Actions

Work Header

How many slams in an old screen door?

Work Text:

            There is a lesson to be learned here, Castiel will think later, and that lesson is this: Never get involved in a land war in Asia, never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line, and never hand a blank check to an underfunded university theatre department.

            When Victor Henrikson makes the announcement to his senior seminar class at the beginning of the fall semester, Castiel’s fairly certain that Balthazar has stars in his eyes, and he just knows that Jo is going to do great violence in her joy.  Poor Victor just looks like he’s been given cursed winning lottery numbers, and Castiel can hardly blame him.  No one knows what incredibly foolish alum felt the need to throw half a fortune away on their old theatre department, and, frankly, no one really cares.  The point is, suddenly there is money where before there was none.  Given almost unlimited funding, the senior showcase musical is bound to be…interesting.  Elaborate, but interesting.

            So of course, they determine on Les Miserables.

            It’s to be their senior thesis.  Or, some combination of the production itself and an absurdly long paper is to be their senior thesis.  Theses.  One of the two, and Castiel’s not sure he cares which anymore.  The seminar spends the entire fall semester reading and researching every rendition of the show they can get their hands on.  From the straight play to the musical to the enormous thousand-page monstrosity penned by Victor Hugo; from history textbooks to biographies, the class buries itself in nineteenth-century France.

            It’s easily the largest production the theatre department has ever embarked on, both in the size of the cast and the sheer immensity the performance carries. Casting takes nearly two weeks of daily auditions and callbacks, of learning songs and monologues and dancing routines and accents, all right in the middle of winter finals.  By the end of it, Victor is irritable and exhausted and prone to threatening to write the cast list in the blood of those who’ve been cut.

            The cast list does come out eventually, though, and printed in ink (but not until the new semester starts, which means every single senior spends the three weeks’ vacation in agony).  Given that they only have three months (not including spring break) to pull this off, the whole department springs into action almost immediately.

            Rehearsals are, at first, a chaos of activity: Jo and Chuck leading Les Amis in rousing choruses of “Do You Hear the People Sing” while marching through the hallways; Sam and Jess, blushing freshmen, stumbling through “A Heart Full of Love” in corners, pausing to make eyes at each other.  Meanwhile, Victor tries to get everyone to shut up so that he can try to block Valjean’s scene with the Bishop, despite Balthazar’s tendency toward the melodramatic.  Charlie and Ash spend a lot of time on the internet ogling tech and plotting to blow as much of their new budget as possible on new lighting and sound equipment (which Victor loudly reminds them that they don’t need, the acoustics are damn good as is and where the hell would Ash put new lighting anyway?).  Benny darts in and out of groups, kidnapping cast members with the help of his doe-eyed assistant Ava and muttering about if they want Revolutionary France, he wants a real costume budget.  Their stage manager, a junior by the name of Fate, runs around demanding everyone’s class schedules and availability so she can make a proper rehearsal schedule; those who don’t immediately acquiesce are threatened with violent and creative deaths (Castiel overhears Ash telling Charlie after one such threat that if Novak’s got a stick up his ass, that’s chick’s got the whole tree).  And somehow, when nobody’s looking, Victor manages to exert his authority as your professor, dammit to use some of the money to hire an actual professional (or near enough) to build their set, because he wants a barricade that looks like a barricade.

            Castiel spends most of these early rehearsals either a) waiting on Balthazar to finish with his dramatics so that they can play out their scenes or b) wandering about the halls of the theatre building belting out his musical numbers.  Which is how he ends up spectacularly bungling possibly one of the most important first impressions he’ll ever make.

            He’s running through the end of “Look Down” under his breath, frowning down at the script, when he runs straight into another human being.  A tall, freckled, desperately handsome human being, who is grinning easily and offering his hand in greeting.

            “Oh hey, sorry, wasn’t watching where I was going.  I’m Dean, Victor hired me for sets.”

            Castiel just stares for a long second, unable to process any sentences that don’t begin with the phrase “look down” before his brain clicks – ah yes, an introduction.  Which is how he ends up blurting – in melody, no less – “And I’m Javert.  Do not forget my name.  Do not forget me.”

            Dean blinks, and then blinks again, his hand still frozen in midair where Castiel has neglected to shake it.  “Um, what?” Dean tries, smile faltering.

            Castiel flees.

 

            Castiel doesn’t speak to Dean again for nearly a week, though he sees him everywhere.  When Balthazar ends up giving Victor an unwanted fencing lesson while Victor tries to block Balthazar and Castiel in “The Confrontation,” Dean is taking measurements of the stage, shouting instructions over the sound of singing to his dark-haired assistant, a junior named Andrea.  When Castiel is trying to convince Jo that reading the Brick – as they’ve all taken to calling Victor Hugo’s deadly weapon of a book – will, in fact, be necessary for writing her thesis paper after the show, Dean is barely ten feet away, gripping a pencil in his teeth and scraps of paper in his hand, gesturing wildly at Ash.  When Ruby is trying to convince Castiel that he can totally get away with sneaking out of rehearsal to fetch them dinner, Dean is directing a line of students (Castiel overhears Dean calling them his indentured freshman)carrying plywood and two-by-fours to the tech shop.

            Castiel catches Dean looking at him sometimes, Dean occasionally going as far as to smile and attempt to wave, but Castiel develops a habit of finding the floor or his script deeply interesting in these moments.  His avoidance tactics run out, however, at about 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon at the end of February, when he may or may not be camped out in the hall of the theatre building during what is technically his calc class, reading the Brick.  Castiel is immersed somewhere in “Part Three: Marius” when the elevator down the hall opens and several alarming sounds immediately follow – namely, crashing and swearing.

            “Are you all right?” Castiel calls even as he picks himself up off the floor and takes off toward the elevator.  All he can see is what appears to be a pile of…furniture parts?  And then Dean’s head appears between a couple of chair legs, looking relieved.

            “Oh, thank god. Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, get over here and help me.”  The furniture shifts slightly with a nasty scraping sound, and Castiel realizes that it’s balanced – if you can call that balanced – on some sort of wheeled contraption.  Castiel lurches forward, getting an awkward grip, and with little ado and much grunting the two of them manage to maneuver the wheeled thing into the hallway itself.  That accomplished, Dean tries to brush Castiel off with a “Thanks, I think I got it from here,” but a particularly recalcitrant chair (well, approximately two thirds of a chair) chooses that moment to tumble to the floor.  At which point, Dean is forced to submit to Castiel’s most skeptical eyebrows and accept his help.

            Luckily, the tech shop is only about twenty feet away, which is not enough time for the 2/3 chair to incite rebellion amongst the rest of the dismembered furniture.  Once everything seems relatively stable, Dean wipes his hands on his jeans and claps Castiel on the back.

            “Thanks, man.  That could’ve been disastrous.  Javert, right?”  Dean grins as he says it, so Castiel knows that Dean knows it’s not his real name, but it just makes Castiel blush all the more.

            “Ah, sorry about that, I really…I was focused, I suppose.”

            “Ya think?” Dean snorts.  “It’s fine, man, I mean I have been living Sam’s musical phase for years now, I get it.  Theatre kids.”

            Castiel frowns as something clicks in his brain.  “Wait, Sam Winchester?  You’re Sam’s Dean?”

            “More like he’s my Sam,” Dean agrees, but adds in a petulant undertone, “I’m the oldest.”

            “My apologies.”

            “Why, who’re you, really?  Friends with Sammy?”

            “Yes, actually.  I’m Castiel Novak.  Nice to, well, actually meet you.”

            This time, it’s Dean who doesn’t take Castiel’s outstretched hand.  “Wait, you’re Castiel?”

            “Yes?”

            “Shit, dude, you’re like the reason I’m here.”  Castiel’s utter bewilderment must show in his face, because a second later Dean laughs and runs a hand through his hair.  “That sounded super cheesy and a lot gayer than I intended.  Let me try again.  Uh, you’re basically the reason Sam picked this school, which is why we packed up and moved here from Kansas.”

            “Ah, yes.  Sam told me about that, when we ran into each other at auditions for Much Ado About Nothing last semester.”  It had been awkward, at first, Castiel remembers.  Sam is nothing if not enthusiastic about, well, about everything.

            They had first met last spring, when Sam was visiting the schools he’d been accepted to.  He’d happened to visit just in time to see last spring’s senior thesis performance, a production of My Fair Lady, in which Castiel had been an understudy called upon to play Higgins at the last moment.  Sam, who’d been enamored with Castiel’s performance for reasons beyond Castiel’s mortal comprehension, had approached shyly after the show to talk.  They’d discussed everything from the themes of the show (and how disappointing they were when compared to the clear feminism present in Shaw’s original Pygmalion) to the professors and classes in the theatre department.  Nearly two hours (and much yelling by Victor) later, they had finally said goodbye, Sam cheerfully promising to see Castiel in the fall.

            During rehearsals for Much Ado, Sam and Castiel found they had much in common outside of theatre as well, and have since settled into an easy friendship.  Castiel doesn’t know much about Sam’s family, since Sam stumbles and gets quiet whenever he lets something slip; but he does know that Dean is possibly the single most important person in Sam’s life, and the greatest older brother the boy could ask for.  And while Castiel has long appreciated Dean vicariously through Sam, he never expected to meet the man in person.

            Of course Dean had to be absurdly attractive as well.  Of course.

            “You’re like, Sammy’s hero,” Dean laughs.  “It’s adorable.  Well, yeah, nice to meet you.”  And they finally, finally manage to shake on it.  “And thanks for coming to my rescue with this pile of crap,” he adds, jerking his head at the furniture cart.

            “Yes, I meant to ask: what precisely is this?”

            Dean looks blankly at him, like it’s the stupidest question he’s ever heard.  “It’s a barricade.”

            “Really?  Because it looks rather like a pile of broken furniture.”

            “That’s what I said.  A barricade.”

            “Did you know that, etymologically, a barricade is actually a pile of barrels?”

            Dean blinks.  “Wait, really?”

            “Yes,” Castiel nods.  “Barrels were the first materials used for barricades in the sixteenth century, and were established as a means of resistance in Paris in 1588.”

            “Dude,” Dean says with a frown, but he sounds vaguely impressed.  “You need to get out of this building more.”

            Castiel rolls his eyes (although part of him recognizes that as a fair assessment of his academic and social lives) and Dean breaks into a grin and Castiel feels his heart thud a little off and well, that’s his cue to cut and run.

