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it's such a mystery (the way you know me)

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When Castiel opens his eyes, there’s a man crouched in front of him.

“Cas,” he says, sounding relieved. His voice is gruff to the point that it comes out forced and there’s a cut on his cheekbone that’s dripping blood down the side of his face. “You good?”

The man directs his question at Castiel, looking at him like he knows him. There’s recognition in the man’s eyes that makes vertigo swim inside of Castiel, because it is recognition that he can’t place or sympathize with. He stares at the man, willing himself to remember something, to remember whatever the man seems to remember, but nothing comes. The emptiness settles into his gut like a rock.

He doesn’t bother answering the man as he searches the room he’s in with hungry eyes. It’s a house, a living room, and Castiel is struck by the fact that he remembers thinking that the patterned curtains on the window were ugly when he saw them yesterday dressed as some sort of agent, and that he remembers entering the same house again today in search of a witch.

Castiel’s eyes slide back to the man that’s looking at him with increasing worry, and he remembers nothing.

“Cas?” the man says the one-syllable word like a question. Castiel cannot explain it, but he knows something is very, very wrong.

“What is Cas?” Castiel replies and he is scared of the answer.

The man’s concerned face goes white in stark contrast to his fresh blood and his bright, green eyes. He looks just as terrified as Castiel feels, which is oddly comforting. He gulps.

“You,” the man says. “You’re Cas.”

Castiel can tell the man is studying and dissecting every minute shift of his reaction, like the way Castiel reacts to the words he said is extremely important. But confusion arises in him, and the man’s scared face is no longer comforting in its comradery and instead is starting to look like a death sentence.

“No,” Castiel keeps his voice as even as he can, “my name is Castiel.”

The man lets out a long breath and closes his eyes in what looks like relief, his eyebrows pinching upwards as he draws a hand down the bottom half of his face. When he opens his eyes to look at Castiel again, they’re angry. “Don’t fucking do that, Cas.”

“I’m not Cas,” Castiel stresses back just as accusatorily. “I just told you, my name is Castiel. Who are you?”

The relief that was on the man’s face is short-lived because it evaporates into thin air at Cas’s words. If anything, he looks more distressed. He turns his head over his shoulder.

“Sam! We have a problem!”

Castiel isn’t sure who the man is talking to, but after a beat, another voice floats in from the other room. The kitchen, if Castiel remembers the set up of the house correctly. If anything he remembers is correct.

“Kinda busy.” The voice sounds annoyed.

“Sam! We have a problem problem.” There’s a panicked edge to the man’s voice that makes Castiel almost feel bad for him.

Castiel hears the sound of heavy footfalls, and then suddenly there’s a tall man standing in the door frame, who looks between Castiel, the man, and then back to Castiel again. The tall one, Sam, seems to sense the man’s fear because in three long strides he’s standing over the two of them. Castiel notices that both men are dressed similarly in plaid. Weird.

“Dean, what’s going on?” Sam asks.

So the man crouching in front of Castiel is named Dean. He wonders if that’s supposed to mean something to him.

“Cas must’ve got hit with something earlier. He just dropped like a sack of fucking potatoes a minute ago. By the time I was checking on him, he had already woken up again, but now he doesn’t fucking know who we are.”

“I’m right here you know,” Castiel says testily.

Sam’s eyes are wide even as his eyebrows are furrowed, and he looks between Dean and Castiel again.

“What do you remember, Cas?”

“Firstly, that I’m not Cas. I don’t know who Cas is, but it’s not me. I don’t know who either of you are, either. I came here to kill the witches that I’m sure you’re referring to. They lived here, did they not?”

Dean opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but Sam cuts him off.

“Yeah, Castiel, the witches lived here and they’re the witches Dean was talking about. We all killed them together. You,” he points at Castiel, “me, Sam,” he points to himself, “and Dean,” he points to the man crouched in front of Castiel. “Do you remember that?”

Castiel frowns, tries to dredge up memories of the fight that seem on the periphery of his mind like a dream, but the images are vague at best. “Barely.”

“Okay,” Sam says like it’s not at all okay. “Okay.”

Suddenly, it’s Dean’s turn to start interrogating him again. “What do you remember about yourself?” He has a stern look on his face that covers his underlying concern as well as the mesh bags that hold oranges at the farmers market Castiel likes to visit. Dean, Castiel thinks, is a hard shell full of holes.

The question is slightly unnerving, especially considering Castiel’s otherworldly background, and he wonders how much of the truth he should tell. But the two men at least knew what vampires were, so they must be somewhat aware of the supernatural.

“My name is Castiel. I was an angel of the Lord for the majority of my life, but recently fell and was turned into a human. I’ve been hunting and tracking monsters ever since I was banished from heaven.”

Castiel waits for their shock, and instead gets two matching placated expressions. Perhaps the men were related to each other. That makes the nearly identical plaid shirts even weirder.

“Fuck, okay, that’s real good, Cas-tiel.” Dean seems to catch himself midway through Castiel’s name. “Uh, that’s all true, what you said. You were an angel but you got drop-kicked into humanity about a month ago.”

“I know it’s true, I just told you that,” Castiel snaps.

“Well, he’s definitely still Cas,” Dean mumbles under his breath. Then, more loudly and meant for Castiel to hear, “Tell me what you remember about this morning.”

Castiel thinks that if anyone should be asking questions, it’s him, but he can read the stubbornness rising off of Dean like heat off of the scorched earth in Death Valley. He has to play this right if he wants real answers. Castiel remembers that he used to be very good at getting answers, used to be able to pluck the strings of other creatures with expert tactility.

“I went to a diner,” Castiel says slowly. Now that he’s actively trying to remember the events, they feel oddly distorted. “I’m fairly certain I went to a diner. I ordered breakfast and ate it. Then I came here, to this house. I remember coming here yesterday as well.”

The men exchange a glance.

“That all happened,” Sam says, “but we were with you, Castiel. The three of us came here together yesterday, and the three of us ate breakfast together this morning.”

“What are you implying?”

“I’m implying that it seems like the only thing you forgot about is us.”

“And who is us exactly?” Castiel is getting tired of being the only one who doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.

Something upset flashes across Dean’s face, through one of the holes in his shell, but it’s gone in the next second. “I’m Dean Winchester, he’s Sam Winchester. We’re brothers. We met you when you were still an angel and you pulled me out of Hell.”

Castiel’s eyes widen in horror. “You were in Hell?”

“You really don’t remember, do you?” Dean asks with some sort of morbid fascination, and it earns him a glare that says What kind of stupid question is that? “Right, uh, yeah, I was in Hell. I made a deal with a demon to bring Sam back to life after he kicked it.”

Dean says it so casually, and when Castiel looks to Sam in disbelief, Sam has a genuinely neutral expression on his face as if they weren’t talking about his death right in front of him. Castiel feels- feels- but then it’s gone.

“And I was the one who rescued you?”

When Dean smiles, it reaches all of the way up to his eyes. Castiel likes it very much even though he has no reason to. “Yep,” Dean pops his lips on the p, “yanked my sorry ass right out. Don’t ask me how, ‘cause I ain’t got a clue. If I could remember it my brain would fry up in my skull.”

For someone who doesn’t remember Dean Winchester, Castiel feels a little too proud that he was the one to rescue the man.

“I’m glad you’re no longer there. I remember Hell, and it is no place for someone like you.”

Dean’s face screws up. “What’s that supposed to mean? You barely know who I am.”

Castiel squints at Dean, at the wrinkles beside his eyes and the clench of his jaw. He is tart like the oranges inside of his mesh bag shell, but sweet. The juice that runs down your chin, the citrus scent that stays on your fingers long after the orange is peeled.

“I don’t have to know you to see you.” Castiel watches Dean flinch, an unreadable emotion behind his eyes. “Hell is full of rot. It is a foul, disgusting place fit for the worst of humanity. You did not belong there. I’m glad I could correct that wrong.”

He doesn’t know how a man could look so guarded and so open at the same time. Dean stares at him for a second longer and then looks away like he can’t stand it anymore.

Sam clears his throat above them. “Okay, well, we need to figure out how to get Cas- I mean Castiel- back to remembering us. We killed all of the witches, didn’t we?”

“I thought we did,” Dean grunts. He sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose as he finally rises from his crouch to stand next to Sam. “Call Rowena.” Then, he looks down at Castiel. “Do you remember Rowena?”

Castiel shakes his head.

“That’s fine, you’ll meet her soon. She’s our witch frenemy, long story, but she should be able to at least tell us what’s wrong if not fix it entirely.”

Sam pulls a phone out of his pocket, clicks around on the screen a few times before the ringing of an outgoing call sounds through the room. He holds the phone out between him and Dean. Then, the sound of a muffled ruffling followed by a chiming voice with a Scottish accent.

“Samuel!” Rowena calls through the speaker. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Hey, Rowena,” Sam’s voice seems caught between affection and annoyance. Castiel thinks he understands what Dean meant by frenemy. “We’ve got a little bit of a problem.”

She scoffs audibly. “When don’t you Winchester boys and your fallen angel have a problem? What is it, dearie?”

And your fallen angel. Your fallen angel. The words settle like autumn leaves in Castiel’s chest, and he’s not sure how to feel about it or what it means.

“It’s about Castiel, actually. We were cleaning out some witches and one of them must have hit him with something while we were fighting, ‘cause, uh, he doesn’t know who Dean and I are.”

There’s a very poignant silence on the other end of the line. Then, “Perhaps it’s for the better.”

Sam laughs while Dean scowls and says, “Not funny, Rowena.”

“Aye, I’m sure it’s not to you, Dean Winchester.” Dean’s scowl deepens dramatically with something that looks like real anger now, but Rowena continues oblivious to it. “Give me all of the dirty details, then.”

“Well,” Dean huffs, aggravated, “We fight with the witches, get ‘em dead, two minutes pass and Cas-Castiel just drops. Wakes up a second later and looks at me like he’s never seen me before in his life. We asked him what he remembered, and he told us how we visited the house yesterday and about the breakfast we ate this morning, but in his memories, we weren’t with him.”

More silence, then, “Is the handsome fellow there with you now?”

“Yeah, he is,” Sam chimes in.

“Then why am I talking to you two knuckleheads?” she cries. “Hand the phone to the angel, if you would, Samuel.”

“He can hear you, Rowena, you’re on speakerphone.”

But Castiel moves to stand anyway, picking himself off of the ground and brushing his hands down the front of his shirt to flatten it just to realize he doesn’t recognize it. It’s navy blue, a soft clinging material with sleeves that come down to just below his elbow, two buttons undone near the collar. Interesting.

“Yes, I’m here,” he says once he’s found his footing.

“Hello, dearie. Do you remember me?”

“No,” Castiel answers honestly, knowing that that’s probably a bad sign.

But Rowena just sighs long and low, “Aye, just as I thought. You only know me through the Winchester boys, so if there’s no them, there’s no me.”

Castiel is intrigued. “Is that why I don’t recognize this shirt?” he asks, fiddling with the sleeve of his right arm. “It’s not mine, is it?”

Dean clears his throat, and Castiel looks at him. He continues to avoid Castiel’s eyes. “No, it’s mine. Sam and I gave you some of our old clothes when you became human.”

Oh, the shirt is Dean’s, the man with the green eyes and the mesh bag shell. Something that was his, that he gave to Castiel like a gift. Castiel had never received a gift before, he doesn’t think, but he doesn’t know if he’d like anything more than the navy shirt that he’s wearing that he knows Dean used to wear too.

“I knew you were a smart cookie, Mr. Castiel, very observant. Yes, if it was the Winchester boys who gave you the shirt, you wouldn’t remember that either.”

“So how do we fix it?” Dean interrupts.

“Luckily for you, fairly simply. You just have to wait until it stops.” Dean and Sam share a look. “I’ve dealt with a targeted memory spell like this before, that lasted even after I killed the wee witch who cast it. Meant to make someone forget who their allies are in hopes of making them turn on themselves in a fight. It’s just the lingering type, I suppose, most likely the reason it took so long for it to go into effect on your handsome friend. If you’ve killed all of the witches, Castiel should hit the floor again within the day and then be right as rain.”

That seems to make Dean react because he lets out a long stream of air through his nose before he raises his clasped hands to the crown of his head and walks a circle around the room. Sam ignores him, so Castiel does, too.

“That’s great news, Rowena. Thanks for your help.”

