Actions

Work Header

The Meaning On My Skin

Chapter Text

For as long as he can remember, Castiel has dreaded his eighteenth birthday.

The night before, he had sat on his bed, staring down at his arm and wondering what it would look like tomorrow. Would it have a Dom mark? A sub mark? Would it have a mark at all?

That was the best outcome, he knew. For the clock to tick across midnight and for his arm to remain bare: unpresented. He would just be normal, with no psychological differences, nothing new or special or notable about him. His mother would be disappointed if he didn’t present, but that was hugely preferable to finding himself marked in the early morning of his eighteenth birthday.

Naomi Novak was a Dom, and was the kind of Dom who believed herself to be above all other presentations because of it. Becoming a sub on his eighteenth birthday would put himself in the line of her ire—abuse, he came to realize many years later—but ultimately, once he headed off to college, he would never have to see her again.

But presenting as a Dom…

He’ll never be able to wash the dark stain of his mother’s actions and influence from his soul. If he becomes a Dom, Castiel is afraid that one day, no matter how hard he tries, he will end up just like her.

The clock reads 11:59, September 17.

Castiel stares down at his arms. His fingers are curled into fists, his nails biting so deeply into his palms that they threaten to draw blood.

As much as he wishes it wasn’t, time marches inevitably on. He holds his breath.

The clock strikes 12, the first second of the morning of the 18thof September. Castiel Novak’s eighteenth birthday.

He blinks, and between one second and the next, a mark has appeared on his skin: a thick black line, running down the inner length of his left forearm.

Castiel inhales, a shuddering breath that seems to wrack his body, then releases it slowly. He lifts a hand, touches the mark with tentative fingertips. It doesn’t fade, doesn’t move, doesn’t disappear. Just stays there, quiet and immovable. Slowly, Castiel curls his fingers, digs them into the skin of his forearm, until there are four crescent shapes indented into his skin.

Still, the black mark stays put.

“No,” he breathes, still unable to quite comprehend what this means. What this means about him, what this means he will become. “No, no, no.”

Castiel Novak, eighteen years old as of the 18th of September, has presented as a Dominant.

For many hours, in the privacy of his own bedroom and by the light of the moon that washes in through the window and illuminates the stark line on his forearm, he sits and stares. He stares until his brain is numb and quiet from shock, from grief, until his eyes burn from tiredness and his body desperately demands that he rest.

When he finally lies down and lets his head touch his pillow, when sleep finally claims him from an exhausted wakefulness, it’s with tears in his eyes and a heaviness in his heart that he knows now will never leave him.

Naomi Novak is thrilled with the news of her son’s presentation.

When Castiel comes downstairs the next morning, she doesn’t notice the dark bags under his puffy eyes, or the dejected drag of his socked feet against the hardwood floors. Instead, she zeroes in on his forearms, covered up by a long-sleeved pajama shirt that’s pulled down as far as it will go, Cas’s fingers curled around the hems of the cuffs.

“Well?” she demands, her arms folded, chin raised imperiously.

Castiel stares at the thick line running down her forearm, proudly displayed like a status symbol. She won’t give up until she knows—it’s not in her nature.

Slowly, he pulls up the edge of his left sleeve to show just the very bottom of his mark. His mother smiles—the kind of cold smile a shark gives, all teeth and terror and no real feeling behind it. “Thank goodness! I know you would turn out okay, Castiel.”

If he speaks, all his emotions, all the tears and the despair he’s holding back is going to overflow. Instead, he just nods, pulls his sleeves back down, and walks past her to the kitchen.

Naomi offers to take him out to dinner to ‘celebrate’, but Castiel hates that idea even before she picks out a short-sleeved button-down for him to wear out to the restaurant. Instead, he packs himself a sandwich and gets into his car while she’s distracted by work. He turns up whatever’s on the radio just to drown out his own thoughts and drives, his muscle memory taking him exactly where he needs to go without him having to think about it at all.

It starts to rain as he turns off the main road and passes through the cemetery gates to the small parking lot inside.

The light drizzle isn’t going to deter him, though. Castiel grabs his sandwich and climbs out of the car. Once again, his legs carry him through the cemetery without conscious thought, each footprint retracing steps that Castiel has taken hundreds of times.

In the corner of the cemetery, with a plain grey headstone and a plot kept meticulously free of weeds, lies Chuck Shurley’s grave.

A few tiny plants have sprung up here and there, and Castiel plucks them carefully out of the ground and tosses them aside before sitting down next to Chuck’s headstone. The ground is not yet damp enough for him to feel it, but the drizzle mists on his skin and on his clothes, and he blinks against it as it settles on his eyelashes.

“Hey, dad,” he says, and his voice cracks on the second word. “I, uh. I turned eighteen today.”

Ever since he was able to visit without Naomi, Castiel has come to the cemetery just to talk to his father. He never gets any kind of response—never expects any kind of response—but it does help. As long as he has someone to talk to, even if it’s the headstone of his father who’s ten years gone, all his issues feel just a fraction lighter on his shoulders.

“I presented. I’m a… well.” He clears his throat, no longer able to tell what’s rain and what’s tears beading on his lashes. “I’m like her,” he whispers.

Castiel can’t remember the last time he wanted to hear his father’s voice this badly. Until he died, he was always Castiel’s rock, the logical, supportive parent. Not having him here for this hurts like an open wound carved into Cas’s chest.

But for Chuck Shurley, death had been a blessing. Living the rest of his life married to Naomi…

“I don’t want to be like her, dad,” Cas whispers, face tipped up towards the grey sky. “I don’t want to be a Dom. I never wanted this.”

He leans against the headstone and hugs his knees up to his chest. The tears flow freely now: for himself, for his father, what could have and should have and never came to be.

“I’m sorry,” he gasps out into the September air. “I’m so sorry.”

Six months later, Castiel moves out of home.

After spending hours and hours on his application essays to maximize his chances of getting accepted anywhere that’s not here, he receives a trickle of letters from different colleges around the country. Some have rejected him, and he’s perfectly okay with that, because it’ll only take one acceptance letter for him to have an excuse to leave.

In the end, he gets five.

He chooses Stanford, mostly because it’s the furthest away from home, and because from what he’s heard, California seems to be one of the most liberal, relaxed places he could go. Considering his rigid upbringing, he wants to see what that’s like. How other people think and feel and act towards one another.

So on the morning of his departure, he packs the bare essentials into a single bag, writes his mother a note, and leaves without so much as a backwards glance towards the house in which he’s spent eighteen and a half years of his life.

College is nothing like Castiel could have ever dreamed.

There are so many different people and so many different options for him to study, and it’s more freedom than he’s ever had in his life. He takes a variety of classes in his first year, eventually narrowing his study down to history and archival science. He makes a small group of friends, the closest of which is his roommate, Inias—unpresented.

The first time they’d met, Inias had stared at Castiel’s mark. Once he’d realized how uncomfortable it made Cas, he stopped, but from then on Castiel made sure to wear long sleeves when he could, and otherwise perfected the art of positioning his arm so the mark couldn’t be seen.

He graduates summa cum laude a few years later, with much more knowledge and understanding of the world than he’d arrived with, and is immediately offered an internship with a nearby museum.

Castiel Novak’s future is looking brighter than ever—he has an internship, is renting a new apartment with Inias now that they’re graduated, and finally feels like he has a grip on his life.

But the dark stain that lingers on his skin and in the corners of his mind, the reminder of blood and pain and force, still lingers. His heart still aches when he thinks of an unattended grave back in his hometown, slowly collecting weeds in his absence.

No matter how good his life gets, he still despises the dark, black line on his skin.

Chapter Text

Castiel wakes three minutes before his alarm goes off.

In those three minutes, he looks up at the ceiling—plain, off-white, unremarkable—and lets his brain wake up for the day ahead. It’s these few moments after waking, when his head is still clouded by sleep and his bedroom is soft with the light of the slowly rising sun, that he finds the quietest. Before he gets involved in the bustle of the day, before his brain is fully with the waking world, he gets a chance to just… be.

And then his three minutes are up. His alarm goes off, and he sits up with a groan, reaching for his alarm clock with one hand and rubbing at his eyes with the other.

So the day begins.

He drags himself out of bed and wanders out of his bedroom in his boxers—a luxury he can afford now that it’s just him in the apartment. It’s been a few weeks since Inias moved in with his girlfriend, and Castiel is finally starting to get accustomed to living alone. If he could, he’d get a cat to keep him company, but his apartment building is strictly against pets. Instead, he has his little family of houseplants dotted around the apartment now, and his first order of business for the day is to water them.

By the time he’s done and all his plants have been looked after, he’s slightly more awake. Breakfast is, as usual, a banana and a bowl of cereal, and then he makes his way back to his bedroom to make himself presentable for work.

Castiel strips out of his boxers as he makes his way over to his wardrobe and tosses them in the direction of the bed, then regards his selection with a weary sigh. He’s got a variety of lovely button-up shirts, but with the exception of a few that hardly ever get worn, they’re all long-sleeved. With summer creeping steadily closer, it’s getting harder and harder to find the willpower to put them on, but when the alternative means parading his mark around the city for everyone to see…

He sighs and reaches for the closest shirt.

Not even ten minutes later, he’s out the door, his bag in one hand as he locks his apartment door with the other. He’s made good time today—sometimes his morning routine changes depending on how he’s feeling, but today is a good day. He feels ready to take on anything that the world can throw at him.

The museum where Castiel works is a quick subway trip away from his apartment, and at nine on the dot he’s walking through the staff entrance, swiping his card against the reader by the door and pushing it open once the light has turned green.

“Morning, Castiel!” Alfie, one of the educators, waves at Castiel from where he’s taken up position in the corner of the staff room, various documents and brochures spread out around his laptop.

“Good morning,” Castiel replies, smiling. Alfie is a recent hire, a little younger but making up for his inexperience with enthusiasm. “Still working on the new pamphlets for the Roman wing?”

“You know it. The old ones are so outdated that they almost crumbled to dust when I took them off the shelf. I was worried I’d have to send them down to your department for restoration.” They share a laugh, but Castiel has work calling his name, and he’s not always the best at small talk. It’s not long before he excuses himself and leaves the staff room, walking his oft-trodden path through the building and down several staircases to the basement levels.

He loves being in the museum and perusing the exhibits, but down here is where he really gets to shine. As a registrar for the largest museum in the city, he gets to care for collections that come from all over the world and from almost every time period. It’s meticulous work, and it requires a high level of focus and organization, but for Castiel it’s absolutely perfect. He could spend hours down here in the archives, documenting and caring for the thousands of objects stored within the museum’s walls.

He doesn’t see anyone else around when he leaves his bag on his desk, but that doesn’t mean they’re not nearby; they’re probably already buried deep within the shelves and storage units, just like he will be soon. Castiel boots up his computer, lets out a steadying sigh, and then picks up his work exactly where he left off yesterday.

~

By the time lunchtime rolls around, Castiel has already made it more than halfway through the collection of imprint fossils that had been delivered earlier this week. Working like this usually helps him to keep his head clear, but when a few of his colleagues drop by to invite him out for lunch, he finds that there’s a headache building behind his temples.

Despite his hunger, he politely declines the offer, waiting until he’s certain they’ve left to venture up to street level in search of a quiet meal. The sandwich shop around the corner from the museum is close enough for him to visit and linger, people-watching over his chicken sub.

On this sunny Thursday afternoon, people from all walks of life are out and about. Castiel spots a father with his two children, a businessman on the phone outside the shop, a couple embracing on the far side of the street, too far away to see their designations. Two young women walk past the front window of the shop, wearing tank tops that show off numerous tattoos and laughing at some private joke. A thick, black band encircles each of their left wrists, and Castiel touches the inside of his forearm without thinking, fingers brushing cotton.

His next bite of sandwich tastes like dust in his mouth.

Castiel returns to the museum before his lunch hour is up and throws himself back into his work, but it doesn’t calm the nervous energy beneath his skin or the feeling of not quite right that settles over his mind like a fog. 

Thirty minutes before Castiel is due to clock out for the day, Anna comes to find him.

“Hey, Castiel,” she says, and Castiel jerks himself out of his cataloguing haze, because it’s not often that the Collections Manager comes down to the basement without it being for a specific project or purpose. “Do you have time for a quick chat?”

“Of course!” He quickly saves the file he’s been working on, thankful that he’s just cataloguing and not working with any actual artefacts now, and turns in his chair to face Anna. “What did you want to talk about?”

She smiles and shakes her head gently, amused. “Not here, actually. Dr. Adler wants to see the two of us in his office.”

Dr. Adler wants to see him? Castiel gapes for a second—it’s one thing to have the Collections Manager come to see him unannounced, but for the museum director himself to want to speak to him?

“Why?” he blurts out without thinking, and immediately feels his cheeks heat. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

Anna waves his apologies off, chuckling. “You’re fine, Castiel, don’t worry. I believe the topic of the meeting might be best left to him to present, though. Do you have time to come meet with him before you finish for the day?”

