Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural or anything associated.

A/N: My first foray into Dean/Castiel, even if it's AU. Inspired by watching too many art shows. Please let me know what you think.

Although he's all sharp laughs and thick, syrupy smiles, Dean Winchester really isn't much of a talker. At least, not in the way that is defined by the heavy weight of importance. Everything's too prickly, the forest full of burs and thorns when he gets too close, and the pain's not worth much in the long run.

So, Dean paints.

The thing about paint is that it's real. It's harsh and the smell pulls at the senses, making the world spin in a light-headed daze of colors and textures. It's wet and sticks to his fingers when he touches it, dying his hands red or blue. Sometimes he just takes the small, fragile bottles and pours them all into his palm, watching everything drip over as he opens and closes his hands, the pigments mixing together like the beating of a frantic heart.

Because art is pretentious. It's about masks and so called truths, a passive way to force the world into your head. If you asked him when he was growing up what Dean thought about art, that's what he'd tell you. It's for stuck-up pussies that want to throw a fast food wrapper on some cardboard and say it means fucking anything.

But that's before everything went down, and his world catapulted around like a bouncy ball. Except his soul was trapped inside, slamming against the rubber walls with every toss. Dean ends up with two dead parents and a brother who sails away to California on a hasty boat glued of scholarships and needy ambition.

And Dean ends up painting. He feels, and with every brushstroke, his heart pounds and his mind swims. He fills the white, innocent canvas up, settling himself into the scratchy folds, and pours out his personal tortures, his hopes, and his trivial thoughts. Everything has meaning and purpose, but because art is a superficial, gaudy thing, it's always reduced to something less when it's placed upon a gallery wall. People say Dean is good, and fingerprints and frames decide to ruin everything.

As he paints, time passes in different ways. He doesn't feel weeks but how long it takes for a tube of oil to run empty, or for a bottle of spilt white acrylic to dry on the floor of his small apartment. He becomes a slave to creation; hands never completely clean as he moves from canvas to canvas, sketching out what more and more are nightmares that the world never understands. It's an itch under his skin that he doesn't comprehend, and people purchase his fiery, tattered visions without seeing the truth there.

Dean doesn't know what the truth is himself.

Sam calls, sometimes, from that far-away place across the country. He asks about a lot of things; work, possible relationships, visits, but it's all about Dean. Dean loves his brother, but he doesn't answer, because he knows that Sam is safe and happy, and it's deserved.

And if he's hurt, a little stubborn and bitter, well, that's another secret for his paintings.

Dean lives in a decent apartment building in an unimportant city that everybody knows. His apartment is on the sixth floor, and for a while, he's the only one living up there, creating art and destroying himself in miniscule pieces. That's another way to think about it. He buries a little piece of himself in every fleck of paint, every mixed shade and tint. One less memory that hurts too much, one less gaping wound to maneuver around when he tries to think.

His room is lined with empty beer bottles filled with mixed colors. Sometimes, when he drinks too much and works too little, he glops in a dollop of paint into a too full bottle, only realizing it when drops of spray pop out. Those times, the paint is a little thinner, and the scent is a little too tortured artist for Dean's tastes.

Cause whenever someone asks Dean what he does for a living, the man at the supermarket or the bartender, he never answers artist. He's done it before, and it doesn't fit on his tongue right, all disjointed and oily. He skirts the question, sits back and grins.

Usually, he doesn't have to answer any other questions.

A man moves in across the hall after Dean's been there for three years.

Dean doesn't really notice, just taking in the boxes next to the opposing door that first day and marking it away in the folder his brain keeps for the minor and unimportant facts of his life. Nothing really changes, and he goes on.

He gets a letter from Sam, talking about upcoming graduations and asking Dean to "finally fucking call him." But Sam's still safe and whole and good, so Dean doesn't feel like he has to answer right away. He flicks a little green paint at the answering machine as his brother's voice comes out of it, and he imagines that somewhere, across miles of endless land and distance, Sam feels the tickle of it on his nose.

One day he comes back after raiding the supply store down the street to find a strange man in his apartment. He doesn't panic, because he's never even attempted to settle down in the classiest neighborhood. Dean drops his bag by the door, the wooden tips of brushes clattering, and feels the leather of his jacket twitch against his arms.

"What the fuck, man?"

