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Familiar Man

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The final spell nearly strains Castiel to the breaking point, but it works. The modified compass points with devastating purpose, a pair of copper wires serving for the needle, one of his own hairs fastened between them.

 

He wobbles on sleeping legs as he stands from his work table, but Castiel refuses to fall. He grabs up the compass, replacing the glass cover as he walks to the garage door. “You’d better work,” he threatens it under his breath. The compass fits neatly into an unused cupholder, the other already holding a travel mug for the journey. His cooler sits shotgun, packed with water bottles, snacks, and sandwiches. His suitcase waits in the trunk. While the packed car might suggest confidence in his witchcraft, he has to admit readying his supplies was mere procrastination.

 

It’s sound enough in theory, he keeps reminding himself as he drives. Attuning the compass to his own magical resonance is simple enough for a witch of his caliber. Rather, should be. Even in his reduced capacities, he’d made the needle point at him unerringly. The problem had been getting it to stop. Now, months after designing the second spell to shield him from the compass’ detection, the needle is unquestionably pointing somewhere else: toward the closest resonance match.

 

Toward his animal familiar.

 

Or, if his spell work was at all off, toward complete failure.

 

Muted and pointless, the world passing by his car windows is silent despite the chorus of engines speeding down the highway. It’s long since stopped being the vivid blasts of exaltation, the endless symphonies that Castiel took for granted as a child. To think he’d once been overwhelmed by the pseudo-sounds he can now barely hear. The wisps of fading notes that now haunt Castiel’s mind are a far cry from the entwining melodies that once were his own, and it is these to which Castiel cling. Some natural born witches perceive the world through a more visual synesthesia, but Castiel’s mind has always filtered the force of magic through music.

 

Gabriel speaks of colors and colors alone, a vibrant set of oil paints: using his magic before finding his familiar had been like combining color after color, but never being able to wash his brush. The brilliant shades had smudged together ineffectively, polluting the potency of his spells. On the worst days, the oil paints ran like watercolors or stuck like acrylic. His descriptions of spell work after finding his familiar are a strained metaphor of a palette refreshed by new paints, each tube matching his original colors perfectly. The brush is cleaned after each stroke, no longer dirtying the palette to darken yellow with black or confound purple with green.

 

Hannah is more tactile: they describe building with brick and mortar at times, of solving metal puzzles at others. For them, their metaphorical hands had retained grit and grease from one spell to the next. They spoke of never quite knowing if the grime they felt was residual from the previous spell, or something going wrong with the current one. Even outside of spell work, the sensations against their palms and between the fingers were unspeakably wrong, before they found their familiar. For years now, they’ve been able to wash their hands, and their world is once more a masterpiece crafted for the blind.

 

Alfie, the youngest of their coven, is like Castiel in lacking a familiar. His magic has an olfactory translation. So far, the youth has reported on only occasional instances of having his sense of magical self disturbed. Too large a spell, too odious to recall what normalcy was meant to smell like. After small tasks, however, Alfie moves on quickly. Alfie has time.

 

Of those three, Castiel understands Gabriel’s version the best. Where Gabriel speaks of having his own specific color palette, Castiel’s inner symphony thrums in sympathy. It has been a long time, over a decade, since colors played in his mind to match the sounds. It was the first sign of his decline. 

 

When it comes to spell crafting, Gabriel speaks of painting, of finding how to adapt his colors to the intended end product, changing himself to match the spell ingredients. Hannah describes shifting the components around before mortaring them together. Alfie’s version sounds more like cooking than spell work, at times. They each have a different take on what applying runes or incantations to spell components does, customized to their personal metaphors, but all agree it’s about shaping and modifying existing power into new combinations.

 

What Castiel has—had—is a stage full of instruments, able to play harmonies and match the rhythms of spell components. Each item plays its own song, and each time Castiel’s mind has played those melodies instead of his own, the instruments edge ever further out of tune. He gathers sharps and flats as he adjusts to the keys of whatever task is at hand, and his own personal tune takes on soured, confused notes.

 

With luck, his familiar will be able to serve as a tuning fork.

 

With more luck, Castiel will be able to steady himself on rhythms close to his own original time signature, lead by a steady baton.

