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Dean wakes angry. Castiel has known this ever since he’s known him. He emerges from sleep like a bear from hibernation, shaking her head against the onrush of spring sun.

The more so when Dean has slept seven years in Faerie, in the Queen’s garden.

“He did what? You let him do what?” says Dean.

However anticipated, Dean’s anger is still daunting. This was one of the many reasons Castiel had argued, fruitlessly, against Sam’s decision.

“Sam chose to stay,” Castiel says.

Dean swipes a lamp off the table.

“Then we’re going to go back and fucking unchoose for him. What the hell, Cas. What were you thinking? You think I’d want this?”

Castiel thinks that Sam had wanted it. Or at least chosen it. And he himself had conceded, for as many and as few reasons as he’d at first resisted. But if he can keep Dean and also retrieve Sam, that, of course, would be ideal.

“I can go,” says Castiel. “It’s dangerous for you. It was to free you that Sam did what he did.”

Dean snorts.

“You said I was sleeping in a garden. Not exactly dangerous. Fuck dangerous, anyway. And fuck Sam.”

Castiel thinks how beautiful Dean’s face had been, sleeping. There are dangers of which Dean is unaware.

“We can try,” says Castiel. Conceding, as he had to Sam.

But Faerie has closed its borders to Dean. Hack as Dean will, hedges of brambles don’t give way. Saucers of milk are overturned in the morning, or a bait only for stray cats. There are no doors into the hills.

“Let me in, you cowards,” Dean shouts at a ring of inoffensive mushrooms. They stand, meek and mocking, in a tray of Irish dirt on the Bunker table. Making a gate has worked no better than finding one. “I’m going to stick cold iron so far up Oberon’s ass …”

“You were taken by the Queen’s court, not the King’s,” Castiel reminds him. “Sam dealt with her well enough. He’s awake, and not lacking in wits.” Indeed, without his soul, Sam cannot sleep. It had been one of the arguments Sam had used. She can’t very well put me in her garden, can she? Inevitably, it turns out to be less effective offered secondhand to Dean. “And his soul is safe.”

The jar is right here, on the library table. When Dean isn’t testing shut borders, or drinking, he sits and watches it by the hour. The white light of it shimmers on his face like sun reflected from water. Castiel watches it as Dean watches the jar.

“Sam is in a jar. And I don’t care if T1000 is the Faerie Queen’s BFF. I need my brother, not a set of spare parts.” He hefts the jar, as though he’s about to throw it, like one of the lamps. As though where he can’t help, he can at least hurt.

“I can go back,” Castiel says again. He believes it is true. Faerie is alien to his kind, but not usually deadly. He’d made no bargains. “I can at least talk to Sam. Maybe I can persuade him to renegotiate.”

He doesn’t think it will put Dean in danger. Faerie drives hard bargains, but it respects those who escape, by trickery or sophistry or chance or rescue. It won’t let Dean unrescue himself.

“He’s not Sam,” says Dean. “Yeah, OK. You go. Shove this,” he thrusts the jar at Castiel like a weapon, “back in where it belongs. And then you bring him back. You’d better bring him back, you hear me? Fix this.”

The demand is unreasonable and unfair, of course, and not less so because Castiel had offered. Sam will resent it. Castiel has no authority to force him. But he cannot refuse. He retraces his steps in compliance, walking back into Faerie with Sam’s soul in a jar in his pocket. The border lets him pass.

 

Castiel is not sure what he had expected. Not this.

He’d walked here through woods, the wind in their branches like the roaring of the sea. The ground was crusted with snow. Last time the realm had been field on field of flowers, but landscape and season have altered. Castiel had seen the tracks and scat of animals: wolf, bear, boar, badger, deer. At times his own prints had been those of a barefoot man, or the talons of an eagle, the paw of a lion, the cloven hoof of an ox, though he’s wearing his familiar vessel and its familiar vesture. Here and there he’d seen blood on the snow, a scatter of fur or feathers and the stirred print of wings where a hawk must have struck.

No one had accosted him. Only a few red squirrels scolded monotonously from the trees.

He’d asked the first fae he met — a nimble creature of wood, jointed like an insect — where to find Sam.

“Which one?” it said.

“The only one you have,” said Castiel. The jar was a weight in his pocket. He’d wrapped it in cloth, to keep it whole, to keep light from spilling.

“Go the way you go and you will find him,” the creature said, unhelpfully. “What has it got in its pocketses?” it added, and scuttled off giggling into the trees.

But it had spoken the truth. In time there had been a path through the woods, and then a clearing in the trees, and this small house.

It’s a single story, built of shingled wood with a slanting roof covered in corrugated tin. Smoke curls from a chimney. Firewood is stacked against one wall. A pelt, deer, is pegged against another to dry. Chickens stray, pecking, in the trodden yard in front of the door.

It looks cozy.

Despite his assurance to Dean, Castiel had feared, perhaps, that he might once again find Sam in a cage. Not Lucifer’s, of course. But the Queen had accepted this soulless version in trade for Dean as a curiosity. Like a rock with a hole in it, she had said. Curiosities often find themselves in cages. Castiel had not expected Sam to have a home.

The door opens and a white cat emerges. She pauses on the threshold for a moment, testing the air, then jumps down the step and goes mincing across the snow towards the woods. Castiel is about to move back under the trees — he will have to think how best to approach Sam — but the door swings wider.

“Cas,” says Sam.

This version of Sam was never effusive, but he doesn’t sound hostile.

Sam steps out the door and closes it behind him. He’s wearing hide trousers, a blue wool shirt, and a long shearling vest. He’s bearded. His hair is tied back under a shearling hat. It makes his cheekbones sharper and shows the slight slant of his eyes. Something is slung over his shoulder, a bow.

He looks well, Castiel thinks. There is color in his face.

“What are you doing here?” Sam asks.

“Dean …,” Castiel begins. It’s probably not the best choice of opening.

Sam’s lips press together. He turns to fasten the door with a bronze latch and steps down into the snow.

“Dean is out, right?” he says. “He got home? He can’t be back in an enchanted sleep. You’d be standing at his bedside, gazing.”

“Dean’s fine,” says Castiel. “He’s back at the Bunker. But he can’t be content without you.”

“That sounds like a Dean problem, not a me problem.”

“Neither of you does well without the other,” says Castiel.

Sam shrugs.

“I’ve been here seven years without Dean and I’m doing fine,” he says.

Of course. Time runs differently in Faerie. Seven years? That may be propitious. Or not.

“You sought him out the last time. Even without your soul. You were drawn together. I’m here to, Dean asked me, I’m here to bring you back.”

If Sam had been in a cage, even a kinder one, this would have been an easier rescue.

“Dean’s errand boy,” says Sam. “Of fucking course. Let me guess. I made a choice, Dean threw a hissy fit, you trudged meekly back here to do his bidding. Give me a break, Cas. Grow a pair.”

“You’ve had seven years,” Castiel points out. “I can wait a little longer, even.”

