Castiel thinks it begins with once upon a time. He's learnt, from the only books he's allowed, books for children, fairy tales (because that's funnier, Lucifer says), that once upon a time is important. It means that maybe he will get out of this. Someday my prince will come.
When he isn't playing princess, Castiel is an angel of the lord. Surrounded by white, as he should be. Not the clouds of imagined heaven, but the disinfected death of a hospital's walls. Hard lino and sheets tucked like shackles, military corners. His wings are clipped too. Humans can't see them, only angels and demons and all those other unsavoury things. But they are clipped, grey feathers bound in blood and iron and words. Bound by Lucifer, who has wings made of stars, until he grows bored and Castiel grows useless.
These things are all true, angels and demons and Castiel trapped in a hospital by the devil himself, reading fairy tales and hoping they come true. But it's been awhile since Lucifer got out of Hell, broken out by a broken soul and his brother. The Winchesters. Important people. But all Castiel can remember about them is a flash of pain in bottle green eyes and how Dean Winchester's soul had felt as he pulled him from Hell. Like dirty rain water, like a first breath, and like destruction. He was supposed to stay. He was supposed to find Dean on Earth and guide him to righteousness. But he wasted time and someone got at him first. Anael maybe, it tasted like something she would do, always with the best intent, and the Winchesters were lost from all angels.
There are other things too, things that might not be true. Like the slaughterhouse Castiel sometimes sees. Himself on a conveyer belt, on his way toward tests. Like his chest sliced open and pinned back, like what does an angel look like on the inside? Like is there anything human left in the body Castiel has stolen (asked for, asked for for his own purposes? And that's kind of the most important bit. Castiel's vessel. The one part of him that isn't part of him, that's part of Jimmy Novak from Pontiac, Illinois. That is Castiel's anchor, his armour.
He has a mirror in his room because there was no reason to take it away. The idea that an angel could smash glass, slit his wrists and bleed out on military corners is laughable. And when he feels everything slip away, white and cold replaced by copper blood or the highest room in the tallest tower, he only needs to look into the mirror, see Jimmy Novak's blue eyes and dark hair, and it brings him back. Most of the time.
Of course, it's him too, Jimmy Novak's blue eyes and dark hair. Something behind, something beneath. Castiel. Electricity, ice, and fire. But faint, all dim and broken up, along with his wings and his knocked down halo. All Castiel does is stare at Jimmy, read fairy tales, and hallucinate.
Red Riding Hood is the first to interrupt his waking nightmares. A snarling girl in the corner, red all over. A cowering wolf with a grandmother's pale, filmy eyes and an axe oozing out his brains. A basket full of rotten fruit that stickied up the lino and left a sickly smell for days and months and always. Then it is ropes of hair soaked in blood and braided with teeth. He can't see for days after that, blinded by thorns that don't exist and cured by Lucifer's tears.
"How are you feeling, baby brother?" he asks, his fingers trailing soft down Castiel's cheek, dripping salty wet, and his vision clears, it's a miracle.
"Let down your hair," Castiel mumbles, flinching away from Lucifer's touch. He wears a vessel, just as Castiel does, a smiling face and kind eyes. Nick whose flesh will burn just as Lucifer burns. "I feel the same as I always feel."
"So hard done by, our Castiel," Lucifer pouts and Castiel's heart (Castiel's Grace?) melts just a little bit. He is charming and he is sympathetic, Satan, always second best, the underdog. Castiel feels he might have sided with this fallen angel if he had been able, if he hadn't been hardwired against it, if he hadn't had such warm and fuzzy feelings toward humans first. Maybe he could have fallen too, and maybe it would have been better than a fractured mind and identifying with trapped maidens in towers.
"You have no reason to keep me here," Castiel manages, croaking out frogs and snakes while Lucifer speaks diamonds and pearls. He folds his hands in the lap of his white hospital scrubs. They aren't stained bloody anymore, he was sure they had been filthy with tears and wounds only a moment ago."I don't know where the Winchesters are, they're hidden. I can't possibly...you gain nothing by keeping me here. By..." He gestures weakly with a hand, a sad gesture, like a falling bird.
"There are other things you can help me with. I think you've forgotten what I know, that you'll help me win. It's all you, Castiel. Maybe you'll even kill Michael yourself." And he smiles with all his teeth.
