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In This Secluded Spot I Respond As I Wouldn't Dare Elsewhere

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All of his problems, he decided, got worse thanks to one perfectly rising spinach soufflé.

Years of teasing about his hair, his glasses, and his penchant for choosing books over sports was one thing, but the moment he showed a talent for delicate French dishes, life at Flour Bluff High became even harder.

"Hey, faggot," said a voice behind him before he was slammed nose-first into his locker.

He recognized who it was by the laughter that echoed down the hallway, and didn't bother turning around. Sighing, he adjusted his glasses where they had been knocked askew and headed to homeroom.

Realistically, being able to cook didn't automatically equal gay; anyone with a little common sense knew that. If he were an athlete or a member of the right social group, that soufflé wouldn't have been a big deal. They'd laugh about the cool guy who could cook and then forget about it by lunch.

As it was, he was a nobody and a weirdo, the type of kid whose shyness and reserved nature forever labeled him as different. When he finally entered public school in eighth grade, his teachers found him intelligent, artistic, and quick-witted, yet that never carried over into relationships with kids his own age. The years he spent being homeschooled by his English professor mother didn't help, either. He had an extensive vocabulary as a result, and students would tilt their heads in confusion whenever he spoke.

Being picked on meant he expected to be judged and ridiculed. He became suspicious around others and retreated into insular pursuits like drawing and reading, which made things worse.

So when Castiel Agnus, the nerdy loser kid with the funny name pulled his soufflé from the oven, Mrs. Carrigan gave him an A, the girls sniggered, and the boys added homosexual epithets to their repertoire.

He didn't expect things to get better anytime soon, thanks to the school district's new forward-thinking "Preparation for Tomorrow" plan. Every junior, male and female, was required to take a special elective course that gave them hands-on training for the real world. At Flour Bluff, that meant half a semester spent in Home Economics -- where Castiel had already unfortunately excelled -- and the latter half to be spent in Castiel's nightmare come to life.

Auto shop.

He flinched at the thought of even more taunting while he learned how to fix a flat or change oil. All his tormentors from the first half of the semester in home ec were on the same track as him and were sure to be in auto shop this afternoon. Maybe if he was lucky, Alastair and all his hulking Neanderthals from the baseball team would forget home ec had ever happened. He thought about it, and then sighed again. Based on the encounter earlier at his locker, that was doubtful. Alastair had it out for him.

He entered homeroom as the first bell rang, sending up a silent prayer in the hopes that whoever was up there would get him through the rest of junior year in one piece.

"All right, people, all right. Shut up already. Raise your hand when I call your name."

Castiel's homeroom teacher, who he'd known since freshman year, had a naturally gruff way about him. Mr. Zachariah taught metal shop and was probably in the wrong profession because he couldn't stand teenagers.

"Okay, so, announcements. Right. Let's see, the weight room was supposed to be open, but now it's closed because of extra football practice. Quit parking your cars in the designated visitors' spots or get ticketed. The school store has the new hooded Hornets sweatshirts if you're interested. Um...oh, new student. New student, people. People? Are you listening?"

Thirty heads finally turned in his direction.

"Thank you. We've got someone new joining our little homeroom party." He looked down at his clipboard. "Dean Winchester."

Everyone shifted in their seats to stare toward the back of the room at the tall, serious-looking boy with close-cropped hair who was wearing a brown, weathered leather jacket. He stood there silently as the class appraised his appearance, taking in everything from his scuffed work boots to his green eyes. He was handsome and well built, exuding an air of confidence Castiel wished he himself had.

Predictably there was tittering from a few of the girls in the class; Dean had obviously met their approval. Not that he had to try very hard, as far as Castiel could see. He was the type of guy who would be instantly accepted at Flour Bluff.

"Where you from, Winchester?"

Dean shrugged. "Somewhere else."

The class laughed and Mr. Zachariah rolled his eyes. "Another sixteen-year-old too cool for me, huh? You're not taking metal shop by any chance, are you?"

Dean shook his head.

"Thank God. Now where are you from, Winchester? Enlighten your classmates."


"There you go, Kansas. Now that didn't hurt, did it? Dean from Kansas, people. Okay, Dean from Kansas, take a seat. Welcome to Texas."

Dean sat down toward the front of the class, two seats in front of Castiel.

"Play any sports?"

"Some baseball, I guess."

"Talk to Coach Zazel. He lost four of his starting lineup when they graduated. I'm sure he'll be looking for people."

"Uh-huh," Dean said.

Castiel inwardly cringed over possibly having a member of the baseball team in homeroom with him.

"Or you might run into the team captain Alastair in the halls. He's easy to spot. Wears that stupid varsity jacket everywhere."

Castiel smiled a little at that.

"All right, people. You have fifteen minutes before the bell. Make yourselves useful and shut up while you do it."

Most students used homeroom as a last-minute reprieve to catch up on homework they neglected from the night before. Castiel liked to use the time to draw in his sketchbook, which he carried around with him everywhere. It was a large, hardcover black book that contained a mishmash of drawings and clippings and pieces of ads or articles that inspired him. He used pencils most often, but the book was also covered in pen and ink illustrations that popped into his head while he was killing time. This morning he decided to sketch the back of Dean's head and neck where it disappeared into the upturned collar of his leather jacket.

The bell rang for first period and Mr. Zachariah held up a hand. "Have a good day everyone. Good luck, Winchester. Don't get lost."

The class filed out of homeroom and they all dispersed in different directions.

Castiel watched the new kid grab his schedule from Mr. Zachariah and bolt from the room. He really hoped he was bad at baseball.

Castiel's first period class was English, in which they were reading Hamlet. English and history were his favorite subjects, along with art. Unlike his classmates, he never had any trouble with the reading assignments and looked forward to completing an entire novel rather than reading the Cliff's Notes.

He'd already read all of Hamlet, skipping ahead of what was assigned just because he was enjoying it so much. His favorite scene was the wordplay between Hamlet and Polonius in Act II; he'd actually laughed out loud in class during the "you are a fishmonger" and "words, words, words" conversation, which earned him confused stares.

The only thing wrong with his favorite class was that it was located on the second floor. Castiel passed the first floor bathrooms and paused in the hallway. The stairs were only a short distance away. He took a deep breath and continued on.

"What's up, Asstiel?"

"Cook anything good for your boyfriend last night?"

"Yoo-hoo, prettyyyy!"

Castiel lowered his head and tried to ignore them. It was the same every morning: Alastair, Tom, and Brady, all lined up and waiting for him to pass by. They were impossible to avoid -- their lockers stood in a row directly opposite the stairwell. He'd already tried taking the other stairs near the east entrance but it made him late every time.

"Please leave me alone," Castiel said.

Alastair came up behind Castiel and yanked on his backpack hard enough to spin him around and send him crashing into the lockers.

"What was that, gay boy?"

"I asked you to please leave me alone. I don't wish to be late for class."

"I don't wish to be late for class," Alastair mimicked. "Why are you such a fucking weirdo?"

Alastair poked a finger at Castiel's forehead, and Brady and Tom snickered.

"Al! Alastair!"

Both Alastair and Castiel turned their heads. Someone was calling for Alastair from one of the classrooms down the hall.

"Leave that kid alone and c'mere. I think we might've found our third baseman."

It was Coach Zazel, who had his arm around Dean Winchester's shoulders. Castiel locked eyes with Dean, who then turned away.

"See you later, you little queer," Alastair whispered into Castiel's ear, before grabbing him in a headlock and mussing his hair, knocking his glasses from his face in the process. Castiel squirmed and fought uselessly against him until Alastair let go, purposefully smacking him against the locker as he did so.

The three boys went laughing down the hall toward Coach Zazel's classroom. Castiel stood up and slid his glasses back on his nose, watching as Dean shook hands with his tormentors.

His English teacher, Ms. Milton, knew him better than his guidance counselor. She encouraged his interests in literature and art, and had a knack for intuiting when he was having problems. She frowned at him slightly when he took his seat.

"I trust everyone did their reading assignments from last night, right? That means you won't mind a little quiz."

A chorus of groans erupted as Ms. Milton handed out sheets of paper to the first person at the head of every row. The quizzes were passed back from student to student. Castiel had just written his name down when the door rattled and Dean stumbled through.

"Sorry," he mumbled, all eyes on him. "I was...I couldn't find...I got lost."

A few of the students laughed and Dean ran a hand through his hair in obvious discomfort.

"I guess we can take this opportunity to introduce you. Mr. Winchester, I presume?"

"Yeah. Sorry."

"Please welcome Dean Winchester to the class. Dean, take a seat while everyone suffers through a pop quiz."

The only open desk was next to Castiel, who sat at the back of the class in the second row from the door.

Castiel tried to duck his head to make himself less conspicuous. He hunched over his paper and tried to concentrate on answering if he thought Hamlet truly loved Ophelia.

"Hey, man -- "

Castiel ignored him.

"Mr. Winchester, you'll get a chance to introduce yourself after the quiz."

"That's okay, I'm good." He slouched down in his seat and remained quiet.

Castiel finished his quiz quickly and laid it face-down on his desk, and then took out his sketchbook. He went back to coloring the brown and gray feathers on the kestrel he'd sketched after seeing the bird on a split-rail fence not far from his apartment. He could feel Dean's eyes on him the entire time.

"That shouldn't have been too hard if you did your reading. Pass your papers to the front."

The class groaned again, but a flurry of papers were sent into Ms. Milton's waiting hands. She grabbed a book from her desk and made her way over to Dean.

"We're starting Act III this morning," she announced to the class. "This is where we get to hear Hamlet's famous 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, so pay attention as we go over the lines." She handed the book to Dean and said, "I don't expect you to know what's going on right now, but by next week you'll need to have read enough to catch up to us in class."

Dean took the book from her. "I'll manage."

"Great. Don't hesitate to ask if you need help."

Ms. Milton began by assigning different members of the class to read the speaking parts to the short scene before Hamlet's soliloquy. Castiel took notes on whatever Ms. Milton drew attention to, because he knew it would show up on quizzes. Dean sat quietly next to him, paging through the book but not bothering to take notes. Then Ms. Milton took over during Hamlet's speech.

"Let's do a few lines at a time, okay?" she said, addressing everyone. "To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them. What do you think Hamlet is talking about and feeling here?"

Thirty blank faces stared back at her, until Castiel raised his hand.

"Does anyone else have an opinion?" She looked around. "No? Anyone else? Okay, Castiel?"

"Hamlet's life has been torn apart. His mother has married his uncle, which he considers despicable, and he has learned that his father was murdered. He's inconsolable and distraught. Here he is looking at the moral implications of suicide -- to be or not to be, or, to live or to die. He is asking whether it's braver to suffer, or to do something within his own power to make the pain stop."

Dean stopped flipping through his book and raised his head to pay attention after Castiel spoke.

"You bring up moral implications," Ms. Milton said. "Don't you think he's already made up his mind?"

"No," Castiel said, "because of the next lines in which he says, To die -- to sleep. To sleep -- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub! For in that sleep of death what dreams may come... He's debating with himself over what may happen in the afterlife; that dying is more than merely sleeping."

"Is he afraid?"

"I believe so. I also believe that Hamlet, based on previous scenes, is a spiritual man. That may influence his decision more than the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, as he says. He is uncertain that what may come after death is worse than what he must endure here."

"Interesting. You believe he fears death because of his spirituality?"

"Or religious beliefs, yes. The text is rife with spiritual overtones, such as the mentions of Heaven during Hamlet's conversation with his father's ghost, and especially during the scene in which Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius while he's praying, because Hamlet fears he will send Claudius to Heaven."

"Mm-hmm," Ms. Milton agreed, "which happens in an act we haven't covered yet."

Castiel heard Dean snicker under his breath. He looked over and frowned, but Dean answered that with a grin. Castiel turned his attention back to Ms. Milton.

"Perhaps I've read ahead," he sheepishly admitted.

"Perhaps," she said, in a tone Castiel knew meant she was more impressed than annoyed.

The rest of the class passed with a line-by-line dissection of the rest of Hamlet's soliloquy. Castiel would steal glances at Dean every now and then, wondering why he found Castiel's enthusiasm for skipping ahead in the text amusing.

Finally the bell rang. Over the clamor, Ms. Milton told the class to read the rest of Scene I for homework. She waved her hand in Castiel's direction.

"Castiel? May I see you for a moment?"

Castiel grabbed his backpack and waited expectantly in front of her desk.

"Ms. Milton?"

"We've been so busy with Hamlet that I haven't had the chance to talk to you much. I wanted to check in and see how your semester's been going. How were your holidays? Okay, I hope?"

"Yes, thank you," he lied, leaving out the part where he had been almost constantly harassed over the past few weeks. He wasn't ready to share that with her yet, despite their relatively close relationship.

"That's good to hear. You keeping up with your studies?"

Castiel faked a grin. "I find time in between my myriad social engagements."

"Still having difficulty meeting people?"

Freshman year there was a boy on his bus he had started to become friendly with. Castiel often sat next to him while they talked about their favorite books, but in the middle of the school year the boy moved. Since then he'd run into nothing but problems trying to get to know people.

"I've never been given the chance. No one's willing to befriend the class weirdo, Ms. Milton. My mere presence causes either dislike or outright hate. I've given up."

Ms. Milton put her hand on his shoulder. "You shouldn't. It'll get better. You simply need a little more confidence in yourself."

"It's been three years of bullying and name-calling, and lately...well, I sincerely doubt I can expect to forge any friendships if I haven't already."

"But -- "

"Your concern is always appreciated, Ms. Milton. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to be late for my next class."

"All right, Castiel. See you tomorrow. Let's allow the rest of the class to keep up with you, shall we?"

"I'll try."

The remainder of the morning went by quickly. He suffered through trigonometry by secretly adding the finishing touches to the kestrel in his sketchbook. When it was time for art class, Mr. Darrow nodded and clapped Castiel on the shoulder.

"You've captured the male of the species quite well, Castiel. Very nicely done."

"Thank you, Mr. Darrow."

"The shading on the wings is very subtle. But watch your shadowing. Make sure you keep the shadows consistent with the sun's placement."

Castiel looked closer at his sketch, noticing that although the wings were highlighted in the sun's rays, there wasn't a cast shadow. "Oh," he said, sounding disappointed at his obvious mistake. "You're right."

"I'm impressed with your sketchbook as a whole so far. Keep it up and you'll definitely get a good grade at the end of the year when you turn it in. Don't get discouraged yet. Just be aware of it for next time."

"I will, Mr. Darrow."

Mr. Darrow returned to the front of the room to address the class as a whole.

"Ladies and gentlemen, put your sketches aside for a moment so we can discuss this year's art show."

At the end of every school year Flour Bluff High held an art show in the auditorium. Ceramics, watercolors, pen and ink, oil paintings -- the teachers chose the best pieces of work from all the art classes, and they were put on display for everyone to see, including the public. In freshman year Castiel had a ceramic pot chosen, and last year his seascape made it. He never knew until the day of the art show if any of his pieces of art were picked.

"Once again Flour Bluff will be holding its annual art show. Obviously I can't choose every single piece of work that's completed over the course of the semester. I'll be looking for only the most impressive artwork to submit. Keep this in mind as we move forward. I don't want to see any poor compositions or half-finished work in class. I want all of it good enough to be considered for the show."

Castiel was looking forward to the show, and he paid strict attention through Mr. Darrow's instruction on negative space. They'd already covered realism, pointillism, and surrealism in class, but he wasn't sure if the work he completed for those styles was good enough. He didn't know what Mr. Darrow had planned for the rest of the semester, but Castiel hoped whatever styles they were going to be learning about allowed him to produce art worthy of the show.

And on top of all that, he also had to keep working in his sketchbook. Mr. Darrow expected at least two sketches a week, and if he fell behind there was no way he'd receive a passing grade when he turned it in.

Luckily his next period was lunch. Rather than dealing with the social uncertainties of a crowded cafeteria, he always chose to eat outside. On rainy days or when it was too cold, he retreated to a conference room in the library. He retrieved his insulated lunch bag from his locker, and since it was crisp but sunny, Castiel pulled his wool hat over his ears, buttoned his coat, and sneaked out a side door.

He followed the path around the football field and across the track to the fence that surrounded the far baseball field. He took a quick look around, and then hopped over. They weren't supposed to go off campus during school hours -- and the woods circling the fields certainly were -- but it was the one place he felt completely safe during the day.

Castiel was munching on a bologna sandwich and chips when he caught sight of a figure walking along the edge of the baseball field. He instantly got nervous, thinking someone had followed him, but the figure stopped and walked down into the dugout. Castiel squinted, and could make out a very familiar thigh-length leather jacket. He recognized Dean easily.

Dean walked out of the dugout and onto the infield. He kicked at the clay and walked around where the bases would be, until he got to third base. Castiel watched him hunch down into position and pretend to throw an imaginary ball. Finally he sat down on the bleachers.

Castiel popped the remainder of his sandwich into his mouth and grabbed his sketchbook from his backpack. He studied Dean closely: the way he sat bent over, how his hair stuck out a bit at the front, the way he kept nudging the toe of his boot into the dirt. Castiel thought he looked lonely. He scoffed at the idea. He wondered why he wasn't eating lunch with the baseball team, or at least sitting in the cafeteria with the popular kids. He shouldn't have to work hard at Flour Bluff to be accepted, even as the new guy.

Dean stretched out, draped his arms over the sides of the bleachers and let his head rest on the step above him. He didn't move at all, which made him perfect for Castiel to sketch.

The surreptitious artist and his unwitting model remained like that until they both heard the far-off bell letting them know lunch was over.

Castiel hovered near the doorway, trying not to seem anxious and failing.

"C'mon in, son. The cars ain't gonna fix themselves out there."

The teacher beckoned him into the classroom with a nod of his trucker cap. He was dressed in coveralls, and he wiped his grease-covered hands on his thighs before heading over to his desk. Castiel found a stool around a workbench where the rest of the class was sitting.

When Dean walked in with Alastair, Tom, and Brady, Castiel wasn't surprised. He tried to shrink a little behind Meg Masters, hoping her blonde bob of a haircut would shield him from being noticed.

"My name's Mr. Singer. Welcome to Auto Shop, part two to the school district's stupid idea to force you kids to take a class most of you are gonna hate. But since I ain't the one makin' the rules, I'm gonna make this as painless as possible as long as you follow my instructions and don't act like idjits while you're here. Got that?"

"Are we going to have to, like, get dirty and stuff?" asked a girl Castiel didn't know.

"If you, like, wanna pass this course, then yeah," Mr. Singer answered with a scoff. "You'll learn how to change a tire, fix a flat, check your fluids, and other basics of car maintenance. We won't be doin' any heavy-duty auto repair work in this class, though."

"Thank God."

"Yeah, we all have a lot to be thankful for," Mr. Singer mumbled. "All right, let's take attendance."

The class broke out into quiet conversation while Mr. Singer readied his attendance book.

"Okay, uh, Ag...uh,"

"It's actually pronounced 'Ahn-yoos,' Mr. Singer," Castiel offered helpfully. "My last name, 'Agnus,' is Latin you see, and -- "

"Great, kid. Good to know. Your first name's Castiel? Did I get that right?"

Alastair cleared his throat loudly, and then fake-coughed a softer "Fag!" under his breath.

Sniggers erupted around him and he shrunk down behind Meg again.

Mr. Singer didn't hear the insult tossed at Castiel, but even if he had, chances were he would be like Coach Zazel and other teachers and simply ignore it. Ms. Milton might have stuck up for him, if she witnessed something blatant. Alastair, however, had developed a subtle way of terrorizing him every day and had never been reprimanded. Castiel couldn't tell anyone, either, because that would only cause more problems.

He'd thought about standing up for himself, imagining a moment in which he lashed out and lost control. He had dreams about it -- feeling the satisfying crunch when his fist met Alastair's nose, or slamming Alastair's face into the lockers, or a dozen other terrible things. Even if Castiel did try and fight back, it would be short-lived. Alastair was taller than him and had the muscled body of an athlete. Castiel wasn't afraid, exactly, but he was cautious and aware of his limits. Taking on Alastair, he knew, was one of them.

