Only moments after Castiel entered the dance studio, the formerly tidy space looked like it had been hit by a natural disaster. Camera and audio equipment were strewn haphazardly across the floor, abandoned by their operators wherever they’d been stationed around the room. Several people were having serious conversations on their cell phones, while others paced anxiously around the room.
One man, dressed in a tank top and basketball shorts, hung up his phone before recklessly flinging it at his bag. He stalked over to a woman who looked to be in charge and whispered furiously at her. Castiel assumed this man had to be a professional dancer and Castiel’s assigned partner; if his attire hadn’t immediately given him away, his sudden angry shout of “You gave me the gay veteran!” most certainly would have.
Half a dozen crew members milled about the studio awkwardly, and Castiel stood stock still just inside the door. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop—he really only wanted to stay out of the way of whatever problem the happening in front of him—but the dancer was making no effort to keep his voice down.
“It was supposed to be my year,” the man barked, “You and all those other higher-ups promised me a contender.”
The woman rolled her eyes at him and hissed something at the man too low for Castiel to hear. The man laughed at whatever she’d said, but there was no humor to it.
This brief glimpse at the dancer didn’t quite gel with what little Castiel knew of the man. Castiel’d only ever seen one episode of Ballroom Superstars and it had been on a night flight during the last grueling leg of his press tour—not exactly the ideal conditions to create a devoted fan. He knew the basic format of the show—celebrities were paired up with professional dancers, and had to learn a new dance for live television week after week—but he’d learned most of that from Hannah, not from watching the show.
But he did remember seeing this dancer in that one episode, and knew that this man was somewhat admired when it came to choreography. He also knew that this man was a little cocky and seemingly laid back, but from everything Castiel’d seen of him so far, Castiel surmised that moments like the one occurring in front of his eyes were probably edited out.
“Fine!” another shout from the dancer jolted Castiel out of his observations, “We’ll do it over again!” The dancer threw up his arms in frustration before finally turning his attention back toward Castiel, his green eyes flashing from hard and cold to embarrassed.
“Look, um,” the dancer said, softer than before, and rubbed the back of his neck, “sorry about earlier. I was just caught off guard, that’s all.”
Castiel thought about saying that it looked like he was more than just caught off guard, but he shook his head, “It’s nothing. I can go out and come back in again?”
The dancer nodded his head, and Castiel, along with a camera man, a boom mic operator and a producer, walked back through the door of the dance studio. The line producer, a short dark-haired woman with a completely done look in her eyes, stopped Castiel from turning around and immediately re-entering the studio—“We’ve gotta give them time to reset!”—and Castiel took a moment to breathe.
He centered himself, focusing on all the positive benefits to society Hannah had lined out when he signed the paperwork. She told him it would be desperately needed good press for their cause—swaying public opinion to their side could only help their legal battle. He also remembered the six-figure check that was waiting for him at the end of this televised nightmare, money already destined to aid in the legal defense of LGBT servicemembers. He just had to make it through the next three months ...
A faint crackle over the producer’s headset pulled Castiel back to the present. It was time to try again.
He entered like he had been told to: creeping into the room and peering around until he found the dancer, who stood in the middle of the room, seemingly engaged in something on his phone. In the calm before making his presence known, Castiel took a moment to take in the details about the dancer he’d missed from before.
His dancer was tall (but couldn’t be more than an inch or two taller than Castiel himself), and fairly handsome—when he wasn’t arguing with the line producer. His dark blonde hair was carefully styled, but in a way Castiel assumed was meant to look like he didn’t care about his appearance to the casual observer. The dancer’s back was to the door, and from Castiel’s vantage point, he could really appreciate the broad expanse of the man’s shoulders and the gentle taper from shoulders to narrow hips. Castiel’s gaze dipped lower, to well-muscled thighs and calves, but if he lingered in the door any longer, certainly the dancer, still waiting for him to introduce himself, would get suspicious. Castiel finally approached the man, still scrolling through his cellphone, and tapped his arm—another suggestion from the producer. Castiel wasn’t prepared at all for the blinding smile he received when the dancer whipped around to face him.
“You’re my partner?” Dean asked, all anger and frustration replaced by very convincing look of surprise and excitement. Castiel nodded, and Dean pulled him into a half-hug, thumping him on this chest.
“Great!” he said, offering his hand, “I’m Dean.”
Castiel was stunned, but he pulled himself back together enough to respond.
“Hello, Dean,” Castiel said as genially as he could muster, and took Dean’s hand, “Castiel Novak.”
Dean felt like a complete jackass. Castiel seemed like a nice enough human being, and after nine seasons of dealing with the all the ways the producers liked to stir the shit, Dean should have been prepared to introduce himself without throwing an epic temper tantrum like a homophobic five-year-old.