Castiel would happily stay past when he’s supposed to be going home, but he doesn’t say that—instead, he just nods, standing from his chair in a slightly shellshocked manner. “I—absolutely,” he says, and as he follows Anna up the stairs and through the museum to where the important executives have their offices, he can’t help but wish he’d put more effort into his presentation this morning. To have worn a tie, or at the very least, a nicer shirt. As it is, he barely has time to fix the mess his hair has become throughout the day before Anna is knocking on Dr. Adler’s door and they’re being admitted in.

Dr. Zachariah Adler is someone Castiel has only ever heard of—in articles, or in information about the museum, or by word of mouth with the other staff. He’s a cunning businessman, dedicated to achieving excellence and good status for both himself and the museum, and while he may not be the most amiable person, it’s his guidance that has made the museum the internationally recognized institute that it is today. Whatever his reason for calling Castiel in to see him today, Castiel is excited to have this opportunity to meet him.

“Ah, Mr. Novak, Ms. Shurley!” Dr. Adler stands as they enter, greeting them with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes and a handshake that is uncomfortably strong. “Take a seat, please. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Novak—I hear you’ve been doing excellent work as a registrar.”

“Thank you, sir,” Castiel says, taking a seat. He still can’t quite believe that this is happening—to still be so young, but to already be noticed for his work by the director? It’s a dream come true.

Anna sits down next to him, and Dr. Adler lowers himself back into the chair behind his grand oak desk, resting his folded hands on the wood.

“I’ve been looking over the work and files of the registrars recently and you stood out to me, Castiel. You’re only twenty-four, but you graduated with the highest distinction from Stanford, and were immediately offered an internship here. Your work ethic is impressive, from what I’ve seen in your files.”

“Thank you,” is all Castiel can say again, because he never expected to be singled out for his work, not when the other registrars in his department have much more experience and just as much raw talent for their job.

Dr. Adler smiles and leans back in his chair.

“You are very welcome. I didn’t call you up here just to praise you, however. As the museum grows, our staff needs to be expanded to fit the needs of the institution. I’m concerned that with the increased workload, the duties of Collections Manager may be too much for Ms. Shurley to handle on her own. As such, I will be promoting you to the role of assistant Collections Manager, effective immediately.”

It takes a few seconds for the information to sink in. Castiel’s ears feel as though they’re ringing, and he can’t wrap his head around Adler’s words—promoted? Assistant Collections Manager?

Dr. Adler is watching him, a smirk on his lips like he knows the impact that his decision is having on Castiel. “I—thank you, I wasn’t expecting this at all, thank you, sir,” he stammers out.

Adler waves a hand dismissively. “It’s nothing, Castiel. Someone of your talent and status shouldn’t be passed over and left to moulder away in the museum basement. That will be all for today, Ms. Shurley will be in charge of your training for your new position but will, of course, be reporting to me.”

They all stand, and Anna is smiling, clearly happy for him with the news of this promotion, but something in Adler’s words is catching in Castiel’s brain.

Status.

He’s not quite sure what Dr. Adler had meant by that, but he can take a guess, and he’d bet good money on it having something to do with the black mark he bears on his skin, and the ‘Dominant’ lettered next to his gender on his official records. He doesn’t really want to have his fears confirmed, so he turns to follow Anna out, the two of them accompanied to the door by Adler.

Anna leaves a few steps ahead of Castiel, but before he can follow her out the door, Dr. Adler grabs him by the wrist, halting his progress. “I know it’s demeaning for someone of our status to work under a sub,” he says quietly, close enough to Castiel’s ear for him to feel the damp condensation of his breath, “but you know how it is—quotas to be filled and all that jazz. Don’t you worry, though. I’ll sort it out soon, and you’ll get the role that a promising young Dom like you deserves. Just be patient.”

He winks, and Castiel feels his stomach curdle. It’s all he can do to give a shaky nod and hurry out of the office before he throws up on Adler’s shoes.

Anna meets him outside, beaming from ear to ear. “Congratulations, Castiel! I had a suspicion that that was what that meeting was about, but I didn’t want to let you know earlier in case I was wrong. I’m so looking forward to working with you!”

Castiel can barely drag his gaze up to her eyes—instead, he’s focused on the silver bangles around her left wrist, and the thick black line that encircles it just above. A Dom, answering directly to a sub. Castiel had known that there were people in the world who still believed that submissives don’t belong in roles of leadership or power—hell, he’d been raised by one of them—but he’d thought he escaped it when he’d moved away from his mother. Now, to be experiencing it at his job, to be profiting off it…

He feels sick. 

“Me too,” he says weakly. He feels pale. Unsteady. “I… I don’t think I’m feeling that well. I’m going to go clear up my desk and head home—can we talk more tomorrow?”

Anna’s expression morphs into one of concern. “Of course, Castiel. Do you want me to walk you back down to the basement?”

He shakes his head quickly. “No, thank you. I’ll be okay.”

Anna gives him a look like she doesn’t quite believe him—which is fair enough—but relents. “Alright. I’ll come find you bright and early tomorrow, though, so we can get started with teaching you your new role.”

Castiel’s stomach roils again, but he forces a smile. “Sounds good,” he says, and then before she can say anything else, adds on, “See you tomorrow!” It’s probably rude for him to disappear so quickly after learning of his new position, but his hands are shaking and he needs to get away.

The basement, once he makes it back to his desk, is cool and quiet and helps to calm Castiel. He still feels unsettled by what Adler had said to him, but at least he’s alone down here and he doesn’t have to feel the weight of anyone’s eyes on him. This is his space, and he controls it, not anybody else. Just to soothe his mind, he double-checks all his cataloguing work for the day before methodically closing every tab he has open and shutting down his computer. His work station gets tidied back to exactly how it was this morning when he arrived, and with that, the sick feeling starts to dissipate.

It still lingers in the back of his mind, of course, but for now, he’s trying his best not to think about it at all.

On his way out of the building, he does his best to avoid being pulled into small talk with someone—he’s not entirely sure how fast the gossip mill works here, having never partaken in any gossip himself, but he doesn’t really feel like talking about his promotion with anybody just yet. Not until he’s reconciled it and all its less-than-pleasant details with himself.

God, he’s been so happy to think that he was hard-working and worthy enough to be promoted, but now Adler’s words have left him wondering just how much of it was due to his work ethic and how much was because of his biology.

Don’t think about it, don’t think about it.

Somehow, he makes it out of the museum uninterrupted, then to the subway, and then he’s standing in front of his apartment door, the last twenty minute a haze that he struggles to quite grasp. He’s running on autopilot, he knows, but he’s not sure whether that’s a good thing, or if he should try to pull himself back to the present.

The books would know—the ones he’d tried to read when he’d started feeling like this, so tense and tightly wound sometimes. Surely someone out there knew, understood, had put pen to paper about it. So he’d sought the help of words, of those who know their field, and they had said:

It is common for the unattached Dominant to experience mood swings, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of a withdrawal. Studies have shown that the most common solution to combat a withdrawal is to become involved with a submissive, or to fulfil the biologically Dominant part that is being ignored in some way.

After that, Castiel hadn’t tried reading any more books. He knows what they’ll say.

Instead, he’s figured out what works for himself. He leaves his bag by the door and kicks off his shoes, then heads straight to the bathroom. A shower always helps to calm him, and as he stands under the water, he pictures the stresses of the day—and that conversation with Adler—washing away. Slipping off his skin and swirling down the drain, never to be seen again.

“The role that a promising young Dom like you deserves.”

It doesn’t work as well as he’d hoped.

No matter—he’s used to that. Some evenings, the itch under his skin is worse than usual, and it doesn’t always subside with the first thing he tries. This feels less like tightly-wound tension and more of a jittery anxiety that squeezes around his chest, but hopefully his usual tricks will still apply.

Castiel steps out of the shower and towels himself dry, trying to give his mark nothing more than a cursory swipe, even though the sight of it on his skin has his stomach churning nauseously. He dresses himself in a pair of boxers and a loose, long-sleeved t-shirt—out of sight, out of mind, right?—and then heads back out into his apartment.

The sight of the greenery of his plants helps to settle his mind a little, and he spends ten minutes meticulously checking on each one of them. They’re all looking good, apart from the spider plant on his kitchen bench, the tips of whose leaves have turned slightly brown. He resolves to check on it more often—it was the first one he ever bought and he doesn’t want it dying on him now.

With all his plants checked, Castiel moves onto his next option: cleaning. Usually, cleaning his apartment is something that helps him to settle his mind. Organization or cleaning of any kind is good, he’s found, but there’s just something so satisfying about having his apartment neat and presentable that satisfies some deep-down part of him.

Of course, this job used to be easier back when Inias was still living with him. Inias isn’t a messy person by any standards, but it had been so much easier to clean and tidy the apartment when there had been two people living in it. Now, it’s only Castiel’s stuff. Castiel’s dishes to clean, Castiel’s books to tidy, Castiel’s cooking messes to scrub off the kitchen.

Still, it helps. He works with a single-minded focus that he usually reserves for museum relics, scrubbing and cleaning and mopping until every surface of his apartment gleams. After that, he washes the dishes that he’s used today—which, there only being one of him, isn’t many—and then methodically dries and stores them away.

The sun is starting to set outside now, blue-black shadows creeping into Castiel’s apartment and enveloping it. It’s getting late, but the unsettled jitteriness still remains.

He flicks the lights on, illuminating the room once again, and keeps working.

An hour later, and just about everything in the apartment has been cleaned. Every surface shines, the carpeted areas almost look better than the day they were installed, and every object has been either put back in its rightful home or meticulously tidied in its place. He didn’t touch Inias’s room, because even though it’s been a month since he moved out, it still feels weird to go in there and tidy.

Bur even without cleaning the second bedroom, his deep clean seems to have been enough to satisfy his brain; his anxiety feels as though it’s abated. What it’s left in its place is a deep-seated weariness, and Castiel sinks onto the couch with a sigh. It’s almost 8pm, and now that he’s spent the last two hours cleaning his apartment, the urge to cook dinner and mess everything up again is incredibly low.

Instead, he reaches for his phone, exactly where he left it on the coffee table several hours ago, and unlocks it.

No new messages.

He knows that he isn’t the most social person, but that fact seems to be magnified now that he’s living by himself. “Fucking hell,” he mutters under his breath, then scrubs a hand over his face and opens up his message thread with Inias.

C: I know it’s late, but are you available? I’ve had… a day.

Castiel waits for a reply, and waits some more, staring tiredly at the blank TV on the opposite wall while he waits for his phone to buzz. In the end, he gives up and calls the local Thai restaurant to order some takeout, and when he ends the call, he has a message from his friend.

I: Sorry, work has been kicking my ass and I promised I’d spend tonight at home with Hannah. Do you want to catch up for lunch tomorrow instead?

It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Tonight will just have to be for himself and his Thai food.

C: Sure. I’ll meet you at the usual place at 12.

Inias texts back a thumbs up and a smiley face, which brightens Castiel’s mood a little. It gives him enough energy to get up off the couch and turn on the TV, as well as grab his laptop out of his work bag. Of course, as soon as he settles back down on the couch and makes himself comfortable, a knock on the front door signals the arrival of his dinner, and he hauls himself back up with a quiet grumble.

Weird mood or not, he makes sure to be polite to the delivery guy and tip him well, taking his bag of food with a genuine expression of gratitude because he had not realized quite how hungry he was until he smelled it. Now, he can settle in for the night, and he grabs a fork on his way back to the couch, not bothering with a plate. He just doesn’t have the energy for that right now.

The pad thai tastes incredible, and Castiel devours it while idly watching whatever happens to be on TV—right now it seems to be a documentary about some tattoo shop in Los Angeles, and even though Castiel has never really thought that much about tattoos before, he has to admit that the pieces of artwork he sees being created are quite beautiful. Once he’s finished all of his takeout, he pulls his laptop into his lap—usually after dinner he’ll brush up on recent journal articles that take his fancy, or catch up on the news, or just browse YouTube if he’s feeling particularly lazy.

Instead of opening his laptop and shifting his attention, though, he finds that he’s been thoroughly pulled into the documentary. Each one of the tattoos that the show presents is a beautiful work of art, and even if Castiel wouldn’t want some of the styles on his own body, he can appreciate their aesthetic appeal.

The main artist’s designation doesn’t catch his eye until he sees her actually tattooing someone, and catches sight of the stripe running down her forearm. He’d been so distracted by all the other designs on her sleeve that the mark doesn’t stand out anywhere near as much, even if the way her tattoos are designed highlight and complement her mark.

It gives him pause. Usually, he’s very quick at noticing people’s designations; since it’s something he focuses so strongly on with himself, it’s hard not to extend it to other people as well, to notice if they’re Dominant or submissive or unpresented.

But with this woman… he hadn’t noticed. Hadn’t even thought to look.

His breath catches in his throat.

