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The Unexpected Duet

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Art by SketchyDean

There is a woman sitting on the other side of Dean Winchester's too-expensive mahogany desk, crying. That means it's Monday. He wishes he could say this sort of thing almost never happens. But that would be a lie. He pushes a box of fancy lotion tissues over silently. It's the least he can do, and he won't feel bad about spending company funds on the more pricey tissues if he has to watch cases of them disappear every month.

"I'm sorry," she sobs thickly. Like any of this is her fault. Her hands are shaking when she pulls five tissues from the box and presses them over her eyes.

"It's not your fault," Dean murmurs, though he knows she won't believe it, no matter how true it is.

"I just..." she heaves in a huge, stuttering breath. "I don't know what to do. I've been taking care of my mom while she's so sick, and the bills are starting to hurt, and I knew I should have hired someone to take her to appointments so I didn't miss more time here. I was on thin ice, but I still..."

Dean clenches and unclenches his fists resting against his thighs. "Your severance package is pretty generous," he says. Anna pulls the tissues away from her face, looking almost hopeful. Internally, Dean's able to unclench a little. This is the familiar ground that he prefers. It helps them leave a little less bleak than before. "You'll be given full salary until the end of the pay period in two weeks, and then three months severance. You can also keep your health insurance until the end of the year. Your retirement can be moved to a private account, transferred to a new company if they offer if, or cashed out." He pushes the pamphlets across the desk to her and she grabs them like a life jacket on a sinking ship.

"Thank you," she breathes tremulously. "That's... yes, it's very generous. I can work with that."

Dean's stomach turns sour. Why do they always thank him for this shit? He's firing her and she's grateful for the carefully packaged scraps the CFO is throwing her way to make her go as quietly as possible.

He can't fucking stand it. Anna is - was - a great employee. Up until the past year her attendance had been stellar, her work perfect, her devotion deeper than even the managers. But then her mother had been diagnosed with aggressive cancer and Anna was the only family she had left to care for her. She'd had approved absences with good reason, but too many had accumulated in too quick a succession, and management hadn't cared about her personal life. They'd simply seen the trend. She'd been written up and Dean, HR manager, had filed the forms in the system, hoping. Just hoping. Always hoping. But it never worked. They always ended up at his desk, crying or yelling, signing their exit paperwork and stuffing a handful of pamphlets into their laptop bags and purses.

Sucking in a fortifying breath, Dean completes the firing process with something he's not authorized to do, though Zachariah Adler can lick his sweaty taint if he ever finds out and demands Dean stop doing it. He hands Anna two business cards. On top is his. Expensive card stock, matte finish, Sandover Bridge & Iron, Inc. logo stamped neatly at the top. "Take my card. My cell number and email are on there. If you need a reference or have any questions about the paperwork, let me know. I'll do whatever I can to help. And if you like, that other card is for my sister-in-law. She's a recruiter and I guarantee that she can find you something before your severance runs out. I can refer you."

Anna seems surprised. "Yes, I... thank you. Are you allowed to do that?"

Dean smiles and it's almost genuine. "Nope."

Wordlessly, Anna takes the folder of exit papers and pamphlets and slips them into her briefcase. She puts his card carefully into her wallet. Lots of people just throw them back in his face. He doesn't blame them. She stands and smooths the nonexistent wrinkles out of her dove gray skirt. Then she uses the tissues to dab at her eyes and wipe away the makeup stains. She throws them into the trash can next to the desk. "Thank you, Mr. Winchester," she says, and her voice is stronger. "You're much too good to do what you do here."

He wishes it was the first time he's heard that, too. He stands. "Call me or email me any time," he answers, holding out his hand. She shakes it firmly. "Take care of yourself. And Naomi."

She shrugs, but looks pleased that he remembered her mother's name. "I've got nothing better to do now." Finally, she unclips her badge from her lapel, but Dean shakes his head.

