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Cinderwings

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Wings bound against his back, Castiel exits the portal into a garden. The high walls of a hedge maze conceal him and the misting light of the gateway. As the mist dissipates, vanishing entirely into shadow, a distant clock tower begins to toll the hour. The bell rings a reassuring seven times, the same number of times it would toll in his own realm. He has five hours until the portal opens to let him back through, and he wastes a third of the first hour merely getting out of the maze on foot.

 

Breathing air thick with perfumes and human scents, he loses the rest of that hour standing in a line. He straightens his mask, ignoring the occasional uninvited touch on his wings. Around him, the costumes are colorful and only lightly embellished with spellwork, and his carefully motionless wings draw attention, even in such decorated company. He passes the wait gazing skyward, feigning admiration for the castle and not the darkening sky above it. As he waits, the magic inherent in his being adjusts his understanding of the language around him. Nonsense turns to clarity, but that is not what Castiel listens for. The toll of the clock tower is harder to hear in the press of the crowd, all eager to enter the castle from which music spills forth. His first hour gone before he even presents the once-crisp, now-battered embossed parchment.

 

“Guest in place of Seer Shurley,” he explains, holding it out to the nearest guard. She looks at it, looks at him, and returns it with a nod. She motions him forward and he crosses unimpeded over the warding set into the design of the stone floor. It’s a beautiful mosaic covering even deeper magic, but he keeps his eyes away from that distraction, as if he cannot sense the lines of power.

 

Leaving a margin for error, he has three hours left to investigate tonight, and one with which to leave. Five nights, with five hours each total. Effectively three hours each night, a full fifteen to accomplish his goal. If he can manage an efficient enough entry and exit, perhaps as many as twenty hours.

 

He knows the size of this castle. He sees the size of the crowds. He reassesses.

 

If the tablet is here, as the seer claims, he cannot count on retrieving it. The humans may not know what they possess; that is at once his best chance and greatest fear. He can more effectively aid in the measures that will prevent the demons from reaching it.

 

For both of these courses of action, he needs to observe the castle’s security.

 

Decision made, he patrols.

 

Though the outer sprawl of the compound is best described as a palace, this inner territory is truly a castle. This is a tower-topped stronghold, no matter how much dancing the great hall contains. There is dancing in the great hall, in the inner courtyard, in the throne room. There are at least three separate groups of musicians and more tables laden with foodstuffs than Castiel can be bothered to count. There are servants and guards, only some uniformed, and Castiel does count these.

 

While the martial prowess of the kingdom is celebrated through displays of armor and wall-mounted shields, metal and wooden alike, there is a conspicuous lack of actual weaponry mounted on the walls. The only arms within the castle are those the guards carry on their persons and those every mage carries within their hands.

 

He wanders past the areas designated for guests, and where he is stopped and redirected, he inquires after the architecture. The crowded hallways feel worse than they are with his wings tight against his back, but he endures the handicap on his balance. Worse still, with the wrists of each wing riding high and defensive over his shoulders, his vision is also limited. Worst of all, people keep touching him there, each curious human certain he can’t feel it. One woman tries to pluck a feather but stops when he glares, too flummoxed by her gall to respond verbally.

 

It occurs to him, shortly after a grand clock in the hallway chimes ten times, that he is surrounded entirely by another species. He is the only angel in this world.

 

He must be, because someone else would have corrected this tapestry by now.

 

He stares up at it, taken aback by the gruesome event woven into heavy cloth. Or perhaps embroidered. These things are not Castiel’s specialty.

 

Not for the first time this night, a human stops beside Castiel. The man angles his body toward him, a preliminary opening to conversation. Beyond offering his invitation and excuses for wandering, Castiel has not spoken tonight, but he speaks now.

 

“This is wrong,” he says.

 

The man beside him turns his head. The soft brown fabric of his mask peaks into two high metallic horns, each tipped in silver. This symbol of the royal stag is more blatant than the circlet the mask hangs from, but both gleam under candlelight and magelight equally. The mask covers his features from forehead to nose, leaving his full lips and jaw exposed. Embroidered into his black jacket are countless silver symbols, an endless series of interwoven devil’s traps.

 

“Your Highness,” Castiel amends. He bows his head, as if having misspoken before. The gamble is reasonable. He keeps the apology to that gesture alone, forcing the rest of his body still.

 

“What’s wrong with it?” the prince asks. His voice is rough but even, a coarse scrape born of use, not mood. He sips from the glass in his hand. The lip of the glass is lined with silver, and the properties of the metal give Castiel cause to wonder. Traditionally, the crown prince would be marked by gold, not silver, but in a world plagued by monsters, the values of those metals may have swapped, and their meanings as well. For all their best efforts, much of Castiel’s information is centuries out of date. It is not the humans that Uriel has been watching.

 

Putting these concerns aside for the moment, Castiel indicates the tapestry and asks, “This depicts the Severing of Lucifer, correct?”

 

This is rhetorical.

 

“If you mean him having his wings hacked off,” the prince allows. Whether the informality is meant to welcome or rebuff, Castiel cannot say. Devoid of wings himself, the human has very little recognizable body language.