"Did y'hear me, son? I asked if I got the 'Castiel' part right."

"You did, Mr. Singer," Castiel responded, barely audible.

"Fine. Everyone answer when I call out your first name."

There were a few more giggles and some talking as Mr. Singer made his way around the room. Alastair, Tom, and Brady were deep in conversation with Dean, and Castiel noticed him glance his way a few times. He tried to ignore them and pulled Hamlet from his bag until Mr. Singer called them all to attention.

"Today we're gonna go over one of the most important basics: tires. Okay? Let's get started."

The students moved in a group to the wide garage bay that held an ancient Chevelle. Mr. Singer bent down next to the driver's side front tire, and patted its side.

"This part's the sidewall. Up here, where all the grooves are, is the tread. It's cut in a pattern to provide traction on the road. We're gonna check to see if we need new tires first. What I wanna do is turn the steering wheel and look over the whole tire. Turn to the right and left as far as she'll go, and get a good look across the surface of the tire. Got that? Anybody got any ideas what to look for?"

Dean was the first one to raise his hand.

"What's your name again, son?"

"Dean. Dean Winchester."

"All right Dean, what's one of the most common ways to know if your tires are wearin'?"

"You should look for cracks in the rubber, bubbling, and tread wear," he answered.

"Good. One of the most important things is called 'tread depth.' It measures how much your tires are wearing down by the grooves in the tire, here, see?"

Mr. Singer dug a fingernail into the treads of the Chevelle's tires.

"If your tires wear down too much, you can hydroplane on wet roads, or go into skids. Your traction is shot to hell. Now, a mechanic is gonna check your treads with a tread depth gauge." Mr. Singer pulled what looked like a large syringe from the pocket of his coveralls. "In most states, tires are legally worn out when they have worn down to 2/32 of an inch of remaining tread depth." He looked around at the class. "Maybe you wanna write that down?"

There was a flurry of activity while the students grabbed pens and notebooks from their bags.

"Now, to be safe, you need to have more tread depth than that. That's why you should replace tires when it gets down to 6/32. In the rain, replace them when it gets to 4/32."

"Uh, Mr. Singer, what if we don't have one of those measuring thingys?"

"Good question, uh -- "


"Jo. I'm gonna show you what you do, unless someone here already knows."

Castiel looked around, but no one knew or seemed willing to answer, but then Dean stepped forward again.

"You use the change in your pocket."

"Right again, Winchester. Okay, we're gonna use a penny and a quarter."

Mr. Singer pulled out the coins, and handed the quarter to Dean to hold.

"Stick the penny in, upside down, first on the tails side, which shows the Lincoln Memorial. If the top of the Lincoln Memorial is always covered by the tread, you have more than 6/32 of an inch of tread depth remaining. Now, flip 'im over and stick ol' Lincoln's head in there, upside down. If part of Lincoln's head is always covered by the tread, you have more than 2/32. With the quarter, stick Mr. Washington in there upside down too, and if his head is always covered, you got yourself 4/32."

The class dutifully took notes, except Dean. Castiel figured if he was the one telling Mr. Singer the secrets to the coins in his pocket and tire wear, he didn't need to. Still, it seemed odd that one could measure how much a tire was wearing just by using a few coins. Despite writing it down in his notebook, Castiel remained unconvinced.

"The other good reason to check the treads often is 'cause sometimes stuff gets caught in there. A tack or a nail embedded in the treads is hard to see if you ain't lookin'. You'll never notice it until days or weeks later when you're stuck with a flat. That's why it's good practice to check your tires on occasion."

Mr. Singer stood back up and wiped his hands on his thighs. "Over there in the bucket is a bunch of tire treads. Each of you take one and find a benchtop. You can practice testin' the treads with the coins I hand out."

They all returned to their seats with pieces of tread torn from old tires and two coins each. Castiel looked around and was careful to find a stool at the far corner of the benchtop, out of everyone's -- and especially Alastair's -- way. He was struggling to stick Lincoln's head into the rubber when he felt someone sit across from him.

He glanced up to find Dean, who was rolling a quarter over his knuckles in a perfectly balanced wave from pinkie to forefinger. Back and forth, back and forth, and Castiel lost track of what he was doing because he was staring at Dean's fingers.

"I can do this with a baseball, too," Dean said.

"Are you...I'm sorry, were you addressing me?"

"There's no one else sittin' here, is there?"

"No," he answered, pulling his backpack closer.

"You have to make sure you push it into the tread with just enough force, but not so deep it gets stuck."

Castiel gestured at the piece of rubber in front of him. "This makes no sense. Using coins? It hardly seems like an accurate way to test a tire's wear."

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Dean said. "Do you want some help?"

Impressed and surprised by Dean's recitation of the Hamlet quote, Castiel could only stare at him.

Dean reached over and grabbed Castiel's coin and the tire tread. He seated Lincoln into the rubber, and then took Castiel's hand and placed it on the penny.

"See? Feel that? Just enough. It doesn't replace checkin' with a gauge, but it'll let you know without havin' any tools around that you need new tires."

Castiel nodded, then frowned at the unrequested help. He took a quick glance to see if Alastair was putting Dean up to this, but surprisingly, he was talking with Brady and not paying Castiel any attention whatsoever.

When Castiel looked back Dean was smiling at him.

"Yes, thank you," Castiel said, still cautious. "I appreciate your assistance."


Dean flicked Castiel's penny back onto the benchtop and went to rejoin Alastair and his crew.

Castiel decided to do his homework in the library and take a later bus home. Auto shop was his last class, and Dean's sudden interest in him -- and Dean's connection to Alastair -- made him nervous. That was all he needed right now. It was bad enough having Alastair harassing him. He didn't need the new guy who shared homeroom, English, and auto shop with him to cause him problems, too. He figured discretion was the better part of valor and made himself scarce when the final bell of the day rang.

The late bus let him off on the corner of his street. Castiel lived in a large apartment complex, which consisted of squat, two-story buildings each surrounding a common parking lot. He lived in a two-bedroom with his mother on the ground floor of Building Ten.

It was a short walk to reach the back of the complex where his apartment was, so he decided to cut through the parking lots. On the way, he stopped every once in a while to test the neighbors' tires with his newly acquired penny skill.

He meandered through the parked cars in their lots until finally popping into the one for his building. The old lady in apartment 122 who drove the Cadillac needed new tires. The guy with the beard from 136 had a Dodge truck with tires that were balding. The new guy who just moved into apartment 162 had a really old, giant, boat of a car. Castiel couldn't even tell what model it was without looking for some sort of identifier. The black four-door with Chevrolet written on its grill had tires that were practically brand new. It wasn't surprising; for an old car it looked to be very well maintained.

He left the parking lot and walked up the sidewalk to his apartment.

"I'm home," he called, closing the front door behind him.

His mother came out of the kitchen into the living room. "Why didn't you call?"

"I remained after school to finish up my homework in the library, and -- "

"Castiel, how many times must we discuss this?" his mother asked, visibly distressed. "If you're going to be late, you call."

"Nothing happened."

"You always say that. You know I worry! I don't want to fear for your safety after I say goodbye in the morning."

Freshman year he had been pushed down the stairs. Castiel always suspected it was the boy who had been bullying him that year, although he could never prove it. His severely sprained arm had to be wrapped up in Ace bandages and was nearly immobile for three weeks. His mother contacted the school, but since Castiel didn't see the boy do it and no one else came forward, the incident was dropped by the administration. Castiel had had run-ins with other bullies besides the one freshman year and Alastair, and his mother had been fighting a losing battle to get someone to do something to protect her son. Castiel was of the opinion that since the administration didn't seem to care, calling the school only made his situation worse every time. He tried to discourage his mother from getting involved, but she was insistent.

"Mama, I can take care of myself."

"If you're being bullied again I want you to tell me, Castiel," she said.

Castiel had been homeschooled because his mother thought he could receive a better education with her instruction. For years she split her time between homeschooling and her other two jobs required to support the family: adjunct English professor at Del Mar College, and data entry on weekends. Beginning a public school education in eighth grade was a huge shock for Castiel, and he knew his mother felt guilty about it, especially after he suffered from bullying.

"I'm not."

"If you were being bullied again, would you admit it? Or are you trying to live up to Michael?"

The summer he turned thirteen, his older brother Michael had been killed in a motorcycle accident. He was everything Castiel wasn't: athletic, gregarious, and confident in his abilities. He played football with a social league in the area, he went on dates, he had friends. The moment Michael was old enough to work, he helped support the family enough to allow their mother to go back to school for her doctorate. Michael had been attending college courses and working at a local bookstore when he was struck from behind while waiting at a red light. After that, his mother had to return to work full time and Castiel was at the mercy of the public school system.

Each time he was bullied, Castiel would think about how Michael would react. Michael would've been tough, and aggressive, and fought back. He never would have put up with what Castiel suffered on a daily basis. Michael was too much of a man for that.

"This has nothing to do with Michael," he answered, staring at the floor. He knew he'd been caught in a lie the minute he looked back up at her.

His mother sat down on the couch, and patted the cushion next to her to usher him over. "Sweetheart, you mustn't feel obligated to try and live up to your older brother. You are one of the most artistic, well-read, and emotional young men I've ever had the pleasure of knowing."

"Everything Michael was not."

"That's why you are you, honey, and I love you for exactly who you've become. You have to find your own way. There's nothing wrong with being different."

"Around here there is, Mama."

"I know," she said, putting her arm around him. "I find it distressing that someone who is as sweet and caring as you can earn such contempt."

"It's the nature of high school."

"It is, unfortunately. But listen to me, Castiel. If you are having difficulties in school, I want you to tell me. If those boys are picking on you for...for whatever reason, you come to me. If you need to talk -- even about something you think I wouldn't understand -- I don't want you to be afraid. I'm your mother, and I will never stop loving you, no matter what."

There was a force behind her words Castiel had never heard before. "Yes, ma'am."

"Good." She brushed his hair out of his eyes and away from his glasses. "Go wash for dinner."

He walked away into the bathroom, wondering exactly what it was his mother was talking about.

Two weeks passed since the conversation with his mother, during which Castiel suffered from almost non-stop verbal and physical attacks on his way to English every morning. Once he ducked out of the way when a rotten and moldy orange was thrown at his head. He was shoved into lockers. He tried to ignore the whistles and shouts of "fag" and "queer" and other insults. He nearly fell when someone grabbed the cuff of his jeans while he was walking up the stairs. One morning he decided to try the east stairwell again and make up an excuse to Ms. Milton why he was late, until Alastair discovered it and waited for him there instead.

He was exhausted from constantly being on edge, but didn't know how to make it stop. If he told someone he could trust -- like Ms. Milton -- Alastair might be reprimanded, which meant the harassment would get worse. And as kind as Ms. Milton was, she was young and idealistic, and didn't really understand the social hierarchy of high school.

He tried not to let it affect his grades. Most mornings, though, it was a struggle to simply get out of bed.

The first bell for homeroom rang and Castiel stifled a yawn. He had been having nightmares because of his constant thoughts about Alastair, and although he kept what was happening from his mother, he knew she was worried.

"Apparently congratulations are in order."

Castiel and the rest of his homeroom classmates looked up for Mr. Zachariah's announcement.

"The new guy, Dean Winchester, made the baseball team. Good for you, I suppose. Other for the Spring Fling are on sale during lunch periods in the cafeteria. The drama club is producing Bye Bye Birdie for all you theater enthusiasts, with performances over the next three weekends. More details can be found posted in the auditorium. And you people are still parking in the visitors' spaces. Why is this hard to understand?"

Castiel tuned out the rest of the announcements and concentrated on his sketchbook. Now that Dean was officially a member of the baseball team, chances were that he'd pick up harassing Castiel in homeroom where Alastair left off in the hallways. Strangely, Dean hadn't participated with Alastair while he humiliated Castiel, but he never helped either. Dean just stood there and watched. He was sure Dean had ulterior motives, and it was just a matter of time before they became obvious.

When the bell signaling the end of homeroom rang, Castiel watched Dean run off down the hall. Castiel took his time gathering his things. His mind was preoccupied with Dean's acceptance onto the baseball team and what Alastair was planning. If Dean started bothering him while he was still in homeroom Castiel wasn't sure if he could deal with it. Being on constant guard against Alastair was one thing, but having to watch his back in homeroom, English, and doubly so in auto shop was too much.

He passed the first floor bathrooms and wasn't paying attention to where he was until he felt a hard shove and tripped over someone's outstretched foot. The momentum carried him forward, allowing the left side of his body to connect with the edge of the stairwell banister. His backpack and books scattered across the hallway.

He landed with a grunt and had to lie there for a minute to catch his breath. Castiel sat up, holding his bruised ribs. Alastair's laughter and that of Tom's and Brady's spread throughout the hallway, along with a dozen others who watched it happen. They were all laughing at him, except Dean, who was staring.

Why that was Castiel couldn't decide, but for the moment all he could do was sit there, so angry he was shaking. He crawled over to his backpack and gathered up his books and papers that were strewn across the tiled floor, then stood up where everyone could see him and shouted at the top of his lungs.

"Fuck you, Alastair Folterknecht! Fuck you and the whole Hornets baseball team! Fuck you, you...fucking fucks!"

At that, the laughter got even louder, and without thinking he burst through the side door and ran for the baseball field.

Castiel thought about running home, but he felt flustered and exhausted and wasn't up to making the two-and-a-half mile trek. And although he already had his driver's license, without a car of his own it was useless. He certainly couldn't bother his mother at work, either. Instead he decided he would go to his quiet lunch spot and hide until it was time to go home. He couldn't face the rest of his classes that day and wondered what would happen to him. He'd never skipped school or classes before.

He was angry and humiliated. The more he thought about what happened, the more frustrated he got. He felt like crying, but he was so pissed off he grabbed a nearby branch and smashed it against a tree trunk instead. The branch burst into a thousand dry splinters, and he kept swinging and swinging until there was nothing left. Pieces of wood crumbled in his hands, and he collapsed to his knees from the effort.

His ribs hurt from where he hit the banister, so he used his backpack for a pillow and curled up in the needles under the pine tree where he normally ate lunch. All the stress of the morning overtook him, and he eventually fell asleep.

When he woke the sun was overhead and his stomach was growling. He grew angry again when he realized he would miss lunch because of stupid Alastair and because of his impulsive reaction to that morning's incident. He was trapped until school let out.

Castiel dug out his sketchbook and tried to get some work done. He wished he could do an installation as one of his art projects. He imagined hanging up a canvas of Alastair's ugly, evil face and then smearing it with black and red paint. And then shooting it with arrows. And maybe setting it on fire. That was how he was feeling right now.

He turned over and decided to practice his shadowing by sketching a fallen pine cone when he spotted someone walking across the baseball field. Castiel saw the leather coat and its turned-up collar and sunk down onto his stomach behind the trees. This time, though, Dean didn't stop at third base or the bleachers. He continued to walk right past the clay and into the outfield.

How Dean had found him was the least of his concerns. Castiel couldn't move deeper into the woods because Dean would certainly see him get up. He knew he wouldn't be able to outrun a guy who played baseball and, from the looks of him, probably lifted weights.

Heart in his throat, Castiel tried to slink back to find better cover. The copse of pine trees didn't afford him much concealment at all. He tried to skitter backwards, but Dean easily hopped the high outfield fence, and in three quick strides he was standing there, looking down at Castiel.

"Hey -- "

Castiel rolled over and came to his feet. He quickly glanced around and went for a fallen branch as thick as his arm. He put a tree between him and Dean for protection, and held up the branch, ready to swing.

"Don't!" Castiel yelled, his voice close to breaking. "Don't you dare touch me! I don't want to hit you, but I will not hesitate to defend myself! I don't care what happens. I won't let you hurt me!"

"I'm not gonna touch you, man."

"Were you waiting all this time to get me alone? Is that it? Is that what you and Alastair were planning?"

Castiel's stomach lurched. The rush of adrenaline had him trembling, which wasn't making much of an impression that he could, in fact, defend himself. All he could think about was that no one knew of his secret lunch spot, and if Dean beat him up out here, there was a very good chance he wouldn't be found. That scared him more than possibly smashing a large tree branch over Dean's head.

Dean held up his hands. "Calm down, okay? I'm not doin' anything to you. I don't wanna hurt you."

Castiel was near panic and shouted out the first thing that came to his mind.

"You'll excuse my disbelief as to the veracity of that statement!" he yelled, still holding up the branch.


"I don't believe you!"

"Look, I'm not with Alastair or whatever it is you're talkin' about. After what happened this mornin', I came out here to see if you were all right."

"I'm just splendid." Castiel balanced the tree branch in one hand and lifted the edge of his shirt to show off the ugly black and purple bruise blossoming across his ribs.

Dean sucked air through his teeth. "That looks like it really -- "

"How did you know where to find me?" Castiel asked angrily.

"It was during my first day a few weeks ago. You eat your lunch out here, right? I followed you."

"I remember. I saw you. Why?"

"I dunno," Dean answered. "I was standing there on my first morning talking with Coach Zazel and I heard what Alastair said to you. I felt bad after I saw him shove you like that. I wanted to come talk to you. I wasn't really sure what to say though, so I kinda chickened out and sat on the bleachers until the bell rang instead."

"Oh, you felt bad? Well, thanks for letting me know," Castiel said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

"I should have said somethin' before now."

"What about over the past two weeks as Alastair kept shoving me into the lockers or calling me 'fag' and 'queer' while you stood there and watched? Or did you take a sudden interest in my well-being only after he tripped me earlier today hoping the stairwell banister would cut me in half?"

Dean couldn't meet his eyes. "I didn't -- "

Castiel shook his head, and everything that had been building from that morning's humiliation came rushing to the surface.

"Why should it bother you that the kid everyone hates is getting terrorized? I'm a freak and a loser and a fag and whatever else they call me, isn't that correct? I'm nothing to you!" he yelled, pointing his finger at Dean. "Life for you at Flour Bluff will be easy. You'll hang out with the captain of the baseball team and be both feared and admired. You'll be popular, because you're handsome and athletic, and those two attributes alone will elevate your social status. And even if you can't spell your own name no one will care as long as you're not fat or covered in pimples, or wear glasses or need braces or look and talk weird! Look at yourself. You''re perfect!"

Dean looked up at that. "You don't know me. I'm nowhere near perfect."

"You're right, I don't know you. And you don't know me, either. Why should I believe the guy who hangs around with Alastair cares about how I'm feeling after he watched him do that to me day after day?"

"I do, all right? I know I should've done somethin' before, and I'm sorry about that. But I was new and didn't know what to say." Dean made a pleading gesture with his hands. "I don't like seein' people get hurt for no reason."

Castiel was breathing hard, and leaned up against a tree.

"Shall I take that to mean you don't intend to beat me up, then?"

"I don't."

Castiel tossed the branch aside and sat down, hard, his legs finally giving out after the initial rush of adrenaline. He hissed at the pain in his side.

"That's a relief."

Dean sat down next to him. "Sorry I scared you. I tried talkin' to you my first day in English, and then in auto shop, but you seemed kind of -- "


"Nervous, and now I can understand why. Have you been waitin' all this time for me to do somethin' to you?"

"Well," Castiel admitted, "yes. You do hang out with Alastair, after all."

"I don't, not really. We have short team meetings in the time between homeroom and first period. That's why I'm always rushin' from homeroom."

"So you're telling me you're not friends with him?"

"Not really, no. He's just a teammate."

Castiel wasn't sure whether or not to take him at his word, but since he hadn't tried to assault him yet, he figured Dean might be telling the truth.

"That makes sense. I never could understand why you simply stood there and didn't join in."

"I'm not like that, Castiel."

"No? If you're not like Alastair, then what are you like, Dean? Because despite your good intentions, you didn't intervene on my behalf."

"I know."

Castiel sighed. "I assume it was easier to be silent than stand up for what was right."

Dean shuffled some pine needles around with the toe of his boot.

Castiel knew Dean never would have gone through all this effort of tracking him down if he wasn't truly remorseful. After all, Dean didn't participate in or perpetrate any of the offenses against Castiel -- he just wasn't sure what to do or say to Alastair and the rest of the team to make it stop. Castiel could understand that.

