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There’s a change in Dean when Cas returns.

Of course there is. There has never been a time where Dean hasn’t been changing in some small way. Every inch of him is constantly shedding or twisting or mutating. He thinks if he looked long enough at his fingerprints, he would see them switch patterns — whorls to spirals to curls. Dean feels like Cas is often the instigator for a lot of that change. Asshole. Mouth breather.

Dean sees this new Cas, this human Cas, this less-of-a-wild-animal Cas, across a room and he watches him like someone might do a painting, although he has never had the vocabulary for that. He thinks if he gets too close, he might start seeing the brushstrokes. That there are cracks in Cas that might show something evil inside him, scratching to get out, parts of the Empty that never quite cleared customs. He will realize that no matter how close he gets to Cas, it will always be just Cas, looking back at him. And looking.

They don't talk about the confession.

-

“I, uh. I made all the good stuff so you could try them. Try out your new taste buds. Not like you got to last time,” Dean says, itching the back of his neck with a spatula he held.

It had been a week since he and Jack saved Cas, tearing Cas’ grace to shreds and relieving Jack of God duty in order to get him out. Dean slept in the chair in Cas’ room for his first few days back, watching him every time he shifted in his sleep. He left only at Sam’s urging.

This particular day, Cas had been watching Maury when Dean knocked on the Dean Cave door and forced him to sit at the dining room table with him.

“There are burgers, two kinds of pie — apple and cherry, chicken tacos. I wasn’t sure if you were allergic to anything —,” he waits for Castiel’s shrug before continuing, “but I boiled up some crab, crawfish and some prawns, butter, lemon. I made a chocolate cake just in case you prefer it more than pie,” he scoffs here, can’t help himself. “A salad. I put as much ranch dressing as I could so I could piss off Sam. You don’t have to eat that. I tried to roast some brisket, but the smoker was jacked up so I just bought that from up the road,” he points to a glistening pile of meats, slightly steaming in the cold air. “Kansas City-style, it’s a little sweeter than your Texas-style.”

He looks up at Cas then, either to check that he’s still listening or gauge his reaction. Cas smiles very gently back at him. Dean seems taken aback for a second and then quirks up a side of his mouth, turning back to the table.

“French fries, mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers, uh. I didn’t make all of this, but —,” he shoves his spatula into his waist apron pocket and crosses his arms. “Most of it. Yeah.”

“You’ve been busy,” Cas surveys.

“Huh. Yeah. Well, I don’t have else much to do,” Dean chuckles, looking almost bashful. He watches Cas out of the corner of his eye, like he might disappear if he looked away. Ten years ago, Cas might've, overcome with an emotion he couldn’t assign a name to.

Now, there is very little else Cas wants to do but to sway into his space and put his fingers down one by one on Dean’s collar to feel the heat of him underneath. He wants to tuck his hands in between Dean’s shirts, to smile coyly up at him like those women in bars do when they see a handsome man. He wants to know that him being there in Dean’s personal space is exactly what Dean came tonight to accomplish. That all Dean wanted was to woo a man like him. That Dean was looking his way all night.

He used to think Jimmy’s heart was too big for his chest, constricting his airways at inopportune times for seemingly no reason back when Jimmy was just a thin sheath over his grace. He has since learned that’s just what it feels like to see Dean Winchester smiling back at you.

“Are you hungry?” Dean asks, breaking their momentary silence. Cas looks at the table of food in front of him, which was kneaded and pressed and put onto plates by Dean just for him. Very little has been made just for Castiel in the past.

“Yes,” he says. His cheeks ache from smiling this much, but he thinks it’s getting better with practice. “I think I am.”

-

Sam comes wandering in just as Dean teaches Cas how to crack open a crab. Cas is wearing a bib and is holding a crab knife with trepidation.

“Hey Sammy,” Dean says, straightening up. He has a mysterious substance staining his shirt dark grey down the front. Sam thinks it might be butter. “I made dinner for the next few weeks.”

“Yeah, you sure have,” Sam laughs, picking up a taco from over Cas’ shoulder and sitting down across from him. Cas grimaces with effort as he pulls the middle piece of the crab’s carapace off, digging in his fingers into the shell and scraping out the gills. Liquid seeps from the crab’s shell around his gloved hands, puddling on the table.

“You got it!” Dean says, beaming at the twist of Cas’ hands as he methodically liberates the crab from one of its crusher claws with a dull crunch.

Sam nods, biting into the taco. It’s good. He hums as he takes another bite, white onions and cilantro forced out onto his jeans. “Really great taco, Dean.”

Dean looks away from where Cas is sucking the juices out of a crab leg and focuses solely on him for the first time since he came in. He puffs out his chest a little bit. “You like it? Got the recipe from the Internet.”

“Better than Taco Bell,” Sam says, finishing it off in another couple bites and shaking the onions off his pants. “Is all of this free reign?”

