Thank God, Castiel had remembered to grab the chicken things from his refrigerator that morning. They were probably the only reason that anyone in the department knew who he was or spoke to him at all. It wasn’t that Castiel didn’t like his colleagues—some of them were alright, like Dr. Rowena MacLeod who taught Art History and Donatello, the odd fellow who taught philosophy. Some of them even liked Castiel a bit, like Meg. But mostly, Castiel was invisible.
He did his job, fulfilled his duties, and…that was it.
Taking a deep breath, Castiel approached the door of the empty classroom that had been selected for the potluck. Classes had mostly finished early; very little actual teaching was happening so early in the semester. Even in Castiel’s own classes, which were known to be a tough pass, he was mostly still reviewing what they should already know. Or, at least, what most students should already know. He’d already given up on Nick entirely. Despite the early finish, Castiel had procrastinated, dragging his feet, and was probably one of the last professors to arrive. It was awkward but better than being too early, he figured.
Laden down with the tray of chicken that he’d just pulled from the refrigerator in the break room and microwaved, Castiel didn’t have a hand free to open the door. He was about to do a dangerous one-handed shuffle to try and reach the handle, but the door swung open and saved him.
“Get in here, Cas,” Meg said as she stepped to the side, holding the door. “What are you doing hovering in the hallway?”
“Hands,” Castiel said quietly, realizing how silly he sounded as he lifted the tray in explanation.
“And I suppose just shouting for one of us to open the door would have been too much for you, huh?”
Castiel bristled but didn’t bother answering.
Meg was extra made-up, with bright red lips and her bleached, voluminous hair piled to one side. She must be on the prowl for a new victim, Castiel decided—probably the new archaeology guy. Speaking of…
“Is he here yet?” Castiel asked quietly, stepping past Meg into the room. His nose wrinkled involuntarily; Meg smelled of something sickly and flowery, like the bloom of a carnivorous plant.
She shook her head, pressing a hand into the base of Castiel’s back somewhat unnecessarily as she guided him toward the buffet table that had been set up along the back wall. Music played quietly—Castiel didn’t have a clue what it was, but it was alright, he supposed—and the room was already full, packed with professors, assistants, admin staff, and even the janitorial team. Everyone wanted an eyeful of the new guy, Castiel realized. He couldn’t judge them, though…that was entirely why he was here, too. Nothing else exciting ever happened at Lebanon College.
“I asked HR if he’d confirmed, and they said he was definitely coming. Might be running a bit late though, apparently his plane only got in early this morning.”
“His plane?” Castiel questioned curiously as he set down the chicken things.
“Yes,” Meg purred, in a voice that denoted gossip . “Apparently, he’s quite the well-travelled man. ‘Bout time we had some culture in this redneck hole.”
“Meg!” Castiel chastised. “Kansans aren’t automatically rednecks, you know.”
“Tell that to Cole,” Meg threw back with a cruel smirk.
“Don’t be mean,” Castiel hissed quietly, spotting the bigoted, Civil War-obsessed member of the History department just across the room.
Meg snorted as they moved down the trestle table to where the solo cups and paper plates lurked. “He has a confederate flag on his car. You should switch it out for a pride flag, see if he notices.”
Honestly, Castiel would have loved to do something like that, but he was rather fond of keeping his job.
As if she could tell what he was thinking, Meg grinned. “You know they’d probably assume it was me, anyway.”
“True,” Castiel had to admit, smiling despite himself. He was about to ask Meg how her day had gone, but by the time he’d managed to separate a stubborn paper plate from the stack and raised his gaze, she was staring over his shoulder predatorily. “Target spotted?” he asked dryly.
“Art department has some really hot TAs this year,” she said without an ounce of shame. “I’m going in. Don’t run away, and try to think before you speak, Clarence.”
“Coming from you?” Castiel muttered. By the time he’d extracted a solo cup she was gone, taking her cloying scent with her.
Once Castiel had filled his plate, he loitered awkwardly near the table, chewing his way through the exact same offerings they always had at these things: lukewarm green bean casserole, pineapple and cheese on sticks, burnt weenies, and pasta salad from a box. Around him, conversation buzzed—most of the Humanities folk were social butterflies, or at least better at all this than Castiel was.
He was aware that growing up with his overprotective, religious mother had really done a number on his social skills, but it seemed like the more he tried, the worse it got. So, often, he just didn’t bother.
He’d just given up on choking down any more of the casserole when a burst of laughter bloomed to his right. A group of his colleagues and a few of their assistants were bustling around, suddenly louder and livelier than they had been. Dr. Shurley, Chuck to his friends (Castiel was never quite sure if he was included), was speaking, and the group all tittered and nodded appreciatively in unison.
