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Smoke In the Mirror

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Part One

 

“If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”

Edward Hopper

 

“The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.”

Auguste Rodin

 

“In art, the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can imagine.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 


 

 

Blue. It’s the color stained across Dean Winchester’s fingers when he shakes Castiel’s hand for the first time. Light blue, like the sky in summer before the weather turns to thunderstorms, or like the birds Castiel used to see out the window in his family’s cottage early in the morning. Dean’s hands are rough, callused, and slightly smaller than Castiel’s own. Nice hands, he thinks, as they break apart, but his eyes still catch on the little white scars across the knuckles, beneath the paint.

“You still up for this?” Dean asks, and Castiel nods.

“Yes, of course.”

“Okay then.” Dean nods as well, one side of his mouth lifting up in an awkward half smile, and turns to lead the way into the apartment. It’s dark, with brick walls and fake wooden floor, and Castiel likes it immediately. It’s genuine, a home like this. No effort is made to hide the pile of dirty dishes by the sink, or the shoes kicked haphazardly against the wall and left there in a heap.

“Sorry it’s a mess,” Dean mumbles, shoving a pair of discarded jeans out of the way with his foot as he moves. “Living alone, you know?”

Castiel knows, but doesn’t grasp at the chance for conversation. “I have to get going by seven, so if we could...”

“Oh yeah, of course.” Dean runs his hands through his hair, and Castiel notices the paint speckled across his forehead as well. “Um...I have everything set up in the spare room, if you wanna...”

“Sure. Do you need me to take my clothes off?” Castiel reaches for the buttons of his coat, lets his fingers linger there while Dean blinks rapidly a few times and then nods.

“Um...yeah, there’s a bathroom right over there. I don’t have a robe or anything, but there are towels if you wanna...”

“I got it.”

“Okay.” Dean rubs at the back of his neck, rolls his shoulders. “I’ll just get everything set up then.”

“Okay,” Castiel repeats, and watches Dean’s back as he heads through a door at the opposite side of the hall. The bathroom is right off the living room, small, with dusty light bulbs above a gaudy golden framed mirror. One of the bulbs is flickering on and off, on and off, like a dying firefly and Castiel keeps his eyes on it as he undoes the buttons on his shirt and pulls his pants down his legs. He’s stiff, still cold from the chill outside. His skin tingles as it's exposed to the open air.

His reflection in the mirror catches his eye as he stands upright, and he watches his body move in the contours of the mirror, flexes his fingers across his stomach and turns his head from side to side. A few years ago, perhaps, he would have been too nervous to go through with this, but Dean seems kind, and the flier tacked to the library bulletin board had promised a small payment. Castiel doesn’t have work until 7:30 most nights now, not since they cut his time, and being paid to sit still for just a few hours each week seems like one of the best deals he’s going to find.

The nudity is a bit of a downside, but he’ll live.

The towel is worn and scratchy where he wraps it around his waist, and doesn’t do much to abate the chill, and the floorboards are freezing beneath his feet as he opens the bathroom door and pads over to the spare room. It’s even more barren of furniture than the rest of the apartment, though this time at least it feels more driven by purpose than sheer lack of money. There’s a stool in the middle of the room, draped with a white sheet, and a tiny grimy window lets the late afternoon light shine in. Dean stands over at the side of the room, by a table littered with art supplies--canvases and paint and unopened packages of clay, with a half-finished painting propped on the easel before him, painted in greens and purples and blues just like Dean’s hands. Dean looks up at Castiel’s knock on the doorframe, and nods. “Just a sec. I have to clean up a little before we start.”

“That’s fine,” Castiel tells him, and watches as Dean clears the painting away, pushes the brushes and paint down the table, shoves the package of clay aside. There’s a little bowl teetered right on the edge of the table, filled with water and a tiny sponge, and Dean picks the sponge from the water, squeezes it, and cleans the paint from his hands before dropping the sponge back into the bowl with a tiny splash. He wipes his hands on his shirt before grabbing a large sketchbook from the floor and propping it up on the easel, opened on the first blank page.

“I just want to do some sketching today, so I can work on this when you’re not here,” Dean explains, testing the lead of his pencil on his finger.

Dean doesn’t seem to be expecting an answer, but Castiel says, "Okay," anyway, and waits for Dean to be satisfied with his pencil. “Alright. Let’s get you set up.”

Castiel follows Dean over to the stool in the middle of the room and climbs up onto it, feet slipping on the wooden rungs and pulling the sheet askew. “Sorry.”

“Not a big deal. Sheet’s mostly there ‘cuz I didn’t want anyone’s naked ass on my furniture.”

Castiel blinks at that and frowns a little. “You’re the one who wanted me naked,” he tells Dean, sounding only slightly affronted, and it’s Dean’s turn to look taken aback.

“What? No, no, that’s not an insult, dude, I wanted you naked...I mean...” He sighs, and runs a hand through his hair. Castiel guesses this is a frequent gesture, judging by the paint speckling the short strands. “Look, I can tell you more about everything later, if you’re curious. But...just trust me, okay? It would kind of ruin everything if you had clothes on. I swear it’s okay.”

Castiel eyes him for a moment, taking in the dark shadows beneath Dean’s eyes, the lax lines around his mouth that suggest a smile, the stubble rough along his jaw, either forgotten about or deemed not worth the hassle today.

He nods, and Dean breaks into a grin. “Cool. Wanna take the towel off?”

Not particularly, but he does anyway, and Dean very carefully doesn’t look, which doesn’t have much a point since he’s apparently going to be sketching all that in high detail in five minutes, but Castiel appreciates the gesture all the same.

“Okay,” Dean tells him as soon as he’s tossed the towel off to the side. “I need to position you now, okay?” His voice has gone soft, calm, his eyes less wild, more serene. Professional. It’s reassuring, makes it feel less like taking his clothes off for a random stranger and more like art. It is art, after all.

Castiel nods again, and Dean smiles, just once. “Don’t freak out, okay? Not gonna molest you or anything.” He meets Castiel’s eyes, waits for approval, before moving back around the bench. Castiel twists his head to follow his motion, and suddenly warm fingers are pressed against his neck, right over his pulse point with gentle presence. It’s a surprise; he’s not used to people touching him anymore, let alone this intimately, but Dean’s voice is soft, his touch careful. Trustworthy. “Just look this way,” Dean whispers, his other hand appearing on Castiel’s jaw and guiding his head towards the right ever so slowly, with just a hint of a tilt. “Perfect, there we go.”

Castiel feels the need to see him, but he doesn’t dare move his head from position, and his eyes can’t see around to where Dean stands.

“I’m going to do your arms now, Castiel,” Dean tells him, speaking like he’s talking to a frightened animal, and then those hands are on Castiel's shoulders, guiding them around to be more in line with his head. "Alright. Legs.” Dean disappears from behind him and reappears to his left, standing further back now, but with fingers still splayed on his knee. “Okay. So I want you to put this foot up on the rung of the stool, okay? I’ll push the sheet over so you can reach it.” He crouches down suddenly, and Castiel squirms, because he feels terribly exposed like this with Dean’s eyes down at that level, but Dean doesn’t glance up at him, choosing instead to gather the sheet up and expose the wooden legs of stool underneath. He reaches out and wraps his hand around Castiel’s ankle, and Castiel follows his lead until his foot is placed firmly on the top rung. Dean lets go of the sheet then, and it falls back down around the rest of the stool in a billowing motion. “Okay, just let the other leg hang down,” he says, and takes Castiel’s right knee, pulls his leg over to where he wants it. “Wrap your right hand around your stomach. There we go. And...” His fingers catch at Castiel’s, and drape his other hand down so it hangs between his legs. Castiel's skin burns where Dean touches him, and it feels like his stomach is trying to climb up into his throat.

“Perfect,” Dean whispers. He stands, and returns to his table, and Castiel is left with a hollow feeling in his chest, and the first thing he thinks before he can silence the thought is that he wants the warmth of Dean’s hands back on him. Nothing sexual, no, nothing like that. Just the simple reassurance of human touch.

Which is extremely unnerving, and Castiel doesn't like it. He automatically begins to turn his head to follow Dean's motion back to the table, trying to keep him in sight, but he remembers to put his head back in position before Dean notices. It’s not an uncomfortable pose, this one, but it bothers him that he can’t see Dean properly with his head turned like this. The light from the window shines directly onto his face, making him squint as he listens to the rustle of supplies and paper as Dean gets his stuff together.

“I’m going to start now,” Dean tells him at last, and Castiel clears his throat before whispering, “Okay.”

And so Dean begins to draw.

 


 

 

Anna takes the news about him picking up another job about as well as he’d expected, which is to call him an idiot and threaten to tell Michael.

“You wouldn’t.” It’s less a statement than a desperate need for reassurance, and Castiel waits with peeler and carrot held still in his hands until he hears her sigh on the other end.

“No, I wouldn’t. You’re still an idiot though.”

He smiles a little to himself, and continues peeling the vegetables. The peeler in his hands is dull, keeps taking out chunks of carrot along with the skin, and Castiel frowns at it before tapping the metal against the sink to knock off the shavings. “You worry too much about me,” he says.

“I’m allowed to worry about you, Cas,” Anna tells him firmly, and he hears the sound of paper shuffling on her end. “It’s my job.”

He examines the carrot in his hand, nods with satisfaction, and walks over to the cutting board on the counter. “Can I fire you?” he asks as he lifts the knife from the board and begins to slice the carrot into thin little discs. She snorts.

“You wish. So, spill. What’s this job?”

Castiel bites at his lip as he sets the carrots down on the cutting board and begins to chop them into slices. There’s a reason he’s waited nearly a week since he first started sitting for Dean to tell his sister. “You’re not allowed to laugh,” he orders at last, and can imagine his sister’s expression perfectly--the raised eyebrow, the wide eyes.

“I probably will, based off that,” she warns him, warmth already coloring her tone, and he rolls his eyes with a grin, before pushing the carrot slices into the dish with the potatoes.

“Okay, just...give me a sec.” A little bit of oil dashed over the vegetables—he’s running low, he’ll have to go to the store soonand spices sprinkled on top, and it’s ready for the oven. Abstractly, he knows that it would have been just as practical, maybe more, to just make mac and cheese--it’s half past midnight alreadybut home-cooked food is the one thing he has managed to hold onto during grad school, and he just can’t let it slip away in the final months. Plus, he can eat the leftovers for dinner tomorrow.

The oven hit temperature about five minutes ago, so Castiel just opens the door and slides the potato and carrot dish inside, phone beginning to slip from his shoulder before he can catch it with his hand. He repositions it to the other ear and straightens up.

“I’m a model.”

Castiel dries his hands with the ragged cloth piled on the counter while he waits for Anna’s reaction. The kitchen is a mess since he hasn’t had a chance to clean it since last Friday, or more he hasn’t wanted to clean it since then. He continues to ignore the random dirty dishes and flour trail across the counter in favor of setting the microwave timer to half an hour and continuing on into the living room.

“What?” Anna says at last, and Castiel repeats himself for her as he settles into the well-worn couch he’d picked up for twenty dollars at a yard sale.

“I’m a model.”

“No, I heard that, I’m just...” There’s a few seconds of silence before he hears the snort, and realizes Anna is trying desperately to hold in her laughter.

“I told you not to laugh!” he cries, and that’s when she loses it, giggling madly into the phone and gasping for breath. He throws his one hand up in the arm with exasperation, pulls the phone away from his ear, and ends the call. He tosses it onto the table and rubs his eye with the heel of his hand. It’s late, and his head is beginning to ache. He pulls the blanket from the back of the couch and wraps it firmly around his legs as the beginning strains of Dvorak’s Fifth Symphony begin to play. He ignores the ringtone for all of ten seconds before reaching out again and taking the call. “You’re a jerk.”

“Like, clothes modeling?” she asks immediately, voice high and airy. “Because, Cas, if you still wear that stupid coat everywhere then I...”

“For art,” he interrupts quickly before she can start in on the coat. “I’m posing for art.”

When she doesn’t reply, he adds, “Some guy doing his thesis project needed a model. I get paid to sit on a stool for two hours and do nothing. Granted, I don’t get paid much, but otherwise I’m just wasting time and hey, it’s not like sitting is that much work, so it’s a pretty good deal.”

“Wait, so, this is just for one guy? Like, it’s not a class. It’s just one guy?” Her tone is more serious now, going into big-sister mode, and Castiel steels himself for the interrogation he knows is coming.

“Yes, just him.”

“And where are you...?”

“His apartment.”

“Alone?”

He hears the rising annoyance, mixed with panic, in her voice, and sighs. “Anna. I’m not stupid. He’s not a serial killer. And I can protect myself if he is. Ted Bundy’s great nephew or something.”

“That’s not funny, Cas.”

“I wasn’t joking. Well, about Ted Bundy, yes, but I can protect myself, Anna. You don’t need to worry so much.”

“Of course I do,” she says, and isn’t that everything right there?

“You’re annoying,” he tells her with a smile.

“And you’re obnoxious,” she replies immediately, falling back into that old routine. His smile is interrupted by a yawn, and she sighs heavily. “Cas, you need to sleep.”

“Well, ‘need’ is a strong word.”

Her returning glare is easy to imagine. “Let me repeat myself. Cas, you need to sleep. Eat food, go to sleep.”

“Fine,” he grumbles, and rolls of the couch, straightening unsteady legs to stand. The smell of cooking vegetables is already permeating the apartment. “I’ll talk to you soon?”

“I’m emailing you for details on Ted Bundy Jr., actually,” she tells him, and hangs up on him. Castiel isn’t quite sure whether to groan or laugh, so he does neither, and instead returns to the kitchen to watch his timer run itself down to zero.

 


 

 

The day begins at six, with the loud blaring of his alarm jolting Cas out of sleep with a racing heart. The shower won’t warm up no matter how long he stands just out of the spray, shivering, so eventually he ducks under the water and rubs his hands furiously over goose-pimpled skin as he scrubs his body with the loofah and last sliver of soap. He cuts himself twice while shaving, the dull blade nicking at his cheeks. Cas dabs delicately at the blood welling from his chin with a tissue as he makes coffee and tosses some of his dinner from last night in a plastic container to take for lunch.

By quarter to seven, he’s outside, breath billowing in the below-freezing air. There’s a light snowfall just beginning to trickle down from the grey mass that hovers over the city, and he tucks his scarf a little tighter around his neck to stave off the wind chill. It gets warmer once he’s underground, huddled up with all the other early-goers waiting to catch the subway. He smiles at a few of them, out of familiarity. He doesn’t know any of these people, not really. He doesn’t know their names, their lives. But the teenage girl who catches the subway every Tuesday and Thursday works at a Dunkin Donuts, if her uniform is anything to go by. The man who rides with Castiel during the week has the nervous habit of fiddling with his suit sleeves whenever the doors close, sealing them all inside. The older woman with the walker and the odor offers him a piece of gum each morning from a new package, and smiles so hard when he takes it that he can’t ever find it in him to refuse. She holds her hand out now, wrapped in a fraying knit mitten, and he takes the gum from her palm, unwraps it as she looks on beaming, and pops the gum in his mouth. Winterfresh.

The ride down to the station nearest the office is fifteen minutes at most. Still, his shoulders are aching by the end of it, already tired of carrying the weight of his backpack. He finishes his coffee in the last five minutes and stows the thermos away in his bag for later. The little bakery just outside the station is just putting their goods out when Castiel passes by, and he ducks inside and orders his usual: the day old blueberry muffin, only fifty cents, since it’s not technically fresh, though Castiel can’t taste the difference. The woman who works the counter smiles at him, dimples dotting her cheeks, and Castiel nods back. He’s in here every morning, and he imagines the people who run it know him the same way he knows the subway riders. He gets another coffee to go, the fresh settling atop the very dregs of his first cup in the reusable mug.

Hester is just unlocking the front door of the office when he gets there. She turns at the sound of his footsteps and smiles, straightening out her blouse as she does so. “Good morning, Castiel.”

“Good morning,” he greets her, and follows her into the building.

His coat goes draped over the chair in the back room, his backpack tossed in the seat. He takes the muffin and coffee out with him, and settles into his desk to file away some paperwork he has left over from yesterday while he eats.

Technically, the desk is Amy’s, but ever since having her baby last year, she’s only here in the afternoon anyway, and Castiel will be gone by ten-thirty. Her being unavailable is part of the reason he managed to pick up the internship anyway--it’s a better deal than most internships, he knows, paid, with hours that work around his classes. And Hester is a good boss. She smiles at him again as she places the file folder by his left arm. “If you could get all those into the system before you leave?”

“Of course,” he tells her, and reaches underneath the desk to boot up the computer. It’s an older model, and takes a few minutes to get going. Castiel drinks his coffee, scalding the roof of his mouth, and begins picking at his muffin as he cards through the papers. Just more numbers. Easy.

Once the computer is up and running, Castiel logs into the program and begins typing in the documents Hester had handed him. It’s mindless work, really, and Castiel doesn’t really see how it’s prepared him in any way beyond what basic first-year accounting hadn’t, but the simple task allows him to focus on other things. His schedule. What he needs to pick up from the grocer tonight. That group project that will inevitably end up being a just-him project. Dean Winchester, and his paint-coated hands. That phone conversation with Anna, and whether Michael really would bail him out if he needs it.

Ian arrives five minutes after nine. He’s just one of those people who seems to be perpetually late for things, Castiel muses, as he watches Ian stutter out his—daily—apology to Hester, who just rolls her eyes with good nature and ushers him off to the back room with her. Ian—Inias, actually, but he turns bright red whenever anyone uses his full name--is the only other intern who works in the office, younger than Castiel, skinnier. He talks too much, though just to Cas really. It’d be annoying if Cas wouldn’t feel so guilty about being annoyed by a nineteen year old with the body of a bean sprout.

“Hi, Castiel!” Ian calls, as he walks back out carrying a box of tax forms. “How are you doing? How was yesterday?”

“Fine, thanks, Ian,” Castiel tells him briskly, and leans forward to peer intently at the computer. If he’d hoped that would detract Ian though, he was mistaken.

“Oh, do you need help with something?” Suddenly Ian is right behind him, hands braced on the back of Castiel’s chair so he can lean over his shoulder and stare at the screen as well. “What’s your issue?”

Castiel sighs. “Nothing. Just tired. Thanks, Ian.”

“Oh. Okay.” Ian straightens, and turns around to wave a little as he walks backwards to his own desk. Castiel winces when he nearly trips over the box he’d abandoned in the middle of the floor. Hester walks out of the back room just in time to see Ian scramble into his seat. She makes eye contact with Castiel, who shrugs, and returns to his work.

The hours pass quickly. Hester sees to anyone who comes through the front door, and Castiel staunchly ignores Ian's attempts to bond. He finishes his muffin and tosses the wrapper in the garbage, where he can still see the remains of yesterday's breakfast. He really should take the trash out back at some point.

At 10:25, he saves the documents he was working on and closes the programs. The computer makes a little dying noise as he logs off the system and pushes his chair back from the desk.

"Have a good day, Castiel!" Ian calls as he heads towards the back room, and Cas smiles and nods stiffly at him. Hester is dealing with an older gentleman in a wrinkled suit when Castiel heads past her towards the front door, but her hand reaches out and gives his arm a farewell squeeze anyways. Castiel turns back and smiles at her as he pushes open the door, zipping up his jacket as he does so. The cold begins to bite at his fingers almost immediately after stepping from the warmth of the office, and Castiel stuffs them in his pockets as he heads swiftly towards campus. The straps of his backpack dig into his shoulders and he shifts as he walks, trying to get more comfortable as he dodges around other pedestrians making their way among the old buildings. It's ten minutes to his first lecture hall, an as he gets closer, the men and women in suits and business casual gets replaced by people his own age wearing sweatpants and pajamas, toting their own cups of coffee with permanent bags below their eyes. The education majors stand out, in their crisp clean clothes ready to go practice teaching in classrooms around the city. The English majors nearly bend backwards beneath the weight of their books.

His freshman year, Cas would have given his right arm to lug less books around; now, as he watches them, he actually misses the feeling of being bent in half  backwards. Funny what a little perspective will do.

His nearest lecture hall is fifteen minutes by foot from his workplace. It's an old building, several blocks from where most people would consider main campus, with rickety stairs and creaking pipes, and Castiel hates it for being perpetually cold. And it doesn't help that he starts classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays with his toughest professor.

"Hello Castiel," Professor Adler says as Castiel walks through the door into a sea of desks already filled with people. "Nice of you to join us."

Castiel ducks his head respectfully. "Sir."

He quickly crosses the room and sits down at his usual desk, right beneath the heater. Ruby glances over as he thumps his backpack on the floor, her hair a dark curtain between them. "What died and crawled up his ass? You're not late."

Castiel stares at her,  eyes wide, willing her to lower her voice before Adler hears. She sends him a disparaging look. "Oh don't look like that. He can't hear."

"He might," Cas hisses, and unzips his bag. She rolls her eyes and faces front again, kicking distractedly at the chair in front of her. Immediately, Raph swings around in her seat and glares at Ruby.

"Could you stop that?"

"Jesus, sorry." Ruby throws up her hands in mock surrender, putting them back down when Professor Adler steps up to the front of the classroom behind the podium.

"Good morning class," he says, eyes scanning the room as all the students around Castiel quiet down in an instant. "I trust you all did your reading for today?"

There's a chorus of agreement accompanied by some nodding. Adler claps his hands together. "Right then. Get into your groups then."

Castiel's chair squeaks as he turns his desk to face Ruby's.  Raph leaves her seat with the clunk of oxfords on tile, and Ash drops into her spot seconds later. "'Sup?"

"Who wants to bet we get a pop quiz today?" Ruby asks, leaning forward over her desk and keeping her voice low this time.

"Definitely," Castiel agrees, and Ash makes a face.

"Fuck this. I spent all my time on this stupid project, I don't have time for reading that much."

They've been working on this for weeks. A simulation project, each group given their own company to grow from the ground. It should have been easy. But Adler, of course, was still managing to come up with the most creative ways to grind Sandover Bridge and Iron into the ground. Castiel had actually been rather impressed by the gruesome employee death resulting in the multi-million dollar lawsuit against them that Ash had been stuck with for the past four class sessions. The three of them take the laptops out of their bags and connect to the school Wi-Fi, Ruby tapping her fingers impatiently against her desk as she waits.

Castiel had wondered the first time they did this why Adler decided to put all the instructions for the day online, instead of simply telling them himself. He's decided by now it's so the professor can watch the hope drain from their faces uninterrupted. And sure enough, when he glances up to the front of the class, Adler is standing there looking extremely satisfied with himself as the groups discover what setbacks have befallen their virtual businesses since last time.

"Fuck," Ash groans, and thumps his head down on the table. "They're still suing. Fuck, fuck, fuck we're gonna fail."

"Everyone's gonna fail, Ash," Ruby tells him, resting her chin in the palm of one hand as she scrolls down the list. "Stocks fell, we have to do a call-back on those stupid bolt things that I told you wouldn't hold up, um…looks like we have to hold another job search."

"Who quit?" Castiel asks her, as his laptop finally connects to the Wi-Fi with a feeble signal light.

"One of the managers, apparently." Ruby sighs. "Screw this."

Castiel finds the website and scans the page for himself. He has to admit, no matter how much he hates Adler's class, he doesn't think he'll ever have to really worry about company set-backs in the real world. Not when he's gotten used to dealing with shit like this. Adler might be an ass, but he's good at preparing people for their jobs.

"The man's sadistic," Ash mutters, beginning to type furiously. "I'm just gonna hack the program, make 'em accept the deal."

Castiel frowns at him, leaning closer so Adler can't hear. "Ash, don't! He'll know!"

Ash sends him a disparaging look. "No he won't man. I'm a pro."

"This is supposed to be preparing us for 'real business strategies'," Ruby drawls, making the air quotations with one hand. "You can't hack people's heads in real life."

"Just because I haven't devoted significant time to it…"

Castiel tries to shut out their arguing and focus on the problems at hand. Hiring a new manager, obviously, because Adler made it very clear that they could only cut down on their number of employees before production and sales would begin to suffer. Ash can deal with the lawsuit--they can spare the money. Ruby had been spot on about the bolts failing so maybe she could spend time working on production management and coming up with a few new product ideas. Adler had told them right from the beginning if keep their company afloat for two months he'll give them full credit, and this assignment is thirty percent of final grades.

If they pass this, he'll have his Master's.

"Castiel!" Ruby snaps her fingers in his face, and he bats her hand away irritably. "We doing something here or not?"

"We are," he tells her, and opens up a word document to begin designing his recruitment campaign.

After an hour's work, he's run the campaign past both Ruby and Ash, and Ash has agreed to leave hacking the system as a last resort. With fifteen minutes left of class, Adler asks them back to their seats and writes up on the blackboard, in spidery letters, 'POP QUIZ'. Ruby and Castiel exchange satisfied glances as the professor continues to dash down the question which they're supposed to answer in seven to ten sentences. Castiel did the reading for today last night at work--it's easy to simply write down everything he remembers about bull market strategies, and he's feeling pretty good about this quiz at least. Adler smiles at them all as they file out of the classroom, and Castiel tilts his head respectively before following Raph out of the classroom. She shifts her backpack on her shoulders and falls back to talk to him as they walk down the hall. "Did you get much finished with your company?"

Castiel sighs and rubs at his temple. "We tried. We're getting sued."

"Us too," she tells him. "Security guard killed in an elevator." She makes a face. "Well, half in and half out of an elevator."

Castiel sends an alarmed look back towards the classroom, but Adler isn't in the doorway any more. "Jesus."

"That's what I said." She groans and rubs at her face as they clatter down the stairwell together. "God, I'm tired. I just want this semester to be over."

"This is your last year, right?"

She nods. "Yeah. Yours too?"

"Mm-hmm." They push open the doors at the bottom of the stairs and exit into open air. Castiel glances over at Raph as they do and smiles a little to himself. She's easily Adler's best student, and Castiel is just glad he gets along with her  better than, say, Ruby. She's certainly someone who's a lot more pleasant as a friend than an enemy.

Raph turns her head and catches him looking. She points in the direction of the dining halls. "Want to grab lunch? I have an hour until my philosophy class."

Castiel sends a smile her way, but begins to walk backwards towards the main lecture halls as he lies. "Maybe some other time. I need to meet with my professor."

"Oh, alright." She waves a little before heading off towards the halls. Castiel watches her disappear around a building, and then walks to the nearest bench to sit. He takes his computer out of his bag and quickly checks email. Anna has already gotten to him, but Castiel doesn't open it yet. Knowing Anna, he'll need at least half an hour to compose a decent response to all her questions about how he knows Dean won't chop his body up and cook him into pies.

Siege Publishers hasn't gotten back to him yet, and Castiel can't decide if that's a good or bad thing. Either they ignored him completely, or they at least haven't rejected him out of hand. It's nothing that worrying will solve though, so he quickly deletes the junk mail and various emails from organizations he'd donated a dollar to once that are now begging him for a couple hundred, and fine tunes his advertising campaign for Adler's assignment.

His next class is five minutes away by foot and Castiel gets there with plenty of time. Some black-haired girl he has never learned the name of is already sitting up front, and the professor is nowhere to be seen. Castiel settles into a seat three back and two over from the girl and organizes his notes while he waits for everyone else to file in.

It's an accounting class, which Castiel hates, but is also extremely good at, so he's able to ignore most of the class in favor of studying for his test in finance tomorrow. Come ten to three, he's reasonably sure he'll pass with at least a B, as long as there are no surprises. He jots down the homework for next Tuesday the professor has written on the board and packs up his things.

He has just in enough time to head home to drop off his stuff before heading to Dean Winchester's apartment. The subway is much more crowded at three in the afternoon, and Castiel clutches his backpack to his front and clings to a pole as the subway rattles down the track, the roar of a hundred people whispering making his head ache. Once he's safely back at his place and has dumped his backpack in the chair and shucked off his jeans in favor of sweatpants--he's going to take them off again in half an hour anyway, why bother?--he pours himself a glass of apple juice and snacks on a bag of pretzels he bought last week. He keeps a constant eye on the time on his phone so he'll be at Dean's by four, and when it's time to leave, he brings only his key and phone in his pocket. He doesn't need anything else.

Dean's apartment is only five blocks away. A lot of students live around this area, so it's not particularly surprising that they're so close. There's still a light snow falling--it hasn't let up all day--but the drops of moisture on his face feel refreshing, and Castiel welcomes them, tilts his head up to let the flakes litter his skin.

Dean's home is one of those older remodeled buildings, split into several parts to house several people, so its lacks the security of proper apartment complexes; once there, Castiel walks right in and up the stairs to Dean's door. He's getting used to it by now, after nearly an entire week of modeling for Dean. "It's open!" Dean calls the second Castiel's knuckles land on the wood, and Castiel pushes open the door to find the apartment seemingly empty, if a little bit more messy than his previous visits. "In the studio!" Dean shouts, and Castiel smiles to himself as he shuts the door and heads inside. He likes that Dean calls it a studio. Hopes Dean will able to afford a real one someday.

"Hello Dean," he says when he pokes his head into the room where Dean stands at his easel, smudging charcoal across paper.

"Hey," Dean replies, glancing quickly back over his shoulder and grinning. "I'm all set up, so we can get started."

"Alright," Castiel agrees, and bypasses the door to head for the bathroom instead. He strips off his shirt and sweatpants and wraps the usual towel around his waist, because it would still feel strange to walk around Dean's apartment without it.

"You ready?" Dean asks as soon as Castiel reenters the studio.

"If you are," he says, and Dean smiles that smile that Castiel learns comes so easily to his face.

"Cool. Wanna climb on up then?"

Castiel nods, and sheds his towel as he goes. He settles back onto the stool and tries to arrange himself as he remembers.

"Arm a little lower, thanks," Dean calls, and Castiel hurries to follow his instruction. "Perfect."

Castiel smiles a little, eyes straining in Dean's direction, just in time to see Dean pick up his charcoal. His hands are smeared with black today, and there's streaks of it across his forehead from where he's rubbed the sweat away. "I'll probably be working with the charcoal for today and tomorrow too," Dean says as he begins to work. It's only taken a few days for Castiel to realize how much Dean hates silence, tries to fill it with empty words that never really mean anything, reveal anything about Dean himself. He talks about the different compositions of clay, lists the shades of blue he will need to buy to get Castiel's eyes just right, discusses brush prices at different art supply stores. Cas doesn’t offer any conversation in return as he listens to Dean ramble on—it’s relaxing to sit quietly and let his mind wander, something he doesn’t have time for outside of this room.

"After that, I'll probably do the watercolor, because I hate watercolor. And then the clay, just to change things up. After that, not sure."

Castiel blinks, and watches the snowflakes fall outside the window.

"All I know," Dean says, "is I'm saving the oil for last. Because that'll take forever and be expensive as fuck."

Castiel hums in acknowledgement, and focuses on staying completely still. He's careful not to hold his breath though--Dean had told him not to their very first session.

