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Our Bodies, Possessed By Light

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Jimmy dies on a Thursday. His body is intact, stitched perfectly together with Castiel's omnipotent grace, but his spirit has been ebbing for months now, subjected to every shift and skirmish in the turmoil of souls stuffed into his meat suit, and a man can only endure so much. A year ago, Castiel might have released him deliberately in an attempt to spare him further suffering. Castiel, a year ago, was wholly love, enough steadfast power in him to help avert the apocalypse. That Castiel would not have clung to Jimmy any longer than he had to, not if he had felt his energy failing. Jimmy has paid his dues over and over, after all; enough to warrant the highest place in the heavenly kingdom. Jimmy is a good man, and he deserves to be released.

As it happens, Castiel does not release him willingly, because he is, for an aching three-month span, no longer Castiel. Instead, he is buoyed up on the energy of thousands of souls, a twisted parody of God growing stronger on their light. Jimmy must have been in agony from the moment it began, but the idea of relinquishing even one single soul is anathema to this Castiel, half-crazed with the rush of it, strung out like an addict. It is Dean, in the end, who defuses him; Dean who talks him down, always Dean, as it always has been. When Castiel throws back his head to vomit out the life-force of a million nameless things, he feels relief, and that part, too, is Dean's doing.

He's worn Jimmy so long that he actually forgets what will happen until the moment that it begins to - the frenzy of souls curling up like a spiral of smoke, like a kite, and Castiel behind, clinging to its tail. Castiel leaking out of his body like light until the body is fallen and he is soaring, and both Winchesters have their hands clasped over their ears. Angels, unlike demons, cannot inhabit empty caskets, and thank God for it too, or Michael and Lucifer could have had a far easier time of things. Sam and Dean have both certainly been dead enough that if a corpse could have contained an archangel, the world would not be in existence today. With Jimmy gone - with all his souls disgorged back to where they ought to be - Castiel is, for the first time in recent memory, unvesselled.

The Winchesters, of course, have a plan. They were brought up to plan, moulded and trained that way. Evidently, they can neither of them hear him in his true form, as Jimmy could, but Sam's arms are spread wide as soon as Castiel has risen far enough above the earth that the sound of his energies is diminished. "Castiel," Sam is saying, eyes still scrunched tight shut against the scorching whiteness of his light. "Cas!" Beside him, Dean is still crouching, sceptical and unhappy, but Sam's wide stance, the splay of his arms - it is a yes. It is take me.

Castiel rears up for a moment. Considers the situation. There is no question that Sam would make a resilient vessel - he was, after all, fashioned for Lucifer, the perfect angelic receptacle. Castiel could make an attempt to seek out another vessel the way he sought Jimmy Novak, but that takes time, and moreover, he is no longer sure that he is only an angel. Perhaps he is more powerful now than he was; perhaps his energies are tainted. Humans, as a species, are weak, but Sam Winchester is very strong. On that front, Castiel cannot fault the suggestion.

And then - and then. There is the question of Sam's broken wall, his hell-scarred mind, the worst excesses of which Castiel brought forward himself, forced Sam to confront. Sam showed himself to be more resilient in this than Castiel had ever dreamed, assimilating his splintered selves for the sake of his brother, and he hasn't been the drooling imbecile of Castiel's fears, but he hasn't been quite himself, either. There have been nightmares, uncertainties. Bouts of depression. Headaches worse than any migraine the human mind could imagine without any actual experience of it. Castiel had meant to fix Sam's wall after he tore it down. It is too late for that now, but an angelic passenger in a body heals many of its wounds. If Sam were to take Castiel's grace inside of himself, he would do what he could. It would be a first step toward making amends.

God only knows that Castiel has much to make amends for.

Sam's hands are upraised in prayer, but he has not given consent in so many words, and so Castiel is disabled. He pulses, attempting to communicate this message, and Sam may not hear him the way another vessel might, but he seems to remember himself all the same, ducking his head and clarifying, "That's a yes, Cas." He chews his lip, hair falling in his face, but his shoulders are steady. "You need a vessel, you got one. Come on, Cas." He hesitates. "Please."

Castiel isn't certain if it is the please or the nickname that does it, tips him over into the conviction that, at least for now, this is the right thing to do. Dean has not said a word, and Castiel is unhappily certain that this was Sam's plan, even if Dean has grudgingly agreed to it for want of a better one. It is the last thing Castiel wants, to make Dean unhappy, after all the months he has spent doing that excellently already.

But he needs a vessel, and Sam is offering. Sam needs to be healed, and Castiel owes him that much. He takes a last look at Sam's body from the outside, the length of his limbs, the breadth of his chest. He watches his ribcage move, in and out; listens to the subtle, essential pounding of his heart. If he does this, that will no longer be necessary to Sam's survival, no longer a requirement. If he does this, it will be Castiel that keeps Sam alive. Castiel could keep Sam alive forever.

Perhaps that would be overshooting the mark. Still, he will be able to speak to both Sam and Dean once he has a voice again, one that they can process without their brains bleeding into nothingness under its impetus. He steels himself, spreads himself as broad as he can, making an umbrella of grace over Sam, sufficient to cover and infuse him. And then he descends

"Cas," Sam says, stuttering in his throat as Castiel enters it, fierce and pure.

It is the last thing Dean hears his brother say for quite some time.

*

For the first week, the mechanics are very faulty. Castiel finds that he can speak to Dean quite easily, in the normal way, using Sam's mouth in the way he learned to use Jimmy's. Communicating with Sam is a little more difficult - he hadn't been in the habit of speaking with Jimmy much - but after a brief struggle, he works through the rust and finds that, certainly, it can be done. If Castiel wants to ask Sam anything, he asks, somewhere deep in the root of their brain where his grace is tangled up around Sam's cortex, and there, Sam responds. If Sam has anything important to say to Dean, he relays it to Castiel, who passes it on and receives a grunt in answer, for the most part. Dean is still sullen for a good portion of the time, and Sam does not attempt to speak to Castiel often, at first, because it is difficult. Still, Castiel is sure that when the one changes, so will the other. Castiel has a plan.

He broaches the subject with Sam after two or three days, when the effort of dredging Sam up to talk to has lessened from 'excruciating' to merely 'very tiring'. Angels, Castiel knows, are as able as demons to muffle and project the soul-voice of their vessel at will, retreating into the extremities of the body in order to let its true voice speak, take possession, as it were. Castiel has never attempted this before, but, as with the process of angel-vessel communication, he suspects that it's a skill that could be learned, which would become swiftly easier with practice. Perhaps Dean would be happier if Castiel were to practise, such that he and Sam could alternate possession of the body?

Sam laughs at first. Castiel feels it as a pulse at the back of his mind, a ripple of amusement. Sam's mental landscape has felt better every day since Castiel entered it, its wounds healing. "You could do that?" Sam asks.

Castiel shrugs. Mentally, the shrug expresses itself as a nudge of neutrality to the energy that is Sam. "It's possible. I've seen demons do it. I see no reason why we shouldn't." He hesitates a moment. On the other side of the room, Dean is crouched on his bed, pointedly not-looking at Castiel as he scrubs at the barrel of his revolver. Castiel knows that this must be hard for him. Harder still when Castiel does this, perhaps, face going blank and immobile while the conversation takes place inside his head - Sam's head.

"You think Dean'd be happier with you," Sam's voice cuts in, "if we traded off. If he could speak to me directly."

For the first couple of days, what Castiel heard rarely bore any relation to Sam's voice as it sounded leaving his physical body. Often, he had felt rather than heard what Sam wished to communicate, experienced it as shifts of energy on a wavelength far removed from that of normal human expression. This, though, is very distinctly Sam's voice, slow and pensive, as if he were making a breakthrough on a case, something far more routine and simple than this. This is Sam making an assumption from what Castiel is looking at, perhaps; and Sam can see Dean too, of course, but Castiel wonders suddenly how much Sam had to go on - whether he can read Castiel's thoughts.

It can happen, Castiel knows, that kind of crossover, the vessel's consciousness bleeding at the edges into that of its possessing force. The problem is that there are certain things in Castiel's mind that he isn't sure he wants Sam to know, particularly when it comes to the question of Dean.

Still. He is getting ahead of himself. Probably, Sam is only making a rational deduction from the direction of Dean's gaze.

"Yes," he says, "yes, I think he'd be happier with me. With both of us." He laughs wryly. "You know he thinks this is a very stupid plan, Sam."

"Yeah, well," Sam says, dismissive, "I disagree. And so do you, obviously, or you wouldn't have taken me up on it. This way you get a vessel that can contain you, I get my various ills cured, everybody wins. Especially if we can get this trade-off arrangement to work." He snorts. "Hey, Dean might even find it helps, to be able to take both of us with him on hunts in just the one handy package. Smite-time or shoot-out, Cas or Sam? Could be helpful."

And now Sam is the one getting ahead of himself. Castiel knows that it may take weeks even to learn how to switch off who is able to speak out of their shared vessel; the idea that Sam may one day be able to control it utterly, with Castiel riding quietly in the backseat, as it were, seems a far-off dream. Still, he recognises what Sam is doing. That, possibly, Sam understands this as well as Castiel does. He is encouraging, supporting, and Castiel cannot help but respond to it. It is a long time since he has felt supported.

"It could be helpful," he concurs, pensive. "It might take us some time and energy, but, Sam - I don't want you to be a prisoner in your own skin. I don't want to do that to you."

"So," Sam shrugs, "then you won't. We'll work it out, Cas, okay? We always do."

Castiel looks at the line of Dean's back, its taut hunched curve, the vertebrae of his spine under the thin cotton of his t-shirt. He hopes they can work it out with Dean. He hopes that Sam's optimism is not misplaced. He hopes a lot of things, among them that Sam will never uncover the contents of the pathetic list of futile desires in his mind.

This, though, is not the time for anxiety. This is a time for action, for moving onward inasmuch as they can. He pulses a wave of warmth in the direction of the diffuse Sam-feeling in his mind, wrapped around his spine. "Yes," he concedes, soft and hopeful, "we always do."

For a moment, he fears he has spoken aloud, from the jerk of Dean's head, the sudden pause in his steady movements. But then Dean shakes himself, goes on cleaning, and Castiel thinks he must have imagined it as he has evidently imagined everything else. That Dean's motivations for defusing him might have been born out of a love for Castiel, as well as a love for the world he'd threatened; that the situation had dispersed not purely because of how much Dean means to Castiel, but because of some measure of the converse, too.

He doesn't want to think about this. Sam might see, might deduce, at least, if he thinks too loudly, if he lets the yearning preoccupy every part of him, the way it often did in the long lonely months.

They will work it out together, he thinks, he and Sam. They must.

**

The thing about Dean is that he is, whatever else he may be, fundamentally a caretaker. A nurturer, and it isn't in him to fail to look after his brother, however pissed off he may be with whoever is currently wearing his face. However, Dean is also fundamentally kind of a dick, which means that he absolutely won't refrain from showing his displeasure, despite his continued brotherly attentions. The basic outcome of this is that Dean drives the Sam-body places exactly as he always has, takes it to drive-throughs and needlessly feeds it whenever he himself is craving grease, but utterly refuses to cater to any of Sam's particular whims and preferences. By the time Sam's watched himself eat his fourth double cheeseburger in as many days, he's starting to think Dean is actually doing it on purpose. He has a lot of time to contemplate shit, stuck in here like this, and he's pretty sure he can feel his arteries crystallising.

"Here," Dean says, gruff and curt as he tosses a newly grease-filled paper bag in the direction of his passenger-seat companion, "eat."

Castiel - who is evidently wary of upsetting Dean more than he already has - immediately unrolls the top of the bag without comment. Sam sighs, looks down into his lap at his own fingers moving, and needles at the Castiel-sense he can feel at the edges of his consciousness now, the gently glowing shape of him. A few go-rounds of this, okay, maybe they could have dealt with that as Dean letting off some steam, but this is really starting to piss Sam off. Dean may not fancy riding around in cars with angels until further notice, but Sam's of the opinion that it's about damn time Dean built himself a bridge and got the hell over it. The contrite little expression Castiel is wearing is starting to hurt Sam's face. He's had about enough of this.

"Look," he says, "you don't actually have to eat it, you know. He knows angels don't need to eat. Hell, more to the point, he knows I don't eat this crap unless I'm desperate. He's just being a bitch, Cas; you should ignore him."

There's a brief, inexplicably tense pause, during which Sam is suddenly and strangely unable to feel Cas at all over the rush of the irritation pounding in his head, the exhilaration of spitting out days of pent-up pissiness. And then Dean, blinking slowly at him as if he's grown another head and not simply acquired a second consciousness as a room-mate, demands, "What did you just say?"

Sam blinks back. Blinks so he can feel it, the contact of eyelashes with cheekbones bizarrely tangible as never before; his fingers, his toes, the breath in his throat, now hitching in confusion, all fully realised. Somewhere at the back of his mind, Castiel shifts, shakes himself, and Sam feels it like a kick to the back of the driver's seat, the unmistakable presence of a passenger.

Oh.

"Oh," Sam says, slow and with his own mouth. "Uh."

"The fuck?" Dean's working the steering wheel furiously now, spinning the car right back around in the driving loop until they're heading back into the parking lot, most of Dean's attention still fixed on his brother in horrified bemusement. "Sam? Where the hell did Cas go?"

Sam frowns. That part, at least, is straightforward - he can still feel the now-familiar Cas presence very distinctly. It's only the part where they've somehow switched out without either of them apparently intending to that has Sam confused. "Um," he says, a little distracted, "he's still right here. I can feel him."

Dean rolls his eyes elaborately and smacks his hands down hard on the wheel. "Well, that's great, Sam. How the hell is he in there and you're - " he gesticulates vaguely - "out here?"

"Dunno," Sam says, faintly. Dean is kind of loud when he wants to be, and it seems to be taking more concentration than usual to hook himself back into the Cas-loop, or whatever. "Shut up a minute and I'll ask."

"You'll - ?" Dean breaks off; shakes his head. "Fine. Fine, I'll wait."

Sam doesn't dignify the comment with a response - just closes his eyes, lets himself sink back a little into the dark place in his mind where Cas ought to be. It's weirdly more difficult to find the right spot when mind isn't the only thing he is, but after a second, he thinks he feels it - a pulse of light, a flicker of answering confusion. "Cas?"

"It seems," Cas says, ruefully, "that we have managed what we planned. Inadvertently."

"Inadvertently is right," Sam snorts. "One second I was just fuming away about what a dick Dean's being to us, and the next - "

"Strong emotion," Castiel cuts in, slow and pensive. "Yes. I think it was the anger that allowed you to come forward, Sam. I can overtake you, I think, but I wanted to work things out first. Do you remember how it felt? How you did it?"

Sam thinks for a minute. "I really, really wanted to say something," he says, thoughtful. "I guess if I think about it hard enough...?"

"It happens," Castiel finishes, and Sam feels something like a nod, something that might have been an inclination of the head if Sam had not been using their only head just now. "That's something, Sam. Something to work on."

"Well?" Dean interjects, after a minute. "You done with your little multiple personality pow-wow in there, Sybil?"

Dean is not a patient guy. Sam rolls his eyes and smiles over at him. "Yeah. Cas says it seems like I just need to want to talk really strongly, or something, and I can do it." He pauses, thinking. "I guess, if the angel passenger isn't keeping you deliberately trodden down, you can do that. And Cas and I have been talking, so." He shrugs. "It's kind of easygoing in here."

Dean nods for a minute, thinking. "So you guys can maybe, what, trade off like this?"

"Maybe," Sam confirms. "We talked about it. Weren't sure it was possible until today, but we talked about it."

"Huh," Dean says. He looks thoughtful, like he's processing, but no longer anything like as brooding and generally pissed-off as he's been for the whole of the past week. "I guess I could live with that."

Sam refrains from pointing out snarkily that Dean will just have to live with whatever comes up, whether he likes it or not. It wouldn't really be helpful, not when Dean is pulling back onto the motorway and cranking up the AC/DC on the stereo. Sam doesn't mind AC/DC. Dean hasn't played them all week.

By the time they reach the Arizona border, the music has lulled Sam most of the way to sleep. Weird kind of lullaby, but it's the only kind Sam ever knew, and the car feels better now that Dean is smiling, drumming his thumbs on the wheel as he drives. Somewhere on a red dirt road, Sam gives in, lets himself fall. In the back of his mind, Cas is dozing too, the sense of him unusually restful.

The car speeds on into the approaching night.

**

Sam wakes up some time later in a motel bathroom, mostly due to the fact that there's a toothbrush shoved so far toward the back of his mouth that it's nudging his tonsils. Given that his last memory is of falling asleep to the strains of Back in Black, it seems pretty clear that Cas got them up and out of the car without Sam's consciousness ever having twigged to the fact that they were moving. This has happened a number of times over the past few days, to the point where it's almost close to normal, so Sam doesn't worry about it unduly. What isn't normal, however, is the part where, apparently, an erroneously-placed toothbrush is enough to jolt him forward and displace Cas's control through the expedient of a violent coughing fit. Apparently, having worked out how to do it once, his body - their body - is finding the switch-off easier every time.

"Dude," Dean protests, over the sound of the shower running, "do not frickin' die on me, okay? I'm not getting out to do the Heimlich manoeuvre when I'm still all...lathery."

For a second, all Sam can do is blink while his eyes try to adjust to what exactly it is that they're currently fixed on. Dean, a naked blur of skin through the thin barrier of a motel shower curtain, and Cas has put them in prime staring position. Angels have no sense of personal space, Sam thinks, shaking his head, and drops the toothbrush in the sink.

"I'm okay," he calls, although the hoarseness in his voice does nothing to lend credence to the assurance. "Angel driving. Seems brushing teeth is hard."

"Sam?" There's a pause, and then Dean is peering out around the corner of the curtain through a film of bubbles. "You were Cas a second ago, man. I can't keep up."

"Yeah, well," Sam grins a little, "better get used to it, I guess. One of these days we're gonna work out how to do the switch-around on purpose, and then we'll really be unstoppable." He pauses in the act of retrieving his toothbrush, brow furrowing a little. "What the hell was Cas doing in here when you were showering, by the way?"

Dean shrugs, retreating back under the water. "You're always in here when I'm showering. No big deal."

"That's me, though," Sam points out, slowly. "And I don't - " He breaks off. If Dean has been getting along okay with Cas, finally, in Sam's absence, then it's probably better not to finish that sentence. Or at least, not to finish it with I don't stand around peering at you through the curtain so intently I end up choking on my toothbrush. After all, that was kind of...weird, right there.

"Don't what?" Dean prompts, naturally. Just like Dean to choose this precise moment to suddenly start listening.

"Nothing," Sam puts in, quickly. "Never mind. Guess we all better get used to it." Not like Cas hasn't seen plenty of Sam naked, after all, he thinks ruefully. Mostly, he's been trying not to dwell on that, but now, at least, he might be able to insist on taking over showering duties himself, thus saving himself the embarrassment of having to witness Cas awkwardly washing his - parts. It had been decided early on that Castiel was absolutely not going to be allowed to go more than a couple of days without washing the vessel, whatever he might have done with the last one. Cas is also required to change their clothes, which has resulted in some interesting shirt-buttoning disasters.

"All right then," Dean comments, unconcerned through the pounding of the shower. "Your teeth really needed brushing, dude, I'm just saying."

"Okay," Sam comments, mildly, although his thoughts are starting to mill around in some interesting directions. His Cas-sense is oddly absent, although the absence is tangible, pointed, almost as if he's - hiding? Sam nudges at the edges of where he thinks Cas might have stowed himself, and something sparks in his mind, defensiveness and a twinge of embarrassment. Something close to shame. Sam takes the hint, skirts away and leaves him alone, but it doesn't do much to stop the whirrings of his mind.

That's the first time.

**
Castiel is trying to contain himself. Sometimes it feels as if he is trying with every ounce of energy he has just to keep his thoughts from bleeding into Sam's; to keep his feelings, his leaps of instinct, from surging up and rushing through Sam as if they were his own. The problem is that, at first, it wasn't terribly difficult to keep himself separate, at a remove. Now, with their switches coming easily and often, the lines between their consciousnesses are becoming blurred. It isn't that they can't quite tell where one of them ends and the other begins - Castiel is still very distinctly himself, and Sam is a solid, outside presence, despite their close confinement. But now, whichever one of them has control, Castiel can feel the way Sam's heart pulls fondly when Dean sings along to Zeppelin in the car, the rush of satisfaction when they chug a vanilla latte and the flicker of pleasure at rain on a sunny afternoon. Sam's feelings, not Castiel's, but Castiel feels them all the same, and the implications terrify him.

He doesn't think Sam is aware just yet of any of the things Castiel feels - or at least, of any of his preoccupations on the level below general, unimportant observations, appreciation for a landscape as the Impala drives into it or quiet annoyance at being made to wait. These things Castiel makes no attempt to conceal, and consequently he is sure that Sam feels them too. The thing is -- these are such generic responses that Sam is, at any given time, probably experiencing thoughts of his own so broadly similar that Castiel's barely register on his radar. Probably, Sam is only aware subconsciously, if at all, that there is a bleed going on between the consciousnesses in his skull, a two-way information transfer. If anything floats to the surface, Castiel judges, then it may be subject to exchange between himself and his companion: the only solution he can muster, then, is to be constantly vigilant when it comes to his more personal feelings, careful not to let them float up to the forefront of his mind. The forefront, now, is effectively a shared space, and Castiel must police what he allows into it.

It feels insufficient to call it exhausting. For the time being, Castiel has the upper hand - it is he, after all, who is the possessor, and Sam the possessed - but he is unnervingly unsure as to how long this might last. Every day, the switching becomes less strenuous, Sam's control over the bits and pieces of himself increasing. Every day, Dean becomes more comfortable with what he calls his 'D.I.D kid brother', no longer so thrown when Castiel takes possession unexpectedly, no longer making any particular effort to treat Castiel in a markedly different way. Castiel imagines that it is easier for Dean this way - it all just looks like Sam, after all, and altering his behaviour with every switch would have swiftly led to exasperation and weariness. Easier for him simply to go on with whatever he was saying, safe in the knowledge that whoever is newly arrived will probably have heard the earlier part of the conversation too. The problem is that, while it may be easier for Dean, it makes matters immeasurably more difficult for Castiel.

Dean and Sam have lived out of each other's pockets for as long as either of them can remember. There's no modesty making barriers between them, not after so many years of sharing bathrooms and, when necessary, beds, and Dean is even less concerned about these things than Sam is, never having had his fit of pubescent younger-brother inadequacy angst. If it's too hot for the feeble air-conditioning unit to temper, Dean will sprawl out on his bed in his boxers, and Sam, quite used to such behaviour, will never even think about passing comment unless he goes so far as to attempt to shed the boxers, too. Castiel, meanwhile, will curl himself into the smallest possible ball he can manage in the comfortable depths of Sam's body, and close his eyes pointedly to what Sam can see. Dean laid out like that has an effect on Castiel that Sam must never see, not least because the outcome might almost be worse if Sam were confused enough to wonder if these were his own feelings. Dean like this is an invitation to sin, his broad freckled shoulders and his neat narrow waist, the smooth line of his clavicle jutting above the rise of his pectorals, casting shadows. Castiel wants, when he lets himself look, to touch him, but Castiel has no hands of his own, no body with which to cover Dean's. Even if Dean might once, perhaps, have yielded to Castiel, on the furthest outreaches of Castiel's hopes, he will not, cannot allow that now, not with Castiel possessing his brother. Now, Castiel is locked away from his temptations. All that remains is to lock the temptations as firmly as possible away from himself.

