into his life. He didn’t think they would truly have denied him the money but then again, he’d met his parents.  

 

            “Hey Charlie, goy any coffee?” Castiel asks glumly when he enters the kitchen at work. He sits down on the chair at Charlie’s tiny desk next to the fridge.

            “It went that well huh?” Charlie answers from where she’s stirring something that smells amazing in a large pot on the stove. Other kitchen staff are bustling around them preparing food for both tonight’s dinner menu and room service orders.

            “They agreed to give me the money. Tomorrow.” He watches her go through the emotions, excited to confused, quicker than he would’ve thought. Charlie, bless her soul, had tried to offer to sell her car to get the money for him but he’d refused. For one he could never let her do that and for another, there was no way they could get enough money out of it to cover what the school was asking for.

            “Why tomorrow?” she asks.

            “Because tomorrow Claire and I are going back to their house for a special Friday night dinner,” he lets the sarcasm bleed into his tone.

            “That’s not so bad, you can get through one dinner.”

            “If only. My mother wants it to be a regular, weekly thing. Friday night dinners with my parents, every Friday night. Every week, Charlie. Do you see the issue?”

            “Oh wow. They really got you.”

            “It was mostly my mother’s doing, she cornered me. I’m glad I did it now because now Claire can go to Milton and get the education that will open more doors for her in life, I just wish it didn’t have to be such a difficult task. You know?” Charlie nods along empathetically. “I mean I already bought her uniform! I probably shouldn’t have bought it before I could say for sure that she’d be able to go but I got excited too. And you saw that smile on her face the other day when she tried it on, how could I not do my best to let her go?” He’s crossed over into ranting now and he knows it.

            “Well it’s done now, so it was worth it. You did hem her skirt already didn’t you?” He nods. “Perfect. She’s all set for Monday then. Try to look at the positive here and the positive thing right now is that we do in fact have a fresh pot of coffee in this kitchen. Pour yourself a cup and then try this sauce for me. I think it’s missing something.” Castiel smiled, getting up and doing exactly what Charlie said because, at the end of the day she was right. Although, he had no idea what she was talking about with the sauce. It tasted amazing and he didn’t hesitate to tell her as much.

 

            Claire beat him to Winchester’s and had already ordered dinner for the both of them by the time he got there. Today they're sitting at the table closer to the storeroom on the right side of the diner. It doesn’t take long before Dean is setting their plates down in front of them.

            “Long day?” Dean asks. 

            “The longest. Do you think we can get a piece of pie for dessert?”

            “Sure, it’s cherry today,” Dean says. He quickly refills their coffee cups and then moves over to the table next to them to take their orders.

             He didn’t notice it at first, thanks to his own mood, but Claire is quiet today. It’s as if she’s contemplating something. Castiel knows that whatever it is she’ll tell him when she’s ready. He picks at his food while he waits, for what he doesn’t really know.

            “I, ah, forgot to tell you we’re having dinner with your Grandparents tomorrow night.” Claire looks up in surprise.

            “But it’s February? What holiday is in February?”

            “Aside from Valentines day? None,” Castiel says offhandedly. He wants to move on from this topic quickly.

            He fights to keep the bite out of his voice as he replies, “It’s not a holiday thing ok, it’s just dinner.”

            “Sorry,” Claire mutters. Castiel feels his shoulders get tense, something is definitely up.

            “Well, I’ve got your uniform all sorted for Monday.” He starts, hoping that her excitement about her new school will help with whatever funk she’s in.

            “I don’t understand why we’re going to dinner tomorrow night. What if I had plans? You didn’t even ask me.” Claire looks beyond annoyed at him now. He tilts his head to the side trying to figure out what could have brought this on.

            “If you had plans I would’ve known,” he says evenly.

            “How?” She demands.

            “You would’ve told me.”

            “I don’t tell you everything. I have my own things.” Castiel has no idea how to respond to that so he takes a bite of his burger to buy some time.

            “Ok. So you have things,” he starts again. He hopes she’ll skip ahead to telling him what’s actually wrong but judging how her voice rises now he knows it won’t happen.

            “That’s right. I have things.”

            “Hey, I had dibs on being the rude one tonight.”

            “Just tonight?” Claire mutters.

            “What the hell is wrong with you?” He asks, fed up with her attitude already. She looks down at her plate. When she finally speaks he feels his stomach drop.

            “I… don’t think I want to go to Milton.”

Chapter Text

            “What?” Castiel can’t hide his shock. Milton is part of the plan. They’d been talking about this for years. Milton is how Claire is going to get into Harvard. She was going to go to University. He never got to go and Milton was ensuring that she was on that path. He went to his parents to ensure that she could go to Milton and now she doesn’t want to go?

            Seeing the stunned look on his face, Claire rushes to explain, “I just think the timing is really bad.”

            “The timing is bad?” He repeats slowly. He puts his fork down and sits up straighter in his chair. This is what she’s been quiet about all dinner?

            “And the bus to and from Hartford? It’s like thirty minutes each way!” She continues. There must be something else to this if the best reasons she can come up with to not go to a school like Milton is timing and bus schedules. The worst part is that she’s so earnest about it. Her eyes widening as she tries to get her point across.

            “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.”

            “Plus I know Milton’s gotta be costing you a lot. You should be saving that money, putting it towards your inn with Charlie!”

            “Oh kid, you have no idea,” Castiel says glumly. “Claire, what about Uni? What about Harvard?” She actually has the nerve to shrug at him.

            “We don’t know that I can’t get into Harvard if I stay where I am.” He just stares at her. Slowly, he picks up his mug and takes a sip of coffee. He’s stunned by her attitude and too upset to speak now. He stays silent until he finishes his drink, while Claire watches him back silently. Then he pulls his wallet out of his coat pocket, which is hanging on the back of his chair, and goes up to the counter to pay.

            “Sorry Dean, we’re going to have to skip on the pie.” Cas leans against the counter to talk to him, hoping it will hold him up. He suddenly feels very tired.

            “Everything ok?” Cas looks up at Dean, sees the concern on his face. He must not have shaved today since his stubble is more pronounced than usual. It’s darker than his sandy brown hair but it still manages to draw his eyes to his jawline. He swallows quickly and looks away.

            “Fine it’s just… Teenager stuff.” Dean nods, glancing over his shoulder at Claire. Cas didn’t have to turn and look to know that she was sulking.

            “Right. Well that’ll be $25,” Dean says uncomfortably. Having no children of his own, Cas is sure that Dean has no idea what he’s talking about. He hands over a couple of creased notes and waits for Dean to give him his change.

            “Bye, Dean.”

            “See you tomorrow, Cas.” He manages a small smile before heading back over to their table. Claire is already set to go with her jacket in hand. He picks up his coat and drapes it over his arm. It’s too warm still to even bother bringing it anywhere with him but it’s a habit at this point.

            Claire doesn’t wait for him to say anything, she just opens the door, setting off the bell atop the door, and steps outside. He sighs and goes to follow.

            “Hey, Cas?” Dean catches his attention, “Take some pie with you.” He gestures to a small box ready and waiting on the countertop.

            “Thank you, Dean.” He moves to get his wallet out again but Dean just waves him away.

            “No charge and whatever it is. I’m sure she’ll come around.” Cas stares into Deans absurdly green eyes for a fraction of a second too long. Sometimes, at moments like this, Castiel lets himself acknowledge the fluttery feeling he gets around Dean. He doesn’t say anything as he picks up the take away box and makes his way outside positively beaming. That is, until he sees the look of annoyance on Claire’s face and then he’s reminded of the bombshell she just dropped. He merely gestures for her to lead the way. She sighs and starts walking ahead. She picks the direction that will take them through the middle of town, past the high school, the market and through the town square. He catches her staring up at the school wistfully and frowns. This whole situation is just strange. She was so excited to leave just yesterday.

            “Are you sure… There isn’t any other reason you’ve changed your mind?” He needs to get to the bottom of this because she is definitely going to that school, it’s too late not to now. However, if there is something genuinely wrong he can’t help unless he knows about it.

            “I don’t want to go because of all the reasons I’ve already told you.”

            “The bad timing?”

            “Yes!”

            “Can you elaborate?”

            Claire fumbles for a moment, cheeks flushing. “I just… The school year has just started and…”

            “Hey Cas, how you doing honey?” Miss Patty calls from outside of the market, effectively interrupting whatever Claire was attempting to say. She’s carrying a bag with a head of fresh parsley peeking out the top.

            “Oh I’m alright, Miss Patty. And you?” He answers politely.

            “Oh, such a charmer. I’m very good. Oh and Claire? I saw you walking around with that new girl this afternoon. She’s very pretty,” Miss Patty says with a wink. He senses Claire freeze beside him. A girl? Of course.

            “Claire?” He asks gently.

            “Bye Miss Patty, we have to go! Sorry!” Claire calls out to her a little too loudly and starts speed walking in the direction of their house. Stunned once again, Cas sends a quick wave to Miss Patty before trying to catch up with his daughter.

 

            Claire refused to talk to him the whole way home. She even slammed the front door when she got inside and went directly to her room, slamming that door too. He knew this wasn’t about the fact that she was seeing a girl because they’d already had that talk. He knew she preferred girls and she knew that he was fine about it. That meant that she was unhappy about moving schools now that she’s met just met a girl she might like. He places the box of pie on the kitchen table and takes a deep breath. He moves to Claire’s door and hesitates before knocking, then opening it.

            “So this is about a girl?” He asks. Claire remains silent, ignoring him. Her schoolbag is on her bed, books and papers spread out as if she’s about to start some homework. She pulls her hair up into a ponytail, the blonde curls reminding him briefly of her mother. He shakes that thought away firmly.

            “Claire, you know that she’s still gonna be around town even if you change schools. You could ask her for her phone number when you see her tomorrow and go from there. Going to this school is important, you know it is. You just met this girl. You were so excited about going there before.”

            “Yeah, well. I changed my mind.” Claire huffs, moving around the bed and him to sit in her wooden desk chair.

            “Claire I made some poor decisions when I was your age and believe me when I tell you that you don’t get many chances to make it better.”

            “I’m not like you.” She sent him a withering glare. She knows what he’s referring to.  He trusts his daughter but he also knows how easy it is for accidents to happen and mistakes to be made.

            “Really? Someone willing to throw away important life decisions because of a relationship? Sounds a lot like me to me.”

            “Well great, thanks for the history lesson.” He’s going to have to play the parent card. He knows he has to, he just doesn’t like doing it.

            “Alright, look. Here’s the thing, its already too late to not go to Milton. You can change your mind later if it really and truly does not work out for you but for now you’re going. Monday morning you will be there. That’s it. End of story,” he says this with absolute certainty. He walks out of the room and shuts the door behind him.

            “We’ll see!” She yells, trying to get the last word.

            “Yes, we will!” He calls back, already walking away. He makes it all the way upstairs and into his room before he lets out a huff of frustration. Needing some music to fill the sudden silence he hits play on his CD player.

            Games, changes and fears, when will they go from here? When will they stop? I believe that fate has brought us here…

 

            The next morning the house is quiet when Cas comes down the stairs. Claire’s door is still shut. Since her room is next to the kitchen, he can hear her music playing through the wall when he walks in to start making some coffee. At least he knows she’s up and getting ready.

            When she finally comes out she doesn’t say anything, merely moves towards the bathroom to brush her teeth. They go about their usual routine without speaking. Or really Claire refuses to speak to him unless directly spoken to. Even then, she tries not to.  

            “Do you want to get breakfast at Winchester’s before school?” He asks, despite the fact that they have perfectly good cereal in the house.

            “I’m meeting up with Jack before school. He’s buying the coffee,” she says, coming out of her room with her bag in hand. He doesn’t know what she could possibly need at school on her last day but he decides not to question it.

            “Ok, I’ll get something at the inn then.”

           “Who cares?” He hears her mutter under her breath as she passes by him.

           “Now come on, that’s not nice,” He says. He waits, listening to her put her shoes on at the front door. He sighs when she doesn’t bother replying.

           “Have a good day today!” He calls out to her. His only answer is the front door shutting as she leaves.

 

---

            Claire knows it’s officially her last day of school at Stars Hollow High, yet she doesn’t actually care. Everything has felt mostly the same so far. Except for the arguing with her dad, that she could live without. She just feels so… Mad that he knew exactly what was going on after Miss Patty had ratted her out by accident. Claire knew that she could’ve explained better, that she didn’t want to not go, she just wanted to go later. He’d made it sound so simple to just ask Kaia for her number today. She couldn’t just ask for her number. Not the day after she’d met her. Can she?

            She turns to Jack to ask, “How soon after you meet someone you like can you ask for their number?” He almost chokes on the last bite of his muffin.

             He chews, swallows and then acknowledges her question. “Whose number do you want?” He puts the muffin wrapper in a bin they pass on the footpath. The school is across the road behind them now but it’s still too early to go in, so they walk laps around the town square until its time.

            “No one. I was just… curious.” Internally she kicks herself. Real smooth. Jack scrutinises her over a sip of his Winchester’s coffee. Dean had looked at them sceptically this morning when they’d ordered it, so she’d guiltily ordered a two blueberry muffins to go along with it. Dean had an uncanny ability to know when she’d forgotten, or skipped, breakfast. Jack preferred to get a raspberry muffin and then they’d left to eat it before they went in to school. She tries very hard to ignore the echoes of her father asking to get breakfast earlier.

            Claire can practically feel Jack holding himself back from asking her what’s going on. So she wracks her brain for something to change the subject to without making this whole thing seem weirder than it already is, when she spots Kaia walking straight towards them. Oh God. She’s so pretty. Her dark hair is braided back Dutch style today in two sections. Claire suddenly wishes she knew how to braid hair, absently reaching up a hand to tug on her own loose curls. Usually she just pins it back enough to keep it out of her face.

            “Hi,” Claire says in a voice much higher than normal. She even lifts her hand in a little awkward wave. At this point she can hear the cogs turning in Jack’s head before it all clicks into place. She hasn’t even told him yet about meeting Kaia yesterday but he definitely knows now that she stops in front of them, at the bottom of the steps of the gazebo.

            “The new kid?” He whispers to her. Claire shoots him a look just as Kaia stops in front of them.

            “Hi I’m Kaia!” She greets them cheerfully, sticking out her hand for Jack to shake.

            “I’m Jack, Claire’s best friend. Nice to meet you.” Kaia’s eyes dart over to Claire, her amusement clear.

            “Oh, cool! Well since today’s only my second day here, you guys are the only people I know. Although since Claire is leaving I guess that just leaves you and me.”

            “I know. She’s ditching us for a private school. We can absolutely be friends if you want? Did you need help finding anything? In school or in the town, either or. I’m sure Claire will still be able to help with anything you need.” Claire elbows him in the side when he says that. Hard. She can feel Kaia’s eyes on her again but she doesn’t know what to say. She looks down at the ground and then remembers her second muffin.

            “Did you want a muffin?!” She blurts out. Both Jack and Kaia look surprised by this but she powers through the potential awkwardness brewing in the situation and shoves the paper bag at Kaia. She knows her cheeks must be bright red by now but goes for a smile anyway. Why she ordered two in the first place she couldn’t even remember now.

            “Good thing blueberry is my favourite,” Kaia says, looking into the bag. She pulls the muffin out of the bag and takes a bite. “Thank you.”

            “Uh, no problem.” There’s another moment of quiet awkwardness building. The kind you feel when you want to get to know someone but you’re not close enough to be able to ask them anything outright.

            Then Jack interrupts. “So Kaia? Why don’t you go ahead and exchange numbers with Claire? You know, in case you have any burning questions about Stars Hollow, where all the shady parts are, where the best  ? All the good stuff. I have to get to my locker before class starts. Bye.” Claire glares at his back as he crosses the road and heads up the steps into the school. Then she realises that Kaia can still see her and she straightens up and flashes her a smile, hoping it doesn’t look forced.

            “You got a pen and paper?” Kaia asks. There’s a hint of shyness behind her confidence and it helps Claire relax a little bit. At least she’s not the only one. Unless she’s reading this whole situation all wrong.

            “Yeah sure!” She digs out the notebook she carries everywhere and a pen. Opening it up, she writes down her own number. Ripping out the whole page by accident and handing it over just as the bell rings to get to class. Kaia smiles brightly as she folds over the paper carefully.

            “I have to get to class but I’ll see you later!” Claire watches her go for a moment before she jolts and realises that she should be moving too. Quickly she drains her coffee and shoves the reusable cup into her bag, hoping that the last dregs of her drink won’t leak onto everything, along with her notebook. She rushes over to the school, forgetting completely that she didn’t even get Kaia’s number.

 

---

            Castiel feels a wave of panic as he hears a shout and a loud whooshing sound coming from the kitchen of the inn. From the reception desk he can see the kitchen door across the lobby. It swings open as one of the kitchen staff rushes out, clearly looking for someone. Probably him. He’s already making his way over when the young man spots him.

            “The- The stove!” He says just a little too loudly in a lobby full of guests going about their days.

            “Do we need the fire department?” Manny, shakes his head vigorously. “Ok, then you need to just wait out here for a minute whilst I deal with this.” Poor Manny takes a deep breath and nods. He leans up against the wall and Castiel leaves him there to gather himself while he pushes open the kitchen door. There is a little smoke in the air but no fire as far as he can see. There’s servers and kitchen staff and even a few housekeepers, who must’ve been on their breaks, shuffling around the kitchen so at first he can’t see Charlie. Normally it isn’t this crowded but it has been busy today.

            “Charlie?” He calls out.

            “I’m here! I’m alright!” She calls back, moving around the preparing station in the middle of the room to get to him.

            “What happened?” He asks. Then he sees where the smoke is coming from. Luckily the fire alarm hasn’t gone off yet.

            “I don’t know! I’ve made that dish a hundred times, it never exploded.” He can hear the distress in her voice and jumps into action.

            “Charlie, it’s ok. Can we open the windows in here please?” A few people move to shove the windows open and start waving tea towels to get the air flowing. “Alright, I’m going to need everyone to leave the room please,” he announces with a wave of his arms toward the door. He waits until everyone has left the room and then he calls in Garth.

            “Could you bring me the phone along with the numbers for the insurance company and the maintenance guys, please? Thanks” Garth rushes out of the room.

            “You should fire me, or take the cost of the new stove out of my pay check!” Charlie says insistently. Castiel would never actually do that to her but he goes with it if it’ll help her calm down.

            “Well if that’s what you want.”

            “I can’t afford a new stove. Do you know how expensive those things are?”

            “Charlie, please. The insurance will cover it. You may be without a stove for a few days but overall very little damage has been done.”

            “You told me to tell you when your daughter arrived, well she’s here and, um, well she’s sitting in my chair,” Garth interrupts. He shifts from side to side. Garth isn’t a nervous person generally but he is also extremely aware that Castiel is his boss.

            “Thanks Garth, I’ll be there in a sec,” He says. He shoots Charlie a look as he walks out again.

            “Claire’s here?”

            “Yes.”

            “I thought you said you two were fighting?”

            “We were but I’m trying to fix it. I’m not mad anymore but she’s been giving me attitude.”

            “Good luck, then.”

            “Thanks and Charlie? Everything with the stove is ok.” Castiel tries to reassure her and while she nods at his words, he knows that she’s still upset. He pushes through the kitchen door and sees Claire looking gloomy behind the front desk. She has a book open and she’s very focused on reading it even when he approaches. He picks up his folder to take back to the kitchen in a minute.

            “Hey kid. How was school?”

            “It was… ok.” Well that could mean anything.

            “Do you want to talk about it?” He tries not to sound hopeful when he says it but he doesn’t think she notices anyway since she hasn’t looked up from her book still.

            “No. Why am I here?” And there it is. He wonders if she saw that girl again today. If she did, then surely she’d be in a better mood?

            “I thought you’d want to work a couple of hours? Earn yourself some spending money.”

            “Fine.”

            “You’re not gonna be snarky to the guests are you?”

            “You wanted me here, I’m here. Should I do something or what?” She says this while giving him a bored look. He’s had enough.

            “Yes. Go home. Dinner’s at seven, be ready to go,” He says, putting his folder down on the desk a bit harder than necessary. Slamming her book with an exaggerated huff, Claire gets up from the chair and heads for the door.

            “Ah. My chair,” Garth says behind him and he knows without looking that he’s reclaimed his chair with glee. Luckily the phone rings so he doesn’t have to dwell on Claire or the fast approaching dinner with his parents.

 

 

            He’s late coming home from work so he has to rush to get changed so they can get there on time. He puts on a fresh pair of navy slacks, a brown belt, a pale blue button up shirt and a matching navy sports blazer. He glances in the mirror and tries to sort out his hair that is somehow permanently rumpled but to no avail. He throws on the same dress shoes he was wearing at work and races down the stairs where Claire is ready to go. She’s wearing a red long sleeve shirt and a black knee length skirt. She’s actually taken the time to straighten her hair and swipe some mascara and lip gloss on. She looks lovely and he tells her as much as they’re walking out the door. She still doesn’t speak to him during the half hour drive though. It all goes far too quickly for Castiel’s liking. Too soon they’re standing outside the front door of his parent’s house. He waits, staring at the door like it might bite him.

            “Are we just going to stand here or are we going to go in?” Claire mutters. He turns to look at her but she won’t meet his eye.

            “Look, I know you and me are having a thing here and you’re upset with me but I need you to be civil. At least through dinner then on the way home you can pull a Menéndez. Sound good?” Claire looks up at him with wide eyes and nods. With that he steps forward and presses the doorbell. The door opens quicker than he expects.

            “Hi grandma,” Claire says with a small smile. He wants to snort at how polite she is to the grandparents she doesn’t even know that well.

            “You’re right on time.”

            “Well, we certainly tried to be late,” he says enthusiastically. His mother gives him a sharp look over Claire’s head.

            “We’re very excited to have you here, you know. I had Dorothy cook up a special roast for the occasion.”

            “We’re excited to be here.”

            “So Claire I want to hear all about Milton,” His mother says, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and leading her into the Lounge room.

             “I haven’t actually started there yet,” Claire replies easily. As if she hasn’t spent the last day ignoring him because he said she had to go to that school. Castiel lingers in the foyer for another minute reigning in the frustration bubbling in his stomach. Once he manages to collect himself he follows them.

             “Charles! Look who’s here.” Naomi announces to his father, who is sitting with a drink in his hand, reading the paper. He looks up and notices them all standing there awkwardly.

            “Claire? You’re tall.”

            “I guess.”

            “What’s your height?”

            “five-seven.”

            “Hi dad.”

            “Goodness. Castiel, your daughter is tall.” He seems genuinely surprised by this.

            “I know, it’s freakish. We’re thinking of having her tested at MIT,” He says with a smile.

            “Champagne anyone?” Naomi walks over holding a tray with three glasses on it. He doesn’t stop Claire form taking a glass despite the fact that she’s underage. She does shoot him a glance though to check it’s ok. He gives her a big smile and lifts his eyebrows as if to say, isn’t this fun?

            “This is fancy,” He says.

            “Well. It’s not every day I have my son and my granddaughter over on a day the banks are open,” She replies with a pointed smile. Claire doesn’t notice the passive-aggressive comment but Castiel has to make an effort to take a sip of his drink instead of saying something back. “A toast. To Claire entering Milton and an exciting new chapter in her life.” Castiel watches Claire smile and take a sip of the champagne. She makes a face at the taste and quickly puts the glass on a coaster.

            Naomi takes a seat on the couch. She looks up at them both standing and invites them both to sit. Claire does. Castiel doesn’t.

            “Isn’t this lovely? An education is one of the most important things in the world. Next to family,” She says very seriously.

            “And pie,” Castiel says, waving a hand. All three of them look up at him as if he has lost his mind. “A joke. That was a joke.” The silence is palpable. They continue alternating between oppressive silence and general small talk until it’s time to move into the dining room for dinner. He’s reminded of the many dinners he had to sit through at this table. Everything is perfectly spaced out. He sits with a straight back a flicks open the napkin to lay it on his lap. He sees Claire follow his lead in her spot across the table from him. It’s not long before the salad course comes out. He does his best to eat some of it but he’s lost a little of his appetite after his mother’s comment. By the time the roast lamb comes out he feels a little bit better but still on edge.

            “So Claire, what do you think of the lamb?”

            “It’s perfect.”

            “The potatoes could use a little salt though.” He doesn’t know why he said it but the look on Naomi’s face is totally worth it.

            “Excuse me?”

            “So… Grandpa, how’s the insurance business?” Claire jumps in to change the subject, eyes darting between himself and Naomi.

            Castiel’s father barely even looks up from his plate when he answers her. “Oh. People have accidents and we pay. It’s generally the same each day.”

            “Can I get that slogan on a t-shirt?” He says, desperate for the mood to lighten.

            “Tell me, Castiel. How are things at the motel?” Castiel cannot wait to get out of here.

             He takes a large gulp of his wine before answering. “The inn? They’re great.”

             “Castiel is the executive manager now, isn’t that wonderful?” Naomi tells him with a smile, like she might actually be proud of her son and his accomplishments. For a second he feels a little warmth in his chest.

             “Speaking of which, April called yesterday.” Then his father brings that up.

            “Speaking of which? How on earth is that a speaking of which?”

            His father ignores him and continues, “She’s in California. Her internet start-up company is doing very well, goes public next month. This could mean big things for her. Very talented young woman, your mother is.”

            “She knows,” Castiel says, looking at Claire. He has a feeling that this line of conversation is going to end badly. He doesn’t like the insinuation that April hasn’t been in Claire’s life because he’s kept her out of it. It’s always been April’s choice to stay away. Ever since she signed over full custody of Claire to him mere weeks after giving birth to her.

             “Yes. A very talented you woman. You must take after her.” His father says it so casually. As if it wouldn’t be like a stab in the gut to him.

             “Speaking of which, I’m gonna go get a coke,” Castiel says coldly. He practically launches himself out of his seat in his effort to just get out of the room. How could his own father say that? How could he even think that? This is why he limited all contact with these people to holiday visits at most. How will he possibly be able to put up with this, every Friday night for three years? He pushes his way through the door into the kitchen and paces for a moment. Breathing hard he spots some dirty dishes in the sink. He heads for them and starts scrubbing at the dish that was clearly used to cook the lamb in.

             He’s hurt and frustrated and when the maid comes in and looks at him in confusion he just says, “Hi, how you doin?” Before going back to scrubbing.

            “Castiel come back to the table.” He wants to ignore his mother and stay in the kitchen. Or better yet just leave but he has Claire to think about.

            “Is this what it’s going to be like every Friday night? I come here and you two have free reign attack me like that?” He asks. Might as well get it all out in the open now if this is what he's going to have to sit through each week.

            “I think you took what your father said the wrong way.”

            “The wrong way? What was open to interpretation, mother? The fact that you know what I’m upset about means you know that it was definitely wrong.”

           “Keep your voice down.” Naomi knows he’s right but doesn’t have a better reply.

           “No mother. I can’t take this anymore. Tonight has been like a nightmare.”

           “You are dripping all over the floor.” He walks over to the roll of paper towels hanging near the sink and rips one off. Drying his hands thoroughly, then crumpling up the paper and leaving it on the bench top.

           “Why would he bring up April at all? Tonight of all nights, why did he need to do that?”

           “He likes April.”

           “Really? Because when April was pregnant he didn’t like either of us that much.”

           “Please! We were disappointed. You were both far too young, you had bright futures ahead of you.”

           “Yes and by not getting married, we got to keep those bright futures!”

           “When you get someone pregnant, you get married. A child needs a mother and a father.”

           “Oh mother. Do you think April would have her own company right now if we’d gotten married? And you do know that I am living a lovely life right now, right?”

           “That’s right, far away from us. You took that girl and completely shut us out of your life.”

           “You wanted to control me.” He remembers how the walls of this house had felt so constricting, so stifling.

           “You were still a child.”

           “I stopped being a child the second I found out April was pregnant. I had to figure out how to live. I found a good job.”

           “As a housekeeper, with all your brains and talent.”

           “I worked my way up, I run the place now. I built a life on my own with no help from anyone.” He wants his mother to be proud of him, like he thought she might have been at the table.

           “Yes and imagine where you’d have been if you’d accepted some help? Where Claire might have been? But no, you were always too proud to accept anything from anyone.”

          “Well, I wasn’t too proud, was I, to come to you two begging for money for my kid’s school?”

          “No you certainly weren’t but you are too proud to let her know where you got it from aren’t you?” His mother says, throwing their whole agreement in his face. As if a sixteen-year-old girl should be worrying about how her school tuition is being paid in the first place. “It’s ok, dear. You’ll have your precious pride and I’ve got my weekly dinners. We both win.” With that she walks out of the kitchen, presumably back to the dinner table. He glares at her back. Then takes another moment to calm himself. He stalks out of the kitchen back to the dinner table and sits down. They eat their remaining dinner in silence. His mother stops him from walking out the door by holding out the check. He takes it with a small nod of acknowledgement and shoves it into his pocket unceremoniously. They leave with minimal goodbyes and as soon as the door shuts behind him Castiel leans heavily against the wall.

           “Dad?” He looks over at Claire, meets her worried eyes.

           “I’m ok, hon,” He says quietly. He reaches out and pulls her into a side hug. “Do I look shorter? I feel shorter.”

            “How about I buy you a cup of coffee?” She asks him genuinely.

            “Aw, thanks,” He says, starting towards the car. “you drive though because I don’t think my feet will reach the pedals.” He hands her the keys.

 

             As promised, Claire parks the car near Winchester’s once they get back into town and they head in. Tonight they sit at the table to the left of the door, essentially surrounded by windows.

            “So, nice dinner at the grandparent’s house,” Claire begins.

            “Her dishes have never been cleaner,” He deadpans.

            “You and grandma seemed to have a nice talk.” Ah.

            “How much did you hear?”

            “Snippets.”

            “Snippets?”

            “Little snippets.”

            “So essentially everything?”

           “Essentially yes.”

           “Well, the best laid plans,” he says glumly. Claire is quiet for a moment, hesitating.

           “I think it was really brave of you to ask them for money.”

           “Oh hon, I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”

           “How many meals will it take until we’re off the hook?” She asks.

           “I think the deli spread at my funeral will be the last one,” He jokes easily. Finally, he can feel the tension slipping away. Being in his own town, his daughter speaking to him again. He feels much better and he hasn’t even had the coffee they came here for yet.

           “Wait. Does this mean?” He asks Claire, hope making him grin at her.

           “Can’t let a perfectly good plaid skirt go to waste.”

           “Honey, you won’t be sorry,” He says genuinely. Of course, that’s when Dean arrives at their table, notepad and pen ready. It takes Cas a second to get his thoughts in order since Dean’s ever present jeans and flannel shirt have been replaced with slacks and a formal button up.

          “Wow, you look… Nice. Really nice,” He stammers out. He ignores Claire smirking at him from across the table.

          “Thanks, I had a thing at the bank. They like collars there so… But hey, you look nice too. What’s the occasion?”

          “I had a flagellation to go to,” he says seriously.

          Dean chuckles then asks, “What’ll you have then?”

         “Coffee, in a vat.”

         “I’d like some chilli fries with my coffee too, please,” Claire adds. Dean gives them both a look that tells them he thinks they probably shouldn’t be drinking coffee or eating chilli fries at nine pm but he doesn’t say anything. He merely writes down their order and goes off to start it.

         “Behold the healing powers of a bath,” He says making Claire snicker. He waits a moment before asking, “Hey? Tell me about the girl?” Claire smiles at him and tells him that her name is Kaia and how she saw her today and gave her their home phone number but didn’t get time to get hers before the bell rang. She talks until their coffee and fries come and Cas listens. He gets the feeling that even though she’s young and a little impulsive, she’s still turned out alright.

Chapter Text

           “Dad! Get up, I cannot be late for my first day of school!” Castiel blinks blearily up at his daughter. She looks angry, towering over him dressed in her brand new school uniform.

            “Claire,” he begins evenly, “it’s a quarter to six.”

            “No, it’s eight-fifteen.” Claire picks up the small alarm clock from Castiel’s bedside table and shoves it in his face. He squints at it and then groans, shoving the covers off himself and kicking them away furiously.

            “Dad, this is my first day at a new school, at Milton no less. Do you know what happens when the new person shows up late of the first day of school? I’ll be labelled ‘the late girl’.” She follows him as he stumbles across the room to the chest of drawers, then out the door, only stopping when she noticed him going downstairs instead of towards the bathroom. “Where are you going?”

            “Coffee.” He replies, deadpan.

            “Uh-Uh. You don’t get any coffee until after you drop me off at school and you can’t go in your pajama’s.” Castiel squints at her, hoping she’s joking, but she looks resolute in her decision. He heads back up the stairs reluctantly. He needs coffee like he needs air to breathe but since he was the one who slept in he concedes to Claire’s frustration. It’s as he passes through the threshold of his room that he realises.

            “I… Have no clean clothes.”

            “It’s eight-seventeen,” Claire says testily behind him.

            “All my good clothes are at the dry cleaners,” he says, voice rising with desperation, “I was going to pick them up and wear the blue suit, you know how good I look in the blue suit!”

            “It’s eight-eighteen and you haven’t even brushed your teeth.” Castiel reaches out and grabs Claire by the shoulders, spinning her around and giving her a light push out the door.

            “Ok you know what, time-lady, why don’t you go downstairs and start the car? That would be fantastic.” He hurries back into his room opening drawers and flinging open the cupboard doors trying to find something to wear to drop Claire off at school. It shouldn’t matter that much since there’s no way he’s getting out of the car. He’ll quickly drop Claire off and then come back to start the day properly.

            He pulls on a pair of faded jeans he forgot he even owned and stares into his closet. Unfortunately, he quickly realises that the only clean and vaguely respectable shirt he has is the shiny, white one he wore as part of his cowboy costume from Halloween last year. With a sigh he yanks it off the hanger and starts getting changed. Moments later he’s running down the stairs with his toothbrush still in his mouth. Claire, who is leaning against the stairs, raises her eyebrows at his get up.

            “It’s eight-”

            “Don’teventhinkoffinishingthatsentence!” Castiel cries as he rushes around her to grab the hairbrush from the hall table. He shoves it through his hair to try and give it some semblance of order and heads to the kitchen to finish brushing his teeth at the sink. He turns around to look for his coat but finds Claire looking at him funny instead.

            “What?”

            “Nothing. I just didn’t realise Halloween had come early this year.”

            “That’s it. I’m bring the baby pictures.” Castiel snatches up the frames from the hall table and heads out the door before Claire can stop him.

            Her calls of “No! I-I love the rodeo!” directly behind him.

 

             The drive to the school is rushed and Castiel can’t help but be thankful that Claire will take a bus back and forth after today. He allows himself a small smile at the fact that they have really done it. Claire got in to Milton. He throws a glance to her in the passenger seat, orange backpack open in her lap as she checks the contents. Castiel has no doubt that she has absolutely everything she could possibly need for her first day but doesn’t comment on it.