 

“I do, Your Highness,” Castiel replies, a conversational retreat as more humans draw near. They form a polite circle, clearly more interested in following their prince than listening to Castiel. Despite the audience, he continues, “In the last battle of the angels upon this earth, Lucifer’s wings were severed by his three brothers, but he wasn’t kneeling when they cut him. He was face-down on the battlefield with his wings held down, not drawn back.”

 

The prince takes another slow sip, the motion careful. He can’t seem to tip his head back with that mask. “It’s more artistic like this,” he says. “You can see all of their faces this way. Not that screaming is much better than face down in the dirt, but it is more dramatic.”

 

“The artistry would be improved with the correct coloration,” Castiel says. “And the drama would be improved by depicting the mortal wounds Gabriel and Michael incurred. They’re on the wrong sides, as well.”

 

The prince tilts his head slightly, a nod to the side. Weighing, perhaps? It might be a gesture of curiosity. It would be on an angel. “Mortal wounds, you say.”

 

“Gabriel held the left wing, Michael the right. Despite his mastery of illusions, Gabriel was desperately wounded while pinning Lucifer. When Raphael sundered Lucifer’s right wing from his body, Lucifer was no longer pinned. He drove his sword through Michael’s stomach, and Raphael severed his left wing instead of healing Michael or Gabriel.”

 

Conscious of the change in realm, Castiel lowers his voice. Sound carries so easily here, with air to carry it.“It is unknown whether Raphael’s sacrifice of his brothers was unwitting, born of necessity, or a ploy to obtain undivided control of his brothers’ armies. Whether cold with grief or logic, he rules over the realm of angels to this day.”

 

The prince’s mouth makes a shape. “Nice story.”

 

Castiel holds his wings still, refusing to frown. “With respect, Your Highness, this is history.”

 

The prince looks at him, and Castiel is almost certain the prince is looking at him oddly. His mouth moves in a slightly different way before he asks, “You believe in angels?”

 

This is not a question Castiel was expecting.

 

“Believe,” he echoes. Behind him, someone titters. There are murmurs followed by another quiet laugh.

 

“They existed – maybe – about six hundred years ago,” the prince tells him. He gestures to the tapestry with his glass. “Right after this, no more sightings. Not a one.”

 

Castiel meets his gaze calmly, levelly, and thinks strongly of irony. He takes another gamble.

 

“There’s evidence they relocated to another realm of existence, similar to the manner of the fae.”

 

“Evidence, huh.” It might be a mocking comment. It might be a challenge. The prince doesn’t look at his small crowd of hangers-on, neither encouraging or dismissing them, and that isn’t much of a hint either.

 

“There are historical records of a series of tablets, infused with power and carved with incantations of banishment,” Castiel says truthfully. “Angels vanished from this world six hundred forty-eight years ago after the battle depicted here, and I believe this is because of the nature of those incantations. The number of demons inhabiting this world was immense, but that number was abruptly and vastly reduced at the same time. By banishing themselves, the angels banished an equal force of demons.”

 

The cloth of the prince’s mask shifts slightly with his facial expression, presumably something involving his eyebrows. “I will say, that’s not a theory I’ve heard before.”

 

They stand facing each other now, the small crowd clustered around them both, a semi-circle in front of the tapestry. The gemstones on his mask glittering, a man from the group steps forward to insinuate himself between them, but before he can interrupt, the prince smoothly hands him his empty glass.

 

“What if I say the reduction in demon numbers was clearly due to the Colt Reforms?” the prince asks, eyes on Castiel and Castiel alone.

 

“I would say the Colt Reforms focused primarily on identifying, containing and repelling demons, not killing them, Your Highness,” Castiel replies. He remembers being impressed at the time of the implementations. That the humans would find ways of defending themselves had been remarkable. “That much is evident in the walls around us: the salt channels in the windowsills, the devil’s traps in the stonework, the holes in the smaller stone doorways. It’s all containment. Except for the doorways, there isn’t a single measure that could be considered harmful, let alone aggressive.”

 

“What about the holes in the doorways?” the prince asks, his mouth moving in yet another new way. There are too many kinds of human expressions, Castiel decides.

 

“The holes in the tops of the doorways,” Castiel says. “For pouring down purified water, creating a curtain agonizing to pass through.”

 

The prince shows his teeth, so many of them. A threat? Is Castiel showing insufficient deference? “We haven’t used those in a couple hundred years,” the prince says, and his tone is a signal to relax, marginally. “Too messy, too redundant.” He shifts slightly closer, and his shoulder puts more of his hangers-on at his back, further separating himself and Castiel from the group. “You missed one, by the way.”

 

Concede or challenge? Based on the warmth in his voice, Castiel challenges.

 

“If you mean the chandeliers, they’re clearly a more modern addition.”

 

Around them, multiple people look up, evidently only now noticing the circles and runes held aloft above them.

 

“‘Clearly’?” the prince repeats. If anything, he shows yet more teeth. “Same style of metal work.”