The brothers, though, oblivious, do not make it easy. One moment, he is coiled away within his consciousness; the next, Dean is saying, "Cas? Think we could handle something like that with rocksalt?" and Sam is stepping back, ushering him forward until he stumbles, blinking and uneasy, into the light. On the bed beside him - and, dear God, Castiel understands neither when Sam manoeuvred himself onto the bed at Dean's side, or how on earth he manages to stand it - Dean lies like a premonition of downfall, one eyebrow cocked in expectation. "Cas?"

The want swims to the surface unbidden; spikes in his stomach, ominous and low. Castiel takes a deep breath and shoves it down, resolutely steering himself away from the lapping edges of Sam's consciousness in their mind. "I'm sorry," he says, slow, apologetic. His voice sounds different to Sam's when he speaks, although it is the same larynx he uses, the same throat and lips and tongue. There is something intriguing, too, in the thought that this mouth is like Dean's in ways that Jimmy's was not, the shared DNA, something in the curve of the lower lip. Castiel wonders if Dean's mouth tastes like Sam's, same human note to the saliva under the tongue. He wants to press his mouth to Dean's and see.

Somewhere in his mind, Sam shifts, something like a kick resonating through Castiel and jolting him back to reality. He is doing terribly badly today, but then, Dean is behaving badly. Perhaps Sam is still unable to feel anything more specific than the edges of feelings, their warm-washed undertones. Perhaps he will only think that Castiel is sexually frustrated. After all, it would not be untrue. Since they worked out how to trade off possession of the body, Sam has jerked off in the shower most mornings, but Castiel always retreats politely, blocking out both Sam's thoughts and their body's sensations. It would seem rude not to do so. Equally rude to use the body in this way himself, although he knows that Sam would probably retreat exactly as Castiel does if ever he asked for it. Still, Castiel doesn't trust himself not to give himself away, abandoning his controls like that. If he were to let his thoughts spill out into the shared space, he is sure Sam would not like what he saw.

He is sure Sam does not like what he is seeing now. The want in Castiel's stomach has given way to anxiety, a sort of low nervousness that squirms like nausea. He looks Dean firm in the eye. "I'm afraid I was elsewhere," he explains, politely. "If you could recap, I will give you the best answer I can."

Dean rolls his eyes, but starts over. Castiel keeps his eyes on Dean's face, above the line of his throat, and thinks very hard about every new image Dean presents. Warehouse. Redcap infestation. He thinks about their little bloodied heads, and as a sexual deterrent, it seems to work. Inside his mind, the sense of Sam is relaxing, tuning back in to the conversation.

In the end, nothing works against the redcaps, despite what the lore says, and so Castiel, exasperated, takes over possession and burns them all away in a burst of holy light.

"Awesome," says Dean.

Castiel cannot suppress the surge of pride that wells up at that, the look on Dean's grimy, blood-spattered face. He only hopes the undertones do not seep through, his mental mapping of the line of Dean's neck, how cleanly his teeth flash against his dirty skin.

When they get back to the car, Sam resurfaces, and Dean reiterates, "Dude, that was awesome. You and Cas are like a two-for-the-price-of-one BAMF machine."

Sam snorts into laughter, and from his place inside their mind, Castiel shares it. "Yeah, Dean," Sam says, "we're amazing."

For the duration of the ride back to the motel, Castiel is entirely in agreement with this assessment.

* *

It isn't too late for pizza when they get back to the motel, so Dean orders the hugest they have, with lashings of green peppers in an attempt to shut Sam up - or so Castiel assumes - about the fact that it isn't actually necessary to buy food for three separate people when they only have two bodies between them all. Sam is unimpressed by the reasoning, but impressed enough by the pizza itself that he deliberately retreats into the passenger seat with a muttered, "Oh, man, Cas, you have to try this," shoving Castiel forward. Castiel is not especially fond of pizza, but he is fond of the warm sense of camaraderie filling the motel room at this moment, the collective sense of a job well done. It is unifying, gratifying, and the pizza is part of that, greasy and foreign as it may be. Jimmy Novak never ate pizza. Castiel has no frame of reference for it, but the Winchesters are giving him one for it now, as they have done for so many more important things. Castiel is happy, he realises. When Dean grins over at him in a way Castiel has only ever seen directed at Sam, his heart soars, purely enough that he does not even make the attempt to conceal it from Sam. He is part of this, of them. The feeling it gives him is irrepressible.

It isn't until later, when Dean has fallen asleep with one hand flung out across the bed, that Castiel lets himself slip a little, the bubbling sense of contentment giving way to something else, something softer. Sam is mostly asleep, and it's reached the point where Castiel is no longer sure who has control of their body. Like this, lying motionless and waiting for sleep, it doesn't seem to matter. Ordinarily, a possessed vessel has no need of human sustenance, but Sam's body is not possessed in the way that any other, to Castiel's knowledge, has ever been, and the rules don't seem to apply. When Sam sleeps, Castiel rests, unless he's needed to move their body from one place to another and doesn't wish to wake Sam up. Their arrangement has brought him to places closer to sleep than he has wandered since his brief span of near-humanity, back when the apocalypse was nigh.

He and Sam had been talking sporadically, but Sam has fallen silent now, and so Castiel lets himself study the swells of muscle in Dean's outflung arm, the angle of his shoulder. Dean looks younger in the face when he's sleeping, all the anxious little lines smoothed out - although they have been smoother in general, lately, since he stopped having to worry about Sam falling back unexpectedly into hell. Castiel did that, and it makes him proud to know that, whatever he broke, he has given Dean more than enough recompense. Dean, who has been everything to Castiel since the moment he held him tight and raised him from perdition. Dean, with his fine-cut face too delicate to exist outside of pure art, his soft, lush mouth, now parted in sleep, showing glints of white teeth between. Castiel could climb out of bed in this moment, crawl up and under that outflung arm. Sam would never be any the wiser, content to sleep at the back of their mind, and Dean, perhaps, might let him stay, never one to deny his brother anything. He knows they used to sleep that way when they were children, and sometimes afterwards, when somebody was hurting. Sam has thought about it, remembered it, since Castiel has lived in his head. Perhaps Dean would allow it, and Castiel could curl up chaste against his side and think his unchaste thoughts.

"Cas," Sam prompts him. The touch of his mind is brief and gentle, but Castiel feels himself seize up in spite of himself, limbs drawing close to his body. He has control, then.

"Sam," he manages, although he barely knows how he does it, with every impulse screaming at him not only to retreat, but to flee, make his exodus through Sam's mouth in a blaze of light to blind them both. "I thought you were sleeping."

"Almost," Sam says, wryly. His voice is light, but there is something else in it that tells Castiel he has seen what Castiel feared he might. Something closer to concern than to anger, or disgust, but Castiel's stomach twists all the same in knots, anxious and unhappy.

"Hey," Sam says, low and gentle, "Stop making me nervous, man. Feel all twisty."

Castiel can't help but smile a little at that. The knots in his stomach are like turns of rope, and he takes deep breaths, putting all his energy into loosening them. "Sorry."

"No problem, Cas." Sam shifts sleepily, his energy brushing warm and soothing along the edges of Castiel's sense of self. "Can't stop thinking, huh?"

Castiel laughs shortly. Sam has a knack for understatement. "You could say that."

"You know," Sam says, tentative, "for what it's worth, I don't think you're alone in this." He pauses, and then adds, "Dean, I mean. He - you know."

The twists of rope recoil themselves at a rate of knots, and Castiel frowns, jerks a little. "What do you mean?" It sounds defensive, he knows, but he cannot help it. Sam's voice is so soft, so easygoing and sympathetic in his mind that Castiel cannot help but think they must be somehow at horrible cross-purposes. Surely, Sam would be more agitated if he knew - really knew - what Castiel was thinking.

But Sam only smiles, gentles Castiel's anxiety with a flicker of something warm and reassuring. They learned this soon and easily, the non-verbal communication, little touches to each other's minds. Castiel wants nothing more than to let himself be gentled, but he is afraid. God help him, but he is afraid. "Sam. What do you mean?"

"Look," Sam breaks in, "You can stop trying to keep it from me, okay? All I know is, all these Dean-related boners are nothing to do with my issues." Sam laughs a little. "I mean, sure, we have issues coming out of our ears, but that isn't one of them."

Castiel is cringing. He doesn't think he's ever felt so small in his life. "No," he admits, miserably, "no. That is my fault, Sam. I'm sorry."

"Happens," Sam says, with a mental shrug. "It's not - look, it's not a problem, okay? I just thought it was probably getting exhausting for you, trying to hide stuff from me all the time. Case you haven't noticed, we sort of share a brain, Cas."

Cas smiles ruefully. "Oh, I know, Sam. Believe me."

"Well, then." Another little touch, gentling. "I know you love my brother. It's nothing to be ashamed of." A snort of laughter. "Hey, I love him too, right?"

"He loves you back, though," Castiel returns, shortly. He doesn't mean to, should have guarded himself better, but the sentiment sort of falls out against his will, like a lot of things of late. "He loves you best. Obsessively."

"But not like that," Sam puts in, voice sharpening with insistence. "Look, Cas, I know it's probably hard for you to get the way all this human crap works from the inside, but Dean - " He breaks off. "Why do you think Dean was so upset by all that stuff last year, with you being gone? With Castiel the nuclear missile?"

Castiel shudders at the reference; turns his face into the pillow. "I don't know," he mutters, shortly. He wants to escape, now, more than ever; wants to abandon Sam on his soapbox, but Sam will not let him, following him back into his corner of their mind, bludgeoning him from all sides with needles of light.

"Yes," Sam says, "you do. Dean doesn't love many people in this world. Yeah, okay, so he loves me best. He's programmed to. But, dammit, Cas, he loves you too, and he loves you because he chose to, not because he was told to and never given another choice. He loves you - " Sam pauses mid-thought, as if groping around for words. "I want to say romantically, but that doesn't cut it. Properly. With his mind and his heart, not just his gut and his instincts. He says he's straight, but I've never seen him love a woman like that. You're so important to him. That's the only reason you hurt him so much."

Castiel winces, cannot help it. He never meant to hurt Dean, not ever, and the knowledge that he did still pains him. But the rest of it - what Sam is saying to him -- "Do you think so?"

Sam shrugs. "I know so, Cas. Believe me. I know him, better'n anyone."

"That's true," Castiel concedes. "But, Sam, even if this is true, he knows me the way he first met me, not - "

"Not as his kid brother," Sam finishes. "Sure, I see your point. But it's you he loves, not - not Jimmy Novak's body. Obviously he wouldn't want to do anything about it so long as you're in me, but that won't be forever, right?" He brushes a tendril of light against Castiel's own, reassuring. "In the meantime, you don't have to worry about offending me, okay? He loves you, believe me. In a way that's totally unrelated to the body you're in. When you get right down to it, it's just packaging."

"I love Dean's - packaging," Castiel points out, ruefully, testing, and Sam laughs a little.

"Well, it's nice packaging, yeah. But Dean's - I don't know - connected to his a lot more fundamentally than you are to yours, since you're kind of - hermit crablike. You're just the inside bits."

Sam has always been so nice to him. Sometimes, Castiel wonders why, given the way he treated Sam at the beginning, as an abomination. Sam is something warm and kind, always there to navigate him through the stormy seas of complicated human existence, and Castiel is grateful for it in more ways than he can say. He tries to communicate this with a little pulse of gratitude, warm and enveloping all of Sam he can find. "Sam," he says, softly, "thank you." It doesn't go anywhere close to conveying all the things he wants to, but it is a start. It is all he can offer.

Sam only smiles, returns the pulse lazily, as if he understands. "Any time, Cas," he says, like it's nothing. "Seriously. I'm right. You'll see."

**

Dean would never admit it, but the fact is that he went on acting out about the whole Operation: Sam Shell situation for a helluva lot longer than it actually bothered him for. Sure, at first he was terrified by the whole idea of it, his brother with his wall gone kaput stepping up to an angel recently demoted from godhood and saying fill me up. Dean couldn't see how that could end in any way other than absolute tragedy and fucked-up-ness, and Dean had pretty much had his fill of both of those. It wasn't that he didn't want Cas around - most of him, if he had to admit it, yearned for the old days when everything was falling apart except their little three-man unit, stronger than it had ever been, their angel dozing in the backseat as they took down the apocalypse. And yeah, Dean's aware of exactly how fucked up it makes him that the glory days of recent years were the highlights of the End Times. That isn't the issue. The issue was the part where what Dean wanted back was Cas. Not Castiel, not this hyperinflated, wrathful being so pumped up on soul toxins as to be entirely unrecognisable, but Cas, the guy who used to text Dean incompetently at four in the morning and whose mark on Dean's shoulder showed the absolute depths of how far he would go for him, how far he had gone. That was the Cas Dean wanted, and his greatest fear was that something else would fill Sam up, someone he didn't recognise, and then he'd have neither his brother, nor his friend. That was Dean's problem with The Plan.

The thing is, once Sam and Cas got their shit figured out, Dean realised pretty quick that the Cas they'd literally taken in was certainly not the warped travesty of his imagination. At first, he had been quiet, Dean now understands in contrition, but Dean had avoided talking to him much, and that had made the general stiffness hard to read. Dean kept his head down and frowned and ignored him, hoping against hope that whatever-it-was would get the hell out quickly and leave him and Sam in peace. Sure, life wouldn't be the same without Cas, but better a retreat to the way they'd once been than some messed-up enslavement to a creature no longer a god, but something other than an angel. Dean couldn't stand to look at his brother and see the gestures and expressions of someone he didn't recognise, couldn't stand there and feel again the ache he'd felt watching Lucifer or Meg manipulate him. So, Dean kept out of his way until the day Sam stumbled under the force of his own irritation right back into the front seat. At which point, it became pretty clear that, in the first place, Sam was not ground under the boot of some vengeful god, and in the second, Dean actually wouldn't have to go without either his brother or his angel. Cas was a little shiftier than Dean remembered, but Sam was pretty sure he was Cas, and next time Sam checked out, Dean confirmed it for himself in the space of a brief conversation. The thing wearing, sharing Sam is the Cas Dean knew, and that pretty much revolutionised his feelings about the whole situation.

It's taken him a shockingly short space of time to figure out when a swap has occurred. Sam, of course, is still so obviously Sam that Dean could never have mistaken him for anyone else, and Cas -- Cas has a way of manipulating Sam's body, all those yards and yards of it, in a way that somehow exactly resembles the way he had walked and moved in Jimmy Novak's much more compact form, a way that is uniquely and unmistakably Castiel. Dean doesn't know why he's surprised by it, really. He saw, certainly, how different poor Jimmy was to Castiel, how unlike each other they really were, for all they wore the same skin. But it's strange, still, to look at his brother and see only Castiel, hear only Cas. Often, Dean wakes up to find Sam still sleeping while Cas is propped up against the headboard, reading; wishes Dean good morning in his familiar, dark-gravel voice, from Sam's mouth but definitely not Sam's. It's weird, but Dean swiftly becomes aware that he doesn't mind. It isn't bad-weird. He and Cas haven't exactly gotten around to having a heart-to-heart about the whole Godstiel situation, but the fact remains that it's nice to be able to look over and see immediately that Cas is still here, still their Cas, even if his face is different. As if his face is irrelevant. Dean hadn't really thought, before, about how he might respond to Cas in a different vessel, but here he is, wearing the vessel that means more to Dean than any other, and yet all Dean can see is Castiel in Sam's broad hands, his hazel eyes, the cut of his chin like Dean's and like their father's. He can look at it, and not see Sam at all. Just Cas. It shouldn't be possible, Dean thinks, and yet it is. It's Cas, and Dean feels the same way towards him in his gut as he felt before, when Cas was all wide blue eyes and unbrushed hair and that trench coat.

It's definitely something to think about. Even if part of Dean isn't sure he wants to.

**

Cas himself again or not, Dean's not actually so totally socially unaware as not to have realised there's kind of an elephant in the room between the two of them, keeping their conversations inconsequential, even if they're not so terse any more. He and Cas talk, but there's always a sense of something running under it, unsaid, and Dean's not sure how long he can live with that kind of evasiveness. Dean's of the opinion that keeping secrets usually proves to be a horrible idea all round, and, goddammit, it's not like he doesn't have good reason for it. It's not as if he wants to throw down the gauntlet and demand some kind of sappy-ass hugfest where they all sit around and talk about their feelings, but -- yeah, okay, fine. Dean thinks they should talk about their feelings. Happily, Sam is currently asleep somewhere at the back of Cas's head -- or so Dean understands from their meagre explanations of how that works -- which puts him too far away to pull out the smug expression of I told you so. It also means that Dean has Cas entirely to himself, which is the sort of opportunity he's been waiting for. They've been working this thing for long enough now that it's pretty obvious what the remaining loose end is, and evidently it's up to Dean to make the first overtures towards tying it up again. Sam seems to have left it for him specially; or, at least, if he's talked to Cas about it himself, he hasn't mentioned it. He seems to think this is something Dean needs to hash out for himself, and, probably, he's right. And, given how unusual it is to get Cas alone like this without going to the extreme formality of asking him to actively put Sam to sleep, Dean thinks there's really no time like the present.

Being Dean Winchester, master of subtlety and tact, he knows he'll have to navigate the conversational waters carefully. "So," he says, spreading out a crinkled map of Nevada on his bedspread, "millions of monster souls, huh? What'd that feel like?"

The look on Cas's face is a picture, a deer-in-the-headlights stare that bears no resemblance to Sam's at all. He's been flipping idly through the local newspaper for upwards of ten minutes, but he pauses, now, fingers frozen in the act of turning the page. "Uh," he says, eloquently, after a long beat. "It was -- I -- " He takes a shaky breath, looking suddenly so uncomfortable that Dean almost wants to backtrack, except that this was always going to be uncomfortable and it has to be done. "Disorienting," Cas finishes, stiltedly, after a moment's fumbling for words. His cheeks, Dean notices, are pink along the ridges of bone, and his eyes are pointedly averted. Dean strives to keep his own voice neutral.

"Disorienting like how?" The map is still crinkled deeply across the centre, and he sets himself to smoothing it, pressing on the crease with his palms. Cas, it seems, is heartened by his apparent distraction.

"Like being drunk, I suppose," he offers, and if his voice is tight with embarrassment, at least it is almost a complete sentence. "A little might have been pleasurable, but this was too much. It caused -- an altered mental state."

Dean nods slowly; pauses in his straightening, because this is actually...this is actually useful information. They got into the habit, he and Sam, of thinking of Cas that way, as if he'd become an addict, an alcoholic, one soul in his hands driving the need for another, and another. But, as with alcoholism, that sort of thing doesn't just spiral away out of nowhere, and Dean is half afraid of knowing what had caused this in Cas. His deal with Crowley, at least, Dean can rationalise, as Cas rationalised it: he had a war to fight, and no weapons with which to fight it, and all he'd wanted was to save the poor goddamn world, again, without dragging Dean out of his erstwhile retirement. Ill-advised, maybe, but Dean can get that, he can. Sam, even more so, when they'd discussed it. But this last -- whatever it was that had driven him to suck up all those souls himself, like some kind of great celestial sponge -- that, Dean can't understand. His fingers clench unconsciously on the shiny surface of the map, making it crumple at the edges. "Why'd you do it, Cas?" He doesn't mean to say it until it's out; is surprised to hear it coming out of his mouth, but it's exactly what he's thinking. "You must've known it'd be too much."

The look on Cas's face at that is incredulous and pained, something like a smile curving his lips as he raises his head to look at Dean, but there's nothing happy about it. "Dean, I -- of course I knew. I knew what it would do to me. I couldn't have come that far with Crowley and not have known."

It's not what Dean wants to hear, but it's something, some kind of progress, and Dean seizes upon it. "Well, then?" he prompts, as if maybe, if he keeps at it, he'll end up somewhere where he'll like the landscape -- somewhere where everything will make sense.

"Well, then," Cas echoes, and shakes his head. His hands make patterns on the sheet, Sam's hands with their broad palms, their long fingers, but the gestures are all Cas's. "What else could I have done? I had no-one. Crowley couldn't be trusted. And you..." He trails off, and Dean, moved by an impulse he doesn't quite dare parse, looks away.

"Cas," he says, hesitant, "I said I would help you, man. I told you we could fix it. You didn't have to --"

"I did have to!" Cas interrupts, the words breaking out of him sudden and sharp. "Dean, I know it wasn't a helpful step to take. Believe me -- I had millions of purgatory souls churning around inside me for months, and they made me something so far removed from myself that I could barely see straight any more. I know it was the wrong thing to do. But you're not understanding me."

"Dude," Dean breaks in, shaking his head, "dude, I am trying to understand you, here. Hell, I was trying then! We could have helped you. We could have stopped it."

Cas whips around at that, eyes blazing, chin jutted high, and he looks, for a second, like nothing so much as an agent of all heaven's power and glory. "Dean," he says, and the voice seems to come from outside of Sam's body, from above and below and all around it, like an aura. "Believe me, I appreciated the offer, late though it came. I appreciated it, but you could not have stopped it. That was the crux of it. I knew what Crowley planned to do, and I also knew Crowley. As do you." He laughs a little, helplessly; spreads his hands. "Do you honestly think that if I'd let Crowley take all of that power into himself, he'd have split it like we said? Or Raphael?"

"You didn't split it," Dean points out sharply, "like you said!"

"I'm an angel," Cas shoots back, and there's no apology left in him, now, nothing shrinking or sorry or small. "I am an angel. He is a demon. Raphael was something more dangerous than both of us. I didn't know how much it would change me, to take purgatory into myself, but someone was going to do it, Dean, you have to understand that. Someone was going to become all-powerful, and you would not have wanted it to be either Raphael or Crowley."

"I didn't want it to be you, Cas!" Dean retorts, and the heat pricking at the corners of his eyes is surely rage. "I didn't want to see you like that! I didn't want to lose you!"

"Better that," Cas insists, voice growing more strident with every word, "than lose the world, do you hear me? It had to be one of us. Had to be. And I, while I may be far from perfect, had one quality that made me an obvious candidate, for our purposes, namely the fact that I didn't want to set the Apocalypse back on course."

"What did you want, then, Cas?" Dean demands, wearily. He is shaking his head, he finds, reflexively, but the fight has gone out of him, dampened by the fierceness of Cas's words. "I just wanted you to let me help you. I just wanted my friend."

"And what do you think I wanted?" Cas asks, softly. "Why do you think I care so much about this world, about humanity, after all? What made me side with humanity before my own brothers?"

"I guess," Dean ventures, quietly, "all that time you spent with us. The stuff about God. The -- "

"You, Dean," Cas breaks in, gentle and firm, and something in Dean's chest seizes up like a fist around his heart. "You needn't mince words: it was you. Everything was you. I couldn't let anyone else take on the purgatorial souls because I couldn't risk anything happening to you, Dean Winchester, whom I raised from perdition. I wish you'd trusted me earlier, but - " and he breaks off, laughing, but there's no humour in it "-- I should have realised sooner why you couldn't. You don't think you're worth anything. You never have. It would have been beyond your comprehension, that I could have wanted to do so much for what you thought of as so little."

Dean cannot speak. His tongue seems immobilised in his mouth, his eyes unquestionably wet at the corners, now. He blinks; draws in a deep breath through his nose, and fumbles for speech. "I'm not," he manages, eventually, with a monumental effort, "it's just -- I'm not anything, Cas. Nobody special." He shrugs, loose little gesture that's all arms.

