“Fifty bucks for twelve frigging roses? They’re not even red.”
Castiel raised an eyebrow.
“That’s highway robbery. Some of us work for a living, man. Help me out here.”
It was not how Castiel had envisioned their first real conversation would go, but then he’d never thought he’d trade a thriving legal career in Chicago for a job in his brother’s flower shop in Kansas, either.
The man looked at him imploringly across the counter, hands folded around a battered leather wallet. Monday afternoons, at approximately five-fifteen, this man purchased a bouquet of discounted flowers—whatever was left after Castiel restocked. He never spent more than ten dollars and had a preference for roses, but had twice left with daisies tucked under his arm. He didn’t speak beyond “thanks,” though he once muttered “yup” when Castiel asked if it was still raining.
This silent courtship, as Gabriel called it, had gone on for seven months.
He winced at the line behind the man, swollen ten-people deep. Both phone lines simultaneously wailed. He took a breath and prayed that Alfie would return soon, and Gabriel would stay away.
“This is what I have left,” Castiel repeated, refusing to be swayed by the man’s beautiful smile and generous smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose. In the interest of expediency, he added, more quietly: “Since you’re a regular, I’ll waive the delivery fee. I promise you won’t find a better deal at...” He checked his watch, the last remnant of his corporate days. “Ten minutes to nine on Valentine’s Day.”
The man chewed the inside of his cheek and glared. He pulled off his gloves. “Fine.” He threw two rumpled twenties and a ten on the counter, and scribbled a few words on the two-inch gift card. Castiel slid it into an envelope without reading it (he never read the cards) and clipped it to the order slip. Tapped his index finger on the address field.
“How, uh, how soon’ll she get ‘em?” the man asked, jotting down an address a few miles away.
“Around lunchtime. Alfie’s out with the van now, but he’s due back shortly.”
“Thanks. I’d take ‘em myself, but I’m late for work.”
“Thank you for your business,” Castiel said. It was easy to smile. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Yeah, you too.”
The man shoved the door open with both hands and made a sharp right, disappearing up the block. The door chimes clanged in the empty place where he’d stood.
The woman next in line cleared her throat. Castiel straightened his nametag with twitching fingers.
“Welcome to Casa Florotica.” One day, Gabriel would suffer for that abomination. At least Castiel didn’t have to drive the van. “How may I help you?”
The surge of customers declined by eleven, only to swell again at lunchtime and thin out by two o’clock. All morning, Castiel took phone calls from frantic spouses with the receiver tucked between his neck and shoulder, arranging bouquets Alfie cheerfully and tirelessly distributed throughout Lawrence.
One month, Castiel had said. He’d give Gabriel one month, lend his financial and legal knowledge to get his brother’s struggling business out of the red. After all, what was the use of three years’ vacation time if he never used it? That was ten months ago, eleven next week. The pay was mediocre with meager benefits (no vision or dental), but Castiel spent his evenings lost in books, or attending lectures on KU’s campus, or visiting the Bee Tree at the natural history museum. Full nights of sleep had reduced the bags under his eyes, and though he was estranged from his conservative family and his savings account decimated, he cherished the life he’d chosen with his brother in a two-bedroom apartment above the flower shop.
He ought to donate his suits. They served no one hanging in a closet, and he had no intention of sitting for the Kansas bar.
The gloves caught his eye when he took his lunch break early afternoon: a black fleece pair, the palms textured for driving. Similar to ones he’d seen the man wear into the shop, but a lot of people owned gloves like that.
He laid them beside the cash register and, trusting Gabriel could manage his own business for a half hour, went upstairs for a sandwich.
“There was a pair of gloves here,” he said upon returning, knocking a hill of Starburst wrappers into the trash. Gabriel chewed with his mouth open. The red candy bled between his teeth.
“Your mystery man was back.” Gabriel wagged his eyebrows.
Castiel’s mouth tasted of peanut butter and regret. “Ah,” he said.
There was no point getting worked up. The man bought roses every week, a dozen on Valentine’s Day—he was going home to someone. And there was the fact that seven months had passed since the first time he’d sauntered through the door and Castiel still hadn't worked up the courage to ask his name.
Gabriel put his feet on the counter. “So, bro. Any plans for tonight?”
“I thought I’d read,” Castiel said, gathering the materials for his next order. “See what’s on TV.”
He didn’t have to look at Gabriel to know he was shaking his head.
“There are men in the world besides Senor Freckles.”
“You’re never going to meet someone if you spend all of your free time hiding in the apartment pining over someone you’ve never spoken to. When’s the last time you went out? Did the horizontal tango?”
