"They did what?” Dean hisses, through a mouthful of hamburger. He’s sitting in his living room, eating lunch off the coffee table, staring down at his speakerphone in confusion. “I thought that was locked down.” On the other end of the call, he can hear Charlie’s long-suffering sigh.
"I told you they might do this. They wanted to go with somebody family-friendly."
"That son of a bitch," Dean says. He strangles the handful of french fries he’s been holding, and one by one their warm, helpless, potato-y insides crumble over the tops of his fingers. He feels a brief burst of irrational, almost homicidal rage. "That floppy bow-tie wearing son of a bitch.” Dean is gonna kill Jimmy Wonderman. He’s gonna shove a never-ending string of scarves down his throat. He’s gonna make him eat balloon animals until he floats off into space.
"Dean," Charlie says. "Chill. I booked you something better."
"Oh yeah?" Dean perks up, takes another bite of his burger, chews it thoughtfully. "Cool." Charlie tells him about the spring break thing, a live taping. It does sound good, and it’ll do more to get Dean’s name out there than the festival that just turned him down. He feels the anger draining away, but it still smarts a little. It’s not the first time he’s come up in competition with this guy and Dean can’t help but feel kind of irritated that somebody who wears glittery vests and still works with fucking rabbits- rabbits, for Christ’s sake- somehow keeps getting handed gigs. Charlie says she’ll email him the contract and they’ll look it over together on Wednesday, and then she hangs up, leaving Dean to finish eating alone in the quiet of his apartment. He crushes the greasy wrappers into a ball and lobs them at the wall; they bounce off, onto the side of the cabinet, and land into his open garbage can perfectly. He’s done it a thousand times, but this time it doesn’t make him smile.
That weird unsettled feeling follows him around all week, even to his Friday gig at Showcase, which usually pumps him up. He likes being there, likes hanging around backstage with Benny and Andrea, and even that fucking obnoxious MC Gabe, who slaps everybody on the ass and calls them ‘kid’ even though he’s four fucking feet tall and mature as a coked-up squirrel. Showcase was the place he dreamed of being back when he was lifting wallets and pulling cards from his jacket sleeves out on the boulevard, and even though the place is a lot shabbier than it was when he was a kid, it’s still fucking awesome to go out there under the lights, it still hits him sometimes that he’s made it, kind of, that he’s not a hustler anymore but a professional, that at least within these walls he’s somebody instead of nobody. But tonight he doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel home. He stands and watches Benny and Andrea go through their warm-up routine, smiling at each other like the ol’ married folks they are, holding hands when they bow and glide off. That, too, usually puts a smile on his face. But nothing can budge his frown right now: at least nothing short of stage lights. He plasters on a cocky grin for the crowd and makes it through his routine, getting a few surprised laughs and plenty of shocked gasps and even a couple of appreciative whistles in the right places. Being out there, doing what he’s best at, actually calms him down a little, and by the time he’s back in the hallway backstage, drinking a bottle of water and mentally running himself through a couple of marks that he missed, he actually feels pretty normal, pretty okay.
Somebody taps him on the shoulder. Dean turns and then freezes, face to face with Jimmy Wonderman. Jesus, his eyes are bluer in person. For a second, Dean feels stunned.
"Hi," the guy says to him, friendly, like he has no idea that Dean’s fantasized about ripping his posters down at the civic center. "I’m-"
"I know who you are," Dean blurts out, and Jimmy’s face does this weird thing where it holds totally still for a beat, and then blanks, wipes itself clean like a reset button. Dean doesn’t know the guy, but for a second he thinks he could see hurt there, embarrassment. It doesn’t feel good to have done that after all, no matter how Dean feels about his shitty, goofy vests. "Uh," Dean says. "Sorry." He offers his hand to shake. "I mean, I know your work." Jimmy takes his hand and shakes it, smiling faintly.