Dean had been told repeatedly that he wasn’t going to turn into that dancer who got paired with one type of celebrity season after season—like Abaddon and old men or Aaron and teenagers. He had gotten so close last season, just one tiny percent of the viewer vote away from the Mirrorball Trophy and winning it all, and he’d been promised that his partner would be a contender this season as a reward.
But instead, he got Castiel Novak, who was undoubtedly paired with Dean as a gimmick or a ratings draw. If the show wanted a way to suck the sexually frustrated middle-aged housewives of America back in week after week, they found it in the dark hair, blue eyes, and very alluring biceps—currently peeking out from under the sleeves of a t-shirt—of Castiel Novak.
Dean steered Castiel over to the purple-carpet covered steps on the far end of the room, and sat him down. This little chat would become the “getting to know you” part of the package of edited together clips shown before their dances on the show. They would talk about why Castiel was on the show and what he hoped to get out of it, and Dean would tell him encouraging nonsense while on the inside, his hopes and dreams slipped away.
Dean wracked his brain for one of the fifteen or so questions the producers had fed him this morning, but everything he could remember made him want to roll his eyes in boredom. Still a little bitter from his conversation with his line producer Ruby, Dean improvised, opting for cheeky instead.
“So, how does it feel to be the first gay veteran on the show?” Dean feigned innocence, but he could see Ruby fuming out of the corner of his eye.
“I wouldn’t know,” Castiel replied, deadpan and serious, “I’m not gay.”
“What?” Dean asked, confused, while Ruby shook her head behind the camera man.
“I’m not gay,” Castiel repeated, staring off into middle distance, “at least according to the widely accepted definition that gay means exclusive attraction to the same gender.”
“Well ... good for you,” Dean said, now slightly regretting beginning this conversation.
Castiel forged on as if Dean hadn’t said anything at all. “The media keeps saying I’m gay, but really, it’s just that I have no preference when it comes to the gender of my romantic or sexual partners.” Castiel turned to look at Dean and Dean doubted he would have been able to break away Castiel’s gaze if he tried. The last time anyone had looked at him like that—all of a their energy focused so intensely on him—Dean’d certainly gotten laid.
“And I would think to someone in your profession,” Castiel continued just as intense as before, but with a hint of a mocking smile, “sexual orientation wouldn’t be an issue.”
Dean stood up. “Stop,” he said to the camera man, a little more forcefully than intended, “What I’m gonna say is not the kind of stuff you can air anyway.” The camera man fumbled with the record switch, and when the red light on the front was off, he turned back to Castiel.
“I don’t give a fuck who you do or don’t sleep with. But this thing that’s happening, this partnership,” he spat out the word as he gestured between them, “is not the producers throwing a bone to gay men or to anyone, no matter the stereotypes of my profession. This is a ratings grab, designed to glue eyeballs to screens, and that’s at my expense—“ Dean jabbed a finger at himself before pointing to Castiel, “and yours.”
Dean breathed heavily. Castiel just stared at him, and Dean couldn’t make out any emotion on his face. Dean knew he was being a jackass again, but he couldn’t stand the idea of being denied even a shot at winning this fucking show again, and even worse, of being used like this.
All of Dean’s previous anger suddenly left him. It wasn’t Castiel’s fault that they were stuck together, and it certainly wasn’t his fault he was being just as used as Dean was.
“I’m sorry, man,” Dean said, sitting back down gracelessly, “We’re in this same boat together, so it’s no use taking it out on you.”
Castiel tilted his head, seeming to try to piece together Dean from his rapid mood swings, as Dean gestured to the camera man to start filming again.
“So,” Dean started again, forcing himself to act like this was the real beginning of their conversation, “first time dancin’?”
Castiel started to nod his head, but stopped mid-nod. “But I took tap lessons in elementary school.”
“What about fitness? You still at your fightin’ weight?”
Castiel nodded again, and Dean fought off the urge to ogle the man. Despite the loose fit of his shorts and t-shirt, Castiel obviously kept up some kind of fitness routine, even post-military. At least, if the state of his biceps and thighs were any indication of what the rest of him looked like.
A thought popped into Dean’s head, and he sent Castiel a sincere, but slightly mischievous grin. “Do you think you can lift me?” Dean said slyly.
Castiel looked momentarily shocked, but then gave him an answering grin. “Definitely.”
“Okay,” Dean clapped both his hands on his knees, and stood up, offering a hand to Castiel, “I can work with that. Let’s dance.”
Castiel hadn’t been lying when he’d said he was in shape. However, after just six hours of dancing, he was sure he’d need to revise his definition of “in shape.”
Once they’d finished for the day, Castiel’d plopped down on the floor to do some stretches, and hadn’t been able to muster the energy to get back up again. He laid on the hardwood of the dance floor, hurting in places he didn’t know could hurt, and glowered at the door Dean had disappeared through just moments before. Dean, of course, had taken Castiel through a few stretches before bounding out the door with a cheery “See you tomorrow!” like he’d spent the past six hours not engaged in strenuous activity.
