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things i knew when i was young

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Castiel has had the same dream almost every night for eight years. It always starts this way.

Honey, his mother calls up the stairs, which is not quite accurate because his mother never called anyone ‘honey’. Come down here now. We’re taking family pictures.

Castiel descends down the stairs of his childhood home. Everything is dark, the chandelier all lit up in gold, and wreaths hanging from enormous windows. Outside, snow is falling quietly.

Castiel, Naomi Novak snaps, and Castiel obediently follows her down the stairs. His khakis are pressed and his shirt is tucked in; his shoes are polished enough to shine.

They’re all gathered in the family room, in front of the tree. Michael and Luc are glaring at each other, both with their ties straight and Michael’s jacket obviously stained with something, Luc just the slightest bit taller but only because his hair is spiked up. Anna smiles at Castiel, catching his eye. She’s a head above him even though she’s a year younger – she’s wearing heels and trying not to fall over in them. He stands by her and avoids Gabriel, who pinches and spins away and laughs. His hair is still blue (despite Naomi’s best efforts) due to Luc’s retaliation after Gabriel replaced his stolen whiskey with drain cleaner. Castiel isn’t supposed to know about that, the same as he isn’t supposed to know that the both of them are planning to lock Michael in the shed tomorrow. He shifts closer to Anna.

Where’s your sister? Naomi asks. Her tone is never happy.

Right here, Castiel says, and bumps Anna’s shoulder.

Not Annael, stupid, Gabriel says. He’s looking at Castiel. They’re all looking at Castiel. Raphael.

Naomi shakes her head disappointedly. Castiel, where is your sister?

Everyone’s staring at him. They won’t stop staring at him.

Where is she? His mother snaps, and when he looks down at her wrists they’re dripping blood, gushing blood.

 


 

Castiel gasps awake.

“Afternoon, sleeping beauty,” comes his best friend’s voice. “You good?”

Castiel blinks blearily. The rumble of Dean’s baby is ever-present and familiar, and he realizes with a start that the pillow under his head is actually Dean’s shoulder. He allows himself just one more minute – to take in the softness, to appreciate the comfort, and then pulls himself upwards and into waking. He blinks at the clock on the dash. “How far away are we?”

Dean smiles. “If your directions are right, then less than two hours to go.”

Castiel frowns down at his hands. Tattoos cover his forearms, a mural of black-and-white, flowers and bees and butterflies and bones. He absently traces the small letters that encircle his left wrist, more faded than the rest: dum vivimus vivamus.

“Hey,” Dean says again, glancing over. “You ok? You sure you want to do this?”

Castiel half-smiles, watching his best friend drive. The last of the afternoon sunlight shines through the windshield, highlighting green eyes and freckles and the smile lines on his face. He has a flannel on, just like always, and a jacket that smells slightly of smoke and grease. He is golden and made of light, and he is far too good for Castiel.

It’s been six and a half years since Castiel Novak met Dean Winchester, by way of a car flipped over in a ditch and a woman with two broken femurs. Dean had been a probie on the engine crew, and Castiel had only just been starting precepting after earning his EMT certification. They’d gotten off on the wrong foot, but not too long after they’d run into each other in the kitchen which their respective fire and rescue stations shared. Against all odds they’d grown closer – as their shift rotations lined up, as they ended up on calls together, as Dean convinced Castiel to come and do training with his crew. Castiel helped Dean study for his EMT class, and Dean pushed Castiel into getting his swift-water certs, and at some point along the way they’d become what Castiel, with his limited experience, would call best friends. Dean had become the kind of person that Castiel never needed energy to talk to, and Castiel had become the kind of person that Dean didn’t feel like throwing up his fake-macho-personality around. When Dean got offered his position as a career firefighter, Castiel had been there to congratulate him, and when Castiel completed his paramedic training, Dean yanked him into the warmest hug Castiel had ever had.

Retrospectively, that was when Castiel realized he was screwed.

So he’s in love with his best friend. His best friend, whom he spends ninety percent of his time with – either they’re living out of each other’s pockets in their shared apartment, or they’re catching each other between training in the halls of the station. Even when Castiel covers extra hours at night, Dean often pops in; ostensibly it’s to check that the red-hats on the fire side are doing their training, but usually it’s just to bring Castiel some of his tea in a thermos. Balthazar calls Dean whipped, and the wide-eyed aides who’ve barely learned how to spike an IV bag laugh. Dean just laughs and messes with Castiel’s hair, and it might hurt but he knows himself well enough to know that at this point, their friendship is more important than any kind of crush Castiel could have.

Which is what puts them here, in Dean’s car, eight hours into a nine and a half hour drive up north, to bury Castiel’s mother on the grounds that he grew up on. Because it’s been eight years since Castiel cut ties with his family and left, supposedly for college, and there hasn’t been a word of communication since. Because Dean is, at his core, a good person and a better friend, and when he heard that Castiel’s mother had died and that he would need to return to his childhood home over Thanksgiving break, he knew enough to say he’d go with him.

This is, for sure, not helping Castiel get over his inappropriately persistent feelings.

“I’m,” Castiel searches for the words. “I need to do this, Dean. It’s my family.”

“Yeah, who you avoid talking about like the plague.”

Castiel winces. Dean has heard only scattered parts of his past with his family, and they are the specific ones that do not hurt Castiel to remember. None of them are, in any way, complimentary.

“Sorry, dude,” Dean says. “So your siblings. I haven’t heard much about them. Wanna give me a little rundown, so I’m not being thrown directly to the wolves?”

Castiel exhales. “Right. You know the meaning behind my name.”

“Castiel,” Dean growls in a passable approximation of Castiel’s low voice, “angel of Thursday. Yeah, dumbass, I know.”

“All four of my siblings are, as well, named after angels. My mother was incredibly religious, and church and prayer were both a very large part of our upbringing. It was not…entirely to our favor, in most cases. The eldest two are twins, Michael and Lucifer.” Castiel tries not to wince again. “They both live up to their names in…appropriate ways.”

Dean whistles. “So stay away from Lucifer – do you really call him that?”

Castiel shakes his head. “He goes by Luc. Did go by Luc. Was called Luc, by the rest of us. As I am sure you can imagine, the religious upbringing did not quite agree with him, so he went by Lucifer when it suited him.” He sneaks a glance over towards Dean as they get off the highway.

“Right,” Dean says. “Wow, that’s, uh, yeah, that’s a new one.”

The corner of Castiel’s mouth quirks up. “Then,” he takes a deep breath and rubs the words on his wrist, “Gabriel, who…well, he idolized Luc in many ways. He was not quite so bad – Luc, metaphorically, left the line behind by the time he reached fifteen, while Gabriel at least kept it in his rearview mirror.”

“This is sounding better and better,” Dean says.

Castiel snorts. “And then there was me, and a year after me my sister Annael, who goes by Anna.” Anna is the one he regrets cutting ties with; Anna is the one who wrote him to tell him of their mother’s death. I won’t say come home because I know this isn’t home for you, she had said, and I know it hasn’t been in a long time. Anna had always known him the best.

“Cas?” Dean asks.

“Yes,” Castiel says, clearing his throat. “I was closest to Anna. You may like her.”

“Yeah?”

Castiel isn’t sure how this will go, the merging of the life he made and the life he left. He hasn’t spoken to any of them in almost a decade – hasn’t even heard about any of them in almost a decade. There’s a pamphlet that sits at the station which he’s read: How To Tell A Family That A Loved One Has Died. Castiel’s people skills aren’t quite up to par, sometimes, but he’s held a crying woman in his arms as her husband lay dead on the ground, and the empathy he could conjure then was not what he feels now. He doesn’t know what he feels now. He’s not sure what he’s going to find at his house. He’s not sure what he wants to find.

“You good, man?” Dean asks. He’s not a gentle person, but this is gentle.

Castiel swallows. “Tell me about the hazmat call you had last week at the river.”

Dean rambles, and Castiel listens, and then half-listens as Dean derails into a tangent about the specs on one of their local station’s tiller trucks, and then cuts off mid-sentence to frown. “Here?”

Castiel rubs at his tattoo and then consciously makes himself stop. “Here,” he says.

The driveway is not that long; it’s starting to get dark, now, and they’re far enough north in Michigan that everything is coated in a layer of lake-effect snow, on account of being right on the edge of Superior. Though they passed through a town not that long back, the woods are dense and thick, obscuring everything from view except the road ahead. That is, Castiel thinks, why their home is here. It was easier to hide rot if no one ever saw it.

“Cas, dude,” Dean breathes out. “Are you sure this is the right address? This is a fuckin’, like, mansion.”

Castiel swallows past the lump in his throat. “Yes,” he says. “I’m sure.”

The Novak home is set against the hungry, lapping edges of Lake Superior, all windows and balconies and imposing doors. More snow falls from the quickly-darkening sky, and Dean carefully pulls the car up and around the circle. Not many lights are on in the house – in fact, very few are at all, but there are a couple other vehicles parked along the circle, obviously having been there for a while.

“It seems we’re the last here,” Castiel says. He wonders if fleeing could be considered dignified.

“Cas,” Dean says quietly. When Castiel looks at him, there’s no laughter in his eyes. “I’m right here with you.”

Castiel looks at him. He’s been told that what he quantifies as ‘looking’, other people quantify as ‘terrifying’, or ‘resting bitch face’, but Dean has never cared. Castiel says, “You’re – are you nervous?”

Dean laughs awkwardly. “Dude, of course I’m nervous. I’m, uh, I’ve barely heard anything about your family, in all the time we’ve been friends. You dealt with all that shit with my brother and I just…”

Castiel’s mouth smiles without his direction. “You’re here,” he says, and reaches out to Dean’s hands. “Thank you.”

Whenever they have one of these ‘chick-flick moments’, Dean’s cheeks flush the slightest bit red, and he can’t meet Castiel’s eyes. Instead, his gaze rests on Castiel’s collar, where the edges of the enormous tattoo that covers his back curls over his neck, the six seraph wings with their ink-dark feathers. It leaves something warm sitting in Castiel’s chest, shivering through the centers of his palms and keeping the sadness at bay.

“Sure thing, angel,” Dean says, and offers a lopsided smile. “We should go in.”

“Yes,” Castiel says quietly.

The front doors are open, and Castiel doesn’t bother with knocking. He is greeted by a dark entryway and the distant sound of glass shattering against a wall. Then there’s a woman rounding the corner like she’s on a mission, and a shorter man on her heels. Someone flips a switch and the chandelier lights up, illuminating sweeping stairs and expensive paintings. The woman wears a nice cream sweater and boots, flame-red hair tied back, and when she meets Castiel’s eyes her face is expressionless.

“Anna,” Castiel says.

“Castiel,” Anna responds.