"It'll be awesome," Dean tells him at last. "You'll come, right? To the exhibit when it's done?"

Castiel shrugs one shoulder and quickly returns it to position before Dean can make a sound. "Perhaps."

"You should."

"Perhaps," he says again, and Dean doesn't respond this time. He captures Castiel instead, traps him on the canvas, and Castiel thinks about how these drawings could remain for years, a remnant of a single day seen in the sketched-out shadows beneath his eyes. He's not sure if he likes the idea or not.

"I'm going to put on some music," Dean says after a while, and Castiel hears his footsteps moving to the corner. There's a click, a whir, and the sound of tinny music comes floating through the air, riding on dust motes.

"Black Sabbath?" Castiel asks, and Dean laughs quietly.

"Didn't think you'd recognize them."

"My sister," Castiel explains, "Anna, she…she went through a phase."

"Not a bad phase to go through, as phases go." Dean's footsteps move back across the room. "So…she older or younger, this sister?" He does this too, sometimes, ask about Castiel's life, but not often. More of a formality really.

Castiel takes a breath, and shuts his eyes. "Older. By three years. But I have a younger sister as well. Rachel. She's twenty now." He pauses for a moment, and then adds, "Michael is my older brother. By eight years."

"Cool," Dean says. Castiel thinks to ask about Dean's own family, but Dean begins to chat about red tones instead and color wheel compositions, and Castiel gives up. It's easier to simply sit, and let Dean work.

It's relaxing, sitting here, and it’s fast becoming one of his favorite parts of his day. The music plays in the background, and after a while Dean switches over to some rock band that Castiel feels like he should recognize but doesn't. He watches the light outside get dimmer and dimmer, until all he can see is the tiny snowflakes falling in the light from the apartment complex.

"It's ten to seven," Dean tells him at last, and Castiel nods, slowly unfolding his legs and arms and hopping to the floor. He's stiff from sitting so long in one position, and moves slowly to grab his towel and wrap it back around his waist.

"See you tomorrow?" he asks Dean, and Dean nods from where he's wiping his hands off with his little sponge.

"Yeah. Totally. Have a good night."

"You too," Castiel tells him, before heading out of the studio to the bathroom. He changes quickly and leaves the towel folded on the stool. Dean still hasn't come out by the time he's ready to go, so Castiel closes the front door behind him.d

He walks back home quickly in the dark, and switches his sweatpants and t-shirt for his work uniform--blue shirt and khaki pants. The coffee shop where he works at night is very close, and by 7:30, he's walking through the back door, hanging his coat over a chair in the staff room and slinging his apron around his waist.

"Hey," he says to Uriel as he joins him behind the counter. Uriel turns and smiles, wide and bright.

"Hello Castiel."

They don't have much time to chat. A customer comes up the counter almost immediately and Castiel steps forward with a grin plastered on his face. He takes her order and turns away to prepare it while Uriel takes care of the next person in line. "So how did your debate go?" he asks as Uriel reaches across him to grab the cream.

"I won," Uriel tells him, which isn't any surprise. Uriel is extremely good at persuading people. He's a political science major, and Castiel has spent many slow nights listening to Uriel ramble on and on about the significant political changes he thinks need to happen in the next five years to prevent the slow dissolving into anarchy, as well as not an insignificant amount of insults geared towards his own field of study. Uriel's funny  though--witty and biting--and he usually makes Castiel laugh more in half an hour than he normally would all week. But it's busy tonight, and there isn't much time for that as the two of them work to fill the orders of passersby driven inside by the chill. A couple of students Castiel recognizes from campus come in around 8:30, and he sends them friendly nods while he slides their drinks across the table. The coffee shop is a popular destination for students who live in the area, and he knows that closer to finals, it will slowly fill up with the desperate last-minute studiers in need of a caffeine boost.

Uriel's shift ends at 9:00, and he claps Castiel on the shoulder on his way out. The rush has died down significantly, with just a few people seated at tables throughout the coffee shop chatting quietly. Castiel takes the opportunity to clean up the kitchen so he won't have to do as much for closing, and then grabs his book for accounting and begins doing the assigned problems. He gets a lot of homework done in the later hours of his shift.

By 10:00, there's only four people left, a group of three and an older gentleman in the corner typing away at his laptop while he drinks his second cup of coffee. Castiel gives them a ten minute warning and sweeps any mess from the counter. He opens the cash register and counts up the day's profits before bundling it all and placing it in the safe in the back. He's been working here for two years now, so by now he's trusted to close by himself. He closes the door with a smile after the last of the customers and quickly sweeps up, switches the sign in the window around to CLOSED, and makes sure everything in the kitchen is in order before doing a quick sweep of the tables, clearing away stray crumbs and stains and making sure the little fliers for the gig next week are still properly placed in their little stands. He locks up, switches off the lights, and lets himself out the back way, making certain to lock up that way as well.

His feet hurt from standing for so long, and he's tempted to fall straight into bed when he gets home around half past ten. But his stomach is grumbling unpleasantly, so he heats up the dinner from last night in the crappy microwave he'd picked up for ten dollars at a yard sale this past summer and eats on the couch, legs curled up underneath his body while he finally opens Anna's email to him. Predictably, it's more annoyance and worry at him for having to pick up another job, and a firm warning against letting strangers paint him naked. Castiel rolls his eyes and types up his reply as he finishes his food. Anna dropped out of school in her sophomore year. She doesn't remember what it's like. Besides, he's not going to ask Michael for money. He can't.

He  shuts down his laptop, drops the dirty dishes right in the sink on top of all the others and heads to his bedroom. He groans as he strips off his shirt, muscles protesting. At least tomorrow's Friday, he tells himself as he brushes his teeth and scrubs a warm washcloth over his face, staring dully at his reflection in the mirror the entire time. He falls into bed among mussed sheets that he really needed to wash two weeks ago. He's asleep practically as soon as he pulls the blanket up around his shoulders.

 


 

 

"Do you think you could come in tomorrow, for just a few hours?" Dean asks him the next day. "I mean, I'm just asking because I know we only agreed on weekdays but I would really like to get the charcoal done before next week and…"

His voice trails off, and Castiel stares out the window and considers it. Saturday is his day off, but Sunday he only has work in the coffee shop from 11:00 to 2:00, which leaves him with plenty of time for homework. And he likes sitting here with Dean. It's relaxing. "Sure," he says. "What time?"

He hears Dean let out his breath in a whoosh. "Awesome. Um…would around 1:00 work for you? So we have the afternoon if we need it? Or I don't know what your schedule is, I could…"

"That's fine, Dean." Castiel smiles a little, so Dean can see it. "I'll be here."

"Cool," Dean says, and Castiel's smile grows.

It's a little chilly, sitting up here on the stool, and Castiel passes time by trying to count the goosebumps on his right arm. After a while, he hears Dean travel back across the room, and the sound of music permeates the air once more. It seems that will become a more common thing now.

"Foreigner?" he guesses.

"You got it," Dean tells him. "But that one's easy."

"For you, maybe."

"For anyone." His tone is light, teasing, and Castiel smiles gently to himself.

His smile grows when Dean begins to hum softly along to the song, and then begins to sing along under his breath.

"I've seen it before, it happens all the time, you're closing the door…"

He has quite a nice voice, rough and gentle, and Castiel shuts his eyes to listen as Dean's singing grows louder when Castiel doesn't protest. Castiel actually laughs when he hears the paintbrushes rap on the table like drumsticks and Dean begins to sing the chorus. "You're as cold as ice, you're willing to sacrifice our love…"

"You should have been a singer!" Castiel calls over the music, and Dean stops, and chuckles. Castiel dares to turn his head and sneak a look at Dean's bashful smile as he returns behind his easel.

"Nah, I don't think so." He pauses for a moment, and then adds, "All those groupies, you know?"

"I'm an MBA who lives in a shoebox, yes of course I know about groupies," Castiel answers dryly, and Dean laughs at that, a loud bark of a laugh that echoes through the room.

"Yeah, I thought so."

Castiel turns his head back towards the window, and taps one finger against his other wrist to the beat, and waits to see if Dean will speak again. He doesn't have to wait long.

"So what does an MBA do?"

Castiel shrugs. "Lots of math, I suppose. Graphs. Accounting. I have an internship at a business near campus. What do art majors do?"

"Core requirements," Dean tells him with a slight groan. "I left my sciences until this semester and I hate myself for it."

Castiel winces. "Yeah, I left my sciences for my senior year too. Ended up in Chem 101 with a bunch of freshmen."

"Thank God I took AP Bio in high school," Dean mutters to himself. "I was at least able to get into a 200 level science."

"My high school didn't have AP. Was it nice?"

Dean takes a moment before answering. "Uh…yeah. Pretty nice, I guess. I was able to get like a semester's worth of credit done before I started as a freshman, so that was awesome."

Castiel hums in acknowledgement, and turns his attention back to the window. Dean lapses into silence once as the track turns over, begins to play a song Castiel doesn't recognize.

It takes him a moment to realize Dean's talking to him again.

"What?" he blurts out, and Dean pauses, before repeating his question.

"Is the job you go after this…is that your internship?

Castiel shakes his head, just the tiniest fraction so he's not actually disrupting Dean's work. "No. I intern in the mornings. I work at a coffee house at night."

"Oh yeah? Which one?"

"The Busted Bean? It's on…"

Dean laughs, and Cas turns his head to look. "I'm in there every morning! Why haven't I seen you?"

Cas grins at him. "I'm closing shift. I haven't worked mornings for over a year."

"I'll have to drop by sometime then. Raise some hell." Dean winks at him, and Cas feels something warm stir in his chest.

"I'll be looking forward to it, " he says, and faces back towards the window. The problem, he realizes later as he's walking back home with his hands shoved in his pockets, is that he is.

Of course Dean didn't mean he'll come by tonight. For all Castiel knows, Dean will never make good on his threat.

It doesn't stop him from looking up eagerly every time the little bell above the door tinkles that night, until he realizes exactly what he's doing and keeps his eyes glued to the counter for the rest of the evening.

 


 

 

He wakes up completely tangled in his sheets and damp with sweat, three hours later than he'd planned. Castiel groans when he glances over at the clock and stretches his arms above his head. He still has two hours before he has to be at Dean's, but he's never liked being unproductive, and sleeping until 11:00 counts as exactly that. He showers quickly and boils water for instant oatmeal in the kitchen while booting up his laptop and checking email. He's just pouring the water into the bowl of dried oats and stirring in the fake maple flavoring when he hears the ping of a new message. He glances over to see what it is, and his stomach drops, abolishing his appetite as it goes.

Just the tagline is enough to tell him what Michael wants, and Castiel deletes the message without thinking. Not the smartest thing he's ever done, no, and perhaps holding a grudge for five years is a bit much, but he feels better for having his brother's words out of his inbox. He can't shake the residual anger flickering at the edges of his mind, however, and he knows it shows as soon as he sits down for Dean to work.

"Not that it's my business, but are you okay?" Dean asks him after a long moment of silence with Castiel sitting rigidly on the bench with his jaw clenched.

Castiel shuts his eyes and breathes in deeply through his nose. "I'm fine. You can start now."

"If you're sure." The familiar scritch of charcoal on paper floats through the air, but it doesn't last for long. "Do you want a cup of coffee?"

Castiel frowns, and turns his head from the window to stare at Dean quizzically. "Sorry?"

Dean shrugs one shoulder and smiles that easy smile. "You're throwing me off, man. You're pissed at something, and I can't concentrate."

"Sorry," Castiel tells him immediately, "It's just…my brother…"

"Hey, it's cool." Dean holds up one hand and cuts him off. "You don't need to tell me. I just thought maybe we could take a little break, have a cup of coffee, and come back to this. Sound alright?"

Slowly, Castiel nods. "I'm sorry."

"Nah. It's cool." Dean puts down his charcoal and wipes his hands on his t-shirt, leaving dark streaks behind. "So, coffee?"

"Please." Castiel slips off the stool, the floorboards freezing beneath his feet.

Dean nods, and begins to head out of the room. He stops in the doorway and pokes his head back in. "It'll be the shitty instant kind."

Castiel smiles slightly and shrugs one shoulder. "That's what I'm used to."

"'kay then. I'm in the kitchen." Dean disappears down the hallway, and Castiel casts around for his towel, laying half folded, half tossed on the nearest chair. He's stiff from sitting so long, and he stumbles as he tries to get the towel wrapped around his waist again, needing to lean against his stool for support. After a moment to steady himself, he heads out for the bathroom to put his clothes on. He's not drinking coffee without any pants.

Dean is in the kitchen, getting the coffee out of the cupboard. He smiles when Castiel appears, and Castiel returns it before scurrying into the bathroom. He can hear Dean boiling the water as he yanks on his jeans and his sweater, and by the time he's put his socks on and let himself back out, Dean is setting out mugs. "You can sit down," he says when Castiel comes out, pointing towards the raggedy looking couch. "It's almost ready."

There's a side-table right by the couch, with a lamp and picture frame. Castiel studies the picture as he settles into the cushions. Four people stare back at him, seated around a picnic table in the middle of a forest, one of them Dean, with his arm wrapped around the shoulders of a lanky young man. There's a blond woman who sits opposite them, reclining against the man behind her.  She has a gentle smile, much like Dean's own. In fact, she looks a lot like Dean.

"Is this your family?" Castiel asks, glancing over at the kitchen. Dean looks up from pouring the boiling water into the mugs.

"Yeah," he says. "That's me, my mom, my dad, and my brother Sam. He's just freakishly big--I'm the older one."

Castiel looks back at the photo and studies the way Dean's eyes are crinkled around the corners with the force of his grin. It's a nice picture. "You have a very beautiful family," he says as Dean walks over to the couch with a mug held in each hand.

"Uh, thanks," Dean mumbles, settling onto the couch next to Castiel. "Here you go." He hands him the cup of coffee, and Castiel takes it with a small 'thank you'. Dean sits back against the cushions and crosses his legs out in front of himself. Castiel watches him from the corner of his eye, wondering if one of them should start a conversation. Dean doesn't seem like he's going to.

"Thanks for the coffee," he says, and Dean chuckles a little into his cup.

"You're welcome, Cas."

Anna's nickname for him. Castiel's eyebrows lift as he considers how he feels about Dean using it. It feels alright, actually. Natural. He smiles around another sip of coffee. Crappy instant brand and just how he likes it.

They sit in silence for a few moments, Dean getting progressively more and more restless. He sets his coffee down on the table, uncrosses his legs, recrosses his legs, folds his arms across his chest, unfolds them, picks up his coffee again. Finally, he clears his throat and says, "Does this feel awkward?"

Castiel nods. "I'm told I often have that effect."

Dean snorts, and sets his coffee back down. "No, it's not you. It's just…I draw you naked."

"I'm aware of that."

"So I don't know, I'm not used to seeing you in clothes, feels weird." There's a pink tinge appearing on his cheekbones, blotting under freckles, and Castiel thinks it's adorable. He bites at his lip before answering.

"Well, I don't usually drink my coffee nude, but if it would make you more comfortable…"

Dean's eyes grow huge and the blush deepens. "No, no, I didn't…" He stops talking as soon as Castiel begins laughing, and he stares at Castiel with disbelief written across his face. "You shit. That's not funny."

Castiel squints and tilts his head a little to the side with a smirk. "It was a little funny."

"Ass," Dean mutters, shaking his head from side to side slowly, grin spreading across his face. "So you do have a sense of humor then."

Castiel shrugs one shoulder. "Well, not much of one." He taps his fingers on the side of his mug. He likes Dean, wants to keep talking to him. "My friend Uriel, he's very funny," he adds at last, and Dean returns his smile.

"Uriel? That's a weird name." Dean drapes one arm over the back of the couch. "I guess I am talking to a Castiel though."

"It's a religious name," Castiel explains quickly. "Based off one of the archangels. My mom went into labor pretty unexpectedly and my dad...uh...well he pretty drunk when it happened. Decided that he'd fill out the birth certificate by himself."

"So he named you after an angel?" Dean barks out a laugh. "Dude…"

Castiel rolls his eyes fondly. "He was a writer. Worked a lot of religion into his books. I think he thought being named after an archangel would be empowering."

Dean laughs again, eyes bright. "So wait, so there's you, Michael…Rachel?" Castiel nods, and Dean looks pleased with himself. "Cool. So Rachel and…the sister with the Black Sabbath phase…?"

"Anna," Castiel supplies, and Dean counts them all off on his fingers.

"Michael, Anna, Castiel, Rachel. So you're the only one with the angel name?"

"Michael the archangel," Castiel reminds him, shoulders tensing a little at the mention of his brother, and Dean wrinkles his nose.

"Fine. Michael the archangel. Still." He waits a beat, and then mutters, "I was named after my grandma. Deanna."

"Is it empowering?" Castiel asks immediately, and Dean reaches forward to hit him in the shoulder with a grin.

"Shut up."

Castiel laughs, and feels himself relax, muscles easing into a slouch. It's incredibly easy to talk with Dean. Not as complicated as he usually finds interaction with other people his own age. Something about Dean's smile, he thinks.

He pulls his legs up onto the sofa and cups the cup of coffee in his hands, blowing into it and letting the steam billow up into his face. "So, what about you?" he asks. "You're an art major obviously, but what are your plans for next year? Graduate school?"

Dean laughs again, and shakes his head, nestling himself back in the opposite corner of the couch. "Yeah right. I barely stayed in school for the past four years, no way I'm doing anything past this." He reaches for his coffee once more and takes a drink. "I mean, I wanna be an artist, and honestly? All those classes about color theory and composition? That stuff already comes naturally."

Castiel frowns, and watches the coffee swirl in his mug, partially reflecting his own face back at him. "If it was so useless, then why pursue a degree at all?"

He glances up for Dean's reaction, which is to simply twitch his nose and wave one hand through the air aimlessly. "No one takes you seriously these days without a degree. And, I mean, for my freshman year, I was an engineering major. My parents wanted me to major in something that would help me get a job which I get it, they worry about me. So I tried to deal with the math and the realistic life goals." He lets out all his breath in one long huff and raises his eyebrows for a wide-eyed expression, nodding a little and smacking his lips. "And I hated it. So I switched over to art and just sort of stuck around , I guess." He laughs, a bit scornfully, and places his elbow on the edge of the couch so he rest his head in his hand. "But whatever, you're here for coffee, not my life story."

Castiel thinks its oddly ironic, how Dean switched into a major he loved, and Castiel into one he hates, and part of him thinks to comment on it, but Dean is starting to rub at the back of his neck again. He's nervous. So Castiel simply nods and takes a drink, dropping the subject.

"So, what about you?" Dean asks after a moment, and Castiel sets his almost empty mug down on the table before wrapping his arms around his legs and perching his chin atop his knees.

"What about me? I already told you about me."

Dean shrugs. "Not much. And it's weird drawing you naked when you just sit there glaring at the window and never saying a word."

"You're awfully hung up on this naked thing, aren't you?" Castiel asks him, and Dean looks at him incredulously.

"Well, yeah. That's generally what people do. Get hung up over seeing basic strangers naked for a couple hours a week."

Castiel frowns at him, tilting his head to the side even with his face cradled between his knees. "Well, why not ask one of your friends to be your model?"

Dean snorts, and looks away as he rubs under one eye. He's got some charcoal smudged beneath his chin, Cas notices. "Because the only thing worse than asking a stranger to pose nude for you is asking one of your friends. Trust me. No way."

"Girlfriend?" Castiel asks him, and Dean shakes his head.

"Don't have one. And I'm not asking an ex. Believe me, easiest way is to use someone you don't know."

"But you're trying to get to know me right now," Castiel tells him, and, when Dean glances over at him, continues with, "Asking what about me. If you know my life story, won't that defeat the purpose of asking a stranger?"

Dean just stares, and after so many hours of sitting and letting Dean's eyes work over him, it shouldn't make Castiel uncomfortable. But it does anyway. He shifts, and slowly unfolds his legs and lowers his feet to the floor. "What?"

Dean's mouth quirks upwards in a grin, and he reaches for his coffee once more. "I don't know, Cas." He grabs his mug and takes a sip, and pulls it away from his lips again with a contented hum. "I guess there's just a difference for me between having to ask one of the people I see on an everyday basis, in classes and lunch and stuff, to pose for me, and then asking you. And I'm getting to know you anyway, whether you talk or not."

Castiel opens his mouth to ask how, but Dean beats him to it. "One of the things that I really wanted to do with this project, see, is capture the person." He takes another drink, tilting his head back to get all the coffee out. The mug follows his hand motions through the air as he tries to explain his point. He's very physical, when he speaks, Castiel notes. He's very physical all the time, actually. "I want people to be able to walk in there, and walk out knowing you without ever having met you, you know? And so I have to get to know you too. Just by drawing you."

He smiles at Castiel, a smile much more open and tender than any of the ones before, softer around the eyes, and Castiel doesn't know what to say in response.

"So, really, I'm already getting to know you. No words necessary."

Castiel casts his eyes down and studies the worn fabric of the couch. "Oh." Part of him wants to ask just what Dean is learning, but most of him is scared to ask.

"You'll like it," Dean says quietly, and Castiel glances up just in time to catch the nervousness in his eyes. "I promise. It's a good project."

"Yeah?" Castiel asks, and watches the softness seep from Dean's face, replaced by that familiar half-smile. The mask. Castiel is good at recognizing those by now.

"Yeah. A room full of women all admiring your junk? Dude, you're so getting laid." Dean laughs a little and punches his shoulder.

Castiel smiles a little shyly in response, but the words tumble out of his mouth--an automatic response after dealing with his family's stubbornness over the subject for years. "Boys. A room full of…boys would be better." His voice trails off as he realizes that he probably didn't want to say that, and he stares at Dean with wide-eyes, but Dean just slips back into that gentle smile, veneer disappeared once more, and his hand on Castiel's shoulder still curled for the punch relaxes to squeeze reassuringly.

"A room full of guys then, all wanting a piece of that."

He has to laugh there, and Dean's hand lingers on his shoulder for a moment before Dean pulls back. This has to be the easiest he's ever come out to anyone, and the shock of it lingers in his laughter, that instinctive rush of nerves subsiding into normalcy. "You ready to start again?" Dean asks him, and Cas studies his hands for a moment before nodding slowly.

"Yeah. I am."

 


 

 

Ash ignores all of them and hacks into the system the night before class, diverting about thirty million dollars into their account. Ruby threatens to strangle him with his own mullet if Adler finds out, but Adler simply stops the three of them on their way out of class on Tuesday and congratulates them on a job well done. Ash looks like he's going to pass out the entire time, and Castiel has to practically drag him out of the classroom by the elbow.

"Not even Adler could tell," Ash whispers to himself as they descend the stairs. "I'm a criminal mastermind."

"Not even close," Ruby tells him, "But nice try."

Castiel chuckles, and hikes his backpack higher on his shoulders.

That night, after he gets home from work, Anna sends him a text and orders him to get on Skype. Castiel sets his laptop on the kitchen counter and calls Anna while he puts on a pot of water to boil pasta. She appears on his screen pixelated but smiling, hair piled on top of her head and pinned there with chopsticks, tank-top loose around her shoulders.

"Hey Cas," she greets him. "Not been killed yet?"

He stops cutting his red pepper and wrinkles his nose at the computer screen. "Dean is not a serial killer."

"That's what they all say right before he chops you into pieces," she replies cheerfully, raising a bowl into view, filled with Ramen noodles. "These are quicker, you know."

"I like homemade," he says, using the knife to gather the sliced peppers to the middle of his cutting board.

"I microwaved these at home."

He rolls his eyes so she will see and goes to push the peppers into the frying pan already heating on the stovetop. She giggles and props her chin up on her hands. "So…?"

"So what?"

"What's he like?"

"Who?"

"Dean, of course! All I know is that he's not a serial killer and that doesn't do much to help me." She stuffs a forkful of noodles into her mouth.

Castiel glances away and reaches for an onion from the bowl. "What do you want to know?"

She shrugs, and speaks with her mouth full. "I dunno. Is he nice? Or is he a creep? Someone can be a creep without being a serial killer."

Castiel begins to peel the outer skin off the layer. "He's not a creep! He's nice! He's a…" Part of him wants to say 'gentleman', just for the cliche of it, but he stops himself, and finishes with, "…an artist." He smiles a little to himself, and begins to cut the onion, turning his face away so the spray from it won't make him cry. He looks back at the computer just in time to find Anna frowning curiously at him. "What?"

"So…you two are friends?"

He nods, and then mutters, "Yeah, I guess. Sort of. We get along just fine." Her expression doesn't change. "He gave me coffee."

"Wow, do I hear wedding bells?" she gasps, and Castiel feels the blood rush to his face. "Aw, are you blushing?"

"It's the onion," he says, and starts chopping vigorously.

"You're blushing! Cas, do you like him? A little studio romance, oh my God..."

He sets the knife down on the cutting board and turns toward the laptop with a pained expression. "Can we not, please?"

Rachel wouldn't have stopped. She'd have kept teasing, on and on until Castiel is debating jumping out the window and suffering two broken legs just to escape. But Anna does at once, mouth snapping shut and eyes growing wide and soft. "You wanna talk about it?" she asks, and Castiel sighs, before rubbing a hand over his face. The juice from the onion sticks to his forehead, and he winces as he pulls his hand away.

"No. Not really."

"Cas…"

He shuts his eyes and tilts his head back towards the ceiling. "I just can't handle a relationship right now. And I don't even know if he's interested."

"But say he was," she says softly, "If you're not going to try to find someone now, when will you?"

He opens his eyes and glances over to the computer. "I dated in high school."

"Yeah, a girl!"

"We're still friends!" he protests, and then adds, calmer, "Daphne got her teaching degree, by the way. Has a job lined up in some Christian school in Ohio."

Anna smiles. "That's great. I always liked her."

"Yeah, it is great."

She hums, and takes another bite of noodles, and then her face brightens as she changes the subject. "Rachel's coming to visit me next month!"

"Really? Since when?"

"Since two nights ago. She's going to come here for spring break."

Castiel finishes with the onion and adds it to his pepper. He pushes everything around the pan and adds a pinch of spice from his side drawer. He lifts the top of his pot to check if his water is boiling. It is, so he grabs for the package of Penne and dumps about a third of it in. "That'll be nice."

"Yeah, I thought so. Apparently she's bringing a boy with her."

Castiel raises his eyebrows as he looks back towards the screen. "A boy? Should I come scare him away?"

She sends him a scornful look. "Cas. She would kill you." She waits a beat before adding, "Besides, if I wanted him scared away, I'd ask Michael to do it."

"True."

She watches him stir the noodles silently for a moment and then says, "How are things with Michael, by the way?"

Castiel sighs, and taps his wooden spoon on the side of the pot to get the water off. "I think he's trying to hire me. The ass."

"He's doing the best he can," Anna tells him gently. "He cares about you and you know it."

"Yeah, well, he has a funny way of showing it." He scowls at this onions and peppers, and then turns back towards the computer with a wavering smile. "So…how's the boss?"

Anna rolls her eyes and stuffs more Ramen between her lips. "Awful," she groans. "I cannot wait to be out of here."

"When's your interview?"

"Two weeks."

"You'll get it."

"Don't get my hopes up."

"You'll get it," he repeats, and she smiles.

Castiel turns to poke at his vegetables, flipping one of the pepper pieces over so it browns evenly.

"You'll get your job too," Anna tells him gently, and he shrugs.

"I hope so."

 

 


 

 

 

On Friday he finally has the courage to ask Dean what he meant. "You told me the other day you know me," Cas says, and he hears Dean hum in agreement as he strokes the brush down the watercolor paper.

“I did.”

Castiel waits a moment, and then asks, "Well, what do you know?"

Dean laughs, bright and cheerful. "Um, Jesus, okay, give me sec."

Castiel nods, rolls his eyes at Dean's rapid admonition of 'stay still' as soon as his head bobs, and waits. He can feel prickling on his skin, and knows Dean is watching him, studying him. After a minute, Dean clears his throat, but doesn’t begin to speak. Instead, Castiel can hear footsteps as Dean walks around to bring himself into Castiel’s line of sight. Dean grins as he moves forward, and Cas wonders if he’s allowed to move yet or not. He doesn’t, not until Dean is standing a foot away, and has both hands held out in front of him, framing Castiel with his fingers, and Castiel shifts uncomfortably.

“Stop squirming,” Dean orders him with a chuckle, “I’m using my mad artist skills to psychoanalyze you.”

Castiel makes a face at him. “It’s not psychoanalysis.”

Dean grins and puts a finger to his lips, as if in contemplation. “So...Mr. Shurley ...how long have you been regularly dreaming of smoking big fat cigars...”

“You ass!” Castiel tells him, laughing as he kicks out with one foot and making Dean dodge out of the way. Dean is laughing too, those high splotches of pink appearing on his cheekbones.

“Fine. Sorry, sorry. I’m a jerk.” Dean throws his hands up in mock surrender when Castiel tries to kick him again. “Okay. For real this time. You ready?”

Castiel settles back on his stool and waits for Dean to continue. Dean stares at him for a few seconds, and then smirks, pointing with one finger at Castiel’s face.  "You have massive bags under your eyes and a bit of stubble you missed on the side of your face. That tells me that you don't sleep a lot. So...either new dad or a student. But I know you’re a student so that doesn’t really matter.  But you probably leave early in the morning, when you're still tired enough to miss it if you do a crappy job shaving."

Castiel has to chuckle at that, and shrugs one shoulder in defeat. "On the subway by seven, every morning."

"Told you." Dean’s smirk grows wider, and he crosses his arms across his chest, shifting his weight back to one leg. "Okay, what else. You have bad posture.. I mean, it doesn't really tell me anything, but you do. I guess it makes you look more tired.” His expression grows softer, more sympathetic. “When are you out of here?”

“Spring,” Castiel answers. “I’m done in spring. If I pass.”

“You’re smart. You will,” Dean tells him, and Cas feels his face flush.

“Thanks.”

“Stating facts, man. Okay...your hands are pretty soft. No calluses or anything. No scars I can see.” Castiel glances at Dean’s own scarred hands, and then down at his own.

“So, you didn’t do a lot of hard labor growing up,” Dean finishes. “Which, you know, cool. I had a feeling you were more the book-y type.” Castiel looks up at him and Dean grins. “Are you the book-y type?”

Castiel smiles. “I was an English major before I switched to business. I loved it.”

Dean makes a triumphant fist. “Knew it! Okay, what else...you’re pretty skinny. So...you don’t eat a lot I don’t think. And you don’t really work out.”

“Are you analyzing me or insulting me?” Castiel asks him, though it's with a grin.

“Hey, you asked. Want me to stop?”

Castiel shakes his head. “No. You’re fine.”

Dean’s head lolls to one side and his eyes scan Castiel’s body up and down. Finally, he says, “When I see your clothes, the stuff that lasts a long time is really nice. Your shoes are fancy. Your coat is expensive. You have a nice backpack. So...money.”

