Castiel winged his way between milliseconds and molecules into the depths of Gabriel’s library.
Sam was folded up on one end of a long green sofa, which Castiel suspected Gabriel had salvaged from the 1920s. There was a blanket around his shoulders, and a thirteenth-century manuscript propped up on one of his knees. The other leg was doubled up under him, and he was picking absently at a toenail. His laptop sat nearby, open to the online Latin dictionary that Sam used for more obscure words; but it hadn’t been touched in minutes, judging by Sam’s fading energy signature on the keyboard; and his hair was falling into his face, overlapping in long tongues the way it did when he had been running his hands through it for hours.
There was a small concentrated frown furrowing his forehead, and Castiel found him beautiful.
Castiel folded away his wings and stepped out into physical reality. Sam looked up at once, and his face split into his wide crooked grin. “Hey there, handsome.”
(Castiel wondered sometimes whether the Winchesters would be so easy with their appreciation of his physical form if it had been Claire Novak’s body that he had inherited, rather than that of her father. However much Dean might insist – when pressed – that it was Castiel he found appealing, not Jimmy, he did seem rather enamoured of Castiel’s stubble, and the line of his wrists, and the shape of his pelvis.)
“Sam,” he acknowledged; then, unsure of how to proceed, he stood there and considered him. Castiel had come with a specific apology to make, regarding the events of the previous night. He had not expected to actually find Sam still in the library at this hour, in open disregard of that conversation; and he certainly had not expected that, finding him here, Sam would look openly happy to see him, not defensive, not apologetic, nor even fondly exasperated.
Castiel was not here to start an argument.
Sam snorted inelegantly, and kicked at a cushion by his feet, clearing a space at the end of the couch.
“I slept for a couple of hours this afternoon, dude, if that’s what’s got you looking like a wet dog at the door. Our sleeping patterns have been screwed up since we were in diapers. Just you tonight, huh?”
“Gabriel and Dean are in Newark, getting trashed,” Castiel confirmed, pronouncing the slang expression with the careful delicacy that always made Dean’s eyes sparkle. “What are you reading?”
“Poor Newark,” Sam yawned. “The Trotula. Well, one of them. Gabriel’s got three different manuscripts of it lying about in here, and they’re all different. You know it?” At the shake of Castiel’s head, Sam continued happily, “Sort of a medical encyclopaedia from the twelfth century, only with cosmetics and so on too, using Christian and Muslim traditions. Meant to be written by a Salerno woman called Trota. No idea whether she ever actually existed, but it looks like everyone just added their own chapters and left out the bits they didn’t like and grabbed the bits from other texts that they thought would help every time they copied it. There’s almost no text in common between these ones, at least so far. You gonna sit or hover?”
He nudged at the cushion again, limbs lazy-loose, and Castiel belatedly recognised the gesture for an invitation.
“There was a woman by that name, known for her medical prowess,” he offered, as he carefully toed off shoes and socks (black, with pink hearts, because they entertained Gabriel). It wasn’t necessary, strictly speaking, but neither were many things that Castiel did these days, and he cautiously enjoyed the sensations that came with bare feet. “I suppose she may have written such a thing, or her students might have done so in her name, or more distant associates in her memory. Humans are so deeply preoccupied with the origin of a thing before they consider its quality.”
“I know, right?” Sam’s smile lit up into sleepy enthusiasm, and he tucked his cold toes comfortably under Castiel’s thighs as the angel sat down. “It’s like, judge a book by its cover, pre-modern style. If your name’s big it doesn’t matter if it’s good or not, or if the last guy slipped in his own research in chapter twelve. And some of the stuff – the bits that can’t have been written by her – it’s good, real good, but whoever did write it obviously figured no one would read it if he put his own name on it.”
Castiel gathered one of Sam’s long bare feet into his lap, and set about working it over with his own hands, warming his fingers with a thought. Sam’s feet were always too cold at the end of the day, and usually ached. The habit of soothing away that dull throb in idle moments was an easy one to fall into.
“And so text becomes conversation and accretion, mutable with every generation and every touch,” Castiel mused, delighting idly in the eternal contradictions of humanity. “A process surely familiar to everyone conversant with books and writing in that age. Yet at the same time the written word remained as sacred and alien for you as the ‘word made flesh,’ the body of the prophet Emmanuel.”
Sam wriggled his toes against Castiel’s wrist. “Oh hey, yes. So he was just a prophet, then, like the Muslims say?”
“A prophet,” Castiel allowed, pushing the pad of his thumb into the mound of flesh below the big toe, “but not in the conventional sense. He was supposed to be a vessel.”