"I do remember," Castiel frowns. "It won't happen." Not while I have my mirror.
"Oh you angel," he smiles and he's gone.
But it's true really, Lucifer would never let someone else kill Michael, they are too close for that. Best brothers with so much love between them that they almost have to destroy one another. Like those other human brothers that Castiel can't get his head around, can't even remember. Lucifer wouldn't allow a gnat like Castiel to get in the way of that. The thought comforts him and he allows himself to relax slightly. It's an almost smile that looks back at him from the glass and that night, he sits cross legged in one corner of the room and his head is quiet.
Demons play doctors and nurses in this hospital. Castiel can feel what they're doing in other rooms. It's the vessels, humans that could be angels because their blood's the right flavour. Lucifer has them all locked up and is bleeding poison into their veins. It ruins the angels that use them, makes it impossible for them to walk the Earth. It makes Castiel feel like crawling out of Jimmy and abandoning him. It makes him feel like staying in Jimmy forever so he won't feel the burning mindlessness of the virus Lucifer is using. Croatoan it's called, but it doesn't matter.
Meg wears her nurses uniform better than anyone and visits Castiel daily. He might even like her a little bit, her wicked, biting words and her pretty mouth to match. She calls him Clarence, which must have something to do with first initials, but she also calls him her angel, which isn't true but is nice to hear.
Sometimes when he sees her, she isn't Meg. Skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, eyes as black as ebony. She seals him in a glass coffin lined with needles and laughs at the holes they bore in his flesh. Jimmy's flesh. But none of it is real, it can't be real. The magic mirror tells him he is the fairest of them all, that he could rule from the highest room in the tallest tower, but he always comes back to the hospital.
He's not sure what is causing the visions, he imagines that maybe he is feeling what it's like to be human. Out of control and terrified, unsure of what is real and what is imagined, plagued by fiction. He doesn't sleep, angels don't need it, but he spends more than half of every day looking into the mirror, trying to wear himself out so he gets a few hours of silence.
Dean Winchester was raised from Hell. He doesn't know what did it, only that it left a dirty great handprint seared into his shoulder and sometimes it burns hot for no reason. He doesn't tell Sam that, because he doesn't tell Sam a lot of things. His brother has been delicate since the whole Ruby thing, flinching at shadows like Lucifer will come crawling out of the dark to eat his soul. Dean thinks it's the guilt. He wants to be punished, he's too good.
Lucifer is another thing entirely. They never saw him, her, it. Just white light and then nothing. Sam has it set in concrete that Lucifer is another demon, the first demon, and the worst. Azazel and Lilith and Meg all wrapped up into one big, awful package.
"And Ruby," Dean insists, still so bitter about that, and Sam brushes it off with a pained expression.
Dean isn't as sure as Sam is. Lucifer seems too big to just be a demon. Lucifer is an earth shattering name. Horns and a tail. All red and all pissed off. Can something be made of evil? But Sam brandishes Ruby's knife and tells him they're ready for anything, so certain that he doesn't even research, doesn't trawl through the internet or books or John's journal. He doesn't say anything to Bobby either, because that might change his set-in-stone-thoughts, because Bobby knows everything, and Dean nods and rubs a thumb across the scar on his shoulder, and keeps his silence.
The day after Dean comes back from Hell, when Lucifer was just a twinkle in their eyes, a girl accosts them on the street outside their motel. She has ragged red hair and her eyes are wild and there is red under her fingernails. She throws herself at the brothers, slamming her palms onto both of their chests, knocking Dean down and staggering Sam.
"They won't find you, you'll be hidden," she hisses like a cat. Her arms are bare, long and white and striped with raw, red scratches. "The Righteous Man and the Devil's best suit." Her eyes blink and blink and blink, her tongue flicks out. "You still taste like brimstone." And she runs.
Afterwards, Dean's ribs hurt for longer than they should but Sam doesn't think it's anything, thinks she's just some crazy, and Dean is still so dazed from being actually dead that he doesn't argue. The pain fades, it doesn't matter, Sam said so. Of course none of it stops Sam from leaving him. Choosing Sam never stops him choosing Ruby.
