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There’s a witch in the woods if you know where to look

And if you need magic he’ll make you a trade

It’s stories he wants, to write down in his book

You’ll get what you want once the price has been paid…

 

The hazy orange light given off by the single lamp on Castiel’s borrowed desk doesn’t provide the atmosphere he’d prefer to accompany his writing, but it’s not like the subject matter aligns with his preferences either so perhaps it’s rather fitting. The light would perhaps be better if he removed the gaudy shade. It would cast further and would also avoid the harsh tint given by fabric that has possibly been in service since the earlier part of the 1970s, but he dismisses the idea almost as soon as it occurs to him. The more things he changes in this ugly, shag-carpeted room, the more he has to change back when he leaves. Castiel does not plan to be here a second longer than necessary and wants no sign of himself left behind when he goes. Truthfully, if he could do this without taking a room at all he would, but the human condition necessitates some considerations, and he’s not a young enough man to think he can bunk down in the back seat of a car and come into the next day unscathed. Not any longer.

The room smells of smoke; not Castiel’s, of course, but it smells nonetheless. He was under the impression upon check-in that this was a non-smoking room. Either the ventilation in this place has allowed the stale stench of someone else’s cigarettes to waft in and invade his space or there’s just so much residual smoke here from decades of use that it’s permeated down into the fabrics, the horrid curtains and the equally hideous rust-colored shag carpet alike giving off the smell of it. Which cruel trick has brought the smell to Castiel’s nose is irrelevant. The effect is the same. He hasn’t had a cigarette in seven years now, and it’s making it difficult to remember that he is a former smoker, past tense, and that there isn’t a cardboard pack in his jacket pocket that he can reach into and soothe his nerves with. A cigarette wouldn’t solve his problems, but the act of lighting one, drawing the smoke into his lungs and flicking the ash rhythmically as he pondered his next sentence might help to focus things. No, that line of thought doesn’t help anything. He quit for good reason. He doesn’t need to go down that path again.

Whiskey, though. That he can do. The half-empty bottle sits to the right of his laptop in balance with the aforementioned hideous lamp on the other side, framing his screen in shades of brassy orange and deep amber. He’s foregone the glass tonight, opting to drink straight from the narrow neck of the glass bottle. It’s some cheap brand, whatever was quick to grab at the dusty shop he passed on his way back to the motel the night before last. That’s two nights longer than he wanted to be here, two additional nights he was kept from leaving this God-forsaken backwater and moving on to something less deeply depressing.

The cursor flashing onscreen taunts him. Castiel hasn’t written anywhere near as much as he should have at this juncture, and the longer it takes to compile this article into something halfway worth submitting to his editor, the longer he’s stuck here. It would be grand if he could just collect his research and flit back to some home base to put the final pieces together but truth be told, Castiel hasn’t had a home in years. He used to keep an apartment for the few brief interludes when work didn’t compel him to be on the road, but it’s been some time since it’s seemed worth doing so. The publication pays for his motel rooms and keeps him busy enough crisscrossing the country that he’s barely got time to catch his breath between one lead and the next. There’s no point in paying for an apartment in a city that he doesn’t call home and forcing himself to head back there just to say he did.

The ringing of his cell phone interrupts Castiel’s futile attempts to make something palatable out of the piss-poor excuse for a story he’s been chasing. Castiel grimaces at the thing, then grimaces again when he sees the number on the screen. It would have to be Gabriel at this hour. No one else would call him this late. Barely anyone else calls him at all.

“What,” Castiel rasps in lieu of any kind of a polite greeting. He knows exactly why his editor is calling. It’s not even a question. It is, however, easier than engaging in small talk.

“You know what,” Gabriel insists, hitting the nail right on the head. “Deadline’s looming, buddy. What you got for me?”

“A steaming pile of shit, mostly,” Castiel intones disinterestedly. He takes a pull from the bottle of whiskey, setting it down with less care and attention than he should, and swipes a tired hand down his face. He’s been at it for hours, but the little nuggets of useful information he’d been able to glean from the locals are not coming together into any kind of a clever tale. It’s certainly not one he’d pick up a magazine for, or rather, click a link to read. Last Castiel checked their magazine still had a print format, but he only ever looks at the website himself and even then, it’s just to see what kind of absurdist clickbait headlines they’ve put on his articles. It’s never out of true interest.

“It can’t be that bad,” Gabriel hazards, but from his tone it’s clear he doesn’t believe his own words.

“Oh, it is.” Castiel side-eyes the whiskey but decides against another swig. That’s enough for one night. No need to get morose, or at least, more morose than he already is. “I can see the headline now. Something scary may or may not have happened in this vicinity once. Locals vaguely interested. Ish.”

Gabriel snort-laughs into the phone, a horrid sound Castiel wishes he hadn’t heard. “Oh, come on,” he presses. “There’s got to be something better than that. You had those eyewitness accounts—”

“None of which corroborate one another,” Castiel interrupts, somewhat rudely.

“And the folklore.” Gabriel, at least, is not stymied by Castiel’s resolute negativity. “There was loads of folklore.”

“Yeah, well, find me a single one that isn’t lifted verbatim from the fucking Enquirer. Might as well be looking for stories of bat boy and bigfoot here, Gabe. Total wash.” Castiel should be used to this by now and so should Gabe. There are only so many stories to be told when you run a publication that specializes in tales of the unexplained. Sure, almost every small town and metropolis alike has its own local lore about freaky goings-on and things that may or may not have ever gone bump on various nights, but so many of them have stemmed from retellings of urban legends that there’s a serious drought on new material.

It is not, strictly speaking, investigative journalism. This isn’t world politics, it’s not human interest stories, and it’s certainly not front page shit. It’s not even news. It’s barely journalism. What it is, at its best, is a paycheck, and at least he’s writing. It is not in any sense of the word the future that Castiel had imagined for himself when he was young and idealistic, with his head full of dreams and his pen at the ready. He was going to get his education on a full ride scholarship. He was going to intern. He was going to write stories about things that mattered to people and, in doing so, play his part in changing the face of the future.

It’s pretty obvious how well that panned out.

“Well you gotta write something. You’ve been in this one for long enough I can’t just write it off as a bust. I need something to publish. You need to spin it, and you need to do it by end of day tomorrow.” Gabriel can be a hard-ass when he needs to. Castiel won’t begrudge him that; it’s his job. It doesn’t make it any less irritating.

“Yeah alright,” Cas replies, placating. “It’ll be shit though.”

“No it won’t,” Gabriel counters, his voice softening. “You never give me shit.” Castiel hangs up the phone, rolling his eyes and heaving a sigh far too heavy to carry. He would have seen this coming if he’d bothered to think a few steps in front of himself. Of course, Gabriel wants results. Of course, he needs something to publish. Doesn’t change the fact that the lead was a complete dead end. There’s nothing here worth writing about.

Castiel turns his attention back to the laptop in front of him, doing his best to ignore the sickly smell of stale smoke, the harsh orange glare of the decades-old lamp, the burn of the whiskey and the taunting blink of the cursor, and sets his mind to spinning a whole heaping pile of nothing into something approaching readable. Absently, he considers trading the booze for coffee. It promises to be a long and thankless night.

~*~

Castiel has barely slept, but it’s enough to gather his meager belongings and put himself back on the road. There’s not much to take along. A laptop bag, a duffel bag full of rumpled clothes long overdue for a wash. A trench coat that’s too warm for half the towns he finds himself in and not warm enough for the others. The remaining third of a bottle of rotgut whiskey. An entire lifetime of wasted potential.

The article, the one based on whispers of nothing, the one that started and ended with grasping at straws, took him until nearly three in the morning to hammer out. By then, the letters on the screen were starting to blur into a fog of pixels, his notes bleeding into one another on the page until they looked like Rorschach blots. There’s no real narrative to be told. It’s not like some of the other stories he’s brought to Gabriel over the years.

Sometimes he’ll get lucky. There are towns all over America with folklore and local legends and murmurs based on half-truths that spin out a much more compelling tale. He almost enjoys those jobs. Not quite, but almost. There’s an element of them that somewhat resembles unwrapping a gift, only there are many layers to the paper and he’s never quite sure when he’s going to reach the final layer. It’s not entirely unlike the proper journalism that Castiel expected to be doing at this point in his life.  But a fish might as well wish for wings. Things are as they are. You can’t go back and change the past. What’s done is done.

It’s not his best work. Castiel has managed to pull something interesting out of some fairly shaky leads before, but you can’t build something out of nothing. What Castiel sent off to his editor, what he managed to cobble together before it became too difficult to fight off sleep any longer, is almost a complete fabrication. If the goal was to write a vaguely intriguing work of fiction based on a few contradictory encounters and a little piece of local history, well, then he’s a resounding success. Unfortunately, the publication he works for specializes in what it calls true tales of the unexplained, so a work of fiction isn’t exactly what he set out to find. There was no haunting to be found in Chums Corner, Michigan. There was no story to be told, and there was no solace either.

Castiel is three hours down the highway before he remembers to check the pocket of his trench coat for his cell phone.

It’s still in Chums Corner.

If Castiel was irritable and surly leaving town the first time around, he’s a downright nasty piece of work the second time he rolls his shitty Continental up the onramp and back down the freeway. There are three missed calls from Gabriel on his phone by the time he retrieves it from the front desk and no surprise there, but the last thing he wants to do is have a little writer’s workshop about his latest contribution. Gabriel calls two more times before he makes it out of the state headed vaguely west, no actual destination in mind, and again when he stops for gas. At that point, Castiel rightly surmises the only way to get Gabriel to stop leaving him voicemails is to take his call and get it over with.

“Hello,” he rasps, his tone flat. There’s no question to the greeting; he knows who is calling before Gabriel even speaks. Nobody else ever calls him. And there’s no joviality either. Castiel and Gabriel have a functional working relationship but it could hardly be called a friendship.

“It’s shit,” Gabriel tells him, sounding like he’s about to laugh.

“I did tell you it would be,” Castiel reminds him, unoffended. “You told me to spin it anyway. I spun it. This is the best I could do with what I had to go on. There was no story to tell.”

“I can’t print this,” Gabriel argues.

“Then don’t. I don’t care. Gimme something worth writing about and I’ll give you a piece worth printing.”

Gabriel snorts. “What’s got you so fuckin touchy, princess? Goldilocks steal your bowl of porridge?”

“Fuck off, Gabriel,” Castiel growls, prepared to end the call with significantly more drama than the situation requires. He’s not touchy. He’s certainly not a princess. It’s not Castiel’s fault the story he was sent to write doesn’t even exist, and it’s certainly not Castiel’s fault that when he finally climbed into bed he was plagued by unsettling dreams, ones that taunted him with things he knows he can never have.

“Wait, don’t hang up.” They may not be friends, but Gabriel does know Castiel fairly well. “How long has it been since you took a breather, buddy?” Castiel’s only reply is a heavy silence. He could pretend it’s because a semi rolls by at the exact time that Gabriel asks the question, making it impossible for any reply he did offer to be heard, but neither he nor Gabriel would believe it. The truth is Castiel doesn’t know how long it’s been. He doesn’t like taking breaks. He doesn’t like what the solitude does to him. He stays on the road and keeps working at a breakneck pace because it’s the only way to keep his mind occupied.

“You should park it for a few days,” Gabriel implores him. “I don’t have anything good to give you right now, so if you don’t have any leads of your own you should just cool your heels and brush off the cobwebs.”

“I’m not going to do that,” Castiel tells him dismissively.

“You are,” Gabriel insists. “You’re going to do it because I’m your editor and that quite literally makes me the boss of you, and you’re going to do it because you know how exhausted you are even if you won’t admit it.”

Castiel sighs. There’s really no point in arguing with Gabriel once he’s decided he’s right, and anyway, Castiel doesn’t have the energy to bother which probably just proves Gabriel’s point. He could choose to be obstinate about it just for the sake of obstinacy. It’s pointless though. He’s too tired to even enjoy pushing Gabriel’s many buttons. “Fine. Two days. But I’m not going to have any fun.”

“Of course you’re not. Make it three, though, and I’ll spend some of my own time trying to find you a better lead than the Chums Corner one to make up for it, OK?”

“If you insist,” Castiel gripes, hanging up the phone and dropping it into the pocket of his trench coat. Even with no destination in mind it galls him to be leaving town this late in the day. He wants to be well out of state before sundown, in a motel so far away that they’ve never even heard of Chums Corner. Maybe if he drives fast enough, he can outrun the shadows of his past.

Chapter Text

Castiel finally tires of driving in the early evening, having stopped only for gas and the disappointing kind of food one can find exclusively at the gas stations that dot the sides of the interstate. He finally calls it quits in Walcott, Iowa with a headache as big as the great outdoors, and only then because the first motel he passes has a little diner attached that boasts the best burgers in the state and if there’s one thing that can lighten Castiel’s mood, it’s red meat and cheese. He’s been seeing billboards for this diner for the past four exits and they all proclaim in bold text that you will not find a better burger within state lines, so there must be something to the claim.

Dean used to love burgers too, a voice in his head offers up, as it does from time to time. He knows this full well, but it’s not useful information. The voice never seems to care about that though. The passage of time has done nothing to lessen the frequency with which mundane things remind him of good times long past. Dean liked burgers, and he loved pie. He wore denim and flannel and his green eyes sparkled in the sun, and he loved Castiel and Castiel loved him, and none of it matters one whit, because that was 18 years ago. It might as well have been another century. Castiel will never see him again, and the wounds they all told him time would heal are as fresh as the day they were made.

The unpleasant trip down memory lane does nothing to curb Castiel’s appetite, so he parks his car and strides into the motel lobby with slumped shoulders. His mouth tightens into a thin line as he approaches the counter, mostly obscured by a couple and their three young children who appear to be checking in. Castiel doesn’t dislike children, not officially, but he’s never been quite sure how to talk to them and it seems easiest to just avoid the entire endeavor altogether. Fortunately, they all seem too engrossed in a game in which they’re only allowed to step on the black tiles of the checkerboard floor pattern to pay much attention to Castiel. He waits a few steps behind until the parents have finished checking in, then steps to the side to allow the family past before approaching the counter.

“Do you have any rooms available?” he asks the clerk in the warmest voice he can conjure. He knows he can come off as harsh and somewhat rough around the edges sometimes, and when he’s not too otherwise focused, he tries to mitigate his gruffness. Castiel really is a nice guy when you get to know him, he’s been told. He just doesn’t let people actually get that far. The clerk’s nametag says he’s called Alfie, which would be useful information if Castiel planned on speaking with him one syllable more than necessary, but he supposes that noting it humanizes the interaction a little. Whether he says it out loud or not, he knows this kid is an individual, not some faceless drone, so he files away the name and tries to make himself smile.

“Yes sir,” the cheerful young man replies. “Lots. It’s not really a big time for tourists. You stayin’ long?”

“A few days. Three. Four at most.”

“Let’s book you in for three,” he replies, unperturbed by Castiel’s indecisiveness. “You can always pay for an extra if you find you’re gonna stick around. We don’t have room service, but Ruby’s is always open so you can pop down there for a bite, and they do take out if you wanna take it back to your room. Checkout’s eleven. You need a hand with luggage?” Castiel shakes his head dismissively. He pockets the offered room key with a few quiet words of gratitude and hands over his credit card, and before long he’s unlocking the door to the room he’ll hide in for the next three days. His is on the second floor, accessed by exterior stairs and a catwalk that runs the length of the building, and if he were to bother opening the curtains at any point during his stay (he won’t) Castiel would have an excellent view of exactly nothing worth looking at.

The second the door shuts behind him, Castiel wants to fall onto the bed and sleep until his three days are up, but he forces himself to continue on with the original plan. His trench coat he hangs on a chair near the door, his bag sits on the floor beside it, and his laptop is immediately placed on the table in the corner. As he’s plugging in the charging cable it occurs to Castiel that he’s forgotten to ask about WiFi. He’ll need that if he’s going to defy Gabriel’s orders to relax and start looking for leads of his own.

It also occurs to Castiel that he did not shower before leaving Chums Corner this morning, nor did he bother yesterday when he was still under the mistaken impression that he could cobble together any kind of readable story there. He’s not sure what kind of clientele Ruby’s caters to but it’s a solid bet he’ll get a warmer welcome and better service over the next couple of days if he rinses off the smell of two days of whiskey and self-loathing. His stomach objects of course, having taken in nothing but the most questionable ham sandwich earlier today, but by then he’s already stripped naked and is working on coaxing the shower to emit spray of a somewhat comfortable temperature, and his stomach will have to wait.

Castiel tries not to look too closely in the mirror as he fiddles with the temperature. By the time he steps out of the shower it will be clouded with steam and his image will be obscured, but right now it’s a reminder he doesn’t need. There’s scars on his body he doesn’t want to think about the source of. They don’t hurt anymore, but their stories do, and there’s too much solitude to come in the next few days for Castiel to weather that kind of reminiscence with any sort of grace. It’s been a long time since he had grace to spare, or patience. It’s been a long time since he could look at his own reflection without thinking about the things that changed it.

Soap and water and steam and a rough cloth do an excellent job of washing clear the sweat and dust and whiskey that cling to Castiel’s skin though, so by the time his reflection is suitably obscured, he feels just a little more like himself again. Not better. Not good. But less burdened. The heat rejuvenates him almost as much as a solid nap might; not as well as a good night’s sleep, but enough to take the edge off so that the bone-deep weariness that slows his movements and fogs his mind is replaced with just a regular sort of tired, the kind one might endure after a long day of hard work. It’s the kind of tired that feels like it will eventually pass instead of the kind that you know is there for good, and it’s with a sour twist of his mouth that Castiel is forced to acknowledge that Gabriel might know what he’s talking about sometimes.

He’ll never tell Gabriel that, though.

The most comfortable shirt Castiel owns is a well-worn grey number emblazoned with the AC/DC logo in red. It was at least a size too big for him when he first came to possess it and it’s gotten even more ill-fitting in the years that have passed. The binding at the neck is frayed nearly threadbare in places and if left to its own devices, it will slant and shift sideways so that the better part of one of his shoulder is showing through the opening, a peek of collarbone making an appearance when he moves. It should have been discarded quite some time ago but like a small child with a security blanket he cannot bring himself to acknowledge that its time has passed, and he clings to the comfort it provides with a resolute kind of defiance. If Castiel is to play at being on vacation, this is the armor he will wear to battle. The jeans he pairs it with are nothing special, just stonewashed blue denim without adornment, but they fit him just so and they are comfortable in their own right. This is how people dress when they relax, Castiel knows. He doesn’t do much relaxing himself, but he has seen enough of other people doing it to know the routine. Comfort over substance, and pay no mind to the appearance. Do what feels good.

What will feel good right now, Castiel decides, is the coldest beer money can buy and a burger that claims to be the best within state lines, crowned with cheese and crossed with bacon. He doesn’t bother drying his hair any further than a quick swipe of the towel; there is not, and never has been, a point in trying to tame his haphazard locks, and he has long since stopped trying. Castiel pats his pocket to ensure he’s got his room key on hand, then traverses the catwalk back towards the lobby. The same painfully chipper employee mans the desk when he pops back in.

“I forgot to ask earlier,” Castiel says apologetically, “do you have internet here?”

“Oh yeah,” Alfie replies with pride. “WiFi in all the rooms, and if you sit along the one side in Ruby’s you can get a pretty good connection there too. It’s weak on the road side though.” He pulls a card out of a drawer and jots down the login information in tidy block letters, handing it over with a plastic smile that makes Castiel glad his days of working customer service are far in the past.

“Thanks,” Castiel tells him, sounding mostly earnest as he tucks the card in alongside his room key. He’s out the door before the exchange can turn into small talk.

Ruby’s Diner has a bell on the door and checkerboard floors identical to the motel lobby’s, and the aesthetic is such that Castiel can’t tell if it’s actually a classic Americana establishment that’s been in service since the glory days of formica or if it’s just been expertly styled to look that way. The tabletops are clean but worn, and the red vinyl in the booths is just damaged enough that it doesn’t look brand new. A jukebox sits in the corner, neon tubes adorning the curved frame, and it appears to be the classic style that plays real records instead of a digital mockery. There’s really no rule to it but in Castiel’s opinion, these are the places that boast the best burgers, so at least that part of his mandatory vacation sentence is looking promising.

“Sit anywhere you like, hon,” calls a petite waitress with thick, dark hair from behind the counter. “I’ll bring you a menu in a sec.” She speaks with a casual kind of familiarity, like Castiel is a regular customer she’s served every day for years, like she expects he won’t even need the menu because he always orders the same thing. There’s a few other patrons in some of the booths, and one lone customer at the counter drinking a milkshake through a straw, stainless steel blending cup sitting beside his glass.

Castiel makes for the wall shared with the lobby, not because of the WiFi but because it is furthest from the rest of the patrons, and tries not to cast his eyes too furtively around the room. Years on the road investigating subject matter that is, on the whole, completely and totally fabricated for the purpose of garnering undeserved attention has given Castiel a remarkably well honed sense of cynicism, and it’s difficult to turn that off even when he knows friendliness is genuine. No one here knows his work. No one will try to pitch him a totally true story about a ghost or a vampire or a werewolf they saw once, or that their cousin’s best friend’s sister’s roommate saw once.  Likely, no one but the waitress will speak to him at all.

“Welcome to Ruby’s,” the waitress greets him warmly, cocking her hip out to lean against the edge of Castiel’s table as she sets a laminated menu down in front of him. She picks up two extra sets of utensils wrapped in napkins off the table and slips them into the pocket of her apron, tied at the waist of her pale green polyester dress. A nametag on her lapel reads “Meg”, which may or may not be a name she has any claim to. There’s a twinkle in her eye that speaks of potential mischief and her lips seem equally as likely to curl into a frown as a smile, and despite himself, Castiel decides he likes her. “Can I get you something to drink?” With slender, somewhat dainty fingers, she tucks a strand of dark, curly hair behind her ear.It promptly  promptly springs free like it personally resents her attempts at confinement but Meg ignores it, and Castiel gets the sense that she’s had this battle before.

“Beer?” Castiel requests, not particularly concerned with what the offerings are.

“We’ve got Bud, Bud Light, Sam Adams, and Heineken.”

“Heineken,” Castiel selects for no reason other than it’s the last one she said. “I hear you have the best burgers in the county.”

“Oh hell yeah,” she tells him. “Boys in the kitchen grind the chuck fresh, thickest bacon you ever seen. I take it you don’t even need to see this guy, then?” She taps the menu with a blunt fingernail.

“Sounds about right,” he agrees. Castiel’s eyes follow Meg back behind the counter, where she disappears through a swinging door, but his attention is stuck on a glass display case with about seven kinds of pie on its shelves, slowly rotating as if to entice the viewer to watch the pie and salivate until it’s time for dessert. There’s lemon meringue, that one is unmistakeable, and something that has a lattice crust and is almost certainly cherry, and three others with top crust that haven’t been cut into so Castiel can’t even hazard a guess as to their fillings. The lower shelf has one lonely slice of pecan left in the tray and half a banana crème, but Castiel’s attention is all for the apple. Thick slices of fruit fill the crust and the cinnamon is sprinkled on so thick it can almost be smelled across the room, and whether Castiel can manage a slice of pie after this burger is a question that remains to be answered, but before he leaves this motel, by god, he’s got to have a slice.

Dean’s mother used to make the best apple pies. At least, that’s what Dean said. Castiel never met Mary. She died when Dean was young, long before the Winchesters ever moved to the neighborhood, but Dean always spoke fondly of Mary’s pies. Castiel supposes everyone thinks their mom’s baking is the best. His own mother never baked for him. Then again, she left without a word in the middle of the night when he was in the sixth grade, so perhaps she’s not the benchmark of motherhood he should be measuring others against. One of the earliest conversations he can remember having with Dean, long before their friendship blossomed into something deeper, was about their mothers. Things would be different if they still had moms. Dean’s dad wouldn’t drink so much. Castiel’s dad wouldn’t cry so much. Neither boy would have had to grow up so fast.

Maybe it was the shared sadness over a lost parent that formed the original bond between them, but it was so much more that turned them into fast friends and, eventually, lovers. That’s not the word Castiel would have used at the time, but that’s what they were. No seventeen-year-old boy thinks of his first kiss as a lover. He’s a boyfriend, or maybe just a friend who’s only too happy to oblige. They kissed for the first time under the cover of darkness in the shadows of Dean’s backyard while his little brother slept peacefully and his father snored drunkenly and it was the first for either of them, and Castiel knew that no matter what happened, he would love Dean for the rest of his life.

Sometimes, Castiel wishes he’d been wrong about that, because life would be so much less painful if he didn’t carry that love with him after so many years without seeing Dean’s face. It would be easier if Dean hadn’t returned his love. It would be simpler if he didn’t have the memory of what it felt like to be so completed by another person, only to have it all ripped away by forces beyond his control. Castiel thinks of Dean often and fondly. He wonders what Dean has made of his life. Did Dean ever love again? Castiel tried to move on, tried to find it in him to let someone else fit into his life the way Dean did, but it only ended in hurt feelings and sorrow. Maybe Dean had better luck. Would he have chosen a man to warm his bed, or a woman? I only have eyes for you, Dean had said that night in the shadows, but Castiel knew he liked women just as well as he liked men. Dean could be married now, with children in tow. He could have an entire life that Castiel knows nothing about, and he probably hasn’t thought about Castiel in years.

“There’s a story behind that frown,” Meg suggests, setting a cold bottle of beer down on a cardboard coaster in front of Castiel. “I’m not sayin’ I wanna hear it, mind you, but there’s a story.”

“You’re not wrong,” Castiel tells her, picking up the beer bottle and drinking deeply. He’s got no intention of sharing the sordid details of his sad past with a smart-mouthed waitress he just met anyway.

The bacon cheeseburger, when it arrives, is worth every single word of praise the billboard gave it, and possibly more. Castiel’s mouth starts watering as soon as he sees Meg step out of the kitchen with it and from the second he takes his first bite, it becomes apparent that his exile in Walcott isn’t going to be quite as terrible as he anticipated. He’s still going to be alone with his thoughts for many more hours than he’d like and without a project to distract him, but he’ll be well fed.

Meg comes by to check on him more frequently than is probably called for, though with only 3 other tables seated there isn’t really much else for her to do. She sits down in his booth at one point, resting her elbows on the table and cradling her chin in her hands and just stares at Castiel until he’s forced to request an explanation.

“What?” He demands.

“Detective,” she announces plainly, quite sure of herself.

“Me? No.” Castiel shakes his head dismissively.

Private detective?” she tries again.

“Hardly,” Castiel tells her with a derisive laugh.

“FBI?”

“Not even close.”

Meg narrows her eyes, pushing a lock of hair off her face. “I’m gonna figure you out,” she tells him. “How long you here for?”

“Three days,” Castiel replies.

“Before you leave, I’m gonna figure you out. I’m good at reading people.”

“If you insist.”

“I do.”

Castiel swipes a solitary French fry through the remnants of a pool of ketchup on his plate. “What makes you so sure I’ll even tell you if you guess?”

“Just a hunch. But I’ll make you a deal. If I can’t figure you out by the time you head out of town, I’ll send you on your way with a whole pie just for bein’ a good sport. But If I don’t get it right, you gotta tell me what you do before you leave town.” A crooked grin adorns Meg’s face. “You gonna play along?”

Castiel shrugs. “I suppose.” Meg disappears to bestow some of her charm and wit on other patrons, and Castiel is left to finish his burger in peace.

A little later, when she swings by to drop off the bill, Meg pauses a little longer than necessary. “You gonna tell me your name, or do I have to guess that, too?”

“Name’s not going to help you figure me out,” Castiel informs her blithely.

“Fine. I’ll just get your name when I ring your card through.” She crosses her arms in defiance as Castiel pulls out his wallet. He makes as if to pull out plastic to settle the bill but at the last second, fixes her with a challenging stare and pulls out crisp bills to cover his food, plus a decent tip, and sets them down on the table.

Meg narrows her eyes dangerously. “Oh, you’re gonna make it difficult, are you?” she mutters.

At least she’s amusing.

~*~

When Castiel finally sees fit to emerge from his room the next day, it’s late enough that he’s not expecting Ruby’s to be serving breakfast anymore, so he’s pleasantly surprised when he’s proven wrong. Unfortunately, the waitress serving in her place, a surly blonde bearing the name of Lilith on her breast seems to have missed the concept of customer service entirely and regards him with the kind of scorn that Castiel, personally, tends to reserve for people who have done him grievous bodily harm or something of equal offense. Bearing this in mind, Castiel orders bacon and eggs and the largest to-go cup of coffee they have and takes the lot of it back up to his room, intent on defying Gabriel’s orders to relax and instead spend the bulk of the day looking for something more interesting than Chums Corner to write about.

Finding a lead for a story like the ones he’s paid to write isn’t a particularly easy task. Rarely is this stuff is happening in the here and now, and there are certainly no established sources he can refer to. Castiel’s best bets, the ones that have given him the most rewarding dirt historically, are on the internet. Some of the blogs he’s familiar with act almost as a newsfeed for paranormal happenings. There’s no investigation into anything they post, just verbatim accounts submitted by individual users with varying degrees of accuracy. Those in and of themselves aren’t enough to warrant driving three states away to check out a lead, but it’s the best place to start. From there, if the story reports a location and any other kind of details, he can start poking around on news websites, using the glory that is Google to verify and fact check, sometimes finding himself something that looks worth writing about. Once that’s established, Gabriel will approve his travel budget and he’s on the road.

Usually, when Castiel tracks down his own lead, he knows who he wants to talk to before the engine on his Lincoln Continental is even cool. He goes in with a plan and a list of witnesses or adjacent individuals to check out, and it’s anything but a crapshoot. When Gabriel sends him a lead, there’s rarely anything that organized. He gets a town and a vague idea of what he’s looking at. Last time, it was I heard there’s a haunting in Chums Corner. Go check it out. Occasionally they turn into something worth his time, but just as frequently they’re a complete bust.

Castiel starts his morning with coffee and breakfast alongside his laptop, blinds drawn tight so he’s not disturbed, and a blog he wouldn’t bother with if they weren’t so damned useful most of the time. The guys who run it, a pair of complete idiots named Ed and Harry, claim to be paranormal investigators. He’s surprised they haven’t gotten themselves killed yet, and not because of trifling encounters with the spirit world. He wouldn’t put it past either one of them to shoot their faces off trying to load rock salt into a shot gun (which Castiel maintains cannot possibly be an actual ghost deterrent). If they ever actually did encounter something more sinister, a werewolf perhaps, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think they might end up its next meal. Bungling though they are, with their shakily filmed videos and lack of any actual spirit photography, they do tend to find locations of some fairly plausible hauntings from time to time. And Harry and Ed might not ever find these ghosts, but Castiel has had reasonably good luck following in their clumsy wake to write the story of the ghosts they’ve failed to capture on camera.

Unfortunately for Castiel, the proprietors of Hellhoundslair.net have nothing new to offer, and it seems that they will not for some time to come. Our loyal fans, a header on the blog proclaims, we regret to inform you that, due to irreconcilable creative differences, we will not be bringing you tried and true tales of the unexplained for the foreseeable future. Rest assured, as soon as we can resolve these issues, the GhostFacers will be back in action.

Castiel can only begin to guess what creative differences might befall a pair bungling jackasses so woefully uncreative as Harry and Ed, but it’s of no consequence. The GhostFacers have nothing to offer, and Castiel is back to the drawing board.

Chapter Text

Vacations are remarkably dull.

They can be, at least, when you’re holed up in a nowhere motel, forbidden to go back to the only pursuit that keeps you distracted from your demons for an arbitrary length of time. That goes double when your only companion is a sharp-tongued diner waitress who has made it her life’s mission to figure you out, whatever that means.

Meg turns out not to be as bright and cheerful as Castiel’s first impressions led him to believe. Oh, she’s plenty friendly, but she’s not sweet as pie, that’s for certain. With the ice broken and something approaching familiarity established, she sees fit to drop into the seat opposite Castiel when he trudges down to the diner for dinner on his second evening in town.

“Howdy, Clarence,” she drawls, an accent that Castiel is certain she did not come by honestly. He’s too polite to point it out, but there is no way she’s really from anywhere that people actually drawl. She may perhaps have visited the southern states at some point, he’ll grant that, but it’s not her native tongue.

“Clarence?” Castiel parrots questioningly.

“Well you ain’t gonna tell me your name, right? Gotta call you something. You look like a Clarence.” Castiel does not agree, but he also gets the impression that, should he offer up his actual name at this point, she’d just keep calling him Clarence anyway so he keeps quiet.

“I can’t promise I’ll remember to respond to the name,” he tells her. “Shouldn’t you be waitressing?”

“Dinner break,” Meg informs him, waiving to a girl in an identical mint-green polyester dress. “Thought I’d sit with my new best friend while I eat. You don’t mind, do you?”

Castiel doesn’t, but again, he doesn’t get the impression that it would matter if he did, so he just nods and orders a burger from Eve.

The entire time he sits with Meg, she talks. She mostly runs her mouth about nothing of consequence and Castiel lets the words wash over him like waves on the sand, leaving him unchanged. He barely processes what she’s talking about, though he does catch that, at least for a while, she’s running her mouth about an ex-boyfriend that she thinks has some suffering coming his way. She also pauses periodically to make inane guesses as to Castiel’s profession, none of which even touch on truth.

“Insurance adjuster,” she ventures lamely. Castiel just shakes his head.

“Hitman,” she tries again. Castiel laughs, earning a dark scowl from Meg.

“No,” he replies earnestly. “Definitely not.”

“Well I don’t know. You strike me as the kind of guy who’s got something to hide. Little bit of a dark past you don’t really talk about. Could be you kill people.” Meg shrugs, glancing over her shoulder as Eve brings out their dinners. “I’m gonna keep trying,”

Castiel doesn’t doubt it.

He’s disheartened by an entire day of research and no leads as to something worth writing about, so after dinner he retires to his room and doesn’t even open his laptop. Instead, Castiel flips on the TV and finds a documentary about sharks on the Discovery Channel, and falls asleep with the screen’s glow casting flickering light across his face.

~*~

The second full day in Walcott brings no more success than the first, and by the time he opens the door to Ruby’s, he’s thoroughly disheartened. Castiel would love nothing more than to fix a destination in his mind, get back on the road, and leave idle thinking in the dust. Meg is working again, which is at least some manner of distraction, but he’d still rather move on. Tomorrow is the end of his three-day exile in Walcott, and if he’s lucky Gabriel will have found him a story worth looking into. Soon, he’ll be back on the road. Soon.

“IRS agent,” Meg guesses in lieu of a greeting, bringing Castiel a Heineken without even asking if he wants one. He does. Might be that his face says it more clearly than words could.

“Too much math,” Castiel says in answer.

“Burger?” she asks, not dismayed by another failure.

“Am I getting predictable?” he gripes. “Yeah. I’ll have the burger.” Meg saunters off without another word, flipping her dark hair over one shoulder.

She makes a handful of additional guesses throughout the evening, even going so far as to suggest that Castiel might be a model, based entirely on what she calls his soulful eyes, but she never comes close to guessing his actual profession.

“I’m getting close,” she tells him. “I’m figuring you out.”

“Sure you are,” Castiel replies skeptically. She’s really not.

“I am,“ Meg insists. “I’m getting a feel for you.” Castiel nods, not wanting to seem rude, but he doesn’t see how that could be the case. All she has are missed guesses. “You know, though, we could continue this conversation later, when I get off shift. If you wanted to get a feel for me, that is. Leave me your room number, I could come up, have a nice long talk, maybe move some furniture around.” She eyes him up and down suggestively, confidently. Castiel can tell she’s not used to being turned down. And he could take her up on the offer, he really could. It’s been a while, but he could allow himself this small comfort. Only that never works out the way he wants it to. He’s tried burying himself in a warm body, warding off the cold with a short term companion and letting physical release take the place of actual emotional growth, but it never lasts. He’s still lonely down to his core when they pull on last night’s clothes and roll out the door, and he likes Meg well enough not mix her up in his shit.

“Tempting,” he offers softly, “but I’m going to have to pass.” A look flashes across Meg’s face, visible only briefly before it’s replaced with a smile that’s just a little sad.

“Oh, angel,” she says soothingly, tilting her head to the side. “You’ve got it bad.”

Castiel eyes her warily. “What did I say?”

“Nothin’” Meg assures him. “It’s all in your eyes. Whoever it is, hope you find your way back there some day.”

“Doubtful,” Castiel scoffs.

“And yet you haven’t let go.” Meg’s smile softens, her eyes looking kinder than they have at any point in their short acquaintance. “So either you’re a sucker for punishment, or it ain’t as lost as you think.  Hang in there, Clarence.”

“Castiel,” he tells her in spite of his misgivings.

“I’m good with Clarence,” Meg replies with a smile.

~*~

Castiel sleeps deeply and dreams of the last time he saw Dean. It’s not the first time he’s dreamed this, and he doubts it’s the final time either. Sometimes it’s a sweet memory, beautiful and perfect in ways the encounter never was. Sometimes it’s hard edges and pain, more pain than reality. On rare occasions he remembers it exactly as it was, innocuous and mundane and true, and those ones hurt the most because nothing about it felt like a goodbye. He didn’t know it was, at the time, and neither did Dean. Perhaps the conversation would have gone differently if they knew it was the last time they’d lay eyes on one another. Perhaps Castiel would have said I love you instead of see you tomorrow. Perhaps the embrace would have lasted just a little longer. Perhaps Castiel would have found words to say exactly what Dean meant to him. Perhaps he would have been too weak to do anything differently at all. Whatever the truth of it is, the dream has the predictable result of putting Castiel in an absolutely foul mood, and he remains in bed for the majority of the day.

It’s a toss-up as to whether the growl of his stomach or the need for caffeine will be the lure that finally draws him out of the room. By mid-afternoon he’s only vacated the bed long enough to use the restroom before throwing himself back under the covers and hiding from the world, and the headache that’s creeping in could easily be from low blood sugar or caffeine dependence, or the exceedingly fun combination thereof. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before he’s forced to act on both, which means leaving the room, and he has no desire to do so.

In the end, he’s still trying to summon up the wherewithal to act on the needs he’s been forced to acknowledge when his phone rings. It’s Gabriel, obviously. No one else ever calls him. No one at all.

“Hello?” Castiel growls, no patience at his disposal for the kind of toying Gabriel likes to do. He hopes for a short and succinct conversation, though he knows from experience that he’s unlikely to get one.

“How’s my favorite workaholic?” Gabriel singsongs.

“Do you have a lead for me, or not?” he snaps rudely. That’s probably the lack of caffeine talking, he decides, but offers no apology.

“I might. Are you enjoying your vacation?”

Castiel sighs, resigned to his fate. Gabriel won’t give him a single morsel until he’s satisfied with the conversation, and who fucking knows where that will take them. “I’m enjoying the knowledge  that it’s almost over,” he replies, hopeful that the conversation is almost over too.

“You need to relax more, kid,” says Gabriel, though they are separated by only a year in age.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Where did you end up staying?” Gabriel asks conversationally, like he’s not holding anything over Castiel’s head at the moment.

“Walcott, Iowa,” Castiel replies woodenly. The hunger is definitely winning out over the need for caffeination now. He can practically feel his stomach gnawing at his spine.

“Never heard of it.”

“Not much to hear of,” Castiel informs him. “Like 900 people. Diner has decent burgers. I’m less interested in where I am than where I’m headed, though.”

“You’re like a dog with a bone,” Gabriel says with a laugh. “You know that, right? You should have gone into investigative journalism. You’d have been great at that.”

“Fucking tell me about it,” Castiel spits bitterly. It’s not Gabriel’s fault his life fell apart, and he should feel bad for speaking to the guy like this, but he can’t bring himself to care right now.

“Anyway, since you’ve been so patient,” Gabriel carries on sarcastically, and Castiel lets it slide because he pretty much deserves it, “I have a lead for you. And I think it’s actually a good one. I’ll email you some stuff, but suffice it to say you should head out in the morning and get yourself to Wyoming. There’s a backwoods little town that’s apparently got a witch granting wishes, and I got you names of first-hand sources that say they’ve actually met the witch.”

“Sure they have,” Castiel replies. He’s heard that one before.

Gabriel sighs. “Look, I get the cynicism, but this is a solid lead. Check out the details I emailed you, they should be there by now. I think you’ll wanna look in to this one. If it’s as solid as I think it is, this could be a feature story.”

“Does that mean I’m off house arrest?”

“Do yourself a favor and stay until the morning? I know you’ll drive all night if you think there’s something worth finding but you’re gonna run yourself into the ground, Cas. You gotta sleep. You gotta rest.” Castiel grumbles, but he also recalls the stark difference between how he felt upon arriving in Walcott and how he felt yesterday, and despite his personal opinions, he’s forced to admit that Gabriel might be on to something. He’d feel even better than that now if it weren’t for the unfortunate intrusion of memories that have thrown him for an unwelcome loop, but the point remains.

“Fine, I’ll leave in the morning.”

“Thanks, buddy. Check in when you’ve had a chance to get a feel for things, okay? Let me know what you think.”

Castiel hangs up the phone and glances at the clock on the wall. It’s near enough dinner time anyway, and his conversation with Gabriel did nothing but distract him from the gnawing hunger for a few minutes. Meg should be working at this point, which saves him from Lilith’s murderous gaze, and if he’s about to leave Walcott behind, he should probably say goodbye. It’s not like they’re friends, not really, but never again will Castiel roll out of someone’s life without a parting word, not if there’s any kind of connection been made. None of them will ever make up for the goodbye he didn’t get to have, but maybe it’s some kind of self-imposed penance.

He should shower, but he’s too hungry. Clean clothes, at least, he can do, but that’s all the effort Castiel can make himself expend before he gets something in his belly. He scrounges up a t-shirt that appears fairly fresh and a pair of jeans out of the bottom of his duffel bag and makes his way down to Ruby’s diner with a mind for food and nothing else.

“Clarence!” Meg greets him warmly as he slides into a booth along the wall. He considered bringing his laptop along to check into Gabriel’s lead, but it occurs to him that that might be just the hint Meg needs to guess his profession, and he’s harbouring just enough of a competitive streak that he doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction.

“Meg,” Castiel says with a nod and a smile. She doesn’t even bring him a menu, just saunters off to put in an order for the burger she already knows he wants, then comes back out with a Heineken.

“Lilith says you didn’t come down for breakfast this morning.” There’s a look of concern on her face that Castiel wouldn’t have expected.

“Lilith generally looks at me like she’s trying to decide how I should die. I’m surprised she noticed”

Meg barks a short laugh. “She’s not easy to get along with, that’s for sure. But I’m mostly certain she wouldn’t actually hurt you. Anyway it’s not like we’re that busy here. Someone comes in a few days in a row, you take notice. Thought you might have taken off without saying goodbye.”

“Never,” Castiel assures her. “I am leaving in the morning though, so you’re running out of guesses. “

“You’re breaking my heart, Clarence,” she laments dramatically. “Roll through towns, breaking hearts and leaving tragedy in your wake. How many small town diner waitresses you left cryin’ over you?”

“None that I know of,” he promises. “But I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

“So I guess I gotta figure you out tonight or I lose the bet, eh?”

“You know, we never technically shook on that. When you fail to figure it out, you don’t actually owe me a pie.” Castiel takes a sip of his beer and instantly regrets it. Beer on an empty stomach is never a good idea. His head swims almost immediately.

“Oh no, this is a matter of honor. I’ll get you, or you’ll get your pie. I don’t go back on deals.” Her hair bounces as she shakes her head, and then a young couple enters the diner, the bell on the door jangling to announce their arrival, so the conversation is cut short. It doesn’t matter. Meg’s way off. She’ll never figure it out.

~*~

“Food critic,” she ventures, when she brings his plate out.

“I’ve ordered one thing since I got here,” Castiel reminds her. “I’d be a shitty food critic.”

“Okay that one was a long shot, I admit.” Meg sighs. “I thought for sure I’d figure you out by now.”

“I’m an enigma.”

“You’re something,” she says, full of snark.

~*~

“I suppose this is it, then,” Meg says sadly when she brings his check. “It’s been a slice, Clarence.”

“That’s it?” he asks. “No last guess?”

“You write horror novels.”

“No I don’t,” Castiel tells her with a shake of his head.

“I know. It was a terrible guess. So I give up. You gonna tell me what you actually do?” She slides into the bench seat of the booth facing Castiel, crossing her arms and resting elbows on the table in a way that brooks no nonsense.