Across the room, Cas is shaking his head, the movement tense and disbelieving. When he speaks, the motion slows, but doesn't stop. His fingers dig into the muscle of his thigh until the knuckles whiten. "You are so much to so many, Dean," he says, his voice low and resigned. "To Sam. To me. This is why you didn't understand Sam's anger when you sold your soul for him, and why you can't understand my actions against Crowley. The world exists today because of you, Dean, and you -- " He breaks off, biting his lip, and the gesture is so suddenly and violently human that Dean is half taken aback by it. Cas means all this, Dean realises, incredulous. He really means it.

"Hey," he ventures, one arm reaching abortively across the space between the beds, although the distance is too far for his hand to encounter anything but air. "Cas, I -- okay." He still doesn't see, himself, what the hell is so special about him, but clearly Cas believes it. Clearly it means a lot to him, if the soft earnestness in his eyes is any indication. "Okay, Cas. I'm sorry." He draws in a shaky little breath. "And thanks. I guess."

"You're welcome," Cas says, and it's only the two words, caught in a single exhalation, but the way his shoulders go loose, the way his face softens -- it's so obviously so much more than what it is on the surface that Dean feels like a monumental douche for not bringing this up earlier, not asking Cas to explain himself. Because, really, when it comes down to it, this isn't even so close to what Sam did, trying to save the world from Lilith, as it is to what Dean did, throwing himself into the jaws of demons just to keep one person safe. A person who didn't appreciate it, sure, because he was scared, because he didn't want to be left alone in the world without his stupid self-sacrificing brother; or in this case, Dean's stupid, self-sacrificing angel, who somehow thinks Dean Winchester is worth taking on heaven to defend.

Suddenly, Dean feels extremely small. Cas loves him. God, oh God, Cas loves him just as hard as Dean ever loved Sam, and nobody ever told him to, which makes it worse, harder, better. Cas fucking loves him, the idiot, and Dean...

"Hey," he says, and his hand stretches out again, mostly of its own accord, as if something in him wants to be closer to Cas, wants to touch him, although Dean isn't much given to touching, unless it's sexual. "Cas..." He trails off, hand wavering in the air.

When Cas pulls himself in, gets hesitantly up and crosses the divide, Dean thinks at first that he's been misread, but he hasn't, not really. When Cas settles himself on the bed, the warmth of his body a solid comfort all down Dean's side, he realises that this is exactly what he'd wanted and hadn't quite known how to ask for. This, Cas's fingers coming softly to rest on his thigh, low on the outside near his knee. Cas's eyes, wide open and hopeful and all Castiel, right down to the very depths of them where the hazel turns to gold. The palm of Cas's free hand coming to rest at the small of Dean's back, so he can't help but turn into it; pulling Cas against him abruptly in an awkward one-armed hug. "Cas," he says, almost into Cas's ear, "Thank you. Really." I'm sorry. I'm sorry

Cas draws in a sharp breath, turns a little, and something about it leeches the awkwardness away, the way Cas presses closer, slackening, fitting their bodies together. It's been a long time since anyone held Dean like this, like he meant something. He hasn't been much in the mood for casual pick-ups lately, and this is, Dean realises slowly, not quite a friendly hug. These are Cas's hands, brushing over the nape of his neck until the hairs stand up with the static, the aftershocks crawling down Dean's spine in a way that says this could be more. There's an intimacy to it that is almost as unfamiliar to Dean as it's got to be to Cas, something visceral and raw, and Dean understands in a moment of shocking certainty that he isn't unsettled by it, by the clear suggestion. It doesn't leave him awkward and cold to think that Cas might - love-him love him, because maybe Dean isn't all that into guys in any serious way, but this is Cas. Cas who gave everything for him, and Dean didn't even give him the benefit of the doubt. This is Cas, and Dean suddenly aches to be close to him.

When Cas shifts, it is as if he knows; as if he is reading Dean's mind. Then his mouth brushes the curve of Dean's neck, damp and open against the soft place beneath Dean's ear, and all doubt is suddenly removed. "Shit," Dean breathes, hand curving along the line of Cas's jaw, and he pulls back a little, wanting to see him; wanting to see the look in Cas's eyes that he feels is there. He wants to see that from up close, before he --

"...shit," Dean repeats, with all the air gone out of it.

Cas looks back at him, breath coming short and urgent, watching Dean from under lowered lashes. Cas looks back at him, and Dean feels warm all over with the urge to move right back in and kiss the urgency out of him, except that Cas is smiling at him languidly the way Cas so rarely smiles, and the mouth turning up at the corners is Sam's; the body pressed tight to Dean's is Sam's, and Dean is oh so entirely screwed.

"Dean?" Cas ventures, low and hesitant, and Dean draws in a sharp breath through his nose; puts Cas away from him gently and puts a couple of inches between them on the bed.

"Dude," he says, rubbing the back of one hand across his eyes, "no offence, but you have got to get yourself another vessel if we're - " he breaks off; gestures between them, and Cas's eyes go wide. It would be almost comical, the kaleidoscope of expressions that flash across his face, from hopeful to overjoyed to utterly frustrated, were it not for the fact that Dean feels pretty frustrated himself, and also totally skeevy about having gotten half-hard while snuggling his baby brother. Ew.

"Are we...?" Cas asks, slow and small, as if he doesn't quite dare to be hopeful. He looks blindsided, breathless and warm and somehow more Cas than Dean's seen him in months, and goddammit, it's just so fucking unfair. When Cas is like this, all close and open-faced, it's like Dean actually has to peer at him real close before he can see Sam at all, but that doesn't change the facts. And the facts suck.

He shakes his head a little, eyes on Cas's, his stomach coiled up and tense and confused. It's madness in there, utter turmoil, the part of him that hates himself for taking so damn long to figure this out and the part of him that's utterly overjoyed that he has, both coming up short against the part of him that's realising slowly how absolutely impossible this is. The part of him that's realising, more to the point, that Cas may not be able to get another vessel, or at least not easily. Vessels have to be of the blood, of course, and archangel vessels are even rarer than the ordinary kind. Cas is undoubtedly archangel strength, after everything he's been through, and that leaves his list of potential vessels very short indeed.

Cas is still looking at him, head cocked to one side, and the gesture is so long familiar that it makes Dean's stomach clench, screws up whatever it was he was planning to say. He opens his mouth, hand braced between them on the bed, and says, totally unauthorised, "I wanna kiss you."

Cas makes a sound like he's dying, like he's been stabbed, and shit, that isn't what Dean meant (except that it's exactly, entirely what he meant, and somehow the fact that Cas is wearing Sam to their fucking lifelong prom isn't working as the deterrent that it seriously should be). Dean stands up abruptly; turns his back and rubs the palms of his hands against his thighs, frenetic against the denim. "Cas," he says, eyes fixed on the trashcan still filled with their empty Snickers wrappers from that morning, when Dean had fished the emergency rations out of the trunk and everything in life was four hundred times less complicated. "This is so fucked up, oh my God."

"I may not be able to get another vessel for a while, Dean," Cas says from somewhere behind him. His voice is low and miserable, and Dean can hear where the truth of it really stops. I may not be able to get another vessel, Dean.

God dammit. If Dean didn't know for a fact that the man upstairs couldn't actually give a shit, he might think there was some kind of plot against him.

"We can't," he says, firmly. Wrong, really, that he actually has to vocalise it, has to get it out there, but something in his gut tells him it isn't only for Cas's benefit that he's making that explicit. Cas, he tells himself, is in Sam. This is his brother he's thinking about like this. This is his brother, and he isn't even awake; it's like some kind of pervy date-rape thing, everything else aside.

Except that when Dean looks at Cas, all the reasoning kind of disappears under the fact that Cas is all he can see, which is why the rules have to be stipulated like this, when he can't see Cas's eyes. When Cas's face can't sway him.

Cas, though, doesn't seem inclined to protest. "I know," is all he says, although the disappointment is clear in his voice. "I know, Dean. It's all right. As long as you --" He stops. It's a long hesitation, and Dean realises after a second that he's holding his breath, waiting for Cas to go on.

"Cas?" he prompts, when he can't take it any longer, and Cas laughs a little, shortly.

"We understand each other now," Cas says, and Dean can't help but close his eyes at that. Hell, they understand each other, all right. They understand, and that elephant has ambled out of the room to be replaced by an entire herd of insurmountable obstacles, starting with THIS IS TOTALLY RAPEY and ending with INCEST, YOU HEATHEN. Dean sighs. It isn't as if there's anything else he can do.

"Yeah," he concedes, "yeah, we do. It'll be okay." He makes himself turn; smiles a little. "Hey, better than before, right?"

"Definitely," Cas says, and nods. It's totally unconvincing, but Dean appreciates the effort nonetheless.

"Um," Dean says, after an awkward pause, "did you want to catch some TV or something?"

They both turn to look at the conspicuously blank television. Dean feels his cheeks flush. Eventually, Cas says, very levelly, "I think - I think I will sleep a little, after all. It's tiring to - " he gestures vaguely " - manipulate the vessel while Sam is sleeping."

"Oh," Dean says, tongue feeling stupid and thick in his mouth. "Um. Sure. Okay."

Cas nods; rearranges himself jerkily on the pillow. By the time Dean's adjusted to what he's actually going to do, it's already done: Cas has buried himself effortlessly in Sam's sleep, no waiting required. Dean clenches his hands into fists, blinking impotently down at the mattress, at Cas's - Sam's - someone's face gone slack on the pillow.

Forty minutes later, Dean is poring over the map again, maybe eighty percent of his attention elsewhere, when Sam stirs and demands sleepily, "Time 'zit?"

Dean throws a balled-up sock at him. Sam looks outraged, but Dean can't really bring himself to explain right now. Sam can just assume he's in a weird mood. He certainly wouldn't be far wrong.

**

It doesn't escape Sam's notice that both Dean and Cas seem to be in decidedly weird moods. It doesn't take a genius, either, to work out that whatever went on when Sam was sleeping must have been the cause of it. Cas is atypically quiet, the way he was before they had their little conversation about not attempting to bottle shit up, and Dean -- well. Sam can't remember a time when Dean was ever inattentive, but this is reaching whole new levels of fixation.

"Dude," Sam tries, when he looks up to find Dean staring at him strangely for the fourth time in half an hour, "I'm trying to read, here."

Dean, of course, puts on his best offended face and crosses his arms belligerently. "And?" he demands, going for ignorance. It's not all that convincing, what with how his jaw is twitching the way it does when he's under pressure. "I'm just minding my own business here, Sam. You read if you want to."

Sam sighs. "Okay, look. No offence, but all this creepy staring? Is getting old."

Dean doesn't even have a comeback to offer, beyond a deer-in-the-headlights expression, which is evidence enough that something is seriously up. Sam immediately back-pedals, voice now more concern than pissiness. "Dude, did Cas say something? Are you afraid I'm gonna go all drooling vegetable, still? Because I'm telling you, Cas got rid of any chance of that. I'm fine, Dean."

"Sam, for crying out loud!" Dean bursts out, turning his face away with a pout like an aggrieved five year old. "Not everything's about you, okay? Jesus."

Sam's face twists sceptically. "Right. Okay, I get that. What I don't get is why you're constantly staring at me if it's not about --"

Dean seems to anticipate the realisation before it even hits, raising his eyebrows pointedly when Sam comes to an abrupt halt. "Yeah. Double occupancy, remember?" There's a bitterness in Dean's voice Sam hasn't heard there in a while, and Sam frowns.

"Well, Cas isn't driving right now, as I know you know. Point of fact, Cas hasn't even really been talking since, like, yesterday morning, and you've been --" he gesticulated vaguely -- "like this. So, you know, it'd be nice to know what the hell happened and why you're glaring at Cas by proxy, because I don't appreciate it."

Dean snorts irritably. "Oh, Sam, believe me, I wish I could glare at Cas head-on, instead of though your thick skull." There's a loose thread at the knee of his jeans, and he picks at it, curt and fussy. "That idiot."

At which point Sam, not actually being completely unperceptive, feels light dawn on him like lasers. "Oh, Dean."

Dean looks up sharply at that, eyes round and half alarmed. "'Oh Dean'?" he parrots, voice low and suspicious. "What do you mean, 'oh, Dean'?" He's slouched on the pillows, but he sits up now, abrupt and alert. "Sam? What?"

But Sam only shakes his head, unsure whether to smile at Dean finally getting it or cry at the irony of his unrelentingly horrendous timing. "Nothing," he says, firmly. "Nothing. It's okay."
"Whoa," Dean puts in sharply. He leans forward across the space between the beds, elbows resting on his knees, hands curling into helpless fists. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Sam, you can't just --"

"Dude," Sam says mildly, indicating the newspaper, "what'd I tell you? Trying to read, here. Chill."

Dean subsides, cut-off mid-flow and looking like he thinks he's been played and isn't sure how or what to make of it, except that he damn sure isn't happy about it. As far as Sam's concerned, though, he can just stew for a while. Sam needs to talk to Cas about this, whether Cas wants to discuss it or not.

***

Castiel likes to emerge, at least partially, when Dean showers. It sounds awful spelled out like that, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn't have many opportunities to be close to Dean under current circumstances, and now that Sam knows everything, it isn't as if Castiel is in danger of giving anything away. The Winchesters aren't much for locked doors, and since Dean is completely unconcerned by having Sam lean against the sink and talk shop to him when he's naked, Castiel doesn't see why he shouldn't get what he can out of it. Sam can usually be convinced to discover a sudden urge to go brush his teeth while Dean is showering, and also to indulgently put up with the warm feeling in his stomach that represents Castiel's fondness toward Dean, including, perhaps, some appreciation for his...packaging. Sam does it out of pity, Castiel knows, but he is too far gone on Dean to let his pride keep him from this. Dean doesn't know, Sam doesn't care, and Castiel is momentarily very happy indeed. It seems to be what Dean would call a win-win scenario -- or rather, it seemed that way. Before.

For some reason, the idea of doing this now, in the knowledge that Dean might want to be the object of his gaze, seems somehow infinitely wronger than it ever did when Castiel was at a remove, unremarked. There is something inherently askew in this, he knows, but it is, nevertheless, how he feels. Often, in the year of Sam's absence, Castiel visited Dean at his home, watched him with Ben or with Lisa, about his everyday business. This is what angels do, after all: patrol and guard, observe and protect and learn. Since that time, though, Castiel has become something else, has confessed things that angels should not feel, and somehow it sets the whole tenor of things awry. To watch Dean with Dean oblivious was not new, but watching him now, he cannot help but think that Dean might expect it -- might recall their conversation and conceal himself from Sam, newly aware of the second observer behind his brother's eyes. It seems -- there is no other word for it -- unfair that Castiel should have so much to look at, and yet nothing to offer in return. His chest twists warmly at the knowledge that Dean would like to look at him too, until he remembers that he has nothing to be looked at, no flesh-and-bone wonders of his own to offer. All he has belongs to Sam, and Dean has seen it all before, looked on it with love but never with ardour.

Evidently, though, Sam cannot be expected to understand this. When Castiel shrank back on the morning after his conversation with Dean, Sam was bemused enough. When he evades Sam's attempts at communication for the second morning running, Sam's bemusement tips over quickly into exasperation.

"Cas," Sam insists, voice unrelenting and abrasive against the edges of Castiel's consciousness, and the sense of him seems to have expanded, taken stock of their shared mental landscape and backed Castiel into a corner of it. "Cas, come on. We don't have to do the ritual morning peep-show if you're not up for it, but seriously." A nudge, hard and jolting, against the shell Castiel has built for himself. "You've been holed up for two days. What happened to not hiding stuff from each other?"

Sam, quite clearly, does not intend to leave Castiel to annihilate himself in peace. Castiel lets out a sigh of resignation and opens up his bounds a fraction. "I was not hiding," he ventures.

The wave of Sam's disbelief is staggering, crashes over him like a breaker. "Oh, sure, you were just sleeping." A pause, and then a wisp of Sam's light extends, coaxing. "Come on, Cas. I know something went down." The wisp expands slightly, soothing, and Castiel curses Sam's adroitness. "Did you tell him?"

Castiel pulls himself up miserably. "I had no intention of doing so," he says, knowing that Sam will hear it for the admission that it is.

Sure enough, Sam interprets the situation accurately. "So you did?" He hesitates a moment, as if checking himself. "He didn't reject you, did he?"

"No!" Castiel assures him, quickly, although he can take no joy in doing so. "No, he..." He sighs. "He reciprocates."

Sam does not seem to hear the resignation in Castiel's voice, the utter lack of pride or levity. "So!" he shoots back, the sense of him positively glowing with satisfaction. "See, Cas, I told you!"

"Sam," Castiel interjects wearily, "you don't understand. Your brother..." He trails off, dejected. "It is impossible."

"Something happened," Sam says, flatly, after a second's pause. It isn't a question. "Before you realised." Castiel nods, small and sad, and Sam goes on, "And now you're embarrassed."

The tone of his comments is altogether too rational, too analytical for the demands of the situation, and Castiel feels a wild compulsion to needle some sense of urgency into him, make him see. "Sam," he says, insistent, "You must realise - this --" and he indicates their shared vessel, Sam's body around both of them " -- may not be a short-term solution for me. I could be forced to inhabit you for months, even years, and Dean -- "

Sam, apparently, is entirely unwilling to let Castiel finish his explanation. "You want Dean the way he is," he interrupts, his voice cautious and pitying, "but he doesn't want you, because you're -- me." Rational, still, as if he is working a case, and the worst of it is that he is missing the point so unerringly. "Oh, Cas, I'm sorry."

Castiel shrugs a little, the edges of his consciousness gone slack, ebbing against Sam's. Perhaps he ought not to explain. Perhaps it could only hurt Dean, if he knew Sam understood.

Sam, though, will not be deterred. His voice picks up again, boyishly hopeful. "But even still, at least you know, right? You can wait? It sucks, but -- "

Evidently, then, Castiel cannot simply let the matter lie as he so desperately would like to. "Sam," he breaks in, resigned, "you misunderstand." He doesn't want to put it in its true blunt terms, but Sam has forced him to it. "It is -- embarrassing -- not solely because you are my vessel, although, yes, that is the reason we cannot be...intimate. It is embarrassing also because, I think, Dean only registers this obstacle cerebrally."

Although he cannot see Sam when they talk like this, Castiel can almost feel his eyes narrowing, the way his brows draw together. "What do you mean?" Sam asks, slowly.

Castiel gives a mental shrug. "I believe that, when Dean and I talk, he forgets that I am not my vessel. He knows I'm in you, the same way he knew I was in Jimmy Novak, but now, just like before, all he sees when he looks at me is Castiel." The words emerge stiltedly, everything about the situation jarring and deeply awkward. "What I mean, Sam, is that your brother is embarrassed because his feelings towards me are not affected by the vessel I inhabit."

The pause that follows this remark is long and tense. Castiel can almost feel a headache developing, increment by increment. Eventually Sam says, tentatively, "So..." and Castiel realises that, much as he doesn't want to explain, he wants even less to hear Sam put the situation into his own words; cannot hope to withstand the shame of it.

"He almost kissed me when we spoke," he cuts in, quick and clean, like a stabbing. "He remembered himself before he did it, but I think it was difficult for him, Sam, and now he is..." He wavers. "He is ashamed, I think. He thinks he should feel that this is impossible, instead of simply knowing that it is while his feelings tell him otherwise."

This is the point, Castiel thinks, at which Sam should pull up short in horror, but the sense of him does not seem as perturbed as it should, his tone still even and thoughtful when he speaks. "Yeah," Sam puts in, pensively, after a moment. "I - I don't know if he's ashamed, exactly. He sounded more pissed off and frustrated when we talked about it."

Castiel blinks, startled. "You talked about it?"

Sam laughs, low and sly. "Uh...well, Dean doesn't know I know what we were talking about, I don't think, but yeah."

Castiel takes a moment to attempt to parse this information, and then decides it isn't worth the excess effort it would require. "You can be very strange, Sam."

Sam smiles. "Well." The tendril of light is back, stroking, gentling. "Come on, Cas. You can't go on avoiding him forever, just because you finally tripped over the big gay elephant in the room."

Castiel sighs. "I don't know what else to do," he points out, but Sam seems unmoved by this argument.

"You get on with it," he insists, and it is as if he has neglected to absorb anything Castiel has said, about the way Dean reacts to Castiel's proximity; about the difficulties both of them are having with the question of the impossible vessel. "What else are you planning to do?"

And Castiel, much as he would like to answer that question, cannot find an appropriate way to do so.

"I suppose," he says, grudgingly, after he has tried and failed to summon an alternative, "I shall simply have to submit to your better judgment."

He means to employ sarcasm as he has seen the Winchesters do, but when Sam responds sincerely, he cannot be sure whether he has failed to convey this, or whether Sam is simply choosing to ignore his intentions out of stubbornness. "Good," he says, lightly. "Good choice, Cas."

Castiel likes Sam very much, but before he lived in his body, he never really registered what Dean meant when he complained that his brother liked to interfere. Now, he thinks, he understands. Sam, when in this mood, is clearly an unstoppable force. All Cas can do is attempt to temper him. "Sam," he puts in, pleading, "don't do anything rash, please."

Sam responds with what is presumably intended to be a reassuring pet, but Castiel cannot say that it has the intended effect.

**

They're on their way to breakfast when Dean first starts to sense that something weird is going on, which, given that it's, like, 8.30, frankly doesn't bode too well for the rest of the day. It's nothing massive, nothing he can quite put his finger on -- hell, it isn't even that Sam is in a bad mood, as far as Dean can determine. On the contrary, Sam has a long arm thrown across the back of the seat, fingers tapping in rhythm with the music, even though it's Best of Queen for some godforsaken reason and Sam hates Queen at the best of times. His fingers brush against the nape of Dean's neck as he drums them, and when Dean shoots him a look, he smiles back wide and unconcerned, as if he's just happy or some shit.

It's definitely not normal.

They're heading for a Waffle House out on the freeway a little way out of town, which entails twenty minutes of driving before they get there. By the time Dean turns the car into the parking lot, he's genuinely starting to suspect a curse. Sam seems to have given up on his drumming, but instead of taking his hand back like a normal human being, he's left it there instead, thumb against Dean's nape, fingers curving over his shoulder. Between other brothers, maybe that would have been unremarkable, but he and Sam have never been what you might call touchy-feely. Dean can't remember the last time Sam draped his gargantuan self all over him without at least a few shots in his belly, and the fact that Sam's now singing - freakin' singing under his breath is combining with the touching to rack up Dean's suspicions.

"Dude," he says finally, as he switches off the engine, "the fuck is the matter with you today?"

Sam, the bastard, just raises his eyebrows and puts on a face that suggests he thinks he's being wronged. "Huh?" He has to stop singing to speak, which is a plus, but he doesn't move his fingers. Dean wrinkles his nose and gestures vaguely with both hands.

"All the - the touching, Jesus." He leans forward in the chair, shaking off Sam's hand. "What's with that, octopus?"

Sam shrugs, withdraws his hand in a leisurely fashion and shoves open the car door. "Dude, I was just stretching. Paranoid much?" His tone is light, but there's something in his face when Dean scowls back at him that isn't telling everything, some half-amused glint in his eyes. Maybe Cas told him, and now Dean's being made fun of. Which, awesome. It's not as if Dean gets anything at all out of being pawed all over by Sam. Gross.

"Yeah," he says, low and dubious. "Well, I have reason."

Sam only laughs as they cross the parking lot, which doesn't exactly fill Dean with reassurance and rainbows.

