It'd been a long time since he'd been there, but since the book was based in Charm City, it made perfect sense that his editor sent him back for a book signing.
Everything was right there.
The little café.
The hole-in-the-wall pub.
The tattoo joint where they'd gotten matching tattoos.
The killer second hand clothes shop.
The record store.
All the places that held his memories, memories of the happiest time of his life.
He hadn't been that happy since.
And as he walked into the beautiful steampunk-esque Barnes and Noble in Harbor Place, Castiel Novak couldn't help but feel like he'd come full circle.
The place was mobbed, and there was loud applause as he walked in. He was led up to the second floor on the incredible glass escalators, and he took in the copper plated chimneys that used to be part of the former power plant. When he was a child, about eight or ten or something, the first renovation of the power plant had included an odd little carnival slash amusement park. He remembered the one exhibit, it was foggy in his memory, but it had included a giant sarcophagus, more like a humongous Pandora's box, and creepy music, and then animated ghost and goblins had swept about the room.
It was creepy. The whole place was creepy.
The bookstore was much better.
Sweeping high ceilings and neatly organized shelves, bright lighting and genuine antique fixtures, and of course, the requisite Starbucks, this particular Barnes and Noble was lovely, and he felt a buzz of excitement sweep over him.
This was his hometown after all. Where he'd grown up and gone to college and made his first adult friends, where he'd fallen in love and…
He derailed that thought pretty quickly.
Cas was led to a large area where chairs filled with people were neatly lined up, and a table with his book, Painted Angels, was on display. When the crowd caught sight of him, there was another round of applause, and the manager of the store raised her hands for quiet.
"It's my pleasure and privilege to introduce Maryland native, Castiel Novak, author of the New York Times bestseller Painted Angels. We're incredibly excited to have him here today. Castiel will be answering questions about the book and signing copies afterward. So without further ado, please give a warm welcome to Castiel Novak!"
There was another round of applause, and Castiel smiled at his audience.
He wasn't surprised to see so many same-sex couples in the crowd; after all, his book was the first same-sex romance to gross such high sales and become a total crossover success. There was a movie in the works, and some were predicting it would be as big of a success as Brokeback Mountain.
Cas read a short passage from the book, then opened the floor for questions.
A pretty girl in the front row with hot pink dreads raised her hand and Cas smiled and pointed to her. "Yes, miss?"
"Hi, I was wondering who Dean is?"
The blood drained from his face. He'd had no trouble answering this question in the other cities on his book tour and it was always asked, and he wasn't sure why it was bothering him now. Maybe it was the proximity to his old life.
The dedication in the front of the book read For Dean, Always, so someone at each signing inevitably asked who he was. But here, just a breath's away from his memories, Cas found himself choking on the words. He took a deep breath and steeled his shoulders.
"Dean is, was, the inspiration for the character of David in the book. I was the inspiration for Carver. The book is based on the relationship I had in college."
Another hand raised. "Are you still together?"
Castiel sighed. "No. Carver and David got their happy ending. Dean and Castiel didn't."
"Uh…well, Dean…he had some personal issues...with the relationship and uh...Dean wasn't…he wasn't able to…" Cas trailed off, staring into space for a moment. "I'm sorry, I'd honestly rather not talk about that."
Another hand raised in the back. "Was the real Dean a painter as well?"
"Yes. An extremely talented one. He was accepted to the Maryland Institute on a full scholarship. His specialty, like David's in the book, was incredible, massive, mixed media paintings of angels. When I met him, he was in the middle of four pieces, each ten feet tall by five feet wide. Each one depicted an archangel; Michael, Gabriel, Lucifer, and Raphael. He mixed paint with unusual found objects such as car parts, nails, glass, broken pieces of tile and wood. I remember he'd made Michael's halo out of a hubcap. They were…amazing. Transcendent. To this day, I've seen nothing like them." Cas couldn't help the wistful tone in his voice.
"Are all the places in the book real places? Do those people really exist?"