“I am a writer,” he admits. “You got that part right. But I write true,” he frames the word in air quotes, crooking his fingers in mimicry of the punctuation mark, “stories of the supernatural for a website that also has a print magazine. I think. They did when I started writing. I have no idea if it still gets published on paper.”

“Ooh, I never would have guessed that. So does that mean there’s something spooky in town?”

“Sadly, no. This is just a rest stop. I’m heading out in the morning to check out a lead. The creepiest thing here is Lilith.”

Meg cringes. “That’s a terrible claim to fame. I gotta get the Better Business Bureau on that one. We need something punchier or the tourism industry is never gonna take off.”

“Claim the burgers then. That’s much more appealing. The billboards are doing a good job, anyway. If it weren’t for that, I might have waited another couple of exits before I got off the interstate.”

“Well thank goodness for that,” Meg grins in relief. “What kind of pie you want, Clarence?”

“I told you you don’t have to,” he argues.

“And I told you to stuff it. We got apple, cherry, banana cream, lemon meringue, chocolate silk, pecan, blackberry, and strawberry rhubarb.”

“Apple, then.”

“Comin, right up,” Meg chirps. While she’s gone, Castiel fishes cash out of his wallet to cover his dinner, plus an extra twenty to cover the pie and a tip. If he’s lucky, she won’t count it until Castiel is out the door, and then she’s stuck with it. It gives him a small kind of satisfaction. In a few moments, Meg comes back out with a bakery box and sets it on the table.

“It was nice to meet you, Meg,” he tells her.

“Don’t get all sappy on me, Clarence. Get up here and give me a hug.” He gets up from the table and goes in for a careful embrace, but Meg throws her arms around his neck and draws him in close. “Take care of yourself, Castiel,” she murmurs in his ear. “You coulda let me believe you were a spy, you know. Woulda been fun.”

“You never guessed spy,” he rumbles softly. ”Thanks for the pie.” Meg slips the bills into her pocket and disappears back into the kitchen without a backward glance. Castiel suspects she knows there’s too much cash there and he’s thankful she’s letting it fly, just like he’s thankful it’s a life he doesn’t have to walk out of without a parting word.

If he’s honest with himself, he knows it isn’t penance to think that way, it’s self-preservation. If he had to ghost out of someone’s life again, it might destroy him.

Chapter Text

Gabriel’s lead is solid. Castiel knew it would be, but it’s still satisfying to shuffle through all the resources he’s been sent and find that there is actually a promising tale to be told. There are a lot of stories about this supposed witch going back about sixty years, detailed enough that Castiel could halfway believe they’re real without even meeting the witnesses himself, and some recent enough that he can actually follow up to ask them directly. All the sources he’s got seem to corroborate each other and there’s plenty of detail, so it’s got all the earmarks of a promising lead. All in all, it seems worth Castiel’s time, and what’s more, it’s only a few states away so he can probably get there in a day’s drive. A long day’s drive, but a day, nonetheless. With that in mind, he turns in early, setting an alarm for a punishingly early hour and packing everything except fresh clothes for the road into his bag before shutting out the light.

Thankfully, he does not dream.

In the morning, he checks out and pays for the additional night he spent, then throws his belongings in the trunk of his Continental. A last-minute decision, he pops into Ruby’s for a coffee and some kind of breakfast. Apparently they make a breakfast sandwich with bacon and eggs on a hamburger bun, or at the very least they’re resourceful enough to throw one together at his request, and before long, Castiel is pulling out of the parking lot of the Walcott Motor Inn and leaving Ruby’s diner in the rear view mirror.

Story, Wyoming is officially a fourteen-hour drive from Walcott, but between construction and traffic and the need to stop for the absurd amount of gas his giant boat of a car requires, Castiel doesn’t arrive until nearly midnight, a full eighteen hours after leaving the motel. Even so, there’s still a light on at the front desk of the cozy little inn on the main drag, and the woman behind the counter sleepily walks him through check-in and hands over a key to his room. It’s technically more a cabin than anything. All the rooms here are, individual little bungalows with kitchenettes and log cabin styling. Quaint and snug. Castiel finds himself giving the thing only a cursory glance before passing out with his clothes still on.

~*~

The bungalow is nestled snugly in a copse of trees, so it is quite late in the morning by the time sunlight filters through the branches to dance across Castiel’s pillow and shine in his eyes. He awakens slowly for once, having not even set an alarm clock, and drifts on the edges of wakefulness for longer than he usually allows himself. When he does finally open his eyes, there’s a sense of calm hanging about him that hasn’t been present for a long, long while.

Before he sets out and starts to track down witnesses, Castiel really needs breakfast, and coffee, and a laundromat. He’s running out of clean clothes, and he knows that no one is going to talk to a purported reporter with coffee stains on his shirt and slacks that look like they’ve been worn for days on end.  The girl at the front desk of the inn suggests a place called Wash Yer Wooleys down on Coffen St. He finds it easily, not surprising considering what a small town Story is, and before long he’s watching his clothing spin through the suds on a front load washer.

As the washer runs, Castiel sits himself down at a table near the front window and sorts through his notes. The reports Gabriel sent along all seem to agree on a few key points, so that’s where he’ll start. The consensus appears to be this: there is a witch in the woods just outside of Story, and if you’re willing to tell him your tale, he will grant you a wish. There are enough people who claim to have received what they wished for that it’s become somewhat of a local legend, spoken of in hushed tones around campfires or over one too many beers at the pub. No one has been able to give a clear description of the witch. Perhaps they were just unwilling, or perhaps there is no witch and it’s all a fabrication, the kind of story that gains strength with repetition and has no grounding in reality. Either way, there’s a story to be told, and whether he finds the witch or not, Castiel will write it.

Once his clothes are clean, Castiel drops his bag back at the inn and changes into something more respectable than jeans and a worn t-shirt. His usual attire for interviewing witnesses and tracking down a story gives him at least a bearing of professionalism. He dons his black slacks, freshly dried and pressed thanks to the rental of an iron at the laundromat, and a white button down shirt that is mostly free from stains. His tie never hangs straight, but he wears it anyway. Perhaps he needs a new one, or perhaps he just needs to learn to tie it properly. Either way, he’s not about to do anything about it. Over all of that he throws on his trench coat, a size too big and loose on his frame, but comfortable and sturdy. It carries him through most of the year, and when it’s too cold for the trench he tries not to do too much investigating out of doors anyway. Give him creature comforts and stories repeated over a roaring fire over trudging through the snow any day.

Suitably attired, he heads back into town to start tracking down the witnesses whose names he knows, and to see if he can find anyone else willing to talk. There’s a witch in the woods outside of Story, Wyoming, and Castiel means to tell his tale.

~*~

After two full days of legwork, hunting down residents who’ve apparently met the witch, Castiel is incredibly pleased. This is the kind of lead he loves. There’s definitely something worth writing about here. The common thread through all the stories he has heard from the people here is one he’s never picked up, not in all his years of writing about the supernatural and the occult. All they did was tell the witch their story, in vivid detail, and whatever it was they were wishing for came to them. He never asked for anything except the tale, never hinted at any secret price to be exacted later, never threatened anything or expected any kind of tangible payment except a blank notebook, and none of these people ever saw him again. Castiel asked a few if they ever tried to find him after their initial meeting, to see if his home in the woods was in the same place as when they visited him in the first place, but they all looked at him like he was daft. Why would I bother? they asked in reply. I already got everything I wanted.

Satisfied with the notes he’s gotten, Castiel considers stopping here. He’d be able to build a story from this, and a good one, too. A day or so at his computer and he’d be finished with this, a feature piece just like Gabriel suggested, and it hasn’t even taken him that much digging. He could absolutely leave it at that, but something nags at him.

After so long in this line of work, it has become second nature to Castiel to be skeptical of everything. Every word a witness speaks could easily be fabricated. Ever picture he’s shown could be staged or photo-shopped. Every little tidbit could be a red herring, and every story, no matter how tidy and believable, could be a complete and utter hoax. It’s important to keep this kind of skepticism as a shield, because he encounters so many outlandish things that it would be easy to start believing all of them are real.

And some are real. Some are very, very real. He’s seen a werewolf corpse with his own two eyes, a sight he will never forget, and he watched that same werewolf morph from a flesh and blood human being right in front of him not two hours before. That was a harrowing case, and one Gabriel ended up publishing under a pseudonym to protect Castiel from any kind of legal scrutiny. If asked, he’d say it was an anonymous submission, and deflect any threat of reprisal. It’s been years since that one went to print, though, and Castiel is probably safe now.

He’s also encountered more than a few restless spirits over the years, ghosts with stories all their own. Some of those have been terrifying, some just plain sad. Some, he hasn’t been able to ascertain anything for certain except that the souls of the deceased haven’t been able to move on. He never even figured out most of their names. Point is, enough of this stuff is real to make him question his assumptions about what is and what cannot be. Witches are real, that much he knows, though he’s never met one himself. But none of the lore suggests a practitioner that operates in quite the way this witch is said to, so it could still be just whispers in the wind. It could be. It could all be fake.

Or it could be real.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but Castiel sits up late into the night, staring at the fireplace in his bungalow, thinking about the likelihood that this witch can and does really grant wishes in exchange for stories. Sure, it’s just as likely to be some stupid children’s story, something passed down from the previous generation. The people he spoke to could all be liars, or delusional, or grasping at a tale they heard once to explain a stroke of good luck that they don’t understand. The guy who got his dream job after speaking to the witch could just as easily have earned the job on his own merits and it’s coincidence that he got hired after meeting this guy in the woods. The girl who won the lottery just got lucky. The woman whose husband finally came back from Afghanistan, well, sometimes deployments end. None of it has to be the work of a witch.

But it nags at him, this case. It has such a sense of reality about it that he can’t just let it go. For the first time in years Castiel finds himself actually believing the thing, not because it’s been proven to him with hard evidence but because he wants it to be true. If this witch is really out there in the woods, granting wishes in exchange for stories, then what’s to stop Castiel from tracking him down? What, other than rationality and a sense of self preservation, stands in the way of Castiel telling the witch his story and asking in return for the one thing his life has felt like it’s been missing all these years?

He shouldn’t even be considering it. He’s spent enough time digging into stories like this to know better than to get personally invested. The thought shouldn’t even be crossing his mind, or if it does, he should be dismissing it summarily and going to bed so he can get up in the morning and do his damn job. He should not be pulling up maps of the area on his laptop and trying to figure out, based on the information gleaned from the people that claim to have been granted wishes, where he can find this witch. And he absolutely should not be settling in to bed with the certainty that, in the morning, he’ll be tracking this witch down and meeting him firsthand. Castiel’s never been very good at listening to what he should do, though, another quality that would have served him well if he’d actually become the investigative journalist Gabriel has no idea he actually planned to be once upon a time.

~*~

Dappled patches of sunlight, the few that manage to make their way through the thick branches of fir and pine and cottonwood to the forest floor, give more than adequate light for Castiel to make his way through the woods towards the area he’s sure the witch lives in. He’s past any kind of if now. He’s sure the witch is there, and he’s sure he’s going to find him. All around him are signs of life, a healthy, thriving forest community. If it were too still, that would give him pause, but at every turn he hears the sound of a rabbit darting through the underbrush, sees a squirrel scurry up a tree, sees the hoof prints that tell him deer came through here earlier. Birds chirp in the canopy, some swooping down to grab unseen bugs. All around him, the forest is alive.

It’s gorgeous in here. Castiel can’t help but notice. It’s stunning in its tranquility. Everything about the place seems so much more remote than it actually is. Maybe that’s why the witch lives out here. They’re only a handful of miles from the main road, but it seems like a whole other world. Castiel hasn’t seen a single sign of civilization since he left his car on the shoulder and set off into the woods. Even his footprints don’t seem that easily visible when he turns around to look behind. It’s a pure, untouched place, and Castiel is filled with awe and reverence for the strength of nature that lives here.

It’s another half hour of steady walking before he catches a glimpse of anything promising. The sun is still high in the sky but it’s darker here, maybe in the shadow of a mountain or possibly just from older, taller trees blocking out more of the light. There’s a flashlight in the pocket of his trench coat in case it’s dark by the time he sets out on a return trip, but for now it’s still plenty light enough. He’s also got a blank notebook in his trench coat, but he tries not to think too closely on that. Without the glare of abundant sunlight, Castiel’s eyes are able to pick out a thin wisp of smoke in the distance, lazily curling up towards the sky out of some unseen chimney. It’s more or less directly in front of him, which gives Castiel hope that he’s been going in the right direction all along. After another twenty minutes of walking a cabin comes into view, and Castiel knows he’s found his prize.

Castiel approaches warily. He has no way of knowing if he’s welcome here, not until it’s too late to change his mind. A smarter man might have armed himself before setting out on this fool’s errand, but Castiel is neither a smarter man nor in actual possession of a weapon of any type, so it’s something of a moot point. Either way, before long he’s close enough to make out details of the little cabin, a charming structure that seems almost in harmony with the forest around it. He’s also able to make out the shape of a short man in his middle years in the doorway, reclined against the doorframe and totally at ease. It’s clear that he’s spotted Castiel and is just waiting for him to approach.

“So nice of you to join me,” the man (witch?) intones when Castiel reaches the door, his voice a mix of curiosity and amusement.

“You were expecting me?” Castiel asks carefully.

“I’m always expecting someone, more or less. People always seem to find me out here if they want something bad enough,” he replies with a shrug. “I’m Marv. And you are…?”

Castiel wipes the sweat on his palms off on his jacket, then offers it to Marv for a surprisingly firm handshake. “I’m Castiel,” he offers, his voice an odd mix of warmth and wariness..

“Nice to meet you, Castiel,” Marv says with a grin. “Come in. I’ve just put the kettle on. Would you like some tea?” Castiel follows Marv into the tiny cabin, glancing around at his surroundings as he enters. Every surface, bookshelves and tables and chairs as well as windowsills and parts of the floor, is covered in books. The shelves have so many that they overhang the edges, clearly filled two rows deep to accommodate the massive quantity of tomes. On the tables they’re stacked precariously high, mismatched volumes in leather and cloth binding as well as some in paper and cardboard covers. There’s books mounded on all but two of the chairs in the home, armchairs clustered around the fireplace, and the only surface that isn’t stacked with books otherwise is a little table set between them. It’s on this table that Marv places two mismatched cups and a steaming pot of tea.

“I’m sorry about the mess,” Marv apologises needlessly. Castiel doesn’t care one whit for the mess, but it’s obvious that Marv knows that and is just going through the motions. If Marv is everything people say he is, Castiel will hardly discount him because of some clutter. “I collect stories, you see. All kinds of stories. My collection is close to outgrowing my home, but I can’t bear to part with any of them.”

“It’s quite alright,” Castiel assures him. “It’s…it’s actually the stories I’m here about.”

“I assumed so,” Marv replies cryptically, setting himself down in one of the chairs and selecting a mug off the table. Castiel takes his first opportunity to look closely at the man. Marv appears to be in his fifties, with curly hair that’s just starting to grey at the temples and some, but not many, lines on his mischievous face. If the stories about him are true, he’s much older, but that’s the age Castiel would assign to him if pressed. His comfortably padded form is clad in a thick knit sweater held closed with wood buttons. He dresses like someone’s grandfather and carries himself with an impish sort of delight on his features and in his movements, and Castiel cannot for the life of him decide if Marv is someone he should trust or not.

“People always seem to find me when they need something badly enough,” Marv repeats. “I generally assume that’s what’s in the offing when I get a visitor. I’m curious, how did you find me?”

Castiel picks up a mug, inhaling the scent of rich black tea. He’s never been a big tea drinker, but the aroma is pleasant nonetheless. “There seem to be quite a few people in town who tell a similar story about a man out in these woods who likes to listen to stories,” Castiel replies, not wanting to give too much of his intentions away at first. Marv hasn’t come right out and admitted to what he suspects, so neither will he come right out and say he suspects it. “They generally agree on the area in which this individual can be found, and they tell similar tales of finding themselves conveniently improved after sharing their stories. I’m also interested in stories, but for publication rather than just collection. This seemed like a story worth telling.”

Marv laughs. “That’s not why you’re here. Nobody comes here out of curiosity.”

“Why am I here, then?” Castiel rumbles, a little combatively. He’s just met the man and Marv already knows him well enough to read him that clearly? He’s too stubborn to make this easy on Marv.

“The same reason anyone ever makes the trek out into the woods to find my humble abode,” Marv replies, a little dreamily. “You’re here because you want something. You’re here because you need something, and you heard a story about a guy who can give it to you, and you thought, well, if all I have to do is tell him my story, that sounds like a pretty solid trade. I can do that. I should track down this witch in the woods—oh don’t look at me like that, I know what they call me—and see if he’s all he’s cracked up to be. Well I am. I’m both things, a witch, and also what I’m cracked up to be. So, if you’ve got a story to tell, then we’ve got ourselves an arrangement.”

Castiel stares blankly at Marv, trying to will himself to challenge the assumption, but everything Marv said is perfectly correct. He does want something, need it even, and he came out here with the intention of testing the stories he’d heard and seeing if Marv can give it to him. Marv takes the blank look for a lack of challenge, which really, it kind of is, and smiles to himself.

“I assume you brought me a notebook then?” he asks. Castiel reaches into his trench and pulls out the book, a tidy little Moleskine with a ribbon bookmark and a cover that is meant to look like leather but isn’t. He hands it to Marv who takes the book wordlessly, turning it over in his hands and inspecting it for some kind of flaw he doesn’t bother to identify. When he’s satisfied with what he sees, he sets the book on his lap and picks up his tea again.

“So, Castiel. Tell me your story.”

Chapter Text

“I first met Dean Winchester when I was fourteen years old,” Castiel begins, assuming that Marv wants him to start at the beginning of the story pertaining to the thing he’s asking for. “His father moved the family to our neighborhood in Lawrence, Kansas at the end of summer vacation, just before school was set to start again. Dean’s mother had died when Dean and his brother Sam were quite young, so it was just them and their dad. I understood that feeling all too well, having lost my own mother when I was six, so I felt for them. Dean told me they moved around a lot while he was growing up, but John, their father, had promised that this time, they’d be staying. Things had been hard after he lost his wife, but he wanted the boys to get an education, and for that, they needed to stay in one place long enough to actually finish what they started.” He looks at Marv expectantly, waiting for some sign that the format of this tale meets his expectations. Marv just nods, urging him to go on.

“Sam was four years younger than Dean, and so he went off to elementary school, but Dean was my age. We were friends before the school year even started, but when we got back in September we ended up in the same class, and we became inseparable. We had sleepovers on weekends, went camping sometimes, pretty much spent all our time together. John Winchester drank a lot, and my father’s health was…unstable, so quite a lot of the time it was just the two of us. Dean looked after Sam a lot, and I helped. Dean was the best big brother he could possibly be to that kid. He always made sure Sam was well fed, that he got his homework done on time even if Dean hadn’t done his own, and that he knew he was loved. He must have picked up on all of those parenting instincts from their mother before she passed, because he certainly didn’t learn them from his father. John wasn’t a bad guy when he was sober, you understand. He just was rarely sober, and caring nurturer wasn’t really his MO. He was much more of a disciplinarian. Everything had to be done just so, and he’d hear no arguments to the contrary. It was probably for the best that Dean basically raised his brother. He probably turned out much better without so much of John’s influence.

“As time went on, Dean and I grew closer. It started off as a friendship, but eventually, I came to see it as something more. Dean was everything to me. He’d grown from this gangly fourteen-year-old, teaching his brother how to run the washing machine so there would be clean towels when Dad was too drunk to bother, into a strong and incredibly handsome young man. I was in love with him before I understood what to call it, and I kept it a secret for probably longer than I should have.

“Dean knew. Of course he knew. We spent so much time together, between classes and after-school and weekends. I spent more time at his house than I did my own, it’s not surprizing he puzzled out my secret well before I knew what to do with it. He kept it secret too, and I thought it was for my protection, until one night, long after his father passed out and his brother was tucked safely into bed, we crept out into the back yard for some manufactured reason, and I summoned up courage I didn’t know I had, and I kissed him.

“I nearly ran when I realized what I’d done, certain that I’d ruined everything, but he held me in place and asked me why I waited so long. He’d known all along that I had feelings for him, and he’d known for just about as long that he returned them. I should have acted on it so much sooner, but I was afraid. I was afraid he’d turn me down. I was afraid it’d ruin our friendship. I was afraid of what his father would say.

“As it turns out, John Winchester was a lot of terrible things, but he was not a homophobe, and shy of Dean returning my feelings, that was the best news I could have received. He was still drunk and angry and a terrible father, but he never tried to keep us apart. I knew my own father wouldn’t either, if he ever hauled himself out of his study long enough to notice. The Lord made us, and he loves us all as we are, he often told me. I don’t think he much cared what I did, so long as it wasn’t an affront to the church and didn’t interfere with his studies.  I suppose I should count myself lucky. Most bisexual children growing up with a pastor for a father would have had a considerably harder life than I did.

“In any case, once I had Dean, I felt like my life was perfect. I felt like I had everything, and really, I had it very good. Nobody’s life is truly perfect, but mine was close. I had Dean, and he loved me as fiercely as I loved him. Anyone at school who had problems with two boys walking through the halls hand in hand knew better than to start a fight Dean Winchester could be called upon to finish, so if we got some ugly comments from time to time, well, they were just words. It could have been much worse. And I’d been accepted into school for the following year with a full scholarship. In a few years, I’d have been ready to take on the world. I could have been writing for a proper newspaper by now, or hell, even TV journalism.  I could have been an anchor, for all I know. But back then, I had everything.

“I don’t even remember what woke me up that night. Might have been the sound of glass breaking. Maybe it was my father swearing and throwing things around. He might even have come into my room to wake me up. I don’t recall at all, but when I did wake up, he was ranting and raving, screaming fearfully that we were being hunted, that they’d found us, that we had to leave or they’d get us, they’d get us both. He made me pack a bag; nothing but the essentials, just what I could carry, and before the sun was up we were gone.

“He never really explained clearly how he knew someone was after us, but it didn’t matter. He said enough. He said it was demons. He said they got mom all those years ago, and they’d been tracking us ever since. I was able to piece it together clearly enough to figure out that no one was after us, but by then we were already out of state. I know now that patients with schizophrenia can experience delusions of a religious nature, especially those who are deeply religious to begin with, but I didn’t have that knowledge then. If I had, maybe I could have tried to get my father the help he needed. It doesn’t matter now.

“I hadn’t had much time to pack, so there were a lot of things I would have wanted to take with me that I couldn’t, but I got the important things. I had a photo album, one with the only remaining pictures of my mother, as well as some of me and Dean. I had my acceptance papers for school, and I had my address book. I doubted dad would let me near a phone, being that he was still convinced demons were after us and trying to track us down, but I could write. I wrote Dean letters whenever my dad slept, mailing them whenever I could sneak away to a mail box. I never had a return address to leave so he never wrote me back, but I have to believe he got them. I have to believe he knew why I left without a word.

“Dad didn’t let us stay still for very long, and he didn’t let me out of his sight longer than necessary. He made me grow my hair out so they wouldn’t recognize me, started calling me Jimmy because they knew my name. For nearly a year we travelled like this. I’d already missed graduation. My scholarship would have disappeared along with it. I wanted more than anything to go back to Lawrence and find Dean again, but I was still a minor, and I had no money. I had no choice. Dad dragged me across the country, hiding from threats that never existed.

“Not too long before my eighteenth birthday, dad found my address book, and he figured out I’d been writing letters. I’ve never seen him so mad. I tried to explain that we never had a return address to provide, so all the things he was afraid of could never have tracked us by it anyway, but it didn’t matter. He burned the address book on the side of the road, and then he found the last letter I had yet to mail and he burned that too. It was for my own safety, he told me. He didn’t want the demons to get me like they got my mom.

“I was furious. I don’t remember what I said, but it was brutal. I was likely rather cruel. I had an entire year of unvented anger and frustration and desperation, and that was the final straw. He was driving, trying to get us as far away from what he thought was evidence they could use to find us as he possibly could, and if I’d just shut my mouth he might have been paying enough attention to—it doesn’t matter. It happened. The truck hit us so hard it killed my dad on impact. I spent weeks in the hospital, and by then they’d tracked down my aunt Amara. I’d never even met her. I didn’t know I had an aunt. She was to take me in until I was old enough that the courts couldn’t make me stay, apparently, and she was nice enough, but it was never home.”

“Nobody can undo death,” Marv interjects softly, his voice cutting through Castiel’s memories like a knife.

“I know,” Castiel tells him sadly. “I’m not asking for that. I’ve made my peace with my father’s death. And anyway, as you say, nobody can undo death.”

“Carry on then,” Marv tells him. He smiles faintly, weakly, a gesture of commiseration. Castiel appreciates it, but it barely touches him.

“The day I turned eighteen, I left. I had a little bit of money, not much, but it was enough to get me on a bus back to Kansas. I didn’t have my address book so I had no way of calling Dean, but I knew his address by heart, and I could envision the route from the bus station to his front door clear as crystal in my mind. It was the happiest I’d felt in months. I didn’t know what would happen after that, but I knew that if I could just get back to him, everything would be okay again. It was the longest ride of my life, longer even than when my father made us flee our home that night. When I finally got to Lawrence, I could barely breathe from excitement, but Dean wasn’t there. A for sale sign sat on the lawn of his old house, same real estate agency that was currently selling the house my father abandoned when he dragged me out of bed that night, but Dean was gone. I asked a few neighbors if they knew anything, and it took a few tries, but eventually I found someone who heard what had happened.

“Cirrhosis. John died of the drink, no surprise. Dean was already eighteen, so the state couldn’t do anything with him, but Sam was still a minor. Said they had no family that could take him in but there was a godfather somewhere in the country, and Sam was going to be sent to live with him. The neighbor couldn’t tell me where. She assumed Dean had gone along as well. It was a tragedy, she told me, to see those boys separated, so she hoped that’s what happened. I hoped so too, but I had no way to find out.

“I never saw Dean again after that. I never found out if he got my letters, if he knew why I left and hadn’t said a word. I went back to my aunt and finished high school, but the gap in my transcripts meant the scholarship was long gone, and my dad’s estate wasn’t exactly a legacy. I ended up with just enough to pay for community college, and only because my aunt let me stay with her while I did it. Even then I worked through the summers. There were no internships at major news desks waiting when I graduated, not like there could have been if I’d had my choice of schools. The best I could find was a gig writing true and questionable stories of the unexplained and supernatural for a little magazine. It’s not the life I expected to lead. Not the life I planned to lead. But that’s my story.”

Marv regards him curiously for a moment, fingertips steepled, and makes no comment. His eyebrows twitch and his mouth tries on more than one occasion to curl into a smile before he schools it back to a blank mask again. Castiel doesn’t say anything else yet, just waits for Marv to decide whatever it is he’s pondering.

“You ended on the school thing, but unless I miss my guess, that’s not the main theme of the story you wanted to tell me,” Marv says plainly.

“No,” Castiel agrees, “It’s not.”

“You wanted to tell me about Dean. You started at Dean, and really, you wanted to end at Dean, but you threw the bit about school in because you were worried I’d think you were just some lovesick puppydog.”

“I didn’t…” Castiel cuts himself off. Yes he did.

“So what you want, then, Castiel, is for Dean to come back into your life. You want him to love you like he did then, because you never stopped.” Marv grins smugly, proud of his deduction.

“I don’t even know,” Castiel says with an exasperated sigh. “I thought that’s what I wanted. I’ve told myself for years that’s what I wanted. But would he? It’s been so many years. He might not even want to see me again. Maybe he’s gotten completely over it. Maybe he’s moved on. And I’m not the same person he knew back then. I want to see him again, sure, and I want him back in my life, but I guess more than anything I wish I knew if he could still fall in love with the man I am today.”

“Well,” says Marv, clapping his hands once and smiling brightly. “There you have it. That’s a riveting story. Would you like some more tea?”

Castiel sits, confused. “That’s it? That’s a riveting story?

“Oh don’t get so bent out of shape,” Marv says dismissively. “You were expecting some big hocus pocus maybe? It doesn’t work like that. You tell me a story, you get what you wish for. When you get back into town, you write your story about the witch in the woods. I don’t care if you publish it. I could use more stories. Let them come find me. But go where you’re needed, and you’ll find what you’re looking for. This much, I promise you.” Marv gets up from his seat, picking up the little notebook Castiel brought him and shelving it very precisely on top of a wobbly stack on the floor. If there’s a filing system to be found here, Marv is the only one who knows how to read it.

“Thank you,” Castiel says carefully, wary that there’s still a hook to come, some undisclosed price that will be exacted at the final moment.

“You’re quite welcome,” Marv replies earnestly. “Make sure the door closes properly on the way out, will you? It sticks sometimes.” Castiel pauses for a moment, watching the movements of this odd little man as he slowly paces through his cottage, pausing to pick up this book and that, but Marv is too engrossed in his stories to notice. Eventually, Castiel turns to leave. The doorknob is cold in his hand, and sure enough, he has to pull quite firmly to close the door all the way, and then it’s just shrubs and trees, heaven and earth, and a long walk back to his car.

Chapter Text

Castiel drags his feet writing the story. It’s nothing at all like the impedance he encountered when working on the story in Chums Corner, and not just because in this case, there’s an actual story to be written. It’s actually quite the opposite. Castiel almost feels like there’s too much to write. The accounts from witnesses alone could fill far more than Gabriel would ever put to print, and then there’s the part where he actually met the source of the tale. Not that it’s technically any confirmation at the moment. All he’s had is a conversation over tea with a man who has a lot of notebooks in his cabin. But the entire thing is just so rich in detail and it’s difficult to decide what to include and what to glaze over. The problem isn’t really the writing of it, it’s the pruning down.

The longer Castiel works on the article though, tucked away in the quiet rented cabin, the harder it gets not to think about his personal connection to the story. Marv said to go where he’s needed and he’ll find what he’s looking for, but he was vague on the specifics. Castiel isn’t sure what he was expecting, walking into that cabin, but it wasn’t this. Not some grand hocus pocus as Marv said, but something more tangible. Something clearer. If he’d planned it out, he’d probably have been expecting Marv to provide him with a specific location, a city or an address or something, some concrete way to find Dean. But what he has now is just a cryptic instruction. Go on with your life. Go where you’re needed, wherever that is.

It’s a little paralyzing. It makes him overanalyze every action, every potential decision. If he calls Gabriel to say he’s done the story and gets a new lead, does following up on that lead qualify as going where he’s needed or is it negated by the fact that he technically asked for it? If he stays in Story for too long, will the delay allow the opportunity to pass him by? How can he know what to do?

In the end, he finishes the article and knows it’s plenty good enough to submit as is, but he wastes another day editing and re-editing until he’s basically just rereading the thing on a constant loop looking for something to change. He goes back to the laundromat and runs a load of clothes with the intention of leaving town with all his things clean, and takes his laptop along so he can edit some more. He comes back to the inn with takeout and a bottle of bourbon, but the bottle remains untouched as he eats, reading through the notes Gabriel sent him in the first place, looking for anything interesting he might have missed.

He finds nothing.

It’s a full three days after he wended his way through forest paths and underbrush to find Marv’s cabin that Gabriel finally calls, prodding him towards submitting something. There’s a deadline coming up for the print edition, (and there’s Castiel’s confirmation that they do, in fact, still publish it), and if Castiel wants to be included he needs to have his finished article in Gabriel’s inbox like, five minutes ago. Castiel sighs in resignation and hits send on the draft email he’s had waiting for the better part of a day, and starts to pack his things. There’s a werewolf in Bend, Oregon apparently, and if he gets on the road now, he can be in town two days before the full moon to start looking into it.

Castiel hopes that counts as going where he’s needed, because Oregon is a long fucking drive from Wyoming.

~*~

The Continental survives the drive through the Rockies. Castiel mutters prayers under his breath the whole way through mountain passes and barely notices the astoundingly beautiful scenery as he chugs along, but somehow, his car makes it. It’s not that it’s in horrible shape, officially, but it’s old, and perhaps its previous owner wasn’t as kind as they should have been or skimped on the most basic of maintenance. Perhaps it’s just the sheer age of the thing. Perhaps forty years of propelling a steel-bodied monstrosity down various strips of blacktop have just taken their toll on the old engine, and she is just nearing the end of what she can provide. Either way, the sounds she makes as he crests the peaks are disconcerting to say the least, and he starts to consider whether it might be time to put the old girl out to pasture and find something more modern.

Who is Castiel kidding, though? He’ll drive her until she dies, literally run the thing into the ground before he bothers to buy a replacement, and even then it will only be because the places he needs to go for his articles tend not to be all that close to major airports. He’d happily fly and get around in rental cars if he could swing it.

As the outskirts of Bend loom on the horizon, Castiel tries to remember the last time he spent any time on the West coast. Bend isn’t technically coastal but it’s pretty close, and regardless of the technicality, the answer is a long fucking time ago. Points west of the Rockies just don’t seem to get haunted as frequently as the eastern states. There are older houses in New England and the South, ones with dark histories that give rise to spirits at a much higher rate. Vampires and werewolves and other ghastly things can crop up pretty much anywhere, but it’s ghost stories that sell the best, so that’s what he usually ends up chasing.

Castiel’s stomach growls by the time he finds the highway giving way to city streets, buildings rising up to either side of his car like they’re sprouting right out of the dirt. It’s easy to become distracted by the sights in a city you’ve never visited. Everything is new. There’s commercial landmarks that clone ones you’ve already seen in old, familiar places, but they’re side by side with local treasures you know nothing about, and their details catch the eye whether you’re trying to look or not. So enrapt is Castiel with his new surroundings that it takes the haphazard path of a mustachioed hipster on a fixed gear bicycle, weaving out into traffic and nearly making roadkill of himself on Castiel’s bumper, to drive home the reminder of how tired he truly is. After that, the only thing that catches his attention is the sign for a Super 8 motel. He’s asleep before his head even hits the pillow.

~*~

The werewolf is a boring story. Oh sure, it’s an actual werewolf, and Castiel even manages to snap a mostly in-focus picture to submit along with the story, but it’s run of the mill. College kid, probably got bitten when they were out partying, too drunk to remember the attack even happened let alone with the clarity that might give them a glimpse of the future that awaits them. It’s nowhere near the story he found in Story, but at least it’s better than the so-called haunting in Chums Corner, so there’s that. He submits the article and packs up his things mechanically, well rested but tired on a level that sleep can’t fix, and waits for Gabriel to point him in the direction of the next story to be told.

~*~

For weeks, Castiel bounces around aimlessly, writing whatever story Gabriel sends his way. He’s diligent in his research as always, clever with his words when the story allows for it and somber and respectful for the dead when decorum stays his hand. He writes, and he drinks too much coffee and almost too much whiskey, and he wishes on more than one occasion that the smell of cigarette smoke didn’t stir such a need in him. It doesn’t matter how many years it’s been. The cravings always surge back in after a while and he has to stamp them down with an iron strength of will lest he fall back into old, self-destructive patterns. He’s self-destructive enough without inhaling poison on the regular. Doesn’t mean he can’t miss how calming that first drag always felt, though.

More than once, while he waits for a lead or sits awake in the middle of a case unable to sleep, he ponders dragging out his computer and finding a lead of his own, but always, he chooses otherwise. Go where you’re needed, Marv told him. A vague and simplistic instruction if he ever heard one, but it most certainly wasn’t go wherever you feel like going, so he waits for a lead. He goes where Gabriel needs him to go, and he waits, and he sleeps like shit.

Thank fuck there are so many coffee shops these days.

He visits 5 states in the course of two weeks, and none of them hold any appeal. Every time he rolls into town he stamps down the tiny voice of hope that suggests this might be the place he finds what he wants. It’s getting smaller and weaker and quieter every time, and stamping it down gets easier. Castiel should have known it was too good to be true, too easy. He should have known better than to hope.

~*~

“Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” Gabriel says, sounding just as tired as Castiel.

“What’s in Sioux Falls?” Castiel inquires, barely interested in anything other than the fact he now has a destination. Already, he’s shoving clothes into his duffel bag and searching the room for anything he may have forgotten to pack up.

“There’s a psychic,” Gabriel informs him. “Heard she might be the real thing. Runs a metaphysical shop, you know, crystals and tarot cards and incense. Don’t even gotta be sneaky. Just book a session. You got good instincts. You should be able to tell pretty easy if she’s full of shit.”

“A psychic?” Castiel repeats. “They’re never the real thing. Name one time we’ve done a story on a psychic that’s been anything other than a complete bag of crap. Just one.”

“So?” Gabriel counters. “Half the ghost stories we write are just houses with drafts and creaky floorboards and homeowners with overactive imaginations. Besides, you get paid whether it’s a psychic or a sham anyway. Quit your bitching.”

Castiel snorts. “Sure, but I get paid more when there’s actually something to write about.”

“Look, just go, ok? Call it a favor. I know a guy, says she predicted some things for him that kinda freaked him out, and I told him I’d check into her, let him know if it’s legit or not. Do me a solid, Cas. I need you to go to Sioux Falls, and I need you to check this out. Please.” Gabriel rarely asks nicely, so it’s enough to silence any other complaints Castiel might have had on deck. He packs his things and heads to the car, plotting a course for Sioux Falls, South Dakota into the GPS on his phone.

~*~

Sioux Falls is infinitely vaster than the small towns Castiel is used to visiting for his research. Places like Chums Corner and Story barely register as towns, basically swallowed up as part of sprawling counties. They’re town centers with a few basic businesses and not much else, residents who all know or at least know of each other, and none of the expansive urbanity that colours the day-too-day interactions of city life. There’s no chain coffee shops, no fast food, and generally speaking, none of the bustle that Castiel sees when he has to stop in or pass through larger centers. Sioux Falls is no metropolis, but it’s still far and away grander than most of his haunts, pun almost but not quite completely unintended.

It’s large enough that it actually takes pulling over on the side of the road and doing a quick google search on his phone to find the way to a cheap motel, and even then he has to use the GPS to find his way there. People still greet each other on the streets as he rolls through, he notices. There’s a sheriff at one street corner, her patrol car parked neatly against the curb, having what appears to be a casual chat with one of the residents, and her jovial smile makes it pretty darn clear there’s nothing official about it. They’re just being social. It’s a nice balance between the quaint familiarity of the tiny towns and villages, and the impersonal bustle of big cities.

Lawrence used to be like this when Castiel was young. He knew the people in his neighborhood even if he didn’t speak to them regularly. Maybe it’s different now. He hasn’t been back there since the day he learned Dean was gone. None of Castiel’s research has ever taken him back there, although he’s stopped at a few other places in the state of Kansas, and has certainly brushed the outskirts of Douglas County on a few occasions. There’s nothing left in Lawrence for Castiel. Not anymore.

Gabriel calls just as he’s depositing his bags onto the floor of his motel room. Castiel considers for a moment letting it go to voicemail just so he doesn’t have to pretend to be interested in conversation. Gabriel will call back though, or will expect Castiel to call him back, so he answers just to avoid the additional chiding in a later conversation.

“What?” Castiel is tired from the long drive, and it shows in his voice, but he’s also just not in the mood to be pushed or questioned.

“You’re in Sioux Falls, then?” Gabriel asks, ignoring Castiel’s rudeness.

“Just checked in,” Castiel replies, less than patient. “What’s up?” Really, what he means is why are you bothering me, but this phrasing is less likely to incite commentary from Gabriel.

“Just wanted to make sure you made it.  When are you going to check her out?”

Castiel rolls his eyes. “I have not even finished bringing my bags in from the car. I’ve been on the road for nearly an entire day, I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I am in no mood to interview a potentially bullshit psychic right now. I’m going to see her in the morning, and only after I’ve eaten and consumed enough coffee to power a small army.”

“Just, will you at least call me when you’re done?”

“Why, so you can second guess my assessment?”

“Because my friend is kinda freaked out by what Miss Cleo here had to tell him, and I owe that guy, and I am not making him wait until you see fit to send me a damn finished piece to set him at ease.” Gabriel draws a breath, letting it out slowly. “I’m not trying to give you a hard time, ok. This is just really important. I need you to do this.”

“And I’m going to,” Castiel reminds him with exasperation. “Just…not until the morning.”

“And you’ll call me?” Gabriel presses.

“As soon as I get back to my room,” Castiel promises. He hangs up the phone and unpacks his laptop. There’s no way he’s visiting this psychic without a little independent research first.

~*~

The scent of sandalwood and sage assaults Castiel’s nose the second he opens the door to Maelstrom Metaphysics. The shop is nestled into the back corner of an outdoor shopping center with wooden boardwalks surrounding a cobblestone square. There’s a stage along one side, empty now but with signs proclaiming free public events in days and weeks to come, and in the bright light of summer it might be a nice place to take in a concert. Now, as the first days of autumn start to chill the air with their touch, it’s just mostly comfortable. Shadows shroud the doorway that Castiel hovers in for just a moment longer than necessary, but the bell signals his arrival and the shop’s sole occupant looks up from the page she’s reading, and then there’s no turning back. Her dark eyes capture him from the second she gazes his way, boring into his soul with an intensity that makes it immediately clear why Gabriel’s friend could be so frightened by this woman’s words. She may or may not actually have a conduit to the spirit world, and her precognition still remains to be tested, but she is definitely an intimidating presence.

“Hello,” the woman greets him warmly, a knowing smile curling the sides of her mouth. “Do you know what you’re looking for?” It’s an innocuous question, but the tone of her voice suggests that she already knows full well what he’s after and is just wondering whether he, himself has figured it out yet.

“I’m looking for a reading,” Castiel tells her. “I assume that’s you.”

“You assume correctly,” she confirms, adjusting the thin shawl draped over her shoulders. She stands up from behind the counter and glides over to the door. She’s a tall woman, not quite Castiel’s height but near enough. Her broad hips sway as she moves, flipping the sign on the door from open to will return in thirty minutes, then turning to face Castiel. “Let me get a look at you,” she insists.

Her gaze is unsettling. She rakes her eyes over Castiel from top to bottom and he feels like she’s seeing right into him, past clothing and skin and bone right down to the core of his being. For a long minute she stares at him, weighing and measuring in silence. While she looks, Castiel casts his eyes around the shop. The walls are covered with book shelves and glass display cases, full of every kind of charm and trinket imaginable. There are things that look immeasurably old, stuff that appears to belong more in a museum than in a shop like this right beside silver-plated jewelry set with colored glass stones. There are books and tarot cards and boxes of incense, candles and altar cloths and all manner of miscellany, and if there’s an order to it, Castiel can’t make sense of it. Finally she speaks again.

“One hundred, payable in advance. No refunds. Tell me nothing about yourself, and don’t ask any questions until the end. I read you as I read you. No leading. Are we clear?”

“Clear,” Castiel affirms, reaching into his wallet and pulling out five rumpled twenty dollar bills. She counts them and folds the money up to tuck it into her cleavage, challenging Castiel with her eyes to make any kind of comment on the action. He says nothing. “You are Cassandra, are you not?”

She shares a knowing smile, batting her eyelashes alluringly, before making her way towards a curtain at the back of the store. “I think we both know that’s not my real name,” she tells Castiel, beckoning him to follow her into the back room. Castiel follows warily. Past the draped shawls that serve as a curtain, Castiel finds a small room with shelves of stock along the walls. A small round table sits in the centre, ladder backed chairs on opposite sides of it. It’s been draped in a shawl that matches the makeshift curtain. A single fat candle sits in the center, currently unlit. It’s otherwise unadorned. Castiel takes the seat she gestures to, shrugging out of his trench coat without a word.

“Say nothing,” Cassandra reminds him. “Give me your hand, clear your mind, and let me get a read on you.” Castiel rolls up the sleeve of his shirt and extends his right arm, letting Cassandra take hold of his hand in her two smaller ones. Her skin feels cold against his palm. She’s quiet, and he’s quiet, and the room goes still. Castiel tries to think of nothing at all while she cradles his hand, her fingertips heavy even as they are gentle. He thinks of breathing deeply, feeling the oxygen suffuse his body and the thoughts leave his brain. They try to intrude; they always do, with Castiel, but he hopes his brain is quiet enough that, if Cassandra is for real, she can do what she seeks to do.

Her breaths are just as slow, just as measured as Castiel’s. At first, Castiel focuses on Cassandra’s face, the placid calm that comes over her features as she tries to get a read on him. But then something of concern flashes across and Castiel can feel his thoughts slipping away, trying to chase down what might be concerning her, whether it’s real or just some trick she pulls to make unsuspecting dupes believe her predictions are the stuff of magic, and it becomes too difficult to clear his mind. So he closes his eyes and tries to think of nothing at all, and it gets a little easier.