“Go to town, buddy. Let Cas try one of everything first though, you junkyard dog. Don’t go finishing off my mozzarella sticks,” Dean says, pointing a warning finger at him. Sam puts his hands up in surrender and delicately scoots the plate closer to himself, dipping a stick into marinara sauce and biting it in half.

“There’s so little meat in this animal this feels hardly worth it,” Cas says, putting down the leg he was gnawing on. Dean reaches over and downs the liquids out of the shell, to Cas’ immediate scowl.

“Tastes good though. Nothin’ like crab legs on a hot summer day. Remind me to do that sometime,” he says, wiping his mouth with his arm and tossing the shell back in the middle of the table. He rubs his buttery hands together, looking at all of the other options.

“What are we thinking next?” Dean says, smiling down at Cas.

“Uh,” Cas says, clearly stalling. His eyes widen in a slight panic at all the food displayed on the table in front of him. Sam really does feel for him. He doesn’t think an angel is equipped to make these sort of non-essential decisions.

“Well, you can’t go wrong with barbecue, I guess,” Dean says, clearly seeing the problem. Cas relaxes minutely as Dean fixes him a paper plate filled to the brim with beef brisket, pulled pork, and slabs of cornbread and hands it to him, dripping sauce onto the table. Sam grimaces.

“Thank you,” Cas says, in that over-earnest way of angels. He rolls the sleeves of his henley up past his elbows from where they’ve fallen.

Dean colors slightly, warming the spot right above his shirt collar. “No problem, man,” he says, and he places his hand on Cas’ shoulder, and he leaves it there for a second too long.

Sam bites through another mozzarella stick, thinking hard about something while Dean and Cas do their thing in the background. He is close to coming to a conclusion when Dean breaks him out of his reverie with a snap in his face.

“You ate all the mozzarella sticks, you friggin' animal,” Dean says, frowning. He points back at Cas, who is enjoying a piece of cornbread rapturously. “Cas didn’t even get to try one.”

“Sorry man, was just… somewhere else,” Sam says, mouthing his apology to Cas. Cas, the mensch that he is, shrugs. All yours.

“I knew I could hear giant wheels turning, didn’t know the old gears still worked up there,” Dean said, wiping his hands on his apron. Sam rolls his eyes and sits back.

“I have another box in the garage fridge because I knew this would happen,” Dean is saying. “Don’t eat everything else on this table while I’m gone,” he finishes, glaring at him in a half-serious way. Then, with one flash of his waist apron, he disappears.

Cas swallows his last bit of cornbread and sucks the butter off his fingers. Sam smiles at the look of consternation on his face. Cas turns and watches him for a second, eyes squinted.

“Do you know what precipitated this?” Cas asks finally, like he’s been asking himself since he walked in the kitchen that morning. Sam shrugs, reaching over to the plate of fries and grabbing a handful, placing them on top of each other before knocking them all back at once.

“He wants to impress you,” Sam says through a mouth of fries. “He’s peacocking.”

“‘Peacocking’?” Cas says, mystified. “Was the crab dismemberment supposed to do that?”

“He wants to make sure you don’t regret coming back human,” Sam says, eyeing the plate of chicken wings Cas has in front of him. Cas waves it to him. He inclines his head in gratitude.

“Even if I were to miss being an angel, no amount of food would make me feel better about my choice,” Cas says. He drums his fingers on the table, looking out towards the next room, where Dean was clanging around and swearing in the garage.

“I know that,” Sam says kindly. “And I think Dean knows that too. This is more of a… nesting instinct, I think.” He waits for a second for Cas to digest this, which he does while staring at the desiccated remains of the crab he tore apart.

“He’s nesting,” Cas says, confirming something to himself.

“He also, you know, missed you a whole lot,” Sam says, biting into a chicken wing. Lemon pepper. Dean really outdid himself.

“He did,” Cas says neutrally, but Sam has known Cas for a long time. Cas curls his finger around his glass, watching the condensation disappear under his fingertips. “I missed him too.”

Of course, Dean picks that peaceful, quiet moment to come back rumbling into the room. Cas’ eyes go to him, following him as he goes about the kitchen.

“You’re eating the chicken wings now too? Jesus, aren’t you, like, a vegetarian or something?” Dean says, shaking the box of mozzarella sticks onto a sheet pan and shoving them in the oven.

“That was at university, Dean,” he reminds him primly, enjoying the laugh he gets from Dean in return. Cas smiles at Sam, mouth closed, eyes bright.

Sam sits back and watches Dean monologue to himself about ungrateful brothers, stomping to the fridge to get himself a beer before he comes back to the table, arms crossing close to his chest. His beer leaves a condensation mark on his now-thoroughly soiled shirt. He takes a second to rip off the cap and knock it back before wiping his mouth.

“So,” Dean says, leaning onto the back of Cas’ chair. “What do you think?” His eyes are hopeful, mouth set. Hoping for the best but preparing for Cas to tell him to go fuck himself and his lemon pepper wings. Like Cas would ever.

“It’s delicious, Dean,” Cas says, eyes soft. He leans back to look up at Dean more directly. Their faces get within proximity to each other, a breath away. “Everything is delicious.”

