Dean knew he had reached a new low when he ate a whole pepperoni pizza by himself while watching old slasher movies for the hundredth time.
And it wasn’t even like Cas was gone that long. Only a few days. Less than a week.
But Dean was still fragile after…well, everything. Not that he would admit that to anyone, least of all Sam.
How Dean found himself hitting speed dial on his smartphone was anyone’s guess.
But maybe, just maybe, Dean was a little lonely right now.
A gravelly voice answered after three rings. “Hello, Dean.”
“Hey, Cas.” Dean found himself smiling against the screen. “What are you up to?”
“As I stated when I left, I was taking Jack on a hunt.”
Dean perked up at the option. He and Sam had just returned from a case, but a bunker filled with strangers made Dean uncomfortable. It would for anyone, he thinks. He felt claustrophobic and unwelcome in his own home. Dean prophesized that he would end up on cases a lot more often because of this outsider feeling. Dean asked, “do you need any help?”
Castiel read the hopefulness in his tone. “Is something the matter, Dean?”
“Dean,” Cas said shortly.
Dean sighed. “There’s too many people here. I want to help.”
Cas was silent.
Dean knew that Sam encouraged him not to hide out anymore, but it was easier said than done. He also knew what he was doing was unhealthy, but it was his way of coping. He wanted to get out of this bunker if he had the chance. He wouldn’t oppose seeing Castiel in person, either.
Cas finally said, “Jack and I have got bodies with hearts missing. We’re in Kansas City.”
Dean shut off the television and gathered the empty pizza box. He said happily, “I’ll be there in an hour. Text me the motel address.”
Dean ignored the fluttery feeling in his stomach whenever Castiel said his name. “Y-yeah?”
“You should talk to Jack. About what you said.”
Dean sighed. “Alright. I just, um, said the wrong thing.”
Amusement lightened Cas’s tone. “You’re not the best at vocalizing what you feel.”
Dean scoffed, a half-smile reaching his lips. “Say that to my face in an hour.”
Was Dean flirting with a celestial being? Dear God, he was crazy.
Castiel didn’t seem to notice. Didn’t comment on it, anyway. “Drive the speed limit.” Then, Cas hung up before Dean could retort. Dean snorted at the action and hung up too, a smile lingering in his expression.
“Where are you goin’?”
Dean caught Sam’s curious look among the crowd in the war room. He noted that Mary was leaning against a wall, wearing Sam’s same expression. Dean shouldered his backpack of weapons and said, “Cas and Jack need help.”
Sam moved to stand up.
“Don’t,” Dean said. “I can handle it.”
Sam narrowed his eyes. He spoke plainly. “I don’t think you should go so soon.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “I’ve been through worse. I shouldn’t be gone long. See ya, Chief.”
Dean made the ascent up the bunker stairs, not hearing another word of protest.
It took until Dean sat inside the Impala and started the ignition to realize that the entire room of hunters had gone silent during his exchange with Sam.
Oh well. Dean didn’t care what they thought. He just wanted — needed — to leave.
Dean found Castiel’s tan truck parked at a familiar motel. He had been there before, definitely. Hell, he had probably been in nearly every motel in the Midwest.
He knocked on the door labeled 3, Jack answering it. The former nephilim simply blinked at his presence and allowed him inside. Dean hesitantly stepped through the threshold, observing Jack’s tight expression. The forced civility, a glint of resentment hiding beneath blue eyes that were far too much like Castiel’s.
Instead of asking about Cas’s whereabouts, Dean laid his duffel bag on the mattress that wasn’t messy. That was clearly Jack’s, as Cas didn’t sleep much.
Before Dean unpacked his meager belongings and weapons, he decided to address Jack head-on. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier. I wasn’t implying that you were-”
“Useless?” Jack suggested bitterly, plopping on his bed. “I know that I am.”
Dean realized that he had messed up. Really fucking badly. He recalled times when his own father would look on him in disgust every time Sam got hurt. John had ruined Dean, and sculpted Dean in his own image. Dean just didn’t see that until now.
Good God. He was awful, sometimes.
“No,” Dean choked out. Jack heard the sound and snapped his head towards Dean. Dean felt his eyes watering, and he blinked rapidly, because he had to stop this and he wouldn’t cry and this was stupid oh this was so goddamn stupid-
Dean inhaled sharply, clenching his jaw hard enough to ground himself. He would not let Jack feel what he feels. Not ever. Not again.
