Sweat rolled down his back and dripped uncomfortably from the tip of his nose but Castiel paid it no heed as he slammed the tip of his blade into his enemy once again. His tunic clung to him in the most uncomfortable of ways, plastered to his skin by the layers of moisture he'd worked up in the last three hours but he'd set aside the idea of removing it. That would take far too long and offer him even less defense from any blows that might be returned despite the fact that the tattered dummy before him was entirely unlikely to attempt such a thing. Still, Castiel preferred to practice as if he were engaged in genuine battle, just the way his older brother had taught him. There was a family tradition to uphold after all. Most of the Novak family had joined the military with the notable exception of the eldest son, Michael, who had turned, instead, towards politics. Unlike his older brother, Castiel had been practicing to join the ranks of Rome's legions since he was old enough to hold a sword, and had dreamed about doing so even longer, but as of last night, that dream suddenly and unexpectedly had been swept out of his reach.
A frown creased the young man's brow and he slashed half-heartedly at the dummy's head but he didn't really register the small puff of straw and debris that fluttered to the ground. Instead his mind slid back to the strange conversation he'd had the previous night with the eldest member of their sprawling family. Michael had always been distantly affectionate with all of his younger brothers and sisters but their father had left for battle over 20 years ago, and when he hadn't returned, Michael had been forced to grow up rather quickly. At only 16 years old, Michael Novak had inherited all rights of Patria Potestas and as a result he'd grown steadily more distant from his younger siblings since then. Castiel rarely saw him since most days found Michael at the Senate chasing along the heels of powerful men. His ambitions did not lean toward the sword and shield like the rest of the family but rather toward the podium and the positions of entitlement he felt he was meant to hold. With all of this considered it had come as quite a was a surprise then when Castiel had found himself summoned to dine with Michael.
He'd dutifully gone to his brother's side filled with confusion over this sudden interest in spending time with him only to leave later even more confused by the course their conversation had taken. Despite his training having taken a backseat to the running of the daily household tasks, Castiel had always expected to eventually join the military ranks but last night Michael had informed him his request to join the legions was going to be put on hold once again, this time indefinitely. As the younger brother, Castiel knew better than to argue but he was still unsure why this was happening. He had no real interest in politics the way Michael did and he held few skills, outside of those suited toward the battle field, that would make him a good tradesman but once his brother had wrapped his mind around an idea, it was near to impossible to dislodge it. Castiel sighed and slashed at the training dummy again. He'd always been a good and obedient son, the youngest of all his siblings, and when everyone else had gone their separate ways, he'd stayed behind to pick up the slack; but always with the promise that his own time would come. Now that dream had been stolen away and he chafed at the fact that he didn't even have an answer for why yet.
"You know, I don't think it's going to attack you first."
Castiel jolted at the sudden interruption. He'd been simply staring blankly at the training dummy for the past few minutes without even realizing it. A flush of embarrassment crept up his cheeks as he turned around to face the owner of that all too familiar voice. Gabriel leaned casually against one of the smooth marble pillars that ringed the atrium, his legs crossed at the ankle and a lopsided grin tugging at one corner of his mouth. "My apologies," Castiel rumbled as he threw a frustrated glance at his motionless adversary, "I was distracted."
"You don't say," Gabriel quipped sarcastically as he bounded down the rest of the steps and sauntered over to the tattered remains of straw and linen. He poked at the spot Castiel had sliced open along the dummy's cheek. "You get this distracted on the field of battle, little brother, and you're going to be in more pieces than this guy." When Castiel said nothing in reply, Gabriel merely raised an eyebrow. "Bad day, huh?" He pressed as he walked toward the low rack of swords that hung from one wall. After careful thought Gabriel slid a short thick blade from among the others and made his way back to where Castiel stood dejectedly staring at the training dummy. "You might as well spill it, Cas. You know I'm just going to kick your butt till you do."
A hint of a smile passed over Castiel's face in spite of himself. With the exception of their sister Anna, who had practically raised Castiel, Gabriel had always been his favorite sibling. Sure, the guy was pushy, had a strange and often offensive sense of humor, and was painfully stubborn, but he was also loyal to a fault and had always looked out for his baby brother in his own way. Still, Castiel wasn't sure where to even begin, how to explain to Gabriel that his whole world had just been turned upside down for apparently nothing more than the whim of their older brother. "It is nothing of importance," he offered with a forced smile, "How are your oration classes going?"
