Actions

Work Header

The Sawdust Men

Chapter Text

 

 

The first time Castiel Novak died was in 1945, two weeks after the end of the civil war between the Collective and the old Government. Castiel had been at home for three days when the men from the Office of Safety and Security came to take him. That was the first, but there have been other deaths, smaller deaths. Like the first time he battled with starvation, with exhaustion, with the cold, or with broken bones at the hands of the guards. He lies in his bunk, looking up at the rotting wood of the roof, and wonders how many more there will be before the last.

A siren screech, high and warbling, rips through the snow-heavy forest, and Castiel does not even flinch. The sound is alien, man-made and out of place in the wilderness. The natural acoustic of the valley, with white tipped mountains rushing up toward the sky on every side, amplifies the alarm-call, bouncing it back and forth until it shakes nature awake for miles around. Birds turn their heads towards the source with black-eyed patience, while wolves open their throats in song, calling to each other, barking warnings.

At the camp, the inmates, lodged on nothing but rotten-board and sawdust filled mattresses grown solid from years of use by nameless men, startle awake from hard-won sleep. Their voices lift, cutting through frozen air, adding to the noise. Curses and groans reverberate from the roof, in the shallow space above their heads, shaking icicles that hang like daggers over the men’s heads. The inmates of Hut 17 wriggle free of whatever blankets they have, and climb down the stacked bunks, to grope on the floor, hands out, searching for their boots in the darkness. It is well before dawn, not even close to the start of the working day. The alarm can only mean one thing; they will all be expected in the yard, and soon. And if they don’t want to freeze in the plunging night temperature, they need to dress quick.

Castiel climbs from his bunk. His hands, stiff from the cold, ache as he holds tight to the wooden frame and lowers his weight slowly to avoid trampling the men on the beds below. It is not an easy task in the pitch black, but he isn’t in the mood to quarrel with his bunk-mates. Castiel prefers to keep quiet, keep to his own company; it’s what has kept him alive, so far.

“Watch it,” someone snaps, as Castiel reaches the floor and bumps straight into a solid body. Sounds like Bill Carlton, but he can’t be sure. Castiel doesn’t talk with the others often enough to recognise them by voice alone, when he is blinded by the dark. He mumbles a half-hearted apology and gets a thankless shove in the back for his effort.

Castiel goes back to searching the floor under Father Reynolds’ bunk for his boots, where the priest is keeping them safe for him. There is a moment when he feels a pin-prick of concern that they have been taken; in the labour camps you keep a hold of your possessions, keep them hidden or keep them with you, anything left alone is fair game. But, who would steal from Father Reynolds? The presence of a man of God has been a stabilising influence on the occupants of Hut 17, and anyone from the hut would know better than to try to steal from him. Benny would have something to say about it, and no one would willingly mess with him; a committee man, with more influence than most prisoners, and a vicious right hook that can lay out a man twice his size. No, any theft in Hut 17 is due to outsiders, and Castiel didn’t take off his boots until after the door was barred for the night.

He stretches his arm further, nearly touching the wall, and finally he feels worn leather brush against his fingertips. Someone, somewhere, throws a switch and turns on the lights in the exercise yard. It saturates the over-crowded hut with a dull-yellow that creeps through the tiny, dirty windows, cracked and stuffed with rags to keep out the cold. It is just enough light for Castiel to see by as he pulls on his boots, and wraps a tattered length of knitted wool around his neck, pulling it up over his ears.

He searches his pockets for his hat, while his hut-mates grumble around him, pulling their own caps over bald heads and greasy knots of hair. It is just a dirty old rag-of-a-thing, taken from the head of a dead man a few years ago, but it’s the only one Castiel has, so he pats himself down again, just to be sure. He must have taken it off during the night. There is no time to climb back and search for it now.  He will have to make do with what he has on, and hope the guards don’t leave them shivering in the yard for too long. They have done it before, the guards; made them stand outside all night just to see how many men would be left by morning.

An unseen hand thumps on the other side of the door. “In the yard, inmates!” the shout comes through the timbers, deep and sure. The guards have no reason to doubt that the men will do as they are ordered, they have all the advantage of strength, and weapons, and guiltless violence, at their disposal; a prisoner would be a fool to risk pissing them off, and likely, not a fool for long after.

The door shakes, trembling like a cowering dog, as the guard lifts the bar that secures the hut at night. Next, it is flung open, slamming noisily into the tottering frame of the nearest bunks under a shower of dust and debris, which falls from the roof.

“Outside, right now!” The same guard cries, impatient, and loud enough to give away his inexperience. Gordon Walker, and the other long-term guards, all know that threats are more effective whispered in a prisoner’s ear; no need to raise a voice to control the inmates, they have fists, and feet, and bullets if necessary. 

The shape of a man looms in the doorway. Light catches on the whites of his eyes as he glances at the prisoners, waiting in the narrow gangway between the bunks, squeezed together with shoulders brushing, waiting to be released from the cramped space. The guard does not make eye contact with them, another sign of naiveté, a lack of confidence in how to handle the situation, with two hundred men and more staring at him, lambent eyes, two-by-two, blinking in the low-light, like a pond full of frogs. One hand rests on the gun at the guard’s side that hangs from his shoulder on a long strap, ready to be lifted in a moment. But, it is not raised, and his finger does not rest on the trigger. Instead, his fingertips move over the metal, the touch almost gentle. Perhaps he is looking for reassurance, for comfort. If so, Castiel thinks, he is looking in the wrong place, there is no comfort to be found in the prison camps, not here, or in any of the dozens of others that have sprung, since the revolution.

“What’s the ruckus, Brother?” Benny says, as he finishes tying the laces on his shiny black boots. He has good boots, sturdy, as is fitting for the leader of Castiel’s work team. It is one of the biggest teams at the camp, in charge of the huge machines that chew up great heaps of raw timber, every single day, spitting it out as something useful, something profitable to the people, to the country, to the Collective. Benny’s position, not to mention his size and strength, makes him a leader among the inmates. He is one of the few people Castiel can stand to talk to.

With the light behind him the guard’s face is all but obscured, yet his reaction is plain. His posture stiffens, fingers curl tight around his gun. “I am no brother of yours, traitor,” he spits on the ground and turns away. Castiel recognizes it as a country superstition; an act to ward off evil, to prevent the taint of association from speaking the names of those who are damned.  The guard might be right about the last pasrt. “Now, get out here, all of you, before I drag you out.”

It takes less than two minutes for two hundred men to file out of Hut 17, and into frigid air that rolls off the mountains that circle the camp, holding them all in a cold embrace. Even in the dark, Castiel can see them rising in the distance, white peaks picked out by moonlight against a clear sky, stars winking in ancient patterns above them, like eyes in the black.  

“I don’t recognize that one,” someone whispers. Castiel looks back at the guard. He is following behind the jumble of shivering men, urging them along with short sharp words and a scowl. The prisoners arrive in the exercise yard and form up into loose ranks, standing close, bunched together into groups like tattered penguins in the cold. The white flash of identify labels tacked over the breasts of their regulation black coats, does nothing to diminish the effect.

The bulk of the cement block administration building, sharp cornered and austere, looms over them, while prisoners from other teams, other huts, crowd together in the gloom. Some are red-faced from the cold, stamping and blowing into cupped hands, to keep blood flowing. It’s not an affectation. Frost can steal extremities quicker than most people think. And the camp medics, prisoners themselves, will take the pincers from the store room, and clip away blackened fingers and toes, tossing the dead parts out with the rest of the trash.

“He’s new,” Alfie says, with a confident smile. He has fallen in beside Castiel at some point during the walk, as is his usual way. Alfie is under the impression that they are friends, though Castiel has no idea how it came about. There was a tenuous connection to Alfie’s older brother, Bartholomew, who attended one of Castiel’s classes at Columbia, but, that was back before the revolution, and Bartholomew is gone now; everything has changed. “Alistair had him shipped in along with the new allocation of prisoners,” Alfie goes on. “The replacements for the ones they lost in the storm, remember?”

Castiel does remember, though he does not say so. The blizzard swept in from the mountain, howling like a banshee, and suffocating the world under a blanket of snow, five foot deep within hours. They had all been caught out by it, the guards had to suffer through it as well; if they had known there was a storm approaching they would have let the men stay in the sleep-huts. No sense in sending them out just to freeze.  The transports stuck and they all had to face the last few miles to the camp on foot, stooped and fighting against a gale that whipped lumps of snow, sharp as knives, into their faces, stinging their eyes. They didn’t all make it back, but the commander allowed the men extra wood rations for their stoves that night—it could have been worse.

“Fresh-faced and right off the farm, by the looks of it,” someone says. Castiel is not inclined to turn around to find out who it is. “Asshole doesn’t have a clue what he’s signed up for.”

“No, he’s a career soldier,” Alfie tells them, turning to look back at whoever was speaking. “Not a war volunteer. Saw the transfer papers.”

“Stop talking,” Castiel snaps, his patience finally worn to breaking point. “Do you want to get us killed?”

“We’re standing in the yard, in the middle of the night, in winter,” Benny adds. He is standing on Castiel’s right, front and centre of the assembled men. “I think some are dead men already.”

“Well, we’ll all be dead men eventually, but I’d rather make it through another day,” Alfie grouses, loud enough to attract the guard’s attention.

He barks an order to, “Quiet down, over there.”

Castiel sighs, and with nothing else to do, he looks around the yard. Searchlights over the gates, and fixed to the roof of the admin building, scan the surrounding trees, making the occasional sweep over the inmates, so they scrunch up their faces, lifting hands to shield wet eyes from the glare; no doubt this is hilarious to whoever is up there behind them.  The Commander is putting on a quite a show for the new cohort of prisoners; fresh workers, fresh meat, fresh bodies for the lumber yard and the processing plant to chew up and spit out—all in the name of justice: all in the name of the Collective.

“Line up, and shut up!” the guard shouts. There is more force behind the command now. More authority than Castiel would expect from someone so young. Unlike the other guards prowling the yard, he does not hold his gun ready, he stands tall, watches them from under the fur-trimmed brim of his hat. HIs hands behind his back, in parade mode, like the soldier he is. He looks steady and hard edged. He has seen action before, Castiel thinks, that much is clear. Less so is why a career soldier would chose to work here, isolated, and forced to live among the dregs of the Collective’s new minted society.

Castiel does as he is told. It’s second nature to him now. Stand still, stay quiet, and stay safe—it has kept him out of harm’s way, more or less, over the years. Castiel has no intention of drawing the attention of the guards, now.

“Alistair’s here,” Alfie whispers. The boy should know better, but he is inexperienced, has not had to suffer the hardships, the indignities, of working his hands bloody at the mill or breaking his back in the lumber yard. Alfie has the mixed blessing of work in the administration building, pushing papers around his desk, sitting outside Alistair’s office-door, ready and willing to fetch and carry at a moment’s notice. Alfie’s position does not endear him to the other inmates. They call him turncoat and collaborator, push him around if they find him alone, and insist they would rather die out in the forest, felling trees with a rusted axe, than cosy up to the assholes that put them in the camp. 

The natural bravado of youth, and the relative protection of his job with Alistair, makes Alfie thoughtless, and he shrugs, unconcerned, as the men shoot him worried looks and tell him to shut his god-damn mouth.

Castiel does his best to ignore all of them. He stamps his feet on the snow crusting the ground; there is not so much of it now, what is left is hard-packed and dirty with the grit prisoners spread to keep from falling, as it melts and re-freezes, over and over, until the next snowfall. 

A guard calls for silence, somewhere at the other end of the exercise yard, and in the hush that follows a door opens, up on the first floor of the administration building. It draws the attention of the gawping men. For a moment the doorway remains empty, a black square cut into the otherwise grey facade, a dramatic pause before the Commander appears. Alistair steps out onto a small metal platform, where the steps lead down to the ground. The raised entrance is a practical consideration, when the snow lays five foot deep, but it doubles as a make-shift platform whenever Alistair wants to show his power.

The commander in full military regalia, and medals in gold, silver, and bronze, honours bestowed by a grateful Collective in the years after the war, shine from his chest in a twisted mirror to the white badges worn by the prisoners.  The sprawling camp is his empire, and he looks around the yard slowly, takes in the mass of ragged prisoners, as he leans forward over the metal railing, and gets a good look with his hard little eyes. Distaste twists his face into a sneer and those who have seen it before, guard and prisoner alike draw in a harsh breath, something bad is coming.  

“Tonight, a crime has been committed,” Alistair says. He sounds resigned, bored by the words even as he speaks them.

The prisoners look at one another in apprehension, shifting and moving together as a mass, like a flock of starlings in the evening sky. But, there is no sky for the inmates, no way to take flight, stuck fast to the ground, they will all have to face whatever sanctions Alistair wants to hand out. The Commander believes they all deserve punishment, the country believes they deserve it, and after so many years, half the prisoners start to believe they deserve it; because what could this be if not a punishment from God?

“A few hours ago,” Alistair does not raise his voice, but his voice manages to reach every ear. “Two of your fellow prisoners assaulted one of my guards and made the reckless decision to go through the fence.”

“Idiots,” Alfie hisses. “They know escape is useless, there’s nowhere to go. Why would they even try?”

Castiel stays silent, keeps his eyes fixed on the commander. There will be fallout from this and he does not want to be caught up in it.  

“It’s lies,” Benny grumbles under his breath. “No one tries to escape in winter. The commander’s a snake, fattening himself on our blood, and picking his teeth with our bones. His words mean nothing.” Benny has somehow acquired a pinch of tobacco, rolled in paper, he lifts it to his lips and sucks. The coal flares, turns from red to orange, feeding on the flow of oxygen that draws the smoke into Benny’s mouth. It crackles next to Castiel’s ear. Blue-grey smoke curls in Castiel’s face; it dances; it bends; it warps into uncanny shapes, surreal, like Dali’s melting clocks—Castiel had seen them at MOMA, what a frivolous thing it now seems, to stare at oil dabbed on canvas just for the pleasure of looking— but, for a moment, the smell of the smoke covers the sour odour of unwashed bodies. And, though Castiel has never been a smoker, he breathes deep and savours it.

Alfie turns, leans out from the ranks so he can look at Benny, instead of talking to the side of Castiel’s head. “What are you suggesting? That the Commander is lying?” Alfie turns back, focusing on Alistair. “I don’t believe it,” he hisses, “You don’t know him like I do.”

“And I thank God for that, daily” Benny sneers, “I’d rather work all night milling timber than spend time with that one, not for twice the special privileges that pretty face of yours gets you.”

Alfie makes an indignant noise. “He appreciates my skills and my work ethic, nothing else. And, I thought you were above listening to prison gossip, Benny.” 

Castiel digs an elbow into Alfie’s side in an attempt to distract him. “Be quiet,” Castiel whispers once more. They are attracting attention, turned heads, and squint-eyed glances from the guards in their section of the yard. Their own guard, the new one, steps closer and drops a hand back to the gun at his side, in warning.

Alfie’s cheeks turn beetroot-red, the expression of indignation on his face clear enough that even Castiel can read it. The boy is starting to boil under his skin, and Castiel just wants to shrink down, get out of the line of the crossfire that’s about to start between the two idiots that have him trapped, penned in so tight there is no hope of slipping out.

Tension grows in the air, pulls tight enough to snap, as more and more eyes are cast in their direction. There’s trouble coming, Castiel can feel it in the hairs that stand up and pimple his skin, he can hear it in the silence that seems to rush at them as the other inmates close their mouths, and he can taste it in the bitter burn at the back of his tongue. The guard takes another step forward. He is larger than Castiel thought and manages to loom quite effectively from a few steps away. The moment is broken by the metallic clink of Alistair, making his way down the steps.

“Both escapees were wounded in the struggle,” Alistair says, bringing them straight back to the reason they are gathered in the yard. “Undoubtedly, these prisoners will not last long outside the fences. I’m telling you this because I want to make it clear, to all of you, that escape is not an option for you.” The commander’s nasal voice echoes slightly from the flat planes of the building at his back, and to Castiel’s ear, it makes Alistair’s words sound even more hollow than normal. “This camp is your world. You are here because the Collective has seen fit to forgive your past transgressions, against the people of our great country, and has allowed you to work to repay your debt. While you are here, you are under my command, and my patience is not limitless. You were warned, not six months ago, that any further attempts to escape our generous hospitality would be met with severe punishment.” Alistair stops to look around, lifting his head so he can scan the crowd of dark-coated men more easily. “Not only for the perpetrators of the act, but for all of you. And I am a man of my word.” He pauses, lets the prisoners stew in silent worry as he walks up and down in long-legged strides, heavy black boots on his feet, polished to a glass-like shine, wink with reflected light at each footfall. “You will be on half-rations for the rest of the month,” he declares, “And that includes each allotment of firewood.”

“We’re going to fucking freeze,” Benny mutters under his breath. “Good luck keeping the mill running when half the men lose fingers to frostbite.”

Alistair strides up and down, up and down, wrapped in warm layers of wool and fur while the prisoners’ teeth chatter hard enough to break. He slows to a stop just a few steps from the inmates of Hut 17 and lands a good natured slap on the new guard’s back as he goes by; a favourite, best to stay as far away from him as possible, then. Alistair’s favourites, like Gordon and Creedy, are the ones to be wary of, quick to anger and ready to lash out at the slightest provocation, and sometimes, for no reason at all.

“Could be worse,” Alfie whispers.

“How, exactly?” Benny asks. He throws the end of his smoke on the ground, grinds it into the compacted snow with the heel of his boot, with vicious enthusiasm.

Alfie snorts indiscreetly in his temper, and Castiel has to stamp on the urge to hit him, kick him, anything to stop the noise. “He’s leaving you with half,” Alfie argues, in the commander’s defence. And wouldn’t he? He’s been under Alistair’s protection almost since the day he arrived, looking lost and terrified, cheeks wet though it had not rained.

Alistair swings his gaze towards them. Castiel freezes, he feels Benny shift away to the right, as if putting a few extra inches between them will make him invisible to the hard stare the Commander fixes on the men of Hut 17.

“Who spoke?” Alistair does not address the prisoners directly. Instead, he asks the guard at his side. Alistair’s nasal voice hisses, snake-like, but he doesn’t sound angry—he never sounds angry.

“It was one of them, Commander,” the guard answers, honestly. His gloved hand points in the direction of Alfie, Castiel, and Benny. Alistair does nothing but raise an eyebrow at the guard. Some unspoken understanding passes between them. The soldier darts forward. Castiel is pushed aside and he crashes into Benny, getting a mouthful of his dirty old coat in the process. They manage to stay on their feet with help from their hut-mates, who reach for them with steadying hands, setting them right.

The guard, meanwhile, has his fists curled in the front of Alfie’s coat. There is shock and a dawning fear in Alfie’s eyes as he gasps, reaching for Castiel, just as the guard drags him away. The desperate confusion in Alfie’s face, the silent plea in his last look, these things will haunt Castiel, forever. Still, Castiel does not raise his hand to help. He does not reach back. He does not lift his voice in protest. What can he do? Nothing; he can only watch, or else risk being the next hauled from the line. If he had anything left to feel, Castiel would hate himself for that moment of cowardice. He was not always this person. He would not always have stood by. But, the camp has changed him, as it changes everyone; drained him dry of spirit and heart, and poured sawdust in, where they used to be.

The guard hauls the boy into the open space of yard and away from the other prisoners. Alfie stumbles, tripping on uneven ground as the guard drags him about. When they reach Alistair, the guard is done being the boy’s walking aid, and he lets him go. Alfie drops to the ground in a heap. “This one,” the guard rasps out. “This one was talking,” he says, “Been whispering, this whole time.”

Alistair approaches. He is tall and thin, a body of bone and sharp angles that towers over Alfie, kneeling in the dirt. “How dare you speak when I am speaking,” Alistair says. “Do you think your words are more important than mine? That you are above them?”

Alfie is barely a man, just turned eighteen when he arrived at the camp. He looks small, crouched on the ground, wringing his hands, and cringing away from the man he thought of as a protector, a mentor, a friend. Castiel knew Alfie was too trusting, unable to see corruption in the commander when there was so little of it in himself. He did not know there was danger in just being alive in the world, and now, the lesson had come too late to save him.

“I’m sorry, Commander, I should not have spoken. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Alfie says. The guard stands behind, Alistair in front, trapping Alfie between them. He lifts a hand from the dirt as if he’s going to reach out, try and touch Alistair, begging for comfort, or reassurance—he might be the only person in the yard that cannot see death hanging over him, waiting to take his soul. Confusion is written large on Alfie’s face with Alistair’s failure to react, and his hand hangs in mid-air like he’s asking for a blessing.

“You will be sorry, boy,” is all the warning Alfie gets before Alistair kicks out, catches him in the face with the metal capped toe of his boot. Alfie cries out and slumps to the floor. When he lifts his head, a trail of blood leaks from his nose, drips down in a dark line into his mouth until his teeth are tinted with it. The ooze of blood is soon joined by salt-water tears that roll in fat drops down Alfie’s cheeks. Maybe it’s the fear, or maybe it’s the pain—it does not really matter either way—but, that is when Alfie gives up. He bends over, pressing his face close to the ground, the only escape from the thousands of blank-faced prisoners, all waiting for him to die, and he weeps like a child, in great gulping sobs.

The prisoners say nothing.

Stay still, stay quiet, and stay safe, Castiel thinks; it will be over soon. These are the rules Castiel lives by, the rules that have kept his mind intact and his body unharmed, for five long years. There is nothing he can do for Alfie, now.

“Pick him up, Officer Winchester.” The guard nods at Alistair’s order, takes Alfie by the shoulders and pulls him to his feet. Alistair’s eyes dart between the boy and the soldier, head canted to the side, considering. “What do you think we should do with such a creature?” he asks. “He’s a trouble causer, always getting the other prisoners riled up. Do you think we should make an example of him?” It is lies, and everyone in the yard knows it; everyone but the guard.

“Yes, Commander.” It is the only possible reply and the soldier gives it without hesitation.

“Good, good, Officer Winchester. I can tell you are going to be an asset to this camp.” Alistair looks between the two of them again, nods his head and says, “Let’s teach them what happens when a prisoner disobeys orders and disrespects the authority of the Collective. Cut his throat.”

Whatever order the guard was expecting, a death sentence delivered in three clipped words, clearly was not it.  The officer flinches, letting go of Alfie as he steps back in surprise. The boy’s legs give out, muscles overtaken by the force of adrenaline, tremors wracking his body as he curls up on frozen ground. Castiel can hear him asking, very quietly, why? Why is Alistair doing this? What did he do wrong? Alfie does not understand. He can’t see what Castiel sees, as Alistair smirks at Officer Winchester over the boy’s head; Alfie has been replaced, Alistair has a new favourite to play with.

To his credit, Officer Winchester looks worried. “Commander?” he asks quietly. His eyes scan the crowd in mild surprise as if he had forgotten there was an audience, and he licks his lips, nervous under the scrutiny.

Alistair smiles, it makes a cruel stripe across his face, lips stretching long and twisting up at the corners. “I’ve given you an order, Officer.”

The guard nods, just once, abrupt, and pulls a knife from his belt. “Kneel,” he tells the sobbing boy. The guard’s voice has taken on a softer tone than when he was ordering them from their beds and out into the cold. He moves to stand at Alfie’s back, grabs a fistful of the boy’s hair and pulls back, lifting Alfie’s chin and exposing his throat. Castiel watches, his brain dulled and empty of emotion, as Alfie draws his last breath. The guard bends and says something in Alfie’s ear. Castiel cannot hear what is said, but Alfie closes his eyes and goes still; his tears stop.

The knife is quick and sure; a glint of silver, a mess of red, and the guard holds Alfie’s shoulder while he jerks and gurgles and bleeds out his life on the snow-packed ground. Blood pools, steaming in the frozen air, dark, almost black in the low light. A prisoner will clear it up; mop the blood that on another day might be his own. Castiel watches each weakening spurt from Alfie’s severed artery, as the boy’s empty heart gives up the struggle, with the clinical detachment of inevitability. Death is a constant at the camp, and Castiel thinks it might be a relief when his own time comes. He cannot remember when it started, but it has been a long time since Castiel cared about living this life he has. He cares about avoiding pain, avoiding suffering and a useless lingering death, but the end itself, he thinks, would be a blessing.

Alfie is still dripping blood from his lifeless body when the prisoners are ordered back to their huts. They are escorted by Officer Winchester so he can lock them back inside their rotten barracks. He does not speak. There are dark splashes on his coat and, though his eyes are narrowed and hard, his face pale, nearly as white as Alfie out in the yard, staring at the stars, open-eyed but sleeping.

There are no tears for Alfie. No one mourns him. Castiel does the only thing he can, and tucks the memory of the boy away, folds him into the dark place inside where he keeps things locked away, the things from before, the things he does not want to think about. In the labour-camp, hidden in the forests and away from the world, tears are better kept for the living. The dead do not need them.

Castiel heaves himself back up the frame and into his bunk. Around him the other men do the same, grumbling at the loss of rations, and loss of sleep.

“How long, Benny?” a voice asks from below Castiel’s bunk.

Benny huffs and turns around in his bunk, if the creaking is anything to go by. Benny has a watch, a privilege of his status and luckily, too old and beat up to be of interest to the guards. “Three if we’re lucky,” he grumbles. Three, three hours till the sirens scream again and drag them from their beds. “Get some sleep, Brother,” Benny goes on. “It’s going to be a hard few weeks on half-measure.” Reduced-rations, how many times have they had their allocations taken away, and they never go back to what they were before. If the men did not have to work Castiel doubts the commander would bother to feed them at all. But, there is nothing to be done about it; the pain of an empty stomach as it turns on itself is just one more hardship to be endured.

Castiel finds his missing hat shoved under his pillow and pulls it onto his head with relief. Then he sets about wrapping himself up tight in his blanket and shoving his feet into the sleeve of a moth eaten coat, a bit of extra protection against the cold. He curls up on his mattress wondering if it might be worth asking someone to share a bunk, if the weather stays bad and the wood for the stoves runs out. It’s always awkward, but the extra warmth of another bundled up body nearby makes it worthwhile. It’s common practice during the coldest parts of the year. Castiel eventually drops back into sleep as the lights in the yard go out, plunging the hut into darkness.

Later, the men are woken for a second time. Wolves are calling to each other deep in the snow-heavy forest. The sound is amplified as it bounces between white-topped peaks. It makes the pack seem closer than they really are. They all know what it means and the moment passes without comment; the escapees are dead. Whether they succumbed to their wounds or were brought down by tooth and claw and jaws fastening tight around vulnerable throats, makes no difference, by morning they will be nothing but scattered bones for the crows to pick at.

Castiel turns over, rolls his hat down to cover his ears, and sleeps.

Chapter Text

Blood dries brown around the edge of Dean’s fingernails. It makes his skin itch.

A few hours extra sleep might have helped calm the thoughts that knock against the inside of Dean’s skull; a flash-flood of images and sounds, the weight of the knife in his hand, the bubbling rattle of a dying man’s last breath, the first arc of blood bursting from the carotid, shockingly powerful as it splatters in a long jagged line over dirty snow. Yes, sleep would help. Instead, he spends the small hours staring at the slats over his head, the underside of Kubrick’s bunk, and listening to the snores and grunts from the guards that share the room. He gives it up as a useless effort at the first hint of daybreak and shucks off the heavy woollen blankets twisted around his legs.

He heads down to the washroom. It’s deserted, and Dean is grateful for a few minutes alone. There are a hell of a lot of people around for a place in the middle of fucking nowhere.

He moves to the sink and turns the tap, hoping more than believing that anything resembling hot water will fall from it. Dean knows, from the incessant complaining about it, that the commander has his own dedicated heating system, up in his rooms at the top of the administration building, everyone else has to make do with what heat and hot water the antiquated furnace in the basement can kick out. As with everything else in this God-forsaken place, the water struggles to meet even Dean’s lowest expectations, and comes out a little above freezing. It’s almost painful to shove his hands under the faucet and Dean sucks in a breath, hissing between clenched teeth. He scrubs his hands anyway. With a sparse-bristled bush and a little soap he gradually manages to remove the evidence of death that clings to him, letting it wash away down the plug hole, with the swirl of ice-cold water.

He thought he was done with killing after the war ended. Dean was a good soldier, a good fighter, but it had become too easy for him towards the end; he took down government men, one after another, without blinking, without hesitating, without thinking—as if he was knocking tin-cans from a wall. It was not a part of himself that he liked to examine too closely, and even as the Collective praised him, and shook his hand, and decorated him with medals, he felt ashamed. He wanted to protect the people, protect the country under the guidance of the Collective, not to kill randomly and without remorse. He thought it would be different at the camp. Keeping an eye on a bunch of prison-labourers was supposed to be a cakewalk.

“The inmates are political prisoners, on the whole. Agitators and saboteurs, intellectuals who don’t believe in the equality the Collective has blessed us with,” the commander had assured him. “They’re not fighters, and they’re easy to control. All it takes is a few hard words and the odd threatening look.” Alistair had laughed about it, and sold the benefits of the assignment with a smile. “The environment is hard. I’m not going to lie to you, Dean. Living in a correctional labour-camp is a bit like living on the edge of the world, and not everyone is cut out for it. But, the work isn’t hard, and not only does a stint with the prisoners look good on your service record, it also helps you learn how to recognise the type of person that would work against the Collective and everything we fought so hard for.” Dean liked Alistair’s honesty, and had agreed to it within the hour. “You’ve made the right decision, Officer Winchester” Alistair had said. “I know your father was a dedicated member of the Collective, I think he would have been proud to see you working to maintain the peace and security of the country.” Dean chose to believe it was true, that he could make John Winchester proud in the years after his death, in a way he never managed while the man was alive.

Dean’s hands slide along the edge of the sink, gripping tight over the cracked surface as he leans towards the mirror, dotted with age-spots, on the wall above. His reflection is warped, discolouration in the silver makes his skin look patched with disease. He hardly recognises the face staring back at him. Even his eyes, the vivid green so often commented on, look washed out and dull, little better than the hollow-eyed prisoners in the yard.

 It’s not a happy thought. The inmates are pitiful creatures. He can hardly believe they watched one of their own die and stayed silent, standing there like an army of the dead, unfeeling and cold. The memory of those empty eyes watching makes Dean shudder. Another follows quickly, hit again with memories from the night before; flashes of a knife, the feel of flesh separating under pressure, red-heat on his fingers, and the rusted scent of blood filling his nose and his lungs until he thinks he might puke. Guilt crawls like a spider across his skin.

He makes a decision.

There is no one at the desk outside Alistair’s office when Dean arrives. Unsurprising, since it’s where the dead kid used to work. It’s only been a few hours, too soon to find a replacement. Dean has no doubt that Alistair is already in his office, so he lifts his shoulders, does a quick check on his uniform—a previous commander was a stickler about appearance and the habit stuck.

A smart knock on the closed door, a bitten off, “Enter,” and Alistair looks up from the papers scattered over his desk. It’s an intimidating bit of kit, the desk, ornate and too big for the room, made of dark wood that Dean can’t identify.  “Officer Winchester,” Alistair says, his scowl softening as he catches sight of Dean in the doorway. “Glad to see you up and about so early in the day.”

“Commander,” Dean starts, with a nod to acknowledge the greeting. “I hope I’m not disturbing you?” he asks, stamping down on the twitch of anxiety in his belly. Respect for the line of command was instilled in Dean early, first at the hands of his father, then reinforced when he joined the military, but he was no pushover, he knew when to speak and when to hold his tongue. Alistair was still an unknown, but he was a senior officer, respected and decorated by the higher-ups in Collective for his role in winning the war, Dean is sure he has the answers to settle the nagging doubts in his mind.

“You’re not disturbing me at all, what can I do for you?” Alistair nods towards a chair in front of the desk and sets aside the papers he had been scribbling on.

Dean declines the invitation to sit. He did not come for small-talk and does not want to give a false impression. “It’s just a small matter,” he says. “It’s about the man who died yesterday. I was wondering what exactly he had done to deserve it?”

There is confusion on Alistair’s face. “What man?” It’s not the response Dean was expecting and he stands there with his mouth open, trying to work out what to say next.

Alistair stares, holds Dean’s gaze for a moment too long to be entirely comfortable, before the edge of his mouth ticks up and twists into a smile. “I see what you are feeling,” he says, at last. “You are a good man I believe, Officer Winchester, just as you were a good soldier. But, we are not on the battlefield now, and in this camp, within our fences, you are not facing an honest enemy that comes at you with a flag on his shoulder and a gun in his hand. The fight here is different and requires different tactics, a different attitude; it might take time to get used to, but you’ll get there. I have complete faith in you.”

“I don’t understand.” Dean frowns at the talk of war, of tactics. A prisoner was executed, there were no battle lines drawn, the young man was unarmed, and, shit... he looked like a strong breeze could probably beat him in a fight.

Alistair sighs, leans back in his chair and presses his finger tips together. “These prisoners are not men, Dean. May I call you Dean?”

“Yes, Commander.”

“Very good,” he smiles before going on. “The prisoners in this camp are traitors, Dean, enemies of the people.  Since the earliest days of the Collective, even during the revolution, when good honest folk like your father stood together, and gave their lives to fight a corrupt system, there have been elements in the country that have worked against us. They plotted against our leaders and sowed dissent among the people, and sought to disrupt the good work of the Collective.”

“I thought that most of the old government supporters had been wiped out?”

“They were, Dean. But I’m not just talking about people who want to take us back to the old days, though there are a few pockets of them still. I’m talking about groups who wanted the revolution, some who even fought alongside us back then. But, when the people chose the Collective, they grew jealous and started spreading lies and collaborating with foreign influences who would take us back to the way things used to be, where money instead of equality and brotherhood, ruled this land.” Alistair does not need to go on, even children, too young to have witnessed it, know all about the old government and the necessity of the revolution. It’s taught in schools. Little kids sing songs about glorious revolution, even before they are old enough to understand what it means, or how many lives it cost. And revolution was just the beginning of the bloodshed, the civil war came later.

Alistair pauses, closes his eyes in a clear effort to subdue his rising passion. The fervour with which he talks about the Collective, and the people, shows Alistair’s dedication to their ideals. Dean respects him for it, for that devotion to the cause and to the protection of the common man. It’s a trait his father shared. “Despite our best efforts,” he goes on. “There will always be people who try to work against us. And even though we try to set them back on the right path, give them a chance to repay their debt to society, through hard work; some will never be corrected.” He shakes his head and sighs. “You will come to realise, Dean, these prisoners do the same here as they do outside; they sabotage our work, they get the other prisoners riled up, they play on the guards’ sympathies to access the stores and the weapons. They are devious creatures, Dean. Don’t let appearances fool you. They deserve neither your pity nor your interest, and the sooner you learn that the easier your time here will be.”

The look Alistair sends Dean’s way is appraising, and a fluttering of anxiety rolls through Dean’s stomach. Dean could kick himself for bothering the commander with this when Dean has not even been here a full week. The commander gave the order, and he knows more about the dangers hidden in the camp, the complex networks and power-struggles between inmates, than Dean ever will. Coming to question Alistair about the boy looks a lot like he is questioning Alistair’s orders. Fuck; if his father was alive he’d be furious, Dean was raised to follow commands, not question them without good reason.

“However, I will indulge you this once, since you’re new to this,” Alistair says, flapping a hand towards the window and the grey dawn breathing life into the camp on the other side. “Not all prisoners show their true faces to the world. It’s our duty to the Collective, and to the people, to see beneath the masks and the lies these vile creatures spin; we can’t allow them to return to a society they want to destroy.”

“Of course,” Dean agrees whole heartedly. After the pain and loss and trauma of civil war, what they fought for must be protected.

“The prisoner in question was a known trouble maker, Dean. I have good reason to believe he helped orchestrate last night’s escape, and had a role sabotaging work at the processing plant. It’s been going on for months. We’ve lost workers and output because of it.” Alistair purses his lips tight as he shakes his head, irritated by the recollection. “It needed to be dealt with, and it needed to be seen, to impress upon the others the futility of such schemes.” His expression goes carefully neutral as he looks up at Dean. “Perhaps I should have prepared you,” he says. “But given your reputation and your excellent record I assumed you could handle it.”

“I can,” Dean blurts out. Heat prickles his cheeks.

A memory; John holding out a knife, handle first; a doe, tongue stuck out and panting, wild-eyed in terror on the grass at their feet; the smell of blood from the bullet-hole in her side making him dizzy; “If you didn’t want to do it, boy, you should have shot her clean in the first place,” John says. Dean’s small hands accept the knife reluctantly, it’s heavy and he has to steady it with both hands as he leans towards the place John is pointing to on her neck. “Right here, quick and hard, like I showed you.” Dean’s hands tremble as he rests the point against the soft fur. He hesitates. “Jesus Christ, Dean, just do it! Do you want to eat or not?” Water makes his vision blurry. The knife is snatched from his fingers and in the deer’s flesh in one economical movement. “I told your mother you were too soft to handle it.”

Dean pulls himself up, lifts his head, “I have no problem following orders, Commander. I just wanted to know why the order came about.”

“And are you satisfied now?” Alistair asks. There is nothing but good humour in the question, and Dean relaxes a fraction.

“I am. Thank you, Commander,” Dean says, filled with relief at the praise.

“And I thank you, Dean, for your help in the matter. You were very... efficient. Now go or the other officers will eat your rations.” Alistair dismisses him with a wave and a kind look.   

Dean makes his way to the guards’ mess-hall. He is reassured, but there is still a heavy feeling in his stomach about the whole thing, that he can’t seem to shake. Even the sausage, egg, and bacon piled on his plate can’t remove it completely, though it does help push the topic from Dean’s mind. Meat is in short supply across the country. People wait in line for hours at the butcher’s just to come away with a handful of ground beef, if they are very lucky. Dean can hardly remember the last time he had bacon, and he cleans his plate, mopping up the last dribbles of meat fat with thick cut slices of bread. He puts the boy out of his mind, knowing that the discomfort of taking another man’s life will fade, with time. The war taught him that.

“Winchester!” The call makes Dean look up, and he finds Gordon closing in, long legs moving quickly. He drops onto the bench beside Dean and pushes the empty breakfast plate away. Dean finishes chewing the last mouthful of bread he will get until lunchtime. He does it slowly, makes sure it’s all good and soft before he swallows, obnoxiously loud. Gordon Walker sees himself as senior among the guards. He has been here a long time and Alistair tends to favour him when handing out assignments, but technically he does not outrank Dean. He seems like an okay guy, but Dean decided on his first day at the labour-camp, that he would not kowtow to Gordon, and that includes not allowing him to dictate when Dean’s breakfast is over.

“Yeah?” Dean says. He drops his fork onto the metal plate where it lands with a clang that echoes off the bare walls.

“Don’t suppose you’ve taken a look at the roster this morning, Winchester?” Gordon rolls his eyes when Dean shrugs. “There’s been a change. Montgomery’s down with some kind of pansy-assed illness, so you’re coming with me to the plant.”

“Thought newbies didn’t work the yard?” Dean says. He’d been lectured on the subject by his room-mates the first night.

“Well, I guess someone likes you,” Gordon sneers. He stands, knocks his shoulder against Dean’s in a move that is either aggressive or friendly—Dean can’t work out which until he gets to know the man better, so he lets it go. Gordon adds a dry, “Lucky you,” as he turns away. “Grab your stuff then, Winchester. I haven’t got all day.” Gordon grumbles something about, “Cheeky fucking newbies,” and “Useless assholes,” under his breath as he heads out into the yard. Dean smiles to himself as he follows Gordon through the door. He might be a cheeky shit sometimes, but Dean does not want problems with the other guards. His assignment is for two years and he will need to fit in to make it through.

