In a very small library in a very big city, sitting at his desk with one hand wrapped around a mug of coffee and the other covering his eyes, was Castiel Novak.
Castiel Novak had had a late one, last night.
He couldn’t stop thinking about it. It had been… mind-blowing, really. He didn’t know whether he’d go so far as to say life-changing, but he definitely felt different today than he had yesterday. It had just been so special - he hadn’t felt so seen, so known, so vulnerable and yet so strong, for a long time. He was suffering the consequences now, of course. His head was pounding, and there were parts of him that definitely felt… strained.
But the book had been so good, and Castiel hadn’t been able to put it down until he’d finished the last page - even if his eyes were now definitely sore.
He took a sip of his coffee, and felt the warmth of it unfurl his mood like a poppy in the sun. The library was quiet, at least - today was a Tuesday, and nothing much happened in the library on a Tuesday. Castiel generally spent his time neatening the shelves, scouring catalogues for new books to order, and creating displays that would - hopefully - grab people’s attention as they walked in.
Today, though, at least for a little bit, he was going to sit and nurse his coffee. He pushed a hand through his hair, enjoying the way that it felt on the sides, where it was buzzed a little shorter. It needed a cut, if he was honest - it was a little too long on top - but he could never seem to find the time to book an appointment. Particularly not when he was spending his nights wide awake between the pages of a book.
The library itself was cosy and warm, at least. Earlier that morning, Castiel had seen the rain tipping down outside the window of his apartment and groaned, and pulled on a soft woollen sweater over his shirt and tie - but now, inside the heated library, he was practically toasting and he was enjoying it. He pulled a couple of papers towards him, trying to remember what he’d printed out last night before leaving.
Through bleary eyes, he read the title of an article: Local Author Promises Visit to Heavensgate Library.
With a groan, he pushed the print-outs away. He hadn’t had enough coffee to deal with that, yet. He took another sip, and contemplated today’s tasks.
The children’s area needed a clean-up, like usual. There was a modest stack of books that wanted reshelving, and Castiel had been meaning to order in some new textbooks - they got updated every other academic year or so, and he liked to have the most recent versions available in case any kids from the local schools couldn’t afford their own copies.
None of those jobs were especially urgent, though, and Castiel found himself peering around the place, looking for something else he could do - something a little more inspiring.
The big rectangular room had light blue walls, oak bookshelves, and a corner dedicated entirely to big, soft, ageing sofas. Castiel’s desk was at the far left corner, and just beside him was the archway that led through to the children’s section. It had a tangled tree painted around it, of Castiel’s own design; in fact, scattered throughout the library were several of his murals.
After all, he reasoned, why should the children be the only ones who got exciting pictures on the walls? Maybe some grown-ups wanted those, too.
Castiel’s own desk had a big paper pad covering half the worktop, covered in the little sketches and doodles he liked to draw throughout the day. Today, so far, it had a little cat in a bowtie, and a cup of steaming coffee, and the words Rain, Rain, Go Away.
The desk also had several plants in various pots gathered around the computer screen, given to Castiel by regulars at the library - ones who knew his taste, and had bought him long-leafed, draping spider plants and soft, furred succulents. He reached out now, and touched the tips of his fingers to the soil inside one of the pots.
Dry. Castiel frowned.
Getting up, he wandered towards the sink that was at one side of the children’s area - installed at Castiel’s own insistence, after the third time a kid came in with messy hands and got chocolate all over the pages of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. He picked up the little metal watering can at the side of the basin and filled it, water tinkling against the silver insides and splashing over his fingers, before he headed back through the archway to water his plant collection.
He usually did it without thinking, but today he found himself very consciously enjoying the simple domesticity of the task. He loved the fact that the plants were his to look after, and that the library was full of little corners like these - things that needed careful tending, that required his specific knowledge and love and attention.
Belonging, he thought. He was settled, here. He was a part of the place and the place was a part of him. It was a feeling that wasn’t easy to come by, especially growing up as a gay kid on the ace spectrum in the home of Mr and Mrs Conservative from Conservativesville, Illinois. He’d experienced life from the wrong side of a smoked-glass window for a long, long time. And somehow, now, being able to do what he wanted and wear what he wanted wasn’t nearly as important as being able to do everything - both the things he did and didn’t want to do - as himself.
He watered the plants as himself.
He reshelved books as himself.
He mopped chocolate off children’s literature as himself.
He’d never felt more connected, more invested in his own story. Or perhaps it was that it didn’t feel like a story at all, anymore - he wasn’t distanced enough from it for that. It just felt like his life.
No longer hidden, no longer watching his words or keeping quiet when he wanted to speak out, he felt authentic and sincere in a way he hadn’t been allowed to be, before. He wasn’t always happy - of course not - but all the feelings he experienced now were true ones, not just the best facsimiles his brain could offer as he pretended his way through school and home life.