The minutes tick by without measure, and the room is utterly quiet. Castiel could easily believe Cassandra had fallen asleep if not for the perfect stillness of her hands. She doesn’t move a muscle, doesn’t even twitch, that’s how complete her focus is.

“You’re in love,” Cassandra murmurs softly, breaking the silence. It catches Castiel off guard, the suddenness of it. “You’re in love and you don’t think your feelings are returned, could be returned, but they are. Despite everything you think you see, they are.”

Castiel barely supresses the urge to laugh in her face.

Cassandra continues, heedless of Castiel’s derisive thoughts, whether or not they play out in his expression. “This thing that stands between you, it’s but a trifle. You think the hurdle is so big, you think it’s everything, but it’s not. It’s nothing.”

“That’s—“ Castiel tries to argue, but she cuts him off, no ear for his dismissal.

“And your boss will understand. Eventually. He’s not going to like it, but he will not begrudge you. He thinks of you as a friend, you know, no matter how unfriendly you try to make yourself. Don’t ask questions,” she forestalls, holding up a hand to cut Castiel off. “You will understand when it’s relevant.”

Cassandra falls quiet again, but she fails to relinquish her firm hold on Castiel’s hand, so he’s forced to assume the reading isn’t over, just at intermission. Her head tilts to the side thoughtfully, almost as if pondering how to interpret what she’s reading.

“You spend your time chasing spectres of the past,” Cassandra muses. “I think you’ve been doing that for a very long time. It’s not your own past though. You are very careful not to dredge up those ghosts. You will find peace when you can finally face them. That much is certain. I suspect you’re not prepared to start down that road yet but it’s something to keep in mind. You can’t build a future while running from the past. And there are plenty of ghosts in your future. I think you’ll find some you aren’t even looking for, to be quite honest. There are spirits all over this world, restless beings with unfinished business. You share a kinship in that respect. Perhaps in helping them find a measure of peace, you’ll find the thing you’re looking for along the way.” She falls silent again, rolling her shoulders as if to ward off some unseen strain, and for a time, the only sound is her breath and Castiel’s own heartbeat in his ears.

“Ruminants,” she says finally. “Ruminants are good omens for you. They will bring you luck. One will deliver you from great pain at some point in time, I should think. They are harbingers of joy and freedom and happiness for you. Birds though, not so much. You should be wary of birds. They will interfere with your efforts to communicate. I think it will still work out, though. In the end.”

“Oh, well, that’s reassuring.”

“Oh, sweetheart, you can take your cynicism and cram it directly up that shapely ass of yours. You’re a believer. You don’t want to be because you think life, all this ugliness you’ve been swimming in for so long, that’s what it’s supposed to be like, but you’ve got hope. Deep down in that heart of yours, the one you want people to think is shrivelled and dead and empty, you’re a hopeless romantic. You want to believe in happily ever afters. You want to believe that good things happen.”

Castiel scoffs. He can hardly believe what he’s hearing. Ruminants? Birds? Hopeless romanticism? This woman is completely out to lunch.

“Believe me, don’t believe me,” she says, almost as if she’s replying to the words Castiel isn’t saying. “It doesn’t matter. I know what I see. You’ll get your happy ending. Oh, it’ll hurt getting there, and it’s going to shape that hope you cling to. You’re going to think you’re being punished for something, and I guess, in a way, you are. Have faith though, you sweet thing. Things are gonna work out for you in the end.”

Castiel leaves Maelstrom Metaphysics feeling just a little bit cheated. Sure, Gabriel technically paid for the reading, so he wasn’t cheated out of any money, but the things Cassandra had to say  were just plain absurd. He can’t imagine why Gabriel’s friend was so frightened by this sham. The second he gets back to the motel he’ll call Gabriel to tell him so, then spend the rest of the day writing an article decrying the absurdity of this complete fraud. Then he’ll leave this town behind and never look back.

 

Chapter Text

Castiel doesn’t even bother waiting until he’s back to his room to call Gabriel. Rather, he sits in his car just up the block from Maelstrom Metaphysical  and punches in the number, smiling to himself as Gabriel picks up on the first ring.

“So, what’s the verdict?” Gabriel demands, bypassing formalities entirely.

“Total hack,” Castiel informs him confidently. “Complete scam artist. Not a word of truth to any of her shit. Tell your buddy he can get down off the ledge.”

“You’re sure?” Gabriel ventures cautiously.

“Totally sure. She told me cows were good luck to me. Said one would deliver me from evil or suffering or some shit. I’m telling you. Complete garbage.”

“Cows?” Gabriel repeats incredulously.

“Well technically she said ruminant. But whether we’re talking specific beast or just animal family, do you really imagine a cloven-hooved cud-chewer being in a position to rescue me from anything at all?” Castiel laughs to himself. “I’ll give her one thing though, she’s got the act down solid. Had me going for a few minutes there. At best, I think she’s good at reading people. This guy, is he a bit gullible to begin with?”

Gabriel is quiet for a minute. “I don’t know if I’d say gullible. Suggestible, maybe.”

“Close enough. She probably picked up on that. Listen. It’s just a hustle. Scare the suggestible guy, he goes out and changes whatever he thinks he needs to change to avoid whatever shit she predicted, he comes back for another reading to see if he can cheat destiny. Lather, rinse, repeat. Tell him not to worry. What did she tell him, anyway?”

“Oh you know, the usual. Girl’s gonna leave him, various illnesses, mid-life apocalypse shit. Kinda stuff that could happen to anyone.”

“So nothing exactly personalized,” Castiel volunteers.

“Not really,” agrees Gabriel.

“Tell him she’s debunked.”

“I will. You still gonna write me an article on this one though, yeah?”

Castiel sighs. “Well, I’m already here. I might as well.”

~*~

The Sioux Falls Super 8 is a comfortable, cozy little motel. It’s cookie cutter identical to every other Super 8 he’s stayed in over the years, and there have been a lot of them. It’s the same in every conceivable way. The bedspreads are the same ugly pattern and the carpets are the same bland low-pile stuff and the continental breakfasts have the same stale muffins and shit coffee. The clerks all wear the same polo shirts, the pools all have the same screaming kids playing Marco Polo (which suits Castiel just fine because he doesn’t like hanging out by the pool anyway.) Everything about them is the same, always, regardless of what state he’s in, what coast he’s closest to. They’re all cut from a mold, and this one is just the same as the rest of them except for one irritating detail.

The Sioux Falls Super 8 is currently without WiFi.

Officially, it has WiFi in all the rooms, as well as the lobby and the pool area, just in case you want to hang out near a body of water with various electronic devices. For some reason, at this exact juncture, the entire system is down, and while the guy at the front desk is perfectly capable of turning the modem off and then on again, that seems to be the extent of his technical abilities. So Castiel is forced to either wait for a repair technician from the ISP to arrive, effectively shackling him to the room and therefore the city for an unforeseen amount of time, or go find somewhere else with an open wifi signal so he can send off his article.

Technically, he hasn’t even started writing it yet. The whole thing is going to be a scathing tear-down of Cassandra, or whatever her actual name is. But he needs to pull up some details from the web, and he hates going back to change things after he’s already written them, so no WiFi, no story. And he saves everything to cloud storage because there have been a couple of times in past where his car’s been broken into and his laptop has gotten stolen, or where the thing has just flat out died. He’s not losing another word of work to that, thank you very much. So no. He won’t work locally, and he’s not waiting for the cable guy to show up and fix the motel’s WiFi.

The clerk at the front desk, very apologetic about the inconvenience, suggests he might find a connection at this pub nearby. It’s a small place, moderately popular with locals but “nothing special,” he’s told, but the kid knows for a fact that they’ve got WiFi. As long as whatever’s wrong is a problem with the hotel’s network and not a more widespread problem, should be just fine to write his article there. So Castiel trundles back up to his room, throws his laptop and notes into a well-worn leather messenger bag, and heads out to the pub.

He finds it easily, palming the wheel to bring the Continental to a stop in one of several empty parking stalls. It probably would have been easy enough to walk here if he’d known where he was going. That would be useful information if he planned on being in Sioux Falls past sun-up tomorrow. Hefting the bag over his shoulder and dropping keys into the pocket of his trench coat, Castiel makes his way towards the rather mundane looking door of this local watering hole, harboring a silent hope that the advice he received about finding WiFi here was well founded.

There’s a little decal on one corner of the dirty glass set into the door that proclaims they do, in fact, have wireless internet, and another that reminds patrons not to drink and drive. Castiel pushes the door open without further hesitation and comes to a stop in the entryway of a cozy pub with dark wood fixtures everywhere. There are two- and four-seat tables arranged all throughout the open floorplan, and booths set against the walls. For all the dark wood it’s fairly well lit, at least for a pub, and there’s a homey kind of charm that Castiel can’t help but like. It’s warming and comfortable and welcoming even though he’s never been here before and has yet to meet any of the people in its employ, but there it is all the same. A sign just to his left invites Castiel to seat himself so he does, taking possession of a booth near the front window where he can see the entirety of the room without craning his neck. There are very few patrons here right now, but it’s still early afternoon. It’ll fill up later and present an excellent opportunity for people-watching, and if Castiel is to stay in town for the evening, he might as well amuse himself.

“I’ll bring you out a menu in a sec,” a voice calls from some unseen locale, probably behind the bar or even in the kitchen. Castiel waves a hand dismissively in case the voice’s owner is looking for some sign of acknowledgement, then pulls out his laptop and spreads out his notes. There isn’t much, just point form info about what Cassandra predicted for him and a scribbled address. He boots up his computer and sure enough, there’s a free wireless hotspot in the pub and Castiel connects to it without further trifling. He starts working through search engines to see if he can find anything interesting about this so-called psychic to add to the article and he barely notices the shadow that falls across his screen.

“Sorry about the wait,” says a broad-shouldered man with kind eyes and arms like tree trunks. “Bartender is on break. We’re not usually too busy this time of day. Brought you a menu.” His voice is smooth and tinged with an accent that clearly marks him as Cajun, and he smiles broadly when Castiel looks up. The apron around his middle is remarkably clean for someone who works in a kitchen, always a good sign, and he hands over a single sheet of cardstock, legal size, printed both sides with food and drink options.

“It’s not a problem,” Castiel assures him, smiling back, somewhat less broadly.

“I gotta head back to the kitchen, but he’ll be out to take your order in a few,” the man tells him, presumably of the aforementioned bartender. Castiel nods wordlessly, turning his attention to the menu as the cook heads back into the kitchen, whistling as he goes.

There’s nothing particularly exciting about the menu, just standard pub fare, but Castiel finds his eyes sliding sideways across the page and he’s not really processing any of the information he’s reading. He’s unreasonably distracted and he can't quite say why, but it feels like eons that he stares at the page, not even really thinking about what he wants or if he even wants food. He supposes it’s necessary to order something, since he’s using their WiFi, and the place does look like it could use the business. And he does plan to be here for several hours. It’s only fair.

“Do you need a minute with the menu?” a new voice asks, and Castiel nearly jumps out of his skin. He didn’t even hear anyone approaching. Struggling to regain his composure, Castiel peels his eyes off the menu to glance up at the new arrival and finds himself peering into green eyes that are so hauntingly familiar it takes him a moment to realize he’s not imagining it.

The face has changed so much, in so many small ways and several larger ones. The jaw is covered in a stubble Castiel has never seen there before, tinged with red and appealingly scruffy. It’s definitely more than a few days growth but not a full beard, and it suits the face that has grown into it. The jawline has filled out somewhat. The general shape is still there but it’s harder, more solid. There are tiny lines at the corners of the eyes now, those eyes that are etched into Castiel’s soul. They look to be the kind that were put there by years of smiling and that brings Castiel so much peace he can’t even quantify it, but at the same time it’s a reminder of how many years he’s missed out on. These eyes have seen nearly two decades pass them by that Castiel has no idea of.

There’s a face that Castiel has been seeing in his dreams for years, one he can describe from memory, one he would recognize anywhere. This both is, and is not, that face, and it’s such a sight for sore eyes that Castiel can scarce believe it. Though he hoped, he’d never quite gotten around to believing he’d ever see his Dean again, and now here he is, face to face with the man he’s loved for years.

And Dean is looking at Castiel like he has no idea how momentous this is, and worse, like he has no idea who Castiel is.

“You alright, buddy? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Castiel could laugh, though it would be bitter. He’s seen several ghosts, sad spectres bound to this earth by unfinished business, and he’s sure he looked just as shocked when he first laid eyes on those beings, but that’s hardly what’s happening here.

“I’m sorry,” Castiel offers carefully, not trusting his voice. “It’s just…I swear I know you.” It’s beyond swearing. Castiel knows for a fact. There is no fathomable way that this is anyone other than Dean Winchester, grown into a man, but given the initial reception he received, it seems prudent to play it soft for the moment. They’ll get to talking and Dean will realize who has fallen back into his life, and then everything will be well again.

“Hmm,” Dean murmurs thoughtfully. “I dunno. I feel like I’d remember eyes like that.” Is Dean flirting with him? Dean has no idea who Castiel is and he’s still drawn to him. Unbelievable. “I’m Dean. And you are…?” Dean wipes a hand on his apron and holds it out in anticipation of a handshake.

“Castiel,” he replies, reaching out his own hand. Their palms touch and there are no sparks, no magic moment where it all comes crashing back down to reality. It’s just two hands, skin on skin, plain and mundane.

“I knew a Castiel once,” Dean offers, and here it is. This is where he pieces it together. It must be. It has to be. “Back in high school. We had a couple classes together. Castiel’s a pretty uncommon name. Maybe that’s where you recognize me from. Lawrence, Kansas?”

A couple of classes together? That’s what he remembers? Castiel can barely believe what he’s hearing. “I…yes. I went to school in Lawrence.”

“That must be it, then.” Dean nods, satisfied with the conclusion he’s drawn. “Well, it’s good to see you again. Welcome to The Black Dog, home of better than average pub food, and my current place of employment.” Dean spreads his arms in an expansive gesture that takes in the entire room, and Castiel notices then that he’s not just one of the only patrons, he is the only patron.

“It’s a nice place,” Castiel replies, trying to keep the sadness out of his voice. This is not the reunion he dreamed of. It’s not the reunion he thought he’d be getting when he left Marv’s cabin. This is nothing at all. It’s worse than not having found Dean. At least before he could ease his mind with dreams of what joy he’d find when Dean came back into his life. Now his hopes are dashed on the rocks, and all that’s left for Castiel is the realization that his life has amounted to exactly nothing, and he’s spent his entire adult life wishing for something that can never be.

“It’s old,” Dean concedes. “Needs updating. Benny’s a killer cook though, and the beer’s always cold. It’s nothing special right now but on weekends it’s much busier. Can I get you a beer? Something to eat?”

“Just a beer for now,” Castiel tells him. “Thanks, Dean.”

“No problem,” Dean replies, grinning broadly. He strolls off back to the bar, casual and at ease in a place so familiar to him and it tugs at Castiel’s heart. Dean seems so…happy. He’s built a life here in Sioux Falls, one that seems to suit him quite well. Castiel is envious, both because Dean has a life that Castiel is no part of, and because he has a home. Castiel has never stayed anywhere long enough to put down roots, not since he finished college and stepped out of his aunt’s house. He hasn’t even been back there for Christmas in more years than he can count. It was stupid to think he could just waltz back into Dean’s life. Castiel has nothing to offer except complaints. It’s probably for the best that Dean has forgotten all about him.

Dean returns with his beer, placing it on a cardboard coaster with a soft smile. “You didn’t actually say what kind of beer you wanted, so I took a chance and picked for you. It’s a local craft brew. If you hate it I can pour you something else.”

“I’m sure it’ll be great,” Castiel assures him.

“Well, if it isn’t…” Dean trails off, squinting like he’s trying to remember something. He shakes his head, dispelling the fog around his thoughts. “Anyway, I don’t know how long you’re in town, but you should definitely come back on a Saturday if you can. There’s a much livelier crowd on weekends.”

“You said that.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Dean laughs. “Guess I’m just thrown off. It’s been what, almost twenty years? It’s like seeing a ghost.”

“Yeah,” Castiel agrees. “I’m actually leaving Sioux Falls in the morning, but it’s possible I’ll be back at some point. If I can arrange it, I’ll try to come by on a Saturday.” It hurts to speak so cautiously with someone he once shared everything with. It’s a knife in his gut to be looking at Dean after all these years and not be able to reach out and touch him, to brush fingertips across his cheek and press kisses to his mouth.

“I’d like that,” Dean tells him. “Just flag me down if you need anything else. I’ll be nearby. You look like you got something to work on though so…stay as long as you like. Pretty sure we can spare the table.” He walks off without a backwards glance.

Castiel sips his beer tentatively, but he need not have worried. It’s a delicious amber ale, smooth and rich and without any bitterness. He wonders if Dean picked it because he likes this one himself, or if he picked at random. It’s certainly not because he knows what kind of beer Castiel likes. Apparently, he doesn’t remember Castiel at all, and even if he did, the last time they spoke was before Castiel was old enough to drink, so back then if he consumed any beer at all it was whatever Dean could sneak out of the house when his dad was too drunk to notice. They shared cans of cheap pilfered pilsner under the tree in Castiel’s yard sometimes, or the dregs of a bottle of rum cloaked in too much cola, and if they got drunk at all it was on the heady intoxication of kisses in the dark, not the meagre bits of booze they managed to find. Castiel had no preference back then. It’s all been cultivated since they parted ways.

How could Dean forget him? It’s not like he’s unaware Castiel exists. He recognizes the name, knows that they had classes together in high school. It’s true, there were only a couple of them. An English class one year, Math and Gym another. But their entire relationship spanned so much more than just lectures and homework assignments and running laps. There’s  history, not the kind you read in a book but the kind you live, and its shaped the course of Castiel’s life so how could it not touch on Dean’s? It’s too much to bear. It’s too much to believe. Castiel could understand if Dean had pushed the memories aside out of pain, if he pretended he didn’t know Castiel because it was too much for him to process after all these years or if he’d rather it stay in the past. But if that was the case, there’s no reason Castiel can imagine why he’d acknowledge having known a Castiel, having met him in school and had classes together, but pretend like their entire relationship never happened. If he was pretending, why not pretend they’d never met? Why not deny the entire thing, pretend he’d never met anyone named Castiel in his life and tell Castiel he was confusing him with someone else?

It doesn’t matter, Castiel supposes. It is what it is. Everything he’s hoped for has been a complete sham. He might as well write this stupid story for Gabriel and resign himself to the fate of an empty, meaningless life on the road. He starts to look over his notes, stopping to take an occasional sip of the truly delicious beer Dean has brought him, and chokes on a bitter laugh as he reads over a bit of what Cassandra told him.

You’re in love and you don’t think your feelings are returned, could be returned, but they are. Despite everything you think you see, they are.

If he ever, even for one fleeting second, thought that Cassandra was anything other than a complete scam artist, here’s his proof otherwise. The only person he’s in love with, the only person he’s ever been in love with, apparently doesn’t even remember their time together. She says his feelings are returned. Castiel can’t even begin to imagine how that’s possible. Dean doesn’t even know him. After everything they shared. Castiel was Dean’s first kiss, and Dean was Castiel’s. They were each other’s first love. The first time Castiel touched a dick that wasn’t his own, it was Dean’s, and they were both shy and flustered by inexperience. You don’t completely erase a person that you go through all those things with. You just don’t.

Before Castiel knows it, his beer is empty. The screen that’s supposed to hold his article on Cassandra is, too. He flags Dean down and requests another of the same and a burger, knowing that he’s going to be here much longer than planned.

“It was good then?” Dean asks.

“It was perfect. Definitely the right choice.”

“I’m glad,” Dean replies, smiling earnestly. “It’s one of my favourites. I hoped you’d like it.” For a moment, there’s a familiar gleam in his eye, like Castiel’s happiness actually matters to him. Castiel wishes it meant anything, but Dean hasn’t even acknowledged their history. It means nothing.

Five beers, a burger, and several hours later, Castiel’s mood is dark. He hasn’t gotten anywhere on his article and it’s almost entirely because he’s distracted in a way he can’t diffuse. It doesn’t make any sense. None of it makes any sense. Castiel’s Dean would never forget him. He would never erase their entire history, never forget Castiel. He’d never even pretend to forget Castiel. This is undeniably, unmistakeably Dean, and yet he remembers nothing of their time together. It’s shaken Castiel to his core, and he can’t wrap his brain around it. He came here to write a brief story about Cassandra the psychic and he can’t bring himself to write word one. Every time Castiel tries to start, he comes back to that one line from her prediction and his stomach ties in knots. Yes, he’s in love. She got that part right. But how can his feelings be returned when the only person he’s only loved doesn’t even remember loving him?

The sky grows darker and darker, and Castiel’s mood along with it, and before he knows it, Dean is approaching the table to tell him its last call. The place has filled up a little, although it’s still quiet, and there’s a soft din of voices filling the air. A clatter of dishes and a clink of glasses adds treble to the bass of conversation, and the entire thing serves to warm the space and make it feel comforting. At least, it would if it weren’t for Castiel’s thorough frustration.

“Did you finish what you were working on?” Dean asks, friendly and casual. Castiel wants to be snappish and surly because that’s honestly now he feels right now, but it’s Dean, and he just can’t.

“Not as much as I’d like to have gotten done,” he admits, dancing around the truth. “Just can’t make the words flow.”

“Well I’m sure it’ll turn out great,” Dean assures him. “You said you’re taking off in the morning?”

“Yeah, although it looks like I’ll be leaving my car here overnight and coming back for it. I spent considerably longer drinking beer and mulling over this article than I planned on.”

“Where you headed?” Dean asks, clearing away Castiel’s empty pint glass.

“Story, Wyoming,” Castiel informs him, his voice steelier than intended. “I need to go have a chat with an acquaintance.

~*~

It’s still the hazy, grey light of morning when Castiel makes his way down side streets on foot to collect his Continental from the parking lot outside The Black Dog. A bolder man might have driven back to the motel regardless of how many beers he’d consumed, but Castiel has spent enough time on the roads throughout his life to know what perils a little alcohol can bring behind the wheel. He walked back after last call, promising Dean he’d stop in if he was ever in Sioux Falls again. Castiel knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. As soon as he visits Marv and sorts this whole thing out, he’ll be back.

It only took a night of drinking to bring him to the truth. There’s no way his Dean would ever deny their history, and even less chance he’d actually forget it. It’s just not possible. And this is most certainly his Dean. It’s the same man, just aged. All of that taken at face value, Castiel is left with only one conclusion that makes any sense. Dean remembers him just fine, or at least he did until someone intervened. If Marv is powerful enough to work a spell that brings Dean back into Castiel’s life after all these years, it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to conclude that Marv could also be powerful enough to affect Dean’s memory. Maybe it’s the hook Castiel waited for and never found. Maybe it’s a cruel trick with no meaning other than to amuse a capricious witch. Maybe it’s punishment for some slight Castiel doesn’t remember levying. Either way, the result is the same and Castiel is sure of it. Marv did this. He stole Dean’s memories, and if it’s the last thing Castiel does, he’ll make Marv give them back.

Chapter Text

Castiel didn’t really spare much attention for it the first time around, but it occurs to him as he makes a return visit to Marv’s cabin that the forest almost seemed to be welcoming him. Never once did he feel lost or even uncertain about his path even before the faint wisps of smoke climbing towards the sky gave him the first sign that his destination was near. Fallen trees and newly-sprouted shrubs alike seemed to be aligned perfectly so as to send his every footstep in the right direction, and even though he wore shoes more suited for the city than unspoiled wilderness, he never once stumbled or lost his footing. Even the animals he encountered seemed pleased to see him, or at least unthreatened by his presence. He never sensed even the faintest notion of malice from any of them, no ill intent or displeasure at his intrusion into their habitat. The whole time he trekked towards the witch he sought, everything about the environment seemed to tell him that he was an invited guest, and the woods were happy to receive him. At the time, Castiel thought nothing of it, likely because he was so focused on his destination that the journey became unimportant.

He’s acutely aware of it now. It’s hard not to be, when the second trip is such a stark contrast to the first.

It’s not that the forest is trying to keep him out this time so much as it’s not helping. On more than one occasion Castiel loses his sense of direction and has to skim his eyes up into the visible bits of sky to make sure the sun is still on his left as it makes its climb towards its zenith. In all likelihood, his phone has a compass app that would serve if he lost track of direction more completely, but with any luck, it won’t come to that.

He still sees wildlife as he goes, but they are flighty and apparently frightened of him, and it’s always a glimpse as they dart through the underbrush, or one frozen in fear before making a desperate break for the safety of a thicket somewhere. Castiel trips a few times, barely catching himself before he pitches forward to land face-first in a thatch of moss. In the distance, a wolf howls, and Castiel makes a note that he should under no circumstances be out in the woods come nightfall.

No, the woods aren’t trying to stop him from getting back to Marv’s cabin, but it doesn’t mean they’re lending a hand, either.

Finally, a faint trail of smoke tells him he’s getting close, and before long the familiar sight of Marv’s cabin peeks out from between trees. Castiel expects the little man to be perched on the doorstep once again, since he was so keenly aware of Castiel’s approach last time, but as he reaches the door he finds no one there to make greeting. Castiel glances around apprehensively, waiting perhaps for Marv to step out of the shadows or from behind some tree, but he doesn’t make himself seen. Castiel is inclined to wait. He’s already made the trek out here, and he’s not leaving without answers. He looks around for a stone or a tree trunk to set himself down on and pass the time, but as he does so, movement catches his eye and he turns to face it, startled.

The door to Marv’s cabin, previously shut tight and presumably locked, stands wide open as if beckoning him inside.

Castiel should wait outside. He really should. It’s rude to enter someone’s home uninvited and besides, if Marv is capable of half the things Castiel imagines him to be, he’s capable of making things far, far worse for Castiel if he feels slighted by the intrusion. But there is nothing to sit down on outside and his feet are sore and tired, and as he’s pondering the dilemma, that distant wolf howls again. Castiel can’t say for sure, but he could easily believe it to be closer than the last time he heard it, and that’s enough.

Moving with quickness and determination, Castiel steps through the door and shuts it behind him.

Marv’s cabin is just as cozy and snug as he remembers it being. Now that the person he seeks is nowhere to be seen, however, Castiel finds himself with much more time and attention to pay towards drinking the whole place in. There are books everywhere, this much he noticed before, but it strikes him now exactly how many of them there are to be found. There have to be thousands of them, an impressive feat for a cabin this small. Even the little flight of stairs, rough-hewn things that look to be carved from tree branches, are strewn with little piles, and if he lets his eyes trace the path of those stairs up to the little loft that must serve as Marv’s bedroom, he can see more stacked against the wall there. As far as the eye can see, books and books and more books.

Castiel assumed them to be just books before. The normal sort. The kind you can pick up in a shop, or, if you’re inclined towards modern conveniences like that, have delivered to your door. The man likes stories. There wasn’t much to think about. Now that he’s a little more acquainted with Marv though, it occurs to him that at least some of them must not be. He was told to bring a notebook of his choosing, and Marv made him hand the thing over before telling his story. Others that came before him to ask some boon must have done the same. How many of these books hold stories of those Marv has had dealings with over the years? How many years do they span? How many wishes has Marv granted? Have they all gone as sideways as Castiel’s, or is he the only one singled out to have his utmost desires dangled before him, only to be set just barely out of reach?

Castiel picks up a book off the nearest stack, flipping idly through the pages. It appears to be written in pen, faded with age and smudged in places, but the script is too precise, too even to have been written by any human hand. Castiel skims the words but doesn’t really process, taking in little bits of the tale contained within its covers. None of it sticks.

The next book that finds its way into Castiel’s hands has the look of a typewriter about it, all neat block-set letters pressed into the pages. The paper itself is yellow and brittle, not to the point where it feels like it will crumble but definitely dried out. The book doesn’t give any clear indication of its age, but Castiel catches the term Victrola on one of the pages, so that dates it a bit. He sets it down and picks up another, which he immediately abandons because the thing feels so desiccated it might fall apart if he looks at it wrong.

There are no two books alike, Castiel notices. This one has tidy leather binding, thick and black, with embossing on the cover and a strip of red ribbon hanging from the spine. That one is just copier paper stapled together, a sheet of cardstock on the front to serve as a cover. There are books that probably started out as children’s journals. Castiel recognizes the work of the immortal Lisa Frank on one cover, (and don’t ask him how he knows it to recognize it), and at least one Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. There are books that look nearly brand new, bearing phrases like Keep Calm and Carry On emblazoned on the covers, and books that predate the one with typeset letters on its pages, and books that span all the years in-between. Every single one is unique and different, but they’re the same in that every single one is full from cover to cover with what he assumes are the stories of those who brought them to Marv’s little cabin.

“Are you looking for your book, Castiel?”

He jumps at the sound of his own name, quickly depositing the book in his hand on top of the nearest stack. He’s got just enough presence of mind to spare a second of concern for whether Marv might have some specific organizational method to his stacks and whether messing it up might net him some new troubles, but a soft look on Marv’s face stalls any apology he might have planned to make.

“I know exactly where it is. Don’t worry. I know where all of them are. But this is a bit out of the ordinary. I rarely see people again after they share their stories with me.” Marv gestures towards the table and chairs, picking his steps carefully as he moves to claim the same chair he sat in last time. Castiel opts to remain standing, although at least he allows himself to relax his posture a little. “Suit yourself,” Marv tells him.

Castiel doesn’t say anything as Marv settles in, adjusting his posture until the chair conforms to his shape a little. A pleased little sigh escapes his lips as his eyes slip closed, and Marv appears truly at peace.

“So,” Marv says finally. “What brings you back to visit me. You didn’t find your missing boyfriend?”

“I did,” Castiel assures him. “Just as you said. I went where I was needed and I found what I was looking for.”

“But…?” Marv presses.

“He doesn’t remember me,” Castiel breaths sadly. “I found him, and it’s definitely my Dean, but he has no memory of me. Of us.

“Is that so? Well hmm,” Marv murmurs. “Let me see.” He gets up from his chair, shifting uncomfortably like his old bones resent the imposition, and makes a beeline for a shelf along the wall. It takes only a moment’s search to find what he’s looking for, and he makes his way back to the chair with a book in hand, one that is unmistakeably Castiel’s notebook. Marv gestures to the other chair again, but he’s flipping through pages with his nose buried in the book almost immediately, so he clearly doesn’t care one way or another if Castiel takes him up on the invitation.

Castiel decides to sit. There’s no need to be defensive right now, not really, and he did originally come into the cabin under the guise of wanting to rest his weary feet so why not? He sits, but stiffly, and watches while Marv searches through the book for whatever he’s looking for.

“Ah,” Marv says after a few minutes. “Here it is.”

“Here is what?” Castiel asks. Marv holds up a single finger, forestalling.

So what you want, then, Castiel” Marv recites, tracing a finger along the page as he reads off verbatim the end of their conversation the first time Castiel visited. “Is for Dean to come back into your life. You want him to love you like he did then, because you never stopped.”

“I don’t even know,” Castiel said with an exasperated sigh,” Marv continues. “I thought that’s what I wanted. I’ve told myself for years that’s what I wanted. But would he? It’s been so many years. He might not even want to see me again. Maybe he’s gotten completely over it. Maybe he’s moved on. And I’m not the same person he knew back then. I want to see him again, sure, and I want him back in my life, but I guess more than anything I wish I knew if he could still fall in love with the man I am today.”

“Ah. I see what’s happened here.”

“What?” Castiel demands gruffly.

“You got exactly what you asked for. You wished you knew if Dean could still fall in love with the man you are today.”

“This isn’t what I wanted,” Castiel argues. “This is almost as bad as not having him back in the first place!”

“I don’t make the rules,” Marv tells him. “I’m just a conduit. You tell me the story, I empower you to write the ending you want.”

“He doesn’t even know who I am, though,” Castiel cries. “How could I possibly have the ending I want if he doesn’t remember me? He’s got this vague recollection of meeting a guy with the same name as me in high school. He doesn’t remember any of the things I told you.”

“And if he remembered those things, how could you possibly find out if he can fall in love with the man you are today?” Marv has this smug kind of satisfied look on his face, like he’s so proud of what he’s wrought.

“I want you to undo it. I want you to give Dean his memory back.”

Marv shakes his head sadly. “It doesn’t work like that. You told me your story, you made a wish. That’s a pact. I can’t undo it. You’ll just have to forge on forward.”

“So it’s just…gone?” Castiel shouts. “Everything we had is just erased? What kind of a wish is that?”

“Well look,” Marv tells him, not without sympathy. “The magic is a funny thing. Like I say, I don’t make the rules. I’m just a practitioner. There’s a certain aspect of…intuition to the thing. But from my experience, whatever you sacrifice for the story tends to get evened out if you can work towards the end you seek. It’s not all lost.”

Work towards the end you seek,” Castiel repeats sarcastically. It’s barely a question.

“If you can make Dean fall in love with the man you are today, like you wanted, I have reason to believe he’ll get back what you lost.”

“Reason to believe? That’s not much to go on,” Castiel snorts.

“It’s all I can offer you right now.”

“And you can’t undo it? What if I just destroy that book? That’s got the whole story I told you, right? Throw it in the fire.” Castiel reaches across the space between them, not necessarily trying to snatch the book away but at least hoping Marv will hand it over.

“Yeah, that’s not going to work. You think no one has thought of that before? You think I collected this many stories without someone trying to break the deal? They can’t be destroyed. I could toss this in the fireplace right now and nothing would happen. The flames wouldn’t even touch it. I’m sorry, but if you want your man to get his story back, you’re going to have to play this one through.” Marv sets the book on his lap and folds his hands over top of it, effectively cutting off Castiel’s attempts to get at it.

“Oh well that’s easy. I’ll just make him fall in love with me.”

“I didn’t say it would be easy,” Marv counters. “And, not to tell you how to live your life, but if I were you I would avoid mentioning any of this to Dean.”

Castiel scoffs. “Oh, is that part of the rules too? Does the magic forbid it?”

“No,” Marv tells him, shaking his head. “But do you have any idea how crazy you’d sound? Hi I’m Castiel. You don’t remember me but we were in love once like twenty years ago and I’ve been searching for you for my entire adult life. Wait, where are you going? Don’t run!”

Castiel can see his point.

“In any case, I’m truly sorry. I didn’t want this for you. The wording of wishes is a tricky thing, you know.” Marv walks back over to a bookshelf along the wall and slides Castiel’s tome into an open spot on one of the shelves.  “You’re welcome to stay for tea if you like, but I suspect you want to get out of the woods before the sun sets. The wolves were howling on your way in, yes?”

“I…yes,” Castiel replies, a little mystified. “How did you…?”

“The forest is never quite as welcoming to return visitors as it is to newcomers. There is a significant decrease in the um…reverence people have for the area when they come back, and the forest has learned to be wary of that.”

“I see. But you have nothing to do with that, do you?” Castiel retorts. He’s understandably bitter at the moment, and Marv may claim not to have had any active part in that but he’s still the only target Castiel’s got. If wishes were horses, this would be the equivalent of being pitched through the air to land in a mud puddle while the thing rears in shock, startled by some small yappy dog. Or perhaps getting kicked in the chest. Yes. That’s it. If wishes were horses, Castiel would just have been booted square in the chest by a wish-stallion. It certainly explains how hard it is to draw a deep breath right now, and it definitely explains the desire to lie down on the floor and give up.

“Believe what you want to believe,” Marv tells him. “I can change nothing either way. I can send you off with a ward against the wolves though. As a gesture of good faith.” Before Castiel has a chance to reply, Marv is moving a stack of books off the table and fussing with ingredients, pouring herbs into a dish and muttering incomprehensibly. A few moments later, he’s pressing a small leather pouch into Castiel’s hand and wrapping his own fingers around Castiel’s making him grip the thing tightly before letting go. Castiel examines the pouch closely, but can’t discern anything useful about it.

“The wolves won’t smell you on the wind as long as you’ve got this on you. Put it in your pocket and don’t drop it. I can’t make the forest as kind to you as it was last time, but this will make sure they don’t know to look for you.”

“Thank you,” Castiel says, not entirely without sincerity. He’s still not entirely certain if Marv is genuine or if it’s some wicked trick, but regardless of any of that, the warding pouch is welcome.

“Goodbye, Castiel,” Marv says with finality.

“And don’t come back, right?”

“Come back if you want,” Marv replies flippantly. “It’s of no importance to me. But I can do nothing for you now, so it’s a waste of time. I expect you’ll decide you have more important things to do for the next little while.” He opens the door for Castiel, holding it open with one hand while he waves Castiel through with the other. Castiel goes, glancing over his shoulder once or twice as the cabin fades from view. Marv stands out there on the doorstep the entire time Castiel can see him, and perhaps longer.

The whole time Castiel treads a careful path back to his car he can hear wolves howling in the distance, but whether through magic or coincidence, they never seem to get any closer. Castiel grips the pouch in his pocket tightly and keeps moving. He won’t feel safe until this forest is a speck in the rear view mirror.

Chapter Text

Castiel flees Wyoming like he’s running from something other than wolves in the distance. It rains the entire time, starting with a slow trickle as he first lets the forest that houses Marv’s cabin disappear in his rear view mirror and turning into nearly a downpour by the time he reaches the South Dakota state line. He drives as fast as he dares on the slick roads, always with one eye open for highway patrol. It’s only sheer dumb luck that lets him get back to Sioux Falls without a speeding ticket or worse because there’s no way he’d have been able to spot a cop and slow down before they tagged him with their radar gun. He makes excellent time, but it’s only in retrospect that he realizes how unnecessary the speed was, because he arrives in Sioux Falls in the dead of night, well after the Black Dog would have closed for the night. Dean isn’t there to be found, all the lights long since snuffed out as he and Benny and whatever other staff they have on the payroll made their way home. Even if Castiel did find him there by some happy coincidence, it wouldn’t have mattered. He’s been so focused on just arriving back in town to put himself in some kind of proximity with Dean that he hasn’t the first clue how he’s even going to approach this maddening undertaking.

As much as he wants to tell himself otherwise, Marv was right. Castiel cannot just tell Dean what happened. There’s no way to spin that story that isn’t going to make Dean think he’s completely unhinged. Nothing about it sounds conceivable. Even knowing it to be true, Castiel still has a hard time wrapping his brain around the absurd situation. He went in to the woods and had tea with a witch who took away Dean’s memories so he could fall in love with Castiel all over again? That’s just plain stupid. No, Castiel can’t tell Dean a single word of it. Can’t even breathe a whisper of this insane story. That’s the surest way to have Dean running in the other direction as fast as his legs can carry him. Might as well have never found him again, if that’s the way it goes.

It doesn’t seem like there’s much to do at all except go back to the Black Dog when it opens, try to strike up a conversation, and see if he can win his way into Dean’s heart the old fashioned way; by getting to know him, by building a bond, and by hoping that Dean returns the feeling.

Sighing, Castiel pulls his Continental into the parking lot of the same motel he stayed at last time he was in Sioux Falls, not that long ago, but he finds the lights in the lobby dimmed and a sign on the front door pronouncing that the clerk would be back in an hour. After his whirlwind flight from Wyoming, Castiel isn’t entirely certain he’ll be able to remain conscious sitting in his car for an hour at this point. With that, he makes a three-point turn and heads back out on to the street, keeping his eyes peeled for another vacancy sign.

Just around the corner from the Super 8 that Castiel originally tried to return to, he finds another motel. It’s not surprising to find them clustered together so closely seeing as he’s hovering around the downtown core at the moment. The Delux Motel has its vacancy sign lit in bright, garish neon, and advertises color TV and in-room coffee like that’s some new, modern convenience, so Castiel is nearly certain they won’t have Wi-Fi. He’s about to park his car and rent a room anyway, even if it’s just for the night so he can get off the road, when a couple who are clearly only acquainted by the exchange of cash for sexual favors comes out of one of the rooms. None of the signage mentions that the place rents rooms by the hour and he’s got nothing against the women (or men) who hold that particular profession, but a motel that attracts that kind of clientele usually also plays host to crime that he does have a problem with, so he keeps driving.

The next couple of motels he passes have illuminated the “no” on their vacancy signs so he passes them by. He drives past the Black Dog again completely by accident, feeling a slight pang in his heart knowing that he missed Dean by only a few hours. If he’d just been on the road a little earlier leaving Wyoming, he could have caught last call and seen Dean’s smile again tonight, and it would have soothed the sting just a little. Tomorrow will have to do though, because it’s no more open to the public than it was when he drove by half an hour ago, and that’s certainly not going to change any time tonight. Castiel turns the corner without letting himself run too far down that line of thought, picking his turns by random as he searches for a place to sleep for the night.

Though he’s fairly certain the turns he picked should be leading him in the opposite direction, he somehow finds himself back in front of the Super-8, which confuses Castiel immensely. Only, once he gets closer he finds that, while this is indeed a member of the same chain of hotels, it’s not the same one he stayed at the last time, and it’s certainly open for business. Castiel parks his car without hesitation, trundling into the lobby as the exhaustion starts to set in. He’s tired enough to sleep on one of the overly firm couches in the lobby right now. Any room they have to offer will be just fine.

“Single, please,” Castiel tells the clerk, a middle aged woman who doesn’t look much more awake than Castiel feels. She smiles politely but doesn’t try to make any small talk, for which Castiel is grateful. “Your Wi-Fi is working, isn’t it?” Castiel still owes Gabriel that article, having entirely failed to write any part of it while haunted by Dean’s presence the last time he was in town, and he’ll have to put it together in the morning before he heads out to the Black Dog again.

The clerk eyes him suspiciously. “Yes…” she informs him. “It wasn’t earlier in the week but—“

“I was at the other Super-8 in town a few days ago and the network was down,” Castiel interjects, seeing the question forming on her lips. “Thought it might have affected you guys too.”

“Ah,” she replies, satisfied. “Our whole corporate network was down for nearly a day. Booking computers, in room internet, everything. Apparently a crow flew into a transformer and knocked out power to one of the communication hubs in the state. It was such a mess. It’s definitely fixed now though.” She hands over Castiel’s keycard with a tired smile.

It’s not until Castiel is safely ensconced in his room that the minute detail grabs hold of his weary brain and forces itself to be noticed. A crow. A bird flying into a transformer knocked out the internet and prevented him from writing the article he meant to. A bird interfered with his efforts to communicate. It’s too close to what Cassandra said for his liking and a his stomach sinks, a nasty, uneasy feeling that starts in his gut and spreads throughout his body until the tips of his fingers tingle and his head spins. It could be a coincidence. It could mean absolutely nothing at all. Or it could be that it means exactly what he fears. It could mean Cassandra knows what she’s talking about. It could mean that everything she said is rooted in reality and that ruminants are Castiel’s good omen and that his love is reciprocated and all of that. It could also mean that the things she told Gabriel’s friend were true.

It’s probably nothing. Castiel should know better than to let his mind fly away on flights of fancy like this. He’s made cynicism a carefully honed art over the years in this job, and he’s certainly too practical to throw it all away over one silly coincidence like this. Still, he’s also too careful to take chances on assumptions, so he picks up his phone and texts Gabriel, uncertain if his editor will be awake at this hour but unwilling to let himself crawl into bed without covering his bases

>>Hey Gabriel, the psychic thing might go deeper than I thought. No article for you until I figure it out better. Let your friend know I’m looking into it. Not sure how long I’ll be in Sioux Falls. I’ll call you.

The phone rings almost immediately. Apparently Gabriel’s sleep habits aren’t any better than Castiel’s.

“What do you mean deeper than you thought?” Gabriel demands when Castiel answers.

“I mean she might not be full of shit. I don’t know. I gotta figure it out.”

“What did she say to you?” Gabriel presses. There’s an edge of concern to his voice that Castiel thinks is somewhat unfounded. “Is it the cow thing? Did you make friends with a dairy cow?” Not concern then. Sarcasm.

“It doesn’t matter. It still might be nothing. I’m just doing you the courtesy of keeping you in the loop. I’m going to stay in town until I can figure it out.” Castiel yawns into his fist, the hours on the road finally catching up to him. “I’ll call you when I know anything more concrete.”

Gabriel stalls him. “Cas, wait. This isn’t like you. You gotta tell me what’s going on. Did something she said to you come true?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. It could be a coincidence. It could all be a coincidence. It’s just a tiny little detail that might line up or it might mean nothing at all. But if it’s real then I need to be in Sioux Falls until I see it through. I can’t really explain until I know more. Please, just, don’t.”