The intruder doesn't turn around right away. He has his hands in the pockets of his black dress pants, but the posture looks stiff as anything. Dean walks up next to him, sees his latest painting where he left it propped up by the window, right next to tickets to an event he should see but won't.

The man turns and says, "You left your door open," and Dean shrugs, because he doesn't really care. He grabs a beer from the bridge, one that's still as pristine as alcohol will ever be, and takes a drink. When he comes back, the man's still there. Dean watches as his eyes take in the thin squares of paper on the ground, the bold and professional "Congratulations" for someone else, and the lanky, well-dressed young man splattered with green paint that lounges against the canvas. Dean closes his eyes when he takes his next swig, and when he opens his tired eyes again, the man is gone.

Wet yellow footsteps reveal his retreat into the hall, and Dean laughs.

Time goes on, and the wet paint dries, and the paintings take their trips from windows to frames to wherever art goes when it gets sold and dies.

The day of his father's death comes, and Dean spends it kneeling in front of a canvas that's just too damn big, filling up everything with white and making him feel too small. He throws his brushes into the garbage and paints everything with only his fingers, forming haunted eyes and a mouth that used to love laughing. His contact at the gallery babbles over it, "Role reversal! He created you, but now, you've given him rebirth by creating him!" Dean chucks it into his hands, because he can't look at it anymore.

He goes home and throws up and makes hundreds of dollars he doesn't want.

The man from before comes back a while later, but this time he knocks. There's a rapping at the door, and Dean opens it to see the faintly familiar face, all messy hair and distracted eyes. He asks to come in, and Dean says sure, steps back and gets hit in the side by a trench coat.

The man walks until he's in the center of the room and then turns around, and Dean just waits, something nervous buzzing in the back of his mind.

"I saw your work," he starts, and suddenly Dean wants him out, out, out, away and far and gone, because he feels unsettled and wrong. The man stares straight at him, unflinching, and somehow, after years of tossing his work into greedy hands, watching filthy fingers brush his soul, Dean feels vulnerable.

"You mean when you broke into my apartment?" Dean snorts roughly, but the other just looks at him blandly.

"You should not have left your door open if you did not want people to enter," he replies, but he doesn't elaborate his earlier statement, and Dean can't get himself to relax.

"Look, pal, do you want something or not? Cause otherwise-"

"I want to watch you," the man states, and the entire thing hits in this weighty, otherworldly way. "I want to see you work."

"You have a name?" Dean steers the conversation, and he receives, "Castiel."

"Well, Castiel," Dean frowns at the bizarre way the name rolls on his tongue, "this isn't some kind of-"

"There is something in your work that I have been called to," Castiel interrupts without any sort of apology. "I would not bother you in any way. I simply wish to observe."

Dean looks at him for a little while, the stoic face and the scuffed but respectable shoes. He tells Castiel no, and his hand clenches painfully for an unknowable reason as he waits for the other to leave. Kicking him out by force is beginning to surface as an option when the other finally does, and Dean goes to eat some of the leftover pizza on his counter. It's cold and greasy, congealing, but he's used to it that way.

Dean doesn't go out often. He could have friends if he craved them, if he dusted off the old charm; washed it, let it dry, and discovered it still fit. He's friendly enough with some of the bartenders at his favorite place, one with long blonde hair and a sarcastic smile.

But when he does leave his apartment, it's usually to run. He hangs his paint-soaked skin on a hook in his room and let's his feet slap the pavement, racing around as an unknowable, esoteric thing. There's no thinking while he runs, no banging pain rattling in his chest, just the human need to keep going, and sometimes for air. He sweats and feels clean, watches the moon and stops feeling alone. Dean runs until his legs collapse, and then he walks home, puts the suit on, and begins again.

Dean keeps on painting his nightmares, things that people swarm around and praise as "hauntingly beautiful." To him they're ugly, monstrous things that need killing, creations born out of angry reds, somber blacks, and dull grays and browns.

He slopes a thin brush and dabs with a larger one, and he creates a man. He's kneeling even though he doesn't want to be, and the true observer can see the way the leg muscles are forced and taut, fighting. Hands are tight and screaming while something unseen wins, and eyes of some indiscernible hazel color bleed.

Dean's breathing heavily as he finishes, specks of gray dotting his face where he slapped the brush down too hard, some wet brown in his hair where he ran his hands through it without care. The bleeding man, mouth open in a silent scream, looks familiar, but it doesn't matter.