 

With the best luck in all the world, Castiel’s familiar will be tuning fork, conductor, and songbook all in one.

 

The intricate melody he once knew by heart has long been muddied into half-remembered snatches, sung off-key. If he forgets it completely, he knows in his heart and soul, if all the instruments of his mind deteriorate until they break, that will be that. The point of no return.

 

No more magic.

 

No more music.

 

That fundamental piece of himself, rendered silent by incomprehension, not ever to sing again.

 

Unless…

 

Shaking his head, Castiel grits his teeth and pushes that thought from his mind. This , here and now, is his last resort. He has his compass. He has the snatches and snippets of his own music—his distorted magical resonance, his personal magical fingerprint—and that is all. If he’s allowed any of the pieces of the compass to distort that resonance further, the odds of making a successful second attempt are slim to none. To ask for help has proved fruitless; contaminating the spell work with another witch’s abilities entirely defeats the point.

 

He drives. He idles at rest stops, checking the direction of the compass against that of the highway. After merely five and a half hours of driving, he discovers he’s overshot, but the old atlases gathering dirt and dust beneath the driver’s seat lend themselves well to triangulation. Unless Castiel has made an error at some point this morning, he’ll be in the right town around noon.

 

Heart thumping in throat and chest and fingertips, he plots his path and pulls out of the parking space. It’s anticipation, not strain. The relief of a short search when he’d had the forethought to pack his passport, just in case.

 

After taking his intended exit, he stops at the first gas station to double-check the compass. Again, he orients and triangulates. The lines don’t intersect in the exact same spot, but it’s more than close enough, considering Castiel’s slapdash methods. Animals do move around, after all. Sufficiently confident he knows where to go, he switches to the GPS on his phone.

 

The longer he drives through town, the harder he shakes inside his own skin. Relief so near. Pending satisfaction and dangling terror at developing his own shielding spell on theory alone, lacking the strength to experiment properly. There can be no trial and error, not for Castiel, not at this juncture: there is only the trial, and the success or failure to come.

 

When his GPS informs him he’s reached his destination, he pulls over in a residential area. He googles around for parking, checks his compass again, and kills two birds with one stone, driving in the same direction for both.

 

He parks at a baseball field down the road and across the street from a school. It’s fairly vacant for a Saturday morning, populated largely by an extremely little, little league practice. Far off in the field, there’s two men with a dog. Along the street, a small pack of jogging teens are presumably a running team.

 

Taking the compass with him, Castiel climbs out of the car. Though the compass points directly across the field toward the woods beyond, Castiel walks around the field instead, keeping to the sidewalk, even straying outside the chain-link fence that frames part of the field. Miraculously, the compass needle turns, proving Castiel’s familiar must be close.

 

Better to avoid the attention of the children playing, but it’s the dog walkers that concern him. He doesn’t need those men taking notice when Castiel scoops up a formerly wild animal. A stray cat would be one thing, but if he ends up with a squirrel or possum, it would be much harder to explain. A rabbit might be plausible.

 

Keeping an eye on that thin sound barrier of a forest beyond the baseball field, Castiel considers the possibilities of what might be in there. He’ll accept anything, even the possum. If it turns out to be a frog or toad, Gabriel will never let him live it down, but maybe it will be some kind of bird instead. He’ll have to step carefully in case it’s some kind of insect, though that’s one of the rarest possibilities. That would be conveniently small.

 

Halfway around the field, Castiel pulls his eyes away from the woods to check the compass once more.

 

It’s no longer pointing toward the woods.

 

It’s pointing across the field.

 

Hoping against hope, Castiel looks up, but none of the birds in the sky are in the correct direction, wheeling high or fluttering in a determined line.

 

No, the compass is pointing to the pair of men circling the field.

 

Castiel stands there, his mind increasingly detached from his body.

 

Of course.

 

Of course it’s happening this way.

 

Castiel is going to have to steal that dog.

 

It’s a golden retriever, he thinks. Maybe a little on the small side, though it’ll loom over Gabriel’s Jack Russel. It’s also on a leash and possibly has a microchip.