            “Well, since you don’t appreciate my invaluable historic trivia, I suppose I’ll show myself out,” Castiel says.  Dean’s eyebrows shoot up, and Castiel has to remind himself that most people can’t tell when he’s being sarcastic.  He smiles slightly and adds, “Seminar starts in ten minutes and Victor will have my head if I’m not there to control Balthazar.”

            Dean snorts a relieved laugh.  “Fair enough.  I’m sure I’ll see you at rehearsal.”

            “Mm.  Goodbye, Dean.”

 

            “If the pizzaman truly loves this babysitter, why does he keep slapping her rear?” Castiel says irritably.  The comment is directed at Rachel, who is standing in his doorway despite having been asked repeatedly to knock first.

            “Are you watching porn?” she demands, somewhere between horrified and amused.

            “Your boyfriend gave it to me,” Castiel snaps.  “He said it might help ‘remove the stick in my ass.’”

            “Air quotes, Cas,” Rachel reminds him absently.  “That’s…incredibly groaty of him.  Dammit, I knew he was too good a lay to be a decent human being.”

            “Skeevy as your dating choices are, my question remains unanswered.  This is…an unappealing plot arc.”

           “It’s not supposed to be plot, it’s porn.  And the pizzaman doesn’t love the babysitter, he wants to fuck her.  Possibly in a kinky kind of way, if there’s spanking involved.  And oh my god, how am I having this conversation with my little brother?”

           “Because no one else will,” Castiel says frankly, and shuts the window playing on his laptop.  He goes about systematically erasing all existence of the porno from his hard drive as he continues to talk to Rachel.  “I have no friends – and before you ask, Balthazar hardly counts – and our parents are certainly never going to discuss it.  Do you remember the sex talk?”

           “Handing us both a pamphlet about the workings of our respective reproductive systems and telling us to take any questions to our health teachers doesn’t really count as a sex talk,” Rachel concedes.  “Still, what on earth gave you the idea that sex is always about love?”

           “I don’t know,” Castiel says in frustration.  “The culture at large?  I don’t really pay attention to these things.  If it’s not about love, than what’s the point?”

           “Sex, Castiel.  The point is sex.”  Castiel finally looks up, only to see his sister staring at him oddly, like something doesn’t quite compute.  Which is fair, he thinks.  Straight-laced and chaste as she manages to appear to the churchgoing public, Rachel has, at sixteen, designed to maintain a rich and varied sex life.  Without ever once, Castiel suddenly realizes, having appeared to be at all in love.  “You’re fifteen, Cas.  You’re a teenage boy.  Aren’t you supposed to want to have sex with everything you see?”

           “I guess I missed that memo,” Cas says dryly, and slams his computer shut.

 

           “Castiel, get your ass over here,” Victor shouts across the stage.  Stage left, barricade boys are practicing dying at the command of a sophomore named Uriel, who Castiel vaguely likes on principle – the solidarity of having obscure angel names.  Stage center, Balthazar is posing while Ash points a spotlight at him at varying angles.  And stage right, Victor is standing with Dean, both of them looking extremely cross.  Castiel can’t wait to hear this one.

           “Yes?” he asks, approaching warily.

           “Castiel, this is Dean Winchester.  Dean, this is Castiel Novak.  He’s our Javert,” Victor says.

           Dean’s face softens into a smile.  “Yeah, we’ve met.  Hey, Cas.”

           “Hello, Dean,” Castiel returns.  He can feel the corner of his mouth twitch upward at being called Cas so readily by someone he barely knows.  He likes it.

           “Dean, I need you to throw Castiel off a bridge,” Victor states without further ado.

           Dean looks at Castiel contemplatively, then back to Victor.  “Dude, there are easier ways to make it look like an accident.”

           Castiel has to smother a laugh, but Victor just glowers.  “Winchester, if you harm my favorite student in any way, I swear by my pretty floral bonnet that I will end you.”  Dean rolls his eyes.  “And cut your brother’s theatre career tragically short.”

           “Hey!” Dean exclaims, offended at last.

           Favorite student?”  Balthazar demands as he materializes beside them, grievously wounded.  “I thought I was your favorite student.”

           “No, I said you’re my favorite diva,” Victor corrects with a roll of his eyes.  “Which isn’t saying much because I still hate you.  Are you finished posing for Ash and wanna get some real work done?”

           “Darling, I’m always willing to work for you,” Balthazar schmoozes.  All is clearly forgiven as Balthazar drapes an arm over Victor’s shoulders.  The professor just rolls his eyes again and tells Dean and Castiel to “work it out” before allowing himself to be led away.  Balthazar waves as they go, trailing a, “Later, Cassie,” behind him.

           “Cassie?” Dean asks as soon as they’re out of earshot.  It’s clear he’s trying to hide a laugh, and Castiel glowers.

           “Don’t ever call me that.  Ever.  I will personally throw you into hell.”

           “Harsh,” Dean whistles.  “How come Balthazar there gets to call you that?”

           “Regrettable ex-boyfriend privileges,” Castiel grumbles.

           “Regrettable ex or regrettable privileges?”

           This is something Castiel has to contemplate for a moment.  “Yes.”

           Dean laughs, then throws an arm around Castiel like Balthazar had done to Victor and swerves them toward the tech shop.  “Alrighty then.  Well, let’s get to throwing you off a bridge, then.  How comfortable are you with trust-falling off a ridiculously high platform onto some like mats or shit?”

           “Considerably less so, since I’ve seen how willing you are to do away with me,” Castiel says dryly.

           “Aw, don’t be a wuss,” Dean grins.  “Besides, you heard Victor.  He’ll have my ass on a platter if I damage the goods.”

           “Damn right he will.”

           The tech shop is a high-ceilinged room with far too many electrical outlets, tucked away at the back of the building behind the costume shop.  Usually, it’s mostly empty, just the power tools and the skeletons of old sets lining graffiti-covered walls.  The names scrawled in paint and wood stain go up to the ceiling and date back to casts from the late 1950s, generally grouped together under the title of the show.  They can barely be seen now, however, since Dean was hired to fill up the space.  Fill it he has, Castiel notes with wonder, and the shop is now a clutter of barricade furniture, raw materials, and finished set pieces.  One wall is obscured by an immense canvas, stretched tight from floor to ceiling and wall to wall.  It mostly seems to be vague shapes in greys and blacks, but Castiel thinks he can see a city taking form.

           Dean sees Castiel looking and nods.  “That’s Andrea’s pet project.  She’s dead useful when it comes to building stuff, but she’d rather be painting.  That’s gonna be Paris.”

           “How much money did Victor give you?” Castiel asks, taking in Andrea’s array of paints.

           “He said not to answer that question,” Dean replies solemnly.  “Besides, Andi plans on using this for her senior show in May so she figured it was okay if she commandeered some stuff from her studio.  Anyway, come look at these sketches I drew up.”

           They spend the next hour going over Dean’s sketches and set design.  They figure out the Bridge Problem fairly quickly, but Dean takes the time after that to give Castiel a tour of what he’s done so far.  Other than the barricade (which apparently has mostly been scavenged from a raid on the university’s storage of broken shit they refuse to either fix or toss), most things are recycled or modified pieces of old sets.  Dean’s building a few things from scratch – some platforms for moving sets, a cart, the bridge, the façade of the Musain – but most of his and Andrea’s time is spent “putting new faces on old skulls.”  (“That’s a morbid way of putting it,” Castiel remarks, but Dean just shrugs.)  Castiel can’t help but be impressed with the thought and care put into each of Dean’s sketches that line the walls, by the talent that shows clearly in the thick, rough lines of graphite.

           “You’re not a student,” Castiel says, and it’s not a question.  Dean looks up from the board he’s measuring with a slight frown.

           “No,” he says slowly, like he’s asking Castiel to get to the point.

           “So why did you move here when Sam came to school?”  Though the question is obvious to Castiel – to pack up and move one’s entire life across several state lines just because one’s brother was going away to college? it seems excessive – Dean blinks as though no one’s ever asked him that.

           “Well, ‘cause we’re really all we’ve got left, I guess.”  He shrugs uncomfortably.  “Been looking out for the kid basically our whole lives, legally since he was fourteen.  Makes me overprotective or whatever.”

           “I see,” Castiel says, even though he doesn’t.

           “Hold this end, will you?  I can’t get it to stay still.”  Castiel does as Dean asks, holding the board steady as Dean concentrates on his measuring tape and carpenter’s pencil.  Eventually, without looking up, he starts talking again.  “Our dad died a few years back.  Two years sober, and he gets himself hit and killed by a drunk driver.  Universe’s got a fucked up sense of humor, huh?”  Castiel nods through his surprise, but Dean doesn’t see, instead just ticking off another few inches.  “I’d just turned eighteen, so I bullied Child Protective into letting me keep Sam.  It wasn’t that different, I basically raised him when Dad was still drunk.  So when he said he wanted to move out here for school, I wasn’t gonna stay in Lawrence by myself just to hold down the fort.  ‘Sides, we can’t afford the room and board shit, even with Sammy’s scholarship.  It’s cheaper for him to just hole up in an apartment with me.”

           Dean pauses, and glances up, finally meeting Castiel’s eyes.  He looks embarrassed.  “You didn’t need to know all that.”

           “No,” Castiel agrees, moving his hand a few inches so that it brushes against Dean’s.  Nothing flirtatious, he hopes, just a gesture of sympathy and, perhaps, friendship.  “But thank you for telling me.”

           Dean’s face changes into something surprised and a little bit grateful, but he’s interrupted before he can say anything else by the appearance of Balthazar’s head in the doorway.

           “Cassie, there you are, darling.  Stop flirting and get out here, we need to run ‘One Day More’ with the full cast before my lord Victor lets us all go for the day.”

           Castiel has to close his eyes and draw a deep breath before turning to face Balthazar.  “Of course.  I’ll see you later, Dean.”

           “Yeah.  Later, Cas.”

 

           “Balthazar,” Castiel tries to say between kisses.  “Balthazar, stop.”  The trouble is, there isn’t a between really, just a lot of kissing.  And groping.  Which is what Castiel is trying, with increasing desperation, to object to.  Finally, Balthazar starts to move his mouth down Castiel’s neck which, while not ideal, allows Castiel to voice his…discontent with the situation.  “Balthazar, move your hand.”

           “That’d be a lot easier if I could get your fly undone, Cassie,” Balthazar replies, not bothering to move his face so that Castiel can feel every syllable as a flicker of tongue and lips against his throat.  It sends a shudder down Castiel’s spine, and not a pleasant one.

