At first, Cas thinks it’s a trick of Gabriel’s.
His brother visited last week, in his own parody of a housewarming party, and spent a few nights on Cas’s couch. He was a brief, loud, obnoxious interlude while Cas tried to buy and arrange furniture and set up electricity and Internet. The morning after he left, Cas went to wash off a plate in the sink and was immediately doused by a stream of water—Gabriel’s old rubberband-around-the-sink-sprayer trick.
So when he wakes up the next day for his morning run, and the first thing he notices is that awful smell, he thinks Gabriel must have done something. His mind flies through possibilities—dog shit in the vents, a small breeding farm of stink bugs; his brother doesn’t believe in not pushing the envelope. Never mind that Cas is new here, and stressed, and likes peace and quiet and routine. This is Gabriel’s way of encouraging his youngest brother to lighten up.
It’s not Gabriel’s fault. At least, he doesn’t think it is. The awful smell is coming from the sink, which has half an inch of foul, stagnant water that refuses to drain. To limit any human contact, Cas spends the morning researching online for possible alternatives—boiling hot water, baking soda. He even flips the garbage disposal on and off again, over and over, but only succeeds in making the water gurgle and choke back again, like a bubbling sulfur spring.
He gives up in the early afternoon and calls the first plumbing service he finds in the Yellow Pages. Winchester Plumbing and Repair. He calls them after about five minutes of hesitation. He’s put on hold, where a woman’s voice assures him, over and over again, that John Winchester guarantees a solution on the first visit, or the second visit’s free. John Winchester is the best in Columbus with 27 years of experience. John Winchester guarantees… He almost hangs up.
While he waits for the plumber to come, he makes sure everything is in order. He cleans up the kitchen, pulls a rug in front of the door. He makes sure his office is still locked—it was locked while Gabriel was here, too. There were too many priceless objects in there, and no desire at all for any of his brother’s pranks. And after all this he sits on his couch, waiting.
There’s an impatient knock about twenty minutes later, while Cas is thinking of pictures to hang on the walls. He’s never stayed in one place long enough to decorate, really. But now that’s he’s an assistant professor at Ohio State, he knows he’ll be here for a while. It could be time to decorate the room with pictures from his studies abroad. The bright, hand-weaved tapestry from Peru, or the dark, shiny singing bowl from Nepal. Those might brighten up the dreary white walls of this old house.
When he swings open the door, he is not immediately impressed by the supposedly 27 years of experience standing on his front porch. The man there is dressed in worn jeans, flannel, and must have started learning the trade while in utero, because he does not look a day over 25.
Cas doesn’t like being lied to. “You’re not John,” he says accusingly, scrutinizing the young, now-frowning face.
“Yeah, I’m Dean,” the guy says. “And you need a sink repaired, right?”
He moves to step into the house, but Cas doesn’t open the door any wider. “What are your credentials?” He asks.
Dean rolls his eyes. “You called ‘John Winchester and Son,’ right? Because I’m the son. I’m Dean. And my dad hasn’t done a house call since Bush was in office, so if you’re looking for an experienced plumber, here he is.”
Dean is not very professional. Cas looks a moment longer, and then steps aside to let Dean in. Dean wipes his boots briefly on the rug and walks off to the kitchen, completely ignoring him. Cas is left, uncertain, in the hallway.
Outside, on the driveway, there’s a big white van with JOHN WINCHESTER AND SON written on the side. Cas can’t completely tell, but it looks like there used to be a letter there that was painted over. SONS, it used to say.
He comes back to the kitchen, watching Dean make a face as he looks into the gross water stopping up his sink.
“In the Yellow Pages, it’s just called ‘Winchester Plumbing and Repair,’” he says, because it’s hard for him to give up a point.
To his surprise, Dean laughs. He looks over his shoulder and gives Cas a quick grin, a pleasing bar of white teeth. “You were looking in the Yellow Pages? All right, old man. Time to leave 1992.”
Cas colors and looks away. After a moment of standing there, not quite sure what to do with himself, he pulls out a chair and sits at the kitchen table. He started making a list there, last night, of all the things he needs to get in order before school starts in two months. Cas pretends to look over it while Dean swings open the cabinet under the sink and grunts as he pushes his shoulders through the narrow space.
“Dammit,” the man curses, making Cas raise his eyebrows. “Jesus—has to be a freakin’—contortionist—” Dean huffs out a laugh.
“Do you need any help?” Cas says, just to be polite. From this position, Dean looks headless, nothing but his broad, flannelled back and strong thighs. It’s not a bad view—
“Yeah. Give me my flashlight, would you?”
Cas puts down his list and comes over. Dean had put the flashlight on the counter by the sink, a big, bulky yellow one. It’s this close, looking down to hand it to Dean, that he sees where the man’s shirt has ridden up, and the strip of flesh that’s now revealed. He fumbles around under the sink to hand the flashlight to Dean, willing himself to look away.
Dean grabs it with a muffled thanks and Cas retreats back to the table, pulling the list high to cover his face. Gabriel’s told him before that he has a creepy habit of staring at people he finds attractive. Gabriel had also said his habit was about as subtle as a bull in a china shop. He probably shouldn’t let on to this grumpy plumber, with his strange and pleasing glimpses of cheerfulness, that he finds him attractive.
He hears the sounds of squeaking and metal clanging, and looks over to see Dean wriggling, his hips swaying from side to side, as he tries to back out of the cabinet space. Finally, panting a little, Dean’s head pop free.
“I’m gonna have to snake your pipes,” he says.