Castiel turned back to the table and refilled his cup with fruit punch—well, with a ladle full of crappy, canned fruit and something resembling grape juice, anyway—and smoothed out his tie. He could do this. He’d only taken a few steps toward the group when Dr. Shurley spotted him, singling him out before Castiel even had time to finish his internal pep talk.
“Ah-ha, Novak! Now, here’s someone you should meet, Dean. This is Castiel Novak, Professor of Ancient History. You’ll find that your syllabus will intersect with Novak’s quite a—”
Dr. Shurley was still talking, somewhere in the background, but Castiel’s brain shut down everything else around him the moment the crowd parted.
He felt his own fingers clench and became vaguely aware of a wet splash near his boots, but Castiel didn’t bother to look. His gaze was fixed on six feet of bowed legs, freckles, and biceps, all topped off with a charming grin that was directed wholly at Castiel.
“Dean Winchester,” the newcomer said, extending a hand towards Castiel with a little chuckle, as if Castiel had done something amusing. He was staring at Castiel very intently, his expression excited in a way that was utterly confusing.
Next to Dr. Shurley was… Castiel shook his head. Was this real? Sure, he’d fantasized about this a bunch of times, but usually his dreams didn’t feature Chuck goddamn Shurley .
No, this was definitely real life. The fruit punch seeping into his sock through the hole in the bottom of his shoe confirmed that.
Castiel was standing in the same room as Dean “Hunter” Winchester. He was…he was talking to him. Damn it.
“Hello, Dean,” Castiel managed to say.
I’ve thought about you with my dick in my hand, he managed not to say…even Castiel’s social skills were better than that. Most times, anyway.
Castiel was never going to be able to jerk off to Hunter’s videos again—how mortifying.
Registering too late that Dean had his hand out for Castiel to shake, Castiel raised his hand only when Dean was already withdrawing his. Embarrassed, Castiel brought his fingers to wrap around his crushed punch cup instead, along with his other hand.
“Let me help you with that,” Dean said, still grinning. He pushed past Castiel to the buffet table and grabbed a handful of mismatched party napkins, returning in two confident strides. “It’s nice to finally meet you, I gotta say.”
Castiel’s brain didn’t quite process the words that were being directed at him, because Hunter— Dean— bent down, helpfully scooping a stray canned cherry off the top of Castiel’s shoe.
Looking down at him, Castiel’s brain short-circuited.
Hunter is on his knees in front of me, and I just dropped my cherry.
Castiel waited, hoping that a sudden earthquake would split the ground and swallow him up. They didn’t get a ton of those in Kansas, but surely he was due some good luck?
It was definitely Hunter, no two ways about it. Dean might be dressed slightly differently from how Castiel was used to seeing him—a royal blue suit with a paler blue shirt beneath and a matching, textured tie rather than an unbuttoned plaid shirt, khakis, and a hat—but there was no way that the deliberately roughed-up, sandy hair and those captivating green eyes could belong to anyone else. And those lips…well, Castiel had descriptions for those lips that he was trying not to think about, now that Hunter—Dean—was actually on his knees before him.
Dr. Shurley and his colleagues had all started talking amongst themselves again—after all, Castiel’s awkward, embarrassing behavior was nothing new to them, so they let him get on with it. Castiel wasn’t sure if that was humiliating in its own right, or if he was just glad not to have an audience.
Straightening up, Dean touched Castiel’s elbow lightly as he gestured toward the table. “Why don’t we fill that up again for you while I get some food,” he suggested amiably, totally unbothered by Castiel’s clumsy introduction. “Last thing I ate was airplane food—took a nap and barely had time to make the pie I promised to bring before I had to hurry here. The traffic was a bitch, too.”
Castiel clutched his slightly crushed plastic cup desperately as Dean refilled it. He should say something, he decided, before realizing he was entirely tongue-tied.
Dean smiled at him patiently while he shoveled food onto his paper plate.
Words. Right. Castiel remembered those.
“You’re Hunter,” Castiel blurted out. Fuck, not those words! He could feel his own cheeks burning—great.
Castiel rarely cussed, but at that moment his inner monologue was giving Meg a run for her money.
