Eventually, Dean has to get off the floor.
It's unfair that after watching Cas get dragged out into the Empty right in front of him, because of him, Dean still notices things, like: his head is killing him. His back hurts. His feet are going numb. He's about to choke on his own goddamn saliva. God, he fucking hates crying.
Sooner or later, no matter how powerful the adrenaline rush, the body's needs make themselves known. Pain demands attention. That's something he learned in Hell: you can get used to anything, but only for so long.
Up he gets. Phone on. Sam's alive: good.
Bad: "Where's Cas?" Sam asks. "Is he okay?"
It takes Dean an entire six seconds to formulate an answer. "No," he says, and then, "I'm on my way," and then he hangs up.
It's just under eight hours to Hastings if you speed like a reprobate and miss traffic, which Dean obviously does because everyone who would have been clogging up the roadways got vanished. That gives him plenty of time to formulate a version of events that's a) true enough Sam won't be able to catch him in a lie later and b) leaves Cas's dignity intact, because hey, the guy just died for Dean—it's the least he can do.
"Things with Billie went sideways," Dean says, once his feet are on the ground. He takes a long look at Sam and Jack: the last people on Earth. "The only thing Cas could think of to do was summon the Empty. He made a deal last year, for Jack. So the Empty took Cas and Billie both."
Their faces crumple. "He's gone?" asks Jack. "He's really gone for good?"
"Yeah." Dean opens the trunk and starts rifling through their weapons, which is stupid, but he likes having something to do. "Yeah, he's gone for good."
Old habits die hard. When nobody's looking, Dean takes off the shirt with Castiel's last handprint, folds it up, and puts it in the Impala's trunk, where Cas's trenchcoat once rode around for almost a year. Cas isn't coming back this time, and Dean knows that—but some dumb stubborn part of him will always keep waiting anyway.
In the end they get everybody that vanished back. Jack sticks it to Chuck, steals his job, and sets the universe on its axis again. But there's nothing he can do about Cas. "Even God can't touch the Empty," he says. "I'm so sorry."
Dean claps him on the shoulder and tells him he did a good job, because he did. He goes back to the bunker, which is empty, because Sam and Eileen are busy having their happy reunion elsewhere, and Jack's gonna be busy being God for the foreseeable future, and gets drunk.
He has a little breakdown about it the next day at 11 AM in the kitchen. It's nothing in particular that does it—he's somewhere between still hungover and already drunk again, his mind is wandering, and mostly what he feels is numb. But then something sticks in his head about how it's been less than a week and it already feels longer than all forty years he spent in Hell, and he's got more weeks ahead of him, weeks that stretch into months and years and maybe even decades. When he's fifty Cas will still be dead. If he makes it to eighty Cas will still be dead.
And he's done this before, he did it when Dad died, he did it when Sam left, but somehow that just makes it worse. The thought of all those long years he's going to live without ever seeing Cas again freezes him in place, and something seizes up in his chest, and—
He can't handle it. He hurls his bottle against the wall, booze and broken glass flying everywhere, and it reminds him of the lightbulbs shattering when Cas first stepped into his life, and it doesn't help, it's not enough. He turns over the table, all the dirty dishes shattering against the floor, he tears open the drawers, he lays into that kitchen like he'd've laid into Cas if the fucker hadn't gone and died on him. He beats on the furniture the way he'd like to beat on himself. He trashed rooms like this when he was a demon, when he had the Mark of Cain, and it feels the same way: hot and angry and out of his control.
His fault. The very touch of you corrupts. When Castiel first laid a hand on you in Hell he was lost!
That's one hell of a slow death, if you ask Dean.
Eventually the snarling feeling in his chest dies down. Dean gets another beer, washes the blood off his knuckles, and goes hunting for a broom. If he's fast, he'll have enough time to clean up before Sam and Eileen get back.
Just as Dean knew they would, the weeks do stretch into months, and then into a year. Grief never gets easier, Dean knows from experience, but you do get better at it. After all, you can get used to anything.
At first he was worried Sam was going to run off with Eileen the way he ran off to college. It turns out that Eileen's happy enough to come stay with them. Sometimes Dean gets tetchy about his personal space and sometimes Eileen, like a normal human being, misses fresh air and sunshine, so she and Sam go other places a lot too. It winds up being kind of a joint custody deal. Sometimes there's two people besides Dean at the kitchen table in the morning. Sometimes there's none. Dean can work with that.
Dean likes to work. This same, shitty old world is what they fought to keep, and that's a world that still has monsters in it. It's what he's good at, so that's what he does. Sometimes he works with Sam and Eileen. Sometimes he flies solo. Dean's favorite part of the job is after, when he gets to kick back at a bar and drink and shoot some pool, usually with guys that don't know him from Adam. It's not often he gets to be anonymous anymore. Kind of an unforeseen consequence of one-too-many times saving the world.
No one ever finds out about what Cas said to him. They accept Dean's story without question, because it's true, just not the whole truth. As the months tick by, even Dean almost starts to believe it. People mention Cas less and less, at least around Dean. It doesn't get easier, but he gets better at it.
Dean's not gay. That should be more than apparent to anyone who's known him for even five minutes, but it bears repeating, just in case: he's not gay. People say shit like Well everyone's a little bit gay and Don't knock it 'til you've tried it! but Dean's seriously not gay. He did what he had to do, to make sure Sammy had hot lunches and school supplies, even if that included doing other guys for cash in shady truck stop parking lots. He's had more than enough experience to say with authority that no, he's definitely not even a little gay. The first time he did it sucked, so to speak, and it never, ever got less bad.
He's not, like, homophobic or anything. He's got no problem with other people being gay. If Cas had wanted to go find a boyfriend or something, no hate or whatever, as long as he didn't hit on Dean and kept the PDA to a minimum. But what the fuck was Dean supposed to say to Cas aiming all of that at him? Sorry, pal, you're barking up the wrong tree, but try the Bed Bath & Beyond next door! I'm flattered, but maybe you should sign up for Grindr instead! We can do it with the lights off if you make it worth my time. Get real. Dean can't say shit like that to Cas. Cas is—or was—his best friend.
