Dean marched over to the mess hall. "What's going on?" he demanded loud enough to silence the raised voices at the dinner line.
"Since when is the food being policed?" a scrawny guy asked angrily.
"Since we've got more mouths to feed than supplies right now," Dean responded.
The guy crossed his arms. "You mean those people you let come in here? They haven't done any work to earn an equal share of our food."
"They're hurt and sick. When they're able to pull their weight, they will. For now, we all have to make adjustments until we can get more supplies."
"You're going to slowly kill us if you keep taking in strays!"
Dean whirled on him. "You want to go back out there, try to survive on your own? Be my guest. No one's making you stay." He shot a firm gaze around at everyone. He wasn't getting off on being a tyrant here; he was trying to keep them all alive.
"Water heater's busted again," Bobby said. "James keeps Jerry-rigging it, but we're gonna have to look for replacement parts on the next supply run."
Dean nodded along. Just another issue to add to their long list. He'd known it wouldn't be easy setting up a permanent base at Camp Chitaqua, but sometimes it felt like the deck was stacked against them.
It was better than trying to survive in one of the cities, though.
Bobby closed the ledger. "One more thing. Sarah caught Frankie with the stash of liquor. He'd gone through half of it and was drunk off his ass."
Dean's chest tightened with fury. They'd been saving the hard alcohol for medical emergencies, not to drown their woes in. Dean wanted to be understanding, he did. But the world outside wasn't gonna cut them any slack, and so neither could he.
"Incoming!" Sam shouted.
Dean swept out from behind the truck and opened fire on the demon horde descending on their position. Bullets tore through the humanoids easily, but the hellish beasts had hides as thick as a gargoyle's, and they kept coming. Dean figured this was it, the supply run they wouldn't come back from.
A flash of brilliant bluish-white light erupted to the left, and a shimmering osprey collided with a demon, lightning talons tearing into it. Another flash flared, then another, and suddenly the area was filled with crackling animal shapes attacking the demons.
Dean staggered back a step in dismay, as did the others of the convoy. And then he caught sight of a familiar, blazing panther.
Dean couldn't help but break into a grin as Cas's grace swirled into the angel's human form in front of him.
"Look what the cat dragged in," he beamed. "Long time no see."
Cas gave him and Sam a hesitant smile in return. "Yes. I'm glad to see you both again."
Dean shifted his gaze over Cas's shoulder to where the other angelic animals were gathering into their human forms. "You found some friends."
Cas glanced behind him. "Yes. There are others who don't believe in following Heaven's corrupt orders. We're small in number, but we're fighting against the Apocalypse."
A bird screech interrupted them, and an eagle of gold instead of blue came swooping down. Its wings snapped taut, then folded down into an eddy before transforming into a blond-haired guy of short stature that Dean instantly recognized.
"Hey, wait a second, you're the Trickster!"
Sam sputtered beside him. "We killed you!"
The Trickster smirked and waggled his brows. "Call that another lifetime. Name's Gabriel."
Dean's brows shot upward. "As in the archangel Gabriel?"
He spread his arms and took a bow. "The one and only. What a small world that you're the Winchesters Castiel has told me so much about." Gabriel cast the other angel a curious look.
Dean managed to shake off his daze. "Well, thanks for the save," he said to his friend. "A lot of people are counting on us to get back alive with these supplies."
Cas's gaze went to the back of the truck. "You're providing for others?"
"We set up a base at a camp," Sam explained. "There's about twenty of us, survivors we've come across."
Cas canted his head in consideration, and then turned to Gabriel. "Is there some way we can help them?"
The other angels exchanged somewhat surprised looks. Dean was also a little taken aback by the idea, not because Cas wasn't the type to offer, but because he wasn't sure what all the angels could do.
Gabriel was contemplative for several moments, then said, "I'm sure we can think of something."
"Picture the bond like a tangible thread. Like a harp string stretched taut. If you were to strum it, it would transmit that vibration all the way down to the other end."
