A/N: I meant to have this up earlier, but I got distracted. My apologies. Blame the weather- eight friggin' inches of snow in March, what the hell, spring?- and The Hobbit coming out last Tuesday. Have I mentioned yet that Martin Freeman is a god? If not, I should have, because he is.
Gabriel doesn't come home that night. He does text at two-oh-eight a.m.- lov ths prtiez cas u need 2 get oot mor, which Cas takes to mean he's out partying with the soon-to-be grads and will be home when the nice police officers come around and drop him off.
The damage is done, though, since Cas is awake now and not likely to get back to sleep. He slithers out of bed and grabs his jeans from the pile of discarded clothes and heads into the living room.
The blast of cold air from the freezer raises goosebumps all along the bare skin of his arms and torso but he ignores it, reaching past the frozen pizza and the mystery bottles that started appearing in there within hours of Gabriel's moving in and takes hold of a heavy foil-wrapped package and slides it out. He can't cook, but he can follow directions easily enough, and the nice folks at the bake sale had been kind enough to print out baking instructions on a half-sheet of stationary and attach it to the foil.
He's at his computer going over his latest set, Lady a warm comfortable weight against his ankles, when Dean comes out of the bedroom.
"Smells good," he says as he shuffles past Cas and into the kitchen. There's a pause and the sound of the oven light clicking, then, "Dude, you made pie?"
"I bought pie," Cas corrects. "Yesterday at the university. The culinary arts department has a bake sale every year during graduation week."
"Pie made by college students. Awesome." Dean moves around a little bit, then says almost suspiciously, "It's not apple."
"Blackberry." Cas clicks over to the next picture and frowns at the monitor. Normally Anna's hair is the showpiece of her pictures, a vivid wine-red spill of color against her pale skin and the flat monotone backdrops. This time the red seems less vivid and more garish, like a spray of blood arching across the picture. He frowns in annoyance and starts fiddling with the saturation, trying to dial down the red without losing what little color the rest of the picture has.
"Blackberry pie is a real thing?" Dean asks, a bit pointlessly. Cas leaves off with the saturation and puts the grayscale filter on instead and instantly knows he's got it.
"And cinnamon ice cream," he says. "I'm told they go well together."
"They didn't have something more normal?"
"I don't like apple pie," Cas explains calmly. "And you have never tried blackberry pie. We're both expanding our horizons."
A moment later he feels Dean's breath on his neck, the man himself close enough to feel the heat radiating from him. "I'm always up for pie," he says. "Is that Anna?"
Cas nods as he softens the lines a little bit and changes out the grayscale for sepia tone, leaving the picture golden and warm and fuzzy like lazy summer afternoon sunlight. He bites at his lower lip thoughtfully and goes back to grayscale but keeps the fuzziness. Anna is an old-fashioned sort of beautiful, and the black-and-white compliments her well.
"Do you do commercial stuff?" Dean asks.
"I used to," Cas says. "But I didn't like people telling me what to do."
"Yeah, who does." Dean lowers himself into a sort of awkward crouch beside Cas' chair. Lady starts wagging, whapping Cas' shin with her tail until he pushes her away and she scrambles to her feet and goes over to lean against Dean in contentment.
"I do commission work occasionally," Cas says. "Mostly gallery showings. Sometimes I do a roll for a drama student. They always want more pictures of themselves."
Dean huffs a laugh. "When's the next gallery showing?"
"Fall semester. The university does a showcase of the local talent and brings in the art students and the donors." He goes for the contacts, especially among the students, more than anything else, but he's picked up some hefty commissions and even sold a piece for six figures there before. The donors are rich people, after all, and the university plies them with alcohol at gatherings like that. Cas isn't too proud to take advantage of it.
The oven timer chimes and Dean grunts as he pulls himself up. Cas watches him go, then clicks out of the photo program and opens the folder containing all his favorite pictures to date. When Dean returns with two plates laden with steaming pie and rapidly melting ice cream, he gets up and pushes the chair over in silent invitation. It's something he's never done before, not for his family, not Balthazar, no one. Dean hesitates before sitting down, giving Cas a cautious look like he knows exactly what he's being offered.