            When they finally arrive, pulling into a parking space, Castiel turns off the car. The whole place gives him flashbacks from his own high school. Both prestigious and pompous. At least Claire will graduate from this one. Together they sit in silence staring up at the school. The building is historic he knows, but this is a vision of time standing still. There are literal gargoyles on the roof and ivy growing on the walls.

            “I remember it being…” He starts, unsure.

            “Smaller?” Claire finishes.

            “Yeah! And less…”

            “Off with their heads?”

            “Yeah!” Castiel tilts his head and leans forward over the steering wheel.

            “What are you looking at?” Claire asks, leaning forward too.

            “I’m just… Trying to see if there’s a hunchback up in that belltower.” They sit for another moment. Until Castiel realises that Claire should probably go in now.

            “Okay so have a great day, call me if you need anything.” He starts. He’s ready to go back home, get some coffee and start this whole day over again. Claire gives him an incredulous look.

            “You’re kidding right?”

            “Oh no. Anything at all, call me. I’m really good at making up dirty cheers.”

            “You know have to go in with me right? You have to meet the headmaster!” Claire exclaims and Castiel feels his stomach drop.

            “Claire. Come on. Look at me.” He gestures to the ridiculous outfit that he’s currently sporting, suddenly grateful that he chose to wear the jeans and not the pants that came with the Halloween costume. She glares at him so harshly that he just gets out of the car without looking back. Unfortunately, his coat falls to the ground before he can put it on so he has to bend down to pick it up. He looks up at two middle aged women walking out of the school together and frowns when he sees the shocked and judging looks on their faces. Today of all days he had to sleep in.

            “Hi, how you doin’?” He asks, not bothering to hide the snark from his voice. The two women, who had been slowing down almost to a stop to stare at him, quickly move on to their cars.

            “Smooth.,” Claire says as she rounds the car to meet him. He just shrugs at her and marches forward. He probably wasn’t going to be best friends with them anytime soon anyway. They walk through an undercover walkway into a small, paved courtyard. On every side is yet another big grey building and, of course, there are no signs anywhere.

            “Which building is it supposed to be?” Claire asks nervously.

            “Uh, the big, scary looking one?” Castiel replies. There’s a lot of students walking around like they know where there going and he’s wondering if he’ll have to ask one of them when an older lady appears from a doorway looking like she’s making her way out of the school. “Oh! Uh, excuse me? Could you please point the way to the headmaster’s office?” He asks the passing stranger, pulling his coat a little tighter around himself.

            “Well, that would be in this building right here,” the woman gestures to the one on the right that they had just walked past, “You go in there and down the stairs, turn right and it’s the door at the end of the hall.” The woman smiles at him kindly. “This is your…?” She nods towards Claire, probably thinking the usual. That she was his niece or something.

            “Thank you so much. This is my daughter, Claire. It’s her first day.” And there it is. The surprise. People almost always reacted the same at discovering he’s a father, let alone a father that’s truly involved in his child’s life, let alone a single father. He and Claire’s mother had only been sixteen themselves when she was born. Not his best decision in life but he absolutely does not regret Claire, not one little bit.

            “Your daughter? Wow. That’s great! I’ll make sure to tell my daughter, Sophie, to keep an eye out for you.” The woman says and it makes Castiel feel a bit better knowing that there may be a few friendly faces around here after all.

            “That’s very kind of you,” he tells her sincerely. He pauses then takes a step towards the building they needed to go in. “We should get going, don’t want to be late.”

            “Oh! Well, where do you work? Maybe I’ll be able to swing by later and we can get to know each other better?” She looks so hopeful. He feels sorry for her, while she is beautiful, he just isn’t interested. She isn’t his type. Still, if he could let her down nicely then maybe he could still gain a friend out of this situation. It couldn’t hurt to know people at the school, especially other parents.

            “I work at an inn, the independence inn, at Stars Hollow. I run it.” Her eyes light up with joy.

            “I’ve been there before! It’s beautiful!”

            “Thank you… Well we really should be going now. Goodbye…”

            “Jackie.”

            “Castiel. Goodbye Jackie.” He starts walking away from her quickly, only realising a few steps away that he didn’t wait for her to return his goodbye. Oh well. She seemed eager enough that he will probably see her again later. He just didn’t want to see her reaction to his unusual name. Claire didn’t say anything about the interaction as they followed the directions Jackie had given until they stood outside the headmaster’s door. They stood, side by side, waiting. Out of the corner of his eye he notices Claire taking a deep breath.

            “You ready?”

            “No.” Castiel nods and waits for another moment.

            “You ready?”

            “Yes.” He reaches out and twists the doorknob, entering a secretary’s office. It’s quieter than a library and when the secretary looks up at them both Castiel almost jumps at how severely stern she looks. Her face was sharper than anyone he’d ever seen before and he feels more than a little intimidated by her.

            “Hello? My name is Castiel Novak and this is my daughter Claire… Novak. Of course, you’d know that,” he fumbles his words until Claire subtly elbows him in the side, “we’re here to see Headmaster Crowley?” He finishes hesitantly.

            “One moment,” the secretary says blandly before getting up and passing through the door behind them.

            “See?” He whispers to Claire, “this is what happens when I don’t have my coffee in the morning.” She doesn’t answer him but he does see her suppress a chuckle  before turning her head away.

            “The headmaster will see you now.” The Secretary makes Castiel startle when she re-enters the room too quietly.

            “Thank you,” he whispers to her. He clutches his coat closed the best he can without being noticeable as they enter the room, even though he knows keeping it on will most likely leave him sweating. The office has been heated far too thoroughly for spring. The headmaster himself stands and comes around his desk at their arrival, stretching out his hand to shake Castiel’s as if they’re old friends. He’s shorter and a little rounder than Castiel thought he would be.

            “Mr Novak, Miss Novak, good morning. I’m Headmaster Crowley.” He introduces himself but Castiel can’t help but stare over his shoulder. There, Naomi herself is sitting comfortably on the burgundy leather couch, nursing a cup of tea. There’s a moment where he wonders how long she’s been here and then there’s a flash of irritation when he realises that she probably knew exactly where this office was and had no trouble finding it. He casts a glance at the headmaster before taking a few steps toward her.

            “Mum?” Castiel asks, confusion evident. He had not been expecting this at all, especially after the dinner on Friday night. “What are you doing here?”

            “I came to wish my granddaughter luck on her first day,” Naomi says with a smile as she walks right past him towards Claire. She greets her warmly, with a hug and reassurance that she will do exceedingly well. “That uniform looks lovely on you,” she says before turning back to them, her arm around Claire’s shoulders.

            Headmaster Crowley just stands to the side, smiling amicably, as if this was all very normal and Castiel’s mother hadn’t just appeared here to witness the moment when Castiel humiliates himself in front of Claire’s new principal. Not even a phone call to say hi, do you think it would be a good idea if I came to wish Claire well on her first day at a new school? Of course, Castiel would have said no, so that’s probably why she didn’t do it.

             “Seriously, mum. What are you doing here?” He asks again.

             “Well this gave me a chance to make sure that Fergus here is going to take good care of our Claire.”

             “You’re Fergus,” he asks, looking at the headmaster, the pieces suddenly falling into place. Another reason that Naomi was so glad that Claire is going to Milton. She knows the principal and his wife personally.

             “Fergus Crowley,” he says expectantly. Now he remembers the picture on the shelf in his father’s study. Crowley and his father, side by side on the golf course. Crowley’s hair is darker in the photo than it is now.

             “His wife and I are on the symphony fundraising committee together,” Naomi continues. Castiel resists responding with something that could potentially be very rude in this situation and just smiles. It feels more like a grimace.

             Headmaster Crowley puts his hands behind him and leans forward to say good naturedly, “Your father and I are golfing rivals. For years we’ve been battling it out to see which of us is worse.” Castiel shouldn’t let himself be surprised at this point. He should’ve known that his mother would have connections to the school he wanted to send Claire to. He suspects that she already knows more of the parents than he does. If Jackie even counts at this point.

            “We’re all good friends,” Naomi is saying now.

            “Well there’s nothing like friends. Especially if they’re old… ones.” He could kick himself for that but he doesn’t have to, now that the room is filled with awkward silence and it’s punishment enough.

            Trying his best to shake off the shock, Castiel steps forward and finally shakes the headmaster’s hand. “Hello, I’m sorry I just wasn’t expecting… Anyway, this is a lovely office you have.” He deflects the attention away from himself by gesturing around the room. It is lovely, very grand and spacious. The colour scheme of reds, browns and creams mixing well in only a way that rich and historical buildings can.

            “Yes, though it is quite warm though this morning, they were a little overzealous with the furnace. Would you like to take off your coat and sit down?” Castiel gets the feeling when Crowley looks at him that he almost enjoys the awkwardness of the situation and seeing him squirm. He squints at the man who will be Claire’s headmaster for the next three years. Greying hair, dark eyes, dark suit. He’s clearly sweeping his eyes over Castiel too, judging him for whatever he sees, or rather doesn’t see.

            “Oh no. I’m fine, I’m very attached to this coat.” He’s not even lying about it either. Claire is smirking but he doesn’t acknowledge it. At least she doesn’t seem as nervous now.

            “Castiel. Take off your coat and sit down. You don’t want Fergus to think you’re rude.” Naomi’s voice is demanding now, insistent. There’s nothing worse than to be rude to, or in front of, people. According to miss Manners. Yet another silence fills the room as he hesitates, then sighs and finally pulls off his coat. He catches Claire’s eye to find a new mixture of humour and sympathy looking back at him.

            “Laundry day,” he says, ignoring the look of disappointment on his mother’s face.

            “Well, did you know, Fergus, that Claire has a 4.0 grade point average?” Naomi herds them over to the chairs in front of Headmaster Crowley’s desk, Claire and himself taking a seat each. It’s as if she’s trying to get the meeting moving along faster so he can leave. Naomi places herself behind his chair, almost like she believes that if she stands there then he can’t do anything else rude or embarrassing.

            “I’m sure he does, mum,” he says quietly.

            “Claire is very special, Fergus. You take good care of her,” Naomi says with clear pride.

            “We’ll do our best Naomi,” Fergus replies with a kind enough smile but Castiel feels like he’s placating his mother. The thought makes him smile a little bit.

            “Yes. Claire won’t be any trouble at all, she’s very low maintenance. Like one of those Venus flytraps, all you have to do is make sure it has enough water and…” He lets the sentence fade as the Headmaster gives him a look saying I think I get the picture, thanks.

            “Well, I don’t think we should take up anymore of your precious time. It was lovely to see you as always, Fergus. Give your wife my best,” Naomi says whilst grabbing her coat from the couch, then she turns to Castiel. “Do you need a ride or is your horse parked outside?” He rolls his eyes at Claire but stands up all the same.

            “Have a great day!” He says. He gives her a quick kiss on the top of her head, shakes Crowley’s hand again and then starts for the door.

            “Oh, don’t forget your coat!” Crowley calls out to him. He cringes internally before forcing out a laugh.

            “No, wouldn’t want to do that because that would’ve been embarrassing,” he jokes. He turns away and follows Naomi out the door, nodding to the secretary.

            “How can you leave the house looking like that?” Naomi starts before the door is even fully shut behind them. The halls are completely empty now that all the students are in class and their footsteps echo through the space. It’s such a weird feeling being in a high school for his own child, especially since he didn’t even graduate from his own back in the day.

            “Mum, believe you me I did not intend to leave my house looking like this today.”

            His mother continues as if she hasn’t heard him. “What kind of first impression did you think you were going to make? On Claire’s first day of school of all days.”

            “Mother, why are you here?” He asks as they reach the steps and start walking up. All he wants is a cup of coffee. He’ll have to just stop in at Winchester’s now instead of making his own at home, he’ll be running late for work otherwise, he thinks to himself.

            “I already told you, I came to put in a good word for Claire.”

            “Claire doesn’t need your good word, she’s in already.”

            “So I’m not allowed here? I can pay for it but I’m not actually allowed on the premises, I just want to be clear on the rules here.” Castiel huffs in annoyance at her. “How about the street, can I drive down the street? My doctor is just down the road but maybe I can get special permission if I’m bleeding from the head.” Her tone is mocking now. They stand at the edge of the carpark, closer to castiel’s car.

            “I’m sorry. I was just surprised to see you here, that’s all.”

            “I just thought that it was important for this school to know that they have a Novak amongst them now.”

            “A very nice thought.”

            “And that some of the Novaks actually own respectable clothing.”

            “On that note, I have to get to work. I’ll see you later,” he says. He starts walking towards his car without looking back.

            “Dinner, Friday night. No spurs please!” Naomi calls out. He flings out his arms in frustration, letting out a loud “ugh,” as he goes.

 

            The drive back to Stars Hollow is slow. He takes his time now that he’s not in a rush to get Claire to school on time. He has a little bit of time to spare before he’s truly late for work so he allows himself to take a breather when he parks the car outside the dry cleaners in town. He shuffles his things around in the centre console until he finds his wallet then he yanks open the door to get out. He goes inside, gives them his ticket and waits for them to hand him his lot of clean clothes wrapped in protective layers of plastic. He wished they would use something else to keep them clean. The whole chore takes ten minutes tops. He grumbles to himself all the way back to the car where he lays the clothes neatly on the backseat. He slams the door and starts walking to Winchester’s. He doesn’t bother locking his car. This is a safe town, no one will steal it.

            He can hear Miss Patty teaching some little girls how to dance ballet as he walks past her dance studio. She’s standing in the sunshine in the doorway saying, “Imagine this, ladies. It’s a Christmas day parade and there you are! Out in front with your fabulous legs and your batons are on fire! The crowd goes nuts! Ok, cookie time. Cas, hi!” Miss Patty calls out to him. Her “cookie” is actually a cigarette in a long cigarette holder that she’s puffing on out of the view of the children inside.

            “Hey Patty.”

            “Isn’t today Claire’s first day at Chilton?” She asks, looking serious.

            “Yes actually, she’s there right now. I just dropped her off,” he says, feeling pride swell in his chest.

            “Is that what you wore?”

            “Well! Would you look at the time? Bye Patty!” He says. He starts speed-walking to the diner, knowing full well that he’ll have to walk past Miss Patty again to get to his car.

            A kind stranger holds the door open for him as he climbs the front steps into Winchester’s. Dean is at the counter looking grouchy whilst he fiddles with the diner’s toaster. Must be broken.

            “It’s already the longest day of my life and oh look! It’s only ten!” He announces loudly as he sits on the stool directly in front of Dean. He’s not planning on staying here long.

            “There’s no coffee,” Dean mutters.

            “That’s not funny,” Cas looks up at him sternly.

            “I can give you herbel tea,” Dean keeps it up. Glaring at the toaster as it seems to resist whatever it is he’s doing to it.

            “This is not a herbel tea morning, this is a coffee morning!” He taps his hands on the counter twice to emphasise his point.

            “Every morning is a coffee morning for you.”

            “This is a jumbo coffee morning. I need coffee in an IV.” He taps his arm in an effort to get Dean’s attention away from the toaster.

            “I’m going to give you tea and a protein bar,” Dean says. When he glances at Cas he actually does a double take at the half a cowboy outfit he’s wearing. Cas swears he can see Dean’s cheeks tinge pink. “Isn’t today Claire’s first day at Milton?”

            “Yes, so?” He can tell that Dean is trying hard not to look at his outfit again, though he’s not sure why.

            “Is that really what you wore? I mean, that’s a fancy school.”

            “My clothes were at the cleaners and the fuzzy clock didn’t buzz on time! So please tell me you were joking about there not being any coffee.”

            “I was kidding,” Dean turns away to grab the jug full of coffee ready to pour into Cas’ waiting reusable cup, “You said your clock didn’t buzz?”

            “It’s a fuzzy bumble bee clock. Don’t judge.” Dean raises his hands up in surrender.

            “I’m not judging, it’s cute.” By now Dean knows about his love of bees. He's definitely heard him talk about how important they are to the environment too.

            “You know what, I’ve got to go to work,” he says standing up and shoving his coat back on. He mutters, “I had a plan dammit!” Under his breath, though Dean hears him anyway.

            “Me too. Next time you’re getting tea,” he grumbles. Cas slaps the money down onto the bench, grabs his cup and heads for the door. He’s not really mad at Dean and he knows that Dean knows that but he also absolutely does not want to drink tea. He heads for his car and waves to Patty as she smiles at him with judging eyes when he passes. It’s a lovely town, with lovely people. But it’s also a small town and word spreads fast about anything and everything. Especially when Miss Patty and Babette are involved.

           Safely inside his car, he takes a sip of his coffee before turning the key. He glances at his clothes on the back seat. With a sigh he pulls out of the parking space and heads for home to get changed. He hopes the rest of his day will be better.

Chapter Text

            As much of a shock as it had been to her father, Claire had been a little glad that her grandmother had shown up this morning. Although she could see now that the introduction of Headmaster Crowley as a friend of her grandparents had been misleading. As she watches him flick slowly through her academic file she suddenly feels very small and very alone. As soon as her family had left he’d sat down, behind his desk and opened up her file. She wonders if he’s looking through it now merely for effect rather than out of necessity. Surely he would have read it before?

            “You’re obviously a bright girl, Miss Novak,” Headmaster Crowley begins.

            “Thank you.”

            “High grades, you’re teachers like you. I’m not seeing a lot of social activities here though.” He glances up at her, eyebrows raised.

            “Oh. Well, living in Stars Hollow is a social activity really.”

            “Nothing in your school appeal to you?” He asks. She clings to the fact that she knows she is a good student and given the opportunity she will show them that.

            “I work at my Father’s inn after school sometimes and I was in the German club for a while but there was only three of us and the other two switched to French after watching Schindler’s List.” Claire wonders if she sounds as nervous as she feels. It feels like she’s just rambling defensively.

            Headmaster Crowley closes her file and looks at her sternly for a moment before asking, “What is it you want to do, Miss Novak?”

            “I want to go to Harvard and study Anthropology and English Literature.”

            “On your way to being?”

            “Mary Wollstonecraft.”

            “You want to be influential of the times?”

            “No. I want to be a writer. I want to write about things that are important but in a way that people will enjoy and draw meaning from.” It’s her dream to be a writer. It’s why she always has a notebook with her and why she’s got so many more back at home. Headmaster Crowley is clearly judging her, she can feel it in the way he raises his eyebrows and the way he buttons his suit jacket when he stands.

            “You know, Miss Novak, I’ve been friends with your grandparents for many years now. In fact, just last week I was at a party at their house where I had the most delicious lobster puffs I’ve ever eaten. I’m very fond of them.”

            “That’s nice,” Claire says, unsure of where this is going.

            “None of this however will be of any benefit to you,” he says sharply. Claire feels the polite smile she’d been holding on her face drop.

            “Milton has one of the highest academic standards of any school in America. You may have been the smartest girl in Stars Hollow but this school is different. There is greater pressure, stricter rules and overall higher expectations. If you make it through, you will have received one of the finest educations one can get and there should be no reason that you should not achieve all of your goals. However, since you are starting late and are not used to this highly competitive atmosphere, there is a good chance that you will fail. That is fine, failure is a part of life… But not a part of Milton.” The implications hang heavily in the air. Claire feels like she’s been slapped by those harsh words.

            She looked up at him and all she could think to reply was, “so I guess bribing you with some more of those lobster puffs isn’t an option then?” For a second she wondered if she was about to be expelled purely for that comment. If the way Crowley was glaring at her was any indication but then he shakes his head and picks up her file. He leans over the desk to pass them to her. She takes them and stands up, ready to be dismissed.

           “Take this Miss James in the Administration office, across the hall,” Headmaster Crowley says and that’s it. She grabs her backpack and heads for the door. Swinging it up onto her shoulders once she’s out of Crowley’s view and nodding to the secretary on her way out.

            The bell rings as she enters the office. There’s students bustling around throughout the room and a couple of older ladies behind a desk at the far end of the room. The Administration office is starkly different from Crowley’s office colour-wise. Where Crowley’s had been warm, literally and figuratively, and almost welcoming, this room was a bright white. The only splashes of colour were from the bookcases behind the desk and the various folders adorning them.

            Claire approaches the desk with renewed determination and placed the file down in front of the lady closest to her. The lady was looking through a list on a clipboard, ignoring her.

            “I’m looking for Miss James?” She says, trying to get her attention. The lady ignores her for a few more seconds. Scribbling something down with her pen before looking up.

            “Name?” The lady says in a monotonous voice.

            “Claire Novak,” she says, a little taken aback. She must be Miss James then. Cheery.

            “Fill this out please.” She takes the file and puts it on a pile of other identical files and walks through a door to somewhere else behind the desk. Claire sighs. She picks up the pen attached to the desktop by a thin chain and begins filling out the form. Name, address, emergency contact, ect.

            When she’s done she has to wait another moment for Miss James to come back. Miss James takes the form and barely spares it a glance before placing more papers down in front of her.

            “Here’s a map with the dining room, the science hall and the theatre already circled. Here’s your locker number, your schedule. Take this map. Here’s the rules of the school and the Chilton honour code. Here are the words to the school song, which must be recited upon demand. This can happen anyplace, anytime. You get extra credit if you do it in Latin. Do you have any questions?” Miss James says it all so quickly that Claire’s head begins to spin.

            “No,” Claire says quietly. There’s so much here. How on earth is she going to be able to memorise the school song in two different languages as well as catch up with the first few weeks of the semester? She misses Jack and wonders what he’s doing at Stars Hollow High right now. This would be so much easier if she had her best friend with her. Or if she actually knew anyone here at all.

            “If you do have any questions you can book an appointment to see your guidance counsellor, Mr Winters. He handles everything but pregnancy, for that you’ll have to go to the nurse or coach Rubens. Welcome to Chilton.” Miss James finishes with a tight smile, like she does this every day. She probably does actually. Claire is probably just another face to her.

            Slowly, she walks out of the room and into the hall where she stops and looks down at her schedule. She has English Literature with Miss Allen first. She supposes she should go to the class first and then try to find her locker since she’s already late. She makes her way down the hall, checking her map repeatedly and eventually finds her classroom in another building altogether. She walks in to the room and stops when the teacher looks at her.

            “I’m Claire Novak, I’m new.”

            “Ok. Take a seat please, Claire,” Miss Allen dismisses her and continues talking, “Tolstoy’s favourite author was…” She says, leaving it open for the class to answer.

            “Dickens,” a bored voice calls from the front of the classroom. Two seats ahead and to the left of Claire’s. No one else had bothered to even try to answer the question and had actually looked to this person to do it. A boy with black hair is about as much as Claire can see once she sits down. Clearly, they’re either the smartest kid in this class or the only one with the confidence to actually call out the answers.

            “Correct. Last week we covered Dostoevski’s main authorial influences…”

            “George Sand and Balzac,” the bored voice calls again. This time they actually deigned to raise their hand to show they knew the answer.

            “Good! As Tolstoy commenced writing both ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Abba Karenina’ Count Leo would turn to…”

            “David Copperfield.”

            “Correct. He would turn to David Copperfield for inspiration. ‘Great Expectations’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘Little Dorrit’, all major influences on Leo Tolstoy. Tomorrow we’ll be comparing the writing styles of these two literary masters, Tolstoy and Dickens.” The teacher finishes just before the bell rings again. “Class dismissed,” she says. Everyone quickly packs up their things and heads for the door, Claire included until Miss Allen asks her to wait a moment. “These are last week’s study materials. There’ll be a test on them tomorrow but you can make it up on Monday since you’re new. Will that be sufficient time?” Miss Allen hands over two enormous folders full of colour coded study material as she speaks.

            “Monday?” Claire squeaks before getting her voice back under control, “sure, that’s fine.” Miss Allen smiles warmly at her.

            “Good. Now this is just an overview which will be very helpful but I do recommend asking to borrow someone’s notes since they’ll be a little more detailed.” Claire balks at her.

            “More detailed than this?”

            “It seems daunting at the moment, I know.”

            “Oh. No, no. It’s fine.” Claire lies through her teeth, clutching the folders as if she might lose them and somehow fall further behind. Miss Allen gives her a knowing look before holding a hand out towards the door.

            “Welcome to Milton, Claire. I wish you luck,” she says to Claire as she leaves. Unfortunately, Claire runs right into another student standing directly in front of the doorway.

            “I’m Ben,” the guy says, a smug look on his face. It would be a bit more intimidating if he wasn’t shorter than Claire but she doesn’t say anything. “I know who you are too. Claire Novak from Stars Hollow,” he continues. Claire wonders if he actually wants her to respond or if he just wants to be scary.

            “Are you going out for the Franklin?” He asks.

            “The what?”

            “Nice, innocent act. Least I know you’re not going for Drama Club.”

            “I’m confused,” Claire says. She feels like she should be embarrassed about not knowing what this guy is talking about but she figures the quickest way to get an answer out of him is just to act dumb.

            “The Franklin? The school paper, are you going for it?” He asks a bit more forcefully.

            “I have to find my locker first but as soon as I do I’ll give you a call,” Claire says, letting a bit of snark slip through. This kid thinks he’s so tough because he’s smart? Then she’ll just have to show him a bit of competition then.

            “I’m gonna be editor next year. I’m also the top of the class and I intend to be Valedictorian when I graduate.”

            “Well, good for you. I’m going now.” Claire starts to walk away but Ben swings forward and cuts her off.

            “This school is my domain and the Franklin is my domain. You’ll never catch up. You’ll never beat me. So I’m just warning you now, early on. Don’t bother trying.” He gives her a parting glare and then wanders off in the opposite direction that she needs to go.

“I guess you’re not gonna let me borrow your notes, huh?” Claire heaves a long suffering sigh and heads off to find her locker.

 

---

            “Okay!” Castiel announces his presence just as Charlie rises from kneeling on the floor. He doesn’t even question it as she walks a couple of steps to pick up a peach from the floor a few steps away.

            “I look great, don’t I?” He asks with a cheesy, over the top smile on. He even strikes a pose as he asks. Hand on hip, other arm held out in a ‘ta-da’ position, head tilted a little bit.

            “Yes.” Charlie grins.

            “Yes. See! This is how I was supposed to look this morning! Morning Dorothy,” he says, greeting Dorothy, the inn’s produce supplier, as a bit of an accidental afterthought. He hadn’t noticed she was there before he’d started talking to Charlie.

            “Oh my god! Today is Claire’s first day!”

            “Yes and I was supposed to look amazing and put together, not like I’d been up all night playing quarters,” he says whilst accepting the cup of coffee Charlie was handing to him. Never mind the fact that he had finished the cup he’d bought from Winchester’s just before he’d entered the building. His reusable cup is sitting in the top drawer of the front desk.

            “I’m sure nobody cared how you looked,” Charlie says.

            “Everybody cared!”

            “Who?”

            “The other mum’s, the Headmaster, my mum, Miss Patty, Dean, that new fire chief.” He rattles off the names. He adds milk and sugar to his coffee as he goes, feeling like he needs the extra jolt now.

            “Taste this,” Charlie hands him a peach from the large crate on the bench next to her. Thankfully, it’s not the one from the floor. He grabs it and takes a large bite, chews and frowns.

            “Hmm, a little watery.”

            “Oh! Now, you planned this!” Dorothy stands up from her kitchen stool in disbelief.

            “Did you say something about your mother?” Charlie asks, ignoring Dorothy’s protest.

            “Oh yeah. I walked into the Headmaster’s office and there she was,” he layers his voice with fake enthusiasm.

            “Really why?” Charlie has yet to meet Castiel’s mother but she’s heard enough by now to know that it’s bad news when she pops up unannounced.

            “Because she knew that I would get up late and dress like a cowboy and humiliate myself.”

            “She’s good.”

            “She’s the best,” he says setting down his half-drunk coffee next to the coffee machine.

            “Well I would ignore all those other people because the only thing that matters is that Claire got into that great school.”

            “I know. She looked so great in her uniform and she was so annoyed at me this morning for sleeping late but I think she was a little bit excited to. I just admire her so much for jumping into a new school. She’s my hero.”

            “Mine too.”

            “Oh yeah! Sign me up! Charlie the peaches please,” Dorothy says sarcastically. Charlie picks up the nearest tea towel and waves it at her. Behind them the kitchen door opens and Garth pokes his head in.

            “Excuse me, there’s a phone call for you, Castiel.”

            “Thanks Garth, I’ll be there in a sec.” Castiel says. Turning back to Charlie he asks, “Hey we’re still coming over for dinner tonight right?”

            “Absolutely! I’m making something special to celebrate Claire’s first day.”

            “Aw, thanks honey, that’s sweet of you.”

            “Anytime,” she says and Castiel feels grateful to have her in his life. He walks out of the kitchen in time to catch the tail end of a group of elderly ladies asking Garth where they could find the best antiques.

            “I mean, probably at your house,” Garth says and then seeing the looks on their face he quickly back tracks. Castiel leaves him to it, knowing it was meant as a compliment, and approaches the desk. He picks up the phone and then almost immediately wishes he hadn’t.

            “Mother. This is the second call today.”

            “I’m well aware of how many times I’ve called you Castiel.”

            “That’s nice mum, could you hold on for just a second,” he puts the phone, speaker down, against his chest and leans over the desk a little bit, “Garth?” He calls, saving the poor guy from the elderly ladies.

            “Yes boss?”

            “Why don’t you go check in with Charlie?”

            “Okie dokie.” Castiel watches as Garth gives the ladies a wide berth before swinging through the kitchen door.

            “Ok, mum, I’m back.”

            “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve bought Claire a parking space at Milton.” Castiel can actually feel his shoulders drooping at his mother’s meddling. Earlier she’d insisted on buying Claire the Milton uniform, as if he wouldn’t have provided it for her and also as if she hadn’t seen her in it just this morning. He’s expecting he’ll have to take the package home with him this coming Friday night dinner.

            “Mum, Claire doesn’t need a parking space because she doesn’t have a car.”

            “They are very hard to come by but I pulled a few strings and it’s all hers,” she continues as if he hadn’t said anything. He’s glad that she can’t see him roll his eyes at her through the phone.

            “Mum, I don’t know how to tell you this in a way that you might actually hear it but Claire doesn’t have a car.”

            “No, but her birthday is coming up soon.”

            “Her birthday is eight months away, mother.”

            “And? It could be an early gift. She’ll be at that school for a couple of years anyway.”

            “Mum. You are not buying Claire a car.”

            “Why not? She’s a smart girl, she’s responsible.”

            “She doesn’t need a car. She catches the bus.”

            “I hate that she catches the bus. Drug dealers catch the bus.” Castiel rolls his eyes, yet again, at his mother’s stilted view of the world.

            “You know what mum, I’ve gotta go.”

            “Fine. We’ll discuss this at a later date.” Castiel doesn’t even say goodbye before he hangs up the phone. It isn’t long before he hears some sort of an argument between Derek and one of the guests as they walk through the main door. Castiel quickly approaches and puts himself between the two.

            “Excuse me sir, would you mind telling me what’s wrong?”

            “There’s a scratch on my car that wasn’t there before this man drove it!” The man spits in his face.

            “I completely understand.”

            “Do you? Because this is a brand new car!”

            “I swear I didn’t-” Derek starts but Castiel holds up his hand for him to stop.

            “I’d know if my car was scratched or not!” The man is starting to go red in the face now, it’s time to pull this back.

            “Ok. Ok. Why don’t we all just calm down here. Why don’t I have your car looked at tomorrow and I’m sure we can find a way to resolve this but for now why don’t you enjoy lunch here at the inn. On me. Dessert is a must, anything with our homemade ice cream is absolutely delicious. I promise you, life as you know it will never be the same. What do you say?”

            The man hesitates, glaring at Derek, then says, “oh, well I suppose I could have some lunch. Thank you,” the man says before awkwardly shuffling off the dining room.

            “Thank you,” he says with his customer service smile plastered on his face. He waits until the man is gone completely before turning back to Derek.

            “Castiel, I swear I didn’t scratch his car! I can drive.”

            “Oh, I know Derek but tomorrow we’ll take it down to gypsy’s and I’m sure she buff it right out for us.” Derek seems to calm down upon hearing that.

“Thank you,” he says quietly. He starts to walk away but turns back and smiles shyly. “You look really nice in that outfit today Castiel.” He has to hold back a laugh at the compliment. If only he’d gotten up on time this morning.

“Thank you Derek.” He takes his place behind the front desk again as Derek goes back to work. He checks in three guests before the phone rings again and he dreads that it may be his mother again.

            “Independence inn, Castiel speaking.”

            “Oh, Castiel! There you are! It’s Jackie, we met this morning remember?” Good lord.

            “Ah, yes. How are you?”

            “Fantastic actually. Now I was wondering if you’d be interested in having dinner soon?” For a brief second, Castiel panics but then he remembers that he can say no at this point and there shouldn’t be hard feelings. Hopefully. He’s glad that she at least got straight to the point. This is the work phone afterall.

            “Actually, Jackie. I’m pretty busy for the foreseeable future but I’m sure we’ll see each other around Milton sometimes.”

            “Oh,” she says, disappointment evident. “Well, I suppose that’s true. Maybe another time then.”

            “We’ll see. Um, listen Jackie, I’m at work so I do need to go now. Have a lovely day!” He hangs up the call and sighs. Poor Jackie.

---

 

            “I’m sorry but you’re going to open!” Claire mutters forcefully. She drops her books to the floor and yanks on her locker door. The damn thing had opened just fine earlier but now it resists. So much so that when she pulls back with all her might and it finally opens he stumbles backwards and knocks into something. Hard. She hears the sound of something shattering behind her and feels her heart sink. Of course, this had to happen today. She turns around and sees Ben, of all people, kneeling on the floor. He picks up the pieces of what was clearly a scale model of a building that she doesn’t know. He stares at it with a stunned expression.

            “I am so sorry, Ben. I really didn’t mean- It was an accident! My locker got stuck, so I had to pull and… Is there water in that mold?” Ben just glares up at her.

            “Stay away from me,” he growls. He stands and stomps off into the classroom to the left of Claire’s locker. Claire looks back down at the broken project he left on the floor. Who’s going to clean this up? She decides to leave it where it is since Ben might come back for it and goes back to her locker. She picks her books up off the floor and shoves them in. A girl walks out of the classroom to her left and Claire reaches out to her.

           “Excuse me? I need Mr Nets History?”

           “It’s right behind you.” The girl points and then keeps going. She pointed at the room that Ben walked into.

           “Oh joy,” Claire mutters. Slamming her locker shut she heads into the room.

           “You have got to be kidding me.” She looks up in time to see Ben glaring daggers at her. She does her best to ignore him, sitting down in the nearest seat.

           “Seats now please,” the teacher calls from the front of the room as soon as the bell rings, “we left our presentations off last week with Mr. Gater’s, so today we’ll pick up with Mr. Braeden’s.” Ben stands up solemnly.