All these years, Castiel has been so self-conscious about his Dom mark. He goes to lengths to hide it, even in the heat of the summer, because the fewer people know about his presentation, the better. He’s suffered through so many months of long sleeves just because he hates seeing his mark, hates other people seeing his mark, but if there was some way to hide it in plain sight…

The whole way through the ending of the documentary, Castiel can’t stop staring at the artist’s arm and the colourful ink that adorns the skin around her mark. When it ends, he reaches for the remote and switches off the TV, then sits and stares into space for a few minutes. Thinking. Turning his thoughts over and over in his head.

He’s never really considered ever getting a tattoo—has never fully seen the appeal—but with this new possibility that may have presented itself…

Castiel reaches for his laptop and powers it up.

He’s riding the wave of his new idea now when he googles ‘nearby tattoo artists’. Realistically, he should think about this decision more, make sure it’s actually something he wants to do and can commit to, but after his conversation with Adler today and the way he’s been feeling since, there’s no hesitation.

As it turns out, ‘nearby tattoo artists’ brings up a lot of results. One by one, Castiel combs through them, checking out portfolios and getting a gauge on prices. If he wants something similar to the artist from the documentary, big and complex enough to distract from his mark, it won’t be cheap, but he gets a good salary from the museum and he’s more than willing to pay whatever it takes.

Many of the work he sees is beautiful, and the artists are clearly talented, but they’re just not quite… right. Not that he knows exactly what he’s looking for, but he trusts that he’ll know it when he sees it, and he hasn’t seen it yet. The styles are too realistic, or too colourful, or just not quite clean enough for what Castiel is after.

And then he clicks onto the website for ‘Harvelle Ink’ and opens an artist portfolio at random, and finds exactly what he’s been searching for.

This artist has a variety of works, some in brilliant colour and some in stunning, complementary black and white, but all of them are beautiful and each one tells some kind of story. The art itself is beautifully executed, and Castiel can’t stop staring as he scrolls down the page, taking in every single tattoo this artist has to show. He’s never considered getting a tattoo now, and it’s still a little crazy to think about having someone else’s artwork on his skin, but Castiel knows instinctively that if he wants anyone tattooing him, it’s this artist.

When he scrolls back up to the top, he sees that the artist’s name is Dean, and that he has an Instagram account. Castiel can’t help but click on it, eager to see what else this ‘Dean’ has to show, and he’s not disappointed. There are hundreds of photographs on here, each one of a tattoo Dean has completed, each one just as stunning as the others he’s seen. He has a preference for some designs, of course, and finds himself completely besotted by a detailed geometric design on someone’s bicep—all black and white and sharp, clear lines.

This is the artist he wants. He’s never been so sure of anything since he packed his bags at the age of eighteen and got on a flight to San Francisco.

Up the top of the account is a short bio that reads: Dean Winchester, 25, artist at Harvelle Ink. Enquiries at dwinchester@harvelleink.net. Castiel doesn’t hesitate; he copies the email address, logs into his personal account, opens up a new email and starts typing.

Dear Mr. Winchester.

Chapter Text

“You’re doing what?”

Castiel looks down at the linoleum table top beside his coffee and sighs. Was it too much to ask for this conversation to go smoothly? “I’m getting a tattoo, Inias. You didn’t hear me the first time?”

“No, I heard you.” His friend makes a show of shaking his head. “I just… it wasn’t what I expected you to open with when I saw you today, that’s all. It doesn’t seem very you.”

Not very him.

Castiel resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose, and instead levels his friend with an unimpressed look. “And what makes it ‘not very me’? I’m an adult, I’m perfectly capable of making decisions like this. Hell, I’m even capable of surprising you every once in a while.” There’s a slightly bitter tone to his voice that he hadn’t intended, and he does feel a bit bad when Inias raises his hands placatingly.

“Hey, man, I’m just surprised, is all. You’ve never mentioned wanting to get a tattoo before, why the sudden change?”

Why the sudden change indeed? If only it was that simple to answer. Castiel shrugs one shoulder, idly spinning his coffee mug between his fingers on the linoleum. “I’m sick of having to hide it,” he admits. “The idea of being able to hide it in plain sight, or at least distract from it, is appealing to say the least.”

Inias doesn’t have to ask—he’s known Castiel long enough to know what he’s referring to. The corners of his mouth pull down in a sympathetic expression. “So that’s why you’re doing this?” he asks, gesturing vaguely towards Castiel’s arm where it’s hidden beneath the sleeve of his trench coat. “To hide… you know what?”

Castiel forces his fingers to unclench from around the mug, and nods.

“I guess I get it, then,” Inias says quietly. He leans back in his chair, watching Castiel with a gaze that knows him too well. “Well, I don’t get it, but. You know what I mean. And if you think this’ll help make you happier, then I’m all for it.”

The tension that Cas hadn’t realized he was carrying abates slightly at Inias’s words, a loosening of his muscles and a lightening of his soul. “You mean that?” he asks quietly, tilting his head. Inias simply laughs—that warm, friendly, light sound that has lifted Castiel’s spirits countless times before.

“Of course, you idiot. I’m only here to stop you from making wild decisions that are poorly thought through. This one seems wild but calculated, so I’m okay with it.” He leans forwards, props his forearms on the table. “What were you thinking of getting?”

Castiel feels his face flush. Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? When people go to get a tattoo, they have a clear image of what they want in their mind—at least, that’s what the show on TV had told him. But Castiel… Castiel is different.

“I don’t know,” he admits, looking down into the depths of his half-finished coffee. “I’ve been thinking about it, but… I’m still not sure.”

Inias just snorts, and Castiel doesn’t even need to look up to know the fondly exasperated face his friend is making right now—he’s seen it enough times. “Of course you’d book an appointment with a tattoo artist without even knowing what you want,” he says, amused. “Hopefully your guy is half-decent, and he’ll be able to come up with something you like. If it’s terrible, I’ll still be a good friend and lend you money for laser removal.”

Castiel levels a half-hearted glare at his friend, but he can’t keep up the pretense for very long. “He’s really good,” he says quietly. In the week since he sent the email, he can’t count the number of times he’s just browsed deeper and deeper through his Instagram. “That’s why I chose him. I’m sure he’ll have some ideas.”

The silence stretches out, with Inias giving him a look that he can’t quite put his finger on. Castiel sips his coffee—lukewarm now, annoyingly—and waits for his friend to speak, until he can’t bear it any longer. “What?”

Inias’s lips twitch up into a smile. “You’re really serious about this. And it’s going to make you happy. I can’t remember the last time I saw you like this—really excited about something that’s not work. It’s cool.”

It’s been hard to get excited about his work at the moment—Anna is awesome and working under her is a dream come true, but it’s still soured by Adler’s parting remarks. Inias wouldn’t understand, though, so Cas hasn’t told him about that part, just the promotion.

“Yeah,” he says, quietly, turning Inias’s words over in his head. “I guess you’re right.”

~

The days pass, and Castiel emails back and forth with Dean a few times. Dean asks about his life, his passions, what kind of aesthetic he’s fond of and how much space he wants the tattoo to cover. Some of the questions he has answers for, and others less so, but Dean is always kind and understanding, and he seems like the kind of person that Castiel would have no problem getting along with in real life.

Which is good, because when Dean tells him that he has a design outlined, he also says that it will take more than one session to complete, and if they’re going to be spending that long together, Castiel wants to make sure it’s with someone he can at least tolerate.

Once the proposed design is complete (or so Dean says, since Castiel won’t see it until the day of his appointment), he doesn’t hear from the artist again, and so he’s left to his own thoughts and anticipation once more.

While he waits, he tries to distract himself. He goes running, does yoga, looks after his plants and tries to keep himself from buying anymore because Inias already gives him enough shit about one day replacing him with a topiary version. With each day that he spends at work, he gets more comfortable working with Anna, as long as he can forget about Adler and his bigotry, and throwing himself into learning his new role certainly helps him to distract himself from the thrumming anticipation that lingers in his mind each time he thinks about his ever nearing appointment with Dean Winchester.

Every morning, when Castiel dresses himself, he still reaches for the long-sleeved shirts, the safety nets made of cotton and canvas, but he starts to hope for a time when he won’t second-guess himself every time he puts on a t-shirt. He doesn’t want to be achingly aware of his Dom mark for every second that he’s in public. He doesn’t want that to be the first thing people notice about him.

Hopefully soon that can become a reality.

On the morning of the appointment, he wakes up an hour before his alarm and with nervous butterflies in his stomach. The anticipation, the nervousness, thrums beneath his skin and manifests itself in an agitation and hyperawareness that just won’t settle. Castiel meditates and does yoga in an attempt to calm his mind, but this morning it only works to a certain degree. He should have expected that, really—by this point, there’s not much he can do but ride it out and hope that today goes smoothly.

After he’s eaten breakfast, he returns to his bedroom and spends five minutes just staring at his closet. Dean had told him to wear something that exposed most of his arm, and unless Castiel wants to be totally shirtless in front of a stranger for several hours, he should probably heed the advice.

Which leads him to his dilemma. This is the last time people are going to notice, he tells himself. Once he has his tattoo, people won’t look at his mark any more, like it’s a symbol of status and power. He just wants it to blend in with the ink and disappear.

In the end, he pulls out an old tank top that might be one of Inias’s that migrated into the back of Castiel’s closet, because he’s pretty sure that he’s never voluntarily bought anything so sleeveless. It feels weird to be putting it on, and as he finishes the rest of his morning routine, he tries to ignore the black mark that always seems to be lingering on the edge of his vision.

On his way out of his apartment, he pauses, staring down at it, then grabs a jacket off one of the hooks by the door before he leaves.

~

Harvelle Ink is a ways away from Castiel’s apartment—not too far away that he can’t walk, but far enough to make him wish that he had a car while he’s sweating away under his jacket. He lives too close to the middle of the city for it to do much good, though, and his money is better spent in other places. Besides, even if it is a little uncomfortably warm, the walk is proving to be a reasonable distraction from the nerves that have settled themselves in his stomach.

Before he knows it, he’s standing in the exact spot that his phone has been directing to, staring up at the colourful sign that reads: Harvelle Ink. Anticipation and nervousness simmer beneath his skin as he lifts his hand to the door.

This is an impulse decision that could change his life, and god, he hopes it does.

Heart in his throat, he presses his hand against the glass and pushes.

Inside, the studio is all light and colour. The frosted glass windows in the front of the shop let the sunlight in from outside but keep it private and cozy, and Castiel takes a second to admire the mural on the wall above the front desk. The painted bird stretches its wings across the plaster, regal and beautiful.

“Hey! Can I help you?”

Castiel shifts his attention to the young woman who walks out of the shop’s back area, of which he can just see glimpses of workstations and what he assumes are tattoo chairs. She’s slim and blonde and unpresented, and carries herself with a confident, take-no-shit attitude that Castiel immediately likes.

“I’m here for an appointment with Dean Winchester?” he hedges, because he has to assume that this lady is not the same person he’s been emailing. Then again, considering his own odd name, he’s not really in any position to judge.

The woman slides behind the desk and leans down to check the computer, then looks up at Castiel with a grin. “Castiel, right? Dean’s just getting himself set up now, give him a few minutes and he’ll be out to introduce himself. I’m Jo—Harvelle, my mom owns this place. Dean’s one of our artists—I think you’re gonna love the piece he’s designed for you today. Is this your first tattoo?”

Somehow, the barrage of information doesn’t prove too overwhelming. It might have something to do with the drawl of Jo’s voice, or the easygoing that stays in place while she talks, but either way, Castiel feels himself smile and relax just a little bit. “It is my first, yes,” he tells her, and for the first time, the look of excitement on Jo’s face brings with the confession more exhilaration than it does nervousness.

“That’s awesome,” she says, leaning her forearms on the desk. One arm is covered with black and white tattoos that perfectly accentuate her complexion and, Castiel suspects, the badassery lurking below the laidback attitude. She grins, and winks at him conspiringly. “You never forget your first.”

“Jo! Are you harassing my client out there?”

The voice is deep and teasing and Castiel is instantly curious to meet the man it is attached to. Jo’s grin widens conspiratorially, and she turns her head towards the back room, directing her response away from Castiel. “Me? I would never! Who do you think I am?” she calls back, her words laced with mischief. Castiel can’t help but smile—he likes her.

The hidden person—Dean, he has to assume, this magical Dean with the artistic gift who Castiel is trusting with his tattoo—laughs. It’s a laugh that makes Castiel want to grin, to join in, to be in on whatever joke it is that Dean is laughing at. “Yeah, right,” comes the voice, “I know you too well, Joanna Beth.”

Jo’s expression morphs into a playful scowl, but whatever her retaliation is, Castiel doesn’t hear it, because it’s at that point that his artist walks out of the back room, and everything else around them feels like it falls away.

Dean is tall and tanned, wearing a loose flannel over a band t-shirt that Inias would know but Castiel has no clue about. Ink peeks out from beneath his sleeves and the collars of his shirts, but what captivates Castiel is his face; pink lips, cheekbones dusted with freckles, green eyes that, when Castiel meets them, are warm and sparkling with playfulness. “You must be Castiel,” he says, reaching out a hand, and Castiel has never been this awestruck by anyone in his entire life.

