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Vita Nuova

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Dean Winchester can already see that the day isn’t going to be easy. The kids are restless before the bell even rings, snapping bubblegum and prodding each other with pencils like they’re still in junior high. Maybe it’s because of the rain streaking down the window; Dean himself was nearly soaked walking in today, and his suit is still damp in patches. To make matter worse, he doesn’t have the lesson plan, and the professor is late. He glances nervously at the clock. Two minutes left. Some kid makes an attempt at the rubbish bin; the wad of paper falls short, and his friends hoot and clobber at his arm.

Dean shuts his eyes and tries to massage the beginning of a headache away from his temples. Some first day on the job. He thought that at such a prestigious academy things would be a little different, but really it’s just the same as with any public school (aside from the crisp uniforms and fancy projector system, that is). At least the name looks good on a transcript; that’s all that really matters, of course. In the last thirty seconds before the bell rings, Dean quietly hopes that Sam has better luck with his first day, even though he knows it’s silly – everyone loves his little brother.

The bell screams; the kids stumble back to their seats, and not a moment later the door bursts open. Professor Novak – if Dean remembers the name correctly – makes a wet entrance to say the least: his trousers are soaked up to the knee, and his long trench coat flares out to form little puddles on the floor in his wake. His tie is askew, and his hair is beyond help, a sopping, tangled mess. The kids start laughing, but it’s affectionate, and Novak grins in return. He reaches into his coat and brandishes a stack of papers wrapped in a plastic bag.

“More reason to celebrate,” he says with a wink. “I saved the lesson plans!”

The kids groan in unison, and Novak chuckles, setting the notes on the desk. Dean’s pretty resentful – he was honestly scared he would have to lead the lesson alone, halfway through the year, and on his first day – but he musters a smile and steps forwards, extending his hand.

“Dean Winchester. Good to meet you, sir.”

Novak looks up from stripping away his coat and frowns.

“Where’s Jamie?”

Dean blinks. “Pardon?”

Novak narrows his eyes before he snaps his fingers and gives a contrite half-smile. It shows just a flash of teeth, a shimmer of embarrassment.

“Oh yes, she’s on maternity leave now, isn’t she? Silly thing – I did tell her to be careful with that boyfriend of hers. Right. You must be her replacement.” He takes his hand. “Such a pleasure. Welcome. We’re thrilled to have you, I’m sure.”

“Thrilled to be here,” manages Dean. “And the pleasure’s all mine, professor.”

Novak smiles all the way and presses Dean’s hand once more before letting it fall back to his side.

“Please, no such formality. I’m not even a professor, when you think about it. In fact, I absolutely insist that you call me Castiel.”

And with that, he turns, straightens his tie, and claps his hands together.

“Alright, class. Sorry for the delay. Parati estisne?”

“Parati sumus,” roar the kids. It’s obvious that they love him, filthy wet trench coat and all. Dean leans back against the edge of the desk, relieved. Late or not, Novak – Castiel , he reminds himself, but what sort of name is that, anyways? – already has things under control. It’s amazing, really; when he uncaps a marker to start on the whiteboard, scribbling a set of conjugations in frenetic handwriting, the class goes miraculously quiet. Paper rustles and pencils scratch. There’s a faint murmur of chatter, and Castiel allows that much, but the moment it starts to escalate a cool glance over his shoulder commands silence.

Dean watches intently. He’s lived with classrooms full of rowdy kids who don’t care, and learned that enough shouting and punishment can control just about anything, but he’s never really seen this sort of unconditional respect for a teacher, and he can’t deny that it’s impressive. The man moves with a practiced ease, spreading his notes on his desk, tapping a pen against his lower lip, fluid but disorganized at once. It’s a strange but commanding presence.

Castiel has to nudge Dean on the arm with a stack of paper to get his attention; he needs twenty copies for second period. Dean apologizes for not hearing the first time and heads out, following the scent of instant coffee to the teacher’s lounge. A redhead is leaning against the window dangling a still-burning cigarette just over the ledge. She’s pretty, but she doesn’t look up when he comes in and starts fiddling with the buttons on the copy machine.

The worksheet Castiel needs is printed in Hebrew; Dean remarks aloud that it’s really some course selection for such a devoutly Catholic school, and the redhead takes a disinterested drag on her cigarette. Dean chuckles to himself and taps his finger on the edge of the copy machine as the green bar zips to and fro and paper spills into the bin. He drinks a cup of lukewarm coffee and winks at the redhead for luck. She glances at him and taps a miniature rainfall of ash over the windowsill.

When he gets back to class, the kids have divided the desks into groups of about three or four, and Castiel is making slow circles around the room, arms crossed behind his back. His shirt is almost dry, but his hair is still damp and twisted, and his tie has come loose again, so that Dean gets the feeling that at least some part of him must be perpetually caught in disarray. He puts the copies on the desk and waits for Castiel to swing back around; to his surprise, he cuts straight across the classroom, grabbing an extra chair as he goes, and gestures for Dean to sit.

“What are they up to, anyways?” asks Dean as he obliges, gesturing to the kids, all bent over their notebooks with pencils flying. Castiel settles at the desk with a smile that’s somewhat private, almost exhilarating in and of itself, like a fresh-divulged secret.

“They’ve just started their final project. I like to give them extra time at the beginning so that they can ask me questions and work out any kinks.”

“Final project?” Dean raises an eyebrow; it’s scarcely February, so the semester has just begun.

“Early, I know.” Castiel lifts a finger in the pause. “But it’s no easy task. I’ve given each group a book of the New Testament – the original, of course – and it’s up to them to translate. They need all the time they can get.”

Dean lets out a low whistle. “Not too shabby, professor.”

“Again – just Castiel, please.” But his eyes are bright. “Regardless, while I did call you over to talk about the class, I would prefer that we not start there.” He rests his elbows on the desk and weaves his fingers together so that he can rest his chin. “Dean Winchester, you said? I ought to have given you a proper welcome, really. Please excuse my tardiness this morning. It’s atypical, I swear.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Dean is honestly a bit discomfited; Castiel has this penetrating stare even when he’s looking away, and he speaks deliberately, earnestly, so that the echo of his words is striking and real. And he’s too earnest, for that matter – for instance, when his eyes fall on the stack of fresh copies, he actually apologizes, of all things, and says with absolute contriteness that he would have done it himself had it not been for the unexpected delay.

“Geez.” Dean shifts in his seat. “It’s no trouble. Just what I signed up for, isn’t it?”

Castiel chuckles. It’s a very specific little sound, genuine but reserved, like he’s saving a true laugh for something really special.

“I suppose. Speaking of, what does bring you here, after all?”

Dean tries to be vague, because it’s a miracle he’s there in the first place, and his real reasons don’t need exposure. He says that he knows a few things about language, is halfway through college, needed some experience, the works – all true, he might add – and Castiel gazes at him for a long moment during which it occurs to Dean that his eyes are absurdly blue. It’s surreal, honestly, that color. It looks like it’s been cut from some bolt of ethereal cloth that can’t be spun on Earth. At long last Castiel looks away to fiddle with the end of a pen near his elbow.

“What do you speak, then?”

Spanish, Italian, rudimentary Latin, but he’s gotten a bit rusty since freshman year, to be honest. Dean’s always taken a certain measure of pride in that, but when out of courtesy he offers Castiel the same question, and the answer is Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Latin, Arabic, three dialects of Chinese, and French, he swallows sort of thickly and has to make a forced effort to smile.

“It’s not impressive,” says Castiel, and the worst part is that he’s being wholly serious. “My family used to travel a great deal.”

Dean snorts. “To Ancient Greece and Rome?”

Castiel gives another soft laugh. “Touché. That much is a passion of mine.”

“Mine, too,” replies Dean unthinkingly. It’s somewhat true, in regards to the world of academia, at least. It’s what he’s always told people when they asked about his major, anyways. He knows he looks out of place sometimes, in a blazer, with a stack of books, but he does what he has to. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but passion sounds better than duty.

“We’ll get along, then,” says Castiel, and reaches for a stack of papers to his left. “Anyways, I just wanted to get to know you a little more before I gave you the hard facts. I’m sure you’ve read the job description, but I do have some specifications…”

The bell rings just as Castiel finishes outlining the last lesson format. He teaches Latin and Hebrew this year, a few beginning and one or two advanced classes. Fortunately, the Hebrew is all rudimentary, so Dean doesn’t need to know much to help out – he can even learn along. The Latin is a few degrees more advanced, Vergil and Ovid and the like, but nothing he can’t handle. And besides, he’s not worried.

He’s starting to understand why the kids stop to wave goodbye to Castiel on the way out, smiling and chattering brightly even after a solid hour of grueling work. It’s already clear that he’s too intense and a little offbeat to boot, but he’s also unabashedly honest, enthusiastic, like he’s never felt the shame of being too interested. Everything he says is true and deliberate, even if he tilts his head at funny angles and stares too long. He’s intimidating, sure, but not frightening. It’s reassuring, in the end, no matter how difficult. It’s no wonder he draws such respect and admiration from his students.

Really, he’s like nobody Dean’s ever met before.

-

By the time the last bell rings, Dean’s exhausted. No matter how unique and interesting Castiel may be, wealthy kids are a whole new breed of tiring. He’s long been used to spitballs and slang carved into desks, to sleeping and cursing and outright fighting, but there’s something special about whispers and designer knapsacks and nasty gossip scrawled on fine stationary that really saps his energy. The worst part is that he can sense their ingratitude, their scorn – those kids don’t know how good they’ve got it. Dean reckons that it’s only going to get worse from this point, and he’s wondering if he can really hold his tongue when he catches sight of Sam from across the courtyard and remembers why he’s there in the first place.

It’s gratifying to see his little brother already surrounded by a gaggle of boys as awkwardly lanky and sixteen as he, and when Sam breaks away to sprint across the courtyard and clobber Dean on the shoulder, it’s outright rewarding, a burst of adrenalin in his veins. Dean laughs and takes a swipe at his little brother, but only halfheartedly, because he’s suddenly a little bit sad.

He’s thinking about how it’s going to be weird not having him around anymore. Dean took classes at the online university just so that they could sleep in the same crummy studio apartment, on the same squeaky, stained mattress. It seems impossible that Sam won’t be there in the morning, asking for breakfast or hogging the sink, or crawling between Dean’s sheets when the nightmares about the fire get bad. Honestly, Dean’s going to miss that, but he knows it’ll be good for Sam to get away, have his own room, his own friends, the chance to build a life outside of his brother. That’s something that Dean’s never had, though he’s not resentful. He loves Sam more than anything, and this – the chance for a future better than his own – is everything he’s been working towards.

Dean will do anything for Sam. He worked two jobs, dealt with the strain of applications, the pressure of advanced material coupled with work, the pain of organizing online classes. Then he gave up work at the garage – his real passion – to be an assistant teacher at a prestigious boarding school where he sticks out like never before, just to move Sam up a view spaces on the waiting list and get him in before next year, just in time to make good on that scholarship. It’s all been for this, for Sam smiling and hiking his beaten corduroy knapsack up on his shoulder and trying to tell Dean all at once about advanced biology and calculus in between bits and pieces about his classmates, fragments of his hopes to make the baseball team and the debate club until he’s tripping and stumbling over too many words.

Dean grins, and throws an arm around his shoulder. They’ve only got a moment; Sam has homework, and Dean has to get home to finish some schoolwork and start on the impressive stack of worksheets that Castiel left him to grade. It’s not enough time, and it’s just another sign that their worlds are starting to part at the seam, but Dean isn’t too worried. They’ll talk more later, and besides, one glance at Sam’s face and he already knows that he can endure a thousand quirky professors and disenchanted, spoiled students, a thousand nights alone in a tiny studio apartment that somehow seems too big, a thousand tests to grades.

Right now, his brother is happy, and that’s worth anything.

-

The next week floods past, a blur of half-forgotten vocabulary and grammar, late nights grading exams, snatched moments with Sam, long phone conversations, bad coffee from the teacher’s lounge. Castiel doesn’t seem to care that midterms just ended and the kids are still reeling; he gives ruthless loads of homework and countless tests and quizzes, which in the end means more work for Dean. But he doesn’t really mind, because a teetering stack of papers on the kitchen table distracts from the savage emptiness of life spent largely without Sam, and it’s a little frightening to think that in less than two years, when his brother leaves for college, this will be his whole existence.

At least he and Castiel get along, swapping college horror stories during lulls in the lessons and exchanging polite nods across the cafeteria. Although Dean’s never migrated away from the other assistants and student teachers to attempt a conversation, he’s noticed that Castiel is distinctly the youngest of his colleagues, and spends a lot of time with the pretty redhead from the teacher’s lounge. However, when Dean surreptitiously checks his right hand, he finds no ring, and Castiel once mentions that he lives alone. Dean’s tempted to reply that he’s got a housemate waiting out back in the parking lot, but he doesn’t think Castiel will get the joke.

On Thursday, Castiel is late again, and Dean already has the class at work on a set of passive conjugations when the professor explodes into the classroom, breathless and beyond disheveled. When the class hoots, he only gives a distracted glance over his shoulder and tells them to get to work; he seems more terse than usual and gets instant obedience. Dean can’t help but observe that his usually fluid movements are jerky and offbeat, that his mouth is slack, his eyes distant, that it looks like he hardly shaved this morning, let alone combed his hair. He puts the whiteboard marker down and taps Castiel on the shoulder.

“You said tardiness was atypical.” He can’t help himself. A corner of Castiel’s mouth quirks to the side in what could have been a smile. He’s bent over his desk, frenetically rifling through a chaos of papers. Dean steps over and sort of asserts his hands, not really touching Castiel but urging him away nonetheless.

“That’s my job. Teach your class. I’ve already got them started on a few conjugations; take it from there.”

Castiel looks at him head on, stunned for a long moment, and Dean isn’t quite sure what to make of it. His face is absurdly expressive, an open window to all the rich fluctuation of emotion possible, shading between surprise and gratitude and a fleeting indefinite look that disappears when he looks down and seems to regain his fluidity, nodding and running a hand through his hair, like that can smooth it down. Dean realizes that his heart is thudding.

“Thank you,” says Castiel. He’s composed now, unlike Dean, who’s definitely unnerved. “Please forgive me. Thursday is supposed to be my lucky day, ironically enough.”

“Don’t mention it,” mumbles Dean, and gets to work right away so that he doesn’t have to think about the prickling on his skin. He wants to explain it as anxiety or nerves, because for all his earnest charm, Castiel can be really strange sometimes, and that makes sense. But he doesn’t really believe it, so he tugs at the collar of his shirt and shakes his head and organizes the next lesson so that he doesn’t have to think. Fortunately, there’s a lot to be done before Friday and the weekend, so first and second period fly by. However, it doesn’t end up so easy – when the bell for lunch rings Castiel stops Dean at the door with a hand on his shoulder.

“If you have a minute?” He looks sheepish, and Dean’s mouth feels a little dry. He asks if there’s something the matter, and Castiel says no, of course not, he only wanted to explain his tardiness that morning. At that, he looks so overtly guilty that Dean almost laughs, caught up in an unexpected rush of affection.

“You don’t have to worry about it, you know.” He can’t help smiling, at least. “It’s my job, seriously.”

“But I don’t want to make it any more difficult for you,” says Castiel, and puts a hand on Dean’s arm. It was meant to be a friendly touch, but Dean wishes it had never happened. His heart stutters and electricity splinters up to his shoulder. It’s all he can do not to recoil.

“It’s my car.” Castiel is completely oblivious to Dean’s discomfort. “It’s been acting up for a while now, having trouble starting. It hardly ever happens, but when it does, I’m stuck. I’ve been meaning to take it in for a checkup, and I promise that I’ll do it this weekend so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Dean can’t help himself; he’s interested. “Not starting? What sort of sound does it make when you try?”

Castiel blinks, taken aback. “It – well, it sort of wheezes, you might say. Why?”

“I know a thing or two about cars.” Dean can’t stop himself. “I could take a look at it for you, if you like. Save you some bucks.”

Castiel stares at him, and there it is again – that unabashed expression, surprise and amazement.

“That’s…that would be too much, Dean. I couldn’t accept it.”

But Dean’s palms are already itching; it’s been too long since he went under the hood, and he’s dying to get some grease under his fingernails.

“Don’t be stupid; it’d be my pleasure. I love cars. Always have; I work part-time at a garage. Or – I used to, before I got this job. Come on; let me give it a shot.”

Castiel opens his mouth, shuts it again, looking torn. It’s gratifying, at least, that he hasn’t once questioned Dean’s ability to fix the car, only his willingness. You don’t usually get that sort of trust from people, let alone after only a week.

“Are you sure?”

“As the indicative mood,” says Dean with a wink, and at that, Castiel tips back his head and lets out a clear laugh, nothing like the little chuckles that he usually drops so gently, as if each were a sugar cube falling into a brimming mug of coffee. No – the sound is as pure and unabashed as his surprise and regret, his delight, his humor, everything else he ever expresses, and Dean realizes that he’s grinning stupidly, because that laugh sort of seems to wash over the entire room and color everything bright, and he can’t help himself.

“If you insist,” says Castiel at last. “When would you be available?”

“Anytime,” says Dean honestly, still smiling. “I could even take a look right now, if you want.”

“Really?” Castiel looks so hesitant; it’s astounding how the delicacy of the emotion registers on his face, staining his eyes a sort of uncertain blue, shadowy and pale and brittle all in the same instant. “Would that be alright?”

Dean, seized by a sudden impulse, reaches out and claps him on the arm. Maybe it was a test; he’s not sure, but Castiel doesn’t flinch, only smiles kind of tentatively. Dean’s not sure whether he’s disappointed. He’s not even sure what he meant.

“You bet.” He cracks his knuckles so that the descent of his arm is picked up fluidly by a fresh motion. “Where’s she at?”

“She?” Castiel looks perplexed for a minute before he gives that half-smile of embarrassment again, that little shimmer of teeth. “Oh, you mean the car, don’t you? I’ll show you.” He pauses, and rolls his lower lip nervously between his teeth. “And – Dean…if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could I stick around and watch you work? It’s just that I don’t know much about cars.”

Dean can’t help it; he laughs, and Castiel looks terrified, and that only makes him laugh harder. He reaches out and presses his palm into his shoulder without even thinking. He doesn’t think about touching Castiel, it just happens, so that afterwards he’s stuck wondering why.

“Of course you can. A warning, though – it’s not as exciting as it sounds. I probably won’t even be able to fix anything today. You’re gonna get pretty bored.”

“Oh no,” says Castiel seriously. “I don’t think so.”

Dean looks down, trying not to smile too hard, and Castiel fiddles with his sleeve for a minute before he sort of seems to remember himself. He grabs his coat, and they head out to the teacher lot, darting between chunky minivans and tired models from the nineties, cars reduced to nothing but chipped paint and dented doors, exhausted tires and outdated bumper stickers. Even so, it’s not often that Dean lets himself do this, notice all the details on every car he sees, no matter how tacky, and he’s enjoying it more than he’d care to admit. A breeze sets the trees to a gentle rustle; it’s one of those picturesque winter days, complete with clear milk-yellow sunshine, crisp air, and a high-arching blue ceiling for a sky, sharply edged at the horizon like fresh-shattered porcelain.

Castiel comes to a halt in front of what must be his car. Dean groans.

“What is it?” Castiel looks at him with earnest concern. “Do you feel alright?”

“Of course not!” he cries. “Come on, just look at that thing!”

Castiel obliges.

“It’s my car.”

“It’s a Prius,” mutters Dean. “But of course you would have a car like this; I really should have known.”

“I don’t understand,” says Castiel, tipping his head to one side. Typical.

Dean exhales. “I guess there’s no helping it. Come on. Let’s get under the hood, see what’s the matter.”

Castiel follows, leaning against the door as Dean pops open the hood and cranes his neck to get a good look. At first glance, everything looks to be in good working order. Dean sighs and pulls back, almost reaching down to wipe his hands on his thighs before he remembers that he’s wearing linen slacks with a smart crease down the center, not jeans with holes at the knees. Castiel is looking at him curiously.

“I’m going to have to be more thorough,” Dean explains, “and unfortunately, I can’t do that in a blazer. Do you think you could…” Abruptly, he feels inexplicably sheepish, and reaches up to rub the back of his neck with one hand. “I don’t know…have me come over some afternoon, get a better look? I have the tools at home; I can bring them easy. This weekend, maybe?”

Castiel nods, tapping his index finger against his chin. “I’ll email you my address. Thank you, Dean.”

Dean exhales, and feels a relief as inexplicable as his nervousness not a moment before.

“It’s really no trouble.”

Castiel chuckles, and falls into step alongside Dean as they make their way back towards the main building, cutting across the empty football field. A groundskeeper waves as they stroll past, one of the older staff members who knows almost everyone by name. Despite the cold, the sun is warm on their faces and shoulders, and casts thin splinters of gold into Castiel’s hair. Dean tries not to notice.

“Even so,” says Castiel unexpectedly, like he’s just picked up the end of the last sentence in his head. “Could I make it up to you? I can buy you lunch.” He glances at his watch and frowns. “Or just coffee, at this rate. But please. I’d really like to recompense a bit of your trouble.”

Dean starts spewing excuses, saying that it’s really nothing, that he couldn’t possibly, but Castiel fixes him with a firm look, and he exhales, and says alright, but only coffee, and only because Castiel insisted. At that, Castiel smiles brightly, the sun reflecting off his teeth, and Dean can’t help but smile back. He’s in a good mood, and for once in his life can’t really bring himself to worry or pour over the specific issues that could arise while taking coffee with one’s boss. He decides that Castiel doesn’t feel much like his boss anyways, that it’s just fifteen minutes of casual conversation, and leaves it at that.

The cafeteria is chaos, as always, but at least the lines have died down, and it’s not long before they’re tucked away at a little table near a window with cappuccinos. Dean remarks that most parents probably don’t reckon that part of their tuition goes to supporting a troupe of baristas, and Castiel laughs appreciatively, and it feels almost private. For a moment, silence falls, and Dean is suddenly terrified, but then Castiel looks up and almost smirks, a sort of sharp glint in his eye.

“So tell me, Dean. What’s so wrong about having a Prius?”

Dean swallows, shrugs, tries not to crack a smile.

“Nothing.”

“Come on. You won’t hurt my feelings.”

“It’s just…I don’t know, I mean…” Dean surrenders, staring into his mug. “It’s kind of…a pussy car.”

Castiel gives him a long look, and he holds up his hands.

“Hey man, you asked.”

Castiel raises an eyebrow. “It is not a pussy car.”

“Come on, now. We’ve all got our own perspectives.” Dean takes a nonchalant sip of his coffee. He can’t help but grin around the rim of the mug when Castiel gives a heavy sigh.

“Does that by default make me a pussy, or in this case does such a descriptor apply only to the car?”

Dean swallows. “Well, I’m not one to judge, but…” He shrugs. “Well, to be fair, you did just use the word descriptor in casual conversation.”

Castiel gives a terrific roll of the eyes. “Come on. What exactly about owning a Prius makes me a pussy? It’s a good car; economical, environmentally sound. I don’t see the problem. It gets the job done.”

“Except when, you know, it doesn’t even start.”

Castiel fixes Dean with a tired look. “And I suppose you’ve got something better? Perhaps a – now, how should I put this – non-pussy car, if you will?”

Dean chokes on his coffee a little bit. “Don’t go there, man. Baby, she’s – well. I’ll introduce you to her some time. Then, let me tell you.” He lets out a loud whistle. “You’ll be singing a different tune, alright.”

“You don’t know that,” says Castiel primly, dragging a spoon through his coffee once, twice. “Maybe it – she, if you must insist on a gender – won’t suit my tastes.”

Dean shrugs. It’s quiet for a minute while Castiel toys with the spoon; his fingers are eerily long and agile, almost dancing along the rim of his mug, delicate rhythms lacking in rhyme or reason, charmingly senseless. Dean’s a bit mesmerized, maybe. At long last Castiel sort of scrunches up his nose.

“Pussy car, really,” he says under his breath, and Dean laughs.

“Hey, sorry, man. I know you’re my boss and all, so I should be as eloquent as possible, but I couldn’t think of a better word.”

“A Prius is a perfectly respectable car,” persists Castiel, gently tapping his spoon against the side of his mug for emphasis. “And…well.”

At that, he falls silent. After a moment, he puffs up his cheeks, exhales, and takes a long sip of coffee. Dean waits, maybe a little impatiently, drumming his fingernails on the edge of his mug. Castiel wipes the edge of his mouth with a napkin without looking up.

“Look, I – I’d really rather that you not think of me as your boss, Dean. We’re nearly the same age, and to be honest, I feel like we’re very much on the same level.” He lifts his gaze, stained earnest navy. “I consider you my colleague, at the very least. Perhaps even a friend.”

Dean swallows thickly. “I don’t know about colleague, but friend, sure. Friend, sure.” He clears his throat. “I don’t know why I said that twice.”

At that, Castiel tips his head back and lets forth a fantastic peal of laughter, the kind that sort of scampers away and rockets about the room, caught in a perpetual state of chaos, unsure of where to turn in its exuberance, splashing brilliance everywhere it touches. Dean has to put up quite the fight not to grin and laugh right along with him, because it’s infectious, and rare, too, he reckons. When it finally subsides, they’re both smiling stupidly, until they catch sight of one another (like looking into a mirror) and sober up. For a long moment, Castiel looks at Dean intensely, like he’s on the brink of saying something, but then the bell rings, the cafeteria roars, and he drops his gaze.

“Thanks for the coffee, Castiel.” Dean stands up, not sure if he should feel disappointed. Castiel gives a token smile and says it was no trouble. They shake hands. It’s the first time Dean’s noticed this, but Castiel’s palms are wide and warm, dry but smooth, manicured, even. He has a respectable handshake, firm but reserved, melting away at the proper moment.

“I’ll see you on Saturday,” says Castiel. “Swing by anytime; I’ll be home all day.”

“Sure,” says Dean, and sort of makes to turn away before they both realize belatedly that they’re heading back to the same place, and laugh uncomfortably. Castiel runs a hand through his hair, smiling, and claps Dean on the shoulder. There it is again – electricity, arching down to the small of his back. It’s unnerving, but Dean just smiles and makes conversation about the lesson plan as they file back to the classroom along with the flood of students.

Friends. Dean rolls the idea around in his mind as he watches Castiel dive into the lesson, hands making wide enthusiastic circles as he details the life of the average Roman schoolboy. He’s probably given the same lecture a thousand times, but his enthusiasm is unreduced, his genuine interest no less keen. Friends – Dean likes that. He likes Castiel, despite all his oddities, or perhaps because of them. And after he picks up Sam (the kids are allowed home on weekends, if their parents live in the area) and drives back to the apartment, he goes down to storage and brings out his toolkit to make sure everything is oiled and polished in the right places, ready for use.

It’s been too long, and he savors the weight of the wrench in his hand. Sam watches, leaning against the hood of the car, hands tucked in his pockets, and remarks that Dean looks pretty happy. Dean shrugs and thinks that they’d best not get ahead of themselves. But even if it’s just a moody Prius, it is true that he’s really anticipating some proper hard work, with oil and grease rather than graphite and printer ink, and jeans rather than pinstriped slacks.

And, he admits to himself as tosses the wrench from one hand to the other, he might be anticipating the company a little bit, too.

Chapter Text

Dean gets Sam up early that Saturday, managing to pry him out of bed with the promise of breakfast. He wants to get to the Roadhouse before they fill up on customers and run out of real maple syrup, and in any case, it’s best to get started as early as possible. He and his brother are parting ways just after lunch; Sam’s going to a friend’s to study for the afternoon, and Dean to fix Castiel’s car, though he hasn’t mentioned it, because honestly, it does sound a little strange.

Regardless, Dean wants to monopolize his little brother for as long as possible. It doesn’t merit saying that these weekends together will become less and less frequent as Sam gets more comfortable at school, finds more friends, maybe even a girl, and starts to develop a life of his own. Dean can’t complain – that’s only natural, after all; it’s just unfortunate that he never had that, a normal childhood, a safe transition into independence. But no matter what, he’s going to make the most of the time he has left.

Sam has to shave before they leave; he’s been adamant about it since he turned sixteen, even though Dean mocks him incessantly, because all he really takes off is the vaguest dusting of peach fuzz that lies like brown sugar on his jawline. He’s still grumbling when they get in the car, but the smooth hum of the engine soon brings out a smile, and Dean grins, slapping the dashboard affectionately. There’s time to spare, and they cruise downtown with the windows open despite the cold. Working the steering wheel with one hand, Dean dangles an arm out the window and taps out Metallica on the flank of the car with his index finger, and nothing in the world is more natural than that.

The town isn’t a big place, just a little network of streets, a few gas stations, an avenue crammed with kitschy boutiques, and one or two diners with halfway decent food. The university is a few miles outside the city limits, and aside from the ramshackle public schools, the academy is really the main attraction. An impressive display of suburbia fans out around the campus, like an ugly ring beset with manicured lawns and cobblestone and faux marble fountains. Otherwise, there’s not much, but that’s alright. It’s their town, and there’s always a certain comfort to be had in dusty streets and quiet evenings.

The Roadhouse is, of course, their favorite diner. Sure, it’s vaguely dingy – windows smeared in places, the red-and-white striped balcony stained, a dilapidated newspaper kiosk standing lone vigil outside – but it’s almost a second home to them, and Dean rubs his hands together in anticipation as they step out of the car.

“Think Ellen’d be willing to get me a beer at this time of day, Sammy?”

Sam rolls his eyes, but there’s the familiar trace of a smile pulling at his mouth, the one he uses when he’s trying not to humor bad behavior. Dean cuffs him on the back of the neck, halfway drawing him into the circle of his arm before letting him go all at once, sticking out his tongue when he makes an exaggerated swipe back.

Inside, the air is promisingly thick with the smell of fried eggs and coffee, and Dean’s stomach rolls in anticipation. He slides into one of the scarlet vinyl booths and pulls out a menu; it’s a bit spotted from use, even dog-eared in places where the lamination is chipped, but perfectly legible to his expert eyes. Ellen – almost a second mother to them, in a certain sense – comes over with a pot of coffee and a notebook, and punches Sam on the shoulder before taking down their order. Her daughter is lounging at the counter, snapping gum and toying with a pocket knife. Dean shoots her a wink and she rolls her eyes. It’s just like always, like nothing has changed. Perfect.

Dean leans back into a patch of morning sun that sneaks through the half-open blinds and closes his eyes, content. This place is a private tradition of theirs, especially on lazy Saturday mornings, and it’s reassuring to be there with Sam, despite all that’s changed. Sam looks happy, too, smiling faintly as he drowns his coffee in cream and sugar. Dean snorts, and his brother glances up with a knowing glint in his eyes. Without having to say a word, he already knows the complaint: real men take their coffee black. Dean likes to compare their relationship to a well-oiled machine in which the gears are made of inside jokes and private understandings that don’t even need saying anymore to work, just roll together perfectly without any mention at all. It’s how brothers should be, he reckons, and to be honest, he’s ferociously proud of that.

Sam is talking about biology again, and Dean’s not really listening, though he does appreciate the flicker of excitement in his brother’s eyes. It’s great to see him so enthused about his classes. Public school always left him bored, and even if he was a good kid, never putting down his classmates or complaining, it was obvious that he was getting impatient. It’s a miracle, really, that they ever got the opportunity to transfer to such an elite academy. A perfect miracle. Dean hasn’t really stopped being amazed, to be honest.

“And then there’s Jessica,” says Sam, caught somewhere in the middle of a thought, and Dean perks up, his interest piqued. “She’s pretty cool, too. Really into insects. She told me about that a couple days ago when we were working on our project. Not like most girls, you know?”

He smiles sort of privately. In contrast, Dean is outright smirking. He promptly asks for her bra size only to see the terrific display of color across Sam’s cheeks. He isn’t disappointed. Sam is downright spluttering, crimson up to his ears, and Dean can’t help but dissolve into laughter, the kind that balloons up from deep in his belly in the way that only his little brother can bring about.

“What the hell, Dean?” hisses Sam once he’s able. “She’s a nice girl. Don’t be like that.”

Dean shrugs. “Jesus. I was just curious.”

Sam gives him the middle finger just as the food comes, earning a smack from Ellen. Dean snickers into his scrambled eggs as his brother glowers. They bicker quietly for the rest of breakfast, and Dean is thrilled, because in that tiny slice of time, cut fresh and golden from the rest of the day, it’s like nothing’s changed, like they’re still kids without a dad, just trying to pay the rent, stay warm and fed, and survive. And maybe that doesn’t sound like an ideal situation, but sometimes Dean misses that world (a world in which it might have been only he and his brother, but in which they were always together, so that it seemed like they could stand up to anything as long as they stood up side by side) so much that it hurts, and it’s nice to recreate it now and again, even if just for the fleeting hours between morning and afternoon.

-

Dean only remembers that he’s still wearing his leather jacket when he’s already halfway to Castiel’s place. He stopped to pick up his tools and to drop Sam off, but he never thought to change. Usually, he doesn’t worry about that kind of thing, but in this case, in the case of Castiel, it’s a little different. The idea of facing up to his boss (friend), with that long coat of his and that disheveled shirt and tie, not to mention that piercing stare that seems to lay a person raw before the eyes of God and everyone (so to speak, of course), wearing nothing nicer than torn jeans and his dad’s old leather jacket, his everyday clothes, laden with meaning and routine, makes him feel vulnerable in a way he can’t quite understand.

He’s actually nervous when he pulls up to the curb, and checks the address three times before he ventures outside. He’s never been in this neighborhood before. It’s a wealthy place, all manicured lawns and shiny cars, so he’s never really had reason to go. He wipes his hands on his thighs and leaves the tools in the trunk for the time being, and then standing at the edge of the road, he’s suddenly wondering why he offered to do this in the first place. Sure, he and Castiel might be colleagues, even business friends, but this is his home, where curious neighbors are watching and Dean protrudes like a battered old model in a new car lot.

He swallows thickly, trying to restore his sense of reason. He knows this fear is ridiculous, and grudgingly admits that maybe his thudding heart doesn’t have so much to do with the wealthy neighborhood or the leather jacket as with Castiel’s voice, or the way he tips his head back when he laughs for real, or the impossibly earnest blue of eyes, or the wealth of emotion legible in his expression, or maybe all those damn things put together. But Dean doesn’t want to think about that. He can’t think about that. It’s too strange, for too many reasons. Instead he focuses on cracking his knuckles and exhaling, struggling to calm the frenetic stutter of his pulse. He knows he’s just being stupid. But despite everything, it only gets worse when he looks up and sees what must be Castiel’s house.

If it weren’t for that smug little Prius tucked into the driveway, he wouldn’t have believed it. Castiel said he lived alone, but surely such a house couldn’t belong to just one man. Dean didn’t get a proper look when he pulled up, but standing at the cusp of the driveway, it’s breathtaking. The lawn rolls luxuriously from the lip of the hill, an undulant flood of green, suggestive of velvet or even silk that’s been spilt and rutched up the nuances of the countryside, stitched together by cobblestone walkways and little groves of trees. The house is an enormous white jewel set in this superabundance of fabric : a fine, classic model to which age has only leant increased grandeur.

A bit slack-jawed, Dean makes his way slowly to the wraparound porch. He’s never seen a house like this before, and it’s terrifying. All reason is gone from his mind; he desperately wants to bolt, jump back in his car, drive back to the grime and dust of the diner, the comfortable cramped quality of his apartment, but instead he rings the doorbell and waits, heartbeat screaming in his ears.

Castiel taps him on the shoulder from behind, and he nearly jumps out of his skin. For a moment he’s actually concerned he might go into cardiac arrest because the sunlight has strengthened, and sends long splinters of gold jutting into Castiel’s hair and eyes, staining that absurd shade of blue, gilding the strong contours of his chin and jaw. He’s carrying two ceramic pots that brim over with marigolds, and looks apologetic, but no less amused.

“Jesus Christ,” gasps Dean, clutching his chest. “You’re gardening at this time of year?”

It’s all he could think to say, and for a moment he worries that he’s been rude, but Castiel only chuckles. He’s wearing jeans, too – nice jeans, snugly fitted, fine denim, but jeans nonetheless – and a waffle-knit shirt unbuttoned at the throat so that the dip of his clavicle is just visible. His hair, however, is familiar (perpetually tangled, perhaps beyond repair), and his jaw is still dusted with recognizable five o’clock shadow. Dean is disproportionately relieved. It’s strangely reassuring to see him so comfortable.

“Hello to you, too.” Castiel shifts the weight of the pots in his arms. “I have a greenhouse out back. Warm all year.”

“You mean there’s more to this place?” Dean said it before he could stop himself, and he instantly regrets it, but Castiel’s smile only widens.

“I’ll admit it’s excessive,” he says with good-natured contriteness. “To be fair, most of it was my brother’s idea. He’s not usually around – well, alright, he’s around, but he has his own place, too – but when he wants a hot meal, he stays with me. Namely because I’m the only one who’ll take him, but – well, that’s another story, anyways. I must confess, however, that the greenhouse was indeed a personal addition. I do hope you’re not too offended.”

Dean can hear the fondness in his voice. “I’ll try to recover,” he says with a smirk.

“How generous of you.” Castiel gives a crooked smile. “Would you like to come in?”