Dean puts a hand on Castiel’s shoulder, pressing down once, lightly, on the feathers tattooed there. Castiel stands up straighter.

“This is cute,” comes Gabriel’s voice, and he’s just as short and full of barely-contained crazy as he was eight years ago, but his grin is just like Anna’s face. It is cold, and empty. He walks towards them, towards the open door, wearing neon ripped jeans and a suit jacket because once upon a time he was the second closest thing to the coming of Satan and, apparently, still is.

“Who’s this?” Anna asks.

Castiel realizes, quite suddenly, that his sister is the kind of woman that Dean, at one point, liked. He keeps his face impassive. “This is Dean,” he offers. “My best friend. He drove here with me.”

“Don’t have your own car?” Gabriel asks. Somewhere in his voice is an insult.

“He has a car,” Dean interjects, moving a half-step closer to Castiel. “But I’m pretty sure it’d be illegal for him to drive it here.” Dean turns to Castiel with eyebrows raised like he’s trying to break the ice, which is a valiant effort but more or less impossible this far north, in this house. “Bet you could steal the third out and nobody would notice for at least a week.”

“Dean,” Castiel says. “I’m fairly certain somebody would notice an entire ambulance missing.”

“This is touching,” Gabriel drawls, “but we’d best not leave the trouble twins all alone with kitchen knives.”

You’re the one nobody trusts with a stove,” Anna calls after his retreating back. It echoes in the emptiness. She hangs back, glancing at Dean and then refocusing on Castiel. “We didn’t think you were coming.”

Castiel shifts and purposefully resists the urge to rub his tattoos; drawing attention to them is not something he wants to do. “I said I would.”

“You’ve said a lot of things.”

Castiel clears his throat. “How have you been, Anna?”

“Fine,” Anna says curtly, then attempts to soften her tone. “I’ve been fine, Castiel.”

Castiel doesn’t know what to say next. He settles on, “How bad will this be?”

Anna hesitates, and Castiel waits, unsure if she’ll remember this game they played. Finally Anna says, “The year with the bees, and horrible Uncle Zachariah.”

Castiel almost trips over an edge of carpet. “Oh, no.”

The corner of Anna’s mouth curves up in a smile, for just the briefest moment.

“Uh,” Dean says. “That sounds bad.”

Castiel had, for possibly the first time in his life, forgotten Dean was there. He glances over. “It was rather like that young man we treated last December.”

Dean cringes. “Hopefully less gunshot wounds?”

“You’d be surprised,” Anna mutters.

There’s no time to respond as they enter into a room, the warm lighting a contrast from the darkened halls. It’s yet another moment of intense melancholy for Castiel; kitchens had, at one point, been a safe place. The kitchen itself is unchanged – stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, an open concept seating area with stools at the island and a table on the hardwood floor, enormous windows that look out over the lake and the falling snow. The kitchen itself is unchanged, but the people in it are not.

“Oh, joy,” says Luc. The last time Castiel saw Luc, his face was twisted in rage and his ear was bleeding from a torn-out piercing. Now he has arms covered wrist to shoulder in colorful tattoos, and he wears what looks like a tuxedo except that instead of a jacket or shirt he’s in a corset. “Cassie brought a boyfriend. What’s that, eighty percent of our family fags? Look at us go. Disappointing mother even after she’s dead.”

“Luc,” Michael says sharply. He is standing at the counter with pieces of broken glass in his hands, and his face is more lined than it had been all those years ago. He wears khakis and a dress shirt, and a watch that looks more expensive than anything Castiel owns. “It’s good to see you, Castiel.”

Anna, next to Castiel, snorts. She doesn’t move away from Dean and Castiel and it seems, suddenly, that they are falling back into their old lines: Anna and Castiel together, Michael and Luc against each other and Gabriel, more or less, against the world.

“And you,” Castiel says evenly.

“Are you going to introduce us, Cassie?” Luc calls.

“This is Dean,” Gabriel inserts. “His best friend.”

Luc laughs. It’s high and mean. “Is that what they’re calling it nowadays?”

“Hush,” Michael bites out at the both of them. “Castiel, have you and Dean had dinner?”

“We’ve already eaten,” Gabriel adds. His golden eyes rest on Castiel. There’s no smile in them. Gabriel used to always be laughing.

“We’re fine,” Dean says when Castiel doesn’t answer. “We had a long drive, so we stopped.”

“You did,” Luc starts. “Tell me, Cassie, where have you been hiding?”

“Oh, shut up, Lucifer,” Anna snaps. “You spent a year living in a rehab facility. At least Castiel’s got a job.”

Gabriel is sitting on the kitchen counter. “Does he have a job? Do you, Cassie?”

“Of course he has a job,” Dean says. “He’s a paramedic, and he’s damn good at it.”

The judgement emanating from Michael makes Castiel want to curl up in a ball. Luc’s got a sneer on the fine lines of his face. This, Castiel thinks, is why he didn’t want to be here.

“And what do you do?” Gabriel asks Dean patronizingly.

“That’s enough,” Anna starts, but she gets talked over, like usual.

“I’m a career firefighter,” Dean says.

“How quaint,” Luc drawls.

Anna, in a surprisingly graceful move, scoops up the rest of a fine wine glass, the stem of which is broken in Michael’s hands, and hurls it towards Luc. He dodges, and Gabriel snickers, and it smashes against the window. Michael’s knuckles grow white.

“That’s enough,” Anna says, in the resounding silence which follows. “I’m showing Castiel and Dean to their rooms. Try not to burn the house down, would you.”

“It’s good to see you, Castiel,” Michael says, voice strained. His hand is bleeding and Castiel should help with that, but he doesn’t.

Castiel swallows, and feels the lightest touch of a warm hand on his shoulder. It’s Dean, fingers curling over the feathers. Castiel pulls from the warmth and the steadiness of Dean and stands up straighter. “No,” he says, “it’s really not.”

Outside the kitchen is dark. Everywhere is dark, without the lights on, with all the windows without shades that look out into the snowy night. Castiel stops, and breathes in deeply, and when Dean wraps an arm around him he selfishly leans into it.

“It will probably get worse,” Castiel says, voice low. “I’m sorry.”

Dean squeezes him tight and then lets go. “Dude, there’s no need to apologize. I’m happy to be here for you, not for them.”

Castiel cannot even begin to respond to this. He mumbles, “This way.”

They wander through the halls, each with their singular backpack. The place smells musty and old. There are rooms upon rooms that look unused – the grand piano, the billiards room, his mother’s study. There are closets and hidden doors that were once home to Luc and Gabriel’s worst inventions, and twisty hallways in which Castiel hid so that only Anna could find him. There are no pictures on the walls, not anymore, and the absence of the frames is apparent in the differing fadings of the paint. He expects his mother’s heels to echo down the halls, her blonde hair around every corner. When they find Castiel’s room, he nudges the door open with more confidence than he actually has.

“Wow,” Dean says, looking in at the blank walls and dusty, impersonal shelves. “This is like you six years ago.”

Castiel takes a deep breath and steps in. “Yes,” he says. “It is horrible.”

“Castiel,” Anna says quietly. She’s sitting on his bed in the dark, and she reaches over to turn the lamp on. “Dean, the room just across the hall has clean sheets for you.”

“Right. Thanks.” Dean’s fingers touch Castiel’s shoulder lightly. “You want me to stay, man?”

Castiel swallows. “No. Thank you, Dean.”

Dean hesitates before he leaves. Castiel loves him so much it hurts, loves him so much he thinks it should be incandescent and glowing, thinks Dean should know how good he is, how much Castiel doesn’t deserve him. But Dean just smiles, tired and worn-out. “Text me if you do.”

“Of course,” Castiel says, and watches him close the door behind him.

“He seems like a good,” Anna hesitates, “friend.”

“The best,” Castiel replies. He sits down.

Anna looks down at her hands, then reaches over and takes one of Castiel’s. She says, “My girlfriend is a tattoo artist.”

Castiel blinks. This is unpredicted, but not unexpected. “Is she any good?”

“I think so.”

Castiel’s no good at talking to people and he never has been, but he’s gotten better at it than when he was a depressed teenager locked in this giant house. He says, “The man who does mine hates me. He tells me that they’ll cost exorbitant amounts of money every time. Except that it’s his mother who runs the business, and she has a soft spot for Dean’s brother, so she gives me a discount.”

“That’s,” Anna searches for the right word, “interesting.”

“You can say it as it is,” Castiel replies dryly. “It’s bizarre.”

Anna laughs. She sits towards him, like she did when they were kids. There are certain things that Castiel knows you can never get back – childhood, he thinks, is one of them. The laughing ghosts of their younger selves that run through these halls are just that. Just ghosts. The flesh-and-blood sister that sits at his side is paler and wearier than the red-haired shadow with twin braids, but she is also more real.

He asks, “How have you been, Anna?”

She is quiet for a few long minutes. “Happy,” she finally settles on. It sounds rather like an admission of guilt, but Anna has never been very good at being guilty. That was left for people like Castiel.

Castiel breathes out. “Do you paint, still?”

“Yes, I’m actually working towards becoming a professor. In the same city where I live with my girlfriend.”

“Good,” Castiel says. “Good.”

“And you?”

“Good as well,” he says, because it’s true. “I have…found many friends, in the people at my station.”

“Oh?” Anna sounds surprised, which is fair. Castiel has never been very good, nor overly enthusiastic, at social interaction.

“Dean, for one, though he’s a firefighter. The chief on the fire side too, Bobby, and my chief, Ellen, have gotten to know me. I’ve trained a lot with Dean’s crew on the engine, which includes a man named Henricksen, and Ellen’s daughter, Jo, and Charlie, who has become a good friend. A fellow medic named Kevin. Balthazar, who drives the ambulance for me every Saturday and Thursday, and an AEMT named Hannah who often runs with us. There are…” He feels a smile quirk up at his lips, a genuine one. “We have volunteers, too, in the aide positions. The aides are supporting members of a crew, who scribe or do grunt work, and often will start in that position before moving up after passing EVOC or EMT class. There’s several, two of whom I am mentoring – a girl named Claire, who came over from the fire side at the behest of Dean, and a boy named Jack, who’s quite close to finishing his precepting hours and being released as a certified EMT.” He clears his throat, realizing he’s been rambling. “It’s a good community. It’s.” He stops. “It’s a good home.”

Anna exhales. “That’s great, Cas.”

They sit in the quiet. It’s less hostile, now, more familiar. Even eight years apart, and they still know each other, it seems. Something pounds past the door outside, and they ignore it. It grows darker, and Anna turns off the lamp.

“I don’t think I can forgive you for leaving, yet,” Anna says.

And Castiel replies, honestly: “I don’t think I’m sorry for leaving.” He’s sorry for other things. But not that.