The first picture is the first one he'd ever taken of Anna, back when she'd still been shy and nervous and a little bit terrified of him. She's still dressed in the shot, wearing a light jacket over a KU jersey and jeans because it had been October and the town had still been caught up in the fever of football season beginning. She's laughing, arms wrapped loosely around her middle and bent slightly forward, hair tucked back into a messy ponytail and escaping in tendrils. Cas doesn't even remember what he'd said to her, trying to get her to relax. He just remembers the laughter.
The next one is a football player, a man that dwarfs even Sam. He's wearing only the university colors splashed like war paint across his skin, his number done in thick red strokes in Roman numerals across his lower belly. He faces the camera shamelessly, neither showing off nor flinching away, and something about the grave dignity and simple pride in his eyes still makes Cas want to squirm in his seat.
They're not his best. Not by commercial standards. They're the ones he's never shown to anyone else before, not even the subject, because they mean something to him.
The blackberry pie is tart, not sticky-sweet like apple pie, and Cas decides he likes it. They eat in silence and watch the pictures scroll across the screen and say nothing.
Sometimes there are no words.
The Friday night of graduation week finds Cas alone, with Dean doing a brotherly bonding thing with Sam and Gabriel- who has yet to return to his own apartment and shows no inclination of even trying- out somewhere presumably trying to learn how long it takes for him to consume his own weight in alcohol. Cas is bored out of his mind and aimless, unable to focus well enough to even watch TV, never mind do something as brain-active as working. He spends an hour on Amazon looking for a birthday present for Gabriel since that's less than a month away, and when he abruptly realizes he's somehow found his way into the specialized waffle iron section- the one he's currently looking at imprints Darth Vader's stern face into the waffle- he decides he's not actually accomplishing anything here and he may as well go out and get drunk.
There's exactly three bars within acceptable walking distance of the loft. Cas locks Lady into the guest bedroom, so any damage she causes is both contained and inflicted upon Gabriel's stuff, and heads to the furthest one in the opposite direction of the college, hoping to avoid the biggest of the massive crushing crowds of people he knows will be there. It's a bar-and-grill place and a little more pricey than the average college student can afford on their ramen-and-beer food allowance.
Naturally Cas only has time enough to order one drink before someone finds him.
"Oh, hey!" a semi-familiar female voice calls, close to his ear but still only barely loud enough to hear over the ambient noise. Cas chugs the whiskey far faster than it deserves and turns on his heel- there's not nearly enough seats at the bar for this crowd- and finds himself looking down into a face he knows.
"Cas, right?" Jess asks.
Cas might have gotten away with denying it if he hadn't gone to that lunch with Rachel. As it is, though, Jess clearly remembers him now, and her question was less a confirmation of his identity and more a social nicety.
"Yes," he says, trying not to sigh. "Fancy meeting you here." His tone is dry as bone and more than slightly bitter. He doesn't want to deal with the family drama tonight, either his or the Winchester's. There's a reason he's trying to get drunk in the first place.
Jess, unfortunately, is a clever girl. She smiles brightly even as she narrows her eyes in warning. "It's not a big town," she says. "Especially if you avoid the college hangouts."
Cas turns away from her long enough to signal the bartender for another. By the time he turns back the crowd has forced Jess to close distance with him, almost leaning into him even as he leans back against the bar.
"Girl's night out?" he tries. Anna had explained the concept to him once, a night where a group of female friends will ditch their boyfriends-husbands-whatevers and hang out at a bar and ogle cute guys and flirt and drink shamelessly.
"Family night," she corrects. "Sam and Dean are at the table over there. I just came up here to get our drinks."
"Ah," Cas replies, not sure how to respond to that. He takes the whiskey from the bartender's hand and orders another before the man can escape.
"You should come over, say hi," Jess says. Cas looks up sharply at her.
"No, I don't want to intrude," he begins. He should have seen this coming.
"You're not intruding," she promises, already wrapping her hand around his wrist. "You're a welcome distraction. Those two can't be left alone long, and I'm too much on Sam's side."