A post in the correctional-labour system is a good job for a soldier. Dean knows that John, with his dedication to the Collective, would have agreed. “What’s good for the family, and good for the country, is good for the Collective, and good for you,” he used to say. John Winchester was old school, a true believer who risked everything to join the revolutionaries in the fight against the old Government. His father was a great man, a respected leader in the Collective People’s Army, and Dean followed him there at seventeen. John was lost during the war, a reconnaissance mission that went wrong, in the government stronghold of Detroit; there was no body for Dean and Sam to bury and mourn, not a shred of skin or splinter of bone. One day, he was just gone. Dean stayed in the army to honour his father’s memory, and with Alistair’s help, follow in John’s footsteps and make a name for himself in the Collective.

He trails Gordon and takes up position with the guards in the yard, forming a line in front of the administration building. His hand rests lightly on the rifle that hangs from a strap slung over his shoulder, ready for action if any of the prisoners get rowdy and need a fright to shock a bit of sense back in them—it’s too cold to be messing about.

The siren goes off, screeching through tinny speakers, calling the inmates to work. Prisoners line-up to be counted and loaded onto trucks, ready to be jolted mercilessly over un-finished roads, treacherous with ice.

“They’re the lucky ones,” Gordon grumbles, as they watch them scramble into the trucks, shoving and tussling like animals. “The mill and the loading bay are heavy work so they get to ride the trucks. The others,” he says, inclining his head towards the second group milling around the edges of the yard, waiting for the vehicles to roll out. “They do the light stuff, maintenance, loading, paperwork. They get to walk.” He pulls a face like he can taste something foul, and snorts, “You know, those assholes have someone that pulls the weeds and saplings up around the yard.” Shakes his head, “That’s what happens when you let the rats run the ship.”

“They run the works themselves?” Dean had not really thought about it before, about the details of how this all worked.

“Yeah, well, mostly,” Gordon says. “We have a look at them when they come in, see who’s healthy, who’s got skills that might be useful, and send them to a team. The team leaders take care of it from there.”

“And that works?”

“They have to make it work. They got quotas to fill, and if they don’t make them they all lose rations. The bread is the first to go. Christ,” he laughs, “You should see them when they’ve missed quota for a few weeks running, they’d stab their bunk-mates with a rusty spoon if they thought they’d get an extra spoon of pottage.”

“Yeah, sounds great,” Dean scoffs.

Gordon, apparently immune to sarcasm, takes the words at face value and commiserates with an encouraging, “You’ll get to see it, Winchester. We all do, eventually.” 

He turns his attention back to the trucks where some of the inmates eye Dean with suspicion, or outright hostility. The rest ignore him. They wait with vacant eyes and skin stretched thin over bone, blinking and lifting hands to shade their eyes as the sun creeps out from behind grey cloud. A few turn away or pull their coats over their heads as if the touch of the light hurts. And well it might, there has been nothing but snow and cloud since Dean arrived, and the camp is so far north they won’t get much in the way of sun, even in the summer months.  

When all the men have been counted and re-counted, Gordon sends a nod in Dean’s direction and he climbs into the back of the last truck. He looks out the back, watches the intimidating block of the administration building get smaller as they crunch over snow and ice, chains around the wheels for added grip. They pass through the open gate, all patched metal, wooden slats and barbed wire. A watchtower climbs up on one side, looming over the road, taller than most of the surrounding trees. From here he can see the way the prisoners’ huts cluster together, huddling in groups of five and six around the perimeter. There is room for more.

Something pings on the edge of Dean’s awareness as he senses he is being watched. He scans the group of prisoners he is travelling with, alert to any potential threat. The men look away, refusing to meet Dean’s eyes; all but one. A tall man with dark hair is watching. The look isn’t bold, or aggressive, if anything it’s just cold and empty, like the winter-starved forest around them.

The man looks familiar, though he is just as dirty and ragged as his companions, and it takes a while for Dean to catch at that thread of memory, and follow it back. It solidifies, unexpectedly stark, and Dean looks away in discomfort. The same man was standing at the boy’s side when Dean hauled him out into the yard at Alistair’s order. Perhaps they were friends? They would have been hut-mates at the very least, if they were lined up together. Even traitors have friends, Dean supposes, and some prisoners are bound to be sore about it, however justified. There is nothing can be done about it now, so he sets those thoughts aside, and tries not to feel the weight of those eyes, still watching.

He concentrates on the journey, on mapping the direction to the processing plant as the unfinished road takes them deeper into the forest. It does not take more than half an hour of rattling over bumps and furrows before the trees are opening up, like the parting of a great green-sea, to reveal a raw stretch of land. A jumble of buildings and old machines squat there, like sleeping monsters, rusted into stillness by the snow and the rain. There is no noise apart from the rumble of the trucks’ engines and the panicked fluttering of a few birds that take flight as the men roll in to start the day. The mountains rising in the distance are hazy with cloud. It’s oddly peaceful and Dean breathes it in for a strange few moments.

Gordon barks a sharp command. “Get to work, assholes, what are you waiting for, your mama to send you off with a kiss?” He grins as he jumps from the cab of a truck up ahead—too high and mighty to travel with the inmates like the other guards do—and makes his way along the line, banging on the sides of the vehicles until the prisoners all climb out, tired and blinking. Trudging across the yard they look like the last people in the world who should be working with heavy lumber and sharp-toothed machines.

Things start to move quickly once the men reach their work-stations. In no time the great chugging engines are starting up, bringing the sleeping machines in the yard and inside the mill buildings back to life as the men call to one another, the whole messy set-up falling into a semblance of order, and a reality of industry, busy and scurrying like a colony of ants. Dean is mesmerised by the change.

“Well?” Gordon steps up beside him, sweeps a dramatic arm out in a smooth arc, “What do you think, Winchester, not too shabby, huh?”

“I didn’t think it would be like this,” Dean confesses. “I thought it would be a few prisoners sitting around chopping logs with an axe, to keep them busy and out of trouble. This is... this is more like a business.”

He notices that some of the men shy away, or pick up their pace, whenever one of the guards approaches. A few of the guards have batons and short-handled whips tucked in their belts—neither of which are part of their official kit as far as Dean is aware

“It’s efficient, is what it is,” Gordon explains, nodding to Creedy as he goes past shouting in the face of a short blonde prisoner, the other guard too busy pushing and prodding at the inmate with his thick fingers to acknowledge it. “The country is still recovering and it needs to re-build.” He sounds proud and Dean can see why. “These assholes would put an end to the Collective if they could. Now they repay us by helping put roofs over the heads of our mothers and sisters.”

“And brothers,” Dean adds.

“That’s right.” Gordon looks at him speculatively then smiles. It’s the first honest smile Dean’s had from the man, from any of the guards, since he arrived. It goes some way to soothing his earlier misgivings about him and about the camp. Dean believes in the Collective same as any honest man. He believes in the people, and the strength of a country that works together for a better future. He looks around the processing plant and Dean sees the misguided men being given a second chance, an opportunity to help rebuild the country that will welcome them back when they’ve served out their time. This is fair justice in action. This is what Dean fought for.

The machines rumble and splutter their way through the day. Birds voice their protest at the disturbance from the safety of the surrounding trees. Some take to the air and circle overhead, casting broad-winged shadows over prisoners and guards alike, before drifting away in search of quieter roosts. On the whole, the men are not much trouble. They go about their duties, heads down and submissive to the guards and their own team leaders.

Dean takes his midday break in the guard tower that overlooks the site, and he says as much to Walt Taylor, asking if it’s typical behaviour.

“Don’t let them fool you,” Walt says between mouthfuls of cold stew. His spoon scrapes against the bottom of the square tin—all the guards were handed one as they left the mess-hall this morning—and it makes a horrible grating noise. “They’re quiet today because of the stunt you pulled with that Alfie kid last night. They’ll be back to their usual lazy bullshit in a few days, you’ll see.” Flecks of meat and brown liquid dribble from his lips as he speaks.

“It wasn’t a stunt.” Dean stares into his own lunch-tin, as if he could find out why he suddenly feels so uncomfortable, among the brown lumps and gravy.

Walt splutters and barks out a laugh, spraying more food from his mouth. It speckles his uniform, adding to the existing patchwork of stains. “Of course it was a stunt, a good one, too. Like you said, Winchester, they’re extra quiet today, extra scared, and that’s a good thing for us.” He leans back on his chair until the legs start to tremble dangerously under his ample weight. “Alistair should do random executions more often if you ask me, keeps ‘em on their toes if they never know who’s going to be next.” Walt lifts his hand, straightens two fingers to make a gun shape. He grins as he closes one eye and pretends to takes aim at a passing prisoner. “It could be you, could be your best bud, could be anyone.” He pretends to fire, bad sound effect included. “One down, a few thousand more to go,” he says, lifting his fingertips to his mouth and puffing out a cooling breath, like a cowboy in a movie.

“Asshole,” Dean mutters, and turns away to look out the window. The inmate Walt targeted in his play-act has stopped, stilled in his tracks with a stack of cut lumber cradled in his arms. He turns to look up at the watch-tower, moving his dark head with a quick twist. Dean reacts with a soldier’s instinct, dodges back from the window, out of view, out of the line of fire, then smiles when he realises what he’s done. He shakes it off quickly; glad to find Walt too engrossed by his meal to notice anything. When Dean glances out into the yard again, the man has walked on, unhurried, and careful on the icy ground. His burden must be heavy, but, unlike many of the other men, drooping sadly under loads that would tire a packhorse, it does not show in the line of the prisoner’s shoulders.

The afternoon slips by with only one small incident to note down and report back to administration, a small accident in the loading bay holds up the workers that run the mill—the main building in the processing plant with the largest and grouchiest machine inside—a few choice curses and bellowed orders from Gordon, along with motivational kicks from the boots of Walt and Roy, resolve the matter quickly. Walt and Roy laugh, red-cheeked and gleeful from the effort, as their victim scrabbles away, holding his ribs and dripping blood from his nose. Another prisoner leads the battered man to the edge of the yard, helps him peel off the top layers of his outfit, so they can wrap lumps of ice and snow in the man’s shirt, and hold them against the bruises growing dark down his side. The prisoners have to look out for each other. No one else will help them.

Dean decides to stay away from the two guards in future. He knows the type; the ones that get a thrill from violence, has been around them in the army more than once, and it’s not something he particularly wants to deal with when he’s stuck in the ass-end of nowhere.  

The only thing approaching interesting conversation Dean gets all day is Creedy enthusiastically describing the lack of virtue of the girls in the closest town—close being a loose description in this case—complete with advice about where to find the best whores. If nothing else, at least Dean knows which bars to avoid if he ever does decide to make the trip. He nods along, letting Creedy ramble, completely oblivious to Dean’s lack of curiosity. At least it passes the time.

Dean trails behind the other guards as they get ready to return to camp. The machines are fallen silent, and the men heave themselves into the back of trucks, over-worked muscles shaking with exhaustion. The inmates that have to walk the route set off half an hour ago. No one wants to be caught outside the gates after dark. The forest is a source of fear among the prisoners, and the guards too, to some extent. Not surprising, when most of them hail from the cities, the politicals especially, which makes sense, because where else could they effectively spread dissent like a disease among the people? 

The sun hangs low in the western sky as Walt jogs back down the line of trucks. “Winchester,” he shouts as he gets closer. The brief exercise has him wheezing and he bends over, leaning one hand on his knee. In the other is a set of keys, swinging heavy on a thick silver ring. “Forgot to lock the watch-tower,” he gasps between loud breaths. “Thought you could do it, so you can learn the ropes, you know.” He jangles the keys up and down, until Dean takes them. A few prisoners in the truck ahead of him turn in his direction, and Dean can hear them whispering to each other, though he can’t make out the words. “Check there’s no idiots hiding in the latrines,” Walt shouts, as Dean heads back into the lumber yard.

“And don’t forget to lock the gate,” Gordon shouts from further down the line. Dean does not turn around but he lifts a hand in acknowledgement.

Dean is struggling with the rusted lock on the metal door on the tower—reinforced for safety, in case the prisoners ever decided to put their tools to a different use—when he hears the fading rumble of the trucks. It takes a few seconds to process it before he’s off and sprinting out of the yard, back to the road. The trucks are gone; all of them. He slaps a wool covered palm to his head. He’s a fucking idiot. There are no gates on the processing plant. It isn’t fenced in like the camp, why would it be? It’s a Collective worksite, in the middle of fucking nowhere, not much of a crime risk. Far down the track there are wisps of white cloud, the remains of the trucks’ exhaust fumes, steaming in the frozen air.

An image of the other guards, Roy, Walt, Creedy, and even Gordon, all waving at him and laughing their asses off, pops into his head, uninvited. Dean can’t help releasing a bubble of resigned laughter himself as he starts the long walk back to camp. He really should have been expecting some sort of hazing.

He walks quickly, trying to stay ahead of nightfall, when the predators come out to prowl between the frosted trunks, and twisted roots hide in the dark, bulging from the ground with malicious intent to twist ankles and snap bones. It would not be a great start to Dean’s time here to fall on his ass and break something. He can’t help imagining it as he walks through the quiet of the forest. He sees the headline; idiot guard, breaks ankle, gets eaten by wolves—not an elegant way for a war hero to go.       

Dean’s feet are rubbed raw in his new leather boots by the time he sees the electric glow of the camp in the distance, glinting between the branches of the trees. It’s nearly full dark and Dean’s stomach is already complaining about being late to the mess-hall; a hot meal is exactly what he needs to get rid of the chill that has sunk down into his bones. Spring is still a long way off in the northern mountains and the temperature won’t climb above freezing for a few months yet. Dean’s greatcoat and the padded layers underneath can only do so much to keep out the biting wind as the sun sinks below the peaks of the mountains, throwing colours across the clouds as she goes.

A sharp bend in the road ahead offers the possibility of a short-cut back to camp. Dean’s sense of direction is good and he remembers this part of the road from the morning. Tumbled lumps of stone, set back from the track, show the bones of an old shelter, left to the ice and split open. Whatever the place was, retreat, home, or refuge, it’s the reason part of the track seems to pre-date the rest of the route from the prison, looping around the fallen stones, turning away from the camp for a while, before meeting up with the newer road that links the prison with the railroad, far to the southeast. The other paths, like the railroad and the camp itself, are more recent; built by prisoners in the aftermath of the revolution; leaders and supporters of the old government removed from Collective controlled territories, and set to work on the infrastructure of the new correctional-labour system. A generous deal, all things considered.

The lights wink alluringly between the white spruce, larch, and paper birch that crowd together along the track, and he knows a come-get-it look when he sees one. The loud complaints of his empty stomach and the throb of his abused feet win out in the end, and he gives in to the temptation of taking a short-cut through the trees. Dean knows forests, he knows the wild, from days spent hunting at his father’s side, and does not fear it. With a hand on his gun, listening carefully for the soft tread of wolf or lynx, he steps from the road.

The trees are close packed and it’s dark under the canopy, much darker than the open swath of the road. For all his experience in similar environments, more forgiving though they were, he can’t see in the dark. Branches whip out and smack him in the face, with damp leaves or sharp needles, as Dean pushes his way through. Twigs reach out and catch in his clothes and he has to stop and fumble to free himself. By the time he stumbles from the shadow of the glowering trees he is more than half-convinced some old forest God is trying to kill him.

He whoops with joy. Twigs snap under his feet as he does a celebratory swaggering-jig. A few birds flap and flee their roosts at the sudden noise, but Dean is glad to have arrived at the chain-link fence that rings the camp. He doesn’t care who knows it—bird or beast, they can go to hell. Dean wallows in relief for a few seconds before it dawns on him that he isn’t actually at the front gate. He does not even know if he is near it; the camp is large and sprawling and it could take another half an hour of fighting through the undergrowth if he goes the wrong way around the fence. He is in a small clearing, behind a collection of smaller sheds that he does not recognise at all.

“What the fuck?” Dean asks, as he swings his head from right to left, then back again, looking down the length of the rusted links. Squinting at the sheds and scratching his head does nothing to help. Grumbling in frustration, Dean takes a moment to stamp the clumps of ice and rotten leaves from the treads of his boots. When that does not work, he picks up a stick and pokes at them, hopping and wobbling while he balances his weight on one foot. “This is fucking ridiculous,” Dean grumbles, before looking around again. “Well done, Winchester. Only you could lose the gate when you’re right here looking at the damn prison, idiot.” He smacks himself on the forehead again, with more force this time, and ends up rubbing at the sting of it with an “Ouch” murmured under his breath.

“I don’t see how hitting yourself is going to help,” a voice rumbles from the other side of the fence.

Dean’s hand is on his gun, eyes narrow as he searches the shadows. There is movement in the dark behind the low wooden buildings. “Come out where I can see you.” His words are short, defensive, and more than a little embarrassed that he had an audience for his improvised dance—not a talent he wanted to share with the world.

The man stands up and walks forward with his hands up. Even in the light the man looks washed-grey and dreary, as if the shadows have been dragged along with him and fall heavy from his shoulders. He does not stop moving until his fingers are pressed against the metal cords of the fence; curling through the spaces, holding gently. He is wearing only one glove, and Dean’s attention is caught on the fact for a moment, wondering whether the loss is temporary or not. The cold has sunk its teeth into the flesh, turning bare fingers dark, purpled and stiff. It’s painful to see. Dean recognises him. It’s the same prisoner that had watched him with dull-eyed attention in the truck that morning.

“What are you doing here?” Dean demands. He stands tall, takes on the persona that served him well in the army, the one that dragged information from reluctant enemies. For a moment the prisoner just stands there. His only movement a slow blink that makes Dean wonder if there is something wrong with him, some unseen injury. The detachment in his manner reminds Dean of the traumatised veterans you still see in the cities, wandering the streets, or sheltering in doorways, victims of chemical attacks, carried out by cowardly government men. Dean sees them too often, staring into space or talking in strange riddles. Some believe they are touched by God, but that is just superstition. Dean feels sorry for them and drops pennies into their cups when he has money to spare. It’s a terrible reminder of the disgusting lengths some people will go to when power is at stake.  

The prisoner replies with a simple, “Nothing.”

“What’s that then?” Dean asks, nodding to where the prisoner had placed something on the ground before standing, a dark lump.

The prisoner glances over his shoulder to where Dean is looking. “It’s just dinner,” he says, squinting at Dean as if he can’t work out why anyone would ask such a dumb question.

“Why aren’t you in the yard or in your hut with the others?” Dean steps closer but lets his hand drop away from the gun at his side. The prisoner does not seem like a threat, even if he isn’t where he is supposed to be. Dean had been warned that the inmates like to bend the rules as much as possible, figure out just how far they could push them before being thrown into solitary.

“I prefer not to eat with the others,” the prisoner says. “The men are noisy in the evening, and they fight over their rations. I prefer to have a moment’s peace and not to wrestle anyone to be able to eat what little I have.”

“Okay, but you know you’re not supposed to be out here, right?” Dean leans forward until he can see the black identification code on the man’s standard issue coat. The white badge, sewn on with clumsy stitches, is dirty, and the ink is faded, difficult to read. The number looks like 881, but Dean can’t make out the preceding letter.

“I don’t believe there’s a rule against it, as such.” The prisoner glances down at his chest before fixing Dean with another vacant stare. It makes Dean pull away, lifting his head and puffing out his chest, unconsciously trying to make himself look bigger. Maybe he is tired from the walk and the lack of sleep last night, but something about the prisoner makes Dean confused, as if they are using the same words but not speaking the same language. “My identification number is N-881 if you want to report me.”

“What? No. I’m not going to report you if you’re not up to anything.” Dean does not know the rules of the camp yet. He can’t tell if the guy is telling the truth or not, but from what Dean’s already seen of the day-to-day running of the place, it does seem likely. The isolation of the prison keeps the prisoners in more effectively than any fences ever could, so it’s not surprising the inmates are allowed to wander more or less freely within them. They are not allowed in the administration building, unless they have assigned work there—it would not do for the inmates to have access to the guard’s rooms—but otherwise, so long as the prisoners are ready for work at first light and back in their sleep-huts at lights-out, there seem to be few restrictions.

The prisoner nods, making a quiet humming sound in the back of his throat. It’s the biggest response Dean’s seen from the guy. “If you’ve got something to say, say it,” Dean orders.  

“I’m surprised, that’s all.”

Dean waits, expecting more, but N-881 just continues to look at him. He remains expressionless, but somehow, Dean gets the feeling the guy is unimpressed. “What? Why?” Dean asks.

The prisoner blinks slowly. “Well, Alfie wasn’t up to anything, and you still murdered him,” the prisoner says. He speaks simply, there’s no force behind the words, no malice making them dark or violent. Dean feels each one like a blade in his chest, scoring the letters that spell murderer onto his ribs.

Acid burns at the back of Dean’s throat. “I didn’t murder him.” N-881 looks at him calmly, features barely visible in the dark. “I obeyed an order given by a superior officer that was necessary to secure the safety of the camp, and the country. Your friend was a traitor, plotting...”

The low voice that cuts through Dean’s words contains a surety that he does not expect, and it forces him into silence. “Alfie was good,” N-881 says, “He was honest. And even in this god-forsaken place, he tried to please everyone, including your superior officer. He was guilty of nothing.”

“The sabotage at the processing plant,” Dean says, determined to win the point and dull the sensations this conversation has bubbling and boiling under his skin. “He was a ring-leader and a danger to everyone.”

N-881 lets go of the fence and crosses his arms tight over his chest. Still, his expression does not change. There is no trace of anger or upset or aggression; he is just there, a solid presence, saying things that Dean does not want to know. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, Officer Winchester,” the prisoner says, the slow words carry weight, the gravity of worlds. “Tell me then, how could Alfie be this great saboteur, when he’s been working in the administration building nearly as long as he’s been here, at the commander’s request, and right under his nose? And the men hated him for it. Alfie had no friends in here.”

“I don’t...” Dean starts; he does not get much further.

“For months he’s spent his time either working in the administration building or sleeping in Hut 17, and I can assure you that no one has the will to scheme after the lights go out, we don’t get enough down time as it is. So when, then, was he hatching these plans? When was he meeting with his co-conspirators?” The prisoner pauses, and squints at Dean through the deepening gloom. “Think about it, Officer Winchester, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Dean stares at him, his mouth hanging open. It’s pride that has Dean breathing hard, flaring his nostrils as he bristles, “I don’t think you are in any position to be telling me what to think, inmate. Why am I even talking to you? You’re a traitor, a criminal, just like all the other assholes in here.” Dean’s face flushes, as his mouth pulls tight, growing angry. “He was in here,” Dean jabs a finger towards the prison buildings, “For a reason. You are all in here for a reason. The kid was guilty of something, or he wouldn’t have been here.”

“You’re right, I’m here; do you want to murder me, too?” The words are challenging, but there is nothing of it in his voice, no feeling at all, just a discomforting blankness.

“Right now I kind of do, yeah.” He doesn’t mean it, but this guy is pushing all his buttons while looking at him like he could not be more bored by Dean’s idiocy.

The prisoner looks at him with a cool steady gaze. “Well, go ahead,” he invites, dropping his arms away from his chest and to the sides, giving Dean a target, a clear shoot to the heart. “I assure you no one will care if you do.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you haven’t done anything, I mean apart from whatever landed you in here.”

The man shrugs. “I’ll tell you if you ask,” and, God, he sounds completely earnest about it too. Dean shakes his head squashing the unexpected stir of curiosity in his breast. He almost laughs, Dean was right, there is something wrong in this guy’s head.

“Look, I’ve got no problem with you N-881. If Alfie was your friend, then I’m sorry about that, I know what losing people is like, but I’m a soldier and I follow orders, and it was an order, simple as that. What I think, what I believe, it doesn’t even come into it.”

The prisoner nods his head and Dean feels the tingle of an argument won, until he hears a whisper, so soft he isn’t sure if he imagined it. “You’re so wrong.”

Dean ignores it, moves off to the right, before stopping and turning back, addressing the irritating N-881 one last time, “Which is the fastest way back to the front gate?”

The prisoner points to the left, just as the first siren begins to scream for lights out. “Thanks, I think,” Dean grumbles. “Now get the hell back to your hut before I have to report you.” He stumbles to a stop a moment later, and turns back. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone about this. If I find out it’s reached the commander’s ear, I’ll know who to blame.” Dean would never punish a prisoner for telling the truth, but N-881 does not know that.

“And I think you might be better off without the commander’s favour,” the prisoner says, watching him steadily through the fence. “But, I won’t say anything to anyone, if that makes you feel better.”

He accepts the offer with a nod and turns away. As he crunches his way across dried leaves and twigs, towards the gate and some much needed hot food and rest, he hears a soft, “Good night, Officer Winchester.” But when he glances back in surprise, the prisoner is gone. All he can think is that it must have been the wind whistling between the branches, playing tricks on him.

He tries not to think any more about it as he falls gratefully into his bunk later that night, but if N-881 was telling the truth about the boy then Alistair’s accusations might have been misplaced. Dean tries not to think about how what the prisoner said matches up with what Walt told him over lunch in the tower, tries not to see the connections snap together into a persuasive whole. Dean’s job is to follow orders, it’s what he’s been trained to do, and he can’t go against a senior officer. Alistair must have known something these other men did not. Perhaps Alistair kept the boy close precisely because he was a trouble maker? The idea gives Dean comfort. It might not have the shine of truth but it’s a possibility, one that he clings to as he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

 

A sweet discordance of bird song wakes Castiel early. It is dark still, too early for the siren that calls the men to work. He stares at the underside of the wooden slats that pass for a roof on Hut 17. They hang little more than a handspan above his head when he sits up, cross-legged, on his bunk. The wood is rotted, in dire need of repair after making it through the winter snows. He’ll need to remind Benny about it, or ask one of the other committee men to request supplies, so they can fix it themselves. Spring and summer will come and go before they have time to take a breath, and it needs to be done before the fog of autumn rolls in, carrying sleet and thundering rainstorms over the mountains, and the weakest of the men start to fall to sickness and disease.

It’s a war of attrition between the weather and the men. The damp takes the easy ones, the old and infirm, and then the cold comes for the rest. A few years ago, half the camp was lost. It was a bad year, hard on everyone, even the guards. Two-thousand fresh prisoners arrived as soon as the railroad was cleared. If there is one thing Castiel has learnt in the six years he has survived, it is this: There are always more men.

He reaches up, prods at some of the worst of the rot. It crumbles at the touch, and splinters rain down over him. The pieces are too damp to pierce his skin, thank God, unlike the needle-sharp spikes at the processing plant that burrow into their skin like insects. The disintegration of the wood erases the lines that have been scored into the planks, crosshatched bushels in counts of five. Five what? Castiel has often wondered. The owner of the fingernails that pressed the marks into the wood is long gone, not even alive in memory as there is no one left that knew him, no one to explain what he was counting so scrupulously; days, weeks, months? One hundred and thirteen lines on the back of a rotten beam. Not much of a memorial.

“I can hear you brooding from over here, Brother,” Benny grumbles across the narrow gangway. “Get up if you can’t sleep, but for God’s sake stop with the sighing and let the rest of us get back to sleep.”

“I don’t brood,” Castiel says, more to himself than to Benny, who has turned his back and pushed a blanket over his head. All Castiel can see of him now are a few tufts of thinning hair from the top of his head. Castiel gave up brooding years ago, gave it up the day he realised without a doubt, that no matter what the official conviction papers say, he will never get out. Castiel’s only destination is a hole in the ground. So, no, Castiel does not brood. Instead, he feels nothing, nothing but the frost in winter, the rain in spring, and the bite of mosquitoes in summer. Inside he is already dead, but he functions and tries his best to fit in with the other men; life is easier that way. He takes Benny’s advice now and climbs out of his bunk, careful to climb down the stack quietly, trying not to wake anyone else.

Pulling a blanket over his shoulders to protect against the pre-dawn chill, Castiel grabs his tin from where it is tucked down the side of his mattress, and heads for the corner of the yard where Garth and Richie cook breakfast over the fire-pit, stirring and stirring a huge bubbling vat of watery porridge, trying to stop it sticking and burning. Castiel wrinkles his nose as he gets closer, the smell from the pot could not be described as appetising.

“Not a bad one today.” Garth grins and reaches out for Castiel’s bowl. He has managed to acquire a ladle from somewhere, and he brandishes the misshapen thing proudly before sinking it into the slop. Castiel takes the bowl, enjoying the warmth of the metal against his hands until it becomes too much and he has to wrap his fingers in the blanket. His left hand tingles uncomfortably, the skin dry and cracked from being exposed to the air for too long. Castiel has no one but himself to blame for the loss of his glove. He stopped to help Lee Chambers with the temperamental dials on the loading bay, yesterday, just as the siren called them back. In the rush to line up for the count he had only grabbed one glove from where he had stuffed them, down the back of the control panel. It was too late to go back by the time he realised the mistake. Castiel just hoped it would still be there.  

It is warmer by the cooking pit, so Castiel crouches beside Richie and pushes the thin porridge around while it cools. A surprised hum catches in his throat as Castiel spots chunks of pinkish-grey meat buried among the pale glutinous oats and barley. Garth watches with a smile on his lips. He looks pleased with himself, and why not? Meat at breakfast is unheard of; Garth has every reason to be as smug as he likes if this is his doing.

Richie nudges Castiel and grins at him as if they are friends. “Garth’s been chatting up the guards again,” he says, adding a wink. “Shows up this morning with that crappy old thing,” Richie nods to Garth who proudly brandishes up the crooked ladle, “And a paper bag full of bacon scraps, with fat in there as well!” Fat is a precious commodity in the cold, keeps the body warm and soft and running as it should, while the world freezes.  

“I thought they gave the scraps to the dogs,” Castiel says. He tastes a lump of the pink stuff and is pleasantly surprised to find it okay, maybe only a day or two past its best. Good meat is a rarity in camp, more so than out in the world, and it’s scarce enough out there if the rumours that circulate in the prison from time to time are to be believed. There is not a man in the camp that would dare turn their nose up at such an offering, even if it is a little grey, or green around the edges.

“They do,” Garth says cheerfully. How he manages to stay hopeful is beyond Castiel’s ability to understand. He must not have realised yet that they have been given a death sentence. Then again, Garth works the kitchens and the yard—he is long and stringy, not built for the heavy labour of the forestry works and the processing plant—so maybe things are not so bad for him. He gets to keep warm for most of the day, and has access to food while fixing meals for the guards, perhaps things do not look so bleak with warm hands and a full belly. “The dogs get some of it, and the guards sell the rest to the farms in the south, I guess they feed it to the pigs.” He falls silent, looks at Castiel expectantly then presses on when it becomes clear Castiel will not ask another question.

“The new guy gave it to me,” Garth says, eyes going comically wide, mouth gaping to show yellowed teeth. “Can you believe it?”

Castiel frowns. “Why?” he asks. It does not make sense for the guards to be handing out something to the prisoners that could benefit them or be used for profit.

“Why indeed?” Richie says with a smirk. “I reckon tall, broad, and cheek bones has got the hots for you Garth,” he wiggles his eyebrows and laughs. Garth flicks porridge at him in playful revenge. It lands in pale globs on his coat and Richie makes a pantomime of scraping it off and shoving it into his mouth. “Waste not, want not,” Richie says, and Castiel hums in agreement; every scrap, any extra calorie of energy, is a treasure.

Garth turns back to the topic of conversation. “I was in the mess-hall the other day and Winchester, that’s the new guy’s name,” Castiel nods and lets Garth have his moment instead of telling them he already met the guy. “He was chatting away as if I was a civilian or something, even after I told him I was a worker...”

“A prisoner,” Castiel corrects. Garth waves his ladle in the air to dismiss the comment.

“...at the end of the shift he comes into the kitchen, thanks all the cooks, and asks if we have anything left over. Not realising what he wanted it for, they hand over an old pack of bacon. When I leave, there he is, waiting by the door, and he hands it to me along with this,” he holds up the ladle.

Helpful, is not a word often used to describe the guards, and Castiel can’t help but wonder if there is an ulterior motive to Winchester’s actions. Castiel swallows down a heavy lump of food and asks, “Did he say why he was giving it to you?”

“He just said he liked the pie I made, that’s it.” Garth shrugs. He turns away to greet more of the early risers that have begun to amble over from the huts. He grins and shows off his new spoon to all of them.

Richie leans closer to Castiel and drops his voice as he speaks, joviality dissolved the instant Garth looks away, too occupied with the new arrivals to pay attention to what they are saying. “I don’t think the new guy realised he’s not supposed to give us things without the commander’s approval. He’ll be in trouble if anyone reports it.”

Castiel thinks back to his meeting with the guard, more than a week ago now, a strange encounter to say the least. Castiel still does not know what insanity led him to confront the guard about Alfie. It is not in his nature to be incendiary, and he tries to avoid interacting with the guards as much as possible, tries to go unnoticed ideally; a sensible precaution if he wants to avoid being thrown into solitary or beaten to a bloody pulp for an imaginary slight. It’s done and there is no changing it, and even if Winchester has not, as yet, decided to punish Castiel for his behaviour, there is no guarantee it won’t happen at some point, no: the guard does not get a free pass for being lazy in seeking retribution. And, appreciated as the extra scraps of food might be, Castiel cannot summon up much concern for any of their guards. Others have started sympathetic, but they adapt to the environment, and quickly, tapping into the darkest parts of themselves, the capacity for cruelty and violence that hides inside everyone.

“You should speak to Garth,” Castiel says, after a time, scraping up the last of his breakfast with the broken-handled spoon he keeps tucked into the top of his boot. It pays to keep your belongings close, sometimes the prisoners are worse than the guards for thieving. “He’d be better off keeping this story to himself if he doesn’t want someone to take his ladle away, or worse.”

Richie nods. His mouth is open and Castiel can see him tonguing at his teeth, trying to dislodge particles of sticky breakfast. “I will,” Richie says.

“Good,” Castiel replies. He stands, ready to go and rinse his bowl at the water tap before hiding it in his bunk. In the corner of his eye he catches a dark blur of movement. The guards in their winter coats, and fur hats, and heavy wool-lined boots, stomp from the administration building and into the aching cold of the yard, grim-faced and unhappy. The siren will call the men to work soon. “Do it now,” Castiel tells Richie, nodding meaningfully towards the guards.

Richie glances over and his face falls when he sees them. “Yeah,” he says, and is grabbing at Garth’s coat and whispering in his ear, half a breath later. Castiel does not know what he says but when he glances back Garth’s smile has slipped and he serves the rest of the men in uncharacteristic quiet.

Castiel walks away. The water-pump is at the other end of the yard. The cold water makes him hiss as it hits his hands, a necessary evil for cleanliness to take precedence over comfort. He watches the guards make their way out across the yard as he scrubs his tin to a high shine. Winchester stamps his feet and hugs himself, still not acclimatised to the rough northern chill. It is almost spring now, the snow and ice will melt in another month or so, and Castiel wonders how Winchester will cope at the tail-end of the year, when winter hits full force.

There is movement, a shadow in one of the windows that cling to the walls of the administration block, high up, second storey; the commander surveying his miserable kingdom. His head is tilted, gaze cast down, watching the guards as they fan out across the yard, watching Winchester as he dawdles along behind the rest of his group.

“Hey asshole, you just going to fucking stand there all day?” Castiel flinches at the voice, growled and close by. Three grim-faced men are loitering nearby, waiting their turn at the pump. The closest, the one who spoke, lifts his lip in a snarl, revealing blackened teeth. “Step on man, unless you want to have a problem.” A glance at the rough diamond-shaped tattoo on the man’s neck has Castiel backing off, not meekly, but with caution. It is not worth trying to hold ground against the criminals in the camp; they are hardened, violent men, thrown in among the politicals to keep them down, too afraid of bloodshed or violation at their hands to resist the more formal abuses of the guards and commanders. It is a cheap policy for the Collective—cuts down on the need to pay for extra guards.

He turns away from the men crowding around the water-pump and looks up at the grey block of the administration building to see if Alistair still haunts the window. He does; and there is a cold twist of fear in Castiel’s gut as he realises the commander is looking right at him. He cannot imagine what has drawn Alistair’s attention his way. It’s unprecedented. Castiel has made it his business to pass unnoticed over the last five years. Those guards that do notice him call him Ghost and say he is creepy. Castiel just prefers to keep quiet and get on with the jobs he is given, without complaint. He just wants to wait out the time, in as much peace as possible, until he can sleep in the ground, undisturbed.

Even a moment of the commander’s attention is too much. Nothing good has ever come from Alistair’s interest in an inmate, poor Alfie in his unmarked grave is testament to that. Ice spreads down Castiel’s spine, branching out along his nerves like frost on a window-pane. He shivers, looks away, concentrates on the activity in the yard as it fills with sleep dulled men gobbling down the last of their sticky mash, hording the warmth against the cold of the day ahead. Castiel’s paranoid glance flits back to the guards, where Gordon is yelling something incomprehensible at a truck-driver—a prisoner like the rest of them of course, nothing is done in the labour-camp unless it is done by the prisoners themselves. Castiel does not expect to find Winchester looking in his direction, but he does.

They have not spoken since the incident at the fence, though some days have passed and they have both been out at the snow-crusted processing plant. His panicked heart picks up speed. This is it, Castiel thinks, this is when the guards will drag me around the corner and beat me black and bloody. They will take him out of sight but within easy hearing of the men already lining up, use it as a warning to the others. Between the anxious patter of his heartbeats Castiel knows he brought this down on himself, and he won’t resist, that would just make it worse. The punishment is to be expected, after all, Alfie suffered a lot more for a lot less.

Acceptance and fear, however, do not make Castiel weak-willed, and he looks back at the guard with as much steadiness and nonchalance as he can muster, and tries not flinch when Winchester takes a step towards him. But, some habits are too well learned, and Castiel is an expert at making himself invisible, and on reflex he hunches his shoulders and stoops, making himself smaller, less of a worthy target. There is no satisfaction in trampling a worm.

Castiel watches the guard carefully.  Winchester does not look happy. He is not wearing the smug superiority that Gordon does. He does not really look angry, either, more red-eye tired than anything else. The guard must read Castiel’s reaction, the curled tension as his body pulls in on itself, and he stops after two steps forward, glancing quickly at the other officers who are busy laughing as Creedy makes a vulgar gesture with his fingers. Castiel wants to turn away, go back to Hut 17 to grab his things before the second siren screams them into line and ready for the morning count. He cannot. He is rooted to the ground, stuck fast like a rabbit caught by the bright tungsten of a truck’s headlamps. Castiel’s fingers grip and release spasmodically on the edges of his bowl as he waits for... for nothing. Winchester does nothing. With disbelief, Castiel watches the man’s expression turn into something that looks a lot like confusion before he lifts a hand and gives a curt nod of acknowledgement. That’s it, nothing more, and then Winchester is back with the other guards, none of whom seem to have noticed anything odd going on at all. Castiel automatically seeks out the figure in the window again, but Alistair in no longer there.

There is not much time to wonder about it though, as the second siren calls out, and Castiel has to hurry back to his bunk to hide his bowl, discard his blanket, and drag on the rest of his clothes, before he joins the lines forming by the trucks. He avoids eye-contact with any of the guards for the rest of the day.   

The hours roll by smoothly enough. It is easy to get lost in the routine of lifting and carrying, as Castiel shifts short lengths of raw timber, to the loading dock of the big sawmill in the centre of the yard, leaving them to be fed into the huge maw of the beast on spiked conveyer-belts, to be scraped and sliced open on a succession of grinders and band-saws. It is not a bad job. The exercise keeps Castiel strong and warms his body with constant movement. There are no breaks, no lunch apart from what the inmates might have smuggled in for themselves, so it is better to keep busy. Those with less strenuous jobs shake from the cold and try to huddle close to any source of heat, until the guards send them away. That does not mean Castiel is not glad when the end-of-work call rings out over the yard, and he can drop the last pile of logs off on the loading dock.

