Pairing: Sam/Castiel (college AU)
Summary: Castiel and Sam are paired on a project for Astronomy 101.
Author's note: Huge props to stellamaris99 and akadougal for their beta work!
Castiel always thought college would be a beautiful place where the social pressures and institutionalized foolishness of high school were finally scratched. No more bullying. No more calls to parents worried about their son's "detachment" from his peers. And no more forced group projects with classmates who laugh about things Castiel doesn't understand, like boobs and booze. College, in Castiel's mind, was a world so big there might even be a place for him to belong.
Castiel is having all his expectations upended, one by one.
For one thing, his astronomy professor has decided to treat his seminar of 200+ students as his personal social experiment. He's randomly matched student ID numbers (not even names but numbers!) and paired off the entire class for a sky-mapping project that will require late-night meet-ups in areas of campus with relatively little light pollution. The possibilities are scary enough for a skinny guy like Castiel -- if you're a girl, it'd be downright terrifying.
So Castiel is making his way through a zoo of people, looking for the seat that's labeled with his student ID and worrying whom he'll be paired off with for forced socializing. Will it be an idiot? A bully? Someone who will ignore him completely? Someone who will use him for his knowledge? It's stupid, Castiel knows, to think in such cliches when he's come to college specifically to escape them. But he's got no frame of reference. And old habits die hard.
He finds his seat and sits, pulling the taped number off the seat back. The number next to his is KAZ2Y5-2. He stares at it, printed in blocky black font on a lemon-yellow sheet of paper, trying to conjure up an image of its owner through sheer psychic power. All he gets is a sick feeling in his temple where the yellowness seems to cut right through to his brain.
Students pass by him, looking at the paper and then moving on. It isn't the blonde. It isn't the fellow with the backpack featuring the scantily clad anime character. And, thank God, it's not the guy who looks like he's just waiting for an excuse to punch something.
No, the ID number belongs to an arm. A very, very long arm that Castiel traces upward for several seconds before finding a shoulder to attach it to. By the time he's completed the journey, he's staring at air -- his partner has slid down into the seat and is gazing at him through bright, round brown eyes.
The stranger leans forward, sliding muscled forearms onto his knees. "Hi," he says, and his voice is the blankest, most benign thing Castiel's ever heard. Blank voice, big arms (and they're big enough for Castiel to start imagining things, nice things) , tall - congratulations, it's a jock. Castiel knows how this story shakes out. He'll be shouldering more of the burden in this project. Again.
"Dumb assignment, huh?" the guy goes on, throwing his feet up on the table. Jesus, his legs are long, too. The guy must be a skyscraper when he's standing up, but a skyscraper without much on top, apparently, because he's yawning and going on, "What's with making us draw star charts? You can buy star charts. Waste of time."
Castiel stiffens. He knows you have to map the skies yourself if you ever want to be able to use a telescope. He's heard the lectures, he understands its importance. But he shrugs and says, "Yeah," keeping himself evasive and detached.
"I mean," the jock goes on, "we have this great big telescope up in the observatory. Why not let us look at stuff? Interesting stuff?"
Like girls' dormitories, Castiel figures. He's lucky if this guy even knows the names of the planets. He twirls his pencil between two fingers and nods noncommittally.
"I really want to see the Ring Nebula," the guy says. "I could never get it to resolve in my scope at home."
Castiel sits forward and drops his pencil.
"Oh, I'm stupid. I didn't introduce myself. I'm Sam Winchester."
The jock holds out a hand that could wrap around the moon. Castiel blinks. "Nice to meet you," he manages to say, and his voice sounds gravelly and false inside his throat.
"I guess that's what you get when you take 101, though. But I mean, all I know's what I've swung around the sky. I don't have any AP classes or anything, so I have to start at 101. Have you used a telescope before?"
Castiel's heart is doing a skittish dance against his ribs. "I've done a little."
"Well, we'll get through this assignment easily enough, then," Sam says with a grin. Now that Castiel's giving him a second look, he is kind of pretty - a tangled mop of hair around a face that seems perpetually frozen at age 8. Oh, but nothing about his body is childlike. "I'm sorry, what's your name?"
He's still holding out his hand, and Castiel has the presence of mind to take it. The contact is instant powerful warmth, a beam of bright sunlight shooting up his arm. "Castiel."
"Seriously?" Sam's eyes widen. "That's your name?"
Castiel lowers his eyes. "Yes."
Sam leans forward. His grin is so wide it's actually stupid. "So?"
"So?" Castiel bites his lip.
"Are you named after the asteroid, or is the asteroid named after you?"
