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Scents of an Empire

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Castiel dismounts his sweat-slicked horse and hands the reins to the soldier waiting at its side for a brush-down.

The village looks just like every other village they’ve subjugated so far on their campaign through the northern wilderness of this foreign empire. It sprawls over the sloping mountainside, nothing but rough wooden animal enclosures and wattle-and-daub hovels slapped together haphazardly around a single muddy river. It’s poor and squalid, but at least not sacked. Most of the peasants—omegas, children, and beta women especially—have hidden themselves inside their huts, out of sight of the army, but a few adult alphas and thrill-seeking teenagers creep curiously around while the village head makes their formal surrender to Michael and Zachariah.

They’ve been on the march all day, General Michael riding in front with his personal guard, and the hoplites and phalanx on foot behind them. The rest of the cavalry follows them, with the baggage train teeming with craftspeople, servants, slaves and supplies, and an additional guard keeping watch at the rear.

Castiel has done this a hundred times, and there’s no suspense anymore about which towns will fight and which will surrender. Occasionally Michael’s forces are challenged by Tartarian provincial defenders, but most of these isolated mountain tribes take one look at the Enochian army spread out for miles in organized march formation, bronze cuirasses and greaves gleaming in the sun, and immediately capitulate.

Castiel is bored.

Having already ridden up the slope to the center of the settlement for the post-surrender meeting with Michael, he has nothing to do but wait until the general finishes his business with his personal guard.

He turns toward the river with the intention of washing the horse stench off his thighs while he waits. Behind him, Zachariah works himself up into a rage, demanding more and better tribute on Michael’s behalf. Getting louder doesn’t help when none of the people here speak the language, but reminding the self-important beta of that fact didn’t work the last several times he tried, and Hael’s already headed in that direction to intervene.

It isn’t as though there’s much to confiscate as “tribute” out here anyway. They could commandeer some pigs, probably, maybe a few baskets of onions, but he’d be surprised if a village of this size could scrape together even a hundred limlal of silver. It’s really only Michael who gains from this surrender, as he can add the name of the village to his list of territories conquered and annexed to the Enochian Empire. Glory be to Michael the Conqueror, and all that.

When Castiel reaches the riverbanks, he finds he’s not the only one there.

A half-starved villager in rags—an omega, by scent—balances on a rock by the water, filling a jug. There’s something strange in his movements. It takes Castiel a moment to realize he’s only using one arm. His other is held curled protectively against his side.

Castiel frowns.

When the boy turns around in alarm at the sight of the warrior, it's obvious by the way it's bent that his arm is badly broken and needs to be set before it can heal properly. The state of his face is hardly better; a mottled green and yellow bruise spans his left temple all around his eye to the bridge of his swollen nose. His neck carries fresher bruises, black and purple lines in the shape of fingerprints. Quickly, the boy lowers his eyes and goes back about his business, newfound haste making the slippery work more difficult.

Accustomed as he is to the violence of the battlefield, Castiel has seen his fair share of brutality, but this is an omega in a middle-of-nowhere farming settlement. There can’t be more than a dozen families living here, practically in each other’s pockets. Surely someone should be protecting him.

Castiel stands still and watches as the boy picks up the jug in his good arm and staggers precariously away back toward the village hovels. He keeps his eyes down and head bowed submissively as he hurries past, a thick set of welts just visible under the back of his shirt collar.

Troubled, Castiel follows him with his eyes until he’s gone around a distant woodshed, then climbs down the riverbank and wades into the water to splash his face and thighs.

Once his legs and face are clean and dripping with the freezing water typical of these mountain streams, he makes his way up the incline to where Balthazar, his least intolerable peer, is giving orders and reprimanding soldiers under his command. The phalanx is busy rounding up everything edible in the town—cattle, grain stores, garden vegetables, horse feed—leaving only the very youngest calves and what’s already inside people’s homes for the villagers to sustain themselves on. The village head looks on wordlessly, carefully repressing his impotent rage except in his scent and trembling hands. It’s a hard blow for the village, but better to surrender 80% of what they have than to lose it all and their lives besides.

Castiel comes up behind Balthazar, one of the few other soldiers in crimson instead of white. The color of his chiton marks him as one of Michael’s closest advisors. Castiel, Zachariah, and Naomi wear the same.

“Did I miss a skirmish?” Castiel asks in lieu of greeting.

The other alpha snorts, distracted with his oversight of the logisticians doing inventory. “I wish! I haven’t seen even a scuffle since Pontiac. Why do you ask?”

“I saw an omega in the village with a broken arm and signs of a beating. Looked a few days old, but I wondered.”

“What, if the blows were ours? I should think not. No one in the infantry’s green enough to think Michael wouldn’t have them whipped for dishonoring a surrender, even one as piddling as this. Besides, we’ve barely settled in. Who’s had the time?”

“So I figured. Which means someone in the village is beating their own omega.”

“Probably.”

Balthazar takes a bag of grain off a passing hoplite’s shoulders and splits it open for inspection, sifting through it for a long moment before noticing Castiel’s disgruntled scowl out over the village.

“So what if they are?” he asks, perplexed. “Bugger likely deserved it. You know these filthy barbarian types, Castiel. The only things they respond to are food and violence.”

Castiel grunts noncommittally. Balthazar’s view of Enochian superiority is a common one and serves the empire as a convenient justification for the subjugation of the various barbarian tribes encountered in the general’s ever more obsessive pursuit of Lucifer.

Privately, Castiel subscribes to the Wheel of Fate theory instead—they who are high today will be brought low tomorrow, and vice versa.

That’s not the sort of thing one says aloud in Michael’s army, however.

He’s saved from answering by the approach of Michael and Naomi, both equally thin-lipped in their disdain for the pigs being herded across their path. Michael’s bronze cuirass is inlaid with gleaming ivory over his crimson chiton, and a gold diadem sits on his head. His cloak is royal purple instead of the mustard yellow of the rest of the troops, kept conspicuously immaculate at all times by his team of personal servants. It’s a point of honor to him, both as a symbol of his social distance from the Enochian rank and file, and as a beacon to the enemies who face him on the field; Michael may be imperious and unapproachable among his own soldiers, but no one faults him on his courage or zeal for battle.

They meet briefly where they stand, following their usual pattern, Zachariah yet again voicing his complaint that the isolated tribes of these remote mountain valleys don’t even speak the language of their supposed empire. They do—Castiel has already heard at least two villagers falter along in a Tartarian pidgin in the mere hour he’s spent in the town proper—but most of them only interact with their fellow villagers their whole lives and thus never learn more than their obscure mountain tongue. Even if they did speak fluent Tartarian, Castiel suspects Zachariah would complain anyway—it isn’t Enochian, after all. The general and the rest of the lieutenants all ignore him.

Michael takes reports from Balthazar and Naomi regarding the updated food situation and from Castiel regarding the state of their equine reserves and feed. They’ll need a fresh supply of horses soon to make up for attrition, but otherwise they’re in good standing. Michael dismisses them back to their camps for the evening.

Balthazar turns to Castiel. “Shall I swing by yours later for supper? Only another two hours or so and the last of the requisitions should be in.” Castiel agrees. They usually dine together in the evenings, the closest of the officers both in rank and background.

Castiel meets his groom who is waiting with the horses down the path, mounts back up onto the padded saddle cloth, and starts on the ride back toward the cavalry camp about an hour down the hill. They pass crowds of phalanx campsites under construction along the way, canvas tents roped to anchoring stakes. The seven thousand phalangites inundate the tiny two-hundred-person mountain village.

He’s just crossed out of the phalanx campsite and passing the worst of the local hovels when a strong scent reaches him.

Omega pain and despair.

Slowing down, he looks into the wind. He considers for a second; they’re almost at the cavalry camp and it wouldn’t be much of a walk. His cavalry are spread all over the fields here at the edge of the village, grazing over a couple of square miles along the river at the base of the mountain slope, twelve hundred alpha and beta soldiers strong. On the off-chance that one of them is breaking regulations by interfering with the local people, he has an obligation to investigate.

He dismounts and sends his groom ahead with the horses, then turns right and follows the scent down a squalid street—if a two-inch deep muddy set of wagon ruts can be called a street—until he reaches a shack at the lowest point of the terrain, where mud, urine, and kitchen debris in the form of old feathers and entrails form a pool against the foundation outside the misaligned boards that make up the front wall. A rancid skin that he thinks might be deer stretches over a rotting wooden frame, the tanning process abandoned halfway through.

As he approaches, Castiel sees the same injured omega he saw earlier that day come into view from behind the skin.

Unaware of his downwind observer, the boy sits hunched in silence on a woodcutting stump by a pile of chopped kindling. In spite of the reasonably warm evening, he's shaking visibly, bare arms clearly goose-pimpled

Castiel surprises himself by speaking. “Are you cold? Why don’t you go inside?”

Startled, the boy whips around and they stare at each other for an infinite moment.

Language barrier. Obviously. As if he hadn’t berated Zachariah on multiple occasions for forgetting the exact same thing.

Castiel pulls himself together.

“You need to set that arm,” he says quietly so as not to further spook the creature. The omega won’t understand his words, but tone of voice can carry intent just as well. He gestures at the broken arm. “The bone will try to heal that way if you don’t. Can I take a look?”

The omega’s shoulders tense at the attention to his arm, but he doesn’t move further away, and he doesn’t respond.

“My name is Castiel,” he says, switching to Kansian, the trading patois used by some of the northern Tartarian tribes. “Do you understand me?”

The boy—young man, really, going by his face and mature scent—eyes him up and down warily. Either he’s too mistrustful to reply, or, more probably, he only speaks the local barbarian tongue and no other.

Abandoning any hope of dialogue, Castiel approaches slowly. As he does, he assesses his condition.

There are flea bites all over his neck. The angry red lines of a brutal whipping climb out from under the collar of his oversized shirt, exhibiting signs of infection where it hangs off his bony, malnourished shoulders. Two of the fingers on the hand of his broken arm are bent, likely signs of past breaks that have likewise gone without proper care. The bruise around his eye is the most dramatic, but smaller ones also litter his upper arms—many old, some new.

Their mutual examination is interrupted by the loud crash of something breaking inside the shack, and the boy jerks in a full-body flinch, whirling to face the door with his back to Castiel. The stench of pain is eclipsed by a fresh wave of fear.

Castiel’s frown deepens as a potbellied, unshaven middle-aged beta slams his way out of the shack and staggers into the street to piss. He faces away from the two of them, swaying as he urinates, and the wind carries the beta’s thick scent over to them, reeking of alcohol and old sweat.

The omega shrinks further in on himself when the beta finally turns around. He seems to forget the soldier behind him in his apprehension, inching backward in Castiel’s direction from the drunkard standing before them.

Castiel finds himself sickened by the implication. What does it take to make an omega more frightened of his own kith and kin than he is of a strange alpha invader? He’s followed Michael on campaign for years, and while the smell of suffering is an inherent part of the tedium of war, this stench of desperate wretchedness goes deeper than any he’s experienced. It must take years of abuse to accumulate a fear scent so layered in notes fresh and stale.

Eyes narrowed with suspicion, Castiel calls out to the beta in Kansian patois.

“Is this omega yours?”

The beta spins around in surprise before pinpointing Castiel's location. An ugly smirk stretches his mouth; it seems he knows enough Kansian to get the gist of the question.

“Yes, yes, omega. You want?”

Castiel scowls. He didn’t come down here planning to take the boy; he was driven to intervene by the sheer palpability of his misery. But even as he opens his mouth to say as much, he realizes it might be better if he did. Standing outside their wretched hovel, he can’t deny that he is outraged at whatever abuse has been going on here. He wants to do something about it.

“Yes, I want him. How much?”

The beta smiles slyly. “Five silver,” he says as if overcharging.

Castiel suppresses the urge to knock the grin off his face. He pulls out his coin purse and counts the limlal out.

The beta face splits with glee. He grabs the money in one hand, turns to the omega and barks a command in the barbarian language.

The reaction in the omega boy is immediate. His scent sharpens to desperation. He lurches up, shaking his head, only for his knees to give out and drop him in the dirt. Frantically, he babbles the same phrases over and over at the beta.

The beta’s face darkens. His lip curls up with anger, and he marches over to the omega and hauls him up to his feet.

He shoves him down with a quiet whimper over the woodpile in presenting position, yanking his pants down to bare his narrow buttocks. The boy is quaking and pleading. Castiel is already moving before he even fully realizes what he means to do.

He shoves himself between the two, backhands the beta and knocks him to ground.

“Take your hands off him!” Castiel snaps. “I’m not paying for you to whore him out to me, you imbecile. I’m buying him from you, to keep.”

The white of the boy’s naked thighs disappears from Castiel’s peripheral vision as the boy scrambles away. Castiel stays focused on the cretin sprawled beneath him.

“He’s mine now,” he continues in simple words, clear enough that the beta will understand. “I am taking him. You won’t touch him again. Do you understand?”

The beta rolls drunkenly onto his hands and knees before spitting onto the ground.

“Fifty silver!” he slurs. He wipes his bleeding mouth on the back of his hand and squints up at Castiel, glaring. “Fifty. You keep.”

Castiel opens his mouth to tell him to go to hell, but catches himself in time, seething in frustration. Michael’s standing orders are clear; once a population surrenders, all looting becomes immediately verboten. It’s the crucial carrot in Michael’s carrot-and-stick approach to conquest, and it hinges on his reputation for following it. Seizing another man’s slave is still theft of property, and Castiel cannot jeopardize this for his own whims.

“Fine.”

He counts out fifteen more from his purse and throws them in the mud. His lip curls in distaste.

