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They stopped late enough that the motel clerk just shoved the key over the counter at Dean without looking him over too closely.

Sam hadn’t even bothered to get out of the car, drooping like an out-of-season sunflower against the passenger-side window. Dean drove them the couple of hundred yards to park in front of their room, but Sam only twitched when Dean turned off the engine again and sat a moment, listening to it tick.

Dean looked over at Sam, his mouth fallen just a little open in sleep. It might’ve been funny to go around and open the door, let Sam fall halfway out into the parking lot before catching him.

They were a little old for pranks, these days.

“Sam,” he said, careful, not reaching over to shake Sam awake. Sam grumbled and knuckled at his eyes. Dean shoved the car door open and went around back for their bags.

A day driving had left Dean’s shoulder aching. Bobby’d patched him up back at the motel in Iowa while Sam was dealing with the mess out in the hall. But somehow the bandage tape had gotten an edge stuck on Dean’s T-shirt and the whole thing had balled up into a scratchy annoyance on his back, rubbing against the wound. The puncture wasn’t big enough for stitches and it had oozed enough that Dean didn’t need to look to know that that both his shirts were history and that a sane man would probably have given up on the jacket as well.

So of course Dean ended up standing in front of the little bathroom sink, twisting blood out of leather.

Sam had already pissed and brushed his teeth, then faceplanted onto one of the beds, so Dean didn’t worry about hogging the bathroom. Sam needed his sleep, after all, if he was going to get up early and chat with Ruby.

The best part, the best part of the siren venom was how Dean had already said the same things to Sam just from being mad, back when Castiel first told him what Sam was up to with Ruby. So Dean knew: Sam had been telling gospel truth. He’d just managed to stuff the words down inside himself until the siren got to him. Sam always did have better impulse control.

Dean got the jacket as clean as it was going to get and hung it over the hook on the inside of the door. Now for the fun.

Standing in just his jeans and boots, he used a washcloth to remove the worst of the blood on his back, then got the gauze out of the medikit. He reached up, crossing his left arm over his chest, to put the patch over the wound. Fucking thing wouldn’t stay in place. The stab wound was just low enough that he couldn’t quite reach it from over his shoulder, and when he tried the other way, slinging his arm around his chest and reaching past his armpit, he was too low.

He accidentally looked at the mirror above the sink and saw how ridiculous he looked, contorting himself like he was trying to get a ‘Kick Me’ sign off of his back. He stopped long enough to turn the shower on, hot, and waited for the fog to close in so that he wouldn’t have to watch his own monkey dance.

The air was hot and wet now, hard to hold in his lungs, pressing heavy against his skin. He reached; he stretched, painfully; he closed the toilet lid and sat down, trying for a better angle; he stood up and leaned so far forward he needed to put a hand on the wall for balance.

After two ruined pads and at least three feet of destroyed surgical tape, he had to admit the truth: he couldn’t twist himself into the shape he’d need to tape it himself.

Right now, he’d rather bleed out than wake Sam up to ask for help.

Sam had stitched himself up just fine when Dean had been—of course—no use after the encounter with Alastair, standing around with his thumb up his ass until Sam managed to take care of the both of them.

He felt his face twitch, and he fought it hard, dropping the supplies and grabbing on to the edge of the counter. But the heat streaking his face wasn’t steam, and who the fuck was he trying to fool anyway? He was everything Sam had said; he was nothing. Worse than useless. The shower pounded in his ears, loud enough that Sam couldn’t have heard the noises he was making even if Sam had been listening.

“Dean,” a voice said behind him, and he nearly screamed, spinning around and adding new bruises to his collection as he collided with the countertop.

Castiel was standing not a foot away, his beige trenchcoat and calm expression even more out of place than ever. Dean closed his mouth. “Let me help,” the angel said.

Dean sniffled and wiped his hand across his face, well aware that he was doing nothing to conceal the evidence. He was grateful Cas had shown up, really; the angel’s presence was like having a tourniquet put on his stupid, weakling emotions.