One of the camera men came over to Castiel to help him up, before also disappearing—along with the other camera men, the boom mic operators, and Ruby—through that same studio door. Castiel groaned as he bent down to pick up his keys and his phone, and hobbled to the door. As he walked to his car alone, he noticed a missed call and a text from Hannah. He pressed the button to call her back with a sigh.
“Castiel! How was your day?” Though a little annoyed at her for the current state of Castiel’s aching body, Castiel couldn’t help but smile a little when he heard her voice.
“Exhausting,” he replied, fumbling his keys as he tried to unlock his car.
She laughed before asking, “So who’s your partner? I hope it’s Jo or Lisa—they’ve performed very well in previous seasons.”
Castiel let out another sigh, and leaned against his car, “It’s Dean.”
“Dean?” Hannah asked, and Castiel could picture her expression: a quick jerk of her head in surprise and a frown with brows furrowed in concern. “Hmm. That changes things on our end. I need to make a few calls, but I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Hannah hung up the phone without a goodbye. Castiel knew Hannah wasn’t one for social conventions of hellos and goodbyes, so he didn’t hold it against her. He did however wonder what Hannah meant when she said “that changes things” as he climbed into his car. As a PR genius working for OutServe, Hannah was in the business of helping LGBT servicemembers; Castiel would think that two men dancing together would barely cause her to bat an eye.
But his conversation with Hannah made it clear that the people in charge of Ballroom Superstars hadn’t told anyone about this pairing, probably banking on Dean and Castiel’s surprised reactions or making sure the news of two men dancing together didn’t get out early. So, he was sure Hannah was doing everything in her power to capitalize on this news, and preparing to use it to further their cause.
He just wished he knew what to make of Dean. Dean had hurt him, and he clearly didn’t want Castiel for a partner. But could he blame Dean? Castiel was on the show to help his cause—this was Dean’s job and his life, and people in charge were messing with it for sport. Castiel supposed his reaction wasn’t that shocking—considering the fact that Dean was obviously straight.
Still, Castiel thought, he could have at least been more professional.
Castiel put Hannah and Dean and the whole show out of his mind as he started his car. Instead, he thought of the many ice packs waiting for him when he got home, and pulled out of the parking lot.
The next morning started out much better than the first. While Castiel was still a little sore from the previous day, Dean was in a much better mood. Castiel wondered if his partner’s previous crankiness was related to Ruby—who was absent this morning—or if he had just gotten over whatever issue he was having with the show.
Despite Dean’s improved mood, Castiel still felt unsettled. They were still surrounded by cameras, and he and Dean both had lapel mics threaded through their shirts and tucked into the waistbands of their pants. It wasn’t any different from the day before, but sometime between getting the mic on and starting rehearsal for the day, Castiel realized his exact predicament. He and Dean were going to be watched constantly for at least the next three weeks leading up to the premiere, and then however long Castiel stayed in the competition. Castiel wasn’t new to having his life under public scrutiny (the lawsuit had taken care of that), nor being on camera (the press tour), but he couldn’t help but feel apprehensive. Every stumble and every failure would be captured, and probably used as fodder against him in the 24-hour news cycle. Hannah said he needed the American people on his side, and he had never been particularly good at performing.
Dean started their morning by continuing to teach Castiel the basic jive step, but even Dean’s chipper mood couldn’t make the difference between a rock step and a triple step any clearer than the day before. They had already knocked knees twice, and Castiel could tell that Dean’s mood was beginning to sour. Dean had said early on that it would probably be best if Castiel led all of their dances, since he was going to be compared to the other male celebrities, but Castiel wondered if it wouldn’t be easier just to have Dean lead.
Still distracted by the wire that was starting to stick uncomfortably to his sweaty back and the glaring red light of the camera, Castiel miscounted the beat and brought his foot down hard on Dean’s instep. Dean jolted back, cursing, and Castiel cringed. Dean dropped Castiel’s hand, declared it break time, and stormed out of the studio. So much for that good mood.
Dean came back after less than a minute away, two water bottles in hand, and tossed one at Castiel. “Okay, what’s your issue?” Dean asked, not unkindly.
Castiel shrugged, but gave a meaningful look to one of the cameras intently fixed on them.
“Yeah,” Dean conceded and shrugged, “takes a bit of getting used to. Feels like you’re livin’ in a fish bowl. You wanna—?” Dean gestured toward the studio door and Castiel nodded in agreement.
Dean started steering Castiel toward the door, but scowled when he noticed they were not alone. A whole conversation passed in a few looks and shrugs between Dean and the cameraman. Castiel guessed that Dean had asked for some privacy, but the cameraman had denied that request. Dean sighed deeply, and kept walking, resigned to the fact that they wouldn’t be able to get away from the crew.