“Twenty, and that’s it. You’ve broken his arm and his face. No trader would pay more for him.”

The man gropes in the muck for the money, nodding indifferently.

Behind Castiel, the omega is still trembling and scrambling backwards into deeper corners of woodpile, breath hitching and clinging to his drawstring rags with his one good hand. Castiel warily eyes the beta on the ground a moment longer, then turns and holds out his free hand to the boy.

“Come.”

The omega looks stricken, and blanches so pale that Castiel readies himself to catch him in case he passes out.

The boy looks frantically between Castiel and the beta. The beta is distracted with the silver pieces, and he snaps an impatient order at him in Barbarian without raising his eyes from his counting.

If possible, the omega looks even sicker, and makes another whispered attempt to plead his case, but the beta practically tears his head off with the response. He stands there, flinching and frozen in fear, while he’s berated and gestured at, until Castiel physically reaches out and brushes his fingers along the back of his hand.

The omega’s glassy eyes turn to him in terror. Castiel nods once, encouragingly. The omega still stands petrified, oblivious to Castiel’s still outstretched hand, so Castiel reaches out and gently takes the uninjured one, remembering to be careful of the broken arm.

The beta flicks his fingers at the omega, urging him on and muttering his discontent into his pile of mud and money.

There doesn’t seem to be much point in more words, so Castiel doesn’t bother with any. He indicates the slope of the hill leading down to camp with a tilt of his head, and tugs the omega by his hand along after him. The omega follows, eyes glazed, leaving the beta now grinning at his silver pieces in their wake.

-

-

-

Balthazar is exasperatingly delighted with the whole debacle.

“You bought a slave?”

“I found him in a hovel. He was beaten and terrified. I decided to remove him.”

You bought a slave.”

Castiel glowers but doesn’t deny it. With a dry glare at Balthazar, he gently pushes the petrified omega into his tent.

Moving the youth isn’t easy, given that the closer they got to the camp, the more he seemed to freeze up. His wide eyes are glazed over and stuck to the ground about a foot in front of him. Castiel has seen this happen to new recruits sometimes when they enter their first real battle. It’s not usually a good omen for survival. Though hopefully his tent isn’t quite as bad as a field of heavily armed enemy combatants.

The whole lower field is spotted with dirty off-white tents, years of dust from the road layered over the hemp canvasses, glowing a faint gold in the last light of the setting sun. Most are only big enough for sleeping, arranged in circles around smoldering campfires, but Castiel’s is larger—room sized, and tall enough for walking around—and trimmed in the crimson dye that marks him out as a commander. His rank affords him the advantage of his own personal supply cart and servants as well.

Castiel calls toward his cart for his valet. “Hannah!”

“It’s the vertebrae through the shirt that really turns you on, isn’t it?” Balthazar continues in high humor, still close on his heels despite Castiel’s appeal for a last-minute dinner cancellation. “I think it’s the vertebrae. Or perhaps the fleas? It can’t be the stench of raw terror; you’d be useless on the battlefield if that were the case, and not even your cantankerous ass could get off on misery that much.”

“M’lord?” Hannah appears from her canopy in the cart with her usual expeditiousness.

“I need a washing basin, cloths, and boiling water. My wineskin, too, but don’t water it down yet. And bring a splint and sling for his arm, will you? I’ve got bandages in my med kit.”

“Yes, m’lord,” she says, eyeing the omega dubiously. “I’ll start a kettle right away.”

He leaves her to it, Balthazar still trailing him.

“Are you going to play medic? Can I watch?”

Castiel shuts the tent flaps in the face of Balthazar’s unrepentant grin, and at last turns to face the unfortunate youth standing paralyzed behind him.

The omega is staring motionless at Castiel’s pallet and bedroll, dimly lit by the single oil lamp sitting on his chest and kit. One small chair and portable writing desk serve his correspondence and cartography needs. Beneath the furniture, a rough but durable crimson carpet lies rolled out over the bare earth, Castiel’s guiltiest self-indulgence as a senior officer.

“This is my tent,” he says after an awkward silence. “You’ll be sleeping here tonight. Maybe longer. I haven’t made plans for you yet. This decision was a little, uh, impulsive.” He grimaces at his own gruffness, but the omega doesn’t react or even seem to hear him.

“Let’s have you sit—” Castiel reaches out to guide him to a seat, and the omega flinches so hard that Castiel is afraid he’ll fall down.

He retracts his hand quickly.

“Alright. Just sit there.”

He gestures instead of touching the young man to guide him down, and this time succeeds in getting him to lower himself hesitantly to the carpet. The boy sinks down onto his knees, almost levitating on his heels, shoulders hunched and arms cradled one in the other around his waist. His knee-length trousers and sleeveless tunic are both brown and ragged with age. The bruise spanning his face looks to be at least a week old, the darker bruises around his neck only a day or two at most. He’s barefoot and one of his toes is missing a nail.

Castiel waits until he’s seated, then slowly crouches down for introductions.

“My name is Castiel, Lieutenant Commander of the Enochian Cavalry under Michael,” he says with deliberate enunciation, touching himself in the chest. “Castiel. Cas-ti-el. What is your name?”

He moves his hand to indicate the boy’s chest, taking care to choreograph his movements well in advance. The boy’s eyes move in rapid transition between the rug and his hand, still wide with fear, but he doesn’t appear to be in total paralysis, which is an improvement.

“I am Castiel,” Castiel repeats. “Castiel. And you?”

“De-” The boy’s voice gives out in a dry little croak and he has to swallow before trying again. “Dean.”

“Dean. Good.” Castiel nods in approval.

A flea jumps off Dean’s shoulder and buries itself in the carpet. Castiel tracks it with his eyes. Dean doesn’t seem to notice, gaze still frozen somewhere around Castiel’s knees.

“Good.” Castiel nods again, and drags a hand over his face. “Okay.”

Dean stares through the carpet in silence. He doesn’t move a muscle, just exudes a choking wave of palpable misery.

“Well. You’re going to need food, and then you and I will have a long night of delousing ahead of us before bed. I’ll go tell the cook to prepare one more meal.”

Dean blinks at him uncomprehendingly.

Castiel stands and Dean’s marble statue impression breaks as he gets up to follow.

“No, no.” Castiel raises his hands to gesture him back, and Dean flinches hard again, this time taking a full step backward. Castiel scrubs another hand over his face. “Damn it.”

He gestures slowly to the carpet, and the boy settles, still tense as a board.

“Alright now… Stay.”

Dean doesn’t move, wide eyes now fixed on Castiel instead of the floor.

Castiel steps toward the entrance, hand still raised. “Stay.”

The boy remains motionless, and Castiel is satisfied that he won’t follow.

“Good. Stay. I’ll be right back.”

He leaves Dean in his tent and, wasting no more time, strides out into the night.

The cook is responsible for both his food and that of his squadron leaders, and works under Hannah’s supervision. She’ll certainly have already relayed word of the extra mouth, but he doesn’t care—he needs the five-minute walk to collect his thoughts.

The skies are clear other than where the stars are obscured by the smoke from hundreds of cooking fires. Horses blow and stamp as they graze, tied to stakes by each tent, and soldiers mutter as they doff their gear for the night. Servants from the baggage train come and go among the army, coming onto their busiest hours just as the soldiers find relief from theirs, helping to bring in water and firewood from the brush and trees in and around the settlements, cooking barley, lentils, and peas over hastily scraped firepits braced with rocks, distributing hard tack and salted fish out of jars in the general inventory wagons. Castiel’s meals tend to be better; he gets officer rations, which means fresh fruit and meat; plus he has the wealth and position to pay for additional luxuries on his own account when the standard fare becomes hard to bear.

He supposes there’s a faint possibility that the omega might run while no one’s watching, and twenty limlal isn’t a terrible loss if he does. It seems unlikely, though. And Castiel has no idea what he’s going to do with him. He hasn’t had a lot of experience with omegas in his military career, and he certainly wasn’t expecting to acquire one of his own when he entered the village this morning. Now he does have one, and he’ll have to figure something out.

At least for the present, his priorities are fairly clear; cleaning and delousing first, followed by medical care and then feeding the poor starved thing. After that, he’ll have to see. Maybe a job in the camp, fletching arrows or something if his arm isn’t permanently ruined.

Having redundantly reminded the cook to double his spread for the evening, he makes his way back to the tent just as Hannah is arriving with the first of the hot water.

“Basin. Towel. Kettle,” she says, handing each item off to him as she names them. “Next one’s starting on the fire as we speak.”

“Well done, thank you. The wine?”

“Wineskin’s on your cot. Honey, as well.”

“Good thinking.”

Castiel nods in approval and goes in again, trusting Hannah to return once the next kettle’s ready and the food’s done cooking.

The omega—Dean—is still there, face blank and shoulders tight, sitting quietly and tensely in the exact position that Castiel had left him in earlier.

Castiel comes in carefully and kneels, setting the kettle and basin to the side.

“I’m going to clean the skin of your injured arm first so we can see what we’re dealing with,” he explains even though Dean won’t understand him. “After that, we’ll have to set and bandage it. Can you remove your shirt, please?”

He tugs meaningfully at Dean’s shirt collar and the stench of fear increases even more. Castiel tries to make his intentions understood by gesturing at Dean’s cradled arm and the wash basin, but it doesn’t seem to get through to the omega, judging by the harried, terror-stricken look he gets in return.

With a resigned sigh, he gives up on gesturing and draws his knife instead. It isn’t as though the clothes are worth keeping anyway.

The omega stays rigid, trembling and barely breathing as Castiel slowly cuts the shoulders of the shirt and allows it to drop into a heap at his waist. The bruises and welts this reveals are impressive, even by a soldier’s standards.

“Well.” Castiel drags a hand over his face for the third time that night.

Having nothing to follow that up with, he pours the water from the kettle into the basin. It’s still hot, but not enough to hurt.

Castiel dampens a washcloth and starts with Dean’s stone-still, wide-eyed face. Dean flinches when Castiel reaches for him, but then holds steady.

The alpha wipes clean a small section of skin around his nose. The grime that comes off is thick and dark. He’s going to need more water.

He wrings out and re-wets the towel before returning to the omega’s face. By the time he reaches the neck, the scent of wild terror is starting to descend to a mere constant, relentless fear. In the boy’s favor, he’s clearly making an effort to control himself, and to keep the worst of it from showing on his face. Somewhere in here, there’s a vein of raw stubbornness. Castiel hopes it holds out long enough to get him through what has to come next.

Hoping to have demonstrated that he intends to help, not harm, Castiel holds out his hands for the injured arm.

Dean’s fear comes back full-force, along with his first sign of defiance. He squeezes his eyes closed and he shakes his head decisively, pulling his injured arm closer to his body to shelter it.

Castiel tries to look reassuring but firm. He uses his forefingers to indicate the bone being misaligned, and the readjustment necessary to set it so it can heal again. Dean looks, if anything, more horrified by this, but when Castiel reaches for the arm, he doesn’t resist.

Very gingerly, Castiel guides the arm away from Dean’s side and out between them. He’s careful to hold it tenderly, barely touching as he feels along the forearm for the break. The bone halves are definitely out of alignment, judging by the bend of the forearm, but probing doesn’t reveal any sharp points, which is good. That suggests a partial break, which is likely to heal better once properly set and splinted.

Releasing the arm back to Dean’s protective cradle, Castiel turns to the wineskin and jar of honey that Hannah has provided. In his own cup, he cuts the thick, sticky wine with just enough boiled water and honey to make it palatable, and then lifts it toward Dean’s lips.

Eyes moving warily between Castiel and the offering, Dean takes the cup and drinks with the enthusiasm of someone taking a vile medicine, which is in effect what it is. Setting the arm will hurt, and it will be to Dean’s benefit if they can muddle his wits at least a little beforehand.

Dean finishes his cup and Castiel pours him another, insisting that he drain it completely. While he does, Castiel changes out the water in the washbasin and returns his attention to the injured arm.

This time, he adds a little wine to the water as a disinfectant before starts carefully wiping the arm clean. Dean flinches and his shaking increases with every inch closer Castiel gets to the break. On the bright side, the bends in his fingers seem to have finished their crooked healing long ago; there’s no point fussing with them now.

Castiel eyes the omega while he drinks the last of his third cup. He’s starting to list to the side, scent already gone thick. The malnourishment and empty stomach are working in their favor. Gaze half-lidded, Dean drops his head and mumbles quietly to himself, the notes of fear lessening somewhat under the influence of the alcohol.

Ducking his head to make eye contact with him, Castiel raises his eyebrows to check that he’s ready. Dean stares back at him, unhappy and sick-smelling, but after a moment, he sets his jaw and gives a single nod back.

Castiel trails his hand lightly along Dean’s wrist to his palm and then gets the cleanest grip on it that he can and pulls with one hand, manipulating the bones quickly into place with the other.

Dean makes not a sound but turns white as a sheet. He falls forward into a curl, tears in his eyes and then down his cheeks.

Castiel shushes him soothingly without thinking about it, lets him pull his hands away and rubs his shoulder gently in the one area that doesn’t appear to be cut with whip marks. Dean pushes his hand off by reflex, but then immediately remembers himself, tenses again, face tucked and eyes averted, cradling his arm in a defensive position against his belly. He obviously expects reprisal.

At any rate, the bone is set. Castiel takes up the splints and coaxes Dean’s arm back out with a great deal of murmuring and light touches. It takes several minutes to convince him to uncurl again, and the omega’s arm is trembling heavily by the time he gets it. Castiel moves as gently as he can, bracing the now straightened arm between the splints and wrapping it carefully with bandages.