After returning the watering can to its home, Castiel put his hands on his hips and surveyed the library.
A thought that he had often occurred to him again: yes, the place was a paradise of openness for him. But was it one for every person who needed it? Although there were plenty of books on the shelves that involved non-straight and non-cisgender characters - Castiel liked to keep as many queer stories available as possible, a job that was becoming gratifyingly easier as time passed - they were nonchalantly resting between classics and more generic, traditional novels, with no song and dance being made of them.
Up until this point, Castiel had enjoyed that. The books blended; they were a part of the library that was normalised and accepted, without a fuss. He’d always been able to point at the queer books in his library as evidence that the place was welcoming to queer people, without making a huge deal of it and making them feel exotified and strange.
Now, though, he started to wonder. Were people who wanted to read queer literature checking the library’s catalogue, or were they just assuming that it was full of traditional, conservative books? Did questioning kids know that they could come to the library for help and guidance? Were parents aware that there were lots of resources for teaching their children about queer topics?
With a little click of his tongue, Castiel realised that the answer was almost certainly no to all of those questions.
That absolutely needed to change. As much as Castiel enjoyed the normalisation of queer literature, he also wasn’t averse to its celebration. He headed towards his desk, and with the speed and sure-handedness of a soldier arraying his weapons, he pulled out a staple-gun, a few markers, some stickers, and several rolls of brightly-coloured paper. He knew exactly what he was going to spend his day doing.
It was time to make a display.
A few hours later, there was a timid knock at the library’s door.
Castiel frowned, and twirled the pen he’d been pressing meditatively against his lips, tucking it instead behind his ear. He walked over to the door and opened it, to find a woman with brown hair and bright blue eyes watching him, looking nervous. She seemed to relax a little when she took in his soft sweater and ear piercing, however. She was wearing a name tag that read Hannah. Under it, there was another pin that was hidden by a fold in her shirt.
“Hello?” Castiel said. “Can I help you?”
“Hi,” she said. “DPD. I’ve got some posters for you?”
“Right,” Castiel said, his expression clearing. “Of course. Do you need me to sign?”
He quickly scribbled his name on the electronic pad she offered him, and then pushed open the door to the library so that she could haul in the posters in their large boxes - they were ones meant to be hung upright on a metal stand, taller than Castiel himself. He’d ordered them a couple of weeks ago - just some standard quotes about reading, but they’d looked eye-catching in the picture on the Internet.
“Oh!” Hannah said, as she turned around and caught sight of the display that Castiel had spent the past few hours putting together.
It was nothing less, Castiel thought now as he surveyed his handiwork, than a rainbow extravaganza. He’d decided to go all out with the colours. Flags from the queer community were lined up under a title that read in big, glittering letters, Read with Pride. On a table in front of the display board, there were books stacked high: ones that were for older readers and younger readers, fiction and non-fiction, light-hearted and sombre. He’d tried to stick to ones that had a happy ending, or at least a hopeful one; he knew from personal experience how crushing it could be to relate to non-straight characters in a book, only to have their chance of happiness ripped out from under him at the end. If any visitors to the library wanted a book like that, they could of course come to him and ask - but he preferred to promote safer choices to unsuspecting readers.
“What do you think?” he said to the woman - Hannah - a little cautiously.
He surprised himself with how nervous he felt; he’d thought he was completely comfortable with being out, thought he’d felt safe in this city and in this neighbourhood, but somehow putting it on display like this - it reawoke the old clench of nerves in his gut.
Hannah, however, was turning to look at him with her face shining.
“It’s fantastic,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it! Did you make it yourself?”
“Yes,” Castiel answered her, relaxing under her obvious enthusiasm. “I thought it might be time to have a little more open celebration of diversity. Just so that everyone knows what we’re about.”
“It’s fantastic,” Hannah repeated; her eyes had drifted back to the display. “You even have the genderqueer pride flag! Did you find any books that have genderqueer characters?”
“Well,” Castiel said, surprised that she knew enough to recognise the flag. He wondered if she, herself, was genderqueer, or if she knew someone who was. “There’s the books by Rick Riordan that have -”
“Oh, I loved those. I know I’m a bit old for them, but I’m a fan of mythology and if there’s LGBTQ characters in there, too, I’m sold,” Hannah said, nodding. “Do you have the ones by Zoë Marriott? The Name of the Blade?”
“No?” Castiel said curiously. “Is she -”
“She’s a British writer. I love her books,” Hannah said. “If you want, you could read them and see what you think.” Her reticence seemed to have completely melted away under the sunlight of her happiness. She turned back to Castiel, beaming. “This has made my day!”
“I’m so glad to hear that,” Castiel said, feeling a little burst of happiness in his chest. “And thank you for bringing the posters.”