Castiel stares blankly at him. Nobody's ever heard of the Castiel asteroid. it's tiny and insignificant and featureless but for the a ring of mountains that circle its north pole like a crown.
"It was named after me," Castiel says slowly. "My dad discovered it."
Sam's jaw drops and his eyes sparkle. For a moment Castiel thinks he's going to fall to the ground in worship. "Are you for serious?" Castiel shrugs. "I read about the discovery in Sky & Telescope. They showed an artist's rendering. It sort of looked like--" he holds his hands in an O. Castiel knows the picture, knows the features, well. He nods, and something close to a smile twitches in his cheeks. Sam just grins wider in return.
Castiel always thought having a lump of dead rock floating in space bear his name was a dubious claim to fame. Right now he thinks it's something to shout to the world about.
It rains the first night they're set to observe, clouds rolling out of nowhere like an astronomical speed trap. They've met at the student center, sitting in the back near the windows when the clouds rumble their way across the sky. Sam's been yawning. Now he sits back in his chair, long legs sprawled across the floor, and closes his eyes. "I'm just gonna go to sleep here," he declares.
"And I'm supposed to wake you up if it stops raining?"
Sam considers it. "Yeah," he says, "why not?"
He grins. Castiel glares at him.
"I'm kidding," Sam chides. There's such kindness in his face that it leaves Castiel at a loss. They've only met the once, but Sam seems so genuine, so open and willing to talk about anything. Castiel doesn't know how to react. He wants to be friends with Sam, wants it badly, but he doesn't know how. He's still stuttering, frozen, fighting past his own preconceptions. He's too dull for Sam. Too nerdy. Sam will get bored with him.
So Castiel says nothing and takes out his math homework.
It's hard. Integrals and differentials have very little appeal compared to the length of that body, the casual droop of his limbs and the slack expression on his face as he lies there, eyelashes fluttering, breathing evenly. Castiel narrows his eyes, forces himself to focus. Focus.
"So stupid question."
Castiel's mouth purses. So much for focus.
"Your dad's an astronomer. How come you're in the freshman class?"
Sam's eyes are on him, round brown pebbles, and his face is serene as it tilts toward Castiel. It's a look that reaches into his heart and grabs it tight, a simple request for honesty that breaks down Castiel's determination to stay detached in a single stroke.
"My father and I don't get along," he says. "We never have. I avoided anything to do with his work, but I did pick some things up. Enough to figure I could easily ace a 101 class."
"So you're not into astronomy, then?" Sam sounds kind of put out. the corners of his mouth are downturned.
Castiel weighs how to answer. "I'm not turned off by it," he says finally. "I guess... it has its charm."
Most of its charm is looking at him with round, boyish eyes and asking casual questions about his family.
"I guess I'm disappointed. I mean--" he says that a lot, keeps explaining himself, Castiel notices -- "you're the son of an astronomer, and you have an asteroid named after you. How can you not love it?"
Castiel ponders the question. "I don't know. I just don't. Maybe because my father was always off in some observatory somewhere. The old cliche. Missing my Little League games. I wasn't in Little League," he adds as an afterthought. "But that sort of thing."
Sam leans forward. "I guess the grass is always greener," he says, "but I'd kill to have a dad like that. My dad's a mechanic. He never looks further than the next engine, you know? And I'm always--" He smiles ruefully, and color comes to his cheeks. "I'm always thinking there's something out there that's bigger. I want to feel like I'm part of something huge. Cosmic."
Castiel gazes at him, dismayed. "It always makes me feel small to think about the universe," he says. "Like I'm not important. I'd rather look at what's right in front of me."
He's staring at Sam as he says it, and Sam reddens, turns away. Castiel's brows furrow, and he feels as though he's said something wrong. Was there something untoward, did he make a bad innuendo?
Has Sam noticed just how much Castiel's gaze has been lingering on his hands?
Castiel can't help it. They're beautiful hands. He wants to see them tighten around the cups and screws that guide the delicate motions of a telescope. Sam is easy to imagine in the dark, with his hair hanging in a fringe around his face, leaned over to peer into the finderscope and then the lens. Gasping, mouth erupting into a smile at the sight of minuscule white rings wrapped around a distant planet.
After the rain comes Indian summer, scorching noontimes and dry grass, and Castiel treads through the campus to meet Sam for another attempt at their mapping project. There was a lot of bitching in class yesterday about the deadline being unreasonable because it'd been raining, and the lecturer was as usual impassable, further cementing Castiel's theory that the class to him is nothing so much as a grand social experiment. To see how far the rabble can be pushed.