Sam may deny everything, but by mid-afternoon, Dean is absolutely convinced that he's doing it on purpose -- if only he could figure out what it was. Dean's been patted on the shoulders, back and (what the fuck) once on the ass; has been rudely lounged against for a fifty-mile stretch of road when Sam decided he needed a nap; has been guided carefully out of the way of oncoming pedestrians by Sam's massive hand unauthorised on his waist, and has been mistaken for Sam's boyfriend by not one, but two waitresses. It is not a good day. The only thing that could have made it worse would have been if Cas had been hanging around, passing comment. If Sam's going to be like this, then Dean's glad Cas is still holed up somewhere having a big gay crisis, or whatever the hell he's doing. If Dean's gonna have Sam's imminent mental breakdown to contend with then at least he could do without being distracted.

They get pizza for dinner, and, okay, Dean is marginally perturbed when Cas doesn't even emerge to partake, but, again: crisis. Dean doesn't want to push. Afterwards, there's nothing desperately in need of research attention and one of the free channels is showing the original Star Wars, so Dean settles back against the pillows and prepares to kick back and absorb it for the millionth time.

He's not exactly surprised when Sam climbs up onto the bed beside him - and how pathetic is that - but that doesn't mean he isn't a little pissed about it, especially when Sam proceeds to shove on up against his side instead of leaving a respectable two feet or so of space between them. "Sam," Dean says, in a weary, long-suffering voice, "I know you were never hugged as a child, okay? I know that. I'm sorry. You're probably mentally scarred. But could you just - " And he gestures, little shooing motions.

Sam, though, is apparently on a mission to be as deliberately dense today as he can possibly manage. "Chill," he says, calmly, for the fourteenth time today. "Can see better from here." He grins at Dean as if impervious to his disgruntled expression and throws an arm around Dean's shoulders, leaning against him in what is, okay, this is a snuggle.

"Sam," Dean says, tightly and through his teeth, "I don't know what the fuck is wrong with you today, but personal fucking space, dude. " He shifts his shoulders uncomfortably. "It's like you've spent too long with Cas or something."

Probably, he should have seen it coming, especially after having staggered through this day prickling in anticipation of some falling anvil. Somehow, though, it is still a shock when Sam's body goes abruptly rigid, muscles seizing, and then slackens again into a panting, clinging mess. Somehow, the first thing Dean does when this happens is still to take Sam's face in his hands as his heart leaps into his mouth, expecting something horrific, hellfire or Lucifer. "Sammy?" he demands, all irritation forgotten, "Sam!"

The moment Sam's eyes find his, though, rueful and a little embarrassed, Dean knows he's been played, even before Cas says, "Hello, Dean."

Dean's known for a while that the distinctions between them are obvious if you know what to look for, but he's never felt himself physically adjusting the way he does now, gears in his body grinding automatically from the 'Sam' to the 'Cas' position with no input from Dean at all. It's weird and it's scary, not least in the way his irritable urge to shove Sam off transmutes into a desire to pull Cas closer, to wallow a little in having him back. Cas has been here the whole time, of course -- maybe talking to Sam all day, when Dean wasn't paying attention -- but Dean hasn't seen him since The Conversation, and he's missed him.

"Cas," he says, slow and wide-eyed. "What the -?"

"I was...pushed," Cas offers in explanation, and his smile is guilty, but it refuses to go away, as if Cas can't repress his pleasure at seeing Dean, either, despite the circumstances. "Sam --"

"Plugged in the jump leads, huh?" Dean shakes his head. "God, I knew that kid was up to something. He's been acting like a freak all day." He snorts. "More than usual, I mean."

"I believe," Cas says -- and God, but it's good to hear his voice -- "I believe the intention was to put me in such close proximity to you that I'd be unable to stay away from you any longer." His mouth twists wryly. "I don't think Sam really understands what we're up against."

"You told him, though, right?" Dean puts in, because by this point, it's pretty clear that Sam's been working with more facts than Dean thought, and the pedant in him wants to know how come.

"He guessed," Cas says, shrugging, "so I explained." He smiles a little at Dean, his eyes soft and fond. "For what it's worth, I'm fairly sure I could put the 'jump leads' on Sam quite easily myself. If it would help. He is -- interfering."

There's a strand of Sam's stupid long hair fallen into Cas's eyes, and Dean reaches up without thinking to push it back, curling his fingers around the shell of Cas's ear, lingering. It's only when Cas jerks back a fraction that he realises what he's doing, and by that point he's feeling pretty vindictive. His stomach pulls a little uncomfortably at the implications of this, sure; of Cas's stare from Sam's face drawing his hands like this, making his fingers itch to smooth his fucking brother's hair. But it isn't Sam he wants to touch, even if it is Sam he's physically touching. This is Cas, manhandled into Dean's personal space against his will, and Dean can't be expected to take responsibility for that. Sam wants to interfere, he can damn well live with the consequences. It's not like any of this is that inappropriate, anyway, he reasons, by the standards of normal brothers who hug outside of resurrections.

"Nah," Dean says, decisively. Pointedly, deliberately, he doesn't withdraw his hand; threads his fingers instead into Cas's (Cas's, Cas's) hair, smoothing it back. "Tell you what, Cas -- you can haul him out of hiding, but can you put him to sleep?"

Cas's face changes at that, eyes widening with uncertainty and, under it, hope. "I could," he says, slowly, the word going up at the end like a question.

"So," Dean says, equally slowly, "I'm guessing you haven't seen Star Wars, huh?"

That gets him a laugh, startled out of Cas like a bullet, and Dean's chest warms with pride. "I...no," Cas admits. They are very close together, Cas's body warm and carefully held, and Dean doesn't want to let him go.

"Well then," he says, "put Sam to sleep and watch the movie with me, yeah?" He feels stupid in a way he hasn't since he was fourteen and awkward, asking Suzy Truman on a date, but he feels good, too, suddenly elated and reckless. "Hell," he finishes, "he deserves it." Sam loves Star Wars. It's maybe the only piece of genuine good taste he's ever demonstrated in his life.

There's a little pause, but Dean knows that Cas is already convinced. When he closes his eyes to work his mojo, he's still smiling, and when he opens them again, Dean feels his stomach dip hotly, as if all his baser impulses now think it's safe to come out. They're mistaken, obviously, but that doesn't mean he can't have his little squeaky-clean 1950s date with Cas just like this, with an arm around his shoulders and two layers of cloth between them at all times. It's still Cas, the familiar way his chest moves with his breaths, his warm presence against Dean's side. Bigger than Dean now, rather than smaller, but that doesn't matter. Dean has to think hard to even remember that Cas ever felt different to this -- if he ever really did.

"There," Cas says, belatedly, and it's redundant, but Dean smiles at him anyway, leans their foreheads momentarily together.

"Hey, you," he says, because apparently he's feeling vomitrociously sentimental right now.

"Hey," Cas says, the word sounding awkward in his mouth, and Dean wants to squish him till he cracks, till there's nothing left between them. Sam might disapprove of that, though, so since Dean doesn't actually want to kill his brother, outright or otherwise, he pulls back, settles for pulling Cas over so his head is on Dean's shoulder. Cas settles into it easily, palm loose on Dean's sternum, and Dean has to struggle not to kiss his temple before he turns back to the screen.

"Okay," he says, trying for normality, "so that's Leia, right? And she --"

He thinks Cas enjoys the movie, for the most part, even if he falls asleep before the end. Dean certainly enjoys it more than on any previous occasion, and he can't help thinking that Cas is the reason. Things are better with Cas, even like this, even when they can neither of them do exactly what they want to and it all feels bizarrely Pleasantville. They can still have this, which is more than they had before, and it's good, even if it isn't everything. Dean can live with that, he thinks, trailing the backs of his fingers down Cas's neck, feeling him breathe. After all, he will have to.

**

Dean wakes to a warm weight on his chest for the first time in a very long while. He's gotten out of the habit of sharing a bed; doesn't miss it, generally, preferring the freedom to stretch out across the mattress and sleep, like, diagonally if he wants to. Bed-sharing always kind of held connotations of bad times, times when the money was short and a room with three beds was more expensive than a room with two. That left Dean to curl up around his brother in a creaky motel bed, which wasn't so bad when Sam was little and round (although he kicked), but became unbearable by the time Sam was all growing pains and St Vitus' Dance. Dean can only assume there was some medical reasoning behind his inability to stay the fuck still, anyway. Sometimes, though, with Lisa, it was nice, even Dean can admit that. Especially when he first showed up and all the wounds were raw, there was something comforting about waking up with someone who gave a damn, even if she couldn't hope to understand the extent of how he felt. When things started to improve, the warm body in the bed meant stability without so much baggage attached, someone to hold just because he could. And, yeah, Dean can live without it, has no problem living without it, in fact, but sometimes he maybe thinks it would be nice. Humans need contact, and Dean doesn't exactly get much of it.

When he wakes up with someone's head nestled under his chin, arm flung heavily across his chest, this is Dean's first thought: that this is kind of nice. He'd learned with Lisa that there was more to falling asleep with someone than waking up at four a.m. with your kid brother's knee in your junk and his elbow in your throat, or (more recently, not that they talk about it) Sam crying about his dead fiancee and Dean's ass hanging off the bed so they fit. This, though, is like a reaffirmation all over again, a full-body reminder of the way it can feel to be bracketed like this, warm sleepy skin and breath matched to another person's. It's a world away from bunking up with Sam out of necessity, and Dean reaches up unthinkingly to squeeze the hand on his sternum, mouth quirking up at the corners.

The weight moves at the contact, rearranging itself. "Mmmng," it says, the voice familiar and loose with sleep. Dean's half-awake mind approves the voice, tags it safe. There's sunshine streaming in through the window, making a bar of heat across Dean's throat, but Dean doesn't want to move yet. Maybe if they lay here long enough, Dad'll make pancakes. Dad makes great pancakes when he's in a good enough mood to actually put them together. No hunt today. Maybe Dean has homework? Never mind. He and Ben can do their homework together after swimming.

His companion shifts, and it brings Dean's nose into sudden contact with an annoying amount of hair. This doesn't exactly aid Dean in his attempts to drift back into unconsciousness, the sensation too real and raw to jive well with the languid tumble of half-asleep assumptions in his mind, and eventually Dean has to move, jerking his head away in protest. "Tickles," he grunts, giving the weight a nudge.

"Dean," the weight protests in disgruntled response, "quit it. Tryin' to sleep."

It's a fair indication of just how close to sleep Dean still is that his first response is simply to mutter: "Not my fault you got so much freakin' hair, Sam, Jesus," and reach up to smooth the offending ticklish strands away from his face. It's an indication of how equally unconscious Sam, freaking Sam is that he actually allows this for a few seconds before it occurs to him to jolt suddenly away, back stiffening as he scrambles into a sitting position. "Dean, what the hell!"

The look on Sam's face, eyes wide and confused, is probably, Dean thinks, a pretty accurate reflection of what he must look like right now, mouth twisting and hands raised defensively in front of his chest as he scrambles away from his brother on the bed. "Jesus Christ, Sam, you scared the shit out of me," he protests, belligerent in his embarrassment.

Sam, though, is obviously not so much embarrassed as just utterly disoriented. "I scared you?" He glances around himself, wide-eyed, frantically taking stock. "What the fuck! I step back for a minute and I lose like, twelve hours?"

Which, okay, no, Dean is not letting Sam get away with that 'little old me' routine of purported innocence. No way. "Dude," he says on a huffing breath, "Did you just say stepping back? You basically threw Cas at me, Sam, what did you expect?"

Sam's mouth drops open at that in a way that tells Dean he's said the wrong thing, even before Sam looks down at himself in the time-honoured 'what the shit did I do last night' clothing assessment. Dean claps a hand across his eyes as if it might do anything at all to quash the crippling wave of embarrassment currently taking him over. "Nothing like that, you pervert!"

"What, then?" Sam demands. There's something wild in his eyes that is, Dean thinks after a minute, more agitated than the situation might have prompted for Sam if it was only a case of accidental bed-sharing, and Dean kicks himself mentally when it dawns on him. Sam doesn't care that he woke up snuggling his freaking brother, because Sam has no sense of masculine pride and probably thinks they should cuddle more regularly anyway or some shit. Sam cares, rather, that he woke up in a place he didn't expect to be, with no memory of how he got there, and, given recent events, Dean can understand how this might have seriously freaked him the hell out. He sighs; makes himself calm down enough to explain.

"Cas put you to sleep," he explains, voice dropping back to its ordinary timbre. "He didn't tell you?" An unfair question, really, since Dean never suggested that Cas should, but the look of confusion on Sam's face is suddenly making Dean feel guilty as hell.

Sam shakes his head pensively. He doesn't look panicked any more, but he's doing the goddamn puppy-face of confusion, and Dean can't help but react to that, reaching back out across the bed to grip Sam's forearm. Sam chews his lip. "I didn't mean anything by it," he says, small. "I just wanted you guys to have some time. If it upset Cas, I'm sorry."

And that just makes Dean feel even guiltier, remembering what a stupid amount of enjoyment he got out of something as simple as a movie with Cas last night, and also (cringe) how vindictively pleased he was that Sam didn't get to watch too. He sighs. "Aw, Sammy. Nothing like that, man. You didn't upset us. We just - " He breaks off, feeling his face flushing. "You were right, okay? We needed some time. I asked Cas if he could put you to sleep so we could have some, you know." He waves a hand. "Privacy, whatever." He sighs. "I'm sorry I didn't ask him to tell you what he was doing before he did it, or, ask you, even." Sam's stupid Terminator forearm is tense under Dean's hand, and he squeezes it a little, apologetic. "That was dumb. I should have known better."

Dean still feels like an ass, but when next Sam speaks, his face has gone all soft and understanding, his voice gentle. "That's okay, man. Be good if he could tell me next time, but it's okay. I'm glad you guys had your time." He smiles a little. "'s what I wanted, right?"

Dean nods automatically, but his mind is still kind of caught up in the middle of Sam's remark. "Wait, next time?"

" - well," Sam says, looking bemused, "yeah, dude." And then he smirks, classic expression of Sam-mockery, and Dean realises, with a sudden sinking feeling, that he isn't actually gonna get away with this that easy. "Next time you guys want to have a date and snuggle or whatever," Sam goes on, and confirms it. Dean feels himself flush.

"It was not a date," he mutters. Sam, because he is the most annoying kid brother in the entire world, only flashes his teeth and shrugs.

"Whatever, dude. I just want you to know that I support you and your choices. Y'all want to watch movies together and snuggle without me in the way, you just ask, okay?"

Dean rolls his eyes elaborately, trying his damnedest to keep up the air of cool and self-containment that might be appropriate to a guy not currently flushing a vibrant shade of beet. "Oh, if only you weren't in the way, little brother," he shoots back, pointed as he dares, like maybe it'll make Sam back the hell off.

Sam, though, only rolls his shoulders and shrugs. "Don't worry, Dean. This way, by the time Cas gets himself another vessel, you'll have been on enough dates to maybe even make out."

"You're dead," Dean says, deadpan. Turns out the classics don't get old even after they've been literally true on an unnerving number of occasions.

"Dean has a crush," Sam says, because apparently no amount of time and experience can fully knock the annoying ten-year-old out of his gargantuan ass. Dean flips him off and clambers off the bed, shoulders popping as he rolls them.

"Fuck you. I'm gonna take a shower. You can just stay the fuck in here."

Even after the door is slammed and bolted, he can still hear Sam laughing.

**

It isn't that Sam is actually inclined to mock Dean for recent developments, not at all. The thing is, though, that he and Dean are brothers, and that comes with certain expectations. When things are okay, their responses and reactions to each other take certain accepted forms. Any deviation from these forms indicates a potential Situation brewing, and the last thing Sam wants is for Dean to feel that the Cas thing is a Situation. Consequently, Sam mocks and smirks and teases, Dean flips him off and tells him he'll whup his ass if he doesn't knock it off, and hopefully - hopefully - Dean will feel that current developments fit well enough into the framework of Normal and Okay. Hopefully. This is the plan, anyway.

It isn't like Sam doesn't get how much of a Situation they actually have on their hands, here. Before, when Cas had been compact and blue-eyed and in a skin that didn't share Dean's DNA, Sam would have dismissed any concerns of Dean's that his feelings for Cas were anything other than normal and good and laudable, and he would have meant it. Now, though -- well. Sam would be lying if he claimed not to realise where the potential pitfalls lie in this equation. They start with the part where he and Cas look set to be roomies for kind of a long time, here, and end with the bit where Dean apparently can't see his brother when he's looking at Cas in his body, wants to touch skin that would be Sam's again in an hour, a minute, and hates himself for it. Sam, frankly, couldn't give a shit if Dean and Cas wanted to get into it with the making out if Cas put Sam (firmly) to sleep first and then never told him about it afterwards (ever. Ever). But, given that Dean would almost certainly be ready to throw himself off a cliff with guilt and self-hatred if he capitulated to his Cas-directed urges and enacted them on his kid brother's body, this is obviously not an option. The only option there is, then, as far as Sam can tell, to give them the space they need, encourage them to take what they can get, and act as normally as possible so Dean can at least almost believe Cas might get a new vessel sometime soon, and put them both out of their misery. Hence the teasing.

Cas, though...Sam isn't so sure what to do with regards to Cas. It's not that he's still an enigma, precisely, but more the fact that Cas can sort of see right into Sam's head from where he's generally standing, which makes it very difficult to put on any kind of front at all. Right now, it doesn't feel as if Cas needs special treatment, the sense of him emanating a soft glow of contentment when Sam closes his eyes and hunts him down. Sam only hopes this state of affairs will continue.

"Cas?" he ventures, calling the name softly in their head. "Hey. I can feel you, you know."

Cas laughs a little, presence skipping light along its edges, and nudges back against Sam. "I know," he assures, and he sounds warm and pleased. "Good morning, Sam. I'm sorry I knocked you out last night without asking your consent. It was rude of me."

Sam gives a mental shrug, finds himself smiling too. It's difficult, sometimes, not to get all tangled up in the emotions emanating out of the other presence in his head, especially when they are strong, and now, Cas's contentment is very strong indeed. "That's okay. Sounds like you had good reason."

"Dean and I watched Star Wars," Cas says brightly. It's possibly one of the most incongruous remarks Sam has ever heard him make, and he can't help but laugh at it, surprised.

"Oh, yeah? Did you like it?"

Cas nods, vigorous, unmistakable waves of affirmative light, and Sam grins. "Fit right in, don't you? I love that movie. Dean too."

"He said," Cas says, sounding dreamy and detached. It is a very un-Cas-like tone, but Sam finds that he likes it. "I must thank you, Sam. I had thought that things were irrevocably ruined after Dean and I had our conversation and the aftermath was so...tense." He shakes himself bemusedly. "Human behaviour can be extremely irrational."

"Could say that," Sam agrees. "Hey, why didn't you stick around and wake up with him, though? Speaking of irrational. I think he was kinda skeeved when he got me."

Cas laughs. "I was asleep," he says, simply. "You are a very strange vessel, Sam. Or possibly it's the way we share our space that makes it strange, but I find that I need to sleep, from time to time. Even if you have already rested. I had meant to resurface before you." A pause, then, a little flicker of warm light, half-embarrassed. "I imagine it is nice, to wake up with Dean. He is certainly...comfortable to sleep on."

Sam can't bite back a snort of laughter at that, although Cas's tone is a little wistful. "Yeah, he -- well. Don't tell him I said this, or I will kill you -- " Sam pauses for effect " -- but I always kinda liked when we had to share. It annoyed the shit out of Dean, 'caused I used to kick like crazy, but he was always all warm and comfy. Always felt -- " he gesticulates, groping for words -- "I dunno, safe. Plus he clings like a freaking octopus. He'll wake up with every limb he has wrapped around you and then he'll blame you for it because he's embarrassed that he's such a huge girl when he's asleep, but yeah." He throws Cas a grin. "Guess you'd appreciate that more'n I ever did."

"I guess," Cas says, and his tone is still warm, but the air has gone out of a little, the edges of it turned a little rueful. "I guess I would."

"Hey," Sam breaks in; gives him a little mental shake. "None of that, okay? I've told Dean, and I'm telling you: if you guys want time to yourselves, all you gotta do is ask. You tell me and I'm perfectly happy to be put to sleep for the duration. So you can give him all the attention he never got enough of, yeah?" Sam laughs a little, shakes his head. "I'd say give him a hug from me, too, but it seems kinda crass under the circumstances."

Cas, though, doesn't seem to think so, the sense of him pleased and touched when it ebbs back against Sam. "We are not the same person, Sam," he says, soft. "I know that. You know that. Dean knows that, and also that my -- hugs -- are from me. So I am sure I can pass one on from you and have it be different."

Mine's the one without the ass-grope, Sam thinks -- happily, far enough away from Cas's presence in his mind that Cas doesn't seem to hear. Sam doubts it would be a helpful comment to make. "Okay," is all Sam says, simply. "Thanks, Cas."

"Thank you Sam," Cas says, and the remarkable thing about having Cas in his head is that Sam literally feels his gratitude, like a wash of warm water down his spine, kneading out all the knots.

**

Sam, Castiel thinks, is a wonderful human being. Castiel had come a long way from the days of thinking of him as an abomination, but all the same, he never quite understood Dean's excessive devotion to Sam until he experienced his generosity first hand. Now, he appreciates it, and it is because of this appreciation that he composes his mental list of grand promises in the wake of recent developments. Sam is a good man, an endlessly loving person, and this means that the least Castiel can do in reciprocation is to be careful of his sensibilities. Castiel owes it to Sam to try and keep things from deviating too far from what they were Before, and he determines to concentrate all his efforts towards this goal, whatever Sam might argue.

He executes his grand plan very successfully for perhaps seven hours, at the end of which time Dean announces his intention to shower and Castiel, blushing furiously at the thought in his place at the back of Sam's mind, recognises the excess of flaws in his scheme. A week ago, his natural inclination would have been to wander into the bathroom as Sam's passenger and study Dean's nakedness through the curtain with a fixation Dean could never detect, however hard he tried. Now, the mere thought makes his stomach twist in knots, even though the stomach is in Sam's possession and Castiel is an interloper in it. He dreads to think what might happen if he were to be presented with Dean in a state of nudity at this moment. Probably, Sam would find himself in possession of a terribly awkward erection, and Castiel would be too ashamed to speak to him for days. Clearly, the plan to Change Nothing will have to be amended slightly.

Hunting, at least, doesn't change. In the week following the Star Wars incident, they hunt down a poltergeist attached to a teenage boy in Iowa, which eludes their efforts to exorcise it for close to four days, and then drive cross-country to a Kentucky town apparently plagued by werewolves. The werewolves, as it turns out, are some form of mutated Jefferson Starship gang and do not respond to any of the Winchesters' tried and tested methods, so Cas dutifully emerges and blasts the pack to smithereens with his Grace. Afterwards, Dean turns to him with a face split on a grin, and Castiel moves towards him unthinkingly, lets Dean pull him into a victory hug. It's -- all right, so it isn't exactly the way things were before, but it isn't weird. Castiel doesn't think he's doing too badly, all things considered, given that Sam's response to the impromptu squeeze
is nothing but warmth, even though Castiel hadn't the time to put him to sleep beforehand. When they're hunting, they're a well-oiled machine in which Castiel is a valuable component part, and that is in no way threatened by recent changes.