There is no time to make pleasantries with Garth or Ritchie when he goes to collect his meal that evening. Castiel craves time alone, and as soon as he gets his bowl filled with another of Garth’s steaming concoctions of old cabbage and leathery meat—no one knows what it is exactly and they all know better than to ask—he heads off around the perimeter of the yard, away from the searchlights and the burble of inmates, to slip behind the wood-shed and the dark space where he can look out into the dark forest, undisturbed. 

“I wondered if I’d see you here.” The voice comes from the darkness at the edge of the trees.

Castiel twitches, squints through the diamond spaces of the fence, though he knows who he will find. As his eyes adjust to the deeper shadows under the boughs he sees a spark of orange grow bright, almost white as Winchester drags on a cigarette. Pale smoke hangs between them like a ghost when he exhales, the air is still and with nowhere to go, it disperses slowly.

“What are you doing here?” Castiel snaps, unable to keep the words behind his teeth. He shakes his head, wonders what the hell is wrong with him lately, then fills his mouth with a large spoonful of dark meat and cabbage, so that he cannot speak.

 But, instead of anger, Winchester laughs. “Not that it is any of your business,” he says. “But, I was checking around the gates before lock-up, thought I’d come out here for a smoke away from the others. A moment of peace, like you said.”

The reference to their last conversation does not go unnoticed, but Castiel tries not to follow that thread, in case it leads back to the rush of anger and guilt that led him to be so thoughtless of his own safety. “Then I should leave you to enjoy it,” he says, getting ready to leave. He can eat in his bunk if he has to.

“Stay, you lot seem pretty quiet most of the time.” Winchester steps closer to the fence. A weak drop of light from the yard behind squeezes itself between the sheds and falls at an angle, a slash that reveals one arched eyebrow at a time, and just a fragment of pink-lipped smile.

Is it a command or a suggestion? Castiel cannot risk getting it wrong, so he stays. “Most of us know better than to make too much noise,” he says as he returns to the pile of forgotten logs. They have become a familiar seat over the years.

“Well I wish the guards would do the same. It’s like feeding time at the zoo in that mess-hall sometimes,” Winchester says.

“And you’re not fond of the zoo?” Castiel asks only half paying attention. The rapidly cooling contents of his bowl are of more interest to him, right now.

Winchester splutters around a laugh, and it draws Castiel’s eyes back to him. “I don’t know, man, never seen a zoo in my life.”

“Then you’re missing out. It’s interesting, there’s a lot of information about the animals, and feeding time is the best time to go, as you get to see more.”

“Wow, well that’s great, man. You sure know a lot about zoos,” Winchester says, and Castiel’s brain has not been so dulled that he cannot detect sarcasm when he hears it. “What were you, a zoo keeper or something?”

Castiel blinks, puts his spoon down and frowns at the guard. “Does that seem likely to you?” he says carefully. “What do you think they’d put me in here for, if that were the case; distribution of anti-revolutionary materials to the monkey-house? Don’t be ridiculous, I used to take my niece to the one in Central Park.”

“You’re a New Yorker.” A frown line mars Winchester’s forehead. “You a government man, then?” There is a sudden tightness to the guard that was not there a moment ago.

“I’m a prisoner,” Castiel says, unwilling to give him the details of his life. He has skirted close enough to what came before already. Memories will haunt a man if you let them. It took a long time for Castiel to shake off thoughts of his family, his job, his life. Those things are not a part of him anymore; he is the number painted on his chest, a part of the Collective’s machine, just another lump of muscle and sweat to be used up in the prison-industry that keeps the country going. “I’m not for the government or the collective. In here, this is the only important thing,” he says lifting his now empty tin into the light. “And it doesn’t matter on the outside, either, since I’m not likely to be leaving.”

Silence stretches, stay still, stay quiet, stay safe, Castiel reminds himself.  All he can hear is the faint sizzle and breath as the guard sucks on his cigarette, red coal almost at his fingers as it burns to a stub.

“It isn’t exactly what I thought it would be,” Winchester says after a while, crushing the end of his roll-up under his heel. “This place,” he adds, waving a hand towards the camp unnecessarily. Castiel stays quiet, unsure where the conversation is headed. “I came up on the train out of Anchorage,” Winchester tells him, voice dropped low, little more than a whisper. Castiel has to bite his tongue to stop from asking where the hell else was he going to come from; the prisoner-built Anchorage line is the only way in or out of the damned place. “I didn’t see the prisoners until they were unloaded, but, I could smell them before that.”

“The journey can be the worst part,” Castiel says. “There are always bodies to be taken off by the time they arrive. It’s not so bad in winter though, one summer they opened up a carriage and there was only one man left alive. All the rest had all died from heat and dysentery.”

“What happened to the man?”

Castiel shrugs, not caring if the guard can see him in the shadows. “He didn’t last three days. Never recovered his wits either, which was probably for the best, all things considered.”

Winchester shakes his head. “I know you’re all here to be punished, and for good reason, but it is so much harder than I thought it would be.”

Castiel laughs bitterly. “Did you really think we were being re-habilitated like the pictures the Collective puts in the newspapers? That we are paying our debt to society for our crimes, working like private citizens, with food, and shelter and warm beds to sleep in at night? I’ve been here nearly six years, and I’ve never heard of anything but the same hardship, the same misery, the same exhaustion and hunger, from any of the men transferred here from other places in the system. Each camp has their own way of doing it, I’m sure, but make no mistake, Officer Winchester, we are here to work and to die; is that punishment enough for your ‘good reasons’?” The last quiet words spill from his mouth, and he pauses, disoriented. He is standing close to the fence, holding the guard in his sight, challenging.  He has no memory of moving, too caught up by the boiling indignation in his chest, anger at the guard’s thoughtless presumption of Castiel’s guilt.

He takes a breath, drops his shoulders, shrinks back down as he gets himself under control.

“It’s not a death-camp,” Winchester says. His face is pinched, lips pressed together into a thin line. “The Collective would not stand for it. That isn’t why we went to war. This camp is old, it just needs some repairs. The Commander is aware of the problems.” Winchester looks down at the floor, uses the reinforced toe of his boot to kick up birch leaves and spruce needles, long-buried under the retreating snow. “I won’t listen to lies from men who’ve betrayed their own country, their own people.” 

“You so sure we’re all traitors?”

The guard nods. “I know you are, why else would you be here.”

“Then why don’t you ask me, Officer Winchester, ask me my crimes, ask me what terrible thing I did to put me on this side of the fence.”

“No.”

Castiel leans towards the fence, his previous anger suddenly bubbled away, to nothing. “Why not? Are you afraid to know?”

Winchester snorts out a, “No.” He sounds confident enough, but he takes a step back when Castiel moves closer.  “I won’t ask because I already know what you’ll say. You’ll say, ‘I did nothing,’ and, ‘I’m innocent,’ because that’s what they all say.”

“And it hasn’t once occurred to you that it might be true?”

“No,” he says again. “I believe in the Collective and the revolution, and the values my father taught me. You have been convicted on evidence against you, and found guilty.”

“And what sort of evidence is it? Where did it come from? How did they get it? Have you ever bothered to ask these questions?”

Winchester stares at him, expression wavering between confused and annoyed. A moment later he grins, all tension melted away in the space between one heartbeat and the next. “Jesus, you sound just like my damn brother.”

Castiel tilts his head and looks up, considering the sudden change and unsure what to make of it. “Then this brother of yours must be a man of great sense and intellect; you should probably listen to him.”

Winchester’s laugh is a round, honest sound, so full of life that it spills over and bounces back from the nearby tree trunks. Castiel can practically feel the vibration of it on his skin. The guard holds up his hands in amicable surrender. “Now, that, I can’t argue with.”

“I have to go,” Castiel says. “It’ll be lock-up soon.”

“Well, it’s been a pleasure arguing with you, as always,” Winchester says with a smirk and a fake salute. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”

“No.” Castiel replies, with complete sincerity. “We don’t.”

Chapter Text

The change from winter to spring comes earlier than usual, running through the valley and up to the mountains, chasing off the worst of the cold like mad hares scattering when the men go by. It is a relief for the prisoners, and they meet it gladly, turning up their faces to the low sun to feel the first warm-breath kiss of it on their skin.

If they had the energy or the choice to look around, the men would see the grass that fringes the yard turning from weathered yellow to new-grown green, violently bright against the shade of the trees; they would smell the scent of wild flowers in the verges beside the road, hardy little things, braving the last of the lingering frost; they would savour the rich grassy taste of it all on the back of their tongues, the mulchy tang of unfurled leaves, washed clean from a night of rain; and they would hear the plaintive cries of hatchlings hidden in the branches over their heads, calling to their parents, from intricate nests built with care and lined with woodchips, the waste from the men’s labour.

But, there is no time to notice the slow changes in the world when there is nothing but work, and the threat of starvation or punishment for motivation. There are quotas to be met if they want to keep their food rations, and besides, the sun might be sweet today but soon it will be a tyrant, summer means respite from cold, but it brings its own sweating, biting, stinging brand of pain. No matter the season, the work at the wood processing plant goes on.

The air is filled with the chug of engines and the screech of monstrous machines as they gobble up trees and spit out lumber, sawing, splitting, and grinding, throwing out wood chips and sawdust that hangs like mist over the yard. It scrapes and rattles in the men’s lungs long after they leave the site. And if that is not enough to choke them, the fumes from the gas and oil that keep the machines’ clanking innards moving are enough to make a healthy man pass out. The prisoners that handle them keep their faces half-covered with rags.

Castiel’s job is not as difficult as tending the huge machines, though his work-team, under Benny’s supervision, runs the central saw-mill, the biggest and most temperamental in the yard. His main job is to load raw timbers into the mouth of the beast, and then to move the processed wood, cut into lumber, over to the trucks; lifting and carrying, basically. It might not be making much use of his intellect or education, but at least he is not risking limbs and fingers on an out-dated machine, prone to outbursts of bloody rage. If nothing else Castiel finds that it fills the time. He can let his mind go blank with the monotony of it, moving back and forth, between the store and the mill, and the mill and the trucks, where an empty-mouthed, sallow creature, one of the original inmates somehow still clinging to a spark of life inside his desiccated body, sits on top of the cab and jots down numbers, keeping a tally of the day’s work.

The only thing Castiel is aware of as he walks across the yard, is the ache of his muscles and the uncomfortable way the rough wood digs into his arms. It will rub holes in his sleeves if he is not careful. It is a worry. He has nothing to barter with for rags or thread to patch them, let alone the prospect of anything new. The guards stopped handing out the inmates’ post a long time ago, not that Castiel ever got anything anyway, but sometimes a generous soul gave away  the things they did not need, or left them for picking over after they died. He is shifting the wood cradled in his arms, trying to balance the weight more evenly, and wondering if it is warm enough to take his coat off, when he realises that someone is talking to him.

“What?” he says, snapping back into the present with disorienting speed, to find there is someone walking at his side, and he has been there long enough to have already fallen into step with him, long strides mirroring Castiel’s own.

He looks up, expecting Benny, or Lee, come with a message, or even one of the criminals looking for a fight to expel some anger. Instead, Officer Winchester walks at his side, casual and at ease, as if he is taking a stroll in a park on a sunny afternoon, arms loose and swinging at his side while Castiel sweats, his fingers rubbed raw, leaving red fingerprints on the fresh-cut lumber he carries.

“I said you guys need to get a hold of a dolly or a cart or something.” Castiel stares at him with a blank lack of understanding, until Winchester coughs awkwardly and is forced to go on or walk away; to Castiel’s disappointment he takes the first option. “So you don’t have to carry each load by hand,” he explains. There is a pleased twist to the corner of his mouth. The guard thinks he is being helpful.

Castiel continues to look at him, trying to work out if he should speak or if this is one of those traps the guards like to set, where there is no correct response and you end up in solitary no matter what. Winchester clearly expects an answer, and Castiel gives in. “I think that would defeat the point, don’t you?” he replies, snapping his lips shut around the last word. Winchester rubs him the wrong way, always appearing when he least expects it, shattering all the fragile pieces of hard-won calm Castiel has managed to find, and Castiel cannot stop from responding with exasperation, even when he knows it is a mistake and it breaks five years worth of silence and practised deference to the guards.

“Isn’t the point to work more efficiently?”

Once, Castiel would have laughed at Winchester’s stubborn naivety, but now he just hefts his load of cut wood and winces as a splinter digs its way through the close weave of his clothes and buries itself in his arm. “No, the point is punishment and disposable labour.” Castiel walks on and when Winchester falls behind, he murmurs his quiet thanks to God that the guard is gone. He can already feel the eyes of the other guards zeroing in on him, and the target that Winchester’s public attention has just painted in bright colours on his back. Other prisoners watch as well, and even the best of them are not beyond tormenting anyone thought to be collaborating with the enemy, whispering secrets to the people who control every moment of their short, hard, lives.

The relief is short-lived, as Winchester catches up to him saying, “A handcart weighed down with lumber would still be tough work, but it would help production move faster. More lumber, means more product for the Collective’s building projects, and that means you will have contributed more towards paying off your debt to society. Surely that’s a win for everyone?”

Castiel risks a quick look out of the corner of his eye. His heart sinks like a stone when he sees Winchester smiling, lips ticked up at the corner, smug, as if he has won the point; as if an idiot guard—who knows nothing about the reality of the labour-camp system but what has been churned out by the Collective’s propaganda machine—as weak minded and brainwashed as an old-timer still caught up in the fury and fervour of revolution, could know the camp better than those who have to live in it every day. This is Castiel’s reality. This is Castiel’s hell.

“Go ask the Commander about it, if you think it’s such a good idea,” Castiel says through gritted teeth. He just wants the guard to go, to leave him alone. That is all he wishes for in the time he has before the camp inevitably takes his life; to be left alone.

“Why would I ask the commander about it?” Winchester asks.

Castiel keeps walking, speeding up to shake him off, but Winchester is persistent and is drawn along with him. “Where else do you think we would get a new piece of equipment? This is his camp. Nothing goes on here that the Commander doesn’t know about.” Castiel looks quickly over to the other guards, three of them standing in a group near the foot of the watchtower. Gordon is watching them, and he does not look happy. At least he will not be able to hear what they are saying over the din of the log splitter machines they are passing on the way to the truck.

Winchester follows the path of Castiel’s gaze towards Gordon, and perhaps he is more troubled by the looks being cast in their direction than his countenance would suggest, as he takes a step back. “Maybe I will ask him,” he says. “The Commander is only trying to do what’s right by the people, after all.” And with that he turns away, thank God.

“But which people?” Castiel mutters into the empty air at Winchester’s back.

He puts his head down, hunches over as he walks on, and hopes that when he dares to look up again, he will have gone back to being invisible.  

The day drags on. Minutes move slowly as Castiel grows weary, hunger and exhaustion shaking his muscles and knocking at his bones as the work-day lumbers to an end. He tries not to think about Winchester and the bizarre conversations they keep having, tries to focus his mind on the blank space he usually inhabits so the minutes and hours will roll over him, unnoticed, like they used to. But, try as he might, Castiel’s worries drag him back in the same direction every time, straying to places he does not want to be. Thoughts Castiel does not want escape into consciousness before he can catch them and smother them under the fog of detachment in his mind.

He feels anger. Castiel cannot remember the last time he felt the heat of any emotion so strongly, spinning like a ball of molten lead in his chest, tightening his shoulders and making his fingers clench, as if they want to curl into fists. What right does Winchester have to do this to him? The feeble protections Castiel has built, painfully constructed, against the horror of his situation, are fractured, strained to breaking point, and why? Because Winchester is bored, and because he can, with no more thought than a school-boy, throwing rocks at the windows of an empty house.  

“N-881, get your lazy-fucking-ass over here, right now.” Gordon stands a little way off, hand on the butt of his gun, posturing for no reason. Castiel has kept out of trouble all these long years, he’s hardly likely to start causing trouble now, and even if he had the will, he does not have energy to put up much of a fight.

His pile of lumber is dumped haphazardly in the bed of the truck and Castiel gives an apologetic nod to the inmate behind him in the queue, a squirrel of a man with a bushy ginger beard and pale blue eyes. Castiel does not know his name, but now the task of securing Castiel’s stack will fall to him. At least he does not look angry. Any delay can impact on filling the daily quota and then the whole team gets their bread ration docked. Castiel would prefer not to be the punching bag for another team to work out their frustrations on when their stomachs complain.

Gordon taps his foot on the rain softened ground, arms crossed and impatient, as if Castiel left him waiting on purpose. “Officer Walker,” Castiel says by way of greeting, dropping his eyes to the ground, submissive.

“I’m moving you to the line, Ghost.” Gordon says, resurrecting an old nickname, long out of use since Castiel has been beneath the guard’s notice.

Castiel frowns at the news, and looks up only to find that Gordon is not watching for his reaction. Instead, he looks around the yard, at the workers milling about—those close by are watching but pretending not to, with quick clandestine glances—his whole body a study in nonchalance.

If the guard thinks he is being subtle he is very wrong. Castiel feels the first prickle of fear shivering down his spine. They are moving him to the saw-mill, why? Why now? “I’ve never worked the line before,” he says, watching carefully for any sign of what is really going on. Is this Winchester, he wonders. Has the punishment Castiel expected since the night after Alfie died finally arrived?

“I couldn’t care less, Ghost,” Gordon spits, a crumpled note grasped in one curled hand.

That is when Castiel sees Kevin Tran, prisoner number T254 and Alfie’s replacement, who sits outside the commander’s door. Now, he loiters by the entrance, sticking close to the trucks as if he is about to jump in and speed away. He watches the metal giants cough sawdust into the air, with wide fearful eyes, not used to the din, or the pungent smell of gas and the sweat of thousands of human bodies. The boy arrived with the last shipment, the trainload Winchester travelled with, and was plucked straight from among the terrified new inmates and dumped into administration. Whether that was fortunate or not is for the boy to decide, but Castiel doubts he would have lasted a month working the processing plant judging by the way he quakes in his boots, and flinches at the screech of the metal grinders begging to be oiled. Kevin’s presence means one thing; these orders are from administration, from Alistair himself, and Castiel is right to be worried.  

“We need more men on the line,” Gordon is saying. “Those are the orders, and you, Ghost, are the lucky guy who gets to fill them.” He steps forward, leans in and puts his face close to Castiel’s. “You aren’t going to give me any trouble are you?” he says quietly, before lifting a hand and jabbing at Castiel’s chest with two fingers. Castiel goes with the movement, lets himself be pushed, and the stumble brings a satisfied grin to Gordon’s mouth. Let him have his triumph, Castiel does not care, pride means nothing within the fences and this is not a battle worth the fight.

“No, Sir,” Castiel says, his voice dull. He tries to push the worry aside by concentrating on the ache of his muscles, the raw patches of skin on his hands and arms.

“Good,” Gordon snarls. “That pirate wannabe team-leader already knows about it, so go find him, get a place on the line, and get the fuck out of my sight.” The last thing Castiel sees before he heads over to the big saw-mill in the middle of the yard, is Gordon accosting Kevin, dragging the boy along with a hand twisted in the front of his coat, pulling him towards the watch-tower, muttering about sending a reply back to the commander. Kevin’s feet scrabble over the muddy ground as he tries to keep up, leaving a gouged trail behind him in the dirt.

Castiel turns his attention to the line, the men that circle the beast of a machine that makes up the saw-mill. It is not really a line, so much as a gaggle of oil smeared prisoners that buzz around the old girl, trying to soothe her aches and pains. God only knows where the administration took the great hulking thing from, with all the hissing and spitting it isn’t hard to imagine it might have been lauded as the pinnacle of steam powered innovation, a hundred years ago, though now it has been fitted with a great gas-guzzling engine that sparks and whirrs and threatens to bite off the fingers of anyone not paying enough attention. It is a selfish, bullish creature, with a voracious appetite, swallowing trees as fast as the men can load them into her gaping mouth. The logs churn in its grizzly innards before it spits them out, stripped and cut, and ready to be seasoned.

As head of the work-team, Benny runs the beast. He swipes a grease stained hand over his wrinkled forehead while he puzzles out why Castiel has been forced on him and his well trained team. It is obvious from the way he tuts and shakes his head that he is as unhappy about it as Castiel. Most of the men that work the line are big bulky guys that wrestle with the machine and the lumber as it passes through, and while Castiel is not small or weak, and it has been a long time since anyone seriously tried to bully his food away from him, he is lean; not an ideal choice. Though, if he stays on the line for long that will change, the work at the saw-mill is heavy and essential to the output of the plant as a whole, and so there are extra rations to be had at meal times, if their quotas are met. Castiel cannot understand the reason for the change, any more than Benny, or Lee, or the numerous others shooting him questioning looks from where they swarm over and around the beast, like ants, but maybe it will work out better for him in the long run.

“You’ll be on the lift with Uriel,” Benny grumbles as he leads Castiel inside the decrepit hut that shelters the beast from the furious weather, more of a lean-to really, than anything resembling a solid structure. “He can show you the ropes, start with the easy stuff and go from there. We’ll move you down the line in stages ‘til we find the best fit for you.” He pokes Castiel in the chest and arm, trying to get an idea of how much of him is muscle and how much is cloth. “That’s if they don’t move you again.” They walk over the maw of the beast, and Castiel eyes the loading dock and the steel jaws beyond with apprehension. There is a spiked tongue of a conveyer belt that drags logs into her mouth, and Uriel darts in, head disappearing into the dark gap, to straighten the timber that goes astray. He’s not just risking fingers here, one wrong move and it could be his whole arm, or worse, be pulled in completely. “Got any idea why the powers that be suddenly decided you’re the man for this job?

Castiel shakes his head and grimaces, “Haven’t got a clue, I didn’t ask to be moved, if that’s what you think.”

“Not for a minute,” Benny says, “But it’s not like you to draw attention, Brother, good or bad. Think on it,” he says, before he goes, putting a broad palm on Castiel shoulder. “If anything’s changed recently, anything at all, you best to put a stop to it, sooner rather than later. I’d hate to lose you.”  

Uriel interrupts, sneering, “Are we starting now or not?” He slaps his hands together, sloughing a second skin of sawdust. Uriel has never been overly kind to Castiel, even though they have shared a sleep-hut for more than three years, but then again, he has never really been kind to anyone. He was a big name political-prisoner, once upon a time. Castiel remembers the blaze of the scarlet headlines like blood painted across the newspaper, the Collective declaring in grandstanding fashion that a threat had been defeated, that freedom and equality had triumphed; it was only few days later that Castiel was taken in for questioning. He has not seen a newspaper since.

A grumbling Uriel sets Castiel to work operating the lift that feeds raw timber into the huge machine, tells him to, “Watch the controls and keep the damn gears and pulleys clean.” He grabs Castiel’s hand and holds it up, squinting at the long thin fingers, evaluating them until he decides that, “Yeah, those will be able to get between the chains. You need to clear the debris when the lift is up,” he says, “Just be careful, I don’t want to get my arms stuck in her mouth because you couldn’t do your job.” He slaps Castiel on the back, the gesture almost friendly. “She’ll have those skinny fingers bent up and snapped off if you don’t watch out,” he says, and leaves Castiel to work out the how of it, alone.

It is lighter work than hauling cut logs by hand, but the machine kicks out heat and dirt, and confined within the flimsy walls of the hut, it does not take long for Castiel to be filthy with it, splinters and flecks of dark oil sticking to sweat-damp skin and the rough weave of his coat, alike. The coat is gone after less than half an hour, tied awkwardly to his hips by the empty sleeves. Finding somewhere to hang it up would be asking for trouble the moment Castiel has to turn his back. But, even in just two layers of moth-eaten and worn-through cloth, the sweat continues, until the ragged layers are sticking to him, pulling around his arms and constricting his movements.

Each breath is dust-filled, his nose itches, his eyes water, and he splashes water on his face and neck liberally, when a boy brings the bucket around. Castiel turns his face up and wrings-out a sodden cloth above his head, lets the water run into his hair and face, making paths down the back of his neck and under his collar. Every man of the line sighs with pleasure at the cool relief of it. He closes his eyes, concentrates on the chill tingle of it as the heat inside the building speeds up the evaporation of the water. The coiled tension across Castiel’s shoulders eases a fraction, loosens his grip on the barrier of flat disinterest that keeps the suffering away, that keeps him hidden. For once, in that moment of feeble pleasure, Castiel lets in the sounds around him, and remembers with a shock like electricity, that the world is still alive.

A guard shouts across the yard, Roy Miller, Castiel thinks, but one guard is much like another in the eyes of a prisoner, and whatever mumbled defence the target of Roy’s ire makes is cut off abruptly by the hiss and crack of a whip and a pained yell. Some of the inmates jeer, encouraging the guard to go on, others click their tongues in disgust, most though just carry on working; such is life in the labour-camps, calls of pain and blood splatter on the ground, these things are mundane.

Benny stands a few steps away to Castiel’s right, a good vantage point for watching men and machine as a whole, overseeing their work as is his role. His deep sinuous voice carries easily to Castiel’s ears. “I have no fucking idea,” Benny is saying, words tight, defensive, and Castiel does not need to wonder at it when he tacks a grudging, “Sir,” onto the end. Castiel ignores it, whatever the guard wants, it is Benny’s business, no one else’s, he shakes his head, lets the last drops of water scatter, dotting the dusty floor like rain, and turns back to his work.

Globs of wood-dust and oil already cling to the chains and wheels, black and swollen like buboes, like plague. Castiel makes sure the platform is secure, that Uriel is still up there working in the mouth of the beast and not about to call for the lift to be lowered, before he steps in close, pushing the sludge away with his fingertips, nothing but a filthy rag wrapped around them for protection.

“Does this happen a lot then, people being shifted about during the day like this?”

Castiel tries to concentrate on his task but the words still reach him, understood in a half-aware way.

“Sometimes,” Benny replies, still speaking in clipped words, “When one of the men gets ill or injured. But we usually pick out our own replacements. It’s nothing to do with you lot, or the administration, how we organise our work-teams.”

“So, who’ll cover the work down at the trucks?” They are talking about Castiel and as he finishes wiping away the worst of the black gunk he risks a look over his shoulder, between the wooden struts that hold the weight of the roof, and finds Officer Winchester alongside Benny. Both are turned away, looking out over the open space of the processing plant, a mile long naked scar, like the claw marks of some ancient creature scratched into the landscape.

Winchester is easy in his stance while they talk, the guard would never notice that Benny stands tall, chest puffed out a little more than usual to make his already bulky frame look bigger. It is a warning, whether Winchester notices it or not. To anyone paying less attention they could be taken for friends; if they stood a few hundred yards further out, beyond the edge of the work-site, where all men are equal—if the Collective is to be believed.

Winchester turns his head and catches Castiel watch before he has time to look away. He turns his attention back to the machine, snatching a hand out of the way when Uriel yells, “Clear,” and hits the switch to lower the loading platform. Wheels and pulleys spin into life, ticking and turning like the anatomy of a metal heart. Timbers are hefted onto the lift by the same hollow-cheeked men that Castiel used to work beside, stacking them into position, ready to be swallowed. Whine of the lift moving drowns out the rest of Benny’s conversation, and by the time Castiel is willing to risk another look, they are both gone.

There is something like discomfort in Castiel’s chest as he works, agitation growing outwards that he cannot get to the root of. Castiel cannot understand why the guard is always there when he least expects it. It feels like a threat. Winchester is an unknown quantity, unpredictable, and that makes him dangerous. Castiel had hoped that ignoring him would work. He has been avoiding the place behind the woodshed at meal times, sacrificing that small amount of peace in order to be safe, he thought the guard would get bored, or distracted by someone more interesting—there are many louder and more notable men in the camp, after all—and Castiel could go back to being a ghost, silent and intangible.

This new work has its own rhythm and monotony and Castiel falls into it easily enough, he manages to let the tempo of it smooth over his thoughts, fill in the fissures splitting open around the edges of his mind. He waits for the warning call, “Clear!” then darts in, wipes at the thick sludge and pulls out the twigs and splinters that gum up the works. The metal gets hot, and Castiel is punished for any clumsiness with small burns, that rise up in yellow blisters along his finger and forearms. The men nearby laugh at Castiel’s hisses, at each new burn, but they do not mean anything by it, they were all new to the line once, it’s a baptism of fire, quite literally. Uriel laughs the loudest.

“Need to toughen up some if you’re going to make it on the line, Castiel.” Lee Chambers hands him a wet cloth to cool the burn. “We’ll make sure you get extra rations from now on.” The reassurance is kind, but unnecessary.

“I’m fine,” Castiel grumbles.

“Be that as it may, the day’s nearly over. Let me take over for you, for the last little while.”

“I said I’m fine, I don’t need help.”

Lee gives him a pointed look and hands Castiel an empty bucket, tapping it with his fingertips so it makes a hollow ringing noise. “It’s your turn to fetch the water,” Lee says, and it is no longer a suggestion, but an instruction. “And, make sure you clean those burns, Castiel. You’ll be no good to us if they get infected and you lose the whole arm.”

There is no laughter as he says it, because it is not a joke. There is no medical provision at the camp apart from what the guards allow the inmates to have from their supply. A scratch can be enough to end the life of any inmate, men better liked and more worth saving than Castiel. Lee pats him on the shoulder in an awkward father-like gesture, which is odd, since Lee is not much older than Castiel. He appreciates the gesture, and the sympathy, no matter how misplaced it is. Lee sends Castiel off towards the nearest water pump with a gentle shove in the right direction.

Away from the suffocating heat of the saw-mill the spring air still holds a wintery crispness. The sweat on Castiel’s back and arms chills quickly, pulling goosebumps up to the surface of his skin, it helps, but it is nothing to the sweet relief of the cool water, icy from the melt-water that runs down off the mountains once the thaw sets in. Castiel drinks in deep lusty mouthfuls before splashing it over his face and neck. His clothes are soaked by the time he comes up for air, but he doesn’t care, better they are sodden with water than with the souring sweat that has poured from him for half the day. Castiel nudges the bucket under the tap so that he can crank the stiff lever with both hands. The bucket fills with bright splashing liquid-bursts that catch in the brand-new sunlight, shattering it into a hundred pale dots that dance around, reflecting off the metal upright of the pump.

There is a small bench tucked around the corner of the square foot of the watchtower, a place of rest for the hard-working guards to taking a break, or slack off; the difference between the two is negligible. Castiel cannot see them but as soon as he hears them—Walt and Roy, he thinks—he ducks his head, makes himself small and unobtrusive, just in case.

“Told me when I signed up that it would be easy. Said the prisoners were all scared intellectual-types, feeble and pathetic. Said it could be fun out here, without rules, without anyone to tell us we can’t do whatever we want,” one of them says, probably Walt Taylor. He likes to complain then take out his frustrations on the inmates.

“We can do what we want,” Roy says, “within reason, the inmates know there’s no point in making a fuss, who the fuck is going to listen to them?”

“Yeah, but it’s not all about the inmates is it, that stopped being funny after the first few years. I mean, there is only so many times you can make a grown man cry, or force a man to strip when the mosquitoes are biting, before it gets starts to get old. Where’s the liquor? Where are the women? There’s more to life than kicking the shit out of some poor sod that got sent down for reading the wrong fucking pamphlet.”

“You just need a change of scene, Walt. Ask to be put on the exercise-yard for a bit, Alistair won’t mind, we’re some of his best, the most trusted, he’s often said it. You could even put in for some down-time, get yourself into town on the next train, huh?”

Walt’s laugh is like razor wire on glass. It sends shivers down Castiel’s spine. “I guess you’re right,” he says. “I’d like to go see what’s-her-name again, the red head, the one that always cries and tries to bite.”

“If that’s what you gets you off, my friend,” Roy says with good humour. “Personally I prefer it when they want to be there, and they scream for other reasons than being slapped around.”

“Shit,” says Walt with a huff, “I wish there were women in this fucking place.” Roy hums in agreement. “I know a guy works down in one of the big farm camps, says the girls will do anything you want them to for a smoke or a piece of chocolate.” He sighs. “Alistair will never go for it, not with a new load of prisoners coming in on the next transport. And why should he care about us and our needs, when he brings in his own entertainment, whenever he wants.”

“You mean Winchester?” Roy scoffs. “Nah, Alistair doesn’t swing that way. He’s clamped right down on the fucking between inmates. He hates that whole faggot shit, like any right minded man. And anyway, isn’t he the one that made the red-head cry the first time?”

“I heard that too, but it was before my time. And as to Winchester, I can’t say for sure but he’s sure as hell got some kind of interest in the guy. Haven’t you seen the way his beady little eyes follow Winchester about, always watching, always calling him in to the office for drinks...” there is a pause and Castiel’s brain fills in the blank, “...and talks. And there was always rumours flying around about him and that Alfie kid wasn’t there? But then that’s prisoners for you, always stirring up some shit or other.”

“Jesus, well if it’s true better him than me. I pity the poor fucker if that’s the way it is. I thought Alistair was just playing favourites. He likes to have the best things around him doesn’t he, and hell, even I can see that Winchester’s got a lot going for him. He’s young, strong, a war hero, and a Collective loyalist through-and-through.”

“Maybe,” says Walt, “Either way, how many favourites have lasted more than a year? I thought the last one would keep him busy for a while, spoiled him rotten Alistair did, with clean clothes and extra food, but it was over fast enough when the shiny new penny showed up. I’ve never seen him take an interest in anyone the way he has with Winchester. I’d almost believe Alistair actually wanted to be his friend.”

Roy laughs. “Christ, can you imagine it?” They laugh together then, as if it is the greatest joke ever told, until they are left gasping for air. “Do you think we should say something, to Dean?” Roy sounds at least a little concerned, but the words are met only with another explosive burst of laughter from Walt. “I’ll take that as a no then,” Roy says, peevishly.

“What, and risk Alistair losing his pretty new toy? No thanks, Roy. I’d rather stay alive and get out of here in one piece when my contract is finally up. I can’t be sure what he wants Winchester for but I intend to let Alistair have his own way. He’s connected, really connected, and he could make life very difficult for anyone who crossed him.”

“And Dean, what do you think will happen to him?”

 “If he knows what’s good for him he’ll go along with whatever Alistair wants, no matter how unpleasant he finds it. It’s that or risk finding himself on the wrong side of the fences, If you know what I mean.

“And then Alistair will do whatever he wants with him anyway,” Roy finishes the thought. “Jesus. Well if nothing else at least that makes me glad I wasn’t born pretty.”

“True enough,” Walt says, “You certainly weren’t born pretty.”

Castiel leans on the pump and frowns, distracted by the wisps of vile conversation that reach him, as he stares at the dark nothing beneath the dark tree-line at the edge of the yard. He does not even realise that he has stopped, stuck fast, frozen in the moment like an insect in amber. It is the shock of someone grabbing his arm that brings Castiel out of it, fingers digging in to his bicep as they turn him. He goes without complaint and it is Gordon’s dark angry eyes that are waiting, glittering, small and hard as he snarls, dragging Castiel closer.

“What the fuck are you doing away from your post?” He is so close Castiel can feel flecks of spit peppering his cheek at each hissed word. Castiel blinks, his brain tries to catch up with the sudden turn of events, but he feels groggy. The delay only makes Gordon angry and he shakes Castiel violently by the shoulders making his head snap back on his neck, painfully. “Get back over there, and don’t you fucking leave the line again, unless I tell you.”

“Yes, Sir.” The response is automatic. Castiel moves at once, leaving the bucket standing on the floor, forgotten as he wakes from the strange torpor fogging his mind.

“Eight-eight-one,” another voice calls out. Castiel recognises it at once, rolls his eyes heavenward and begs God for the strength to face these trials. If he ignores Winchester—Dean, according to Roy—maybe he’ll go away.

Castiel has so such luck.

“N-881,” Winchester says again, and he stops Castiel’s progress across the lumber-yard with a hand to his shoulder.

But, Castiel has had enough unwelcome touches today, and he ducks away from the guard, spinning to face him, indignant. “Can I help you with something, Sir?”

“Yeah, don’t call me ‘Sir’ for a start,” Dean says with a smile, all ease and friendliness, and Castiel’s mind is in chaos. “What are you doing, N-881? Thought you were sent over here to clean your injuries?” He looks down at Castiel’s arms and the red and brown of the marks scorched across his skin. He has been speaking to someone on the line about Castiel then, how else could he know about the burns. Castiel feels a twinge of betrayal twist between his ribs, irrational though it is; what inmate could refuse to answer a guards questions? The team-leaders perhaps, no one else would dare. The unusual sensation just puts Castiel in a worse temper.

“Officer Walker asked me to go back to the line, right away,” Castiel says, trying and failing to keep the spiralling irritation from his voice. He does not look at Winchester, cannot bear to see the concern and sympathy in his eyes, whether it is real or not. “He decided it would be better for me to go back.”

Dean looks at his watch, a clunky old fashioned thing on a thick strap of dark leather. There’s less than twenty minutes to go,” he says, as if that is supposed to mean anything. Logic has no place in the camp; orders are the only thing that matter, if you do not want to die screaming your throat bloody.

Castiel tries to move by, but Winchester has an inch or two on Castiel, and stands tall, blocking the path with his broad-shouldered bulk. “I have been given an order, Officer Winchester, I have to follow it.”

Over on the line, beyond the wall of Dean Winchester’s body, there is a crack and a hiss, a voice raised in alarm, but Castiel cannot see what is happening past the immovable object in front of him. “Well then,” Dean says, lips quirking up at the side in a smug smile, “I order you to go back to the...”

Winchester’s words are lost in a cacophonous shriek of twisting metal, as an explosion rips through the yard, orange heat and smoke billow, clambering out from the twisted carcass of the beast, a bulbous monster, a terror of lava from the deep places of the world. Flames lick into the air, and Castiel watches, helpless, as yellow tongues of fire dart out, leaping drop by oily drop, across the space towards the reserve fuel tank, and he knows, Castiel knows, it is too late to stop it.

The second explosion is bigger than the first, it shakes the ground, the force of it shreds the nearest buildings, turning them to kindling. “Fuck!” Winchester shouts. He ducks, drags Castiel to the ground in some misguided attempt at protection, and covers his head with his arms.

Men are shouting, men are screaming, and everything over a good quarter of the yard is black and scattered with burning debris. Glowing woodchips and grey ash float down, dancing like fireflies from the darkening sky. It is beautiful in a way, but there is no time to consider the aesthetics of it.

Castiel shoves Winchester’s weight off him and stands, trying to see what happened, who needs help, where he has to go. He is rocked on his feet by a wave of hot air, a pungent exhale from the burning belly of the beast; half of her side is twisting out, stretching and grasping at the men in the yard like metal claws, some are impaled where they stood, sagging and charred as their flesh roasts on their bones, still in place, still on the line, even in death. If the smell of burning fuel was not overpowering everything else, Castiel knows he would be able to smell them, sweet and rich, like pork turning on a spit.

The fire is big, feeding on fuel and a ready supply of dry woodchips and sawdust. It is a dangerous and excitable combination. Flames rush into the sky, then bow down and sweep into the yard, buffeted by the wind above the trees, great coiling things lolling about like giant snakes. Benny is running, shouting orders, and Castiel is bumped out of the way as men run for the water pumps, working them furiously, filling buckets and soaking rags. There should be a hose, perished and heavy though it is, at least it is something, though it will be no help for the fuel tank, they will have to let that burn out. Castiel is about to go looking for it, when he sees, a group of inmates carrying it on their shoulders. If nothing else, damping down the surviving huts should stop them catching.

Shrapnel, wood and metal, has been flung in a wide arc around the dying beast and even one of the guards—Walt—is down, rocking back and forth and holding his leg and the metal spike that protrudes from it. He is yelling at Walt to “Get me the fuck out of here” and “Get me away from this fucking machine.” The other guards pretend they cannot hear it as they lurk near the tree-line, standing away from the dying and dead, ready to scatter into the forest like deer, if startled.