“Oh,” Cas says breathlessly, losing all subtlety.
Dean gives him a bit of a strange look for remaining with him in the kitchen, but seems to take to it well enough. He seems to be an easygoing kind of person, someone who can painlessly keep up a steady stream of conversation. Cas has always been jealous of that—he’s far too awkward to have meaningless small talk with anyone.
Dean has taken it upon himself to educate Cas on what probably has caused the blockage.
“People think they can put just anything down a garbage disposal, but that’s not true,” he informs Cas. “Egg shells, potato peels. They can easily cause clogs. You have to feed them in slowly, running water the entire time.”
“Okay,” Cas says. “Thank you for telling me, Dean.”
Dean smiles over at him. “Just being your friendly neighborhood plumber,” he says. “Anyways, wanna hear the grossest thing I’ve ever found in a clogged drain? Come on, guess.”
Cas tries to think while Dean bends over the sink, checking his progress. His worn, faded jeans have been sliding lower on his hips (not that Cas has been tracking their progress), and now, with Dean bending over, Cas can see the faintest shadow of a divot there. It’s distracting. If Gabriel were here, he’d probably be opening a roll of quarters and seeing how many he could slip down the crack showing above Dean’s pants. All of the sudden, it doesn’t seem like that ludicrous of an idea.
“Mister Milton?” Dean says. He looks half-amused by Cas’s red, flushing face. Cas can only hope that Dean doesn’t know he’s the source of it. “Can’t guess?”
Cas shakes his head.
“A human fingertip,” Dean says conspiratorially. “Down to the bone. Someone must’ve stuck their finger in the garbage disposal by accident, but I still don’t know why they chose to just leave it there. It just about made me heave.”
“Yes, that is gross,” Cas agrees.
The plumber seems disappointed by his lack of reaction. “I thought it was gross,” he says, a little sulky. Cas sees, too late, that Dean was trying to impress him.
“It is!” Cas says quickly. “I, uh, I’ve just seen a lot of bones. It wouldn’t have bothered me.”
His comment does not make things better. “All right, Mister Serial Killer,” Dean mutters, and leans back over the sink again.
“I’m actually a paleoanthropologist,” Cas says. “I specialize in early hominin fossils. So I guess I meant to say that my work is to study the fossilized skeletons and remains to such a degree that a sight like that would be almost normal to me.”
Dean turned around somewhere in this mini-speech to lean on one hip and give Cas an impressed look.
“All right, Mister Paleoanthropologist,” he says. “What are you doing in Columbus, Ohio then?”
“My cohort and I discovered the partial skull of what appears to be a homo habilis when we were in the Koobi Fora gorge in Kenya—we believe it to be, at least, based on carbon dating placing it in the correct Pleistocene Period and the size of the cranial cavity—” He stops, looking down. He sometimes—often—forgets that no one cares about the origin and evolution of hominins more than him. More than once, on dates, he’s seen the other person’s eyes glaze over, their not-so-subtle glances at phones and watches. He can feel, like water slipping through his fingers, their interest in him trickling away. This in turn leads for him to abruptly shut up, flustered, and then any other conversation will peter away, painfully, because there’s still the awful throb of humiliation in the pit of his stomach, and he dwells too much on how boring he must be, and he can’t talk about anything with as much vigor as he talks about millions-year-old skeletons.
One time, when watching TV with Gabriel during his undergraduate days, they came upon some awful, serialized blind dating show. The man was shown to be excruciatingly awkward, fumbling and unsure, and talked at length about the ins and outs of being an investment banker.
Gabriel had nudged him in the side. “That’s you, bro,” he said, and proceeded to crack himself up.
“Hey,” Dean says. “Homo habilis, brain size—I was following you.” He sounds a little defensive.
“Of course,” Cas says, looking up and smiling weakly. “Sorry, I—anyways, I’ve been offered the position of professor at Ohio State in return for the lab research and publishing they can provide me. I’ll be teaching a general anthropology course there in the fall, and as a featured lecturer at Columbus State Community College, while I’m studying the fossil we found.”
Dean whistles. “Busy guy,” he says. “Busy professor, I mean. Never went to college, but I should have known you were one of those scholarly types, just from the looks of you.”
Cas nods, smiles. He’s not wearing his professorly get-up, at least not yet, but he’s sure he does look the type. Bookish, serious. It doesn’t bother him very often anymore.
He thinks to himself, then, that Dean, with his easy good looks and charms and conversation, probably doesn’t like scholarly types very much. Easy to spot, harder to avoid. Stuck cleaning Cas’s drain while Cas awkwardly sits there and gives his strange responses and unasked-for anthropology lectures and openly checks him out. Like Cas thinks he can make up for lost time, restore the high school hierarchy—fussy, nerdy him trying to bask in the all-American charm of Dean Winchester.
His smile drops away. “I, uh, I’ll go write you that check,” he mumbles, and doesn’t bother to look at Dean again as he leaves the room.
For the next few weeks, Cas settles into his home. He decorates, like he planned to, with all the accrued souvenirs he’s gotten from around the world. He sets up his glass cases in his office, carefully and lovingly arranging his artifacts within. He paints his bedroom the soothing, golden color of the Rift Valley in the afternoon. Site digs are one of the few places he’s ever really managed to feel at home, fully himself, anyways. So it’s fitting.
He finds he likes his house, even though it’s old. He likes his neighborhood, too, even if he hasn’t made any effort to meet his neighbors. He researches online for the best conversation openers for people who live in Ohio, and finds that normally a general comment about a sports team is well-received.