 

Castiel shakes his head. “Then they were made to match well. I’m certain Your Highness is aware those runes are much too recent.” If Castiel doesn’t recognize them, they must be. “Also, the Colt Reforms were meant to be implemented universally, down to the last cottage, and chandeliers are hardly universal light sources. Any household could carve a trap in wood or weave it into a rug. Having a line to fill with salt is even simpler, and a bucket of water over a door is literal child’s play. A chandelier of enough size to trap a demon requires high ceilings and would go against both the spirit and practicality of those reforms.”

 

The prince shows his teeth and he keeps showing them. He reaches out to touch Castiel’s shoulder, his fingers brushing far too intimately against the underside of Castiel’s wing. Gently, he pulls, putting the rest of the hallway at their backs.

 

“You said they had the colors wrong,” the prince prompts, gesturing to the tapestry. He doesn’t remove his hand, and the small gathering behind them, cast into an excluded sphere, doesn’t seem to know what to do. “It’s an old tapestry. Could be faded.”

 

“They’re all doves here,” Castiel says, shaking his head. “I can understand the mistake for Lucifer: he was pearl.”

 

“They’re ‘doves’?” the prince asks, amusement clear in his voice. He finally puts away his teeth.

 

“Their wings are white,” Castiel clarifies. “From behind, Lucifer might appear to be a dove, but the under wing coverts were pearl.” When the prince looks at him without recognition, Castiel looks back with reciprocal confusion. Taking a guess, he adds, “The underside of the wings.”

 

At this, the prince nods. “And the rest?”

 

“Gabriel was bronze, Michael was goldenfeathered, and Raphael is a silverwing.”

 

“Not a bad color,” the prince says, tapping his circlet with his free hand. His other remains on Castiel, a constant touch and a constant barrier to everyone else. Behind them, some of the onlookers disperse. Several hesitate, clearly uncertain whether leaving unacknowledged would be more rude than remaining. “They get the hair color right?”

 

“On Gabriel and Raphael, although Raphael’s skin tone is a much darker brown. They’ve mixed up Lucifer and Michael, strangely.”

 

“The Demon Father was blond?” the prince asks. “Huh.”

 

“A sandy blond, but yes.”

 

“I’m guessing you do a lot of reading,” the prince says.

 

“A reasonable amount, Your Highness.”

 

“Where does it say angels weren’t all ‘doves’?”

 

“Are you looking for reading recommendations?” Castiel asks in turn.

 

The prince shows his teeth again, this time laughing. That sound, at least, is the same as among Castiel’s people. His hand squeezes on Castiel’s shoulder, fingertips dipping deeper between shoulder and wing.

 

Castiel does not react.

 

Castiel cannot react.

 

“So how about you?” the prince asks. He lifts his hand and. Touches. He. His palm. Over the wrist. Down the alula. Gentle, light, but. Touching. And somehow, Castiel does not twitch, not even as the prince strokes admiringly and asks, “Who has black wings? Or would that be ‘raven’?”

 

All the people behind them finally find something else to watch instead, and Castiel could not be more grateful. They pretend to give them distance, at least, and that is the best he’s going to get.

 

“Please don’t touch them,” Castiel rasps. He clears his throat, contains abrupt panic.

 

“They’re warm,” the prince says wonderingly. His hand hovers now, not withdrawing. His hand is also warm.

 

“A side effect of keeping them attached to my body.”

 

“Yeah, magic’ll do that,” the prince agrees. After a moment more, his hand returns to his side. “You’re going all out pretty early, gotta say.”

 

Castiel tilts his head, then has to readjust his mask. The band is a converted bootlace and doesn’t hold as well as Castiel would prefer. “How so?”

 

The prince gestures around them. “The first night is the opening bid for attention, yeah, good job there, but you have to leave room to escalate. Most people don’t bust out the magic until the third night, and that’s still on the early side.”

 

There’s sense in what he says. For the first time, Castiel considers his wings as a costume, rather than his costume as a disguise. As the prince seems to expect a response, Castiel answers, “I wasn’t going to leave my wings at home, Your Highness. I’ve put too much effort into them.”

 

The prince leans back and looks him over with admiration too strong for a species gap to mask. “I’m not criticizing. I’d be proud of those beauties too.”

 

Castiel has never been prone to vanity, but he feels himself flush all the same. He wills his feathers not to fluff and swallows hard. “Thank you.”

 

“Just a little confused, you know?” Castiel tilts his head again – this gesture seems to translate – and the prince adds, “You’re dressed to impress, but staying out on the edges. Shyest peacock I’ve ever seen.”

 

“I’m not here to socialize,” Castiel readily admits. “I came here to see.”

 

“What do you think? Tapestry aside.” Body still angled toward the object in question, the prince looks at him slantwise.

 

Castiel meets his gaze squarely. “I think I’d like to see more.”

 

Yet another kind of look, slow and sideways. “Not here to socialize, huh.”

 

Uncertain how to respond, Castiel doesn’t.

 

The prince looks down Castiel’s body, from the wrists of his hunched wings, down Castiel’s borrowed clothes, to his polished boots. He gestures to Castiel’s belt, the gleaming length of dark leather also borrowed from one of Castiel’s siblings. No, he gestures to the belt pouch, secured to Castiel’s hip and thigh.

 

“Your invitation in there?”