It's what happens after the hunts are done, after the boys are showered and the grave dirt has washed away down the drain, that is different. Castiel tries not to let it be, despite Sam's protestations that he ought to just do whatever the hell he wants, but sometimes it is impossible to exercise restraint. Sometimes, when Sam has relinquished control partway through the shower because he knows Castiel enjoys the sensation of hot water pounding on his spine, he cannot help the slow drift of his hand towards his cock at the thought of Dean, mud-smeared and grinning in triumph. He cannot help the way his thoughts turn as his head tips back into the spray, water streaming down the column of his throat, over his sternum, jetting down between his legs in little rivulets. He resists, of course, because he has told himself that he will, but sometimes it is difficult enough that only a sudden sluice of cold water will suffice to kill his erection, and afterwards, looking at Dean in his shorts on the bed, he feels like a starving man gazing helplessly on a forbidden steak.

He can never be sure whether Dean is oblivious, or simply pretending to be. The sceptical part of his mind tells him that Dean must surely know the way Castiel thinks about him; must understand that Castiel cannot help but track his eyes up the naked lines of Dean's legs, over the bulge of his cock under his shorts, his flat stomach, his nipples, peaking in the chill. Then the rest of his mind counters, arguing that Dean has always done this; that Dean is unused to looking at his brother's tall shape in the doorway and wondering whether he ought to cover himself up. What he sees is Sam, after all, and Sam is barely even a separate person, has never really felt like one to Dean.

When they are properly together, though, Castiel knows for sure that this line of argument is entirely fallacious. When they are properly together -- when Sam has smirked at Castiel and put himself pointedly to sleep -- Castiel cannot fail to recognise that Dean sees no element of Sam in Castiel, that Dean sees nothing of his brother when he pulls Castiel into his arms. They have no special arrangements, no timetables or rules, but sometimes Dean will smile at Castiel in a particular way and Castiel will see it, will react to it viscerally enough to jolt forward even if Sam is driving. Dean will smile at him, and Castiel will be incapable of resisting it. This is the nature of Dean, and always has been. The difference is that, now, Castiel is no longer in doubt. Dean loves him, and Castiel could almost burst from the truth of it.

The first rule of this existence is no kissing. This would never have come up, Castiel is sure, if it hadn't been for the near-misses, but near-misses there are, and so rules they have to make. Usually, when he and Dean spend evenings together, they watch movies, which Castiel has determined is fairly traditional. Equally traditional is the way they scoot across the mattress, surreptitiously, towards each other as the movie progresses, both with their eyes still fixed on the screen. Castiel intends to keep his attention on the screen, despite the warmth of Dean all down his spine, but sometimes it is impossible, with Dean so close, his breath against Castiel's cheek. The first time things derailed, it is only, Castiel is sure, because the movie gets dull in the middle, but all the same he finds himself with Dean's warm palm on his cheek, Dean's breath on his mouth. Dean leaning in, slow, until their foreheads are pressed together; Dean's hand around the back of Castiel's neck. Dean's eyes are closed, but Castiel keeps his wide open, steady through the panic, studying Dean's face. It is impossible, from this distance, not to catalogue every tiny detail -- their breathing warm on each other's mouths, short and increasingly ragged, and the way Dean's lips have parted half-consciously, wet shine just inside. Dean's fingers shifting reflexively where the hair curls at Castiel's nape; Cas not daring to move except to turn his head, barely perceptibly, gauging how close he can get before their noses touch. Wondering, somewhere treacherous at the back of his mind, if Dean would protest if he leaned in far enough to brush their mouths together, just a graze of skin. Even the thought of it has Castiel's mouth tingling in anticipation, breathlessly, stupidly hoping. Castiel exhales abortively, damp and warm on Dean's mouth, and Dean hitches a tight little sound in the back of his throat, as if the flash of air has caught along the edge of every nerve he has. Dean, Castiel knows, is as aware as he is himself of how impossible this is; knows as well as Castiel does that they can move no closer, but he strains all the same towards the withheld touch, and Castiel's stomach twists at the sight of it.

"Dean," he murmurs, and his lips graze Dean's cheek as he speaks, brush against the smooth skin of his face. "Dean, we can't." His eyes are steady and wide on Dean's face, but Dean's are still closed, still shuttered against the truth of it, as if he could change it by the power of wishing alone.

"Yeah," he says, thumb skimming Castiel's jawline, the underside of his lip. "Yeah, I know." But he doesn't move back; only slides the tips of his fingers into Castiel's hair, not looking, not looking. "Cas..."

It is up to Castiel, then, to jerk his face away with an effort; to press it into the hollow of Dean's smooth throat. "I promised Sam," he says, although he has promised nothing of the sort, knowing that Dean will respond to the thought. "We can't -- Dean, I want --"

"No," Dean agrees, as his fingers smooth the dip of Castiel's nape, the warm skin at his hairline. His hips are caught just slightly away from Castiel's, but Castiel can gauge all the same that he is hard, his cock a thick line in his jeans when Castiel dares a glance. "No kissing," Dean says, firmly, and it becomes their solid rule. No kissing, because Castiel has no desire to deal with Dean's guilt in the aftermath of that, his brother's warm tongue licking wetly into his mouth, whether Castiel is in control or not. It is impossible, and that must be an end to it. It must.

Dean, though, has not been improvising strategy for two decades of his life to no avail.. Dean has never met a rule he couldn't find a loophole in, and this one is no exception.

When Castiel is behind Dean, they determine, out of his line of sight, things are easier. Dean is less likely to snap into the state of tension that breaks over him when their noses brush and he makes himself remember. Face to face, Castiel's vessel is a hindrance, a guilty truth that leaves Dean all the guiltier for taking so long, on many occasions, to recognise it. When they are back to front, it is different. Castiel approaches Dean in a roadside gas station after a hunt, slides long arms around his waist, and Dean is nothing but lax contentedness as he leans back into it, Castiel easily supporting his weight. Later, in a convenience store in Portland, Dean backs up nonchalantly into Castiel without comment, as if on accident, but the way he holds his spine makes his intention clear, and Castiel is happy to oblige and pull him close. This way, there is the comfort without the potential awkwardness, and Dean, ever shrewd, catches onto it quickly.

Soon enough, it becomes a regular occurrence. Particularly when Dean is bodily exhausted, he will hold himself a certain way, nudge back against Castiel as if he can no longer support his own body, and Castiel will embrace him unthinkingly, makes a cradle of his arms. At such times, Castiel is glad of his larger vessel, the ease with which he can envelop Dean in it, and Dean, too, seems content; closes his eyes as he covers Castiel's hands with his own. There is nothing crude in these embraces, nothing dirty or illicit, and often he will leave Sam exactly where he is, let him be warmed too. If Dean should linger longer than usual, though, Castiel will quietly close Sam's consciousness down, press his mouth softly to the bolt of Dean's jaw. Sometimes, Dean's craving for comfort is bone-deep, visceral, and what he craves is Castiel. Perhaps it is wrong, but Castiel guards that privilege jealously, not wanting even Sam to share it and knowing that Sam will understand.

Castiel is unsure when the back-to-front embrace bled from a post-hunt comfort into an evening indulgence. For weeks, they watched their movies side by side on Dean's bed, hands interlacing tentatively over the course of hours. It was nice, to be so close to Dean, the object of his undivided attention despite the coloured images flickering on the TV screen. Sam would absent himself politely, and Castiel would let himself surrender to the tightness clutching at his chest as he and Dean shifted closer, the heady grip of anticipation wrapping itself around his throat. It was dizzying, to see Dean inching closer; left him short of breath and delusional, cataloguing how little it would take to lean in and press his mouth to Dean's, seeing it so vividly he could taste it in on his tongue. It went on for hours, the slow, choking build of tension, and even if it had to break whenever one of them shifted too close, Castiel couldn't imagine anything better -- couldn't compute, now, the idea of relinquishing this.

Then, somewhere among the blushing near-misses, Dean made an adjustment, and Castiel couldn't understand how it had never occurred to them before. In the daytime, it's easier to forget when Dean can see only space, and equally, this is easier when Dean is snugged up against Castiel's front, tucked into the space between his wide-splayed thighs. Dean fits so neatly against him, head tipped back onto his shoulder, the curve of his spine fitted snugly against Castiel's ribcage. The nape of his neck is soft and pale, and Castiel's heart leaps as he sets his lips against it, closed-mouthed and careful, but permissible. This, after all, is not a kiss, not the tangle of tongues they both of them want; not the deep slip-slide of mouths wet with wishing, hands insinuating themselves beneath clothing. This is only Castiel's face in Dean's hair, breathing in the scent of motel shampoo, and, under it, the gunmetal-leather smell of Dean that never dissipates entirely. He smelled like that, Castiel thinks, when he put him back together, made a body out of dust and found that spice-metal tang in its hollows. It is the Dean-smell, and Castiel wants to breathe it in right from the source, lick it from Dean's pores.

Ostensibly, of course, he cannot. Ostensibly, this position is nothing more than an even greater tease, Dean snugged against him all warm strength and clean sweat, close and constant. But there are things unspoken between them, the sense that every rule can be bent, and if Dean's breath catches when Castiel nuzzles at the underside of his jaw -- well, that's nothing that can't be argued away. These motel rooms get chilly, after all, even in midsummer sometimes when the A/C's all wrong, and that could be all that's behind Dean's shivers, the tension in his shoulders. Castiel does not want to pull back, and Dean quite evidently does not want him to. It is only logical to reason things through and conclude that there is no transgression here.

This is no unusual evening, Dean watching something about cowboys while Castiel watches Dean, but they have been hunting, quick and dirty salt-and-burn, and Dean still smells like gunpowder under the soap. Castiel doesn't mean to, but he can't help his fascination. The scent is compelling, and he becomes quickly drunk on it, so strong and near it's almost a taste, proximity muddling his olfactory system. He is only breathing, mouth half-open at the jut of Dean's jawbone, and there is certainly no rule prohibiting that. He is only breathing, and the heavy pressure of his cock swollen under denim could easily be his cellphone in the pocket of his jeans, the TV remote. Dean shows no signs of surprise or disgust, anyway, when he feels it, as he must. On the contrary, he only shrinks back further into Castiel's warmth, crossing his arms over Castiel's on his chest, squeezing his hands. "Cas," he murmurs, and the word alone means nothing, but the languid tilt of Dean's head to the side is altogether more suggestive, skin glimmering faintly in the light from overhead. Lust hits Castiel hollow as a shadow in his gut, but not by a flicker does he betray himself, simply tightening his hands on Dean's and skipping his mouth a little way down the tendon in Dean's neck, slow and careful. It is not a wet slide, not salacious -- only the dry drag of lips, half-felt, on skin, and Castiel's breathing, soft and quick. Dean goes tense, hips arching strangely, when Castiel's mouth finds the space below his ear, the smooth, fine skin, but that could be nothing, Castiel argues. A shiver.

They both know that it is not, of course, but nobody must say so. That is how this game is played. Without rules, societies collapse into degeneracy, especially when, as in their own little microcosm, the degeneracy is so close to the surface.

They fall in on themselves like dominoes, unexpected and completely. Castiel has no intention of moving further than to rub his mouth against the shell of Dean's ear, press it dryly into the hollow behind, but Dean's hand tightens, clenching, on his wrist; Dean's head tilts in evident, catlike encouragement, and lust spears Castiel like a lance. God, Dean. Always so defiant, even in his fear, and Castiel had never thought to see him like this, exposed and trusting, finally, finally. Like this, Dean is open to him, the flicker of his pulse visible under the fine skin of his neck, and Castiel holds Dean's responses in his hands, so much willing to be shaped to Castiel's designs. He knows he should leave it alone, he knows, but Castiel is no longer a god. Castiel is fallible, and Dean smells of gunmetal and rain, a warm clean scent Castiel wants to learn the taste of. Dean draws in a long breath that almost has voice, and Castiel cannot think around the thick thump of his heart, the ringing in his ears. He opens his mouth.

The sound Dean makes at that is beautiful, raw and shocking, and it thrills Castiel to the marrow. Nothing but the suggestion of dampness between Castiel's parted lips, and Dean is groaning, desperate, his fingers vice-like on Castiel's wrists. He hisses in its wake, sibilant through his teeth, and Castiel cannot but inch himself closer, gripping Dean's hands in fierce response as he traces incremental circles with his mouth, faint drag of lips across the skin. Dean squirms against him, pumps his hips, and Castiel feels the heat of it well up through his body in spurts of want, viscous and filthy. "Dean," he breathes, unintended, against Dean's ear, and his voice is low and dark and his own. A shiver flicks its tail across the breadth of Dean's shoulders, and his fingers flex again on Castiel's wrists, pulling them forward in a slow, firm roll.

"Shit," Dean mutters, "shit. Cas."

Dean pulls, shifts, and Castiel follows blindly. More by accident than design, they wind up on their sides on the bed, Castiel spooned tight against Dean's back, Dean's fingers clenching and unclenching on his as his hips roll slowly, lazy fucks against nothing. Castiel is no longer under any illusions, his own cock thick against Dean's backside through his jeans, and the scent of Dean has changed, now, coarsened under his mouth. He says Dean's name again, voice breaking, and Dean's subsequent shudder confirms his suspicion that the vocal reminder that Castiel is not Sam is what gives Dean's blood its permission to burn, to inch a little further into the realms of the forbidden.

There is nothing they can do to be properly intimate, but lying with Dean like this, Castiel cannot help thinking they are intimate already. Here is Dean; here is Dean's arousal, and Castiel is both the cause of and the witness to it. Already, he has more than he ever thought to get from Dean, and it would be ungrateful indeed not to recognise the beauty of this for what it is.

They move against each other slowly, the rhythm picking up out of nowhere and coiling around Castiel like a cat. He barely registers he's doing it until Dean shifts in his arms; squirms around, eventually, with his eyes closed and his breath shuddering from his parted lips, and Castiel realises. Face to face is not the way they usually do things, but now it seems that they have bypassed that point, the arena of control in which these rules held sway. Now, there is only Dean's knee between Castiel's, although their groins are held politely back from each other; now, Dean's hands on his shoulders, at his nape. Dean's hands in his hair, his breath on Castiel's mouth, almost wet with heat. Castiel bites down a shudder and angles his head, buries his face once more in the side of Dean's neck, softly parted mouth in the hollow of his throat.

"Cas," Dean groans, threading fingers through his hair. Castiel swallows and shifts against him, slow undulation of his trembling body. Dean is taut beneath his clothes, everywhere tense, and Castiel's fingers map the width of his back, the dip of his spine, the strip of skin exposed between the hem of his shirt and the waistband of his jeans. Dean shudders bodily at the brush of skin on skin, hips pitching forward, and there, there is Dean's hardness, straining against denim. Castiel sips in a helpless breath, pushes into it as far as he dares. Dean's thigh skitters up a little way further into the junction between Castiel's legs; he twists his hips and rocks once. And again. And again, slow and careful. Castiel can hear their breathing hollow in his head; can smell the tang of sweat creeping over them in swathes. They are only barely touching, there where they shouldn't, but Castiel feels it everywhere, the contact like a constant ringing in his ears, sparking in his blood and under his skin. This is Dean, and his body yearns for closeness; his Grace, his animus, recognise Dean's shape. Perhaps he will die this way, and nobody will ever understand the cause. He rubs his mouth against Dean's skin and whimpers.

If he had known before the way it felt, the way it would feel in his newest vessel, Castiel might have recognised what was coming -- might have pulled back, frustrated and with honour. Castiel has been too honourable, though, and he does not know the signs in this body, the way it pulls in on itself, heat seizing white behind the eyes. No kissing, that is the rule, but they are not kissing, he and Dean. This is not sex, is only their hands mapping each other in shivering paths, Dean's breath warm in Castiel's hair, his own mouth damp against Dean's long throat. This is not supposed to be sex, and so the part of Castiel that is human, full of denial and yearning, refuses to contemplate the thought that it might be; refuses to parse the way his blood is picking up, the way Dean is moving, sinuous, against him. Dean, presumably, is doing the same thing, reason overridden by the cloying closeness of his wanting and his endless capacity for self-delusion. This is only the two of them, watching movies together, and if Castiel's hips are shifting more quickly now, heartbeat starting to centre in a pounding arrow of heat between his legs -- well then, Castiel's grace is responding, growing stronger on the presence of its mate. Castiel is breathless, losing feeling in his fingers, but Dean's hands are warm and anchoring on his back, Dean's little hitched breaths perfect in his ear.

"Cas," Dean is chanting, "Cas, God, I don't, I want, yeah," and it's nonsense, tripping out over his tongue. Castiel doesn't know why his spine pulls tight at the sound of it, why his hips snap forward hotly.

"Dean," he manages, fighting the word through fog. "Dean -- oh --"

The last thing he remembers before it hits him is Dean's face, the eyes wide and glass-green when Castiel jerks back to look at it. Dean's pupils black and dilated and endless, staring Castiel down, seeing him, but seeing nothing beyond. Castiel feels his blood leap wildly, his body jack-knifing as he digs his fingers into the muscle of Dean's back. He feels the heat, then, begin to pulse from him, wet and visceral, and realises what is happening only as he turns his head unconsciously, presses his mouth hard and bruising against Dean's. The next thing he knows, as understanding dawns, is the shame, so black and violent that his blood goes cold with it, but in the tiny space between the pleasure and the abyss, there is one thing, one tiny thing he remembers.

Dean kisses him back, only a cling of lips, but there.

It is not enough to anchor him in his shame, to rectify this level of betrayal -- after everything he has done, Castiel could not even find it in himself to keep from breaking their cardinal rule; could not keep his mouth from Dean's in the moment of climax he never should have let himself fall into. It is not enough, but as the doors begin to slam shut in his mind, it flickers like a candle, receding into the darkness. Dean --

The inner sanctum of any vessel is buried behind layers of everything, a tiny kernel of space in which an angel might conceal himself for decades. Castiel does not even have time to process thought before his shame has propelled him into the darkness, fastened and bolted the entrances.

The vessel falls sideways afterwards, apparently lifeless, but Castiel is not in a position to see it.

**

The body hits the mattress with a thump, and then is still. The body, Dean thinks, with a sort of stunned detachment, not only because it was so firmly Cas an instant ago and now looks so much like Sam, empty and inanimate, but also because the motionlessness is acute, disturbing, and Dean feels his stomach turn with something more terrifying than belated guilt. Images flash through his mind in fragments: Sam on the floor of some derelict house, tripping Hell; Sam on the bed in the panic room, comatose, his Wall broken. Cas fixed the Wall, broke it down and erased its foundations; but looking at Sam like this -- and it is Sam, this vessel, the shell -- Dean isn't so sure. He thinks of Sam with a bullet in his chest; with a knife in his back, bleeding out, and shudders. "Cas," he mutters, in a thin twist of a voice, "what the fuck did you do?"

When he lays his hand on Sam's chest, his first thought is that it isn't moving, and something dark and panicked spirals up in his throat. But Castiel didn't leave, or Dean would have seen it, and no vessel can die with an angel inside. "Breathe, Dean," he mutters; fumbles with the buttons of Sam's over-shirt, spreading it open over his heart. It might have been awkward, given what just happened, but with the anxiety crushing Dean's chest like girds of iron, he doesn't need to concentrate to make the gesture recall only what it should -- doing up Sammy's buttons for him, brushing his hair. Little brother, and Dean's every instinct is racing to protect.

"Sammy, come on." He lays his palm flat over Sam's heart and, this time, there is something perceptible through the thin t-shirt, a thready but definite beat. Relief floods Dean's mouth and throat like mercury, viscous and metallic. "Sam." He reaches up, smacks Sam's cheek with his open palm, not hard.

It is all it takes. A moment later, Sam's eyelashes flicker groggily; he groans, shifts his head on the pillow. Of course, there is no reason he shouldn't have been okay, except that Dean doesn't know anymore what Cas is physically capable of, and sometimes he thinks he is right to be afraid.

"Dude," he says, weak with recoil, when Sam finally focuses confused eyes on him. "You okay?"

"What happened?" Sam asks. It is all Dean not can do to laugh in response, but it is a dark urge, no humour in it. Happily, any arousal he might have felt beat a hasty retreat at Cas's rude departure, but it was there, and Sam is going to find that out, whether Dean wants him to or not. At least, he is going to notice something sooner or later, maybe draw his own conclusions from the mess of his jeans, and Dean feels hot with shame and disgust just imagining what he might think.

"Dean?" Sam reaches a long arm for him, clutches at his shoulder and Dean, on gut instinct, shakes it summarily away, stomach turning. At the hurt look on Sam's face, he regrets it, but the reality of what just happened here is crowding in at the back of his mind, making him physically nauseous. He can't cope with that right now, not if he hopes to deal sensibly with the bigger issue at hand. Castiel was here, and now he isn't, and the changeover was dramatic to say the least. Everything else, Dean decides firmly, can wait.

He throws Sam an apologetic smile and sits back on his heels, rubbing one hand distractedly over his face. "I, uh." It would help, he thinks, if he actually knew the answer to Sam's question. "Maybe you better ask Cas."

The way Sam's face changes at that -- a brief pensive look, followed by something close to distress - is neither what Dean expects nor what he was hoping for. He sits forward abruptly. "Sam?"

"Dean," Sam begins, voice a slow, uncertain crawl, and Dean can hear already that he will not like whatever Sam is about to say. "Did Cas -- leave?"

Yeah, he doesn't like that at all. "Leave?" Dean blinks. "Um, not that I saw. And it's kind of hard to miss when that guy makes an exit, you know?"

Sam nods, but his brows are furrowing, drawing together. "You definitely didn't notice anything? White light, glass-shattering sounds?"

"Yeah, Sam, I think I woulda caught either of those signs." Dean rolls his eyes, but he feels no levity at all right now. "Why would you say that?"

There is a creeping doubt emerging in the pit of Dean's stomach, but he doesn't know quite what he's afraid of until Sam voices it. "I can't feel him," he says simply. "I mean, he hides sometimes, but I can tell that's what he's doing, you know? Right now it feels like he's..." Sam shrugs. "Gone."

Trust Cas, Dean thinks bitterly, to get so freaked out over a goddamn accidental orgasm that he'd fuck off and leave Dean with the confusion and the guilt and the broken heart, again. Except that they're past that, now, and Dean knows it. It is an unfair supposition, and Castiel, more to the point, cannot have left. He cannot have left without Dean seeing it, and Dean saw nothing. Which means he will simply have to look harder.

"Sam," he says, slow, "He can't have gone, man. I'm telling you, I didn't see anything. One minute he was right there, and then, bam, he was flat on his back. Or, I don't know, you were flat on your back, out cold."

Sam is studying him in bemusement, brows still drawn together. "Just like that?"

Of course, Dean thinks bitterly, of course he wants to just treat it like a case. Dean has trained his kid brother far too goddamn well, and now it's coming back to bite him in the ass, because Sam is the prime piece of evidence in this investigation, and that will make evasion difficult. "Yeah," he says, "Just like that." He spreads his hands. "He can't be gone, Sam."

"Dude," Sam counters, shaking his head as he shifts, finally, and makes to pull himself up into a shifting position. "Something must have happened. He can't just -- "

He cuts off abruptly, frozen in the act of rearranging his legs, and Dean wants to sink through the floor. His heart is beating a tarantella of shame in his chest and he can't even pretend to keep his eyes open and watch this, watch Sam's face. There's a long pause, during which Dean's stomach does several barrel rolls worthy of Baron von Richthofen. Then comes Sam's voice, small, but creditably professional.

"Dean," he says, tightly, "can you just, um. I don't wanna pry or anything, but this could make a difference if it's evidence or whatever, so can I just --" He breaks off. Dean wills him to shut the fuck up before Dean's forced to scream to blot out the rest of it, but Sam has apparently lost any vestige of psychic power he may have once possessed, because the bastard goes on: "Was this, um -- was this a result of Cas blacking out, or did it happen before?"

"Jesus, Sam," Dean mutters, "do we have to talk about it?"