Dean sniffles but glares up through wet eyelashes at the alpha in slightly tipsy challenge for the first time. Castiel lets a small smile touch the corners of his eyes and otherwise makes a point to keep wrapping at the same slow pace.

Once he finishes the arm, he picks up the washcloth, clearly telegraphing his intentions. He raises it to Dean’s shoulder again before pausing with a question on his face.

After long moment of consideration, Dean relents again and leans a little closer to provide access to the marks on his back. With a hum of satisfaction at the concession, Castiel begins wiping Dean’s skin clean, starting with the shoulders and going down his sides.

As he works, he inspects the whip marks on the omega’s back. They’re inflamed as expected, and Castiel cleans around them with watered-down wine before applying the honey as a salve and laying bandages over that. He guides Dean into using a second washrag to take care of the grime on his chest and stomach himself while Castiel works on his back. The omega hesitates only a moment before obediently taking the cloth and getting to work on it.

Hannah comes and goes with a fresh kettle of water and a drop cloth, repurposed canvas from the cover of one of the wagons. Castiel asks her to bring a change of clothes and an extra bedroll from the inventory of the recently deceased as well when supper is ready.

With those on the way, Castiel arranges the drop cloth around them on the rug and positions Dean over it. It’s time to handle the lice in his hair.

He draws his dagger from his belt and makes deliberate eye contact before he begins, indicating by gesture the intention to scrape his head. Dean’s eyes dart between the dagger and Castiel’s face repeatedly—still wary, but increasingly tolerant of approach. Castiel waits with expectant eyebrows until the omega offers a halting nod.

Bending over Dean’s scalp, Castiel begins the process of carefully removing all his hair. The sheer quantity of lice and nits becomes visible on the drop cloth among the fallen locks. Castiel takes his time, and under his repetitive touches, Dean slowly relaxes to a degree. His scent is still strained, but the sharp sting of terror in Castiel’s sinuses has faded into a nervous determination.

Hannah comes in with dried dates and chicken from the cooks, hot off the spit and dripping grease. The effect on Dean’s attention is immediate. Castiel thanks her and holds out a drumstick to Dean.

The omega’s eyes follow the meat in hopeful hunger, and he takes it carefully from Castiel’s hands like he isn’t sure it won’t be a trick. Even after it’s in his possession, he takes a long scent before taking a tiny, nervous bite, eyes wary and watching Castiel the entire time. When Castiel doesn’t stop him, he takes a much larger bite and then speeds up, putting away the rest in less than a minute. Castiel purses his lips together and hands him another one.

He watches as Dean gorges himself at a rate that can’t be healthy, always keeping a cautious eye out for any movement from the alpha. Something in Castiel aches at his vigilance for further cruelty.

Once the bird is demolished, Castiel gestures to the omega to stand up and disrobe the rest of the way so they can finish cleaning him. Dean quails a moment, then obediently starts to remove his trousers, leaving only the loincloth beneath. He stands still, fiddling with his loincloth ties while Castiel finally gets a clear look at his hunger-jagged frame.

Castiel eyes him over once before nodding, and turns to dish out a small plate of oil and pumice from the jars in his chest. Dean is malnourished, but with good bone structure. He was probably well-fed up until he presented, most likely. A lot of these Tartarians don’t consider it a good investment to feed an omega, and it wouldn’t be surprising.

He hands over the prepared pumice and a strigil, tugs the drop cloth smooth again over the rug beneath them, and then motions at Dean’s loincloth, indicating that he wants nothing missed. Reluctantly, Dean removes the loincloth too, leaving himself completely naked, and gets to work hurriedly cleaning himself with one arm.

Castiel stays seated, exuding as much stillness and disinterest as he can, and pointedly looks away to busy himself with his own neglected meal.

Head bowed under the embarrassment, Dean finishes as quickly and quietly as he can, scraping off oil and dirt one-handed until Castiel is satisfied that any remaining fleas must be fallen to the floor. He avoids the alpha’s eyes all the while Castiel does a quick scan for missed places.

Castiel rewards him with a towel to cover his lap and with more dried dates, and then makes him sit still while Castiel inspects his chest, back, and limbs for any insect sign he’s missed.

Finally confident that the bugs have been removed, Castiel bundles up the dirty clothing and drop cloth and tosses them out the tent flaps for the launderers to boil later. He makes Dean wipe down head to toe one more time before handing him a fresh chiton and motioning to the extra bedroll waiting to be unrolled on the carpet.

Dean’s eyes fly up to meet and hold Castiel’s gaze in surprise. Castiel merely raises an eyebrow and gestures for him to get dressed. Then he turns back to the washbasin, changes out the pumice dish and gives himself a quick and thorough wash as well, taking care to comb through his hair to prevent any lice from attempts to relocate.

Half-stripped down amidst his own ablutions, Castiel glances over his shoulder at the omega now dressed and wrapped in a bedroll. Dean has his face buried in an obvious affect of sleep, making a point of not looking. Castiel finishes washing quickly and dresses in his own tunic.

He climbs into his solitary cot and goes to sleep.

-

-

-

The next morning, the army breaks camp early to get back on the move. Lucifer has taken refuge at a provincial capital three hundred miles to the north, and Michael is champing at the bit to cut off his most important supply route while it’s unprotected.

The grassy meadows at the base of the mountain are a noisy contrast to last night, the chinking sound of sword belts and horse tack a steady background to the chatter of soldiers and shouted orders of squadron leaders. Alphas, betas, and even a few omegas bustle around camp, dismantling tents, wrapping up ropes and stakes, and tying bedrolls into knots for the journey. Servants carry cooking pots back to the carts along with still-damp laundry from further down the river where it’s been beaten with lye and sticks. The cavalry feed the horses barley in bags and water them in groups at the river. Soldiers lace up cuirasses of stiff, glued linen layers, fastening greaves over slotted leather boots. In anticipation of the afternoon heat of the summer sun, most won’t put on their helmets unless an ambush takes place, instead hanging them from hooks on their padded cloth saddles with their lances as they ride.

Castiel feeds Dean a breakfast of bread, cheese, and grapes brought from his personal wagon. Like the night before, Dean’s eyes widen and his scent grows sharper at the sight of the food. He doesn’t reach for it, however, or even allow his gaze to linger for long until the plate is literally shoved into his hands. He finishes his breakfast as quickly as he did his supper, and looks cautiously at Castiel before lowering his eyes and taking up a demure kneeling position again. Castiel watches him thoughtfully for a second, then steps out of the tent to find Hannah.

“I’ll be riding my destrier today, not the palfrey. I want Dean with me for part of the ride. You can start breaking down the tent as soon as he’s finished with ablutions and fixed with a sling.”

“Yes, m’lord.” She pauses, then turns back with pursed lips. “Does he know how to perform ablutions?”

Castiel sighs and thinks for a moment, taking the question seriously.

“He did fine with the pumice and oil last night. His teeth are in good shape. Skin and hair less so, but that may have been lack of opportunity rather than lack of intent. You should go in with him to confirm that he knows where the tooth twigs and toiletries are kept.”

“Oh, joy.”

“He doesn’t speak any language used outside this valley, so you’ll have to make do with gestures. You might start on teaching him a few words if you get the chance; I haven’t had a chance to begin yet.”

“As you wish, m’lord.”

She heads for cart with his personal chest, and Castiel watches her go before looking back into the tent through the open flaps.

The light of the morning sun diffuses through the dirty white canvas of the tent, casting a dim yellow luster over the newly shaved head of the omega within. Dean looks different in the clean white chiton, arms and legs bare like any Enochian soldier. He seems skinnier without the hair and clothes to swim in, particularly in his jutting collarbones and tendons of his newly washed neck, but at least his appearance is less distressing this way.

Leaning over Castiel’s raised pallet, Dean tentatively fingers the pillow and blanket hems. He lifts the cloth to his face and then, very slowly, smells it with a tiny smile. It’s clear that he thinks he’s alone.

Castiel watches with a disturbed kind of sadness. This is a military camp, and although the small wooden rack and thin mattress he sleeps on is a privilege reserved for those who can afford their own personal wagons, his bedroll is merely regulation, no different from the spare given to Dean—four gray layers of thin, rough wool, and infrequently cleaned. The pillow is just a linen sleeve wrapped around a canvas bag stuffed with straw. It certainly isn’t worthy of that sort of touch and appreciation.

Still unaware of his observer, Dean next turns to the small lacquered box containing Castiel’s medical kit and traces a pale finger along the stained, scarred wood, damaged from years of cart transit and rough treatment. It was quality when he bought it, seven years ago and heading out on the campaign, but Castiel’s priority was in the hardiness of the hinges and the watertight seal of its seams. He hasn’t cared for its surface appearance; hasn’t had the ability to.

From the med kit, Dean’s attention shifts to the similarly abused lacquered chair and writing table, the straw-strewn crimson carpet, and finally his own secondhand bedroll spread over it. He runs his hand over the wool with an animated grin that Castiel hadn’t imagined he carried in him.

Castiel goes back into the tent and Dean freezes up, going stiff in a way that’s all the more obvious after Castiel’s glimpse of the explorative nature beneath his shell.

Eyes down and expression carefully smoothed out, Dean steps gracefully back to kneel in the corner out of Castiel’s way. Castiel moves past him to the med kit and gets out the sling. He turns back to Dean.

“I’d like to see your arm, please. I want to check your splint before we set up the sling.”

Dean’s gaze stays firmly on the floor around Castiel’s ankles.

“Arm,” Castiel says again, holding out his own to demonstrate. He might as well start Dean with some basic Enochian words. “Arm. Please give me your arm.”

Dean glances up and quickly back down, and then tentatively holds out his injured arm.

“Good.” Castiel smiles to show his approval.

Without pressing for more, he matter-of-factly checks and re-wraps the splints, then arranges and ties the arm up into a sling to keep it out of harm’s way during the day’s ride. Dean remains pliant and keeps his eyes demurely lowered throughout the entire process, the scent of his tension not dissipating in the least.

Castiel leads him outside and stands him out of the way while Hannah goes past them into the tent to start rolling up bedrolls and carrying away the chair and writing table back to his cart.

His groom, Inias, is already outside with the destrier. The muscular bay stallion tosses its head with impatience, heavy and stamping. Its white quilt saddle is already belted around its chest above and behind its forelegs, hooks sewn into the sides waiting to hold Castiel’s round shield and helmet when he rides.

Castiel approaches in bronze cuirass and greaves, xiphos in its scabbard at his belt, and tugs on the saddle straps to test their give. Then he turns to Dean and holds out a hand.

“Come on.”

Dean goes rigid, but Castiel lifts him up anyway onto the horse, then grips the strap sewn into the center of the saddle and, swinging a bare thigh over the horse’s rump, mounts up behind him. He wraps one arm firmly around Dean’s too-thin waist, and then takes his lance and shoulder strap from his groom, putting it on over his armor and cloak.

He dismisses the groom to his post in the baggage train with Castiel’s other two horses, and nudges the destrier into a walk toward the field where the cavalry is assembling.

The scent of fight-or-flight begins to crawl into Castiel’s nose as he presses up behind Dean, now inches away from the back of his neck, but with nothing he can say to reassure him, Castiel takes a breath and just tries to exude calm as much as he can.

The soft grassy ground of the fields by the river, now grazed to stubble and littered with manure and debris, gives up very little dust as the horses and carts gouge deep ruts and slices into the earth. The carts teeter and rock over uneven terrain on their way to their place in formation on the dirt road through the village, and one overturns—not unusual, but that driver will be soaking welts tonight for her inattention. Michael’s select guard leads the way, already out of sight over the ridge; the phalanx, hoplites, and hypaspists follow, and then Castiel’s cavalry, split into fore and rear guard around the baggage train. The entire 32,000-strong army is on the move.

Castiel moves ahead and behind to keep an eye on things, swapping people out, taking reports from scouts, and handling cavalry issues brought to him by the squadron leaders. Balthazar does the same with his phalangites, and Castiel frequently rides up to pair with him and discuss things—Naomi’s ambitions, Zachariah’s tantrums, the thrice-translated local info collected from conquered villagers regarding the anticipated terrain on their way north. It’s a routine they will hold for over a week before they reach their next military target.

For Dean, the trek is much less run-of-the-mill. Castiel has been hoping to soothe his anxiety by keeping attention off him, and now it seems to be paying off. The longer they ride, the more Dean’s scent calms down. Castiel works and talks around him, leaving one arm loosely around his waist at all times.

“Whatever happened to leaving your luggage in the cart?” Balthazar asks with a smirk, finally breaking the temporary moratorium on the elephant in the room. “I hope you aren’t expecting to be able to be able to fight like this.”

Castiel gives him a dry look. “It’s only for another hour or so. He needs to get an idea of the day-to-day expectations around here.”

“We ride. We camp. We ride again. Should be a short lesson.”

“Yes, well,” Castiel puts his nose to the back of Dean’s shaved head and subtly scents him. “He’s been so skittish since last night. I was thinking he’ll feel better if he gets time to know me.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ve both been getting to know each other pretty thoroughly.”

“Yes, how witty,” he says wryly. “But that aside, what can I do with him, Balthazar?”

“You’re asking me? Granted, I am rather famous for knowing my way around an omega’s boudoir, but surely that’s a matter of personal preference—”

“I’m serious. He can’t work if can’t understand orders.”

“Of course he can. Send him back to the baggage train and they’ll teach him.”

“They’ll beat him.”

“Yes. And?”

Castiel is silent, unwilling to open himself up to mockery.

Balthazar sighs dramatically. “Oh really, Castiel. You make such an ordeal of the strangest things. I’d think you a dainty well-bred omega yourself if I hadn’t seen you lopping off heads in battle just a fortnight ago.”

