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"Hey Cas! You home yet man?"  Dean called into the darkness of the apartment.  He had the grace not to chuckle at the thought of Cas jerking awake in his bed at Dean's brash entrance.  

Dean hit the light switch, the fluorescent overhead illuminating the small kitchen and washing out the already bland color scheme.  It didn't look any different from when he'd left to spend Christmas with his family in Kansas even though his roommate was supposed to come back before him.  It wasn't completely out of the place, as Cas, usually lost in his own headspace, often forgot to fix himself food.  When he did, though, the outcome was often a complete disaster.  And if Dean was smiling at the memory of coming home one day to smoke alarms blaring and Cas sitting outside in the hallway after what could only be described as a cooking catastrophe, no one had to know.  

"Cas?"  he called out again, setting his duffel bag on the counter.  Even though Castiel was a pretty heavy sleeper Dean had never failed in shouting him back into consciousness during his less than dramatic entrances and by now the guy was usually shuffling out of his bedroom with his hair even more of a mess than usual and his shirt hanging off of one shoulder, grumbling in Russian.  Not to mention that it was only nine o'clock and Cas wasn't known for passing out until after eleven thirty.  Dean had only seen him sleep once before then, in their freshman year after the Christmas holiday.  Maybe being with his family wore him out -- from what Dean had heard of them, being with them for any extended period of time couldn't be relaxing in the slightest.  He couldn't fathom how Cas had grown up with all of them and come out of the experience sane.  

The one thing that was really off was that Dean could see Cas's bedroom door from the kitchen and it was slightly ajar.  And Cas bluntly refused to sleep unless the door was completely closed.  A cold tendril of worry snaked its way through Dean's gut.  

" Cas, man, are you alright?"  

Maybe he was sick or extremely wiped out, but Dean couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.  The apartment felt too big, too empty, too dark but Dean felt like the walls were closing in on him.  

He nudged the door open with his toe.  The room was stripped.  

Save the bed and the desk, everything was gone.  

"Cas?"  He called out again, as if Castiel was going to round the corner with his favorite red mug in hand and favorite sweat pants slung low on his hips and his nosed slightly scrunched as he laughed at Dean for falling for his joke.  What kind of weird, elaborate joke this was though, Dean couldn't imagine.  And he wasn't finding it very funny -- his breath was coming in quick and shallow gasps and he could hear his heart beat pounding a tandem pulse in his ears.  

A slip of paper on the desktop caught his eye.  He picked it up hesitantly, everything moving slower than he intended like in those surreal dreams that clung to the edges of his mind long after he'd woken up.  

You'll probably want to get a new roommate.  Sorry Dean.  - Castiel  

 


 

Six Years Later  

Dean didn't get another roommate.  What was the point?  With only a semester left, no one was looking for a place to stay and Dean could pay the rent until graduation without dipping into his savings too much.  At least, that's what he told everyone who asked.  The truth was that he didn't want to be around to see someone else slide into the place that belonged to Cas.  He'd rather live alone than see a stranger sitting at the kitchen counter as he cooked breakfast on a Saturday morning or sprawled across the living room floor with text books and notes studying themselves into oblivion.  

Dean had called Gabriel several times after Cas had disappeared.  The first time, Gabe had explained that Castiel had called the family to say that he wouldn't be coming home for the holidays, didn't plan on being home any time in the near future, and not to try and get a hold of him.  Each time Dean had called after that he was met with the same news: that Gabriel had not heard a word from his little brother.  Eventually Dean stopped calling.  

A few months later, Dean graduated.  His family had cheered for him, Sam loudest of all, and he smiled ear to ear.  He refused to let Cas's absence stain that day even though they had planned on walking together.  That night he went out to the parties with his friends (as if he could refuse) and met a girl named Hael.  She was kind and soft-spoken -- a stark contrast with the rowdy gathering and loud music.  But when Dean realized that her dark hair and blue eyes were reminiscent of Cas, he left the party alone, claiming alcohol poisoning the next morning when his friends asked where he disappeared to.    