Dean finds the mirror in a box of Bobby's old junk, six months after Lucifer rises and disappears (Sam is quiet, tail between his legs, biding his time and angry). It falls from the top of a stack when he's searching for interesting car parts to stave off boredom, and nearly knocks him out. The glass doesn't break, that's what alerts Dean that something isn't quite right, although he should have figured that in Bobby's house, nothing in any box would be right. It falls from the box and hits the ground hard, like it's made of concrete. This circular mirror that actually seems to be made of bone and scratched glass. And Dean knows about cursed objects, he knows he shouldn't even touch it, but he picks it up and he blinks at his reflection and someone else's eyes blink back blue. The mirror doesn't break when he drops it this time either and he picks it up and searches for the eyes and finds a face.
"I remember you." Eyes like bruises stare at him, confused. "You must not be real then, you can't be."
"You're the one in the mirror," Dean snaps back even though he knows should put it back right now and even though this is all impossible and so incredibly stupid. "God, I'm going to have to kill you aren't I." Sam is going to be furious, they're supposed to be hiding.
"You're talking, they don't usually talk," he says quietly, sounding confused, talking to himself. "Acting threatening is accurate."
"Hey. Hey. Talk to me, thing," Dean demands and the blue eyes meet his and it's almost like being punched. His scar burns so hot he slams a palm onto it, he winces and glares and gasps. "Jesus, shit." He throws the mirror to the ground (it screeches out protest) and leaves it.
Less than a day later he's glaring at blank glass again and tapping at it with the end of a finger.
"Are you there?" he asks, trying to sound casual. He's crouched behind the rest of the boxes in Bobby's garage. He's not entirely sure why he hasn't told anyone about it. Maybe it's because Sam would call him stupid and Bobby would call him worse. Maybe it's because he wants something for himself, something he doesn't have to share and analyse and pick apart even if it's horribly reckless and stupid. Maybe it's because he was in Hell and he is horribly reckless and stupid, and no one can tell him otherwise, and part of him is hoping that whatever this mirror is will kill him properly. "Come on, I want to chat."
"You are real," the thing says flatly, blurring into view. "You're actually there."
"I like to think so," Dean grins, shit-eating and flashy. Blue eyes don't change. "But what about you?"
"I'm Castiel. An angel of the lord," Castiel sounds slightly uncertain about that and Dean decides that this guy is mostly insane. It might explain the hospital scrubs. "What is your name?"
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Dean. What is your favourite fairy tale?" Castiel is earnest and serious, his eyes intently narrowed, expecting some thousand page answer and sound reasoning.
"Um. I'm not...uh, that familiar with fairy tales, Castiel. Sorry?"
"May I tell mine?"
"Sure." Dean kind of wants to hear anything Castiel might have to say. All that nonsense. He likes hearing things that dont make sense from people that aren't family members. It reminds him of how he might sound explaining his life to strangers. It makes everything absurd and unbelievable, impossible and better than what it really is.
"I like the ones where she dies. The princess. Where she is washed up and seafoam and poisoned apples work. She can't be rescued, it is impossible," he whispers like he's telling a secret, leaning close to the mirror and smiling just a little bit. "It will happen to me, an angel, locked away in a tower, I'm like those princesses. A prince will rescue me if I deserve it. Not Meg, she is not...she plays prince when I tell her my stories, but she plays it laughing. I'm confused by her intentions but I believe she only does it to make me feel better."
"I knew a Meg," Dean says grimly. "She wasn't a prince either."
"Exactly," Castiel hisses. "They never are."
"So where are you, Castiel? In a hospital?"
"That's what they call it. I'm not sick, but I can't leave. I told you, I'm in a tower, let down your hair," he laughs humorlessly. "You aren't really supposed to be here."
"Yeah, well it's better than dealing with where I am." Dean runs a hand through his hair and shrugs. Sam has stopped speaking again. He is playing fierce, a montage of sweat and anger all building up to some final showdown. Silence was part of preparation and as much as Bobby rolled his eyes and as much as Dean snapped his fingers, he wasn't coming out of it. At least Castiel was relatively cheerful in his crazy.
"What is causing you pain, Dean?"
"Oh, nothing," Dean says, slightly uneasy. "My brother. Brother stuff," he smiles at that. As if they had ever had normal brother stuff.
"I understand. My family numbers in the thousands." A shiver runs through Castiel's body like he's swallowing something cold and unpleasant.
"Angels?" Castiel nods, smiling.
"Angels," he confirms.