Winchester is the only other guard among the destruction. And now Castiel finds him crouched low, close to the ground, staring at some fixed point in the distance, far from the noise and panic and sour smoke boiling behind them. Winchester is pale with shock; the fingers locked together over his head are a skeletal white and shaking.

Castiel has seen it before, this position, and the memory sticks him like an arrow, hitting sharp and at his core. The scent of destruction fills his nose, clogs his throat, and he is back at war; platoons of soldiers, whole neighbourhoods of men and women and children, taught nothing more useful than to hunch down and cover their heads when bombs fell and the world turned to ash, as if they could be saved by just looking away. Sometimes Castiel would find whole families entombed like that, suffocated by smoke or gas, but still kneeling, as if in supplication, as if in prayer.

Now, Castiel crouches in front of the guard, this at least he knows how to do. He tries to catch Winchester’s eye, the same as he has a hundred times with the traumatised, the shell-shocked, on the battlefield.

“Guard!” he calls, loud enough to be heard over the din of the dying machine and the cries of dying men. “Officer Winchester, you need to get up.” There is no response. Castiel waves a hand in front of the guard’s face. “Dean Winchester,” he says slowly, and that gets his attention. Dean looks up and Castiel is stunned by the depths of the horror in his eyes. Most of the inmates, most people in fact, saw terrible things in the war, but this is different from that haunted look, this is something worse.

“Stand up,” Castiel orders. Winchester obeys. His hands drop from his head but he stares at Castiel, or rather through Castiel, like he cannot see him, or perhaps like he can only see him, a point of fixed attention. “Dean, people need help. Will you help them?”

Dean nods, and Castiel grips his shoulder and turns with him to survey the extent of the accident. He keeps his grip firm and does not let the guard flinch away, even as Dean draws in a shaking stuttering breath.

“Winchester,” Gordon call out, “Get the fuck over here, the commander will be pissed if you get your head blown off.” Dean does not seem to hear and he just stands there looking at the devastation, as if unsure of what to do.

Winchester might not have been trained for this but Castiel was, and it comes back to him as naturally as breathing. He can almost smell the stone dust and cinders, taste the last acrid traces of napalm at the back of his throat, feel the weight of a heavy uniform on his back and the helmet painted with angels’ wings, strap always too tight under his chin. “Dean Winchester, these men need your help,” Castiel repeats, and he watches as sense and understanding spark in Dean’s eyes, pulling him back from wherever he had gone. “Help the men move the quiet ones away from the mill.” He points at the water-pump, “Put them over there, near the water. Then help the noisy ones – do you understand? Dean,” Castiel calls when Winchester does not respond, shakes him gently by the shoulders. “Do you understand?”At last Dean nods, quick and decisive, he pulls himself up, straight backed and ready. Castiel says a small prayer of thanks as they move into the smoke together.

Castiel points to the first silent body he finds, and Dean is half dragging, half carrying the man away in an instant. Castiel goes further in alone finds Uriel skewered through the stomach on a viciously twisted metal spike. He must have been thrown from the top of the beast with the force of the blast, there was never going to be any rescue for him, hopefully he died quick.

Closer to the beast Castiel finds Lee Chambers, barely conscious, groaning under the weight of a side panel, part of the skin of the machine, fallen from her side. It does not escape Castiel’s notice that this is where he should have been if Lee had not sent him to fetch the water, but there is no time to think about that now. There are burns down one side of Lee’s face, skin bubbled red and black. A quick assessment tells Castiel that they are not too serious, painful and scarring but not life threatening, though the impact and crush of the thick metal pinning Lee down probably is.

From above Castiel’s head there is a dangerous growl of more metal threatening to fall. Lee cries in muted whimpers, and calls someone called, “Krissy,” a daughter, Castiel vaguely remembers him talking about. He suddenly wishes he had paid more attention when his hut-mates had been in the mood to talk, but that would require caring, connections with other inmates, a dangerous thing to have in the camps.

The metal is hot, too hot. Castiel hisses as he drops the twisted sheet, the sweat on his fingertips starting to boil and blister. Lee cries out, the red scorch marks ripping a line down the side of his face no doubt go on down the length of his body, still hidden under fallen metal. Castiel looks for help, but there is confusion all around. Men are shouting all over the yard; the sound of pain mixing with the urgent calls of men trying to impose order on the scene.  

He casts about, searches the ground for something to wedge into the narrow space between the metal-sheet and the floor. A thick wooden post has been dropped nearby, a trail of blood splashes on the ground nearby lead away from the burning wreck. Castiel cannot think about that right now, he can only help one man at a time, and at least whoever the blood belongs to was mobile enough to get away.

Castiel grabs the post, feels the rough wood drive splinters into his palms as he shoves one end under the torn metal, jams his shoulder against it and pushes up, wishing for the strength he used to have in his body before the camp drained him dry. The metal groans as it starts to lift away, the beast protesting, crying for its broken bones and ripped up skin as it gasps and chokes on the smoke in its lungs.

“Can you move?” Castiel asks, hoping against the odds that Lee might drag himself free, but the man is beyond sense, delirious as his brain rebels and separates away from the agony of his body. Lee can only mumble and spill salt-tears over his cheeks in reply. “Just hold on, Lee,” Castiel tells him, though it is a futile gesture. “I’ll get you out.” He closes his eyes on the promise and heaves the lever again, pressing up, lifting, and pushing, sliding feet gouging divots into the damp ground as his legs tense and shake with the strain. It makes him stumble when it is suddenly eased.

A glance right finds another body there, another wooden beam wedged in under the metal to lever it up. Dean still looks pale, ill even, but his expression is determined and he nods to Castiel in acknowledgement, a silent understanding passes between them as they put their backs into the job. With a final heave it is done. The twisted mass screeching and twisting as it is pushed aside.

From the mess of blood and burnt flesh it is clear that Lee will not live to see out the day. They lift him anyway, as gently as possible, and carry him to where the casualties are being gathered. Men covering the worst wounds with anything clean they can find, and passing around buckets of water to cool the sting of the smaller burns.

“We need the trucks,” Castiel shouts to Jake Talley, one of the regular drivers, who shakes himself awake before taking off at a run towards the road.

“The trucks should be here already,” Dean growls. For a second Castiel thinks the criticism is aimed at him, and he has his mouth open and ready to deliver a retort, when he hears the clanking sound of the armed guards, daring to come closer at last. Castiel keeps his head down but he can see enough at the dull edges of his vision to know that Gordon is scowling, more in anger than anything else. The other guards just look guilty, avoiding eye contact with any of the inmates that look in their direction, waiting for orders or help. They do not get either.

Gordon steps forward. “It’s not our business to help these cretins, Winchester.”

“No, it isn’t business, its common decency,” he replies. Tension pulls tight in the air between the two men. Castiel leans over his patient, shrinks down, concentrates on pouring water over Lee’s face and hands, tries to soothe them.

“They bring it on themselves, Winchester,” Gordon is saying, he is standing with his back to the dying light of the day and Castiel can hardly make out the features of his face, in the deep blue of the shadows. “They sabotage the machines because they’re too lazy to do the jobs the Collective has given them.”

The next thing Castiel knows is the blossom of pain as a foot connects sharply with his side. He is knocked into the dirt, contorting to ensure he does not fall onto the injured men all around. He lays there and breathes, waiting to see if more blows will follow the first. Castiel is lucky this time, Gordon is distracted and it was only a half-hearted effort. Dean looks stony-faced as he points at Walt, sitting on the floor among the inmates, a couple of the men helping him to wrap his injured leg. He is pasty-white and the crusty tracks of dried tears stand out against his dirty, soot smeared, face. “You wouldn’t even call the trucks for him?” Dean asks.

Gordon shrugs, “He isn’t hurt that bad, the prisoners can handle it till we get back to camp. And to be honest, Winchester, if it were up to me I’d throw the ones that can’t walk back on the fire and have done with it. They aren’t going to be much use to us after this are they?” Gordon stalks away, leaving Dean staring after him, frowning, with a muscle ticking madly in the side of his jaw.

The rumbling of the trucks shatters the heavy tension in the atmosphere. They drive further onto the yard than they are usually allowed without waiting for permission. Castiel and Dean carry Lee carefully to the nearest. Someone with a modicum of sense has ripped open some sacking and laid it out to cover the bottom of the truck bed. It is not much, but it is better than putting the raw and wounded men directly on top of the mud and debris. Lee whimpers as they arrange him. There is nothing more they can do to help until they get back to camp.

“You should go with him,” Castiel says, catching at Winchester’s sleeve.

The guard is still pale, his eyes gone young and wide as he starts to argue. “But you know him, you should go. I’m no nurse, I can help more here.”

Castiel shakes his head. “No,” he says firmly. Flicking his eyes away quickly to make sure none of the other guards are near enough to hear him, such impertinence would call for a dozen lashes at the very least. “The rest of the injuries are walking wounded.” Castiel says watching the men limping, hanging onto each other by handfuls of blood stained clothes. “The fire needs to be put out, that is the priority now; to stop any more injury or damage, and start pulling the bodies.” He inclines his head towards the dark tree-line. “The wolves will be drawn in by the smell if we leave them, brown-bears too at this time of year. They won’t get much of a burial but I’d rather they weren’t left as carrion. They were human beings once. I won’t leave them as food for crows.” Castiel has to look away. There is a hot feeling in his throat and he does not like it, does not want to know why this matters, or what it means that it does.

“Okay,” Dean says.

“Anyway,” Castiel goes on in a rush. “You have the commander’s ear; you can tell administration that these men are worth breaking open the medical supplies. They won’t even consider it if the request comes from a prisoner. Try to get morphine if you can,” he adds as an afterthought.

Winchester nods, then shouts to the driver, “Start her up,” banging on the roof of the cab. He lifts a hand in salute as the truck pulls away, driving at a more sedate pace than any of its occupants would like, as the driver tries not to jolt his fellow prisoners too hard over the rough and pockmarked track.

Chapter Text

“No, no! Pull up to the mess hall,” Dean shouts from the back of the truck, the drivers instinctively slowing as the metal gates come into view, as if it was another work-day run. “Go right up to the door.”

He stands, fighting against the judder and lurch as the vehicle rolls up to the gates, and picks a path between the crumpled bodies. There are other men in the truck, other sooty inmates trying to offer what meagre comfort they can, with soft words and a steady presence. Dean presses his belly to the back of the driver’s cab to brace himself steady, before waving his arms over his head to get the attention of the guards in the watchtower. It’s clear they have already spotted them when they appear behind the gates with guns raised. “Open the gates, Montgomery,” he shouts.

“What’s all this ruckus about?” The old man can’t know the delay has Dean’s blood fizzing and rushing hot through his veins, so he tries to stay calm instead of cursing the old idiot out in words that would make a sailor blush.

“We have injured men, Montgomery, just open the damn gates.”

“Alright, alright, hold your horses, Winchester,” Montgomery drawls lazily. Dean has to resist the urge to tell the driver to go on, to break the damn gates open on the nose of the truck, rather than deal with the torturous wait as Montgomery fumbles with the locks and ambles the gates open.

Dean raps his knuckles on the dented roof of the cab and the truck slows to a stop besides the administration building. Drawn by the shouting, prisoners that work in the camp start to come over, cautious at first, then in a rush as they understand what has happened. The guards, in contrast, hang back, watching and listening with their hands resting on their guns. There is no sign of the commander, and Dean is relieved, though he does not know why.

“What happened?” Garth looks stricken as he takes in the smoke-stained sight of them.

“Accident,” Dean says. “The saw-mill exploded. Took a fuel tank with it; real messy.” He jumps down into the yard, and stumbles, finding his legs not as solid as he would like.

Garth puts out a hand to help steady him, without thinking. “Keep those hands to yourself, F-579,” one of the guards warns. They both ignore the sabre-rattling asshole.

“We need to get these men inside, there are more on the way,” Dean says. And, true to his word, more trucks appear down at the turn in the road. “Are the tables set up in the officer’s mess?”

“Yes, it’s nearly dinner-time.”

“Good. Are there any doctors in the camp? Any medics or, shit, I don’t know, veterinarians?” At another time it might have passed as a joke, but not now, with the sounds of raw humanity playing like a disturbing soundtrack.

Garth shakes his head, then shouts, “Oh! Yes,” his eyes going wide as if he has taken himself by surprise. “Well no, there’s a guy in Hut 12 I think was training to be a doctor, and there must be men who trained as basic field-medics in the war.” Garth looks around, expression gone a little wild, like he doesn’t quite know what to do next.

“Good,” Dean says. “Get them here, as soon as you can. Get anyone you think might be able to help. Then get some water boiling and something we can use as bandages.” Dean’s mind is racing with what needs to be done to care for the injured, leaping two steps ahead before the last is settled, eventually he comes to the need for pain relief; some of these men are going to have to lose limbs.

A hand clamps onto Dean’s arm before he can move away. “You don’t mean for us to use the mess-hall for this?” Garth says, a worried quiver in his voice.

“Inmate! What did I just tell you?” the asshole guard shouts, and this time Garth steps back.

“Sure, it’s the best place isn’t it? It’s clean and dry and we can use the tables and benches like beds. Why?” Dean asks. Garth’s eyes dart towards the nervous guards standing just a few short steps away and Dean can feel the anxiety falling from him. He looks him straight in the eye. “I’m telling you to do this,” Dean says, seriously. “It’s an order, so get on with it.” That does the trick and Garth is off and running a moment later.

The injured men are gracelessly hauled out of the truck-bed. Some already unconscious, including the man that he helped Castiel to save, Dean does not know his name, just the number painted in black across his arm, C-274. Perhaps these men are the lucky ones; they don’t have to feel their pain, unlike the ones that scream at every touch, every breath. The sounds of their suffering are terrible. It’s hell to hear. Not just for Dean, but for many of the inmates too, judging by the ashen looks on their faces as they get busy setting up the make-shift hospital. It’s also an uncomfortable echo of a past they all wished to put behind them, prisoner or guard. And just like in war-time there is no room for dawdling.

Dean takes the stairs, two at a time, up into the body of the administration block. He avoids the first floor where the book-keepers run the place with their indecipherable columns of numbers, Alistair overseeing it all from his office at the back. Two floors above, towards the south side of the building, there is a small medical bay—really just an empty white room. There is little of note in there but the tiny rectangle of a window, a hard narrow bed, bare of anything but a stained sheet, and a low metal cabinet, where the emergency medical supplies are kept. Scratch marks in the white paint around the lock are a sign that it has been opened, many times before, in a careless rush; in fear.

He curses at his own stupidity when it dawns on him that he needs a key, and if he remembers his first days at the camp correctly, it’s kept secure in Alistair’s office. He steps back, as if to leave, to run to the commander’s office, barge through the door without waiting to be called and argue the case. But, another idea sparks, flaring up from some long-lost part of his brain to stop his feet, mid-step.

Something from before the war, when his father was too busy with the Collective and the People’s Army to care for two young boys, when Dean had grown tired of relying on the kindness of their neighbours to provide for himself and his brother. He didn’t wait for permission in those days, he went to the best homes in the nearest towns and borrowed what he needed, from people that wouldn’t miss it. As a child he did not need permission to take what he needed, and what he needed now was inside the cabinet.   

He takes hold of the handles, and rattles them, feels how flimsy the lock is between the doors, more for show than security. One good yank, a loud crack, and both the lock and a door, come off in Dean’s hand. He drops them to the floor where they clatter on the tile at his feet.

“Jackpot,” Dean mutters. There are glass bottles filled with liquid, others with tablets, or powders. He looks at the labels as he rummages, but they could be written in Greek for all it means to him, he’ll have to trust that someone downstairs will know what they are. He starts to scoop things into an empty trash-can he finds in the corner, when his eyes catch on a box of something that looks familiar. He never thought those particular memories would come in useful, but there, on the shelf, is a box full of Squibb’s morphine syrettes. He grabs them by the handful and shoves them in the top of the can cradled in his arms along with gauze and bandages. 

“Can I ask what exactly you are doing in here, Dean?” The trashcan and its precious cargo nearly end up on the floor as Dean’s heart leaps into his throat, flinching at the unexpected sound of Alistair’s voice.

The commander stands in the doorway, his tall body nearly filling the whole space, arms crossed over his chest. He doesn’t look angry, but one eyebrow is raised in question. Guilt curdles in Dean’s stomach though he doesn’t know why he should feel such a thing. Alistair has been nothing but reasonable in the time Dean has been here; hard on the prisoners, yes, but they are here to be punished, that has always been clear. Dean tamps down the uncomfortable feeling, puts it down to the trauma of the afternoon’s events, and faces Alistair with an open and honest expression. Dean has nothing to hide.

“There’s been an accident at the yard, an explosion. There’s lots of injured men; burns, some serious. They need meds for the pain.” He holds up one of the syrettes for Alistair to see.

The commander nods, expression unchanging at the news. “Were any of the guards injured?”

“Walt, just Walt Taylor, a piece of metal in his leg. It’s bad but he’ll live, it didn’t hit an artery.”

“Ah, well, that’s a relief,” Alistair sighs. “I don’t have the time to look for new guards, right now.”

“Some of the prisoners were killed.”

“I expect so, those machines can be temperamental, especially when the inmates start tampering with them.”

“And lots of injured,” Dean goes on. He fidgets, legs prickling with adrenaline and the drive to hurry back down the stairs, get the morphine to where it’s needed. “Maybe a dozen seriously hurt, and a few dozen more with cuts and burns.”

“And you, Dean?” Alistair asks, stepping into the room and coming close, eyes roaming over Dean’s face, down his arms. He feels a blush shade his cheeks at the scrutiny and he’s glad that the soot of the fire is covering it. “You are uninjured?”

“I’m fine.” Dean is grateful for the concern but he is becoming frustrated at Alistair’s presence. He shows no sign of moving out of Dean’s path, the only way out of the room.

“So this,” Alistair points a bony finger at the trashcan cradled in Dean’s arms. “These expensive medicines are intended for the prisoners?”

“Most of them won’t make it through the night. There’s nothing else to be done for them.”

Alistair crosses his arms again, leans back against the wall, as if this is a casual conversation and they had all the time in the world. “If that’s true, then you do us all a disservice, Dean, by wasting our supplies on men that have no value.”

Dean laughs, but it comes out wrong, confused. “You can’t be serious?”

“I can’t? Say I let you use these things on the prisoners tonight, and you make the way to the grave a little easier or put it off a little longer for a few prisoners. What happens if tomorrow, while we are distracted, the rest of the prisoners decide it’s the perfect time to rise up, stage a coup, and attack the guards? What would you tell your fellow officers, Dean? That they must suffer and die in pain because you used their stores of medication for the comfort of murderers and traitors?”

Dean feels cold to his core, unable to believe what he is hearing. “There are people in pain, now,” he stammers. “And we can help them. You can’t really believe that there is any kind of attack coming from the inmates. They’re weak and pathetic, and can’t agree among themselves most of the time,” he argues, but Alistair remains stoic. He takes a handful of random bottles and packets from the trashcan and dumps them back on the shelf, adding a second handful of the little morphine syringes as well. “Surely that will be enough to cover us until we can write for more supplies. There must be another transport due in a month or two?” Alistair just purses his lips together and hums in contemplation. “Commander, these prisoners are your men, your workers, for pity’s sake we can’t leave...”

“Enough,” Alistair cuts him off with a hand in the air. “You forget yourself, Officer Winchester. I know you are only trying to do what you think right, but this isn’t the war, and these creatures,” he hisses, “you have taken such an interest in are not your brothers-in-arms, they are not even enemy combatants.”

“Some of them are.” It comes out almost as a question, a nebulous thought he’s been chasing for a while made solid in the moment. He hardly knew it at the time, but now, without the rising panic of flame and heat bringing bile to his throat, he can read it in some of the men’s reactions to the accident, calm under-fire, battle scarred and war-weary, just like Dean, however they came to be on the other side of the fence.

Alistair steps forward, reaches out and tightens his hand around the top of Dean’s arm. His grip is steel tight, fingers painful where they dig into the muscle. The commander drags their faces close and says, very slowly, “They are not. They are nothing. They are beneath us in every way, Dean, vermin, barely human at all.”

“Of course they’re human,” Dean protests, but it sounds weak, even to his own ears.

“No,” Alistair spits. “They gave up their right to be called human when they went against the people, against the Collective. You would do well to remember that.” Alistair frowns at him then, eyes cold and suspicious. “Who has been talking to you?” He pulls Dean closer still, putting his mouth close to Dean’s ear. His breath hisses on each word. “Which of the rats has been whispering sedition to you, Officer Winchester? You weren’t so concerned with the prisoners’ well-being when you arrived. What can have happened since then to cause this, revolution of feeling?”

“No one’s been saying anything.” It’s the truth. He may have exchanged a few words with some of the men here and there, and, okay he might have spent some time talking to Cas, but he’s just a weird little guy, a little misguided in his opinions, but he’s never said anything to sway Dean’s belief in the Collective, in the cause of equality and freedom. That is a constant for Dean. It will never change. “But I think...”His arm is released suddenly, falling to his side with a thump as Alistair moves away.

“I didn’t bring you here to think, Dean,” Alistair says. All signs of anger have melted away in an instant, dissolving into nothing. “I brought you here to help me keep the prisoners in line, not befriend, not pander to their every whim.” There is disappointment in his voice and Dean hates it, he has always hated it—anger he can understand, but disappointment is a slow poison, sinking deeper into the skin with each resigned look, eating the heart until there is nothing but decay—and he is left with a sinking feeling, something leaden in his belly.

Alistair’s hand is a comforting weight on his shoulder, an apology, a reassurance, the sharpness of before ground to a blunted nub, until Dean wonders if he imagined it. He is confused, his head spinning with all the variations of the commander that have been stuffed into the room with him. “The inmates can tend their wounded in the mess for the rest of the night,” Alistair says. “Take the drugs you already have.”

“Thank you, Alistair,” Dean breathes in exhausted relief.

“But, Dean, don’t get mixed up with the prisoners again. Their problems are their own to handle. This is the life the Collective has given them, we can’t  interfere. The smooth running of this camp requires boundaries and the prisoners know it’s their responsibility to care for their own. They are bad people who have done terrible things and should not expect help every time one of them scrapes their knee. Don’t forget.”

“I won’t,” Dean promises, though a scabbed knee hardly compares to a man as good as burned alive.

“Good boy,” Alistair says, giving him a light pat on the shoulder, an encouraging grin. “I can see this bothers you, so do you know what I will do?” Dean shakes his head obligingly at his commander. “I will look into setting aside some lumber so the prisoners can build themselves some extra shelter before the winter sets in, an infirmary of their own if they want it. There’s plenty of room in the camp, and then nothing like this ever need happen again. Does that sound like a good plan?”

It does, and Dean tells him as much, feeling stupid now for doubting Alistair’s harsh but well-meant intentions. Dean returns to the mess hall with his haul of valuable drugs and remembers what his father used to say: “Trust the chain of command, Boy. Blood comes first, but the army, they are your second family and they’ll look out for you if you look out for them. Have faith in your commanders, they know what’s best, and it’s a better bet that they’re on your side than putting your faith in some imaginary God, sitting in the clouds with nothing to do all day but play with his beard.” Dean’s father was right, and he was an idiot to doubt the way Alistair chooses to run the camp. He pushes away any lingering uncertainties and seeks out Garth among the tables and overturned benches in the mess-hall. 

Seven prisoners die before the clock on the mess-hall wall shows midnight. Another two slip away quietly before the sun come up. The pain relief Dean hands out under the guidance of prisoner M-378 and Garth’s watchful eye. The prisoners, the ones that have their wits, are equal parts grateful and surprised, and some make him blush red at the profuse and sincere thanks bestowed on him. Those that are mobile enough hobble back to their bunks through the night—given special permission to be out after the lights in the yard are turned off—they move slowly, in two’s and three’s, leaning on their hut-mates with arms slung around each other’s backs or over shoulders.

Benny and Castiel stay at Lee’s side as his breath comes shallow and his pulse fades to nothing. His daughter’s name is the last delirious word from his lips as the light seeps from his eyes, leaving them dull, no one home. Dean watches, fascinated, as Castiel speaks hushed words of prayer. Benny hangs his head, cap removed in respect while he rubs water from his scrunched up eyes. It’s a solemn moment, and though Dean doesn’t know these men or if they knew each other well, it feels peaceful, it feels right that someone should mourn the dead.

There is silence after the words run out. Castiel lifts his head, catches Dean’s eye and nods at him, an acknowledgement of Dean’s help perhaps, his role in easing the path of the dying men, or something else? Dean can’t be sure and he is too tired to figure it out, confusion buzzing lazily like a drunken bee inside his skull. He doesn’t respond, just stares back for a few moments as Castiel walks away.

“Another one for the garbage pile,” Gordon calls to the inmates acting as unofficial gravediggers. The men from Hut 17 have not even reached the exit and Dean hisses a curse under his breath when Benny turns back, face flushed red with anger.  

Dean is on his feet, chair scraping a noisy line over the tiled floor, ready to intervene if needed. Gordon’s lip curls, flashing teeth that are white and sharp like a predator. He lifts his face as if scenting the air, tasting the coppery blood that’s been spent. He’s been spoiling for a fight since the accident, acting like even more of a dick than usual, needling and poking at sore points to get a reaction, even with the other guards. Gordon’s eyes shine with undisguised excitement.  

“There’s been enough trouble for one day,” Castiel says, resting a hand on Benny’s arm. “We all need sleep.” The quiet words have an immediate effect and Benny seems almost to deflate in front of Dean’s eyes, huffing out a long slow breath.

“Yeah,” Benny replies, ignoring a growled slur from Gordon. “Let’s get out of here, this place fucking stinks.” The insult is obvious, but no one argues or tries to stop them as they walk out the door.

“So, Ghost’s found himself a voice all of a sudden,” Gordon mutters. He looks over at Dean and smirks. “I wonder what’s changed.” Dean does not reply, unsure what Gordon is implying, and more than a little disgusted with his behaviour in the middle of a crisis, Dean doesn’t trust himself to speak. “I’m going to see Alistair and turn in for the night,” Gordon says. “Make sure this place is fucking spotless by morning, Winchester. Don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be eating breakfast with the stench of dying rat in my nose.”   

 

~*~

 

There are flames and shrill screams behind Dean’s eyelids when he closes them, and long before the siren echoes over the yard he is kicked rudely awake by his bunk-mates, sweat-soaked and agitated, with a curt, “Shut the fuck up, Winchester, Jesus Christ, let the rest of us get some sleep.” The last thing Dean needs is a return to the nightmares of childhood, the evidence of his fear, of the weakness in him. They had resurfaced during the war, when the sight of government bombs raining fire over whole towns, had them bursting back to life, in glorious Technicolor, and brand-new stereo sound. When it was over he’d smothered them the only way he knew how, with drink to distract him and women to fill his bed; after all, what nightmare can compete with the glory of good whiskey and the divine heat of a woman’s body?    

The floor is cold on the soles of his feet as he drags his weary body from unpleasantly damp and twisted sheets. He showers and dresses quickly and is out in the open air before the other guards have sat down to breakfast. It’s a rare event for Dean Winchester to forego food, but he can’t bear the thought of sitting in the mess-hall, making jokes like nothing is wrong, after the things he saw there.

He steps out into the cold grey of early dawn, shivering at the sudden drop in temperature. Garth is cooking at the fire pit even though he stayed late last night to help carry away the remains of the fallen men. No, not men, Dean reminds himself; prisoners, criminals, enemies of the revolution, traitors to the people Dean pledged his life to protect. Garth sees him, scrawny neck swivelling round like an owl, but Dean ignores the hand lifted in greeting and the dumb friendly smile directed at him. Alistair told Dean he needed to set firmer boundaries with the inmates, and it’s Dean’s duty to do as his commander says.

Aimlessly, Dean walks the fences of the camp until he reaches the gate and calls to the guard on duty in the watchtower. “Bennet, I’m going outside the gates for a while, don’t fucking shoot me when I come back, okay?” He does not add why, does not want to admit that he feels suddenly constricted, like barbed wire is wrapped around his chest instead of the camp, like he can’t breathe properly for the stink of mud and rotten wood and unwashed men. He wants to taste fresh air, to clear the sweet and sickly smell of charred flesh from his nose; he’ll be sneezing blackened gunge for days as it is.

Bennet grumbles at Dean like a worried uncle, though he’s at least a year Dean’s junior. “Don’t be too long, Winchester. Don’t go too far,” he says. “The forest isn’t safe before the sun’s come up. If you see a bear, shoot it, don’t wait and don’t run. They’ll chase you if you run.”

“Shoot first ask question later. Got it,” he smiles and gives Bennet a friendly salute when he climbs down from the tower to unlock the small entrance beside the main gates.

“I mean it, be careful. It’s dangerous out there on your own.” Bennet is one of the decent guys in the camp, and when Dean thanks him for the thought, he means it.

Bennet is right, the mess-hall clock might say the day has started, but the camp is crouched between mountain ranges and even when the eager sky blushes pink and orange, the sun is hidden behind the peaks. Under the thick canopy of the forest, both man and beast can easily believe it’s still full-night.

But Dean knows forests. There were hazy childhood weeks surrounded by the taste of moss, and dew, and the musk of deer skin, ranging from Long’s Peak to Green Mountain in Colorado, at his father’s side, wary-eyed and gun-ready.

“There’s honour in hunting,” his father would say. “The animals live free—like we do, thanks to the Collective—they aren’t cooped up in concrete sheds, just to be fattened for the slaughter. They see the sky and know they are alive.” At twelve years old Dean did not have the courage to mention that it was also the only reason they had meat on their plates in those long starving years after the revolution. The early training had other benefits too; those same skills made him the favoured sharp-shooter in his company, when there were men in his cross-hairs instead of deer.

He circles the perimeter of the camp, remembering the last time he did this, and laughs at the memory of bushwhacking his way back to camp, with painful feet and a growling belly, and Castiel, the not-so-silent man in the shadows. The memory is already there, fixed at the forefront of his mind as he enters the clearing, and it seems the most natural thing in the world to peer into the murk behind the woodshed and find Castiel waiting there.

“I thought you only came out here at night,” Dean says. He crunches across frost stiffened grass, the last daily gasp of dwindling winter, drawing up to the fence. Birds are singing all around, welcoming in the sun, but he can’t see them, hidden among the needles and branches.

Castiel watches him for a while then says, “I thought you would be with the commander.”

Despite his words Castiel does not seem surprised that Dean is there, but there is a resurgence of that old wariness about him. Dean had hoped the fear his of position, of the insignia on his collar and what it represents, would be over-written by the desperate camaraderie of the night before, when he stood with the inmates and not the guards. He feels disappointment as Castiel looks at him with cool consideration, cautiously watching Dean’s every move.

He crouches so he’s on a level with Castiel, sitting in his usual place, on the mouldering logs. The position is unstable on the uneven ground, so he pushes his fingers through the diamond shaped spaces between the chain-links, and holds on tight.

“Alistair?” He asks. “No. Why would you think that? The commander’s too busy to spend much time with us guards.”

There is movement in the easing darkness, a quick lift and drop as Castiel shrugs. “Just something I heard.”

“And what sort of thing was that?”

“I heard some of the guards talking; they say that Alistair favours you.” Castiel puts a strange emphasis on the word ‘favours’ and it hangs between them in the cool air for a moment, before disappearing, like the breath steaming from their mouths. “Besides, he was watching you yesterday while we were all in the officer’s mess.” This was news. If Alistair had been there Dean wasn’t aware of it. “He didn’t exactly look happy about you fraternizing with the enemy, Officer Winchester,” Castiel goes on. “I thought you might be in trouble.”

“Aw, I didn’t know you cared,” Dean says, sarcastically.

“I don’t,” Castiel says without missing a beat, blunt as always.

This is followed by a scraping sound and Dean realises Castiel is eating, scooping up the contents of the familiar metal tin, the one with a dent in the side, one of Garth’s sloppy breakfast hashes, no doubt. Dean leaves him to it for a while, rubs his thumb over one of the twisted wire joins in the fence, rust flakes off, leaving a smear of dark-red on his glove.

It is Castiel that eventually breaks the silence. “You’ve put a target on my back, Officer Winchester. Was that your intention all along?”

Dean stares at him in open mouthed shock. “What?” The tips of his ears start to warm and Dean is glad he remembered to pull on a hat, he doesn’t want to be caught blushing like a school-girl. “I don’t have any intension towards you,” he stumbles, more colour rising to his cheeks. “I mean of course not...”

“Clearly,” says Castiel with a sigh, and in the increasing light, Dean is pretty damn sure there was an eye-roll to go with it. “Officer...”

“Dean,” he interrupts.

Castiel inclines his head. “Dean, I know you’re still new here, but surely you’ve seen enough by now to know that prisoners and guards do not mix, not in any real way. A sharp word, an order, a fist or a boot,” he says, hand unconsciously moving to the place on his ribs where Gordon had kicked him. “Those things are acceptable, but this,” Castiel says, waving a hand between them. “This isn’t. You shouldn’t be talking to me, and I definitely shouldn’t be talking to you.”

“But there isn’t anyone here but us, who will ever know.” Dean grins, he can hear the hesitation in Castiel’s words; he says ‘shouldn’t,’ not can’t, not won’t, not fuck you asshole and don’t speak to me ever again.

“They’ll know, they always know and they are always watching.”

“You’ve been reading too many novels, Castiel. You really think those other lazy-assed guards are going to stalk you out here every night? Not going to happen, believe me.”

“What about Alistair? His attention might suit you, might be good for your career, but I doubt he even knew I existed before you arrived. It’s not a good thing for a prisoner to be so singled out.”

“Oh come on, there’s no harm in it. Kevin Tran does alright being the commander’s aide doesn’t he? I don’t know why you think so badly of Alistair, he’s a good guy, just trying to do his best for this place.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, tell that to Alfie.” Castiel snaps, putting an end to the conversation.

“Okay,” Dean says, eventually. “I think you’re panicking over nothing, but I’ll humour you and I promise,” he says pressing a hand over his heart. “I will not speak to you again in front of the other guards or the prisoners.” He leaves a rust-mark behind on his coat when he drops his hand.

“Thank you.”

“No problem.” It crosses Dean’s mind then that maybe he should leave, make good on his promise, even though they are safe here, tucked away from the increasing activity in the exercise yard. But Dean has questions; he wants to know more about the strange scruffy man he’s fallen into some bizarre kind of angry-friendship with, so he stays. “At the accident,” he starts, finding the words get stuck in his throat on a flash of loud red memory. Castiel looks at him over the rim of his breakfast bowl, eyes glinting in the light finally crowning the tops of trees. Dean clears his throat and starts again. “Yesterday, at the lumber yard, you seemed like you knew what you were doing when you, you know, helped me out after the explosion.”

“I did.”

Dean waits for him to elaborate, but Castiel looks away, concentrates on scraping together the last runny dregs of his food. “You did what? Seem like you knew what you were doing? Or did know what you were doing?”

“I did know what I was doing,” is the clipped reply.

Dean waits again. “And will you tell me how?”

“Do I have a choice?” His eyes skim over Dean’s outfit, a quick glance designed to pick out the features of his uniform. It makes Dean feel strange and exposed as Castiel’s eyes lock back on his face.

“Not really,” Dean replies trying to make it sound casual, like it isn’t an order and he can’t make Castiel do whatever he wants, get any information out of him that he wants—Dean is a guard and Castiel is a prisoner and he can’t  refuse any instruction, whether it’s an order to work harder, to lick the floor clean, or to spill the secrets of his life before the chain-link fences; the life of a human being.

It’s not a power Dean is comfortable with having over other men, no matter what evils they have done, and he won’t push if Castiel refuses. The prisoner, however, doesn’t know that. Castiel sighs, eyes the empty tin with longing as he puts it on the floor, by his feet, where the soles of his over-used boots are coming away.

He rests his elbows on his knees, rubs at his temples with dirt-darkened fingers before he says, “The war.”

Dean harrumphs softly in understanding. “It always is.” He already suspected as much, most things in their generation came down to one of two things that had dominated their lives; war or hunger. “Which side?” It’s a simple question but he gets a glare for asking. Castiel doesn’t necessarily seem like a government man right now, but deprivation is a great equalizer, and he has the air of an east-coast intellectual.

When an answer comes it isn’t to the question that was asked. “I worked rescue and recovery for two years,” he says. “I don’t think I have to ask if you know what that is.”

He does. “Assuming it’s the same thing on both sides of the fight,” Dean nods, “Then, yeah. He scratches absently at an itch on his left shoulder. “Not exactly the best job.”

“There are no ‘best’ jobs in wartime,” Castiel says wiggling his fingers in the air to make imaginary speech marks.

True enough, Dean thinks, but some jobs are always better than others. Rescue and recovery was notorious, and among the regular troops, something to be avoided at all costs. “What the fuck did you do to land yourself in there?” Posts in R&R were regularly handed out as punishments, the ranks filled with soldiers who ignored orders or ruined missions. As bedraggled and ragged as Castiel is, he doesn’t seem like the type; the disruptive and the incompetent.

“I didn’t land anywhere.” He says, standing up and moving forward, further into the dawn light. Dean tries not to show his surprise when he realises Castiel is still wearing the singed clothes from the day before, his shirt sleeves streaked with soot and worse. Dean is so distracted it takes a second to understand, when Castiel says, “I volunteered.”

“You volunteered!” Dean nearly chokes on it. “Jesus Christ, that’s insane. Why?”

 “You think I’m insane? Because I’d rather wade through a hundred broken corpses to find one survivor, than be the person who puts them there?”

“You didn’t want to fight?”

“I was trained and I fought, just like everyone else, just like you. But I didn’t have the stomach for dealing out death.” He comes closer still, lifting his head, proud and sure despite the stinking rags on his back and the sharp cut of his starved and hollow cheeks under the growth of stubble. “I chose to save people, what did you decide to do with your training, Dean?”

Anger buzzes under his skin as he stares Castiel down. Who is he to question Dean’s actions in the war, at least he fought on the right side, the winning side! So what if he spent his time behind the sights of a gun. “I kept people safe, safe from our enemies, safe from people like you, and I never took a civilian life,” he says. “I’m done talking about this.”

Castiel shrugs, a tiny flickering shift of one shoulder. “You started it.”

And, despite the tension in the air, and the sour taste in Dean’s mouth, he can’t help but laugh. The sound punches out of him, cuts the thick atmosphere like a knife. The sudden noise has Castiel stepping back in alarm, which makes Dean laugh more.

“Anyway,” Dean says, trying to get back to the reason he raised the topic. “What I really wanted to say was thanks, for what you did for me out there.”

Castiel looks at him in confusion. “And this is what you consider a suitable expression of gratitude?”

“So, maybe it hasn’t gone exactly like I planned but I’m trying here. I have this thing about fire, like a fear thing, always have had, from before the war. You helped me and you didn’t have to, so thank you.”

Castiel nods and half turns, as if to leave, then pauses tapping his spoon in a clunking rhythm against the rim of his bowl. He steps back to the fence, suddenly much closer than he should be, even with the wires between them. Dean can see deep blue at the edge of Castiel’s irises, the pale line of a scar that disappears into one eyebrow, the wide curve of his top lip. Anxiety pushes out from behind his ribs, runs over his skin like a swarm of ants, and he shivers. 

“The fire that gives you nightmares,” Castiel says. “You have to tell me about that sometime.”

“No, I don’t,” Dean replies. Castiel turns on his heels and walks away without another word. “Nice talking to you too, Cas,” Dean calls, but Castiel doesn’t look back. He really is the weirdest guy, Dean thinks, and even though he is wrong-headed in his politics, Dean can’t help but like him.