It’s probable that little if any time will pass for Dean. Sam is throwing his own hissy fit. If Castiel is patient he will have time to make him see reason. “If you hear me out, you may change your mind.”

“Well, right now I’m off hunting, so you’re shit out of luck. You can come if you want. But don’t talk.”

Sam strides off without waiting for an answer. Castiel walks beside him. They go downhill. After a while the ground becomes marshy and open. There are pools, edged with ice and cattails, reflecting the thin, high clouds. Sam finds a dry tussock and kneels, scanning the marsh through the reeds. Castiel stands beside him until Sam hisses down! and Castiel crouches obediently in icy mud. It’s uncomfortable. After a while Castiel begins to shiver. The weather in Faerie is strange. He is not as immune to it as he is to varying temperature on Earth.

“So you’re still a hunter,” he ventures, after a while. Here is a point of continuity Sam may admit to.

“I said don’t talk,” Sam replies in a savage whisper. His voice is almost drowned by the beat of wings. Seven geese, in a staggered V. Sam cocks an arrow to his bowstring and waits, tracking.

“You should shoot,” says Castiel. It was probably their voices that disturbed the birds. Castiel has done Sam a favor. Perhaps because he resents this, Sam is wasting the chance.

Sam stands still a few long wingbeats longer before he lets fly. One of the geese plunges ungainly down. They trudge to retrieve it along the margins of the marsh. They find it with one wing dragging in a pool, Sam’s arrow through its throat.

“I have to bring them down over land, you see, somewhere I can get to them. Not easy, with the trees. I could use a retriever. How about it, Cas? You interested in a job?”

Castiel considers. His wings, damaged on Earth, function here. There would be pleasure in using them. But it’s cold and wet, and he doesn’t want to handle dead birds.

“No, thank you,” he says.

Sam laughs.

“Good for you, Cas,” he says. “Dean’s errand boy, but not my bird dog. Maybe you have one gonad.”

Castiel doesn’t respond. It’s a provocation, not a compliment.

Sam stops to hang the dead goose in one of the cottage’s small outbuildings. There are several; Castiel sees a coop for the chickens, and what must be an outhouse.

The door to this one has a heavy bronze bar, placed high. There’s a deer’s body in there as well, skinned and neatly butchered and half frozen, and a couple of large fish.

“It has to be secure to keep out the bears,” Sam explains. “I hunt for me, not them. But I only hunt sometimes, when I need meat. I do other things. I’m not a hunter.”

“What do you do with the nights?” Castiel asks. Without his soul, after all, Sam is sleepless.

Sam leers at him.

“Are you propositioning me, Cas?”

Another provocation.

“I was asking,” says Castiel.

Sam shrugs.

“I knit a lot,” he says. “There’s plenty to do. Are you coming in?”

Castiel follows Sam into the house, contemplating the knitting. Is Sam mocking him again? Knitting seems incongruous.

The interior of Sam’s home is surprisingly spacious. There’s a brick fireplace with hooks for bronze pots and an oven built into the wall beside it. Most of the walls are a patchwork of drawers and cupboards and pegs with hanging tools. But there are three windows, one with a wooden sash and glass panes, two covered only with stretched hides. There’s no bed — naturally — but there are chairs and a table and a long flat couch covered with furs and bright cushions.

Sam waves in a gesture more impatient than welcoming.

“Be my guest. Take your coat off. Make yourself at home.”

Castiel does take his coat off. There’s a muffled thunk when the soul bottle swings against the table. Sam glances Castiel’s way, but he doesn’t say anything. He moves about, hanging up his bow and quiver, cleaning the arrow he’d taken from the goose’s neck, checking something in a clay pot in the oven. Castiel sits down.

“You should consider whether your soul has a say in your choices,” he says. “You value your autonomy.” Clearly. “You seem comfortable here. But your soul is confined. It may have a, a desire for completeness, even if you do not.”

“You need to work on appropriate guest small talk, Cas. At least try for a segue before launching into speeches. The soul is fine. I’m sure you got it a nice jar. Dean probably keeps it on his bedside table. Which, creepy, but, again, a Dean problem, not a me problem. Not even a soul-me problem.”

So maybe Sam doesn’t realize what Castiel brought in his pocket.

Sam sits down across from him at the table and leans forward.

“You can stick around for a bit if you want,” he says. “I don’t mind company. You might make yourself useful. But no evangelizing. You start in on the soul shit again, you’re out the door.”

How will Sam enforce that, Castiel wonders. Bar Castiel out like the bears?

“Very well, ” Castiel says. There is little point in argument and no call for drastic action. The sideways time of Faerie offers a certain leisure. Dean won’t have to wait through it.

And Castiel is curious. He wants to see if Sam really does knit.

 

He does. His existence here involves many tasks. Their variety is quite engrossing. Castiel helps, sometimes, but more often he watches. Sam fletches arrows. He collects eggs from his chickens; once he wrings the neck of one and plucks and cooks it, with turnips and carrots from his small root cellar and herbs from the dry bunches that hang from the ceiling. Castiel doesn’t need food and the memory of Sam’s large, deft hands killing the hen sits uneasily with him, but the smell of the stew makes his mouth water.

When snow falls Sam shovels paths. He splits the great logs from his woodpile before bringing them in, shoulders hefting the ax and bringing it down with neat certainty. He fetches water from a covered spring — ice skims it some mornings, but it doesn’t freeze — and boils it for cooking and cleaning and drinking. Every ten days or so he hunts, but it’s true that that’s only a small component of his activity.

Castiel wonders how someone who did need sleep would manage. Sam doesn’t suffer from any excess of hours.

At night when Sam knits — he gets wool from the Traders, he says, and trades them his makings in turn — Castiel stands and listens. Angel radio is silent here, but beyond the walls and Sam’s breathing and clicking needles he hears branches cracking, the muffled glide of owls, the light, quick heartbeat of a chipmunk in his burrow. Sometimes when the owls get lucky he hears some creature’s brief last scream.

The cat hunts mice in the corners: long waiting, swift pounces. Then she will toss her prey, release it, wait for it to take refuge and then emerge back into range of her claws. Sam is a far more merciful hunter. But when she lays the small, still corpse by his slipper at last Sam leans down and tickles her ear and she purrs.

In the morning the rooster crows, grating and joyous, and the sun sets the feathers of frost on Sam’s one glass window on fire. Sam pulls on boots and goes to the outhouse and comes back shivering.

“You’re lucky you’re an angel. The outhouse is cold as fuck.”

Castiel is indeed grateful. He didn’t enjoy defecating at the best of times.

One day the Traders come by, a motley crew, some fae, some human, pulling bright painted sledges, and Sam trades a dazzling white fox fur and two intricately patterned scarves for a second window sash. This one is painted sky blue, and Sam installs it in the western wall. Now Castiel can watch the sunsets.