“You get a nursing certificate in Angel School?” he managed, and his voice was only a little thicker than it ought to have been.

Castiel just held out his hands, and after a moment Dean fumbled yet another square of cotton out of the kit and shoved it at him, along with the tape. He turned and saw two blurs in the fogged-over mirror. He wished Castiel had the siren’s venom, so that Castiel could be the one he wanted standing there.

Castiel’s hands were cool on his back in contrast to the closed-in heat of the room. His touch was too gentle, like he thought Dean was just as pathetic as Sam did. Dean cleared his throat. “This what it’s like in Heaven?” he wondered. “Steam’s kinda like clouds, I guess.”

“I have not seen Heaven in millenia,” Castiel answered, which—whoa. Dean couldn’t really deal with what that might mean right now.

They were silent as Castiel placed the tape, running his finger carefully around the edges to keep it down. Dean shivered. This was going to be his first new scar, he realized, undoing all Castiel’s hard work.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“For what?” Castiel sounded honestly puzzled.

“I know why you brought me back,” Dean told him, and the angel lifted his hands away from Dean’s body. But he was silent; he was going to make Dean say it, same as Dad always had when Dean had fucked up. “Plenty of hunters around, not like you need to grab one out of the Pit to get some human help. It’s Sam. You think I can stop him, you think maybe he’ll let me stop him.”

Dean took a breath that hardly shook at all. It was easier, not having to watch the angel’s face fall. “But I’m telling you now, it’s not gonna happen. I can’t do it. Time comes, Sam’s—he won’t back down because of me, and I can’t beat him.” This was the part where he should have told the angel to go find an alternative, but since there was no way that ended well for Sam, he couldn’t make himself spit out the words.

“Dean,” Castiel said, with what Dean could have sworn was tenderness. Dean shrugged, then regretted it with the pull on his newly bandaged shoulder. “Dean, look at me.”

Dean turned, slowly, and met Castiel’s eyes. They were electric blue in the artificial light. His skin was flushed from the heat, glowing. Dean wouldn’t have thought that angels were as vain as demons, to favor the beautiful among the devout, but Castiel’s host would have satisfied the most discerning of the demons Dean had known, and Dean had been exposed to some real connoisseurs.

The background patter of water against tile was like the babble of a thousand voices, sharing secrets not meant for him.

“I won’t tell you that God has a plan,” Castiel said slowly. “I know that such words are no comfort to you. But Dean—” he grabbed Dean’s upper arms, shocking contact of skin on skin—“what has fallen may be redeemed. Your strengths are more, and more varied, than you fear.”

“You don’t know anything,” Dean told him, and that was when he moved his hands to Dean’s face, cradling his jaw and tilting his head down. Dean was frozen while Castiel’s lips brushed his forehead, feather-light, almost ticklish. His eyes fluttered, wanting to close even while he was trying to figure out what Castiel thought he was doing.

“Dean …” Castiel said, like it was some kind of invocation, like his name could do anything other than open the door to Hell. Castiel shifted his grip on Dean’s jaw, pushing him up so that their eyes met.

Apparently among the things Castiel did actually know was how to kiss. His lips were rough, but he was gentle as he ran his thumbs across Dean’s cheeks, rubbing the stubble against the direction of growth and making Dean shiver in the thick heat.

Dean closed his eyes against the brightness of the bathroom, the softness in Castiel’s gaze. His lips parted without conscious thought, and Castiel licked at him, a strange mixture of tentative and certain. The angel tasted sweet, like the host had been sucking on caramels before materializing. Dean put his hands up, flattening them against Castiel’s chest, feeling all the layers of fabric between them.

I bet Sam’s not better at this, he thought, and his involuntary smile against Castiel’s lips felt like a scream. He forced his mouth back into the shape of the kiss until Castiel dropped his hand to Dean’s shoulder, covering the very place where he’d first grabbed Dean. It went through Dean like a lightning strike, shaking him from head to toe.