“Good. Good. I’m glad someone appreciates my cooking,” Dean says, unclenching his arms. He hedges for a second. “Any favorites?”

Sam tenses. Dean’s gotta stop asking Cas to decide non-essential things like this. Maybe they’ll talk about it later, angels and their continual lack of agency -,

“All of it,” Cas says quietly, eyes roaming all over Dean’s face. He is intent on saying something, but he’s not sure how to say it. “I like them all.”


 -

This first dinner starts a series of events not unlike the Big Bang in proportion. Or, more accurately, like the first things to spring up through the ash and decay from where the asteroid settled 66 million years ago. From where there was no hope now sprung growing life and all parties had no idea what to do with it lest they accidentally step on it again.

It goes like this: Dean watches Cas and Cas watches Dean. They look when the other is looking and when they are not. They carve out spaces on the couch for the other to claim, looking hesitant as they do, shoving their jackets onto the seat beside them at diners while the other orders. It is a middle school romance just as much as it is the romance that killed God, and it quietly rends them the closer they get to one another.

Dean thought he had categorized his feelings for Castiel pretty accurately, although it had changed over the years. They had gone from “potential enemy” to “sort of friend” to “betrayer” to “best ally we’ve ever had” to “best friend” and that signifier of best friend should’ve been Dean’s first clue. Men like him don’t have best friends, he thinks. John didn’t have one, and that is Dean’s barometer for normalcy, God help him. But looking at Cas, he decided that “best” was the only descriptor for him. Closest friend. Man you worry about constantly. Talking to Cas didn’t feel like conversations with Garth or Charlie did. Dean put him to the side, categorized him differently, he’s not like those other chumps. His best friend.

Looking back at it now, perhaps Dean should’ve known then. He didn’t truly figure it out until about ten minutes after Cas disappeared into thin air and he was sitting on a cold, stone floor. Maybe “best friend” wasn’t so accurate. Maybe just the “best” was.

Part of Dean resents that this be so complicated. Another part of Dean also knows that it isn’t, that this is how it’s always been and he has never realized it. That Benny wasn’t a one-off, only-port-in-a-storm situation. It’s painful to be forced to such a conclusion after watching the man he — Loves? Cares for? Has a crush on? — die again. Right in front of him. What an asshole.

On Cas’ part, he had always loved Dean Winchester. He was never going to say it until he did. Then he died.

 -

Dean catches Cas reading a book two weeks after Cas’ homecoming.

He doesn’t mean to do it so creepily. It just so happens the library is on the left of the kitchen, and he was thinking about his lunch — BLT on homemade beer bread, should you be suitably impressed — and there’s a flash in the corner of his eye, so he turns.

There, in his favorite leather armchair, is Cas, reading some book from the library. His back is hunched over it and his shoulders are hiked up to his ears, and Dean has half the mind to tell him to save himself some back pain and straighten up, like his mom might’ve said in another life. Cas must hear some small noise — his shoe on the ground, his heartbeat — and looks directly at him, head tilted.

Sometimes, it feels like Cas is some bird of prey and Dean is a mouse trying not to get eaten. In his monkey brain, he knows they are about the same size and he is no danger. In his intelligent brain, he knows he isn’t the mouse — he is the tick on the mouse in the face of a leviathan, curling and twisting into the horizon. Or the carcass of one.

Said leviathan’s eyes crinkle at the corners when he sees him. “Hello, Dean.”

Dean feels wrong-footed, as is usual with conversations with Cas. It’s a comfortable, familiar feeling, that initial swoop of insecurity.

“Hey Cas,” Dean says, crossing his arms and then thinking better of it and putting them in his pockets. He then leans against the doorway of the library. “What are you reading?”

Cas raises his eyebrows. Dean raises his back.

“Stephen King,” Cas says, showing him the cover while keeping his finger on his page. It’s The Shining.

“Classic,” Dean says. Cas nods in assent. “You enjoyin’ it?”

“I think a lot of the finer details of horror novels are lost on me. At no point do I think they are in true danger,” Cas says, eyes down on the book, lips pursed. “All I am truly thinking is that if they had some sort of salt circle or sigil, they wouldn’t be in this predicament,” Cas frowns. “I could be overthinking it.”

“That’s why Sam can’t watch the Exorcist,” Dean says. “I think demon possession gets a little old after Lucifer wore you to the prom.”

“It’s possible,” Cas says. His sweater is camel-colored and worn through. That and the black reading glasses Dean bought him when he realized Cas can’t see, makes him look like a college professor in some 1940’s movie. He looks like a young Gregory Peck, missing the white three-piece suit. Handsome, Dean guesses. He looks handsome. “How about you?”

“I’m kinda over watching some guy’s spleen being thrown across the room,” Dean says, smiling.

“I see,” Cas hums. “I’m sure the reality is a little different.” He does a Dean-smile, the one he does only at him. Amused, kinda. Happy. Dean has this exact smile imprinted in a space in his chest, where he opens it and stares at it, and puts it away.