The ugly truth is maybe a small part of him had always known. Cas didn't say I love you, not like that, but he said We're making it up as we go, he said You're my family, he said I'll go with you. Every time Dean was down and out, there was Cas. Sometimes he was a little slow to answer the phone, but there was almost never a fight he wouldn't back Dean up in. The nerdiest angel alive, and he'd go toe-to-toe with monsters, demons, other angels, and God himself as long as Dean was riding shotgun.
Part of Dean had known, and he hadn't—minded, not really. It's not like he had to keep an eye on Cas every minute and make sure he never dropped the soap or anything. Dean knows how other guys used to look at him, still look at him sometimes. Creeps and perverts. But Cas wasn't like that. Cas was one of the few people who could lay his hands on Dean and Dean didn't have to—worry about it. Sometimes it was even nice. Not in a gay way, just, like, normal. Like if Sam claps him on the shoulder or when he was still young enough for his dad to ruffle his hair. Cas could touch him, if he wanted to. He could love him, if he wanted to. Dean knew, a little bit, and he didn't mind giving Cas that. As long as they didn't have to make a federal case about it, it was no big deal.
Dean just didn't know it was—like that. That loving Dean made Cas happy enough to literally die.
And after a decade plus of friendship, after everything they'd been through, the first panicked thing that came out of Dean's mouth was "Don't." Don't do this, don't be this. Love wins or whatever, but don't get any on me.
God, he's such an asshole.
Then one day about a year on down the line Dean wakes up and strolls into the kitchen to find three people at the table—Sam, Eileen, and Cas.
Cas has his feet propped on the table, his coat draped over the chair. He's got a beer in his hand. He looks like shit, because he always looks like shit; he's just got one of those vessels. From this angle, Dean can only see the back of him, and his face, angled to look at Sam, in profile. He's smiling.
Dean thinks he might be dying. Actually, he's died before, and it still felt better than this. This feels like the shock of being punched in the chest and the pain of having his insides ripped out. It feels just like someone's strung his guts out with piano wire or took a cattle prod to his spine. All he can think is: no no no no no. As bad at it was before, this is worse. He's not a hamster anymore. He's off the wheel. Shit can't keep jerking him around like this. Out of his mouth without permission: "Who the fuck are you?"
Cas scrambles to his feet. There is a long and drawn out silence.
He looks just the same. Dean hasn't laid eyes on the son of a bitch in a year, and it shocks him how little he's changed. Like he just died yesterday.
"Hello, Dean," says Castiel.
Dean's heart is in his throat. His pulse pounds in his ears. "You can't be."
Sam has gotten to his feet too. "It's him, Dean. We tested. We quizzed him."
"We're sure," Eileen agrees. "It's really him."
Dean asks, voice rough, "How?"
Cas shrugs. "I used to think resurrection was a punishment. Now I think maybe it's just how things are. Something about becoming the stuff of legends—maybe people like us don't get to die."
Dean's hands are shaking. "You are so full of shit," he says, and goes to get a beer.
The thing is, Dean's not entirely sure that's Cas.
It's not that he doesn't trust Sam and Eileen. This new guy, he walks like Cas, he talks like Cas. He knows stuff Cas would know, like the number of species of evergreens west of the Mississippi, or the single unfunniest joke ever told in Enochian, or everyone's exact order from that steakhouse in Dodge City, including the rarity of Dean's steak, the sauces Jack asked for, and the time, down to the second, that the food arrived. Cas still doesn't understand jackshit about personal space or how reality TV works, and he never fucking sleeps. It's true to life.
Two days later, they even get in touch with Jack. Yes, it's him. Yes, I finally did it. Yes, he's here to stay.
But Dean can't trust it.
It's the same as it always was with them. It's just like it used to be. Dean slots back into place next to Cas so easily it scares him. They kill some monsters. They go to a bar. Cas rides shotgun next to him for eight hours and spends the entire time talking about the history of beekeeping in Argentina and Dean doesn't get tired of hearing his voice even once.
The one thing Cas doesn't talk about is dying—what he said.
Dean doesn't blame him. He'd sure as shit keep his lips zipped. But that's not how the rest of the people in his life are. Everyone always wants to talk about their feelings. Dean expected some kind of nagging, lingering looks or awkwardness, for Cas to start avoiding him out of sheer embarrassment, or maybe even to try and walk the whole thing back, like—what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Shit you say right before you're about to bite it can't be held against you, especially gay shit. Dean had a whole plan of attack ready for when Cas inevitably brought it up—deflect, change the subject, assure Cas that he didn't tell anyone, if need be. Never, ever speak of it again.
It never happens.
Why doesn't he say anything? After all that, why won't he bring it up?
The only answer is that Jack fucked up somehow and it can't be the real Cas. Or there's some kind of string attached—amnesia, another deal, the other shoe. It's a trick, or a dream, or some alternate reality. Maybe Dean died and went to Heaven's holodeck. Maybe he's back in Hell. He hangs onto that paranoia with white knuckles, because it's all that's keeping him together. He can hang out with Cas and work with Cas without actually having to be close to him, and it doesn't hurt so much, as long as he remembers it isn't real. It's just something he gets to enjoy and/or suffer through for a while, and when he figures out what the catch is, everything will go back to normal.
If Cas notices he's being kept at arm's distance, he doesn't say anything. This, naturally, serves only to make Dean more suspicious. It's not right that Cas seems so content. How can he be? Dean never gave him a goddamn thing, and Cas knew he never would. He said it himself: that the one thing he wanted was something he knew he couldn't have.
How can anybody live like that and still be happy?
It all comes to a head one night about a week and change after Cas gets back, when they're in the bunker alone and Dean's had one too many. Sam and Eileen are away for the weekend, and Sam let it slip that he's planning on popping the question, so Dean decides to pop a bottle, ostensibly to celebrate, mostly to drink away the worry of what happens after they get hitched. There's no champagne in the bunker, obviously, but hunters have always been able to make do with Jim, Jack, and José.