"Before, then," Sam says, nodding his head curtly, and Dean blinks, snaps back to look at him defensively.

"Why do you say that?"

"Dude," Sam says, raising a shoulder in a rueful half-shrug, "you knew what I was talking about. So, since it hasn't stained, I assume -- which, you know, is fine, I mean, I told Cas -- "

"Sam!" Dean breaks in, hardly able to believe what he's hearing. "Sam! Dude! No!"

Sam pauses in mid-stride, looks at him narrowly. "What do you mean, no?"

"I mean," Dean says, through gritted teeth, "we weren't -- I wasn't gonna screw Cas while he was wearing my freaking kid brother, okay?" Much as he may have, oh hell, wanted to on occasions he'd berated himself for afterward, when Cas had fled the building and Dean had looked at Sam and thought I'm going to hell. Again. Sam would snap back in, and Dean's feelings shifted like a switch being flipped, but he still remembered the way he'd felt an instant before, the way he'd wanted to reach out and touch. He knows it's sick, this stupid inability to step back and fucking look at the situation, remind himself that this is his brother's body even if it's Cas in it. And now it's led them here, to this, Cas grinding against him and apparently giving himself some kind of forbidden orgasm of death. Jesus Christ. "Dude," Dean reiterates, firmly, "we weren't doing -- that. So you can put that out of your mind right now."

Sam blinks at him a little, looking nonplussed. "But," he says, after a minute, "so -- in that case, this happened after, you're telling me? As a result of the blackout?"

Oh, hell. Dean sighs. "Not exactly."

"But you said -- "

"Jesus, I know what I said, Sam!" Dean scrubs a hand through his hair, drops it irritably. "Okay. I -- it happened before, yeah. But it -- it was never meant to. I didn't touch y-- him. He was just, like -- snuggling me -- " he sneers the word "-- and it happened. But that was the first time, Sam!"

He's panting, flushed all up his face with hoping that Sam will just nod and let the matter drop, but Sam's gotten a pensive look on his face that, shit, Dean thinks spells trouble. Or at least lingering, which is just as bad. "The first time?"

Dean clenches his eyes shut and counts to three. "Yeah, Sam, the first time. Do I gotta write it down?"

Sam doesn't rise to the bait as he is intended to, though; just jerks his head in distracted acknowledgement. "I wonder," he says, thoughtfully. "The first time. I bet it was, you know, absolutely the first. I did ask him if he wanted to, you know -- " Sam performs a little mime, unmistakable back-and-forth motion of his tunnelled fingers.

"Oh, gross," Dean mutters.

"But he wouldn't," Sam finishes, still with that pensive look on his face. "Said he felt like he'd be disrespecting me or something, even though I said he could. So, I don't know, maybe it was that?" Sam shrugs. "He didn't mean to, and then it caught him by surprise and now he's ashamed?"

Dean studies Sam for a long moment, sceptical. "You think Cas has put himself on angel-humiliation lock-down because he touched you in the bad place when he told you he wouldn't?"

Sam huffs, protesting, but once he's done pulling the bitch-face he shrugs and nods. "I guess. It's possible, right? Did anything else happen?"

Dean thinks back to a split second of contact, Cas's mouth on his and the image of Cas in his mind like a hallucination of what he had first gotten attached to, Cas's blue eyes, his mussed dark hair. They shouldn't have done that. They'd decided not to, and when Dean thinks on it too closely his stomach clenches unhappily, even under the overriding sense of rightness. But Cas had already been strange by then, falling into his fit, and Dean doesn't think he can bring himself to tell Sam about it. It would play into the shame idea anyway, Cas betraying what he promised Dean as well as what he promised Sam. Again.

Dean sighs. Okay, looking at it that way, the idea seems a lot more plausible. "Nah," he says, slowly, "but I think you may be right. He promised you he wasn't gonna do that, he promised me he wasn't -- or, you know, we agreed we weren't, because, gross -- and you know he's spent these past months desperately trying to get over the last betrayal he pulled."

"Oh, shit, Dean," Sam says, suddenly all understanding, the puppy eyes of concern firmly in place. "Oh, Cas."

"Yeah," Dean says, his mouth twisting. "Ready to bet he's put a hell of a lot more emphasis on this latest promise stuff than we ever did, from what you said."

Sam nods, eyes fixed on a point on the bedspread. "Think he could have locked himself down somewhere I can't find him?" he asks. "You know -- gone to ground to beat himself up?"

"Could be," Dean agrees. "And if not, I don't have a better idea right now, because he sure as hell didn't leave. Maybe you can try and dig for him, ferret him out?"

"Yeah," Sam says slowly. "That... yeah."

"I tell you what," Dean puts in, bitterly, "we have got to get Cas another vessel, man. Since apparently if lugging around your gigantic self doesn't kill him, his crippling desire for my fine ass might."

Dean neatly evades the point of his own crippling urge to pull Cas against him and fuck him stupid. Sam doesn't need to hear that, and Dean sure as hell doesn't need to think about it.

Sam, thankfully, doesn't pursue the point, just laughs a little, nods. "Yeah," he says, "true." He stands up, joints popping. "Okay, so -- plan a, I try and find Cas. Plan b, we see if anyone knows how to conjure up a vessel capable of holding an archangel without having to, like, birth one."

Dean wrinkles his nose. "Yeah, I am not waiting twenty years for Cas to grow up into some hot babe."

Sam laughs. "Be just as bad, wouldn't it, as him being in me? If you had to bring her up and all."

Dean pulls a face, gives Sam a shove. "Take your fixation away into the shower, dude, yeah? Fuckin' stink."

He's making light, but Sam's face shifts a little, the smile losing its momentary edge of brightness and becoming sympathetic again as his hand finds Dean's shoulder. "Okay," he says gently, "okay. But, Dean?" He squeezes, quick hard grip. "We'll find Cas. We'll fix this. Don't we always?"

The look on his face is all earnestness, so much certainty and Sam, that Dean can't help but smile a little back, even if he isn't so sure he believes. "I guess," he offers, and Sam squeezes again, lets go.

"We will," he says, firmly, and disappears into the bathroom.

**
There is no sign from Cas the first night. Sam doesn't want to admit it to Dean, given the state of agitation his brother is clearly already in, but the absence is beginning to scare him. He knows, superficially, he knows that Dean is right, that Cas couldn't possibly have left him without it having been obvious to any and all observers, but after an hour's careful and methodical exploration of their once-shared brainscape, Sam is starting to have doubts. Doubts as to whether, for example, Dean really could have been observing the entire time. Cas is a freaking angel, after all, and not even just your standard watcher any more, but something greater, unpredictable and unprecedented. If Cas has always been able to rework time and scour the world for a hairpin in less than a minute, how difficult would it have been for him to distract Dean's attention for the half-second it would take to flee Sam's body? He could have simply frozen Dean in time for thirty seconds while he made his exit, and the Winchesters wouldn't be any the wiser. Sam has had Cas's presence in his head for weeks now, months, and he knows how it feels to have him there. This absence, the tumbleweed feeling whipping through his head like wind, is a radical shift, and it unsettles Sam on a fundamental level.

For the duration of the evening, Dean doesn't say much. He pokes through a book they already know is useless, throwing Sam impatient glances from time to time, but he doesn't speak, for which Sam is grateful. Dean's never liked seeing Sam or Cas space out of the vessel's driving seat, as it were, to have a conversation way back behind the eyes where it's easy, no barriers between them. They haven't had to do it that way of late, conversation moving easily between them without any special measures required, but whatever Cas is doing now, he's more inaccessible than he ever was, if he's still there. If he's gone to ground, Sam is going to have to go in after him.

He isn't there, as far as Sam can reach. He's out of range, or something, but when Sam is able to reason with himself, what pulls him back from panic is the fact that he can still do this. Sure, it's scary, drawing a total blank after so long in cohabitation, but the one thing Sam is sure of is that he was never able to withdraw into his own head like this, literally, before his body was double occupancy. And that, Sam is at least 80% sure, means that Cas must still be here somewhere. Cas may not want to come out right now, but Sam still has him, locked down somewhere inside himself, and that means he will find him. Sooner or later, Cas will slip, and Sam will be able to haul him back up to the surface again.

Basically, it's a question of constant vigilance. The thought makes Sam smile a little -- this would be a hell of a lot easier if he actually had a magical eye to keep up an unbroken watch over happenings inside his head -- but effectively, it is the only plan he has. Dean may be keeping his questions to himself for tonight, but Sam can feel how great an effort it's taking him, and he knows he won't be able to count on the same hands-off attitude if 24 hours go by with no sign of Cas. Cas is Dean's... person, which would have been enough to make Sam desperate to relocate him, fix him, even if he hadn't become Sam's best friend these past few weeks. More than that, he's a fundamental other half for Sam as much as for Dean now, albeit in a different way, and Sam doesn't want to go on without him, doesn't want to leave him to beat himself up all on his own. For both of them, Cas has to be found, and fast. After that... well. Bobby's been politely absent of late, probably still weird about the whole Godstiel business, but maybe it's time to see what he knows. Failing him, the Campbell library might have some ideas. Get Cas back, and Sam is optimistically sure the rest can just take care of itself.

Sam doesn't mean to stay awake all night, but something about the retreat into his head has the effect of creating a sort of false insomnia within which he is alert, a thought-wave only, no body to feel exhaustion. Time becomes liquid, running together. He knows Dean's asleep -- they put out the lights, and eventually Sam hears Dean's breathing even out, deepening -- but it's difficult to judge beyond that how late it must be, how long he must have spent pacing the inside of his skull and shooting out tendrils of energy into the corners. He's done this before, the exploration, but never so exhaustively or with this kind of urgency. Cas has never been so hard to find, usually emerging after a few gentle prods to speak to Sam in their central space. Now, it feels as if the darknesses just continue to appear, a new one for every part of his mind Sam illuminates with his bursts of energy. If Cas is here anywhere, Sam will find him -- he cannot hide forever -- but he's doing a damn good job at evasion.

There's a sense of tunnelling, of churning up surfaces and burrowing underneath, that Sam's never felt before. He's never spent so long hacking away at things like this, but now having started, he knows he can't stop. New space appears, new places in which Cas might have concealed himself, and so Sam endures, goes on turning over every stone. Probably, he knows, he must look comatose, so deep inside himself that the appearance of a trance-like state has become something more pronounced, almost vegetative. Dean is asleep, though, and Sam would have so far to go back from here that he may as well just keep on going forward. He feels as if he's tunnelled almost to the centre of the earth, the remaining uncovered ground diminishing, and something is tugging at the edges of his energy, something uncertain and unhappy and animate. Cas is somewhere close by, he knows it. With a last great effort, he throws out a wide-spanning sweep of light, watches it glancing off the walls of this cavern in his mind.

"Cas!" The word is a pulse of intensity, rippling out of Sam like sonar.

He feels it the moment it hits something, feels it like a punch. It is as if the long wave of energy is still attached to him somewhere, physically part of him, and he feels the jar when it makes contact with another presence. Sam has no idea how long he's been at this, now, has no idea even how to retreat, but there is someone here, and Sam is no longer in fragments, so that only leaves one potential candidate. He reiterates his call, a weaker little pulse of the tendril.

The response, when it comes, is faint, a thready little thing like the protest of a wounded animal, wanting to be left alone to die in peace. It is miserable, thin, but Sam recognises it instantly, knowing the colour of Cas's light. Sam, the message tells him, although it is too faint and dejected to actually form words, go away. Leave me alone.

If Sam were in direct contact with his heart, no doubt he would now be able to hear it pounding. He gathers himself up, treading carefully. "Cas, come on." A pause. "It's okay. You're okay."

A flash of something stronger, then, but the tone of it is the same as before, shame and unhappiness. I can't do this.

"Do what?" Sam prompts, his voice urgent. "Dude, we're worried. Dean thought you'd left."

If only I could leave, Cas shoots back, and this time the energy is stronger, closer to the way Sam remembers it. I cannot do this, Sam. I betrayed both of you. I should have known better.

Sam sighs, something heavy and full. "Cas, you didn't. You guys are, you know, whatever you are, and you got carried away. It's not a crime, okay? I don't blame you for it."

Dean does, Cas shoots back, immediate and twisting on an edge of bitterness. I'm making him feel guilty. He doesn't need anything else to feel guilty about.

That part at least Sam cannot argue with, but the fact remains that Dean would rather have Cas back on the surface alive, so that they can actually start to fix things, than buried in Sam's head, out of sight, so Dean can do nothing but painstakingly dwell on whatever happened to cause the retreat. Sam takes a deep mental breath. "Look, I get that. But seriously, you locking yourself up down here? All it's doing is making Dean obsess about it. He can't stop thinking about it, wondering what you've done, if he broke you. You want him not to feel guilty, you gotta come back up, man."

It's a low blow, and Sam knows it but it seems to strike a chord, the sense of Cas going still and hurt. It's a pensive sort of hurt, though, so Sam pushes on, emboldened. "I know you can't go on like this, Cas. We get that. But we have a plan, okay?"

"A plan?" Cas puts in, sceptically. His voice, Sam is pleased to note, has more body, now, the sense of him more clear and present. "What plan?"

"Won't know," Sam shoots back, enigmatic, "if you don't come out and see." A pause, and then he pulses out another burst of energy, curling light around the fuzzy edges of Cas, glowing faintly in the dark. Cas always liked that before, and it seems to calm him a little now, lowering the frequency of his vibrations. "Look, I'll give you some time to yourself, okay? I know you're embarrassed. But you don't need to be. We can all just get over this is if you come up and let us deal. So... tomorrow?" Another little nudge. "I know where you live, now, man. You can't hide from me in my own head."

The answering flicker Cas gives is hardly the mental laughter Sam has experienced from him in the past, but it is a start, an echo, and it fills Sam's chest with hope. "All right," Cas promises slowly. "You -- go ahead of me, wake up. Tell Dean not to worry. I will be up soon."

"Better be," Sam says, and his voice is curt in an attempt to disguise his sudden dizzying rush of relief.

It is a long climb back up to the surface, and when he wakes, blinking, it is a little after five a.m. The room is grey with the early morning light, and Sam feels suddenly, cripplingly tired, but all told, he's pretty sure his night's endeavours have been worth it.

**

Castiel is giving Sam time to sleep. He will need a certain amount of rest to compensate for his night's adventuring within the confines of his head, and Castiel has no wish to disturb him before he needs to. This, at least, is what he tells himself as he hunches down a little behind the place they have termed the 'passenger seat', fighting the urge to flee again, either down or out. Eventually, though, even after his strangely-scheduled night, Sam wakes up, and this renders Castiel's argument distressingly redundant. He is far enough away from Sam's major operative centre that he knows Sam will not feel him directly, but he can see what is going on -- cannot help but see it. Dean is exiting the bathroom fully dressed when Sam blinks awake, and the sight of this uncharacteristic precaution makes Castiel's stomach dip a little in shame. He knows that Sam is right -- logically, it could only do harm if he were to abandon Dean now, without explanation or apology -- but Castiel is right too: he cannot go on like this. Dean is perfect, the scent of him body and soul, and Castiel cannot look at him with no promise of touching, not when he knows how Dean feels. Not now.

For a while, he cannot bring himself to do more than observe, and even that is painful, this tilt of Dean's head or that movement of Sam's hand recalling the waves of shame. It is a very human thing, to be bodily ashamed, and Castiel felt it last night like a breaker to the chest, like a chair to the face, too strong and unfamiliar for him to react with anything other than flight. Even now, the little ebbing aftershocks of humiliation set him shivering, leaving him tensed against the urge to flee, either back down into his secret dugout in Sam's mind or out through his mouth and damn the consequences. It takes some very concentrated thought to calm the urges, reiteration of the fact that fleeing now could only make the situation exponentially worse, and even still, while he does not retreat, he doesn't want to go forward. Knowing rationally that he must is an entirely separate issue from feeling that he can, dreading how Dean might look at him when he emerges if he can barely even look at his brother. Dean is nervous, jumpy, and Castiel has watched him long enough to know that, although he never goes out of his way to touch Sam, he makes no special effort to avoid touching him, either. Now, he is avoiding all contact, making conscious decisions to walk around pieces of furniture so as not to brush past Sam in passing, setting his coffee pointedly on the table instead of putting it in Sam's hand as usual. Dean is nervous, and Castiel's own anxiety is in no need of encouragement.

When he hears Sam recounting to Dean the details of the night before, even if only in brief, the shame bubbles up again like blood from a wound. If Castiel could physically put a hand over his eyes instead of watching this, he would, but Sam is in possession of their hands at the moment and Castiel does not dare retreat in any other way, lest he feel entirely unable to come back out.

"It's okay," Sam is saying. "He was there. I gave him some time, and he said he'd be here when he was ready." He shrugs. "He promised, and dude, I know he knows there'd be no point in bullshitting us on this. If he doesn't come out by the end of the day, I can just go right back in there and prod him till he does."

"Huh," is all Dean says. It's not as bad as it might have been -- Castiel was anxiously waiting for a snide remark from Dean about what Castiel's promises are worth -- but it is unreadable, flat, and in some ways that is almost worse. At least if Dean had seemed straightforwardly angry, Castiel would have known what to expect. Like this, he is still hovering in total darkness.

"Yeah," Sam says, with a shrug, as if he understands Dean's grunt on a level Castiel never could. Castiel sighs. On second glance, though, Dean's face betrays nothing set, nothing concealed so much as simply an ignorance, a nervous impatience that suggests he is perhaps as uncertain as Castiel is. Perhaps Castiel is expecting the blind to lead the blind. Perhaps his delay is as unfair to both of them as his entrapment in this impossible vessel, the difference being that this is one thing that Castiel has the power to change.

He doesn't know what Sam meant, when he talked about fixing things. He had seemed earnest, but then, Sam always does. Castiel knows he oughtn't set too much store by it, but the temptation to do so is great. Many a time, the Winchesters have achieved the impossible through sheer power of will alone, and the power of three strong wills is behind this forlorn hope.

Castiel takes a deep breath, a final look at Dean's distracted face, his green eyes blank and fixed on the carpet. For a long, last moment, he takes stock; and then he is snaking forward, cutting through the roil of nausea he feels at the prospect. He catches at Sam gently in acknowledgement as he displaces him, surging up and out.

He can do this. For Dean, for both of them, he has to.

**
Dean's had enough of talking to last him a lifetime. Sam would probably advocate jawing through every issue they have until there's nothing left, but as far as Dean can see that would only work here if it killed the sexual tension between them with boredom, and while that might be a technically good idea under the circumstances, Dean isn't sure it's a route he wants to take. Sure, Cas is in his brother right now, and that's caused way more trouble than it should have done, but Dean's never had a -- this -- before, and he isn't about to give up on it entirely just because there's a little thing like incest in the way. So he's an optimist -- so what? The way Dean sees it, they've dealt with every damn evil from Lucifer to the Mother of freakin' everything: they can deal with this, and it won't be by talking about their feelings. Dean's done his share of that, and he's pretty sure he's taken it as far as it goes as a helpful fix-it in this situation. He's had a night to think about this stuff, tossing and turning for an hour in the dark while Sam tried to reach Cas's secret underground HQ or whatever, and he's come to the conclusion that it's time to try this his way.

That being the case, when Cas tumbles abruptly forward and jolts into place behind Sam's eyes, the last thing Dean wants to do is start in on a heart-to-heart about their thing. If Cas's feelings are anything like Dean's right now, he won't want to talk about it. He'll want things to go the hell back to normal, or as normal as they can manage, and Dean is behind that a hundred percent. He's more than a little surprised -- a large part of him kind of expected Cas to leave it till the last acceptable second to show -- but he makes a manful attempt not to let it show on his face, and other than maybe some initial eye bulging, he thinks it mostly works.

He can see by the look in Cas's eyes, something akin to the expression of a puppy just come back home after peeing all over everything and then running the fuck away, that Cas is expecting him to break out the heavy duty guns right off the bat. This fact is even clearer when Dean only leans back in his chair, shifts his legs a little and says, "Hey, Cas."

Seriously, it would have been comical if it hadn't made Dean's chest twist a little in sympathy, the way Cas's eyes widen and his mouth slips out of its grim straight line into something loose and bemused. "Uh. Hello, Dean," he manages after a moment's flurried blinking, but his tone lilts up at the end, questioning, and his head is tilting to the side despite himself. It's some time since Dean's seen that particular gesture of angelic confusion, and it makes his mouth quirk up helplessly at the corners, fondness flushing over the surface of his skin like a fine heat.

"Didn't need to run off like that," Dean says, nonchalant, because, whatever his feelings on the issue, he knows there's something to be said for not avoiding the point entirely; for letting Cas know that he hasn't simply entered a stage of flat-out denial due to the sheer extent of his disgust. He has no intention of dwelling on it, though, and when Cas opens his mouth, looking in danger of responding, Dean hurries on: "Me and Sam've been thinking."

Cas, to his credit, recovers quite convincingly from the momentary goldfish face that overtakes him at that, mouth opening and closing soundlessly for a long second before he squares his shoulders, visibly pulling himself together, although his eyes are still wide. "...oh?"

That's more like it. If he and Cas aren't on the same page, they're clearly getting to it. Dean nods lackadaisically and reaches across the table for his beer, curling his fingers idly around its neck. "Yep. Thought it was maybe time we tried putting out feelers, you know? See about getting you a meat-suit of your own."

There's something in Dean's throat that insists on quavering a little as he speaks, some traitor of a nervous thing, but he overcomes it sufficiently to look Cas square in the face when he's tossed out his comment, meeting his eyes. Cas colours under the onslaught at first, flushing right up his cheekbones in a way that Sam has never flushed in his life, which is an interesting thought. Another moment, though, and he's taking a deep breath, forcing the redness down by sheer force of will, and Dean thinks he's never been prouder of him in his life.

"We've talked about this, Dean," Cas says steadily. "I would almost certainly need a vessel that could contain an archangel. They are not easily located. Especially since I am, effectively, a new archangel, or psuedo-archangel; there won't be a bloodline of possible vessels for me."

Which, of course, is all true, but it's also exactly what Dean expected him to say, what they've been working from all along, and Dean is beyond that now, driven by circumstances to think outside the box. He nods as he pulls at his beer, but holds up a finger in a halting gesture as he sets it down again, wipes a hand across his mouth. "This is true. But, Cas, you're talking about going through the normal channels. What if we try to go a little more unorthodox?"

Cas furrows his brows, pulls his characteristic expression of confusion. "I don't understand."

"Well," Dean says, spreading his hands, "don't we always go around shit like this?" He's warming to his subject, now, voice slipping out of its false cheer and into something genuinely enthusiastic, and he embraces that, lets himself sink into it. "Look, we have Bobby, we have the Campbells' library -- shit, if nothing else, we have God on our side, apparently, or on yours, at least. He's saved you more than once before, right? I mean, personally I don't have a clue what the guy's doing up there, but he definitely seems to have a thing for you."

Cas says nothing, but the expression on his face has shifted into something pensive, attentive, and it's encouraging. Dean takes a deep breath and hurries on before he can stop himself. "It's just -- okay, normally you'd have to have a vessel, grow your own if there wasn't one available, yada yada yada. But what if we could do it some other way, huh?" He shrugs. "We're not above a little black magic, and neither are you, before you say anything. Wouldn't it be worth it, if we could find some way to get you a body of your own?"

Dean doesn't want to be obvious -- it's never been his style -- but he's pretty much aware as he speaks that the so we could fuck unobserved goes unsaid on the end of the question. Cas, too, clearly picks up on it, to judge by the resurgence of blood into his cheeks. "I suppose," Cas says, slow and dubious.