“I know,” Anna says. “Tell me about your job. I don’t know that much about it.”

They talk for hours. Castiel doesn’t change into pajamas, but he pulls on his job sweatshirt, which says C. Novak, Paramedic, and at some point they lay back on the bed. Anna talks about hitchhiking across Europe and painting galaxies and mountains, and a thorny woman in a gas station who gave her orchids. Castiel tells her about the funniest calls he’s been on, and the strangest – the time when college kids linked hands and prayed as they wheeled the patient out, the time an aide lost control of the cot and ended up facedown in the mud and had to be transported too. Anna laughs over the story of Castiel and Dean getting lost in Wyoming on their way to California, and then she tells him about her girlfriend, Ruby, giving a man in a grocery store a black eye over a container of trail mix.

When he falls asleep, his head buried in Anna’s hair, the sadness that has rested in the crook of his spine for eight years feels, impossibly, less heavy.

 


 

He wakes up to Dean’s voice, low and rough. “Cas, dude. I don’t want to go into the kitchen alone.”

Anna mumbles, “Fuck off, fireboy.”

“Dean,” Castiel says sleepily, struggling to get his eyes open. He holds his watch up to his face and squints at the electronic display. “Dean, it’s nine am.”

“It’s a wonder you ever wake up when the tones drop,” Dean mutters. “I know it’s nine am, but I’m hungry and when I poked my head in the kitchen your brother was in a hoop skirt.”

Anna groans and burrows her head deeper into Castiel’s shoulder. “I thought he was joking.”

Castiel pats her head absently. He scuffles around for his phone and puts it in his pocket. Dean grabs his hand and pulls him to his feet. Castiel, selfishly, holds on for a moment, yawning and resting his weight on Dean’s solid frame. “Fine, let’s go.”

“You do that,” Anna says sleepily. “I’m going back to bed.”

Castiel and Dean walk down the hall, shoulders bumping.

“So I see you’re all morning people,” Dean says. “That seems like it went well, though.”

Castiel replies, “Yeah, I think it did.” Then what Dean said earlier registers with him, several minutes late. “Who’s in a skirt?”

Sure enough, Luc’s in the kitchen in a hoop skirt. It sounds like a game of Clue, only Castiel’s desperately hoping Luc isn’t feeling any murderous intent today. Michael’s not awake yet but Gabriel is, and he looks up halfway through using a syringe to insert what appears to be wine into the decaf k-cups.

“Gabriel,” Castiel says dangerously. “If you got that from my trauma bag – ”

Gabriel scoffs. “Relax, bro. I’m a doctor, I’m not that stupid.”

Dean chokes on an inhale. “You’re a doctor?”

Castiel, privately, agrees with this sentiment.

“I’m a lawyer,” Luc says around his own cup of coffee.

“Wow,” Dean replies. “That’s worse.”

“Well, you know, some of us had higher aspirations than a high school GED.”

Luc,” Castiel growls, but Dean shoulders him towards the fridge.

“Yup,” Dean says, and bares his teeth at Luc in a smile. “Some of us like saving lives rather than ruining them.”

I love you, Castiel doesn’t say to him. “I don’t think you’re getting any coffee,” he says instead.

Dean nods genially and starts rooting around in the fridge. Luc is watching the snow fall. Gabriel is still doing whatever it is that he’s doing, and Castiel levels an exhausted glare at him.

“Nice,” Gabriel says. “Emulating Michael there, are we.”

Castiel glares harder.

Gabriel shrugs unabashedly. “Don’t tell him and I won’t.”

“I have nothing to hide from him,” Castiel says, except his voice trails off.

Luc, from the table, snorts. Just like that, the half-maybe-teasing mood is gone.

Castiel turns towards Dean, because Dean is safe. He pads over to one of the cupboards and pulls out a bowl, starts cracking eggs into it. Dean whisks them and then turns on the stove, pouring the eggs into a frying pan. Castiel can feel Luc and Gabriel’s eyes on his back but he doesn’t turn; this is an easy dance, one Dean and Castiel have done dozens of times over the years while pulling twenty-four or thirty-six hour shifts, cooking for Dean’s crew on the engine and Castiel’s ragtag bunch off the ambulance.

“How do you guys not have any vegetables?” Dean asks Castiel in an undertone.

Castiel shrugs, still clinging to the last traces of sleep. “I don’t live here.”

“None of us live here,” Gabriel says, suddenly very close behind them. Neither Dean nor Castiel jump, but it’s a close call.

“Yeah,” Luc says. “The only person who did live here is now sitting in an urn on the fireplace.”

Gabriel glances up, eyes theatrically wide. “You don’t mean the purple vase, do you?”

“Yes,” Luc replies. “Why?”

Castiel puts his head in his hands. He doesn’t want to look at Gabriel.

“Kidding!” Luc says, and laughs, just on the edge of fake and too-shrill. “You should see your face, Cassie. She’s in the black urn, I’m pretty sure. I don’t really care.”

“Ok,” Dean announces, pulling Cas’s elbow towards the far end of the kitchen table, away from Luc. “Eggs. Cas, protein.”

“Yeah, Cas,” Gabriel mocks. “Eat your protein.”

Castiel has no clue how Gabriel manages to make even the most innocuous of things sound dirty; in any case he’s been doing it since he turned fourteen and, apparently, still is. But Castiel is also talented at ignoring his brothers and, apparently, still is, so he takes the eggs from Dean’s hand. They sit down next to each other, elbows bumping, and eat. Dean still smells like smoke, and Castiel unconsciously leans towards him. “You need to wash your jacket.”

He can hear Dean’s answering smile. “Whatever you say, angel.”

Castiel gives him a more affectionate glare than the one he had awarded Gabriel. “Have you washed it since that hazmat call?”

Dean snorts. “You think Bobby would let me get away with that?”

“Bobby,” Castiel says, “lets you get away with far too much.”

“I am not the one who broke the drug box in Bravo.”

Castiel splutters. “How did you – I did not.”

“Don’t blame it on Banes,” Dean says, and smirks, which serves the purpose of completely disorienting Castiel. “I heard all about it, dude.”

“Traitors,” Castiel mutters. “Damn firefighters.”

Luc leans in, effectively breaking their comfortable bubble. “Are you paying him?” He asks. It’s directed at Castiel. “Have you paid him for this?”

“Buddy,” Dean says, in his I’m-this-close-to-punching-you voice, which tends to herald bad things in Castiel’s experience.

“He doesn’t get paid enough,” Gabriel says, joining them at the table.

Luc nods sagely. This isn’t easy to pull off when wearing a hoop skirt, but Luc’s always been good about defying expectations. “Surprising, that. You were the smart one, Cassie. What made you decide to skip college and go straight to living in the dirt?”

Of course, Michael chooses this moment to enter the kitchen, looking slightly less formal than the night before but no less strained. It seems, however, that a night’s sleep has rejuvenated him, and he announces, “Good morning.”

Nobody answers. They all watch as Michael makes coffee. He’s whistling, even. Castiel wonders how long his good mood is going to last, and then resolves it’ll probably be up until he takes the first sip of the aforementioned coffee.

“When are we burying mother?” Castiel asks. Underneath the table, Dean’s hand finds Castiel’s, picking at his wrist, and squeezes tight before letting go.

“Tomorrow,” Michael says. “We’ll do it tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Gabriel asks. “What are we going to do for the rest of the week? ‘Cause if we’re burying darling old mom tomorrow, I’m leaving.”

“We need to clean out the house,” Michael says, in a tone that brooks no argument but which Gabriel or Luc will certainly find issue with anyway.

Luc puts his feet up on the table. “I say we burn the whole place to the ground.”

“It would probably be bad for our careers to get arrested for arson,” Gabriel says, the same way one says, it would probably be bad to spray that beehive with a hose.

“Not if we don’t get caught,” Luc replies, which is probably his motto for life.

Michael closes his eyes like he’s praying. He might be. He is, it seems, the only one who has retained any semblance of connection to the religion their mother had instilled in them from an early age, which doesn’t surprise Castiel in any way; required childhood dedication to a God that was just as uncaring as one’s own parent tended to spawn a very distant relationship with both, he had found.

“I’m going to go get some work done,” Dean says to Castiel. He nudges him with his shoulder: asking you good with that little furrow between his eyes.

“Ok,” Castiel replies quietly, and nods. Dean smiles softly at him, and Castiel smiles back, and then Dean makes his escape. Castiel stares after him, and then startles when Gabriel and Luc snicker.

“Very mature,” Michael tells them.

“I am,” Luc agrees. “After all, I’m the one who’s sober right now. Are we driving you to drink, brother dearest?”

Michael frowns. “Luc, this is coffee.”

“Are you sure?” Gabriel asks, trying for innocent and missing by a few miles.

Castiel’s phone dings, and he takes advantage of this to take his plate to the kitchen counter. None of his three brothers notice; they’re too busy arguing with each other, just like always. Castiel yanks on his boots and slips out the door, onto the deck covered in snow, and then takes the stairs down to the backyard. There’s not much to it, with the house sitting right on the shore. They own the woods around the house, but the stairs drop down almost directly onto the rocky beach and the edges of the slate-colored lake. The whole world is white, the clouds still grey and heavy. Castiel takes a breath of the cold air and then opens his phone, actually reading the text messages rather than scrolling past them.

From Hannah: I hope you’re doing well, Castiel. Always here to talk if needed.

From Balthazar: hope its not going too horribly were sorely missing your firefighters cooking here

From Balthazar: and you ofc

From Ellen: Sending lots of love hon

From Charlie: tell dean hes a bitch he left a sandwich in my bunk before he left

From Charlie: also internet hugs <3

From Jack: Lmk when youve got a minuet to call!!! want to talk thru a call I had the other day!!

From Claire: go get em cowboy

Castiel smiles.

To Claire: I am at my mother’s funeral.

She responds almost immediately.

From Claire: loverboys with u tho

From Claire: he didnt even hesitate

To Claire: We’ll see how he feels after this trip is up.

To Claire: My brothers have already insinuated he’s a prostitute and made fun of both of our careers.

From Claire: well no offense ur familys pretty fucked up

From Claire: but also probably wont scare him away at this point

To Claire: Ha.

Castiel shakes his head.

To Jack: Now works.

His phone rings almost immediately, and Castiel smiles a little wider, hearing the voice on the other end.

“Castiel!” Jack Kline exclaims. “How are you?”

“Hello, Jack,” Castiel says. “It’s cold up here, but I am well. How are you?”

“I’m good,” Jack replies, then launches into an explanation. “So it went out as a fall injury – ”

“Were you precepting?” Castiel asks.

“Yeah, under Rufus.”

“So you were up as a medic unit.”