Sam strips in front of him casually, when he washes in a copper tub in front of the fire. Castiel smells his sweat before Sam sluices it off and the room fills instead with the scent of rosemary and sage from Sam’s traded soap. Castiel watches the burnish of his muscles in the firelight, the droplets that trace paths down his neck and back from his dripping hair before he rubs it imperfectly dry with slippery linen.

“You know, I do kind of miss motel room towels,” he says.

It’s the closest Castiel hears him come to sentiment. But he can’t take advantage of the opening, if it is one. Sam’s nakedness is without self-consciousness, but it is a transparent invitation, and one not without effect. Like the weather, these movements of blood seem to affect Castiel more here.

Castiel is an angel. This Sam, like him, has no need of sleep, but they should still be set apart by Sam’s human functions. Castiel doesn’t trudge to an outhouse every morning, or eat stew. And Castiel is here on Dean’s behalf. His sensations at the sight of Sam’s nakedness are nothing like what he feels for Dean.

Yet Castiel is becoming attuned to the rhythms of Sam’s life here, and to the other rhythms outside in the dormant woodland, the fierce, poignant cycle of killing, surviving, storing, constructing homes.

 

Perhaps he should stay at the house when Sam next invites him hunting, but he doesn’t. They have a chilled, cramped wait of it in the grey dawn before Sam brings down his deer. When steam rises from the deer’s slit belly as Sam opens it Castiel feels a strange craving for the heat.

He waits while Sam does his butchering, sorting the organs, throwing the inedible parts away into the banked snow. Dean would not want to watch this, though he’s seen Sam kill, over and over and over. But Sam is a careful hunter, here, economical and efficient. His shots seldom miss. His hands are elegant, even at this work. And it’s less cruel than the food Sam and Dean eat back home in their brightly lit diners.

A raven has flown down to investigate the discarded guts. To her, Sam must seem helpful, even generous.

“Quit with the silent staring act, Cas,” says Sam, without looking up. “If this turns you on, we can fuck. Is up against a tree in the woods what you’ve been waiting for?”

“Are you trying to provoke me?”

“I’m trying to get you to get a move on. Your sad, lonely boner makes for a lousy roommate. Pine for love of Dean, sure, sad, but whatever, but don’t pine for sex with me if you want to get any. Pining’s really fucking boring.”

Castiel surveys the grey and white landscape, the splashes of blood on the snow, the deer’s clouding eyes, the black raven pecking the offal. He feels the beat of the forest’s great, silent heart quicken with his arousal. He’s an angel, Sam is human, more or less, but this is Faerie. Castiel is beginning to understand.

“Are you sure you’ll like what you’ve provoked?” he asks. It’s a real question.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll at least find it interesting.”

Castiel crouches down across the deer’s body from Sam and searches Sam’s face. There’s an innocence to this version of Sam that the whole one, for all his diffidence, lacks. With that innocence Castiel will deal gently.

“You have no idea, do you, what this place is.”

“I’ve lived here seven years, dude. I’ve pretty much gone native.”

“I’ve lived seven billion years, in many places. I walk among humans, and in heaven. I’ve harrowed hell. I can travel the galaxies if I wish. I’m an angel. But this place is life, in all its strangeness and cruelty. Angels have an off-kilter relationship with biology.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be part lion, part eagle, part ox? Sounds like you’ve got an even more off-kilter relationship with bestiality.”

Castiel remembers his prints in the snow on his journey, bare foot, eagle talon, ox hoof, lion paw. But this isn’t the far reaches of heaven. He is flesh and blood, this flesh and blood. He doesn’t need anything but his hands and his mouth and his penis and the air of this place, the beating heart of the forest.

There are animals gathering round them, a doe and a spotted fawn, a fisher cat, a moose, huge as a house, a black bear, a porcupine. Castiel can smell them, rank and sweet and musky, torn leaves and warm earth and blood. He can feel their breath. It seems he is to have an audience.

Well. For years, walking his Father’s creation, he’s watched animals kill and couple. Now they can watch him.

He dips his fingers in the deer’s blood. It’s not steaming, now, but it’s still warm. He draws them down Sam’s cheeks, marking him. Gently.

“You’re right,” he says, he says quietly. “You’re right that you’re not a hunter. You’re the prey. I came here hunting you. Now I will have you. And before I’m done you will yelp like a vixen and bell like a stag and scream like a rabbit taken by a hawk.”

Sam bares his teeth at him. “You do that, Cas,” he says. But Castiel can smell the arousal under his insolence.

“Castiel,” Castiel says. “When I give you your climax, you will call me Castiel.”

And when he does — Sam bound to an oak with lashings of supple willow, Castiel’s semen dripping down his thigh from his anus, the mark of Castiel’s teeth in the hollow of his throat — Sam arches his neck back like a bow bent to breaking and his “Castiel!” brings a thunder of snow down from the trees and startles the watching beasts.

Indeed, Castiel is a little surprised, when they get back to the house, to find that its walls are still standing.

After that Castiel watches Sam bathe with an eye of possession. And he continues to observe the countless tasks with which Sam apportions his nights and days, his hours and minutes: shutting the chickens in at nightfall, letting them out at cockcrow, making a hot mash of grain for them, cooking his own food — quite well; Castiel shares it, sometimes, now, though he avoids the meat dishes — curing hides, smoking fish, sewing goose down into quilts against the growing cold. He’s ingenious, efficient. A kind of admiration mingles with Castiel’s lust. When they come together Sam yields with the intensity Castiel commands, but afterwards he sponges off briskly and turns the whole of his concentration to some endlessly varied, variously repeated new thing.

And Castiel still enjoys the hours when he and Sam forget each other’s presence, when Sam knits and winds his wool and diagrams his stitches and Castiel stands near the window and listens.

 

One morning when they’re leaving the house Sam hands Castiel a pair of mittens.

“Here,” he says.

They’re clearly new. Castiel examines their intricate pattern, grey, black, brown, white, like the winter woods.

“Thank you,” Castiel says. Sam must have made them in the nights, while Castiel pondered the creak of ice in the marsh or the calls of a flight of geese.

“The weather here gets to you, even with your angel thing. I’ve noticed. I’d lose out on some pretty hot sex if you got frostbite and your hands fell off.”

“My hands won’t fall off. But thank you.”

“I made a belt, too,” says Sam over his shoulder, “but that one’s more for me.”

Sam puts a new peg in the wall for the belt to hang on. In time the marks of Sam’s teeth and the darkened patches left by his spittle, the places where the leather stretches when he strains bound arms, make a pattern as dense as his knitting.

 

Castiel keeps the mittens in the other pocket of his coat. He remembers the soul jar, of course. It strikes rhythmically against his thigh when they walk in the woods. But there’s no hurry. This time isn’t passing for Dean. And it hasn’t been very long yet. They’re not at the solstice. Though sometimes he wonders what Sam makes of his presence.

He can ask him. He does.

“I mean, I know why you’re here,” Sam says. “It’s not exactly a mystery.”

“Why am I here?” Castiel asks.

“Cause I don’t give a shit about Dean and you’re hoping it’s catching. Hey, maybe it’s an STD.”