“That’s alright,” says Dean, perhaps too quickly. “I’ll just get to work out back, if you don’t mind.”

Castiel gives him a long, indecipherable look.

“Of course. But please don’t hesitate if you need anything; I’ll be inside grading papers, and would in fact welcome the interruption.”

“Sure,” says Dean.

“Wonderful.” Castiel smiles again, and props open the door, wedging himself inside with the pots still crowding his arms. “And thank you again, Dean. Truly.”

“Of course,” says Dean. “No problem.”

He makes his escape the moment Castiel disappears into the house, tearing down the lawn until he reaches the Impala: safe. He grabs his tools and gets under the hood as fast as possible. It’s only a matter of minutes before he’s totally absorbed, lost in the gentle clink of metal on metal, the pull of resistance at his arms, the oil and grit pushing up under his fingernails. It’s another pretty winter afternoon, airbrushed with precise strokes of cornflower and butter yellow, and the sun melts gradually on his back and shoulders, tempering the harsh cold of a Kansas January.

He doesn’t really think about anything, just the come and go of his breathing and the weight of the wrench in his palm. That’s the best thing about working on cars: they’re tangible, obvious beings, and every contour is palpable, understandable. There’s no theorizing to be had on the subject; all the parts are aligned according to simple rhyme and reason, so it’s easy to find a problem, and the problem is likewise easy to fix. One doesn’t have to think much, and that’s good, because thinking is troublesome in the first place, and for Dean right now, thinking means half-formed glimpses of blue eyes and earnest laughter, little whispers skirting surreptitiously around the corners of his mind like they’re guilty, afraid of being there, and he doesn’t know what to make of that. Yes– definitely best not to think, in the end.

“Aren’t you cold?”

Dean nearly strikes his head on the hood. Castiel is standing there, watching him mildly, apparently caught between amused and concerned. Dean doesn’t remember when he took off the leather jacket, but realizes that he’s down to just his undershirt (paper-thin cotton), shivering. He rubs at his arms, only vaguely aware of the cold, and shrugs.

“I don’t really notice it while I’m working,” he admits. “I get kind of lost to the world, to be honest.”

“Fair enough,” says Castiel with a fond smile. “Anyways, what do you think? Is it easily fixed?”

Dean grins, rubbing his hands together. “Oh, yeah. Don’t worry; it’s nothing big. I’ll have her raring to go by the end of the afternoon.”

“Excellent.” Castiel cranes his neck, maybe trying to catch a glimpse beneath the hood. “Do you mind if I watch?”

Dean swallows. “Well, it’s nothing exciting, but if you want.”

“I do,” asserts Castiel immediately. With that, he settles himself against the window of the passenger side with a discomfiting air of permanence.

Dean hesitates for a moment, then forces himself not to worry and dives back under the hood, into the heady comforting smell of oil and exhaust. Castiel is quiet, respectful, and soon Dean forgets he’s even there, loses himself again, so that the world narrows down to just himself and the car. Nothing but Dean and simple, mechanical workings he can understand; Dean and simple, mechanical problems he can solve, problems that don’t require a degree or a suit or a letter of recommendation. Time turns fluid, coursing past, weaving through the gears and nuts and bolts, winding around his wrench, indefinite. Beneath the hood, right in that moment, is the best place in the world.

At some point, Castiel puts a hand on his shoulder, and the bullet of static coursing down his arm shatters the trance.

“I’m going inside to make some lunch,” he explains softly. “Are you hungry?”

Dean almost says no, but the roll of his stomach is a sharp reminder that he hasn’t eaten since breakfast, and he can’t help it. He nods, and Castiel smiles widely; he looks downright thrilled, actually. Dean stares, and Castiel flushes, and explains that he’s just happy to be allowed to return a favor, even in such a small way. At that, the color in his cheeks deepens, and he gives Dean a hurried goodbye and rushes back into the house. Dean tries not to watch him go.

He works a little while longer before Castiel reappears and coaxes him inside. However, the promise of lunch doesn’t temper his reluctance, and he hesitates at the threshold, trying to get a good look inside the house from a safe standpoint at the doorway. A fruitless effort, of course; he only ends up blindly following Castiel into a capacious foyer that’s dimly lit by inset lamps so that the light is milky grey and only gives the impression of depth. Dean kicks off his shoes and wipes his hands on his thighs, now lamenting the grime shoved up under his fingernails, before he pads softly down a long hall that runs past the parlor, a flight of stairs, several closed doors, until finally giving into the kitchen.

The entire back wall is set with windows, and the sun pours inside, drenching the counters and cabinets, pooling in the pots and pans left out to dry. The kitchen is simple, metal and wood with white enamel accents and flowered wallpaper in patches. There’s a dining table and chairs on the other side. Castiel has his back to Dean, standing at the counter arranging sandwiches onto a tray. He turns with a smile, and ushers Dean over to the dining table, apologizing for the clutter and urging him to sit wherever he likes. Dean does just that, a little stiffly, and tries to get a hold of his surroundings.

The dining table is drowning in a wide white lake of sunshine. Every free space is crammed with loose paper and manila folders; there’s a laptop in one corner, and one of the chairs is pulled out askew, so Dean guesses that it’s a sort of makeshift office. Through the window, reaching from floor to ceiling, the view of the backyard is tremendous; you can really appreciate the rolling contours of the hills, the dark fringe of forest, the pale green peaks of the greenhouse.

“You have a beautiful home,” says Dean, somewhat uselessly, really only as a ploy to fill the silence as Castiel brings over a tray of sandwiches and some beers. He hands over a beer, and Dean’s surprised to see that it’s a brand he loves. He wouldn’t have thought that they shared tastes in that regard, but it’s nice to know.

“Thank you.” Castiel settles across from him and takes a sandwich off the tray, but pauses before he starts eating. “You don’t need a plate, do you?”

Dean laughs and shakes his head. “Not at all. Thanks for lunch, by the way.”

“Thanks for fixing my car,” replies Castiel through a mouthful. “It’s the least I could do.”

“I’m not finished with the car yet,” reminds Dean, easing open the cap on his beer and taking a swig. “Still got about an hour to go, I reckon.”

Castiel nods, and they fall into meaningless small talk between sandwiches – fragments of conversation about the weather, the architecture of the house, the garden. Dean’s still on edge, but Castiel’s level voice is gradually unraveling his nerves. It is, in fact, ridiculously easy to talk to him, despite the unsettling intensity of his stare and the frightening earnestness of his words. However, this only poses a fresh set of worries, because when it’s so easy, Dean has to be careful to hold his tongue and keep himself from spilling over and assimilating into the unbelievable honesty with which Castiel presents his every expression.

At some point they lapse into silence, and Dean starts to feel uneasy, sipping at his beer to buy himself time to think of something to say. Castiel, however, beats him to the punch.

“You know, if I may make an observation, Dean – well, I’ve never seen you like that before.”

Dean lowers his beer warily. “Like what?”

“Working on the car, you’re – different. You were right when you said you get kind of lost. You’re so efficient with the tools, almost fluid, like you’re not even thinking. I don’t know. It seems like it’s innate, to you, that sort of work.” Castiel smiles almost shyly, and looks down at his hands. “It’s strange to me. You looked – well, you looked really happy.”

Dean’s throat feels thick, and it’s a while before he can say anything. “Um. It’s funny that you say that.”

Castiel tilts his head to the side. “Why’s that?”

“It’s…” Dean clears his throat. “Well, that’s what I thought when I first saw you teaching.”

Castiel is quiet for a long moment, and then his face sort of parts down the middle into a smile so wide and genuine and bright that it eclipses the entire room.

“Thank you, Dean,” he says very quietly. “That means a great deal to me.”

“It’s just true,” grunts Dean. His cheeks prickle with heat and he takes a hurried sip of beer. Then, in a desperate search for a new subject: “You know, I always sort of wanted to become a mechanic. Just a mechanic, I mean. I used to work at the garage, sure, but – I don’t know. Just a mechanic. Nothing else.”

He regrets it immediately, because interest flares in Castiel’s eyes, and he’s definitely going to ask questions, pertinent probing questions that Dean will have trouble answering.

“But you’re becoming a teacher instead,” murmurs Castiel. Dean nods. Castiel is quiet; he laces his fingers together to rest his chin. “Is there a story behind that?”

“Well, sort of.” Dean risks a glance at Castiel, and opens his mouth, and then it’s over. Beneath the intense weight of that stare, Dean feels everything sort of bubbling up inside of him, the words melted down, turned liquid, ready to spill easily from his mouth and course across the table, the rampant flood of his history. He takes a deep breath.

“When I was four years old, there was a fire,” he begins, and that’s that. It all begins to pour from somewhere deep in the pit of his stomach, so fast – almost violent from being pent up so long – that he can’t hope to stem the flow. Castiel listens intently, and throughout it all Dean can see the play of emotions across his face, every shade of sympathy and regret and something else that he can’t quite put his finger on, something very soft and malleable that sends his heart into little fits that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

His mother died trying to rescue newborn Sam from the flames, and nothing was ever the same. Dean recovered (to the extent that one can recover from such a thing) but their father sort of teetered off the brink of the world. It was a gradual process. By the time Dean was seven, John Winchester only went to work three days a week, and drank the rest of the time away. But it got worse. When Sam started school, Dean was late to class every day because it was he who walked his baby brother halfway across town. John had had his license revoked the year prior. It was hard, but it wasn’t so bad, not all the time. They still looked like a family, at least.

But not long after, John started disappearing for indefinite periods of time, during which Dean and Sam would survive on nothing but cheap welfare food and worry. That way, Dean learned to cook and steal, because sometimes they needed shampoo or new pencils, and if John was away there was nobody to swipe a credit card or cash a check. It wasn’t fair. A child shouldn’t have to wonder if his father is ever coming home, or if he’s washed up drunk in a ditch somewhere, or landed in jail, or worse. A child shouldn’t have to tell his brother every night that everything’s going to be alright and not really believe it himself.

At some point in the conversation, Dean realizes he’s getting angry, and apologizes. It’s hard to keep control; he doesn’t talk about this often, and when he does, it’s easy to get carried away. But Castiel just shakes his head, eyes impossibly blue and soft, and tells him not to worry. So Dean doesn’t. Because Castiel said so, Dean doesn’t worry. He only swallows, and goes on, unable to stop himself.

It’s terrible to say, but when John died of alcohol poisoning when Dean was a freshman in high school, things got easier. Custody was given to Bobby, an old family friend and the owner of the garage where John used to work. Bobby was a good man, very good, but at that point in time Dean was so bitterly independent that he refused to accept any help, said that he had always survived on his own, kept Sammy alive on his own, and that he would keep going no matter what. He would drop out of school, get a full-time job at the garage, and work for the rest of his life, even if only to see his brother grow up strong and proper, a good man at the expense of his older brother’s childhood. It was, he thought at the time, a very noble plan.

But Bobby, of course, only boxed him on the ears, like always, and forced a compromise: they could have their own apartment out of his wallet as long as Dean stayed in school, went to college, and became a good man himself. At first, Dean was furious. He didn’t want help. But he had to accept the deal, and in the end, it was the right choice. He discovered that he had a knack with languages, and that he could juggle college, part-time work at the garage, and pushing Sam through the tedium of public education without breaking a sweat. It worked.

That much was alright. Dean knew his brother deserved better, but it was all they could afford until Sam won that scholarship and Dean managed to swing a job as an assistant at the academy to get him off the waiting list. That was a feat which, he might add, required no small amount of begging, and sapped his pride as well as his strength. Nowadays he’s perpetually exhausted, devoting his evenings to online classes and schoolwork without the daily respite of the garage to take the edge off the tedium, but it’s worth it.

Everything is worth it just to see Sam smile and grow into the exceptional man Dean knows him to be.

“And that’s that.” Dean belatedly realizes that he’s just betrayed every secret he’s ever kept. “Here I am.”

“Here you are, indeed,” murmurs Castiel. For a long moment, his expression is indecipherable. Then he sort of extends a hand, and Dean’s breath catches, but in the end Castiel doesn’t do anything with it, only lets it fall to the tabletop, lost. He shakes his head once, twice. Dean’s pulse is going mad. The silence stretches on, agonizing, for another heartbeat.

“When I first looked at you, Dean Winchester,” says Castiel at long last, slowly, like he’s testing the contours of each word on the tip of his tongue. “I must admit that I did not think you were remarkable. In fact, I must admit that I thought you entirely ordinary.”

He looks up, and his eyes are huge, terrifyingly soft, almost liquid, in which Dean feels fit to drown.

“I was wrong.”

Quiet. Dean is acutely aware of the most inconsequential things: the pattern of the sunlight on the tabletop, the come and go of his own breathing, the stutter of his pulse, the itchy spot below his jaw where he cut himself shaving that morning. Castiel doesn’t look away for an instant. Dean wants passionately to flee, but at the same time he’s consumed with the ferocious urge to lunge across the table towards something. He has to admit that he doesn’t really know what. But it doesn’t matter. He just sits speechless for a long time before he manages to produce a thank you on a wavering exhale.

“Stop that.” Castiel sort of leans into the table like he wants to reach out for something, but he never does. “Thank you, Dean.”

There’s a long pause. Castiel’s jaw slackens.

“For fixing my car, that is.”

Dean clears his throat, one hand inevitably flying to scratch at the back of his neck.

“Right. Sure thing.”

The tension stretches and expands, swallowing them whole. Castiel rolls his lower lip between his teeth. Dean drums his fingers along the flanks of the beer bottle and looks anywhere but in Castiel’s eyes, because truth be told, he’s afraid of what he’ll find. He knows, somehow, that when he looks up he will meet with a tenderness too immense to control, and he can’t let that happen. His skin is alive with static, his breathing labored, pulling on his lungs. He can’t look up.

At long last, Castiel stands, and Dean feels the tension shatter. He exhales. Castiel starts to gather the plates, and Dean offers to rinse and recycle the beer bottles. The cool rush of the water washes the heat from his skin and sharpens the edges of reality. He’s in control now. It’s alright. He nearly bumps into Castiel turning from the sink, and for a moment their eyes meet, but it’s alright. Dean takes the bottles to recycling and goes back outside to finish with the car.

By then, it’s late afternoon, but he’s only got about an hour left to go on the car. It’s okay because he doesn’t have to pick up Sam until after dinner, anyways. He ducks under the hood and lets the rhythm of the work take him again. He wants the process to gradually rinse away his thoughts, ease the frenetic thud of his heartbeat, and his knuckles are aching by the time he looks up and notices that Castiel is back, leaning against the door to the passenger side, watching intently but respectfully.

“Almost done,” says Dean with a casual smile. “Actually, if you’ll just give me a minute…” He reaches back in, twists and turns a little, hears a reassuring pop, and pulls back, shutting the hood as he goes. “There: she’s perfect. I mean, for a Prius, that is.”

Castiel smiles and comes forwards to shake his hand. “I really can’t thank you enough, Dean.”

“Quit it, already. It’s no problem, honestly.” Dean pats the car almost fondly. “She should be good to go, but if you take her out and something’s not right, you know where to find me.”

“I do indeed,” murmurs Castiel, running his hand along the hood, and looks up to shoot Dean a smirk. “At my desk, grading last week’s quiz.”

“Speaking of which,” says Dean, slipping back into his jacket, beginning to sidle away. “I had really better get going. Thanks again for lunch, and just give me a call if you have any trouble with the engine. See you Monday.”

He turns, desperate to make his escape, but Castiel calls out before he reaches the curb. He stops, exhales to compose himself, and looks back as casually as he can manage. Castiel jogs up to meet him, huffing a little bit and running his hand through his hair as he comes to a stop.

“Something tells me you won’t like me for this, but I can’t let you leave without some form of compensation. Please– ”

Before he can go on, Dean opens his mouth, starts to explain how unnecessary that would be, that it was really his pleasure, a friendly act of kindness, but Castiel fixes him with that stern look and the words sort of melt from his tongue and fall down down down, puddling uselessly on the curb.

“Those repairs would have cost me hundreds of dollars,” says Castiel. “Protest all you like, but you’re not getting away without something a little more elaborate than a sandwich.”

Dean points out that there was a beer involved, too, and Castiel rolls his eyes. He’s fidgeting with the edge of his sleeve, and Dean can’t help but notice how discomfort becomes him, shades the blue of his eyes, brings out the sharp shape of his mouth.

“I know you won’t accept money, so I’m not even going to try.” Castiel sighs and closes his eyes for a long moment. “But please, let me take you out to dinner. Nothing too fancy or expensive, I promise.” He pauses for a long moment. “A business dinner, you know. On me. Please, Dean.”

The way he says it makes it sound like it would be a privilege if Dean agreed. For his part, Dean swallows thickly. A business dinner, of course. A modifier added perhaps too late, perhaps too early. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Regardless.

“I really couldn’t.” His palms are sweaty. “I’m not much one for eating out, you know. Unless it’s a shitty diner. I mean a crummy diner. Sorry. But I can’t imagine someone like you in a crummy diner.”

Castiel looks at him with a cross between fondness and exasperation. “You can use profanity around me, Dean. And alright, then. I respect your tastes. Come here instead. I’ll cook.”

At that, Dean nearly chokes. He tries to protest, but Castiel will have none of it, and beneath the intensity of that gaze, Dean can’t help but crumble. Alright, alright, however resentfully: he’ll be there. Castiel beams. Next Friday it is, then, around seven o’clock. At last, he shakes Dean’s hand for the last time, and retreats back up the driveway. Dean opens the door to the impala and collapses into the front seat, pressing his forehead against the steering wheel until his breathing slows.

He knows what’s happening. It’s gotten impossible to ignore. But he can’t let it happen. He can’t jeopardize his job, his brother’s academic future, just for the sake of some ridiculous crush. And that’s all it is: a crush, a confusing terrifying crush, a crush that’s probably not even reciprocated, a crush that’s really just imagined, and a crush that doesn’t mean anything, not as long as there’s that little business tacked on before dinner. Castiel is just that certain brand of magnetic that draws everyone in; the attraction can’t be permanent, surely it’ll dissipate entirely in a few weeks, and at the end of the semester Dean will laugh at himself for ever worrying. It’s nothing, truly.

Dean pushes the car into gear, steers around, and tells himself that all the way home, until he manages to believe it.

Chapter Text

It’s nothing. All next week, Dean repeats it until it becomes a mantra, a senseless thought that he can employ without even thinking – it’s nothing, it’s nothing. It’s nothing, even when Castiel sits with him at lunch on Monday, and they talk so easily that it’s like they’ve known each other for ages. It’s nothing even when that one occasion accidentally becomes a ritual and from then on they take lunch and coffee together between third and fourth period every day. It’s nothing even when they start remembering little things not only about each other, but about the other characters in their lives; Castiel’s favorite childhood nanny (Martha), for instance, or what happened at Sam’s twelfth birthday (chaos). It’s nothing even when Castiel looks at him too long, like he’s about to say something that will change everything, and Dean can feel the pressure of his eyes like they’re hot and boring into his skin. It’s nothing. Dean must be imagining every bit, because it’s nothing. Nothing.

But Sam, always too intuitive for his own good, notices his agitation, and starts asking – ironically – if there’s a girl he should know about. Dean swallows, and says no, there’s no girl. It’s not a lie, he reasons. And as for that fact – that Castiel is a man – well, it’s unusual, but it’s not a surprise. It’s happened to Dean a few times in the past, although perhaps the attraction was never so powerful. He’s gotten used to it. He’s never acted on the feeling, though, maybe because he never got the chance, maybe because he’s never met anyone quite as magnetic as Castiel. In any case, he figures it just means that he’s a flexible kind of guy who can appreciate beauty in all its forms.

Sam seems dubious when Dean says he’s just fine, but Dean counters with a question about Jessica (seems you’re awfully focused on girls these days; is there anything you’d like to tell me?), and his baby brother turns scarlet and doesn’t bring it up again. Later, Dean says he’s just stressed, that’s all. He’s got a big exam coming up, and between work and studying he’s been spreading himself a bit thin lately. That is also true, but it’s no cause for agitation. Dean has been spreading himself thin all his life; it’s the only way he knows how to exist anymore. But Sam believes him, and that’s all that matters.

There is one last obstacle, however, between Dean and successfully convincing himself that it truly is nothing. Friday looms ever closer, and the less time there is left in the week, the more Dean finds himself thinking about that dinner reservation, poring over it at every quiet moment until he catches himself and redirects his train of thought onto cars or schoolwork or something else that could only support the idea that it really is absolutely nothing.

He works harder than ever before, staying up late into the night studying to chase off dreams, and going the extra mile for Castiel whenever he can. At least the students have started to warm up to him. They’re snobby and conceited, but otherwise not so bad. In any case, Dean always flourishes when he’s working hard, and things are looking up, even if he’s exhausted.

Sam is happy, too, and that’s worth everything. In fact, his only complaint has to do with the teacher of his third period class (biology), a man whom Dean soon identifies as Gabriel and who is otherwise easily distinguished by a dimpled mouth and small bright eyes. It is a tradition in his classroom, claims Sam, to make annual sport of torturing one lucky student. Apparently he chooses his victim at any point during the year, and when Sam made his entrance a few weeks ago, it was, as the other students joke, love at first sight.

Therefore, Sam has become the butt of every joke and prank imaginable (the professor, he seethes, is like an overgrown child), but since this curse doesn’t seem to effect anything serious, such as grades or workload, Dean can’t really complain. He does ask Castiel about it at lunch, however, and to his surprise, Castiel explodes into laughter, the genuine kind that still leaves Dean breathless, with a pounding heart, even though, again, it’s nothing.

“That’s one of my brothers.” Castiel dashes a tear from the corner of his eye. “He has a wicked sense of humor to say the least, but he’s harmless. The fact that he’s chosen Sam really just means that he likes him. I wouldn’t worry about it. No matter how it seems, your brother is in good hands.”

“Good hands?” Dean is doubtful, and Castiel gives a crooked smile.

“He’ll write a mean letter of recommendation, especially if Sam survives his pranks without breaking down. Tell Sam about that when the time comes. He’ll think you’re insane, but you won’t be sorry.”

“Roger that,” chuckles Dean, and they fall back into comfortable conversation, just like always.

Really, right now, life is unrealistically bearable. Dean misses work at the garage, and he doesn’t love being tired all the time, but it’s worth it, and his job gets more enjoyable by the day. The only dark spot, in fact, is Friday, and he’s almost started to hate Castiel for being so confusing and magnetic and posing so many unprecedented difficulties. He tell himself that he’s not going to worry, but once school gets out on Friday and Castiel waves goodbye, reminding him to come by at seven o’clock – like Dean could have somehow forgotten, like it hasn’t consumed his every thought since last week – he can barely concentrate on hugging Sam goodbye.

His brother will be staying at the dorms this weekend, which is good because Dean will have more time to study, but bad because he’ll have more time to think, and thinking seems to be his downfall as of late. He drives back to the apartment with his mind racing. He wonders what Castiel will wear, what he’ll cook, what he’ll say, if he’ll finally comb his hair, or if he already combs his hair and it sticks up like that anyways, beyond help. As he climbs up the stairs it occurs to him that he’s going to have to wear something, too, something nicer than old jeans and a leather jacket, but not too nice, so that it doesn’t look like he’s trying to look nice, so that he can keep up the illusion that it really is nothing, nothing at all.

He distracts himself with schoolwork until five o’clock, then takes a shower and shaves. He takes extra care not to cut himself with the razor, and nearly burns away his skin with aftershave. After that, he debates heatedly between the two nice colognes he has before realizing how stupid he looks bent into the medicine cabinet, chewing worriedly on his lower lip. He blindly grabs the first bottle. Finally, he goes to the closet and stands helplessly at the door.

He has two suits and an extra sport jacket for job interviews, but that won’t do at all. His nice silk shirts will be too recognizable; there are five of them, one for each day of work, and Dean repeats them every week without fail. Thankfully, he doesn’t think he needs a tie or fine trousers. He finally decides that nice jeans will do, and is grateful that he only has one pair, dark blue denim that hug his hips and thigh, complete with a designer emblem and all. They were a gift from Bobby on Dean’s twentieth birthday and serve well as a staple for casual dates, although Dean tries not to think about that particular coincidence as he buttons the fly, because this is a business dinner, nothing more. Nothing.

A shirt, however, poses more complex issues. It’s January, so short sleeves are out of the question, and he can’t wear anything stained or torn, so that rules out most of his favorites. He contemplates a waffle-knit sweater, but remembers that Castiel wore something like that the last time he was over, and decides against it. But a sweater, he thinks, might be a good idea. In the back of his closet he finds a green pullover that fits snugly at the waist and brings out the color in his eyes. He fidgets in front of the mirror for a while before he decides that it’s an acceptable combination.

It’s six o’clock, so Dean tries to read a battered copy of Vita Nuova (translated into modern Italian, of course) while he waits for his hair to dry, but just can’t concentrate of the book, not right now, at least. But maybe the subject matter is to blame – Dean actually enjoyed The Divine Comedy, but this text isn’t quite as arresting as Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, what with the lack of fires and rivers of blood and that huge frozen lake at the lowest level. In any case, he puts down the book with ten minutes to spare and goes to the bathroom to run his hands through his hair over and over again, like it makes some sort of difference.

It’s nothing, he reminds himself as he puts on his nice leather shoes and goes down to the car. Nothing, as he starts the engine. Nothing as he pulls out, night already set soft and black on the horizon, the gloom of the streets ruptured by the lemon-yellow light of the lamps and store windows. Nothing as he turns up the music to drown out his thoughts. Castiel’s neighborhood is already hushed. The grand lights of the mansions cast transfixing liquid patterns onto the lawns and sidewalks, and once in a while the wind carries through the open window of the Impala a burst of laughter, conversation, the sound of glasses clinking together, high heels against marble floors.

Dean pulls up to the curb. A few lights are on in Castiel’s house, blazing warm and soft onto the lawn. The glow pools between the cobblestones in the driveway and the footpaths, drips slowly from the stairs, soaks into Dean’s hair. His palms are sweaty. It’s nothing, he promises himself. He fights down the violent urge to turn and flee. How ridiculous to be afraid when it’s nothing at all. He runs a hand through his hair one last time and rings the doorbell.

Castiel doesn’t keep him waiting long. On the doorstep, he grips Dean warmly by the shoulder, then ushers him inside. The house is like an envelope of warmth, and the air is rich with the smell of food. Castiel leads him to the kitchen, and goes to peer inside the oven, and Dean sees with relief (and some amusement) that he’s wearing worn brown corduroys and an apron over a maroon sweater, that his hair is still a mess, and that his chin is still dusted with that perpetual five o’clock shadow.

Castiel shuts the oven and implores that Dean follow him out back, where he’s got the grill just about ready to go. Dean raises an eyebrow – grilling, in January? – and Castiel shrugs, pulling a bowl of meat from the fridge and showing Dean to the backdoor.

“I for one cannot live without a good hamburger,” he confesses as they step outside. “And I fear that I only trust myself to meet my standards.”

Dean grins. “In that case, these had better be good.”

Castiel glances up with a smirk, and the shadows play strange tricks on his face, bleeding into the curve of his mouth and altering the light in his eyes, transforming that surreal blue.

“Is that a challenge?”

“Maybe.”

“Then I accept.”

The grill throws a soft, amorphous light a few feet in every direction; it uses real charcoal, not propane, and the woody smell permeates the air. Dean sits on a little bench nearby and watches as Castiel forms patties with his hands and makes small talk about nothing in particular. The orange light suits him – but maybe every light suits him – casting a changeable gradient across his face that highlights the detailed nuances of his expression, the concentrated crinkle of his brow as he sets the first patties onto the flame.

The smell makes Dean’s mouth water. They keep talking about nothing, or at least nothing that’s really important. Nothing. The conversation is mostly about class, plans for the upcoming semester, the kids who are doing well, and the ones who show cause for worry. Just work, and that’s all for the best, really. Castiel presses down on the patties one by one and smoke billows wildly into the air, momentarily coloring the night.

He makes five burgers, two each and an extra just in case. Once the patties are cooked, he slides them off the grill and onto a platter to rest before he sets red peppers and hamburger buns back onto the flame. It’s an aesthetic pleasure to watch him cook, really: another situation in which he’s fluid and engaged, a little bit lost to the world, in the best way possible. Dean is content to observe and occasionally follow with his gaze the luxurious plumes of smoke to the point where they disappear in the into the inky night sky. At some point they fall into an easy quiet that lasts until Castiel is finished and beckons Dean back into the house.

He offers to set the table while Castiel arranges the food; at first, Castiel protests, but Dean insists, desperately wanting to somehow make himself useful. At long last, he’s directed to the linen drawer. He tries to be tasteful in his selection as Castiel garnishes the burgers with actual garnishes, little sprigs and parsley and all. Normally Dean would be mildly revolted, but in this case, it’s almost adorable, what with the way Castiel crinkles his brow as he pushes around the ingredients and smiles when he thinks it’s done right. But Dean focuses on the silverware because such thoughts can’t be allowed.It’s nothing.

Castiel finally unties his apron and lets his hand come to rest on Dean’s shoulder as they settle at the table, dropping a compliment regarding his decorative skills with only the faintest shading of mirth. Dean rolls his eyes and puts up a show of irritation, but he doesn’t mean it, not at all. Not when Castiel is smiling at him like that, eyes soft and sort of melted at the edges as he pushes a burger onto his plate and carefully twists off the cap on his beer. Dean shakes his head to chase away unwanted ideas and focuses on eating.

Castiel wasn’t kidding about making a good burger, and Dean doesn’t even bother with being prideful in this case, because it’s honestly delicious. In fact, he barely stops eating long enough to mumble a compliment. Castiel’s eyes flicker with pride, and the edge of his mouth quirks up slightly but sharply, pleased. Dean’s ravenous, but Castiel eats with an almost birdlike delicacy, quickly but carefully, fingers and tongue darting every which way so that the process is clean, too. It’s a bit mesmerizing, actually, and Dean concentrates on the grain of the wooden table, the drops of water sliding down the flank of his beer, to keep from staring.

Dinner is over too soon, but they linger at the table before dessert because the third round of beers has brought a heightened ease of conversation. The alcohol rolls words around in Dean’s head and coaxes them out until they tumble across the table, liberated at last. He has to be more careful, but he’s also enjoying himself, and maybe getting a bit lost in the amorphous and profound blue of Castiel’s eyes after all. Castiel has come loose at the seams, too, and the lines between business and friendship have started to blur; for instance, he drops swears easily, and even complains about work from time to time.

“The kids are so ungrateful, sometimes,” he laments, “that I can’t help stopping to ask myself if I’m really making a difference, if there’s any way – any way in the world! – that I can make them learn, and not only that, but make them want to learn, truly, so that success is more than just a passing grade.”

He looks so pained that a little ache blooms unwarranted in the bottom of Dean’s chest.

“Jesus, Cas,” he sighs, lifting one hand, almost like he’s going to reach out and touch him, God forbid, only to let it fall back onto the table. “Look in the mirror once in a while. I’ve seen you teach, and it’s downright amazing. And I swear I’m not just looking for a raise here. Trust me when I tell you that if anyone can find a way, it’s you.”

Castiel’s expression sharpens with interest, but not because of the praise.

“Cas?” he ventures after a long pause.

A stretch of quiet. Castiel twirls the neck of his beer between his thumb and index finger and doesn’t look away. It’s transfixing. Dean swallows thickly. He’s terrified for a moment that he’s betrayed himself, but then he reigns in his nerves, evens the tempo of his breathing, trying to seem nonchalant.

“Sorry, I – man, was that too informal?” He scratches at the back of his neck, hoping the kitchen lighting downplays the flood of color that he can feel spreading from his face to his chest. “My bad. It’s just easier to say. I won’t do it again.”

“No, that’s alright,” says Castiel, and his voice has gone impossibly soft, perhaps relatable in terms of color and texture to the first light of dawn or the sort of breeze that blows up in early spring. Dean’s never heard that tone before, and it’s dizzying. “I like it.”

“You do?” Dean vaguely registers the dreamlike quality of his words. “Okay. I’ll call you Cas, then, if you really don’t mind.”

“I don’t.”

“Good.”

They hold each other’s gaze for what is an eternity and nothing more than the blink of an eye all at once, and Castiel’s mouth falls open a bit, and he blinks long and slow, so that light is drawn up through his eyes like a backwards sieve, and for a long moment Dean suffocates, but then in a blessed stroke of luck, the oven timer shatters the laden silence and Castiel comes back into clear focus. He gets up to go fetch dessert, and the moment he’s gone Dean sort of collapses over the table, elbows supporting all his weight as he almost lays his head in his hands. He’s imagining it, he has to be. It’s nothing, nothing at all.

“It’s nothing special,” echoes Castiel as he comes back from the kitchen with a pair of oven mitts tucked into one hand. “Just a pie. Apple. Say what you will, but I’ve always loved baking.”

“You’re a pussy.” Dean waves his hand dismissively. “What else is new? I love pie, anyways.”

Castiel beams. “Excellent. Come back to the kitchen. We can eat there. I’ll get to the dishes later on.”

“We’ll have to see about that,” counters Dean as Castiel ushers him to the counter and gets him to measure out a slice. The smell instantly sets his mouth to watering. He didn’t tell Castiel, but apple pie is his favorite. It’s eerie, this unintended synchronization between them, something sort of suggestive of what exists between him and Sam, but at the same time totally different, supercharged with a tenacious sort of electricity that Dean can’t get off his skin no matter how he tries.

He and Castiel lean against the counter to eat. It’s quiet, just the sound of forks against china and the soft hum of the kitchen appliances. After a while, however, Dean starts to come up with the conversation, fueled by curiosity and coaxed forwards by the alcohol and the gentle but constant warmth of Castiel’s gaze. He starts asking Castiel questions unthinkingly, with no tangible rhyme or reason, really just because he wants to know, and Castiel seems happy to oblige.

“Your favorite place to go when you were a kid?” He’s chewing, but that’s alright; they’re long past the constraints of manners.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Castiel looks down, smiling privately, and Dean suddenly feels a little bit like an intruder in some locked fantastic world that he’s never known: a good childhood, of course. “India was wonderful, but my father was always busy, so I’ll say…well, the year we spent in Beijing. Magical place, despite everything.”

Dean snorts. “Jesus, I meant something more along the lines of your favorite pillow fort, you know.”

To his surprise, Castiel colors, and his eyes go unfocused. “Oh – in that case...well. To be honest, my family wasn’t much the type for pillow forts. My parents didn’t want to be distant, but they couldn’t help it, sometimes. They were busy. They had to hire nannies, governesses, whatever. All good women, but…well, they weren’t my mother and father, after all.”

Dean swallows; he hadn’t expected that. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

Now it’s Castiel’s turn to snort. “Don’t be ridiculous. That’s not prying. I just told you more than you asked. Forgive me. It’s a bad habit of mine, you see, talking too much once I’ve had a bit to drink.”

“Not so bad,” mumbles Dean, and catches a fleeting glimpse of Castiel’s smile before he determinedly jerks his gaze away. He’s desperate to change the subject, and finds himself wandering towards Castiel’s living room, still carrying his plate in one hand. Castiel follows and turns on the light, watching Dean from the doorway as he makes his way around overflowing shelves of books and movies, squinting at the sepia portraits hung on the walls and admiring the glassy face of the HD television.

“This is sweet,” he breathes, and Castiel chuckles, coming to join him in the center of the room.

“I suppose.”

“You suppose? Come on, man; look, you even have all the extended editions.” Dean is referring to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, enthroned at the top shelf beside their printed companions.

“Of course; it’s only a necessity.”

But Castiel gravitates towards the bookshelves, and when Dean glances over his shoulder, he catches him smiling at the worn spines like they’re old friends. At that, he feels it again, that irresistible pull bringing him over to hover at Castiel’s shoulder, trying to drink it all in at once. He’s not much for reading unless it’s in a foreign language, but he can appreciate passion, and the collection is impressive. He can’t even read some of the titles, but he recognizes gilded letters, real leather covers: authenticity, like everything about Castiel.

“It’s beautiful,” says Dean softly, and Castiel nods.

“This little library is one of my great joys in life.” He smiles almost bashfully. “One day you should see my study. I don’t mean to be boastful – or in this case, I suppose I do – but this sorry lot is nothing compared to what I’ve got in there.”

Dean gives a low whistle, and Castiel chuckles, setting his plate down on the coffee table after finding a clear spot amidst the teetering stacks of books and papers and old mugs still sticky with tea. The clock on the television says it’s just past ten, and Dean knows he should go, but he can’t do it, not yet. In the meantime, Castiel is rummaging in his movie collection.

“Have you seen any Woody Allen films?” He resurfaces suddenly, a few DVDs in hand. “He’s a real favorite of mine. Absolutely brilliant, especially when it comes to being an intellectual.”

Dean frowns. He’s not sure. Castiel gives him a few names, and it turns out that he’s seen Take the Money and Run. The other films, however, are unfamiliar, and Castiel takes on a wicked grin – Zelig it is, then. Before Dean can fully grasp the situation, Castiel is turning on the television and kicking off his shoes, pushing aside a precarious stack of exams to make room for his feet. Dean’s stomach drops. He nearly recovers his voice in time to escape, but then the screen roars to life, and it’s too late.