“He’s been beaten enough for a lifetime, alright? Look at him.” Unaware that he’s the subject of conversation, the omega doesn’t turn his gaze from the road ahead of them. But with the sling and the bruises around his eye, he makes a pitiful sight.

“Yes, I’m aware he’s a mess. I don’t see why that should prevent him learning basic commands. Literally every officer takes foreign slaves on campaign, Castiel. They learn the language. They always do. And once he understands it, then avoiding beatings will be easy enough, won’t it?”

At Castiel’s extended silence, Balthazar’s eyebrows rise.

“Or don’t send him back, if you don’t want to. Though I didn’t think you the type for a bed slave.”

Castiel doesn’t answer, but merely shoots Balthazar an unamused look. Then he rides ahead to check on the light cavalry, leaving his friend to watch speculatively in his wake.

-

-

-

Night falls. The senior officers’ meeting with Michael lets out just after sundown. Castiel has been busy much of the afternoon and evening. They’ve been climbing into higher elevations, and despite the mild weather, the constant incline is hard on everyone, foot soldiers and horses alike. He had offloaded Dean several hours ago into the back of the cart driven by Hannah and asked her to keep an eye out for him and see that he got something to eat for midday, but his destrier still ended up running a bit hotter than was ideal by the time all campsites were placed and orders duly given.

Now he finally returns to where his tent has been set up and finds Dean inside, seated by the neatly folded bedrolls, picking at their edges. Dean looks up with a nervous start when he hears the alpha come in and quickly lowers his eyes. Castiel removes his armor and then orders two dinners brought while Dean sits motionless behind him on the rug, exuding low levels of apprehension. Making a point to calmly ignore him, Castiel proceeds to strip and bathe himself briskly according to his usual custom.

After he’s finished, he dresses in a fresh tunic and sits down to watches Dean’s stiff attempt at formal posture for a few minutes.

“Arm?” he says gently, to see if Dean remembers the word.

Dean inhales sharply but holds his splinted arm out.

“Good,” he says with a nod and smile. Dean keeps his eyes low enough that he probably doesn’t see it. Or he doesn’t react, at any rate. His scent of wariness fills the tent again, but not a sign of it crosses his face. His self-control is improving.

Castiel does a cursory check of the splint and releases it back to Dean’s protective cradle.

“Well, we’d better keep up with the delousing.”

He motions Dean into a kneeling position on the rug in order to re-wash him with his own basin and oil, and to inspect him for nits all over again. He also treats the wounds with more honey and re-bandages the arm for the night. Dean stays tense but cooperative throughout, and Castiel guides him into taking over part of the process.

Hannah shows up with roast venison, fruit, and hard-crusted bread with oil just as they’re finishing, and he takes the tray himself and portions out servings for both of them. They eat and Castiel scrubs his teeth with a laurel twig for the evening before extinguishing the oil lamp and settling down for the night in their own separate beds.

-

-

-

Days pass this way until about a week later, when Castiel is woken up in the middle of the night.

His hand goes to the sword under his pillow, because if he isn’t sure what woke him, that’s always a sure sign that someone is creeping around. The officers’ encampment has been attacked in the night before, and everyone in Michael’s army has a hair trigger response for specific nighttime noises.

Everything is silent, other than the usual occasional blow or cough from the horses over the field during their nighttime graze. The faint light from the campfires outside flickering against the tent casts dim shadows over the objects inside, barely visible as silhouettes—the wooden chest, the med kit, the ceramic washbasin, the tiny varnished chair and writing table at the far end of the tent. Dean lies just out of sight on the carpet below the edge of Castiel’s cot, but his warm scent reassures Castiel that he’s still right nearby.

The rustling of fabric comes again from right by his ear, and he almost draws the sword before he realizes it’s only Dean shifting around, and relaxes.

The susurrus comes again, then again as Dean turns over in his bedroll, changes positions, huffs a breath into the cold night air and then shifts once more. Castiel listens without moving, waiting for him to settle.

After several minutes of quiet, Dean gets up, drags his bedroll to a different location on the carpet within the tent and then lies down there instead. Castiel watches his silhouette in silence from his cot.

There’s another silent reprieve while Dean lies in his new location, shifting and repositioning himself for several more minutes, before quietly getting up and scooching the bedroll back over by Castiel’s cot again. This time, when he lies down and draws the cover up over his ears, his upper shoulder ends up close enough that Castiel can see he’s shivering.

Far later than it should, it dawns on him that the rocky ground and chilly air of the mountain pass they’ve camped in must be particularly harsh on a malnourished body without the extra muscle and fat to insulate it. The army bedrolls usually serve their purpose quite well, with a padded quilt underside and a dual layer of wool over the top, sewn up at the foot and sides to make a cozy sack; but then many soldiers pluck grass and stuff their top layer when they’re headed for colder climes, and neither Castiel nor Hannah had thought to do so on the omega’s behalf.

Castiel watches for another minute more as Dean shivers and repositions, and then shifts uncomfortably in his roll again.

Finally, with a sigh, Castiel sits up in his cot, swings his legs down out of the warm comfort of his own covers and taps Dean’s shoulder.

Dean startles and freezes, a guilty scent overlaying the expected fear from having woken the alpha. Castiel taps him again, prodding him until he sits up, well-wrapped arm still carefully cradled against his chest.

Motioning at him further until he rises to his feet, Castiel lifts Dean’s now empty bedroll up onto the cot, and then stuffs it into his own. The fabric is warm with Dean’s residual body heat, but not as warm as Castiel’s padded one. Nose full of the omega’s scent, Castiel crawls back inside the outer bedroll, keeping to the outside of Dean’s, and holds the mouth of the innermost one open in invitation.

Dean stares at him through the darkness, arms wrapped tight around his torso and shivering.

“Come on,” Castiel finally prompts in a low whisper. “I’m not waiting for you all night. Get in here.”

Dean takes one faltering step in his direction.

“Come on, already. There’s a full layer of wool in between us. I’m not trying to ravish you, you skittish thing.”

It takes another minute of tired coaxing, but the cold finally drives Dean into the innermost bedroll next to Castiel, his height and broad shoulders taking up a surprising amount of room on the small cot. He has somehow given the impression of being small up until now, no doubt related to his bony frame and hunched position. Castiel drapes his arm over his waist, taking care to avoid the splinted arm, and Dean tenses under the touch. He feels annoyingly awake, smelling of anxiety and the ever-present ache of his broken bone, but at least he’s not moving and making noise anymore.

With his own comfort benefiting from the additional heat source, Castiel burrows his face back into the blankets and falls right back into slumber without any further thought.

-

-

-

The next morning when he wakes, Dean is still a wool-wrapped bundle in his arms, but he has turned around and buried his face in Castiel’s chest in his sleep. He smells more relaxed than Castiel has yet scented him. One might even mistake him for contented.

An unfamiliar feeling worms its way into Castiel’s chest. It’s something he hasn’t felt since he was a new recruit years ago, passionate and ambitious and full of Michael’s speeches about forever eliminating the threat from Lucifer and his Tartarian Empire. It feels like anticipation, like looking forward to the day and the challenges it will bring.

He hadn’t realized how much he missed that feeling without even noticing it was gone.

He gets up and leaves Dean stirring and blinking drowsily on the cot, rubbing his splinted arm and watching Castel don his armor for the day. He chooses the heavy set with the full greaves, bronze plate and helmet, fastening his cloak across his shoulders before stepping out of the tent to meet Hannah.

“I know you’re busy with your regular tasks,” he says, glancing back at the closed tent entrance, “but I’d like you to keep an eye on Dean for the next couple of days. There’s a valuable citadel at the end of the pass, an unavoidable bottleneck in Lucifer’s supply lines, and the siege starts tonight. I’ll be on the front lines until we take the city.”

“Who is staying in camp?”

“Fifth and eighth squadrons are on supply train protection duty. Carpentry unit will be coming with us, of course.”

“Understood. When should I—we—be ready for you?”

“Michael’s estimating eight days to get past the wall. But you know he likes to be conservative.”

“So, I’ll see you in four days, then.”

Castiel smiles slightly. “If all goes well.”

-

-

-

They arrive that afternoon within sight of the citadel and spread out according to their typical siege formation. The massive gray stone wall looms ahead of them, three miles long and nearly thirty feet high, segmented by a dozen towers. On three sides, roads converge into three gateways, each set with large pine doors and guarded by carved stone bears on either side. The fourth side of the fortress is partly cut into bedrock, making use of the natural craggy features of the mountain pass. Outside where Michael’s army gathers, long stands of timber climb over nearby mountainsides, interspersed with pastureland littered with fresh goat dung and a few scattered bones. The surrounding areas of the pass are deserted now, every human, animal, and scrap of fodder already hidden behind the walls in anticipation of the advancing Enochian forces.

The bastillae concentrate on the walls, providing cover fire as the hoplites run the sheltered battering ram up to the gate and the rest of the forces wait just out of range. The first waves of Tartarians to show themselves try dropping incendiaries onto the ram’s roof from above, but Naomi’s archers drive them back before they do any damage. Once the gate is nothing but splintered wood, the Enochians swarm through, laying waste to the defenders immediately inside. It’s a bloodbath, and Castiel is high on his warhorse, wielding his javelin in the thick of it.

All told, they take the city in five days.

He meets with Michael in the deposed king’s former quarters, the previous tenant’s blood still cooling in a pool in the corner. Michael hands down orders to each of his lieutenants—directing executions, arranging the installation of puppet rulers, laying out the division of spoils. They stay overnight in the occupied keep, the raucous celebration of the rank and file lasting long into the night outside.

Castiel does not share their jubilation. The victory was satisfactory and his muscles pleasantly sore with the exertion, but the triumph doesn’t mean much in itself. They’re not going to do anything with the territory, they won’t build or grow anything here—it’s just another notch on Michael’s belt, occupied only temporarily to prevent Lucifer doing the same.

Balthazar claps him on the back and congratulates him on his tactics in the inner keep. Michael thanks him for his courage in the defense of the engineers after they’d breached the wall, and gifts him the title to a massive plot of land in the last province they conquered, one that Castiel only has vague memories of and will probably never return to again. He ought to be feeling good about this. He used to feel good about this; he would glow with pride for days after achievements and accolades like these.

He doesn’t know what’s wrong with himself lately.

-

-

-

Bone-tired, he makes his way back to the main camp almost a week after leaving it.

Fifth and eighth squadrons walk the camp’s perimeter in pairs, greeting their comrades with raised arms as they return. Castiel passes a team with a nod, plodding along tiredly on his horse among a wave of fifty or so as the crowds of cavalry slowly trickle back from the siege.

He’s covered in grime, a week’s worth of sweat, blood, and dust, and all he wants is a proper wash with oil and hot water. The late afternoon sun is warm, offsetting the crisp air of this elevation. The cooks of the baggage train have been making the most of their five days break, cobbling together tall piles of stones to form temporary bread ovens.

Inside the tent, Dean is waiting for him, wrapped in a fur from Castiel’s belongings over his chiton. Posture straight and eyes demurely lowered, he kneels on the rug in the tent. It’s been only six days, but he already looks so much better, the facial bruising gone and the neck marks faded to a healing yellow-green. He smells healthier, energetic and alert.

As Castiel enters, Dean bows and says in a heavy accent, words all run together, “Whalefoughtmylode.”

Castiel pauses a moment to decipher this, blinking, and then takes off his helmet. “Thank you.”

“HowmayIsahbeyou?” The faint hint of determination reaches Castiel’s nose, and he feels a prick of pride in the omega. Dean has clearly been putting effort into his studies with Hannah during Castiel’s absence. Castiel wonders how much he understands of the phrases he’s using. He wonders if Dean would be able to follow any answer Castiel gave him.

“I require nothing at present,” he answers, keeping an eye out for Dean’s reaction as he continues to disassemble his armor.

Dean’s eyes glance up to meet Cas’ before he catches himself and lowers them again. Judging by the confused, strained look on his face, that was not one of the responses he’s learned.

“Nothing,” Castiel says more simply.

Dean bows again, and Castiel passes him for his cot, unlacing his chin strap and doffing his helmet with a sigh.

“Myunwohzybodyisyohztocommand, mylode.”

Castiel spins around to stare at him.

No blush tints the omega’s cheeks. The low-level scent of wariness that permeates the tent is no sharper than before, and Dean’s shoulders remain straight and lowered.

Just another of Hannah’s stock phrases, then.

He’ll have to have a word with her about the difference between teaching someone to speak a language and teaching them to actually understand it.

Castiel drops his cloak on the bedroll, and then kneels in front of Dean with a sigh.

“For what it’s worth, there’s nothing unworthy about you,” he says, trying to catch his gaze, but Dean’s eyes remain formally on the ground, doubtless trained that way.

“But in any case, I don’t require offerings made in ignorance, and I really don’t require obsequiousness from my retinue, Hannah’s preferences notwithstanding. I may have the privilege of a nicer rug beneath my tent, but we all come back smeared in the same blood and dirt.”

Castiel pats him on the shoulder, which noticeably no longer earns him a flinch, and then stands and moves over to the cot again to unlace the sides of his cuirass.

With the sides loosened, he’s just awkwardly beginning to contort his arms to get the armor up over his head when the weight is lifted off him by a second set of hands.

He turns in surprise, once freed of the cuirass, to watch Dean set it carefully on the cot before dropping to his knees to unlace Castiel’s bronze greaves. Castiel looks down at the bowed, shaved head and busy hands, hindered in reach by the fact that one of Dean’s arms is still broken in a sling. His progress is somewhat impeded despite his clear determination.