“Yeah, we had Cesar driving. But Rufus said he’d let me take charge, since we thought it’d be a BLS call, and…”

Castiel sits back and lets Jack’s words flow over him; relaxes back into the feeling of being good at something, of being able to help people. They talk over the call for a few minutes, and Castiel smiles – he’s mentored people through their precepting before (the process by which an EMT or higher works through calls and training in order to be released and allowed in charge of a crew) but Jack has grown on him. Castiel enjoys the boy, no matter his bluntness and occasional naivete, and is happy that he’s doing so well. Soon, though, he hears a door opening, and when he glances back he catches a glimpse of dark hair.

“So Jody actually had Claire work with raising the stretcher by way of the tower – extracting the person.”

Castiel makes a noise of acknowledgment and hears the crunching of snow behind him; he holds a hand up to Michael in the universal wait symbol. “Who were you training with?”

“Donna was there. She was working with Kevin and I.”

"Donna has some good experience in that area – she did wilderness search and rescue, too.”

“Yeah!” Jack says enthusiastically. “It was really interesting.”

“Good, I’m glad,” Castiel says. “I apologize, Jack, but I’ve got to go now.”

“Of course,” Jack responds. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to talk for so long.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Castiel says. “I’m always happy to listen.”

“Thanks, Castiel.” He can hear Jack’s grin. “I’ll talk to you soon!”

When Castiel hangs up, he’s still smiling. Michael is watching him, face inscrutable. It was always like that when they were younger – Luc and Gabriel were complimented (and then abhorred) for their troublemaking similarities and tendency to get mistaken for one another. Michael and Castiel, on the other hand, were cut from the same cloth. They were strict and reserved, quiet and intelligent. The thing that differentiated them was the six year age-gap and the responsibility Michael had always felt towards his younger siblings; Castiel had only ever been responsible for Anna, and in the end he’d left her, too.

He’s like a robot, Dean had once complained of Castiel, before they’d gotten to know each other. Dean was right. Castiel had gotten better at feeling things, at relating to others, since his job demanded it. Michael, it seems, never did.

“I don’t disapprove of your boyfriend,” Michael starts. “I promise, Castiel.”

Oh, no, Castiel thinks. Aloud, he says, “He’s not my boyfriend.”

Michael waves a hand as if to say, semantics. “In any case, I don’t care how you choose to live your life.”

Castiel wonders distantly if Michael has some sort of pseudo-father mind reading, or if the younger four Novaks all just flag something in their eldest brother’s mind that screams queer.

“But,” Michael says carefully, “I am sure there is – ”

He seems to be at a loss for words. Castiel braces himself for whatever’s coming next.

“You were a really bright kid, Castiel. If there’s someplace your skills might be better appreciated, I work at a very good hospital as a surgeon, and should you be in need of some financial assistance…”

Castiel stares at him.

“I’m sure it would be a relief to have a more stable income,” Michael continues. “And I could certainly pull some strings – ”

The trouble with Michael is that he tries to preemptively head off problems that he doesn’t realize he started. Castiel brushes the words on his wrist. “Please shut up.”

Michael stops, which is at least an improvement from the last argument they had. That was eight years ago, though, and Castiel doesn’t really know his older brother now. Neither, Castiel reminds himself, does Michael know him.

“Castiel,” Michael says. It’s not pleading, because Michael doesn’t plead.

“Thank you,” Castiel replies, stiffly, and then he turns on his heel and walks back to the house.

Gabriel snickers when Castiel returns inside. “Did he want to have the conversation about your lifestyle choices?”

Castiel ignores him.

Dean looks up when Castiel barges into his room. Anna’s sitting on the desk – their mother must have been using it as a study, at some point – and frowns, watching Castiel’s face. “Did he ask you if you wanted money?” She says. “He did that to me, too.”

Castiel collapses onto the bed next to Dean. “It’s only ten-thirty,” Castiel says mournfully.

Dean pats his head, and then runs his fingers through Castiel’s hair lightly. Castiel closes his eyes and breathes.

Anna coughs. “So, you two want to drive into town and grab brunch at the diner?”

Castiel opens his eyes and finds his little sister grinning at him, in the way that she used to. He narrows his eyes at her, but he can’t bear to make it mean. “We already had breakfast.”

“You did,” Anna points out. “But I haven’t. I don’t want to go near the kitchen. Besides, if we’re gone a few hours, we get to avoid ground zero for a few hours.”

Dean puts his hand on Castiel’s neck, and Castiel blinks a few times. “She’s got a good point,” Dean says.

“You just want more food,” Castiel accuses.

Dean offers him a broad smile. “Guilty as charged.”

“Great!” Anna exclaims. “Let me get changed.”

“You should do that, too,” Dean says as Anna darts out the door. “You slept in those clothes.”

“If you don’t want to go, it’s alright,” Castiel tells him, more concerned with that than with the state of his attire.

“Nah,” Dean says easily, waving a hand. “She seems cool. I understand why you were such a weird dude when I met you, though – you’re all weird.” Then he smirks. “Anna has some good stories from when you were little.”

Castiel realizes, with dawning horror, exactly why Dean is so eager to get lunch with his younger sister. “Oh, no,” he says.

Dean laughs, distracting Castiel enough to push him out of the room. “Change, Cas.”

Castiel has only managed to bring one set of formal clothes, so he pulls on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt that may or not may be Dean’s, and then yanks back on his job sweatshirt. Outside his room, Anna’s laughing with Dean, and she gives him a slightly surprised look when he reappears.

“What?” Castiel asks.

Anna half-smiles. “You look relaxed.”

“Oh, man,” Dean says, as they start walking back towards the front door. “When I first met him, he only ever wore his uniform, or slacks and a button-down. It was crazy. He always looked so formal, and you used to be – remember that trench coat? You were so attached to that thing.”

Castiel rolls his eyes. “I still have it,” he says. “I just don’t get an opportunity to wear it much.”

Dean bumps him with his shoulder. “Nah,” he says. “I like you better like this.”

Anna’s grinning at Castiel, he can feel it. “So how’d you meet, again?” Anna asks, after the beat of silence.

“Oh, no,” Castiel says.

“Well,” Dean starts, “that’s an interesting story.”

They leave through the front door, and Anna says, “Let’s take my truck. We didn’t get too much snow, but I don’t know what the roads are like.”

Dean continues talking, though he shoots a mournful look at his baby which makes Castiel’s mouth quirk into a smile he shouldn’t allow it to. “Alright, so back when we were both young and dumb – young and dumber, I’d met this absolute dick of an EMT on a car accident. I didn’t think I’d see him again, but then one morning I walked into the kitchen to find this guy who couldn’t be that much older than me, with the worst bedhead I’ve seen in my life, and I go, holy shit! You’re the asshole! And he doesn’t even react, just grumbles at me with the lowest voice I’d ever heard outside of a sixty-year-old smoker to, and I quote, ‘help me get this damn coffee machine to start’. And you know what the issue was? It wasn’t plugged in.”

Anna pulls out of their icy-slick driveway and out onto the road, freshly salted. Cas lets Dean’s words wash over them, and Anna’s laughter too, and tilts his head against the windowsill, watching the road go by. The trees shine a little bit under the sky, still cold enough that the pines are sheathed in fresh-fallen snow and ice. Superior isn’t frozen though it may be soon, and the glimpses of it through the trees reveal iron-grey water and, on the edge of the horizon, the enormous freighters that cruise the lake.

The town of Gull Harbor isn’t too far away. It’s tiny and old and more run-down than Castiel remembers; the town thrives mostly off tourist season and was always quieter in the winter. When they park in front of the Inn and get out, Castiel glances up at the sky, and the small flakes beginning to fall again. For a moment, he remembers the winters spent here, and the summers too: biking down dirt streets with Anna when they could escape the house, getting pushed off the dock and into the freezing water by Gabriel, getting ice cream with Luc and Michael and –

“Are you coming?” Anna calls.

“Yeah,” Castiel says, and follows her inside.

They’re taken to a booth by a woman that Castiel vaguely remembers might have been in Anna’s graduating class. Castiel looks around at the Inn – the elderly in flannels drinking their coffee, the log cabin style, the pictures on the walls that are unchanged from the last time Castiel was here, so many years ago. Even the menu is the same, and Castiel orders the same thing.

“Does Joshua still run the place?” Castiel asks Anna.

“I think so,” Anna says. Her face twitches. “Let’s hope we don’t see him.”

Dean raises an eyebrow.

Anna giggles. “Oh, that is a good story.”

Castiel puts his head in his hands.

Dean leans forward on his arms. “Do tell.”

They eat slowly and talk until noon, Anna and Dean swapping stories and subtly interrogating each other. Castiel watches them, trying to contain the fond smile that keeps threatening to break free.  Interspersed throughout are reminders of Naomi, but in the warmth of the Inn, the quiet lull of conversation around them and the freckles on Dean’s cheeks, it’s easy to keep those memories away. When Dean stands up to find the restroom and get the check, Castiel glances up from his phone to catch Anna contemplating him.

“What,” he asks. “Do I have something on my face?”

Anna arches an eyebrow. “Am I not allowed to look at my older brother who I haven’t seen in eight years?”

Castiel glances back down. He frowns.

“No, it’s just.” Anna gestures in the direction of the rest of the restaurant, but ostensibly Dean. “Sometimes I just think about that. You’ve lived a whole life without me. We wasted all that time.”

Castiel says, “Let’s not do that again.”

Anna doesn’t respond for a minute, and then, “Ok.”

Castiel is a little stunned by this easy acceptance. “You forgave me quickly.”

“I wouldn’t call it forgiveness, not yet,” Anna says. “But we were all at fault, Cas, and I love you too much to lose you again.”

Castiel pulls her around the curved booth and into his side for a quick half-hug. “I love you too, Anna.”

They sit like that until they can see Dean returning, and then they stand up and pull back on their coats.

“Ready to see if anything’s exploded?” Cas asks dryly. He goes to get his credit card out, but Dean shakes his head.

“I already paid,” Dean says. “You guys are letting me stay in your house, it’s the least I can do.”

“Dean Winchester,” Anna tells him seriously. “You are far too good for my brother.”

Dean laughs, softening the lines of his face and leaving Castiel briefly spellbound. “Nah,” Dean says. “What’s this about explosions?”

They walk outside, waving goodbye to an old lady who recognized them and the waitress at the door. Lights are illuminating the houses and small businesses that make up the town, and it’s begun to snow even harder, huge flakes falling from the swollen sky.

“One year Gabriel made a potato gun in school,” Anna says. “Luc stole it and started launching Michael’s shoes into the lake.”

Castiel shakes his head, opening the passenger-side door. “That was the year that Luc and Gabriel teamed up against Michael for a ‘prank war’.”

“That was,” Anna says, “a horrible year.”

