This is how it goes, and even after everything it takes Castiel entirely by surprise.
The thing is, recent years have been such an exhaustive, exhausting education in the vagaries of human (well, human-adjacent) emotion, that sometimes even Castiel manages to forget that really, years are nothing. To an angel years are a blink; humans take decades to learn how to be human. Why shouldn't there still be surprises waiting for him in this skin?
Or maybe it's just because this is a moment like so many others, and he can't understand why anything’s changed. It's during one of the long stretches that sometimes happen between big cases, where Sam and Dean get increasingly twitchy about doing something but nothing they find feels quite important enough to actually go out and do yet. In the meantime Sam's gone back to one of his enthusiastic if haphazard pet projects - digitizing the Men of Letters' archives - and was suspiciously quick with a stack of books in long-dead languages when Castiel hesitantly offered to help.
Dean lasted a few hours at it too before he started fidgeting and muttering something about dinner; now the sizzle of burgers is fading as he scoops them off the pan and onto buns, the smell of well-seasoned potatoes and the sound of the radio filling the kitchen. Castiel more than suspects this is exactly why Sam set up this project in the kitchen in the first place.
A beer and a plate appear next to Sam, then Castiel - ostensibly to let Castiel join in if he wants, and actually so Dean can eat all of his burger and most of his potato wedges. Sure enough, Dean settles into the chair next to him, takes a swig of beer and reaches across Castiel to grab a wedge. Castiel raises an eyebrow at him, and Dean locks eyes, an open challenge in his stare as he deliberately lifts two more off Castiel's plate.
The warmth that floods through Castiel when Dean grins at him is so familiar he barely notices, but not so the impulse that follows: in his mind the crystal-clear image of touching Dean, the back of his hand drifting lightly down Dean's arm – so strong and abrupt that he's surprised to find his hand is still by his side instead of raised, reaching, the anticipation of fabric ghosting across his knuckles.
Dean's gotten up again, muttering something about ketchup, before Castiel can collect himself enough to decide what to do with this.
He cradles the feeling close for weeks afterward, pulling it out to examine it again and again, until the novelty has long since faded and this strange new instinct feels neither strange nor new. Castiel has seen these scripts of human touch play out over and over, even played his own parts, without ever really understanding why. Is this why they do it? With time, will this become something more: a hunger to close the space between them, fit his hand against the curve of Dean's neck and his mouth against Dean's mouth, press skin against skin against skin?
Curiosity killed the cat, he’s heard the humans say. He would have to make a concerted effort to actually die from pining, but Castiel knows it would probably be smarter to let this go, to not want more from Dean Winchester than he’s willing and able to give. Be thankful that he has a home with this man and his brother, that for the moment circumstances have allowed their orbits to align.
But he’s too fascinated to let it rest.
This is how it goes, but the thing you have to understand is, Dean's straight. Obviously.
Not that he's never wondered. Everybody does at some point, right? That's definitely a thing. But let's skip past twenty years and change of masculine insecurity; skip past that thing with Rhonda and a hundred other little realizations that he used to hide so carefully (because he knows, yeah, he knows that pink don’t make you gay, but Dean Winchester learned how to be a man from a manly man, straight as an arrow, and he learned that strength is good music and good cars and strong guns and stronger alcohol, and feminine is shame, feminine is weakness, and weakness gets you killed); let's skip past the handful of surprise boners where he's pretty sure his libido just got confused for a sec, definitely a coincidence, probably definitely, naming no names here because it never amounted to anything like a pattern.
'Cause in the end it comes down to this: when he asks himself the question, Do you want to have sex with guys? the answer's always been, No, not really. Ergo, straight. Don't swing that way. Thanks, but no thanks, end of story.
But then there's Cas. And the other thing you have to understand is, it's definitely not Dean's fault it takes him so long to notice, okay, because none of this is how it usually goes for Dean at all. It's supposed to start with that spark, that moment of "oh, hello," and then the moment where you confirm that yeah, they're definitely on board here too. The anticipation of touch and heat and closeness and occasionally pure ridiculous fun, this time's always different, this time anything could happen, and it could still blow up in his face but there's only one way to find out.
Dean was feeling a lot of things when he stabbed an angel of the Lord in the chest, but none of that made the list.
Cas crept up on him; Cas is all backwards and it’s totally unfair.
Back up a bit, to the parking lot of a bar outside of Monterey, Massachusetts, where Sam and Dean have been working a case since Monday. Cas stuck around at the bunker on research duty; that was a decision that definitely made sense at the time, but now Dean’s standing here staring at his phone, feeling all sorts of on edge for reasons he can’t pin down.
“Hey, Cas. How’s it going?”
“I just responded to your text. Did you not receive it?”