 

Castiel withdraws it and hands it over.

 

The prince reads it and laughs. “Chuck sent his plus-one over and stayed home?”

 

“I’m here in his place,” Castiel replies. “Seer Shurley was kind enough to afford me the opportunity.” In truth, the man had himself sought out one of their informants, handed over the invitation, and told them it would be the key to stopping the banished demons from flooding the world once more. Then he had scurried back to his apartments and his bottles.

 

“Well,” the prince says, handing the invitation back. “I’m glad he did. How is ol’ Chuck?”

 

“Drunk,” Castiel replies, because his reports are nothing if not accurate.

 

The prince laughs again, a pleasing and reassuringly angelic sound. This smile – is it a smile? – must indicate amusement, likely sincere. “That’s how Sam describes him too. He taught Sam a lot about controlling the visions, but I can’t say he teaches by example.”

 

Sam. The other prince is Prince Samuel, then, the Mage Prince and heir to the throne. Making this Prince Dean, Knight Prince, his brother’s protector. The silver-tipped horns suit the station after all.

 

“So you two teach at Carver University, is that it?” Prince Dean asks. He leans forward, horns lowering. “Or is your relationship more personal?”

 

“We’re collaborating on a project,” Castiel replies. The truth is always easier to remember and more convincing to tell, especially for a liar of his non-caliber. “His information has been crucial in my research, but I wouldn’t presume to call us intimate friends at this juncture.” Particularly as they have never met in person.

 

“He sees that far into the past these days?”

 

“His range is impressive,” Castiel replies, an answer vague enough not to be a lie. “Although many of his visions are so extremely specific as to render them almost useless.”

 

Prince Dean nods. “A lot of people don’t get that. I spend a lot of time explaining to people why Sam doesn’t send us out ahead of time to put out every single fire in the kingdom.”

 

“Scrying is a powerful but unwieldy gift. That His Royal Highness can focus on events in the immediate future is a great credit to him.”

 

“Yeah, he’s always been like that,” Prince Dean responds. Based on the prince’s tone, Castiel memorizes that expression as proud. “Even before he went off to mage school. Any chance you were there at the same time?”

 

None. He’s never visited. “Outside of my research, I keep largely to myself. I haven’t crossed paths with the majority of students still there.”

 

“Too busy being an angel expert,” Prince Dean says. “Did you seriously come to a masquerade to study?”

 

Castiel nods. “An invitation to Castle Winchester is a rare thing, and few structures have survived the demon wars so well. Fewer still of those were built in response to those wars.”

 

This expression is some sort of amused. Or curious, possibly amused and curious both. “And you wanted an excuse to wear those wings, didn’t you.”

 

“Very much,” Castiel agrees. The masquerade is their only window of opportunity, perhaps for a long time. If recognized as a real angel, he has no doubt the humans will refuse him aid. His people had slaughtered too many humans in order to destroy the demons contained within them. No, angels will not be welcome back into this world.

 

Showing his teeth, Prince Dean leans in close. He stands at the proper distance for a comrade-in-arms, close enough to touch with ease. Standing relaxed, their wings would brush. “You never did answer my question.”

 

He’s avoided answering multiple questions. Most of them, arguably. “My apologies. What question was that?”

 

“Who has black wings?” He indicates Castiel’s, which is a mistake, though a reasonable one.

 

“I’m a cinderwing,” Castiel replies. “The undersides are gray.”

 

Prince Dean’s eyes flit to Castiel’s wings, looking at each folded wrist where it rises over his shoulders. He stops showing his teeth quite so much, though his lips remain pulled in the same direction. “You made undersides no one is ever going to see.”

 

“I pride myself on my thoroughness, Your Highness.”

 

“I can tell,” Prince Dean replies. “Most people would be calling me ‘Sir’ by this point instead. Or ‘Sir Dean,’ if they were feeling friendly. But you’re still not answering my question. Which angel had wings like these?”

 

Castiel makes a decision. “Seraph Castiel, the warrior who captured Archdemon Alistair and served under the banner of Archangel Michael.”

 

“An interesting choice,” Prince Dean says. He tilts his head forward, green eyes shadowed by his mask. With the false horns of the mask, the motion reads as combative, but that is an unnatural extension Castiel wills himself to ignore. Surely the play of the prince’s mouth is a more salient detail. “Why pick him?” Prince Dean asks.

 

“Because my name is Castiel, Your Highness,” he answers.

 

“Sir Dean,” the Knight Prince corrects.

 

“Sir Dean,” Castiel repeats, and Prince Dean shows his teeth again.

 

“And what are your thoughts on dancing, Castiel Cinderwings?” Prince Dean asks.

 

“Effectively nonexistent,” Castiel answers.

 

Prince Dean laughs before seeming to realize Castiel is serious. “You really came here to study architecture?”

 

“Among other things, yes.”

 

Prince Dean shakes his head and remarks, “Maybe Sam should have come out here instead.”

 

“As I understand it, that would be a needless distraction. The goal of this event is for His Royal Highness your brother to find his spouse, and I cannot further that goal.”

 

The shape of the prince’s mouth remains the same, but the form of it hardens somewhat. “Would that be because you’re married?”