"I-" Cas begins, and can't think of a thing to say. Normally this wouldn't matter, since general politeness tends to be fairly low on Cas' list of priorities, but Jess is inescapable. She's a petite little thing but she pulls him away from the bar with terrifying ease, only letting up long enough for him to finish off his second whiskey and take the third before he's being towed through the crowd.
"Look what I found," she announces as she presents him to the brothers Winchester. They both look up at him, surprise and recognition in varying degrees.
"Hey, Castiel," Sam says, and Cas can't help the tiny wince that's one part Sam's subtle mispronunciation of his name and two parts Sam using his full name.
"Cas," Dean says, and he definitely sounds a little frosty. Cas can't tell if that's from some sort of tension between him and Sam, or worry that Sam will learn about their relationship.
"Pull up a chair," Jess says, and then proceeds to do that for him, almost pushing him into it when he hesitates. He's now sitting at one side of the small square table, Dean to his left and Sam to his right, Jess taking up her seat across from him.
What follows immediately after is one of the more awkward silences Cas has ever sat through. He stares down at the table, memorizing the pattern in the wood grain, and feels the tension mount around him. He has enough brothers himself to recognize the feeling of an interrupted argument.
After a long moment, obviously realizing that this is going nowhere, Jess shifts her weight slightly. "I wanted to tell you thank you," she says. "You did a fantastic job with the wedding, so I looked you up online."
Cas looks up when she says that. She's not blushing, not squirming, looking him dead in the eye and not flinching. She's not bothered by his profession; she's just trying to reconcile it with the quiet, awkward, sarcastic man before her.
"My friend Sarah- you met her, at the wedding?- she and I were talking about it," she continues. Sam is sending her increasingly horrified glances and Dean is getting squirmy, shifting in his seat and glancing repeatedly over at the bar. "She works at an auction house in upstate New York. It's a family business," she adds, almost apologetically. "She said she'd love to have some of your stuff in, but she's afraid her father would take it out back and burn it."
Cas can feel his attention sharpening, his spine straightening, as he sits up in his chair and looks at her. This is business. Business, he knows.
"I can send her a sample of some of my less provocative work, if she would like," he offers.
"She would love that," Jess says.
Dean claps his empty glass down and clears his throat. "All right, that's awesome," he says. "I'm gonna go get our drinks now. Cas, you wanna…?"
Cas looks over at him and realizes that Dean had drank his whiskey, had taken the glass right out of his hand. And, from the looks of it, he didn't realize what he was doing as he did so. There's something warm and fond and almost gentle in his eyes as he offers escape, and Cas is halfway out of his chair when Sam speaks.
"Nah, Jess can help," he says.
Jess is only a second behind on the uptake. "Yeah," she says. "I was supposed to do that, sorry. I'll help." She gives Sam a confused look as she says it but stands and heads back to the bar. Dean spares Cas the tiniest helpless shrug and follows.
Cas looks over at Sam with real concern. He's half a decade Sam's elder, true, but Sam is considerably bigger. And there was nothing at all friendly in how he said Jess can help.
To his considerable surprise, Sam sighs and runs a hand over his face, then leans forward on his elbows and says, eyes all earnest and puppy-wide, "I'm really sorry about Dean."
"What?" Cas asks after a full thirty seconds.
"He's a jerk," Sam doesn't clarify.
"I- yes, he can be," Cas admits. "I had noticed." He pauses here, trying to find a way to say it's nothing he isn't used to, and even that it's part of Dean's appeal, and Cas himself has more than his fair share of royal jackass moments. But the words, usually his friends, fail him for once.
"He's not a bad guy," Sam says, since apparently he feels the needs to defend his brother for some insane reason , and Cas can't help but wonder how they managed to get to this conversational point so quickly. Or at all, really. "He's just pissed over this whole thing with Lisa, and he always gets stupid when someone dumps him."
"Lisa being the ex?" Cas asks after a moment. It's not what he'd meant to say, but it's the first thing to fight its way past the blue Error screen his mind has become.
"Yeah. And, first impressions, you know?" Sam continues. "He loves that car, and he thought you messed with it, and even though you didn't, that's almost impossible to come back from."