"I'm not blaming you," Castiel said. "I recognize your awkwardness in dealing with this situation. It must be particularly difficult being the new kid, even if he is as popular and handsome as you."

"You keep sayin' that. I'm not."

"Handsome?" Castiel scoffed. "Is your house without mirrors?"

Dean grinned at that, and then got serious again. "You're right, though. It was easier not sayin' anything when those guys were harassing you. I knew it was wrong, but I just...stood there. I'm really sorry."

In the few years he had been in school, Castiel had built up a natural distrust of his fellow classmates because of all the teasing he endured. When someone talked to him, he automatically assumed they were out to torment him. His mother tried to dissuade him of this mindset, but he never could work out the proper skills it took to make friends as easily as Michael did. Someone finally showing him compassion made him willing to try a new direction. Perhaps he could have a friend in Dean.

Castiel held out his hand. "I appreciate your honesty...and your kindness."

Dean took his hand and shook it, and smiled. "Good to meet you, Castiel."

"Likewise, Dean." He adjusted his glasses and brushed the hair from his forehead. "So, uh, I suppose I should apologize for assuming you were going to harm me. It seems I'm predisposed to being teased and taunted."


Castiel looked at him blankly. "You're being facetious, right?"

"Um. No? I guess?"

"People find me weird and won't talk to me. I wear glasses. I'm awkward in social situations. I'm shy and nerdy and -- "

"And you scored a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the SATs?"

"No, only a 740, unfortunately."

Dean laughed.

"Why is that humorous?"

"It's nothin', man," Dean said, still smiling.

Castiel sighed. "I'm singled out because I'm different."

"If it helps you feel any better, I have a hard time with people and have trouble makin' friends, too."

"Really? I find that hard to believe."

"It's true. This is the third school I've been to just for junior year. Whenever I tried to be friendly it was time to leave again. I sorta gave up after a while, y'know, figuring it was easier not to know people at all. I got fed up and pissed off and kept to myself. I stopped talkin' to everyone."

Castiel was astonished that Dean wasn't as self-assured and confident as he thought he was, and even more surprised that Dean actually admitted it.

"I've heard you're now a member of the baseball team. That alone should make your transition as a new student easier."

"I'm no Wade Boggs."

Castiel frowned. "I don't understand that reference."

"He's one of the greatest third basemen in baseball history," Dean said. "Someone I'm definitely not. I play third base, but I pretty much suck because every time I get the chance to practice with a real team we move again. Hell, I'm not even a starter."

"A starter?"

"It means I'll be in uniform, but chances are I'll be sittin' on the bench the entire game."

"Oh, I see. Sorry to hear that."

"I guess. My dad is the one who's always tryin' to get me to go out for the team. Most of the time the other team members are such dickheads I quit anyway," Dean said, turning his head over to where something had caught his attention. He got up and walked a short distance away, eventually returning with Castiel's sketchbook in his hands. He brushed the dirt and pine needles from it.

"You must've dropped this," Dean said, handing it to Castiel.

Castiel looked in his backpack, suddenly realizing he had been in the midst of a sketch when he encountered Dean.

"I didn't even know it was missing," Castiel said, gratefully taking it and smoothing his hand over the cover.

"What is that?" Dean asked, sitting back down.

"My sketchbook."

"Right, I remember. I saw you drawin' the kestrel in it during English."

"You knew what kind of bird that was?" Castiel asked, flipping to the page with his illustration on it and showing it to Dean.

"Of course."

"The shadowing is off," Castiel admitted.

"Well, I can't tell. It's cool as hell."

"Thanks," Castiel said, slightly embarrassed. "I believe you were watching me draw that while you should have been catching up on Hamlet. Although based on the line you quoted me in auto shop, I assume you've already read it."

"Yeah, like four schools ago. That's sorta why I laughed at you when the English teacher, what's-her-name -- "

"Ms. Milton."

"Right, when Ms. Milton caught you readin' ahead. Same thing happened to me. I wanted to see how it ended, y'know?"

Castiel nodded, somewhat amazed he had this much in common with someone he was sure was going to be just another dumb, arrogant jock.

"Hey," Dean said, "I almost forgot."

Dean pulled his backpack around and unzipped it. He handed Castiel a brown paper bag.

"What's this?" Castiel asked.

"When I didn't see you in English, I had a feelin' you might be staying out here for the rest of the day."

Castiel removed a cheeseburger and a Coke from the paper bag.

"I brought you lunch. I hope you don't mind the cafeteria burgers," Dean said.

"That was very thoughtful of you," Castiel said, pleasantly surprised that he had misjudged Dean.

He popped the tab on the Coke, and Dean went to get up.

"Wait. You don't have to leave." Castiel tore the cheeseburger in half, doing a decent job of separating it into equal parts. "I would very much like to share lunch with you, Dean."

"Cool," Dean said, sitting back down again.

The burger was dry and the bun stale, but to Castiel it was the best he had tasted in years.

When Dean didn't show up in homeroom the next morning, Castiel grew somewhat concerned. He hoped his trust hasn't been misplaced and that Dean's attempt at an apology wasn't a ruse. Trying not to assume the worst was a habit he found hard to break.

Mr. Zachariah was droning on through the morning's announcements, but Castiel was preoccupied with Dean's whereabouts. Castiel wanted to talk with Dean further. Their lunch in the woods was a start, of course; Castiel did his best, but they hadn't spoken more than they already had. Lunch was over sooner than he realized or wanted it to be, and Dean left. Castiel did what he had planned, which was to hide out in the woods until he could see the buses pull up for the day's dismissal.

He was expecting to find Dean in homeroom, so Castiel had been practicing hopefully non-awkward conversation starters. He wished he had more confidence to simply say, Hey, how's it going this morning? or words to that effect, instead of what he really wanted to tell him, which was, Thank you for being the first person to show me some compassion. Castiel reasoned the latter probably sounded too weird.

The bell rang and Castiel gathered his things, and then followed the rest of the students out on their way to first period.

He paused near the bathrooms to check the hallway, and to his relief Alastair, Tom, and Brady had already left for their first period classes. Either that or they were already in their baseball meeting, but regardless, he was able to make it to English that morning unscathed. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding and ascended to the second floor.

Just as the bell rang, Dean walked in.


"Hello, Dean," Castiel answered.

"Did I miss anything in homeroom?"

"Just attendance."

Dean chuckled at him. "I stopped in the office before I came up. We had a team meeting that started earlier than usual."

Ms. Milton then called the class to attention.

"You'll be glad to know that your hard work over the past two weeks means that we're done with Hamlet and Shakespeare."

The class let out a celebratory whoop.

"That leads us into the next section we'll be covering for the remainder of this semester: the romantic poets. I bet everyone can't wait for that."

The class then groaned again.

"William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Byron...these British poets were active in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. For the first time these poets wrote in a free-form style, abandoning rhyming verse and focusing on love and nature. They changed the way poetry was written and influenced many writers to come, including American poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman -- "

Castiel tried to listen as Ms. Milton went on to talk about famous poems like Ode on a Grecian Urn and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but his mind wasn't focused on romantic poetry this morning. It was with Dean.

He stole a glance in Dean's direction, wishing his anxiety wasn't like a lead weight in his stomach. He was annoyed at himself for feeling that way; he shouldn't be reduced to a quivering mess of nerves just to start a conversation.

"We're going to go over some of the most famous romantic poetry over the next couple of weeks. By the time the semester is over, I want each of you to have memorized one romantic poem -- the author is your choice -- which will then be presented orally here in class as a part of your final exam."

The class groaned even louder that time, a clear indication that the consensus on public speaking was definitely negative. It never bothered Castiel, as long as he had to give the speech in a class he enjoyed. If this assignment were given out in auto shop for example, it would have been like a death sentence.

Despite his best efforts, the class was almost over by the time Castiel thought to ask Dean about how his baseball meeting went in order to strike up a conversation. It wasn't long afterward that the bell rang, and Dean was off to his next class with a wave goodbye before Castiel had a chance to say anything.

He sighed. There he was, secretly hoping that the pleasantries he exchanged with Dean yesterday would result in a true friendship, but unsure of how to proceed without seeming needy.


"Yes, Ms. Milton?"

"A word."

He knew this had to be about skipping class, so he steeled himself for the inevitable.

"I heard about what happened with Alastair yesterday."

That he didn't expect. "Oh."

"Did you get hurt?"

"My ribs and self-esteem are slightly bruised."

"You need to report it," she said, concerned.

"It would make things worse," he answered truthfully.

"Castiel -- "

"I speak from previous experience, Ms. Milton. I suspect my tormentor from freshman year pushed me down the stairs, and when my mother intervened on my behalf I was subjected to even more frequent assaults. This year Alastair's attacks are almost constant, but I do not wish them escalated. I must try to deal with him in my own way."

She sighed. "If you need someone to talk to, about anything, I'm always here."

"Thank you."

As he left the room, he wondered why both his mother and Ms. Milton kept stressing he open up to them about these mysterious things other than bullying. It confused him, as if they knew something he didn't.

On his way out to the path around the football field and to his secret lunch spot behind the baseball field, he passed by the student parking lot. In the center of the lot sat Alastair, in the driver's seat of a brand new 1995 yellow Mustang. Brady and Tom were standing nearby, talking with Alastair through his open window. Castiel assumed they were congratulating him on his ride.

Castiel kept walking, but stopped when he saw Dean come out of a side door. He headed over to a large black car Castiel immediately recognized as the classic Chevrolet owned by the new tenant in his apartment complex. So Dean was his neighbor as well. He probably never saw him driving the Chevy because by the time Castiel's bus got to the end of its route, Dean had already driven home, and on the days Dean had late baseball practice after school, Castiel was home eating dinner.

Alastair ushered Dean over, obviously taking pride in showing off his brand new car. Castiel couldn't hear everything they were saying, but Alastair lifted the Mustang's hood and in between snippets of "She's gorgeous" and "Look at that engine," he could see Dean shrug and nod.

Castiel had almost cleared the lot when he was stopped by the school principal, Mr. Murphy.

"Mr. Agnes, we need to speak about the incident in the hall yesterday."

"It's 'Agnus,' sir."

"Right, of course. One of your teachers informed me about what happened, but she has a reputation for being a little dramatic."

Castiel guessed Ms. Milton was the one he was referring to. He couldn't be mad at her; no doubt she had an obligation to report something like that when it happened. He didn't consider Ms. Milton dramatic, however. She was one of the most level-headed people he had ever met.

"Like her, you seem to be blowing this incident out of proportion. Just because you tripped and fell does not give you the right to use vulgar language inside school grounds -- especially not in the middle of the hallway where others can hear you."

"But I didn't simply trip and fall. I was -- "

He prevented himself from explaining further when he saw that Alastair had stopped talking to Dean and was now turned his way. He knew Alastair couldn't hear all of what was being said, but his undivided attention was warning enough.

"I mean, I was...uh, yes, sir. I apologize for using that language."

"I know you've had trouble at school before, correct?"

"Yes, both freshman and sophomore years."

Castiel tried to resist the urge to roll his eyes at a man for whom he had little respect. He and his mother had been in numerous conferences with Murphy, but neither he nor the rest of his staff did what they were supposed to do to help Castiel. To them he was a complainer who couldn't handle the rigors of high school. Nothing his mother could do to convince them otherwise worked. And to top it off, Murphy couldn't even remember his correct name.

"I'm not inclined to pursue this further, Mr. Agnes, as long as we don't have another one of these outbursts from you, is that understood?"

Castiel glanced over and caught Alastair's eye.

"Yes," he mumbled, "thank you, sir."

Mr. Murphy patted his shoulder and gave him a fake smile. "Good, Agnes. Enjoy the rest of your day."

Castiel spent lunch in the woods with ham and cheese and his sketchbook, trying in vain to scribble down something -- anything -- to keep it up to date. He'd been so distracted by what had been happening over the past few days that he was falling behind. Some pencil strokes and multiple erasures later, he lost interest not long after finishing up his banana, and gave up.

Then he took out his copy of Leaves of Grass, which his mother had used during his homeschooling days. She had a great affinity for Walt Whitman, and her love of his poetry carried over to Castiel as well. He was considering memorizing one of the poems for his English final.

But he was unable to concentrate. Feeling restless, he cleaned up after himself and headed to auto shop early.

Unfortunately, when he got there he was met with Alastair, Tom, Brady, and the shiny new Mustang parked in the auto shop bay. Alastair was gesturing and talking with Mr. Singer, who was leaning over the open hood of the car. Castiel tried to retreat from the room, but Alastair noticed him right away.

"Be right back, Mr. Singer. Why don't you check out the inside?"

Alastair left the three of them to drool over the car and started walking toward Castiel. Castiel edged over to the door to run, but Alastair suddenly put his arm around Castiel's shoulder, squeezed it painfully, and ushered him out of earshot of Mr. Singer.

"Auto shop is for the boys, Asstiel," he sneered. "We're busy looking at my new car."

"I'm allowed to be early to class if I so choose."

"I say you're not, you little fag. Get the fuck out of here before I lose patience."

Castiel could feel his knees quivering, but he stood his ground.

Alastair picked up a grease gun from where it was lying on a benchtop and menacingly pointed it at a spot between Castiel's eyes. Castiel instinctively backed up and bumped into the edge of the open classroom door.

"Have a nice chat with Murphy?"

"I-I didn't say anything to him!"

"You sure about that?"

Alastair spun Castiel around by twisting his shoulder, and then he grabbed Castiel's hair to pin his face against the corner of the door. Castiel tried to kick back with his leg, but Alastair was both taller and stronger than he was. Alastair leaned over to whisper in Castiel's ear.

"Because if someone opens his fucking mouth to spout some bullshit about me and I get suspended, crying after being tripped in the hall is going to be the least of your problems. Now get out of my face."

Alastair gripped Castiel's hair to keep him from moving, and squeezed the grease gun against the back of his head.

The viscous stuff went all over Castiel's hair, neck, backpack, and down into his T-shirt, where it slowly oozed between his shoulder blades. Alastair then shoved him hard enough so that Castiel flew through the doorway and bounced into the lockers across from the auto shop classroom.

"I didn't cry," Castiel said miserably as the door shut in his face. "Asshole."

He took off his backpack to assess the damage, fearing for his sketchbook. Luckily the canvas protected what was inside, but he would need a new bag based on the smell alone.

Now more than ever Castiel vowed to himself that he would find a way to get revenge on Alastair. He wasn't sure how he was going to do it, or if it would even be successful, but he needed to do something to make him feel like he wasn't at Alastair's mercy.

Castiel knew he needed to defend himself, but he wasn't stupid. With Alastair towering over him and Tom and Brady close at hand during all their confrontations, Castiel knew trying to fight would be disastrous.

Of course, cursing them out yesterday morning hadn't helped. He was still in the same position he'd been in for the past few weeks, except now he had a huge bruise on his side, grease sliding between his shoulder blades, a new and more menacing threat from Alastair, and he had missed all of yesterday's classes.

He could smell the grease all over him and knew he wouldn't be able to stay in class like that, or take the bus. Castiel had plenty of time to think of a way to get justice for himself on his two-and-a-half mile walk home.

He was about twenty minutes into his trip when he heard the unmistakable growl of a powerful engine behind him. He stopped, sent up a prayer that the rumble wasn't a yellow Mustang, and turned around. To his relief, Dean sat behind the wheel of the giant Chevy, and he was waving for him.

"Hey. What are you doin' out here?"

"Walking home I'm afraid, thanks to Alastair," Castiel replied.

"That son of a...well, c'mon, I'll drive you."

"I don't think that would be a wise idea, Dean."

Dean frowned. "Why is that?"

"You'll smell why as I get closer."

Dean crooked a finger at him, and Castiel moved over to the driver's side window. Dean scrunched up his face.

"What the hell?" Dean asked.

"I interrupted Alastair showing off his Mustang in auto shop when I arrived early. Evidently he didn't like it, because he shot me with the grease gun."

Castiel decided to leave out the part where Alastair threatened him.

"The grease gun? Jesus, Castiel." Dean put the Chevy in park and got out. He went around to the trunk and came back with an old towel. He placed it over the passenger side upholstery and motioned for Castiel to get in. "I was wonderin' why you missed class. Why does that guy hate you so much?"

Castiel gratefully sat down. "I'm not quite sure of all the reasons specifically, but a perfectly rising spinach soufflé has much to do with my current predicament."

Dean looked over at him. "No offense, man, but sometimes I can't understand what the hell you're talkin' about."

"I was homeschooled until I was thirteen."

"Oh," Dean said, as if Castiel's comment explained everything.

"Earlier this year we had a home economics class, during which I received an A for baking a spinach soufflé. Everyone taunted me even more after that."

"They started callin' you gay." Dean made it more of a statement than a question.

"Yes, but the names they use are worse."

Dean shook his head and started the car. "You must be havin' a really hard time lately. That sucks."

"I suppose adding homosexual epithets to the already lengthy list of things they call me was inevitable." He sighed. "Ever since I started coming to school I've had difficulty fitting in. I don't have any friends."

"That can't be all true. You must have someone you talk to durin' the day."

"Well, I did, but he moved away at the beginning of freshman year. Aside from teachers, no, not this year."

"Then ever since you started junior year -- "

"Ever since I began public school in eighth grade I've had problems. High school has been an entirely new, miserable experience. People hate me."

"Well, if it makes you feel better, I don't hate you," Dean said, his voice tinged with sympathy.

Castiel met Dean's eyes when he said that.

"Yes, it does. Thank you for saying that, Dean."

"Alastair must be an extra asshole to keep doing that to you, Cas. What a dick."

Castiel smiled a little, almost to himself.

"What?" Dean asked.

"No one has ever called me 'Cas' before."

"Really? Sorry, man, I didn't mean to -- "

"No, it's perfectly all right. I wouldn't mind if you called me that."

Dean looked over at him and then back at the road. "I like your name. It's really different."

"I was named for an angel."

"Huh. That's pretty cool."

"Most people don't share that sentiment," Castiel said.

"Like I said, assholes, Cas. Screw 'em. Now, where we goin'?"

"We live in the same complex," Castiel said. "You're in apartment 162, I believe."

"No kiddin'. Yeah, we are, me and my old man. How'd you know that?" Dean asked.

"I recognized this behemoth of a car parked in the lot."

Dean laughed; it was a loud, open-mouthed bellow that surprised Castiel.

"This is a '67 Chevy Impala, dude! She's a classic, a 327 four-barrel with 275 horses. She's still gonna be badass when she's forty."

Dean smiled at him, and Castiel was secretly pleased with himself for making Dean laugh like that, however unintentionally. Something about it made him feel good.

"I'll take your word for it. You certainly know a lot about cars based on your performance in auto shop."

"Good with my hands. Probably be a mechanic like my old man. He's a civilian contractor out at the naval air station. He served with the Marines in Vietnam, and I guess he never could stay too far away. He works on helicopters."

"Is that why you moved here to Corpus Christi?"

"And Arizona, and California, and Florida, and a couple of towns in North Carolina I lost track of."

"I thought you said you were from Kansas."

"I was born in Kansas. Whenever anyone asks me where I'm from, that's what I tell them. It's easier than tryin' to pick from whatever base we've been on. I can't really remember anymore. Pretty much wherever there's a Marine air station, we've lived there."

"What about furthering your education? You don't intend to pursue college?" Castiel asked.

"Nah. I'll leave that to the smarter kids, like you."

"I don't consider myself particularly intelligent."

"Then you're sellin' yourself short, Cas. Shit, you already talk like a college professor."

"I hadn't realized."

"You hadn't realized? Well, you did say you were homeschooled."

"Yes," Castiel said.

"When I said I couldn't understand you."


"I meant all the big words you use, man," Dean said.

"Oh. I thought you were referring to why I knew how to make a soufflé."

Dean laughed again, and Castiel's stomach did an odd little flip. He cracked a little smile back, in spite of himself.

"If you're named after an angel, does that mean you were one of those religious homeschooled kids?" Dean asked. "Or is that too personal? I don't wanna make you feel weird about it or whatever."

"No, not at all. My mother is an adjunct professor of English out at Del Mar College. She felt my education would be better served if she were the one doing the teaching. I believe she chose my name simply because she liked it."