“Always a pleasure, Sam Winchester. My address is still the same if you ever see a gift basket at the market that you think I’d enjoy.”

Sam laughs. “I might actually keep that in mind this time.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it. Goodbye, boys!” she sings, and then the line goes dead.

Sam deposits his phone back into his pocket before smiling at Castiel. It’s a nice smile, kind and soft like his brown eyes, that makes his large stature much less intimidating. He doesn’t look like Dean at all, though, with sharper curves and angles to his face. The only thing that solidifies their brotherhood to him is the way they communicate in silence, with just a twitch of an eyebrow and a glance.

“Looks like you’re in the clear, man. Just gotta get you through to tomorrow.” Sam gives him a pat on the shoulder that Castiel finds himself flinching away from.

Other people don’t touch him, not casually. The angels didn’t touch him, especially not on his slow descent from holiness that stretched years, the crashing waves of doubt that lapped at the shore until Heaven looked as monstrous as Hell to him. Castiel knows the events of his fall to be true, and yet, they slip from him like smoke. He wonders how much of his now human body is because of the Winchesters. But even then, now, after, his human body only seems to know contact born from combat.

Yanking his hand away, Sam’s face falls in worry. “You good? Are you hurt?”

Suddenly, Dean is at their side again as if he never left.

“You’re hurt?” he demands.

The brothers are staring at him now, and Castiel is at a loss for words, how to summarize the surprise that jolted through him at being touched. The lingering shock afterward when he realized it was without menace. “No,” he says finally. “No, I’m alright.”

But Sam still has a peculiar look on his face that tells Castiel the subject won’t be dropped until he explains.

“I-I was not expecting…” Castiel gestures to the shoulder Sam touched. He feels oddly embarrassed, an emotion he’s unfamiliar with, doesn’t understand why he’s experiencing it. For whatever reason, Castiel cannot elaborate on his reaction further.

He doesn’t need to, though, because there is a sad sort of understanding in Sam’s expression.

“Sorry, man. It’s probably weird to just have a stranger up in your business, huh? I won’t do it again, promise. Dean won’t, either.”

No one, Castiel thinks, not just a stranger. No one is ever in my space. No one looks at me or touches me because I am alone. Your touch is not unwelcome, it is simply unheard of.

“What am I not doing?” Dean asks.

“Just make sure you give Castiel some space,” Sam replies. He gives Castiel a smile that he finds strangely reassuring, as if Sam is offering him support. “He doesn’t actually know who we are right now. And we-” Sam looks back at Dean, “have some bodies that need cleaned up.”

With that, Sam turns around and makes his way back through the doorway into the kitchen where he came from.

It is just Castiel and Dean again, now, and Castiel watches the minute flickerings of Dean’s expressions like a candle. Dean is shorter than Sam, closer to Castiel’s height, and Castiel likes that. He is wearing Dean’s shirt. He likes that, too. It is once removed from the muscular body of its original owner, and it is the closest that Castiel has ever gotten to knowing what another person’s warm skin feels like against his.

As per Sam’s suggestion, Dean stays standing a few feet away. “You sure you’re good? I know this is probably freaky as fuck, us knowing you and you not knowing us. But, uh, it’s temporary.”

“Yes. I’m alright. It’s… odd, but not unpleasant. I don’t know who you are, but I don’t distrust you either, which is unusual for me. I apologize for worrying you earlier.”

Dean’s face opens, closes, opens like saloon doors as Castiel speaks, and he finds it fascinating to watch the shift. There is something buried in there, even under the oranges, that makes Castiel feel curiosity that vibrates and writhes.

“It’s fine. Not exactly like you had any more answers than I did. I mean, you’re the one who passed out and woke up without memories, I’m pretty sure you’re more entitled to a freak out than I am.”

“I think we are all entitled to a ‘freak out’,” Castiel finds himself replying. Seeing Dean in discomfort makes him want to reach out, but as Sam said, they are strangers.

Dean is a stranger, that much Castiel is sure of. But he is made up of familiars, of the unnatural red of the mesh bag and the natural orange of the fruit inside of it, his green eyes leaves of a Floridian tree in the sunlight.

And something settles in Dean’s shoulders at Castiel’s awkward reassurance.

“You’re right, man.” Dean chuckles, moves towards him in a similar fashion to Sam, arm raised for just a moment before he seems to catch himself and drop it. His smile drops with it. “I’m gonna go see if Sam needs help.”

Castiel watches the brothers as they clear the area, cleaning up fingerprints and blood where they can before taking the two bodies out back. It is a man and a woman, and Sam and Dean work together to lift them. Castiel notices that Dean takes the arms both times, while Sam takes the feet that are covered by boots caked with mud from the soft ground outside.

Dean doesn’t seem to mind the blood but makes a face at the dirty shoes.

Both men have taken off their offensive plaid over shirts and work in plain t-shirts. They don’t ask Castiel to help and they don’t seem bothered by the fact that he’s watching them. He wonders if he used to watch them even when he did know who they were.

He studies the way the muscles in Dean’s arms shift when he moves, a hidden sort of strength compared to Sam’s large muscles that bulge under his skin. Dean’s legs, too, are strange. They bow outwards at the knee with every step he takes, every strong stride looking one second from buckling. Yet, Dean moves with precision, coiled tight like a snake, an animal pacing within a cage.

A bead of sweat drips from Dean’s temple all the way down to his neck, and Castiel watches the trail it makes. He thinks about the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Adam’s exposed body as he came to creation through God’s divine touch.

Castiel has no idea how much time has passed when Dean claps his hands and says, “Alright, let’s blow this popsicle stand. I wanna be home before dark.”

He wonders what home means to the two men. He wonders where he’s supposed to go now that this is all over.

Sam nods his head, and then Castiel is following the brothers back out into the fresh air. It’s not radically hot, but the sun is beating down unobstructed in a way that makes Castiel want to turn his head towards the sky like ivy searching for a light source. They walk some short distance to a big black car parked on the side of the road.

“Castiel, meet Baby!” Dean barks, sweeping his arm out to present the car.

For the first time since he opened his eyes, Castiel questions Dean Winchester’s sanity.

“Baby?” Castiel asks hesitantly. “Is this not a car?”

Sam begins to laugh so hard that he has to brace himself against the hood.

Dean scowls, so Castiel must have done something wrong. The idea of making Dean mad sits somewhere like panic, like fear. “I meant,” Castiel fumbles, looks at the side of the shining car like a beetle under the sun, “hello, Baby.”

It makes Sam laugh even harder, his arms buckling underneath him, but Dean has a flustered look on his face. His cheeks are a sunburnt pink. This time he doesn’t even try to hide it, which Castiel finds fascinating. How does Dean decide what is the mesh bag and what is an orange? Either way, he no longer appears aggravated, and Castiel lets himself relax.

“Okay,” Dean finally says to himself, “sure. Good talk. Now that you’re, uh, acquainted, let’s roll out.” He’s addressing them all, but his voice is still somewhere distant. Then, “Cas-tiel, you ride in the backseat.”

Castiel learns that the location of the witches they killed was three hours away from wherever the brothers are usually stationed. This is, apparently, a very short drive for the men, and despite the panic that the memory spell induced at first they seem to be in good spirits.

He watches how they interact with each other, how they talk and laugh. Castiel remains quiet in the backseat. He has many questions, but he fears that if he voices them that the men will realize he is still with them, and they will send him on his way and head towards their home. Castiel cannot remember whether he has a home or not, even in the sense of a place that has a roof that he can sleep under. Humanity is fragile, that Castiel has had to learn, it is so easy to die. He is afraid.

Thirty minutes have passed like this, if Castiel had to guess, when Dean suddenly pitches his voice towards the backseat. “Castiel, you hungry?”

So far, honesty has seemed to get relatively good results, and his human stomach is rumbling. “Yes.”

He watches the side of Dean’s head as the man nods. “We’ll stop at the next exit, there’s a Wendy’s.”

Castiel doesn’t know what ‘A Wendy’s’ is, and he doesn’t ask.

As it turns out, Wendy’s is a restaurant that serves food to you in your car through a little shuttered window.

Dean speaks into a little box, pulls up to the little window, and then suddenly there is a sandwich wrapped in red foil in Castiel’s lap.

“I got another one if you want more,” Dean says as he pulls back onto the main road. He takes two right turns, and then they’re merging back onto the highway. He holds out his hand in front of Sam, and Sam places a few french fries into his palm that Dean messily eats as he drives.

Castiel takes this as his signal to begin eating as well. When he unwraps the red foil, there is a hamburger inside. He knows what hamburgers are, Castiel has watched the entirety of humanity’s evolution. But he cannot remember if he has tasted one before. It smells rather good, and Castiel brings it slowly to his mouth to take a bite.

“Mmmm,” he finds himself humming, his eyes slipping shut. Hamburgers, Castiel decides, are one of humanity’s greatest inventions.

“Oh, man,” Sam says, prompting Castiel to open his eyes. When he does, Sam is turned around in the passenger seat to look at him over the bench with something like childhood wonder. “You don’t remember what hamburgers taste like, do you?”

“No,” Castiel answers around the food in his mouth. He swallows. “I have memories of hamburgers, but not of eating them. This makes me… very happy.”

The small portion of Dean’s shoulder that Castiel can see goes tense, but Sam is laughing, nodding. “Yeah, they’re your favorite. It’s weird to watch you, like, experience them for the first time again.”

Castiel takes another bite. “Humanity has done many things that I don’t understand, but eating hamburgers is not one of them.” He licks his bottom lips where some stray mustard has landed. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices Dean watching him through the rearview mirror.

“I gotta agree with you on that one,” Sam says before turning back around to sit forward once again. Dean is still watching him, until a car switching lanes in front of him takes his attention back to the road.

“Just don’t get any ketchup on the seats back there, buddy.”

Castiel freezes with the burger halfway to his mouth, lowers it back into the foil in his lap. Dean had just said…

“You called me buddy.”

Dean’s eyes catch his in a flick through the rearview mirror before they’re on the road again. “Yeah, and?”

“Buddy is a word synonymous with friend.”

There is a beat of silence. “I’m not really sure what you’re getting at, man.”

“You addressed me with a word that means friend. Are we… friends?”

The car jerks so abruptly that Castiel has to cling to the food in his lap to stop it from careening into the footwells. Sam mutters a ‘Dude!’ under his breath. He looks up, and Dean is staring at him through the rearview mirror, eyes so focused that they pin Castiel in place even after being dissipated through reflection.

“Yes, Castiel. We’re friends. You’re- you’re our best friend.”

Oh.

The wires in Castiel’s brain cross, cross, short circuit under the pressure. Whirring and drawn out like the dashed white lines flying past outside the window. He doesn’t understand.

“I don’t understand,” he confesses quietly.

Something shifts in Dean’s expression in the tiny window of the mirror, a soft sort of empathy behind a furrowed brow. Dean’s eyes are so green, so tactile, so- so- it sparks inside of Castiel like wildfires and the rings of Saturn in the jaw of space. “You know what friendship is, don’t you?”

“Yes, I believe so. But I have never experienced it beyond the knowledge as a concept.”

“You saying you’ve never had friends before? What about the angels?”

“The angels are my brothers and sisters, most of whom want me dead. From what I understand, friendship is a pleasant bond between unrelated parties.”

Dean purses his lips. “Exactly. That’s what we've got going on. We rag on each other and drive each other fucking nuts, but at the end of the day, we all have each other’s backs. I know you don’t remember, but just take my word for it.”

But why? Castiel tries to figure out what he has to offer either of these men, what could make him valuable or enjoyable in their eyes, but he comes up blank.

“Yeah, man,” Sam chimes in, looking back at him again. “You’re just- like- one of us, ya know? You and Dean have sort of always gotten along since you pulled him out of Hell, and you hated me at first ‘cause I was drinking demon blood.” Something must flicker across Castiel's face, because Sam quickly adds, “Don’t ask. Either way, we’ve known each other for years, dude, and you’ve always had our backs. Well, most of the time. We’re a team. And you’re just- you.”

Sam is smiling, and Dean is nodding. His eyes meet Castiel’s again in the mirror. “Get it?”

No, Castiel thinks from deep in his gut. It is so solid and tangible that Castiel wonders if that would be his answer to that question even if he did remember the brothers. What am I to you? Why would people like you consider me a friend?

“Yes,” he lies for the first time. “I think I understand.”