Castiel is silent. Sam starts to strip. He’s been chopping wood; he smells of it, and of perspiration.

“Think about it, Cas. There’s no Dean here. They’ve shut him out at the borders. And that’s what you want.” Sam pulls out the drawer where he keeps a bottle of oil and spills some over his fingers, props his foot on the couch and begins to work himself open, grunting as his fingers probe deep. “You’re finally taking a break from your hopeless crush. I get that. I’m not Mr Sensitive, but I’m the guy who gets that. You’re safe here. There’s no Dean inside me. I’m one hundred percent Dean-free. Like one of those things that are made without peanuts in a factory with no peanuts. You can relax on the anaphylactic shock front.”

He draws his fingers out of himself and thrusts them under Castiel’s nose.

“Smell, Cas. No Dean. Go in as deep in as you like, you won’t find Dean.”

There is Dean in the jar in Castiel’s pocket, tangled with the other part of Sam. But the coat is across the room, on a peg by the door.

Sam lies down by Castiel and they couple without ceremony, except that Castiel takes down the belt and binds Sam’s arms. It had been a gift, after all; it should be used. And Sam’s sharp cry when he tugs against the bond brings a bright, hard heat to Castiel, altogether different from the soft, subtle firelight. When his seed spatters over Sam’s skin it sizzles like water on a griddle. The next day there’s a spray of white, shiny scars on Sam’s thighs, like drops from a fountain, or a constellation.

“Dude,” says Sam. “Ask before going with the next-level-hickey tattoo.”

“I didn’t know it would happen,” says Castiel, truthfully. It’s a thing of this place. But he doesn’t regret his unintentional act. The marks become one of the things that he likes to look at. Sam touches them sometimes, too, with curious fingers.

 

The morning of the solstice Castiel comes in from a walk to find Sam slinging a leather bag over his shoulder.

“I have to go to court. Winter court and summer court, twice a year. It’s a thing. You can come if you like. You might want to lose the coat, though. The Queen prefers colors.”

Sam is wearing a long velvet vest in blood-dark red, embroidered extravagantly with golden flowers. His hair is knotted high, not tied as he usually wears it at the nape of his neck, and it’s set with golden combs. It makes his face look sharp and alien. His big hands are heavy with rings. The outfit suits his broad shoulders and his body’s long lines. It should please the Queen, certainly.

“I think I’ll stay here. I don’t care for the Queen. You shouldn’t, either.”

Castiel remembers the Queen quite vividly, her serrated legs, the small, pointed head with its formidable jaws and huge compound eyes, the translucent green and pink wings. Sam has put on these clothes for her. He’ll bow to her.

And she had dared to brood over Dean’s sleep.

“Shall I give her your greetings?” Sam asks, insolent.

Castiel steps in front of him and undoes one of the black leather thongs that fasten his vest.

“Tell the Queen you dress for her but you strip for Castiel.”

Sam’s breath comes quick but he refastens his vest and puts on his hat.

“Hot, Cas. But save the line for when I get back. I’m not stupid. Why make powerful enemies when it’s easy to just blend in? Since you’re here, take care of the chickens.”

Castiel is restless for the three nights that Sam is gone. One evening after sunset, when he’s shut the chickens in their coop and fastened it against foxes, he takes the soul jar out of his pocket and unwraps the cloth. He looks around in its wavering white light at the shelves and the drawers, the pegs and cabinets, the cat washing her ear methodically on the rug. The nights will be getting shorter. That’s change, even if its ripples don’t reach to where Dean is waiting.

 

After Sam returns Castiel spends more time alone, outside when Sam is in, inside when Sam is out. Sometimes the cat comes along when Castiel walks in the woods. She leaves delicate prints in the snow beside his tracks. Once in a clearing Castiel takes out the soul jar again and the snow is a dazzle of rainbows.

Sam doesn’t seem disturbed by his change of habits. There are weeks of hard cold when game is scarce and the ice is too thick to fish and the hens stop laying. Sam has little attention to spare. Castiel still doesn’t think his hands likely to fall off, but he does wear the mittens when he’s outside.

Then the snow starts to soften as the mornings and evenings grow lighter and Sam has a new preoccupation, setting wooden taps and buckets on the maple trees and then endlessly boiling the painstakingly dripped sap.

“Pancakes are pretty shit without maple syrup,” he explains.

One night it rains. Castiel listens to the racket of it on the tin roof. He’s been here a season. He imagines staying seasons.

 

He ranges farther. He doesn’t always return at night. There are other landscapes over the hills, beyond Sam’s woods. It’s like heaven, that way. Castiel finds a beach and stands for a day and a night watching the ocean. He moves to return at sunrise, then changes his mind. He’ll spend some time looking at the tide pools, first. He potters, head bent, collects a few shells. Toward afternoon he finds a rock with a hole in it.

It’s grey green with lighter grey streaks, nothing remarkable. But the hole is pleasing, oval, off-center, worn smooth by waves. Castiel keeps it.

On his way back he meets the child.

A human girl. Seven, maybe. She has dark brown skin. Her hair springs from under her cap in a cloud of soft curls. Her clothes are richly colored, warm, but torn and faded.

“Hello,” says Castiel.

She looks at him with intelligent eyes and says something in the language of Faerie, a cascade of sound like birdsong. Castiel understands human tongues, but this one he can’t master. Sam only speaks a few pidgin phrases with the Traders.

Castiel crouches closer to her level and stays still. After a minute she approaches him and examines the buttons on his coat. Then she yanks sharply and one comes loose. She dances back with it, laughing.

“You can keep it,” says Castiel.

She runs off into the woods, clutching the button. What will she do with it? Hide it in a hollow tree like a squirrel? Where does she live?

 

He tells Sam about her when he gets back to the house.

“Oh, yeah,” Sam says, “a changeling. They bring them to the court when they’re seven. After that they can go where they like on their own.”

“Aren’t they too young? Won’t they get hurt? This isn’t an easy place.”

Sam shrugs.

“Most of them seem to survive,” he says. “Come to think of it, it’s not really so different from Dad, and me and Dean are OK. Some of them join the Traders. And the Queen takes a few for her garden, when they’re older. So they’re just asleep. Pretty boring, but safe.”

Castiel thinks of the girl’s alert brown eyes.

“That’s wrong,” he says. “We should, we should find a way to stop it. Dean would.”

“Dean didn’t do a hell of a lot to stop it when it was him in the garden. He just snored. And I’m not staging any more rescues.”

Sam turns his back, slicing potatoes into the boiling pot slung over the fire. It seems the conversation is over.

 

After that the child often finds Castiel on his walks. She’ll play in the woods a little to one side of him. Once she climbs a tree and brings him down a handful of nuts from some squirrel’s store. He thanks her, but doesn’t take them. She’s the one who requires food. For that matter, the squirrel had more need of them than Castiel does. He offers her a gift in turn, though, next day, one of the scarves that Sam makes for exchange with the Traders. The nights are still very chilly, and Sam’s scarves are warm. Sam looks annoyed when he discovers the loss, but he says nothing.