“That’s me,” Castiel replies, as he reaches out to take Dean’s hand, because what else can he say? Dean’s hand is warm and relaxed as they shake, and he misses his touch immediately when they let go. “And you’re Dean?”

“In the flesh.” Dean’s grin is wide and infectious, and Castiel doesn’t miss the onceover he gets, Dean’s gaze raking from his messy hair all the way down to his feet. Does he like what he sees? Right now, Castiel can’t tell. “I hope Jo hasn’t been giving you too much trouble. You’re in good hands now, don’t you worry.”

Jo scoffs indignantly from her spot behind the desk, and Dean flips her the middle finger in a way that is sosibling-like that it makes Castiel smile. “Come on through, Cas,” Dean says with a tilt of his head towards the back room, and the nickname is doing thingsfor Castiel already, a shiver dancing along his spine.

He follows Dean through the doorway to the back area—spacious and brightly lit, with plenty of room between the handful of tattooing stations. Between the inviting, comfortable space and Dean’s laidback attitude (not to mention his sheer beauty), Castiel can feel himself relaxing. It’s a good feeling, and even though he still hasn’t seen the tattoo he’s getting, he’s feeling a lot better about his spur of the moment idea.

“So,” Dean says as he leads them over to the far station, “I thought about everything you told me about yourself over the email, and the area you wanted the tattoo to cover, and I made up a design for you. It’s not set in stone, we can change stuff if you’re not one hundred percent happy with it, but…” He takes a seat at the desk nearby and motions at the other stool for Castiel to take a seat, then pulls out a sheet of paper and slides it across the tabletop. “I hope you like it.”

Castiel takes his seat and pulls the paper towards him with his fingertips, suddenly nervous again. What if he hates it? What if Dean isn’t as talented as his social media had made him seem? His heart is in his throat as he lets himself look at the design for the first time.

It’s a drawing of an arm, clearly as close to scale as Dean could get it, with a space in the middle of the forearm for where Castiel’s mark will fit—if only it were possible to ink over it, but since that’s not the case, Dean has done the second best thing.

The lower forearm is covered in a geometric honeycomb pattern, with a stylized dandelion design right above that transitions into dark black ink and—

“Is that the flower of life?” he asks, tracing his fingertips lightly over the design on the drawing’s elbow. Dean leans in closer and grins, and suddenly it’s become much more difficult for Castiel to focus. 

“It is!” The look Dean gives him is equal parts impressed and excited. “I wanted it to still be a bit nature-related, since you told me about all your plants and the documentaries you watch and how you’d want to have a garden once you move into your own house, but it’s also symbolic and not too obvious, because you’re used to working with all those artefacts and cool ancient stuff, right?”

Castiel can’t contain his smile. “That’s right, I do work with all that ‘cool ancient stuff,’” he replies, and there’s a hint of teasing that he can’t keep out of his voice, because Dean is already getting under his skin, damn it. At least, if the blush that colours Dean’s cheeks is anything to go by, the feeling goes both ways. “I love it, though, Dean.” He runs his fingers over the three bands encircling the bicep, then sits back and just admires the whole thing. “It’s beautiful.” And it’s exactly the style that he’d loved in Dean’s previous works; perfect for distracting from his mark, and giving people something beautiful to look at instead.

Dean’s cheeks blush darker, and he takes the drawing back, surveying it with a critical eye. “Yeah?” he asks, and there’s barely-concealed pride in his voice. “I can change stuff if you want it changed, it’s no big deal.”

There’s no way he wants any of it changed. “It’s absolutely fine as it is,” he insists, and before he can really think about what he’s doing, he reaches out and puts his hand over Dean’s. Whatever he was going to say next disappears from his mind, because again, Dean’s hand is warm and strong beneath Castiel’s, and even touching him like this is sending electricity sparking across Cas’s skin.

Dean swallows, his green eyes locked onto Castiel’s, and then clears his throat. “I—okay,” he says, and his voice is softer than it has been so far. “I won’t change it, then. Give me a few to put it on some transfer paper, and then we can get started.”

Even though he’s finished talking, Dean doesn’t remove his hand until Castiel does, the two of them just watching each other for several loaded moments before Cas pulls his hand back into his lap.

Dean takes the drawing away, and Castiel hears him and Jo talking for a minute, their voices pitched too low for him to make out the words clearly—besides, he’s too polite to eavesdrop like that. Instead, he waits for his artist to return, trying to occupy himself by browsing his phone so that he can’t think too hard about… whatever that was.

No matter how much he tries, though, he can’t shake the feeling lingering under his skin and buzzing in the back of his skull. Can’t forget how Dean had looked at him.

He doesn’t know how long it takes for Dean to return—tries resolutely not to check the time as he waits—but eventually the artist makes a reappearance, paper in hand and his laidback countenance back in place. “Sorry about the wait,” he says, sitting back down on his stool and sliding across to the work station where the inks and tattoo gun are set up and ready to go. Castiel’s heart kicks up a couple of notches. This is really happening.

“I’ll get you to take a seat on the chair,” Dean tells him as he pulls on a pair of black gloves and gets himself organized. “Because this is your first tattoo, I don’t wanna take any risks with it, so if it’s okay with you, we’ll split it into two sessions. I’ll do a large portion of it today, and then we can book in a time next week to get it all finished off. Sound good?”

He gets to spend more than just today with Dean? “Sounds great,” he says, trying not to come across as too overly excited, but just the thought of seeing Dean again has butterflies dancing in his stomach.

Dean smiles, relaxed and easy, as Castiel situates himself in the chair and gets comfortable. “Awesome. That’ll give us time to take this session slow. You never know how you’re gonna handle the pain until you’ve had your first tattoo—but I expect you’ll be alright. Now, can we get that jacket off so that I can see what I’m working with?”

Fuck. Castiel tries to steady the nerves that bubble up inside him, gathering in his fingertips and dancing in jitters across his skin. Dean already knows you’re a Dom, he tells himself. You talked about it in your emails. This isn’t new.

But no matter how he rationalizes it, it’s still terrifying.

He takes a deep breath, aware of Dean’s eyes on him, watching and patient, then sits up and pulls off his jacket.

In the cool air of the studio, he feels way too exposed, the entirety of his arms and shoulders bared to Dean’s gaze. He knows he looks good—the yoga and running helps with that—but it’s not that aspect of his appearance that’s responsible for the anxious roiling of his stomach. His mark stands out even against his tanned skin, and he tries to resist the instinctive urge to put his hand over it, to cover it, to do whatever he can to prevent Dean from seeing the truth about what he is for the first time.

But when he looks up, Dean isn’t looking at his mark. He’s looking into Castiel’s eyes, lips curled up into a half-smile, totally relaxed. “You okay?” he asks, his voice calm, in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s making this reveal a big deal.

Is he okay? He’s so close to reaching his goal, to hiding his mark in plain sight so that (hopefully) he never has to feel self-conscious about displaying it again. And even though Dean knows something is up, he’s not making a big deal about it, except to check in. He likes Dean. He can trust Dean.

“Yeah,” he says on an exhale, and while it doesn’t magically banish all his nervousness, it loosens the tension in his shoulders and across his chest just a little bit, and that’s enough.

“Awesome,” Dean says, and the half-smile morphs into a full smile. “For what it’s worth, I think the tank top is a good look on you. You’ve got nice arms, dude.”

It’s said in a conversational tone, as he reaches for the transfer paper and slides his stool closer to Castiel, but there’s something else to it that Castiel barely catches. Is Dean flirting with him? He’s so out of practice that he can’t be sure, but he gives Dean a tentative smile anyway. Surely someone as beautiful and talented and charismatic as Dean wouldn’t be interested in Castiel, but there’s no harm in testing the waters and being polite, so he says; “Thank you. I find that yoga helps me to unwind when I’m feeling stressed, and I suppose the muscle tone is a fortunate bonus.”

Dean’s hands, as they position Castiel’s arm on the armrest of the chair, are steady and careful. “That’s really cool,” he says. Even though he’s concentrated on his work, on spreading a gel over the skin of Castiel’s forearm and positioning the stencil just right, there’s an attentiveness to his voice that signals that he’s paying attention. “So I guess you’re super strong and bendy and stuff, right? My brother’s into fitness stuff like that, but I’m just not flexible enough.” He laughs self-deprecatingly as he smooths the paper over Castiel’s skin and presses it down.

The paper and the gloves that separate them are a nuisance when all Castiel wants is to feel Dean’s touch once more, but instead he focuses on the man’s voice, his words. “You don’t need to be flexible to start,” he points out, giving a tiny shrug of the shoulder not attached to the arm Dean’s currently working with. “I know I certainly wasn’t. But I wanted something that I could do in private, and I was stubborn enough that I didn’t give up even when it kicked my ass, so… I ended up enjoying it.”

From here, he can see the smile on Dean’s lips, even as his brows crease with the concentration required for applying the stencil. It’s a few moments before he replies. “Stubborn, huh? I can relate to that. Maybe I should give yoga a go sometime then—it might keep me from fucking up my back, what with the shitty posture I have here all day.” He sits up, then, straightens out his back and gently peels the transfer paper off Castiel’s arm to reveal the stencil underneath. “There you go, give it one last check before we commit to it.”

Castiel looks down at his bare arm, inked with purple lines. They fit neatly around his mark, because as much as he wishes it were possible for them to tattoo all the way over it, it’s impossible for the skin directly next to it to hold any ink. Instead, Dean’s design camouflages it tastefully, without being too glaringly obvious about it.

“It’s perfect,” he murmurs. “You’ve done an incredible job.” For a few more moments, he simply stares at it, before he looks up to meet Dean’s eyes once more.

In the split second before Dean catches himself, he finds the man staring, lips slightly parted, eyes shining with some unreadable emotion that is gone too quickly for Castiel to put a name to. Dean clears his throat and looks away, leaving Castiel to wonder what he’d done to merit being watched with such intensity.

“I’m glad you like it,” Dean says, meeting Castiel’s gaze once more with a smile that is a little bit forced—not in a bad way, but in the way that betrays the fact that his real emotions are hiding just beneath the surface. Dean is beautiful and intriguing, and Castiel really, really hopes that his gut is correct and that Dean has indeed been flirting with him.

As if on cue, Dean pats Cas’s arm lightly, and his smile widens into an excited grin. “Alright, shall we get started?”

Castiel inhales, holds his breath, and then nods.

~

The tattoo is, surprisingly, not too bad. It hurts, sure, but Castiel has always had a high tolerance for physical pain. It’s never affected him as strongly as emotional pain, and so it’s easy to lie there and accept the stinging of Dean’s tattoo gun.

They make easy conversation as he works, talking about Castiel’s job, his hobbies, his years at college. Dean’s little brother is studying law at Stanford right now, and his face lights up every time he talks about him, like he’s so proud that he can’t possibly contain it. It’s sweet and endearing, and he’s also becoming more certain that Dean is flirting with him from the way he smiles and winks and comments on what Castiel is saying. 

It hadn’t been something he’d been aware was missing from his daily life, but he realizes very quickly that it’s nice to feel desired. Wanted.

And so he flirts back, in his own clumsy, out-of-practice way.

He asks about Dean’s interests, smiles when they make eye contact, tries not to let himself be distracted by the touch of his gloved hands. Dean is beautiful and witty and clever, and Castiel had not expected to be feeling so head over heels for his tattoo artist, but here he is, very slowly working up the courage to ask Dean out to a bar or a movie or anything once this session is done.

And then they take a quick break, and Dean stretches, takes off his gloves and pulls off his flannel so that he’s only in the band t-shirt beneath.

On his left forearm is the thick encircling band of a sub.

And just like that, Castiel freezes.

Dean is a sub. All this time, he’s been flirting with, interested in, someone he thought was unpresented. Someone he would be able to be involved with without being afraid of himself, his nature, everything inherently negative that he associates with being a Dom. But that’s not the case, because Dean is a sub.

Dean settles back onto his chair, and Castiel can’t stop staring at his arm. The upper part of his arm is covered in colourful ink that peeks out from beneath the sleeve of his t-shirt, but his forearm is bare apart from that mark, and so of course Dean, when he turns back to Castiel and pulls on a new pair of gloves, notices him looking.

“You okay, Cas?”

Castiel had told Dean, over their emails, that he’d wanted a tattoo that incorporated his mark and made it a little less visible, but he hadn’t said why—that’s something only Inias knows, a broken confession during one of Castiel’s lowest lows.

He can’t date Dean. And he can’t tell him why.

“Yeah,” he says, even though he can feel his throat closing up with the intensity of the emotions that are washing over him. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Dean eyes him skeptically, but when Castiel doesn’t elaborate, seems to acknowledge that that’s all he’s getting. Instead, he says, “You good to keep going?”

Castiel nods—please, just let this be over with—and Dean picks up the tattoo gun once more.

They still talk, and Dean makes an effort to draw him back into the conversations they were having earlier, the easy back-and-forth, but Castiel just… can’t. He can’t lead Dean on, not when he knows that nothing can ever happen between them. To a sub, his touch is poison, and he knows that from firsthand experience.