He turns around, shoulders rising and falling with sharp jerks, and flinches when he sees Castiel sitting quietly with his legs crossed. Dean wonders for a brief moment how he didn't hear him come in, but before he can say anything, Castiel unfolds himself and leaves without a word.

In the garage that belongs to his building, Dean stores his car. There's too many risky, clueless drivers racing around the streets for him to really take her out, but she's still there, black and glossy and beautiful in a way those critics and judges could never understand. Every now and then, when he's feeling a little lighter, or even a little guilty, Dean climbs the steps and stains his hands with real oil.

Sometimes he slips inside, runs his hands over the steering wheel in a stilted embrace. He looks up into the rearview mirror, and it's the one reflective surface he's comfortable staring in. He gazes at eyes that sometimes look green and sometimes don't, new lines that replace old ones. He sees himself, and he asks himself the questions that he usually buries underneath layers and layers of artificial color.

A cycle begins, and Dean's not sure why or if he's even allowing it at all. He starts to paint, and once his eye catches on a bottle, he's lost. He's a nameless thing of sensations and thought, body moving without true command until something stares back at him. He hears nothing, sees nothing besides the vision that drives him, and so it's not surprising that someone can sneak into his apartment without him knowing.

That doesn't stop it from being unsettling and strange.

Dean works, and every time he finishes, he's confronted by the blue of Castiel's eyes, hooded by the shadows in the corner. He doesn't understand how the man even knows when he starts working, for he has no true hours. Sometimes he'll begin at one in the morning; another time he feels the urge at four in the afternoon.

And yet the man is always there, dressed in a ragtag suit with a tie that's curved around his neck with no grace at all.

He always leaves when Dean finishes. He always leaves without a word.

It feels odd, a mix of different emotions that's difficult to place and name. His privacy is being stolen, or stretched thin to include another uninvited person, and that vulnerable feeling he first felt upon meeting Castiel is a common current under his skin. He bares himself each time he paints, letting everything fall open and pour upon the white, taint it and dye it to be misunderstood and hoarded. The idea of someone watching that is unsettling, but at the same time, it's more likely that Castiel sees someone skilled at and invested in his trade.

That's what Dean convinces himself, and even though he doesn't say anything to the other, he never asks him to leave after that first time.

There are many people, knowledgeable and talented people, renowned people, who feel like Dean is wasting his talent. In the beginning, when his paintings are first bought and captured, he finds secret, surreptitious ways to see them again, to find out what the common people think. He has coffee in one of the shops that have purchased his work, or buys a something quick and easy in one of the larger restaurants.

People don't recognize him, but someone might point at his paintings and comment. Dean then hears, take sin the positive words and shoulders the few negative critics, and again he stores it all away. He doesn't really feel anything from it, and he creates the same way as he always does. But something inside of him at the beginning craves recognition if nothing else, the statement that his work is there, and therefore he is there.

Then, during one such time, while Dean has black, acrid coffee warming up his hands, someone sits beside him without invitation or question. Dean listens to the well-dressed man greet him by name, try to shake his hand with what is really a glove of jeweled fingers before drawing it back with a laugh. He promises millions, art shows, appearances, columns, museums; on and on and on while Dean watches the fluorescent lights glimmer off his bald head.

Dean stands up, letting the other simmer for a minute in anticipation before Dean up-ends his nasty coffee all over his head. The man sputters and coughs, gritting his teeth angrily, but all Dean notices is that the lies still flicker in his dark eyes. So he simply states, "Stay away from me, you dick," and leaves.

After that, Dean stops searching out his pieces. He sticks to creating them out of nothing and lets them fly free into undeserving hands.

It takes a month of Castiel's bizarre intrusions until they speak. Dean finishes his painting, something dark and gritty and ancient, a place where crucifixes meant something else entirely, and looks over his shoulder quickly to see Castiel preparing to go.

"I've got enough beer," he offers at the telltale squeak of the door. "If you want one."

Castiel seems surprised, but he nods, joining Dean at the tiny table with two faded chairs. He takes the beer and settles it between his hands as he sits down, but he doesn't drink it and Dean doesn't press.

They don't talk, and although Dean is nervous at the beginning, he settles into the silence, the lack of expectation. He drinks his beer, and Castiel plays with the condensation dripping down the side, making swirls in the wetness with his fingers.