Dean moves the mirror to his bedroom, he keeps it in the drawer next to his bed. He mostly talks to Castiel at night, when he can't sleep for screaming. When Hell invades his every thought. He starts to think of Castiel almost as a real angel, because Heaven is the opposite of Hell, right? It helps a little bit, pretending to see something divine in the blue of Castiel's eyes. But mostly it's the talking that keeps him from blowing his brains out. He's separate, Castiel, from everything Dean knows, and he makes sure it stays that way.
Castiel speaks in riddles, earnest about his fairy tales and his angels. But occasionally he's serious and concerned and somehow incredibly aware of how Dean is feeling at any given moment. His moods seem to fascinate Castiel and he asks endless questions about things that Dean can hardly answer. Always why are you angry, Dean and what will make you feel better? Dean finds himself lost for words most of the time and he stutters through non-answers and Castiel takes it all in like it means something. And then it's back to fairy tales and sometimes, although he'd never admit it, Dean can see meaning in them too.
"I am the monster and you can be the beauty," Castiel smiles. "But maybe you will refuse me and I will fail. I will die and be made human and you will refuse me again and I will fail. My bearskin doesn't wash away, I fear."
"Is this fairy tales again?" Dean laughs shortly. "I won't refuse you, we're friends or...something like it."
"The devil will dress me up like a monster, or show me true. You won't know until I give you your half of the ring. Maybe it's the mirrors. Or maybe you're the soldier who tricks the devil but doesn't really get a happy ending anyway. That seems more likely."
"Maybe," Dean agrees quietly. It's almost easier to agree when Castiel is talking fairy tales. And it does make sense, under everything, but Dean doesn't want to think about beauty and rings and refusal. And he definitely doesn't want to think about the devil. Castiel is supposed to be his distraction. Even if they are friends and even if that is important, he is still just something to keep Dean from breaking.
"Have you talked to you brother?" Castiel's eyes are bright and clear again, clear from stories. For a moment, Dean doesn't know what he means.
"About ?" He shakes his head at the word choice. "I mean, about you?"
"No, God, um. He's kind of messed up, I don't want to add to that," Dean shrugs uncomfortably. "Its easier to just...let him deal."
"And is he...dealing?"
"No, I don't know. There is a long silence where Dean is trying to think of how he can stop this conversation from happening. Sam and Castiel are separate. "What's been happening there? Uh...in the hospital." Castiel beams.
"Meg brought me some apples as a joke. They weren't poisoned but it was still funny."
"Do you know when you'll get out?"
"Oh, I won't. It isn't the sort of place where you are let go."
"So you'll never be able to tell me fairy tales in person, I guess."
"It is better this way," Castiel says quietly and Dean nods in agreement. It really is. It really is better to pour yourself out to something without the sort of consequences in person involves.
Castiel decides that Dean Winchester is his prince. After remembering why he's important, (the Winchester Brothers, Important People) he also decides that his is definitely the sort of story where the princess ends up dead or seafoam and the prince never really knows anyway.
Escape would be impossible even if his room weren't full to the ceiling with rotting apples and poisoned combs. Bird bones and ribbons like nooses.
Escape would be impossible even if his wings weren't bound and he had his sword and armour and a prince's favour tied to his arm.
Escape would be impossible even if Dean wanted to help.
Escape would be impossible because the princess never asks the prince to save her when the danger is so great there is no chance for survival. It isn't polite. It isn't done.
Meg laughs at him when he asks her to get rid of the apples, so he blinks at his mirror until they sluice themselves away, sweet and dead. She's been getting more savage, less like a nurse and more like a demon. The wicked queen or the huntsman. Ready to cut out Castiel's heart and serve it up to Lucifer. He thinks it would almost be likely if he had a heart that wasn't borrowed.
Jimmy Novak keeps him from losing his grip completely, but mostly it's Dean. He panics a little bit when he looks into the mirror and sees his face. His borrowed heart beats rapidly and he chokes on air until Dean's face swims into view. Dean usually smiles a greeting, not a full smile but half of one, with delicately clenched teeth. It's a nice expression and Castiel wishes he could match it without feeling like he was lying.
Escape would be impossible even if Castiel could lie.
Lucifer visits him with a smile on his lips and straw-to-gold in his open palms.
"I know your name," Castiel points out and Lucifer's smile spreads wider.
"Of course you do, we're family," he says quietly, crushing the gold between his fingers and dusting the floor with it. Lucifer knows how to make Castiel's visions real. It's a talent.