He also carefully avoids thinking of Dean, the only person he’s really met here, who had seemed surprised and maybe hurt with the callous dismissal Cas had given him after fixing his sink. Dean might not know it, but Cas had done him a favor. People like himself, like Cas, took the easy kindnesses that other people gave them and read more into them than there was. Dean thought he was just making conversation, but Cas ‘just makes conversation’ so rarely that Dean’s visit had been the closest to a housewarming party that he would ever have, truly. Dean should be able to do his job without Cas being obvious about what a novelty it all was.
That thinking was all well and good, except one night Cas stumbles into the bathroom in the early hours and finds he’s incapable of flushing the toilet. To be honest, he forgets about it—goes back to bed annoyed, wakes up early for his morning run, and it’s only after he’s had his coffee and feeling the need to pee that he remembers the broken toilet.
So he tinkers around under the lid, but doesn’t know what he’s doing. He might be book-smart, sure, but he knows he’s not street-smart. He’s not savvy when it comes to anything that’s not using and sharing and applying his learned knowledge.
It’s mostly the force of habit, his love for routine and lack of surprises, that makes him call John Winchester and Son Plumbing again. Dean did a good job, he reminds himself weakly. Maybe it won’t even be Dean that comes this time, after all.
When the knock comes, impatient and familiar, he tries to be casual when he opens the door.
“How about those Buckeyes?” He says, too forced.
Dean raises an eyebrow. “I don’t know; their season hasn’t started yet,” he says.
Dean clomps up the stairs with him and looks into the toilet with an impassive face. He jiggles the handle, pokes around beneath the lid, and finally sighs and says he has to get some stuff from his van. Cas hovers in the hallway, feeling useless.
A few minutes later, there’s the scrape of porcelain as Dean heaves the toilet away from the wall, peering into the cavity there.
“Yeah, that’s no good,” Dean says. He shines his flashlight in for Cas’s benefit. “See the standing water? It means the pipe’s clogged.”
Cas comes a little closer to look at the murky water. This close, he’s shoulder to shoulder with Dean. They’re both wearing t-shirts, and he can feel their elbows brush. It’s an interesting feeling, how much he simultaneously enjoys and dislikes it.
He makes himself move away. “How did that happen?” He says. He remembers Dean’s idle, informative chatter about garbage disposals from last time, but now Dean seems Just Business.
Dean just shrugs, kneeling down to rotate his flashlight around in that small space. “Lots of ways,” he says. He looks up at Cas from that position. “Your pipe’s not gonna hold up. I’m gonna have to pry up some of the floor here to get to the waste line.”
“Oh,” Cas says blankly. “Okay.”
“This is gonna take a day or two,” Dean continues grimly, like a doctor about to inform a patient about amputation. “This is an old house. What with renovations and other shit, the pipe’s can be hard to find and screwy.”
“All right,” Cas says. “That’s fine.”
Dean gives him a look like he doesn’t believe him; Cas doesn’t understand why. “As long as you say so, Mister Milton,” he says coolly.
Cas tries to hold his gaze. He thinks he must have erred somewhere—he wishes he could see the bones of the matter, like he does for his work, so he could find out where the problem is.
“It’s just Cas,” he mumbles, and Dean nods and turns away.
There’s no single one place to avoid Dean, Cas finds. He’s uncomfortable with Dean’s return to grumpiness, and wants to stay out of his way, but Dean is up in the bathroom and then following a line somewhere in the hallway, and then he’s trudging down the basement steps to look at the exposed pipes there. Cas sits on the floor in the laundry room, folding clothes and staying quiet.
Finally, around one, he emerges and goes to the kitchen to make himself some lunch. After a lot of pacing and a moment’s pep-talk, he ascends the stairs and finds Dean in the bathroom, down on his knees, head to the floor, as he cranes to see something in the drain. The sight alone is almost enough to make him turn around and leave.
“Hello,” Cas says bravely. “I’m making myself some lunch, if you’d like some.”
“Not what you pay me for, Cas.”
“Okay,” Cas says. He looms in the doorway for a moment more. “Well, the offer’s there. If you’d like. I made a second sandwich.” Pitiful.
But, a few minutes later, as he takes his first bite, he hears the thuds of Dean’s boots down the stairs. He tries not to look too excited as Dean rounds the corner and pulls out the chair opposite from him.
“Thanks,” Dean says. And he doesn’t say anything else as he picks up the sandwich Cas had left for him, hopefully, on the plate there. The sounds of their chewing are loud in the room.
“I’m not stupid,” Dean says suddenly. “I might not have gotten some bigwig degree, but I thought we were past this old-school classist bullshit.”
“What?” Cas gasps.
“What do you mean, what? As soon as I told you I never went to college, you couldn’t wait to leave the room. The taint of a high school GED—I don’t know. But you know what? I—I read. I try to educate myself. And some people just have to be the plumbers of the world, they have to literally clean up other peoples’ maxi-pads and giant shits, and that person just happens to be me. And I really can’t fuckin’ stand when people get into their better-than-you complexes about that, while I’m doing you a goddamned service.”
“I didn’t,” Cas says. “Dean, I didn’t mean to.” He’s never been good at talking to people, he realizes. He’s even worse at confrontation.
“And another thing,” Dean says, tipping his chair back. “It’s not like this was handed to me. You have to take apprenticeships, and pass exams, and know your stuff. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a whole other bunch of stuff I’d rather be doing, but some of us just don’t have the money or the luck or the capability to live our dreams, okay? We make do with what we’ve got.”
