His chest hurt. He wouldn't deny that. His eye hurt. His jaw throbbed, and so did the cut on his cheek on the inside of his mouth.
But what hurt worse was the pain and fear on his brother's and Megan's faces as he sat, flickering in and out of consciousness, in the cold hallway.
That hurt worse.
He looked up as Megan came into his room and shut the door. He had only known her for less than a day and his heart already jumped when she walked into a room. Castiel smiled at her as she sat in the chair beside his bed.
"This is my fault," she said, smiling back weakly. "If I wasn't on such bad terms with Natasha, Jayson wouldn't have beat you up. I'm sorry."
"Hey, hey, it's alright," Castiel reassured her. "Don't worry about it." He brushed her bangs from her eyes. "Someone had to stand up to her."
"Well, you got beaten up by Jayson for it," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Hey!" Castiel cried, catching one of her tears with his thumb and cupping her cheek in his palm. "Don't cry! Don't."
She laughed shakily, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. "I haven't even known you for twenty-four hours and I'm already crying," she joked lightly. But her voice broke and she pressed a fist to her lips.
"Stop it," he said firmly, brushing her bangs away from her dark blue-green eyes.
"I'm sorry," she said, another tear escaping down her cheek. "I don't want to cry, but I can't…"
Castiel gripped her hand in his and pressed it between his palms, his thumb stroking her soft skin. "If Nat comes in here and sees you crying, he's going to hurt me worse," he said, smiling crookedly. "Calm down, Megan."
She laughed again, stronger this time. "It's funny how Nathaniel's the younger one, but he always acts older. I honestly thought he was older than you when I first met the two of you."
"Well, I'm older," Castiel said, flashing his teeth in a grin. "And I'm better looking."
They were quiet for a moment. Castiel found himself watching her with a cute smile on his lips. He tried to no prevail to stop it from growing. Megan shyly licked her lips.
Castiel pushed himself off of the bed with one hand and leaned in, his eyes closing as she began to close the distance.
They were close enough to feel the soft whisper of each other's breath when the door opened and a voice said, "You feeling okay, big bro?"
Castiel jerked backwards so fast he almost fell off of the other side of the bed.
Nathaniel's eyes were wide, one hand halfway through his hair, the other holding onto the door. He had one foot half off of the ground as if he were going to take another step. He slowly put his foot back to the ground.
"Sh…ould I come back later?" he asked his twin, pulling his fingers through his hair the rest of the way and letting it fall to his side.
"No," Megan said, pulling her hand from Castiel's and looking at Nathaniel. "It's fine. You can come in."
Castiel slumped back against the pillows, wincing at the pain that struck through his chest. As Nathaniel sat beside his legs on the bed, he kicked his little brother hard in the back.
Nathaniel elbowed his knee just as hard.
It was two weeks later when Nathaniel and Castiel were absent one Tuesday. Then Wednesday. Then Thursday and Friday.
I didn't go straight home Friday. I was way too worried something was wrong. I took a detour through the park and headed for their house across town.
I knocked. There was no response. I tried the knob—unlocked. When they were home, Castiel always made sure the doors were locked. My heart pounded hard in my chest as I pushed open the door and stuck my head in.
"Nat? Cas?" I called warily.
"Nat, go see who that is," I heard Castiel murmur. There were heavy, uneven footfalls, and Nathaniel appeared around the corner. I couldn't stifle a small gasp.
His hair was tangled and unkempt. His shirt was rumpled, and his sweatpants were worn at the knees. His bare feet barely seemed to register that they were moving as he walked toward me, trying to force a smile.
"Hey, Megs," he said, hugging me tiredly. I pushed him away and looked up at him, eyes wide.
"What's wrong?" I said. "Where's Castiel?"
The half-hearted smile was gone faster than I could register.
"C'mon," he whispered. "Cas is going to need you."
I followed him through the house, dropping my backpack on the ground and pausing only to kick my shoes off.
He opened a door on the second floor and gestured me in. "Cas," he called quietly. "Megan's here."
Violet eyes flashed in the darkness of the room. Castiel rose unsteadily to his feet, swaying as I stared at him. Four candles were the only light in the room, and the flickering light made him look scarier.
His hair was falling into his eyes, which were red and puffy, and I figured not from lack of sleep. His face was hollow, as if he hadn't been eating right—or at all. His shirt and sweatpants, like Nathaniel's, were dirty and worn. Tears filled my eyes.
"Castiel, what's wrong?" I whispered.
"Come here, Megs," he said, turning away and kneeling again. I hesitantly approached him—and almost cried out.
Their Aunt Teal was laying on her back on the bed, the blankets around her chest, one of her hands folded across her torso, the other stroked softly by Castiel's thumb. She was sickly pale, her chest hardly rising and falling.
"She fell ill Monday afternoon," Nathaniel said, kneeling on the other side of the bed. "We called in the doctor." His voice broke, tears welling in his eyes. "She's not going to make it."
"Oh no," I breathed. I felt Castiel trembling beside me. I looked over and saw droplets of water hitting the bedsheets.
"This is why we haven't been at school," he whispered. "We couldn't leave Aunt Teal here all by her lonesome." He looked up, tear tracks on his cheeks. "Megan, we're going to be alone after this. It'll just be the two of us."
Teal's eyelids flickered and she opened her eyes slightly. Her voice was barely audible as she breathed, "Is that your friend, Castiel?"
Nathaniel and Castiel both leapt in shock and focused their attention on their aunt.
"Yeah, Aunt T," Castiel whispered. "Megan's here."
"Good, good," she rasped, her eyes closing. "Megan, do me a favor please."
"Anything, Aunt T," I said. She had insisted that I call her that from day one.
"Take care of my nephews," she said. "They always get into trouble when they're on their own. They need a woman to look after them."
Nathaniel let out a strangled sob.
"Of course, Aunt T," I said. "I will. I promise."
"I love you both," she said, her voice already almost too weak to hear. "Remember that. I'll never really leave you, understand? Be good for me…"
A soft breath escaped her lips. She didn't breathe in again.
The sound that tore out of Nathaniel's chest was the most God-awful sound I'd ever heard. I tried valiantly to hold in my tears as he rested his forehead on the blankets, hands knotted into the sheets, sobbing, not bothering to stifle the sounds of his grief.
Castiel rose, one hand jammed against his mouth, tears falling down his cheeks. When he pulled his hand away, all he said was, "I'm going to call the doctor."
He turned and pounded out of the room.
I rose and followed him. Nathaniel's heart-wrenching sobs echoed in my ears as I walked down the hallway after the red-haired teen.