 

~*~

 

Within a few days, the death toll from the accident rises to fifteen. There will be more in time, now infection has set in and inmates with barely a scratch are slowly consumed by the black and green creep of it, wearing death on their skin for days before the scythe falls. The bodies are dumped in shallow graves out back of the prison among the trees, no coffins, no headstones, just the green spring growth of Devil’s Club and Bearberry to cover them.  

Walt and his injured leg are shipped off to the nearest town with any kind of medical facility. Old Montgomery is the only man foolhardy enough to volunteer for the two day drive towards Anchorage, the other guards shaking their heads in horror at the prospect. There are rumours it’s haunted by the ghosts of the men who built the railroad, and that the whole thing is built on the bones of the dead, thrown in with the rubble and the concrete, like so much trash. Dean doesn’t believe it, and he watches Montgomery drive away, without the worried look that clouds the faces of his fellow officers.

To say the accident left the processing plant in a mess would be a gross understatement. The work-teams return to find a good third of the processing plant in an unworkable state, the saw-mill at the centre of the destruction is reduced to grey ashes and piles of charcoal around the half-melted bones of the beast, still warm to the touch. To Dean it looks broken beyond repair, but the prisoners take to clearing and hammering and repairing, without complaint, as if there is no difference between this work-day and the last.

Slowly the old beast is resurrected, welding torches sending glittering fountains of sparks over her bony spine, while the strongest men use hammers to pound her twisted extremities back into order. If Dean is surprised the prisoners are prepared to fix the thing that chewed up their fellow-inmates, he tries not to show it. Thanks to his increasingly frequent conversations with Castiel, in the shadows of the woodshed, he knows it isn’t his place to interfere.

Another thing he knows is not to approach Castiel during the day, under any circumstances. Dean thinks Castiel’s paranoia is misplaced, but it isn’t any trouble to go along with it. It makes their meetings more interesting, anyway, by adding a sense of intrigue. Dean knows he is being childish, but he can’t help the tiny thrill of excitement he feels when he’s telling the guard in the watchtower that he’s going out for a smoke, when he knows he’s going to see Castiel, when he’s breaking the rules.

“Interesting day at the yard,” Dean says as Castiel comes around the edge of the woodshed, dinner in hand. Castiel twitches, startled, and Dean smiles; it isn’t often that he arrives first, and they almost never meet on a Wednesday.

“Alistair didn’t want you this evening?” Castiel asks. There is a sour edge to his words and he grimaces as if he can taste it. No matter how Dean tries to change his mind, Castiel will not budge in his opinion of the commander.

“Nah, Montgomery brought back the mail from Anchorage and there’s some urgent business to deal with.”

“So, no whiskey for you tonight then?” Castiel says.

Dean grins at him in return, fully aware that Castiel doesn’t approve of his regular meetings with Alistair, says he comes back full of jingoistic pride and propaganda and praise for the Collective, and Castiel can’t stand talking to him when he’s like that. “No, I’m all yours.”

“If I’d known I could’ve brought you some prison liquor to try.”

“No shit? You guys make moonshine? How the hell... no wait don’t tell me, better that I don’t know.” The ingenuity of these lost and pitiful men was sometimes astounding.

“Probably for the best,” Castiel says, with the tiny flicker of his lips that Dean has come to recognise as a smile. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for you going blind.”

They sit in a companionable silence while Castiel eats. It’s better to get it down the gullet while it’s hot, before it dries in sticky lumps. Garth isn’t a bad cook, there are others in other quarters of the camp that are much worse, and he’s fine in the administration kitchen where the ingredients are ample and fresher, but the gloop he churns out for the prisoners does little to please the taste buds, and even less to please the eye. Dean still regrets the time he asked Castiel for a taste.

Dean watches him, intent on consuming every last drop of food in his tin, and wonders for the fiftieth time, how the fuck someone like Castiel ended up here. Even if he did fight for the old Government, as Dean suspects, they don’t routinely put enemy combatants in prison unless they pose an ongoing danger, and Dean just can’t imagine Castiel posing much of a threat to the country.

“How did you end up in here, Cas?”

Castiel looks at him, licks the last of the gravy from his spoon before pushing the bent and broken-handled thing into the top of his boot, tucking the thick grey of his woollen socks over it, keeping it secure. The seconds stretch out before he answers, and Dean thinks, at last, at last he’s going to tell.

“It’s not like in the stories,” Castiel says. He plucks a long twig from the ground, blown in on the spring storms that rumble between the mountains, and drags it over the ground, making crazy patterns in the dirt. It’s such an innocent action that Dean feels sympathy clenching around his heart.

“What stories?” Dean asks quietly.

“Everyone knows the stories, Dean; the cousin that sets off to work but never arrives at the office; the friend of a friend that went to see the doctor for a stomach ache and didn’t come back; the journalist that was invited to review a ballet and disappeared at the interval, as if she had been spirited away by the fairytale spinning of the dancers feet.”

“They’re just stories made up to scare people,” Dean interrupts. He’s heard them, everyone has, but they are just make-believe, just as much as Roy’s ghosts skipping down the yellow-bone road.  “Made up by enemies to make the Collective look bad, you shouldn’t believe them.”

“They might be true, or they might have been true once,” Castiel argues. “But that isn’t how it usually happens, and that isn’t how it happened to me.”

“So..?”

“You really don’t know?” Castiel frowns.

Dean shakes his head and mumbles a, “No.”

“Then you, and your friends and family, are very lucky not to have been touched by it. The arrests were like an epidemic after the war, catching easier than influenza, and running through whole families, whole communities, in just the same way.”

“Or, maybe my friends and family don’t get mixed up in illegal shit,” Dean snaps back, hackles rising at any mention of family. Castiel can’t know that he only has his brother left.

Castiel shrugs. “Do you want to know or do you want to argue some more?”

“Go on then.” Dean shuts his mouth and listens while he rolls a cigarette; that is the reason he comes out here, supposedly.

“They come at night, the special police, the OSS, you know what that is.”

“The Office for Safety and Security, sure, thought about putting an application in for a while.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Castiel says, before rushing on with the story. “They aren’t quiet and cautious, stealing people away like thieves. They come shouting, and with lights, and with violence. That way, you see, fear runs on ahead of them. It spreads to your neighbours, to the people on your street; all of them shaking in their beds wondering, is it me? is it me? have they come for me?”

“It’s a pretty story, Cas, but I want to know what happened to you?”

“I’m getting to it,” Castiel says, irritably. “You want to hear my story, fine, this is my story:

“I was twenty-nine when the war ended. I was in it for the full four years; four years of pulling the dead and the dying from the rubble; four years of finding pieces of children ripped apart by shrapnel, crushed under their own apartment blocks, or worse, shot through with bullets. I mean what kind or person would pull the trigger on a child? The things I saw... such terrible things from both sides.” Castiel’s eyes go distant, a small frown wrinkling the skin between his eyes. Dean watches, dragging on his cigarette, needing to feel the rush of it down his throat, the calming tingle of the nicotine hit easing the tension in his body. 

“All I wanted to do was get home, get back to my family in New York.”

“Your family?” Dean asks, coughing on half inhaled smoke as his throat tightens. It seems stupid as soon as he thinks it, but somehow, he never pictured Castiel with a family. He’s such an original, so detached yet stubborn, intelligent yet stupid, that Dean can’t picture him around other people, going about day-by-day and living a normal life; Castiel is too unique for such ordinary things.

“Yes, I have a sister I am very fond of.”

“Oh,” Dean says, trying not to show the satisfied smile that lurks just beneath his lips, pleased to have his image of Castiel preserved.

“I had to give up my own apartment when I enlisted, so I went straight to stay with my sister and her husband, soon as I was discharged. She had a baby while I was away, two years old and a lovely little girl. The city was putting itself back on its feet. I was looking for work. Things seemed hopeful.

“The third night I was there, they came for me. We heard the sirens outside, watched from the window as they streamed into the building, twenty of them at least, holding guns and waving arrest warrants, and shouting; so much shouting we couldn’t actually hear what they were saying, not until they came to our door.   

“They didn’t wait for us to answer. They smashed in the front door. And there was confusion, they were shining lights in our eyes and pointing guns in our faces. My sister was crying, my brother-in-law was trying to shield her and the baby from the intruders. Then they dragged in the witness, and we knew him, he lived further down the corridor and I’d spoken to him a couple of times in passing. They dragged him in by his shirt-front and he looked so guilty, there was nothing but terror in his eyes, and I couldn’t be angry with him. I could only pity him for being so weak, a short fat man with spectacles. He probably wouldn’t have survived the journey if they’d taken him instead.

“Then the lead OSS officer asked me to confirm my name, which I did. He asked the witness if he knew me by this name, and he said he did. Then they told me I was under arrest, and I knew what they meant, but I thought this must be some mistake. I’ll explain that it’s a mistake and they’ll let me go, and I’ll be back by morning. They told me to get my things, but they were searching the apartment and had thrown everything on the floor. They even tore apart my baby niece’s cot and took her, crying, right from her mother arms to search her, as if we’d be hiding evidence in a baby’s napkin. She screamed louder so they gave her back and shouted at Anna to keep her quiet.

“Then they were dragging me through the building, pulling and pushing me along so quickly I could hardly keep my feet. They took the longest route out so that all the neighbours would see, watching through doors cracked open and from the open windows of the buildings down the street. Every face was filled with pity, pity and guilty relief that the OSS had not come for them or their families.” Castiel looks up finally, his face pinched but steady.

“This is what happened to you?” Dean’s voice sounds loud in the quiet.

“You think I’m lying?” Castiel snipes. He’s staring at his hands now, picking at the flaky skin around his fingernails, drawing blood from old wounds.

“No, of course not, Cas. I just... I didn’t know it was like that. I suppose I’ve not been in the world for a while, and I didn’t know things were hard, until I came here.”

“Then perhaps you need to get re-acquainted with the world, how it is now, what the legacy of the glorious revolution really is. It might help you understand your brother a little better, too, from the sound of it.”

“Perhaps,” Dean says, as he stands and brushes the dirt from the back of his coat. “I’m pretty sure you and him would get on though,” he grins, trying to lighten the mood a little. “You’re both as wrong and as pig headed as each other, about the Collective.”

Castiel comes out of the shadows, moves closer to the fence, as is his habit when they say goodbye. This time, however, he stops for a moment. “Next time you see your brother,” he says, seriously. “You must tell him to be careful with his criticism of the Collective. Even the closest friend will betray you if the correct pressure is applied.”

Dean smirks, faking a mood he does not feel. “Gee, thanks for the gloomy tip, Cas. I’ll be sure to pass it on next time I see Sam.”

“Good,” Castiel says. “Have a nice evening, Dean. I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”

“Whether you want to or not,” Dean replies, mood lifting as the seconds tick by. “Hey, wait!”

Castiel turns to look back when he gets to the corner of the woodshed. “Dean?”

“You didn’t tell me what they charged you with.” 

This time it’s Castiel that laughs, a smaller darker sound than Dean’s, and walks away without answering the question. Dean had told Castiel he didn’t want to know what he was arrested for and now the son-of-a-bitch kept dodging the question.

Dean grins into the darkness as he makes his way back to the gates, looking forward to the day he finally wheedles the information out of Castiel, and the endless fun he will have needling him with it. It’s a strange kind of friendship, if it can even be called that, based on mutual distrust and mockery. But, these conversations have rapidly become the highlights of Dean’s week, not that there is much competition from other sources, with only the other guards or Alistair and his whiskey, to choose from.

Chapter Text

Alistair’s office is overcrowded with just half the officers inside. They stand like school-boys, in a semi-circle in front of Alistair’s desk, hands at their sides, heads up and shoulders back. The mood is far more sombre than usual and they can all feel it. Whatever the commander has called them in for he expects it to be taken seriously.

The man himself sits upright in his chair, arms crossed tight over his chest, lips turned down at the edges. Dean never understood why people found Alistair intimidating, he’s never been anything but good to Dean, but here, now, he can see it. The man is tall, very tall, and thin as a whip. The look in his sharp little eyes is ominous, and he pins each guard in place with a stare as he swings his head. The severe angles of his face and close cut hair make him look skull-like in the damp granite dawn. His presence seems to fill all the space in the office, like a great hulking shadow, making the air hot and hard to breathe. Lines of badges decorate his chest, honours not lightly bestowed by the Collective; they have to be earned. Dean wonders what acts of heroism led to such an abundance of decoration. He heard a rumour that Alistair was instrumental in taking Detroit, a pivotal moment in the war.

“I gathered you here today because I have a task for one of you,” he says, raising his head and looking down the long thin line of his nose. “I’ve let the matter lie for some time, since I thought it best to let the injured prisoners recover, and get the saw-mill up and running again. The output of this camp is after all, essential to the well being and prosperity of the country. But now, I think we can all agree that it’s time to set things right.” He pauses, looks around the room again. “This was no accident, but a planned and executed attack on the prisoners and productivity of this camp, and therefore it was an attack on the Collective. We need to find the culprits and soon, before the prisoners start to think they can get away with anything.” There is a murmur of general agreement that echoes around the room. “I need a volunteer, to head up the investigation,” he says, “And I want it to be one of you, my best officers.”

The guards shift and look uncomfortable, many looking over towards Gordon, the obvious choice as Alistair’s usual right-hand man. But he looks away, and stays silent.

Eventually, Creedy steps from the line, nervous fingers fidgeting along the brim of the hat he is holding in front of him. “I’ll do it, Sir,” he says, licking his dry lips with a noisy slurp.

“Thank you, Creedy. I’m glad one of you knows his duty, and I am happy to authorize you to use any means necessary to find out who is responsible. For now, while I have you all here, do any of you have any ideas about who might be responsible for this atrocity? ”  

“Don’t you worry, Sir,” says Creedy, when no one else volunteers any information. “I can promise you we’ll get something out of the prisoners.” He stands proud now, pleased as punch to have been given carte-blanche to conduct the investigation however he likes. Dean is standing next to him, and when Creedy sees him looking, he gives him a conspiratorial wink. “Give enough of ‘em a prod with a sharp stick, and eventually one of ‘em will squeal.” Dean has to suppress a grimace at the ugliness of the thought.

“Officer Winchester, how about you, any thoughts?” The address is unexpected. Dean’s eyes dart towards the other guards, who are all staring at him. “I heard you get on well with the inmates, perhaps you have some insight?”

“Erm,” Dean says, awkwardly clearing his throat. Someone whispers something further down the line of guards, and Dean can hear some of them laughing in response. He curses himself for not having his head in the game, something that has been happening more and more often lately. He thinks back, trawls the depths of his mind to find something relevant, anything.

“What about that Alfie kid?” He says at last. “He was involved in some trouble wasn’t he and there must have been people helping him.” He looks to the other guards for confirmation, but they remain blank faced and impassive, apart from Roy who snorts softly in derision. Dean shrugs, “It was before I arrived, but there must have been people he was seen with, we could start there.”

Alistair tips his head to the side and smiles slowly, “That’s a good start, Dean, thank you.” He looks over at Creedy. “Look into what prisoner A-946 was doing in the days before he died, and report back to me.” Alistair looks down at a stack of papers set in a neat column on the right side of his desk and grimaces, before telling the guards they are dismissed. He doesn’t look up as they leave.

 

~*~

 

The next time Dean gets a chance to speak to Castiel, it’s Thursday evening, after a spectacularly bad day out at the processing plant. With the saw-mill still out of action, and Benny’s mood reduced to a slow boil of grumbled orders and irritated scowls, his whole work-team has been uncoordinated and difficult, getting under each other’s feet and into arguments, as they crawl all over the beast trying to revive her.

The jellyfish throb of a headache has been nagging at Dean since breakfast. It’s not unusual for him to feel sluggish the morning after a meeting with Alistair, but the noise of the engines and the relentless pounding of hammers all day have not helped. Not that Dean can complain, the commander shares his whiskey freely, and he isn’t about to turn it down; there’s little enough good liquor these days, even out in the world. But, after a listless day, stepping away from the camp and into the clean air is like a jolt of smelling-salts to the senses. The sharp scent of pine, and the sweetness of monkshood and fireweed in the clears and at the shale edges of the river is an instant remedy, clearing his head, and easing out the ache.

The evenings are warmer now, the days longer too, as the year stretches out, relaxing as spring consolidates its power, pushing out new life and building the world anew, and Dean turns his face up, in near delirious pleasure, to catch the last rays of the sun on his skin as he walks through the clearing.

Castiel is already there, waiting.

“You weren’t here Tuesday,” Dean says as he sits. The split log he uses as a seat rocks unsteadily as he lowers his weight onto it. One day he’ll figure out something better, but for now, the log is better than nothing. Dean found it among a pile of rotting off-cuts out in the forest, remnants of works that no one remembers now.

Castiel shrugs. “You’re not my keeper,” he replies, absently. He’s eating of course. He’s always eating when they talk. There is some kind of unwritten rule that Castiel will only allow their conversations to last about as long it takes to clear his ration tin. Dean watches Castiel drag his spoon through grey mush, slowing to a stop, as he looks up. There is a flicker of wry amusement at the corner of his mouth. “Actually, I suppose you are my keeper, aren’t you.” He nudges the chain links between them with the toe of his boot, the sharp-barbed wire on top rattling with the movement.

Dean doesn’t find it funny, the reminder of the difference in their places, Castiel locked up, controlled like a caged animal, forgetting what it is until it’s free again. “Good to see you, Cas,” Dean says with a forced smile.

Castiel inclines his head in response. Over the weeks, Dean has learnt not to expect Castiel to initiate their conversations. He is careful with his words, cautious about spending them too cheaply. It simultaneously annoys Dean and amuses him, and as far as he can tell, Castiel sees him in pretty much the same way, though possibly skewed more towards annoying given the eye-rolling and sighs that Dean’s words often cause. Despite that, it’s not awkward, not since the earliest days, and the strangeness of Castiel’s company has a charm and a challenge to it that keeps Dean coming back to poke the bear, see what he can get out of the mysterious and silent Ghost.

“What did you do before?” The question had been waiting on Dean’s tongue for a while, why he chose to ask it now, he couldn’t say.

Castiel rests his empty spoon on his knee, uncaring about stains on the already blotched and patched trousers, and looks at him with empty eyes. “Before the camp?” he asks. He seems puzzled by the question.

Dean nods, trying to look encouraging. “Yeah, before you were sentenced, what did you do?”

“It was the war, Dean. I’m surprised you would forget.” The bite of casual sarcasm makes Dean smile.

He takes out his tobacco pouch and starts to roll a cigarette with practiced ease, only half an eye on what he’s doing. Castiel follows the action with more focus than he’s shown in a while. “I know that, and one day I’ll find out exactly what you did to get yourself sent here like that,” Dean says; the same old question that never gets an answer.

“Then you’ll have to find someone else to tell you.”

Dean waves a dismissive hand in the air. “Nah, you keep your crimes to yourself a while longer. Anyway,” he says, “Sometimes I think I’d rather not know at all.” Alistair’s warnings had done some good. The prisoner’s crimes were usually confidential, to ensure that the guards didn’t treat the criminals and the politicals any different, though it wasn’t exactly hard to guess. Dean already knew the majority were politicals, but it wouldn’t help Dean to do his job, and keep to Alistair’s rule of equality, if he knew which inmates were rapists and murderers, which were politicals, and which were here for stealing food to feed their families. Dean has a strong feeling about which group Castiel belongs. That the OSS was involved in his arrest is close to a confirmation that he is a political, and if he is being completely honest, Dean does not want to be proved wrong.

“You want to know what I did before the war?” Castiel frowns. Dean offers up a smoke, holding the rolled cigarette up to the metal wires of the fence, but Castiel, as always, refuses it. Castiel’s fingers play along the frayed edge of his shirt where a section has been ripped away. His reluctance is obvious, but Dean is tired of asking for steak and getting gristle. Castiel is the closest thing he has to a friend in the camp—and he knows that is pretty fucked up to start with—and he wants to know more, to know why he is the way he is, quiet but not weak, stubborn but not surly.

“Come on, Cas. Whatever it was, it can’t be that bad. I’m not asking for your life story here.” Dean strikes a match cupping his hands around the flame as he holds it to the cigarette resting between his lips. “Give a guy a break, huh?” he says, puffing out blue-grey smoke with the words. “If you show me yours I’ll show you mine.” The suggestive words and the wink he sends in Castiel’s direction fall flat, with Castiel as unmoved as a great lump of stone. “What’s the problem?”

“It’s not a problem as such.” Castiel squints like he’s trying to figure something out. His hands stop their agitated fiddling and he clasps them neatly in his lap. “I worked at a University; I was a professor of history and religion.”

“I knew it.” Dean grinned.

“You did?” Castiel looks puzzled again. “That’s very specific.”

“Well, no, I didn’t know exactly,” Dean says. “But I knew you had to be a book-guy; a teacher or a scientist or something like that. My brother’s a book-guy too, so I know the type.” He takes a deep drag on his smoke as a reward, breathing out the smoke from curling lips.

“Glad I could help,” is all the response Castiel gives to Dean’s dazzling feat of intuition.

“Don’t be like that, Cas. There’s no harm in it.”

“No harm for you, perhaps.” Castiel keeps his voice low and steady, the anger in him betrayed by the tight clench of his jaw.

“Cas?”

“How long will you be here?” Castiel demands.

Dean is cowed into stupidity by the sudden ferocity in Castiel’s eye. “As long as it takes you to finish eating I suppose...”

“No,” Castiel cuts him off. “I mean how long will you be here, at the camp? Two years? Four? Six at most I guess, not many last longer than that. And what will you do afterwards, Dean?” Dean shakes his head and shrugs helplessly searching for words that slip from his mind as soon as he stumbles across them. The intensity of Castiel’s gaze is echoed in his body; straight back, head lifted, eyes bright and alive with an irritation Dean can’t account for. “You get to go home, Dean. To your brother, to your wife, or whatever family you have waiting for you.”

“I’m not married.” Dean knows that isn’t the point, and Castiel talks over him anyway, the bass notes of his voice driving into Dean’s head until it feels like his skull is vibrating with the heavy sound of it.

“You get to go back,” Castiel says. “I never will be able to go back. That life is gone, it’s hardly even a memory anymore, and the man that lived it is gone. I don’t want to talk about it and I don’t want to remember. Please, don’t make me.”

“Okay, Cas,” he says cautiously, stubbing out the end of his smoke and flicking the butt into the undergrowth. Castiel’s reaction is overdramatic, but still, something inside Dean’s belly, flip-flops uncomfortably, a pang of guilt at causing Castiel distress. “We don’t need to talk about it, I was just wondering is all. And you know people do still study, or so Sam tells me, you might be able to go back. It’s not impossible.” Castiel just stares, keeps his mouth firmly closed after his uncharacteristic outburst, as if he’s used up his entire ration of words in one go. “You’ve only got, what, another four years on your sentence?”

That gets a reaction. “How do you know that? Have you been talking about me?”

Shit, Dean forgot he was supposed to be in the dark about the prisoner’s sentences, another one of Alistair’s equality policies. “I just happened to see it. I was in the offices and some of the files for your work-group were on Kevin’s desk.”

“You looked me up?”

“Not on purpose,” Dean lies. The file hadn’t told him much anyway, just his basic work record, name and identification number, and initial length of internment.

Castiel put the last spoonful—of what must be stone-cold mush by now—into his mouth eyes fixed on Dean as he chews. “You can come here where nobody sees us,” Castiel says, as if he has the right to tell an officer what to do. “But please, don’t draw attention to me. I have asked you this before, Dean, and I’m not playing games or imagining danger where there is none, it’s important.”

“I haven’t forgotten, you don’t need to worry; I was discrete.” Dean has done what Castiel asked, ignores him during the days at the processing plant, doesn’t even smile or acknowledge him, and they never speak. Okay, so there might have been the odd slip-up, he might have referred to Castiel by name instead of by number, but Dean does that with other inmates, and it was only to Roy, so harmless it wasn’t even worth a mention.

“Then why do I feel like I’m being watched?” Castiel asks. “I was invisible before you came here, Officer Winchester. I had no trouble.” He gets to his feet, drawing closer to the fence. “I’m not afraid to die here,” Castiel says, voice empty of emotion. “But, I would prefer not to suffer before I do. And now there are eyes on me, I can feel it.”

“It’s your imagination, Cas. No one’s watching.” Dean would have noticed if there was. “I mean, come on, you know the guards are too lazy for that. They can barely be bothered to do the jobs they are given.”

Castiel watches him through the fence for a few more seconds before going back to his seat among the logs, pulling his over-shirt in tight around his body, and hunching in on himself, giving the impression of a man much older than his years. The sun is dipped, kissing the thorny tops of the trees, and there is already a chill in the air. It will be cold by the time it’s dark.

“And, what about you?” Castiel says. “I told you what you wanted to know, and now it’s your turn. Wasn’t that the deal?”

Dean holds his hands up in defeat. “Fine,” he says. “There’s not much to tell. Joined up at seventeen, didn’t die in the war, now I’m here.”

“It’s been more than five years since the war ended, what did you do before this?”

The shrug that Dean gives is fleeting. “I went back home for a while, got transferred to a small training camp in Kansas, a little outside Lawrence, thought I’d spend some time with my brother.”

“Lawrence, that’s where you’re from?”

“Originally, yeah, but we moved around a lot, we were army kids, you know, you get used to it.”

“Your father was career army as well?”

“After Mom died, yeah.”

“And before that?”

“Jesus, Cas, I can’t get more than two words out of you for weeks, and suddenly it’s twenty-questions.”

“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“Nah,” Dean says, waving away Castiel’s concerns. “I don’t really mind; just don’t know why you’d be interested is all.” Castiel doesn’t say anything more, just waits for Dean to go on. He relents with an exaggerated sigh, “Before Mom died, Dad was a regular old mechanic, but it was always hard you know, even back before the crash, when I was a little kid it was hard.”

“It was a hard time. The whole country suffered after the financial collapse.”

“But it wasn’t just that, there’d been drought and dust storms in Kansas for years before anyone cared about what was going on in Wall Street. The local farms started to go bust. If they weren’t farming they didn’t need their tractors or harvesters fixing, without money they couldn’t afford to fix their cars. Things got bad, people went hungry, people died.”

“Your mother?”

Dean has to look away, blinking back soot and flame and the roar of fire feeding on a tinder-dry world, his throat bitter with the memory. He gazes into the creeping dark under the branches of the black spruce. A shiver runs quicksilver down Dean’s spine and he has the sudden feeling that something is out there, watching. It’s a child’s fear and he pushes it away, looks back to find Castiel standing at the fence-line.

“Yeah,” he says, trying to keep his voice from cracking around it. “Her name was Mary.” Dean won’t say anymore, won’t tell Castiel about the fire that took her, Dean is giving enough of himself with the knowledge of her death.

“That’s a lovely name, Dean. I’m sorry for your loss.”

He takes a breath, shakes himself before blowing it out. “Like you said, it was a hard time, and we weren’t the only ones to lose someone.”

“That doesn’t make it any easier.”

“No,” Dean says. “It doesn’t.”

“So, you went to see your brother?” Castiel asks, getting back to the original question.

“I went to see my brother, but he’d grown up while I’d been fighting. He was studying law and full of funny ideas about the Collective.” He scrubs a hand over his face, a poor attempt to hide the recollected hurt. “It wasn’t what it used to be but it was okay, I lived my life,” he shrugs his shoulders. “Not much more to tell.”

“And then you came here, why?”

“I met Alistair at a memorial event and he offered me the job, seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Castiel smiles with a wry twist of his lips. “And does it still seem like a good idea?”

Dean laughs, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

The conversation is abruptly cut off as the first lights out warning screeches across the camp. Fuck, Dean hadn’t noticed how dark it was. He glances at his watch, has to tilt it to catch the dull light from the camp in order to find the small metal hands. It’s much later than he thought. “Fuck,” he mutters getting to his feet. He looks up, ready to send Castiel on his way, and finds the prisoner already gone, the flash of a heel disappearing around the corner of the woodshed is the only farewell Dean gets.

“’Night, buddy,” Dean mutters. Unwanted discontent sits heavy on his shoulders, and he kicks viciously at an innocent weed. There is nothing to do but head back into camp and hope no one asks questions about why he was gone so long. He realises, much too late, that Castiel never did say why he hadn’t shown up on Tuesday. But, that’s what always happens, Dean asks one thing and Castiel sidetracks him onto something else.

It’s a strange kind of friendship, if that is even what it is. Castiel is a confusing set of contradictions at best, and sometimes Dean isn’t sure whether Castiel likes him or hates him, or never thinks of him at all. Though he never tells Dean to go, even on days when Castiel is weary, grey-eyed from work, and hardly speaks. On those days, he lets Dean chatter away, nervous, like a child speaking in front of the class. Yet, it’s not exactly respect Dean is feeling, not like with Alistair and his firm rules and straight lines. And it’s not like the camaraderie he shares with other soldiers either, with their rough affection and bawdy jokes that keep the terrors away. It’s something new, something different and something Dean wants to keep for himself. 

In a quiet moment, as he follows the rusted metal and strings of barbs at the edge of the cement-desert of the camp, Dean wonders if they could be friends once they are both on the right side of the fences, then they could talk to each other as equals, as ordinary everyday men. Castiel will serve his time for whatever he’s done, and he will go back to his life among his books and mildewed libraries. Castiel’s worries are make-believe, rumours that run wild among the prisoners, spreading from camp to camp, but there are no monsters waiting to snatch their souls away before they make it home.

These thoughts only carry Dean a few steps towards the gate before a heavy feeling between his ribs, has his breath coming in shallow gasps. He’s a fucking fool. Out in the real world, why would Castiel ever want to have anything to do with someone like Dean? If Dean was like Sam, with his book-smarts and his la-de-dah plays and bizarre taste in art, there might be a chance. But Dean’s life is orders and the army, or dive bars and frisky women; Hell, he couldn’t even make his own damn brother like him enough to want to stay in Kansas. There would be nothing, Dean realises, to hold Castiel to him without the shackles of his imprisonment, and that is just fucking depressing.

The throaty cry of a lynx comes from deep in the forest behind him, drawing his attention to the lush green space, all things growing around him, even in the dark, such a contrast with the barren expanse of the camp beyond the chain-links. With sadness, Dean admits the truth; Dean can’t really be friends with Castiel while he is trapped behind the fences, and Castiel will not want to be friends with Dean once he is on the other side.

 

~*~

 

After a night of broken sleep, the next day falls on Dean too quickly, and with a head full of cotton and an ache under his ribs, he doesn’t know if he’s happy or not when Gordon tells him he’s being re-assigned.

“Commander’s given the go ahead for a new building in the yard,” Gordon tells him, mumbling the words around his fingers while he picks the remains of his breakfast from between his teeth. “Doesn’t want to risk a repeat of what happened when some green-as-fuck newbie dumped a load of putrid corpses in the mess-hall.” He leers at Dean, trying to get under his skin, but he’s too tired to rise to the bait. “We’re sending a team out to fell some extra timber.”

“Can’t they just take what they need from the yard?” Dean asks, confused.

Gordon scoffs at the idea. “And waste good lumber on those assholes? Jesus, Winchester, you need to get your head on straight. We don’t mess with the output. Quotas have to be filled because people are relying on us, good people. We don’t let prisoners take from the production line unless Alistair gives special permission. This,” he says, waving the work order in front of Dean’s face. “This is a privilege, and if the prisoners want it enough, they can work it out for themselves. Go with Bennet, he’s waiting for you up in the tower.” He brushes past Dean, hitting hard against his shoulder as he goes. 

Dean dutifully climbs the stairs to the watch-tower, finds Bennet in his usual place, feet up on a table as he looks idly out the window. From here Dean can just about see the back of the first group of workers, the ones who have to walk the four miles or so to the site, walking in ranks, five men across and ten rows deep, then a couple of stragglers being pushed along by the guards that follow behind. Not long after they disappear in the grey distance, the trucks roll up to the gates, and the men are herded onto them, counted and re-counted to make sure they are all there, pushed about like a herd of cattle going to the slaughter.

“We’ll take a team from the west-side of the camp,” Bennet is saying. The west-side is the loggers, at any one time half of their teams are out in the forest, living in temporary camps while they clear a target area of trees, with nothing more than a few axes and saws and their own sweat and blood. Dean hasn’t had much to do with them, since he only works the east-side of the camp and the processing plant, but maybe a change will do him good. “We won’t go far,” Bennet says with a wink. “We’ll check out some likely areas and be back before the others.”

Dean looks out the window as the trucks chug out onto the road, forces himself not to search the prisoners’ bent heads for one with unkempt brown hair that curls, just so, behind his ear. He turns away with an odd feeling in his gut, the spark and fizz of a feeling that something isn’t right.

It’s easy work, just like Bennet said. The loggers take care of everything, clearly skilled in their work, and a small copse is identified and marked for felling with barely half a day gone. He finds himself back in the watchtower drinking weak coffee that Bennet cooks up over a camping stove; Dean appreciates the gesture if not the gritty taste. It does nothing to calm the nerves that have been growing worse all day, his knee shaking in spastic tremors as he bounces on the ball of his foot in agitation.

When the trucks appear down the road, his heart ramping up to a hundred beats a minute feels like it will punch it’s way straight out through his ribs. As soon as Gordon jumps down from the lead vehicle Dean is on him.

“Has something happened at the yard?” he demands.

Gordon looks at him like he’s gone crazy, and maybe he has, there’s nothing else to account for the waves of panic rolling over him. “Nothing I can think of, unless you mean did we have to whip a few of the rats to get them to work hard enough?” he laughs. “In which case, the answer is a definite yes.”

He puts some distance between them, as he watches the other trucks roll to a stop, eyes scanning over the passengers, searching for the source of his discomfort. It’s not what he finds that is a concern, but what is missing. “The men from Hut 17, where are they?”

Gordon rolls his eyes. “Jesus-fucking-Christ, Winchester, how the fuck did you even notice they’d gone, they all look the damn same to me.” Gordon starts to walk away, Roy falling into step alongside him.

“Gone? Where have they gone?” Dean calls after them.

“Supply run,” Gordon shouts back, not even bothering to turn his head. “Whole group of them had to go into town with that thug, Benny. Apparently, they need a load of extra crap to patch up the saw-mill. Alistair, gave the go ahead and Grossman and Andrews are with them.” Gordon does turn around then, to share the huge smug grin on his face. “Don’t you worry, Winchester,” he yells, loud enough that the prisoners turn their heads, “Your faggot buddy will be back, and warming you up, before you know it.”  Gordon and Roy leave nothing but the sound of their own laughter behind them, as they head into the mess-hall.

Dean can do nothing but stare after them and try not to feel the creep of blood into his cheeks, or the looks the inmates are sending him, some curious, some in disgust, and others more interested than they should be. He glares at them all until they slink away to their huts or towards the porridge steaming gently over the fire-pit.

Despite the insult, and ignoring the worrying implications of Gordon knowing anything about his connection with Castiel, the news does serve to put Dean’s mind at rest. And Gordon’s just an asshole, anyway. Chances are he wasn’t even talking about Castiel, Dean’s spoken with Benny before, and others on the work-team.

 

~*~

 

Dean gets a note a few days later, from the trembling hand of Alistair’s harassed looking assistant, requesting his presence in the commander’s office. His agitation from earlier in the week has faded to nothing more than an occasional twitch under his right eye, and with the offer of free scotch on the table, he is happy to oblige.

A tumbler is pressed into Dean’s hand the moment he steps into Alistair’s room, the warm smell of scotch assaulting Dean’s senses, the thick liquid sloshing side-to-side within the thick cut-glass. These offerings of Alistair’s are the only alcohol he’s had since arriving at the camp. He accepts it willingly and with thanks.

“Do you like it here, Dean,” Alistair starts without preamble. He nods towards one of the more comfortable-looking chairs on the visitor’s side of the grand mahogany desk. Dean sits, resting his drink on the wooden arm rest between appreciative sips.

He hesitates in answering, worried that honesty might offend the man who has given him this opportunity to advance his career. “Like might be a strong word for it,” he says after rolling the taste of whiskey over his tongue for a moment, letting it soothe him, calm his nerves, as his taste buds spark with the spice and heat of it. He waits for Alistair to nod his approval before going on. “I am happy that I chose to accept the post. It’s just different from how I imagined it.”

Alistair gives him a speculative look over the rim of his own glass, pale eyes needle-sharp. The tip of his shiny-wet tongue creeps from his mouth to poke at a small scab, a split in his bottom lip, the skin below is dark with the corona of a bruise. Dean’s stomach trips over on a knot of mild disgust. “I’m worried about you, Dean,” Alistair says at last.

The words hit like a slap in the face. “Sir?” Dean bristles. He doesn’t need anyone worrying about him as if he’s a child, as if he can’t look after himself or be relied upon to follow simple orders.  

“I mean no offense or disrespect,” Alistair says. “You’re a good soldier, Dean, a credit to this camp. But, I fear you are letting your heart lead you astray.”

Dean can feel his eyebrows pulling up towards his hairline, and has to stifle a laugh before it can leave his throat. Surely this is a joke. “With all due respect, Sir, I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.” It has to be a joke, Dean is the last person to let his heart have a say in anything; a hundred nameless and crestfallen girls across the breadth of the country could swear to that. Dean knows duty. He feels and respects the bonds of family, just like his father taught him. But, a bleeding-heart pansy he is not.

Alistair’s thin smile is sympathetic, and if Dean wasn’t so relaxed from the alcohol infusing his blood, he’d probably be angry by now. “You persist in treating the prisoners as if they are your equal, Dean. I’ve seen it for myself.” He raises a spindle-fingered hand to cut Dean off before he can deny the allegation. “I’ve seen you,” Alistair repeats. “Learning their names, asking about increasing their rations, giving them medicine for their ills and soothing their cuts and kissing their bruises like a nursemaid?” The last word is hissed, something angry flickers over Alistair’s face, grey and black and jerking like an old movie-reel.

“That’s not true...” The defence comes quickly to Dean’s lips. It’s a massive exaggeration of the facts. The way he treats the prisoners wouldn’t pass as friendly in the outside world. He starts again, feeling like he has to defend himself from the disappointment lurking in Alistair’s eyes. “I already apologized for what happened after the accident. I wasn’t prepared for the situation and I know now that I could have handled it better.” Unease thrashes like an eel in his gut, a living thing brought to life in that moment.

It’s true that he’s easier on the inmates than some of the other guards; he doesn’t feel the need to beat them, or humiliate them. The prisoners are pathetic enough as it is, turning their frustrations on each other, half the time. And Dean has never been interested in brutality. “I didn’t know using real names was against the rules,” he admits, in an attempt to mollify Alistair. “I won’t do it anymore.”

Alistair looks pleased. He raises his glass, tipping it toward Dean in silent encouragement to join him in a drink. Dean obliges. “It’s not against the rules, Dean,” Alistair laughs as if there had never been any tension in the room. “But, rules are not the only thing we must live by. Giving sympathy and solace to these creatures goes against all moral teachings. It’s an affront to the very foundations of the Collective itself, and to everything we fought and lost so much for. The war made it so that all people could be equal, and share in the wealth and prosperity of the nation.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Dean says.

“By working against the people, against peace and equality, the inmates forfeit the right to live as free men, and until their debts are paid in full, they have no right to share the status of personhood with us. In here,” Alistair says, his voice rising with passion as he jabs an index finger into the papers covering his desk. “They are not to be considered people. They are their crimes and nothing more. Remember that, Dean, and don’t let any of them pull the wool over your eyes, no matter how ordinary or sympathetic they seem.”

Dean tries to speak, to assure his commanding officer that he is in no danger. He isn’t Sam, full of questions that border on sedition and claims about men imprisoned without due process. Most of Dean’s life has revolved around the belief in the power of the Collective to set the country back on its feet. He does not have sympathy for the prisoners, he knows what they are.

