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The hallways are lonely and dimly lit at night. Castiel doesn’t think of himself as much of a ghost, as most of the time ghosts are extremely unpleasant, but he wonders if this is what haunting a place is like. Not dead, but drifting. Are his feet even touching the ground? Not that it matters, as there are no squeaky floorboards to groan under his steps, no sudden noises that could wake the still sleeping Winchesters.

That, too, is what he likes about the night. His haunting routes are more tranquil than they are lonely, because he knows Sam and Dean are sleeping warm and safe in their beds. That peace of mind is not one that Castiel gets often. But in moments like this, he allows himself to set his fingers into that reassurance, hold its hand in his as the perpetual yellow glow of the Bunker leads the way for the rest of his walk.

Come to think of it, maybe he is more of a watchguard than a ghost.

He’s been a warrior, and he knows the technicalities of protecting something, of keeping the enemy out. Before, that immovable stance was cold. Castiel was a number. He was a good little number who did what he was told and if he was told his number was fated to die in order to protect the rank of Heaven, Castiel would be the first to bleed himself dry. Now, though, he imagines himself like a cowboy from one of Dean’s movies. Gun on hip, hat tipped on head, a swagger on each step as he says, “I’m the Sheriff of this town. I protect my people.”

In his imagination, he also has a small piece of hay that he chews on. He rides around on a strong red horse, beautiful and arresting, as he rounds up the rascals and the bandits to put in cartoonish jail cells, where they will stay for the rest of their lives. They will never so much as get a chance to look at the Winchester Brothers, let alone a chance to harm them.

With this train of thought guiding him, Castiel makes a turn to his right, down the hallway that leads to the living quarters.

Making his rounds. He protects his people.

Past Sam’s room first. The door is firmly shut, but even still Castiel can hear the steady pace of breathing when he stops next to the solid wood. He stands there for a long drawn out moment and listens. He may not be as powerful as he’s been, as he once was, but he’s not human either, and if he listens carefully he can hear Sam’s heartbeat. Closing his eyes to the lullaby of it, Castiel nods to himself. One half of the population of his imaginary desert town is content for the time being.

Buh-bum. Buh-bum. Buh-bum.

Perhaps Sam is a cowboy, too, in his dreams, corralling a flock of lovely cream sheep. Hair tied up to keep it from sticking to the back of his neck with sweat, spurs on his boots, a lasso that lies heavy over his lap as he rides in a lazy circle around the sheep.

Castiel smiles. He thinks he’ll keep that mental image close so that he can pull it out and inspect it whenever he pleases.

He steps away from Sam’s door to continue his journey further down into this safe alcove. Dean’s door is not the next one over, or the next, or the next, but the fourth from Sam’s. Castiel thinks it might have something to do with privacy. The way that the Winchesters were raised, they were not just living out of each other’s back pockets, but out of each other’s own clothes. Two heads straining out of the same neckline and gasping for air.

They do not need to be side by side to love each other. And so they breathe separately now. It’s part of the town's peace.

The small and fond smile that had grown almost without Castiel’s permission falls harshly in comparison to its arrival. Dean’s bedroom door is cracked open, and its main occupant is nowhere to be found in its periphery. This time when he closes his eyes to focus on a heartbeat, it's a much more worried thing. Less like admiring a beautiful portrait and more like looking at a Missing Person’s poster.

Dean has to be here somewhere. But there is no noise in this hallway aside from Sam’s even breathing. One of the human emotions that Castiel likes least is panic, and he feels the beginning edge of it now. Half of his town’s population is gone.

Think. Castiel needs to think. Where does Dean go if he’s not sleeping? The kitchen, perhaps? Dean does like to snack in the middle of the night sometimes. Castiel has been told it’s not as strange of a human tradition as it seems and that he ‘shouldn’t judge’. Or maybe, though Castiel hopes not, Dean is in the firing range. Those are the really bad nights, where no amount of talking or attempted comfort will do anything but make Dean defensive and make Castiel frustrated.

He’d wish he could tell Dean to put the gun down. He’d wish he could tell Dean that he was watching over the brothers, and that Castiel would have to be killed before he let anything harm Dean or Sam. He never does, though, because… he’s not sure. He thinks Dean wouldn’t like that very much, or maybe Dean would like it too much and it would scare him. Sometimes, Castiel thinks that maybe fear is just the easiest emotion for Dean to feel because it’s been ingrained into his entire existence. That Castiel is offering him a sense of safety- that terrifies Dean.

Castiel hopes it’s not a firing range night.

So, even knowing that it won’t change the actual odds at all, he decides to check the kitchen first as though in manifestation of this hope. He retraces the steps he had just taken, making his way back the way he had come down the living quarter hallway and out into the open spaces of the Bunker. From there, it is another maze of hallways that Castiel has yet to fully grasp the routes of. The less utilized rooms, for instance, he wouldn’t even know where to begin taking lefts or rights to get to them. Luckily for him, though, the route from the living quarters to the kitchen is a relatively easy one.

Through the Map Room. A turn. Past the multi-stalled bathroom.

From his right, he hears the sound of water running.

He rolls his eyes at himself and almost grunts aloud in annoyance. How did he forget that humans have to relieve themselves? How does he keep forgetting that’s a thing that happens?

This is good. Dean is safe, simply ‘taking care of business’, nowhere near the gun rack of the firing range. Except for the fact that there is a part of Castiel that holds still where he is, frowning. An unshakable feeling that something is amiss. The way the water, which sounds as though it’s coming from one of the sink faucets, has yet to stop running. The way the main door that leads into the hallway has not been shut in the way it usually is when Dean or Sam are showering.