 

“Maybe she could stay in the house,” Castiel says once, tentatively, “at least till the weather gets warmer.”

“She’s fae,” says Sam. “She won’t come under a metal roof. Why do you think I have one? Anyway, I don’t want her. It’s crowded enough with two people and a cat.”

“She isn’t fae, she’s human.”

“She was raised fae. It sticks. What is this, anyway, Cas? Are you nesting, or something? We start having sex so you go broody and want a baby?”

In fact they haven’t had sex recently. Castiel’s mind has been on other things. But that night he takes Sam savagely, without preparation, thrusting and biting till Sam throws back his head and howls like a wolf while he ejaculates. Castiel is disgusted, afterwards, for the first time, by this mortal thing he’s done, by the pleasure that clouds Sam’s eyes when he fingers his bruises.

“At least your midlife crisis isn’t cramping your style,” Sam says, and Castiel wants to slap him. He walks out instead.

 

The child is late finding him that day, and she doesn’t move with her usual quickness. She stands awkwardly, holding her arm crooked against her thin chest.

“Are you hurt?” says Castiel. “I can help. Let me see.”

She looks at him mistrustfully, but when he kneels and holds out his hands she puts her hand into his, wincing. The wrist is broken. A fall from a tree, maybe. She’s always climbing trees.

Castiel’s power flows differently, here, sometimes trickling, sometimes in spate, in winding channels. The bone mends whole at his touch, but the angle’s a little off. It’s not quite the same. But the girl looks at it with wonder. Then she laughs, turns a cartwheel, and runs off into the woods. Probably to climb more trees.

 

Castiel returns to the house angrier than he had left.

“She was hurt. You let her get hurt.”

That’s as unreasonable a thing as Dean has ever said to Castiel. Castiel knows that. Sam seems to think so, too.

“I’ve never even met her,” he says. “She’s your changeling, not mine.”

“We need to save her,” Castiel says, stubbornly. “Saving people used to be what you did. But I guess you don’t care about it now.”

Sam snorts.

“Ding, ding, ding. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. What do you want me to do, anyway, kidnap her? I told you I’m not stupid. I’m not stealing from the Queen.”

“You can’t leave, in any case,” says Castiel slowly. “You remaining here soulless was the bargain for Dean’s return. You chose that penalty, for Dean.”

Castiel has been putting off that problem all along, buried in his pocket along with the soul jar. Maybe he’ll have to take the child back to the human realms on his own. Though Dean will hardly accept her as a substitute for Sam.

“Don’t project your martyrdom complex on me. I’m sure you’d love to do the big sacrifice act for Dean. He might even cry. I bet you’d get off on that. But this place isn’t a penalty for me. I like it. I could walk if I didn’t. They wanted a curiosity, the soulless guy, the rock with a hole in it. They came and looked at me, the first few years. The fae scientists at the courts did a bit of poking and prodding. But the novelty wore off fast. No one’s been by to gawk in three years or so.”

It’s true, apart from the Traders, and the girl, Castiel hasn’t seen anyone here but Sam, not since the stick creature said what has it got in its pocketses and ran off giggling.

And Castiel had known this whole time, hadn’t he, that Sam was choosing to stay. That he himself was choosing to tarry in this cramped cabin, to bear useless witness to pointless, laborious chores.

“How can you be content with this, if you’re free? How can you choose this? All you do here is survive. What’s the purpose? Hunting, shitting, chopping firewood. Feeding your chickens. Then hunting and shitting again.”

Sam shrugs.

“It’s enough for me. What does anyone do but survive? Some people are just really fucking bad at it, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing something different, something nobler. And I’m not bad at this. I’m pretty damn good. I keep busy.”

Castiel takes a breath. He is being unjust. He is being unjust because he is reluctant, because he is postponing. Again. He’s lingered here for months, and he’s still postponing.

He looks around at the drawers and the cabinets, full of the tools of Sam’s life. Yarn, needles, awl, hammer, saw, barley flour, bags of goose down, herbs, oil, dried apples, the glass windows that Sam traded pelts and scarves for. It’s marvelous, and Castiel knows that. Its scant sufficiency is full abundance. Castiel will miss it. He’d been base, flinging insults at Sam’s life, as though this were really a lovers’ quarrel. Postponing. It’s time to act.

“Sam, I’m sorry,” he says.

Sam snorts again.

“You didn’t hurt my delicate feelings, Cas.”

“No,” says Castiel. “For this.” And he pins Sam against the wall while he reaches into his pocket.

 

Castiel had thought he understood this hunt when he’d taken Sam in the woods that first time. But that had been a false trail, the hare’s great leap sideways in snow that throws off her trackers.

Or else it had been a rehearsal. Castiel is the hunter. He came here in pursuit of Sam. He’d come on behalf of Dean. Dean would want him to save the child. Dean had sent him to save Sam. Castiel has his prey cornered. He’ll do what he needs to do.

It would have been easier if he’d done it at once, easier for both of them. Sam is struggling against Castiel, sweating with fear, shrinking from the white light of the jar. It’s hard to believe this is a surprise to him, though, even if the moment is unexpected. Surely he’d suspected. Surely he’d had a chance to search Castiel’s pockets. On some level he must have wanted this outcome, or at least accepted it.

Or he’d trusted Castiel.

“Cas,” says Sam. “Don’t do this. Please don’t do this. You don’t have to do this. Just go. Take the kid and go back to Dean.”

He sounds more like his souled self when he’s frightened. Perhaps it’s an act. If so, it’s effective.

“You must have guessed,” says Castiel. He has to know, though he can’t trust Sam to tell him the truth. “Why didn’t you just pick my pocket and destroy the jar?”

Sam’s soul could have gone to feed the roots and flowers of Faerie.

Sam’s eyes are darting here and there, like a fox away from its earth hearing the baying of hounds, terrified, but cunning. He spits in Castiel’s face.

“You want me to console your sad angel conscience? Or just satisfy your curiosity one last time?”

It’s Sam for whom this is an end, but it’s true that it’s Castiel who is asking a last favor.

“I’d like to know,” he says. “Please tell me.”

Sam grins at him with bloody teeth. He’s been biting his cheek. He’s probably planning to use his blood for a banishing sigil. It might or might not work here, but the point is moot. Castiel won’t free his hands.

“I figured a bit of risk would make any sex we had better. I wasn’t wrong. But sorry, Cas, you’re not that good a lay.”

He twists like an eel and his knee jabs into Castiel’s testicles. The pain is astonishingly intense. But Castiel is stronger than Sam. He keeps Sam pinioned with one hand. With the other he breaks the jar and grinds the jagged shards into Sam’s chest. White light mingles with blood. It seeps into Sam while Castiel continues to hold him. Sam convulses and screams. Then he slumps to the floor. Castiel sits beside him and waits.