Still, Sam came to sit next to him in class yesterday. Not to talk about the project, just to sit. And his smile was shy and eager, and Castiel remembers his heart pounding so loud that he stopped to take his pulse and missed the announcement of the due date for their first paper.
It's getting to be silly, how much he's fixating on Sam, considering he barely knows him at all. But Castiel's not good at asking questions, and when Sam looks at him it's hard to focus on anything but making sure his answers to Sam's constant inquiries aren't completely brainless. And Sam's so earnest, and so loquacious when he gets excited, and sometimes Castiel can't think of a thing to do but stop and watch him.
Stopping and watching would probably be a good idea right now, because Castiel suddenly realizes he's walking straight into another person. Hands come out of nowhere, huge fingers wrap around his shoulders, and you know what? Stopping and watching is a stupid idea, because Sam's holding him up, steadying him, chest wide and warm and smile beaming down into his. "Hey."
"Oh." Castiel steps back hurriedly. He doesn't want to, but his body makes him, a reflexive jerk back. "Oh. I thought we were meeting--" He points his finger in the direction of the student center.
"I forgot my book," Sam says apologetically. He's flushed with exertion. "I was just gonna run back to my room and get it."
"I have mine."
"Oh." Sam laughs. "Oh, OK."
They stand awkwardly, toe to toe, for a moment, searching for words. Castiel keeps getting distracted by the rise and fall of Sam's chest, the solidity there. He's hard where Castiel's fragile, and Castiel wonders when the body of a jock stopped being an instant turn-off and started being fascinating.
It takes Sam two more tries for Castiel to answer to the nickname. "Oh."
"Should we go?"
No, Castiel would like to stand here some more and just marvel at just how bad his crush on Sam is getting.
"Yes." He clears his throat. "Of course."
He prays his legs will carry him as far as the student center before they give out.
The weather holds, clear skies dragging from blue to red and back to blue as Sam and Castiel sit in the cafeteria and eat lumps of chicken and chocolate pudding. Castiel has the clarity to ask Sam about his life, where he came from. He's the younger of two brothers; the older followed his dad's greasy footsteps into the mechanic business. Sam's always been more academic. But he's a runner, did track in high school, though he never liked basketball ("I'm sorry, you must be asked that all the time," Castiel says, and Sam laughs at his apology). He runs 10Ks and half-marathons when he can, and he pumps iron. That last bit makes Castiel drop his fork with the sudden image of Sam sweaty, muscles rippling, a towel slung over his shoulder, breathing heavily, and thank goodness silver makes a huge clatter when it hits the floor or Castiel might never have noticed the fork slipped from his fingers.
Sam's brought along a blanket, as though this is a picnic, and he stretches it out over the wide grass when they reach the hill on the other side of the athletics center. There are other students from their section sitting here and there, none too close, trying to get their own maps sorted out. The white moons of flashlight beams skirt to and fro against the grass.
Sam pulls out his own flashlight and turns it on. Its light is not white but dull red, and Castiel sees a sheet of red cellophane pulled over the end and secured with a rubber band. "I read somewhere that if you have a red filter on your flashlight, you can look up at the sky without your eyes having to adjust too much to the darkness," Sam explains. He adds, eyes darting toward the other pairs of students, "Not that it'll do much good with all that light pollution."
"We could wait until later," Castiel says. "Wait for them to be done."
Sam shrugs. "We're already out here."
"I've got nothing else to do," Castiel volunteers, and his heart leaps to his mouth as he says it. Too quick, too eager. He'll scare Sam.
There's an instant of silence, and Castiel struggles to find something to say. "I suppose you do, though. I'm--"
"If you say I'm sorry again, I swear to God, Cas." Sam's grinning. "Let's wait them out a bit."
As it turns out, astronomy students have short attention spans. The first group packs up after fifteen minutes, the next few only five to ten minutes later. A diligent pair is there for a good forty-five, though, and Sam rolls his eyes and slumps down to lie on the blanket, pretending to snooze. Castiel takes the opportunity to rake his eyes over Sam's body, to enjoy a moment of indulgence when he's sure Sam's looking the other way. God, he'd so much rather map Sam's body than the skies, rather plot the positions of every freckle and mole than chart cold-distant stars. But when the last flashlight winks out, and they're left on their own, Sam sits up, rolls up his sleeves and cranes his neck toward the heavens.
"Time to get started," he says, and his eyes burn bright with wonder. Castiel follows the line of his neck, his chin pointing up toward the stars. "We're supposed to map the northern sky, right?"
Castiel fumbles for Sam's flashlight, turns it on and surveys the assignment. He has to squint, so dim is the red light. "Uh, yeah. It says to start at Polaris and..."