Cas smiled, remembering friendly places and beloved faces. People he hasn't seen in years. "Yes. I changed the names of the people and places, but if you're a tried and true 'Bawlmer' native, you could probably figure out which neighborhood it is."
"Have you seen Dean since then?"
"No. I haven't. I doubt he wants to see me."
"Ok, I think that's enough questions for now," the perky manager smiled out at the crowd. "Let's go ahead and set up for the book signing!"
Over the next hour, Cas signed and posed for pictures with the fans. He heard many heartening stories about how David's character helped someone else come to terms with their own sexuality, how the book helped a young lesbian's parent's accept her and her girlfriend as a couple. It was stories like that that made Cas smile. He'd never imagined when he started writing Painted Angels that the book would have such an impact.
He signed and signed and signed, and towards the end of the hour, his Starbucks cup was empty, his right hand was slightly cramped, and he wasn't quite looking up at everyone that came to the table.
The last person in line was wearing jeans and a green denim jacket. An incredibly tattered copy of the book was set down in front of him, open to the dedication page.
Cas read the script, the familiar For Dean, Always making his stomach twinge. "Who do I make it out to?" he asked, unable to tear his eyes from the words.
The voice was deep, but quiet, hesitant, and the answer was simple.
He'd almost turned around three times that Saturday morning.
It was cold out, and he was behind on his lesson plans for the coming week, and there were things he needed to do at the house. He kept finding more and more excuses, but come noon, Dean Winchester found himself parking the Impala in a downtown parking garage, making his way across Pratt Street and into the bookstore.
He followed the trail of excited chatter up to the second floor, coming around the corner just in time to hear his voice, same gravelly inflection that still haunted his dreams. Dean clutched his tattered copy of Painted Angels in his sweaty palm.
His breath caught in his lungs.
Twelve years later, and he could still remember how those lips tasted.
Cas looked amazing, in a black V-neck sweater over an olive plaid button down and tight black jeans. His face was a little older maybe, but he was just as beautiful as Dean remembered.
His cheeks flushed at that thought, and he again felt the urge to run, but instead, he forced himself into a seat in the back of the crowd. Dean pulled his Chevy ball cap down over his eyes, praying that Cas wouldn't notice him sitting all the way in the back.
Dean almost got up and left several times, his cheeks catching fire repeatedly, listening to Castiel talk about their relationship and then waxing poetic about his paintings.
He didn't paint anymore. Not like that. Hadn't in a long time, in fact.
Then, they wrapped everything up, and folks got in line for autographs. His stomach danced, butterflies doing a wild fandango. Dean felt like he was going to throw up. He ran. He found a bathroom and he hid in there for forty-five minutes. Then he skulked around the shelves near the autograph table.
Finally, there was only one person left in line.
Screwing his courage to the wall, he slid into line behind her, opening his book to the page. That page. The one where his name lived, the page that told the whole world…
He almost left the line, and then it was his turn. He was the only one left.
Cas didn't look up, and Dean slid the book onto the table with shaking hands, then reached up and slid the ball cap off.
"Who do I make it out to?" Cas asked quietly, tiredness in his voice.
He took a deep breath, and responded, "To Dean."
He looked exactly the same. Same freckles. Same plush, full lips. Same sparkling green eyes.
He'd gotten lost in those eyes once. There were crinkles in the corners now, but age had been kind, and all Castiel could do was stare up at him.
"Dean…" Cas whispered. He couldn't tear his eyes from him. The other man smiled, slightly sheepish.
"Hey, Cas," he replied quietly.
"Wait, wait, wait, is this him? Is this the Dean?" Castiel's agent, Becky Rosen, squealed in his ear.
"Yes, this is the Dean."
Dean blushed, soft pink blooming across his cheekbones. God, Castiel had forgotten he blushed easily.
Meanwhile, Becky had moved around the table and was practically shaking Dean's hand off. "Oh my god, I'm so happy to meet you, I've heard so much about you, but you don't look like he described David in the book, but that's ok, you're so handsome anyway, although David in the book is more my type, but oh my god, you're here, you're really here…"
"Take a breath."