Gabriel had only recently joined the ranks of the city's public orators, his wit and skill with words gaining him popularity even this early in his career, and Castiel found himself fascinated and often envious of his brother's abilities. His own attempts at social interaction were laughable at best and as a result he found public gatherings were little more than a breeding ground for humiliation.
Gabriel, however, was not about to be put off and he rolled his eyes. "Cas, it's hotter than Vulcan's balls out here and from the smell of you, you've been at this for quite some time, so obviously it's something important. Can we skip straight to the part where you tell me what's wrong so your awesome big brother can help you fix it? What'd ya do? Did you set free all of the eels Michael had set aside for one of his fancy dinners again?" Gabriel flipped the sword in his hands with a deftness that came with years of training. Most enemies that gazed upon his smaller stature dismissed him as being little to no threat but Castiel knew better. All of his combat instruction had come from the slight man before him and Castiel knew Gabriel's wit wasn't the only thing that was dangerous.
"I…" Castiel paused and tried to collect his thoughts into something coherent but his attention was diverted by the gleam of a sword swinging at his face. He stumbled back a step and quickly raised his own blade up to block with barely an inch to spare. Gabriel's mischievous eyes smiled at him from the other end of the sword.
"You must learn to think on your feet, baby brother."
The words were followed by a few more swift blows, all of which Castiel blocked with more ease now that he was expecting them and knew what his brother was trying to do. He'd always had trouble speaking his mind as a child, his fear of disappointing others or burdening them with his misgivings always prevailed over his own needs. Gabriel was a clever teacher, however, and had quickly figured out exactly how to get his little brother talking. He simply didn't afford Castiel's mind time enough to worry about things like guilt. It started with Castiel being forced to recite arithmetic lessons, poetry, or philosophy during sparring sessions but it quickly became a sure fire way to get Castiel talking about anything and everything that was bothering him. While he'd hated it at first, over time he had soon come to realize the value of this exercise. He'd learned how to think while under fire and how to separate his mind from the frenzy of battle. It had made him a quick thinker and a calm fighter, both qualities that could save his life someday. Or, at least, would have if his dream of joining the military hadn't been squashed. "Michael has forbade me from joining the ranks," he blurted out as he swept aside a vicious blow aimed at his ribs.
Gabriel screeched to a halt and shot a look of incredulity at the young man across from him. "Say again?"
"I am not allowed to join the legions," Castiel repeated, the tension in his shoulders draining as they slumped in defeat. "Michael said he has other plans for me and does not feel a military career would further the family honor as much as I believe."
Gabriel snorted in a combination of bitterness and disbelief. "In other words, he doesn't think it will further his career enough. Did he tell you what he DID want? Or is he just planning on making you his wife so you can clean the house and tend the slaves for the rest of your life?"
Castiel ignored his brother's sarcastic comment and shook his head. "No, he did not say why I am forbidden, just that I am not to put my name on the roster for training."
Gabriel shook his head in disgust. "That arrogant bastard." He mumbled something quietly to himself and took in the dejected form of his youngest brother across from him. Michael's unwavering belief in utter obedience by the rest of the family and his desire for power had already driven away all of his siblings save for Castiel. It seemed unfair to Gabriel that his youngest brother was the one left trying to hold everything together. Lucien, the second eldest, had left home shortly after his brother had taken control, though that was probably for the best considering how often they fought. The last news Gabriel had heard from him placed his older brother with a Legion somewhere near Macedonia while Uriel had volunteered for the sea journey to Crete. He himself had left for the oratory schools as soon as he could convince Michael to allow it. Gabriel was pretty sure the only reason Michael agreed to it was to simply shut him up.
Anna's fate had been both more and less kind. She had stayed at home, refusing to leave Castiel alone. It was a decision that had cost her dearly. She'd fallen in love with a young merchant who spent many months pursuing her hand but Michael would not hear of it. When his attempts to break up the relationship failed, he'd simply arranged a marriage for her to a Senator. Powerful men are fickle at best, however, and after he'd had his amusement with her, the Senator had simply refused her hand in marriage. Shamed and humiliated Anna had fled in disgrace. Despite all of Michaels scheming however, she gained the happy ending she had prayed for as she fled directly into the arms of her estranged love.