He settles uneasily onto the couch, and Castiel gives him a brief smile that stops up his throat perhaps beyond repair. He’s never been more conscious of anyone before, and the slightest suggestion of motion is to him the epitome of alarm. Castiel so much as breathes, and Dean’s hair stands on end; he shifts deeper into the couch, and his adrenalin pounds. He wants nothing more than to flee, but at the same time he wants to press his face into Castiel’s shoulder, just inches away, so that the heat of his skin is almost palpable, and certainly imaginable. It’s absolutely the worst situation conceivable, and he can’t escape. He has nothing to do but focus on the movie, the movie and nothing else. Nothing else.

Dean’s always been good in a tight spot, and he actually manages to lose himself in the plot, so that when the clock strikes eleven and he looks over to see Castiel dozing gently, head pillowed on the opposite armrest of the sofa, it comes as a surprise. He tenses at first – this might be the most terrifying obstacle of all – but then wills himself to relax. It’s alright; he can ignore it, because it’s nothing, and nothing is very easily ignored.

He stares blankly at the screen for about half a minute before his eyes are back on Castiel. At the very least it was, he consoles himself, a noble effort.

In asleep, all the square angles of Castiel’s face have gone soft at the edges, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes loosening, the sharp line of his mouth lying slack so that there’s no definite form to his lips. The blue light of the television highlights the minute spray of his eyelashes, their infinitesimal shadows surreally lengthened down his cheeks. He looks tired but peaceful, one hand curled over the opposite thigh and the other tucked under his cheek to lend him an almost childlike impression. Dean is transfixed.

At long last, he gets up and heads to the kitchen to get started on the dishes, gathering the plates and old mugs from the coffee table on the way. He’s nearly done when Castiel surprises him, eyes still glazed with sleep. He gives a splendid yawn and yanks the sponge away from Dean.

“You’re a guest,” he mumbles, and tries to push him aside with his hips. Bad plan; Dean springs away so fast that he nearly sends water spraying everything. He’s glad that Castiel is too exhausted to really notice the wash of color on his face, the way he stutters as he says that it’s gotten so late, he really should go, he’s overstayed his welcome, anyways.

“You’ve overstayed no welcome,” retorts Castiel thickly, brandishing a soapy plate for emphasis. “I was just up all last night grading. But you are right. It’s late.”

“Thanks so much for dinner,” says Dean as he makes for the door. His fingertips are still alive with the static that’s run down from the rest of his body. “It was great, really.”

“Nonsense. thank you, Dean,” hollers Castiel from the kitchen. “Drive safe.”

“Sure thing.” His breathing is settling now. “See you Monday. Don’t be late.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“Never.”

And with that, Dean steps onto the porch, shuts the door, and bolts for the car. The cold tears into his chest, brings tears to his eyes, burns away the last of the alcohol. He stumbles into the Impala and presses his forehead into the steering wheel until the world narrows down to the pressure against his skull, simple pressure, easily understood, tolerated.

“Never, Cas,” he breathes, and jerks the car into drive.

-

He’s careful. It’s nothing. He doesn’t think about it all weekend because it’s still nothing, no matter what. No matter how Castiel smiled. No matter how he looked from across the table. Now matter how reverently he regarded those old books. No matter how his face softened as he slept and Dean felt like he could reach out and his whole expression would somehow give into his touch and reveal all the tiny secrets that constituted his being, the little gears and cogs that together made up Castiel Novak, professor of classical languages among other such pursuits and possibly the most infuriating and magnetic man to ever exist. No – none of that matters, because it’s nothing, nothing at all.

Dean has a quiet weekend. He does his schoolwork, talks to Sam for a long time on Sunday, and finally makes some headway into Vita Nuova. Refreshed, he gets to work early on Monday to run some copies as a final thank-you for dinner, with the full intent of otherwise never mentioning that night again. It looks like he’s not the only one out and about early; he hears voices echoing down the hall, and he’s about to walk into the teacher’s lounge when suddenly the name drops through the background noise of conversation like a bullet: Sam Winchester. Dean’s breath hitches, and after a moment’s debate he presses himself against the far wall, just barely in comprehensible earshot.

“…I must admit that I was certainly surprised by his performance.”

It’s a baritone that Dean doesn’t recognize. There’s a brief pause in which only the hum of the copier and the drip of the coffee machine are audible.

“And why’s that?”

Dean nearly bolts. That even, earnest tone is unmistakable. There’s a low chuckle, colored with a note of incredulity.

“Please, Castiel. A boy from that sort of background?”

Dean feels his hackles rise, but at the same time, a little ache starts just behind his ribs: what can Castiel say to that? Another agonizing pause.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean.”

A snort. “Don’t play dumb.”

“Please, Uriel.” Castiel’s voice sounds offbeat, almost hollow, and in that moment Dean’s almost afraid. “Humor me.”

The sound of coffee hitting the bottom of a paper cup.

“Alright. Let’s be realistic. That sort of people…well, they’re just not our sort of people. You know that. You saw the boy when he first came in. He was the picture of what most Americans wouldn’t be willing to call poverty. Scruffy, used uniform – used everything, actually. And not to mention how he gawked at everything as if he were some sort of newborn.” A heavy sigh. “Frankly, that sort of kid shouldn’t fit in here. But Sam really stands out from the rest of his lot. Despite how he’s been raised, he might even have a future here. I’m impressed.”

Silence. Dean feels raw and hot. He’s so angry he can’t even breathe. The hallway is blurred, spinning, turning crimson at the edges. He’s about to charge in and strangle Uriel himself, all else be damned, but then Castiel starts to speak, and the world screeches to something of a halt.

His voice is even at first, like always.

“What a good point you raise, Uriel.”

A moment’s pause. “I’m glad you agree.”

“Oh, certainly.” The soft sound of paper giving way: someone is clenching their coffee cup. “Because it’s obvious that our sort of people – well, that we wouldn’t dare set ourselves even close to the standards of the rest of humanity, would we? Of course it is only natural that we should exist as a separate legion, cloistered within the walls of this academy, superior. The academy makes us superior. Our learning, or situation, how we were born – it all makes us superior.”

Audible tension. The baritone again: “Yes, if you must put it as such, I suppose – ”

“And so it’s surprising to you, Uriel, that Sam Winchester should dare to succeed, because he is not as we are. Such audacity! The boy is truly amazing. Tell me something, Uriel, if you might be so kind. How long have you had a window into the life of the Winchesters? It must be fascinating, to know exactly how their life is, to be able to understand the poor specimens who exist so far below you on the grand cosmic scale. But forgive me. I make the assumption of a window because surely you must have a window to be able to pose such a judgment. Do you have a window, Uriel?”

Another miniature eternity.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Castiel. I was being figurative, you know that.”

And suddenly Castiel’s voice rolls with thunder.

“So was I.”

Pause.

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

The sound of a single footstep.

“I mean, Uriel, that you know nothing about the Winchesters, and that it makes me sick that you presume to do so in the very least. You do not know Sam, and you most certainly do not know – you do not know Sam, in any case. You do not know what his life has been, and yet you wonder at his intelligence, his compassion, his ability to be human, as if he were ever anything lesser thank you or I – my God! Believe what you will, but at times like these I cannot help but think people like Sam are the more privileged.”

Quiet. Castiel’s voice had risen, but when he speaks again, it’s nearly a whisper, and Dean has to press again the wall to hear.

“You are my brother, Uriel, and I love you, but at times you appall me more profoundly than I can say. If I ever hear you speak of Sam – or of any Winchester, for that matter – in such a way again, I will never forgive you.”

There’s only a split second for Dean to gather his wits before Uriel comes storming out, fists clenched at his sides. Then it’s over, and Dean is alone in the gaping silence of the hallway, clinging to the stack of paper as if his life depended on it. It’s only a moment before he knows what to do. Again, it’s not something he really considers. It’s not rational, it’s not even conscious. It just happens.

“Dean.” Castiel looks up from the coffee machine. Fear lies written clearly across his face. “How long were you – ”

The papers are lost to the floor. The coffee cup flies away in a long arc. Dean grabs Castiel by the shoulders, and they slam against the far wall with a crash. Castiel almost says his name before Dean kisses him. The roar of anger flares impossibly bright, scorches his chest, and then it’s dead, not anger at all anymore. No. At long last it’s just honesty, raw and reckless. Dean doesn’t let Castiel say anything. It’s short. He lets go and Castiel stares.

“Thanks,” says Dean.

And with that, he bolts.

-

He’s going to lose his job, and he deserves to lose his job, and there’s nothing he can do, and he doesn’t know what he’s going to tell Sam. It’s not like the academy can expel him for Dean’s actions, but it pains him to imagine not being close to his little brother for at least a short while every day. But again, he deserves it. For everything. And yet he’s in a state of disbelief. It’s not even the job that’s so important. Not at all.

What’s important is that this is the first time he’s really failed Sam.

He ignores Castiel for the rest of the day, and receives ignorance in return. It’s a final kindness on part of a man who was always too kind, he supposes. How fitting. Dean actually spends lunch in the bathroom, like the unpopular girls in junior high, crying over a sandwich waiting for the bell to ring. It’s a low point, to be sure.

The end of the day comes too quickly. The students file out, unaware that they leave Dean to his doom. He wants to flee, lay down a resignation letter and escape, but he can’t. He still has his dignity, and that much at least he must maintain. And yet a permeating sadness engulfs his chest, a sadness that has nothing to do with Sam or unemployment or failure. He knows what it is. He’s going to miss Castiel, despite everything, or perhaps because of it. But he’ll work out that much in the safety of the apartment.

Castiel closes the door after the last student. It’s the first time that Dean has really looked at him all day. His expression is indecipherable, and then he turns his back to lock the door. Privacy in shame: yet another kindness. Castiel is still for a long moment. Dean looks down. But Castiel turns and that infuriating magnetism of his draws Dean’s gaze up despite himself. His expression – no, still indecipherable.

Castiel exhales into the silence.

“Dean.”

And then he’s across the room, hands digging into Dean’s lapels. Dean stumbles back against the desk; the wood screams and an avalanche of paper spills onto the floor. Textbooks rain down and the joints in his neck crack. It’s the most forceful kiss he’s ever experienced. Frenetic, senseless, hands on his jaw, neck, the hollow of his throat, fists balling in his hair. He can’t move.

“Forgive me,” gasps Castiel into the tender spot at the crook of his jaw; his hair prickles Dean’s cheek, and it’s startlingly intimate. “All day I couldn’t look at you or else – ”

At that, Dean surges forwards, grabbing Castiel’s face in both hands. Castiel’s arms tangle around his neck and he arches into his chest. It’s tacit comprehension. Dean is half-sitting on the desk and Castiel nestles between his legs. There’s nothing more to be said for a long time.

“I heard you in the teacher’s lounge.” Dean kisses the shell of Castiel’s ear. “I heard everything.”

Castiel clings to his neck. “Oh.”

He tries to kiss him again, but Dean leans back a bit, albeit reluctantly.

“Cas. What you said. I mean. I can never tell you how much…I mean…fuck.”

Castiel pulls back maybe an inch to meet his gaze. His expression is clouded, but the light in his eyes is clear, conscious, tender. In a dreamlike motion he presses his index finger to Dean’s lips.

“If you can’t say it, then don’t talk,” he whispers.

That’s it for a good while. Another kiss, and another, and another; it is in fact an indefinite series of kisses, without clear beginning or end, absorbing and exhilarating and eventually beyond description. Dean tries to worry that it’s too much, but he can’t. He doesn’t want to stop, so at long last it is Castiel who dips his chin away (but keeps his hand balanced precariously on the crook of Dean’s elbow, a pinpoint of heat in the chaos of the senseless rush in his ears, the pounding of his blood).

“I have a parent-teacher conference in five minutes,” he explains, and sounds so regretful that Dean knows it can’t be a rejection. Even so, he steps away, but Castiel only stretches forwards to keep his hand on his arm.

“I’ll call you later,” he whispers.

“You, uh. You don’t have my number,” says Dean, dizzily, dizzily, dizzily.

“Yes I do. It was on your job application.”

Dean grimaces, unhappy to be reminded of their circumstances, and Castiel chuckles and apologizes, his voice roughened, rolling low and husky from somewhere deep in his chest. At that, Dean smiles a little bit, and says goodbye, but before he can leave Castiel catches his sleeve and draws him back.

“Just one more,” he says, mouth slack, eyes unfocused. “Please.”

Dean’s breath hitches. When he kisses Castiel this time it’s not desperate or bruising, but soft, deliberate, almost careful. His pulse fluctuates dizzyingly, and for an instant Castiel presses into his chest, knits his hands into his hair, but then he’s gone, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, leaving Dean stumbling forwards a bit.

“I’ll call you,” he promises, again.

Dean nods, inching reluctantly towards the door. “Talk to you soon.”

Castiel glances up from his desk with a smile. “Soon.”

Dean slips into the hall and shuts the door. Then it’s only a moment before the breath seems to come rushing out of him all at once and his knees go flimsy, fit to collapse. He’s not going to lose his job. He’s not going to lose his job, and Castiel is going to call soon, and maybe he’ll even get to kiss him again. It’s too much. If Dean has learned anything, it’s that his life can’t be this good. It can’t be real. And yet, real it seems. It’s unbelievable, and maybe, he admits to himself, it wasn’t exactly nothing, after all.

Chapter Text

Dean is patient. He meets up with Sam for a while, then goes home to start the thesis for a history paper due the next week. He makes a sandwich and grades exams while a soap opera blares in the background. Finally, just before dinner, he retires to the couch with La Vita Nuova: apparently, his go-to diversion while anticipating Castiel. It’s a good distraction, and he almost makes it through a whole poem before his cellphone rings. He’s been very patient, but now he can taste his heart in his mouth, and flips the lid open so fast he nearly snaps the plastic in two.

He takes a deep breath and puts the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

“Dean.” It’s unmistakable, that voice, as though it’s been somehow branded glowing hot onto his mind.

“Cas.”

The word emerges on an unsteady exhale and quivers a moment before dissipating into the air. A pause, like they’re both astounded at being able to hear the other’s voice. But the silence lengthens, and Dean starts to frantically wonder if he’s expected to begin the conversation, having begun the whole thing in the first place, after all. That would be an issue; he doesn’t know what he can say, how much weight he totes in this…this situation, whatever it is. But Castiel rescues him, like always.

“We’ve really got to talk. Fuck, sorry. That sounds so foreboding, doesn’t it?” He sounds so relaxed that Dean feels his grip on the phone loosening despite his screaming pulse. “Look, it’s just that I have a lot to say to you, and a lot I want to hear.”

“Me too,” says Dean, hesitantly. “You start.”

Castiel laughs softly.

“Oh, no. I don’t want to start like this, over the phone. I’d much rather speak with you in person. Listen, are you available tonight?”

Dean swallows. Start. Interpreted a certain way, the word is precious, swollen with hope, a tacit promise, even. But maybe Castiel doesn’t mean it like that.

“Yeah.”

“Good. I’m coming over.”

Dean’s stomach plummets. The apartment is two rooms: one with a foldable bed, a kitchenette, and a television, and then a tiny bathroom with stained tile and mildew growing thick in one corner of the shower. Clothes lie strewn everywhere; there are schoolbooks sprawled open like paper cadavers, and the remains of instant ramen and fast food wither in the sink. Dean thinks of Castiel’s beautiful home, imagining the wood floors, the sloping ceilings, the peaks of the greenhouse, and his stomach turns.

“Christ, please don’t.” He doesn’t realize how harsh it sounds until after he’s said it, but he can hear Castiel’s sharp intake of breath, and wants to hit himself. “I mean – no, Cas, please don’t take that the wrong way. It’s just that…well, my place is a real mess right now, to be honest, and I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

Dean’s skin prickles with shame, and he’s glad Castiel can’t see how he ducks his head to scratch unhappily at the back of his neck. He doesn’t want to start out lying, but he can’t just come out and say that he’s already worried that Castiel is too good for him only hours into what may or may not be a relationship. It sounds neurotic, and it probably is, given that Castiel is nearly the kindest person he’s ever encountered, but he can’t help it. Already doubt permeates everything, tiny shadowy questions imbedded everywhere in his skin like pinpricks.

“You could never cause me any trouble like that, Dean,” says Castiel, and at that a certain lightness pervades Dean’s veins, makes his head spin a bit.

“I’m already in the car,” he lies, although his does get up to find the keys. A moment’s pause before Castiel exhales resignedly.

“Alright. But drive fast.”

Dean always drives fast – there’s really no other way to go about it, in his perspective – but tonight he can almost smell the rubber burning off his tires. Dusk has just fallen, and at the corners the sky is still streaked with the vestiges of the sunset, blush and orange tones. The streetlamps start to come on as he peels around the last corner and screeches to a halt at the curb. He forces himself to walk up to the house at a measured pace so as not to be breathing too heavily when he opens the door. But it’s not much use; no matter what, his throat feels thick and heavy as he presses the doorbell and steps back, rocking on his heels as if to match his heartbeat.

Hardly a moment passes before Castiel opens the door. His tie hangs loose from his collar and he has the sleeves of his white button-down rolled up to the elbows. His hair is worse than usual, like he’s been running his hands through it non-stop, but his eyes are bright.

“You drove fast,” he says.

“I tried my best,” gasps Dean.

Castiel steps aside to let him into the house, but sort of drifts away while Dean is hanging up his jacket in the foyer. Dean sees him standing at the sink, gazing pensively out the window. He turns at the sound of footsteps and walks forwards until he’s just a foot away from Dean, standing at the point where the hall spills into the kitchen. The slip of air between them feels impossibly charged.

Castiel takes Dean’s face in both hands, and Dean’s arms sort of unthinkingly fall down to rest at the upturned angle of his waist. Castiel whispers Dean’s name, and leans up to kiss him, but the moment before their lips touch Dean jerks away with a soft gasp.

“Jesus, Cas. Not right now.” He presses his palm into the bend of Castiel’s waist to soften the refusal. “If you start with that, I won’t be able to tell you anything.”

Castiel studies his face for a long moment before he steps away. Dean misses him instantly, and that’s terrifying, how good it feels to have the weight of his body against his chest, supported in his arms, with the tickle of his hair at his chin and the murmur of his breath at his neck. Castiel doesn’t look away from Dean for an instant, but a subtle smile tempers the intensity of his gaze.

“My apologies.” He twists the hem of his shirt between his hands. “Where would you prefer to start?”

Dean exhales. “Can we sit?”

“Ah. That denotes a very serious conversation, doesn’t it?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

They end up on the couch in the living room, surrounded by the old books and sepia portraits that Dean only remembers as soaked in the blue light of the television screen. Dean sits a whole cushion away, not because he doesn’t want to be so close to Castiel (quite the opposite, in fact), but because he doesn’t trust himself to have an earnest conversation at such proximity. Even so, the blood rushes in his ears, mangling every thought into a lump of sentence fragments that must be gathered again and disciplined into coherency before expression. He inhales long and deep, trying to clear his head, and all the while Castiel is quiet, respectful, because he always seems to know when Dean needs a selfish moment.

“I guess I should go first, huh?” Dean fiddles with his sleeve. “I mean, given that I am the one who started all this, when you think about it.”

Castiel looks at him intently. “You make it sound like it’s something to be ashamed of.”

Dean swallows. “I don’t – I mean – see here, Cas. I’m not ashamed of it.” He measures his words with the utmost care. “But no matter what, you’re my boss. It’s in writing. This isn’t exactly – well. You know. Couth. Or whatever.”

“I’m not expecting to be lauded for this,” replies Castiel softly, and takes his hand. Dean tenses but allows it, even relaxing a little bit into the touch, the rough texture of Castiel’s knuckles. “It is merely an unfortunate coincidence that we should be in such positions. It has nothing to do with how I see you, and I should hope that it has nothing to do with how you see me. And for the record, Dean: I’m not ashamed of it, either.”

“Good.” Dean trains his eyes on the bookshelves as a diversion. “We’re on the same page, then. For now, at least.”

Castiel’s brow crinkles.

“Are you gay, Dean?”

Dean chokes a little bit, and Castiel’s expression softens with amusement. “Fuck – no.” Dean presses a hand to his temple. “No, I’m not gay. I’m – I don’t know. And that’s not some dumb cop-out. It’s not me denying my sexuality or some psychoanalysis shit like that, either. I just don’t know. I really don’t.”

“Alright.” Castiel still hasn’t looked away. “I am gay.”

Dean exhales. “Alright.”

Castiel nods slowly, tapping his chin with his index finger. Dean looks down, breath catching in his throat at intervals, skin alive with static because he could reach out and kiss Castiel right then and there, and thereby probably end this whole conversation for a long while. He wants to, but he doesn’t, because he knows he has to be patient, that it’ll be worth everything, in the end. It always is.

“Dean,” says Castiel at long last. “What happened back in the classroom, with you…well, I want to keep doing that. In private, preferably, but you understand. But that’s not all. I want to talk to you. I want to learn about you and the things that are important to you: your brother, your past, your car, even. It doesn’t matter if we have to keep telling everyone we’re just friends. I don’t mind. But I’ve been thinking all afternoon that maybe you do mind.” He gives a shrug. “That’s okay. I’d understand if you really just wanted to fuck. We can just fuck is you want. But please be honest about it. Don’t bother pretending you want more if you don’t. You’ll hurt my feelings, but not that much.”

It’s the most honest thing Dean has ever heard anyone say in his entire life, but his mind is still hazy from the idea of fucking Castiel, and it’s a challenge to formulate a reply.

“No,” he manages. “I like you.”

At that, Castiel lets out a tremendous peal of laughter, that rare enchanting kind that only he can produce, and all the tension that’s built up in the room shatters at once like a glass struck too sharply with the edge of a spoon. Dean flushes, but his blood thrills at the sound, and the air is easier to breathe, relieved.

“Spoken like a true junior-high student,” chuckles Castiel, wiping his eyes.

Dean tries to mumble something about how eloquence is exaggerated, but Castiel has sensed the change in the air, too, and smiles in a way that makes Dean ache just a little bit because he feels like it’s somehow designed just for him, a private smile, meant for nobody else in the entire universe. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that they’ve talked enough, and Castiel sort of scoots over and gets up on his knees to put his hands on Dean’s shoulders so that he’s not exactly on his lap, but awfully close.

“Dean,” he murmurs. “If it’s not too much trouble, I’d really like to kiss you now.”

“You could never cause me trouble like that, Cas,” whispers Dean, and Castiel laughs before knitting his fingers into the downy hair at the nape of his neck and tilting his chin up so that their mouths come together easily. The first kiss is soft, simple, but multiples quickly into an indefinite series of kisses, and Dean reaches down and pulls Castiel onto his lap properly, letting his hands come to a stop just at the spot where he can get the impression of the muscles of his back.

“Just in case,” mumbles Castiel at some point, letting the words drop onto the bow of Dean’s upper lip, tumble down his chin to spill on his shirt. “Let it be known that I like you, too, Dean Winchester.”

Dean chuckles and ducks down to press his mouth to the powerful line of Castiel’s jaw. “Does this mean we’re going steady?”

Castiel inhales as he tugs gently on his earlobe. “I’d say so.”

“Then I trust your judgment,” mumbles Dean, and presses their foreheads together. Castiel is flushed, smiling, eyes wide and wondering, hands tangled together at the back of Dean’s neck. His mouth is slightly parted, sharply defined but impossibly soft all at once.

“I don’t know how we’re going to keep this under wraps at work,” he whispers, so close that Dean can feel the warm rush of the words against his lips. “I can’t stand you.”

“We’ll manage.” Dean runs his hands up and down Castiel’s back once, twice, seeking to better understand the contours of his muscles, the bends and dips of his bones. He kisses Castiel again, parting his lips and arching up into his chest. Castiel sighs and massages a soft spot at the base of Dean’s neck with the pad of his thumb, the other hand balanced on his shoulder like he needs extra support. It’s slow but urgent at once, laced with a sense of need that’s tempered by the delicate illusion of time to spare.

It’s easy to get lost in all this, this thing that is so new and frightening and strange and wonderful, but at long last, the clock betrays them, and it’s a good thing, too. Dean had worked his hands up under Castiel’s shirt, testing the muscles of his stomach, the quivering beat of his heart beneath the pressure of his palms, and he might not have stopped otherwise, and that wouldn’t have been good – well, it would’ve been great, actually, but stupid. But when the grandfather clock in the foyer strikes, Castiel breaks away, and nestles into the crook of Dean’s shoulder, smiling into the bend of his neck.

“You have to go,” murmurs Castiel.

“I have to go,” sighs Dean.

Castiel slowly unfolds from his laps, their limbs coming gradually untangled like they’ve been frozen in that position and are just beginning to thaw. He helps Dean to his feet, but wraps his arms around his neck to kiss him one last time.

“Dean, may I invite you on a real date?” he asks, pulling away to peer into Dean’s eyes, one hand knotted into his hair. “Dinner? Friday? And let me pay, please.”

Dean frowns at that last remark, but Castiel is looking at him so hopefully that he can’t say no.

“Fine,” he growls. “But I’m not going to be happy about it.”

“Of course not,” says Castiel with a smile, and finally steps away once and for all. “I’ll pick you up at seven.”

Dean laughs as they head towards the foyer. “No way. You pick the place, you pay – fine. Whatever. But we’re taking my car. I won’t be seen in that thing.”

Castiel raises an eyebrow. “You mean the Prius?”

“I have a reputation to uphold, you know.”

Castiel dips his chin with a smile. “Naturally.”

Dean puts on his coat, and then they’re caught awkwardly at the door, not sure how to say goodbye.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” attempts Dean, because it’s true. Castiel groans.

“Jesus – tomorrow. Right. I’m going to have to work on keeping a straight face.”

Dean grins. “Same here.” Without thinking, he lunges forwards and drops a brief kiss right on Castiel’s mouth, then snaps away out the door. “Goodnight, Cas.”

He glances over his shoulder to see Castiel smiling: again, that wonderful private expression that seems meant for Dean and Dean alone.

“Goodnight, Dean.”

-

Friday can’t come soon enough. Dean positively itches with tension; it’s agonizing to be around Castiel all day and act like he hasn’t had him on his lap for what must have been nearly an hour. At least he isn’t alone in his discomfort: they try to eat lunch together on Tuesday, but resolve to stop when it becomes apparent that they can scarcely look at each other, let alone carry on a prolonged civil conversation, without dissolving into laughter.

Fortunately, class is bearable enough. The kids are a distraction, and Castiel tends to tune out everything else when he’s teaching, even Dean. Otherwise, they stay away from each other on campus. There are long phone conversations after school, and even a few hurried coffee dates, but it’s harder than Dean thought. Kissing Castiel has only increased his magnetism, and half the time he can scarcely think he wants to be near him so badly.

To cope, he works to the point of exhaustion and otherwise spends as much time with Sam as possible, trying to absorb every detail of his brother’s new life. Jessica is still an obvious point of interest, even though Sam tries admirably hard to cover that up, and Gabriel is still the ultimate source of irritation, much to Dean’s concealed delight. His brother can be too serious, and needs a little harmless poking and prodding every now and again, so it’s a good thing, really.

At long last, Friday arrives. Dean’s so relieved that he steals a kiss from Castiel once the kids have spilled out of the classroom, and it’s worth the risk – for a moment, Castiel lunges towards him so fiercely that he’s worried he’ll fall over or even snap in half. When they part, he can’t even breathe, and darts from the room with his blood rushing and lungs aching. He’s suddenly not opposed to the idea of sitting in a restaurant alone for two hours, even if there are linen tablecloths and artesian beers.

In the end, however, it’s not exactly so. Castiel shows up dressed casually, and gives him directions to the outskirts of town. Dean’s surprised; from the parking lot, the restaurant looks tiny and ramshackle perhaps even beyond his comfort zone. Inside, however, it’s warm and inviting, and the air is laden with the smell of tomato and spice.

“I hope you like Indian food,” says Castiel sheepishly as they wait for the hostess. “This place is a favorite of mine.”

“I like all food,” replies Dean, rubbing his hands together. “But I gotta admit that you definitely have me surprised.”

Castiel rolls his eyes. “Please. What were you expecting. Ice sculpture? A waiter with a violin?”

“At least.” Dean punches him gently on the arm as they’re led to a table at the back. “To be honest, I’m kind of disappointed.”

Castiel smirks as he unfolds his napkin – linen, yes, but not fine linen by any means – and smoothes it over his lap. “Can you forgive me?”

Dean unfolds the menu. “I’ll consider it.”

They get a cheap bottle of red wine, and even if Dean’s not usually a fan of that sort of thing, Castiel makes it enjoyable. The place isn’t crowded, and the lighting is low and soft, so that shadows ricochet across Castiel’s expression, finding footholds in his eyes and the curve of his mouth. The rush of cars is faintly audible above the gentle murmur of chatter and silverware against china. Conversation comes easily, like always, and it’s almost romantic, even if Dean hates himself for admitting it.

“How are the exams from Wednesday coming out?” Castiel twirls the stem of his wine glass between his thumb and index finger. “I’m especially concerned about Ruby.”

Dean nods; maybe it should kill the mood to talk about work, but it doesn’t, because Castiel is earnest and genuine as ever and his voice makes every syllable roll together so nicely.

“I know what you mean,” he says. “She’s a real bright kid, but I don’t think she even finished that test. She just doesn’t care anymore.”

“I worry about her so much,” murmurs Castiel, resting his chin in his hand and tapping his bottom lip with his index finger. “I truly want her to succeed.”

“You want everyone to succeed,” replies Dean. “That’s a hard way to live.”

Castiel smiles, but the edges of his eyes darken with sadness. “You’re right. Maybe I should stop.”

“No – don’t be stupid. That’s the best thing about you.”

Castiel’s mouth falls open and something soft kindles in his eyes, but before he can speak the food comes, and Dean’s a little bit glad. He doesn’t like sentimentality in public places under any circumstances, and this whole situation is still so new and strange that he’s not sure if he would’ve been able to handle it. Besides, Castiel’s eyes usually serve as a much finer form of expression than words, and Dean doesn’t feel like he’s missed a thing.

The food is delicious, and the night drains away before Dean really realizes it’s gone. When they step out of the restaurant, they’re both warm and full and a little tipsy, but not enough to lose their sense of reason. Sure, Dean can taste the vague tang of alcohol on Castiel’s lips when they pull up to his house and he leans over to kiss him, but when Castiel invites Dean inside it’s with a full clarity of expression, and Dean’s not drunk enough to agree right away.

“You have to understand, Cas,” he murmurs. “I can’t do this right off the bat.”

Castiel chews on his lower lip. “Why not?”

Dean looks down, unthinkingly running his thumbs over Castiel’s cheekbones as he tries to find a way to put what he needs to say into the right words. It’s harder than he expected, and though he wishes fervently that eloquence wasn’t such a problem, most of all he wishes that he didn’t even have to say it at all, that everything could just be easy and immediate, that he could give in selfishly without having to worry about anything else. But life for Dean has never been that way, and it never will be, and he knows that he had best accept it. He meets Castiel’s eyes.

“It’s too important, first of all. This feels so fragile that I don’t want to mess with it. And then there’s this issue – look, Cas, you’ve got to understand that I’ll always have a priority that comes before this, something that has nothing to do with you. It’s just the way I’ve always lived.”

“Sam,” says Castiel, and it’s gratifying to see that he doesn’t skip a beat, just knows.

Dean nods. “I can’t do this too fast. I have to be careful.”

“I understand. Your brother comes first.”

“Always. But I swear, Cas, it has nothing to do– ”

“With me. I know. It’s alright.” He pauses. “But – you don’t have to go right away, do you?”

Dean laughs softly and rubs Castiel’s arms, kissing at the arc of his jaw. “Of course not. I’d like to come in for a while. If you’re still open for business, that is.”

“For business? Dean, I’m not a whore.” Castiel pushes off his chest and clambers from the car with a crooked smile. “Come on, then.”

They end up back on the couch, but this time Castiel is curled in the crook of Dean’s shoulder with a pair of reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, grading essays. For his part, Dean has his feet propped on the coffee table, a stack of paper and a red pen is nestled in his lap, too. It’s a curiously productive end to the evening, and yet it’s oddly romantic in its own way, much like the quiet conversation back in the restaurant. The silence is open to interruption, and every once in a while they laugh at a particularly unfortunate grammatical mistake, but for the most part the quiet is too comfortable to break.

The television murmurs in the background, some mindless rerun that neither of them watches, and Dean can feel the gentle swell of Castiel’s breathing against his ribcage. The warm weight of his body is a disproportionately reassuring reminder of his presence. Honestly, he’s a little unnerved at how easy it all is, like their bodies just sort of fit together effortlessly, but it’s nice, and he manages to push aside the worry just to enjoy it.

“Alicia did well on her essay,” murmurs Castiel. “She was so worried about this one, too.”

“Good for her,” replies Dean, reaching for the pocket calculator to compute final the score on the exam he’s working on at the moment. “Wish I could say the same for Mark.”

“Is that so?” Castiel cranes his neck and the reading glasses shift further down his nose. “I’m surprised; he’s usually such a dedicated student.”

“Rumor has it that he and Amanda just hooked up,” says Dean, putting aside the finished exam and reaching for another. “I’d be distracted, too, honestly.”

“Castiel looks at him curiously. “Where do you get wind of such things?”

“Hey, I’m down with the kids.”

Castiel snorts. “Sure.”

Dean laughs, and then quiet falls once more. Castiel shifts around so that his back is pressing against Dean’s shoulder and his legs dangle off the edge of the couch, exposing his belly. It’s a curiously childlike pose, and Dean watches with ill-concealed amusement until Castiel notices and looks up, tilting his head a bit to the side.

“Problem?”

“Not at all.” Dean prods Castiel in the stomach with his pen. “It’s just that you’re looking a little vulnerable there.”

Castiel bats him away, but not before a giggle escapes, half-constrained like he’s still trying to suppress something. Dean raises an eyebrow.

“Ticklish?”

Castiel snorts again.

“Not in the slightest.”

Dean settles back against the couch and waits until Castiel lets down his guard and starts grading again. He can see the dart of his pen over the page from the corner of his eye, and knows when to strike. Without further ado, he grabs Castiel’s wrist and goes for his stomach with the other hand, using his weight to stop his feeble attempt at escape. Castiel shrieks with laughter – there’s no other word for it, really – and pushes and kicks as if his life depended on it, but Dean has him pinned at the crook of his legs, helpless. It’s infectious, and Dean finds himself grinning, laughing despite himself.

“Not ticklish, eh?”

Castiel gasps, arching up from the couch as Dean lets his fingers dance up and down his sides, shirt riding up to expose a slip of skin. At that, Dean feels a hard lump form in his throat, and the laughter dies away. Castiel is still giggling when he notices that the onslaught has stopped and opens his eyes. He gazes up wonderingly and seems to realize only then that Dean is suspended so closely above him that their chests nearly touch.

“Dean,” he says weakly, words interrupted by little aftershocks of laughter. “Don’t do that.”

Dean leans down a few centimeters more, dropping carefully onto his elbows so that their noses are a hairsbreadth apart and he can feel a shiver course through Castiel’s stomach.

“I can’t promise a thing.”

“I hate you,” says Castiel. His breath hitches audibly. “Dean.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re taking advantage of me.”

“Am I?”

“Can’t you see? You’ve utilized a weakness to coerce me into a questionable position.”

“Oh. In that case, I’ll just go.”

At such a threat, Castiel lunges upwards, arms sealing around Dean’s neck in a vice grip. A blur of movement, and then Dean’s back strikes the other end of the sofa, and Castiel stretches over his chest, kissing him ferociously. Dean can hardly complain about the reversal, not when Castiel is this frantic, grabbing at his hair and even rolling his hips every once in a while, tight little snaps of movement that take his breath away. It’s almost too fast to follow, and Dean’s lungs feel hot and raw after just a minute. Undeterred, Castiel darts from his mouth to his jaw, bites gently at his neck, and he can’t help but arch upwards from the couch.

“Hold on, Cas– ” He bites down on his lower lip to contain a gasp as Castiel locks onto his hips. “Cas, come on – fuck. Give me a minute.”

Castiel breaks away with a soft growl, flushed, eyes ablaze. He’s straddling Dean’s hips, hands supported on his chest, and his palms feel like faucets of heat that spills down his sides. Dean really wants nothing more than to let him keep going, but he can’t.

“Now you’re taking advantage of me,” he chuckles, rubbing at Castiel’s arms.

“Shut up. You did it first. Fair’s fair.”

Dean looks up at him mildly, and Castiel exhales sharply through his nose.

“Fuck. Dean, you make it so hard for me to respect your boundaries.”

“My bad. It’s unintentional.”

“The tickling was unintentional?”

“I for one don’t find tickling arousing.”

Castiel glares. “Bullshit.”

“Such profanity, professor.”

“For God’s sake, Dean, you can’t say you don’t want to and go halfway there!”

Castiel is almost whining, and Dean realizes with a jolt that he’s already half-hard, pressed against his thigh. At that, he does feel a little guilty. It really wasn’t fair of him. He glances at the clock. Quarter to eleven. There’s time. He leans up and kisses Castiel slowly until he coaxes the tension from his shoulders, but just as he starts to press his hips down again, Dean pushes out from under him, sliding from the couch onto his knees.

“Dean– ”

But Castiel falls silent as Dean crouches, reaching up to lock onto his hips, and makes for the button of his trousers.