 

If it really is his familiar, they’ll recognize each other at the first touch. Earlier, if he’s lucky. A strong familiar can recognize its witch through any sense, possessing enough magic to register the match in resonance. All Castiel has to do is touch the dog, and then it will do its utmost to follow him home. There’s still the issue that he has no idea how to deactivate a microchip, be it through magical or mundane means, but establishing their bond as soon as possible is crucial.

 

Physically touch to activate recognition, cast a spell while touching to establish the bond. Once he draws on power through that dog, that will be that. Somehow.

 

It’ll take some months and consistent contact to restore what time and effort has warped in him, but it’s possible now. One pat on that dog’s head, and it’s inevitable.

 

Something not unlike hope sticks in his throat, and yet it tastes like fear. Both of the men walking the dog are taller than him, and that is no meager feat. For the first time, Castiel regrets rejecting Gabriel’s offer to come with him on this road trip of indeterminable length; Gabriel has power aplenty to charm and beguile freely.

 

Compass in hand, Castiel stands on the sidewalk bordering the field and high chain-link fence, and he watches the men walk with the dog. The leash loops around the taller man’s wrist, waving as he gestures. Encased in a leather jacket despite the warm spring day, the shorter man laughs at something the taller says.

 

What spell to use to make the bond? Something small, surely.

 

Pocketing the compass, he pulls out his wallet and takes out a business card. Yes, that’ll do. The runes woven into the clinic’s logo—disguised as normal letters and decoration interrupted by twining ivy—are all the preparation for a rudimentary healing spell he needs. All he has to do is hand it to either man while touching the dog, have a finger on the runes during the transfer, and Castiel will gain a familiar while the man loses an ache or some tension.

 

Slipping his wallet into his back pocket with one hand, he swaps out the card for the compass with the other. The arrow still follows the dog and its owners. Castiel peers at the dog a bit more, trying to feel… something. Anything beyond the looming possibility that months of effort have gone awry and wasted the precious power he has left. Isn’t he meant to be able to simply see it and know? This golden retriever looks the same as any other. A familiar is meant to be familiar .

 

But then, maybe that’s why he’s taken so long to find one. Not possessing a rare resonance, but lacking a social ability.

 

Certainly, he’s lacking social graces when it comes to interacting with other humans. As if to prove it, the man in the leather jacket has taken notice of Castiel’s staring, and has begun to look back.

 

Stiffly, Castiel lifts his free hand to chest height and waves, slightly, through the chain-link fence.

 

No longer walking along with the dog and the other man, the man in the leather jacket lifts his hand in return. Despite the distance between them, Castiel has the impression of a smile. A warm and handsome one.

 

 

Castiel has no idea what to do.

 

He should… go over?

 

He should go over.

 

For whatever reason, the man in the leather jacket seems to have the same idea. The taller man walking the dog notices the absence of his friend—perhaps partner—and turns to see where the man in the leather jacket is going. Namely, directly toward Castiel.

 

Castiel decides on a more productive approach than standing there dumbstruck and heads to the nearest gap in the fence.

 

The man in the leather jacket adjusts his course. The closer he comes, the more obviously attractive he becomes: well-groomed hair, a much lighter brown than Castiel’s; warm, almost delicate features; a confident if hurried pace. Seemingly oblivious to the baseball practice he’s cutting through, the man in the leather jacket breaks into a light jog, a wide grin across his face.

 

Stupefied, Castiel stops where the fence does, some yards beyond third base. The man in the leather jacket doesn’t halt or falter, continuing to bound up to him as if seeing a friend after a long separation. Castiel racks his brain: how does he know this person? Is this another case like Hannah’s, where Castiel has failed to recognize someone post-transition?

 

“Hey,” says the man in the leather jacket, his grin as wide and strong as his shoulders. Up close, his eyes shine a bright green in the sunlight. His voice is unfamiliar, but then, so was Hannah’s on their reunion. Transition seems an unlikely cause for Castiel’s confusion, however: those eyes are far too distinct, too striking for Castiel to have seen before and forgotten.

 

“Hello,” Castiel responds dumbly. His hands itch with a want he can’t quite define.