“I don’t like it,” Gabriel tells him tiredly. “You’re giving me a whole lot of nothing. But okay. Take some time. Look into it. See what you can find. Keep me in the loop?”

“I called you now, didn’t I?”

“No, you texted me. I called.”

Castiel sighs. “Semantics. I got in touch.”

“Whatever. Just…don’t go rogue on me here Cas. Get some sleep, okay buddy?”

“Sure thing Gabriel.” Castiel hangs up the phone and has to force himself to go through the motions of getting ready for bed. He does everything half-heartedly, trying as usual not to look too closely at the scars on his body as he strips down and pulls on clean shorts before shutting off all the lights and cocooning himself in the covers.

As usual, sleep is an elusive prize, and it’s never as sweet when he catches it as he imagines it will be.

~*~

Castiel sets up his laptop when he wakes in the morning, slipping out of the room just briefly to pilfer a few choice selections from the Continental breakfast served in the lobby before going to work on his article. Honestly it’s surprising he’s awake before they stopped serving breakfast considering how late he arrived last night. Castiel is not and has never been a morning person. He’s an early afternoon person at best, or a night owl. But something about this morning, knowing that he’ll get to see Dean today, he finds himself awake and functional on only about five hours of solid rest, so breakfast it is. It’s the usual fare, muffins and cereal and fruit and yogurt, but it is food, and the coffee is plentiful. In general, they tend to prefer if you eat the breakfast where the breakfast is served, but nobody stops him when he gathers his choices and retreats back to his room. Once there, he sips on coffee and picks at muffins while he tries to decide what angle he wants to take on the piece about Cassandra. Is she the lying scam artist he originally thought her to be, or is she a legitimate psychic whose words should be heeded? Should Castiel rake her across the coals or leave the article somewhat less judgemental? Is there anything to be gained by eviscerating her in print, whether she’s the real thing or not?

In the end, Castiel can’t decide, so he sets out to write both. He’ll decry her as a fraud, use every word at his disposal to argue against her sham operation and renounce the manner in which she preys on those gullible enough to believe the stories she tells. And then he’ll write a more moderate article, one that lets the reader draw their own conclusion, one that speaks in a cryptic tone and suggests that she may or may not be legitimate. Those kinds of articles always sell well anyway. People like a mystery. He’ll send neither to Gabriel until he can land on an answer himself, but at least the exercise will eat up some of the time until he can drop in on Dean again.

That’s the thought that sustains him while he works through the dual articles. Neither turns out to be particularly good, but they’re written, and by the time it’s late enough in the day that Castiel can justify heading to a pub, he’s got two moderately acceptable pieces to file away in his completed articles folder. He packs up his laptop, unsure what he intends to actually do with it but certain that if he’s going to take up a table for hours he should at least be doing something other than staring after Dean and trying to think of things to say that don’t seem crazy.

Castiel goes on foot. The air is cool but not cold, crisp and fresh, and the afternoon sky is bright and clear. The few trees that line the streets are in the process of shedding their leaves, shades of copper orange and vibrant red clinging to the branches and dotting the ground in preparation for the winter. Castiel wonders how cold it gets here. His trench coat won’t be warm enough to protect him regardless of what the answer is, but for the first time in a long time he’s got a reason to hope he’ll be in one place long enough to care about that. He’s got reason to hope that Dean will keep him, that Sioux Falls will be somewhere he can stay longer than the time it takes to write a story and pack his bags.

Part of Castiel knows that he’s stretching things a little to plan that far ahead with the way things stand right now, but at this time last week he had not seen Dean in nearly two decades and had no legitimate leads on finding him again, and now he knows right where Dean is. It’s a vast improvement, and if, if Cassandra is to be believed, he’s got some solid reasons to be hopeful. And when he opens the door to the Black Dog and Dean’s smiling face greets him, that smile growing broader when he recognizes Castiel walking through the door, those hopes grow by orders of magnitude.

“Hey, you came back!” Dean calls happily. “That didn’t take long.”

Castiel ducks his head, smiling somewhat bashfully. “I missed the craft beer,” he lies.

“Well in that case, grab a table and I’ll pour you one.” Dean wipes his hands on the bar rag he’s holding and makes his way towards the taps. Castiel picks a table against the wall, one that allows him to watch the bar area over the top of his laptop and affords him glimpses of Dean bustling behind the counter, selecting a glass and filling it with amber ale. He feels just a pang of guilt to be sitting here with the intent of watching Dean work, but it’s been so long since he’s laid eyes on the man and he can’t bring himself to do anything less. Dean brings his beer over as Castiel is pulling his laptop out and booting it up.

“You never told me what you were writing last time. Did you get it finished?” Dean asks, setting the beer down on a coaster. He gifts Castiel with a smile that could easily be believed to mean more than Castiel knows it does, and it’s heartening to see but painful to think on, because it means nothing other than casual kindness. Still, it’s so broad and warm and perfectly Dean, and Castiel could fall in love with that smile if he didn’t already love the man wearing it.

“I did, eventually. Missed my deadline, but sometimes writing is like that. It wasn’t a very interesting article anyway,” Castiel tells him honestly. His piece about Cassandra, whichever one eventually gets published, will not be the greatest of his works. It won’t even come close. It’ll fill space, and that’s the best thing that can be said about it.

“You write for a newspaper?” Dean asks. There’s only one or two other patrons in the place at this point, and none of them appear to be looking for refills or food at the moment, so his attention is his to spend as he pleases, apparently. Castiel is most pleased that he chooses to spend it chatting with a man he doesn’t remember loving.

“A magazine,” Castiel corrects. “With an online parallel. Although I wasn’t actually sure up until recently that we even published the print version,” he says, laughing at himself. “I apparently need to pay more attention.”

“What kind of magazine?” Dean sits down opposite Castiel, making himself comfortable in the booth seat. Castiel tries to keep the elation off his face. He’s not sure how well he succeeds.

Castiel chooses his words carefully. “We tell questionably true stories of the paranormal.”

“Like ghosts and stuff?” Dean asks with a skeptical twist to his lips.

“And stuff,” Castiel agrees. “Ghosts and witchcraft and psychics and werewolves and vampires and whatever else we get leads on.”

“That shit isn’t real.”

“Some of it is. A lot of the stories people tell are overblown exaggerations, but they have their roots in true events. My job is to find the urban legends and local lore, trace it back to the real things that inspired them, and write about those. Ghosts are real. Witches are, too.” Castiel laughs ruefully. “I’m less certain about psychics at this point.”

“And the other stuff?” Dean asks. Castiel can’t tell if he believes a word he’s hearing.

“They’re out there. Some of the things you’ve heard about them are even maybe kind of true. Not all of them though.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?” Dean seems genuinely interested at this point and it heartens Castiel.

“Well vampires don’t disappear in mirrors,” he informs Dean. “And they sure as fuck don’t sparkle.”

“That’s…yeah of course they don’t. Why the fuck would a vampire sparkle?”

“Never mind,” Castiel tells him with a laugh. “Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff out there people talk about but have no idea how close to reality it is, and they also have no idea how wrong they are about a lot of it.”

“What about space aliens?” Dean demands.

“Your guess is as good as mine. Not really my area of expertise. You got questions about ghost stories though, I’m your guy. Think you got a customer over there,” Castiel points out, nodding his head towards a trio of newcomers hovering near the entrance. Dean rolls his eyes and excuses himself from the table with a promise that he’ll be back. Castiel feels just a little bit bad about stealing Dean away from his work, but he can’t bring himself to sustain the guilt. Dean’s attention is exactly what he wants, and if it’s freely given, he’s going to welcome it.

While Dean does the very thing he’s supposed to be doing, Castiel opens up his browser and does a google search for ghost stories in the area. There are a few references to tales that warrant looking into, and some blog posts that Castiel bookmarks to read later. They, at least, look interesting, if not rooted in truth well enough to lead to a story worth writing. It’s not like he has to find a story to write right now but if he’s going to stay in Sioux Falls for an as of yet undetermined length of time there should be at least a somewhat defensible professional reason for being here. Gabriel has granted him an unprecedented length of leash throughout his career, but there are limits.

He gets only a few paragraphs into the first blog post before Dean returns.

“Sorry about that,” Dean apologises. “You were talking about aliens?”

“I really wasn’t,” Castiel laughs. “You were. I was telling you that I know nothing at all about aliens.”

“Right. Yes. But you were talking about ghosts.”

“Yes. I have written a lot of stories about ghosts,” Castiel agrees.

“Have you ever seen one? Like, for real?” Dean’s already occupying the same seat across from Castiel, hunkered down in the booth like he plans to stay. There isn’t actually a server to be seen, so that’s unlikely, but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable to have his company.

“A couple,” Castiel replies cryptically. There’s no need to brag. He’s seen more than a couple. He’s encountered several ghosts over the years, seen them with his own two eyes.

“You gotta tell me about that some time,” Dean insists.

“You could read the stories,” Castiel offers. “I’ll give you a link to the website. I’m sure all the back catalogs are on there.”

Dean makes a face. “You should tell me the stories sometime,” he repeats. There’s a different note to his smile, something familiar and secret, just for Castiel, and for a moment it feels like there’s no one else in the room.

“Dean!” comes a call from behind the bar. Castiel looks up at the same time Dean does to see Benny coming out from the kitchen, his thick arms flexing as he carries plates of food out to set them on the bar. “You just gonna sit there all day? Got work to do, brother!”

“Sorry,” Dean says with a grimace. “Guess I should get back to work.”

“Probably,” Castiel concedes.

“You’ll have to tell me about those ghosts some other time, I guess. Flag me down if you need another drink or anything,” he offers. Castiel accepts the offer with a smile. Dean may not remember him, but he’s interested in Castiel’s company, and that’s not terrible. Still, watching Dean walk away, Castiel is filled with an overwhelming sense of sadness. There’s so much of Dean’s life that Castiel missed out on, so much that he doesn’t know, and just as much that Dean doesn’t know about Castiel. More, actually, since he doesn’t remember their time together, but the entire expanse of time since high school is a mystery on both sides. It’ll take a very, very long time to fill in all the blanks. He may never know everything about those yeas of Dean’s life even if Marv ends up being right.  If he’s lucky though, if he’s really, really lucky he’ll get a chance to try.

Castiel returns to the article he started reading, sipping on the beer Dean brought him as he peruses the story. There are a few decently interesting stories about ghosts in the area that Castiel is interested in researching, so he opens up a blank Word document and starts noting the things he wants to look into, pausing every few minutes to glance up and surreptitiously check Dean out. For the most part, he’s not too busy, stepping out from behind the bar every once in a while to replace an empty beer or deliver some food. Once or twice when Castiel looks up, he catches Dean looking his way, but he always looks away quickly. He doesn’t come back over until he sees Castiel has drained his beer, though.

“Another of the same?” Dean asks when he suddenly appears at the side of Castiel’s table.

“Yes, please,” Castiel accepts the offer graciously. “What’s better, the club sandwich or the pot pie?”

“I always get the burger,” Dean tells him honestly. “Benny’s burgers are the best.”

“Can’t have a burger for dinner every day,” Castiel counters, “and it looks like I’m going to be here a fair bit over the next little while, so I thought I should mix it up a bit.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean asks, intrigued.

“Well, I could write in my motel room, but there’s no beer on tap there, and the company is…sparse. I like it better here.”

“Fair enough. I’d do the club. Benny gets the bread from a bakery around the corner so it’s always real fresh, and I’ve never seen bacon that thick.”

“Sold,” Castiel says with a smile. Dean takes a step back towards the kitchen but pauses without going any further. “Something wrong?”

“No,” Dean assures him. “It’s just…it’s so weird running in to you after all these years. Good weird, but like, very random. What are the odds you’d walk into my bar of all places?”

Castiel shakes his head, laughing to hide his embarrassment. Slim, that’s what the odds are, unless a stout little man in a cardigan sweater with a penchant for stories has any say it in the matter. “Never tell me the odds,” he says instead of giving voice to those thoughts.

“Did you just quote Star Wars at me?” Dean asks, incredulous.

“Of course I did,” Castiel says. He wants to remind Dean that they watched A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as many times as they could get away with when they were kids, that Dean should know that Castiel can quote nearly the entire trilogy from memory and that he’s fully aware Dean can too. He wants to remind Dean of their pretend lightsabre fights and the bathrobes they wore to dress as Jedi for Halloween. He wants to tell Dean he loves him so he can hear Dean reply I know, just like Han did to Leia. But he settles for of course, because anything else would sound insane.

“Awesome,” Dean replies. “I’ll get your beer.”

“Thanks Dean,” Castiel replies fondly, watching Dean disappear into the kitchen before turning back to his article.

~*~

Castiel works through a lot of information about the paranormal side of Sioux Falls while Dean works. He also works his way through several beers. Dean branches him out into other craft beer offerings after the first two. There’s a pale ale with a hint of citrus that Castiel is noncommittal on, and a Scotch Ale that he’s decidedly not a fan of. It tastes like someone poured the beer into a glass holding the remnants of a particularly peaty glass of whiskey, and the effect isn’t exactly appealing. The chocolate porter is excellent though, and though it’s a bit heavy to drink in any large quantity, Castiel thinks it might be his new favourite.

The crowd dwindles and soon there’s no one else for Dean to serve, but the cleaning tasks incumbent upon a bartender take up most of his time so he doesn’t end up kicking back in Castiel’s booth this time around. Castiel still catches him glancing over once in a while, but otherwise he’s wiping tables and cleaning glasses and stocking the bar. Eventually, he does make his way back to Castiel’s table, but it’s not to sit down.

“We’re closing up soon here, so it’s last call if you want another beer before we lock up.”

“Oh god, sorry. I’ve stayed all night. I’ll settle my bill and get out of your hair,” Castiel apologizes, embarrassed to have lingered so long.

“Don’t worry about it,” Dean insists. “We’re not closed yet, and it’s not like we needed the table or anything. You gonna be in town for a while?”

“I think I will,” Cas answers, honest if a little cryptic. There’s no need to tell Dean he’s not planning on leaving Sioux Falls any time in the foreseeable future.

“Well in that case, you better make sure you come back and say hi before you leave. I’m gonna be seriously offended if it’s another twenty years before I see you again.”

Castiel offers up a warm grin in reply. There’s no chance in hell Dean has anything to worry about in that regard. “Of course I’ll be back,” he informs Dean. “I’ve got to tell you all my ghost stories, don’t I?”

Chapter Text

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Gabriel shouts, his voice needlessly shrill through the phone. “It’s a fucking psychic. She either sees the future or she doesn’t. How long could it possibly take for you to sort this shit out?”

“I have no idea,” Castiel barks back. “As long as it takes!”  He’s been on edge since the phone rang, even before Gabriel laid into him for some kind of a timeline. It’s not fair to keep so many of the details from his editor, he knows this, but he also knows how completely insane the entire story would sound if he tried to spell it out

“That’s some fucking bullshit,” Gabriel counters. At least the heat has gone out of his voice.

“Yeah, well, I don’t know what else to tell you. There may or may not be something legitimate about Cassandra, and if you want something more solid than that to hand your terrified friend, then I’m gonna have to stay here until I can confirm some details.” Castiel goes to take a sip of his coffee, already gone cold, and sneers at the bitter taste it leaves in his mouth.

Gabriel sighs. “You know this is completely out of character for you, right?”

“And?”

“And I’ve never seen you fight to stick around after you’ve written a story before. Hell, I had to force you to take three days off not too long ago, remember? And now you’re setting up shop in Sioux Falls for as long as it takes, and you can’t even pin down an actual explanation for what’s got you so worked up?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Castiel assures him, intent on ending the call as soon as he possibly can. The Black Dog will have already opened their doors at this point in time, and while Castiel has been very careful not to start a pattern of showing up right at opening, he does want to get there fairly early in the afternoon.

He’s been in Sioux Falls for a week now this time around, and of those seven days, he’s spent four evenings at the Black Dog. Monday and Tuesday are Dean’s nights off apparently, and the bar is tended by a blonde girl named Jo who appears friendly enough at first glance, but who also carries a poorly concealed butterfly knife in the pocket of her jeans. Castiel may be a good eight or nine inches taller than Jo, but he wouldn’t pick a fight with her if he could avoid it. She’s there a few of the other nights too, serving tables when it’s busier. On the nights that Jo works, Castiel comes in for a few hours, does a little bit of research, and takes off back to his hotel room. And he pulls the same routine on one of the other nights when Dean is working, lest Benny or Dean or someone else get the (entirely correct) impression that he’s there just to fawn over Dean.

Tonight is a Wednesday, which means Dean will be working, and it will be quiet enough that he’ll probably have some time to chat. Castiel still has ghost stories to share, as he promised, and there’s the matter of catching up on the events of the past two decades, but along with all that, Castiel still has to find a way to worm his way into Dean’s heart.

“Try me,” Gabriel presses, his voice steely.

“It’s…personal.” Castiel desperately hopes that’s going to be enough to forestall Gabriel, but even as he speaks he knows it won’t work.

“You’re going to have to do better than that if you want me to keep signing checks, amigo.”

“Look, I get your concern, but I’m not going to sit down here and have a heart to heart about my emotional state as it pertains to this psychic and my reasons for staying in Sioux Falls.”

“Um, I’m pretty sure you are,” Gabriel counters. “and what’s more, you’re going to do it right now unless you want me to show up tomorrow and make you.”

“You’re not going to fly to Sioux Falls just to rein in a freelancer,” Castiel challenges.

“You’re not just some freelancer, Castiel. How long have we known each other? Fifteen years? I’m your boss, but I’d like to think we’re at least friendly, if not actually friends. I do actually give a shit, despite what my cavalier wit might lead you to believe. You’ve never pulled anything like this before, and color me worried.”

Now it’s Castiel’s turn to sigh. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m fine.”

“That’s exactly what someone who isn’t fine would say,” Gabriel jibes. “Look, everybody’s got their personal shit. I get that. You have no idea what I get up to on my vacations. But you’re not on vacation and I know that because you have literally never taken vacation without me forcing you, which means you’re on the job right now, and you’re my problem.”

“Problem?” Castiel parrots.

“Problem, concern, business, whatever. Just tell me, is this even actually about the psychic?”

“No,” Castiel tells him. “Yes? I don’t know. Maybe. But it’s big. And I can’t leave until I sort it out.”

“I don’t like the sounds of this,” Gabriel needles. “What are you wrapped up in, Cas?”

“Give me two weeks,” Castiel tells him, avoiding the question. “Two weeks, and if I don’t have the whole thing sorted out, I’ll explain everything.”

“You’ve got two weeks,” Gabriel tells him, the reluctance clear in his voice. “But you are officially on vacation right now. Lord knows you have enough time banked. And if you wanna keep expensing your room at the Super 8 I expect at least a couple local haunting stories to use as filler.”

“I can do that,” Castiel assures him. He’s already got the framework ready for a couple, and if he uses the mornings and the days Dean isn’t working at the Black Dog, there’s plenty of time to go interview locals and crank out a few short ones to send along.

“Fourteen days,” Gabriel reminds him. “And then you owe me a damn good story.”

~*~

Dean is wearing a red and blue plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a Zeppelin t-shirt, and the most perfectly distressed pair of jeans Castiel has ever seen, and when he walks over to Castiel’s table, he’s already got a beer in hand. Castiel hasn’t even taken his trench coat off yet, but Dean has a beer poured for him.

“Hi,” Castiel greets him, hiding a smile as he settles into what has unofficially become his booth. He tends to arrive before there are a whole lot of other patrons in the pub so he’s usually got his pick of tables, and this one affords the most comfortable view of the room, so it’s the one he always picks. He’ll never admit that it has anything to do with how much more easily he can sneak glances at Dean doing his thing behind the bar, but it’s at least part of his reason.

“Hey Cas,” Dean says with a grin. “Wasn’t sure you’d be in today.”

“Where the hell else am I gonna write?” Cas counters. They both ignore the fact that the appropriate answer is pretty much anywhere.

“Well anyway, glad you showed up. You still owe me some ghost stories, you know.”

“I remember.” Of course Cas remembers. It would sound sophomoric if he said it out loud, so he doesn’t, but he remembers every detail of his conversations with Dean since first finding the man behind the bar at the Black Dog. “Your bartending duties don’t exactly allow much time for weaving that kind of tale though,” he points out. “I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance.”

“True,” Dean agrees, turning to acknowledge another patron who has just entered the bar. “Benny’s gonna have my head on a platter if I keep sitting down to talk to you when I’m supposed to be working.”

Castiel’s heart sinks a little at this. Of course it was going to peter out eventually. He’s enjoyed stealing what little bits of Dean’s time he can manage, and he’s revelled in the attention, but on some level, he had to know this was coming eventually.  He opens his mouth to offer a platitude about how he understands and won’t take up any more of Dean’s time, but Dean beats him to the punch.

“I guess you’ll just have to tell me all about it some time when I’m not working.”

It’s not what Castiel expected to hear, not by a long shot, and it takes him a moment to reply. Dean’s grin falters as he waits for Cas to say something, and it’s the confusion there that finally spurs Castiel to act.

“I’d like that,” he assures Dean. There’s no need to extoll the extent to which he’d like that.

“Great.” Dean’s  grin comes back in full force. “I should go back and, you know, work, but we’ll talk later.”

DEAN!” Benny hollers from the kitchen, effectively ending their chat.

“See,” Dean says. “I told you. Head, platter.”

“True to your word,” Cas replies with a soft smile. Dean stalks off to do whatever a bartender does when they’re not pouring a drink, and Castiel isn’t exactly happy to see him go but he’s buoyed by the invitation nonetheless.

~*~

Castiel writes an entire article over the course of the afternoon, some fluff piece about a kid who claims to have seen their dead cat come back as a ghost. There’s next to nothing there, nothing that Cas can substantiate, but he promised Gabriel some filler, and it definitely fits that qualification. Honestly, it’s not often that Castiel gets to write anything heartwarming, so even though this one is about a dead family pet, the excited look on little Owen’s face when he recounted the story is enough to file it under the happy column.

“You got somewhere to be?” Dean inquires, nodding his head towards the paperwork Cas is stuffing back into his worn messenger bag.

“Not really?” Cas replies. “I finished the article I was working on so I’m on my own time. But I thought you guys might prefer if I freed up the booth occasionally, so I was going to head back to my room.”

“Dude, look around. We’ve got space. Go if you gotta, but nobody here’s gonna ask you to leave.”

Castiel sets his bag down.  “Well in that case…” he says, letting the unfinished sentence hang in the air.

“You’re sure you don’t have somewhere you gotta be?” Dean persists, managing to look both bold and sheepish at the same time. “’Cause I was thinking, I don’t get off until like midnight, but that seems like a pretty appropriate time to be telling ghost stories.”

“I think I can stick around,” Cas assures him coyly. If he’s going to be here for the rest of the evening, he should be able to put together another filler story to appease Gabriel. It will definitely not be time wasted.

~*~

Though Castiel would have waited outside and never complained (out loud), he’s grateful that Benny insists he continue to occupy his booth while Dean finishes his post-closing tasks. The bar was nearly empty of patrons by the time they locked the doors so it seems Dean has a pretty easy time of it, and before Castiel knows it, midnight has rolled around and Dean is leading him toward the exit.

“So what have you been doing since high school?” Dean asks when they’re outside.

Castiel hesitates to answer. How to tell his story without talking about his pining for Dean? It’s no easy feat. The years spent wondering and wishing and hoping and searching have had a profound effect on every aspect of his life. It would sound crazy for Castiel to admit it to the oblivious object of his affections, but it would sound only slightly less crazy to confess the details of it while speaking as if it were some other unknown flame he missed. For maybe the first time, Castiel stares right at the truth of it; he’s spent his entire adult life dwelling on the desire to rekindle a love that lasted maybe only a few years, and neither of the people who lived that relationship are around anymore. Castiel still lives, and so does Dean, but they’re neither of them the same men who kissed under cover of darkness all those years ago.

“Writing,” Cas says, ignoring all the truth that leaves out. “And travelling. I spend a lot of time on the road.”

“Goes along with the job, I guess,” Dean posits, pointing down a side road. He turns, and Cas follows, not thinking at all about where they’re headed.

“To an extent,” he admits. “There are others who work for my publication who spend a lot less time chasing down leads. But it keeps me busy, and I think part of the journalistic bit of it really does require the face to face contact with your witnesses. There’s some aspects to an interview you just can’t pin down over the phone.” His breath mists in the air as he speaks, a thin cloud of steam that hovers in front of his face for mere seconds before dissipating into the atmosphere.

“I suppose that’s true,” Dean says with a shrug. “How do you even…” he trails off.

Castiel laughs. He has to. “Just like a regular journalist does, but with ghosts. I find a story, I dig up the facts, I figure out who knows the answers I want, and I ask them. Sometimes they want to talk to me. Sometimes they do not.”

“And werewolves and vampires and monsters.”

“And those.”

“Sounds like a pretty solid gig,” Dean says, his voice warmer than the night’s chill air. “Don’t you ever miss your home though? I mean, you probably wish you could go back more often.”

Cas shakes his head. “What home? I haven’t stayed in one place long enough to bother with keeping an apartment in…fifteen years?” Dean stops in his tracks. It takes Castiel the space of a few paces to realize there’s no longer someone walking beside him, and he spins to face Dean.

“Seriously dude?”

“Well, yeah,” Cas explains. “The publication pays my travel expenses when I’m on an assignment, as well as the actual fee for work I submit. The more time I spend on the road, the more articles I end up submitting, the more money I make, but it also means there’s no point in paying to keep an apartment I only get to go back to maybe once a month or so. I did it for a while, but it just makes more sense to throw the money in savings and roll on to the next town.”

“So you’re homeless,” Dean deadpans.

“Officially…yes.”

“Dude that blows.”

“I don’t mind it,” Cas tells him. It’s a lie and he knows it. Dean probably knows it too. But he can’t bring himself to tell the whole of the real story. He would much rather have a home to go back to, somewhere that feels like his own, somewhere he can get a good night’s sleep and be at peace. But it never mattered how much he tried to make his old apartment feel like his own place. It never mattered how many personal touches he applied, how much he tried to make the apartment a perfect reflection of his own personality, it never felt like home. Something was always missing, something intangible. Deep down in his soul he knew it was because there was no one there when he came home, no one who missed him as much as he missed them. It’s never the things that make a home, and all Castiel could ever fill his place with were things.

“Well, still. Not minding it and liking it are two different things,” Dean insists, cutting right to the heart of Castiel’s lie without calling him on it. And it’s true. Castiel may be able to tell himself he doesn’t mind it, but he’ll never convince himself or anyone else that he likes it better this way. He’d settle down in a second if there was happiness to be found there, but it wouldn’t matter what city he signed a lease in. It would still just be a box to keep his things in. It’ll never be a home until there’s someone to share it with.

“You’re not wrong. But it just doesn’t make sense to keep a place. Everything I need fits in my car. Clothes, my computer, that’s really all that matters. That’s all I need.”

“I don’t know about that, man,” Dean counters. “I mean, I guess day to day, that’s all you need to get shit done, but after a long night at the bar, there is nothing better than coming home and climbing into my own bed. It grounds me, you know?”

Castiel tries to think of any time in his life he’s felt that kind of a connection to a place, and he comes up short. Growing up in his father’s house, his room was somewhat of a sanctuary, but there was never that level of connection, not like what Dean means. And he had a room of his own at aunt Amara’s house, but that was temporary, a place to live until he was allowed to leave on his own. Castiel doesn’t know that kind of peace, the attachment to home that Dean has.

“I’m afraid I don’t,” he admits. “Maybe I will someday.”

“You just gotta find somewhere that feels like home,” Dean assures him.

Or someone, Castiel thinks to himself. He doesn’t dare say it out loud.

Their meanderings, seemingly random turns, have taken them out of the downtown core and into a residential area. It can’t have been more than ten or fifteen minutes of walking, but they seem to be in a completely different part of town. The shops and restaurants and storefronts have given way to neat dwellings and fenced yards, some that look to have stood there for countless years, others new and identical to each other. Castiel hadn’t realized the extent of the urban development here, but looks like Sioux Falls has gone through quite the housing boom in the past ten years or so.

“My place is just about a block from here.” Dean offers the information with no further explanation. They’d never discussed a destination, but it seems that Dean’s invitation to socialize outside the bar also included an invitation to his home. It’s somewhat unexpected, though Castiel supposes it makes sense. It’s the middle of the night. If the Black Dog is closed, then surely every other watering hole in town is too, or will be soon. There might be the odd 24-hour diner the could seek refuge in, if they were so inclined, and Castiel’s hotel room was certainly an option, but being that Dean didn’t suggest either of those things it should have been obvious where they were headed. Not having a home to go back to, however, has clearly led Castiel to the point where he’s forgotten that’s an option for most people.

He says nothing.

“I hope that’s ok,” Dean interjects quickly, misinterpreting Castiel’s silence. “It’s not like, hey you wanna come in for a drink, wink wink nudge nudge or whatever, I just, everything else is closed and I just thought it would be more comfortable than hanging out on the streets. Not that, I mean, I’m not opposed to the idea of or whatever, but…and I’m not assuming that you swing that way or anything…I just—“

“Dean,” Castiel cuts him off, taking pity on the man. “It’s fine. I didn’t assume you meant anything untoward, and I wouldn’t have been offended if you did mean something like that. And you clearly don’t remember much about me from high school,” (Castiel chokes a little saying this, barely able to contain the pain it puts him through), “but I definitely do swing that way, so it’s certainly not an offense. You have nothing to explain.”

“Oh thank fuck,” Dean sighs, relaxing visibly. “You didn’t say anything and I…”

“I was just lost in thought,” Castiel explains, not entirely untruthful.

“I don’t understand why I get so flustered around you,” Dean gripes, and Castiel has to laugh. Flustered is not a word he’d generally apply to Dean, and a single instance of miscommunication doesn’t seem to warrant it.

“I hardly think that qualifies as flustered,” Castiel assures him. Dean turns abruptly up the path of a grey and green house, a single storey with a neat little brick chimney off to one side and a lot more yard than the houses around it.

“It’s a pretty serious case of foot-in-mouth, at the very least,” Dean counters, fishing a key out of his pocket and unlocking the front door. It opens smoothly on well-oiled hinges, allowing the pair to step in out of the cold.

“Oh goodness no, you said one mildly suggestive thing ever, you’re the most flustered person ever, what shall we do?” Castiel mocks, allowing the sarcasm to drip from his every word. “It’s such a scandal.”

“Are you fucking sassing me in my own house?” Dean shoots back, all false offense.

“Maybe,” Castiel says challengingly. “What if I am?”

“I suppose I’d have to offer you a beer,” Dean laughs, strolling off into the kitchen. He returns a moment later with two bottles and a bottle opener, opening one and handing it to Castiel.

“Thanks,” Cas offers, taking a swig to hide the smile on his face.

“I’m just gonna go change into something I haven’t been sweating in for the past 10 hours. I’ll be right back.” Dean ducks off into the back of the house, leaving Castiel alone in his comfortable living room.

Comfortable is definitely the word. It’s warm and cozy in contrast to the chill autumn air they’ve been strolling through, but it’s warm in a way that defies the physical, too. Everything in the room seems unmistakeably Dean, from the framed rock posters on the walls to the dark brown fabric of the sofa, soft and thick and overstuffed to the point where it looks like it might be the most comfortable piece of furniture in the world. There’s a pot-bellied stove in the far left corner, now dormant, with a pipe leading up to the ceiling. It’s dark and worn with age but sturdy, raised off the floor on a brick hearth. Castiel imagines it crackling and warming the room on cold winter evenings, Dean relaxed on the couch in the low light of a single lamp, cozy and safe and warm, and he understands why Dean feels such a connection to his home. To Castiel’s right, there’s a doorway that leads to a tidy kitchen, black and white checked tiles on the floor and a small table in one corner. Ahead of him is a small hallway with a bookshelf built into the wall, leading to the bathroom and Dean’s bedroom.

There’s a framed picture of Dean and a man in a graduation gown and cap on one of the bookshelves. Castiel assumes it’s Sam. He looks almost nothing like the young man Castiel remembers from their formative years, but there’s a glint in his eye that speaks of the mischief Castiel knew Sam to be capable of, and the long hair that curls around his ears isn’t enough of a change to hide the smile he’d recognize anywhere.

As Castiel stands in the hallway examining the picture, Dean steps out of his bedroom, still pulling a shirt over his head. There’s a moment where Cas is stunned to silence by the unexpected glimpse of Dean’s bare chest, but he manages to shake himself back to focus before Dean’s got his head free and is able to see the look on his face.

“Is that from your brother’s high school graduation?” Castiel asks, hoping he wasn’t noticed. He knows, though he can’t admit it, that Sam wouldn’t have finished school in Lawrence, so the fact that he doesn’t recognize the school in the background tells him nothing.

“Nah, college. Undergrad, at least. He was pre-law, went on to get his degree at Stanford.”

“Smart kid,” Castiel muses.

“Yeah, and boy, does he know it,” Dean says with a laugh. “Smug fuckin….” he trails off, shaking his head. “He’s doing environmental law now, saving the planet or whatever.”

“You must be proud.”

“I really am,” Dean assures him. “He’s actually supposed to come visit over the holidays. It’ll be nice to have him around for Christmas. We uh…we didn’t have the best traditions growing up, so we try to make a bigger deal of it now.”

Castiel knows all too well what Dean means. He saw with his own eyes how sparse and joyless the holidays were in Dean’s home when they were growing up. Maybe when the boys were very young and they still had their mother they’d had better, but nothing about the house seemed to change there in the month of December the entire time Castiel had known them. He can’t say that though, so he offers a sad smile in understanding, and hopes it’s enough.

“My mom died not too long before Christmas,” Dean explains, though he doesn’t know he requires no explanation. “I think that made it hard for my dad. Made it hard for us too, though, which is all the more reason he should have put in some damn effort.”

The urge to reach out and comfort Dean somehow is almost too strong to resist, but he fights it. That would be too familiar, too close for what Dean sees them as, and Castiel has no right. Before, when Dean would talk about his mother, Castiel was always there to wrap his arms around Dean’s shoulders and give him something to hang on to. He can’t offer that now.

“I’m sorry,” he says instead.

There’s a small, charged moment where their eyes meet, and Castiel thinks for just a second he sees a spark of recognition in Dean’s eyes, something that clicks on the gravity of what’s happening there and knows the history that led to it. The movement is fractional, almost imperceptible, but the gap between them narrows just a little, too small to even tell who started moving and who joined in after. And just as abruptly as it started, the moment is over, Dean shaking himself off and turning away.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this shit,” he says, as oblivious as if it never happened. “You’re supposed to be telling me ghost stories.” He steps past Castiel and walks over to the couch, setting his beer on the coffee table and sitting down on one end. Dean sinks into the cushions like they were made to conform to his shape.

“Yeah alright,” Castiel agrees, amused by Dean’s persistence on the subject of Castiel’s work stories. He supposes they’re more interesting than the average person’s work, but they seem almost normal to Castiel at this point in time. That probably says something about his definition of normal.

Castiel realizes he’s still wearing his trench coat and his suit jacket.  He manages, somehow, while juggling a beer, to shrug out of both jackets and hang them on a spare hook by the door. A smarter man would have set the bottle down before bothering with his layers but Castiel is apparently not that man. He makes his way to the couch, sitting down to find out that yes, it is just as comfortable as it looks. Castiel wants to sigh with relief as he sinks in, leaning back against the cushions.

“So the first time I saw a ghost for myself, I was in an old house in Rhode Island that was supposed to be haunted by a man who’d killed himself after his entire family died in an influenza outbreak a very long time ago. I wasn’t expecting to see anything, so I was not at all prepared when I caught the first glimpse of movement as I turned a corner.”

As Castiel speaks, Dean leans in close, hanging on his every word, and Castiel forgets to be tired.

~*~

It’s four am, there are eight empty beer bottles on the coffee table, and Dean’s face is so awake and animated it’s hard to believe how long they’ve been talking.

“Aren’t you ever worried one of these things is gonna, I don’t know, go all poltergeist on you?” Dean exclaims. “I mean, at least some of these things gotta be dangerous.”

“Well sure,” Castiel agrees with a shrug, more confident than he feels. “But you rarely see any of them anyway.”

“So you’re trying to tell me that you go into haunted houses and poke around trying to see if there’s actually ghosts, and you never once get scared? I call bullshit.”

“I never said I don’t get scared,” Castiel argues, but he’s laughing.  “It’s fucking terrifying most of the time. Are you kidding me? But it doesn’t make anywhere near as good a story if I tell my readers I was scared out of my wits. So I use that to set a scene that makes the reader feel the fear.”

“So you’re pretty good at this then?” Dean reaches for his beer, seeming both surprised and disappointed when it’s empty.

“I guess so. It doesn’t seem like particularly challenging journalism, but my stories keep getting published and if I get any angry letters, my editor never forwards them to me.” Castiel shrugs, feeling his shoulders fight against the movement. The late hour is starting to catch up to him. He doesn’t realize he’s yawning until Dean catches it and starts yawning too.

“Holy shit,” Dean mutters when the yawn stops splitting his jaw. “I didn’t realize what time it was. I didn’t meant to keep you up so late.”

“It’s fine,” Castiel assures him. “Though I should probably head back to my hotel and let you get some sleep.”

“Yeah you probably have shit you gotta be awake for tomorrow too, right?”

“There are a few leads I want to check out,” Castiel agrees. “I’ve enjoyed this evening,” he assures Dean. “Thank you for the beers.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Dean tells him. “You can bring the beer next time.” He follows Castiel to the door, holding it open while Castiel steps out into the night, his step lighter than it should be given the exhaustion that’s starting to settle into his bones as he leaves.

Next time.

Dean said there’d be a next time.

 

Chapter Text

Castiel keeps writing filler stories, and Gabriel keeps signing his cheques, so at least for the meantime, he figures he’s off the hook for a deeper explanation. On some level, Castiel knows that it’s only a matter of time before Gabriel starts asking more questions, but for now, he’s left to his own devices. That means writing when he finds a story that warrants it, researching when he doesn’t, and spending probably an unseemly number of hours occupying one specific booth under a window at the Black Dog.

He’s friendly with all the staff at this point, not just Dean. Even when Dean isn’t working, Benny will usually drop by his table for a bit of a chat at least once in a while, when he’s not up to his neck in burgers in the kitchen. Jo has stopped looking at him like she’s searching for a good spot to stick a knife too, which is a nice change of pace. She hasn’t really warmed much further than that, though. Castiel doesn’t really expect her to, but then, he never really expected her to warm to him at all so it’s a pleasant development. It makes the nights that Dean isn’t working just a little bit more comfortable. A respite from looking over your shoulder will do that.

Though Dean left the door open for more socializing, it’s been two and a half weeks since that night and they really haven’t spoken outside the bar. Two and a half weeks since he told Gabriel that in two weeks, he’d have an answer or an explanation. Gabriel hasn’t prompted him, and Castiel hasn’t offered, but he’s aware. Dean still drops by Cas’ table when he can (and sometimes when he really shouldn’t), brings Cas fresh beers without even needing to be prompted, and spends whatever breaks he can take lounging on the opposite site of the booth. It is the furthest thing from routine, but it is comfortable and easy, though Castiel still finds it surprising every single day.

Despite the complete lack of any memory of their time together, Dean seems to be drawn to Castiel. He can’t explain it. That heated moment between them when Cas thought for just the briefest of seconds that Dean was going to kiss him, it seems to have opened up, well, not a floodgate, but a trickle. Something small and slow and nearly invisible. He lingers at Cas’ table just a little longer than necessary when he’s bringing a drink or taking his order. He hovers until Benny hollers at him to get a move on. And when the bar is empty and he really feels like he can justify it, he parks himself and lets his eyes linger on Cas’ face like all he has to do is stare long enough and he’ll unlock the secrets of the universe. Castiel, God help him, can’t help staring back. He knows that, to Dean, it feels like this unknown thing, something unfolding for the first time, new and blossoming where before there was nothing, and he tries to live like that’s what he sees too.

It hurts as much as he could possibly have imagined. All that and more. It tears at him, this little white lie. There is something so dishonest about keeping all this history from Dean while dreaming of a new future. More than anything he wants to be honest about all of it, but it’s clear that he cannot. Dean has been perfectly accepting of Castiel’s knowledge of the supernatural, and he’s grateful for that because he faces enough suspicion and disbelief from the witnesses he interviews, but it would be another thing entirely to speak on the role it’s played in Dean’s own life.

So he sits in his little booth and writes his ghost stories, and clings to all the tiny moments he can steal in Dean’s presence, and he pretends that they’re enough.

~*~

“We missed you yesterday,” Dean tells him, wiping a ring of condensation off of Castiel’s table with the corner of a bar rag and setting a fresh beer down in its place.

“Is that so?” Castiel inquires, inwardly buoyed by the admission. “I had no idea my absence would be so profoundly noted.”

“Well you’re in the same booth pretty much every single day I’m here, and we don’t have a lot of regulars that are that…regular. Stands out.”

“I’m sure Benny was pleased with the amount of actual work you got done while I was otherwise engaged,” Cas teases.

Dean’s cheeks tinge pink and he averts his eyes, stammering out some half-formed excuse about engaging with customers that they both know he came up with on the spot and doesn’t for a second believe. Castiel stops just short of making further comment, though he truly wants to. Their banter, whether it be free and easy or full of barbs, or even the rare occasions where it borders on suggestive, that’s when he feels closest to what has been missing from his life since he fled Lawrence under cover of darkness.

“I still owe you those beers,” he reminds Dean instead.

“That’s true,” Dean replies thoughtfully, as if he’d just remembered this fact now. He looks too sly for that to be the case, however, and Castiel suspects he was waiting for a convenient place to mention it, or for Castiel himself to bring it up. “I don’t work tomorrow, we could hang out. If you’re not busy chasing Casper, that is.”

Castiel shuffles through the papers in front of him, making an exaggerated show of digging through them to find a specific page. He furrows his brow, letting a coy smile spread across his features. “Well I had planned on visiting a few purported haunted locations tomorrow, but it says here that Casper has been dead for sixty years now, so I suspect he’ll keep.”

“Awesome. It’s a…” Dean’s mouth slams shut, trapping the final word of the sentence. Date, Castiel thinks. He was going to say date. “It’s a plan,” he finishes, pretending for all the world like it never happened.

Not for the first time, Castiel is forced to wonder what is happening here. There’s something, that much is unavoidable. He knows his own mind, and it’s clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that he enjoys Dean’s company. He’d never questioned whether that would be the case. He and Dean were close friends long before they were lovers, and there was something between them before either of them had reason to think on romance or anything physical. It’s strange though, because the warmth that spreads through Castiel when he spends time with Dean is entirely different from what he remembers in his youth, and it’s hard to chalk it all up to his more mature (and, granted, much more cynical) perspective on life.

Castiel has not spent all his years alone. His longing for Dean hasn’t led him to a life of monkish celibacy. He’s had partners; plenty of them, in fact. There have been people he liked a great deal and hoped he could build something real with. There have been one night stands he doesn’t even recall learning the first names of. None of them amounted to anything. Castiel likes to tell himself it was not for lack of trying. He wanted something real. He wanted something lasting. It’s just that not a single one of them ever came close to filling the void that inhabits the depths of his soul and consumes whatever else he tries to pour into it.

He expected, during the times that he sat wistful and dreamed of finding Dean again, that it would be like a return to old times. He expected to feel the same kind of bright and exciting joy he felt as a teenager, the kind of love that he could drown in and not care about the world that was passing him by. He thought it would be just like old times, right down to the way Dean looked back at him with the same kind of wide-eyed fascination. Instead he finds himself staring down a man with Dean’s eyes and Dean’s heart, but everything he feels is so vastly different he barely knows how to match it with the old love. Does he love this new Dean, this older man who grew past the memories Castiel has been nurturing all these years? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. But it’s not at all that same love he thought he’d find. It’s a calmer thing, something tempered and stoic and unrelenting. It makes him look at Dean with new eyes and try to reason out his secrets, to trace the path of all the years he’s seen in the meantime and figure out exactly how he changed from the boy Cas knew into the man that tends bar today.

Dean, meanwhile, looks at him with…not love, of course, or Castiel would be singing Marv’s praises rather than cursing his very name, but interest. Curiosity. Castiel wonders at the source of it. Are there little vestiges of the old thing peeking out from under the blanket of whatever Marv’s spell wrought, or is this a true new thing, where he is learning about Castiel completely without the influence of memory and liking what he finds anyway? It’s entirely too bad he can’t ask. Really though, Dean himself would have no idea, and it would seem pure insanity to discuss it. It gives Castiel hope though. It steels him against fear and despair and desolation to think that, whatever the future holds, there’s something about Castiel that intrigues Dean enough to give him a chance.