Castiel glances at Dean, sitting forward with his elbows on his knees in the back. “At Halloween, they – we all carved pumpkins. It was Michael’s idea. And the next day we found Gabriel dropping them off the deck and Luc blowing them up with a shotgun, in their nicest clothes. The neighbors almost called the police on us.”

“There was pumpkin goo everywhere. Raph – ” Anna trips over the words, “Michael was so mad. He made all of us help clean it up before mother got home.”

Castiel rubs his wrist as Anna goes silent. The snow is getting thicker, and Castiel finally says, “We will need to shovel later.”

The house they return to is hushed and dead. The three of them walk warily to the kitchen, where they find Gabriel sitting at the island, working away on a laptop. There are fresh-baked cookies cooling on the counter, and Gabriel looks up when they enter, nodding and then returning to his typing.

“Are those safe to eat?” Anna asks carefully, glancing at the cookies.

 Gabriel snorts. “I’m almost thirty one, Anna-banana. I don’t have time to put chili powder in every batch of cookies that I make.”

“Forgive me if I don’t trust you,” Anna replies.

“You never did in the first place,” Gabriel says tiredly, which means Castiel gets to watch as Anna’s face freezes. Castiel sighs.

Dean looks supremely uncomfortable, so he does what he always does, which is to stick food in his mouth. He says, around a mouthful of cookie, “This is really good.”

“Charming,” Gabriel says. “I see manners were something else you didn’t learn before dropping out of college.”

“Gabriel,” Anna snaps.

Dean takes a deep breath, and Castiel loves him so much it hurts. “I’m pretty damn happy with my life,” Dean says. “Are you?”

The silence gets awkward enough that Anna gives Castiel an indeterminable face and disappears. Dean sits down with Castiel at the table in front of the windows and tells him about something-or-other training that Charlie did, which Bobby wants Dean to organize.

“If you’re not careful,” Castiel says quietly, “you’re going to end up as chief after Bobby’s done.”

Dean fidgets with his hands. “We’ll see.”

“You’d be good at it,” Castiel tells him, because it’s true.

Gabriel makes a noise from the counter. “Go be disgustingly in love somewhere else.”

Dean’s goes kind of blank, and he scowls; Castiel flinches, and glances down at his wrists. Dean says, “I think Sam wanted to call sometime today, so I’m going to go do that.”

“Yeah,” Castiel says. “Tell Sam I say hi.”

Dean offers him a slightly more strained smile. “I will.”

Gabriel snickers when Dean’s gone, and though it’s kind of hollow and sad-sounding Castiel can tell it’s supposed to make him angry.

“Did you have to do that,” Castiel asks.

Gabriel turns in his chair and raises an eyebrow at him. His outfit today is far less dramatic than yesterday’s, just scrubs with rainbow smiley-faces and a shirt that says Kiss me, I’m Irish, even though Gabriel’s not Irish. Castiel realizes, kind of exhaustedly, that it’s not just Anna and him who’ve lived whole lives without each other.

“The puppy-dog eyes were getting embarrassing,” Gabriel says.

“He doesn’t feel that way about me,” Castiel replies, just like always.

Gabriel scoffs.

“Can’t you just – leave it alone? Is that so hard?”

“Right, sorry,” Gabriel says. “Cause it doesn’t matter. She’s dead, mom’s dead, whatever, but you ran away, so it’s not your problem, right?”

“Gabriel – ”

“You’re in love – ”

“And apparently you haven’t matured past high school – ”

“You get to be happy, with your life and your job and your boyfriend – ”

Castiel stands up. Castiel doesn’t throw things, not like Gabriel or Luc or Anna, because Castiel’s too much like Michael and too much like their mother and too much like her, the ghost that hangs over all their heads and the reason none of them are crying over their mother’s timely demise. But Castiel’s taller than Gabriel, and he’s angry, and he just sort of looms over his brother and tries to pretend the both of them aren’t a couple steps away from jumping off the metaphorical water tower. Then he says, “I’m going to go shovel.”

“You do that,” Gabriel tells him bitterly.

Castiel’s dramatic exit is ruined by the fact that somebody put an egg in the pair of old snow boots he puts on, which is annoying, immature, and vaguely terrifying in that Castiel still doesn’t know where Luc is or how long the egg has been there. He sends off a quick text to Dean (I’m so sorry for them) and then starts shoveling, and wonders why he ever thought this was a good idea. Not just the bringing Dean (though that too, since his siblings have never had any issue spotting his crushes, not since Daphne in ninth grade) but also the returning. He doesn’t know if they’re capable of fixing what’s broken between them all. He stares around at the yard and watches the ghosts of the past run around, back when arguments weren’t fraught with tension and pranks weren’t too full of ill-intent and when they all thought of their mother as – not a good mother, but a mother. Now she’s neither.

The precipitation sticks in Castiel’s lashes when he blinks. He’s not sure how long he spends moving snow, but he hears the door open behind him and doesn’t turn when ice crunches under boots.

“Hey, Cas,” Dean says quietly. “Sam says hello.”

“Yes,” Castiel says. He turns to Dean, who’s wearing his fluorescent flash gear. Sioux Falls Fire. He’s bright, in the greyness and the snow. He’s beautiful.

“I don’t want to push,” Dean finally says. “But.”

“You can ask,” Castiel makes himself reply. “You deserve that.”

“Then, uh, this is me asking,” Dean says hesitantly. Dean has never been hesitant in his life.

Castiel has heard the adage ‘just rip the bandage off’. Rip it off quick, and the hurt is also over quick. But what about when it’s medical tape, when you just keep having to pull it off, when it rips and tears and yanks as you try. He says, “We had another sister.”

“Had,” Dean echoes.

“Her name was Raphael,” Castiel tells him. “She was in between the twins and Gabriel. She was good at keeping the peace between us all, she was very good at it in a way that Michael isn’t, not now. Mother liked her best, probably, because she – we thought she was perfect. She did very well in high school, just like Michael, and I’m sure that was part of what made Luc act out – he didn’t ‘slack off’ but it looked to our mother like he did when compared to them – and,” Castiel realizes he’s babbling, but he can’t stop, “she was serious but she had this quiet kind of laugh, and our house used to be so different, Dean, it didn’t used to be sad and echoing like this. Michael smiled so much around her, and mother was often away on business trips so Luc and Gabriel were always pulling jokes or blowing things up but Raphael could get us to stop fighting and clean up before mother got home.”

“Cas,” Dean says roughly, stepping closer. Of course Dean knows where this is going, Dean has gone through the same training Castiel has, Dean knows how this kind of story ends.

“When I was sixteen,” Castiel says, “she killed herself.”

He doesn’t say, it was my fault. He doesn’t say, our mother took all the pictures off the wall and refused to talk about her, our mother made sure that all of us knew we had to be better than that. He doesn’t say, Michael stopped smiling and Luc was always drunk and Gabriel picked fights so the twins wouldn’t fight with each other and when Anna drew it was dark, and I couldn’t stop dreaming or remembering it. He doesn’t say, I’m the medic who gets added onto all the suicides because I know how to keep calm, because nothing will be worse than finding my own sister and at least on calls like those I can help people like I couldn’t help her.

He doesn’t say, they all knew it was my fault so of course they wanted me to leave, of course I had to leave.

“I’m sorry,” Castiel tells Dean dully. “I shouldn’t have asked you to come.”

Dean steps forward and pulls him into a tight hug. “I wanted to,” Dean finally says into Castiel’s hat. “I wanted to, Cas. I’ll always be here for you.”

Castiel buries his head in Dean’s cold neck, against the warmth and the smell of smoke and Old Spice. He doesn’t care that he’s in love with Dean, because Dean is his best friend and his family and even if he doesn’t love him back like that, he loves him. And Castiel thinks that sometimes, that’s all he needs.

They spend the rest of the evening in Castiel’s room. They listen to Dean’s music, and Castiel goes through some of the ALS refresher material that’s been sent out to the medics in their county, and Dean does his online bloodborne pathogens training that he’s been putting off since September. Anna drifts in at one point, shoving portfolio sketches under their faces and holding a one-sided argument with her girlfriend over the phone.

“She sounds like a bitch,” Dean whispers to Castiel.

Anna, of course, hears this. “She is a bitch. Castiel’s also a bitch. It’s why we love them.”

Dean goes inexplicably red and Castiel decides it’s high time to take a break from studying. Around seven he slips down darkened hallways to the kitchen, glancing out the windows to see snow still falling. The only one in the kitchen is Michael, who’s filling out papers at the table. Castiel doesn’t look at his older brother, just quickly and efficiently starts making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Dean and him, and then one for Anna too even though he’s not sure if she still likes them.

Castiel stiffens when he feels Michael’s eyes on him. “Yes?”

“I didn’t – mean any offense, with what I said earlier.” Michael sounds stiff and formal. “I just want to be able to help, Castiel.”

“I don’t need help,” Castiel says, because he’s not the eighteen-year-old kid who left home and didn’t look back, because he’s an adult and he has a life.

Michael seems to come to this conclusion at the same time and his stern face looks, all of a sudden, horrifically sad. Castiel doesn’t have the energy to handle that, so he turns around with the sandwiches and flees.

 


 

Wednesday morning dawns cold and windy on a classic Novak holiday, which means Castiel walks into the kitchen around eleven to find Gabriel doing shots and Luc and Anna shouting at each other. Nobody looks like they’ve slept.

“I’m not doing heroin.” Luc’s eyes are a little wild, and the white suit he wears is pristine but almost certainly a giant middle-finger to their mother’s memory.

“You’re still drunk! Is this what she’d have wanted for us?” Anna snaps. Her fiery hair is pulled back tightly and she’s wearing a black dress that washes out her face. She looks as un-Anna-like as possible. “For you?”

“Who the fuck knows what she’d want?” Luc yells back. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”

All of a sudden, Castiel realizes they’re not talking about their mother.

“Want one?” Gabriel asks, while in the background Anna picks up a knife.

“I don’t drink,” Castiel tells him.

“You should. Probably make you more fun to be around.”

Castiel has seen far too many car wrecks to think that this is in any way true, unless the fun involves broken limbs and traumatic brain injuries – which, knowing Gabriel, it might. (Certainly one Easter it had, though at that point the smuggled alcohol had not been the reason so much as the catalyst.)

“Oh,” Gabriel says mockingly. “Here comes the general.”

Michael sweeps into the room with all the determination and control of a train derailing into a river. Dean enters the room behind Michael looking vaguely terrified. When Castiel asks what’s wrong, Dean just shakes his head.

“You don’t have to come,” Castiel tells him. “It may be ugly.”

Dean gives him a look. “Uglier than it’s already been?”

“Yeah,” Castiel says honestly.