It's about one in the morning when Cas gets up out of his chair, pulls a bottle out of Dean's hands, and says placidly, "I think you've probably had enough alcohol for now."
Sam's gonna leave, Dean knows it. Soon as the wedding's over, joint custody is off. Sam and Eileen aren't gonna want to raise their runts in this bunker. Eileen doesn't even like being underground. It's just gonna be Dean and this fake Cas. He has not had enough alcohol, now or ever.
"What would you know?" Dean grumbles. The thing about being drunk is that sometimes the good old brain-to-mouth filter takes a hit in levels of normal human function. What Dean means to say is something like, "You only got drunk like one time." What he actually says is, "You're not even the same Castiel."
Cas freezes where he's pouring Dean's liquor down the sink. "Excuse me?"
"Nothing," Dean mumbles, and lays his cheek down on the cool surface of the table. His heart's going over-time again. He thinks about being in this kitchen a year ago and trashing the hell out of it. If this were the real Cas, Dean would beat his face in.
Dean hears the clink of Cas setting the bottle down in the sink. He feels rather than sees Cas come over to stand beside him. And then Cas kneels, so that Dean, head still down, sees his face there sideways. And he can't not look at him unless he moves.
"What makes you think," Castiel says, his voice measured and slow, and more angry than Dean's heard him in years, "that I'm not me?"
Dean sits up, flushed and dizzy. "You oughta know damn well what!"
"If I knew I wouldn't be asking!"
Dean stumbles to his feet. "Forget it. I'm going to bed."
Cas catches him hard by the upper arm. There's something about his hand near Dean's left shoulder that makes Dean feel absolutely clinically insane. Dean's still not used to how blue his eyes are. Some things are too easy to forget.
Cas doesn't say anything. He's always been frustratingly good at waiting Dean out.
"You can't," Dean says, slow and fumbling. He wishes he wasn't drunk. He wishes he was drunker. "You can't tell me a single thing that only we would know. If you could you would have by now."
And there it is. This is the moment of truth. Dean realizes with a pang that he's been putting off this conversation because he doesn't want things to change. He doesn't want to go back to not having Cas anymore.
But Cas's frown of confusion melts away, replaced by a sudden comprehension that makes Dean feel like he just got snapped back into his body after living like a ghost for a year. It's enough that Cas understands. That's proof. He's real. This is all real. The whole fucking thing was always real.
"Dean—" Cas starts, and Dean jerks away and hits him.
It goes a lot better than the first time he tried. Cas stumbles back, clutching his face. "What the hell, Dean?" he shouts. "What's wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with me?" Dean demands. He's got that hot snarling feeling in his chest again. "You've been back for like a week, man! And you weren't gonna say anything? You were fine just leaving me to sweat it out? Are you pissed at me or something?"
"Was I wrong to assume you wouldn't want a repeat performance?" Cas goes to spit blood in the sink. "We've known each other for more than a decade and I never needed to bring it up before. Why should now be any different?"
"Because I didn't know it was you! I couldn't!" Even if he was sober trying to explain this would make him sound crazy, so he doesn't bother. "I thought after—after all that, you'd at least say something. You'd want something back."
Cas crosses his arms. For a guy who's supposed to be in love with Dean or whatever, he looks really unimpressed. Dean missed that expression more than he thought was humanly possible. "And if I had asked you for anything, anything at all, what would you have said?"
Dean blinks at him stupidly. This conversation is doing a lot to sober him up very quickly, but he's not there yet. The first thing that comes out of his mouth is, "Well I'm not gay, man."
Cas rolls his eyes so hard Dean's surprised they don't fall out of the back of his head. "I am acutely aware."
Dean doesn't get it. "Okay, but you still want me to bang your gong, right? That's why you never said anything?"
Dryly, Cas says, "My interest in copulation is limited."
That draws Dean up short. "Excuse me? You're telling me after that whole speech, that all of this—" He motions at himself. "—doesn't do it for you?"
"Every once in a while," Cas muses, "but about three quarters of the time, no."
That is so rude. "That is so rude," Dean says. "You don't, you know, want me?"
"I'm indifferent to the idea of gong-banging, yes."
"But I'm a hot commodity!" Dean says, unsure why he feels so betrayed. "I thought you were an angel, not a saint. I mean are you even actually gay?"
Cas leans back against the sink. "Why does it matter?"
Why does it matter? Dean struggles to put words to the feeling. "I need to know what you want," he realizes. "I—I fucked you up, Cas. You'd still be regular Joe the Angel if you never laid hands on me, and then you died for me. And now we're free! God's dead! So—fuckin' name it, man. I gotta make it right. You want us to act like it never happened, take a swing at me, that's fine. You want a tumble, I can do that too. Floor's all yours. Lay it on me." Actually, the thought of fucking Cas kind of makes Dean's stomach turn, but if he can fuck guys he doesn't even like for money, how bad can it be to fuck his best friend as a favor? Wouldn't it be worth it, if it was really what Cas wanted, to make it all up to him? Maybe that's too much like a pity fuck. Dean just doesn't know the right way to gently turn down the extremely intense advances of your gay best friend and actually stay friends with him without shit getting weird. Weirder.
"I don't need a 'tumble,'" Cas says, irritated. Good God, he's doing air quotes. Dean feels a rush of affection so strong it's actually physically painful. It's been so long. "I don't need anything."
"That's a bunch of bullshit," Dean argues. "You said..." The one thing I want—it's something I know I can't have. "You're, like—you know. You're, uh, totally in love with me." Being drunk was a good idea after all. Dean would have choked on that one sober. He could barely spit it out as it is. "There's gotta be something you want."
Cas sighs, like he has any right to sound as longsuffering about it as he does. "You don't have to make anything up to me. I was already happy. Summoning the Empty would never have worked if I wasn't. It just took me until then to realize it. I don't need anything else."
Dean shoves his fists into his eyes and pushes away from the table. He stumbles over a chair because he's drunk and trying not to lose his shit, and hears Cas make a sound of alarm, but when he feels Cas approach to steady him, Dean waves him away. Cas can't touch him right now. He'll explode into a thousand pieces.