           “No, Balthazar.  I mean, move your hand.  Stay away from my zipper.  We’ve talked about this.”  Well, Castiel has talked about this.  Balthazar has made a lot of noise about Castiel’s virginity.  “I’m not – I don’t want –“

           “Yes, well, your pants say otherwise,” Balthazar grins into Castiel’s neck, and his hand moves again to exactly where Castiel does not want it to be.  He can feel his stomach rolling as he disentangles himself enough to physically push Balthazar’s hand away.

           “And you will listen to what I am telling you, with my words,” he snaps, trying to ignore the increasing nausea.

           “God, Cass, this is ridiculous,” Balthazar snaps right back, rolling away from Castiel to lie flat on his back on the bed.  “I knew when we started this that you were a virgin, but I didn’t realize you were going to be such a prude about it.  It’s been nearly six months, Cass.”

           It’s a familiar conversation – argument, really – familiar enough that Castiel can say his part without even thinking about it.  Which is useful, because the things Balthazar has to say are really starting to get to Castiel.

           The two of them grew up together, loosely associated through middle and high school simply by their consistent participation in drama club.  Balthazar, annoying as he might be sometimes (all the time), was the closest thing to a friend Castiel had throughout his adolescence.  When they were both accepted into the theatre program at the same university, Castiel had assumed the pattern would continue at college.  And it did, until Balthazar ran into Castiel at a meeting of the Queer Student Union.  (“Although, I honestly don’t know why I’m surprised.  I should’ve known you were gay.”  “For the third time, Balthazar, I’m not gay.  I’m bisexual.”  “Yes, darling, of course.”)  After that, Balthazar’s flirtations began in earnest, and to his own surprise, Castiel found himself responding.  It wasn’t long before they began going out together and spending evenings making out in Balthazar’s dorm room.

           The problems arose only when Castiel began to realize that he has no real interest in anything further than making out.  In fact (something he hasn’t told Balthazar, who finds Castiel’s disinterest distressing enough, worried he’s doing something wrong), the mere thought is enough to make Castiel feel physically ill.

           He ignores this, mostly, because otherwise Castiel is content in their relationship.  Balthazar is still – and likely always will be – a smarmy bastard, but he’s also charming when he wants to be.  He’s clever, hilarious, and dangerously loyal.  Castiel likes Balthazar’s laugh; likes it more when he’s the cause.  He likes when they go out together, even if it’s only to some stupid on-campus party where they both stay in a corner with a drink or two and complain about the insufferable company drunken college students provide.

           Castiel would estimate that he is comfortable in his relationship with Balthazar easily 75% of the time.  The remaining quarter, however, comes down to moments like this.

           Castiel must be paying even less attention to the familiar argument than usual tonight, because he finds himself giving in, compromising. (There are words from Balthazar, persuasive, reassuring words.  Words like, please, Cass, just give it a try? and don’t worry, I know what I’m doing and alright, what if I…? and trust me.  Castiel’s words are resigned, peacemaking words; okay and as long as your hands don’t wander and yes that’s fine.)  He hates doing this, hates it.  But he knows he shouldn’t hate it, that there’s no reason for him to hate it, so Castiel stays silent and lets Balthazar leave a trail of hickeys along his neck and collarbone.

           Everyone teases Castiel the next day at rehearsal for the scarf he wears that doesn’t quite cover the dark, ugly bruises.  Pamela, the junior who does sound tech, even high fives Balthazar for finally getting somewhere.  They all laugh over Castiel’s modesty, his insistence on hiding his neck.  He smiles tightly at them and pulls the scarf even closer.

           Castiel doesn’t look at himself in the mirror for a week.  If he sees the marks in his reflection, he thinks he might throw up.

 

            “I’m just saying that if you have lights hung that low, you’re going to catch the backdrop on fire,” Dean’s irritated voice echoes around the corner.  Castiel smiles to himself – it’s an old debate, one Victor has had with Ash on more than one occasion.

            “Yeah, yeah, fine,” Ash concedes.  “I just think it would look cooler.”

            Castiel’s impressed by how readily Ash gave in – it’s usually much more difficult to talk him out of his harebrained schemes.  But then, Dean seems to have that effect on people.  It’s only mid-March, just before spring break, but Dean’s already won over basically the entire cast.  Most of the time, he just smiles and gets what he wants (which is driving Victor up a wall, much to the cast’s amusement).  Ash took a quick liking to Dean when Dean complimented the mullet, a rare enough thing to happen to Ash that it immediately put Dean on his good side.

           Castiel is about to round the corner of the hall to join Dean and Ash in the lighting booth when Dean clears his throat oddly, giving Castiel pause.

            “Uh, so Ash, you’re in the senior seminar, too, right?”

            “Yessir,” Ash replies, and it sounds muffled, like he’s got wires held between his teeth again or something.

            “How well do you know Cas?”

            Castiel’s breath catches, and he gets the feeling he should move on before he hears any more of the conversation.  Unfortunately, he seems to be frozen in place.  Ash takes his time before he answers, although Castiel imagines that has more to do with whatever hacking of the light board he’s attempting rather than any actual hesitation.

            “Novak?  I dunno, ‘bout as well as anyone, I guess.  He’s not exactly the warm and fuzzy type.  More like a robot with like really good personality programming – which would really explain the acting abilities of someone who can’t even manage a smile in real life.  Also, he does the head-tilt thing like the guys from Terminator.”

            “Yeah, I noticed that,” Dean agrees, and Castiel would be offended except for that facts that a) he does, indeed, to the “head-tilt thing;” b) he’s heard this theory of Ash’s before; and c) Ash has already dismissed said theory because…

            “Except one time he broke his arm and I saw the bone, which I figure would be pretty hard for the bots to replicate.  Also, I tried to hack him while he was passed out before the ambulance arrived.  Couldn’t, therefore not a robot.”  There’s a pause, and Castiel can imagine the look Dean is giving Ash, and the shrug Ash gives him back.  “I can hack anything, Winchester.”

            “Okay, so basically all you know about Cas is that he’s not a robot.  Which I coulda told you, you hacker nutjob,” Dean adds fondly.  “You got anything else for me?”

            “Not really.  Like I said, not warm and fuzzy.  Ruby might know better, since she lives with him.  Or Balthazar, if you can get a serious answer; he and Novak grew up together.  Why you asking?  Something you need to know?”  Excellent question, Castiel thinks dryly, shifting awkwardly where his feet are still glued to the floor.  When Dean doesn’t answer right away, Ash sighs.  “Listen, man, if you’re asking ‘cause you’re thinking of asking him out, lemme tell you right now: forget it.  Dude’s frigid.”

            “Excuse me?” Dean says, and Castiel might be pleased about how defensive Dean sounds if he weren’t so busy getting more than a little pissed off himself.

            “Colder than a Russian winter.  He and Balthazar used to date, right?  That smug bastard can charm his way into the pants of the most hetero dudes on the planet, and even he couldn’t get Novak to put out.  Who knows, it’s probably some weird religious thing.  Trust me, dude, save yourself the trouble.”

            “Well, I always did like a challenge,” Dean says, his voice tight with false brightness.  Castiel’s stomach clenches at the words.  He was right; he should have left rather than overhear that conversation.  Time to make a belated exit.

            He doesn’t move fast enough, though, and walks straight into Dean as Dean leaves the lighting booth.  Dean’s eyes widen in guilty surprise.  “Cas!  Hey, man, how’s it going?”

            Castiel finds he can’t meet Dean’s eyes; instead, he drops his gaze to the floor and his cheeks burn with anger and shame as he replies in a tone colder…colder than a Russian winter.  “It’s not a religious thing.  And it’s not a challenge.”

            “Cas, I…” Dean trails off, and Castiel doesn’t stay to hear the rest.  He is beyond uninterested in having this particular conversation right now, too busy being furious with Dean, with Ash, with Balthazar – and, perhaps most of all, with himself.

 

            “Castiel, I can’t keep doing this.”  The declaration comes from nowhere one night, blurted over dinner in a corner of the dining hall.  From the look on Balthazar’s face, though, Castiel can tell it’s been a long time coming.

            “Doing what?” Castiel asks carefully, even though he already knows.  He feels…disturbingly relieved that Balthazar is the one to initiate this conversation.  It’s been months since Balthazar stopped trying to push Castiel’s boundaries, weeks since the arguments moved from the bedroom to the simplest, most mundane things.  Castiel may be mostly content, but Balthazar is unhappy, and it’s only getting worse.

            “This,” Balthazar says, gesturing between the two of them.  “Pretending to be your boyfriend, giving you…I don’t know, gay cred.”

            “Pretending to be my boyfriend?”  The words sting.  Castiel knows things haven’t been working, but still…

            Balthazar sighs.  “Cassie, you’re not gay.”

            “No, I’m not,” Castiel agrees.  “For the thousandth time, I’m bi.”

            “No, you’re really not.  Listen, I don’t know if you’re confused or you think it’s, I don’t know, trendy or something to be gay just because you’re a theatre major at a liberal arts school – “

            “Yes, the slurs scrawled on my dorm room door last week really screamed ‘queer is trendy’ at me,” Castiel remarks dryly.

            “But you seem to have missed the key memo that being gay actually involves liking men,” Balthazar bowls onward.  “And you don’t, Cassie.  That much is painfully obvious.”

            “Don’t be ridiculous, I like you considerably.  That much should be painfully obvious.”

            “You barely let me touch you, Cass.  It’s been nine months.  I’ve stuck it out longer than most people would, you know, with someone as prudish as you, because I was rather desperately in love with you.  But it’s gotten old.  And I can’t hold out forever.”

            “It’s not you,” Castiel blurts.  Finally, finally the truth.  When he knows it’s already too late, when he no longer cares that it is too late.  “I just…I don’t want sex.  From anyone.”

            Balthazar looks at him considering.  “Then you need your head checked out,” he says coolly, and pushes himself to his feet.  “Let me know if you even manage to get over whatever hang-ups you have.”

            And then he’s gone, and Castiel is left sitting alone in a crowded dining hall, unable to decide which is worse: the hurt of Balthazar’s words, of it finally ending; or the wave of guilty relief that passes through him when he realizes that he no longer has to dread Balthazar’s touch.