           “I don’t have my project.”

           “Mr Braeden, did you not have sufficient time to complete your project?”

           “I did.”

           “You understand that this means you’ll be receiving an incomplete for this assignment then.”

           “I do.”

           “Wait!” Claire cries a little too loudly as she jumps up from her chair, “it’s my fault! I accidentally wrecked his project.”

            “How convenient. And you are?” The teacher asks at the same time that Ben hisses from across the aisle.

            “Stay out of this!”

            “Claire Novak.”

            “Well, Claire, you claim to have wrecked Mr. Braeden’s project when?”

            “Just before class, my locker got stuck-”

            “Will you stop!” Ben interrupts. She doesn’t know what his deal is, she’s just telling the truth.

           “Well. Miss Novak if you broke Mr. Braeden’s project then you can help him fix it. You have until tomorrow.”

           “Ok.”

           “No!”

           “Mr Braeden, if you do not want Miss Novak’s help then you will have until tomorrow to complete it. If not, then you’ll receive an incomplete. Am I clear?”

           “Yes Mr Nets,” Ben says sitting down.

          “As long as you’re standing, Class? We have a new student. Say hello to Claire Novak.” Claire wanted to sink through the floor as everyone turned their attention on her and chanted out a bored hello. Thank God this is the last class of the day. She sits back down in her chair and listens to the teacher as he goes on to talk about the feminist movement in the 16th century.

 

---

           “Walk smooth, that’s a new Harry Potter on your heads. If it should drop then Harry would die and there won’t be any more books. Now that is what you should’ve worn this morning, mister!” Miss Patty calls as he walks past her dance studio for the second time today. He doesn’t bother to respond as he makes his way towards Winchester’s.

          The bell above the door announces his arrival yet again and the few people who’re there glance up to see who it is.

         “What are you doing here?” Dean asks from behind the counter, looking much the same as he had earlier.

         “You know that’s why you were voted Mr Personality of the new millennium, where’s your crown?” Cas snarks, sitting down at the counter where Dean’s already setting a mug down and pouring some coffee in it. Interesting.

        “You don’t normally come in this time of day is all,” Dean says.

        “I have to pick up Claire from school soon.”

        “Ah, well you’re dressed much better than you were this morning.” Cas gives him a small smile which Dean returns. He turns away to put the coffee pot back on the coffee machine.

        “Yeah well, I don’t feel much better.” He taps his fingers on his mug and looks at Dean, wondering if he should tell Dean about Jackie. “It’s been such a hectic, bizzaro day. You know, with the clothing issue this morning and my mother’s existing and this Milton mum called the inn to try to ask me out.” Cas watches Dean freeze, his back stiffening.

         “Really? What did you say?”

         “I said no. She’s not my type, plus she called my place of work and we only met this morning.” Cas would swear on anything that he could see a twinkle in Dean’s eyes as he said that.

          “Well, that’s good. It’s good that you said no.” Cas’ heart leaps.

          “Really?”

          “Yeah, the whole thing sounds a little weird. She’s probably old right?” Well. That wasn’t quite what he was hoping Dean would say next but he’ll go along with it.

           “Old?”

           “You said she was a mum at Milton, so she has a kid which means she’s older.”

           “I have a kid?”

           “Yes but you were younger when Claire was born so you’re not…” Dean trails off, cheeks tinged pink.

           “Old,” Cas finishes for him. They go quiet. Cas takes a sip of his coffee and looks up at Dean. Sitting at the counter means he gets a close up look at Dean’s freckles. He thinks they’re beautiful. Dean blinks and shakes his head, making Cas realise that he’s been staring for slightly too long. He focuses entirely too much on his drink to avoid looking at Dean too long again. He checks the time on his phone and jumps.

            “I have to go,” he says, pulling his wallet out.

            “Keep it, I gave you decaf.” Dean waves his hand at him.

            “Thanks. See you later,” he calls over his shoulder on his way out the door. He smiles the entire way to Milton. He arrives a few minutes early so he gets out of the car and leans against the bumper, waiting for the bell to ring. Then watching for Claire to come out amongst the steady stream of uniformed students.

           When he finally spots her, he stands up and takes a few steps forward, arms open. She looks about as drained as he feels. Claire drops her bag to the ground and hugs him tightly.

           “So this whole plaid skirt idea, was it mine?”

            “That good of a day, huh?”

            “Let’s just say that I haven’t even made any friends today and tomorrow is looking doubtful.”

            “Aw, honey. We can go home now and then have a marvellous dinner at Charlie’s, sound good?”

            “Absolutely.”

            Castiel leans down to pick up Claire’s bag and staggers under the weight of it. “Wow. Do they expect you to get smart all in one day?”

            “Yes.”

            “Oh, boy,” he says. He flings the bag through the open car window, into the backseat. He gets in and starts the car and finally the day is almost over. Only good things from here.

Chapter Text

“So tell me how did your first day go?” Cas asks. He sits in one of the wooden chairs at their small, rounded kitchen table. Claire stands at the kitchen table unloading two absolutely enormous folders from her school bag and letting them hit the surface with a loud bang! Cas moves the cow napkin holder out of the way and moves closer so he can read the printed labels on them.

            “There was this guy that made a show of saying how good a student he is and how I shouldn’t even bother trying to catch up. That was at the start of the day, then at the end my locker got stuck and I accidentally wrecked his project! So he doesn’t even like me already. It was really weird too because he already knew who I was? Like my name and even Stars Hollow.” Claire’s voice trembles a little bit. Cas’ heart aches for the fact that this was her first day at this new school, one that they worked really hard to get her into, and some kid is already being a bully to her.

            “Do you need me to talk to somebody? A teacher? The Headmaster?” He asks seriously.

            Claire contemplates the offer for a moment. “No. At least not yet. For now, it’s just some guy who feels threatened by someone new in the school and so he said some mean things. If it escalates I’ll let you know,” she says. Cas can’t help but feel proud of her handling the whole issue so well. She’s able to recognise that the bully is just that, a bully. As well as the fact that he must have a reason for being a bully.

            “You know, I had a Ben back in high school.”

            “Really? What did you do?”

            “I dropped out when you were born,” he says, shooting Claire an apologetic look after realising that he isn’t being helpful. Claire rolls her eyes and heaves the folders into her arms, taking them to the desk in her room. He can hear her huff in frustration but doesn’t say anything yet.

            “I have to buy a planner,” she calls.

            “If we leave a little earlier tomorrow you can get one after we have breakfast at Winchester’s and before you get on the bus,” he calls back. He stretches his arms up high then moves to stand in Claire’s doorway.

            “Did we run out of cereal?”

            “Along with everything else. I’ll stop at the store after work tomorrow.”

            “Are we eating out for dinner?”

            “Yeah, we’re eating at this place called Charlie’s. I’ve had the table booked for days now.”

            “Oh I’ve heard good things about the chef there, apparently she’s a genius.”

            “Damn right!” He says, turning away. He heads past the entrance, towards the lounge room. He wants to sit and have a moment of silence after this incredibly long day. Unfortunately, the phone rings just as he’s about to get comfy on the couch. Groaning, he gets up again and searches for the phone. At first, when he can’t find it he’s confused then he remembers he chucked it on the armchair next to the stairs after talking to his mother on it this morning. Then he’d laid the rest of his dry cleaning on top of it, having been in such a rush to get out the door to work.

            He picks it up triumphantly and answers, “hello?”

            “Castiel, good. I just wanted to know what you’re doing tomorrow?”

            “Mum?” He doesn’t really know why he’s surprised at this point.

            “Are you working?”

            “Mum, it’s Tuesday tomorrow. Of course, I’m working. Why?”

            “What time do you finish?”

            “Why?” Something is going on. He hopes that his mother hasn’t done something like buy Claire a car already and is having it dropped off when he isn’t home.

            “No reason.” Yeah, that’s not good.

            “What have you done mother?” It comes out a little sharper than he meant.

            “Nothing!”

            “Mother.”

            “Alright, fine. I’m ordering you a DSL. I wanted to know what time you were working so they could have it installed before you got home.” He actually has to hold the phone to his chest for a moment so he can let out his frustrated growl.

            “Mother. Please listen because I will only be saying this once. You’re not buying us a DSL, you are not buying Claire a car and, while I’m at it, you won’t be buying any of Claire’s uniforms. They’ll be provided by me. The father! And I decide how we live, not you. That’s final.”

            “Claire needs the internet for her school.”

            “We have the internet. I have never failed to provide my own child with anything that she’s ever needed and to be honest I resent that you believe that I would.”

            “Now Castiel, you’re just being stubborn as usual.”

            “No mother! I’m not being stubborn as usual, I’m being me! I’m a grown man with responsibilities and I am a good father. I’m very grateful to you and Father for paying for Claire’s school, it will not be forgotten. But if you don’t cancel that DSL order, I will.” He holds himself back from snarling as he presses the end button on the call. He knew this would happen. Giving Naomi an opening into his life has made her think she can overstep her bounds apparently. Furious, he chucks the phone onto the couch and makes his way up to his bedroom. He paces the length of his room a couple times, scowling. He forces himself to take a breath. Then another. He’ll just put the turtle with the spare key in it inside tomorrow.

             Feeling calmer, Cas leans over his chest of drawers to look out the window, it’s a beautiful day outside. Looking down on the front yard like this, he suddenly wishes he could have a couple of apiaries. He knows there’s the possibility of having urban apiaries but he’s just never gotten around to it. Not whilst working full time and raising Claire. Maybe now that she’s older, he could revisit the idea?

            “Dad? What time are we going to Charlie’s?” Claire yells from downstairs.

            “About 5,” he calls back. Claire doesn’t reply so he assumes she’s heard. He turns away from the window to the closet, looking for a more comfortable outfit to wear to dinner.

 

            At 5pm Cas and Charlie lock the door and leave their house to start walking to Charlie’s. They walk back into town, passing Winchester’s as they go. Through the window Cas can see Dean cleaning some newly vacated tables. He pauses for a moment and watches.

           “Hey, what do you think of Dean?” Cas asks Claire. He was aiming to sound casual but judging by the weird, assessing look she gives him, he doesn’t.

           “Oh, no. You cannot date Dean,” she says, grabbing him by the elbow and pulling him along.

           “I never said anything about dating him!” His voice betrays him by going an octave higher than normal.

           “If you date him and break up then we’ll never be able to eat there again,” she says. Once they’ve crossed the road she lets go of his arm. “Why don’t you date Al from Al’s pancake world? Or Bootsie from the newspaper stand?” Cas feels his nose scrunch up at those options. Not because he doesn’t like them at all, they’re good people but there is no way that he could date either of them. He just doesn’t like them like that and he tells Claire as much.

           “Because I don’t like either of them romantically or-or otherwise in any way what so ever.”

           “But you like Dean? Romantically or otherwise?” He actually stops in his tracks and looks at her. Simultaneously, he wants to know if she really thinks it would be a bad idea to date Dean and he wants to dissuade her from thinking he thinks of Dean that way at all.

           “Dean is my friend,” he says carefully. “I would never do anything to hurt him or make him think we can’t be friends.” It’s not a real answer and they both know it.

           “Well… I just want you to be happy, dad,” Claire says.

           “I am happy, kid. And you should know that that’s all I want for you too,” he tells her just as they reach Charlie’s house, effectively ending the conversation. He contemplates the fact that Claire is right. If he did date Dean and they broke up it would be terrible. They wouldn’t be able to eat at the diner anymore and he would lose one of his closest friends. Not to mention he’s not even sure if Dean actually likes him that way in return. Sometimes, there are moments when it could seem like he might be interested but then nothing happens. Cas knows that he could just as easily make a move towards Dean but he has Claire to think about. If he’s going to have someone in his life, then he has to be aware that they will by default be in Claire’s too. Perhaps he is just better off leaving it be. Nothing actually has to change after all.

           They knock on the door and barely have to wait at all as Charlie comes bustling out to greet them. Her flaming red hair is pulled up in a tight bun, as it usually is when she’s cooking.

           “Hey guys! How are you? Claire, I want you to tell me all about your new school!” Charlie chuckles with excitement, waving them through to the living room, where the small dining table is all set up. Usually the table is in the kitchen but tonight, since There’s a plate of homemade garlic naan bread in the middle. That and whatever is still cooking in the kitchen smells amazing.

            “Hi Charlie!” He says giving her a hug and then sitting down and helping himself to a piece of the naan bread. Smiling widely, Claire hugs Charlie too and follows her into the kitchen to talk to her about Milton. He notices that she leaves out the part about the bully but he’s also glad that she knows she doesn’t have to tell people everything.

            “I’ve made chicken tikka for dinner tonight, with cauliflower rice. And for desert we’re having apple pie with ice cream!” Charlie brings out two heaping bowls of the chicken tikka and places one in front of Cas and the other at her place. Claire follows behind with the third bowl.

            Cas eats a mouthful and makes an excited “mmm!” Chewing and swallowing quickly he exclaims, “Charlie this is wonderful!”

            “Really? I was thinking of putting it on the menu at the inn this weekend.”

            “You should, it’ll be a hit. I’m sure of it.”

 

            Dinner with Charlie was a warm and cheerful event and when they finally left, late, at 9.30pm to walk home, both Cas and Claire were content and full. Stars Hollow is quiet at this hour. The sun had set, all the storefronts were packed away and the street lights lit up the town square beautifully. Cas looked up at the stars and smiled at the infinite possibilities of the world.

            “Tomorrow is a new day, Claire. I know today may not have been ideal but you have all year to get it right and I know you’ll do your best no matter what.” He reached out and pulled her in to a one-armed hug, kissing her hair gently.

            Claire grins up at him. “Thanks dad.”

Chapter Text

            “Dad! Are you ready to go yet?” Claire calls up the stairs. Today she’s wearing a grey short-sleeved dress and matching flats. She’s pulled her curls back out of her face with black headband that she knows will give her a headache by the end of the night but it was really the best she could do with it without straightening it. After the disaster that was their first Friday night dinner with the grandparents last week, she thought she should try and put a little bit more effort into her appearance for this one.

            “I’ll be down in a minute!” Her dad calls back.

            “We should have left five minutes ago, what are even doing?”

            “I would try to move a bit faster but I have this thing slowing me down. It’s the fact that I don’t want to go.” Instead of encouraging his childishness Claire just waits, tapping her foot on the hardwood floor. She watches the clock on the hall table tick over another minute. Now reading 6.31pm. They were going to be late if they didn’t leave right now.

            “Alright! Alright, I’m ready. Let’s go,” her dad says, half running down the stairs. He barely stops to pick up the keys from the hall table and Claire actually has to remind him to lock the front door. Not that anyone would actually break-in in this town but still. They make it all the way to the car when the home phone rings inside the house. Claire looks at her dad, half expecting him to run back inside and answer it, purely to be even more late. He merely rolls his eyes at her and gets in the car, slamming the door a little harder than necessary.

He’s been huffy all day. Well. She was at school for most of the day and Cas was at work so she’s only assuming at this point but he has been muttering under his breath all afternoon so that counts. The impending Friday night dinner has him on edge, Claire knows this but she wonders if it’s going to be this difficult to get out the door every Friday from now until the end of her high school life. Cas hits the button to turn on the radio but after a few minutes of listening to presenters talking about the weather predictions for the next few days he switches it over to the CD and they both remain quiet for the rest of the drive while Björk’s Post album plays from the start.

 

            “Hey Grandma!” Claire greets her grandmother cheerfully.

            “Naomi,” Cas says with a wide smile, but Claire can tell it’s forced.

            Naomi grins widely and gestures them through the door. “Come in, come in you two.” she shuts the door behind them and leads them through to the living room for the drinks. “So Claire, how have you been finding your first week at Milton?” Castiel rolls his eyes behind his mother’s back but Claire pretends she doesn’t notice. She sits on the couch and takes the fancy glass of coke that her grandmother passes her.

            “It’s alright. It’s much bigger than I thought it would be but I’ve got the layout down now.”

            “And your classes? How’re they going?” Naomi asks sitting down in the chair next to the couch, although Claire actually thinks it might be called a settee. Castiel sits on the couch across from them sipping on a knuckle length of scotch.

            “So far so good. I’m a little behind at the moment because I started late but the teachers have given me some study material to catch up with.”

            “Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well. I know you’re going to make us very proud.”

            “Naomi? Are they here yet? I just had to finish up a call with Howard Woodacker,” her grandfather’s voice gets louder as he approaches the lounge room. He appears behind the couch she’s on so she twists to see him.

            “Hi Grandpa,” she says.

            “Claire! Lovely, you are here.”

            “We arrived right on time dad,” Castiel pipes up, raising his drink towards his father.

            “I’m sure you did, Castiel,” Charles says. He helps himself to a drink from the cart and moves to sit in the chair next to Naomi’s.

             “So how are things at the charming little inn of yours?” Naomi asks Castiel, effectively changing the subject.

             “Well, it’s still charming and little and we’re just crossing our fingers that it doesn’t assert itself and become rude and large,” Castiel says, leaning forward conspiratorially.

            “Dad’s having a huge wedding there, next week,” Claire adds. A look of pleasant surprise lights up Naomi’s face.

            “Really?”

            “Yes, actually. There’s people coming from all over the country.”

            “Well, isn’t that nice.

            “Yeah.”

            “Mrs. Novak, dinner is ready,” the maid announces with a quiet voice.

            “Thank you,” Naomi says. Claire watches her dad and her grandparents place their drinks on their respective coasters on the coffee table and rise as one to head to the dinner table. She follows their lead and takes her place at the table, across from her father. He seems to sit up straighter here than he would in their own home, or anywhere else for that matter. She wonders, not for the first time, what it must have been like to grow up in this large house.

            “So Claire, what sort of books do you read?” Charles says, a little out of the blue.

            “A bit of everything really. At the moment I’m reading Fahrenheit 451 but for school we’re reading A Tale of Two Cities.” Claire watches his eyes light up.

            “Having a good literary education is very important. You know, if I hadn’t gone into the insurance business I wanted to be a writer?”

            “Really?” Castiel asks.

            “Well, you don’t have to sound so surprised.”

            “No, I just- What sort of stuff would you have written?”

            “I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to write about the world and everything in it. Then, of course, I went to College and discovered I had a proficiency for the insurance business and that was the path I took.”

            “Wow,” Claire says, interrupting whatever her father was about to say.

            “Yes. I may actually have a copy of A Mencken’s Chrestomathy in my office somewhere, if you’re interested.”

            “You’re kidding!” Claire exclaims.

            “I also have a first edition of his memoirs too. I’ll show you them after dinner.”

           “That would be great!” She looks over to her father in excitement but sees a strange look on his face that she can’t decipher. She’ll ask him about it later, for now they eat their dinner that the maid, Sarah, serves.

 

---

           Castiel is exhausted when they finally get back home. This dinner was certainly less eventful than the last one but by no means did he feel any more comfortable in his parent’s presence. He sloths his way through the entrance and presses play on the answering machine as he passes it to flop down onto the couch. He wants to forget about the fact that

           “Uh, hi? This is Kaia Nieves… From Stars Hollow High. Um, I was looking to talk to Claire but you must not be home right now. If you wanna call me back my number is…” Castiel watches Claire quickly grab a pen and jot down the number on the back of her hand. There’s a faint blush staining her cheeks as she steadfastly doesn’t look at him.

           “When did you give Kaia our number?” He asks conversationally. He hopes she doesn’t think that he disapproves of Kaia herself by now. He’s sure she’s a very nice young lady, he just feels a little weird about the fact that Claire was ready to give up on Milton before it even started because she met her.

           “Um, my last day of school. I haven’t actually seen her since then though.” There are no other messages on the machine, so she erases it and heads towards her room.

            It’s quiet for a minute, until he asks, “aren’t you going to call her back?”

            “At near ten o’clock at night?” She pokes her head through her doorway, an incredulous look on her face.

            He shrugs. “Why not?” Claire scoffs and closes the door. She doesn’t take the phone with her. He’s glad she’s not nearly as adventurous as he was at her age. With a groan he makes himself get up from the couch and go to his own room. He changes into his pjs slowly and essentially falls into bed. It’s been such a long week and he’s just so tired.

 

---

            Outside, the day is bright and sunny and Claire stares out the window above her bed wishing she could be doing anything but studying right now. In the background Pale Blue Eyes by The Velvet Underground plays softly.

“Kaia called last night,” she starts quietly.

            “What did she say?” Jack lifts his head from her shoulder to look at her with wide, excited eyes. He pushes his schoolbooks away and shifts on her bed to face her fully. He hasn’t been studying for the last ten minutes anyway but it won’t hurt to take a break.

            “I didn’t actually talk to her because she called as we were leaving for dinner with the grandparents. She left a message though, with her number on it.”

            “Did your dad hear it?”

            “Well, yeah but he knows about Kaia now. He’s alright with it and there wasn’t anything embarrassing on the message anyway. I’m going to call her back later today.”

            “I thought he’d be a little weird about it considering you were ready to drop Milton because of her.” Claire looks away as her cheeks flush.

            “I wasn’t going to not go to Milton, I just wanted to… Delay it for a bit. He actually suggested that I call her back last night.”

            “He did? Well, when you do call her, you should ask her out.”

            “You think? I don’t know if I could do that, isn’t it a bit too soon?”

            “Not really. Isn’t the whole point of dating to get to know someone and have fun while you’re doing it?” Jack points out. Neither he nor Claire have ever dated anyone thus far in their lives. Jack seems to be just fine about the prospect of continuing to not date anyone for the foreseeable future and up until recently Claire had thought she felt the same way. Now she’s not even sure what she feels. She knows that she likes women, she realised that a while ago, but there’s a difference between admiring from afar and actually becoming involved with someone. Maybe she wants to date Kaia? Maybe she just wants to be friends with her? Maybe both? She is very pretty, regardless of Claire’s inner turmoil.

            “Ugh.” Claire picks up her pillow and smushes her face into it. “Am I supposed to be this nervous about it though?”

            “That’s probably normal, it’s in all the books and stuff,” Jack says, as a matter of fact, pointing towards her bookshelves. The space between the shelves and the bed is a little narrow but she likes the bed more in the middle of the room anyway. She looks over at the titles on her shelves. Some old and worn and loved, some newer and yet to be read. There’s a fair few there that she won’t point out to Jack that aren’t actually romances. She understands his point nonetheless. She’s just not going to put too much pressure on the potential relationship/tentative friendship that is forming here. She’ll just call Kaia later and see if she wants to see a movie later.

            “Alright, lets study for a bit longer then we can come up with a plan for what I’m gonna say to her. I have a test I have to take on Monday so I actually do need to finish this reading,” Claire announces. Jack groans but pulls his own books closer once again.

 

---

            Castiel walks down the street with Charlie, making use of their day off and the lovely day outside. “Claire is starting to like her grandparents,” he tries to say it offhandedly but he knows that it falls short.

            “Is that really a bad thing?” Charlie asks, glancing over at him.

            “No. I want her to have a good relationship with her grandparents. Just because I don’t doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t.”

            “So what’s the problem?”

            “The problem is that my mother can see it. It never occurred to me that Claire might want the life that I ran away from but it occurred to her. I could see it at dinner last night. Claire and my dad were talking about books and my mother just looked at me with a ‘haha’ expression. The problem is that this is something that I didn’t even think about when I agreed to have the Friday night dinners with them, in exchange for them paying for Claire’s school fees.”

            “You’re jealous.”

            “Oh, I’m not jealous.”

            “Yes, you are. Claire already has a better relationship with them than you do and now with the dinners she’ll only get closer to them.”

            “Oh, thank you for the hug.” he says. He feels his shoulders droop a little bit. He’d pushed away the thought anytime it decided to present itself at the forefront of his mind and now, with Charlie acknowledging it, he can’t ignore the truth of it. He is jealous. Jealous of Claire and the fact that his parents have a better relationship with her than him.

            “See I’m not so good at advice talks, can we maybe talk about soups? I’m good with so-Oh my god!” Charlie cries excitedly. Immediately, she starts to jog across the road, not even checking for oncoming traffic and actually causing a poor cyclist to wobble and lose their balance. Castiel can only watch as they hit the curb and fall onto the grass with very little grace.

            “Ooh! Ahh! Are you ok?” Castiel stops and helps the man up.

            “Hey, yeah, its ok. I wasn’t paying attention either,” the guy says a little out of breath. “I’ll just walk a bit from here.”

            “Well, ok then.” Castiel turns back in the direction that Charlie ran off in and finds her outside of Doose’s market, looking at the strawberries. The wedding being held at the inn is set for Thursday and the dessert is supposed to be a strawberry shortcake. Unfortunately, Dorothy had deemed her crop of strawberries as ‘not good enough’ for Charlie to use and had instead brought her a batch of blueberries. Much to Charlie’s chagrin.

            “Charlie? You know you should really watch the road when you do that.” Charlie only hums noncommittally. She scoops up a handful of the bright, ripe strawberries for inspection.

            “Charlie?” She freezes at the sound of Dorothy’s shocked voice.

            “Now Dorothy-”

            “Is this what we’ve come to?!” Dorothy actually sounds betrayed. Castiel looks down at the display of fruit and vegetables, holding back a laugh at how absurd this situation is.

            “I needed the strawberries!” Charlie exclaims, gesturing to the small pile she’d selected.

            “I hope you’re happy together!” Dorothy says loudly before turning her back on them and walking away.

            “Dorothy! Wait!” Charlie calls after her but Dorothy only picks up her pace. Castiel watches as Charlie chases Dorothy back the way they came, zig zagging across the road. He chuckles at their antics. Shaking his head, he crosses the street again and heads in the direction of his house.

            He takes his time walking across the town square, waving to people on the way. The town is thriving with activity, as it usually is. Cas wondered if Claire would be up for a movie night tonight or if she has too much homework to get done.

            When he passes the town’s auto shop Bobby calls out to him, wiping his oily hands on a rag. “Your car broke yet, boy?” Cas holds back a smile at the familiarity of the question. It’s a running joke between them from the one time Cas’ car did break down in the next town over, Woodbury. Cas had had to get help at their auto shop whose owner, Rufus Turner, happens to be Bobby’s best friend and business rival. When Bobby found out

            “No, sir. I take good care of it,” he says seriously.

            Bobby harrumphs. “Someone’s gotta bring me some business. It’s a slow one today.” Behind him, in the back of the auto shop, Cas can see the hood up on a sleek black car and a pair of jean-clad legs sticking out from under the middle. It’s a car that he would be able recognise anywhere. A 1967 Chevy Impala belonging to one Dean Winchester. Everyone in town knows that that car, ‘Baby’, is Dean’s pride and joy, his most beloved earthly possession. He doesn’t drive it as often as he wants to because he has to run the diner but when he does, the loud rumble of the engine is a comforting sound. Cas wonders if he should say hello or leave him to it. He remembers his conversation with Claire earlier in the week and wonders what would happen if he actually did muster up the courage to ask Dean out. What would happen if he asked him out right now? Dean rolls out from under the car and lifts and arm to wipe his brow. Cas’ eyes linger on Dean’s arms, bulging muscles glistening with sweat. His green short-sleeved shirt leaves nothing to the imagination and Cas doesn’t notice the way Bobby looks back and forth between him and Dean smirking, he’s so distracted.

            “See something you like, boy?” Bobby asks with a raised brow. Cas feels his cheeks warm with embarrassment. He looks away from Bobby’s knowing look.

             “I should… Keep going, see you later Bobby.”

             “Hey Cas!” Dean calls out to him just as he’s taking a step to leave.

             “Hello Dean,” Cas’ voice comes out a little deeper than normal so he clears his throat in an effort to sound normal again and not at all attracted to the man approaching him.

             “You didn’t come to the diner for dinner last night?” It almost looks like he’s pouting, which would mean that he must have missed them. Cas’ stomach does a little flip at that realisation. Bobby smirks behind Dean’s back. He shakes his head and wanders back inside the shop to his office.

             “We don’t come to you for dinner every night.”

             “Well, no but Friday nights you usually do.” Dean lifts a hand to rub at the back of his neck.

             “Ah. Well our routine has officially changed because, unfortunately, Friday night dinners at my parent’s house in Hartford has become a thing for the foreseeable future. We might still stop by afterwards sometimes though.” He gives Dean a reassuring smile, even though he feels a fresh wave of annoyance towards his mother.

            “That’s too bad.”

            “It is?”

            “Yeah, I was going to start having chocolate cake Fridays at the diner.”

            “You were?!” Cas, only half registering Dean’s joking, exclaims.

            “Nah man, I’m just kidding. I just was bored without you asking for coffee every five minutes.”

            “Nothing can beat Danish day anyway, always look forward to Tuesdays because of that.”

            “Oh well that’s too bad since I was gonna discontinue those in favour of the chocolate cake,” Dean says with a cheeky grin lighting up his face.

           Cas throws a mock glare his way. “That, is not funny.”

           “Was a little bit.”

           “I’m going home now.”

           “See ya later Cas,” Dean says cheerfully.

           “Goodbye Dean,” Cas returns and continues on his merry way, deciding that yes they should have a movie night tonight because Claire does need to take a break at some point after all. Behind him, Dean’s smile remains long after he returns to working on keeping his car in the best condition possible.

 

---

             Claire did end up calling Kaia that day. Just after lunch time, sitting at the kitchen table with Jack with the remains of their lunch pushed aside and their books forgotten in her room, she pressed the numbers into the home phone carefully and pressed ‘call’. It rings. And rings. And rings. And just as she’s about to wonder if she had actually managed to call at a bad time someone answered.

             “Hello?” An older, male voice greets her.

             “Um, hello. I was hoping to speak to Kaia? This is Claire Novak. From school. Well, we met at school but then I moved schools-” She stops talking abruptly when Jack kicks her shin under the table.

             “Just a minute, I’ll call her down.” Claire waits patiently and listens to the muffled sound of voices talking on the other end of the line. She pushes Jack’s hand away when he waves it in her face, whispering about wanting to know what’s going on.

             Finally, another voice comes on the line. “Hi Claire!” Kaia sounds happy to hear from her.

            “Hi Kaia,” Claire replies brightly, “you, uh, you called me yesterday but I couldn’t answer because we have these dinners with my grandparent’s on Fridays and when we got home it was really late. So hail the glory of the answering machine, I guess.”

            “I’m glad you called.”

             “Yeah?”

             “Yeah.”

             “I was glad you called too. Before. I haven’t seen you since I changed schools and hoped I’d get the chance to get your number.”

            “Yeah, it’s been pretty busy at the new school and settling into the new house and stuff.”

             “Do you like it so far?”

            “Yeah, everyone’s really nice here.”

            “Good! That’s good.” There was a moment of almost awkward silence as Claire gathered her courage to ask, “I was actually wondering if you’d like to go to the movies or something with me sometime?”

            “I’d love to. I’ll have to get back to you about when I’m free though, I just started working at the market and I’m not fully sure about my shifts yet.”

            “Yeah, no, that’s cool. I look forward to it.”

            “Ok.” There’s another few seconds of silence and Claire just wants to kick herself for not being able to remember anything. She can’t think of one topic to help further the conversation.

            “I’m sorry Claire but I’ve gotta go, my little sister needs help with her homework.”

            “Ok then, it was a good chat. We’ll talk later.” Claire hangs up the phone and groans, burying her face in her hands. “Chat?! It was a good chat?! Who says that?”

            “Well, it went better than expected,” Jack says. He picks up their plates and moves them to the sink behind Claire, then he pulls out to cans of coke from the fridge and leads the way back to their study session.

            When Castiel sweeps his way through the front door later in the afternoon, swinging reusable bags full of junk food and videos around excitedly, announcing they’re watching the two Jurassic Park movies tonight and Jack was invited to stay if he wanted to stay, just as long as he doesn’t mention just how much junk food they all would consume to his father; Claire decided that she would tell him about the potential date/outing with Kaia later. Instead she let herself get swept up in the ordering of pizza and finishing enough of their studying before it arrived that tomorrow they wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by what they didn’t do today.

Chapter Text

            Stars Hollow town meetings are a fortnightly event of entertainment, nonsense and occasional community organisation. Thursday, 8 o’clock, most of the town’s residents gather in Miss Patty’s dance studio to both participate and observe. Tonight, Castiel and Claire stumble through the back door loudly and late. Castiel pays no mind to having most of the town turn around to stare at them and looks around until he spots two seats together on the right side of the room, closer to the middle. He heads towards them and waves to Babette and Mory across the aisle.

            “So you’ve decided to join us then, Novaks?” Taylor Doose, Town Selectman and stickler for details, asks. He eyes the bags of take-away food they carry and Castiel crinkles the packaging of his chips a little more than necessary.

            “Sorry Taylor.” Castiel says, sitting down in the aisle seat after letting Claire in first.

            “Well, as I was saying, we’re already half way through March and Easter is fast approaching, meaning it’s time to prepare for the annual egg hunt. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to leave someone else in charge of orchestrating the hunt this year because I will be out of town.” Taylor looks around the room expectantly, as if they should all be volunteering for the opportunity to do his job for this event. Castiel feels like he has enough responsibilities running the inn and looking after Claire, especially after the wedding at the inn earlier that day, so he keeps his hand down.

            Kirk, in the front row, raises his hand enthusiastically. “I’ll do it Taylor! You can count on me!” Taylor hesitates. Kirk always helps out in all the town events but he’s never been completely in charge of running an event before.

            “Can I count on you?”

            “I won’t let you down, Taylor!”

            “Well… Ok. Come up once the meeting’s over and I’ll go through it with you. Now! Onto the next order of business-” All heads turn to the sliding door as it opens abruptly to reveal a short man in a suit holding a bouquet of flowers stepping into the room. “May we help you?” Taylor asks.

            “Ah, sorry. I was looking for… Ah, there she is, Patricia!” The man lights up when he spots Miss Patty in her seat beside Taylor’s podium. Patty is grinning from ear-to-ear at the sight of him and Castiel feels his own smile growing at how happy she looks.

            “Patricia, well, well, well!” He calls out and the whole room lets out a synchronised ooohhh!

            “Now stop it,” she says, waving her hands dismissively at the crowd.

            “Are we ready?” The man asks her.

            “I’m in the middle of something Jesús, but I’ll be right out. Patience,” she tells him, gesturing to the watching crowd. He nods and bows a little as he leaves the room and shuts the door again.

            “Now, as I was saying-” Taylor attempts to get the meeting back on track but is interrupted by Babette calling out.

            “Who’s the fox Patty?!”

            “I met him at a funeral. Great guy, good dancer, latin!” Another chorus of ooohhh! Then people begin talking all at once.

            “He better treat you right this guy!” Castiel calls out.

            “Yeah. How well do you know him?” Babette asks.

            “I only just met him,” Miss Patty says, leaning forward in her seat excitedly.

            “I can look him up on the internet,” Kirk adds seriously.