Dean makes it over to the new vacancy at the sink and splashes water on his face so he has something to do with his hands, so he doesn't have to look at Cas. "I don't get that, man," he says roughly. "You get nothing, and you're happy."
"Think," Cas suggests quietly, "of the way you love Sam."
"Brotherly?" Dean says, incredulous.
"Unconditionally," Cas corrects. He hands Dean the frayed little hand towel hanging on the fridge door. "When he was still knee-high and stealing your Spaghetti-Os and nothing but trouble to look after, you didn't love him because of anything he did for you. You loved him because he was Sam. In the same way, I—" He stumbles over it a little, like he's still not sure he's allowed to say it. "I love you because you're you."
Dean uses the towel to scrub furiously at his face, and manfully resists the urge to tell Cas to keep his voice down when he says shit like that. After all, there's nobody here but them.
"I never said anything to you because I knew what your reaction would be," Cas says. "I didn't want things to change. That was true after I got back, as well. I'm here. I get to be with you. Why ruin a good thing?"
Dean's surprised to find that on that point he actually agrees. After all, he didn't want things to change either. If he hadn't gotten hammered he might've never said anything about that day at all.
"Yeah, okay," he echoes at last, uncertain. "Why ruin a good thing. And you're just—you're really okay with that? We're good?"
Cas smiles. Dean can't figure out why, but it just about breaks his heart. "Yeah, Dean," he says. "We're good."
Things mostly do go back to normal after that.
Sam and Eileen return from their weekend away, Eileen without any ring on her finger. Dean waits until Sam's alone (you'd be surprised how well a deaf lady can eavesdrop) and then says, "I can't believe you pussied out! You better hurry it up, little brother. You gotta lay it on her while you've still got working equipment."
"I hate you, I hate you, I hate you," says Sam. "Never speak to me again."
A job well done. Dean grins.
Dean and Cas are okay, too, Dean thinks, just like Cas said. Cas hangs out with him whenever Sam and Eileen aren't around, and it makes the bunker feel a lot less empty. They go and work jobs and come back and then Cas binges Netflix and continues not to sleep, ever, because he's an absolute freak. In between shows they play foosball down in the good old Dean Cave, and Cas destroys him every time. Guy always did have good reflexes. Fringe benefits of being one of Heaven's best and brightest, or something.
One thing Dean has noticed though is that Cas doesn't touch him anymore, not unless it's strictly business. To patch up a wound or get him out of harm's way, sure, but there's no more casual shoulder-clapping or arm-grabbing. Dean's surprised at how much he misses it. Cas was dead for a year, and relatively speaking he was only back for a hot second before he backed off like this. It takes Dean a little while to realize it's because he waved Cas away when he was drunk. They were talking about the gay thing at the time, so maybe Cas saw that as a wholesale rejection and didn't want to be a creep.
Which is a little unfair, actually. Dean already knows he's not a creep. He waved Cas away, sure, but he didn't mean, like, don't touch him ever again. Geez.
But, okay, fine. Kudos to Cas for respecting his space or whatever. Dean always knew he was on the level, gay or not. But that means he's not going to touch Dean unless Dean gives him the all-clear. And Dean would rather swallow his own tongue than talk about it, so—
He's gonna have to get the idea across in a decidedly non-verbal way. He's gonna have to touch Cas first.
Not the gay way. Just—how they used to. It's been so long, though, that Dean wonders a little if he even still knows how.
He decides to take a calculated approach. He'll touch Cas a) when he knows there's no good reason and b) in a particularly platonic way, like, This is just Normal Bro Behavior, no homo here. He puts the plan into motion whenever they're alone. An elbow to his ribs when they're driving. Kicking him under the table at shitty diners. It is not playing footsie. He's resocializing the guy, that's all.
Dean hasn't overthought touching another guy so much in years, and not ever when he wasn't getting paid for it. But this is important. Dean's not gay, but that doesn't mean he wants Cas to feel bad about having the hots for him. Any true friend would be cool about it.
Dean's plan meets with moderate success. It takes for-fucking-ever, because to say Cas has never been too quick on the uptake on interpersonal matters would be vastly understating it, but eventually he gets the idea. He knocks elbows with Dean while they're in the kitchen. He claps his back after a job well done. Dean simultaneously looks forward to and dreads every single touch to his left shoulder.
Somehow it still doesn't feel like enough. Cas said he was okay, that they were good, but Dean still gets the feeling that he owes Cas one.
To that end, the next time they come back from a job, Dean swings them by the corner grocery instead of the local Biggerson's. Dean didn't do a lot of cooking while Cas was gone—his heart just wasn't in it—but he knows Cas appreciates a good hunk of beef like his salad-loving brother never will, and they've got the place to themselves, so why not?
Dean doesn't let other people in his kitchen while he's working, so Cas contents himself with loitering at the table instead, offering skeptical and unsolicited advice, and squinting suspiciously at Dean's good mood. "I didn't know you could cook," he says, which is deeply insulting. "Is there some special occasion I'm not aware of?"
"All these years you've known me, and didn't know I could cook?" Dean grumbles. "That's the fucking occasion." He makes sure to face the stove when he says it, because better than anyone he knows Cas can read him like an open book.
When he turns around, he finds Cas standing closer than usual. Personal space, Cas, Dean wants to say, except the way Cas is studying him kind of robs him of his voice. Cas says, "I'm sensing ulterior motives."
God, trying to lie to this guy is a joke. Would it kill him to blink? "I just wanted to make you dinner, Cas. Don't make a federal case about it."
Dean doesn't have a good answer. He doesn't really get this sudden need to give to Cas, and make sure he's okay. The way he grew up, his natural instinct is always gonna be to take care of his people, but this is different. It's weird. He's not about to turn on the Hallmark over a couple of burgers, though, so he just shrugs and turns back to the stove, so he can take the pan off the heat. "I don't know what to tell you, man."
Cas watches him work for a moment. "If you're still trying to 'make things up to me,' you should stop. I already told you there's nothing else I want from you."
