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Fic: Clean plates and dirty shoes
Title: Clean plates and dirty shoes
Author: tawg
Word count: ~3,200
Rating: PG
Pairings/characters: Castiel, Balthazar, Inias
Notes: Written for John, my Balthazar enabler.
Summary: A human AU in which Castiel's life has not gone as he had planned, and familiar faces remain a blessing.

Castiel stands on the busy city street. It has changed in the years since he has been there last, though he can’t remember the finer details of his youth. Already the reality of the location is overriding his memories. The modern art bus stop must surely have been there ten years ago, because he can’t remember what would have been in its place. In his memories the city air had smelled cleaner than the bustling metropolis he’d relocated to, but now the fragrances of the cities seem indistinguishable. Has his old home grown, or had he merely been projecting a clear innocence on a place he hadn’t allowed himself to miss? The handles of his duffle bag cut into his palm. His feet ache in leather shoes that feel too hot and too thin and too cruel around his toes. He sighs, the taste of cities familiar and indistinct on his tongue. What a weary homecoming.

“Castiel?” A hand on his shoulder, turning him around, and Castiel can’t help giving Balthazar a weary smile. Balthazar who would always reach out to find an answer. “It is you!” And an arm is slung around Castiel’s shoulders, squeezing him into a side-on hug. A chance meeting, but Balthazar had always liked the city proper, the streets lined with shops and restaurants and tiny parks where single buildings had once stood.

“Hello, Balthazar. It has been a while.”

“Been too long.” Balthazar pulls Castiel’s duffle from his tired hand, slings it over one shoulder and arranges it to sit at the small of his back. “How long are you in town? Where are you headed?”

Balthazar still smiles in the easy way Castiel remembers. His face is lined, and he has given up on the notion of a perfectly groomed goatee, has accepted the scruff that God has bestowed upon him. His arms are stronger than Castiel remembers, and he smells like white sage and dark chocolate. “I don’t know where I’m headed,” Castiel says as Balthazar steers him along with the flow of the foot traffic. “And I’m not sure how long I’ll be in town.”

Balthazar slows his pace, gives Castiel a searching look. Though Balthazar has always possessed a uniquely expressive face, Castiel often can’t put words to his expressions. There is no single word to describe the softening of eyes, the purse of lips, the texture of skin over his cheekbones. Castiel thinks that there might be concern mixed with child-like hope staring at him. Or maybe Balthazar is laughing at him, as Balthazar has always been a mirthful creature.

“Sounds like an interesting story,” he says at last.

“I suspect it’s a boring one,” Castiel replies. “And common.”

“Well, if you don’t know your destination or your duration, can you at least recall if you’ve been fed?” Balthazar asks. It’s late afternoon, and workers are filing out of their offices and clogging the streets. Staff of uncommon hours watch them longingly from behind large, clean windows. Service with a bright smile and envious eyes.

“I ate on the plane,” Castiel replies, and Balthazar snorts at him.

“That hardly counts,” his friend tells him, steers him to the right at a street corner. “Come on. If you have no pressing engagements to attend, I had something I’d like to show off to you.”

Castiel allows himself to be escorted. Balthazar’s arm had dropped away long ago, but their shoulders brush as they walk and their knuckles bump together on occasion. They swap stories about mutual acquaintances, and when Balthazar mentions something particularly scandalous he grabs Castiel’s wrist, turns them towards one another and gestures expressively with his free hand. Castiel feels suddenly small beside this familiar body. He wonders where his own diagrams drawn in the shape of fingers through the air and palms marking boundaries have faded away to. Ten years. It has been far too long.

Balthazar finally stops along a street that is busy with foot traffic – coffee shops and clothing stores, and Castiel can see the eclectic mix of law offices and student accommodation slotted above the loud and thriving store fronts. Balthazar points across the road, at a white tiled wall with a large, circular window taking up most of its face. Above the restaurant, a gaudy sign indicates that the upper levels are “Heaven’s Apartments”. A delicate, black script above the restaurant doorway reads, “The Stairway”.

Castiel smiles, a small and tired thing but genuine nonetheless. “Cute,” he says, and Balthazar slings his arm around him again, pulls Castiel close and this hug is an expression of coiled pride and excitement. “When did you open?”

“Earlier this year,” Balthazar replies, before grabbing Castiel by the wrist and dragging him out into the sluggish peak hour traffic. “Come on.”