“Oh-” Sam startles quietly, glances at Dean, and then smacks a hand to his forehead. “Dean, we’re fucking idiots.”

Dean shoots him a baffled look. “The hell are you talking about?”

“Castiel doesn’t remember anything that involves us. Castiel,” now Sam addresses him again, “do you even know where we’re going?”

“No,” Castiel answers simply, but there’s a hungry hope blooming in him at the thought of getting some answers.

“We’re going home, Cas-Castiel. Like, home home. Now that you’re human, you live with us in this massive underground bunker that used to belong to a group of hunters.”

Castiel is being split in twain. Home is a word that means as much to him as a word like friendship: something made for other people. He is solemn, he knows, in a way that most don’t enjoy. Even when he was in heaven, his brothers and sisters left him to be by himself. Castiel always felt too big, always thought too small, and Heaven was home the same way that scientists decide which hunks of rock are planets and which ones are moons. Heaven was home the way someone blindfolded throws a dart at a bullseye.

But apparently, now, he has one. And it is with Dean who has green eyes and Sam who has a soft smile.

“I… live with you,” Castiel says haltingly, in some sort of confirmation that is a pathetic veil over his inner turmoil.

Dean and Sam look at each other in the front seat.

“Is that… okay?” Sam asks finally.

“Yes,” is all Castiel can make himself manage. He’s no longer hungry, but he finishes the hamburger in his lap anyways, silence falling over the car until Dean pushes at a button on the dashboard that makes music start playing.

It’s composed of guitars and drums, but it’s turned down so that it’s just loud enough to be heard over the rumbling of the car’s engine. Dean sings along to the melodies while his fingers tap on the steering wheel.

It makes Castiel drowsy, his stomach full and the events of the day catching up to him. He moves a few inches to his right so that he can lean against the window behind Sam’s chair. From this angle, he can see the way that Dean’s mouth moves around the lyrics.

He falls asleep there, in a car with the two strangers he lives with.

“Home sweet home,” Dean announces loudly as he stretches, jolting Castiel awake in the backseat.

When Castiel looks around out of the side door window they’re in some sort of massive garage.

He had almost thought the events of the day had been a dream, but the Winchester brothers are there in the flesh opening their respective doors and climbing out.

Sam comes to Castiel’s door and opens it for him. It’s almost comical the way his large frame bends in half to look at where Castiel still sits. “How was your nap?”

“Unexpected,” he responds, and for some reason it makes Sam laugh. Castiel enjoys Sam’s laughter. He wonders what Dean’s sounds like.

“Well, you didn’t miss much,” Sam steps back to give Castiel room to get out of the car. Dean is already at the garage door a few yards ahead of them, and Sam and Castiel walk towards him together. “Just Dean’s terrible singing and a few cow farms.”

Castiel frowns. “I don’t understand. Dean has a wonderful singing voice.”

Sam puffs out a disbelieving noise, his eyebrows going up towards his forehead as the corners of his lips twitch. He looks at Dean, who is only a few feet from them now, so Castiel follows his eye-line.

Dean has a hand around the knob of the door as if to open it, and his skin is slightly pink again like he’s embarrassed.

“Is that- I should not have said that, should I?”

But then, it almost looks like Dean is hiding a smile with his chin tucked to his chest. It is so bizarre and fitting on Dean’s soft features, calloused attitude, and it makes Castiel curious and itchy to the point of insanity. Being human is so full of half-satisfied wants. He wants to hold Dean, freeze him right there so that Castiel can stoop down below him and look up at his secret smile that the man is trying to hide until it is not a secret anymore.

Dean is moving again, pushing the door open. “It’s fine, Cas. Castiel,” he mumbles.

Still, Castiel gives Sam a worried look. Sam just shakes his head good-naturedly and looks like he’s biting down his own smile.

They pass through the door one after the other with Castiel in the back. The air is cooler quite suddenly in a way that takes the sting off of the glaring sun outside that is only now starting to ebb with the evening.

They walk through a long tiled corridor that Castiel takes in with hungry eyes. There are doors and hallways that lead off deeper into the building on either side of them that peak Castiel’s curiosity even further. Neither brother speaks as he follows behind, the sound of their footsteps and the swishing of their gear bags echoing in the tight space. And then, they are in some massive room with a cavernous ceiling.

There’s a table in the center that both men put their bags down on top of, but Castiel feels frozen in place as his eyes run rampant.

“Well, Castiel, this is the Bunker. Best home a hunter could ask for,” Dean says.

Castiel looks around, and tries to understand why he deserved to live somewhere as wonderful as this.

“It is very impressive,” he says for lack of better words.

“Wait until you take a shower, man. Last time you were human you kept going on about the water pressure.”

He doesn’t know how to respond to that, so he elects to stay silent. When he approaches the table, he realizes there’s a large map across the top of it.

“I can give you a tour of the place while Dean makes dinner,” Sam says from behind Castiel’s back. “It’ll be cool to see your reaction to everything.”

“Who said anything about me making dinner?” Dean interjects, annoyed.

Castiel turns back around to look at them to find a small sneer on Dean’s face.

“Dude,” Sam gives his brother a raised eyebrow and a smirk. His nose scrunches, his eyebrow moves, like some sort of secret language. Dean stares back at him with his top lip curled before he deflates suddenly. Castiel has no idea what is going on.

“Yeah, I’m making dinner. But I’m showering first, capiche? Don’t get too excited.” Dean waggles his finger at Sam like an elementary school teacher or a mother, and it makes Castiel’s head tilt to the side. He squints his eyes to the movement and the tone of voice that Dean uses that sounds almost parental.

Dean turns to face Castiel as he opens his mouth to speak, but whenever his eyes meet Castiel’s, his mouth snaps shut. He’s wearing a pinched expression full of the oranges that he thinks he’s hiding. Finally, he opens his mouth again. “Any requests for dinner, 50 First Dates?”

For the second time since he opened his eyes, Castiel questions Dean Winchester’s sanity.

His absolute bafflement must show on his face because Sam sighs and runs a hand through his long hair. “He just wants to know if you’re hungry for something specific.”

Why doesn’t he just say that then? Castiel thinks but doesn’t say.

“No. I’m agreeable for whatever is prepared.”

“Good,” Dean claps his hands together. “I needed to be out these clothes, like, yesterday.” He checks his watch. “Dinner should be ready around eight.”

He grabs his bag off of the table and walks back into the hallway they came from.

Castiel does not know whether he’s grateful that Dean is gone or whether he’s already mourning the man’s absence.

Sam watches his brother walk away with a face both fond and exasperated. “You’ll get used to him. Or, well, you’ll get used to him until you remember him again. Then you’ll actually know him.”

He thinks that Sam is wrong. Castiel will never ‘get used’ to Dean Winchester. He can feel where it aches inside of him and he knows that there’s something much older there just out of his reach. He is almost afraid to remember and find out what it is, a diamond mine in South Africa drilling miles into the Earth where ancient volcanoes have brought gems to the surface.

Angels do not wax poetic about human beings. Perhaps that is why Castiel isn’t an angel anymore.

“Yes,” is all Castiel replies with. Sam seems undeterred.

“Let’s get this tour rolling, then. You should have time to shower before dinner if you want to.”

With that, Sam begins to walk away, and Castiel follows him.

After Sam leads him through twisting hallways to all sorts of strange rooms, he shows Castiel his bedroom last. The proof that he lives here with the brothers is almost too much, so Castiel does not think about it.

Instead, he wanders off to take a shower once Sam has left him to his own devices. He keeps his mind as empty as he can as he shakes even though the water is hot enough to fill the room with steam.

Dean was right. The water pressure is very satisfactory.

Castiel can smell food cooking somewhere. It’s a faint sort of sweetness overlaid with something salty that hangs in the air of the low ventilated area. It doesn’t take him long to find his way back to one of the rooms Sam had shown him earlier that housed cabinets and tables. It’s smaller compared to many of the others, more intimate. Castiel finds the tightness of the quarters comforting in its own way.

When he looks into the room from the hall. Dean is standing at the stove, which is sizzling and sending tufts of smoke up. Dean’s hair is still wet from his shower. It looks vulnerable against the bare stretch of the back of his neck, where the collar of the robe he’s wearing rides low. Its fabric hugs every point of elevation, mountains and valleys on a single human being. So, so human. So easy to die.

Castiel is not sure whether he wants to stare for the rest of his pitifully weak life or run away.

Dean makes the decision for him because he turns around to where Castiel is standing, staring, and doesn’t look surprised by his presence at all.

“You just gonna stand in the door like a lost puppy or are you gonna sit down?”

He freezes under Dean’s eyes. Somehow, every time Castiel sees him again it feels heavier. It’s not like this with Sam. Sam is easy, flexing and gold like wheatfields in Montana. Dean is a stranger that is charading as a fleece-lined winter jacket.

As if sensing Castiel’s apprehension, Dean’s face softens. It is not okay, how it makes Castiel feel.

“Get in here,” Dean directs while he waves the spatula in his hand at a chair pushed under the wooden table in the room. “I’m almost done.”

So Castiel makes his way in and sits.

For a moment longer, he watches Dean, acutely aware that the man knows he is being watched. “What did you decide to make?”

Dean hums, shifts, a machine with gears that turn and click. His hip pops to the side as he puts his weight onto his right leg. “Breakfast for dinner. Nothing cures the Bad Case Blues like eating food for the wrong meal.” He moves with the same coiled precision as he did earlier in the day when cleaning up the mess of the witches, and it’s fascinating to observe how it translates into the flipping and plating of pancakes. There is bacon, too, in a separate skillet that Dean isn’t currently paying attention to.

Then, Dean is stepping away from the stove towards the table Castiel is at and there’s a steaming plate of pancakes set under his nose. “Plus,” Dean adds, “these are your favorite behind hamburgers.”

“Pancakes,” Castiel says slowly. He doesn’t remember eating pancakes, either.

“Dean Winchester’s World Famous Cinnamon Pancakes,” Dean corrects him. He turns back to the stove and moves the skillet full of bacon before dumping it onto a plate covered by a paper towel. Those are set down on the table in front of Castiel as well.

Castiel looks down at the pancakes, perfectly browned, before glancing up as Dean retreats again. Dean’s shoulder blades shift under his robe as he reaches into an overhead cabinet, then down into a drawer, over to a refrigerator before coming back to the table with his hands full of plates, silverware, and a jar. The plates are put down unceremoniously. The jar is set with a purposeful thud in front of Castiel beside the full plate of pancakes. Dean is looking at him expectantly, so he picks it up with careful hands.

The jar is stout and fits in his palm. It has an aluminum lid and a matte paper label. “Maria’s Homemade Honey Butter,” Castiel reads aloud, and the yellow color of the font makes Castiel’s brain tug strangely.

“It’s from the farmers market that you go to. Maria’s a sweet lady ‘bout an hour out that has a bee farm, comes to sell in town about once a week. You eat this stuff like it’s going out of style. I found you in here at 3 A.M. scarfing it down with a spoon a few days ago.”

“The farmers market.” Castiel is a loose thread one pluck from coming unraveled.

“Uhhh, yeah. Do- do you remember the farmers market?”

“Yes, I- Do you know if I bought… oranges there?”

Dean’s eyes dart back and forth between his, flaring up with his eyebrows low in some sort of concern or confusion at whatever is showing on Castiel’s face.

“They weren’t oranges, they were clementines. You buy clementines there whenever you go. Smaller than oranges. They got little slices that pull apart on the inside.”

“In a red bag?” Castiel guesses, his voice distant. His eyes won’t focus, exactly.

“Yeah. You- Cas, you okay, man?”

That makes Castiel’s eyes snap back to Dean’s sharply. He sucks in a breath.

Dean looks mildly alarmed. “Not Cas, right. Castiel, sorry- didn’t mean to- ya know.”

Things that should make sense don’t, flit in and out Castiel’s head with fervor. “Earlier today, you referred to me as Cas. Why?”

Under Castiel’s unwavering stare, Dean huffs.

“Like I said before, I called you Cas ‘cause you are Cas. To me and Sam at least. It’s just a nickname.”

“A nickname?”

Yes, Castiel, a nickname. I’m not sure if you noticed, but ‘Castiel’ is a little bit of a mouthful. ‘Cas’ is just a shortened version of it. You know, like a nickname.