Dean crossed the room with determination, Jack watching in confusion. Dean knelt in front of the Jack, the fatherly motion causing Jack to narrow his eyes in curiosity. “What-”
“Jack.” Dean looked up at the young boy, locking eyes with him. “You. Are. Not. Useless. Do you hear me?” Jack stared at his lap, his fingers steepled together. “I can’t possibly know what you’re going through. Having powers and losing them. But I know what it feels like to be called useless.” Jack shyly met Dean’s unflinching gaze again. “I wasn’t implying that you were useless. I was implying that you need to keep fighting. Keep training. You’ll get better, but you can’t rush things. I’ve been hunting my whole life, and I still get beaten down and bruised. I mean,” Dean side smiled, “a ghost possessing a goddamn statue of Hatchet Man knocked me flat on my ass.”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “Hatchet Man?”
“It’s a horror movie character. Kills people with a hatchet.” Dean waved it off. “You’re too young for that one. But, um,” Dean asked, “do you get what I’m trying to say?”
Dean huffed and stood up, ignoring his creaky knees. Any indication that he was getting old would be promptly ignored. “I’m sorry. I’m not good with words, Jack.”
“That he isn’t.”
Dean hadn’t heard the motel room door open. Castiel entered in his suit sans tan trench coat, carrying a bag of takeout.
Cas shot a timid glance at Dean before dropping the takeout bag unceremoniously on the table. He said to Jack, “lucky for you, I’ve had ten years of practice in deciphering what Dean says versus what he means.” Castiel plucked two cardboard boxes of Chinese food from the bag, as well as utensils and napkins. “I got two orders of sweet and sour chicken with fried rice, in case Dean wanted food.”
A warm feeling settled in Dean’s chest. He smiled as if on instinct. “I can always eat.” He cleared his throat, catching Jack glance between them. “Do you mind, Jack?”
As if Jack had figured something out, he smiled knowingly. “You can take a box.”
Dean considered it progress. The two of them had mended the misunderstanding. Dean learned he needed to be more careful. Teenagers were angsty these days. He thanked Jack genuinely, then sat at the table. Castiel and Jack joined him. The seraphim observed Dean and Jack grab their boxes gratefully and start eating.
Cas waited a customary moment to ask, “would you like to hear about the case?”
Dean swallowed a bite and said, “go ahead.”
He let Castiel formally explain the case. Three victims so far. Hearts ripped out. Definitely a werewolf. Cas went under the fake identity Agent Frederick Mercury — which had Dean’s eyes shining as he chuckled — with Jack as his trainee. Dean would enter the case as a helping hand. In the two days they had been in Kansas City, Castiel had interviewed the victims’ families and come up with nil. Jack had begun casing the area where the bodies were found. He was searching for a pattern on town maps when Dean knocked on the door. The conversation was switched over to Jack, who explained the topography of the area and voiced observations he had so far. Dean listened in awe; Cas wasn’t kidding when he told Dean that Jack had potential as a hunter. Dean and Jack were smart in the same way. Tactical. Observant. When Jack had finished and their takeout was consumed, Dean complimented the former angel on a job well done — also tacking on a glance towards Cas when Jack’s eyes were averted.
Dean awoke from a nightmare at four in the morning.
After the rush of fear and adrenaline, he regulated his breathing and drank in his surroundings.
The back of Castiel’s silhouette was visible as the first slivers of purple dawn speared underneath the window curtains. He perched near the windowsill like a bird, his eyes directed towards whatever was outside. Dean swallowed thickly. He had seen Cas take this same position, this same vigil countless times over the years. Dean was used to seeing Castiel as the sun rose, streaks of yellow and orange brightening the room, defining the outline of his body. Dean had never seen him cast in darkness quite like this before, this hour between pitch blackness and purple dawn. Castiel’s tan trench coat seemed to glow in the black-purple shadows, his skin moonlit.
Dean glanced over at a soundly sleeping Jack, then let his socked feet hit the motel carpet. He perched on the mattress, battling with himself on if he should stand up or not. If he should bother Cas or not.
As if reading his mind, Castiel’s side profile came into view. An eye rested on Dean’s slouched form. Cas asked quietly, his voice traveling across the room, “nightmare about Michael?”
Dean nodded. He stood up hesitantly, padding over to the windowsill. He sat on a shoddy couch near Cas. He kept his tone low. “Do you ever sleep?”
“I take power naps.”
Dean smiled at the terminology. “I don’t ask how you are enough. How are you?”
Cas concealed his surprise at the question. Dean felt a little pang of guilt. He needed to pay more attention to Cas. Castiel’s shoulders sagged and he replied, “there’s something I haven’t told you.”