Through that cracked door, Dean’s heartbeat races. Castiel stares at the doorknob. What should he do? It’s three in the morning, and Dean is a private man who enjoys his space, and maybe it really is nothing. Yet- Yet-

Just over the noise of the tap is a different type of movement, one that signifies a body moving. The squeak of a foot, the rustle of fabric.

“C’mon,” Castiel hears the echo of Dean mumbling to himself with real aggravation.

He has seen the set of that jaw enough times to conjure it from memory even though he cannot physically see it at this moment. He can imagine it, see it, in his mind. That Dean’s teeth are under immense pressure inside of his mouth. Ground down to rubble lining the streets of his gums.

With that thought in mind, Castiel raises a flat palm to push the door the rest of the way open.

There at the second sink from the door is Dean, his back to Castiel’s watching eyes. His shoulders are rounded in and hitching with the motions that his hands make under that rushing tap water. Elbows pulled back and moving forward, back again, swishing in a way that Castiel understands to mean the scrubbing of palms. There’s a mirror over the sink that Castiel should be able to see Dean’s reflection in, but his head is bowed so deeply that all Castiel can see is the soft pertness of his bedhead.

There’s no way for Castiel to not surprise Dean with the positioning of the entryway, so he settles for announcing his presence with a “Dean,” said softly into the echo of white tiles.

It makes Dean twitch like he’s startled, but Castiel has begun to suspect that his adrenaline and shock receptors have become overly elastic through the years. What would have drawn a jump or even a noise from someone else draws only the slightest movement in Dean. He pauses his hand washing for a brief second, like he’s making some sort of decision, before he resumes his scrubbing again.

When Dean doesn’t say anything in way of greeting or dismissal, Castiel takes a step into the room.

“Are you alright?”

“Peachy,” is the snarky response he gets back.

“So you’re not alright.”

Dean’s movements jerk to a stop again. “Listen, Cas, I really can’t do this with you right now.” There’s a bite to Dean’s tone that only happens when Dean is wounded, like teeth about to strike. When Dean is vulnerable and thinks something deadly is near in one form or another, he grows claws and he draws blood.

But Castiel knows the sting of those words isn’t for him, not really. In reality, they are a form of self-mutilation. They are directed at Dean’s own scrubbing fingers in the sink, and they tell those fingers that they do not deserve help or comfort even as Castiel is here to offer it.

He looks at the t-shirt stretched across Dean’s shudder wing shoulder blades and all he sees is a man. There is no animal in sight, despite what Dean may think. Always so stubborn, always so quick to see himself as something to be feared. You won’t hurt me, we watched Scooby Doo together last night and you explained to me how Velma figured out the last clue that led to the demasking of the villain. Sometimes, Castiel wishes that his grace was more than it is, even though it’s more now than he could have hoped for just months back, because maybe then he could convince Dean that he is not easily injured. Not only will you not hurt me, but you can’t hurt me. Please take the misguided knife from your own throat, you’ve done nothing wrong.

You’re all alone in the bathroom washing your hands. I’m just worried.

He walks the last yard or two over to the sink that Dean is occupying, and he stands to the side of it in order to see both Dean’s hands and profile of face, as well as to limit the chances of being ignored. When he looks down into the sink, his stomach turns over in panic.

“Dean!” Castiel doesn’t care if Dean thinks himself to be a feral dog at this exact moment, or whether or not his bared teeth are for show or practicality, as he reaches out to grab Dean’s right wrist and yank it out from under the running tap. Dean’s hands are past pink to an almost worrying red where they have been scrubbed to rawness. It’s not enough to be grotesque- yet- but certainly enough to cause an anxiety stronger than just worry. “What are you doing?”

“Let me go, Cas.” Dean tries to yank his wrist from Castiel’s grip, which is a moot point when Castiel still has his grace. Maybe on a different sort of occasion he would pretend that he didn’t, and he would let Dean move from him or around him because- because he’s not even sure why. Maybe it’s to honor Dean’s agency. Maybe it’s because Castiel likes it when Dean pulls him into a hug and his body goes with it the way Dean intends it to. But this moment is not a hug, and Dean has hurt himself, so Castiel is as still as the low bowl of the Grand Canyon.

“Your hands-”

“It’s nothing.”

“Nothing? It’s three in the morning and you’re- you’ve removed the first protective layer of skin from your hands. This is not nothing.”

“Jesus, why won’t you just leave me alone?”

Dean’s not looking at him, and instead he stares steadfastly into the quickly draining water in the basin of the sink. There is a gauntness to his face, eyes ragged and shining like they’re close to tears. Dean doesn’t like it when Castiel sees him cry, and Dean’s cheeks are flushed, and it takes no certain genius to add up that Dean doesn’t actually want Castiel to leave as much as he doesn’t want Castiel to see him like this. He watches the bobbing of Dean’s throat as he swallows.

The lines of Dean’s body scream in defensiveness. Don’t look at me, they say. They are ashamed.

As if Castiel has not seen Dean in every beautiful way he has existed.

“You’re hurting yourself.”

This, at least, seems to make Dean hesitate. His fingers flex, Castiel can feel the tension of the movement in the bones of Dean’s wrist shifting below his own grip, but it’s not to break Castiel’s hold this time. Almost like Dean is checking to see whether what Castiel is saying is true.

“It’s nothing,” Dean repeats himself, but the words are softer now than they were before.

Of course, it is something. It’s Dean's refusal to meet Castiel’s eyes and the way that there is a minute tremor in his shoulders. It’s this empty bathroom at three in the morning that’s sterile and white, while Castiel feels empathy for every one of Dean’s ailments even as he doesn’t know which ones they are. What’s hurting him tonight, if not just himself? What is Dean seeing when he looks in that mirror?