 

“No.”

 

“Engaged?”

 

“No.”

 

“Courting?”

 

“No.”

 

With each question and denial, Prince Dean seems to relax.

 

“Then,” Prince Dean says, “you must mean the excruciatingly open secret that Sam’s already picked our future queen, and all this is to make sure he’s sure. That, and to pass out the honor of the consolation prize.”

 

Castiel files away the first piece of new information and inquires after the second. “Surely you can’t think so little of yourself.”

 

The corners of Prince Dean’s mouth angle downward for an instant before he laughs. “I didn’t mean me.”

 

A misstep. How bad of one? “My apologies. I was surprised by the implication.”

 

“No, I, uh.” Prince Dean pauses. In approaching Castiel, in wordlessly dismissing their audience, in their entire dialogue, this is the first time Prince Dean hesitates. A human smile flicks into place across his features, teeth politely concealed – no, not politely, Castiel isn’t sure what it means – and Prince Dean shakes his head for further measure. “I mean, he still has to pick who he’s kissing.”

 

Gambling on any feature of human culture remaining the same for seven hundred years is an act of idiocy, but the context is a strong hint. “The Last Unwed Kiss is an old tradition, though the symbolism of the recipient is extremely varied.”

 

“Always thought they were meant to represent everyone you were giving up for your spouse,” Prince Dean says. “Kiss the temptation goodbye and all that.”

 

Not for the first time in this interaction, Castiel wonders if the prince’s informality is a test, a quirk, or some bizarre social norm. Perhaps a byproduct from patrolling the kingdom and interacting with the population? Unless the Knight Prince title has grown into an empty one. If it’s merely a polite moniker to indicate the lack of magical ability, and therefore inability to ascend to the throne, then Prince Dean might be a sheltered royal after all. Castiel doubts this but still can’t be certain.

 

There’s too little practical information on humans. Ironically, Uriel’s networks have focused too well on the continuing demonic threat.

 

“Do you disagree?” Prince Dean asks when Castiel takes too long to respond.

 

Castiel digs deep for old gossip, things Balthazar told him centuries ago, laughing over human foolishness. “There have been incidents where the recipient of the last kiss was viewed as representing everything the intended spouse wasn’t. Meaning that to kiss a beautiful individual could be considered an insult to the attractiveness of the betrothed.”

 

Prince Dean laughs, though not nearly as much as Balthazar had. “Pretty insecure of them.”

 

“I believe the implication grew out of the practice of kissing a man upon marrying a woman, or vice versa,” Castiel explains. “These individuals were falsely viewed as being opposite in all ways.”

 

“So you mean if Sam’s marrying a short blonde woman, he shouldn’t kiss, say, a tall, dark-haired man.” Once more, Prince Dean turns his gaze over Castiel in his entirety.

 

“I mean that it would be an unnecessary qualification,” Castiel replies. “If the tall, dark-haired man represented adequate temptation toward another kind of life, that would be another matter.”

 

Still standing close, Prince Dean smiles with only his lips. He licks them, a quick motion, and when Castiel looks up to his eyes, he realizes he’s been caught staring. The human’s wingless body language is foreign in its subtleties, and the top half of his face is obfuscated. Castiel’s straining for social cues and hints of emotion, and Prince Dean finds him obvious in these observations. Castiel’s discomfort would already be blatant to another angel by the tight positioning of his wings, unnatural and immobile against his back, but he can hope Prince Dean will ignore them the same way Castiel ignores the horns of the prince’s mask.

 

Quickly mapping a conversational route to his true goal, Castiel presses forward on the first step. He brings the subject closer to the human in front of him. “Are you also searching for someone to kiss, Sir Dean?”

 

“Maybe,” says Prince Dean, the word stretching out like the corners of his mouth. “Whether to give up or keep, we’ll see. I have the luxury of taking my time, not like Sam’s birthday deadline. I’m in no rush.”

 

The next step forward. “This is one of the specifics of your position.”

 

“One of the perks,” Prince Dean agrees. “Right up there with the lighter crown.”

 

“Still, I would imagine your duties remain heavy.” Another step.

 

“I like the hunting,” Prince Dean says, and they have reached Castiel’s destination.

 

Castiel cocks his head to a polite angle of interest, as if merely mildly interested. “Are your hunts as focused on demons as the measures here would indicate?” How much of their activity have the humans noticed? Is anyone in the castle aware that demons are striving to reach an object housed here? Castiel may have five nights to investigate, but the demons have all the time in the world.

 

“We do everything,” Prince Dean tells him, and this expression is surely one of pride. “Some of my knights are trained even better than I am. Mages, you know. Always easier to light a creature on fire with magic than matches.” And this, this might be self-deprecation. Or he could be baiting.

 

“We all have our own specializations,” Castiel replies, as diplomatic as he knows how to be.

 

“True enough,” Prince Dean says. “Though we don’t have an angel expert on staff. Any chance you’re looking for work?”

 

“Only to continue the work I already have, Sir Dean,” Castiel answers, planning out how to pull the conversation back to demons.