"I know you were told to give it to me, but just pocket it for now. The parking deck will charge you $20 without a badge. Mail it back to the HR address when you get home. As long as we get it back within ten days, it's fine."

She smiles. "You're a good soul, Dean Winchester. Take care."

"You, too." He follows her to his office door and closes it slowly behind her. The heavy wood doesn't make a sound as it slides shut.

For a moment he stands helplessly in the middle of his large office on the 15th floor with an obscene view of the city below through floor to ceiling shining windows. He straightens his powder blue tie over his blue checked shirt, pressed to perfection. Sometimes his suits feel like they're strangling him.

There's a knock on the door and Dean retreats to his office chair before calling for them to come in. Zachariah's false smiling face peeks through the half open door. He's dressed like he's about to cheerfully attend a funeral in a tailored black suit and white shirt, demure gray tie toning down the severity. The whole ensemble probably cost more than Anna made in a year. A muscle in Dean's jaw twitches as he smiles as best as he can, hoping it doesn't look as much like a grimace as it feels like.

"Good things, Winchester," Zachariah says by way of greeting.

He always says that. In the five years since he'd been working there, Dean still has no idea what it means. He doesn't really care. "Good things?" he parrots back, because that's what he's supposed to do.

"Great things!" Mr. Adler replies. "How are the new job postings coming?"

Unnecessary if you didn't stop firing people for being humans and having lives, Dean thinks. "Great," he says. "We'll have them queued up to post on the site by five. I'll probably be able to sort through the first wave tomorrow morning."

Mr. Adler gives him a thumbs up. "I can always count on you, Winchester."

Only until 5:05, then you can eat a ripe bag of dicks. "Happy to be helpful, sir."

"See you in the morning!" And without saying anything else, the CFO is out for the day. At 2:00 in the afternoon. Dean wants to throw something at the door behind that man. He puts in less hours than the temps down on the ground floor and delegates everything that isn't high profile enough to keep his name on the lips of the stuffed shirts on the top floor. Honestly, Dean hopes he himself never does enough "great things" to have to knock on their doors.

For the rest of the day he focuses on proofing the job descriptions and making sure the listing tag numbers match the database. Then he has a handful of benefits packages to review, several raises to approve, and then it's 5:00. He really should stay a bit later to complete his data entry, but it's nothing that will be noticed if left half done until the end of the week. He breathes a sigh of relief as he shuts his computer down and scrambles to get his things together, nearly running out of his office to the elevator before anyone can stop him. He really doesn't mind his job most of the time. He'd worked his way up from the bottom floor like many of his colleagues. Sandover did recognize and reward talent. They'd just grown too big to care about anything but the bottom line and how their people affected it. It didn't matter why you affected it, just that you did. It's why there were fewer and fewer single parents, part-time students, people with relatives to take care of every year. Weeding out the weak. And Dean had been handed the weed killer along with a huge raise last January. The only thing keeping him going now is his complacency in the process. He doesn't pick where the ax will fall, he just has to slam it down.

He's at the underground parking garage in record time today, sparing only a few "see you tomorrow's" to the people he passes as he bolts to his Impala, tucked away near the elevator in a spot reserved for D. Winchester, HR Manager. It's 5:06 when he scans his badge to lift the parking gate and floor it out of the deck. A new record. He's pretty proud of that.

He's blaring AC/DC at 5:15 and crawling through the downtown traffic when his cell phone rings. He swipes his headset off the rearview mirror and puts the earbud in, taps the button on the side to accept. "Hey, Sammy," he says over the traffic noise and heavy guitar.

"Wow, yeah, hey, Dean. Bad day?"

"What makes you say that?"

"The decibel level of your music is a pretty good scale of your mood."

Dean hits the dial on the tape deck to shut it off. "I had to fire one of the nicest women I've ever known."

"Damn, I'm sorry. I'll give Eileen a head's up. She'll be more than happy to help. You really think Sandover is the best place for you still?"