"So," Dean cuts in, seizing upon it before Cas can change his mind, "that's what we do, right? We hit Bobby's first, see what he knows, go through all the obscure shit he has holed up in there, and then if we don't find anything we try the Campbells' library. No point having all this crap if we never use it, is there?"

"No," Cas responds -- as if there's anything else he could say -- but his voice is still slow, unsure. "But, Dean -- "

"But nothing!" Dean breaks in. He knows he's being impatient, Cas's hesitation getting to him quicker than it should, but this is a tense situation, goddammit, and trying to turn it into something natural is fucking strenuous. "I know you're used to doing everything the proper way, going through all the bureaucratic red tape and whatever, but we don't have time for that here, Cas. We've tried waiting and it's obviously not working for us."

Cas's flush is back in force at that, half-ashamed, and Dean's every impulse wants to lean across the table, take his hand and squeeze it in his own. With a great effort, he resists; goes on, more quietly, "Let's just try it this way, huh? All else fails, we get down on our knees and pray, but it's worth a try, right?"

If it hadn't been for the expression on Cas's face then, the flicker of hope trapped under all the uncertainty and anxiety and concern, Dean might have left it there. He might have gotten up, and gone for coffee, and pushed on without pausing to make sure Cas was with the programme. But Cas does look uncertain; he does look anxious and concerned, and Dean doesn't have it in him to leave him that way, in any doubt as to what Dean wants from him when all this is done. It's awkward, still, monumentally awkward after last night's pointed obsessing on the fact, to lean across and slip his hand into Sam's, Cas's hand and squeeze it tight, but Cas needs it, and that's enough to give Dean the strength to do it. The look on Cas's face, surprised by joy, is heartening, and Dean hitches a breath.

"Look," he says, low and quick, "Cas, I -- you know how this is, man." Cas is staring at him intently, Dean can feel, but he doesn't have the means to pay attention to him now, not if he wants to get this out. "I want you to be -- you, you know? Not my kid brother. You and me, man, we're -- " He gesticulates, and Cas nods tightly.

"I love you," he says, flat and soft and simple in a way unimaginable to Dean until he hears it, three little words that rock him to the core. "Dean, you know I love you."

Sam has never said that to him. Dean knows it to be true, knows Sam loves him more than anything he has left in the world, but never in so many words have they said it to each other, and that alone is enough to let Dean detach himself into the illusion of Cas as the compact, blue-eyed ethereal thing he'd been when they first met, the Cas he'd -- shit -- fallen in love with. This is that Cas, putting all his trust in Dean again and again, and Dean is humbled by it, every muscle in his body going tense and trembling as the words ripple through him.

"Cas," he says, inadequate and gentle and absolutely all he can manage, but Cas seems to understand, only nods and smiles at him a little.

"I know," he says, soft, "I know." His fingers tighten on Dean's, squeezing hard enough to cut off the blood supply. "I agree with you, Dean. Let's find a new vessel for me."

Somehow, when Dean looks at him -- when Dean lets himself think about fucking him, carding fingers through his hair, kissing his soft wide mouth -- all Dean can see is that guy, that one-time beautiful man Cas no longer is, but this isn't the time to be picky. Dean can't have that, but he can have something. Dammit, he will have something.

"We will, Cas," he says, and means it. "We will, if it's the last thing we ever do."

**
The obvious first point of call is Bobby's, so, naturally, the first thing they do is to take a trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in search of answers. Probably, Bobby could have told them anything he had to tell them over the phone, but some part of Dean wants to take Cas all the way down there, if only to demonstrate in person that he's back to being the guy they hunted and fought and died with, and not the way he was when Bobby last saw him, all hyped-up and chock full of bad decisions. This is Cas, and even if the trip to Singer Salvage turns up nothing as far as their latest quest goes, if it results in Bobby recognising that again then it won't have been a total failure.

They're stiff around each other on first contact, Bobby eyeing Cas sidelong as if fearing an attack, Cas chewing his lip and looking so uncertain that Sam eventually takes pity on him and takes control, pulling Bobby into a hug. "Hey, Bobby."

"Good to see you, boy," Bobby says, but Dean can see from the stiffness to his shoulders that he's still uncertain, and that has to go. Dean and Cas will never make a go of whatever it is they're thinking about trying if Bobby isn't on board, and that means getting the two of them used to each other again, come hell or high water. Bobby's library is extensive, and Dean fully intends to scour it until every last page has been interrogated. By the time that's over, Bobby and Cas better be on speaking terms again, or Dean will need to have very stern words with one or both of them.

In the event, they stay at Sioux Falls four days, and Bobby seems convinced that Cas is Cas again by maybe the evening of the second. Not that it's hard to work it out, really -- Cas is so pointedly, obviously, awkwardly different from the brief flash of Godstiel they saw that day that Dean would have been left doubting Bobby's skills as a hunter if he hadn't realised Cas was back to normal. Then there's the part where, living in Sam's head, it's pretty much impossible for Cas to conceal anything, and Sam explained that to Bobby on the first evening during dinner, when Bobby asked how hosting an angel was going. By the time they've spent four days poring through Bobby's library -- and back up library -- and back-up back-up library -- it's fairly clear that he has absolutely nothing that could help them with the search for a new vessel, but also that Bobby is no longer loath to pass Castiel the butter upon request, so Dean counts it as a win on at least one front. Small wins, at the moment, are worth more than they might seem.

They pack up on the fifth day, heading for the Campbell family library, and Dean can feel a faint tension in Cas that's a little disturbing, given how comfortable he had seemed by the end of their stay at Bobby's. Dean knows him well enough to be able to guess at why that might be, and he doesn't like it.

"Cas," he says, apropos of nothing, as they cross the state line, "we will find something, okay? Even if there's nothing here, we'll keep looking. Okay?"

"Okay," Cas says, automatic, but he doesn't sound convinced. Dean presses his lips together, but it's hard to know what else to say at this point. Sometimes, tell is no good, and only show will work.

Second book Sam picks up in the Campbells' library has a spell in it that has to be performed at night, but not under any particular kind of moon, and as far as Dean can tell it looks promising as all get-out. Dean is excited, Sam is excited, and Cas, although he tries to suppress it, is obviously just as worked up about it as the Winchesters are. Under the waxing moon, they chant the relevant Latin, hands linked in the darkness, and Dean thinks about Cas -- thinks about the warmth of him, the way his animus feels, hot and sharp and sweet, so much more a soul than any of those broken things Cas'd had inside him all those months. Dean thinks about it, dwells on it, and hopes as Sam says the words, as he hears Sam's voice blend into Cas's somewhere in the middle.

"Please," Dean thinks, over and over in his head like a mantra, "please, God, if you're there -- seriously, please. Doesn't Cas deserve a little happiness, after everything?"

They complete the ritual perfectly, the way it's written in the book, but at the end of it Cas is still all up in Sam, even after minutes and minutes of blinking at the moon; even with Dean's fingers clenched, vice-like, around Sam's wrist, as if he could grind the bones to dust and extract Cas from the remains.

"Maybe it takes a while," Sam ventures, after a few minutes' fruitless staring at the sky, and Dean nods, lets himself be led inside. Sometimes rituals are that way, have to happen when everyone's asleep, like the damn things get performance anxiety or something. When Dean wakes up in the morning, though, there's nobody on the other bed but Sam, overlong hair tousled over his forehead, and Dean loves his stupid face to death and wants to weep at the sight of it, all the same. Jesus Christ, Cas. Cas is gonna be the death of him.

The Campbells' library has no further suggestions. Dean's about as sure of that as he possibly can be, given the time he spent poring over every last fragmentary page he could find after the incident of the failed ritual, but there's nothing more they could try, no further suggestion that might have any bearing at all on the current case. Seems that getting new vessels for sexually frustrated angels isn't exactly high on anyone's hit-list of spells. Dean wishes the reason why wasn't so goddamn obvious. If his father was here, he'd be wondering why Dean couldn't have picked himself some nice girl and moved on with his life, but no, Dean has to do things the hard way. That, it seems, is kind of Dean's thing.

Obviously, they don't stop there. The Campbells aren't the only old hunting family in North America, and Bobby, once he's figured out the situation -- from the tone of sympathy his voice suddenly acquires, Dean can't help thinking Sam's appraised him of it in full -- Bobby is happy to hook them up with as many as possible. Weeks go by, and they check out libraries in New York, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. They invade, infiltrate and investigate what feels like every relevant library on the North American continent; they talk to folklorists and theologians and university professors. They try out a ritual every second place, voices a little less hopeful with every passing one, and all the while,the tension leaps hot and dirty between them, Dean's eyes catching on Cas's and sliding down his body, even while his stomach turns; Cas's hand resting on Dean's shoulder, on his hip, warm and sure in the second before Dean shakes it off. They traipse over the whole freaking country, minds open to everything and anything, but there's nothing. There's nothing, or nothing, at least, that seems to actually work. No obvious bloodline-vessels anywhere, and no way to create one, and Dean is starting to despair of ever moving out of this quagmire he's walked into, and now has no way of leaving.

"We'll find something," Sam tells him, palm warm on the nape of his neck, and Dean pretends not to be losing himself in the contact, in how he can feel Cas sparking under Sam's skin and how truly fucked it makes him.

"Yeah," he says, because Sam has this as bad as he and Cas do, maybe worse, after all. "Sure we will, Sammy. We're on it."

By the time they've scoured Washington state and come up with nothing, though, Dean's starting to doubt it. He wishes he was a true man of faith, someone who could believe in miracles, but it's stupidly, impossibly difficult. Sometimes, when he falls into bed after a long and unsuccessful day, all he wants is to pull Cas against him, even if only the way he used to before The Incident, before safety drove him to leave off touching Sam's body altogether if he could help it. Sometimes, it's the only goddamn thing he wants in the world to fall asleep like that with Cas, and he can't have it, thinks he never will.

It's hard to be optimistic when that's the reality of things. Dean wishes it weren't, but it is, and that's an end to it. It is.

**

The revelation happens, as revelations tend to do, when Dean has almost entirely given up hope. It's been months, now, that Cas has been in Sam's body, and long enough since they decided to start scouring libraries for solutions that they've moved back onto hunting part-time again, on the understanding that most of the likely places have pretty much been searched. Dean wishes he could still feel as if there was a chance, but most of the time, he doesn't any more. Most of the time, his life is a question of researching simple salt-n-burns and letting the exhilaration of it carry him through the devastating fact that he's in love with his best friend, and his best friend is in his brother, and that means they're not going to be having sex any time soon. And that means Dean won't be having sex at all, consequently, and that makes for a seriously cranky Dean. There's jerking off, of course, but it doesn't exactly cut it. Honestly, Dean doesn't know how Sam does it. Life like this is hard, and harder still is the realisation that he's gotten used to it, because it’s the only option.

They're in the middle of an easy hunt in northern New Mexico, and Dean's taken the Impala out for gas. It's an ordinary day, the sky blue-blazing above them, the ground red dirt under Dean's feet as he pulls into the gas station and gets out, slamming the car door behind him. There's nothing remarkable about any of it, and Dean isn't expecting anything more than a tankful of gas and maybe a minute's brief conversation. It's noon. He should be back to the hotel by one, easily, and then they can think seriously about how to deal with the poltergeist they're hunting.

The gas station itself is a one-room hut with a single pump, and an old man slips out of it when Dean pulls up, denim overalls over a grimy shirt, exactly like a thousand other old men he's seen in a thousand other gas stations. He's skinny, stubble creeping grey along the line of his jaw, and Dean couldn't say what it is about him that makes him immediately aware that he isn't quite human, that he isn't actually an old man at all. He smiles at Dean, soft, like he knows; takes the pump from Dean's hand-gone-lax and plugs it lovingly into the Impala.

"Afternoon, Dean," he says, and Dean feels the words ripple down his spine in a long, sinuous wave. "Haven't seen you around these parts in a while."

Dean doesn't mean to speak -- wouldn't normally have revealed anything at all to a guy like this, beyond the most minimal conversation, but this man isn't an ordinary guy, and Dean feels the words slipping out of his mouth like water. "Well," he says, "tried everywhere else, man. Cas is at his wits' end, here."

He doesn't add I'm at my wits' end, but the old man hears it all the same, lips pursing thoughtfully as the gas starts to pump into the chamber. "Hard situation, that," says the old man, and the whole thing is surreal, Dean caught up in it like a mote of dust in a beam of light, feeling, for the most part, as if this is normal. As if there should be aged pump attendants asking about Cas, commiserating about his fucked-up situation. "Tell me," says the old man, "how would you have it? If you could decide?"

Dean doesn't pause to think about the weirdness of the question. In the moment of its asking, it doesn't seem weird at all. "How do you mean?" he asks, brow furrowing. The old man shrugs a thin shoulder.

"You've done a lot for this world, Dean," he says simply. "If you could have Castiel in any guise you liked, what would you choose?" He smiles a little, not quite a leer, but almost. "Busty blonde, maybe? Leggy brunette?" The man laughs, and Dean sees omnipotence in it in a sudden, aching flash. "Imagine, Dean, it's your choice. How would you have him?"

Barefoot and in his shift, Dean thinks, but what he says is, "Any way I could get him, sir." Doesn't even think, the words tripping out of him unbidden.

The old man laughs again. "Such a gentleman you are, Dean Winchester." The tank is full now, and he withdraws the pump handle, hangs it back on its hook. "Say you could choose, though. How?"

And it's something Dean's thought about before, this question, even if he never let himself dwell on it in any conscious way. In detached moments, he sees Cas as he was, that blue-eyed man, his sharp nose, his tan, and although he knows Cas is not his body -- this whole thing with Sam can't help but have shown him that -- that is the way he knew Cas first, the way he sees him in his mind when all outside pressures are removed. Physically, historically, Dean's preferences run towards the same sort of leggy brunette that Sam prefers, some kind of shared genetic taste there, but Cas is outside of all that. Dean knows, rationally, that Cas has no gender, but he can't imagine him as a girl. Cas is that guy, Jimmy Novak. Cas is, in Dean's mind, the way he first saw him, pink mouth and mussy bed-hair under the power and the glory.

"I want," he says, unprompted, although he ought to be embarrassed to speak; ought to want to fight this down and keep it sealed, "I want him back the way he was. If I could choose, I mean. I'd take him the way I knew him."

The old man smiles as he screws on the Impala's cap, closes the tiny door to the tank. "Jimmy Novak, you mean? You want him like that?"

Dean shrugs expansively. "That's the way I knew him," he explains, simply. "That's Cas to me, if I'm thinking about him physically. I guess it's pretty restrictive."

But the old man shakes his head a little, no. "I think," he confesses, "Castiel thinks of himself that way, too. He hadn't often taken vessels before, you know." And he smiles again. "You're a good man, Dean. Do you know that?"

Dean is adrift, drunken, but even through the haze of it he feels the beginnings of embarrassment begin, something hot and crude in his guts. "Nah," he mutters, waving a hand dismissively. "Dude, I'm just -- I'm just me. Just doing my job, here."

The old man neither nods nor shakes his head, doesn't say anything at all for a long while, studying Dean's face. By the time he speaks -- "You are a good man, Dean --" Dean is truly uncomfortable, but the old man, it seems, has finished. He wipes his hands on the denim of his thighs, makes to move back towards the hut. "Keep in touch, boy," he calls over his shoulder as he leaves, and Dean doesn't think twice, doesn't wonder how or why or when.

"I will," he says, as he climbs into the car, flicks it easily into gear. "Thanks for everything, sir."

The man inclines his head, raises a hand to bid Dean a farewell that follows him down into the valley. It's a hot day, overbright, and the sun glances whitely off the broad red rocks as he heads for the freeway, strange white noise still sparking in his head, his fingers clenched on the steering wheel.

It isn't until he's almost home that he realises he's talked with God today, in the gas station at the end of the universe. He's driven almost ten miles, now, though, and it's too late to turn back. The white noise disappears as swiftly as it arrived, and in its wake, Dean just knows. He doesn't know what to do about it, but he sure as hell knows what just happened.

He puts the pedal to the floor, drives a little faster.

**

When Dean slams open the door to the motel room, for a moment, he thinks he's dreaming. "Cas," he stutters, the tail of the word tripping drunkenly over his tongue. "Cas, you -- Jesus --"

"Yes," Cas says, crossing the room towards him. "Dean -- " and it's Cas, Jesus Christ, Cas with his indigo eyes and his mussy dark hair, his narrow boy-hips and long slim thighs; Cas, on whom Dean has an inch of height and twenty pounds; Cas. Dean hasn't seen him in months, and every nerve in his body springs to life at the sight of him, his blood rushing a little faster, his mouth falling open.

"How," he starts, breathlessly, even as his hands come up to span Cas's biceps, pulling him in. "I was -- I just -- "

Everything that comes to mind to be said is nonsense, but Cas doesn't seem to mind; is saying nonsense right back as his arms snake around Dean's waist, palms flattening against the small of his back. "I know," he says, "I just -- suddenly -- I sent Sam out, Dean, he went to the store, I think, or -- "

"Yeah," Dean breaks in, distracted over the wave of heat spiralling up through his stomach on the back of his astonishment, a hot, heavy pulse of it. "Cas -- " and he's angling his head, pressing in close, crushing Cas's mouth under his. "Cas, oh my God. "

Cas draws in a breath, sharp and stuttered. Dean sees his eyes close, expression gone soft and desperate as he sways against Dean, but Dean can't look away, can't let himself get lost in this when there's Cas to look at, his face long-familiar and long-missed, soft mouth giving over and over under Dean's. Cas tips his head back, lengthening his throat, lips parting for more, but Dean isn't done looking yet. His hands slide up from Cas's biceps, fingers wrapping momentarily around his throat, drifting up to cradle his face as he kisses him, little dips of kisses, brief, repeated presses of lips.

"Cas," he breathes into it, because this is Cas and it's a goddamn fucking miracle and Dean can't get over the marvel of it; thumbs at Cas's cheekbones and hopes to God it isn't about to melt away under his hands like a dream. "Cas, Cas," and Cas is chasing his mouth now, mouthing at the corners of it, the curve of Dean's lower lip as he speaks.

"Yes, yes," he says, thin and wanting. All these months, Dean thought he had Cas's voice, at least, if not the rest of him, but hearing it like this, the burned whisky rasp of it, what he had pales in comparison, a feeble imitation of the real thing. This is Cas's voice, his own and nobody else's, words shaped between his own lips as his own long throat works. It's gorgeous, gravel-deep and dark as pitch, and Dean's chest clutches at the sound of it, cock twitching in his jeans.

"Got you," Dean mutters pointlessly, hands sliding up into Cas's hair, twisting it between his fingers. Cas is shifting against him, finding a strip of skin above the waistband of his jeans and flattening his hands there, and for a moment it's the same sort of manual mapping of each other they've lost themselves in before. This time, though, there will be no need to stop, nothing to jerk them back from the edge of falling, and the thought makes Dean's heart race, body flush to Cas's from knee to chest. This time, Dean will have no need to work blind, when all he wants is to spread Cas naked under his hands, learn him with his eyes and his mouth as well as his fingers.

Cas, evidently, is absolutely with the programme. His fingers dig into the muscle of Dean's shoulders under his shirt, hard enough that there'll be crescent-shaped marks there tomorrow, and Dean is breathless with it even before Cas shifts, sliding his hands up to cradle Dean's skull. Dean's mouthing at Cas's jaw, tonguing the sharp line of it up to the shell of his ear, but Cas, for all he's shivering, has clearly had enough of that. His hands are strong and firm as he anchors them on Dean's face, holding him still for Cas's mouth, and the surety of it is so hot that Dean can't help but give in, lips parting on a groan.

They fall together like water, more sudden and swift than blood and a better conductor for the bottled charge of Castiel's energy sparking between them. It's obvious from the clumsy motions of Cas's mouth, the sloppy heat of the kiss, that he hasn't done this before; but obvious, too, that he wants nothing more than to learn how, tongue crooking eagerly at Dean's, wet rasp of tastebuds. It's messy, but something in Dean almost wants it that way, wants to feel Cas wanting this, unpractised and uncontained. His body is fine-boned under Dean's hands, this human thing that holds all the endless power of him, and Dean explores it with his fingers, the sharp jut of a hipbone, the curve of Cas's ass. Cas, though, outside of this body, is uncontained, the sense of him a vibrant balm to Dean's soul no matter what vessel he inhabits, and like this, matching the desperate thrusts of Cas's tongue, he feels that, singing across his nerves like a burn.

Cas's hands are everywhere, urgent as his lips and tongue as they skate over the nape of Dean's neck, the breadth of his shoulders, slipping into the valley of his spine. Cas is new to this, virgin, but Dean finds himself adrift all the same in his intensity, echoing Cas's motions with slow drags of his own palms as Cas moans into his mouth, licks over his soft palate. He is hard against Dean's hip, thick clear line of it through his pants, and the sound he makes when Dean shifts to pull them closer together is so obscene that Dean's fingers slip in response, his own breath stuttering. "Cas," he groans, breaking away to breathe, but Cas only follows the motions of his mouth, nipping gently at Dean's lower lip in a way that makes Dean's pulse skip drunkenly. Cas, judging by the way he presses against Dean, flattening pelvis to hip, does not want to talk, and Dean is absolutely willing to indulge him.

They find the bed through a succession of slips and staggers, unable to break away long enough to determine its precise location before they're on it, collapsing ungainly and tangled. Dean, more by accident than design, is underneath, spreadeagled and breathless under Cas's pinioning weight, but the way Cas squirms against him is enough to displace any discomfort, the way his hair stands up in a dark mussed sheaf when he lifts his head to breathe. He's beautiful, and it's been a while since Dean's thought such a thing about a man-shaped person, but goddamn, it's true of Cas right now, his parted pink mouth and the pupils of his eyes blown black. Dean's cock is achingly, shockingly hard at the mere sight of him, and when Cas shifts against him, grinding himself into the hollow of Dean's hip, it's all Dean can do not to arch up and flip him right then, fuck.

When their mouths come together again, it's slower, harder, jaws opening filthy wide as their tongues stroke spitslick over each other. Cas is panting into it, hips working in unconscious, incremental little fucks, and Dean feels the tension thrumming everywhere under his skin; wants to work Cas out of his stupid fucking clothes, Sam's t-shirt and jeans hanging off him already. His hand is flattened at the small of Cas's back, thumb smearing through a sheen of sweat, and it's easy enough to push lower, slide right under the too-loose waistband until the curve of Cas's backside is fitted to the cup of his palm. Dean's breathless, nervousness lurching sudden up his spine and sparking between his legs, but Cas is ready for him, pushing back against Dean's hand as his mouth slips on Dean's, finds the curve of Dean's lower lip and sucks it between his own.

Wet heat, sharp edge of teeth, and Dean's dissolving under its impact, Cas's clever tongue licking slow along the edges of his every nerve, suckling at his mouth until his skin is tingling everywhere. It's so stupidly, absolutely configured to hit every single one of Dean's bulletproof turn-ons that he might even wonder if Cas worked this out beforehand, watched Dean with someone or just felt him out as he put him back together, except that the kiss is going straight to his cock, leaving him abruptly, definitively too turned on to care. This is Cas, this is his fucking angel letting Dean grope his ass while they make out, and no part of Dean has the capacity to process that right now.