After college, Dean had gone to work for an architect group in southern California while he worked to get his contractor's license .  Once he finished that, he broke off on his own and started a business.  

Six years later found him in San Francisco near the end of his latest project -- an art gallery.  Not too long after he started his own business did Sam call him from Stanford and he'd answered without even checking the caller I.D.  

"Dean Winchester."  

"Uh, hey Dean, it's Sam."  

"Hey Sammy!  How's your law degree coming along?"  

"Good, but--"  

"And what about that Sarah girl?"  

"Good, Dean.  She's actually why I'm calling?"  

Dean sighed comically.  "Do you need advice on how to talk to girls again?"  

"Shut up and let me talk you jerk!"  Sam had tried to sound angry but chuckled after Dean's expected, "Bitch." was spoken.  

"But her dad has a small gallery up in San Francisco and wants to redo the whole thing.  Sarah said that the job is yours if you want it.  They're showcasing...shoot, what was his name?  Started with an 'M'...let me ask Sarah, hang on..."  

"Sam, I don't care if they're showcasing Godzilla's art, I'll take it," Dean said before Sam could ask his girlfriend.  Finding any sort of job in the middle of a well-to-do city like San Francisco where it would be noticed was beyond impossible, especially for a new business.  Dean wasn't stupid enough to pass an opportunity like this up.  

The job had only taken three months -- Sam wasn't lying when he'd said it was a small gallery -- but Dean was proud of it.  Sarah's father had given Dean all the artistic freedom he wanted with the place as long as it would adequately display any are they would wish to show in future years.  Dean had opted for dark, Brazilian cherry wood flooring with matching accents that would frame portraits or landscapes. He'd chosen a soft beige for the wall that, when paired with the wood, brought a softer, warm tone to the gallery that could only be described as homey but wouldn't contrast with any artwork that they would want to hang.  The only major changes that he made was knocking out the entire front wall, replacing it with an  uninterrupted, floor-to-ceiling glass window, and taking out a wall that had previously run through the middle of the gallery.  Both gave the effect of space and openness which was balanced by the flooring and the walls.  

Mr. Blake spun in the middle of his new gallery.  It was the first time he had seen it as he hadn't wanted to fly out from his home in New York until the project was finished as he didn't want to spend too much time away from his original gallery in New Paltz  

"It's fantastic!"  The man bellowed, a grin stretching across his face.  "I was right to trust my Sarah when she recommended you."  

Dean beamed under the praise and had to restrain himself from grinning like an idiot.  

"Thank you sir."  He managed, a small smile spreading his lips.  

"I would like for you to come to the opening night this weekend if you're not busy,"  Mr. Blake continued.  "You should, after all, be able to see what all your work was for.  You can bring a date, of course, if you'd like."  

"Thank you sir.  I would love to attend."  He didn't mention that he would be attended alone as he hadn't gone on a proper date in seven years.  Sure, a few times his friends had tried to set him up on blind dates but none of the girls held his attention for very long and they often parted long before the night was over.  

The man nodded. "I'm sure you'd like Mr. Milton's work.  He's quite the artistic genius."  

The name 'Milton' struck a chord deep somewhere in Dean's memories and pulled up an image that he could have done without.  An olive green book with a black, leather spine, embossed on the front in gold lettering was'Paradise Lost -- An Epic Poem by John Milton.'   Scribbled on the inside cover in messy handwriting was a nearly illegible 'Castiel  Novak.'  It was Cas's favorite book and he read it every year -- Dean briefly allowed himself to wonder if he still read it.  ( If he's even al --a cruel voice at the back of his head started before he shut it down.   No.  That wasn't even an option.)  Dean never understood it -- he hated that book, it was so elaborately drawn out and pointless.  Every time he said something derogatory about it though Cas would just laugh and push it aside.  "To each his own," he would say.  

He snapped himself out of his thoughts before the silence was prolonged into awkwardness.  "I can't wait," Dean smiled but his mouth tasted sour.  