Dean ducked his head, looking about as uncomfortable as Castiel felt. He let go of the casserole serving spoon and raised his hand to rub self-consciously at his mouth. “It’s, uh, it’s Dean, actually. Here. I mean, everywhere, but I mean I don’t—”
“Right,” Castiel said. His face seemed to have taken it upon itself to heat Castiel’s entire body. “I—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“Nah, man, it’s cool,” Dean said quickly, waving his hand and returning to the casserole. “I’m just nervous enough without anyone thinking that the only reason I got this job is because I stood in front of a camera, y’know?”
Castiel frowned a little at that. “I’m sure no one thinks that. Honestly, I’m sure most people have never heard of you.”
“Thanks?” Dean said slowly, sounding unsure.
“I mean—” Castiel squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before looking down at his solo cup for help. A lone, traitorous cherry bobbed in the juice, mocking him.
“It’s okay,” Dean said, that warm chuckle in his voice again.
Absolutely none of the fantasies Castiel had indulged in late at night had gone like this. Hell, there wasn’t much talking in those at all—they were usually naked by now.
Okay—more words, less thinking about his new coworker naked.
“Airplane food?” Castiel asked. He wasn’t quite sure if that was really a question, but thankfully Dean seemed to take it as one.
“Yeah, I just flew back from South America with Sam—that’s my brother, he does all the camera work and tech stuff. We’d been filming a couple of new videos.”
“So, you’re still planning to do them?” Castiel asked, chancing a look back up as his vocal cords seemed to be back under control. It was a mistake; Dean was looking right at him with his stunning, vividly green eyes that the camera had certainly not done justice.
They stared for a lingering moment before Dean yanked his gaze back to the shitty potluck table. “Uh, yeah—yeah. For sure. Just less often, only during vacations and stuff.”
“I’m glad,” Castiel said. “I mean—I like them. Your videos, I mean.”
“Gathered that,” Dean said with a shit-eating grin that had Castiel thinking about earthquakes again. “I’m glad, though. It’s always nice to meet someone that’s seen them. Bit nerve-wracking that you have, though.”
“Me? Why?” Castiel spluttered.
“Well, you’re a professor of ancient history and all that,” Dean said with a shrug that just might have appeared self-conscious on just about anyone else. “There’s a chance you were actually paying attention to what I was doing and saying, rather than just waiting for me to take my shirt off.”
Castiel gulped, willing his cheeks to stop getting hotter and hotter. Stop it, stop it.
“Ahh,” Dean said knowingly, his grin only growing more wicked. “Both, then,” he added with a smooth wink.
“I—I should—” Hideously embarrassed, Castiel ducked his head and took a step back. He didn’t finish the sentence, but inside his mind it definitely went, “I should run away and die now. ”
Dean reached forward immediately, reaching for Castiel’s arm, all trace of amusement gone from his face, replaced instead with something like…worry? Or regret? His hand only brushed the sleeve of Castiel’s jacket, but Castiel would have sworn the touch burned through to his skin, anyway.
“Don’t go,” Dean said, quieter. “I’m sorry. That’s just…habit. I guess. How about you tell me about your syllabus? Shurley said your classes would probably mesh really well with what I’m going to be teaching.”
That, at least, was something Castiel could speak on with confidence. They moved to the side, finding a spot against the wall where Castiel could sip his revolting punch while Dean worked his way through his plate.
“Mmmm,” Dean moaned happily. “This chicken is great.”
“I’m glad you like them,” Castiel managed. “I’d be careful of the casserole though, it sticks to your teeth.”
Dean laughed—though Castiel had only been telling the truth—and things were easier.
Castiel spoke at length about his carefully crafted plan for the year, eagerly sharing his most amusing anecdotes about the civilizations his students would be studying, easily slipping into the same headspace that he did when he taught.
“Their writing and mathematics systems were so advanced for the time—did you know that the Maya were the only culture on the American continent to create the number zero?”
Dean smiled crookedly. “Yeah, I did,” he said.
With a swoop of humiliation in his belly, Castiel realized that it was the first thing that Dean had said for long minutes. He’d merely been staring at Castiel—probably overwhelmed and bored by the dork in front of him, but too polite to say so. And now, here Castiel was telling him things that of course he knew; the Maya and Aztecs were Hunter’s favorite ancient civilizations, he often said so in his videos.
“God, I’m sorry—” Castiel began apologizing, stuttering awkwardly.
Dean didn’t get to say whatever his lips were parting to say, and Castiel didn’t get to apologize any further. To their left, a gaggle of Castiel’s colleagues swooped in, vying for Dean’s attention.
“I hope you don’t plan to keep Dean to yourself all night,” Lisa from HR purred, giving Castiel a friendly little wink. Her hand, though, went straight to Dean’s forearm as she let out a breathy little laugh.