Dean’s heart raced. He internally screamed at himself to calm down.
Dean asked neutrally, “what?”
“There are nine angels left alive.”
Dean blinked rapidly, dead weight dropping into his organs, swirling around his dread-filled heart and intestines. His mouth excreted piles of ash. “H-how can that be? There are thousands of you.”
Castiel shook his head, his eyes filled with bitter tears. “Gabriel was our only hope for survival.”
Dean stared at his lap, his cheeks hot and his skin paling. Why would Gabriel sacrifice himself?
Dean’s eyes widened.
Good God. How the hell did Dean not see that?
And how the hell did Dean miss all the looks Castiel gave him until just now? These...these indescribable looks.
“I-I’m sorry,” Dean managed. “Isn’t there anything you could do?”
“Not that I know of. That’s why I’ve been avoiding Heaven.”
Dean exhaled through his nose. “You can’t run forever. You’ve been here before.”
“I know that,” Cas sighed, “but for now, I’m content with teaching Jack. It makes me useful.”
Dean blinked. What was meant to be a throwaway line was anything but.
What had he done?
Dean said resolutely, “being useful shouldn’t be something you should be worried about.”
“Is that so?”
Dean pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled deeply. “How much damage have I done?” He asked himself aloud.
“What is it, Dean?” Cas asked confusedly.
“Cas,” Dean met Castiel’s eyes, “I can understand from your point of view how, in the past, I only seemed to wanna see you if I needed help. But the truth is,” Dean muttered to himself, “I really gotta use words more,” then continued to Cas, “the truth is that I wanted to see you because I wanted to see you. Because you’re my...you’re important to me. Okay?”
“I’m...important to you.” Castiel’s forehead creased as his eyebrows pinched together. He knew that Dean had faltered for a very specific reason. “What was it that you really wanted to say?”
Years ago, Castiel wouldn’t have dared to ask such a bold question. And sure, Castiel was always a weird guy. Different. An angelic warrior that could smite an entire room of demons and not even break a sweat. Someone who wasn’t afraid to emit a sassy quip.
But Castiel wouldn’t have dared to ask something like this. Angelic warrior or not.
Dean was on fire inside. If he voiced what he wanted to aloud, it would become real. He could never take it back.
Before Dean could open his mouth, he heard Jack mutter something unintelligible as he rolled out of bed. The moment was broken.
Dean learned a lot about himself without Sam as his shadow.
This was his first case in years he had done without Sam. And it was the first case he did with Castiel as a seasoned hunter.
Castiel had learned a lot in the spaces between their meetings over the years. Dean replayed the memory of Cas holding his FBI badge backwards, and compared it to now, how Cas was methodical without being unkind. How Cas could mercilessly kill a werewolf and send a young boy a gummy grin to ease his mind. Jack emulated this quality that was uniquely Cas as best as he could.
But Dean had learned a lot about himself, too.
Like about his not-just-friendship type of love for Cas. The type of love that had lingered in the depths of Dean’s mind for a decade. The type of love that was more prominent in Dean’s thoughts without Sam there to hinder their progress.
The type of love that couldn’t be labeled as anything other than romantic love.
It was so easy to love Castiel, too. The two days the team comprised of Dean, Castiel, and Jack spent together hunting and killing the werewolf were eye-opening. Dean simply watched it all happening, watched his state of mind evolve. Watched Castiel and Jack take out the werewolf by pumping it full of silver.
They didn’t even need Dean’s help. Dean found the knowledge comforting.
On the road home, Dean found a drive-in movie theater. It was playing one of his favorite slasher movies, even though Halloween had already passed.
He replayed the contents of the film in his mind and decided that it was fine for Jack to see. It was pretty chill for a slasher movie. Nothing too crazy to his recollection.
Dean silently took the main road exit to the movie theater.
“What are we doing?” Jack asked curiously.
“A movie I like is playing at the drive-in,” Dean said. “Do you mind delaying our trip home, Jack?”
Jack shared a look with Castiel. Dean glanced through the rear view mirror at the silent conversation they had. They were both weirdos, but Dean was fond of them. More than fond.
Jack replied, “Castiel has said that I need to learn more popular culture.”
“That’s a good idea,” Dean said encouragingly. He rolled up to the drive-in theater, surprised to see a crowd of cars in the parking lot. He parked the Impala near the back middle, one of the best seats in the house. He checked the clock and said, “it starts in ten minutes, looks like.”
Jack asked hesitantly, “can I get Mike & Ikes?”
