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Crooked Heart

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‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.'

- 'As I Walked Out One Evening' by W.H. Auden.

 

 

 

The sword smacked straight into the centre of Dean’s stomach. He doubled over, fighting the urge to vomit. His grip on his own sword weakened, causing it to dangle uselessly at his side. The air was thick but he tried to gasp down as many deep breaths as he could whilst his left hand went up to show that he wanted to pause for a minute. 

“Good job the sword is blunt, man,” gasped Dean, trying to pull himself up to full height and regain some of his dignity.

“Yeah, Dad would be so pissed if you started bleeding all over his marble floors,” laughed Sam, his sword still held in front of his body in a deflective stance. 

They were practicing in the large hall that separated their individual wings within the palace. It had marble floors and high ceilings, with four sets of large, empty windows that let the wind sweep through. Today they were hiding out in the hall to try and get a hint of a breeze, but they were failing miserably. The desert city of Raha was inching towards summer and soon the midday heat would be almost unbearable. Dean was infinitely thankful for the days that they got to practice their fighting technique in the shade rather than outside under the baking hot sun with their weapon’s Master. 

Sam had just relaxed his stance, pulling his fingers through his hair so that it was off his face, when Dean launched a counter attack with his own blunt sword. Sam brought the metal up to meet Dean just in time and they parried across the room. Dean forced Sam backwards until they were close to an empty window and Sam fumbled his blade, allowing Dean to bring a crashing blow across Sam’s chest that forced his younger brother to the floor.

Dean stood triumphant above his panting younger brother, feeling the weight of exertion pumping through his body as he grinned down at where Sam was sprawled out. Sweat was pouring down between the muscles of his back and soaking through the linen cloth that was wrapped around his torso. His linen shorts clung to the muscles of his thighs and made his whole body feel clammy but still Dean could not help but feel victorious.

“Boys!”

John Winchester’s powerful voice boomed across the large hall and caused both of his sons to jump to attention. They both scrambled to stand up straight, avoiding eye contact with him and still breathing heavily. The King was not wearing his crown today but he still looked regal nonetheless. A strip of purple silk was twisted around his torso, straining across his chest. The expression on his face was dark and cloudy, just as it always was whenever he deigned to look upon his sons. Being the king did not protect one from the effects of summer, however, and the man’s cheeks were flushed with an unbecoming burgundy colour.

“I have just come from a consultation with Master Lavery,” John said, staring across the room at his sons. 

Master Lavery was the weapon’s Master that their father had hired to try and turn his sons into warriors when they began to hit puberty. Dean despised him. He was cruel and worked on shame and embarrassment. If Sam or Dean were to put even a foot wrong then they would be punished for the rest of the session. There had been more than one occasion when Dean had wished his sword had not been blunted just so that he could drive it between the Master’s shoulder blades.

“He says neither of you are progressing at the rate that I had expected and hoped from my children,” continued John, his eyes narrowing, “and therefore I will be passing your arms education into the hands of two of my most powerful warriors.”

Dean’s heart sank. His father’s army was the most fearsome for miles. Their true name was the Rahashi but they were colloquially known as ‘the Angels’ due to the way their golden armour glinted in the desert sun. It was a truth universally acknowledged that there was only one other army in the land that could rival the Rahashi - the War Born. They were the stuff of nightmares and the common whisper was that they tortured each of their soldiers until they could no longer feel pain. The Rahashi, however, fought of their own free will and that, in itself, was terrifying enough. Each solider trained for eight hours every day under the scorching sun. It was one of Dean’s worst nightmares. He glanced over at Sam and saw a flicker of fear cross his brother’s face. Neither of them were ready for this.

“I will not have my sons embarrassing me on the battlefield,” growled John, his voice laced with anger now, “I will make men out of you yet.”

The comment seemed to hit Dean in the stomach and he felt his chest burn with a mixture of anger and shame. John Winchester cared only for his reputation and not in the least bit for his sons.

“Donya,” his father called, summoning the young warrior woman that had followed him into the room, “please escort the Princes down to the Bonsai Gardens and introduce them to their new combat teachers.”

“Of course, my Lord,” answered the dark-haired woman, giving a small bow towards the king and turning a smile towards the princes, “sirs, if you’d like to come with me.”