 

            After the overheard lighting booth conversation, Castiel returns to the game of avoiding Dean’s gaze.  It isn’t difficult, as rehearsals have begun to pick up in earnest and they’re soon interrupted by spring break anyway.  Castiel stays at university, per usual, spending the week holed up in the apartment he shares with Ruby.  Rather than enjoy the vacation, as Castiel knows Ruby is desperate to, the two of them spend most of their time drinking obscene amounts of coffee and working on their thesis papers.  Ruby, a double major, has already finished all her work for Les Mis and is now buried in feminist texts for her women’s studies thesis.  She’s set up camp in her bedroom, her bed turned into a fortress of books and printed journal articles, and emerges only to get more coffee and mumble incoherently about queer feminisms and the reclaiming of femme identities.

            Unfortunately, Ruby’s writing habits also seem to involve the majority of Queen Latifah’s rap career blasting through the speakers at all hours of the day and night, while Castiel’s require almost complete silence.  And while they manage to compromise for a while with headphones and earplugs and irritated sighs, Thursday finds Castiel seeking refuge in the silence of the empty auditorium.

            Or, well, not quite so empty, Castiel realizes as he settles into a corner of the stage (he’s nestled between what appears to be the furniture for the Bishop’s house and the Thenadier’s table).  Somewhere down the hall, someone is playing Led Zeppelin and…singing along?  Yes, there’s definitely someone else here, taking advantage of the empty space to be loud.  With a sigh, Castiel moves to put his laptop back in his bag – the library is closed for the week, but he might be able to break into one of the practice rooms in the music building.  Suddenly, the singing becomes much clearer, echoing through the stage acoustics, and who strolls onto the stage but Dean Winchester.

            “Cas,” Dean says in surprise, nearly dropping the hammer that only moments before acted as an air guitar.  Castiel freezes, unsure what to do.  It seems rude to leave as soon as Dean has made an appearance, but Castiel does need to find a quiet place to work.  And he doesn’t particularly want to see Dean at the moment.

            “Why are you here?” Castiel asks, because he truly has excellent manners, which showcase themselves around Dean.

            Dean shrugs awkwardly.  “Figured everyone would be on spring break, I’d finish the set so you’d have France to work with for the last few weeks of rehearsals.  It’s almost done, Andrea’s just gotta finish the backdrops when she gets back.”  There’s a long pause, and Dean’s starting to look as uncomfortable as Castiel feels.  “Wait, why’re you here?  You’re on break.”

            Castiel shrugs.  “Thesis work.  Ruby’s work ethic involves a lot of women rappers of the 1990s, which for reasons beyond her mortal comprehension, is counter to my work ethic.”

            Dean snorts a laugh.  “Who’da thunk.”  They fall into awkward silence again, and Castiel moves to sling his bag over his shoulder.  They both speak at the same time.

            “So I’ll just go find someplace –“

            “I’m really sorry –“

            Castiel blinks.  “Pardon?”

            “I’m sorry,” Dean says, awkward and earnest and unable to meet Castiel’s eyes.  “The other day, what I said – what Ash said too, for that matter – just – I’m sorry.”

            It takes a long moment for Castiel to process this.  (Has anyone ever apologized for demeaning his sexuality?  He doesn’t think so; even Ruby will just wince sympathetically if a remark is too harsh or a joke goes too far.)  Finally, he nods and then, because Dean still isn’t looking at him, “Okay.”

            Dean lets out a whoosh of breath that Castiel hadn’t even realized he’d been holding, and grins.  “Cool.  And you don’t need to go anywhere, I can turn down the music if you wanna hang out?”

            And as always seems to happen, Dean’s easy smile conquers any doubts Castiel has, and he finds himself agreeing.  Within minutes, Castiel is set up on the floor of the tech shop, now nearly empty as most of the set has been moved either to the stage or backstage areas.  He sits with his laptop in his lap, surrounded by neat, ordered, and yes, color-coded notes and articles and books.  Dean whistles at the setup, but Castiel just shrugs it off.

           True to his word, Dean turns down the music, though he still sings under his breath occasionally.  Oddly, it doesn’t bother Castiel the way noise usually does; in fact, it’s rather soothing.  While Castiel is used to the smooth and well-trained voices of music and theatre majors, there’s something refreshing about the rough, honest, slightly off-key cadence of Dean’s singing.  Dean mostly moves in and out of the shop, grabbing things like sandpaper or an extra nail to put finishing touches on various set pieces.  Castiel’s awareness of the shop around him fades as he focuses on his writing, so when Dean clears his throat from less than a foot away, Castiel swears he nearly has a heart attack.

           “Sorry, sorry,” Dean says, but he’s clearly trying to hide a laugh from Castiel’s glare.  “I was just wondering what you’re working on.”

           “There are easier ways to find than out standing over my shoulder,” Castiel says grouchily, but he answers all the same.  “I told you, my senior thesis.”

           Dean just looks blankly at him for a moment before pointing out, “Dude, I don’t go to college.  And I thought this whole…thing,” he gestures broadly to the shop, the entrance to the stage, “Was your thesis.  That’s what Ash made it sound like, anyway.”

           “It is,” Castiel says.  “For the whole senior seminar – Jo, Ruby, Ash, Charlie, Balthazar, and myself.  Anna’s only a minor, so she doesn’t have to complete additional thesis work outside her performance as Fantine.  The rest of us, however, have to choose a topic within the show to explore in a thesis paper.  Ash and Charlie are obviously exploring the technical aspects of the performance, and I know Charlie has also done some work about the science of the acoustics.  Ruby’s paper has something to do with reading the book or the musical with a queer eye.  We all work with topics that interest us.”

           “And what about you?” Dean asks, settling himself on the floor across from Castiel.

           “Well, mine is more of a character study than anything else, I suppose.  I’m exploring the concept of Javert as a tragic hero, defeated at the last by the unforgiving nature of his legalist belief system…” Castiel trails off at the look on Dean’s face.  “I have a minor in religious studies.”

           “’Course you do,” Dean grins. “I’m not gonna pretend to understand everything you’re saying, but what do you mean by Javert being the hero?”

           And that’s how Castiel spends several hours neglecting his thesis to talk to Dean.  They begin with Castiel’s thesis and then move on the show at large, which Dean has apparently been paying much more attention to than Castiel realized (“Dude, again, I live with Sammy.  When he’s not talking about how great Jess is – how much of a freaking dumb cliché is he, right? – he’s talking about this damn show,”).  Eventually they move on to more personal topics – what Dean’s been doing since the move halfway across the country (“Got a job as a mechanic in a salvage yard owned by an old friend of my dad’s – Jo’s stepdad, actually – and bartending at Harvelle’s on weekends.  This set design thing has been the best yet, though.”); Castiel’s plans for after graduation (“Frankly, I haven’t the slightest idea.  I’ve an audition lined up for a summer internship, but I’m hoping that Les Mis will garner some attention locally.”).

           At some point, they abandon the tech shop to get coffee off campus.  Castiel’s surprised by how easily conversation flows, by how easily Dean laughs at Castiel’s dry humor, by how quickly the time passes with their conversation.  It’s late in the evening when they wind up back at the theatre building, Castiel intent on actually getting some work done today.  Dean, who has to run home to wash up before his shift starts at Harvelle’s, bids Castiel goodbye with a grin and a brief, one-armed hug and a “See you around, Cas.”

 

           “Rachel, have you ever heard of asexuality?”  It’s eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning and Castiel has the phone pressed to his ear as he continues to read this website with the kind of manic desperation that only sleeplessness can supply.

           “Isn’t that like, amoebas and shit?” Rachel asks, clearly not paying much attention.  Castiel can hardly blame her.  At this time, she’s usually just leaving church and heading to a meeting with her underlings (“Don’t call them that, Cas, they’re interns.”  “So are you, and yet they allow you to boss them around.”  “That’s because I have a degree, so I get paid and they do not.”), so she’s preoccupied with making the switch from church-going Rachel to HBIC Rachel.  Castiel can afford to be patient.

           “No, Rach, that’s asexual reproduction.  I mean asexuality, in the sense of a sexual orientation.”  He clicks on the link to yet another forum, this one about touch and cuddling in sexless relationships.  “Rather than heterosexuality or homosexuality, et cetera.”

           “Oh,” Rachel’s tone is sharper now, clearer.  “In that case, no I haven’t.  What is it?”

           “It’s defined as a lack of sexual attraction to other people, regardless of gender.”

           “That’s unfortunate.”

           There’s a long pause, and Castiel can hear Rachel start her car on the other end before he gets up the courage to say, “Not really.  It means that there are other people out there who aren’t interested in sex.”

           “Other people?”  A long pause.  “Cas, do you think that this is what’s wrong with you?”

           “No, I think this means there’s nothing wrong with me,” Castiel snaps before he reminds himself – patience.  “Rachel, this is a legitimate sexual orientation.  Approximately one percent of people never experience sexual attraction to another person.”

           “But you dated Balthazar for ages.  I thought you liked him at least.”  She sounds almost as if she’s trying to talk sense into him, something Castiel ignores as he scrolls through the forum and tries to come up with the right words.

           “There’s a difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction.  And while I did care very much for Balthazar romantically, there was never an ounce of anything sexual.  It’s why we broke up.”

           “Yeah, but Cas, have you even tried sex?” Rachel asks, sounding vaguely distressed now.  “I mean, I feel like you’re just leaping on this idea because you’re upset about what happened with you and Balthazar and you’re trying to avoid the real issues here.”

           “What are the real issues here, then, Rachel?” Castiel asks tightly.  “This is real, this makes sense.  There are other people like me.”  He doesn’t mean to choke out the last words, doesn’t mean for his eyes to fill, but it happens all the same.  “Rachel, I thought I was sick and b-broken and that maybe Balthazar was right and I was just confused or maybe you were right and I just had a stick up my ass but it’s real, Rach.  It’s real.”

           There’s a long silence on the other line, and Castiel knows why.  There’s a reason one of his fellow theatre majors is convinced Castiel is a robot, and that reason is that Castiel rarely displays emotion offstage.  He’s fairly certain the last time he cried in front of Rachel, he was eight and their grandmother had just died.  The only reason Castiel knows his sister hasn’t hung up on him is because he can hear the distant sound of her car running in the background.

           When she finally does speak, Rachel’s tone has gone soft and conciliatory.  “Okay, Cas.  If you say that this…asexual thing, if that works for you, I believe you, okay?  I’m glad you found something to fit you.”  A deep breath.  “Can you send me information?  Like, is there a website or something?”

           “Yes,” Castiel says, drawing a few deep breaths of his own.  “Yes, I can do that.”

           “And get some rest, brother, you sound like you’ve been up all night.”  When Castiel makes no reply, Rachel sighs.  “You have been up all night, haven’t you?”