            “People, order, please!” Taylor cries, banging his gavel a few times to try and get back their attention. “Now due to the lack of response, we’ll have to hold off on the next issue until the next town meeting.”

            “Good,” Dean says definitively from the row in front of them.

            “Let Miss Patty’s date begin!” Claire calls out and a round of quick applause sweeps through the room before people stand to leave.

            Castiel leans forward and pats Dean on the shoulder. “Hey, you want a fry?” He holds out the bag in offering.

            “No,” he says a little too quickly. Cas squints at him and tilts his head to the side in confusion. Dean softens then adds, “I ate before coming.”

            “Did you eat… A fry?”

            “No.” Dean’s eyebrows pull together and he turns fully around in his chair to face them.

            “Oh, but why?” Claire snorts loudly beside him but Cas keeps looking at Dean. Waiting.

            “I had steaks with Bobby earlier,” he says, standing to follow the last of the crowd outside. Cas and Claire follow him until all three of them linger on the steps outside. It’s gone dark outside but the air is still warm.

            “I can’t think of anything else to rhyme to that but it sounds lovely.”

            “Well, lovely isn’t the word I would use.”

            “Yes. I’m sorry. It’s very manly that you spent some time with your uncle and consumed meat products together.” Cas tries to make his voice sound deeper to add to the effect but for a second he wonders if he’s gone too far since Dean is staring at him.

            “Cas.” Dean leans closer and puts a hand on his shoulder.

            “Yes, Dean?”

            “Don’t ever change,” he says sincerely. Cas beams at him, feeling his heart squeeze at the sentiment.

Dean squeezes his shoulder for a moment before letting go. “Alright. Well, I better get back. See you tomorrow.”

            “Bye Dean!” Claire says. He turns back to give her a wave and keeps walking towards the diner. The fairy lights strung up around the windows on the outside make the place look magical and inviting. Claire shoots Cas a knowing look before looping her arm around his and leading him in the direction of their house.

 

---

            When Claire wakes up before her alarm on Friday morning she feels relief, then despair. Relief that it’s Friday and she only has to get through today before she can have two free days to catch up on her studies some more and have a break from Milton. Despair that she still has to get through today to actually get to the weekend. As if trying to catch up wasn’t hard enough, that Ben kid hasn’t let up at all. He has two friends that follow him around wherever he goes and Claire wonders if they know how cliché they look.

            Of course, she hasn’t allowed Ben to walk all over her. When the teacher asks questions in class it’s almost become a bit of a race to see if she or Ben will answer first. She wishes that he would just get over himself and let the class room be a place for them to actually take notes and learn rather than an arena.

            She looks over at her alarm clock and waits for it to go off. Three minutes. Two. One. She hits the off button before it has a chance to make noise and pushes back the covers. She grabs her uniform and heads for the bathroom for a shower. Castiel is making his way into the kitchen when she opens her door. He heads straight for the coffee maker, his face scrunched up as if being awake is some burden he’s never experienced before.

            “Morning.” She greets tiredly. Her dad waves and holds up an empty mug in question. “I’ll have some when I get out.”

            Closing the bathroom door behind her and moving to both look in the mirror and deposit her clothes on the counter, she decides that her hair doesn’t need to be washed today but will tomorrow. She sprays some dry shampoo and braids it back so that no one will know the difference. Then she puts the shower cap on and turns on the shower. Going ahead with her usual morning routine on autopilot right up until the walk out the door and towards the car.

            “You know, maybe we should look into a bigger backpack for you? Would that even help?” Castiel asks, eyeing her multiple bags full of books and study material for school.

            “This is just until I catch up. I’ve been spending lunches in the school library studying and working on assignments.”

            “Ok, so what’s that book in your hand?”

            She held it out so he could see the cover of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. “It’s my book for the bus, I couldn’t make it fit.”

            “I hate to say this but why don’t you leave it behind if you’ve got so much to carry?”

            “Half of this is going into my locker anyway. I just have to make it there and it’ll be fine.”

            “If you say so.”

            “I do,” she says and that’s that. Well, not really. Her dad gives her a suspicious look that says that he’ll probably bring the topic up again later but, thankfully, for now he lets it drop.

            The drive into town is quiet. Claire tries to ignore the looks that her dad keeps throwing her way. The man has an uncanny ability to know when something is wrong with her, sickness or otherwise, even before it actually happens. Luckily, when they arrive at Winchester’s the place is packed and loud. They have to wait five minutes before a table clears up for them to grab and even then there’s still people standing around waiting. Kirk hovers near their table despite the fact that neither Caesar or Dean have had a chance to clear it of the last diner’s plates yet. Claire glances at her watch.

            “You won’t be late. Promise,” Cas says, tapping the table in front of her. “Dean! We’ll have pancakes with a side of pancakes please!” He calls over to Dean as he walks past their table to deliver someone else’s order.

            “Ten minutes,” he barks before rushing off. Cas smiles as he watches him go and Claire worries. Dean is such a hermit and, as far as she’s aware of, has only been in one relationship in the last sixteen years. A nice woman named Lisa but a messy break up. She knows that her dad likes him, maybe more than just a typical crush at this point. She just doesn’t want to see him get hurt. At the same time, she kind of wishes that he would just ask Dean out already so that he would at least have an answer and stop pining after the guy. Then again, she isn’t really one to talk considering she hasn’t had a chance to talk to Kaia again since she called her last weekend. With huff she buries her face in her arms on the table and waits for their breakfast to arrive.

            The rest of the morning passes slowly. Too slow. Claire’s double English class is after morning tea and until then she tries to just focus on getting things done normally. Eating breakfast with her dad, getting to school, taking notes in her other classes, etc. She feels excitement brewing. Pride. She feels like she did a good job on this essay, she just wants to know the result.

            Unfortunately, it all comes crashing down around her when Miss Allen places her essay down on her desk with a large, red letter D on it in the top right hand corner. She got a D. She could barely process it. She just sits there staring at her failure until the bell rings.

            “What did you get Tristan?” Ben’s voice interrupts her dejection tauntingly. She just decides to wait in her chair for them to leave first so she can avoid them during lunch.

            “An A minus. You?” Tristan answers, standing up from his desk on her right. She packs up her books on her desk slowly and deliberately. Sliding the failed essay inside her English book and resolutely not acknowledging Ben and his friends being mean.

           “An A. What about you Chris?”

           “You know I got a B.”

           “That’s not bad,” Tristan says.

           “Respectable even,” Ben continues, “but a D. Now that would be cause for concern.”

           “A cry for help,” Tristan adds.

           “A job application at McDonalds.”

           “Ok. I have no idea what you two are talking about,” Chris says confusedly.

           “No. But Claire does,” Ben says, leaning over her shoulder as she stares determinedly towards the front of the classroom. He must be trying to be intimidating and she hates that her face heats up with embarrassment. Not even a month in at this new school and she’d failed an essay. Back at Stars Hollow High she’d been amongst the top students in her year. It had been… Easy. She doesn’t really know how to go from here but she rises from her seat anyway. Grabs her things and heads out the door into lunch. Today is Friday. Once the dinner at her grandparents is over she can study all weekend and catch up. Maybe she could redo the essay if she asked Miss Allen? Or she could do extra credit work to make up for it? An overwhelming wave of panic squeezes her stomach, rising up to make her feel like her throat is closing up until she can’t breathe. She focuses on each step she has to take to get to her locker. She dumps her English books inside and heads towards the library with her French assignment.

 

---

            “Hey, let’s have a movie night tomorrow!” Cas proposes as they pull up in the driveway of his parent’s house. Putting the handbrake on, he pulls out the keys and tries not to look worried about Claire. “What do you say to Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory?” He leans over to the backseat and grabs the box of blueberry shortcake they brought with them and brings it forward, gets out of the car and shuts the door behind him.

            “No!” Claire says forcefully and then stammers. “Just- Can we do it next weekend? And when we go to the market to get the candy for it, we have to remember to get a light globe for the kitchen.” Claire gets out of the car and meets him in front. Castiel squints at her. She fidgets under his gaze but doesn’t say anything else. He likes to think that if something were wrong that Claire would come to him for help but now is definitely not the time to look into it further anyway so he decides to let it slide until later. After dinner.

            “Deal. Just… Remind me then,” he says and then promptly sneezes. He absolutely better not be getting sick, now is not the time to have to deal with that sort of nonsense. Together they walk up to the door and ring the doorbell. Castiel feels weird about how normal this is beginning to feel. He glances over at Claire and holds back a sigh. For her.

            “Hello Claire! Castiel!” Naomi greets them cheerily as she opens the door to let them in.

            “Hi mum.”

            “Hi Grandma.”

            Naomi zeros in on the box in Castiel’s hands. “My goodness, what’s this?”

            “I thought I’d bring dessert tonight. It’s blueberry shortcake.” Naomi actually smiles as she takes the box from him and he sees a small spark of approval from Miss Manners.

            “How thoughtful! I didn’t think there was such thing as blueberry shortcake?”

            “Charlie made it up for the wedding,” he answers proudly. Charlie never ended up buying strawberries after the incident with Dorothy in the street and had made blueberry shortcake. Luckily, it turned out to be a hit at the wedding. Naomi frowns and lifts the lid on the box. Her frown only becomes more pronounced as she takes in the dessert and then looks up at Castiel.

            “You brought us used dessert?”

            “Not used, just leftover.”

            “It’s already been cut!” She protests. Castiel actually has to hold back a smile.

            “Yes, because it’s leftover from the wedding at the inn.”

            “I know where the wedding was.”

            “Oh, sorry. You were just doing that staring thing.”

            “Well. I’ll just put it in the kitchen next to my half empty box of Cheer.”

            “She’s in a good mood tonight,” Castiel whispers to Claire as they follow Naomi into the living room, she passes off the shortcake to the maid on the way. Castiel takes his place on the couch and Naomi hands him an already prepared glass of scotch. Not what he would normally have but he isn’t about to complain about it so he takes it with a polite nod.

            “Claire! Excellent, you’re here. I wanted to show you some more books that I’ve found. I recently finished the third volume in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Castiel’s father says excitedly.

            “Hello Castiel, good to see that you’re well. Oh yes, father I’m doing great. And you?” Castiel greets himself in his father’s stead.

            “Yes, sorry. Hello Castiel,” Charles says with a nod and then waves for Claire to follow him. Castiel ignores the slight twisting of his heart when he sees the fond look on his father’s face towards Claire. So eager to share his books with her.

            “Funny the way things turn out, isn’t it?” Naomi says. She’s still standing, taking sips from her wine flute and watching Claire and Charles go.

            “Whatever do you mean mother?”

            “Claire is enjoying herself here, spending time with us. Who would’ve thought that she would?” Castiel doesn’t answer but it doesn’t matter. She knows she’s won here and there wasn’t even a battle fought. “I think I’ll go take a look at that book too,” she says with a too bright smile and leaves him sitting there, alone. He drains his drink and gets up to get himself another. The whole evening was already leaving him with a bad taste in his mouth, more than just the alcohol.

Chapter Text

            As it turned out Castiel had been getting sick. He isn’t sure where or what from but by the time Monday rolls around he’s decided that he doesn’t have a choice but to call in sick to work and stay in bed. Being that he’s the Executive Manager this mostly means that he has to call and let Garth know that he’s in charge for the day; at least until the night manager arrives. Then he calls Charlie and asks if she would possibly be able to bring around some soup for him and something for Claire to eat tonight so that he doesn’t have to worry about dinner. He’d had to hang up the phone when she got caught up in the ideas for what type of soup she would make and forgot he was still there.

            He sits in a chair at the kitchen table watching Claire go through her usual routine and pulling tissues continuously from the box to blow his nose. Eventually, Claire, tired of his reluctance to find some medicine himself, searches the drawers and pulls out a packet of unopened cold and flu tablets that Castiel, quite frankly, had no idea had even been there. She hovers over him whilst he takes his first dose.

            “Do you want me to call Charlie or someone? Have them check in on you?”

            “That won’t be necessary, I just need to sleep this off and I’ll be-.” He cuts himself off with a sigh and tries again. “I already called Charlie to let her know and she’ll come ‘round later today with some soup for me. Ok?”

            “If you say so,” she says reluctantly. Checking the time, she gathers her things and heads for the door. “If you need anything make sure you call someone and don’t forget to take those tablets every four to six hours like it says. Make sure you stay hydrated and-”

            “Claire. I have been sick before and I will probably be sick again in my lifetime. I’ll be fine.” He’s downplaying how truly weak he feels, of course. Claire doesn’t need to worry about him being sick, especially since that’s his job. He just needs to hold on until she leaves the house and then he can go lie down and never get up again. Or at least he can stay there until Claire gets home from school.

             Forcing himself upright and out of the chair, he follows her to the front door. “Have a good day, hon!” He smiles and waves from the front door as Claire walks down the street and towards the town. He really hopes she does have a good day despite her being worried about whatever has been on her mind all weekend, plus the fact that he’s sick. She’d studied almost the entire time and had been agitated when he’d made her take breaks to eat and rest every now and then.

            He starts to head for the stairs but has to double back when he remembers he needs to shut the front door. Deciding that the stairs are too far away he changes direction and aims for the couch instead, allowing himself to collapse onto it. He turns his head to the right and contemplates the stairs. Have they always been so far away? Or so tall? He wonders if it would really be worth the effort of trying to get up them just so he can get into his own bed. He knows he should at least try but when he moves to get up the room starts to swoop and tilt as if he were on a boat rather than the solid floor of his own home.

            After either a minute or an hour of deliberation, he decides that he should just stay on the couch and wait for the nausea to pass before trying again. No use attempting it when he’s unsteady like this. He reaches towards the blanket draped over the back of the couch and tries to pull it down over himself. He fumbles a little with his aching arms and ends up only covering the top half of his body but it doesn’t matter. He feels kind of hot anyway.

            Castiel drifts in and out of sleep. Time is weird when he isn’t paying attention. He’s not even entirely sure if it really is raining outside or if he’s just hearing things now. He doesn’t bother sitting up to find out. He just lets sleep take him under again.

 

            “Cas?” A familiar voice calls out to him, they sound a little far away though. “Cas? Wake up.” Closer now, the familiar voice is trying to pull him from sleep. He frowns and tries to push the voice away but finds nothing but air when he reaches out. He pushes his face deeper into his pillow and hears a low chuckle somewhere nearby. It’s a vaguely comforting sound but he can’t quite pick where he knows it from. His head feels foggy but he knows that no one is actually in his house because he locked the front door after Claire left. Didn’t he?

            He bolts upright so fast that he has to wait for the room to stop swinging before he can try to get up. He didn’t lock the door! He looks around wildly trying to find the intruder and push the blanket off at the same time, only somehow becoming more tangled in it. He jerks away when he feels a hand grip onto his wrist.

            “Woah Cas! It’s ok, it’s just me,” Dean says soothingly. Cas’ panic dissipates when he realises that there isn’t a threat inside his home, just Dean. Dean, sitting on his coffee table, leaning back with his hands up and a surprised look on his face.

            “What-” Cas croaks out. He pauses to clear his throat and tries again. “What are you doing here?” He relaxes back down onto the couch, shifting into a bit more of an upright position, leaning against the armrest. His throat feels so dry and achy that he wishes he had something, anything to make it stop. Did he take any medicine this morning? Yes. Claire made him take a cold and flu tablet before she left.

            “Claire mentioned you were sick when she stopped by for breakfast this morning. I thought I’d bring you some soup and stuff and-” Dean cuts himself off, lifting a hand to rub against the back of his neck. “And I wanted to check on you.” He finishes shyly. Cas stares at Dean uncomprehendingly. Dean had wanted to check on him, make sure that he’s ok. He watches Dean unbutton his rain coat, rise to go hang it up on the coat rack by the front door and return to sit on the coffee table again.

            Cas notices the cloth shopping bag sitting on the floor when Dean knocks it with his foot and he leans to the side to try and see what’s in it. He smiles because he remembers when he’d managed to convince Dean to switch from using plastic bags to reusable options, a proud moment for him. He must lean too far to the side because suddenly he feels like he’s falling until Dean shoots out a hand to steady him. Gently, Dean pushes him upright again and adjusts his blanket.

            “I didn’t know what you had or what you needed so I just, sort of, bought a bunch of stuff. There’s soup that I made and some medicine, some VapoDrops.” Castiel feels his heart swoon, how can he possibly express how grateful he is to have Dean as a friend?

            “I hate being sick,” he declares. Then mentally kicks himself.

            “I know,” Dean says sympathetically.

            “I mean, anybody can get a cold! I wish I could get something cool for once. Like for once it would be cool to be like ‘Oh yeah, I’m not feeling too good, my leg is haunted’.” He feels so useless just sitting here on the couch. Unable to go to work, unable to even get up the stairs to his room. He glares over at the stairs but it just makes his headache worse so he has to look away.

            “Welcome to humanity, man. Can I get you anything?” He can feel himself getting colder so he points to the other blanket, folded up and sitting on the chair in the corner of the stairs, and tries to say “Can you grab that for me, please?” but instead it comes out as a garbled croak of a sentence. Dean stands and leans over to press the back of his hand to Cas’ forehead. He closes his eyes and basks in the warmth of Dean’s hand. When Dean removes his hand, Cas opens his eyes to look up at him only to find him frowning.

            “You’ve got a fever Cas.”

            “I’m sure I do. Can you get me some water, please?” Luckily this comes out sounding a little clearer. Dean nods and heads towards the kitchen. He’s been around here often enough before to know where they keep their cups. Castiel has to think about it but he thinks the last time Dean was here was for Claire’s sixteenth birthday party, October last year? Or maybe it was later than that? Christmas time? He can’t think past the fog and his worsening headache. Luckily, when Dean returns he has the packet of cold and flu tablets with him. Claire must have left them on the counter in the hopes that it would remind him to take them. Thank goodness for Dean then.

            “When did you last have some?” Dean asks seriously, sitting back down on the coffee table.

            “Before Claire left for school,” he answers honestly.

            “Alright well it’s one o’clock now so you can have the next one.” Cas feels simultaneously surprised that he’s been on the couch for about six hours now and also shocked that it’s only one in the afternoon. He takes the medication with a grimace but the water tastes so good for some reason that he has to hold himself back from gulping it all down in one go.

            “You made me soup?” Cas suddenly remembers that Dean brought him things. A whole bag full of things, homemade and store bought. He allows himself to sink down further into a more horizontal position in an attempt to distract his heart from swooning inside. Dean wants to make sure he’s ok. Dean wants to take care of him. Cas wishes Dean could take care of him every time he’s sick. He wishes that Dean would take care of him all the time. He wishes he could do the same for Dean.

            “Well, yeah.”

            “Dean?” Might as well go for it, he thinks. What better opportunity than right now? Well, a time when he isn’t sick would be ideal but Cas doesn’t think he can hold back another minute.

            “Yes Cas?”

            “Will you go out with me?” Dean’s mouth falls open in shock. “When I’m not sick, of course,” Cas continues. He knows that he absolutely did not think this through but he feels hopeful but also just dopey enough from being sick and taking medicine that if this doesn’t go the way he would like then he might not feel embarrassed or upset about it until later.

            “I, uh. I don’t think… It would be a good idea?” Dean stammers and there’s a blush staining his cheeks, making his freckles stand out. For a moment Cas is distracted by those freckles and how much he wishes he could go back to sleep suddenly. Then the words sink in.

            “Oh.”

            “It’s not that you’re not great Cas! Cause I mean just look at you.” He waves a hand up and down in Cas’ direction, “and anyone would be lucky to date you and I don’t even think I swing that way. Well, there was that one time with- That’snotthepoint! You’re my best friend! It’s just that I don’t think I’m- and you deserve better.” Dean is babbling. He’s babbling with a lot of exaggerated hand gestures and a bright blushing face. There’s a lot of information to sort through in the babbling Cas is sure but right now Cas pushes it away. He tries very hard not to let the disappointment and hurt show on his face. How could he have been so wrong about this? He was sure there had been… Moments. Where Dean had seemed into him too.

           “Are we still friends? Because the coffee at Weston’s isn’t as good as yours.” He tries to make a joke out of it but he seriously does want to know that he didn’t just ruin their friendship. This is not helping with his headache.

           Dean looks so relieved that he heaves a sigh of relief. “Of course, Cas. You’re my best friend so don’t worry about it.” Despite the fact that Dean sounds calm when he says this, his eyes are darting about the room as if he can’t look Cas in the eye. Cas ignores the sinking feeling in his stomach.

           Instead he struggles upright again. “Can you help me get up to my room then? Then you can go.”

           “Go?”

           “Don’t you have a diner to run?” Does Dean not see that he’s giving him an out of this awkward situation?

           “Caesar’s covering for the moment.”

           “Still. Claire will be home from school soon and you’ve brought all these supplies…” Dean looks hesitant but he stands and follows him to the base of the stairs where they begin a slow climb. Cas grips the railing tightly and pulls himself up slowly. Dean follows directly behind him, ready to catch him should his knees give out or something. Cas feels humiliation burn in his cheeks the whole way up. Partially, from the rejection and partially because of how weak he feels.

           “Do you think you should see a doctor?” Dean asks when Cas is finally tucked into his own bed. Blankets up to his chin, Dean’s supplies spread out around him.

           “Pretty sure it’s just a cold Dean but if there’s no improvement by Wednesday I’ll call one of the doctors that do house calls,” he says, reassuringly. Dean looks uncomfortable. Like he wants to say something but keeps changing his mind at the last second.

           “I really appreciate you coming but you don’t have to stay if you have other places to be,” he says again. Dean nods.

           “Yeah, I guess I should be getting back. Take care of yourself alright?” Dean takes another look around the room to make sure he has everything and when he’s satisfied he sends him a little wave and a soft, “bye Cas,” before leaving. Cas listens for the sound of the front door closing then reaches for the phone. He hesitates and then puts it down again. He lays there and stares at the ceiling, resisting sleep.

           Dean said no. Dean said he doesn’t even “swing that way”. Cas squeezes his eyes shut against the sting of tears. He tries his best to relax and let himself sleep but it’s fitful. It does however make the time go by quicker because before he knows it Claire is hovering over him.

           “Have you been crying?” She asks, blunt but concerned. She sits down on the edge of his bed and holds out some more medicine for him to take.

           He waits until he’s forced the tablet down his sore throat with the glass of water she hands him to answer. “I asked Dean out.” Claire’s eyebrows shoot upwards in surprise.

           “Well, what did he say?”

           “He said no.”

           “An outright no? That’s it? When I asked him to come check on you I didn’t think it would cause this much trouble.”

           “Well there was some… babbling, I suppose. He said a lot, and nicely enough, but I can’t really think properly right now.” For a moment, Claire looks confused then she merely shakes her head and says, “Well, I suppose at least now you know. Are you two still friends?”

           “Yes.”

           “Then no real harm done right?” She says with false cheer. Castiel can see something akin to disappointment in her eyes and feels a little bit better because he’s not alone.

 

---

           Dean shuts the front door to Cas’ house behind him and twists the knob to make sure it’s locked. Every step he takes away from the house, away from Castiel, and back to the diner feels… Off. Wrong, almost. Castiel had asked him out. Cas had asked him out. He’d looked so hopeful, once he got past what a sight the poor guy was from being sick. Flushed and sweaty skin, hair wild and unkempt even more so than usual, even his voice was at a lower pitch, more gravelly because of his sore throat.

           Dean hadn’t meant to scare Cas when he’d woken him up. He’d called out from the front door but when Cas didn’t answer he’d gone in to find him asleep on the couch. If he was being honest it didn’t actually look like he was all that comfortable but he obviously didn’t care when he was unconscious. He was glad that despite having unintentionally hurt Cas’ feelings he’d still managed to make him drink some water, take some medicine and move upstairs to his own bed. Dean would make sure to check on him again tomorrow to see how he’s doing and make sure he’s taking his medicine. The idiot seemed to be trying to sleep off the cold, as if he were a computer he could just turn off and on again to fix the problem.

           He shoves his hands into his pockets as he walks, keeping his head down. He keeps thinking about how Cas had looked so sincere. He’d felt his stomach drop when Cas had just asked him out of the blue. How could Cas want to be with someone like him? What did he see in him? Dean had to say no. He probably could’ve done it better but even if he kind of wanted to say yes, he knew he wasn’t ready for a relationship like Cas wanted or would eventually want. Cas is his best friend and Dean doesn’t want to lose that and he knows that Cas doesn’t either. Cas deserves better than just him. He shouldn’t have to wait for him to get his crap together before Dean can allow anyone other than his brother and his family to get close to him. He knows all too well how easy it is to lose the people you care about.

          Maybe one day? If Cas still feels the same and if Dean’s gotten his act together by then? He can’t believe his own stupidity for telling Cas that he doesn’t swing that way. He’s never been with a man before but he knows that he’s bi, despite the fact that no one but his brother Sam and his family know. He’s just not quite comfortable sharing it with the world just yet. For now, he’ll remain Cas’ friend. The one with the coffee. When Cas comes into the diner next and isn’t sick anymore Dean will just have to endeavour to show him that they’re all good.

Chapter Text

             By Wednesday Castiel was feeling much better and was even beginning to feel the familiar itch of boredom taking over. Outside, Autumn was in full swing. The front lawn was covered with leaves in various shades of yellow and reds so deep they could almost be purple. It made him want to pull out his paints and capture the beauty of it before he’ll have to get out the rake and put it all into the compost.

             He probably could’ve gone back to work today but he didn’t want to get anyone else sick by showing up when he still wasn’t feeling one hundred percent. Tomorrow he’ll finally be able to go back to his normal routine, which was just as well considering there’s a parent teacher meeting at Milton that afternoon that he can’t miss. He’s looking forward to hearing from Claire’s teacher’s about how she’s doing. He knows she’s been feeling a lot of pressure from moving to Milton but she seems to be doing alright so far. She hasn’t said otherwise.

            True to his word, Dean had stopped by yesterday and today. Similar to the first visit, Dean made sure that Castiel took his medicine, brought him food and never brought up the fact that Castiel had feverishly asked him out. In fact, things went on as if it had never happened at all. Castiel even wondered if he’d just dreamed the whole thing up and then he’d catch Dean looking at him with what seemed like fondness, or he’d be staring out the window looking thoughtful. This was just confusing considering that Dean had turned him down. Castiel was grateful that Dean was still his best friend but every time Cas saw him he felt a twinge of disappointment. It wasn’t Dean’s fault, or even his own but it still hurt. Cas just needed a bit of time to get over the whole thing and then everything should be ok.

            Castiel heads downstairs to the kitchen, aiming to make a cup of coffee. He hesitates, sighs and reaches for a tea bag instead. He would obviously prefer coffee but both Claire and Dean had scolded him and said he should take it easy. He pulls out his favourite mug, the yellow one with small bees painting flying around it, while he waits for the kettle to boil. Claire left her bedroom door open when she left this morning and he’s glad that the light can filter into the kitchen from her windows too. He loves it when the place is bright and airy. If it wasn’t so icy and windy out he’d prop open the kitchen door.

            The kettle catches his attention again when it clicks itself off. He pours the water and a splash of milk and moves to sit at the table, stirring the sugar in as he goes. Dean left about half an hour ago and Claire won’t be home until just after four so he has no idea what to do with his time until then. He wishes, for a moment, that he could actually get out his paints and start a new project. Until he realises with a jolt that yes! He can do that. He has the time and he doesn’t have anywhere to go for the rest of the day. With a smile so big it hurts his cheeks, he cradles his mug in his hands for warmth and makes his way back up the stairs.

 

---

            “Claire!” A voice calls from behind her. She almost drops one of her books when she turns around and sees Kaia coming out of Doose’s market to meet her on the footpath. She’s wearing one of their monogrammed green aprons over her clothes with a name tag proudly pinned in the middle. She must have come directly to the store once school finished to start her shift.

            “Kaia, hi. How are you?”

            “Yeah, I’m good thanks! I’m glad I caught you, I was wondering if you wanted to do something this weekend? I’ve got some time free and thought, you know, if you were still interested, then we could hang out.” Claire tries not to show it on her face how her heart clenches at the thought of losing time to study this weekend, especially since she has a test and a big essay coming up. If she can get ahead between now and Friday, she might just be able to swing it. She would love to spend time with Kaia after all, it’s been a couple of weeks since she moved schools now.

            “Sure! That’d be great, you thinking Saturday or Sunday? My dad and I might be having a movie night on Saturday but if you wanted you could still come to that.”

            “Won’t your dad mind?” She wrings her hands together, unsure.

            “No. I can honestly say that he wouldn’t.”

            “Well, a movie night sounds like fun anyway. Give me a call when you confirm it?”

            “Sure,” Claire agrees with a smile.

            “Alright, well. I should get back to work but… It’s good to see you. Bye!” Kaia’s smile is a little bit shy but still blinding as she walks back towards the market. Claire spends just a minute too long watching her go before she realises that she should probably keep moving. She spins around, giddy, and continues her way home in a daze.

 

            “Dad?” She calls out when she opens the front door. Dropping her key onto the side table in the entrance she turns left into the living room to dump all her school stuff on the couch.

            “Dad?” She tries again. He could just be asleep but she wants to check anyway. She wanders through and checks the kitchen, then doubles back and up the stairs. She can hear music muffled behind his closed door as she approaches. XTC’s I’m the Man Who Murdered Love is playing just loud enough that she’s sure he can’t hear it when she knocks on the door. She opens it anyway and finds her dad standing in front of his easel, singing along to the music and dancing but only slightly so he can paint properly. It’s a half-finished landscape view of the front yard from his bedroom window in all its autumnal glory. She’s glad that he’s feeling better than he has the last few days.

            Not wanting to startle him into accidentally wrecking the painting, Claire goes to the CD player and turns it down. He looks over his shoulder squinting.

            “Good, you’re home. How was your day?” His voice doesn’t sound so scratchy today and his nose isn’t blocked anymore.

            At the question Claire flashes back to Ben and his friends snickering whenever they saw her today. “It was ok, just glad to be home now.”

            “What are you feeling like for dinner? I was thinking Chinese?”

            “Sounds good.”

            “Can you go put the order in while I clean up?” He says gesturing to the old paint splattered clothes he’s wearing.

            “Sure.” She gets halfway down the stairs before she remembers about Kaia and the movie night. “Hey, dad?” She calls back up the stairs and waits to see if he heard.

            “Yeah?” He calls back, opening his bedroom door so he can hear better.

            “Are we having a movie night Saturday?”

            “I was planning on it but I haven’t picked a movie yet.”

            “Oh good. Um, do you mind if I invite someone around to join us?” What if he says no? What if he feels like movie nights are just their thing and she’s already technically invited Kaia over?

            “Of course, you can have Jack over. I thought you guys were past the asking the parents stage of friendship.”

            “No. Not Jack, I meant Kaia.” There’s silence for a solid thirty seconds before he appears at the top of the stairs.

            “Kaia, the girl you like?” He asks, seriously.

            He already knows everything about the situation anyway so she has no qualms about answering honestly, “yes.”

            “You want her to come here?”

            “Yes.”

            “For movie night?”

            “Yes.”

            “With me?”

            “Yes.”

            “You realise that I’ll be here too right? Like in the house. While you and your potential date-mate are hanging out for the first time.”

            “Dad, yes! I get it!” Claire groans, exasperated. She tries to ignore the fact that her cheeks are heating up but when looks up again she sees a bright smile take over her dad’s face.

            “That’s great, honey. You know I have to pick a really good movie now and- Oh my god! What if she doesn’t like any of the classics?!” He seems genuinely concerned about this possibility and too be quite honest it had never crossed Claire’s mind until now.

            “You’ll just have to educate her then.” Castiel only hums absently as he heads back to his room.

            It takes her five minutes to find the phone tucked neatly under an open copy of Good Omens, on the middle shelf in the far left corner of the room. She holds it out like a sword triumphantly and cries, “Aha!” Before dialling the number to order their food. She can feel the presence of her homework waiting in her bag like a dark and stormy raincloud following her wherever she goes so when she hangs up she grabs her bag and heads for her room. She pulls everything out, already regretting when she’ll have to repack it in the morning, and lets it all drop haphazardly on the bed. Looking it all over and deciding that yes, this is actually manageable, she leaves it for after dinner. She gets changed straight into her pjs since she’s not going anywhere today.

            She can hear her dad shuffling around in the kitchen before he calls out to her. “Claire? Did you get the egg rolls?”

            “Yeah, I’ll be out in a minute.” She calls back, running a brush through her hair and pulling it into a ponytail. With one last glance in the mirror she leaves her room. “They’ll be here in half an hour,” she announces. Castiel isn’t even in the kitchen but he’s left money on the table to pay the delivery person.

            “Can’t wait,” he says slightly distracted by the tv. She flops down on the couch beside him and see’s he’s put on Bewitched. They’re up to season two in their re-watch.

            They finish one episode and start another before there’s a knock on the door. Castiel gets up to collect it, pay and bring it all back to the couch. It’s too much food for two people to eat in one night but that’s part of their routine. Half of it will go in the fridge for tomorrow night and, if it wasn’t Friday, the night after that.

 

             When they’re done Claire volunteers to put the left overs in the fridge while Castiel stays on the couch. She pulls out a can of coke and puts it on the table, then ducks into her room to grab her books. The clock on her bedside table says it’s 5.47pm but it feels later than that. Really, she just wants to be able to crawl into bed right now and ignore her responsibilities.

            “I’m gonna get start my homework,” she calls. She heaves a sigh as she sets herself up at the kitchen table and tries to decide which project she should work on first. Both the test and the essay are equally important but since she got a D on her last English Essay she should probably try to focus on Shakespeare now. Although, if she starts the essay now then at least she can get the outline down tonight and study Shakespeare after.

          Once she buckles down she nearly gets an hour’s worth of work in before her dad decides to interrupt her. “Hey,” he makes his way over and sits in the chair across from her, “Do you wanna get some ice cream?”

          “I’m kind of busy at the moment.” She doesn’t even look up from the page she’s writing on. She has to get this done.

          “Can’t you take a break? Breaks are good for you, you know.”

          “I can’t take a break right now,” she says it too quickly, a little too harsh. He looks surprised for a moment.

          “You know, I hope this whole moving schools thing isn’t too stressful on you. I know that Milton is a completely different environment and-”

           Claire just huffs and interrupts him, “I can’t take a break because I’m trying to get this outline finished. If you let me study now, I’ll hang out with you this weekend.” His eyebrows pull together and he tilts his head to the side, squinting at her.

           She almost thinks he’s going to call her out on the whole stress thing but instead he asks, “will you come to the bookstore with me?”

           “Absolutely.” As if Claire would actually turn down going to the bookstore anyway.