He won’t let it happen to Dean.

By the time the session is finished, Dean seems quieter, a little crestfallen. When he sits back and stretches, he watches Castiel for a long moment, with a gaze that seems to pierce through Castiel’s defenses. The silence stretches out between them; to break it, Castiel looks down at his arm, and his breath catches.

He’d been trying not to watch, because the way Dean works and the concentrated focus on his face is too beautiful for words, so instead he’d been staring at the ceiling for most of the time. Now, though, when he finally lets himself see the work Dean has done for the first time…

It’s beautiful.

The honeycomb pattern encompasses the bottom half of his forearm, the pattern of it varied and intriguing and exactly what Castiel had wanted, and then the dandelions take up the upper half in a field of outlined petals and leaves and dark ink in the negative spaces. “Oh,” he says quietly, lifting his arm closer to get a better look. “Dean, it’s perfect, I—”

And then he looks up and meets Dean’s gaze—sees the softness in his eyes, that pleased half-smile—and god, his heart aches. How has this man done such a number on him already?

“I really like it,” he finishes, dropping his gaze again. “Thank you.”

He can’t see Dean’s disappointment, but it’s a palpable thing. Still, to his credit, he sounds reasonably upbeat when he says, “Awesome! I’ll wrap it up for you, give you some care instructions, and then we’ll make another appointment to finish it off next week.”

Another session. “Okay,” he says, because he can’t say anything else in the face of the realization that he’s going to have to spend several more hours in the presence of this captivating man.

The time they spend wrapping up Castiel’s tattoo and talking about its care is awkward; the dynamic between them has clearly changed since the beginning of the appointment, and while Castiel knows exactly why that is, why he’s closed off all of a sudden, Dean doesn’t. Castiel catches him looking once or twice, confusion and a little bit of hurt in his eyes, but there’s nothing he can do. He can’t tell Dean why, that he’s poison, that he’ll break Dean just like Naomi broke his father.

All he can do is put up a wall and try to move on.

They end up back by the front desk—this time, Jo is nowhere to be seen. “Does Wednesday afternoon work for you?” Dean asks as he wakes up the computer, meeting Castiel’s gaze over the desk that separates them.

“That should be fine.” He can leave work early, make up the extra hours on another day. It’s Saturday now, so that only gives him a few days before he has to see Dean again, but the sooner he can get it over with, the better.

“Sweet.” Dean types something in on the keyboard, then pulls a card out of one of the drawers and places it on top of the desk, in front of Castiel. It has a geometric pattern on the front, not dissimilar to the style on Castiel’s arm now, and when he flips it over with tentative fingers, he sees Dean’s name and number on the back. “In case you have any questions about the healing or anything,” Dean says. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, and the look in his eyes says I hope you call.

Castiel won’t. Can’t.

But he still says, “Thank you,” and gives Dean a smile—because he’s charming and talented and genuinely sweet, and if he weren’t a sub…

Best not to even entertain that thought.

“I have to go,” he says, slipping the card into his jacket pocket even against his better judgement. He won’t call, and if he's smart he'll rip it up once he gets home, but he also doesn’t want to hurt Dean’s feelings. It feels dangerous, though, this single piece of paper that feels like it’s burning a hole in his pocket. “I need to walk home before it gets too dark.”

“You’re walking home?” Dean’s brow creases in concern, and he leans forward, just slightly. “I’m finishing up here anyway—did you want me to drop you home? It’s no problem, really.”

It’s a sweet offer, and one Castiel would certainly have taken him up on had he never taken off his flannel, but… “Thank you, but I’ll be fine,” he says gently, with the hint of a smile to soften the blow. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

Dean droops just a little, but Castiel holds his resolve. “I guess I’ll see you on Wednesday, then,” he says, and Castiel nods.

“See you on Wednesday.” 

And then he turns and walks away, feeling as though he has all the weight of the world on his weary shoulders.

Chapter Text

Castiel tries to forget.

Tries to forget how Dean’s hands had felt on his skin. How his whole face had lit up whenever he’d smiled. How the blush on his cheeks had brought out his freckles in the best way. He spends the whole evening thinking about Dean, and thinking about how he shouldn’t be thinking about Dean, because thinking about Dean is a bad idea.

Trying to forget doesn’t help.

So he buries himself in work. In his activities. Buys two new plants the very next day, runs twice as far as he usually would, tries a series of new poses that leave him a sweaty, frustrated mess on the floor of his living room, all in the vain hope of escaping the specter of Dean Winchester that feels as though it haunts his every waking moment.

But it doesn’t work. None of it works.

How has one person affected me so thoroughly and completely? he wonders as he lies awake in his too-big bed, staring at the ceiling. Him arm hurts in the places where it’s healing, and now, every time he looks at it, he’s reminded of Dean.

It’s better than being reminded of his mother, and of the parts of his biology that are cruel and violent, but only marginally so when it means that he wakes in the middle of the night, damp with sweat and achingly hard where he’s pressed against the mattress. Dean fucking Winchester. Castiel curls his fingers into the fabric of his pillow, hard enough that his knuckles hurt, and then releases it with a shaking breath.

There is something about Dean Winchester that followed him out of that tattoo parlor, etched into his mind and onto his skin. Getting rid of it, he is beginning to suspect, will be easier said than done.

And if his usual outlets are no longer enough to calm his mind, then he’s just going to have to try harder.

Which is how he ends up working late on Tuesday evening, hunched over his desk as he sifts through the paperwork and records of the museum’s newest display collection.

His back aches, and his shoulders have never felt so tense with how tight he’s unconsciously kept them throughout the day, but he ignores his body’s protests. If he rests, that gives him time to think, to focus on other things, and his thoughts always inevitably end up circling around to the green-eyed sub who Cas can’t seem to get out of his damn head. It’s bad enough knowing he has to see Dean again tomorrow without spending every fucking waking moment thinking about him.

“Castiel?”

Castiel snaps out of his thoughts and turns in the direction of the voice, silently cursing himself for allowing his mind to drift once again, despite how hard he’s trying to stay on task.

It’s Anna, of course it is. “Yes,” he says distractedly, running a hand through his hair in poorly-tempered frustration. “Can I help you?”

His words are shorter than he might have liked—Anna has never been anything but lovely to him—but he’s feeling all kinds of tightly wound tonight. Her lips pull down at the edges, but only for a second, and then she gives a slightly forced-looking smile. “I was just checking on you. It’s getting late, and I’m heading home now. You should do the same and get some rest, you look…” She pauses, takes in his creased shirt and unruly hair, the faint bags under his eyes. “Tired,” she finishes.

She’s right, of course—he is tired, and he does need to go home. Clearly, burying himself in work is no longer cutting it as a distraction from… tomorrow.

Castiel sighs, feeling his frustration draining out of him and being replaced by a bone-deep weariness. Thinking about Dean is inevitable, it seems. Tomorrow certainly is inevitable, since he has no way to halt the ever-forward march of time. “You’re right,” he tells Anna, his voice softer than it had been. “Thank you for looking out for me, I’ll be heading home soon. Have a good night, and I’ll see you on Thursday.”

This time, when Anna smiles, it’s much more genuine. “You too, Castiel,” she says, hefting her bag up onto her shoulder. “And good luck with your appointment tomorrow.”

She says it well-meaningly, but Castiel’s shoulders still tense up, and it’s only because she’s his boss that he just barely manages to rein in a snappy response. Instead, he mutters, “Thanks,” and keeps a death-grip on his pen until he hears her footsteps recede down the hallway.

What the fuck is wrong with him? He’s never felt this tense and wound-up in his whole life, and nothing he usually does to calm himself down has been working. The more he thinks about how he’s spiralling out of control, the more he does spiral out of control, and he forces himself to sit back in his chair and focus on his breathing until he’s no longer on the verge of a full-blown freak-out.

I only have to see Dean once more, and that’s it. He’s just a guy. There’s no reason to be getting this worked up about some guy.

But he is. And he doesn’t know how to fix it.

Castiel stays at his desk for another ten minutes, just focusing on calming himself down as he runs through his end-of-work-day routine, then packs his bag and hightails it out of the building. It’s dark outside now, and he pulls down the sleeves of his coat and hunches his shoulders as he makes his way through the crowds of people either on their way home as well, or going out for the night. He’s giving off a definite ‘don’t talk to me’ vibe, and he’s fine with that.

What he’s not fine with is this anxious mood continuing on for the whole night. There’s one person he knows who’s always been able to calm him down and distract him, and he pulls his phone out as he gets onto the subway.

C: Are you free tonight? I could really use some company.

It’s only a minute before he gets his reply—bless his best friend.

I: For sure. Want me to bring some Chinese takeout?

Despite all the turmoil swirling around in his head, Castiel grins down at his phone.

C: What kind of question is that? You bring the takeout, I’ll provide some alcohol, and your Netflix is still logged onto my TV. Perfect night.

I: Freeloader.

I: I’ll see you in twenty.

Thank god for Inias. His shoulders feel a tiny bit lighter the rest of the way home—hanging out with Inias will hopefully be the distraction he needs to stop thinking about tomorrow. About Dean.

Castiel shakes his head as he walks, trying to clear it. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. It’s easier said than done.

Once he’s home, he has a quick tidy—not that anything is ever really untidyin his apartment—before Inias arrives. Usually he’d go digging for some snacks so that he feels like he’s playing the proper host, but tonight he just doesn’t have the energy or the impulsion. Instead, he pulls a bottle of tequila down from the top shelf of his cupboard and calls it a day.

“You really are trying to replace me with plants,” is the first thing Inias says when he walks in, Chinese takeout bag in hand. “Please don’t tell me that there’s a doll made out of ivy and flowers and shit in my room. If you miss me, all you have to do is invite me over.”

Castiel gives him an unimpressed look, but he can’t help that his lips twitch upwards in a tiny smile. “Shut up, I’m not that bad,” he mutters, closing the door behind Inias. “Give it another year or two of solitary living, and then we’ll see.”

Inias laughs and sets the bag down on the coffee table, beside the tequila. “Touché, my friend. We’re drinking hard tonight, are we? What’s the occasion?”

And just like that, Castiel’s tiny smile disappears. “I’m having my second tattoo appointment tomorrow,” he says quietly, slumping down onto the couch beside Inias. “My mind won’t… stop thinking about it. About Dean. But he’s a sub, Inias, I—I can’t.”

His friend gives him a sympathetic look. “I can’t pretend to imagine what’s going on in your head, Cas, but whatever happens, I’m sure tomorrow is going to be fine. You’re overthinking things. And I know how we can fix that, when all other methods have failed.” He grins as he reaches for the tequila bottle and pours Castiel out a shot. “Let’s get drunk enough that you forget about pretty subs with green eyes.”

At this point, Castiel is too desperate to care that Inias is teasing him about Dean, and about how much he had told his friend the day after the first appointment. He just wants to stop thinking.

“Deal,” he says, and reaches for the shot.

~

He wakes up in the morning with, inevitably, quite the hangover.

Inias went home late last night, he remembers, saying something about still having to work tomorrow. He’d gone to the effort of making sure Cas made it to bed though, if the pajamas and bottle of water on his bedside table are anything to go by. Upon closer inspection, there’s also a bottle of aspirin and a little note that says: For hungover Cas. From drunk Inias.

At least Inias had been less of a mess than Castiel had, though. He’d gone hard last night, fueled by nerves and the need to dull his worries for a while, and now he’s paying for it with a throbbing headache.

Thank god his appointment isn’t until the afternoon, and he’s going to have some time to become slightly more human again before he has to face Dean.

“Fuck,” Cas groans, rubbing a heavy hand over his face and shutting his eyes again against the too-bright light. Drunk Cas had made some stupid decisions last night, regarding his alcohol intake.

He lies in his bed for what feels like hours but is probably only an extra twenty minutes, and finally manages to find the motivation to get himself up. It’s immediately a mistake; the world wobbles, and Cas has to steady himself against his nightstand as the world spins. Water and aspirin first, then. The water is so good for his parched mouth that he finishes the entire bottle, and that certainly helps him rejoin the land of the living a little more. By the time he’s visited the bathroom, had some more water and pulled on a bathrobe, he’s definitely feeling a little better.

This is the last time he drinks with Inias without having a completely free schedule the next day, though. He’s clearly starting to get too old for the partying stuff that came so easily during his college years.

Breakfast is a black coffee and a half-assed meal of eggs and bacon and whatever the hell else he can find around his kitchen and throw into a pan. The smell makes him feel worse for a little while, but once he gets all of it into his stomach and he’s feeling a bit more settled, it definitely helps.

He still has several hours until he has to meet with Dean. Cas looks down at his half-completed tattoo as he nurses his second mug, and wonders if it would be possible to just leave it as is.

He had a vision though, he and Dean both, and he also knows himself well enough to be sure that the half-finished tattoo is only going to remind him of Dean more every time he looks at it. No, it’s better to get it finished, close this… whatever he feels towards Dean, and move on, and it’s that thought that keeps him going as he tidies his apartment, puts himself through some very low-effort yoga, shaves his beard growth and finally gets dressed for his appointment.