She giggled, "Sorry. I'm just excited."
Castiel smiled indulgently at her, and closed Dean's book. "Dean," he said, as he stood. "Let me buy you a cup of coffee. If that's ok?"
"Yeah," the other man said, cheeks pinking again, "that would be cool."
"Starbucks ok?" he asked, handing back the book.
"Sure. It's convenient right?" Dean chuckled. He took the book and turned and walked away, towards the Starbucks in the store, and as Cas watched him go, he couldn't help but remember the first time he met him.
Castiel Novak stood in front of the former firehouse, double checking the piece of paper in his hand. The big doors were thrown open, and Led Zeppelin's Travelin' Riverside Blues drifted out into the street. Robert Plant was imploring someone to squeeze his lemon, and over that, another voice could be heard singing along with him.
Checking the address, he ascertained, that yes, he was in the right place, and stepped in through the open doorway.
Large scaffolding was set up along the back wall of what must have been the engine bay once upon a time, and leaning up against a wall was an enormous canvas. There was a man on top of the scaffold, the source of the voice singing along with the vinyl record he spied on a turntable sitting on a cluttered workbench.
He was wearing nothing save a pair of ratty paint stained jeans and a red bandana around his head, sweat dripping down the freckled planes of his back. There was a set of wings tattooed there, the feathers trailing down his back and down his arms to the very tops of his wrists. They moved with the muscles of his back and arm. There were more inked designs meandering into his jeans and Castiel's mouth went dry at the thought of following those patterns down into his pants.
He seemed completely oblivious to Castiel's presence, singing and wiping swathes of red paint across the top of his canvas with his bare hand.
Castiel was transfixed.
"Castiel?" a deep voice called from nearby. A young black man stepped out of the stairwell to his left, a smile on his face. "Vic Henrikson. You're here about the roommate ad?" He offered his hand, and Castiel took it, returning the hearty handshake.
"Yes. Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too man. By the way," he said, waving absently over his shoulder, "that's Dean, but he's in the zone right now, so we'll talk to him later. He don't hear shit when he's in painting mode. C'mon upstairs and I'll show you around."
"Ok," Castiel said easily, sparing one last look at the man on the scaffolding before following Vic up the stairs.
The upstairs of the firehouse was big and roomy. There was an industrial kitchen with a breakfast bar, a huge TV on one wall, and a state of the art stereo system. A big sectional couch and a couple of recliners were parked in front of it. A baby grand piano sat under one window, a couple of guitars flanking it.
"So this is the main room, used to be the bunk area and kitchen of the fire house. There's three bedrooms, the middle one is Dean's," Vic pointed to the one on the far left, "that one's mine, and the one in the front would be yours. And then we all share the bathroom, which is huge too, cause y'know, firemen. Dean and I each claimed a toilet stall, and you can do that too. There's another bathroom downstairs, but it's just a couple toilets and a sink."
"It's a huge space," Castiel said, taking everything in. He peeked into the bedroom Vic indicated would be his. It was spacious and airy. There were big windows along the front wall of the firehouse, and built in bookshelves with a roomy closet on the left hand side. It was damn near perfect. "Are you sure the rent's only $350 a month?"
"Yup. Dean sold a big set of paintings last year and made a ton of money off it, so he bought this place outright. He brings in roommates 'cause he don't really like being alone, and the rent helps with his utilities and art supplies. He's on a full scholarship at MICA so he don't worry about payin' for school or nothing."
Vic sighed. "There's one more thing. Dean ain't exactly easy to live with."
"Well…he can be kind of…weird. He's an artist, y'know? He gets in this weird space where he eats, breathes, and sleeps his paintings. Hell, sometimes he don't sleep or eat at all. I've seen him go a couple of days without sleep, just paint paint paint. And his type of art is unusual. He's a mixed-media artist, so he brings weird shit home. He's loud. He likes his music. And he stress bakes sometimes. And then he'll sit up playing piano all night. He's weird dude. We've had trouble keeping roommates. He don't bother me at all, I'm used to him, but…"
"An artist that stress bakes and plays music? Where's the downside? I have four brothers. They're all weird. I can deal with Dean's weirdness. Believe me. The space is fantastic, the rent is good, and it's close to campus. I'm in."