His eyes meet Castiel’s and his eyebrows raise, asking silent permission to continue. Cas nods, just a little bit, tongue darting out to wet his lips.

Dean blinks, once, and continues. “But the stuff that doesn’t last a long time is crappy. Your sweatpants are falling apart. Your shirts are cheap. You have holes in like...all your socks. So...no money. So...you had money once and now you don’t, or you didn’t have money and now you do and the first thing you bought was a backpack.”

It makes Cas laugh, and the tension eases from Dean’s body. “The first option,” Cas tells him. “My family...they were pretty rich.”

Dean smirks. “See? I’m good at this stuff.” He spins on his heel and Castiel turns his head to watch Dean retreat to the haven of his canvas and brushes. “Now stay still.”

Castiel grins and quickly puts his face back towards the window. There’s just the sound of shuffling over from where Dean is, and then silence broken only by the sound of breathing and the occasional swoosh of brush dipping into water.

“So, English major,” Dean asks at last, startling him. “What made you switch?”

Castiel’s head whips around to stare before he can stop it. Dean meets his eyes with a frown, mouth open to admonish him, Castiel is sure, but then Dean stops, and his mouth snaps shut once more. Then open, so he can say, “You can tell me to just shut up if it's too personal.”

Castiel shakes his head, slowly. “No, it’s...it’s not...well, yes, it is. Personal. But I...” He takes a deep breath, lets his lungs expand and the blood rush through his body. “It was my brother.”

“Michael?” Dean asks, stepping back from his easel and leaning with his arms onto the table.

Castiel nods. “Yes. Michael.” He worries his bottom lip between his teeth before continuing. “See, my father disappeared when I was sixteen, and since my mom is long gone, that left Michael as head of the family.”

“Jesus, Cas, I’m sorry,” Dean blurts out, but Castiel waves it away.

“It’s fine. I’m over it. He just...one night he drove to go get zucchini and never came back. They found his car. Never found him. So I guess I’ve just assumed he’s dead. Well I suppose there was a bus stop half a mile down the road so maybe he just left us, but I think he must be dead.” His voice breaks on the last word, and he has to glance away so as to not see the pity in Dean’s eyes. He kicks a little at the stool below him. “My dad was an author, but his dad had owned a company before him. So technically my dad owned that too, but he never cared about it. Just left it for the board to run. When we looked at his will though, he’d left all that to Michael. Michael had just gotten his Master’s and decided that he’d take over, start trying to get involved with it again. So he did.”

He looks up through his eyelashes and catches Dean still watching him with that soft expression. “So what happened to English?” Dean asks, and Castiel straightens up, closes his legs, wraps his arms a little tighter around his stomach.

“I wanted to be an English major. Be a writer like my dad. Michael didn’t think that was practical. Thought I’d end up wasting my time on some useless degree. So after my freshman year, he told me he wouldn’t help fund me through the rest of school unless I switched to something practical, like business." He shrugs. "I didn't have any money of my own. Not enough, at least. I had to." He pauses, and then adds, "He told me it was okay to have an English minor. Since it was what I love."

"Should have told him to stick his business degree up his ass," Dean declares, and Castiel's mouth twitches with a smile.

"I did. After my junior year. I was home for Christmas and we ended up having this huge fight over it. I told Michael he couldn't control me, and that I could support myself. So he told me to try. And…so I did." He presses his lips together and nods. "Which explains the crappy quality clothing, I suppose. I started putting myself through school after that."

Dean frowns. "So why didn't you switch back to English then?"

Castiel sighs, and runs a hand through his hair. "I only needed fifteen more credits to graduate at that point. And I wasn't anywhere prepared to go for the English major. It would have taken me another year, probably two. And I was already getting offers for scholarships in the graduates program and it just…it was more practical to keep with business." He shuts his eyes for a moment, reopens them. "So I guess Michael got what he wanted."

"I'm sorry, Cas," Dean says at last. "I wish I…" He doesn't finish the sentence, and Castiel doesn't press him to. Just looks away, and finds solace in the silence.

"I wasn't going to go to school originally." Dean's voice is rough when he speaks, and Castiel looks back up at him, sees the tense hold of his shoulders, the way his palms turn outwards. Open. Sharing. Dean trying to give something back, reveal a piece of himself to maybe cover the gaping hole in Castiel's own veneer. "My dad…he was in the army. And I guess he always thought I would do that too? I don't know." He shrugs, and his throat works around his words, jaw clenching. "He hated the army so I'm not sure why he wanted me to go through that, but…eventually he realized that's not for me. And decided I could work with him instead." He frowns a little, and sits down on the table with one foot bracing himself on the floor. "He owns a garage. And I'm good with cars. And I know he wanted me to take over the place someday, but I…" He sighs, and picks up a tube of paint, begins to roll it between his fingers. "I've always liked art more. It's what I want to do. And maybe that's stupid and maybe I'll starve on the street, but it's what I love and I have to try, don't I?" He looks up at Castiel, and his eyes are shining. "Right?"

"I'm afraid you're asking the wrong person," Castiel reminds him softly, and Dean closes his eyes.

"Sorry."

"It's alright. So, your dad. Is he…?"

Dean's eyes reopen, and he smiles ruefully in Castiel's direction. "He thinks I'm being impractical. My mom is a little more cool with it, but then…she's brave. And I know…" He stops, and his hands work uselessly around the tube of paint. "I really don't want to bother you with my shit," he tells Cas quietly.

Castiel shakes his head, and pulls his legs up higher to his body. "You're not."

"Yeah, well…" Dean takes a breath, and hops off the table. "We should keep working anyway."

Castiel nods, slowly, regretfully, and turns back around to get into position.

"Head tilted a little higher please," Dean tells him, and Castiel obeys, raising his chin just slightly. "Perfect."

They don't talk again until Castiel leaves, but when he hands Castiel his coat, Dean's hand brushes his for just a moment, the barest touch of fingers to palm, and Dean meets his eyes as he keeps their hands there, deliberate and careful. "See you on Monday," Dean tells him softly, and pulls his hand away, and Castiel nods, skin prickling in the memory of Dean's touch.

"Have a good weekend," he says, mouth dry, and Dean smiles gently, and walks him to the door.

 


 

 

He lies in his bed that night and thinks that Dean is just the kind of boy he would have liked in high school. The kind he would have watched walk down the hallway, even while he walked in the opposite direction with Daphne at his side. He would have watched Dean in class, smiled a little to widely at his jokes, stared a little too much, stood a little closer than he needed to. Because Dean is nice, and listens carefully when Castiel talks, and makes him laugh. Makes him happy. Opens him up and lets out the words he's kept buried inside himself for years, and has soft eyes and soft hands and a nice smile.

He wonders if Dean likes his smile too.

 


 

 

"Has the publishing house gotten back to you?" Uriel asks him one night when they stand behind the counter together with no new customers to help. He's wiping down spoons as he does so, leaning against the cupboard with feet crossed out in front of himself.

Castiel shakes his head. "No. Not yet. Should I be worried?"

Uriel's face goes blank, that way it always does when he's lying. "No."

"Okay," Castiel says, but when he gets home that night it takes him a long time to fall asleep. And before he does, he drags Michael's email out of his trash bin and reads it through carefully.

He gets about halfway through typing up a reply before he realizes he just can't finish it.

He ends up surfing the internet for jobs until 2 am, but he already knows that no one is hiring. Unpaid internships, sure, those pop up by the boatload, but no one is interested in hiring right now, not without the ten years of experience.

If he doesn't hear back from the publishers soon, he doesn't know what he'll do.

 


 

 

The lady on the subway has citrus flavored gum on Wednesday, and Castiel chews it as she looks on with a smile. He doesn't really like citrus gum. He spits it into a garbage can as soon as he exits into the station.

He can see the lady in the bakery already reaching for his day old blueberry muffin as soon as he walks through the door. He's raising a hand to stop her before he really knows why. "I'll…I'll have the apple turnover, please," he says, and she smiles a little to herself--he's not sure why--before grabbing the turnover from the tray with the little paper bag. She hands it over, and takes his empty coffee mug to refill it.

"Thank you," he says, handing her a five dollar bill as he does so.

"Of course," she tells him, as she rings up the purchase and hands him his dollar and twenty cents back. "You have a good day, okay?"

He nods, and unwraps his turnover as he walks to the door. The flaky pastry clings to his lips, cinnamon sugar coating his tongue, and he laughs a little through his nose, making little crumbs fly up into his face. It tastes better than he remembers it.

Michael had taken him to a bakery once, when he was around eight, he thinks. It was when they were staying at their cabin over the summer, the one with the little town about a half mile away. Michael had biked with him, right up the hill, and they'd stopped at the little bakery at the top, and Michael had bought apple turnovers with Italian sodas.

Castiel hadn't liked the strawberry soda he ordered. Michael had traded him for the vanilla. He'd liked that one. And their dad had joked about them ruining their appetites when they finally got back, sweaty and laughing with sticky hands.

"You look happy this morning," Hester comments as she lets him into the building. Cas takes another bite of his turnover and shrugs.

"It's a Wednesday? I like Wednesday."

"Uh huh." She shakes her head a little, grinning to herself, as she heads for her desk, and Castiel doesn't know what she thinks is so amusing, but he's not going to ask. He heads for his own desk and boots up the computer as he takes a few sips of coffee.

"Just finish recording those files for me today, okay?" Hester calls, and Castiel nods, placing his other hand on the stack of file folders he'd left placed precariously on the printer yesterday.

"Got it."

Ian shows up ten minutes late per usual, and he has some shaving cream still smeared beneath his chin. He turns beet red when Castiel points it out to him, and stumbles into the bathroom to wash it away. Castiel just sighs and goes to save Ian's own coffee cup from where he'd placed it on the very edge of the desk, begging to be knocked over.

He starts class at 10:30 on Wednesday, so he's gone by ten. He waves goodbye to Hester as he leaves, and she waves back from where she's engaged in a phone-call. "Bye, Ian!" he calls, and hears the enthusiastic, "See you tomorrow, Castiel!" echo from behind him as he leaves through the door.

He has operations management first, followed by financing straight after that. Neither of them are subjects Castiel particularly enjoys, and he has a bit of a struggle keeping up with management. He likes his professor though--she's the one who helped him finish his thesis in the fall semester. She smiles at him when he sits down at the front of class. "How are you, Castiel?"

"Fine, thank you. Yourself?" He takes his notebook out of his backpack and opens it to his last page of notes. Professor Hunter--he just can't get used to calling her Naomi no matter how many times she says it's okay--shrugs and taps her fingers against her clipboard where she writes out lesson plans.

"Ready for the semester to be over, mostly. Are you ready to be out of here? Job all lined up?"

She has a nice smile, Cas notices. Makes her eyes brighter.

"Sort of," he says. "They uh…they haven't gotten back to me yet but I…"

Her expression dims, just a little, and it's enough to make him feel sick. "You want to get on that, Castiel," she says, and nods a little. He nods back, and she smiles again, but its tighter this time. "I guess it's time to start now, isn't it?"

He nods again, and she straightens up to walk to the front of the class, clapping her hands to get everyone's attention. "Alright everyone, pass your papers forward."

Class passes quickly, and before too long, Castiel is heading over to finance. This is the class that truly makes him want to fall asleep. He spends the first half-hour doodling in the margins of his notebook, until he realizes he's sketching a pair of familiar green eyes. He pays attention after that.

Raph runs into him as he's walking out of the classroom. "Oh, hey, Castiel," she says, and falls into step beside him. "What class was that?"

"Finances." He makes a face, and she giggles. "Where are you heading?"

"I need to talk to Professor Adler," she explains. "For my research."

She grimaces just a little, and Castiel winces in sympathy. "Have fun."

"I'll try. See you tomorrow then?"

"Yes, of course." He sends her a little wave and watches her turn down the hall towards Adler's office. He likes Raph. She'll be going somewhere.

Unlike him, apparently.

The thought occupies him the entire ride back to his apartment and while he changes to go to Dean's. It was foolish, pinning all his hopes on this one job, and the worry knots itself in his stomach over and over again. He'd expected to have his life figured out by the time he got to this point.

So why does it feel like he has no idea what he's doing?

 


 

 

Dean's hands are caked with clay. Beneath his nails, embedded in the grooves of his knuckles, shining over scars and spattering up wrists. There's some on his nose too, where he wiped at his face.

The sculpture begins to take place beneath his fingers.

Castiel's body looks very small in clay. Incredibly insignificant. He needs to distract himself.

“Your brother’s name is Sam?” he asks, voice far too loud in the silence.

Dean doesn’t answer for a moment, and Castiel watches him work. He’s allowed to move right now, since Dean is just doing the general shape of his body. He’s turned towards Dean, legs pressed tight together and arms across his lap to provide some semblance of privacy, though truthfully after doing this for weeks, he can’t bring it in himself to feel embarrassed in Dean’s presence anymore, though he knows he should be.

“Yeah. Sam,” Dean says at last, and he runs one thumb up the curve of clay-Castiel’s side, tongue sticking out the side of his mouth in concentration. Castiel wonders for a moment what Dean’s hands would feel like on his actual skin, but quickly turns his thoughts to other matters. He can't think like that.

“Is he going to college next year?”

Dean nods, and crouches down beside his chair to get a different angle on the clay. “Yep. Applied to a couple of places, but he’s hoping for Stanford. He’s a smart kid.” He smiles, and it's like a father praising his son. “Gonna be a lawyer. Hey, Cas, move your arms, will ya?”

Castiel raises his arms up and lets them flop to his sides. “You love him very much,” he comments, and when Dean stares up at him with eyebrows raised, he adds, “I can tell from your voice.”

Dean laughs a little bit, that breathless, disbelieving laugh he does sometimes, and shakes his head a little from side to side. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.” He bites at his bottom lip as he runs a thumb up clay-Castiel’s back. “He might be a right pain-in-the-ass sometimes, but he’s my little brother. I’d do anything for him.”

“It must be hard, then,” Castiel muses. “Thinking about him going to California.”

Dean sighs, and shrugs one shoulder, but the movement is stiff, the sigh deep. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

Cas waits a moment to see if Dean is going to add anything more. When he doesn’t, Cas clears his throat and says, “Anna lives in California.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes. She works for a magazine there. But she wants to get a job as a newspaper correspondent, so she can travel.”

“That’s cool. I always wanted to see the Grand Canyon.” Dean glances up at him and grins. “What about you, Cas? What are your future plans?”

So much for distracting himself. Castiel frowns, and chews on the inside of his cheek. “I...I don’t know.”

Dean looks up at that, expression concerned. “You’re done with grad school in like two months, right?”

Castiel nods. “About.”

“Well, shouldn’t you have some idea what you’re doing after that? You can’t work in a coffee shop forever, dude.”

A large part of him has actually thought that working in a coffee house for the rest of his life would not be such a bad thing. Happy at least. Simple. If not financially beneficial. “I’ve been in contact with this publishing house,” he tells Dean. “I figured that...at least there I would...”

“You’d be dealing with books,” Dean finishes for him, and Cas nods. “That would be good, wouldn't it?”

"It would," Castiel agrees. "They haven't…they haven't gotten back to me yet."

"They will," Dean tells him firmly. "I know they will."

He doesn't think so. "We'll see," he says.

"Hey…hey…" Dean stumbles around his table, steps a little closer, eyebrows knitted together. "You okay?"

Cas breathes deep and shuts his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Yeah. Yeah. I'm fine. Just a little stressed."

"You wanna take a break?"

He blows out all the air slowly, lets his shoulders slump. "No. No, it's alright. This is relaxing, actually."

Dean shrugs, but he still looks worried. "Okay. If you say so."

Castiel turns back to the window, listens to the slick sound of Dean's hands on clay.

Finally, Dean speaks up again. "I'm hanging with some friends tonight. We might swing by the Bean, if that's okay with you."

Cas smiles. "Yes. I'd enjoy that."

"Alright then. It's settled." Cas looks over just in time to watch Dean accidentally knock the head of his clay-self off by ninety degrees. "Fuck."

Cas laughs, and after a moment, Dean joins him, slicking his fingers up the clay to right the head.

"I kinda suck at sculpture."

"Well, if you keep decapitating me, then yes, you do."

"You ass," Dean tells him, laughing, and Castiel chuckles, running one hand up and down his arm. It's getting warmer now--it's not as chilly in the studio as it had been those first few weeks. It's still sunny out, and a little bit of sunlight glances into the room through the window, slanting across Cas' face. He smiles gently to himself and closes his eyes, shoulders slumped forward and chin tilted upwards.

"Hey, Cas?" Dean's voice is gentle, and he speaks again as soon as Cas starts to move, "No, no, don't move. Just…uh…stay there, stay exactly as you are. I'll be right back."

Cas shrugs one shoulder and returns his focus to the way the sun warms his face, imagines the stress melting away beneath the light, dripping to the floor in little puddles of deadlines and futures. He can hear Dean's footsteps in the hallway, receding, and then growing louder once more. "I'm back," Dean announces quietly, and he's much closer than Castiel had expected. He startles, almost falling off the stool, and Dean's hands reach out  to steady him. "Whoa, tiger."

"'m not a tiger," he grumbles, more to himself than to Dean, and Dean squeezes his arm reassuringly.

"Just keep your eyes closed."

"Why?"

Dean's voice, still much too close. "Just trust me."

I do, Castiel thinks, and shivers when Dean's hands leave him. He hears the sound of pencil scratching across paper just seconds later. "What are you doing?"

"What do you think? I'm drawing you." A pencil eraser bops him on his nose, and Cas scrunches his face to shake it away. "You're my muse, aren't you?"

"Dean…"

Dean shushes him. "Just let me do this. Real quick."

So Castiel hushes, and stays still with his eyes closed while he listens to the scritch of pencil on paper. How long, he's not sure, but Dean's breathing is steady, his presence is solid, and Castiel relaxes even as the light of the sun fades from his face.

"Okay. All done," Dean says at last, voice a croak, and Castiel hears him step back before he opens his eyes and blinks at Dean. "It's almost seven," Dean tells him. "Better go get clothes on or I won't be able to come harass you tonight."

"Alright," Cas says, and his voice seems to get stuck halfway up his throat. He meets Dean's eyes, keeps them, and Dean's eyes are crinkled a little around the corners. He has more freckles than Castiel had originally noticed, he realizes, little specks of brown scattered across his nose and cheekbones.

Dean clears his throat, and Cas blinks, looks down quickly. "I'll go get dressed," he says to the floor.

"Yeah," Dean agrees, and Castiel wraps one arm around his body as he leaves. He's almost certain Dean is watching him leave, and somehow, the thought of that makes him nervous, makes him long for his clothes, even though he shouldn't. Dean's eyes on him now shouldn't feel any different than Dean's eyes on him sitting on the stool. But it does.

"So I'll see you tonight?" Dean asks him at the door as he slips on his coat.

"I'll be looking forward to it," Castiel tells him, and Dean grins.

"Awesome."

Cas walks back to his apartment with a smile that won't stop dogging his lips. This is ridiculous. He doesn't have time for this. It's what he keeps telling himself as he changes into uniform and makes his way a few blocks over to the Busted Bean, but it doesn't help. "You look happy," Uriel tells him when Cas joins him behind the counter.

"No, I don't," Cas tells him quickly, far too quickly, and Uriel chuckles to himself as Cas frowns at the jars of cookies.

"I have friends coming in tonight," he tells Uriel as means of distraction. Uriel nods, and opens his mouth to respond, but at that moment, the little bell above the door tinkles, and Uriel steps up to counter, squeezing Castiel's shoulder as he does so. Cas has to work to suppress his disappointment when he realizes it's not Dean at the door.

It's not too busy tonight--it's been a warm enough day that not many people feel the need to come in for a hot drink--but Castiel sets out the menus for their Italian sodas and iced coffees as a preemptive strike against the sudden spike in heat that's supposed to occur next week, and reorganizes the containers of cream by size. He listens to Uriel discuss his biomedical ethics class, and hums in agreement when it seems appropriate. He's just putting more biscotti in the little glass jars they keep stashed under the counter and letting Uriel deal with customers when he hears a familiar voice.

"I'd like to order a Venti triple chocolate caramel mocha with two shots of whiskey and about half a container of cream, please. With sprinkles."

"We don't…" Uriel begins, but Cas cuts him off, straightening up and nearly knocking his head against the counter as he does so. Dean's leaning on the counter, grinning over at him with an carefree expression.

"Hey there, barista."

"Hello," Cas greets him breathlessly, walking as casually as he can over to where Uriel is giving him an incredulous expression.

"You know him, Cas?" Uriel asks, and Cas nods.

"Yes, I got his order, Uriel, thank you."

Uriel looks disgruntled as he retreats back from the counter, but Cas can't worry about Uriel's approval right now. "How are you?" he asks Dean, smiling as he joins him in leaning over the counter.

Dean shrugs one shoulder. "Not much has changed in the past hour and a half." He smirks and straightens up. "Well, how about my order?"

Cas scoffs. "You want Venti, you go to Starbucks. We just have large." He glances over Dean to the group of new customers grabbing tables in the corner by the window. "Are those your friends?" The sight of a familiar mullet grabs his attention. "Wait, you're friends with Ash?"

Dean follows his gaze and stares at the five people chatting as they rearrange chairs. "Yeah. You know Ash?"

"He's in one of my classes," Cas explains, but the bell above the door interrupts him. He smiles at the couple who just walked in. "Hey, can I just help them real quick and then get your orders?" he asks Dean. Dean steps back from the counter to let the new couple through.

"Of course." Castiel watches him saunter across the shop over to his friends--two girls and three boys, including Ash--before turning to his new customers.

"How can I help you?"

It turns out help comes in the form of a medium drip and white hot chocolate, and Castiel prepares the drinks quickly while Uriel helps the couple pick out a piece of chocolate pastry. Dean doesn't return as soon as the couple finds their seat though--it's a few minutes before he walks back and raps his fist on the counter to grab Cas' attention. "Hey. I think we're ready now."

"Here," Cas tells him, and walks quickly over to the right wall and slip out from behind the counter. "I'll come get your orders."

"You don't have to do that," Dean tells him, following Cas' stride over to the window. Cas smiles back at him.

"I want to."

Dean grins, and skips ahead of him so he reaches the table first. Dean's friends glance up when they arrive, and Ash raises his hand in greeting. "Hey, Castiel. Didn't know you worked here."

"I do," he says, and Dean laughs a little through his nose.

"Okay, well, you know Ash, then. And then we have Jo, Victor, Benny and Charlize."

"It's Charlie," the red-headed girl tells him firmly, shooting Dean a glare. "Dean, you jerk." Dean laughs again, and she aims a kick at his leg, which he dodges.

Cas shares a nod with Victor, who's sitting in his chair with an arm around the shoulders of the girl Dean had called Jo. She smiles at him and sends him a little wave.

The one named Benny leans forward across the table, fingers steepled. He's wearing a little hat that casts shade across his face, but it doesn't hide his friendly smile. His voice, when he speaks, is very thick with southern accent. "So you're Dean's art model, then?"

Castiel nods, and Charlie stops trying to kick Dean to grin up at him and wink. "He's cute. Good job, Dean."

"Shut up," Dean tells her, reaching out to ruffle her hair. She bats his hand away.

Cas feels his face flushing, and rocks back on his heels. "Okay, what can I get you guys?" he asks quickly to cover his embarrassment. He's been called cute before, of course, girls at high school often attached the word to him, but this feels different now. He's not really sure how he feels about it.

He takes all their orders, and repeats them back to himself as he walks back behind the counter and prepares the drinks. Jo and Victor had asked to share a chocolate éclair, so he takes that out of the display and puts it on a little plate with two forks. As a last thought, he takes some of the chocolate syrup for Charlie's drink and drizzles it over the éclair. He's just setting everything on a tray when Uriel touches him on the shoulder. "Have a good night, alright, Cas?"

"You too," Cas tells him, and Uriel's hand tightens, squeezing him. Cas glances back at Uriel, and finds his gaze locked on the group in the corner. Uriel glances back at him, and smiles tightly.

"Be careful with him, alright?"

"Uriel, what….?" But Uriel just pats his shoulder once and heads for the back room. Cas stares after him for a moment, until he hears the click of a door, and then finishes putting the drinks on the tray and heads out onto the floor. Dean and his friends are laughing and chatting with each other, but they quiet down as soon as Castiel approaches. Dean smiles as he stands up and moves out of his way.

"Hey."

"Hi," Cas greets them, and sets the tray down on the table. "Okay, here we go." He passes out the drinks to everyone, and sets the éclair down on the table between Jo and Victor.

Jo smiles up at him again, flipping her hair over her shoulder in a shower of blonde. "Thanks, Castiel."

He pauses for a moment, turns the thought over in his head, and decides. "You can call me Cas, if it's easier."

"Cas," she repeats. "You got it." She shoots him a smile, and Cas returns it.

Dean's still hovering off to his right, and he reaches out to touch Cas' shoulder gently. "Hey, I know you still have customers right now, but if it empties out, you want to come sit with us?"

He nods, and Dean grins at him, eyes crinkling at the corners. "Awesome."

He waves a little at them all before heading back across the room, pausing only when he's sure he hears Charlie whisper his name, but when he glances back over his shoulder, they're all giggling, and Dean just looks a little pink around the cheeks. Cas frowns, and retreats behind the counter just as the bell above the door rings to signal the arrival of another customer.

The night passes fairly normally, with a few people drifting in as it grows later, most of them to buy and go. Slowly, the shop empties out, save for the group in the corner, who occasionally disturb the silence with stifled laughter. Castiel comes up with every excuse not to go over to them--he's not sure why he hates the idea so much. Maybe because for these last few weeks, Dean has been something that has been his. And now he has to remember that that's not the case.

Dean exists outside the four walls of his apartment and he is not Castiel's to keep.

Eventually, though, the counter has been scrubbed, the lids have been screwed, the tables have been wiped, and Cas has no way to avoid them without it being awkward. So he slips out from behind the counter in an otherwise empty shop, and makes his way across the floor to where Dean and his friends are sitting. Their drinks are long gone, but a bit of chocolate éclair still sits on the plate between Jo and Victor, mostly eaten and flaking away. "Hi, Cas," the one named Charlie calls as he approaches. "Pull up a seat."

"Alright," he agrees, and smiles as Dean reaches over to steal a chair from one of the neighboring tables for him. He pulls it over with a screech across the floor, and places it right next to his own.

"There," Dean tells him, and Cas sits beside him, glancing across to the others. Ash sends him a little salute.

It's a little strange, sitting here. Cas has always been in the habit of connecting to his family. Not so much with fellow students. He's not sure what he should say.

Jo solves the problem for him. "So, Cas, on a scale of one to ten, just how sketched out were you by the strange guy asking someone to pose naked for him?"

The rest of the table erupts into laughter, overpowering Dean's offended "Hey!"  Benny, in particular, Cas notices, has quite a loud laugh, deep and rough.

He isn't sure if they actually want an answer or not, but he gives one anyway. "My sister thought he might be Ted Bundy's great nephew, if that's any help."

"Sounds about right," Charlie pipes up, and Dean reaches across to shove her lightly in the shoulder.

"Already impressing the folks, then," Victor adds slyly, and Dean sends Cas an apologetic look before leaning across the table and hissing for them all to shut up. Cas grins, and relaxes a little in his chair. Dean's face has gone pink again, and he keeps looking over at Cas with a worried expression, so Cas reaches over and touches Dean's elbow, fingers light on his bare skin.

"She doesn't think that anymore," he assures him quietly, and Dean snorts.

"Yeah, well…good."

Charlie props her chin in her hands and leans across Dean to speak directly to Castiel. She seems to have no problem invading Dean's space like that, and if Castiel hadn't already filed away the fact Dean doesn't have a girlfriend, he'd wonder if that's what she was. But Dean could have gotten one since Cas had asked, he supposes. He stares back at Charlie, leaning back just a little in his seat. "So," she says brightly, "Tell us about you! Dean's been keeping you a complete secret. Well, not a complete one, we knew you existed, but it's not like we know anything about you at all." She grins at him and hooks her hair behind her ear. "Please?"

Cas glances across the table, feels his stomach twist at the sight of all those eyes on him. "I'm not interesting," he tells her.

She makes a face. "Terrible excuse."

"Hey, hey." Dean, pulling at her shoulders so she's leaning against his side. "You never told us how the date went." He glances over at Cas as everyone turns to look at Charlie instead, and Cas recognizes the attempt for what it is, sends Dean a silent thanks in his head. He's just not the type who's comfortable divulging his life to people he just met.

Charlie grins and pulls one leg up to her chest, resting her sneaker on the chair. "It was perfect. She's perfect. We made out on the couch for like an hour."

So, not Dean's girlfriend then. Not at all.

"As long as that's the only thing that happens on the couch," Jo warns her, and Victor laughs, arm tightening around Jo's shoulders.

"Get it, girl," Ash says at the same time, and Charlie laughs, hiding her face against Dean's shirt.

Dean looks over to Cas and explains quickly, "Charlie and Jo share a dorm together."

"And Victor is always there anyway," Charlie adds, almost defensively. "Because he and Jo are practically married."

They look it certainly. Cas watches as the two of them laugh, and Jo leans over against Victor's body, fitting perfectly against him. He presses a kiss to her hair, and rubs his hand up and down her arm to warm her.

Dean leans over once again, speaking right to Cas. "Victor used to live with me for a while. The studio is his old bedroom."

"Why'd you move out?" Cas asks, and immediately worries that was too personal. But Victor just shrugs and sends him a lopsided smile.

"Benny's place is closer to my grad school."

"So now he's freeloading off of me," Benny adds.

"I pay half the rent," Victor tells Cas immediately, and Benny laughs, that deep rough laugh of his that echoes through the shop.

Ash leans back in his chair and crosses his arms behind his head. "You see, you guys just haven't learned to manipulate the system."

Jo rolls her eyes and flicks a crumb across the table at him. "Ash sleeps on the couch for free."

"I could easily pay the rent for a place three times as nice if…"

"Legally pay?"

"Well, no…"

Cas has to laugh at that, and Dean chuckles as well, glancing over at him once more as his arm tightens around Charlie.

"What about you, Cas?" Jo asks, and he gestures vaguely off the left.

"About three blocks that direction."

Charlie grins. "So real close to Dean then."

"Close enough," Cas admits.

Benny grumbles something that Cas can't make out, and Jo and Charlie both break out into laughter once again while Victor tries to hide a smile. Dean glares at all of them and then turns back to Cas with that woeful puppy expression. "I am so sorry."

"I'll introduce you to my cousins one day," Cas promises him, "Then you'll never say sorry for your friends again."

Dean chuckles.

"So, Cas…" Charlie reaches across Dean and touches the back of Cas' hand. "I know Dean told us what you do, but I forgot."

"I'm an MBA," Cas tells her immediately. "I'm done in a few weeks though."