           “Alright, I’ll leave you to it.” He gets up and goes back to the lounge room but stops in the hallway, turning back. “I’m sorry. It’s just… Where did we end up on the ice cream thing?” He asks. Claire sends a glare his way before shutting her notebook, grabbing her stuff and migrating back into her room. Setting her stuff back out over her desk she resists the urge to glance at the clock again. She looks back down at the notebook before her, the open textbooks spread out on the desk. It’s going to be a long night.

 

---

            “Hello Dean,” Castiel greets Dean’s back. He lets out a laugh when Dean spins around with wide eyes and almost spills coffee on the floor from the pot in his hand.

He takes a seat at the counter while Dean splutters out, “Cas! What are you doing here?”

            “Ordering some coffee, if you’ll let me,” he deadpans. He’s still feeling a little tired.

            “Right. Coffee, ok.” Dean puts down the coffee pot he’s holding so he can spin around in a full circle, waving his arms around confusedly before finally reaching under the counter to grab a mug. He places it in front of Cas slightly too hard so that it makes a loud bang. There’s an unmistakable blush covering his cheeks.

            He coughs and asks, “So you’re feeling better then?”

           “Yes, much better. I’m going back to work today. Just as well, I don’t want to even think about having to go to Friday night dinner tomorrow whilst sick.” Dean is scrutinising his face while he talks so he lets his sentence trail off at the end and stares back at Dean.

           “You are looking much better than you did on Tuesday even,” he finally says. He moves away to serve another customer paying for their meal for a moment. Cas sips at his coffee. It tastes better than ever now that he can drink it again.

          “You gonna order breakfast today?”

          “Pancakes with a side of pancakes, and chocolate chips, please,” he says without having to look at the menu. He’s been here enough over the years that he knows everything that’s on it anyway.

          “I’m sure your immune system will thank you for that,” he says disapprovingly. The effect is ruined by the fact that Cas can see him writing his order down anyway so he just nods and does his best to hold back a smirk. He’s glad when he sees Dean go into the back to make them himself, Caesar makes decent enough pancakes but, somehow, Deans are always better.

 

          Work is hectic in a good way. A large French group have taken up a third of their rooms from now until next Tuesday for conferences in the area. Castiel is just glad he can get back to his normal routine now. He feels bad for taking time off for having a cold of all things but when he thinks about trying to come here whilst his head was all foggy and feverish he’s glad he didn’t.

          He’s sorting through mail at the front desk when he finds the magazine tucked at the bottom of the pile. He gasps and has to resist the urge to flick through it too soon. Inside is a food critic’s review of the Independence inn’s restaurant. He speed walks through the lobby to get to the kitchen.

          “It’s here! Charlie it’s here!” He cries before he’s even got the door fully open.

          “The review? Oh my god!” Charlie throws down her tea towel and comes running over to him excitedly. “What does it say? Is it horrible? should I cry?” She lifts hands covered in bright band-aids to cover her mouth. Castiel flips through trying to find the review.

           “Oh,” Castiel exclaims, distracted for a moment from the review, when Claire walks in the back door with at least four different bags stuffed full of books and schoolwork. “Behold, in theatres now. The thing that reads a lot.” He jokes.

            She lets all the bags fall to the floor all at once and asks, “chocolate?” Sounding a little dejected. Castiel frowns but he knows it’ll be better to wait until later to ask how she is rather than here at work in front of people, in particularly Charlie.

            “Glass measuring bowl in the fridge.” Charlie points.

            “Ok,” he says and keeps flicking through the magazine until he finally locates the review. “Here we go. ‘The words divine, delectable and delirious don’t begin to describe the delicious experience of dining at the Independence inn. Ah, I’m smelling a rave!” He says and Charlie smiles but waves her hand for him to continue reading. “Only Chef Charlie Bradbury could make a simple salad of hothouse tomatoes and assorted fresh herbs seem like a religious experience. Her Lobster bisque is worth every sinful, cream filled sip.”

            “See, I don’t use that much cream. I just use a very concentrated lobster stock and it really makes it-” She starts to explain, her eyes gleaming with pride.

            “Charlie? Here’s not here.” He points out before reading on, “The entrees are as heavenly as the starters. Though the much lauded Risotto was perfectly fine, it was the simple handkerchief pasta with brown sage in a butter sauce that sent me through the roof. Charlie this is unbelievable! I’m gonna have this framed for the dining room.” He can barely contain his excitement and Charlie is pulling the magazine out of his hands to get another look, her brow furrowed in concentration. He wanders over to Claire, who’s perched herself on one of the kitchen stools and slumped over the bowl of chocolate in her lap.

         He takes a small piece out to nibble on and asks, “How was your day, hon?”

         “Long. Just very, very long.”

         “Aw, well you should head home and get some rest. I’ll meet you at Winchester’s later for dinner ok?”

         “I’m actually going to Jack’s house to study and hang out for a bit.”

         “Even better. Tell him and his dad hi for me.” Claire nods, setting the bowl down on the bench and leaning down to collect her bags. “Do you need a ride with all that?” He asks. Claire glances down at the bags and then sighs.

          “Thanks dad.”

           “Of course,” he says. He puts an arm around her shoulders and guides her back through the back door to the staff parking lot. He’ll take a break now to drop her off at Jack’s house in town and be back by the time his break is finished.

 

---

            Her dad drops her off outside of Jack’s house and smiles as he waves before pulling away from the curb. Claire takes a moment to look up at the sky, feeling the weight of the universe pressing down on her. She knows, logically, that this issue will pass. One day she’ll graduate from high school and go to college and become a writer. It’s just one step at a time. Still. Knowing all that doesn’t stop it from being hard now, or the downtrodden feeling that’s been swirling around in her stomach for days now.

            She shakes her arms out and jumps up and down, because the chill in the evening air is finally starting to get to her, then she leans down to open the gate to the Kline house and enters the yard. She always wondered why the fence is so short, it probably wouldn’t even be able to keep a dog in the yard since it only comes up to just above her knees.

            When she gets to the front door she doesn’t even bother knocking and just walks right in.

            “Claire?” Jack’s dis embodied voice calls out, checking that it’s her.

            “Jack?”

            “I’m in the kitchen.” She turns right, through the living room and then left into the kitchen. She finds Jack sitting at the table, books open and abandoned as he leans on the back legs of his chair, eating a Milky Way.

            “I see your Uncle Gabe has visited,” Claire deadpans, eyeing the bar.

He lets his chair fall back into place with a loud thunk! “Much to my father’s dismay. Gabe’s staying at your father’s inn of all places.” He gets up and opens one of the overhead cupboards, pulling out another Milky Way and tossing it to her.

            “Oh well, I know dad’s gonna love that.”

            Jack hums and takes another bite of his candy. “How come you’re late,” he asks with his mouth full.

            “Sorry. I stopped by the inn when I got off the bus. My dad dropped me off here.” She pulls out her notes as she talks. Compared to Jack’s homework, she looks like she’s planning world domination or something. She feels her shoulders slumping at the sight of it.

            “You ok? You seem… Down.”

            Claire hesitates. “It’s just… I really miss Stars Hollow High.” She fidgets with her pencil and almost drops it.

            “What happened?”

            “Milton is just, I don’t know, hard.”

            “I thought that was what you wanted? You always thought the work at Stars Hollow High was too easy.”

            “What I wanted was a way to get to Harvard and I got that. I’m not ungrateful,” she says, suddenly feeling the need to defend herself and her feelings.

            “I never said you were,” he says patiently.

            “It’s just a lot more than I expected and I’m… Struggling.” She tenses at the admission.

            “You know that’s ok, right?” She looks up at him in surprise.

            “What?”

            “You don’t have to be perfect for them, you just have to get through it. You’ve only been there for a couple of weeks, right? All you need is time.”

            “It feels like there’s never enough time.” She doesn’t mention the fact that she got a D on her assignment. She’s actually pretty sure it’s her first D ever in high school. Not that she’s always gotten A’s but never anything as low as a D.

            “Alright, then don’t focus on time. Focus on doing your best. It’s cheesy but it works because it’s true. All anyone, well anyone who matters, wants is for you to do your best and be happy.” He’s probably right. It sounds a little too good to be true but he’s still probably right. She just doesn’t want to let her dad down and she tells Jack as much.

            “You’re kidding right? Have you met your dad? He’s so proud of you!” Ok, so maybe what Jack is saying has some merit to it after all.

            “Thanks Jack,” she says, feeling a little bit lighter.

            “Anytime.” He gives her a big smile. Claire doesn’t think her dad would actually be disappointed in her if she wanted to go back to Stars Hollow High. Only if she didn’t at least give Milton a good try first. She just worries that if she doesn’t make it through then it would’ve been a waste of her grandparent’s money, a waste of her dad’s time to ask them for it and have Friday Night Dinners become a thing.

 

---

            When Castiel walks into Milton he only has a vague idea of where he’s supposed to go for this Parent Teacher Meeting, thanks to Claire’s directions. The meeting is being held in her English classroom with Miss Allen and he’s late. He can hear voices somewhere nearby so he stands still in the hallway for a moment, listening, then turns to the door on his right. He takes a deep breath, bracing himself. He opens the door and sticks his head in.

            At the front of the room a woman who must be Miss Allen is leaning against the teacher’s desk. “Hello. Why don’t you join us Mr- uh?”

            “I’m so sorry. Novak. Castiel Novak,” he says stepping into the room and moving to shake her outstretched hand. She’s pretty, he thinks. Dark brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail, hazel eyes, a black pants suit.

            “Well Castiel Novak, take a seat and we can keep going. I’m Miss Allen and we were just discussing the details of the upcoming AP test and SATs.”

             He can feel the eyes of all the other parents on him. He can see the money in their immaculate hair do’s, hair sprayed within an inch of its life and not a strand out of place, the way they’re all wearing suits and matching skirts and cardigans. The strings of pearls. Now he’s just exaggerating a little bit but he knows these types of people, he grew up in this world and he does not like one bit how at least half of these parents are looking down their noses at him. As if there aren’t bigger problems in the world.

            He starts to walk backwards towards the only empty seat in the room, right at the front. “Of course. I’ll just-Oh!” He lets out a noise of surprise as he runs into a globe set on a stand with wheels. Odd, and humiliating. “What in the world,” he tries to joke as he pats the top of it and wheels it back into place. Unfortunately, the room stays silent. He just sighs and moves on to sit down but then he spots the urn in the back of the room. He quickly detours to get a cup of coffee. How else is he going to get through this?

            “So are there any questions?” Miss Allen asks the room.

            “The AP test.” One mother says pointedly. Castiel resists the urge to roll his eyes.

            “Right, well. Where preparing the students as best we can.”

            “I’ve hired a tutor for Bethany,” one of the father’s smugly points out.

            “Always a valid option,” Miss Allen says.

            Castiel watches on and takes a sip of his drink. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the camel!” He exclaims. “Really bad coffee,” he whispers when everyone, yet again, looks at him questioningly. “So this AP test, huh? What are we gonna do about it?” He asks loudly as he, finally, sits down.

            “Well, the next test is scheduled for next month, um, the 25th. Saturday, at 7am,” Miss Allen answers calmly.

            Castiel raises his hand until she gestures for him to speak. “Um, where is the test?”

            “The test will be held here at the school.”

            “Can parents come?” He asks and has an awkward moment of watching the other parents swivel around in their chairs just to stare incredulously at him.

            “What?!”

            “Yeah. It’s a big, exciting test. I just thought- I’m sorry. Is that stupid?”

            “No, no, no. It’s not stupid,” Miss Allen says. Judging by the looks on the other people in the room, she’s the only one who thinks so.

            “I just thought I’d like to see the excitement,” he explains.

            “It’s a test,” one of the father’s spits at him.

            “I know.”

            “What’s exciting about a test?” The man spits again.

            “Do you play golf?” Castiel asks him.

            “Yes, I do,” the man sits up straighter in his seat as he says so.

            “You explain yours, I’ll explain mine.” Castiel says, letting a little bit of snark seep into his voice.

            “Ok! Why don’t we get back to the meeting,” Miss Allen implores from the front of the room. Trying to maintain the focus of the meeting but grown adults are a little harder to keep in line, especially when they’re not actually there to learn anything like her students do during the day.

            “That’s the father of the new girl, Claire.” The mother in the seat to his right whispers to her friend on her other side.

            “Must be a scholarship student,” the friend whispers back.

            “Um, excuse me?!” Castiel asks loudly, leaning forward. He doesn’t care who these people are they have no right to talk about him or his kid that way.

            “Why don’t we all just take a break for now? There’s coffee and biscuits in the back and we’ll come back after fifteen minutes?” Miss Allen interrupts, gesturing towards the urn but looking directly at the two rude women next to Castiel. Everyone moves all at once towards the back and out the door of the classroom. Castiel just moves towards the chalkboard on the wall to the left of the teacher’s desk. He’s trying not to go back to those women and give them a piece of his mind.

            “What were you going to do?” He looks over to see Miss Allen standing close with her hands behind her back.

            “Oh, nothing. I just had some really good verbal comebacks ready.” He takes another sip of the terrible coffee and makes a face. “It- It just keeps getting worse.”

            “Well not drinking it is always an option.”

            “Not in my world.”

            “I apologise for the behaviour of some of our guests tonight. It’s a tense time for some people.”

            “The SAT season?”

            “The waking hours.” Castiel laughs at that.

            “Hey, are this nice to my kid?” He asks, genuinely curious.

            Miss Allen waves a hand. “It’s easy, Claire’s a sweet girl. Very determined.”

            “Yeah, she is, she is.” They go quiet until Miss Allen puts a hand on his arm and leads him away from the other parents.

            “How is she liking Milton?” She asks. Uh oh. He knows that tone. The universal tone of I’m leading up to saying something but I need to lay the groundwork for it first.

            “She enjoys it. I mean, it’s an adjustment but she’s always wanted to go to Harvard, this is how she’ll get there.”

            “Really?”

            “Yes. Once when she was really little and we were on a trip somewhere, I ran out of clean clothes and had to buy some new things but the only things that were available were Harvard sweatpants and sweatshirts and stuff. I even had to use one of the sweatshirts as a make-shift diaper when there was an incident on our way home. Anyway, later I realised that one day Claire is going to go to College one day. She’s gonna grow up and she’ll have to pick one eventually. Long story short I have a soft spot for Harvard because of the clothing, which is kind of silly-” Castiel cuts himself off abruptly. He doesn’t normally talk this much. Miss Allen is staring at him with a small smile on her face. “I’ve just told you a story that will probably mortify Claire when I tell her you know.”

            “So don’t tell her then. It’ll be our secret. But I do think that it’s a good story, not silly,” she says, leaning against the teacher’s desk.

            “I appreciate that.”

            “You know, I hope Claire adjusts to this place. We need her here,” she says sincerely.

            “Thank you. That’s very kind.”

            “I hope she’s not too disappointed about her assignment? It’s very hard to catch up on all that reading material. I know a D seems dismal but-”

            “Wait, Claire got a D?” He interrupts, shocked. Claire didn’t tell him she got a D.

            “Well, yeah.” Miss Allen seems to flounder at his reaction, she assumed he knew. Of course she would.

            “She’s never gotten a D,” he says, stunned.

            “It’s the first essay she’s had to turn in. She’s bound to falter a little.” He’s grateful that Miss Allen is so kind. Now he knows that he needs to go to talk to Claire.

            “This totally explains the no ice cream thing,” he mutters to himself. “I’ve got to go.”

            “Is everything ok?” Miss Allen reaches out to put a hand on his arm.

            “Yes, it’s just that Claire got a D and she isn’t feeling too good about it so I’d like to be there for her.” She’s a perfectionist meeting a roadblock right now. Only she’s probably seeing it as a failure. He knew. He knew that something was bothering her but he put off asking her until later. He assumed it would be something to do with that boy who’s been bothering her.

            “I understand.”

            “So, it was nice meeting you.” He starts backing away because he wants to leave right now but miss manners says you need to say goodbye to your host.

            “And you. Oh!” She points to the globe that had been sneaking behind him again. He laughs, pats it again, waves to Miss Allen and walks right out the door. He heads straight for his car.

            Claire should be at Winchester’s by now. He’ll think about how to talk to her about this on the way there.

 

---

            “Here.” The sound of a plate sliding onto the table in front of her, jolts Claire from her tunnel vision. She’s been staring at her textbook and reading the same paragraph for god knows how long now. She should probably take a break. She left Jack’s house about half an hour ago and she has no idea where her dad is.

“What’s that?” She looks up at Dean confused. She didn’t order any pie.

            “You need pie.”

            “I do?”

            “Violent pencil tossing signals a need for pie.” She feels her face heat with embarrassment that he’d caught her doing that a few minutes ago. It’d only been one pencil but it had refused to co-operate with her.

            “What if I’d thrown a pen?” She asks curiously.

            “I’d bring a trout.”

            “What?”

            “I don’t make the rules. I just carry them out.” He walks away to help another customer, leaving her more confused than ever.

---

         Castiel opens the door to Winchester’s, looking over the tables until he spots Claire absently eating a slice of pie at the table to the right of the door. Dean, standing nearby serving another table, turns to him.

         “She’s eating pie? What about dinner?” Cas asks.

         “You raised her. I just serve,” Dean says, glancing over at her.

          “Alright then can you bring over a plate of fries please?”

          “Coming right up.”

          “Thanks,” he says, patting Dean’s arm and moving to sit with Claire.

           “Finally, where have you been?” Claire asks. Her mood has not improved since he dropped her off at Jack’s earlier.

            “I was in Hartford,” he says simply. He shrugs off his coat and neatly drapes it over the back of his chair.

            “Hartford? Why?”

            “I was there for the…” He holds his hands out in an almost ‘ta da’ motion and looks at her expectantly.

            “Parent… Teacher… Meeting. Oh my god,” she says slowly as she realises. “I forgot.”

            “It all went very well. I won the crowd over and eventually, they made me king.” He eyes the textbook and exercise book open on the table and the half a slice of pie she has left. Claire can’t sit still in her chair. She looks tired.

           “So I guess you talked to Miss Allen, huh?” She says more than asks.

            He decided in the car that the best approach is the direct one, it’s always worked for him in the past. “You let me go on about ice cream and the bookstore, I wouldn’t have done that if I’d known that you were going through something. I like to be aware of my idiocy so I can revel in it, take pictures. We’ve missed a prime Christmas card opportunity.”

            “I’m sorry,” she says, deflated.

            “You should’ve told me.”

            “I couldn’t.” Castiel feels his heart twist at that. Claire felt like she couldn’t talk to him?

“You couldn’t tell me?” He asks, leaning forward and clasping his hands on the table.

            “I couldn’t even say it. That made it real. I got… a D. I got a D. I can’t believe it. I suck.”

            “You don’t suck.”

            “Even that time I broke my arm and couldn’t write for a month I still got an A minus.”

            “It was a different school.”

            “Yeah. A D at Stars Hollow is worse at Milton. It’s like a G or a W.”

            “I take it the spelling test didn’t go so well either?”

            “I can’t do this.”

            “No.” He holds up a hand to stop her. “We’re not going down that road. You can absolutely do this because you can do anything but if you keep talking like that about yourself, ‘I suck’ and ‘I can’t do this’, you’ll start believing it. If you believe that then you won’t even try and if you don’t even try you won’t know what could have been. A D is bad but that just means that you have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes and do better next time. It’s school hon. It’s important but it won’t be forever so don’t let it… Consume you.” She goes quiet for a moment, thinking. Dean comes over and drops off their fries but doesn’t stick around. It’s busy tonight.

            Tentatively, Claire asks, “you really think I can do this?”

            “I bet you… A dollar.” He pulls out his wallet, finds a dollar and puts it on the table top.

            “That’s it? That’s all my education is worth?”

            “Well, you did get a D,” he says. Claire laughs and he feels some of the tension melt away from his shoulders.

Chapter Text

Castiel leans forward and taps Claire’s workbook. “I want you to know that I will do whatever it takes to help you catch up, so what’s next? What do we need to do?”

            Claire sighs. “I have a test on Shakespeare next week. On Monday.”

            “Oh Goody, a test!”

            “It’s worth 20% of my final grade,” she says, seriously.

            “That just makes it more interesting! Now, what do we have to do to get you an A on that test?” He asks with perhaps just a touch too much enthusiasm. Cas can see that Claire has doubts about the whole thing but he’ll do his absolute best to ensure that she doesn’t hold herself back from anything in the future. Even if Milton doesn’t turn out the way they’d hoped it would, she’ll have at least tried.

            “I need to study basically everything there is to know about Shakespeare.”

            “Alright. We can definitely do that, I’m ready to become an expert on good old Billy Shakes. Let’s do it… After dinner though because I am starving.” Claire manages a small smile at that.

            “Of course,” she agrees easily. She packs up her schoolwork and waits for Dean to come back take their orders. Cas steals a couple bites of her pie before she bats his hand away and finishes it off. He looks around and spots Dean coming out of the kitchen with a plate in each hand. Dean shoots him a smile then just as quickly drops it and looks… confused instead. Cas frowns. He wonders what that means. He quickly dropping off the plates to a couple sitting at the counter together before making his way towards them.

            “Seems to be kind of serious over here,” Dean says by way of greeting.

            “Well, don’t worry the confetti canon is on its way,” Cas answers, half-heartedly. Dean shuffles on the spot a little awkwardly, looking nervous. Does Dean not want to be around Castiel anymore now that he knows about his crush? He said they were fine but if he’s rethinking it.

            Claire clears her throat and Castiel realises that he’s been staring up at Dean for who knows how long now. He looks down at his clasped hands on the tabletop whilst Claire rattles off their default order.

            “What was that about?” Claire asks once Dean has left their table.

            Castiel shrugs. “I don’t know. I thought we were still friends but sometimes when he sees me he seems… Distant? Nervous? He’s mostly normal and we talk but it’s like he’s holding himself back. I knew I shouldn’t have asked him out.”

            “Maybe he’s just realised that he’s missed out on a prime dating opportunity with you and he’s nervous to talk to you now because it would be awkward to ask you out after he already rejected you.”

            “Claire,” Castiel says with a warning tone. There’s no point getting his hopes up fro something like that, it isn’t fair to himself or to Dean to cling on to something that doesn’t exist. She just rolls her eyes at him.

            “Well, maybe he’s trying too hard to make it be like how it was before and by doing so is accidentally making it one thousand times more awkward.” Huh. That does make a little bit of sense.

            “I guess I’ll talk to him about it later, try to smooth things over.”

            “Sounds good to me. I don’t really want to stop getting free pie.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I mean that I didn’t order that slice of pie. He just gave it to me, said I looked like I needed it.” Castiel looks over at Dean again, watching him work. He knows that Dean likes to give him pie ‘on the house’ but he’s glad that he extends that kindness towards Claire too. He feels a warmth in his chest because even if things are weird between them he’s still looking out for Claire. He tries his best to ignore the simultaneous weight of disappointment settling itself into his stomach. He stays quiet until they go home and start their study session, only saying a quiet thank you when Dean delivers their food to their table. He doesn’t see the way Dean looks a little hurt that Cas won’t look at him.

 

---

            Claire stands over her bed, staring at the clothes laid out on it. She’s wrapped up in her black dressing gown, freshly showered and growing more and more frustrated by the minute. Honestly, it was bad enough that she’d had to stop studying to go to Friday Night Dinner yesterday and she’d had to ignore Ben in every class they had together all day and at lunch time but now it’s Saturday and she has to stop once again because of her date with Kaia. The date that she set up. The date that’s not really a date but more of a hanging out session because her dad will be there but a sort of date non-the-less. A date that she desperately wants to happen. She glares at her clothes, willing a suitable outfit for tonight to present itself.

             She’s torn between wanting to spend time with Kaia and wanting to study to ensure that she gets a good grade on her test. She had almost forgotten to call Kaia to confirm it with all of the stress she’s had about the damn thing but luckily she sorted it out yesterday before they left for Friday Night Dinner. She doesn’t want Ben to be able to tease her about another D like last time but she doesn’t want her home life to be taken over by a bully either. At school it’s like he can sense her nerves and actively chooses to act extra mean in response but here, at home. He shouldn’t be able to reach her. She should be able to take breaks and time for herself. God forbid he take the time to find out what was wrong and help Claire in her time of need. She supposed that was what bullies were all about though. It was even lucky her grandmother hadn’t noticed how antsy she was at the dinner table. She knew her dad had been watching her with that all too familiar concern in his eyes at the dinner table though.

             Squeezing her eyes shut, she forces herself to stop thinking about the test. She takes a deep breath in and out and then looks back at the clothes. At least half the contents of her closet is spread out over her bed and her desk chair but none of it looks good enough to wear tonight.

             She’s actually glad when her dad pokes his head in the doorway. “Hey kid, are you ready to go?” He asks, tapping on her door.

             She shakes her head vehemently. “I can’t find anything to wear!” Claire tries to ignore the fact that her voice goes an octave higher than normal when she says that. However, Castiel doesn’t judge her or make fun of her. He just assesses the state of the room like he’s trying to solve a puzzle.

             “I’m sure that Kaia won’t mind what you wear,” he says considerately. “Didn’t you say that it’s not really a date? You don’t have to impress her tonight, save that for when you go out to a restaurant or something. Besides, I’m pretty sure that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory isn’t a date movie anyway.” He walks out of her room and she can hear the jingle of keys in the hallway as he picks them up from the side table there. Fine. Casual she can do. That’s comfortable clothes. Easy. No problem. She leans forward and grabs her favourite pair of black jeans out of the pile at the foot of her bed then hesitates choosing a top. Her dad walks back in, looks at the pants she’s holding, scans the selection of clothes and grabs a plain blue sweatshirt with a black stripe going down the outside of each of the arms. Simple as that.

             “This’ll go good with those pants and it’ll make your eyes stand out. Now get dressed so we can get going.” He shuts the door behind himself when he leaves this time and Claire stands there in amazement. Clothes usually aren’t an issue for her considering she doesn’t really care what people think of her, not to mention the fact that now-a-days she wears a uniform five out of seven days of the week, but today it matters. She doesn’t want to wear something accidentally unflattering and have Kaia change her mind before their potential relationship has even started. She knows it isn’t really logical. She even knows that her dad would never let her leave the house wearing something that made her look ridiculous. On the bright side, the indecision has given her a chance to clean out her closet and set aside a pile of clothes that she’s grown out of to donate later. She makes a note to remind herself to do that, after she has the chance to go through Castiel’s closet first. He can be such a hoarder.

            She gets dressed and does one last spin in her closet mirror before grabbing her boots. She puts one on, opens her door and then puts the other one on, hopping when she loses her balance.

            “I’m ready!” She meets Castiel at the front door and together they head out.

 

            Doose’s market is tiny and perfectly placed in the middle of their small town for small shopping experiences. If you want to any grocery shopping that will last for more than a few days at a time then you’ll have to go to the big supermarket in Hartford. Luckily, for Claire and Castiel, tonight they’re only stopping by to stock up on snacks for their movie night. A job Castiel takes on with great enthusiasm.

             “So what do we need… Chocolate kisses, red vines, marshmallows… Oh, could you go grab some toothpaste for me? We’re running low in both bathrooms.” Claire rolls her eyes and heads to the other side of the market. From the top shelf she grabs a value pack of tooth paste so that they can have a spare tube in the cupboard and walks to the end of the aisle. She stands on tip toes so she can see most of the market over the shelves and spots her dad coming around from the candy aisle. She makes her way back over to him and puts the toothpaste into the basket, which is much fuller than just a moment ago.

             “Got everything?” She asks, aiming them towards the register.

             “Just abou- Oh sorry!” Claire feels her cheeks flame as her dad almost bowls over Kaia as she’s leaving the cereal aisle. Out of all the people to literally run into in the market in Stars Hollow, it’s her date. She’s struck by the realisation that this is actually the first time her dad is meeting Kaia.

             “No problem! Uh, hi Claire.” Kaia gives her a, frankly adorable, little wave.

             “Hi Kaia. Thi-This is my dad,” she smiles and takes the basket from her dad just so she has something to do with her hands, then nods to Kaia, “dad this is Kaia.” Immediately, Castiel sticks his hand out for her to shake.

             “I should ask now, whilst you’re here, are you allergic to anything.” He lets go of her hand and glances down into their basket to check the contents.

             Kaia frowns. “No?”

            “Oh good, we’re just stocking up on snacks for the movie later and I grabbed a lot of alternative options just in case you were. We’re gonna order in pizza for dinner though don’t worry. Is there any toppings you prefer or don’t like?”

            “Oh, cool! Nah, I like just about anything on pizza. I’ll be over at six like Claire said, I’m just here grabbing a few things for aunt.” Kaia lifts her own basket to show some vegetables and a box of cornflakes sitting in it.

            “Lovely. What’s your aunt’s name?” Castiel smiles warmly at her, Claire hopes that means he likes her but to be fair, he has only just met her.

            “Jody Mills. She’s the new sheriff in town, it’s why we moved here,” she says with the practised ease of someone who has said it many times before. She shifts on her feet and takes a small step backwards.

            “I’ll have to meet her soon,” he says. Then he squints at Kaia in a way that Claire knows means he’s about to test her. “Kaia, what’s your opinion on bees?” He asks seriously. Ah.

            To her credit, Kaia doesn’t seem that bothered by the change in subject, just a little confused. “I mean… I like honey and… They’re pretty important.” Claire rolls her eyes at her dad while he just hums at her answer.

            “So… we’ll let you get back to your errand for your aunt then, see you later?” Claire says when it looks like Castiel has nothing else that he wants to say.

            “Yeah, see you later,” Kaia says cheerfully. As they part ways Claire steers her dad towards the register whether he’s finished shopping or not.

            “I think that went well,” he says smiling.

            “You don’t really do intimidating very well, dad.” Claire deadpans.

             “That’s because I wasn’t going for intimidating. I was trying to be nice, find out a bit about her.” He starts to unload their basket onto the small conveyer belt at the register. Claire often wonders why they even have the conveyer at all since it’s so small there’s no real point to it.

             “Her opinion on bees?”

            “It’s important information,” he insists. Claire doesn’t even reply, just sighs heavily through the nose.

            Taylor Doose himself is at the till serving customers tonight and he greets them jovially. “Well, well, well. You two are having another movie night?”

            “Yeah, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Castiel replies as he hands over their reusable shopping bags.

            “A classic! But that is quite a lot of candy you’ve got.” He tilts his head forward and gives them a meaningful look. Taylor generally prides himself on the fresh produce his market offers, as well as the running of the town itself being Town Selectman, and Claire suspects that this may be an attempt to get them to forgo the junk food.

            “You can’t watch Willy Wonka and not consume massive amounts of candy Taylor,” Castiel says dismissively. He doesn’t mention the fact that half of it is alternatives in case Kaia turned out to be allergic to anything like gluten.

             “Right,” Taylor says hesitantly, “Anyway your total comes to $41.80”

             “Oh wow, it’s expensive to slowly rot your insides isn’t it?” Castiel says rhetorically, handing over the notes.

             “Have a nice night you two,” Taylor dismisses them, handing over their bags.

             “And you Taylor,” Castiel replies, heading towards the door. Claire waves and follows him out.

             “Ok, so you go get the video and I’ll stop in Winchester’s for some pie.”

             “Do we need pie?” She levels a sceptical look at him. Pie as well as pizza and all the candy they just bought is a bit much, even for them.

             He shrugs, bags swaying in his hands, and admits, “Not really but it’s the only excuse I can think of to go in and talk to Dean off the top of my head.”

             “Ah, well. We can always put it in the fridge for later.”

             He shoots her a grateful look. “Thanks hon.”

            “Back in a minute.”

 

---

            The bell rings as Castiel awkwardly pushes the door open with a bag in each hand. He shuffles forward until he reaches the counter and places them gently on the floor on either side of a stool. There’s barely any people in the store so he’s not too worried about someone tripping over them, that being said Kirk is sitting at the table in the corner. He has a tendency to trip over things, even if there’s nothing there to trip on.

             He leans forward onto the counter and waits for Dean to come out of the back. He can hear some kind of muffled grumbling before Dean himself stumbles into view and spots him.

            “Uh, hey Cas. What’re you doing here?” Castiel raises an eyebrow at him. There is a large stain splattered over Dean’s chest, both his undershirt and flannel are going to be ruined if he doesn’t get them in the wash soon. He’s sure that Dean is aware of the stain so he doesn’t point it out but regardless Dean notices him noticing it.

            “I dropped a dirty pan in the sink when I was doing some dishes so left over oil and soapy water splashed back up at me,” he explains holding his arms out as if to say that’s life, what are you gonna do?

            “I want to order some pie please. Claire and I are having a movie night tonight and pie is the perfect dessert.” Never mind the literal bags of sweet things at his feet.

            Dean smiles brilliantly. “Oh yeah? Well, we got Pecan and Chocolate Walnut today. What’ll it be?”

            “Two slices of the Chocolate Walnut please.” He pulls out his wallet, ready to pay. “To go.” He adds as an afterthought. He wonders if he imagines the slight drop in Dean’s smile. They’re quiet while Dean boxes up the pie and Castiel wonders if he should just leave the whole thing. Maybe it’ll go away on its own? He shakes his head. He already asked the guy out and got rejected, might as well double check to see if they’re still friends.

           “Dean?”

           “Yeah, Cas?”

           “I… Just wanted to make sure that everything’s ok? Between us I mean.” Castiel watches Dean’s jaw drop, then after a few seconds closes it again. He shakes his head and frowns.

           “Of course, we’re still friends man. I- Just, uh. Look, I promise, no matter what we’re still friends and we always will be.” Dean places the box on the counter but doesn’t push it towards him or let go of it.

           “Then, as your friend, can I ask why you’ve been a little… Off the past couple of days?” It’s blunt but it’s better to be clear than have some sort of miscommunication.

            “It’s bad timing but I’m trying to work through some stuff.”

            “Stuff to do with me?” Dean looks like a deer caught in the headlights at this point and Cas wonders if he’s maybe pushing Dean too far out of his comfort zone.

            “Well… I-How did yo-?”

            “Dad, I got the video!” Cas has to hold back an eye-roll because of course they’d get interrupted just as they were starting to get somewhere. Dean is looking at Claire as if he’s both relieved and annoyed that she interrupted.

            Cas turns around to Claire and calls out, “score!” He lifts his fist in the air in victory. “You wanna carry the pie for me?” He asks and gestures to the bags. Claire doesn’t say anything, she shoots Dean a look, that Cas doesn’t know the meaning of and, by the borderline shocked expression on his face, neither does Dean, and snatching the takeaway box off the counter she heads back outside. Apparently she’s eager to get a move on. He turns back to Dean with a small, slightly awkward smile.

            “So… We’re good?”

            “Yeah, man. I’m sorry I made you think we weren’t. I’ll see you later?”

            “Always,” he says sincerely. He drops a note on the counter for the pie and heads towards the door.

            “Cas, come on. The pie is on the house for you.” Dean calls after him. Cas turns back and sees Dean holding out the note for him to take. Hesitantly, he takes a step forward to take it back and then notices that his grocery bags are still on the floor where he left them.