A big smile lit up Vic's face. "Great! That's great!"
"When can I move in?"
"First month's rent, dude, and whenever you got a minute. The room's ready to go, and hell, we'll help you carry stuff up the steps."
"Excellent. I'll bring you the cash tomorrow and I'd like to move in Saturday if that's ok?"
"Ok? It's great! Dude, welcome to Remington!"
"Yeah, man, this part of B-more is called Remington or Mount Vernon, but we stick with Remington. You ain't from Maryland?"
"Yes, but from up around Hereford, close to the Pennsylvania border. My family never much cared for the city."
"Oh, dude. Well, we'll have to educate you in the finer points of city living."
"Yup," Vic moved towards the stairwell, "let's head downstairs, and I'll try and introduce you to our fearless leader, if I can snap him out of Picasso mode for a minute."
Back down in the engine bay, Castiel took in the space. He could see the door to the bathroom, but everything else was clearly Dean's studio.
In one corner were some large wooden crates, appearing to hold all sorts of car parts; hubcaps, hood ornaments, and other stuff. There was a Rubbermaid tote full of broken glass, another full of broken chunks of tile, yet another with stones of various sizes. There were metal pieces leaning up against walls, strange fixtures and architectural elements spread around the floor.
Closer to the front door was a large tan canvas sheet covering something car-shaped, something big and car-shaped, and Castiel could see a tire and a flash of chrome underneath.
The music had changed, a loud electric guitar riff, and Jimi Hendrix's Foxy Lady echoed off the cinderblock walls. Dean was down a level on the scaffold, hand covered in angry red paint, leaving splotches and smears along the canvas.
"Yo, Dean!" Vic called. Dean jumped slightly, and turned.
Castiel's breath caught in his throat.
The most beautiful man he'd ever seen was glaring down at him and Vic, grass green eyes sparkling in the reflected sunlight, plush pink lips pulled into a scowl. He had a smear of red paint over his right eyebrow.
"What? I'm busy."
"No kiddin', asshat, but this guy here's just agreed to be our new roommate. Think you could act like a human for a minute?"
Dean's eyes swept over Castiel, making him feel hot all over. He grabbed a rag and wiped the red paint from his hand, then made a graceful leap off the scaffold, grabbing onto the brass fire pole in mid-air, gliding smoothly to the ground.
"Showoff," Vic muttered.
He strode across the floor towards them, all loose and easy movements, noticeable swagger in his stride, but it didn't look forced, it just looked natural on him.
Dean held his hand out, and Castiel noticed that there was still some red paint, but he didn't care, taking Dean's hand anyway. "Dean Winchester, I own this here artistic circus." Vic snorted, and Dean glared at him. "Shuddup, Victor."
"Whatever. This is Castiel Novak, Dean."
Green eyes lit up. "Castiel? That's an angelic name, right? Angel of Thursday?"
"Yes," Castiel replied, instantly impressed, "how did you know?" His eyes swept over Dean's bare chest, taking in even more tattoos, one of which was a star surrounded by flames on the upper part of his left pectoral.
"Dude, angels are like, I dunno, my thing," he indicated the canvas behind him. "That's Lucifer. He's part of a series, I'm doing the archangels. Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael."
Castiel couldn't help himself. He snorted. Dean whirled back towards him, a stormy look on his face.
"Why is that funny?" he demanded.
"No, it's not, not really. It's just that my parents are incredibly religious. I have brothers with those names."
Dean stared a moment, as if trying to work out whether or not Castiel was messing with him. "Dude, your family's weird," he said finally.
"Tell me something I don't know," Castiel replied with a smile.
Dean threw his head back and laughed. "You're alright, Cas. You're alright."
Three days later, Castiel become a part of Dean's world, and his life changed forever.