Immediately, Castiel pulled back, his mouth rounding with surprise. Dean thought with dull resentment that he was probably going to get blamed for this too, even though he hadn’t been consulted about the kissing.

“I—” Castiel stood there, his sentence unfinished, and Dean put his hands behind his back, bracing himself on the counter and leaning back to give himself a little more distance and a little more cool. He wanted to put a shirt on. He wanted Castiel to take that fucking coat off and make him forget everything outside this tiny space. For just a second there, he’d felt like the bleeding had stopped.

Castiel’s pupils were huge and his breath was coming faster than it had after the fight with Alastair. “I should not have done that,” he said at last. “It is not what you need.”

“You sure about that?” Dean asked, and if he couldn’t manage more than a shadow of a leer he could at least let his legs fall further open and tilt his hips up, letting Castiel see what Dean had to offer.

Castiel closed his eyes and a muscle jumped in his jaw. “When you are ready,” he said, “if you still desire this, I will be here.” He looked at Dean again and breathed out, almost a sigh. “You are not alone.”

And then, of course, he was gone, which as far as Dean was concerned was the kind of thing Alanis Morrisette liked to whine about.

There was a tap on the bathroom door, and then a couple of solid thumps, Sam’s fist hitting slowly.

“Dean?” Sam’s voice was sleep-thick.

Dean forced himself over to the shower and leaned in enough to get his hair wet as he turned off the taps. The hot water burned the way holy water roasted demons. “What, Sammy?” he called out as he heeled off his boots and dropped his jeans and boxers, hopping to get his socks off and then grabbing a towel to hold in front of himself before he opened the door.

The air from the room was freezing compared to the bathroom, and he flinched as the heat was sucked away from his skin. Water ran down the back of his neck, wetting the newly applied bandage.

Sam was standing with his fist still balled, like he wanted to hit something, except when he noticed where Dean was looking he dropped his arm, flattening his fingers against his thigh.

“What’s goin’ on?” His eyes were squeezed almost shut against the light emanating from the bathroom, and one cheek was pinker than the other from where he’d been pressed up against a pillow. His hair was pointing in ten different directions and his nose was scrunched up. He looked almost like he’d been when Dean had gone to see him at Stanford all those years ago, and Dean’s stomach dropped through the floor with the thought that every move he’d ever made to protect Sam had come to this.

“Just, you know, felt like getting clean,” Dean told him. They’d told each other enough truth for a long while—maybe long enough to last them through the apocalypse, even, not that the apocalypse looked to be far off.

Sam nodded sympathetically. “Hey,” he said, blinking as something occurred to him. “You want me to take a look at that shoulder?”

Dean shook his head. “Nothing you can do for it.”

Sam, naturally, ignored him, crossing over the threshold onto the tile, crowding Dean back and reaching for him. Dean couldn’t handle more fighting or more not-fighting, so he just turned and let Sam examine him, Sam’s fingers tracing over where Castiel’s had been.

He made himself a statue. Endurance wasn’t his thing—Hell had proved that pretty decisively—but he could wait this out.

Sam didn’t ask how Dean had managed to redo the dressing, so maybe Dean still had him fooled a little bit about what Dean could handle on his own.

When Sam’s hand fell away and Dean opened his eyes, the steam had melted from the mirror, and he was face-to-face with himself. It was still strange to see his own skin clean instead of spattered with blood, the way it had always been in Hell when Alastair had made him look. Behind him, Sam was hovering, looming over him as if he expected Dean to fall apart right there. The cut on his neck was a dark clotted line. Sloppy work, Alastair would have said. Start over.

“I’ll check it again tomorrow,” Sam said at last, his brow wrinkled with concern. Dean nodded. Not like he’d be fixed in the morning, and not like Sam didn’t know just what condition he was in.

Sam had already chosen his good little soldier, made of demon smoke instead of Dean’s weak tin. And Sam knew him better than any angel ever could. end

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