He has a face like a fallen angel and a drifter's possessive gait, walking tall like he owns and spurns everything the eye can see. No, stop. No more romanticizing. This is why you decided to stop writing fiction. You'll need to be more economical with your language when there are deadlines and word counts involved; lyrical precision will have to take a back seat to cold hard fact. He's just a good-looking guy and he's headed this way. He's looking past you and you cut your eyes sideways to watch him go when suddenly, one angled shoulder later, he's standing right in front of you. "You're a writer," he says, and his eyes move down you briskly, straight back up to your face, and you expected feigned hesitation in the voice and ill-concealed lasciviousness in the gaze but you find neither.
"Journalist, actually," you bristle. He nods. You give in. "How did you know?"
A small smile appears on his face. "You've got ink on your lip," he replies, gesturing briefly but leaving some space between the two of you. He hasn't touched you at all, hasn't allowed the jostling of the frat-party crowd to sway him into you.
You stick your hand out. "I'm Cassie."
He ignores it and now you're wondering if he was raised in a barn. "Not Cassandra," he says, again with certainty in his dark voice. It's getting a little annoying. His smile, perversely, gets wide and amused and sincere. "A teller of truths no one wants to hear. That's no name for a journalist."
There's a time and a place for Greek mythology and you wonder if this is all an elaborate April Fool's prank, if this guy can possibly be for real.
"Come see your namesake with me," he says, and even though you know better than to leave a party with a strange man who still hasn't offered you a name, you're sorely tempted. Because although it's nearly midnight, his voice is like autumn sunshine shot through with lazy dust motes, and you'd be getting to see the stars with the sun at your side; you'd get to be Sally Ride.
"Let me get my bag," you say and he doesn't even brush softly against you as he heads for the back door.
Brandon corners you as you wander into his room to retrieve your bag and coat from the piles on the bed. "Taking off so soon?" he asks, and you shrug a goodbye his way. It's easier than trying to explain the nameless man, the drifting angel, to him and you squeeze by him because he's too drunk to remember to get out of your way. You weave through the crowd and finally make it into the chilly spring air.
He's doing his best caryatid impression and he almost blends into the background. When he sees you, he looks intent, and he suddenly stands out again; you shift half a step closer without really meaning to. Something about him is throwing you off-balance. "Do me a favor?" you ask, handing him your bag so you can wind your scarf around your throat properly without getting it tangled in your hair. You keep your eyes down as you work your hair free, as you button your coat, as you pull on your gloves, and he waits patiently for you to get settled.
When you look up, he's looking at you, not coy or cocky, not insinuating or calculating, just looking. He's not playing by the rules so you don't have to either. You look back. Seconds slide by in silence and you're surprised to hear yourself ask, "Can you really find Cassiopeia?"
Even in the dim light you can see that something behind his eyes shakes loose a little at the question. He raises his chin slightly and falls into step just behind you as you walk to the field behind the chapel. "Stop," he says and tilts his head up. "Big Dipper, Polaris, Cassiopeia," he recites, not bothering to point. He looks lost in contemplation and you're not sure he remembers you're there. His throat is long and muscular and somehow tender and you can see the stubble dusting his strong jaw. You get dizzy, and you look straight up at the sky to give yourself an excuse for it.
All you see are hundreds of lights, no patterns at all, and you remember snuggling back against Dad's chest as the two of you perched on the picnic rock and he told you stories of the stars and you listened with your eyes closed because you could see it all so much more clearly that way. Cassiopeia was a queen you remember; see, there's her throne. And she was beautiful. And she had a beautiful daughter Dad said and cuddled you extra tight. "Andromeda," he says, and you're brought sharply back to earth. He's moved a step closer and he smells like soap and frost, cold and clean. The strap of your bag is sliding slowly off his shoulder.
A loud howling arises behind you and you jump a little before turning back to him and smiling wryly, "Frathouse row." He shrugs noncommittally as shouts of "Class of 2003!" echo through the night air. "I should get going," you say, unable to look him in the eye any longer.
He hitches your bag a little more securely to him and nods, "It's late. I'll walk you home." You're not worried about the frat boys or the hour, but you're not about to protest either.
You're too busy feeling like Orpheus, straining to hear Eurydice's footsteps trailing along behind, to breach the silence he's blanketed himself in. He's effortless as a shadow, and you don't need to speak or gesture at all to guide the way. He may be able to see in the dark with his cat's eyes, but you can't, and as you turn to face him you wish you'd left your porch light on just so you could see what he'd look like with a halo. There's enough light for you to take the canvas bag he holds out to you; you balance it on your hip as you tug off your gloves, you dip your head even though you always find your keys by touch rather than sight.
But your fingers are failing you now, and you grunt a little in frustration as they begin another sweep, trailing delicately through crumbs and over paperbacks and a dented water bottle. "Can't find my keys," you stammer. The faint lines of a frown are marring his forehead as he catches your eye.
You're relieved that he's not hectoring you with the litany of questions everyone feels compelled to ask – "where did you see them last?" "don't you have a spare set hidden somewhere?" "are you sure you had them this morning?" – and you wonder briefly if his reticence is borne of his belief in your stupidity or in deference to your agitation. You could swear you'd heard your keys jingling when you'd swung your bag off Brandon's bed. "I think I can get you in," he says, and he's gone from looking dismayed to confident. "And if I can," he continues, beginning to circle your little house assessingly, as if he's both appalled and amused by its meager defenses, "you need to talk to your landlord about putting bars on all your windows, not just the ones on the first floor."
He swings himself up, carelessly balanced on the slender porch railing as he reaches up with his eyes and fingertips. Even in his shitkicker boots, he's finding toeholds in the stone, and he moves slowly and steadily up. It seems like you've spent your whole evening this way, with your head tilted up, but you can't stop watching him. His jacket swings out a little and you can see that the pockets of his coat and pants are stuffed with small objects. His jeans are worn, shiny and rubbed down to white thread in places, and they are settled on him like butter melting from the heat of a roll. They distend briefly as he digs in a pocket for a butterfly knife, and he's gripping the windowsill with one hand and working the knife with the other; he clicks his tongue as he closes the knife and nudges the window open with the heel of his hand. He's got one foot planted on the hardwood floor of your bedroom and the other long leg dangling out the window and he bends at the waist in a taut flamenco curve and glides fully inside as if he's choreographed and rehearsed this scene.
You walk to the front door that he's already opened and see him in the living room, pivoting slowly, weight on one heel, looking at your art prints and the signs you carried in protest marches. You step by him on your way to the kitchen and automatically put the kettle on. You applaud your subconscious for giving you a job to do. He follows and sits down at the battered table that Dad hauled out of Gramma Rose's basement for you. You busy yourself preparing the tea tray, setting out the china Mom shipped you for your twenty-first birthday. You love the way the prim white cups look so coolly demure when they're full, that the earthy redness of their interiors is only revealed as time stretches out and tea and companionship are savored; you're too accustomed to finding symbolism in novels to ignore it in real life. He watches you put gentility on display as you align cups on saucers and straighten out the sugar bowl. "You have your mother's hands," he says, and you turn to find his green gaze trained on the snapshot of her at the piano, pale familiar fingers arched and powerful, striking twin D-minor chords three octaves apart.
Your tongue is tied and his hands are wrapped around his teacup and he smiles and you swallow scorching liquid. He clears his throat. "I should go," he says and stands, sliding his full cup away from the table's edge.