"That means I win, I marry the prince and you don't get to..."
"I don't get your first born, Castiel?" Lucifer laughs. "What a shame."
"You don't get anything."
"Well now that's just a lie," Lucifer moves around the room like a predator, slow and slick. He pauses in front of the mirror. "I will get everything. And you will give it to me." He swipes a finger across the glass, smearing it with gold. Castiel is frozen with horror. He doesn't know what time it is, what time does Dean usually show up? Is there a time? Or will he just appear with that sort-of-smile? Will Lucifer just reach in and tear his throat out? Castiel doesn't know what he will do if that happens. Maybe it will kill him.
"You're up to something, Castiel, I can smell." His eyes glint dangerously. Stick to your fairy tales, they're less dangerous."
Dean never thinks about springing Castiel from his tallest tower because he's probably in there for a reason. A danger to himself and others. Dean can't miss the steel in his eyes and he wonders what it would be like to be on the other end. Enemies instead of friends. The thing or the person who made Castiel so angry or scared that he lost his mind a little bit and decided he was an angel. Dean can imagine Castiel killing things so he never thinks about setting him loose.
He doesn't explain his life either. Not really. Doesn't tell him vampires and demons and the things under children's beds. Even though Castiel thinks he's an angel and even though they are talking through a mirror, Dean doesn't think it's the same really. The mirror is just something from a fairy tale that Castiel has latched on to. Maybe he doesn't really believe it's real. Dean doesn't want to ruin him worse by explaining about Hell and Lucifer and all those horrible things. Even if he thinks that he might just believe it. Especially for that reason.
After a while Dean starts to play at it. Because he's already halfway there, because he may as well. Stupid games that he doesn't acknowledge, that are actually true under all the acting. It's illicit, him talking to Castiel in the dead of night and keeping it from Bobby and Sam. It is something forbidden even though it's not. And he sits with his knees pressed to his chest and he whispers into the mirror with curtains closed and lights dimmed and he pretends that it's them against the world. Castiel notices it because Castiel notices everything, and he doesn't say anything, he just nods when Dean's eyes dart at a noise and he smiles a little when Dean says for the hundredth time,
"I shouldn't even be talking to you." Dean likes playing this game, it's comfortable and soft, like being younger and building a fort or forgetting everything. Castiel thinks it's strange and he can't be comforted by it because it knows it won't last. Dean will forget him one day. Castiel will destroy himself, Lucifer will destroy everything. It won't last.
One evening, when Castiel appears, Dean knows something is wrong. Castiel is wide eyed and desperate looking, his eyes are shot red and his skin is clammy white and he is visibly trembling.
"I have never felt trapped, not like this," Castiel grinds the words out, his voice low and gravelled and deliberate and actually so goddamn sexy that Dean almost misses what he's saying. "In heaven, we couldn't do...we had orders. But here, I can't move."
"Maybe...maybe they think you'll hurt yourself if you're let out," Dean offers, smiling weakly. "I don"t know how these things work."
"Sometimes they bring me food. It's a joke, they think it's funny to bring me things I don't use." Castiel brandishes a butter knife at the mirror so aggressively that Dean almost falls off the bed. "I can't even heal properly anymore."
"Put the knife down. Castiel, please." But Castiel smiles sadly, scaredly, and he presses the blade against the skin of his forearm. Dean shouts, his heart drops, the knife saws deep into Castiel's flesh and the blood oozes. It's dark, almost black, and thick and slow moving. Beneath the blood, his flesh burns white like the centre of a firework. Dean's scream dies on his lips as Castiel's flesh starts knitting itself back together. It's ugly and slow and when it's sealed under bubbling, raw scar tissue, Castiel smears the blood away with the edge of his sleeve.
"Castiel..." Dean gasps out the name and Castiel's eyes meet his and they're so full of fear that Dean can't even finish his thought. "You're not crazy," he says finally, searching something out of Castiel. Seeing him clear and lucid and scared enough that he could be turned into the thing he is. "You're being used. Someone is keeping you there and they shouldn't be. You're an angel." Castiel manages a miserable nod, his eyes darting nervously.
"Who's keeping you here?" Dean taps a finger at the glass, breaking Castiel out in his head, saving him.
"The morning star," Castiel mumbles fretfully, wringing his hands, on the verge of tears.