           “Perhaps,” Castiel says, and he hopes Rachel knows he’s smiling at her.  “Discovering one’s sexuality calls for an all-nighter of research, don’t you think?”

           “Yeah, yeah.  Go to sleep, Cas.”

           “Thanks, Rachel.”

           “Anytime.”

 

           “Oh my god, don’t encourage his nerdery,” Ruby begs with an affectionate roll of her eyes.  She’s just walked into the tech shop, half-dressed in petticoats, a corset, and one of Cas’s ugly old man cardigans, interrupting an animated debate over the merits of the Lord of the Rings movies.  (Dean thinks they’re brilliant, even if Peter Jackson’s interpretation is less than ideal; after all, no book-to-film adaptation is perfect.  Castiel keeps saying things like, “but elves at Helm’s Deep” and simply, “Eowyn though.”  They’re getting nowhere.)

           “Please, Ruby,” Castiel says flatly, “Don’t act as though you don’t watch them with me every time.”

           “Only because the noise of the stupid battles takes up the whole house,” she protests, causing Castiel to raise an eyebrow.

           “Really?  So I’ve definitely never caught you crying over Frodo and Sam’s farewell when Frodo leaves for the Grey Havens?”

           Ruby hits Dean for the laugh he futilely tries to muffle behind his hand and sends a glare Castiel’s way.  “You’ll pay for that, Novak.  You’ll pay dearly.”

           “I’m quaking in my boots,” Castiel says dryly.

           “Speaking of boots, that’s why I’m here.  Benny needs you for a fitting – he’s got your snazzy inspector’s coat all done and he wants you to try it on so he can show you off to Victor and the world.”

           “Do I have to?” Castiel sighs heavily.  He’s already standing up from his makeshift seat atop the barricade (in the shop again because Jo is far too invested in her role).

           Ruby slaps him on the back.  “’Fraid so, Cassie.  Besides, if you come now, Benny might stop bitching for five seconds about how Sam’s grown like twelve inches since his initial fitting.  Now come on and let Benny turn you into a nineteenth century, French-ass, sexy piece of man-flesh.”  And with a wink, she flounces out of the shop.

           “She is far too cheerful to play Eponine,” Castiel laments, looking after her.  Turning to make his excuses to Dean, Castiel is faced with the bewildered-and-slightly-turned-on look that tends to follow wherever Ruby goes.  Before Castiel can make any explanations, though, Dean shakes himself and grins.

           “Cassie again?” he teases, and holds up his hand when Castiel moves to respond.  “Lemme guess: regrettable ex-girlfriend privileges?”

           Castiel grimaces.  “Something like that,” he agrees.

           The answer is clearly unexpected.  “Dude, wait seriously –you dated Ruby?  I just can’t picture it.”  Dean shakes his head and then frowns.  “Also, I thought she was gay.”

           “She is,” Castiel agrees.  “Ruby likes to say that the reason we split up was because our relationship was, ah, way too hetero for either of us.  Which is an interesting sort of logic, since we were both also dating Anna at the time.”  Castiel tenses when this last slips out of his mouth – while most of the theatre department had at least attempted acceptance (if not understanding) of their odd romantic triad of sophomore year, they were, after all, theatre kids.  In Castiel’s experience, most of the population is incredibly rude about such relationships, so he feels it’s reasonable to be concerned about Dean’s response.

           Dean opens his mouth, reconsiders, closes it, opens it again, and settles for, “Dude, is there anyone in the theatre department you haven’t dated?”

           Castiel is enormously relieved, and he’s positive it must show.  To cover, he pretends to think for a long moment, before nodding thoughtfully and saying, “Sam.”

           Dean chokes on the air.

 

           “Hey Cas?” Ruby says thoughtfully one afternoon.  They’re sitting in the common room of the dorm they both live in, Ruby’s head in Castiel’s lap as he tries to get some of the reading for Dr. Mills’s Gender and Shakespeare seminar done.

           “Mmm?”

           “So you’re asexual, but…panromantic?”

           “Mmm,” he says again, not bothering to look up from his reading.  Ruby just likes to quiz him sometimes on various aspects of his person, from his childhood with Rachel to his sexuality (or lack thereof).

           “Are romantic and sexual attraction separate for everyone?”

           “I suppose so, yes.  Just most people never have to think about it because their romantic and sexual orientations coincide.”

           “So hypothetically, I could be the total raging dyke that I am and still have a massive crush on you?”

           And well, that makes Castiel put his book down.  He looks down at Ruby curiously.  She’s still calm as ever, playing with the strings of his university hoodie, not really paying much attention to him at all.  “Yes,” he says slowly.  “I suppose, hypothetically, that you could.”

           Ruby nods placidly.  She doesn’t say anything else for a full minute.  “Hey Cas?”

           “Yes, Ruby?”

           “Wanna go out to the movies on Friday?  My treat.”

           “Like a date?”

           Ruby finally looks at him, rolling her eyes and grinning in his face.  “Yeah, dumbass, like a date.  To be theoretically followed by multiple other dates.  We can cuddle and hold hands and totally not have sex.”

           It takes Castiel a long time to answer, mostly because he’s never considered Ruby in a romantic light before.  He’s known since they first met that she’s a lesbian, so it never occurred to him to imagine…well, this.  Ruby’s starting to look more than a little disappointed with his silence when he finally manages to answer, “Yes, I think I’d like that.”  Ruby’s grin is back full force, but Castiel’s still thoughtful.  “I imagine you’re not particularly interested in a monogamous relationship?”

           The grin slides off Ruby’s face to be replaced by something more serious, and Castiel is surprised to realize that she’s actually given quite a bit of thought to this.  (It’s hard to predict with Ruby – either it’s a spur of the moment idea, or she’s spent the last few years plotting every intricate detail.  It’s part of what makes her so delightfully diabolical.)  “I don’t know,” she says honestly.  “If that’s what you want, I’d be willing to give it a try, I guess, but…”

           “The idea of keeping you from sex doesn’t exactly strike me as a clever one,” Castiel says dryly.  “I guarantee you’d blow something up out of frustration after about a month.”

           Ruby nods sagely.  “This is probably true.”  She hesitates before speaking again.  “There’s this girl I’ve been hooking up with, Anna?”

           “Redhead?”

           “Yeah.  And I had talked to her about, ya know, things,” she shrugs, an awkward gesture, since she’s still lying in Castiel’s lap.  “Would you be into a closed polyamorous relationship?  Like, you and I date, and Anna and I do the sex thing, and none of us date or sleep with anyone else, and we all just coexist in peace, harmony, and super-duper-queerness?”

           Castiel has to smile at that last, because leave it to Ruby to look at it that way.  “You know,” he says, nodding slowly, “I think that might be nice.”

           “Awesome!  So what do you say to seeing –“

           “No.”

           “Caaaaas, you didn’t even let me finish,” Ruby pouts.

           “I know you, though.  I pick.”

           “You’re the worst boyfriend ever,” Ruby sighs dramatically.

           Castiel raises an eyebrow, but something in his chest warms at the word boyfriend.  “Indeed.”

 

           “Hey Cas,” Dean calls across the foyer of the theatre building, waving as he half-runs down the hall toward the shop.  He’s clutching a bag of whatever ‘last-minute supplies’ he deemed necessary to purchase for the final week of rehearsals.

           “Dean,” Castiel returns with a grin, the only thing he has time to say before Dean has disappeared into the depths of the building.

           “Yeah, hello to you, too, Dean,” Jo grumbles from where she’s sitting, curled up against Castiel’s shoulder with the Brick.  “Nice of you to greet me, not like we’re practically family or anything.”

           “Well, maybe if you were as pretty as Cassie here, Dean-o would pay more attention to you,” Ruby says teasingly.  She’s leaning against Castiel’s other side, with Anna seated between her legs, Ruby braiding Anna’s hair.

           “It’s not like Cas isn’t the same way,” Anna joins in.  “After all, when was the last time he smiled like that at anyone else?”

           “Shut up,” Castiel grumbles half-heartedly.  It’s become a familiar topic of teasing over the last few weeks, one that’s causing Castiel increasing unease.

           Ruby notices these things, of course.  Instantly, she gets serious and, lowering her voice says, “Really though, Cas, you do know he flirts with you constantly, right?”

           “I’ve been made aware,” he replies darkly.

           “And you really kinda flirt back.”

           “I know,” he sighs, not saying I can’t help it or so would you or I don’t think I’ve ever wished so strongly that I were normal and could follow through with flirting.  He’s fairly certain Ruby hears it anyway.

           She reaches over and squeezes Castiel’s hand.  “Just be careful, Cas.”

           “I know,” he says again, and squeezes back.  “I know.”

 

           “Ruby, I think we need to talk,” Castiel says over coffee.  It’s an afternoon in late April, which really seems to be the time of year for Castiel to be having this kind of conversation.  He wonders bitterly if it will become an annual thing.

           “Yeah,” Ruby sighs, “I know.”

“You do?” Castiel asks, surprised and yes, a little bit relieved.  He’d thought he was the only one feeling out-of-place here.

           “You wanna break up?” Ruby asks, but the sad half-smile she’s wearing tells him it’s not really a question.

           He nods.  “It’s not…I simply think we make better friends than partners.”

           “Yeah, I’ve been getting there myself,” Ruby agrees.  Castiel shouldn’t be as surprised as he is.  In the few months they’ve been officially dating, he and Ruby have fought more than they usually do in an attempt to negotiate boundaries and balance their respective relationships with Anna and each other.  Ruby tilts her head slightly (a habit she’s picked up from Castiel).  “There’s something else.”

           Castiel hesitates.  He wants to phrase this in a way that won’t reflect on Ruby or Anna.  “I don’t think I’m particularly cut out for polyamory,” he says at last.  “It’s nothing against you or Anna or the concept in and of itself, it just…”

           “It isn’t what you want,” Ruby finishes for him when he trails off.  She reaches across the table and covers his hand with her own.  “Cas, that’s fine.  Not everyone can handle the fabulousness of dating more than one person at once.”  She grins.  “Leave it to you to be the one who wants a normal-ass relationship.”

           “I’m hopeless, truly,” Castiel says with a smile.  “I’ve already talked to Anna.  Last night.  We’ve agreed to remain friends, although I doubt much will change.”

           “Well duh,” Ruby snorts.  “I mean, who else but the two of us will tolerate your closeted cuddlesluttish tendencies?”

           “The entire theatre department, probably,” Cas answers drily, because really, he is possibly the least of the cuddlesluts there, to use Ruby’s word.