“They are deceivers and manipulators, Dean.” Alistair presses on. “Each will tell you a good story about why they shouldn’t been here, how they are innocent, they were framed, how it has all been a huge mistake.” He slams his hand, palm down on the desk, and Dean startles at the noise. Dislodged papers are left to fall to the floor, unnoticed. “Don’t listen to them. Once you realise that everything, every word out of their mouths is a lie, you’ll have the upper hand.” Alistair slumps back in his chair with a weary sigh. “They’ll try and get into your head if they can, Dean, they’ll find your insecurities and your doubts and use them against you. I’ve seen it happen to other young men, just like you.”

“I really don’t think I’m in any danger.”

“Then you think wrong. I don’t sit up here in this office and ignore what’s happening on the ground, you know. This is my camp. There is nothing that happens here that I don’t know about.”

Dean tries hard not to let anything show on his face as thoughts of Castiel and their meeting place chase through his mind. Alistair couldn’t possibly know about it. 

Alistair’s chair is pushed back with an ungodly screech as its legs trace a familiar path scratched into the floor. He moves to the front of the desk so that he is standing in front of Dean, too close, forcing him to strain his neck as he looks up the scrawny line of Alistair’s body to reach his face. “You must be more careful in future,” he says, his voice isn’t unkind. “Promise me that you’ll remember what I have told you?”

“Yes, Commander, of course I will.” Dean replies quickly. Alistair’s manner is odd and intense in a way that makes Dean feel off kilter. It’s a nonsense, he is in no danger, but still he wants to follow the order, wants to please his commanding officer in a way he never was able to please his father. So, what can Dean do but agree?

Alistair stoops then, until he is looking directly into Dean’s face. He reaches out and taps a fleshless finger against Dean’s chest, once, and again. “You’re a good man, Officer Winchester, and you have a good heart, and a good mind—your help on the saboteur investigation, for example, has been invaluable. And it would pain me, more than you know, to see you taken advantage of by any of these vermin.” He lifts a hand to cup Dean’s face, a gesture of comfort, more akin to the warm-spice and clean-cotton memory of Dean’s mother than the brusque and rare affection of his father. “Lock your feelings away, my boy, harden your heart, there is no need for it out here. We are far beyond the reaches of humanity and decency. Whether you see it or not, there is danger all around, and violence waiting to catch you in every shadow. The prisoners are caged animals, but they still have teeth and do bite.” He eases back then, taking up a more relaxed pose. “Some people think the labour-camps are a step too far, they call them hellish and inhumane, but it’s a hell of the prisoners’ own making, the result of their own crimes. Don’t let them drag you into the filth too.”

Dean shakes his head, swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat. “I won’t.”

“Good boy,” Alistair says with a smile. He moves over to the window, looking out over the concrete and wood, the mud and trees. It’s late, nearly full dark, and only a few prisoners are out in the yard, rushing to finish whatever business they have before the guards come at them, rattling their guns, and herding them back into the sleep-huts for the rest of the night. “I have high hopes for you, Dean. If you prove yourself here, I’ve a mind to take you to central command when the time comes. I’ve been disappointed before,” he says with a slow shake of his head. “I hope you will be a more grateful recipient of my assistance than Officer Walker turned out to be.”

“Gordon is a good officer,” Dean says, compelled to defend his fellow guard, even though he thinks the guy is the biggest asshole in the entire camp. “He does control the prisoners very well.”

“Yes, he controls them... perhaps a little too well,” Alistair adds, without explanation. His face is turned away and Dean is unable to read his meaning from his expression. “I had high hopes for Gordon when he came here, but he let himself get involved with the prisoners, tempted, you could say. I’ll spare you the disgusting details,” he says with an emphasis on ‘disgusting’. “Suffice to say he developed some unsavoury habits, the sort of thing that good men, like you and I, would be revolted by.”

Alistair doesn’t need to go on for Dean to catch his meaning. “He should be disciplined,” Dean says, trying to reconcile this new information with his own knowledge of the man. Dean has no problem, as such, with men that fuck other men—it’s none of his business what goes on between consenting adults and it hasn’t been considered a crime since the Collective came to power—but it’s still a perversion, not something normal guys would even think about.

Alistair huffs in amusement. “There is no need for that. So long as he keeps the ugly business to himself, it’s better to just stay out of it. It does, however, rule him out of any further promotion, even if he gets it out of his system once he’s back in the world and around women again. No, we can’t allow that sort of thing to sully the People’s Army. Better he stays where he is.

“Yes, Commander.”

“I’m glad we’ve had a chance to talk.” Alistair turns to place his empty glass on the corner of the desk, it clinks against something metal hidden among the papers. “You can go now.”

Dean makes his way straight to his bunk-room instead of visiting the mess hall. He has no appetite for dinner, or the coarse jokes and vulgar talk of the other guards, and the last thing he needs is to run into Gordon Walker right now. His head is full with all the things Alistair has told him, the warnings, the praise, the insinuations; Dean feels like he’s drowning in Alistair’s confidences, each word dragging him deeper, pulling more ground from beneath his feet. He’s been at the labour-camp for over three months, thought he was starting to settle in, to pick up the rhythms of the place. It turns out he knew nothing at all.

A few days later, Dean is back to working at the lumber yard. The men from Hut 17 are still out on the supply run, far away to the south. They should be back soon along with a trainload of much needed supplies, including a new consignment of prisoners. The holes in the work-teams after the accident have been getting bigger and more obvious by the week. It has been five days since Dean last saw Castiel, and for the first time he feels the absence as a relief.

Alistair is right, he can’t continue to spend time with Castiel—sorry, N-881—Dean might know there is no harm in it, but it would look bad if they were found out. And, since he found out about Gordon’s tastes, the comments he made the day the men left have started to rot Dean’s memory. Not that he thinks Castiel is a fag—no fucking way—or that he has any ulterior motive in talking to Dean. There hasn’t been a single thing said or done to make Dean believe that. No; he worries for what Gordon might do to Castiel if Dean’s behaviour has unintentionally marked him as a target.

It should be a simple thing, Dean thinks, to put an end to it. At most, Castiel tolerates Dean’s company, he’s never sought Dean out of his own accord, and that realisation comes as a shock. It’s Dean that forced the issue, inflicting unwanted company on the strange quiet man just trying to eat his dinner alone, behind the woodshed. It’s Dean who looks for Castiel at the morning count, and it’s Dean who always knows where Castiel is on the yard at every moment of the day. The attentions were all so tiny on their own that Dean never noticed what it might look like altogether. He has no idea what it means. Something akin to panic, a hot pang of acid nausea slides into his gullet; have the other officers noticed? Was that what Alistair was hinting?

He tries to keep himself busy, tries not to think too deeply about Castiel or Gordon or Alistair or any of it. Whatever Sam says about it, everyone knows that Dean was made to follow orders. Thinking is for the people in charge, for Sam and his law books, or Castiel in his lecture halls. Dean’s life is about action, not reflection, and he doesn’t want to think.

But, it nags at him, like a bug bite he can’t stop scratching until it becomes raw with infection. Why? He asks himself over and over. Why did he go against protocol and strike up this sort-of-friendship with a prisoner? Why did he even think about disobeying a direct order to keep himself away from the inmates? It’s like it wasn’t even Dean doing it, this isn’t what he does, his father taught him better than to try to bend the rules to suit his own purpose.

A thought sneaks inside Dean’s mind, uninvited, like a spider, spinning out silken threads and pulling them together to make a net, a trap. Perhaps this strange curiosity he has with Castiel isn’t coming from Dean at all?

The prisoners can’t be trusted. Castiel is a prisoner. Castiel can’t be trusted. Maybe it was always a lie. Maybe Castiel has been manipulating him. He was angry about the death of his friend the first time they met. Maybe Castiel read Dean and saw how to draw him in. And it’s already paid off hasn’t it? The accident at the processing plant, Castiel’s demand that Dean find drugs to help the prisoners; Castiel must have known that might put Dean’s job on the line.

Lost in a confusion of thought, Dean barely notices the prisoners working around him, snapping at one poor son-of-a-bitch who has the misfortune to bump into him; a dark-haired guy, carrying a pile of logs in his arms, but there are lines on his face and brown eyes staring up at him in fear.

“On your way B-387,” Dean says after a tense moment, giving him a shove to get him going.

He catches Creedy’s eye across the yard and gets a grin and a nod of approval. Creedy’s been a pain in the ass since he started getting somewhere with the investigation into the accident, smug at being in favour with Alistair. Dean turns his back and heads towards the edge of the yard, further away from the noise and the sweat of men working, a lovely addition to the work-day now the temperatures are starting to resemble something close to comfort. He needs to get out, away from the fumes, the creak of gears, the tinnitus whine of saws in wood, and the choking sawdust clogging the air. It’s all too much.

“Going for a smoke,” he mutters to Roy as he leaves the work-site.

Roy just shrugs. “You do what you got to, Winchester,” he says, scratching at the stubble on his neck with one dirty fingernail. “Just don’t be too long about it.”

“I won’t,” he says, but Roy has already turned away to smirk at one of the older men, struggling with a load too heavy for him.

Dean starts walking as he rolls a cigarette. It’s aimless and thoughtless and just what he needs, a moment of peace. He doesn’t go far, maybe half a mile down the road, maybe a little more, just far enough to breathe the fresh air and hear the sound of the world, instead of the clunking of machines’ metal hearts. He stands in the middle of the road and looks up at the deep blue of the sky, only thin wisps of cloud visible today, like threads of silk high up in the atmosphere. He closes his eyes to taste the clean air, and wishes he were somewhere else; back home maybe, drinking a beer with his brother, listening to a game on the radio, while something good cooks in the oven. 

He stretches his arms out to the sides, expanding and filling his lungs with the smell of wet vegetation and the musk of wild things. It helps. As stupid as it seems he starts to feel calmer, like the world is slowing, opening up. Dean knows that when he opens his eyes he’ll be able to see clearly for the first time in days, he’ll feel free, no longer like he is the one that has been imprisoned here.

“I’d ask what you’re doing but I’m not sure I really want to know.” The voice breaks through Dean’s hard won calm. His eyes snap open and he’s on high alert, a hand dropping automatically to his gun like any soldier caught off guard. What he finds is Officer Grossman, with a motley crew of prisoners close behind; the men from Hut 17 have returned bearing the fruits of their labours, they all carry boxes or new tools, all the things they need to properly fix up the saw-mill. Dean’s eye falls on Benny, who is grinning and trying hard not to laugh.

“You’re back from the supply run, then?” Dean asks, pointlessly. Clearly they are, if they’re standing right in front of him.

Grossman nods. “Just brought these good-for-nothings so they can get started on the mill,” he says jerking his thumb towards the men behind him. “And we need some of the trucks down at the tracks as well. It’s a pretty big haul of supplies we got, could do with some extra hands too.”

“What about the new prisoners, couldn’t they help?”

Grossman snorts, then wipes his nose on the back of his hand. “They’re being processed right now, and anyway, they’re always in bad shape when they come off the trains, need a day or two before putting ‘em to work, otherwise we’d be scraping them straight off the road and into the ditches.”

It’s a fair point. “I’ll follow you back,” Dean says, falling in behind the rag-tag group as they make their way towards the processing plant. He tries really fucking hard not to notice that Castiel isn’t there. He tells himself he doesn’t care, tries to tamp down the worry that has him nervously sinking his teeth into his bottom lip. Grossman must have him at camp, there’s no reason to be concerned. 

“Watch where you’re going, Brother.” Benny warns, scowling over his shoulder at a humiliated Dean. He hasn’t noticed that the men have stopped at the perimeter of the yard, Grossman and Roy busy arranging the business with the trucks.

“Sorry,” is murmured automatically before Dean remembers he’s not supposed to be treating the prisoners like men. He does not need to apologise for anything.

He glances at Grossman and Roy, happy to find them distracted, a quick look confirms that none of the other guards are in sight. Dean knows it’s a mistake, but he can’t help taking the opportunity since it so conveniently presented itself.

“Can I help you with something, Officer Winchester?” He speaks quietly in his soft southern drawl, like he knows this isn’t something suited to public consumption. Good-God, Dean thinks for a panicked moment, can everyone read me like an open book?

“Why didn’t Castiel come back with you from the train?”

Benny frowns, his features taking on the hard lines of anger. “Castiel didn’t come on the supply run.”

The words are small, insignificant really, but they hit Dean like he’s been punched in the stomach by Joe Louis. “What do you mean?” His voice comes out high, verging on hysterical, but he can’t be bothered to care about it, or the looks that are being sent his way by the other prisoners. Benny is staring, his lips pulled into a hard pale line as he tries to control his obvious rage. There is no outlet for the prisoners when it comes to the guards, which is why some take it out on each other. “Where is he?”

Benny shrugs and Dean has never wanted to punch anyone more in his life. “I don’t know, Brother,” he says eventually. “It’s not us you need to be asking.” He looks pointedly in the direction of the guards at the entrance to the site. Dean doesn’t understand, he turns back to Benny in confusion. Dean will never know what it is Benny sees in him at that moment, but the prisoner exhales slowing, softening, taking pity him. “Brother, we don’t know where Castiel is,” Benny says quietly. “Creedy and Gordon came for him, late on Thursday night.”

“Why?” Dean demands.

“I don’t know why. Castiel is completely harmless, he didn’t do anything that I know of, but then you guys don’t really need a reason for anything, do you?”

“Maybe he went home? People get released; my brother told me that people are sometimes released if new evidence is found.” It’s desperate and the look of pity on Benny’s face speaks louder than anything he could say.

“I never heard of that, but in any case I don’t reckon they’d come for you in the night, or drag you away with your hands bound behind your back, if you were being released.”

“He’s been gone six days,” Dean says to himself, or to Benny, he hardly knows. Benny hums a soft agreement.

A curl of cold fear freezes Dean from the inside out as the pieces click into place; it’s been there for days, staring him in the face, Gordon’s slew of vulgar comments and digs, Creedy flashing his self-satisfied grin at Dean whenever he told them he was close to finding one of the saboteurs, and, fuck, the way Alistair had thanked him for suggesting they take look at people linked to Alfie.

His partiality and good opinion of Castiel had placed him so far from suspicion in Dean’s mind that he never considered it a possibility. Castiel was gone and Dean was to blame. “Will he come back?” Dean asks, choking on the words.

Benny does not meet his eyes. He looks at the other prisoners, down at his mud-smeared shoes, up to the brilliant blue of the sky, anywhere but at Dean. “I honestly don’t know,” Benny says at last. He turns to Dean and reaches out to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. “But I wouldn’t count on it, Brother.”

Chapter Text

The wall at Castiel’s back is sticky with damp, the stale-smelling water leeching through the fabric of his shirt—they took his coat from him right away, when they pulled his arms behind his back, and slid a hood over his head—to soak his skin. He should move away, save his flesh from sores and infection, but there is nowhere to go. The cell is small, barely room to lay down, and in the dark, there is always a danger he will knock over the bucket they gave him to piss in; the damp is preferable to being covered in his own waste.

He holds a small flat stone in his hand; a treasure pulled from the hard-earth floor at the expense of ripped fingernails, and flips it across the back of his hand, knuckle to knuckle, as if it was a coin. When the thin light from the corridor creeps through the window cut into the metal door, Castiel turns to the wall, swiping the stone across it, to cut a line through the yellowed paintwork. He quickly counts the lines already there, taking advantage of the temporary light, before hiding the sliver of stone in a small gap in between where the bricks and the ground meet. If they find it, they will take it away, and in the dark and silence he will start to lose time, more time, already he has no idea how long he has been in the cell, one day or a week, it is impossible to say.

There is no apparent schedule as to when the guards bring his food, it isn’t often, and he’s hungry all the time anyway, so that doesn’t help. The food they push through the hatch is mostly dry bread and cold porridge, mouldy scraps of whatever is left over from the camp, going about its business somewhere up above his cell. He understands that they do not intend to kill him straight away because if they did, they would let him starve. Castiel is as yet undecided as to whether this is a good or a bad thing, so he tries not to dwell on it and accepts it like everything else; with placid detachment and as little concern about whether he lives or dies, as he can manage.

He blinks rapidly as his eyes adjust to the light, and listens to the clunk of someone descending the metal stairs that Gordon and Creedy pulled him down, stumbling and falling, when they dragged him here. They had walked him in circles across the yard in a weak attempt to disorient him. It did not do any good, it was clear Castiel was still within the boundary of the camp, if the tell-tale stench of the prisoners’ latrines had not given it away, then the hard-packed surface of the yard would have, no way could it be mistaken for the stony ruts of the road or the soft-moss roll of the forest floor.

Castiel watches the pale square of the window, enjoying the brief moment of light, before he finds out whose delightful company he is getting today. It is a nice change to be able to see. The naked light bulb, high up in the middle of the cell—and out of reach, so no one can put an early end to the guards’ fun by opening up a vein—is only ever switched on so that guards can watch him gasp and hiss at the sudden dazzling burn of it.

Once the lights are off there is total darkness, not in the way of a moonless night when you can still see the shapes of things if you try hard enough. This darkness is total, all consuming. Castiel never thought, before this, that it was possible to feel the dark, but he can, and it is like having a pad of thick material pressed over his face. He cannot even see his own body, not even his hands in front of his face, and movement becomes difficult. The silence only makes it worse. Unless the guards show up, there is nothing but a steady echoing drip, and the occasional, unaccountable creak or snap in the black. Now and then he thinks he hears the scuttle of insects, the brush of a cockroach or spider against his hands, but it is hard to know if it is real or just his imagination playing tricks on him.

“The boss wants a word with you, little man,” Roy says. There is a scraping sound, and the click of a lock mechanism as a key is turned. This is new, Castiel thinks, but does not get much further as Gordon and Roy hustle into the room, and if it was confined before, then with three full grown men in there it is ridiculous, and they blunder around, banging into each other with every move as they try to fasten a pair of metal cuffs around Castiel’s wrists, pulling his arms behind his back until his shoulders start to ache with the pressure.

“I’m not little,” Castiel says, more irritated than he should be by the comment, given the situation. But, he is not small. It’s a fact, and there is no need for inaccuracy. All Castiel gets for the correction is a sharp slap across the mouth.

“Shut your fucking mouth, Ghost,” Gordon growls, coming so close Castiel can smell the sourness of his breath. “I didn’t tell you to speak.”

“You didn’t tell me not to either.” That earns Castiel a sharp kick, that leaves him breathing heavily, forehead pressed to the ground.

In the black, with time spinning endlessly out, Castiel has thought about many things, but the why of it, is not one of them. The people in charge will always do as they please, they do not need a reason for cruelty. Perhaps it is just human nature to want to wield power over others? Castiel cannot say for sure, but history certainly presents some interesting arguments for it.

What Castiel does question is why he let the meetings with Officer Winchester go on for so long. He is not fool enough to believe that his present situation is not connected to it. Castiel knew it would end badly, he knew there was danger and told Dean so, many times. There is a part of Castiel that wants to blame Dean for his role in it, for his persistence in engaging Castiel, for scoffing at his fears; fears that have been proved real. But it is not all Dean’s fault. Castiel could easily have found somewhere else to eat his dinner once Dean became a regular fixture in the clearing behind the woodshed; could have walked away when Dean stopped him at the work-site; could have left him to deal with his trauma alone, after the explosion at the saw-mill. These were Castiel’s own choices, he realises, and he has no one to blame but himself.

“Well he’s telling you now, maggot,” Roy says, crouching down to stab a dirty finger towards Castiel’s mouth. “You, keep this shut until someone tells you to talk, understand?”

Castiel goes to say, “Yes,” but Roy’s finger presses down on his lips, pushing them hard onto his teeth. “Uh-uh-uh, what did I just say?” Castiel just looks at him with a blank expression. “Much better,” he says, and ruffles Castiel’s gritty hair, as if he’s a child or a good dog.

He is half-led, half-dragged down a narrow corridor. The walls are much like his cell, rough brick and peeling paint, but the floor is a solid layer of concrete under Castiel’s bare feet. They do not go far, stopping in front of another door, a dark block of wood this time, but reinforced with sheet metal, the bump of rivets ringing the edge like decoration. There is no window in this door.

Gordon knocks, and it strikes Castiel as funny that there should be such formality involved when they are delivering him to a careless death. He has no illusions; others have been taken—not many, but enough to have the prisoners whispering to each other about it and making up stories about it to frighten the new arrivals—not one of them ever returned, and only a very foolish, or a very hopeful man would believe that anything good happened to them, and Castiel is neither of those things.

“Enter.” The order is barked from beyond the door. 

Gordon takes a moment, before opening it, to grasp the front of Castiel’s shirt and drag him forwards to hiss into his face. “You better be good for the Commander, Ghost. If he tells me you’ve been difficult, if you haven’t pleased him, you’ll have me to deal with next.”Castiel, as usual, stays silent. He does not expect to leave the room alive and so Gordon’s threats are meaningless to him. “You fucking freak,” Gordon says. A thick glob of spit lands on Castiel’s face a moment later, it slithers disgustingly down his face and drops from his chin, leaving a damp patch, dark on the pale floor.

The room Castiel is led into is not what he was expecting. It is pristine. The walls are newly white-washed by the smell of it, and the floor is tiled in neat white squares. The faint smell of ethanol and bleach gives it the feel of a hospital, or to be more precise, a surgical theatre, since there is a metal trolley at the back of the room that looks a lot like an operating table, with the addition of leather straps attached to its edges. Unfastened they dangle to the floor, buckles swinging as if it has lately been moved. Castiel’s gaze falls to the floor beneath and he realises then that the space is not quite so spick and span as the first impression suggests. Rusty-brown stains colour the grout between the tiles, blood, soaked too deep to be easily removed.

So that is how it will be then, Castiel thinks. He had hoped for a quick death, without pain, but that hope will just be the last one the labour-camp—the Collective—can steal from him.  

Alistair is standing by a chair in the middle of the room, his uniform covered with a long white coat.

“It’s very good of you to join us, N-881,” Alistair drawls in his nasal voice, reading the numbers from the label sewn to Castiel’s chest, as if he does not know him, as if he is not the one that gave the order to bring him in.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Castiel replies, without much feeling, as if he is accepting an invitation to a sub-par dinner.

Alistair’s laugh is a raw and grating noise, a sound dragged painfully from his throat. He waggles a skeletal finger at Castiel. “I like you, N-881,” he says. Roy’s grip tightens around his bicep, and if the guard holding him is nervous, then being liked by Alistair is clearly not a good thing. “You’ve got some fire in you that I never noticed before.” Alistair hums a thoughtful sound as he looks Castiel over. The sharp gaze makes Castiel’s skin prickle all over. “I wish you had shown yourself sooner, Ghost, instead of skulking around, never saying a word. With your skills, your focus, I think I could have made something very special out of you if you hadn’t hidden from me.” He pauses, tilts his head, considering Castiel for a moment. “Well, it’s a shame, and there’s nothing to be done about it now.”

He goes over to a series of hooks along the wall, selecting an apron from among the many hanging there. There is a slight shine to it under the bright electric light and Castiel realises it is waterproof, coated in wax or rubber. Of all the things that have happened since they took him from his sleep-hut, it is in that tiny detail that Castiel feels the first agitated wing-beats of fear between his ribs.  

“In the chair,” Alistair says to Gordon, and a second later Castiel is being pulled further into the room and pushed down onto a chair, arms tugged around and secured behind the backrest.

“You want the cuffs left on?” Gordon asks. He gets no answer, so Castiel can only guess that Alistair nodded his assent.

“You can leave,” Alistair says a moment later, “But, don’t go far.” The door creaks as the guards clear the room. With Castiel sitting, Alistair towers over him and he bends down to whisper in Castiel’s ear. “Don’t worry, Ghost, we won’t be keeping you too long today; I like to start slow.” Alistair smiles at him, his lips peeling back from his large yellow teeth.

He disappears from Castiel’s line of sight. There are a few seconds of banging, as Alistair shifts things around somewhere behind him, then the regular squeak, squeak, squeak, of a wheel in need of oil, as a trolley rolls into view, a small machine with wires dripping from it and two dials, like half clock-faces on the front.

“Is that how you like it, Ghost?” Alistair is saying as he crouches and wraps raw wires around and between Castiel’s toes. “Nice and slow?” When he is done, his hand lingers for a moment, warm around the back of Castiel’s ankle. Alistair steps between Castiel’s knees, his fingers dropping to the buttons on his shirt, nimbly unfastening each one. He pushes the shirt away, bends so that his eyes are level with Castiel’s, and they shine, bright and alert, burning with an unsettling excitement.

Castiel can’t help the shallow gasp as he feels Alistair’s fingers trail, sharp-edged, up his chest. His head jerking back, away from the snake-like smirk on Alistair’s lips. He steps away, and if it was possible for Castiel to slump in the seat he would, grateful for the space. As Castiel lets his head flop forward over his chest, he sees them, patches with wires attached, taped to his skin. Alistair had been distracting him.

“Or, do you like it hard,” Alistair snarls, “Like this,” and he flips a switch on the machine. 

Electricity rushes through Castiel’s body burning like wildfire after a drought. His muscles contract, hands and feet curling like claws. It feels like the flesh is being boiled off his toes where the wires wrap around them, and he could not call out if he wanted too. The pain is too much, his body jittering in the chair, out of control.

Then it is over.

“You know, it was Dean that suggested we bring you in,” Alistair says. Castiel just stares, stays silent. “I asked who might have caused the explosion at the saw-mill, and do you know what he said? He said, why not look at Alfie’s friends, they must have something to do with it.” He laughs. “He wasn’t to know that you, Castiel, were the only friend that poor sweet boy had in the world. Can you imagine how pleased I was to hear him say it?” Castiel crumples in the chair, as far as he can, peeling one eye open to look up at Alistair. He is smiling happily. “This is just a taste, Ghost,” he says. “Just a little glimpse of what your life is going to become.” He presses the button again. Alistair laughs when he turns it off. “Relax, it won’t kill you, not yet, and maybe not ever, if you are a good Ghost, and tell me what I want to hear.” The button, again. “You might not want to talk to me yet, but I guarantee you’ll be singing like a bird for me, soon enough.”

Castiel is panting, sweaty and shaking at the same time. Alistair steps close, grips Castiel’s chin tight with his bone-hard fingers and pulls his head up, forces Castiel to look him in the eye. “And if I can’t find out from you, Ghost, maybe I’ll put Dean in the chair instead?”

Castiel cannot stand to hear another word. A burst of adrenaline makes him dizzy, his vision swims and he’s moving. He feels the actions as if he is separated from his body, forward momentum, a crack, a twist and a step, and the chair toppling backwards behind him.

The world comes back into focus. Alistair is wiping blood from a split in his lip, Gordon is opening the door, and Castiel is standing up, the back of the chair in pieces around him, the wires have been ripped from his chest.

“Commander,” Gordon says, “What the fuck happened?”

Alistair waves him away when he goes over to check the wound. “Seems like the Ghost has some life in him after all,” he huffs.

“Come with me you piece of shit,” Gordon says, pulling the rest of the wires from him, and marching him from the room.

Castiel’s legs are weak, trembling as he tries to walk with Gordon pushing him along. They reach the cells, and for the first time Castiel sees there is more than one, though he does not think there is anyone else there at the moment; he would have been able to hear them. Gordon undoes his cuffs and throws him into the cell so hard that his face meets the back wall. Castiel waits to hear the door close or the click of the lock, but when they do not come he makes the mistake of turning around, and meets Gordon’s fist.

“An attack on the commander is an attack on all of us, fag,” Gordon shouts, kicking out as Castiel hunches on the floor, tries to protect his head, to wriggle into the corner so that the guard has less room to swing and aim the punches that rain down over Castiel’s body. “The commander might like to take his time, but I prefer the more direct approach,” Gordon sniffs, catching his breath. “You go for him again, I’ll put you down whether the commander wants it or not.”

This time, when the lights go out and Castiel is plunged into soupy darkness, it is nothing but a relief.

 

~*~

 

Castiel still aches from Gordon’s beating when they come for him again. It’s just Creedy this time, which is a mercy, since he is too lazy to do much more than push Castiel along the corridor, and laugh at him when he stumbles, his toes still stiff and painful from the electricity.

There is no chair in the middle of the room today. Instead, the metal table has been pulled forward. Castiel’s breath catches in his throat when he sees it. Creedy takes him to it and then Alistair is there, in Castiel’s space, running his fingers over the bruises on Castiel’s cheek. He has to try very hard not to pull away from the touch. It’s gentle, but it makes Castiel shudder nonetheless. Together Alistair and Creedy press him down, fastening the straps around his wrists and ankles, and another at his waist so he cannot move.

“They shouldn’t have marked him up like this,” Alistair complains. He turns to Creedy, still loitering close to the door. “Tell Gordon that I will be having words with him,” he says, before dismissing the guard from the room. Then there is the squeak of wheels again, as Alistair rolls one of the units that line the walls closer. Castiel’s heart starts to race and he has to close his eye and hide in the dark for a while.

“I don’t need a blank canvas,” Alistair says conversationally. Castiel opens his eyes to the sight of a scalpel hovering a few inches from his face. “But, I do prefer one.” He sighs, looks Castiel in the eye and says, “Well, we’ll just have to make do with what we’ve got,” and presses the blade to Castiel’s skin, just below his collarbone.

Castiel’s hands clench into fists as he tries to stop from crying out, unwilling to give Alistair the satisfaction. The cut is shallow, made slowly, the blade sinking in before being dragged down, parting flesh in a flash of sickening pain. Castiel hisses, breathing fast through his teeth.

Alistair smiles, “That’s good,” he says. “Stay nice and quiet.” He pulls out the blade and shows Castiel its red-stained edge. “If you aren’t going to sing for me, then you better not make another sound,” he says, whispering into Castiel’s ear. “If you do, I’ll cut your fucking tongue out and shove it down your throat.”

Alistair does not say another word after that, or ask a single question. He just cuts, painting agonising little gashes over Castiel’s ribs and down his arms, sometimes going over the same place, just a little deeper, until water starts to run from the corners of his eyes, and his breath comes shuddering from his lungs in ragged bursts.

Afterwards, Creedy rubs some kind of alcohol or disinfectant into the wounds, and of all the surprising things, gives him a clean shirt to wear. “Boss-man don’t want you dying of infection before he’s done with you,” the guard tells him.

He gets fed well that night, and Castiel cannot tell if it is a reward, or if it’s just to help him heal, so that he will last longer under Alistair’s knife. Then he is plunged back into darkness and silence, with nothing to concentrate on but the nauseating sting of his wounds.

The break between sessions is longer this time, definitely more than a day, probably closer to two or three, given how many times the guards have been in to check his cuts and feed him. 

“You were so brave last time, Ghost,” Alistair says, once Castiel is strapped down again. “So stalwart, I can’t wait to find out what really makes you scream.” He leers and dips his head closer, drawing a breath at Castiel’s neck, scenting him like a dog. Alistair runs the end of a gloved finger over one of the deeper cuts along Castiel’s side, feeling at the scab. Without warning he jabs his sharp finger into the cut, opening it back raw and tearing. Castiel growls at the pain, teeth clenched together. Alistair chuckles, “That’s more like it. I want to hear that siren-song.”

Alistair is more talkative today, more relaxed and in his element, as Castiel’s gasps escalate into shouts as the pain is turned up. He takes sips from a glass of something clear that Castiel is not stupid enough to think is water, and smokes factory-made cigarettes, letting the ash fall onto Castiel every time he leans over him.

“What is it about you? What is so special about you, Castiel?” Alistair asks after a while. When Castiel keeps his mouth shut, he presses the glowing end of his cigarette into Castiel’s arm. “I thought we were getting along better today. You don’t want to make me sad do you?” He does it again, and again, and again.

When he draws the end of the cigarette close to one of the ripped open wounds, Castiel gives in. “Nothing,” he gasps. “There’s nothing.”

“Then why do you have one of my officers following you around, like a lost puppy?” There are bloody fingerprints on the paper of the cigarette, but Alistair does not seem to notice, and he sucks the smoke down just the same.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Castiel says, feigning ignorance. It is a weak defence and he knows it, especially after his reaction the first time Alistair threatened to hurt Dean.

“Yes, you do.” It is a matter of fact, and Castiel is too tired to argue, so he stays silent instead. “I don’t like people touching my things,” Alistair says. “I brought Winchester here to be my second in command, my lieutenant. Not so that disgusting traitorous creatures like you could taint him, infect him with your sickness.” He takes a sip from his glass, smearing that with tacky fingerprints as well, looks at it speculatively, then sticks out an arm and upends it over Castiel. It floods into the wounds with a fresh explosion of pain, running like acid from one cut to the next, as his muscles twitch and flex underneath. Alistair watches with interest.

“I haven’t done anything to him. I barely know him,” Castiel wheezes.

Alistair bites his lip, nostrils flaring in anger. “Don’t lie to me, Castiel,” he says, voice sharp as the blade in his hand. “What did you do to make Officer Winchester so fascinated?”

This is the crux of it, Castiel realises. This is why he is being punished. Alistair expected Dean to be charmed by his benevolent offers of friendship, his fatherly advice, and special treatment, but he was not. “You’re jealous,” Castiel says. He can’t stop the hint of a smile that slides over his face, even if it hurts.

 Alistair’s face goes stony-cold. He could be carved from marble for all the emotion he shows as his gaze slips down the length of Castiel’s body before returning to his face. “I could never be jealous of a creature like you,” he hisses, jabbing the scalpel straight into Castiel’s side, so that he cries out. “Do you suck his cock?” Alistair asks.

The idea is so preposterous that Castiel would laugh if he was not currently being impaled by a number of small metal instruments that jiggle viciously in his skin, if he so much as breathes. Instead, all he manages to get out is a simple, “No.”

Alistair makes a grab for Castiel’s genitals, squeezing hard through the rough fabric of his pants. It makes Castiel feel sick, but at least it is not intended as a sexual touch; it could be so much worse. “Do you think he wants to suck yours, you fucking faggot,” he says, voice growing louder.

“No,” Castiel says from between gritted teeth.

“You’re lying,” Alistair sneers. He snatches another blade from the table and sinks it hard into Castiel’s thigh, making him howl in pained surprise. Alistair leaves it there as he walks over to the sink in the corner, and runs the tap. Alistair laughs as Castiel fails to stifle a sob. “Poor Castiel,” he says in a sing-song voice. “So pathetic, so weak, do you seriously think a fine young man like Dean would care for a pervert like you? You’re nothing more than a warm hole in a cold world. He doesn’t want you, not really, whatever temporary comforts he might be willing to take from you.”

“Then, why are you so afraid of me?” Castiel snaps. He does not even know where it came from. He is angry, not for himself, but for Dean, that he should be spoken of like this when he has done nothing wrong, nothing to disgrace himself.

Alistair’s eyes flash with fury and he slaps Castiel hard across the mouth. His teeth cut tracks on the inside of his lip, and blood spills across his teeth and onto his tongue. “Winchester has potential. I will not see it wasted because of vermin like you.” He takes a breath, calms himself before continuing. “You are nothing, Castiel. Your life was forfeit the moment you stepped inside these walls. Unlike some of the other fools out there, you already knew that, so I know I can’t threaten your life. It would be pointless since I already own it.”

Alistair shouts for Creedy, and he is in the room a moment later, on alert, as if he expects Castiel to have broken free. He relaxes as soon as he sees Castiel still strapped to the table.

“Help me turn him over,” Alistair says. “I don’t want to see his ugly face anymore.”

“Sure thing, Commander,” Creedy says giving a small salute.

The next few minutes are spent hauling Castiel around like a dead weight. He cannot fight but he will not help. Once they have turned him onto his stomach and the restraints are refastened, Creedy leaves the room.

The metal against his wounds is painful on its own, and he has to twist his neck, so that he is resting on one bruised cheek, in order to breathe. Alistair hovers over him, hands on his hips, just looking until Castiel cannot stand it.

“What are you looking at?”

Alistair looks down at him with one eyebrow cocked. “The canvas, Castiel,” he says as if Castiel should know that. “I should have looked before, it’s actually much better on this side.” There is the tell-tale rasp of a blade being selected from the metal tray Alistair keeps his instruments in. “You need to be taught a lesson and I think I have just the thing that will make you sing for me, like a little bird,” he says, and makes the first incision. 

It goes on for what feels like hours. Cut, upon cut, upon cut, as Castiel cries out, feeling each, in every part of his bruised and battered body. There are long slow cuts that feel like Alistair is carving him into strips to serve up in one of Garth’s stews, and there are short flicking cuts, fast and sharp that make Castiel lose his breath. Alistair hums while he works.

Eventually, Castiel must pass out, because he wakes with Alistair sitting beside him, leaning his elbows on the edge of the table, close to Castiel’s head. His voice drops low again, a whisper in Castiel’s ear. “So, eventually, I’m going to let you out, and back into the camp. You can think of our time together, and my gift to you, as a taste of what will be waiting for you if you don’t effectively detach Winchester from you. I’ve done some of the work already, loosened the earth, planted a few seeds, but the rest is up to you, Castiel, and if you don’t...” He holds a photograph to Castiel’s face, but he can only see out of one eye, from his current position. It is a regular black and white shot of a street, nothing significant about it at first glance. But Alistair is smirking and watching him intently, so he searches the picture again.

The skyline is familiar, the road and the buildings starting to ping memories he had tucked away years ago. And, right there on the sidewalk, Anna, his sister, holding hands with a little girl, his niece—no longer a baby—with her little coat done up tight against the wind, one chubby hand holding her hat on her head over dark curls. Castiel’s eyes fill with hot tears as something crumbles inside him, the wall that kept all those old feelings away, family, home and love, all released and trying to squeeze their way out past his eyelids.

“Pretty lady that sister of yours,” Alistair says. “They tell me she’s a red-head. I like a red-head.”

Castiel forgets he is held down, tries to move, he wants to sit up and swing for Alistair, even if it kills him. “You can’t,” he says, desperate to protect them, to do something. “They’ve done nothing.”

Alistair chuckles, “Oh Castiel, as if that ever made a difference. If I sent the OSS to see her I’m sure they’d manage to find something, she is the sibling of a convicted enemy agitator after all. It wouldn’t exactly be surprising would it?” Alistair moves, starts putting his blades and scalpels back on the tray, wiping them off on his filthy red-streaked apron before putting them down. “I’d hate to think what might happen if she was transported to one of the camps. You hear about all kinds of nasty business that goes on at the women’s prisons, worse if they’re mixed, and the girl might have to go too in a few years.”

“No.” Castiel says, almost incoherent with fear and the rush of panic in his veins.

 “You can protect them, Castiel,” Alistair says. “Be my friend. Send Dean away, even better, send him to me, and everything will be fine.”

“Please,” Castiel whispers.

Alistair grabs his face with a slimy hand, and forces Castiel look at him. “Will you do what I ask?”

 

~*~

 

They put him back in the cell for a while before they let him go. He complies because he has no energy left to argue, to fight. They feed him, let him have water to wash in, “Don’t want to scare the other prisoners,” Roy says, as he helps him wipe dried blood from his skin, and tries to scrub it from his hair. Bullshit, Castiel thinks, all they ever want to do is scare the prisoners. They even give him another clean shirt to wear, once the wounds have stopped bleeding enough. Then they lead him out of the cell, hooded and docile, like a trained pet, or a broken animal.

They are even less effective at disguising the path they take than the first time around, and it is obvious they’ve come out of the door around the side of the admin building when they take the hood off him right there.

Castiel is already squinting, expecting to be blinded by the daylight, but the light is subtle, late evening by the look of it.