"And I still think you're full of it," Dean replies evenly, keeping his eyes on the food. He's always liked cooking. There's something satisfying about using knives to cut up onions and tomatoes instead of into people, putting things together instead of taking them apart. "I just don't want you to think we can't still be friends."
Dean adds the finishing touches to the plates—sesame seed buns only, in this house—and steps aside with a flourish. "I know you ain't telling me you don't want these. Don't think for one second I forgot you going full Hamburgler when we were chasing down those horsemen."
Cas closes his eyes in mortification, and Dean feels a tiny thrill of victory at having successfully embarrassed him. "They do smell good."
Classic subject change, but Dean lets him slide. "You bet your feathery ass they do." He sets the plates down on the table, grabs them a couple of beers, and sits. "Dig in, pal."
Obviously, Cas loves them, because Dean is good at what he does. Dean's favorite part of cooking is watching people eat his food. Cas's face changes from skepticism to surprise to that perfect "best-burger-I've-ever-had" expression. Cas hums his approval before he's even through with the first bite. Dean decides right then and there that he kind of loves it, making Cas dinner. Maybe they should do it more often.
"Yeah?" he asks, "yeah?" and Cas nods with great approval, so Dean lets himself feel smug and pleased as he gets started on his own food.
The conversation's intermittent—they're both chewing—but eventually Cas asks when Dean learned to cook and Dean tells him a little about how he started playing around once he finally got a real kitchen to himself, after living like a trucker for the past thirty years. Dean mostly forgets about Cas interrogating him about his motives or whatever until they're finished eating, and there's a lull in the conversation, and Cas says, "I already had everything, you know. I just didn't realize it."
Dean, absently swishing the last drops of beer around the bottom of his bottle, looks up. "What?"
Cas gives him a little smile, halfway between nervous and something else Dean can't put a name to. "You think there's something else you're supposed to do for me. But the truth is that I was already with you, in every way that mattered. I lived with you, when we weren't traveling. I worked with you. I fought by your side. I burdened myself with your problems, and you with mine. I trusted you above all others. We shared secrets. We shared a family. We even raised a son together. What more could I have asked for? What more could I have wanted?"
Dean's heart is in his throat. Maybe...maybe just like he always knew, a little bit, that Cas loved him—maybe Cas knew that he knew. Maybe he knew the entire time that Dean knew, a little, and that Dean didn't mind. Maybe that's what he means. The thought is more than a little worrying. Was it just Cas, or could everyone could tell?
"I wouldn't trade the years we've shared for anything," Castiel says. "And we're still here. There are more years ahead of us. In the face of such a promising future, the rest hardly matters. I'm at peace with that. You should be too."
Dean studies his face, but he can't find the lie. "Yeah," he says at last. "Yeah, okay. Sure." He clears his throat. "Damn, those must've been some good burgers."
Cas kicks him under the table, and Dean throws a balled-up napkin at him. They do the dishes together, Dean washing while Cas dries. Dean doesn't really know what it means to find peace with anything, but this must come close.
Then one day Sam and Eileen burst in the bunker and Eileen's finally sporting that rock on her finger. "We're getting married!" she says, like it wasn't obvious, and pulls Dean and Cas into a bear hug. Dean's known her for going on five years now and doesn't think he's ever seen her this happy.
Dean crushes Sam in a bear hug of his own. When he remembers how quietly devastated Sam was over Jess's death, how for so long after her and then all that shit with Ruby he shied off getting close to people, how Sam spent hours burning the midnight oil in front of his laptop to learn sign language for her, how Sam fought like hell to bring her back after Ketch killed her, he's so proud he could almost burst. He almost can't believe his little brother finally beat all the odds to find someone he really could spend a lifetime with. Someone he doesn't have to lie to, or protect—someone who can maybe even sometimes protect him, too. If Dean has to share Sam, there's no one better than Eileen to do it with.
Sam turns around and picks Eileen right up off the floor by her waist, spinning her around. They're both laughing, grinning ear-to-ear. Dean was dreading this so much for so long, but their joy is infectious; he can't stop smiling.
In fact, he's almost jealous. It's too bad Cas isn't in a girl vessel, or they could be this happy too.
It takes about six whole seconds for that thought to properly catch up to Dean, but when it does it hits him like a sledgehammer. The smile drops off of his face.
He loves Cas.
Not like buds. Not like how he loves Sam. Like that. Like how Sam loves Eileen. Like, picking-him-up-and-spinning-him-around love. Rock-on-his-finger love. Love love. Gay love, except for how Dean's not gay.
What the fuck?
Cas nudges Dean's shoulder with his own. "Are you all right?"
Dean forces a smile that he knows Cas absolutely sees through. "I'm good," he says. To Sam he calls, "You two lovebirds take it easy, huh? Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Then he high-tails it out of there.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Dean's done a lot of genuine soul-searching about this since Cas's latest untimely demise, and the fact is that no matter which way he turns it, nope, he's still not gay.
For the first time ever, this firm heterosexuality presents a huge problem. Dean doesn't really have any particular desire to be gay, but if he was, he and Cas could just bang it out and ride off into the rainbow-colored sunset or whatever. Kick it with the other fags at Pride or something. Learn macrame. Give each other (gag) makeovers. Whatever homos do. Everybody goes home happy. Unfortunately, even though Dean loves sex, he's decidedly less enthusiastic about sex with men. That's still disgusting. No can do.
That leaves him unsure about where he stands with Cas. Dean doesn't want to fuck him, but he does, a little bit, want to make him burgers for the rest of their lives, and make him happy enough to give out bear hugs to anybody in arm's distance. He's in love with Cas. How does that not make him gay? Is he half-gay? Is that even a thing? Dean knows better than to Google it.
He can't be gay gay. In addition to the thought of fucking men making him want to throw himself into traffic, Dean definitely still likes women. Not a lot of things beat a pretty blonde waitress with a great rack. But the older he gets, the less he feels the need to actually go out and get lucky. Firstly because most of the hot chicks are already hitched, but also because he's not in his twenties anymore. It's not that he's never in the mood, but he's got other things to focus on, and it's a lot of work and good luck involved just to scratch an itch he can get to just as easily with his laptop and his right hand.