Why in the nine hells does everyone always ask him the same questions all the time? Is he stuck in a loop like in Groundhog Day? Is everyone under the impression that he has short term memory loss? Jesus. "I'm fine, Sam, really. It doesn't matter, anyway. They pay me a lot, give me lots of vacation, and I have full benefits. Even if I had my dream job, something would suck about it."

"True enough," his brother's amusement is clear. "Think you might need to decompress better this weekend? Eileen and I are having a BBQ."

Dean rolls his eyes. "No, thanks."

Sam's exasperation is immediate. "Oh come on, Dean. You never come to any of our get-togethers."

"That's because your wife is a snake. She's always inviting someone to try and set me up. I'm tired of it. Don't get me wrong, I love you guys, but I don't need some lonely suburban ex-wife or ex-husband to make me happy."

"She means well," Sam says, though he doesn't bother to deny Dean's statement. "She told me she misses how you were with Lisa. You were really happy then."

"For a minute," Dean protests. "I'm just not cut out for that shit. Sorry, Sam. No disrespect to Eileen."

He chuckles. "Trust me, she wouldn't be offended. Look, I'll try to keep her reigned in. Approved guest list only."

Dean stares out at the traffic. Up at the skyscrapers surrounding him. He fucking hates the claustrophobia of the big city. Maybe he should look into buying a house near Sam again. It's been awhile since he's entertained the idea, but it might be time. "I'll think about it and get back to you, okay?"

"Fair enough," Sam agrees easily. "Talk to you later."

Dean disconnects the call and slouches down in his seat as the traffic moves forward in inches. Goddamn city.

xxXXxx

It's 6:00 on the dot when he pulls into his apartment building's garage, exhausted from the snail's pace driving and overthinking his work day. AC/DC hasn't helped for once and he is starting to entertain the sneaking suspicion that his brother could be on to something about needing either a change of pace or a new job. He just can't seem to bleed off his irritability tonight. He yanks at the knot on his tie as he stalks to the kitchen, headed straight to the fridge for a beer. He twists the top off and leans back against the counter, looking around wearily. Huh. It looked oddly messy... oh, right. The cleaning lady had retired a couple weeks ago and he hadn't gotten around to hiring a new one yet. He's too damn picky about his stuff to let just anyone in to clean around it.

He can't help it, really. He'd come a long way from living in motel rooms to one of the nicer high-rise condos just outside of the city enough to keep him from going crazy with the noise. Plus, he gets more space for less cost. That's a win-win. Sam once said that he'd never get the hang of not living out of a suitcase, but Dean had sure proved that asshole wrong. After a year. But, hey, who was counting?

The condo itself is sparsely decorated, mostly out of habit. Dean still doesn't see the point in having tons of collectibles or knickknacks, save for a handful of truck stop memorabilia purchases from places he'd actually enjoyed, like the small plastic replica of Graceland. He's also got a fern by the window that Eileen bought him as a housewarming gift. He's surprised he hasn't accidentally killed the damn thing. He thought he had once when he'd left it out on the balcony during a cold snap, but it had forgiven him and thrived once moved indoors.

The rest of the place is 2,500 square feet of minimalism. An open floor plan leading from the dark rosewood cabinets and floors, stainless steel appliances atop gray and silver speckled granite counters, to a floating wall separating the small dining room, following the full line of windows that stretch the length of the west-facing wall all the way to the living room where he'd indulged in a large TV mounted over the gas fireplace, and leather sectionals. A narrow hallway leads to the only rooms with doors; two bedrooms, one still completely empty except for some storage boxes, a small guest bathroom, and the master bedroom with a full en suite bathroom. Frankly, Dean had bought the place because of the insane master bath. It's all slate stone, glass, and crazy-good water pressure. Plus, the tub doubles as an auto-heated jacuzzi. Couldn't get much fancier than water jets on your lower back.

The other perk is the soundproofing. Dean has never heard a peep from any of his neighbors, save for some people on their balconies every now and then when he leaves the windows and balcony door open, but no one's ever sent him a noise complaint over his 7.1 surround sound. The peace and quiet could have sold the condo to him if it had had a hole in the floor and no running water.