"He's going to work at a publishing house," Dean says, and the absolute faith in his voice makes Cas feel both pleased and very, very small inside.

"That's cool!" Charlie tells him, and she smiles at him, nose scrunching and eyes shining. "That's really cool, Cas."

Victor shifts in his seat, and Jo leans away so he can move freely. "Weren't you going to go for an MBA?" he asks Benny, and Benny nods.

"Aye, I was. I'm good where I'm at."

It's Jo, this time, who decides to fill Cas in. "Benny's a cook at a restaurant downtown."

"And he hasn't poisoned us yet!" Ash holds up his arms in a triumphant gesture, and Benny laughs again.

"Watch it or I might."

Once he gets started, it's actually quite easy, to sit here and talk to Dean's friends, pretend for an hour that he belongs at this table, laughing and sharing stories back and forth, returning Jo's smiles, dodging Charlie's attempted hair ruffle, sending Dean pitying looks whenever the others tease.

It feels nice, to feel like he belongs. And Dean, beside him, is bright-eyed and pink-cheeked, and beautiful like he's the subject of his own painting, drawn in shades of light from the overhead lights and clay still stuck beneath his fingernails and smudge of coffee on his upper lip that Cas yearns to kiss away. He listens to Charlie talk about Gilda, who apparently agreed to lunch next Wednesday, and has the prettiest brown eyes Charlie has ever seen. He hears about Benny's adventures with paprika, and Victor's criminology course. He learns that Jo wants to join the FBI some day, just like her dad, and that Ash has been growing marijuana in the closet of Charlie's room. "Trust me, when I have millions, you'll all be glad you knew me," he tells them, and Jo flicks a crumb in his face.

Closing time approaches, arrives, passes, and he doesn't notice until Benny pushes his chair back and stands. "Well, I should be going."

"Yeah, us too." Jo rises, and pulls Victor up with her. "It's nearly 10:30."

"Shit." Cas scrambles to his feet and hits his knee against the table. He sees Dean wince in sympathy, but he's too busy running back towards the kitchen to care.

"Do you need help?" Charlie calls after him, and Cas shakes his head as he ducks behind the counter and grabs the cleaner and rag.

"No, I have to do the cash register, and I can't have help there. Thanks though."

"Alright." She slips her jacket on around her shoulder and follows the others towards the door. "Goodnight, Cas!"

A chorus of 'Yeah, goodnight' echoes through the shop, and the tinkle of the bell marks their exit. When Cas glances up, he's alone.

He brushes away any feelings of abandonment and gets to work, wiping down the tables one last time and making sure everything out front is in order before turning his attention to the register. He counts up quickly, and locks the money up in the safe beneath the counter. He locks the front door and turns off the lights before rushing out the back way and locking it behind him.

It's much later than he's normally getting home, and he hikes the collar of his coat up around his chin to keep warm.

"That coat makes you look like a flasher, you know," a voice says off to his left, and Cas nearly jumps into a wall in his surprise, but for the hand that closes around his arm and keeps him steady. "You're jumpy, you know that?"

Cas glares at Dean, just a dark shadow without streetlights to illuminate him, and jerks his arm away. "I have reason to be, if you're going to be sneaking up on me in the dark."

Dean chuckles, and throws his hands up in surrender. "Okay, I'm sorry. I just thought we could walk together, since it is dark."

"Are you giving me a choice?"

Dean grins, and his teeth flash white in the darkness. "Nope. Come on." His hand on Castiel's arm once more, fingers locked around his wrist, tugging Cas after himself gently. "You're on the subway at seven after all."

Cas laughs to himself, and lets Dean pull him out onto the main sidewalk, underneath the lights once more. His coat whips around his legs as they walk swiftly down the sidewalk, and Dean's hand is warm even through his sleeve. Dean doesn't let go, not all the way down the block, right to the place where their paths diverge. Cas doesn't know if Dean even realizes he's still hanging on.

"I get off here," Cas tells him gently, and disentangles himself from Dean's grip. Dean releases him with a sheepish smile.

"Yeah, okay. See you tomorrow?"

Cas nods. "Of course." He begins to walk, and looks back over his shoulder to send Dean a little wave. "Goodnight, Dean."

"'night, Cas," he hears Dean call, and after that he doesn't look back again.

 


 

 

He gets the letter on a Monday. Good old fashioned snail mail, to make it all more official.

Thank you for your interest. However, we will not be requiring your employment at this time…

He crumples the paper in his hand and throws it against the wall, where it bounces harmlessly away. Little time-bomb, marking the end of a futile, desperate hope.

"You're an idiot," he tells himself, sinking to the couch with his head in his hands. His face feels red and hot, and he knows he wants to cry, needs to cry, but he refuses to.

He should have applied to more places. Except there aren't jobs. Not now.

He's being spit out into an economic system in a free fall, and at least his degree is able to tell him that much.

"Damn it!" he yells, just in the hope that it will relieve the pressure in his chest. "Damn it, damn it, damn it!"  It doesn't help.

"Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fucking shit!"

The neighbors can probably hear, and that's the thought that makes him quiet. He grabs at a pillow, flexes his fingers in the soft fabric helplessly, tries to think.

Could he keep working at the Bean? Sure, of course. Maybe pick up a second minimum-wage job on top of that? Maybe. But even with two jobs, it's not going to be enough to start paying for student loans as well as for daily living. Those loans are going to get called in the moment he finishes school, and what then? What then?

He won't be able to do it this time. There's no way. He barely made it through school and that was only with all the loans he took out, and there's going to be nothing left but call Michael and admit that he was right, he can't do it, he was stupid, he was so stupid and he's not ready for any of this, he can't have to deal with all this.

He needs a way out. Needs a way to escape. Wants to forget about money and a job and a future and think about reading books and falling in love and being happy. Wants to think about Dean's smile and his eyes and oh God why is he thinking about Dean now when he knows Dean can be the last thing on his mind?

He balls his legs up to his chest and hides his face in the cushion, and wishes, desperately, that he'd known that being an adult doesn't mean knowing all the answers. All it means is having to pretend you do.

 


 

 

"Guess who's here?" Anna asks him as soon as her face appears on the computer screen, beaming and bright. And Cas can't tell her. He can't make her worry now.

"Is it my obnoxious little sister?" he asks instead, and Rachel shoves her way into view.

"Hey!"

He scrunches his nose at her. "Hey yourself. How are you?"

She grins at him and flicks blond hair over her shoulder. "Brilliant. It's so nice here, Cas, you should come visit."

"I'm done in a month. Maybe I'll come see you in Minnesota."

She giggles. She laughs like Anna does, all light like bells, and Cas can't help but smile. He misses Rachel, misses waking up to the sound of her singing, the smell of her shampoos and body washes, misses making breakfast with on Sunday mornings with the soft sound of cartoons playing in the background, pancakes with eggs and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

He wishes Michael hadn't sold the house. He would have liked to go back, sometime, get to pretend everything is still the same.

Anna has wedged herself back onto the screen and is asking about coming for graduation. Cas shakes his head to focus himself once again, and fixes his eyes on her. "Um…no. No. You don't have to come."

"No, I want to."

He shakes his head. "Anna. What about your job? You can't take time off for me right after getting a new job. It looks bad."

She makes a face. "We don't know if I have it yet."

"She'll get it," Rachel says smugly, and Castiel nods.

"Of course she will."

"Christ, I'm right here, shut up." Anna shoves at Rachel's shoulder, but she's smiling as she does so.  "Go get your boyfriend, I want Cas to frighten him off."

Rachel makes an outraged face and shakes a finger in Cas' direction. "Okay, first off, not my boyfriend. Secondly, don't you dare, Cas, or I swear I will fly out there and shave your head in your sleep!"

She would, too. He holds up his hands in surrender, laughter building in his chest. "Okay, okay, I won't say anything. Can I still meet him?"

She nods. "Yeah, I think he's making a sandwich. I'll get him." She disappears with the staticky sound of footsteps clopping on hardwood floors.

Anna turns to him with a wry expression. "Actually, he's a nice kid. Sam."

"Sam?" For a second, his mind flashes back to shaggy hair and a beaming grin, Dean's Sam, from the picture on the table.

Anna gives him a funny look. "Yeah. Sam. Why is that a big deal?"

"No it's…it's nothing. Dean has a brother named Sam, is all."

Her expression turns knowing immediately. "Oh. And how is Dean?"

He glares at her before pushing up from the couch to go put the water on for tea. "That won't do any good!" Anna's voice follows him. He ignores her as he fills the kettle and puts it on to boil.

"Dean is fine," he tells her when he sits back down. "I'm fine, he's fine, we're all just fine."

She snorts, and then her head whips to the side as the sound of footsteps echoes out the speakers once more. "Okay, here they are."

Rachel's back, tugging some blond boy behind her, and she's laughing and he's looking terrified, and Anna is grinning at him and his kettle is whistling and happiness is fluttering inside his chest like a bird trapped inside his ribcage.

And God, but he's missed this.

Rachel and Sam only stay for another half hour, most of which is spent with Sam loitering in the background looking mortified while Rachel shares stories about her semester. Cas just props his head on his hands and watches her babble, a slight smile making his mouth twitch. Anna catches his eyes over Rachel's shoulder once or twice, rolls her own fondly, and when Rachel pulls Sam out of the room with a hurried 'Bye see you later!', Anna lets out an explosive laugh. She repositions the laptop in front of her and sighs dramatically.

"Well."

"Well," Cas repeats after her, grinning.

"I hope you appreciate I have to listen to that for the next four days."

"Oh poor you."

"Yeah, poor me." Anna grunts as she shifts onto her stomach, propping her chin up so she can watch him. "So, how are you doing?"

He shrugs one shoulder, and tries to reply casually, but the instant narrowing of her eyes tells him she's caught him in the lie. "I'm fine."

"What is it?" she asks immediately, leaning forward so her face takes up the entire screen, so worried, so worried for him, and finally, finally he feels the tears bubbling up from where he's kept them tamped down.

"Fuck," he stammers out, eyes hot and voice thick, and he buries his face in his hands so she doesn't have to see.

"Cas? Cas, honey, what's wrong? Castiel?" Her words seem to come from far away, filtered in through the sound of his own muffled sobs as he lets himself fall apart. "Cas, are you hurt? Cas?" He shakes his head no, tries to breathe in, tries to steady himself before he tries to explain.

"I didn't…I didn't…"

"Cas, calm down, calm down, it's okay," she tells him, over and over, and he wishes so badly that she was here right next to him, just like when they were kids, and she and Michael would hold him tight and promise that everything would be okay, it didn't matter, they would take care of him.

He flails a hand out, and grabs the rejection letter from the floor where it rolled. He can't see Anna's face when he uncrumples it and holds it up to the screen for her to see, but she stops talking, and doesn't speak again for a very long time, not until he's gulped down the tears and steadied himself, squeezed his eyes tight until they're dry and sore, scrubbed the wet marks down his cheeks with his sleeve.

"Cas, I'm so sorry," she says, and he lets out a bitter laugh.

"Yeah. Me too."

"I thought you said the interview went amazing though!" He peeks through his fingers to watch Anna on the screen once more. She's frowning, sitting up now, hair falling into her already flushed face. "That's so unfair! She practically guaranteed you the job, I thought?"

He shrugs again, and she makes a frustrated noise in the back of her throat. "Fuck."

"That's what I said."

Anna sighs, and shakes her hair back, puts her fingers to her temples. "Okay. Okay, it'll be fine. Cas? You hear me? It'll be fine. I promise." It sounds more like she's reassuring herself than reassuring him, but he nods anyway, and appreciates her words.

"Okay," he says, and she smiles at him, nods back at him.

"Okay? You're okay? We're gonna figure something out." She takes a deep breath, catches his eyes and holds them. "Cas, I'm going to call Michael."

The protest lines itself up on his tongue, ready to fire out, but he bites them back, remembers how many times Michael had said to him 'I'll fix it'. And then he'd fixed it. Always. To the best of his ability.

"Okay," he agrees, and Anna stares at him as if he's grown a second head.

"Really?"

"Yes! I said yes!" The incredulous expression on her faces makes him chuckle, a real one this time, and she smiles.

The sick feeling in his stomach hasn't faded away, but he smiles back anyway, because there's nothing else he can think to do.

 


 

 

It's funny, he thinks, how sitting on Dean's stool has become a place of haven. That one place where the knot in his stomach slowly unravels, the constant stream of thoughts running through his head slows and stops and dissolves into the brush of paint against canvas, sunlight on his skin, the husky sound of Dean's voice as he sings along to old rock-and-roll songs.

"You seem tense," Dean tells him, when Cas settles into position. "Something wrong?"

I don't have a job I don't know what I'm doing the future has come so fast too fast I'm not ready I'm not an adult I'm still a kid I'm still a kid I don't know what to do I'm relying on my older sister like a four year old to fix everything it's pathetic I'm pathetic.

"No. I'm fine." He turns his face towards the window and wills his shoulders into relaxing. Dean is silent for a moment, but doesn't press the subject, just walks across the room to the sound of footsteps and turns on the music.

"Okay, I'm starting now," Dean tells him softly over the sound of guitar, and Cas closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, lets the feeling of calm spread to the very tips of his fingers and toes. Let's the thoughts that have been bouncing around his head all day now settle and condense.

Anna is calling Michael. Michael will have some solution. Cas might not like it, but it will be a solution.

God, it's just unfair, that he should get all the way through graduate school without needing to rely on his brother, only to fall back on him at last.

It's going to prove everything Michael said about him as true. Foolish, unrealistic. Prideful.

Idiot.

He remembers when his dad left, and he spent nights up wondering what he'd done to deserve it. How he'd angered whatever deity might be up there, made them want to tear his family apart.

"You're really tense, Cas, are you sure you're okay?" Dean asks again, and Castiel shakes himself, sets his eyes back to the window.

"I'm sure."

"Okay…." Dean's voice trails away, and Castiel watches the light shine off the window pane.

The music runs out, and Dean has to travel back over to the corner of the room to start it again. It's softer rock this time, gentle and slow, and Cas feels his eyelids beginning to droop even as he sits. He wonders if he topples off the stool, maybe Dean will sculpt him right there sprawled across the floor.

"Do you believe in God?" The question falls from his mouth, into the room, entwining words with music, and Dean doesn't answer right away. Castiel hears the click of the brush being set on the table, and then, slowly, the footsteps back across the room, the whir of the cassette stopping, the sudden silence in the room.

"Sort of a deep question to handle with no clothes on, isn't it?" Dean asks at last.

Castiel shrugs one shoulder, but doesn't stop looking towards the window. "Maybe," he says, "But I spend most of my time around you with no clothes on, so when else will I ask the question?"

He turns his face towards Dean, catches him there with his face all scrunched with concern, arms crossed in front of him.

"Sort of a weird question to ask anyone at all then," Dean tells him, staring back at him and keeping his eyes caught. "What is it, don't talk about politics, religion or sex?"

Castiel hums and tilts his head to one side. "I'm pretty sure money was on that list too. But they tend to be the most interesting topics. And probably something that's bound to come up sooner or later when you're friends."

Dean sighs, and leans against the table. Cas takes his lead and turns his body around, placing his hands in his lap to hide himself. "You sure you're okay, Cas?"

Cas frowns, and glances down at his fingers. What is he supposed to say? Do you believe that a higher deity could be systematically and effectively working to destroy my life? "Just wondering."

"Well…want to just wonder about something that won't make you hate me if I answer wrong?"

"I could never hate you," Castiel says immediately, lifting his head, and Dean laughs a little and clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "I wouldn't," Cas adds, frowning again, straining forward on his stool.

Dean rubs at the back of his neck and squints up towards the ceiling. "Yeah, well…let's talk about something else, okay? Tell me about your classes."

Cas snorts and shakes his head. "Nothing much interesting about those."

"Yeah? Because Ash says your one professor is a nightmare."

Cas laughs a little and hangs his head. "He's…uh…he's very committed to ensuring our success later in life."

"So a complete asswipe?"

"He decapitated a security guard in an elevator," Cas tells him, and laughs again when Dean's eyes grow wide. "Virtually. It's a simulation he's set up, where we're in little groups and we're trying to keep our company alive. My friend, Raph--apparently Adler killed off one of their security guards with an elevator. Which made hiring a new one difficult, which resulted in vandalism on the outside of the building, which lowers cosmetic appeal, makes it more difficult to attract clients."

Dean chuckles and runs a hand through his hair distractedly. "I'm so fucking glad I don't have that class." There's a pause, comfortable, easy, and then Dean asks, "Raph?"

"Raphael," Cas explains. "I believe her parents are Renaissance scholars."

"Huh." Dean rubs his hand together, and pieces of clay dust from his skin. Cas glances over to the pile of clay on the table, shaping up now. He can see his arms, his legs, the bend of his body, the tilt of his head.

"Speaking of Renaissance artists, that's very good," he says shyly, and Dean looks over as well, eyebrows raised.

"Oh, so now you think so? Now I'm decapitating it?" Dean looks back to him, smiles, and Cas smiles back, nods. "Awesome!" Dean walks over so he can smooth one finger up the clay leg, "The stool's been a nightmare, but I supported it with tinfoil, so I think it'll be okay. I'll probably finish up tomorrow and bring it into school for the kiln over the weekend."

"Are you going to paint it?" Cas asks, and Dean makes a face.

"I'll slap a coat of white on and glaze it. I hate painting clay though, so no more than that. You'll be a pale little clay man."

"Just what I've always dreamed of," Cas answers dryly. and Dean grins before going silent for a moment. Cas waits on his stool, and watches Dean smooth the clay with his fingers, so gentle, so careful.

He wants those hands on him, wants to feel the gentle touch he hasn't been able to erase from his mind from the first day he met Dean.

Finally, Dean brings his hand away, wipes it on his jeans, and says softly, with his face still turned towards the table, "I don't believe in God. He never gave me any reason to."

Cas nods, and stares down at his legs. He has a scrape on his knee, he realizes. He never noticed it before now. He wonders if Dean did, while he sculpted the bones of his leg.

"Do you? Believe in God?" Dean asks, and Cas shrugs again on instinct before answering.

"I'm not sure. I used to."

"And do you hate me now?"

"Of course not." Cas looks up, meets Dean's eyes, holds them there. Dean stares back at him, face open, vulnerable, and Cas swallows before repeating himself once more. "Of course not."

Dean nods once, blinks, looks away. "Okay, I'm gonna try to finish your head before you have to leave, okay?"

"Okay," Cas tells him, and swivels back to the window, repositioning his body as it was before. After a moment, the music starts up again, and Cas tilts his face into the light, waits for Dean's voice to join the guitars and drums and soft crooning of bygone rock stars.

 


 

He thinks he must have dozed off, perched up on that stool, because it's Dean's hand to his elbow that shocks him into awareness, Dean's fingers holding him tight before he can fall. "I gotcha, don't worry," Dean tells him quietly. "It's time for you to head out, I think."

"Is it?" Cas licks his lips and glances towards the window. It's still fairly light out, but darker certainly, and he nods, waits for Dean to step back a foot before sliding off the stool. He hurries over to where the towel lays on the floor, and picks it up to wrap around his waist. He secures the end, and turns to Dean once more. "I'll see you tomorrow then?"

"Yeah," Dean tells him, nodding once before heading over for the table. He reaches for his bowl of water and begins to clean off his hands. He sends a grin over his shoulder. "You have a good night, okay?"

"Yeah. You too," he replies, already walking towards the door, one hand on the towel to keep it secure, the other arm wrapped around his waist. Dean looks up at him and smiles as Cas walks by him, one of those huge crinkly-eyed smiles of his, and despite his best efforts, Castiel's heart leaps into his throat. He stumbles a bit on the way out the door, but Dean doesn't comment, so Castiel thinks he can't have noticed. He pulls his clothes back on quickly and double-checks he still has his keys before leaving the bathroom. Dean is waiting for him by the front door.

"Are you free again on Saturday?" he asks, and Castiel nods. Dean nods, and smiles a little too wide. "Great, that's great. Um…you wanna come by, maybe? Around four? I figured we could work for a couple of hours and then…uh…eat some dinner?"

It sounds like a date. It's not a date, Castiel tells himself firmly. It's not a date, it's not a date, it's not a date. "Sure," he says, and Dean grins again.

"Cool."

"Yeah," Cas agrees. He stares back at Dean, wonders how many freckles exactly are scattered across his skin, even as Dean clears his throat and looks away with a small smile playing around his lips. He pulls open the door for Cas, hovers a hand over the small of his back as he walks out. Cas turns in  the hallway, waves a little at Dean, who leans against the doorway and grins back at him.

"Have fun at work."

He nods. "Okay."

Dean shakes his head a little, laughs through his nose. Cas isn't sure why. "Goodnight, Cas," he says at last, and slips back inside before closing the door with a click. Cas watches the door for a moment, studies the grain of the wood and the peeling paint.

Not a date, he tells himself, and shoves down the fluttering feeling of hope in his chest.

 


 

Cas has never been in love before, not really. The only person he's ever gone on more than two dates with was Daphne, and they both knew it wasn't going anywhere. She was the first person he came out to, actually. Right after she'd taken off her bra and he'd realized how much he did not want to go through with it.

She'd tugged her shirt back on and sat with him on the bed, hugged him tight while he began to laugh, that relieved giggle that he always hates the sound of but can't seem to ever stop. She'd laughed too, eventually, softer, sweeter, and kissed his cheek before she handed him his pants and ordered him to get dressed. And after they'd officially broken up, he'd never found anyone worth more than a desperate one-night stand two days after his twenty-first birthday.

So Castiel doesn't know what love feels like. Doesn't even know if he can even be in love. But he thinks of Dean's hands and his eyes and the way his voice grows when he sings and he knows that if he could be in love at all, he is right now with Dean Winchester.

It's dangerous, and stupid, and he really needs to get over it, because even if Dean has the slightest interest in him, there's no way it'll work out.

The problem is that he doesn’t want to be over it.

 


 

Anna only has a half-second after she answers his Skype call to stare at him bemusedly before Cas is leaning towards the screen and holding her eyes with desperation. "Anna, Dean invited me to have dinner at his apartment on Saturday once we're done working, tell me it's not a date."

She raises both eyebrows, and Cas can already tell she's working to hold back the laugh. "That's what this is about?"

He frowns at her, and continues to hover over the computer, waiting for her answer. "Yes, now please help."

She shuts her eyes and clamps her hand over her mouth, but he can still see the way her cheeks round with the smile. "Oh my God, Cas."

"It's not funny," he whines, and she draws her hand away from her face only to curl her legs up and grab a plate from off to the side, loaded with breakfast.  "It's a date," Anna tells him, before stuffing a piece of cinnamon bun in her mouth and speaking around it. "Definitely a date."

"You don't know that for sure," he tells her, and she rolls her eyes, swallowing as she does so.

"Please.. You like him, he likes you, it's a date."

"You think?"

"I know."

He bites down on the smile that threatens to take over his face. "Yeah?"

She laughs, and buries her head in her hands. "Yes! Cas, Jesus, it's a date."

"Cool." He doesn't even try to hide the smile this time, rocking back on the couch and sinking back into the cushions. Anna hums, and takes another bite, glancing down and out of the screen. He can hear the rustling of paper crackling through his speaker.

"So uh…" Anna looks up again, face tinged with apprehension and excitement. "I was gonna call you tonight and tell you then but since you're here…" He raises his eyebrows in question, and she scrunches her nose, shakes her head a little in disbelief. "I got the job!"

Of course she did. "That's great!" he tells her, and tries to sound as enthusiastic as possible, because he's happy for her, he is really truly happy for her, but next to this, he can't help but feel like an abject failure.

She picks up on it right away of course. He's never been good at lying. "I'm not telling you to like…brag or anything!" she tells him, eyes wide. "I just…"

"No, I know," he reassures her, and plasters a smile on his face. "You're allowed to be happy about this."

She lets out a breath, gives a tight grin. "Thanks Cas." There's a moment where he meets her eyes, and his fake smile melds into a real one, and then Anna is fluttering her hands around her head and asking, "Okay, so what are you going to wear?"

"What?" he splutters.

"For your not-date! What are you going to wear?"

He blinks. "I don't know. I'll be naked most of the time, probably." He catches himself and holds up a finger to stop Anna before she can say anything. "We're still working that day. That's why. Nothing else."

"Uh huh," she says, and he makes a face at the screen.

"Nothing else," he repeats, even as he wishes he didn't mean it.

 


 

He’s just raised his hand to knock when Dean opens the door, grinning and breathless. “Hey Cas,” he says, and Castiel smiles.

“Hello, Dean.”

Dean has a spot of blue on his cheek, and green speckling his fingers, light green, nearly the color of his eyes, and Cas decides that, yes, he's in love with Dean and there's nothing to be done about it. “I decided to start the oil today,” Dean tells him, stepping back to let Cas inside. “Cuz it will take forever and I’ll probably want to switch it up a bit in between.”

Cas nods as he shrugs off his coat. “Alright,” he says. “I’ll go get undressed.”

“Cool.” Dean pats him on the shoulder and spins around to leave, heading for his studio with a skip-hop to his step. Castiel smiles again after him, and tries to school his features when he realizes how absolutely ridiculous he must look. But the smile keeps creeping onto his face even as he stands in the bathroom and yanks his shirt up over his head, and he catches flashes of it in the mirror, his own face a stranger to him with how unaffectedly happy he appears.

Dean is waiting when walks in. “Well, hello there, Ms. Dawson,” he says, and Castiel frowns.

“What?”

Dean’s smile falters for just a moment. “Dawson. Like...Rose Dawson? Titanic?”

Castiel just stares at him, and after a moment Dean brushes it away with a wave of his hands. “Never mind. Let’s get you set up.”

Castiel nods, and goes to climb up on his stool. He slips the towel out from under himself, and tosses it a few feet away. Dean stands a little off to his left, and he steps forward as soon as Castiel settles. “Here.” Warm fingers splayed across his knee, and Cas sucks in breath as Dean guides his leg around. “Like this.”

He’s in trouble. Oh God, he’s in so much trouble, with the way his stomach flops and his tongue feels leaden in his mouth. Dean’s hands hover over him, land upon his shoulders, and Castiel doesn’t know why Dean is touching him like it's his first time and he needs to be told exactly how to hold himself, but Dean’s touch now is just as gentle as it had been the first time, and Dean is moving out of sight now, leaning over to whisper in Castiel’s ear: “Don’t look so nervous.”

“I know how I’m supposed to sit!” Castiel blurts out, and the warmth of Dean’s body retreats, though his hands stay on his shoulders, fingers squeezing just ever so slightly, and Castiel doesn’t know why he just said that. Stupid.

“I’ll let you do that then,” Dean says, and his voice is cheery, but clipped somehow, and Castiel just wishes he knew what it meant. If when Dean smiles at him, touches him, it means more than friendship. God, he wishes.

He needs to talk to Anna again.

“I’m sorry,” he says, because he doesn’t know what else to say, and turns his head slightly to see Dean whip his head up from his paints scattered across the table, eyes wide.

“What? Cas, you have nothing to be sorry about man.”

"No, I just…" He doesn't know what to say though, and lapses in silence. He turns his face back towards the window, and after a moment, Dean speaks.

"You don't have to be sorry for anything," he says, and then, brighter, louder, "Okay, well, I suck at oils, so we'll see how this goes."

"You'll be fine," Castiel tells him, and Dean makes a noncommittal noise. "You will," Cas tells him firmly.

"Yeah, well…" Dean's voice trails off for a moment, and then he asks, "You ready?"

"Yes."

He listens to Dean travel across the room, and then the click of a paint tube cap. Cas closes his eyes, and  smiles. It's silent, except for the sound of Dean working, the sweep of brush against canvas, the squeak of his chair against the fake hardwood floor.

“Open your eyes,” Dean’s tells him softly, breaking the silence, and Cas obeys, staring into the dust motes dancing in the sunlight drifting in through the window. Dean doesn’t speak for a moment, and Cas tries not the blink.

“You have nice eyes,” Dean says at last, “But damn if they’re not nearly impossible to get the color right.”

“Sorry,” Cas tells him.

“I like it.”

Cas pauses for a moment, alternates between saying 'okay' or 'thanks'. He clears his throat, mutters, "Thank you."

Dean chuckles, a little nervously. "Um…yeah, no problem."  There's the pop of cap, and Cas focuses on staying as still as he can, staring towards the window.

"I'm just experimenting with color right now," Dean explains after a few minutes of relative silence. "Trying to get the colors figured out before I actually start painting. I might snap a few pictures, if that's okay."

"It's okay," Cas says, and settles back into position, waits for Dean to turn on the music. He doesn't though, just works in silence, and Cas counts dust motes floating through the air.

It's Dean's own singing voice that breaks the silence at last. Cas doesn't recognize the song at first as Dean's voice grows louder and louder, but he can't stop the smile from spreading across his face when he does. "Really? REO Speedwagon?"

Dean stops singing for just a moment. "Hey, don't bash the classics."

"I'm not bashing the classics, I'm bashing you. Difference."

"Ass," Dean tells him, voice fond, before he begins to sing again, louder, more obnoxious. "It's time to bring this ship into the shore, throw away the oars…"

"You're ridiculous!' Cas shouts over Dean's chorus of "And I can't fight this feeling anymore!" Dean just laughs, has to stop singing to breathe, and Cas spins in his seat, shakes his head in Dean's direction. "You have no sense of professionalism."

Dean wrinkles his nose at him. "Oh, shut up."

Cas grins and turns back towards the window, wrapping his arms back around his body. The cassette player starts to play perhaps a minute later.

He smiles, and shuts his eyes against the sun. If Dean needs them open again, he'll let Cas know.

It's more than love, he realizes quite suddenly, as Dean's voice joins the guitar and strum of bass. It's that Dean makes him happy. He's happy here. He can't remember the last time he could look at himself and describe himself with that word.

"I'm gonna grab a camera. Hold on," Dean tells him, and Cas hums, listens to the sound of Dean's retreating footsteps.

It's too late already to get out of this unscathed, he knows. Dean has embedded himself into Cas' life, filled in all those little spaces, and Cas can't imagine him simply not there anymore, imagines instead years of remaining right here on this stool and feeling happy, truly happy for the first time in years, maybe for the first time since his dad disappeared and tore his entire home apart. He can picture it, far too easily, letting himself stay here forever, let himself be caught by Dean’s smile and hands and his soft singing voice, pass the years with sunlight kissing his face and the sound of classic rock floating in the air. Let himself fall more in love with paint-stained hands and crinkles around the eyes and constellations of freckles. Forget about a job, about money, about Michael, about everything else. And he shouldn’t let himself think like this, can’t think like this, can’t build up these fantasies in his mind because fantasies always fall apart and devastate you in the end, but there can’t be harm in it, letting himself imagine just for now that when this is over, Dean will cup his face in his paint-stained hands, kiss him with that smiling mouth, leave fingerprints of green and blue and purple across his cheeks like man-made constellations of his very own.