 

“Well, if a real angel shows up, I’m still counting on you to tell me.” Prince Dean closes one eye behind his mask, a deliberate gesture of unknown meaning.

 

Castiel looks at him. He turns his head enough to confirm that his feathers are still lying neutrally flat. He looks back to Prince Dean and, trusting in his facade, says, “Hello.”

 

The jest lands well, and the prince laughs hard and loud. He stops quickly, clearly controlling himself, but he keeps looking at Castiel with one of those smiles of the lips, teeth hidden.

 

“What do you specialize in, Sir Dean?”

 

The mirth fades. There’s a motion of the shoulders that could be pride or defensiveness. Lifted wings can be aggressiveness, but what of human shoulders?

 

“I’ve trained for every creature our country has seen in centuries,” Prince Dean replies, a non-answer very similar to many of Castiel’s. Unlike the prince, Castiel acknowledges the dodge and refuses to move the conversation himself. He stands attentive, listening with ears and eyes both, until Prince Dean adds, almost flippantly, “I do a lot of ghosts.”

 

“With His Majesty your father’s fire magic, I can see why you might be predisposed.”

 

It immediately becomes obvious this was the wrong thing to say.

 

There are too many small signs to point to merely one – too small to point at one at all – but something has changed. It’s not the posture, not truly. It’s not the unchanging distance between them. It’s a sense of welcome that is abruptly a sense of rejection. It’s the difference between a world with air and the empty void from which Castiel has only been granted a temporary escape.

 

“As my grandmother’s sole heir, my father the king demonstrated the rare talent to be both knight and mage in one prince,” Prince Dean states, his voice as smooth as his renewed formality. This statement is more dismissal than explanation, and Castiel has only moments to recover the unexpected boon of the prince’s knowledge.

 

“I expressed myself poorly,” Castiel apologizes. Rudely, he does not pull his wings forward, doesn’t curve his primaries toward the prince and display the undersides in submission. Their agitated positioning only underscores his need to correct a mistake he doesn’t understand. “I merely meant that we are often predisposed toward that which we learn first, particularly from our respected elders.”

 

Though the unspoken dismissal lightens from unspoken command to implied preference, Castiel’s response is still clearly not enough. Accordingly, Castiel seizes the highest compliment he can think of and applies it.

 

“Bringing your people peace is the most noble of callings.”

 

It’s verbal fumbling, and they both know it.

 

Prince Dean eyes him for a long moment before replying, “When you said you didn’t come here to socialize, you really meant it.”

 

“It is not an activity I excel at, Your Highness,” Castiel agrees.

 

This, for some reason, seems to be sufficient apology.

 

Is it the king Castiel shouldn’t speak of again, or the king’s magic? He decides not to risk either, not unless or until he needs the prince to desire him gone. It’s clearly a conversational escape hatch with ramifications, and thus cannot be used lightly, if at all.

 

“It might be best if we were to return to debate,” Castiel says.

 

“Debate?” Prince Dean echoes. His head tilts back, but his jaw doesn’t particularly jut forward.

 

“Do you find the Colt Reforms sufficiently effective, for example? Do they go far enough?”

 

Again, Prince Dean studies him for a long moment.

 

Again, Castiel consciously keeps his body language agitated but unrepentant, wings tense, his colors concealed.

 

It occurs to him that his ignorance of proper human signaling may be enough to undo any verbal progress he can make. He’s certain he’s saying things in ways he doesn’t intend.

 

“They’re a foundation,” Prince Dean replies eventually. “They’re a good foundation, but we’re still building, seven centuries later. A lot of people don’t realize that, and it makes things difficult.”

 

Attentive, Castiel cocks his head, but the prince doesn’t continue. He says nothing about current or recent demonic activity in the kingdom.

 

No, Prince Dean shakes his head instead and says, “Shouldn’t talk shop at Sam’s party.”

 

“You did me the courtesy of listening when I did,” Castiel reminds him. “Would you truly permit me to be so rude as to ignore your turn?”

 

“Yours is less bloody,” Prince Dean replies. It’s arguably untrue, but Castiel keeps his silence on that subject. “Much better talk for a celebration.”

 

“If a celebration cannot also contain dignity and honor, I see no reason to partake.”

 

One side of Prince Dean’s mouth rises higher than the other. “You really don’t go to many parties, then.”

 

“I do not,” Castiel confirms. “I’m much too busy ‘talking shop’ instead.”

 

“Well, I guess that’s all right,” Prince Dean says, and Castiel can’t tell if it’s a joke, permission, or empty words. They look at each other for a long moment, perhaps expecting the other to say something first. Eventually, Prince Dean simply says, “Walk with me.”

 

Castiel follows, uncertain of the distance expected, or even permitted. This time, passing through crowds is simple. The amount of space the other guests provide him also serves as a hint as to how close they expect him to keep to the prince.

 

Prince Dean leads the way to the inner courtyard. The air is warm with firelight and the number of moving bodies. It’s warm enough for late April, according to Castiel’s admittedly distant memories of this world before the Banishing. At last able to see the stars, he feels… something. Around him, the stone walls of a human castle. Before him, the patterns of human music and dance, the first more orderly and sober than the second. Whirls of color, moving hints of outlandish costumes, a vast array of expense and sparkle, but none of it is quite as remarkable as the reality of that smudge of sky.

