Bobby coughs into his scarf and frowns.
“You ain’t a prisoner, Dean,” Bobby tells him, but it sure as hell feels like it. “I told you boys right when you got here. Any sons of Mary Campbell, alternate reality or not, are welcome here.”
Bobby rests his hand on Dean’s shoulder for a moment, gives it a squeeze and then walks across the shed. He picks up a rifle out of the line of weapons across the wall, all rusty and barely functional. But maybe that’s just what life in the apocalypse leaves you with.
“If I’m so welcome, why aren’t I allowed to go hunting with you, huh?”
Bobby raises an eyebrow.
“Hunting ain’t a fieldtrip, ya idjit. It’s done to feed people and protect the perimeter of the camp. We don’t take any more people out there then we have to. And definitely not whiny babies like you.”
Dean grits his teeth. He shouldn’t say it. He shouldn’t say it. He shouldn’t...
But he does.
“I’m not a fucking widow!”
The impact’s instantaneous.
Dean’s voice rips out of his throat in a vicious snarl. It echoes in the tiny cement shed, makes the painful emptiness of the room seem even more obvious. And then there’s Bobby’s face, of course. The careful patience. The pity that crosses it every damn time that Dean makes it evident that maybe he is.
“I know you’re not,” Bobby says and he’s fucking gentle. His voice is soft. As if Dean’s maybe four and he’s lost Mom all over again. “But that don’t mean that you don’t need more time.”
Dean sucks in a breath. Bobby looks at him again, lips pulled back in some sort of sympathetic grimace, and then Dean’s own bottom lip wobbles.
God, it still fucking hurts.
Six months gone by. Six months since Dean had held Cas’ body in his arms, the world going to shit all around them. The portal had reopened and he hadn’t even noticed. He’d been too focused on cradling Cas in his arms. Too focused on running his fingers through Cas’ hair and begging him to stay when he’d already been gone. With Cas’ head resting on his shoulder, holding Cas had felt like holding a child.
But in the meanwhile, their own world had disappeared.
“Now look,” Bobby says, and he swings the rifle by its strap over his shoulder. “I’m only about to tell you this because I need you to understand. Your brother’s coming on the supply run with me today, and I don’t want you making no fuss. He’s trained and he’s been ready for weeks but the council just ain’t set on you yet. So I need ya to suck it up, do your chores like everybody else and don’t complain. When you’re ready, I'll know.”
Of course Bobby would know. Bobby had been the one that had found him, who had seen how damn devastated he’d been, how—
Bobby had come, with Sam in tow, and both of them had knelt at his side and had coaxed him to let Cas’ corpse go. In the end, he’d been too numb to move. Whatever had happened, however they had brought him to the camp, he hadn’t known. And for what they had done to Cas, he hadn’t spoken to them for weeks.
He would never fucking forgive them.
Bobby pushes the door of the shed open, letting the abysmal grey-white light of the snowy morning wash over them. He’s got the gun that he needs, yet he doesn’t move past the threshold.
There’s a dark expression on Bobby’s face.
He’s not done talking.
But Dean already knows what he’s going to say.
The same ones as always.
Beware of the angels.
Walking through camp is always humiliating.
He shuffles through, boots crunching down on a fresh inch of snow, on his way to the barracks that he’s been assigned to since they arrived, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t notice the way that the people look at him. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t hear what they have to say.
At first, he’d been too caught up in grief to notice. Bobby had let him be. While the rest of the camp had had their daily chores to keep the survival camp running, Dean had been left alone to wallow. Sam had come by, time to time, to check on him, to coax him to eat, but other than that, Dean had stayed curled up in his bunk, fighting wakefulness, hoping for sleep.
But somehow, word had spread. Rumours mixed in with tidbits of truth about the heartbroken newcomer in the camp. Why the man was mourning. Why Bobby and the whole council hadn’t chewed him out yet, for not contributing, for not doing his share.
Dean Winchester, the rumours had said, had been widowed by an angel.
There had been nothing worse in their eyes.
Bobby had explained it to him, the first time that he’d been lucid enough to listen, the first time that he hadn’t had the energy to fight and scream at them about what they’d done to Cas, about what they’d inevitably done by extension to Dean. Bobby had come in, Sam anxious behind him, and then Bobby had barked at the other occupants in their quarters, until the others had left their bunks, all of them casting their eyes at Dean as they’d filed out, the same way that they’d been looking at him for weeks.
Associating with angels had consequences, Bobby had explained to him. “They ain’t the God-abiding, harp-toting little healers that you’d expect, Dean. They’re…different. They…”
They claim things, Bobby had said, with a shiver. People. They claimed humans and stole them from the camp and whatever happened to them afterwards, no one knew.