A shortened version of Castiel. It hits him quite suddenly what Dean’s words imply, that the Winchester brothers see him enough and refer to him enough that it is cumbersome to state his entire name. He exists to them, constantly. They look at him, and his presence means something compared to his absence. When he is gone, if he were gone, would they miss him? Would they notice? Does Dean refer to him as ‘Cas’ inside the privacy of his own head?

“You call me Cas a lot, then?”

Dean rolls his eyes even though the corners of his lips are pulling upwards. “That’s pretty much all I ever call you, buddy. I’ve known you for a decade and I could count on my fingers and toes how many times I’ve called you Castiel.”

Castiel realizes he is still holding the jar of honey butter because his hand is trembling so uncontrollably that he has to set it down. No one, he thinks, has bothered to know him in his millennia of existence. And now, even though he cannot remember it, there is some version of him who has an identity because of Dean Winchester. Castiel wonders what that must feel like.

“Whoever I am now, I am not ‘Cas’… but I envy him,” Castiel admits with what feels like his first breath of honesty since he woke up in the witches’ house.

Dean watches him with narrowed eyes and a frowning mouth. Still, still, there are burning embers shining out from his hardened expression.

Castiel has to stop himself from reacting when Dean’s hand comes down heavy on his shoulder with strength that holds him firmly in place while Dean leans in closer. The intensity of Dean’s eye contact feels like it should be lethal.

“Now you listen to me, Mr. Farmers Market. I’m the one who called you Cas in the first place, and I’m the one who gets to decide who Cas is. You’re always Cas, no exceptions. There’ve been times where you did shit so stupid I couldn’t even look at you, and you were still Cas then. Hell, this isn’t even the first time you’ve forgotten who I was! Just because Matilda decided to wipe your brain for the day doesn’t mean that you’re not Cas anymore. Capiche?”

Castiel cannot look away from those green eyes as he feels something hot in his throat. It burns uncomfortably even when he swallows. His eyes are warm, too, with some sort of itchy dampness. His face creases in confusion.

Dean’s eyebrows are raised with alarm. Castiel feels the exact points where Dean’s fingertips dig into the meat of his arm. It is almost overwhelming.

“Castiel?” Dean asks slowly. “I- We can drop it. I won’t bring it up, again.”

“I’m not sure what’s happening,” Castiel admits, surprised when his voice wobbles over the words, and his eyes grow wetter as he speaks. “Do I do this often?”

Dean is still staring at him. “You’re crying, man. And no, this is not something you do often. Or ever.”

“Oh,” is all Castiel can think to say. It’s like now that he’s started, he can’t stop, and he can feel the hot paths of tears creeping down his cheeks.

“Do you know what set you off?” Dean hedges.

Castiel mulls their conversation over in his head. It is even the vaguest notion of belonging that sets a fresh wave of tears into his eyes. “I think… I am very happy to be Cas.”

“Jesus friggin Christ,” Dean hisses with an aggravated voice, but his face. His face is clementines that pull apart on the inside. Then that hand on Castiel’s shoulder tightens even further, and he’s stooping down over where Castiel sits at the table. Dean’s opposite arm reaches out to wrap around his torso. Castiel freezes.

Dean must feel it because he pulls back minutely. “It’s just a hug, Cas.”

Castiel watches him with wide eyes and he is speechless.

Something like horror paints Dean’s expression. “You ever-” he clears his throat- “You remember hugs, don’t you?” Pleading.

“I have never experienced them beyond the knowledge as a concept,” Castiel repeats from their earlier conversation, and even he can hear the fragility in his own voice.

Then his breath is lost by how tightly he is crushed against Dean’s body. The angle is slightly awkward, Dean above him at his side so that Castiel’s shoulder digs into his sternum. He doesn’t know what to do or how he is supposed to react, so he stays still.

He drinks in the way that Dean feels near him, the way Castiel can smell soap from the clean skin of Dean’s neck and cinnamon on his fingers. Dean’s chin sits on top of his head so that Castiel is surrounded. He is swaddled in it. A stranger charading as a fleece-lined winter jacket, indeed. There are so many sensations to take in.

Castiel thinks he could become addicted to being held.

His tears have receded to the puddles in his eyes the longer he sits like this. Dean makes no move to let go, his thumb rubbing back and forth across Castiel’s arm that’s furthest from him, that he has his hand anchored on. Castiel is only wearing a t-shirt, and the sleeves do not come down far enough to provide a barrier between Dean’s skin and his. The feeling is miraculous, awe-inspiring, as divine as the gates of Heaven that Castiel helped create.

Sam appears in the doorway across from Castiel in a t-shirt and jeans, long hair wet and dripping onto the fabric over his shoulders. Sam stares with a cocked eyebrow at where Dean is wrapped around him.

Castiel almost expects Dean to pull away, but he doesn’t even twitch, just makes a small noise of acknowledgment in his throat that Castiel can feel vibrate against the hair on the side of his head.

“Everything good?” Sam asks before stepping haltingly into the room.

“Dandy,” Dean grunts like he’s angry, at odds with the slow motion of his still-moving thumb. Sam’s face contorts again into a language only Dean seems to understand. “Now, get your ass over here and give Cas a hug.”

Sam scoffs a disbelieving laugh, eyebrows to his hairline. He looks at Castiel, who can still feel the tears drying on his cheeks, then to Dean. Castiel can’t see Dean’s face from this angle, but whatever Sam observes there makes his surprised smile turn gloomy. In the blink of an eye, his long legs carry him across the room, around the table, to Castiel’s unoccupied side.

Another set of strong arms wrap around him, a point of counterbalance to Dean’s embrace. There are intersections of limbs at certain points, like over the center of Castiel’s chest, and it reminds Castiel of a woven basket, the type he has seen humans picnic with. Sam curls up on himself to bend over Castiel until his temple rests against the back of Castiel’s neck, and Castiel can feel Sam’s damp breath puffing down between his shoulder blades.

“Oh,” Castiel says out loud. There is delight in his voice that he doesn’t think he’s ever heard before. “This is… wonderful.”

Sam snorts in amusement behind him.

It is so odd. Castiel is aware that he technically knows the men, but here and now they are strangers. And yet, within the span of seven hours, he feels safer near them than he has anyone else he can remember in his existence.

“Do we do this often?” Castiel asks, secretly hoping that the answer is yes.

“No, not really,” Sam answers, and it sounds like he’s smiling

Castiel frowns. “Well, why not?”

This time, Dean responds, “‘Cause it’s not really something people do, Cas. This is an extenuating circumstance.”

Castiel makes an annoyed sound. “As someone who has watched the evolution of man, I can tell you with certainty that people are stupid. Dean, however, is smart, and this was Dean’s idea. If people are not seeking this sensation, they’re idiots.”

Sam just laughs down his back, then in his ear, as he releases his hold and stands upright once more. Castiel is extremely disappointed.

Dean lingers, though. If Castiel knew him better, he’d almost say that the man didn’t want to let go. He doesn’t know whether this is hopeful thinking or not. He doesn’t even know what he’s hopeful for.

“I’ll keep that in mind, Cas,” Dean says. With one final squeeze that turns Castiel’s insides into rabbit’s fur, Dean pulls away, too. “Now, it’s Breakfast for Dinner time.”

“You make veggie bacon?” Sam asks with his head in the refrigerator looking for something.

“You already know the answer to that question.”

“I hate you.”

Dean uses his bare foot to kick against where Sam’s rear is in the air, making Sam lurch forward further into the refrigerator and knock something over.

“Dean, you fuckhead!”

But Dean just walks away smirking and clicking his tongue.

Sam and Dean Winchester are very strange. Castiel likes them very much.

“Cas,” Sam calls, straightens up and looks back at him. “I mean, is it okay if I call you Cas now?”

Dean is watching him expectantly as he moves to sit across from him, snatching up a piece of bacon. Castiel nods. “Cas is good.”

Sam smiles. He does that a lot. Dean doesn’t. “Alright, Cas. You want one of your clementines while I’m over here? You usually eat them when Dean makes pancakes. Something about the citrus and the cinnamon, I don’t know, you talk about it a lot.”

For some incomprehensible reason, Castiel feels his face heat up. There are so many strings connecting points between what Castiel remembers and what he doesn’t, and so many of them lead back to Dean. The clementines make him feel exposed. If he ate one while Dean sat across from him, would the man know that Castiel was thinking of him and his soft insides?

Both brothers are watching Castiel now. “Yes,” he says finally, wondering if his eyes are as wide as they feel.

Sam pads over with a bottle of juice in one hand and a small clementine in the other. He sets it in front of Castiel before sitting down beside Dean. Dean rubs his hands together.

“Well, bon appetit!”

Castiel carefully shifts a pancake onto his plate and then stares at it.

“You usually put the honey butter on top,” Dean says like he’s sensing Castiel’s apprehension.

So Castiel opens the jar and uses the blunt knife in front of him to spread the creamy mixture across the pancake. He looks up at Dean, who nods in approval. Dean continues to scrutinize him as he cuts a piece off and brings it to his mouth.

It is warm and sweet against his tongue. Like finding out he has a home, like the embrace of the two brothers. Castiel is sinking, sinking, like falling asleep.

He looks at Dean who looks back at him. “Dean Winchester,” he says seriously. He doesn’t say anything else because there are no other words. Castiel takes another bite and begins eating with rapture.

A laugh startles out of Sam’s mouth, and he throws his head back with it. He cackles merrily, his hand coming up to beat against his chest until suddenly Dean is laughing too. It’s a barking sort of thing with a smile like the sun just came out. Dean has sharp, straight teeth like pomegranate seeds that shine white in the warm overhead light of the kitchen.

He is so beautiful.

For the first time, at least that Castiel can remember, he is grateful to be human.

Castiel wakes in a darkened room lit by a glowing television screen.

It takes him multiple moments to string together an explanation for the position he’s in. He lives with the Winchester brothers in their underground bunker. They call him Cas.

He’s curled up in a comfortable recliner chair with a blanket thrown over him. The television is showing images of tropical fish while a male narrator with a deep voice describes them.

Dean had told him that evening that Castiel used to enjoy watching documentaries (which he discovered he still did) and insisted they watch one together. One had turned into two had turned into Sam calling it quits for the night and heading to bed. Dean had started snoring halfway through the third movie, the one about the birds of paradise.

Castiel doesn’t know what time it is, but the Bunker is quiet. Dean is still sleeping in the chair beside him, his face painted in the yellow color of the fish on the screen. Castiel stares.

The man isn’t snoring anymore, his face lax and open in a way that feels precious. Castiel wonders who else has been privy to this sight, to this long moment of peace drawn onto Dean’s expression. His lips are parted just barely, his eyebrows raised and relaxed, his eyelashes casting shadows down his cheeks. A swath of the most tempting velvet, the south rose window of Notre Dame.

He wants to be closer. If he were still an angel, he would be able to count every single breath that passed through the Dean’s lungs. Now, Castiel watches from three feet away and doesn’t know why he feels so unfulfilled.

There is something about Dean Winchester, he thinks, something safe. It sticks in Castiel’s throat, as though in reminder that even though he doesn’t have his memories, he has the phantom sensation of them.

Time passes like that, Castiel turned sideways in the chair while he watches the way Dean’s chest rises and falls. The next documentary plays automatically. This one is about the Tundra.

Castiel, but maybe Cas, Cas, Cas, according to Dean, falls back asleep that way, eyelids drooping while he wonders that if all he’s experiencing now are the ghosts of his feelings, how visceral were they before?

This time, when Castiel wakes up, the TV is black with a screen saver and he remembers everything.

When he looks across the room, Dean is still sleeping. Castiel is going to fall apart.

All of those lingering emotions, the residue that only a few hours ago he had no idea what to do with, are shiny on the surface like a penny on concrete. It aches. It stretches Castiel too wide when he remembers what it was like to open his eyes and see Dean for the first time again. No memories or motive, and still he wanted to bury himself in Dean’s ribcage.

So many things that he always pushed down and to the side because he knew he couldn’t have them. The reasons, the guilt, that had kept them in check had suddenly vanished, leaving a blank slate that surged under Dean Winchester’s green eyes.

Should he wake him? Should he tell Dean that the curse has passed?

Castiel can’t make himself, not yet. But he can’t stand to sit there in Dean’s presence either. As carefully as he can, Castiel stands and leaves the blanket in the recliner, tiptoes out of the room.