Sam and Dean followed Donya down the marble steps in silence. Dean only knew the woman by sight but was sure that she made a fearsome addition to his father’s army. Her long dark hair was scraped back into a plait that fell down the centre of her back. She wore the same linen training shorts as Dean, whilst on her top half she wore a long strip of material that bound her breasts in place and left most of her honey-coloured skin bare in the heat. The muscles of her stomach stood out sharply, and a long red scar traced across the base of her spine. She was beautiful but Dean was under no illusions that she could kill him within seconds.

Donya led them all the way through the castle and finally through the huge sandstone doors that led out into the Bonsai Gardens. The gardens had not been actual gardens for years. They were now a huge expanse of sandy space in which 5,000 members of the Rahashi army trained at a time. It was coming up to 1pm and the gardens were filled with the sound of metal on metal and the scent of blood.

“I don’t think those are blunt swords,” murmured Sam, staring down at a pallid solider nearby who was bleeding freely from a gash on his leg.

Not for the first time, Dean felt a bubble of fear in the pit of his stomach. He had never fought with a real sword and, despite how his father treated him, he did not want to let him down.

Donya led them through the masses of warriors, some fighting with swords whilst others were sparring with bo staffs and a select few seemed to be engaged in hand-to-hand combat. She led the princes to a wooden hut at the far side of the gardens where five warriors were waiting for them. A man roughly seven feet tall moved to greet them. As he walked, his powerful muscles moved under his jet black skin and Dean made a mental note to never disagree with him.

He gave each of them a small bow before introducing himself; “Prince Dean, Prince Sam, my name is Lebbo and I am your father’s second-in-command. I hear that you have been sent to us for some proper training.”

Dean bristled at the notion that he had had no prior proper training but only gave the man a tight nod. Do not disagree with a man who could literally knock your head off.

“You have already met Donya, our chief lancer. She is front and centre of every battle,” explained Lebbo, shooting a proud glance over at the young woman, “do everything that she tells you because she will definitely save your life on more than one occasion.”

Dean gave her a small smile and made another mental note to never underestimate anyone within his father’s army.

“Prince Sam, this is Gabriel,” said Lebbo, motioning over to a young man with coppery brown hair and amber eyes, “he is our chief archer and he will be your mentor from this moment on.”

Sam stuck his hand out towards the man and smiled a warm greeting, “great to meet you, Gabriel.”

“Likewise, sir” replied Gabriel, returning the handshake, “now just do everything I say from this moment on and we should get on along brilliantly.”

“And Prince Dean,” continued Lebbo, striding past Sam and Gabriel, “this is your mentor and our chief swordsman – Castiel.”

Dean came to an abrupt halt. In front of him was the most beautiful and terrifying creature that the prince had ever seen. He was clad only in brown linen shorts and Dean could see all of the sharp muscles of his chest and stomach moving under his bronze skin. His dark hair sat in disarray on top of his head and his lips were the colour of red roses at dusk. The sharp edge of his jaw was lined with stubble but it was the man’s eyes that Dean noticed most of all. They were the blue of ice and forget-me-nots, they were the blue of still waters and the sky at high-noon. They bore into Dean as if they could see right into him, into the very depths of his soul. Oh shit.

Reluctantly, Dean held out a hand in greeting. Castiel offered no warm smile like his fellow soldiers but, after a long pause, he moved to shake the proffered hand.

“Good to meet you,” said Dean, more confidently than he felt.

“And you, sir,” answered Castiel, his voice a gravelly murmur and not at all like Dean was expecting. At least he answered, thought Dean in an attempt to reassure himself. They looked at each other for a few brief seconds until Lebbo’s booming voice broke the spell.

“It is just past noon and we will train until the sun begins its final descent,” explained the Second-in-Command, “you better begin quickly. You have lost half the day already.”

 

*

 

Dean quickly realized just how easy his early combat training had been. He had spent his youth bragging about his skill with a sword. He matched Sam point-for-point and he had long thought that they fought fiercely. A lifetime of bar room brawls and walking across vast plains of desert would count for something, right? He could not have been more wrong. 

Soon after their introductions, Castiel had led Dean away from the other soldiers training in the gardens. He took him past the arid bonsai trees that bordered the sandy space and started up towards the mountain that the palace was built on. They walked a small way, until the sounds of the fighting receded and they were hidden within a flat cleft on the mountainside. The first thing that Dean noticed was that there was not a breath of wind. The rocks around the clearing kept the air still and humid.