            Cheeks burning, he turns his head away for a second and then remembers something else. “I wanted to thank you for giving Claire that pie the other day,” he blurts out. Dean freezes, his eyes widen for a second then he visibly relaxes.

            “Anytime Cas. You know I love Claire. She, uh, seemed stressed out so I thought it might help.” He coughs and mumbles his way through it but the result is the same. Cas grins widely at him.

            “Thank you, for looking out for her Dean. I really appreciate it,” he says sincerely. Dean shifts under his gaze and Cas wonders if he should go on a holiday to get away from his feelings for Dean. He’s so unbelievably sweet and considerate but for some reason he doesn’t want people to know or have his actions acknowledged at all. How he thinks that will work Cas has no idea.

             Finally, he leans down and picks up his bags. Glancing up at Dean and finds him holding back a laugh.

            “I didn’t forget them.” He says, smiling sheepishly. Dean drags his fingers across his mouth, zipping his lips, but his eyes are bright with mischief. Cas just shakes his head and shuffles his way through the door again.

            Claire is waiting outside on the sidewalk. When he approaches she looks down and inspects her nails, pretending she hadn’t been watching through the window.

            “So how did it go?” She asks too casually to really be casual.

            Cas looks through the diner window at Dean then back at Claire. “Fine. It went just fine.”

 

            The groceries almost make it all the way home without being opened. Almost, until Claire opens up the packet of red vines and snacks on them as they walk up their street. When they arrive at their house Cas sets the bags down at the top of the steps on their porch and holds his hand out wordlessly for one. He pulls his keys out of his coat pocket and unlocks the front door.

            “Could you give the living room a once over before she gets here please? Make sure there’s not too many books spread around, fold the blanket up and put it in the cupboard. I vacuum yesterday so it should be ok.” Cas talks as he walks into the kitchen and starts unpacking their purchases.

            “Ok!” Claire calls back. He realises that they forgot to grab toilet paper after he bumped into Kaia back at the Market. He’ll have to go in tomorrow at some point and grab some. He rips open the packaging for the toothpaste and walks to put one in the downstairs bathroom and a spare in its cupboard, then upstairs to his own bathroom to do the same.

            Luckily, neither Castiel nor Claire are overly messy people so straightening up the house takes hardly any time at all. Unfortunately, being organised for their movie night an hour early means they have an hour of time to kill before they can spend time with Kaia and watch the movie. Castiel has some coffee, places the order for their pizza to arrive at 6.40 and sits in the lounge room watching normal TV while he waits. Claire squeezes in some more studying. It isn’t until Castiel checks the time that he realises that Kaia is late. Not by much, it’s only 6.14 but still. He decides to wait for a few more minutes before letting Claire know. He migrates to the kitchen and starts putting the various candy they bought into bowls and setting them out nicely on the coffee table in the lounge room.

            Claire comes out of her room at 6.22 and flops onto the couch. “Is she here yet?”

            “No.”

            “Maybe something happened. Maybe she’s not coming.”

            “Or maybe she’s just late.” At that point he decides to go to the side window and peek through the curtains. As soon as he spots Kaia talking to Babette in the grassy space between their houses, Mory hanging his head out of the side window of their house, he sucks in a breath, “oh no.” He immediately goes for the front door to save the poor girl. Babette is a lovely woman but she can talk your ear off given the chance. She has so many stories. That being said, her and Miss Patty are also the town gossips. No doubt the fact that Kaia is coming to visit the Novak house on a movie night will be well known news across town by tomorrow morning.

            “What?” Claire asks, jumping up from the couch she moves over to the window to look out. “Oh. Oh, no,” she says.

            “Wait there,” Castiel calls back.

             As he approaches, he can hear Babette asking, “… So Kaia, you like jazz?”

            “Oh yeah! Kaia loves jazz, we can’t get her to stop talking about it. It’s just jazz, jazz. Jazz, jazz, jazz!” Castiel comes down the sides steps on the porch to meet them halfway, swinging his arms a little too enthusiastically.

             “Hey, sugar. We were just getting to know this young lady here.” Babette gestures to Kaia who’s currently looking a little unsure of the whole situation.

             “Yeah, I see that. So, Kaia, why don’t you go on inside and helping Claire out? There’s a struggle with a pickle jar lid that I think she’s about to lose.”

             “Sure, yeah.” Kaia agrees and move towards the house.

             “Oh, well it was great talking to you Kaia.”

             “Yeah, you too.”

             “Stay cool kid,” Mory calls from the window. Kaia waves from the top of the porch steps.

             “So is she Claire’s new friend?” Babette leans in conspiratorially to ask.

            “Yeah, Kaia’s here for movie night.”

             “That’ll be good for both of them. I hope it all goes well, Kaia’s still the new kid in town and from what I heard she’s had a rough time of it.”

             “Really?” He can’t help but be surprised by that, he would never have guessed that Kaia might have some tragic history before she came to Stars Hollow. That being said Castiel doesn’t want to know about Kaia’s past unless she tells him. That’s her business. So he starts to back away slowly towards the house.

             “Oh yeah, you know sad stuff but I’ll let you get back inside. You take care sugar.”

             “Will do.” He jogs up the steps and for a moment he leans on the door after he closes it.

              Inside, Claire and Kaia are standing awkwardly together in the lounge room. “So the pizza will be here in about twenty minutes. We can give you a tour of the house if you like and then we can start the movie?”

              “Sounds great. I’m sorry I’m late. I would’ve been here sooner but your neighbours… I got here like a half hour ago.”

              “We believe you, don’t worry.” Claire reassures her.

              “We’d believe you if you said you got here three hours ago,” Castiel adds. He smiles widely, trying to diffuse the awkward tension he can already feel permeating the air. “So Kaia, how do you like it here in Stars Hollow?”

              “I like it. It’s quiet but nice. I like all the trees.”

              “Yeah the trees here are something. When Claire was little, she found out that one was called a weeping willow and so she spent hours trying to cheer it up.” He glances at Claire and notices her trying to shake her head without Kaia noticing. He doesn’t see what might be embarrassing about that story but never-the-less he ploughs on. “Right,” he diverts, let’s get this show on the road. “Well, you’ve got the living room where we do our living, my bedrooms upstairs with the good bathroom. Hall closet is just here next to the downstairs bathroom, then there’s the kitchen and Claire’s room.” They shuffle through the house together until they’re all standing in the kitchen. “You’ve got your basics. Microwave for popcorn, stove for storing shoes. Refrigerator, which is completely worthless.”

               “Interesting,” Kaia says at the same time that the doorbell rings. The pizza must be here early.

               “I’ll get that. Claire, you take over as tour guide and make sure you show her the emergency exits,” he directs before turning and heading for the door, leaving them to it. He almost groans when he sees Charlie’s reflection through the frosted glass but doesn’t want to tip Claire off that she’s here. That Babette works fast.

               “Charlie! What are you doing here?” He hisses, not opening the door enough for her to come in.

               “I brought dessert!” She says far too loudly and cheerfully for Cas’ liking.

               "We do not need dessert. I can guarantee you that we have plenty of dessert in this house already.” He almost feels bad because Charlie is an excellent baker as well as chef at the inn and he knows that these cupcakes will be amazing but they won’t be able to eat them tonight. None of that matters however, when his best friend is using her cooking as bribery to see his daughter on her first date.

               “Oh, everyone needs dessert. So, where is Claire?” She shoves the massive container of cupcakes into Cas’ arms and starts leaning to look around the place without actually moving around. It’s like she’s trying to see through the walls. She’s not even trying to be subtle.

               “She’s with Kaia,” he deadpans because he knows that she knows this. Honestly, the gossip in this town.

               “Oh, that’s right. Kaia’s here,” she says much too knowingly.

               “Yeah, right. Ok. You need to go. Like five minutes ago. In fact, you shouldn’t have come at all.”

                Finally, she drops her supposed act. “Please, I just want one little peek.”

                “You are incorrigible!”

                “Hey! I care about Claire you know. I just want to see how they’re getting along, make sure things are going well.”

                “I can assure you that Kaia is not going to hurt Claire on their first date, especially since for one, it’s not really a date, it’s more of a hanging out session, and for another, I’m in the house.”

                “Still.”

                “No, Charlie. If Claire thinks I’m parading her and Kaia around for my friends she’ll kill me.” He glances behind him to check that isn’t going to walk in on them.

                “But-”

                “Bloody and slow, now go.” He opens the door up for her just as Joe is coming up the steps with their pizza. Stars Hollow is a small enough town that he can just walk to deliver most pizza order unless it’s really too far.

                “Hi Joe, what do I owe you?” He keeps his voice cheerful because Joe hasn’t done anything to deserve the frustration he feels towards Charlie right now. He’s just doing his job.

                “Fifteen even.” Joe passes off the pizza to Charlie, who is using this moment of Castiel being distracted to linger and stall in the doorway. “Good day Cas?” He asks while Castiel pulls out his wallet and hands over the bills.

                “Yeah, I thought so. You?”

                “Pretty awesome!” He says energetically, shifting from side to side.

                “What did you get on your pizza? Did you ask for extra sauce because I always ask for extra sauce-,” Charlie rambles as Joe leaves. He gives a little wave and then heads off. She’s managed to get herself inside the entrance now.

                “Charlie,” he pleads. Now that the food is here he just wants to eat.

               “Alright, I’m going, I’m going.” She walks out the door but turns around to say, “Bye.”

               “Bye.” He shuts the door behind her and huffs. He doesn’t know why she was being so ridiculous when he’ll most likely call her later anyway. That being said, he probably wouldn’t tell her about Claire’s date anyway.

               “Dad? Is that the pizza?” Claire calls. He quickly plasters a smile back on his face.

               “Sure is, you hungry?” He calls back.

               “Starving,” Claire says as she rounds the corner into the entrance, her smile drops a little when she looks at him though. “Where is it?”

               “Where’s what? Oh.” He realises too late that he’s holding Charlie’s cupcakes and Charlie left with the pizza. Now Claire is frowning at the container in his hands, most likely because she recognises it as Charlie’s. He turns to look and sure enough, there’s Charlie coming back up the steps. She knocks on the door and he lets her in.

                “Hi guys! Just dropping off the pizza!” She says looking like the cat that got the canary. Castiel rolls his eyes.

                “Um, Kaia, this is Charlie. Charlie this is Kaia.” Claire introduces them, giving Charlie a glare that she ignores.

                “Yes, nice to meet you,” Charlie says, sticking out her hand to shake Kaia’s.

                As soon as she lets go Castiel says, “bye Charlie,” and nudges her towards the door.

                Luckily Charlie doesn’t protest, she just hands off the pizza to a confused Kaia and says, “have fun!” Then leaves.

                “Just in the living room with that will be fine,” he tells Kaia before she can ask, pointing to the pizza box.

                “Sure thing, Mr Novak.” She smiles.

                “Good lord! No need to be so formal here, just call me Castiel. Please. In fact, most people in town call me Cas so feel free do that.”

                “Ok, Cas. Castiel… I’ll get used to it.” She smiles again and goes into the living room. She doesn’t notice Claire glaring at him.

                “I did not invite her,” he tries, knowing she won’t believe him right now anyway.

                “Why don’t you just set up a camera and broadcast it all over the internet?” She whispers harshly at him.

                “Because I don’t think that big,” he dismisses. He leaves her to go put the cupcakes in the kitchen and take a deep breath before going to finally get some pizza.

 

---

            “That’s my dad,” Claire says once Castiel is around the corner.

            “He’s got energy,” Kaia says, looking around the kitchen.

            “Yeah, well, he’s 90% water, 10% caffeine so...” Claire struggles to think of what to say, how to keep the conversation going, so she just watches Kaia look around. It’s weird to have someone new looking at everything, it makes her look at everything with a new perspective. She wants to see what Kaia is seeing for the first time. The yellow walls, the cabinet in the corner, the doormat in front of the kitchen door that opens onto the porch, the overhead cupboards, particularly the ones that have a window to see the mugs and things inside. It’s her kitchen. It’s home.

            “So through here’s your room?”        

            “Yeah.”

            “Can I see it?” Oh god.

            “I suppose.” Claire silently thanks anyone who’ll listen that she decided to clean up the mess she made earlier trying to pick an outfit. Kaia opens the door and looks around. She turns around and looks at Claire for a moment before Claire realises that Kaia’s looking for permission to enter. She nods. Kaia takes a few steps inside and gravitates to the bookshelves beside the bed. Claire doesn’t know how to stand, or what to do with her arms. Should she cross them? Or would that make her seem closed off? She settles for leaning against the doorway awkwardly, though trying not to look it.

            “You like books?” Kaia asks. The answer is obvious but it’s a good conversation starter.

            “An understatement but yes.”

            “What do you think of Moby Dick?” She asks, pointing to Claire’s bookmarked copy on her bedside table.

            “I haven’t finished it yet, I accidentally put it down and started reading Treasure Island.” She’s been meaning to get back to it actually.

            “Did you finish that one?”

            “Yes.”

            “What did you think?”

            “It was pretty easy to read actually. The language wasn’t too hard. It wasn’t like when I read Tom Sawyer and really struggled, although I read that when I was fourteen so it could just be because I was younger.” Good god. She’s rambling.

            “I don’t read a lot of books these days what with the move and starting to work at the market but if you recommend me some I’ll give them a go.” That… Could be fun. This isn’t going so bad, it’s like she can feel the awkwardness leaving the room.

            “I’ll, uh, make a list then.”

            “Sounds great.” They go quiet again. It occurs to Claire that her dad hasn’t brought the pizza in yet.

            “Dad? Is that the pizza?” She calls.

 

---

             Overall, it seems to be going well. Between the three of them they eat most of the pizza before two thirds of the movie are through. Kaia and Claire are finally getting past the awkward stage of the first date.

             “Anyone want a refill?” Castiel asks, holding up the now empty bowl of popcorn.

             “Sure,” Claire replies, not looking away from the television.

             Kaia leans forward on the couch so she can look up at him. “Thanks, Cas.” He gives her a smile and goes to put another bag of popcorn in the microwave. He grabs a can of coke from the fridge while he waits, cracks it open and takes a sip.

              He remembers his first date with Claire’s mother. April wasn’t his first girlfriend, she wasn’t even the first girl he had been with physically but she understood him. At the time, he couldn’t wait to get out of high school and experience everything the world had to offer. When April found out she was pregnant, she panicked. She wasn’t ready to raise a child but he decided that he would do everything for the baby. Give her a good life. April didn’t even wait until the baby was born to sign full custody over to him. Now, he loves his life regardless of things that happened in the past.

             The microwave beeps loudly and he sighs. He pours the popcorn into the bowl and munches on a handful. When he comes around the corner he pauses when he sees Kaia and Claire talking quietly. Claire is no longer watching the movie but is watching Kaia instead, laughing at whatever she’s saying. Quietly, Castiel backtracks until he’s standing in the middle of the kitchen wondering what he should do now. He spots his sketchbook on the kitchen cabinet where he’d left it this morning and a stray pencil. Grabbing them he sits at the table and starts to draw.

 

              “What are you doing?!” Claire whisper yells at him from the doorway. He blinks up at her, glances down at his sketchbook and then looks up to raise an eyebrow at her.

              “Is something wrong?” He prompts. Everything seemed fine before.

              “You have to come back out there! Kaia is out there being really nice and she smells really good and I asked her if she wanted a kiss and-.”

              “Woah, what? You asked her if she wanted a kiss?”

              “I meant a hershey’s one,” she mumbles.

              “Well? what did she say?”

              “She said yes.” Claire’s cheeks are becoming pink now and Castiel tries to smile reassuringly.

              “I’m confused, what are you doing out here then?”

              “She said she’d like a kiss!” She is so different to how he was at her age. He was borderline reckless.

              “So... Did you give her one?”

              “You know I’m talking about chocolate here right?”

              “Does she know that?”

              “She did once I gave her one. I think she was disappointed.”

              “Hey, don’t you feel bad that you didn’t do something if you weren’t ready or even if you didn’t realise that that was something they wanted. You do things at your own pace. Think of it this way, you now have a fool proof plan for the next time. If you ask again for the real thing and she says no, you can give her a chocolate and there’ll be, or there should be, no hard feelings. You’re sixteen, I promise it’s not that big a deal.” He reaches a hand across the table towards her, to show his sincerity.

              Claire takes a deep, steadying breath. “Thanks dad. You still have to come back out though, ‘cause it’ll look weird if you don’t. What kind of chaperon are you?”

              “I’m trying to be a friend here.”

              “Well, switch gears, cause I’m freaking out here.” Though she doesn’t sound nearly as panicked as when she first stepped into the room.

              “Alright, you go wash your hands or something and I’ll take the popcorn out.”

              “Good idea.” She shuffles into the bathroom and shuts the door. Castiel chuckles to himself and grabs the popcorn, heading back out to the living room.

              When Kaia looks up at him questioningly he says, “Claire’s just in the bathroom, shouldn’t be long.”

              Kaia stays quiet, watching the movie. With a quick glance at the bathroom door to check that Claire isn’t coming out, he reaches out to grab the remote and pauses the movie.

             “Kaia, I just wanted to take a moment to say that I’m glad that you and Claire are getting along so well, I just wanted to be sure that you… are on the same page.”

             “Is this you giving me ‘the talk’?” She asks. He narrows his eyes at her.

             “This is me making sure my daughter doesn’t get crushed by a crush.”

             “Fair enough. Would it help if I told you that I like Claire, a lot? I don’t want to rush things but I thought that we were on the same page.” He almost flounders a little bit at her boldness but her words reassure him.

             “Good. ‘Cause it’s not just me that cares, there’s a lot of people in this town that want the best for her.”

             “Well, she’s great.”

             “I think so.” He presses play on the movie. When Claire comes back out of the bathroom, she looks between them as if she knew that he would talk to Kaia while she was out of the room. Seeing that everything is fine, she takes her place between them on the couch and together they watch the movie.

 

---

              Outside on the porch, Claire looks up at the stars. There’s a mess inside to clean up but she’ll say goodbye to Kaia first then head back inside.

               Behind her, she can hear the door open and close. “Will you thank your dad for letting me join in on your movie night?” Kaia asks.

               “Of course.”

               “So I was wondering something, before I go.” Kaia shuffles up close beside her, hands on the railing.

              “Yeah?” Claire forces herself not to take a step back. She’s afraid of messing up her first kiss but not so afraid that she won’t even try.

              Kaia turns and looks into Claire’s eyes. “If you wanted a kiss goodnight?” She asks, looking sincere. Claire can’t help it, she laughs loudly. She misses the way Kaia smiles at her like she’s hung the moon.

               Sure that it’s a joke, Claire holds out her hand, palm up. Kaia takes it and turns it over. Lightly, she presses her lips to the back of Claire’s hand. She gasps at the contact, feeling embarrassed for a split second that she laughed at her then she feels warmth. A heavy feeling of sweetness spreads through her mind until Kaia pulls away, smiling brightly. This is nothing like the stories she's read, it's so much better.

               Trying to keep cool she says, “eh, I would have still liked a chocolate.” Kaia just smiles even wider and turns to set two chocolate kisses on the porch railing. Ok, that’s pretty smooth. Kaia steps forward into Claire’s space. She leans in close enough that Claire can feel her breath ghosting over her own lips. She hovers and waits for Claire to make the next move, to choose if she wants it or not. Claire closes the distance.

 

---

                “So how did it go?” Castiel asks from where he’s picking up bowls from the coffee table.

               Claire jumps at the sound of his voice. “What?”

               “The not-a-date-but-really-it-kind-of-was-a-date date.”

               “Oh. Yeah, it was pretty good. I think I have a new favourite candy.”

               “Really? Which one?” He asks, fairly sure that he might already know the answer.

               “Chocolate kisses,” she says proudly. He almost drops the bowl he’s holding because he bursts out laughing, sitting down on the couch for a moment to catch his breath. Claire just shakes her head and heads to her bedroom leaving him to it.

Chapter Text

          Finally, finally. The test is tomorrow morning. Claire has English first at 9 am and the first, and only, thing they’ll be doing is the test on Shakespeare. She feels so nervous she might just throw up but she won’t let her dad know that. She just hopes her brain doesn’t start leaking out her ears because of all the information she’s trying to take in.

          Her books are spread out all over almost every surface in the living room, including the stairs where her dad currently sits with one open in his lap. He holds a pile of flashcards in his hand and has been quizzing her on dates and various facts about William Shakespeare for over an hour now. For two hours before that, she was reading Romeo and Juliet and finally finishing it whilst also taking notes.

        She paces the room with a packet of Salt and Vinegar chips in hand.

        “Alright,” her dad says. “The comedy of errors – written?”

         “1590,” she answers.

         “Published?”

          She looks up to the ceiling as if she could find the answers written there conveniently for her before answering, “1698.”

         “1623. Close.” He corrects, grabbing a handful of chips from his own packet on the couch beside him.

        Claire halts her pacing. “How is that close?” She flops onto the armchair they keep in the corner of where the stairs go around. The staircase having two split landings gives it the appearance of curving around that particular corner as it goes up to the second floor.

        He merely shrugs. “You got the sixteen part right.”

        “I was off by seventy-five years.”

        “Anything under a hundred is close.”

        “What kind of a rule is that?” She asks incredulously.

         “Hey. I’m running the study session here,” he gives the flashcards a little wave at her. He shuffles them so a new card is at the top of the pile. “Okay, Richard the third.”

         “1591,” she fires back confidently. Only for Castiel to make an extremely annoying buzzer sound at her, like they’re on some kind of game show.

         “93?” She asks. He does it again.

          “96?” Again. God, why couldn’t he just tell her the right answer instead? Gritting her teeth, she tells him, “that’s really annoying.” He looks her in the eye and does it one more time. She shoots a glare in his direction but he doesn’t see it.

 

          Later, Castiel walks slowly back into the living room with a mug of hot chocolate in each hand. He passes one off to Claire who is now sitting on the couch.

          “Go on, I’m listening,” he prompts.

          “The sonnets are one hundred and fifty-four poems made of 14 lines,” she recites from memory.

         “Except?” He keeps moving to sit at the other end of the couch, listening to her answers.

         “Except for one twenty-six, which is 12 lines.”

         “Good.” He nods along.

        “They’re written in iambic pentameter.” Claire shuts the textbook in her lap so that she won’t be tempted to look down at it.

         “Except?”

         “Except for one forty-five, which is in tetrameter,” she finishes, looking to him to see if she got the answers correct.

         “Rock on, sister.” He pumps a fist into the air, a wide smile on his face.

          “Really?” She almost can’t believe that she got it all right.

          “Not one mistake. You’re gonna blow that class away tomorrow.”

          “You think?” She certainly feels better about the test at this point than she did last week or even yesterday.

          “I think,” he says sincerely, leaning forward to close some books on the coffee table and stack them neatly. “So what do you say we call it a night and get some beauty sleep?”

         “You go. I wanna review my notes one more time,” she tells him, standing up to take her book and mug to the kitchen. She looks at the pile he made and decides that she’ll sort through it in the morning for ones that she might need at school.

         “Oh, that’s ok. I’ll stay up.” He’s already halfway out of his seat when he says this but he just sits back down and picks up a book of his own from the small table beside the arm of the couch. Settling into the couch like he’s prepared to be there for a long while.

          “Dad, go to sleep,” she tells him. She heads into the kitchen, putting her mug on the table and moving to sort through her notes of information that she wants to double check before she feels fully confident in the test.

           He calls out to her, “no. I’m not even tired. I was just… Thinking of you!” She smiles, stretching her arms above her head before sitting down and continuing to study.

 

           Claire yawns deeply. She blinks hard against the blurriness in her vision but it refuses to go away, She’s too tired to be studying now. Really, it’s too late to be studying now. She looks through the hall to the living room, where her dad is curled up on the couch. Slowly, she shuffles towards the couch to ask him a question. When she gets closer though, she realises that he’s fallen asleep. The book he was reading left open and abandoned on his chest.

          Carefully, she moves it onto the coffee table, making sure not to lose his place. Then she grabs the blanket they keep draped over the back of the couch and throws it over him. With a yawn she shuffles back to the kitchen table to see if she can get a little bit more study in before bed.

 

---

          Castiel wakes slowly, feeling cold. He huffs at the thought of having to get up but the house is freezing and he won’t be able to get back to sleep if he doesn’t do something about it. He groans and forces himself to get up and start a small fire in the fireplace. Just enough to warm the place up. He puts the guard into place and pauses.

           He doesn’t bother checking the time when it’s obviously still dark outside. It’s too early to be functioning without some coffee in his system. He keeps the blanket he suspects Claire put on him wrapped tightly around him as he stumbles towards the kitchen where he finds Claire passed out over her notes at the kitchen table. She looks so peaceful that he hates to disturb her.

           His eyes hurt because he’s so tired. He’s not even sure that he studied that much back when he was in high school. He sits in the chair next to Claire and drapes part of his blanket over her. He leans forward and lays his head down on the table. Vaguely, something niggles at the back of his mind, that he should probably go upstairs to his own bed but his eyes are already closing and he’s just resting for a moment. He doesn’t fight it when he drifts off back to sleep.

 

---

            Claire blearily blinks her eyes open and the first thing she sees is her own handwriting slanted sideways and too close. Her back aches and she doesn’t understand why she’s at the kitchen table rather than her own bed. She lifts her head and looks around, confused. There’s light streaming in through the window. Daylight. Morning time. Oh God!

            “No! No, no, no, no!” Icy dread shoots through her as she jumps up from her chair, almost tanging herself up in a blanket that she’s sure wasn’t on her when she fell asleep last night. She throws it away from herself and half stumbles, half runs into her room. The clock on her bedside table reads 8.27 AM.

            “I’m late!” She cries in disbelief. She runs around her room grabbing her uniform piece by piece. Throwing her plaid skirt on over the top of her pyjama pants and barely remembering to at least roll on a bit of deodorant before she puts her blouse on.

            “Dad can’t get up right now hon,” Castiel calls sleepily from the kitchen table where he’s still sitting, rubbing at his neck. “Dad slept at a right angle all night.” Claire can’t handle this right now, he has to get up and get moving. They studied so hard for this test and now she’s going to miss it.

            “I overslept! I’m gonna be late and miss the test!” She yells from her room where she’s trying to pull her hair back into an acceptable ponytail. That makes Castiel jump up and out of his chair and, honestly, she’s never seen him move so fast before having coffee in his system in her life.

            “No! No you’re not, grab your bag. We’ll go right no- I can’t take you!” Castiel whirls around in the hallway, eyes wild and keys in hand. Claire is going to get whiplash at this rate.

            She shoves her notes haphazardly into her bag as she raises her voice desperately, “you have to!” Castiel stands up straighter and switches right into problem solving mode and Claire feels a tiny bit better because when her dad sets his mind to something, everything works out in the end.

“I have a meeting at the inn at 9! Right, it’s ok. You take the keys, take the phone and you drive to school. I’ll get Garth to pick me up.” He shoves the items into her hands and shoves her towards the front door.

            “But-” She tries to protest because he’s going to need his car later but he won’t hear it.

            “Go, go, go, go!” He calls as she runs across the front yard to the Jeep.

            “I’m gone!” She yells back. She tosses her bag carelessly onto the passenger seat and has to stop to tuck her blouse in and put her blazer on properly because until then she’d only had one arm in a sleeve.

            “GOOD LUCK!” Her dad yells from the front door, waving as she backs out of their driveway just a touch too fast.

 

            Claire drives down the dirt back roads out of Stars Hollow as quick as she dares. Anxiety squeezing her chest, she pulls up at the stop sign and hurries to fix her uniform so it’s at least semi-presentable. She almost sobs in frustration when her hair refuses to co-operate.

            She throws the hairband aside in anger just as something rams into the passenger side door of the car. The loud thud rocks through the whole car and Claire can only watch, stunned, as a disoriented deer comes around the front on the jeep and runs off down the road going left.

            “Oh my god!” She yells out to no one in particular. She doesn’t have time for this! She gets out of the car and takes a few steps in the direction that the deer went trying to see if it’s ok. Lifting her wrist to check her watch for the time she almost sobs again and jogs back to the car. She jumps in and keeps going towards Milton. A feeling of time running out takes over all thought until she arrives.

            Claire sprints down the hallway until she reaches her classroom door. She allows herself five seconds to catch her breath and then pushes the door open. The room is silent and all heads turn to her as the door shuts too loudly behind her.

“I’m sorry, I’ll just-” Claire gestures to her empty seat in the middle of the classroom and starts moving towards it. If she ignores the pitying look on Miss Allen’s face then everything will be fine.

            “Continue with your tests,” Miss Allen says to the class, “Miss Novak, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait in the library.”

            “Why? I have to take the test.” This cannot be happening.

            “We start class promptly at 9 am, Miss Novak. As you are late you are unable to take the test.” They studied so hard!

            “No! I have to take this test. I know everything there is to know about Shakespeare.”

            “I’m sorry, Miss Novak but those are the rules.”

            “You don’t understand. I was up all night studying for this test! I drove here and got hit by a deer-” She knows that she’s nearing hysterical but she can’t stop. If she stops now, then she’ll cry and she absolutely does not want to cry right now.

            “You hit a deer?” Miss Allen looks genuinely concerned but Claire doesn’t care.

            “No, I got hit by a deer. You don’t believe me?! I’ve got antler prints on the side of my father’s car.”

            Miss Allen raises her hand to gesture at the door and says, “Ok, we’re going to have to take this outside now.” At the same time, they can hear the one and only Ben Braedon lean across the aisle behind Claire to mock whisper, “Loser,” to his friend. That is it! The absolute last straw for this morning, for Ben being mean. That’s it. Miss Allen is aiming a scathing look at him already but, really, what is she going to do about it. All Claire can really think about is the fact that she’s not being allowed to take this extremely important test that she and her father had spent all week studying for, so she might as well just keep going and let Ben have a piece of her mind.

            “And what’s up with you?! HUH? Say it to my face, you competitive jerk! You already have everything! The grades and the status. What on earth are you trying to achieve by being a bully to me? Am I really that much of a threat to you that you feel the need to try and make me feel smaller than you? You must have an incredibly lonely life at home, or even here with these fake friends of yours, if you think schoolwork is the most important thing in your world.” It’s actually a little satisfying to see Ben’s smirk slip, even for just a second before Miss Allen starts to shepherd her towards the door.

            “That’s enough, Miss Novak.”

 

---

            Castiel swings open the side door from the Inn’s dining room to the kitchen, calling out as he enters, “hey, Charlie do you know what the menu’s gonna be for- Umf!” He exclaims as Charlie shoves a wooden spoon with Risotto on it directly into his mouth.

            “Good?” She asks, already turning towards another pot on the stove and using a different wooden spoon to scoop some of the contents out. He swallows thickly.

            “Hot,” he manages to squeak out before she shoves the second spoonful into his mouth. Again it’s Risotto. A slightly different taste to the first one once he gets past the scalding heat of it.

            “Better?” She asks expectantly. Moving behind him to yet another bowl of Risotto already cooling on the kitchen counter.

            “Hotter!” He squeaks a bit louder this time.

            “Wait, I got one more, one more.” She holds out another spoonful of Risotto, waiting for him to swallow and try it himself this time.

            “Charlie!” He says when he’s finally got an empty mouth. “What’s with all the Risotto? Have we gone ‘theme’ now? Is it gonna be like the scotch tape store?” He walks around to the other side of the counter, out of the way of the stoves, and takes in the large number of bowls and pots full of Risotto on nearly every surface in the room.

         Charlie follows him, talking, “look, I’ve made 40 recipes ok? And every single time I keep coming back to the same conclusion.”

         “That yours is better?” He asks, raising an eyebrow at her. Her Risotto is better. It’s the best. The restaurant critic had said it was fine, which to Charlie is an insult apparently.

        “Yes!” She bursts out.

        “It is!” He tells her with equal verve, because he knows it’s true.

         Behind him, one of the Inn’s waiters, Brian, approaches them, looking for Charlie. “Looking for me?” Charlie’s attention snaps to him and there’s a manic gleam in her eye that she usually only gets when she thinks she’s onto something with a new recipe. Castiel watches as she starts to grill him.

         “Yes. Great. Three weeks ago, a guy comes in here – Lucien Mills – He orders the Risotto. Doesn’t like it.”

         “The magic Risotto? You’re kidding!” Brian says, glancing towards Castiel.

         Castiel shoots him a look and says under his breath, “not helping.”

          “He’s a restaurant critic. He ordered lots of things, probably didn’t finish them. In his review, he said his waiter had a goatee. Now you’ve got a goatee and I need info!” Charlie’s hand gestures are getting more elaborate the more she talks.

          “Well, what did he look like?” Poor Brian looks so lost.

           “Like he was unhappy with the Risotto! Maybe he had a companion who wouldn’t let him concentrate.” Brian looks at her like she’s gone crazy.

          “I serve a lot of people,” he starts calmly.

          “Maybe he had a beard, or false teeth, a wig? Or those glasses with the big nose and fake eyes.” Charlie is on a roll now, wild hand gestures and rising voice desperate for answers.

           Brian just turns to Castiel and asks, “may I be fired now?”

            “Absolutely,” he confirms. Brian immediately heads for the exit, pursued by Charlie who’s now yelling after him.

            “What about a guy with an annoying companion who was sitting underneath an air-conditioning vent, next to a woman with too much perfume on?!”

            “Castiel, there’s a call for you,” Garth pops up beside him out of nowhere, holding the phone out for him to take. He smiles and nods tiredly at him.

            “Thanks Garth,” He says. Garth had been lovely enough to pick him up and carpool to work this morning but Castiel just doesn’t have the energy to interact with people right now. He’ll buy him a thank you gift tomorrow and after this call he’ll get himself a coffee and get through this day.

            He holds the receiver up to his ear with one hand whilst rearranging some papers on his desk with his other. “Mr Novak, speaking.”

            “Sir, this is Headmaster Crowley’s secretary. We have Claire in the office now. You need to come pick your daughter up from school, she has been suspended for the day.” It occurs to him that he hasn’t actually had any coffee at all today.

 

            The drive to Hartford is tense. As it usually is, funnily enough, but today it’s not because of his parents. It’s because of Milton. Also, partially because he’s in a cab to get there. Charlie offered to let him drive her car but if Claire’s been suspended then he can drive home in his own. He realises that he could probably do that even if she wasn’t suspended.

            He wracks his brain trying to think of what Claire could possibly have done wrong this morning to warrant a suspension. Sure, being late to school is frowned upon but normally it doesn’t mean a student will be suspended. They were so vague on the phone it makes him nervous.

            The driver pulls into the school entrance. Castiel pays him and gets out the car, heading directly to the headmaster’s office. At least he knows where that is. He can feel his coat billowing out behind him while he runs but he doesn’t slow down not until he sees Claire. She’s sitting, slumped, on one of the chairs in the hallway, looking frustrated.