He fell silent, circling the centre of that muscle, crossing back up over the mound below the third toe and looping around the far side of the foot and back again in slow dragging figure-eights. In the press of his own human muscles and the drag of the skin, he remembered those three short human years that had changed so much of Western human history: the three years between Michael’s first descent to the man to inform him of Heaven’s benevolence and desire, and Emmanuel’s final consent, days after his resurrection. He remembered the rich, bewildered babble of voices in the Host throughout that time, Michael’s almost complete absence as he worked to persuade his vessel, followed the man everywhere, arguing and watching and listening (and occasionally, Castiel suspected, having actually read the relevant Gospels, lending the human his hand and his grace). He remembered Michael’s sky-shattering wrath and grief after his human had spoken words that had sounded so like consent (Into your hands I commend my spirit) but that signalled something far deeper and greater (beyond angelic comprehension, as he had always been, as perhaps all humans were), and had given up his life. And he remembered the resurrection, for which no bargain had been struck, brought about only because Michael could not bear to leave things so.
“More importantly,” he said quietly, “he was a man of great personal conviction and charisma. Much like your brother, in some ways. Michael became… attached.”
Such a bare word for a yearning that had torn the Host apart, changed the meaning of Michael’s own name and obedience.
Castiel became aware that Sam was staring at his profile with all the hunger of spirit that had, when Castiel had first met him, been warped and re-routed into the thirst for tainted blood.
“You are so telling me that story sometime.”
Castiel looked curiously at Sam – at his wide eyes, his endless brightness of faith – and ran the backs of his knuckles firmly up the sole of Sam’s foot, to make him groan. “If you like. It is… unpleasant.”
Sam shrugged, and arched his foot against Castiel’s fingers. “So’s my day job. Do that again.”
Castiel did it again, and watched Sam melt happily into the sofa cushions. As his thigh went lax, the book slipped off to rest against the back of the sofa. The fall of the blanket around his shoulder and down over his ribcage mimicked perfectly the long loose line of his neck as he let it fall back over the sofa’s arm, dark green velvet rich against pale skin. A creature of sensuality, and of his senses; all of which he inhabited fully, and joyfully.
“Sam,” Castiel said quietly, and tucked the pampered foot back into place in exchange for the other. “I came here to apologise for last night.”
Sam cracked open one eye. “What part of it?”
… Castiel hadn’t thought there could have been more than one part that needed redress.
He focussed his senses on the swell of Sam’s heel, the strong curve of the instep, rather than on the warm glow under those eyelashes. “Violating your trust,” he said, and it came out hoarse.
The contented curiosity radiating off Sam sharpened into something worried and pungent.
“… Okay?” Sam said carefully, as if he wasn’t sure that was the right word. There was confusion in it, enough that Castiel felt compelled to reply.
“Restraining you,” he gritted out.
The puzzlement eased back a little. He heard Sam’s small huff of almost-laughter, the one that he did out of the corner of his mouth while glancing away for a moment and back again, almost an eyeroll. “Dude, don’t worry about it. You tried something and it didn’t work. No big.”
Castiel shook his head, because, if his research was correct (and he’d checked and triple-checked across many apparently reputable websites, with that strange knot of dread and self-reproach growing in his stomach all the while), forgiveness shouldn’t come so easily. Not even between those who had already forgiven each other so much.
“I did not understand the reference that you and Gabriel made to ‘subs’,” he said to Sam’s toes. “But Gabriel implied that it applied, on occasion, to my activities with Dean. So I researched the matter, and the associated practices.”
“… Uh.” Sam’s thoughts stuttered to a halt. “I mean. Of course you did. Uh.”
“And I understand,” Castiel ploughed on doggedly, “that any activities of that kind, which deprive one party of a certain element of autonomy, should be preceded by careful and open discussion, while neither party is in such a state as to be ruled by their hormones or passions, regarding the extent and limits of each specific genre of act, any particulars about them that may render them more or less pleasing to the subordinate partner, and a mutually agreed signal for aborting the… game, should that partner not be enjoying himself as he ought. All of which I neglected to do. For that, I apologise.”
Sam was very still by the end of Castiel’s gruff little prepared speech, a shocked sort of quiet with nothing coming off him for Castiel to read. Then Castiel felt, of all things, hilarity bubbling up inside him, and he lifted his eyes incredulously just in time to see Sam’s head tip back into a peal of delighted cackles.
Castiel blinked at him a few times.
“Oh man,” Sam gasped, open and happy and not looking very violated at all. He didn’t get any further before he caught Castiel’s stare and went off into another irrepressible wave of laughter.
Castiel felt a faint twinge of annoyance, but the cautious relief was stronger.