“Dean?” It’s breathless, forcedly casual, but laden with hope. Dean meets his eyes and can see Castiel’s throat spasm as he swallows.

“Dean.” He’s trying so hard to be polite. It’s adorable. “I was joking before. You don’t have to.”

Dean smirks and hooks his thumbs beneath the waistband of his jeans. “I want to.”

“It’s not too much?” Castiel rolls his lower lip between his teeth, watching him almost tremulously. “What about your priorities? What about Sam? Are you sure?”

Dean chuckles softly; he’s actually touched that Castiel is so concerned. It chases away the last of his hesitation. “It’s not too much, Cas. Now be quiet.”

Dean’s never done this before, but he’s not too worried, not with Castiel, at least. He slides down Castiel’s jeans and boxers, and presses his mouth up the bare expanse of his thigh until he meets the soft spot at the crux. Castiel exhales unsteadily and winds his fingers into Dean’s hair, gentle but secure. Dean braces himself on his other thigh and leans up to kiss him, drawing it out until Castiel’s breathing turns ragged. Then he drops, inching up Castiel’s shirt and dropping a kiss at his navel, the soft dip of his stomach. At long last, he glances up again: a tacit question.

“Please,” whispers Castiel.

It’s all Dean needs. It’s not easy at first, so he starts off slowly, trying to get accustomed to the feel before he bobs deeper. Castiel throws his head back and twists his fingers in his hair, trembling, and Dean hums faintly. He closes his eyes and tries to lose himself in the rhythm, the heady smell of Castiel all around him. It works, and soon Castiel is pitching forwards with a soft cry, gasping Dean’s name. After a long moment, he melts back into the couch, and Dean clambers up to collapse beside him and lets his head come to rest on his shoulder.

“I could fall asleep right here.” Castiel nuzzles into the crook of Dean’s neck, voice thick with exhaustion. “Thank you, Dean.”

Dean presses a kiss to Castiel’s forehead – it was no trouble, of course – before he gets up and hauls him from the couch, slinging his arm around his shoulder when it becomes apparent that his knees are still weak. With his support, Castiel stumbles to the bedroom, yawning and scarcely coherent. He tumbles onto the bed without turning on the light, and nearly drags Dean down, too.

“Stay.”

Dean tries to pull away, but Castiel clings, arms sticky and resistant.

“I can’t, Cas.”

Castiel exhales. “I know.”

“Go to sleep.” Dean kisses the bow of his upper lip. “I’ll call you in the morning.”

Castiel sinks into the mattress. “I hate you.”

“I know.” Dean smiles and makes for the door. “Goodnight, Cas.”

Again, he catches a glimpse of a smile just before he’s gone.

“Goodnight, Dean.”

Chapter Text

That Saturday, Dean picks up Sam from the dorms and takes him to see a movie. It’s a crummy action flick, all muscle and explosions: another private tradition that feels good to uphold. They smuggle popcorn and lukewarm cokes into the theater and enthrone themselves in the back row so that the audience is largely ignorant of their hushed commentary and contraband snacks. Sam is content to sit and watch for a while, occasionally harassing Dean to get another handful of popcorn, but it’s not long before he perks up, shifts in his seat, and puts on the face that means he’s getting ready to have a serious discussion.

“Dean,” he prompts. Dean acts like he has to tear his gaze from the eruption of fire on the screen to focus on his little brother. Sam is chewing on his lower lip and rolling a kernel of popcorn between his thumb and index finger until it flattens out entirely. At last, he opens his mouth.

“How do you ask a girl out?”

Dean fights down a grin. “Depends. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.” Sam shrugs. “You always seem to get the girl.”

Dean could cry at the irony – he’s been meaning to tell Sam about Castiel for a while now, but the right moment just hasn’t come around – but maintains a straight face, albeit with great difficulty.

“I just let her know,” he says. “You can’t worry too much. Even if she doesn’t reciprocate, she’s gonna be flattered that you even bothered. Girls are like that. Hell, everyone’s like that. It’s always nice to be noticed, so don’t worry that you’d freak her out. Just go for it.”

Sam presses the kernel of popcorn into a disc. “Easier said than done.”

“Sure, but so is everything. Look, Sammy.” Dean meets his little brother’s eyes. “Here’s my advice. Man up and ask Jessica. I’m sure she’d be thrilled.”

The color that floods Sam’s face is obvious even in the disfiguring glow of the theater.

“Who said anything about Jessica? I was just asking.”

“Of course.”

Dean settles back into his seat and takes a long drag on his soda, and Sam is quiet for a long moment, staring vacuously at the screen. At last, he gives a sigh.

“Thanks, Dean.”

Dean can’t help but smile. “That’s what I’m here for.”

Quiet falls again, but as the screen lights up with a series of explosions, Dean realizes that if there were ever a right moment, now would be it. No other time is going to be better, or more convenient. Although he doubts that there really is a convenient time to tell your little brother that you’re dating a teacher at his new school, he might as well get it over with once and for all.

“Hey, Sammy?”

“Yeah?”

“Listen up, okay.”

Sam sits up straighter and a worried crease appears at the line of his brows.

“Listening.”

Dean wishes again that eloquence weren’t such an issue, because the words are running about bright and buzzing in his mind so that they all tumble together on the tip of his tongue and threaten to emerge entirely incoherent. He swallows, makes sure that his breathing is even, and tries to sort through the words one by one with little success. Sam is getting impatient, looking steadily more and more unnerved by the fitful silence, and Dean sighs, surrendering.

“I’m doing a teacher.”

Sam stares.

“Well, I shouldn’t say doing. Not yet. Just dating right now. But eventually – doing, yeah. I hope so at least. I’m pretty sure he hopes so, too. Fuck, I didn’t mean to go for the gender-specific pronoun right away. I forgot to mention that. Maybe I should have said it right off the bat. He’s a guy. Trust me, I’m just as surprised as you. I really wasn’t expecting it. I tried to ignore it for both our sakes, but it didn’t work. It’s been a few weeks now. I was trying to find the right time to tell you. But then I realized there probably wasn’t a right time. So here we are. Sorry. Not that I’m doing – dating – a faculty member, I mean. Sorry because it’s so weird.”

The screen erupts into a car chase, and Sam dissolves into laughter. There’s a hysterical edge to it, sure, but Dean finds it oddly reassuring, if not a little unnerving.

“Sammy? Are you alright? Hey – my sex life can’t be that funny to you, can it?”

“Oh my God.” Sam wipes a tear from the corner of his eye. “It’s Mr. Novak, isn’t it?”

Dean blinks.

“How – ”

“Come on, Dean. It’s obvious whenever you mention him. The look on your face – really. I should’ve guessed before, honestly.”

Dean’s not sure what to make of that, but Sam is smiling, and that’s good enough.

“So you’re okay with it?”

“Jesus, Dean.” And to his surprise, Sam leans across the seat and grabs him in a hug, or at least an awkward bumbling attempt with just one arm. “Of course I’m okay. I’m better than okay. This is great. You deserve to be happy more than anyone.”

Dean can’t speak for a long minute because something is clogging his throat. He claps his brother on the back once, twice, and knits his fingers into the fabric of his shirt.

“Thanks, Sammy.”

And he truly means it, and in more ways than one. Thank you, of course, for accepting me without a second thought, but not only that. Thank you for getting good grades, for still going to the movies with me, for asking my advice even when I tease you, for growing up and starting to emerge as the great man whom I always trusted you to become, and thank you most of all for making everything that I’ve done worth the struggle a thousand times over. In that moment, Dean grips onto Sam as tightly as he can. Sam, his little brother, his best friend, everything that’s ever mattered in his life, Sam, who is gladly stepping back to let something else be important to Dean, too. It’s a gift Dean can’t even fathom.

They break away, smiling in embarrassment because they both like to pretend that they hate these corny moments, and turn back to the screen just as it explodes again, waves of fire streaming from the battered remains of the cars. Sam prods Dean to get at the popcorn, and Dean grumblingly hands it over, and then the credits roll, and they hang back snickering together for a while, just like nothing’s changed. It’s easy, and it’s perfect, and for once in his life Dean allows himself to think that maybe things are finally going right, after all.

-

He drives Sam back to the dorms in the late afternoon after a late lunch with Ellen and Jo, and heads home with time to finish his schoolwork, finish grading exams, struggle through a very lines of La Vita Nuova, and drop Castiel a line before dinner. He pulls into a parking space and stops at the mailboxes before heading up to his apartment, sifting through a few catalogues and a belated Christmas card before stumbling across a thick white envelope with the academy’s emblem printed in the corner. His throat turns thick.

He sits on the edge of the bed and slides trembling fingers beneath the flap of the envelope. He knows what this is. He’s been expecting it for a while, actually, but that doesn’t reduce the speed of his pulse, and he can taste his heart in his mouth. He tosses the torn envelope to the side and unfolds the slip of paper. His stomach drops. Even with the scholarship and all the financial aid, it’s a breathtaking sum. The paper flutters to the floor. Dean realizes that he doesn’t know quite what to do.

He can’t tell Sam. He can’t tell Bobby. He can’t tell anyone. It’s just another bump in the road, he tells himself, trying to calm the panic that threatens to distort his sense of reason, and he’s handled countless bumps in the past. He’s an excellent driver. It’ll be fine. He’ll find a way. But his stomach turns at the idea of another job, especially because he knows he can’t go back to the garage – that would be too obvious. He’s already so busy with schoolwork and the academy, and to be honest, he wants to keep the fragments of spare time to spend with Sam and – his mind adds, however selfishly – Castiel, of course.

A headache blossoms at his temple and he falls onto the bed, suddenly drained. He knows he doesn’t have a choice, not if he wants to keep this a secret. At least there’s time, he consoles himself, because the bill is just a reminder; he’s already made the first deposit, so the next sum won’t be due for at least a few weeks. He has just enough in his savings, but if he wants to get by later on, he’ll either have to ask for help or get more work. The former is not an option, never has been, so Dean resigns himself to the latter, and tries to tell himself that it’ll be worth it – always worth it.

He takes some aspirin to finish his homework and polish off the last of the exams, but he can’t concentrate on La Vita Nuova in the slightest, and when he wanders to the kitchen he discovers that his appetite is gone, so he gets a beer and makes a study of the water stains on the ceiling. Eventually he reaches for the phone to call Castiel, but then he thinks of the bill resting on kitchen counter, and the feel of oil and grime beneath his fingernails, the tattered wallpaper of the apartment, the stained carpet, the achy springs of the sofa bed, and last but not least the striking contrast between all that and the rolling green lawn, the private library, the greenhouse peeking from the blanket of forest.

He lets his hand fall away again, drains the last of the beer, and decides he needs another.

-

Monday morning, Castiel is there earlier than usual, surprising Dean at the copy machine. Nobody else is in the building but the janitor and a few other teachers locked up in their offices, so they’re virtually alone, and Dean is instantly on-edge. He smiles at Castiel and focuses on the steady movement of the green bar of the copy machine, to and fro, to and fro.

“Good morning, Dean.” Castiel goes over to the sink to get water for the coffee machine.

“Morning, Cas. I wasn’t expecting to see you here so early.”

“No, nor was I.”

Dean chuckles. “Did you have a good weekend?”

At that, the suggestion of a smile appears at the corner of Castiel’s mouth. It’s a small victory.

“I did, thank you for asking. Very good. And yourself?”

Dean shrugs. “It was alright, I guess. I went to the movies.”

He doesn’t look up, but he can just catch the soft chuckle and imagine the warmth in Castiel’s eyes. The copy machine finishes with a sigh. Dean bends to gather the fresh worksheets from the bin, but Castiel’s hand comes to rest on his shoulder and he straightens, feeling the air turn thick. Castiel glances over one shoulder – sort of ineffectual, really – and looks Dean in the eyes, hand rising from his shoulder to curve into the bend of his neck, thumb trapping the escalating beat of his jugular.

“Are you okay?” Castiel’s eyes flicker downwards. “I don’t mean to sound like an injured girl, but you never called. I was – worried.”

The carbonated feeling in Dean’s chest turns sour with guilt. Not calling was a bad move, but he can’t tell Castiel why.

“I’m sorry.” Like a cornered child, he can’t meet Castiel’s eyes. “I meant to. I got really busy.”

Castiel is quiet for a long moment, rhythmically drawing his thumb back and forth along the line of Dean’s neck. The only sound is the soft murmur of the copy machine, the drip of coffee, and the unsynchronized come and go of their breathing.

“Is it because of what happened on Friday?” There’s a funny note in Castiel’s voice, tremulous, offbeat. “Please be honest with me, Dean. I pushed you. It’s my fault.”

Dean is instantly so guilty he can’t stand it, so he musters up his courage and takes Castiel’s face in one hand, managing to look him in the eyes. He wants to tell him the truth, but he just can’t. It’s too stupid, too humiliating. It casts too harsh a light on his insecurities, makes him look like a lonely child, desperate for validation.

“It’s not that at all, Cas. I swear. That was my decision, and I enjoyed it. In fact, I’d really like to see a repeat performance.” He gently kisses the bow of Castiel’s upper lip. “I procrastinated on a big history paper and took Sam to the movies. That’s all. I’m sorry.”

Castiel gives a tentative smile. “A repeat performance?”

Dean nods, and Castiel’s smile slowly lengthens. He hooks one hand around his tie, and the next kiss is more forceful. It’s an audacious move, but worth the risk, because they’re both smiling when they part, and even though Dean feels bad for lying, and stupid for even creating this situation in the first place, the worried crease has vanished from Castiel’s brow, and that’s enough.

“We can’t do this right now.” Dean touches Castiel’s cheek regretfully, because just one kiss is enough to spurn a thousand, and no matter how much he loves kissing Castiel – and he does; it’s fantastic – the other teachers will be coming in soon, and he really can’t afford to lose his job. Castiel sighs and leans into the curve of his palm for a long moment.

“I know. When are you free next? And if you say this weekend, find more time. I don’t – well.”

He looks vaguely embarrassed, and Dean chuckles, finally taking the last step back so that there’s an acceptable distance between them and no suspicions will be aroused.

“I’m not big on the idea of waiting four days either,” he admits. “But I told you, Cas – priorities.”

“I know. I get it.” Castiel fidgets with his sleeve. “I’m busy, too.”

Dean wonders if Castiel ever hates his ease of expression, because right then he looks so overtly disappointed that it’s impossible for Dean to help himself. At this point, every now and again there’s a clatter of footsteps in the hall, but he figures it’s not too much of a risk, and leans forwards to drop a kiss on Castiel’s mouth, pulling back before he can reciprocate or chastise such impetuosity.

“Tonight?” He winks as he bends to pick up the worksheets from the bin of the copy machine. The idea of stolen time with Castiel is too appealing to resist – it would, after all, be a solace in which he could forget the little slip of paper, the stains on the ceiling of the apartment, everything. It’s selfish, maybe, but Castiel’s face lights up, and Dean can’t bring himself to feel guilty.

“Perfect.” Castiel finally takes a sip of coffee – he’s left the cup resting for the entirety of that conversation. “Can I come over around seven?”

Dean almost says yes, that sounds great, before he registers the rest of the sentence and nearly drops the fresh copies all at once. He clears his throat, trying to disguise the shock, but fears the effort was largely unsuccessful, and Castiel is looking at with eyes like slices of porcelain sharpened about the edges, curious, almost guarded, concerned.

“Come over?” He tries to sound relaxed, shifting the stack of paper more snugly into the circle of his arms. “As in, to my place?”

Castiel nods, slowly, like he’s balancing an invisible object on the curve of his chin and doesn’t want to let it fall to the ground.

“Oh, you don’t want to do that. It’s small. Boring.” Dean knows it’s best to be casual, mention day-to-day flaws instead of stains and just two rooms and that bill still resting on the spotted countertop, things that will pique interest, concern, and worst of all, the desire to lend a hand that he can never accept. “No greenhouse, for example. Really, your place is better. Cozy. More private.”

Castiel raises an eyebrow. “Private? Not while my sister is crashing there, I can tell you.”

“Your sister?”

“Anna. I don’t know if you ever met personally, but she was in the science department around here. Redhead. We spend a lot of time together. Anyways, she just quit. She needs a place to stay.”

Dean wants to throw up his hands in frustration. “Does your entire family work here or what?”

“You could say that,” murmurs Castiel, the edge of his mouth quirking upwards in what isn’t really a smile. As if on a tacit queue, they migrate into the hallway and start back to the classroom; Castiel directs the thread of conversation on the way, and Dean listens, vaguely dismayed.

“My father is the headmaster, actually,” explains Castiel, unlocking the door to the classroom. “But he’s a very private man, and the academy’s bureaucracy has grown woefully vast, so it is unlikely that you will ever counter him in person. In fact, one of my eldest brothers has stepped up to the plate as assistant principal, but – well, he never really got permission, and not everyone is entirely satisfied with this rearrangement of authority. Nevertheless, that’s not why Anna quit. The circumstances were – complex, to say the least. My family can be a challenge to explain.”

Reassured by the security of a closed door, Dean briefly clasps Castiel on the arm, trying to channel comfort through the fleeting brush of his palm.

“Hey, remember who you’re talking to.”

Castiel chuckles softly. “Of course.”

They’re quiet for a moment, but Castiel’s eyes flicker downwards, then up again, and he quickly diverts the subject – regrettably.

“Are we agreed upon your place at seven, then?” He’s at his desk now, lower lip trapped beneath his teeth as he concentrates on the lesson plans. “I think I can survive a night without my greenhouse. And don’t expect too much from me, either. I plan to be grading most of the time, anyways. It’s only that you make an agreeable pillow, really.”

Dean smiles at the joke, but he can’t hide his growing unease, and scratches unconsciously at the back of his neck.

“I don’t know, Cas.”

Castiel straightens from the desk and looks Dean in the eyes. It’s an unfair advantage, that stare. Dean glances at the clock. Ten minutes to eight. He toys with the idea of stalling until the students start coming in, but knows deep down that Castiel will have none of it in the end, that he can’t escape so easily. So, perhaps already defeated, he waits for Castiel to make the first move on the figurative chessboard that has materialized in the space between them.

“About what?”

A surreptitious move, just the shift of a pawn, and yet Dean swallows, cornered. Castiel’s gaze sharpens, and he draws out a rook that flies darting down the board.

“I don’t see what you’re avoiding, or why.” He takes up a nub of chalk and starts jotting a conjugation chart on the blackboard. “Or – I have trouble fathoming it, at least.”

Dean exhales. “I’m not avoiding anything.”

It’s a token move, really, played just for tradition, and Castiel pays it no heed.

“I must be honest with you, Dean. I am – well, I am somewhat hurt. I know our situation is new to you. I know it must be confusing, and a challenge to explain, perhaps even to yourself. I understand your priorities. I’m happy to.” The chalk stops for a moment, and Castiel’s shoulders shift minutely. “But at this point, Dean, I cannot help but think you are ashamed of me.”

Dean opens his mouth, but Castiel turns and looks at him, and the words melt away.

“Please. You obviously don’t want me in your home.” At the earnest sadness clearly legible in his eyes, that little ache blossoms in Dean’s chest again, persistent despite its tiny voice. “What else should I think?”

Dean could scream in frustration – it’s not Castiel he’s ashamed of, not at all, in fact quite the opposite – but he doesn’t get the chance.

“It’s not my home,” he says, and then the bell screeches, and the kids come flooding inside. He doesn’t miss the stricken look in Castiel’s eyes, wide not with anger or hurt but rather sudden concern, compassion (and that’s almost worse, in a way), but he can’t acknowledge it right now, and honestly he’s a little bit grateful for that. Class begins, and Castiel can’t do much else for the time being. That in turn gives Dean time to think, and for once, that much is a good thing.

At lunch, he stays in to grade last night’s homework, smiling nonchalantly at Castiel as he edges from the classroom with that same sharp look still stuck in his eyes like the edges have jammed together or something. The moment he’s alone, he grabs his phone, determined to finish this once and for all before his courage fails, because no matter how he hates it, Castiel was a little bit right. He presses send before he can stop himself. It has to be done.

Seven o’clock. My place. Don’t be late.

-

Dean lays siege to the apartment the moment he gets there. First to go are the dishes in the sink, then the takeout boxes accumulated on the counter, then the empty beer bottles spilling from the trash. He scrubs relentlessly but fruitlessly at the stains on the wallpaper, and picks the biggest crumbs out of the carpet by hand because he doesn’t have a vacuum cleaner. He folds the bed back into a couch, and winces at the idea of Castiel’s soft mattress, befitted with silk sheets and throw pillows and the like instead of scratchy cushions and spare change between the bedsprings.

He steels himself against the shame turns his gut and cleans the coffee table, setting out his laptop and a stack of papers in an attempt to seem studious. He doesn’t have many books, or much spare time to read, for that matter, but he sets out La Vita Nuova and his Kurt Vonnegut collection in an effort to lend the illusion of such a luxury. Then he makes sure the closet is orderly and the bathroom clean; fortunately, Sam keeps that aspect of the place in line for the most part, and it doesn’t need much work. Finally, he hops in the car and makes a run to the store for fresh beer – the kind they both like, of course.

He texts Castiel again when he drifts past the produce aisle and realizes that there’s nothing but ramen and frosted flakes in the kitchen.

Hope you like Chinese.

Castiel texts back in Chinese characters – right, three dialects of Mandarin – and just for revenge, Dean winks at the cute checkout girl, even though she’s can’t be more than seventeen and keeps snapping a wad of gum between her teeth. To her credit, however, she gives him a discount.

It’s half past six when Dean gets back to the apartment. He showers, shaves, and puts on jeans and a t-shirt. He figures that if Castiel is really going to see this shithole in all its glory, he might as well see everything there is left, even an ancient Led Zeppelin concert shirt with holes in the hem. It’s Dean’s favorite, and if that ruins their relationship forever, fine. Dean tries to tell himself that if that were really the case, it wouldn’t be worth trying at all. But his skin prickles with anxiety as the clock inches towards seven. Not worth trying – right.

A knock. Two knocks, actually, neat and crisp. Dean goes to the door. Castiel is smiling. Dean lets him in and lingers on the doorstep a moment, already hot with shame, stomach rolling. He stares at the horizon, burnt pink and gold at the edges, and fights down the acrid taste rising in his throat. At last he steels himself and goes inside.

“It’s not much.” He shuts the door. “But it’s – well, it’s somewhere, at least.”

Castiel is standing at the center of the first room, just in front of the coffee table, arms crossed behind his back. He’s in a t-shirt and jeans too, but the fabric looks less tired, softer at the edges. Dean watches. He expected Castiel to look out of place, and while that’s come true to an extent, it’s not exactly so. Rather than protrude, he more of integrates into the atmosphere like a new piece of furniture: awkwardly, but like he’s been chosen to be there, and is somehow supposed to stay for a long time.

“Bathroom’s over that way.” Dean points, because Castiel isn’t saying anything, just staring – typical, really, but no less unnerving. “Kitchen through the door. Um – the couch is a bed, too. I don’t sleep on the floor unless Sam is here. Oh – wow.” He looks down. “I feel like an idiot. Christ, I am an idiot.”

At that, Castiel tears his gaze from the portrait hung on the far wall – he hasn’t looked away from it the whole time, Mary with her arms around John and infant Dean, who’s swaddled in blankets and a tiny blue cap – and gives Dean one of those endless looks that sets his teeth on edge.

“Why?”

“It’s – you, here. My life, it’s so – well. You know what.”

Castiel just looks at him.

“I’m not good with words,” says Dean. “Sorry.”

Castiel sits down on the couch. “Dean.”

Dean looks up. Castiel reaches out and cuffs him on the back of the head. “I need you to shut the fuck up.”

Dean feels his jaw go slack. “What?”

“You were absolutely right.” He’s glaring. Castiel is glaring. It’s terrifying. “You are an idiot. It’s amazing, truly. Lucky, too, because otherwise I would take offense at your apparent opinion of me.”

Dean opens his mouth, but Castiel presses two fingers against his lips.

“Do you honestly believe, Dean Winchester, that I care where you sleep?” His voice is low, tight, angry. “Actually, I take that back. I do care where you sleep. In fact, the only permissible places at the moment are my bed and yours. But do you really think that I care what your bed is like? That’s ridiculous. Why should it matter to me whether it has tassels, or throw pillows, or Egyptian cotton sheets or – wait a minute. Hold on, let me start again. Dean – ”

He never gets the chance. Dean grabs his chin and jerks him close, kisses him like he’s never kissed anyone before, so desperately that it almost hurts. Castiel surrenders right off the bat, turning pliant in Dean’s arms, hands sneaking up to wind around his neck. Dean curls his fingers into the back of his shirt and feels the grating heave of his chest, the frenetic thud of his heart. He wants to apologize – I’m sorry I’m like this, so insecure and alone and distrustful, and I promise it’s not your fault – but he can’t say that, not right now, maybe not ever, so he just keeps kissing Castiel until his lungs burn and his head spins.

“Looks like we’re both pretty sorry linguists,” he gasps, pressing his mouth to the line of Castiel’s jaw. “No talent with words whatsoever.”

“Dean.” Castiel dips his chin, breath coming and going ragged into the hollow of Dean’s throat. “I don’t care about any of this. It means nothing. Just knowing a fragment of your past, I mean – well. It makes anywhere you go a palace. Not that it matters, of course.”

Dean swallows painfully and unconsciously smoothes the hair from Castiel’s forehead.

“Okay, I take back what I said about being bad with words. Looks like I’m alone on that front.” He looks down, scarcely able to breathe as the weight of what Castiel has said settles into his stomach, sets up shop in his heart. “Thank you, Cas.”

“There’s nothing to be thanked for.” Castiel cranes his neck for another kiss, fingers in Dean’s hair, mouth quirked into a smile against his. “Now, enough of this. Did you promise Chinese or didn’t you?”

A few hours later they’re curled together on the unfolded bed, surrounded by a battlefield of cardboard containers and chopsticks, halfway through their second round of beer. Dean is grading exams and Castiel is on his laptop, planning the traditional spring break field trip: an excursion to Rome. Again, it’s mostly quiet except for the blare of the television and the murmur of the keyboard. They’re connected at the shoulder and the hip, pressed together unconsciously, and sometimes brushing at the ankle. It’s startlingly intimate, perhaps because of the simplicity.

At some point, Dean puts down the exams and gets La Vita Nuova down from the shelf, hoping that in Castiel’s soothing presence he might actually be able to make some headway. He turns to the next few verses and tries to concentrate, but it becomes rapidly apparent that Castiel is actually peering over his shoulder, even though he’s surely devoured the whole book countless times. It’s cute, but Dean can’t read like that, and he looks up, raising a brow.

“Pretty cool book, huh?”

Castiel blinks slowly, almost incredulously, like he’s just been shaken from sleep. “Oh – yes. Sorry. One of my favorites by Dante, actually.”

“What? You’re kidding.” Dean bends the page between his thumb and index finger. “The Divine Comedy was the best. Brimstone and hellfire, you know? Neat stuff.”

“Perhaps in your opinion,” snorts Castiel, but he doesn’t go back to the exam in his hand. “Are you reading that for school?”

“Unfortunately.”

“You exaggerate your plight.” Castiel plucks the book delicately from his hands and scans the page. He frowns. “Or perhaps not. This is a famously dreadful translation. Tomorrow I’ll bring you my interpretation. Infinitely better, I assure you.”

Dean raises a brow. “Your interpretation?”

“Yes. I did a translation of the book back when I was a student.” Castiel hands back the book. “I was shooting for comparative literature for a while instead of classical language. Nevertheless, I’ve always thought Alighieri an intriguing subject, and I think I did him justice. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of my medieval Italian – the dialects get pretty tricky, you see, very difficult to maintain.”

Dean laughs and puts the book back on the coffee table. “You are so out of my league, man.”

“Shut up.” Castiel makes a series of crisp red circles on an exam. “There’s a lot they don’t teach you in graduate school, you know.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean leans back into the couch. “Like what?”

Castiel senses the change in atmosphere and lets the exams fall into his lap, sort of shifting deeper into the crook of Dean’s arm, positioned just so that his head nestles at his shoulder, hair brushing against his chin.

“There’s hardly a syllabus.”

Dean chuckles, and winds an arm around Castiel’s waist, unable to help himself because it’s too nice to have him there, pressed flush to his side, a little warm with alcohol and the proximity, eyes bright. Moments like this just don’t happen to Dean, and even if he’s a little bit afraid that it’s all somehow an illusion, he’s going to enjoy it while he can. Castiel holds his gaze for a long moment, lips slightly parted in a silent question. Dean bends to kiss him and it all falls together easily – too easily, maybe, like everything is with Castiel.

After a while, Dean rises onto one elbow and gently rolls Castiel over, supporting his own weight but at the same time allowing their hips to slot together and their chests to press close so that the rhythm of their breathing synchronizes, in and out at the same time, a careful balance. Castiel tangles his arms possessively around Dean’s neck; he’s pliant, willing, but not submissive by any means, and it suits him. There’s a tacit understanding that it’s not really going anywhere, at least not on a Monday night with the taste of bad Chinese food still stale on their lips, but it’s okay to enjoy the warmth, the closeness, the tug of sheets as they ease across the mattress.

In theory, of course, that’s all well and good, but soon the soft leisurely attitude begins to melt away, and they’re both breathing too hard, too fast, and yet despite all of that it’s not enough, not even close. Castiel rumbles a bit, a sound like summer thunder, crackling with electricity, and Dean dives for his throat, suddenly raw. His hands are up beneath his shirt, testing the muscles of his back, the swell of his behind, and then in his hair, dragging him deeper until his lungs burn. He tries to sit up, but he’s wrapped in far too tight, just barely suspended on his elbows, forehead pressed to Castiel’s, eyes locked.

“Cas.” His voice is already a wreck. “We should stop. It’s almost midnight.”

Castiel unwinds his arms, but when Dean sits up he only clambers forwards, darting in for another kiss. Dean lets it go on for a while without a fight – he doesn’t want to stop, anyways – but when Castiel stops to nip at his lower lip, chest heaving, he takes advantage of the opportunity and starts to protest.

“No.” Castiel hardly lets him have a word; his eyes are a little glassy, but nonetheless ablaze with a light that settles uncomfortably hot in the pit of Dean’s stomach. “I owe you.”

“Owe…” Dean’s breath catches as Castiel’s fingers take nimbly to the button of his jeans. “I – listen, Cas, you don’t have to.”

Castiel kisses him determinedly. “I want to.”

Dean doesn’t know what to say after that. Castiel works away his jeans and drags slow kisses down his mouth and neck all the way to the dip of his navel, one hand braced on the inside of his thigh. He takes him time and then some, but at last comes all the way down with a gentle bob of his chin, a soft hum caught in the back of his throat. Dean tips his head back in a soundless cry, struggling not to wear his voice sore for the rest of the week. Time blurs a bit, and he probably mumbles Castiel’s name, and it’s amazing, beyond words, but when his stomach starts to feel too tight he musters all his self-control and tears Castiel away, gasping, flushed all the way down his neck. Castiel’s jaw is slack, lips swollen; he wipes at his mouth, eyes wide.

“Did I do something wrong?”

Dean exhales unsteadily. “Christ – of course not, Cas. I just – come here, okay?”

Castiel shifts forwards uncertainly, and Dean hooks his thumbs into his belt loops, fingers on the curve of his hipbones, lips balanced at the bridge of his nose. He kisses at his jaw as he eases down his jeans, the waistline of his boxers, and leans back, pulling him halfway across his chest so that his elbows fan out around his head but the rest of his body from the waist down trails along the mattress.

“Like this.” Dean meets Castiel’s eyes. “Is this alright?”

Castiel gazes at him almost incredulously; his answer is a kiss, painstakingly slow at first, then laced with a jittering intake of breath as Dean eases his hips upwards a bit, uncertain but eager to try, led forwards by nothing but base instinct, virtually blind.

“Yes, that’s perfect,” mumbles Castiel against his mouth, and lets his hips roll forwards, shirt hitched up to his belly, jeans still caught around his knees. Undeterred, he reaches down and takes Dean into one hand; once he recovers his senses, Dean does the same, and after a bit of fumbling everything just falls into place like always, and the world narrows nothing but the murmur of the bed and their breathing, the warmth of Castiel’s mouth, the now-and-again bump of an ankle.

It doesn’t last long, but that’s alright. Dean pitches upwards with a groan and finishes Castiel with a few long strokes, and their mouths collide once, twice, and then they fold back onto the mattress exhausted, weighed down by the food and the beer and the long workday and the prospect of the rest of the week spent trying to pretend that all this isn’t happening. Castiel has his head propped on Dean’s chest, eyes fixed on the ceiling, and Dean’s arm is caught at his waist. It’s perfectly quiet for a long time.

“Dean.” Castiel turns over a bit to look him in the eyes. “Can I stay?”

Dean doesn’t know what to say until he realizes that he doesn’t want to say no, so he won’t. He won’t say no. It’s that simple.

“Yeah. Just get up early. We can’t exactly drive to work together, you know. You have to go back home to get your stuff, too. But – yeah. I’d like that.”

Castiel gives him the kind of smile that Dean wants to lay in plaster and save on the mantle, pure, unadulterated, impossibly earnest and bright, an example of what’s good in the world.

“Thank you.” He kisses Dean’s chin. “May I borrow your toothbrush?”

Dean nods, and with that, Castiel heads to the bathroom, kicking off his jeans but hoisting up his boxers at the same time. It’s absurd, and Dean has to stifle a laugh in his fist. They wash up together, crowding the tiny mirror, and Dean lets Castiel borrow an old shirt, and Castiel kisses him softly before he slips beneath the sheets – Dean’s sheets, scratchy old linen, but Dean’s and Dean’s alone – and whispers goodnight in a thick gravelly voice that’s somehow soft at the same time.

Dean lies down maybe a foot away, heart jumping in his throat, and draws the sheets to his chin. He stares into the darkness for what seems an age before he hears the soft rustle of a sigh and looks over to see that Castiel has turned over so that there’s just a slip of space between them, very close but not quite touching. Dean agonizes over what to do for a long moment before it occurs to him that it’s really fine just to lie there a few inches away, comforted by the sound of his breathing, the warmth but not the weight of his body. It seems too easy, but then again, it’s always easy with Castiel.

Dean smiles into the dark and shuts his eyes.

Chapter Text

Dean wakes with Castiel in his arms. He doesn’t remember how that happened, since they fell asleep on separate sides of the mattress, but it’s brilliant. Castiel is pliant, malleable with sleep, and when Dean presses his nose into his hair he can smell shampoo, beer, sweat, and sunlight. Dean has one arm cast over Castiel’s waist, hand falling into the curve of his hip, and their legs are loosely entwined, not all the way down to the ankle but enough so that the sheet is all bunched and drawn at their knees. It’s disproportionately pleasing that they ended up like this unconsciously, all wrapped and twisted together in mutual fits of possessiveness, and Dean savors it for a long moment until Castiel starts to stir, eyes easing open to meet Dean, lips parted.

A slow kiss, stale, with long slats of sunlight jutting between the sheets. Castiel traces Dean’s face with his fingertips, eyes dreamy, still caught between sleep and waking. He looks so intrigued that Dean flushes and ducks his chin and can only be lured back by another kiss. He snatches at Castiel’s hand and knits their fingers tight; it’s a little embarrassing, but he doesn’t care, not when Castiel opens his mouth and pulls at his bottom lip.

“Watch it,” warns Dean. “Morning breath.”

He rolls away with no small amount of difficulty, and Castiel trails his hands behind, fingers stuttering over the muscles of his back. He blinks, and thinks the sun awfully strong for so early in the morning, spilling ripe and golden through the far window. His eyes fall on the clock.

“Come back to bed,” says Castiel.

“Cas,” he says.

“Dean, I don’t care about morning breath. Stay just another minute, please.”

“Cas. It’s almost seven thirty.”

Castiel blinks long and slow. “But that’s impossible. It’s quarter to five. I set the alarm myself.”

“No.” A hysterical note edges into Dean’s voice. “It’s almost seven thirty. Castiel.

He bolts for the shower, and Castiel lurches inside not a moment later, cursing like a sailor. They crowd under the freezing stream, and it’s not intimate at all, and Dean gets shampoo in his eye, and there’s only one towel in the bathroom, so he forgoes that altogether and tries to find some clothes before it occurs to him – oh, oh, oh no – that Castiel has nothing to wear. He swears tremendously; Castiel stumbles from the bathroom, towel slipping down to his thigh, and when he sees the closet he looks like he might burst into tears.

Dean tells him to take whatever he can and dashes to the kitchen, jamming a handful of cereal down his throat as he haphazardly stuffs his briefcase. Castiel teeters past, Dean’s old sport jacket bagging around his slender shoulders, trying to round up the scattered exams, his clothes from the day before, car keys, everything, all at once. His hair is a fright to the point of absolutely comedy, but that’s the least of their worries.

“Get a head start,” hollers Dean from the kitchen as Castiel is shoving his arms into his trench coat at the door. “Go on without me; I’ll lock up.”

The door slams, and Dean collapses against the counter, head spinning. It’s all too much, and he can’t shake the sneaking suggestion that maybe he was right, and this fiasco is just an omen affirming his suspicions that a Winchester can’t have anything good for very long. A glance at the clock. Five to eight. Late by at least twenty minutes, he reckons, even driving fast. He wants coffee, he wants to shave, he wants to kiss Castiel again, he wants to enjoy remembering last night over the newspaper and a couple of eggs, but instead he grabs his keys, because that’s what Dean Winchester does.