Theoretically, that means he could, like, commit to Cas or whatever. They could do the whole monogamy thing. If he was gay, which he's not. And it's really almost too bad.
He's starting to get it, maybe. How Cas could love him without needing to fuck him. It's fucking crazy.
Later that night, after a celebratory dinner and beer, after Sam and Eileen have hit the hay, Cas finds Dean down in the Dean Cave. The La-Z-Boys have long been joined by a giant sofa capable of seating their entire little bunker family and guests, and Dean's lounging on that with his head tipped back, staring up at the ceiling. Cas comes into view upside-down and looming over Dean, looking concerned. "I don't think you were being entirely truthful with me before," he says. "If something's troubling you, I'd be happy to listen."
Hm. Yeah, no, Dean's heart is definitely doing some kind of funny flip-flop in his chest. Goddammit. He covers his face with both hands and groans.
"Is it about Sam?" Cas hazards. "He didn't mention any plans to change his living situation. Even if he does, we'll always be able to visit him."
Fuck, goddammit, Dean's gonna have to come clean. Even leaving out the fact that he probably couldn't lie to Cas to save his own life, he can't call Sam a pussy for not popping the question and then not tell Cas, who's head-over-heels for him, that he might love him back, just a little. All this time, Dean wanting to give back—it was guilt. He loves Cas but he's not gay so he can't love Cas. He doesn't know what to do with that.
"I wish I was gay," Dean says, which is not actually what he means at all. He's not even that drunk right now, fuck. There's no fucking excuse for this. Castiel's eyebrows have shot up in surprise, so Dean amends, trying to keep his voice down, "I mean, actually I don't, because gross, sorry, no offense—"
Cas crosses his arms. It takes Dean a second to realize that he's laughing. "None taken."
"But like—if I was gonna go gay for anyone, man," Dean says, "it'd, uh, totally, definitely be you." He's wording this all wrong. That isn't the part he was supposed to say. This is going to give Cas the wrong idea. It's going to give him false hope. "I mean, I'm not. I wouldn't. But."
Cas doesn't look like he's teetering on the edge of an emotional breakdown, though. He doesn't look hopeful, or like his heart is ready to bust out of his chest (not that Dean would know what that's like, thanks, he's definitely not panicking right now). Cas actually looks totally unsurprised and a little amused by this giant revelation that's currently rocking Dean's world. "I'm flattered," he says.
"No, dude, you don't get it. You should be pissed." Dean hauls himself up to a sitting position. "Cas, I—" His voice fails him momentarily. "I'm trying to say that—man, I'm not into dudes. Like I said, that's gross. But you—"
Cas gave Dean a whole big beautiful speech, tears running down his face. Dean's pathetic—he can't even finish that sentence. But he doesn't need to; Cas's eyes go wide and he sits down abruptly, suddenly mute.
"I've been a dick," Dean decides, hitting upon an idea. He can't stand Cas looking at him like that; they've gotta move on. He gets to his feet, turns his head a little, and taps his jaw with one finger. "So I owe you one, right?"
Cas stares at him.
"Come on, Cas," Dean says, a little desperate. "I took a swing at you, didn't I? Got you right in the kisser. So go ahead and take a shot at me. Any way you want."
Cas gets to his feet too, looking truly unsteady. "Are you saying all of this because you feel guilty? Be honest."
"I wish," Dean mutters. God, he fucking hates being honest. Miss him with that, thanks. "They just...looked happy," he says at last. "Sam and Eileen. It made me want—" His throat closes. "It just made me think about stuff. That's all." He claps his hands together. "So let's do this, huh? Right hook, uppercut, brass knuckles—dealer's choice."
Cas gives him one of those long, searching looks, the kind that make Dean feel like he's getting an x-ray of his soul. "Any way I want?"
Dean nods, taps his face again. "Go nuts, buddy. I'm all yours."
Cas takes Dean lightly by the chin, looking him up and down. "Hold still."
Dean manfully manages not to flinch. Men grabbing his face has never ended well for him, and he knows from experience Cas packs one hell of a mean punch. He holds still. He braces for impact.
And then Cas leans forward, and presses his lips against the place Dean tapped on his jaw.
It's nothing like Dean expected. It's stubbly, it's dry, it's—it's over already. Damn, that was fast.
Cas pulls back, and swallows visibly. "Now we're even."
Dean's never let another man kiss him, no matter how badly he needed the money. And he always thought doing this kind of shit would remind him of a john. But Cas doesn't smell like sweat and stale cigarette smoke and diner grease, just clean, like aftershave and ozone. He wasn't pushy or grabby; his hand steadied Dean's chin more than anything. He didn't even really invade Dean's personal space. The whole thing was over before it started.
It wasn't so bad. It was almost nice. Dean didn't know it could be like that, with a guy.
Dean exhales. Cas's shoulders relax, mirroring Dean's relief.
A beat too late, Dean's body floods with adrenaline. That was okay, he tells himself, because it was, but his fight-or-flight's kicked in like he's going toe-to-toe with a vampire. He hopes Cas can't see his hands shaking. "We—" Dean has to clear his throat, start over. "Yeah, man. We're even."
"Even" could mean "over." If this is some sort of weird game of gay chicken, they could call that a draw and tap out. It doesn't have to go anywhere else from here. Dean came clean, Cas got his smooch on, so it's all settled, right?
But "even" could also mean they're actually gonna do this thing. Dean doesn't know how he feels about that. He wants to give to Cas, and now he knows why, but he doesn't know how much.
He's still not gay. Ask him before this and he'd have said thinking about sex with men would give him hives every time. Men stink, literally. They're sweaty and hairy, all hard angles and bad breath and greasy fingers. Dean can't count the number of times he used to have to wear his old leather jacket in the summer to cover fingernail marks on his wrists, or keep his shirt on when he was sleeping so Sammy wouldn't see bites on his stomach and hips. Sometimes, if he had to blow a guy and had the motel room to himself after, he'd make himself puke in the shower, just so he could get all that filth out of him. Even then, Dean spent years at a time never feeling clean. Men make Dean feel like he's drowning.