Sam scrambled forward and threw a leg over Castiel’s thighs to slide onto his lap, eyes crinkled and bright and beautiful with the lightness of his soul. “Cas, honey,” and he flushed a bit, still awkward with the endearment. “Those websites are written to stop people getting carried away, people who are into some pretty heavy shit and often don’t even know their partners at all. They’re gonna overstate everything just to cover their asses. But you and me, man? We’re good. Hell, you and Gabriel know when I’m freaking out before I do, these days. I trust you, okay?”
The relief blossomed into something warm and luxurious inside Castiel’s chest, and he didn’t resist when Sam bent to kiss him, all firm and earnest.
However: “I was not aware,” Castiel felt it necessary to say, when Sam came up for air, “that there was a cultural context to my actions. I was replicating on you something that makes Dean’s body and mind light up; but your body responded only a little, and, from what I could see, your mental response was the opposite of enjoyment.”
At the mention of Dean, Sam went scarlet; but Castiel felt the whisper of intrigue behind the recoil, and took careful note of it.
Angels were not mind-readers, he had told Sam during the incident with Famine, in response to Sam’s over-simple question. At the time he had believed that he was telling the truth – in fact, he had found the processes of human thought far more baffling than any human could, and had been often almost persuaded that humans (especially Sam and Dean) were actually reading each other’s mind, passing on information beyond the spoken at a rate that Castiel had no chance of understanding. Humans could not read minds; but, he had come to realise, the wealth of information that they gathered from each other’s faces and voices let them make guesses that were very close to mind-reading. A blind man might think that a sighted man was possessed of telepathic abilities, simply because the latter was (even without realising it) receiving and analysing signals that the former could not access, or even understand.
Castiel was not a mind-reader; but he was learning faces, and he was becoming adept at interpreting the information of his other senses: the shift of blood and hormones and electrical signals within the human body, the yearning of the human mind towards (or shying away from) others around them, the heavy weight of their belief in themselves, in others, in unknowably distant ideas. A buzzing mass of information, but he was learning to navigate it, to read it in conjunction with face and voice and context. And, more importantly, he was learning Sam and Dean.
He was becoming sure that the Winchesters’ mutual adoration was increasingly expressing itself, in the privacy of their thoughts, in terms similar to those with which they expressed their love to Castiel and Gabriel.
“Uhm.” Sam rubbed at the back of his neck. “I guess? I mean, I wouldn’t say it had no effect, just I don’t like the idea. And it didn’t do a hell of a lot physically, so, yeah, the head gets the big vote there.” A little smile, halfway between bashful and sly, tugged at the corner of his mouth. “It’s not like I have to be running the show the whole time to enjoy it, or anything, but I like to be able to at least be a part of the action, you know?”
Castiel considered this; and considered, too, other things that Sam’s body and heart might delight in, but which would be overruled by his head as yet. Then he pressed a kiss to that delicious little curve at the side of his mouth.
“You are complicated,” he observed, and it came out low and suggestive.
Sam laughed into his mouth. “Yeah, sorry about that. ‘S what you get for taking up with humans.”
“I had observed it.” Castiel nipped delicately at Sam’s lower lip; and Sam tilted his head and opened his mouth so that it slid into a proper kiss, pleasant and lacking in urgency. Sam’s body was a low sensual buzz of enjoyment and sleepiness and safety, and Castiel revelled in it, in being a part of that.
Then Sam leaned back, trusting Castiel’s hands on his hips not to let him overbalance, and gave him a considering look.
“One thing though, Cas?” Castiel nodded, questioning; and Sam said, too soft not to be steely-serious, “Don’t tell me what to do.”
And Castiel was left blinking again.
He was tired, and had worked so hard this week (unpleasant and wearing work), and he had been genuinely scared by the light that the websites today had cast upon his behaviour with Sam (and, worse, on many nights with Dean, though Dean always arched into it and sobbed and sworn and urged him on, beautiful and intimate). His mind and his emotions, which were still rough around the edges and raw with their novelty, were sluggish and drained; and this was another sharp about-turn too quickly, and he did not understand.
“Advise, sure,” Sam went on, when it became clear that Castiel wasn’t going to say anything. “Or argue with me, or, hell, just ask. But even if you’re worried, you don’t get to decide for me.”
Castiel had the sinking feeling that he’d lost a step somewhere, failed by not knowing the rules. Again.
“I.” He frowned, moistened his lower lip, and tried again. “I wasn’t aware that I had.”
Sam softened a little. “Getting close to it, man. I know you’re used to handing out orders up above, but I’m not an angel, okay? Dean too. It’d be a hell of a pattern to get into long-term, and I’m pretty sure we’re all gunning for the long haul here. You can’t just… I don’t know, order us around to show us that you care.”