 


 

 

Dean shoved his hands into his pockets as deep as humanly possible.  To say he felt out of place here would be an understatement.  He had been helping his friend, Lisa, redo her kitchen on the other side of the bay when he realized that he was going to be late to the opening night at the gallery.  Normally he would just skip out on these fancy dress party deals but Sam was adamant that he attended.  Something about how it would be good for business and he could pick up new contracts.  Dean was doubtful about that and suspected that it was more likely that his brother didn't want to be the only male there under the age of thirty.  But Dean had made a commitment and was more than a little bit curious to see how compatible his design was with Milton's artwork, not that he would admit that to anyone.  So he'd rushed there, stopping by his house just long enough to exchange his ratty, faded, AC/DC t-shirt for a white button up.  Even though that was dressed up by Dean's standards, now that he was here he wished that he would have taken a little more time to throw on a tie and swap his Levi's for some dress slacks.  

Despite feeling generally awkward with every step he took, surrounded by the upper class perfectionists that didn't have a single hair out of place, he was enraptured by the paintings on display in the new gallery.  Milton definitely had a preference for oil and watercolors -- sticking to vibrant greens in his oils while his watercolors stuck with blue hues, giving off a more melancholy feel.  And to say that he was tremendously talented would be a restrained statement, Dean felt like he was living in each moment that the artist had captured on the canvas.  

Dean peeled his eyes away from the latest painting he was viewing -- an image of a man with loose-fitting, faded blue jeans with his back to his audience, a mug in hand, staring out a window that reminded Dean of his apartment in college -- to see Sam waving him over to the circle of people he was conversing with.  He took a deep breath and drug himself away from the painting, gearing himself up for the meaningless small talk he was about to endure.  

"Dean Winchester!  I was just talking about you!" bellowed Mr. Blake, who was standing next to his daughter and Sam, looking like he had had one too many glasses of the wine.  

Dean flashed him an easy smile.  "Only good things I hope."  

An older woman with black hair across the group giggled.  She'd probably had too many glasses as well but there wasn't a wedding ring on her finger so Dean flashed her a quick wink.  She blushed furiously and looked down, a smile creeping on to her face.  Nothing would ever happen between them, but Dean was well aware that he was easy on the eyes and it wouldn't hurt to flirt himself into a little bit of business.  

"Of course, m'boy!  I was talking about the fantastic job you did on the studio," he replied, then turned his attention back to the group and added, "and in only three months too!"  

"Oh, it was....nothing," Dean stuttered and froze, forcing the last word out after a prolonged, surely awkward pause.  But he didn't have it in him to care about that at the moment.  His eyes were caught on a bright blue button down shirt and the worst case of sex hair he'd seen in a long, long time.  Six years to be exact.  "Excuse me, Mr. Blake."  

Mr. Blake was either drunk enough not to care or the current company was entertaining enough without him, but the gallery owner didn't grant his departure too much attention.  He could feel Sam's eyes boring into the back of his head in what he could only imagine was a comically astonished stare.  Dean was aware that where he was a moment ago was a fantastic business opportunity and he was also aware that he was literally and figuratively walking away from that but he didn't have it in him to care.  This was more important.  

Everything was moving painstakingly slow again, the same way they were in Cas's room six years ago.  Except this time it wasn't entirely unpleasant.  His ears were roaring and he didn't have to suffer the unfortunate sensation of not being able to inhale enough oxygen.  His chest felt light and he felt giddy, like he was verging on tipsy despite limiting himself to one glass of the horrendous wine, and the edges of his entire body felt frayed but it wasn't an undesirable sensation.  

Half way across the gallery floor he froze again.  What if it wasn't who he thought it was?  What if it was just someone who had an uncontrollable bed head and dark brunette hair and just happened to be roughly the same height with the same legs and lithe waist?  What if he was gearing himself up for nothing at all?    

The world ground to halt and he felt like a balloon that had been punctured.  It was stupid of him to entertain stupid fantasies like this anyways.  No one ran into the lo -- their best friends after six years in an uptown, San Francisco art gallery.  When people wanted to disappear, they disappeared.  

The man in the blue button down chose that moment to turn around though, a smile lighting up his face and his nose scrunched up slightly as he laughed.  Dean felt the air rush out of his lungs and he forgot how to inhale.  