The house is silent. The cat crouches in a corner, her tail bushed. When there’s no further commotion she approaches cautiously, advancing, retreating, advancing, and sniffs at Sam’s face. What she smells seems to reassure her. She saunters off, jumps onto the couch, and curls up in a patch of sun.

 

Castiel had not considered what to do now. He doesn’t know if the resouling will have been perceptible to the fae, but surely he and Sam would do well to leave promptly. They can find the girl and make their way to the borders. But last time, when Dean and Death and Bobby Singer had done this, Sam had lain unconscious for days. Though on that occasion his soul had been terribly damaged. That isn’t the case now. Castiel hasn’t put him at that kind of risk. Surely he’ll wake soon.

Castiel reaches out towards Sam’s bloody chest. At least he can heal that. Crookedly. After a fashion.

Sam’s eyes open and he moves, pushing Castiel’s hand away.

“Cas,” he says. “Leave it. I’ll … just a second, OK?”

He sits up against the wall, head bowed on bent knees. It’s only a few minutes before he looks up.

“Dean. When you left was he, uh, OK?”

Castiel tries to remember. It seems long ago. But he’s here, they’re here, because of Dean. Castiel did this because of Dean.

“He was angry and distressed,” says Castiel. “He disapproved of your choice to stay, even though you did it to save him. He missed you.”

Sam flinches.

“Seven years,” he says. “I’ve been hanging out here for seven years. Keeping chickens. Shit, Cas.”

“It won’t have been long for him. Maybe days, since I came back for you. I was with him for only a few weeks after leaving you here the first time.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. But we should go.”

Sam drops his head to his knees for another moment. Then he stands up.

“The girl,” he says. “Your changeling girl. You really want to, uh, break her out?”

“We can’t leave her,” Castiel says. “Dean would want us to save her.”

Sam looks around.

“I get it, Cas. I do. We’ll try. You’re right, it’s the right thing to do. I’m sorry I … well, you know. The soulless guy is an asshole. But it might not be easy.”

“We’ll find her in the woods. She usually shows up when I walk. Then we’ll take her to the border and leave.”

Sam looks at Castiel for a long moment. Then, suddenly, he smiles. The constraint that’s been in his face since he got to his feet vanishes. A dimple appears under his beard.

“That’s quite the thought-out plan you’ve got there, Cas,” he says. “You really sweated the details.”

“I don’t sweat,” says Castiel. But Sam is turning away, his smile fading.

There had been warmth in that moment. Castiel feels the chill of its departure. His action just now had been necessary. But it had also been … ambiguous. The cuts are still oozing blood under Sam’s lacerated shirt. Castiel had destroyed more than a glass jar. But he’d restored something as well, the possibility of it, Sam’s affectionate teasing. Castiel may have lost his claim to it — Sam must be remembering some of the circumstances under which Castiel doesn’t sweat — but it will exist in the world.

Though it was the other Sam who had given him mittens. They’re still tucked in Castiel’s pocket. He wonders if he should leave them. But he wants to keep them. He’s grown attached to them.

Sam is bending over the cat. He strokes her, his mouth twisting.

“We can’t take you, sweetie. I’m sorry. Find somewhere with mice. Find someone with a fire.”

“She’ll be fine,” says Castiel. The cat is an admirably efficient creature, though Castiel himself is sorry to part with her. She, too, sometimes passed long hours listening to the nights. “Your chickens might fare less well,” he adds.

“They’ll have to fend for themselves,” says Sam. “We can’t shut them up in the coop. Better take their chance with foxes than starve in a box. Come on. We’d better head out.”

Castiel looks back once as they walk away. The house still looks cozy, though they’d smothered the fire and left the door propped open for the cat. Sam walks on without turning his head.

The child is playing just under the edge of the trees. She eyes Sam warily. Sam is tall. And if she’s been close to the house this whole time she must have heard him screaming while his soul seeped back in.

Sam speaks a halting phrase in her language. Then he kneels down and lapses into his own.

“Hi, I’m Sam. I’m Cas’s friend. You know Cas, right? We’re going for a walk with him. He’ll take you, uh, somewhere where people will take care of you. Where you won’t get hurt.”

She looks up without comprehension, but when Castiel holds out his hand she comes with them.

 

It really wasn’t a good plan.

The first day goes well enough, though Sam walks in silence, not meeting Castiel’s eye, and the girl keeps skipping ahead or back or off to the side. But she always returns to them. Sam had wrapped food and quilts into bundles for himself and Castiel to carry, and they stop for the night under an overhang of rock. Castiel keeps watch while the girl dreams whatever she dreams and Sam sleeps his first sleep in seven years, his face slack and unrevealing.

But they’ve walked scarcely an hour next day when a figure steps out of the wood, tall, with a long, curved beak and a cloak of iridescent feathers. It bows, deeply, to the arch of trees it emerged from, then stands aside. Castiel’s heart sinks. The Queen steps out of the wood, her orchid colors incongruous and dangerous. She turns her pointed head from side to side, contemplating them.

Sam puts his arm around the girl’s shoulder and pulls her back a few paces along the path. The girl’s eyes are wide, but fearless. She’s staring at the Queen.

“You have something of mine,” the Queen says.

“She’s a human child,” says Castiel. “The fae stole her. There’s no theft in taking her home.”

The Queen flickers her wings disdainfully.

“One was left in exchange,” she says.

“That’s, uh, not the same,” says Sam. “Listen. I’ll stay. Let her go back with Cas.”

“You bargained with me once before,” she says. “Now you’re offering half price for double benefit. I think not. You and the angel hold no interest for my realm. Go home to your pretty brother and we’ll close the border behind you. But the girl is mine. She stays.”

“Sam,” says Castiel, “take her and go.” He starts forward. But the beaked figure seizes him and holds a blade to his throat. An angel blade.

No wonder they’d gone a day unmolested. The Queen must have had to trade for this. But the fae don’t kill humans. Castiel’s life is forfeit, but Sam and the child can still escape.

“Go!” he says again.

The Queen steeples her forelegs and tilts her head towards Sam.

“Now I have something of yours,” she says. “Will you really let your angel die to save a strange girl? Have you considered what you’re saving her from? You think our mercy is cold. Your world’s may be colder.”

Of course Sam will let Castiel die. After the price Castiel has exacted from him for the child, Sam will not hesitate to let Castiel pay his share.

Castiel sees Sam close his eyes for a moment.

“Cas isn’t, uh, my angel,” he says. “He gets to choose what he does.”

“What about the girl?” says the Queen. “Does she get to choose?”

She bends her thorax a little and speaks a few sentences in the fae tongue. The girl moves forward a step. Sam’s hand tightens on her shoulder.

“Let her go,” says the Queen. “She will come to me willingly.”

“And I will die for this, willingly. Don’t do it, Sam. I forbid you. Take her and go.”

But Sam looks down at the girl for a few long moments, his face opaque, and then lifts his hand from her shoulder. She runs across new grass towards the Queen. Yellow flowers spring up in her footsteps.