The idea of fucking men is revolting. It's flat-out repulsive. But the idea of Cas is—Dean doesn't know.
Cas is something else.
Touching Cas has become a brand new experience. Dean's not about to let it get weird again after all this work, so he still knocks shoulders with Cas when they pass through a doorway or claps him on the back after a hunt. But his body has decided to dump adrenaline on him every single time, just in case Cas is the kind of pervert Dean knows he's not.
Dean's more than familiar with the looks creeps give him. That look used to mean Dean got to feed his brother dinner that week. As he got older and less pretty, and learned other monetarily viable skills, that look started to mean someone was about to get his nose broken instead. Dean can spot it over a smoky pool table or across a bar from a mile away. He's practically got his own fucked up sixth sense.
Cas has never looked at Dean that way.
Dean likes being next to Cas. In the bunker, in the car, on a job. Having Cas close to him, at his back, makes Dean feel safer, not the opposite. And it wasn't that bad. That's what he keeps getting stuck on: it honestly wasn't that bad. It was different, and unexpected, but if Cas wanted to do it again, if that made him happy—
Maybe. Dean can't believe he's even thinking about it, but—yeah, maybe.
On a sunny Thursday on the way home from a job in Oklahoma, Dean pulls them over by a little roadside stand near a lake or a river or something to get some grub. They eat in companionable silence, listening to the cars speed by and some kids chattering a few tables over. The wind blows a couple of napkins off their table. Dean steals one of Cas's french fries. As expected, Cas kicks him lightly under the table. But it's different now. Not just because it makes Dean's heartbeat go crazy. It's because Cas hesitates. Every time, there's just a split second's pause.
It used to be comfortable. Now it's careful.
Dean kicks Cas back, also a beat too late. Cas's mouth turns up at the corner, half-hearted. "That's a lot of fries you owe me now."
"I'll make it up to you."
Cas makes a face, and Dean realizes it's more or less what he said when he offered to let Cas fuck him, if he wanted. "No need," Cas says.
"I didn't mean like—"
"I know." Cas sighs, looking out over the water. "Dean, if I crossed a line, before—I apologize."
Dean's heartbeat is hammering against his ribs again. "Nah," he says, forcing himself to sound casual. "Nah, man, it's all right."
Cas doesn't grace that with a response, choosing instead to give his plate a deeply skeptical look.
"I just—" Dean puts down his burger. Keeps his eyes on his own plate. "I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I'm still not—" He lowers his voice. "I'm still not gay. You're good, we're good, but I don't know if I can..."
Now Cas is looking up. "Dean," he says, and for some reason it's now, after they've come this far, that he sounds sad. "I know. It's okay."
"It's not okay, and you don't know," Dean says, almost whispers, because he can't have this conversation here, in public, where anyone could see. He needs a shadowy corner, an empty parking lot, a burned-out streetlight. Something to hide behind. As if he's ever been able to hide from Cas. "Look, you're not—you're not the first—I mean, when I was a teenager—"
"Dean." Cas reaches for Dean, hesitates, and then lays his hand on Dean's wrist anyway. It's a warm day, and Dean's not wearing a coat. Cas's fingers touch Dean's bare skin. Dean used to get bruises there, from johns who liked to play rough. Cas's touch is so light and so brief Dean can hardly stand it. "I know," says Cas. "It's okay. It's okay."
It takes a moment for that to register. He knows? And then—yeah, of course he knows. Jesus. That's why he's being so careful. Maybe he saw it when he got Dean out of Hell, maybe he saw it when he was looking through Dean's memories to rescue him from Michael, or hell, maybe he just guessed, but he's been treating Dean like a skittish cat ever since that kiss. He knew the whole goddamn time. He knew, and still—
Everything you have ever done, the good and the bad, you have done for love.
"I'm not gay," Dean insists, voice rough. "I did what I had to do."
"I know," Cas says again. Dean never told anyone, but Cas still knows. "That doesn't change anything for me."
The family with the kids gets up and starts packing it back into their car. Now they really are alone. Dean pulls his hands under the table so Cas won't see them shaking, keeps his eyes down. He's getting that adrenaline rush again, leaving him shaky and a little sweaty, too cool even in the late summer breeze. It's all he can do to keep from jiggling his knee.
Some part of Dean's brain is stuck replaying that light touch to his wrist, the way Cas pressed his lips to Dean's skin without wanting or pushing for anything else. It's not just that Dean doesn't mind giving Cas what he wants. He almost wishes—not like that, but he almost wishes Cas would touch him again.
Cas says, "If it was too much..."
"Nah," Dean says again, automatic. He's surprised to find he means it. "I mean, it's not normally my thing, but I didn't mind. I—" God, what is he doing? He can't look Cas in the eye and say shit like this. He doesn't know how to ask for something like that aloud at all. "You never know. Might come in handy next time you need to settle a score with me."
That's the nice thing about Cas: he knows Dean inside and out. Dean doesn't always have to finish his sentences, not when Cas can hear the end of them anyway.
It happens when they get back to the bunker. Driving always calms Dean down, and his hands and his heartbeat are steady by the time he pulls the Impala into the bunker's garage. He kills the engine and pockets his keys, but before he can get out Cas says, "Wait."
Dean, unwound from a nice three hours on the road, rolls his head around to look at Cas. "Hmm?"
"You owe me one," Cas says. "For the fries."
Oh. "Oh," says Dean, heart picking up again. He appreciates the advance warning. "Yeah, okay," he agrees. "I guess I do."
Dean's done a lot of kissing in this car. After awhile, they all sort of blend together. But there's no forgetting this one.
Cas leans in, nice and easy, and just like before he presses his lips to Dean's jaw. Dean's eyes slip shut, and he lets himself breathe in. It's not too much. Cas smells good, and he doesn't linger for too long. Dean has to check himself; his hands want to reach up towards the lapels of Cas's trench coat. They want to keep Cas where he is.