Unfortunately, they make it to the school at almost the same time, and even if the hallways are silent, motionless, Dean feels like eyes are burning into them around every corner, putting things together, finishing the puzzle from the scattered clues lost in the tangled mass of Castiel’s hair and the scruff on his jaw, in the way Dean’s hands tremble a bit, how he can’t stop looking over every few seconds even so, still static and magnetized despite everything. At the door to the classroom Castiel shuts his eyes for a long moment before conjuring a smile from thin air.

“Wait,” he says, and disappears inside.

Dean hovers at the door – two, three minutes – before tearing inside, making a big show of looking out of breath, disheveled, spewing apologies. The kids are completely fooled, jeering and clapping and snapping bubblegum like always, but unfortunately there’s no such luck with the impromptu substitute. At the sight of Dean, Gabriel’s mouth dips, curling in on itself, and his eyes come immediately to life. Beside his brother, Castiel lifts his chin slightly into the air, grounded, dignified, reasonable, but Dean can see his throat spasm with a swallow nonetheless.

“Dean.” Castiel nods minutely. “Nice of you to show up.”

Dean wants to groan. Castiel is being so painfully obvious; it’s not like him to be rude, and yet there he is slinging passive aggressive remarks every which way and not even looking Dean in the eyes. For his part, Gabriel looks more and more delighted every second, mouth curving into a stiltedly exuberant smirk.

“I am terribly sorry, Gabriel,” says Castiel, gripping his brother too tightly by the shoulder. Another atypical behavior, such forced camaraderie, and Dean gets the sense that the two don’t usually get along. “This was a result of my carelessness. I hope you can forgive me.”

Gabriel snorts. “No harm done. In fact, I daresay this has been quite the matter of interest for yours truly.” His eyes flicker to Dean and his smirk sharpens. “Quiet the matter of interest, indeed.”

Dean swallows heavily, quelling the urge to land a punch square on Gabriel’s jaw, and smiles.

“He’s certainly pretty, Castiel.” Gabriel waltzes towards the door, one hand on the knob. “I’m sure he’s of excellent service to you.”

Dean nearly lunges across the room, but the minutest tightening in Castiel’s jaw tethers him to the floor. It’s obvious that he’s angry enough already; his eyes are alive and his mouth is thin, the point of a dagger. Gabriel winks and slips from the room, and Castiel exhales, briefly pressing two fingers to his temple. Dean doesn’t say anything. He feels constricted all over, like he’s waiting for something that never comes, and words get caught in the midst of it.

“Alright, class.” Castiel presses his hands together. “Let’s get started.”

-

Dean tries to escape the moment class ends, but Castiel catches the hem of his jacket with nothing more than two syllables – Dean, wait – and drags him back, however unwilling. Castiel peeks outside the classroom into a hallway that’s churning with little rivers and eddies of students, then withdraws, shutting the door. He locks it with a brisk motion and glances up to see that the blinds of the windows are shut. Then he crosses the room to Dean, lifting one hand as if to reach up and touch his face only to let it drop back to his side.

“You look spooked,” he says softly. “Don’t worry about Gabriel. He definitely knows, but he won’t tell anyone. And as for the quip about your being…” His upper lip curls. “Being of excellent service – well, you know that’s ridiculous. My brother has the most unfortunate ability to pinpoint insecurities.”

Dean shakes his head. “Yeah, I know. That’s not – well, that’s not it.”

Castiel tilts his head to the side. “Then what?”

“I just…” Dean exhales unsteadily. “I just need a minute to think. I’ll be fine tomorrow, I promise.”

He turns to leave, and he’s almost at the door before Castiel catches his wrist again. Despite everything that’s happened, a splinter of electricity still arches up his arm at the touch, and for a fleeting moment he’s desperate to just wrap Castiel deep into himself and never let him out. He swallows, and the impulse subsides. Castiel is looking at him with a ferocious glitter in his eyes.

“No. I don’t want to do this that way. If there’s something bothering you, say it.” His gaze softens. “I value honesty above all else, Dean, and especially with you. This is too important.”

In that moment, Dean might be a little bit in love with him. He clears his throat.

“I know you do. That’s my favorite thing about you, actually.”

Castiel laughs a bit shyly, ducking his chin, but he’s all business a moment later.

“What is it, then?”

Dean hesitates, then sits down at one of the desks in the front row, resting his elbows so that he can prop his chin on one hand. He feels everything bubbling up inside of him again, turned liquid by Castiel’s gentle gaze, threatening to spill over and flood untethered. Castiel leans again his own desk and waits, ever patient, watching but not scrutinizing. Dean takes a deep breath. He wants to tell Castiel everything, and suddenly it’s just like last night – he wants to, so he will, it’s that simple.

He starts with the tuition, the slip of paper lurking on the kitchen counter, the fresh weight on his shoulders. He doesn’t look at Castiel – he can’t. He doesn’t want to see the sympathy for fear that it might be pity, most abhorrent of all emotions. With a shuddering breath, he goes on to priorities, even though he’s starting to hate the word and everything it means and everything it wedges between them.

Dean needs this job. He can’t put it in jeopardy. Everything depends on it, because Sam depends on it, and Sam is everything, no matter what. Then he trails off because he’s getting to things he just can’t say. He’s scared. He’s scared because Castiel is like nobody he’s ever met before, and he might start being everything, too, and Dean doesn’t know if he can deal with two people who are everything. He’s scared because part of him doesn’t care anymore, wants to scream to the whole world that Castiel chose him. Castiel chose Dean Winchester, nothing special, just a country boy with nothing to his name but the dirt under his fingernails and the GED hung on the wall. It’s terrifying to feel even the slightest hint of such reckless abandon. He can’t allow it.

But he can’t say any of that. The implications are too great. He’s too scared. So he hangs his head. That’s all. That’s why I need time to think. Nothing else. Thank you for understanding. Castiel looks at him for a very long time.

“Dean,” he says at last. “You don’t have to do this alone.”

Dean laughs dryly. “Yes I do.”

“No.” Castiel meets his eyes. “Let me help you.”

“That’s sweet, Cas.” Dean takes his hand and presses his palm, because it is a nice thought. “But this is how it’s always been. There’s nothing you can do but stick around. Oh, and kiss me. Now, that – that’s something really helpful.”

Castiel smiles, but it’s only cursory. He winds their fingers together and looks Dean in the eyes.

“Dean. Let me pay for Sam’s tuition.”

Quiet. Dean drops Castiel’s hand. He backs away, trying to even out his breathing. Castiel’s eyes narrow almost imperceptibly.

“Dean?”

He’s panicking. “I’m just going to pretend you never said that. You never said that.”

Castiel gets up and tries to get near Dean, but he only darts away again, like a frightened animal.

“Dean.” Castiel’s voice is sharp with alarm. “What’s gotten into you? I want to help. You could quit this job, focus on school, start work at the garage again. We could be open with our relationship. It would make me happy. Dean– ”

“Stop talking.” Dean is nearly at the far corner of the room now. “Stop. I can’t do this. Stop talking, please.”

Castiel opens his mouth.

“Please, Castiel.”

The air swells with the sound of breathing, jagged, unsynchronized, and yet Dean’s lungs are burning, and his chest is so tight that he can barely move, let alone think, make this right again.

“Please,” he gasps at long last. “Never mention this again, I’m begging you.”

Castiel’s face slackens. “I don’t understand.”

“I can’t do it, Cas.” Dean hears the miserable tear in his voice loud and clear and he hates it, wants to rip it from his throat. “I can’t let myself. I have to do this alone.”

“No, you don’t.” Castiel takes a step forwards, voice rising. “This is the same thing we talked about last night. I don’t care about your social status, Dean. You are yourself and nothing else. Not your past, not your checkbook. I want to help. Let me.”

At that, Dean feels the ache in his chest subside into something hotter, the beginning of anger nestled in the pit of his stomach.

“You’re wrong. That’s not it at all.” The anger starts to rise, spreading through his chest. “Don’t you get it? It’s not about money. It’s not about class. It’s about how I live. Look, Cas. It might be hard to understand, but I’ve always done things like this. I’ve never had a choice. I’ve always been alone in hopeless situations, when there was nobody there to whip out a checkbook like it’s nothing at all. And you know what? I’ve always managed. I’ve always done it. And when it was done, and everything was okay, it was all my work. Every last bit. It’s the only way I know how to live, and I won’t have you patronizing me.”

Castiel swallows. “Patronizing? Dean, I want to help you because I – ”

“No,” he spits. He can’t handle the rest of that sentence. “I don’t want to hear another word. Thanks and everything, but I’ll deal with this. Me and nobody else. And everything will be okay. Because of me. Me and nobody else. Got that?”

Castiel’s face goes blank, dimensionless. “Yes. I’ve got that.”

“Good.”

At that, Castiel fixes Dean with a look that makes him bolt from the room. He doesn’t care what the other teachers think of it; he doesn’t stop running until he gets to the car. Castiel’s not allowed to have a broken heart on his account, so he runs because that, too, is another thing he’s always done when he’s gotten in too deep. He doesn’t think, just runs and runs and runs, that’s all.

-

Sam, of course, doesn’t skip a beat.

“What’s wrong?”

He’s sitting in front of the television with a bowl of cornflakes on one knee and his homework on the other, eyes sharp as Dean turns a page of La Vita Nuova, trying to feign ignorance. A long moment passes. Sam puts down his pencil.

“Dean,” he sighs. “I know you heard me.”

Dean bites down on his lower lip and tries to focus on the words on the page. He’s almost three-quarters of the way done, and he can’t help remembering how Castiel promised him his own translation, how that’s probably a little bit ruined, now.

“Nothing. I’m just tired.”

Sam takes a bite of cornflakes. “Bullshit. Come on, Dean. If you can’t tell me, then who?”

Dean glances down at his little brother, loathe to acknowledge the truth in his words. He doesn’t want to burden Sam with his problems, especially considering how closely they concern the academy, but he doesn’t see a way around this one. Sam won’t believe that he’s fine because it’s glaringly obvious that he’s not; he’s jittery, agitated, quiet, and he knows that screams upset. Sam looks at him softly.

“Come on. Maybe I can help.”

Dean groans. “Do you want some Midol or something?”

Sam, entirely unruffled, replies that he would love some, and Dean knows he can’t weasel his way out anymore. He buries his face in La Vita Nuova like a child.

“I had a fight with Cas,” he mumbles.

“A fight?” He can hear Sam raise his eyebrows.

“Yeah. Are you happy now?”

Sam claps his hands together. “A fight? Really? Dean, that’s great!”

Dean lowers La Vita Nuova.

“What?”

Sam is outright beaming. Some little brother.

“Don’t you get it, Dean? It means you’re actually taking this seriously. Man, I can’t remember the last time you fought with a girlfriend. You usually didn’t last more than a month, anyways.”

“Wow, thanks, Sam.”

“Give it a rest. You know I don’t mean it like that. I’m just happy that you might be in for the long haul in this relationship.”

Dean is quiet for a long minute, rolling that idea around in his mind. He had been of half the mind that one fight meant the end of a relationship, actually, instead of commitment, but leave it to his virgin little brother to show him the ropes of an emotional connection, of course.

“Doesn’t this weird you out, man?” He bends a page of La Vita Nuova between his thumb and index finger. “It’s okay to be honest, you know.”

“Hell yeah it does.” Sam hardly hesitates, and Dean has to bite back a smile. “I mean, after years of watching you run through countless girls, you’re suddenly in a serious homosexual relationship, and with a teacher at my new school, nonetheless. But you’re my big brother, so it doesn’t really matter.”

Dean swallows the lump in his throat. “Since when do you use words like nonetheless?”

“Dean.” Sam takes another bite of cornflakes. “There’s nothing wrong with an expansive vocabulary.”

“I guess I’m not the only homosexual one.”

“Very funny.” A pause. “I don’t know what happened between you guys, but call Cas tonight. I’m sure you can figure it out.”

Dean rolls his eyes to disguise his gratitude. “Definitely not the only homosexual one.”

Sam snorts and returns to his biology homework. Once he’s sure that his brother can’t see, Dean smiles, letting La Vita Nuova rest against his chest a moment as he admires that young man that his brother is becoming, the budding wisdom that’s evident in everything he does. Then he considers that Sam does have a penchant for being right, and perhaps this situation isn’t an exception to that rule.

-

After hello, he doesn’t know what to say. What he can say.

“Dean,” says Castiel.

He says hello again.

“Yes, so you’ve said.” Castiel sounds a bit clogged. It’s strange. “Dean, I– ”

Quiet. Dean’s heart is pounding fit to burst.

“Can I come over?”

He can’t breathe. “Right now?”

“Preferably.”

“Okay.”

Castiel hangs up, and like some sort of maniac, Dean brews water for tea, of all things. When the knock comes on his door he doesn’t even say hello, just asks if Castiel would like some. Justifiably, he gives Dean the strangest look, but says he would, and sits quietly on the couch while Dean fixes two cups.

“I didn’t know you drank tea,” he says when Dean returns.

“Every once in a while.” Dean sits down on the far end of the couch and blows into his cup.

“I see.” Castiel takes a sip. “It’s good.”

“I’m glad.”

Silence. Dean puts down his cup.

“Castiel, I’m– ”

“I’m sorry, Dean.” Quiet, in which Castiel’s swallow is distinctly audible. “I shouldn’t have pushed you. Actually, I shouldn’t have made you such an offer in the first place. It was disrespectful. I didn’t realize. I hope you can forgive me.”

“No, Cas.” Dean puts down his teacup and unthinkingly takes Castiel’s hands in his. “There’s nothing to forgive. You were just trying to help. I understand. But it was too much right then. I freaked out. I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry, too.”

Castiel lets out a little breath, too short to be a sigh. “I won’t mention it again.”

“Thank you.” Dean presses his palms. “And Cas? I know you weren’t patronizing me.”

“I know you know,” mumbles Castiel.

“Good.” Dean lets go of one of his hands to touch his cheek. It’s probably the stupid thing he’s ever done, but Castiel smiles, and that’s worth it. “Are we okay?”

“Yes, Dean. We are okay.”

He says it so seriously that Dean can’t help but kiss him until the smile melts away. Castiel fastens one hand into the collar of his shirt, sucking gently at his lower lip, and Dean lets his arms fall to his waist, pulling him closer. It’s a little bit infuriating, but Sam was right, like always. It’s almost like nothing ever happened between them, but not by means of mutual ignorance; rather, the problem has been acknowledged, dealt with, and finally stored away to be forgotten. It’s peaceful. Dean buries his face in Castiel’s neck, tasting the vague traces of cologne and ink on his skin. It’s great.

At last, Castiel pulls away, pressing two fingers to Dean’s lips to keep him from diving back in.

“I have something for you,” he says softly, and clambers from the couch back to his trench coat, hung near the door. He hurries back to Dean’s side, pressing gently into his shoulder, and hands him a book, heavy and luxuriantly bound in crimson leather. Dean turns it over in his hands to get a look at the gilded inscriptions.

“Your translation,” he murmurs.

“I think you’ll find it infinitely more lyrical.” To his surprise, Castiel produces a manila folder and shoves it into his hands, grinning shyly. “Here. These are some footnotes to help you along. If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. To be honest, I miss talking about this era of literature.”

Dean stares, and Castiel fidgets, flushing up to his ears.

“Sorry – did I go too professor on you? I don’t mean to impose. Or assume that you need help. Of course you don’t need help. I’m sure you’re an excellent student. But just in case, you know, I thought– ”

Dean silences him with a kiss.

“It’s great. I could definitely use a hand. Thank you, Cas. Really.”

Castiel’s flush deepens, but his eyes brighten, and he stares bashfully at his hands.

“I’m glad.” A pause. “Should I get going? You said you were busy all week.”

Dean frowns. He is busy, but he doesn’t want to say goodbye, not just yet.

“Can you stay a little longer? I have to work, but you can watch whatever you want, and I’ll get us some beers, not this tea crap. It belongs to Sammy, anyways.”

Castiel laughs appreciatively and stretches out on the couch. “I was wondering what had gotten into you.”

Dean heads to the kitchen and comes back with two beers, dropping a kiss into Castiel’s hair as he hands him one. They settle into comfortable silence again, not really nestled against each other but close nonetheless. Castiel is on the floor, propped contentedly against the sofa with his legs extended, and is Dean sitting cross-legged just above him, laptop balanced on his knee. It’s quiet, amiable, and there’s no pressure to scoot closer or make some sort of romantic gesture. They’re just together; it’s that simple, that easy. Remarkable.

Dean is shy of reading Castiel’s copy of La Vita Nuova right then and there, so he puts it away and starts working on something else: a job application that he carefully doesn’t mention. He doesn’t want to start that conversation all over again. It’s the graveyard shift at an all-night diner just outside the city limits, and he knows Castiel would object. In fact, so would Sam, and so would Bobby – so would everyone, and that’s why Dean’s not going to tell a soul. He does what he has to, and that’s that.

Maybe half an hour passes before Dean starts to get distracted by the way the light of the television plays across Castiel’s face, highlighting the intense concentration that furrows his brow and darkens his eyes. It’s amazing how he can be so honestly invested in such a contrite medical drama; he’s a professor with about a thousand degrees in various subjects, and yet he’s enthralled by the most mundane things, predictable plots and shoddy acting, not to mention, it might be supposed, Dean Winchester himself.

It’s both an endearing and saddening thought at the same time, so Dean pushes it away and reaches for Castiel, winding his arms around his waist and nuzzling into his neck. Castiel immediately goes fluid in his arms, tilting his chin so that Dean can kiss around to his throat. He sighs and tangles one hand in Dean’s hair, gently holding him in place for a while in contented silence.

“It’s early,” he says at last, with total nonchalance, but Dean is hardly fooled. He blindly feels for the hem of Castiel’s shirt and edges his fingertips just beneath it, feeling the lithe suggestion of his abdomen as a sharp intake of breath ripples through his stomach.

“Dean,” says Castiel softly, and turns to meet his eyes, vaguely concerned. “Shouldn’t you be working?”

“I can take a break.” Dean flattens his palm on Castiel’s stomach. “Is that okay with you?”

A slow smile spreads over Castiel’s face. “Not like this it isn’t.”

He stands with a little grunt, shutting off the television before he clambers directly into Dean’s lap, folding his ankles and wrapping his arms snug around his neck so that their faces hover just inches apart. Dean takes slow, measured breaths, trying to draw out the suspense, wanting to show Castiel that he has pride, at least, and won’t succumb so easily. On the other hand, a smirk toys maddeningly with Castiel’s mouth, and when he tilts his head, thumb flitting over Dean’s temple, the curve of his cheek, it’s a little impossible to resist. Dean lurches forwards to kiss him, and Castiel chuckles softly against his lips before surrendering.

“Much better,” he mumbles.

“You do have an eye for improvement,” whispers Dean between kisses, and Castiel gives a little laugh, pressing his mouth to his jaw, the soft spot just below his ear, pulling a bit on the skin.

“I suppose that explains my choice of profession, doesn’t it?”

Dean nods appreciatively, and Castiel shifts so that their chests press flush together, shirt riding up to his ribcage, half the buttons undone to show a javelin of skin. Dean sighs, but something caught in his throat roughens the sound into a rumble, and Castiel’s jaw goes a little slack. He makes a new attempt at his mouth, more fervent, pushing forwards until he’s pressed deep into the back of the couch. Dean relents, even if it goes a little bit against his entire idiom to go so boneless. He doesn’t care anymore. Honestly, it’s nice to be wrapped up in Castiel for a while, even if he can’t stand it for too long.

“Hey, Cas.” At long last, he presses two fingers to Castiel’s lips, trying to catch his eyes. “What do you want?”

“You mean–” Castiel’s tongue darts out to wet his lower lip. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Dean’s trying not to think about how awkward this has ended up being. “Anything.”

Castiel looks at him wonderingly, lower lip caught between his teeth.

“Last time – that was good.”

“Really?” Dean laughs in relief; it was a bit of a bluff, to be honest, and if Castiel had asked for anything much more, he might not have been able to make good on such a promise. “Good. Yeah. Good. Let’s just– well. Good, then.”

Castiel looks at him with more tenderness than he deserves. “You can have what you want, too, Dean.”

Dean’s chest feels heavy; he’s struck with something much more potent than the feeling he gets when Castiel kisses him or rolls his hips down, something deeper, more permanent, and infinitely more frightening.

“That is what I want,” he breathes, and hooks his thumbs into Castiel’s belt loops, as if that could somehow draw him any closer. “It’s good.”

Castiel kisses him powerfully, arching forwards, gripping his face tight in both hands. Dean gets his shirt off and breaks away to kiss at the dip of his collarbone, the strong planes of his chest, fingers drumming at the nuances of his ribs. Castiel thrusts his hands up to cradle Dean’s back, and he gasps at the pressure burning into his spine, little trails of heat all over his skin. He pulls back and wrenches his shirt over his head, and then they’re paused for a minute, eyes locked. Castiel has one hand at his jaw, and he runs his thumb slowly over the bow of his lower lip, brow crinkled.

Dean leans into his touch. “What is it?”

“You amaze me, Dean.”

Dean gulps. “Come on, Cas. Don’t say stuff like that.”

“Why not? It’s how I feel.”

“Just…don’t.” He smiles, and presses his lips to the tip of Castiel’s nose to soften the words. “Humor me.”

Castiel doesn’t look entirely convinced, but he lets the subject drop, and when Dean pulls him close so that their skin grates together, kissing him slowly, persistently, the tension vanishes, and from then on he rendered like liquid in his arms, supple, pliant. He gets Castiel’s trousers down his thighs and wraps one hand around his cock; Castiel bites gently into his shoulder and hooks his thumbs sharply beneath the hem of his jeans, and then they’re in the same situation.

Again, it doesn’t take very long. In the end they’re more of gasping than kissing at all, and Dean can barely think, though he does manage to wonder if Castiel feels the same way, so far gone, lost to the world. At long last Castiel shivers into the dip of Dean’s shoulder, his name falling mangled and broken from his lips to shatter on the floor, and Dean sort of surges upwards to meet him, landing a kiss on his mouth before he slumps forwards into his chest.

“You’re brilliant,” mumbles Castiel, plucking absently at Dean’s hair, mouth at his temple. His voice is thick and gravelly, and Dean shivers, pressing a palm to his back, feeling his lungs expand and contract.

“You too.”

They stay like that for a while before cleaning up, affectionately groaning about sore muscles and poor thinking all the while. Dean puts on pajamas and has a good laugh at the expense of Castiel, who has to climb back into stiff work clothes and shiny leather shoes. Castiel glares, but Dean admits that he looks good in a suit, and that earns a kiss. It’s just past eight, and they both know that they should part ways, but Castiel lingers, trailing one finger around the rim of his bottle of beer. It’s almost empty, but not quite, and he seems of the mind to drain every drop.

“Dean, can I ask you something?”

Dean looks up from his computer. “Shoot.”

Castiel swallows, and meets his eyes. “Actually, it’s not a question. You’re coming on the class field trip to Rome. No buts. The academy will pay. I won’t go without you.”

Dean wants to protest, but he sees the gravity in Castiel’s eyes and thinks it best to let that much slide.

“Alright. It’ll be good for my resume, anyways.”

“Yes…that. It will be good.” Castiel takes a deep breath, but it never comes to anything. He just sort of deflates and looks around the room like he’s searching for something. Dean leans forwards, intrigued, if not vaguely wary of this whole situation.

“What’s up?”

“Dean.” Castiel can’t even look at him. “Every year after the field trip, I stay the rest of spring break in Europe. It’s usually just a private thing, a time for me to study and relax, enjoy myself before the final quarter of the school year, but – well, to be honest, it would make me very happy if, this year, you accompanied me. Alone. No kids, no work, nothing.”

A long stretch of silence.

“Of course, I understand if that doesn’t work with your schedule,” says Castiel quickly. “I understand completely. I won’t be offended, I promise.” His words slur together with nervousness. “I mean, it’s already clear that you have a lot on your plate. University, work, Sam – fuck, I forgot all about Sam. What a stupid offer; you’ll want to spend the break with him, of course. Never mind, then. Forget I said anything.” And with that, Castiel stands up. “Thanks for the beer, Dean. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He’s almost out the door before Dean breaks from his stupor and catches his wrist.

“Cas, wait.” He shuts the door, inexplicably breathless. The words come out in a rush. “Sam is going to stick around the academy for spring break. We already decided it would be good for him to catch up on his studies without any distractions. He’s still a bit behind, you know. And besides – well, the kid is so weird he’d be thrilled to know that you asked. He’d say he wouldn’t mind, because it would make me happy. He’s a funny little guy that way.”

Castiel rolls his lower lip between his teeth. “Would it, Dean? Make you happy, I mean.”

Dean can’t quite formulate an answer, can’t quite comprehend the uncertainty in Castiel’s eyes (does it really matter so much to him, Dean’s happiness?), so he just leans forwards and kisses him, slowly and earnestly, hoping that much will suffice. Thankfully, when he pulls away, Castiel’s expression is soft, and Dean knows that he’s understood. That’s one of the best things about Castiel; he never asks more than Dean can give, and he seems to treasure every little bit he gets, even if it’s pitiful in comparison.

But then again, Dean considers, even if just for a fleeting moment before he pushes the thought away – maybe in Castiel’s eyes, what he has to give isn’t so pitiful, after all.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks fly past before Dean can catch his breath. He gets the job at the all-night diner, and if Sam notices the dark circles under his eyes, he doesn’t say anything. Every now and again Castiel might look at him a bit concernedly, but Dean always kisses the expression away, and that’s usually enough of a distraction. Castiel’s beautiful house is empty again, and on the weekends it belongs to the two of them, a private oasis in the midst of work and school and keeping secrets. It’s actually gotten to the point where one morning Dean wakes up and realizes that his toothbrush is still in Castiel’s bathroom.

Maybe he should be worried, maybe he should try to slow down, but he isn’t worried, and he can’t slow down. The funny thing is that he actually wants to worry, to find some sort of flaw in this situation, but he doesn’t, no matter how hard he looks. Life is absurd, actually. He’s exhausted, and his grades are slipping a bit, but it’s not drastic, and – well, again, everything is just absurd. He’s bordering on happy. Absurd.

Then, the week before spring break is there, looming up without warning as March blends into April. Dean’s terrified of planes, but Rome is worth a flight or two. The city is beautiful, and Dean can’t deny that it’s sort of touching to see the kids so engaged, as thrilled by the history and language as their professor. And that’s a plus, too: even though Dean can’t touch Castiel until the week is out, it’s enchanting to see the new luster in his eyes, the obvious joy he takes in discovering, teaching, experiencing this incredible place.

But even so, it seems an eternity of slow strolls through art galleries, darting beneath the towering legs of ancient Roman arches, buying rounds of gelato for two dozen kids every afternoon, each a different flavor, of course. At the end, Dean’s voce is hoarse from shouting above the deafening echoes of footsteps in vacuous stone caverns, and his willpower is worn threadbare from being so close to Castiel in such a magnetic state, but he’s overjoyed with everything, and he wishes more than anything that Sam could be there and see all this, too. As he and Castiel send the kids off with the other chaperones (their extended stay has been explained to the academy as research), Dean resolves that one day – no, one day soon, as soon as possible – Sam will be here, too.

Once the kids are gone, it’s suddenly awkward, almost overbearing. Dean has been outright longing to be alone with Castiel since he first got on the plane, but now that they’re finally crowded together in the back of a taxi, enveloped in silence, his pulse is fluttering like it’s their first date, and he doesn’t know what to say. Castiel seems to be making an intent study of his hands; it’s not like him to be so hesitant, and Dean almost wonders if something’s the matter before Castiel finally looks at him with one of those earnest smiles that chases away any doubt.

Without a word, Dean leans across the seat to meet him halfway. It’s a slow kiss, gentle because they’re trying to be considerate of the taxi driver, but thickly laced with meaning, promise. Dean exhales softly when Castiel pulls away, and doesn’t open his eyes for a long time, savoring the closeness, the feathery rush of Castiel’s breathing.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” mumbles Castiel unexpectedly. “It was all I could do not to attack you on that tour of the Coliseum, you know.”

Dean is feeling self-indulgent; he luxuriously kisses the bow of Castiel’s lip. “Why’s that?”

Castiel tips forwards, trying to get at his mouth again, to no avail.

“The way the sunlight hits your face – no, you’re going to make fun of me.”

“I won’t.”

“Yes you will.”

“I promise I won’t. I want to hear.”

Castiel groans. “Look, it’s just that you are a very attractive man, Dean. But I mean that in the worst way possible, so don’t let it go to your head.”

“The worst way possible?” Dean nudges forwards, smirking. “What does that mean?”

Castiel outright glares.

“Dean Winchester, you may talk all you want, but I have waited an entire week to kiss you, and so help me God, I am going to do so right now whether you are quiet or not.”

Dean’s snarky reply is muffled by Castiel’s mouth. He halfheartedly tries to protest, but then hands hook into the collar of his shirt, drawing him upwards for a better angle, and he gives up, contentedly knitting his fingers into Castiel’s hair. The lights of Rome slide through the windows, casting eerie geometric patterns of light over Castiel’s face, highlighting the quirk of his smile, the delicate creases at the corners of his eyes. It’s flattering, and Dean can’t stop smiling. Ridiculous. And it gets worse. Even once they’ve stopped kissing, trying not to overstep the bounds of decency despite the thick pane of glass between the backseat and the taxi driver, Dean keeps their fingers wound together on his knee, unwilling to let Castiel go just yet. To be fair, a week is an awfully long time to go just staring at someone, after all.

Castiel has booked a different hotel for the rest of the trip, of course; the first place is part of the Hilton chain, and he seems vaguely offended at the mere idea of staying there any longer. Instead, the cab pulls up to a tiny place tucked into a quiet nook of the city. It’s a modest white terracotta building befit with carefully sculpted awnings and surrounded by a little courtyard dotted with olive trees. Dean swallows because it’s obviously expensive, and designed to be very romantic, what with the soft lighting, the small rooms with iron-wrought balconies, the secluded gazebo out back, everything. It’s clearly a place for couples, and although he’s never thought of his relationship with Castiel as an insult to his manhood, he’s not necessarily eager to flaunt his homosexuality either. Nonetheless, he tries not to care. After all, it wouldn’t be classy to bring up such issues now, of all times.

The receptionist seems a little too thrilled at the sight of them, tired and rumpled from a long day, leaning on each other a little bit. She hands over the keys with a soft giggle, fluttering her eyelashes, and Dean pretends not to understand Italian. Castiel rolls his eyes in the elevator.

“She was sweet.”

“She was objectifying our relationship.”

Castiel shrugs. “At least we know we’re cute enough to attract a following.”

“We are not cute.” Dean steps out into the hallway, dragging his suitcase behind. “And a following would be a very bad thing, Cas.”

“In Italy, though?” protests Castiel absently, reaching down to take Dean’s hand smack dab in the middle of the hallway. Dean tenses and almost tears away, but he gets a hold of himself just in time. It’s going to take some getting used to, but it’s not bad, being so casual about their relationship.

Their room is beautiful, all mahogany and creamy white linens, soft pillows and delicate curling architecture. The balcony overlooks a sweeping vista of the ocean, and even at night Dean can imagine the mosaic effect of the city, stacked up with houses piled together like an avalanche of stone and tile. He opens the window and gets a whiff of the breeze, letting the salt flow into his hair. Castiel sorts out the suitcases and joins him, resting his head on his shoulder. Eventually Dean bends down to catch his mouth, and Castiel reaches up to balance his hand at the curve of his jaw.

They stand there kissing for a while, but they’re both exhausted, and in the end they just end up kicking off their shoes and belts and nestling on top of the sheets. Castiel nudges up just beneath Dean’s chin, kissing aimlessly at the curve of his throat, and Dean winds his arms close around his waist, tangling their legs together. In the silence, they can hear the rush of the breeze, and the dull murmur of the city, cars rushing past and talk and laughter carried on the breeze. It’s absurdly peaceful.

“A whole week, just the two of us,” murmurs Castiel after a long time, tracing little circles over Dean’s chest with his index finger. “It seems too good to be true.”

Dean blushes and kisses the top of Castiel’s head to hide his smile. “Do you have plans?”

“Naturally.” Castiel seems to take offense at the thought that he wouldn’t. “We’ll spend tomorrow and part of the next day here. Then we take the train to Paris and stay in the city for two more days, maybe explore the countryside a bit. It’s lovely this time of year. Lastly, we’ll head out to the Spanish coast, and then catch a plane home to get back on Sunday morning. Sound good?”

“Unbelievable,” says Dean honestly, too stunned for pretenses. “Jesus, Cas. You really don’t do things by halves. How can I ever– ”

Castiel cuts him off with a firm kiss. “You already repay me a thousand times over just by being here with me, Dean. I want nothing more than to share this with you. Please don’t mention it again.”

“Alright,” whispers Dean. “Thank you.”

Castiel sighs, dropping a kiss on his chin as he props himself on one elbow, carding a hand slowly through his hair.

“Do you want to hear more? I have so many ideas, so much to show you.”

Dean nods and lets Castiel curl him close into the crook of his shoulder, stroking at his hair as he explains everything he wants to see and do. The students, he murmurs, saw the educational side of Rome: the history, the language, the art. That’s all well and good, but Castiel wants to show Dean the romantic side, the best food, the softest beds. He finishes off that thought with a little kiss at the bridge of his nose, and Dean’s stomach plummets. He can’t remember when things got so serious between them, and he’s not sure how to handle it yet.

He tries to lose himself in the rough lull of Castiel’s voice, that gravelly tone so well-designed to give lectures, even sermons, rhythmic and grating at the same time. His nose is pressed into the curve of his neck, and he smells a trace of cologne, sweat, the grime of travel, the starch that was in his collar. While Castiel talks, he unbuttons his shirt, and somehow it’s entirely chaste. After all, they’re both too tired for anything but halfhearted kisses, and it’s nice to feel Castiel’s bare chest against his, the beat of his heart so near.

Halfway through a tangent mostly composed of soft nonsense syllables and not words at all, Castiel lets out an enormous yawn that seems to consume his entire face, and Dean chuckles softly, stretching up for a lazy kiss before coaxing Castiel back onto the pillows, working the sheet out from beneath their combined weight. To Dean’s surprise, Castiel nestles into him the moment they’re settled beneath the covers. He swallows. They share a bed whenever they can, but it’s not often that they cuddle so closely together.

For a long moment, he’s tense, unsure of how to proceed. Then it occurs to him that he might as well just let himself go for once and follow suit. A little spooning isn’t so bad, he thinks, pulling Castiel into the crook of his body by the waist, even more secure, warm and pliant against Dean. He’s content to rest his chin on his shoulder, listen to the soft come and go of his breathing, mingling with the murmur of the city to produce an effective lullaby. Dean closes his eyes, trying to shut out his thoughts, abandon himself to sleep.

Never in a thousand years would he have imagined himself in such a situation, but he is indisputably curled around a serious boyfriend – yes, that term, he supposes, applies well to their relationship – in Europe, of all places. It’s amazing; it’s impossible; he can’t really believe it. His last thought before he falls asleep is that there’s no more doubt to be had: he definitely has to tell Sam everything the moment he gets home.

-

Dean wakes first, still tangled up with Castiel, lips resting against his forehead. Generous slabs of sunlight cut across the floor, turned creamy yellow-gold by the curtains, and if at night the sound of the city is a murmur, at day it is a dull rattle, comforting in its own offbeat curiosity. Dean can’t help but smile at the sight of Castiel in his arms; he trails his mouth down his forehead, the bridge of his nose, until he reaches his lips, persisting until he feels him stir awake, return the kiss in a slow blossom of warmth.

After a minute, Dean notices that Castiel is pressing hard against his thigh, and thinks he ought to do something to fix that. With a last kiss on the bow of Castiel’s lips, he sinks lower, dotting kisses at his throat, collarbone, the dips and nuances of his chest, until he reaches the dark javelin of hair that juts downwards from his navel. Castiel is still scarcely conscious, more of caught between waking and sleeping, but he understands what’s happening and knits his fingers into Dean’s hair, mumbling that he doesn’t have to do this before his words bleed away entirely into soft and unsteady breathing as Dean litters kisses at the tender junction of his thighs.

Dean doesn’t draw it out too long; he’s too sleepy to tease much, and takes Castiel in all at once, humming softly in the back of his throat. Castiel gives a gentle groan, and peering upwards Dean can see the erratic bob of his throat, the flush that spills from his neck to color his chest. He smiles, gratified, and deepens the hum, bobbing his head and swirling his tongue until Castiel comes with a little cry, hands contracting in his hair for a moment before his body goes slack.

Dean swallows, and rises onto his elbows for a kiss, worrying only at the last minute that it might be too obscene. Fortunately, Castiel is still malleable with sleep, and doesn’t seem to mind one bit, winding his arms enthusiastically around Dean’s neck. Between kisses, he promises to get Dean off in the shower, and they don’t make it out of the hotel until just before ten o’clock, damp and content.