He doesn’t know where he’s going. His bedroom isn’t too far down, but he doesn’t want to sit in his bed alone with his thoughts, either. Eventually, his feet carry him to the kitchen.

He’s not quite hungry, but he's anxious and needs something to do with his hands. When Dean had found him four nights ago eating honey butter with a spoon in the bleak hours of the morning, he’d called Castiel a stress eater. Castiel thinks he’s probably right.

That honey butter sounds extremely enticing. Castiel remembers the comfort of honey butter very well now.

Quietly, Castiel retrieves the jar from the fridge, a spoon from the drawer, and cracks the lid open. He has a spoonful of the butter halfway to his mouth when Dean appears rumpled in the doorway.

It’s like deja vu to that night before when Dean had stumbled upon him and looked at him like he was crazy. Except now, Dean just smiles at him. Castiel’s heart pounds.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Dean says, motioning to Castiel’s spoon that’s still hovering in midair. Castiel doesn’t know what to say or do, so he raises the spoon and eats the butter off of it to save himself from having to speak. “Looks like some things don’t change, memories or not, huh?”

Castiel should tell him. Castiel really should tell him. He doesn’t know how to say it, so he doesn’t say anything.

Dean doesn’t seem bothered by his lack of response. “You sleep okay?” He putters into the room.

Castiel clears his throat. “Yes, I- I woke earlier and was confused, but I fell back to sleep rather quickly.”

Dean makes a noncommittal noise as he walks around Castiel and to the fridge where he retrieves a carton of eggs.

“That’s good. We actually slept in a little later than usual. It’s already eight. Sam’s on a run. He does that in the mornings because he’s crazy.” Dean explains, because Dean still thinks that Castiel doesn’t remember that Sam gets up at seven to go for his jogs. “You hungry?”

“Yes, I could eat.”

Dean pulls out a skillet from one of the bottom cabinets and places it on the stovetop before turning one of the gas knobs to start heating it. He plugs in a toaster off to the side.

“How do you take your eggs?”

Sunny-side up, Castiel thinks but doesn’t say.

“I’m- not sure. How do I usually like them?”

“Sunny-side up and runny so you can dip your toast in.”

Because Dean remembers how he likes his eggs because Dean cares about him. And even though Castiel has his memories back, it still feels significant. “Yes,” Castiel says distantly, “that sounds good.”

Quiet falls in between them as Dean cracks an egg into the oiled pan.

He is every bit as lovely as Castiel has ever thought, wearing nothing but a soft t-shirt and sweatpants that ride low on his hips. Dean is domestic in the growing morning, where he makes food for his family.

“Dean,” Castiel finds himself saying without meaning to, like it’s been ripped from his throat.

Dean looks up from the stove to him. “What’s up, Cas?”

Castiel wants to wrap himself around him. Dean’s freckles stand out across his nose. He is so warm, warmer still now that Castiel remembers everything the man has gone through to get to this exact moment.

“You are wonderful.”

It has been a very long time since Castiel has seen Dean so startled. He visibly recoils while his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, the spatula he now holds in his hand jerking back.

“Come again?”

“You are wonderful. Even when you’re tired, you are here cooking for those you care about. You are… a natural provider. It doesn’t require someone knowing you for more than nineteen hours to see that. I may not remember what we have gone through together,” the lie feels clumsy in his mouth, “but I hope that I- when I did remember- that I told you how appreciated you are.”

Silence. Dean is staring at him, mouth agape while his face grows pinker and pinker. Finally, he clears his throat and turns back to the cooking eggs. “Uh. Okay. That’s- uh, that’s nice, Cas.” A pause. “Your eggs are almost done.”

There are footsteps out in the hallway accompanied by labored breaths, and then Sam is in the doorway looking in. He’s dripping sweat, but he grins as he pulls out his earbud. “Eggs?” he asks hopefully before fully entering the room.

Sam doesn’t wait for an answer before he looks to where Cas is standing. “Morning, Castiel. Got back into the honey butter?”

“Yes, it’s- it’s hard to resist.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Sam gives a jolly sort of chuckle that warms Castiel in a different way. There’s a fondness that seems to have bloomed overnight from the experience for Sam, how he took Castiel’s curse in stride and helped him feel slightly more like a whole person.

“You have a very pleasant laugh, Sam.”

It’s almost comical how similar Sam’s reaction is to Dean’s, his expression shocked.

“Sure, thanks, I think.” But Sam’s still smiling.

Beside them, Dean is moving again as he plates the eggs from the skillet. “You- Is everything okay, Cas? Not that I don’t enjoy hearing about how great I am, but you’re kinda freakin’ me out.” Dean sets the plate of eggs on the table and then turns to Castiel with a raised eyebrow.

Sam shoots Dean a confused look that Dean brushes off with a shake of his head. Now that Castiel has his memories back, it is much more obvious that the look they exchange is about him. When Dean looks back towards Castiel for an answer, there is something unnervingly perceptive in his eyes. But no, there is no way that he could possibly know.

Castiel carefully places the honey butter and his spoon down on the metal cart in the middle of the room. He turns to face the brothers.

“I didn’t intend to worry you.” Castiel hesitates. He dredges up his memories from last night at the dinner table, words that he means and wants to say but doesn’t know how to air. He will air them here, he decides, with his forgotten memories like a shield to protect him. “I simply wanted to-to thank both of you. There is much that I don’t remember, and I have to assume that is because you were in a large part of my memories. In Heaven, we did not display any sort of affection or care for each other the way that it seems you two care for me. You have shown me more kindness in this short time than I have been witness to in my entire life. And I am very old.”

Sam and Dean are both staring at him now. Sam watches with sympathetic eyes. Dean’s jaw is clenched in that way he does when he gets overwhelmed, and Castiel is surprised that he can still see the clementines there even though his memories have returned.

But there’s one more thing. He needs to say one more thing. If he does not do it now, he will not do it again unless he is on his deathbed.

“And I- if whatever small fragment of emotion I still hold onto is anything to go by,” Castiel pauses, steels himself, and makes himself meet Dean’s weighted gaze, “I’m sure that I loved you very much.”

A hush falls across the kitchen. This was a mistake, Castiel thinks, and yet such a weight has been lifted from him with the admittance.

Sam is the first one to speak. “You don’t have to thank us for anything, Cas. I know you don’t remember right now, but you really are our family. And we’re glad you’re here with us.” His tone is gentle and sincere.

Dean is watching Castiel pointedly, but eventually nods. “Sam’s right. You’re our family, and we take care of our family, period. And I don’t make my World Famous Pancakes for just anyone.” With that, he turns back to the stove and cracks another egg into the pan.

Castiel almost lets out a sigh of relief.

Sam glances towards Dean and then lets Castiel see as he rolls his eyes. It makes Castiel smile. Then, he leans in to squeeze Castiel’s shoulder reassuringly, and Castiel finds himself saying, “Is it alright if I- I hug you? I enjoyed our hug last night.”

Sam breathes a laugh. “I mean, I’m covered in sweat, man, but, uh, go for it.”

Castiel leans in, doesn’t mind much at all that Sam was telling the truth and is almost unpleasantly damp. He doesn’t smell, though, he’s just Sam. And Sam’s arms wrap around him with their strength, and Castiel thinks he understands a fraction of Dean’s love for the man. His solidity is a comfort, a pillar for others to lean against.

“You are a very good hugger,” Castiel says as he pulls away.

Sam just smiles as he shakes his head. “I’m gonna hit the shower. Make me two eggs and wheat toast?” He directs his words to Dean and doesn’t wait for an answer before bouncing up and out of the room.

“A good hugger?” Dean rounds on Castiel. “What am I, chopped liver?”

If Castiel knew that all it would take to make Dean jealous was to compliment Sam’s hugging abilities, he would have done it years ago.

“Hugging Sam Winchester is… it is akin to being enveloped by the tectonic plates that sit below the Earth’s crust: structural, yet giving to the heat of the mantle below it. Hugging Dean Winchester is…” Castiel hesitates, tries to find the right words. He smiles softly. “It is like the first bite of Dean Winchester’s World Famous Cinnamon Pancakes: surprisingly soft, yet very filling.”

Dean looks away in an attempt to hide the pleased expression curling up on his face, but he isn’t particularly successful.

“I guess I can live with that.” Dean glances back at him, his eyes dart between Castiel’s eyes. He purses his lips. “Alright, get over here.”

Before Castiel can even comprehend what is happening, Dean is tugging at his arm and pulling him into a hug. His t-shirt is soft underneath Castiel’s chin where it rests over Dean’s shoulder. Castiel closes his eyes and tries to commit it to memory. This moment, here, with no looming threat in sight, the worst thing to happen in the last forty-eight hours being a rather benign spell that played itself out. Here, holding Dean in the kitchen while he makes his family breakfast.

Castiel’s throat closes up, and he pulls away. “You are a very good hugger, as well.”

“Damn right, I am.”

And Castiel knows there’s nothing more to say. The words that had been sitting on his chest for longer than the last nineteen hours, possibly since the moment that he raised Dean from Hell, have now loosened and come clean.

He takes another step away from Dean and lets his body crumple to the floor.

“Cas!” Dean shouts, all shocked panic.

When Castiel opens his eyes, Dean is kneeling in front of him again, just like before. His hand is resting on Castiel’s shoulder.

“Cas?” he asks. There’s a minute tremor in his voice.

“Dean,” Castiel says with affection. He is acting, yes, but it is not hard to recreate that feeling, the way he had felt when he saw Dean for the first time this morning.

Dean’s face brightens. “Hey, hey, buddy, you with me?”

“Yes, I-” Castiel pretends to look around in confusion before his gaze lands back on Dean’s face. “I remember everything.”

“Oh, thank fucking god,” and Dean is pulling him into a crushing hug right there on the floor. It only lasts for a beat before he’s leaning back and standing. He offers his hand down to Castiel, and pulls him upright with a mumbled, “Up you go.”

Castiel feigns looking down at his flexing fingers, turning them over like he’s seeing them for the first time. “Well,” he says gruffly, “that was unexpected.”

Dean swipes a hand over his mouth, shutting his eyes for a long beat. He opens them and gives Castiel a stern look. “You scared the shit out of me, you know that?” But there’s no real heat behind his furrowed eyebrows or his words.

“I apologize. The witch must have targeted me from behind, and I didn’t realize because the curse took so long to go into effect.”

Dean nods and lets out a tired sigh. “It’s- it’s okay, Cas. Could’ve been a hell of a lot worse. We didn’t even have to dig up some poor bastard to get you back into shape, so I’ll count it as a win.”

Castiel watches Dean, who is looking at him differently now that he knows Castiel remembers him, and Castiel’s breath catches. Because all of a sudden he realizes that the clementines had always been for him. Because Dean is wearing that face, again, like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. His eyes are so naked with it.

And Castiel had just told him he loved him. He wants to do it again. He can’t. Yes, this was a mistake. Expressing love that way is addictive, and it is something that Castiel now very well remembers he cannot afford.

“Uhhh- Cas? You sure you’re alright?”

“Yes,” Castiel’s eyes feel wide with panic. “Yes, I just need to-to regroup, I think.”

And then Castiel turns and walks as calmly as he can out of the kitchen even though he feels like running.

He doesn’t let himself think about Dean’s hurt face that he’s most likely leaving behind.

There’s a knock on Castiel’s door ten hours later. It’s almost six o’clock according to Castiel’s phone.

“Cas,” Dean’s voice calls through the door.

Castiel sighs. He knew this interaction was inevitable, but he didn’t think it’d be this soon. Perhaps Dean is becoming more emotionally mature. It would be wonderful if it weren’t at Castiel’s expense this time. “Come in, Dean.”

The door cracks and Dean’s head pops through. He looks at where Castiel is sitting on his bed with a book open in his lap and raises an eyebrow. “You got a second to talk?”

“Would it matter if my answer was no?”

Dean snorts and comes into the room fully, closing the door behind him. He sits down on the side edge of Castiel’s bed so that he has to turn his head to talk to him. Even still, the bed isn’t very big, and there’s only a foot of space between the small of Dean’s back and where Castiel has his legs stretched out in front of him.

“So, any particular reason you’ve been holing up in here?”

“I believe that humans value something called privacy. I’m entitled to it sometimes.” Castiel’s tone is waspish, but Dean doesn’t take the bait.

“You sure it’s not about what happened yesterday?” Dean is giving him a pointed look, and Castiel thinks it’s unfair that Dean gets annoyed when Castiel asks about his well-being, but he’s perfectly fine with turning around and doing the same thing to Cas.