Hannah seemed to remember where she was and what was happening; she stopped staring at the display and cleared her throat, tugging down her shirt to make it sit more neatly. As she did so, Castiel caught sight of the second pin on her shirt, the one under her name tag. It read They/Them.
Castiel’s eyebrows rose briefly as understanding dawned on him. So, Hannah wasn’t cisgender - no wonder they’d been so excited to see the genderqueer flag. He looked back over their conversation, hoping he hadn’t accidentally used the wrong pronouns already since he’d read them as a woman, initially, and had been calling them she in his head - but he didn’t think so. He was cringing slightly, and remonstrated himself for making assumptions. At least he’d managed to catch sight of the pin before making the mistake out loud.
“I’d better run,” Hannah said. “But I live not far from here. Am I allowed to come in some time and look through the selection?”
“Of course, you’re more than welcome,” Castiel said, offering them a small smile, which they returned. “The library is free for anyone to use.”
“Fantastic. Then I’ll be back,” said Hannah, eyes full of excitement. “I’ve really got to go. But have a nice day!”
As they walked out of the door, Castiel felt his heart growing light with happiness. He’d never connected with a person in that way before, seen them visibly brighten because of something he’d done that supported them in a way that they hadn’t expected. It had been a better feeling than he could have possibly expected. He kept remembering Hannah’s surprised, shining face when they first saw the display.
The nervousness over what other visitors to the library would think was still with him - but even if all of them ended up being horrible about it, Castiel felt like the display had already more than been worth it.
He walked over to his desk and scribbled down the name of the blade on his jotting pad, before grabbing a pair of scissors and making his way over to the packages that Hannah had brought for him. He stripped the tape off the cardboard and tore open the boxes. He was excited to put these posters up; he’d thought one of them might be able to go in the children’s area, depending on how sturdy the metal stands were. He didn’t want any unbalanced little ones grabbing onto the poster and finding the whole thing coming down on their heads.
Pulling out a long, tight roll of thick shiny paper, Castiel unfurled it, using both hands to open it up like a scroll. His slight smile of excitement faded, however, when he saw the content of the poster.
It was not his carefully-selected quotes about reading. Instead, a pair of bright green eyes were looking up at him.
Castiel’s heart sank. He knew whose eyes those were.
He’d been trying to forget that this was even happening, but there was only so long that he could run from it when the event was only a week away. The posters wouldn’t unprint themselves; the article on his desk wouldn’t unwrite itself. Local Author Promises Visit to Heavensgate Library.
Gritting his teeth, Castiel rolled the poster back up, and stuffed it unceremoniously back into its box. He might have to deal with the fact that Dean Winchester was coming to his library, but he didn’t have to deal with it right now.
And yet even so, twenty minutes later he found himself at a loose end having finished the final touches to his display - and without remembering making the decision to do so, he was looking up Dean Winchester again. Castiel felt the same grimace slide onto his face that had appeared there the moment he’d heard Mr Winchester wanted to come to the library for a signing. The local library area manager, Chuck, had called up one day last week, and - rather than asking - had simply informed Castiel of the time it would be happening.
It was bad enough that Castiel had had no say in who was coming to the library for an event; it was even worse that, from his media profile, it was quite easy to see that Dean Winchester was not at all the kind of person Castiel would have chosen.
Googling him revealed several obviously edited photos of Dean in various poses, wearing either a thoughtful expression while looking into the distance, or a clearly faked smile. Interviews with him revealed a type of guy that Castiel had come to recognise: privileged and outwardly charismatic, but inwardly insipid and often douchey. Scrolling through his online presence, Castiel had ticked off far too many of his pet peeves. Attractiveness providing the illusion of personality - check. Average white guy being given way too much credit for doing things like saying, I love women - check. Irritating smile - big check.
He imagined building a profile for Dean Winchester’s website. Dean Winchester. Height: perfect. Face: perfect. Eyes: greener than your envy. Favourite Quote: Something about being open and honest with your feelings which could be interpreted as progressive, but in reality is just meant to intimidate other guys and make women think you’re in touch with your feminine side when really you’re interested in femininity in an exclusively sexual context. Favourite food: something manly. Favourite music: something manly. Most Likely to be Heard Saying: “Oh, Moonlight? Well, I don’t really like political films...”
Castiel snorted. Maybe he was being a little too harsh. He’d never even met the guy, and Dean had never specifically been reported as saying anything that would indicate he was the jerk Castiel was picturing. In truth, Castiel had never even picked up one of Dean’s books. But there was just something about the fakery in Dean’s photographs - the way his smile never reached his eyes, like he was always more conscious of looking good than feeling happy - and something about his press-trained, cautious answers to interview questions, that made Castiel sure of at least one thing.
Dean Winchester was not the kind of person who was welcome to speak in the library.