Dean turned the corner into the complex and motored down into their section of parking lot. He found a spot and killed the engine.

"Where are you?" Dean asked.

"Apartment 174."

"We're almost neighbors."

Castiel sat there for a moment, his mind whirling, trying to build up courage for what he wanted to do next. He initially believed Dean was going to beat him up, yet they'd somehow struck up an unlikely friendship. He thought he'd given up on ever finding someone to confide in a long time ago, but he wasn't about to let this chance get away from him now -- despite the way his heart was pounding nervously in his chest.

"Uh, Dean?"


"I know this may sound strange, or even stupid, and I realize this is only the second time we've conversed at any length -- "

"What the heck are you talkin' about?"

"You can certainly say no if you'd like to, but -- " Castiel looked down at his hands, which were twitching nervously.

"But what?"

"Would you mind if I called you my friend?" Castiel asked.

Dean made a face, and then laughed. "That's an awful lot of words for somethin' so simple."

"I don't understand."

"You think too much, man. I thought we already were friends."

"You thought...oh. Oh, well, that's great, then." Castiel smiled at him, excited and relieved at the same time. "I wasn't sure. I didn't want to jump to any presumptuous conclusions."

Dean grinned at him from across the car. "I don't know exactly what that means, but I think you're pretty cool, Cas."


"Sure, the way you're all smart and artistic and creative and talk to the teachers like equals. Well, to Ms. Milton about Hamlet, anyway." Dean got out of the car and motioned for Castiel to do the same. "C'mon. I'm starvin'. I need to make myself some dinner."

Castiel was so flustered by Dean's compliments that he barely noticed he was still sitting in the car.

"Thanks for the ride, Dean," he said, getting out of the Impala. "I really appreciate it."

"No problem. See you tomorrow, okay?"

"Yes, see you tomorrow."

Dean walked away and onto the sidewalk that led to his apartment. Castiel was still standing there awkwardly next to the car when it occurred to him that Dean had mentioned him being artistic and creative, which to Castiel were some of the greatest compliments he had ever received. His teachers often commented on his creativity of course, but never a fellow student. It gave him a renewed sense of pride.

He smelled of grease and his clothes and backpack were ruined, but he greeted his mother with a cheery hello when he walked through the door.

"You're in a good mood, despite not calling again, Castiel." She sniffed. "What is that smell?"


His mother frowned. "Grease. I see. Care to explain yourself?"

"It's okay, I have it under control."

"You have it under..." She spun him around. "Castiel, it's all over your hair! And your shirt and school bag, they're coated with it!"

"Mama -- "

"Young man, you will tell me what's going on this instant, and do not attempt to fabricate some elaborate story, do you understand?"

Castiel looked down. "Yes, ma'am."

"Now. Why are you covered in grease?"


She waited for further explanation, but when it wasn't forthcoming, Castiel knew that she knew. "I assume this is the boy who has been bullying you, despite your statements to the contrary."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And is this the real reason you skipped school the other day?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'm calling that damned school."

"No, please, don't!" He reached out for her arm. "It's just -- "

"Castiel, we've been through this. I will not have my son put in harm's way simply because some other child can't control his violent impulses. It's unconscionable behavior."

"But -- "

"Do not argue with me." She sighed, and then softened. "Sweetheart, you are the most important thing in my life. I would do anything to protect you. If someone were ever to hurt you, it would honestly break me inside."

"It's merely teasing."

"Teasing has a way of escalating," she stated simply.

"I know," Castiel said, his aching ribs reminding him of how right she was.

She brushed the hair out of his eyes and adjusted his glasses on his nose. "How did you get home?"

Castiel momentarily brightened. "I couldn't take the bus."

"You should have called me at work," she said.

"I began to walk, but my friend Dean stopped and offered to give me a ride."

"Your friend Dean? Who's this?"

"He plays third base for the baseball team but he doesn't get to be a starter player -- which is unfortunate because he's not Wade Boggs -- and we have homeroom together, and he sits next to me in English, and he knew it was a kestrel simply by looking at my sketch!" Castiel's enthusiasm spilled over into his speech and everything came rushing out at once. "He drives a classic 1967 Chevrolet Impala, and he wears a leather jacket with his collar up -- that's how I know it's him coming across the baseball field -- and we ate lunch together, and he's been to three different high schools this year because his father is a civilian contractor with the Marines and he moves around frequently, and I've noticed he always has work boots on, never sneakers -- "

She smiled at him knowingly. "I see this young man has made quite an impression on you."

"Oh, yes, he even apologized to me for not saying anything when Alastair called me a faggot, and I -- "


"Dean apologized."

"I heard that part. Alastair used that word?"

"It's just a word."

"No, Castiel, it's hurtful and cruel, and he has no right to say that to you."

"He's merely doing it to goad me into reacting." He looked up at her, confused. "I don't quite understand why you're so upset."

"Not right now you don't." She kissed his forehead. "Why don't you go shower, and then we can sit down to eat and you can tell me more about your friend."

"Dean. Dean Winchester."

"Right, Dean. Go wash and you can tell me more about him."

"He's actually our new neighbor as well. He and his father moved into apartment 162."

"Mm-hmm. Now put everything you're wearing into a garbage bag. We'll run down to Wal-Mart after dinner and get you a new backpack."

"Can I get a new CD as well?"

"We'll see."

"Thanks, Mama."


Castiel was surprised when Dean sat next to him in homeroom. "Hello, Dean."

"I guess you were able to wash the grease out, okay, huh?"

"It took me three washes to get clean, and I had to throw out my clothes."

Dean grinned. "At least you don't smell like the garage. That's a plus."

"I really appreciate you taking me home yesterday."

"It's cool; no big deal."

When he and his mother were talking the night before, Castiel expressed his wish that he could do something to repay Dean for his kindness without seeming too forthright. His mother suggested he ask him to dinner, but Castiel wasn't ready for awkward conversation over pork chops and Brussels sprouts. She then said that she could pack him an extra sandwich, and perhaps Dean would like to have lunch with him. Castiel agreed that this was a good idea; he only had to try to force his mouth to form the words.

"Uh, Dean, I was wondering. As a sort of 'thank you,' if you, perhaps -- " He hesitated, trying not to sound overly enthusiastic.

"Remember us talkin' about you thinkin' too much?"


"Then just say it, Cas."

"I packed two sandwiches today, and I thought if you weren't particularly in the mood for cafeteria food, you might like to join me for lunch. If you wanted to, of course."

Dean thought about it for a moment, and then shrugged. "Sure, why not? The food here's not exactly restaurant quality."

Castiel did his best to hide his excitement. "Of course you know where to meet me."

Mr. Zachariah's morning announcements started, and Dean lowered his voice. "I'll make sure not to be seen. I know you don't want anyone else to know you're out there."

"I can't bear the thought of dealing with the cafeteria every day," Castiel admitted.

"You're tellin' me you've never been in the cafeteria?"

"Not since I found a way to get out to the woods without anyone noticing. I'm socially inept. No one ever wants to talk to me. It makes finding a place to sit in the cafeteria impossible."

"I dunno, you seem to talk to me just fine."

"You're different."

"Why is that?" Dean asked.

Castiel thought about it.

"I have no idea," he answered honestly. "It's rather perplexing to me."

"Maybe you're not as weird as you think."

Castiel cocked his head, and Dean laughed.

"Or," Castiel said, his hand on his chin, "you're not the typical brain-dead popular jock who thinks of nothing but sports, cars, and girls. Perhaps I'm not the only weird one here."

The bell rang signaling the end of homeroom.

"You could be right," Dean said, winking at him. "See you in English."

Castiel wished other guys could have given him a chance the way Dean had. If that were the case, he'd get along with everyone.

Dean and the other students left after the bell rang, but Castiel purposefully left homeroom late, not wanting a run-in with Alastair to ruin his exceptionally good morning. He was certain Ms. Milton would understand.

The halls were deserted by the time he was ready to head up to the second floor for class, and he paused in front of Alastair's locker opposite the stairs. Emboldened by his conversation with Dean and still angry over the grease gun incident, Castiel reached into his backpack for his art markers. He carefully looked back and forth down the hallway, and after reassuring himself there was no one around, wrote Alastair Sucks in large, red letters across Alastair's locker. He pocketed the marker and bounded up the steps, pausing on the landing to admire his handiwork. He felt better already.

Castiel didn't even have to explain himself to Ms. Milton when he arrived late for class that morning. She merely raised an eyebrow at him when he went to take his seat.

He had hoped to talk to Dean some more during class, but Ms. Milton had started things off with a quiz on the romantic poets. The rest of the time Castiel studiously took notes, and then when class was over, Castiel only got a chance to wave goodbye.

He impatiently sat through trig, and only relaxed when it was time for art.

He was using pastels and layering colors on his paper when Mr. Darrow drew the class to attention.

"Let's see what you've been working on this week, everyone. Have your sketchbooks open and available to me as I walk by."

Mr. Darrow meandered through the row of art tables, commenting here and there on students' work.

"Your shading has improved on this piece," Mr. Darrow said, pointing to the pine cone Castiel was sketching the afternoon he first encountered Dean in the woods. "Good eye."

"Thank you."

Mr. Darrow flipped through the latest sketches in the book. "I see you've begun experimenting with figure drawing."

Turning to a page, Mr. Darrow pointed first to the sketch Castiel had made of the back of Dean's head the day he had shown up in homeroom. He passed over a few more pages and came to the image of Dean sprawled across the bleachers, his head back and arms outstretched.

"These are particularly good, Castiel. They may even be better than your still-life sketches."

Mr. Darrow's praise came as a surprise to Castiel, especially because he hadn't taken formal figure drawing classes yet.

"Thank you, Mr. Darrow."

"Your class work is progressing nicely as well," he said, eyeing up the pastel drawing in front of Castiel. "Expressionism suits you."

Castiel stared down at the dark blue and black swirls. "I'm not sure it's good enough for the art show, though. I haven't managed to identify a style on which to focus yet."

Mr. Darrow patted him on the shoulder. "Don't dwell on it too much. Art has to come from the heart, not the head, Castiel. You should feel what you're putting down on the page. If you think about it too much, you're going to fail before you even get started."

"But what if I don't think of something?"

"I'm not worried. You're my most talented student. It'll come."

Castiel sighed. He felt even more pressure after Mr. Darrow's acknowledgment, and he still wasn't any closer to figuring out what he was going to draw. He was being held to a higher standard, so it really needed to stand out. Castiel was lost in thought despite Mr. Darrow's fascinating lesson on Jackson Pollock.

He was glad when class was over and he could head back to his locker for his lunch bag. Dean's company would provide a welcome distraction. The weather was warmer today, so he went with a lighter jacket instead of his coat.

Dean was already waiting for him when he arrived at his lunch spot. He was killing time by rolling a baseball back and forth over his knuckles.

"Hey, Cas."

"Hello, Dean," Castiel said, sitting down next to him.

"You were late to English this mornin'. That's new."

Castiel debated over whether or not to tell Dean what he had done, but decided if he could trust anyone, it would be him.

"I was waylaid by some impromptu artwork."

Dean frowned. "One more time."

"I was late because I decided to write something rude on Alastair's locker."

"That was you?"

Castiel nodded, pleased with himself. "Promise not to tell anyone?"

"Of course not. Holy shit, Cas, what made you do that?"

"I don't really know," Castiel answered, spreading out paper towels on the ground between him and Dean. "I suppose it's my way of fighting back. Are people talking about it?"

"Hell yeah, they are. Alastair freaked out, and Coach Zazel saw it, too. I'm sure Principal Murphy's heard about it by now."


Dean dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry about it. I'm sure no one saw you. Was that for the grease gun?"


"Good for you, man," Dean said. "Serves him right. I still can't believe he did that to you. I haven't talked to him since."

What Castiel didn't say was that it was completely out of character for him to take revenge like that. He tried to play it down, but he was terrified of the consequences of his actions, especially when he heard Principal Murphy was involved. He felt torn, because although he knew it was wrong to vandalize school property, a part of him felt proud for his small act of rebellion. It made him feel even better, in fact, having Dean acknowledge it.

"I hope you like ham and cheese," Castiel said, digging through his lunch bag. "There's lettuce and tomato, and chips, and pickles as well. And I have Coke, and cookies for dessert."

"Damn, Cas," Dean said appreciatively, "this is great."

"I can't take all the credit. My mother helped with most of it."

"You're lucky. My old man isn't even around for dinner. I always have to scrape up somethin' to eat."

"My mother originally entertained the idea of inviting you over for dinner," Castiel said, handing Dean a sandwich, "but I felt it was too soon in our acquaintance to broach that subject."

"What you're really sayin' -- I think -- is that you were afraid to ask me."

"That might indeed be the case," Castiel admitted. "I'm new to all this."

"If it helps, I would have said yes."

"Then I'm assured I won't feel awkward when the time comes for an official invitation. Mama would love to have someone else besides me to cook for."

Castiel grabbed his backpack and dug around for the cans of Coke he had placed at the bottom. In doing so, Dean caught sight of a CD case.

"What CD is that?"

"I bought it when we went to Wal-Mart to get my new backpack. I know technically the album came out last year, but it's really popular and I wanted -- "

Dean grabbed it from him. "Hootie & the Blowfish? You gotta be kiddin' me."


"Really, Cas? These douchebags?"

"I prefer to listen to music during which I can understand the words," Castiel blithely responded.

"I need to school you on the good shit, man! Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black those are bands."

"I'm sure they are, Dean, but if I remember my music history correctly, all of those bands were popular in the '70s, were they not?"

"Well...but..." Dean made a face. "Yeah."

Castiel surprised himself at how comfortable he was by laughing out loud at the look on Dean's face. He laughed so hard he lost his breath and clutched his sides, gasping for air.

At first Dean seemed as shocked as Castiel was, and then he joined in.

"Forgive me," Castiel finally said, when he could speak again. "I don't know why that struck me funny."

"You should do that more often."


"Laugh like that."

Castiel felt himself blush. He stared down at his sandwich, concentrating on picking off an edge of crust.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you, I -- "

Castiel looked back up at him. Dean seemed to be studying his face, and Castiel was doing likewise, noticing a splash of freckles across his nose, the light stubble on his cheeks, and his intense, green eyes.

Now it was Dean's turn to glance away. "Sorry."

Castiel touched Dean's arm to get his attention, and when he did, Castiel handed him a Coke. "You'll be pleased to know I have an eclectic taste in music. You can bring your CDs tomorrow if you'd like. Shall I assume you like bologna?"

"I do. Does this mean we're goin' to have to meet every day for lunch so I can teach you the secrets of classic rock?"

"I suppose it does."

"Is that an official invitation?" Dean asked, smirking.

"Dean -- "

"No, you're not gettin' outta this easy, Cas. Go on."

Castiel made a show of rolling his eyes. "Would you like to have lunch with me tomorrow, Dean?"

"And for the rest of the week in order to work up to the '80s?"

"And for the rest of the week to work up to the '80s."

"Why then yes, Mr. Agnus," Dean said with an affected air, "I certainly would like to have lunch with you. I sure do enjoy your company."

Castiel grinned shyly. "You actually pronounced my name right."

"I pay attention sometimes," Dean replied, taking a bite of his sandwich.

"When you're in English class for example? Hardly."

"When I think it's important."

Castiel tried not to make it obvious how pleased he was that Dean had made an effort to get his name right. Hearing that Dean considered it important made his stomach do that strange little flip again. But he didn't feel nervous anymore around Dean. He was easier to talk to than he expected, and without him knowing it, they had settled into an easy-going conversation. Castiel felt that Dean's personality had a lot do with it; he was outgoing, self-assured, and prepossessing.

Castiel sipped at his Coke and took his sketchbook out of his bag. Opening it in his lap, he grabbed his sandwich with one hand and a pencil with the other. His eyes flicked between Dean and the page in front of him.

Dean leaned back against the tree with his sandwich and chips to watch him.

"Don't move," Castiel said.

"Leave my freckles out," Dean said, correctly guessing that Castiel was sketching him. "They make me look ugly."

"We've already discussed this," Castiel said. "You're far from ugly."

"They make it look like my nose was smeared with somethin'."

"They frame your cheekbones and highlight the color of your eyes," Castiel said matter-of-factly.

"I see I'm not the only one payin' attention around here."

Castiel paused from his sketch to look up, expecting to see Dean smiling at him, but instead he had a serious look on his face. Castiel cleared his throat and went back to drawing.

"I'm sure the girls love them regardless of what you think," Castiel said. "No doubt you've had many girlfriends."

"A few, I guess. Nothin' too serious."

"How do you mean?"

"I'd go out on dates with girls and whatever, but I never had a real girlfriend."

"Was that because you thought you might have to move again?" Castiel asked.

"Nah, I just never connected with anybody. I never had a problem gettin' a girl to go out with me. Most of the time I wasn't even doin' the askin'. But as nice or as pretty as a girl was, it never...I never clicked. I always seemed to find somethin' wrong and I'd never see her again. Or, y'know, maybe I'm really sucky boyfriend material."

"I'm sure you were simply worried about losing a potential girlfriend when it came time to leave yet another school."

Dean shrugged. "I guess."

He couldn't help but feel somewhat sorry for Dean, a boy who seemed very honest and open and funny but who couldn't hold onto anyone in his life because he kept getting shuffled around from place to place.

"I'm positive you're excellent boyfriend material, Dean. You simply have to find the right person."

Dean chuckled and winked at him. "Probably."

Castiel didn't say anything more and let the rest of the conversation hang as he continued to sketch. He finished up his sandwich and the chips, closed his sketchbook, and tossed Dean the Ziploc bag of cookies.

"Lunch is almost over," Castiel said.

"We better get back."


"What do you think goes better with bologna," Dean asked, "Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath?"

Castiel smiled at him. "I'll leave it in your capable hands."

"Awesome. Same time tomorrow?"

"See you then."

For the next week Castiel shared his lunch with Dean, during which he learned more than he ever wanted to know about '70s-era rock bands, why classic cars never went out of style, and why he needed to learn to appreciate the Star Wars films. Dean, in turn, got free sandwiches, an attentive ear, and someone who relished the act of simply having a conversation. On those afternoons Castiel would sit and sketch, trying to capture Dean's animated features as he opened up about his life and the things he loved.

They even had a discussion on the romantic poets, because Dean didn't really want to memorize "lame-ass love stuff," as Dean put it. Castiel had his hands full trying to open Dean's eyes to the talents of Shelley, Byron, Whitman, and others. He put as much effort into that as Dean did into teaching him about music. Castiel had given him Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and told him it would be good for him to take a look at. Dean, in turn, had given him Led Zeppelin's hefty Complete Studio Recordings and told him the same thing.

By Tuesday of the second week of sharing lunch -- Dean's music appreciation lessons had naturally moved past the week of '70s rock and into mid-'80s hair bands -- Castiel realized that he was impatient for his morning classes to finish just so he could spend time alone with Dean. By the time English was over he was already starting to miss him. It never bothered him before, but suddenly he hated having the last lunch period of the day.

What he found even more interesting was the fact that the odd little flip his stomach made each time Dean laughed had now turned into a low, hot, sinking feeling that cascaded from his chest deep into his abdomen. His heart raced and his mouth got dry every time he saw Dean, too.

He began to find excuses to strike up conversations in homeroom and English, to create ways to linger before having to leave class and Dean. Auto shop wasn't nearly as excruciating with Dean sitting beside him offering tips on how to properly tighten a lug nut, or quietly reminding him to loosen the oil cap before unscrewing the drain bolt when changing oil.

He was never able to clearly explain to Dean how much that meant to him -- the simple act of having someone look out for him and, if Castiel was interpreting it correctly, care about him as well. It was an entirely new feeling knowing he had someone to confide in for the first time in his life. He began to tell Dean things he had never admitted to another living soul, like his anguish over the years of bullying, the joys that his artwork brought him, and even intensely personal admissions, like what he believed the afterlife was like. He couldn't bring himself to talk about Michael, though. Castiel could never find the proper moment to talk about something so painful. It was just about the only thing he hadn't talked about.