Now it left only Castiel to take care of the sprawling family home while Michael pursued his aspirations. Despite all of this Gabriel had never thought for an instant that his brother would be so selfish as to keep Castiel from fulfilling his dreams just to satisfy a need to keep the house in working order. Surely there were slaves better suited to such matters. No, Gabriel thought with a heavy frown, there had to be some other reason why Michael was refusing to let Castiel leave. He met the sad blue eyes of his little brother and tried to put on a smile to cheer him. "Hey, I'll talk to him, ok? We'll get it all straightened out. Trust me." He grinned broadly at Castiel who seemed to brighten slightly at that.
"How long will you be staying?" Castiel asked hopefully.
Gabe's smile fell some as he shrugged. "Only tonight, I'm afraid. Sorry, little brother. My mentor and I are heading out tomorrow. He wants to take a trip out toward Cicely for some gods forsaken reason."
Castiel nodded quietly but didn't offer a complaint. He was grateful for however much of his brother's company he could get. His thoughts were interrupted, however, by the scurry of feet across the tile floors inside and both men turned to see an older woman, bent with age and work, come shuffling to the edge of the atrium.
"Forgive me, masters," she said deferentially, "but Master Michael has returned and is on his way. He wishes to speak with Master Castiel."
Castiel could feel his shoulders tighten with dread as his mind played over every possible reason Michael might want to speak with him yet again. "Thank you, Anya," he said politely, watching as the old woman rushed back into the cool shadows of the house. She had been a fixture in their home for as long as he could remember; a slave bought off the racks by his father back when she had been young, though her years were showing more and more with each passing year. Castiel worried she wouldn't be with them much longer and had recently begun secretly helping her with her chores despite the fact he knew Michael would never approve. There were a great many things Michael didn't approve of, he thought bitterly.
Gabriel moved to stand beside him but when Castiel looked, it was to find his brother scowling off into the darkness of the house with his arms crossed tightly over his chest. For some reason, Castiel felt a little safer just having Gabriel there. He knew Michael would never hurt him but he lacked the finesse of his witty brother to talk his way out of things he didn't want. He turned his eyes back in time to see a form materialize as Michael emerged out onto the first step. For someone who wasn't in the military, the oldest Novak certainly cut an impressive figure; his very presence was commanding, offering those around him the definitive impression that he was not to be trifled with. His well-built frame, despite the fact it had none of the muscle possessed by a fighter, was still an impressive sight standing over six feet tall.
Michael's sharp gaze flicked down to where Gabriel was still holding the sword clenched tightly in his fist and when he met Gabriel's eyes, a moment of challenge passed between them. It was obvious no love had been lost when Gabriel left. "How pleasant to see you," Michael stated coldly, "had I known you were coming I would have arranged a meal to celebrate."
Gabriel's smile was sugary sweet but his eyes narrowed threateningly. "Oh, don't trouble yourself, brother. I know how busy you are. I'm sure I can find my way to the kitchens for a meal."
Castiel shifted uncomfortably and looked away as if it would help relieve some of the tension vibrating between the two other men. He wanted to find a small rock to hide under until this was over. He knew there wouldn't be any bloodshed; Gabriel was too smart to attack the head of a powerful family even if that person was his own flesh and blood, but the situation could escalate into a verbal fight. While Gabriel would easily win such a battle, Castiel would be the one left behind with Michael's temper; it was a scenario he'd rather avoid if at all possible.
"I'm sure you can," Michael said icily, "Please feel free to do so. I must speak with our brother alone for a moment. Castiel." With that, the older man turned on his heel and strode back into the house without a single glance back, expecting and knowing the youngest of the family would dutifully follow the silent command.
Blue eyes met hazel as Castiel shot an apprehensive look over toward Gabriel before obediently trailing in Michael's footsteps. Behind him he could hear Gabriel angrily drop the sword back into its spot on the wall with a ringing clang.