Castiel is so struck by him, always. His skin is pale from both lack of sleep and from the way the tiles of the room reflect light and wash him out. There is fragile wanting in Castiel to reach out, to provide comfort, but he doesn’t know if it will be accepted. Just once, Castiel wishes Dean would let him help. Dean deserves that much even if he thinks otherwise.

“Well, nothing or not, it looks painful. I could heal it for you.”

Dean doesn’t respond immediately in either affirmation or opposition, and somehow it makes Castiel feel slightly placated and even more worried at the same time; that Dean isn’t too quick to let himself suffer, but also not responding with immediate acceptance to the end of his discomfort.

“I don’t know,” Dean finally replies. More than his hands. Big things that Castiel cannot see.

Still, it’s enough of a confirmation that Castiel won’t be berated for healing Dean, and it’s within the blink of an eye that the raw skin of Dean’s palms returns to a healthy pink color. Almost as if he hadn’t been aware of how much pain he was in, as soon as the pain is gone Dean’s shoulder slump forward in relief. There is no longer an excuse to keep touching him, so Castiel finally lets go of Dean’s wrist even though he doesn’t want to.

You look so tired, Dean, please, let me make sure you get back to bed in one piece. If not one whole piece, at least with all of the broken pieces gathered up and safely stored away. Dean would never allow it but… Castiel’s mind wanders- He would very much like to tuck Dean in underneath the comforter and bedsheets of his rumbled bed. Smooth the wrinkles out of the fabric so that Dean is held tight.

“Please… talk to me, Dean.”

There’s a long moment of silence. Dean hasn’t looked up from where his eyes are seemingly glued on the still running faucet.

“It’s- I just feel-” Then Dean stops again. He swallows. “Bad.”

Castiel’s chest is so tight. Let me hold you.

He knows better than to ask Dean to elaborate. Instead, Castiel settles on, “So, washing your hands is making you feel… not bad?”

Dean scoffs a hurt laugh. He finally looks up at Castiel and there’s nothing left of his agitated defensiveness. His eyes are just sad now, and scared. “Probably making me feel worse.”

“Then why are you washing your hands?” When Dean doesn’t immediately answer, Castiel continues, “I’m assuming that there’s a reason.”

Again, it takes Dean a moment to answer. Castiel wonders if it’s because he can’t find the words to match his emotions, or if he’s just unsure of whether he should even put words to them at all. He’s warm in this cold bathroom. He breathes. Castiel is so struck by him, always.

“I’ve done a lot of bad shit, Cas.”

That’s all Dean says.

Castiel is seeing a larger picture just from those few words, and it sparks in a certain agony. “With your hands,” he guesses. He hopes he’s not right.

“Hm,” Dean gives a single humorless chuckle. It’s confirmation enough. “They’re-...” He shakes his head as he lets it hang down between the rise of his shoulders again. “They’re not exactly clean.” A pause. “Lotta blood.”

They’ve all seen more blood than any one soul should, Castiel thinks. And while there’s no red staining the bowl of the sink to make Dean’s words anything other than metaphorical, it’s not as though Castiel has no relationship with guilt. With knowing that you’ve hurt people- killed people. Sometimes the ghost of that blood is more gruesome than the physicality of it. Here, at three in the morning, the shame of it seems to catch Dean by the neck.

Castiel isn’t sure what to say without sounding so caring that Dean will shut back inward again, like the boarded-up windows in an old house that was loved once. Dean is loved now, of course. Castiel wonders if Dean knows that any more than the old boarded-up house does.

“I just figured,” Dean says when Castiel stays silent, “I’d give the old-fashion method a shot. Worth a try, right?”

With the way that Dean had rubbed his hands raw, Castiel doesn’t know how well it really worked. “But you didn’t achieve your goal.”

Dean looks back up at him again. His eyebrows are raised and he’s smiling, but it’s a wretched expression filled with sarcasm and misery. “My hands are still dirty, aren’t they?”

You are not dirty. You are not filthy. You are not unclean. The things you have done have not curdled you. See this as I command it. I can command nothing, after all of these years, not the way I used to. But holy yet. There is still divinity in these bones that remembers the days when Christ walked the Earth, when Christ cleansed his people.

Maybe Dean was on to something, talking about doing things the old-fashion way. There is no amount of hand soap that will take away his shame or grieving, because what is hand soap but physical chemicals that strip bacteria? That is not the type of clean Dean is seeking. He is seeking forgiveness. He is seeking the cleanliness of his consciousness and soul. The washing of the body, of extremities, is not new to Castiel. He remembers Jerusalem. He remembers the baptizing rivers, and the rinsing of sandals, the kissing of feet. This idea is selfish, maybe… Definitely. But there has never been another soul that has deserved that servitude and kindness more than Dean.

This is what God meant, he thinks, about loving His creations more than Him.

If Castiel’s Father and Dean were stood side by side with bowls of water at their feet… Castiel swallows. It would be no question of which rag he would pick up, which heel he would hold in the palm of his hand.

It is not a ritual Castiel has partaken in in a very long time. After all the grief he’s caused Heaven, he’s not even sure how qualified he is anymore.

Qualified enough for this.

“There is something… I could try.” He doesn’t know where the bravery came from to actually suggest his own train of thought, especially when the likelihood of Dean turning his offer down is very high.