He's glad for that today because he needs something. Music hadn't worked before, so maybe a movie? Something with lots of explosions. He downs the rest of the beer before shoving off of the counter and making his way to the bedroom to put on his "fuck everything about today" clothes. To his dismay, he discovers his laundry basket is full. Cursing his slothful weekend with Netflix marathons of Dr. Sexy, he hauls the basket out of the walk-in closet, stripping off his dress shirt, slacks, and socks, tossing the shirt and pants into the dry clean basket, and the socks in the heavy pile of accumulated laziness that he presently hauls to the laundry room behind the kitchen. He's half tempted to just lounge around in his boxers and undershirt because doing laundry on a Monday night is some next level curse or something, but it's getting colder and like hell is he going to turn up the heat in the condo to pay the highway robbers at the natural gas company.

Jesus, even theoretical bills are starting to piss him off. Calm the hell down, Winchester. He slams the plastic basket down on top of the front load washer and sorts the lights and darks by throwing one pile in the washer and one on the floor. He's reaching for the detergent when a sound breaks through the rain cloud in his head. He pauses, detergent bottle held in midair. Music? He's never been able to hear anything from anywhere before. Weird.

Curious, he tilts his head slightly towards the shared back wall. Yeah. It sounds like it's coming through the dryer vent. Feeling only slightly foolish, he bends down to rest his chest on the dryer, poking his head over the back to hear better. Sure enough, sounds from a piano drift up, made tinny by the vent. Maybe that old guy with the scraggly dog downstairs...? Dean recognizes the tune, but he knows shit about classical music, so he can't place the name of the piece or the composer. It's slightly relaxing, in a way, just the barest hint of notes drifting up through the piping. He blinks when whoever it is hits a sour note and the music stops abruptly. Huh. Someone's actually playing that? Like, on a piano in the building? Color Dean impressed. He's fairly decent on the guitar, but hasn't even touched one since high school. And he could never play anything as complex as what he'd been hearing just then.

Unconsciously, he scoots further up the dryer until his head is almost hanging off the back, straining to hear better. The music starts again, slower, and a small smile quirks the corner of his lips. The pianist plays a couple measures over and over again, faster and faster until they reach the proper tempo and move on. Probably not the old guy, Dean muses. He's got nasty arthritis and complains about it all the time. Maybe some helicopter parent's over-achieving kid? That doesn't seem to fit, either. There's something about the playing that just seems... weathered? Like whoever is playing the piece has actually experienced the complicated emotions evident in it. It dawns on Dean that this is why people love this kind of music. For once it's not boring to him at all. It's kind of eliciting the same swath of calm that he usually gets by blasting Led Zeppelin at top volume with the windows rolled down doing 85 on the open highway.

He wonders who's playing. He wonders how he can find out.

xxXXxx

Castiel Milton finishes his practice for the day, stretches his fingers and wrists, wipes the keys of his grand piano with a dust free cloth and then closes it all up for the evening. It's 7:00, which means that it's his favorite time of day. He walks to the back wall of windows, opens the curtains, and then opens both of the balcony doors wide. It's getting a bit cold to do it, but he'll suck it up for as long as he can. Maybe purchase an outdoor heater, because this is the reason he bought the condo.

It's musical. His last place had also been downtown, but the noise had mostly consisted of cars, televisions, and shouting matches. Now he lives much higher up, so the traffic is muted, and he's discovered - to his delight - that many people here prefer listening to music than blasting their TV's. A handful of the city's symphony orchestra members live in the building, and had praised the soundproofing and location, so Castiel had barely thought twice before purchasing a newly renovated unit. It's been perfect so far.