 

Somehow grinning even wider, the man steps closer. He beams at Castiel as if witnessing a miracle, and the warmth of that focus makes it impossible to look away.

 

“Hey,” the man says again.

 

“Hello,” Castiel repeats.

 

Why this is so funny, Castiel has no idea, but the man laughs beautifully.

 

“So,” the man says, still smiling like a sunbeam. He steps yet closer to Castiel, and he smells good, too. It would be easy to touch him. Simple. Natural, even. “Haven’t seen you around here before. Not that I’m always around here, myself. Up visiting our mom.”

 

“I’m…” Castiel gropes for an excuse. He finds none.

 

Inexplicably delighted by Castiel’s floundering, the man tilts his head forward and raises his eyebrows, teasingly ready to listen.

 

“I… like driving to new places,” Castiel manages lamely.

 

Instead of calling him on the obvious lie, the man nods approvingly. “Drive around, get lost, find your way back?”

 

“Exactly,” Castiel confirms, willing to accept anything.

 

“Man after my own heart.”

 

Castiel’s feet move. Forward. His chin lifts, and the man looks down at him in return, so pleased, so joyfully friendly.

 

“I’m Dean,” says the man in the leather jacket with the green, green eyes.

 

“Hello, Dean,” says Castiel, mind so blank it can only be called clear.

 

The man—Dean—Dean visibly shivers. His eyes close halfway, his grin softening into a contented smile. “What about you?”

 

“What, what about me?”

 

“Your name?” Dean prompts, mercifully finding this funny as well.

 

“Oh. I’m, my name is Castiel.”

 

“Castiel,” Dean repeats, and not the way people typically do. It sounds different in his voice. All of Dean’s words do, beautifully particular in some strange non-accent Castiel can’t place. “I like it,” Dean adds, and it’s Castiel’s turn to shiver in the spring sunshine. Dean’s grin deepens. Almost darkens. Dean licks his lips. “You-”

 

“Dean?” calls the taller man, jarringly close.

 

Castiel startles, stepping back from Dean to better face the taller man and the dog. The crucially important dog, his familiar he’s spent years searching for. The thought lands in his head without making any impact, especially not as Dean moves with him, shifting to the side and turning so he and Castiel face the taller man as a unit.

 

“Dean, who’s your friend?” the taller man asks, keeping a tight grip on the leash as the dog sniffs forward, straining with a wagging tail.

 

“Sam, meet Cas,” Dean says, not looking away from Castiel.

 

Looking away from Dean is itself a problem, but Castiel succeeds, too close to be thwarted by a stranger’s miraculous beauty and enthralling disposition. “Hello,” Castiel says to the taller man, who turns out to be even taller than expected. “Can I pet your dog?”

 

“Uh, sure,” Sam says, looking between Castiel and Dean instead of at his dog. “Careful, she jumps. We’re working on that.”

 

Castiel holds out a hand and the dog sniffs his fingers before moving on and sniffing his leg. Breath caught on an inhale, Castiel lowers his hand to the dog’s head, touches sun-warmed fur, and feels…

 

Nothing.

 

Wagging her tail, the dog leans into the touch, especially as Castiel reflexively scratches her ear for her. But at the same time, there’s nothing.

 

At all.

 

Whatsoever.

 

His spell failed.

 

“So how do you and Dean know each other?” Sam asks.

 

Castiel has to keep breathing, if only to reply, but Dean beats him to it.

 

“We, um. Don’t?” Dean asks Castiel, as uncertain as Castiel increasingly feels. Castiel keeps petting the dog, but only because of the dog’s friendly insistence.

 

“Really?” Sam asks.

 

“I mean, I’m pretty sure I’d remember you,” Dean tells Castiel, fully facing him, and winks.

 

“Oh my god,” Sam grumbles, physically twisting away from the conversation. Castiel only vaguely registers the motion on his periphery.

 

“Maybe we met when we were very young?” Castiel suggests, inexplicably pulled from despair and into conversation by Dean’s sheer charisma and presence. He struggles to find a tactful way to put it, but promptly gives up. “Is there any chance you went through a dramatic puberty?”

 

“Probably only as dramatic as yours, if you mean going from cute to smoking hot,” Dean answers with a sly grin.

