Castiel has heard many times that Heaven doesn't quite live up to humanity's expectations. Not so much the individual pockets of the place, intended for those deserving souls. The most comforting and treasured memories, laid out in searing detail and vivid, throbbing color? Not too terribly far off from the usual desires, the nebulous fantasies. No clouds, perhaps, no halos and harps, but it can fit rather neatly into common definitions of Paradise.
It's the sterility of those spaces intended for divine and angelic use that jar. He supposes that now, he understands.
There is no "appearance," so to speak. What human souls perceive is what their minds lay automatically out at the presentation of perfect and ideal order. Modern minds - fluorescent lights and stainless steel, operating suites and minimalist offices. Medieval perceptions - Spartan monasteries. Those more ancient - empty marble temples and limestone caves. Castiel has spoken briefly to souls who saw laboratories, space stations, severe palaces, tombs and burial chambers, ice caverns, Buddhist retreats with none of the usual warmth of wood or color or habitation.
There is white. There is gray. There is black. In the furnishings, the environment, the clothing angels appear to wear. Non-colors, to humanity. Things that mark an absence of.
What undergirds that fragile veneer is...order. It does not look like anything, because they have no need of it, or smell, or even feel. It simply is. Spaces both infinite and confined by necessity for them to work, exist, rarely fraternize.
As he is now, Castiel has a greater understanding of computers than any angel now or likely ever in existence, and it has given him a painfully clear view of what he and his brethren are. Of what they were made to be. The first time he saw antivirus software in action, he felt such raw kinship it could have made him weep.
There is no color in Heaven. Programs have no need of it, no need to comprehend it.
No wonder then, exposure to Earth, everything that Heaven is not, can be so great a shock to angels as to be nearly fatal. Even those, such as seraphs, designed to descend.
Empty space was not so terrible, though the occasional trace element could be unpleasant. Diving into stars was much like embracing one another, skimming through gas giants and nebulae something that one could build a quick tolerance to. It was those rocky planets, their Father's passion projects, that left one reeling, abraded, so overloaded as to be numb. Even in the beginning.
Castiel was charged to Earth from his creation. And it was such a terrible, glorious mess, overwhelming, so much he had to be sheltered by older brothers who were themselves trembling with the shock of it. The toxic atmosphere so thin a single beat of their wings could dislodge it, the golds and reds of the molten flows and eruptions, the solid stone so soft their bodies left impressions in it as they passed.
Substance. Sensation. And especially color. Things Castiel had never before experienced in Heaven, would not be able to experience until the first anthropomorphic souls reached it. Color, his favorite, because he felt it as he did nothing else, as if it flowed and pulsed in the heart of him alongside his Grace. Comprehension came for the first time, about why he had been given so many eyes.
They were tourists, then. Nothing to protect, nothing to kill. Tasked only with observation. Part of Castiel misses that, the opportunity...the permission to delve.
Perhaps his fall began even back then. Because there was a distinct thought, although he did not yet recognize it for what it was, that after absorbing this chaos, he better understood the mind of their Father. Highest blasphemy.
How did it take so long for all those around him to recognize the rot spreading beneath his wings?
More came. New elements. Life, the most exciting development of all. Bacteria, plants, animals, fungi, so many new colors, and Castiel drank them all in, filled himself with them, but there was something so flat about all of it, and he did not understand until his first contact with humanity burst his world into a blinding rainbow.
If humanity itself let him see a rainbow, then it was the Winchesters who shattered the prism inside him, broke every single one of Castiel's colors into a thousand careful shades and painted all of Creation with a psychedelic brush.
The brothers are different. He sees them differently, both because of the inherent separations between them, the distinctions that make them two people, but also because he will always have known Dean longer than he has Sam.
Dean was an ember in a snowbank when Castiel found him in Hell. It makes his Grace crawl to remember it, Alastair's domain. An island in a frozen sea, souls stored beneath the ice, frozen, screaming, pulled out and strapped into place on the rack when their time came. Even among fresher souls, Dean glowed. Castiel burned a handprint into flesh and spirit, raising him. The pain and memory that rained off him like falling stars marking their path upwards through Hell alongside a column of shed feathers and lost Grace. But Dean seared him back, and Castiel assumed at the time it was because there was already so much in him more infernal than mortal, Alastair done more damage than they'd been promised he would. Then he believed it was simply the consequences of himself, a seraph, touching a soul meant to bind to an archangel, his eldest brother.
Now, though. He understands Dean simply burns that hot all on his own. It isn't an instantly noticeable heat. It warms one so slowly, and then begins to hurt almost without realization, an ecstatic glory of pain to live life alongside Dean Winchester. He is steady, constant, loyal, a deep thrumming in him as of an engine. He and the car he's poured so much of his time into are much alike. Unquestionably alive, unquestionably faithful and dependable, very breakable but always able and willing to be repaired if only the effort is expended.