He steps onto the balcony and sits in the iron lounge chair, closing his eyes and tilting his head back. Listening. There's the person downstairs who listens to Broadway soundtracks in the same order. Just on time, the forceful violins from the overture of Les Miserables waft up towards him. Castiel hums a few bars with a small smile on his face. By the time the Fantine is defending herself to the foreman, Castiel catches the bass line from some hip-hop album or another. He doesn't know much about the genre, but he finds that he enjoys the bass beat that thumps in his chest like a secondary heartbeat.

Ah, but now it's time for his personal favorite. Someone upstairs who is into classic rock. Castiel himself could take or leave rock 'n roll, but whoever upstairs listens to it, is passionate about it, and that's what Castiel admires. It's a man, probably still fairly young. He knows this because the man goes out on his balcony and will almost always sing along. His voice is lovely; untrained, but always on pitch and clean. It's not weathered by age or bad habits. Tonight's serenade has been played enough that Castiel's picked up some of the lyrics and can mouth along, "Oh, take your time / don't live too fast / Troubles will come / and they will pass." It stirs some bittersweet ache inside him whenever he hears it, similar to the Chopin Nocturne he'd been playing earlier. The man upstairs seems to love the complicated hopeful, yet melancholy emotions of songs like this. Castiel's learning to enjoy them, too.

He hadn't had much exposure to modern music as a child. He'd latched onto Beethoven, Mozart, and Rachmaninov at a young age, and never really cared for anything written after the early 1900's, aside from a musical or two. In school and conservatory he'd been exposed to more modern music through his friends, but he'd always found it quite easy to tune out the pop hits and top 40 songs. None of it seemed complex enough to grab him.

Living here, he understands now. The complexity and composition isn't the only point. Many times it isn't even the main point. The reason for it all is the feeling. And sometimes those feelings are raw and simple. Bob Dylan with an acoustic guitar. It's just as powerful as Bach and a full, 90-piece orchestra. Either way, it strikes deeply to the willing listener, and Castiel honestly loves music in all its forms now. The longer he stays out on his own, the more he opens himself to learn. It's thrilling.

He also really wishes he knew who that man above was, but all he's certain of is that he's a floor or two over him, and perhaps one or two units to the right.

The song goes into the break, and Castiel opens his eyes. He glances to the side and realizes that he'd left his composition notebook out last night. He reaches for it and flips through the pages. He's always been interested in writing his own music, but has never completed much of anything to his satisfaction. Lately he's been getting more accomplished, though. Idly, he turns to a blank page and scratches out a measure of the melody to "Simple Man" with a grin. Perhaps an exercise out of his comfort zone will stir more original creative endeavors. He's never attempted to arrange a rock piece for piano, but the challenge might be entertaining. At the very least, his best friend, Gabriel Novak will be tickled pink. The man is a god on the violin, and made quite a bit of money last year touring the USA playing his own covers of modern pop songs. Castiel had seen his show in Chicago and been incredibly impressed.

Maybe he could do something similar some day? His mother would have a fit. That makes him smile wider. He'd have to talk to Gabriel about the logistics later. For now, it's just an idle thought that's gone the second the man above shuts his balcony doors and the music is lost. Castiel sighs. He hates it when the mystery singer calls it an early night. It is cold, however. Castiel stands and takes his notebook back inside, shutting the balcony doors behind him.

He goes back to the piano bench, even though he's completed his scheduled practice time. He opens the fall and puts the notebook and pencil on the music stand, not bothering to open the lid again. Hesitantly, he plucks out the rest of the melody to "Simple Man," and an hour later is satisfied that he has it figured out quite well. But what to do with the harmonies? It's never been played loud enough upstairs for him to pick up on them completely, and besides, he's usually more focused on the man's voice.

Castiel picks up his cell phone from the music stand and taps the Spotify app. He finds the song and plays it. Then he plays it again. Then he connects his headphones and plays it again. Again while he cooks dinner. Again while he cleans up the dishes. Again while he brushes his teeth. By the time he's in bed, he's got the whole thing memorized, along with every instrumental part. Yes, he can definitely do something with it. And for the first time in a long time, he feels a surge of excitement to wake up the next day to practice.