Sure enough, Dean’s expression is dubious where he cocks up one eyebrow. He looks so tired. “Cas, this isn’t- There’s nothing I can do about it, okay?” The walls of him, the barb of him that had been there when Castiel stepped into the bathroom, has been reduced to nothing. In these sorts of moments, Dean willingly shows his hurt. And maybe- maybe he will let Castiel help after all. “It’s just… in my head.”

“There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Dean blinks at him, startled.

“Like I said, there’s something I could try.”

Looking down to his hands, then back up to Castiel, Dean seems to hesitate. What was once shame has now been replaced with a specific sort of embarrassment. “And it’ll- it’s not just more soap is it?”

“No, Dean,” the beginnings of something fond make the corners of Castiel’s lips twitch, “it’s not more soap.”

What little is left of Dean’s fight falls from him to the bathroom floor. His shoulders unhook and sink while the tight line of his mouth relaxes into a hurting frown. Opening his mouth, probably to ask some question, probably to decline Castiel’s assistance- but Dean just closes it like he never opened it in the first place. He reaches to turn the faucet off. “Okay. Yeah- okay, sure, Cas. What- what do you want me to do?”

Maybe it’s a waste of his grace, but his grace is never wasted on helping Dean, as he conjures up two chairs and a small circular table from just thought alone. He doesn’t have enough power to actually create them from scratch, so he has settled on borrowing them from the antique shop in town instead. The chairs face each other with the table set between them. They are out of place, like a dollhouse set, in the middle of the empty space between the row of sinks and row of showers.

“Sit.”

“What?” Dean looks around in bafflement. When his eyes land on the furniture of Castiel’s borrowing, his head whips back to look at Castiel again. “Dude.” His voice pitches up in tone. “What the hell? Where’d that even come from?”

“Amy’s Attic Interiors and Antiques,” Castiel answers. “I’m borrowing it.”

“Okay- why?” But before Castiel can respond, Dean says, “Ya know what, I don’t wanna know.” With that, he starts over to the furniture set.

Castiel awkwardly trails behind Dean when he makes the four foot journey to one of the wooden chairs, the one that’s furthest from the doorway but that faces it as well, and Castiel isn’t sure if the choice of a vantage point is a conscious decision or not. Either way, Castiel sits in the open chair across from him, effectively blocking the view. Dean’s eyes are a heavy weight, though not unkind. Maybe… maybe they are even hopeful in that way where being hopeful can only lead to disappointment but Dean hopes anyway.

With another thought, another tug, Castiel makes material a bowl of water right there in the center of the table that separates them. The table’s circumference is small enough that the bowl takes up the majority of its surface. Closer to an end table than something in one’s dining room. It, as well as the chairs, will be back before anyone misses them. For now, they lend themselves happily to his plan of ritual.

“What now?” Dean asks.

Floating in the water of the bowl is a soft washcloth, and Castiel plucks it out of its wet hiding spot as he says, “I’d like you to put your hands in the water.”

Dean’s eyes flicker to the water bowl, up again to meet Castiel’s. He looks like he has questions. None of them are voiced, however, as he slowly lifts his hands from where they’re gripped around the ends of the chair’s armrests to pass them through the surface of the water instead.

“Is the temperature alright?” Castiel asks.

Dean blinks. “I mean, it’s cold.”

“Too cold?”

“No, just- cool, I guess. It feels okay.” Dean is staring down at where he wiggles his fingers, their angles and knuckles refracted. “Is this, like, special cleaning water or something?”

“It’s blessed.”

In front of Castiel, Dean freezes. “You mean, this is holy water.”

“Yes.” Castiel’s heart ticks at Dean’s unreadable expression. If he were not a celestial light beam in a human vessel, he may do something as nervous as play with the soft washcloth he still holds between his fingers. But, he’s a holy warrior, and holy warriors do not fidget.

“Where’d you get this much holy water from?”

“It’s water from the Bunker. I just blessed it.”

Dean’s brow furrows. “Thought only priests and shit could bless water.”

“Anyone who is anointed by God is capable of blessing water, and he is my Father, after all.” Castiel chuckles. He finds himself shaking his head in a very human way that he’s certain he’s picked up from the brothers. The thought of his Father hurts, and yet at the same time, he has come to understand that most fathers are not what their children hoped they would be, and so sometimes humans bond over this. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh at your father because he makes you so angry. “Not a very good father, but still. That doesn’t mean I didn’t inherit some of his holier traits.”

“Right.” It’s a short, stunted thing that sounds like Dean is thinking about something else entirely, like he’s not quite sure what to make of what Castiel’s just told him. Dean is holding his tongue. Cas is holding his breath for what Dean will say. And finally- “You sure this is what holy water’s supposed to be used for? Cleaning up after you use the shitter?”

It’s not what Castiel was expecting to hear at all.

Of course that’s not what holy water is for, Dean. And that’s not what I’m using it for. Maybe the implications of this particular act, this particular substance, can stay a secret between Castiel and the antique furniture he’s borrowing. No need to make Dean uncomfortable with something so inconsequential. It’s enough that Castiel… Well.

“It’s my water. I can use it however I want to.”

Dean raises an eyebrow, but he also relaxes back into his chair finally. “Touché.”

That seems to be the end of the conversation. Castiel’s pulse flutters like he has no control over it as he moves the washcloth he’s holding back towards Dean’s submerged hands. If he had a breath to hold he’d be holding it, as though he is approaching a bomb, or maybe, more accurately, some sort of priceless and irreplaceable marble statue that could corrode from the grease of fingertips alone.

He had watched from Heaven as Michaelangelo had painstakingly rendered the colossal David. It is easy to see the same artist lines within the flex of Dean’s forearms.