Castiel cut a stem with too much force and nicked the counter. He rubbed at the mark with a forefinger. “I fail to see how that’s your business.”
“I have your best interest at heart.”
“Gabriel…” Castiel secured the plastic around the bouquet with a gold embossed sticker. “If you need the apartment to yourself tonight, please say so. I can go somewhere else for a few hours.”
“I’m hurt you think I’d kick you out of your own home just to satisfy my sexual appetite.”
“What time is she coming over?”
“Six-thirty,” Gabriel said. “We should be done by eight. Nine, tops.”
There was no point in closing until Alfie returned from evening deliveries. Castiel tried six Pandora stations before he found one that could drown out the pandemonium upstairs. Classic rock, not his taste, but it masked the baseline of Gabriel’s god-awful party music that shook the building to its studs. He hadn’t introduced Castiel to his date, but from her high-pitched laughter and occasional moans, she was enjoying herself.
Castiel positively loathed February 14.
Alfie came back with the van around seven. Castiel dismissed him for the night with a thank you, despite Alfie's offer to stay and help get a headstart on tomorrow's orders. Castiel told him to enjoy the rest of the evening and sent him off with a bouquet of flowers for his mother. He took two more walk-ins and decided to call it a night, watch something on the computer in the back office until everything quieted upstairs.
Maybe he'd order a pizza and have it delivered. He could get a bottle of wine at the liquor store around the corner and drink it while catching up on Mad Men. Alfie said the final season was available. It was infinitely preferable to moping about his single status on this, easily the worst holiday ever invented.
He pulled on his overcoat, too thin for Kansas winters, but the black wool coat he’d worn with his suits looked ostentatious in a college town. No one stared at him in a trench coat. He cinched the belt and hurried down the block to the liquor store.
He had a bottle of Pinot in hand, prepared to make his way to the counter to check out, but Gabriel’s words roiled in his head. It had been a long time since he'd been with anyone—not since Chicago, a six-month relationship with a fellow associate. He’d been more interested in climbing the firm’s political ladder than climbing Castiel, but it had put a damper on his loneliness. They’d ended things when Castiel left Illinois.
He’d found himself at thirty-seven thinking it was better to suffocate than spend another day in Adler’s firm. He’d sent his letter of resignation from the Starbucks around the corner from Gabriel’s apartment.
Maybe Gabriel was right. He'd never admit that (he'd never hear the end of it) but drinking alone in the back office of a flower shop on Valentine's Day sounded a lot like hitting rock bottom.
He put back the wine and headed to a bar two blocks away. He and Gabriel came here for lunch a couple times a month. The bar had passable food and two pool tables, and attracted a mixed crowd of locals and college students who found the name of Gabriel's shop amusing. Castiel's heart was practically in his throat with nerves as he went inside, but he strode across the shoe-worn slat wood floor and took a seat at the bar.
He felt the watch of the bartender’s lazy eye and ordered a Belgian-style wheat beer with an orange slice, then recanted and asked for a scotch and soda. He opened a tab. This was a terrible idea, but it had to be better than listening to Gabriel rearrange furniture.
He drank the scotch in four sips and ordered another.
“Menu?” the bartender asked. Castiel didn't bother to look at his watch. He needed to burn at least an hour.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger with everything,” he said.
The flat-screen above the bar broadcasted SportsCenter. Castiel’s eyes drifted to the reflection in the mirror behind the top-shelf liquor. Two men squared off against each other on opposite sides of a banged-up pool table. A portly man in a backwards baseball cap scratched the cue and and threw his stick against the wall. The second man, with leather-clad arms and a swagger to his step, sunk the eight ball. He scraped up the pile of cash and, pivoting on his heel, staggered toward the bar.
Castiel recognized the smirk, the artfully spiked hair that looked almost white in the overhead lights. They caught the fringe of his eyelashes as he caught Castiel’s eye in the mirror.
The universe was cruel.
The man’s movements grew more fluid with each step, and by the time he pulled out the stool three spots down, Castiel wondered if he’d even drunk more than one beer.
The bartender glared at him. “Are you hustling in my bar again?”
“Supplementing my income. Shot of whiskey.” The man planted his elbows on the bar and craned his head to look at Castiel. “You got a problem?”
He’d been staring. His face grew hot and he shook his head.
“I'm sorry. It's just that I recognized you from earlier. Did the roses arrive all right?”
“The roses,” Castiel repeated. “You ordered a bouquet this morning.”
“Oh.” The pinched expression morphed to one of recognition. He ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, she loved them. Thanks.”
Castiel tipped his glass to say you're welcome. He finished his drink and signaled for another, surprised when the man spoke to him again:
“This must be the worst day of the year for you, huh?”