But the rare survivors would come back changed. They would come, covered with the markings that all the angels wore, black tattoos etched into their skin. And they would weep and they would be withdrawn and they would whisper unintelligible things.
Whatever happened to them afterwards, Bobby hadn’t told him.
Sam’s waiting for him at the gate.
He doesn’t see Dean yet. Maybe he doesn’t think that Dean’s coming because of what had happened with Cas. Battered armour, probably handed down from a dead warrior, and clutching a machine gun in his hands, Sam’s shifting from foot to foot nervously, maybe wondering if he’s going to die on this hunt. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he did. For six months, they had seen Bobby command a troop each week to take beyond the wall. For six months, every week someone had died.
When he sees Dean, Sam’s face breaks into a relieved smile.
“I thought Bobby wouldn’t tell you,” Sam says. “He didn’t want to, anyway. Thought that you’d get mad, because—”
Because you always do.
But Sam doesn’t say that.
There’s an awkward silence between them. It’s been so long since they’ve seen each other outside of a guardianship context that Dean doesn’t even remember how to talk to him freely anymore. Bobby had moved Sam to a different housing unit when it had become clear that it wasn’t going to work out. Issued commands, followed orders, that’s all Dean knows now.
“Well, camp would hate me even more if I didn’t, and they love you so…”
“Yeah,” Sam says and he gives Dean a smile that’s painfully fake. He starts to fiddle with the pouch at his belt—angel-killing bullets—but he must realize what he’s doing because he stops and looks guilty. There’s an awkward moment then, where Sam tries to draw attention away from the lethal ammunition by running a hand through his hair, but Dean’s eyes don’t miss a thing.
Maybe that’s his problem. Maybe it’s because he’s always been like this.
Dean clenches his jaw and pulls Sam into a hug. He has to—it’s what everybody does when one of their loved ones is heading out the gate. The other hunters surrounding them are in the midst of the same. A mother holding her son’s hand. A husband being consoled by his wife, being promised that she’ll return to him—she always does.
But You shouldn’t be so sure of that, Dean thinks.
Soon enough, Bobby comes, ordering the civilians to stand back because the gate’s opening. Dean thumps Sam on the back in goodbye. Sam nods and smiles again. But it’s that empty smile again. Their farewell feels just as fake.
When Dean joins the other families, Bobby signals to the wall patrol.
It’s not that the gate is some kind of drawbridge. It’s not that you have to move because it needs rope to be lowered down. It’s because of the wall. It’s because of what might be waiting on the other side.
Don’t ever go outside the walls, Dean, Bobby had said, as if he had expected Dean to run. Never, Dean. Never.
The troop that Bobby’s commanding ready their weapons. They’re filled with all kinds of ammunition. Angel-killing bullets. Demon-killing. Witches. Silver. Some of them even have little wooden stakes for vampire teeth. But it doesn’t make a difference. No matter how many sigils and runes that the wall is painted with, it doesn’t matter.
No one is ever ready for when the gate opens.
The soup kitchen was where he’d been banished to. After Sam had been well on his way into his survival training, after the council had decided that Dean couldn’t afford to stay in the camp anymore, not if he was going to be an extra mouth to feed without doing any of the work. While Dean had been busy grieving, Sam had been the one who had worked hard to draw attention away from Dean, away from the bloodthirsty camp who had wanted him to be exiled to beyond the gate.
Now Dean pulls on an apron from the kitchen. It’s breakfast hours, people coming in for their daily food rations. For two meagre meals, Dean hadn’t thought that it’d be so busy in the kitchen, but the soup kitchen’s so small that there just isn’t enough room for everyone to rush in at once. Ai had been proud when she’d told Dean about how she’d been the one to figure out the system. The first day on the job, she’d taken him to her little office—nothing more than a counter, really—and had shown him how the meals were continuously rolled out during the day, from six in the morning to six in the afternoon. She’d put him at the front at first, ladling stew into bowls. But it hadn’t taken her long to trust him and soon enough he’d been chopping vegetables in the back under her watchful eye.
And she’d been there.
She’d been there, that first day, when he’d been asked to pick up a sack of beans that had weighed as heavy in his arms as Cas’ corpse. She hadn’t chastised him when he’d dropped the bag and vomited all over the day’s rations. He’d ruined the only food in an already starving camp, in a kitchen full of people who looked at him with hate and disgust, and she hadn’t even let him face the consequences set out by the council.
But she hasn’t asked him to pick up anything else ever since.