           “Fair ‘nough,” Ruby concedes.  “Oh hey, since we’re not dating anymore, wanna get an apartment off campus together next semester?”

           “Your logic baffles me.”

 

           The last-minute supplies Dean purchased earlier this week turn out to be massive amounts of groceries.  In the few days of dress rehearsal left before opening night, Dean and Benny have really nothing better to do unless something rips, breaks, or otherwise go horribly awry, but have decided to lurk in the theatre anyway.  Somehow, this leads to a makeshift kitchen being set up in the now-empty tech shop.  There are several hotplates, a grill (where on earth did they find one of those?), and a small dorm-sized refrigerator plugged into the various outlets freed up by the power tools no longer in use, and stacks of paper and plastic kitchenware balanced on one of the worktables.  Every night when the cast breaks between acts, Benny, Dean, Ava, and Andrea serve up a frankly amazing feast (although really Andrea seems to only hang around to harass Benny and flirt with him shamelessly, and Ava seems to specialize in spilling things and apologizing).  The meals range from burgers to pasta to barbecue to Cajun food (Benny’s specialty), each better than the last.  At first Victor is irritated at the misappropriation of his theatre space, but then Dean basically force-feeds him a burger and Victor shuts up.

           It’s the best tech week Castiel can remember in his entire theatre experience.  Everyone’s relatively relaxed, even the seniors.  Even Fate calms down enough to eat dinner with them, although that’s probably due to a combination of the facts that, a) there’s nothing left for her to plan or organize, and b) she is so far beyond stressed out that she’s rather serene (Castiel frankly worries for her blood pressure).  Things run fairly smoothly all week, aside from a few forgotten lines and the one time when Balthazar forgets that he’s supposed to run at the end of “The Confrontation” and instead uses his superior fencing skills to force Castiel into an irritated surrender offstage.  And except for, of course, their final dress rehearsal, when Jo splits her pants, Chuck breaks a wine bottle, Sam trips over Jess’s dress and lands flat on his face, and some numbskull in the orchestra skips a full line of “One Day More,” effectively screwing everyone over for the remainder of the song.

           But all that’s all right, Castiel reassures Dean, who seems unduly concerned.  Everyone knows that a terrible final dress means an excellent opening night (“fuckin’ superstitious theatre kids,” Dean mutters with a shake of his head).  So despite the bruises and the tears and the broken glass everywhere, everyone leaves the building at midnight on Thursday with a rather optimistic attitude.

           Of course, that attitude has faded by the time it’s one minute to curtain and Castiel, Balthazar, and the convicts are frozen in the dark, listening to the murmuring of the audience (it sounds huge, as one might expect for a performance of such a popular musical) and whispering back and forth for everyone to break a leg.  Castiel never feels nervous before a show, precisely; rather, his whole body goes cold, as if he’s been frozen in that strange purgatory between self and character.  Then the music swells, lights and curtain go up, warmth floods Castiel’s limbs, and Javert comes to life.

           It is easily the best performance Castiel has ever given, the best any of them have ever given.  Balthazar finally manages to turn off his diva and deliver the humility and selflessness of Valjean in addition to hitting every single high note.  “Master of the House” has never been so energetic, so full of the cynical fun the scene requires.  When Anna finishes “I Dreamed a Dream,” there’s not a dry eye among the crew, and Castiel imagines the audience is much the same.  The sobs renew on Ruby’s rendition of “On my Own,” and when Sam delivers “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” with an anguish that’s palpable.  Jo, brilliant in her xylophone vest, lights a revolutionary fire in the hearts of all present; and even Chuck, whose role as Grantaire they all joked isn’t far from the truth, silences the audience with his desperate last stand at Enjolras’s side.

           When the curtain goes down after bows, Castiel thinks for a moment that he’s gone deaf before he realizes that the roaring in his ears is thunderous applause.  A tearful Jess throws herself on Sam, kissing the living daylights out of him.  There are wolf-whistles and laughter (and a few mumbled finally’s) all around as Sam flails and recovers himself to lift Jess in the air and spin her around.  Everyone is grinning and hugging and Castiel feels himself smiling with the sort of high that he’s found only comes from live performance.

           When Castiel sees stage and tech crew come barreling onto the stage out of the wings, he manages to pry Ruby’s arms from his waist just in time for Dean to make a beeline for him.  For one glorious, hopeful, terrifying moment, Castiel fears that Dean is about to do to him what Jess did to Sam.  But Dean pulls back at the last second, settling for flinging his arms around Castiel and half-shouting, half-laughing in his ear over the noise, “You made me cry, you talented bastard, what the fuck?”

           Castiel full-out laughs, returning Dean’s iron grip with one of his own.  “I apologize for any emotional distress I may have caused.”

           Dean finally pulls away, grinning ear to ear, and slaps Castiel on the back.  “Don’t apologize, dumbass.  You got a goddamn standing ovation!”

           “And I didn’t even break the barricade!” Jo exclaims as she leaps onto Dean’s back from behind.

           Oof!  Yeah, yeah, Jo, congrats, now get off me before I fall over, you’re not five anymore,” Dean laughs.  Jo does as he says, but not before blowing a fantastic raspberry on the back of Dean’s neck.  “I’ll get you for that, Joanna Beth!” Dean shouts as Jo runs off cackling.  The reprieve from attack hugs doesn’t last for long, however, as moments later Sam appears from nowhere to wrap his gangly limbs around his older brother (and Castiel swears he hears Dean mutter, “nice job, Sasquatch,” as he pats Sam on the back).

           Further hugs and congratulations are exchanged before Benny starts telling everyone to get the hell out of those costumes or you won’t have one tomorrow, and everyone moves to obey.  There’s the usual meet-and-greet with the audience outside, which Castiel endures for about ten minutes before his natural introversion overcomes his performance high and he retreats to the men’s dressing room to neaten up, since no one else is going to do so.  After a few minutes, Dean appears and, with a wordless shrug, starts to help Castiel.

           When most of the audience has left and only cast and crew really remain behind in the halls, Victor claps his hand for attention.  “Alright, you little shits, that wasn’t half bad.  Bring it like that every night, and we just might have a performance on our hands.”  Which is just about the highest praise any of them can ask for.

 

           It hits Castiel like a freight train one night in August before his junior year.  He’s at a bar for the cast party of the community production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s just finished, and he’s just seen Puck slip her hand into Lysander’s and, with a smiling whisper, lead him away.  It’s a normal enough gesture, obvious in where it stems from and where it leads.  Castiel has certainly seen similar things happen a dozen times at the parties Ruby and Balthazar have dragged him to over the last two years.  And yet this triggers something in him like nothing has before, and he’s dizzy with the realization.

           He can never have that.

           It’s a blow to the gut, knocking the wind from him completely.  He stands abruptly, ignoring the fact that he’s theoretically engaged in polite conversation with Mustardseed, and stumbles from the room, into the foyer, outside in a desperate attempt to find some air.

           He can never have that.

           Ninety-nine percent of the world experiences sexual attraction.  Ninety-nine percent.  And Castiel does not, cannot.  He can’t compromise on sex, can’t even give a sexual partner the freedom of an open relationship.  Ninety-nine percent of the world will never have Castiel, will never want him.

           And the other one percent?  Barely one percent of the population is asexual, and Castiel doubts more than half of them have even heard the word – it’s too new, too young.  Of those few, how many are interested romantically in men?  How many could possibly be interested in Castiel?  What are the chances that he has a match among that one percent; if such a match does exist, what are the chances they will ever meet?

           Castiel is alone.  He has been alone and he will always be alone and his friends will grow and marry and have children and he can never have that.

           He doesn’t know he’s crying until he hears Ruby’s alarmed voice beside him, calling his name.  “Cas?  Cas, come on, what’s wrong, what happened?”  They’re on the ground, he realizes dimly, the pavement cutting into his knees through his jeans, Ruby’s arm a welcome warmth around his shoulder.  She’s here because she’s staying with Castiel’s family for the last few weeks of the summer before they move into their new apartment.  She only came to the cast party tonight because she knows Castiel can’t stand large group situations, that it helps him to have someone there.  She’s only trying to help, to be nice, to be a good friend.  She doesn’t deserve this, he thinks even as he turns into her shoulder, sobbing brokenly now.

           "It’s not fair,” he chokes out.  “What’s wrong with me?”

 

           Like every spring senior showcase production, Les Mis runs on for a full week, Friday through the next Saturday, with a matinee on Sunday and no performance Monday evening.  While the matinee is a little lower energy than their first few performances, the talking-to Victor gives them afterwards means that the remainder of the nights go off as perfectly as opening night.  None cause the same jubilation, though, until the final evening.

           It’s their largest crowd yet, the seats packed (and the auditorium seats a thousand, Castiel remembers dazedly), with a few dozen additional stragglers standing on the sides.   They’re incredibly responsive, laughing and sobbing audibly in all the right places.  They’re a wonderful audience, any actor’s dream.  It’s so perfect that it’s surreal.

           Castiel is in such a daze that he makes it all the way through the meet-and-greet for only the second time ever (the last time was the previous year, the night he met Sam Winchester).  He smiles and shakes hands and lets Victor introduce him to a dozen people.  He’s involved in a discussion of dramaturgy with the owner of a local theatre company when a firm, familiar voice sounds next to him, accompanied by a hand on his shoulder.

           “Sorry, sir, but do you mind if I steal Castiel from you?  I’m family,” Rachel says, and Castiel turns to her in shock.  She’s got her polite adult smile on, but Castiel can see the lively twinkle in her eyes.

           “Of course,” Castiel’s companion says, returning her smile.  “Castiel, it was great to meet you.  I’d love it if you could email me a link to that article you were telling me about.”  He hands Castiel his business card and walks away.

           Rachel nods approvingly.  “Nice job on the networking, Cas.  When did you gain those kinds of people skills?”  Castiel just stares at her, and Rachel laughs.  “Oh, you haven’t.  You’re just performance-high again, aren’t you?”

           Castiel sighs and pockets the business card.  “Yes, I believe so.  What are you doing here?  You never told me you were coming.”

           She shrugs.  “It’s your senior show, I thought I’d make an appearance.  Someone from the family ought to,” she adds grimly.  Castiel’s parents have never attended a single on of his shows in the past four years, despite the fact that they live less than an hour away.  But Rachel, who hates musical theatre with a passion that rivals only her hatred of being assigned group work with incompetent or lazy partners, Rachel came.