“It’s a plan,” Castiel agrees, smiling softly as Dean traipses away to tend his bar.

~*~

Despite his loathing of the morning hours, Castiel finds himself awake without an alarm at a decent time of day, sunlight streaming through the gap in his motel’s curtains as if to announce the promise of a bright and cheerful day. It’s still bitter cold outside, but the sun melts the frost and coffee warms Castiel’s belly, and it’s not too bad.

Since he’s got so much free time before his plans with Dean, Castiel resolves to at least try to do some research beforehand. He packs his laptop and his notebooks back into his messenger bag and sets out towards the older part of town, where a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the area occupies a building that used to be a schoolhouse back when those sorts of things took up a single room. Almost every board in the entire building has been replaced since then, of course, but it still has the feel of age about it, and it lends to the nostalgia that makes these kinds of museums so engaging. Glass cases line either side of the long room, housing artefacts of days gone by, dotted with photographs and letters and other such memorabilia. None of it is ground-breaking history, of course, no major battles or key figures having hailed from the area, but it’s still a story, and Castiel finds himself paying far more attention to all the little details than he originally planned.

“We were lucky to come across that one,” says a voice behind Castiel, referring to an impeccably well-preserved pistol in the case Castiel is looking at. “It’s said it was made by Samuel Colt himself, though we can’t be entirely certain at this point. Still, it’s a gorgeous piece, and nearly as old as the hills themselves.” Castiel turns to face the curator, a stern looking woman with greying hair pulled into a neat chignon at the back of her head. When she smiles though, there is warmth there that her sternness can’t mask.

“It’s beautiful,” Castiel agrees. “You said you’re not sure if it was made by Colt or not. Why?”

“There are stories,” she begins carefully. Of course there are. There’s always stories. “People have spoken for a long time about Samuel Colt’s obsession with the occult, and at least one journal that can be concretely attributed to him speaks of a gun he built that he said could kill things that humans weren’t ever built to face. Things you and I both know aren’t even real. This gun matches the general description of the one in that journal, but any pages he might have included drawings on have been torn out or destroyed over the years. Unless we magically come across another primary source to confirm it with, I fear we’ll never know.”

Castiel hides his grimace, forcing it to morph into a grin. He needs information from this woman. The last thing he needs is to start a bizarre conversation with her about what creatures do and do not walk this earth. This gun though, if it is what she says, is definitely the kind of thing Castiel would be interested in getting his hands on. His job is not to destroy monsters, just to write about them, but he’d feel so much safer in the dark places he has to visit if he had a weapon to put him on more equal footing. It’s not monsters he’s here about though, neither werewolves or vampires nor anything else that goes bump in the night and needs killing. He’s here to ask about things that are already dead.

“Do you know much about the ghost stories people tell around here?” Castiel asks, trying to keep his tone conversational.

“Some,” the curator replies. “Depends on which stories you’re interested in. They’re just stories, of course, but I know a little bit about some and more about others.”

“I’m interested in the house that used to belong to the Frederickson family,” he tells her. “I’ve heard a lot of tales about what people think happened there and the legend of the haunting, but I’d love to hear what a historian can tell me about the actual history of the home.”

The curator laughs softly. “Oh that one. I’m not certain what you’ve heard, but I can hazard a guess that it’s all garbage.”

“Is that so?” Castiel asks, following her as she leads him towards a small desk at the back. She gestures to a chair and busies herself with an expansive bookcase, searching for a few moments before selecting a couple of volumes off the wall.

“Oh my, yes. There was definitely a Frederickson family and they definitely owned the house, but the local lore generally gets it all wrong. Tell me what you heard.” The woman – she still has not given Castiel her name, and it seems odd to ask this late in the conversation – sets the tomes down on the desk and takes a seat opposite Castiel, waiting for him to offer up what he knows.

“I’ve heard that there was a fire, and that the father of the family was the only survivor, and that people say he was driven mad by the spirits of the wife and children he couldn’t save. And I’ve heard that he set the fire himself, to free him from a family he never wanted. And I’ve heard that they all died in the fire, but people still saw Old Man Frederickson in the windows after the house was rebuilt years later, though no one inside ever reported encountering him.”

“As I suspected,” she replies with a wry twist of her lips. “The name is right, and there was definitely a fire. That’s about it.”

“Tell me,” Castiel implores.

“The Frederickson family was well known in these parts. They left with everyone else when the town was abandoned in 1863, but they were one of the first families back when it was resettled in 1865. It would have been a hard life, but Isaiah Frederickson brought a wife and two young children with him when he came back, and they built a home. His wife, she came from money, but none of it came with her. We can tell from some letters, both those written by Miranda Frederickson herself and some just written by others about the family, that her family cut her off completely when she married a man they considered inferior to her station. “ She opens one of the books and flips through the pages until she finds an old picture, all faded sepia-tone, and turns the tome to face Castiel. Miranda and Isaiah Frederickson stare back at him with lifeless eyes, a blonde haired baby girl on Miranda’s lap and a bright eyed boy standing beside her. They all bear the blandest of expressions, a necessity of the photographic equipment available at the time.

“As I said, life was hard. The town was very rural at the time, and not an easy place for anyone to live, least of all with few resources. They struggled, and there’s a suggestion that there was a third child that died in infancy, but we have no pictures of that one. In 1870, just five years after returning to town, that’s when the fire happened in the Frederickson house. The one that stands on that same spot now has been rebuilt at least twice since then, and the most recent one remodelled significantly in the past few decades. There’s nothing there but the dirt under the foundation that existed at the time the Fredericksons lived there. I think even the trees would have been planted since.”

“Did they die in the fire then?” Castiel asks.

“Oh heavens no,” the curator assures him. “Mrs. Frederickson and the children were never seen in Sioux Falls after that, so that’s probably where the story came from, but every one of them survived. We have letters,” she turns a few pages, showing Castiel her evidence, “from Miranda Frederickson in 1872, sent from her parents’ home in Boston. We’re not clear on the exact reasons, but it seems she took the children and left Isaiah shortly before the fire. Isaiah turned to the drink, or perhaps he was already in it and he indulged deeper, and the fire was the result of drunken carelessness with the pipe.  He rebuilt the house and lived there until he died in an accident on a farm in 1900. If ever there were a ghost story to be proven real, this wouldn’t be it.”

Disappointed, Castiel skims over the letter in Miranda Frederickson’s hand. It’s just casual correspondence between herself and a friend who remained in Sioux Falls after she left. She speaks of her children, of her life in Boston, and at no point does she mention her husband or her reasons for leaving. It definitely discredits everything he’s heard about a potential ghost story there. “Thank you,” Castiel tells the curator. He can still write something about this, he supposes. He can write a piece debunking the story. It’ll make filler, but nothing more. Stories like this only run when there’s nothing better to print, and there’s usually something better to print. “Out of curiosity, if there was a ghost story in town that you think does stand up to scrutiny, what would that one be?”

Castiel has rarely seen a face light up as brightly as her does at this request. He supposes that its rather infrequently she gets to indulge her love of history to this extent, being that he’s been here for better than half an hour an no one else has darkened the doorway.  Without speaking, she bounds up from the desk, turning her attention back to the bookshelf. After re-shelving the volumes she pulled down to debunk the Frederickson story, she comes back with one book, bound in black leather, and sets it heavily on the table.

“Now, this is going to sound a little bit crazy, so please bear with me, but I’m fairly certain I’ve seen this one with my own two eyes.” Castiel leans forward, ready to hang on to her every word.

~*~

Castiel sits with the curator for so long, he’s nearly late to meet Dean, but it’s absolutely worth it. Abigail, as her name turns out to be, has made a little bit of a pet project of researching the ghost story she thinks could be true, and she sends Castiel off with a thick folder full of copies of the source material for the tale. There’s letters and photographs, newspaper clippings so old they might turn to dust if you looked at them funny, maps and notes she’s scribbled, all photocopied and neatly bundled for Castiel to peruse at his leisure. Castiel promises she’ll be attributed in any article he writes, and he means it, because what she’s given him is far more intriguing than anything else he’s found since coming to Sioux Falls. It’ll go over better with Gabriel than the filler stories, too. That’s very promising.

Abigail spoke in hushed tones of a building downtown that served as a speakeasy during prohibition. The ground level has all been restored since, she says, but the basement still has secret passages, dummy walls, and hidden rooms. It used to be a boarding house, then the speakeasy, and it sat vacant for many years after that. There was a restaurant there in the ‘80’s, which is when Abigail thinks she saw the spirit herself, but she’s not sure what stands there now. Still, with the old maps and some work at city hall, Castiel should be able to find out what the building is currently being used for and see about paying the site a visit. The story goes that someone was killed in a very violent fashion in one of those hidden rooms, and though the body was disposed of, no one ever found the scene of the crime so the blood was never truly cleaned up, and it’s because of that the spirit still hangs on. It’s seeped into the floorboards, maybe, or perhaps there’s a tooth or something that got left behind. Point is, she’s absolutely certain she saw a bloody spectre in the mirror when she went to use the bathroom, and the memory has stayed with her all these years. It’s not a ghost story that he’s heard repeated anywhere else in town, and Abigail seemed skeptical of ghost stories until she spoke of her own encounter, so Castiel is fairly certain she wasn’t imagining things because of the history of the place. There’s no widely spoken tale to influence her imagination, no predisposition to the fantastical to make her see things she wants to be real. It could still be false, of course, but it’s the best lead Castiel’s had since Gabriel sent him chasing Marv, so he’s excited to start digging in to it.

That’ll have to wait for tomorrow. Today, he has an assortment of local beers in his trunk, and something that could very well be but probably isn’t a date with Dean. The ghosts will keep. They’ve kept for years. They will be there in the morning.

~*~

Dean’s place looks different in the afternoon light. The green trim is much brighter, and the curtains are drawn back to let in the sun so Castiel can see Dean through the front window as he approaches. Castiel tells himself that Dean was tidying, or just happened to be standing in the window where he had a clear view of Castiel’s arrival for some silly innocuous reason, but a tiny part of his brain suggests that he was waiting for Castiel, and that part won’t be silenced. Castiel lets the thought bring a smile to his face as he knocks on the door.

“Hey!” Dean greets him animatedly, taking the beers to allow Castiel the freedom to discard his coat and kick off his shoes.

“Sorry I’m late,” Castiel offers apologetically. “I went to visit the local history museum and ended up with a lot more information than I planned on. I kind of lost track of time.”

“It’s cool,” Dean tells him. “And you’re not really late anyway. We said around three, it’s around three. You found some good stuff on your ghost story?” He makes his way into the kitchen, which is actually quite large by comparison to the rest of the house, and puts most of them in the fridge. The remaining two he opens, handing one to Castiel and keeping the other for himself.

“Actually, Abigail, that’s the curator, debunked the entire story I was looking into, complete with primary sources that disprove every version of the story I ever heard. But she told me about another legend, one that I think might be a way better story, and she gave me copies of lots of things to sift through, so I’m looking in to that now.”

“Awesome,” Dean tells him. He smiles at Castiel, and Castiel smiles back, and for just a moment, Castiel thinks he remembers what it feels like to have somewhere to call home.

Chapter Text

Castiel is so engrossed in the paperwork Abigail gave him that he doesn’t notice the various comings and goings of other patrons inside the Black Dog. The door opens and closes countless times and he nurses his beer until the dregs are warm and unappealing, but the story laid out on the table before him is far too interesting for him to take much notice of it. The fact that he’s running on far too few hours of sleep doesn’t even seem to factor in to it at this point. He’s caught a lead, and he’s going to run with it.

Despite the fact that they met up at a completely reasonable hour of the day and didn’t really have any specific plans, Castiel’s evening with Dean turned into another all night affair. They ordered pizza, drank beer, and exchanged stories until the wee hours of the morning. It was so late, in fact, that Dean tried to insist that Castiel just sleep on his couch rather than make the trek back to his hotel. Not quite late enough for Castiel to convince himself that was a good idea, though. He doesn’t want to presume. He also doesn’t think that he’d be able to stop himself from kissing Dean if he saw him all sleepy and bleary in the morning, and he doesn’t want to press things. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to press things. He wants to press a lot of things. But Dean hasn’t given him any indication that he’s welcome to press or touch or kiss or anything else, so he’s got to be very careful lest he cross a line that didn’t exist back when Dean still knew him.

So he walked back to his motel, clutching his laptop bag tight, and he came back for his car in the morning, only a little disappointed that he didn’t get to visit with Dean when he did, and he drank so much coffee he’s practically vibrating. But this story, this haunting Abigail told him of, it’s well worth it, and the lack of sleep is something he’ll gladly endure if it means staying up all night talking with Dean.

There are so many fascinating accounts of the prohibition era in Abigail’s notes. There are stories of rumrunners and bootleggers and stealth distilleries hidden in basements and in sheds. There are sketches of the crowded speakeasies, detailed accounts of how they managed to avoid the prohibition agents, and definitely tales of murder and intrigue. There was money to be made in the black market liquor trade, of course, and anywhere there’s money to be made, there are motives for murder. Nothing makes for a vengeful spirit more easily than a violent death. He can see why Abigail thought there was a story to be told here. It’s fascinating.

Castiel has yet to examine any of the maps, so he’s no closer to knowing where this haunting supposedly occurs than he was leaving the museum yesterday, but he’ll get around vto that. Right now, he’s too intrigued by the little snippets of stories drawn out in Abigail’s neat hand. He’s so enrapt by them, in fact, that he doesn’t notice he’s not alone until the figure standing over him coughs to get his attention.

He’s expecting Dean. No one else comes by his table unless it’s Dean’s day off and Jo is on shift, but it’s neither of them. Instead, Castiel looks up to find Gabriel standing beside his table, arms folded across his chest and a smug grin on his face.

“Gabriel?” Castiel exclaims. “What are you doing here?!”

“Remember that conversation we had about you being my problem? It was a little over two weeks ago, you promised me answers, you never checked in….ringing any bells?” Gabriel claims a seat opposite Castiel at the booth, ignoring the look of indignation on Castiel’s face as he shifts some of the papers aside to rest his elbows on the table. “So I thought I’d come check in on you myself.”

“How did you even find me?” Castiel asks, flabbergasted.

Gabriel rolls his eyes. “Every single article you’ve filed since you got to Sioux Falls has come from the same IP address. I pulled your expense card records and ruled out your motel room ‘cause you didn’t answer, so this was the only other place you made charges on the days you filed.”

“Wow,” Castiel replies drily. “I didn’t think you remembered how to actually research things at this point.”

“Hey, fuck you,” Gabriel shoots back, no heat to his voice. “So what’s so special about this place? You’re here a lot, from what I can see on your statement.”

“What does it matter to you where I spend my time as long as I’m writing?” Castiel snaps, dodging the question. “I’ve only been claiming the motel since I got here. Everything else I paid out of pocket.”

“Chill out, Cas, I’m just curious. Doesn’t seem like much to the place.”

“Beer’s cold. Free Wi-Fi. Nobody complains if I take up a table all day multiple times a week. More comfortable than a motel room.” He doesn’t even bother trying to hide his contempt at being investigated like this, even though he knows it’s unfounded. He promised Gabriel he’d check in nearly five days ago, and he did not. It shouldn’t be surprising that he showed up like this. It still galls.

If the fates were kind, this would have occurred on one of Jo’s days. Or while Dean was on break. Or not at all. If the fates smiled on him, this would have occurred when Castiel had a chance to appease Gabriel and summarily dismiss him.

The fates are not his friends.

In fact, it seems like they kind of have a personal vendetta out for him, because Castiel doesn’t even have a chance to try to get rid of Gabriel before Dean comes over, wiping his hands on a bar towel.

“Hey Cas,” he greets warmly. “Who’s your friend?”

“Hello Dean,” Castiel rumbles. “This is my editor, Gabriel.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Gabriel tells him, smug as fuck.

“You need another beer?” Dean asks Cas.

“Please,” Cas replies, unable to hide the slow smile that finds its way onto his face whenever Dean looks his way.

“Anything for you?” Dean asks Gabriel. It’s clear from the inquisitive look on his face that he wants to ask further questions about the new arrival, but he doesn’t follow through with it. There will be questions later, Castiel is certain, and he’ll answer them to the best of his abilities, but now is not the time for any part of this conversation.

“I’ll have whatever beer he’s having,” Gabriel offers with a tight smile. Dean acknowledges him with a nod before taking off again, but he does spare Castiel a quick grin as he walks away.

“I think I’m starting to understand why you’re putting down roots here,” Gabriel murmurs conspiratorially. “How long have you been flirting with him?”

Castiel sighs heavily. “I’m not flirting,” he lies.

“Right,” Gabriel says, dripping with sarcasm. “Finding it just a little hard to believe considering the eye-fucking that just happened. If I’d known all it would take to get you on some vacation time was a hot little bartender I’d have played matchmaker a long time ago.”

“It’s not like that,” Castiel argues defensively. “He’s not just some bartender. That’s Dean.

Gabriel stares blankly at him for a moment, a cross between confusion and disdain. “Yes, and you introduced him to me already so that’s not exactly new information.”

“No,” Castiel presses. “It’s Dean. Dean Winchester. My high school boyfriend.”

“Wait,” Gabriel exclaims, finally catching up. “That Dean? The one you’ve been pining over for two fucking decades? Why the hell are you sitting here making heart eyes at him over draught beer and not shacked up in your motel room making up for lost time?”

“It’s complicated,” Castiel offers, knowing it won’t be enough to slake Gabriel’s curiosity.

“I’m sure it is. Start talking, Cas. You owe me a story.”

~*~

Disbelief might not be a strong enough word for Gabriel’s reaction. Castiel isn’t sure what word he’d use in its stead, but it would carry the feeling of abject distaste bordering on disgust, a thorough lack of trust, and, unless Castiel misses his guess, an aftertaste of pity. It sets Castiel’s teeth on edge, paints a grimace on his face, and otherwise ruins his previously acceptable day.

“You made a deal. With a witch. Because you missed your boyfriend. What kind of an idiot are you?” Gabriel grabs roughly for the pint of beer at his elbow, delivered by Dean in a brief break in Castiel’s tale. He manages to slosh only a little over the lip of the glass, drinking deeply enough that Castiel gets the impression that perhaps some of his distaste is a mask for fear. Castiel understands. The kind of power necessary to spin out a spell that could unmake someone’s memory like this is not a thing to be trifled with, and Gabriel is probably seeing the potential consequences with much more clarity than he is.

“I didn’t make a deal, Gabriel. I told him a goddamned story. That’s all. He didn’t ask for anything in return, we didn’t make a bargain. He just asked me to tell him a story, and I’d get my wish. And you know what? I got what I asked for. I told him I wished I knew if Dean could fall in love with the man I am today and I’m getting the chance to find out. So okay, fine, it’s not exactly what I wanted, but nobody got hurt.” Castiel schools his face to calm, painfully aware that Dean is within shouting distance and could easily pick up on the death stare he’s shooting at Gabriel. “I’m seeing this through. I have to.”

“Do you though? I mean really. This is some fractured fairy tale bullshit, Cas.”

“All the fairy tales are pretty fucking fractured,” Castiel points out. “Cinderella’s evil step sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the shoes and then birds peck their eyes out for being liars. The Little Mermaid dies and turns into sea foam because she never wins her prince back. Don’t get me started on how fucked up Sleeping Beauty is.”

“What’s your point?” Gabriel snaps, scowling at his beer.

“Nothing, really, except that the stories we hear are often altered considerably from how they were originally told,” Cas explains. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m sticking around, and if you’re going to be a dick about it, then I’d just as soon see you leave.”

Gabriel sighs. “You’re fucking serious about this, aren’t you?”

“As a heart attack,” Cas informs him steadfastly.

“Well fuck,” Gabriel says with a huff. “For the record, I think you’re an idiot.”

“Duly noted.”

“…But if you’re gonna gamble everything for love, I suppose you need a wingman.” A sly grin creeps across his face, one that Castiel has seen often enough to distrust wholeheartedly.

“That’s really not necessary,” he placates.

“Too bad,” Gabriel tells him. “I already paid for a hotel for the next couple days and I know where you’re staying and I know where you’re spending all your daylight hours pining over Mister Forgetful. Good luck shaking me.”

“Fuck,” Castiel mutters under his breath. He wants to say a few more choice words, but like a sixth sense, he’s compelled to shut his mouth at the exact moment Dean approaches the table.

“How goes the ghost research?” he asks Cas, looking nowhere near Gabriel.

“Spooky,” Gabriel offers drily. Dean ignores him.

“It would be much more productive if Gabriel could keep his attention to the matter at hand instead of changing the subject to things that are decidedly not research related,” Castiel explains. “But I think there’s something worth looking into, so I’m going to keep digging.”

“Awesome,” Dean says with a smile. “You need anything?”

“Get me a beer,” Gabriel pipes up. “And one of those cheeseburgers. Extra pickles.”

Castiel glowers at his editor, regretting for a moment that he didn’t tell Marv that his wish was to have the ability to strike a man dead with sheer force of will and a murderous glare. “Gabriel seems to have left his manners behind when he came to visit. You’ll have to excuse him. He was raised by wolves.”

Dean snorts a laugh. “I’ve been tending bar for ten years. I think it’s gonna take a little bit more than Gabe here to get under my skin. How ‘bout you, Cas?”

“A cheeseburger sounds fantastic. Please,” he adds pointedly, darting his eyes over to make sure Gabriel knows it was meant as much for his ears as it was for Dean’s.

“Comin’ right up. Hey, are we still on for Tuesday? I don’t mid rescheduling if you’re busy now that Gabriel is in town.”

“Gabriel will be leaving before then,” Castiel assures him. “We’re still on.”

“Awesome,” Dean replies, leaving them to their research.

“You’re a dick,” Gabriel informs Castiel.

“Me? You’re the one who needs to get his attitude in check. Do you always speak to servers that way or are you punishing Dean because you’re mad at me for speaking with Marv?”

“Who?” Gabriel demands.

“The witch,” Castiel hisses.

“Oh. Yeah. That guy. Whatever. Anyway, I wasn’t being rude. He asked if we wanted to order something. I ordered. That’s how the exchange works.”

“Whatever,” Castiel mutters. It’s not worth fighting with Gabriel. He never did learn how to admit when he was wrong. “If you’re going to insist on staying here and being a helicopter editor, you can at least try to avoid hindering my efforts. Be nice to Dean. And try not to spill your beer on my notes.”

~*~

Castiel, pointedly, speaks very little to Gabriel over the rest of the afternoon. He wipes the scowl from his face whenever Dean stops by, but otherwise, he’s focused entirely on research and pretending Gabriel isn’t even there. He works terribly with others. That’s been clear for some time. But this isn’t that. They’ve worked on projects together before and Castiel has never had prohibitive issues with Gabriel’s sarcastic comments and general tendency towards mouthing off. As much as Castiel prefers to work alone, he’s always found Gabriel to be at least tolerable. Maybe it’s because they’ve known each other for so many years that Castiel has developed an immunity to the more grating parts of his personality. Perhaps he’s just given up fighting it. Either way, his irritation right now has nothing to do with Gabriel’s attitude or his work habits or even his supervision and everything to do with the fact that Gabriel’s presence stands as a tangible challenge to Castiel’s autonomy and threatens to damage whatever inroads he’s made towards Dean’s heart. One errant word from Gabriel could throw things into chaos. A few additional poorly chosen statements could destroy the entire thing wholesale, shattering any chance Castiel might ever have of winning his way back into Dean’s heart and undoing what Marv’s spell has wrought. And even if he says nothing wrong, even if he never speaks a word of it to Dean or makes even one offhand comment that causes Dean to question the nature of the scenario, his hovering could just as easily throw off the dynamic that Dean and Cas are building. Castiel doesn’t want a third wheel, not while he’s working against some stupid witch’s spell to try and win back the heart of one who once loved him dearly.

He wishes this entire thing could exist in a vacuum. If it was just Castiel and Dean, it would be so much easier. But that’s not the reality of it. Dean has his job and his friends and his life, and Castiel has to at least keep up the appearance of research while he stays in Sioux Falls. Gabriel doesn’t need to levy even a single threat for Castiel to know that if he stops turning in stories, the leash he’s been granted will get exponentially shorter in blink, and there’s only so long he’ll be able to keep expensing things before even Gabriel’s permissive attitude runs out of leeway. And besides, it’s all well and good to develop a romance without any of the details of real life worming their way in and creating challenges, but Castiel knows enough about the dynamics of relationships that he can’t even trick himself into believing something established that way would stand a fighting chance back in the real world.

There was a girl, a few years back. Castiel met her while he was looking into a possible nest of vampires in Omaha. April was kind and sweet and remarkably pretty, and since he didn’t have anywhere immediate to be, Castiel stuck around for a few days. It was a whirlwind. They barely left her apartment except for takeout, and Castiel was so drunk on lust and the warmth of human connection that by the end of it, he had honestly convinced himself that he loved her. At April’s insistence, they tried to keep in touch when he got back on the road, but it became perfectly clear after only a few weeks that without the proximity and the touching and the vacuum of what essentially amounted to a vacation romance, there was nothing solid between them. They drifted apart after that. Castiel can’t even recall with any kind of clarity if they actually ever called it off or if, gradually, the replies and phone calls dwindled to such a slow trickle that neither of them actually noticed when they stopped. Either way, it ended, and Castiel hasn’t heard from her in more months than he’s bothered to count.

It’s the first time in years he’s thought of April, but it’s a painful reminder of why he can’t let himself fall too heavily into Dean’s life, not while Dean has no memory of their history. In that sense, he knows he should welcome the intrusion of Gabriel’s ‘help’, but it still galls him to have what essentially amounts to his editor’s supervision.

“Hey Cas,” Gabriel pipes up, speaking of intrusions. It breaks Castiel’s concentration and also reminds him that at present, he’s not actually concentrating at all, just daydreaming while staring at the same page of notes and not reading a single word. He still manages to convey more than a modicum of irritation as he sets the page down and casts his eyes across the table to where Gabriel sits excitedly, practically bouncing in his seat like a puppy that’s just overheard the word walk in a casual conversation.

“What?” Castiel snaps. It’s unfair and he knows it. He doesn’t care.

“Take a look at this map.” Gabriel presses the page into Castiel’s hands. It’s clear from his tone that he wants to just spill whatever it is he’s found, but Gabriel has always had a flair for the dramatic, and he’ll give you just enough to point you in the right direction so he can watch you figure out what he already knows, watch the realization dawn on your face and revel in the excitement of it.

Castiel takes the map from Gabriel, laying it out on top of the page he wasn’t really reading and staring intently at it. It doesn’t look like anything at all to begin with but now that he knows there’s something to be found, he rakes his eyes over the details and waits for something to jump out at him. It’s an older map, probably from about fifty years ago unless Castiel misses his guess, and there’s something familiar about the layout that he can’t quite put his finger on. It covers just a single city block, showing a few buildings that look to be apartment buildings, a couple of shops, and a restaurant that sits at the eastern corner of the block. It’s untitled and doesn’t bear the names of either of the cross streets, but as Castiel looks at it, the knowledge dawns on him like a punch to the gut.

“Is this…This is where the speakeasy once was?” he asks Gabriel, already fully certain he knows the answer.

“Yeah Cas,” Gabriel answers, still so excited.

“This is the Black Dog,” Castiel breathes out low, his voice so full of awe that his words are scarcely audible.

“Yep,” Gabriel confirms. “I’m sure of it. We’re sitting in a mother fucking haunted restaurant.”

Castiel barely hears him. He’s too busy wondering if Benny will let them into the basement.

Chapter Text

True to his (or perhaps Castiel’s) word, Gabriel is long gone by the time Tuesday rolls around. He’s not happy, obviously, and he doesn’t trust Marv or the wish or this entire situation, but he did at least admit that it’s obvious Castiel won’t be moved and the best way to clear this whole thing up is to “let it run its course,” as he calls it. Castiel’s not sure they agree on what that means, however. As far as Castiel is concerned, he’s not going anywhere until Dean either falls in love with him and gets his memory back or, (and he refuses to actually put words to this other eventuality out of fear that he might give the idea life) Dean makes it obvious he has no interest in pursuing anything with Castiel. Gabriel seems to be fairly certain the latter is going to occur sooner or later, or perhaps that Castiel is going to get tired of waiting. Castiel does not agree. He can’t even entertain the idea. There’s too much riding on this. He must be positive.

That’s not an attitude that comes naturally to him. Or at least, it’s not an attitude that comes easily to the current incarnation of Castiel. Younger Castiel, the one who had a Dean that remembered him and loved him, that Castiel would have found it no trouble at all to remain positive. He would have laughed at the very idea of Dean not wanting him, and he would have the comfort of Dean’s presence to assure him of how absurd the idea was. Current form Castiel, well, he’s struggling. It’s lovely to have Dean in his life again and he enjoys every moment they spend together, but there are moments when it’s difficult to imagine that things will ever change. It’s also worrisome that Marv used such noncommittal language when discussing the endgame. He never said that Dean would get his memories back if he fell in love with Castiel, just that he should. That’s a tricky word. People should be respectful of each other’s viewpoints. Advertising should be honest and free of deception. Communism should be an effective form of government.

Castiel really does not like the odds when he looks at it that way.

So instead, he tries not to look at it that way. He tries not to look at it at all. He does a pretty good job of pointedly not looking at it, and instead pours his energy into the ghost that apparently haunts what has become his favourite bar, and enjoying whatever attention Dean chooses to pay him.

On this particular day, Dean is paying Castiel basically all of his attention. It’s Tuesday, his day off, so there’s no responsibilities to steal him away, no requirements on his time, and he’s all Castiel’s. Well, not quite. Castiel can’t reach out and touch him, and he can’t kiss him, and Castiel would feel no actual sense of ownership even if he could do those things. But he’s not otherwise busy, and that’s good enough for Castiel.

At present, they’re sitting on the couch in Dean’s house, watching Batman Begins, because Dean declared it an absolute travesty that Castiel was not familiar with the Dark Knight Trilogy. If only he knew all the other movies Castiel has not made time to watch, he’d likely have a fit. Or possibly just make it his mission to make Castiel watch the entire list. It’s debatable.

“How have you not seen this?” Dean demands, for what Castiel is sure must be the hundredth time.

Castiel shrugs. “Spend a lot of time on the road. And I never really got on board with the idea of going to a theatre by myself. I don’t remember the last time I went to one at all, actually. Years ago, at least.”

“That’s…”Dean shakes his head. “Wow. I think I’m disappointed. Let me guess. You don’t watch TV either?”

“When I’m in a motel and not busy I’ll put the TV on, but I don’t really follow any shows. It’s kind of hard when you never know where you’ll be week to week, and it’s not like I can just record them and watch when I get home because…you know.”

“So you’ve never seen Breaking Bad?” Dean asks, scandalized. “Game of Thrones?”

“No,” Castiel tells him firmly. “And probably not anything else you’re going to list, either.”

“This needs to be remedied,” Dean informs Castiel. “I’m gonna make a list. We’ll work through it together. I mean. If…if you want.” It’d be amusing to see Dean questioning Castiel’s interest if it wasn’t such a horrible reminder of the memories he’s missing. He’d be laughing out loud if Dean remembered their history and said something like that. Now it just hurts.

“I’d like that,” Castiel assures him.

“Game on,” Dean replies, disappearing into the spare bedroom to grab a notepad and a pen. Apparently, it serves as an office, though Dean admits he has no real use for a home office other than a place to put more stuff, but there is a desk in there should he ever need to sit down and write anything. He’s got a laptop computer that he says mostly lives in his bedroom, (and he blushes when he says that, for reasons that Castiel is quick to identify but doesn’t comment on), so the desk is largely bare, but it’s there if he wants it.

The list, as it turns out, is long. Very long. Prohibitively long, when Castiel thinks about it. There are nearly two decades of movies and TV shows that Castiel is only barely familiar with the existence of, and he can’t be sure without researching the episode count and runtime of each, but it seems like it would take him years to work through all of it.

“We’re going to need to prioritize this,” Castiel points out. “It’s too daunting otherwise. I’m not sure how I’ll ever watch them all.”

“Guess you’ll have to stick around for a while then, hey?” Dean asks. Castiel wants to read so very much into that comment.

“I suppose so,” he replies, hopefully giving off no hint of his true intentions.

“How long are you planning to be here for, anyway? I got the impression you were just here doing one story when you first showed up, but that was, what, a month ago? Hey, do you wanna order pizza?”

“Pizza is great,” Castiel says with a laugh. “I finished the story I was here for, but it turns out there’s quite a lot worth writing about in Sioux Falls, so…I’m not sure how long I’ll be here for. There’s the one I’m researching right now, but there’s also a couple other things I want to dig into,” Castiel lies. There’s nothing. There’s the purported ghost in the Black Dog, and there’s Dean, and there are no other reasons to consider staying here another minute. He’d have been gone weeks ago if it weren’t for Dean, and he’d have never looked back.

“Cool,” Dean replies, looking pleased. “Meat lovers?”

“Sounds good,” Castiel replies. “Actually, you might be pretty interested in the one I’m working on right now,” he informs Dean, remembering the enthusiasm with which Dean latched on to his previous ghost stories.

Dean holds up a finger, pausing the conversation while he orders a pizza. Castiel turns his attention back to the movie, though he hasn’t really been following along too closely. He’s much more interested in interacting with Dean, to be entirely honest, and besides which he knows enough about Batman’s origin that he doesn’t really feel the need to see it retold in another movie. Everyone knows the Batman origin story. It’s practically legend at this point in time.

“Oh yeah?” Dean asks, once the pizza is ordered and his phone abandoned on the coffee table. “Why’s that?”

“Well it’s a haunting,” Castiel begins. “And I know you were pretty interested in the other ghost stories I wrote about before.”

“Here?” Dean inquires in disbelief. Castiel nods. “In Sioux Falls. An actual ghost?”

“Yes. And actually, if the old maps are to believed, it’s in your bar.” Castiel grins, expecting excitement in reply. It’s not what he gets.

“Bullshit,” Dean exclaims, narrowing his eyes. “No fuckin’ way.”

“Yes fucking way,” Castiel assures him. “I don’t have the maps with me, but next time I’m in the bar I’ll show you. I’m certain it’s the same building. There used to be a speakeasy in the basement during prohibition, and someone was killed in one of the storerooms at one point. I’ve got some pretty solid eyewitness accounts, and all the details can be confirmed with historical documents. I’m pretty sure the Black Dog is haunted.”

“Dude I’ve worked there for like ten years. There’s no fucking way there’s a ghost in there,” Dean snaps.

“Just because you’ve never seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Castiel replies, trying not to get defensive. It’s hard though, being that this is his (albeit grudgingly chosen) life’s work, and he doesn’t enjoy being faced with such disbelief.

“I’m telling you, there’s no ghost. I have never seen or heard anything there that would make me believe there’s even such a thing as a ghost, let alone one that haunts the damn bar I work at.” Dean slams his beer bottle down on the table a little too roughly, glaring as he does so.

“Have you ever seen a tiger?” Castiel asks calmly, doing his very best not to let Dean’s doubt get under his skin.

“On TV, sure,” Dean replies sharply. “Don’t know what that has to do with it.”

“But you’ve never seen one in person? At a zoo or maybe you went on vacation at some point?”

“No,” Dean growls.

“But you believe tigers are real, right?”

“Of course tigers are fucking real.” Castiel ignores the sarcastic tone in Dean’s voice, but his patience is wearing thin.

“You believe tigers are real because you’ve seen them on TV, or because you know someone who has seen a tiger, or because experts you have reason to trust tell you that tigers exist. Is that correct?” Dean nods, a perfunctory motion. He agrees, but he’s not following Castiel’s line of thought yet. That’s okay. Castiel is getting to the point.

“You’ve never seen a ghost, but I am telling you that I have seen them with my own two eyes, and that I have spent my entire adult life investigating and verifying reports of their existence. By most people’s standards, that would make me an expert. The only difference is that tigers are generally accepted as real, and ghosts are ascribed to be the stuff of fiction. You don’t believe in ghosts, fine by me,” Castiel shrugs, “just don’t shit on my work.”

Dean stares at him for a moment, no expression on his face, and Castiel thinks that perhaps he’s done something terribly foolish. How terrible would it be if, after all his worrying about Gabriel, Castiel himself was the one that threw a wrench into his plans? He’s a hair’s breadth away from excusing himself, heading towards the door to beat a hasty retreat, when Dean lets loose such a heavy sigh it could be imagined that the thing had a chance of knocking Castiel over. Castiel stares back, confused, a question forming on his lips, but Dean hears it unsaid and answers without prompting.

“Sorry,” he offers gruffly. It’s not the most powerful or sincere of apologies, but it’s better than nothing. “It’s not the ghosts. Although, I gotta admit I am still not completely convinced they’re real things. I just…Sam called this morning. He’s not coming out for Christmas anymore. It’s got me pretty pissed off.”

“Why not?” Castiel asks. He makes a careful point of not letting his voice soften too much, not to forgive Dean entirely just because he’s upset about something. In truth his blood is still boiling. It’s not the first time he’s been challenged like this and it certainly won’t be the last, but there’s something additionally frustrating about having his entire career maligned by someone who’s supposed to be on his side. This isn’t some random stranger getting a laugh at Castiel’s expense. It’s Dean. He’s supposed to…he used to…

He isn’t. And that’s something that Castiel has not forced himself to treat with until now. Dean isn’t any of the things he remembers. Oh sure, the base elements of his personality are, but he’s had essentially half his life to grow into a completely different human being from the one Castiel knew and loved and cherished. That Dean would never have undercut Castiel’s work and his reputation like this, but that Dean was also a teenage boy with no experience in the real world, nothing to rip away his sense of wonder and force him to stop dreaming. That Dean hadn’t lived his entire adult life with no magic in it, oblivious to the shadows just out of the corner of his eye. Castiel must have known on some level, he’s sure of it, but it’s painful to be confronted with the proof all the same. He’s not the same man Castiel knew all those years ago, and Castiel has to stop holding him to those standards, stop expecting him to be just like he remembers. Everything Dean knows about Castiel he’s learning first hand, right in the here and now. It’s only reasonable that Castiel do the same in return.

Castiel wishes he could believe that would be easy.

“He’s been preparing for some big case for months now,” Dean gripes, clearly both proud of his brother and frustrated with the situation. “It wasn’t supposed to go to trial until early spring, but something came up, I don’t know what, and now they’re opening the trial like three days before Christmas. He’s gonna be tied up In the middle of that for months now, at least.”

“I’m sorry,” Castiel offers, knowing the words are empty and don’t resolve anything. “I’m sure he’d be here if he could.”

“Yeah,” Dean agrees. “I know he would. It just sucks.”

“Perhaps he can take some time off after the case is finished,” Cas suggests. “It’s not the same as a Christmas visit but it would be a nice celebration for concluding the trial. Especially if he’s successful.”

“Oh, he’ll be successful,” Dean assures Cas. “Sammy’s brilliant. Surprised they haven’t made him partner yet. Anyway, doesn’t really matter. He’ll visit when he can. Still fuckin sucks that he’s not gonna be here for the holidays. I don’t think we’ve missed a year since dad died. And I’d go out there ‘cept there’s no way Benny can run the bar without me for that long.”

“I’m sorry Dean,” Castiel repeats, unsure what else to say. His heart goes out to Dean. Castiel has never really much thought into the importance of family holiday celebrations. His father was always much more about religion than tradition, so Christmas was important in their home but not at all in the same way that Dean is yearning for. They went to Mass. There was prayer and quiet contemplation. It was never about festivities. There was no joy in it, no celebration. It’s never meant anything near as much to Castiel as it has to Dean. The Winchester boys though, they had it different. John never decorated the house, and Castiel knows there was never much under the tree, if there was a tree at all. That wasn’t a matter or faith.  It wasn’t even an objection to the season. John Winchester just wasn’t interested in making anything special for his children, apparently.

“It’s fine,” Dean says. He’s clearly lying, but Castiel doesn’t need to know this man inside and out to understand that it means he’s done talking about it. “Anyway, you were talking about ghosts.”

“I was. And you were questioning the validity of my statements.”

Dean at least has the good sense to look sheepish. “Yeah, I kinda was.”

“You gonna keep questioning me?” Castiel demands.

“Okay, you know what, fair. I was a dick. But, I ain’t gonna lie to you, I’m still less than entirely convinced on the my bar is haunted front. I’m not doubting you. I’m just skeptical,” Dean explains.

“Guess you’re just gonna have to see them for yourself before you believe then, huh?” Cas asks.

“Pfft,” Dean snorts. “I guess. Not really sure that’s something I can bank on but sure, if I see a ghost, I’ll consider myself convinced.”

“Oh, is that all?” Castiel replies with a sarcastic laugh. “In that case, you could use your influence with Benny and convince him to let me go hunting in the basement for the spirit I’ve been reading about, and I’m sure since you don’t believe in ghosts you certainly won’t mind coming along to hold the flashlight for me.”

Dean stares blankly for a moment, blinking just a little more than is strictly called for. It takes everything Castiel has not to burst out laughing at him.

“Unless,” Castiel presses, fighting to keep his mouth from curling into a wicked grin, “you’re afraid.”

“Hell no!” Dean exclaims. “I ain’t afraid of no ghost!”

“In that case, it’s settled. We’re going ghost hunting as soon as Benny gives us access to the basement.” Cas reaches for his beer with a look on his face that could only be described as smug, watching as Dean sputters and completely fails to come up with a reasonable excuse not to come along that doesn’t amount to an admission of fear. He may not believe in ghosts, but he’s definitely a little freaked out by what he thinks ghosts are supposed to be. Castiel feels a surge of guilt at essentially tricking Dean into coming, but the man never actually said he was unwilling to explore the old speakeasy with Castiel, and any guilt he might feel is overshadowed by the excitement Cas feels, both at the prospect of one of the best stories of his career. The fact that researching said story will involve spending time alone in the dark with Dean, traipsing through narrow passageways that afford them almost no personal space, well, that’s just a bonus.

“Fine,” Dean replies, his grudging tone almost enough to convince Castiel, but his smile is bright. He might be afraid, but Castiel gets the feeling that he’s looking forward to it too.

Chapter Text

At the bottom of narrow wooden stairs, past the keg storage and the liquor back-stock and Benny’s office, down far enough that they must be entirely underground, Castiel feels along the wall for a switch or a latch or some other kind of mechanism that will let himself and Dean into the passageway that separates the proper hallway from the hidden speakeasy. From the old floorplans he was able to get copies of and the maps that Benny got when he bought the place, they’ve been able to exclude most of the locations and figure out with almost complete certainty that the speakeasy is behind this very wall. It’s the only part of the building that’s shown on the old maps that isn’t occupied by some part of Benny’s operation. What used to be a shop of some kind is the bar upstairs, and the office and restrooms are where they always were, although significantly updated. The basement remains largely unchanged, but because the drawings Benny got were done up by a real estate agent and not based on any architectural drawings, the existence of the speakeasy was completely unknown to him.

“Sure thing,” Benny had said when Dean explained the story and asked for the keys to the basement. “Don’t keep much down there ‘cept empty kegs these days so there ain’t no trouble for you to get in. Find anything interesting though, you be sure to let me in on it. Always wondered if there weren’t something’ else to this place.”

It’s still mid-afternoon at the moment, but below street level as they are, there’s no natural light to be seen. Castiel’s search is aided only by a single bare bulb hanging on a chain from the ceiling, swaying slightly and casting shifting shadows on the wall, their faces, everywhere Castiel looks. Dean stands just off to his right, holding a flashlight and glancing around the room for anything that might indicate the presence of a hidden door. Even as Castiel carries out his own search, he can’t help but watch Dean’s face, the way his eyes narrow as he inspects the wall, the twitch of his nose when it’s tickled by dust.

Castiel should be paying more attention to the task at hand. This is important. First of all, it’s his job, and secondly, this part of the building hasn’t been accessed in god only knows how long, so he should be alert and ready. It’s not just a ghost they could find on the other side of the wall. There could be rats. There could be roaches. It could be awful. Even so, it takes a lot of effort for Castiel to pay attention to anything other than how beautiful Dean looks in the low light.

Dean catches him looking. He doesn’t say anything, but it’s obvious he noticed. Dean was looking behind him, casting his eyes along a section of wall they’d already checked over to see if it looked different from this angle, and when he turned back around Castiel was shamelessly staring. Castiel’s breath catches in his throat and he struggles for the right words to apologise for being weird and awkward, but Dean just coughs, making some offhand comment about the dust in the room. He averts his eyes and goes back to looking, leaving Castiel to breathe a quiet sigh of relief.