He's almost at the door when you catch up, pull him close by his leather lapels, and reach up to kiss him. His lips part in surprise, and he tastes like clear water. You wonder what he was doing at Brandon's party if he wasn't looking for a hookup or alcohol. And then his tongue comes into play and he's kissing you senseless with that lovely wet mouth and he's cradling your face in strong, rough hands.
And then he's out the door.
He's the last person you expected to see when you walk into the library the next morning. He's curled uncomfortably into one of the hard wooden chairs, frowning slightly at the words he's reading. He sits up, flexes his back, and settles back again, his eyes moving steadily down the page all the while. When you see how automatically his jaw shifts the pen in his mouth so that he can read around it, you realize that this is no mere pantomime of industry; when you get lost in a book, your fingers steal up and braid and twist your hair into unnamable shapes. He's not going anywhere for awhile, if the pile of frayed books in front of him is any indication, and you've got work of your own to do.
A few hours later, you would kill for a cup of hot chocolate. You put away your notes and stretch and glance back at his table. It's empty and you whip your head around, just in time to see him leaving the library. You follow him out into the sunlight, watching the way he moves. The sunshine is casting harsh shadows, and the starkly alternating light and dark play havoc with your eyes. You can't see him ahead of you anymore, but you keep moving in that direction just in case. Just as you pass the writing center, a hand shoots out and grasps your arm. There he is, leaning against the brick building, and something about him must make you a little wild because you're on him before he says a word. He's picking you up, shifting but not breaking the kiss, and the heels of his hands are hot on your hips, fingers splayed against your ass, and all you want to do is kiss him like this for weeks on end. When you come up for air, his eyes are level with yours. "It's Dean," he says softly. Before you can speak his name, he breaks the fog around you with a sharp grin. He smacks a quick kiss on your lips. "And Cassie, you weigh approximately a ton," he says, lowering you back down.
"Jackass," you laugh, and he's captured your open mouth, drawing sighs from you with his, hands holding your face this time. You could get lost like this. You think you will.
"Come by tonight?" you ask when you finally have the wherewithal to speak.
"Ah, Cassie," he murmurs regretfully, drawing your name out without a trace of sibilance, another unusual skill to add to the tally in your head. "I can't tonight."
"Come home with me now then," you press, taking the heavy sweetness of his mouth once again.
His hands and lips are hot on you, tracing promises all along your too-boyish body, and your head is thrown back, your eyes are closed, your fingers are digging into his wide shoulders, and you're whimpering as he works you to a frenzy. But he doesn't need momentum; it's when he slows and stills, eyes smiling up at you as he rests his chin just below your navel, on the only femininely soft spot of your lean and rangy body, that your eyes and throat open, and you are crying, pulling him back up your body, and moaning his name into his mouth. "Dean," you say, and he transforms before your tilted gaze. It's as if the warm spring light has decided to stop acting as particles, little spotlights, and chosen instead to revert to a wave, washing over him, lending him a haze he doesn't need, and you're dangerously close to being bewitched by how his shining bronze hair has softened to fawn, how his emerald eyes have subsided into the lushness of moss. "Dean," you plead, and he locks his elbows and holds himself sweetly above you, eyes on yours.
The charm around his neck rests heavily in the hollow of your throat. You arch up to kiss the tip of his nose, shimmering with freckles, and twist to nip at his jaw, tongue rasping along his stubble. He takes his revenge on your throat and throws one of your legs over his shoulder. Your fists are in his hair, like velvet brushed against the grain, as he moves inexorably down. The flat of his tongue is unbearably hot against you, as he strokes back and forth like a cat lapping up milk, but you're the one who's mewling, writhing, heels ascending and descending on the ladder of his spine. You mingle his name with blessings and blasphemies as you come, and he moves in accord with you, shifting and rolling so that you rise up over him and his hands drape over your hips, clutching at your flesh as you begin to move. You've never been more perfectly balanced and you find the rhythm that blows his pupils into wide, defenseless black holes, the thinnest strip of gold around them. Your hands seek his and his hips snap up, and watching him lose control is what releases you a second time. He gathers you close, pulls you down with an arm around your back, two layers of sweat making your skin slick and sticky.
His very stillness is soporific, and you are sated to the point of drowsiness. The afternoon sun slants strongly against you, turning his pale skin deep gold, and you stretch and wind your arms around him, and sink into his warmth once more.
You wake at twilight to an empty house.
The morning is grey and dim, and as you pass through the rooms of your little house, flipping light switches as you go, you feel your mind rousing itself, stretching eagerly in anticipation of the day's work. Hunting down the leads in the footnotes from the last round of research has left you with two books and a long article to read. You settle on the couch with the photocopies in your hand, drawing up the old ink-stained blanket to cover your lap.
Hours later, your brain is tired from too much thinking and your fingers are cramped from too much writing. You're just settling down to watch bad TV and maybe be lulled to sleep on the couch by the sound of the rain when there's a knock at the door. You open it and see Dean smiling at you, wide eyes drifting up to take in your flannel pajama bottoms, shapeless T-shirt, and glasses. His gaze rests on your head gently and you realize you must have been playing with your hair as you wrote. Your hand steals up to confirm the presence of several strange twists and braids and your jaw goes a little slack in horror. He grins puckishly and tips his head forward, saying, "Do me!"
And there's heat kindling in you just like that, at the sight of the soft dimples bracketing his mouth. You reach out and get a good grip on his thick, damp hair. "Gladly," you murmur and pull him close.
It's a good thing you know your little gamekeeper's cottage so well, because he's backing you up the spiral staircase and you can't hold on to anything but him. Your bedroom is dark, the clouds letting through only a little moonlight, and you pull off his clothes and let them fall with wet slaps against the floor. He gets your shirt off and smiles against your mouth when he realizes you're not wearing a bra; he peels your pants and underwear down together, his ring catching cold on your flank. You shiver and he lays you down on your unmade bed and covers your body with his own. All that chilled golden skin is pressed to you and you stroke it greedily, letting his cool slim hips coax your legs open, letting the contact leech the warmth from your skin and spread it to his. Your hand rests on the back of his neck, still damp, as he pushes inside you, his head dipping to kiss behind the hinge of your jaw, and his eyelashes trail along your skin. You flex fiercely around him and he raises his head to look you in the eyes, to make sure. He draws back and then thrusts again, more forcefully, and you want more, more friction, more heat, more strength; his movements get sloppier, harder, sweeter, and your back arches bonelessly, wantonly. The light that suddenly shines behind your eyes takes you by surprise, and he groans as you gasp, and he bucks and lets the last of his control slip.
You must have been dreaming about Mom's cornbread because you wake convinced you can smell butter. You're brushing your teeth when you hear a faint scraping sound. You finish up quickly and pad quietly downstairs. Dean's sitting in your kitchen sharpening a knife. Your knife. His hair is damp and curly and he's wearing a faded red t-shirt and jeans. He's got one arm resting on Gramma Rose's table, which is covered with a long sheet of newspaper, and his feet on a second chair. His toes are long and crooked. There's a plate of buttered toast on the table, another plate piled high with apple eighths next to it. He looks up, unsurprised, as you appear and smiles around a mouthful of apple, his hands continuing their steady rhythm.
"Morning," you say, sitting in the chair he pulls his feet off. He nods at the food and you reach across him to snag a piece of fruit. He sets down the whetstone, pulls a cloth from his back pocket, and rubs briskly along the blade; he folds the sheet of newsprint crisply to trap all the filings and grit inside. You pull the plates closer to you and hold out an apple slice to him. He grasps it with his teeth and gets up to throw the newspaper away.