He'd barely entered the main dining area behind Michael before the older man turned to face him. "I know that he is your brother and you love him but I do not want him back in this house while I am home," he said with finality before heading over to a small low couch where he eased himself back with a gesture for Castiel to do the same.
"He is your brother too, Michael," Castiel dared to interject as he lowered himself onto the seat.
"He chose otherwise when he placed his own desires above the needs of this family, Castiel. He left us. He left you." Castiel looked up to find Michael watching him intently. Whatever else could be said for the man, his penetrating stare belied an incredible intelligence that made him dangerous on any field. It always left Castiel feeling small, like a bug pinned down for examination by a scientist, and he kept his lips tightly sealed against the rebellious words that threatened to spill out in defense of his brother. "Regardless," Michael continued, "He is not what I wished to discuss this evening." Castiel glanced back up from where he'd been staring at the dusty tops of his sandals to meet his brother's gaze. "I'm heading to the Senate again tomorrow, Castiel. I have made great progress in gaining the favor of none other than Azazel himself. I'm sure you know of him," Michael prompted.
"He is one of the most influential politicians of Rome," Castiel rattled off dispassionately. He'd heard Michael speak of Azazel before but even without his brother's constant references to the senator it was hard not to know of him. The man in question had most of the Senators and other government officials squarely in his pockets and rumor had it that no one got into the Senate without his approval. To be on the good side of Azazel was to have Rome practically on a platter.
Michael offered Castiel a rare smile. "Yes, and tomorrow I am meeting him for an important meal to discuss my possible election as a Quaestor. I wish for you to accompany me."
Castiel stared at his brother dumbfounded for a few moments. He had never shared the social graces his other siblings had possessed and had never shown any interest in politics. He had no idea why then, when so much was at stake, his brother would suddenly want him to join him on such an important engagement. Surely Michael would have been better off alone at such a meeting. Being elected as a Quaestor was a sure fire way to gain a seat in the Senate and with Azazel backing him, the end result of any election would be a foregone conclusion. There was nothing Castiel could imagine that he could bring to the table for such an event. "Brother, with all due respect, I have never even met this Senator. I.."
"Exactly," Michael cut him off with a dismissive wave, "but I have spoken of you to him and Azazel surely cannot endorse me without meeting my family. With Lucien and Uriel off at war, that leaves you."
Castiel chose to not to comment on the fact that two other family members were still quite alive and well as he doubted they had been left out by accident. "But you know I am… uncertain how to impress people of such influence. I do not wish to reflect badly upon you and jeopardize this opportunity."
The older Novak slid easily back to his feet and Castiel quickly followed suit. Two large hands rested upon his shoulders in a gesture of affection so alien that Castiel found himself shrinking under it as Michael leaned forward. "Do not worry, you will not ruin it. Venus has blessed you with the face rivaling the legendary Narcissus himself; her son cupid follows in your wake. All you need do is sit quietly and let your silence charm those around you. You will be my beautiful mystery, little brother." With those cryptic words, Michael turned and strode from the room leaving Castiel staring after him.
He wasn't sure just how long he stood there trying to decipher what exactly his brother had meant before his body invariably pulled him toward the kitchens and the comfort he knew he'd find there. He stepped down onto the thin tile floor and was met by the warmth of the ovens, the smell of fresh baking bread, and the laughter of the servants as Gabriel regaled them with what was no doubt an entirely inappropriate and lewd tale if the blush on the youngest maid's cheeks were any indication. His brother perked up even more upon seeing him but the man's smile faltered a moment as their eyes met. Gabriel hopped down from his seat on the counter and strode over to Castiel. "Ladies, your masters are famished. Would you darling things whip up something for us to eat while I have a little chat with my brother here?"
Gabriel slipped an arm around Castiel's shoulders and all but dragged him over to a low seat near the ovens where they could talk in semi-privacy. "So, what is it now? What brilliant plan has our brother set down for you that he thinks is so much more important than the military? I'm assuming that's what his little impromptu chat was all about."
Castiel nodded and his lips thinned into a frown. "He wants me to join him for the midday meal tomorrow."
Gabriel quirked an eyebrow and the two shared a wordless look of mutual disbelief.
"With a Senator."
Gabriel's eyebrow reached higher.