It’s only because he’s staring again that he notices the faint blush on Dean’s cheeks.

“Does anything on your treasure map say what kind of a mechanism we’re looking for?” Dean asks. “I’m not seeing anything that looks like a door.”

“Not really,” Castiel informs him. “It’s not really supposed to be obvious, anyway. It was a speakeasy, remember? Stealth and deception, all in the name of drink.”

“Fucking prohibition,” Dean mutters. Castiel wonders how long they’ll be down here before they even find the entrance to the place. It’s not like there’s a standard secret speakeasy door latch design for them to refer to. It could be anything. There could be a panel in the wall that comes off to reveal a switch. There could be a single brick that triggers the release. It could be something so mundane and inconspicuous that they won’t notice it until it’s activated by accident. There’s really no telling.

“Fucking prohibition indeed.” Castiel leans back against a wall in exasperation, his head falling back against the wood with a dull thud. He lets his eyes slip closed, exhausted, reveling in the brief moment’s respite.

“Hey,” says Dean’s voice, and Castiel’s eyes snap open. “What’s this?” He’s pointing at a patch of wood that’s so close in color to the bits around it that a less careful eye would never notice the difference, but it is definitely cut from a different plank. The grain doesn’t match up, and it’s weathered differently, almost like it’s of a different age than the wood surrounding it.

“Don’t know,” Castiel replies quietly. “But it might be something.” He pokes at it carefully, feeling the edges, listening for any telltale click that might indicate the presence of a hidden switch. When he presses at the top of the strip of wood, the panel tilts inward, the bottom swinging out to reveal a small knob recessed into the wall. Castiel looks up and meets Dean’s eyes, the two silently acknowledging the discovery. Castiel doesn’t move until Dean nods, almost imperceptible, then he grips the small knob and twists. It’s stiff, rusted and frozen with age, but it moves little by little in his hand. Finally, the latch releases, and a section of the wood paneled wall swings outwards on hidden hinges to reveal a narrow passageway.

“I can’t believe this has been down here this entire time and Benny never even knew.” Dean marvels, shining his flashlight into the passageway. It’s not that long, only about five feet, and past that it appears to open up. It’s probably the speakeasy itself, the illicit bar that Castiel’s been searching for, but for some reason he can’t make himself take that first step into the darkness.

“It’s not really a surprise,” he counters. “We were looking for it and we still didn’t know it was here. Benny never had any reason to suspect there might be something other than what his floorplan showed.”

“Think he’ll wanna do anything with it now that we’ve found it?”

“You know him better than I do,” Castiel reminds his companion. “I couldn’t begin to guess. If it was me though, I’d reopen it. He’d make a killing. An original speakeasy, complete with secret passage and hidden doorway? He could charge whatever he wanted for drinks. People would pay for the novelty alone.”

“Assuming there’s not a ghost down here to scare them all away,” Dean adds wryly, twitching his flashlight to point down the hallway. “Come on, we should check it out.”

That’s apparently all the push Castiel needs. He steps over the threshold of the passageway, taking his first breath of the musty air and holding his flashlight steady to ensure he doesn’t trip over something unseen. The floor appears to be littered with small debris, nothing large or dangerous, but caution is always advisable when hunting ghosts.  The soles of his boots scrape against the rough concrete of the unfinished floor beneath him with each step, destroying any hope of stealth they might have left. Not that Castiel expects anything to be hiding down the passageway that might warrant the element of surprise, mind. He stretches out a hand to feel the side of the narrow hall as he shuffles forward, finds it closer than he expected and closer still than he’d like. It doesn’t taper, and the wall is perfectly solid, but the absence of any proper light makes it feel as if the walls are too close. It sets his hackles to rise, puts his teeth on edge, and he’s infinitely glad for Dean at his back, or he’d be turning tail to run back to daylight by now.

He wasn’t kidding when he told Dean that hunting ghosts scares him. It’s terrifying, and he doubts it will ever stop being so. It might not have been, back at the beginning, when he didn’t know with an undeniable certainty that the things he hunts are real and provable. Now that he’s seen them with his own eyes, though, it’s hard not to carry fear when he walks into a room that could house one.

“Cas,” Dean calls softly, his voice a harsh whisper despite no real need for quiet. Castiel is slow to turn, and Dean calls again, more insistently this time. “Cas, did you hear that?”

Castiel heard nothing but the sound of his own shoes and Dean’s soft whisper. “Hear what?” he inquires.

Dean doesn’t answer. He’s pointing his flashlight at the ground, illuminating a spot on the concrete that’s darker than the rest, discolored with something that has sat there for decades.

“Is that…” Dean begins, stopping himself before he reaches the end of the question. “I think that’s blood.”

“Are you sure?” Castiel queries. He’s already sure, has been from the moment Dean pointed it out, knows it in his bones, but he doesn’t want to be sure.

“I—“ Dean begins again, the cuts off when a noise from the end of the passageway startles them both so much that Castiel drops his flashlight and Dean nearly jumps out of his skin. “What the fuck was that?” Dean shouts, all attempts at quiet abandoned in favor of intensity.

“Fuck if I know,” Castiel replies. He doesn’t really want to find out, but considering what a hard time he gave Dean about this whole ordeal, it’s hard to imagine being the one to back out. “Shine your light down so I can find my flashlight?” Dean complies, finding the errant tool lying not too far from the stain that is most certainly blood on the floor. Castiel shudders as he reaches down to pick it up, needlessly careful not to touch the stain. It’s been down here longer than he’s been alive. It’s most certainly dry by now. He wants to suggest that they go back upstairs, come back with better light or something, but something in his heart won’t let him form the words. “You good?” he asks instead, glancing at Dean in the dim light afforded by their flashlights. Even scared and poorly lit, he’s beautiful, which is not at all what Castiel should be thinking about at this precise moment, but it is.

“I’m fine,” Dean replies, not sounding entirely confident. Castiel doesn’t call him on it. He’s sure his own voice is just as convincing.

Castiel leads the way further into the passageway, still wary, still slow. They’re almost at the end of the hall when the pool of light cast by Castiel’s flashlight catches a flash of movement, “Jesus Christ!” Dean shouts, at the same time that Castiel sights the movement and flinches back from taking his next step. The result is that he collides with Dean, who is also mid stride, and despite the fact that they are both fully functional adults with proper grasp of all their respective limbs, they manage to tumble to the floor in a heap, dropping both flashlights in the process.

Castiel lands mostly on Dean’s legs, scraping one knee against the concrete and probably adding some of his own blood to the floor in the process, but manages to avoid hitting his head on anything on the way down. Dean lands on his back, pinned by the weight of his companion.

“Are you okay?” Castiel implores, his voice gruffer than usual. The fall didn’t knock the wind out of him, but it certainly shook his nerves a little. Dean’s reply is equally shaky but that’s to be expected.

“I’m fine. But you’re on my legs, so…” he trails off, leaving Castiel to figure out his meaning unaided. It takes a second for his brain to catch up. Right. He’s pinning Dean to the ground, if unintentionally.

“Sorry,” Castiel mutters, embarrassed. He plants his hand on the cold, unforgiving concrete, its surface rough against his palm, and pushes up enough that he can get his knees under him. At the same time Castiel works on setting himself to rights, Dean shifts and sits halfway up. One hand drags thorough his sandy hair, prodding carefully as if he’s searching for a wound, but he doesn’t appear to find one. Castiel’s just about upright when the buckle on his watchstrap catches on something, Dean’s belt loop or a pocket or whatever, he doesn’t know, and instead of making his way back to his feet, Castiel finds himself tumbling forward again. He barely avoids colliding face first with Dean’s, well, with his face. It’s only pure dumb luck that he manages to plant a hand on the floor instead of somewhere much less appropriate. His mouth opens to blurt out a string of awkward words and half-formed syllables that might in some language cobble together to form a nearly appropriate apology, but he stops with the first sound dying on his lips. The way Dean is looking at him, his own lips just barely parted, his eyes heavy-lidded and focused entirely on Castiel, it looks so much like an invitation that Castiel has to blink rapidly in case it’s just some ghost image of a dream superimposing itself onto reality. But no, it’s still there, Dean’s still there, staring back like he’s waiting for Castiel to move.

So he does.

He leans in slowly, oh so slowly, watching the millimetres between their lips disappear so gradually he could almost count them down. Dean doesn’t pull back, doesn’t protest or complain or make as if to flee. Instead, with their faces this close, Castiel is able to hear the way Dean gasps softly, and in the last moment before their lips meet, Castiel glances up to watch Dean’s eyes so he can see that final second before the kiss when they slip closed, because Dean was always exceptionally beautiful like that.

Dean’s eyes are full of pure terror.

“Um, Cas,” he utters shakily, not moving a single muscle besides his mouth. “There’s….”

Oh god. Now he’s ruined it entirely. He’s moved too fast. It looked like an invitation but clearly Castiel was wrong, and now his chances with Dean are destroyed forever. His heart sinks so fast he can almost feel a chill settle into his skin at the perceived decrease in blood pressure, and even so there is enough thought left in Castiel’s brain for him to chastise himself for being so Goddamned dramatic.

“I’m so sorry,” Castiel blurts out. “I thought you—“

“Shut up a second,” Dean interrupts him. “Listen. I…might have been wrong about ghosts.”

“Excuse me?” Castiel replies, still too close to Dean for his own comfort in light of the devastating embarrassment his actions have just wrought.

“That thing where I said I didn’t believe in them. I wanna take it back.”

“Oh is that all?” Castiel manages to sound entirely too glib for the undignified position he’s currently in and the mortification that’s heating his face. “And what brought you around to this change of…oh. Oh God. It’s…it’s behind me, isn’t it.”

“Yeah,” Dean replies, almost sadly, like he regrets having to admit it. “Yeah, it is.”

“What’s it doing?” Castiel ventures carefully.

“Bleeding, mostly,” Dean informs him. “What…what do we do now?”

“I’m going to stand up very, very slowly, and you’re going to reach into my bag and grab the canister of salt out. As soon as I’m out of your way, throw as much salt at the thing as you can, and then run.” Castiel would be impressed with how calm his own voice was if he wasn’t so terrified that it left no room for any other thoughts.

“Salt?” Dean queries.

“Just do it,” Castiel tells him all too calmly. “I’ll be right behind you.” Even as slow as he moves, it feels too fast. It feels like the ghost is going to reach out and…he doesn’t know what it can do, but something menacing, probably, and that all Castiel has managed to do is draw its attention. But no ghostly touches come, no icy grip around his throat. All he feels is the motion of Dean reaching into his bag for the salt. Trusting that Dean will hit his mark, Castiel reaches for his camera and turns toward the thing, feeling his blood run cold as he catches his first glimpse of the ghost. It is far and away more gruesome than anything he’s witnessed on this job before. Blood, or at least the memory of it, leaks from a jagged wound in its throat, running thick and slow down the already dirtied clothes that float around with it. Its eyes are sunken and dark, and were probably menacing even in life, but now in death they strike such fear into Castiel as he has never before known. His hands barely respond to commands, but he gets his camera up and takes several pictures in quick succession, the last of which happens at the exact same moment that Dean flings a fistful of salt at the ghost. He doubts any of the pictures will be any good, but at least he can say he tried. The spirit lets out an otherworldly scream as its visible form evaporates right before their eyes.. Castiel wastes no more time. “Run,” he commands, but Dean is already running, his boots thudding loudly on the bare concrete as the light of the hallway proper grows ever closer. Castiel is hot on his heels, skidding around the corner as they burst through the narrow passageway and not stopping until they reach the top of the stairs. Castiel glances over his shoulder, terrified of what they might see, but there’s no bloody spectre on their tail as they move back into the brighter spaces of ground level.

“Jesus Christ,” Dean mutters. “This is what you do?!”

“Not usually,” Castiel assures him, breath coming in short gasps more from fear than exertion. “Mostly it’s libraries.”

“Libraries have never sounded so appealing. So, we giving up? Board the speakeasy up and never talk about it again?”

“Hardly,” Castiel replies, rolling his eyes. “I’ve never encountered one that close, and certainly never one that appeared that malevolent, but I think at this point we consult some experts. We might be forced to get rid of it.”

“How the fuck do we do that?” Dean barks, almost a laugh.

“I don’t know,” Castiel says with a grimace. “But I know who might.”

Castiel has never had to play exterminator before. His job is not to manage, just to catalogue, and it has never become necessary to actually do anything about a ghost on any of his investigations. All he’s ever sought has been evidence, so once his notes are collected and his photographs developed, there’s never been a reason to stick around and see an end to the spirit. This one, however, seemed pretty gruesome and angry, whereas the others he’s encountered have been mostly sad and lost, drifting aimlessly around their haunts without ever having taken notice of Castiel or any of the others who have seen them. He’s not entirely certain if it’s got the capacity to do any harm, but something tells Castiel that it would be woefully irresponsible to assume it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, this means deferring to the expertise of some rather dubious experts.

He waits until they’re safely back in Dean’s house to navigate his browser back towards hellhoundslair.net. The farewell note about creative differences still splashes on the main page, but their archives are still active, including a section of videos the pair produced before their falling out. Some are inanely stupid, like a twenty minute clip on how to tell the difference between a German Sheppard and a werewolf. Anyone who has even glimpsed a werewolf out of the corner of their eye would be entirely certain it was not a dog of any breed. But they do have an entire series on how to identify, track, avoid, and dispatch spirits that Castiel has never watched before. He may not respect Ed and Harry even the slightest, but their multitude of fans do, and since he doesn’t know of any other place to research how to get rid of a haunting, it seems like a good place to start.

Dean’s hands are still shaking almost imperceptibly when he passes Castiel a beer. He’s already downed half of his own by the time drops onto the couch beside Castiel, and if it wasn’t so fucking on the nose, Castiel would say he looks as pale as a ghost.

“Are you okay?” Castiel asks, not for the first time since leaving the Black Dog. Dean is probably getting annoyed with it at this point. He’s not going to stop asking.

“I’ve been better,” Dean admits. “That was fucking intense.”

“I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”

“Don’t. It’s fine. I coulda backed out any time I wanted. Anyway, if I hadn’t gone with you, you’d have run into that thing by yourself, and that doesn’t really sound like a good plan.” Dean falls silent for a moment, a harrowed look on his face like he’s reliving the encounter, but it’s gone before Castiel can apologise again. “So these guys, these…ghost fuckers? They know what they’re talking about?”

“Purportedly,” Castiel tells him flatly. “And they call themselves the Ghost Facers. Anyway, I have my doubts, but they did provide me with that useful piece of information about the salt and that seemed to work, so this seems like a good place to start.”

Dean stares at him blankly. “You didn’t know the salt would work?”

“Not first hand,” Castiel admits carefully. “I’ve never actually tried it.”

“Dude, what would you have done if it didn’t work?”

“Uh…fling myself at the ghost and hope it’s too busy killing me to also kill you?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “My hero,” he replies flatly, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. “So what else do the ghost facers have for us?” Castiel clicks through the menus until he finds the ghost hunting section of the site. He skips over the videos about how to decide if what you have is a ghost, since they’ve seen the thing face to bloody face, and goes right to the dispatching a malevolent spirit section. The video has a cheaply cobbled-together intro with the ghostfacers’ logo splashed across it, then cuts to handicam footage of Harry (or maybe it’s Ed, Castiel isn’t really sure), standing in front of a chalkboard in a lab coat.

“Is the coat supposed to make me believe he’s used actual science to come up with this shit?” Dean snarks. Castiel shoots him a disapproving look, not wanting to have to re-watch the videos any more than necessary to get the information he needs. Dean manages to look sheepish and falls quiet, but Cas can tell he’s still incredibly skeptical.

If you’ve got an angry ghost in your house, your office, or anywhere else you might be, the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. Ghosts are like dogs, they can smell fear, and it makes them hungry. But not for eating, because they’re not zombies. Obviously. Just…for killing. So don’t be afraid, or you’ll probably die.”

“That’s helpful,” Dean interjects. Castiel doesn’t shush him this time.

“To get rid of a ghost, you will need salt,” (cut to a still image of various containers of salt, including table, kosher, coarse, and rock varieties,) “iron,” (a picture of random metal things which may or may not actually be iron but are helpful in representing the idea anyway, Castiel supposes,) “and fire,” (cue video of flames leaping up from a bonfire.) “You’ll also need to identify what object the deceased has latched itself onto. In a lot of cases, that’s the actual rotting corpse of the ghost in question, which is super gross and involves digging up graves,”

“Which we don’t suggest!” interjects Ed (or Harry, Castiel still isn’t sure which.)

And then pouring salt on the corpse. Then you light the bitch up, and that’s the end of that.”

The video then cuts to whichever one the second guy is, sitting on a wingback armchair in a smoking jacket and clip on bowtie. “If burning the corpse doesn’t work, it’s possible that the spirit has latched on to some other object. Often, this is something that had sentimental value to the person in life, but it could also just be like, a lock of hair or a bag of toenail clippings or some part of their body that didn’t get burnt with the rest of the corpse. I heard this one time a girl came back from beyond the grave to seek revenge on these total jerks that played pranks on her in real life, and that she kept killing them even after her bones got torched because when she died, they donated her kidney to her sister, and she was haunting the kidney!”

“If you encounter a haunted kidney, we also don’t recommend burning the kidney, because, like, someone’s using that, and murder is illegal in like, at least 48 states.”

“It’s illegal in all the states, Ed,”

“Ok. It’s illegal in all the states,” replies Ed, solidifying in Castiel’s mind for approximately 0.5 nanoseconds which of these jerks is which. He’ll forget again as soon as the video is over.

In any case,” Harry continues, “If you dig up any graves, burn any bones, or like, break any other laws, the ghostfacers and hellhoundslair.net assume no responsibility whatsoever and just want to make it super clear that we specifically told you not to.”

“Oh, and by the way,” Ed adds, “the iron is for hitting the ghost with. They don’t like it. It won’t kill them or anything. Or….re-kill them. Because they’re already dead. But it’ll make them…be less ghostly for a bit so you can get on with the burning part without so much ghost interference. Try to use iron things that would hurt a corporeal thing that you hit them with. Crowbars. Fireplace tools. Things like that.”

“Playing Iron Maiden albums does not count.”

“I’m pretty sure they could have figured that out on their own, Harry.”

And then in something that tries but completely fails to even approach unison, they both holler, “Happy Hunting!

And then the credits roll, listing off Ed and Harry as writer, producer, director, camera operator, editor, and creator of graphics, which explains why everything about the video sucks so much.

“What the fuck did I just watch?” Dean blurts out, not even attempting to veil his incredulity.

“That was the ghostfacers,” Castiel informs him. “They’re quite popular.”

“They’re morons,” Dean argues. “Are we really going to follow their fuckin advice? I mean, how the crap is iron supposed to hurt a ghost?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel replies. “But I also don’t know how salt is supposed to affect them and that worked. What choice do we have? Your workplace is haunted, and it doesn’t really seem to me like we’re dealing with Casper the friendly ghost here. I think we have to get rid of it.”

“Well yeah,” Dean agrees. “I mean, sure. But this seems kinda crazy.”

“I don’t disagree. I don’t really see any other options though.”

“Alright, well, lemme check if the fireplace tools I have are actually iron, I guess. If we’re doing this thing, I don’t wanna die in the process.” Dean sighs as he strides across the room, likely completely unaware that Castiel can’t take his eyes off of Dean’s backside as he goes. Castiel isn’t exactly interested in dying in the process, either, and he certainly doesn’t want to see Dean get hurt, which is exactly why he won’t let this go. Regardless of what happens, if Dean gets his memories back or if Castiel is forced to walk away from Sioux Falls and leave him behind, he’ll sleep better knowing there isn’t a malevolent spirit lurking down the stairs from where Dean is pouring beer and mixing drinks.

“Pretty sure they’re wrought iron,” Dean murmurs. “Let’s do this thing.”

Chapter Text

Doing this thing, Castiel informs Dean, starts with more research. He’s not about to go in there, torches blazing, without an actual solid plan. Not a second time, anyway. Once was dumb enough, and he’s got no right to endanger Dean’s life like that. So while the plan is to head back to the Black Dog as soon as possible and get the situation sorted out, Castiel wants to be prepared.

Of course he has all his research in his messenger bag, so despite Dean’s grumbling, they lay it all out on Dean’s kitchen table and start pouring over it. Abigail said a body was found and disposed of, but she didn’t say how, and as much as Castiel doesn’t relish the idea of digging up a grave, it seems prudent to explore that avenue before returning to the basement.

“Do you know who the ghost is even supposed to be?” Dean asks him. “I mean, that seems relevant.”

“I think some of Abigail’s notes had a short-list of names. I’m trying to find that now. But I think we need to go back there even if we…I can’t believe I’m saying this, but even if we find a corpse we have to burn. When I fell, I saw some blood on the floor, it looked like it had been there a very long time. Considering how bloody the ghost was….”

“Good call,” Dean agrees. “God, I hope whoever the stiff is was cremated. I don’t want to dig up a grave. I really don’t.”

“You don’t have to,” Cas tells him. “This is my ghost hunt. You don’t have to do any part of it if you’re not comfortable with it. I won’t try to make you.”

“That’s real sweet, Cas, but I’m not letting you go off on your own to possibly get murdered by a ghost. It’s not happening.”

Castiel hides his smile behind the document he’s inspecting, a photocopy of an old newspaper clipping with Abigail’s neat script in the margin. It’s easy to let himself believe, in light of how much time he and Dean are spending together these days, that Dean has actually started to care for him. It’s easy to believe Dean’s concern is not just a sense of righteousness and responsibility, but a knowledge that he would be deeply saddened by Castiel’s passing if said ghost were to end his life.

“Thank you,” he replies softly. “Ah, here it is. Abigail had narrowed the identity of the ghost down to five men. She’s got some extensive notes as to why she thinks each of them could have been the murder victim, so really all we have to do is follow up on the death records and see what we can substantiate.”

“That doesn’t seem too hard,” Dean ventures. “You wanna do the boring research part, I’ll make us something to eat?”

“I’d like that,” Cas agrees, letting the grin stay plastered on his face while he words. Dean sets about making grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, and Castiel  starts searching through death records on the internet, and the whole scene is so painfully, comfortably domestic that Castiel can hardly believe it. Dean whistles while he cooks, and Castiel barely reads the words in front of him, but for the first time in a long time, he’s actually happy.

~*~

“You’re sure?” Dean asks for probably the thousandth time. The bag over his shoulder is laden with more salt than they’ll ever need, various iron fireplace tools poking out at odd angles. Castiel, for once, has left his messenger bag behind. There’s no more time for research now, and he highly doubts that there will be an opportunity to take pictures while he’s burning the remnants of an angry ghost, so there’s no point in bringing his camera either. He’s got a bottle of butane and more matches than he could ever conceive of needing, as well as a fire extinguisher, just in case more than the blood catches fire, and because he learns from his mistakes, a lantern. He’s also got a ridiculous sense of foreboding, and it won’t be shaken.

“I’m absolutely certain,” Castiel repeats. “There’s a newspaper article confirming the identity of the body found in the speakeasy, and I’ve got records that show he was cremated. There is no body to burn, and all we have to do is burn that blood on the floor. As long as he also didn’t bleed elsewhere, that’ll do it.”

“You’ve got the butane?”

“And the matches. And the fire extinguisher,” he assures Dean. “Are you sure you don’t want to back out? You can hang out up here and pester Jo. I can do this alone.”

“Not a fucking chance,” Dean growls, hefting his fireplace poker. “Lead the way, you’ve got the light.” Castiel nods resolutely, ignoring the frantic butterflies in his belly as he powers up the electric lantern and takes the first step down the stairs.

The latch for the speakeasy is much simpler to locate this time, now that they know what they’re looking for. It still blends into the wall, but at least they’ve got the memory of where it should be to aid them, so it’s only a moment’s work instead of long, countless minutes to seek it out. Castiel throws open the hidden panel and reaches for the doorknob. The door creaks as it opens, hinges aged and without maintenance, but once it’s out of the way it’s just a few feet of dark hallway between Castiel and the thing anchoring this ghost to the mortal plane.

Maybe it’s because he knows what he’s looking for this time, or because he’s got this vivid memory of what the bloody spectre looked like, but Castiel’s movements are much faster this time. He holds the lantern out in front of him, striding with determination down the hall. The lantern is set down where the pool of light it casts gives illumination to the blood splatter Castiel recalls from before. Its reddish brown hue looks even redder in the lantern-light than it did by flashlight the day before.

“Salt, please,” Castiel says to Dean, already fishing into his own bag for the butane and matches. Dean hands him a canister of salt, which Castiel opens and then dumps unceremoniously on the bloodstain, obscuring it completely in sparkly white crystals. The butane smells harsh to his nose, but he’s not taking any chances of the blood not burning on its own, so he sprays far more than is likely necessary onto the salt and blood, and goes to light a match.

He doesn’t even see it coming.

“Cas!” Dean hollers, but the warning comes too late. There’s a whistling sound, probably Dean swinging his makeshift iron weapon at the encroaching spectre, but it collides with Castiel unhindered, throwing him backwards through the air to land in a heap against the wall. His head strikes concrete, his vision swims, and on some level he knows he’s sending his limbs orders to move but they do not respond. He stays heaped on the ground, everything he can see a maddening blur. A voice, Castiel thinks it’s his own, calls out to Dean to be careful. He has no idea if the words make any sense, or if Dean even hears him, and it seems like far more than he has in him to try anything else. He just has to hope it’s enough.

~*~

Castiel wakes in front seat of an unfamiliar car, slumped against the door and held in place by a seatbelt he does not recall fastening. He blinks against the afternoon sun, groaning when it hurts his eyes to even let a sliver of light in, and opts to keep his eyes closed.

“Oh thank god, you’re awake,” Dean exclaims from somewhere off to Castiel’s left, presumably the driver’s seat. He heaves a sigh of relief and reaches out a hand to pat Castiel’s knee in a gesture that is probably supposed to be comforting.

“Did you…” Castiel begins, struggling to find words to express his thoughts. “Did you get it?”

“The ghost? I’m pretty damn sure. As soon as I put a match to the mess it went up in flames and screamed like nothing I’ve ever heard before. And nothing came after me when I carried you out of there. I’d say it’s gone.”

“That’s good,” Castiel says, distantly. He’s very tired, and it seems like a nap would be quite pleasant right now.

“Hey, Cas, you gotta stay with me, okay? Keep talking to me.” It’s odd to think of, but Dean almost sounds worried, which is absurd, because Castiel is perfectly fine.

“I’m fine,” he informs Dean. “Just a little sleepy.”

“Yeah, I’m sure, but you hit your head pretty hard back there, and you passed out while I was getting you out, so I’m gonna let a doctor be the judge of who’s fine, alright? We’re almost at the hospital, just keep talking so I know you’re awake.” Dean reaches out to pat Cas’ knee again. His palm is warm even thorough Castiel’s pants. He wishes Dean would just leave his hand there, but he withdraws it after a moment.

“I can’t believe we killed a ghost,” Castiel muses sleepily. “I’m going to write the best article on this.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Dean replies warmly.

“Do we have to go to the hospital?” Castiel gripes. “I feel fine, honestly. Just a little sleepy. I just need a nap and then I’ll be totally fine.”

“Sorry buddy, not buying it. You’re going exactly nowhere except the hospital. Which we’re at, conveniently, so save your arguments.” Dean flicks his turn signal on and mutters under his breath about finding parking at the hospital, quietly enough that he clearly doesn’t intend Castiel to hear. There’s patient drop-off in front of the ER doors, but Dean obviously (and rightly) doesn’t believe Castiel capable of getting out the door and into the building unaided, so he bypasses it entirely and seeks out a spot in the parking lot, finding one after only a little bit of bitching (followed by more bitching when he sees how much they’re charging per hour to park there).

Once inside, it’s Castiel’s turn to bitch. There’s barely an empty seat in the entire waiting room, nurses bustling about with fierce determination as they triage their charges and fill out paperwork. Castiel is grateful for Dean pressed up against his side as he approaches the desk, because he’s feeling more than a little unsteady at the moment, and the noise of the room isn’t really helping. His head swims at the onslaught of voices and lights. It completely destroys any argument he might be prepared to offer on his fitness to go home without seeing a doctor, and whether he voices it or not, it’s obvious Dean notices the sway in his step.

Aside from the actual physical support, it’s fortunate that Dean is with him, because filling out paperwork and describing his symptoms to the nurse prove to be far more than Castiel has in him at the moment. He nods when she asks if he has ID on him, then regrets it, because it makes the pain in his head seem that much more intense. He reaches into his pocket for his wallet, and nearly fumbles it in the process.

“Why don’t you sit down, Cas. I’ll handle this for you,” Dean offers, his voice cautious and concerned. Castiel doesn’t even have it in him to argue. He lets himself be guided to an unforgiving plastic chair, heaves a heavy sigh, and tries to focus. “Shouldn’t be too long,” Dean assures him. Castiel hopes he’s right.

He isn’t.

It probably says good things about Castiel’s state, but it takes hours before he’s finally escorted into an examination room. If he were seriously injured, he’d probably have been prioritized, he supposes. It also says good things that he’s able to think critically about his situation, or so he tells himself. The nurse tries to make Dean stay in the waiting room when Castiel is finally admitted, though she gives up without much of a fight when Castiel insists on his being allowed to follow. Dean doesn’t object, and Castiel could still use the support (though he won’t admit it out loud), and the nurse probably has way too much on her plate to worry about the fact that Dean isn’t family.

It feels like forever before a doctor actually sees them, but Dean informs him it’s closer to about half an hour than it is to eternity. The man looks like Santa Claus without the red suit, his jovial face tinged with red on the cheeks and the tip of his nose, all his hair pure white , and his rotund belly straining against his mint-green scrubs. He’s pleasant in his no-nonsense approach to Castiel’s diagnosis, brief without being curt, and he doesn’t make much of a fuss over whatever he sees when he checks Castiel’s pulse, his pupils, and his blood pressure.

“Well,” he says finally, scribbling notes on a chart, “you’re definitely going to have a bit of a goose-egg on your forehead in the morning, but if it’s a concussion, it’s a pretty minor one. Your pupils are responding fairly normally, which is a good sign. I’m a bit concerned about the loss of consciousness your friend mentioned but considering you seem pretty with it right now, I’m not inclined to keep you overnight for observation as long as you feel well enough to leave the hospital.”

“Yes!” Castiel exclaims, already moving to grab his coat from the chair beside the exam table he’s seated on.

“Not so fast,” the doctor forestalls him. “I have a couple more questions I need to ask, just for records. Mr. Winchester, if you could please wait outside?” Dean spares Castiel a concerned look, but exits the room when he’s ushered out, and then it’s just Castiel and Dr Santa Claus.

“Your companion tells me you injured your head falling down on a concrete basement floor?” he asks, making it abundantly clear that he doubts the story he’s been given.

“That’s correct,” Castiel tells him, setting his shoulders in defiance of the challenge. He doesn’t like the tone of voice that’s being tossed at him, not one bit.

“You fell?” he repeats. “You’re certain you weren’t pushed? Or that you didn’t fall after being struck?”

Oh, fuck this. “I’m not sure I like what you’re implying, doctor.”

“I’m not implying anything Mr. Novak. But with injuries like this, there are questions that need to be asked. For patient safety. If you’re not comfortable leaving with him, I can keep you overnight for observation, send him away, and you can call someone other than your boyfriend to come pick you up.”

The noise that bubbles up out of Castiel’s throat is possibly the ugliest laugh he’s ever given. “He’s not my boyfriend,” Castiel tells the doctor ruefully. “And he certainly didn’t hit me, if that’s what you’re worried about. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s anyone else in the world I’d trust better than Dean to look after me right now, but he’s definitely not my boyfriend.” No, I just wish he was, Castiel thinks to himself.

“Very well,” the doctor says perfunctorily. “You’re okay to go home. You can sleep, but I don’t particularly think you should be driving any time in the next few days, and if your condition worsens at all, you should come back in for reassessment. Brain injuries are hard to predict. Try to stay away from bright screens, computers and televisions and the like, until the headache goes away and stays away, alright?”

“Thank you,” Castiel offers gracelessly, somewhat soured on the man since his unfounded assault on Dean’s character. He’s quiet and surly when he leaves the room, signing off on paperwork at the nurse’s station without commentary. It’s not until they’re back in Dean’s sleek, black Impala that Dean can get his attention long enough to ask questions.

“So what was that about?” he asks, not at all casually, as he pulls the car out of the parking lot and back onto busy streets.

“Oh, you know,” Castiel informs him with a sarcastic laugh. “Just your standard issue domestic abuse allegations.”

"Dude,” Dean sputters. “He thought I hit you?”

“And he thought I might be uncomfortable leaving with you,” Castiel adds.

“That’s ugly. But I guess they see a lot of that. Can’t hurt to ask questions. I’ll try not to be offended that he thought I might be roughing you up.”

Conversation falls silent as Dean fights with traffic, and leaves Castiel to ponder the fact that Dean didn’t seem at all bothered that the doctor thought he was Castiel’s boyfriend.

Chapter Text

Castiel assumed, wrongly, that Dean would be dropping him off at his motel after the ordeal at the emergency room, so it’s quite the surprise when Dean exits the car and follows him to his room. Castiel casts a questioning glance at his Dean-shaped shadow as he unlocks the door.

“Pack a bag,” Dean commands him. “You can bring your computer if you promise not to start your article until the headaches stop.”

“Not really sure why I need to bring or pack anything,” Castiel murmurs, vaguely aware of how petulant his comment probably sounds.

“Because the doctor said you shouldn’t be left alone until you’re sure you don’t have any worse symptoms,” Dean informs him in a tone that leaves no room for argument. “So you’re staying on my couch until further notice.”

“That’s not necessary,” Castiel insists, crossing his arms over his chest. He’s not really sure why he’s arguing though. He’s got no qualms about spending more time around Dean, so perhaps it’s just a dislike of being told what to do. Maybe he feels guilty about putting himself in a position where he needs to be taken care of in the first place.

“It is, though,” Dean corrects him. “First of all, your motel room doesn’t even have a couch, so it’s not like we can hang out here, and second, it doesn’t even have a kitchen. How is a person supposed to recover from the brink of death if they can’t even eat a home cooked meal?”

“I’m not on the brink of death,” Castiel sighs.

“Okay well, the brink of the brink, then. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I just remembered you left your laptop bag at my place when we were researching the speakeasy ghost, so I’m holding it hostage until you agree to do it my way.” Dean grins, clearly very proud of himself.

“That’s categorically unfair,” Castiel argues, but he’s already stuffing clothing into his duffle.

~*~

No TV, the doctor said, and no computer screens. And Castiel assumes that also extends to smartphones, though he breaks the rule long enough to text Gabriel a very abridged version of what transpired. He leaves it at the basics: there was a ghost, they might have some decent pictures of it, they killed it, Castiel was injured but is fine, and he won’t be turning in an article until he’s had some time to rest. Then, in a stroke of pure genius, he turns his phone off, knowing that Gabriel is likely to call and demand more details. He’s pretty sure he remembers Dr. Santa Claus saying something about avoiding stress until he recovers.

Okay, he’s totally making that one up.

The phone stays off anyway.

“How you feelin’?” Dean asks, setting a plate down in front of Castiel at the kitchen table. It’s late enough in the day that the sun has already set, bathing the world in starlight, but Dean decided that Castiel’s convalescence called for breakfast food, so the plate is piled high with chocolate chip pancakes and crispy bacon.

“I’m alright,” Castiel assures Dean, his voice tired. “Hungrier than I realized, though.” He picks up a rasher of bacon with his fingers and takes a sizeable bite, letting out a satisfied hum at the smoky flavor.

“Well there’s more where that came from,” Dean assures him, sliding into his own seat. “Dude, we killed a ghost. You earned it.”

“Thank you,” Castiel says with a grin, reaching for the syrup. “Did you know that 71% of the world’s maple syrup is farmed in Canada, and of that, 91% comes from the province of Quebec?”

“That’s…a completely useless factoid. This isn’t even maple syrup. It’s Mrs. Butterworth’s. I’m pretty sure it’s just high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavor. Where do you even learn this stuff?” Dean asks around a mouthful of pancakes. It is possibly the only time Castiel has not found him attractive, and he thinks of commenting on his host’s table manners, but changes his mind.

“I was writing a story just the other side of the Quebec border one winter and got snowed in. I had a lot of time to kill before the road out of town got cleared. There were a limited number of books available at the inn I was stuck at.” It wasn’t all bad, in Castiel’s memory. The proprietress, a tiny old woman with a heavy Francophone accent and a bawdy sense of humor, made the most impeccable tourtiere, and her grandson introduced Castiel to the wonder that is poutine. He hasn’t been back to Quebec since, but it might be worth the trip just for the cheese curds. Dean would like poutine, he thinks. And probably Tim Horton’s coffee too, unless he misses his guess.

“Man, you’ve lived an interesting life,” Dean notes, his smile disarming.

“I’m sure it sounds that way. It hasn’t been that exciting from my end. I’m much more interested in how you ended up where you are.”

“Not much to tell,” Dean says dismissively. “Would have stayed in Lawrence, probably be doing pretty much the same thing I’m doing now but in a different state, except my dad died suddenly. Only family we had left was my uncle Bobby, not even actually an uncle, just an old friend of my dad’s. He took us in though. I was eighteen by the time it all settled, so I coulda gone wherever, but Sam was still just a kid and damned if I was gonna let him move across the country by himself, so we moved to South Dakota and Sammy picked up where he left off with school.”

“I’m sorry,” Castiel offers, his voice sad even though none of this is news. He’d heard as much when he came back to Lawrence looking for Dean, but it hurts anew to hear it in Dean’s own voice, and it hurts doubly to hear it told as to a stranger. Castiel would have been there to comfort Dean when this all happened, if he wasn’t robbed of the chance.

“It was a long time ago,” Dean says, like that changes anything. Castiel knows it doesn’t. His own father has been gone about as long, and it still pains him to think of it. Chuck wasn’t the greatest father, but he was a good man, and he was sick. If only Castiel knew how sick, maybe he could have helped. Maybe he could have reached out to the extended family he never saw and asked for assistance. Maybe Chuck would still be alive today. He imagines Dean has some similar feelings, though John’s illness was much more of his own making than Chuck’s was.

“So you’ve been tending bar since you were old enough to drink?” Castiel asks, changing the subject.

“Basically,” Dean confirms. “I helped Bobby out at his garage for a while. He shut it down a few years back though and just operates a salvage yard now, so there’s not much work for a spare pair of hands these days. And I do like working at the bar. You don’t see a lot of people in a garage, not people you get to be all that social with. I wasn’t doing well spending all that time by myself under the hood of a car.”

“You were lonely?” Castiel inquires, careful to keep his tone sensitive and without judgement.

“I guess you could say that. When Sam left to go to school, it was like, well shit, now what? I’d been looking out for him my entire life, right? That what I was. Big brother Dean, looking out for my pain-in-the-ass genius kid brother. I never really thought about what I’d end up doing when I wasn’t doing that anymore, so I kinda drifted when he left. Don’t get me wrong, I was fuckin’ proud of him, but it left me without a rudder.”

“So you took a job at a bar to try to do something that was just for you, for once. That’s not a terrible plan.” Castiel smears a chunk of pancake through the pool of syrup on his plate, careful not to let the sticky rivulets drip on his shirt as he stuffs it into his mouth.

“Yeah I guess not. I didn’t really see it that way at the time, but that’s what I was doing. Trying to find something I could do now that I didn’t have Sam to look out for. Bobby was fine without me. Hell, I’m not sure he even needed my help in the first place. Probably just gave me the job so I had something to do.” Dean laughs. “That would be just like him.”

“I think I like this Bobby person,” Castiel announces.

“Yeah, you probably would. He’s a surly old jerk sometimes, but he’s one of the best men I know. I’d trust him with my life.”

Dean clears their plates, outright refusing Castiel’s offer to help him clean up. Instead, he ushers Castiel into the living room with a mug of cocoa. The doctor never said he couldn’t drink while recovering, but he also didn’t say he could, and Dean is very much hung up on that particular detail, so there is no beer to be had. Castiel is entirely certain that Dean would have no problems pouring himself a drink if he were the one concussed, but that argument doesn’t seem to hold any water.

Castiel sips his cocoa, smiling to himself when he notices the little marshmallows floating on top. As much as he rebelled at the idea of being coddled over something as simple as a bump on the head, he’s got to admit it’s nice to feel taken care of like this, even if it’s totally unnecessary. He’s perfectly fine. He could probably even start working on his article tomorrow.

As if reading his mind, Dean calls out from the kitchen. “I stashed your laptop, by the way, so don’t even think of busting out that bright screen while I’m too busy to stop you.”

Castiel calls him several unflattering names in reply, but he does it with a smile on his face.

Since he’s not allowed his computer and he can’t watch TV, Castiel sets himself down on the couch and tries to relax. It’s difficult. He’s not used to being inactive. His entire life, there’s always been another story, another destination, another witness, another source. He’s never had time, never made time to just sit and rest and relax. Now that he’s forced into it, he finds his mind won’t still. He closes his eyes and attempts to force relaxation, but his brain wants to fumble over word choices, struggling to frame the article that his hands itch to write. Maybe Dean would let him start working with pen and paper, and type the article up later after he’s convinced Castiel is alright?

He knows without asking what the answer to that question will be. Dean must have picked up some mother hen instincts from all the time he spent looking after Sam while their father was passed out drunk, because he’s proving to be persistently protective of Castiel’s wellbeing.

“How’s your head?” Dean asks when he enters the room, kinda proving Castiel’s point. “You doing okay?”

“I’m fine,” Castiel assures him. “Just trying to relax. Thank you for the cocoa. And the pancakes. They were delicious.”

“No worries,” Dean replies, taking his own seat on the couch. There’s less space between them than Castiel would have expected, and he’s certainly not complaining, but he wonders if Dean even notices how close he is. “I like cooking for people. Kinda forget that, living by myself.”

“Well I, personally, hate cooking, and am predictibly terrible at it, but I do love a home-cooked meal, so you can cook for me any time you like.”

“Duly noted,” Dean says with a grin. “I forgot how nice it is to have company around here, too. I do most of my socializing at the bar, y’know?” Castiel nods. “And, like, it’s not that I don’t date, but it’s been a while since I had anyone serious, so I never really have anyone hanging out in my space much.”

“If it’s an imposition, I really don’t mind going back to my motel,” Castiel promises. “I feel completely fine.”

“Dude, that’s the opposite of the point I was trying to make. I like having you here. It doesn’t suck.”

“You’re sure?” Castiel presses. “I’m really okay, and I’m more than happy to go back to my motel.” He doesn’t know why he’s arguing the issue. There’s no part of him that actually wants to distance himself from Dean.

“Shut up and drink your cocoa,” Dean shoots back, his tone fond. There’s a smile on his face that Castiel decides immediately that he likes, one that makes him feel more at home than he has in years. “Anyway, what I was trying to say is it doesn’t suck having you around, okay?”

“Such a glowing recommendation,” Cas intones, dripping with sarcasm. “You’ve got quite a way with words.”

“Hey, it’s better than I can say for some of the people I’ve dated.”

“A sordid history?” Castiel asks, wanting the words back as soon as he’s said them. He’s not sure how much he actually wants to know about Dean’s dating history. It’s possessive and unfair and completely not his place to have any opinion about it at all, but it puts a sinking sort of dread in his belly to think of Dean loving someone else, even if that someone didn’t end up being what Dean wanted.

“I guess you could say that.” Dean sighs, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t know, I’ve had one or two things that seemed like they were getting serious for a while, but mostly just short terms things. One night stands and flings or whatever. But there was always something missing. Didn’t seem to matter how much I liked ‘em, things just never felt quite right. I always figured when I found the right person I’d just know, you know?”

“I think I understand,” Castiel tells him, nodding sagely. Inside, he aches. The urge to comfort Dean is overwhelming, but there’s also the searing pain of knowing that, at one time, Dean thought of Castiel as the right one. It would be so much easier if he could just tell Dean, but Marv’s warning rings in his memory clear as a bell. He settles, instead, for a comforting hand rested on Dean’s knee and a kind smile. “You want someone that feels like coming home.”

“Yeah,” Dean agrees sadly. “That sounds about right. Just never felt like anybody was the right shape for the empty parts in my life.”