"Back," Dean tells him, and Cas jerks on his stool, eyes flying open, but he doesn't fall, he doesn't move, simply waits for the skyrocket pace of his heart to calm down, and stays silent and steady while he listens to the snap of a camera, documenting him here, cataloguing the color of his skin and eyes and hair and the too-dark shadow lining his jaw. Five snaps, ten, twelve before Dean is done, telling him thank you and disappearing out the door once more.

This is ridiculous. Pointless. He doesn't even know if Dean is attracted to men at all. He can't pin all his hopes on the chance that he is.

"Okay, back again. Sorry." He listens to the scrape of the chair on the floor as Dean settles back in his seat by his aisle. "I was thinking we could work until about six, then see about making dinner? I bought vegetables the other day, and pasta, so I thought we could maybe toss those together with a salad and some rolls? I have nice recipe for rolls."

Cas tilts his head to the side and smiles. "Sounds good."

"Cool."

They don't say much after that. Dean works, and Cas sits, and focuses on the feeling of sunlight on his skin. Wonders if he'll get freckles this summer. Thinks that maybe sometime he'd like to take Dean up to where their cottage by the lake used to be. They don't own it anymore, of course. Michael sold it. But the lake should still be there. Clear water and loons diving in and out leaving a trail of ripples in their wake, their lonely calls in the early morning mist lonesome and loud, the trees along the bank that dip their leaves, the bluebirds with their feathers the color of the paint on Dean's hands. They could go swimming, he thinks, strip out of their clothes and dive straight into the water. Like loons. Like swans.

It feels like too soon when Dean stops, walks across the room. Cas opens his eyes and turns his head before Dean can reach him, and matches Dean's smile as Dean wraps a hand around his arm and helps him off the stool. "Okay, go get dressed and I'll clean up the kitchen a little bit," Dean tells him, and Cas nods before picking up his towel and covering himself. They walk out together, splitting up where Dean heads for the kitchen and Cas into the bathroom. He picks his jeans up off the floor along with his boxer-briefs and tugs his legs through before finding the socks all bunched up by his leg and pulling those on as well. He opens the door as he reaches for his t-shirt and yanks that on over his head as he almost walks straight into Dean. "Hey there." Dean's hands, steadying his shoulders as he wobbles, jerking at his t-shirt to help him pop his head through. Dean grins when he re-emerges from the fabric, inches away. "Thought I'd lost you for a second there."

Cas could lean forward and kiss him now. But he doesn't. Instead, he rolls his eyes and sighs dramatically. "Thought I could sneak past you and escape for a second there."

Dean laughs, and punches lightly at his shoulder before moving away. "Okay, I cleaned up a little so it's actually semi-clean."

It's cleaner than Cas' kitchen, and there's ingredients scattered across the counter--tomatoes and peppers and a bag of flour, two boxes of pasta piled on top of each other. "I'll make the rolls," Dean tells him, bounding forward and sliding in his socks across the floor. "You wanna start cutting up the peppers?"

Cas nods, and grabs a knife from the drawer Dean indicates, washes a few of the peppers in the sink, and begins to slice them up on the cutting board left out on the counter. Dean is already mixing ingredients in a plastic bowl over at the other end of the counter. "I never took you for a cook," Cas tells him after a few minutes of cutting peppers, reaching for one of the tomatoes.

Dean laughs a little under his breath. "Um, yeah, actually, I love cooking. Never thought I would, but my mom makes me help her when I'm home, and I don't know, I guess I think it's relaxing." He begins to mix the ingredients in the bowl together, walks over to the sink to add water. The dough begins to form in the bowl. Cas watches him work at it, watches him slap the dough out on the counter to knead it with his hands.

"What about you? You cook?"

Cas nods, and returns his attention to the tomato. "Yes. Regularly."

Dean doesn't say anything, and after a moment, Cas continues. "My father and I used to cook together. It was our thing."

He pushes the tomato off to the side of the cutting board and stares at the seeds speckling the kitchen knife in his hand. “We would make dinner for everyone together. The night he left, he was buying zucchini. Because we were going to make casserole.” He can see Dean out of the corner of his eye, still now, watching him. He shuts his eyes, so he doesn’t have to see the pity in his face. He thinks about stopping, leaving it there, but it's been so long since anyone wanted to hear. The words spill from his tongue, over his teeth, fall from his lips. He wants to share this, let Dean see it, open himself up, and it's been years since he's had anyone who would listen to him like this.

“We waited for hours for him to come back. Michael was at school, but Anna, Anna was doing her first two years at community college so she was home. And we called Michael and asked what we should do and he said to wait, because Dad wasn’t technically missing yet. But he got a flight that night, was there by the next morning.” He lets out a shallow laugh. “I took Rachel to the grocery store, and we bought zucchini and made that goddamn casserole because Dad wasn’t there to do it and we just kept telling ourselves he was going to come back any day and tried to pretend everything was normal.” He stops, sets down his knife, opens his eyes. Stares at the cutting board. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to burden you with all of this.”

“Hey.” Dean’s voice is soft, his fingers warm where he lays them over Castiel’s hand. Squeezes. “You’re not a burden, okay?” He ducks his head, meets Cas’ eyes, leads his gaze up, holds him there. “Okay?”

Cas swallows hard, wets his lips to speak. “Okay,” he whispers, but Dean doesn’t let go of his hand, doesn’t look away. Just keeps staring, until, at last, Dean peels his fingers away from Castiel’s hand, picks up the knife, places it back in Cas’ grip. He blinks, and turns towards his dough on the counter.  

“When I was fourteen, our house burned down.”

“I’m so sor--” Cas begins, but Dean cuts him off with a wave of his hand.

“You didn’t burn it. Electrician put some crappy wiring in. But um...Sam and I, we were in the basement, fucking around, when the alarms started going off. And I got Sammy outside as fast as I could. Covered his face with a wet cloth and everything.” Dean’s mouth tightens, and he leans against the counter, arms crossed. Cas begins to cut another tomato, but slowly, eyes fixed on Dean’s face. He wonders if this is always how it’s going to be, him sharing too much and Dean opening up in return, offering a little bit of himself for every fragment Cas offers up to him. “I wanted to be a firefighter when I was a kid,” Dean says, tone flat. “Thought I could be some sort of hero. Got Sam outside as fast as I could. Yelled at the neighbors to call 911. Realized my mom hadn’t made it out.”

Cas’ eyes flicker down to the tomato, and back up.  He’s never seen this expression on Dean's face before. The self-loathing. And knows that, again, this is Dean opening himself up for Cas, offering something of himself back. Give and take. Give and take.

“What happened?” he asks, and Dean bows his head, pinches the bridge of his nose.

“I ran back in before anyone could stop me. Sam was screaming at me to stay with him but I...I had to save Mom. So I ran in and everything was burning. Just...everything.” He shudders, and Cas puts the knife down, walks hesitantly over to where Dean stands, places his hand on Dean’s arm. Dean opens his eyes and sends him just the tiniest smile, though it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Did you find your mom?” Cas asks, and Dean lets out a bitter laugh.

“No. She was already outside. Got out through the kitchen door. She got burns on her arms.” He holds his own arm out, uses the fingers of his other hand to indicate the burn marks. “But she was okay. If I’d waited just ten seconds, I would have known that.” He folds his arms back to his chest and tilts his head back towards the ceiling. “But I went inside. Like an idiot. And I got trapped in there. Couldn’t get out, couldn’t breathe.” He puts a hand on his chest, right above his lungs. “Thought I was going to die in there. Couldn’t see anything because of smoke. And that’s when my dad got home from work.” His hands move everywhere while he speaks, clenching fingers and waving in the air. “He drove up, heard from Sam and Mom what I’d done. Fire department wasn’t there yet, so he just...he just ran in. Came and found me passed out on the living room floor." Hands, gesturing down. "He picked me up, carried me out of there himself. Um…" He breathes out slowly, shakes his head a little. "Protected me, so I wasn't hurt when the propane tank blew. And he was in the hospital for three weeks. We thought he was gonna die because of me." Hands in his hair now, gripping, pulling, hurting, and Castiel reaches for his arms on instinct, pulls them back down.

"You were trying to help your mom." he reminds Dean gently.

"Yeah, well she didn't actually need my help so…"

"You saved Sam," Cas whispers, and Dean turns to look at him, eyes scrunched up, nearly closed, and Cas wonders how many people Dean has told this story to.

“I got my Dad hurt.”

“You saved Sam,” Cas repeats, and lays his hand on Dean’s shoulder, squeezing tight. “Dean, you shouldn’t feel guilty about this.”

Dean’s throat works around the swallow, and he casts his eyes down. “Yeah, well...”

Cas has never been a hugger. But he leans forward now, envelops Dean in his arms, holds Dean tight to his chest. He feels Dean’s sharp intake of surprised breath, the way his body automatically tenses, and then slowly relaxes as he caves into Cas, arms slowly coming up to rest on Cas’ shoulder-blades, pressing him closer.

“It wasn’t your fault, Dean,” Cas whispers, and Dean shudders in his grasp before turning his face into Cas’ neck, breathing hard with his nose pressed right below Cas’ jaw.

When Dean speaks, Cas can feel the vibrations in his chest. “I’m sorry your dad left.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“I can still be sorry about it, can’t I?”

Cas nods, feels Dean’s short strands of hair tickling his chin, closes his eyes and focuses on the heat of Dean’s core, right against his chest, imagines he can hear Dean’s heartbeat thumping against his own, in tandem. His leg is beginning to tingle from being pressed against the counter, his back aching where he leans against the corner, but he doesn’t care. I could stay like this forever, he thinks, and breathes deep, allowing himself to relax into Dean’s hold, the fingers at his shoulder-blades, the nose at his jaw, the eyelashes sweeping along his skin when Dean closes his eyes as well.

He’s not sure how long they remain like that: seconds, minutes, hours--it doesn’t matter. Dean anchors him there, like a hand holding down a balloon, and occasionally he rubs his hand up and down Cas’ back, gently, like he’s still a breakable thing, just like he touched Cas the very first day they met, and Cas knows he isn’t breakable, knows he can be strong, but it’s nice to feel like he doesn’t have to be, not here, not now, not with Dean’s steady breathing against his own and hands tethering him to the ground.

I'm in love with you, he wants to say. Please love me too. But he doesn’t say it, just stands there, until Dean is the one who draws away, who wipes with embarrassment at the moisture in his eyes. He laughs, just a little, the sound weak and hoarse. “We’re a fucked up pair, aren’t we?”

He already misses the warmth in his arms. “Pretty much,” he agrees with a tiny smile, and Dean catches his eye, sends him that genuine grin, rubs the back of his neck.

“We should probably finish cooking. Unless you want to order in pizza or something?”

It’s tempting. “We already started chopping. I don’t want to waste your food.”

Dean shrugs. “Hey, we’ll just shove it in the fridge. You can come over next week and we’ll use it then. Deal?”

Next week. “Deal,” Cas tells him with a grin, and Dean returns it, open and easy.

“Awesome. There’s a place just down the street, I’ll call it in. What d’ya like?”

Cas pushes himself away from the counter and rubs distractedly at the small of his back. “Veggie is fine.”

“So rabbit food for you, meat for me,” Dean teases, as he walks over into the hallway. He bends over the coat thrown on top of the pile of shoes and digs a cell phone out of the pocket. “Okay, I wrote the number down somewhere, gimme a sec.”

Cas nods, and turns around to begin clearing up the vegetables. They’re all fairly fresh, and should keep for another week, so he roots around in the cupboards until he finds a bowl and plastic wrap. He throws all the chopped vegetables in together, all except the tomatoes. He can toss those on top of the pizza. Dean’s dough gets squished into a ball and covered with plastic wrap as well, to stick in the fridge. In the background, he can hear Dean on the phone, chatting happily with whoever is on the other end. Cas smiles to himself, and starts washing their knives in the sink, running hot water straight out of the tap.

He hears Dean come up behind him, but he’s not expecting Dean’s hand to wrestle the peeler from his hand and set it back down on the counter. “We’ll worry about that later,” Dean says right in his ear. “Come on, let’s walk down to pick the pizza up. It’ll be ready in ten.”

“Okay,” Cas agrees, and hates how breathless he sounds.  Dean grins at him as they grab their shoes, however, and when they walk down the street in the direction of the pizza place, Dean’s hand brushes his with every step.

"It should just be a few more weeks until I'm all done," Dean mentions, and it takes Cas a second to realize he's talking about the exhibit. "Three or four, maybe. And then I'm done." Dean laughs a little, and adds, "You ready for it?"

Complete strangers seeing paintings of him naked? Not really, but the idea of Dean’s hard work being shown off to everyone makes the pride furl in his chest, and he glances over at Dean with a shy smile, catches Dean staring at him with the same expression before Dean clears his throat and quickly looks away. “Are your parents coming for graduation?” Cas asks him, almost immediately, not giving the silence a chance to be awkward, and Dean shoves his hands in his pockets and nods.

“Yeah, they’re coming. Sam too. And my Uncle Bobby.” They stop at a street corner, glance both ways, wait for a gap in the traffic to dash across the road. “He’s not my real uncle,” Dean explains once they’re safely on the other side. “But he’s known me since I was born. He’s our godfather.” He catches Cas’ eye and smiles. “Maybe you can meet them.”

“Maybe,” Cas tells him, and glances up the street towards the brightly lit shop with a red and white awning over the door. “Is that it?”

Dean nods. “Yeah. It’s pretty good. Not as good as Jo’s mom makes, but good.”

“Jo’s mom?”

“Yeah,” Dean tells him, as the approach the pizza place. They both reach for the door handle together, but Cas wins and ushers Dean in ahead of him. “Jo and I grew up together. Decided to come to school here with each other, so we’d at least know someone. Hey there!” That’s directed to the teenager standing behind the counter, dressed in red and white. “We have an order for Winchester? Dean?”

She nods, and smiles that patent for-customers smile. Cas glances around the store, noting the old photographs on the walls, the 50s style booths. There’s a group of people seated at one of the tables, eating from the large pizza set between them and laughing, and past the counter, Cas can make out the kitchens with its large ovens and a woman currently sliding a pizza out.

“Bet that’s ours,” Dean says, and sure enough, the pizza gets placed in a box to be handed to the cashier, who hurries back up to the counter with it in her arms. “Twelve fifty, please,” she tells them, and Cas reaches automatically for his pocket before remembering his wallet isn’t there.

“Dean...”

“I got it.” Dean pulls a twenty from his own pocket and hands it across. “Don't worry."

Cas watches him pay and take the pizza box in both hands. He runs ahead to hold the door open for Dean. "I would like to pay for half."

"I'll take it out of your paycheck," Dean tells him, as he starts to head down the sidewalk, and the words stop Castiel where he stands, because for so many weeks now, he's forgotten that this is a business relationship, or at least pushed the information to the back of his mind where he never had to think about it.  Because when it's over, Dean will pay him, and then he'll be gone.

"Cas?" Dean has stopped, is looking back over his shoulder waiting for him, and Cas shakes himself, hurries to catch up.

"Sorry."

"It's no problem." Dean doesn't start walking again when Cas reaches him, just stands there and studies him. "You okay?'"

Cas nods, and takes the pizza box from Dean's unresisting hands. "I'm fine. Let's go eat."

The walk back to Dean's apartment is mostly quiet. There's a young teenage boy leaving Dean's apartment building with an older woman, presumably his mother, when they get there. Dean tilts his head to both of them. "Hey, Mrs. Tran. Hey, Kevin."

"Dean!" she calls, face splitting into a smile. "Are you still alright to watch Kevin on Tuesday?"

"Oh my God, Mom…" the boy begins to groan, but Dean cuts him off with a wink.

"Sure am. Eight?"

She nods, adjusting her purse on her arm. "Yes, eight is fine. See you then?"

"Of course, Mrs. Tran." Dean turns on the step so he can wave at them before they head down the street. He looks over at Cas and explains. "My neighbors. She doesn't feel comfortable leaving Kevin home alone yet."

"I'm guessing he feels differently?" Cas asks with a smile, and Dean shakes his head yes.

"Just a bit. Come on, I'm starving."

They head inside and up the stairs to Dean's apartment, and Dean unlocks the door to let them in. They toe of their shoes in the hallway and head for the kitchen, where Cas sets the pizza box down on the counter while Dean reaches for plates and cups out of the cupboard. "You okay with eating on the couch? My crap is all over the table."

"Of course," Cas says, as he washes his hands. "Do you have napkins?"

"Paper towel in the bottom drawer. You want a beer?"

"Thank you."

Cas dishes the pizza onto plates and carries them both over to the couch. Dean follows a second later, a beer in either hand, green bottles beginning to sheen with condensation. "Heeeeere we go." He offers one bottle to Cas, who takes it in hand, and then taps the two together. "Cheers."

Cas smiles at him as Dean flops onto the couch beside him and grabs for his pizza. "This is nice. Thank you."

Dean rolls his eyes. "Yeah, well, consider it payment." He lifts the pizza and takes a bite, cheeks bulging as he chews.

Cas takes a small nibble off his slice, swallows. "You're already paying me," he reminds Dean, and waits for Dean to empty his mouth to answer.

"Not for listening to me moan about my screwed up head."

Cas frowns and tilts his head to the side. "I like listening to you."

Dean sends him a sideways grin. "Well, uh, thanks, I guess."

"You're welcome," Cas tells him, and takes a bite of his pizza. They eat in comfortable silence, broken only by the sound of eating. Dean finishes first, and waits for Cas, so they can walk to the kitchen together.

"You want another slice?" Dean asks him, and Cas shakes his head no. Dean shrugs, and grabs another slice for himself, stands there in the kitchen eating it while Cas washes off his plate in the sink.

"Gimme your plate," Cas orders, and Dean makes a muffled sound of protest as Cas yanks the plate from him. Cas grins in triumph and begins to rinse the plate off.

"Bossy," Dean grumbles, teasingly, and takes another bite, holding the pizza slice in his hands as he chews. "'ou wan' 'essert?"

Cas gives him a look, and Dean rolls his eyes before swallowing. "I said--"

"I know what you said," Cas tells him gently. "No thanks."

Dean shrugs. "'kay, but I'm making hot chocolate." He stuffs the rest of the pizza in his mouth and heads over to grab two mugs from the cupboard. He sends Cas a questioning look, and Cas grins before nodding.

"Please."

He watches Dean put the water on, leaning against the counter and trying not to let his eyes linger on the curve of Dean's ass when he bends over to snatch cocoa packets from a drawer. That's something he's never really appreciated before, he notes with a smile while Dean pours the cocoa into the mugs. He's been too busy focusing on Dean's hands, his smile, his eyes.

God, but it's unfair Dean should see him naked practically every day and the best Cas has is gleaned from the way Dean's t-shirt hugs his body.

Dean turns around, and Cas feels his cheeks heat up as he quickly looks away to the living room. He's sure Dean caught him though, judging from the grin that plays at the corner of Dean's mouth as he asks if Cas wants whipped cream. He does, and Dean goes to retrieve the bottle from the fridge.

He's very carefully keeping his eyes trained on his own bare feet when he feels Dean lean in close, and then the cold stream of whipped cream on his nose. "What the fu-!" he yelps, and jumps backwards into the counter as Dean laughs hysterically. He bats at his nose and wipes the blob of whipped cream onto his fingers, and stares disbelievingly at Dean. "What was that for?"

Dean shrugs both arms and backs away slowly as Cas advances on him. "You just looked too clean, I guess." He ducks away when Cas launches himself in his direction, but Cas catches him around the stomach and smears the whipped cream into his shirt.

"Ha! Tha--Dean get off me!"

It ends with Dean lying flat on his back on the kitchen floor, Cas sitting across his chest triumphant with the can of whipped cream held in hand. Dean's face is flushed, his smile bright, and Cas loves it, loves the excuse to be pressed close to him, loves to make Dean laugh like that, all unreserved with the sound bouncing off the cupboards. "You suck," Dean tells him, and Cas smirks before scrambling to his feet and adding the whipped cream to the tops of their drinks. He can hear Dean clambering upright behind him, and then Dean's arm is reaching around his side, breath hot at the back of Cas' neck. Dean's hand grapples for the mug with the most whipped cream, and he takes it with a triumphant laugh. "Mine," he says, and Cas rolls his eyes.

"Yours," he agrees, and takes the other cup. Dean chuckles, and pats him on the shoulder, once, before peeling away and heading off towards the couch. Cas follows him, flops down into the cushions, and smiles at Dean as he takes a sip of his cocoa.

"So…"

"So," Dean repeats, and draws his legs up. "What's been going on in your life?"

Cas shrugs, and the answer of 'nothing much' lines itself up on his tongue, but Dean is staring at him over his mug, eyes focused and body still, because Dean always acts as if what Cas has to say is worth listening to, and he hears himself saying, "I got rejected by the publishing house. The one I thought I'd have a job at."

Dean raises his eyebrows, sets his mug down on the table. "Shit," he says, and lays his hand on Cas' knee, squeezing, "Shit, Cas, I'm sorry."

Cas shrugs again, and glances away, training his gaze on the floor. He hears Dean shift, and then Dean's hand migrates from his knee up to his shoulder, solid and reassuring.

"It'll be okay," Dean murmurs, leaning closer, "You're smart. You'll figure it out, right?"

Castiel rolls his eyes. "I'm not five, Dean. You don't have to talk to me like I'm a kid."

Dean doesn't take his hand away, like Cas expected. He doesn't say anything either. When Cas finally looks back at him, Dean is watching him, face tilted close, and Cas can count every single individual freckle dotted across his nose.

"You're smart, Cas," Dean tells him, tone brooking no argument. "I'm not talking to you like you're five, I'm telling you something that's true. You're smart, and you're going to figure this out. Yeah?"

Cas swallows, and blinks, but it would seem wrong to look away from Dean, when Dean is looking at him with that expression on his face, like Cas is the only thing in the world that matters at this moment. But he doesn't know what to say, just stares back, until finally he unlocks his frozen tongue and whispers. "Yeah."

"Good." Dean nods, and leans away, but his hand remains on Cas' shoulder. "You should have told me earlier, man."

"Didn't want…" Cas begins, before his voice trails away. What can he say? He didn't want to tell Dean about it, because Dean's apartment is his escape from everything. Dean is his escape from everything, the one person who can make him smile without trying, who paints him like a precious thing and if he says that then Cas might as well blurt out that he's in love with Dean and screw it all…

"Wanted to forget about it for a while," he says instead, and Dean makes a sympathetic sound in his throat.

"Yeah, I get that." Dean pulls his hand away from Castiel's shoulder, reaches out and grabs his mug once more off the table, taking a sip after he does so. Cas remember his own hot chocolate, cooling in his hands, and raises the cup to his face. The steam billows around his cheeks when he breathes out.

"I thought I'd have it all figured out by now," he admits in a soft voice , speaking into his mug and not glancing away from the shape of his own fingers clutched around the ceramic. "I was sure that…that by the time I was in my twenties I'd have my whole life planned out perfectly. And I don't and I just…I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing." He closes his eyes, hunches his shoulders. "I don't even know what I want anymore." He breathes out again, feels the steam prickle at his eyelids, and laughs a little to himself. "I'm supposed to be an adult by now. Why doesn't it feel like that?"

He opens his eyes, turns his head to see Dean's reaction. Dean is frowning, but not at him, and he unfolds his legs from the sofa slowly, carefully, before he speaks. "I don't think anyone ever feels like they're an adult, really. I know I don't." Dean catches his eye, attempts a half-smile. "We all just pretend we're all grown-up and know exactly what to do, but it's bull. It really is. I don't think anyone really has their life together."

Cas huffs a laugh, and smiles weakly in Dean's direction. "You're probably right."

"Probably? I'm definitely right." Dean sways over, knocks their shoulders together. Cas presses back against him, shakes his head as he finishes his hot chocolate. They sit in silence for a few moments, and then Dean squeezes Cas' arm, pats him on the knee as he stands up. "Come on you. Let's get another half hour of painting in."

Cas follows him to the spare room, and notices that the lead weight that has taken a home in his stomach for the past couple of days seems to have dissolved.

 


 

 

Two weeks pass. Castiel goes to work, goes to classes, goes to Dean's. Does his class work, files papers, does not kiss Dean, no matter how much he wants to. Things don't fix themselves, but they don't get worse either, which he'll count as a victory these days.

He listens to professors talk about what will happen after graduation, and thinks it would have been so nice to have one of them on his side in all this, but even with the school promising that it would help every student, Cas had never found the courage to go to one of the little offices and ask for someone he doesn't really know to help him figure out his life. He should have, he knows that, but there are a lot of things he should have done differently that he can't change now.

Thursday evening, after he's done work at the Bean, he's warming up leftovers in the microwave--which he'd gotten from Dean, who had finally put together that meal they'd started on Saturday night and tucked a bag of food into Castiel's backpack--when the phone rings. Cas picks up without checking caller ID, expecting it to be Anna. “Hey,” he says, tucking the phone between his chin and shoulder. “What’s up?”

“Nothing much in particular,” Michael tells him, and Cas’ stomach drops to the floor. “How are you, Castiel?”

Fuck. “I’m fine,” he says, and he can see Michael’s answering nod in his head, the way his brother’s mouth will purse and his brow furrow as he tries to think of what next to say. Michael was always the reflective one. He doesn’t ask Michael how he’s doing.

“What do you want?” he asks instead.

Michael pauses for a moment before answering. “Am I not able to just want to talk to my brother?” he says at last, and Castiel winces.

“You never seem to.”

“Yes well...” Michael’s voice trails away, and Castiel thinks it must be a unique trait for men in their family to have the ability to make a conversation awkward within five seconds of beginning it.

“What do you want, Michael?” he asks again, and Michael sighs into the phone.

“Anna told me about the publishing house,” he says, and Castiel frowns, heading for the couch so he can flop over onto it and pull his knees to his chest. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

He wasn’t expecting the apology, and has to smile just a little at that. “Yeah. So am I.”

“I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help,” Michael says, and there it is. The motive.

“I don’t want to work for you, Michael,” Castiel tells him wearily, and pulls one of the pillows to his chest to cradle to himself. He hears the microwave buzzer go off in the kitchen, but the sound is distant, unimportant, and he doesn't bother to get up to open the door.

“Not for me. With me.” Michael’s voice is calm, soothing. Big brotherly. Promising everything bad will go away and all will be right again and Castiel remembers after their father disappeared how Michael had come home and told him it would be alright, he was here, Dad would come back, he loved them, he loved him, he would be okay. His voice had sounded the same then as it does now and Michael had been lying before because Dad never did come back.

“I don’t want to work with you, Michael,” he mumbles into the pillow.

“Castiel...”

Cas doesn’t reply, and it’s a moment before Michael continues. Castiel wonders where he is right now. Holed up in some office, maybe. Or at home. No beer in his hand, because Michael never drinks. Or maybe he’s started drinking now. Castiel doesn’t know. No one waiting for him at home, though, he does know that. Michael gave up on dating when their father left. He gave up a lot when their father left.

“Cas,” Michael says at last, the nickname heavy on his tongue, “I know that...I know that you’re still angry with me. Over the English...thing. But you have to understand, I am doing what I do for you. For you and your sisters. And...” He waits, a beat, before going on, and Castiel wants to stop him right there, get him to stop talking, because he’s not interested in what Michael thinks is for the best, he’s interested in the fact that he’s twenty-four years old and his brother is still trying to control his life and be his dad, but Michael can’t do that because Dad is gone and Michael isn’t Dad, he can never be Dad and Castiel hates...

He stops, and his fingers clutch helplessly into his sweatpants, holding his legs so tight to his body.

“And I am sorry,” Michael tells him. “I am sorry that I did that, but a degree in English wouldn’t get you anywhere in life, Castiel. Business is practical. And I’m asking you, please, be practical now. Let me give you a position.”

He hates Michael because Michael couldn’t be his father, no matter how hard Michael tried.

Fuck, but his family is messed up.

“Just to get your feet on the ground,” Michael’s voice continues in the background of his thoughts, “If you want to leave in a few years, I won’t stop you. But let me help you now.”

“I’ve supported myself through school,” Castiel tells him, voice muffled in his own ears, and he knows he sounds petulant but he can’t care right now. “I didn’t need your help.”

“I know,” Michael says softly. “I know, Cas. You don’t need my help. But it would make things much easier for you and, brother, I am...tired...” He stops, and for a moment Castiel thinks that’s the end of the sentence, but then Michael tacks on, “Tired of fighting with you. Tired of not talking to you. I want this to end.”

Cas doesn't reply, and after a minute, Michael continues, "Cas, you need to start paying off student debts. You need a better job. I can give that to you. Guaranteed. It's a better offer than you're going to find anywhere else." He pauses, and then adds, almost meekly, "The only downside is you'll have to work with me."

He doesn't know how to respond. His breath catches, his body stills, and Cas closes his eyes tight, tries to block out the sound of his own blood rushing in his ears.

He knows he should take the job. It's the only smart thing for him to do. But he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to don the suit and tie in the morning, to deal all day in numbers and figures. To move to Chicago. To leave everything behind.

To leave everyone behind.

"Can I think about it?" he asks instead, and Michael hums his agreement.

"Of course."

The microwave beeps at him again, and Cas continues to ignore it, flexing his fingers in his pants and staring resolutely at the floor as he hugs the pillow to his chest. Michael breaks the silence.

"I would still like to know how you're doing," he says, and damn it, but Castiel has missed his brother.

"'m okay," he mutters, and then adds a second later, "How are you?"

"I'm okay," Michael copies, and Cas has to smile, even if it's a weak one.

"That's good." He pulls the pillow from his lap and unfolds his legs, stretching them out in front of him under the coffee table. The microwave beeps again. "I should…uh…I'm about to eat dinner."

"Alright. Go eat," Michael tells him, and Cas is sure he hears fondness in his tone. Of course he does. Despite everything, Michael is still his older brother. "Let me know your answer soon? Within two weeks?"

"I…" He stands, and moves back towards the kitchen. "Okay."

"Goodbye, Castiel," Michael says, and hangs up before Cas has a chance to reply. He's left standing in the kitchen, one hand on the microwave door, phone in hand, and wondering what he's supposed to do.

 


 

He graduates on Saturday. Anna wasn't able to make it, so no one cheers in the audience when they announce his name besides Ruby, Ash and Raphael, seated together in one of the lower rows, but he doesn't care. It's over. He's done. Dean greets him at the door of his apartment with a beaming smile and a homemade cake, which spells out 'Con-GRAD-ulations' in messy handwriting, and Cas feels like crying because he knows he can't stay, he can't.

He debates it anyway, every night.

Five days later, he calls Michael himself, and says yes.

 


 

The air feels heavier when he walks inside Dean’s apartment, which makes no sense with the warm breeze outside and gentle rays of sunshine showing through the clouds. Dean is wearing a t-shirt, speckled with paint, and Cas wonders if in the summer, the light spattering of freckles across Dean’s nose will grow darker, more pronounced, if the light streaks in his hair will become even lighter.