Cas.  

Blue eyes met his and...he turned around and walked away.    

What the hell are you doing, Dean?  The voice in his head screamed at him as his feet swiftly carried him outside.   That's Cas in there.  That is undeniably  Casti -fucking-el  in there.  Without a doubt.      

The warm night air only made him feel more confined and trapped than the crowded interior.  

Shit.  Shit.  Shit.  

The guy you've been pining after for over six years.  What the fuck are you doing?  

"Dean?"  

He jumped.  Fuck.  Shit.  Dammit.  Fucking hell.  " Sh   -- Fu -- Go -- damn it -- shit," his hands were shaking and every curse he tried to spit out broke off half way through.  "Shit, I need a cigarette."  

He frantically dug into his back pocket, barely holding back a sigh of relief when his fingers made contact with the box and lighter.  

"You didn't used to smoke," Cas commented calmly as Dean exhaled a cloud of grey.  

"I didn't used to do a lot of things, Cas," he hurled each word out around his cigarette with as much force as he could muster.  His hands were still trembling but he was thankful that he could keep the tremor out of his voice.  

It was silent for his next few drags.  

"I'm sorry, Dean," Cas spoke at last, his voice was deep and soothing even though it was rougher than sandpaper.    

"Like hell you are.  You are un-fucking-believable ."  

Cas broke a smile, all white teeth and gums.  "It's good to see that you haven't changed too much.  Still have a penchant for placing curses in unconventional places."  

You would have known that for the past six years if you hadn't left.  Dean thought bitterly, but didn't say anything out loud.  He inhaled breath after breath of nicotine-laced tar until the cigarette was burning too close to his fingers for comfort.  All the while Cas stood there patiently, as if he had all the time in the world.  

"What the fuck was that Cas?"  Dean spat as soon as he ground the butt of the cigarette into the ground with the toe of his boot.   

"What the fuck was what?"  

Dean scowled.  "What the fuck kind of stunt was that?  Just pack up and leave out of nowhere.  No goodbye.  No, 'hey, I'm heading out for good so if you have anything you want to say you should probably spit it out now so that you don't have to spend years with it bottled up .'  No way to find out where you'd gone.  Fuck, Cas.  I didn't even know if you were alive man. "  

His voice broke at the end of his little speech and he hated himself for it.  He hated himself for caring so much.  He hated himself for being hung up on the same guy for six years without so much as  a word from him.  

"Dean, I apologize -- "  

"You'd fucking better!" Dean nearly growled, cutting Cas off.  He knew that he shouldn't but he couldn't stop himself.  "Do you have any idea  -- no.  Shit.  Fuck,  Cas .  You don't even know."  He pulled his fingers through his hair and dragged his hand down his face.  "Fucking damn it.  You don't even understand,  Cas ...."  

"I'm sorry, Dean," Cas started again, completely forgiving of Dean's interruptions.  "I really am.  I know that you were counting on me to pay half the rent and I understand that it would have been an unwelcome burden, especially at the end of the school year, to have to pay it on your own but -- "  

"You think this is about the fucking rent ?!" Dean barely kept himself from screaming.  Shit, he needed another smoke.  "You think that I'm upset after six fucking years  about having to pay a couple months rent on my own?"  

"Well, yes, Dean. I assume -- "  

Dean laughed, cold and humorously despite the fact that it would be, under slightly different circumstances, rather funny that Cas thought he would still be angry about the rent.  "Cas this was not about the rent.  Hell, I would have let you crash there for free all through college.  I don't give a fuck.  Not about the rent.  I was..." Shit. "I was in love with you, Cas."  This was it.  "I was so fucking gone.  I'm still in love with you.  I've hardly looked at anyone in the past six fucking years.  And you left me."  

Cas just stood there, silent.  His lips were parted slightly and his brows furrowed, blinking more than was strictly necessary .    

