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Service at Old Winchester

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Castiel was homesick.

He’d never believed it could happen, that he could miss the noise, the chaos, even the rough play of his older brothers, who were always stealing his few, precious books, laughing at his scrawniness that persisted no matter how much he ate or how hard he worked, and looking sidelong at him when he refused to go drinking with them and flirt with barmaids. They were thugs, but, he now realized, they were home.

He sighed over the pot he was scrubbing. More than likely he would never see any of them again. He could save a few coins from his wages to send a letter home, but he doubted any of them would write back. Surrounded by family in their home, they wouldn’t miss him the way he missed them, if at all. Perhaps Michael would return a letter, out of a sense of duty, but he knew the stiff, businesslike response he would get from the eldest brother he barely knew would only make him feel lonelier.

His mother, who’d been raised from her dirt-poor peasant status by marrying a merchant, could not write, and his father…

His father was not his father.

He’d long suspected it, from whispers he’d heard among his father’s merchant friends, and three years ago, he’d overheard Uriel and Michael talking, and it was confirmed.

“We’ve got to figure out what to do about the bastard, you know,” said Uriel in his cold, casually cruel way. Him, Castiel definitely did not miss. “The rumors are hurting Father’s business. He’s got nothing against the boy, but he’ll be of age soon, and Father can’t ignore it forever. What if the boy wants to marry, and asks about his inheritance?”

“Mother really… while Father was away those two years and I was training at the warrior’s academy?”

Castiel had never heard Michael sound so vulnerable and uncertain. He was always sure of everything. Uriel, the next eldest, had always been his confidant. Castiel didn’t understand it. Anyone would be better than Uriel.

“Yes. Father had to establish liaisons with those foreign traders; it’s why he’s so successful now. Meanwhile mother was establishing a liaison of her own.”

“Uriel.”

Castiel didn’t know how Uriel was able to stand up to that tone. No one else could, not even their parents.

“You wanted to talk about the truth. I followed Mother one day and found out about it. It would never have come to anything, of course, if she hadn’t gotten pregnant.”

“But she was… I mean Mother’s… well, she’s matronly. If a man’s looking for a mistress…”

Uriel shrugged. “It’s hard for us to see as her sons, but Mother was a renowned beauty in her day; that’s what caught Father’s eye. Why would he marry a peasant otherwise? She had nothing.”

“I don’t like the way you talk about Mother sometimes, Uriel.”

Again, there was a warning in Michael’s tone that Castiel wouldn’t have ignored. He didn’t like the way Uriel was talking either, but he was reeling from what he’d heard. When it seemed that his brothers weren’t going to talk about his parentage or his future anymore, he crept away to his attic hideout so he could think.

He’d been trying not to think about this for years, but now there was no shadow of doubt to hide behind. He was the youngest of eight children, seven of them boys, which made him fairly redundant already in terms of continuing his father’s business or receiving any inheritance. His father had never been unkind to him—in fact, he’d visited far more punishment on Gabriel and even Balthazar than he ever had on Castiel. Gabriel was four years older than Castiel and second youngest, and he’d suffered a strapping, bed without supper, or repossession of his playthings about every other day. But when Castiel behaved the same as Gabriel, and his father caught him, Father looked coolly at him a moment while Castiel stammered with shame or tried to explain, then simply looked away, acting as if he couldn’t see him. He often did this when Castiel had done no wrong at all, too. He accepted Castiel’s filial affection, even absently returned it at times—less and less as Castiel got older. When one of the older kids spoke to Father, he advised them, argued with them, lectured them, or laughed with them. Not with Castiel. He answered when Castiel spoke to him, somewhat distantly. That was all.

When they’d been little, Gabriel had complained that Father favored Castiel because he never punished him, but he had gradually stopped saying that. Later, Castiel sometimes thought he caught Gabriel giving him an odd look on the occasions of Father’s not-punishments. He always just grinned if Castiel caught him, but in those rare seconds before he did, Castiel, looking back on it, thought it was the most serious and sad he’d ever seen his merry trickster brother look.