 

“Oh my god ,” Sam mutters again, overtly repulsed. Not a romantic partner, then. Which is hardly relevant to Castiel’s plight, and yet the fact sticks in his mind. “I’ll just… be over there.” With a light pull on the leash and a snap of his fingers, Sam draws the dog away.

 

Castiel remains where he is, too stunned to pursue. He reaches into his pocket, wraps his hand around the compass, and only refrains from pulling it out because he has no idea how to explain it to an observer.

 

And Dean is certainly observing.

 

“You okay?” Dean asks, a frown marring the beatific beauty of his brow. He steps closer, more than close enough to touch, and he peers into Castiel’s eyes as if he could find the source of Castiel’s devastation there.

 

“I’m,” Castiel says, but the rest of the sentence fades in the light of Dean’s face.

 

“You’re?” Dean prompts, head tilted down, one ear offered forward in an unspoken promise of support.

 

For precious seconds, Castiel can only look at him. Can only hold on to this sight, this slim visual barrier keeping his mind from fully acknowledging that there is no hope left to maintain his magic. That he has a few months left at the most before turning wholly mundane.

 

“Rough day,” Castiel says simply.

 

“Bet I can make it better,” Dean answers, so confident Castiel can only believe him.

 

“How?” he asks.

 

“We ditch my brother and I take you to lunch?” Dean offers.

 

“Brother,” Castiel repeats.

 

“Sam.” Dean points. Looks. Corrects where he’s pointing. Looks back to Castiel, and lets his hand fall almost all the way to his side. It stays a bit raised, a bit reaching, but not toward Sam.

 

Grief is throwing him fast into this man’s arms, Castiel distantly knows. He’s losing so much of himself, so much of the world around him and his awareness of it, and the sudden gift of a man as vivid and vibrant as the thrum of magic itself, a compelling distraction.

 

“What d’you say?” Dean asks, grinning with confidence. “Let me take you away from it all?”

 

“I… should head home,” Castiel knows. Review his notes. Tinker with the compass. Give in and beg help from Gabriel and Hannah. Maybe they can shield themselves the same way Castiel managed to shield the compass. Something. Anything. “I have things to get back to.”

 

Dean’s face falls.

 

Only the resulting metaphorical punch to Castiel’s lungs keeps him from immediately rescinding his excuse.

 

“You should give me your number first,” Dean says before Castiel can correct himself.

 

“Yes,” Castiel agrees, because this much is undeniable.

 

He sticks his hand back into his jacket pocket, and both he and Dean lick their lips in unison.

 

“Here’s my card,” Castiel says. “Just my business number, I don’t have a pen.”

 

“I’ve got my phone on me,” Dean points out, but he still takes the card.

 

Their hands do not merely brush . Dean takes the card as if he were a maître d′ Castiel was bribing for a better table. Their hands fully clasp, the business card a slim, partial barrier between their palms. Fingers wrap over skin, thumbs securing their grip, heat binding them together.

 

Around Dean, the world surges from a passive background and into an attempted foreground. The faint noises of the day flare into surround sound. Air fills his lungs, light shines for the sake of his eyes, and even the ground beneath his feet grows firmer, steadier, holding him up beneath the endless ocean of the sky.

 

Dean stares at him, breathless.

 

Castiel stares back much the same way.

 

 

“You’re,” Castiel starts to say, but it’s impossible. He cups Dean’s hand with both of his own, and the sunlight shines even brighter. The scent of the grass wafts with distant undercurrents of the trees beyond the field, with car exhaust, with laundry detergent and men’s deodorant; even these have their own mixing, melding melodies. “You’re…”

 

“I’m?” Dean asks, equally rapturous, conversely unconcerned.

 

“You’re a person,” Castiel says.

 

Dean laughs through a grin, as devastating to the ears as he is to the eyes. “Uh, yeah ?” With his second hand, he holds onto Castiel in return, hands doubly clasped.

 

Cast , scream Castiel’s every instinct. Cast the spell, forge the bond, claim your familiar. Look at him: he’s already ours.

 

“Were you expecting something else?” Dean asks. “A sexy ghost? An angel in this outfield?”