Gabriel's head tilted forward simply due to the fact that his eyebrow could climb no higher. "Seriously?" he asked with as much confusion as Castiel felt.
"Yes," his brother said simply, "Michael wants me to meet him. If this meeting goes well, Azazel will back him for election to Quaestor."
Gabriel sat back and stared into the fire before him, his lips pursed in thought. "Then why bring you? I mean, no offence little brother, but you aren't exactly a social butterfly."
"None taken," Castiel said quietly, "I told him the same thing myself. He said, 'I didn't need to be'. That I was basically just to sit there and look pretty." The last part of that sentence caused the corner of his mouth to turn down sourly. He hated the idea of being little more than a decoration for his brother to show off and he had never felt himself especially attractive, no more so than any other member of his family. Michael was strikingly handsome in the classical way most artists looked for when carving statues, Lucifer had their father's strong chin and regal air, Uriel was the living embodiment of a god with all of his muscles, Gabriel's eyes sparkled with a mischief women seemed to find irresistible, and Anna….oh Anna.
His wonderful Anna had been the most beautiful woman Castiel had ever seen. Her hair was the fiery red of Vulcan's forges, her eyes the blue of Neptune's seas and her voice had lulled him to sleep on so many nights when the angry shouts of their brothers had scared him. Castiel could see nothing so special about himself. When he looked back to Gabriel though, he was surprised to find his brother's face twisted in anger. "He's going to do it again," the other man growled through gritted teeth, "that arrogant, self righteous, self absorbed…" Gabriel cut himself off and looked back over at Cas. "Remember what he did to Anna? How he suddenly had an interest in her life once he thought he could marry her off to someone powerful enough to give him clout?"
Castiel's eyes narrowed. He didn't like where this was going. "Yes, but the Senator is a man and has a wife already. He could not replace the Lady Megara with me."
"Yeah, well, I don't think that's going to stop Michael from dangling you in front of the good Senator like a worm on a hook. He has to think you'll get Azazel's attention somehow if he's bringing you with him. Don't think for a second he wouldn't sell you, me, Anna, and the whole lot to Azazel if it would get him to his goals. Damn-it. I can't believe him!" Gabriel's whole body radiated with an obvious anger but he breathed out a slow sigh and let the tension and ire seep off. It would do no good to get wound up without a plan and as he stared into the concerned eyes of his brother, Gabriel knew he had to think of something quickly. "Hey, don't worry about it too much, ok? We'll figure something out. For all we know, you aren't this Senator's type and Mike's just grasping for straws here. When he realizes he can't use you, he'll lose interest and when I come back next week, I'll convince him to let you join the military again."
Castiel wasn't so sure though and he swallowed nervously as he rubbed the sweat of his palms across his dirty knees. "What if the Senator is interested?" he asked softly, "what am I supposed to do then?"
Gabriel shrugged. "Pick your nose every time Mike isn't looking," he joked lightheartedly. "Trust me, if the Senator wants you after that, you might WANT to see if you can get him to marry you." The look of disgust and unhappiness on Castiel's face said plainly he didn't find the joke funny though and Gabriel rolled his eyes. "Look, it's just a meal, right? It's doubtful Mike is going to just drop you in the Senator's lap. He'll see if there's interest first and then try to work out some kind of assurance that he'll get something in return. That means you shouldn't have to worry too much about tomorrow. If this guy does show interest, then just fend him off till it's time to go and when I get back next week we'll handle it. If Mike tries to force the issue, we can claim I kidnapped you and I'll take you with me out of the city. I hear the coast of Hispania is lovely this time of year."
This time Castiel did smile, even if only a little. "Thank you," he all but whispered, "it has been hard without you and Anna here. I….I've missed you."
Gabriel grinned at him lopsidedly and poked his little brother in the ribs. "Ah, you just miss me cause you like getting your butt kicked in training sessions," he quipped.
Castiel smiled fully in spite of his lingering fear over the next day and he let himself be dragged back toward the gaggle of servants who had set up a fine meal for them both at the weathered old counter in the center of the room. The rest of the night was spent wrapped in his brother's fanciful stories and memories of simpler times when they were all younger and had only each other to worry about before Castiel finally made his way to his bed and fell into a fitful sleep.