“Hi,” he says, voice sticking to his throat. He watches as Dean turns from his canvas, where Castiel’s shape has taken form in the colors, like a ship emerging from the fog.

“Hey,” Dean replies, and his teeth flash in a smile. “You ready?”

No, he’s not. He doesn’t want this to end. These quiet hours with Dean, falling more in love with every brushstroke, no, he doesn’t ever want it to end and he won’t ever be ready. He nods anyway.

Dean tilts his head to the side, blinks. “You okay, Cas?”

I'm leaving I'm leaving I'm going to Chicago I love you and I can't tell you and I'm never going to see you again.

“Yeah!” he says, too quickly, too loud. “Yeah, I’ll just go...get...naked.” He’s going to cut out his own tongue. “Now.”

Dean stares at him as he hurries out the door, and Cas' hands shake as he undresses in the bathroom. It's stupid, to feel like this. And he knew he would feel like this, he knew it. But he was enough of an idiot to decide that falling in love wouldn't be such a bad thing.

He'd nearly said no to Michael, until he realized that the entire reason for it would be because of Dean.

'If you come in on Saturday, I'll finish up completely,' Dean had told him, and here he is. Last day. Dean won't need him anymore after this.

'Am I allowed to see?' he'd asked, and Dean had said no, Cas would have to wait until the exhibition like everyone else.

Dean is setting out his paints when Cas arrives back in the room. He sheds the towel around his waist and goes to sit, listening to Dean hum along to some tune in his head.

"You ready?" Dean asks, and Cas nods before tilting his head towards the window, settling his body into position. "Perfect," Dean tells him, and Cas hears the cap of the paint tube, the slick of brush on paper.

"Is your family coming to see the exhibit?" he asks after a few moments, because he needs to hear Dean talk, needs to make the most of these last few hours.

"Yup," Dean tells him, without pausing, "They're arriving on Thursday, exhibit opens on campus on Friday. Same time as we meet, so I know you'll be able to make it."

He called his manager at the Bean the moment after he'd called Michael, told her Wednesday was the last day he would be able to work. He's got a flight out on Saturday morning. It's quick notice, but when he'd thought he'd get the publishing job, he'd already talked to both his boss and his landlord, made sure they knew he would be leaving soon after graduation. Michael's sending a truck to collect his stuff from his apartment. He's been packing things in boxes all week.

"Okay," he agrees, and tries to smile. Everything's moving too fast. Dean hums, and Cas hears his footsteps across the floor before the music turns on. It only takes him a few beats to place it. "Queen?" he asks, and this time he really does smile.

"Last day, right?" Dean says, "We have to go out with a classic!"

Cas laughs and shakes his head before fixing his posture. "If you say so." He waits a moment, and then asks, "So, your graduation then?"

"The fifteenth," Dean tells him. "Why? You coming?"

Cas shrugs one shoulder and wishes he was. "Maybe," he lies and wonders why he doesn't just tell Dean the truth. He knows why though. He doesn't want it to be real. Telling Dean will make it real.

"Cool," Dean says, and doesn't speak again as the notes of music fill the room along with the soft sounds of brush on canvas. Cas stares out the window, into blue skies, and wishes now, more than ever, that this room was timeless, and he could stay forever.

What would have happened, he thinks, if he'd met Dean in another time, another place? Would they have exchanged smiles in a street, waved a little? Would Cas have knocked Dean's coffee into his lap, offered to buy him a new one, sat and listened for hours as Dean talked about his life as a successful artist? Would he have fallen in love, in a way that could have lasted? Would Dean have loved him back, oh impossibly maybe?

"Cas?" Dean's voice is quiet, "I can tell something's wrong, you know."

He blinks, and looks away from the window, into Dean's eyes, and he knows his own are puffy and red-rimmed, because all he can seem to do around Dean these days is fall apart. "I can't come to your graduation," he croaks, and watches Dean's expression change from slightly worried to alarmed.

"Cas? What's the matter?" Dean sets his brush down with a clatter, leaving a smear of pale pink on the table, makes his way around the table. "Can I do anything?"

Cas shakes his head and shuts his eyes, and sways into Dean's touch when Dean's hand wraps around his arm, his other hand hovering somewhere around Cas' other shoulder.

"Cas?"

"I'm leaving," he says, and opens his eyes just in time to see Dean's widen. "Michael called me with a job and I…I'm moving to Chicago on Saturday."

Dean's mouth opens, closes, opens again, his brows knit, and he's so close, like this, and Cas just wants to lean forward, kiss away the line between his eyes. "Oh," Dean says at last, and glances away to the floor. "Well."

"Yeah," Cas agrees, and feels Dean's hand tighten around his arm, sticky with paint. He'll leave handprints behind, in blue and red and green.

"That's…" Dean shakes his head, and doesn't finish the sentence, just lifts his eyes and stares at Cas and for the first time, Cas realizes that Dean stares at him the same way he watches Dean. Like he's in love. "I don't know what to say," Dean admits after a moment, and a bitter laugh escape Cas' tongue, hangs in the air.

"Me neither."

"I mean I…I'm happy for you, having a job," Dean blurts out, and he doesn't move away, not even when Cas tilts his head forward so their faces are inches away, "But…Chicago."

"A very large part of me doesn't want to go," Cas admits with a whisper, and the words fall away before he can remember to stop them, "I don't want to leave you behind."

But far from reeling away, spitting out 'Dude, I'm not gay!' like the Dean from his worst daydreams has done too many times, Dean stares back at him as his face crumples, and then he's murmuring back, "I don't want you to leave me either."

They stare at each other, and Cas' throat begins to tighten, and he knows that if he doesn't look away soon he's going to end up crying all over Dean's t-shirt, which might be alright, because Dean is looking at him like his entire world is falling apart, and Cas wishes he'd said something, anything, just a little sooner, because while this entire time he has focused on telling himself that there's too much of a chance Dean isn't interested, he'd forgotten to remember the chance that he is, which makes everything worse.

Because now he won't be leaving behind a wish that could never happen, he'll leave behind a possibility that never had a chance.

"You should keep painting," he tells Dean, softly so his voice won't break, and Dean finally blinks and pulls away, fingers sticky on Cas' arm as he leaves the paint behind, perfect finger marks. He doesn't say anything as he turns, makes his way back towards the canvas, and Cas doesn't say anything as he turns his head back towards the window. He hears Dean turn the music up, to the point he cannot hear the brush, and Cas sighs, shoulders shaking, tries to lose himself in Freddie Mercury's voice to the point he can forget the sound of Dean's.

The song ends, and then the CD. The silence goes on. Cas loses track of how long it's been, watches the blue sky turn darker, then become smeared with orange and pink, that perfect cliché sunset that artists would never paint because they look too fake. He shuts his eyes, dozes off, doesn't stir.

I don't want you to leave me.

God, but he hates this.

"Cas? Cas, I'm done." Dean's voice is soft, barely audible, and Cas doesn't open his eyes, just turns his head towards the sound, tries to smile.

"Can I see?"

"No, you can't," Dean tells him fondly, and Cas hears the click of paintbrushes, the snap of lids. He starts to open his eyes, but Dean stops him. "Hey, Cas? Stay there, will you? And don't…keep your eyes closed, okay?"

"Why?" he asks, and Dean mumbles a bit to himself before answering, "Just do it please."

So Castiel sits, and waits with eyes closed, listens to the rustle of canvas and Dean's footsteps, coming nearer and nearer across the floor. "Can I open them now?" he asks, and Dean shushes him, and Cas shivers as Dean stops, right in front of him between his legs, and doesn't move. "Dean?" he asks, and then Dean's hand is there, cupping the side of his face, and his fingers are sticky with paint, just like the day Cas met him.

Dean's breath mingles with his as he speaks. "Is this okay?" he asks, and Cas barely has time to nod before Dean's lips are on his, soft and rough and sweet. Cas gasps, breathes in, hears Dean breathe out in return as his hand guides Cas' face into deepening the kiss, slotting their mouths together and pressing close, so close, and it's better than anything Cas had ever dreamed, with the fabric of Dean's t-shirt brushing against his thighs, the smell of paint and fabric softener tingling his nose, the brush of Dean's lashes against his cheeks.

Dean whimpers when Cas pulls away, a barely noticeable sound, but Cas' fingers go to clutch at his hips, draw him closer for another kiss as Dean brings his other hand up to run through Cas' hair, keep him steady as Dean pushes forward, makes Cas rock backwards on his stool.

And Cas could say it now, could tell Dean he loves him, loves him for his smile and his hands and the way he carries the weight of the world and the way he laughs and sings and orders Venti triple chocolate caramel mochas. But he doesn't. Instead, he breaks the kiss, leans his forehead against Dean's, tries to breath, and feels Dean's hands slipping away from his cheek, leaving his mark behind.

"I don't know what to say," he admits at last, and Dean chuckles, hides his face in Cas' neck.

"Then don't say anything," he says, and kisses Castiel's jaw, slips his arms around his waist and holds him steady.

"I should probably go soon," Cas adds after a moment, and Dean shakes his head, whispers, "Not yet." So he doesn't.

"Will you come on Friday?" Dean asks at last, raising his head, and Cas nods.

"Of course I will."

"Good," Dean tells him, and kisses him again, and again and again until they're both telling each other it's late and he needs to go home but neither of them doing a thing about it.

"Friday. At the Winter Center. You know where it is?" Dean asks him as he finally leads Cas to the door. Cas nods again, adjusting his shirt and jacket.

"I do."

Dean turns, smiles, leans against the wall as his one hand reaches out to open the door. "Alright then."

"Alright," Cas agrees, and kisses Dean just one last time.

He's heading out the door when Dean clears his throat and mumbles, "I'll give you your check on Friday, okay?"

For a moment, he has no idea what Dean is talking about, and it takes Dean gesturing to his body to get him to remember.

"Oh," he says, feeling the blood rush to his face. "You don't…Dean, it's fine."

"No I…I should." Dean nods to himself, shushes Cas' protestation. "Don't worry about it, okay? I'll see you on Friday." And then Dean closes the door and Cas is left in the hallway with tingling lips and a handprint on his cheek that crumbles away in flakes when he reaches his own apartment and touches it in the mirror, watches paint fall like snowflakes in green and blue and red.

 


 

He goes to see Hester and say goodbye one last time on the Monday. Brings her some muffins, and she thanks him and shakes his hand and Ian knocks over his open water bottle, so the way Castiel says goodbye to Ian is mopping water up off the desk with him. He hugs Hester before he goes, and stops at the bakery few blocks down for the last time, orders a coffee and a cinnamon bun and sits in a chair by the window, watches the people walk past with their briefcases and suits and wonders how he'll look in a suit. The only one he has doesn't fit him quite right. Michael will probably help him buy a better one.

He thinks he sees Professor Adler across the street when he walks outside, and he quickly walks the other way. Adler's class might have prepared him more than anything else, but that doesn't mean he wants to have a conversation with the man.

One of the other employees at the Bean is taking vacation time, so for his last three days there, Castiel picks up their afternoon shift. It's not like he has anything better to do. And he enjoys having a couple more hours working with Uriel. He's going to miss him when he goes.

The apartment gets packed up, piece by piece. He leaves some of the appliances behind--tells the landlord he can pawn them off or leave them for the next renter. Most of the stuff he's bought for himself in the past couple of years is falling apart anyway, so there's no point in bringing it with him. Anyway, he'll be staying with Michael for the first few weeks until he can find his own place, and he's sure Michael's microwave will be state-of-the-art compared to his own clunky machine.

Staying with Michael had been Anna's idea. Cas is sure she's lost her mind if she thinks it's a good one, but Michael had agreed, and it's better than staying in a hotel until he can find a new place to rent.

He hugs Uriel too, Wednesday night, and when he locks up the Bean, he lingers in the doorway, and says a silent goodbye.

Thursday, he finishes packing, but for two changes of clothes and the bare necessities, which he stuffs into the carryon he'll bring on the plane. He stares at the clock on the oven and wonders what time Dean's family is getting here. Thinks about Dean's lips on his, and touches the spot where his handprint lay across his face.

And then, too soon, it's three forty on Friday afternoon, and he's headed out the door to catch the subway that will bring him to campus. There's no girl with the Dunkin Donuts uniform, and there's no woman pressing a stick of gum into his hand.

Funny, but he thinks he'll miss these people he never knew as much as he will those he did.

The area around the Winter Center is bustling with people, and Cas smiles when he sees it. Dean deserves the crowds. He pushes the door and walks inside, heads for the gallery that all the signs point to. Spots the corner room with glass walls that appears stuffed with people, and pushes his way inside.

His own face looks back at him. Ten, twenty, thirty times over. Charcoal and pencil and watercolor and clay and oil painting, rough lines and soft curves and the gentle caress of Dean’s hand over his image over and over and over again, the lines of his forehead, the slouch of his shoulders, the darkness beneath his eyes--all things he doesn't like about himself, somehow made beautiful, because that's how Dean sees him. In a room of chattering surveyors, all studying his body in all its forms, Cas suddenly feels more naked than he ever did under Dean's eye, and finally he understands what Dean meant when he said he wanted people to know who he is.

Because this is who he is, though he doesn't know why or how but Dean caught him there in paints and pencils, and if Cas fell in love with Dean's hands and his smile and the freckles on his face, he finds the same attention paid to the shadows beneath his eyes, that mole near his nipple, that tuft of hair that won't lie flat. Over and over and over again.

He hadn't realized there would be so many. He only remembers Dean working on maybe ten different pieces all together. All these others…must have been done from pictures. From memory.

He can see out of the corner of his eye a few people nudge their neighbors, point in his direction, mutter to themselves, but he doesn't care. His mouth drops open as he wanders through the gallery and its angled walls, sees the shape of his own face turned to the side, the sharp corner of his nose, the swoop of his back, the way his fingers dig helplessly into his arm, the curl of toes around cold wooden stool. He doesn’t remember all of these, doesn’t remember Dean taking so much time to simply draw him in soft pencil with smudged lines, but yet there are five drawings in a row hung to a wall, shades darker and darker, and Cas can tell already that these were painted different days because he watches himself unfurl as his eyes go from left to right, sees his body go from closed and nervous to open beneath Dean’s gaze, can see the smile progress upon his own face. He stumbles mindlessly to the next wall through the people, stares at himself in blobs of paint, the oil painting Dean hated so much, and it’s frightening, almost, because Cas would know it’s him just from the expression on his painted face. Perhaps it's in the eyes, the upturn of the mouth, he doesn’t know, but he feels trapped, his own image projected onto this canvas for the world to see and he can’t miss the gentleness around his eyes, the smile that is too soft, too fragile.

He thinks that if he did not already, seeing himself in Dean’s brush reflected back at him would be enough to make him love Dean, just a little.

And here, the quick sketches Dean did of Cas when his eyes were closed, and he wonders if everyone can see the soft shape of the pencil, can tell the care Dean put into even the smallest details.

He turns to stare again at the oil painting, studies the shape of his lips, the color Dean chose, and he can feel the memory of Dean's kiss on his mouth, worries for a moment that everyone else can see it too, see the imprint of Dean's lips on his skin.

He spins around, and nearly runs into someone, someone who reaches out his arms and steadies Cas by the shoulders, gasping out a 'Oh God, I'm sorry!'

"It's fine," Cas mumbles, staring up into a face he recognizes but can't place. The boy stares back at him for a moment, before his eyes widen and he grins.

"Hey, you're him! You're Castiel!"

Long hair, very tall, he knows him from somewhere… "Sam?" he asks, and Sam grins, claps him on the shoulder.

"Yeah! Dean won't shut up about you! It's cool to meet you!"

"Yeah, you too!" Cas manages, before Sam has a grip around his upper arm and he's pulling him towards the stairs that lead to the second story.

"Dean's up there with Mom and Dad, he'll definitely want to see you! Oh, hey, there he is! Dean! Hey!"

And there Dean is, frozen on the stairs with his hand on the railing, and the room might as well be empty for how Cas sees it. Dean looks up, stares at Sam, and then his eyes trail down to Cas' face, catch him there. And Dean smiles at him like he loves him, surrounded by a face he captured dozens of times on canvas and paper and clay, and Cas feels like he can't breathe.

He pulls away from Sam's hand, backs away, ignores Sam's confused call and Dean's voice above the crowd.

He needs to leave. He needs to leave now or he never will.

“Cas!” he hears Dean yell, but he turns anyway, pushes his way through people he knows must know him, recognize him, wonder why the muse runs from the artist, and he can hear Dean behind him, calling and calling and he just runs. Out the glass door, through the hallways, runs until he bursts through the doors into the outside air and gulps in breath and struggles for air, because he's in love with Dean and he's leaving and Dean kissed him and this is a possibility that's not even getting a chance.

He needs to go or he really will stay forever. He can't say goodbye to Dean or it will turn into an 'I love you'.

Dean doesn't catch him, as he walks to the subway, and no one comes banging on his door that night. He orders in pizza and thinks that it's not as good as the one he ate with Dean, but that's not really a fair comparison and he knows it.

He falls asleep imaging that the pillow in his arms is actually Dean, and knows it's pathetic even as he does so.

 


 

If this were a romantic comedy Dean would follow him to the airport, chase him down, kiss him breathless as the flight attendants cheer and the security guards struggle up off the floor from where they’d tripped over conveniently placed baggage. And Cas’ father would show back up out of the blue with trust funds for everyone and Anna could travel and Rachel could go to school and Michael could give up the company and Castiel could live with Dean happily ever after and kiss Dean with paint smearing between their fingers and fall in love with an artist all over again without this empty, gouged-out feeling in his chest. And part of him hopes, the entire way in the cab to the airport the next morning, that Dean will stop him at the gates, show of panting and desperate and tell Cas he loves him.

But Dean doesn’t come. Not through baggage, not through security, there are no shouts of ‘Wait!’ and Castiel tells himself this is a good thing, because even if Dean showed up now, Cas would have to leave him anyway. And it should hurt less, shouldn't it? He never told Dean he loves him, and Dean never said the words back, so why does it feel like his stomach is being pulled out through his throat, like his heart is being ripped out of his chest with spoons?

What he wouldn't give for one more timeless afternoon with Dean singing in his ear, and one last chance to be in love without it breaking him apart.

He shrugs away his daydreams on the dirty airport floor and climbs onto a plane with no one to stop him. Watches the city fall away beneath him, closes his eyes, and wonders if crying will wash the memory of a kiss away.

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

Part Two

 

“Art must be an expression of love or it is nothing.”

Marc Chagall

 

“What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”

Eugene Delacroix

 

“The emotions are sometimes so strong that I work without knowing it. The strokes come like speech.”

Vincent Van Gogh

 


 

"Castiel."

He groans at the sound of Michael's voice, tries to ignore it, but his brother is insistent. "Castiel." A hand, shaking his shoulder. "Wake up. We're here."

Cas grumbles as he stretches his legs and opens bleary eyes. Michael is looking at him sympathetically in the window seat, Blackberry held in hand as around them, the other passengers reach for luggage and begin heading for the exits. He must have slept right through the landing. "We'll get some coffee in the airport," Michael promises, and Cas blinks, tries to smile, but his face is creased from the fabric of his jacket, balled up for a pillow, and it comes out more of a grimace.

Michael's prodding gets him out of his seat, and he follows the man in front of him to the exit, managing a polite nod at the steward as he steps out onto the stairs and stumbles his way down. He hears Michael laugh softly behind him, and then Michael is holding his shoulder and guiding him along the jetway. "Come on you."

He's woken up slightly by the time they get to luggage, and once they both have their bags, Cas is the one to first smell the coffee and head straight for it. Michael checks his cell phone for messages, and nudges Castiel while they stand in line. "Anna says hello."

Cas smiles, and looks over Michael's shoulder while he texts a reply. Anna is in Europe right now, researching for some human interest piece. She's been emailing pictures the entire time, her smiling next to various vaguely bemused looking people who don't seem to know quite what to make of her. He’d promised to email her pics from the business trip. "I'll pose next to various CEO's and then we can compare," he'd teased her over their last phone call, and she'd laughed before telling him to shut up.

"Let's get settled in at the hotel," Michael suggests, as they head for the entrance to the airport with coffee cups hot in their hands. "We can grab dinner, maybe check out the downtown?"

Cas nods in agreement, repositioning his bag on his shoulders. The meetings don't start until tomorrow, and once they do, they won't have time for anything else. "I'll get a cab."

The cab ride downtown is mostly silent, save for the few questions Michael poses about various points of interest in the city and Castiel's spouted answers. He spends most of the time peering out the window up at the buildings, a bleak grey color in the sunless sky. When they arrive at the hotel,  Cas abandons Michael to pay the cabbie, and drags their bags out onto the sidewalk. "Thanks for that," Michael tells him when he joins him in the foyer, and Cas shrugs. They both know Michael has enough cash on him to pay the cabbie twenty times over, though Cas had advised him against carrying so much before leaving. They walk to the front desk together, check in with the clerk there, and leave their suitcases at the desk to be carried up for them later. They really only need their carryon bags for now, which Castiel has slung around his shoulders.

They have adjoining rooms, with a queen size bed for each, and they separate for a few minutes to freshen up. Cas splashes water in his face in the sink, tries to flatten out his hair. He's not looking forward to the conference tomorrow. He never looks forward to conferences. He's terrible at discussing business with other people. Not terrible at doing business, as he's found out working with Michael, but the actual discussing it over caviar and wine or folders and clipboards has been a skill that evades him completely. Which is why, of course, Michael insists on dragging him to every single damn conference in the country there is. 'You'll improve,' he tells Cas after every failed casual conversation. 'It just takes practice.' Cas, however, has simply accepted his ineptitude at socializing at this point of his life. Even back home in Chicago he's alone except for his brother.

Well, no, that's not completely true. But he'd rather not think about his string of one-night stands. That'll only depress him.

"You ready?" Michael calls through the door, and Castiel calls back a yes before wiping his face with a towel and straightening his collar. His stomach chooses that moment to grumble, affirming the decision. He slides the room key into his wallet and meets Michael in the hallway. "Where to?" Michael asks him, and Cas shrugs again. He might remember the parts of the city he frequented, but the type of restaurants he went to as a student are probably several price ranges away from the quality of restaurant Michael is looking for.

"We'll walk around and find something," Michael decides, and takes Cas by the elbow so he can lead him to the elevator.

They step out into the brisk winter air, and Cas draws in a sharp breath at the chill. It’s gotten darker, in the time since they went inside, and snowflakes are just beginning to drift down between the buildings, illuminated by the lights from the windows as they dance down to the sidewalk and settle there, only to be melted away by their footsteps as the two of them start walking towards the sound and bustle of downtown. Cas stuffs his hands in his pockets to warm his fingers--he should have grabbed his gloves, packed away in his suitcase back at the hotel.

Michael stops at the first restaurant they find, after about ten minutes of walking, and peers inside at the tables, the people sitting there. "It's Thai. Do you like Thai?" he asks over his shoulder.

"I don't know," Cas supplies, and Michael dismisses the restaurant with a wave of his hand.

"Okay, well if you don't know, we're not going to risk it. What do you feel like? I'm sure we can find something?" It's such a Michael thing to do, and Castiel smiles to himself as he follows his brother down the sidewalk. He's thirty-one years old, nearly thirty-two--he could handle it if he didn't like Thai food.

"I'm fine with anything Michael," he calls out as his brother hurries ahead of him.

"There's an Italian place, let’s go there!" Michael tells him over his shoulder, and sets a brisk pace towards the restaurant in the distance. Cas hurries to catch up, apologizing to a lady he nearly runs into with shopping bags full of brightly wrapped presents.

“Michael, would you…” But Michael has already disappeared among the crowds. Cas sighs and slows his pace, heading for the bright lights of the restaurant. Further on down the street, he can see the Christmas tree in Times Square, surrounded by a horde of people. It’s still a few weeks until Christmas, time enough for him to grab Christmas presents for his siblings when he and Michael get back home to Chicago. Anna is hoping to be back in California by Christmas, but she’s not sure, and Rachel has already says she wants to spend her first Christmas married in her and Sam’s place alone, so there’s no plans for the four of them to get together. It’ll probably just be him and Michael, in Michael’s apartment, eating too much cranberry cake and going through his rather extensive selection of wine. He doesn’t have a clue what he’s going to get Michael for a gift. Maybe tickets to the orchestra. They’d gone together last spring and he’s not sure if he remembers seeing a bigger smile on his brother’s face than when they sat listening to the Mahler.

Michael is waiting for him when he finally pushes the restaurant door open, cheeks red with cold and dusting snowflakes from his hair. “There you are! We have a table.”

It’s packed tight, but the host leads them to a relatively quiet corner, tucked away behind a partition. He hands out menus while they sit across from each other, listing off the wine selection and telling them their waiter will be with them soon before scurrying away, shiny black shoes clicking on the wooden floor. Michael is immediately flipping through his menu, frowning a little as he tries to read the words--he really does need to wear glasses, but he won’t admit to it yet.

“The first page says ‘appetizers’,” Cas supplies helpfully, and Michael gives him a disparaging look.

“I can read, Cas.”

“If you say so.” Cas shrugs and opens his own menu, eyes browsing the choices.

It’s warm in the restaurant, and after only a moment he’s overheating in his coat. He slips it from his arms and hangs it carefully over the back of his chair, just in time to greet the waitress who comes to their table with a smile plastered on her face.

Cas orders another coffee; he still feels tired after his nap in the plane, and knowing Michael, they’ll be out late. His brother thrives on travelling, on seeing new places and meeting new people. He’s like Anna in that way. It brings out an enthusiasm in him that Michael usually keeps carefully suppressed, reminding Cas of how Michael used to be when they were children, before their dad left.

Michael chatters aimlessly while they wait for the waitress to return with their drinks, mostly about their conference tomorrow. Cas nods and hums when it seems appropriate--he knows Michael is mostly talking to himself. It’s easier to retreat into the solitude of his own head, let his mind wander over to the thoughts he’s been suppressing all day, ever since waking up this morning to pack.

He’s only travelled to New York a few times since he moved to Chicago, seven years ago, managing to wriggle out of responsibilities and business trips that Michael tried to thrust upon him with a creative variety of excuses until he was finally forced to admit to himself that he was scared of returning to the city. Which is ridiculous. He shouldn’t be scared of returning to a place he used to live. What more could it do, to be here? Bring up memories? Regret? He can’t continue living his life in a constant state of avoidance.

Hence why he’s here right now.

It does feel strange, almost like being thrown back in time. He could be twenty-three again, back bent under the weight of textbooks and powered solely by caffeine. But the backpack on his shoulders has been replaced by suits, which feel almost heavier at times, and as much as he would like to pretend he could throw on the uniform and return to working at the Busted Bean, he knows he’s changed so much, since leaving.

The waitress returns, bearing a bottle of wine and a small pot of coffee, which she sets down on the table before flipping Michael’s wine glass upright. Cas smiles his thank you and accepts the empty mug and saucer, immediately going to fill it with coffee, with just a hint of creamer. Michael swirls his wine in his glass and takes a sip, smacking his lips before launching into another monologue of stock shares and market conditions. Cas tunes him out, and focuses on the warm mug cupped between his hands, wondering how the people he knew once are getting along now. How Uriel and Raph and Ian have forged their paths, how Hester is, if his old professors are still teaching. He’d made such a clean break of everything, when he moved away, that he doesn’t even have the slightest clue how to get in touch with any of them.

The thought sends his memory skittering backwards to those awful first months when he came to Chicago, with the anger simmering in his belly almost overpowering the helplessness, trying to blame Michael for everything that had happened, for making him leave. Unfair, of course, as unfair for blaming Michael for what happened after their father left. Leaving New York--and everyone in it-- behind was no one’s fault but his own. He’d been the one to choose, he’d been the one who had screwed everything up and left himself dangling--no job, no future. But back with the wounds of separation still fresh, it was so much easier to shift the fault to his brother, to give him someone tangible to rage his quiet fury against, someone who wasn’t himself. And Michael hadn’t been ignorant of Cas’ resentment. He’d kept quiet about it for a while, about as long as could be expected, before finally asking Cas what he’d done. Cas is still embarrassed by the way he’d blown up, yelling at Michael every single bitter word that had built up inside him before announcing he was moving out and walking out the door. Of course, it was ten at night and he’d ended up sleeping in the downstairs foyer of Michael’s apartment building, but the next day he found a small apartment and wrote up a check for the first month’s rent out of the bank account that had been steadily filling up since he took Michael’s job offer.

Anna had been the one to call him, to tell him Michael was freaking out and that was when the guilt had come crashing over him, sending him straight back to Michael’s to apologize.

“So this Dean…” Michael had started, over coffee, and Cas had told him, “No. No let’s not talk about him.” Which had remained standard policy for the next six and a half years. Even Anna, who at first had been telling him to phone Dean nearly every time he spoke with her, gave up after a while. He wanted a clean break, and that’s what he got.

Dean never called him either, so there’s nothing to feel guilty about.

Working with Michael wasn’t exciting, or thrilling, and most days at first  it was difficult to find the energy to get out of bed, especially once he moved out to his own place and didn’t have a keurig to help wake him up in the mornings. But it was secure. It was safe. And it felt good to slowly but surely mend the bonds with his brother, to get over fights that never should have happened. To grow up.

So the last of his childhood dreams were buried under figures and sums, and Cas  immersed himself completely into the business world. And, as the weeks went by, it became easier, getting up and putting on a suit and tie.. No more heartbreak. No more missing the touch of calloused hands upon his skin, laughter lines beside green eyes. Dean, and everything he brought with him, was a distant chapter of another life, nothing to be afraid of.

Which is, of course, why it’s ridiculous to avoid New York. Even if he did happen to run into Dean again, it wouldn’t matter. He’s gotten past all that.

He only wishes he could believe it when he says it.

“Cas.” Michael nudges his foot under the table and he jolts back to the present, blinking up at their waitress, who’s standing at their table waiting with a patient smile. He panics--he hasn’t even looked at the menu yet. He flips open to a random page and stabs his finger down randomly.

“Oh...um...I’ll have...this,” he blurts out, flushing a little at the way Michael is laughing silently into his sleeve.

“The lobster ravioli?” the waitress asks, patient.

He hates eating lobster. “Um, no…” He flips the page and points to a lobster-less looking picture. “Um...I’ll have the four cheese ravioli, please.”

He hands the menu to the waitress with an apologetic smile. Across the table, Michael gives up on his silent laughter and snorts quietly into his glass of wine. Cas ignores him in favor of twisting in his seat to watch the exposed kitchen, lit up with people and noise and the fires in the large brick ovens.

After this trip, no more running, he tells himself firmly, as the cooks shout and the fire flickers in his eyes. Dean is out of your life and it’s better that way. You’ll survive. You’re good at that.

"We still have tonight to explore," Michael says, ten minutes later as he shovels a forkful of pasta into his mouth. "Any places you want to go?"