“It’s not,” Castiel answers plainly. It is.

“Hmm, right,” Dean says sarcastically and purses his lips, “then maybe it’s about the fact that you actually got your memories back this morning and didn’t tell us, then just pretended to get them back again later when you faked a Wipe Out in the kitchen.”

Castiel freezes.

“Yeah, you’re not as slick as you think, Cas.”

He wants to argue, wants to deny it, but he knows there’s no use. “How did you know?”

Dean gives a short, dry laugh down to where his hands are folded in his lap. “You know, it’s almost like you’re my best friend and I’m the most paranoid bastard on planet Earth.”

Castiel isn’t sure what to say now that he’s been found out. The silence drags on until Dean looks up again. There’s scrutiny, something curious, in his gaze.

“Got anything to say for yourself?”

“Like what?” Castiel scowls.

“Gee, I don’t know, why the hell you felt like you had to lie to me in the first place? Cas, man, you were asking for hugs and telling us how much we meant to you like you were dying. And you pretended like it was ‘cause you didn’t remember us even though you did. Sorry, but that feels like something we might need to unpack!”

“Perhaps I didn’t tell you because I was trying to avoid this exact conversation.”

Dean glares at him, but it relaxes to annoyance when he pinches the bridge of his nose between his fingertips. “I’d almost be mad if that wasn’t a move right out of my playbook.” He sighs deeply. “Cas, I’m serious. What’s going on, man?”

Castiel gulps and closes his eyes. It is hard to be honest, to bear gentle feelings when the world is so cruel. As much as it infuriates him, he understands the reason Dean shuts himself off from these sorts of confessions.

“This experience has… made me realize certain things that I took for granted. Specifically, you and Sam. It is- difficult, looking back on what it was like to not remember either of you. I was very alone.” He stops. When he opens his eyes, Dean is watching him patiently.

“You and Sam are my family, and I know you’ve said this yourself in the past but… I don’t think you understand how true those words are. I don’t think I understood their weight until now. Their import. I could not explain to you the feeling I had when I realized I had a home here with you. How I could have been so lucky to have found a home outside of Heaven.”

“I- Cas, I get it. As much as I can get it, anyway,” Dean says gently. “But what was with the act? Why didn’t you just come clean?”

Castiel looks at Dean, and for a moment they hold eyes in the quiet of the room. Castiel is the first to turn away, staring unseeingly at the desk in the corner.

“There were things I- When I didn’t remember you, things felt different. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, and I felt it would be easier for all parties involved if I shared my thoughts as a version of myself who didn’t realize that I shouldn’t. So that I would not have to take responsibility for my comments if you didn’t react well to them.”

“Uncomfortable?” Dean sounds skeptical, “I mean maybe it was a little more- ah- feely than normal for us, but Sam and I can handle a few hugs, man.”

A pause. Dean’s eyebrows furrow in thought before his face falls. “Cas?” He sounds concerned, maybe a little scared. Castiel cannot look at him. “What do you mean things felt different?”

If there is one thing Castiel realized from the events of yesterday, it is that he’s tired of the intricate dance he and Dean have been doing all of these years.

“I think you know.”

Dean stands from the bed and paces in an anxious circle. He rubs his hand down the bottom half of his face. Castiel’s human heart will surely explode any second with how hard it beats.

Finally, Dean turns to him. “Say it anyway.” His eyes are begging, exhausted, like maybe he is just as tired as Castiel is.

“Why?”

“Because I want to hear it.”

They stare at each other. Slowly, Castiel puts his book on his bedside table beside the lamp and the jar he has there before he moves off the bed to stand as well. They’re only a few feet apart in the small room.

“I love you,” Castiel confesses.

Dean takes in a sharp breath, like he’s shocked even though he knew the words were coming, heard them earlier today without knowing their context.

Castiel continues, “I love you differently than I love Sam. Not like a brother, or a friend.”

Dean looks a second from crying, as close as he gets anyway, where his bottom lip trembles. He looks at Castiel like his insides are falling apart and there is no red mesh bag to catch them.

“I want-” Dean starts, but his voice fails him, and he shifts until he’s facing the door so that Castiel can no longer see his expression. The only sound is Dean’s harsh breathing.

Finally, “Cas, I’m terrified, man,” Dean admits. He is turned away as he says it, but the line of his shoulders is tense. All of the events of the past, the memories that had been taken from Castiel, are now painfully evident in the way Dean holds himself. Castiel feels his heart break, if only slightly

“Of what?” Castiel asks. He can’t stand it, the way Dean can’t seem to look at him.

“Everything? All of it. Dying. Living. This. This, it’s too close to me. I want-” Dean tries again, wobbly. “Cas, you mean too much to me for me to fuck this up. But it’s so goddamn frustrating. Because I want you to love me… not like you love Sam. But I can’t-” Dean groans with agitation, runs a clawed hand through his hair sharply.

“Dean,” Castiel wills his voice to stay strong, sure of itself. Because it almost sounds like Dean wants this, too. “Whatever you can or can’t do does not stop the fact that I love you. Whether you are afraid or frustrated or-or think that somehow you will damage things irreparably between us, I am going to continue to love you regardless of that. You can’t stop me.” He swallows. “There is no option where I don’t love you, only options of what you will do about it.”

“Cas- Cas, I want to. To do something about it. But-”

Castiel takes the few small steps to close the space between them. He raises his hand slowly, rests it on the strong cusp of bone that makes up Dean’s shoulder. It is sturdier than rock under Castiel’s touch.

“I’m afraid, too.” He risks stepping closer until he can feel the heat from Dean’s back a few inches from his chest. Dean is stock-still. “Perhaps, the important thing is that we’re scared together.”

Dean huffs a humorless laugh and slumps forward on himself. “You really believe that?” Underneath the bitterness of his words, there’s a soft sort of hope.

Castiel uses the hand on Dean’s shoulder to turn him around, and he moves willingly with the pressure. Still, Dean’s head is hung towards the ground like he doesn’t know how to meet Cas’s eyes.

It makes Castiel want to reach out and hold him. It is a shining little urge that wakes under his skin, has slept there for years with the knowledge that he wasn’t allowed to act on it. The idea of touching like that is born from a place of absolute desperation and nothing less. At least, it has been. But Castiel thinks about the hug he shared with Sam and Dean last night, the way Dean had pulled him in simply to comfort him. He thinks he is tired of reserving hugs for the moments before death and the moments right after.

So he draws Dean into his chest and doesn’t give him an out. Castiel wraps his arms around Dean’s warm frame the way he’s always wanted to, always wants to. For a second there is stillness until Dean’s arms sling low and heavy around Cas’s middle.

“Cas,” Dean mumbles into the fabric of Castiel’s shirt just over his shoulder. He sounds resigned. “What if I fuck this up?”

“Then you do,” Castiel answers honestly, “and we’ll keep going anyway.”

Dean sighs, that moping sort of annoyance. “Sure, sounds easy enough.”

Castiel rolls his eyes where Dean can’t see before he pulls away. He looks at Dean who finally meets his eyes and feels his face screw up. There’s a clench in Dean’s jaw and his brow is low with some sort of self-loathing suspicion that seems to be his default. But, of course, there is a hidden vulnerability underneath.

And because of the events of yesterday, it’s as though Castiel sees that underneath in a different light. Those nasty little feelings that Dean tries to bury are tangible and they are beautiful. Soft and delicious and ripe and Castiel wants to bury his fingers in it and lick the juice off his human hands. He wants to touch the velvet membrane of each clementine slice.

“Oh, Dean,” Castiel finds himself saying with quiet affection that catches in his throat. His hands raise to cup Dean’s face, both of Castiel’s broad palms caging in the timid expression there. Cas has lost his interest in the idea of subtlety. “I want to kiss you.”

Dean’s breath stops, stutters, restarts like a skipping car engine. He stares. Castiel is undeterred.

“I’m going to kiss you… now.”

When Dean does nothing but continue staring with glossy eyes, Castiel leans in.

He’s only done this a few times. His experience with kissing sits somewhere in a gray-zone, where it has been odd and filled with some sort of tension that never quite hit the realm of caring. Memorably, one of which led to his death and subsequent resurrection.

But that was then, when it wasn’t Dean because Castiel thought it could never be Dean. Now, Dean’s cupid’s bow is the needle pointing North on a compass.

Castiel holds him in place as he presses their lips together. It’s dry and warm, both of their mouths closed to it, and it is all Castiel could ever ask for. Dean takes a sharp breath in through his nose and goes to move, but Castiel stops him by pulling away. Just two inches. He presses in again. Their lips are flat planes against each other, a stamp against heavy paper.

This time, Dean doesn’t try to deepen the kiss, his hands just tighten around Castiel’s hips. In some ways, it is so chaste it is barely a kiss at all, like two children pretending to be married. In so many other ways, though, who needs tongues and clicking teeth when there has never been anything as intimate as the mutual touching of mouths, all of those unprotected nerve endings bared but together.

A beat, then three, and Dean starts to move his lips again. There is a gentleness to it that would be hard to imagine if Castiel didn’t know the man so well. Soft, so soft, where they meet each other.

And then Dean is pushing against him until Castiel is forced to take a stumbling step backward, another, until they’re standing at the foot of his bed. Dean sits down on the edge, disconnecting their kiss. He tugs at Castiel’s waist.

“C’mon, don’t haveta be careful with me. I’m not gonna break.” He tugs again like he wants Castiel to sit in his lap. He’s wearing a devilish little smile.

Instead of following Dean’s prompting, Castiel moves to stand over him before settling down above him, straddling one of Dean’s thighs and propping his knee up on the edge of the bed to the side of Dean’s body to take some of his weight. Dean seems pleased either way.

“I’m not being careful with you because I have to. It is because I want to.”

Dean licks his lips and Castiel watches unabashedly.

“Yes,” Castiel mumbles to himself, in a trance at the sight, “I want to.”

He takes Dean’s face in his hands and kisses him again. Dean pushes up into it with an open sound where their tongues touch, wet and splendid. It is warm in this place. Castiel wants to curl up in Dean’s molars and rot away. It’s sloppy, lazy, and the hair on the back of Castiel’s neck stands on end.

Pulling away, Castiel kisses down the side of Dean’s neck. Even without angelic abilities, he can see the hummingbird flutter of Dean’s pulse through the tissue paper skin. He settles his lips there and feels it intimately.

“Cas.” Dean squirms. “Use- Use your teeth.”

Castiel scrapes his two front teeth over the skin, and Dean sighs happily, so he does it again. Again and again, until he pushes his tongue out against it. He would be content to die here, he thinks, tasting Dean’s heartbeat through his fresh sweat.

“Fuck, that’s- why is that so hot? You’re not even doing anything.” Dean seems stuck between fidgeting and utter stillness, like he’s not sure if he wants to push into the sensation of Castiel’s mouth or not.

And Castiel wants to touch, wants to feel all of the solid lines of muscle that shift under Dean’s clothes. He cups a hand around the opposite side of Dean’s neck before trailing it downwards over the smooth bump of his pec. He can feel where Dean’s nipple has hardened under the shirt, and when he rubs his pinkie finger over it, Dean quakes beneath him.

Then lower, until he knuckles up under the hem of Dean’s t-shirt and his hand meets warm skin. He lets his fingertips graze there, where Dean’s stomach is vulnerable and fleshy. There is a fine trail of hair below Dean’s belly button that Castiel traces before pulling back up, dipping a fingertip in against his navel. The sensation makes Dean jerk.

“It is miraculous, how this single spot provided you life for months before you even took a breath,” Castiel murmurs into Dean’s neck.

“Cas,” Dean whispers.

How does Castiel describe the way he’s starving? How does he explain that he will never be close enough to Dean Winchester, that he wants to eat him alive, all of his humanity and rusty joints and clementine insides? Castiel is starving.

“Glorious,” he feels like weeping, “glorious, and I am here to touch you.”

Castiel surges up to kiss him again, the only thing that feels like it could satiate him. Dean’s mouth is a secret that Castiel is allowed to hear. Castiel pulls away as his hand moves lower to the front of Dean’s jeans where the denim is stretched taut across his lap between his spread legs.

There is a hardness underneath the zipper, and Castiel knows what it is. Solid flesh, even more private than the inside of Dean’s mouth. He curls his fingers around it through the thick material.