Today Ai spends her time hovering over him. Not that the hovering’s new, but today she seems to go the extra mile, watching for a good ten minutes while he pours the day’s helping of carrot soup. She’s eyeing his beard again, just like she always does when it’s getting too unruly. After Cas, his hair had grown out so tangled that one day after work, she’d sat him down on a milk crate in the backroom and had spent hours combing through the knots. It must have been irony then, that just as Dean’s own hair had fallen to his shoulders, the same month Sam had cut his own down to nothing more than an inch.
But it turns out that today, it’s not the wild length of his beard that’s bothering her because finally she says, “That brother of yours left for beyond the wall today?”
He nods. She always knows everything.
“My son went, too.” She grabs his forearm and adjusts his sloppy grip on the ladle. He straightens up. “He died,” she says.
She watches him absentmindedly for another five minutes, her lips curling into a grim expression, eyes far away as if she’s remembering something bitter, something unpleasant. When she finally seems to come back to herself, she spends more time hovering, more time watching him clumsily pour soup. When he spills stray drops onto the counter rather than into the next waiting bowl, she purses her lips but doesn’t berate him, only prods his elbow gently to remind him to be careful. “Don’t worry,” she eventually says. “Your brother won’t die. He’s smart.”
And that’s all. The feisty seventy-seven year old gives him a hard smack on the ass and her conversation must be done because she doesn’t come see him for the rest of his shift.
The rest of the day goes by slowly. Dean’s arm sores after lifting the ladle so many times, and eventually one of the kitchen cooks comes and relieves him, having him chop onions instead. The cook watches him carefully while he handles the knife, and makes sure to grab it back as soon as he’s done. When the end of work hours finally come, they have dinner after everyone else. Or what they call dinner. But mostly it’s just pushing the camp’s left-overs around on their plates.
At first, the council had tried to assign him to the hospital ward, noting his aptitude on the nurse portion of the medical exam. But Sam had hastily intervened, too afraid of what the sight of blood might do to him. Sam must have remembered what had happened when they’d first gotten here, two weeks in. Dean had been standing in the middle of the road, gently being steered by his brother towards the soup kitchen when he’d seen Bobby and the other hunter carrying back a dead comrade. With a mop of messy black hair and an angel blade sticking out of his chest, it was no wonder when Dean had lost it.
Going to the soup kitchen had been useless after that.
He hadn’t been able to swallow solid food down for a week.
Now, Ai prods him into finishing most of his meal, boxing up the left-overs for him with quiet threats in case he doesn’t finish. He walks her back to the women’s barracks in silence, carrying her mysteriously heavy hand bag. They stop a few times so that she can talk to the other women heading home for the night, but this place will never be home and Dean knows that.
It’s snowing again when they finally make it to the right doorstep. Ai wraps him in a long embrace, rubbing her hand soothingly over his back and waiting for him like she always does, letting him decide when to let go. His eyes sting. He buries his face into her shoulder, feels his skin itch when his cheek brushes her long white hair. He doesn’t even know why he needs her more than usual today. But for the first time, he’s so damn aware of how old she is, how frail.
He doesn’t ever want to see her die.
When he manages to convince himself to move back, she nods and pats him on the arm, letting her comforting hand rest for a moment before she nods again and shuts the door.
He stands there, taking in shallow breaths, and thinks about looking for Sam even though he doesn’t want to.
But in the end, he doesn’t get to. He doesn’t even start.
Within moments of Ai closing the door, one of the council’s messenger boys emerges out of the darkness, standing under the stuttering lightbulb where Sam usually waits for him.
“Dean Winchester,” the boy says, perfectly rehearsed, “the council would like to see you.”
The first time that he’d seen the council, it had been a month in to arriving at the camp. Bobby had taken him. By then, his hearing had long been overdue, but because Bobby had been the survival camp’s military leader, the council had allowed Dean time to get back on his feet, to come to his senses.
Dean had still been a wreck then.
And besides, it hadn’t mattered.
It’s getting colder now so Dean hurries it up. There’s maybe a minute or two left before curfew sets in, and he doesn’t want to have to explain to one of the patrol guards why he doesn’t have a pass. But he can see the old courthouse from here, the camp square’s bonfire lighting up the white building with a flickering golden glow.
When he reaches the door, one of the guards pats him down. It’s a waste of time. Sam hasn’t let him near a weapon since Cas died. At least not without supervision. The sharpest thing that Dean owns is the edge of a dog tag necklace that Sam had given him a month in, engraved with his name and inmate number.
Don’t lose it, Sam had warned him. Lose it and you’ll regret it forever, Dean.
But since Sam’s not here to give him orders right now, Dean can’t be blamed when the guard grabs the silver tag roughly, almost breaking the chain. He squints at the tiny script and when he finishes reading the back, his hands close around the fabric of Dean’s jacket collar with an angry fist.