She pauses an instant in front of Castiel. The beaked fae still holds him in an unbreakable grip, but it’s lowered the angel blade.

“Bye,” the child says, carefully, in English. Then she skips away behind the Queen.

“Good,” says the Queen. “Now go. I’d suggest you make haste. My land has turned against you.”

She’s gone. The girl is gone. The beaked fae releases Castiel and laughs, like a crow, like a jay, like a woodpecker.

“Make haste,” it says, and flies up.

A flock of birds storm down from the trees in answer, huge as ravens, numerous as starlings. The air is full of wingbeats and harsh calls. Claws rake at Castiel’s hair. He hears Sam cry out, crooking his arm in front of his face. His other arm windmills, fending off beaks and claws. But there are too many. Sam and Castiel stumble forward along the path, hunched, tripping on roots and brambles. Sam is sobbing for breath. Castiel seizes his arm. His own wings work here. But he doesn’t know where the border is, not exactly. He grasps at empty intention and wills them Beyond.

 

They fall on asphalt. The air is full of fumes. A huge shape of metal whooshes past, inches away. A car. They’re at the side of a highway. Castiel drags Sam back. Somewhere behind them he hears a gate slam shut.

Sam’s face is covered with blood. His shoulders are splashed with it, and with bird dung. Castiel probably doesn’t look much better. He takes a moment to repair his vessel. It’s strange, feeling the familiar channels of power without the distortion of Faerie. At least he will be able to heal Sam properly.

But Sam flinches away when Castiel tries to touch him.

“No,” he says. “It’s, I’m fine. Let’s just. We’re back, aren’t we? Let’s just find a motel. I just need to, uh, I want to wash my face.”

“You’re not fine,” says Castiel. But he comprehends. Sam had wiped a sponge over his chest and put on a fresh shirt before leaving the house in Faerie, but the cuts are still there, where Castiel let his soul back in.

They’re on the outskirts of some town, at least, the kind of place Sam and Dean inhabit. They have a weary walk, but not an impossible one. No motorists are inclined to stop for a man in a trenchcoat and one in a bloodstained shearling vest with bird droppings on its shoulders.

Sam’s steps drag, but he looks up with a trace of alertness when they finally reach a motel.

“You don’t happen to have a credit card in your pocket, do you?” he asks.

Castiel does, in fact.

 

“I can heal you,” Castiel says, when they’re in the room. It’s overly warm and airless and the wallpaper is hideous.

Sam sits on the edge of the bed. His face looks terrible, though at least his eyes are undamaged. He glances at Castiel and then looks down at the carpet. It’s hideous, too.

“Don’t take this wrong, Cas, but can we, uh, wait a bit? Just. Give me a little time. I mean, I appreciate it, I do. But if you … would you mind going out? I know you must be wiped. But I need some normal clothes. I’m sorry. And if you could just, like, stop at a CVS and get some antibacterial stuff. I’m fine. I don’t need healing.”

Sam is in the shower when Castiel returns. He puts the bag of clothes and supplies through the bathroom door. When Sam comes out he’s fully dressed, and the raw beak wounds on his face are smeared with ointment. He lies down in the bed without a word and sleeps.

Castiel could heal him now. But that would be one betrayal too many between them. He goes out again instead to get food.

They stay there the next night, and the next, and the next. Sam hardly speaks, except to say no again the second and third time Castiel offers to heal him, and when Castiel suggests that they should obtain a car and return to Dean. He doesn’t call his brother. Castiel could do that, too, but he doesn’t.

Seven years, Sam had said, in despair. Now he is back and he won’t go home.

But Castiel had lingered in Faerie for months, postponing his errand. He owes Sam this brief, ugly, futile tarrying. Sam sleeps a lot of the time. Castiel goes out, sometimes, and sits at a Dunkin Donuts nearby.

 

By the fifth day Sam is recovering. That only makes the situation more awkward. The room isn’t much smaller than the house in Faerie, but it’s impossible to maneuver around each other. The bed takes up too much room. Castiel is acutely aware of Sam’s breathing, the warmth of his body, the smell of cheap shampoo and the steam from his showers. His gashed cheeks and frequent, involuntary, arousals are both reproaches.

Though Sam seems to think them grounds for apology. He starts urging Castiel to leave.

“I know this place is a dump. You can take off, Cas. You don’t have to stay with me. I want to wait just a bit longer. Until, uh, this,” he waves his hand vaguely at his scabbing cheek, “has a chance to heal.”

“I don’t think you should be alone,” says Castiel. He’s failed Dean in everything. He won’t abandon Sam now.

“I’m OK, Cas, really. I’m not just saying that. I just need a bit of time to process, uh, stuff.”

“Stuff,” says Castiel.

Sam smiles. It’s the first time since the morning they’d left the house.

“You’ve got to admit, Cas, the stuff levels got pretty high back there.”

“And you traded it all for nothing.” Castiel hadn’t realized he was still angry.

Sam looks up, startled.

“For your life, Cas. You’re not nothing.”

“I suppose I did give you excellent orgasms,” Castiel says.

Then he regrets it. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he wants Sam to be angry, too. But Sam won’t give him that. Can’t, maybe. That edge in him melted to nothing when his soul poured back in, like a shard of ice plunged in warm water. Only a faint chill of it persists in Sam’s stubbornly unhealed face.

Sam blushes, scaldingly, around the scabbed wounds.

“That’s not the point. That’s not your value, Cas. Anyway, that’s over. I know that. But …”

“But what?” says Castiel. He doesn’t want Sam to speak of what they had done in Faerie, and yet he does.

“The girl,” says Sam. “Look, uh. You had to try. We had to try. I get that. It sucks that you couldn’t save her.”

“I could have,” says Castiel. “You could have. You chose otherwise, against my wish.”

“I’m not sure they’d have let me go off with her, even if I’d let them kill you. But Cas, she grew up in Faerie, from when she was a baby. From when she was born. She spoke their language. That’s … different from just another human language. You know that. She would have had a really hard time here, adjusting. She might never have been happy. And her parents, wherever in the world they are, the changeling kid they’re raising, that’s their kid. That kid’s growing up human. She didn’t. I don’t mean that in a, a derogatory way. But it’s complicated, what’s human, how we, uh, define being human. How it fits in.”

“A thinking animal,” says Castiel. He remembers the ring of animals watching with beautiful, indifferent eyes while he and Sam coupled that first time. “She was human. She thought. She could have learned.”

But he’s surprised by Sam’s answer. Sam has reflected on this. He hasn’t been idle. Maybe he hasn’t been stuck here. Maybe behind his long sleeps and his silence and showers and obstinate refusal of healing he’s been putting himself back together, as efficient and efficacious at his tasks as he was in Faerie. He hadn’t wanted Castiel to watch, this time, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy.

Unexpectedly, Sam grins.

“Or a featherless biped. So, you know, not you, Cas. No offense.”

“I’m not offended at being an angel. Sam, about what I said about what we did in Faerie …” Sam had taken thought and spoken. Castiel can surely overcome his reluctance and do the same. Sam won’t let him heal his flesh, but maybe he’ll allow Castiel to heal this.