The inside of the restaurant is neat, a black-white-silver starkness that is softened by fine stencil work on the walls and ceiling, twisting stretching organic structures that dirty up the divisions between opposites. There are tea candles on the tables, though only half of them are lit, and the larger seatings have bouquets of black carnations and soft, pink roses. Castiel can recognise Balthazar’s lazy neatness in the decor, but it is not his own handiwork. Balthazar has never had the patience to ensure that a placing was properly set or that the corners of the floor were perfectly clean.

“Sugarplum,” Balthazar calls loudly through the quiet space. “Guess what followed me home?”

“You can’t keep it,” a voice calls back from the kitchen, longsuffering and mellow. Castiel is shoved into the bright, impossibly clean space with a flourish and a ‘ta-dah!’, and Castiel is treated to the fluid shift of a changing countenance. From indulgent and pre-emptively amused, to surprised and oddly disbelieving, and finally settling into a smile that is wider on one side than the other, pale blue eyes that have always had a tendency to camouflage themselves by reflecting their surrounds look silver and tender and so very happy to see Castiel again. “Hi,” Inias says, placing his hand on Castiel’s forearm and trying to absorb the moment. “Castiel, wow. It’s been...”

“Too long?” Castiel suggests. Inias beams and pulls Castiel in for a hug, simple and friendly and neat. Castiel stands still in the embrace of affection, realises belatedly that he is frowning and awkwardly avoids his friends’ eyes when Inias releases him. It has been a long time since someone was happy to see him.

“Is he visiting?” Inias asks Balthazar.

“It’s complicated,” Balthazar returns, and Castiel can hear the purr of excitement in his friend’s sedate timbre.

Inias sinks down onto one of the tall black stools dotted around the kitchen, stares at Castiel with wide eyes, expecting the worst. “What is it? What happened?”

“I...” The words catch in Castiel’s throat, and he changes direction quickly to save face. “I’m afraid I must ask a favour.”

“Of course,” Balthazar says, stowing Castiel’s duffle back out of sight. Castiel is familiar with the ‘of course you are expecting something’, someone else’s voice in his mind, sharp enough to clip his wings and make him fidget. But Balthazar’s words are kind and obvious: ‘of course we’ll do anything to help you’. It makes Castiel ache inside so strongly that he feels dizzy for a heartbeat. He takes a seat opposite Inias, and Balthazar returns and leans one hip against a steel bench top, blazer stowed away with Castiel’s few changes of clothes and Castiel traces the line of Balthazar’s bare forearms as they cross over his chest, the chunky blackness of his watch.

“If you could recommend a hotel,” Castiel says, the words hanging awkwardly in the middle of the triangle they form. “Call a taxi. My accommodation fell through. There was a fire, apparently, and-”

“You can stay with us,” Inias interrupts.

“That’s very kind,” Castiel replies. “But I don’t know how long-”

“As long as you like,” Inias gives Castiel a hopeful smile, and when Castiel glances at Balthazar his friend has a hand over his mouth, completely failing to hide his amusement. After a moment he raises his eyebrows questioningly at Castiel, asking if there is a single good reason to turn down their offer. Castiel can think of several, but none that his friends would accept. There was a time when they would gang up on one another regularly, when two of them could talk the third into anything. It had been an awkward pause when Castiel had announced that he would be moving to another city, the frantic mental scramble of two people wondering if they could convince him to stay and then realising that they would never forgive themselves for even asking that of him.

“Thank you,” Castiel says sincerely. “I’ll look for more permanent accommodation as soon as possible.” But Inias is already tsking the words away, and Balthazar is waving a dismissive hand.

“So,” Inias says, leaning his elbows on his knees and looking barely a day older than when Castiel had last seen him, all shaggy hair and long limbs. “What brings you back home?”

“It’s a long story,” Castiel warns them as Balthazar pulls on his apron – black, the ties wrapped tight around his waist and tied at the front in a neat knot, the grey of his t-shirt seemingly a soft compromise between the clean calico and the spotless surrounds. Inias wears a button down with short sleeves, ties his apron with a big spidery bow at the back. They prep the kitchen as Castiel talks, chopping vegetables and mincing herbs as Castiel tells them about falling in love with a man who made him want to do crazy things and a relationship that was volatile and unpredictable.

“Sounds wonderful,” Balthazar says, a dreamy sigh in his voice. Inias rolls his eyes at the pair of them.

Castiel tells them about the competition between their companies, the conflict of interest and the clandestine meetings, the trysts in dark hallways and empty offices, the kisses that were about everything but love and the fights that were about everything but business. Castiel looses himself for a moment in the telling. So many years oscillating between safety and sinfulness, and yet this is the first time he has spoken of it aloud. His friends were all co-workers and his co-workers would never know.