When he sits back down, he hooks his feet around the legs of your chair and drags it close. He crunches on toast, swiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. He pulls the remainder of the newspaper to him and opens the national news section. The silence is peaceful, and you're almost wondering if this is all a dream. You take the last slice of apple and lick your sticky fingers clean, regarding him contemplatively. His face is clean-shaven, his skin scrubbed and pink, the freckles he probably hates winding merrily along the bridge of his nose and cheeks. There's a new constellation of holes in the jeans he's wearing; they can't be the ones you threw to the floor last night. You frown a little, certain he hadn't been carrying a bag.
The campus chapel bells peal out solemnly, interrupting your reverie. "Oh, shit," you mumble, confirming your fears with a glance at his wristwatch. He looks up, quirks an interrogative eyebrow at you. "I missed my bus," you sigh. "Can you call for a cab? I'll just jump in the shower."
"My car's outside," he says, polishing off the last bite of toast, and even in your hurry you can't miss the pride in his voice at the possessive. You grin and run up the stairs.
You nearly wipe out when you step into the tub; its floor is treacherously wet. The soap is already slick, nearly jumping out of your hands, and the water beating down on you is set to the hottest temperature. It stings pleasurably on your back as you lean down to shave your legs.
He doesn't sing the hymns. His eyes are down, and his hands tug at his jacket, pick idly at the holes in his jeans, but you can tell he's paying attention to the sermon. You drag your gaze away from him and tune back in; you hear the verses from Genesis hover in the air around you. "Now Cain said to his brother Abel, 'Let's go out to the field.' And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?' 'I don't know,' he replied. 'Am I my brother's keeper?' The Lord said, 'What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.'" The hard wood of the pew is biting into your flesh and you shift uncomfortably.
Dean's eyes are sparking hotly when the congregation rises to leave and he won't meet your gaze. He gets up and turns to lead the way out of the pew; the leather of his jacket is too thick for you to be able to gauge the degree of tension in the set of his shoulders. "Cassiopeia," you hear, and Dean stops short. He turns his head slightly, enough to get you in his peripheral vision, but the pew is too narrow for you to squeeze by him and get between him and Aunt Cora.
It's too soon for this inspection; you should have been quicker at hustling him out the heavy double doors. But you were wondering what about the sermon had gotten him so fierce, and now he's on display before her inquisitive eyes, magnified and disconcertingly split behind her thick bifocals. You might as well get this over with. "Aunt Cora," you smile, "this is Dean." You don't let yourself think about the fact that you haven't asked his last name, what he does, or how long he plans to stick around; you fix your mind on the things you know, the kisses and the kindnesses, and continue smoothly. "Dean, this is my aunt, Cora –" is as far as you get before she cuts you off.
"Dean," she nods, unsmiling. She heard everything you didn't say, and she's looking up at him, waiting with her arms crossed. It's clearly a test. You remember with sudden trepidation the last boy she faced down, who tried to call her "Aunt Cora" and got an earful about respect and family; he'd never called you again. You find yourself waiting for Dean's response.
You can only see the curve of his cheek, the way he bends his head as the fight goes out of him. "Miss Cora," he says tiredly, holding out his hand, "I hope the day is treating you well."
She puts her tiny hand in his and looks at the mud on his boots, the holes in his jeans, the slump of his shoulders. She studies his face. "It is indeed," she finally says. She smiles, draws her fingers from his, and steps aside. His footsteps are measured as you walk out of the church, but he's moving like he's hollow.
He tunes the radio to static and leaves it there for all thirty minutes of the drive back to your house. One inquisition is more than enough, and you don't want to ambush him with all of the questions you should have asked before you climbed him like a tree and took him to your bed. You gaze out the window at the familiar landscape speeding by, looking more like a watercolor than real life.
He pulls up as close to your house as he can get but doesn't shift out of drive. He's not quite looking at you, but you give him a smile anyway. He must have caught it because his own mouth twitches slightly before he turns away.
You walk into your house alone.
Your email inbox is tediously slow to load, and when it finally comes up, you scroll through Amish spring break jokes and party invitations, wondering what Aunt Cora had seen to make her turn kind. Halfway down the list of unread messages is one from Professor Tey. Her father's been hospitalized, and she won't be able to attend the conference in Ithaca this week; she wants to know if you will deliver her paper at the panel. You know quite well that she's only asking you because all of the grad students are entirely occupied with grading papers and defending their dissertations; still, it's a tremendous honor and one you can't refuse without good cause. You write back to accept.
Your own deadline is looming a little larger now, and you settle down to work.
You've got six more pages drafted when Dean knocks on your door. He's got a duffel bag in his hand; his hips shift restlessly but his eyes meet yours steadily. You get up on tiptoe and kiss him, fingers sliding along his forearms. "I've still got work to do," you whisper, and he nods.
When you finally get upstairs, he's asleep: features soft, one hand under his pillow, and looking as lost as he did when he had his face tilted up to the stars.
He's doing push-ups on the back patio when you stumble sleepily down the stairs the next morning, missing his warmth against your back. The snick of the sliding glass door is nearly silent, but he's already aware of you, smiling up at you as his charm beats steadily against his breast, as his elbows lock and release. There's a cool breeze pulling lightly at you but you ignore your chills when Dean rises up and walks toward you. He grins companionably at you, stopping short when you continue to stand in his way. "Morning," he tries, but that only makes you more aware of how the early sunshine licks at his bare shoulders, turns the black of his boxer-briefs to well-worn grey. You look up at his puzzled face.
You step closer still, clasping his hands in your own, and kiss him. His tongue is thick and talented, making slow, deliberate strokes against your own. You circle his waist with your arms, pinning his hands together at the small of his back, and he moves willingly with you, ending up flush against your chest. It's the languid seductiveness of his kiss, contrarily, that makes you giddily aware of his power, coiled within him, voluntarily bound by your hold on him. He's content to stand pinioned, half in and half out of your house, wholly in your arms. You could get lost like this; it's too much. You pull your head and hands back.
There's a furious struggle making itself plain on his face. The ease with which you can read him is almost unpleasant; it feels too intimate somehow. You back away, a few steps, retreating into the kitchen. He hasn't dropped his gaze. "Cassie, I . . ." he says, and your back is against the refrigerator. It vibrates against you. His eyes clear and he keeps them open as he steps close and presses his lips to your jaw. He plucks delicately at your glasses, sliding them up so that he can brush his mouth over your eyelid, moving on to the tip of your nose, skipping your lips to rest, warm and soft, over the pulse-point of your throat. He's saying something, but you don't know how to break his silent code.
"Love you," you hear, but it's your own voice, chanting it over and over, and your fingers scrabble desperately at his freckled skin, trying to pull him close, willing him to stop your mouth, to tell you everything you need to know. It's your frustrated, half-choked whimper that guides his mouth to yours, and he finally leans all the way in, pressing you between the warm low hum of the fridge and the golden heat of his scarred body.