"The what? "He's called the morning star?" Castiel nods.
"That's what he is, cold and bright."
"But what's his name?"
"No, no..." Castiel moans, dogging his head from side to side. He's crying for real now, bits of his hair stick to his cheeks and the mirror is clouded wet and hot. "He will hear me, I'm sorry."
"It's alright, chill," Dean says, as earnestly as he can, quite unnerved by the sudden display of emotion from the usually stoic Castiel. Furious at whatever made him cry. "I'll figure it out though, I'll get you out." It's the first time he's really suggested something like that and for a split second Castiel stares at him and his eyes are red rimmed and shell shock scared. And then he's gone, wiping a hand across the mirror and disappearing into grey.
Dean throws his own mirror at the bed, rubs his hands through his hair, across his face, and goes to dig up Sam's laptop.
He types the words carefully into a search engine, the morning star and he doesn't expect anything except astronomy, not really. But the second result crackles slowly through his skin and he stares at the word Lucifer and the word angel and the word devil.
"Sammy?" his voice comes out harsh and painful in his throat. Sam is there immediately, apparently he's been lurking in the corridor.
"He's an angel, Lucifer is an angel." Sam frowns.
"Angels don't exist Dean. He's supposed to be one, but he can't be." Of course Sam knows this, Sam knows everything.
"But he is. I know a guy, I've been talking to another angel in a mirror. His name is Castiel, Lucifer has him trapped somewhere." Dean fumbles for the mirror, hands it to his brother. Sam looks stunned, then angry.
"Are you telling me you've been using some strange mirror you found in Bobby's house to talk to someone who claims to be an angel and who knows Lucifer," Dean glares, he isn't supposed to be the crazy one. Sam is unhinged and cold turkey, Dean is the sensible older brother.
"It's not as stupid as it sounds."
"No, it's way stupider."
"Are you forgetting the time you learned fucking dark side powers from a demon and kept it from me? Jesus, Sam, neither of us are the best at honesty ever. Maybe I was trying to get back at you or something," he spits the words and Sam flinches and it's the most satisfying thing in the world. Maybe he's telling the truth. Maybe he was doing all of this as a punishment for Sam. With a devastating big reveal at the end. "It doesn't matter, this is our way to Lucifer. I can ask...Cas where he is and we can gank his angel ass."
"Cas? You have a nickname for your angel? Honestly, this sounds so much like a trap I can't even believe it." But the heat has gone out of Sam's voice and he's grasping at anger that isn't really there. He sighs, "find out where your angel is and we'll check it out." And he leaves the room and Dean smiles.
Calling Cas back (Cas, where did that come from? A slip of the tongue, easier to say anyway) is difficult. The mirror's grey is still, the glass just glass. Dean calls for hours, wrecking his throat, his heart beating wilder and wilder, inexplicably panicked not to see his angel. A specialist in fairy tales and making-Dean-feel-strange.
In the early hours of the morning, Dean gets an answer. Cas might look even more wrecked and flighty than he had before.
"I need to know where you are, Cas. I'm going to get you out."
"But you shouldn't, you shouldn't, it will break you. You'll go blind on all the thorns that keep me in here," Cas whispers hoarsely, his eyes searching for something beyond the mirror's frame. Dean laughs.
"Nah, you taught me the fairy tales, you'll fix me if that happens." He is admitting something in that, something like princes and princesses and just how much he feels for Castiel. Cas stays silent, he stares in front of him with a desperate look in his eyes.
"I can't fix you," his gaze is steady but he won't look at Dean. He raises his hands in front of his face, palms out, as if shielding himself. They're trembling badly but the scar is gone. "And I cannot watch you die which is what he will do. Slowly he will hurt you, he will kill you and hurt me. He will call it a gift."
"I won't let that happen," Dean is steel and bone. "But you need to tell me where you are."
"In a hospital, in the highest room in the tallest tower. In a forest, a metal tree with black eyes all around. Only bad things happen here." This time when the mirror goes dark, it is Cas' eyes, brilliant blue, utterly terrified and then gone. It is the screaming of glass and a strange crackling, like electricity. Dean's mirror shatters.
Carefully he places it beside him on the bed. Cas has given him next to nothing and now he is gone. Maybe even dead. He jams the heels of his palms into his eyes and grinds everything out, grief and fear and hope. He glances outside, to the sky growing lighter as the sun rises, and he goes to wake up his brother.