The hollow of Cas's throat smells like ozone and sweat when Dean presses his face there, mouth opening wet against the curve, but his shirt smells like Sam, a warm, comfortable smell that has no place here. He rolls his hips, taking advantage of Cas's momentary distraction, his hitched moan, to take hold of the shirt by the shoulder-seam and haul it bodily upward. It's a bad angle, Dean's vicious tug doing little but ruck up the fabric around Cas's neck, but it certainly works as an anvilicious hint and Cas takes it; pulls back long enough to grip the hem of the shirt and haul it over his head himself. In the aftermath of the gesture, he sits back on Dean's hips and breathes, hair yet more impossibly ruffled, tight pink nipples on his smooth pale chest. Dean feels his blood jump at the sight of him, his steady dark eyes burning into Dean's, the way his ribcage heaves with his breaths. Suddenly, intensely, he feels an urge to mark him up, leave him messy and dishevelled, bite at the mole on the upper swell of his right pec and suck bruises into the promontory of his clavicle. It's gut wrenching, hits him out of nowhere with the force of a semi-truck, and Dean has to close his eyes as it wracks him, both hands clenching on Cas's waist.

Cas's skin is ludicrously soft, fine and smooth like something newly made, and Dean realises with a shock as he palms it that it actually is. This body under his hands, straddling his thighs, was made for him, its particulars specified by him, and the thought leaves Dean dry-mouthed and desperate for nakedness, wanting to know exactly how perfectly they fit. He shifts, arching his back to free his t-shirt where it's trapped under his waist and goes for the hem of it. Cas, above him, seems to want the same thing he does, rolling them over bodily so Dean is on top and shoving his shirt up over his stomach. "Dean," he's murmuring, thumbs skimming the underside of Dean's ribcage, hands twisting in damp cotton as they push it up over his chest, and the tone of his voice is so crazy hot that Dean lets his head fall back and goes with it, lifting his arms so Cas can strip him. The shirt hits the carpet with a muffled sound, crumpling, and then Dean is leaning down, mouth finding the line of Cas's collarbone as they slide together, smooth and hot and gloriously bare.

In the midst of all his silken skin, the tight buds of Cas's nipples stand out starkly, drawing little whispers of sparks over Dean's chest as they move. There's sweat collecting at the small of Dean's back, at his nape; he feels it prickling all along the surface of his skin as Cas palms his spine, shoves his hands unceremoniously under the waistband of jeans and shorts together. The contact forces a groan up out of his throat, and he torques his hips, fucks down hard until Cas's thighs splay loose around him, making room. The shift brings them flush against each other, the viscous heat in Dean's veins arrowing down to a point between his legs. Cas rolls up, grinding the hard line of his cock directly against Dean's, and the flash flood of pleasure at the contact drags both of them under with it, echoing each other's cries.

"Shit," Dean mutters, thumbing at Cas's nipples, at his ribs; he drags his fingernails frenetically down Cas's flanks and follows them mindlessly with his mouth. It isn't a conscious decision inasmuch as it's an impulse, fuelled by the hot urge to learn Cas everywhere, but the sound Cas makes is deeply gratifying, the way he bucks his pelvis up hard against Dean's. Dean groans low through his teeth at the rush of it, the dizzying, prideful heat behind his eyes at the way Cas is spread for him, his wanton sprawl as Dean trails his mouth lower. His tongue leaves shining paths as it finds Cas's secret places, the soft place where his arm meets his shoulder, the sinful dip of his belly at the navel, but the spit disappears swiftly, and Dean doesn't want his claim to do the same. He digs in his nails, rakes them harder down Cas's sides until they leave fine threads of pink. Cas is panting, trembling everywhere as Dean noses his way into the cuts of Cas's pelvis and sucks on the jut of a hipbone, cresting out of his jeans.

"Dean," Cas says, back arching, wanting more, and Dean wants to give him more, never wants to stop. It takes no thought to fumble at the fastenings of his jeans, splaying the vee of them open, and then Cas is kicking, lifting his backside so Dean can dispense with jeans and undershorts together. Freed from its confines, his cock smacks up against his stomach, slick-smeared and drooling precome, and the sight hits Dean in the stomach like a physical blow.

"Fuck," he breathes, "Jesus -- Cas." He can smell him, shit, the raw human scent of his dick, and it makes Dean's cheeks cramp with the rush of saliva, mouth suddenly wet and aching to taste. He wants, tangibly, lust metallic under his tongue, and when he leans in, it is prompted by nothing but instinct.

He barely gets his lips around the head, open-mouthed kiss against the tip, before Cas is crying out, grasping at Dean's hair as his hips piston jaggedly upward. Dean huffs a breath, stomach dipping hotly, and flattens his thumbs on Cas's hipbones, pinning him down. "Still," he breathes; licks a ribbon of heat around the wet crown of Cas's cock and grins up at him darkly. Cas moans, pulsing a slick of precome over the flat of Dean's tongue, and releases his grip on Dean's hair to cover his eyes with his hands, as if it the sight of Dean like this might blind him.

"Dean," he breathes, ragged and muffled through his fingers, "Dean, I can't -- can't --" It's stupid hot, both the thready rasp of Cas's voice and the knowledge that he is already overloading on sensation and Dean has barely started. Dean can't imagine the state he'll be in by the time Dean's finished with him, but he knows he wants to see it, and soon.

"Sssh," he murmurs, curling his fingers around the base of Cas's cock and angling it so the head rubs along the curve of his lip when he speaks, slipping just slightly into the wet heat inside. "Sssh, Cas, just let me. I got this." And he opens his mouth on the tail of the word, slides down into Cas in a smooth, wet twist.

Cas yells, no other word for it, and scrabbles at Dean's hair, but Dean's hands are strong on his hips, keeping him still as he jerks abortively into Dean's mouth. It's been a while since Dean's done this, and longer still since he really wanted to, but Cas is hot silk over iron in his mouth and God, but Dean really wants to do this. Cas is so wet, the head of him sliding slippery against the insides of Dean's cheeks, saliva and precome drooling down Cas's shaft as Dean works, but that's okay, makes it easier, even. Dean tightens his fingers, jacks them up to meet his mouth as it descends, and Cas moans, tiny pulses of his hips pushing him deeper into Dean's mouth on every stroke until the tip of him hits the back of Dean's throat.

After that, it is as if Dean has fallen into some sort of frenzy. Cas, the smell of him, the taste of him all over the inside of Dean's mouth; it's too much, heady and dizzying, and all Dean can do is swallow in little flutters around the head of him and repeat; slide up slow and press his tongue into the slit. Cas is near-keening, now, gripping Dean's nape and hair and shoulders, but Dean has had enough of holding him off; slides his hands around and under Cas's backside to pull him in as deep as he will go. He can't bite back a moan as Cas edges into his throat, and the vibration sets Cas pistoning forward, his voice hitching into something almost a sob as he twists his hand in Dean's hair, tugs him roughly upward.

Dean pulls off only under duress, throat burning from the penetration, but the way Cas looks, chest heaving, everywhere sheened with sweat, is worth the sudden empty feeling in his mouth. Cas is staring at him wide-eyed, frantic, combing shivering fingers through Dean's hair, and Dean heaves a breath, thumbs the curve of Cas's hip and tries to get a hold of himself. "Cas?" His voice sounds about as bad as he expected, well-fucked and filthy and raw. "Okay?"

Cas flushes slow at that, a pink tide that Dean follows with fascination as it sweeps up his body. He looks debauched, strung out and wild, and his voice, when it comes, sounds almost as abused as Dean's. "It's just," he says, and then stops, biting his lip. Dean watches the white flash of it, rolls his own hips restlessly against the mattress.

"C'mon, Cas," he prompts. "Think it's kinda late to be shy, don't you?"

He means it -- Cas has nothing left to hide, after all, cock still wet from Dean's mouth, pupils blown -- but he's flippant with it, not really expecting Cas to capitulate and spill. So when Cas takes a jerky breath and says, "It's just... I want you to -- fuck me," Dean's blindsided, cock slicking reflexively in the confines of his jeans. His throat has gone tight, closed off; he tries to speak, but for a moment it's as if his brain has disconnected, his mouth open soundlessly. Then Cas shifts, spreads his thighs a little wider in blatant invitation, and Dean gives up, surrenders to the dizzying clutch of heat balled like a fist in the pit of his stomach.

"Shit," he manages, when he can breathe again, "shit --" and then he's scooting off the bed, legs liquid as he staggers to his feet, snapping open the buttons on his jeans one-handed while he makes a frantic survey of the room. They'll need something for this, anything, and if they do end up having to improvise, they can -- Cas won't mind, and Dean isn't about to walk away from this for anything -- but if there's any actual lube, that would be optimal. His duffel is on the floor between the beds, and he ducks to rifle through it, shucking his jeans down as he does so, and yeah, okay, there's lotion, which would do, but he seems to remember --

"Got it," he mutters in relief, extracting the bottle of KY from the inside pocket of the bag, where he stowed it over a year ago so Sam wouldn't find it. No condoms, but Cas is brand freaking new and Dean hasn't got anything, hasn't had opportunity, so maybe they can --

"Dean," Cas hisses, shifting frenetically on the bed, and, fuck, okay, Dean's sure they can manage without. He kicks off his jeans haphazardly and scrambles up onto the mattress between Cas's knees; flips open the cap of the lube and squirts an inadvertently huge amount into his hand. Cas rocks his hips up, angling for more, for closer, and Dean takes a breath, shoulders into the vee of Cas's thighs.

He feels crazy, like someone in the throes of a fever, the surface of his skin crawling like it's on fire and his cock fat and straining against his stomach. Cas, spread beneath him like a fallen idol, has closed his eyes again, his head tipped back against the pillows, and shit, Dean wants him, more than he can remember ever wanting anyone. It's all he can do to breathe as his lube-slick fingers find Cas's entrance, tracing it in tremulous, staggered circles. When Cas twitches, moans brokenly, Dean finds himself echoing it, his dick leaping against his belly.

"Dean," Cas gasps out, so roughly it barely has voice, "would you just -- " and he pushes back against Dean's fingers, shoving up so that Dean breaches the muscle to the first knuckle. It looks obscene, Cas's body opening to swallow him like that, and Dean has to reach down and steady himself with a hand at the base of his cock, because Jesus fuck.

"Christ," he groans out; dips his head impulsively to curl his tongue around the joint of his finger where it enters Cas's body. Cas stifles a yell, goes for Dean's hair in protest, and so he pulls back, but the way Cas shivered at the touch was interesting, visceral and delicious, and Dean's sure as hell going to try that again, some time when Cas isn't strung out on a hair trigger. Now, though, Cas is desperate, and Dean isn't far behind. He crooks his finger impatiently, sliding it out and fucking back in until Cas is loose enough to take a second, but Cas is clawing at Dean's hair and at the sheets, rocking into Dean's hand, and it doesn't seem like leisurely prep would be welcomed.

"Dean," Cas is moaning, "Dean, come on, Dean -- " and Dean's fingers are trembling as he works in a second, scissoring them quick and dirty, stretching him out until he can shove in a third, probably too soon. Under his hands, Cas doesn't seem to mind; thrusts back hard onto Dean's three fingers and twists his hips in a frantic figure eight, and that's it, Dean is only human.

He pulls out as slow as he can manage, wipes his sticky fingers on the sheet, and then it's a matter of seconds to haul Cas against him, to lift his knees and push them back. Cas is malleable, hooking his elbows behind his knees to hold himself open, and shit, Dean can't look at that and expect to be able to last more than a second. He scrunches his eyes tight shut against a roil of heat and lines himself up, fingers bruise-tight on Cas's thighs.

"Okay," he gasps, "okay," and it's the only warning he can give. He pushes forward, a first stuttered shove, and it's like dying, like fucking into heat so tight and perfect no part of him can take it. And then Cas moves, rocks up and grips Dean's shoulders to haul him further in, and Dean is fucking lost, pulled over an edge he never knew was coming until he was on it.

"Fuck," he yells out, "fuck." He might have been embarrassed, were it not for the way Cas's head is tipped back, mouth open on a breathless whine of sound that rises and falls; the way Cas swallows him easily like he wants to swallow him whole. It should be harder than this, with so little prep, but Cas is trembling everywhere, frantic with desperation, and they're neither of them capable of pacing themselves, not any more. Dean is having a hard enough time just supporting his weight as his hips piston forward, driving his cock into Cas's body in deep, juddering thrusts, and Cas just takes it, yelling out nonsense and clinging to whatever he can reach. It can't last, not like this, but Dean's too far gone to care, his vision starting to spark and blur as he grips tight and fucks. When Cas goes still, back arching up off the bed, it is hardly unexpected, but the way his cock leaps and spurts against his belly is still gut-wrenching, glorious, too fucking sexy for Dean to endure and survive.

"Dean," Cas grits out, "Dean!" and it's everywhere, all over him, slicks of white all over his belly and the rise of his ribcage, and Dean fucks him through it, come smearing like wax across his chest as he moves. He was close already, and Cas clamped tight like that around his cock, Cas sprawled out like a vision of sin -- Dean feels it taking root within seconds, orgasm building up huge and violent. Cas is still spurting out his last feeble shimmers when Dean seizes and comes; lets it shudder through him like thunder as he jackhammers into Cas, once, again, and holds himself still.

"Jesus." He's loud enough to be heard at the fucking front desk, probably, but he doesn't care, not with Cas's hands on him, with Cas all around him. He hasn't come as hard as this in what feels like forever, and as the last of it ebbs away he feels utterly drained; collapses onto Cas like a wounded soldier.

"God," he murmurs, brokenly, "God." And then, before his conscious mind can think better of it, "God, Cas. Love you."

Cas hitches a laugh in his chest, vibrating against Dean's ear, and presses a kiss to his sweat-damp temple. "Mmm," he says, "Dean." But he's tired, Dean can sense, everything about him singing with contented exhaustion. He doesn't say anything else, and Dean doesn't prompt; only presses a kiss to Cas's chest and turns to lay his cheek over it, only for a moment. He'll get up in a minute, clean this mess up.

It isn't until he's almost asleep (hey, he's entitled) that Dean actually realises what he just said, what made Cas laugh like that, as if all his doubts had been evaporated.

He could angst about it like he regretted it, but that would be dumb. He knows that now. Dean had this man, this being, remade to his design, chose him explicitly, was granted him by a higher power. After all that, it seems a little petty to be hoping that Cas doesn't expect to be told Dean loves him. Dean loves him viscerally, painfully, so hard he can't breathe around the shape of it: that is just the way things are. And Dean wouldn't change them for the world.

**

A little time later, Castiel wakes for the first time in a skin of his own. Dean is warm against him, naked, their legs entangled, and for a moment the swell of warmth in Castiel's chest is so intense that he does not recognise it for joy. It is almost a pain, and then he realises that it is only emotion, parsed through a body that has no other occupant, no barrier to any sensation.

He is happy, Castiel decides. He has never been happier in millennia.

Dean is awake, watching him with soft green eyes. Castiel cups a hand over his cheek and feels Dean's smile grow to fit his palm. "Okay?" Dean asks, softly.

For a moment, Castiel considers this. There is a crick in his back from the way he was positioned before, when he and Dean were fucking. His belly, where his ejaculate dried, is a little itchy. He smells of sweat and sex, and it is glorious. He smiles at Dean widely, feels his heart pound a little at the way Dean's grin widens still more in response. "I am happy," Castiel says simply, and Dean laughs a little.

"Thought you might ache," he offers, but Castiel only shakes his head.

"I do. But it is interesting."

Dean quirks his mouth. "Interesting how?"

Castiel shrugs a shoulder. "I like to feel things, human things. There is no one in this body with me now, so I feel everything." He shifts; feels the way the sheet slides against his skin, a little starchy with soap. It is uncomfortable and he enjoys it. "I thought I had experienced the world the way humans do, but now I see I was wrong."

Dean's head tilts, intrigued, but he is still smiling, still almost glowing with lassitude and simple happiness. "So this is a pretty good outcome then, huh?"

Castiel laughs. He feels it all the way down to his feet, rasping over his aching throat where his cries have left it red and raw. "It is perfect, Dean. Thank you." He doesn't know what Dean did, how this happened, but he knows it was something. Dean says nothing in reply, volunteers no information, but he doesn't reject the gratitude, and that confirms Castiel's supposition, and so it is all right. He doesn't need to know the specifics of this, not as long as he knows they have each saved the other now.

Dean is almost asleep again, nodding on Castiel's shoulder, when Castiel muses slowly, "I miss Sam." It is good to be the sole commander of his own body, but Castiel had grown very accustomed to his companion. Doubtless, he will grow accustomed to this as well, but there was a comfort in Sam's constant presence, in having him always on hand to turn to.

Dean huffs a laugh, kisses Castiel's shoulder. "What, you miss having Sasquatch goin' on at you all the time?"

Castiel smiles at the insult, Dean's casual expression of love through rudeness. It is so very Dean, and that makes Castiel love it. "Yes," he says, shrugging. "I'm used to him."

"Well," Dean says, stretching unconcernedly, "given the way we live, 's probably a pretty good thing, so." He opens his mouth against Cas's skin, languid and damp. "He'll be back soon. Just giving us time."

"Yes," Castiel agrees, low and drowsy. He and Dean fitted well enough before, but this is better, Castiel marginally smaller, curled in against his side. Castiel remembers the ways of this body, and now he will learn them fully for the first time. He will enjoy it.

Presently, he falls asleep again.

**
It's dark by the time Sam gets back to the motel, hope and fear beating out a nervous tango in his head as he hesitates outside the door to their room. Cas's revesselling had been rather anticlimactic -- Sam had blacked out unexpectedly and come round to find himself staring at Cas, sitting Jimmy-shaped and naked on the edge of the bed. Jimmy-shaped, but Jimmy Novak was long dead, now. Sam saw it happen; they buried him. Cas looked like Cas, the way he'd been when they met, but this was a body all his own, and Sam didn't know how it had happened but he knew what it must mean. Dean would be back before too long, and Sam knew immediately that he shouldn't be here then. He'd rifled through his duffel, extracted some clothes for Cas, and Cas had shrugged into them in the familiar gestures he'd learned from dressing Sam's body all this time. He looked ridiculous, swamped, but it would have to do for now. The last thing Sam wanted was to be here when Dean got back, throwing a wrench into the path of whatever was building between them, which otherwise could now break free.

He gripped Cas's nape, told him he was going to the store, but he knew from the look in Cas's eyes that there was an understanding between them, that Cas knew better. There was no time to explain, though, and Sam had fled, hoping against hope that all their prayers would truly be answered.

Now, as he fumbles open the door, his heart is in his mouth, but one look at Cas and he knows there is nothing to fear. He's scooted back against the headboard of one of the beds, radiating contentment, in loose jeans and a t-shirt Dean bought in Cali in '95. It's a black shirt, worn thin and soft with washing, and it suits Cas very well, makes him look approachable and young and pleased. Dean, at the table, is eating what appears to be an oversized marshmallow as he flips through a newspaper.

"Hey," Sam says, slowly, glancing between them, and they both grin back at him, matching 100-watt stunners.

"Hello, Sam," Cas says, unfolding. Sam's smile dips a little, confused, but Cas is apparently unconcerned; pads across the room on silent feet until they're almost touching. Dean, at the table, makes no sound, but for the white-noise of another page turning.

"Cas," Sam says, looking down at him. And God, but it's weird, after all this time, to be looking down at Cas, to have space between them where for months there'd been none. Cas is so absolutely himself like this, all wry blue eyes and the familiar curve of his mouth, that Sam can hardly credit the fact that he's ever been anything else, except for the way the back of Sam's head feels empty, like an article of clothing made to contain a much larger person. Cas seems very small, all of a sudden, and it sparks a rush of fondness in the pit of Sam's stomach, an abortive impulse to embrace. He takes a step back. That would be awkward. He and Cas established that already. "Guess you guys got it together then, huh?"

"Could say that," Dean leers, tossing Sam a wink. Sam's just in the process of pulling together a stellar bitchface when Cas hooks his arms unceremoniously around Sam's neck, which sort of makes the expression wobble alarmingly at the edges.

"Dude," Dean laughs, "you look like something just stuck you."

"I," Sam says, nonplussed, but Cas is pressing his face to Sam's shoulder, his grip strong and firm, and Sam can't deny the sense of comfort in his fierceness. Cas is happy: Sam is his friend, and these two factors between them have made him want to be hugged. Sam takes a second to congratulate himself on imbuing Cas with such skills of logical thinking, because evidently he can't have got them from Dean. His arms come up, tentative and awkward, and bracket Cas's waist, cross over his back.

"Sam," Dean says, low and wry, "Stop thinking and give Cas a goddamn hug, would you? So we can all get over it, already."

Cas tips his head back, glances up. The advantage to having Cas outside of his head, Sam realises in this moment, is that they can exchange Looks whenever Dean is being particularly Dean. Cas has arched an eyebrow, and Sam arches his right back; laughs and surrenders to his impulse to squeeze. "It's good to see you," he confesses, because even if Cas has been here this whole time, they haven't seen him, and somehow, obscurely, it's a different thing entirely.

Cas, pulling back, seems to understand. "It's good to be seen," he says, mouth quirking. He's still a little jerky in his movements, maybe, still getting used to the span of this body again, but when he crosses the room to stand at Dean's elbow, there's nothing awkward in his reaction to Dean's touch, an idle curl of Dean's fingers around Cas's wrist. It's so natural a gesture, quietly intimate, and it makes Sam lose his breath for a second. He's never seen Dean this way before, never. Dean's never been close to anyone but Sam, and Sam has always worried about it.

Now, he has Cas, and Cas loves both of them in the respectively appropriate ways. Dean doesn't have to choose, and it couldn't have been more perfect if Sam had designed the logistics himself.

He steps towards the table, halting steps. "You guys haven't eaten, have you?" he ventures. "Want me to run back out for Chinese?"

Dean glances at Cas and then back to Sam. There's equal intimacy in each look, and Sam feels his heart swell just a little further. "Nah. Let's go out to eat, huh? Pizza."

Cas's eyes light up. "With peppers?"

"Yes," Sam interjects, before Dean can refuse. "You and I can get peppers. Dean can suffocate himself with his meat feast all on his own."

The change in Cas's expression at that is so wholly unexpected that Sam doesn't realise that it's actually amusement until Dean snorts, squeezes Cas's wrist. "Yeah, well. Maybe not all on my own." Whereupon Sam gets it, and ew.

"Gross, Dean," Sam protests, wrinkling his nose.

"Dude, you try and gang up on me, expect to be ganged up on right back, okay? He's my goddamn angel." He gets up, shoves the chair back in place beneath the table. "That a plan, then? We'll have to book another room when we get back, since these are the narrowest fucking alleged queens I've ever seen in my life, but that's okay. Should be able to ditch this place by this time tomorrow, you think?"

This last is to Sam, but it takes Sam's brain a second to make the connection between -- this -- and their research about the case that brought them here, 24 hours ago when everything in their lives was different. The fact that Dean can switch so easily between the two is shocking, but then, Dean's been with Cas, in a separate body, if not thisseparate body, all along, not holed up with him in the same damn skull. Sam guesses it's different, guesses it's easier, and he knows it'll make everything easier for all of them. This is their life now, Sam, Dean and Cas and whatever creepy bastards need blasting off the face of the earth. That was their life last week, and that's their life now, no need for ceremony or angst or discussion.

Except that Sam is totally not sharing a room with these guys unless he's absolutely forced to, two proper queen beds or not.

"Yeah," he tells Dean, when he can speak again. "I, uh -- yeah, I think we can gank the thing by tomorrow."

"Awesome." Dean slings his jacket over his shoulder, retrieves his keys. "Let's go, then. If this place has good beer, you get to be designated driver, Sammy."

And so it goes, Sam thinks, as he follows his brother and his angel out of the door. And so it goes.

~finis~