Cas shrugs as he spears a ravioli, staring down at his plate. “We can just walk around down here. There’s lots of shops and stuff.”

He hears Michael set down his fork, and there’s a moment of silence before Michael asks, “Are you okay, Castiel?”

Another shrug. “I’m fine. Just thinking.” Which is true.

He glances up at Michael, watches his brother worry his bottom lip with his teeth. “It isn’t…that person we’re never supposed to talk about?”

For a person who can be as bull-headed as Michael is, sometimes he displays the most unfortunate sort of insight. “No!” Cas shoots back, immediately realizing he’s given himself away by the way Michael raises one eyebrow and picks up his fork with practiced ease.

“Just making sure.”

Suddenly, Cas isn’t very hungry. He sets his fork and knife down at the side of his plate and sips moodily at his coffee. Michael catches sight of his face and sighs impatiently. “Cas.” His nickname now. Michael is worried.

“It’s nothing. Drop it. Please.”

Michael sighs again and continues eating in silence. Cas waits for him to finish in an irritable silence, knows he’s being childish but he’s tired, and frustrated, and really needs a drink he won’t allow himself to have. He’ll be childish, just for a few minutes.

“Do you want to go back to the hotel?” Michael asks quietly as they leave the restaurant, turning up their collars against the cold. The dejected tone in his voice spikes guilt through Cas’ stomach, and he shakes his head, trying to force the cloud of bad thoughts from his brain.  

“No. No. It’s fine. Let’s explore a bit, shall we?”  He forces the smile onto his face and turns the full brunt of it onto his brother, who raises one eyebrow but follows him back into the crowds--a little thinner now--anyways, pacified for now.

They head down towards Times Square, walking slowly and  admiring the displays in shop windows. As they move along, Cas’ mood begins to improve for real--it’s actually invigorating, being back in New York, and he’d forgotten how much he loved this city, the hustle of it, the sheer spectrum of humanity.

Michael grabs his shoulder and steers both of them into a clothing store to check out ties for a few minutes, which is boring, and then into another clothing store to look at suit jackets, which is worse.

“You’d look nice in a well-fitting suit,” Michael tells him pointedly. The battle over his clothing is an ongoing one. Cas draws his coat a little tighter around his body in response. He’s avoided getting a Michael makeover this far in his life, and he’s not planning on surrendering to one anytime soon.

It’s very difficult to ignore the excitement over Christmas out in the streets, and too much wine and cranberry cake is beginning to sound more and more amazing by the minute. Cas finds himself not only shedding his fake smile, but grinning, laughing even, as he and Michael continue down the sidewalk. “I’ve missed this place,” he tells Michael when he catches his brother giving him a weird look. “It’s so alive.”

“Uh huh.” Michael drops behind to gaze in a window Cas had ignored altogether, and doesn’t follow when Cas keeps walking, forcing him to stop and retrace his steps.

“What is it?” Cas asks, walking backwards until he can see the large painting lit up in the window, the shining wooden floors and white walls beyond it.

“An art gallery,” Michael tells him, and reaches for the door. “Just for a few minutes, come on.”

Cas sighs good-naturedly as he follows Michael inside. It’s never just for a few minutes, when it comes to Michael and art. It had taken them four days to go through the Boston MFA when they visited, and that was with Cas hurrying Michael along with every step. Left alone, his brother would probably take up residence in the place.  

He steps through the door  into warm air and the gentle sound of quiet conversation, instantly inviting. Soft mood music filters through the large, open space, in and among the various people admiring the art along the walls, and Cas can smell some sort of food wafting from the upstairs story, which extends over half the room, exposed with a single staircase leading up to it. Even more people than fill the downstairs mill about on the upper story  drinking wine out of shining glasses and snacking on the refreshments set up on white-clothed tables.

Cas’ shoes click on the floor as he walks forward, following Michael past the introductory signs, a wall of black text. A woman in a black suit rushes forward to offer them both a pamphlet, and Castiel takes it with a smile, before pocketing it as soon as he steps out of her sight. He makes it pretty much a rule to not show interest in art galleries these days.

It’s very busy, a couple of people in front of every painting hung on the walls. “Must be opening night,” Michael murmurs, before peeling away and walking over to a black and white charcoal sketch. Cas casts his eyes around the room, and heads over to an oil painting on the far wall that catches his attention with the flash of bright color. A blonde-haired woman, sitting on a swing and dragging her feet in the grass, laughing as she does so, among the greens and pinks and blues of spring. It's quite well done, actually, and Cas leans forward to admire the individual tufts of grass, the grace of her smile, the tumbles of hair over her shoulders. She looks familiar, for some reason, though he can't place it. He hears footsteps behind him, feels the presence behind his left shoulder, knows Michael is right there. “Looks like the artist is upstairs,” Michael tells him softly, before disappearing once again. Cas doesn't follow, choosing instead to move along to the next portrait, another of the blond haired woman, this time sitting on the hood of a black car, staring off into the distance. She's very pretty, Cas decides, leaning closer as another woman comes up beside him to study the same painting, pamphlet held open in her hands. Cas studies the painting for a moment more before backing away and looking around for Michael. He’s probably headed up to the second story, so Cas makes his way over to the stairs, climbs up with his hand tight around the railing. He doesn't like the open design of the staircase--it would be easy to fall.

The upstairs is packed with people, the air smells of perfume and sweat, and Cas immediately squeezes over to the refreshment tables, scanning the crowd for Michael. He spots his brother's dark hair over by the wall, and weaves his way towards him, murmuring apologies to every couple he cuts through. Michael catches sight of him and sends him a little wave, before continuing his conversation with another man, nearly half a head taller than Cas, with brown hair swept back into a ponytail. The man turns when Michael waves, smiling, and Cas rocks to a standstill, because it might have been seven years, but he knows Sam Winchester’s face instantly.

Suddenly it's perfectly clear why he recognizes the woman in the painting.

"Oh God," he whispers, and, ignoring Michael's questioning cry, turns back towards the staircase to make a break for it. But he never gets that far. He collides with the person who's come up behind him, reeling and staggering backward, mouth already spewing apologies. He brushes off his coat, looks up at the person he just barrelled into.

"Oh God," Cas says again, the pounding of blood in his head overwhelming the noise of the crowd. Dean stares back at him, familiar smile fading from his face, looking just as winded as Cas feels.

“Cas?” he asks, and his voice is deeper now, huskier than Cas remembers, and Cas feels like he can’t breathe.

It takes forever for him to line the sounds up on his tongue, distracted by the spattering of freckles across Dean's nose, the familiar wrinkles beside his eyes. "Yeah," he manages at last.

There is a God. There is a God, and God hates him.

His eyes are beginning to water from staring so long, and he blinks and looks away, catches sight of Michael coming up behind him, question written across his face. "You're the artist," Cas says, too loudly, far too loud, causing the people around them to stop their own conversations and glance over in curiosity. His eyes, unbidden, return to Dean, just in time to see Dean gather himself and reply, "Um…yeah. Yeah I am."

Cas can't think of anything else to say, and he retreats back into Michael's touch when he feels Michael's hand upon his shoulder. Sam, too, has joined them, and is watching with a disbelieving expression plastered across his face. "Cas?" Michael asks after a moment, "Who is this?"

Cas tries to gather the words, but Dean beats him to it, sticking out a hand--clean, not speckled with paint--to shake Michael's. "Dean Winchester," he says, and Cas feels Michael's gaze turn to him, hears his brother's quiet sound of understanding. "Oh."

"I'm…" Sam begins, and the three of them all turn their attention to him. Sam raises a hand to rub the back of his neck with discomfort. "I'm gonna go get more shrimp," he announces, and escapes through the crowd, as well as a man taller than everyone else can.

"Me too," Michael says, the traitor, and abandons them, heading for the refreshment tables with only one backwards glance, raising his eyebrows in Cas' direction. Cas tries to express his sheer panic at being left alone by widening his eyes and grimacing, but Michael either doesn't understand or ignores his plea for help, turning back around and disappearing.

Which leaves just him and Dean, silent amid a sea of sound. Cas keeps his eyes fixed firmly on Dean's shoes, red converse beneath his tan dress pants, the only piece of clothing he has on with the telltale paint stains, a blue spatter on the toe of his left foot.

Dean clears his throat, and Cas looks up at last, reads the nervousness in the way Dean's fingers twitch against his legs, the jump of his adam's apple in Dean's throat. "It's been a while," Dean says, and Cas almost laughs, because of the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. His lips quirk up before he can stop them, and Dean smiles a little too, letting out a disbelieving huff of air and shuffling his feet. "You look…" Dean starts, and pauses, rubs at his arm. "You look good, Cas," he finishes at last, and Cas blinks, throat suddenly feeling incredibly tight.

"You too," he says, voice catching, and Dean's eyes lock into his at the sound of his breath hitching.

"I…" Dean begins, and stops again, looking completely lost, and Cas can't blame him. "What are you doing back in New York?" he asks, and Cas gestures loosely towards the refreshments table.

"Conference. With Michael."

"Ah, so that's Michael."

Cas nods, and his eyes return to Dean's converse. He can't stop staring at that blue spatter of paint. Dean seems to catch on to his interest and pokes his left foot out a little farther so he can see the stain as well.

"Oops. Not very professional, I guess."

"No, no…" Cas blurts out, scrambling for what to say, "It's…it's just that I…" He swallows, tries to loosen the lump in his throat, and makes a vague motion with his hands out into the studio. "You made it," he says, gazing out across the paintings and sketches, so familiar now he can't believe he didn't recognize the style at once.

Dean laughs a little, soft and gentle. "Um, I guess. Yeah."

"I knew you would," Cas says quietly, and silence envelopes them once more.

Dean takes a step closer, and reaches out to lay a hand on Cas' arm. Cas jolts, and Dean withdraws his hand immediately, a pained expression crossing his face.

"Sorry," Cas mutters and Dean immediately stammers, "No, no, I'm sorry, I…" He gives a frustrated groan and runs a hand through his hair, over his face, hiding his eyes. His face has changed from how Cas remembers, leaner now, with stubble lining his jaw, freckles more pronounced, more lines around his mouth marking years of smiles.

“I’m making this really awkward,” Dean says, and Cas has to grin. He shrugs one shoulder.

“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be awkward no matter what.”

Dean laughs a little. “Yeah, you’re right.” He catches Cas’ eyes for just a moment, and Cas feels his breath catch a little. Apparently seven years wasn’t enough to cure him of the way Dean makes his heart jump up into his throat.

Someone laughs off to the side, loud and shrill and enough to shock them back to reality. They break eye contact, Dean rubbing at his arm and Cas sure his cheeks are turning bright pink. “It’s a bit crowded here, isn’t it?” Dean asks, and Cas shrugs again. “You wanna go somewhere quieter?” Dean asks, voice soft, more timid, and when Cas looks over at him again, he can read the nervousness written into the lines of Dean’ face, the way his thumb rubs relentlessly over his shirt cuff.

“That’d be nice,” he replies cautiously, and Dean’s face breaks into a wide smile.

“Awesome. Just let me tell Sam we’re…”

Cas is the one who reaches out this time, tugs at Dean’s elbow. “Shouldn’t you stay here at the gallery? It’s your show, I mean?”

Dean leans closer and grins, and Cas sucks in breath at the proximity. “Screw it,” he says, eyes bright, “What’s the point if I can’t skip out on my own show?”

Cas’ hand is still on Dean’s elbow, and he starts to draw it away, but Dean catches his hand, twines their fingers together. Cas glances up at him with surprise, but Dean only smiles, a little shy now, and turns, pulling Cas along behind him towards the stairs. With his other hand, he digs a cellphone out of his pocket and flips it open. “I’ll just text Sam, we’re getting out of here.”

Cas can’t help but feel exposed as Dean leads him down the stairs, sure that everyone in the gallery must notice their interlocked hands, but no one even stops them as they walk across the floor to the door. Dean lets go of Cas’ hand to push the door open, and Cas buttons up his coat against the cold as he steps outside. It’s snowing harder now, the flakes large and fluffy, floating down through the lights to land on the sidewalk. Cas turns back for Dean, who is typing out a text message. “‘kay,” Dean tells him after a few seconds, snapping the phone closed and slipping it back into his pocket. “Let’s go.”

Dean is only wearing a dress jacket, and he must be cold, but he doesn’t show it as they start along the sidewalk. Cas feels a little silly walking next to him, in his coat that reaches down past his knees, but Dean keeps glancing over to smile at him, and it’s all so surreal that he can’t worry about it for long. Half an hour ago, he never could have guessed this would happen, and now he’s walking side by side with Dean, almost like the years apart never even happened. A part of him wonders if this is a dream brought on by pre-conference stress, but the snowflakes are wet and cold where they land on his skin, Dean warm beside him.

It’s real. And Cas doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

“Where are we going?” he asks at one point, and Dean points up ahead.

“Coffee place up there. Best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.”

Other than that, they don’t talk much, but as they walk, Cas can already feel himself slipping into old thought patterns, feels the warmth blooming in his chest everytime he glances in Dean’s direction.

This was a bad idea.

Dean holds the door open for him when they reach the coffee shop, a hand hovering around the small of his back. It’s dark, and warm, and cozy, with wooden tables and a fake fireplace over in the corner. Many of the tables are already filled, people with snowflakes melting in their hair, pink flushed cheeks and fingers wrapped around hot drinks. Pieces of art decorate the walls, and Cas can already tell that this is a hub for the artsy types, a place for slam poetry and afternoons banging away at a laptop trying to write the next great American novel.

“That one’s mine,” Dean says at his side, pointing to one of the paintings. Cas shrugs his coat from his shoulders and peers closer.

“Charlie?” he asks, staring at the red-haired girl in the picture, sitting next to another girl, this one with dark eyes and hair.

“Charlie and her girlfriend, yeah.” Dean touches his arm lightly, to get his attention. “I’m gonna order, okay? You want to find a table?”

Cas nods, and scans the room for a free space. There’s a table for two tucked in the corner, over by the fireplace, and he makes his way over, squeezing between other tables and chairs. His coat goes folded over the back of his seat, and Cas sits, watching Dean order at the counter. He averts his eyes when Dean glances over--no reason to let Dean know he was staring.

It’s only a moment before Dean finds him, carrying two mugs in one hand and a plate in the other. “Ta-da!” he says as he places the mugs down on the table, along with what Cas sees now is a muffin.

“Okay,” Dean says, sitting down across from Cas, “Taste that and tell me it’s not the best hot chocolate you’ve ever tasted.”

Cas bites at his lip and smiles, pulling one of the mugs towards him and snagging a coster from the middle of the table. He lifts it to his lips and blows at the whipped cream before taking a sip. Thick and creamy and bitter with dark chocolate, sweetened by the whipped cream and, like Dean promised, probably the best hot chocolate he’s ever had. Cas shuts his eyes and feels the warmth billow up into his face as he drinks.

They’d made hot chocolate that one night he stayed at Dean’s for dinner, and Cas had beat him in the whipped cream fight. The memory is perfect in his mind, crystalline. He’d sat on top of Dean’s chest, out of breath, both from the fight and from laughter, and Dean had smiled up at him even as he struggled to get up.

Dean muffles a snort when he sets the mug back down, and Cas sighs in mock exasperation. “I have whipped cream on my nose, don’t I?”

“Yeah, you do. Come here.” Dean reaches across the table as Cas leans in, and rubs his thumb over the tip of Cas’ nose. Cas goes still with surprise, but Dean simply sits back and picks up his own mug to drink. After a moment, Cas does the same.

He’s not sure what to make of any of this. Dean grabbing his hand, cleaning his face. Inviting him here. Maybe it could be read as Dean simply wanting to catch up, but then why does this feel much more like a date than anything else?

He glances up from his hot chocolate, where the whipped cream is slowly melting into the drink, just in time to catch Dean watching him, a small smile on his face. Instead of glancing away, though, Dean holds his eyes, and his smile widens. He pushes the plate with the muffin in Cas’ direction. “Thought we could share this too. It’s good, trust me. Blueberry.”

“Thanks,” Cas murmurs, and reaches out to tear a piece of the muffin off. It is good, and he hums and nods while chewing. Dean just grins again, and reaches out to grab a piece for himself.

“So,” Cas begins, after a moment, casting around for a topic of conversation, “How’s Sam doing?”

Dean holds up one finger and swallows before answering. “Sam’s good,” he says. “He’s in his last year of law school. Engaged to this great girl. Basically the asshole who has his whole life together at twenty-five.”

Cas smiles. “Good for him.”

Dean rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Yeah, he did good. His fiance, Jess, god, she’s great. You two should meet sometime.”

Cas takes another drink of his hot chocolate, and sets the mug down on the coaster. “Maybe it’ll happen,” he says noncommittally. “So what about you?”

“What about me?”

“How’s...everything? Life?”

Dean shrugs, and glances around the coffee shop. “It’s...can’t complain, I guess.”

Cas hums, and stares down at  the table, eyes tracing the grain of the wood. “I thought…” he starts, clears his throat, and tries again, “That didn’t sound as happy as I thought it would.”

Dean blinks, and his eyebrows furrow. “What was that?”

“It’s just…” Cas frowns and sighs, wrapping his hands around his mug. “It seems like everything worked out just the way you wanted it. I mean, your work is getting shown in downtown New York galleries. That’s...huge.”

Dean’s brow smooths out, and he nods. “I mean, yeah. In terms of my career, it’s fucking insane.” A small smile flickers across his face, sad and small, before it disappears once more. “But I guess I found out that all your dreams coming true doesn’t necessarily make you happy.”

Cas opens his mouth to reply, but nothing comes out. There’s not really anything he can say.   

Dean goes quiet, and the two of them sit in silence for a few minutes, listening to the music filtering in through the sound of low chatter from other patrons and the clink and buzz of activity behind the counter.

“I really missed you Cas.”

“What?” His head jerks up, just as Dean reaches across the table and takes his hand. Dean smiles that sad little smile again, and squeezes Cas’ hand.

“I missed you a lot.”

“I…” He blinks rapidly, and forces the words out from his mouth. “I missed you too.”

Dean nods, and looks down at their hands, starts to rub his thumb along Cas’ fingers. “Is this okay?” he asks.

“Yeah, yes, I…” Cas groans and shuts his eyes. “Yes, it is.”

“There’s no one you’re…”

“No one,” Cas says, and reopens his eyes, just in time to see the relief flood Dean’s face. “Dean…I…” He drops his voice. “What are we doing?”

Dean tilts his head slightly to the side, tongue darting out to lick his lips as he stares at the way their fingers lie entwined on the table. “I don’t know,” he admits at last, and looks up at Castiel. “I’m kinda making it up as I go.”

It’s Cas turn to stare down at their hands, at the tender way Dean strokes his thumb across his fingers, over and over and over. He can still remember how gentle Dean’s hands had felt, cupping the sides of his face, as Dean’s lips moved over his.

“What about you, Cas?” Dean asks, “Are you happy?”

No, he wants to scream. No, no, no, no, no. He shrugs instead, and knows from the look in Dean’s eyes that Dean knows what his answer is. He pulls his hand away from Dean and picks up his mug again, refusing to look at Dean again. Dean could always read him far too well.

“Cas,” Dean whispers, and when Cas doesn’t look at him, Dean reaches out once more, fingers wrapping around Cas’ wrist. “Cas.”

“What?” he says, around the lump in his throat. He blinks again, eyes burning.

“Come home with me,” Dean replies, in a whisper, and he drops his hand from Cas’ wrists, fingers trailing all the way down his arm.

“What?” Cas asks again, shock making him look back to Dean’s face. Dean bites at his lip and rubs the back of his neck.

“Look, I know it probably seems...dumb, okay I get that. But it’s been seven years since I saw you and I might not get another chance.” His voice breaks on the last word, and Cas sets his mug down, catches Dean’s hands himself, squeezing tight. “And…” Dean begins again, looking Cas straight in the eye, “And I feel like we never even got a chance, Cas. We never got a chance and...I’ll always feel like…” He casts helplessly for the words, but Cas shushes him before he can begin again.

“No. I--I get it. I really do.” He squeezes Dean’s hands a little tighter, and smiles, a tight little smile. Because he does. It’s the reason why all he has in his ledger is a bunch of one-night stands, no lasting relationship with anyone he meets, no desire for anything that will take more than a couple of hours. Because a part of him has always felt like he’d be giving up on Dean, like he’d be accepting the fact that Dean and him is something that will never work out.  

Maybe this is what he needs. One night with Dean, to clear everything out of the way, to play this relationship through to the end and then leave, leave and forget, and move on.

“Okay,” he agrees, a bit breathlessly, nodding at Dean. “I’ll come home with you.”

One night. That's all they have to get over each other. And then back out of each other’s lives forever.

 


 

“You’ve moved up,” Cas comments as Dean leads him into the foyer of his apartment building. It’s clean, and bright, with a shiny metal elevator instead of dusty stairs.

“I’ve been lucky,” Dean tells him with a grin, squeezing Cas’ hand. He hasn’t let go of Cas’ hand since they left the coffee shop, except to pay the cabbie, and when Cas had texted Michael to tell him to head back to the hotel without him. Dean pulls him across the lobby towards the elevator, and punches the button. After a moment of waiting, the elevator beeps, and the doors slide open. It’s empty, and Dean smiles as he leads Cas inside and presses the button for the fourteenth floor. The doors hiss shut behind them, and the elevator jerks as it begins its ascent. Cas flushes pink under Dean’s gaze, but he can’t help but grin as he glances away towards the buttons.

The elevator slows and stops, and the doors reopen, letting them out into a carpet-covered hallway. Dean is already fumbling for his keys in his pants pocket as he heads down the hall. Cas frees his hand from Dean’s grip so he can pull his coat off while Dean unlocks the first door they come to and lets them both inside.

Cas glances around the apartment as Dean locks the door behind them and turns on the lights, whistling softly. It’s a huge place, all state-of-the-art kitchen appliances and a gleaming wooden floor. Paintings line the walls, taking up any free space there is, splashes of color, black and white, all over the apartment. From where he stands, Cas can see into a large living space, packed with chairs and a sofa, as well as the doorway to two bedrooms, one of which he can make out an easel and half-finished painting--Dean’s studio.  

“Can I get you anything?” Dean asks, slipping off his shoes and taking Cas’ jacket from him. Cas shakes his head as he bends over to untie his shoes and leave them beside Dean’s against the wall.

“No, I’m good.” He straightens up, and smiles at Dean, and that’s when Dean leans forward and kisses him, chaste and short, as his hands bracket Cas against the wall. His lips taste like chapstick and hot chocolate. He pulls away, and Cas stares at him, breath coming quickly now. Dean smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkling, and leans in once more.

The kiss is longer this time, and Cas fists his hands in Dean’s jacket, keeping him close. Dean is just an inch or two taller than him, so Cas barely has to tilt his head back to capture Dean’s mouth with his own--deep, drugging kisses that leave him breathless. Dean smiles against his lips and kisses his way down to Cas’ jaw, lips moving against the hint of stubble there.

“What you say we take this to the couch?” Dean asks, breath tickling Cas’ neck, and Cas nods, hands migrating to Dean’s collar to pull him back up for one more kiss before they untangle themselves and head for the living area, Dean pausing to turn on the lamp on the table. Cas has barely managed to sink into the cushions of the couch before Dean is kissing him again, hands cupped around his face just the way Cas remembers. Cas shuffles down sideways so he lies on the couch with Dean on top of him, a reassuring weight as Dean continues his task of kissing his way down Cas’ neck. His hands hover in the air for just a moment before finding the small of Dean’s back and pressing him close.

Dean’s fingers are already tugging at the buttons around his collar, and Cas arches his head back to give him better access. Part of him wonders if maybe they should take this slow, but the much larger part of him argues they have limited time, and there’d be no use wasting time on formalities. The buttons come undone, one by one, and then Dean is pushing the shirt from his arms, pulling Cas up off the couch for just a moment to yank the shirt out from under him and toss it to the next chair over. Cas takes the opportunity to press gentle kisses to the edge of Dean’s mouth as he slips Dean’s suit jacket from his shoulders and deposits it on the floor.

“We going too fast?” Dean asks, breathless, as Cas lines a trail of kisses down Dean’s neck to where his collarbone pokes out from under his tee-shirt.

“One night,” Cas grunts, trying to move the pillow behind his back to a more comfortable position without taking his lips from Dean’s skin. “Can’t go too fast, really.”

“Yeah, okay,” Dean agrees, and reaches down to pull Cas’ undershirt over his head. Cas makes an unhappy sound when it drags him away from his close study of Dean’s collarbone, and Dean laughs, the sound vibrating against Cas’ chest. Now, pressed so close, Cas realizes Dean hadn’t been able to completely cleanse himself of the smell of paint. It lingers on his skin, speaking of long hours in the studio, Dean losing himself over to what he loves to do.

Dean sits up , hovering above Cas and smiling down at him. “What?” Cas asks, and Dean shrugs, before one hand begins tracing down Cas’ chest, making him squirm.

“Nothin’. Come here.” Dean gets up off of Cas and tugs him upright, sitting down on the couch himself and pulling Cas back towards him. Cas hits the couch with his knees, perches there on the cushions, and takes Dean’s face gently in between his palms. Dean leans forward, but Cas is the one to close the distance, pressing their mouths together and sighing a little at how good it feels, to have Dean pressed up against him like this. Dean's hands, after a moment of immobility, land on his legs, one skirting almost immediately to his hip, massaging the warm skin beneath his fingers. "God, Cas…" Dean whispers, and Cas shushes him, kisses him again, anchoring them together as Dean grips his thigh and tugs him over, so Cas sits half in Dean's lap, straddling his thigh. It's enough of a height advantage for Cas to tilt Dean's head back, trace his jaw with his fingertips, kiss him over and over and over, kisses that have them both gasping, electrifying kisses. Cas can’t remember the last time he felt so lit up, so full of life and energy. He moans into Dean’s mouth, feels the way Dean reacts beneath him, body jolting, one hand slipping to Cas’ back to hold him steady.

“Fuck,” Dean gasps when he pulls his head away, ducking his head to kiss down Cas’ neck, right above his pulse point, and Cas is sure the sound of his heartbeat must be deafening. He rocks his hips against Dean’s stomach, feels the blood rush downwards. Dean works his way back to Cas’ mouth, desperate and needy, while his other hand travels to Cas’ thigh, around to his ass, playing with the buttons on his pockets. He shifts, and Cas clings to him while Dean does so, until he's lying on his back once more and Dean is hovering over him, and then Dean is pressing playful kisses to his cheek, under his ear, and Castiel can't breathe for how good it feels.

"God," he splutters, and Dean laughs against his collarbone, fingers working at the clasp of his pants, ghosting over the bulge there. Dean leans back to strip the pants from Cas’ legs, with a shock of chill, but Dean’s hands are back on him immediately, warm and desperate, clutching at his shoulders, his hips, his thighs, playing with the waist of his briefs.

"Painted you naked a hundred times," Dean gasps into his ear, mouthing at the sensitive hollow behind it. "Never thought I'd get to feel it."

"You can…" Castiel breaks off with a moan when Dean's lowers his body down and the rough fabric of his jeans rubs along his skin. He feels so exposed like this, and he shouldn't, he shouldn't, not when Dean has studied his body in every way, but it feels different with Dean's hands sneaking around to cup at his backside, Dean's tongue tracing wet lines down his neck. "You can feel a lot more of me if you want," he finishes, and Dean pulls back to grin cheekily at him.

"Cocky," he says, and Cas laughs.

"It wasn't a hundred times anyway," he says, pausing to kiss Dean's cheek, feeling the slight stubble beneath his lips, inhaling the smell of aftershave. "Forty, maybe."

"Whatever." Dean pulls away, kisses his way down Cas' stomach, and Cas squirms beneath Dean's hands as they trail down his sides. Usually, around this point, is when he’s hit with the crippling awareness of his physical flaws, the slight pudge around his stomach he’s developed, the scar on his right thigh from a boxcutter three years ago. But Dean takes it all in, eyes sweeping up and down Cas’ body. "Jesus, you're fucking gorgeous," Dean breathes at last, and Cas feels the tension leave his muscles, rolls his eyes with playful exasperation.

"Shut up."

"You shut up," Dean shoots back, and throws himself back onto Cas, landing on him with an ‘oomph’ and a laugh. Cas takes his face in both hands, kisses him again, smiles against his grin.

"You haven't changed, have you?" he asks quietly, and Dean kisses the tip of his nose, shrugs one shoulder.

"I have more money now. Does that count?"

Cas shakes his head. "That doesn't change who you are."

Dean makes a face and lets his jean clad legs slide to either side of Cas' bare ones. "Just kiss me, okay? We only have until, what is it? Nine-thirty tomorrow morning?"

Cas stares up at him, reaches out and strokes his hand down Dean's cheek, studies the way his face shifts in the shadows. "I can stretch it until ten," he whispers, and Dean laughs, before lowering his head to kiss him again. His hands begin to play once more around the waistband of Cas' briefs, and Cas lifts his hips so Dean can pull them away.

"Just like old times," Dean jokes, and Cas shakes his head with a grin.

"Why am I the only one naked here?" He tucks his hands beneath Dean's shirt, pulls it from his jeans, gets a hand on the flat expanse of Dean's stomach, maybe a little more to it than when they were younger, but beautiful still. “Okay, pants off, come on!”

“You’re bossy!” Dean laughs and reaches to pull away his belt and undo his zipper.

“You love it.” Cas props himself up on his elbows so he can pay Dean’s nipples a bit of proper attention. Dean gasps when Cas’ tongue darts out to lave over his right nipple, and scootches his pants off even faster, landing back on Cas and drawing his head back up for a proper kiss, opening his mouth and taking Cas’ tongue inside. Cas rolls his hips upward, his nakedness against Dean’s boxers, the friction of the cloth making him groan into Dean’s mouth. Dean grins against his lips, and snakes his arm down between them, taking Cas in hand and stroking.

“Fu-fuck!” Cas gasps, and Dean kisses the corners of his eyes, the expression on his face far too sweet, far too doting, for what they’re doing.

“I gotcha,” he whispers, head dropping down to Cas’ shoulder, kissing at the junction between his neck and collar. “Relax, I gotcha.”

Cas lets his head fall back, concentrates on breathing as Dean’s fingers dance up and down his shaft, as Dean besieges his neck and jaw with kisses. His legs shift restlessly, hips trying to thrust up into Dean’s touch, and Dean laughs fondly against his jaw, kisses the corner of his mouth again, his eyelids.

“Missed you so much, Cas,” he whispers, tightening his hand and stroking his thumb just so, making Cas gasp and jerk upwards. “That’s it, babe.”

“Babe?” Cas asks, frowning a bit even as Dean repeats the move with his thumb, and Dean laughs, breath hot against Cas’ face.

“Not babe?”

Cas makes a face, and Dean laughs, again, kisses him until Cas has to smile, chuckling into Dean’s mouth.