“I’ll say,” Dean says, smiling back. There’s a beat, and Dean balls his hands in his jeans.

The first few conversations after Cas came back were stilted. Cas wouldn’t look at Dean and Dean couldn’t look away from Cas. There was an elephant in the room, and there still is; it just went from actively rampaging to sleeping in the corner, waking up every so often just to check how things are going, and then fall asleep again.

“Once you’re finished, uh, that, would you want to see Jack Nicholson do his thing?” He gestures to the book. Cas looks confused. “We could watch it in the Dean Cave, pop a little popcorn.”

“You want to watch the movie,” Cas says, looking for confirmation. For some reason, Dean is terrified he’ll say no. Even though he knows for a fact that Cas isn’t doing much else. He nods.

“I would enjoy that, Dean,” Cas says, smiling. He shifts his shoulders, and discomfort flashing across his face for a second. Dean, idiot that he is, wants to sit on the ottoman across from him and lean into his space and get his hands on that deltoid.

“Great. Just keep me in the know when you’re done, don’t want to Snape-Kills-Dumbledore you, you know,” Dean says, itching the back of his neck. “Uh, you hungry? I got BLTs on the brain.”

“I’m fine. Thank you,” Cas hums. He pauses, and leans in a little bit, like it’s a secret. “Jack showed me how to make instant ramen last night.”

“He did, huh?” Dean chuckles, swaying in a little helplessly. “And?”

“Reports of MSG poisoning are highly exaggerated,” Cas says. Cas’ expression never really gets all the way to smug, but he gets 95% there.

“Yeah? You’ll have to make it for me sometime, it sounds good,” Dean says cockily, cringing right after he says it. It’s instant ramen, man. Pull yourself together.

“I will,” Cas says, rescuing him from his head with another Dean-smile. Dean feels aching in his chest so deep he’d have to dig to get it out. He’s pretty sure it hurt more ignoring it every day for years that this — this acknowledgment of it — just feels like a relief.

“Counting on it,” Dean says, and winks, feeling brave. Cas rolls his eyes good-naturedly and returns to his book. Dean slaps the edge of the doorframe and scurries to the kitchen, where Sam is waiting. He is obviously researching something, with his entire life spread out in front of him plus two tablets and a laptop, but at the moment, he just looks unimpressed.

“What?” Dean says. He drops the smile and buries his face in the fridge, looking for the nice farmer’s market heirloom tomatoes he had Cas buy. The ones at the store are too mushy.

“Nothing,” Sam says, lightly. “You just seem happy, is all. Nice to see that on you.”

“Yeah, well,” Dean says, piling his tomatoes and his lettuce and his bacon and his mayonnaise in his arms precariously. “No apocalypse, no one is dead, the bastards are quiet. Sounds like a win to me.”

“Yeah, I know, but — Dean. You’re kind of going Rachel Ray.”

“Rachel—?” Dean stops, and turns around to face a clearly smug Sam. “What did you just say?”

“You know, domestic goddess, Ina Garten. You’re two doilies away from being on the cover of Better Home and Gardens.”

Dean sputters for a second, carefully placing his goods on the table and crossing his arms tight across his chest. “No, I’m not.”

“Yeah, you are. It’s kind of —,” Sam searches for a word. “It’s sweet, I guess.”

“I’ll show you sweet,” Dean mutters as he turns and cuts a thick slice of the fluffy beer bread. He takes a second to marvel that he made that, and shows it to Sam. “This is a working man’s bread, Sammy. This practically deserves a friggin’ merit badge. ”

“Yeah. Sure. Merit badge,” Sam says, typing something onto his computer. Dean huffily makes his own sandwich, and opens his mouth to say another thing — because really, Sammy, he’s not a 1950’s housewife, he’s practically a working man —

“Dean, Cas said you were making sandwiches!” Jack’s voice comes fluttering in from next door. He comes in a second later wearing his own Dead Guy Robe that he found in one of the rooms, Sam’s rolled up sweatpants and a shirt that he found at Goodwill for a dollar that said PROPERTY OF KANSAS CREW on it.

“Hey, bud. I’m making BLTs, you want one?” Dean says, shoving his own (perfectly-made) sandwich towards him, already reaching for the loaf to make the second one. Jack comes and sits next to Sam, who nods at him in acknowledgment.

“Hm. Do we have any tuna salad left?” Jack says, yawning behind his hand. He’s been sleeping most of the days away since he came back after receiving and then relinquishing God duties. Turns out that kind of intense power takes it out of a kid. Who knew.

“No, just the egg salad Cas made. I have cheese, I have chicken, you want a club sandwich?” Dean says, opening the fridge door and checking out the selection. “We have eggs and bacon, we can do a McMuffin thing.”