“I’m sure the person who fits in your life is out there,” Castiel offers, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“Maybe,” Dean says, clearly finished with this line of conversation. “So, you can’t look at bright screens so a movie is out. You wanna play cards? Board games?”

“What do you have?” Castiel asks.

“Uh, let’s see,” Dean replies, vacating his seat on the couch and making his way over to the hall closet. “I got…Scrabble, and Monopoly, but that’s no good with only two. And I got Risk. Apparently that’s it. And Twister, but that is not a concussion friendly game.”

“No, it is not,” Cas agrees, grateful. He would likely not survive a game of Twister, all that physical contact and bodies intertwined. It would be the end of him. “How about Scrabble?”

“You’re on!” Dean pulls the cardboard box out of the closet, a broad grin on his face as he dusts off the lid. He’s going to regret challenging someone with Castiel’s vocabulary, but there’s no need to tell him that. Dean will learn soon enough the folly of his ways.

~*~

Castiel wakes in the morning still seated upright on the couch, a lethal kink in his neck and a stiffness in all his limbs, but otherwise no worse for wear. There’s no headache to speak of, so it would seem that he’s suffered no serious aftereffects of the blow to his head, and that puts him in a particularly good mood. If he’s off concussion watch, it means he can get back to his laptop soon, provided he can convince Dean that he’s actually okay, which means he can write his article. It’s been a long time since Castiel has actually been excited about a piece he’s been preparing to write, and this one promises to be the an interesting challenge. He’s never had this kind of first hand detail to write about, and if the pictures turn out as well as he hopes, Gabriel will be thrilled with the work. He’ll have to make sure Dean receives some kind of acknowledgement in the article. Not only did he risk life and limb to assist Castiel, but he’s the only reason Castiel didn’t get injured worse in the final confrontation.

If it weren’t for the whole thing where he rescued Castiel from a dangerous encounter, he might be a little annoyed with Dean right now. Scrabble, as it turns out, is not at all about vocabulary, or spelling skills, or grammar or any of the other language related things that Castiel knows himself to be good at. What it is, as a matter of fact, is a game of strategy. Words are just the tools. Dean is apparently a master strategist, and the fact that he is not a writer by trade did not hinder him in the slightest when it came to thoroughly trouncing Castiel in several consecutive rounds. Oh sure, Castiel managed to use all seven letters on his rack on a couple of occasions, and he used words that Dean didn’t even know were real until Castiel defined them, but Dean managed to use considerably more triple-word-score tiles in one game than Castiel did all night, and he proved to be quite skilled at using the lay of the board to his advantage. Castiel’s hubris did not serve him well at all, and after a couple hours, he finally admitted he was outmatched and pronounced Dean the undefeated champion of Scrabble. They switched to Risk after that, a much more civil pursuit, and it must have been at some point during that game that Castiel fell asleep still sitting up, because the board is still spread out on the coffee table in front of them, little blue and green army men scattered across the map.

Castiel yawns, tilting his head side to side to stretch out the sore muscles, and comes to a grinding halt when a very important detail that escaped his earlier notice comes to the forefront of his mind.

During the course of the night, exhausted though he was, Castiel did not slump over and stretch himself out on the couch, which would be a very silly thing to have done if not for the fact that he couldn’t have, because still sleeping on the couch beside him is Dean, also seated. The kink in Castiel’s neck is likely due to the fact that he has been sleeping with his head pillowed on Dean’s shoulder for a number of hours.

Castiel’s brain, still slow and sleepy, is still mulling over the implications of this turn of events when Dean joins him in the world of the waking. His gorgeous green eyes blink open slowly, but not quite slowly enough for Castiel to inch away, leaving a more reasonable space between them. He silently curses himself for not being enough of a morning person to wake up early and avoid this awkward moment, but before he can form words to apologize, he loses the desire to do so. Dean yawns, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, takes one look at Castiel sitting so close he’s practically in Dean’s lap, and smiles. It’s a soft smile, nothing lecherous or suggestive, but rather one of contentment, of comfort.

Castiel knows Dean doesn’t love him, or they’d be having a very detailed conversation about how this absurd scenario came to pass. But in this moment, with that slow, sleepy smile on Dean’s face and nearly no space between them, Castiel has more hope than he’s had in years.

“Coffee?” Dean offers, stretching his arms over his head.

“Please,” Castiel replies. “Milk and sugar,” he adds, because he knows that Dean can’t possibly remember how he takes his coffee. He doesn’t remember anything about Castiel, but maybe he will soon.

Chapter Text

Though Castiel shows no outward signs of any injury, Dean makes him wait an entire day before giving him back his laptop. A full twenty-four hours after the incident with the ghost in the basement, and only then does Dean retrieve Castiel’s laptop bag, previously stashed under Dean’s bed apparently, and allow Castiel the opportunity to start working on his story. He’s sent off with a firm admonishment to stop working the second his head starts to hurt. Castiel assures Dean that he will comply, though he can’t imagine he’s going to start showing any symptoms of a concussion now if he didn’t before, but agreeing to it is the only way he’s going to get his bag back, apparently. He’s got no evidence to support it, but still Castiel favors the theory that Dean knows full well that Castiel is fine, and being careful of his concussion is just a ruse to keep him around longer.

Thinking about that, however, delays the actual writing of the article for an amount of time Castiel will never admit to, because he’s too distracted  by the thought that Dean might be developing some kind of feelings for him. It’s hard not to get his hopes up considering all the mother-henning that followed Castiel’s brush with the dead, and he was certainly welcomed into Dean’s home easily enough. But the rational part of his brain, the one tied up in empirical data and observable facts and reality, tells him that those hopes should not be indulged. Dean still has no memory of him, which means one of two things; either he does not love Castiel, or he already does and it’s not enough to unmake the hell that Marv’s magic has wrought. Either way, There’s no good to come of dwelling on it.

The number of times Castiel has to remind himself of this fact as he stares at a blinking cursor on a blank screen is, quite frankly, embarrassing.

A man in his thirties should be no lovesick fool, but here he is, pining for a man only a few blocks away who might as well be on the other side of the country. It’s frustrating and disheartening, and Castiel wishes he could just bring himself to act. He’s well aware this isn’t some wrung out fairy tale, Disney movie magic painted onto the backdrop of two real-life star-crossed lovers, but there’s some part of him that dares to hope that if he just kissed Dean, the touch of his lips would break the spell like it’s done for so many animated princesses in years gone by. Snow White was redeemed in a kiss, and Sleeping Beauty too, though Castiel knows their original tales where much more grim and unsettling than what children these days see on screen. He wishes he could so easily believe it would be that easy for himself and Dean. He almost wants to try. But again, that rational brain rears its ugly head and reminds him that it’s unlikely to be that easy, and more likely than not, his too-forward approach will drive a wedge between them rather than bring Dean closer, and there’s a decent likelihood he’ll do damage that’s irreconcilable. If he’s read Dean wrong and there’s nothing brewing, moving too fast will destroy any chance that Dean could find it in his heart to love Castiel, and that’s a risk he’s just not willing to take.

Perhaps he should have wilted to Dean’s fussing and feigned some lasting ill effects from the ghost hunt. At least if he was still under Dean’s care and kept from his laptop, he’d have some reasonable excuse for the lack of words on his screen.

Sighing, Castiel turns his attention to the laptop once more, struggling to drag his mind away from thoughts of Dean and force them instead onto the article that, only yesterday, he was desperate to start writing. The cursor blinks tauntingly on the page in front of him, daring him to type word one, and nothing comes.

~*~

Hours later, when Castiel has paced his hotel room, read all his notes a thousand times and reread them a thousand more, eaten a disappointing fast food lunch, and stared at the screen for so long the blinking cursor is burned into his retinas, he’s saved from further frustration only by the ringing of his phone.

He doesn’t even care that it’s clearly going to be Gabriel. He answers it without checking.

“Hello?” Castiel speaks smoothly, trying to belie any of the tension that might seek to creep into his voice.

“Cas, buddy, how you doin?” Gabriel replies, equally smooth.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Castiel informs him, not really the truth but not exactly a lie either. He’s frustrated and stagnated and love-sick and an idiot for getting mixed up with a witch who grants wishes, but he survived a deadly-close encounter with a ghost without dying himself, so fine is probably close enough to the truth to get by with.

“How’d the ghost hunt go?” Gabriel asks, his tone taunting and suggestive. Castiel hears the real question hidden beneath, the one Gabriel really wants to ask. How’d things go with Dean?

“We killed a ghost,” Castiel replies, opting only to answer the question as it was directly asked.

Gabriel laughs. “Wasn’t it already dead?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Sure, yes, okay, whatever. You double-killed some horrifying spectre from beyond the grave. You said ‘we.’ I assume that means loverboy went with you?”

“Yes,” Castiel replies flatly. “Dean assisted me with my research.”

“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”

Castiel lets his silence tell Gabriel exactly how he feels about this particular line of questioning.

“Oh come on. That was hilarious,” Gabriel presses, never one to pass up the opportunity to be a complete asshole, apparently.

“Is there something you need?” Castiel inquires, not particularly interested in this conversation. “I was in the middle of writing…”

“Just checking in to see how the story’s going. And, you know, to see how things are going with you. Personally. In life,” Gabriel informs him, all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

“The story is going,” Castiel lies through his teeth. “I’ll send you off a draft as soon as it’s wrapped up. And I’m very tired, so I’d like to get back to writing if you don’t mind.”

“So I should take that as an indication that things are not going well with your forgetful lover?”

“You should take that as an indication that I’d like to get off the phone so I can do my job,” Castiel snaps, his patience growing thin. If he wanted to talk about Dean, he would have brought it up.

“Ooh, testy. Alright, I can take a hint,” Gabriel soothes, also a falsehood. “The sooner you get it to me though, the better. And send over whatever pictures you got. I’ll see if I can get the guys to clean them up a bit, see what’s good enough to print.”

“What guys?” Castiel rolls his eyes, more for himself than anything else. He should know better than to ask follow up questions by now.

“You know, the graphics guys. We have those. Digital age and all.”

“Sure,” Castiel agrees, barely paying attention.

“Soon,” Gabriel reminds him. “The sooner the better.”

“Right,” Castiel replies, ready to hang up the phone without even a hint of a goodbye.

Gabriel speaks just before he manages it. “You planning on getting back on the road after this one’s published? I got some leads I can send your way, if you’re interested.”

Castiel freezes. He hadn’t thought that far. This article is the last well-formed excuse he has for sticking around in Sioux Falls. Once he sends it off to Gabriel, he’s got no reason except Dean for sticking around, which means he’s got no reason for sticking around that he can actually tell Dean about.  How nice it would be if he could just stay in town and take his leisure, insinuate himself into Dean’s life until he’s a permanent fixture. Just hunker down here and never let go.

“I don’t know,” he answers flatly. “I…”

“Don’t tell me. You’re not sure you can leave until you know for sure you’re out of chances with the hot bartender.”

“I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to leave town,” Castiel corrects him. It occurs to him that Gabriel never actually said he had a problem with any of this. He’s been pressuring Castiel to take vacation for almost as long as they’ve been working together, and maybe this isn’t exactly what he had in mind but it is getting Castiel out from behind the wheel of his car, so perhaps it’s satisfying that requirement on some level.

“Just let me know when you’re interested in a lead,” Gabriel reiterates, no hint of judgement in his voice. Castiel is grateful, but it doesn’t matter whether Gabriel presses or not. The question of when, exactly, he should abandon all hope and resign himself to the lonely life he lead before all this drama happened, lingers in his mind.

“Goodbye, Gabriel,” Castiel says, hanging up the phone and setting it down beside his laptop.

The cursor still blinks at him, taunting and cruel.

~*~

It’s too quiet in his hotel room. That has to be it. There’s no other explanation for why he’s been trying to start this story for the space of an entire day and he hasn’t got anything at all on the page. There’s nothing to the soundscape except the hum of the ancient HVAC system pumping air in through the vents and it’s making it impossible for Castiel to think.

It’s flimsy and he knows it, but buying into his own terrible excuse is easier than acknowledging that he’s grown to hate being alone since he landed in Sioux Falls.

Castiel used to thrive on the solitude. He’s nearly convinced that he still does. But sitting here trying to write, drowning in the silence, it’s hard to keep believing that he’s such a confirmed lone wolf any longer. Every time he sits down and tries to write, the quiet intrudes on his brain and fills his head with thoughts of the warm company he could be keeping, of bright smiles and laughter and green eyes

Much as he is loath to admit it, Castiel will not get any work done hiding in his motel room, willing his brain to function. With a heavy sigh of resignation, he packs up his laptop and throws on his trench coat, heading out the door with his feet carrying him towards the Black Dog without another moment’s hesitation.

He knows the path by rote now. He’s been there so many times since he came to Sioux Falls, and he almost always walks. It’s become like a second home these days, or rather, just a home, since he doesn’t exactly have a first home to differentiate it from. It’s comfortable, nonetheless, welcoming and warm and decidedly home-like. It is a very strange thing, to feel so at ease in a bar like that, but it’s exactly what Castiel is feeling, and it’s that feeling that guides his feet back towards the familiar doors.

The moment he steps across the threshold he knows that it’s the right decision. It’s not like the story appears in his head fully formed as soon as he enters the bar, but the wheels start turning, or rather, the wrenches jammed between them fall away and allow the wheels to turn the way they’d been trying to all along. He drops into his usual booth, pulls out his laptop, a smile creeping across his face unbidden. He doesn’t even need to look up to know that Dean is on his way towards the table, and it’s a pretty safe bet that he’s got a beer poured for Castiel without even asking if he wants one.

“Hi,” Dean says with a grin, taking a seat on the opposite side of the booth.

“Hi,” Castiel replies, finally feeling content.

“How goes the story?” It’s basically the same question Gabriel asked, but it doesn’t feel nearly as grating coming from Dean. Castiel knows why, though he ignores it.

“Haven’t started writing it yet,” he explains. “Couldn’t sort out where I wanted to start.”

A look of grave concern crosses Dean’s features. “It’s not…” he trails off, gesturing to his head in a vague manner. Castiel shakes his head, but the look of concern doesn’t fade.

“My head’s fine,” he clarifies. “I just don’t know what form I want the article to take and it’s stalled me short of actually starting. I figured a change of scenery might help jump start it.”

“Good call,” Dean agrees. “You’ve done some awesome writing in this booth. No need to mess with a good thing.” Castiel gets hung up on that a bit, but keeps the thought to himself. Dean hasn’t read any of his articles, has he? Castiel doesn’t recall giving him copies of any of them, and he’s certainly never asked about the actual title of the publication. Perhaps he’s just being complementary, making generalized statements about the work Castiel has completed since arriving in Sioux Falls. Or perhaps he has sought out Castiel’s work? “Can I get you anything to eat, or just the beer,” Dean asks, breaking Castiel’s train of thought. It reminds him that he hasn’t eaten in quite a few hours and though he doesn’t actually feel hungry the idea of a proper meal, something that didn’t come out of a paper sack, seems like an excellent plan.

“Please,” Castiel replies. “I think I’m in the mood for a cheeseburger.”

“Of course you are,” Dean says, moving off with a laugh.

With that laugh still ringing in his ears, and his mood significantly lightened by seemingly small changes in his atmosphere, his environment, Castiel opens up his blank document and finally starts typing.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, like all cities that have stood long enough to see this many generations come and go, has its fair share of ghost stories. There are some repeated many times, around campfires and over one too many pints, the ones that everyone claims to have seen with their own two eyes. These stories have varying degrees of believability, and they’re entertaining, but sometimes that’s all they are, just stories. The ones worth telling, the ones worth putting feet to pavement and finding out the truth of, tend to be the stories that no one seems to be telling at all.

This, dear readers, is one of those ghost stories.

~*~

It comes together so much faster than he’d have expected, considering how absurdly slow the process was to get rolling. Castiel has a full page written by the time his meal arrives, and if it weren’t for the fact that Dean ducks away from the bar for a bit of a break at conveniently about the same time Castiel’s food is ready, he probably wouldn’t have even stopped writing long enough to eat it. But with Dean’s company he doesn’t feel quite so pressed to finish the article right this second, and allows the ideas he’s working on to marinate in the back of his brain while they sit and talk of nothing.

“You gonna let me read the article when it’s done?” Dean asks, swiping a french fry off of Castiel’s plate. He’ll probably have to vacate his seat soon. Benny will only let him get away with slacking off for so long before he comes out of the kitchen to yell, but on evenings like this when the bar isn’t quite that busy, he seems to be challenging the limits of Benny’s patience almost on purpose.

“Of course!” Castiel exclaims, somewhat affronted. “You risked life and limb to accompany me into a haunted basement, and you saved my very life with your daring heroics! I think an advance look at my damned article is the least that I owe you!” It’s all mock indignity, but it occurs to Castiel as the words leave his mouth that he does really owe Dean a debt of gratitude. He’d never have managed to dispatch the spirit without Dean’s help, and if he had, he certainly wouldn’t have wrangled any photographic evidence of the thing. There’s a decent chance he would have met his bloody end in that hallway without his intrepid companion.

“I don’t know about heroics,” Dean laughs dismissively. “Didn’t do much. Just lit stuff on fire at a convenient moment. Any idiot could have done that.”

“Well, that may be. But when I’m hunting ghosts, I don’t want just any idiot at my side.” Castiel grins, watching the slightest hint of a blush blossom on Dean’s cheekbones. He’s about to open his mouth to offer further commentary, perhaps something even bordering on flattery, when Benny’s voice booms from the doorway to the kitchen.

Dean!!”  he hollers. “Sometimes, I ain’t quite sure what it is I pay you for, but I’m damn sure it isn’t for sittin’ around on your butt flirting with my damn customers! Get back behind that bar and get to work!” Benny doesn’t even wait to ensure he’s obeyed, just slings a towel over his shoulder and ducks back into the kitchen, probably muttering under his breath.

“That’s my cue to go,” Dean announces somewhat sullenly. “I’ll grab you another beer. Pretty sure yours is body temperature by now.”

Castiel opens his mouth to explain how unlikely it is for a beer to warm up to 98 degrees in a room that’s probably only in the 70’s, but he’s forestalled by the twinkle in Dean’s eye and the grin on his lips. “Another beer would be nice. Thank you, Dean,” he says instead.

“Don’t mention it,” Dean tells him, sauntering back behind the bar. His pleasant distraction gone, Castiel turns his attention back to his article. If he’s to let Dean read it, he should probably actually finish writing the thing. His hands start typing almost before he remembers where he left off.

My companion and I, an intrepid bartender who works in the very establishment that played host to the spirit in question, trekked down to the basement in hopes of locating the secret entrance to the long forgotten speakeasy…

Chapter Text

For all the struggles Castiel had getting started in the first place, he somehow manages to complete a first draft of the article before Gabriel pesters him again the following afternoon. It’s not exactly complete, but between staying at the Black Dog until last call and lugging his laptop across the street from his motel to write in a coffee shop in the morning, it’s a finished narrative at least. He’ll still have to spend a decent amount of time tweaking it before he’s ready to send it off for Gabriel to edit, and he’s definitely hesitant about showing it to Dean for some reason, but the bones of the story are there. It’s a good feeling.

“You got an article for me?” Gabriel asks when Castiel picks up his call, sparing no time for pleasantries. He sounds a little harried, perhaps even stressed.

“Mostly. First draft is done, but I want to go over it a bit before I send it off,” Castiel informs him almost cheerfully, which is entirely uncharacteristic.

“Right on! Those pictures you sent me turned out great too. I think this is going to be your best work in a long time. Let me know as soon as you’re done with the draft. If you’re in by print cutoff, I think you’re going front page.” Gabriel hangs up, leaving Castiel to his work. He checks the time, mulling over his choice of synonyms and idly tapping his fingers on the coffee shop’s scratched wooden table, and decides it’s time for a change of venue.

Jo gives him a tight smile as he steps in off the street, a gust of wind chasing his trench coat as the door swings closed. It’s getting far too cold for his single thin layer, and it’s only going to get colder as winter settles over the city, but Castiel can’t bring himself to do anything about it. Buying a proper winter coat seems too much like settling in, and he still doesn’t feel like he has any right to. This isn’t his home, it isn’t his city, and it’s certainly not his life. It could be, but right now, it isn’t. Castiel slides into his usual table, fiddling with his laptop and shucking his coat, and doesn’t even get past the first paragraph before Dean arrives, casting a welcome shadow across his screen.

“How goes the writing?” he asks conversationally, wiping his hands on a bar towel. He’s wearing a green and grey plaid shirt today, one that echoes the shade of his eyes, and it’s remarkably flattering. Castiel wishes silently that he could bring himself to say so.

“Excellent,” Castiel concedes. “My editor says it could make cover story. I’ve still got editing to do but it’s getting there.”

“Dude that’s awesome,” Dean exclaims honestly, giving Castiel’s shoulder a playful shove. “We should celebrate!”

Castiel’s murmured response is barely audible above the din of the bar. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

“Sure it is. You hunted down a real live ghost with your awesome research skills, we friggin’ torched it, you wrote an article  that’s gonna make front fuckin’ page, and neither of us even died. That’s a huge deal, and around here, we celebrate stuff like that.”

“What did you have in mind?” Castiel asks, relenting. Whether he thinks it’s a big deal or not is irrelevant. Dean’s clearly excited, and it’s an excuse to spend time with him while he’s still in town, so there’s nothing else to consider.

“Bar closes early tonight ‘cause it’s Sunday. I’ll make dinner, and maybe we can grab a pie or something.” Dean sounds so enrapt at the thought of pie, Castiel finds himself nodding without even deciding to. “Of course, by early, I mean like eleven instead of two am, but you’re kind of a night owl anyway, right?”

“That sounds excellent. There is a bakery a couple blocks away, I believe. I’m sure they’ve got pie.”

“Awesome,” Dean repeats. “You gonna head back to your room at some point or are you parking it here for the evening?”

“I think I’ll stay here and work. Though I should probably go see to the pie before the bakery closes. Is it alright if I leave my things?” Castiel gestures to his table, strewn with paperwork.

“Go for it,” Dean tells him. “I’ll keep an eye on things for you. I should get back to work though. Do you want a beer when you get back?”

“Please,” Castiel tells him, shrugging into his trench coat and patting down the pockets to make sure he’s got his wallet handy. He’s halfway out the door before he realizes that Dean never bothers to ask what kind of beer he wants anymore, just selects one he knows Castiel will like, and that Castiel likewise didn’t ask what kind of pie Dean favors. He’s sure he’ll be able to choose something suitable, though.

As he rounds the corner, trying to remember which side of the street he recalls the bakery being on, Castiel feels the weight of eyes settle on him, and his head jerks up. At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else out in the chill, but as he darts his eyes around looking for some unseen threat, he catches a glimpse of movement down the block. Her long skirt ripples in the breeze where it isn’t held in place by the weight of her coat, and he can’t clearly see her face at this distance, but he knows from the instant he sees her that it’s Cassandra. She doesn’t call out to him. In fact, she makes no move at all, standing fast in front of a building that appears to house apartments. It might even be her home, for all he knows, and Castiel the interloper in her neighborhood. Whether she acknowledges him or not is irrelevant, because her eyes seem to follow him as he makes his way along the street, and even as Castiel ducks into the bakery he can tell she’s still watching.

~*~

The encounter with Cassandra, such as it was, stays on Castiel’s mind all evening. He drinks a single pint and orders dinner, peruses his article with great interest, and still can’t seem to shake the feel of her eyes on his skin. She said things he couldn’t fathom that first day in Sioux Falls. It seems almost a lifetime ago, though really it was just a little over a month. But he tries to put it from his mind and focus on the task at hand.

He’s mostly successful. By the time the other patrons start settling their tabs and drifting off home, Castiel has poked and prodded the thing into the tightest shape it’s going to get, and though his finger hovers over the send button on his email to Gabriel for a full five minutes before he actually follows through with the action, he can honestly say he’s satisfied with what he’s wrought. It’s a solid work, well researched and cleverly phrased, and he tells Gabriel so when he calls to advise it’s done, just like he promised. He’s not sure why Gabriel insisted, though, since he knows his editor receives all his email on his phone anyway, so he was probably aware of the submission before Castiel even dialled his number. He cuts the conversation short, lest Gabriel steer it in other directions, like when he’s going to get on the road. Castiel isn’t even close to interested in discussing that.

But now with his article complete and submitted and out of his grasp, Castiel finds himself for the first time since he arrived in Sioux Falls without a conceivable reason to be there. He came here for Cassandra, at Gabriel’s insistence, and he found many other defensible excuses not to go, even though what he found wasn’t quite what he was looking for. He has written an absurd number of short and boring filler articles, investigated possibly one of the greatest articles of his entire career, and come back in contact with the love of his life who, for all intents and purposes, has no clue who he is outside of the short month or so they’ve known each other this time around. Cassandra said he was in love, and that his feelings were returned. She also said he’d be rescued by a cow and that birds would interrupt his conversations, so it’s hard to put any stock in her predictions. He’d hoped this thing with Dean would be easy, like coming home again, but a heavy feeling settles over Castiel’s body as he is forced to acknowledge that he might be running out of time to make anything happen. If present day Dean doesn’t fall in love with him soon, he might have to give up hope of ever breaking the spell that took his memories away. He might never get back the Dean he knew twenty years ago.

He tries not to look sullen as he sips the last of his beer and casts his eyes around the bar. He doesn’t see Dean, but Benny is out from his kitchen, wiping down a counter as he whistles a tune Castiel doesn’t quite recognize. He smiles when he sees Castiel watching, giving him a companionable nod of the head. They’re not friends, not really, but Castiel likes Benny. He’ll miss him at least a little when he has to leave, if it comes to that.

Maybe it’s a sign of personal growth, or maybe it’s a just a new defense mechanism, but Castiel sighs heavily to himself, shaking off that defeatist line of thought. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and he’s probably not in control of any of the deciding factors, but there’s no use resigning himself to negativity. All he’ll accomplish that way is to drag himself down and possibly push Dean away. If he doesn’t get to love Dean, then he should at least try to enjoy his company while it’s on offer, right?

Castiel wishes convincing himself of that was easy.

~*~

“So what kind of pie did you get?” Dean asks excitedly as he unlocks the door to his house. Castiel follows him inside out of the cold, kicking off his shoes off and revelling in the relative warmth of the place.

“There were too many flavours. I couldn’t decide. So I got half an apple pie, and half a cherry.”

“Dude, you’re awesome,” Dean informs him. “Those are my favourites.”

I know, Castiel wants to tell him. You told me when we were fifteen. “Oh good,” he says instead. “They seemed like safe choices. Everyone likes apple pie.”

“That’s because apple pie is amazing. Even a terrible apple pie is still pretty fuckin’ good on account of how it’s pie,” Dean informs him matter-of-factly. “Beer?” He beelines for the kitchen without waiting for a response, yanking open the fridge door to liberate two glass bottles. Castiel follows him in, accepting one of the bottles with noises of gratitude and handing over the bakery box he’s been clutching carefully the whole way back. Dean sets it in the fridge and opens his own beer.

“So, I don’t know about you,” Dean posits, “but I’m fuckin starving.

~*~

Dean makes Castiel help him prepare dinner, though he doesn’t really feel like it’s much help. The burger recipe seems to be something that Dean has perfected through repetition. He mostly asks Castiel to pass him seasonings and put things back in the fridge, but all the actual cooking is managed by Dean’s own two hands. Still, Castiel doesn’t mind the close quarters, and though it’s been years since he’s actually prepared a home-cooked meal, he’s got no qualms about eating one. They eat cheeseburgers clustered around Dean’s kitchen table, sipping ice cold beers and recounting the ghost-hunt that led to the celebration.

It feels so normal, Castiel’s heart aches to bursting.

Castiel insists on helping clean up afterwards, even though Dean would be just as happy to abandon the mess until the morning. Plunging his hands into the soapy dishwater is momentarily sobering, but as soon as the last dish is clean, Dean’s passing him another beer, and any sobriety he gained back in the interlude is quickly chased away.

 Hours pass. Beers are drained and replaced. Castiel loses all track of time, but he cares not. He’s having fun; more fun than he’s let himself have in years. He smiles, and it actually touches his eyes. He laughs from deep down in his belly where he means it, not just some affected response because he can tell he’s supposed to be laughing. He gets tipsier and tipsier, and Dean is right there beside him, laughing and swaying in his seat like there is nowhere in the world he’d rather be. Somewhere in the back of Castiel’s mind, an emotion tries to form, something blue and forlorn and bittersweet, but in the moment all he can feel is glee. Leave the melancholy for another time when he has the headspace to process it.

“Read it to me,” Dean is saying, his eyes bright and his grin wide.

“Read what?” Castiel inquires dumbly, feeling as if he’s lost the direction of the conversation.

Dean laughs. “The article, dumbass. What else would I mean?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel admits honestly. It’s really the only thing that makes sense, given the reason for their celebration, but his brain is a little sluggish. He’s not exactly sure how many bottles of beer he’s drained tonight, but it’s not like he was trying to keep track. “Okay.”

He digs his laptop out of the worn leather messenger bag that rarely leaves his side, boots it up and loads up the file. When he looks up, Dean is watching intently, excited to hear the story which is bizarre because he lived it right along with Castiel, so he knows exactly how it ends.

“I could just send you a copy, you know,” Castiel offers. “You could read it whenever you want.”

“Yeah,” Dean agrees, “but I bet it’ll sound even better coming from you.” He doesn’t offer any explanation as to what that’s supposed to mean, and Castiel can’t bring himself to ask. Instead, he fixes his eyes on the screen so he doesn’t have to think about it, and launches into the article.

Dean sits enrapt. He doesn’t interrupt the entire time Castiel reads, doesn’t offer commentary or anecdotes. There are a couple moments where Castiel glances up and catches Dean staring at him, something in his eyes that should give Castiel pause but doesn’t. It’s probably owing to the alcohol, Castiel assures himself, though he’s not clear on whether he means the thing he sees on Dean’s face, or the reason it doesn’t give Castiel pause.

And the story goes on, and Castiel’s words flow smoothly and the story seems to come to life as he tells it aloud. His heart quickens a little at the memory of his injury, of being spirited away to safety by Dean’s strong arms. When the article draws to a close, Castiel looks up and sees Dean staring at him, and maybe it’s the booze but he seems to be sitting much closer than Castiel remembers.

Only a half second of eye contact precedes the motion, not nearly enough to give warning, and then Dean is surging forward, pressing his lips to Castiel’s with no finesse but an abundance of passion, and it seems that the computer perched on Castiel’s knees is the only thing keeping him from climbing into Castiel’s lap. It’s over almost as quickly as it started. Dean recoils like he’s surprised to find himself kissing Castiel, but there’s clear delight on his face.

“I wanted to do that,” Dean explains breathlessly, like it explains anything at all.

Castiel nods. “That’s good,” he replies, equally breathless.

“I kinda wanna do it again.”

Castiel nods again. He has just enough time to get his computer out of the way before Dean, for lack of a better word, pounces on him, kissing slowly and sweetly. His lips are softer than they look, his hands big and firm where they grip Castiel’s shoulders, and in a very distant part of his mind Castiel is aware that Dean does not kiss at all like he did twenty years ago. He cannot be bothered to think about that right now, however, because present day Dean is taking up exactly all of his attention. He kisses messy and wet, his enthusiasm clear, and Castiel has no problem matching him for that enthusiasm. Dean tilts his head to the side just so, taking the kiss deeper, exploring Castiel’s mouth with his tongue. He tangles his fingers in Castiel’s hair, touching like it’s all he ever wanted. Castiel understands that sentiment all too well, so he’s more than happy to be along for the ride. He gives as good as he gets, clutching Dean as close as they can get sitting side by side on the couch.

Eventually, Dean comes up for air. “I…shit,” he pants. “Do you wanna…bedroom?” It’s not the most formal invitation Castiel has ever received but it’s certainly the most welcome one.

“Fuck yes,” he replies, practically a groan. Dean barely gives Castiel time to get to his feet before he’s dragged along by one arm. As soon as they make it to the bedroom Dean is kissing him again, fumbling with the buttons on Castiel’s shirt. Castiel doesn’t even try his own hand at removing Dean’s clothes. He’s too wrapped up in the kissing and letting himself be undressed, and he’s just a little too tipsy to divide his attention effectively anyway. Soon Dean is throwing Cas’ shirt to the floor, pulling back just long enough to toss his own flannel down alongside it. Once Dean sheds his undershirt, Cas pauses to run his hands reverently over the smooth planes of his chest, marvelling at how real and solid Dean feels under his fingertips. He can still barely believe this is happening after everything it took to get here.

“Fuck, you look good,” Dean murmurs. He’s diving in for another kiss before Cas can contradict him, and then with all that bare skin, voicing a disagreement over his own physical appearance doesn’t seem so important anymore. The most pressing matter is the pants they’re still wearing, so he fights with the fastenings on Dean’s jeans and kisses him fiercely, happy that Dean seems just as excited as he is to move things along.

He finally gets the button open, and the zipper, and he pushes Dean’s pants down around his thighs. He’s already hard when Cas takes him in hand, groaning against Cas’ mouth with the sheer pleasure of the sensation. Cas touches him slowly, carefully. Even through the haze of alcohol he knows he wants to savour every touch, to file it away for future knowledge so he can remember exactly what it felt like when he and Dean came back together. None of this is a first, not by a long shot, but it still feels so momentous that it’s worth taking stock of.

“How do you want to do this?” Cas asks, his voice raw and deep and lusty. He can’t think of a single answer to that question that would even border on disappointment as long as he gets to touch Dean. Whatever Dean wants, that’s what he’ll get if it’s in Castiel’s power to give.

“In me,” Dean moans. The words come out breathy and thin, like he’s barely holding it together. “I want you in me.”

“We can do that,” Castiel assures him. “Condoms?”

“Dresser drawer.” Dean pushes his jeans the rest of the way to the floor while Cas retrieves a strip of condoms and a tube of Astroglide from the nightstand. When Castiel turns back around, Dean’s climbed onto the bed, propped up on one elbow and looking all manner of appealing, and he barely has the presence of mind to remove his own pants before joining him. Dean draws him in for a kiss as soon as he’s within reach. He hisses at the first cold touch of lube, but soon he’s warming up, his body relaxing under Castiel’s touches and inviting him in. Cas uses too much lube, probably takes too much time opening him up, but he can’t bear the idea of this being anything short of rapturous for Dean, so he won’t rush it. He’s slow and meticulous, teasing until his fingers slide into Dean easily before sheathing his cock in a condom and kneeling between Dean’s legs, and even then he waits for invitation before daring to go further.

“Cas,” Dean pleads. “Come on. I need you.” He’s practically begging. Cas couldn’t make himself deny Dean this for anything. He fits the head of his cock to Dean’s slick opening and pushes in as slowly as he can make himself do it. Dean is nearly writhing by the time Cas’ hips meet his thighs, urging Cas to move.

And he moves. Oh god, does he move.

Every thrust feels like coming home. Cas drapes himself over Dean’s body, pressing them together as they rock in unison, sliding into Dean’s heat and revelling in every single second of it. Their kisses start off slow and sweet, but soon turn wet and messy, and eventually they’re just pressing their lips together as they pant breathlessly. They’re slick with sweat. Cas can feel the precome leaking from Dean’s dick, trapped between their bellies. Everything about it is so perfect, so heated and honest and real, that Castiel wishes it could last forever.

Of course, it can’t. If they were younger men, perhaps they might have the stamina. If they were sober. But they are neither of those things. All too soon, Dean is throwing his head back against the pillows and coming with a shout, brought to orgasm just by the feeling of Cas fucking into him and the friction of his cock trapped between them. Cas slows a little then, not wanting to overstimulate Dean as he thrusts into his shuddering body. He kisses Dean through the last aftershocks of his orgasm, and not long after that he comes too, his hips working in short, sharp thrusts until he can no longer continue.

Dean grunts when Cas pulls out. His bare feet are quiet on the carpeted floor as he walks unsteadily to the bathroom, avoiding looking at his own naked reflection in the mirror. He discards the condom and grabs a wet cloth before rejoining Dean in the bedroom.

“That was some celebration,” Dean slurs lazily, grinning up at Cas. He takes the cloth gratefully, wiping the come from his stomach, tossing it carelessly to the floor when he’s done. Cas climbs back into bed beside him. Unexpectedly, Dean tucks himself up close, letting Cas curl around him like the big spoon, and he sighs contentedly. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” Cas agrees, and he means it. For the first time in years, he feels like he’s actually glad to be where he is.

Chapter Text

Castiel sleeps absurdly late, which is no surprise, owing to the copious quantities of beer he consumed late the night before and long into the early morning hours. The time spent exploring his passions in Dean’s arms certainly kept them up later, too, so while Castiel is a little startled to see full daylight streaming through the window to Dean’s bedroom when he finally wakes, it doesn’t take much thought to understand how that could come to pass. He’s alone in bed, but when he rolls over to the spot Dean previously occupied, he finds the sheets still warm, so he can’t have been gone long. Still, Castiel can’t wait to see him in the daylight, now that they’ve come together like this again. He’s practically vibrating with the desire to fill in all the gaps and get properly reacquainted. He knew it would come to this eventually. He knew Dean would fall for him all over again, just like he did before, because Castiel never stopped loving him.

Castiel is slow to move, not quite hung over but certainly not well rested. Once he finds his boxers he searches around for his shirt, finding it rumpled and with spilled ketchup on the front that he doesn’t recall seeing there the night before. Rather than wear the filthy thing out of the room, he tosses it back on the floor, and shuffles out into the hallway to seek Dean’s company. He finds him in the kitchen, brewing a rather large pot of coffee. Dean looks up when he hears Castiel enter.

“Good Morning,” Dean calls, a grin playing at his lips. He apparently felt no need to cover his own nudity, standing before the counter in just his boxers. Castiel can’t bring himself to be upset by this.

“Good Morning,” Castiel repeats. “How’d you sleep?”

“Not long enough, I think.” Not long enough, but how could Castiel possibly sleep any later, now that he has Dean waiting for him? He’s beautiful in the morning sunlight, all but naked, and Castiel can’t help staring.

“You got anywhere to be today?”

“Nowhere at all,” Castiel assures him, and it’s entirely true. He has nowhere in the entire world he’s compelled to be. He’s submitted his article and hasn’t made any plans for what to do after. Gabriel has sent him no leads. There’s no other ghost stories in Sioux Falls that he has any plans to write on at the moment. Outside of returning to his motel room for a clean shirt at some point before being seen in public, he has nowhere at all to be.

“Then I’m calling a lazy day. I got nowhere to be either.”

Castiel stares at him, puzzled. “You don’t have to work?”

“Jo took my shift today. She owes me more favors than she’d like to count at this point.”

“And you called one in because…?”

Dean grins. “’Cause right now I’d rather be here. “ He pauses, frowning.

“What’s wrong?” Castiel inquires.

“Sorry,” Dean replies with a shake of his head. “I didn’t mean to stare. I just…your scars. I didn’t notice them last night.” Castiel’s arms encircle his own torso instinctively, suddenly regretting his lack of a shirt. He doesn’t like to look at the scars, doesn’t even like to think about them. They crisscross his chest and abdomen whether he chooses to acknowledge them or not, and some on his shoulders and arms, too. They’re ugly and horrible and though the skin doesn’t hurt any longer, the memories certainly do.

“They’re very old,” Castiel informs him, empty words that barely hint at a story. He doesn’t want to keep this from Dean, but it still hurts to talk about even after all these years.

“What happened?” Dean asks the question so innocently, so without judgement or expectation, that even if Castiel had wanted to keep this story to himself, he’d be hard pressed not to offer up the details just to satisfy Dean’s curiosity. He breathes deeply, steeling himself, and lets the words flow. He’s waited nearly twenty years to share this story with someone he cares about. It’s time to let it out.

“After I left Lawrence, my father and I lived out of our car for a while. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was suffering from Schizophrenia, and he had some pretty severe religious delusions. I still feel awful that I wasn’t able to help him at the time. We were on the run for months, though we were never actually running from anything. We got into an argument one night. I tried to convince him we were safe, that nothing was wrong.”

There are tears in Castiel’s eyes. He doesn’t know when they started forming, but they’re falling now. Dean wipes one away with the tip of his finger, so gentle.

“I shouldn’t have argued with him while he was driving. There are a million other ways I could have gone about this, but I failed him. I picked a fight, and he was distracted, and he didn’t even see the truck that hit us. It killed him instantly.” Castiel’s laugh is bitter as he gestures to the puckered scars across his body. “I wasn’t so lucky. I spent weeks in hospital before they decided I was well enough to be released to the care of an aunt I’d never met.”

Dean is silent for a long moment, staring back at Cas with such emotion in his eyes that Castiel can hardly bear it. Not pity. Empathy. “God Cas, I’m so sorry. That’s fucking awful. But you’ve gotta know that wasn’t your fault. The driver that hit you, that’s the guy you gotta blame. Not you. You didn’t cause this. This isn’t on you.”

“Thank you,” Cas replies, somewhat flat. “I wish I could believe that, but it certainly feels like it’s my fault.”

Dean just shakes his head, wrapping his arms around Cas and holding him close. “That’s fucking awful,” he repeats. They just stand like that for long minutes, breathing in unison. Cas is still crying when Dean breaks the silence.

“Why did you have to go live with your aunt?” he asks innocently. “Was your mom gone, too?”

Castiel freezes. His blood runs cold. Time absolutely stops.

This entire morning, he’s been operating under this stupid, flawed assumption that Dean would remember. He chose Castiel, didn’t he? They slept together. He made the first move. He wanted Castiel. And like an idiot, Castiel assumed that meant Dean loved him, that he’d broken the spell and everything would be as it should. But no, of course not. Why would Castiel be that lucky? Dean wanted him, obviously, and sure, he liked Castiel, but love is apparently not what he’s found here. Not the kind of thing that breaks the spell. Just the kind of thing that breaks Castiel’s heart.

“My mom left when I was a child,” Castiel answers softly, letting Dean believe the pain in his voice is over the loss of his mother, not the crushing of all his hopes. His Dean would already know that. “I don’t think anyone had even the slightest clue where to find her. They’d have sent me to her if they could, but she didn’t want us ten years before, so I doubt she’d have wanted me then.”

“I’m so sorry,” Dean replies just as quiet, ignoring the tears soaking into his skin. He tilts Castiel’s chin up, wiping away his tears with gentle touches of his rough hands, and when Castiel stops sobbing, Dean kisses him.

It’s the shock as much as anything else that stops his crying. Castiel wasn’t expecting this. He wasn’t expecting anything else from Dean at all at this point. This is something the Dean who loves him would do. Not this Dean. Not the Dean who is nearly a stranger. Still, the kiss is what Castiel wants so he lets himself accept it. The kiss soothes his pain somewhat, though it still hurts to have this and realize it isn’t and will never be what he wants. How could it? How can Castiel hold out any kind of hope now, when he’s been this close, this intimate with Dean and still not managed to find that love again. The answer is simple. Dean is drawn to the man he is today, that much is clear, but he cannot love Castiel as he is now. They are too different from the way they were so many years before. Castiel got his wish, though not the one he meant to ask for. Now he knows that Dean can’t love the man he is today.

He can feel Dean growing harder as their bodies press together, and he should recoil, he should resist, but he wants this so badly it seems impossible to deny himself the indulgence. And Dean clearly wants it. The kiss turns from tender and soothing to heated and aggressive, and before he knows it Dean has him backed up against the kitchen counter, coffee forgotten. He’s grinding their hips together like it’s all he’s ever wanted, and Castiel couldn’t keep his body from responding even if he tried.

Andy why should he resist? Dean wants him. It’s not what Castiel was hoping for, not love, but it’s real and given freely. Why shouldn’t Castiel have this one small joy before he’s forced to abandon the one thing he’s ever really wanted? It’ll be a small comfort when he’s back on the road, lonely nights in lonely motel rooms. It’ll warm his soul to know that even if Dean couldn’t grow to love him again, he could at least harbour a passing like and a briefly burning flame of lust. So he kisses back and lets himself find solace in what he can have, and if Dean notices the tears in his eyes, he’ll know it’s grief, he’ll just be wrong on what he thinks Castiel is grieving for.

Cas works his hand between their bodies, cupping Dean’s hard length through his shorts. The knowledge that he’s the cause of this response, that Dean is hard for him, that’s almost enough to temper his grief. Almost. But it’s enough to take his attention for the time being so he rolls with that, letting Dean’s body and Dean’s pleasure take all of his focus. Dean groans when Cas pushes his shorts out of the way and grabs his cock, skin on skin, stroking and twisting and teasing. He’s got his hands braced on the counter on either side of Cas, leaning in to kiss him, and there’s barely any room at all between them for Cas to move his hand but he doesn’t stop.