            “Claire? Hon, what happened?” He sits down beside her.

            “I got hit by a deer and Miss Allen wouldn’t believe me and they wouldn’t let me take the test,” she declares.

            “What?” He knows his voice just got sharper but he can’t help it. All that effort, all that studying and she can’t take the test because she’s late?

            “I got hit by a deer and they wouldn’t let me take the test,” she says again. She won’t even look him in the eye.

            “Alright, I’m gonna come back to the deer thing but don’t you worry. I’m going to go talk to them, you wait here.” He squeezes her shoulder gently and stands. Striding purposefully into the headmaster’s office, bypassing the secretary completely.

            He opens the door a little too quickly in his haste but manages not to stumble. “Excuse me, hello,” he says, recovering quickly. Headmaster Crowley is sitting at his desk, looking as serious as he did the first time Castiel came in here, and on his right stands Miss Allen. He shuts the door behind himself and takes off his coat. At least he’s wearing a respectable outfit this time.

            “Ah, yes Good morning, Mr Novak. Please take a seat.” Crowley doesn’t make a move to stand or shake his hand as he moves to take a seat.

            Castiel starts talking before either of them can open their mouths, “I’m sorry. I think there’s been a mistake, Claire said she wasn’t allowed to take her test?”

            “She was late,” Crowley says simply. He spreads his hands as if that’s all there is to it, like it doesn’t really matter to him that any of this is happening. Castiel glances up at Miss Allen. He’s unsure if her presence is comforting in this situation or not. She said Claire would do well at this school at the parent teacher meeting the other day but now she looks grim.

“Right. Well, you see there were circumstances beyond her control. Claire is never late, she’s almost annoyingly on time. I think if you checked your records-.”

            Rudely, Crowley interrupts, “past performance has nothing to do with today’s situation.” He actually looks smug. Sitting in his chair in his fancy office, in this fancy school and not allowing his daughter to take an important test.

            “But see, she was up all night studying. I was there, she has a witness.” He tries again because they’re not listening. It’s not Claire’s fault she was late. It’s not anyone’s fault it’s a mistake that has never happened before.

            “She’s not on trial.”

            “Well, your honor…” He jokes but at the unimpressed looks he gets he just keeps talking, “just a little trial humour. Won’t happen again. See, she got up late. She broke her neck to get here. We don’t live locally, as you know-.” He has to hold back an eye roll as Crowley interrupts him again.

            “The dog ate my homework.”

            “Excuse me?”

            “My computer crashed and I lost my midterm.”

            “I wasn’t making excuses.” He bites back. There’s a tight feeling of dread and anger brewing in his stomach.

            “My grandmother and first cousin died. My sister took my report to school instead of hers. My religion prohibits studying after sundown. I went blind last night but I’m fine now.” There’s silence for a few seconds as Castiel stares at Crowley in disbelief. For a split second, he wonders what Naomi would say if she were here.

            “That’s not Claire,” he says firmly. If they think even for a second that they can assume anything about Claire, or her life outside of school then they have a big storm coming.

            “Mr Novak, rules are rules. When you’re late, you forfeit the right to take the test.” Crowley stands while he talks and makes his way over to the door.

            “Where are you going?” Castiel asks but when Crowley doesn’t answer he turns to Miss Allen, “where is he going?”

            She steps out from behind the desk, towards him. “Castiel, please. If I could do anything I would.” That’s not good enough. If Claire can’t take the test, then she’ll be behind again. Just as she was starting to catch up.

            “Yes, you could let her take the test,” he says to her. He refuses to think of it as begging at this point.

            “I’m afraid I can’t.” He feels bad now because Miss Allen looks genuinely upset about the situation.

            “Well, that’s not fair,” he says to her because he knows that Crowley is listening.

            “Mr Novak, we’re not here to be fair. We’re here to educate.” Finally, Castiel turns around to look at him. Crowley is standing there, holding the door open and smiling as if this has been a pleasant experience.

            “Yes. And I’m asking you to please educate my kid.” He’s crossing over the line to angry now. How can he just stand there as if everything is fine? They haven’t even offered an alternative for Claire to be able to catch up. Do they just expect her to continue on with a bad grade and eventually flounder?

            “We will, when she’s on time. Have a nice day.” Crowley prompts him to leave. Through the door he can see the secretary at her own desk looking at her computer that’s in desperate need of being updated. He doesn’t move.

            “Are you holding that door for a reason?”

            “Our meeting is over.”

            “Like hell it is.”

            “Castiel!” Miss Allen protests behind him.

            He ignores her and says, “do you have any idea what we have been through this week? We have been up all night every night studying. We haven’t slept for a week, which is why she woke up late today. Claire has been so stressed out about taking this big important test that is worth so much of her grade that she can barely think of anything else. That’s no way to live.”

            “Mr Novak-.” He’s not letting Crowley interrupt him now. He’s going to say what needs to be said and they will listen.

            “You sit up here, in your snotty little school and you nurture horrible kids, like that Braedon boy, who treat each other like mortal enemies. You set impossible standards that make normal people feel less than everybody, and you take a great kid like Claire and you tear her apart!”

            “I don’t think that’s completely fair,” Miss Allen says, crossing her arms.

Ignoring her he continues, “I thought this place was gonna be so great and now.” He throws his hands up in a disbelieving gesture. “I guess this goes on the ‘boy was I wrong’ list. Right above that hair I had in ‘97.”

            “My, my. You do like to throw fits in your family, don’t you?” Crowley lets go of the door and clasps his hands behind his back.

            “What are you talking about?” He frowns, feeling like a deflated balloon now. He knows it probably wasn’t his best decision to go off at the Headmaster of the school and Claire’s teacher but Claire’s trying her damnedest and they aren’t even helping her come up with ways to make up the test or catch up in class. He realises now that they’ve thrown her in with the wolves and by extension, so has he.

            “Your daughter threw a similar, if not as manic, fit of her own this morning,” Crowley explains calmly.

            “Claire doesn’t throw fits.” Crowley’s eyebrows are raised as he hears that.

            “Well then, she did a lovely impression of you.” It’s like a slap in the face.

            “Well, I don’t-.”

            “Mr Novak, everything you said in your rant was absolutely true, minus the colourful embellishments. We do set impossible standards, and such standards do foster highly competitive children. However, that is life, and that is Milton.”

            “Rules can change, you can change them,” he pleads.

            “I told your daughter when she came here that this place is not for everyone and might not be for her. I will now tell you the same thing. She doesn’t have to be here. She doesn’t have to go to Harvard. Maybe she shouldn’t. If she can’t handle the pressure, she should leave. So you need to take your daughter home now and decide what it is you intend to do. However, another outburst like this from either of you will not be on the options list. Thank you for coming in. That will be all.” Castiel, feeling defeated, grabs his coat and leaves. Resenting the return of the smug look on Crowley’s face. He ignores the secretary again as he steps through her office to the hallway and slumps down into the seat beside Claire.

            For a while, they just sit there, staring into space. Thinking through what he said in the office, wondering if there’s anything else he could have done to fix this. She doesn’t have to be here, Crowley had said. Maybe he’s right? Maybe it is too much pressure for Claire. Good god. It strikes him that he’s been focusing so hard on ensuring that Claire has more than he did at her age.

Then he remembers Claire’s words from earlier. “You got hit by a deer?” He asks, a little incredulous because he believes her but what are the chances? Claire swings her head towards him, looking guilty.

“Yeah, come and look,” she says. Together, they stand and amble out towards the carpark. There’s no rush at this point.

When they get there Castiel leans down to inspect the large dent in the passenger side of his jeep. “You did, you got hit by a deer.”

            “It just came out of nowhere.”

            “You couldn’t just run into a wall like other kids?” Castiel feels drained of all energy and judging by how slowly Claire is moving, she feels the same way.

            “Can we just go home please?” She asks.

            “Yeah, sure. Jump in.” He stalks around the car, anger flaring up again at the situation. Claire throws her bag into the back seat and climbs in. She unzips the window flap a little bit to get some air flowing as they pull out their space and leave the school.

 

            They’re about five minutes away from Stars Hollow, on the back roads because it’s quicker to get to their house that way rather than through town, when Claire shouts, “stop the car!” Castiel jolts at the sudden noise but does as she says, pulling the car over to the side of the dirt road.

            “What? Why?” He asks Claire, who is taking off her seatbelt and getting out of the car, shutting the door.

            “I wanna look for the deer. See if he’s ok,” she says through the window. She puts her hands on her hips and surveys the wooded area on either side of the road.

            “How can you tell if it’s a boy or a girl deer?” He asks. He kills the ignition and drags himself from the car. He has no idea where this renewed energy of hers has come from.

            “Bucks have antlers whereas a doe doesn’t,” she supplies. She comes around the front of the car to walk towards the road ahead leading to their right.

            “Right. Sweetie, you’re probably not going to be able to find the deer,” he calls after her, leaning out of his own window.

            “Well, I wanna try. You stay in the car if you want.”

            “Well, it’s dangerous to stay in the car with all the self-destructive deer running around,” he mutters. He gets out of the car and jogs a few steps to catch up to her. He doesn’t care about the dust getting on his work clothes.

            “I have to look at least,” she declares. Fair enough.

            “So what does the deer look like? Any distinguishing marks? You know, besides the word ‘Jeep’ imprinted on its forehead.” He waves a hand in front of his own forehead to demonstrate.

            “It’s just a deer.” She shrugs. They walk on in silence for a few minutes, thinking.

            Finally, Castiel breaks it and starts casually, “so I had a nice chat with Headmaster Crowley today. He said you lost it in class?”

            “I was just tired,” Claire immediately goes on the defensive.

            “You wouldn’t have been tired if you hadn’t been pushing yourself so hard all week.”

            “I was studying. I didn’t have a choice.”

            “Honey, if you’re studying so hard and so much that you end up going to school overtired because you feel you have to then I’m worried about that. I knew there would be a bit of pressure for you switching to this new school but I didn’t truly realise until today how bad it is and how much it’s affecting you,” he explains gently.

            “They kicked me out.” A statement, not a question. As if she’s sure that this is truly what they’ve done.

            “Of course not. This is coming from me, the concerned parent.”

            “Are you saying I should quit?”

            “No. I’m saying that if you wanted to go back to Stars Hollow High, with Jack, that would be fine with me.”

            “You don’t think I can do it,” she accuses him, eyes narrowed in his direction.

            “That’s not true. I know you like to do things to the best of your abilities and beyond but you’re sixteen. You should be able to get a full nights rest and take time off from studying without stressing that you’re going to get a bad grade. You don’t lose it in class that’s not something that should be happening at all and if you’re tired and stressed then we need to figure out what the problem is and what to do to fix it,” he tries his best to explain, to make her understand.

            “Dad-”

            “It’s just, I can’t remember a time when we weren’t talking about you going to Harvard. I know it was me that started it but I need you to know that you don’t have to go to Harvard, especially not because of me. Because I never got to do the big fancy college thing, maybe all this time I’ve been thinking it’s all for Claire, when really. It wasn’t.” God. He’s rethinking everything now. He wants the absolute best for Claire. He wants her to have everything. More than he ever did that’s for sure. He just needs to know that along the way he hasn’t put too much pressure on Claire. He doesn’t want her burning herself out again like she did this past week.

            “Dad, no. I’m not doing this because of you.”

            “Yes but if you are, you don’t have to! I’ll still love you. Even if you can’t support me in my old age and the fabulous manner to which I plan on growing accustomed. I just want you to be happy.”

            “I know,” she says quietly.

            “No, I mean. Over the moon, crazy happy and if Harvard and Milton aren’t going to do that for you then forget about them.” He needs her to understand that this is what’s really important now. Yes, he’s still angry with Milton and its system but he wants Claire to know that he’s proud of her. That he wants her to live a good life, filled with happiness and as little stress as possible, being realistic knowing that stress is sometimes unavoidable.

            “I hear what you’re saying but I was just behind. I never caught up on the reading and that’s why I got a D. I can catch up. I will catch up,” she insists. Her blue eyes wide and earnest.

            “Claire-” he tries but she just keeps going.

            “I understand what you’re saying and I want you to know that it is my dream. This is just a setback. I don’t want to give up just yet. I do, however, reserve the right to change my mind.” God when did she get so grown up?

            “Fair enough. I’m proud of you, no matter what.”

            “Thanks dad.”

            “So, can we go home yet?” He asks, he’s dying for a cup of coffee.

            “Just a few more minutes,” she says smiling.

            “Alright.” He loops an arm with hers as they continue walking silently.

 

---

            Dean frowns at his ringing phone and glances at the clock on the wall of his apartment. Who could be calling him at 10 o’clock at night?

            “Hello?” He answers cautiously.

            “Dean.”

“Oh hey Sammy,” Dean smiles even though he knows his brother can’t see him through the phone. He misses him.

            “Dean… There’s been an accident,” Sam’s voice cracks as he says it and Dean feels his stomach drop. An accident. He closes his eyes and tries not to remember the screech of tyres and the god-awful crunching of metal on metal from years ago. Right outside the diner.

            “Dean? You there?” Sam’s voice pulls him back, no doubt he’s already thought of the same thing. Now is not the time to be thinking about the past anyway.

            “Yeah, Sammy. I’m here.”

            “Good because I need you right now. I’m at the hospital. I don’t know what to do.” For a second he sounds just like he did when he was a kid and had fallen off his bike and scraped his knee. He always came to Dean for help. It’s nice to know that he still needs him after so many years. Then he feels guilty for even thinking such a thing, there’s been an accident and people are hurt.

            “What happened?” He asks evenly. It helps that Sam can’t see him.

            “I’m fine! A drunk driver hit Ruby’s car, I-” Dean can hear the shaky gasp for breath through the phone he’s already looking for his car keys in his dark apartment. He stumbles over an upturned corner of the rug and silently curses.

            “Was Ben in the car?” He demands. He has to know.

            “No. He’s with me.” The relief is instant. He felt guilty about it, with Ruby being injured and in the hospital, but he was glad that his nephew hadn’t been hurt as well.

            “I’m on my way. Which hospital is it?”

            “Dean I-” He chokes on the words.

            “Sam, just breathe. Tell me the address and I’ll be there. Everything is going to be alright.” The second Sam tells him he’s on his way out the door. He barely stops to make sure he’s dressed decently enough to go outside the apartment or even if he’s got his wallet. He races down the stairs, through the diner and across the square to Bobby’s. He drops his keys twice trying to open the door and has to force himself to stop. He takes a breath and calmly picks up his keys. Successfully unlocking the door, he goes straight to his Baby. He doesn’t appreciate it the way he normally would when he rips off her protective cover, he just jumps right in and starts the engine. He peels out of the garage, not caring if he wakes up the entire town in the middle of the night. He realises halfway down the street that he forgot to shut the garage door. Stars Hollow is a safe town, hopefully that won’t change the one night he needs to be careless.

           

Chapter Text

            “Boy, you better have a good explanation for that racket you made last night,” Bobby’s gruff voice crackles through the line.

            “Sam hasn’t called you yet?” Dean asks, surprised. He assumed that Bobby would be the second person Sam would call especially since he’s the closest thing they’ve got to family these days. Unless he’s so out of his mind with worry that he forgot.

            Dean brings a hand up to rub his itchy eyes. He drove all through the night, perhaps slightly faster than he should have, and now he’s standing at a pay phone at a rest stop in Ohio, forcing himself to stop driving and take a break. If only for Sam’s sake. He’s no good to him if he crashes before he gets there. Already, he’s had breakfast at the diner and will catch a couple of hours sleep in the motel. It’s not ideal but it’ll do. Not like he isn’t used to it anyway.

            “No.”

            “He called me about ten last night, said there was a car accident and Ruby’s in the Hospital. I’m on my way to Kansas,” he explains.

There’s silence down the line that lasts long enough that Dean pulls the receiver away from ear and looks at it, wondering if he should put another coin in; until he hears Bobby say, “well, that’ll do it. What about the kid?”

            “Adam’s fine, wasn’t even in the car apparently.”

            “Do they know who did it?” A question he probably should have asked last night.

            “All Sam said was that it was a drunk driver.”

            Bobby swears at that, then asks, “how’s Sam taking it?” Dean wishes he knew more about the situation, he wishes he lived closer to Sam. Or rather, he wishes that Sam hadn’t moved so far away in the first place. He has no idea why Sam chose Lawrence, Kansas of all places to live. Not when they grew up in Connecticut, or when he moved across the country to California in order to go to Stanford and become a big shot lawyer. It’s like he chose Kansas because it’s basically smack-bang in the middle of everything he’s ever known.

            Dean leans against the wall of the phone booth, if he didn’t already need a shower he would be extremely concerned about the prospect of germs that could be in here. “He was pretty upset on the phone but I’ll find out more when I get there,” he says.

            “And what about you?” Bobby asks and even the gruffness of his voice can’t hide the underlying concern.

            “What about me?” Dean asks, stifling a yawn.

            “How are you handling this?”

            “Look. I know I never really approved of Ruby but I never wanted something like this to happen to her-” He rambles until Bobby cuts him off.

             “You know that’s not what I meant, idjit.” Bobby has always had the ability to cut right through the bullshit and figure out the real issue. Even when he and Sam were kids they could never hide anything from Uncle Bobby, no matter how clever they thought they were.

            He hesitates, then says, “I’ll be fine. I’m going there for Sammy and Adam, not to bring up old problems.”

            “Whatever you say, kid. Tell your idjit brother to call me when you see him.”

            “Will do. Oh and also, can you check in on the diner whilst I’m gone? I already called Caesar to tell him to open up without me today but I don’t want him to get overwhelmed or anything.”

            “Yeah, sure. It’s all taken care of, you just go be there for your brother.”

            “Thanks Bobby. Oh and could you tell- never mind. That’s it. Talk to you later. If Sam calls you tell him I’m on my way.” Dean hangs up the phone a pinches the bridge of his nose. He had almost told Bobby to talk to Cas for him. Bobby might be the only person in the world who wouldn’t question why he wanted Cas to know where he was going. He supposes that it doesn’t really matter anyway. Cas is his friend. His best friend. He’ll talk to him later anyway. He doesn’t know when but later.  

            Squeezing out of the phone booth, he aims for the motel to book a room. Steadfastly ignoring the feeling of guilt leaving a bad taste in his mouth. He doesn’t talk to the receptionist beyond the necessary, Can I get a room please? And Thanks. He feels drained as he trudges his way to his room. He has just enough awareness to make sure the door is locked behind him.

           Not even bothering to get changed, he falls asleep as soon as he manages to flop onto the bed.

 

---

            “Caesar’s cooking?” Claire asks as they sit down at their table. They’re by the window today.

           Castiel looks around and spots Caesar going into the kitchen with a stack of dirty plates in hand. Dean is nowhere in sight.

          “Caesar’s pancakes aren’t as good as Dean’s,” she sulks, slumping in her chair a bit. They’re there extra early this morning thanks to Claire trying to make up for oversleeping yesterday. Castiel is even going to drive her to school so that she can meet up with Jack.

            “I suspect we may just have to order something else today,” he says distractedly, thinking about the last time he saw Dean. Nothing had seemed amiss at the time other than the both of them working through their own weirdness. Dean would tell him if something was wrong, of if something had happened. Wouldn’t he? Or maybe their friendship was restricted to Dean being the guy with the coffee and Cas being the customer and sometimes they talk. Castiel shakes his head. Even he knows that that’s not true. Dean probably wouldn’t have come to check on him, during work hours no less, when he was sick if that’s all it was. Dean had called him his best friend.

          The bell attached to the door jingles loudly and Caesar calls out from the kitchen, “I’ll be with you in a minute!”

           “Uncle Bobby!” Claire calls out, perhaps a touch too loudly for the inside of a diner, to the man as he steps into the building. Bobby ignores the other open tables and approaches their table, smiling at Claire. For a man who looks serious most of the time, he’s more loyal and caring than actual family. When Castiel first met him he had been intimidated beyond words but after sixteen years in this town he’d morphed into Uncle Bobby by name and nature. Most people in this town called him that though, since he helps out just about anyone who needs it. All whilst maintaining that gruff exterior. Dean must take lessons from him.

           “Would you like to join us for breakfast?” Castiel gestures to the empty chair between Claire and himself.

           “I suppose I could use some company. I’m just checking in on the diner whilst Dean’s gone, makin sure Caesar’s got it covered,” he says, pulling out the chair and swiftly sitting down.

            Surprise makes both his and Claire’s eyebrows rise. “Dean’s gone?” Claire asks, “where?”

            “Kansas. Sam’s partner was in a car crash, a drunk driver hit her. Pretty heavy shit.”

            “Oh, my god!” Castiel exclaims at the same time that Claire lets out a curse of her own.

            “Holy shit!”

            “Claire!” He scolds her. She has the good sense to look a little sheepish.

“That’s terrible. Is there anything we can do?” He has the urge to pull out his phone and call Dean right this moment to see if they’re ok. That is, until he remembers that Dean doesn’t have a cell phone, or even a pager. Has actually resisted buying one anytime anyone brings it up, saying that the landline is good enough.

            “Good of you to offer but probably not. At least, not until I hear more about the situation anyway. I have a feeling Dean will be there for a while. Brings up bad memories for those boys.” Castiel remembers. Though he hadn’t been very close with Dean ten years ago, he remembers the news spread through town like wildfire. He remembers the crumpled cars overturned on the corner directly outside the diner, although it hadn’t been the diner at the time. At the time it had been John Winchester’s hardware store. Castiel thinks of the broken glass that had sprayed onto the road. The loss, the tragedy. It was top town news for months. The crash that killed Mr and Mrs Winchester. Dean turning his father’s old store into a diner.

            Unsure what to do or say next, they sit in solemn, contemplative silence. When Caesar comes to take their orders, it’s a welcome change of subject. Castiel gets the French toast, Claire the blueberry pancakes and, Bobby, surprisingly enough, gets oatmeal.

            At their raised eyebrows he grouches, “Don’t you tell Sam, he’ll get all smug on me. I’m supposed to be watching my cholesterol.” Castiel merely mimed zipping his lips, though he can’t help but smile.

            In the back of his mind he wonders if Dean is ok, how he’s dealing with the ordeal. Not to mention Sam and the despair he must be feeling. He’s sure he has Sam’s phone number written down in his address book back at the house, he’ll have to track it down when he gets home tonight. Call Sam and see if there’s anything he can do to help, though he doubts it. Sam and his son live in Kansas, there won’t be much he can do other than offer his support. Castiel suddenly feels guilty for wondering why Dean might not have contacted him.

            The bell on the door rings again and they all look up to find Jack dragging a chair around from an empty table to join them. Given that it’s a round table, only meant for three at the most, it’s a bit of a tight fit but they all shuffle their seats this way and that to make it work anyway.

          “My dad wants to know if you’ll all be coming around for Easter this year,” Jack says by way of greeting.

          Bobby huffs out a laugh and leans back in his chair. “Free food? Wouldn’t miss it," he says, as if he doesn't go every year.

           “You can tell him we’ll be there. Same time as always,” Claire tells him. Celebrating Easter with the Kline’s was probably among the first few events she put into her planner for this year.

            Everyone in Stars Hollow knows that Easter is Lucifer’s thing. Given the amount of family members, and friends on top of that, that Jack and his dad have they had to divvy up the significant holidays in order to have less commotion and bickering over the course of the year. Jack’s favourite holiday is Halloween, much to Lucifer’s chagrin, which belongs to his sweet-toothed uncle Gabriel. Despite Easter being a smaller holiday than Christmas or Halloween even, Lucifer likes to make a big deal out of it regardless. They have an enormous dinner the night before where dozens of the Kline family members and at least half the town attends.

            “Does he realise that Easter is in late April this year though, he’s still got time to prepare,” Claire points out.

            Jack rolls his eyes. “Tell that to Taylor, he brought it up again at the latest town meeting even though he already has it sorted. My dad kept him talking about it by asking questions.”

            “Why didn’t he volunteer to run the egg hunt?” Castiel muses.

            “Other than the fact that he wasn’t at that meeting to volunteer, he said that he’s too busy with our own preparations anyway.”

            “Can you imagine if he’d gotten any of the bigger holidays?” Claire says amusedly.

            Jack snorts. “He’d definitely give Taylor a run for his money.”

            “That reminds me, actually. Dad, there’s a bake sale coming up soon at school, all the parents are supposed to join and bring in homemade stuff to raise money for new books for the library.” Ah, a cause close to the heart. It’s a shame that he has absolutely no ability to bake, he’ll have to consult Charlie. See if she can help.

            “I’ll figure something out,” he says.

            Claire gives him a look. “It’s really important that we participate in this. Most, if not all, of the parents will pitch in and I don’t want to be that new kid who doesn’t participate.”

            “Claire. When have I ever missed anything that requires parent participation unless I was sick or otherwise truly unable to go?”

            “It’s just…” She hesitates, then bursts out, “you’re terrible at baking!” Jack and Bobby don’t even try to hold back their laughter.

            “Hey! I mean, I know but I’ll figure something out.”

            “They expect it all to be homemade,” she emphasises.

            “I got it covered. Just let me know when it is and I’ll be ready.” Claire huffs at him like she doesn’t quite believe him but doesn’t push it further.

            “You gonna order any breakfast, kid?” Bobby asks Jack.

            “Yeah, I’ll grab a muffin or two on my way out. I’m just here to be social.” He leans over and elbows Claire.

            “They do say breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” she points out.

            “Who?” Jack asks.

            Claire falters. “People… In the world?” They snicker until Caesar brings their orders to their table. Jack still ends up eating one of Claire’s pancakes before going up to the counter and getting his muffin.

 

---

            Seemingly endless road stretches out before Dean. White lines disappearing beneath the hood of his baby. For once, he doesn’t have the radio on. This isn’t a drive just to enjoy it, it’s a trek to get to his brother who needs him. He focuses on the road, counting down the miles. His insides are roiling with guilt at this point, not all of it is warranted but it remains nonetheless. He just has to get to Sam.

            Back at the motel, he’d accidentally slept for two hours more than he’d meant to because he forgot to set an alarm. Ironic, considering his dreams had been plagued by the squeal of failing brakes and the crunching of bones on impact. Even ten years later, the sounds, the feeling of terror, echoes in his mind like it was yesterday. He’d been lucky. His parents not so much. The drunk driver had died on impact then and given Dean a good enough reason to decide he never wanted to drink alcohol again.

            He knows this isn’t the same situation but the tragedy of it, the pain, will be just as bad. Especially if Ruby doesn’t pull through. She may not be his most favourite person in the world but that didn’t mean he wanted something bad to happen to her. Especially since she’s Adam’s mum. To lose a parent like that is a terrible thing.

            Right now, he wants nothing more than to press his foot a little harder on the pedal, to go faster, to get there as fast as possible. He’s not stupid though. If he gets pulled over, or worse in a car crash on the highway, he would just get delayed and in big trouble. So Dean drives carefully and tries not to think of the worst case scenarios that could go down before he even gets there.

 

---

          “Make sure that carpet is replaced perfectly before they go. I mean perfectly- nailed down and everything.” Castiel checks it off the list in his folder as he says it into the phone.

          “Oh you meant that perfectly? I thought you meant the other ‘perfectly’, you know, the one that could be misinterpreted by the other Michel. You know, the one who couldn’t understand what you meant by ‘perfectly’.” Michel’s sarcasm is just too much today. You’d think he kept such an attitude because he was the night manager but no that’s just him. Castiel puts the phone to his shoulder for a moment to say hello to a passing guest and check that they don’t need his help. When they’ve passed he takes a deep breath and brings the phone back to his ear.

           “Thank you, Michel. I’ll talk to you later.” He does not have the energy to be dealing with this sort of thing today.

           “Woohooo! I found it! WOOHOooHOoo!” Castiel frowns when he can hear Charlie whooping and hollering from the kitchen all the way at the front desk. He smiles quickly at the guests looking at him questioningly and makes his way into the kitchen where Charlie is still yelling. “I found it, I found it! IfounditIfoundit, I found it!” She’s dancing around the room, waving a piece of paper wildly in the air.

            “Found what?” He asks, leaning against the nearest bench.

            Charlie is smiling widely at him as she shoves the paper in his face. “His bill, I found his bill!”

            “What are you talking about?” Whose bill?

            “It wasn’t the Risotto. It was the wine, He ordered the wrong wine!” She’s still shouting with excitement, her eyes sparkling with absolute joy.

            “Oh. Well, great,” he says, finally clicking on to what she’s saying. The magic Risotto. The ‘bad’ review from the food critic.

            She brings her voice down to a normal volume as she begins to explain, “see in the review he mentioned something about a summer tomato salad, which I only made once in the last three weeks because Dorothy, of course, decides to get in a fist fight with his tomato grower and- Ok, that’s a different story.” She waves her hands as she stops herself from going into the tangent.

            “Yes. Save it for Christmas time.”

            She leans forward conspiratorially. “So Brian, the goateed waiter, only worked one shift the week before last because his girlfriend kicked him out and he had to move.”

            “Celia kicked him out?” he asks, shocked.

            “Well, he didn’t want kids.” She shakes her head.

            “But she knew that when they moved in.” It hadn’t even been that long ago that Brian had taken a few days off to do so.

            “Apparently she was hoping she could change his mind.”

            “Wow,” is all he can think to say.

            “Yeah,” Charlie sighs sadly. She looks down at the receipt in her hand and seems to remember the real topic here. “But anyhow. I checked the dates, narrowed the day down, and I found a party that had ordered practically everything on the menu, including…” She points at him with finger guns to finish.

            “The magic Risotto,” he sing songs.

            “Yes! The Risotto and a Riesling. Ha! A Riesling.”

            “Why not just drink battery acid?” He says despite not actually knowing that much about wine.

            Charlie doesn’t seem to notice though as she says, “exactly! Changes the entire flavour of the dish.”

            “I’m so glad, Charlie!” He reaches out and pulls her into a hug. This has been bothering her for too long, hopefully now she can put the whole thing behind her. It was a good review overall and now she has an explanation for why the critic said it was merely fine.

            Behind Charlie Castiel can see Dorothy come in through the back door, a crate of vegetables in tow. “Okay. Here are the zucchini you ordered,” she announces. Charlie pulls away from the hug to inspect the produce. She leans over and looks at them critically, pulling one out to look at closely.

            “Too small- take them away!” She concludes, putting it back in the crate and walking off to

            “Oh, it’s good to have her back huh?” Dorothy puts the crate on the bench top and leans against it, smiling.

            “Yeah,” Castiel agrees, thinking back on how his friend had dwelled on the supposed slight of a review to the point of almost losing her confidence in her own profession.

            “Yeah,” Dorothy repeats. There’s a solid thirty seconds of comfortable silence before she adds, “you’re still gonna have to pay for the zucchini.”

            “Yeah,” Castiel sighs and goes off to get the chequebook.

 

---

            Dean knows when he pulls up to the hospital. He couldn’t explain it if he tried but he has a gut feeling that Ruby didn’t make it, or she isn’t going to. It could just be dread, at having to go into another hospital for another car crash. Or anxiety. But the feeling followed him as he parked the car, put money in the expensive meter and made his way into the hospital. Pausing by the front desk to ask where he can find his brother and when the nurse tells him he turns away and doesn’t look back.

            It’s quiet. In the elevator, in the world, it’s so, so quiet. He can hear the only other person in the elevator shuffle their feet and cough, he can hear the whir of the elevator as it takes him up to the third floor, and he can hear the murmur of voices down the corridor when the doors open. He can hear it all as he makes his way towards Ruby’s room but none of it registers in his mind. It’s just a quiet sort of dread.

            He sees Sam in the hallway, next to an open door. He has his arm around Adam, who must’ve grown at least a half foot since he last saw him, and there are tears streaming down his face as he talks to the doctor standing in front of him.

It’s Adam who spots him first. “Dean?” He calls out to him, glancing at his father. Sam looks up and meets his eye. He shakes his head. Damn.

            He grimaces and approaches them all. He lets Sam pull him into a tight hug and if his little brother sniffles and possibly gets snot on Dean’s favourite flannel then he doesn’t mention it. It doesn’t matter anyway.

            “I’m here Sammy.” He pat’s him on the back gently. Over his shoulder he checks on Adam, who’s looking through the open door beside them. No doubt looking at his mother and wondering if this is real.

            “She’s gone. She’s just gone Dean,” Sam cries into his shoulder.

            “I know.”

           “What am I gonna do?” Sam asks him, pulling away and wiping at his face.

           “Right now, you’re gonna grieve and I’ll take care of everything else. I’ll be here for as long as you need.”

---

            Castiel sighs as he finally walks through his door. His business class isn’t exactly hard but it’s not easy either. A lot of it he’s picked up whilst working his way up the ladder at the Independence Inn. From starting out as a housekeeper when he was about to turn seventeen to running the whole place as Manager now at thirty-two. It’s just been a long day. He wants to sit on the couch and watch some TV for a while.

            He kicks off his shoes and shuffles into the lounge room, pausing by the machine on the table in the hallway to press play on the flashing red button.

            Beep. The first message is from Miss Allen at Chilton, “hello, Mr Novak. I’m just calling to let you know that I’ve talked to Headmaster Crowley and he’s agreed for me to arrange for some extra-curricular work for Claire to do to make up for the missed test. I hope it’s a comfort to know that I’m going to do my damnedest to not let her fail or fall behind. I hope to talk to you soon.” Beep.

           He sits down on the couch and leans his head back, smiling. At least Miss Allen is trying to help Claire, even after his little outburst yesterday.

            The next message plays automatically after another loud beep, “hey Cas. You might know this by now but I’m in Kansas, uh, with Sammy. Not really sure how long I’m gonna be here.” Castiel can hear him pause to blow out a deep breath. “Honestly, I could be here a while. The doctor’s just broke the news that Ruby didn’t make it. Gotta plan the funeral and be there for Sam and Adam, you know. They’re kind of torn up at the moment. I, uh, know I could’ve probably just waited until I got back to tell you this but it’s all been kind of heavy here and I, uh… I just wanted to talk to a friend… Anyway. Talk to you later, I guess.” Beep.

            The quiet of the house rings after that. No more messages.

            He wonders how long ago Dean tried to call him. He wonders if he should try to call him back? No. He’ll track down Sam’s number first, offer his condolences. Next time he talks to Dean though he’s absolutely going to try and convince him to get a cell phone.

Chapter Text

            Claire keeps her head down as she walks through the tall iron gates of Milton on Wednesday morning. Yesterday had been terrible in terms of the rumour mill’s wheels turning, spreading the gossip of her tantrum in class on Monday. It doesn’t really bother her at this point but she’s also not going to add fuel to the fire. Hopefully, the school will have talked itself out about her by the end of the week. That being said, today is the day she has English on her timetable again. Her first time seeing Miss Allen again since the incident.