So it is with this considerable caution that he takes Dean’s right hand between his own, the left bare, the right covered in the soft fabric of the washcloth. The room is very, very quiet, only made alive by the droplets of water falling back into the mass when Castiel lifts the cloth to start polishing Dean’s low wrist.

Down to the solid plane of the top of Dean’s hand where minute veins and bones rise in braille mountains.

He stares resolutely down at his own motions and cannot shake the feeling that there is the precipice of something just below the seat of his chair. Just waiting to tumble him to the floor. The air is too dry and charged for there to be no static to break it-

“Cas.” Dean’s voice is sharp in realization. Castiel freezes in the middle of his motion. “This isn’t- You’re not doing what I think you’re doing.” There’s the beginning of humor at the end of his sentence, a nervous chuckle stuck in his throat.

Castiel feels caught. “What do you think I’m doing?” Even he can hear the guilt in his own voice, and it makes him want to cringe.

“I’ve read the Bible,” is the response he gets. There is a chill in Castiel’s spine, a turning over of his stomach. He remains very still like if he doesn’t move, then Dean won’t be able to see him. “I’m pretty sure that you lived the Bible. So if you tell me you don’t know what you’re doing- Sorry, pal, but I’m not buying what you’re selling.”

“And what do you think I’m doing?” Castiel says again. He cannot meet Dean’s eyes.

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands and that He came from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and took a towel and wrapped Himself.” Oh. The words of scripture are beautiful in Dean’s mouth, and apparently in Dean’s memory. Castiel wants to feel pinned by Dean’s callout and awareness of exactly what Castiel is doing here, but instead he is held immobile. Even his eyes cannot stay away, rising to watch Dean now. “After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was wrapped. The Last Supper.” Dean finishes.

The moment between them is not so much tense as it is full to the brim. They’re looking at each other- into each other- across this table. Across the bowl of holy water that both of their hands are in. Castiel is glad he doesn’t need to breathe because he can scarcely imagine doing it.

“And what if I am?” He is finally brave enough to break the silence. “Doing what you think I’m doing.”

“I think you're wasting perfectly good holy water on a sorry sack of shit.”

Castiel swallows. His eyes burn minutely. “You don’t think-”

“I think I’m getting your water dirty,” Dean interrupts casually with a cocksure smirk, like it is not the most heartbreaking thing Castiel has ever heard. With that, Dean starts to extract his hands from the water bowl.

Castiel grabs Dean’s fingers in his. He holds on and doesn’t let go. Dean stares down at Castiel’s grip and he doesn’t try to break it. The light off of the white tiles surrounding them shines on the tears at Dean’s bottom lash line where they are caged and don’t escape.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’” Castiel is made fragile with it. “The original disciples felt very similarly to you. They didn’t understand why Christ would do something like that for them. Servant’s work.”

“The difference is they were fucking disciples,” Dean scowls. “And I’m-” True hurt crosses Dean’s features, and he tries again to remove his hands. Castiel holds steadfast.

“And I am not Christ,” he says firmly. “I’m your friend. I want to help you feel less… Whatever it is that you think makes you undeserving of this, I don’t care.”

“But Cas-” Dean speaks softly. His voice cracks. There isn’t anything argumentative about it, instead, it’s pleading. As though Dean is saying Understand the mistake you’re making by doing this. But it is no mistake.

Dean is a sinner and Dean has killed and Dean is holier than any soul Castiel has ever met. The Righteous Man not because the angels said so, or because fate said so, but because Dean Winchester said so. There is love imbued in these dirty hands. The holy water does not clean them, they clean the water, their essence seeping out like fragrance. The way that a felting needle only gets sharper the more you use it.

Castiel keeps his gaze firmly on his own hands as he lets go of Dean’s fingers in order to take hold of the washcloth again. He drags it across the rise of knuckles on Dean’s left hand, and the water in the bowl swishes pleasantly with the shift.

When he speaks, it is in the Hebrew tongue of Christ, of the original scripture. He knows that Dean won’t understand, and he doesn’t wait for Dean’s questioning to translate the words for him.

He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean.” The washcloth moves down Dean’s pointer finger. “There is nothing you have done that cannot be addressed and let go. There is nothing these hands have done that has been out of sadism. Whatever is bothering you… It can be reckoned and washed away.” Divinity itches under Castiel’s skin, like a beacon of his origins, a reminder of what he is even as these years have molded him into something new. “Through the holy power of my Father, so says I, Castiel.”

Across the table, Castiel hears Dean sniffle. He keeps his eye downcasted to the task he’s performing in order to give Dean privacy.

Over and down the middle finger next. The ring finger. The pinky finger.

“To me, your hands are more than what you haven’t even wanted to do with them in the first place. They’re what you use to slice vegetables and flip your burgers. You use them to guide your eye-line when you’re reading. You use them to draw, sometimes. Yes- I know about that. To turn Baby’s steering wheel. To brush your teeth. They’re just hands, Dean.” He sighs, then. “Of course, we’ve all done things that we’re ashamed of. None of the three of us are perfectly without guilt, but I’ve found that neither is any other human being.”

He treats Dean’s skin very carefully. These swirled first and second knuckles, and down to the broad salt flat of the nail bed. Precious, sturdy, and lovely.

Silence falls between them, only broken by the occasional sniffle from Dean. It is not nothing that he is allowing himself to cry in this moment, and Castiel feels an odd sort of proudness well up for Dean’s sake. This life is so cruel that sometimes the only thing you can do is cry. Here, it is a release where it is safe to do so.

Dean lets Castiel move his hands, all of his muscles limp as Castiel nudges fingers to the side and moves the washcloth up into the caved underside of Dean’s left palm.