“That wouldn’t be fair to any of us,” Lydia from the arts building joined in, gesturing across the room. “Why don’t you come with us and meet the rest of the ladies, Dean?”
Dean greeted them with an easy grin, but his eyes flicked back over his shoulder to Castiel as he was abruptly hustled away. “Nice to meet you, Cas,” Dean said, leaving him with a smaller smile.
“Yes, of course,” Castiel said quietly, mostly to himself. Hearing Dean shorten his name familiarly was unreasonably pleasant, but Castiel’s stomach was still in embarrassed knots.
He wished he could scrap the whole evening and start again.
Drifting back toward the food table to dispose of his cup, Castiel decided to try and slip out before anyone else attempted conversation with him, for everyone’s sake. He stepped aside to let Garth, one of the TAs, squeeze past him next to the dessert table. As he waited, Castiel looked down and saw that there was a lone slice of golden, sugary apple pie sitting in a big, round Tupperware container.
Dean said he brought pie, Castel’s brain unhelpfully provided.
Tempted, and seeing no one else reaching for it, Castiel decided to help himself to the last slice of the delicious-looking, clearly homemade pastry. It was a traditional apple pie with a touch of cinnamon, and the smell of it made Castiel’s mouth water in comparison to the rubbery chicken and green bean casserole he’d begrudgingly chewed through earlier.
Biting into the pie, Castiel couldn’t help but let out a pleased moan. The pie was fantastic. He’d humiliated himself multiple times in front of his crush and coworker, but a pie like this made the day seem like less of a disaster.
Opening his eyes once he’d finished slowly savoring the mouthful of pastry, Castiel blushed again as he realized that Dean was looking straight at him from across the room. He was sandwiched between Lisa and Lydia, who were both chatting animatedly, but his gaze cut through the crowd to land on Castiel.
Bad enough that Dean probably thought that Castiel was a fannish, obsessive weirdo, now he was drooling all over the man’s baked goods. Poor Dean probably thought he had finally escaped him, but here he was, loitering in his eyeline. Feeling his flush grow more intense, Castiel dropped his eyes down to the table.
He should go. What he wanted, of course, was to talk to Dean again—have some kind of excuse to approach him and apologize for his awkwardness, see if maybe they could start afresh. But he had no good reason to interrupt Dean when he was having a good time with the adoring ladies of the staff.
Sighing, Castiel glumly swallowed down the last of the delicious pie and began to move the Tupperware off to the side, out of the way.
He looked down at the container in his hands.
He could… no.
No, he couldn’t. “Accidentally” taking Dean’s Tupperware home so that he’d have an opportunity to stop by his room on Monday to return it was utterly insane.
Another few seconds passed while Castiel endured a staredown with an inanimate object.
Oh, what the hell.
“Dean!” Sam called loudly through the front door, drawing Dean’s head up from the depths of the cardboard box he was buried in. “We’re here!”
“Coming!” Dean yelled. Then he sighed, pushing the flaps of the box shut once more. It was labeled “Bedding,” but so far he’d found old DVDs, a dead potted plant, and a ladle.
“Oh, you brought food!” Dean cooed in delight, his mood doing an immediate 180 as he walked out of the bedroom to greet Sam, Eileen, and the bags of Chinese food they were carrying into his new apartment.
“Of course we did!” Sam said as he lifted the bag he’d been cradling in his elbow up to the countertop. “It’s a bribe, so you’ll stop anxiety-unpacking and tell us all about the college and your first meeting with your new co-workers.”
Eileen, walking demurely behind her overexcited puppy of a fiance, raised her hand in a wave once she’d placed the second bag next to Sam.
“Hey, you,” Dean signed, stepping past Sam to give her a massive hug before he pulled back to add, “Long time, no see.”
“It’s been too long,” she agreed. “But hey, your signing is getting better!”
Dean preened, looking proudly over at Sam, who had his head bent over one of the Chinese food bags, digging around for chopsticks. He hit his head on the low-hanging light over the island as he straightened back up, letting out a string of curses.
Okay, not a puppy. Or not unless he was a Malamute.
A few minutes of scurrying back and forth around the kitchen, locating the things Dean had already put away amongst the piles of things he hadn’t, and then they were contentedly rifling through the containers and scooping noodles onto plates.
“How do you have three ladles but no bowls?” Sam asked, lifting up his container of wonton soup and slurping from the edge.
“I dunno,” Dean said, shrugging. “Some of this stuff has been in storage since I finished college. I never got around to unpacking fully before we’d be heading off somewhere again. I didn’t have an incredibly patient college sweetheart with a working kitchen to come home to, unlike some people.”