“I can deal with it.” Dean shrugs and tugs at the cuffs of his shirt, then offers Castiel a sad sort of smile. “Just for you, Cas.”

The following hour is more or less a shitshow. Michael herds them all outside, Luc and Anna glaring at each other, Gabriel laughing to himself, Castiel following them all miserably with Dean behind him. They trudge through the snow out to a glen in the woods, the semi-rocky cliffs that far below the lake smashes against, where one summer they had gathered to bury their sister. Then, there had been a crowd and people weeping and a priest saying a blessing. Now it’s just the six of them, dry-eyed and choking on the anger rotting in all their stomachs while Michael says a short prayer.

“Good riddance, mother,” Luc says. “You were the worst.”

This may be, Castiel realizes, the first thing the five Novak siblings have agreed upon in at least a decade.

“What’re we going to do with that?” Anna asks bitterly, looking at the urn in Michael’s hands. She’s shivering, so Castiel pulls her closer. At his back, Dean is a silent and reassuring warmth.

Nobody answers. It feels very wrong to put their mother in the ground next to Raphael, and in any case the ground is too frozen to dig.

“Throw it in the lake,” Gabriel says quietly.

“What,” Michael starts, turning, but Gabriel moves.

“Just throw it in the fucking lake,” Gabriel says, and yanks the urn out of Michael’s hands with enough effort to wind up and hurl it off the edge. The wind’s picked up and the waves wash against the rocks like a giant bathtub – indeed, Castiel knows, there’s a place far north of here called the Devil’s Washtub for just that reason. There’s a breaking sound and then a splash from below.

Gabriel laughs.

“Good riddance,” Luc says again.

It is, without a doubt, the worst funeral Castiel has ever attended.

 


 

The rest of the day goes by Castiel faster than he thinks it should; he’s stuck in a bubble, the quiet something all of them are unwilling to break. The Novak siblings stay mostly in the kitchen, and if Castiel didn’t know better he’d say they don’t want to be alone – but he does know them, and he’s fairly certain it just means that they’re all stuck in each other’s orbits like colliding stars. Dean, who is possibly the best person Castiel has ever known, makes Castiel grilled peanut butter and jelly for lunch because he knows it makes the both of them feel less alone. Then he makes one for Anna because she can do a very good impression of a sad bird, and then he makes ones for Gabriel and Luc because spite is a hell of a motivator.

Michael doesn’t get one. Michael is nowhere to be found until around four, at which point he appears at the doorway and gestures for Anna. In return, Anna yanks Castiel along with her. Castiel glances back over his shoulder helplessly at Dean, who gives him a small smile even as Luc says something sharp.

“What do you need, Michael,” Anna asks.

He doesn’t answer, but she and Castiel follow him anyway, like they’re twelve again. That’s the worst part of this, Castiel thinks. It’s all the things he’d buried coming back. It’s all the ghosts he’d thought were gone that are still here. It’s that the word ‘haunt’ comes from an Old English word that means ‘to come home’. It’s that Castiel knows grief, has seen it intimately in its iterations, but that it still hurts worst when it’s your own home trying to crush you.

“I’ve been boxing up the older rooms,” Michael says. “Since no one will live here anymore. I got Luc to help me a little yesterday, but.”

“What?” Castiel asks, after a minute.

“I found the pictures,” Michael says. “I found all the pictures mother took off the walls.”

Their mother’s study is empty and bare, the shelves stripped of books. It’s nowhere near as impersonal and sad as the dusty boxes Michael has unearthed filled with frames. The three of them stand around them for a minute, and then Anna sits down and pulls a box towards her, hands shaking a little.

“Why aren’t Gabriel and Luc here?” Castiel asks. “Just because you’re angry with them doesn’t mean they don’t deserve this, too.”

Michael stares at Castiel. Castiel stares back and wraps his hands together, stopping them from rubbing at the words on his wrist. He doesn’t know when the last time he stood up to Michael was. He doesn’t know why he’s doing it for Gabriel and Luc. Probably, because it’s her. Because Castiel owes them that much.

“Cas,” Anna says, in her quiet and most sincere way.

When he crouches down beside his little sister, she pops a frame and slides the photo out – the colors still have that strange half-faded quality that pictures from the mid-2000s do. Castiel can remember the day, remember weird Father Chuck taking the picture. Anna’s got her hair in twin braids and a smile stained blue by a popsicle. Castiel wraps his arm around her while subtly curving away from Gabriel, who’s smirking with his hands full of dripping ice cream. Luc’s next to Gabriel, the both of them golden-haired and sunny-smiled, Luc tall and gangly and Gabriel short. Michael’s tall too, but tall like an athlete, smiling wide and unabashed like he never does now, pulling a grinning, dark-haired girl into his side, willowy and bold in the sort of way that Anna has grown to be.

“What do you think it would have been like?” Anna asks. “Cas?”

“I need some air,” Castiel says, dumping the frame off his lap and standing.  

Neither Anna nor Michael follow him.

He’s too big to fit in the crawlspace on the first floor anymore, so he ends up on the balcony off the northwest guest bedroom on the second floor. It’s dim and dark, the world outside grey and windy. He opens the doors and slides down until he’s seated, back resting against the frame, looking out over the lake. He distantly wonders how cold it is – it can’t be below zero, but it’s definitely in the twenties, what with how ice is creeping over everything and a wall of fog is beginning to roll in, obliterating the sunset and prompting the low blows of the foghorns. He doesn’t know how long he sits there, watching the sky grow an apocalyptic combination of orange and purple and charcoal.

The door opens to the bedroom. Gabriel calls, “That firefighter of yours is so much better than you deserve.”

Castiel doesn’t answer. He already knows this.

Gabriel sits down across from him. “Would you stop moping?” Gabriel asks. “I came to apologize.”

“Really,” Castiel says.

“I know, surprised me too.” Gabriel huffs. Then, “I’m sorry for what Luc and I have been saying.”

“Are you.”

“Yes,” Gabriel replies. “I’ve worked in an ER, Cassie, I know how important what you do is.”

Castiel narrows his eyes at his older brother, who looks shockingly contrite; then he recognizes the particular brand of self-righteousness which Winchesters somehow manage to inspire in others. He asks, “What did Dean do?”

Gabriel makes a face. “Gave one hell of a speech.”

Castiel frowns. “What did he say?”

“Well, we were, ah,” Gabriel says. “How do I phrase this. We were riling each other up a bit, Luc and I. It’s been a pretty shitty day.”

Castiel waves a hand exhaustedly. “I don’t really care anymore.”

Gabriel shrugs. “He called us spineless. I believe he also said that we were elitist assholes, and that you deserved better than us.”

Castiel sighs. “I’m sorry,” he starts.

Gabriel holds up a hand. “No, little bro,” he says. “Your boyfriend was right. We shouldn’t have been saying crap about what you do. He spouted some big talk about you saving lives, and he was right about that too. You’ve grown up, Cassie. You’ve grown up good.”

Castiel doesn’t know what to say to this stunning display of maturity from his infamously immature older brother. Finally he just goes, “Best friend. Not my boyfriend.”

Gabriel snorts. “If I had a best friend like that, I’d marry him.” Then he hesitates. “I’m sorry. For the other thing I said. You deserve to be happy, of course you do.”

Castiel stares at him.

Gabriel, slowly and carefully, scoots over and wraps an arm around him. It’s uncomfortable, and awkward, and Castiel can’t remember the last time they hugged each other – can’t remember if it was before or after Raphael. Castiel turns his head towards his older brother, who’s looking out across the water. There’s a lighthouse in Gull Harbor, but it’s not lit anymore. In the summers, Gabriel would run up the stairs, climb through the barriers and sit at the very top. Once he’d told Castiel it was because he wished he could fly.

“Are you?” Castiel asks.

“Am I what?”

“Happy.”

“Sure,” Gabriel says. Then, more honestly, “Sometimes.”

Castiel thinks about Gabriel, eight years older and eight years wearier. He’s Gabriel who once put a pig bladder filled with blood in the backpack of the first girl Castiel had a crush on, but he’s also Gabriel who taught him how to ride a bike. He’s Gabriel, and he’s a person Castiel knows and doesn’t know. The Novak siblings have always loved each other, even when they hated each other. Love and hate aren’t opposites, really – they’re right next to each other. When you feel one so strongly, it amplifies the other just as much.

“I’m a pediatric physician,” Gabriel says suddenly. “So I get it. Really. We shouldn’t have been saying that, even if we were just trying to get a rise out of you.”

“Oh,” Castiel responds, understanding. “He told the tree story.”

Gabriel clears his throat awkwardly. “Yes.”

It had been an angry father, and a little girl in the passenger seat. They’d gone off the road at just the right angle, wood and metal through flesh. Castiel’s unit had been the first on-scene, and Dean’s the next. The firefighters had to cut her out of the car. There’d been so much blood. Castiel had known, maybe, that she wasn’t going to make it, but his job wasn’t to say that – his job was to do everything in his scope of practice to give her a fighting chance. In the end, it hadn’t been enough. Dean had gone with him to the funeral, and Castiel remembered the father, injury-free, staring heartbroken as they lowered the casket into the ground.

“Is that what this is for?” Gabriel asks, tapping Castiel’s wrist. “Hold on, I took Latin. As we live…we live.”

“While we live,” Castiel corrects, “let us live.” Then, “No, I got this after I – left.”

“After you ran away,” Gabriel says.

Castiel doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t have enough emotion or energy left to. He says, “You all wanted me to. I understood.”

Gabriel gives him a weird look. “You thought we wanted you gone?”

Castiel scoffs. “Even mother wanted me gone.”

“Well,” Gabriel says. “That might be true. But c’mon, Cassie, us?” He pauses. “I mean, ok I get it, I ran away too for a while. Couldn’t stand all the shouting. The fucking empty space where,” he takes a deep breath, “she used to be. Anna went to college, and Luc and Michael just kept yelling, so I ran. Got a tramp stamp in Vegas. Don’t remember a lot of Vegas. Almost married a girl in Louisiana. But – Raphael always told me she thought I’d be good at it, at working with kids, and maybe it was what mother would have wanted but it is also what I wanted. You know what I mean. I wanted to help people. Since I – couldn’t. With Raphael.”

Castiel nods. He does know what Gabriel means.

“Well, the girl ended up being a doctor and we interned together, and we’re friends now mostly ‘cause she psychoanalyzes the shit out of me and I thank her for it. Kali’s kind of terrifying.” He laughs. “She’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Castiel thinks about Dean.

“She told me I was running because I was scared of what I’d find when I came home. She was right, it just took me a couple years and several porn-sponsored breakdowns to accept that.”

Castiel really doesn’t want to know what that means.

“And here I am,” Gabriel says.