“That’d be wonderful. Thank you, Dean,” Jack says, painfully kind in the way his father is. Dean hums and sets his station up to crack a few eggs. He wonders if he still has that tomato jam he made last week, or if Cas took the last of it to put on his burger yesterday. He might have some half-ripe avocados laying around too, could make kind of a California health thing -

Sam clears his throat. Dean pauses his internal monologue to look over his shoulder, where Jack is looking over Sam’s research quietly and Sam is making the biggest I Told You So, Dean Winchester face on this side of the planet.

He would not admit it to present company, but cooking feels good to Dean. He likes being able to create whatever his family wants specifically for them, likes seeing their faces when he nails it. He likes sitting at the table and reading whatever paperback he found at Goodwill while a soup is bubbling or a roast is roasting or something is marinating in the fridge. He likes washing dishes, even as he complains about it. What the other occupants of the bunker don’t know is that Dean would work for hours for them, quietly, deep in the kitchen overnight. He will pass the final product off as no big deal, despite it taking him eleven hours and very little sleep. If Jack requests a lasagna for his first meal home, and Dean isn’t doing anything that day, and he found a perfect recipe from Giada, then who gives a crap.

He shows his love through his hands. He can’t help it. He always has.

“Cas is cooking tonight,” Sam says as soon as Dean bustles in from his weekly grocery trip, knocking the door shut behind him with the tip of his boot. He, in typical Dean fashion, refused to do more than one trip to the car and back, and therefore hisses as he eases the ten or so bags off his arms. Jack, who had been waiting patiently at the table, dives in immediately, pawing through the contents like a raccoon.

“Hey, help put that away,” Dean warns, and Jack sighs before straightening up and grabbing a package of toilet paper to put in the bathroom. Jack had requested chocolate ice cream, Spaghetti-Os, and chicken nuggets on the weekly shopping list, and Dean had begrudgingly agreed, even though he knew he could make better nuggets than that if Jack had asked. “Cas is cooking tonight? I thought it was leftovers today.”

Sam shrugs. “He said he found a recipe online. Seemed really excited about it.” Sam had put flank steak, medium grain couscous, and organic bell peppers — which he eats raw — on the list for himself. Dean is a perpetual bitch about it, but he makes sure to get the crunchiest, most organic bell peppers he can, even if they are Satan’s vegetable.

“Did he say what it was?” Dean says, dipping into the bags to liberate his chicken thighs, bread and butter pickles, and farmer’s sausage from Cas’ chemical-laden cinnamon buns, and shoved them all in the fridge where they could fit.

Most of Cas’ usual groceries; labneh, steaming slices of tahdig, wildflower honey, artichokes, vegetarian samosas, tall, frothy jugs of horchata he gets for free because the lady there likes him; comes from the farmer’s market, but Dean has caught Cas slamming shitty, factory-made cinnamon buns at midnight too many times to overlook it, so he buys them. Or whatever. They disappear within a few days, so Cas must know they’re for him.

“He said he’s “trying something new,’” Sam says, complete with air quotes. He pushes his hair behind his ears as Jack wanders back in to grab the next grocery item, eyes obviously peeled for the gummy worms Dean always gets him.

“Whatever that means,” Dean says. Cas is more adventurous with his cooking than Dean is, who prefers the burger/casserole/sandwich/steak side of the culinary arts. Cas has done tiny, delicate tea cakes, to earth-shatteringly hot curries, to somehow getting fresh salmon in the middle of a landlocked state, to generally good reviews. Dean sometimes sits and watches him cook when he can, although Cas doesn’t do it very often. Cas cooks very carefully, like the bowls he uses will crack if he looks at them too hard. Dean guesses it’s a remnant of his angel sensibilities. He touches everything like it might break.

“Cas said he bought potatoes for it a few days ago,” Jack said cheerfully, having found and claimed his gummy worms. “Thank you for my worms, Dean.”

“No problem, kid. Help me put away these meats, hey?” Dean says, sliding the styrofoam packages out of the bag and handing them one by one to Jack, who quickly stacks them in the fridge. “Potatoes, huh? Maybe baked potatoes? SuperBowl theme?”

“Uh, sure,” Jack says, clearly unaware of what exactly the SuperBowl is. “He said he might need my help mashing later.” He looks pained, his thin shoulders hunching suddenly. “I don’t think I was supposed to tell you that.”

“It’s fine, Jack. They can know,” Cas says, and they all turn to watch him walking in. He’s glued to a small book, and he’s got a pencil in his hand. He’s either playing Sudoku again or a crossword, whatever he’s not done yet. He finishes a whole book of them in about a week if he’s feeling sharp. “I’m making Shepherd’s pie.”

Cas looks up at everyone when no one replies. The whole kitchen is watching him. “What?”

“Haven’t had Shepherd’s pie in years,” Dean says dazedly. He was holding bananas in his hands when he heard. He twists them this way and that as he thinks.

“Is there a problem?” Cas says, resting his book on the table. He looks at everyone, one by one, and Jack looks back at him, panicked. Another Winchester minefield to blunder through, Dean thinks, and sighs.

“It’s nothing, Cas. Bobby used to make it,” Sam says, rubbing at his forehead and looking at the ground. “He’d make it on some nights when Dad didn’t come back for whatever reason.”