On a Thursday of their third week of having lunch together, Dean was loudly sucking the filling from a Twinkie and humming along to Metallica on his CD player when the bell signaling the end of lunch sounded.

"It's time already?" Dean asked, surprised.

"Forty-five minutes do go by far too quickly."


"We could spend a little more time together. What about dinner?" Castiel asked.

Dean playfully tossed a pine cone at him. "Is this the one you were afraid to invite me to three weeks ago?"

"The very same. Except now I think I can manage a dinner conversation."

"Does your mom know you're invitin' me?"

"She won't mind. It was her idea, as you recall."

"I'll be on my best behavior, I promise," Dean said, drawing an imaginary X over his heart. "When?"

"Is tomorrow too soon?"

"No, I don't have any other plans."

"Excellent. I'll talk my mother into getting a pizza, in order to dissuade her from serving anything broccoli."

"Ugh, thank you. Now c'mon, we're gonna be late." Dean stepped to the edge of the trees and pointed. "I can see the auto shop garage bay door open. We can cut through and get to class faster."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Everyone will see us together."

"What're you talkin' about?"

"I didn't want to cause you problems by being seen with me."

"I've been with you every day for the past three weeks," Dean said, confused.

"But no one knows we're out here, and the only time we're together is in the classroom. Walking with me, choosing to be with me...alone...that's entirely different."

"Cas." Dean frowned. "You shouldn't say shit like that."

"I -- " Castiel didn't know how to respond. "Sorry."

"Don't be sorry, man. Be angry. Don't let those assholes make you think less of yourself! You're smart, you're talented, and you have a great sense of humor. Why can't you see that?"

"I don't know."

Dean placed his hand on Castiel's shoulder. "You're a great guy. Look, I know this might sound weird or whatever, but you're the first person I've felt comfortable with...well, in a really long time. I like hangin' out with you. I don't care what anyone else thinks."

Dean's hand felt comforting, like he was trying to soothe away Castiel's fears and self-doubt. Castiel leaned into the touch, unconsciously seeking reassurance from Dean, a boy he knew could have been the most popular junior in Flour Bluff High based on looks and charisma alone, but instead chose to spend his time with him. In Castiel's perspective, the universe seemed tilted somehow. Having someone stand by him for the first time felt a little overwhelming.

He knew he'd been experiencing things he'd never felt before when he was around Dean. His stomach would quiver, his heart would was confusing yet exhilarating at the same time. He also knew what he was feeling was more than simple friendship. As socially awkward and isolated as he was, there was no mistaking that rush that descended into his abdomen whenever Dean laughed, or the way his chest constricted when it was time for them to say goodbye.

"It'll be fine, Cas. I'm right here with you," Dean said, almost as if he could hear what Castiel was thinking. "Trust me."

Castiel took a deep breath, and then sighed. It had taken him all this time to admit what was really happening, but in that moment, he knew.

He was falling in love with Dean Winchester.

"You'd be surprised," Mr. Singer said, after wiping his hands on his coveralls, "how easy it is to change your windshield wipers, yet most people have it done at the service station or dealership. We're gonna learn how to do it today, to prevent you from gettin' ripped off in the future."

Dean was sitting next to Castiel, as he had done for the past three weeks, except now Castiel knew things were different. Even if Dean didn't feel the same way, when Dean's hand touched his shoulder, life shifted slightly in Castiel's favor. He felt a little more self-assured, a little more resilient with Dean at his side. He felt, if Castiel really thought about it, happy.

"Now obviously my ol' Chevelle we've been workin' on has a different type of wiper than you'd find on today's cars, so we have Alastair's Mustang over here. Since there's not enough room, half of you are gonna do some benchtop work, and the other half can gather in front of the windshield here for the practical stuff. Then we'll switch. Okay, this half of the room in front of the car."

Mr. Singer pointed to where Dean and Castiel were sitting, along with Alastair, Tom, and Brady as well. Castiel steeled himself, and with a quick glance up at Dean, walked over with the rest of the group.

"You wanna inspect wiper blades often. Streaks or stutterin' across the windshield can mean cracked or worn rubber. The other thing you wanna remember: if you get grease or tar or somethin' sticky on the windshield or wipers, you'll want to clean it right away. Anything coarse like rocks or dust can get stuck in there, and that'll eat right into the glass and then you're lookin' at windshield replacement."

Mr. Singer tapped at the air vent at the base of the windshield. "And see this vent right here? Here's another reason you wanna do routine maintenance checks on your car. Water can pool here and freeze, and if you try to use the wiper blades on a cold morning it'll kill the wiper motors pretty damn fast. Crap can get into the vents, too. Keep this area clean and ice-free, and you'll have no problems."

The first group all huddled around the sides of the Mustang, watching as Mr. Singer raised the wiper arm and demonstrated as he talked.

"This here's the assembly arm. There's a little lever here that releases the blade from the arm, and you can see how the blade rotates on the arm in order to get to it." Mr. Singer slipped a screwdriver into the tab on the arm, and separated the blade from it. Then he snapped it back together.

"The rubber bit is the blade element or simply a 'refill'. You can buy either the whole blade or just the rubber refill. You wanna be sure to get the right size, too, because if it's too short, the metal of the blade is gonna permanently scratch the glass in just a few strokes. They usually have sizing books in the auto parts store."

Castiel took notes while Dean looked on, mostly disinterested. Changing wiper blades was obviously well below his level of expertise. Mr. Singer raised both of the wiper arms from the windshield and picked up a screwdriver.

"I'm gonna have you guys change both the blade and the refill. There are pliers here to slide the refill out of the blade if it's hard to get a hold of. Make sure you know how to do it right; I'm gonna test you on all this when we're done."

Mr. Singer handed a replacement blade and a screwdriver to Castiel, and then walked over to where the rest of the class was doing their benchtop work to supervise them.

As soon as Mr. Singer left, Alastair snatched the items from Castiel's hand.

Dean scowled and pushed in close to where Castiel was standing next to the car. "He's gotta learn too, y'know, Folterknecht."

Alastair, surprised to see Dean step forward, sized him up with a glance. "You sure have been spending a lot of time with our little Asstiel, haven't you, Winchester?"

"Back off," Dean growled, grabbing the tools back from Alastair and handing them to Castiel.

"Who's going to make me? You?"

Tom and Brady laughed, while the rest of the group stepped back, sensing a confrontation.

"I'm his friend, all right?" Dean got up in Alastair's face. "Leave him alone."

"Oh really? This faggot?"

"Don't call him that," Dean said, his voice deep and dangerous.

"Why, are you his bodyguard?"

Castiel placed a hand on Dean's arm, trying to diffuse the situation. "Dean -- "

Both Dean and Alastair looked at Castiel, and when Alastair turned back he had a smirk on his face.

"You're his friend, Winchester? No, I think maybe this little queer is sucking your cock."

In the same moment, Alastair reached over and slammed the outstretched wiper blade upward, smashing it against Castiel's mouth, just as Dean lunged forward and punched Alastair in the face.

Castiel stumbled backward and fell to his knees, blood spurting from a gash in his lip. His glasses went skittering across the floor. Students began yelling and cheering.

Alastair hit the hood of his car from the momentum of Dean's punch and rolled, coming back at Dean quickly with a hard cross to his nose. Dean's head snapped sideways, and Alastair took the opportunity to grab Dean's shirt collar and spin him around. Castiel heard Dean cry out as his ribs came in contact with the edge of the car's hood.

Alastair's fist was raised for another strike, but Mr. Singer grabbed his arm and pulled him off Dean, who slid to the floor.

"Enough! Enough!" Mr. Singer yelled, holding the struggling Alastair. "Get off 'im, Folterknecht."

Tom and Brady grabbed Alastair and began congratulating him on his victory. "That's what you get, Winchester, you fucking pussy!" Alastair yelled.

Mr. Singer helped Dean to his feet. "You okay, son?"

Dean pulled away from him and went over to Castiel, who was covered in blood from his chin down to the middle of his shirt. "Cas."

Castiel tried to staunch the bleeding with his shirt sleeve, and allowed Dean to help him up. Dean carefully picked up Castiel's glasses from the floor and put them back on his nose.

"What went on here?" Mr. Singer asked angrily, looking between Dean and Castiel and Alastair and his crew.

"Winchester hit me," Alastair replied.

"Then why is he the one bleedin'?" Mr. Singer asked, pointing to Castiel.

When no one answered, Mr. Singer waved his hands in annoyance. "You know what? I don't care. Both of you to the principal's office, now. Castiel, you better get yourself to the nurse."

Dean leaned close to Castiel's ear. "Get our stuff and meet me at the Impala. My keys are in my bag. I'm drivin' you home, all right?"

Castiel nodded. He grabbed both his and Dean's backpacks, and left the room without looking back.

Minutes later Dean met him in the parking lot, where Castiel was seated low in the Impala to avoid being seen. He had already found some paper towels in the back seat and was using them to wipe the mess from his face and neck.

"You didn't go to the principal's office?" Castiel asked, alarmed.

"Fuck, no," Dean said, getting behind the wheel.

Castiel handed him his keys with the miniature guitar dangling from them, and the Impala roared to life. Dean peeled out of the parking lot and was halfway down the road before he turned to look at Castiel.

"God, I thought he knocked you unconscious," Dean said, obviously shaken. "Shit."

"No, thankfully. I believe it has stopped bleeding."

"Why didn't you didn't go to the nurse?"

"I don't want my mother to discover what happened."

"We better get you home and cleaned up before she gets home, then," Dean said, still casting glances in Castiel's direction. "Although the second she sees your face she's gonna know. Are you sure you're all right, man? You scared the hell outta me."

"Based on my reflection," Castiel sighed, "I believe my lip is split."

"We'll get some ice on that as soon as we get to your house. You'll be okay."

"What about you?" Castiel asked, turning to look at him more closely. "Both of your eyes are turning black-and-blue."

Dean leaned over to glance at himself in the rear-view mirror. "Yeah, takin' a shot to the nose'll do that to you. I'm gonna look like hammered shit tomorrow."

Not long afterward they pulled into their apartment complex, where Dean immediately turned off the Impala and jumped out. "Lemme help."

"It's okay, Dean. A split lip isn't the end of the world."

"You talk like this has happened before."

"Freshman year I was pushed down the stairs and severely injured my arm," he said, walking to his front door and unlocking it. "I've had my glasses broken twice from being pushed into lockers. I've had items thrown at me in the halls. I've had a bloody nose from getting purposely hit with a book."

"I know you told me about the bullying, Cas," Dean said as they entered the apartment, "but I had no idea it was this bad."

There was a hint of emotion in Dean's voice when he said that, and Castiel wasn't sure he was upset over the incidents he endured or the fact that Castiel never really told him the whole truth about just how badly he had been victimized.

Castiel tossed his backpack to the floor and sat down at the kitchen table. "It's always been like this," he said. "Alastair is the latest in a long line of bullies that delight in causing pain."

"I'm sorry you've had to go through that," Dean said, sitting beside him.

Castiel merely shrugged.

Dean pulled his chair closer and slid his hand beneath Castiel's chin. "Look at me."

Castiel tilted his head up, meeting Dean's intense gaze. He didn't look away, even as Dean gently rubbed his thumb over Castiel's bottom lip, carefully avoiding the injured area. He let his finger trail to Castiel's top lip, slowly tracing its curve to the hollow just under his nose.

Castiel shivered. He instinctively ran his tongue over the gash.

"Hold on," Dean said, his voice whispery.

He got up, and Castiel could hear the freezer open behind him and the ice cube tray crack. Dean slid Castiel's glasses from his nose and put them on the kitchen table. Then he sat back down with a paper towel-wrapped cube, and brought it up to Castiel's mouth.

"Lemme know if this hurts."

Castiel nodded, and Dean gingerly touched the sweating ice to his lip. Castiel hissed and closed his eyes, and when he didn't protest further, Dean skimmed the cube back and forth. Melted water dribbled over his chin and mixed with the dried blood that had accumulated there, but Dean dabbed with the paper towel to keep the mess from dripping onto the kitchen table.

Dean's left hand drifted up and settled in Castiel's hair, and Castiel could feel a pressure in his chest that made his heart flutter and heat sink into his stomach. His face was throbbing with pain, but Dean's close proximity and the way his hands kept lightly brushing Castiel's neck every time he swept the ice over his lips distracted him.

"Any better?"

Castiel nodded, unsure he could even speak.

"We need to get you cleaned up, and wash out this shirt before the blood sets. Where's the bathroom?"

Castiel finally opened his eyes. "Down the hall to the left."

Dean stood and led Castiel over to the bathroom. He correctly guessed where the linen closet was and grabbed a washcloth and an extra towel. Castiel stood there and watched while he dampened the cloth with cold water and soap.

Dean then pulled at the collar of Castiel's shirt to keep it away from his mouth. "Pick your arms up so you can get your shirt off without it brushin' against your face."

Castiel did so, and Dean pulled the shirt up and over his head, wadding it to prevent the blood from staining the walls or floor.

All Castiel could hear was his blood pulsing in his ears. His heart was hammering loudly inside his chest, and Castiel knew that if he looked over in the mirror he would see the flush that had spread across his cheeks and neck. His legs quivered a bit where he stood.

Dean picked up the washcloth and brushed at the blood under Castiel's chin. He worked slowly, careful not to scrub too hard at the tender area where a bruise was already starting to form. He wrung the cloth out in the sink and wet it again.

The blood hadn't seeped farther than his neck, but Dean dipped the cloth across his chest anyway. Droplets of water stuck to his breastbone then cascaded downward, getting caught in the waistband of his jeans. The water was cold and it made Castiel suck air through his teeth. Dean let the tail of the wet cloth dangle near his navel, and Castiel accidentally let out a whimper.

He could hear Dean's breathing speed up, and Dean stepped forward, closing what little space there was between them in the cramped bathroom.

"Dean." Castiel's voice sounded breathless and needy and foreign to his own ears.

Dean pressed his mouth to Castiel's collarbone, sucking at the beads of water that clung there. He traced upward with his tongue, licking in one smooth arc to Castiel's jaw, which he then fluttered with small kisses. Gently he pressed his lips to Castiel's, kissing above and next to the angry purple bruise blossoming across his bottom lip. He then kissed his eyelids, and nose, and came to rest at his mouth again, probing lightly with his tongue.

Castiel let him explore, tipping his head back and sliding his hand under Dean's shirt. He had never kissed anyone before, but it didn't seem to matter. The sensuous feeling deep in his abdomen, between his legs, and the twitch in Dean's jeans told him he was doing fine. A moment later, they pulled apart.

"I didn't think it'd be like that," Dean breathed.

"Kissing a guy, you mean?"

"No, kissin' you."

"Was my first kiss that obvious?" Castiel asked, slightly worried.

", Cas, you were fantastic. I meant it was better than I thought it would be." Dean sat down hard on the toilet and ran a hand through his hair. "I...Cas, I'm sorry. I don't want you to think I'm takin' advantage of you or somethin'. Because that isn't what this is. Did I...shit, did I just fuck this all up?"

"No," Castiel said sternly. "I may not have had much experience when it comes to this, but I wouldn't allow someone to impose upon me in that way. I knew precisely what I was doing."

Dean shook his head, struggling with what he wanted to say.

"I don't understand, Dean."

"There's somethin' about you, Cas."

"Good, I hope?"

"Yeah," Dean smiled, and went quiet.

Castiel kneeled down in front of him. "What do you think you fucked up Dean? I still don't understand."

"At first I thought all this was me finally gettin' a chance to have an honest-to-God friend for once," Dean explained. "But then I'd see you and the way you looked at me, or how you laughed at my stupid jokes, or how you were always interested in what I had to say, no matter what it was, and I realized there was somethin'...more between us. Somethin' more than friendship."

"But -- "

Dean held up his hand. "I'm not good with words, okay? Me kissin' you just now...I've wanted to do that for a long time."

He was staring now, waiting for some sort of acknowledgment. He looked as nervous as Castiel was feeling himself.

"I know," Castiel said finally.

"You do?"

"Dean, it's okay." Castiel reached out and touched his hand. "I feel the same way."

Dean released a huge breath of air. "Oh man."

"Were you afraid I didn't?"

"Maybe. A little. I dunno...I didn't want to lose what we had if I made the wrong choice. Push you into somethin' you weren't ready for."

"When I'm with you I'm happier than I've been in a long time," Castiel admitted. "I don't anticipate losing that."

"With everything we've said to each other, I guess we weren't very good at actually talkin'," Dean said, placing his hand gently on the back of Castiel's neck.

"I believe you're right."

"Is this okay then?"

"The kissing? Oh yes, it's very enjoyable."

"No," Dean grinned, "us."

Castiel considered it for a moment. "Are we boyfriends?"

"I haven't really thought that far ahead. The kissin' was sorta spur of the moment."

"I'm not versed in how this should transpire, either," Castiel said, frowning. "I suppose we'll take it one day at a time and see where it leads us."

"That sounds good." Dean placed his finger underneath Castiel's jaw and lifted his chin. "We don't want your mom catchin' us like this. I guess...I'd better go."

"You probably should. She'll be home soon."

Dean placed a soft kiss on Castiel's lips, brushed his fingers through his hair, and left the bathroom.

His bus ride the next morning felt even longer than usual. His heart kept fluttering in his chest every time he thought of Dean, making him both excited and anxious. They were going to have to take this slowly, not just for Castiel's benefit, but because it was imperative they keep this quiet at school. Ironically, it didn't matter what he did because he had already been labeled. Castiel didn't want it happening to Dean.

Despite trying not to smile when he walked into homeroom, the moment Dean caught sight of him and grinned, Castiel had to grin right back. He couldn't help himself where Dean was concerned.

"What did your mom say?" Dean asked, gesturing to Castiel's red and swollen lip as he sat down. "Did she notice?"

"I believe I'm more adept at applying makeup than I thought. I don't think she realized."

"Wait, what makeup?"

"I helped myself to some of my mother's liquid foundation to hide the bruising last night before she arrived home. I kept it on through dinner."

Dean laughed. "I never would've thought of that."

"I couldn't hide the swelling, however. But she didn't say anything. Perhaps she simply didn't notice."

"Let's hope so. You've got enough problems," Dean said.

Mr. Zachariah came over to where the two of them were talking.

"Mr. Winchester, your presence is requested in the principal's office."


"Yep, I tend to agree with you there," Mr. Zachariah replied.

"See you later, Cas."

"Goodbye, Dean," he responded miserably.

As it turned out, Castiel didn't see him for the rest of the day. He was worried about it, wondering what had happened in Mr. Murphy's office and what kind of punishment Dean had received. Although Dean did hit Alastair first, it was partly in retaliation for what Alastair did to Castiel. He hoped Dean made it clear to the principal that lashing out wasn't without reason. He ran his fingertips over his aching lip and sighed. He felt guilty for getting Dean involved at all. He should have been the one defending himself.

Mercifully, the day passed without Castiel seeing Alastair either. He kept looking over his shoulder for signs of Tom or Brady seeking revenge, but it never came.

He barely paid attention in any of his classes, spending most of the time thinking and worrying about Dean. In auto shop, Mr. Singer was sympathetic after what had happened the day before and allowed Castiel to sit out the windshield wiper replacement instruction. Castiel had already taken notes and had a good idea how to do it, even if he hadn't gotten the practical application thanks to Alastair.

When the bus dropped him off at the end of the day, the first thing he did as he made his way through the parking lot of the apartment complex was to look for the Impala. When he didn't see it, he doubled back and checked the other lots, but it wasn't anywhere in the complex. He didn't notice it in the school lot either.

Dean's whereabouts were still on his mind when he entered his apartment.

"I'm home."

"How was your day?" his mother asked.

"Below average," Castiel answered.

"Why is that?"

"Dean was removed from homeroom this morning and had to report to the principal's office."

"Yes, I know," she said.

Castiel frowned. "I don't understand, how do you -- "

"Principal Murphy called me this afternoon at work and told me what happened between you, Dean, Alastair, and a maliciously well-aimed windshield wiper arm."


"Yes, 'oh'. Come over here."

Castiel stood before his mother in the kitchen and she lifted her son's face into the light. "I can't believe you tried to hide this from me," she said, rubbing her thumb over his lip. "Look at this! You're all swollen! Castiel, honey...honestly, what were you thinking?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I simply didn't want to cause more trouble."