Just a few more hours, and then he can put Dean behind him.

He leaves the house in a pair of jeans and a short-sleeved button-down that he’d bought and never worked up the courage to wear, with his tan trench coat thrown on haphazardly at the last minute. It’s the first time in a while that he’s almost left the house without being properly covered, and he blames the oversight on his upcoming appointment and all the thoughts swirling around in his head right now.

It doesn’t take long to get to the tattoo studio that he so vividly remembers—except he’s early, because he’d been a ball of nervous energy at home and had ended up leaving just for something to do. It’s certainly better than being late, though. Castiel takes a deep breath in through his nose as he stares up at the sign, then lets his out in a slow exhale and pushes open the door.

This time, the reception area is empty, and Castiel can hear the faint sound of voices coming from the back rooms. It’s more than fine by him—the more time he can spend without having to talk to anyone, the better. He can be in and out, and then forget all about Dean Winchester.

He takes a seat in the waiting area, and his fingers toy anxiously with the hem of his coat while he waits. The painted bird on the opposite wall watches him, and Castiel idly admires the detail to its feathers, the regal arch of its wings, as though every single stroke of the paintbrush has come together into something almost alive.

“Pretty nice, isn’t it?”

The voice startles Castiel out of his thoughts, and he flinches, looking away from the painting to the source of the words.

Dean is standing in the doorway that leads to the back rooms, one shoulder leaning against the wall and his arms crossed loosely over his chest. He’s wearing a t-shirt today, and his sub mark is on full display, dark ink encircling his wrist in a sacred space that none of his tattoos dare touch.

He’s just as beautiful as Castiel remembers, and still just as off-limits.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. “Is it your work?”

Dean nods, but he doesn’t look over at it. Instead, his gaze stays focused on Castiel, his expression soft and open. “Ellen commissioned it from me when I first started working here. Before I started tattooing, I did a lot more traditional art—stuff like that.” He gestures at the bird, then shoves his hands into the pockets of his well-worn jeans. “It’s been a while, though. I don’t know if I could make something quite that pretty with paints these days.”

“I’m sure you could,” Castiel says without thinking. His cheeks flush—he’s caught himself off guard. “I mean—if you could do it back then, you could do it again, surely. You’re talented enough, from what I’ve seen.”

Enough, Novak, what the fuck? Cas digs his nails into his palm, reminds himself that he’s here to get a tattoo and then never see Dean again, not keep flirting with him.

No subs. Not now, not ever.

Dean smiles, one corner of his mouth turning upwards, and it’s lovely but it’s nothing like the full grins that Castiel has seen from him. “Thanks, Cas,” he says, and then he nods his head towards the back room. “Shall we go get started?”

Castiel rises from his seat and follows Dean through to the tattoo stations. Jo is in there, along with an older lady who Dean introduces as Ellen, and who gives Castiel a onceover that seems to pierce through any kind of defenses he could have had up. It feels very much like what Inias has described in the past as a ‘protective mom’ expression. Both Jo and Ellen are with clients, though, so Dean leads Castiel past them and over to the tattooing station right up the back, away from the others and the low buzz of the tattoo guns.

“How’s the tattoo healing up so far?” Dean asks as he takes his seat, setting up the last of his space before he returns his full attention to Castiel. “Can I see?”

Taking off his coat feels a little easier than it had the first time Castiel had come here, but it’s still so hard to expose his mark to anyone, especially when it carries so much weight and is having such an impact on his relationship with Dean. Still, he forces himself to shove all that down and to be fucking professional, and so he pulls off the trench coat and neatly folds it, placing it on a clear bench area where it won’t get in the way of Dean’s work.

Dean reaches out for Castiel’s arm when he sits back down, and for a second his gaze flicks up to Castiel’s—as though he’s seeking permission to touch. Castiel swallows, and nods his consent.

This time, the contact is skin to skin, without the barrier of Dean’s gloves between them. Dean’s fingers are gentle, careful, as he tilts Cas’s forearm this way and that to get an idea of how the tattoo is healing. “It’s looking good,” he says finally, looking up with a grin. “You must have been taking real good care of it. I’ll be able to finish the rest up today, and then you’ll be good to go.”

They get Castiel positioned on the chair on his stomach so that Dean can access his elbow, and then he tries his best to relax while Dean pulls on his gloves and arranges his ink. The next time Dean touches him, it’s with a latex barrier between them, and Cas hates how much he hates it. Soon enough, though, Dean gets started on the tattooing itself, and the pain of that provides Castiel with more than enough distraction.

“I like your shirt.”

Or so he’d thought.

When he looks up in surprise, Dean is still tattooing, inking in the details in the flower of life that’s forming on his elbow and hurts like a motherfucker, but there’s the tiny hint of a smile curling his lips. “What?” Castiel asks, and Dean carefully finishes the line he’s working on before he pauses and meets Castiel’s eyes.

“Your shirt,” he says, making a small gesture with the now-inert tattoo gun. “It’s nice. Brings out your eyes… and your real nice arms.”

It’s not overly flirtatious. Not forced, or leering, or in any way ‘too much.’ It’s a genuine compliment, with the smallest hint of flirtation, and Castiel really doesn’t know what to do about this. Dean is still being friendly and charming, even though Castiel had tried his best to close him out last time (in a way that had given the poor artist whiplash, he’s sure, but that couldn’t be avoided). The world is so fucking unfair to have put that band around his wrist and that chemistry in his brain.

But that’s the reality of it, and it’s imperative that, as a Dom, Castiel doesn’t overstep.

“Thank you,” he says carefully, pillowing his cheek on his other forearm so that he can watch Dean better. “I bought it a long time ago, but… I think this is the first time I’ve ever worn it.” Not too flirty, but not too cold. Fuck, this is hard.

Dean’s smile widens, almostto the stage where it had been last time—wide and bright and genuine. “Well, you should definitely wear it more often. Not that I’m an authority on dress sense or anything, since half my wardrobe is flannels and jeans, but…” He shrugs. “I can appreciate a nice shirt on a good-looking guy.”

There’s that blush on his cheeks again, barely visible beneath the lights but definitely there. Castiel doesn’t know how to respond to that compliment at all—his automatic reaction is to flirt back, but he can’t, he needs to keep a handle on himself because he’s a Dom and Dean is far, far too good for him.

He gives Dean a tight smile and quietly says, “Thank you,” once more, then lowers his gaze from Dean’s in a clear end to the conversation.

There’s a distinct pause, a quiet sound that might be a sigh, and then the gun hums to life once more and Dean gets back to work.

They don’t talk very much, after that—Dean is too focused on the tattoo, and Castiel is doing his best to ignore the pain that radiates from his arm. He distantly registers the sounds of Jo and Ellen finishing up with their clients and leaving for a lunch break, and then it’s just him and Dean and the unspoken tension that has settled heavily between them.

There’s so much he wants to say to Dean, so much he wants to know about him and his life, and biting his tongue is one of the hardest things he’s done. The pain is both a blessing and a curse, because it distracts him from the beautiful artist, but his resolve to stay quiet means that he has nothing else to focus on. He suffers through it in silence, not thinking about how close Dean is, or the touch of gloved fingers on his skin—

Or the fact that he’s going to be carrying around a piece of Dean in the art on his body for the rest of his fucking life.

His chest feels too tight, as though it’s being crushed against the chair, and he can’t breathe. The room feels as though it’s swimming in front of his eyes, and he hasn’t experienced anything like this since—well, since his eighteenth birthday.

He tries to fight through it, tries to keep his breathing steady even past the constriction of his throat and the steel bands pulling his chest tighter and tighter, but he can’t, he can’t, and then—

And then Dean’s gloved hands are on his face, holding him steady even as he crouches down beside the chair, concern in those green eyes. “Cas,” he says, and then again, more forcefully. “Cas.”

The tattoo gun is off. He has no idea how long it’s been off, or whether Dean has tried to get his attention before this, or really anything else that’s been happening. All that he knows is that he can’t breathe.

“C’mon, sit up for me,” Dean says, and he’s withdrawn into such a viscerally panicked part of himself that his instincts buck at the order, but he forces himself to move, guided by Dean’s steady hands. Sitting up, it’s a little easier to breathe, but he still feels as though he’s sucking in gulps of air that still aren’t enough. What is wrong with him?

“Cas, hey, look at me.”

The gloves are gone now, and it’s just Dean’s steadying hands, one cupping his face and the other gripping his shoulder. Castiel forces himself to meet Dean’s eyes.

“Can you breathe? Try and take a deep breath in with me…”

He inhales shakily.

“And out.”

They repeat that once, twice, three times, until his chest doesn’t feel quite so tight. Castiel leans into Dean’s hands just a little, and watches as Dean’s gaze drops to his forearm, to the Dom mark and the half-finished tattoo, then lifts back up to Cas’s eyes. “What should I do, Cas?” he asks, his voice soft but firm. “How can I help?”

There’s an I don’t know perched on the tip of his tongue, because he doesn’t know, he doesn’t even know why he’s reacting like this, but—

There’s something in Dean’s eyes that is asking for a real answer, and something in Castiel’s mind that is demanding he give one.

“Water,” he says, his voice rough and shaky. “A glass of water, please.”

Dean pulls away, but it feels like his hands linger for a moment before dropping. “Hot or cold?”

Who asks for a glass of hot water? “Cold,” Castiel says, and Dean disappears to another room with quick efficiency, returning barely a minute later with a glass of water. Something about it unknots just a little of the tension that’s coiled tight around his chest.

“Thank you, Dean,” he says gratefully, taking the glass from Dean’s hand and draining half of it in one go. Dean lingers until he’s stopped drinking, his hands clasped loosely behind his back.

“Do you want me to sit next to you, or back on my stool?” Dean asks once Castiel has paused for breath, and there’s nothing pushy or insistent about it, just a calm openness. Patient. Waiting.

Next to me. “On your stool is fine,” Castiel murmurs, and he half expects to see disappointment on Dean’s face, but he shows no such signs as he takes a seat, close enough to Castiel that their knees are almost touching.

A few moments pass, in which Castiel tries to steady his breathing, and finishes the rest of his water. Dean takes the empty glass before Cas can even say anything, setting it aside and away from his tattooing equipment. “How are you feeling now?” he asks.

Surprisingly, when Castiel actually thinks about it, a lot of the tension and panic has eased. He feels calmer. More centered. “I… better, I think,” he answers tentatively. “I have no idea what caused that, I’ve never—I haven’t experienced it in a long time.”

Dean hums quietly, his head tilted and soft gaze watching Castiel. “Were you worried about today?” he asks, and that is not the question Castiel had been expecting.

“How did—“ he starts, and then cuts himself off, because he doesn’t want to offend Dean, but the artist just shrugs, and there’s a small smile on his lips.

“I’m pretty perceptive sometimes. You’re getting your Dom mark covered up, basically, and once you saw I was a sub, it was like you’d flipped a switch. You’ve been tense this whole session, to the point where you had a panic attack, and the thing that helped calm you down was for you to give me orders in the guise of questions. I can start to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Dean knows. He knows all about how fucked up Castiel is, how dangerous and broken he is because of the mark on his skin. It’s fucking terrifying, and he can feel himself tense again, his fight-or-flight mode activated.

A warm, grounding hand rests on his knee. 

“Cas,” Dean says, and there’s a hint of weight to it that makes Castiel pause. “I’m not here to judge you or psychoanalyze you or whatever. Your past is your past. But I really like you, and I want to help you not be so… so afraid. Or at least so wound up and suppressed that you have a panic attack because you haven’t Dommed for anyone in… what, a year?”

Castiel flinches. “Never,” he says quietly, and Dean’s eyes widen. He gives a low whistle.

“Well, then. Even more important, I guess.”

Cas looks down at his hands; clenches them into fists. He’s seen what a Dom’s hands can do. He won’t inflict that on anyone. “Dean, I…” He trails off. How does he explain everything to someone he barely knows? Someone he was interested in? There’s no possible way to do it, not when he’s walled himself off to the idea of taking a sub or talking about this with anyone who’s not Inias and a bottle of vodka.

Dean’s hand gives his knee a quick squeeze, and then he lets it fall away. “The offer is there if you need it. Having a sub doesn’t need to be about sex or pain or any of that, you know. There are lots of other options. But the longer you leave it, the more it’s gonna fuck with your head.” He smiles at Castiel, slow and sad, and then seems to shake himself. “Fuck, enough of the downer talk. You paid for a tattoo, not a therapist. Are you feeling any better now, or do you want to put the rest of the tattoo off for another time?”

There’s a lot going on in Castiel’s head right now, but he tries to shut most of it out and focus on what he’s feeling. He can breathe again, the squeezing grip around his chest has loosened, and the room itself has stabilized once more to the point where it no longer feels like it’s spinning. “I feel better,” he confirms, and tries not to think about Dean’s theory and the fact that he’d been giving Dean indirect orders.