When they tell Bobby, he goes very quiet and very still. He picks his words carefully and every one of them makes Dean flinch, so perfectly aimed and devastating. A mixture of insults and truths. He finishes with a hard mouth and narrowed eyes and he fights to stop the plans Dean has already sketched out in his head.
"There's nothin' we can do about it," he declares. "Your angel has given us shit to go on."
"We've gone on less," Dean protests. "He said black eyes, there have to be reports of demon activity at a hospital."
"Yeah, and what are you gonna do against Lucifer's demon army, cause that's what he'll have," Bobby retorts scornfully. But his eyes go soft when he sees Dean's expression and he sighs. "I'll make some calls, but I'm not promising anything.
"How do you even know he's on this continent, Dean?" Sam asks quietly, as Bobby barks down the phone and Dean paces and the whole house feels set to tumble down around them.
"I don't," Dean shrugs. "But I told him I'd get him out, so I will." Sam looks at him for a long time, wondering at this thing, this angel that convinced Dean to trust him in just a few months. Dean who doesn't trust anyone. Castiel must be extraordinary or Dean must be more lonely than he lets on. Finally, Sam shakes his head, even managing a slight smile.
"Fuck. Of course you will," he offers, rolling his eyes and Dean grins at his brother and it's almost like before, like they're preparing for a hunt and it's no different from any other. A ghost, salt and iron not angels and demons.
"Silver Oak," Bobby announces some time later. "It's about a days drive from here. Ellen's been watching it for awhile."
"The metal tree." Apparently Cas had been more lucid than Dean had thought. "Let's go."
"Hold it boy, you're not just charging off into something you have no idea how to deal with." Bobby is fierce again and Dean knows it's to protect them and he knows it's sensible and right and the best way to deal with everything, but Cas could be dead. This stranger who has kept him from tearing his hair out or disappearing into nothing could already be dead, and that burns him. Especially after thinking he was already so lost for so long.
"I have no other choice, Bobby."
"Of course you do, jackass," Bobby rolls his eyes. "But I know you're not gonna listen to what I say. I spent years being ignored by John and you're about the same. He'd do anything for family, especially if it was stupid, and the way you talk about this guy sounds like family. I just hope you're right."
"Yeah, well. Me too, Bobby."
"Just...arm yourselves to the teeth boys."
So they do. Knives and guns and strange warded weapons they find in Bobby's safe room. Bottles of holy water, bags of salt and, carefully wrapped, the shards of Dean's mirror. He's hopeful that Cas might come back, blink at him through a jagged piece of glass, and he keeps the mirror on the dashboard as they drive. It's breakneck speed and Dean's baby purrs and he plays his music loud because he really doesn't want to be discussing logistics with Sam at this point. Sam is the only person who could convince him that what they are doing is a bad idea. Even if Sam is hell bent on killing the devil and is probably way more on board than he's letting on, because Dean isn't even thinking about that.
They arrive as it's getting dark, parking at the end of a long driveway. Everything smells fresh and clean, the road is surrounded by a thick pine forest. They strap weapons to their ankles and across their arms and into their belts and pack the rest into duffel bags. Sam looks grim and Dean looks manic and determined. They head into the trees, both of them rushing for different reasons.
The building looms close, tall and white and everything like a private hospital in the middle of a forest. There are spotlights and guards and Dean can practically see their black eyes it's that obvious. Sam has the knife, but Dean has gallons of holy water and all the awful knowledge fed to him by Alistair in hell. They'll tear the demons to pieces.
It's easy, the way they fan out and charge in. The heros in a movie, with dead set eyes and long coats flaring out behind them. Dual wielding and rugged. They know exactly where the other will go, what moves he'll make, and the demons laugh like villains always do. But they're not really prepared for the anger that backs up all that flash and they die screaming. It takes the Winchesters seven minutes to get inside.
The hall stretches out white and long and the lights flickers constantly. But Sam sees something different. Sam sees the kindest smile in the world and soft feathers and he shivers with cold. Dean sees only Cas and he runs down the corridor and it takes him more than a minute to realise that Sam isn't following. He turns back.
"Sam!" he screams the word and it echoes off the walls but there' no reply. He heads back for his brother, but the turns of the corridor have changed and he meets a locked door. "Sam!"