It’s only side-by-side like this that Castiel realizes his own hands are bigger than Dean’s. For some reason, the realization turns him pink inside.

The water in the bowl is slowly getting warmer from their joint body heat. Still, Dean’s skin is noticeably higher in temperature than its surroundings, and it is an intimate jolt at every point of contact. Castiel doesn’t think there’s ever been a time that they have allowed themselves to linger this long. He lets himself savor it now as he continues each pass of the washcloth.

There is love in his chest that wants to make its way down to his tender motions, and he lets it. That there is no crevice too small to be paid attention to. The washcloth is pulled tight around Castiel’s pointer finger, and he uses the smaller, more precise surface area to press against Dean’s cuticles. Then, the underside, where he traces beneath the slightest overhang of Dean’s fingernails.

He hears Dean clear his throat, not like he’s trying to get Castiel’s attention, but like he’s trying to make space for his own words.

“You- uh- do this back in the Olden Times?” Dean’s voice is sticky, but it’s seemingly free of tears.

Surely enough, when Castiel looks up for what feels like the first time in hours, he’s met with the soft moon of Dean’s face. A friendly, unpracticed little smile, and red-rimmed but decidedly dry eyes.

Castiel smiles back with the corner of his mouth. “Some.” He looks back down at where he’s wiping at Dean’s right thumb. “Not as much as other angels. There were also a number of prophets who did this sort of thing. Less terrifying than a warrior of God made of Holy Blinding Light saying Do not be afraid.”

“Want a foot massage with those burnt eyeballs?” Dean says sarcastically, but he obviously finds the thought funny.

“Something like that.”

“And is this still, like, a thing that people do? I mean, Christians… I guess.”

“What, physical cleansings?”

“Yeah.”

“Not that I know of,” Castiel shakes his head. He pays special attention to the stretched web between Dean’s thumb and pointer finger. “But who’s to say? Churches have changed a lot since the last time I’ve been in the presence of a congregation. And if I remember correctly, there are a few leaders- priests, ministers- here and there that believe that the washing of feet should be brought back into practice. That at the Last Supper, Christ commanded all of his disciples to wash each other’s feet as a show of humility, and that as modern people we should do the same.”

“I’m sure people with foot fetishes would get a kick out of that. Pun intended.”

Castiel rolls his eyes like he’s annoyed even though he’s not.

Undeterred, Dean continues, “So if you haven’t done this in a few thousand years, what gives now?”

This makes Castiel sigh out of his nose. He looks up at Dean again. This feels like something he needs to look Dean in the eyes to say, to not hide the truth of it or speak around it. “You felt like you were dirty, earlier. Not in the sense of actual bacteria, but in the sense of sin. Spiritual sufferings call for spiritual solutions. This was the first thing that came to mind.”

Dean blinks, and for the first time this night he looks young. Castiel isn’t sure exactly what he is feeling when Dean has that expression of wonder, of Orion constellation stars, on his face, but Castiel is feeling it.

“Um. Well, it’s working.” Dean swallows and nods to himself. “Good call.”

“You’re feeling- not bad- anymore?”

“Yeah,” and there’s the sliver of relief in Dean’s voice, as much as he will let Castiel hear anyway, “not bad.”

Well, Castiel thinks, there has never been a more important success story in the history of this World, and Castiel knows because he has witnessed it all. Here in the Bunker’s bathroom, the itch underneath Dean’s skin that tortured him and called for reckoning has been put to peace. It has been laid down gently. Physically, Dean seems to have settled with its absence as well.

“Feels nice,” Dean says. Castiel almost expects him to follow up with some sort of quip or joke, but he doesn’t. It just feels nice.

“I’m glad.”

It continues on like this for a minute more. Dean’s palms are flipped upwards now, showing their vulnerable, fleshy insides to the world like living birdbaths. Castiel rubs the washcloth in circles on each before returning to Dean’s fingers and petting down them one at a time.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.

Dean watches the movement of Castiel’s washcloth with heavy eyelids and even heavier eyes. Blinking so slowly. Castiel wouldn’t be surprised if Dean fell asleep right here. It is 3:37 in the morning, after all.

And so the Sheriff of this town rounds up the second half of his population.

“You’re tired.” Castiel’s tone is more gentle than he means it to be but he doesn’t think Dean will mind so much. “You should go back to bed.”

Dean’s eyes close all the way. “Hmm,” he hums. His lips are pink and pouted outwards.

Castiel stares. It is a secret that is just between him and the bowl of water.

It’s only when Castiel releases Dean’s hands that Dean opens his eyes again.

Never have they been so warm. Never have they landed on Castiel so unrushed and so unguarded. This time the gate of them has not come down to show Dean’s vulnerable hurting, but a certain quiet fondness. Castiel sees the safe, hidden burrow of a family of rabbits in that gaze, as though Dean knows that there won’t be anyone to tut and slap him on the wrist for having it in the first place. He’s too tired to push it all down. No monsters in the doorway.

Just Dean. Just Castiel.

The fleece-muted green of Dean’s irises.

“Bedtime,” Castiel says.

Dean snorts. The moment loses its softness, but not its warmth. “What are you, my nanny?” But he stands anyway, extracting his hands from the bowl at last. Before Castiel can offer to dry his hands for him, Dean wipes his pruney fingers on the cotton of his t-shirt that sits over his belly. Then he’s yawning big and wide, his arms stretching over his head, pulling that cotton t-shirt up just slightly enough to show the fine hair under Dean’s navel.

Castiel pretends he’s not glancing at it. He’s glad Dean’s not paying attention because he doesn’t think he’s doing a very good job of being discreet.