"Well, Polaris is there," Sam says, swinging an easy arm upward to point at a dim star. "And there's Draco, and there's Cassiopeia, and there's the Big Dipper."
"You know everything by heart," Castiel says.
Sam looks at him and gives a smile. It's impossible for his teeth to glint white in the low light, but they glint nonetheless, and Castiel thinks no red-filtered flashlights are going to protect his eyes from the brilliance of that smile. "You make it sound so impressive," Sam says. "I'm sure you know much more."
Castiel shakes his head. "I know the Big Dipper. Kind of." He looks up at the sky, traces the lines of the constellation with his eyes.
"But your dad--"
"Most of his work is on paper, it's math. Or in observatories way out in the mountains." Castiel follows the line of the Dipper's handle back up to focus on the North Star. "Like I said, I... wasn't that interested."
"Maybe we were switched at birth," Sam says. "But then they'd have to rename the asteroid Sam, and that's the worst name for an asteroid I've ever heard," Sam says. His breath tickles against Castiel's neck, drawing a shiver. "Are you cold?"
"Cause if you're not feeling well--"
"No." Castiel turns bright eyes to Sam. "I'm fine. Let's just... do the work."
"Right." Sam withdraws, sits up straight, but he looks a little defeated. "Right."
They map the positions of the northern constellations, careful to draw in proportion, hunching over the paper in the dim red-tinted light. Every breath Sam takes, Castiel feels, the expansion of his ribcage almost crowding Castiel off the blanket. Sam looks over at him every few minutes, and Castiel can feel the worry emanating off him. He doesn't know what to say or do to make it go away.
"I think that's all," Sam murmurs, subdued, after he scratches in the position of the final star. "Looks good to you?" He waits for Castiel's nodded assent. "Well, thanks for sticking out here. I think we did a decent job, and--"
"I'm sorry," Castiel blurts out.
"What? What are you sorry for now?"
Castiel looks away. He feels like an idiot. He's beside this beautiful guy on whom he's developed a horrible crush, and they're on a blanket with the stars above, and he can't find anything better to say than an apology. "I'm sorry I couldn't help more. You must be really disappointed. You were so excited about my dad and I end up being--"
He stops. Partly because he can't think of any words to describe himself that are sufficiently cruel. Partly because Sam looks as though he's been slapped in the face. And partly because there's suddenly a hand on his arm, squeezing tight, crushing him to stillness.
"What are you talking about? I'm the one who doesn't know anything. I keep expecting you to tell me I'm totally wrong. I only read this stuff in magazines. Honestly? I'm kind of trying to impress you here." And then it's Castiel who's shocked and Sam who's looking away. "Just-- just so you know," he mumbles, "and I don't know how you feel about this, but I, um, I like you. And I'd never do anything you wouldn't want, but-- but if--"
Each stutter is harder and harder to listen to. Coiled energy is springing up in the seat of him, and Castiel doesn't think he can listen to another word, until Sam runs out of words and Castiel straightens up and fills the void and the silence with his own mouth, his lips sealing over Sam's, his fingertips pulling Sam's face in, his heart pounding loud enough to drum away the silence. The corners of his eyes catch the red-filtered gaze of the flashlight rolling uselessly over their star map before his lashes droop and he's not seeing anything.
Sam's hand drops to his waist, then cinches tight to his hipbone, thumb running along the crest of it. Castiel takes in a breath. Cool air rushes in through a small gap between their mouths. He hears Sam suck in breath at the same time, and then all the air is sealed off, Sam's licking into his mouth, Castiel's groaning, and when his spine loses its solidity there's endless muscle all around to hold him up. He crumples forward, back arching, his hands lost in thick hair and dragging against firm skin.
Sam breaks the kiss, pulling back. Castiel opens his eyes to see slick, gleaming lips, lightly parted, and glittering dark eyes. He can't say a word. He doesn't even know which way is up.
Fingers brush Castiel's jaw, slide down to feather against his neck. "So I guess I didn't say anything too stupid," Sam says, and his voice wobbles. Castiel can't tear his gaze from Sam's lips.
"I'm--" He's going to say "I'm sorry," but for once he stops himself in time. Sam grins, and Castiel finds himself smiling as well. "I'm very interested in astronomy all of a sudden," he finishes, a wicked edge to his voice he didn't know he was capable of.
Sam laughs. His voice rings out wide in the night.
"Come here," he says, lying flat on his back. "Look up. Straight up. You see that blue star there? That's Vega..."
He extends one arm up, points to the zenith. Castiel settles in next to him. Sam's scent settles around him, fresh and warm, and he follows the arrow of Sam's arm up into the wonders of the universe.