Sam felt his forehead crease further as he tried to concentrate and do as Cas instructed. Envisioning a thread reaching out wasn't that hard; it was maintaining focus on it that proved challenging. Any slip in his thoughts, and it would disappear and he'd have to start all over again.
But since Cas was sitting cross-legged on the floor only three feet across from him, it was easy to imagine that thread physically connecting them. Sam concentrated harder, until the thread felt tangible. And then he imagined reaching up to flick it.
He was surprised when he didn't have to envision the vibration; it pinged in the back of his mind like a wind chime.
"Not bad," Cas rumbled. Or…wait.
Sam snapped his eyes open, breaking the spell.
Cas opened his eyes with a sigh and gave him a wry look.
He grimaced sheepishly. "Sorry."
The angel shook his head. "No matter. You were doing quite well. I assume you were able to hear my thoughts directed toward you this time?"
Cas's brow furrowed thoughtfully. "I had to imagine the bond was a little more than just a string. More of a conduit I had to widen a bit."
Sam made a mental note of that. Cas may have been guiding him in how to access the link between them that had been created when Cas had healed Sam with some of his grace, but the angel was just as much at a loss as to the nature of the bond. They were both experimenting and trying to figure things out as they went.
Footsteps clomped up the steps outside, and Dean poked his head into the cabin. "How's it going?"
"We're making progress," Cas reported. "Why don't you join us?"
"Meditation isn't really my thing…" Dean hedged.
Sam unfolded his legs and stood to get the circulation back. "Come on, Dean, you need to learn how to use this, too."
His older brother heaved a sigh. "Fine. We don't have to hold hands, do we?"
"It'd be beneficial to learn how to access the bond from a distance," Cas replied. "But I suppose if it would help you initially, we could."
"Um, then no."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Just sit down and try." He took a step toward the door.
"Where are you going?"
"For a walk. I need to wake up a little." Sam paused on the threshold and turned to Cas. "If Dean falls asleep, just flick him through the bond."
Cas squinted at him in confusion.
"Or, you know, on the forehead."
Dean scowled. "You know what, go for your walk. By the time you get back, me and Cas will have the ESP down like it's cake."
"How many turns of splitting firewood duty do you want to bet on that?" Sam replied.
Dean opened his mouth, but hesitated. "I would, if I didn't have the efficiency of camp to think about."
Sam scoffed. "Lame excuse." He pivoted and walked out, Cas's voice fading behind him,
"I don't think envisioning the bond like it's cake will be very helpful…"
Sam's lips twitched, and he shook his head as he made his way around the cabin to cross the campgrounds. He didn't really have a path in mind, so when he heard the steady beating of a mallet striking metal, he veered toward it.
Out behind the cabins a good distance, Muriel was driving a steel well point into the ground in order to give the camp a source of fresh water they could rely on. Driving a well would have been arduous work for any human without the use of a drill, but for an angel, it just seemed like a slow exercise in whac-a-mole.
"Hey," Sam greeted.
She carried through her swing with a dull thud and then paused to look up. "Hi."
"How's it going?"
"I've almost driven the well point in deep enough," she replied. "Once I have, I'll install the pump, and I expect you'll have clean water by the end of the day."
"That's awesome," Sam said sincerely. "Thanks."
Muriel nodded and reached for the mallet's handle again, only to pause and cast an uncertain look at him. Sam shifted his weight, suddenly feeling like he should let her get back to work uninterrupted, but she spoke first.
"How is the session with Castiel going?"
"Okay," he replied. "I mean, progress is slow, but at least we're making some. Even if it only lasts for less than two seconds." He shrugged one shoulder. "It's not like any of us really know what we're doing."
Muriel's brows rose a fraction in a knowing mien, which made Sam wince.
"You guys aren't too happy about the bond, are you?" he asked hesitantly.