The next time Dean finishes painting, Castiel heads towards the table, and Dean gives him a beer he doesn't drink. They sit, and sometimes they talk a little, and Dean doesn't think about how everything's changing.

The day of his mother's death comes, and Dean can't create anything. He takes out his brushes but they rebel against his hands, the bristles like spikes against his palms, the paint gluey and fluid. He tries to pour open a bottle but it squirts everywhere, sliding down his chest and filling the room with the scent of the artificial. He tries to paint with his fingers, and he gets nowhere, everything a mess of hands spilling down the canvas, tears filling his mouth, and pain.

He breaks the canvas with his curses, collapsing on the floor in a mess of Technicolor puddles, all the seven circles swirling around him. He watches his hands rise and fall in the bottomless pit, red and purple and black. All the white is corrupted, swirls of blue sliding through, patterns of brown.

Dean decides he's going to sleep there. Tomorrow he'll wake up and face it all, throw out the wasted surfaces and superficially mourn the wasted colors. Tomorrow, when today's over and he hasn't visited the empty gravesite yet again.

His breathing is just starting to even out when hands start to pull at him, lifting him slightly and dragging him away from the clingy, drying floor. He doesn't comprehend it at first, brain swimming in alcohol-scented misery among other things, but when he does, he struggles to open his eyes. He feels paint crusted at the corners, as well as the swollen saltiness of dried tears.

He feels the hands under his shoulders, large and powerful, and when he looks up, it's Castiel half-carrying him to his bathroom, face as stony as it's ever been. Dean doesn't struggle, too tired and too uncaring, and he soon finds himself propped up against the wall of his bathroom, the too cool tiles burning his back through the thin plaid fabric of his shirt.

Castiel says nothing, instead leaving the room and returning quickly with a small towel that Dean could swear isn't his. He flicks on the water, and the sudden sound of it pouring out shakes Dean awake a little. After the towel's been soaked with water, Castiel kneels next to Dean and takes his hands.

Dean finds himself holding his breath at that first touch, as the coarse fabric rubs against his fingers, peeling away layers and layers of protection and sorrow. Castiel stares intently as he works, his gaze never leaving Dean's hands. Everything falls away against the water mixed with Castiel's intent, and Dean begins to see his hands whole for the first time in years.

Finally, after the very last speck of paint has been carried away, Castiel turns off the water and leaves the towel on the sink. He lowers himself back in front of Dean, and this time he meets Dean's bewildered eyes.

"You're drowning, Dean," he whispers, and something deep down inside of Dean shatters. It's not the words themselves that do it, but the way that the look on Castiel's face screams, 'But I can save you.'

The thing is, Dean doesn't know if he wants to be saved. Maybe he is drowning, but drowning is what he's used to. He's used to downing a bottle of beer and going swimming in a sea of swirling colors, floating along scarlet and sunshine yellow, fading green and morose shades of purple. He's used to waves of acrylic and oil, watercolor collapsing atop him, filling his mouth and burning his nose.

Castiel reaches out to touch the clean side of his face, and Dean's brain can't take anymore. He shuts down.

Dean's been in love two times in his life. The first time, the girl was beautiful, dark skin and wild hair, a quick tongue and a fiery touch. They tumbled over the grass laughing and playful, and Dean held her around the waist as they fumbled down the hills. When he collapsed on rough sheets, he looked up at her and saw a future, and her laugh when he flipped their positions seemed to last for a lifetime.

But everything collapsed, and when he thinks of her now, that laughter is wracked with shouting and lies.

Castiel is gone when Dean wakes up, but he's in his bed instead of huddled on the floor. He pushes it out of his mind and goes on.

Sam calls again, his tone begging and conciliatory. He's not angry anymore, and he's sorry for the way everything turned out, battered and bruised. He says he needs his brother, but Dean knows better, and the machine stays green-splattered and unanswered.

Dean goes out shopping for more supplies, dodging the sudden rains that burst open the sky as he hastens down the street. He tosses bottles upon containers upon brushes into his wagon as his shoes squish along the floor, and when he hears shoes squeaking behind him, he isn't surprised when Castiel appears by his side.

Dean tolerates it as he continues through the aisles, knuckles white against the handle while Castiel stays forcedly oblivious. He picks up supplies Dean wants without asking, and when Dean glares, he doesn't react at all. Soon enough, Dean has a few paper bags digging into his wrists and palms, grabbing them all quickly because he can see Castiel reaching out.