 

An animal.

 

It’s meant to be an animal. A creature benefited by their involvement, its lifespan extended, its intellect enhanced. Not something—some one— already sentient. No one with a family, not a human person Castiel could bind to himself and drag along behind him for the rest of his days.

 

“You’re very unexpected,” Castiel confesses, entirely unable to pull his hands away. The runes of his business card fit against his palm, pressed tight against his skin by Dean’s grip. The slightest touch of power will activate it, will incorporate Dean into the casting, will bind Dean in a bond more profound than any other in a witch’s life.

 

Just one little spell.

 

“Right back at ya, big guy,” Dean replies, voice pitched low.

 

“No, I mean this is unprecedented,” Castiel corrects.

 

Because humans aren’t familiars. They can’t be. There’s no way they could… Well, there’s…

 

There must be something that makes it impossible. There should be.

 

Bind him , demands every selfish instinct.

 

But Dean only relaxes in the face of Castiel’s uncomprehending indecision. Dean sighs out, his left hand sliding higher to circle Castiel’s wrist. “So you…?” Another sigh, yet more relief. “You’re feeling this too?”

 

“Are you a witch?” Castiel asks.

 

Again, Dean laughs, but only barely. His is a voiced grin, displaying more relief than teeth. His mouth is all soft lips and hidden tongue. “Why, you feeling enchanted?”

 

Castiel can’t answer. Not aloud. Not through anything more than a pair of overwhelmed eyes and a pair of hands that can’t let go.

 

“You’re feeling it too,” Dean concludes, awestruck. As if Castiel is the piece of impossibility, a shard a hope to cling to. Dean’s hand strokes up Castiel’s sleeve, rides up his shoulder. Cups his cheek.

 

Castiel sways into the touch, every diminished sense flaring back to life at once. He shuts his eyes against a world that’s suddenly too much. It used to be like this. It used to be like this everyday, when he was young and heedless of expending himself. He sucks in a sharp, trembling breath, holding tight, pressing hard against Dean’s palms with his hand and his cheek, and that’s when soft breath and softer lips brush against his own.

 

Castiel’s mouth falls open on a gasp, and Dean licks inside. He fits. They fit.

 

Bind him. Bind him now.

 

Castiel turns his head away sharply.

 

More an off-balance fumble than follow-up, Dean kisses his cheek. Castiel leans into it even as he tugs his hand away from Dean’s, relinquishing the card, fleeing from temptation.

 

“Too fast,” Dean murmurs against his skin. “Sorry, I know I’m… Swear I’m not normally…”

 

Castiel risks looking him in the eyes, and they’re kissing again. The texture of Dean’s lips, the pass of his breath, the pressure of his hands; all of these are sensations more real than any Castiel’s felt in years, and the rest of the world soon follows. His clothing touches his skin, no longer merely hanging on him. A faint breeze tickles his hair, and his hair shifts above his scalp. The grass beneath his feet puts a spring between his shoes and the dirt. All Castiel can do is hold on while Dean kisses the world awake. The curtain rises, and the first song that was ever Castiel’s plays out, courtesy of a grand symphonic orchestra.

 

“More,” Castiel begs when Dean breaks the kiss, but the pause is simply for Dean to tilt his head to the other side. They continue at a new angle. Castiel’s mind struggles to race against the weight of his relaxing body, loose and warmed. Pieces of himself, long withered, come back to life, returning not with a harsh gasp, but a fawning sigh.

 

Castiel kisses him hard, as if drinking ambrosia from the goblet of a god. Dean chuckles against his mouth and draws him in tight, full-bodied contact down their fronts where heat already burns between them. Dean holds him even closer, right hand a fist against Castiel’s back, left hand gripping Castiel by the hair.

 

All the while, their surroundings continue to unfold, to manifest. Dean’s scent comes in first, strongest, but the grass, the trees, the car exhaust, the dirt itself, all of it. It’s there. The sounds of wind and movement. Even without opening his eyes, he knows it’s all turned crisp and clear, Dean’s every touch providing him the power to properly observe. The more Dean touches, the more Castiel can feel that touch, a heady and potent feedback loop.