“Dean, please,” Cas bursts out. “I think we’re misunderstanding each other. I wasn’t judging you—I thought you were judging me.”
The front legs of Dean’s chair thump back to the ground. “What’s there to judge?” He says. “Why would you think that?”
“Because I’m an awkward loner,” Cas declares, willingly self-condemning. “Even the people in my field think I’m a little too far off the grid. And I thought, with you, that I seemed too desperate, and I was talking too much about stuff no one cares about—”
`”That’s not true,” Dean says. “I liked hearing about your work. You were passionate about it. You made me want to hear more.” He looks down at his plate, then over again at Cas. “I thought that you thought I was some kind of hick. Talking about dismembered fingers in a pipe. I thought you were probably rolling your eyes behind my back.”
“I wasn’t,” Cas says. He’s swept up in their honest exchange, which is probably why he doesn’t quite stop himself from saying, “I was actually staring at your ass.”
“Oh,” Dean says. Cas is too embarrassed to speak but he still likes the way that the tips of Dean’s ears turn red. “I, uh, I normally wear a belt.”
“Sure,” Cas says, because he’s not sure what else to say.
Dean picks up his sandwich and then puts it back down. “We should start over,” he says.
“How ‘bout them Indians, huh?”
Dean fixes the toilet the next afternoon. He demonstrates, like Vanna White, how the toilet flushes after he presses down on the handle. Cas claps politely.
“So,” Dean says, after he takes his check. “I’m hoping, for your sake, that you don’t have any more plumbing problems.”
“But,” Dean says awkwardly. “Uh, you’re a cool guy, Cas. I know you don’t know very many people here. So, if you’d like, we should hang out some time.”
“I’ve heard college-educated people never do that,” Cas says. Dean gapes a moment, a hairs-breadth away from offended, before he lets out a startled laugh. It makes Cas feel elated.
“Yeah, whatever. Look, the Buckeyes have a scrimmage before the regular season every year. It’s this weekend. We should watch it together.”
“Okay,” Cas says. “Dean, would you like to come over and watch the scrimmage with me?”
Dean smiles, big and goofy enough that Cas can only helplessly smile back, feeling like there’s something big going on here.
So that’s why Cas finds himself frantically scouring the shelves of the grocery store the day of the scrimmage. He buys four bottles of pop, and five different flavors of chips, and then on the way home he stops at Buffalo Wild Wings and gets more wings than he knows what to do with.
When Dean arrives a little later, he laughs when he sees Cas’s spread on the kitchen table.
“Are we having a party?”
“I don’t know,” Cas says, feeling a little miserable. “Is this okay?”
Dean’s look is warm from the other side of the table. It makes Cas’s heart give one sudden beat, makes him wish he knew some smooth or subtle way of sliding his arm around Dean’s shoulders, or touching the small of his back. All he knows how to do is stare, apparently.
They end up not watching as much of the game as Cas thought they would. Dean’s explanation of the game leads into them discussing other sports—Dean, wrestling as he grew up, and Cas explained he never did play any sports in boarding school. But he does talk about the sports that other cultures practice— the fevered fandom for cricket in Nepal, or the love for dusty games of soccer, battered nets, bare feet, in Africa.
Cas explains to Dean that there’s never really been a “home” for him, not really. He and his siblings all went through the aforementioned boarding school at a young age. Cas, more mature, responsible, and knowledgeable than most of his peers, traveled abroad for the first time when he was an undergraduate. He was a business major then, at the request of his parents, but while he was in France he was able to see the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume: the only cave with its prehistoric paintings still available to the public; these colored, lovely depictions of animals made by a people now thousands of years dead.
He’s traveled for years, ever since. His parents did not approve, but he went on with it. Without their money he needed scholarships, and he was lucky enough to get them. Lucky enough to visit the storied archeological digs in Africa and China and Britain. And now, 33 and eager to uncover the mysteries of his very own homo habilis, he has chosen to settle at Ohio State, at its up-and-coming program which has promised that he’ll be integral, not the outsider that he’s used to being.
Dean seems fascinated by everything he tells him. He wants to hear more about the places Cas has been, the phrases he’s picked up in other languages. He listens in admiration as Cas explains the slow, careful work of uncovering a fossil, the gentle taps of his chisel resounding, his hands sure and confident and elegant in a way Cas himself has never been, not in real life.
He explains the different decorations he has around the room for Dean’s benefit—the singing bowl, which he taps with a mallet to produce it’s haunting note, and the unity sculpture from Kenya, which he shyly explains is meant for a married couple, to represent their intertwined selves, unable to be separated.
It seems like Dean has to go too soon. Cas immediately feels clammy and uncertain, sure that’ he’s talked too much, bored Dean to tears. But Dean comes close and awkwardly, hesitantly, slides a hand around Cas’s wrist.
“I had a lot of fun,” he says in a low voice. “Would you—would you like to get together again, sometime?”
“Yeah,” Cas breathes out. “Dean, I would like to so much.”
It becomes a regular thing, their get-togethers. Two or three times a week, and sometimes more—Dean will show up without warning, and Cas will hear the now-familiar sound of the Winchester and Son van in the driveway and grin.
Dean is helpful around the house. He fixes leaks and turns screws and oils hinges without being asked. He likes to use his hands, he says, and they both blush and look away from each other. So Dean will fix things, and talk to Cas, and Cas will sit nearby and listen. Dean likes to talk, he realizes, but not all his talk is the same. He never really hears anything Dean is passionate about talking about, not until a few weeks after the scrimmage.