The sunlight is splendid, and Dean hardly notices when Castiel takes his hand to lead him down the street, even though he can’t help wondering at the ease of the gesture, and then at what it might imply. But he pushes the thoughts from his mind and tries to focus on the brilliant morning, on the sky stretched high like a taut blue canvas above them, on the city rumbling and alive all around. They stop at a bakery for breakfast and Dean is pleased to learn that his conversational Italian is still spotless, lilting off his tongue without a hitch. Castiel eyes him mysteriously whenever he talks, caught between a smile and some nameless expression that stirs something up deep in Dean’s gut.

When Dean asks, he shrugs, the smile sharpening into a smirk over the edge of his coffee mug, and replies that language is sexy. At that, Dean blushes, and focuses on his eggs, trying to ignore how Castiel nudges at his ankle beneath the table. Footsie has never been a priority of his; he’s not the foolishly romantic type, and even if Castiel brings out lots of qualities in him that he never dreamt of possessing, he doubts that much will ever change. Eventually, Castiel relents, but he doesn’t stop smirking, and Dean has trouble keeping his attention on breakfast.

Castiel won’t tell him much more about his travel plans. He gives cryptic answers whenever Dean asks where they’re going, eyes aglow with what must be happiness. He does look very, very happy, and Dean breathlessly wonders if that could be his doing, if he could somehow have such an effect on Castiel. It seems impossible, but then again, so does the entire situation in and of itself, so maybe it’s not out of the question.

In any case, after breakfast they find themselves at the foot of a fantastic cathedral: the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, Castiel explains, the first Roman church and the seat of Christendom. Dean starts to protest that the whole thing sounds like just another history lesson, but Castiel rolls his eyes and leads him inside, shamelessly tucking his hand into his elbow. That makes Dean tense – it is a church, after all, and he doesn’t want to upset anyone – but he doesn’t pull away, and if Castiel notices the tight rhythm of his breathing, he doesn’t say so.

It’s still early, so the cathedral isn’t too crowded, and their footsteps echo long and eerie, reverberating from the walls. Dean’s never been a terribly religious man, and he gets the feeling that the same goes for Castiel, but there’s something humbling about the arching ceilings and the profound silence. The architecture is breathtaking, impossibly intricate, and enormous paintings span the walls at intervals, detailed with gold and stunning delicate color. They walk slowly to the altar, and Dean doesn’t realize that he has his neck craned almost all the way back to get a look at the ceiling, slack-jawed with amazement, until Castiel chuckles and presses his arm affectionately.

“Would you like to light a candle?” he murmurs, gesturing to a little room tucked off to the side. “To bless a loved one, I mean. I’m not terribly devout, but I always like to leave one for someone when I’m in a place like this. My sister, this time, I think.”

After a moment, Dean nods, throat constricting. They each drop of euro in the donation box and choose two candles, lining them up side by side. Dean thinks of his mother, beautiful and golden and gone too soon, as he watches the wick blacken with the flame, the wax beading up to curve slowly down the sides in fat droplets. Castiel presses his arm again, and because nobody else is in the room, Dean tilts his head for a kiss, brief and sweet and a little sad. A portrait of Christ is mounted on the wall, gazing dolefully down at them, and Dean shoots the Lord and Savior a wink before dropping an extra kiss at the tip of Castiel’s nose just for luck. Castiel rolls his eyes, but he can’t repress a smile. Dean grins.

“Can I ask you something?”

They’re leaving the cathedral, off to lunch, and Castiel nods, dropping his hand from Dean’s elbow to wind their fingers together. Dean’s still nervous about all this, the easy touching and hand-holding, but he makes an effort to push his insecurities away and focus on Castiel. Quietly, trying to be sensitive, he asks what happened to Castiel’s sister, the pretty redhead who seemed so self-possessed when Dean first noticed her at the academy. Castiel sighs, and Dean presses his hand, suddenly remorseful.

“You don’t have to answer,” he says gently.

Castiel shakes his head. “No; it’s nothing terrible. I just…I like her a great deal, and it saddened me to see her stray so far. Or perhaps it should not be called straying; she merely became involved with things of which my father did not approve. The details are inconsequential; in short, our father does not believe that we should associate with her any longer, and therefore we have promised him that we will not do so. In fact, to have allowed her to stay in my home even for a short while was exceptional disobedience, but I could not turn her away.”

He looks so guilty that Dean bristles.

“Of course you couldn’t.” He grips his hand tightly. “You’re family, Cas. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. You did the right thing.”

“I’m not ashamed.” Castiel stays focused on the road, eyes distant, mournful. “I only wish it did not have to be like this.”

Dean’s anger fades at the bleak note in his voice. “Christ, me too, Cas. I’m sorry.”

Castiel cranes his neck to kiss him on the cheek, and Dean’s heart stutters; when Castiel looks away again he can’t help but scan the crowd, wondering if anyone has noticed.

“It’s hardly your fault,” Castiel is saying, “but thank you. It means a lot.”

“Don’t mention it,” mumbles Dean. “So where are we headed, anyways?”

Castiel smiles, and that’s a relief, to see happiness overtake his expression again, that is. “First things first, we should stop and get some lunch. Afterwards, I don’t really have a plan for a while. I thought maybe we’d walk around and take in the city a little more. I know it’s a bit mundane, but we’ve been too busy keeping track of the kids to really admire everything, and it would be a shame to miss such a beautiful city. Then – well. You’re going to think it’s silly.”

Dean shrugs. “If I’m going to do it, I might as well know. Unless it’s a surprise, that is.”

“It’s not.” Castiel focuses on the ground, unusually shy, and that only sharpens Dean’s curiosity. “There’s a place to watch the sunset – the Pincio – and I thought we might stop there before dinner. Then we can walk back to the hotel, maybe stop for a nightcap. I don’t know. I didn’t want to be too scheduled.”

Dean’s neck feels hot and scratchy, and he can’t meet Castiel’s eyes, because it’s too sweet, the bashful shade to his expression and the awkward way he rubs at the back of his head. He clears his throat, trying to compose himself, gather up the scatter rhythm of his thoughts, which have all fled to remote corners of his mind screaming about serious relationships and commitment and one word that he doesn’t dare to acknowledge yet.

“That sounds great,” he says gruffly, pressing Castiel’s palm to make up for his ineloquence. It works; Castiel gives an audible sigh of relief and tilts his face up with a smile. Dean’s kiss is brief and uncomfortable – he really doesn’t know what to do with all these public displays, can’t translate their meaning, get accustomed to the feel of what seems a hundred eyes pressing down on them at once – but it doesn’t seem to matter to Castiel.

Rather, in fact, he thrums with life, leading Dean stumbling through winding cobblestone streets and shouting vendors, pointing out the details of the architecture and the history with such impressive enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge that Dean is sharply reminded that he is indeed a very learned scholar. Sometimes, everything Castiel represents takes Dean’s breath away, setting him on edge and bringing every ignored insecurity into painfully sharp focus. But he tries not to think about that; no matter his logic, Castiel has done all this for him, and he wants nothing more than to enjoy it.

Lunch is so delicious – fresh seafood and good coffee in a charmingly cramped restaurant tucked into the framework of the city – and Castiel so radiant that Dean forgets the worries chewing away at the corners of his mind. He doesn’t even mind that the bill is ripped from his hands before he can so much as take out his credit card; the meal was expensive, anyways, and Castiel is downright territorial when it comes to finances. Even after coffee, they dawdle in the restaurant, talking and smiling stupidly at each other over the table, and if it’s not obvious that they’re ridiculously enamored of each other, Dean doesn’t know how else it could be.

It’s already mid-afternoon by the time they leave the restaurant to stroll through the city. Castiel strikes up a slow, rhythmic pace, and Dean falls happily into step beside him, finally relaxed with their hands clasped together, swinging gently from side to side. He’s starting to realize that Castiel was right. Dean never really noticed the beauty of the city with the kids around, always needing advice and money and supervision. Now he’s amazed, left speechless by the sight of Rome cloaked in the soft gold of the afternoon sun, the shadows liquid, sliding gradually from building to building, highlighting old stucco roofs and dripping into the cracks in the sidewalk.

“I have got to show this to Sam,” he breathes at some point, and is surprised at the sound of his own voice. He didn’t mean to say it aloud, but Castiel only smiles, and presses his palm affectionately.

“You will,” he says simply, and for some reason, Dean’s more grateful to him for that than anything else. He’s suddenly overwhelmed by a fierce pressure in his chest, and right smack dab in the middle of the street he bends down and kisses Castiel fervently, and only thinks to be embarrassed once he’s broken away again and Castiel is staring at him with wide eyes.

“Sorry,” he mumbles. “I don’t know what – what that was.”

Castiel chuckles, and says that he doesn’t know, either, but that he certainly liked it. Dean grins, ducking his chin to hide his blush, and Castiel keeps leading him in a hectic pattern through the streets, stopping every now and then to gawk and once to buy fresh fruit from a ramshackle stand on the corner. As he peels an orange, Dean thinks that this whole thing is idyllic, quintessential, almost unbearably clichéd, and that he loves every minute despite himself, despite everything.

They end up tucked away in a little nook that seems to overlook the entire city, spread before them, an intricate and pockmarked blanket of stone. The sun has sunk to the cusp of the horizon, molten and pouring liquid over the edge, and the clouds are feathery and indistinct, stained pink and orange by the light. Castiel sits down on the wall that rims the edge of the street and dangles his legs over the edge; Dean joins him, and lets their twined hands rest on his knee, sappy as that might be.

They don’t talk much; words aren’t necessary, and neither of them wants to spoil the peace and quiet stretched fragile over the city. At some point, Castiel shifts closer, and after a strained moment lets his head come to rest on Dean’s shoulder. Dean tenses but doesn’t pull away, even though every nerve in his body screams that they’re too exposed, too open, that something is going to go wrong. He exhales gradually, trying to measure his breathing, and works to focus on the comfortable weight of Castiel pressing into him, pushing all other thoughts from his mind because in that moment, things are impossibly good, and that’s all that matters.

A long time passes before dusk begins to fall and the color starts to drain from the sky, replaced by a modest palette of greys and blacks and the vibrant yellow of the streetlamps. It’s Castiel who breaks the stillness, standing with a soft groan before helping Dean to his feet, dropping a kiss on his forehead as he rocks upright. He murmurs that dinner is next, but he won’t tell Dean where they’re going, just gives an expression caught halfway between a smile and a smirk and heads off down the road again.

They walk in comfortable silence until they reach the river, at which point Castiel comes to a halt and gives Dean a shy smile. He points to the gleaming water and Dean is confused for a long moment before it occurs to him and his mouth falls slack.

“Aw, Cas – shit, no. Oh man.” He runs a hand through his hair. “That is so sappy, even for you.”

He meant it affectionately, but worry flickers across Castiel’s expression, darkens his eyes.

“Forgive me, Dean. I didn’t – ”

“No, shut up.” Dean takes his hand and wonders when they had broken away. “It’s cute. A dinner cruise on the river, I mean – well, it’s damn gay, but also cute.”

A moment’s pause.

“Dean.” Castiel’s voice is low and measured, the tone he uses when he’s trying to disguise amusement. “I should hope you are aware that you are in fact a participant in a homosexual relationship.”

“I know,” replies Dean cheerfully, tugging Castiel towards the dock. “But this has got to be a new achievement in gay. I mean, come on – stop me before I get goddamn butterflies.”

“Butterflies?” Castiel cocks a brow. “I highly doubt that will ever be the case, Dean.”

He goes to give his name to the hostess, and even attempts a conversation with her, smiling with a charming bashful edge that melts her down in a matter of seconds. Such awkward Italian would usually make Dean cringe, but with Castiel it’s almost adorable, and he hangs back, listening to him stumbling over the verbs and nouns for a long time before intervening just to make sure he has everything straight. Castiel looks at him gratefully, and Dean unthinkingly presses his hand, fighting down a grin.

The smile the hostess gives him is almost unbearable, laced with poorly-concealed delight at seeing such well-groomed men so appropriately paired. Dean’s a little bit rude to her, but Castiel can’t hear the difference, and seems merely thrilled at the fact that they’re sitting down to eat on the water, bobbing gently with the current so that the candles atop the table threaten to spill over every other second. He goes for the wine list before Dean can protest, and gives Dean a lengthy selection to translate to the waiter once he materializes.

Even though Dean doesn’t fancy the bitter taste of wine, and the constant rocking of the cruise makes him a little nauseous, he can’t bring himself to be unhappy. The lights strung up on the deck reflect off the trembling surface of the water before ricocheting back into Castiel’s eyes, pooling soft yellow across his face, warm gold in his hair, illuminating the pretty color in his cheeks. Castiel has a very curious beauty, touched in places by a distinct femininity but nonetheless undeniably male, and sometimes Dean doesn’t know what to make of it, can’t quite understand the indefinite pink curve of his mouth and the impossible blue of his eyes. It doesn’t matter, though; he’s so magnetized to Castiel that sometimes he can scarcely stand it.

It occurs to him, rocking gently to and fro in the candlelight, sharing a caprese salad and not even feeling unnerved by the pallid slabs of raw mozzarella because Castiel shows him how to properly layer the fresh tomato and the vinaigrette, delicate fingers dancing over his fork and knife, brushing once or twice against Dean’s wrist, little pinpricks of electricity, that they are very much a couple. Of course, this is hardly a surprise; it’s been the case since that conversation on Castiel’s couch, but Dean thinks that there’s a new dimension to their relationship, a certain gravity and permanence that are only just beginning to seem comfortable.

And what should he make of it? Well, he thinks it’s a good thing, but he’s not sure, and as Castiel is picking apart the last of his entrée he does something that he can’t remember ever doing before in his entire life.

“Hey, can we talk a minute?”

Castiel dabs the corner of his mouth with a napkin. “We’ve been talking all night, Dean.”

“Come on, Cas.”

A shade of worry comes into Castiel’s eyes, and Dean wants nothing more than to push it away, because it’s absurd that Castiel should still be insecure about anything; he’s far too good for Dean, anyways, and has no reason to question himself. Castiel quietly sets down his fork and knife.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” says Dean quickly. “I just – this has been fantastic so far. Too good to be true, really.”

Castiel eyes him warily. “I am glad you think so. So far, I have enjoyed myself as well.”

He always speaks in clipped sentences and loses contractions when he’s nervous, on his guard. Dean hates that. He lunges across the table and takes Castiel’s hand where it’s resting beside his plate. Castiel furrows his brow, but he presses back, winding their fingers together.

“Dean, I don’t– ”

“This is getting pretty serious, don’t you think? Between us, I mean.”

Castiel’s jaw goes slack. “Well – yes, I would say so. I thought– ”

“It really freaks me out.”

Castiel stares, tilts his head to the side, probes Dean with that trademark intensity, and at last relents, evidently fruitless in his search for answers. His face goes blank, eyes distant, and he loosens his hold on Dean’s hand.

“I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable. Such was not my intent.”

Dean lets out a short laugh.

“It does make me uncomfortable. Like you wouldn’t believe.” But he doesn’t let Castiel pull his hand away for good. “But I mean that in the best way. Sorry. I suck at saying these things right and all. But trust me, this is the good kind of freaked out. Like – fuck. With you, I’m glad to be on edge all the time and stuff. And – well, cut me some slack here. Do you know what I mean?”

Castiel rolls his lower lip between his teeth. “Maybe. Do you – is it okay to be serious, Dean?”

“Christ, yeah.” And despite himself, Dean brings Castiel’s hands to his lips, kissing each of the knuckles. “If you can tolerate me, that is.”

Castiel watches in abject amazement, color spreading across his cheeks, spilling down his neck, eyes crystallizing back into the vivid shade of blue that can’t possibly exist, must be an illusion, a trick of the light.

“Dean, I should hope that by now you know that it is hardly a matter of toleration.”

“If you say so.” He bites softly into the knuckle of Castiel’s pointer finger. “Hey, I know it’s kind of stupid, but what should I call you?”

Castiel’s tongue darts out pensively. “Boyfriend? That’s what I call you in my head, anyways.”

Dean raises an eyebrow.

“In your head?”

The color in Castiel’s cheeks deepens, and he doesn’t say another word on the subject. Dean chuckles and says that boyfriend sounds just fine to him; with that, he finally lets Castiel’s hand drop back to the table, but Castiel hangs onto his thumb, smiling softly and ducking his chin, uncharacteristically bashful. Dean can’t stop grinning, and it’s stupid, but he can’t bring himself to care. In that moment, he’s pretty happy, and that sort of thing doesn’t happen to him very often, so he might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

Soon, the waiter sweeps by to take their plates; he offers coffee and dessert, and when Castiel proposes that they share a slice of tiramisu, Dean doesn’t say no, even though his cheeks get hot as Castiel orders in stumbling Italian and the waiter does a bit of a double take. He considers kissing Castiel full on the mouth right then and there just to show him a thing or two, but only gives a strained smile and waits for him to disappear back into the kitchen. He does, and then they’re alone again, and it’s as if they’re the only two people ever to exist, completely secluded in this little bubble of light bobbing along the river.

“Thank you, Dean,” murmurs Castiel unexpectedly.

Dean stares, caught off guard.

“What for?”

Castiel shakes his head and leans across the table, lips nothing more than a whisper against his before he’s back in his seat and the space between them suddenly seems impossibly vast.

“Nothing, Dean.” He smiles in a way that’s almost too tender for comfort. “Nothing at all.”

Chapter Text

They took the afternoon train to Paris after a lazy morning spent wrapped up in each other in the hotel. Castiel ordered room service, a luxury that Dean had never so much as considered, and they actually ate breakfast in bed, with the sunlight drenching their tousled hair and pooling in the creases in the comforter. After that, they kissed for a while, soft and lazy at first, but more deliberate later on, hands and tongues and the indistinct outlines of words dropped between the sheets. Of course, that meant that they ended up dawdling in bed longer than intended, but Dean didn’t really mind missing a last tour of the city, because Castiel looks awfully good with his hair tousled and his lips a bit swollen at the edges, and it’s easier to relax on a train when you’re a little bit worn out, after all.

The ride is beautiful. Just outside the city, the countryside becomes a pastel blur of green and blue watercolor, punctuated occasionally by white streaks of sheep or clouds. Dean feels that it’s all so liquid that he could somehow drown himself in the sight. Castiel rests his head on Dean’s shoulder as he works on lesson plans for the rest of the year, and Dean thumbs slowly through La Vita Nuova, raising questions at his leisure and carefully noting down every answer. They have a light dinner just before pulling into the city, rested and content and absurdly comfortable.

Dean’s only ever thought of Paris as some housewife’s dream vacation, a destination for repressed women with unfulfilled ideas of grandeur and luxury, but his stomach swoops a bit at the sight of the city set aglow for the evening, a spread of brittle buildings and yellow light, antique and beautiful in a way he didn’t really expect. Castiel grins at him as they hail down a taxi, and Dean doesn’t even care that he’s being made fun of; he practically presses his nose to the window as they drive past.

“They really weren’t kidding when they said it was beautiful,” he mumbles.

“They?” Castiel sounds immensely amused, but Dean doesn’t really mind.

“Everyone!” Dean’s eyes widen as they speed past an enormous lawn turned gold in places by the light of the streetlamps. “I wasn’t expecting all this.”

Castiel shrugs. “It’s prettier by night. In the morning, it’s actually pretty dirty. But don’t let anyone overhear you saying that.”

“But I don’t speak French.”

“Oh, everyone speaks English. They’ll just never admit it.”

Dean laughs and leans across the seat to drop a kiss in Castiel’s hair; things have become so natural between them that he doesn’t even think twice, just does it, and revels in Castiel’s gentle smile afterwards. Even if it’s scary that this whole thing is getting so serious, that Dean is starting to place Castiel higher and higher in his heart until he might even reach that pedestal that Dean can’t acknowledge quite yet, he thinks for the umpteenth time that it’s worth all the trouble a thousand times over. Castiel is worth it, and Dean wants nothing more than to do right by him.

The hotel is in the center of the city, and Dean doesn’t even want to think about how much even a single night must cost. Supposedly it’s a famous spot, but he doesn’t want to think about that, either; it still makes him uncomfortable that Castiel goes to such lengths of excess without batting an eye. He knows that it’s not just for show, that Castiel is only trying to make things more enjoyable, that he doesn’t even think about the extravagance, but it’s easier to ignore the gold accents in the wallpaper and the lengthy history in the information brochures than compare the place to all the crummy motels that Dean’s been used to for his entire life.

The valet brings up their luggage and Castiel tips him lavishly. Even if it’s the second time Dean’s heard him speak French, this time the conversation is longer and untainted by the rumble of the city outside the taxi, and he shivers at the cadence of the syllables, the new richness in Castiel’s voice, a deep and electric roll like summer thunder. He busies himself unpacking as Castiel dallies with the valet, who is apparently an excellent conversationalist, and tries his best to ignore it. The effort is largely unsuccessful; when the valet finally leaves, Dean all but lunges across the room to grab Castiel by the waist and kiss him fiercely, swallowing his surprise and digging his hands into his hair.

Castiel’s eyes are luminous when Dean finally lets him go. “What was that for?”

“Nothing,” mumbles Dean, suddenly bashful. “You just – well, you make French sound really good.”

Castiel gazes at him wonderingly until Dean turns away, too embarrassed to stand his intensity much longer. At last, he hears Castiel chuckle, and when he looks over again he’s folding clothes out of the suitcase, smirking at nothing in particular.

“If that’s the case,” he says. “I’ll have to make conversation a little more often.”

“Shut the hell up.”

Castiel shakes his head fondly and Dean grins, helping him with the clothes for a while before he takes his shaving kit to the bathroom. He nearly spills it all over the floor in shock. The hotel in Rome had luxurious facilities, but it was nothing compared to this. There’s a full whirlpool tub, first of all, not to mention a shower in the corner, and a television mounted on the wall. There are stacks upon stacks of thick white towels, and even if Dean can only barely muddle through the labels on the toiletries, he can tell that they’re the ridiculously fancy sort.

He swears loudly, and Castiel materializes in the doorway a moment later, head tilted inquisitively. Dean throws his hands up in the air.

“Look at this place,” he exclaims. “Who the hell needs a sink that big?”

Castiel shrugs. “Someone, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, right. And look at this – a shower and a bathtub? Come on, Cas. It’s downright frivolous.”

“That’s a nice word.” Castiel comes inside and wraps his arms loosely around Dean’s waist, resting his chin in the bend of his shoulder. “I don’t know. I, for one, could think of at least one use for the bathtub, at least.”

Dean glances over his shoulder, and his stomach drops at Castiel’s expression.

“Really? Enlighten me.”

“Dean.” Castiel sounds like he’s frowning. “Don’t play dumb.”

Dean grins and turns around to take Castiel’s hands, sort of swinging their arms back and forth, tilting on the balls of his heels. “But it suits me so well.”

Castiel’s frown deepens. “Don’t say that. You know it’s not true.”

“Maybe.” Dean bends down to kiss him quickly, leaning back with a chuckle when Castiel stumbles forwards to get a better angle on his mouth.

“Dean–” Castiel sounds genuinely frustrated, and Dean laughs, pressing his lips to his forehead to cut off the rest of his sentence.

“I am feeling a little grimy from all that traveling,” he murmurs. “How about we finish unpacking while the water runs?”

Castiel bites down on his lower lip, but Dean can tell that he’s only trying to fight back a smile.

“Fine,” he grunts. “You win.”

Dean beams, and they get both suitcases unpacked before the water even reaches the halfway point of the tub. The bathroom is ripe with steam when they come back and Castiel winds his arms around Dean’s waist again. It’s comfortable at first, but after standing in the center of the floor kissing Castiel for a while, however, Dean starts to feel a little irrationally nervous. It’s an absurdly romantic idea, sex in the bathtub, and he’s not sure exactly what it entails. Maybe it’s silly to be worried, but he can’t help it.

He trusts Castiel, though, and lets him slip off his shirt and jeans and lead him into the steaming water. At first, it’s totally innocent; Dean is propped up against Castiel’s knees so that he can knead shampoo into his hair, and they have to wait for the suds to drain away twice before the water is clear again. Every once in a while, Castiel peppers a kiss at the bend of Dean’s neck, but it’s a long time before he turns him around by the shoulders and circles his arms around his neck to draw him in close.

Dean finds himself nestled at the juncture of Castiel’s legs, stretched up over his stomach and chest, knees pressed to the bottom of the tub. In any other situation, it might have been uncomfortable, but with Castiel fastened to his neck, carding his fingers slowly through his damp hair, surrounded by steaming water, it’s hard to care that he’s going to be sore later on. He cranes his neck to kiss Castiel properly, opening his mouth and winding his hands up beneath him to cradle his back, fingers splayed out at the powerful planes of his shoulders. This goes on for a while; the water laps softly at the edges of the tub and curls of steam twist into the air, and Dean drowns a little bit, lost in the water, lost in Castiel.

At some point, Castiel changes the rhythm, shifting upwards so that their hips slot closely together, and Dean realizes that they’re both already hard, pressing gently into each other. He drops his mouth to Castiel’s jaw and reaches down; Castiel gasps in surprise as he closes his hand, fingers contracting viciously into his hair.

“Is this alright?” Dean pulls away to get a good look at Castiel’s face, flushed with steam, mouth drawn askew. “I’m not sure – how, exactly.”

“Fuck, Dean – you’re an idiot.” Castiel kisses him sharply, biting down on his lower lip, one hand balanced at the back of his neck. “It’s perfect.”

Dean smiles and draws his hand upwards in one long stroke; Castiel sighs and Dean feels his hips jut forwards instinctively. He lets out a shuddering breath as they kiss again, and the steam is almost suffocating, yanking the breath up out of his lungs. It gets worse when Castiel finds purchase at the small of his back and pulls him forwards so that they press together so fiercely that water laps from the edge of the tub to form little puddles on the floor. Dean groans, flicking out his thumb, and Castiel sort of melts into his arms, fingertips digging hard into his skin.

At some point, Castiel drops to kiss the bend of his jaw, the soft skin of his neck; he bites softly at his thrumming pulse and Dean lurches forwards, chin jutting into the curve of his shoulder. Castiel murmurs his name, soft and indistinct, just the impression of sound, really, and Dean meets his gaze. Even through the haze of steam, his eyes are brilliant pinpricks of blue, crystallized and blown bright like new glass. Dean swallows. Words are bubbling to his lips, turned liquid by the hot water and Castiel’s expression, and he has to restrain them, even if he’s not sure he can.

Fortunately, Castiel chooses that moment for a kiss, stirringly passionate, truly unique in that regard, quite unlike anything Dean’s ever experienced, and when his hips ease forwards again Dean breaks down in his arms, breaking away to cry his name softly into the crook of his neck. He manages a few more rough strokes, and then Castiel comes apart, too, just bits and pieces wrapped up in Dean, murmuring nonsense against his mouth. For a long time they lie helplessly in the water, breathing against one another, limp and unwound.

“That was a good idea,” mumbles Dean after a long time, cheek pressed into the valley of Castiel’s chest. Castiel plucks his hand from the water and starts to toy with his fingers.

“I told you there was a good use for this tub.”

“You were right.” With no small effort, Dean props himself up for a kiss, and at last manages to clamber out of the tub, fumbling about for a towel. “Fuck me. I’m beat.”

“Me too.” Castiel lets Dean pull him from water, stretching up to kiss the tip of his nose before wrapping a towel around his waist. “Let’s get some sleep. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

“Do we?” Dean goes ahead into the other room and finds a pair of flannel pajama pants in a drawer; he’s not sure if they’re his or Castiel’s, but it doesn’t really matter. He can’t help but stare as Castiel drops his towel and steps into old sweatpants, admiring the artful bend of his waist and the javelin of dark hair that runs down from his navel. Castiel catches him, of course, and kisses him fondly before clambering onto the bed without bothering to turn out the lights.

“We do,” he murmurs as Dean eases onto the mattress, curling one arm loosely around his shoulders. “There’s a lot to see and not a lot of time.”

“I trust you to make the most of it.” Dean gives a big yawn and tries to kiss Castiel on the forehead, but only ends up landing at his eyebrow. “Sorry.”

Castiel starts to run his hands through his hair, slow, rhythmic, and Dean sighs, trying to resist leaning into his fingertips without much success. Castiel chuckles.

“Go to sleep, Dean.”

Dean nods, burrowing halfway into the pillow and halfway into Castiel’s shoulder. He feels soft and sticky with exhaustion, like his arms and legs cling together whenever he moves. For a moment, his mind flickers to what he almost said to Castiel in the bathtub, but he pushes that out of his mind. He wants to sleep, and that’s too troubling for the moment, requires too much consideration.

“Bonne nuit, Cas.”

He hears a soft laugh, and then there’s the suggestion of a kiss at his forehead.

“Goodnight, Dean.”

-

He wakes to Castiel gazing down at him. It’s a little unnerving, the trained focus of his eyes, but it’s mostly endearing, and Dean smiles, reaching up to run his knuckles gently down his cheek because maybe he’s been turned into a giant girl and likes doing stuff like touch Castiel’s face over and over again just to learn the structure of his bones. Whatever; Castiel leans into the touch, and the softness in his gaze is worth a little emasculation. Dean props himself up onto one elbow for a kiss; it’s soft but lingering, and when he pulls back, Castiel is still staring, almost wonderingly, like Dean can’t be real.

“Good morning.” Dean pushes his hair from his forehead. “Were you watching me sleep?”

“Yes. I think you were dreaming.”

Dean smiles because he doesn’t know what else to say, and at the look in Castiel’s eyes, profoundly tender, what he hasn’t said is coming up in his chest again, threatening to break free. He doesn’t know quite what to do with it, so he makes his best effort to shove it down again, forget it in the wash of sunlight and the cottony taste of Castiel’s mouth as they kiss again.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” he murmurs. “Don’t tell me we have to get out of bed.”

Castiel rolls his eyes. “Dean, I am not wasting another morning solely because you have the libido of a sixteen-year-old. You can get yourself off if necessary. I’m going to experience culture.”

Dean groans as Castiel winds nimbly from his arms and goes over to the dresser to find some clothes, but eventually he gets out of bed, too, and rummages around for a comfortable shirt. He gets a whiff of coffee and realizes that there’s already breakfast set out on the balcony; Castiel is fixing two plates when he finishes shaving and comes out to get a glimpse of the city. They eat in companionable silence, letting the rush of the streets and the clink of silverware against china fill the air. Dean’s endlessly grateful that he and Castiel don’t always have to talk, that they’re both prone to long intervals of quiet, and maybe not quite introspection, but something close.

They leave the plates for the cleaning service and head out into the balmy morning. Castiel doesn’t even bother with a map; he lived in Paris for a few years when he was a child, and he’s come back to visit countless times since, so he knows the city almost by heart. Dean pesters him to figure out the plan for the day, but he doesn’t divulge much more than a grunt, and eventually there’s no other choice but to relent and enjoy the sun and the winding streets without knowing where they’re headed.

They’re not going to see the Mona Lisa; Castiel says that’s too cliché, not to mention underwhelming, and he outright rolls his eyes when Dean asks if they’re going to have baguettes for lunch. At first, it seems they’re simply on a prolonged walking tour – Dean catches a glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe, and later on in the morning they even pass Notre Dame. Of course, the Eiffel Tower is always in the backdrop, but when Dean asks about that Castiel gets a shifty sort of look in his eye and only shrugs.

“Don’t be such a tourist.”

Dean takes that to mean he’s onto something.

But for the meantime, Castiel doesn’t seem to have a distinct destination in mind. They stop for lunch at a bakery, and Dean actually does buy a baguette; even if he stumbles over the French and the cashier looks less than impressed, it’s worth it to see the glower on Castiel’s face. They head down to Luxembourg Gardens and find a bench, and Dean chucks hunks of bread at the geese while Castiel watches, caught between amused and disapproving.

“You bought that to eat,” he says at some point.

“I ate some of it.” Dean nails a goose in the head with a lump and it squawks in alarm, sending the whole flock into a chaos of flapping wings. “Oops.”

“You’re a child.”

“Whatever.” Dean takes a bite of bread. “You love me anyways.”

Dean is in the middle of chewing and has to swallow too suddenly; the weight of the words settles uncomfortably in the back of his throat, a lump weighing down his breathing. Castiel, however, doesn’t seem to have noticed; there’s a half-smile on his face and an absent look in his eyes as he watches the geese settle down again, squawking amongst themselves and fanning out their wings like they’ve got someone to impress. At length, once Dean’s heartbeat has quieted and his breathing has evened, he reaches for Castiel’s hand and eases back into the quiet comfort of his presence.

They wander the gardens for a while, holding hands without quite realizing it, and the afternoon starts to wane away, the sunlight aging to a brassy sort of yellow that plays funny tricks on the blue of Castiel’s eyes. When Dean spots a group of children playing on one of the spacious lawns, shrieking and stumbling over each other, he’s painfully reminded of how badly he wants to share all of this with Sam. Maybe Castiel senses the sudden shift in his mood, because he draws closer so that their arms brush together, and Dean decides to take the gesture as a silent reassurance, pressing Castiel’s palm in gratitude.

Eventually, Castiel leads him out of the park with the promise of dinner, but they end up walking halfway across the city again before he shows any sign of stopping. Dean can’t complain, though – the city is beautiful at dusk, with the streetlamps gradually flickering to life and the streets otherwise cast in the murky penumbra that can only exist in that tiny slip of time just between afternoon and night. At last they cross a tile patio crammed with people and emerge onto a long green that swells up to the base of the Eiffel Tower. Dean grins like a madman.

“Come now, Cas. Don’t be such a tourist.”

“Shut up.” Castiel tugs him forwards. “Some clichés exist for a reason.”

Castiel, perhaps in a fit of insane romanticism, has actually booked a reservation for dinner on the first tier of the tower. If Dean thought the meal on the river cruise was corny, this is a new achievement to say the least. He bristles at the look on the hostess’ face when she spots them heading towards the front of the restaurant, but Castiel puts a hand on his arm and he swallows his anger, even though he hates it when people get off on the novelty of their relationship.

Castiel examines the wine list at length, but Dean just orders a beer; the waiter raises an eyebrow, but he honestly can’t be pressed to quell his lack of culture at the moment. It’s a bit dizzying to be here with Castiel in one of the most romantic spots in the world, living out pretty much every housewife’s dream with his boyfriend of scarcely two months, and he wants something a little more grounding. Castiel laughs for about a minute straight once the waiter has vanished with their drink orders, mumbling something about how Dean never fails to surprise him, and when Dean asks if he meant that in the good way or the bad way, he smiles softly and says he meant it in the best way possible.

It’s stupid, but Dean is thrilled, and they’re grinning at each other like fools, and don’t stop for the rest of the meal, no matter what sort of looks the waiter casts about from the corner of his eye. At some point, a couple dining at the next table over gets up to leave, but before they go the lady comes over and puts a hand on Castiel’s shoulder with a warm smile. Dean doesn’t catch what she says, but Castiel’s ears turn pink, and he mumbles merci with uncharacteristic shyness. Dean is, of course, ferociously curious.

“What did she say?”

Castiel exhales, still tinged pink in places. “She thinks we’re adorable.”

“Oh.” Dean takes a sip of beer. “How nice of her to comment. You know, that’ll look real good in the customer review section.”

“Stop. It was sweet.”

“It was unnecessary.”

Castiel shrugs. “It made me happy.”

“Well, you’re weird.”

The waiter cuts off the rest of Castiel’s argument, and Dean digs enthusiastically into dinner even if Castiel rolls his eyes and takes birdlike bites just to make some sort of inexplicable point. It’s a fond sort of discord, though, and by the end of dinner they’re stupid and affectionate again, and Castiel even taps at Dean’s ankle under the table even though he knows footsie makes Dean nervous. By the time Castiel very firmly denies dessert and pays the check, night has fully descended into the city, and the tower is aglow like you only see in pictures.

They take the stairs for as long as they can, and then cram into an elevator with what must be hundreds of other American tourists. It’s uncomfortable, and Dean ends up pressed so close to Castiel that it’s a struggle not to kiss him right then and there, but when the doors chime open again and Paris is spread before them like a brittle blanket, the night soaking thick and inky through the cracks and crevices, and Castiel presses close, taking his hand, Dean can scarcely breathe.

And it’s not really because the view is so picturesque, not because the lights of the tower look good on Castiel, coloring his hair and eyes eerily yellow in places, not because Dean is just swept off his feet with the romanticism of it all. Rather, it’s because all of a sudden, words are forcing their way up his throat again, and where everything was nebulous before, lacking form or real meaning, now it’s too distinct in his mind, almost sharp in its clarity, pressing uncomfortably into his every thought. It’s very simple, really, and he thinks he’s known for a while, but he doesn’t know what to do, not yet, except that he can’t say it, he definitely can’t say it.

He’s in love with Castiel, of course. He loves him profoundly, helplessly; unwittingly, he’s carved out a place for him in his heart that he thought he would give to nobody, somewhere just below Sam and Bobby, just before family, everything that’s ever mattered to him in his entire life. The realization settles heavily into his chest, but Dean knows that it’s been there for a good while, that he just hasn’t been listening hard enough to understand.

He loves Castiel, and not because Castiel can take him on a thousand tours of Europe, not because Castiel comes from an elite and frigid family, but because he gave Dean his own translation of La Vita Nuova, because he can command a classroom with as much affection as wisdom, because he doesn’t know anything about cars, because he knows everything about good wine, because he’s honest with everything he says and does down to the very expression on his face, and most of all because he knows Dean is just a poor boy with nothing to his name but a GED, a moldy apartment, trust issues, and a 1967 Chevy Impala, but wants him anyways, sees some fragment of good that the rest of the world overlooked long ago.