"You are not the one causing the trouble, young man. I've already explained this to you. I will not have you victimized because some other...animal in your classroom can't keep his hands to himself."

"It was nothing of consequence."

"Really? This bruised and split lip seems to say otherwise." She took a deep breath and brushed the hair back from his eyes. "I've scheduled a conference with your principal yet again to get to the bottom of this."

"Mama -- "

"Don't try and dissuade me," she said, interrupting him with an outstretched hand. "From what the principal told me, Dean was trying to protect you."

"He was. Alastair was the instigator."

"You've become quite good friends with Dean, haven't you?"

He nodded.

"We can't seem to rely on the administration to take us seriously about this bullying. I wish I could pull you out of that school and sit you right back here at the kitchen table to be homeschooled again."

Castiel's heart dropped just thinking about not being able to see Dean every day. It would make everything he was going through a hundred times worse.

"Please don't do that," he begged. "Please."

"I said I wished I could. Teaching you at home isn't feasible. Moving isn't within our budget, nor is a private school. If I had another option I would take it to keep you safe, honey."

"I know, Mama."

"As it stands we've dealt with the lackadaisical response of this administration before to your bullying," she said angrily. "This time I'm going to talk to that worthless principal on Monday and get some answers."

At that, the doorbell rang. Both Castiel and his mother looked at each other, knowing they weren't expecting anyone.

"Stay here," she ordered, and went to the door.

Castiel stood behind his mother as she opened the door to Dean's smiling face. "Oh, uh, hi, Mrs. Agnus. Uh, is Cas...I mean, is Castiel around?"

"Cas? Who may I say is calling?" she asked, scowling slightly at the boy she didn't recognize.

"Dean Winchester."

"Oh, you're Dean?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder at her son. "Castiel's Dean? I didn't...please come in."

She smiled at him and stepped aside, letting him into the living room.

"I can see the results of Castiel's bully all over your face, Dean. I'm terribly sorry this happened to you."

"It's okay," Dean answered, casting his eyes over to Castiel. "I was standing up for what I thought was right."

It was the same thing Castiel said to him all those weeks ago when they first met.

"He was protecting me," Castiel said.

"Yes, sweetheart, you told me. But I do hope Dean realizes that violence isn't always the answer."

"In this case, Mrs. Agnus, it sure was."

Castiel frowned and Dean raised his eyebrows at him.

"Well," his mother said, unsure how to answer that, "why don't you come in and sit down? I'm sure this is a nice surprise for Castiel."

"It's not actually a surprise, ma'am, er, Mrs. Agnus. Castiel invited me to dinner."

"I did?" Castiel wondered aloud.

Dean peered around Mrs. Agnus. "You did. Yesterday at lunch, remember?"

"With everything going on I must have...forgotten. Is it all right if Dean stays?"

She closed the front door and ushered Dean to the couch. "Well, it is Friday. I suppose you boys could order a pizza to help forget about the difficulties you've faced in school lately."

"That'd be great," Dean smiled.

"Thanks, Mama."

"I believe next time you come we'll have a proper meal, when I have some more advanced notice."

Castiel ducked his head and she smiled at him.

"All right then, gentlemen, what shall we order?"

The evening went by more smoothly than Castiel anticipated. His mother and Dean got on amazingly well, to the point that they had an entire conversation all by themselves without Castiel uttering a word. He was happy to see that his mother liked Dean. Hopefully it would make the eventual task of explaining his and Dean's relationship a little easier to swallow -- whenever he got brave enough to do it.

They wound up ordering two pizzas, one plain and one with vegetables at his mother's insistence. Dean impressed her even more by eating just the veggie slices.

Later on they were watching TV on the couch while Castiel's mother did crosswords at her desk behind them.

"Did you see The Mask with that guy Jim Carrey from In Living Color?"

"'Live in color'?"

"No, In Liv-ing Col-or," Dean enunciated more clearly. "It's a comedy show."

"I'll take your word for it."

"The movie is supposed to be really funny."

"I haven't seen it."

"It just came out on video, so I stopped after school and rented it. Did you wanna watch it?"

"Is that where you were? I was looking for the Impala everywhere."

"Yeah, my day wasn't as full as I planned. I'll tell you about it later."

"Would that be okay?" Castiel asked, turning around to where his mother sat.

"Hmm, what?"

"We'd like to watch a movie, Mrs. Agnus," Dean said.

"Oh, yes, of course. Don't let me get in the way of your boys' night."

"You can watch it with us, if you want," Dean said. "It's a comedy. Not even rated R."

"That's very sweet of you, Dean, but you and Castiel enjoy yourselves. I have some papers to grade anyway."

"Cool. Cas, I'll be right back. I just have to run over to my place, okay?"

Castiel nodded and Dean left.

"Cas?" his mother said with a smile, once Dean was gone.

"It's his nickname for me."

"I see. He's a lovely boy, this Dean of yours," his mother said. "You two seem very close."

Castiel shrugged his shoulders and looked down, trying to hide the blush of embarrassment seeping across his cheeks.

"I'm glad you found someone like him, Castiel. He cares a lot about you. That's something to value in a friend."

"I know."

Dean knocked once and entered with the movie and a plastic bag stuffed with candy. "Dessert!" he announced.

"You two enjoy the movie. Let me know if you need anything."

"Thanks, Mama."

She disappeared to her bedroom and Dean took his seat on the couch next to Castiel. He slid the tape into the VCR.

"Before the film starts, tell me what happened at Principal Murphy's office," Castiel said.

"The usual," Dean said, rolling his eyes. "Blah blah blah, we don't use violence at Flour Bluff High School, Mr. Winchester, blah blah, Alastair could have been seriously hurt, blah blah, a week's suspension, blah blah, you should go home right now, young man."

"A week? That seems excessive."

"Well," Dean grinned, "I did punch that asshole first."

"Does your nose hurt?"

"Yeah, and besides my two black eyes there's a little bruise on my side where I hit the hood, but other than that I'm fine. You're the one that looks worse for wear."

"Murphy called my mother this morning and told her all about what happened. It didn't take her long to inspect my injury when I got home this afternoon."

"Sorry about that," Dean said. "Nothin' I could do. I tried lying but Mr. Singer had already gone down after class yesterday and reported what happened. I guess he had a feelin' I wasn't goin' to Murphy's office."

"I'm surprised. You're his favorite student."

"He didn't really have a choice, what with the fightin' in the middle of his class and all," Dean said. "He's cool, I don't blame him. Dad's gonna have a shit when he finds out about the suspension, though."

"Are you going to get into trouble?"

"Probably. Luckily I have a few nights before I tell him."

"What do you mean?"

"My dad's on night shift this weekend and the next two after that. I'll be by myself."

"Does that happen often?"

"Sometimes. It depends which base he's on. It was harder when I was younger. He's kinda...overprotective, I guess you can say. He hated leavin' me until he finally realized I could take care of myself."

"You have to do that a lot, I suppose," Castiel said. "Take care of yourself."

"Part of growin' up, y'know? Doesn't bother me now as much as it used to. I had, a thing about the dark when I was a kid. Pretty bad, actually."

Castiel could sense there was something there Dean didn't want to talk about, and let it drop. They had spent enough time together that Castiel had picked up Dean's shorthand ways of avoiding a subject.

"If your dad is working, you're more than welcome to sleep over tonight, if you'd like," Castiel said.

"I didn't say I was still afraid of the dark now, Cas," Dean said, a slight smile on his face.

"No, of course not. I wasn't implying you were. But if you didn't feel like remaining home by yourself, you could spend the night. Mama wouldn't mind. I would have to confirm it with her, certainly, but there's plenty of room. You could have Michael's bed -- "

Castiel and his mother had never stopped calling it "Michael's bed" despite the fact that he had been gone for over three years. At first Castiel kept Michael's side of the room just as he had left it, with clothes strewn across the headboard and nightstand, books left open on his desk where he had stopped reading, and a CD still in his stereo. The scattered remnants of his brother's life made him seem close and not really gone. But eventually Castiel slowly began to reclaim that half of the bedroom, and he placed all of Michael's things into boxes and stored them safely in the closet, since his mother couldn't bear the thought of doing it. Nothing was ever said about it -- she came in one day, noticed Michael's things were gone, and she simply nodded. They both, however, would say things like, "Your clean clothes are on Michael's bed," or "I bought a new comforter for Michael's bed." The thought of dismantling it never occurred to either of them.

Castiel realized his obvious slip and tried to correct it.

"That is," he said, "you could sleep in the extra bed in my room."

No doubt Dean had heard what he said, but he didn't give any indication of doing so. "I would like that, Cas."

"You would?" Castiel wasn't sure Dean was going to say yes.

"Sure. Beats bein' home by myself at night. Your mom won't mind?"

"I have a feeling she would empathize with you not having your father around. I don't anticipate she'd find a problem with it, as long as we got to bed at a decent hour."

"No stayin' up all night braidin' each other's hair?"

Castiel smiled. "No, Dean."


It was still relatively early when the movie ended, so Castiel left Dean on the couch and went to his mother's bedroom to ask about Dean staying over. He knocked on the half-open door, where he could see his mother was propped up against pillows in her bed grading papers.

"Mama? May I interrupt you for a moment?"

"Certainly, Castiel, what is it?"

Castiel went into an explanation of how Dean's father was working overnight and if it would be okay for him to stay over. He even promised to strip the sheets and do the wash after Dean left.

"I don't see any problem with it. I don't want you two staying up until all hours, though."

"No, we won't."

"All right, then. Why don't you change the sheets on Michael's bed and get some fresh towels from the linen closet for our guest?"

"I will. I'll say good night before we turn in."

"I know you will," she smiled.

Castiel went back out to the couch and gave Dean the news.

"Awesome. I'll run home and get my toothbrush and stuff. I'll be right back."

In the meantime, Castiel neatened his already tidy room and put new sheets on Michael's bed. He pulled a towel and washcloth from the closet and set them on top of the sheets, where Dean could easily find them.

He sat down on his bed, his mind drifting to the previous afternoon and the way Dean used the exact colored washcloth to wash his face and neck, and the resulting kiss. It still felt like someone had answered a prayer or a wish he didn't realize he had made for the new closeness he shared with Dean. He was ecstatic and frightened at the same time. Leave it to him, he thought, to maintain his outsider reputation and fall in love with another guy instead of a girl. He sighed. Nothing seemed to be easy in his life for some reason. It was like he unconsciously chose the most difficult path every time. He was used to it, however, and only hoped Dean was ready to travel the bumpy road ahead with him.

Dean knocked on the door to his bedroom and popped his head in.

"What you doin'?"

"Making up the bed for you. Here are some fresh towels as well."

"Thanks. You wanna watch another movie before we hit the hay? I got Star Wars."

Castiel narrowed his eyes at him. "Are you going to recite every moment of dialogue between the characters?"

Dean grinned. "I solemnly swear not to be a geek."

"I'll believe that when I see it."

"Have faith, young Skywalker."

Dean was surprisingly true to his word, with the exception of a "Here's my favorite part," and some "Ooh, watch this!" moments throughout. They were sharing a Kit Kat and watching the medal ceremony at the end of the film when Castiel's mother came up behind the couch and tapped Castiel on the head.

"It's almost one a.m., Castiel."

"We were just finishin' up," Dean said, gathering up the candy wrappers. "We're about to get ready for bed."

"I hope you sleep well, Dean. If you need anything, don't hesitate to wake me."

"Thanks, Mrs. Agnus."

"Goodnight, Dean. Goodnight, sweetheart," she said, kissing Castiel on the forehead.

"Goodnight, Mama."

She left the two of them on the couch and retreated to her bedroom, and closed the door.

"You can use the bathroom first," Castiel said.

"D'you think your mother can tell about us?"

"Tell what?"

"That we're more than friends."

Castiel turned to look down the hallway. "I don't think we gave off any clear indication as to the nature of our relationship. Frankly, I'm not quite sure how to even broach the subject with her when I'm ready to do so."

"I know what you mean. Gettin' suspended is one thing. Tellin' my dad I'd rather kiss a boy is somethin' else."

"I fear we're in for a difficult time ahead, Dean."

Dean took Castiel's hand. "Nothin' harder than stuff we've already faced, Cas."

"I don't know about that."

Dean leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, and then got up. "Let's not worry about it tonight. I'm gonna get washed up."

Castiel straightened the couch cushions and cleaned up the mess of candy wrappers, and shut off the TV. He went into his bedroom and turned down both his and Dean's sheets. By the time he was finished Dean came into the room, so Castiel gathered his sleep clothes and went into the bathroom.

When he got back, Dean was leaning back in Michael's bed, with Castiel's copy of Leaves of Grass propped against his chest. He was already down to his black boxers and a T-shirt.

"Y'know, from what I've been readin' in the copy you gave me, a lot of these poems are actually kinda dirty."

Castiel tossed his clothes in the closet hamper.

"Instead of the more common symbolic poetry of his time," Castiel explained, closing the closet, "Walt Whitman was one of the first poets to celebrate the body and the material world."

"I'll say: Or, if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing, where I may feel the throbs of your heart, or rest upon your hip."

"Whitman lost his government job when the collection was first published because his superiors found it offensive."

Dean flipped a few pages in the book and frowned. "I don't think he's talkin' about women in here, Cas."

"No," Castiel smiled, "he's not. Those particular poems are referred to as the Calamus sequence, thought to be the most overt references to Whitman's homosexuality."

"Homosexuality, huh?"


"I guess you've read these before?"

"I have, but they've taken on a new resonance with me lately."

"Because of me?"

"Perhaps," Castiel admitted, smiling.

Dean grinned back at him. "Are you gonna pick one of these Calamus poems to recite in class for our English final?"


"Why not?"

"It would cause problems," Castiel said.


"Some are overtly sexual."

"But most are romantic, at least as far as I can figure out. Pick one of those."

"I don't think so."

"You worry too much, man. No one in that class will be able to understand what the hell you're talkin' about anyway."

Castiel placed his shoes neatly under his bed, and when he turned around he caught Dean watching him.




Dean smirked. "Nice PJs."

Castiel was wearing a plain T-shirt with his light blue pajama bottoms that had dark outlines of moose on them and print that read I Moose Be Dreaming.

"My Uncle Raphael sent them from Maine," Castiel said, embarrassed.


Castiel tried to hide the flush creeping up his cheeks and got into bed.

"G'night, Cas," Dean said, sliding his legs under the sheets.

"Good night, Dean," Castiel answered, placed his glasses on the nightstand, and shut off the light.

The night was cool but not cold. The light of the full moon filtered into the room, casting a glow over Dean, who was on his back with threaded fingers resting on his stomach. Castiel watched him for a while, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the dim light in order to take in Dean's features. Despite the darkness and even without his glasses, Castiel could practically count all of Dean's long eyelashes.


"Yes, Dean?"

"Who's Michael?"

He figured it would come to this. Letting Michael's name slip would have to be addressed.

"My older brother. He was killed in a motorcycle accident the summer I turned thirteen. We shared this bedroom."

"Cas...I'm sorry. I had no idea."

"We've never really talked much about our families. It was sure to come up some time."

"I didn't mean to bring up old memories. I just wasn't sure what you meant when you called this 'Michael's bed'."

"It's okay. It's a force of habit. Mama and I still refer to it as such."

"Do you miss him a lot?"

"It's difficult to describe," Castiel said, turning over on his side to face Dean, the way he did when he would talk to Michael in the middle of the night. "It's like the ocean."

"The ocean?"

"The grief and the way I deal with his absence. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes it washes over me in waves, other times it merely brushes me if I let it get too near."

"We don't have to talk about this anymore, man."

"It's all right, Dean. I don't mind speaking about him."

Dean went quiet again, and Castiel rolled onto his back, thinking he had gone to sleep. Castiel was starting to drift off when Dean spoke.



"There's somethin' I haven't told you about my own family. It's sorta complicated, which is why I never mentioned it."

Castiel turned to Dean and propped his head up with his hand. "What is it?"

"I have a brother, too."

Castiel didn't answer right away. He knew talking about Michael had obviously bridged some unknown gap he and Dean shared.

"I didn't know how to tell you," Dean said. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry, Dean." Castiel paused. "Why haven't you ever spoken of him?"

"Because I haven't seen him since I was four. His name is Sam."

"That's a particularly long time. Why is that?"

"It was right after my parents divorced. My mother couldn't support the two of us kids, and dad had whatever reasons he had not to take Sammy along. He was only six months old at the time -- I guess dad wasn't sure he could handle it. I dunno. We never talked about it. Long story short, Sammy stayed with my mom and I went with dad. We talked on the phone a few times, but with us movin' around so much and mom and dad fighting like cats and dogs, we lost contact after a while."

"Then you have a brother that is essentially unknown to you."

"Yeah. I've seen pictures and stuff, but if I bumped into him on the street I wouldn't know who the hell he was. He'll be thirteen in a few weeks. May 2nd, actually. I never forgot that."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Dean. It must be very painful."

"Not as painful as losing one you've known your entire life like you did, Cas, but where you have the ocean I have this big...empty...hole. Does that make sense?"

"It does."

"It's also sorta why I have this thing about the dark. It sounds stupid, but the last time I clearly remember seeing my mother's face it was her standin' in Sammy's nursery, packin' all his stuff the night they left."

"Haven't you ever thought about visiting him?"

"I have, but it's a sore subject with the old man, y'know? But now that I'm old enough to drive, I might take a road trip one of these days. See what I can find."

"By yourself?"

"Yeah, I guess. Why?"

Castiel imagined being able to spend time with Dean like that, the two of them alone, without having to worry about school, or bullies, or parents.

"I'm quite good at reading maps," Castiel said.

"Oh, really?" Dean asked, his chuckle carrying through the darkness.

"And I can change a tire, and check the oil."

"You sure have picked up a lot of stuff in auto shop, Cas."

"I'd even pump the gas whenever we stopped."

"Hmm, is that so? What kind does my baby like?"

"That would be premium."

Dean laughed again. "You and me together on the road, Cas?"


Dean sat up and lifted his T-shirt over his head. "I'd like that."

The movement of Dean's arms and the soft light coming in through the window highlighted Dean's chest when he removed his T-shirt. He tossed the shirt to the floor, and when he turned, Castiel could see a horrible-looking bruise that went from beneath Dean's armpit almost to the bottom of his ribcage. Even in the dim light Castiel could see how discolored and extensive the bruise was.

Castiel couldn't help but stare. Dean had apparently underplayed the bruise's severity when he mentioned it earlier.

Castiel wanted to tell Dean how useless he felt when Alastair hit him with the windshield wiper blade; how angry he was that he wasn't in control and couldn't think of anything to do to protect himself. He wanted to explain the guilt that had been eating at him because it was his fault Dean had gotten hurt and suspended. But as he was lying there, looking over at Dean, he found he couldn't find the words to express himself.

Dean lay back down, but Castiel didn't bother turning on the light. He got up and padded over to where Dean was stretched out, and sat beside him on the bed.


He reached out and tentatively touched the bruise on Dean's right side, tracing its shape. Dean tensed, but when Castiel slid fingers down his arm he allowed Castiel to take his wrist and raise it over his head against the pillow.

Castiel let his fingernails rake lightly against Dean's wrist, and Dean shivered. He touched Dean's forearm, the inside of his elbow, his tricep, across the hair in his armpit, and then rested his palm on Dean's chest.

He could feel Dean's heart hammering almost in tune with his. They didn't speak; the only sound that could be heard was Dean's harsh breathing. When Castiel brushed at Dean's nipple in a circular motion with his thumb, Dean sucked air through his teeth. The sound sent a jolt through Castiel's whole body, like someone had flicked a switch. He let his hand continue to drift across the rest of Dean's chest. He wasn't wiry the way Castiel was, nor was he overly muscular, just well-defined and strong.

Dean let him explore, never taking his eyes off Castiel. Castiel touched along his collarbone and ran fingers over his shoulders, rubbed along his scruffy chin and across his lips, traced along his eyebrows and even eyelashes, which made Dean blink and huff a small laugh under his breath. His hand eventually came to rest on Dean's cheek. He realized after a few moments that he was staring at Dean, but Dean hadn't looked away.