Because he's Dean, he kicks and tears at the door until his feet are bruised and his fingers throbbing, and because he's Dean he turns away and heads back down the hallway. It's sensible. It's the only way there is. When he hits stairs he takes them two at a time. The highest room in the tallest tower. He thinks he's being lead to Cas, but it's only partly true. It's Sam that's really important. Dean is being kept from Sam and Sam is being lead to Lucifer and Cas has always just been bait.
Dean reaches the top panting. There's a door, just one, and he throws it open. Castiel doesn't notice him at first, he isn't looking. He's crumpled in a corner, his limbs tangled up underneath him. He is wearing his hospital scrubs. His hair is wild and he's a thousand times more beautiful in real life. The mirror is on the floor next to him, the glass spider-web cracked and stained. He is counting out something on his fingers and when he finally spots Dean, who is moving forward slow like he's tricking trust from a small animal, his hands slip and his expression scratches. It loses everything, smooths into blanks space, terrifyingly blank, nothing-behind-the-eyes blank. Then he squeezes his eyes shut and grinds his knuckles down, one hand hitting the floor hard enough to bruise, to split skin, the other crunching against broken glass and bleeding out immediately.
"You're not real, not real, please, please, go away. Not him, not him, not him," he pleads with the dark of his eyelids, scrapes his knuckles along the floor and along the glass, dragging out rusty stains from frayed skin. Dean strides forward, kneels down, gathers the angel's shaking, bleeding hands in his lap and holds them still. He isn't healing at all anymore.
"Hey Cas, it's alright, I told you I'd rescue you," Dean laughs nervously, his heart like earthquakes. "As soon as we find Sam, we're out of here." And Castiel's eyes flick open, blue light.
"You didn't bring Sam here, Dean. You didn't bring Sam here," Cas insists, his hands gripping, clawing at Dean's. "I won't help you, you won't win." His voice is so harsh and his hands so tight that for a dizzying moment, Dean thinks Sam and Bobby had been right. Castiel will rip his heart out then and there, all of this was a trap. But then he notices Cas' unfocussed eyes. He's speaking to someone else, something in the air, not real.
"Yeah, we got separated. But he has the knife, he'll be alright."
"Your brother is gone," Cas whispers. "He is coming." He gets to his feet.
"What? Cas, what are you talking about?"
"I need your blood, I'm not strong enough on my own."
"Strong enough for what?"
"To get us away from here."
"Sam too." Cas looks at Dean for a long moment, his face unreadable.
"Yes. Quickly Dean, Lucifer is coming." And Dean fumbles with the knife at his ankle, drags it across his palm and holds it out to Cas, blood pooling messily in the hollow of his hand. Cas seizes Dean's hand in his, the blood dripping from his knuckles mixing with that from Dean's palm. The air around them heats up, it twists and shimmers, Cas' eyes seem to leak light. "Your soul is as bright as it was when I pulled you from Hell," Castiel says quietly and the words are so unexpected they almost don't make sense.
Then the door opens, the room goes cold, there is someone there and Dean turns, breaking Castiel's hold. Sam stands in the doorway, he is smiling.
"Sam," Dean moves forward automatically.
"No," Sam says, his head cocked to one side, his smile even wider. He looks gleeful and expectant, daring Dean to figure it out. This isn't his brother, this thing is frozen. Nothing. Dean staggers backwards, barely feels it when Cas claims back his hand and his blood. Barely sees the white light, shadows like birds over his shoulders, the hospital gone.
Dean falls face down in dirt, a desert. Cas pulls him up, fixes his hand with a fingertip. Dean throws punches. Cas touches the bruises Dean's fists leave on his face and frowns. Dean leaves. Cas follows.
Cas learns to be human from Dean, and picks up everything bad that goes with that. Dean won't feel guilty, not even when Cas is breathing his name against his skin or tracing his fingers down his cheek. Cas feels everything keen and sharp and it hurts him and he wants it more than anything or anyone can give.
Sam stalks around the world in a white suit that looks right with Lucifer's eyes behind it. He gathers armies, he levels cities. He waits for his dear brother, Michael in Dean, and he waits for the end and the beginning.
"My soul wasn't bright in Hell, it was burnt," Dean says, more than a year later. They're in a motel, tangled together under dirty sheets. Cas shrugs, takes a drag on his cigarette, the second vice he picked up. After Dean.
"What do I know? I'm just an angel."