You're doing your usual Monday evening ritual – cursing yourself out for scheduling four classes and a few tutoring sessions at the writing center in one day just so you can have your Fridays off – when you walk into your house. The sounds coming from your bedroom are so anomalous that you stop in your tracks, lingering at the foot of the stairs with your head cocked, ignoring the weight of your bag and the fact that your feet are killing you. There's a brief pause and then it starts up again and you dump your stuff and make your way up the stairs, walking into the bedroom to find Dean sitting Indian-style on the floor, an array of small tools spread in front of him on a stained and threadbare towel, as he fiddles with a cheap-looking walkman. He's singing along loudly to the cassette in your stereo, sounds you don't recognize and would hesitate to classify as music. It's just noise, cock rock, strident and invasive, the inanity of the lyrics' macho posturing concealed beneath relentless, thumping, simplistic rhythms. You roll your eyes and toe off your shoes. The floor is cool and soothing beneath you and you ease the kinks from your shoulders, stretch your back, and look again. It's different this time. He is exuberant, his strong voice perfectly pitched, soaring and falling with the music, making you hear the melody buried in the twisted wreckage of heavy metal. He turns the walkman over in his broad hands, giving it a final inspection. The song fades out on the umpteenth repetition of the chorus and he sets the walkman down and says, "C'mere." You pad over and lean down. He doesn't rise to meet you halfway, and it's further down than you'd intended to go; his hands find your elbows and his grip is firm and sure as he buttresses your unsteady weight. As your mouth finds his your precariously pinned hair comes loose, tumbling down around his face, so that you're kissing him in the dark again, with only errant threads of light poking through.
You lift your head and he pushes, smoothly setting you back on your feet. "I've got news," you say, just as the cassette stops with a loud click. "What were you listening to?"
He shrugs. "Just a mix tape I made in high school. What's the news?"
"I'm flying to Ithaca tomorrow." He starts to pack up his tools, fingers a shade too nimble. You turn away from his clipped, controlled movements. You hit eject on your stereo and the tape deck opens; cassette in one hand, you pick up the battered plastic case with the other. There aren't any song titles scribbled on the cover but the spine says MIX TAPE #11. The inside fold, against which the cassette would normally nestle, bears markings in what must be Dean's handwriting, in several different colors of ink, print easing into script on each line, strong rather than neat. Bolus, Oregon. Pixley, Arkansas. Lowry, New Mexico. Orlo, Minnesota. Bellavista, South Carolina. Thalia, Vermont. Roxiticus, New Jersey. "One of my professors asked me to deliver her paper at a conference there," you continue, and you hear him slowing down a bit, listening. "I fly out tomorrow morning and I'll be back on Sunday."
He stops altogether. "This a big deal?" he asks, starting to smile. You nod, then shrug, and he laughs at your demurral. "Congratulations, smartypants." He sprawls back, weight on his hands, all casual ease now. "Want to celebrate tonight?"
"Yes." You decide that springing a surprise on him will be easier for you if you're wearing comfy clothes. You head into the walk-in closet and strip off the skirt you wore in an effort to convince Professor Tey you can dress like an adult. You slip on your oldest, rattiest sweatpants and the sweatshirt you made in home ec in seventh grade. You walk back into the bedroom to find the impromptu workshop cleared away and Dean lying on his stomach on the bed. His chin is propped up on his stacked fists and his eyes are closed and you allow yourself a shiver of pleased wonder that he is here, in your bed. He doesn't stir, so you give yourself another moment of contemplation, and you can't believe you didn't notice it the second you walked through the door. "What's got you all lit up?" you ask, making your way over to the bed, laying a hand on his soft hair.
"You look . . . happy." He looks lighter than you've ever seen him, and he opens his eyes and they are warm as they rest on you. He rolls over onto his back, scooting across the bed to give you room to perch. His shirt rides up a little to reveal the smooth jut of one hipbone. It fits your hand perfectly.
"My dad called. He's safe. He'll be here in about a week."
"Safe? Was he in danger?" You haven't seen anything about a big accident or disaster – plane crash, tornado, something – on the news.
"Always. He's always in danger, Cassie," he says, and you meet his eyes. "He's a private investigator. I work with him. He's been on a case in California for the past few weeks, and he finally finished it this morning."
"Oh." It's frankly bizarre, hearing Dean say so much; you're already accustomed to figuring out his moods from his face. "That's why . . . the knife."
"Yeah. That's why the knife," he agrees, as if what you've said makes perfect sense. He holds out his hand, whether to pull himself up or to drag you down, you don't know. You hold yours out anyway and he tucks it inside both his own, warm and firm. After a moment like that he shifts his grip so that you are shaking hands. "Dean Winchester at your service," he says quietly, not a hint of playfulness in his manner.
You pull on his hand and he sits up. You thread your fingers through his hair and kiss him soundly, feeling him relax bone by bone. "Remember that celebration you mentioned?" He nods and lets a libidinous grin stretch his pretty mouth. "You're meeting my girlfriends tonight," you inform him and watch as the wicked smile disappears. It seems he's not above pouting. Before he can actually start to whine, you cut him off. "We get together every Monday night. Boyfriends – while they last – need to be checked out." His face goes blank. You tilt your head to the side as if you're inspecting him for flaws. "Don't worry; I think you'll pass." Ever so slowly, he rearranges his features into a face only a mother gargoyle could love. "Nice try, lover," you murmur, letting him lie back down and pull you on top of him, and he hums as he bites your lower lip and stops your giggling.
His long lithe body had been pliant beneath your hands, his happiness lighting up his face and lightening his limbs. Time ceased to be important when his hips rolled languorously against you, when the heat of his skin was insistent on you, but it ticked inexorably on without you.
You know you're not one of those girls who blows off her friends the minute she lands a man; you refuse to be. Nevertheless, the uncomfortable sheen of guilt lies irrefutably on your skin, and you stare out the car window, hoping to distract yourself. Professor Tey's radio is tuned to NPR, and her voice slips through the pauses, explaining the conference schedule to you, chatting about the colleagues she'd been hoping to meet once more. You must be nodding and murmuring appropriately, because she smiles, friendly and pleased. You've read through the paper you'll be presenting several times, most recently this morning, out loud, to banish the silence that seemed to swoop down around you when you realized Dean was gone.
And you're definitely not one of those girls who sulks over a lost kiss goodbye.
The conference is surprisingly engaging. Suddenly you're able to put faces to the names that have only shown up in your bibliographies, speak to people whose work you're using for your thesis. You follow the crowds and hear ideas for books being born. It's not your world, not even a world you've dreamt of, but it opens up invitingly before you.
Your own time at the podium passes like a dream. You're wearing the red cotton blouse and long black wraparound skirt that made Dean's roguish eyes brighten the most when you modeled your grown-up clothes for him late that night, both of you grinning and giddy and lusty. Your voice is clear, pitched to reach the edges of the dismal hotel conference room, the cadences practiced, so that Professor Tey's words flow as if they are your own.
You treat yourself to room service and spread your thesis notes out over the scratchy, shiny surface of the pale blue bedspread. You've still got work to do.
His stillness gives him away. Everyone else in the airport crowd is jockeying for position, getting up on tiptoe, craning their necks to see who's approaching. He's easy to spot, the light on his leather jacket an unchanging dull gleam, hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans, head angled down and cocked as if he's relying on sound to find you. Everything seems to fall away, the loudspeaker's tinny blare fades, and your path to him is straight, your stride is unwavering. "I love you," he says, and leads the way to his car.
You don't say it back until you've got a hand on his warm chest, just below what looks like a recent knife-slash, to the left of an ellipsis of small, deep gouges, also new. You say it when you breathe his name against the bruise blossoming high on his cheekbone. You say it like you can keep him safe.