“So, what? You mean to give me sunstroke before you actually teach me any fighting techniques?” quipped Dean, feeling the closeness of the heat around him.

Castiel looked at him strangely then, narrowing the eyes that kept boring into Dean. 

“You have to be able to fight under any conditions,” murmured the solider, never taking his eyes off Dean’s face, “learning to fight here will make fighting in cooler conditions easier.”

“Yeah, sure, okay,” replied Dean, swinging his arms carelessly by his sides and avoiding the other man’s stare.

Silence fell between them and Dean chanced a glance upwards. Castiel had brought no weapons of any sort. He was completely unarmed and merely looking levelly at Dean. A chill ran through the Prince. He couldn’t seem to shake the feeling of danger that he got from the other man. He was stood before him, completely unarmed and clad in nothing but linen shorts and still Dean’s gut told him to be careful.

“So, how are we doing this?” asked Dean, finally, in an effort to shake off the apprehension that he was nursing.

“I thought we might start with hand-to-hand combat. When you master that then we can progress to weapons.”

Dean’s fears eased at that. He had been in a fair few bar fights and was sure that he knew how to handle himself in that department. After the first few blows, however, he began to realize that he had seriously overestimated his own skill. Within half an hour he was covered in sweat and bruises, and blood was pouring from his nose. Castiel had taken to shouting certain moves out at him that he should be executing but Dean had stopped listening a while ago and was just getting more and more frustrated.

“Block with your right arm. Your right arm. Step back! Step back now!”

Castiel levelled a blow at Dean’s cheek and hit his mark without difficulty, sending Dean careering backwards onto the hard, hot stone of the mountain. 

“My apologies, sir,” said Castiel, moving forward to hold a hand out to Dean. 

Dean did not take it. His head was pounding and he could hear the blood rushing in his ears. Something that felt a lot like anger was pushing up through his gut, but Dean was afraid that it was actually vomit so he took a deep breath before speaking.

“Apologies are worthless when you’re beating the fucking shit out of me,” fumed Dean, moving to push himself back up to his feet. He got his balance before curling his hand into a fist and bringing it down onto the other man’s jaw. Dean felt a twisted sense of pride for finally getting a blow in until he noticed that Castiel had not even flinched at the pain.

“Are you even feeling any of this, for fuck’s sake?” growled Dean, angrier with his own subpar performance than with his mentor.

At first, Castiel did not reply. After a couple of minutes, he finally spoke up. “You don’t seem happy about this.”

“What, that I’m fighting a fucking robot, no not really!”

“No, I meant … this – the fact that you have been sent for lessons,” said Castiel, moving one finger over his mouth to wipe away the blood that Dean had drawn from his bottom lip.

“Yeah, you could say that,” snapped Dean, and then regretted it when the other man looked at him questioningly.

“Look, it’s not that I don’t think I need lessons …” began Dean, before trailing off into silence 

“Go on,” prompted Castiel, his voice low.

Dean hesitated for a moment, trying to choose his words carefully. “It is that my father likes … absolute control.”

Once again, silence fell between them. This time it was Dean’s turn to stare. The other man’s lip was swelling up quickly and Dean couldn’t help but notice the colour of it changing from pale damask to dark red. Involuntarily, he licked his own lips. He found himself wondering how the blood would taste if he were to lick Castiel’s swollen lip with his tongue. Woah. He forcibly stopped his thoughts in their tracks and quickly tried to push them away. That thought put him at the very edge of a dangerous road and he could not go down it, not this time.

“Well,” said Castiel, breaking into Dean’s thoughts, “perhaps if you keep punching me you’ll actually get your own limbs under absolute control yourself.” 

“Wait … was that a joke?” asked Dean, feigning amazement but not being able to keep the small smile from rising on his face.

“It has been known to happen,” replied Castiel, offering his own smile back. The smile completely altered his face. It softened all of his features and made his eyes crinkle with light. Dean’s stomach lurched at the sight.

“Okay,” said Dean, forcing down the feeling in the pit of his stomach and clenching his fists, “is it time for you to start beating the shit out of me again?”