“Ya like Mike & Ikes?” Dean grinned. He was such a dork. He tore the keys from the ignition and pulled out his wallet. “Here.” He procured a few dollars and handed them to Jack in the back seat. “Get me a small Coke too, please. Want somethin’, Cas?”
Cas rolled his eyes. Dean imagined his response — “you know that I don’t eat, Dean” — before Cas could speak it.
“I’ll get it.” Jack nodded and slipped out of the car, walking to the snack kiosk nearby. Dean watched until Jack safely reached the vendor.
Castiel noticed. “You’ve gotten attached fairly quickly for someone who claims never to do so.”
Dean faced Cas in the passenger’s seat, ignoring the swoop in his churning stomach at the fondness present in Cas’s usually-somber expression. Dean unclicked his seatbelt and said, “I judged Jack far too harshly.”
“You talked, then?”
Dean half-nodded. “It was a bit of a chick flick moment, but I did it.”
A dash of pride glinted in Castiel’s vibrant eyes. “I’ve noticed that you’ve...communicated more, lately.”
“I’m trying to,” Dean said with a shrug. “I can’t seem to talk to Sam or Mom, though.” His insides flared up, praying that the darkness concealed a blush. “You, I can talk to. It’s easier, somehow.”
Easier, but also harder. Dean couldn’t seem to voice what he really wanted to say. The one thing he needed to say, and soon.
Castiel unclicked his seatbelt without looking, his eyes affixed to Dean’s. As if unable to look away for less than a second. He was ready to say something, but blurted out something else. “Before he left, Nick said I was no better than Lucifer. For taking a vessel and,” Cas cut himself off, breaking eye contact and staring at the Impala ceiling, his head tilted back against the seat rest.
Dean recognized it as something Cas has been holding on to for weeks. A comment that he just couldn’t shake. Dean knew what that felt like; he was used to being called a monster of a man.
He gritted his teeth. Nick had no right to say that to Cas. He was in for it when Dean found him.
Dean said resolutely, “Jimmy was not your fault. And you are far better than Lucifer.”
A sliver of Cas’s irises studied Dean. “You think so?”
“You’re not even in the same realm as Lucifer,” Dean said. “Everything you do has good intentions behind it.”
Cas inhaled sharply. “I wouldn’t say so.”
“Well, I know so,” Dean said non-negotiably.
Castiel fell silent as the Impala door clicked open, Jack sliding in the back seat. He handed Dean a soda and opened his box of Mike & Ikes. Dean explained the premise of the movie to Jack and Cas on autopilot. Then, Dean suggested they sit on the hood. Jack took the highest part while Dean and Cas sat a measured inch away from each other. Dean fought back the urge to take Cas’s hand on impulse — that would be a dumb move, anyway.
Together, they sat and watched one of the campiest slashers ever to grace the screen.
With Jack asleep in the back seat, Dean drove the rest of the way to the bunker.
Since Castiel was alert as ever, he asked, “are you uncomfortable at home, Dean?”
Dean let his silence do the talking.
“I understand that,” Cas said, his tone soft, like it got when he spoke to children or Jack or fragile people. Dean was a fragile person sometimes, he knew this. “I’m sorry about your...Dean-cave.”
A jolt of melancholy washed through Dean. That room was meant for him. For them. But with the amount of people there, it became a recreation room. It cut Dean deep; he could never have what he wanted.
Dean said, “I’ll get it back one day.”
Another pause stretched, the wheels rolling along uneven roads resounding in the car.
Castiel murmured, “I had a good time with you.”
Dean’s heart fluttered as his eyelashes beat once in shock. A smile lit up his expression as he glanced at Cas. “Really?”
Dean reached a stoplight. He took this opportunity to act on his earlier impulse.
Castiel’s hand was warm when he touched it.
Dean murmured, “this okay?”
“Yes,” Cas breathed.
Dean caught Cas’s awestruck look, a dopey smile overcoming his features.
His feelings were reciprocated.
The light turned green, but Dean drove with one hand on the wheel. Castiel didn’t protest like he normally would have. That was a good sign.
Dean said softly, “when I said you were important to me. You asked what I really wanted to say.”
Castiel’s grin was short and sweet, but blinding and devastating all the same. “I think I understand now.”
There was so much left unspoken between Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel. Dean knew he had to amend that, as time wore on.
But that could all wait a little while longer.
For now, Dean glanced protectively at Jack, sleeping in the back seat, and squeezed Castiel’s hand.
This was all he needed, right now. This was enough.