In the pearly morning light, with the sheets rumpled, you rediscover your favorite freckles, the tiny equilateral triangle on his right hip. You brush your nose against it, Eskimo kiss, then press your lips to the spot. His heavy-lidded eyes blink open. His hair is rumpled above his softly wavy hairline, and he stretches drowsily before rolling onto his back and cupping your head in his hands, fingers curling around your skull. Before he can pull you up his body, you move your head and take him into your mouth. He's warm and heavy and salty on your tongue, and his fingers twitch in your hair. You swirl your tongue and he mimics the motion with his hips, his head thrown helplessly back against the stark white pillow. His abs are trembling under one of your hands, and his bruised thigh fills the other. He's making sounds low in his throat as you work your mouth on him, sucking and scraping and savoring. You pull free when he starts to shake in earnest and watch his pulse flutter in his throat, his muscles spasm as he comes.
He'd looked like all of his sleepy strength had been sapped by your ministrations, so it's a shock when he pushes back the shower curtain and joins you under the spray. He's all slippery delight in your arms, biting whatever skin he finds as he turns you round and round, licking away the wounds he's created. That brazenly luscious mouth of his is a lethal weapon, you think dimly, when he pins your wrists against the tile above your head with one hand and lets it roam all over you again. His wet stubble scrapes against you when you cry out.
You're playing catch up in all your classes because of your jaunt to Ithaca, but your mind is on Dean. When you finally get home, he's in the kitchen making grilled cheese. He flips the sandwich in the saucepan and turns to you. You grab him by the front of his shirt to pull him close. The fabric, washed to faded softness, rips around your fist. "Oh," you say, startled by what you've done, "I'm sorry." His chest is exposed, framed by tattered black cloth that only serves to highlight all of the bruises he bears.
His eyes, startlingly green, meet your own. He can't keep his straight face for long. "'S okay," he grins sweetly and gives you the kiss you wanted. "Guess we won't be going out tonight," he says.
"Don't you have another shirt upstairs?" you ask, frowning dubiously as he shakes his head, obviously pleased with himself. The only shirt you own that would fit over his broad shoulders is currently at the bottom of your hamper; you haven't even unpacked your suitcase, let alone done a load of laundry. You're supposed to meet the girls in a few hours and you've already kept Dean a secret for long enough. He leaves you to your unsatisfactory thoughts and flips the sandwich onto a plate, setting another stack of bread, cheese, and tomato in the hot pan. He pulls the sandwich in half and offers one triangle to you. Your mouth is full when you remember the shirt Dad left last time he visited and Dean chokes a little when he sees your smug grin.
He has no idea how to hold hands. His grip is much too tight, bending your wrist awkwardly and squeezing all of your fingers together uncomfortably; his hand is wrapped around yours like you're dangling out a fifth-story window. You shake him loose and try again, braiding your fingers with his, and after a moment he relaxes his hold.
He tugs gently to steer you away from the stoplight. "Shortcut," he says; "nicest way to get between your place and Rick's house."
"Who's Rick?" you ask, smiling at his exposed wrists; Dean's apparently got a few inches on Dad in both height and breadth. The lavender dress shirt is pulled taut against his muscled back, and he's fidgeting a little in it, unaware of how it darkens his skin and makes his eyes luminous.
"Friend of my dad's. Been crashing with him since I got into town." He pulls you out of the shadows of imposing apartment complexes and into a large park. He drops your hand and wraps his arm around your waist, drawing you in close against his left side. You thread your fingers through the belt-loop at the small of his back. Daylight savings time means the sun is still bright, and you catch the blond hidden in his hair and glittering stubble. He can feel your gaze and he looks down, smiling. Then he stutter-steps and looks past you. "Dad?" he says, and you follow his eyeline. You see dark messy hair above a newspaper, and the fingers of the man's left hand curling around the pages just like Dean's do when he sits at your kitchen table; all that's different is the wedding ring. The man peers over his newspaper, apparently equally surprised. "Dad!" Dean laughs, incandescent with joy, and you realize how scared he must have been for his father. The newspaper is folded away, and you can see there was good reason for Dean's fear; his father's wearing bruises around his throat, red against his beard, and a cast on his right arm. Dean goes still and quiet. "How's Jill?" he asks.
"She's good," his dad smiles. "Real good. But I'd rather have had you backin' me up." He looks at Dean's arm, still comfortably cinched around you. "Must be the first time you're glad you had to stay behind, patch yourself up." They're not speaking in code, but you're having a hard time making sense of what you're hearing. You think back to Dean in your bed, that first time, supple skin brilliant in the hot sunlight, no recent injuries visible. You start to panic, wondering what you could have missed; you press your hand flat against his back, fingers spread wide, trying to feel what eluded you before.
His muscles tense beneath your palm. "How was California?" he says, a little more quietly, holding his breath.
His dad sags a bit, like his energy's just been sapped. "California's a big place, Dean," he says evenly, as if he's trying not to bite out the words. "It was sunny, just like this," he says, raising his head and squinting a little like he's unused to the light, the way it makes Dean's ring shine. "But sticky," he adds, nodding for emphasis, "way too hot for April."
They eye each other for a long moment before Dean snaps back to himself. "Dad, this is Cassie," he says; "Cassie, this is my dad, John Winchester." John's eyebrows go up, disappear under his mop of hair, and he seems more surprised now than when he first saw you joined at the hip with Dean.
"Good to meet you, Cassie," he says, and his eyes are dark versions of his son's, wide and bright and framed by a thick tangle of lashes, and the burr in his voice, that raspy rumble, will be in Dean's in another twenty years. You smile and his face goes thoughtful, and he nods at you and Dean to sit. He looks Dean over carefully, inch by inch, but you're the one he speaks to. "So," he says, ignoring the dark hurt purpling Dean's cheekbone, "you already trying to whip my boy's wardrobe into shape?" He grins, and he evidently means to be jocular, but all you hear is a warning.
Something is telling you to tread carefully. "No," you say and stop, unsure of what's going on.
"I'm just borrowing it until we get to Rick's," Dean explains easily, keeping you tucked warm against his side.
"Rick told me you haven't been sticking around much," John says, his gaze shifting to you.
"No," Dean agrees. "Had a job to do and a girl to see," he says, giving you a slight squeeze in time with the cadence of his voice.
"Job's done, then?" John asks, and even though Dean is still relaxed beneath your hand and nods casually, you're sure you heard a challenge in that question. John just sits back and brings his cast up to rest on the stone table between you, scratching at his beard with his good hand. Silence stretches out between them, an old and familiar friend, you're sure, if John always denies with his eyes what he says with his mouth. Dean has his arm around you, his gaze on his dad, and a smile on his face like this is close to all he's ever wanted. It must get to John, because after the sun sinks a little lower and gets a little redder, he pulls you and Dean in with a big, dimpled grin. "Right," he says, finally sounding sincere, "time for me to get back to Rick's. You two coming?"
Dean quirks his eyebrow at you to ask how you're doing for time. You're already late. You shake your head, make yourself smile, and stand. "We need to get going," you explain; "it was nice meeting you." Dean beams his approval and your smile stops feeling so fake.
He waits until his dad's marching off before wheeling you around and heading in the opposite direction. "Think you're pretty sneaky, don't you? Getting me all dressed up to meet your friends," he murmurs into your hair. "I'll get you," he promises, and you can hardly wait.