“It’s alright, I can handle my own—” Castiel begins, but stops when Dean’s head bows further forward, the scent of frustration and unhappiness overpowering the ever-present guardedness for once.

“…Alright. Go ahead.”

Dean resumes his work and eventually gets them off, adding them to the rest of the armor pile with care. He then stands and tugs ineffectively at Castiel’s crimson chiton until that is removed as well.

Eyes still averted, Dean motions Castiel over to the steaming bowl of prepared washing water.

Frowning lightly, Castiel follows and sits as directed. Dean displays a surprising amount of resolve now that he’s begun.

He soaks a washcloth and begins at the back of Castiel’s neck in a one-armed parody of the bathing Castiel assisted Dean with on his first day. Castiel closes his eyes and allows him to inexpertly wash, oil, and scrape his upper body clean of the week’s sweat and dust. It takes longer than when Castiel does it himself, but it’s strange. There’s a sort of wonder in receiving this type of attention from someone else.

Dean finishes by massaging oil into the muscles of Cas’ upper back with one hand, having completely abandoned all use of the other arm earlier in the process. It feels good to be touched in a careful way, with deliberation instead of direction or violent intent. There’s almost a meditative calm between them.

He reluctantly stops Dean when he reaches the waistband of Castiel’s perizoma, turning and catching Dean’s oil-soft hand in his own.

“It’s alright. I’ll do that part myself. Why don’t you go find Hannah? You know Hannah? You can tell her we’re ready for some food.” He bows his head to catch Dean’s lowered gaze, searching his eyes for comprehension. “Ask Hannah for food. Hannah. Food.” He gestures to his mouth as if eating. “Alright?”

Dean nods and gets up without verbal response. He disappears out the flaps and Castiel wonders if he’s understood.

In the meantime, he works the washcloth around his genitals and thighs, moving quickly in case Dean should come back early, and dresses in a fresh chiton.

Hannah enters with a platter of food and Dean close on her heels just as Castiel finishes tying his belt.

“We have fresh figs and carrots from local requisitions, m’lord. The pigs from the citadel are still being slaughtered, but there’s fresh bread, and the cooks did acquire several fat geese.”

“That’ll do nicely, Hannah. Thank you.”

In addition to the aforementioned treats, the platter holds the usual ration of pickled olives. Hannah departs and Castiel waves Dean down to sit beside him on the rugs.

“Do you know what these are called?” he asks out of curiosity. “These olives?”

Dean only nods. Castiel chews one and decides to try another tack.

“What’s this?” he asks, and gestures with the bread before handing it to the omega.

Dean hesitates only a moment before answering quietly. “Brayd.”

“Good. Bread.” He tears a piece from his own loaf before biting into it, and gestures for Dean to do the same. Dean does, falling onto his meal with relish.

Castiel tests the limits of Dean’s new knowledge as they eat. He points to items one by one.

“What’s this?”

“Cup.”

“Good. What’s this?”

“Aine.”

“Wine.”

“Www-Wine.”

“Good. This?”

“…”

“This is the tent. Tent.”

“Taint.”

“Um,” Castiel pauses and smiles. “Good. Show me your arm.”

Dean looks stymied for only a moment, but then he raises his injured arm in its sling. He risks a rare glance at Castiel’s face for confirmation, and Castiel does his best to radiate approval.

“That’s good, Dean. You’re doing very well. Very well done.”

A small, fleeting smile crosses Dean’s face for the first time and then vanishes just as quickly. Castiel stares after it with his own smile, strangely caught by it. They continue to eat.

He checks on Dean’s splint and changes the bandages as usual after dinner, noting the wound’s progress in the time he’s been gone. Hannah has taken good care of him, and the arm is significantly improved in color. Castiel confirms the inflammation is gone from Dean’s welts on his back, and then they retire for the night.

-

-

-

Castiel leans back in his cot, watching as the fading twilight casts the close space in a dark orange glow. He studies Dean spreading out his bedroll over the rug beside him with his one good arm, the extra fur beneath it for padding like it’s already old habit.

Dean’s covers are amply stuffed now, just like any veteran’s on the march, and he’s been sleeping alone in the tent for several days while Castiel was at the front. There isn’t any reason to think he’ll be cold in the night, or that the ground hasn’t been properly cleared of rocks over the full week that camp’s been here. Doubtless he still distrusts the alpha too much anyway, or simply just prefers his space. But that missing feeling after this week’s victory won’t stop niggling in the back of Castiel’s mind—that lack of anticipation, that lack of satisfaction.

On impulse, he raises his covers in invitation.

Dean’s head jerks up at the motion and freezes. The responding olfactory spike in apprehension is immediate. Castiel almost puts them back down right away in chagrin, but forces himself to hold position long enough to make his offer.

Dean stares at him watchfully for a long second, eyes vividly green from two feet away.

A moment passes, and then another.

Finally, with the careful movement of hunted prey, Dean shakes his head the tiniest amount. A clear refusal.

He continues to watch Castiel warily, and Castiel feels ashamed. There was no need to frighten the poor creature on such a momentary passing whim.

He lets the blanket fall with an exaggerated shrug and closes his eyes.

Minutes go by with no sound of movement beside him, even though Dean’s bedroll is still only half prepared. Castiel tries to ignore it, turns over to face the other way and tries to will himself to sleep.

He doesn’t feel disappointed, after all. It wasn’t the cuddling touch of him anyway, he thinks, that had caught his attention the other night, before the siege. It wasn’t Dean’s scent, it was just—the novelty, probably. Just that it had been different. Lots of things in the world are different from fighting.

He will find other ways to break the monotony of the never-ending fruitless campaign.

A warm hand slips under Castiel’s covers and suddenly Dean is crawling in behind him.

Castiel’s eyes fly open again.

Dean settles next to him under the blanket with his back to Castiel, nothing between them but their own tunics. He’s still tense, but clearly testing the waters. Castiel slowly turns over again, shifts his arm over Dean’s side to spoon him and doesn’t move beyond that. Dean exhales softly.

Castiel lays there with eyes open in the darkness for quite some time, allowing Dean’s scent to wash over him. It’s profoundly affecting, ordinary in a way that almost catches in his throat.

It’s the first time, he realizes, that Dean doesn’t smell afraid. Tightly wound, still—tense, certainly, and that might even be baseline normal for him—but not afraid.

Castiel stares into the back of his head with a growing warmth in his chest. This scent change, this small sign of increasing trust from Dean, sparks something deep in him that he hasn’t felt in years. In a strange way, he feels almost idealistic. Inspired, to do what, he doesn’t know.

And for what? What great achievement is this? A half-glimpsed smile, a silent concession that he’s not a terrifying monster lying in wait? He just pulled off a successful siege that will cut off the head of the largest empire ever known. He’s conquered nations, slain viceroys, played a vital role in the victories that have led to the expansion of Enochian interests across the mapped world and beyond. Surely, that is real achievement; that is making a difference in the world; that is worth feeling something for, surely.

So why is it only now that feels like waking from an endlessly repeating dream?

-

-

-

June turns into July, and the Enochian army continues on its journey through the valleys of the Tartarian north, lush greenery and flowering grasses billowing around them under clear skies.

As always, the day-to-day is almost mundane in its unpredictability—the strangeness of landmarks, the alien languages and customs, all come and go in such a way that their very variety is too ephemeral to be interesting.

Dean’s steady and measurable progress, on the other hand, is anything but dull.

He expands his lexicon from a few dozen words for food and body parts to almost a hundred terms for the objects and people in their immediate vicinity. Sentences remain out of his grasp, due to the complicated conjugation system of Enochian verbs, but as his confidence slowly increases, his use of gestures and face expressions grows to compensate.

Every day, Dean rides in the cart or with Castiel while he goes about his duties, and every night, Dean helps him disarm and massages the knots out of the muscles in his shoulders and neck. They eat supper together as Dean practices his Enochian. He no longer flinches at the merest touch, and he holds eye contact more like an equal. His arm heals enough that the sling can be packed away into the med kit again, and the nits and bruises are entirely gone.

To Castiel’s surprise, a very handsome young man begins to emerge from beneath. He practically glows with new health, a keen perceptiveness in his eyes now that he’s alert and not half-starved. His hair starts to grow back in, and he begins to smile, particularly when Castiel returns to the tent in the evenings. Signs slowly emerge of a long-buried sense of humor and surprisingly strong opinions about a great number of things.

He wants to ride, for one, and is stubborn as hell about practicing until he actually becomes good at it. He points to Castiel’s reserve cavalry horses and asks “I? Horse, I?” until Castiel starts him on a cart horse instead, since a warhorse is no docile creature to learn on. There’s a heart-stopping moment when the horse spooks and Dean takes a fall on his second day, but he climbs right back on with such a look of determination that Castiel can smell his own vicarious pride in him. In less than two months, Dean is riding with a skill on par with some of the greener cavalrymen.

He also insists on learning the sword, and begins by mimicking defensive positions with a stick while watching the hypaspists pair off and train. A spear is out of his capabilities while his arm is still weak, but the one-handed xiphos is a reasonable alternative, and Castiel favors the blade himself.

“Again. Again!” Dean insists after Castiel disarms him of his stick. He picks up the training weapon and Castiel comes over to stand behind him with one hand on a bicep and the other on his elbow, guiding his arms through the guard positions.

“It’s not as if he understands verbal instructions,” Castiel explains, red-faced, when Balthazar brings it up with raised eyebrows. “You have to move him into position and then show him the motion to aim for. He’s a decent student, for all that—very motivated.”

Balthazar leans on a wagon and sighs, his phalanx doing drills behind him. “Has it never occurred to you that he might be ‘motivated’ to train in order to murder his lord and master in his bed?” he asks dryly.

“No, of course not. Dean wouldn’t do that.”

Balthazar looks dubious. “Just don’t let that foreign vixen wrap you too tightly around his finger, old friend. You can’t truly know what you can’t truly understand.”

But Castiel does know Dean, and understands him better each day.

He knows Dean likes greasy food, sugary pastries, fast horses, and loud bawdy songs. He watches Dean as he taps his foot and quietly sings along with the lower-class hoplites when they launch into their raunchy ditties around the fire, learning the lyrics phonetically and copying their obscene gestures with a laugh.

He knows Dean still has nightmares about being beaten, and tends to avoid sleep unless he can burrow into Castiel’s embrace when he’s woken with arms and knees curled protectively over his head. He knows Dean likes the feel of a blade, that it makes him feel stronger and safer, better able to defend himself. He knows Dean has a particular hatred of overcompensating betas, and that Zachariah embodies all of his worst dislikes.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say Dean despises Zachariah, the beta lieutenant responsible for the hoplite infantry. He shows this disdain with increasing frequency, mimicking the lieutenant’s pomposity to Castiel behind his back, or rolling his eyes every time Zachariah finds another hapless victim to berate publically for some imagined overstep or another.

Loath to discourage this emergence from his shell, Castiel merely smiles close-lipped and tries to keep Dean out of sight whenever the two cross paths. But eventually, there is an incident he cannot prevent.

The greater section of the procession has paused for the necessary bridging of a ravine, and Dean finds a stray fox kit investigating one of the food-bearing wagons by the side of the road. He catches it after a short chase, feeds it jerky from his hand, and spends most of the ensuing morning carrying it around, cooing at it and instructing it seriously in Barbarian.

Word somehow reaches Zachariah, who tracks Dean down to demand he hand over the kit.

Dean refuses, loudly. The two nearly comes to blows before Castiel overhears Dean shouting in Barbarian at the lieutenant and hurries his horse in their direction.

“Don’t you raise your voice at me, you little pissant; I can have you drawn and quartered with a snap of my fingers if I want to—”

“What the hell is going on here, lieutenant?” Castiel demands as he approaches at a fast trot. He dismounts and thrusts the reins at a cavalry beta gawking nearby before placing himself between the two, his back to a glowering, acrid-smelling Dean.

“Castiel,” Zachariah sneers, forgoing the appellation. Their rank is almost equal and he won’t let Castiel forget it. “Your little concubine here needs a lesson in how to talk to his superiors.”

Castiel squares his shoulders.

“Do you have a particular complaint about something he said, or is it merely that you don’t understand it?”

“Oh, I understand—”

“Does he understand you? Or did you just get louder and angrier the second he backed away in confusion?”

“He knows perfectly well what I want!” Zachariah stabs his finger angrily toward the fox kit in Dean’s arms, and Dean tucks it away against his side defensively.

Castiel turns and squints at Den, then back at Zachariah.

“The fox? Why?”

“For the dogs! We’re going to be stuck here for hours. Why not have a little entertainment in the meantime? It’s for the hoplite morale.”

“Oh.” Castiel purses his lips in distaste. “Gambling.”

Zachariah is rather notorious among the upper ranks for his well-attended dog fights and cock fights. A fox hunt would give him the chance to pit the hunting dogs against each other in a less wasteful endeavor.

“Alright,” he sighs, and keeping his eyes on Zachariah, half-turns toward Dean with his hands out for the fox. “Kit, please, Dean.”

“No.”

Castiel blinks at the unexpected growl. He turns to take a proper look at Dean again, surprised at the defiance and betrayal that greets him in both face and scent.

“No hurt. Mine.”

Castiel softens his expression and steps forward.

“Dean, you can’t keep—”

Dean steps back at the approach, sheltering the kit with his body and staring challengingly into his alpha’s eyes in white-knuckled anticipation of attack.

Castiel stops in his tracks, inexplicably hurt.

The petrified omega he rescued only months ago is nowhere to be seen in this protector’s eyes. And it isn’t funny or endearing as he thought it might be—rather, he feels uncomfortably wrong-footed, like he’s inadvertently gone from savior to persecutor without meaning to.