 

“Hey! Guys! Knock it off in front of the kids!”

 

Dean jerks back from the kiss, but far from relinquishing his grip on Castiel, Dean holds his hand tight. “On it!” Dean shouts back to the baseball coach. “Getting that room.” And he tugs Castiel by the hand toward the parking lot. “Or car,” Dean adds more quietly, just for him. “You parked here?”

 

His feet complying with Dean’s directions, Castiel’s heart pounds for a thousand reasons. He stares at Dean, seeing so much, understanding so little. How could he have possibly forgotten about being watched?

 

“You okay?” Dean asks, reaching up to touch Castiel’s face. He’s still holding Castiel’s business card, though, and seems to only realize it with his hand between their faces. Dean quickly pockets it, but he doesn’t reach again. “I mean, that was...” He doesn’t seem to know which part he’s referring to.

 

Castiel squeezes his hand. “I don’t know what your full name is.”

 

“Oh, uh. Dean Winchester.” Dean digs back into his pocket, glances down at the card, and does a double-take. “ Doctor Castiel Novak.”

 

“I’m a physical therapist,” Castiel explains, ignoring the Gabriel-esque voice in the back of his head that insists he is, both technically and literally, a witch doctor.

 

“I’m, um.” Dean pauses to lick his lips, looking Castiel up and down. “Bartender and cook. So. You know. If you wanted to go out for drinks. Or stay in.”

 

Before Castiel can sort out what to say to that, another distraction arrives, approaching from the other side of the field. “You guys okay?” Sam calls, dog in tow. Or, more correctly, Sam in tow.

 

“I’m okay,” Dean calls back without looking away from Castiel.

 

“I’m,” Castiel begins to say, honestly uncertain. Expression more suspicious than concerned, Sam looks at their clasped hands.

 

“You’re safe,” Dean assures him, giving a few pats to the back of Castiel’s hand. He looks at Castiel protectively, adoringly, already attuned to Castiel’s emotions, even unbound. “I promise. It’s a liberal town, just not big on PDA in front of first graders or whatever those are.”

 

Social courtesy dictates Castiel should smile back, but the longer Dean goes without releasing Castiel’s hand, the more perturbed Sam appears. Did he see them kissing? See them transition from meeting to kissing within minutes?

 

“Uh, Dean,” Sam says, clearing his throat. “We should head back. I told Mom we’d only be gone for a short walk break, remember ?”

 

“What? No, we got time,” Dean immediately disagrees without so much as glancing at his watch. 

 

“Don’t let me keep you,” Castiel says, a choice of words as unintentionally accurate as they are awful. He should keep Dean. He needs to keep Dean.

 

He can’t keep a human being.

 

Dean pats his pocket, indicating the business card. “I’ll call you.”

 

Castiel can only nod back. Maybe, if he’s careful, if he’s controlled, he’ll be able to restore his power through contact alone, with no need to bind Dean. Dean certainly doesn’t seem adverse to more physical contact. Castiel has no idea if that would actually work, but… He can’t kidnap a human.

 

“Nice meeting you,” Sam says a little primly, not that Castiel can blame him.

 

“You too,” Castiel says, and Dean still hasn’t let go of his hand. Castiel’s own grip can’t seem to loosen either. To let go is to lose everything.

 

Clearing his throat again, Sam prompts, “Dean.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll be right behind you,” Dean says, looking at Castiel.

 

Dean, ” Sam says.

 

“You should go,” Castiel tells him, reluctantly pulling his hand back. The perceptible essence of the world immediately dims, his ears stuffed with cotton.

 

“I’ll call you,” Dean promises again, and there’s a second where Castiel could swear Dean’s about to kiss him goodbye. Dean sways forward, but he glances at Sam and seems to think better of it. “We’ll do something soon, all right?”

 

“Yes,” Castiel agrees.

 

Dean takes a couple steps backward, only technically following an increasingly disturbed Sam. “Dinner, what about dinner? What do you like?”

 

“Don’t keep your mother waiting,” Castiel tells him with all the command he can muster. He forces his own feet to move, and it takes conscious effort to move away instead of towards.

 

“What about coffee, we could grab coffee?” Dean calls as the gap between them grudgingly grows.