The girls are all clustered at the bar when you and Dean walk in. You make the introductions, and he smiles and nods genially, one arm draped over your shoulders. Lynn is the one who draws him out, chatting easily, doing most of the talking, as usual, with her dark hands. It looks like she's telling him of her misadventures through Europe last spring, but you can't hear a word she says because Jenna pulls you into a huddle with Amy and Kami, and demands, "How long?"
"How long have you been with that sexass?" Amy clarifies.
"Couple days," you say, rounding down to forestall the interrogation. "Plus I was away most of last week. What's been going on with you guys?" You know you're not going to get away with it, but a respite for tonight is all you're looking for.
"He treating you right?" Kami asks bluntly.
"Yeah," you say, and the conversation turns. Amy's little sister is coming for a visit at the end of next week. Jenna wants to hear all about the conference. As you're filling them in, Lynn and Dean drift back toward you.
Kami must have been waiting for Lynn to return before she shared her news. She finally came out to her parents. "Oh, Kam," you say as the four of you move to hold her close in a tangle of arms. "What'd they say?"
Kami laughs at the tears in her eyes; she's never liked getting emotional. "They said they weren't happy but they'd learn to be. As long as I was happy." You're wiping at your own eyes when Kami turns an impish smile on Dean. "You can cry too, Dean; I won't tell anyone," she says, startling a laugh out of him. He's standing behind you, and he lays his forearm on your collarbones and pulls you gently back to rest against him. "You're alright," she says, grinning like she's ready to burst, raising her bottle in a toast, just before Brent and Stuart emerge from the back room, pool cues still in their beefy hands.
You cannot for the life of you figure out what Jenna sees in either of them, or even which twin she actually likes. Maybe she's just read Gone With the Wind too many times for her own good. They flank Jenna, bumping Kami and Lynn, and look expectantly at you. "Brent, Stuart, this is Dean," you say, trying with the pitch of your voice to let Dean know these are acquaintances, not friends, no one he has to humor.
"Crikey," Stuart says, as if only Brent can decipher his flat Australian accent, "that's a hell of a bruise he's got. Always said, didn't we, that our Cass must like it rough. Wonder where her bruises are, then," he smirks and looks you up and down. Jenna's looking like she wants the ground to open up and swallow her and you reach out to clasp her arm. Dean has gone still behind you.
"You drunk?" he asks, conversationally, only a hint of a hard edge in his voice, offering no clue what answer he wants to hear. He drops his arm and steps to your side. He moves like he's no longer constricted by the size of Dad's shirt.
"Off this piss?" Brent asks incredulously, grabbing Jenna's beer and chugging it. "No fuckin' way, man."
"Why don't we play a round, then, let the girls have their own fun," Dean suggests.
Brent and Stuart share a smile. "Which one of us you want to play?"
"Either. Both." Dean shrugs like it's all of absolutely no importance. "You win, I'll buy you enough . . . piss . . . to get you both drunk." Neither one of them notices that Dean hasn't named the prize for his own victory, and you wonder as he leads the way to the tables in the back what price he will exact.
You've been writing for three hours, and your thesis is coming together, creating a shape for itself out of blue scribbles. You read it over one more time, crossing out words you've used too often, reworking clumsy phrasings. You're so close to being done that it's tempting to just keep going, but you know you need some time to consider the last section before you set pen to paper. You look over at Dean, his face washed blue-white from the computer monitor's light. "I need a break," you announce and he looks at you like he's game for anything. You stack your books and papers on the floor in front of the couch and walk into the kitchen, pressing play on the tiny boombox on the counter. The cd inside is the one you like to cook to, the one you made from Mom's and Dad's music collection, and it whirs to life.
Marvin Gaye sings out as you open the drawer with all the take-out menus stuffed inside. You gather them up with both hands and nudge the drawer shut with your hip. Dean's sprawled on the couch, waiting for you, and you sit on his lap and drop the menus next to your books.
He turns you in his lap and kisses you, dirty and just a little rough, doing things you didn't even know you wanted until he showed you. His hands keep sliding up, down, holding your face, your shoulders, your waist, your hips, your thighs, like they can't figure out where to rest, but his mouth stays on target, tongue and teeth and lips soft and chapped all moving just right. You want his mouth on you everywhere, and you lean back against his steadying hands to unbutton your shirt. "Cassie," he says, like it's your first time, and you push forward again, needing to stop that throaty voice. But you can't, and when you've stripped yourself bare and pulled him on top of you, he's still speaking, hoarsely, urgently. It's somehow different this time and you can't figure out why that is, not with his hands roaming over you like they're flaying you, peeling off your skin, and his mouth lingering over all the new, tender places beneath. You don't know if he's just had an epiphany, or if he had his revelation long ago and has been waiting for you to catch up; it could be that you realize together that you could have this for the rest of your lives. And you're sobbing, so he lifts his mouth from you but keeps his fingers crackling on your flesh, and tells you a joke. And then he swallows your laughter down.
You've finished typing up all the new pages you've written and your brain feels fried. You're cleaning the kitchen while you wait for Dean to get back, singing along loud and carefree to your cd, hitting staccato notes when Fats Domino plays, relaxing into languid purity with Sam Cooke, when there's a loud thump at the door. A large, thick envelope has been pushed through the slot in the door; it lies on the mat, the rest of your mail scattered on top of it. It's got a Cape Girardeau postmark and when you brush the other envelopes off it, you can see the Breeze logo in the corner. You rip it open and find a formal letter offering you the job Jimmy mentioned at the end of last summer, along with a sizable stack of tax forms and HR paperwork. Otis Redding croons tenderly in his thready voice as you squeal and dance around in a little circle. You scoop up all of the mail and dump it on the kitchen counter, turning the volume all the way up. When Dean walks in, you're still dancing, and trying to sing both parts of "If I Can't Have You."
He grins at your giddiness and steps by you to wash his hands and face; he throws the towel next to the mail and scoops you up. "Good news must just follow you around," he says, and you kiss him hard and hot like the song suggests. "Or maybe it's my luck that's turning around," he breathes into your mouth, pulling back teasingly, eyes crinkling triumphantly as you lean eagerly forward to continue the kiss.
You unlock your legs from his waist and jump down, rifling through the papers to find the letter. The duet ends and the next song, slow and graceful below with Ella Fitzgerald's sweet warmth on top, comes on just as you find it and hold it out. Dean tenses and hits the power button with one sharp jab. "You . . . don't like Ella?" you ask, trying to figure out what just happened.
He offers you a sickly smile and takes the letter reluctantly. He looks hard at you, like he's torn between memorizing your face and turning away, before dropping his eyes and scanning Jimmy's letter quickly. "Missouri, huh?"
He's drawing a line with the tone of his voice; you're not going to trespass. "Yeah. Middle of nowhere. I always miss it until I'm back there." He's looking a little better now, like he's securing the armor that had slipped from its place. "And then I miss the rest of the world. But college doesn't last forever, and home's where I want to be." He nods, like you've just said something profound, and you wonder what on earth that could be. You take a chance. "You okay?"
"Yeah," he scoffs, shrugging casually. He's not quite meeting your eyes when he admits, "Just reminded me of something."
"Old girlfriend?" you ask, trying to sound nonchalant. He looks so surprised you know that can't be it. You poke him when he starts to smirk; evidently he sensed your brief flare of jealousy. "Shut up," you mutter. He spreads his hands, the very picture of innocence. "What was it then?"
You want to bite your tongue as soon as the words are out; his burgeoning glee vanishes instantaneously. "Her voice," he says unhappily, shifting guiltily like a four-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar, turning away.