“Jesus, Cas,” Dean gasps and bucks his hips upwards. Castiel applies more pressure, which earns him a precious, tripping, “Ah-ah,” from Dean’s lips.

“Yes,” Castiel says throatily, “I can feel it.”

“I’m sure you can.” Dean’s teeth are clenched. “You’re killing me, man.”

But right now, this is enough. Every new inch forward is enough at the same time that Castiel is greedy for more. In this moment, he wants to memorize the texture of the denim spread around Dean’s hardness. Even through the jeans, the tension is so delicious. Knowing that he is so close.

Oh, yes, he is touching Dean. Under his palm, there is fabric and there are all those sensitive nerves and blood. He bets the skin is flushed red. He moves his hand up and down over it, pushing down against it, knowing what is underneath just as satisfying as the idea of touching what is underneath.

Dean keens, as thin as reed in Castiel’s ear. “Seriously, c’mon Cas, you gotta do something.”

“Dean,” Castiel reprimands in the voice that used to silence the man in an instant all of those years ago. It still works, because Dean quiets with a cowed expression on his face even as his pupils dilate.

But Castiel takes pity and eases the fly of Dean’s jeans down. He looks even more delectable through the flimsy material of his boxers, and Castiel drags his knuckles down the area tentatively. Dean shakes like he’s crumbling apart, his stuttering breath puffing hot against Castiel’s cheek.

“So responsive,” Castiel says inquisitively, almost to himself, but it makes Dean’s erection twitch under his hand while the man makes a punched out, “Hmmm.”

Castiel edges exploring fingers over the waistband of Dean’s boxers and on Dean’s next exhale he dips his whole hand inside. The hot skin of the head meets his knuckles first, damp and sinewy.

“That’s- that’s-” Dean starts, but cuts off into a moan when Castiel wraps his hand around his length. “Yes,” he praises, “Cas, yeah, j-just like that.”

But even with the sweat of the confined space and the way Dean is starting to leak, Castiel’s hand is too dry, pulling the sensitive skin in what has to be an uncomfortable manner from what Castiel can guess from his limited experience with masturbating in the shower.

“Too dry,” he grumbles, retracting his hand from the warm cocoon of Dean’s boxers. Think, he needs to think.

“Just use spit, man,” Dean groans with frustration.

“Saliva isn’t adequate, it dries too quickly.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “There’s lube in my room if this is really that much of an issue.”

As the words leave Dean’s mouth, Castiel is struck with his own inspiration when his eyes land on the jar of organic aloe vera gel that’s sitting on his bedside table. He had gotten it at the farmers market one day while lazily browsing the stalls, when the woman running a booth full of plants and natural serums had noticed his cracked hands and motioned him towards the container. Even though it was spring bordering on summer, the life of a hunter led to scars and calluses across the frequently utilized skin, now that Castiel doesn’t have his grace to keep it soft.

This should fix you right up,” she’d said. “It’s hard to get better than this, straight from the source. You can use it for just about anything: dry skin, sunburns, bug bites. Sensitive enough to use downstairs, too.” She’d winked at him then.

Castiel thinks it is time to test her claim.

He stands and moves to the bedside table without an explanation, grabbing the container and unscrewing its lid. Castiel digs his fingers into the sweet, green-smelling gel before he leaves it discarded and open where he found it. When he returns to his original position, Dean looks wholeheartedly confused.

“Aloe vera,” Castiel says as way of explanation as he warms the substance between his fingers. “It’s very good for your skin.”

Before Dean has a chance to respond, Castiel fits his slick hand back into the constraints of his boxers. He gets aloe on the waistband, but Dean doesn’t seem all that concerned when Castiel’s wet fingers wrap around where he’s still hard and hot.

“Holy-” Dean chokes on the word. Castiel’s grip is tight around him and his hand moves without resistance. “Easily- easily one of your best ideas, Cas. Shit.”

Castiel presses his face into Dean’s neck again, leaving fluttering kisses against the stubble. He feels so wonderful in Castiel’s hold, a sweet burning brand that brings pleasure.

“I enjoy the smell of it as well,” Castiel sighs, “it reminds me of being in nature. It’s very fresh, as though it is cleansing at the same time that it soothes.” Dean’s hips jerk upwards. “Does it soothe you, Dean?” he rumbles into the man’s ear.

Dean gasps. “That’s one way of putting it.”

As much as there is a specific charm to Dean’s banter, the way he uses it now as a shield for his emotions is unnerving. Castiel doesn’t want the plastic of the red mesh bag, not here where they are close.

“You’re sarcastic, even now. Why-” Dean stiffens under him and Castiel doesn’t wait for an answer. His hand slows but doesn’t still, petting over Dean’s erection. “-when I know you as well as I do? You hide, and for what, when I’m already touching you like this. You said yourself that I’m your best friend. Well, you’re my best friend, too, and I have seen the parts of yourself that you think you keep secret.”

“Cas, this isn’t- I mean-” Dean starts to fidget.

“It feels so good to experience this, Dean. To hold you in my palm like this and bring you pleasure because I love you. There is nothing to fight against anymore. So I want you,” Castiel’s hand tightens around Dean’s hardness as he punctuates, “to stop pretending.

Dean gasps, and Castiel sucks wetly at his pulse point. He moves his hand faster, the slide so easy and satisfying, like touching silk.

“Okay,” Dean agrees finally, shakily, “okay, okay.”

“Yes,” Castiel sighs. He closes his eyes where his head is tucked into the crook of Dean’s neck because right now he just wants to listen, to feel, in tune with every humming part of Dean’s body. He likes that Dean’s erection is hidden away in his boxers, a treasure that only Castiel is privy to in this moment. Not even the air of his room gets to see. Just Castiel, just the tactility of his fingertips. “Because I enjoy you so much, Dean.”

His thumb slides wetly across the slit, pushes in, and Dean makes the most beautiful noise.

“You’re wonderful. So wonderful. I was scared and confused, and you comforted me. You are good, Dean.”

This close, Castiel can feel the exact moment Dean’s breath catches in his throat. He twitches in Castiel’s hand.

“Yes,” Castiel repeats, lets his lips touch the shell of Dean’s ear, “you are so good. In every way, you are worth worshipping. I’ll keep telling you, now that I can, and I won’t stop. So good, Dean. I can feel how hard you are, how you ache when I say it. Would you like me to say it again?”

Dean’s hips buck up into Castiel’s fist once, and then they don’t stop, rocking motions that move Castiel’s hand with them. A dry sob catches in the back of his throat. “Cas.”

“Will you tell me?”

Nails scratch at Castiel’s back through his shirt. “You’re- Jesus, Jesus, how-?” Dean’s voice is as whiny as Castiel has ever heard it, weak and rough. He knows what a privilege it is to experience it.

“I’m just telling you the truth. Though I like that you enjoy hearing it.”

The way Castiel is bent over him leaves his shoulder near Dean’s face, and Dean leans forward to whimper into it. Castiel feels him nod, feels his hot panting.

“You don’t have to say it, I can feel it. Good and caring and gentle. I know, that’s it, Dean. You can have it. Take it, just as you’re doing. Into my hand. You feel exquisite, so hard while your skin is so soft. I could touch you like this and never tire of it.”

Dean’s movements intensify, and Castiel works in tandem with them. He lets his hand tighten the way that he likes when he’s touching himself, down at the base. It drags a primal noise out of Dean’s mouth that echoes in Cas’s ear.

“There, Cas, right there.” When Castiel wrings his hand, Dean sobs, “There, there, there, there,” he trails off into harsh breaths.

“Good,” Castiel praises. “Dean, are you going to come for me? I’d like that. I’d like to see that if you’d let me.”

Cas,” Dean cries, and Castiel can feel where his mouth is agape, can imagine the way his eyebrows are drawn up “Ah-ahhhhh.”

“Will you let me see, Dean?” Castiel tugs his hand upward, lets his palm curl over the head. Suddenly, Dean is shuddering in his lap. The hands on Castiel’s back grip so tightly he can feel Dean’s blunt fingernail digging into his skin even through the fabric of his t-shirt. Dean is growling with it, animalistic, when Castiel feels him start pulsing.

“Yes, exactly,” Castiel groans at the sensation, stroking him through it where everything is even hotter and slicker now. It’s like Dean coming only just made him realize how hard he was, too. Suddenly, his own arousal feels impossible to ignore, especially with the way his hand is saturated from Dean’s orgasm. It’s thrilling.

“Right-” Dean wheezes, “Right in my fucking boxers.”

Castiel leans back from Dean so that he has room to take his hand out of said boxers. When he holds it up, it’s wet enough to reflect the light overhead. He closes his eyes and pops a finger into his mouth. Castiel knows that aloe is safe to consume, has watched humans eat it before when he was still an angel, and it tastes green and sweet mixed with the salt of Dean’s come. He hums, pleased.

When he opens his eyes, Dean is staring at him. “Cas, you might be the craziest motherfucker I know. And that’s saying something coming from me.”

Castiel feels a smile tugging at his lips. He shrugs, “If I am, it’s your fault. You’re the one who taught me about humanity.”

“Nah, nah, nah,” Dean looks thoroughly debauched, hair mussed and face red, but his eyes are brighter than Castiel has ever seen them, “this is all you, pal. We both know it. Don’t put this on me, you freak.”

All Castiel can do is lean forward and kiss him again. He’s burning up under his skin, and the lazy way that Dean kisses him now that he’s come is almost more erotic. Dean licks into his mouth like he’s chasing the taste of his own orgasm. Castiel opens his mouth wider to it, feeling unhinged.

Dean pulls away, looks at him, and goes back in again for one final puckering kiss. He leans away completely, leaving Castiel panting. “Looks like E.L. James could use a little help, huh?”

“Yes,” Castiel sighs, “it would be appreciated.”

Dean snorts a laugh. “Alright, tiger. You got your turn, we’re doing this my way now.”

When Dean shifts, Castiel steps back to give him room. Dean’s eyes linger hungrily at his now extremely visible erection, but his face screws up when he goes to stand.

“Actually, uh, you got a spare pair of boxers I could change into before we continue this? I’m not enjoying this come situation, like, at all.

Castiel nods his head towards his dresser, and Dean walks to it. “Alright, while I’m doing this, you get naked.” And then, for as loud as the room had just been with their noises and voices, it’s suddenly quiet again.

Dean’s back is towards Castiel as he rummages through the drawer, which is helpful because Castiel feels suddenly nervous at the prospect of stripping for Dean. He had never had any issues with nudity before, but maybe the human mindset about the bashfulness of the naked body has been rubbing off on him. Maybe it’s just because it’s Dean who’s going to see him naked.

It only takes a moment for Castiel to discard his shirt, then his jeans. He wasn’t wearing shoes or socks before, so he suddenly finds himself in only his boxers-briefs. For some reason, he can’t quite make himself take them off, even though they do a very poor job of hiding anything anyway.

In front of him, Dean makes a triumphant noise, holding a t-shirt and a pair of Cas’s boxers in the air. The t-shirt used to belong to Dean. Then he’s kicking off his shoes, pushing his socks down with either foot while he throws his flannel on the floor. Castiel is both fascinated and perturbed by the dexterity being used. Dean’s t-shirt is next, tossed down unceremoniously with his flannel before Dean pulls the clean t-shirt on. Then, he drops his jeans.

Castiel very much wants to stare, though he’s not sure if he’s allowed to.

As if reading his mind, Dean looks back over his shoulder with a teasing grin. His eyes slide up and down Castiel’s body, catching where he’s hard and straining. Dean licks his lips. “You can watch if you want.” His tone is both joking, and not joking at all.

Dean turns back around and rolls his boxers down his legs. His bare ass is paler than the rest of his skin and it’s covered in freckles. If Castiel believed in prayers the way that most humans do, he'd be praying right now.

Dean balls up his ruined boxers in his hand and uses them to wipe his front clean. They drop to the floor, and then Dean is pulling on Castiel’s boxers, hiding all of that soft skin. He rounds to face Castiel again.

“Better,” Dean says. He takes a step towards Castiel, almost predatory. “What’d you think about my ass? It’s nice, right?”

“I-” Castiel freezes. Dean’s eyes shine with delight. “Yes, it’s very nice.”

Another step. They’re within each other’s reach now. Castiel holds his breath.

“Mmm. You know, Cas… You ran strategy for heaven, didn’t you? Warrior of God, if I’m remembering right, which I am.”