He loves Castiel for the right reasons, and that’s a problem.

-

They’re drunk. They stopped for dessert and Castiel got another bottle of red wine, and he promised not to finish it, so they finished it together, and now they are rather drunk, or perhaps very drunk – Dean’s not exactly sure. At least they got a taxi back to the hotel; otherwise, they would have probably wandered the city until dawn, hanging off of each other and maybe kissing sloppily every once in a while. Granted, that would have been alright, but Dean definitely prefers the hotel bed, where things are still sloppy, but not quite so aimless.

In fact, Castiel is very deliberate in cramming his fingers beneath the hem of Dean’s trousers, even if he’s forgotten to take off his belt first, and Dean vaguely remembers undoing half the buttons of his shirt in the back of the taxi – perhaps to the driver’s chagrin, he can’t remember – so that now the fabric falling from his shoulders and he can get at his chest. Dean bites into the smooth skin at the base of his throat and Castiel swears; he pushes Dean into the mattress, but lets Dean roll him over scarcely a moment later, gasping for breath, fingers fumbling at his shirt.

Dean kisses him relentlessly, head spinning with the wine and the smell of Castiel’s cologne; he presses his mouth down his throat, feels the reverberation of a heavy swallow, burrows into his collarbone. Castiel finally gets his shirt off and runs his hands down his sides, hooking his ankles up to the swell of his behind, digging his fingers into the small of his back. Dean feels the strain of his trousers and straddles Castiel so that he can kick them away, gasping for breath, blood pounding. Castiel groans and pushes his hips upwards; Dean swears and makes for the button on his jeans, kissing at the dip of his stomach, the curve of his hipbone.

He stops at the sweet spot just below the hemline and kisses back up Castiel’s chest until he can look at him properly, so close that their foreheads press together. Castiel grins deliriously and winds one hand into the hair at the nape of Dean’s neck, hips bucking a bit already, eyes hooded. He’s a lovely drunk, flushed all over, shamelessly needy, and Dean loves him to pieces.

“What do you want, Cas?” he breathes. “You can have anything you want.”

“Do you want the truth?” Castiel draws his teeth along his ear and Dean shivers.

“Yeah. Of course.”

Castiel leans back to meet his eyes. “I would really like you to fuck me.”

Dean swallows; the idea settles heavy and exhilarating in his chest, and a painful jolt of heat splinters down his stomach. He pictures Castiel undone in his arms, imagines the soft give of his body, and wants that more than he’s ever wanted anything. He kisses Castiel tenderly.

“I can’t, Cas.”

“What? You said I could have anything.” Castiel frowns. “Don’t you want to?”

“Do you think I’m insane? Of course I want to.” Dean cradles Castiel’s cheek in his palm. “Just not right now. It’s not the right time.”

Castiel harrumphs, pressing his face into Dean’s shoulder.

“I’m not a girl, Dean.”

“Hey, now. Sexism.” Dean strokes the back of his neck. “I know, Cas. But you are drunk, and so am I. I’ll – we’ll do it soon, I promise. I’m ready. I just want to be sober, okay?”

Castiel pulls out of the crook of his shoulder to meet his eyes.

“And you say I’m the romantic one in this relationship.”

Dean shrugs. “So sue me.”

Castiel mumbles that he’s a tease, but Dean cuts off the end of the sentence with a kiss, and it’s not long before he’s easily worked the tension from Castiel’s body, kissing at his chin, his jaw, the crook of his neck until he’s pliable again, maybe a little grouchy, but still very drunk and rather wanting. His hips are pressing into Dean’s again, and pretty soon it’s almost too much to bear, and with the wine pounding in his blood and the reminder that he’s in love ringing too clear in his mind, Dean comes undone on nearly the same beat as Castiel, drowning a sigh against his mouth.

He rolls over and pulls Castiel into his chest, nestling his head under his chin. They’ll regret it in the morning, but right now they’re too tired to clean up and turn out the lights. Just as Dean’s drifting off, Castiel mumbles something into his chest, but he doesn’t catch it because he’s too absorbed in his own thoughts. One thought in particular, that is, and once he’s sure Castiel is asleep, he tries the words on for size, a silent admission to a nonexistent audience, just syllables dissolving in the dark.

I love you, Castiel.

He falls asleep with the echo clinging to his dreams.

Chapter Text

The next morning brings thudding hangovers, so Dean forces Castiel into a greasy breakfast to assuage the pain before they take the train into the countryside. Even if the brilliant sunlight is a little too much for pounding heads and dry eyes, it’s nice to breathe fresh air, free of exhaust and cigarette smoke and the otherwise inescapable rumble of the city. They wander aimlessly about a village tucked away in the pleats of the hills, and Castiel speaks a rich, rolling dialect of French to the townspeople, drawing out every conversation to such an extent that Dean wonders if he’s doing it on purpose, trying to get under his collar.

They spent nearly the entire day in the countryside, exploring and even hiking a little bit in the late afternoon. At some point, they stumble across a curio shop. Dean buys a couple knick-knacks for Sam, and Castiel gets a few jars of fruit preserves for his kitchen and a huge bag of ribbon candy for Gabriel. Dean raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything. Let Castiel’s family have their quirks. After all, the Winchesters certainly have plenty to speak of in that regard.

Dusk has started to fall over the hills like an indistinct grey cloak when they board the train for Spain. It’s a long ride and they won’t make it into the city until late, so Castiel has ordered a private car, and they settle down onto the seats sort of wrapped up in each other. Dean rests his head on Castiel’s shoulder and Castiel strokes his hair; their legs are meshed at the ankles, and their hands sit entwined atop Dean’s knee. They only unwind to head to the dining car; otherwise, Dean either dozes or pushes through La Vita Nuova, and Castiel entertains a battered collection of Camus and Sartre for what seems like hours. Once in a while, lips might press into Dean’s hair, whisper against his forehead, but otherwise it’s comfortably still, wrapped in the sort of amiable silence that can only come from deep mutual understanding.

At last, Dean slips asleep for what must be a very long time, because he wakes to the hiss of brakes and Castiel pushing at his shoulder. He comes blearily awake and stretches over the seat to kiss Castiel on the forehead before heading to get their luggage down from the rack. Castiel follows, straightening the hem of his shirt and smoothing the wrinkles from his trousers, and takes a suitcase from Dean.

“Did you sleep well?”

“Perfectly.” Dean drops a brief kiss on his mouth before they leave the compartment. “You should know that you’re a very nice pillow.”

Castiel rolls his eyes. “I do try.”

For the last leg of the trip, Castiel has chosen a beach community (which to Dean seems a curious decision because he can’t honestly imagine Castiel lounging in the sun or splashing in the ocean or building sandcastles), and stepping from the train they’re buffeted with a wall of warm salty air. Dean breathes deeply, closing his eyes because there’s something about a breeze just kicked up from the sea that seems therapeutic no matter what. Castiel, on the other hand, looks at him like he’s insane.

“What are you doing?”

“Breathing.”

“Oh. Silly me.”

“Come on, Cas.” Dean grins as they head out of the station. “Live a little.”

Castiel shoots him a very skeptical look as he steps off the curb to hail a cab. “By breathing?”

Dean chuckles and winds an arm around Castiel’s waist, giving his hips a squeeze before a cab pulls up to the curb. Castiel loads the luggage into the trunk while Dean gives the driver directions, satisfied to hear that his Spanish hasn’t slipped in the least and that he can blend into the regional accent without a hitch. The cabbie drives like a madman and they’re at the hotel in what seems like nothing more than five minutes flat, a little flustered and vaguely terrified, but glad to have economized so well on the fare. Dean pays and goes to help Castiel unload the luggage.

By now, he’s accustomed to excessive hotels, and the sight of the clean, stylish façade and golden accents is no surprise. But Castiel has good tastes, and the place is a little homier than most of the monolithic resorts right on the beach, landscaped with shrubs rather than towering palms and befitted with an elaborate terrace and garden rather than an enormous pool. It’s classy, and Dean can tell that it’s a favorite of the locals just by the way the bellboy speaks. The room is understated, too, simple white linen and marble fixtures sculpted in rolling shapes that remind Dean of waves.

Dean tips the valet and talks to him a little while about the hotel and the coast. The man is really gregarious, and Dean even ends up asking for a couple restaurant recommendations even though he knows Castiel probably has the whole thing planned. About halfway through the conversation, he realizes that Castiel is fixed on him, watching intently from where he’s unpacking the suitcases, subtle in such a way that only someone as trained in his little habits and idioms as Dean would notice. Dean swallows and steers towards a closing point; the moment the valet is gone, Castiel sort of tiptoes across the room, moving with an impossibly fluid delicacy, like he’s dancing over broken class.

Without a word, he takes Dean’s face in both hands and kisses him, gently at first, but then more forcefully. Dean reels back a little, but manages to catch his balance and hook an arm around Castiel’s waist, surrendering to the kiss without much of a fight. Castiel is very deliberate, fastening Dean into place with hands digging into his hair, on tiptoes so that knees dig into thighs, and then Dean is pressed against the far wall with his arms full and heavy with Castiel. He tries to breathe, but Castiel just kisses him again, again and again and again until at last he breaks away, biting at Deans’ lower lip as he withdraws.

Dean wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “What was that about?”

Castiel leans forwards so that their foreheads press together, eyes aglow.

“Nothing. I’ve just been waiting to do that all night.”

Castiel is very close, and Dean kisses him without a second thought, testing the give of his mouth. Castiel is pliable but active, hands running every which way over Dean’s face and neck, pausing at his cheekbones, his chin, the thrum of his jugular. At last, Dean pulls away, dropping a kiss at the tip of Castiel’s nose with an affectionate hum in the back of his throat.

“That’s good to know. Me too, now that I think about it.”

“Indeed.” Castiel is toying with Dean’s shirt, plucking the fabric up and smoothing it out over and over again. “It’s unfortunately late at night.”

Dean laughs. “Or early in the morning. Are we going to the beach tomorrow? Or today, I guess.”

Castiel nods distractedly, trailing his thumb along the sinews in Dean’s neck, stopping at the point of his pulse, eyes unfocused. Dean shivers and rubs at Castiel’s arms, pushing his shirt up to his elbows without really thinking about it. This sort of easy intimacy is new and unprecedented, but it doesn’t require much consideration at all, and Dean absently heads to the buttons of Castiel’s shirt, letting his palms span the triangle of warm skin below his collarbone.

“Dean.”

It’s a question, of course. Dean ducks his chin, heat prickling his cheeks.

“I don’t want to be tired tomorrow.” It’s obvious what’s going unsaid between them. “How about tonight we just – Christ, you’ve turned me into the biggest girl ever, you know that?”

Castiel cracks a smile. “I would be happy just to cuddle, too, Dean.”

“Thanks.” Dean kisses Castiel gently. “Soon. I promise.”

“I didn’t say anything.” Castiel starts unbuttoning Dean’s shirt with total innocence, one hand still balanced in the curve of his neck. “I don’t mind if you’re the biggest girl ever.”

Dean chuckles and kisses Castiel again, nudging open his mouth and pressing forwards until everything is soft, blurred at the edges, and when Dean breaks away he can hear Castiel sigh, wistful, an insubstantial little noise. It occurs to Dean that it would be very easy to say it right then and there, what’s been haunting the back corner of his mind ever since he really looked at Castiel atop the Eiffel Tower. But he doesn’t; he can’t, he’s too afraid, and he doesn’t want to ruin the easy serenity of the moment.

Castiel turns out the lights as Dean steps out of his jeans; he comes over and undoes Castiel’s belt, pushing his slacks down to his knees before dragging him onto the mattress, splayed luxuriously over his chest with his elbows planted on either side of his head. Castiel bends to give him a long, thoughtful kiss that only ends up as just an indistinct mess of shadows and sensations in the dark. Dean bends into him, hands coursing down his sides, drawing him down.

“Under the covers,” mumbles Castiel against his mouth. “Let’s get under the covers, Dean. You said you just wanted to cuddle.”

Dean manages to shimmy under the comforter without letting go of Castiel, tugging him into his chest, cradling his head in the crook of his neck.

“I never said exactly that. And this is cuddling.”

“It’s borderline,” sniffs Castiel, but he props himself up onto one arm to get a better look at Dean, eyes wide and silver in the shadows. Unable to resist, Dean hooks an arm around his shoulders to draw him closer still, fingers splayed on the strong planes of his back. Castiel sighs and settles comfortably against him, sketching aimless little patterns over his bare chest with the tip of his index finger.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he mumbles into the dark. Dean groans.,p.“Pillow talk? Seriously? Come on, Cas. That’s a new achievement in gay.”

“Then I should congratulate myself.”

At that, Dean peers up at Castiel’s face, trying to pinpoint a note of bitterness, worried that he’s taken the joke a step too far, but all he finds is amusement, an easy affectionate glow in his eyes. It seems, he thinks breathlessly, that Castiel has an infinite tolerance for stupidity and foolish excuses, a tolerance that Dean doesn’t deserve. But then again, he considers, maybe that’s just love. The idea settles uncomfortably into his stomach and he pushes it into the corner of his mind for the time being because he really can’t handle the prospect that Castiel might love him, too. It’s simply too much, too immense a concept. Dean presses his thumb to the generous bow of Castiel’s lower lip.

“I’m not really thinking about much,” he whispers. “Just what’s at hand.”

Castiel seems to mull that over for a minute before his face splits into a grin. He leans down to drop a kiss on Dean’s chin, leisurely drifting up to his mouth, the tip of his nose. For his part, Dean pushes the thick dark hair from his forehead, running his thumbs along the little creases, the first signs of age.

“Your turn.”

Castiel smiles. “Honestly?”

“Honestly.”

Castiel rolls over a bit so that his cheek rests on the pillow just a hairsbreadth from Dean. “I haven’t been to the beach since I was two years old, and I am very excited.”

“What?” Dean raises himself onto one elbow. “You mean your family never took you?”

Castiel shakes his head. “My parents were always occupied.”

“Right, I remember you mentioning that.” Dean rolls over so that he gazes up at the ceiling and Castiel comes over instinctively to rest his head on his chest. “Well, if it’s any consolation, dad never took me and Sammy anywhere, either. We did go with Bobby a few times, though, and once with mom, but I don’t remember that time so well.”

“What was your mother like, Dean?”

Dean swallows. Words don’t exist that would describe Mary.

“Remind me to tell you some other time.”

“Alright.” Exhaustion is clouding Castiel’s voice, blurring together the syllables and words into a streak of sound. “Goodnight, Dean.”

Dean presses his cheek into Castiel’s hair and shuts his eyes. “Goodnight, Cas.”

-

They wake with the sun, far too early in Dean’s opinion, but Castiel is out of bed in a matter of seconds, hurrying to the shower with a palpable energy that saturates the room like morning sunlight. Dean follows grumblingly into the bathroom and crowds up beside Castiel beneath the stream of hot water. At some point while Castiel is washing his hair, Dean kisses him, pressing his shoulders against the slick wall of the shower, and he forgets the soap that runs down his body in thick rivulets. They both come quickly; it’s refreshing, to say the least, and Dean meets the morning in considerably better spirits.

Although breakfast is brief, just coffee and fruit from the complimentary bowl left out on the coffee table, Castiel spends what seems an hour slathering on sunscreen, and even though Dean is happy to get the unreachable spots on his back, dropping a kiss every few inches before he applies the lotion and feeling a shiver course up Castiel’s spine beneath his lips, it’s an otherwise dull process. To make matters worse, all the while Castiel gives extensive and informed lectures on the dangers of melanoma, and Dean has trouble looking at the faint freckles on his cheeks the same way afterwards. Even so, it’s sort of endearing that Castiel is so concerned, and Dean can’t help but smile when he insists that they bring the bottle along to reapply halfway through the day.

“You weren’t kidding when you said you hadn’t been to the beach since you were two.”

Dean presses Castiel’s palm to take any bite from the words; they’re stepping from the hotel into a brilliant day, and Castiel cups one hand over his eyes despite the fact that he’s already wearing sunglasses, little creases forming at his brow.

“Why would I kid about such a thing?”

“Forget it,” chuckles Dean. “It’s cute.”

Castiel turns to give him one of those trademark quizzical looks over the rim of his sunglasses. “What’s cute?”

“Hell if I know.” Dean shrugs. “You.”

Castiel looks away, but Dean can tell that he’s trying to fight down a smile. It’s at once reassuring and a little alarming that he can read Castiel so well nowadays, that even just the minutest movement holds a wealth of private meaning if he interprets it the right way. He likes it, though, because it makes Castiel less of a mystery and more of a man, not just a blue-eyed alien magnetic force from which Dean cannot hope to escape.

Halfway along the walk to the shore, Castiel sheepishly admits that he plans to spend the whole day at the beach, and Dean can’t help but laugh. At first, Castiel looks a little hurt, but then Dean leans down and kisses him in front of the entire beach because it doesn’t matter anymore if someone sees and he softens, turning more of curious than upset. He blinks up at Dean with too-wide eyes and Dean instinctively scratches at the back of his neck, still unnerved by the intensity of that gaze, but in a good way that curls warm in his stomach.

“Man, you’re such a dork.” He sort of cuffs Castiel gently about the neck, but drops a kiss into his hair at the same time, so in the end the sportsmanlike effect is somewhat lost. The boardwalk abruptly gives into sand and Dean kicks off his shoes, flexing his toes contentedly. This beach isn’t exactly like the ones back home; it’s much more crowded and not quite so clean and the sand isn’t so white, but it’s nice anyways, and Castiel is staring like he’s never seen anything quite like it before in his entire life.

“Come on, Cas.” Dean jerks his head towards the surf. “We gotta get set up. This was your idea, remember?”

Castiel seems to break out of a bit of a trance, blinking slowly up at Dean, shading his eyes with the sun. “Of course. I’m right behind you.”

They find a clear patch of sand and lay their towels out side by side. Castiel frets over the direct sunlight for a while, but Dean manages to coax him away from the bottle of sunscreen with the promise of the ocean. At that, the enthusiasm that suddenly shines in his eyes is infectious, spreading into Dean with nothing more than a fleeting glance. He’s still a little too proud to hold hands as their toes edge into the surf, but that’s alright; Castiel is too transfixed by the waves to notice. It’s almost as if he’d never seen the ocean, not even once, and Dean tells him so.

“Sorry.” Castiel almost blushes, running a hand through his hair in a jerky, nervous sort of movement that comes off as uncharacteristic. “It’s very beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Don’t apologize.” Dean gazes out across the ocean, at the crystalline waves, a blue just a shade deeper than the sky stretched taut and dizzyingly bright over their heads, at the sunlight glinting off the dimpled surface of the water. “It really is beautiful. Want to go out into the waves?”

Castiel looks at him and nods sort of wonderingly. Dean tries to swallow the enamored sort of ache that blooms in his chest and wades out deeper until the water is lapping at his waist, glancing back over his shoulder to make sure that Castiel is following. The first wave crashes and sweeps Dean back a few feet so that they’re even with each other; Castiel is dragging his fingers through the rush of water, looking vaguely amazed at the wash of foam, gaze unfocused. Little droplets cling to his hair and eyelashes, trembling like unstable jewels in the sun, and Dean can barely resist kissing each one away.

“Come on.” He points further out. “Follow me.”

They head out until they’re almost up to their shoulders; not many people venture out that far, and it’s relatively private if you ignore the stretch of beach and the people floating in the water closer to the shore. Castiel tilts his face up so that the sun washes over him; the water frames him like a bolt of cloth, mirroring his eyes, that surreal impossible blue. Dean treads water and closes his eyes, enjoying the feel of the current, gentle but strong enough to toss him back and forth a little bit if he doesn’t hold his ground.

Eventually, he cracks one eye open to get a look at Castiel. “Pretty sweet, huh?”

“Yes.” Castiel paddles over closer to Dean, smiling breathlessly. “Pretty sweet, indeed.”

Dean laughs, and because there’s nobody else out that far so there’s the illusion of being alone, he reaches for Castiel, winding his arms around his waist until their foreheads touch. Castiel wraps his arms around Dean’s neck and leans into a kiss, mouth gritty, tasting of salt and sun and sand.

“Your family really never took you here?” murmurs Dean against his lips, carding one hand through the hair at the nape of Castiel’s neck, testing the heat of the sun on his skin.

“It would not have been advisable.” Another kiss. “Too many kids, too little parental involvement. The nannies could never handle all of us at once.”

Dean chuckles, running his hands down Castiel’s sides beneath the surface of the water. “Sounds like an interesting family.”

“To say the least.” Castiel meets his gaze, eyes aglow, and leans forwards so that their mouths are just a hairsbreadth apart. “I can’t kiss you when you’re talking, Dean.”

They only swim back to shore once they’re exhausted and pruned from the water; they eat at a food kiosk on the boardwalk and head back to the beach to sunbathe. Castiel reads his French existentialism and Dean flips through La Vita Nuova for what seems the umpteenth time, trying to make intelligent annotations but really only ending up with sand between the pages. Every once in a while Castiel will wordlessly duck his head towards Dean for a quick kiss, or visa-versa. Nobody on the beach bats an eye. It’s a nice setup.

At sunset, they gather their things and head back to the hotel for a shower and some dinner. They go out late, so the city is already in full-swing, vibrating with life. Dinner is quiet, however – good food in a secluded restaurant off the beaten track, and Dean smiles the whole time, even when Castiel forces him to at least try to wine. He’s careful not to get drunk, though; he has something in mind, and he’s pretty sure Castiel is thinking along the same lines as they walk slowly back to the hotel, enjoying the summer air and the roar of the city. It doesn’t really need saying.

It’s the epitome of silly, of course, to plan sex. It’s supposed to be spontaneous, a fit of passion, clothes melting away and limbs tangling magically together and mindboggling orgasms with no repercussions. But Dean knows the moment Castiel kisses him in the elevator heading up to their room that it’s not going to be like that, not at all. Castiel is eager but tentative at the same time, and Dean is already almost painfully nervous. He’s fucked plenty of girls before, maybe even loved a few, but he’s never done anything quite like this, and he doesn’t know where to start.

When they get into the room, Castiel shuts the door softly behind them and sort of seems to float over to Dean, hovering close without really touching him. He clears his throat, meets his eyes, unusually hesitant, and at last takes one of his hands, smoothing his thumb over the swell of his palm. Dean fights down a sudden panic; this isn’t some random girl he picked up at a bar, this is Castiel, whom he loves more than he can admit, and he wants nothing more than to do this the right way.

“Do you want to?” Castiel is focused on his hand. “We don’t have to right now. Anything is okay, really.”

“I know. Thanks.” Dean exhales unsteadily. “But I want to.”

Castiel meets his eyes and Dean swallows before fastening one hand into the collar of his shirt and drawing him upwards; there’s a moment of hesitation before the kiss, and then Castiel knits his fingers into Dean’s hair, and it’s gone from there. It’s not a fit of passion by any means; Dean fumbles with Castiel’s buttons, and for his part Castiel seems perplexed by his belt for a good while, but the whole mess it softened by the fact that they’re Dean and Castiel and they’re a little bit in love even if they haven’t said anything yet.

Eventually, Dean finds the backs of his knees pressed up against the edge of the bed. To his surprise, Castiel turns in his arms and pulls them both down onto the mattress, arching up a bit with a gentle sigh as Dean presses his mouth to his throat, his collarbone, the planes of his chest. He’s pliant, almost submissive, but his hands wander relentlessly over Dean, testing every nuance in his arms and shoulders and back and chest and stomach until they stall at the hem of his boxers, suddenly uncertain. Dean kisses him on the mouth and thumbs slide to the bare bones of his hips.

It’s good, really good, just like it’s always been, and Dean almost forgets the awkwardness, the uncertainty. He kisses down Castiel’s chest, the dip of his stomach, stops at the crux of his thigh, smiling into his skin when he groans and knits his fingers into Dean’s hair. He dallies for a while, littering kisses at the soft spots at Castiel’s hips and the insides of his thighs before taking him into his mouth, working until Castiel has to tear his head away, chest heaving, eyes blurred.

“Not like that,” he groans. “Come here.”

Dean’s stomach drops; he clambers up towards Castiel for another kiss, sighing as his hips jut upwards, jolting against Dean, jagged and unsteady. Castiel leans back to run his fingers through his hair, and he’s nervous again in a matter of seconds, realizing that the moment is at hand. Castiel’s already put lube and a condom handy on the nightstand, and Dean tears open the package with shaking fingers because Castiel is observing him with an unnerving air of calm, almost as if he trusts Dean completely, will give himself wholly without a second though, and this is it, this is really it.

Dean, however, has seen enough porn to hesitate, and glances back nervously over his shoulder at Castiel, spread flushed over the sheets.

“Shouldn’t I…” The words stick in his throat. Castiel regards him curiously all the while. Dean exhales sharply through his nose. “I don’t know, prepare you?”

Castiel smiles tenderly. “Not really. I used to do this a lot. Not nowadays, of course, but my body is still used to it. You’ll be fine.”

Dean takes a shaky breath. “Okay, but you have to tell me if I– ”

“You won’t hurt me,” murmurs Castiel. “But I’ll shout if you do.”

Dean swallows heavily, and he knows Castiel notices because the moment he climbs back across the mattress arms are encircling his neck with overwhelming tenderness, and a kiss somehow lands at his forehead, smoothing away the creases. Dean takes one of Castiel’s legs and hooks it over his shoulder, aligning their hips, one hand braced at his thigh. His pulse is screaming, but Castiel doesn’t seem worried, just leans up for a kiss, pressing one hand into his cheek. He’s ready. Dean grits his teeth.

He meets resistance at first, and that’s alarming to say the least, but Castiel only gasps and bucks his hips a bit, trying to ease him closer. Dean can’t breathe for a very long moment, terrified and amazed and paralyzed all at once, but Castiel hooks one ankle to his hip, fingers digging into his back, unsteady but eager. At last, Dean exhales gratingly; he’s never felt anything quite like this, the give of his body, the feel of his heart pounding so close. It’s a while before he pushes his hips forwards, then back, unsteady and jagged at first, but then it’s happening, it’s really happening, and it’s awkward and sloppy but it’s real, and that’s what matters.

Castiel starts mumbling his name over and over again until the syllables slur together into nonsense, and it occurs to Dean that he’s babbling too, nothing but broken noises caught between the groan of the bed and the rustle of the sheets. It’s probably something about love, he thinks hazily, but he’s pretty sure Castiel won’t remember, so that’s alright. He can feel his heartbeat, thudding frantically, trapped between their bodies, taste the sweat on his brow; he burrows into everything that is Castiel, immerses himself, never wants to emerge.

He’s never had sex like this before; it’s a mutual effort, and every once in a while Castiel pulls away to kiss Dean so tenderly that his chest aches, and he’s nearly out of his mind when he finally comes undone, just before Castiel, crumbling into his arms with a groan, head landing against his chest. Castiel arches from the mattress, nails biting into the small of Dean’s back, and goes limp with a sigh, eyes falling shut. They lie like that for a long time, Dean pressed into Castiel’s chest, hands still fastened onto his hips, Castiel against the pillows, smoothing the hair from his forehead again and again.

“Thank you, Dean.”

Dean lifts his head. “For what?”

“Everything.” Castiel is smiling and Dean’s chest hurts again, perhaps with the weight of all that is still going unsaid. “And, Dean – well, one more thing.”

Dean’s heart stutters. “Yeah?”

Castiel is quiet for a long time. “Nothing. It was stupid.”

Dean opens his mouth, but Castiel lunges down for a kiss before he can protest, and that’s the end of it. With that, they turn out the lights and clamber beneath the sheets; Castiel rests his head on Dean’s chest and Dean pulls him close by the shoulders, pressing his lips into his hair, inhaling sweat and cologne and the thick smell of sex. He loves Castiel so much it actually hurts, and he would like nothing more than to say it, especially now, but he can’t, he’s still too afraid. He damns himself and breathes Castiel in because he can do nothing else.

After a long time of silence in the dark with the rhythm of their combined heartbeats marking the time, Dean shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath.

“My mother was beautiful,” he says. “And whenever I want to think of something good, I think of her. When I was a kid she used to let me help her bake, and she made the best apple pie, and she always gave me a taste of the brown sugar, and made it seem like a secret, just between us. She had blonde hair and she smelled like home; it’s something I can’t really describe, but I used to bury my face in her neck to get more of it. I haven’t smelled it since she died. When I was sick, she read to me and made my favorite foods even if I couldn’t eat them, and even slept in my room. She laughed all the time and sung me lullabies. Kansas and Led Zeppelin. The good stuff. You know. She was everything good in our lives and when she died nobody knew what to do. That was her. That was Mary.”

Dean opens his eyes again and Castiel is gazing at him with an expression that defies words.

“Thank you, Dean,” he says at long last. “I’m – thank you.”

Dean clears his throat. “Sure. I just thought, if you still wanted to know...well, now you know.”

Castiel kisses Dean with impossible tenderness, and they fall asleep wrapped up in each other, and Dean smiles stupidly into the dark because even if spring break is almost over and he has to go back to work and school and only really seeing Castiel on the weekends, now he has another time to look back on that was purely good, and that’s more than enough.

Chapter Text

The second flight is considerably more enjoyable than the first. They head out from the hotel before dawn, bent over coffees with their hands wrapped together across the gap between the seats. Through the windows of the airport, they watch the sunrise shatter over the horizon in a wash of baby pinks and yellows. On the plane, Castiel busies himself with his laptop, and Dean dozes with his head pillowed on his shoulder, finally oblivious to the stares and whispers of the other passengers. Later on, they watch the movie on the in-flight programming; it’s a terrible film, and they spend more time mocking the actors than actually paying attention to the plot. Then it’s Castiel’s turn to fall asleep, nestled into his seat with one hand warm on Dean’s knee, and then the flight is over, gone in a flash.

At the baggage claim, Castiel looks considerably more somber, hefting his suitcase with a heavy sigh that Dean suspects has nothing to do with the weight.

“Hey, Cas.” He touches Castiel on the arm, lingering until he meets his gaze. “Nothing is gonna change, you know that? Things are just more American again, that’s all.”

“I know, Dean,” murmurs Castiel. “I know. I just didn’t want it to be over.”

It feels like something is stuck in Dean’s throat, jarring his words. “Me neither, man.”

Castiel gives him a quick kiss as they head for the street, smiling softly as he pulls away. Dean’s phone buzzes; it’s a text from Sam welcoming him back to the States, a bit cheeky at the end, like always. He laughs and is suddenly reminded of how sorely he missed home, the crowded apartment, his little brother’s smile, everything. Even if he has to return to running himself to the bone night and day working to pay tuition and finish school, even if he and Castiel have to go back to keeping their relationship largely a secret, it’s worth it. Dean is glad to remember that everything he does is for a reason, just one reason: Sam.

“I missed him so much,” he says cryptically. “Man, I love that kid.”

Castiel, of course, understands what he’s saying in the blink of an eye, and reaches down to wind their fingers together, pressing his palm.

“I’m sure Sam missed you, too, Dean. You are closer than any two people I have ever known.”

Dean smiles and drops a kiss on his forehead. “It’s gonna be a drag not getting to do this every day, though.” He squeezes Castiel’s hand. “We’ll just have to make extra time.”

“Yes.” Castiel is smiling too, eyes bright. “Yes, we will, Dean.”

They get a cab back to Castiel’s place. It’s Saturday night, so Dean sleeps over. They’re both too exhausted to do anything more than clean up and collapse on the bed wrapped up in each other; Castiel is pressed into Dean’s chest with his arms askew over his waist. In the morning, Castiel makes breakfast, and kisses Dean lingeringly at the doorstep before ushering him away to go meet up with Sam. It’s a little bittersweet, but Dean’s eager to see his brother, and he figures he’ll see Castiel again in less than a day anyways, so there’s not much cause to mourn.

He and Sam spend the afternoon catching up over too much pizza, cold beer and Pepsi, and reruns of bad medical dramas. Dean tries to stick to describing the sightseeing rather than divulging any details regarding his serious relationship with one of the faculty members at his little brother’s prestigious academy (the more he remembers the whole situation, the more awkward it seems), but Sam is too inquisitive for his own good and ends up getting a lot more than he bargained for. To be fair, however, he certainly has a lot to say about Jessica, and Dean even goes so far as to resist teasing to wheedle more information out of him.

He drops Sam off at the dorms that evening and drives home to finish reading La Vita Nuova. He almost succeeds before the phone rings; he can’t be angry, though, because it’s Castiel, and they stay up talking way too late like teenagers whispering so as not to be heard by watchful parents. It’s nothing important, just the desire to hear each other’s voices, and Dean is smiling like an idiot when he hangs up the phone far past midnight and falls asleep assured that nothing will change, nothing at all.

In the morning he gets an early breakfast at the diner; he’s almost late to work because he spends so much time catching up with Ellen and Jo, but all he can think as he speeds to the academy is that it’s nice to be home, and he’s starting to feel like he can take on the world. He parks and heads to the classroom; a few students are there already, snapping gum and fiddling with their iPhones, but otherwise it’s quiet. Castiel’s trademark coffee mug is set out on the desk, however, so Dean figures he must have gone to make copies or something.

In the end, however, Castiel is late to class for the first time in months. Dean is halfway through the warm-up lesson when he comes in, not an explosion like all the times before but rather a slow, deliberate presence, moving as if he were walking over broken glass. He nods distractedly at the class but doesn’t say anything, just puts a hand on Dean’s arm and sort of jerks his head to the side, eyes unfocused. Unalarmed, Dean follows him outside of the classroom.

“What’s up?” He leans forwards a little more than necessary. “Were you missing me?”

“Dean.” Castiel’s voice wipes the smirk from his face; it’s hard, drained of warmth, lackluster. “We’re wanted at the main office. Gabriel will sub in for first period today.”

Dean blinks. “What for? Hey, Cas. What’s the matter?”

Castiel shakes his head. “Follow me.”

Dean is bewildered and even a little frightened, but he lets Castiel lead him through the building without comment, watching the tight line of his shoulders, suddenly smaller than he remembers. They pass office after office until they reach the end of a grand hall; at last they come to a stop at the penultimate door, and without so much as a word, Castiel knocks, two tight little raps, betraying all his anxiety, sending Dean’s heart into an unprecedented fit of terror. Something is wrong.

Raphael Milton, reads the golden plaque on the door, catching the light as it swings open to admit them into the office. Assistant Principal.

The office is simple and tidy. Bookshelves line the walls and a large window at the back frames a modest desk. A cross is mounted, too, framed by the wash of sunlight, and there are two leather chairs and a small lamp. Raphael is bent over a laptop, but he closes it when he sees Castiel hovering at the door, and gives a smile that makes Dean’s stomach turn. Raphael implores that they take a seat, and they do, and Castiel is careful not to so much as glance at Dean, and it’s the most terrifying thing he’s experienced in a long time. Something is very wrong.

Raphael settles his elbows atop the desk and smiles again, eyes trained on Dean with a familiar but unpleasant intensity. “Do you two know why you’re here?”

“No,” says Castiel before Dean can interject a smart remark. “No, brother, we do not.”

“Castiel.” Raphael turns his gaze and Dean is seized by the insane desire to throw himself in front of Castiel as if to somehow protect him. “Relationships with employees are not permitted.”

Castiel closes his eyes, and that’s it. Dean knows that this is a battle, and that they’ve already lost. But even so, he’s not going down without a fight.

“Hey, whoa. Hold on a minute. Who said anything about a relationship?”

Castiel looks at him and he falls silent. Raphael looks between them with undisguised pleasure. In a dreamlike motion, Castiel presses two fingers to his temple, mouth thin, eyes distorted.

“I understand, Raphael. But nonetheless– ”

“I’m afraid father has made one thing very clear, brother,” interrupts Raphael. “There are to be no exceptions. There are three options; let us review them. Winchester may resign, you may resign, or you may end your relationship. I highly advise the third, but make no mistake – there is no hiding from father. You know that as well as I.”

“I do,” says Castiel.

Raphael smiles. “Then we understand one another.”

Dean lurches forwards in his chair, fingers digging into the leather armrests, but Castiel reaches out and puts a hand on his arm, detaining him instantly without so much as a word. Raphael is positively beaming and Dean would like nothing more than to land a good punch square in his jaw, but he never gets the chance; Raphael stands from the desk and makes his way to the door, moving with the elegant loping grace of a predator.

“I will leave you and the boy some time to consult. Five minutes to a decision.”

He’s gone. Dean turns to Castiel in search of that familiar sure expression in his eyes, a sign that he knows what to do, where to turn. He finds nothing.

“How did he even…” Dean unwittingly grips at his hair. “The rules can’t be that serious.”

Castiel looks away. “For me, unfortunately, such is reality.”

“Why? Because you’re the boss’ kid? Don’t give me that.”

“He’s my father, Dean. He has a reputation to uphold.”

“Come on, Cas.” Dean’s angry, and he knows Castiel doesn’t deserve it, but he can’t stop his voice from escalating, tearing over the words. “You barely even see the guy.”

Castiel gazes at him for a long time. “I will resign.”