“My old man wanted my brother Sam and I to take over the business,” Dean says. “So I did—never really thought twice about it. But Sam refused. Sam wanted to become a lawyer, so he studied hard and applied places and got in at Stanford. And Dad was the only parent in history who was ever mad that his kid got a full ride to Stanford.”
Dean’s helping Cas trim the bushes out back, and he stops for a second now to wipe his forehead against his sleeve. Cas tries to look deeply invested in trimming back the hedge.
“If I could do it all over again, I would have chosen differently. Easy. Do you know—OSU has one of the best engineering programs in the country. The country, right here in my backyard. If I could do it differently, I’d be doing that. They have—”
He stops and turns, animated, to Cas, who puts his clippers down. “They have this vehicle they’re making—the Buckeye Bullet. It’s a bunch of engineering undergrads working on it, and it’s won, the past few years, for the fastest landspeed vehicle in the world. 300 MPH plus; she flies. And the coolest thing is—they’re using alternative fuel. Like, saving the planet, using these hydrogen fuel cells, which can be recharged—and it shows that these technologies can be better. And we can use what we’ve learned to adapt to other things—like, they started using the fuel cells in campus buses. Maybe, soon, they can adjust it all other vehicles. Not just these crazy phallic race cars. What they’re doing right now, it can change everything about the way we use oil and—”
He stops. He seems to take in everything for a second—his hands, animated in the air, and Cas standing there with his hedge clippers at his side, listening.
“I—my bad,” Dean says. “I got a little carried away there.”
And that, right then, is the first time Cas feels brave enough. Brave enough to cross the few feet between them and lay his hand on Dean’s warm, hard arm. “I like it when you get carried away,” he says.
He does. He thinks that maybe, this whole time, he’s disliked himself for caring too much, for being too excited and invested and passionate about what he likes. Most people don’t do that, he realizes. At least, not right away. They’re scared to show their cards, to reveal too much right away. Like being yourself is being too open, too off-putting for someone to take in the first time. Like being passionate about something is also something to be ashamed of.
Dean laughs, a little unsure. “You do?”
“A lot,” Cas says emphatically, and the smile Dean gives him is the kind that no one has ever given him before.
It’s maybe because of that day, when Dean talked about his passion for engineering, that Cas decides to show Dean what’s in his office.
He tries not to make a big deal of it, but he’s nervous and excited, and Dean seems to pick up on it.
“Is this where you keep all the dead bodies?” He jokes, while Cas feels around in the cool room for the light switch.
When the light does finally come on, Dean gapes around, suitably awestruck.
“Whoa,” he says. “You’ve got to tell me what this all is.”
So Cas does. He shows Dean the fossilized leaf from the Miocene period that he found on his very first dig in Africa. He shows him the tooth of the ardipithecus kadabba, five million years old, perhaps one of the earliest ancestors of the hominins. There’s the sun-bleached scrap of paper that Meave Leakey—the Meave Leakey, whose dig site in Lake Turkana revealed a wholly different evolutionary path for hominin ancestors than anyone had ever dreamed of—signed for him when he went to one of her lectures in London. And, of course, his prized possession. The plaster cast of the 1.5 million year old footprints found in Kenya. Homo erectus. Considered the earliest human—almost human— footprints, frozen in time in their solitary path. Man goes from walking on four limbs to two. And all of history unfolds from behind those fossilized footsteps.
“They had toes and an arch and a heel, just like us,” Cas says, looking down at his cast. “You can tell by the length of their gait that their bipedal walking was normal, habitual. One was an adult, about five and a half feet tall, based on the size of the footprint. The other one walking is thought to be only a couple feet tall—a child. Their footsteps were preserved in volcanic ash. Who knows where they came from, or where they were going. But they were us, over a million years ago. Almost us.”
The light from the glass case reflects in Dean’s eyes when he looks up at Cas. He looks awestruck.
“That’s amazing,” Dean says. “I’ve never, ever heard of that before. It’s—beautiful.”
Cas smiles at him. “My parents couldn’t accept me becoming a paleoanthropologist. They’re very religious. Creationists. They can’t, or won’t, believe in all the evolutionary deadends that eventually become the homo genus, that eventually become who we are today. They told me that what I was studying were lies, untruths. They told me to give it up or not come back.” He looks down at his precious collection, slowly brought together over several continents. “I couldn’t do that, though. It was too beautiful. Too beautiful to give up.”
Dean comes up beside him and reaches out, taking Cas’s hand. It’s nothing that they’ve done before, but it doesn’t feel wrong.
“What a pair we are,” he says. “One of us wants to understand the past, and the other one wants to change the future. Homo habilis and hydrogen cars. Two opposite ends of the spectrum.”
“There has to be a middle ground,” Cas says, weakly. It’s hard to think with Dean standing so close.
“The present, maybe,” Dean says, and then he leans down and kisses Cas gently, sweetly on the lips.
It’s wonderful and not nearly enough. Cas turns around and brings Dean closer in his arms, sweeping his hands up over Dean’s arms and shoulders. Dean’s mouth opens to his, and the first touch of his tongue makes Cas gasp and press closer.
Everything feels hot and right and perfect, and Dean is broad and warm against him, and Cas doesn’t think he’s ever felt this way. He doesn’t think anyone has ever done this thing, this beautiful thing, that Dean is doing to him now.
“Would you like to come upstairs with me?” He says. Dean doesn’t answer, because he’s kissing down Cas’s neck, but he starts to ease Cas backwards towards the door. They kiss by the door, and then on the stairs, and then on Cas’s bed. Cas lies awestruck on the bed while Dean grips him close and kisses him deep, and then Dean starts rocking against him, slowly and meaningfully, and Cas can’t do anything but moan in his ear and run his hands up and down his back, feeling the perfect slide of his muscles.