“Where’s your guardian, huh? You ain’t mentally sound. Says right here Sam Winchester’s supposed to accompany you.”
Dean’s face flushes. But he’s right. He hasn’t seen Sam around since he’d left for the other side of the wall and the troop should have been back by now. But he’s spared the interrogation when a messenger girl peeks her head out of the courthouse door and urges Dean inside.
Within moments, he’s up before the council. They’re seated up on their table, on the dais like usual, thirteen old and stern faces peering down at him ominously.
And then there’s the other seat.
The one seat left open, below the platform in front of them. The one that sits in the middle of a devil’s trap and a circle of holy oil, ready to be lit by a servant of the council as soon as it’s occupied. The seat that Dean’s been in many times.
But never alone.
“Dean Winchester,” one of them says when he’s in the chair, “you may commence with your oath.”
So he starts.
“I reject the devil and his…”
And it goes on and on. The oath that the whole camp knows, the oath that they all have memorized by heart, denouncing all supernatural creatures, exalting humankind. When he nears the end, the council’s eyes seem to drill into him harder, because he’d been unable to speak this line for ages, had refused to, until eventually it had come out in little more than a stutter at Sam’s prompting.
“…and I reject god and his unholy grace and all of his legions of angels, those that are, those that will be, and those that w-wer—”
He can’t say it.
The council looms over him, dark and oppressive.
He starts again.
“…and I r-reject god and his unholy grace and all of his legions of a-ang—”
His voice cracks. He stares up at them with quivering lips. But he can’t talk. He keeps thinking of Cas, picturing his coat, his goddamn tie. His face, he can’t remember anymore. Two months ago, it had become a blur in his mind. Now he has to use memories to bring Cas into focus, but even then, they’re not enough.
He thinks of one now. He thinks of colourful pink plaid and a stomach filled to bursting. He thinks of the buzz of diners and Is ketchup a vegetable? He thinks of a room, his room in a bunker that he won’t see again, not if they can’t figure out a way out of this strange, strange world, and he thinks of fantasies that he’d had, Cas in his bed—fantasies so frequent that they’d become memories in his head, even if only memories of what could have been.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he hears the council talking. Something about Sam. Something about what’s happened, about what Sam’s been doing to him without Dean even noticing. But he shoves their voices out. He doesn’t want to think about a brother whose been lost to him for an age now. He doesn’t care if Sam lives or dies.
And maybe that’s what zaps him back.
Maybe it’s that lie. Maybe it’s that lie that he just dared to think that brings him crashing back to reality because it’s just so damn wrong.
Loving Sammy is built into the fabric of his being.
So, Cas would be ashamed, he thinks, if he saw what Dean’s become.
Sam’s not dead.
“Now look, angel lover. I know you’re a slut for them but if you see one…”
Sam’s not dead.
Sam’s not dead, but it’s when he’s fitting his patrol vest on, for the first time in a long time, that he feels something other than grief.
He doesn’t know what the emotion is. He’s confused when the officer hands him the rifle. He’s still confused when he’s led to his post along the wall. But finally, it hits him.
It’s not for himself. He knows that right away. It’s Sam. It’s Sammy. It’s the fact that he’s been ignoring his little brother for months, not taking care of him like he should have, and now Dean doesn’t know how he’s going to live a month with this guilt and anxiety that’s bubbling up in his chest.
Get in the Impala, he’s thinking. Grab every spell book. Call Jody. Call Crowley, call Rowena, call…
But his kneejerk reactions are useless. He doesn’t have any of these things here. Not in this world. It’s been six months and he’s been tuned out of where he is. Six months and he hasn’t even tried to find Mom or Lucifer’s baby or the goddamn devil…
It’s been Sam doing those things. Sam warning the council that Lucifer had been angry, that he might have started gathering a demonic army with his son at the helm. Sam, training, all these months, just to be allowed to go out beyond the wall today, to look for Mom because he’d still had faith.
Dean’s faith had died with Cas.
Your brother lied to you, the council had said. He didn’t go on a supply run. He’s on a mission. He won’t be back for a month.
They hadn’t specified the details of the mission. They hadn’t told him anything other than letting him know that he was going to be on his own now. That because Bobby was gone, they wouldn’t have to tolerate him anymore. That even though Bobby had told him that he wasn’t ready, that even though the council had thought the same, it didn’t matter now because the camp was vulnerable, Bobby having taken the best soldiers out beyond the gate, and the only way that they would survive the month would be to double up the patrols, double up the protection.