 

*

 

At the end of the session, Dean found himself with burgeoning bruises all over his body and a very swollen nose. Weirdly enough, however, he had ended up quite enjoying himself. He had started blocking Castiel’s blows a lot more effectively than he had done five hours before, at least.

The pair walked back down the mountainside together in a silence that was a lot more comfortable than when they had hiked up it. Just as they were arriving back at the Bonsai Gardens, Castiel piped up. “One last thing … please refrain from … exerting yourself on the evenings before we train.”

Dean stopped walking and turned to face the solider; “exerting myself?”

“I know of your reputation, sir, and I merely meant to suggest that you cannot hope to get everything out of a session with drink on your breath and lust on your mind.”

Dean felt anger flare up in his chest.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?!”

“Nothing, sir, nothing at all. It was just a suggestion.”

Castiel didn’t seem at all perturbed by Dean’s anger and that, if anything, made the young prince even angrier.

“So you’re banning me from sex and ale?” Dean demanded, taking one step closer to the soldier. 

Castiel stared up at him with his clear blue eyes for a moment, before saying, quietly, “no, of course not, sir.”

“Well, it sure sounds that way.”

They both paused for a moment, mere inches away from each other, one seething with anger and the other eerily calm.

“I spoke out of turn, sir,” murmured Castiel, turning away from Dean, “I apologise. Please continue to have sex with whoever you please.”

And with that, Castiel turned on his heel and stalked back towards the palace, leaving an aghast Dean in his wake.

 

 

*

 

“I’m telling you Dean, this guy never stops,” said Sam, tearing off a piece of bread and popping it in his mouth, “I had no idea what was going on. He kept making jokes that I didn’t even know were jokes and then he kept laughing at me for not getting them.”

Sam and Dean were taking dinner in the private dining hall, as they always did. The table was set for three, as ever, but the pair dined alone. Their father had stopped taking dinner with them when Dean was nine-years-old and Sam was five, just after the younger prince had learnt how to correctly use cutlery. The brothers still insisted that the servants set a place for the king, though, in the hopes that he may one day begin to dine with them again. Dean, however, had stopped wishing for that long ago. The king took little interest in his sons apart from, as it turned out, when their fighting technique was not up to standard.

Sam seemed to have come out of that afternoon’s practice a lot better off than Dean. Gabriel had begun to teach him archery which meant that only his arms and hands had suffered considerable bruising. Alternately, Dean had spent the hour between the end of practice and dinner with cool slabs of meat on the left side of his face and fabric up his nose whilst quietly seething over Castiel’s final comments. He still didn’t quite know what the soldier had meant by them, but he knew that it wasn’t at all complimentary.

“So, tell me again why you look like you’ve just come out of the gladiator ring,” grinned Sam, taking a swig of sweet wine.

“I told you, the guy delighted in beating the crap out of me,” grunted Dean, keeping his face down towards his plate of food.

“Maybe he was just showing you how much you actually needed lessons,” joked Sam, sending a wry smile Dean’s way.

“Oh just shut the fuck up.” Dean wasn’t in the mood for jokes. His whole body felt like it had been thrown off a cliff and he wanted nothing more than to drink a whole barrel of ale but the soldier’s words were still ringing in his head.

“Hey Dean, if you want to switch then we can,” said Sam, his smile faltering.

“No,” answered Dean, too quickly, “it’s fine. It’ll be fine.”

“Wait, you don’t …”

“What?” asked Dean, looking up at Sam.

“Oh shit. Dean, don’t fuck him.”

“What the hell –“

“Dean, you cannot fuck him. You know what Dad said!”

Sam’s comments only added to Dean’s already considerable anger.

“I’m not going to fuck him,” snapped Dean, defensively, “I don’t even like the guy. I don’t want to fuck him!”

“You promised Dad, remember? You can’t pull shit like this … not after Jo –" 

“Are you even listening?! I’m not going to go anywhere near him –“

“If you want to have sex this city is full of bawdy houses and body slaves. You can pay them to stay silent –“

“Sam, for God’s sake, I don’t pay! And I don’t answer to you or to Dad! But, just so you know, I am not going to have sex with Castiel, okay? So just shut your damned mouth.”

Dean shoved his chair back from the table and stalked away, ignoring Sam’s calls as he slammed the door shut behind him.