"God, Cas.  You thought I was upset about the rent?  I mean, God knows you missed out on a lot of social cues in college.  A girl practically had to put her hands down your pants before you realized she was flirting with you!"  Dean laughed with more feeling than last time.  He'd said it.  After six years.  He'd finally said it.  Frankly, he could have unloaded this secret  to anyone at any time; he could have grabbed a stranger on the streets by the shoulders and told them that he was in love with Castiel Novak but there was something different about saying it out loud to Cas.  He felt lighter than he could ever remember.  "It had to at least cross your mind though.  That I wouldn't be angry about the rent, right?  That I would be upset about losing my best friend?"  

Dean rambled off a quick prayer in his head as the silence stretched between them.  Please let him say yes .  Dean didn't think he could bear it if he'd spent all those years in college thinking that Castiel was his best friend only to find out, six years afterwards, that Castiel didn't even consider him a friend.  Why else wouldn't the guy drop a line every once in a while?  

"I...no."  Dean was sure that he physically deflated.  "I didn't think...it didn't occur to me...."  

"Spit it out, Cas."  

The man blinked a few times, desperately attempted to organize his thoughts.  "I mean, Dean , you had so many friends.  You were popular.  Everyone knew of Dean Winchester.  It never occurred to me that you considered us friends let alone that you reciprocated my feelings for you.  I thought that you just saw me as the roommate that you had to put up with to make the rent."  

Dean's world ground to halt for the second time that night.  He opened his mouth but the words wouldn't come out.    

"I didn't know, Dean," Cas continued and his big, blue eyes were filling up with tears, unless Dean's vision was betraying him.  "Honestly, I didn't know.  I didn't think that my departure would have that much of an effect on you apart from the rent money."  

"Reciprocated?" Dean finally managed to choke out.    

"What?"  

"You didn't know that I reciprocated your feelings?  As in you felt..."  

"Yes, Dean.  I've been in love with you since our freshman year."  He said it so matter-of-factly.  As if he was informing Dean that ' Yes, the sky is blue. Yes, leaves do grow on trees.  Yes, the ocean is salty.'  As if Dean hadn't nearly choked on the words trying to get them past his teeth.  As if it was easy to say I love you.

"And you left?"  

"Yes, I felt I had to."  

Dean dragged his hands down his face again, lungs itching for another cigarette.  He felt like his entire world had been torn inside out and flipped upside down.  Everything could have been so different if he had done something.  If he had gotten over his stupid gay panic earlier and spoken the fuck up to Cas maybe he wouldn't have spent the last six years hopelessly pining for a man he didn't even know was alive or dead.  

"Shit."  

Cas remained silent and let Dean momentarily lose it.  

"Alright then," Dean took a deep breath.  There would be time to panic later.  "Why did you leave?"  

"I didn't want to be an engineer."  

Dean sputtered.  "Come again?"  

"I really, really did not want to be an engineer."  

"You left a semester before graduation because you didn't want to be an engineer."  

Cas nodded.  "My parents were very logical people, as you know, but they were also very narrow-minded and self-entitled.  I'd spend years attempting to please them and I didn't realize until then that nothing I did was going to make them proud of me.  I put myself through years of schooling to be something that did not make me happy in the slightest, in fact, it made me very unhappy, just to try and make them content.  When we were packing up for the holiday, I was thinking about the, unfortunately inevitable, Christmas dinner that I would have to endure in which my parents would degrade any accomplishments that I had made since the last time I saw them and demand better.  I realized something that I should have realized years earlier, that not only is this my life and I should choose what I wanted to do with it, not two people that would die long before I did and leave me alone with a piece of paper and a degree I never wanted, but that I also greatly disliked my parents.  In fact, I think it's safe to say that I hated my parents.  So, instead of going to my parents house, I stayed at the apartment and I packed up everything I owned, changed my last name, and left.  I ended up in New York for a while, where I met Mr. Blake who sold a few of my paintings, before I decided that I was more compatible with California."  

Dean pressed his lips together.  He knew that he couldn't begrudge Cas for going after a life that he wanted, even if that life didn't include him, but he was still hurt and still upset.  No amount of words were going to patch up six years of hurt that fast.  "And you couldn't have just called ?"  

His voice was wavering again.  