“So what finally went wrong?” Inias asks, setting several pots of water on to boil. Castiel had spent the flight home wondering the same thing.

“He wanted me to be with him,” Castiel says, watching as Balthazar works with a large, sharp knife. “His family had all left the business. He said that he was ready to settle down with someone.”

“I can’t believe he would suggest such a thing,” Balthazar says flatly, ignoring the kick Inias gives him for his sarcasm.

“He wanted me to quit my job,” Castiel clarifies. Balthazar and Inias both freeze, look up from their duties and gape at Castiel.

“But... you love your job!” Inias exclaims.

“Yes,” Castiel agrees.

“You always said that it was your purpose,” Balthazar cuts in, a clean passion in his voice. “The thing that made you whole.”

“Yes,” Castiel says again. “I told him that.”

“And?” Balthazar asks. But there are some questions that don’t need to be asked, their answers already written large across the landscape.

Castiel looks away, down at the clean floor and his dusty shoes hanging a good inch above it. “And some people want everything,” he says at last. The words reverberate in the neat and orderly kitchen, echoing against tile and absorbed into three familiar bodies.

“Well,” Balthazar says quietly. “What a cock.” Castiel huffs a small laugh, and Inias smiles timidly in the wake of Castiel’s hoarse regret.

“Have you eaten?” he asks.

“I ate on the plane,” Castiel reiterates from earlier. Balthazar and Inias exchange a look, and Castiel feels a current of conspiracy in the air. Murmurs of the first diners of the evening filter in from the restaurant proper, and Balthazar and Inias move around one another like bees in a garden, each intuiting the most efficient path and instinctively avoiding collision. Castiel feels like a tan queen at the centre of a hive for three. They bring him tributes – a few tender selections of meat in a thick and bitter sauce, a spoonful of soup delivered directly to his mouth, a small cup of fluffy coconut rice with crushed cashews, splashes of wine in a glass that rings like a bell when Castiel flicks the side. They trade stories of the past decade – Balthazar’s tour of the Asias, Inias’ travel through Europe, how for a long time one would leave just as the other was touching down.

“We’ve been talking about this for years,” Balthazar offers, his voice rich and low, putting Castiel in mind of a particularly content feline.

“Ever since Balthazar got his cooking degree,” Inias adds.

“I think you’ll find that it’s a degree in the culinary arts,” Balthazar corrects, exaggerating his loftiness and rising on his toes for a moment so as to look down his nose at Inias, who in return jabs him in the stomach with the handle of a wooden spoon.

“It just took us until last year to manage to be in the same country-”

“And not completely broke,” Balthazar contributes.

“And now you’re back, too,” Inias concludes happily, as though Castiel is the final piece of the puzzle, with his mouth full of green curry and his hands startled and clasping around a linen napkin.

“If my transfer goes through,” he says cautiously.

“It will,” Balthazar says with carefree confidence. “You’re the best at what you do.”

“Do you even know what I do?” Castiel asks, his voice teasing but laid over a foundation of legitimate doubt.

“No,” Balthazar replied breezily. “But I know you. And you have always been the best when it counts.”

“It’s true,” Inias says, sliding a trio of soufflés out of the oven. He looks at them proudly, and Balthazar grips his shoulder as he passes, a silent congratulation for his apprentice. And then one of the three little porcelain dishes is slid onto a cool plate, paired with a glass cup of rich, Inias-made ice cream, and deposited on the counter top by Castiel. Castiel doesn’t even have the opportunity to refuse the dessert, because Inias is already out the black double doors that separate the kitchen from the den, holding his head his and his creations with pride.

“He’s shaping up well,” Balthazar comments.

“You’ve taught him well.”

“I’ve never been a teacher,” Balthazar replies. Which is entirely true, but Castiel knows that there is much to be learned from his friend. Many years ago Castiel learned good humour and demure grace, two qualities that Balthazar will hide as often as he will display. Castiel watches Inias move through the restaurant, watches his two friends with their mouths that sit easy and natural in content smiles, feels the edges of his own lips and wonders what he has learned that is of value while he has been forgetting such basic, essential things.

He has learned that there is always someone who wants everything. There is always a definition of everything that means that you are not enough. He looks down at the warm cake that is more syrup than solid, made by loving hands and raised with a chorus of kind words and good intentions.

“It’s funny,” he says as Inias strides back into the kitchen, the serving tray folded neatly under his arm. “I say ‘no’ to one compromise and then the company makes it for me. I try to come home and my motel burns down.” He puts a spoonful of hot, decadent soufflé in his mouth. There is actually nothing funny about the situation, but Castiel cannot find a better word for the ugly twist inside him that makes him want to laugh and cry simultaneously. “Maybe it’s a sign that I should have stayed.”