Once they're outside it's, "What the hell do you want?" and Castiel says nothing. It's all about Castiel not even knowing him, intruding into everything he has, and Castiel just lets him explode without interruption.

Finally, Castiel says, "I see you," and the skies decide to open up again. Dean knows the bags he's grasping are going to soak through and become hell to drag home, but Castiel steps forward, and he isn't going anywhere.

"I saw your work at the gallery," the words are mutters against the pounding of the rain, "and I was curious. It was…unusual."

Castiel looks up at him, eyes large and blue, mouth urgent with heavy, frightening things.

"When you paint, you are…different. You are a dark, driven thing, Dean, yet what you create is very beautiful because it is yourself. Your soul. You tear yourself apart for it, and you seem so uncaring of that sacrifice."

He laughs, and it's bitter and unexpected. "I am…drawn to you, Dean. I see you, and…"

A few steps closer and, "You need to be saved."

The second time Dean feel in love, it was in a much smaller town with a much smaller girl, a girl whose personality was sleeker and more minute. They didn't have a relationship as much as a weekend together in all definitions of the word, quick and fast and full of spine-tingling memories. Dean left before the fighting could start, and he can still hear the honey of her voice and the sparkling brown of her eyes. He can still imagine the life they could have lived.

Dean doesn't want it, but Castiel gives it anyway.

He doesn't want this strange, wonderful person who has oddly fixed himself into Dean's life so rapidly, watched his private moments and seen him fall apart. He doesn't want these ideas of salvation and change, the idea that there's something else he needs, maybe even deserves.

But Castiel leans up and kisses him, and it's rough and surprisingly demanding, leaving no space for Dean to retreat or refuse. His lips are chapped and wet and amazingly normal, and as much as Dean wants to run away, his hands are reaching forward, grabbing and needing.

One bag hits the ground, soggy and spilling its contents, but Dean has his hands full of trench coat and promise, so it doesn't matter.

As a child, Dean had always been good with his hands, but only with things like wrenches and screwdrivers. His dad would sometimes let him help out around the car, and that's where he learned everything he knows and still uses on her today. But he was not a natural artist, too impatient for proportions and realism. His teacher once asked the class for pictures of their families, and luckily, he wasn't the only one who resorted to stick figures. Still, he was probably the only one who drew those stick figures with as much care and precision as he could.

It's the one work of art that he's never tried to sell.

Castiel moves in, and things don't really change. At least, not to most people if they tried to look in.

Dean stills stays inside the apartment most of the time. He still paints and lets almost all of them go, and he still makes more money than he could possibly want. The apartment is still splattered with paint, and his beer turned mixing bottles still line the walls next to his unused canvas.

Only now, when bad days come and Dean loses himself in memories and hauntings, a hand on his shoulder grounds him, and the world swims back as he looks into a familiar face that already loves him, somehow.

Castiel doesn't bring much, just a few boxes of ancient, gilded books and nondescript clothes. They still sit in the kitchen, only now there's more talking, and Castiel drinks his beer.

The light on his answering machine stops blinking, because Castiel listens to all the backed up messages from Sam. He picks up the letters Dean leaves littered over the floor, the little square invitations that he's ignored. He writes back to tell Sam they're coming.

They learn about each other, but the little details are unimportant, and when they get to what matters, it's alright that they spill themselves over everything, because they spill themselves together and it all mixes into something better.

It takes time, but Dean's paintings change, less filled with guilt and hellfire and glossed more with forgiveness and salvation. People love them still the same, but Dean keeps some for the first time, because Castiel asks.

All this doesn't happen quickly, or smoothly. It's long, and excruciating in its painful intensity, but Castiel never lets Dean run away, even when, in those lost moments, he tries. In the end, Dean loves him for it.

Sam calls, and for the first time, Dean answers. The talk is hesitant at first, Sam being afraid and shocked, and Dean shamed but still angry deep down. They struggle through a halted beginning, but they're brothers, and they love each other too much to stay that way.

When Dean hangs up, he's grinning, and it's real, ready to split open his face in a way that feels too, too good. He hears a throat clear in the kitchen, and he looks up. Castiel has two beers in his hands, one held out in Dean's direction.

He takes it.

"Thanks, Cas."