“It was microwavable crap, but it was —,” Dean says. He twists a banana free of its brothers, laying it gently on the counter next to him. “I thought it was pretty damn good.”

There’s silence in the kitchen as everyone digests that. Cas holds his arms at his sides stiffly, like he wasn’t sure how to stand with all this awkwardness and himself in one room.

“I’m sorry, I—” Cas says at last, and Dean shakes his head. He comes over and grasps his shoulder, firm.

“Let’s make some better memories, huh?” Dean says, mouth firm. Dean wants to put all of his love and care into that shoulder pat, but he is just a man, and a shoulder pat is just a shoulder pat.

Cas nods, lips firm. His shoulders relax from where they’ve been creeping towards his neck.

Dean thinks that this kind of love he’s in is kind of unbearable. It doesn’t feel like the quick, all-consuming love that he and Cassie had, or the stability of Lisa, or whatever it was that he and Amara shared. It makes all the parts of him cringe and shiver at once.

Sam clears his throat after a second. “Do we need a salad or, uh, any sort of side dish tonight, Cas?”

Cas tears his eyes away to look over Dean’s shoulder. “Oh. Whatever you like, Sam.”

“I guess a plain ol’ Caesar will do, hey?” Sam says, voice shifting as he turns to look at Jack. Dean drops his hand finally, curling it beside him. Cas leans in after it for a second before standing up straight and facing the conversation like an adult.

Dean wants to close his eyes. Unbearable.

The Shepherd’s pie is delicious.

-

Dean thinks about how telling Cas will go many times a day. He thinks about slamming Cas into a wall, breaking his nose, kissing him lights-out. He thinks about taking the book out of Cas’ hands and sinking into his lap. He thinks, is what he’s saying. Nothing feels big enough. Cas told him before he died , for Chrissakes. Dean should at least take his shirt off or something.

God, he doesn’t know.

It’s now been three weeks since Cas returned, and the elephant in the room has entered some sort of frenzied state. Dean’s hands itch every time Cas offers to taste a piece of pie, or rolls his eyes at him, or comes to breakfast in just a robe and stolen motel room slippers. They itch when they fight about refilling the Brita, and when they fight about the right way to bread chicken tenders, and when Cas gives him a beer at night in a silent apology.

This is getting childish, Dean thinks. This is baby shit.

Dean does think about other things other than wooing Cas, by the way. He thinks about Sam and Eileen moving out of the bunker, and he thinks about Cas and Jack moving out of the bunker, and he thinks about the wild rabbits that live around the area that Miracle loves to chase. He thinks about Donna and Jody and the trip to Miami they went on after they were resurrected, and the pictures they text him with their giant cocktails. He thinks about Claire and vows to invite her over soon so he can make short ribs for her that she likes.

But they are over there. He is in here, in a pressure cooker with what he thinks might be the Love of His Life, his kid brother, their kid, and his dog. Forgive him.

-

Dean is sitting on his bed in his room, sewing up a rip in his Levi’s from being shoved into a wall on a ghost hunt, when there’s a polite knock on the door. His hands still.

“Yeah?” He says, clearing his throat.

“Dean?” Cas says, muffled. “Can I have a word?”

Fuck. Dean knows rationally that this is probably just going to be a discussion of movie night, or Jack’s new lactose intolerance, or how the power washer works. But God, it could be something else, right? He looks himself over. T-shirt. Basketball shorts. Socks. Well, Cas has seen him butt-naked and covered in gore in Hell, this isn’t any worse.

It’s different now, a traitorous voice says in his head. You care if he thinks you’re hot.

Dean hunches over his stitching again. He is hot. Whatever.

“Come in,” he says, trying to sound nonchalant. He digs the needle into his pants and casually puts it beside him on the bed. He leans back, a little bit. Lengthens his neck.

Cas pushes open the door and leans on the doorframe. He puts his hands in his pants and thinks better of it and crosses his arms.

“Hey, Cas,” Dean says.

“Hello, Dean,” Cas says.

“What’s up?” Dean says. Cas is wearing a polo shirt and khakis, both from the thrift store. They both fit him reasonably well, which in this bunker, basically means it’s not unlike a latex body-suit. Dean swallows and tries to look directly at Cas’ face for this entire conversation.

“We need to talk about something important,” Cas says. He uncrosses his arms and Dean is struck by the implication that he’s fidgeting. His heart, already beating like a mouse cornered, seems to go double time. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah, of course, buddy,” Dean says, moving off to the side of the bed. “Is it, uh. Is it something bad?”

“Depends on how you look at the matter, I suppose,” Cas says, closing the door behind him and sitting down next to Dean. Not right next to him, but close. If Dean were to reach out, his fingertips would reach his shoulder, or his thigh.

“I think we’re talking around something and it would mean a lot to me if we discussed it,” Cas starts, looking at his hands. “I understand it might be awkward, but I’m willing to press through it.”