“Yes,” Cas says. Babbles. “Good idea. Let’s do that.”
“Wanna fuck me?” Dean says, low in his ear. Cas moans out his name in response.
They slide around each other, slowly, switching places. Dean moves onto his stomach and bunches his arms around Cas’s pillow, turning his head to the side to watch Cas’s progress.
There’s not much. Cas is too entranced with slowly pulling Dean’s briefs down, the satisfying reveal, inch by inch, of that perfect ass he’s been staring at since the first time Dean walked through his door.
“Dude, seriously?” Dean can’t look at him; he’s laughing into Cas’s pillow.
“Yes, seriously,” Cas says, and purposely releases the elastic, watching it snap back across his ass. Dean just laughs harder into the pillow.
He keeps the necessities in his bedside drawer, more for perfunctory reasons—what a healthy, sexually active man in his 30’s should own—than actual use. But he’s glad he has them now. He kisses Dean’s shoulder blades, the line of his spine, the perfect dimples that he’s fantasized about, there at the bottom, while he works him open.
Dean, he already knows, likes to talk. He likes to talk now, too.
“Yeah, Cas, fuck. Fuck me. Jesus, right there. Do that again. Ahh. Excellent. Wonderful. Fuck!”
Cas is all ready to get the show on the road, but when Dean turns over as Cas slicks a condom on, he’s the one who puts a hand on Cas’s stomach, pushing him back.
“Is that—is that a tattoo?” He sounds intrigued.
“Not now,” Cas whines, but Dean sits up, tilting his head, trying to make it out.
“What the fuck is it?”
Cas throws an arm over his eyes. He can’t believe this has to happen right now.
“It’s Darwin’s tree of life,” he says, aggrieved. “It’s the first time Darwin tried to classify his theory of evolution, when he published On the Origin of Species in—Dean, can’t we do this later?”
Dean traces over the branches of the tree, low on Cas’s hip. He traces over the cursive inked into Cas’s skin—I think.
“You’re such a nerd,” he says in glee. “No wonder you never get any.”
“I would say, based on who’s about to bottom, I’m about to get some just fine.”
Dean’s hands fly up from the tattoo and up to his head, pulling him in for a hard, deep kiss. Cas scrambles between his legs, lifting one over the crook of his arm, and then he’s guiding himself into the grasping tight heat that is Dean, holding Dean’s hand tight in his, fisted in the sheets, until his hips are pressed against Dean.
“So perfect,” Cas gasps against his cheek. “No one’s ever—I don’t know why you do—but you do.”
“Yeah, Cas,” Dean says. His voice is rough as he smoothes his free hand down Cas’s trembling back. “I do.”
And they slide together, over and over, Dean’s legs tight around him, their fingers laced together. Interlocked and twisted around each other like the pieces of Cas’s unity sculpture in the living room. Until Cas reaches down and pulls Dean until he comes with a sob, until Cas follows him, crying out in wonder, that it could be like this, that two people could find this one same passion together.
They start going out on dates, instead of just hanging out at Cas’s house.
At first he’s nervous, afraid that a social setting will somehow remove the magic, Cinderella’s dress back into cinders again, and Dean’s interest in him made laughable in the light of day. He wants to say it would be the first time such a thing would happen to him, but it wouldn’t be true.
It doesn’t happen. They go out for beers in the Brewery District and get pleasantly drunk. They go to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and Dean makes Cas try the strangest flavors. Black Coffee. Cantaloupe and Sun Tea Sorbet.
Cas gets to learn what it’s like to kiss with numbed, cold ice cream lips. He likes it. He can tell that Dean likes it, too.
Cas’s homo habilis is finally delivered to the university lab, so he brings Dean with him for his first look at the fossil since unearthing it from the dig site in Kenya.
“What do you think?” He asks, as Dean looks down at the fossil in the same way a father might look at his newborn— at the partial skull with its empty eye sockets and few teeth, the shards of a humerus and part of a rib.
“You must have had a lot of patience to try and get that ugly mug out of the ground,” Dean comments. He turns back to Cas. “How old is it, again?”
Cas had never heard more romantic words.
He gets in touch with a professor in another college and gets Dean and him a tour of the Center of Automotive Research. There, in a special room in the back, is the long, shining race car known as the Buckeye Bullet. Dean is so excited he can barely speak.
“Look at it!” He cries, running up and down the length, touching its finish admiringly. “God, this thing is a goddamn work of art. What I wouldn’t give—”
He pulls Cas into a kiss, laughing as he pulls away from it.
The next day they walk around the Horseshoe while Dean teaches Cas about seven national championships, a two-time Heisman winner, and what, exactly, a buckeye even is.
“You should see it on game day,” Dean says dreamily. “Thousands of people wearing scarlet and gray, singing the alma mater—it’s like a church.”
“I think I get free tickets since I’m faculty.” Cas says. Dean whirls around and pins him with a stare.
So they make plans to go to games together, in the fall, bundled up against the cold and still together. Dean sings the words to Carmen Ohio in his ear that night in bed, so he won’t forget them when it comes time.
It’s when Ohio State is supposed to start classes in two weeks that Cas makes the mistake. He’s been busy, preparing his syllabi for both Ohio State and Columbus State, and setting up his office at the former campus. There are still nights with Dean, wonderful nights, but they have to become scheduled as Cas becomes busier. There was a much-dreaded faculty night when he had to dress up and meet the other anthropology fellows and professors. Dean was waiting for him on the front steps when he came back, exhausted.
