He can't make it to the top of the hill. He won't finish this marathon.
Castiel heaves in air with his hands on his knees. The other runners part around him without breaking their stride. Nobody can be angry at him for not finishing. He was the one who'd wanted to do this, but he'd missed too much training; it was just too hard.
He's repeating that to himself as he swallows his disappointment, and he's almost caught his breath when he feels the hand on his shoulder.
Gabriel tips his head up with fingers under his chin.
"I can't." Castiel shakes his head.
Gabriel is struggling to catch his own breath, but he smiles at his younger brother, Castiel’s blood drums in his ears and he sighs, sucks in a deep breath and pulls himself up.
They cross the finish line twenty minutes later and Gabriel is laughing when he pulls Castiel into a crushing hug.
"I knew you could do it."
The victory is bittersweet because there'll be no more marathons after this.
Castiel is frustrated by his brother’s commitment to playing matchmaker when all Castiel can think about is the fact said brother is leaving for his new job in two weeks.
It will take Gabriel to the other side of the country. There’s a self-pitying stab of guilt in Castiel’s chest because he knows he shouldn’t be greedy. Gabriel deserves this opportunity and Castiel is almost twenty: he’s too old to still feel the pull of his brother’s gravity when he has a solid clan of friends at his back, he lacks for nothing, he could leave home tomorrow if he wanted to – he’d have the skills and the means, and this… this is such a simple thing, it shouldn’t gut him….
“Trust me,” Gabriel had said. “Dean’s your type. Wait ‘til you meet him.”
Dean Winchester is good looking on a scale that almost defies belief, Gabriel didn’t lie, but – Castiel realises – so is Sam, and instead it’s Gabriel who Castiel keeps looking to; his brother with the laughter in his eyes and the next joke at the corner of his mouth; his brother who he knows and trusts and who waits, who would never push him beyond his comfort zone.
That’s what Castiel believes until he’s staring up at the mistletoe that he swears hadn’t been in the doorway a moment ago. Dean meets his eye, shrugs with an easy smile suggesting ‘what the hell?’ and all Castiel thinks is Gabriel’s watching, Gabriel did this – and Castiel completely overreacts.
He doesn’t remember running, but when he finally catches his breath, he’s somehow made it to his bedroom. The door is locked behind him. His knee and shoulder throb suspiciously and it’s possible he encountered a wall on his climb up the staircase.
“Cas?” Gabriel knocks tentatively, and Castiel stops breathing as his throat closes up.
What the hell was going on?
“Cas, come on, it was just a joke. Open the door.”
He sinks to the floor, his face flushing hot with shame he doesn’t understand, and why the – why was he crying?
“Cas. Open the door.”
He doesn’t and he prays Gabriel can’t hear the sob that follows his failed attempt to climb back to his feet, but even if his brother did, it isn’t enough for him to insist again.
Nobody disturbs Castiel for the rest of the night. He's so embarrassed.
He floats through the next fortnight in a disembodied fog.
He sees his parent’s worried glances and feels Gabriel’s stare linger on his shoulders every time Castiel excuses himself from meals to retreat to the sanctuary of his room. It isn’t the way he wanted to spend their last two weeks together, but he can’t stop thinking about that mistletoe, that it wasn’t Dean he wanted until they were both standing there, and that now when Gabriel looks at him, he isn’t smiling anymore.
Castiel feels sick and guilty, and he knows it must show in his face. He’s so ashamed.
Why couldn’t it have been anyone else?
The knock comes at his door the night before Gabriel leaves.
He doesn’t have the heart to tell his brother to go away again – he isn’t that much of a brat, and the only honest words he can think of when he opens the door to Gabriel standing there are stay; please, please stay.
He won’t do that to Gabriel.
“Mom and Dad went ahead to the store. I said I’d follow with the trailer. Did you want anything?”
Gabriel glances down the hall towards the staircase, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his jacket. Castiel has never known his brother to hesitate and it makes him want to lean out, punch his shoulder (“what’s wrong with you?”, except he knows he’s the issue).
“So, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Are you going to see me off at the airport?”
Gabriel sighs, running fingers through his hair, and Castiel has never noticed before how much he loves that motion.
He feels sick with how much he’s going to miss Gabriel. He stands in the narrow gap of the space he’s allowed, leaning his head to the doorframe with the door’s edge to his chest, and he doesn’t even think about the fact Gabriel hasn’t seen the inside of his room in over two weeks. He used to barrel in, unannounced, uninvited, and they’ve turned a new chapter in which Gabriel is respecting his space and privacy.
It doesn’t feel strange, but… different.
“Look, Cas, about Dean –”
“I’m sorry about… that,” Castiel says. “It’s not your fault. He’s just – not the one I want.”
“Yeah.” Castiel looks down, face flushing hot.
And then Gabriel laughs, happy and relieved, but he’s so wrong if he thinks his troubles are finally over.
“Why didn’t you tell me you liked someone? You know I would have had your back!”
Castiel rolls his eyes because this, at least, hasn’t changed.
“Shut up, Gabriel. You can’t help with everything.”
“Trust your big brother, I can help with this.”
“You can get lost.” Castiel moves to shut the door, hoping the exasperation stays strong in his tone because inside it feels instead like he’s splintering when his brother smiles at him like that.
Gabriel is still grinning when he catches the door, holding it open.
“Come on. Who is it?”
“You’re being an ass.”
“Tell me.” Gabriel’s hand closes over his on the doorframe.
He throws the door open and shoves his brother hard in the chest. Gabriel doesn’t back up when Castiel pushes into his space, looking down his nose with that same smirk that’s taunted Castiel across the breakfast table since he was knee high and Gabriel stole his fruit loops; are you gonna hit me? I dare you. I dare you.
And he knows he doesn’t imagine the way Gabriel’s eyes go dark, the glance to Castiel’s mouth that lingers that beat too long and intent, and he’s seen that look before; all the times Gabriel wrapped his arms around Kali when they were together. The laugh she muffled into their kiss still rings in Castiel’s ears, but did Gabriel just – did he really --?
Gabriel’s look is hungry, but the dare is still there and it has to be a joke; Gabriel doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t look away when Castiel fists his jacket and pulls him down, weakly, but Gabriel leans the rest of the way and presses their mouths together, an easy slide and crush that makes Castiel whimper. Hands come around his back and his head thunks against the wall when Gabriel walks him back, every step smothering the disbelieving litany that this isn’t real, this can’t be real, this – he – Gabriel….
He tastes like caramel, but he smells sharp like snow, and Castiel doesn’t think anyone else will ever know how to hold him like this.
“You should have told me,” Gabriel whispers, and Castiel looks up from the wet curve of his mouth when hands stroke the tremors from his arms and shoulders.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Castiel says. It still stings like guilt to say it aloud.
Gabriel leans their foreheads together and Castiel shuts his eyes, willing himself to commit to memory the way it feels when Gabriel’s hair brushes his skin, when Gabriel’s words brush his mouth and he gasps, tilting up. Gabriel catches his mouth, it’s chaste, but he’s breathing hard when he lets Castiel go again, hands stroking from his nape to his jaw.
“Nobody loves you like I love you,” Gabriel says, a growl at the corner of his mouth, and a thrill of heat goes through Castiel because he’s the one who made Gabriel sound like that, breaths ragged, and fingers gripping tight to Castiel’s shoulders.
Castiel thinks his brother is right.
“Then love me.”