“Yeah, Cas, whatever you want,” Dean says, feeling vaguely like he got punched in the chest.

“I’ve come to the decision that I need to put myself first occasionally, and I’ve talked at length to Sam about this and he agrees. I just want to know your perspective, as your opinion is quite important to me,” Cas continues. He’s now looking at a spot just over Dean’s shoulder. Probably Dean’s poster of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly if he had to guess.

“You’ve talked to S—? Alright. Well, guess that makes sense,” Dean says. Both of his hands are clenched in his sheets.

“I want you to know whatever you say, I understand your opinion and I respect it, but I’m doing something for Jack and I,” Cas says, now looking squarely at Dean. Dean, being vaguely acquainted with the notion of passing out, is thinking that this is how it starts.

“Please just say it, Cas,” Dean whispers. He really can’t take much more of this. He’s pretty sure he has a heart condition.

“Jack and I are staying in the bunker.”

There’s nothing but the sound of water in the pipes running overhead as Dean sits on this. He sees now he has misjudged something.

“Uh, awesome?” Dean says, squinting his eyes. “I didn’t think that needed to be discussed.”

“I know you and Sam like to have your own space, and Jack and I don’t want to intrude, but being here is going to make us the happiest,” Cas says. He peeks at Dean’s face for a second before looking in another direction.

“Wait. Jesus, is this because of last time?” Dean says, turning with his whole body to face Cas now. “Do you think we’re going to kick you out?”

Cas flinches, not like a human, but like the flinch of a horse when it’s trying to shake a fly off it. A shiver that's more like the skin twitching. “The thought crossed my mind, yes.”

“Jesus, Cas. I would never -,” Dean says. But that’s the rub. He did, several times. He changes tactics.

“Cas, I regretted sending you out the second I did it and I regret not taking you back with me the second I could’ve,” Dean says. He’s looking directly at Cas now. “I regretted letting you walk away from me the second I did that too. We want you here, buddy. Sam wants you here.” He takes a breath, lets it out in one long stream. He tries to put some mustard into his words. “I want you here.”

“Thank you, Dean. It’s nice to hear that,” Cas says, ignoring the mustard. There’s a streak of red skin rising from his polo shirt that Dean can’t stop looking at. Cas shifts his weight like he’s going to stand up. “Thank you for the talk.”

Dean grabs his arm before he stands, and then hesitates. “Is there… anything else you wanted to talk about?”

“What? No,” Cas says. “Why, do you?”

“No! No. I just thought since you came in here,” Dean says.. “Just thought it would be about something... else.”

“Like what?” Cas says. His eyes are narrowed.

“Like,” Dean casts around for something not-insane. “Like dinner. You still want fried chicken?”

“Yes, of course. Do you need help with it? I finished my book earlier,” Cas says, finally standing. Dean is confronted with Cas in well-fitting pants. He clears his throat and looks up at Cas’ face.

“If you got nothin’ else to do,” he says, scratching the back of his hand. “I wouldn’t say no to some help.”

“Consider it given,” Cas says.

“Awesome,” Dean says.

There’s a beat of silence.

“I’ll call you in thirty,” Dean says.

Cas still hasn’t moved.

“Cas?”

“Right. Of course. I’ll see you in thirty,” Cas says, and then rushes himself out of the door. Dean watches him go.

“Huh.” Well. That could’ve gone worse.

Could’ve gone a whole lot better, says the elephant in the room. Dean sighs, and gets up to put on some better pants to fry some chicken in.

-

They’re in the meat aisle of their Costco on their monthly trip when Cas puts a hand on Dean’s arm. Dean is eye-rolling at the man in front of them grabbing all of the bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. It’s friggin’ Costco, not Neanderthal times. They won’t take it away from you, dude.

“Dean,” Cas says. “Dean.”

“Yeah, Cas, I know, don’t insult the chicken guy. But Jesus, ten packages of chicken? What’s he trying to do, remake the thing?”

“A chicken with ten thighs would be humorous. But Dean,” Cas says, “I think I need to talk to you about something.”

“Yeah, sure, Cas. Hey, do we need ground beef? Is Miracle out of food?”

“Your devotion to making homemade dog food is astounding, but no, we have four packages in the freezer.”

“You never know. Hell, I’ve forgotten worse. What were you saying, Cas?”

“Well, I — don’t forget Jack’s sour cream, by the way — I was thinking about what I said.”

“Already got it. Said when? Earlier? Yeah, we can get hotdogs before we go.”

“No, Dean.” Dean is about to grab a package of bagels when Cas stops him. “Before I died.”

“Uh,” Dean says, before looking at him. “When you-?”

“Yes,” Cas says. “When I told you I love you.”

“Are you - are you taking it back?” God, they’re in a Costco.

“No, no. I think you didn’t quite understand what I meant,” Cas says. “I said that romantically. I’m in love with you.”

“Oh,” Dean stalls. Someone hits the back of their cart, and Cas and Dean both glare at the interloper. The perp, an old woman, glares back as she wheels around them.