Castiel has come to understand machines, things that live but don't, has realized on his own and through careful instruction that if you take care of such manufactured things, they return the favor. Constructed by those around him, Dean is identical in his service, his memory.
Unlike the car though, there's not much black in him Castiel can see. Not much in either Winchester, though he's aware what they believe of themselves. Their black is less decay than the darkness that rings the eyes and mouths of predators. Essential, a honing touch...if a misfortune he wishes he could have spared them.
Dean's solidity is painted in browns like rich earth after turning, his steadfastness in steely blues. The flinty streak of his humor runs through everything. The love that underpins him and the anger inexorably corded with it pulse amber and chestnut, and the guilty, hidden depths of him, all the interests and enjoyments he assumes no one would ever want to know, are cast in shades of green so deep Castiel could gladly drown in them. There is a fragile, aching harmony in how he holds himself together, how he acknowledges without processing, moves forward to a future where he tells himself he will relax and knows he will never reach. Bonds are woven in adamantium and trust is doled out as water in a wasteland, and to be counted among his family makes the loss of the Host entirely worth it.
It is an electric white, when he kills. Castiel has never seen it unblurred by regret. He knows the color of murder, even murder committed in love, and does not believe he's ever seen it in relation to Dean.
There would be no Dean Winchester, of course, without Sam.
He's such an integral part of his brother, has been built so seamlessly into the structure of who and what Dean is, that the first time Castiel saw him was through Dean. A paradox of flawed perfection, a gaping crystal hole, the point to which Dean's entire being in Hell was anchored, that which sustained and wounded him simultaneously. It was Dean's relationship with Sam, the hot, bitter blood of it, like black coffee on a bitten tongue, that first taught Castiel that (trite as it may be) hate and love are two sides of the same coin.
The first time he saw Sam contained in himself, his eyes were tainted. The Boy King of Hell. Azazel's chosen, Lucifer's intended. Uriel's voice whispered through Castiel's feathers through his entire first meeting with Sam.
Do you know how many human infants could even tolerate blood with an infernal taint, Castiel? This one lapped it up like so much wine and honey.
How could he see Sam as anything but a monster?
How can he see him now, knowing him, as anything but a self-made work of art?
There is an exoticism to Sam. At first glance, the elements of him when laid out are attractive, but common. Perhaps a certain disquiet may speak from the placement without any obvious source. Looking closer, the shades are richer than could have been expected, the temper rarer, the luster deeper, and hidden within are tiny artifacts of things unidentifiable and unique.
Sam is hung in reds, primarily. Castiel believes it would pain him to know that. He has known on an innate level, his entire life, that he is impure, separate, other, and whether that was a positive, a negative, or both changed based on his mood and his age, but the burden of that knowledge appears now as the squamous pucker of a scar.
Perhaps it would help Sam to know that his reds are those of sunset following a storm, of poppies blooming among the dead, of passion rising as blood in the skin after heartbreak. Castiel does not know how else to explain to Sam that what he sees in him is bleak beauty after despair. There is a resilience, an endless desire to believe in something better, to strive towards salvation, to change in necessity of survival. There is, in Sam, at his core, the same childish innocence Castiel so badly wants to believe exists in his Father, because he can see it in His Creation's near-endless ability to heal and change.
Castiel finds it comforting, the steady throb of burgundy from Sam as he hunches over books and scrolls and electronics, reading, rotating puzzle pieces within. There is an exquisiteness to be found in someone hard at work where they belong. The showers of rubicund sparks that burst off him at inspiration and sudden understanding thrill. His heart beats in cherry, rose, and wine. His shy and careful love, frequently misguided, shivering in need and desperation, blushes copper.
In those rare spots where Sam isn't red, Castiel has found he's blue. Rivers of it run deep in him. Cool logic that emotion whips readily into a frothing crimson frenzy, an industrial coat of genetic stubbornness, a velvety and comforting sense of resigned duty to fall back on, to wrap himself in. Liquid ribbons of cobalt pulsing beryl bind him to Dean. They bristle. They stretch. They thin, they thicken, they freeze, they swallow the two of them whole, but Castiel has never seen them break even at their most frayed.
His love for Dean is blue as fresh tattoo ink. Castiel's never seen such a fierce color for it, can't imagine a cherub's bow forging it. It feels like the sort of shade one is born with, imprinted on the DNA.