Castiel is confused by the question, but something burns hot in his stomach with the knowledge that it’s most likely not as random as it sounds. He wonders what Dean’s angle is. “Yes, I was a Commander and devised many of our attacks.”

Dean clucks his tongue, and Castiel has a very bad, very good feeling about this.

“Well, here’s the thing about strategy, Cas. I already came,” suddenly Dean’s hand is cupping his erection through the thin material of his boxers, making Cas draw in a stuttering breath, “and you haven’t. Guess which one of us has the upper hand now? You think one orgasm’s gonna knock me on my ass? I live off four hours of sleep, Cas, I don’t go down that easy.”

“Alright,” Castiel agrees with wide eyes, stunned. Dean’s lip ticks up like he wants to laugh.

Then Dean pushes past him and makes his way to the bed, to the top of it where Castiel’s pillows are. He climbs up and sits with his back resting against the headboard and spreads his into a wide-V. He’d look soft and tousled in his new attire if it weren’t for the ravenous expression on his face. Dean pats the space between his legs. “Your turn.”

Castiel did not think it was possible for him to get harder, but he was wrong.

He takes shaky steps to the bed and knees up onto it as Dean watches. Something about the way Dean’s eyes track him makes Castiel hyper-aware of his own skin, like maybe he wants to preen. Slowly, he turns around and settles himself between Dean’s legs, spine ramrod straight. He can feel the way his body prickles with goosebumps.

Strong arms wrap around his waist, pull him backwards until Castiel’s back is pressed against Dean’s chest. Dean’s breath is warm in his ear. Castiel wonders if Dean was as ridiculously aroused by the sensation when Castiel was whispering in his ear as Castiel is now that the roles are reversed.

“Hey there, handsome,” Dean practically purrs. “I think I owe you something, don’t you?” His left hand pets across Castiel’s stomach while his right draws painstakingly upwards towards Castiel’s chest. Castiel can only nod, his voice lost in his throat.

“Yeahhh,” Dean continues, “you see, Cas, all the eggs are in my basket now.” His voice is smug, taunting that makes Castiel’s flush red, but there’s fondness underneath that Castiel wants to curl up in. “You got me off good and hard, and now there’s nothing stopping me from taking my time. You’re not the only one with a dirty mouth, Cas. I’ve been in this game for years, trust me, I know what feels good.”

Dean’s thumb and pointer finger circle Castiel’s nipple, pinch it, then move to the other. The way Dean’s mouth brushes against the shell of his ear as he speaks is so fragile, barely there, and Castiel feels it like electricity in his bones.

While one hand works over his nipples, Dean’s other comes up to draw circles around Castiel’s Adam’s apple. It is the wisp of a touch where Castiel is vulnerable, where just two months ago someone could have sliced the skin and taken his grace out. For a sensation that is next to nothing, it is one of the most erotic things Castiel has experienced in his life. He finds himself tipping his head further back, baring his neck like some submissive beast.

“Dean,” Castiel grunts. He grips his hands around the firm muscles of Dean’s thighs on either side of him just to have something to hold on to. They flex under his fingers.

“And I think you deserve to feel good, Cas.” Dean sighs, “You deserve a lot of things.” The hand on Castiel’s chest dips to curl around his erection through his boxers. They’re saturated at the head now from precome, and Dean’s fingers dance across the spot. Castiel whimpers, his hips jutting up. “And I really, really,” Dean’s hand squeezes, “want to give them to you.”

Castiel shakes. He feels destroyed by it, by Dean’s strong hand on him. It’s right there for him to watch, and there is no mistaking the deft fingers belonging to anyone but Dean Winchester. They abandon his erection to snap at the waistband of his boxers.

“You gonna take these off?”

He can’t find the words to respond, as he leans all of his weight back against Dean and raises his hips to free the fabric as he pushes it down his thighs with trembling hands. Once they’re past his knees, he kicks out of them until they’re nothing more than a gray pile at the foot of the bed.

Dean groans quietly in his ear, stroking Castiel’s low belly. “Well, that’s real nice, Cas. All for little old me, huh?”

“Yes,” Castiel says. He is enraptured by the way that Dean’s hand rides lower, lower, just to the side of his hardness but so close. The other leaves Castiel’s neck in favor of rasping short fingernails through the coarse hair above his erection. “I’m very-” he gulps, “I’m very aroused. Your voice is very arousing.”

“Is that right?” Castiel can hear Dean’s smirk in the words. “Mmm, you like when I talk all sweet to you?”

“Please, Dean,” Castiel begs, because Dean is just petting his skin and he is so hard, aching.

“Fuck, you seem real desperate, Cas. Bet it hurts a little bit. But just-” he takes a breath- “just right. Just enough to let you know how bad you need it. I always kinda liked it, when it started to hurt like that.” And then Dean’s left hand leaves his chest as the man leans to the side behind Castiel. He shifts, pauses, and when his hand returns it’s slick with aloe vera. “Don’t worry, I’m here to help.”

Dean transfers the substance between his fingers before wrapping a fist around Castiel’s erection.

Castiel stops breathing, his whole body taut with the sensation. There is no preamble as Dean suddenly jacks him rapidly. “Dean,” he finds himself saying, repeating with no noise. His mouth moves in the shape of Dean’s name and nothing comes out.

“Feels good, huh, doesn’t it? Tell me?”

“Good,” Castiel chokes, dizzy with it, “So-so good.”

“Bet I know why,’ Dean says, and the bastard doesn’t even sound like he’s breaking a sweat. Upper hand, indeed, Castiel will give him that. “‘Cause I’m your best friend.”

Dean’s hand slows and rubs tight circles at the head of Castiel’s cock. A frantic sound rips from his chest.

“And you call me wonderful. God, Cas, not even hiding anything, just letting me see. You trust me to take care of you, huh? Trust me- trust me to make sure you’re okay.” Dean sounds almost solemn in contrast to the furious pace of his hand. “That’s what you were telling me earlier, wasn’t it? Natural provider, that’s what you said.”

Castiel is so close. He’s staring down the barrel of a gun and Dean’s hand is on the trigger. He can taste it, where his hips buck up into Dean’s tight fist because he couldn’t stop them even if he wanted to.

“I’m your best friend, right Cas?”

“Yes,” he rattles, splinters. He can feel the tell-tale tightness, the pulse.

“And you love me, don’t you? You love me, Cas?” Dean’s hand is moving so quickly now, a wet noise with each stroke, the veins in his arm standing out with the strain.

Yes! Yes, yes, fuck, I love you,” Castiel sobs. His head slams back into the bone of Dean’s shoulder as he comes. It’s blinding. He’s numb and floating on it while he stripes his stomach with his orgasm.

He’s so lost in it that at first, he doesn’t realize that Dean is still touching him. Castiel is starting to soften, his skin hypersensitive against the friction of Dean’s fingertips. A pang runs up his spine. “What-” He starts with a gasp.

Dean chuckles low and dark in Castiel’s ear and it burns like something alive inside of him. “I’m not finished with you yet,” and then more softly, “unless you want me to be.”

“I’m not sure- it’s-it’s-” Castiel’s teeth chatter together. His body is trying desperately to jerk away, but Dean has him pinned in place. It’s as though it feels so pleasurable that it doesn’t anymore, that it hurts, but Castiel doesn’t want Dean to stop touching him. “Keep going.”

When Dean hums, it sounds pleased. His hand works Castiel slower now, but not by much. Cas’s mouth hangs open and he can’t seem to close it.

“I do this to myself sometimes, after I already came. It feels like too much, but it’s-it’s so- it’s like scratching that itch that you can never reach,” Dean says breathlessly. “God, Cas, look at you.”

Oh, oh, D-D-De-” Castiel is writhing in Dean’s lap, his weight strung out against the man like a puppet with its strings cut. There’s a chirp on each exhale he makes, high and bright. The sensation is tortuous and he never wants it to end.

There are two hands on his softened cock now, one stroking the base while the palm of the other rubs circles against the crown. It’s Dean’s hands, Dean’s hands, Dean’s hands, and Castiel’s eyes roll like marbles in his head. He sees colors, Heaven, forgets what it is like to be in the shape of a human being because surely he is nothing but liquid leaking out across the sheets.

Everything is Dean’s hands and Castiel ceases to exist outside of their caress.

“Alright,” Dean murmurs in his ear, through the rush of blood pulsing there, “alright, sunshine, let’s bring you back.” Dean’s stroking slows to a petting of the slippery skin, then travels up soothingly across Castiel’s stomach. With the arms wrapped around Castiel, Dean rocks them both gently side to side.

And he’s humming, Castiel realizes distantly. It’s a song that sounds familiar, that Castiel might actually be able to name if his brain wasn’t comparable to churned butter.

Castiel lets himself float on it as the tremors of his body slow to twitches of lax muscles. Dean’s humming is happy and warm, turning even warmer when he actually starts to sing.

But, oh, how it feels so real, lying here with no one near, only you, and you can hear me, when I say softly, slowly.

He makes a quiet percussion noise that tickles the short hair above Castiel’s ear.

Hold me closer, tiny dancer,” Dean’s hands move in circles, skimming from Castiel’s waist to his shoulders. It’s a funny, supporting sort of thing that brings Castiel’s heart rate down further. He sinks back deeper into Dean’s chest. “Count the headlights on the highway. Lay me down in sheets of linen, you had a busy day, today.

Dean goes back to humming the ebbing melody, and Castiel can practically hear his grin through it. Eventually, it trails off into nothing but their breathing, their rocking going still.

“You think I have a wonderful singing voice,” Dean brags.

Castiel smiles quietly. “Yes, I do.”

Content silence falls again. Castiel weighs the options on his next move, as the come drying on his stomach is rather uncomfortable, but his body still feels like melted caramel. Now he wants those little chocolates with caramel inside.

“Hey, Cas,” Dean mumbles in his ear, his tone serious. Castiel nods that he’s listening. “I’m really glad you remember me.”

Castiel lets out a breath through his nose. “I think… there was a part of me that never forgot you in the first place. I was very drawn to you. Perhaps even more so in some ways, because I was unaware that there was a reason not to be. Even when I didn’t know you, I found you extremely attractive.”

Dean huffs out a laugh that moves his stomach against Castiel’s back. “Not surprised.”

“It is rather interesting how my brain processed things during that time, though,” Castiel finds himself saying. He’s so sated he can barely find it in himself to be embarrassed. “Lots of metaphors.”

“Metaphors, huh?” Dean sounds intrigued. His stubbled cheek rubs against Castiel’s. “Like what?”

“I- Well, I kept comparing you to oranges that I remembered buying at the farmers market, only to find out I was actually buying clementines.”

Dean’s whole body tenses as he barks out a laugh into the quiet air. His arms squeeze around Castiel’s torso. “Is that-” Dean practically giggles- “Is that why you got so red when Sam asked if you wanted a clementine at dinner last night?”

He doesn’t wait for an answer, just laughs and laughs. Castiel drinks it in until he’s so full he can barely stand it. Dean’s laughter, he thinks, is like clementine peels. Eventually, they die down to an amused bumble.

“Mmm, I’ll be your clementine, Cas.” Dean presses a smacking kiss to his temple. It turns over Castiel’s insides. “And,” very suddenly, the jovial current in Dean’s voice is gone, “and, me too. You know, ah, about what you said.”

Castiel knows exactly what Dean means, and it warms him in a way nothing else ever could. It makes him brave.

“Oh, that you’re my best friend?” Castiel asks tauntingly.

“Cas, you are such a piece of shit.”

“I don’t understand what you mean, Dean, are we not best friends? That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“You know what I mean, Cas.”

“Do I?”

“You gonna make me say it?”

“I’m not going to make you say anything.”

Finally, Dean sighs. He buries his face in the side of Castiel’s neck like he’s hiding. “I- okay, I can do this- I- um- ya know… l-love you.” He huffs. “Jesus, that was harder than I thought it’d be.”

Castiel lets the joy burn through him, the smile on his face that he couldn’t tamp down even if he tried. He grabs Dean’s wrist from his chest, uses it to bring his hand to his mouth. Castiel kisses Dean’s knuckles, his fingers, through the frankly disgusting mess still on them.

“Luckily, it seems that we’ll have plenty of occasions for you to practice… Clementine.”

Dean puffs an almost disbelieving laugh in his ear. “Sounds like a plan, Honey Butter.”