From now on, you’ll be guarding the wall every night, they’d said. From now on, from dusk until dawn, you’ll be given a gun and you’ll be killing angels and anything that dares to enter this camp.
And you’ll face the consequences, they had assured him. You’ll face the consequences because Bobby won't be able to help you if you don’t meet the camp standard because if you fail, you’ll. just. be. hanged.
For one month, he’d be a hunter again.
And then, the council had said, when your brother comes back, you’ll go back to the soup kitchen.
After all, it’s where you belong.
It’s always so quiet during the night that the camp feels like a graveyard.
There are no lights on. Not along the walls. Too dangerous, they’d decided, early on when they’d been constructing the barricade. Night was when demons moved quicker, when the battles between the forces of heaven and hell grew more vicious and human causalities were the highest. So why draw their battles closer with light, the camp had reasoned, when both sides were so prone to using human camps as shields.
And it was always night when the angels came.
It was always night when they stole humans from the camp.
No watchtowers. There had been, once upon a time. It’s what Bobby had told them. But having watchtowers had just made it easier for the angels. They’d flutter in, hidden amongst the shadows of the towers where moonlight couldn’t touch them, and they'd whisper, whisper, whisper.
Come with me, human, they’d say. Come with me to the outside.
So the camp had torn the towers down. The camp had turned off the watch lights. And every five metres along the camp walls, they had installed a metal grate covered in protective sigils with which to look out.
See anything, the soldier had told Dean. See anything out there and you raise the alarm.
So maybe it's wrong when Dean doesn't.
It's when the snowfall’s getting heavier. It's when Dean’s been gazing out the grate for hours and the peak of night's come. His hands, shivering around the rifle, a rifle that he doesn’t understand why he has when the holes in the grate aren’t big enough to shoot.
It's when all of this is happening that Dean first sees the angel.
At first, he thinks he’s mistaken. There’s a blizzard out there and the grate doesn’t make it any easier. But then even past the flurry of snow, he starts to make out the angel’s body. He starts to see the angel’s uncovered tan skin, the angel's bare feet, the black tattoo inked sigils and Enochian words. His breath catches in his throat when he sees dark hair. He already feels like he's losing himself, but then he sees the wooden crown on the angel's head, crooked and so reminiscent of a halo. A reminder, Dean tells himself. A reminder that angels here are different and—and not Cas. But it doesn't seem to matter. He still finds himself caring, still finds himself clenching his teeth with desperation and wanting to help when he sees the angel's wings—massive, powerful, and black—drooping down at the angel's shoulders, dragging across the snow because there’s something wrong, Dean thinks, and the angel’s hurt.
He should call out, he knows. He should be alerting the camp, screaming at the top of his lungs that there’s a threat, but just as he opens his mouth, just before his voice can escape his throat, it’s then that the blizzard eases and it’s then that Dean finally sees the angel’s face.
He can’t breathe.
Dean can’t breathe because it’s Cas, and his fingers slip from around the rifle in his hands and he’s gone so weak at the knees that he’s going to fall, going to fall and never be able to get up. But he reaches out. He reaches out and presses a shaking hand to the grate, as Cas comes closer and closer, until Dean can see how Cas’ red blood is leaking through the bullet holes riddling his chest, staining the white ground red.
Cas keeps coming forward. Cas keeps limping towards the grate that Dean’s got his hand pressed up against, and Dean’s face is wet, and his eyes are wet when Cas lifts his own trembling hand and presses it to Dean’s own.
Every point where their skin touches across the grate feels like fire. Every place where Cas’ skin meets the sigiled metal makes his hand bleed and colour Dean’s own fingers red.
His blood is warm.
Cas quivers, a full body shudder that makes the feathers of his wings ruffle, and he meets Dean’s eyes, finally, finally. Dean presses his hand harder, harder against the grate until he’s cutting his skin and there’s nothing more that he wants then, nothing more than to knock it down and out of the way.
“Dean,” Cas says, voice soft, quiet, a whisper.
Dean finally breathes.
“Cas,” he croaks, swallows hard as his throat tries to close up again and again. “God, Cas.”
“I’m...injured,” Cas tells him, and he drops his eyes away, quivers violently again, keeps shivering even afterwards. "I need help."
Cas’ hand slips from the grate. He sways on his feet.
“Hey,” Dean says, terrified, and he clutches at the grate helplessly. “Hey. Hang on. Hang on. Don’t you dare leave me. I’m going—Cas, I’m going to get you. You're—you're gonna be okay. You're—”
“I can’t come inside," Cas says and his eyes glitter. He looks up at Dean again. “They’ll shoot me if I do."
So will you come to the outside, human?
Will you come here? Will you come to the outside and take care of me?