“Shit, you look even worse out here,” Creedy says. Castiel turns and stares at him. He feels confused, unsure of what to do. “Go on, asshole, get out of here.” He claps his hands in front of Castiel’s face and laughs when he jumps.

Castiel makes his way across the yard slowly, each step a pain filled burden, toward Hut 17. The only home he has known for more than five years. He hopes they have not taken all his belongings, but he would not blame them if they had.

“What’ve we got here?” Benny calls, as soon as Castiel steps through the door. A few dozen pairs of eye glimmer at him from the dark further back in the hut, and he can hear urgent whispers as the news of his return passes from man-to-man then out into the yard. “Jesus Christ, Castiel, I never thought we’d be seeing you again, Brother.” He grins, a big white trail of teeth across his face, and goes in for a hug before Castiel can stop him. Benny steps back as Castiel cries out and dances awkwardly out of reach. “What did they do to you?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “But I need help to keep my wounds clean, and I don’t think I’ll be much use at the mill for a while.”

Benny draws him over to his own bunk. “Don’t you worry about work, Castiel, you let me handle that.” He turns to someone on his right and sends them off to Garth at the fire-pit, in search of boiled water. “Now let me take a look at you,” he says gently. Together they peel the shirt from his back which is sticky with serous fluid that has leaked from the cuts. Benny sucks in a breath that whistles between his teeth.

“What is it?” Castiel asks. He can hear other men muttering behind him and his anxiety increases. “What is it Benny, tell me!”

“I don’t really know how to say,” Benny says, softly. “But, these cuts... I’ve never seen anything like it... Castiel, it looks like you have wings.”

Chapter Text

All the goodwill in the world cannot make Castiel’s injuries heal faster. Benny tries to help. He cleans the feathered cuts with prison-brewed alcohol that Castiel has only tried a few times—it does not feel any better burning through his wounds than it did searing down his throat—and binds them with grey strips of boiled cotton, scraps of a shirt donated from a resident of Hut 17 Castiel has never spoken to. He feels shame for that as he gives his thanks.

“It’s nothing,” the man says, dragging desolate wisps of yellow hair over the wasteland of his shiny head, tucking them behind his ear. “You’re one of us, and if we don’t stick together, if we don’t look out for each other, no one will. We have been abandoned by everyone, but God.”

“Ain’t that the truth, Brother,” Benny says, crossing himself in the Catholic way. He tucks one end of the make-shift bandage under another and secures it with a pin scrounged up from who-knows-where. He pats Castiel’s shoulder, one of the few parts of his body unspoiled by Alistair’s marks. “Try and get some sleep,” he says. “I’ll make sure they don’t look for you on the yard tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” Castiel murmurs. He is slow and arthritic as he crosses the gangway, movements cautious and stilted, like a man three times his age. The climb to his bunk is agonising. Even with his bunk-mates lending a careful hand to boost him up, Castiel cries out when he drags his mutilated body on to the mattress. He lays there, eyes closed, catching his breath, trying to ignore the sting of cuts re-opened from the stretch.

He tries to sleep but it takes time. Even though the mattress feels like feather and down in comparison to the bare ground of the cell, the pain shakes him awake, every time, before the darkness can take him. He can see the shadow of bruises on his arms and chest, haphazard cuts, and swollen bee-sting burns from Alistair’s cigarette, bubbled and seeping like boils over his ribs. Part of Castiel wishes he could see what Alistair has given him—a pair of wings for a caged man. There is some grotesque humour in it, though Castiel is far from appreciating the irony—but he does not know if he could cope with seeing the destruction, he would rather try to forget.

He wakes to the sound of two hundred men tramping from the hut, ready for work and the morning count. That he slept though the first alarm is remarkable, that he is going to be left alone in the sleep-hut is a miracle; he could kiss Benny for making it possible.

“I’ll pass on that if it’s all the same to you,” says the man himself, head popping up above the edge of Castiel’s high bunk.

“My apologies, I didn’t realise I’d spoken out loud.”

Benny snorts in amusement. “Don’t sweat it, you’ve been mumbling on and off all night. It was mostly nonsense,” Benny reassures in response to the worried look on Castiel’s face. “There weren’t any secrets spilled, not as far as I could tell, anyway.”

The guards are shouting out in the yard, blowing whistles to get the men marching forward for the morning count. “Shouldn’t you be out there?” Castiel asks.

“I will be. Just wanted to make sure you had this first,” Benny says, putting a bowl of half-decent looking stew on Castiel’s bunk. “You look after yourself today, borrow blankets if you need them,” he says. “And if anyone gives you shit, you tell them to come see Benny.”

Castiel’s smile pulls at the scab on his lip, a little reminder of his recent vacation, courtesy of Gordon’s fist. “Thank you, Benny,” he says as Benny glances out of the door. He’s going to have to run to make it to line-up.

“Your guard was worried for you, Castiel. He didn’t know where you’d gone, and wasn’t happy when I told him they’d taken you.”

Castiel presses his hand over his eyes, feels the acid burn of fear at the back of his throat; he sees a vision of Anna, her thin body bruised and broken, just like his, and maybe worse—they have all heard the stories of what happens to women on the transports—he has to swallow to keep what little food there is in his stomach from making a return visit.  “Why are you telling me this?” he says. “What any guard does or doesn’t worry about has nothing to do with me.”

“Just thought you’d want to know, is all,” Benny says, as he moves to the door.

Castiel puts his head back down, his coat folded up underneath his head serving as a pillow. “I don’t.”

“My mistake, then.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Fair enough,” Benny chuckles. “Good to have you back with us, Castiel.”

 

~*~

 

Hours after the sun begins its slide towards the western peaks, Castiel limps his sore body across the yard. The smell of Garth’s cooking, as exquisite as ambrosia after the mouldy scraps he lived off in the cells, pulls him in like a lassoed calf stumbling at each tug of the rope.  

It is early, the men not yet back from the work-site, and Garth sits alone, stirring his great black cauldron of a pan and peering into the rising steam as if he can read the future in its sinuous curls. Every now and then, he throws in a handful of something from a little sack he wears at his waist, then leans in to scent the mixture again.

“Not ready yet,” Garth says, sparing a quick glance in Castiel’s direction as he sits down, with care, at his side.

“Will it be much longer?”

Garth shakes his head. “Give it half an hour,” he says. “It’ll be done before the guys get back. Don’t suppose you want to hang around for that, huh? Too many eyes. Too many questions. You’d think they never saw a beaten man before, though half of them are permanently walking around with black eyes or raw knuckles.”

Garth falls silent after that and goes back to tending the pot. Castiel is grateful for the silence, for the fact that other inmates in the yard have kept their distance, once they have had their fill of staring. Castiel came back from the dead, but they all know it can only be a temporary reprieve, and the men react as if Castiel is marked by more than cuts and bruises, something deeper, more sinister; a curse, a brand for a dead man walking. And Castiel worries. He worries about the attention. He worries that they know about the wings. And if they do, will they eventually be curious enough to demand to see them? Will they insist? Was this Alistair’s intention all along, to draw attention from the criminals and finish Castiel off without getting his own hands dirty?

“You’re healing well,” Garth says, holding his hand out for Castiel’s bowl, glancing down at the fine red line of a scalpel-cut and the yellowing edge of a bruise that decorates Castiel’s wrist. “You back on the work-team tomorrow?”

“If Benny can find something light for me to do.”

“Come early tomorrow morning,” Garth says, leaning in like he’s about to share a secret. “And I’ll find you a little extra something for during the day. You can hide it in your sock. The guards never look there.” He winks and hands back Castiel’s ration tin.

It is twice as full as normal and the chunks of meat and cabbage leaves are recognisable for a change. His stomach grumbles impatiently, more than ready for the warmth of a decent meal.

Castiel sets off across the yard, trying to slip into the shadows behind the woodshed without drawing attention from the guards up in the tower, or the ones roaming the yard. Now that the pain-fuelled fog of his time with Alistair is starting to lift, Castiel needs time to process what happened, and why.

It all comes down to Dean Winchester in the end. Castiel knew there was danger in it. He was stupid to allow it to go on, to bend so easily to the guard’s whim for his company. Well, no more. No matter what Dean wants, what Castiel wants, Anna’s safety comes first. It leaves a bitter taste in Castiel’s mouth to be complicit in Alistair’s plans for Dean, but all he can do is force himself not to care. He made a promise and he intends to keep it, and to be seen keeping it. What is Officer Winchester to prisoner N-881, anyway? Friendship was never really an option. Dean’s company is just an oddity, a point of interest in an otherwise dull world, nothing more. And, in the end, it is a small thing to sacrifice.

He slips into the dark gulley between two storage huts; there is a collection of them at this end of the yard, jutting out at an angle on the otherwise smooth line of the perimeter fence, like a spur, a growth on the regular footprint of the camp. Though it is still daylight in the open expanse of the exercise-yard, the close crowded huts and low hanging boughs beyond the fence keep out the dipped rays of the fading sun.

The sudden change from light to dark gives him a moment of panic as he rounds the corner, blood rushing in his ears at the thought of the blackness closing around him, stealing his voice, and he has to rest a hand on the edge of the hut, and take a breath, remind himself that he is no longer in the cell, that the dark here gives privacy and is wanted, it does not bring the loss of his senses, it is not to be feared.

Castiel blinks away the black. He focuses on the familiar scene instead; the forgotten log-pile, the dark waxy needles of the spruce, the rusted fence, and there in the middle of it, Dean. He is standing at the fence, forehead resting on the wires, with his fingers curved into the gaps, clinging, as if he needs to borrow the strength to stand. Dean’s eyes are barely open and he is staring at the back of the woodshed, Castiel’s usual seat. His face is pale, dark circles under his eyes that make him look older, wearier than a man in his twenties should be.

Castiel is unsure what to do, whether to turn and run, or face him, the unintentional cause of Castiel’s suffering. But, instead of doing either, Castiel watches, struck by the sudden feeling that he is intruding on something private. Dean’s face is full of something that looks a lot like sorrow; sorrow, or guilt. Castiel is filled with the need to escape, to pretend he never saw such sadness in Dean’s face. Before the thought is solid in Castiel’s mind he has already started to back away quietly, to escape the picture presented to him; he does not understand what it means.

Despite his caution, Castiel’s heel catches on a knotted bundle of twigs and leaves, the flotsam of the wind-blown forest, and it snaps under his weight, loud, like a gunshot. Startled, Dean turns whip-fast, instantly on high alert, hand automatically seeking the gun at his hip. Castiel gets a front seat to the show, as Dean’s expression goes from shock, to horror, to awe, in quick succession, finally settling on confusion if the crumpled lines between his eyes are anything to go by.

“You’re here,” Dean says on a breath, disbelieving. It is followed by a half-strangled laugh as he rubs the back of his hand across his eyes. “Shit man, I thought you were dead.”

Again, Castiel thinks about taking the coward’s way out, running would be so much easier. But, there is a heavy feeling in his chest, guilt perhaps, or shame, and there is no escaping it, no escaping Dean for that matter. Castiel is an animal in a cage, there is nowhere to hide that Dean cannot find him, so what would be the point of trying. If he is about to turn Dean away, leave him wide open to Alistair’s vile influence, Castiel should do one last thing, send Dean away with the full knowledge of what kind of man Alistair really is.

The heated tin in his hand reminds him that, no matter what else is going on, he has to eat. He takes up his usual seat among the slowly rotting logs before he says anything. Dean’s gaze is heavy on his back as he moves, and when he is settled, he finds the guard’s eyes are shining and wide. Castiel drops his own head down and concentrates on fishing out a piece of turnip from the stew.

“Cas?” Dean says, the frown obvious in his voice, though Castiel still isn’t looking at him. “Cas, are you okay? Fuck, I’ve been worried.”

“So people keep telling me,” he says, distantly. “Which is strange, since you’re the one that told them to come for me.”

“What! Cas, I didn’t... I never...” Dean’s words gets mixed together and he huffs out his rejection of the charge. But, there was no lie in Alistair when he told Castiel it was Dean who put him on the rack; there is no need to bluff when you hold all the aces.

“It was you who told them to investigate Alfie’s friends, correct?”

“I mentioned it, but it was just an idea. I didn’t mean you, Cas. I wouldn’t... Oh Fuck, I never thought...”

“What?” Castiel asks, trying to maintain his old bored tone, and ignore the uncomfortable twist in his stomach, the itch of anger under his skin. “You never thought what? That they’d take me in for questioning? They were going to take someone, and you knew that, didn’t you? They were going to do this to someone, whether they were responsible or not, so why not me? I’m just the same as the others, aren’t I?” He feels his ire rising, and it is not really Dean he is angry with, but who else is there to rail at, to pour out his suffering and his pain onto, no one. Ghosts do not have a voice. “Or does the torture of innocent people only bother you when it’s someone you know?”

“So, you didn’t do it?” Dean sounds small, unsure, not at all like the man Castiel has come to know over the last few months.

“What do you think?” Castiel asks, setting his food aside, his appetite vanished.

“I don’t know, Cas, I don’t know, but they must have thought you were involved for a reason.”

Castiel laughs. “You think I participated in sabotage that could easily have killed me as well? I don’t even know how the machine works. I worked with old texts and dead languages, I don’t have a clue how to tamper with mechanics like that. And before you ask, neither did Alfie. Your officer friends and your commander know that very well.” Castiel says. “They picked him out for a damn desk job because he had no other skills.”

Dean’s expression softens. “And you told Alistair all this?” he says, with relief.  “So, he knows now that you weren’t involved?”

Castiel frowns at Dean from the shadows. If only the world were as simple as Dean wants to believe, has to believe. And that is what this is, Castiel thinks, he is lying to himself in refusing to see the world as it really is, terrible and cruel. Dean has been at war, he knows very well what men are capable of, he just does not want to admit it. Perhaps he is afraid of finding that same brutality inside himself.  “Dean, he never asked.”

Dean’s face falls, colour draining from his cheeks. “What do you mean, he never asked? That can’t be right. No,” he says, firmly. “They must‘ve asked something.”

Castiel sits back, his anger fading in the face of Dean’s confusion. It is obvious he really did not know anything about what happened in the cells. “This wasn’t anything to do with the investigation, Dean.”

“That don’t make any kind of sense, Cas.”

Castiel looks at his hands, runs a finger over the small brown circles of cigarette-burns, scabbed over. They are hard to make out, hidden in the shadows as he is. Dean cannot see him properly, Castiel realises, he cannot see him or his new multi-coloured skin. This is it, he thinks. This is how I send Dean away and still keeps everyone safe. Castiel’s body is red-painted warning; if he can make Dean see which hand held the knife, surely it will keep him from Alistair’s influence.

“I told you before,” Castiel says, wincing at the tight pull of the slashes on his back. He limps into the light, coming close to the fence, watching Dean closely as he sees Castiel’s damaged body for the first time. “I told you this,” he says, waving a hand between them, “Was going to bring me trouble, and you wouldn’t listen.”

There is a hiss as Dean takes a sharp breath. “Fucking hell, Cas,” he says. “What did those assholes do to you? Was it Gordon? Creedy? I’m going to fucking kill them.”

“Listen to me, Dean,” Castiel says, growing frustrated. “You didn’t care to do as I asked before, and this is what happened. I’m not your entertainment. I’m not here to serve you. Listen to what I’m asking, and stay the hell away from me.”

A small strangled noise escapes Dean’s lips but he does not speak. There is a strange fire burning in his eyes that makes Castiel’s skin prickle as he steps up close to the fence. He stands as tall as he can within the limits of his injuries, and looks Dean in the eye. He needs to go and not come back and he needs to know that Castiel is serious. “You have to leave me alone. Please go, Dean.” He says adding an exasperated, “Now,” when Dean does not react. It does nothing to help.

“I don’t want to lose this,” Dean says, “You, here, it’s the only time I feel normal in this fucked-up camp.” 

“You are a danger to me, Dean. Do you understand? Alistair will kill me if you don’t stop.”

“I’ll speak to Alistair. He can’t know what the others did to you. He’s a fair man, he’d never allow it.”

Castiel would laugh at the claim, if it was not so sad that Dean could be so doggedly blind. Instead Castiel feels sad that the world is not the way Dean wants it to be. “It was Alistair that did this to me,” Castiel says, speaking gently, trying to make Dean understand. He presses his fingers over Dean’s, a fleeting touch of comfort, warm and soft. There is a strange buzz in Castiel’s skin, it lingers like a phantom of sensation, after he pulls back.

“No,” Dean says, shaking his head. His mouth moves as if he wants to speak, but does not make a sound.

“I’m sorry, Dean.” Castiel does not know why he says it. Why should he be sorry? Alistair is a monster, Dean is a fool, and the officers are puppets to be used any way the commander wants. Castiel does not need to be sorry; yet he is. Dean is trying to hide it but Castiel can see his distress, and it hurts; aches as much as the marks scored into his skin. Castiel should have stopped coming here when Dean would not. He should have looked away when he found Dean watching him. He should have, but he did not, so perhaps there is something to be sorry for, after all.

“Come here, I want to see.” It is an order, and Castiel obeys. There is some relief in the familiarity of the regular prisoner-and-guard roles. Castiel can stop thinking; let himself sink back into the welcome blankness of the life he had before Dean Winchester arrived. Castiel presses close to the chain-links in the fence, as instructed, to let Dean examine the blood-stain blooms on his face.

Castiel lets his eyes drift shut. In the dark he can feel the movement of Dean’s fingers, pushed through the diamond spaces between the twisted wires of the fence; they brush hot lines along his jaw, his cheek, his chin, pushing gently to move his head into whatever position Dean wishes.

“Jesus Christ, Cas.” Dean’s voice is a whisper that Castiel feels, warm on his skin.

He hurts. Castiel’s body is a mess of pain and it will be for a long time yet. Knives, burns, fists and boots, have painted a vivid picture of his experience under Alistair’s care, formed from rough and startling strokes. Dean’s fingers trace it all, as if he is reading every word of the story, in the glide of his fingertips, soothing Castiel’s mottled skin. It is the softest touch Castiel has felt in all the years since the OSS came to his door.

Something breaks in his chest, making his heartbeat race as it pushes up, clogging his throat, choking him, stinging at the back of his eyes. Castiel gasps at the feeling, the awakening of something hidden and forgotten, but not yet dead. His life has been cold and hard, for so long, Castiel had forgotten what comfort, freely given, was like, and he needs it, he is in pain, he is afraid, and the blankness does not want him, it cannot sustain him any more.  

Castiel gives in to it; his careful indifference collapsing in upon itself, like a wall without foundations, brought down by a feather-light touch. A drop of water, salty and hot, spills from his eye and cuts a path down his cheek, until it is brushed away by the drag of Dean’s thumb along his jaw.

“Cas...” Dean’s voice sounds far away as Castiel concentrates on the movement of Dean’s hands. The way his fingers curl under Castiel’s chin, turning him where he wants, as pliable as a doll. Castiel goes with it and lets his head tilt back. He does not know what Dean is doing, and he does not really care. He feels drunk from the touch, and is too afraid to open his eyes and let Dean see the need, the desperate weakness in him.

The first delicate press of Dean’s lips to Castiel’s cheek is almost lost, it is so gossamer-light, more like the ephemeral memory of touch than the real thing. There is care in it, affection, and a quiet intimacy that makes Castiel’s breath catch. The second press is to Castiel’s jaw, where a wine-coloured imprint of Gordon’s boot runs down and disappears into dark stubble.

Dean’s hold tightens, sending out trembling pin-pricks of discomfort where his fingertips rest on tender skin. When the touch comes a third time, it feels somehow inevitable, that Dean’s mouth finds Castiel’s. It is a delicate slide of sensation, and it lights Castiel up from the inside, stealing his breath, his thoughts, his senses.

Castiel is tugged closer, as close as they can get with the fence still between them. He can feel the barrier digging in at the side of his mouth, across the bridge of his nose, and under his lips where the rusted wires cross and twine together, but it is a distant awareness, overwhelmed by the greater intensity of sensation concentrated at his mouth, as they meet again, and again, growing bolder every time.

He clutches desperately at the chain-links to keep himself standing, Dean’s hands covering his own as he holds on. There is a vague recognition that Dean is no longer holding him in place. Castiel is there because he wants these touches. He wants the heat of Dean’s body that pulls at him like a magnet, through the fence, and all he can do is hold on. He moves his lips carefully over Dean’s, feeling the shape of them, they way the plump texture gives under pressure.

But, it does not feel like passion, or lust, at least not in the way it is written about in books; the slow drag of skin-on-skin, the wet tip of a tongue at the line of Castiel’s mouth, it is need and it is longing and it is I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry this happened to you.

It ends as soft as it started, with a breath exhaled over Castiel’s mouth, a last fleeting brush of skin, and it is over.

 

 

“Dean...” Castiel says, reluctantly opening his eyes. Everything has changed in the minutes since he closed them, but nothing is different. Castiel still has to turn Dean away, perhaps now, more than ever.

Dean is staring at him in open-mouthed shock. “Fuck, I didn’t mean to do that,” he says quickly.

“It’s okay, Dean.”

“No. No, it’s really not,” Dean laughs nervously, and takes a step back. He glances down to where he is all but holding Castiel’s hand through the gaps in the fence, and he snatches his hand away, holding it up to his chest as if he has been burnt. “I don’t... I’m not...,” he stammers, before giving it up as a bad lot and cursing. “Shit, fuck, fucking hell.” Castiel watches him, unsure what is happening, as Dean turns around and walks away, before changing his mind, coming back to the fence. “I don’t know what that was.”

Fear and confusion cloud Dean’s face and he is looking to Castiel for answers. He has none to give. “It was nothing,” Castiel lies. “Don’t worry about it.” The heat that Dean sparked inside him dies a little, with each word.

Dean looks relieved. “I don’t like guys, Cas, not like that.” He looks at the floor, at the trees, up at the dimming sky, anywhere but at Castiel. “I don’t have a problem with it and I won’t tell anyone, but I’m not like that. I know you must miss Alfie but I’m sorry, Cas, I’m not like that.”

Castiel frowns in confusion. He opens his mouth, ready to say the same, that he does not like men that way either. He does not like any one that way. Whatever lies Dean heard about him and Alfie, are just that, prison gossip, nothing more. But he sees Dean’s agitation, the way he looks at Castiel as if he is some strange animal that might turn and bite, and he holds his tongue. He will let Dean think whatever he wants if it keeps him away, and so, he says nothing.

It grows cold with the sun dropped below the horizon, and he crosses his arms over his chest to keep it out. The noise from the yard is increasing with the prisoners returning from work, and Castiel knows he must not be seen with Dean. “I have to go,” he says into the long silence.

“You won’t tell anyone about this,” Dean waves a hand between them. His face is blanched and he looks ill. “Will you?”

“I won’t even tell anyone I’ve seen you.” Castiel says.

“Okay, that’s good.” Dean says. “Just to be clear, it won’t happen again.”

“No, it won’t,” Castiel replies, the words freezing on his tongue, “Since I won’t be seeing you anymore, Officer Winchester. I won’t end up back in the cells, not for you, not for anyone.” He tries to sound cool and distant, but even to Castiel’s own ears, it sounds just like the lie it is.

This time, Dean looks more relieved than disappointed at the reminder of their forced separation. “It’s probably better to be cautious,” he says, carefully avoiding looking Castiel in the eye.

Castiel walks away, but a pull from behind his ribs makes him stop and look back. “I’ve enjoyed our talks, Dean, and our time together,” he says, with a heavy heart. “I wish you well, Officer Winchester.” He leaves Dean behind him, swallowed up by the shadows of the failing light.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t watch Castiel go. He can’t. He stares at the grass pushing up around his black-booted feet as a confusion of thoughts crash about inside his head. There are no answers but there is one big bold question that keeps coming back and Dean can barely keep from screaming it: What the fuck was that?

He closes his eyes, but there is no safety in the black, only flashes of skin and heat, and the taste of Castiel’s mouth. Dean forces his eyes open, tries to ignore the shameful curl of excitement the memory sparks, low in his belly. He slumps against the wires of the fence, groaning in distress as shame over-rides every other feeling, turning the warmth in his stomach to acid until Dean is sure he is going to puke. He feels dirty, tainted by it, disgusted that he didn’t stop it.

Stray thoughts dart forward, drawing Dean’s attention; thank God his father isn’t alive to find out about it, the very idea fills him with cold dread. Dean can still remember the utter disgust on John’s face, the first time they saw two men holding hands in the high street of their town. As a teenager, Dean had watched with mild curiosity at the novelty of it, but John was furious, grabbing Dean by the shirt-collar and dragging him into the nearest shop, as if he was in direct and imminent danger.

“Why were you watching those fags, Dean?” John had hissed, in front of all the customers in the hardware store, making Dean’s cheeks burn.

“I wasn’t, I didn’t do anything, I don’t know...” he stammered.

“You stay away from people like that, they’re perverts, sick, and they’ll make you sick if they can. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” Dean mumbled, rubbing at the place on his shoulder where his father grabbed him.

One of the customers in the store decided to join the conversation. “Those people should stay in the cities, where people get up to all sorts, not hanging around in good neighbourhoods, around decent people, hard working families with kids to look out for.” The rumble of unanimous agreement finished the matter.

Later, Dean heard a rumour that the men had been run out of town, leaving their belongings and a trail of blood behind them. There was never any mention of it in the local papers, and all John had to say on the matter was, “Good, fucking faggots.”

Back in the present, Dean rubs the back of his hand vigorously across his mouth as if he can make the kiss disappear that way, but he can still feel Castiel on his tongue. A familiar tremor of fear runs through him; did his dad know about the wrongness in him? Did he see it all those years ago, in a gangly teenager on a sidewalk in Kansas? Is that why Dean could never make John proud? He scrabbles at his pouch of tobacco, desperate, not only for the calming effects of a smoke, but for the ashy flavour that smothers everything else. The first drag is a balm, spinning out through his body, easing some small part of the tension away so he can finally think.

In the distance he can hear the growl of engines as the trucks roll up to the gates. Dean needs to get back before he is missed. The last thing he wants right now is people asking questions. He’s been covering for old Montgomery today, taking watch with Bennet instead of working the processing plant. The change of schedule had given him the opportunity to come out here, on the pre-text of checking the perimeter, and he had been glad of it at the time. He had been worried and miserable, suspicious and snapping at everyone, since he talked with Benny, and the clearing was the only place that it stopped, where he felt quiet, a moment of peace, just like Castiel used to say. Now, all he needs is to be away from it, away from whatever sickness has taken hold of him. He pushes his way through the underbrush at the edge of the forest, sending squirrels skittering away up the trees, where they chatter angrily, birds taking to the wing overhead.

It does not take long to get back to the gate and the watch-tower. He climbs the steps quickly, ignoring the calls of the guards in the yard, just returned. At least up here there is only Bennet to deal with, he does not think he can cope with Gordon or Creedy or Roy right now. He still feels anger for what they did to Castiel, but there is also a creeping fear, sneaking its way up his spine and brushing cold fingers at the base of his neck; that somehow they will know, they will look at him and know that he let Castiel kiss him?

Now that he thinks about it, Dean realises that Gordon has made comments about Castiel being a faggot before. Did he know? Did all the guards know? Had they been laughing at him behind his back this whole time? “Fuck,” Dean says, under his breath.  

“What was that?” Bennet asks, sleepy-eyed in his usual seat by the big window.

“Nothing, just fucking hungry,” Dean covers.

“Go get a feed if you want, Winchester. I’m fine here ‘til the evening watch takes over.” Bennet stretches his legs out, props his heels on the table in front of him, and slumps even further down in his chair than before. There’s no way he can see the road or the gates from that position.

“If there’s something good on, I’ll put some aside for you,” Dean offers. Bennet offers him a thumbs-up in approval of the plan.

Most of the officers are already in the mess-hall, for which Dean is grateful, and he is able to sit himself in a quiet corner away from the others. He can hear Gordon’s booming laugh, and the devil on Dean’s shoulder whispers that they’re laughing at him. They all knew that Castiel was a fag didn’t they? Alistair had warned him but he hadn’t listened, so sure that he knew prisoner N-881 better than anyone else, that his gut instinct about Castiel being a good guy, had to be the right one.

He had been such a fucking idiot. He didn’t really know anything about Castiel, did he? He still didn’t know why the guy was here, he had just assumed he was a political, but he didn’t know that and Castiel had avoided it, repeatedly.

What else was he hiding? That he was fucking that Alfie kid? Just the thought of it makes Dean feel hot all over and sick to his stomach. He dismissed it as impossible when Alistair first hinted at it, but now it seems so obvious. It has been there, staring Dean in the face right from the first night when Castiel called him a murderer; the accusation makes so much more sense coming from a lover than a friend. Dean’s brain fills in the gaps for him, creating images of them together, how they must have kissed, how they must have touched, and it makes Dean’s blood boil. It feels like a betrayal, that Castiel hid this from him, and it burns.

Alistair’s warnings had sounded so hollow at the time, but now, as Dean digs over every conversation, each event that pushed him towards Castiel, he has to consider that the commander might have been right all along. Dean had acted to help the prisoners in general, and Castiel in particular; he had gone to Alistair about the prisoner’s rations, handed out broken tools from the kitchen, and worn clothes the officers did not want. All these things benefitted the prisoners, and Dean could not help wondering whether the ideas had really come from him, or if they had been planted there by Castiel.

“Hey, Winchester,” Gordon’s voice rings out over the burble of the other officers at rest. “How do you like your boy’s make-over? He looks good in blue, huh?” He turns back to his cronies, who are laughing loudly around mouthfuls of chewed up food.

Dean feels his face heating, blood pooling in his cheeks and down his neck. He keeps his eyes on his food, tries to concentrate on the taste of it and ignore the anger, the shame, and the multitude of other feelings he couldn’t name if he tried. “Yeah,” he says at last, “It’s great.” He swallows down a last bitter mouthful of food. He looks over at them, plasters on a grin so wide it couldn’t be mistaken for real by anyone who knows him. “I owe you one.” 

 

~*~

 

Summer in the far north is marked by the swarms of mosquitoes that fill every part of the forest, feasting on the blood of any animal they can find. The bites swell into ugly lumps that can easily turn to puss and infection, and the inmates are wary, staying covered up as much as possible, even when the sun is high, glaring down on them like an unblinking eye.

The guards make a game of it. The usual whippings for rule violations are swapped for a more archaic and grotesque type of punishment. The guilty party is stripped, and tied to the whipping post in the yard, or any available surface, and left there naked for the insects to feed on. The first time Dean witnessed it, he was disgusted; flies like a second skin, writhing all over the man’s body, in his hair, in his ears, all over his genitals, more arriving as soon as others had their fill. By the time night rolled around, the prisoner’s face was swollen beyond recognition, white from blood loss, and unable to do anything but whimper pathetically, as his hut-mates carried him away. Since then Dean has avoided looking whenever he hears there is a new body strung up.   

It has been weeks since the incident behind the woodshed and Dean is still uncomfortable with what happened, still unable to explain the exact sequence of events. He tries not to think about it, sinking back into the regular rhythm of his life as a guard. His meetings with Alistair, who is always ready and waiting with solid words of advice and a generous two-fingers of scotch, have increased and is starting to pay off, as Dean is given more responsibility for the day-to-day running of the camp.   

All thoughts of Castiel are crammed into a dark place in Dean’s mind that he tries to avoid. It doesn’t always work. Dean still sees Castiel in the yard when he’s on duty, and out at the saw-mill—which is back to running daily now the extensive repairs have been completed—but Dean sticks to a different part of the work-site as much as possible. It’s easier once he is given control over the guard’s rota.   

He seems more tired these days, and there is a nagging feeling, scratching at the back of his consciousness, as if he has forgotten something. Dean checks over his possessions, runs lists of his tasks and assignments, over and over, in his head, but can’t put his finger on what it is. He goes through the motions on autopilot, so much so, he often finds himself in places he did not intend to be. More than once over the last month, Dean has wandered out to the clearing behind the woodshed, without the faintest idea of why. Castiel, of course, isn’t there, and Dean is never completely sure if he’s happy or sad about it. He tells himself he doesn’t care anyway; so what if Castiel has some new out-of-the-way place to skulk about in, maybe he’s got himself a new idiot guard to mess with, too. It’s not Dean’s problem anymore.

The days roll on under the overbearing sun. The temperatures are nowhere near anything Dean was used to back in Kansas, or down in the southern states. It’s the contrast with the long bitter winter they had grown used to, that makes it feel so uncomfortable. The guards complain, and spend as much time as possible under the boughs of the forest where it’s cooler. Dean finds it disturbingly quiet under the canopy these days, when even nature is too heat-drugged to take a breath or make a sound.

The prisoners have no escape, trapped in the open of the processing plant or slowly cooking in the exercise yard, where the pale concrete stores up heat during the day and releases it during the night, when the men are trapped in their sleep-huts. The frail drop like flies; nearly a fifth of the most recent shipment of prisoners perished within two weeks, and in these conditions, the ones that pass during the night can easily stink the place up by morning, the cloying scent of sickness and decay permeating the entire camp. It’s impossible to escape, even up in the guards’ quarters.

Dean lies awake on top of his bunk, stripped down to his boxers, listening to the clink and whirr of an electric fan that pushes a trickle of muggy air over his face. Roy had made himself the most popular guard in town when he arrived on the supply train with three brand new Super Blue-Line fans. Sleep had come a little easier since then, but Dean still struggles to get a full six hours. His mind plays tricks on him in the dark. If it isn’t flames and screaming, it’s the seductive slip of lips, the touch of rough hands and sharp angles he has never known, that make him wake sweating and gasping, feeling depraved and wrong.

Lights flicker over the wall at the foot of his bunk, living patterns twisting together in yellow and orange; it reminds him of fireworks and the fourth of July. Dean watches as if he is dreaming, his sleep-addled mind piecing the clues together far too slowly. He glances along the wall, finds more of the patterns, looks at the far side of the room, and realises the light in coming from a small window that overlooks the yard and the east-side huts. There is noise, hard to hear over the creaking oscillations of the fan, but definitely there, like something popping or the sound of crumpling paper. Dean sits up, climbs carefully from his bunk, wary of disturbing his sleeping room-mates. Before he gets to the window there is a loud cracking noise, followed by panicked shouting.

Dean goes straight from sleepy-calm to red-alert, at the shouted word: fire. His mouth goes dry, his breathing heavy, but he refuses to give in to it. Not this time. He grabs his clothes from where he’d left them over the end of his bed, and starts to pull them on, stumbling towards the door just as it bangs open, handle smashing a hole in the wall.

“Up, up, and out of bed, Officers! Hut 19 is burning,” Gordon shouts, making his way down the corridor, slamming each door open as he goes, for extra effect. There is a wild look in Gordon’s eye and Dean wonders if he might be drunk. “There’ll be a fucking riot down there if you don’t get your lazy asses out of here, right now. Guns on show,” he orders, “Or some fucking half-brained idiot is going to try and take advantage of this.”

There is commotion all around as Dean goes to his locker to retrieve his gun. The guards are an unorganised mess, throwing on their uniforms, buttons misaligned, hopping out the door on one foot as they try to pull their boots on, in a rush to get down the stairs and out into the night. Such uncoordinated panic would never pass muster in the army proper. As he marches through the building, Dean makes a mental note to suggest further training the next time he meets with Alistair.

Dean falters and stops in the doorway of the administration building; the fire is so much worse than he imagined. The huts are not large, but there are roughly two-hundred men packed into each when the camp is at full capacity, and Hut 19 is completely engulfed, there doesn’t seem to be any part of it untouched. The shouting, the screams, they are coming from inside the hut. The bar across the door is still visible through the fire; the inmates are trapped, burning alive. Dean’s breath comes in punched out gasps, as the familiar fear pulses through him, but he forces himself forward. He has beaten this before and he can do it again.

Gordon sidles up beside him. “Took your time, Winchester,” he says, throwing a casual arm over Dean’s shoulders and holding him back. “I like it,” he grins, “Let them burn right? They can’t cause us any more trouble once they’re toast.”

“What are you talking about,” Dean says, trying to shake Gordon’s arm away. “They need help.” Gordon is grinning horribly, and beyond him Dean can see the other guards standing in loose formation, blocking the route to the gate, and holding back inmates from other huts further back in the yard that have arrived to join the rescue effort.

“Who let the animals from 7 and 9 out of their cages?” Gordon shouts. “Hold them back, this is none of their business.”

Only prisoners from the closest huts are actively trying to fight the fire. There is a line of men between the nearest water pump and Hut 19. Water slops from cooking pans and piss buckets alike, as they are passed along from man to man in an attempt to douse the flames. Here and there a few brave souls try to beat out the flames with moth eaten blankets, with little effect. Some of the prisoners trapped behind the line of guards shout advice, or instruction, while others just watch in helpless terror. Flames reflect in hundreds of pairs of wide-wet eyes, staring from faces that wear expressions ranging from frustrated anger, to fear, to thank God, thank-fucking-God it wasn’t me.

“The men trapped, for fuck’s sake, why aren’t we helping?” Dean says, still restrained by the arm across his back.

“They have it under control,” Gordon replies, with a shrug. “They’re only prisoners, Winchester, relax.” He lifts a hand and ruffles Dean’s hair and Dean has to stamp down on the violent urge to smack it away then punch him in the face. “It’s these guys behind us we need to worry about.” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder toward the growing crowd of prisoners. Some are gathered into small groups, growing louder and more agitated. “They always get out when something like this happens. They’re like dogs, a thing like this can set them off and they’ll snap at anyone who gets in the way.” He steps away finally. “You see anyone getting out of line, you put ‘em down, Winchester. Got it?”

Dean nods. “Sure, I got it,” he says, turning away from Gordon’s smug face, and the crowd pushing up behind them.

Some of the guards are shouting at the crowd, “Get back,” “Go back to your huts,” “Move or I’ll shoot.” Dean tunes it all out, his attention caught on the disaster unfolding in front of him. One of the inmates has a hatchet—clearly stolen from the one of the work-sites, someone will be punished for that—and is trying cut his way through the side of the hut where the flames have been pushed back, making an escape route for the dying.

The door bulges from the inside, and Dean can’t understand why, until one desperate prisoner bursts through the burning timbers. Already smoke weakened, he isn’t fast enough, and he gets caught on the jagged spikes where the wood has shattered. By the time he twists free his clothes are alight and he falls to the ground in a ball of flame. His fingers scrabble on the sun-baked earth as he drags his body away from the inferno, until he stops, screams dissolving into gurgles as the fire melts his throat.

Two prisoners leave the line, and dash towards him, one upending a large bucket over the blackened body, the other throwing a blanket over him to smother the last of the flames. None of this will save him, his skin is blackened and split into red gashes down one side, but no one wants to watch a man burn to death. One of the men looks up, shouts at the guards nearby, but it’s useless, the guards have turned their backs on the suffering of the prisoners, and they won’t be moved.

The man hangs his dark-haired head, and speaks words to the dying man that Dean can’t hear over the noise of the fire and wood being hewn from the side of the hut. He sits back on his heels and looks straight at Dean, his mouth shaping around a single word: please. Dean wants to turn away, to pretend he can’t see him, to pretend he hasn’t been watching Castiel since he spotted him among the hectic crowd.

He can’t. It’s the first time Castiel has spared Dean so much as a glance since the incident, and the connection between them, whatever it was that pulled Dean back to their clearing, again and again, is still there. Dean goes without a second thought. He doesn‘t hear Gordon yelling, “Winchester, what the fuck are you doing?” The words fall to the ground behind him, “Get back on the fucking line, asshole,” and the heels of Deans boots cover them in grey ashes.