"I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your act," Jimmy says. "It’s the first time we’ve shared a bill, but not the first time I’ve seen you per-"
"Wait," Dean says, and Jimmy cuts himself off, mouth still parted on his last word. "Shared a what?" Dean glances around, trying to see if there’s a schedule posted nearby. "You’re not on tonight. It’s some guy called-"
"Castiel," he says. Weirdly, he looks caught. Almost shy, to have shared that. It takes Dean a second to realize why. "It’s my real name." Dean looks down at him: there’s no spangly vest or bow tie, no sign of a top hat or any of the other shit from the promo photos Dean’s seen a million times. Jimmy- Castiel- is just wearing a plain dark suit and a pale shirt open at the collar, boring and average-looking clothes, like he’s going to perform tax magic. Dean feels a swell of confusion, almost overwhelming, like being slapped in the face by the tide.
"Did I-" he says, trying to put one of many stray thoughts into some kind of order. "Did I just open for Jimmy Wonderman?” he asks himself, aloud. It was the wrong thing to say, and he knows it as soon as Castiel’s face crumples and then hardens again, and his shoulders tighten a little, and he gives Dean a strangely disappointed frown. “Well,” Dean says, knee-deep in the hole he just dug himself. “Good luck out there.”
"Thank you," says Castiel, stiffly, and retreats in the direction of the stage.
Dean leans against the wall and puts a hand over his face. Christ. Being a dick to a children’s magician is a new low, even for a guy who used to run credit card scams. As penance he tells himself he’s going to watch the act. He’s going to sit there and clap with enthusiasm for every flapping dove and hoop trick the guy can pull out. If Castiel decides he wants an audience volunteer to saw in half, Dean’s going to put his hand up. He’s going to endure the indignity of rabbit-based magic tonight, humbled and repentant, the way some people do the rosary. Dean slips into the big room and gets himself a seat to the side of the stage, out of sight, because he doesn’t want Castiel to think he’s there to heckle him, throw him off. He just wants to do his guilty time and get out of there feeling like he’s not a complete trash bag. Dean gets a drink from the waitress with one of his comp tickets and then the lights come up and Castiel comes out, alone.
And shit starts to happen. Castiel goes through a few tricks, basic sleight of hand things, but so beautifully done that Dean finds himself holding his breath in a few places. Castiel’s hands are quick, graceful, ridiculously sure. His gestures are smooth and natural and the way he talks the audience through it, with this warm, rumbling, self-deprecating patter is a fucking art in itself. He makes Dean laugh. He makes everybody laugh. And sigh with delight when the trick works just as it’s supposed to. There’s no bam factor here, no shock. It’s one of the simplest and most old-fashioned routines Dean’s ever seen, but it’s being executed with a kind of effortless perfection that is blowing his mind.
And then he closes with a strangely eerie, almost ethereal version of Harry Blackstone’s fucking floating light bulb and the crowd goes absolutely fucking nuts. Castiel bows and exits without much fanfare, and Dean sits in his seat for a long time, recalibrating.
Dean goes to find Castiel backstage and finds him chatting happily with Benny and Andrea, shaking their hands, thanking them for a wonderful opportunity, saying how appreciative he is of their technical setup and how they made everything run so smoothly. Dean waits and doesn’t try to interrupt. He catches Benny’s eye and tries telepathy. No dice, but after a minute, Benny smiles and draws Andrea away, says they’ve got some stuff to wrap up, hopes they can bring Castiel back sometime soon. They walk away and Castiel turns around and sees Dean, and Dean watches his face go from glowing to shuttered again, like he just dropped a bushel basket over some internal candle. Who could blame the guy.
"I’m a dick," Dean says. Castiel stares at him. "I’m really sorry. Can I start over?" He holds his hand out to Castiel and Castiel looks at it, then back up at Dean, eyes alight again, some private pleasure animating the genuine smile he produces.
"Yes," Castiel says. "Yes, of course." He shakes Dean’s hand and his grip is perfect. He clasps both hands around Dean’s for a second, gentle but firm, and then lets him go. "I’m very pleased to meet you."
"Likewise," says Dean.
It feels like a start.