For the first time, he questions his own instincts.

“No hurt,” Dean says, attention solely on Castiel. “No. Afraid.”

He isn’t talking about himself. Dean smells of outrage and determination, and he’s very clearly willing to fight Castiel tooth and nail for the protection of this kit. But he does not smell afraid.

Dean has known fear before. He empathizes with it. But he’s done with terror and he’s not going back.

Castiel doesn’t want to be the one to make him.

“Okay.”

He lowers his hands to show he’s not a threat.

“Okay. You don’t have to turn it over. It won’t feel hurt or afraid. No hurt. No afraid.”

Dean’s guard slowly lowers, eyes still wary. “No afraid,” he confirms.

“No afraid.”

Fox still under his arm, Dean moves into Castiel’s space and pushes his face into his neck, marking him with his own scent. He smells relieved. Castiel’s heart swells in his chest as he settles his hands on Dean’s shoulders, marking him back.

It’s a small claim, but it is a claim, and it means the world to him.

He explains to Zachariah that he’ll have to look elsewhere for a way to kill the time. Zachariah throws a fit, but Castiel pulls rank and he’s forced to concede and move along.

-

-

-

They’ve conquered another barbarian stronghold and Castiel is exhausted.

His days on the march, once a tedious slog to be endured, have become bright with interaction and the vicarious pleasure of watching Dean unfold, watching him laugh and practice and try to emulate the soldiers around him. But the battles that used to mark the highlights of the campaign, the victories that he once considered the pinnacle of achievement and glory, now just remind him of the never-ending trail of wasted destruction they’ve left in their wake.

Not a single Enochian stays to occupy a conquered city or develop a potential trading hub. The army leaves not a road, not a treaty, not a single structure—physical or administrative—to integrate the new “territories” into the empire. They march on a settlement, demanding immediate capitulation and tribute in the form of food and treasure, and then move on to the next front, never building anything that lasts. It is an achievement, to be sure, for Michael to able to say he has conquered the greatest expanse of territory of any of their generals, ever, but it is not the birth of the new, vast, united civilization that Castiel had envisioned as a youth. It is not the righteous, decisive fatal strike against Lucifer and his armies that was so desperately needed after his attacks on the Enochian capital nigh on a decade ago. It is not the empire that Enochia depicts in its epic poems and fiery political speeches, a collection of linguistically and geographically distinct tribes, all advancing in concert toward some shared and lofty ideal to benefit all.

What it is, is a nomadic horde of highwaymen—albeit a well-organized one—traversing the continent in fruitless pursuit of vengeance against a long-defunct king, taking what they want and doing nothing with it beyond but indulging their own bellies and coin purses.

In short, it is a terrible, terrible waste.

He has just returned from Michael’s meeting on the bloodstained battlefield after yet another victory—tired, sweaty, and emotionally drained. The local provincial capital, proud and defiant, had refused to surrender and instead sent out sallies against them. The Enochian response was swift and brutal, culminating in the execution of every alpha in the city and the enslavement of most of the remaining betas and omegas. Castiel remains stoic and efficient in his duties as always, but inwardly his stomach turns with the smell of their grief.

The white glare of the overcast sky is broken only by a few gray rainclouds over the eastern horizon, and the base camp’s population is swollen with the temporary integration of almost a thousand new slaves.

He’s trudging through the cavalry camp, one of the last to return back from the field, and all he wants to do is to fall into his cot and sink down under the care of Dean’s ministering hands.

Soldiers come and go around the baggage train with arms full of spoils from the city. Many drag slaves weeping with their bound wrists, chaining them together in the backs of carts to be unloaded as soon as possible at the slave markets in the next trading town.

Halfway across the field to his tent, he hears a commotion, a bloodcurdling jumble of screams and shouting that rises above the din of the looting soldiers.

Four of Balthazar’s phalangites are standing in a half circle in the middle of the field, jeering on as a fifth beats a huddled screaming toddler with a heavy stick.

The Tartarian mother scrabbles at the soldier’s belt, begging on her knees in one of the local tongues. The soldier elbows her in the face to shut her up.

Castiel feels his blood speed up, all thought of bed falling away as his anger rises.

He strides up to the soldier, yanks the stick out of his hands and swings it at his face at full strength. Bone crunches under the blow. The soldier hits the ground hard, both hands cradling his bleeding nose and fractured cheekbone. Two of his teeth bounce to a rest in a spatter of blood beside him.

Castiel throws the now-broken stick to the ground and hauls the soldier up by the front of his tunic. The coward fails to get his legs underneath him and goes off-balance, as men sometimes do after a bad enough blow to the head. Castiel doesn’t care.

He keeps the coward hanging, hand fisted in his shirt, and turns his fury on the whole group of squadron members standing uselessly around.

“You are Enochians. And you know the laws. There’s an age limit for beating slaves, and even if that child were close to that limit, which he isn’t, you’d be facing your own lashing back home for excessive punishment. As it is, we’re not in Enochia, and what I say here goes.”

The bleeding alpha clutches desperately at Castiel’s right wrist, but Castiel doesn’t look at him. He makes pointed eye contact with each of the soldier’s squadron subordinates instead.

“Listen closely, for I will not repeat myself. You four are escorting this beta and her child to the medics to check before general service, and then you will surrender her to the stewards in the baggage train. After that, you will not touch her, you will not look at her or her child again. Every one of you has lost the privilege of taking spoils and keeping a retinue on this campaign. Until otherwise ordered, you’re forbidden from holding a slave. You are limited to the wages paid you by the empire until I say you’ve earned more. You will not accept a single limlal from this victory or the next dozen to come. And I will speak to Balthazar about this shameful conduct so that he can decide on a sufficient number of lashings for each of you.”

Castiel looks at the barely conscious alpha still moaning and hanging from his hand, and then dumps him unceremoniously on the ground.

“If he lives through the night, that number goes three-fold for him.”

Without a word of protest, the remaining squadron members hurry to carry the mongrel and guide the weeping mother away, now hysterically clutching her sobbing child to her chest.

Disgusted and even more tired of humanity than he was before he returned, Castiel storms back toward his own tent.

It’s bad enough, the needless decimation they’ve enacted on the local village. Bad enough, the endless requisitions, the seizure of grain they’ll never plant, of cattle they’ll never breed, of money they’ll never spend. To see his countrymen engaging in such pointless cruelty for its own sake is more than he can endure.

Seeing Dean standing in entrance tent flap with a strange look on his face, Castiel falters and huffs. Dean has obviously watched the entire shameful proceedings, and it’s just the perfect cap to an already infuriating day. Like as not, Dean’s soldier emulation efforts will be abandoned after this debacle, and rightly enough. Castiel brushes by him into the tent even more exasperated, and starts removing his own armor impatiently.

Dean comes up behind him and takes over from where Castiel is wrenching uselessly at a stuck buckle. He gracefully unfastens it for him and then moves Castiel’s hands out of the way so he can unlace and take off his cuirass, and move down his legs to undo the greaves. Castiel drops his face in his hands and groans with exhaustion, frustration, and relief.

Armor and tunic removed, Dean guides Castiel over to the cot and sits him down to knead the tension out of his muscles as usual. Castiel groans again at the soothing hands digging into his shoulders and upper back. All he wants is to forget the rest of the world, to forget the campaign and the horrors and Michael’s obsessive need for vengeance. All he wants is for the world inside this tent to be all he has to think about ever again.

Dean works his way down Castiel’s right bicep, pushing the heel of his hand into knotted muscles. He rubs down the right arm before moving to the left, heat sinking from his hands through Castiel’s skin all the way to the bone. Eyes closed, Castiel tips his head back as the aggression melts off him. The simmering fury drips down his fingers and evaporates under the heat of Dean’s hands.

A gentle push between his shoulder blades, and he lets himself be guided down on the cot, face tucked into his bedroll to block out everything but the feel and the omega’s residual scent. Dean moves down his ribcage, pressing out from spine to sides with the heels of his hands. Every once in a while there’s a pause to refresh the oil on his skin, and then the heavy weight is back on him again, kneading and soothing away regrets with each touch.

Castiel feels Dean reposition himself for a better angle, sitting lightly on the backs of his thighs.

It’s more intimate than usual, but Castiel doesn’t budge, not wanting to disrupt it.

Dean’s hands continue lower, pushing shallowly into the vulnerable kidneys of Castiel’s lower back. They rub circles into the skin of his lower waist, lingering long after the massage would normally be done. They reach the waistband of his perizoma and hesitate, finally coming to a belated rest.

Then they slip cautiously inside the perizoma to peel it down over Castiel’s ass.

Castiel jerks his face out of the pillow in surprise, and is hit by the smell of omega arousal.

“Dean, are you—?” Castiel looks over his shoulder, eyes wide, only to be met with a kiss—light, tentative, with clear intent.

After a second, Dean pulls away enough that Castiel can see his face.

He’s quite pink, but the desire in his eyes is steady.

“Oh.”

Castiel turns over, Dean’s hands sliding from where they were cupped around his ass. Dean lifts his hips off Castiel’s legs until he’s done, then settles into his lap.

Castiel’s hands go to Dean’s waist automatically.

“Oh. Can I—Are you really—?”

Dean’s eyes drop to Castiel’s chest. He gives an appreciative little roll of the hips that grinds his now obvious erection right into Castiel’s own.

Oh, gods.”

Cas.

Dean smells like eagerness, trust, and desire all stirred up together. He purrs into Castiel’s neck, nose buried in his scent, and radiates a pure contentment better than even the sensation itself. Castiel doesn’t vacillate any longer.

He is happier than he’s ever been.

-

-

-

Weeks pass, and they make love almost every night. The allure of Michael’s original campaign is gone, but Castiel finds renewed vitality through his developing relationship with Dean. He explores his body, heart, and mind, takes him along on every field inspection, teaches him archery and learns a few foreign phrases of his own. They race each other on horseback across the fields, and Dean bests him in wrestling. His gleeful fist-pumping swagger through camp more than makes up for the good-natured mockery Castiel has to endure from his subordinates on the way back.

Word travels that Lucifer has taken refuge in new territory, a province run by a viceroy named Crowley. Michael meets with his officers and lays out their new route of pursuit. The Enochian army marches north again.

Crowley’s province encompasses the flat plains of a fertile valley, framed by tall mountain ranges and populated by thousands of scattered farmers’ fields and orchards. Two main thoroughfares, properly paved roads built of flat stones embedded in the earth, intersect right in the center where the sprawling capital city is located, the aptly named City at Crossroads.

The northbound highway is notable in its size, wide enough that two carts could easily pass each other and pedestrians would still have room. Beneath their feet lie grooves worn into the rock from years of merchant wagons going to and fro. As they approach the city, the white lime-plastered walls climb the horizon before them, meters-thick and carved in ornate painted friezes depicting the accomplishments of generations. The gate is expensive Kansian cedar, and the metalwork is plated in gold. It speaks of elegant taste and wealth.

Crowley, like most subjects of the Tartarian Empire, speaks the local Abaddonian dialect rather than the imperial tongue foisted on them by Lucifer, but he has better interpreters than any city they’ve encountered thus far. He sends a small party of them to greet Michael’s forces on the road in perfect Enochian.

They tell Michael’s gathering that Lucifer has already fled and gone north with his remaining forces, but Crowley is delighted to welcome Michael in his absence. The city’s grain stores are open to them, of course, and Michael is free to take the tribute assessed for Lucifer’s use if he likes. However, if the Enochians would be willing to wait outside the gates instead of piling over into the streets and upsetting the local populace, Crowley believes he could offer a better deal, something that would pique Michael’s interest a bit more than the usual provisions and treasure.

He offers 15,000 additional cavalry and archers from his own personal guard, loyal to him rather than to Lucifer, and the promise of a continuous supply chain from the province to feed them and the Enochians, indefinitely, contingent upon a deal negotiated under witnesses and sacred oaths. In exchange, he wants his own section of the Tartarian Empire carved out just for him to rule as Hegemon once Lucifer is dead.

Michael is intrigued enough for this to warrant a longer discussion.

Michael and Zachariah take a small contingent of personal guards into the city for talks while Castiel, Naomi, and Balthazar keep the rest of the army outside the city as a concession to the viceroy.

Tensions are high on both sides. The Enochians spread their camp along the edges of the wide paved road for several miles, a not-so-subtle tactic to intimidate the heavy merchant traffic and put pressure on Crowley to hurry negotiations to protect the city’s economic interests. Waves of traders hurry their carts silently through the throng with hunched shoulders, their numbers dwindling over the first few days as word begins to spread and those who plan to seek refuge within the walls do so and bunker down. With the general’s party outnumbered and out of sight inside the city walls, the Enochian soldiers are equally on edge, turning cold eyes on every caravan that might be an ambush in disguise.

As a show of goodwill, Crowley sends out two dozen carts of provisions each day, driven by hesitant merchants reeking of nerves and resentment. The officers receive an additional cart full of fresh produce and meats that must be tested for poison before it is eaten.

Despite the tensions outside, negotiations within the city seem to be going well. Enochian runners carry updates to and from Michael and his officers several times a day. An agreement is expected within a fortnight. In the meantime, Castiel’s orders remain the same—the senior officers are to stay outside the city with all their forces until negotiations are settled.

-

-

-

Castiel is in the meeting tent with twelve logisticians discussing resupply. They’ve been here a week and the city has already sent him three hundred horses and two months of barley feed.

A cavalry soldier comes in with the unsettling message that Hannah is requesting a break in the meeting to speak privately about his personal staff, an interruption of military affairs that is almost unthinkable of her. Alarm registering in his scent, he dismisses the logisticians early and has her shown in. She smells angry and shaken.