Eileen wrinkled her nose and put down her chopsticks to sign along as she said, “You’re assuming that I cook. Ever. That’s Sam’s job.”
“That’s my girl,” Dean said with a wink, picking up an egg roll and pointing at her with it. “Make him work for it.”
Sam made an exasperated noise before he abandoned them to step into the living room and sprawl over half of Dean’s faded, floral couch. Resting his plate on his knees, he called back, “Dean, you need a coffee table.”
“Yeah, I know,” Dean grumbled. “Hopefully IKEA will deliver soon, so I won’t have to serve people on box furniture or sit on flowery cast-offs from Bobby and Karen anymore.”
“I thought this couch was a bit ‘nineties Pottery Barn’ for your tastes. Who are you planning on having over, though? You know we don’t care.”
Dean shrugged as he made his way toward Sam, kicking a box of books into a spot opposite the couch and lowering himself down onto it, leaving the space next to Sam for Eileen. Apparently, shrugging was a poor move, because Sam’s eyebrows rose, wandering their way up his large forehead thoughtfully.
Eileen smacked Dean on the shoulder on her way past. “So, there’s a particular someone you want to invite over?”
Dean blinked, spreading his hands in amazement. “What the hell? How’d you get that from a shrug?”
“If there wasn’t anyone, you’d have made a crude, overcompensating comment about women with huge boobs,” Sam pointed out smugly, pointing with both his chopsticks. “You know it.”
Dean rolled his eyes and laughed a little as Sam put down his food to translate for Eileen. Her eyes lit up and she nodded in agreement.
“Great, now you get to double-team me. Should’ve stayed in the jungle.”
“This non-existent, theoretical person—or persons, of course—that you want to hang out with,” Sam said, dripping with faux-sincerity, “wouldn’t happen to be a particular professor and historian by the name of something-or-other Novak, would it?”
“Castiel,” Dean corrected, rolling his eyes before turning his attention very firmly down to his sweet and sour chicken.
There was a moment of silence where Dean could feel Sam and Eileen staring at the top of his head. Eventually, two whole bites of delicious crispy, pillowy chicken later, Dean raised his gaze.
“So, you met...Castiel? I take it?” Sam asked, not even attempting to keep a straight face, the little shit.
“Yes, actually, I did.”
Eileen nudged Sam and signed something in his direction that Dean couldn’t quite follow, but could certainly guess at from Sam’s response.
“Oh, yes,” Sam replied, nodding gleefully. “That’s the one. Dean has all his past papers saved on his laptop. Every time there’s a new, relevant journal published, the first thing he does is search down the list of contributors. He googles him.”
Turning to Dean, Eileen asked, “But you didn’t know what he looked like or how old he was, right? How come you didn’t find that from searching?”
Dean looked warily at Sam before giving up and explaining, “He always publishes as C. Novak and that’s it. I wasn’t even sure which pronouns were right for a long time. Then, when I started googling, I realized that it was useless without a first name, because there is a Czech figure skater who goes by C. Novak, too. He’s very prolific. Great spins.”
Eileen covered her mouth with one hand in amusement before removing it to say, “Oh, Dean. That’s so cute.”
“Shuddup,” Dean muttered down to his rice.
“In his defense,” Sam spoke up, “it really was just a hero worship thing. Right, Dean? I mean, you followed him for years but it’s not like you actually had a crush.”
“Right,” Dean agreed, pleased that Sam did get it.
“And now you got to meet him. So, I take it he was one of the under-forties?”
Mouth full of rice, Dean just nodded.
“So now it’s a crush,” Sam surmised smugly.
“Shuddup,” Dean grumbled again, over the top of Eileen’s chuckles.
Teasing done— for now, Dean sensed—they returned to their food and turned to more general chatter about Dean’s first impressions of Lebanon College.
Sam and Eileen could make fun of Dean all they liked, it wasn’t going to do any good. Sure, he was hoping to get to know Castiel better. But, just as they’d teased him about, Dean really had hero-worshipped C. Novak for a long time…long enough to know he was dealing with a deeply intelligent, passionate man. Long enough to know Castiel was totally out of his league.
Dean got passionate, too, about ancient engineering and weaponry and tools, all kinds of stuff. But he was a muddy grunt in comparison to Castiel.
Sure, Dean had a pretty face, and Castiel had seemed to notice...but that didn’t really mean much. There was no way someone like Castiel would ever have any real interest in someone like Dean.