“Cas…” Dean murmurs. Cas likes his name best when it’s spoken like that, low and desperate by someone he loves this dearly. He kisses the name off Dean’s lips, swallows it down like syrup. Dean melts under his touch. “I want you,” he breathes against Cas’ lip.

“Whatever you want,” Cas tells him, and he means it. There’s nothing he’d deny Dean, even now. If Dean asked him to stay, even without his memories, Castiel would park himself in Sioux Falls and put down whatever roots he can. If Dean told him to go, he’d be gone a soon as he picked a direction. Right now though, all Dean wants is intimacy; touch and attention and lust, so that’s what Castiel gives him. He guides Dean away from the counter and leads him towards the bedroom, ignoring the coffee maker that’s just now finished percolating, sidestepping his ketchup stained shirt on the bedroom floor, and they tumble back into bed.

Boxer shorts are shed in short order, flung away to be trifled with later when they don’t care to be naked. Cas lays Dean out on the bed, kneeling between his thighs, and his touches are like worship. He kisses Dean’s mouth, his throat, his chest, leaving nothing but memories in his wake, and Dean clings to his shoulders like a drowning man clings to a rock. He tries to do more, to sink lower and leave a trail of kisses towards Dean’s belly, his cock, but Dean stops him, pulls him close. Dean kisses Cas with such intensity and depth that he could be forgiven for temporarily forgetting it isn’t fueled by love. Cas kisses back just as fiercely.

He doesn’t resist when Dean flips him over, switching their positions and pinning him to the bed. He wants to cover up but fights the urge, instead letting Dean place kisses all over his body, just like he meant to do to Dean. He kisses Castiel’s scars, just gentle little presses of his lips, touches that feel so much like healing that it’s hard to remember the scars will still be there next time he looks for them.  He’s barely paying attention when Dean’s fingers wrap around his cock, rough touches working him to full hardness in a remarkably short amount of time.

“Can I fuck you,” Dean asks, a harsh whisper. His hand still curls around Cas’ cock, but his mouth is already kissing its way back up Cas’ chest. He pauses to bestow attention on a nipple, then beelines it for Cas’ mouth, kissing him softly and sweetly before he even gets a chance to form the words to answer.

Yes,” Cas breathes in reply the second he’s allowed to speak again. He’d never deny Dean anything, but this, this he wants for himself as well as for Dean, so he’ll accept it gladly. Dean reaches for the lube, still discarded on the bed from last night, and works Cas open with such careful touches that it makes Cas want cry. He’s not used to being handled like this, like he’s precious, like he’s worth something. He’s not used to being wanted for anything more than a quick lay. That blame lies as much with himself as with any of his past partners. He’s rarely made himself available for anything other than quick and nameless. It’s almost too much to handle, this reverence. But he promised Dean anything he wants, and if this is what Dean wants, who is Castiel to deny him?

By the time Dean sheathes himself in a condom and fits himself to Castiel’s body, Castiel is well past the desire to shy away. Dean fills him up slowly, inch by inch, and the fact that he doesn’t cry is not because he’s mastered his emotions, but because he’s too overwhelmed by them to even react. Dean plants his hands on either side of Cas’ head, bracing his body so he can thrust slow and deep. Cas is relieved when Dean kisses him. If they’re kissing, Dean won’t see any of the feelings he can’t keep off his face.

Castiel comes just like that, Dean thrusting into his ass, Dean’s kisses preventing him from saying anything damning. He doesn’t even remember letting go of Dean’s arm to grab his own dick, but the warm spread of come over his knuckles says he must have. Dean slows but keeps kissing him, keeps thrusting. He doesn’t even let their mouths break apart when his own orgasm takes him, cock buried deep inside Castiel.

Cas should go. He knows this the moment the sex is over. He should find a reason to leave and disappear. It’ll be easier that way. But he can’t bring himself to do it. Not when Dean wobbles off to the bathroom for a wet cloth, not when Dean curls up in bed beside him and cuddles up beside him. Not when Dean suggests they watch a movie, since there are so many that Cas hasn’t seen after spending so long on the road, and certainly not when Dean invites him to stay for dinner, since he doesn’t have an article to be writing right now. He’s had a dozen moments to leave, and a thousand reasons to take them, but none of those things seem as important as the knowledge that this will be the last time he and Dean are together in this manner.

So he stays, against his better judgement, and lets himself form a few more sweet memories to replace the ones that Dean will never get back.

 

 

Chapter Text

Castiel doesn’t have anything to write, but he still goes back to the Black Dog the next day. It’s habit by this point in time, the only routine he’s had in years, and he doesn’t quite know how to break it. He’ll have to, of course. It’s necessary. At some point he’ll need to tell Gabriel that he’s ready for another lead and get back on the road. Gabriel will obviously have questions. Castiel hopes to avoid answering them for as long as possible. Perhaps if he dodges the subject long enough Gabriel will just give up on it. He won’t forget, of course. He’s a persistent little fucker.  But he might relent.

It hurts to be sitting here like this and knowing that it’s one of the last times he’ll ever see Dean. It fucking hurts. He never thought he’d willingly leave Dean’s side, but that’s what he’s facing now. At least this time he’ll get a chance to say goodbye. That was the worst part of leaving Dean the last time around. He never got to say goodbye. Never even had the chance to try. At least this time when he walks out of Dean’s life, he’ll get to tell him he’s leaving. It won’t be the most sincere farewell. He won’t get to tell Dean he loves him, that he always will. He won’t get to kiss him goodbye. But he’ll get to say something.

Castiel wonders if it’ll hurt less this time, or just differently. Maybe it’ll be even worse because he’ll be haunted by the knowledge of his failure. He could always come back. Not to stay, not for real, but temporarily. He could swing through town, check on a lead, Take a short rest. Dean might even visit with him if he did. They might come together over drinks again, not in love, but in companionship and lust. It might even be enough.

Castiel wishes he could believe that.

No, when he leaves here, it’ll be for good. It’s only a matter of figuring out where to go, and when he’s going.

Dean brings him a beer without asking, just like he always does. He sits down to chat when he can get away with it, laughs at Castiel’s jokes, lingers just a little longer than necessary, but it doesn’t give him comfort anymore, not like it would have before.  He smiles back, tries to enjoy Dean’s company as much as he can while it’s available.

When Dean goes back to work, he turns his attention back to the laptop in front of him. He should probably pour himself back into his work. That’s the only way he kept the emptiness at bay before. It’s a good habit to get back into. At least if he finds his own lead, he can delay any kind of conversation with Gabriel a little bit longer.

Over lunch and a couple beers, Castiel peruses all his usual blogs, looking for something that will grab his attention long enough to get him out the door. Nothing sticks. There’s rumors of a vampire nest in New Hampshire, but who cares? Even if they are really vampires and not a bunch of faux-punk teenagers who saw too many movies, it’ll barely be enough to bother writing about. Someone suggests they might have seen a werewolf in northern Montana, but Castiel isn’t really interested in that either.

Though he doesn’t really expect to find anything new, Castiel points his browser towards hellhoundslair.net. It’s kind of just habit at this point, running through his sources until something interesting crops up, and even though they’ve been inactive for quite some time, he’s never really gotten around to adjusting the routine enough to remove them from consideration. Even as he types in the address, he’s expecting the same thing he’s seen the last hundred times, but he’s met with a questionably pleasant surprise. Harry and Ed are back in business! There’s a post at the top of the page explaining the events that have transpired over the past few months, though Castiel just skims it enough to see mention of some jerks from Texas, a haunted house that wasn’t actually haunted, and some thinly veiled references to a romantic relationship that went sour. He’s pretty sure that’s their way of saying they got into a fight over a girl, but really, he doesn’t care. The point is the blog is back up and since he’s getting back on the road, he’s going to need it.

Unfortunately, they don’t have anything interesting to offer him either.

That should be a small consolation. If there’s nothing pulling Castiel in any specific directly, then there’s no reason to vacate his motel room and hit the road right away. But now that he’s decided he has to leave, it seems like ripping the Band-Aid off will be the least painful. The longer he hangs around, the harder it’s going to be to set foot out the door when he finally does go.

“What’re you working on?” Dean asks, sliding into the booth opposite Castiel. Shows how wrapped up in his own unhappiness Castiel was. He didn’t even notice Dean approaching.

“Nothing specific at the moment,” Castiel informs him, trying to keep his voice devoid of emotion. “I think I might have tapped out the supernatural in Sioux Falls. Doesn’t seem to be anything going on around here that I haven’t written about yet.”

“Guess that means you’ll be heading out eventually?” Dean posits, sounding sadder than Castiel would have expected.

“Eventually. As soon as I have a destination, I guess. Haven’t found anywhere else to go that really strikes my fancy quite yet though.”

“That’s too bad.” Dean does not sound at all like he means that. “I’m sure there’s ghosts out there that need hunting. You’re old pro at that now. How many other guys in your line of work can say they’ve actually torched one?”

Castiel laughs. “Technically, I can’t even say that. You did all the burning. I just kinda fell down a little.”

“Whatever,” Dean snorts. “You were totally awesome. You’ll come back and say goodbye before you leave town, right?”

“Of course,” Castiel replies with heartfelt sincerity. He couldn’t bear to do otherwise. Not this time. Never again.

~*~

Dean stands behind the bar wiping glasses with a towel, pointedly not staring at Castiel. He’s got no right to stare, and he’s certainly got no right to be upset that Castiel is leaving town. He knew what this was. He knew it could never be anything more than a short term fling. Castiel was never anything but upfront about his line of work, how it took him all over the country. He hasn’t even had an apartment to go home to in over fifteen years. Dean knew from the moment they met that Castiel wouldn’t be staying.

None of that explains why he’s got so many damn emotions right now, knowing that Castiel is gonna hit the highway and drive out of his life as soon as he picks a direction to point that damn Continental.

“How’re the kegs lookin’?” Benny asks, startling Dean just a little. It’s not an accusation, just a question, but Dean still feels like a kid that’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. In his hand, the same glass he’s been holding for a solid three minutes is bone dry, but he’s still wiping it.

“Not too bad. Might need to bring up another one of the Honey Lager soon, but the rest’ll do for the night.”

“Mind doin’ that before the rush hits?” Dean wants to ask Benny what rush he means, ‘cause it’s not like this place ever gets that busy, but he bites his tongue. It’s not Benny’s fault he’s in such a shit mood.

“Yeah, no problem.” Dean sets down his glass and picks up another one, a glass that actually needs drying. He’s got time. He’ll get the keg in a minute.

“So you gonna make a move, or you just gonna stare real hard and hope he picks up what you’re puttin’ down?”

“Huh?”

“Your buddy Cas,” Benny explains. “You been staring at him for a damn long time, and you’re an idiot if you think I don’t notice how much time you spend hangin’ out at his table. You’re sweet on that boy.”

Dean scoffs. “Yeah, that ain’t happening.”

“The fuck not?” Benny demands, half disappointed dad and half wingman.

“He’s leaving town soon. He was never gonna be here long anyway. And he’s got this job, this career that takes him all over the fuckin country. He’s got a life. I’m just some bartender he vaguely remembers from high school. He’s not gonna keep coming back here for me.” Even as he says it, Dean hates how pitiful he sounds. Absolutely pathetic. Getting all misty eyed over a guy he’s known properly for, what, a month?

“Wow,” Benny replies, astonished. “You are real pretty, you know that Dean? But you ain’t that smart if that’s how you read this. You clearly got somethin’ more than just a fling in mind with this guy, and he clearly likes you, so you should probably just get your ass over there and do something about it before he does leave. I ain’t gonna sit here passing you tissues while you cry over missin’ your chance.”

“Sure thing, Benny,” Dean tells him sadly, but really, what’s the point. Cas’ll still have to leave. There’s nothing for him here. Dean can’t imagine ever being enough to make him stay, or to keep him coming back. It just doesn’t work like that.

He heads down to the cellar before he gets any more morose, grabbing another keg of the nearly depleted Honey Lager. It’s weird coming down here now, knowing the speakeasy is just behind that one panel, knowing there was an angry ass ghost down here the whole time. Kinda makes his skin crawl thinking about all the times he was down here with just an inch or so of wood separating him from that bloody gross thing. It isn’t scary now, ‘cause he dusted the thing, but man, it is not a pleasant thought.

Dean’s arms strain as he lifts the keg up the stairs, grunting just a little under the stress trying not to drop it. Benny should probably get some kind of a dumbwaiter installed for this shit. It’s a pain in the ass to haul full kegs up and down the stairs by hand. He should really suggest that. Benny will listen to reason.

Cas is still sitting in his booth when Dean gets back upstairs. Of course he is. He’s become a fixture here at the Black Dog. It won’t feel the same when he leaves. This is not the kind of place where they have that much regular clientele, so there’s very few familiar faces in the day to day crowd, but Cas has started to feel like he belongs here. Really, Dean can barely remember the last time he worked a shift without Cas in that booth. He’ll sit there staring at his screen, biting his lower lip and squinting while he tries to decide on the exact right synonym for ghost for this specific story. He scowls when he’s editing, because he is his own worst critic, and barely anything he ever writes is good enough the first time around (though Dean would hazard a guess that his first drafts are pretty damn good even without editing). There’s this inquisitive tilt of his head when he’s thinking long and hard about something, like right now, where he’s probably trying to decide where he’s going to go when he drives out of Dean’s life forever. Maybe there’s a ghostly lobster fisherman in Maine he’s gonna go find. Maybe there’s a haunted factory in Wisconsin that isn’t actually haunted, and he can blow the whistle on some Scooby-Do type villain who would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling reporter. Maybe he’ll go somewhere warmer, get away from the winter that’s going to settle in to Sioux Falls soon.

Maybe he’ll come back through here someday, drop by for a pint. There could be other hauntings in the area. It could happen. Dean could look forward to that. Castiel will look a little bit older then, but so will Dean. There will be lines on their faces that aren’t there now, and maybe some grey in their hair. Castiel would look damn fine with a little silver at his temples. He’d roll in with that same damn trench coat draped over his shoulders, and probably the same damn car, and he’d tell Dean all about the ghosts he’s hunted since he walked out the door. They’d laugh. Maybe they’d hook up again. Dean’s good at that, at least. Maybe Castiel will remember him fondly enough for that when he rolls through town again.

That’s not what he wants. He wants more. Oh God, but he wants more.

Maybe it’s the way he scowls at his phone, silencing it without answering. It’s probably that editor of his. That guy was kind of a dick. Maybe it’s the way he smiles in Dean’s direction when he doesn’t think Dean’s watching (Dean is always watching, these days. Whenever he can spare the eyes, he’s watching). Maybe it’s the way he walked into Dean’s life, asking for nothing and offering so much. Maybe it’s the loneliness. Maybe it’s just the fact that Castiel seems to fit into all those empty spaces in his life, the ones that no one ever seemed to fill quite the way he needed. He’s something else, this man Dean barely knows, but he thinks, no, he knows, that he could be happy making a life with Castiel.

Huh. Isn’t that something?

He seems to have fallen in love with Castiel.

How did he not see this happening?

The tray of dishes he’s carrying crashes to the floor, and suddenly every pair of eyes in the place are on Dean.

Chapter Text

The cacophony of glass shattering on the hard stone floor is so jarring that it snaps Castiel’s attention away from his screen instantaneously. He looks up towards the source of the noise and finds Dean staring at him, at least a dozen broken pint glasses strewn around his feet. Castiel would say he looks as if he’s just seen a ghost, only Castiel has actually seen Dean when he’s just seen a ghost, and that look is much more disbelief and abject terror. This is shock, the kind that goes deep enough to render him speechless, and Castiel cannot tell if it’s a good shock or a terrible one. Either way, he’s on his feet immediately, all thoughts of saying goodbye and disappearing out of Dean’s life completely abandoned at the thought that Dean might, even for a brief moment, need help.

“Dean?” He calls out gruffly, striding quickly across the room. Dean just stares at him, blinking. He gives his head a little shake, closes his eyes slowly, then furrows his brow when he opens them again and the scene laid out before him doesn’t change.

“Cas?” Dean replies, sounding altogether uncertain. “Is that really you?” His legs are wobbly beneath him, giving the impression that Dean could lose his balance any minute. The moment feels so mundane, so anticlimactic, that it takes Cas more than a couple heartbeats to parse the gravity of Dean’s question. Still, he’s cautious.

“It’s me, Dean. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I don’t fuckin know,” Dean says with a shaky laugh. “Last I checked I hadn’t seen you in like twenty damn years. But I also could have sworn you’ve been hanging out here every day for like a month. So you tell me.” He plays it off so well, but Castiel can sense the apprehension hiding behind the question. He can’t imagine what it must feel like to doubt one’s own mind like this.

Cas stares at him, dumbfounded, at a complete loss for words. How to even begin explaining what Dean’s experiencing? He never really had a plan for this moment, not when he thought he actually still stood a chance, and at this juncture he’d kinda stopped thinking about how to approach the whole thing. He’s saved from having to comment right that second by Benny storming out of the kitchen to investigate the noise.

“The hell happened out here?” he booms, and then his eyes fall on Dean and the mess at his feet. “Jesus brother, you look like shit. Y’aint getting sick, are you?” He gives Dean half a heartbeat to answer, then apparently decides he doesn’t need one. “Forget it. Get your ass out of here. Jo can cover your tables. Cas, can you get him home?”

“Of course Benny,” Cas replies automatically, still staring at Dean like he’ll disappear if he loses focus for just a second. Dean himself doesn’t even move until Benny gives him a gentle shove towards the door. Once he gets moving, Cas has a hard time keeping pace, and he doesn’t catch up until Dean is already halfway to the door.

“Dean, wait!” he calls out, halting Dean in his track. “Let me grab my things.”

“Yeah,” Dean agrees, still in a daze. He stands by the door while Cas crams the laptop into his messenger bag, but he can feel Dean’s eyes on him the entire time.

Castiel doesn’t know where to begin, so for the time it take to get back to Dean’ place, he just doesn’t, and Dean doesn’t ask any questions either. His hands are a little shaky but he insists he’s fine to drive, so they pile into the Impala and only a few minutes later Castiel find himself back at Dean’s little house. It feels odd being silent like this when he’s been waiting so long to speak honestly with Dean though, so it grates at him, rubs his nerves raw, and the moment the door closes behind them, Cas can’t contain the words any longer.

Unfortunately, neither can Dean.

“Where did you—“ Dean blurts out, cutting off when he realizes Cas is also speaking.

“I can’t believe you—“ Cas gushes, abruptly stopping to let Dean go first.

“No you go—“ Dean insists.

“You first—“ Cas offers. They both open their mouths to speak at the same time again, but instead of speaking, Dean just rushes forward, pressing his lips to Castiel’s and kissing the words right out of him.

“There,” he says, self-satisfied. “Now can you please explain to me why that feels like the first time I’ve kissed you since I was an awkward seventeen year old idiot but I also know for a fact you slept over this past weekend? I am so fucking confused, and you’re the one who had a concussion, so I feel like I should fucking know what’s going on.”

Castiel sighs. He drops his bag in the entryway, sets his shoulders, and picks up very close to where the story he told Marv left off.

Dean barely blinks the whole time he speaks. He doesn’t comment, though at several points he looks like he’s holding back questions he desperately wants answer to. He doesn’t ask them. He just lets Cas talk. His face barely even changes, even when Cas tell him about Marv and the forest and the wish he didn’t really mean to ask for. Even when he talks about hoping against hope that Dean would grow to love him so he’d finally remember everything that came before. Even when he talks about giving up, and resigning himself to walking out of Dean’s life again, this time on purpose and forever.

“And then you looked at me like you knew me, like you really knew me and I…everything I’d ever wanted to say to you, everything I’ve wanted to explain for so many years, it just disappeared,” Castiel hears himself saying. Dean stares at him, quiet, bordering on disbelief, for so long that Castiel begins to think something is wrong. “Say something,” he implores. “Say something. Say anything!”

Dean blinks. “I need a minute to process this. This is…I need a minute,” he tells Castiel, turning towards his bedroom.

“I should go,” Castiel concedes, feeling dismissed. Of course Dean needs time. This is a lot to take in. Castiel lived it all and he’s still a little dumbfounded by the whole thing. He reaches for his bag, suddenly just as uncertain as he was back when Dean knew nothing about him.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Dean snaps, flinching at the heat in his own voice. “Don’t you fucking go anywhere. I just need a minute. Stay right there. Promise you’ll be here when I come back.”

“I promise,” Castiel tells him, because he’d promise Dean anything. Because he’ll never walk out of another life without saying goodbye, least of all Dean’s life.

Dean disappears into his room, and Castiel is left alone with his thoughts. He should be elated right now. He thought he would be. Dean remembers him, knows how long it’s been since they last really saw each other. This is all he’s wanted from the second Dean strode up to his table and didn’t remember a thing about him.

This isn’t at all how he imagined it. No fireworks. No thrills. It’s frustrating.

Castiel watches the minutes tick by on the clock, no sign of Dean. He takes his coat off, hangs it up by the door. Straightens things on the coffee table, even though it’s already mostly tidy. He sits on the couch but can’t relax, so he gets back up and stands by the doorway to the kitchen. Gets restless; paces. He’s still pacing when Dean returns, looking haggard and startled and wrung out.

He approaches Castiel carefully like he’s afraid to scare him away, like he still can’t believe he’s really here. Clutched in one hand is a bundle of paper, tied together with a bit of string, all worn and beaten like it’s been handled nearly to the point of breaking. Dean holds it carefully, reverently, something precious.

“I never thought I’d see you again,” he explains, confesses, confides. “You wrote to me, I remember that now. It feels like I forgot for so long, but that must be your damn witch.”

“I didn’t ask him to take those memories from you,” Castiel nearly cries. God, the hurt he felt all this time watching Dean forget him is nothing compared to the pain on Dean’s face, knowing all the things he once forgot. Castiel would have given anything to spare him this.

“I know you didn’t,” Dean tells him softly. “I know. But it still feels so strange having it all back inside my head. It’s like I know you twice. There’s you now, the writer who almost got himself killed by an angry ghost, the guy who sits in my bar every day and hasn’t seen any movies since the late ‘90s. And there’s the guy I knew back then, the guy who kissed me in the back yard and drank stolen beers with me and wrote me letters. And I don’t fucking understand it, but I love you both, but you’re both you and I…” He shoves the bundle of letters at Castiel. “I kept them all this time. Every single one. It’s all I had left of you except the memories.” It’s unspoken, but Castiel feels the weight of that, how immensely grateful Dean is that he kept those letters, knowing how unexpectedly the memories had all been stolen from him.

“I never thought I’d see you again,” Dean repeats.

“I’d never have left you if it were up to me,” Castiel tells him emphatically, like if he means it strongly enough, he can undo the hurt it caused.

“I know,” Dean assures him.

“I’ll never leave you again, not if I can help it.” Castiel doesn’t know how he’ll keep that promise, but that’s not a problem for right now. He has Dean, and Dean has his memories, and it’s all he’s wanted for so damn long, he can’t be bothered to care about anything else at all.

They’re both clutching the bundle of letters. Castiel lets his hand fall away. “I know what they all say,” he tells Dean. “I wrote them, remember?”

“I wrote back,” Dean whispers. “I never had anywhere to send them but I thought one day, somehow, you’d get to read them.” He laughs. “I just didn’t think it’d take so damn long.”

“I’ll read them,” Castiel promises. “Every single word.” His lips are mere inches from Dean’s now, somehow, though he doesn’t remember either of them moving.

“You’d better,” Dean threatens, leaning in close enough that Castiel can feel the warmth of his breath.

Castiel kisses him instead of replying, a slow, sweet thing, a kiss to make up for an entire lifetime apart. It’s all the tenderness of years spent wishing he could kiss Dean, all the love he’d harboured and had no way to profess, all the sorrow they nursed for being apart. It is long, and it is soft, and it was never meant to be a prelude to anything else, but when he goes to pull away Dean stops him, hand on the small of his back.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he murmurs softly.

“Nowhere,” Castiel assures him. “Nowhere at all.”

Dean drops the bundle of letters to the coffee table, less inclined towards the memories now that he has the real thing right in front of him, opting instead to use that hand to hold Castiel closer, draw him in and keep him there like he’s still afraid Castiel will disappear. Castiel leans into Dean and kisses him again, knowing full well they’re going to end up naked, on the couch or the floor or the bed he doesn’t care which. As long as he’s got Dean in his arms, the rest of the world can disappear and he won’t even notice.

Dean clutches at him, greedy, desperate to reacquaint himself with the man he’s been missing his whole life. There’s something fevered in his touches, something beyond yearning, like the need Dean feels is more than physical. If Castiel were to hazard a guess, he’d say Dean needs this to reorient himself, so he can merge the old knowledge of Castiel and the new, to paint himself a real picture of Castiel that takes into account both of the loves he knows. Everywhere Dean touches him, Castiel feels like he’s coming alive again. He gets drunk on those touches, intoxicated by those kisses, and the more Dean paws at his clothing and fumbles towards nakedness, the more he feels it.

Dean,” Castiel huffs, not quite sure what he’s imploring for. He pulls at Dean’s clothing, tugging and jerking at fabric until somehow it yields and he reveals more and more skin, a trail of clothing littering the floor. Barely tearing his attention away from Dean long enough to look, Castiel notices somewhat absently that they’ve started a migration towards the bedroom. He’s still not sure who’s leading. By the time the backs of Dean’s thighs hit the edge of his mattress, there’s only two pairs of boxer and three out of four socks left between them. Dean laughs, a soft, happy sound.

“What?” Cas demands.

“Nothing,” Dean assures him. He makes quick work of the rest of their clothes, tossing them haphazardly to the floor. When they’re both naked, he sets himself down on the bed and inches backward until he’s leaned against the pillows, practically beckoning Castiel to crawl between his thighs. Dean’s eyes linger on Castiel’s body, taking him in. He doesn’t comment on the scars this time, but his mouth twists distastefully at the memory. The look is gone in an instant though, and then he just stares at Castiel with desire in his eyes. It’s enough to stir Castiel’s blood just to be looked at like that, to see that kind of heat in Dean’s gaze and know it’s directed at him. More likely than not, there’s a very similar kind of want on his own features, for he certainly feels himself stirring with desire, and it’s that desire that moves his limbs. He climbs onto the bed, taking Dean’s invitation to heart, and sets himself between Dean’s splayed thighs, leaving an array of kisses up his belly and his chest before setting his lips to Dean’s mouth. Dean lets out a groan as Castiel drapes his body over Dean’s. They’re touching everywhere, lips and hands, chest and thighs, their cocks trapped between them, already hard and getting harder still.

There are so many things Castiel wants to say, so much lost time he wants to make up for, but it all seems to fall away now that he’s got Dean beneath him, a Dean who remembers him, a Dean who knows their history. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. There will be time later, or in the morning, or next week. Castiel doesn’t have the threat of Dean’s missing memories hanging over him now. He can take his time, enjoy Dean as he is and not think about what if. It’s with this in mind that he lets himself move slowly, touching Dean carefully and sweetly. There’s no hurry. Let the moments come as they may.

Dean is so responsive to his touch. Castiel tried not to think too much, the previous two times he’s been with Dean since finding him again, but he’s consciously aware now of how different the intimacy is from before they got separated. There was nervousness when they were young, and caution, an uncertain kind of fumbling. Neither of them had any experience to bring to the table and so it was at times clumsy and awkward. They did what felt good, but they figured out what felt good by taking educated guesses and random shots in the dark. It was trial and error, and often their time alone was so short that it left little room for proper experimentation. Castiel is far from inexperienced now though, and he has to assume Dean is likewise more practiced (though he’s got no burning desire to ask after the details there), but while he’s got more knowledge to draw on, it’s still a matter of finding exactly which of those things really pushes Dean’s buttons. So when he takes a nipple into his mouth, swiping his tongue over the taut, hard flesh, he remembers the exact way Dean gasps and arches under the touch, confident that Dean will be happy should he choose to do that again. And when his teeth pinch that same nipple, he catalogues the way Dean moans at the little increases in pressure, but marks the exact moment when Dean starts to squirm beneath him, so that he knows when to stop.

Castiel worships Dean with his hands and his mouth. He treats Dean with reverence, enjoying the sights and sounds of Dean becoming putty in his hands, but otherwise caring nothing at all for his own pleasure. His dick gets a fair bit of friction but it’s all incidental, just little touches where it brushes against the bed, or when Dean grinds his hips up. Cas likes when Dean does that, because it means he’s done something else that Dean really likes, and he files that information away so he can use it again later.

The best sounds yet happen when Castiel moves down Dean’s body, letting his tongue trace a path from throat to nipples and lower still, and he finally takes the leaking head of Dean’s cock between his lips. Dean’s hips jerk up off the bed, silently begging Castiel to take him deeper, and Castiel obliges happily just to hear Dean moan in appreciation. He sounds positively wrecked and they’ve barely started, and Castiel knows what Dean sounds like when he comes because he remembers from just a few days ago, but he can’t wait to hear what Dean sounds like when he knows exactly who he’s coming for.

He stops for a moment to grab the lube Dean passes him, but then goes right back to it. He gives Dean a moment to adjust to the wet heat around his cock, but only a moment, and then the slick tip of his index finger nudges carefully at Dean’s entrance. The first push is gentle and hesitant as always, waiting for Dean’s body to relax and let him in, but once the initial shock wears off, it’s easy going. Dean is thoroughly responsive to this kind of touching, and Cas gets the feeling Dean would let him rush forward from this point just to get to the good stuff. This isn’t about a destination though, it’s the journey, so while Dean rolls his hips and urges Cas deeper, Cas refuses to be rushed. He kisses Dean softly, sweetly, and he doesn’t go for a second finger, or a third, until he’s good and ready.

By the time Cas finally pulls away to sheathe himself in a condom, Dean is putty in his hands, his entire body relaxed and pliant. There’s still resistance when the head of his cock breaches Dean’s hole, but just enough to make Dean gasp softly, not enough to hurt him. Cas slides in maddeningly slowly, barely able to contain his desire to just surge forward, to bury himself in the heat of Dean’s body. Dean clings to him, pulling him closer, and when Cas finally starts to roll his hips in gentle thrusts, Dean leans up, begging for kisses. Castiel obliges him gladly, swallowing up the happy little moans that drift from Dean’s lips.

There’s no rush, no urgency to their movements. They rock together blissfully and unhurriedly, taking pleasure in every little moment, both just entirely relieved to be together once more. It is, for want of a better word, perfect. It is everything Castiel ever wanted just to be with Dean like this. There are times when sex is purely physical, a thing the body says it needs, but this right now completely transcends that. It’s nearly a spiritual thing the way they touch one another, reverent and loving and Castiel doesn’t notice how deeply it affects him until Dean reaches a hand up to wipe a tear off of Castiel’s cheek.

“Hey,” Dean murmurs, his own eyes bright with just as many unshed tears. “You okay?”

“I’ve never been better,” Castiel tells Dean honestly, kissing him to show the truth of it. There are more tears after that, running trails down Castiel’s cheeks to mingle with the sweat of his brow, but there are no more questions, nothing more to discuss. Even when they come, neither of them has any words left for the subject except to breathe each other’s names against their skin, and even that could go without saying. So much understanding and love passes between them with just the touch of their bodies, there’s nothing left for words to say.

~*~

It isn’t the first time he’s woken up in Dean’s bed of course, but it is the first time Dean’s still been there when he opens his eyes. Castiel stays as still and quiet as he can manage, hoping to savour the wealth of sensations as long as possible. Dean is possibly even more beautiful when he sleeps. All the lines around his eyes and his mouth soften out the way only a truly relaxed sleep can make them do, and Castiel can see his eyes moving just a little behind his lids. He wonders if Dean is dreaming. He hopes they are good dreams.

Castiel loses track of how long he watches Dean like this. He feels guilty watching the man sleep. It is, perhaps, a little creepy. But he can’t help himself. There’s too much to cherish. He can’t bear to miss out on another moment.

“How long have you been awake?” Dean murmurs, when he finally stirs.

“Not long,” Castiel lies. He really doesn’t recall how long he’s been awake.

“How long do I get to keep you?” he asks, and the words come out so softly it’s like they physically pain him. It pains Castiel to hear them.

“As long as you want,” Cas promises. Forever, he thinks.

“You have to go though, don’t you? Back on the road? You have your job.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Castiel assures him. “I’m not leaving you. Not now. Not ever again, if I can help it.”

“Okay,” Dean mutters, wrapping his arms around Castiel’s waist and pulling his naked body close under the covers. He’s very strong. Cas probably couldn’t get away if he tried. He’s got no idea why he’d bother. This is exactly where he wants to be.

 

Chapter Text

This is not where Castiel thought his life would take him, and there is not a single detail he would change if he had the power.

Gabriel understood, of course. Cassandra told Castiel that he would, but Castiel has not exactly put stock in her predictions, even now that some of them have been proven true, so he had his doubts. Still, it’s nice that something has finally gone his way. He’s welcome to submit articles as he writes them, an open-ended invitation that Castiel plans to avail himself of at various intervals, but it’s not going to be his life anymore. Gabriel won’t send him leads. He won’t be on the road. He won’t be living out of his car and motel rooms, won’t be drinking shit coffee as he hurtles down the interstate in an unreliable metal chariot destined for points unknown. He’ll have a rendezvous point, a home base, a city to call his own. A place to come back to. An actual home. Somewhere to keep more things than will fit in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental. Somewhere he can belong.

For a time, Castiel intended to stay in his room at the Super 8. He left his things there, mostly, though a portion of his clothing just started staying behind at Dean’s house without either of them actually deciding on it. But then things shifted. Dean started buying that one brand of coffee that Castiel always stated a preference for. A drawer became available for Castiel’s things. Then two drawers. Then half the closet. A toothbrush appeared in the bathroom beside Dean’s own.

A set of keys showed up on Castiel’s key ring beside the keys for the Continental.

They never officially talked about it, but Castiel moved in.

The Continental lives beside the Impala in the driveway now, a slightly less regal figure than its sleek black counterpart, but it feels as much at home there as Castiel does in Dean’s bed. He supposes it’s their bed now, at least unofficially. He spends every night there and there is nowhere else for him to go.

It is odd, adjusting to stationary life. He spends much less time planning routes and watching traffic. It does not mean there is no work to be done, though. Benny, of course, was thrilled to find out that there is a whole portion of the building that he owns and never had access to before. Once Dean and Castiel showed him the access point to the former speakeasy and how simple it was to open, he began scheming, and things fell into place rather quickly. The speakeasy is set to open this coming weekend, complete with period-accurate décor and a drink menu straight out of prohibition. The bartenders will dress the part even, though the music will be updated to modern times. It’s expected to be quite the hit, an authentic speakeasy right in the heart of Sioux Falls. It’s even going to have a password to get in. That last part was Castiel’s idea.

Benny couldn’t have done the whole thing alone, of course. Dean had a little money squirreled away for a rainy day and he gladly invested, but Castiel hasn’t been paying for housing in more than a decade, and he had a tidy chunk of change just collecting interest in a savings account that he was more than happy to contribute to the effort. There is legal paperwork. Dean and Castiel each own a share in the Speakeasy now, and as sketchy as Castiel’s own bartending skills are at present, he’s entirely certain he’s going to learn the ropes very quickly after opening night. There are food blogs talking about their bar. Actual food blogs! There’s even a post on hellhoundslair.net, on account of how it used to be a haunted location and everything. Nobody of any repute uses that site, of course, (and Castiel should know because he’s intimately familiar with it and he himself is of no repute at all), so it’s not as though that’s going to get them much attention, but it’s still neat.

Despite the fact that it’s nearly Christmas, and the air is bitter cold with snowflakes threatening to tumble down from the sky to blanket them all, Dean and Cas drive the Impala into town a little before Dean’s shift at the bar is set to start and wander around for a while. They’re bundled up against the chill, Dean in his leather jacket and a thick sweater, a knit scarf wrapped around his neck, and Castiel all snug and cozy in a proper winter coat for a change. Now that he’s making a home here, settling in to Sioux Falls to stay, it doesn’t seem presumptuous to make plans for the weather, to insert himself into Dean’s life. Hell, Dean picked the coat out himself, insisting that the deep blue of the wool would look great on Cas. He stuffs his hands deeper into the pockets to keep his fingers warm, but he’d rather be holding Dean’s hand. Tomorrow, he’ll buy gloves, and then it won’t matter what the weather is like.

Castiel is growing to like Sioux Falls. It’s got charm, and the people are friendlier than he’d expect in a town this size. Even Jo seems to like him at least a bit now that he’s here to stay. Perhaps Dean had a word with her. Perhaps she just decided he wasn’t a threat any longer. He doesn’t really care, so long as she smiles instead of grimacing. He can deal.

He’s leaned against the side of the Impala, watching his breath turn to steam as it drifts away from his lips, when he catches a familiar face coming up the street. Cassandra’s still in her trademark flowing skirts, but with thick boots peeking out from under the hem and a heavy coat draped over her. It looks to be several sizes too large, but she wears it like she prefers it this way. She eyes him suspiciously, almost warily, and Castiel stares back just as suspiciously as she draws ever closer.

“Hey Cas, didn’t you mean to bring your laptop tonight?” Dean asks, slamming the trunk to the Impala. Cassandra’s eyes dart to the source of the noise, and a knowing smile creeps across her lips. Though Castiel never confirmed any of her statements about a love interest, it seems she’s reading the situation for exactly what it is.

“Cas?” Dean repeats.

“Sorry, what?” Castiel snaps out of his daze, watching over his shoulder as Cassandra continues down the street without a word. There’s something jaunty in the way she moves though, smug with the knowledge that she knew Castiel’s life better than he could ever have known. He wants to be annoyed, he really does, but she was right. He’s been in love all this time, and the feeling was returned, and the odds stacked against them weren’t as insurmountable as they seemed.

“I asked if you had planned to bring your laptop. Your bag isn’t in the trunk.”

“Oh,” Castiel replies distractedly. “No, I thought about it, but I’m going to be down in the Speakeasy most of the night getting things set up for opening night, so I won’t need it.”

“You alright?” Dean asks, a little concerned. “You look a little lost.”

“I’m fine,” Castiel assures him. He’s definitely distracted, but somewhere through the haze, a thought occurs to him. “Hey, your car, the Impala. It’s named after the animal, right?”

“I assume so,” Dean answers carefully, clearly confused by Castiel’s line of questioning. Now it’s Castiel’s turn to wear a knowing smile. He should have figured. It was never about cows in the first place.

~*~

Sam flies in two days before Christmas. Castiel is more than a little curious as to how that came to be, as he distinctly recalls Dean being in a foul mood over the knowledge that Sam wasn’t coming for Christmas, but there it is. One day, they’re making plans for their first Christmas together, the first one Castiel has celebrated at all in decades and the first one that Dean has been looking forward to in about as long, and the next minute they’re making plans to put an air mattress in Dean’s office so Sam has somewhere to sleep. For whatever reason, the trial that was going to keep him away for the holidays got rescheduled again, and that’s all he’ll say on the matter. It’s almost but not quite like there was magic involved. A few months ago, Castiel would have dismissed the idea outright. Now, he’s not so sure.

It’s not a big affair, just Sam and Dean and Cas, a turkey, and more rum and eggnog than is probably called for, but it is the best Christmas Castiel can ever recall having. He’s got the love of his life back, and Sam may not be his own family but he is the next best thing. He’s got a place to come home to, a warm bed to sleep in, and slowly but surely, he’s started to fill all the holes in his life, the ones he thought would remain empty and void forever. It’s a slow and gradual process, but he doesn’t plan on going anywhere for a very, very long time. Things went off the rails twenty years ago for reasons well outside his control, and he can’t go back and change any of that, but he’s got a blank slate to start over with now, and he’s got no intention of wasting it.

.

Chapter Text

Thin wisps of smoke climb towards the sky from a snug and cozy little cabin nestled deep in the snow-draped woods outside of Story, Wyoming. Everything is blanketed in white, including the roof of the cabin. Most of the forest creatures have gone to ground, hibernating and nuzzled up to keep warm through the coldest part of the year, but even so there’s still life in the forest. There’s magic here, and magic means there’s always life.

Inside the cabin, a plump little man in a grey cable-knit sweater pulls a kettle off the wood stove, pouring its contents into a blue and white ceramic tea pot. The tea smells of cinnamon and spices, and the smell of it warms Marv just as much as the boiling water does. It’s warm in the cabin, snug and well insulated, but there’s always some part of the winter chill that seeps into his bones no matter how well guarded he is from the elements.

Marv takes the pot of tea and a mug in hand, carrying them over to a finely carved wooden table beside his favourite armchair. It’s one of the only surfaces in the entire cottage that isn’t covered in books. At this point, even the floors serve as book storage. There are paths between his chair and the front door, and the stairs up to his loft, and to the kitchenette, but otherwise the entire living space is a library.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Once his hands are free, Marv surveys his surroundings, thinking about which books he’d like to select. He knows exactly where each and every one of them is at any given time, a function of the magic they’re imbued with. There are few books in this cabin that are not his collected stories. Certainly there was a time when Marv’s penchant for stories could be satisfied with the kind you’d buy in a store, published things that somebody thought up and crafted out and wrote down, but he’s consumed so much of that media that it all feels predictable and trite to him at this point. The only stories that will really satisfy anymore are the real ones, actual human stories played out by real people with hopes and dreams and ambitions not controlled by some unseen hand. Free will, that’s what makes for the best stories. Those are the ones he cherishes.

Any outside observer would think his meanderings through the stacks of books to be completely at random, but Marv is on a mission. He flits about, selecting this book and that, until his hands are full and he can’t pick up any more, and then he returns to his chair, setting the books down at his feet. He pours a cup of tea, the pleasing aroma wafting up to tantalize his nose as the steam fills the air, and picks up the first book on his pile.

Marv reads. It’s what he does. People don’t come to visit him that often, so he has quite a lot of free time to do as he pleases, and that means reading. He spends much of his time in this very chair, reacquainting himself with stories older than the wool of his sweater, older than the trees in this forest, far, far older than his body looks. Marv has been collecting stories for so much longer than his visitors would ever imagine, and it comforts him to go back and remember how those stories go.

Some of the stories end well. The people whose lives he’s touched get what they’re looking for, and they are happy, and those stories make Marv happy. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, the magic does not lead to their happiness, and Marv reads those stories just as frequently because it reminds him that the magic he offers isn’t a perfect path, and that the free will of the people he meets is just as impactful as what he gives them. They still have choices, and they forge their own destinies. He just offers them a direction.

Marv reads for a very long time. He drinks tea, some, but mostly it grows cold on the table beside him, the sweet aroma drifting and fading as the heat leaves the cup. He doesn’t notice. He’s too wrapped up in his stories.

The pile at his feet dwindles as he reads. Sometimes he goes through the entire story, start to finish. Sometimes he just reads the ends, just to remind himself how things played out. Sometimes he skims. Still, the pile he brought with him was quite large, so it is hours and hours before he gets to the last book. It’s a black Moleskine notebook with a red ribbon bookmark, and it is the one he is most interested in. He doesn’t know how it ends yet, and he wants to savour that. He can read the stories as many times as he wants, but there is only one first time, and that should be cherished.

This one, he reads right from the start. He begins where Castiel began speaking, with the story of Dean moving to Lawrence, Kansas, and the beginning of their friendship. He reacquaints himself with their childhood, the love that grew between them, and the tragedy that ripped them apart. It tugs at his heart, shriveled and cold as it sometimes is. This is the value of real stories. He connects with them in ways that he never can with the made up ones. These are real people. Their pain and their joy, their triumphs and struggles, those are all real. It means something.

He reads about Castiel returning to visit him, desperate and frustrated, and he reads about the despair Castiel felt when he didn’t see any way forward. He hangs on every word of their struggles. The ghost story is especially intriguing. That’s a twist he never would have thought to write, if this were a story he were shaping with his own hands. Free will is a fascinating thing.

Marv reads every single word, every syllable, every letter on the page, etched as if by Castiel’s own hand, and he barely draws a breath as he approaches the last page.

When he finally reaches it, the smile that crosses his lips is so unfailingly genuine and heartfelt that he’s sure he’d barely recognize it in a mirror. He didn’t know what words he’d find here, but he hoped, oh how he hoped, and it is so deeply satisfying to find the flowing script scrawled at the bottom of the final page of Castiel’s Moleskine notebook.

And they lived happily ever after.

Marv is so very pleased.