His erection has flagged in the meantime, but when Dean reaches his hand down once more Cas stops him. “Wait. Just…hold on.” He pushes himself up on his elbows, drags Dean back down to kiss the end of his nose playfully. “I don’t want my first time with you to be a handjob on the couch,” he tells Dean softly, watching the worry lines that had appeared on Dean’s face fade away.

“What do you want to do then?” Dean asks, and Cas shrugs.

“I don’t know. Just...not this.” He glances up at Dean, biting at his lip. He’s a bit worried he’s killed the mood, but Dean just smiles down at him, and rubs their noses together.

“Okay, tell you what,” Dean suggests, sliding his arms beneath Cas’ shoulders and kissing him again. “I’d love to have you fuck me. Give me ten minutes to prep and we’ll readjourn in the bedroom, okay?”

Cas almost chokes on his own spit. Dean whacks him on the back when he has to sit up and cough.

“Was that a yes, then?” Dean asks, laughter playing around the corners of his eyes, and Cas nods, eyes watering. “What a compliment!” Dean chuckles, and climbs off the couch. Cas stays behind, watching Dean walk into the bedroom, and soon he hears the showerhead running.

He gathers all his clothes up from where they’ve been tossed, and heads into the bedroom himself, holding the bundle of clothes to cover himself and knowing it doesn’t matter even as he does so. The door to the master bath is closed, so Cas sets his clothes on a chair in the corner and looks around the room.  There’s the bed, to start with, queen sized with a bunch of throw pillows that look distinctly un-Dean-like. The band posters up along the walls, interspersed with the paintings, look much more like him, and Cas smiles when he sees the AC-DC poster hanging in the place of honor above the bed headboard. The bed has a side table on either side, each adorned with a lamp, and when Cas looks closer, he recognizes the picture of the Winchester family set on the right table.

Cas sits down on the bed, immediately sinking into the plushy material, and continues his tour of the room. There’s a closet on one wall, slightly ajar, and Cas grins when he sees the pile of clothes almost hidden by the door. There’s the messy Dean he remembers.

The paintings hung around the room are both in color and black and white. Sketches, he supposes. Not technically paintings. He recognizes a few familiar faces. A couple more of Dean’s mom, and a charcoal sketch of his father. Dean’s friends, from what feels like forever ago. Cas tries to remember their names as he sits there. A painting of Benny, in his signature hat. Another of Charlie and Jo, he’s sure her name was. Victor and Jo, sitting next to each other with her head on his shoulder.

Cas turns his head to follow the pictures around the wall, but his eye catches on a sketch in the corner, almost hidden by the large oil painting beside it. He stands up, and walks over to study it more closely.

He hears the bathroom door open and Dean’s footsteps coming up behind him, but he doesn’t turn around, not even when Dean’s arms snake up around him and pull him back into Dean’s chest, not when Dean buries his face in the crook of Cas’ neck and kisses the exposed skin there.

“You kept it,” Cas whispers, reaching out one hand to hover inches away from the drawing of his own face--eyes closed, face turned towards the light, a slight smile dancing at the corners of his mouth, all captured within the strokes of Dean’s pencil.

Dean props his chin on Cas’ shoulder, gives him a little squeeze. “Of course I did.”

Warmth blossoms deep within his belly, and he turns in Dean’s arms, captures Dean’s mouth with his own. Dean grins against his lips, pulling Cas’ naked body against his own and beginning to walk them both towards the bed. They collapse into the mattress, sheets billowing up around them, and Dean is beneath him, bright-eyed and laughing like no time has passed at all, touching Cas like he’s made of something beautiful.

Cas explores Dean’s body with fingers and tongue, maps the constellations between the freckles on his back, searches for the places that make Dean squirm--the hollow behind his knee, the dip of his hipbones, nipples that grow pert and hard when Cas’ tongue reaches them. Dean pulls at him, gasps for breath, returns touch for touch, kiss for kiss, makes his way around a body he memorized seven years ago already, makes Cas cry out so loudly Dean laughs and muffles his sounds with his mouth, licking inside. Dean wraps his legs around Cas’ waist, flips them over so Cas is sprawled over his sheets, chest heaving.

“What time is it?” Cas asks, in one of the quiet moments, with Dean’s hand stroking him with a steady rhythm as his own fingers work lazily inside of Dean, opening him up even more than Dean had while prepping. Dean makes a small sound as Cas adds a third finger, but glances over to the clock on the bedside table anyway.

“Eleven,” he whispers, reaching with his other hand to run his fingers through Cas’ hair. “Lot’s of time.”

Lube ends up smearing all over both his hands when Cas squeezes the tube too hard, and Dean laughs and kisses Cas again, and again, and again, smearing the extra lube between them until they’re both sticky and gross and giggling like children. Dean licks his way down Cas’ body, swirls his tongue over Cas’ hipbones, licks him from root to tip, paying special attention to the vein on the underside that makes Cas buck and whine as his erection grows.

Dean rolls a condom onto Cas while Cas works four fingers inside of Dean, lying beneath him on the bed with arm twisted around to reach. Dean takes Cas’ face in his hands once more, kisses him breathless, before rearing back and taking Cas in hand, sinking down slowly and with only a few small winces of discomfort. Cas surges up to kiss the lines away from his eyes, even as the sensation of being buried inside makes his legs feel like jelly, and Dean smiles back at him, places his hands on Cas’ shoulders, and waits until he’s fully seated in Cas’ lap. “You ready?” he whispers, and Cas kisses him again, making Dean shift in his lap and give a small gasp.

“Ready,” he whispers between kisses, hands wandering down to clutch at Dean’s hips.

Dean starts slow at first, hands pushing down at Cas’ shoulders as he moves, sharp bursts of breath breaking through his lips when he rocks back and forth, guided by Cas’ hands on him. Cas’ head falls back into the pillows, and Dean leans forward to kiss up along his neck just as Cas starts to thrust his hips up. Dean moans against Cas’ pulse point, tongue darting out to leave a wet trail all the way up to the hollow behind his ear.

Cas’ vision is blurring at the edges and he takes his hands from Dean’s hips to grapple at his face, drawing Dean up and pressing their foreheads together as he stares into Dean’s eyes, mouth gaping and gasping. He can’t feel anything but Dean pressed all along him, warm and heavy and real, realer than any of the times he’s imagined what this moment would have been like. Dean smells like sex and sweat and soap, his body in constant motion, hips swivelling, eyes falling halfway shut with every thrust Cas makes inside of him. His hands find Cas’ splayed out on the pillows, and he interlaces their fingers as he begins to move faster, drawing the small cries from both of them, harsh expulsions of air.

“I gotcha, I gotcha,” Dean murmurs, over and over, voice rough and breathless. He slows his movements, grins as Cas moans, keeps him strung out and feeling like his very veins are on fire, heat pooling in his belly and threatening to explode. Cas gives him his ‘you’re not being funny’ face, and Dean just laughs, slowing down even more and lifting up so only the very tip of Cas’ cock is inside him. Cas shifts his feet on the covers to get the leverage to jerk his hips up, driving into Dean once more, and Dean shudders and gasps, collapsing onto Cas’ chest. “Right there,” he moans, as Cas repeats the motion, plunging into Dean’s heat again and again, eyes shut tight and chest feeling like it’s about to burst. He gets his hands back on Dean’s hips, uses his grip to shift Dean back and forth on his cock, brushing against that spot that makes Dean keen with every thrust. Dean clenches around him and Cas cries out, tossing his head back and exposing his neck to Dean’s lips, velvet soft against the underside of his jaw, whispering meaningless words with every breath Dean has to spare. “Beautiful, you’re beautiful Cas. Want you always like this. Want you always. I gotcha, I gotcha, we’re okay, you’re okay, come on, let it happen…”

Cas takes one hand from Dean’s hips and sneaks it between the two of them instead, taking Dean in hand and stroking up and down the shaft, thumbing over the slit and tracing along veins, smearing precome along the length. Dean gives a loud groan and leans over to kiss Cas deeply, sucking his lip into his mouth and biting gently, playfully. Cas twists his wrist and Dean shudders, hands clinging to Cas’ shoulders. Cas works his hand quicker and quicker, forehead pressed to Dean’s, watching him fall apart with every flick of his fingers, every thrust of his hips.

“Cas, fuck, I’m…”

Cas thrusts up, hard and deep, and Dean comes with a cry, spurting come all over his own stomach and Cas’. Cas works him all the way through it, hand never stopping, watching as Dean’s face goes lax, mouth opening in a soundless yell. Finally, Dean collapses onto Cas' chest, hands clutching at his shoulders and breath coming hard and fast. "Fuck," he says at last, and turns his head so he can rub their noses together. He smells like sex and sweat, and Castiel wants to clutch him tight and hold him there forever. Dean shifts in his lap and bites at his lip when Cas’ still-hard cock jostles inside him. Cas sucks in breath and tries not to move. Dean is oversensitive right now, and Cas doesn’t want to hurt him. He yelps with surprise when Dean grabs his shoulders and rolls them over neatly, Cas landing on top of him with an ‘oomph’. Dean grins up at him, smile sleepy and sated. “Go for it,” Dean tells him, hands skirting down Cas’ sides to his hipbones, fitting to his sides and guiding him into motion once more. Cas squeezes his eyes shut and hides his face in Dean’s neck as he pushes in and draws back out, each movement making the heat in his stomach flare.

After a few minutes, he feels his orgasm take over, and buries himself one last time inside Dean when he comes with a shudder, emptying into the condom. Dean’s hands stroke over his back, and Dean presses kisses over his eyelids. “Come on Cas. That’s it.”

He pulls out slowly when his orgasm has wrung him dry, flops back onto the bed and into Dean’s arms. Dean kisses his forehead and holds him tight. “You’re shivering,” he murmurs, wrapping one leg around Cas’ and grabbing for the blanket to cover them. Dean’s come is sticky between them, and really they should clean off, but Cas doesn’t think that his legs would even support him to stand up, let alone go get a cloth.

“Hey.” Dean’s hands, warm on the sides of his face, turning his head so Dean can stare into his eyes. “You okay?”

Cas shuts his eyes and smiles, a small, content smile. "That was good," he whispers, for lack of anything else to say, and he hears Dean chuckle, feel the kiss on his brow as Dean shifts his grip to hold Cas even closer.

"Only good?"

“Mmm...’mazing,” Cas corrects himself with a little yawn. Dean laughs again, kisses his lips, his cheek, the corners of his eyes.

“Come on, sleepy, let’s get you cleaned up.”

Cas whines when Dean extracts himself from underneath him, taking Cas by the hand and dragging him out of bed as well. Dean leads them into the master bath and starts the shower while Cas waits, wrapping his arms tight around himself to keep warm. When the water has heated up enough, Dean ushers him inside and closes the curtain. Cas sighs when he steps under the stream of water, feeling the rivulets make their way down his body. He shuts his eyes and turns his face upwards, spluttering when he needs to breathe, and smiles when he feels Dean come up behind him. He turns in Dean’s arms and kisses him, there beneath the falling water, until neither of them can breathe at all and they have to break apart. Dean soaps up a loofah with lavender smelling soap and scrubs it all over Cas’ body, from his neck to his feet, cleaning the come from his stomach and letting soapy water work its way into every crevice. He presses Cas against the wall and kisses him hard while his fingers trail down his spine and then further still, making Cas wriggle and gasp out Dean’s name. Dean kisses down his neck while one finger works its careful way inside, making Cas’ legs feel like jelly, until he has to drag Dean up just to stay upright. He takes the lavender soap in hand and lathers all over Dean’s shoulders, his chest, down to his fingers and all across his chest. As he cleans the soap away from Dean’s stomach, Cas drops to his knees and reacquaints himself to Dean’s hipbones, swirling his tongue around them and kissing all around Dean’s cock, until Dean threads his fingers in Cas’ hair and smiles down at him, thumbs smoothing along his cheeks, catching at the stubble.

They stay in the shower until the bathroom is filled with steam and their fingers are beginning to wrinkle like raisins. Dean grabs his towel from the nearby hanger as soon as the water is shut off, goes to the cupboard to grab another towel for Cas. He throws it onto Cas’ head and dries his hair rigorously, laughing when Cas reappears from under the towel with his hair sticking almost straight up. Cas steps out of the tub and crowds Dean into the counter, kissing him again and again and again. He places his hands on the steamed-up mirror to stay steady, and when Dean ducks out from under his arms to grab his toothbrush, Cas tears his hand away, watches his reflection in the clear spot his handprint left behind, watches Dean come up behind him once more and slip his arms around Cas’ waist with his chin tucked over Cas’ shoulder. Dean holds up a toothbrush, still in the wrapping, in front of his face, and Cas takes it with a ‘thank you’, ripping away the wrapper as Dean takes his own toothbrush from the holder by the sink. They brush their teeth with extra minty toothpaste, and when they tumble back into the bed together, Dean’s kisses still taste of it.

“What time is it?” Cas asks once again, when they’ve found themselves buried in blankets and sheets in the middle of Dean’s beds, all wrapped up in each other. Dean glances over to the clock--the only lit up thing in the room--and lays his head back down. “Quarter-past twelve. Lots of time.”

It’s not lots of time. It’s barely enough. Not enough. Not enough when Cas wants to stay here forever, with Dean’s arms tight around him and Dean’s minty kisses still sparkling on his lips. But he nods and smiles, and pillows his head with Dean’s shoulder. Dean’s hand comes up to comb through his hair, and Cas grabs onto his other hand, playing with Dean’s fingers.

Dean chuckles, jostling Cas on his shoulder. “What are you doing?”

Cas hums, and threads their fingers together, holding their hands up in front of them. “Looking at your hands.”

“I got that part. Why?”

Cas turns his head so he can press a kiss to Dean’s jaw. “Because your hands were the first thing I loved about you,” he whispers, and feels Dean still for a moment, before Dean is taking Cas’ face in those very hands and kissing him--a slow, inevitable sort of kiss that speaks more than hours upon hours of empty words. Dean wraps his arms around Cas’ waist, and Cas rolls to straddle Dean beneath the sheets, never breaking their lips apart as he reaches to take both Dean’s hands in his and pin them to the mattress.

“Cas?” Dean whispers against his mouth.

“Yes?”

“Why aren’t you happy?”

Cas blinks, and frowns, even as he allows Dean to guide his head back down to his shoulder,wrapping the blankets more securely around them. “Why do you ask that?”

“Because you’re not.” Dean’s fingers begin a steady pattern, up and down his neck, barely-there touch. “Because I hate to think you’ll leave here tomorrow and be miserable for the rest of your life.”

Then maybe I should stay here forever. “I’ll be okay,” he says, burrowing further into the warm hollow of Dean’s neck. “I’m all grown up now, remember?”

“I’m all grown up and my mom still decorated my bedroom,” Dean shoots back, and Cas muffles a laugh into his hand.

“I thought it looked a bit Martha Stewart.”

“Oh shut up,” Dean tells him fondly, kissing his forehead.

Cas smiles, hidden from Dean’s eyes in the dark. “If you say so.” He wraps his arms around Dean’s chest, listens as Dean begins to hum soft melodies, and falls asleep with Dean’s steady breathing as a lullaby.

 


 

Dean wakes him with kisses, up and down his shoulders, all the way down his spine. He opens his eyes in the darkness of the room, yawns into the pillow clutched in his arms. “Dean?”

Another kiss, right in the dip of his back. “Yeah, it’s me,” Dean murmurs against his skin, shifting beneath the blankets to get even lower. Cas wriggles when he feels Dean’s hot breath against the mounds of his ass, and Dean chuckles, soft and affectionate, as his hands pull Cas apart, exposing him to the air. “This okay?”

Cas nods into the pillow before he realizes Dean can’t see him, shuts his eyes and mumbles, “Please.”

Dean’s fingers are gentle as they hold him open, and his tongue is warm when he leans down and laps over Cas’ hole. Cas whimpers and squirms under Dean’s grip, breath coming out ragged, and Dean laughs quietly before repeating the action. He alternates between gentle licks over Cas’ hole and dipping his tongue inside, careful probing licks that light Cas up from the inside out as he muffles whines into the pillow, legs stirring restlessly and fingers clenching helplessly at the bed sheets.

He bites down a yelp when Dean slips his tongue inside, and moans when a solitary finger works its way beside. Dean licks steadily around his rim, spit running down his chin and dripping cool onto Cas’ legs as he opens Cas up, first with one finger, then with two. Cas’ erection is trapped between his stomach and the mattress, and when he reaches a hand down to touch it, Dean raises his head and grabs his hand with his own. “No,” he whispers, slipping his fingers out and making Cas whimper, “No, just me, okay?”

Cas nods, and wraps both arms tight around his pillow, waits for Dean to locate the bottle of lube on the bedside table and smear it over his fingers so he can work in two again, and then three. His tongue dips down to tease along Cas’ perineum, fingers pumping in and out of him now, twisting and stretching him open.

“I’m ready,” Cas tells Dean, raising his ass a little into the air, and Dean’s fingers pull out. Cas positions himself onto his knees while Dean pulls on a condom. Cas waits for the usual last-minute panic that sets in when he bottoms--afraid of the pain, afraid of being too exposed--but it doesn’t come. Dean lays himself over Cas, kisses his shoulders, the back of his neck, works his fingers back inside and crooks them just so, massages the spot until Cas is trembling and only then does he line himself up and slowly work himself in, inch by inch, until he’s buried inside, and Cas can’t feel anything but Dean, like wildfire along like senses, fireworks in his blood. He buries his face in the pillow as the small, helpless sounds escape his mouth, and Dean respond by kissing him all over his shoulders, running his hands over Cas’ hips, his stomach, thumbing over his nipples and caressing his collarbone.

“Should be you and me, Cas,” Dean whispers, as he begins to roll his hips, easy tempo, pleas falling from Cas’ lips. “Should be you and me together, always.”

“Yes,” Cas agrees, going limp under Dean’s hands, just like remembers them, all covered in paint and touching him like he’s something beautiful. “Yes, always.”

He whines when Dean pulls out, but Dean is quick to flip him over onto his back, grab Cas’ legs and hoist them up so he can fit himself inside once again, falling into Cas’ chest and kissing him hard, kissing all the words out of his mouth, the breath from his lungs. Kisses him until Cas is crying out and coming between them, eyes blown wide while Dean thrusts inside him, until Dean is shuddering and nestling himself into the cocoon of Cas’ arms as he comes as well.

“Always,” Dean whispers, kissing Cas’ closed eyelids, and Cas smiles, pulls Dean closer. He can already feel himself falling back into sleep, with Dean so warm against him.

Safe, he realizes, he feels safe. Secure.

The reason he’d left in the first place was for the promise of security, a future. Funny to think he feels safer now in Dean’s arms than he ever did in Chicago.

 


 

The smell of cooking is what wakes him this time, floating through the air and curling tantalizingly beneath his nose. Cas groans and stretches, joints popping and limbs twisting in the sheets, trapping him. He opens his eyes the barest crack, glaring at the offending blankets and giving up, flopping back into the warm pillows. He turns his head to seek out Dean, but he’s not there. Cooking, duh.

Dean must have cleaned him off as well, because his stomach is clear of any evidence of their nocturnal activities.  Cas rubs a hand over his face and sits up a little, staring out the door towards the rest of the apartment. It’s then that Dean appears in the doorway, wearing a bathrobe and slippers but nothing else. His eyes go soft when he sees Cas is awake. “Hey you,” he says, twirling the spatula in his hand as he crosses the room to sit on the edge of the bed.

“Hey,” Cas tells him, smiling as Dean leans down to kiss him, morning breath and all.

“I made breakfast,” Dean says, between trailing kisses from Cas’ mouth up to the corner of his eye. “You feel like getting up?”

Cas nods, and wraps his arms around Dean’s shoulders, lets Dean pull him up into a sitting position.

“Should I just carry you around all day?” Dean jokes, running hand through Cas’ hair and then kissing him again. Cas laughs into the kiss.

“Maybe. I’m a bit sore.”

Dean’s face immediately becomes one of concern, but Cas waves it away as he sits up on the edge of the bed. “Don’t look like that. I’m fine. Can you grab my clothes?” He points over to the chair where he’d left his clothes last night. But Dean just shakes his head and disappears into the bathroom, re-emerging a second later with a red bathrobe, which he tosses in Cas’ direction.

“No clothes before nine. House rule.”

Cas glances over at the clock. Eight thirty. They still have time.

He pulls the robe on and cinches it tight around his waist as Dean disappears out the door. He is sore, each step reminding him of the ache inside him, but it’s not something he minds. He likes it, actually, the idea he’ll have a reminder of last night even when his time with Dean is done.

Done. Soon it will be done and their one night will be over and he’ll be walking out that door, probably never to see Dean again. This was their chance to get over each other, to fuck and call it quits, for good this time. No more pining after a relationship that never was, no more daydreams of paint-stained hands.

Dean is in the kitchen when he makes his way out into the apartment, cooking pancakes on the griddle, singing softly to himself. Cas leans against the doorframe and watches him work with a small smile on his face. Dean’s hair is mussed, his slippers too big, and his voice is husky with sleep as he sings, and he looks more beautiful than anyone Cas has ever seen.  

Dean must feel Cas’ eyes on him, because he turns to look over his shoulder and smiles back at him. “Almost ready,” he says, nodding towards the breakfast bar, which is already stocked with a coffee pot, mugs, plates, and what looks to be fruit salad.

“You didn’t have to do all this,” Cas says as he slides onto one of the stools. Dean clicks off the element and walks over to the breakfast bar with skiddle in hand. He leans over the counter to kiss Cas on the nose.

“I wanted to. You want pancakes?”

Cas nods, and Dean flips one onto his plate. “I have more in the oven,” he says, as he places a pancake on his own plate and returns the skiddle to the cooling oven top. He joins Cas on the stool next to him and gestures to the coffee pot. “Want any?”

“Please.” Cas holds out his mug and watches Dean pour the coffee in, reaches for the creamer and stirs it in while Dean fills his own mug. He drags the bowl of fruit salad towards him and spoons some of it onto his plate.

They’re mostly silent as they begin to eat, though Dean does knock his knee against Cas’ a few times, only to smile and look away when Cas glances over at him questioningly. It’s like middle school all over again, school-boy flirting.

They shower together, again, when they’re done eating, scrubbing every inch of their skin clean, lathering up shampoo and washing each other’s hair. Cas arranges Dean’s hair in a mohawk, laughing when Dean tries to return the favor until they end up just kissing beneath the stream of water.

“I wish I could stay here with you forever,” Cas whispers into the nook of Dean’s neck and shoulder, the water washing his words away. He’s not even sure if Dean hears him, but Dean’s arms tighten around his waist, holding him close. He remembers Dean’s words from last night. Should be you and me together, always.

Yes it should, he mouths, closing his eyes and trying to fight back the sudden threat of tears. A few leak out anyway, mixing in with the shower water, washed away down the drain. You and me, always.

Last night was a mistake. One night was never going to be enough for him to get over Dean.

It was just enough to remind him why he loved him.

Loves him.

Suddenly it feels like he can’t breathe, his breath trapped inside his body with no way of escape and he’s going to burst apart at the seams if he doesn’t do something. His legs tremble, and he hears Dean cry out in shock as Cas collapses against him, but Cas is crying now, great, quaking sobs that wrack his chest as Dean lowers them both down to the bottom of the tub. “Cas, are you okay?” Dean asks, voice panicky, and Cas nods, trying to gulp in air and control himself, but then Dean is kissing his forehead, his cheeks, his mouth, and when he opens his eyes he sees that Dean is crying too, eyes red and lip trembling as he holds Cas’ face careful between his palms.

“I-I-I…” he tries to explain, but Dean just repositions them so that they’re tangled on top of each other, close as they can get, so Cas can feel Dean’s heartbeat against his own.

“I get it,” Dean whispers, rocking them back and forth. “I get it, shhh, shhhh.”

Cas reaches up a hand and wipes away the tear lingering in Dean’s eye. “Don’t cry. Please. Don’t cry.”

Dean sniffs and shrugs one shoulder helplessly. “Sorry. I have to.”

Cas tries to smile through the sudden quiver in his lip, kisses the spot above Dean’s heart as Dean holds him tight, keeps him safe.  

Eventually, Dean reaches for the shower tap and switches off the water. They help each other stand up, both trembling in the legs, and reach for the towels they’d left on the counter last night. Cas brushes his teeth quickly and goes to grab his clothes, trying to ignore the red rims of his eyes. He pulls his clothes on as Dean shaves, something Cas will have to do when he gets back to his hotel room. His clothes are a little wrinkled, but it doesn’t matter. He just needs them for the cab ride, then he can change into his suit for the conference.

He tries to imagine sitting through the endless talks of finances and stock shares, of returning to his lonely apartment in Chicago and pretending to be happy. But his mind comes up blank and he knows it’s because there’s no way he’s going to be able to leave Dean behind again this time without breaking completely. He wants to turn to Dean now, to kiss him and tell him he loves him, that all it took was one night to unravel all the work he’d done forgetting Dean in the first place. Wants Dean to ask him to stay.

But instead he gathers his coat up, slips it on over his clothes. It’s snowed overnight--when he looks out the window he can see the sheet of white covering the city, making it clean and bright.

He kisses Dean one last time in the hallway, pressed up against the door with Dean’s hands warm on his back even through his coat.

“I guess this is goodbye,” Dean whispers, resting their foreheads together and Cas closes his eyes, nods slowly.

“I guess it is.”

“Want me to walk down with you?” Dean asks, and Cas shakes his head.

“No, it’s easier if you just…” His voice trails off, but Dean seems to understand anyway. He kisses the corner of Cas’ mouth, rubs his thumb over Cas’ cheek and smiles, a small regretful smile.

“Good luck in the world,” Dean tells him, and Cas nods, feeling like his chest is about to collapse in on itself.

“You too.”

Dean opens the door for him, and Cas steps out into the hallway. “Bye,” he says to Dean, who is leaning on the doorframe, watching him. Dean nods, and raises a hand in farewell.

Cas takes a deep breath, and turns to walk down the hallway towards the elevator. He won’t look back. He can’t look back. After a moment, he hears Dean’s door click shut.

It’s over then.

All over.

Cas ignores the shattered feeling in his lungs and keeps walking, brisk pace, down towards the elevator. He presses the button to go down and waits for the elevator to arrive at his story. He reaches down into his coat pocket to make sure his wallet is there--it is. He does up the top few buttons of his coat, and drums his fingers against the wall, listening to the whir of machinery behind the walls. The elevator dings, and the door slides open. Cas steps one foot inside, and hears the shout.

“Cas, wait!”

His foot jerks backwards and he whips his head around, just in time for Dean to catch him around the waist and grab Cas’ face in both hands, capturing his mouth in a kiss that sends them rocking backwards into the wall, Cas staggering against Dean’s momentum. Dean kisses him like he’s trying to steal all the air from Cas’ lungs, fingers clutching at Cas’ jaw and cheekbones, holding him close.

And then Dean is pulling away, locks his wild eyes in Cas', and says, "Stay with me."

"What?"

Dean kisses him again, hands gripping Cas' coat, pulling at him as if Dean wants to absorb him into his own body. "Stay with me," Dean repeats, desperate, pleading. "Don't go back to Chicago."

"I…Dean…" The elevator door, open before them for so long, slides shut with a hiss, and Cas can hear the beeps as it travels down. "Dean, I…I…"

Dean’s thumbs stroke beneath Castiel's eyes, and he tilts their foreheads together, eyes closing, like this is a prayer. "I love you Cas," Dean tells him in a whisper. "I love you and letting you go again would be the biggest mistake of my life. Please, just give this a chance. Please.”

Cas reaches up, fingers lighting upon Dean’s face, making Dean open his eyes once more and stare at him, terrified, waiting for an answer.

An answer.

The answer is they have no guarantee this will work. It could fall apart tomorrow, because they have a love built on seven empty years and one night together, and it might not be enough.

But maybe it could be.

His voice is muffled to his own ears as he speaks. "Let me…" He breaks out of Dean's hold, wrestles his cellphone from his pocket. Presses the number 4 button, holds it to his ear, and waits to hear Michael answer. Dean is staring at him with complete bewilderment, hands hanging uselessly at his sides.

"Castiel?" Michael’s voice is clipped, worried, when he answers. “Are you okay? Are you going to be back soon?”

Cas swallows, clears his throat, and glances at Dean before he answers. “Yes, I’m fine Michael. But…”  He reaches a hand out, takes Dean in his, strokes his thumb over Dean’s fingers. “I won’t be back soon.” Before Michael can respond, he adds, words falling from his tongue like water, "Actually, I won't be there tomorrow either. Or any day after that. I won't be going back to Chicago. Well, eventually I might, because I need to end the lease on my place and get my stuff, but…but I'm not living there." Dean's face is breaking into an expression Cas doesn't know, something made of relief and disbelief and something Cas knows is love, because Dean loves him, and he loves Dean, and maybe that'll be enough. "I quit, Michael," he says, and feels the sob break in his chest, and Dean is there to catch him before it can escape his mouth, is clutching him tight and whirling them both around the hallway. "I'm staying here," he gasps out, and squeezes his eyes tight with Dean's tears wetting the collar of his coat, "I'm staying here, I quit, I quit, I quit!"

"Fuck, I love you Cas," Dean whispers in his ear, as he waits for Michael's reaction in the other. "I love you so much."

Michael's answer, when he gives it, is soft, and firm, and unexpected. "About time," he says, and Cas pulls the phone away from his ear so he can stare at it a moment before putting it back to his ear.

"What?"

"I said it's about time, Cas," Michael tells him, and Cas can hear the smile in his voice. "I'll just drop by Dean's apartment and give you your suitcase, shall I?"

"You…you…" he stammers, and Dean sends him questioning look. "He's okay with it," he says to Dean in a whisper and Dean hisses back, "Why do you look freaked out about it?"

"You’re not mad?" he manages at last, and Michael laughs, warm and loving, and so, so much his big brother.

"You’re my brother, Cas. What I want most is for you to be happy."

His mind goes blank, desperately trying to come up with the words to express what he needs to. The apologies, the thank yous, the utter and complete love he holds for his brother that he never really understood before this moment. But nothing comes out, and he hopes that Michael can interpret his silence and know what it means.

It's Michael who eventually breaks the silence. "I'll call you later for an address, yes?  Now wish me luck. I, unlike you, have conferences all day."

"Good luck," he says, numbly, and hears Michael chuckle before he ends the call.

He turns to Dean, and feels the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. Dean is staring at him with his cheeks flushed, smile playing on his lips, and Castiel laughs, and explosion of sound.

"I love you too," he says, and for words that have been trapped on his tongue for seven years, they are surprisingly easy to say. 

Today he is made of golds and blues and purples, and Dean paints him again like he’s something beautiful.

 


 

 

 

End

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

Michelangelo

 

"Beauty / is in the eye of the beholder./ You hold me so well / that I am almost convinced / that smoke in the mirror / might one day disappear."

Andrea Gibson