Dean was one thing, as Cas hadn't known better at the time. With Sam he had. Not to mention there was the whole demon blood thing…
Muriel hefted the mallet to give another hammer to the well point. "It's not a matter of being unhappy," she said. "It's the uncertainty of something none of us understand." She set the tool down again and met his eyes. "What Castiel did is unheard of, unique." She paused again. "I guess my concern isn't that he created a profound bond with someone, or even that it's with you and your brother, just that Castiel is my brother, and I care about him."
"I get that," Sam said. "And you should know I think of Cas as my brother, too. And that was before he healed me."
Their friendship wasn't based on some mystical connection, but on a bond deeper than that—fellowship and brotherhood.
Muriel pursed her mouth, but nodded in apparent acceptance. She heaved the mallet up and drove it down with a reverberating thud, and a small pop issued from below.
"It's in," she declared, and turned to a pile of gears and mechanisms on the ground nearby. Biting her lip, she turned back to Sam. "Um, if you wouldn't mind…?"
He straightened. "Oh, sure. You said it's ready for the pump?"
Muriel nodded, and reached down to pick up the objects. "I did extensive research for this project," she said. "How to determine the best location, the procedure. But I'm afraid there are…some aspects of the actual hands-on mechanics that I'm not quite familiar with."
Sam smiled. "Well, I've never installed a water pump, but I've learned a thing or two about mechanics from my brother, so I'm sure between the two of us, we can figure it out."
Muriel's mouth tugged upward in return, and she passed him some tools.
"Hello 'ello yellow. Earth to Cas, do you read?"
Dean opened one eye when he didn't get a response. Cas was staring at him blandly.
"Are you even trying?"
Dean scowled. Why was this so hard? He'd been able to tap into the bond before, when Cas was in trouble. Granted, he hadn't been able to communicate with the angel, just sense his location.
"Look," he said, spreading his hands. "Maybe we're trying to make something that isn't there."
Cas frowned. "I was able to contact you in a dream once. I don't see why it wouldn't be possible to make similar contact while awake."
Dean huffed. "Well, maybe on your end."
Cas tilted his head in intense thought. "Perhaps we should take a break."
"Good call." Dean scrabbled to his feet and went to get the thermos near his bunk. The last dregs of coffee in it was cold, but he gulped it down anyway. Nothing got wasted, not even when he failed to drink it while it was still hot.
"Honestly, Cas," he said, "I don't see why we need to be spending so much time on this. At this rate, it takes just as much time to do a prayer ritual, and that's at least guaranteed success. And if you're in trouble, you can contact us through a dream."
"And if you were ever in a place where you didn't have access to the ingredients for a prayer ritual?" the angel countered as he stood up in one fluid movement.
Dean pursed his mouth, canting his hand in acknowledgement of that point. "Well, then you and Sam can keep at it. I'm just not sure it's my thing."
"You don't give yourself enough credit." Cas gave him a knowing look. "I've noticed you typically accomplish whatever you set your stubborn mind to."
"Thanks. I think." He took another swig of the tepid brew.
"It was a compliment. If it wasn't, I might have said 'pig-headed mind' instead."
Dean narrowed his eyes. "Mr. Pot calling the kettle black."
Cas's brows knitted together and he was silent for a beat. "Have we somehow switched to talking about my attire and flannel again?"
Dean chuckled. "One of these days, man…"
A revving engine and gunfire punctured the air outside. Dean dropped his thermos and bolted for the door, Cas on his heels. They barreled out of the cabin just as four trucks came rumbling into the middle of camp, broken pieces of the wood gate tumbling across the hood of the lead vehicle.
The trucks spread out over the open yard, tires screeching to a halt, and armed men in sunglasses started spilling out and swarming the grounds. People were running out of their cabins now at the commotion. Dean saw Ellen, Jo, and Risa armed in response, and he'd drawn his own gun from his thigh holster, but they were already overwhelmed, over a dozen weapons trained on them.
A hulking dude wearing biker leather spoke up from the invading gang: "Put your weapons down, and nobody has to get shot."