Castiel bent down and kissed him deeply, taking care not to hurt either Dean's sore nose or his own split lip. Dean moaned into his mouth as he pressed their tongues together.

Castiel then slid into bed next to him. Dean turned to his side to allow Castiel to press up against him from behind. He was a couple of inches shorter than Dean, which allowed him to press his lips to the back of Dean's neck and flutter kisses up and down. Dean sighed contentedly and reached around to take Castiel's hand, resting Castiel's arm across his hip to avoid the bruise.

"I would give anything not to have you suffer because of me," Castiel whispered to him.

"You're worth it," Dean whispered back.

Eventually Dean's breathing steadied and slowed, replaced by the deep even sounds of sleep. Castiel pressed his forehead to Dean's back, kissed him lightly, and drifted off.

The sun was starting to come up when Castiel woke. The room was still dark, and at first he struggled to recognize where he was. Sometime in the middle of the night Dean had rolled onto his back, and Castiel realized he had been sleeping on Dean's chest.

As carefully as possible he extracted himself from the length of Dean's arm, covered him halfway with the sheet, and returned to his own bed. Dean made a small noise and turned over onto his side again.

Castiel lay there, unable to take his eyes off Dean. Like the moon last night, the early rays of the sun were touching parts of his neck and chest. His face was still covered in darkness, but his shoulder, arm, and a glimpse of the bruised flesh of his ribs could be seen. It was beautiful. He was beautiful.

Castiel quietly got out his sketchbook and pencils, put on his glasses, and began to draw.

The next week of school without Dean was miserable. It was as much a suspension for him as it was for Dean. They toyed with the idea of Dean picking him up for lunch, but they decided it was better for Dean to stay away from the school completely. Castiel didn't want things to get any worse than they already were.

They spent as much time together after school as was possible, what little there was of it. Dean's father was livid about the suspension and had him doing chores around the house, as well as helping him clean up around the hangar at the base. Dean said he'd never seen so many greasy helicopter parts in his life.

The only good thing that resulted from the whole mess was the fact that Alastair had been suspended too. Tom and Brady had made themselves scarce whenever they saw him, unwilling, perhaps, to do anything without Alastair around. Life was surprisingly peaceful -- if somewhat lonely -- that entire week.

He was hoping Dean could spend the night again on Friday, but his father wouldn't allow it. He was being punished, he said, and didn't deserve to hang out and watch movies and have a good time. Castiel understood the reasoning behind it but was still sullen.

When Monday finally arrived, Castiel was uncharacteristically excited to go to school. His mother even packed him an extra lunch. She was sympathetic and seemed to understand how upset he was that he couldn't see Dean.

In homeroom, his face lit up as soon as Dean walked through the door. Dean winked and sat down beside him.

"Long time no see, stranger," Dean said.

"Dean. I've missed you."

"Same here, man." He leaned close to Castiel and lowered his voice. "And I'd really like to kiss you right now."

"I wish you could, but you'll have to wait until we're in our usual spot later."

"Ahh, lunch," Dean sighed. "It's always been my favorite part of the day, but now it's even better."

Castiel tried to hide the blush that crept up his cheeks and looked down at his hands.

"Oh, you're not allowed to get embarrassed. You love it as much as I do."

Castiel grinned shyly. "If it helps any, Mama told me she packed you something special."


Mr. Zachariah interrupted the rest of their conversation with attendance and announcements, and then they were on their way to English.

"I wonder what your mom packed for me," Dean said. "An extra sandwich? Cupcakes? Tell me she gave me some Twinkies -- "

Dean's words were cut off by Alastair bumping into him, sending him crashing into a locker. Dean righted himself and silently stood his ground.

"You're lucky I don't fucking kill you right here in the middle of the hall," Alastair growled at Dean, pointing a finger in his face. "I got suspended for a week because of you, and missed the game against the Coyotes."

"Sucks to be you," Dean lobbed back.

Tom and Brady looked at each other, and Alastair moved into Dean's space. "Be very, very careful how you talk to me, Winchester, or the next time I lay your ass out you won't be getting back up."

"This is gettin' old, Folterknecht."

"Yeah? We'll see, Winchester. You better watch your back. And your girlfriend's here, too."

Alastair pushed Castiel into the locker and out of the way, and took off down the hallway with Tom and Brady laughing behind him.

Castiel had tried to ignore the confrontation in the hallway earlier that day, but he couldn't get the sound of Alastair's voice out of his head. He had been distracted in all of his classes, and constantly looking over his shoulder. Alastair's warning sounded particularly ominous.

Even lunch time didn't do much to take his mind off Alastair. He and Dean sat and chatted amicably, but it was probably obvious his thoughts were elsewhere. When Dean finished the two Twinkies Castiel's mother had indeed packed him with lunch, he pointed out the garage bay door was open again and that they should head through the parking lot to shave time off getting to class.

"Did you hear what I just said?" Dean asked as they passed the baseball dugout.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"I said I needed to stop at the Impala on the way to auto shop."

"Of course."

"I just remembered I have a socket set I brought in that Mr. Singer wants to borrow. I wanna grab it."



"Yes, Dean."

"You're a million miles away. What's wrong?"

"I've been preoccupied with what Alastair said all day."

"Aw, he's just blowin' smoke. There's like three important away games next week," Dean said as they weaved their way through the cars of the student parking lot. "He's not gonna do anything else in case he gets suspended again."

"I don't know, Dean. He seemed rather adamant about wanting revenge."

Dean stopped in the middle of the parking lot and put his hands on Castiel's shoulders. "Cas, I'm not gonna let him hurt you, okay?"

Castiel shook his head, wanting to explain to Dean that he didn't expect that. "I know, but -- "

"Trust me," Dean said, guiding him back through the cars. "Now, c'mon, how's the art goin'?"

"Mr. Darrow complimented me on some of my classroom work," Castiel sighed, glad for the change of subject, "but I don't believe any of it is worthy of the art show yet."

"He's gonna pick from whatever you do in class that he thinks is best and submit that for the show, right?"

"Yes. But because of that I've been focusing exclusively on my work for class, and I've begun to neglect my sketchbook. I have to hand that in at the end of the semester for a grade," Castiel explained.

"Then maybe you better quit drawin' me all the time and stick some other stuff in there."

Castiel smiled. "I like drawing you."

"Your sketchbook is nothin' but me, Cas. Put a bowl of fruit or, like, I dunno, a vase of flowers in there or somethin' to break up all the freckles."

"And the eyelashes?"

Dean turned to look at him. "What about my eyelashes?"

"Nothing," Castiel grinned.

"Was that flirting just then? Castiel Agnus, are you flirting with me? Because if you are, you're gonna be -- "

Dean broke off from what he was saying when they came upon the Impala.

"Oh my God."

"What?" Castiel asked, walking over to where Dean was standing at the driver's side door. "Is there something -- "

Dean slammed his hand against the Impala's roof. "Son of a bitch!"

There on the door, in giant key-scratched letters, read the word FAG.

Castiel automatically looked around, but there was no one else in the parking lot. He felt a surge of anger go through him as he watched Dean lean his head against the Impala's door frame and close his eyes.

"Dean, I'm so sorry. This is all my fault."

"No, Cas, it's the assholes at this school," he yelled, pounding again on the car's roof.

"But if it weren't for me this wouldn't be happening to you."

Castiel's resentment still burned white hot over everything he had dealt with throughout the semester. The taunting and name-calling and pain he had been subjected to were enough. Now Dean was suffering because of him.

"Look," Dean said, unlocking the door, "you mean more to me than anything, all right? If I have to deal with bein' called a fag or whatever because I'm with you, then so be it. Everyone else can fuck off."

Dean grabbed the socket set from the front seat and ran his fingers over the deep scratched grooves in the Impala's door. "Let's just get to class," he sighed.

They cut through the garage bay and came through the classroom and found their seats. Castiel had officially moved himself -- and by extension, Dean -- to the farthest part of the room so they wouldn't be close to Alastair or his crew.

Dean handed him the plastic case containing the socket set and tossed his bag on the benchtop.

"Be right back."

Dean was across the room in a moment, hovering over where Alastair was sitting. Both Tom and Brady got up from their stools, but Alastair seemed unconcerned and merely looked up at where Dean was standing.

"Can I help you, Winchester?"

"I know you did that to the Impala," Dean growled, his voice low but loud enough that Castiel could hear.

"What's an Impala?" Alastair asked mockingly, and Tom and Brady laughed.

"Fuck you, Alastair. You're gonna be sorry for that."

"Watch me tremble," he scoffed. "Go back to your girlfriend, fucking queer."

Castiel could see Dean clench his fists, but at that moment Mr. Singer entered the classroom from the hallway, and Dean stepped back.

Alastair grinned snidely at Dean's retreating back while Tom and Brady mumbled comments under their breath.

"Dean?" Castiel asked, seeing how the muscle in Dean's jaw was twitching. "Are you -- "

"I'm fine," he stated angrily. "They're just gonna get away with doin' that to the Impala. Do you know how hard it's gonna be to match that '67 paint? Shit, he should've beat me up instead of messin' with my baby like that."

Dean sighed dejectedly, and pulled his backpack over and got out his notebook.

Castiel wanted revenge, but he was still in the same position he'd always been in; he was hindered by the knowledge that Alastair's attacks were escalating and getting more violent. He was tired of getting beat on and bloodied, but he couldn't let Alastair get away with doing this to Dean.

Castiel was still holding the socket set, and he turned the plastic case over in his hands. He began thinking about the Impala and what Alastair had done, and then auto shop and Mr. Singer and all the notes he had taken during the semester. Suddenly he had an idea for a very personal form of revenge.

Smiling to himself, he got out his auto shop notebook and flipped through its pages.

After homeroom the next morning, Dean and Castiel stopped at their lockers before continuing on to English.


Castiel grabbed his books and shut the locker behind him. "Are you ready?"

"I have somethin' to take care of before class. Will you be okay headed up to English on your own?"

"Yes. Shall I tell Ms. Milton you're going to be late? You're supposed to recite your poem as part of your English final this morning."

Dean ran a hand through his hair. "I know, don't remind me. I'm already sweatin'."

"You'll do fine," Castiel said.

"I'll be on time. This won't take long."

Castiel frowned at him. "You're okay, right, Dean?"

"Oh yeah, don't worry about anything. I'll be up to class in a minute. You go on ahead and I'll meet you at the top of the stairs."

"All right."

He stared at Dean's retreating back, wondering what was so urgent that it couldn't wait until after class. He shrugged his backpack over his shoulder and took off up the stairs, glad to see that Alastair was nowhere in sight.

Castiel stood in the hallway at the top of the stairs to wait. A few minutes later Dean came walking up, and although he was obviously trying to hide it, Castiel could see that he was limping.

"What's going on?" Castiel asked, pulling him aside and away from the open classroom door.

"I wasn't gonna mention it."

"Dean, what happened?"

"Alastair 'accidentally' hit me with a bat during practice yesterday," he sighed.

"He what?"

"This has been buildin' for a long time," Dean said. "I mean, the guy hates me. It had to happen sooner or later. That's where I was. I told Coach Zazel I quit the team."

"But you love baseball."

He smiled. "Yeah, well, I do love baseball. The team, not so much. Besides, I dunno if you've heard, but the captain's a dick."

The relationship they shared was one of the most important of Castiel's life, but Dean was suffering for it. First there was the altercation in auto shop and the resulting injuries and suspension, then the veiled threats, the attack on the Impala, and now the outright violence against him on the field.

The fact that Dean had to endure being hit with a bat because of him made Castiel sick with guilt, but knowing Alastair was getting away with it made him seethe with anger.

"He's going to be sorry he ever touched you," Castiel said forcefully.

Dean's smile dropped away. "Whoa, easy there, man. I don't want you confronting him or somethin'."

"I could protect myself," he asserted, "if I had to."

"I'm sure you could. I do remember you bein' the one holdin' the giant tree branch over my head the day I first talked to you -- "

"I'm so sick of this, Dean," he whispered harshly. "I can't stand it anymore. Years and years of being bullied and picked on and now I have you in my life, and...and it's happening to you, too. It won't stop! He keeps getting away with it!"

Dean glanced up and down the hallway and then pressed closer to Castiel. "Cas, we're in this together. I know you're angry. I am, too. But I don't want you to think that you have to prove yourself to me by gettin' hurt."

"What about you?"

"I won't let him mess with either of us. And although I'd like nothin' better than to wipe that smirk off his ugly fucking face, I'm not lookin' for trouble, and neither should you."

Castiel exhaled deeply and shook his head.

"We'll get through this, okay?"

When he didn't answer, Dean tugged at Castiel's hand. "Okay?"

He didn't tell Dean what he was already planning to do. He wasn't going to confront Alastair, but he was going to prove to Dean he could stand up for himself -- using his brains instead of fists.


"Good. Now can we get back to our bigger problem?"

Castiel made a face. "Which is?"

"This damn poem I have to remember. Shit, I'm nervous."

"You've prepared for this, haven't you, Dean?

"I'm prepared, yeah, but that won't help me if I puke all over the kid in the front row."

"Relax. I'm right here."

"I see that, Cas."

"No," he smiled, "I mean look at me as you recite the poem. It will help calm you and you'll be able to focus."

"All right," Dean said. He took a deep breath and let it out. "Don't look away."

"You know I won't."

Castiel followed closely behind him as they entered the classroom and found their seats. Ms. Milton's voice brought the class to attention. "Good morning, everyone. Okay, Mr. Winchester, today's your day. Are you ready?"

"No, but I'll recite the poem," he answered.

"Very funny. Come up here and let's get this over with, shall we?"

"Please state the poem you'll be reciting and the work from which it's taken," Ms. Milton instructed.

"I don't think it actually has a name," Dean said, looking straight at Castiel, "but it's from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, uh, post 1860 edition."

Castiel inhaled sharply.

"Very well, please continue."

"Recorders ages hence!
Come, I will take you down underneath this impassive exterior -- I will tell you what to say of me;
Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover,
The friend, the lover's portrait, of whom his friend, his lover, was fondest -- "

Castiel smiled, and Dean quirked a small grin before continuing.

"Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of love within him -- and freely poured it forth,
Who often walked lonesome walks, thinking of his dear friends, his lovers,
Who pensive, away from one he loved, often lay sleepless and dissatisfied at night,
Who knew too well the sick, sick dread lest the one he loved might secretly be indifferent to him,
Whose happiest days were far away, through fields, in woods, on hills, he and another,
Wandering hand in hand, they twain, apart from other men,
Who oft as he sauntered the streets, curved with his arm the shoulder of his friend -- while the arm of his friend rested upon him also."

The few members of the class who were paying attention offered up half-hearted claps, and Dean returned to his seat, grinning from ear to ear.

"That was...uh, very nice, Dean," Ms. Milton said, smiling at the both of them.

"Think that'll cause problems?" he said to Castiel with a smirk.

"Dean...I can't believe...that was amazing. But why didn't you ever tell me what poem you chose to recite for the exam? I could have helped you."

"I know, Cas, but there's some things a guy has to do for himself. I wanted to show you I could."

He nodded in understanding. Dean had put into words exactly how he had been feeling about Alastair.

He was now more certain of his revenge plan than ever.

A week went by during which Castiel slowly gathered the items he needed to implement his plan. He didn't want to buy everything at the same time, so he made three different trips to three different stores.

He had to time his efforts perfectly. He needed to wait for rain to flood the baseball fields, because he knew the entire baseball team would be practicing inside the gym due to the bad weather. When they had three days of non-stop rain, Castiel put his plan into motion.

Dean drove him to and from school every day now, so on the fourth day when it was still drizzling, he told Dean he would be staying after school, and asked him to pick him up later from the library. It was getting close to finals, and Castiel told him he wanted to study.

At the end of the day, he waited in one of the bathrooms until he was sure the school had emptied. He gathered his backpack and bag of supplies from his locker and left through the side door, taking care not to be seen. He made his way into the student parking lot.

He headed straight for Alastair's very obvious bright yellow Mustang.

When he was close, he dropped to a crouch and shielded himself with the other cars. He sidled up against the Mustang's tires and flipped open his auto shop notebook.

With a small hammer, he drove nails into the treads of all of the tires, not deep enough to puncture outright, but enough to slowly seep air over days or weeks. From there he moved around to the front of the car. Making sure not to be seen, he snipped the edges of the windshield wipers so the metal of the arms touched the windshield. He then coated them with a mixture of Vaseline and gravel he had picked up from the school's driveway. The light rain didn't affect his work at all. In fact, it was better this way because he knew Alastair would have to turn on the wipers on his way home.

Finally, he unscrewed a jar of brightly colored fish eggs. Used as bait for trout, the eggs were small enough to slide into the air vents at the base of the windshield. He and Uncle Raphael used them when they went fishing the last time he visited Maine. With their oily, strong scent, Castiel knew they would sit and bake in the summer sun and smell for a long time to come.

Satisfied with his efforts, he packed everything up into a plastic bag and returned it to his backpack. He couldn't help but smile when he left the parking lot.

The next afternoon they were sharing lunch in their usual spot, with bologna for Dean and turkey on rye for Castiel. He was in a particularly good mood, because not only had he gotten back at Alastair, but he hadn't seen him all day, either. He wondered if his handiwork caused him to miss school. He chuckled lightly to himself, thinking about his accomplishment.

Dean was lying on his back, with his head propped up against a tree and Leaves of Grass in his hands. He looked over the edge of the spine at Castiel and smiled. "You're soundin' happy today."

"I am."

"And why is that?"

"Because I finally decided to claim my pound of flesh."

"That sounds familiar." Dean made a confused face. "I should know that -- "

"It means I took revenge. On Alastair."

Dean sat up in alarm. "You what?"

"I got back at him for everything he's done to me, and to you -- "

"Cas, what did you do?"

"I simply used some of my acquired auto shop skills and put them to good use."

"Cas -- "

"I vandalized his Mustang. I was extremely careful. He'll never know who did it."

"This isn't like drawin' on his locker, man. This is big time shit," Dean said.

"I didn't disable his car or make it dangerous to drive. I creative."

"Got creative how?"

"First I hammered nails in the tire treads. Then I shortened the rubber on the windshield wiper blades, and I placed Vaseline mixed with gravel along the blades -- "

"Why'd you do that?"

"Because the moment he turned on the wipers, if the shortened rubber didn't scratch the windshield, the thick and viscous Vaseline covered in the gravel abrasive would."


"And of course there were the fish eggs."

"The fish what?"

"I slid fish eggs used for bait into the vent below the windshield. Once they bake in the summer sun he'll never know where the smell is coming from, and every time he tries to turn on the air conditioning he'll receive a reminder."

"Unbelievable, Cas."

"I feel much better."

"You know I would've helped if you told me."

"I realize that. But do you recall what you said? That sometimes a guy needs to do things on his own. I feel the same way about this, Dean. I wanted to get back at him for everything he's put me through, for every snide remark or cruel word that has come out of his mouth these past few months. I wanted to be on the offensive for once."

Dean crawled over to where he was sitting and wrapped his arms around him. "You don't have to prove anything, Cas. You're strong even when Alastair is givin' you shit."

"You think so?"

"Hell yeah I do. Surviving everything you've been through? You're one of the bravest people I know. That's one of the things that drew me to you, y'know, and -- "

Dean trailed off, and turned his head to the trees behind them.


"Did you hear that?" he asked, separating himself from Castiel's arms.

"What are you -- "

Branches snapped around them as Alastair came crashing through the trees, followed closely by Tom and Brady.

Castiel barely had time to register what was happening, except to think that they must have been followed to their lunch spot.

"Run!" Dean hissed.

Dean tried to scramble to his feet but Alastair was on him too quickly. He hauled Dean upright by his jacket and slammed him hard into the tree.

"You can't run...Dean."

Castiel swung at the advancing Brady, who ducked and grabbed him by the hair. He was able to turn and throw an elbow into Brady's stomach, but Tom came up behind Castiel and grabbed his arms, pinning him.