Was he that obvious? Castiel supposed people in relationships didn't go to bars and drink alone on Valentine's Day. He inhaled his resignation.
“It's an inescapable reminder of my inability to maintain interpersonal relationships.”
The man didn't balk at Castiel's honesty, but did snicker and add, “I meant ‘cause you’re a florist.”
“Ah. In that case, today was good for business.”
“It’s my brother’s shop. I don't set the pricing. Well, technically I do set the pricing, but…” He accepted his third scotch and cheeseburger with a grateful smile. “If I’d given you a discount, I would have had to discount the whole line, and it defeats the purpose.”
“I get it. Sorry I was being a dick. I was running late for work and I'd forgotten what day it was. I'm Dean.”
A jumble of people pushed through the door and toward them. Dean stood up with a cursory glance to the bar stool next to Castiel. “D’you mind? Let them sit together.”
Castiel slid over. Dean tipped back his whiskey, allowing Castiel a perfect view of his throat. Castiel had an urge to run his tongue along it, peel back the leather jacket and taste the contours of Dean’s neck.
“Another?” The bartender asked. Dean shook his head.
“Switching to beer. You want one?”
“Mmm, yes,” Castiel said, in a pleasant, hazy state. Like floating. He wasn’t angry anymore. Gabriel would finish his “date” soon, but with Dean a foot away, Castiel wasn’t about to leave for home. Yes, Dean had someone, which meant Castiel was an “other,” but he was drunk and didn’t care because Dean was smiling at him, the line of his teeth turning Castiel’s insides molten. It had been so long since someone, anyone looked at him that way.
They drank three beers. Castiel learned that Dean was a master mechanic with an MBA from KU. He owned a shop in town and a classic Chevy and had plans to take a road trip to California to visit his brother, who’d just had a baby (incidentally, also the name of his car). Castiel babbled about Chicago, about the weather and his former firm and the family he never spoke to, and confided his dislike of deep-dish pizza.
Dean offered to teach Castiel to shoot pool, which meant Dean wrapped around him from behind and put his hand on top of Castiel's hand. Castiel felt his breath and the heat of Dean’s body, and when the yellow-striped 9-ball dropped into the side pocket, he took back every negative thought he'd had about Valentine's Day and his brother’s flower shop with the ridiculous name.
“You've never seen Indiana Jones?”
Dean was inexplicably on the wrong side of the table, and looked at Castiel as though he expected him to answer. That’s right; they’d been talking.
“No,” Castiel said, and was struck by a genius idea. He cast his pool cue aside. “I have a high-definition TV.”
“Yeah?” Dean leaned into the pool table and licked his lips. “How far’s your place?”
“I live above the shop.”
“Awesome,” Dean said. “Let’s get outta here. You good to walk?”
The room spun and Castiel’s vision lagged a second behind his movements, but his legs worked just fine. He struggled into his coat and left a fat tip on the bar.
The cold air stung his nose and throat. The nearest street light was out, so they picked their way by the cracked eye of the moon. Dean took his elbow to navigate them across a patch of ice, and held up his phone to illuminate Castiel's struggle with the door lock.
The apartment was dark. Gabriel was asleep or he was out. Castiel gracelessly stumbled inside. He’d never brought anyone back here. He wasn't sure if he was bringing someone back now, or if he’d actually propositioned Dean for Netflix—was the movie even available on Netflix?—but either was better than spending the night alone.
His overcoat slithered from his arms to pool at his ankles; keys clattered into the ceramic bowl. Dean’s hands framed his face and Dean kissed him against the door.
Not Netflix, then. Castiel melted into him, his body as loose as the scotch had made his tongue. Dean tasted of campfire smoke and the stale, bitter aftertaste of beer. Of salt. Castiel moaned, too drunk to be embarrassed—his ex had encouraged discretion, but the sound only served to invigorate Dean, who swept his tongue along the seam of Castiel’s lips.
His parents hadn't spoken to him since his move to Kansas. Intellectually, he knew it was a sort of warfare: emotional starvation. Ultimately, he would crack. He had, after the affair in high school, when the track coach discovered him with a teammate, back against the tiled shower wall in the locker room, his hands on him. Hands that felt right, setting fires under his skin.
Dean’s hands felt like that now, igniting a firestorm that burned away the lingering shame. Castiel felt clean.
He fell to his knees. This wasn’t the worship his mother had commanded, but surely worshipping Dean Winchester was to praise God. He unbuttoned Dean’s pants and reverently worked the zipper, and when Dean’s fingers tangled in his hair, Castiel buried his face in Dean’s heat and his scent and was lost.