Dean flicked his gaze over the intruders, not liking the odds. He glanced at Ellen and Jo and Risa, who were casting questioning looks his way, ready to follow his lead.
Cas stepped forward, eyes dark like gathering storm clouds over a roiling ocean. His grace began to shimmer in opalescent ripples around him. "I suggest you be the ones to put your weapons down."
The leader narrowed his eyes sharply, but didn't appear afraid. Instead, he grabbed a small oval device that'd been clipped to his vest, and threw it on the ground at his feet. Dean had only a split second to see what looked like a sigil smolder to life. And then the object exploded.
Dean threw an arm up to shield his face from the blinding light. There was no concussive force or searing fire from a grenade, though he felt static tingles race up his arms. It took a moment to blink the white specks from his vision, and when he did, Cas was out cold on the ground.
Dean's heart dropped down to his stomach, yet before he could think about fighting back, someone had surged forward and slammed the butt of a gun against his head. He pitched sideways and hit the dirt. His own gun was yanked from his hand. He dazedly saw men disarming the others as well. Now Dean understood why the bastards were wearing sunglasses. But where the hell had they even gotten a weapon that could take out an angel?
"You son-of-a-bitch," he growled. "What did you do to him?"
Lead biker-dude bent down to pick up the sigiled device, turning it over to admire it. "Clipped his wings." He went over and poked his shoe into Cas's side.
Dean tried to lunge to his feet, but a meaty hand clamped around his shoulder and forced him back down to his knees. He felt the circular end of a barrel pressed against the back of his head.
"Looks like it was just the one halo," the leader said. "But check the cabins for more. This thing should've knocked 'em all out."
Several of the men moved off to do that, followed by the shouts and cries of people still hiding inside.
Dean clenched his fists in rage and utter helplessness. "What do you want?"
Biker-dude removed his shades and smirked. "Everything you got."
Sam jerked ramrod straight at the sound of gunfire echoing from the front of the campgrounds. He immediately dropped the pump and wrench he was holding and started sprinting back toward the cabins. He saw a bunch of armed men, heard shouting, and then an explosion of light made him skid to a stop and throw his arms up across his face. He hadn't even realized Muriel was running after him until she staggered into his side with a gasp.
Squinting, Sam could just make out Cas collapsing on the ground. His heart seized, and he started to surge forward again, but Muriel grabbed his arm and yanked him back. He spun, shooting her a startled look.
"That was some kind of…magic," she said breathlessly, face pale. "Targeting angels."
Sam whipped his head back toward Cas. He could see Dean and Ellen and Jo being surrounded and taken captive and wanted to rush to their aid.
But whoever these thugs were, they apparently had weapons against angels—because they knew angels might be at Camp Chitaqua? And there was obviously too many of them. If Sam wanted any hope at saving the others, he'd need to come up with a plan. Which meant for now, it was better they hide.
"Come on," he said, taking Muriel's other arm and turning toward the tree line.
They made it without a cry of chase being sent up, and Sam ducked down near the edge of the thicket so the camp was still in sight. So far, it looked like the invaders were just rounding everybody up.
Sam turned to Muriel. "Are you okay?"
She nodded. "The weapon didn't hurt me. I just…felt it. I think I was just on the edge of its range."
Sam exhaled in relief, but then his gut clenched. "What do you think it did to Cas? I mean, he's not…?"
Her mouth tightened. "I think he's still alive."
Yeah, Sam was gonna go with that. Angels died loud and violently, like stars collapsing, and he hadn't seen that inside the brief flash.
"Can you call the rest of the garrison for help?" he asked.
Muriel's expression turned grim, and she shook her head. "They're all out looking for information on the Seals. By the time they get my message and come here, it might already be too late."
A lump gathered in Sam's throat, and his gaze shifted back to the mass of armed invaders who had taken over the camp. He swallowed, steeling his jaw.
"Then it's up to us."