“Hey,” Dean says. He stands up and kisses Cas quickly on the lips. “I’d say I like you in the monkey suit, but then I’d have to classify what kind of monkey.”
“Primatologist jokes,” Cas says. “You’ve learned.”
They sit together at the kitchen table while Cas heats up some leftovers. He’d been too nervous to eat; too afraid someone significant would come up to him while he had bacon-wrapped asparagus in his mouth. Now, he fills Dean in about everything at the party—meeting the university president, the surprise of meeting the famous South American anthropologist whose work Cas so admires, whose office will be right across from his.
“We’ve decided to come up with a name for my homo habilis,” Cas says. “You should help; you’re good with those kinds of things.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dean says lightly. “That scholarly stuff is a bit above my pay grade.”
“Don’t say that,” Cas says. “We’ve named them all kinds of silly things before. Lucy’s the famous predecessor, but a paleoanthropologist at Northwestern apparently named his recent find Jimmy Titball just for the fun of it.”
“Besides, you shouldn’t say that about yourself. I know how smart you are. You don’t need to pretend that you’re not.”
“Yeah,” Dean says.
Cas—stupidly, dumbly unaware, is eating his leftover lasagna like a moron, stuffing it in his face, when Dean says,
“Is it going to bother you? Being with all those successful people all day, and then coming home to me?”
Cas chokes, coughs a little, but Dean is just sitting at the opposite side of the table, looking at him sadly.
“Don’t pretend you haven’t thought about it. You’re—Jesus, Cas, you’re so fucking smart. And then you’re stuck with Joe the Plumber. Who gets to fish used tampons out of toilets for a living. Come on. One day you’re going to get to invite a date to one of these fancy professor parties again, and you’re gonna see that I just don’t cut it.”
“That’s not true,” Cas says. “I would never think that. Dean—you know so many things I don’t, and you fix things. You fix all these broken things you come across. And then you came here and you helped—”
“And then the condescension will start in,” Dean says, ruthlessly. He looks like he’s about to cry, on the other side of the table. “Cas Milton, premier anthropologist, world-traveler, has somehow gotten himself tricked into dating the guy with his asscrack hanging out all day.”
“Where is this coming from?” Cas says, his voice starting to shake. “No one’s upset about your profession here but you. And if you’re unhappy about it, Dean, then we should figure out a way to change it. Maybe you can take classes—”
“There it is,” Dean says. The chair grates across the floor as he quickly stands up. “See? This is how it starts. You want me to take classes, you start wanting more. And I’m just not going to be able to give that to you.”
“No,” Cas says. He stands up too. “That’s not—I just meant, I remember what you said. About engineering. If you want something else, Dean, I can help you—” He feels like he’s fumbling for words, unable to string them together fast enough, and Dean is standing there unhelpfully ,watching him, from that distance across the table. “I want for you what you want for you. And if it’s not Winchester and Son Plumbing—”
“This isn’t going to work,” Dean says abruptly. He takes a few steps away from the table, and then comes back to Cas, whose still standing there, struck dumb. “I know it’s easy to say, at the university of granting wishes and giving degrees, that it’s never too late. Never too late to go back to college, never too late to live your dream. Well, it is. I’m a poor blue-collar plumber with—with a deadbeat dad, and a GED, and I’m never gonna be good enough for the things I want. I’m not lucky enough, I’m not rich enough, I’m not smart enough. I’m 26 years old and it’s over for me. I missed the boat. And I’m not gonna stick around to keep watching how big the distance between us really is.”
“Dean,” Cas says. His face feels strange and hot. “Please don’t. I thought—Dean.”
Dean puts his fist up to his mouth for a second. When he draws it away, his face is composed. “I’m sorry,” he says.
And then he’s walking out the door.
Cas can’t bring himself to call Dean. He doesn’t know what to say, only that he knows he must have done something wrong, because he always does when it comes to other people. He must have said or done the wrong thing, he must have been talking about something stupid when he should have been listening. He must have really fucked things up, he decides. He must have somehow given Dean the idea that he—Dean—wasn’t as good as him, wasn’t as smart or educated. Ridiculous, really, because Cas so admires Dean for all the things he does or knows that Cas never could-- but who could blame Dean for trying to get away from a toxic relationship like that.
He wants to call Dean, though. So badly. And then he remembers how Dean’s face had twisted—this isn’t going to work—and he decides not to. Dean has always had the right of it, when it comes to real world things. People things. Dean must have seen a huge roadblock somewhere in their future that Cas was too nearsighted to notice.
So he talks himself out of calling—weak, hesitant, shy. He closes and locks the office door, and he throws out the beer that Dean brought last week, when they watched a Columbus Crew game together on the TV. He strips off his bed sheets and puts on new ones. It’s only then that it feels like Dean’s never even been there before.
It’s the next day that he gets the text from Dean on his phone.
We should talk.
But Cas doesn’t know how to read that, what Dean could possibly mean by that vague, three-word text. He’s not good at talking. He can’t get any more wrong with Dean, he thinks. But there’s also a terrifying alternative—that there could be world where Dean wants to set things right, wants to absolve Cas of whatever awful mistake he’s made. It makes his stomach feel tight and nervous just to think of it. He’s not sure that whatever they had, broken as it was, and then potentially patched together again, can work like it did once. He’s afraid of that temptation, to try and return to what he had with Dean, and find how lacking and empty it is after all that. Some fossil of a relationship, a weak comparison to when it was living, alive, whole.