Inias purses his lips in thought for a moment. “Maybe it’s a sign that leaving was the right thing?”

Balthazar cuts between them, a sizzling dish crackling and spluttering like a sodden firework. “Maybe you should forget the signs and do whatever the hell you want?” he suggests, sliding the steak to sit beside steamed vegetables that are made nutritionally worthless by the addition of melted butter.

Castiel stretches his mind out, but try as he might he can’t think of anything that he wants more right at this moment than what he already has. A full stomach. Good company. People who have missed him. People he wants to keep.

The restaurant closes to the sounds of diners thanking the wait staff and Balthazar and Inias telling Castiel about the new buildings, the extended parklands. Castiel helps with the dishes, his coats draped over his three-legged throne and his sleeves rolled up. Inias chides him for not washing grease away thoroughly enough. Balthazar nudges Castiel with his hip and tells him not to worry, they’re keeping him anyway. The floors are cleaned, the counters wiped down, the crockery stashed neatly away and with each motion Castiel tries to find the right way to tell his friends that he has missed them.

The apartment is just upstairs, above the restaurant though they have to exit the business proper and take the resident entry to the building. The rooms are an organised mess, filled with trinkets and papers and all of the signs of people living there. Castiel remembers his own apartment in another state, and how quickly he had been able to pack away his things and how it had looked almost the same when the moving company had carted his boxes away.

“Balthazar has the bigger bed,” Inias informs him, and they both take a moment to make completely unsurprised faces at this revelation. “You can bunk with him.”

Which really means that it’s Balthazar’s bed that the three of them pile onto, rather an Inias’ perfectly reasonable twin, or the acceptably awkward sofa bed in the living area. Balthazar’s bed with pillows and cushions pulled from all over the apartment, and laden down with blankets that the three of them alternate between fighting for and kicking off during the night. It reminds Castiel of his student days, the three of them studying together for subjects that held no meaning and cramming for exams that made no sense, and how years later he would look back upon those times of stress and frustration and short fuses and long, smouldering sulks with fondness, with attention to the way bodies bent towards one another and words were a bolster to even the most fragile of temperaments. Balthazar spent far too long doing a three year degree, and Inias had gone to college because everyone else had, and of them all Castiel had been the one with a path to follow.

He had thought that returning to this city of his youth would feel like a failure. It never occurred to him that it would feel like coming home.

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awwww, I love how they fits together, this is like the fic version of comfort food, and we definitely need more fics with Bal and Inias.


this is like the fic version of comfort food
I love that description! And yes, I am hoping to see more Inias around the place. (Hoping for more Balthazar goes without saying.)

Poor Dean. I'm afraid you are very, very recognisable in that description. And it's not okay. No, not even if you're the Righteous Man. No, not even if you're not actually having sex with him.

I did love Castiel being able to touch base with his family like that in that episode, and that brief glimpse of him and Inias together had such interesting potential. This fic takes that glimpse and runs with it so beautifully. AUs are interesting like that, aren't they? They give us such a chance to play around with things the show gives us and look at them in a new light - like, in this case, showing Cas' old relationships/job as valid and worthwhile and important, and this unnamed lover, no matter how intense their relationship, completely overstepping his bounds in making such demands.

Thank you for the long comment *loves*

I think the Dean and Cas dynamic in terms of committing to a cause is really interesting, because both Dean and Sam have had people who are important to them 'convert' to the side of being on the look out for the supernatural. In contrast, Cas was not only already on that team, he was a far bigger player with far bigger concerns, and he's never really stopped having concerns that are bigger than Sam and Dean - it's just that he lost the capacity to deal with them for a while. So it was really fun taking that push-and-pull and transferring it into an AU, and then slapping some understanding angels on top to put Cas back together. Hot damn do I love some angels.

Well, and of course you just know that every silly little thing (like hotel reservations) that can go wrong will. Because this is Cas' life. *cuddles him*

And, yes, I think you're right about that - Dean's used to having that role (he even had to pull Sam back into The Life Of Fixing Evil in the pilot episode) and is too accustomed now to that being the only right way to fight, the one that he owns and evangelises and approves. Of course, evangelising the angel... not so much.

evangelising the angel... not so much.
Lol, I haven't seen it put that way before, but yes. There are definitely a few moments that spring to mind for that. And that's an excellent point re: Sam in the pilot. I want to be having all kind of Dean-ish thoughts right now, but I'm stuck at work with a headache.

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