It all made sense now. If Castiel was illegitimate, Father had no cause to care how he turned out or if he shirked his responsibilities. His future was of no concern to… should he stop thinking of him as Father?

What mattered was what he was going to do now. He had less than three years left before he turned eighteen. When he did, his… not-father would most likely turn him out with nothing. He guessed that Father had agreed to raise Castiel to adulthood, either to save face or to keep Mother’s affections, but Castiel had never felt loved by him, and he had no reason to believe he would do anything to help him make his way in the world. Mother had never exactly stirred herself on his behalf, either—when he’d been very small, she had been affectionate and attentive, but as Castiel grew older, she seemed to take her cues from Father about how she regarded her youngest child.

He would have to make his own way, and as the shock and fear faded, his true feeling was relief. If Father had no obligation to him… well, it was mutual. He was free to do as he would with his life, free as none of his brothers were. He now realized that on some level, he’d always known what he wanted to do with that freedom.

By the time Mother called her sons to supper, Castiel had the beginnings of a plan.

* * *

“Service academy?” Father said vaguely, after the third time Castiel explained. He frowned distantly, and Castiel began to worry he wasn’t going to answer, as he hadn’t the first two times. Then he said, “Well, I suppose you can work your way through.”

“I can,” Castiel said quickly. He’d known he couldn’t ask for tuition. “Most people do. I just need you to sign off on it, that you release me from my obligation to the family business.”

There was a long silence, then Mother said quietly, “He’ll sign it. And you’ll eat supper and sleep here rather than at the academy so you needn’t pay for that.”

Father glanced at her, then muttered, “As your mother says.”

“You can’t go into service at King’s Bastion.” Michael unexpectedly entered the conversation, and Castiel flushed at his flat tone. “It would be an embarrassment.”

Michael seemed surprised, and Castiel surprised himself, when he sat up straight and glared at Michael. “I’m going to Old Winchester,” he said.

In fact it was the only reason he was going into service. He would never make a warrior, he knew, and the war was over anyway, so service was the only way he had of meeting the only goal he’d ever had: to be near the youngest Lord Winchester, Sam.

His parents and his brother must never know, but Castiel, though he loved his brothers and his mother and even, painfully, his not-father, there was only one true passion in his heart, one sliver of meaning in the shadowed, incomprehensible life he’d been born into, and that was Sam Winchester.

Lord Sam was the last and arguably greatest hero of the Demon Wars that had ended five years before. He had been taken by a Great Demon, the leader of the terrible crusade that had taken the lives of thousands of Lawrence’s citizens, bathed their land in blood and despair and turned the very skies black. The royal army had believed Sam gone forever, and the war lost at last, until his brother carried Sam’s seemingly lifeless body out of the smoke of the Winchesters’ last stand. Against his father’s orders, Dean had infiltrated enemy lines to find his brother, and against all odds had found him alive—barely—a shell discarded by the Great Demon, whose fate was never discovered.

But the moment Dean brought Sam back, the tide of the battle turned. Sam came out of his stupor, and he and Dean led the last remnants of the King’s Army in a desperate action that drove the demons back to the portal they’d come through and forced them through it.

No one knew how Sam had done it, why the demons, who had been a horde of ravening, nearly-invincible destroyers hours before, fled before him. No one knew how Sam had closed the portal, or what had happened to him in the demon camps from which no other human had ever returned. No one seemed to remember that Sam had been just fifteen when he saved the world, or that the strange, reclusive lord he had become was not the bizarre old man one might expect to retreat from the world as he had, nor even a mature man. He was only twenty, barely a man yet at all, only five years older than Castiel.