“No.” It’s a visceral response, savage, untethered. “No. You won’t. You love this job. It’s everything to you. I won’t let you.”

Castiel shuts his eyes. “No, Dean. I love you.”

Dean feels something come loose inside of him because it wasn’t supposed to be said like that. It should have been said on some cool spring morning, wrapped between the sheets, with the words carried on the first beams of sunlight and the murmur of even breathing. And it wasn’t supposed to be Castiel who said it. Castiel has done enough already, carried more than his fair share of the load. No. Dean wanted to say it, and now the chance is gone, and he can feel everything coming apart at the seams faster than he can sew it up again, and he’s panicked and angry and he doesn’t know what to do.

“Goddammit.” He shuts his eyes. Everything is stuck up in his throat and he can’t say anything else. It shouldn’t have been like this. “Goddammit, Cas.”

A long silence. When Castiel speaks again, his voice is raw.

“You will resign, then.”

“I can’t.” Dean clenches his fists. “I’d like to – Christ, how I’d like to – but I can’t. I can’t do that to Sammy. I just can’t. I’m sorry.”

“You think I don’t know that?” A note of anger. “You will resign, and I will pay Sam’s tuition, and you will leave that apartment and live with me and work at the garage until you can pay me back.”

Dean can’t breathe. “No. I can’t do that, either, Cas.”

“Why not? Are you really going to let something as trivial as childish pride–”

Childish? How dare you.” Dean is surprised at the fury in his own voice. “How dare you. You don’t know what it’s like; you don’t have the slightest idea what it’s like. All your life you’ve lived from the lap of luxury, from the finest family in the goddamn state, so don’t you pretend you know what it’s like, and don’t you dare call my lifestyle childish. I’ve always had to fend for myself; it’s the only way I know how to live, and that’s never going to change, so don’t even try.”

Castiel’s eyes are wide, stunned, and Dean is instantly flooded with remorse, but it doesn’t matter. He’s too angry, too confused. It shouldn’t have been like this.

“I’m not trying to change you, Dean,” rumbles Castiel, some nameless emotion turning his eyes molten blue. “I’m trying to help you.”

Dean snorts. “I didn’t ask for help.”

“But you need it.”

That’s too much. Dean stands, pushing aside the chair so hard that it nearly topples.

“I don’t need anything,” he whispers. “And certainly not from you. So thanks, but no thanks.”

He makes it to the door before Castiel is at his side.

“Dean, stop. It doesn’t have to be like this. I’m sure there’s a way. We just have to –”

“Thanks, but no thanks.” Dean steps into the hall; he’s determined not to look back, because if he sees the expression on Castiel’s face he’s sure everything will be over and he’ll break and he can’t do that. He can’t do that; this is his decision. It’s his decision and he has to stand by it. And when he takes off down the hall, Castiel doesn’t follow.

-

Dean doesn’t ask when Gabriel stays as the substitute for the rest of the day. He tries not to think; he focuses on the lesson and keeping the kids in line and making sure Gabriel doesn’t plant any thumbtacks on the seats. He eats lunch in the classroom, grading exams and very determinedly not thinking. The kids babble mindlessly about Castiel, wondering where he’s gone and if there was a fight or a problem or a personal issue, and he ignores them because he’s definitely not thinking. Gabriel, on the other hand, is considerably more astute, and the entire day is punctuated with pointed remarks that have no effect on Dean at all because again, Dean is not thinking.

He drops by Sam’s dorm after school because he needs to see his little brother and remember why he does anything, why he refused both of Castiel’s offers. He gives him a ferocious hug and Sam looks at him funny, but Dean is gone before he can ask any questions, and he ignores the stream of texts that light up his phone all afternoon. A few of them are from Castiel, he realizes; he doesn’t even open those. He can’t deal with that right now. The words are still ringing in his mind (it shouldn’t have been like that) and he definitely can’t deal with that right now.

He puts away Castiel’s transltion of La Vita Nuova and fishes out the old version he bought at the used bookstore. It’s considerably more tedious, but he makes his way through it without excessive struggle, and at the end lies back on the couch and thinks that Beatrice sure had it good. He makes a few annotations and savors the moment when he shuts the book; it’s been a pain all semester and he’s glad to be rid of it once and for all. Still, he feels a little empty now that it’s over; he had gotten very used to the feel of the pages and the smell of the ink, after all.

In any case, he puts away the book, and gets to work on more pressing matters. He grades some quizzes and thinks up a few new exercises for next week, and almost emails them to Castiel before he remembers and shuts the tab with unnecessary urgency. Around six o’clock he boils water to make instant ramen on the stove: a real classic, tried and true. He eats alone in front of his laptop, reading an article on Roman piracy and trying not to drip broth on the keyboard. It’s a quiet evening.

And then, around seven, the doorbell rings.

“Cas,” says Dean. What else is there to say? “Hey.”

Castiel’s eyes are wild; his mouth is a distorted line.

“I called,” he says. “I called a lot.”

“My phone was off. Sorry.” Dean still doesn’t open the door all the way. “Why are you here?”

Castiel throws his hands up in the air. “Why do you think, Dean?”

“Cas.” Dean looks away. “I don’t know if this is a good idea.”

“Oh no, Dean. No.” Castiel holds up one hand, a sort of insane smile curling his lip. “I won’t let this happen. It’s too important. Nothing is concluded. We’re not done.”

Dean bites down on his lower lip and stares at his feet. The door is still only halfway open.

“So help me God, Dean, if you don’t – Jesus, Dean.” Castiel’s voice sinks alarmingly. “Please.”

Dean lets him in and he walks to the center of the apartment. He looks at the stained couch and lifts his face to the spotted ceilings and puts his hands on his hips. He glances in the kitchen and sees the laptop left open, the remains of the instant ramen. Dean notices that he’s wearing a designer coat. It must be new and it sticks out like nothing else in the middle of the shitty apartment. It occurs to Dean that none of this ever made any sense.

“What are we doing, Cas?” He sits down on the arm of the couch, defeated. “Look at this. It’s pathetic. I’m pathetic.” He plucks at a loose thread on the upholstery. “You deserve better.”

Castiel turns to face him. “Never say that again.”

“But it’s true. It’s true, and what happened today is just proof.” The more Dean thinks it the more he starts to believe it, and the more he starts to believe it the more he feels sick, sicker and sicker until he feels like the nausea will swell up inside of him and spill out all over the floor. “Can’t you see, Cas?”

“No, Dean.” Castiel sucks in his lower lip. “I cannot see.”

Dean holds his gaze for a long time.

“Don’t do this,” whispers Castiel.

“I have to,” says Dean. “We have to.”

“No.” Castiel turns frantic. “I am in love with you, Dean. I have been in love with you for a very long time. I am not sure how long. I only know that it is very long, or that at least it seems very long, very long indeed. I have never imagined loving someone so much as I love you. In fact, that you cannot see your own worth is the only thing about you that I do not love, and yet in a very backwards way I love that, too, because without it you would not be yourself. I love your shitty apartment and your beautiful car and how you devote yourself to everything you do body and soul. I love that you are so idiotically selfless that you cannot grasp your own needs. I love you. I love you so much, Dean Winchester, that if you do this, I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what I will do. So I am begging you – and if you do not love me, so be it, that changes very little – not to do this. Please, Dean. Please.”

Dean shuts his eyes. “No. I can’t.”

“Dean– ”

“We have to break up, Cas. I’m sorry.”

“Dean.” Castiel sounds broken. “We don’t have to do anything. My offer still stands. You can take it. Nothing will change. We’ll be fine. Dean– ”

“Stop, Cas. Please stop, for both our sake’s.” Dean can’t even look at him. He’s too much of a coward and he hates himself but he believes he’s doing the right thing nonetheless. “We can’t do this.”

“No, Dean. No. I won’t – ”

Cas.” Dean grips him by the shoulder. “Please.”

Castiel looks at him for a long moment in which something seems to come loose in his eyes. Then the blue fades and he nods, moving with the dreamlike slowness of a sleepwalker, and walks slowly to the door. He pauses with his hand on the knob.

“Thank you, Dean,” he whispers. “Thank you for everything.”

Dean knows instantly that, no matter what, that is and will always be the worst thing he has ever had to hear.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Cas,” he says, and shuts the door.  

Chapter Text

The days blur together into what Dean thinks must be a week. The first morning after Castiel thanked him on his doorstep with the blue gone cold in his eyes, Dean is so terrified that he vomits three times, bent miserably over the toilet, before he heads to work. But in the end it turns out he has nothing to fear. It’s not awkward because Castiel doesn’t even look at him.

Or he does, of course; he has to look at Dean in the most fundamental physical sense, but aside from that, he doesn’t look at him, not even so much as a glance. Dean knows because there’s such a difference. He knows how Castiel can look at people, how he’s capable of an impossibly profound sort of hot molten starry-blue focus that digs into you and turning up your insides for inspection, so when Castiel’s gaze just grazes and glances against him, flits miserably from place to place, nothing more than a shadow of blue, the briefest flush of attention before it flutters elsewhere, aimless and cooled, he knows that he’s lost. He’s lost it all and at lunch he heads straight for the bathroom and retches again.

But it gets easier. He’s surprised (horrified) by how quickly he gets used to Castiel’s withdrawal, the cool clipped quality of his words, the orderly measured paths of his hands, stripped of the reckless shivering quality for which he once prized the same long pale fingers. Once or twice Dean thinks he might try to reach him, maybe stir up the man who was his friend before his lover, but he fails before he can even form a single word, fails at the feel of just one hard shimmer of Castiel’s regard falling impossibly heavy on his shoulders. It’s brutal, and even though Dean knows he deserves the worst, he can’t help feeling desperately lonely.

But Dean is excellent at getting used to things. In the end, he gets used to everything, and loneliness is no exception. He plays music loudly in the apartment to take the place of Castiel’s sandpaper whisper in his ear, chase away the pale pathetic shadows left in the wake of the warm thunderous roll of his laugh. He polishes his car again and again. He visits Sam too often. He gets an extra cup of coffee at the diner and stays late talking to Ellen and Jo until they’re almost frustrated. He even invites an astonished Bobby over to the apartment once or twice. He’s looking for a distraction, of course. Nobody offers it to him.

“Why the long face, sugar?” asks Ellen as she pushes the coffee across the counter. Dean can’t answer.

“You don’t seem like yourself, boy,” grunts Bobby as he tests his fork in the casserole Dean made from the recipe on the back of a soup can. “And I know you’re a better cook than this.”

Worst, of course, is the person who ought to have been his only true sanctuary in all this mess but who is of course the only one who knows the cause straight from the start: Sam.

“I’m worried about you, Dean,” he says. All the time. It’s constant. Dean is going to go insane from Sam’s worry. “Tell me what happened.”

“No,” mumbles Dean. Always. He can’t let himself say anything else. “It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know. You’re just a kid.”

“I know it’s with Cas.” Sharp. Too sharp; Sam was always too smart, and for the first time in his life Dean’s angry at him for being extraordinary. “Come on, Dean. I’ve never been just a kid to you. You’re starting to scare me.”

“I’m not acting any different,” protests Dean every time. “It was a silly thing anyways. It was never going anywhere. I don’t care about it. We were doomed from the start.”

Then, cheek pressed into the swell of his hand, fork paused in twirling the ramen, Sam mutters, “But you loved him.”

And Dean pretends that the syllables were too garbled to hear (how can he agree?) and begs Sam, downright begs him, to please just pass the salt already.

-

It’s Saturday night and Dean has A Date. He met her at a bar last week. She’s cute. She has long tan legs and pretty auburn curls that she wears over one shoulder. Her upper lip pulls up in one of those soft plump peaks that look so good on women. From the dip of her neckline he perceived full breasts that he knows would feel good in his hands. He’s taking her for dinner and drinks. He picks her up a few minutes after seven o’clock and she giggles and shifts in the seat of the car so that her skirt rides up just a bit (just a slight purposeful bit) and he catches a glimpse of the caramel-colored slope of her thigh, and he knows he should feel warmer than he does.

They eat. They drink. She’s smart and charming, and when she laughs at Dean’s joke it’s not in that fake way, though not, he considers in some dark corner of his mind, in the same earnest way that Castiel had back before the blue in his eyes froze over. She doesn’t twirl her hair on her fingers too much either, and she has a pretty good stomach for alcohol, which is a good thing because they are definitely planning to have First Date Sex later that night, but in the classy way because she is a definitely classy lady.

Dean’s looking forwards to the First Date Sex until they’re standing at her doorstep and he realizes with a miserable sick emptiness in the bottom half of his body, like something is gaping open deep inside of him, that he was making himself look forwards to the First Date Sex. She puts her delicate pretty hands on his shoulders and kisses him and he tastes that plump upturn of her lip. She’s soft and pliable in his arms, and her body thrums with the pace of her heart, and he knows that between the sheets she could provide a few blurry moments of vague intangible ecstasy in which he might be able to forget.

She toys with his hand, trying to lead him inside, and he’s about to follow before he realizes that he can’t, he just can’t, and stops her, and says he’s so very sorry, and kisses her on the forehead, and goes back to his car and drives away. His hands, he realizes, are shaking on the steering wheel. She was sexy but his lap is cold. He comes to a halt at a red light and realizes that tears are streaking down his face. He inhales sloppily, throat catching wet and painful, and wipes at his eyes halfheartedly with the back of his wrist as the light turns.

As he parks the car and heads unsteadily up to the apartment, he imagines Castiel framed against the doorway, eyes breaking down and going cold, the fatal words still balanced on the curve of his lower lip. Dean feels their hot impact in his chest as though they had been freshly said. A fresh wave of tears; he hates himself for being so weak, and his only solace lies in that nobody can see him mop his face on a filthy dishtowel in front of the sink. He leans against the counter and tips his face towards the ceiling; for a long moment, the chipped stained plaster spins, and then he claps a hand over his eyes.

“Oh God,” he groans. It’s not really a surprise that he still loves Castiel. He knew it all along, even if he didn’t really take a conscious approach to the miserable reality. But now he can’t avoid it. He doesn’t want to fuck some tawny-eyed pretty girl; he wants to press his face into Castiel’s chest and smell the ink in the fringe of soft black hair at the nape of his neck. He wants Castiel so badly that it swells up in his chest and suffocates him. Gasping for air, he sinks to the floor, cradling his head in his hands.

Maybe, he thinks with a rush of panic, he’ll always love Castiel. Maybe he’ll never be able to shake all his mistakes away. He wants a beer more than anything, but when he gets up, the effort proves to have been in vain: the fridge is empty. He’s frustrated and profoundly glad at the same time. He glances warily at his phone, poised to strike on the rickety kitchen table. In a haphazard fit of motion, he snatches it and dials Sam.

“Dean?” Sam’s voice is framed against a backdrop of dulled music and conversation. “I thought you had a date tonight.”

Dean suddenly can’t say anything. Another thing occurs to him that he’s known for a long time but only passively acknowledged: that Sam has a life of his own, a structure totally separated from Dean, a private construction that cannot be breached by any familial tie. He almost shuts the phone but then Sam keeps talking.

“Are you alright?”

The note of worry in his voice is infuriating and soothing. Dean clutches the phone. Then, without warning, Sam’s voice goes soft, almost like a mother’s.

“You’ve had to figure it out, haven’t you?”

Dean nods slowly a few times, the back of his head grazing the cupboard under the sink, before he remembers that Sam can’t see. Finally, with a voice that’s hoarse and sounds curiously ancient, he whispers, “I’m still in love with him, damn it all.”

“Well of course you are,” says Sam. The note of exasperation in his voice is somehow at once tempered and illuminated by an overwhelming fondness. “Hold on. I’m coming over.”

Dean tries to say no, but Sam hangs up. Later (the minutes blur together and a headache is blooming at Dean’s temple) light from outside floods the far wall of the apartment and he hears the liquid purr of an engine. He blearily remembers that Sam’s roommate is a kid from the nice part of town with unlimited access to any of his father’s glistening smooth-flanked sports cars. The lights flare again and the engine roars, mingling with the sound of footsteps on the iron staircase outside. It’s a sore reminder of how out of place they both are at that damn school.

Dean goes to the door and begrudgingly lets Sam in. He tells him it’s only because there’s a pizza balanced on his right hand, but really he’s gladder than he can say. Mercifully, Sam doesn’t head straight for the issue at hand. Instead he spreads the pizza on the kitchen table and gets two Pepsis out of the fridge. There’s still no beer, but Dean could hardly expect Sam to remedy that much. Reluctantly grateful, Dean sinks into a chair and opens the soda, feeling the soft cool hiss of the can wet his fingertips. Sam sits down and hands him a slice of pizza. He eats. It’s good and substantial, making a valiant effort to feel the emptiness that opened up in his stomach when he tried to kiss The Date.

For a while they eat in silence. After enough time, Dean puts down his pizza and gives a quiet sad laugh, shaking his head from side to side like he can’t really believe something. He doesn’t know what exactly. Sam is looking at him softly and he’s a bit uncomfortable under his regard, gentle almost like a mother’s, far too protective when Dean should be the one doing the protecting.

“God,” he mumbles. “I guess I really did need this.”

Sam nods like he knew it all along. “You need a lot of things, Dean. You just won’t admit it.”

At that, Dean risks a glance at his little brother, and is stunned to see the maturity in his eyes. He looks almost like an adult. A strange gentle kind of wisdom shapes the corners of his mouth and eyes and forms the crinkle of his brow, the shadow of his strong chin, the whisper of stubble at his jaw. He’s really grown up. Dean doesn’t quite know what to make of it yet.

“Where have I been,” he moans, rolling his hands over his eyes and face again and again, not knowing quite what he means. Sam just smiles.

“Denial,” he answers crisply, reaching for another slice of pizza. “It’s okay, Dean. Hey, listen up. I want you to know something, okay?”

He waits until Dean puts his hands back in his lap and looks at him sideways over the rise of his chin. Then Sam leans forwards a bit and puts down the pizza and for the first time that night doesn’t quite meet his eyes. His ears are a little flushed and Dean feels his heart skip a beat.

“It’s okay, Dean,” says Sam very quietly, “to think about yourself every once in a while. I know how much you’ve done for me, Dean, and you have no idea what it means to me. You’re my big brother and I love you. But it’s not just that. You’re everything to me. More and more I’ve been realizing that you basically built me a life out of nothing by sacrificing everything that might have made you happy. I can never repay you for that. I don’t even know how to tell you how grateful I am.”

Dean clears his throat because his whole body feels thick and heavy and he doesn’t know what else to do. “Jesus Christ, Sammy, you don’t have to tell me anything. It’s what any other brother would have done. It’s nothing special.”

“No, Dean,” says Sam, and suddenly his voice has a harder edge, almost frustrated. “You’re wrong. Any other brother wouldn’t have worked himself sick just to send me to some nice academy. Any other brother wouldn’t have given up everything he loves in the world just to make me a little bit happier. You’re not just any other brother. You’re amazing. You’re amazing and if you don’t admit that right now I’m…I don’t know. I’m going to be really pissed off.”

“Jesus, Sammy,” says Dean, trying to be blasé when his heart is filling up his mouth and he can barely form words anymore. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Good thing I’ve got an idea, then,” interjects Sam. “You’re not going to say anything. Instead you’re going to do something. For once in your life, Dean, you’re going to do something that will make you happy. Here’s how it’s gonna be. You’re going to stop making sacrifices. You’re going to quit your job and start work as a mechanic. And then, after all that, you’re going to go talk to Castiel and sweep him off his feet and take him up on his extremely generous offer, and in the end you’re going to get him back and live happily ever after because I’d bet my life that he’s still thinking about you, too.”

For a long moment, Dean can only stare at Sam in astonishment. At long last, he chokes, “How can you possibly know about all of that?”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Please. Gabriel is a very good friend of mine. He’s as worried about Cas as I am about you. And that in and of itself means a lot, wouldn’t you say?”

Dean’s head feels foggy. The idea of Castiel pining strikes up something inside of him that he hasn’t allowed himself to feel for a long time. Unwittingly, his eyes dart to the bookshelf in the other room, where the translation of La Vita Nuova is gathering dust, untouched since Castiel last stood on his doorstep with his eyes freezing over. Dean swallows thickly.

Despite himself, he’s started to feel a little bit hopeful.

“I can’t just do that, Sam,” he says. Immediate despair is his most trustworthy defense mechanism. “I can’t ask Castiel to do all that for me. I can’t do that to you.”

“Yes you can,” says Sam adamantly. “Dean. I want you to. I won’t be happy until you do.”

Dean looks at him sharply. “Don’t lie to me.”

Sam throws his hands in the air. “Why would I lie about this? Don’t you think that your happiness mattes to me, too? I’ve done nothing all my life but watch you suffer for me. Castiel made you happy and I want you to be happy. I want you to be happy more than anything in the whole world, Dean. Right now, without Cas, you’re definitely not happy. I don’t like this. I want to change this. I have to change this.”

Dean looks at him for a long time. “Jesus, Sammy.” He tries to wipe his eyes discreetly but he’s pretty sure Sam notices. Whatever. “But how am I supposed to do that? You didn’t see the way he looked at me when I told him we had to split up. It’s not going to be as easy as one little apology. Cas isn’t some cheap girl. Even if he wants to more than anything, he won’t just come running back into my arms right away. I have to deserve him.”

As Dean thinks aloud, much to his horror, his breath is already hitching in the back of his throat and his pulse is already picking up just at the mere idea of Castiel still loving him, at the possibility that Castiel might ever be able to love him again, even if only in the remotest corner of his heart. Worse still, the prospect of restoring the color to those eyes makes his head swim, and his hands end up fastening hard onto the arms of the chair to keep him grounded to the reality of his filthy apartment. For his part, Sam only shrugs and takes another slice of pizza.

“I’m not a matchmaker. That’s for you to figure out.” He takes a long drag of Pepsi and that seems to be the end of it. “Hey, it’s Saturday. Can I stay over?”

Dean nods blearily. In a dreamlike state, he folds out the sofa and gets some extra pillows and blankets from the closet. At first he clambers into bed with Sam, vaguely soothed by the familiarity of his brother’s awkward gangly body spread out beside his, and thinks he might get to sleep. But the moment Sam’s breathing evens out and the darkness thickens, broken only by the dull haze of the streetlights that filters in through the window, Dean is wide awake, lost in thoughts of Castiel and forgiveness and bright blue eyes.

He doesn’t get a wink of sleep that night, but by the time the dawn hits the window crusty and golden, he has a plan.

-

Dean goes to work for the rest of the week and doesn’t change a thing. Castiel is as civil and cold as ever, and Dean manages to disguise his agitation. Over the weekend, he bribes Gabriel into parking in Castiel’s spot and on Wednesday morning bursts into the classroom with an air of bravado that seems to have been sorely missed on part of his students, judging by the awed and vaguely overjoyed response he receives from his suddenly-captive audience. All the kids sort of lean forwards in their desks as he takes center stage at the front of the room, framed by the blackboard and spreading his hands on Castiel’s desk, trying not to think of all the nights the man must have spent in the same spot bent over exams, brow furrowed, lamplight cast in the creases on his face, fingertips so stained with ink it might as well have been a part of his skin.

“Class,” he says, and his voice comes out stronger than he feels. “Break out your notes. It’s about time you knew something about me. But first things first: would anybody care to take a guess?”

Silence. Shining eyes. Dean clears his throat.

“Make sure to write this down, now.”

The students wait with baited breath. He pauses. And then he can’t help it. He breaks into a grin.

“I am madly, helplessly, irrevocably in love with Professor Novak.”

After the initial pandemonium, he explains the whole affair (excepting a few choice details, of course, even though it’s hard to resist the ravenous delight shining in their eyes) and his current predicament. The class reels with poorly-concealed delight when he scandalously refers to himself as probably the greatest asshole who ever walked this sweet earth, and listens intently as he outlines the plan quickly but firmly. By the end of the lesson, despite whispers and raised eyebrows, they’re all on his side. Dean has to admit that it’s a good feeling to know that so many people believe in him.

In fact, he’s almost starting to think he can really do this.

Chapter Text

The bell rings. It’s time.

Dean’s had his preparatory cup of coffee in the teacher’s lounge. The kids know what to do. The props are in place. It’s a rainy day. Thursday. Impeccable timing. Perfect parallelism. Dean can’t even hear himself think over the rush of his pulse. One more favor from Gabriel, correctly timed, and everything will be perfect. Dean drums his fingers on the desk. The kids are talking loudly, excitedly, filling the classroom fit to burst with nervous energy, but the moment the door opens they fall eerily silent in unison, and if Dean didn’t want the whole thing to be suspicious, everything would be ruined. Fortunately, in this case, suspicious is good. When Professor Castiel Novak at last walks in to face his class, the stage is set.

Dean steps to the back of the room for the moment and watches intently. Castiel starts to unpack his briefcase, but after a minute of rustling papers and rearranging pens he’s distracted by the absolute silence cloaking the room. He looks up for a long moment. The kids don’t say a thing. Each and every single one sits with eyes glued to the desks. Dean is thrilled. Castiel’s mouth twists in confusion, but he’s obviously not going to complain. As always, he goes to the board to start writing up the lesson. The second bell rings and by the time he turns around the kids have silently risen and lined up in front of his desk. His brow crinkles.

“What’s the meaning of this?” He almost looks at Dean. The strain in his jaw is visible. His eyes flicker over the kids and slowly widen as he sees that they all have little slips of paper clutched in their hands. “What on Earth is going on here?”

Wordlessly, flawlessly, the first kid in line steps up and hands Castiel her slip of paper. Confusion blurs Castiel’s expression as he carefully unfolds and reads. Before he can say anything, however, another slip is thrust into his hands. One by one, the kids file past, smiles scarcely disguised behind their hands as they glance at Dean en route to their seats. Castiel grows more and more bewildered. Dean’s head is swimming. Over Castiel’s crisply starched white collar, he can see a flush rising. That’s a little bit reassuring. But only a little bit; he’s still fighting a powerful urge to flee the room.

At last, the final student flutters to her seat, and when she accidentally lets loose a tiny giggle, the whole classroom dissolves into helpless laughter. Castiel’s jaw is slack and his eyes are wide and lost. Honestly, it’s not a very convincing façade. Dean can’t believe he hasn’t put it together yet. Choice romantic verses from his own translation of Vita Nuova? He should really know. But of course he’s trying to feign ignorance. It’s an adorably poor effort. He’s never been very good at disguising strong emotions, and the slightest shift of his gaze betrays him. He’s almost looking at Dean, and for his part, Dean feels like he’s submerged in a dream, like none of this could be really happening.

“Class,” says Castiel at long last, in a measured tone that for all its rigidity is nonetheless permeated by an airy amazed sort of breathlessness that brings Dean’s heart pounding into his mouth. “What is the meaning of this?”

And, on perfect queue, the whole class points to Dean. Castiel turns very slowly. His eyes are wide. Dean can read no other expression than surprise on his face. In his intense concentration, he realizes that the nape of Castiel’s neck is still damp from the rain, and he feels an oppressive urge to touch the soft slope of skin. Castiel blinks at him. Still no expression but blatant shock. Dean’s disappointed and relieved at the same time. Abruptly bashful, he takes a tentative step forwards, one hand unconsciously rising to scratch uncomfortably at the back of his neck.

“You did this?” says Castiel. His voice is blank.

Dean tries to smile, but he doubts it really works out. “Who else could it have been?”

Castiel is moving his head very slowly back and forth.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. Dean.” He puts a hand to his forehead and Dean’s stomach flips. He looks so worried, so miserable. There’s a glimmer of terror, even, in the hard line of his mouth. “Dean, you’re going to get fired if you’re not careful. I thought we had this figured out. You made yourself…” He pauses, voice constricting, and dips his chin. “You made yourself very clear.”

Dean, even though his heart is breaking all over again, even though he wants nothing more than to grab Castiel right then and there and kiss him desperately and tell him that he was wrong, wrong, so wrong about everything, has to stick to the plan. His eyes flicker to the clock. Ten seconds. Too long. An eternity. He tries to draw out his words.

“Hey, Cas. Hey.” Castiel doesn’t look at him. So be it. Six seconds. “Cas, I need you to listen to me. Just listen to me, okay?” Two seconds. Dean shuts his eyes and for the first time in his life honestly prays for something. “Please.”

Right on the dot, the door bursts open. Dean wants to cry with relief. He’s not sure exactly how, but by some act of supernatural willpower, he maintains his composure. Gabriel’s curled little grin flickers in the hallway for a moment, and then he’s gone, leaving in his wake the tall terrifying inky silhouette of none other than Assistant Principal Raphael Novak. Castiel looks horrified. Dean is thrilled.

“Winchester?” Raphael’s eyebrows rise. “I was just led to your classroom on the suspicion of inappropriate conduct. Is there something I should know about?”

Castiel opens his mouth, panic flowering strong in his eyes, but Dean, loving him so much it aches, steps forwards before he can say a word. He saunters over to Raphael, rocking a bit on his heels, in that moment far too happy for his own good, all things considered.

“There sure is,” he says gleefully.

Raphael’s eyebrow arches higher still.

“Well?”

“I’m a buffoon,” says Dean matter-of-factly, bending a bit at the waist, a delicate bow. “And not only that, you know. I’m an idiot and a fool and a coward. I’m an asshole, too. Hell, I’m a downright dick. Pretty much me in a nutshell. Oh boy.” He smiles charmingly. “And you know what’s the worst thing about all this? A month ago I made the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my whole life, and I’ve regretted it ever since. So forgive me, Raphael, for my crude attempts at amending such an error. I’m afraid I’m not very good at anything, so I wouldn’t expect to be very good at fixing things, either. But if you would be so kind to stay until the end, I assure you a show.”

Raphael is staring. It’s working. Dean straightens up, still beaming, and takes a theatrical little step back.

“I’m in love,” he says clearly, fearlessly, for the first time in his life. “I, Dean Winchester, am helplessly madly irrevocably in love with Professor Castiel Novak, and I have been since the day he asked me to come take a look at his car. I’m sorry if this comes as a disappointment to you. I’ve tried not to. I really have. But nothing works. I’m simply in love with him. I can’t stop it. And by some miracle, at some point in time, he loved me, too.”

He stops for a minute. Raphael’s jaw has gone slack. Dean clears his throat.

“But as you all know well, I’m stupid. I’m so stupid. I gave him up. I traded him away. I tried to stop loving him and I thought I succeeded.” He laughs more softly than he had intended. “I hadn’t. I hadn’t succeeded at all. I love him. I can’t stop. I understand if he doesn’t feel anything for me anymore because, to be perfectly honest with all of you, I really suck. I suck a whole lot. I was a selfish dick and I’ve never regretted anything more in my life. If I could take it all back, I would in a heartbeat. But I can’t do that. I’m not sure what I can do, actually, except be honest for once. So that’s it. I’m telling the truth. I love Castiel Novak and there’s nothing in the world that can stop me. That’s it. That’s all I wanted to say.” Dean shrugs. “I just thought you should know.”

Raphael is silent for a long moment before he smiles a thin serpentine smile that makes the hair on the back of Dean’s neck bristle.

“That’s very sweet,” he says smoothly. “I hope you understand that you can’t keep your job and love Castiel at the same time.”

“I know,” chirps Dean sweetly. He reaches into his coat pocket and hands Raphael a neatly stamped envelope. “I quit. See you later.” He turns and waves to the class. “Thanks for helping me out, guys. You’re swell. Good luck with the rest of the semester.”

And with that, he saunters out. As he heads down the hall, he can hear the class screaming at Castiel to follow, and his heart rises in his mouth. In a single breathtaking instant his cool swaggering composure melts away and suddenly he’s bolting towards the parking lot, his breathing tearing at his throat and lungs, head swimming, the world suddenly detached as though he were the sole solid object in an entirely liquid reality. After what seems an eternity of running through thick water, he’s panting against the cool black flank of the Impala, and the universe solidifies again. He’s vaguely relieved. Overhead, the sky spins, a blur of grey. The quiet drizzle wets his eyelashes. He doesn’t think about anything but breathing. Just breathing.

“Dean.”

He opens his eyes. The drizzle has matured into a heavy rain. He hadn’t noticed. Castiel is soaked. He left his coat in the classroom and his shirt sticks to his skin. Water clings to his hair and eyelashes. He wears an indecipherable expression. Cautiously, Dean peels himself away from the Impala. He takes a step forwards. Thunder rumbles overhead; the first of the spring storms. The rain thickens, almost torrential now as Dean reaches out and conforms his hand to the shape of Castiel’s cheek. In a fleeting instant, Castiel’s expression flickers. His eyes dart to the hand at his jaw, his lips part, a raindrop falls onto the curve of his chin and drips onto his collar.

“Castiel,” says Dean. He can barely hear his own voice above the sudden roar of the rain. “Listen, I need to tell you–”

Castiel’s mouth meets his with a bruising aftershock that sends Dean hurtling back against the car. His hands fist in his collar, then his hair; the wet of his shirt presses into Dean, and he tastes like ink and rain, and Dean holds him as though he might dissolve into the warm force of the spring shower. The kiss is a thousand things at once. With his hands cupped at Castiel’s face, Dean tastes his anger and pain; pressed close to his body, he senses the ragged wounded quality of his breathing and heartbeat, and the shadow of tears in the salt of his chapped lips. His heart quails at the idea that he did this, that he was the one who turned Castiel’s kiss rough and sad. But it’s the strangest juxtaposition; at the same time, the kiss might be the mostly joyful thing in which he’s ever shared, and his heart feels swollen because he loves Castiel so much.

He doesn’t know how much time passes. The world melts away. Castiel becomes the only tangible thing to exist in the entire universe, and Dean feels as though he could spend his entire life right there in his arms. When Castiel pulls away, arms wound close around Dean’s neck, hands forced up into his hair, they’re both flushed and panting and soaked to the bone. For a long time they stare at each other, eyes blurred by the rain, possibly speechless, possibly at a loss of what to say. Dean doesn’t even know for himself, let alone Castiel.

At long last, Castiel dips his chin and punches Dean gently.

“Don’t think you’ve gotten away with this,” he whispers. Somehow Dean’s heart blooms and shatters at the sound of his voice, so stripped of pretenses, so openly broken and desperate.

“Castiel,” he groans. “Oh, Cas. I’m so sorry. I was an idiot. I can’t even tell you.”

“Shut up,” murmurs Castiel. “You already tried. What you did back there, Dean. I don’t know what to say. You’re insane.”

Dean smiles tentatively. “In a good way. Insane in a good way.”

Castiel groans and shakes his head. “I don’t know anymore. Jesus Christ.” And then he’s kissing Dean again with a new desperate flavor on his lips. “I love you, Dean Winchester. God help me.”

At that, Dean is overcome. The casual humorous façade slips away and suddenly he’s clutching Castiel as close to his chest as he can and shaking, actually trembling, fingers slipping and sliding in the soaked material of his shirt, searching for texture and purchase in the warm slick slops of muscles in his back. He buries his face in Castiel’s shoulder. He’s not really crying but he might as well be. Castiel is tangibly stunned and tense in his arms; Dean can sense his raw amazement in the form of his body.

“I love you, Castiel,” he groans. “I love you. I love you. I was so scared, you know. I’m sorry. I know it’s not enough, but I’m really sorry. I’ll do whatever it takes to make you happy. To make it up to you. Anything. You name it. I love you.”

Endearingly, Castiel tries to pat his back with the same uncertain awkwardness that anyone else would use with a hysterical stranger.

“Alright,” he murmurs in Dean’s ear. “I’ll make a deal with you.”

Dean pulls back and wipes the rain from his face. “Anything.”

Castiel reaches up and curves both his hands to the shape of Dean’s jaw. His lips part a bit and Dean realizes with a rush of euphoria that his eyes are truly, profoundly blue.

“Let me pay for Sam’s education,” he says softly. “Then you leave academia. Start a garage. Read classics in your spare time. Learn Italian and French. Travel all of Europe. Go live for yourself.” He pauses and places a tremulous kiss on the bow of Dean’s upper lip. Pulls away with an unsteady exhale. Opens his eyes. Slits of pure blue. “But most of all, Dean, come live with me. Be with me all the way, without keeping a single part of yourself hidden because you’re ashamed. Don’t be afraid in front of me. Trust me. Don’t feel indebted to me. Be a part of my life for better or for worse. I can’t live without you, but I don’t want to live with just a part of you. I want everything, Dean. Let me have you. Please.”

The thing that’s most ridiculous is that he actually looks anxious. He leans back and sort of shifts forwards and back with a nervous little twitch in his hand and an uncertain look in his eyes. It’s bad because for a long moment all Dean can do is stare because he can’t believe it. He can’t believe he could possibly have anything this pure and good in his life. For a delirious moment he expects it to be a dream. When Castiel doesn’t disappear, however, Dean’s left with no choice. He presses his palm to his forehead and sinks down onto the front of the car, gasping for breath.

“Yes,” he manages when Castiel bends over him concernedly. “Yes, Cas. It’s a deal.”

And then, soaked through, before the eyes of God and the entire academy to boot, Dean grabs Castiel by the arms and pulls him onto his chest and kisses him until they’re dizzy and helpless and sort of melting into each other (maybe the consistency of their skin has been changed by the rain and they can actually meld together, because that’s how it feels to Dean) and at long last thinks that maybe he’s finally found a new life, a vita nuova if you will, that’s really worth keeping after all.