Studies have shown that the most common solution to combat a withdrawal is to become involved with a submissive, or to fulfil the biologically Dominant part that is being ignored in some way.

“I think I’m good to keep going,” he tells Dean, resisting the urge to fidget beneath his gaze. The half-finished tattoo on his elbow still aches, and he doesn’t think the pain is going to be able to distract him, but he really just wants to get this appointment over with. He has a lot to think about when he gets home.

Dean watches him for a long moment, his eyes narrowed and scrutinizing, but eventually gives a small nod. “Alright,” he says, but holds up a stern finger. “But if you need me to go slower, or to stop and take a break, or anything, you tell me.” There’s something in his smile that Castiel can’t quite decipher, something amused but a little bit sad. “Communication, Cas. That’s what’s important.”

~

They keep going, and Castiel makes sure to breathe and tell Dean if they need to pause. There’s less tension in his muscles now, since Dean had correctly guessed that he was anxious and they’d unknowingly worked through it together, so it’s much easier to relax as he lies on his stomach on the chair and lets Dean work.

By the time Dean sits back in his chair and wipes over the skin of Castiel’s arm one last time, it feels like both a second and an eternity have passed. Cas blinks, then focuses on Dean’s face, and that grin.

“You’re all done. Want to have a look?”

It’s beautiful. Castiel can’t stop looking at it, turning his arm to look at the dandelions, the flower of life, the black ink in the negative spaces and the thin lines banding across his bicep. For the first time in years, his eyes don’t go straight to his mark. In fact, it’s as though it’s not even there.

“Thank you,” he breathes, and he’s a little embarrassed that there are tears in his eyes. Dean just claps a hand to his shoulder and smiles.

They square up the payments, and Dean gives him instructions on how to care for his healing tattoo, but before they say goodbye, Dean hands him a card—one side with his number on it, and the other side bearing a familiar-looking geometric pattern that Castiel had last seen in pieces at the bottom of his trash can. His stomach churns guiltily, but when he meets Dean's gaze, there's no judgement there.

Communication.

“If you ever need me, call me.” Dean’s voice is serious. “I’ve seen what happens when people ignore their biology like you are, and it’s never good. I’m happy to help you out—like I said, it can be as simple as it was earlier. Just… think about it. Please.” 

Against his better judgement, Castiel says, “I will.”

He leaves with the card burning a hole in his wallet once more. With Dean’s words on a loop in his mind, sleep takes a long time to come that night.

Chapter Text

The card sits innocuously on Castiel’s nightstand.

He’s not sure whether keeping it there is a good decision or a bad one. On the one hand, it reminds him of Dean every time he looks at it—of green eyes and a warm smile and a pull that he should be resisting, that he has denied himself ever since he found out what he is and what he has the capability to do. On the other hand…

On the other hand, he’s read the books. He’s started to feel the effects of keeping his biology suppressed, and he’s not keen to return to the clawing, panicked anxiety that had gripped him during his last tattoo session.

So he leaves the card there—inertia is easier than change—and tries his best not to think about it.

He goes over to Inias’s apartment the next night.

“So? How did it go with green-eyes? What was his name, Dean?”

Castiel looks down at his hands where they’re resting on the counter, as though he can see through the fabric of his long sleeves to the wrapped tattoo beneath. “It was… not what I expected,” he hedges, because it still feels a little too raw to talk about.

Inias raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t press. Doesn’t pry. Just waits.

Cas could very easily change the topic, and Inias would let it go, but… the things Dean said to him have been circling around in his brain for the last twenty-four hours, and he’s starting to feel like he’s going to start going mad if he doesn’t get it off his chest.

“I think I had a panic attack,” he admits quietly. His gaze stays fixed on the table, fingers worrying at the cuff of his sleeve. “I was trying not to be weird about the fact that he was a sub, even though I was definitely feeling weird about it, and I got so caught up in my head and suddenly I just—I couldn’t breathe. But somehow he noticed and he… helped me through it, I guess. I still don’t understand exactly how, but he talked to me and asked me questions until it kinda… faded?” Castiel laces his fingers together tightly and presses them down against the wood of the counter. “He seemed to think it was because I’m a—because of what I am.”

Inias’s mouth forms a thin, sympathetic line, and he leans forward over his folded arms where they rest on the tabletop. “Has that happened to you before?” he asks, and there’s worry colouring his voice. “The panic attack thing? Because Cas… if it’s getting worse, you should—“

“I’m fine,” Castiel bites out. His knuckles are turning white. “I’m fine, Inias. I’ve dealt with it before, and I’ll keep dealing with it.”

Inias opens his mouth to retort, but before they can get any further in the conversation, Hannah walks into the kitchen. She’s sweet, and Castiel likes her, but she doesn’t know half the things Inias knows about him and he’d like to keep it that way. From the hint of frustration in Inias’s eyes as he backs down, he knows that, and Castiel silently thanks him for not pressing it further. He forces himself to unwind, to relax his shoulders and unclench his hands, smiling as he greets Hannah.

The night wears on, and although they talk about a lot of different things, they don’t return to that topic. Castiel doesn’t tell his friend about the card, or about Dean’s offer.

And he certainly doesn’t confess to, in the darkness of the night, when he feels most alone or when that everpresent itch creeps back under his skin, wanting to take Dean up on it.

~

It’s just over a week before he finally breaks.

Ever since that day, it’s almost constantly been on his mind. Dean, the card, the offer, all of it. He’s done his best to bury it down, but the tension still lingers. He can’t think, can’t sit still, can’t focus on anything, not even work or running or cleaning every fucking inch of his apartment until it’s gleaming. This is the worst he’s ever been, and he knows that. He’s smart enough to recognize it, even if he doesn’t want to accept what the books tried to tell him way back when he started feeling this way.

His biology has him backed into a corner; denying it is only going to perpetuate the spiral.

And Cas knows that, logically, he knows it. He’s seen how couples are portrayed in the media, how they act in real life. There’s a whole range of possibilities out there. But he knows his parents, and he knows what his mom was like, and even though his own brain is against him, he’s still fucking petrified of trying. Just in case… just in case he ends up being like her.

But he’s at the point now where none of his other coping mechanisms are working. He can’t focus enough to do yoga, he can barely concentrate at work and is bending over backwards to avoid snapping at anyone because of it, especiallyAnna. Sometimes, he can’t even sleep for the tension that simmers beneath his skin. The tattoo helps, but it’s hard to hide his own biology from himself when it’s now fucking with his brain during every moment of his day.

So, really, it’s not like he has a lot of options left that aren’t: read self-help books, see a professional, call Dean. And calling Dean seems like the least confronting choice of the three, which is why he’s sitting on his couch at three in the afternoon on a Saturday, staring down at his phone and the business card beside it.

Somehow, picking up his phone and dialing that number feels like one of the most overwhelming, terrifying things he’s done in his life—including packing up and moving across the country to go to college. Calling Dean means acknowledging that he has a problem. Calling Dean means acknowledging that he thinks Dean can solve that problem.

He inhales shakily, closes his eyes for a moment, then forces himself to reach for his phone.

His fingers tremble as he dials the numbers, one by one, and his thumb hovers over the ‘call’ button for what seems like an eternity before he presses it. It rings; once, twice, three times.

“Hey, this is Dean.”

Castiel’s breath catches in his throat. It’s a few moments before he can put his array of thoughts into words. “I—hello. It’s Castiel. From, um. From the tattoo shop?”

There’s a pause on the line, and Castiel holds his breath for one long moment, until—

“Cas! Hey, dude, how are you?”

It’s weird, hearing Dean’s voice after over a week of trying his hardest not to think about him. And for him to answer so casually, as though Castiel actually calling him isn’t one of the biggest, most terrifying things he’s done in his entire life? He doesn’t quite know how to wrap his head around it all right now, so he doesn’t try.

“I’ve been better,” he admits quietly. Forcing those words out is hard—he’s been denying that he has a problem for so long that now, actually facing it feels as though it contradicts every single one of his instincts. “You… you said to call you if I needed you.” Whatever needed you, means—Castiel doesn’t want to think too hard about that right now.

There’s a rustle on the other side of the phone, and when Dean speaks again, his voice is clearer, more serious. “Yeah, of course,” he says. “I’m glad you actually did. You not doing too well?”

“You could say that,” Castiel mutters. “I can’t really sleep, and my moods swing, and I always feel… restless. Like there’s an itch under my skin that I just can’t scratch.”

Dean hums. “Sounds about right, from what I’ve heard. You’ve been actively avoiding your biology, and it’s catching up to you. It’ll keep fucking with you until you do something to fix it.”

That’s certainly what it feels like it’s doing. Castiel may have survived for this long, but it turns out he can’t run from himself forever. Now, it’s all he can do to pray that he never becomes what he resolved never to be. “So it seems,” he says quietly. “So, um… is there anything you can do to help me? I don’t know what exactly, I—I don’t want to hurt you. Whatever you did at the studio seemed to help, though.”

There’s a long pause on Dean’s end of the connection.

“Are you free this evening?”

Castiel frowns—that seems very soon. He’s not sure that he feels ready to jump into anything that quickly. It might be good to get it over with, though, so he doesn’t have to overthink anything. Then, hopefully, he can going back to being normal for as long as he can. “Um. Yes?”

“Good. Give me your address, and I’m going to bring over some stuff so that we can make dinner, then we can have a chat about all this. Sound good?”

Dean is coming over for dinner? When he’d made this call, he’d expected that it would end up in some kind of… dungeon scenario, with whips and leashes and whatnot. He doesn’t really have much to base his perception of dominating off of, after all, other than what he sees in the media, and…

And bruises, and closed doors.

But this is not what he’d been expecting, and it throws him for somewhat of a loop. “Dinner? Dinner, uh, dinner sounds good. And then we’ll talk about… what needs to happen, right? Will we do anything tonight?” He’s nervous, tentative. All of this is foreign territory for him, so he’s relying heavily on Dean.

How long will it be until Dean just gives up on him? He’s barely more than a stranger, and a broken one, at that.

“I don’t know if we’ll do anything tonight,” comes the reply. “We’ll see. Probably just best for us to get to know each other first, yeah?”

“That sounds reasonable. I’ll text you my address, and please let me know if there’s anything you want me to buy before you come over. You are helping me out, after all.”

When Dean replies, it’s so easy to visualize the smile on his face. “Of course. I’ll be over once I’m done with work, probably around five thirty or six.”

“Okay, Dean. I’ll see you then.”

“Bye, Cas.”

Castiel lowers his phone from his ear and presses the ‘end call’ button. He feels like he’s in somewhat of a daze, drifting, floating. He’s spent so many years trying to deny his nature, so that he doesn’t end up just like Naomi. But if he’s slowly spiraling downwards—unable to focus, unable to keep his shit together or stop overthinking things—it’s time for that to change. Even if he only does it once or twice, staves it off for as long as he can before he starts to disintegrate again, it might help.

Dean had said that it can be easy, simple, but all Castiel knows are heavy hands and sharp, cutting words. It’s hard to wrap his head around the idea that… there might be more to dominating than just that.

He drops his phone onto couch and puts his head into his hands. It’s starting to feel like there’s a lot he doesn’t know about his own designation, and he can feel the weight of it crushing him. All the years of hiding, of suppressing, of ignoring… they’re coming back to bite him now.

Castiel can feel his chest tightening, his heartbeat speeding up. Calling Dean may have been a small first step, but it’s still a first step, and it’s terrifying when he doesn’t really know where this is taking him.

All he has to do now, though, is to survive the next few hours. Hopefully Dean will know how to help, and they can make Castiel feel better, and then he can go back to ignoring the dominant side of him for the next handful of years before it all builds up again and the cycle continues.

He takes a deep breath, then exhales.

~

Dean arrives just before six, standing in the hallway of Castiel’s apartment with a bag of groceries and that smile which has consumed Castiel’s thoughts ever since they first met. “Heya, Cas,” he says. “How are you?”

Castiel swallows. He can feel his heart beating in his chest, and the way that his shoulders tense at the sight of this man, whom he has spent so long trying to avoid. Dean is beautiful and Cas isn’t good enough, doesn’t want to break him.

“I’m okay,” he says quietly, and it’s partly the truth, because he is, but he also feels like he’s falling in more ways than one. “It hasn’t been the easiest week, though, and I…” He sighs, rakes a hand through his hair, then admits, “I want to stop feeling like this.”

Dean’s mouth twists in sympathy. “Yeah, dude,” he says, “I get that. Hopefully we can take your mind off it for a bit—I, uh, I brought ingredients for burgers, but I forgot to ask if you were vegetarian or anything like that…?” He trails off, eyebrows raised, forming his statement into a question.

Thankfully, Castiel isn’t, otherwise it would have been an awkward food choice on Dean’s part. He shakes his head, and a tiny smile curls his lips as he watches Dean’s shoulder slump in relief.