Dean’s arms drop unceremoniously at his sides and he smacks his lips together, looking at Castiel for just a moment before looking to the doorway of the bathroom. “You’re probably right. I’m too old to be falling asleep over toilets.” He glances at the furniture. “What are we supposed to do with this?”

“Return it.” In the next second, the furniture is gone, back in Amy’s Attic Interiors and Antiques where it belongs.

“Huh.” Dean’s eyebrows raise. “Alright. It’s bedtime, Mary Poppins.”

“Does that mean you’re Bert, then?”

Sometimes when Castiel says things like this, it makes Dean uncomfortable for reasons that Castiel can never quite pinpoint. This time, though, Dean wears a tiny smile that unfurls into something bigger as the seconds tick by. It turns into a single sleepy laugh.

“Yeah, you’re right. He was the coolest, ya know? The accent was for sure better than mine.” He starts towards the door and Castiel follows him. They step out into the hallway together, and Castiel reaches back to flip the light switch off as they pass it. “He did all this shit, and he never really worried what people thought of him. One-man band. Had the chimney sweep get-up.” They walk down the hall together with their shoulders in line. “And Mary’s best friend, of course.”

Dean looks over at him, and even Castiel can tell that the gaze is fond. It makes Castiel’s eyes flutter down to his shoes shyly. “Of course,” he repeats.

They round the corner together into the Map Room, then the next turn into the living quarters. Castiel isn’t exactly sure why he’s following Dean or what he’s going to do once he gets to Dean’s bedroom, but for now it feels right to fall in step. They cross the final few yards between them and Dean’s door in silence.

Once they’re there, Castiel expects to be shooed away. Maybe Dean will give him a simple Goodnight, and shut the door between them. Maybe he will even thank Castiel. Neither of those things happens as Dean pushes the already cracked door open and walks into the bedroom without so much as turning around or making motions to close it again, as though… as though he expects Castiel to follow him. Castiel lingers just outside of the doorway for a moment, frowning, before he takes a hesitant step over the threshold.

There in the center of the room Dean is already crawling back into his bed like nothing unusual is happening at all.

“Shit,” Dean sighs as he snuggles down further into his mattress, pulling the comforter up over himself. He looks up at where Castiel is standing awkwardly, and Castiel almost expects him to let out a noise of surprise. Surely he doesn’t know that Castiel followed him into his room. Surely that’s not what Dean wanted. But Dean looks at him like he’s exactly where Dean expects him to be. “So what do you even do all night while Sam and I catch Z’s?”

Castiel glances to his left, then his right. Maybe the walls will give him answers to this strange turn of events. “Um. Mostly I just patrol the hallways. I like the quiet, and it gives me peace of mind that nothing has somehow managed to get into the Bunker undetected.”

“So like a nightguard?”

“I prefer,” Castiel’s cheek heat, “to think of myself as a sheriff.”

Dean laughs from his bed. Castiel takes a step forward, then another, until he is standing over Dean, next to his bedside table. Dean peers up at him. His face is so open, shining. Castiel can’t help but think that he looks… cleaner.

“All those Westerns finally got to you, huh?”

“There’s a certain appeal to them. I see why you like them so much.”

“Hm. So if you’re the sheriff, what does that make Sam and me?”

“Well,” and Castiel is smiling now. “I imagine that Sam would be a livestock owner. He wouldn’t harm any of the animals of course, but he would have sheep whose wool he would sell, and dairy cows for milk. Perhaps even chickens for their eggs.” He nods to himself. “A very peaceful rancher.”

Dean’s smiling too, and he chuckles like he’s poking fun, except he says, “Yeah, I like that. Sammy’d like that, too. Damn treehugger.” He’s watching Castiel up the line of his eyelashes. “What about me?”

“What position you’d hold in our imaginary town?”

“Yeah.”

Just like Castiel’s imaginary Sam, the idea of his imaginary Dean unlatches some little dark place in Castiel’s sternum and lets a cream glow into it for a small, precious moment. In this vision, Dean is striking in all ways, both in the hot sunlight of the day and the cool moonlight of its night. Horseback, either meandering through the acres of his orchards or a quick, dangerous whip snap that is almost invisible in the darkness.

Beautiful green eyes that shine out from under the brim of his hat.

It feels strange even to Castiel to keep standing over Dean like this. With only the barest hesitation, he sighs and lowers himself to his knees on the cement floor, settling his weight back onto his heels. Now, he and Dean are face to face, just at different angles. And it is not lost on Castiel that kneeling is just another form of humility he is showing to Dean this night. It feels right. Castiel thinks he may even like it.

“I like to think you would be able to have some peace, like Sam. I also think you’d get bored of it quickly if you had it all the time.”

Dean smirks and his eyebrows raise as if in agreement.

“So by day, you’d be a baker. Making things with your hands, feeding the townspeople. You’d have your own orchard as well, where you’d grow the produce that you make your fillings out of. Apples specifically, for some reason.” Castiel finds his eyes closing as though to conjure up more details of the scene. He can see it all so clearly. “You’d have a black mare named Baby, and you’d ride her up and down the rows of trees- you’d wear a cowboy hat, of course, to keep the sun out of your eyes- and you’d bring your findings back to the bakery for some new confection. Maybe some sort of streusel?” He tilts his head in thought. “Regardless, that would just be your day job. At night, you would be a vigilante for the people, rounding up the ne’er-do-wells and the violent drunks who make the women of the town feel unsafe. But no one would know it was you. It’d be a secret identity- like- like Batman.”