The Demon Wars had launched the only-obscurely-noble Winchester family into highest royalty. King John now presided at King’s Bastion, and Dean was his heir. John and Dean were champions in their own right, sitting in hero’s arraignment in the capitol, but Sam, changed by his sacrifice, was different. He did not reap the reward of his heroics, or even the benefit of his family’s love. By all reports, the brothers loved each other without reservation, but it was not enough to keep Sam at King’s Bastion, where he and his father were perpetually, and very publically, at odds. Instead, Sam had returned to claim the obscure lordship he’d been born into—the remote, bleak, and haunted northerly fiefdom of Old Winchester.

That made Old Winchester the only place Castiel wanted to be.

Castiel had loved Sam since he was thirteen years old. He barely understood his own love, and wondered if there was something wrong with him on a soul-level. Had he a woman’s spirit in a lad’s body, that the only touch he wanted, the only face that stirred him to desire, was a man’s? But he did not wish to be a woman any more than he desired romance with one. As he grew, he learned that there were others like him, but that these desires were largely ignored in the people who felt them, and only whispered about—never spoken of in polite company—by everyone else.

Those whispers were made about Sam Winchester. Castiel’s constant, most desperate prayer was that the rumors were true.

Cas had seen Sam in person once, at the celebration of Lord Dean’s appointment as heir. He had slipped through the crowd to get a glimpse of his idol, and he had always believed that Sam, riding quietly on a light-stepping, gentle brown mare behind Dean’s huge, flashy black charger, had glimpsed him, too. All other eyes were on King John and Dean, but Castiel’s were only for Sam. Sam’s beauty clenched his heart like a fist and would not let go. His distant, brooding sadness, barely concealed by his polite, lordly half-smile, had intensified that beauty to the point of unbearableness, and Castiel, caught by it and by his own painful gratitude for Sam’s sacrifice, could not look away as tears spilled down his cheeks.

Sam had met Castiel’s eye, he swore, and for just a moment the lordly mask had melted into a sad gentleness, the polite smile into a real smile, and Castiel knew he would never love anyone else.

There was silence at the dinner table while Castiel clasped this treasured secret close. Finally, Michael said, in an oddly mild tone, “That’s halfway across the world.”

“It should be far enough away, then,” Castiel said bitterly.

No one said anything more, and two weeks later, he was enrolled at the academy; two years later, headed halfway across the world.

* * *

Castiel crested the rocky slope and paused, stricken. Even through the haze of his exhaustion the beauty pierced him. It was greater than he’d imagined, lovelier than any illumination or painting could convey.

Old Winchester Castle wasn’t really a palace by modern standards—not like the great towers and grand marble halls of King’s Bastion in the capitol. It was ancient, rambling, and made of the lovely green-brown stone the county was famous for, which stood out against the dramatic darker green of the pine forests around it and the sweeping, snow-crowned, blue-grey mountains behind. Many wooden buildings surrounded it, old and solid and with the look of purpose rather than vanity, function rather than grandeur. Yet grandeur it possessed nonetheless.

Castiel had long ago, in some way, stopped believing that it really existed. He had chipped away at every obstacle that stood between him and it for nearly three years, long after he’d stopped believing he could succeed. The journey alone had taken eight months. Somewhere along the way, he had turned eighteen. He was a man now, and couldn’t turn away from this man’s path. Once begun, there was nothing to do but go on.

He stood, staring. He had left his homeland, his family, and all that he had ever loved behind. The way had cost him every cent of his money, most of his clothes, and as of yesterday morning, even his shoes. He was barefoot, bruised, cold, half-starved, and nearly asleep on his legs. But he was here.

He burst into tears, covering his face. It didn’t matter that he was far too shabby and disreputable-looking now to apply for the valet work he’d planned to do, that he had no money for food or a place to stay. He had worked his way here and could do nearly any type of work now; he would find a place. Even if he never spoke to Lord Sam himself, he would still be in his service, in whatever mean way anyone would let him be. He would scrub pots if he had to. He would shovel horse dung. Anything would feel right and good at Old Winchester. He was home.