Sam shifts on the bed. He’s clearly embarrassed. He’s also growing hard. But Castiel won’t insult him by underestimating him again. Sam is a worker, and he doesn’t lack courage. He can work through this, too.

“You don’t have to apologize,” Sam says. “It was some, uh, Wild Hunt thing. The place got to you. I get it.”

“I wasn’t going to apologize. I was going to explain. Yes, I responded to the nature of Faerie. But what we did, what I did, at least, it wasn’t without … affection. I liked your house. It was quiet. I liked the cabinets. I liked your chickens and your cat. I liked the mittens that you gave me. I destroyed that version of you. I had to. I thought I had to. But I didn’t dislike him.”

“He was an asshole, Cas. Are you sure you don’t have shit taste in men? I mean, uh. Not Dean, of course.”

Sam looks at him almost challengingly, ill at ease, but curious.

“Dean doesn’t reciprocate my feelings,” Castiel says, “not in that way. You were right about that.” It’s easier than he expected, speaking of it. There’s even a kind of happiness, a freedom. “And in any case, he isn’t a factor in this. He wouldn’t mind if he knew, about us or about me. The last gesture he’d want is a faithfully celibate pining.”

“Yeah, that’s not really Dean’s style,” says Sam. “He’s a good guy, that way. Though I wouldn’t tell him you were banging the soulless guy if I were you. I’m sorry things aren’t working out for you, Cas.”

“I have Dean’s affection,” says Castiel. “His love, even. And I’m not condemned to celibate pining.”

Sam stares at him. Castiel can hear his heart quicken. Castiel takes Sam’s face between his hands, placing his fingers carefully to avoid the gashes, and kisses him. It’s very different, this time, a slow, hesitant, halting build of pleasure. Different from what he’d done with Sam, different from what he’s imagined doing with Dean. But Sam has always offered him trust. The smallest return Castiel can make, apart from betrayal, is not to conceal his desire, as he hasn’t concealed its limits.

Sam puts his hand between their faces.

“Listen, Cas,” he says. “I’m not sure about this. I mean, with, uh, how you feel about Dean. It might get a lot more difficult than you’re expecting. I’m not sure about this, back at the Bunker. You and him. Me and, uh, you.” Oh. Castiel truly had not known that. “That might be more pining than even souled-me could stomach. But if, uh, you’re really up for it, I do want it now, here. I want to remember this once as me, not him. If you’re up for it.”

“You’re not two different people,” says Castiel. “You’re human, him and you both.” He looks down at the tenting grey cloth of his trousers. “And I am quite incontestably up for it.”

Sam laughs and slips off the bed. He takes off his many layers of clothes less unselfconsciously than he had in Faerie, but eagerly. Castiel disrobes more slowly. The cuts on Sam’s chest are sobering. They stand facing each other. Castiel is uncertain what to do next, whether he should take the initiative. This was certainly easier with the coursing pulse of the Hunt running through the woods and without the wallpaper.

Sam is blushing again.

“Cas, say no if you want to, of course, but I’d like to, I’d like to kneel.”

Castiel is taken aback.

“Why?” he says. “I made your counterpart submit to me. You don’t have to.”

The idea is uncomfortable, and not any less so because Castiel’s penis hardens and twitches at the thought of looking down at Sam’s bent head.

Sam grins at him. Somehow the proposal to kneel is making him bolder. It’s strange.

“Oh, he’s my ~counterpart, now, is he?” he says. “Dude, you didn’t make him submit. I’ll have you know that was enthusiastically consensual. You’re the one who’s all you’re not two separate people. Haven’t you noticed that when there’s probing I always bottom? Did you think it was just some wild coincidence?”

Castiel has no soul to misplace, and he's not in the habit acquiring stray grace or God-gun wounds. There is therefore little occasion for him to be probed. And now he is blushing.

“I don’t know why you’d want to,” he says, “either of you.”

Though it’s true, they’re not separate. They’re both here in front of him.

Sam goes down on his knees slowly, looking at Castiel. Not as though the sight feeds his desire, as though he’s checking if Castiel is okay. Once he’s down he sits back on his heels and speaks seriously.

“Him? Because it’s hot, Cas. You’re an angel. You’re stronger than he, I, am. Plus you had the whole Wild Hunt thing going.”

“The fae are strong.” Sam must have had offers, other than his. “Some of them are stronger than either of us.”

Castiel remembers the arm that had held him while the angel blade pricked his throat. It had been like the sinews of ivy that bring down tall buildings.

Sam’s face twists with involuntary distaste.

“Yeah, but they’re mostly, um. Twiggy. Or, like, predator bugs. Not my scene.”

For a moment he sounds exactly like his other self. It floods Castiel with regretful fondness, with the memory of woodsmoke and the click of Sam’s knitting needles.

“And what about you?” Castiel asks. He no longer feels uncomfortable, just curious. Another thing he’d liked about that other Sam was that he’d answer Castiel’s questions. But this Sam, whole Sam, does, too. Maybe all Castiel needs to do is ask them.

“Me?” says Sam. “I mean, there’s, uh, still the obvious.” He grins again, briefly. “You know. Hot. But, Cas, like I said, you’re an angel. And that means that you’ve got a lot of power. But you’re good. I guess I just think that’s, uh, neat.”

Castiel is shaken to the core. Sam wants to kneel to some kind of glory, and all Castiel has is shame. If he has power, he’d used it very badly in Faerie. He had compelled Sam. Not when he’d bound him with the belt, but when he’d forced his soul on him. Though this Sam will never see that, or that Castiel had taken away his home in the woods as surely as if he’d thrown a torch in the window and let it burn. At least Sam hasn’t actually thanked Castiel for that unforgivable favor.

But Castiel can’t take this away from Sam, too.

“Very well,” he says. “Kneel for me.” He touches Sam’s hair. He’s always liked touching Sam’s hair.

Sam kneels upright and bends his head to rest his hurt cheek briefly against Castiel’s penis. Then he glances up again and smiles.

“Don’t look so apprehensive, Cas. I’m not going to, like, worship you. Just give you a slightly subby blowjob.”

There it is again, that warm teasing. Castiel had thought he might have forfeited it forever. Apparently he hasn’t.

Sam brings his mouth to Castiel’s flesh and then leans away.

“Could you, uh, heal my face, first? It’s really kind of uncomfortable for blowing someone.”

Castiel feathers his fingers along the line of Sam’s jaw and then crouches for a moment to touch his scarred chest.

“I’d be glad to,” he says.

 

The next day Sam comes out of the shower clean shaven. His smooth face looks unfamiliarly familiar. They check out of the motel before Sam eats. After breakfast Sam steals a car and starts on the road to the Bunker.

Castiel sits in shotgun. He should travel lighter on this road back, with Sam bearing his own soul. All Castiel has in his pockets is a pair of mittens, and a rock with a hole in it.