There’s satisfaction in Castiel’s bones as though he has rewritten the plot somehow, even in this tiny way, and that there is some pocket universe where Dean really is a baker and a vigilante and happy and safe. Smiling with one side of his mouth, he opens his eyes again.

Dean is watching him.

It’s an unreadable gaze that any other night would make Castiel want to backpedal from the misunderstanding he apparently walked into. Now. Now, Castiel is being watched. He waits.

“You think I could be a baker?”

The air is not heavy, but full, as though every nanosecond is just as important as the last. As though both Dean and Castiel are hung in suspension by the fragility of fishing wire. Castiel is unsure if he’s ever felt so real.

“I think you could be whatever you wanted to be.”

Dean’s face pinches, not like he’s upset but like the words mean too much to him. “Shut up. That’s what people say to little kids.”

“I-” Castiel pauses. He looks down at the way his vessel’s- his body’s- thighs pull the fabric of his slacks tight from the kneeling position he’s in. “I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with believing like a child, every now and then.” Nodding to his knees, he lifts his eyes to Dean’s face once again.

They’re very close. Or maybe they’re not extraordinarily close, but closer than either of them (namely Dean) ever allows, and so it’s very close by comparison. From the periphery of his vision, Castiel can see the way Dean’s side rises and falls beneath the comforter with his breathing, which is steady and rhythmic in its meter. Dean’s eyelashes sweep as he blinks as though each one of Castiel’s words is hitting him individually.

Then.

Dean is watching him. He is watching Dean back.

Somehow, Castiel understands what is happening before he knows what is happening. That whatever this building thing has been between them, not just within the last hour, but within the last years that had started upon them so rapidly that it had been frightening in the threat of its impact, has settled as sweetly as an early April snowfall. They had both run away from that perceived disaster. At the time, maybe it truly would have been a disaster. But now, here, in Dean’s darkened bedroom, it is already upon them, and it is not scary at all.

Castiel leans in, believing like a child.

The touch of their lips isn’t hesitant, it’s just soft. Close-mouthed and puckered, just the barest part of the inside of Castiel’s bottom lip catches the inside of Dean’s top lip. It’s a kiss of reverence that claims devotion and demands nothing else. A signal of caring that could almost be mistaken as something less than it is- but it is a kiss. A kiss.

Dean, your mouth is somehow both warmer and cooler than I imagined it would be. More yielding, surely. I cannot see it with my eyes closed, but it’s almost like I can taste the color that your lips are- the exact pinkness in both saturation and hue. Lovely Dean. It’s okay now.

He pulls away just an inch, then another, and he’s breathing even though he doesn’t have to. When Dean swallows, it’s loud enough that Castiel can hear it even without the use of his grace.

“The sheriff and the baker.” Dean rumbles. A pause. “The townspeople might talk.”

The blood of Castiel’s fingers freezes. His throat closes.

“Oh.”

Dean sighs. Whispers, “They can go ahead and fuck themselves.”

This time, he stretches a hand out from where it had been curled up to his chest, and he grabs the knot of Castiel’s tie. Using it as his leverage, he drags Castiel back in.

“Mm!” Castiel mumbles as their lips catch again. And again. Heated, curling, damp steam off of a fresh cup of tea. Just as slow. He braces his weight on the sliver of mattress to the front of Dean’s body, and his fingers sink into the memory foam, and the shift of the angle puts him the barest bit taller than Dean, so that Castiel is kissing down. It is so good.

This time when Castiel pulls away, he drags the side of his nose along the side of Dean’s. He sighs happily right there where Dean’s lips are.

“Mighty fine mouth you got there, Sheriff,” Dean drawls quietly into that little space between them.

Castiel bumps the very tips of their noses together. “It’s yours whenever you’d like it.”

“Yeah?” said with tender hope.

“With more pleasure than you might realize.”

“You don’t mind that the townspeople are gossips?”

“They only gossip because they’re jealous, so no. But if it bothers you, I’ll retrieve my pistol and shoot them.”

“Cas!” Dean pushes at Castiel’s shoulder in a playful shove that has real force behind it, causing Castiel to fall back into a seat on his heels again. “Can’t just threaten to blow people’s brains out for me. I’m not a damsel in distress, okay?”

He looks back and forth in confusion. “Of course not,” he says slowly. “You’re the baker.”

“Jesus.” Dean rolls his eyes even as his expression swims with mirth. He shoots that over-tired smile in Castiel’s direction. It is infectious, and Castiel is smiling back. For a second, that’s all they do. Their silence is broken when Dean says, “So what are you gonna do now?”

Castiel shrugs. “Make my rounds, I suppose. It’s already past four.”

“You could- well- you could stay if you wanted.”

The words tug sharp inside of him, just to bloom out in surprise and delight. He tells those flowers inside of himself not to get too hopeful just yet. “Here?”

Dean’s head tilts to the side in a considering Yes.

“I thought you said it was creepy.”

“It is.” Dean shifts as though to get comfortable, and then he closes his eyes. Castiel looks at the little fenced-in fields of that fragile skin. “Kinda like it, though. Don’t tell anyone.”

“Oh. Um- Of course.”

That makes Dean laugh out of his nose. “I mean, you don’t have to stay right there. I’m sure it's hell on the knees.”

“I don’t mind. It’s… nice.”

“You’re so fucking weird, man,” and Dean’s voice is fading out into sleep. “Kinda like that, too.”

Before Castiel can think of how to respond through the now very-much-bloomed tulips in his sternum and the blush on his cheeks, he’s met by the sound of Dean snoring. He shakes his head.

“Sleep well, Dean.”

The night wanes on into the tinges of morning. Castiel protects his people.