But Dean pushed him away, gently—he dug for his wallet and pulled out a square packet. Castiel flushed; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so careless. Probably college. Dean rolled the condom down and stroked Castiel’s hair. He felt and tasted like rubber, but the heat was the same. Castiel bobbed and bobbed and let it warm him, drool pooling on his chin. His knees ached, but he wouldn’t stop as long as Dean continued to gasp his name.
But he must have stopped, because he blinked and was on his back, on the couch, and Dean was kissing him.
“Been driving me crazy,” Dean whispered, lips brushing Castiel’s ear. “You have no idea.”
But he did, he did have an idea. He wrapped his arms around Dean’s neck and kissed back, hard, pulling him down, only the couch began to rock. It tipped him backwards and the room pitched, like a ship, the motion setting his stomach churning. The roar of blood was a storm in his ears and he was going to be sick.
He pushed Dean off and crawled to the bathroom. The cold porcelain was a blessing against his cheek.
Dean said something through the door. He knocked and came in with water. It cleared the taste but didn’t ease the shameful burn in Castiel’s throat. The fire under his skin had gone out. Dean sat on the floor with his back against the door and watched, and waited.
Castiel leaned his forehead on the toilet rim and wished Dean would go, back to his classic car and his three-bedroom house, to the woman he’d sent a dozen yellow lies in a cut-glass vase.
The headache was the first thing he registered. A headache, and insistent thirst.
Gabriel must have found him and put him to bed. It would be humiliating with anyone else, but he’d found Gabriel in numerous scandalous positions and Castiel had never breathed a word of it, just disinfected countertops and righted pillows, and made coffee for a string of one-night stands.
He would never drink again. In fact, he might still be drunk. He vomited and brushed his teeth, and showered, scrubbing the stink of the bar and sex and the ghost of Dean’s hands.
God, what a fool he’d made of himself.
The shower helped. He felt marginally human, but bending over for his clothes was too great a feat. He’d dress after coffee. He shuffled to the living room, shocked by Dean Winchester’s presence on his couch. He slept with his mouth open, an arm across his eyes, the leather jacket spread over his chest as a blanket.
Castiel’s relative nakedness felt obscene, in spite of what they’d said and done to one another in the dark, in a liquor-soaked euphoria. He tightened the towel and quietly stepped back, heel catching on a loose floorboard. The squeak ratcheted Dean’s eyes open. He cracked a grin, kneading his eyes with the meat of his palms, and pulled semi-upright.
“Hey, champ. How’re you feeling?”
Castiel’s voice came out rough. “Like I drank a liquor store.”
“Some grease’ll fix that. You work today?”
“It’s my day off.” Dean gave him an easy grin. “You, uh. Wanna get breakfast?”
Castiel cleared his throat. “Dean, I'm sorry. It was inappropriate of me to ask you here last night.”
Dean hid his wince in a blink, expression shuttered as he sat up. He pulled on his jacket.
“It’s cool.” He spoke toward the floor, toward his boots as he tightened the laces. “I'll be out of your hair in a minute.”
This felt wrong; the rejection in Dean’s voice felt wrong, even though he was doing the right thing. Castiel squeezed his fists so hard they throbbed.
“I—would you like coffee?”
“Don't worry about it.”
“I'm going to make a pot. I'll pour you a cup if you’d like one.”
Dean looked at him with a blank stare, his throat working. Castiel knew its flavor and contour and blushed at the evidence his teeth had left behind.
“Yeah,” Dean said after a minute. “Thanks.”
He followed Castiel into the kitchen. Castiel scooped coffee into the filter.
“Yeah. Had to make sure I didn't need to drive you to the ER. You drank a hell of a lot more than I did.”
“I appreciate your concern.” He pressed the button to start the machine. “I don't typically imbibe, but it was a long day, and my brother needed the apartment for a few hours.”
“You don't need to apologize.”
Dean drank his coffee in silence. Castiel was sick over the fringe of his eyelashes, how they’d brushed against his cheek in the dark. Their mugs were empty before Dean spoke again.
“I gotta get home, grab a shower. Thanks for…Guess I'll see you around.”
Castiel nodded, and didn’t look up, not when he heard the clatter of Dean’s mug on the counter or the front door’s sad, empty thud.
Dean didn’t come into the flower shop the following Monday, or the Monday after that. When Castiel spotted a long, black Chevrolet going north on Massachusetts three weeks later, he coveted the anonymity of a big city and jogged south.
He tied bouquets of week-old flowers every Monday and guessed as to the one Dean would have selected.
“This is embarrassing,” Gabriel said after two months. “You don't even know who the flowers were for.”