           Belatedly, Castiel hugs her.  She returns it awkwardly, still not used to the tactile side of Castiel after the distant affection they grew up with.  “You’re so weird,” she laughs into his ear.  He rolls his eyes at her as he pulls away.  “Are you doing anything right now, or do you want to get a late dinner with your big sister?”

           “Please rescue me from the cast party,” Castiel responds before she even really finishes her sentence.  As much as he loves his fellow cast members, particularly those in the seminar class, he is not willing to tolerate large social settings even for them.  “Please,” he adds, throwing in a tone of horror, “There will be pop music.  And drinking games.  Rachel, they might even expect me to be fun.”

           She laughs.  “Alright, anything for you, Cas.”  Linking an arm through his, she starts to lead him away.  “Where do we find good food around here at this time of night?”

           Castiel’s listing off the few places he can think of, mostly 24-hour diners, when someone from behind calls, “Cas, wait up!”  Turning, Castiel sees Dean weaving through the crowd, smiling at him.   “Hey, man,” he says when he catches them, not far from the door.  Glancing at Rachel, he adds politely, “Ma’am.”

           Castiel bites back a smile, but Rachel just raises her eyebrows.  “Dean, this is my sister Rachel.  Please don’t call her ma’am, I fear it will exaggerate her delusions of her own importance.”  Rach’s eyebrows shoot higher.  “Rachel, this is Dean Winchester.  He built our sets.”

           “Pleasure,” she says slowly, shaking Dean’s hand and looking at him like he is a truly fascinating microorganism whose secrets she is trying to puzzle out.

           “I see the intense staring thing is genetic,” Dean laughs.  Castiel feels himself blush slightly because the way he stares at Dean is not how Rachel is staring at Dean, and Castiel has a feeling all three of them know it.  “Anyway, Cas, I was wondering – you goin’ to the cast party?”

           Castiel shakes his head reluctantly (because of course, of course, he suddenly regrets his decision not to go).  “I’m afraid not.  Rachel decided to visit without warning, and familial obligation dictates that I feed her and bask in her presence.”

           “Ah, yeah,” Dean says seriously, “Family’s family, I can get that.”  He looks sideways at Rachel and coughs once, shifting on his feet.  Castiel frowns at him, puzzled, but before he can ask, Dean says in a rush, “Do you wanna get dinner with me tomorrow night?”

           And Castiel, theatre-high, performance-dazed, sister-bewildered, and overall generally distracted, goes with his first instinct, which is to acquiesce to the warmth in his chest, smile, and say, “Yes.”

           He’s rewarded with a relieved smile on Dean’s part.  “Cool.  I’ll see you tomorrow then.  Nice to meet you, Rachel.”  And with a wave, he’s gone.

           It’s only five minutes later in Rachel’s car, as Castiel is directing her to his personal favorite diner, that he manages to process what has just transpired.  “Turn left on Charles Stre – Dean asked me out.”

           Rachel makes the turn.  “Yes.  That he did.”

           “On a date.”

           “Generally, Cas.  Where am I going?”

           “Right on 29th, just park in the lot for the museum.  It’s a weekend night, so it will be free.  I said yes.”  He tries to ignore the rising panic in his own voice.

           “I noticed,” Rachel said drily.  She parks and looks at him with no small amount of exasperation.  “Please save the sexless existential crisis for Ruby.  You know I never know how to handle your weird attempts at a love life.”

           Castiel takes a deep breath.  “Of course.”

           Several hours later, Ruby comes home from the cast party to find Castiel sitting on the couch, staring intently at the wall.  She’s laughing and trailing a spectacularly clingy Anna, but stops dead when she sees her roommate.

           “Cas?”

           “Dean asked me out,” Castiel informs her without looking up.

           “Finally,” Anna mutters into Ruby’s hair.

           “I said yes.”

           “Well, fuck,” Ruby says.

 

           Dean picks Castiel up at five.  He’s on foot, which is surprising, but Dean shrugs and says it’s not far if Cas doesn’t mind the walk; don’t worry, Cas’ll get to meet his Baby later.

           Castiel thinks it’s the first time he’s ever seen Dean in clothes that aren’t covered by paint or grease or sawdust, just clean jeans and a black button-down with the sleeves rolled up.  Castiel shifts uncomfortably because he’s dressed as he always is – slim black jeans and a white button-down, with the blue scarf that Ruby foisted on him at the last second because “it brings out your eyes” – and feels somehow that he should have tried harder.

           (Part of him whispers that you never tried harder for Balthazar, for Ruby and Anna; another retorts that this is more important.  He ignores the latter; this isn’t important, can’t be allowed to be important.  By the end of the evening, he’ll have to out himself and ruin everything.  There’s no reason to try for anything else.)

           All the same, Dean grins when he sees Castiel.  “Nice to see you out of costume, Javert.”

           “I hardly recognized you without a power drill in your hand,” Castiel retorts dryly, but he’s smiling.  He does that quite often around Dean, he thinks, the smiling.

           The place Dean’s picked out is simple, a burger and pizza joint only a few blocks from the university and Castiel’s apartment.  Dean glances over at Castiel when they arrive, as though trying to gauge his reaction, but Castiel is almost too relieved at how Dean of a choice it is to notice.  It’s awkward at first, neither of them really knowing how to act around the other outside of the safety of the theatre building.  After all, their only prior experience with such behavior is the one day they went for coffee more than a month ago, and that was hardly a date.  Soon, though, the conversation picks up, becomes easy, relaxed, fun, and Castiel forgets that he is still, theoretically, freaking out.

           Dean’s in the midst of relating some childhood story involving Sam, the Fourth of July, a box of fireworks, and flaming jeans when he glances at his watch and swears.  Castiel blinks a question, but Dean just shakes his head.  “We’re running late for the next part of the date.”

           (Castiel’s heart doesn’t leap at the word date, at the confirmation of what has been slightly ambiguous – after all, it could just be dinner outside of the theatre, it could just be an overture of friendship.  Castiel’s heart doesn’t leap, he doesn’t feel a spark of hope and happiness, because he knows better and it would be absurd to allow himself to think like that, to feel like that.  So he doesn’t.  He doesn’t.)

           The next part of the date does, in fact, require Dean’s car – his Baby – to reach.  Baby turns out to be a 1967 Chevy Impala, and even Castiel, who knows nothing of cars, can tell that she is beautiful.  Dean grins when Castiel says so.  They make their way downtown, into the heart of the city, before Dean parks off a residential side street.  They have to walk a few more blocks, but the night air is warm and clear and Castiel can almost make out the first few stars on the edge of the horizon, behind the skyscrapers and the streetlamps.

           They wind up at the door of an art gallery, which is odd, because it is quite clearly closed for the evening.  All the same, Dean knocks on the front door three times, then steps back to wait, shooting Castiel a smile and wiggling his eyebrows.  Not a minute later, a rather scrawny, rather smiley security guard opens the door and wraps Dean in an enthusiastic hug.

           “Dean!  You made it!  Awesome!  And you must be Cas,” he adds, grabbing Castiel’s hand and shaking it vigorously.

           “Um,” Castiel says.

           “Listen up.  So I can give you guys about an hour, just don’t touch anything and get out of here before my replacement shows up, okay?  I’ll be in the security booth if you need me!”  And, whistling, he turns on his heel and walks away.

           Dean turns to Castiel and laughs quietly at the bewilderment that Castiel is sure is written all over his face.  “You’ve just been Garth’d,” Dean informs him.

           “Pardon?”

           “That was Garth, a buddy of mine.  He can be…a little much, I guess, but he grows on you.  And he owed me a favor, so I thought I’d cash it in…” Dean trails off, clears his throat, and tries again.  “There’s this really cool local artist, Sarah Blake.  Andrea told me all about her.  She’s got a show here that doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, but I know you hate crowds and Garth owed me a favor anyway.  And I just thought this’d be a cool place to go.”  He runs a hand nervously through his hair, eyes on Castiel like a question.

           “You got us in to Sarah Blake’s show before it opens?” Castiel repeats in disbelief.  “Dean, you’re incredible.”  That’s incredible, he meant to say.  That.  Not you.

           Dean’s face lights up.  “Well, yeah.  Now come on, you heard Garth, we only get an hour.”  He reaches down and grabs Castiel’s hand, twining their fingers together easily, and drags Castiel through the opening of the exhibit.

           It’s funny, Castiel thinks at some point during the hour wandering through the darkened showrooms, looking at dimly lit pieces and discussing them without the pressure of academia and jargon.  It’s funny how much Castiel has admired Blake’s work and longed to see it in person; yet now that he finally has that opportunity, he knows he won’t remember the paintings with the clarity he will the expression on Dean’s face every time he looks at Castiel.

           Dean drives Castiel home after that, apologizing for the early night and explaining that he has to be at Harvelle’s at “ass o’clock” tomorrow morning to do end-of-the-month inventory.  Castiel assures Dean he doesn’t mind, it’s been a wonderful evening as it is.

           When Dean pulls up in front of Castiel’s apartment, he starts to look nervous again.  Clearing his throat, he laughs and says, “I’m sorry man, I swear I’m usually not this awkward, but I can’t get a read on you at all.  So, uh, would it be okay if I kissed you goodnight?”

           Castiel freezes.  His first thought is, but tonight was going so well.  His second is, yes, please.  And his third, but none of the things that usually come after.

           What he says, in a voice that is disproportionately loud and slightly panicked, is, “No.”

           Dean blinks.  Incapable of reading Castiel or otherwise, that was clearly not the answer Dean was expecting.  Rather, he looks as though he’s just been slapped.  Castiel’s face is on fire with shame and humiliation and he suddenly cannot get out of the car fast enough.

           “I’m sorry, I should…I should go.”

           “Uh, yeah, I guess.  Have – have a good night, Cas.”

           “Thank you,” Castiel says, and it’s practically a whisper.  Once he’s out of the car, he doesn’t look back.

 

           It’s Wednesday when Sam Winchester finally manages to catch Castiel, trapping him in a stairwell of the theatre building on Castiel’s way to seminar.  Sam looks fierce and determined and perhaps a little angry, which is not exactly a welcoming combination on the face of a person approximately twelve feet tall.

           “Look, whatever my dumbass of a brother said or did the other night, he’s sorry.  And I know he won’t nut up enough to call you himself, but trust me.  All he’s done for the past few days is mope around the house snapping at me for moving, so just – ugh, he’s an asshole, he’s sorry, and you should call him.”  It all comes out in a rush, almost as if Sam has rehearsed this moment.