So he tells himself that he’ll be braver once his first week of classes is done. That he’ll gather the courage to talk to Dean then.
His main responsibility, the introductory class at OSU, goes well enough. Some of the girls giggle when he talks, although he isn’t quite sure why. There’s nothing particularly humorous about genetic drift, at least not the way he teaches it. It’s a good class, though. He’s in his element when he’s talking about anthropology, and it’s gratifying to see the students respond with questions, to see them scribbling his answers down on notebooks or onto laptops.
He gets another text then, in the middle of a class.
Cas? It seems tentative, uncertain. He slides it away in his satchel with clammy hands.
He has his first guest lecture at Columbus State later that week. It’s a night class, meant to adjoin twice a week, and he’s free to talk about his specialization, early hominins, as much as he wants to here.
It’s a smaller class, so he takes the time to have each of them introduce themselves, what their plans are. Many are planning on completing a few years here, and then transferring to accredited universities. Others just need to take a few general courses to fulfill a major requirement left over from previous schooling. The class is an eclectic mix of young and old, most with jobs or family that keep them busy during the day. Cas admires their pursuit, especially with everything else going on in their lives.
“Next time, we can talk more about the significance of the dental apes,” he says at the end of the lecture. Some are yawning, now, and they’re slow to pack up their stuff. “Have a good weekend.”
He returns to his podium, gathering up his notes. He hears the door shut behind the last student, so he’s surprised, and flustered, when an enrollment permission form is suddenly thrust over his papers.
“I’ll need you to sign that, Professor,” the person says. He looks up and finds himself face to face with Dean for the first time in a week.
“Your session’s all filled up, Professor. So I need instructor permission to get enrolled in this class. Would you mind signing this?” Dean’s eyes are intent, trained on his, and Cas feels like Dean is trying to tell him something.
“Oh,” Cas says. He fumbles for a pen. “Um, okay.” Is this really what this is all about? Dean is here, and he wants to take his class? What happened to talking, what happened to—
“Oh,” Cas says. He thinks he’s catching on here, the significance. “You’re taking classes here?”
Dean nods quickly. He looks nervous, excited, shifting on his feet. “I enrolled yesterday,” he says breathlessly.
“Congratulations,” Cas says. “I’m—I’m happy for you.”
Dean suddenly skirts the podium, coming to stand next to him. He bats the form that Cas is about to sign away, off the ledge. “Worry about that later.”
Cas tries to say something but Dean shakes his head. “I fucked up, Cas. I felt so stuck, and I was so mad about everything I could have done and didn’t. And then I took it out on you, because I wanted to be better, for you, and I felt like I couldn’t.”
“Dean,” Cas says slowly. “For whatever I did, I am sorry.”
“Don’t,” Dean says. “I knew you’d be taking it out on yourself. You didn’t—you’re fuckin’ perfect for me, all right? And you should get to call me out on my shit, too, if I don't come around right away. That’s why I tried to text you first; I didn’t want to surprise you—”
He stops. He takes Cas’s sleeve between his two fingers, like that’s all he thinks he’s allowed to touch. “Is this okay with you?”
“Of course,” Cas says, moving closer.
“No,” Dean says. He gestures between them. “Is this okay with you? Again?”
“Oh,” Cas says. “I think—I know—you’re not doing this just for me, Dean? Please? You’re taking classes because you want to, because there’s something you really want?”
“Cas,” Dean breathes out. He leans his head on Cas’s shoulder for a moment, a weight that’s familiar, from those perfect three weeks when Cas and Dean had been something to each other. He sighs into Cas’s shirt and straightens back up.
“Dean Winchester,” he says, introducing himself. “I used to be a plumber, but I’ve decided that’s not what I really want to do. So I’m gonna keep on doing that, while I take my GEC’s here at CSCC. Then—” a smile is tugging up the corner of his mouth. “I’m going to transfer to the Ohio State University. I’m going to major in engineering, I’m gonna help build the fastest alternatively-fueled race car the world has ever seen. And I’m gonna date this really hot, brilliant, beautiful professor who is so passionate sometimes about the things he loves, that everything else just seems small by comparison.”
“Dean,” Cas croaks. Dean’s hand moves up his arm, molds around his shoulder, and pulls him closer. They’re kissing, then, pressed together close and tight and oh, so familiar. Dean pulls away to kiss his temple, his nose, the corner of his smile. Lets out a shaky sigh against his cheek, his hand moving to trace softly along Cas's hip, like he's missed Cas just as fiercely. Like he thinks of Cas the same that Cas thinks of him--that he's something rare and special.
“You wanna go back to your place?” Dean says softly, and Cas nods against his neck.
Outside, it’s dark and humid, and the sprinklers have been turned on to water overnight. They walk together across the lawn, over the wet grass, their hands bumping and brushing against each other. Cas twists his fingers into Dean’s and holds on, pressing their palms together.
When they reach his car, Cas looks back and sees the line of their footprints leading out of the grass, wet on the concrete, shining dully by the streetlight. It makes him smile, looking a little longer, despite his eagerness to be home and in bed and breathing in Dean. For a single second, looking at those footprints, it’s like he can read all the history in them, laid bare for him alone to understand. He knows all the stories they have to tell, all the possibilities, all the moments that are yet to come. Past to future, a long and unbroken line, like a horizon—luminous, lovely, and just now beginning a new day.
Where they came from, where they’re going, it’s all there, he knows, if he looks closely enough.