“Awesome, dude. I can never understand people who don’t eat meat. It’s not something I could ever do.” He smiles at Castiel for a few seconds, then leans pointedly to the side, looking over Castiel’s shoulder and into his apartment. “You gonna point me towards the kitchen, or am I gonna leave these burgers outside on the pavement and hope for the best?” he asks, his eyes alight with the teasing grin on his face.

How has this man managed to work his way so thoroughly into Castiel’s heart in such a short period of time? Castiel can't keep himself from giving Dean a matching smile in return. “You’re right,” he says, nodding his head. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me. Please, come in—I’ll show you around.”

Dean steps over the threshold and into Castiel’s apartment—toeing his shoes off by the front door when he sees that Cas is barefoot and a few pairs of his shoes are neatly lined up in the entryway. Thoughtful, observant, kind—Castiel is beginning to think that Dean might truly be a perfect man. How is that even possible?

“Nice place you’ve got here,” Dean says as Castiel leads him through to the kitchen. “Just you?”

Why does he want to know? Is it so that they can have privacy? So that Dean can know that whatever he has planned for tonight, they won’t be interrupted? Castiel is in uncharted territory now, and his mind is racing with all the possibilities of what could happen tonight.

“Yes,” he says, trying to quash his errant and tangential thoughts. “My best friend, Inias, used to live with me, but he moved in with his girlfriend a little while ago, so…” Castiel shrugs, idly examining the tips of his spider plant in an effort to prove that he’s unbothered by his lonely living status. “It’s just me.”

Dean sets his bag of groceries down on the countertop and looks around at the array of plants decorating the windowsills, the edges of the counter, even the small dining table a few feet away. “I see,” he says, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips that he seems to be doing a poor job of hiding. “Which explains the plants, I’m guessing?”

“Don’t you get started.” Castiel scowls. “Inias already teases me about it enough without you joining in. I can’t get a damn cat, so this is the closest I can get, okay?”

Dean’s half-hidden smile morphs into a full, wide grin—endearing in a way that Inias never manages to pull off when he’s annoyed Castiel. It must be my messed up brain, Castiel tells himself. Dean is a sub, that’s why I’m less inclined to be mad at him.

Still, he keeps up his fake scowl, even as Dean says, “I’m teasing, I’m teasing, Cas. I like the plants—I can see why you wanted me to add them into your tattoo. Which, how is it healing, by the way?”

The tattoo. Castiel had almost forgotten about it, too distracted by the thought of Dean being in his apartment to remember all of the circumstances of how that actually came to be. “It’s good,” he tells Dean, any simmering irritation immediately fading now that they’re on a different point of conversation. He pushes the long sleeve of his shirt up as far as it will go, to show Dean the bottom three quarters of his forearm. “It was a bit sore for a few days, but it feels good now. I still love it.”

Dean’s smile turns softer as he steps closer to Cas, and he reaches out a hand, then pauses before he makes contact with his skin. “Do you mind?” he asks, eyebrows raised in a question, fingertips hovering over inked skin.

“Go ahead,” Castiel murmurs—too entranced to say anything else even if he wanted to.

The touch of Dean’s fingers on his forearm is explorative, yielding, gentle. He traces the lines of his own artwork, carefully tilts Castiel’s arm this way and that to examine it. His hands are warm, electric. “It’s looking good,” Dean says, and Castiel only catches his words because of the way he’s staring at Dean’s face, memorizing the pattern of his freckles and the plush curve of his lips. “It healed well.”

“I made sure I looked after it,” Castiel replies, the words coming easily and without thought. “It’s far too beautiful to mess up with lack of proper care, and I spent too much money on it.”

Dean laughs, his green eyes dancing. “Aw, shucks,” he says, waving a hand jokingly. “I’m glad you’re happy with it, Cas. I wish all my clients shared your attitude towards tattoos and healing.”

“It’s a piece of art.” Castiel couldn’t even fathom not treating any kind of artwork, no matter its format, with the utmost of respect. “Of course I’m going to preserve it as best I can. It would be a little hypocritical of me to neglect it, given what I do for work,” he muses, and the corner of his mouth turns up in a tiny smile for the first time all day. Even Dean’s presence is settling him, and they haven’t even done anything yet.

Before that thought can circle back to the existential panic that’s laced his thoughts for the past week or so, however, Dean manages to derail him once more. “Yeah, we didn’t get to talk much about your work before,” he says, leaning his hip against the edge of the counter and raising his eyebrows at Castiel. “How about we get started with cooking dinner, and you tell me about it while we work? I don’t know about you, but I’ve barely eaten all day, and I’m fucking starving.

Castiel’s smile widens, brightens. “We can definitely do that.”

It turns out that Dean has bought just about everything they could need for the burgers, despite the fact that Castiel does cook for himself pretty often and already keeps most of the staples in his kitchen. They unpack the grocery bag and set everything out on the counter in front of them. “You work on the meat and I’ll do the other toppings?” Castiel suggests, and Dean gives him a quick grin.

“You’re the boss.”

It’s been a long time since Castiel has cooked with anyone—Inias has never been the biggest fan of home cooking, so Cas was the chef of the house back when they lived together. Now, though, with Dean, they seem to fall into an easy synchronicity. “Where do you keep your frying pans, Cas?” Dean asks, as he washes his hands over the kitchen sink.

Castiel pauses in his slicing of tomatoes and sets his knife down, then moves over to the cupboards beside the stove’s rangehood. “They’re up here,” he points out, opening the doors to show an assortment of pots and pans.

Dean examines them with curiosity. “Which would be best for burgers, do you think?”

Not that Castiel has had much experience with cooking burgers, but if Dean is asking for his opinion… He reaches up and selects a cast iron skillet. “Probably this one,” he says as he hands it to Dean. Their fingers brush as they exchange grips on the handle, and Dean shakes his head, a wry smile curling his lips.

“Nothing beats cooking burgers on a grill, but I guess we’ll just have to make do with this. Unless you feel like setting off all the fire alarms and sprinklers in your apartment?” His smile widens to a grin, and he nods at the zebra cactus on the windowsill. “At least then you wouldn’t have to worry about watering your plants for a while, huh?”

Cas’s brows crease in a frown. “Actually, that would be far too much water for them—most of them are succulents or indoor plants that don’t need very regular watering, that much all at once would give them root rot, and—“

Dean’s lips are twitching now, and there’s a teasing look in his eye. Castiel trails off, then squints accusingly. “You’re making a joke, aren’t you?”

“I was,” Dean agrees, and his tone is casual and relaxed as he turns away and sets the skillet down on the stovetop. “It’s really sweet how much you care for your plants, though. You didn’t want to go into a job related to plants?”

“Plants became a hobby of mine later,” he confesses to Dean, stepping carefully around him with a hand touching lightly against the small of his back, then resituating himself at his chopping board. “When I went to college, I picked the first thing that interested me. I like being orderly, and I like history, and I’m good at using my brain, so I decided to study to become a registrar. I only started getting into plants a year or two ago—not just because Inias moved out, as he likes to insist. I would have gotten a cat or another kind of pet, but…” He shrugs his shoulders sadly. “The apartment building won’t let me. Don’t tell my plants that they were my second option though.”

Dean had been staring at him, lips parted and hands paused in their movements—but he seems to snap back to himself as Castiel finishes talking. He grins, and reaches out to cup his hands around the sides of the zebra cactus in front of him, as though covering its nonexistent ears. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I won’t tell.”

In that moment, Castiel realizes that he trusts Dean, completely and implicitly. It might be a little bit insane, but there’s a pull behind his ribcage that he can’t ignore, a flutter in his chest the likes of which he’s never felt before.

He must be staring, because Dean slowly lowers his hands. For a few long moments, they just watch each other, something unspoken passing between them—

And then there’s a muffled noise up in the ceiling, Cas’s upstairs neighbours ruining the fragile moment, and the spell breaks.

“So, uh,” Dean says, a faint flush colouring his cheeks. “Burgers?”

“Burgers, yes,” Castiel agrees, turning away so quickly that he almost trips himself. “Good idea.”

For the next minute, they work in silence. Cas moves past Dean to get to the oven, letting him know he’s there with a quick touch to his hip as Dean attends to the skillet, and slides his tray of bacon in so that it can grill. When he straightens back up, he finds himself face to face with Dean, who’s turned away from the stove. In the small kitchen area, there’s not much room for them to pass, and they do an awkward side-to-side shuffle for a few moments before Dean bursts into laughter. Cas can’t help but grin. “It doesn’t look like this kitchen is big enough for the both of us, does it?”

Dean shrugs, still chuckling softly. “Doesn’t matter, man. I like cooking with you, it’s been ages since I’ve done this with anyone. Used to do it with my mom, until I moved out here.”

They carefully move around each other, Cas’s fingers against Dean’s side and Dean leaning into the touch just a little, and then step back. Dean picks up the plate of burger patties he’d left on the counter by the fridge. “Your mom cooks?” Castiel asks, moving out of Dean’s way to let him get back to the stove.

“My mom makes the best fucking pie you’ll ever taste,” Dean announces as he drops the burgers into the hot pan, a somewhat dreamy expression on his face. “She’s awesome, dude. I miss her—that’s the one thing that sucked about moving out here to become an artist.”

It occurs to Castiel in this moment that he knows barely anything about Dean. All their conversations have been about him, about his likes, preferences, designation, tattoo. All of it. But Dean? Dean remains a mystery in so many aspects.

He resolves to find out more tonight—to learn what makes Dean tick, and what made him into the person he is today. He’s so curious, in a way that he’s never been about any person he’s ever met.

“You’re going to tell me more about that over dinner,” he tells Dean with a half-smile, watching the way Dean pauses and then nods enthusiastically.

“We can do that.”

They spend the next ten minutes cooking together, Dean monitoring the burgers while Castiel puts together the rest of the toppings. Somehow, Dean always manages to end up just a little bit in Castiel’s way, and he gently moves him without thinking, with a hand to his back or hip or a quietly said “watch out, coming past.”

Even with Dean’s apparent lack of spatial awareness, though, they work well together. Dean is quick to learn the ins and outs of Castiel’s kitchen, asking where things are located or for Castiel’s opinion on this or that. It’s not long before the burgers are done cooking and they’re standing side by side at the kitchen counter, their elbows bumping while they each assemble the burgers.

“These smell fantastic,” Castiel says as he perches his top bun carefully on top of his fillings.

Dean, in contrast, slaps the last few pieces onto his towering monstrosity and grins as he caps it off. “Gotta wait and see if they taste as good as they smell,” he announces, picking up his plate. He dances around Castiel and makes his way over to the small dining table. “You coming or what?”

He looks so comfortable already, seating himself across from where Castiel would usually sit and propping his elbows on the table. Cas’s eyes trail over his bared arms, from the inked designs to the band that encircles his wrist, stark against his skin. Despite the reminder of Dean’s designation, though, the part of him that has self-combusted every time he even thought about being with a sub is… quieter.

“I’m coming,” Castiel mutters, barely holding back his smile. He sits down at the table opposite Dean and sets his plate down, then picks his burger up. It smells divine, but he pauses before tasting it to watch Dean taste his first bite, anticipation thrumming under his skin. He’s not sure why—it’s just a burger, after all—but the please sound that Dean makes as he bites into the meal they made together is more rewarding than Cas had thought it would be.

“Damn, tha’s good,” Dean declares around his mouthful, and this time, Castiel can’t hide his grin. He takes a bite of his own burger, and has to agree. Whatever Dean had put into the patties tastes perfect, and there’s never anything better than a home cooked meal.

They devour their meals in record time, and Dean goes back for a second burger, while Castiel settles for eating the rest of the vegetables he’d cut up as toppings. They find moments to talk while they eat—ravenously, in Dean’s case—and slowly, he manages to unearth a little bit more about Dean. Only small things, here and there, he doesn’t want it to feel too much like he’s prying, but he finds out that Dean moved out to California when he was twenty. His parents (divorced) still live in Kansas, and his little brother is studying to be a lawyer at Stanford. He became a tattoo artist apprentice with his mom’s friend Ellen, and never looked back.

It’s fascinating talking to Dean and learning more about him, but as they finish their meal and set aside their empty plates, Castiel’s thoughts start to creep back in. Dean invited himself over for dinner for a reason—is he going to find out what it is now? Are they going to get into a… a scene, or whatever it’s called?

For all that he’s been thinking about this all day, he doesn’t feel ready for whatever Dean could throw at him. The relaxation that he’s been feeling for the past hour as he’s been cooking and talking with Dean starts to dissipate, and he interlaces his fingers tightly where they’re resting on the table in front of him. “We need to talk,” he says, his voice quiet and serious for the first time in an hour.

Dean raises his eyebrows, giving Castiel his attention. “What about?” he asks, though from the way he shifts in his seat, Cas is pretty sure that he knows exactly the topic of conversation.

“About… you helping me,” he says—he can’t quite get the words out, not yet. “How does this… this thing work? When will we start?”

The corners of Dean’s lips lift in a smile and he leans forward, resting his inked forearms on the table. “Cas,” he says, the picture of casual relaxation, a spark in his eyes that says I know something you don’t. “You already have.”