           Castiel blinks at him, astonished.  “Sam, Dean didn’t do anything.”  Nothing unexpected, nothing wrong.  He just wanted something I can’t give him.  “It’s my fault entirely.”

           Sam blinks, and then his face hardens.  “Well, in that case, you’re an asshole, he’s blaming himself, and you should call him.”  And with the single most effective glare Castiel has ever been blessed to witness, Sam pushes past him and walks away.

           Which is why when Castiel hears half-mumbled Metallica lyrics drifting from the tech shop on Friday afternoon, he braces himself and marches down the hall.  In the shop, Dean is busy packing up the tools of his own that he lent to the department for the duration of the show.  Taking a deep breath, Castiel walks in just as Dean turns to face the doorway.  The singing comes to an abrupt halt.

           “Cas.”  Dean sounds a little as though the wind has been knocked out of him.

           “I’m asexual,” Castiel blurts, because his life over the past several months can be measured by his verbal clumsiness in the face of one Dean Winchester and why disrupt the pattern now?

           Dean frowns.  “Come again?”

           Deep breath, Castiel thinks.  Here it is.  “I’m asexual.  It means I don’t experience sexual attraction.  To anyone.”

           “So, the other night…?” Dean asks slowly, like he’s scrambling to put puzzle pieces together.

           “It wasn’t anything you did,” Castiel says hurriedly.  “Sam told me that you thought it was your fault, the way things left off.  It isn’t.”

           Dean snorts.  “Of course Sam said something,” he mutters.  “Was he wearing bitchface number five?”

           Castiel tilts his head, momentarily thrown off.  “Sam’s bitchfaces are numbered?”

           “Well, yeah,” Dean says, as if it’s the most reasonable thing in the world, “Number five is sorta exasperated, I’m-sorry-my-brother’s-a-dumbass, ya know.”

           “Ah, yes.  Yes, he was wearing bitchface number five.”  Dean quirks a bit of a smile, and they both go quiet for a minute.  When Castiel speaks again, it’s apologetic, because he is never done apologizing to those he cares about for the way he is.  “It’s not that you did anything wrong, or that I didn’t enjoy myself.  Quite the opposite, actually.  But in my experience, kissing only leads people to expect something more, and I didn’t want to – to lead you on anymore than I felt I already had.”

           “Okay,” Dean says, nodding.  “Okay.  If you’re not interested in me, why’d you agree to go out with me in the first place?”

           “I am interested in you,” Castiel replies, stung.  “Just not…sexually.”  Dean is looking at Castiel with an expression that says Castiel is making about as much sense as a dolphin with a hat.  Castiel sighs and runs a hand through his hair.  There is nothing he enjoys about this conversation, ever.  “I differentiate between romantic and sexual attraction.  While I do like you romantically, very much –“ and no, he is most certainly not blushing as he says that, “ – I am simply not capable of sexual attraction.  Not with you, not with anyone.”

           “Is that, like, a hormone thing?” Dean asks with a frown.  “Or, ya know, physical…?”

           It takes Castiel a moment to realize what Dean is getting at, but when he does, his face heats up in anger and humiliation.  “No,” he replies coldly.  “I am physically and medically sound.  Are you?”

           “What?” Dean splutters, surprised to have this turned back on him.

           “Your question was rude.  Asexuality is not a condition, it’s an orientation.  Much like heterosexuality or bisexuality or any of the other various and sundry sexual orientations.”

           “Sorry, man.  I’ve just never heard of it.”  And he does sound sorry.

           “Most people haven’t,” Castiel concedes.  “And I’m not particularly inclined to spread the word by outing myself to everyone I meet.  I hate having these conversations.”

           “If everyone’s as much of an ass as I am, I can see why,” Dean says with a weak laugh.  “Uh, if I can ask – who else knows?”

           Castiel shrugs.  “Ruby, Anna.  My sister Rachel.  A few people in an anonymous internet community for asexual people.  And you.”

           “That’s it?” Dean seems surprised.  “So, none of the theatre kids…” he trails off and looks down at his feet.  Castiel realizes he’s referring to the conversation with Ash.

           “No,” Castiel says, face twisting in a grimace.  “They only think I’m…prudish.  Or frigid.  Colder than a Russian winter, if you will.”

           Dean winces.  “So why tell me?” he asks, meeting Castiel’s eyes again.

           Castiel shrugs.  “I thought you deserved an explanation.”

           “Oh.  Well, thanks.”

           They lapse into silence again, and Castiel gets a strange, sinking sensation in his stomach.  After a solid two minutes, he clears his throat.  “I should get going.  I just…wanted to apologize, I suppose.”

           “Wait,” Dean says sharply as Castiel turns to go.  He faces Dean again, eyebrows raised in question.  “What’re we gonna do?”

           “About what?”

           “Whatever this,” Dean gestures between the two of them.  “Us, is.  I mean, I like you, you like me, you don’t like sex…what do you want to do?”

           The question is so entirely unexpected that Castiel has no choice but to answer honestly.  “I don’t know.”

           Dean swallows, nods.  “Me neither.  Well, we’ll just…just think on it, I guess.”

           “Goodbye, Dean.”

 

           It’s Sunday before Castiel hears from Dean again.  His own intentions had been to just cut all ties, push it behind him, ignore that anything had ever happened, and take the first out-of-state job offer he received.  When Ruby asked on Friday evening if Castiel had spoken to Dean, he solemnly informed her that when the coroner inevitably asked for cause of death, it should be marked down as an overdose of embarrassing conversations with Dean Winchester.  Ruby left him alone after that, except to hand him a mug of tea and put on an episode of Dr. Sexy.

           All the same, Sunday brings a text message from Dean that reads: wanna get coffee? i think we should talk

           Castiel stares at the text message for a full minute before he wanders into the kitchen and wordlessly passes the phone to Ruby.

           “Hmrgh?” she inquires, mouth full of ramen.  Looking at the phone in her hands, she pauses only to roll her eyes at Castiel before replying on his behalf, Yes

           The response is immediate.  good be there in ten

           “You are evil,” Castiel informs Ruby placidly.

           She pats him on the arm.  “Wear the scarf.”

           Ten minutes later, Castiel meets Dean outside of the apartment building (and just because he is, in fact, wearing the scarf does not mean that Ruby is anything other than the purest form of evil).  Dean smiles at him, small and nervous.

           “Hey, Cas.”

           “Hello, Dean.”

           “I thought we’d just go to that stupid hipster place on University?”  Castiel nods, and they start walking.

           They are both silent all the way there, a heavy, awkward kind of silent that neither of them are used to.  They’re used to casual silences, the comfort in working in the other’s presence without talking.  The kind of silences that pass in front of paintings in a darkened gallery.

           Dean insists on paying for Castiel’s coffee, and they end up at a table outside, basking in the sunlight of early May.  After a few long minutes, Dean speaks.

           “So I did some research this weekend.”  Castiel looks over at him sharply.  “About asexuality.  Mostly Wikipedia and that one site, asexuality-dot-org?”

           “You were on AVEN?” Castiel repeats, caught utterly off guard.

           “Yeah,” Dean shrugs.  He takes a deep breath.  “Look, Cas, I really like you.  Like, it’s stupid how much I like you.  And I really, really want to give this a try.  You and me.”

           “Oh,” Castiel says, rather eloquently, he thinks.

           “But only if you want to.  Obviously.  And you’ll have to tell me what your boundaries are.  Like, some of the stuff I was reading was talking about how some asexual people do have sex, but I take it you’re not one of them.”

           “Definitely not,” Castiel agrees with a repressed shudder.

           “Are you…shit, what’s the word – sex-averse?”

           Dean is apparently full of surprises today; he really has done his research.  “Sex-averse or sex-repulsed, yes.  Most kinds of sexual activity – or even the thought of such – is enough to make me physically ill.”

           Dean nods thoughtfully.  “But you’re not against like, I dunno.”  He waves a hand awkwardly.  “Like – god, I can’t believe I’m saying this – you know, cuddling and shit.  I mean, I’ve seen you with the other drama kids, you’re like a pile of overgrown puppies.”

           Castiel has to bite back a smile at the comparison.  “I admit that I am, as Ruby would have it, a bit of a cuddleslut.”

           Dean snorts a laugh at the word, and Castiel can’t keep the smile back anymore.  “Okay, so there’s that.”  He hesitates.  “The other day, you said you didn’t want to kiss me because you didn’t want to lead me on.  So does that mean that you wanted to, or do you not like kissing either?”

           “I think, under circumstances where there is no pressure to, well, go further, as it were…I think I’d quite like kissing.”

           “I can work with that,” Dean says thoughtfully.

           “Dean, I…” Castiel thinks about how to phrase this.  Not an outright rejection, just a warning.  “About two years ago, I swore off pursuing romantic relationships with sexual people.  It doesn’t work.  You need something that I simply cannot provide, and I am not interested in a non-monogamous relationship.”

           “Dude, no, me neither,” Dean says, taken aback.  “But you and I, we could date without the sex thing.”

           Dean seems so earnest that Castiel is almost angry with himself for what he says next.  “For how long?” he asks quietly.  “How long before you get frustrated with that?  Before you tire of me?”

           “I don’t know,” Dean answers honestly, without hesitation.  “Maybe a week.”  Castiel feels his heart sink.  Stupid, he tells himself.  Stupid to get your hopes up.  But Dean continues.  “Maybe six months, maybe ten years.  How long before you get tired of me?  I don’t know.  And neither do you.”

           “Oh,” Castiel says again.

           “Look, if you don’t want to, that’s fine, I understand.  But I’m just saying that I’m willing to try if you are.”

           It would certainly be a new experience, Castiel thinks, studying Dean’s face.  To be with someone who knows what Castiel is and wants to be with him anyway.  To be with someone who’s willing to try something new.  To be with someone who spent the weekend reading the forums on AVEN just to understand Castiel better.

           And it’s Dean.  Dean, with his freckles and his laugh and his outdated music.  Dean, whose hands are rough and nimble and grease-stained and kind.  Dean, who is brash and insensitive, yet capable of recognizing it, of saying he’s sorry.  Dean, who has just proved himself open to discussion of boundaries, even if words are awkward and not his strong suit.

           Dean, in spite of everything, wants to be with Castiel.

           “Okay,” Castiel says at last, and it’s like letting go an unconscious breath.

           “Okay?” Dean asks, a smile creeping onto his face.

           “Okay,” Castiel repeats.  He’s smiling, too.  “Dean?”

           “Yeah?”

           “Could I kiss you now?”

           “Hell yes.”