“Forgive me, m’lord. I wouldn’t interrupt, but the matter is timely and I believe you would prefer to know of it.”

“What’s happened?”

“Your slave has run off.”

“My… who?”

“Your omega slave. Dean. He has evaded all attempts to pursue him, and fled the camp.”

Castiel’s tension releases, relief and annoyance creeping into his voice in equal parts. “Dean is free to explore as he likes, Hannah. You’re aware of this.”

She raises an eyebrow, but bows in acknowledgement.

“My mistake, m’lord. I wasn’t aware that his privileges extended to areas in which you and the army are unable to follow.”

Castiel stares at her.

“He’s in the city,” he confirms.

“He is.”

Castiel says nothing, off-kilter for a moment. He isn’t worried about Hannah’s rash suppositions; Dean is not some prisoner, and has no reason to flee him. But it’s a precarious situation at present, with hostile citizens anticipating invasion and the Enochians on high alert for the first sign of double-cross. A lone omega with no local language proficiency is an easy target at the best of times, and Castiel isn’t in a position to go charging in if anything happens. Why on Earth would Dean choose now of all times to go wandering?

Apparently taking his silence as encouragement to continue, Hannah presses on with an unusual show of frustration.

“We were watching the arrival of the Crossroads provisions along the road, when a prisoner caravan went by with the usual lot of alpha slaves, heavy laborers in chains. He just dropped everything he was holding to the ground and went after them. Inias tried to stop him as he got closer to the city gates, but Dean pushed him down and ran.”

Castiel shakes his head.

“No, I’m sure you’ve misunderstood somehow. Why would he do that?” he asks, because the obvious answer is that he wouldn’t.

Hannah’s scent sours further. “He may be attempting to find asylum, if he thinks we’re unable to enter the city,” she says in disgust. “The disloyalty is unforgivable. If he’s been biding his time all along for a defensible place to run away to—”

“I’m telling you, that can’t be the explanation,” Castiel interrupts. “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding, and he’ll soon be back. Just wait for now, and don’t do anything. I’m sure he’ll come back.”

-

-

-

Four days later, it’s long become clear that Dean is not coming back.

Castiel spends the first night lying awake, painfully aware of the emptiness of his cot, staring at the cold tent above him in worry. Maybe Dean has been taken by slave traders. Maybe he’s been robbed or raped and left bleeding in a gutter in the city streets with no one to look for him.

At dawn, he sends messengers with requests to both Crowley and Michael to allow Castiel to go looking for his missing stray, and by afternoon, permission is granted with the condition that Castiel himself stay in camp as previously arranged. Michael doesn’t trust Crowley not to have engineered the disappearance as a way to lure leadership away from the ranks just in time for an attack, and Castiel, experienced as he is with battlefield tactics, has to agree with him.

He sends eight soldiers into the city to search and to pass Dean’s description around to locals on the streets. Coins change hands in exchange for what little information they can find.

Reports trickle in. Yes, he was seen, and he was alone. No, he wasn’t in distress. No, they haven’t seen him since, and they don’t know which way he’d gone.

One red-headed alpha smiles slyly and says she saw him in an alley and offered him a night on her knot and a hot meal in exchange, but unfortunately, he turned out to have already acquired company. Tall, male alpha company, as a matter of fact, who had gotten awfully possessive in response to her proposition, so she’d graciously gone on her way.

The next two days pass without more than mere word that he’s alive. On the third day, two of Castiel’s soldiers come across him by accident in a busy marketplace, but Dean sees them coming, changes direction and runs the other way. He is with another alpha, a tall one matching the red-head’s report.

Castiel is bewildered and heartbroken. He becomes withdrawn, performing his duties half-distracted with worry, constantly second-guessing himself.

Did he do something to anger Dean? Did he fail to do something that was important? Dean had seemed so happy. Castiel hadn’t thought there was any problem between them, although of course if there had been one, Dean didn’t have the language skills to explain. But Dean did have other ways to show when he was unhappy, and had used them before. And Castiel would have wanted to help. To give him whatever it was that he needed. Castiel had thought they had an understanding even despite the language limitations.

Or had Dean been hiding his unhappiness all this time? Was it all an act? Was it possible he had only initiated sex in the first place because he’d thought it necessary for Castiel to be kind to him?

Or worse yet, was freedom from Castiel’s persistent sexual attentions itself the only reason to run?

“I thought he smelled happy,” Castiel murmurs again as he paces in his tent.

Balthazar, sitting on the tiny writing desk, rolls his eyes. “He was happy. Happy you were buying into his ruse. Happy you were giving him weapons. Happy that no one was watching him anymore. Do I need to go on?”

He stands up again and uncrosses his arms.

“Let me go fish the little bastard out of hiding, and drag him back here to be whipped for his audacity. You can have him back after a suitable period of public shaming and indulge your weird nursing fetish all over again. Almost as good as new.”

“No. No, I don’t want him harmed.”

“Right. Well, you may not care about setting the right example for all the several hundred slaves supporting all our cooking, firewood, and latrine digging needs, but I do. The last thing we need is a half dozen copycats, and next thing you know, there’s a mass slave uprising on our rear. Right in front of the Viceroy of Crossroads, too.”

Castiel looks at his friend, anguish in his eyes. Balthazar reaches for Castiel’s shoulder and softens his voice, sympathy behind his pursed lips.

“We cannot afford to look weak right now, especially while Michael is in negotiations. And Castiel—I hold equal rank with you.”

Shrugging him off, Castiel kicks the small writing table over and storms over to the opening of the tent, stopping there to glare helplessly out into the smoke of the campfires.

“I understand if you can’t order it, and if you don’t want to watch. I’m just saying, you don’t need to.”

“Just bring him in alive and unhurt,” Castiel mutters. “I’ll settle with him myself when you do.”

-

-

-

Balthazar’s phalangites form a slave retrieval team and take over the cavalry’s search in greater numbers with a more organized approach, splitting the city into grid sections and combing through them street by street.

To Balthazar’s frequent reminders to be careful of setting unhelpful precedents, Castiel provides no definite response. He can’t really argue the point; it would be standard procedure to permanently disfigure or even kill a runaway slave, and Balthazar’s suggestion of a whipping is already lenient to begin with. But Castiel can’t focus on what he’s going to do, when all he can think about is why Dean would want to leave him. He still clings to the idea that maybe it’s all been a big misunderstanding, and Dean will come back on his own with some bizarre story he’ll have to act out in charades and that Castiel will never fully puzzle out the details of. But days pass and that doesn’t happen.

On the fifth day, Dean is finally found and caught, denning together under an empty henhouse with a tall, muscular alpha that locals identify as a runaway slave used for heavy labor. The alpha is wanted for having killed his master just days ago during his escape, and is by far the most defiant slave Castiel has ever seen. He has to be dragged, lunging and kicking with his arms tied behind his back, into the tent for sentencing. He wears nothing but a ragged pair of knee-length trousers in the style of the Tartarians, back scarred from old whippings and a single owner’s brand on his bare chest. His uncut hair is dirty and lank. Dean, much less violent but still resistant to being manhandled along, follows him in with hands similarly tied, white chiton and sandals smudged with the same dirt that covers his partner in crime.

“Release his hands,” is the first thing Castiel says.

Dean’s hostile glare at the arresting phalangites fades into uncertain surprise as he’s untied.

The tall one is finally pinned in his struggles by a pair of savvy hoplites, who grip him by his long hair and pull his head back until he’s trapped in an uncomfortable back arch. He reeks of violence, and his eyes spit fire at each and every one of the Enochians in the tent, blazing hatred and resentment into Castiel’s especially. His hands are kept tied.

Castiel is silent, looking over Dean in particular as the omega rubs his wrists.

He is healthy, unharmed. His stance is righteous and unapologetic, shoulders back, eye contact steady and unabashed. He does not grab for the phalangites’ weapons, or make any kind of movement for an opening to escape.

“Why?” Castiel asks after several minutes.

Dean looks over at the tall alpha with an expression of such love and devotion that Castiel feels his innards turn to absolute ice.

“No slave,” Dean answers after moment. “Sam.”

He simply looks back at Castiel with the same fire of conviction he had held when he refused Zachariah the little fox kit, challenging Castiel to force him. Challenging him to do something about it. Now, like then, Castiel is uncomfortable to see the look directed against him.

“No slave. Sam. Mine.”

While they talk, the tall alpha tries several times to surprise the guards by relaxing and then suddenly fighting and trying to break away. They finally have enough of it and kick his knees out from under him.

He hits the ground only for the guards to begin to beat him.

“NO!” Dean throws himself into the pile, shoving himself in between the slave and the attacking guards. “NO! NO!”

The accompanying hoplites step forward but Castiel throws up a hand, stopping them in place.

Dean shoves the phalangites away from the bleeding alpha, where they stay at Castiel’s gesture, and then hauls the alpha up to his feet and pulls him to the side of the tent.

“Mine!” Dean repeats again, spitting the word in anger at the guards still hovering in their vicinity. He puts himself between them and the tall alpha, pressing him protectively behind his back.

“Mine! No slave! Mine!”

“Sir,” protests one of Balthazar’s phalangites quietly, catching Castiel’s attention. “The city guards only let us bring the big one because we insisted he’d be questioned and returned. The slaver’s guild wants to see him die for killing a free man.”

Dean picks out the word ‘die,’ and his eyes go wide. He seems to almost swell larger where he stands like an immovable rock.

“No,” he says to them, pointing one finger at the ground. His voice is low, quiet, and bone-chilling. “No. You come—”

He looks around, finds Castiel and looks straight in his eyes.

“—you come. I die.”

He doesn’t look afraid. He doesn’t smell afraid. He smells murderous, ready to kill in an instant. Castiel feels like his insides are going to tear right in two.

Dean holds Castiel’s gaze firmly and repeats his earlier words.

“I fight. I die. No slave. No.”

Then, keeping a defiant stare on the Enochians, Dean wraps his arms around the alpha and pulls his head down to murmur several long sentences in quiet, rapid Barbarian into his ear. He then unties the alpha’s hands, takes one and squeezes and holds it.

Castiel’s heart freezes in place and his last hope sinks into his stomach.

The alpha, still out of breath from fighting, tries to protest and return the favor for Dean, to shield him with his body, but Dean wrestles him right back behind him, one arm wrapped around the man’s shoulders and other still gripping his hand tight.

They’re practically wrapped in a full body embrace.

“No slave. I die.” Dean holds Castiel’s gaze specifically, waiting for an answer.

Castiel can’t help it. In despair, he scents the room.

What he picks up makes him want to double over.

Dean doesn’t smell like he thinks Castiel is going to have him beaten. He doesn’t smell like he thinks Castiel is going to have his lover taken away and killed, this bigger, stronger alpha who actually speaks his home language. He smells like absolute unwavering conviction. Like faith.

He smells like he believes Castiel is going to save them both.

And he’s completely right, because Castiel is going to let them go free.

“Give them twelve months’ worth of money from my reserves, and let them return to the city.”

There’s an immediate outcry among the squadron leaders present, protest about precedents and proper penalties, especially where the tall one is concerned, but Castiel’s temper flares and he rounds on them all with a snarl.

“I don’t give a damn about proper penalties! Take from my pile of ill-gotten spoils and pay the fucking blood debt, if you must! If Crowley’s guild leaders have a problem with it, they can come to me.”

The noise dims only for a moment, but it’s enough for Castiel to point at a hoplite, who takes off for the carts in a heartbeat. Dean takes one step from the corner, the alpha behind him tugging him back with wary hostility. Castiel can’t even see, his vision blurred by some poxy fog or something. His throat feels like it will close from the aching lump in it. He leaves the tent quickly without looking at Dean again, ignoring the cacophony of voices arguing behind him.

-

-

-

Castiel doesn’t see Dean again after that. An underling informs him that the men were escorted out of the camp limits and then made their way into the city gates, but he doesn’t care to listen. He doesn’t want to know about it.

A deal is struck with Viceroy Crowley, promises made and collateral traded in exchange for a plethora of additional soldiers and mounts. They move on to the west. Castiel is disconnected from it. He kills; he slaughters; he pillages. He makes demands for submission, and stands reliably by as Michael sits on their thrones and forces their leaders to prostrate themselves for the political theater of it. He takes land and claims it for Michael, then moves on with the campaign, leaving no men to hold it and no changes to it other than a smattering of deaths and newly gaping holes in their treasuries.

A good third of the army isn’t even Enochian now, just a hodge-podge of mercenaries of assorted nationalities from Crowley’s trading hub, and Castiel feels less and less like a respectable officer and more like the left hand of a particularly well-skilled and well-organized robber baron.

He’s too far from home for anything he does here to have any benefit for his countrymen, and it’s been too many years for Enochia to qualify as ‘home’ for him these days anyway. There is certainly nothing there now that may have once been waiting for him. The time passes, and it is undeniable to many of the original guard that the campaign will never end. The world goes on forever, and it all may eventually belong to Michael, long live his name.

October comes and goes, and Tartarian farmers start bringing the olive harvests in, just in time for the army to requisition. The weather is dry, the winter rains not due for another two months. In the distance, some of the tallest peaks develop white caps, but the frost never reaches the valley floor.

Lucifer leads them into the western tip of the valley where the ground is higher, the vegetation sparse and dried up by the late summer sun.

Two lines of military units, each over a mile in length, stand in square formations, facing off across a vast empty field. Not a hillock or ditch interrupts the flat ground, all smoothed away by Lucifer’s army weeks ago in preparation for this confrontation. Carrion birds circle above in anticipation of a coming meal.