He led Castiel outside the building, to a wrought iron table and chairs, and at least the crew had the decency to hang back a little. He motioned for Castiel to sit, and fell into his own chair with a sigh.
“Not good with being filmed?” Dean asked and Castiel shrugged.
“I’ve been on TV before,” Castiel replied, “but those were tightly controlled interviews. I knew the questions ahead of time, and I had my talking points. This—“ he gestured toward the crew, “is different.”
Dean nodded in understanding, before his face shifted to a look of confusion. “So why did you agree to be on this show?”
It was Castiel’s turn to sigh. “It was Hannah’s idea. She—”
“Girlfriend?” Dean asked, and there was something more than curiosity Castiel couldn’t quite read on his features. Hopefulness? Regret? It was hard to say for sure.
Castiel shook his head. “No—publicist. She thought that if we could raise public consciousness of the outdated Department of Defense non-discrimination policy, it would get the Supreme Court to put our case on their docket. Also—” Castiel recalled his call from Hannah earlier that morning to let him know what her team had decided about the news Castiel was dancing with a man, “Hannah thinks it would help to normalize same-sex relationships on a very popular …”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Dean cut him off, “but why are you on this show? What are your reasons?”
Castiel opened his mouth to reply, but closed it as soon as he realized he didn’t really have an answer that would satisfy Dean. He did want to raise awareness for his cause, he hadn’t been lying about that. And he certainly didn’t want anyone to ever go through the pain and humiliation he went through in his last year in the U.S. Navy. But beyond that, Castiel didn’t have much of an answer. He was sure most celebrities did the show to have fun, maybe promote something they had worked on, remind the general populace that they still exist, and so on.
For Castiel, being on the show wasn’t just a matter of letting people know the injustice he’d suffered due to bad laws. Hannah said they need to change hearts and minds, sway people to their side, change a social structure that still sees people like Castiel as Other and unfit for their jobs. And for that, he needed to win.
He needed to prove to America that he was just as strong and competent and driven as any other man. And maybe, he also needed to prove it to himself.
Castiel couldn’t go down that road with Dean after knowing each other for a little over a day, so he opted for a different tactic. “Personal growth?” he said tentatively and Dean snorted.
“Yeah, that was real convincing,” Dean said. Castiel rolled his eyes, and before he could retort, Dean held up a hand to stop him. “Look, you don’t have to tell me why you’re doing this, but there are going to come times when you have to dig down deep just to find enough energy to get out of bed, let alone dance all day long. This show burns you out, and if you don’t have a goal to go back to, a reason to drive you to finish, we’ll be done in week two.”
Castiel nodded once, processing everything that Dean just said. “What’s your reason?”
Dean looked taken aback and Castiel wondered if anyone had ever asked him that before. “I guess ‘it’s my job’ isn’t going to work,” Dean said with a grin and Castiel shook his head.
“I want to win,” Dean said, shrugging, and fixed his gaze on his hands where they were absently picking at some loose paint on the table, “I was a competitive ballroom dancer for most of my life, and that drive to win never really goes away. This will be my tenth season on the show, and I’ve never won before—though me and Charlie got pretty close last year—and I’m worried that soon I’m going to be too old to have a real shot at it.”
Castiel reached out and put his hand on Dean’s arm. Dean startled a little at the unexpected contact, but smiled at the small gesture of comfort.
“Okay,” Castiel said, hand still resting on Dean’s arm, “What do we need to do to win?”
Dean stood up and Castiel followed. “First of all,” Dean began with an intensity Castiel hadn’t seen before, “we need people to want us to come back week after week. If we have a loyal fanbase, we won’t be knocked out after a bad week or two,” Dean grimaced at the thought, and continued, “So we have to work on us. We have to talk to each other so that every little frustration—and there will frustrations over the course of the show—doesn’t completely derail us.”
Dean looked Castiel up and down, and sighed, “You also have to get a whole lot better at dancing. Since you haven’t had any formal dance training in like 30 years, you’re going to be at a disadvantage. But if we’re going to win, you can’t rely on just figuring out the basics. You have to have perfect timing—” Dean ticked off one finger, “impeccable technique, artistry to your movements, and be able to connect emotionally with your audience.”
Castiel wasn’t too worried about technique or timing; years in the U.S. Navy had at very least forced him to learn how to march in time, and a decade as a fighter pilot had made detail a matter of life and death. But Castiel would be the first to admit that he had never really thought of himself as graceful, and more than once his fellow sailors had tried to cajole him into playing poker with them—apparently he was known for his stoicism. He wasn’t sure what connecting emotionally with the audience entailed, but he doubted it would come naturally to him.
“And I have to do the best choreography I’ve ever done in my life,” Dean paused for effect, “That’s how we win.”