He struggled, trying to shake Tom and Brady. They held him fast, despite everything he could think of to do to get free. He shouted out Dean's name, but Brady punched him in the stomach to silence him. He gagged and his knees buckled. Castiel watched helplessly as Alastair held Dean against the tree with one hand and then swung and connected with Dean's mouth, causing a spray of blood to burst from his lip.

"You're going to pay for fucking up my car, Winchester."

Dean took a second to catch Castiel's eye, and at that moment Castiel realized he had made a terrible mistake.

Dean threw up his right arm and broke Alastair's hold on him, countering with a left uppercut to Alastair's jaw. Alastair's head snapped to the side, and he stumbled.

Dean panted, trying to catch his breath. "I didn't do anything to your -- "

Alastair recovered and came around once more, and Dean again put his arm up to block the blow. This time Alastair swiped it away and caught Dean across the nose.

"Tell me again you don't know anything about it, you fucking gearhead!"

Of course Alastair wouldn't suspect Castiel of doing it. Dean was the one who excelled in auto shop, and he was also the one who had threatened Alastair after the Impala was vandalized. Castiel thought he was getting revenge when all he really did was make things worse. He had brought this on Dean.

Dean wiped at his face and staggered on his feet slightly, and then threw a roundhouse into Alastair's kidney. Alastair absorbed Dean's blow with a grunt, and then easily forced Dean to his knees with a blow to the side of his head. Alastair again brought Dean to his feet against the tree by grabbing him around the neck. He pressed his thumb and forefinger into Dean's throat and started squeezing his larynx.

Dean began making low, guttural sputtering sounds as he gasped for breath.


Castiel kicked back with his leg as hard as he could to connect with Tom's knee. Tom yelped and let go. Brady, who still had a hold on Castiel's hair, yanked backward to spin Castiel toward him, but Castiel used the momentum to thrust his elbow into Brady's solar plexus and broke free. Tom and Brady looked at each other and took off running through the woods and toward the baseball field.

He pitched forward but immediately steadied himself on his feet, picking up a large tree branch when he did so. With all his strength he smashed the branch over Alastair's shoulder, causing him to break the grip on Dean's neck. The huge piece of wood snapped right in half, and Alastair pushed Dean aside and spun around.

His eyes were wild when he swung at Castiel, who ducked the blow and got in a solid right hook before Alastair's strength and size overwhelmed him. He could hear Dean coughing and yelling his name as Alastair rushed at him and hurled him into a tree. It knocked the wind out of him, and he felt Alastair's hand around his throat.


Then a wide arm came from behind Alastair and pulled him away from Castiel. Mr. Zachariah pushed Alastair down to the ground, and Mr. Singer grabbed Castiel before he fell.

"Mr. Singer?" Dean gasped.

Alastair struggled at first, but Mr. Zachariah pinned his arms down and eventually he lay still.

"Zachariah was helpin' me with some welding when we heard screamin' through the open garage bay door," Mr. Singer explained as Dean stumbled over. "We saw Tom and Brady runnin' across the baseball field, and then we could see the commotion through the trees."

There was a moment when all three boys stared at each other, until Mr. Zachariah dragged Alastair to his feet and led him out of the area. He scowled at Castiel and Dean but said nothing.

Mr. Singer looked at Castiel. "You all right there, son?"

Castiel nodded and Dean helped steady him on his feet.

"C'mon, let's get you boys to the nurse. And then this time I'm escortin' you to Murphy's office, especially you, Winchester. We'll let him figure out what went on here."

"Yes, sir." Dean grabbed their backpacks and slung his arm around Castiel's shoulder. "Thanks."

Everything that happened in the time immediately following the events in the woods occurred in a sort of blur, with meetings and conference calls and trips to the guidance office. His mother had come to school, as had Dean's father, and Castiel had seen more concerned looks on the faces of administration members than he ever had before.

As a direct result of the confrontation with Alastair and the stories of Mr. Zachariah and Mr. Singer, Alastair was not only expelled, but his varsity jacket was stripped from him and he was thrown off the baseball team despite the fact that the team was headed for the semi-finals. According to what Castiel had heard from his mother, apparently Alastair would be spending senior year at a school reserved for problem students.

And although his mother wanted to press criminal charges, Castiel convinced her to let it drop. He'd had enough, he told her, and didn't want to deal with Alastair any more than necessary. Just knowing Alastair wouldn't be at Flour Bluff for senior year was a victory for him.

As part of Castiel's agreement with the administration, Alastair would be permitted to complete his exams, so upon his return to school, Alastair was placed under constant supervision.

The atmosphere had changed perceptively at Flour Bluff. Tom and Brady, not wanting to lose their positions on the baseball team, were more than happy to downplay their involvement in the attack and only received a week of suspension each. Castiel had heard how Tom, Brady, and the rest of the baseball team shunned Alastair in the halls and in the cafeteria, where he was forced to sit alone every day.

On the fourth day of exams, he and Dean were walking together on their way to English when they saw Alastair at his locker, escorted by a guidance counselor. Alastair stared at them menacingly, his eyes lowered and teeth bared. He and Dean got halfway up the stairs when Castiel stopped.

"Just a moment," Castiel said to Dean.

"Cas, you're not supposed to be near each other."

He walked to the bottom step, and Alastair looked up at him.

"I have no doubt, Alastair, that when the weather gets warmer and you're out in your Mustang, you'll feel like a big fish in a small pond again."

"What the fuck does that mean?" Alastair growled.

Dean laughed and walked down the stairs to stand next to Castiel.

"What the fuck does he mean, Winchester?"

Dean waved at him cheerily, and made sure Alastair could see it when he placed his hand at the small of Castiel's back and ushered him up the stairs.

On the Saturday night after exam week, he was standing there facing the mirror trying to smooth down a piece of hair that was sticking up at an odd angle from his head. When it wouldn't behave, he adjusted his glasses on his nose instead and left the bathroom.

"How do I look?" he asked, straightening his tie.

"Very handsome," his mother said. "Artistic."

"You look lovely as well, Mama."

"Thank you, sweetheart," she said, swirling her ankle-length skirt around. "I'm looking forward to the art show tonight."

"I've been working toward it all year. I'm excited."

"I continue to find it strange that you have no indication which of your works your teacher chose."

"Mr. Darrow told me that art has to come from the heart, not the head, and that I needed to feel what I was putting down on the page. I tried to follow his instruction carefully and I focused on varied subjects in class so he'd have an extensive collection from which to choose. He must have liked what I've done if I'm in the show."

She walked over and smoothed down the wisp of hair. "We'll never know unless we get going."

"Yes, I don't want to be late."

"Does Dean's father know he's coming out with us tonight?"

"He already got permission."

"It's kind of you to invite him."

"Oh, he wouldn't miss it."

She only smiled and nodded, and they left the apartment together to walk over and pick up Dean.

"I can't believe you made me wear a tie," Dean grumbled when they were in the car.

"I wanted you to look presentable."

"I picked a bright green one because I thought it might distract people from my face."

Castiel turned around to check out Dean's slow-healing injuries from the fight with Alastair. "The swelling has gone down quite a bit."

"Ugh this thing is chokin' me."

"It's very becoming," Castiel's mother said to him via the rear-view mirror.


"Thanks, Mrs. Agnus," Dean answered, a blush of embarrassment creeping up his cheeks.

The auditorium was buzzing with people when they arrived. The stage was filled with artwork, as were the widest aisles that weren't packed with seating. Large white bulletin boards were covered in black felt, and artwork was attached with tacks and wire. The artist's name hung in a small placard next to their work. The larger pieces of art and sculpture were lined up in the orchestra pit on tables.

Castiel's mother kept stopping and admiring various pieces of art, but he was anxious to find his class period's work.

"I've found my class but I can't seem to locate my name," he said.

"What about the display on the stage?" Dean asked.

"That's only for the works that were chosen as best in the school."

"Are you sure you aren't up there?" his mother asked.

"I don't think so, Mama. We should continue to look at the boards down here."

"All right."

They went back and forth looking at every board twice, until finally Castiel found Mr. Darrow talking with another teacher.

"Excuse me, Mr. Darrow, but I can't seem to locate my artwork."

"That's because it's up there, Castiel," he said, pointing to the stage.


Dean tapped him with his elbow. "I told you."

Mr. Darrow turned to his mother. "I'm Castiel's teacher, George Darrow. You must be very proud."

She shook Mr. Darrow's hand. "I am; thank you."

"Your son is an exceptional talent. I had a difficult time choosing from his sketches."

"My sketches?"

"As good as your class work was, Castiel, what you presented in your sketchbook was remarkable. I chose one of those."

"You -- "

"Did he just say he picked somethin' from your sketchbook?" Dean whispered. "The sketchbook mostly full of sketches of me?"

Castiel could only nod.

Castiel's mother patted her son on the shoulder. "Shall we go see which of your works Mr. Darrow chose to be among the best in the school?"

They walked up the side stairs to the stage, where all the artwork was matted and arranged much more professionally than what was displayed around the auditorium floor. They moved from area to area, until they finally found the billboard on the stage where all the junior class artwork was located.

And there on a glossy professional mat hung Castiel's sketched image of Dean sleeping in Michael's bed.

Castiel stared in wide-eyed shock at the hints of bare skin, the folds of the sheets, and his sun-drenched shoulder, arm, and the shading that indicated the bruise on his ribs. To those who didn't know who it was, it looked like any other sleeping teenager. The darkness and shadows of the rendering obscured Dean's features.

To Castiel's mother, however, it was obvious.

"Oh my," his mother exclaimed.

"Oh my God," Dean said.

She walked closer to the drawing, glancing over it at different angles. She circled it carefully, and nodded.

"He's captured your likeness amazingly well, Dean."

Dean blinked. "Um...yeah."

"Mama, I can explain -- "

"You don't have to. The canvas has said it all for you. It's clear you followed Mr. Darrow's suggestions to put your heart on the page to the letter. This is beautiful."

Castiel looked over at Dean, and then at his feet. "Thank you."

"Sweetheart, I think we have a lot we need to talk about regarding this picture, wouldn't you say?"

He looked up at her. "Yes, Mama, we do."

She wrapped her arm around his shoulder, and the three of them left the auditorium.

He was silent the entire ride home, fearing what was to come next. It was obvious his mother had her suspicions about why Castiel chose to draw Dean, shirtless and sleeping in the bed next to him.

He didn't say anything, even after they said good night to Dean and entered the apartment. His heart was hammering in his chest almost as strongly as it did the first time he kissed Dean.

His mother tossed her purse on the couch and went to sit down at the kitchen table. "Come here, Castiel."

He sat down next to her. He was actually shaking and trying not to show it. His mind was racing as well. Should he admit the truth, or continue to hide his relationship? He felt it would be deceitful to hide from his mother something that had made him so happy.

"Can you tell me how you feel about Dean?"

"He's my best friend."

Taking his hand, she said, "Castiel, honey, do you recall our conversation when I said you could tell me anything, even something you thought I might not understand?"

"Yes, Mama."

"I want you to trust me. Will you tell me about Dean?"

Castiel struggled to answer her. He wasn't sure what to say, but the more he thought about it and his heart sounded in his ears, he decided he would come out with it.

"I think I love him," he said, his voice shaking.

"I had a feeling that was the case."

"I can explain -- "

She smiled at him. "I think it's wonderful, Castiel."

" is?"

"It's very rare to find someone like that in your life. You're lucky. And I really like Dean. He's a wonderful young man."

"But -- "

"You thought I would be angry?"

"I don't know," he answered honestly. "I wasn't sure what to think."

"I've raised you for sixteen -- well, seventeen years come August." She brushed the hair out of his eyes. "I had a feeling this day would be coming."

Now he finally understood the sixth sense everyone seemed to have about him.

"I didn't pursue it. It simply...happened."

"That's usually how it occurs. We never expect it until one day we open our eyes and see the person standing in front of us in an entirely different light."

"I wasn't sure myself at first," Castiel said. "But after spending all that time with Dean and sharing everything with him, I felt different. Confused at first, and somewhat scared, but happier than I've ever been in my life."

"Scared, why?"

"I didn't want you to be disappointed in me, or worse, stop loving me."

"For following your heart? For being happy? How could I?"

"I don't know."

"I'm your mother. As long as you live a positive and fulfilling life, nothing you could say or do -- and that includes loving Dean -- would ever make me stop loving you."

Castiel wrapped his arms around his mother and pulled her into a tight hug. "Thank you, Mama," he whispered in her hair. "Thank you. I love you."

She kissed his forehead. "I love you too, sweetheart."

Their conversation was interrupted by a light knock on the door. His mother got up to answer it and found Dean standing on the doorstep.

"I thought I should come by and check on Cas after...after uh, y'know. Is he okay?"

"Please come in, Dean," she said.

" that a yes?" Dean asked, worried.

"It is," Castiel said from behind his mother. "I'm fine."

Dean walked into the living room and sat on the couch.

"I'm going to get changed for bed. I'll leave you boys alone to talk."

She disappeared down the hallway and Castiel sat down next to Dean.

"What happened?" Dean asked anxiously.

"My mother," Castiel said, "is an extremely intelligent and observant woman."

"That's great, Cas. Can we skip ahead in the story a little here?"

"By that I meant she already sensed there was something going on between us."


"She asked me, and I confirmed it."

"Just like that," Dean breathed. "I told you, you're the brave one."

"She was supportive, and understanding and she said she'd be there for me no matter what. I explained that we didn't intend for it to happen -- the relationship grew over time. I told her I was confused at first, a little scared, but happy."

"That's pretty much how it was with both of us," Dean agreed.

"I told her I thought I was in love with you."

"Really." Dean moved closer to him on the couch and brushed a finger gently over Castiel's lips. "What did she have to say about that?"

"She had a feeling about that, as well."

"Yeah," Dean said, pressing his lips to Castiel's neck, "she is pretty smart."

"What do you have to say about it?" Castiel asked, turning his head to the side to allow Dean better access.

"Not much," Dean answered, fluttering kisses over Castiel's jaw. "Probably just 'I love you, too.' I'm not all that good at tellin' you how I feel."

Castiel turned and kissed Dean full on the mouth. "True, but I've become better at hearing it."

"I'm more used to bein' honest."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah, like it's easier to say that I'm sorry you went through a hard time tonight," Dean said, leaning his head against Castiel's shoulder, "but I thought that sketch was beautiful, Cas."

"Thank you, Dean."

"Was that from the first night I stayed over?"

"It was the following morning. I can't believe he picked that one though," Castiel sighed. "Out of everything I accomplished this semester he picked the most homoerotic work possible."

"You should've drawn more flowers and less freckles."

"Perhaps I should have."

"You couldn't tell it was me though."

"My mother could."

"Your mom loves me," Dean grinned up at him.

"She does, actually. It's interesting the effect you have on people."

"That's because I'm naturally loveable."

Castiel raised an eyebrow at him.

"Listen, Cas, are you proud of that sketch?"

"Of course I am. It encapsulated everything I was feeling at that moment."

"Well then fuck everyone else. Who cares what they think?"

"They already think I'm gay."

"Your boyfriend sittin' here next to you would tend to agree with them," Dean said. "Besides, it'll make next year's naked sketch of me easier to deal with."

Castiel chuckled. "I suppose the showcase of the sketch provided an impetus for the discussion with my mother."

"Try that again."

"It helped me tell her how I felt about you."

"Huh. Then maybe I should draw you half naked and asleep in bed and stick it under some helicopter parts so my dad'll see it."

"Are you concerned about telling your father?" Castiel asked.

"I don't think 'concerned' is the word for it. More like terrified."

"What do you think your father will say about me going with you this summer?"

"Were you serious about comin' with me to visit Sam?"

"I want to be there to support you. If you need me, that is."

"Hell yeah I need you, Cas."

"You don't think your father would understand our relationship the way my mother did?"

"Not really," Dean groaned. "But I will tell him. You're too important to me not to."

"The proper time will present itself eventually."

"Yeah, I just need to find the right maybe when he's asleep."

"Our trip may bolster your confidence."

"You, me, and the Impala all alone out on the road, Cas?"

"That's the proposed plan."

"That sounds like the perfect summer vacation."

"Your father is working tonight, correct?" Castiel asked.

"Yeah, why?"

"Did you want to sleep over?"

"I you have to ask your mom?"

"She'll say yes. She loves you, remember?"

"Is there gonna be an oil painting of me hangin' above the couch when I wake up?" Dean teased.

"I don't think so."

"Time to move on to bowls of fruit?"

Castiel shook his head. "I prefer water colors."

"Very funny."

"I could offer you breakfast, if you'd like. You might have heard...I have a talent for soufflés."

Dean laughed, and Castiel got up from the couch.

"Let me ask Mama if it's all right if you stay."

"I'll go change the sheets now, for when she says yes."

Castiel rolled his eyes and kissed the top of Dean's head, knowing he was probably right.

He was, of course. His mother even insisted they all watch a movie together before bed, which Dean also got to pick. Castiel made Dean promise not to recite all the dialogue, but Castiel could still see him mouthing it through almost every scene in The Empire Strikes Back.

At eleven o'clock they went about setting up Michael's bed -- which Castiel began calling 'Dean's bed' in his head -- and going through a ritual of changing and washing and brushing that was starting to become routine. Dean went first in the bathroom while Castiel neatened his room, and then they switched. Castiel decided on plain pajama bottoms that night, but Dean found a way to comment on them anyway.

"Where are the moose?"

"What moose?"

"On your PJs. The cute ones."

"I went with the boring ones tonight."

Dean stuck his bottom lip out. "I'm disappointed."

Castiel threw a pillow at him.

One addition to their routine was Castiel's mother coming in to say goodnight to both of them. Castiel watched Dean grin through her entrance and exit, and something told him that Dean relished the attention; the smile was genuine.

Despite the late hour, neither of them decided they were tired. They talked instead, making plans in the dark for the road trip and the rest of the summer. At one point Dean made Castiel turn on the light and give him a notebook and a pen so he could make a list of all the music he wanted to bring along.

"Led Zeppelin, Metallica, uh, Black Sabbath, ooh, Motorhead -- "

"Can I contribute CDs to the trip?"

"Hootie is banned from gettin' anywhere near the Impala, just so you know."

"Point taken."

Dean flipped a page in the notebook. "Music Cas Can Bring Along That Doesn't Suck," he said as he wrote the words along the top of the page and underlined them. "We'll look through your CDs in the morning -- and after all my hard work schoolin' you on music, there better not be any Michael Bolton around here."

Castiel knew he was going to lose the battle and plopped back on his pillow with a chuckle. "I concede defeat."

"Damn right."

Castiel stared at the ceiling, listening to Dean's pen scratch across the paper as he continued his list.

"What do you think senior year is going to be like?" he asked.

"A lot more peaceful now that dickhead Alastair is gone."

Castiel nodded. "I was contemplating whether or not our relationship is going to make life difficult."

"Probably, but dude, summer hasn't even started yet and you're worryin' about that already? We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. Together."

Castiel turned over to look at him. "I never could have gotten through this year without you."

"That's not true. Hell, you handled Alastair on your were the one protectin' me at the end there."

"That's not what I meant. Ever since Michael died, it's just been Mama and me, but I've never had anyone with whom I could truly be myself. You were the first person who accepted me because of my differences rather than ridiculing me for them. Our relationship -- our friendship -- means more to me than I could ever adequately express."

Dean threw off the sheet and padded over to Castiel's bed, where he slid in beside him. He pressed close to Castiel's back and wrapped his arms around him.

"I think you just did," Dean said, kissing the side of Castiel's mouth.

Eventually Dean's breath on the back of his neck became steadier and he drifted off to sleep, arms still draped over Castiel's body. But Castiel lay awake for a long time thinking, and wondering, and listening to the comforting sounds of Dean lying beside him.

Dean was right when he told him not to worry about next year. When he thought about it, he was still a nobody and a weirdo, the type of kid whose shyness and reserved nature forever labeled him as different, except now he had Dean to share it with. Senior year was going to be fantastic.

So in the morning when Castiel Agnus, the nerdy loser kid with the funny name pulled his breakfast soufflé from the oven, his mother applauded, Dean gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and he sent up a silent prayer thanking whoever was up there for giving him the best year of his life.