 

This isn’t simply about finding the tablet before the demons can find a way to retrieve it. Not when it could reverse one side of the Banishment without releasing the other. If he fails, a host of demons will spill back into this world.

 

If he succeeds, he brings his people home.

 

It was meant to be a quick ploy. Years of effort and magic and enchantments, carved into a set of tablets, but executed within a single hour. One to banish the most powerful of the demons, using themselves as a counterweight, and one to return themselves into the world to finish off a vastly weakened foe.

 

It should have been an hour.

 

With the second tablet lost, it has been over six centuries.

 

He stares up at the sky, and he remembers. Height, wind. Thermals and storms and the nuisance of insects. A world existing in its own right, comprised of more than mere simulacrum born of magic. An entire world, and a sky above it.

 

Two silver spikes enter the bottom of his vision. The horns of the prince’s mask.

 

Castiel realizes he’s been standing still much too long.

 

He tears his eyes away from the dark sky overhead, looking much lower, though still slightly upward. Prince Dean matches his gaze readily, as if having been waiting for it for some time. He offers Castiel a fluted glass and keeps its twin for himself.

 

“You looked ready to fly away,” Prince Dean murmurs under the music.

 

The temptation is as overwhelming as it is imbecilic.

 

Needing a moment to rally himself, Castiel accepts the drink with quiet thanks. The stem of the glass is thin, and their fingers require some untangling after the exchange. Castiel doesn’t remember the prince leaving his side in search of refreshments, but neither does he see a servant carrying a tray of drinks anywhere nearby.

 

The taste is light and dry, a foreign sensation in many ways. It busies his mouth all the same, largely in making sure he doesn’t spill. Balthazar is the one who indulges in human things, like food and fornication, not Castiel. Castiel has more traditional joys.

 

“Sometimes, I forget how much I enjoy fresh air,” Castiel admits. He lifts his face to the sky again and inhales deeply. “It’s lovely out here.” Few stars, no moon, and utterly beautiful even so.

 

“There’s a better spot over here,” Prince Dean tells him. His free hand returns to Castiel’s shoulder, guiding him, and although Castiel makes himself look where he’s going, the touch tells him he would have been led there safely even with his eyes shut.

 

From their new spot, farther away from the high doors leading back inside, there can be seen the faintest suggestion of light in the sky. The shrouded moon. Castiel’s eyes hunger for it.

 

After another long, selfish moment, he forces himself to look at the prince instead. He has four more nights, and surely one of them will have clear skies.

 

When he looks, Prince Dean is already looking back. Perhaps he has been the entire time.

 

“My apologies,” Castiel says. “I know I’m strange.”

 

“You’re here under Chuck’s invitation,” Prince Dean replies. “Strange is mandatory.” Clearly expecting some sort of response, he tilts his glass toward Castiel.

 

Uncomprehending, Castiel nevertheless mirrors the motion.

 

Lightly, Prince Dean taps the lips of their glasses together before drinking. Castiel drinks as well, and this is apparently acceptable.

 

Standing thus, off to the side, they observe the courtyard and are observed in turn. Castiel can only hope that the prince’s unexpected yet tacit approval will sway others to aid him. The night air is pleasant on his face, and his drink is almost tolerable by the time he finishes it. A servant appears nigh immediately to collect his glass and offer a new one. When Castiel declines, Prince Dean declines as well.

 

Before them, the dancing concludes for a moment. The gathered humans hit their hands together while the musicians see to their instruments. Seemingly as a group, they decide when they have made an appropriate amount of noise and stop. Some remain where they are, in the central circle marked by stone tiles and framed by urns of growing flowers. Others slip away to the indoors, to find other partners, or toward a long table lining the other side of the courtyard.

 

“What are your thoughts on dancing now?” Prince Dean asks.

 

“The geometric patterns were visually pleasing,” Castiel replies. He saw enough of the turns to visualize the steps from above.

 

Prince Dean looks at him for a long moment.

 

Castiel looks back. Would it be more appropriate to avert his eyes? This doesn’t appear to be a dominance display.

 

“You’re really not a fan, huh,” Prince Dean remarks nonsensically.

 

“I enjoyed watching,” Castiel assures him. The musicians finish tuning and pick up into a lively rhythm, and in a willing demonstration of that enjoyment, Castiel turns his head to view the dancers. He will be grateful for this attention and the status it bestows. Insofar as is possible, he will win this human’s favor, increasing his own access to areas of the castle. It’s a sound strategy, though the specific tactics necessary will be difficult to discern.

 

They stand and watch. Dancers whirl while instruments toss notes high. Partners join, separate, link arms, press hands. A stumbling pair give up entirely before staggering away toward the refreshments. Castiel sets his attention to the most blatant examples of emotion, analyzing each. The body language is easier to follow than the concealed motions of masked faces. At a frustrating pace, he learns, or perhaps he only hopes he does.