You catch him by the arm and pull, leading him out of the kitchen and up to your bedroom. Here at least you know you can't hurt him.
Dean's eyes flare open in the dark and his arm tightens around you reflexively. "Go back to sleep," you soothe; "I didn't mean to wake you." He looks like he can't decide whether to trust you, staying still when you cup his cheek, careful to avoid the fading bruise. "I'm just going to the computer," you say, slipping out of the bed; "I figured out how to conclude my thesis."
You type as the sun rises, finishing as the birds begin to sing. You were expecting a sense of accomplishment, but as you crawl back into Dean's waiting arms, all you really feel is relief.
You're still in your bra and underwear in the walk-in closet when you hear Dean coming up the stairs. He pauses in the doorway, shirt off and jeans undone, kicking off his heavy boots. He smells like grass and sweat and smoke and his face shifts from exhausted to puzzled when he registers your state of undress. "I'm taking my advisor out to dinner," you explain, pulling out your long green skirt, holding it up against you. "She signed off on my thesis." The skirt won't work with your blue heels, and you fold it back up. He nods and continues on his way to the bathroom.
Even though he left the door open, there's steam clouding the mirror by the time you get in there, and his clothes are in a muddy and bloody pile next to the tub. He's not singing or moving, just standing still and letting hot water beat down on him. "What happened?" you ask.
"Training," he says. "Dad."
"With a broken arm?" No surprise Dean was a wreck if his dad acts like he's the original Iron Man on a job too; you'd be willing to bet his dad made today as difficult as possible in an effort to prove how little his broken bones mattered. You wonder how long Dean's been living like this, hurtling between adrenaline and panic, vulnerable because of his own strength. You wish he could just get a moment to rest.
"Wrist." He reaches for the shampoo, peeks around the curtain; his delicate collarbones gleam with water. "Marines don't quit," he says, obviously quoting, "and when they're injured, they go twice as hard."
He's got clean boxer-briefs rolled neatly in his bag. You grab a pair and two fluffy towels and go back into the bathroom. He shuts off the water and steps out of the tub, taking the towel you offer. He dries off and dresses and follows you to the bedroom, sitting obediently on the edge of the bed when you nudge him. "Lean forward," you say, standing between his spread legs, and gently towel his hair dry, looking at the fine white scars that thread his back. His hands come up to rest on your hips and when you finish with one last tender swipe, resting a careful finger in the hollow where his skull meets the nape of his neck, he presses his head soft against your belly. He shudders when you finally pull away, watching you go with unselfconscious eyes.
You hang the towel in the bathroom and walk into the closet, finally deciding on your navy cap-sleeved blouse and long beige skirt. Back in the bedroom, you can see him in the dresser mirror, still slumped, silky lashes dark against his pale face, muscles uneasy beneath his skin. You've got bobby pins in your mouth and for once your hair is obedient, not springing out of control, and your fingers are quick and sure. He's watching you wonderingly. You apply mascara, your eyes and mouth open wide. He looks like he's watching a magic trick. You slip into your heels and take one last glance at the mirror. All you can see is a little boy lost.
You are beyond exhausted and all you want is Dean, to take you to your bed, pin you down with his insistent body, be ruthless in his pursuit of your pleasure. You want to feel his downy skin burn against yours, his hair soft in your fists. You want to hear his breathing hitch, to revel in your power to make that layered voice deepen to a growl. You want him to work his magic, make time stop when your body clenches sweetly around him, look at you with wide clear eyes like you're the journey and the destination together.
But he's not here, and you're too tired to sleep. A hot shower lasting most of an hour relaxes your body, makes it feel pliant again. You pull on your softest pajamas and furry slippers and pad to the kitchen to make some tea. Two cups of chamomile later and he still hasn't come home.
All you want is Dean, to take you to your bed, spoon up behind you, and nuzzle your neck. You want to feel him drag his lower lip along the side of your throat, fingers skimming lightly at your waist. You want to hear his low laugh when you burrow back against him, his murmured words of love.
You remember him reassuring his father that the job was done, but you can't help cataloguing his injuries and wondering if he's found a new case, another foray into danger that will mark his body, slow him down, leave him dead. You swirl hot soapy water in your teacup and set it in the dish rack, wipe down the counter, tuck the kitchen chairs back in, and straighten the towel hanging from the refrigerator handle like all of these motions are rituals to keep him safe, domestic offerings to get him to walk, whole and happy, through your door. But they're not enough; you don't know what would be enough.
You just want Dean to come home to you, as his slow kiss this morning had promised he would.
Your reflection in the glass door startles you momentarily, and you slide it open and step onto the patio. You can hear soft animal chitterings and chirps. The stars are bright and you tilt your head back, trying to remember how Dean had found Cassiopeia above. The way he'd said "Big Dipper, Polaris, Cassiopeia," an unassailable sequence, three easy steps, links in a chain of knowledge he's tested and trusted, comes back to you. But the skies are written in a language you don't know, and the lights don't spell out any kind of message for you.
What you need, evidently, is a project. Your thesis is no longer looming over your head and all of that energy is being spent on imagining Dean hurt, Dean fading, Dean dead. Your nightmares slid so easily into one another that you can't even count how many times he screamed, how many ways he crumpled, how many times you watched the light leave his eyes.
Running your errands is out of the question; you want to be here when Dean finally comes home. You decide to start packing up all of your books, your heavy winter clothes. You've still got some boxes in the basement that haven't been too warped with the damp, and as you're coming up the stairs with a few in your hands, the phone rings. You race over. "Hello?"
You don't hear the deep voice you were hoping for. "Baby," Dad says, "were you ever going to tell me about the job?" He sounds so proud.
"Maybe," you tease, waiting for his familiar comeback.
"I told your mother I wanted a boy," he sighs, and all the words are the same as ever but he can't quite manage the tone.
"She's got an appointment tomorrow at Mercy. Turns out the new head of oncology is Lenny's college roommate's dad."
And strings were pulled. The care packages Gramma Rose has shipped you have been astonishing, but nothing can compare to her Sunday dinners, and you remember your cousin telling you that he and his roommate would ditch the Penn dining hall and go to South Philly like clockwork every Sunday at five. "Can I talk to her?"
He goes quiet. "Make it quick, Cass. She's real tired." You can hear him bellowing like a brat for his mama and Gramma's wheezy chuckle as she takes the phone.
"Morning, Little Miss," she says.
"Morning, Gramma." Your heart lurches; she sounds just the same. Surely they'll say they caught the cancer early, that there's no need to worry, that she'll be right as rain soon. She's fine. Dean is fine. "Daddy behaving himself?"
She snorts. "He thinks I don't see half of all he gets up to," she says, clearly tickled. "And what's this Cora was telling me about you taking a young man to church?"
You'd forgotten the persistence of the grapevine, the way your aunts all talk, an entire generation of women at their happiest gathered in a hot kitchen, but scattered across the country, making do with solitary telephones. You don't know what to tell her about Dean. He's beautiful. He sits at your kitchen table like he belongs there. I don't know where he is. Your silence stretches out uncomfortably, and she takes pity on you. "You tell me all about him when you finally get down here," she offers, and you take it. "See you soon, sugar," she says and hangs up.