If Sam were a little less earnest, a little less determined to shine the best light on his brother, he might take his eyes away from Cas' and look down enough to see the mark Dean had left on Cas' neck the previous day. It's practically a neon sign pressed into Cas' skin. If Sam looks and sees it, Cas can guarantee he won't be able to keep a straight face, and Sam will know. And a situation that is already awkward enough will ratchet up to eleven.
"But, on the other hand," Sam carries blithely on, unaware of how the other man has gone so still he almost isn't even breathing, "He's seeing someone new, according to Bobby, so that'll help."
Cas opens his mouth to say yes, I know, then shuts it again when he can't find the words to end this in a way that doesn't include total humiliation for someone. They've been over here, on their own, for all of ninety seconds, how the hell did this get out of control so fast?
He has not had nearly enough whiskey to deal with this.
A moment later Jess is sliding around behind Sam and claiming her old seat. Cas looks over in relief as Dean pulls his chair out with his foot and a loud, put-upon sigh as he juggles two beers and a shot of whiskey.
"Here," he says as he sits, passing the whiskey over to Cas, and there's a brief moment where they touch, fingers brushing and lingering, and the corner of Dean's mouth pulls up just a little into a familiar smirk before he lets go and pulls away.
"Oh, my God," Sam says, sudden and loud and sounding very much like someone who has just realized they are a colossal idiot.
"What?" Dean asks instantly, his head whipping around and his whole body tensing like he expects to see someone coming up behind him with a very sharp knife and murder in their eyes.
"You-" Sam looks at Cas, then back at Dean. "You two-"
It clicks for Jess, then, and she laughs at her husband's graceless sputtering and puts a hand on his elbow.
"Congratulations," she says to Cas, leaning forward and holding out her martini. Cas spares Dean a lightning-fast glance and shrugs mentally and shifts forward to tap his glass against it in an ironic toast. "And good on you," she adds, and sits back in her chair with a very satisfied look in her eyes.
"Why didn't you tell me?" a scandalized Sam demands of his brother. Dean frowns.
"What, you mean you didn't know?" he counters. "Then what the hell was that whole 'accept yourself no matter what' thing yesterday?"
"I was-" Sam begins, then stops and blows his breath out through his nose. Cas is beginning to see why these two have such troubles- they're polar opposites, and unlike Cas and his family, they haven't spent enough time together to figure out how they balance each other out. "I thought you were hiding your…" Sam starts again, then jerks an uncomfortable look over at Cas when he realizes he has no idea what label to tag him with. "Because you were afraid of what I'd think. I know," he says, as Dean opens his mouth in protest, "I know, you've never let it bother you before. In fact, I'm pretty sure you only went out with some of those girls because you knew it would bother me."
"He doesn't mean it like that," Dean says to Cas. Then he turns back to his brother. "So, what, you talking to me about emotional crap for an hour yesterday was your way of asking if I was seeing someone and wasn't telling you?"
"It was five minutes, Dean. Not an hour." Sam pauses for a moment, simmering in indignant righteousness. Then he adds, in a much quieter tone, "And yes."
"You couldn't just, I don't know, ask?" Dean shakes his head and huffs a laugh to himself. "And people call you the smart one."
"I am," Sam says, feathers well and truly ruffled by now. "I have a college degree and everything."
"So do I," Cas says, because he is the Sam of his family in this case. And, because Gabriel is the Dean of his family in this case, he feels compelled to add, "My brother calls me the family pornographer."
Sam snorts his beer up his nose.
"This is turning out great," Jess says as she's handing Sam a wad of tissues from her purse. "I don't know why you didn't want to come over here."
"I should really go," Cas begins.
"No," Sam says instantly, mostly recovered. "This is good. This is, like, a double date. Or something."
Cas looks down at his- now empty- glass.
"Want another?" Dean asks, already preparing to stand.
"Something stronger, please," Cas replies. "And in a bigger glass."
Dean claps a hand on his shoulder as he walks away, and Cas thinks this whole evening might not be such a bad idea after all.