"Okay?" Cas asks.
Dean nods, throat tight. "Yeah," he agrees. "Okay."
And together, they head inside.
That becomes their new routine. Monsters, Netflix, and now Cas finding excuses to touch Dean. Dean loses at foosball: he owes Cas a kiss. Dean makes dinner: Cas owes him a kiss. It's embarrassing. It's terrifying. It's downright domestic. Dean's still not gay, and he's never gonna be gay, but this whole deal—nah, it's not so bad.
Cas never brings it up in front of other people. Dean didn't have to ask him not to do that; he just doesn't. And Cas is always the one doing the kissing, and never on the lips. That suits Dean fine. Cas is the gay one here; Dean's just along for the ride. He doesn't mind if it's Cas. He never minds when it's Cas.
The other changes creep in so slowly Dean almost doesn't notice. Normally when they stay at motels they get a single; Cas doesn't sleep, so he borrows Dean's laptop and does research or plays Solitaire or whatever to kill time. But then one day the only vacancy is one with two queens, and Cas climbs in the other bed. He can sleep when he wants to, and he does; he and Dean fall asleep facing each other, separated by a safe three-foot distance between their beds.
Then there's the time Dean's in danger of nodding off on a long drive home. Cas reaches across the six inches of open seat between them to touch Dean's hand to make sure he's awake—and yeah, the immediate kick of adrenaline perks him right up—and leaves his hand there instead of taking it away. Dean counts the minutes on the dashboard clock. It takes twenty-one of them for him to work up the courage to turn his hand over and lace their fingers together.
And once, when they're both on the couch watching Netflix, sitting closer together than they have any reason to be, Dean drops off with his head on Cas's shoulder. He wakes a few hours later to find that Cas hasn't moved an inch. It's the best sleep he's had in years.
And slowly but surely, the adrenaline rushes become less frequent. The two of them become comfortable again.
It's really not so bad, with Cas. And it makes him happy. And maybe if this is all right, someday, the rest of it could be too. Dean doesn't know. The only thing he's sure of is that he loves Cas. Spinning-around-happy love. And whether or not he's gay is starting to seem less and less important.
One day, around the six-month mark since Cas's return, and three days after Sam and Eileen's wedding, Dean falls asleep on Cas's shoulder again. When he wakes up, he finds that as usual, Cas hasn't moved, except this time to drape a blanket and his arm around Dean's shoulders. Stuff like this has long stopped making Dean's heart race out of his chest. It feels easy, and comfortable. They don't have to worry about getting caught; Sam and Eileen are honeymooning, and they won't be back for a week. It's embarrassing how nice this is. Dean feels so good just lounging right there he could almost cry.
"Hey," he says.
Cas smiles, half-asleep himself. "Hey."
Something about that smile still kind of breaks Dean's heart.
The one thing I want—it's something I know I can't have.
Dean thinks maybe he gets it now, what Cas wants. What Cas has always wanted. Dean just doesn't know how to give it to him. And he wants to give to Cas so badly he almost doesn't know what to do with himself.
"Cas," he whispers. "Cas, hey. Tell me something."
"You wanted me to love you back," Dean says. "Right? That was it all along."
Cas squeezes him, a little. "I told you," he murmurs. "The happiness isn't in the having it. It's in being next to you. It's in getting to say it. I meant it when I said I don't need anything else. This is more than enough."
"I get it. I didn't always, but I do now." Dean sits up a little. "But man, I—I want to give that to you. I want to love you back, I just—I'm not good at this stuff. Tell me how to love you back. Tell me how to be good to you."
Something changes in Cas's face, then; some kind of happy-sad emotion that makes his brow wrinkle. Dean's hands want to reach up and smooth it away. "I think you already do," Cas whispers, and can't quite seem to help smiling. "I think you already are. Of course you're good enough; the only reason I can love you at all is because you taught me how."
"Tell me," Dean insists. "If it could be any way you wanted. Promise I won't laugh."
Cas thinks it over for a moment. "I didn't ever need much," he says at last. "Just to say it, and be acknowledged, and not to have to hold such a big feeling inside. I only—" His voice goes all wavery, and he has to stop for a second to get his shit together. "I only wanted to be as important to you as you are to me. Nothing more."
Dean's heart is going double-time again. He's not gay, and maybe he never will be. Maybe all the fucking of guys he'll ever do is already behind him. But it's okay, with Cas. He thinks that if Cas wanted to try, someday, he'd want to try too. Only they'd have to start small. Baby steps.
"You—" Dean's voice fails him. He licks his lips. If Sam can fucking propose, then for Cas, Dean can sure as hell do this. Cas is his best friend. Cas is more than that. "You already are," he says. "You always were."
He lets his hand reach up, at last, to smooth the emotion away from Cas's face, and doesn't take it away. Come on, he thinks. Just do it. He tries to remember the smell of clean aftershave and ozone, the fleeting feeling of that first kiss, and Cas pulling back when Dean wanted him to stay. The way being close to Cas feels like safety, and not like drowning. He can do this, for Cas. He wants this for Cas. And—yeah, maybe a little, he wants it for himself too.
And so, for the first time ever, Dean is the one to tilt his face towards Cas's, and not towards his cheek. This time, their lips meet in the middle.
It's even better than the first one. It's so fucking embarrassing; Dean's had way too much sex for his body to be going haywire over one little kiss. But he's never done it with a guy like this. He's never done it with Cas like this. Maybe—yeah. Someday, he might like to do a little more.
Cas ducks his head, but he can't stop smiling—ear-to-ear. He's happy: spinning-around, rock-on-his-finger happy. And Dean's done it. He's given Cas what he wanted—what he was sure he couldn't have.
"How's your interest in copulation now, you son of a bitch?" Dean whispers.
Cas tips his head forward into Dean's shoulder, grinning. "Still about medium-low."
Dean exhales, long and slow. "Thank God," he says. "I'm really gonna have to work up to that one."
A pause—then they both crack up.
It's a work in progress, but that's all right. They're free now. It's like Cas said: they have more years ahead of them.
They have all the time in the world.