 

Sam mutters something that sounds a lot like, “Jesus Christ, Dean.”

 

“Goodbye, Dean,” Castiel makes himself say. He turns and walks away in the opposite direction, realizing somewhat belatedly that he’ll have to circle around the rest of the infield’s enclosure to get back to his car.

 

“I’ll call you!” Dean shouts after him.

 

Castiel looks back, Dean waves, and Castiel nearly changes his mind yet again.

 

Unable to trust his words, he simply raises a hand in parting. Even across the distance between them, Dean’s sudden grin shines.

 

Sam grabs at Dean’s shoulder and tugs him along.

 

Castiel forces himself back to his car. He climbs inside, slams the door, and buries his head in his hands. The muted surrealism of his surroundings presses in, a numbing weight that can’t block the pounding of his heart as it thumps in his ears.

 

Find Dean. Find Dean. Find Dean, find Dean, finddean, finddean finddeanfinddeanfinddean…

 

Castiel breathes.

 

Even without reaching into his pocket for the compass, he knows where Dean is. Which direction. Moving away at a slow walk.

 

He licks his lips, still able to taste the other man.

 

He needs to talk to someone. Call Gabriel.

 

Gabriel will know what to do. Gabriel will think with an unclouded mind, and he’ll know what to do about Dean. Gabriel will be able to think about Dean without his chest clenching and the world shaking and hopes pounding against morality, each daring the other to break first.

 

Castiel breathes.

 

His hands itch. His legs flex. His innate sense of direction copies that of his compass, swinging directly to Dean.

 

He pulls out his phone and sets the GPS to bring him home. No phone calls about this until he knows he’s warded. It might not matter—some athletic children could have been the least of their audience—but the precaution is still worthwhile. Not just for himself, but for Dean. He can’t let anyone hurt Dean, not even himself.

 

Especially not himself.

 

I’ve waited my whole life for you , he wants to scream. My whole life, and this is what you are?

 

If Castiel is going to be the kind of witch who binds a human, he might as well go and make a demon pact.

 

He drives home in a maelstrom of resentment and joy, of unease and hope. Somehow, he doesn’t crash. He eats sandwiches from the cooler one-handed, without tasting them. Hours of driving later, he pulls into the driveway of his house. He parks next to the fence. He kills the engine and fails to unbuckle. It takes him a long moment before opens the door.

 

“Finally,” says an unwelcome voice from the other side of the high wooden fence. “Thought you were going to sit in there forever.” The black outline of a suit jacket smudges into the summer night sky.

 

“Go away, Crowley,” Castiel orders. His eyes keep an involuntary watch on the demon as he circles around to the passenger side doors. He pulls out the cooler, but he’ll leave the suitcase in the trunk for now.

 

“Rude. Though I can imagine what’s put you in that bad mood of yours,” Crowley muses, leaning against the fence as if Castiel’s side isn’t specifically warded to keep him and his kind out. “I wasn’t expecting you back for hours. Did that little familiar-finding charm of yours fail?” He twists his face into a mockery of pity. “Shame. Still, could be worse. A lesser witch wouldn’t have such a high caliber patron waiting in the wings.”

 

Castiel opens the cooler, pulls out the flask of holy water, and silently uncaps it.

 

“Very rude,” Crowley chastises. “But then, I’ve heard diminishing will do that to a person.”

 

“I will never bind myself to your service,” Castiel tells him yet again.

 

“I hear that a lot,” Crowley says, no longer pretending sympathy. “But then, after the diminishing has taken its toll… After a few years, maybe a few decades of being more cut off than even the most mundane human could ever be… After that, you might be surprised at the other things I hear.”

 

Castiel whips the flask at him, the line of water smacking against the fence and missing Crowley as he hops down from whatever it is he’s taken to standing on in the neighbor’s yard. Castiel drops the flask back in the cooler and hoists the cooler up.

 

“It’ll never fully return, once it’s gone,” Crowley calls after him. “They always regret it, every last one, but for you, Castiel, just because I like you, I won’t say ‘I told you so’.”

 

Castiel slams the front door behind him. When he looks back out the front window, the demon is gone.