 

Overhead, a distraction grows. The clouds part, just enough. Although countless candles and hanging magelights illuminate the courtyard with enough light to mute the stars, the moon shines through more fully. It hangs heavy and gibbous, slowly rounding out like an egg of grace, full of glowing possibilities.

 

Castiel doesn’t mean to stare the way he does. When the gardens of the true world had failed to impress, he had assumed the rest of it would as well. But perhaps that was the pace of his mission spurring him on. Now, stretching a companionable silence and mentally reshaping his mission’s demands into innocuous questions, he has time to look.

 

Not much time, however: a toll from above, barely heard over the music and volume of speech, heralds the hour. Eleven o’clock. Time to disengage. He must secure his conversational partner for tomorrow night before losing him for the evening.

 

Again, he sets his mind to planning, but another distraction arises. At first so light a touch Castiel assumes it to be an insect, the contact strengthens. A feather knows a feather-light touch. It might be a fingertip. Perhaps a knuckle. The touch travels down each of his primary coverts in steady, barely present strokes. The progress goes in toward his spine, across his primary coverts, finding a few of his secondary coverts where they’re folded tight against his back. The path of that hand reverses well before reaching his scapular feathers and the down between his wings, but that contact would require a more blatant motion, namely fingers sliding under the back flap of his shirt.

 

No, this is light enough a touch that a costumed human would never feel it. It’s delicate. Stealthy but not furtive. This is a liberty Castiel is never meant to know the prince is taking. The prince must also be kept from knowing the depth of that liberty, and this reality holds Castiel’s tongue.

 

A costume, Castiel reminds himself. Whatever happens to his wings, he cannot, must not, feel it. No matter how warm, no matter how ticklish.

 

He decides to catch Prince Dean more innocuously, merely by turning toward the man. The touch falls from his wing at the first hint of motion, and Castiel barely catches sight of that hand swinging away to clasp behind the prince’s back.

 

“What do you think of dancing, Sir Dean?” As the last subject they spoke on, it’s a smoother conversational starter than immediately approaching the prince’s martial duties and information.

 

Prince Dean was already looking back when Castiel turned, and he angles his body toward Castiel’s in a similar manner. “I’m in favor,” Prince Dean replies.

 

“I hadn’t realized there was legislation on the subject.”

 

Prince Dean shows his teeth, but he does it somehow softly. “Wouldn’t matter. I’m not involved in legislation.”

 

“Might we discuss what you are involved with, tomorrow night?”

 

“What I’m involved with,” Prince Dean says slowly, “or who?”

 

“Both,” Castiel answers. He will take any information offered.

 

Prince Dean shows his teeth a little harder. He leans close, and the back of his hand brushes against Castiel’s. “Why wait until tomorrow?”

 

“I’ve kept you to myself too long,” Castiel says in what he hopes is a tone of apology.

 

“Sick of me already, huh?”

 

“I don’t take ill easily,” Castiel assures him, and this seem to be an acceptable response to the idiom.

 

Again, the brush of hand against hand. The motion is not accidental. “Then we could talk more tonight. I’d like to dance, but I don’t have to.”

 

Castiel shakes his head. He takes his cue from Prince Dean and shifts his hand, achieving a firmer touch. He holds Prince Dean’s gaze firmly while he does this, and it seems to be acceptable. “If it’s not a presumption to say, you should dance. But I’d like to secure the promise of your company for tomorrow evening.”

 

Prince Dean slips his fingertips against Castiel’s palm. He slides them downward, Castiel spreads his fingers, and Prince Dean threads them together, fingers woven, palm against palm. Handshakes have clearly changed over the centuries.

 

“Consider it secured,” Prince Dean tells him.

 

Castiel squeezes his hand, and Prince Dean returns the pressure.

 

“Thank you, Sir Dean,” Castiel says, sincere.

 

“My pleasure,” Prince Dean answers, and he sounds sincere as well. His thumb rubs over the side of Castiel’s index finger before he releases Castiel’s hand. He’s an extremely tactile human, and Castiel begins to better understand his desire to dance, to delight in a myriad of small touches. “Until tomorrow,” Prince Dean promises.

 

“Until tomorrow,” Castiel repeats. He bows slightly, stiffly, and turning his back is more difficult than he would have expected. For a brief instant, it makes the clench of his wings natural.

 

In the short time it takes him to reach the courtyard doorway and look back, no fewer than three people have joined Prince Dean. The prince selects one of them and they proceed to the center of the courtyard during a pause in the music. Though the mask makes it difficult to tell, it’s wholly possible Prince Dean looks up and meets Castiel’s gaze over his partner’s shoulder.

 

Then the dance begins. There is motion and distraction, and Castiel slips away.

 

Down long halls, through the entry chamber, and into the night, he keeps his steps measured. He counts his progress, timing himself against his own internal clock. There is more than enough time to spare, even navigating the hedge maze back to the portal’s location.

 

He stands there for nearly half an hour, waiting for it to open and looking at the sky. He formulates his report and drafts requests for aid. He needs more information on human customs, and he’ll need to improve his outfit each night if he is to fit in. He determines who to ask, who to order. While he thinks, the stars come out, and for precious minutes after, he doesn’t think at all.

 

Midnight tolls too soon, but he steps through all the same.