“Jesus, Cas. I knew you meant it romantically,” Dean says, wanting to put his hands on his face. “I’ve been too chicken to say anything about it.”

Cas nods. “Dean, you don’t have to say anything. I just wanted to make you sure where our positions stand. It’s okay if we never talk about it again.”

“That’s not what I - Cas, are we really talking about this in the middle of a Costco? In public?”

“I didn’t realize this was going to be a lengthy conversation,” Cas says, head cocked to the side.

“You have to know, Cas,” Dean says, desperately. The shopping cart handle is biting into his stomach. “You have to know that I -.”

They wait in silence for Dean to choke out whatever he’s going to say. There’s a soccer mom-type waiting behind them to grab a sheet cake, and she looks pissed at the interruption.

“You know, you’re the only person I’d stay up late making levain flatbreads, you know that? You’re the only person I’ve ever considered not annoying in the kitchen, even though I love Sam and Jack, I can’t focus when they’re there,” Dean says. Cas’ eyes are getting wider and wider. “I prayed for you every single night you were gone. When you died, every time you died, I drank so much I passed out every night for a week. How - how do you not know?”

The soccer mom is leaning on her cart now, on her phone. God, Dean hopes she’s not hearing this.

“Dean,” Cas starts, like he’s going to talk Dean out of something he’s been preparing for weeks. Fat chance, buddy. He’s on a roll.

“I love you, Cas,” Dean says. He wants to put his hands on his face and kiss him. “I’ve loved you for so, so long, and I’m so sorry I haven’t said it before now.”

“When you say love,” Cas croaks out. He has a hand balanced on the cart and one on the bagel display.

“Romantically, doofus. I’m in love with you.” Dean says, as soft as he can make it. He thinks he can hear as the elephant finally walks away to torture some other innocent souls.

“Dean, I,” There are tears in Cas’ eyes. Oh, Jesus. Well, they match the tears in Dean’s. At least they are both two idiots crying in a Costco.

“Hold on, hold on,” Dean says, grabbing the cart and moving it to the fruit aisle. He plonks them down between the grapefruits and the oranges, where there’s a brief respite in the crowd. He waves the soccer mom by them, which she rolls her eyes at. Whatever.

As soon as they’re free, Dean grabs Cas’ face like he wanted, right between his palms, and kisses him.

It feels good. Cas takes a second to kiss back, but Dean just powers through because he thinks he knows there’s another side to this slight awkwardness. It’s different from kissing Amara, or Lisa, or Cassie. Cas’ stubble grinds on Dean’s as he opens his mouth slightly. Cas’ mittens, which he brings because now he has bad circulation, are warm on Dean’s neck. Dean breaks away from Cas for a second to bring wetly onto his collar.

“Cas,” Dean says. Fuck, he really is crying. “Cas.”

“I,” Cas says. He seems incapable of saying anything else. “I.”

“It’s okay,” Dean is saying. Hears himself saying. It takes a second for them both to get their feet sturdy. Dean just wants to clutch Cas to his chest, make sure he’s breathing still. That this is real.

“I apologize for dying in front of you,” Cas says finally. A mittened hand goes up Dean’s neck and back down. “I never thought I’d be able to say it otherwise.”

“You’re forgiven, dick,” Dean says. “Please don’t do it again.”

“I can’t promise, but,” Cas says, laughing shakily. “I’ll try.”

It takes another second for both of them to disengage. A family of four is waiting to get their pack of oranges behind them.

Dean wipes a tear from under Cas’ eye. Cas leans into his hand as he does it. “We’ll talk about it more when we get home, okay? We have to get Sam’s bell peppers, and we can get your terrible cinnamon buns, and then we can watch a movie and figure this out.”

“Okay,” Cas says. He looks like he’d rather get eaten by a snake, but he’s moving finally, away from prying eyes.

They get the bell peppers, the cinnamon rolls, and some romaine lettuce. Cas’ hand is warm on Dean’s waist the entire time.

-

All-in-all, for all of Dean’s constant changes, not much actually does. Dean and Cas still fight over the Brita filter. Miracle still chases rabbits outside the bunker. Sam, when he learns that Dean said something, has his thoughts confirmed and doesn’t give them shit when he finds them leaning against each other in the kitchen.

Dean cooks, and cooks, and cooks. He cooks cakes, and cookies, and all sorts of frou-frou fanciful shit, and leaves them everywhere so there’s never a moment that someone is snack-less. He thinks he’s fattening him and Cas up subconsciously, and Cas doesn’t seem to mind. He tries everything with gusto, and he makes Dean’s favorites too, like he’s proving to himself he can provide. Dickhead. Love of his life.

There are still ghosts. There are still monsters. Dean teaches Cas to fight hand-to-hand, even when it frequently dissolves into them gleefully rubbing up on each other. Sometimes, Cas comes up to him and puts his fingers down one-by-one on this collar, and he is suddenly very aware he is the happiest he’s ever been.

Forgive him. He’s got a lot more living left to do.