            She heads directly for her locker and tries to hide her face behind it’s door while she sorts out her books for the day. Taking as long as possible to take what she needs out of her bag and shove it into the lowest shelf of her locker, she doesn’t feel like lugging it around from class to class today.

            “Hey,” someone says quietly near her. She ignores it because she’s sure that whoever it is isn’t actually talking to her, until she shuts her locker door and finds Ben Braedon standing beside her, looking both nervous and expectant.

            “Uh, can I help you?” She asks, a little uncertain as to what’s going on. Oddly enough, Ben hadn’t been at school yesterday.

            “I-I wanted to apologise. To you. I want to say that I’m sorry for being a- ah- a bully. You don’t have to forgive me but if you want I could help you catch up with the school work?” Claire can’t help her mouth falling open in shock. Ben Braedon apologising to her! Not only that but he seems genuinely remorseful of his actions? She never thought she’d see the day. He shuffles a little under gaze, uncomfortable. He swaps his books from his left hand to his right.

            “Where are your friends?” She blurts out, inwardly kicking herself for being so blunt.

            “They weren’t really my friends. I told them I was going to say sorry to you and they laughed at me.” He lifts a hand to brush his dark hair out of his eyes, a shy gesture. It’s unkempt compared to the usual proper and sleek standard he keeps to. The poor boy looks like he wants to bolt from this conversation and Claire debates letting him stew in his own juices for how rude he was to her before.

            “I’m sorry to hear that,” Claire says. She really means it too.

            Ben gives her a small smile and, after an awkward moment of silence, says, “well. I guess… I better get to class then.” He lifts his books in the direction of the hall behind her. He takes a step to go and turns back to face her like he’s going to say something else, decides against it and raises his hand in an awkward wave instead.

           Claire looks at her locker door to check that its locked, then towards Ben’s retreating back. “Ben!” she calls out before she realises what she’s doing. He half turns in her direction so she hurries to catch up with him. “Walk to class together?” His eyebrows shoot up in surprise but he nods. Together they walk on, side by side.

           “You mentioned helping me study?” She prompts, leaning forward to look at his face. She kind of reminds her of Dean, which is silly because Dean doesn’t have any children.

           “Uh, yeah. If you want. I figure it’s a better alternative to us being enemies anyway.”

           “I think that’s a great idea. Our competitiveness can be friendly instead of taxing.”

           “Does this mean you forgive me?” Ben asks.

           “Yeah. You’re on probation though. I’d like to think that we can help each other get through Milton in one piece and maybe become... friends along the way. You never know.”

          “Let’s not be hasty, Novak,” Ben holds up his hands and takes a step to the side as they walk but he has a smile on his face. He’s teasing her, she realises with a start.

          “Fair enough. Acquaintances then?” She holds her hand in the open air between them as they stop in front of their open classroom door.

          “Colleagues,” he says firmly, shaking her hand. This may be the tentative beginnings of a real friendship. One can only hope, Claire thinks as they walk into the classroom together and find their usual seats. The day is looking brighter than it did when she got off the bus.

 

---

           Charlie knows that she shouldn’t be doing this. That it’s highly inappropriate. But she has to do it, she has to know. He didn’t like the Risotto because he had it with the wrong wine and this is her chance to hear what he has to say when he has it with the right wine.

           Awkwardly, she knocks on the dark green door with her elbow, making sure to keep her back to it. The silver dish cover rattles over the plate in her hand and the wine in her other hand sloshes in its glass. Too late to turn back now.

            “Can I help you?” She almost jumps because the voice behind her is closer than she anticipated it would be.

            She takes a deep breath to steady herself and puts on a polite smile even though she knows he can’t see it. “Yes. Hello. My name is Charlie Bradbury, I’m the chef at the Independence Inn.”

            “I know who you are.”

            “You do? Well, I’m flattered. You write about a lot of chefs-”

            “What are you doing here?” He doesn’t sound angry, just confused and possibly mildly annoyed. Good.

            “Right. Well, I know this is a terrible intrusion, but- are you cooking?” She sniffs the air a couple of times, letting herself get derailed from the whole reason she’s here. There’s something about the smell of food cooking that isn’t quite right. It’s good, but it could probably be better.

            “I’m making chicken,” he admits hesitantly.

            “You used to much salt,” she says definitively, nodding once to herself.

            “I did not,” he argues, indignant.

           “It smells salty.”

            “I’m closing the door now.” Oh shoot! That’s not what she was aiming for at all.

            “No, wait! I found out your address from my network of culinary friends and I just-” she tries but is interrupted.

            “This is really inappropriate. I gave you a good review. I suggest you go home.” She can hear him closing the door behind her so she stands up straighter and puts her foot backwards to block it.

             “I don’t care about the review! I want you to try this dish,” she says, trying not to sound desperate as she holds the covered dish out behind her blindly for him to take, “with this wine.” She passes the glass back too, feeling relieved that he takes them from her. “I’ll wait,” she says. Behind her the door creaks shut without him saying anything. She clutches the dish cover her to her chest and squeezes her eyes shut hoping against hope that he will like the Risotto with the proper wine this time.

 

           It’s now lunchtime on her day off and she was unsure of how long she should wait for Mr Mills to come back out before giving up and going home. The plate and glass were from the inn so it wasn’t really a loss if she didn’t get them back. Things like that got broken by accident regularly at work.

            Charlie’s stomach is growling by the time he returns. “Well, I’ll admit this is an improvement from my initial impression.” Charlie can barely contain her excitement. On the inside she’s punching the air triumphantly.

            “Really?!”

            “Really. I don’t recommend pulling something like this again in the future, to me or any other restaurant critics but I’m impressed by your boldness today.”

            “You really like it? You’d say it’s better than ‘fine’?” She asks, toeing the line just a little bit more because she has to know.

            “I’d say it’s an excellent dish.”

            “Oh! Thank yo-

            “You know I can’t publish this as a review in any way?”

            “I don’t care, this wasn’t for that. I just… knew I could do better when it came to this.”

            “Well you’ve certainly proved that. Here is your plate and glass back. I recommend you go on your way now and, please don’t share my address with anyone.”

            “I promise I won’t. Thank you so much!” The door shuts behind her and Charlie heads towards her car, which is parked across the road. She can’t contain her excitement and ends up doing a little dance on the road before getting into her car and driving home.

             She’s still smiling when she gets back to her house near the Stars Hollow town square. Gathering her things she heads inside and dumps them on her kitchen counter in exchange for the phone. She dials Castiel’s number, which she knows by heart, and sits on the couch whilst she listens to it ring and waits for him to pick up.

            “Hello-”

            “Cas, you’ll never believe what I did today,” she bursts, unable to wait any longer.

            “I have some news too, and a favour to ask, but you should tell yours first because it sounds like it’s happy and mine is… sad. The news is, not the favour.” That makes her pause. What could possibly have happened to make him sound so forlorn.

             “You go first. Bad news is always something serious.”

             “It’s… It’s Dean’s brother, Sam. His partner died yesterday. Dean left a message on my machine.”

             “Oh my god.”

             “I know. Dean is in Kansas with him right now. I was thinking I should tell Babette and maybe Miss Patty so that the news would go around town and, hopefully, by the time Dean comes back they might’ve talked themselves out of it. But Dean didn’t say if he wants people to know yet in the message-”

             “You didn’t speak to him?”

             “No, he called while I was out but Bobby told us at the diner yesterday morning. Apparently, it was a car accident. The guy knows my number but has yet to buy a cell phone.” Charlie tucks away that piece of information for later, another time when she’ll bring up the weird thing that Dean and Castiel have. Or could have if they’d just talk to each other. Everyone can see it, everyone but them apparently.

             “That’s gotta be rough,” she sympathises. She doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a partner but she’s no stranger to the concept of loss.

            “I can’t even begin to imagine what they must be going through,” Castiel says, sounding frustrated, “I want to help but really what is there for me to do? Nothing.”

            “The fact that you care and want to help despite the fact that you can’t will mean a great deal to them anyway.”

            “I hope so. I just don’t know anything else either, not that they need to but I don’t know when a good time to call is or when Dean will come back.”

            “I’m sure if you just call at a reasonable hour during the day it’ll be fine,” she reassures him. Cas’ heart is made of gold, he has more love can care to give than he knows what to do with sometimes.

 

---

            “You hungry kid?” Dean asks Adam who is sitting on the island bench in Sam’s kitchen looking glum.

            “I guess so.”

            “Well, I’m going to cut up some carrots and stuff for you to munch on while I do the dishes.” Rabbit food, Dean thinks as he pulls out a large plate from one of the overhead cupboards and sets it beside Adam. He ruffles his hair as he passes him again, going for the knives and chopping board.

            The poor kid is having his second day off school in a row and keeps asking a lot of questions about death. Apparently this is his first personal experience with the concept. Sam mentioned last night that a couple of years ago one of their older neighbours died of a heart attack and so they all went over to visit his widow but at that point it was just something that could happen to other people and not a member of their own family. So he seems to know that his mother isn’t coming home but he keeps getting stuck on the ‘what comes after’ part. So here Dean is, chopping up carrots, cucumber and apples, trying to shield Sam from having to answer questions such as “If dying makes people sad then why do they just not do it?” and the worst of all, “am I going to die?” Seriously, how does one answer a question like that without traumatising the kid or themselves?

            Behind Adam, Sam walks past the kitchen doorway with a basket full of laundry in his arms. Dean wonders if he should go talk to him, he’s been on autopilot all morning. So into his routine that he still got up at six am to get ready for the day before realising he didn’t have to go to work or take Adam to school. Dean had in turn been woken up at six-thirty by the washing machine being turned on, since the laundry is next to the guest room that he’s staying in. He’s used to having to get up early because of working at the diner but it was still jarring because he’s not used to being woken up by other people in the building.

            He arranges the food in sections on the plate and smiles when Adam picks up pieces to eat when he’s done. He turns around to the sink behind him and the pile of dishes waiting to be washed. He’s knows that it’s a bigger pile than usual considering no one has washed them for the last couple of days but it needs to be done so he rolls up his sleeves and turns on the water.

            “Hey Adam, Do you have any homework you need to catch up on for school?” He asks while he pours in some dishwashing liquid. It’s a different brand than the one he uses at home so it’s bubbling up a lot more than it should, he probably used too much.

            “We were going to have a spelling test today,” Adam says through a mouthful of food.

            “Hey, don’t talk with food in your mouth, alright buddy.” He turns around and waves a hand for Adam to move off the bench and onto the nearby stool then turns back to the dishes. He shuts off the water and continues. “Anyway, I’m sure the teacher will let you take the test when you go back. Do you think you’re ready for it?”

            “I have a worksheet in my schoolbag with practice words on it.”

            “If you want I could quiz you on them later? Have our own spelling bee.”

            “Maybe.”

            “Fair enough.” He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know their daily routine, he doesn’t know what to tell Adam or how to cheer him up. He’s never even wanted kids, really. Ok, so maybe he’s thought about it but only if he found the right person to take that step with. Even then kids aren’t a priority for him. He’d have to be totally sure that he wanted to have that kind of responsibility because kids are a lot of work. You have to raise them and teach them wrong from right until they’re able to go off on their own. He’d love a family but he’s scared that he’ll fuck it all up before it even starts.

            When he finally cleans off the last plate and put it to dry on the rack and dries off his hands, Dean turns around only to find Adam gone and only half the plate of food eaten. Shrugging, he picks an apple slice to eat and takes the whole plate with him into the lounge room where he finds Sam surrounded by piles of laundry. His too long hair is shaggy, although now is probably not the best time to hassle him about it, and his eyes are red and puffy.

            “I’ve got some rabbit food here, you hungry?” Dean holds out the platter for him.

            “Not really,” Sam says but reaches out to take some anyway. He knows that Dean will make him eat something sooner or later. In his lap is a shirt that most likely belonged to Ruby. To Sam’s left is a pile of neatly folded clothes that are also most likely Ruby’s. Dean doesn’t say anything but he feels a twist in his gut at the reminder that they are.

             Sam catches him looking at the clothes anyway. “I guess I’ll have to go through the house and get rid of her things now won’t I?” He says glumly.

            “Not everything and not today, ok?” Dean hopes it’s a comforting answer.

            “Life… goes on, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what you always said when mum and dad died?” Of course, he’d bring that up. They’re both aware that when their parents died was one of the worst times in his life and now Sam’s making thinly veiled jabs about it.

            “Sam, that was ten years ago.” Dean sits on the couch and gingerly puts the plate down beside himself.

            “So?” That’s just great, he’s trying to pick a fight.

            Dean takes a deep breath, clasps his hands together between his knees and shrugs. “I didn’t have good coping mechanisms back then and to be honest I still don’t. I push people away when they’re trying to help me, especially my loved ones. I never told you this but I had to go see a therapist after the accident. You wanna know why it took me longer than it should have to fix up the impala? I kept everything bottled up until I couldn’t hold it in anymore, I took a crowbar and beat the crap out of the car. Dad’s pride and joy and I smashed the remaining windows and back lights. I dented the shit out the back end.” Leaning forward, he rests his forearms on his knees and spreads his hands. Sam looks genuinely stunned.

            “Why didn’t you tell me?” Dean dares to glance up at Sam, to meet his eyes for a brief moment before dropping them again. He looks surprised that Dean is being so open with him. Might as well keep going, this could be good for both of them.

            “Because you were my responsibility. You were going off to College, you were grieving too, and I had my own issues to work through. My point is, I had to learn how to work through those issues. Now, I can impart my big brotherly wisdom onto you. So you know what? Yeah, life does go on. Shops will open at their designated times, bills will need to be paid and, yes, the laundry will need to be washed, folded and put away. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to take a break from everything. You’re in mourning. You’re allowed to be sad, even angry for a while. It’s healthy to feel those things. I’m not saying to stop doing everything altogether, just that you get up in the morning and you try your best and if your best is just keeping it together some days then that’s ok. You are not alone. We’ve been through loss before and we can get through it again because we aren’t alone,” Dean tries his best to make himself clear, to make sure that Sam knows that no matter what he will be there for him.

              Sam has tears in his eyes as he quietly says, “I’d ask you for a hug but… No chick flick moments right.” Dean’s sure that his expression is comically shocked as he shoots up from the couch and holds his hand out to pull Sam up from the floor.

            “Did you not hear anything I just said? We’re all about growth these days, now come here kid.” Sam doesn’t even tell him off for calling him kid, he just takes Dean’s hand, stands and lets him wrap his arms around his little brother. It will never stop being ironic that Sam, younger than Dean by four years, turned out to be taller of the two but right now height doesn’t matter. Dean holds his brother as he sobs and buries his face into his neck. Just like when he was nine and their dad joked about giving him a gun to deal with the monster in his closet.

            “I’m still going to do the laundry today though,” Sam declares when he finally pulls away. Dean doesn’t hide the fact that he has a few tears of his own running down his cheeks.

            “Good,” his voice cracks but he coughs and tries again, “I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that if you need a break you should have one.” He claps a hand on his shoulder.

            “Thanks Dean.” He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Sam this heart broken, this is even worse than when their parents died.

            “How about we order pizza in for dinner instead of having to cook and I’ll make sure the house doesn’t fall apart for the rest of the day.”

            “Yeah, yeah sounds good,” Sam says, distracted. He sits back down on the floor and pulls another shirt from the basket to fold. Dean doesn’t mention the fact that it’s another one of Ruby’s. “The funeral is tomorrow,” Sam says, his voice cracking.

            “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got it sorted.” He really does, he’s made all the arrangements down to the wake which will be held here at the house.

            “Dean.”

            “Yeah?”

            “Thanks for being here.”

            “Of course, Sammy. Nowhere else I’d rather be.” Dean picks up the plate of food and moves it onto the footstool closer to Sam so he can reach it and then leaves the room to find Adam.

 

            The funeral has a larger turnout than expected. Lots of people that Dean doesn’t know where there like other parents from Adam’s school and some of Sam and Ruby’s friends from College; the only people he had met before were Ruby’s parents before and they were still as judgemental as ever, but after the impossibly numb morning Dean had watched Sam have he was glad to see that there was other people around ready to support him and Adam.

            Ruby’s father, Alistair in particular always gave Dean the creeps but today he was trying to keep it together. It’s just something about the way he looks at Dean, with eyes that are a little too glassy to be alive, and the way he speaks, with a voice that drones and buzzes for hours after the conversation in the back of Dean’s mind like a nightmare, just makes Dean want to avoid him at all costs. Unfortunately, he can’t do that because he wants to stay near Sam.

            “Sam, Dean,” Alistair sneers as he approaches them. Ruby’s mother, Lilith, is talking to some more people Dean doesn’t know behind him. Not that she would be any kind of a buffer here.

            “I’m sorry it’s under such tragic circumstances,” Dean answers tightly. However uncomfortable he is, he can’t forget the fact that Alistair and Lilith have lost a child. Their only child. So he tries to keep that in mind as the conversation goes on.

            “Yes. Well, I suppose I can know that she’s resting where she belongs now.” Dean has no idea how to respond to that so he settles for, what he hopes is, a sympathetic smile, which drops as soon as he hears what Alistair says next. “So when are you moving Samuel?”

            Sam frowns in confusion. “I beg your pardon?” Dean puts his hand out to rest on Adam’s shoulder as he watches the scene unfold before him.

            “Moving?” He asks. Suddenly he wishes he had someone here to put a comforting hand on his own shoulder because this is just too much. It’s overwhelming. He refuses to acknowledge the fact that the first person he thinks of is Cas, he pushes that thought away firmly.

            “Dad? What’s he talking about?” Adam’s voice sounds smaller than ever and Dean’s chest constricts at the thought of him moving even further away than he already is.

            “Well, I thought you’d want to be closer to family now that you’re a single parent and all. If you like, I can help you look at listings in California? I can even help you out financially, of course. Anything for my… Son in law.” Dean’s insides are roiling with discomfort. He may very well throw up right here next to his sister in laws grave. That being said she’d probably laugh at him for doing so if she were alive.

            “You mean closer to you?” Dean splutters out incredulously, turning wide eyes to Sam. Sam just has his stern thinking face on. As if he’s actually, genuinely considering what Alistair is saying.

            “Are you forgetting that Sam is a lawyer? He doesn’t need help with his finances and even if he does I’ll help him out.” Dean will always be proud of Sam for his achievements and he will not let anyone even imply that he’s less than them.

            “Dean,” Sam hisses. People were starting to look their way, reactions ranging from concerned to trying to eavesdrop but Dean doesn’t care about them. It had never occurred to him that Sam would consider moving further away than he already is. He can’t just move Adam away from everything he’s ever known, at least not at the start of the school year. And Alistair! Would Sam really choose to be closer to his in-laws than his own brother?

              Dean can’t help himself, he has to spit out, “not to mention he has family other than you.” And that about does it. Alistair smirks like the cat that got the canary, like he’s already gotten exactly what he wants.

             “That’s enough.” Sam shoots him a look then turns back to Alisatir, “to answer your question Alistair, I have no plans to move as of yet but I will take your… Offer into consideration if I do. Thank you.” Sam moves away before either of them can respond to the front of the room to sit on the pew on the left side of the room.

             The rest service is nice, as far as services go. Sam and Adam both cried while Dean tried to keep it together for them, even if Sam wasn’t speaking to him. It worked, right up until the last minute when they had to watch the casket be lowered into the pre-dug hole in the ground. That was the moment he couldn’t hold it in any longer.

            He knelt down beside Adam and put his arm around his nephew. There on the unnaturally green grassy hill, surrounded by people who care, they said their final goodbyes to Ruby. He’s glad that it was a closed casket funeral. He doesn’t want poor Adam or even Sam to see or remember her like that.

 

---

            Sam’s number, it turned out, was on a scrap piece of paper hidden in amongst many other papers of varying importance in the everything drawer in the kitchen. Castiel didn’t even find it until two days after Dean left the message on his machine but at least now the everything drawer was sorted and organised to the point where he had vowed to never let it get that messy again. He knew in the back of his mind that it would get that messy again but if asked by anyone he would deny it.

            Taking a deep breath, he dials and waits. He clutches the paper in one hand as he slides into the kitchen chair then promptly stands up again to walk down the hall and up the stairs to his bedroom.

           Castiel almost feels relieved when the automated voice tells him to leave a message and beeps. “Um, hello Sam. This is Castiel. I know it’s been, well, a while since we last saw each other but I just wanted to call and see how you were doing after... I’m truly sorry and I know we’re in separate states but if there’s anything you need don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll, uh, try again late-”

          “Cas?” He almost drops the phone in surprise when Dean’s voice crackles through the line suddenly.

          “Dean!” His mind goes completely blank because for one this is the wrong brother and for another Dean sounds upset.

          “How did you get Sam’s number?” He tries not to take offence to the accusatory tone Dean’s using. Something must have happened.

          Calmly, if a little stunned, he answers, “he gave it to me, years ago mind you but we have met before Dean. Besides if I’d asked Bobby he would’ve given it to me, or if I’d asked anyone in this town who knows Sam they would have.” He kicks himself for getting defensive. This is Dean. He can be a bit of a grouch on a normal day anyway but he never takes it out on Cas like this. Something must be truly wrong.

          “So you’ve been telling everyone what happened then?” Castiel is so shocked that he physically jerks his head away from the phone to stare at it in dismay for a solid three seconds before putting it back to his ear cautiously.

          “N-no! I wouldn’t do that, you know I wouldn’t. Not unless you asked me to anyway. How could you think that?” He can feel his heart sinking at the fact that Dean is picking a fight with him when he only called to try to offer Sam some comfort.

          “Look, Cas. Now’s not a good time for you to be calling.”

          “Yeah, I figured when I had to leave a message on Sam’s machine. You know you didn’t have to answer and act like an ass.” Dean scoffs. “Look Dean, tell Sam that I’m sorry for him and that if he needs a friend to talk to or anything, then I’ll be there for him. Claire also sends her condolences.”

           “I’m sure he’ll appreciate such empty words from someone who’s too far away to actually do anything anyway.” Well, that does it. Castiel’s fist clenches by his side.

           “Dean Winchester! Stop projecting your guilt onto me! I’m not stupid, I can hear between the lines. Something happened, didn’t it? Or is it just bringing up bad memories? Bobby said-”

           “Now you guys are talking about me behind my back?!”

           “No! Bobby was just concerned about you! So am I. You’re my best friend Dean I want to help you but I will not allow you to talk down to me just because you don’t know how to deal with your own repressed feelings.”

           “Screw you Cas!” Castiel inhales sharply and squeezes his eyes shut.

           “Dean, I really hope you feel better soon but go to hell.” Click. He flings the phone away from himself so it lands on his bed and bounces back onto the floor. He lets out a frustrated growl, throwing his hands in the air.

           “What a rude, self-centred ASSBUT!” Pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes for a moment, he shuffles towards his bed and lays down slowly.

           “Dad? You ok up there?” Claire’s concerned voice floats up the stairs to him.

           “Fine, just dealing with an idiot on the phone.” He calls back.

            “Okay. Well, are you done? I want to call a… friend about the homework I’m stuck on.”

            “Go ahead.” He waves a hand casually even though he knows she can’t see it and rests his left arm over his face, blocking out the rest of the world. It doesn’t occur to him until he hears Claire’s footsteps on the stairs that she might actually need the phone to make a phone call. He points towards it on the floor and waits for her to come in, see it and pick it up.

           “That bad?” She asks, suddenly sounding a lot closer than before. The bed dips beside him as she sits down.

            He hesitates but decides to tell her anyway, “I… Was talking to Dean.” He moves his arm away from his face just in time to catch her rolling her eyes.

             “What did he do?”

             “He’s just dealing with a lot right now thanks to the accident. I think he’s trying so hard to be there for Sam and Adam that he’s refusing to deal with his own feelings about it all.”

             “So he’s taking it out on you?”

             Castiel shrugs. “He tried to.” She looks down at him for a moment as if debating whether she should say whatever it is that’s she’s thinking about or not.

             “How much longer do you think he’ll be gone?” She finally asks, too casual.

             “As long as Sam needs him there.” He doesn’t meet her eye as he says it. It’s the truth but it’s an admission that Dean isn’t talking to him like he normally would. This is such a weird situation. Castiel just wants to be there and support his friends and it’s been three days since he’s seen Dean in person and, apparently, that’s long enough for Dean to have a complete personality change and give him the cold shoulder.

             “That’s not really an answer.” She points out.

             “No. No it isn’t, is it?” He says and leaves it at that. Claire huffs, slaps her hands on her knees and stand to move towards the door just as something clicks in his brain. “What friend?” He asks. Claire freezes in place, her back to him.

             “What?” Her voice an octave or two higher than normal. She still doesn’t turn around.

            “What friend?” He presses. “Why didn’t you say who your friend was? If it’s not Jack then who?”

            “Benbraedon.” She mumbles, too quickly for him to hear.

             “What was that?” He puts a hand to his ear mockingly like it would help him hear her better. She turns just enough to level a look at him.

             “Ben Braedon, ok! He apologised to me yesterday at school and said he would help me catch up with the homework if I wanted.”

              “My, my. What a development!” He’s very pleased with this information. On the inside he’s glad that brat won’t be hassling Claire anymore but helping her, an ally in that strict school. He also wonders what actually happened to turn this kid around? On the outside he smiles widely and makes a victory punch into the air.

              “We’re not really friends, just colleagues. He’s going to help me catch up because I’m the only one that actually gives him any competition at school.”

              “Sounds like friendship to me.”

              “Whatever, dad. It’s not like he’ll be coming here for a study session or anything anytime soon.” She walks out of his room whilst still talking and then calls back up to him louder, as if she just remembered it, “also Kaia’s coming for movie night again this weekend so make sure you pick something good!”

              “Ugh!” He flops back down on the bed.

 

---

          Sam’s house is bigger than both Dean’s Diner and his apartment above it put together. It even has a backyard, not that Dean really feels the need for a backyard in his life but he does have to admit that sitting on the porch, drinking a beer with Sam’s dog, Robert, leaning against his leg, and the sun setting in the distance, was something he could get used to. It was just too bad he couldn’t actually enjoy it because one) the wake for Ruby was just ending and two) he’d just gotten off the phone with Cas where he’d acted like an ass.

         He takes a swig of his beer and grimaces. Why? Why did he have to do that? He acted like Cas was the source of his problems! He keeps pushing him away, his own, self-proclaimed, best friend and he keeps pushing him away instead of letting him help.

         He taps Sam’s house phone against his knee and tries to ignore the guilt trying to pull him down into the depths of despair. He’ll have to book an appointment with his therapist when he gets home, even though he hasn’t seen Pamela for years.

         The quiet murmurs of their guests filter through the screen door over his shoulder. The funeral had been hard, the wake even harder. Dean had felt guilty the entire time. The whole incident with Alistair suggesting that Sam move was grating on his nerves. Nothing would really change if Sam oved further away from him, he knows that. But after this whole situation Dean just wants to be closer to Sam, take care of him even though he doesn’t really need it at this point because he’s a fully grown adult lawyer with a kid of his own. Still, his heart stings at the thought of Sam needing him and being further away than Kansas. Dean would catch a plane if it meant he could get to Sam quicker.

        “Do you know why we chose to live in Lawrence, Kansas?” Sam asks, suddenly sitting in the deck chair beside him. Dean jumps. He’d been so lost in thought that he hadn’t noticed him sit down. He spares a glance through the door behind him to find all of the guests gone and the house empty.

        “You got a job offer here,” he says slowly, unsure of where this is going but resigning himself to the worst anyway.

         “Yeah, I did… But did I ever tell you there were other offers? In places closer to home. In places closer to California too.” Sam rolls his own unopened beer between his hands.

         “You said you had a few to choose from, you never said where.” Dean can’t bring himself to look at Sam. Why is he talking like this? It sounds like he actually wants to move to California.

         Sam heaves a long suffering sigh then says, “I chose Kansas because it’s almost exactly in between Connecticut and California. Ruby’s family lives in California, obviously, and, it sounds a little trivial now, but we thought it would be perfect. We would have to travel almost the same distance to see our families. It’s a nice area, with a nice school. Most of all, it was a place all our own.”

        “Makes sense.” Sam always wanted more than Stars Hollow, more of what life could give him. Dean was just content to stay where he was. Well, that’s not entirely true, he likes taking road trips and seeing new things. He just knew that he wanted to have roots in Stars Hollow. It’s home. It always will be. He’d already made it his own by the time his parents died and by the time Sam left.

         “When Ruby’s grandparent’s died we considered moving but we had Adam to think about by then, we wanted to stay here in this little bubble world we’d created for ourselves just a little longer… Now. Now, it’s just me and Adam here. Sure, we’ve got friends here but it’s not the same without Ruby. There’s nothing truly tying me here. I want to be closer to my family is that so wrong?”

          “There’s nothing wrong with any of that Sammy,” Dean says gloomily. So that’s it then. Sam is going to move further away and he was an ass to Cas for no reason other than he couldn’t keep his own emotions in check. It occurs to him suddenly that that is not a healthy thing to do at all. Cas cares so goddamn much and wants to help everyone around him because that’s just who he is and Dean can’t even admit when something is bothering him. He vows that when he gets home he’s going to go to his therapist and get his shit together and go for it with Cas. If this situation with Ruby and Sam has taught him anything it’s that everything can change quicker than you can blink. He can’t keep dancing around the truth about his feelings for Cas, about what he wants in life.

         “I was thinking that, maybe, I should move back home to Stars Hollow.” It takes a moment for the words to sink in and when they do Dean can’t stop a grin from lighting up his face. Sam wants to move closer to him!

         “What about what Alistair said?”

         Sam shrugs. “That got me thinking about it sure but I realised that I don’t want to move closer to them, I’d rather be closer to you. I want Adam to grow up in a small town and explore the world for himself.”

         “Don’t you think it’s a bit soon after the accident to be moving away from everything he’s ever known?” Dean points out. Changing the poor kid’s entire world just after he’s lost his mum might not make him feel any better.

          “It wouldn’t be right away. I’d wait for the semester to finish at school for him, give us both some time to… I don’t know, tie up loose ends, adjust. I can organise a transfer, or find a new job and he can start the new semester at Stars Hollow Primary with as little stress as possible. I won’t spring it on him, I’ll talk to him about it tomorrow. He can help me pick out the house and everything.”

          “How well can an eight-year-old pick out a house?” Dean muses. Knowing Adam he’d probably prioritise being near the playground or something.

          “I just mean that he’ll be involved in the process. I don’t want him to feel like he’s not in control of anything.” Sam leans back in his chair and finally cracks his beer open, taking a sip.

          “Well. Just tell me the date and I’ll help you move all your stuff. Whatever you need, I’m here.” Dean spreads his hands out in an open gesture. “And Bobby. And, you know, probably the rest of the town. And, uh, I should probably tell you that Cas called.” God, he’s so stupid. Sam’s gonna know that he was rude to Cas, he always knows when he’s done something dumb. It’s like a sixth sense of his. But he can’t not tell him that Cas called. He’ll hear the half a message on the machine before he answered it.

          “Castiel? Your friend right?” Sam asks, taking another sip.

          “Uh, sort of my best friend actually.” Dean forces himself to look at Sam and the bastard looks so goddamn smug it makes him wants to run for the hills. No one knows him better than Sam and he’s about 101% sure that Sam knows he’s full of shit.

          “Oh?” Sam quirks an eyebrow at him. He knows exactly who Castiel is. He was there the day Dean met him over ten years ago, he’d listened to Dean wax poetic about the guy with the gorgeous blue eyes and the deepest voice he’d ever heard on a twenty-three-year-old. He’d also been in the diner the day he’d found out that Castiel had a kid. A feisty six-year-old at the time, not that she’s changed much since then. “What did Castiel have to say?”

          “He wants you to know that he’s sorry about what happened and that even though he’s in a different state he’s always happy to listen if you want to talk or help out somehow.”

           “That’s nice of him. I’ll have to call him back in a bit,” Sam says cheerfully. Dean ignores the not so subtle side-eye thrown his way.

           “Yeah.”

           “What’s wrong?”

           “It’s just, uh, I kind of acted like an ass to him on the phone. He was leaving you a message and I just… Took all of my emotions out on him.”

           Sam gives him a disappointed-but-not-surprised look. “Did he tell you that you’re an ass?”

           “He basically said that I’m emotionally repressed and then he told me to go to hell.”

           “Even better. I’m gonna tell him he did a good job on the phone.”

           “Gee, thanks.”

           “Well, it’s true. So what are you going to do about it? We did have that talk earlier about healthy coping mechanisms right, or was that just a one off chick flick moment?” Damn. He has a point.

           “I’ll apologise. In person though, I do have to go back home to check in with the diner and everything eventually anyway.” Finishing off his beer he pats his knees and stands up ready to go inside and start the clean up now that the wake is over.

           Sam picks at the sticker label on his beer and asks, “could you stay for a few more days? I’m not quite ready to be on my own yet.”

           Dean pauses. “Come on man, you know you come first. I can split my time between here and there until you move. No problem.” He claps a hand on Sam’s shoulder as he passes and heads for the door. Sam just smiles weakly and doesn’t say anything more.

           It has always been his job to take care of Sam, it wasn’t necessarily his responsibility but it was what he wanted to do. He knows logically that there was nothing he could have done for Ruby, nothing he can do now except be here for his brother. He still feels guilty that there isn’t more he can do though. He feels so helpless being unable to take Sam’s pain away. That being said he knows that Sam wouldn’t wish the pain away. He would feel like not having the pain would be like not remembering Ruby at all.

           No. He may not be able to do much but right now he can make sure that both Sam and Adam have eaten dinner and send them off to bed for some much needed rest.

 

 

---

            The town meeting that night is almost uneventful, or as uneventful as the town meetings of Stars Hollow can get, until the end.

            “Late Monday night this week there was a lot of complaints of a loud car racing through Stars Hollow, disturbing the residents,” Taylor Doose leans forward over the podium, eyebrows high and head tilted to convey the seriousness of the situation.

            On Castiel’s right, Bobby is shaking his head. “Idjit,” he mutters under his breath. They, if not most of the town, knows that it was just Dean leaving once he received the news about Ruby’s accident. Castiel isn’t actually sure how word got out about the whole thing but now that he thinks about it, it probably wasn’t wise for Bobby to talk about it in the open at the diner with them the other day. It could very well have been overheard then. If that is what happened then he feels so guilty because Dean was right but only on a technicality. But still. He'll have to talk to him. As long as he's not rude again the bastard. That damn phone call was still on his mind even hours after it happened.

            “I have decided that in order to prevent further traffic issues within this town we will be installing traffic lights on the corner outside of Winchester’s,” Taylor announces proudly.

            “Dean’s gonna love that,” Claire whispers. Castiel merely snorts. He finds himself looking forward to Dean coming home, even if they aren't really talking at the moment.