“No, I did. I know. Just checking in, for, you know. Just curious.”
Dean can’t see what Cas’s face is doing, and for some reason it’s driving him nuts. He did get the text, but it felt like he was missing out on something, so he thought he’d call instead, but now this feels wrong too. He can’t read Cas properly through words alone.
That’s not even true; Cas is probably better at emoting through emojis than he is at emoting through his own damn face. Dean doesn’t need to see him right now, or hear him. He just wants to. He wants to see Cas, he wants to hear him moving and breathing. He wants all of Cas, right here, right now, maybe even… “I miss your wings,” Dean says before the words really hit his brain, “you know? Used to be I could just say, we’re in room 114 at the Rodeway Inn off Route 20, and bam, you’d be here. Yeah, okay, screw that. It never worked like that. You’d show, or sometimes you wouldn’t, and mostly you wouldn’t even say why. But it was easier that way, because I couldn’t take it personal. It was just on account of you being a dick.
“Now it’s… it’s weird. I dunno. You’re not here, but it’s different.”
“I’m sorry,” Cas says after a moment. He sounds like he’s not sure which part of that he’s supposed to be apologizing for, and just decided to be generally sorry for everything. Awesome.
“I’m not trying to guilt you, man. It’s not your fault. Shit. I don’t know. Never mind, okay? I’ll, we’ll call you tomorrow if anything comes up.” Dean hangs up before Cas can say anything else.
I kind of miss you, Dean thinks. I feel like maybe I’m allowed to miss you now. And I don’t know what to do with that. He doesn’t know what to do with the fact that now he’s standing here like a total sap, imagining Cas, and the idea that Cas is 1500 miles away when he could be right here feels suddenly unbearable.
But Dean’s straight, definitely. Probably definitely. Or maybe do you want to have sex with guys wasn't the right question in this case. Maybe the question he needed to ask, the first question, was, Cas, can you stay?
This is how it goes, and Sam’s smart, he knows his brother, so he smiles a little to himself and pretends nothing’s changed at all.
"One job, Sam, you had one job." Dean shoves the gas pump back in place to punctuate his exasperation.
"Sorry," Sam shrugs. He is actually feeling a little guilty; he's pretty sure Dean cracked a rib or two when that ghost slammed him into its headstone, and he looks in desperate need of comfort food. "I looked. They had a few racks of donuts and a bear claw, that's it."
"At least you didn't try to win me over with any goddamn gas station cake," Dean grouses, turning to get back in the car, which is when Cas gets his attention. He's holding out a fork and a single-serve clamshell container. What the hell, Sam thinks. What.
Dean's crowing over this like a long-lost child, and all Sam can think is that there must be some secret angel power Cas has been hiding from them all these years because he definitely looked, he looked everywhere, and there definitely wasn't any pie.
"It was the last one," Cas says, staring down Sam like he's daring him to contradict. Angel powers, or weirdly deep pockets. Definitely. Sam rolls his eyes, stepping around this ridiculous pie melodrama to get in the car, but Dean's hand shoots out to bar his way. He looks pointedly at Sam, then at the car.
"Driver asks for pie, shotgun provides the pie. Get in the back."
Cas's eyes definitely crinkle at the corners smugly. Friggin' angels.
Sam dozes in the backseat for a few hours before surfacing long enough to check the time. It's pitch black out, ass o'clock in the morning and the headlights of other cars few and far between. The steady hum of the Impala underlies Kansas singing about noise and confusion, and he'd fall right back asleep if his stomach wasn't growling so hard.
"See, Sammy, this is what you get for eating rabbit food," Dean says with no small amount of satisfaction when Sam points out an exit sign, but at least he gets off. A street lamp washes over the car as they drive through an intersection, and because Sam is leaning forward to look for further signage he sees it: the momentary illumination of hands, fingers interlaced across the front seats.
Sense memory slams into him - not Amelia, hard and fast and tinged with desperation, but another lifetime ago. Jess. The sweet electric thrill in their choreography, the first almost-touches that they pretend are accidental, the spark in his stomach when her hand settles onto his own. The moment of realization that this is what people do, real people: take their time, wake up and see her at breakfast, walk out of class grinning at her text messages, sit together studying in comfortable silence, learn the names of her friends and the meanings of her smiles, savor the strange and fragile luxury of having nothing to do but stay.
Dean and Cas hold hands in the front seat, Dean's shoulders relaxed in the darkness, and Sam says, "You know, I think I'm good. Got a protein bar in my bag somewhere." A squashed reject that's been sitting around for months, but… That's fine. That’s enough.
"You sure? Sign says there's a Biggerson's a mile down the road."
"Nah," Sam says, settling back against the window. "Let's get home."