Castiel turns his head back to the dark sky. “Not much to come home to.”  

“Well,” Gabriel says. “You’re here. I never thought I’d see you again.” He says, “I wanted to. I wanted to see you again, Cassie.”

“That’s definitely how it’s felt the past few days,” Castiel tells him, only slightly bitterly.

“Yeah, well, none of us are good people, are we.” Gabriel sighs. “I didn’t want to lose you. Neither did Anna.”

“I didn’t – want to, either,” Castiel says. “But I think I needed to.”

“Lose us? Or leave us?”

“Leave. I’m sorry I lost you.”

Gabriel pulls him closer, cold hands and warm sleeves. “I know.”

Castiel lets him. He huddles into his older brother like he did once. He says, “I hope not to lose you again.”

“Me too, Cassie. Me too.”

They watch the last of the sunset. The temperature drops and night settles, and then Gabriel says, “While we’re being all honest with each other, you should probably know I left Luc alone with Dean.”

 


 

Castiel, thoroughly exhausted after the conversation with Gabriel and having stolen a sandwich from the kitchen, finds Dean lying on his bed and staring up at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” Castiel says.

Dean sounds tired, too. “Not your fault your brother’s batshit crazy.”

Castiel winces. “Did he do anything?”

“Other than make fun of me in increasingly specific and terrifyingly accurate ways?” Dean snorts. “Nah.”

He doesn’t appear to be getting up any time soon, so Castiel – much less dignifiedly than he’ll admit – flops down next to him. He’d probably be having a breakdown about being so close to Dean, pressed side by side, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s already had enough breakdowns today and he doesn’t really have the energy for more.

“Thank you for being here,” Castiel finally says to the quiet.

Dean rolls over. In the dim light of the lamp, his eyes glimmer. “I told you, dude. It’s no problem.”

Castiel hums, staring at the ceiling.

“Did you talk to Gabriel?”

“Yes,” Castiel says. “I think it…went well.”

He can hear Dean’s smile. “That’s great. I’m happy for you, Cas.”

Castiel has an internal argument over whether or not he should study some more, and eventually just leans over and turns off the lamp. They lay there in the dark for a little while, until Castiel asks, “Why’d you tell them the tree story?”

Dean’s quiet. “That wasn’t – uh, that wasn’t the only one. That was just…referenced.”

Castiel frowns, and Dean laughs, the soft, sort of embarrassed one.

“Because you’re so good, Cas. Those days, other days – every day. Man, watching you do that stuff – I’ve done some of it, but. Having to do that. Having to make those calls. They were…I know they were just being assholes. But they deserved to know. That you’re a hero.”

Castiel is, quite suddenly, struck dumb. “Dean – ”

“Don’t,” Dean says. “Don’t.”

He pulls Castiel towards him with rough hands and warm arms, and Castiel curls into him. They don’t do this often, not really. After bad calls, or when Dean has nightmares and needs the familiar weight of someone near him. It’s comfort, nothing more and nothing less, but it doesn’t help Castiel be any less in love.

 


 

In his dreams, his dead mother asks, where is your sister, Castiel?

Castiel turns away from all the piercing gazes. He darts up the stairs towards the bathroom Raphael shares with Anna and knocks on the door. Raph! Time for pictures!

It had not been like this in real life. In real life, his mother hadn’t even been home, and it certainly hadn’t been Christmas. But some things stay the same – the door won’t open. He jiggles the doorknob in the way that gets it to lift (mother took all the locks off the doors years ago) and when he finally shoves through, there’s the crash of things stacked against the door falling to the floor.

The bathroom is large and wide. Castiel sees his sister’s dark hair in the bathtub, facing away from him, and he walks towards her. He says, Raphael, mother needs us for pictures.

The thing that Castiel remembers, in the coming years, the thing that he can’t ever let himself forget, the thing that eventually drives him to leave, is this. Raphael’s crushed velvet dress, her birthday gift from Anna, stained dark with water and blood. The blood all over the tub, the blood being washed down the drain, the hiking knife in Raphael’s hand (her birthday gift from Luc). The way Raphael had still been alive when he found her, eyes not focusing but reacting at Castiel’s touch.

The way he’d just stood there, frozen.

Castiel hadn’t cried out, but he hadn’t needed to – a lifetime of living with Luc and Gabriel had led to good instincts among the Novaks for when one of their own was in trouble, and the twins were already crashing through the door. Michael pulling out his phone with a shaking hand, throwing the knife on the floor and grabbing onto Raphael; Gabriel in the doorway with terror in his eyes, holding Anna in his arms. Luc, yanking Castiel back – Castiel twisting in his arms, trying to get away, staring at that bloody blade on the floor.

How could you? Luc is almost shouting, right next to Cas’s ear, his voice breaking in a way it never had. Why?

Why didn’t you stop her, Luc means. Why didn’t you save her.

“Ok, biker Barbie,” Dean is saying over the phone when Castiel claws himself into waking.

“Dick,” Claire’s voice says. “First of all, only Alex gets to call me that. Second of all, half the clothes I wear were yours at one point.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean replies. “How’s your girlfriend? She starting fire school soon?”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Claire says, a little defensively. “But yeah.”

“That’s good.” Dean sounds like he’s smiling. His hand is running through Castiel’s hair, and he’s sitting up, Castiel still curled against him. Castiel, half-awake and not exactly wanting to be, buries his head further into Dean’s side.

“How’s your boyfriend?” Claire asks in return.

“He’s good.” Castiel barely registers that Dean doesn’t actually contradict her. The hand in Castiel’s hair quickly retreats as Dean adds, “Actually, I think he might be awake.”

“No,” Castiel mumbles.

Both Claire and Dean laugh. They talk for another few minutes, ribbing each other, Claire telling Dean about what’s gone on in his absence, which makes Castiel snort blearily. Eventually Dean and Claire exchange insults, which is what passes for goodbye with them, and then Dean hangs up.

“Morning, angel,” Dean says to Castiel.

“Morning,” Castiel replies quietly.

“Happy turkey day,” Dean tells him. “You want to see the pictures Ellen and Jody sent?”

Castiel smiles slightly. “Yes, please.” He pushes himself up into a seated position against the headboard. Dean doesn’t move his arm, wrapped around Castiel’s shoulders, even though he’s no longer asleep. It’s fragile and quiet, and Castiel doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t want Dean to let go.

“Here’s the one from Jody and Donna and the girls,” Dean says.

Castiel takes the phone, looking at the picture. It’s a badly-angled selfie of a mostly empty McDonald’s, Donna’s blonde hair and wide grin at the forefront with an aggravated Patience pulled into her side. Alex is in the background, seated next to Jody and Kaia, all three sipping from violently blue and no doubt wildly unhealthy drinks, and Jody has an arm around a grumpy and mostly-asleep Claire.

“They look cheerful,” Castiel comments.

“There’s the one from Ellen, too,” Dean says. He swipes left, and Castiel smiles wider – he’s spent a few years with the chaos of a Singer-Harvelle-Winchester holiday, and seeing it always brings back good memories. Jo is there, seemingly yelling something at Sam, who has his hands full of dough and obviously know clue what to do with it. Rufus is somewhere on the blurry edges of the picture, holding an entire chicken, and Eileen, Sam’s girlfriend, is laughing her ass off and signing across the kitchen at Charlie. From what Castiel knows of ASL, it’s impressively dirty, and the deer-in-the-headlights face that Bobby is making means he saw it, too.

“I’m sorry you’re not there with them,” Castiel says, looking at Dean’s fond grin. “I know you would like to be.”

Dean shakes his head. “We already talked about this, dude. You’re family, and you needed me here, so I am. Plus there’s Christmas, we’ll be there then.” He glances down. “Speaking of which, I know – I heard Michael say that he wanted to clean out your mom’s bedroom today.”

Castiel sighs. “Probably.”

Dean’s fingers dance over the feathers on Castiel’s neck, then the ones that curl over his upper arm. “I’m going to stay out of the way for that. Think I’ll see about scrounging together some sort of Thanksgiving dinner for you and Anna and I, and your older brothers if they can, you know, eat in the same room without being assholes.”

Castiel says, “Thank you, Dean.”

At times like this, Castiel really wishes he could kiss him.

Surprisingly, Michael doesn’t seek them out. Instead, Dean sends Castiel to the store to get what groceries he can find and when he’s back, Anna is chopping vegetables in the kitchen and discussing national parks with Dean. Gabriel slinks in at one point, stealing a fingerful of the glaze for the carrots and ignoring Dean’s nasty look, and manages to hold back most of his spiteful comments in order to have a legitimate conversation with Castiel about Tolkien. This derails into Dean and Gabriel – wonder of all wonders – teaming up to make fun of Castiel for his complete lack of pop culture knowledge while Anna laughs.

Of course, things are going too well.

Dean banishes them from the kitchen due to intimate knowledge of Castiel’s inability to navigate an oven and circumstantial doubt in Gabriel’s and Anna’s (which isn’t unfounded), so they move boxes from room to room then into the garage. They soon run out of boxes downstairs, which means they end up having to start upstairs, which means the three younger Novak siblings find their eldest brothers in their mother’s bedroom, glaring at each other. There’s a ceramic plate in pieces on the floor. Castiel is pretty sure it was at least a century old.

“Great.” Anna says. “Just great.”

Michael exhales a careful breath. “If you three would help us with the last of this, I’m sure we’d be done faster. Maybe we won’t break things, either.” This is said pointedly to Luc.

“Come on, guys,” Anna says. “It’s Thanksgiving.”

“Yeah, Michael,” Luc says, voice sharp enough to cut. “It’s Thanksgiving.”

Michael returns to packing things into boxes – things Castiel can’t remember his mother ever using in her life. “Let’s finish this, Luc. Then you can leave.”

“Why don’t I just leave now? That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Stop putting words in my mouth – ”

“Stop treating me like a child, we’re fucking adults here – ”

Gabriel snorts. “Yeah, cause we’re all definitely acting like it.”

“Maybe you should stop acting like a child, then,” Michael snaps.

Castiel glances at Anna, who’s gritting her teeth. He raises his voice to say, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this here.”

Michael and Luc ignore him, feeding off of each other’s anger just like they ever have, because apparently they’re all still the same, just a little rotten at heart. It even feels like the same arguments they used to have, Gabriel stepping in the middle and failing to stop them, Anna and Castiel on the side. Except now, Michael and Luc have more ammunition, more accusations to hurl at each other. Gabriel shoves them apart but they’re still yelling at each other, and then –

“Would you all shut up!” Anna screams, and surprisingly, they do. When she actually realizes she has their attention is when they all realize that her eyes are shiny with tears.

“Anna,” Castiel says, and then stops, because he doesn’t know how to comfort her.