The Tartarian army relies on four-horse chariots in the center, infantry to their sides, and cavalry on the edges, with Lucifer riding the largest chariot in the middle. His red demon pennant flies high above the field. Michael matches his layout, but keeps his personal cavalry with him on the left, the phalanx under Balthazar taking center stage. Castiel waits on the right in front of his cavalry array with the hypaspists and hoplites a hundred yards behind them to defend the phalanx’s flanks.

A runner comes from Michael’s side of the field, passes Balthazar shouting orders to the assembling phalangites, and drops a letter into Castiel’s hands.

Michael is integrating the mercenary cavalry from Crossroads under Castiel’s command. They are already positioned over the east hill out of sight, and will be waiting for Castiel’s signal to join the battle. He’s to provide a feint in that direction, drawing the Tartarian forces to the ‘fleeing’ cavalry unit; a tactic to pull the enemy’s larger cavalry away from their center so Michael can charge Lucifer directly through the gap. Michael has used this tactic before to great success, and the odds are good that Lucifer doesn’t yet know about the recent increase in the size of Michael’s army.

The danger, of course, is two-fold: both in the untested courage of Crowley’s mercenaries and in the clarity of their communication. Castiel must rely on the Abaddonian interpreters to have correctly relayed the orders for the timing of the assault, and his unit’s lives are on the line if the reinforcement ambush does not come through.

-

-

-

The battle begins, and Castiel’s apathy over the last few weeks shows in his fighting. He’s sweating harder than usual, and although his reaction time is only a hair delayed, a hair can be the difference between life and death in conditions like these. The Tartarians are inextricably meshed in combat with them now, all sense of formation lost in the raging melee. He raises his hand to trigger the horns to bring the mercenary cavalry to the field, and he just sees them begin to come over the hill when his horse goes down under a javelin and Castiel falls, reflexively rolling just enough to avoid being trapped under it.

A flying hoof hits his shoulder from another horse—friend or foe, there’s no telling in the chaos—and he goes down again, arm numb and temporarily out of use. He’s surrounded by dust and noise, swinging blades and barreling chargers, stumbling over bleeding bodies that carpet the battlefield and dodging the flailing limbs of the screaming animals that have fallen and lie injured and panicked on their backs.

A sixth sense makes him turn around just in time to see a Tartarian warrior bearing down on him with his lance, and Castiel can’t even put his shield up—when suddenly the Tartarian is off his horse and bleeding from an artery at the neck, the charger redirecting and missing Castiel by a hand’s width.

His savior, grinning feverishly, swaps the bloody xiphos to his left hand, and reaches down to give Castiel a boost up with his right.

Dean?

Castiel allows himself to be pulled up behind him on the horse.

“No fight, Cas? Sleep, eh?” Dean teases as he goads the horse into a canter to the outer edges of the field.

The tall alpha slave from the City of Crossroads meets them on the periphery on his own horse, wearing the colors of the mercenary cavalry. They both are.

Castiel stares at Dean as he catches an extra lance tossed by the tall alpha.

“You ok? Fight?” Dean checks over his shoulder, readying his grip on the weapon.

Castiel shakes himself out of it, takes the xiphos Dean no longer has hands for and wraps his free arm around Dean’s waist.

“Yes, thank you. Fight.”

Together the three of them charge back into the fray.

-

-

-

Dawn is breaking by the time Castiel returns to his tent, feet dragging, smeared in blood, and coated with dust. Dean is still with him in similar shape, having surrendered his horse to the Enochian cavalry’s handlers, and follows Castiel inside, with the tall escapee tagging along close behind. The way he wielded his javelin and kept his back close to Dean’s throughout the battle is proof enough that they’re still set on mutual protection.

Dean starts to stroll right to the water carafe and washing basin before catching himself and hesitating by the entrance with a sheepish look. Tiredly, Castiel nods him to go ahead anyway.

The tall alpha lingers by the open tent flaps, glowering and looking intimidatingly large, although he is still young enough that Castiel thinks he could possible take him in combat, given a decent weapon and a better night’s sleep. He can’t stop himself from eyeing the rival up and down, but idle speculation is all it is. It looks like Dean is taken up with this other ex-slave now, and as bitterly jealous as Castiel may be about that, there’s nothing to be done about it.

He looks at Dean with weary resignation, waiting to find out what he’s come in here to say.

Dean surprises Castiel by not saying anything. He just continues to clean his hands with one of the washcloths provided, and then perplexes Castiel by coming up into his personal space and going straight to undoing his cuirass laces.

“Dean. What are you doing?”

Dean ignores him, as he always has when he thinks the answer to Castiel’s question should be obvious.

He unbuckles the clasps, and smacks Castiel’s arms until he moves them into a raised position so he can successfully lift the loosened cuirass over Castiel’s head. Castiel lets himself be manhandled, but doesn’t retreat from his question.

“Dean.”

Dean drops down to his knees to begin on his greaves, and all of Castiel’s blood rushes south at the very visual reminder of other memories from this angle.

“Dean!”

Castiel pulls his leg roughly out of Dean’s grasp and backs away ‘til he bumps the edge of his cot, glaring at the omega, all the hurt of the last several weeks bubbling over into his face and scent despite himself.

Dean responds to this by hurling the soaking washcloth from the basin and smacking Castiel in the face with it.

Startled and dripping, Castiel peels the rag off and wipes his eyes. “What the hell?!”

“Cas!” Dean snaps angrily, and then spins on his heel and starts pacing with the frustration of not having the words.

Castiel has plenty of words, and he fully intends to use them.

“Don’t ‘Cas’ me! You can’t just leave me for a better deal and then show up and expect I’m going to be happy about it! You think you can come and go, play house with the officer when you want something and then fuck off back to nowhere with your, your—your giant—giant and his presumably equally giant knot?”

Eyes narrowed, Dean turns and strides back into Castiel’s face, finger jabbing him in the chest, and unleashes a full-length diatribe in his barbarian native tongue. He’s going about a mile a minute, and the only word Castiel recognizes is ‘you,’ but it appears at least five or six times in the first two sentences alone, and Castiel doesn’t need to know what Dean’s saying to understand the general gist.

He responds to the onslaught with his own finger-stabbing advance. “You have no right to be angry at me when you made it loud and clear that I was only worth your concern as long as I got you what you wanted! You weren’t even going to come back and you—”

Dean overrides him again in Barbarian with sheer volume and lots of violent gesturing and marching up and down the tiny living space. Castiel recognizes the phrase for returning, which is enough to follow it.

Castiel increases his volume even louder to shout over him.

“—No, you didn’t! You did not come back! I had to drag you! And even then, you completely rejected me, you were even ready to kill me, you said as much, and I can smell you, you know, you smelled like you meant it, and all for this looming behemoth over here—

“NO. GO. SAM,” Dean rages, switching back to broken Enochian and punctuating his words by physically shoving Castiel back a step. “I bring Sam. Sam mine.

“Well, he’s not MINE, so you can take him and fuck back off again—”

No!” Dean shouts, exasperated. “Sam, mine.”

And before Castiel can argue further, Dean grabs the front of his tunic and hauls him in, grabs Sam’s arm and yanks the tall brooding alpha off-balance, and thrusts the two up close together to make Castiel smell it.

The very idea of scenting the rival alpha’s scent mixed with Dean’s turns Castiel’s stomach, and reflexively he tries to pull away, but as the scent sinks in, he smells it, the familial resemblance.

His eyes widen and he stops fighting, grabs Sam’s arm for himself and scents it again, drawing in deep. Sam, for his part, is smelling increasingly awkward and uncomfortable, but that’s the least relevant information Castiel is getting here.

The alpha smells like Dean—not like the scent he’d have if he’d been rolling around in bed with him or sharing his clothes, but really, deeply, down in the base notes of the actual make-up of him, similar to Dean. The alpha’s own scent is only a few details off from Dean’s, which can only mean the two are family, closely related by blood in some way. Castiel’s eyes dart between their faces, assessing ages, physical features, and demeanor with each other.

“Are you—Are you two brothers?” he asks at last, breathless from the wave of realization that’s caught him. “Or cousins, maybe?”

Dean just glares at him with the usual impatient look he uses when he doesn’t understand something.

Which, of course.

Dean has no clue about the words ‘brother’ and ‘cousin;’ they never came up on the campaign.

He can name a dozen different weapons in Enochian and list the rankings of every unit in order from hoplite to general, but he doesn’t have words for family members. He also doesn’t have words for children, or school books, or gardening implements. He barely has verbs besides the common ones, ‘come,’ ‘go,’ ‘fight,’ ‘kill’ and so on. He can’t name anything heavier than an armor chest because if it can’t fit on a cart, they never encounter it, and he doesn’t encounter any families, because everyone on the march at this point is a career soldier who’s been on the road for going on seven years. He doesn’t know how to say ‘brother,’ he doesn’t even know how to say ‘lover’

—He doesn’t know how to say lover—

Castiel grabs Dean by the shoulders and surges into him, kissing deeply, passionately, repeatedly all over his face as he embraces him with an enthusiasm that knocks Dean back a few steps before he regains his balance, and with a confused sort of laugh, hugs him back.

Dean is just starting to get with the program and is enthusiastically returning the kiss when Castiel pries him off by the shoulders again—to Dean’s confused complaint—and says it.

“I love you.”

Dean blinks at him in still happy bewilderment. Castiel kisses him hard again, clasping him close and then pulls away again.

“I love you. We are lovers. Lovers.” He motions between them with one finger.

He kisses Dean again for demonstration.

“Lovers,” he says into Dean’s mouth. He trails kisses all up and down Dean’s neck. He grabs a handful of Dean’s ass and yanks his hips against him, grinds his burgeoning erection into Dean’s stomach.

Dean chases his mouth as he pulls away again.

“Lovers,” Castiel says firmly. He keeps Dean frustrated at bay until Dean repeats it after him.

“Luhvers. Ok.”

“Lovers,” says Castiel. “I love you.”

“Luhvers,” Dean repeats distractedly, by straining for another kiss and doing some ass groping of his own with a drunken smile.

“Lovers,” Castiel says again. He kisses Dean and then pulls away enough to point between Dean and an uncomfortable-looking Sam.

“No lovers,” Castiel says seriously.

“No luhv—NO!” Dean begins to repeat and then looks horrified. “Ugh! No! What? Ugh!” This segues into a long series of shocked, scandalized protests from Dean.

Castiel’s face hurts from smiling so hard, and he can’t stop.

“Just so we’re clear, Dean.”

“NO LUHVERS. Ugh, Cas. What. No.”

Sam stands around awkwardly and tries to distract himself by picking at his weapon. Dean glowers as Castiel laughs—not really at him or at the situation, but with the relief and the happiness of finding out everything he ever wanted is within reach and always has been.

-

-

-

Cas is still mystified as to how he got here, but he’s decided to just be deliriously happy. He sits wide-eyed, looking up at Dean as the omega carefully dabs blood spatter from his face with a damp cloth, feeling more vulnerable than he ever did on the battlefield. They’re all quiet now and Dean is back in fussing caretaker mode.

Hannah brings food for all three, and Cas and Sam try to attempt some kind of conversation despite having no shared language whatsoever. Dean does a lot of staring into the distance as his understanding of past events retroactively reconfigures itself, a half-eaten piece of meat forgotten in his hand.

Sam and Cas agree that figs are good, and chicken is good, but red currants are only kind of okay. This is achieved mostly by pointing out various foods and making lots of significant hums and faces, eyebrows raised in approval as they chew. Cas is actually rather proud of himself, as by now he’s kind of an old hand at it.

Dean turns to him sometime after the food is mostly finished, and puts a hand on his arm seriously.

“No lovers, Cas. One. One lover. I no go.”

Cas is all smiles.

“Yes. I see that now.”

Dean shakes his head, somber and earnest. He isn’t finished.

“I no go, Cas. One lover. You.”

Cas’ grin softens, and he nods and puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder.

“I feel the same way, I assure you.”

-

-

-

Sam is given a bedroll and relegated to share Hannah’s covered cart for sleeping quarters. Cas and Dean make love energetically all night in the tent.

Within a fortnight, Castiel has resigned his commission with Michael and recommended Hael to take his place at the head of the cavalry. He, Dean, and Sam take their share of spoils back to the City at Crossroads and buy a bit of farming land far, but not too far, from the outer boundaries of the city. They take Hannah with them, and invest the larger portion of their money in hiring temporary farmhands to help out the first couple of years as they get the fields cleared and plowed.

They plant an orchard and a pea field, staying the whole first year in a couple of tents and Hannah’s cart, and then gradually build a house there out of sun-dried brick. They dig a well, buy some cows, and add a few grain fields over the seasons. Eventually they’re breaking even consistently enough to bring on some permanent help from the city.

Sam insists that they do so by buying out the contracts of local slaves whom they then immediately free with the offer that they can stay and earn a share in the farm’s profits if they choose. Some do not choose to stay, but the family ends up expanding to include Jack, Kaia, and Claire that way.

Their homestead is a chaotic communion of languages. Cas and Dean develop a fully-fledged pidgin of their own. Hannah never does learn Barbarian, and Sam never learns Enochian, but he does speak Abaddonian well enough that he’s the only one interpreting between the teens and the adults for a very long time. The group of them all make do.

Six years in, they bring on Eileen, an unmarriageable beta from the merchant class in the city who wants to get away from the lackluster options there and support herself independently. Her home-made sign language ends up becoming the de facto lingua franca between everyone living on the farm. They don’t all always understand each other, but they do all understand the important things—that they have each others’ backs, that the hay has to come in before it rains, that whoever drinks the last of the mead is responsible for brewing the next batch.

They all work together building things by hand, growing produce, and planting new seeds, and they live there happily ever after.

The end.