There's a yellow to the rhythm of how they work together, a rich and solid ochre shot with cadmium and umber, darkening into something stronger and smoother over the years. It defies all theory, that their colors should meet like this, but for the two of them, it feels right. Weapons are diamond aflame with pearl dust in their hands, and Castiel knows divine machinery that does not function nearly so well as the brothers Winchester. Despite their differences, one can be easily mistaken for the other in the bleeding harmony of combat. Colors run and flow and blend. It seems sometimes, more and more often as the years wear on, a fight isn't even necessary for them to reach this dazzling convergence.
Castiel has no word for the color that flares when one sacrifices for the other's safety, happiness, comfort. It does not exist on the human spectrum, and he's never seen it outside the core of a newborn star.
Bright and happy violets, riding in the car, listening to music. Pinks for banter, teasing. Something tense and rotten beneath both, always the threat there to sour, to turn darker, for barely-subdued dragons to break free and burn the tapestries Sam and Dean have woven to cover the gaping holes in the walls of their minds. It looms larger sometimes, fades others, but almost never emerges.
It isn't, of course, all beauty. Nothing in Creation would ever be allowed to be.
Sam and Dean's fractures are filled with uranium tailings, they are painted to each other in a cyanide lacquer. They recycle each other's missteps in every breath, a broken feedback loop of human error. There is a poison that heroism leaches into the soil. There is a price that love of their caliber pays out in toxicity. The sky above them crawls with Chernobyl palettes.
There's a hedonistic streak to both of them, a perverse pleasure they take in wallowing in their damages. It drips with the colors of Hell, but predates all their combined damnations.
Dean gluts himself on overindulgence, says it is to make up for lost time in the past and in the future, knows it is to numb himself. He feeds on infliction, of pain and of strife, on the ruin of perfect lives and perfect worlds, knows himself Alastair's favored pupil. He lives as Daddy's little blunt instrument, buries the Righteous Man beneath him and keeps stabbing long after he's already dead.
Sam degenerates, elevates his bad decisions, surrenders to despised fate and tells himself stories of all the damage he caused by ever trying to escape it in the first place. He wears his titles as cilices. Freak. Monster. Antichrist. Abomination. Demon. Vampire. There is no need for penance, because it will do him no good. There is no need for effort, because one never escapes what they've been all along. Shock and disgust electrify him.
It creeps through them more often than they'd like to admit, the color of phosphorescent bone exposed putrescing to the air. Castiel imagines, on the night Sam left for Stanford and Dean let him, the anathemic glow of it was blinding.
To stand with them means soft spots in bones, lesions in lungs and mouth. The air is sometimes full of fiberglass and the ground coated in blinking cinders. Their despair boils blood and cooks veins from the inside out. Their failures crush and corrupt.
But humans make pilgrimages to exclusion zones, swim through flooded caves far beneath the ground and run dreamy fingers along dense salt rivers even as their air ticks toxic, hike half-dead past rainbows of frozen corpses on the filthy, icy spine of the world. Castiel is more human now than any angel who has ever lived, and he understands there are certain exchanges to be made. He has learned he far prefers a life filled with the Winchesters' fallout to one with sterile air.
He had no colors in the beginning. He assumes he does now, knows he does. He's far too afraid to delve too deep into himself, isn't sure he could even if he wanted to - his eyes, after all, face out. But he knows his wings. He knows they were created white, not the opaline they are now. His feathers fragment these days like a sunbeam, every color on the spectrum contained in white light, shifting, changing.
He is dyed. He is stained. He has swum through the runoff of a chemical plant and not come out unscathed. There is no return.
Sam has read to him, in quiet moments long past, The Lord of the Rings. Nothing has ever quite frightened Castiel so much as Saruman's robes. Castiel the many-colored. Strayed from original intention, befouled by desire and dark pacts and a long, agonizing fall. He carries the things he's done, the thoughts he's had, on his wings, and he will never again be clean, and even though he doesn't want to be, the fear of that option being finally gone cracked him in two where he perched.
Sam did not understand. Castiel could not explain. But he squeezed his hand anyway, his shoulder, rubbed his back, offered comfort.
"It's just a book, Cas," he said quietly. "It's not real."
If only Castiel could have told him then, would have known then, that everything is a book written by a child in torment from self-inflicted hardships. That everything ever written is real, that there is no erasure, that actions and words and decisions are written in ink and blood does not come out of feathers.
But it's all right, because the ink is brown and green and red and blue, pressed into the white, and it looks lovely there. The beauty outweighs the sickness. The dawn continues to come, even when the night drags further and further on. The sun never gives up on them. Every bone in its body could be broken and it would still rise, even hated, even hunted, because doing the right thing is stamped into the components of its colors.
The Winchesters can't see the shades of who and what Castiel is, what he's done, why and how.
But he'd like to believe that, if they could, they'd find them beautiful.