You've set aside a small stack of old favorites to tide you over for the last few weeks of school, but all the rest of your books are in boxes. Your sweaters and corduroys and flannel sheets are in the big suitcase you keep under the bed; there are empty shelves in the walk-in closet. One day of packing and already the house looks different, and; you're struck by the urge to put everything back. You wonder who will win the housing lottery next year and end up living in your little house, the space that welcomed you from the moment you set foot in it.
You scramble to your feet when you hear the front door being opened and race downstairs. He's there, backlit by the porch light, unhurt; your thankfulness is spiked with sharp resentment for the hours of doubt you endured. That's your future, right there, and you see it so clearly, and it hits you like a blow to the chest. When you finally raise your eyes to his, you realize that he's holding himself still, that he is not smiling.
Maybe he is hurt. You didn't see it when he first entered your life, left behind to "patch himself up"; there's no reason to assume you've gotten any better at it. "Dean," you say, and he shuts the door behind him and steps close, long legs eating up the distance between you. He's too quick for you to determine if that economy of motion was necessary, but you suppose the speed itself is a good sign. His kiss is gentle, his thumbs sketching patterns on your cheekbones. He's so good at this, making you feel cherished, that it would be easy to forgive his silence. But you know your brain will only concoct more horrors next time, and you need to speak up. You take a step back.
He's slightly flushed and he grins down at you, a hint of shy wonder dancing across his face. "Shouldn't have started like that," he murmurs, running a hand over your hair, then resting it against your cheek; "you distract me."
"You," he answers, and though it makes no sense, you know exactly what he means.
"Where have you been?" you plead.
He looks puzzled. "Working," he says simply.
It's not about apron strings. You just need him to hear the truth. "I was so worried about you. I need you to tell me where you are from now on."
His eyes widen as your voice shakes and it's obvious that it never occurred to him that he could be the source of your fear. "I . . . I was with my dad," he finally says, as if at the mere sight of John Winchester, bad guys the world over just pack up their stuff and back away slowly. You pull up his shirt and point at the wounds scattered across his chest. "Research and training, that's all," he avers; "nothing dangerous."
But it was preparation for something dangerous, and that he doesn't bother to deny. Points for that, you suppose; if he treated you like an idiot, you'd snap. "Researching what?"
His hands are gentle but insistent, wrapping familiarly around your shoulders and pressing you down. You sink into the couch and he sits too, twisting so that his back is against the arm of the couch and he's facing you. His eyes are bright and soft and unwavering, trained on you. "Researching what happened to my mother," he says and you feel dimly that you should have known, from the way John wore his wedding band like an act of aggression, the way Dean hid his hurts, that there'd been no indulgent, intuitive, impulsive presence in their lives, no Mom or Gramma Rose. "She was murdered almost twenty years ago. We've been hunting for the demon that killed her ever since then."
Somehow it hurts more to think of what he's gotten than all he's lost. John Winchester, former Marine, with his fanatic's face and unyielding personality, gave his boy a quest instead of a home. You think of the list of towns jotted down on the cassette cover, Dean reporting back like a good soldier, the lifetime of scars his body bears. You find your fists clenching and look up to see his gaze fixed on you.
Whatever he was looking for, he wasn't expecting anger. His face softens with relief, his eyes flicker a bit, and he pushes on. "There's more." He digs in his pocket and pulls out a ring of keys. When he opens his hand, you can see they are your keys splayed out on his palm. "I lifted these from your bag the night we met," he says; "I needed a key to the writing center for the job I was on." Your head is spinning. You want to rage at him for lying to you that gorgeous night, for showing you the stars, for kissing you. No. You owe it to him to be fair. He sought you out and stole what he needed, but he took the time to get you inside your house. You kissed him. You invited him into your bed, into your life. You trust him. You reach for the keys and meet his eyes squarely. He blows out a little breath. "Old boyfriend?" he teases, pointing to Lenny's faded Penn charm on the keychain.
"No," you smile, tossing the keys behind you. "Cousin." His eyes crinkle up in his boyish grin. You kiss it right off him and he pulls you closer, shifting so that you're lying on top of him, lithe and lissome and just as eager. You're safe here in his arms, vulnerable only to him, and he won't take advantage. You smile against his lips. You know what to tell Gramma Rose now. You kiss the tip of his freckled nose, the cleft in his chin, and his lush mouth again. "What was the writing center case?" you ask.
He laughs, delighted and tolerant, at the way you're snuggling into him, and the vibration of it rockets through you. "You want a bedtime story?" he asks, voice honey-dark, one heavy hand lazily stroking up and down your spine. You tuck your face into the warm crook of his neck and breathe him in. "You know the big glass case in the lobby?" He waits for you to nod. You kiss his throat. "The letters and diaries that are in there now have been exhibited around the country. And wherever Sherwood Wilson's writings go, poltergeists follow."
You can't have heard that properly. You raise your head to ask him to repeat that, but he's still telling the story. "Turns out a group of kids started reading his stuff back in the Twenties and decided to sacrifice themselves and become his undead minions. All they managed was to turn themselves into nuisances. Poltergeists are a pain in the ass." You push further back, locking your elbows. His eyes are clear. "So I went through the whole thing - candles, chants, herbs. They didn't want to go," he says, running his hand absently over his chest, "but the ritual worked." He smiles at you, bright and pleased and totally at ease.
You scramble back off him. "Cassie?" he asks, reaching for you. "What's wrong?"
You draw a shaky breath and meet his gaze. You're convinced you see concern there, but you were so sure about all of the other things you'd read in his eyes, and never once did you see insanity. He has to be joking. "Poltergeists?" He sits all the way up and nods, smoothing down his spiked hair. It makes no sense. You feel like you can't form complete sentences. "How . . . how does ghostbusting fit in with tracking down your mother's murderer?"
He knots his brow like he has no idea why you're so confused. "All of these things need to be taken care of," he says, like it's perfectly reasonable. "And Dad and I are getting closer and closer to the demon, and we'll be ready for it."
He'd meant to say "demon" before. That wasn't the word of a four-year-old kid scared to death because his mommy was suddenly gone and he needed to name the evil that had snatched her away; that was literally what he believed. Your legs are trembling but you make yourself get off the couch and back away slowly.
"That's crazy," you breathe, needing to assert yourself. Your body is still warm from being pressed insistently to his, from the touch of his darkly ripe mouth. What is he doing to you that you find yourself actually wanting to believe him? His eyes are as green and clear as ever, steady on you and shining with pain. He looks like his life has come crashing down around him, and there is no love or laughter or future in the rubble. No, stop. No more romanticizing. You need your brain to start working again.
"Cassie?" he asks again, rising from the sofa, and his voice is the same as it ever was, and you realize that he hasn't changed; you just never really knew him. How much of him did you make up? How much of the Dean you love is only in your head? "It's the truth, Cassie, I swear it," he promises, looking just like he had every time he told you he loved you.
You are cold with horror, sick with doubt, and there's broken glass in your throat. "You're crazy," you whisper. He really believes what he's telling you. You ignore your treacherous tears and try to sound stronger. "Get out," you say, more loudly, trying not to notice how he looks like he's breaking clear across, cracking wide open. His face is crumpling, but when he reaches out to swipe away your tears and you flinch away from him, he blinks and his eyes go shuttered, deliberately opaque, his mouth thins to a tight white line. He backs off and looks at you one more time, then turns away and walks out the door.
You rush over to lock it behind him, fastening the chain with unsteady fingers. You bury your face in your hands and sag against the door, sobbing uncontrollably. You could get lost like this.
You could get lost like this, but you straighten your spine and get hold of yourself. You won't let that happen.