Castiel frowned at him. “Dean does.”
Sam snorted. “Yeah, which is one of the many many reasons we don’t learn people skills off Dean.”
Castiel squeezed Sam’s thighs, still mostly lost. “You did.”
“And look how well I ended up.” Sam’s eyes sparkled at him, at odds with the seriousness with which he had stated his position. “I’m just saying, Cas. You do this pretty often, coming on a bit too hard. Gotta let people mess up for themselves, okay? Even if you love them.”
He shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable under Cas’ stare, and slid off to stand on the floor. “Anyway. You coming to bed, or what?”
Castiel crushed the small surge of rebellion inside him, the part that wanted to protest and overturn, and declare Sam wrong, just one person, just one opinion. All he had done was offer a threat – half-serious only, and as soon as Sam’s mind had cleared he would have surely remembered just how few creatures in all of Heaven and Earth and Hell had access to Gabriel’s houses and library. Only whatever it was that Sam was pointing to was broader than that; and so Castiel held his tongue. Because Castiel had asked Sam to explain these things, some months ago, when it had become obvious that neither Dean nor Gabriel could or would. And he did trust Sam, had to believe that he would only act on that request if he was seriously concerned, and would do it without rancour or favour so far as he was able.
But it was… very alien, to every tool Castiel had for thinking and acting.
He stood up without a word, and walked with Sam back to the door leading to their preferred house, the one in Oregon. The manuscript and the blanket, Castiel’s shoes and socks, they could stay there. There was no urgency to their placing.
Castiel was a creature of orders, given and received; and the lengths he would go to in order to protect these three men, his humans and his angel, still had the power to appal him. He wasn’t entirely sure what Sam was asking of him. He was less sure that he was capable of it.
Sam said that he would trust him to pin his wrists, and to know when to let go; why could he not also trust him with the logical extension of that?
In Sam and Gabriel’s bedroom they undressed in silence. Castiel handed Sam his sleep pants, and Sam tossed him his jacket to hang up. Sam’s fingers brushed against Castiel’s in the exchange, and in that spark of physical contact, Castiel had the fleeting impression of something reaching out from Sam towards him, some compound of concern and uncertainty. Perhaps also a little familiar guilt, turning back on Sam.
Humanity was complicated. Emotions were complicated, and steeped themselves in others.
So, when they were lying side by side in the dark, and Castiel could feel Sam’s breath shifting the air in its patient rhythm, he quietly articulated his protest as a question.
“If Dean regularly orders you to take a break, and spent much of the first two months after Stull Cemetery attempting to compel me to do the same, and tells you that he’ll dye your hair pink if you try to get out of bed when you’ve a heavy head cold, and told you not to see the demon Ruby… then where is the difference between that, and what you say I do?”
Sam was quiet for a minute, though Castiel felt the flinch at that name. Castiel lay still and listened to the soft hum of Sam’s blood, the sleepy thudding of his heart.
Then, “The difference is, Dean can’t actually make me do anything, and he knows it. He can rant and glare and make threats, but at the end of the day it’s all persuasion. You…”
Sam turned his head on the pillow, a soft slide of hair on cotton, and Castiel felt the heat of his regard on the side of his face.
“I sometimes get the feeling that, if push came to shove, you’d just knock me out and take over. Just do what you thought had to be done, and not even ask first. If you thought it was necessary.”
His voice was lower than usual, as if it was scraping the edges of something that scared him. As if he were being more honest than he’d like.
Castiel stared at the darkness, at the odd colouring it gave to the human aspects of his vision. He thought of all the possibilities before him, all the things the infinitely creative universe might choose to throw at these beautifully terribly important men. Of the barter of souls to save a brother, and impossibly self-destructive choices forced by circumstances, and giving consent to archangels.
Then he thought of standing by, inert.
“You’re probably right,” he said, and felt it rumble through his chest and the mattress beneath him like an earth tremor.
Sam huffed, irritation and reluctant fondness. “Yeah, well. Don’t.”
“I have compromised many things to human sensibilities in the last year, Sam, and I consider myself the richer for it.” Castiel slipped his fingers around Sam’s palm under the sheets and pressed his thumb into the centre, a firm gentling touch, the same as he had used on Sam’s feet earlier. “But, if… push came to shove? I can’t make that promise.”
Sam breathed out, long and slow, then lay back down. “Okay then.” His hand settled and relaxed under Castiel’s, laying itself open for his touch. “Just… keep it for a last resort, would you? Don’t waste it on a few late nights.”
Castiel closed his fingers around Sam’s wrist, and carried the hand to his mouth, and kissed it. And that was a promise.