“We’re not kids,” Anna says. “We’re sad adults yelling at each other in our dead mother’s bedroom.”

None of them answer. None of them are looking at each other. Not even Luc has anything to say.

One of the tears slides down Anna’s cheek. “Cas had the right idea,” she says. “Nothing good ever comes out of this fucking family.”

“Oh, Cas,” Luc says bitterly.

Michael snaps, “Leave him out of this.”

“We’re a family!” Luc’s shaking. “We’re all a part of this and – and you can’t just leave, Cassie, just cause you don’t want to deal with it.”

Castiel has no clue how this suddenly got turned around on him, and for a moment he just stares at his older brother. “What?”

“You left,” Luc says. “You’re the one who couldn’t stand us all. Who couldn’t handle the fighting, and the bickering, that you just had to leave!”

“If anyone is hiding,” Michael raises his voice. “It’s you, Lucifer, and – ”

“Shut the fuck up, Michael,” Gabriel snaps.

“Guys!” Anna yells.

Luc spins on Michael. “You’re not even a part of this family. You’re ashamed of us all, me and Anna and Cassie – ”

Castiel punches him. He doesn’t even think about it, just does, just slams him in the face. He can barely breathe through the hot rage burning through his throat and stinging in his eyes. Gabriel shouts something indiscernible and Anna responds but Luc and Castiel don’t hear him, yanking at each other’s hair and slamming into walls and shattering delicate glass heirlooms.

“I didn’t want to leave!” Castiel spits in Luc’s face. “But you did!”

Michael grabs them. “Stop it, you two!”

Luc gets in a dirty jab to Castiel’s shoulder. “None of us wanted you to leave, you fucking asshole, but you did anyway! Perfect Cassie, couldn’t handle how much we all lied, couldn’t handle the guilt – ”

“Of course I couldn’t handle the guilt!” Castiel shouts. “It was my fault!”

And then Luc goes completely still, and Castiel can’t compensate for the lack of motion, and Michael, who was apparently still holding onto Luc, goes down with them. They tumble to the floor in a jumble of limbs and glass and tears. Castiel can barely register what’s going on, doesn’t even try to get up from where Luc’s got hands wrapped around his neck that are slack.

“What do you mean?” Luc asks Castiel.

“Don’t,” Castiel says hoarsely.

Luc’s hands tighten around his neck. “Say it.”

“It was my fault,” Castiel gasps out, and the tears, humiliatingly, start falling. “It was my fault, I’m the one who found her, I’m the one who couldn’t save her.”

“No,” Luc says, his hands falling away. “No, stop.”

“Luc,” Gabriel rasps out miserably.

Anna sobs, and sits down with her head in her hands. Castiel crawls over to her and pulls her into his arms. “Why do we have to do this?” Anna asks, her voice wet and shaking. “This is why I didn’t want to come back. Luc thinks it’s his fault, and you think it’s yours, and Gabriel thinks it’s his, Michael thinks it’s his, and I’m not her,” Anna says wretchedly. “I’m just here.” 

“I’m sorry,” Castiel tells her. “I’m sorry.”

“Stop that,” Luc snarls.

Gabriel snorts, half a sob. “Of course we’re still fighting even now. Great job, guys. Great job.”

“Shut up,” Luc says. “This is why – it’s none of your faults. It’s none of our faults. Can’t you understand that? She’s not yours,” he points at Castiel, and then turns to Michael. “And I’m not yours.”

Castiel and Anna stare at him. Michael won’t even meet his eyes. Luc reaches out to Gabriel, who reaches back, stunned and kind of broken, and they’re all closer than they have been in years, talking more than they have been in years.

“You don’t want to talk about it,” Luc says to Michael, to all of them. “I don’t want to talk about it. I hate this.” It’s not pleading, because Luc doesn’t plead. “But we fucking have to.”

“I’m sorry,” Michael says to Luc, to all of them. “I’m sorry.”

Stop.” Luc sweeps away glass, aggressive and brittle like him.

Castiel barely recognizes his own voice. “I thought it was my fault. I thought you all wanted me to leave.”

Anna hits him, even though she’s still crying. “You dumbass.”

“I’m sorry,” Michael repeats. “I just wanted to help.”

“Sometimes people are sick.” Gabriel sounds small and un-Gabriel-like. “Sometimes people are just sick, and you do your best. C’mon, we know this. Can’t you stop fighting? Can’t you understand that?”

Castiel flinches. Gabriel rubs Anna’s back and Michael reaches out to Luc, hands shaking.

“Obviously we can’t.” Anna wipes her eyes. “This isn’t what Raphael would have wanted.”

“Can’t we take care of each other?” Gabriel asks. “I just want the fighting to stop. I just want things to be like they were.”

“You’re part of the fighting,” Anna says bitterly.

“I didn’t say I wasn’t,” Gabriel tells her, just as bitter.

“Things can’t be like they were,” Luc says. He sounds like he’s spitting back out words from a therapist. Probably, he is. “But we have to move on.”

Castiel thinks of the girl and the tree and her father, and his sister in the bathtub, and his siblings all around him – all of them so different. All of them so much older, still trying to process this. The fact that some people die, and sometimes you have to keep living in spite of it. He says hoarsely, “Sometimes you have to let people go.”           

Michael, who has always been impassive and stoic, who never cried even at Raphael’s funeral, starts heaving silent sobs. Luc holds him, looking shellshocked and human like he hasn’t since Castiel can remember. Gabriel and Anna and Castiel grab onto each other, grab on to the twins. They’re all adults. They’re not kids. They’re doing the same thing, just ripping the bandage off.

Castiel wonders how everything can hurt this badly and yet feel so much lighter, all at the same time.

 


 

Thanksgiving ‘dinner’ should, by virtue of the emotional meltdown (or breakthrough, Castiel isn’t sure yet) they’d all collectively experienced, be horrible. Instead, somehow, it is…good.

The combined efforts of Dean, Castiel, Gabriel, and Anna (though mostly Dean) yield lasagna, along with a variety of charred vegetables and cookies. All the Novak siblings are red-eyed and quiet, but the elder three manage to pull their punches enough over the course of dinner to have an actual, civil conversation. Anna declares to Castiel that she’s going to marry Dean if he doesn’t, and he’s too relieved after today’s events to even argue. Michael, though he still looks slightly in shock, apologizes to Dean and asks him about his aspirations at the firehouse in a way that is only mildly condescending. Luc and Gabriel throw food at each other in a way that is playful, rather than cruel.

Castiel isn’t quite sure if it’s a miracle, but that’s the only working theory he has.

They’re cleaning up the dishes after dinner, Castiel talking quietly with Dean while Luc and Gabriel try to throw peanuts in each other’s mouths – with scoring by Anna – when Michael shoots to his feet.

They all look at him warily. This fragile peace is just that – too fragile. Too new.

“You were right,” Michael says to Luc, which may be a first for both him and mankind.

“About what?” Anna asks, voicing what all of them are thinking.

Luc says, kind of enthusiastically, “Arson.”

“Arson,” Michael agrees, less enthusiastically.

Which is how they end up standing on the lakeshore in the dark, watching as Gabriel liberally douses the clothes from their mother’s room in lighter fluid. Luc throws on a match and says something sharp to Anna that must not be so sharp, because she throws back her head and laughs as the fire flares up, crackling in the cold. Michael’s shoulders aren’t so tense, even when Gabriel narrowly misses his head with a skipping rock. Their silhouettes are lit against the dark by the spitting flames, and Castiel stands closer to Dean, shivering in the night air.

“I’d like to put it on the record,” Dean says to him. “That your family is still fucking bizarre.” When Castiel doesn’t respond, he prods, “You ok?”

“Yes,” Castiel replies quietly. “Could you hear us?”

“Oh yeah.”

Castiel winces. “I’m sorry.”

“Dude. I no longer feel like I have to worry that your brothers are going to go all Romulus and Remus on each other, and I don’t have to watch all the knives when Anna’s in the room. I’m pretty sure you guys fixed…something, even if you gave Luc a wicked black eye.”

Castiel blinks at him. They did fix something, he thinks. He says, “You’re the best person I’ve ever known.”

“What – where did that come from?”

I am far too in love with you to function. “This whole trip. I cannot – thank you, Dean. For joining me, for helping, for cooking us dinner. Thank you.”

Castiel can’t really see Dean’s face, but he shifts and looks down in the way that means he’s embarrassed. “It was just lasagna. Also, I, uh, definitely antagonized your brothers.”

Castiel snorts. He replies, “They almost certainly deserved it.”

“Well, I’m not arguing with that.” Dean’s laugh is low and all for Castiel.

He wraps an arm around him, soft and warm. Anna smiles back at Castiel, and Gabriel yells something rude and then almost burns himself, and Luc and Michael laugh, and Castiel realizes he’s something approaching happy. While we live, let us live, he thinks. Something about family meaning different things – families that are made, and families that are chosen, and how if you work for it sometimes they can become one and the same. Something about living, and no longer running from the pain. Instead facing it, and welcoming it home.

He is still thinking about it in the car the next day, after careful goodbyes and hesitant smiles. His phone is lighting up with texts – they will have to work to figure out their issues, and things aren’t perfect now but the first part of that is talking. They might, Castiel thinks, even do it.

From Anna: do you think michael would feel guilty enough to chip in on an engagement ring for ruby

From Michael: I hope we can talk again soon, Castiel.

From Gabriel: if you give me your address we promise not to mail you edible body glitter

From Luc: I am making no such promises

Castiel sighs. He turns to Dean, who is only marginally more awake than Castiel and is wearing a sweatshirt that says Sioux Falls Rescue rather than Sioux Falls Fire. He’s mouthing along the lyrics to the song they’re listening to, and the weak morning sunshine illuminates every single freckle. It all of a sudden seems silly to keep such a thing to himself. Castiel says, “I am in love with you. That’s what I meant. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I’m in love with you.”

Dean chokes on his sip of coffee. “What?”

Castiel shrugs. He’s still happy, sort of, the guilt that had spent so long in him finally beginning to loosen. He says, “My family spent too long hiding things from each other. I don’t want to hide this.” He exhales. “It’s alright if you don’t. But I needed to say it.”

“Cas, dude.” Dean’s fingers are tight around the steering wheel. “You can’t just say shit like that.”

Castiel frowns. “Why not?”

Dean glances over and the car swerves over the center line. Thankfully they’re still in the middle of fuck-all-nowhere Upper Peninsula, so it doesn’t matter that much. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you for four and a half years,” Dean says. “And you have to tell me now? When I can’t? There’s no rest stop for at least twenty miles, Cas.”

Castiel laughs, wild and loud over the rumble of the road below. He shakes his head and looks back over at Dean – Dean, who is looking back. Dean who has always been looking back.

Castiel grins.