"My father is rather well connected and determined, when he wants to be.  As I did not wish for either him or my mother to find me, I thought it was safest for me to change my last name and cut all ties.  I apologize again for -- "  

"For all I knew you were dead.  Ran off and got yourself killed," Dean couldn't raise his voice above a whisper and tears began to drip down his cheeks.  And he hated himself for it.    

Cas  frowned, eyes following the tear tracks.  "I should have -- "  

"Yeah, you should have."  

His frown deepened and a crease formed between his eyebrows.  "I really didn't want my parents to -- "  

"You can quit worrying, Cas."  

"What?"  

"I said, you can quit worrying.  They're dead.  Car crash in Vegas two years ago.  I went to the funeral -- thought you might show," Dean smiled slightly;  looking back now, it was the last place Cas would have been.  "Guess I was really wrong on that."  

"I...well, I, uh..."  

"You don't have to pretend to be upset if you aren't."  

Cas sighed.  "Thank you, Dean."  

In all honesty, Dean wouldn't mind being stuck in this moment forever.  Loitering on the sidewalk outside an art gallery in San Francisco with Castiel Novak.  It wasn't a such a bad place to be, especially considering he spent the last six years without a word from the man that he was hopelessly in love with.  

But, Mr. Blake chose that moment to lean out the doorway, holding a flute of champagne in his hand that Dean was sure he didn't need.  "Mr. Milton, are you planning on coming back inside or are you going to stay out here and talk to Mr. Winchester all night?  There are some ladies that are absolutely -- " he paused to hiccup , " - in love with your painting you showed me a few years back.  One of them wants to buy it and -- " another hiccup, " -- I know you said that you weren't ready to part with it quite so soon, but the offer is very  -- " hiccup, " --high."  

Dean turned his gaze on Castiel when the gallery owner closed the door and sauntered back inside, not checking to see whether or not anyone was following him.  "You're  Milton?"  

Castiel blushed slightly and looked at the ground.  "I did say that I changed my name."  

"You never told me you painted."  

"I never told you that I hated engineering either," he mumbled and Dean felt something fracture slightly between his ribs.  Cas never did say that he hated his major or that he loved art, in fact, there were probably a lot of things that he never shared with Dean.  

Despite Dean's earlier jab about Cas missing out on social cues, he did seem to catch that his revelation had hurt Dean in some way and hastily added, "I never told anyone much of anything.  I told you the most though."  

Dean coughed.  "Well, you're really good man.  It would have been a crying shame if you'd stuck with engineering."  

Cas looked up at Dean through his thick lashes and smiled.  "Thank you, Dean."  

"Please tell me that you didn't take your last name from that Paradise Lost book though."  

Cas's cheeks flamed red and he tugged at his hair.  "I might have."  

Dean couldn't help but to snort.  It was endearing.  Not that he was going to tell anyone that.  

"So I suppose we should go back in and see about that painting, huh?"  Dean smiled and held his hand out to Cas.  He hesitated and Dean felt a flare of panic in his chest.  Was it too soon?  He had just admitted that he had loved Cas in college as well as for the past six years and Cas had admitted to reciprocating his feelings but there were a million things that could go wrong right now.  Maybe Cas wasn't out.  Dean definitely wasn't but, to be honest, he'd never told anyone that he was straight either and he frankly didn't care if a bunch of rich women that were prone to disloyalty stuck their noses up at him.  Maybe Cas was dating someone.  You could, after all, be in love with someone while in a relationship with another.  His various flings in college proved that.  

But Cas returned his smile and slipped his fingers between Dean's.  "Yeah.  If we stay out here together too long people will start to talk."  

For a moment the joke went over Dean's head but when Cas squeezed his hand, he looked down and laughed.  He did suppose that no one would spare the time to talk about two men on the verge of screaming at each other on the side walk if they weren't going to spare the time to talk about two men holding hands.  

"Yeah, I suppose they might."  

Cas smiled at him, his cheeks rosy and his blue eyes brighter than Dean had ever remembered them being in college and thought that maybe the past six years were worth it if he could hang on to Cas this time.