“He sent roses.”
“Red roses are associated with romance and courtship.”
“You said they were yellow.”
“We were out of red,” Castiel muttered.
“He could have a sister, or maybe they’re for his mother—I sent mom roses. They're probably composting on her front lawn as we speak.”
“I’d imagine they were in her bedroom. My last Christmas at home, that’s where she put them.”
Gabriel’s face softened. “Yeah?”
Gabriel let that sink in for a beat, and then he said, “But back to my original point, you assumed he has a girlfriend and, as a result, you’ve been moping around my shop for two months—and I don’t get to see loverboy’s ass every week.”
“You’re not gay.”
“I can appreciate good aesthetics.” Gabriel flicked a Skittle at his head. “You know where he works. Call him.”
“I can’t just call him out of the blue.”
“You can, actually. That's how telephones work.”
Castiel shot him a seething look. Gabriel shoveled a palmful of Skittles into his mouth.
“If you don't call,” he grinned, holding up a phone number scrawled on the back of a receipt, “I will.”
A woman named Mary answered the phone.
Castiel stuttered his request despite the thundering in his chest—was Dean available? But Mary said he wasn't in yet. He hadn't felt well that morning, so she’d left him at home. He should be in soon. Could she take a message?
Castiel slammed the phone into its cradle and choked on his disappointment and wished he’d never listened to Gabriel.
Dean blew into the shop just after five like a tempest, with wind-whipped hair and a look of furious consternation. He slapped his palms on the counter.
“Are you too good to leave a message?”
“Caller ID, Cas. What do you want?”
To feel Dean’s hands again, be pushed against a wall. To have Dean’s number in his phone.
“You stopped coming in,” he said, refusing to wilt under Dean’s stare. “I was...concerned.”
“Concerned? You've got one hell of a way of showing it.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“My mom said some guy called for me this morning, but when she said I wasn't available, he hung up. So she looked up the number. Didn't take a genius to realize it was you.”
“It could have been Gabriel,” Castiel pointed out.
“Gabriel doesn’t know my name.”
“Correctamundo.” Gabriel thrust his hand across the counter. “Gabriel Novak. So, Freckles. You're the reason my little bro has been such a righteous pain in the ass.”
Castiel seethed. Gabriel winked at him and continued.
“Look, it's a slow day. Why don't you two kids get out of here, take your pants off. I’ll man the phones.”
Castiel made coffee upstairs. He kept his pants on.
“Were you adopted?” Dean asked from the table.
“Gabriel is the black sheep of the family. But he's the one who took me in, so I suppose I tolerate a lot from him.”
“My old man—he wasn't real open minded.”
They didn't say anything for a few sips.
“So you work with your mother?” Castiel asked.
“Ever since my dad died. I like turning wrenches, but I hate covering phones. Gives her something to do.”
“How long ago did he pass away?”
“It'll be a year next month. Been hard on my mom. I moved back in with her; my brother didn’t want her to be lonely, but he lives across the country. That's why he got so pissed when I screwed up Valentine's Day. I thought he was taking care of the flowers, but it turned out I was supposed to order them.”
Castiel stilled around a mouthful of coffee. He swallowed. “Those were for your mother.”
“Yeah, I get her flowers every week...” Dean sat back with a funny look on his face. “You thought I was seeing someone?”
“It's not uncommon in this line of work. I’ve learned part of my job is discretion.”
Dean’s expression was dark. “So, you think I’m the kinda guy who sends flowers to someone while I’m fucking someone else?”
“I knew you sent roses to someone on Valentine's Day. I knew we were drunk—”
“Didn't stop you from taking me home.”
Castiel hung his head. “No, it didn't.”
“Is that the reason you said you regretted it? Cause you thought I had someone at home?”
“Yes,” Castiel said.
“It’s not ‘cause you’re Narnia-deep in the closet or because of the type of work I do?”
“What? No, of course not.”
“I looked you up. Fancy law degree—my brother’s an attorney. It’s good money. The hell are you doing in this town?”
Castiel shrugged. “It was this or jump off a thirty-story building. I decided selling flowers was preferable to suicide.”
Dean was quiet for a minute. “You still feel like that?”
“No,” Castiel said.
“Okay. How ‘bout we start over,” Dean said. “You want to grab dinner?”
“I defrosted chicken this morning.” Castiel looked over his shoulder at the refrigerator and realized Dean could interpret his words as a rejection. “We never watched that movie,” he added.
In the morning, Alfie delivered an impressive bouquet to Mary Winchester on Briarwood Drive, and Castiel brought Dean coffee in bed. He took the day off.