Castiel is crouched over the dying man, looking up at Dean, soot smudged over his brow and rubbed in a line down the side of his face like camouflage paint. The building behind Castiel starts to pop and hiss, as something flammable catches and explodes. Dean feels dizzy, and between one blink and the next he is somewhere else, in the rubble, fire lighting up the skyline, where the bombers have softened the target. Bullets fly past him, close enough to hear them rushing past his ears, too close. The Government men aren’t supposed to be here; the scouts said this area was clear. Dean blinks again. “Fall back, Winchester! We’re under attack.” There are men trapped—men he knows—he has to help them. “I said fall back, Winchester! Now!”

“Shoot him.” Castiel is shouting. When Dean doesn’t react, Castiel reaches out to touch his arm, an innocent gesture to get his attention where it needs to be. Dean dodges away from it, worried about what it might do to him, terrified he won’t want it to stop.

“You want me to kill this man?” Dean hisses, horrified. The man’s eyelids are fused shut and a dreadful rasping is coming from the hole that used to be his mouth. “I can’t. Whoever the fuck you think I am, Cas, you’re wrong. I can’t do it.”

Castiel is angry, his eyes fierce, resolute. “He’s in pain, and he’s going to die slowly, Dean. He’s suffering, and you can make it stop.”

Gordon’s words ring in Dean’s head like an omen. “They’re like dogs... you put ‘em down, Winchester.” He would put a bullet in an animal, if he found it like this.

“Dean!” Castiel says urgently. His hands are clenched into fists where they rest on his knees. “There’s no time, just do it.”

Dean lifts the gun. He has no memory of taking it from the holster at his side. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, and in an instant he’s back there, again; red brick-dust in his mouth from where the wall came down, a sharp pain in his thigh, he’s shot, they fucking shot him, those sons-of-bitches. He looks up and sees the fire. Incendiaries, those assholes are using incendiaries. It’s above him but the roof will burn through. It will collapse, and when it does, he is dead.

The crack of gunfire shocks everyone into a moment of silence. Dean feels eyes on him from every direction, prisoners and guards, both wary, both staring at Dean as he lowers the gun. The charred man is still now, a single shot to the head, clean and efficient. Dean blinks helplessly at Castiel. He does not know what to do.  

“Thank you, Dean,” Castiel says. There is a fleeting grip on Dean’s forearm, fingers pressing in gratitude, and then he is gone, disappeared somewhere among the inmates trying to pull the wall of the hut apart, with just their bare hands and a prayer.

“Winchester, what the fuck are you doing? Get back over here, right now!” Gordon’s shout breaks through Dean’s stupor. For once, it’s a welcome distraction, and he follows a string of curses, laid down like breadcrumbs, back to the human barrier where he lines up next to the other guards. Dean turns his back on the fire, and the men fighting for their lives, and those trying to save them, and watches the growing crowd of prisoners.

This is where Dean belongs. This is where things make sense. Follow orders, get the job done, move on to the next one. If there’s time, grab a drink, grab ten, grab a friendly woman if you can—one who won’t mind when you leave—and wait for the next order to come. He is only assigned to the prison for another year and a half, he just needs to keep his head down and wait it out, he knows that once he is back home, in the land of the living, he’ll forget all about the things that happened at the edge of the world.    

The fire is fierce on the back of Dean’s neck but he refuses to turn around. A ripple of a cheer moves through the crowd, and Dean can hear men calling out their success behind him, but the guards hush them quickly, raising their guns and pointing them at the nearest inmates. Gordon breaks away from the others, drawing Dean’s attention, as he pushes the prisoners out of his way, kicking and spitting on them, utterly unafraid as he makes his way back to the administration block. Alistair is there, on the steps, leaning casually on the railing, as if he is watching a show. His eyes bulge and reflect the orange and red of the fire, and he has his sharp teeth sunk into his bottom lip, if anything, he looks excited. It’s so disturbing Dean has to look away.

 

~*~

 

“Report,” Alistair demands. The guards are variously trying not to yawn, rubbing the sleep from their eyes, or blinking away the stinging-bright light of morning that floods Alistair’s office, early in the day. It’s barely three hours since they fastened the last door in the yard and dragged their sleep-heavy feet up the stairs.  

Walt, over-eager to please since he got back from recuperating in Anchorage—there had been talk among the guards on the last transport that he had to come back or face being thrown into the town cells for being drunk and disorderly—snaps to attention, saluting ostentatiously as he steps forward.

“Hut 19 is destroyed. Forty-three men dead, another thirty or so injured, and most of the rest complaining about pain in their chests and breathing problems, I’m pretty sure they’ll mostly recover. One firearm was discharged, by officer Winchester.” Walt and a few of the others look at Dean, and someone at the back of the room sniggers. “Three agitators were put in solitary to cool off, but there was no real trouble.”

“And do we know what started the fire?” Alistair asks. He leans back in his chair, running his fingernail through the pale stubble at the hinge of his jaw. It’s a good sign. The commander isn’t angry about the fire, and he won’t be looking to place blame for the loss of the hut, or the men.

“Most likely scenario, some idiot was smoking in bed, fell asleep, started the fire. It’s dry as a grandma’s cunt out there, place went up like kindling, there was never any stopping it.”

Alistair’s tongue clicks against the roof of his mouth. “I don’t think we’ll ever know where they get these things,” he says. “We’ll have to do a full search one day soon.” He smiles at the guards, an easy stretch at the corners of his mouth. “You all did well last night. I’ll get Kevin to look at the stores and see if we can’t find a little extra for you this evening.” There are murmurs of thanks in response. Someone stage-whispers, “Beer,” and Alistair laughs. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says, indulging them, before sending them out to resume their regular duties on a poor night’s sleep.

Dean follows Creedy’s stooped shoulders to the door. “Officer Winchester, if you have a moment,” Alistair calls. Creedy glances back, leaving Dean with an image of his round, smirking face, before he shuts the door in his face. Dean can hear him guffawing all the way down the corridor, stomping along quickly on his stumpy little legs; what an asshole.

Dean faces Alistair, with a smile he does not feel fixed on his face, “Sir?”

“It’s proper procedure to discuss any weapons discharge at the camp, don’t look so worried, you’re not in trouble, Dean,” Alistair says.

“Glad to hear it, Sir.” Alistair does not ask him to sit and so he stays where he is, trying not to fidget. Hopefully it will be a short interview and he can escape to his work and try not to think about the previous night.

“I saw what happened, Dean,” Alistair begins, his face falling into solemn lines. “I can’t say I approve. To end a dying man with a bullet,” he says, raising two fingers to his forehead. “Is, after all, a waste of resources. I do however understand the sentiment behind it. What I can’t understand, is why you would do it at the request of a prisoner?”

Dean nearly forgets to speak with all the noise from cursing at himself. Fuck, fuck, fuck; he hoped that part had gone unnoticed, but he never did have much luck.  “It was my call, Sir, no one else’s.”

“Is that really true, Dean? Think about it. It might seem a small thing, nothing to worry about, but you left your post, you drew your gun without go ahead and it wasn’t in self-defence, you killed a prisoner who had not violated the rules of the camp in any way; this could be considered murder. These are all punishable offences.”Alistair sighs, disappointment written all over his face. “You are a good soldier, it’s not like you to go against your orders. Has it ever happened before?”

“No, Sir, never.” It’s true, more or less.

“So why now?” Alistair’s eyes are sharp and Dean feels pinned by them, too exposed.

“I don’t know, Sir.”

“Are you sure about that, Dean?”

Dean hesitates, caught off guard by Alistair’s persistence. “Yes.”

Alistair leans over his desk, ignoring all the black scrawled papers he disturbs in the process. “I think you do,” he says, quietly. “You’ve not quite been yourself recently have you, Dean?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Sir,” Dean says, but it’s a lie. He does feel strange, confused even, horrified at some of the things that have been creeping into his mind at night, when he’s tired and not completely in control.

“You must have at least suspected what is happening?” Alistair asks, but Dean doesn’t understand; he feels like he is trying to solve a puzzle with only half the pieces. “I warned you about prisoner N-881 once before, previously known as Castiel Novak. I hoped to reach you in time to stop it, but with this latest incident...” Alistair is all sympathy, and paternal concern. “Please sit, Dean, this isn’t going to be easy for you to hear.”

Dean sits, sinking into the chair with relief as the room starts to lurch. He feels strange, like there isn’t enough air in his body, his vision going blurry at the edges. “I barely know him,” Dean protests. “I’ve been keeping away from Cas... prisoner N-881, I mean.” He makes a note to punch himself later on for that slip-up. “And the rest of the prisoners, like you said.”

“Clearly not far enough.” A wry smile twitches at the edge of Alistair’s mouth, but it’s soon chased away by something much darker. Before he speaks, he folds his bone-thin hands carefully on the grand desk in front of him. It brings to mind Dean’s old high-school principle, a grey-wisp of a man, always rigid, and always severe when he sat in judgement on Dean’s wayward behaviour. “I don’t know how far this goes, Dean, but the man gave you an order and you followed it, when you should have been following mine. Surely you can see how this could be dangerous?”

“That’s not what happened.” Dean knows it’s futile to argue. Hell, he has his own doubts about how things played out that night, but he is no pushover. He isn’t weak-minded, and he is sure he could not be manipulated so easily. He gropes around blindly for an alternative explanation, anything at all. “It was the fire. Since the war I’ve had a difficult time around fires, it must have been that, the stress maybe.”

“It’s possible it might be a factor, I suppose.” Alistair says. “But, I like to think that we have become friends since you arrived, and I can’t lie to a friend.” A dark look rolls across Alistair’s face. “I’ve watched this particular prisoner scheming for years, Dean. You’re not the first guard to fall under his influence.”

It can’t be true. Whatever else Castiel is, Dean would put money on him being honest—sometimes to a faulty degree, giving blunt opinions freely and without apology. “I don’t think we’re talking about the same prisoner?”

“Oh we definitely are, Dean. I know him quite well,” Alistair says, and something in his voice sends shivers chasing down Dean’s spine. “Tell me, Dean, has Castiel ever tricked you into doing something that you knew, deep down in your soul, you would never do willingly? Something that seemed like your own idea even though it was something you’ve never thought about before.”

Purple bruises, red cuts, blue eyes fluttering closed, and the slide of soft wide lips, run through his mind, scattering like rats running from the light. Cold dread circles in Dean’s veins, and he has to wonder if, somehow, Alistair knows about the kiss. It’s impossible, there were no witnesses, and Dean sure as hell never spoke about it, so that only leaves—oh. Has Castiel talked? Is everyone pointing at him, laughing behind his back and calling him a fag? “I’m not sure,” he says. “There might be something.”

Alistair presses his lips together while he thinks, making a quiet humming sound, while he examines Dean, as if he is a particularly disgusting specimen under a microscope. “I’m not going to embarrass you, Dean, by asking you to go into detail. From what I already know of this prisoner, I think I can guess what kind of thing he might have persuaded you to do.” Dean’s face burns hot with shame at the insinuation, and more, at the fact that he can’t deny it. “It’s a plan to get you in his power, under his spell. If I believed in the supernatural, I might think there was something more to him than is apparent, some dark energy that gives him influence.”

This conversation has gone far enough. Dean needs to get out and take a breath in the open air. “No,” he says, coming back to himself. He refuses to let his commander see him as a tainted thing, easily led, easily corrupted. “There is nothing between me and this prisoner. I was confused by the fire, that’s all.”

“This right here, the way you’re defending him, its proof enough that I’m right.” Alistair is a solid wall of confidence, unmoveable, without a single crack or fault that could tear him down.  Argument is useless, and Dean knows it. He sinks into the chair, miserable in defeat. “Dean,” Alistair says his name softly, drawing him back into the conversation. “I don’t blame you for this. Others have fallen for schemes like this before, and it will no doubt happen again. What you have to remember, is that he is lying to you, he does not care about you, only what you can do for him and his friends.”

“He doesn’t have any friends,” Dean mutters.

Alistair smirks, an uncanny glint igniting at the back of his eye. “Remember what I have told you, and you will have the upper hand.”

“What do you want me to do,” Dean asks.

“Watch and wait, for now. We’ll talk about it again later. I’m sure that together we’ll be able to come up with a punishment that fits his crimes.”

“Can I go, now?”

“Of course,” Alistair says. He sounds a little disappointed, though Dean has no idea why. “You’re not a prisoner here, my dear boy.” As Dean heads to the door, Alistair gives him one last piece of advice. “Be careful, Dean, and stay away from N-881, things have gone far enough already.”

 

~*~

 

The day at the lumber-yard is easy in comparison to the drama of the night before, not to mention the disturbing conversation with Alistair. They lost a lot of men in Hut 19, and even though the remaining workers scurry about like ants, they won’t make their quotas this week, or the next. There will be trouble later, when they have their rations cut, but for now they are too busy struggling on to be much of a bother. The guards hang around under the shade of the tree-line, talking shit and smoking, sparing a cruel word for any prisoner that wanders too close.

It gives Dean too much time to think. He is by turns ashamed and horrified about the things Alistair told him, and about the things Alistair seems to know. A stubborn part of Dean refuses to believe it, insists that he go with his gut and trust that Castiel is innocent. All the talk of influence and manipulation, it sounds like make-believe, a story to tell a child. Though there is something strange about Castiel, his quiet and stillness does feel unearthly in a way. It draws you in, gets under your skin until it drives you mad, like an itch you can’t reach to scratch. Objectively though, there are some things that don’t add up; why did Castiel continue to visit the clearing at all, he didn’t have to; why did he always direct their conversations to Dean’s life, his family, his many losses, he still knew very little about Castiel’s life before the camp; why did he hide his relationship with Alfie; why was it always Dean he turned to at the moment of crisis, and why did Dean always agree; why did Castiel kiss him?

It’s a relief that the subject of Dean’s agitated thoughts is not working at the saw-mill today. The prisoners from Hut 17 were requisitioned to clear the smouldering remains from the camp. Dean realises the order must have come directly from Alistair and he is torn between being grateful for the favour, and humiliated that his commander should think it necessary—as if he is some girl swooning at the first handsome man that comes along.

Back at camp, Dean does his best to ignore the men in the exercise-yard, worried he’ll find smirks and knowing looks on their grubby faces. He goes straight to the mess-hall. Alistair is, as always, as good as his word and there are cool bottles of beer lined up on a table by the cook’s hatch, waiting for the guards to roll in and collect them. That day’s meal is one of the best Dean’s had since he arrived. The guards are full of joy and gratitude at the commander’s gesture, and every few minutes, someone stands to raise a toast to Alistair and the endless generosity of the Collective. No one cares to remember that their reward was carried on the back of a tragedy. While the prisoners care for the wounded and bury the dead, the guards joke, raise their bottles in thanks, and tell heated stories about the women waiting to warm their beds back home.

In the last gasp of the day, Dean braves the exercise-yard. The ruins of Hut 19 have long since stopped smouldering and the black-bones and bodies have been moved. There isn’t much left of the barracks. Once the surviving prisoners were rescued, the building had been abandoned, left to burn itself out.

Charred stumps stick out of the ground where the walls would have been. With the sun dipped behind the mountains in the west and the light fading to grey, they look like the bones of some great sea-monster, washed up on strange shores. Scorch marks flare-out in strange patterns across the parched ground, painting a dark silhouette of the lost building. The barred door, the bolt that trapped the men inside, is almost completely gone; the heavy bar itself is half crumbled to ash, a couple of half melted nails still clinging to the ruined carcass.

The sight of it all makes his stomach turn. He has to push down hard on memories that creep along the edges of his mind, another fire, another house, a home that was lost many years ago. None of that matters now. Dean takes a breath, tastes the cinders in the air, and steps over the threshold. He finds himself in what would have been the centre of the hut. Smoke has stained everything, the whole place black with it, though the central gangway between the bunks has somehow managed to stay relatively clear. There are even a few bunks still vaguely intact right in the middle, sheets singed and thick with dirt but still recognisable, still standing. There are other odds and ends scattered on the floor around his feet, a glass to his right, melted by the heat, but made solid again once the fire had died. The pool of its liquid shape runs to the side, towards the most intense part of the fire. It’s a strange sight and something about it bothers him.

Dean is still standing there frowning in the growing darkness when Kevin arrives a few minutes later. “Alistair wants you to meet him at the south stairwell near the medical bay,” Kevin chatters at him. The kid is nervous, his big dark eyes darting away whenever Dean looks at him. “Right now.”

“Is there something wrong?” Dean asks, making his way out of the ruins. He has to pick each step carefully, negotiating the debris.

“No, no, not that I know of.” Kevin gives a timid smile but still will not meet his eyes. It makes Dean uneasy. Kevin is an odd kid, one of the most nervous prisoners in the entire camp, though he can usually make eye contact.

The lights are off in the stairwell. It’s not pitch black, but daylight is fading fast, the dark blue sky visible through the windows at each turn of the staircase as it twists up through the building. The glow of a light from above suggests that Alistair is waiting for him in the medical room. Dean does not know whether he should be worried. The last time he was in the medical bay with Alistair he was being pulled up for giving the officer’s medical supplies to the prisoners. The thought causes a twinge of regret; it was Castiel’s idea, he thinks, an example of the influence Alistair’s been warning me about

 Dean hurries on, his path charted by the clink of his boots on the metal steps. At the last turn he sees something out of the corner of his eye, through the window, in the deep shadow at the corner of the administration building, an area of the camp that is out of bounds and hidden from the inmates in the yard. It’s late, the long summer days belying the hour. Only a prisoner with special permission should be out of their barracks. The rest will be getting ready to sweat through another humid and stinking night.

A security light, flickering erratically from a loose connection somewhere in its wiring, sheds just enough light for Dean to make sense of the scene. Gordon is standing close to the wall. Dean recognises him by the arrogant upward tilt of his head even though the guard has his back to the window. There is a man on his knees on the ground in front of him, and Dean knows, instantly, who it is, the aching dragging feeling in his chest a better confirmation than anything he can see.

Dean is frozen, as if all the heat of the day has been sucked from the air, all at once. He shivers from the ice in his veins, and waits, for what feels like endless minutes, for his heart to start beating again. He does not need to see Castiel’s face, he does not want to, but Dean is treated to the sight anyway when Gordon moves to put his hands on his belt and starts to unbuckle it. The pulsing light drips over Castiel as he looks up at Gordon standing over him, his expression is neither eager nor disgusted, but filled with bored resignation—as if this happens every day, as if it’s just another side to the drudgery of the labour-camp. Gordon reaches out and grabs a fistful of Castiel’s dark hair, where it grows long on top, and pulls him forward.

Dean pushes away from the window, horrified, stumbling back until the handrail on the inside turn of the stairs connects with his back sending a sharp arrow of pain up his spine. The ice inside him starts to melt, giving way to the heat of anger and disgust. Dean’s breath comes in rapid gasps and he has to swallow against the acid taste of bile in his throat.

“Disgusting isn’t it.”

 

 

Dean startles at the disembodied voice. The words are hard, and spoken with a vicious bite to them. They bounce between the white-painted walls of the stairwell until they fall to the ground, fading away to nothing. For a moment, all Dean can hear is the thrum of agitated blood as it rushes past his ears.

“I’m sorry I had to show you this, Dean,” Alistair appears at the top if the stairs. “But, I feared the prisoner’s hold on you was too strong, that if you didn’t see it for yourself you would go on doubting my concern; go on putting yourself in danger, and I couldn’t bear to see you degraded like that.” Alistair’s face is a pale oval looming from the shadows, like a ghost... a Ghost.

“Gordon doesn’t even know his name,” Dean chokes. He doesn’t even know why that seems important, or why it sticks in his craw.

“He doesn’t need to know his name,” Alistair says. “The really clever prisoners, the schemers, they have perfected the art of reading people. They draw you in and learn what it is you want, what you need, and they give you just enough of it to hook you. Once that happens it’s too late, they have you in their power.”

Dean stares at Alistair as if he is an anchor that can keep him from moving. Do not turn around, do not look out the window, you don’t want to know what is happening. He doesn’t need to see it anyway; the image is burned onto his brain, flashing in the dark when he closes his eyes to steady himself. A blinding-white rage prickles Dean’s skin. It ripples all over him, flooding into his arms, his hands, his fingers, until they are curling into fists. He wants to tear Gordon to pieces and then repeat the process on Castiel. The urge is so strong it leaves him shaking.

There are cool firm hands on Dean’s shoulders, holding him still. He opens his eyes and finds Alistair with him. He is embarrassed but he is grateful; Alistair has always done his best for Dean. “Listen to me,” he says now. “What this N-881 has done is not your fault. It wasn’t Gordon’s either, but he is weak where you are strong.” He pulls Dean into a rough kind of hug, pats him on the back a few times, and Dean doesn’t even care how inappropriate it is, he needs the approval—just like he needed from his father, but never got. “Come on, there’s something in the medical bay that will help.”

Dean follows him up the stairs. The room is bright with a new bulb buzzing overhead. Alistair guides him to sit on the edge of the bed while he unlocks the medical-supply cabinet. Dean notes, in a detached way, that it had been repaired since he busted it open earlier in the year. Alistair makes a satisfied noise as he finds what he was looking for among the bottles, and packets, and rolls of bandage. Dean can’t see what he has found, but Alistair turns with two chalky-white pills resting in the palm of his hand.

Dean doesn’t ask what it is. If it will take away the nasty ache in his chest and strip the nagging image from his brain, he will happily go along with it. He trusts Alistair, now more than ever, since his warnings about Castiel proved correct. Dean has been a fucking fool. It only takes a few minutes for Dean’s heart to stop trying to beat him up, from the inside out. A comfortable and familiar fog fills up his head and stops his mind from racing, from performing a post-mortem on all the stupid shit he told Castiel, the way he has made himself shamefully weak. It feels a lot like being drunk.

“Feel better?” Alistair asks.

“I do,” he says, trying to get words out of a mouth that feels like it’s full of cotton balls. “Thanks.”

“And did I do the right thing?” Alistair asks, carefully. “I knew that showing you Novak’s true face would be unpleasant for you”

“I understand,” he says. “It was for the best.” He is not entirely sure he means it, but he is distracted by the shadow sliding in along the edge of his vision. His eyelids go heavy and start to drop.

“Good, good,” Alistair says. His voice is a welcome point of warmth in the clinically too-bright room. “Now what are we going to do about it? This prisoner has trifled with my officers for too long. I want him stopped. He needs to be punished, and I think it’s fitting that you, Dean, be the one to do it.”

Alistair is right. Alistair has always been right, Dean thinks. Dean is no fucking pillow-biter. The fag-thoughts that torment him at night were forced on him by Castiel. The prisoner should pay for messing with Dean’s head like that. He shuts his eyes, imagines closing his hands around Castiel’s throat and choking the life from him, turning the soft swell of his mouth blue, or catching him in the dark with a quick, sharp, crack of the neck; put out the light, then put out the light.

“Yes,” Dean says at last, talking slowly. “Yes, I’ll do it. If Gordon is too far gone to help himself, it should be me.” He turns to Alistair and for a moment the commander’s face is fractured and multiplied, like the view from an insect’s eye. The drugs are doing their job. He feels calm, collected, and willing to do whatever Alistair asks to make the situation right, to remove the stain of Castiel’s corruption. “What do you want me to do?”

“He’s been playing with you for a while, Dean, hasn’t he?” Dean nods an agreement. It feels so easy to be honest now. “I’ll leave the exact details up to you,” Alistair says, and Dean feels a burst of happiness that the commander still trusts his judgement enough to let him come up with his own plan. “Getting it all out of your system would probably be cathartic for you,” Alistair muses.

“Do I kill him?” Yesterday it would have been unthinkable. A few hours ago it would have made Dean ill to consider it. But, with a pleasant sleepy buzz in his body, and a mentor at his side who cares about his well-being—Alistair might just be the first person to really care, since Dean’s mother died—it seems like an obvious solution. Alistair smiles and Dean feels a sluggish flicker of joy that he has pleased him.

“Death is good, but it’s quick,” Alistair says, smoothly. “I think such disgusting creatures deserve a taste of their own medicine before they are released into the afterlife. He spreads corruption, and tried to drag you into sin. Don’t you think you should get some payback for that?”

It all makes so much sense. He doesn’t think anyone, not even his father, could advise him better than the commander. “What should I do?” Dean asks. His voice sounds strange and he can’t help smiling at it as he looks up, blearily, at the cracks in the ceiling. He does not remember slumping back against the wall but it’s nice to feel so relaxed for a change.

A shadow falls over him and Dean looks up into Alistair’s face. He is still wearing a benevolent smile, and Dean is ready, eager even, to hear the answer to his problems, how he can put all the crap with Castiel behind him. “Kill him if you want to, Dean, but first you can take the thing he has been taunting you with, take it from him with violence. That is how you punish him, and that is how you work through the perversion and recover.”

Something at the back of Dean’s mind cries out for attention, but it’s a distant and muffled thing, easy to ignore with Alistair’s support and encouragement. “I don’t get it. Cas... the prisoner wasn’t going to beat me up,” Dean snorts. “I don’t think he could if he tried.”

“Exactly,” Alistair says, raising a finger to point at Dean’s chest. “He’s no match for you, and that will make it so much easier for you to do what you must.”

Dean frowns and it feels strange on his face. He can’t seem to grasp what Alistair is telling him. “He wasn’t trying to hurt me; he was trying to turn me into a fag.”

“Yes, he was,” Alistair agrees. “And this is why you should fuck him, and then kill him.” He says it with a shrug. “Or the other way around, if you prefer,” he adds with a small quirk of his thin lips. “I have faith in you, Dean. I’ve been waiting a long time for someone like you, and I know you won’t let me down again.”

Chapter Text

It is a small movement, a flicker in the window, a deeper shadow moving in the dark, and Castiel feels the slow burn of shame. He knows what Dean must see, what the distasteful sham is meant to look like. It is a vile subterfuge, but a necessary one. After this, there will be no chance that Dean will ever seek him out again. Not that Castiel agreed to the horrid performance willingly; choice is a rare commodity in the labour-camp. It exists only for those with power, whether it comes from the law, the gun, or the physical strength to impose your will upon another.

The floor is hard under Castiel’s knees, dusty from the dry summer days, and sharp little stones press holes into his kneecaps.

“Time for the show then,” Gordon grumbles as he also becomes aware of the arrival of their intended audience. He fumbles awkwardly with the silver buckle on his belt, scowling in distaste. Gordon maybe volatile and malicious, but he has never shown any kind of sexual interest in the inmates, and from the sickened look on his face, Castiel can tell he has no intention of starting now. It is something of a relief. Despite Alistair’s disgust, and a series of increasingly strict rules against sexual contact between any of the men, prisoner and guard alike, there will always be some who will take advantage. For the first and only time, Castiel is glad that Gordon is here with him. It could have been so much worse.

Creedy is under the window, keeping out of sight and trying to stifle his laugher. “Jesus Christ, Gordon,” he hisses, barely able to contain his glee at the show he is getting. “The shit you do for Alistair.” The gun in his hand is pointed at Castiel, aimed at a point on his forehead, but shaking slightly while he laughs. The threat is unnecessary, Castiel did not resist when they came and took him from the hut for a second time.

“Come here,” Gordon says. His belt and fly are unfastened, but thankfully, he did not feel the need to give any more authenticity to proceedings and his private parts remain just that, private. Castiel winces as Gordon twists his fingers in his hair. The guard huffs a pleased noise at the evidence of Castiel’s pain, just like his commander.

With his face hidden from Dean’s view, Castiel allows himself a grimace as he is forced close to Gordon’s crotch. A sharp pull on his hair forces him to look up. “What’s that fucking look for, fag?” he hisses. “What is it? You only got a hard-on for Winchester’s lily-white ass, huh?” Gordon chuckles. “Is it love, Ghost? Is that what you tell yourself when you’re choking on his dick?” Gordon glances at the window. There is no one there, no movement at all. It is done. They are safe.

Without warning Gordon backhands Castiel across the mouth. His teeth split skin and Castiel has to spit foamy blood onto the floor to stop from swallowing it.

“Over already?” Creedy says as he steps into the twitching beam of light. “Shame, I was just starting to get into it, should have brought a camera?” Castiel is a little gratified when Gordon’s next strike is aimed at Creedy. A half-hearted scuffle breaks out between the guards, with Creedy laughing and making disparaging comments about how well Gordon played his role.

Castiel is happy to be ignored. He stays where he is, kneeling and with his hands loosely bound behind his back—ostensibly to protect Gordon. “Just in case the faggot gets any funny ideas,” Creedy had said.

“You better keep your filthy mouth shut, Creedy.” Gordon knocks the other man to the ground but he is still laughing. Gordon turns back to Castiel, “That goes for you as well, Ghost. If I find out you’ve talked, you’ll have me to answer to, and if Dean ever finds out this was all a crock of shit, Alistair will string us all up by our junk.”

Creedy climbs to his feet saying, “Bet you’d enjoy that wouldn’t you,” as he flicks open a knife and slashes the ties at Castiel’s wrists, not caring that he nicks Castiel’s skin in the process. “Now get the fuck back to your hut, asshole,” he says with an extra shove that makes Castiel stumble as he climbs to his feet, shaking and unsteady.

When they came for him, Castiel honestly thought this was it, his final death come at last. It was the most likely outcome, everything considered, and he found he was entirely unsure whether to welcome it or not. Before Dean, he would have taken Death’s fleshless-hand gladly, looking for peace, by the grace of God. After Dean, something has changed in him. He feels his blood and his bones, the meat and sinew of his body, the damp flow of breath in his lungs, and he knows he is alive. He feels more than dull emptiness and acid-fear, and though he tries to go back, Castiel is not sure he can fold these things away into their boxes, or lock them up again. He is not sure he wants to. And, for now, it does not seem to matter anyway; whatever Alistair has planned for Dean Winchester, Castiel still has a part to play, and that is why he has been kept alive until now. He tries not to think about what will happen when his usefulness comes to an end. 

 

~*~

 

Days, and then weeks, pass in the same old way after that, with a return to the familiar routines. Castiel gets up early, with the sun. He washes in the night-cooled water from the pump at the corner of the exercise yard, wiping quickly over the red lines and wheals with a rough cloth and a flake or two of soap if the administration has been feeling generous. There is no privacy in the camp, but the early hour gives some protection from the interest his scars attract and the other kind of interest as well. Since the rumours about Castiel and Dean started to gain credibility among the prison population—“He came back from the dead after all,” they say, “Winchester must have protected him for a reason”—he has had to deal with a new type of unwanted attention. 

Castiel lifts his face to the sky, lets the brand-new sun kiss his face, like a lover, long missed. For a few moments the sweat of toil, the ache of overworked muscles, and the hollow clench of an empty stomach, all fall away. With his eyes closed, and his skin clean and warm he feels almost human.

 He gets in line, waits through the morning count, and climbs into the truck beside Father Reynolds. Castiel is not Catholic, but he has faith, and he has found a new appreciation for Father Reynolds’ company since his time with Alistair. They stand together and watch the forest go by in easy silence. The beast of a saw-mill is fully operational again, and Castiel falls back into the rhythm of it. He has been promoted up the line, taking Uriel’s old job up on the back of the great hulking machine. Benny took the opportunity to make some improvements while she was being re-built, and the risk of lost limbs has been slightly reduced.

He blends back in to the general crawl of despair at the work-site, concentrating on his work, and the next meal, and how many hours he can sleep, to hide the space in him that Dean has left behind. Castiel had not realised how much of an impact he had allowed Dean to have. It crept up on him gradually. The guard was an annoyance, a presence that irritated, but in a familiar way, one that piece by piece had become something different, the way a grain of sand in an oyster becomes a pearl.

Officer Winchester disappears from the work-site, and when they do see him he is stony-faced and silent at Alistair’s side. It is probably for the best, Castiel tells himself. His slip when Hut 19 was burning was clearly the final straw for Alistair. It was stupid to show himself like that, but Castiel was in rescue mode, the same way he had spent the four years he was at war, pulling men from fire and rubble and having to decide who to help to live, and who to help to die. He could not stand to see such needless suffering. It was a mercy, and he knew Dean would help because there was goodness in him; a desire to do right, even when he did wrong. Dean’s skin may be covered in blood, as the skin of a soldier, but blood can be washed away.

“I’m sorry about the boy,” Benny says, while they wait for the morning count to re-start—they have already gone through it twice, the guards making them march up and down the yard in groups of five, and they still come up with different figures each time. Benny is looking away, over towards the storage sheds, and Castiel automatically turns to follow the direction of his gaze, eyes squinting in the early glare of the day. They have passed the mid-point of summer, but it aches on, the temperature at the processing-plant squashing the men into mindless bugs, leaving them to crawl about, insensible to anything but heat and endless thirst.

Alistair has graced them with his presence. He is standing at the bottom of the stairs, waving his hands enthusiastically as he talks to a dead-eyed man. It is clear that Dean does not share Alistair’s enthusiasm for whatever is being described. He nods along impassively, his mouth shaping an occasional word, but he gives nothing more. Alistair seems happy enough. At one point he rests a hand on Dean’s shoulder, and Castiel supposes it is intended to be friendly, though it looks decidedly proprietary to him. Dean’s lips pull into a vacant smile and Castiel shudders at the sight of it. He wonders, as he often does, if he was wrong to bargain the safety of his sister for the price of Dean’s soul. He has no concern for his own. There is no risk in making a deal with the devil if you already live in hell.

Castiel stamps on his concerns and turns away. Wherever the blame lies, there is nothing to be done about it now. “He can look after himself,” Castiel says, trying to keep his voice steady and unaffected. “And, he’s nearly thirty, hardly a boy anymore.”

Benny shakes his head. “Thought we had a decent one there, guess we should have known the commander had plans for him. Why else would he bring him here? Alistair doesn’t do anything unless it benefits him.” Benny turns away as the lines move again, the count finally completed successfully. “He seems different now,” he adds, quiet enough that only Castiel can hear him.

“He looks unwell,” Castiel agrees. “I hope he can survive whatever Alistair is doing to him.” Dean is in profile, and still lovely, with the sun picking out the gold on his skin, and burnishing the ends of his hair. The grey circles under his eyes and the way his lips draw into a thin pale line, does not detract from it. It takes Castiel by surprise to realise how much he used to enjoy watching Dean, when they used to talk, out in the clearing behind the sheds. It is not something he has experienced before and he cannot name the feeling.

Benny puts a hand on his shoulder as they climb into the truck-bed. It is a fleeting comfort, gone before the other inmates can see. It is a precaution Castiel understands and he does not blame Benny for being cautious; rumours hang from Castiel like red warning-flags. Benny cannot, and should not, risk his reputation, his hard won position as team-leader, by being seen to be too friendly towards him. And Castiel needs Benny’s support, and through him, the support of his work-team and hut-mates. He is aware, though it goes unspoken, that some of the well-known criminals have had to be politely persuaded that, despite the rumours, Castiel is not and never will be—to use the camp’s own terminology—open for business. Castiel can defend himself in a fair fight, but the criminal gangs inside the labour-camps never do fight fair, and he is grateful for Benny’s help.

The saw-mill is sweltering in the summer. The metal beast heats up and the engines make it worse, the thin walls of her winter shelter keeping all that heat closed in, until it is like working inside a furnace. All the men can do is double-up on runs to the water-pump, and strip to the waist to douse themselves at regular intervals. Castiel cannot even do that, too wary of showing his scars to the world, but he suffers through it without complaint. In a funny way the discomfort is a help, keeping him distracted enough to stop thinking about anything else, even from the “Brooding” his hut-mates have been teasing him about.

“Down tools, assholes,” Walt calls from the door, later in the day. “You’re needed out here.” The prisoners look at each other in surprise and apprehension, and a murmur runs through the line, questioning what can be so important that work is interrupted. That is why they are here after all, to atone for sinning against the people with toil and hard labour.

Benny grumbles as he flips switches and taps on the dials of the control panel, yelling, “Get the fuck away from there before she bites your hand off,” to a dawdling inmate. She might be back on her feet but the beast is still temperamental. She does not react well to being woken from her slumber, or forced to sleep once she is awake and growling. Benny pats the metal side of the control panel as the mill powers down, blinking lights going out one-by-one. “Sorry old girl,” he says his voice soft and soothing. “Not my choice, but you heard the man, and we can’t leave you running on your own.” He is not wrong. Leaving the saw-mill unsupervised with lumber still churning inside would be like leaving a tiger alone with a child, likely to fail and in the most horrible way imaginable. 

Squint-eyed men tumble from the door of the dingy mill and into the light. Castiel follows them. The prisoners stand in loose lines of five, out of habit, waiting to find out what orders have been sent from administration. Dean is there, talking to Gordon in a low voice. Castiel is not surprised to see him. If Alistair is in the mood for change it is logical for him to send his right-hand man to deal with it.

Gordon steps forward a moment later. “Listen up shit-stains, Officer Winchester here has a task for you, and you are going to do exactly what he says.” There is some mumbling off to one side and Gordon gets temporarily side tracked by going over and shaking the inmate until they can all hear his teeth rattling. “If I hear any complaints, or see any stalling from you lazy fucks, you’ll all get a turn at the post.” Walt is standing to the side, testing the short black weight of a whip in his hands, meaningfully.

Dean is not watching Gordon give his special version of a motivational speech. His eyes scan over the crowd, all of them dirty with sweat and sawdust. Dean’s expression is controlled, but Castiel still feels it like a jolt of electricity when their eyes lock. The shadow of something grim and guilty passes over Dean’s face, there and gone again, faster than the flickering tail of a firefly. So fast that Castiel thinks he might have imagined it.

“The Commander has decided that it’s time to build a replacement for Hut 19,” Dean starts, speaking louder than is necessary. “He is aware of the overcrowding problem with the survivors being housed in other huts, and he feels that it’ll be beneficial for all of you to solve the problem as soon as possible. The Commander has given permission to lower the current work-quotas on the saw-mill so that it can run with fewer workers, while the rest of you deal with the construction in camp.”

“Why us?” Benny asks, the only man confident enough to say what they are all thinking. “The saw-mill is the most important part of the processing-plant. If you shut us down, the rest of the work will be delayed.”

Dean turns on him, eyes narrowed. “Do you really think the Commander hasn’t thought about that? His voice is cold and sharp, utterly unlike anything Castiel has heard from him before. It is horrible, and it hurts to know that he helped to create the new man that Dean has become; he feels like a murderer.

“No, but he’s not here, on the ground. He doesn’t see how the place runs,” Benny is saying, as Dean advances on him. No one is expecting it when Dean’s fist connects with Benny’s nose.

“Don’t you dare question the Commander’s orders,” Dean says, as the crowd starts to buzz with shock and agitation at the abuse of their team-leader. “Don’t you dare put yourself above him, you are nothing.” He looks out over the crowd and finds Castiel with ease. “You are all nothing.”

“Shit,” Gordon says, with a burst of laughter. The other guards grin their support from around the work-site. “Nice, Winchester, very nice.”

“I’m in charge of this work-project and I’ll pick my team today,” Dean says. “You have been chosen because you have proved to be a fast working and efficient team.” He looks pointedly at Benny, who mutters hard words under his breath, while he wipes at the blood tricking from his nose. “Any of you that have experience of construction, come forward.”

There is some jostling as half the prisoners try to move forward. Working on the exercise-yard, in any capacity, is generally preferable to the processing-plant, and all the men know it. Castiel however, stays put, even as Father Reynolds pokes him in the side and whispers, “I’m sure he’d let you on the crew if you wanted.”

Castiel shakes his head, muttering, “No,” under his breath. “I’d rather stay here where I know the work.” It is a poor excuse but Father Reynolds does not question it.

“The Commander has given permission to take whatever supplies we need from the mill.” This is surprising and is met with a new round of hushed whispers. Building at the camp usually requires new wood to be cut, away from the loggers so it does not interfere with the shipments of lumber for the Collective. “The Commander only ever thinks of the good of the camp and your welfare,” Dean goes on as if he is speaking from a script. “In return for his kindness, you will carry out the tasks I give you without complaint.”

Twenty men are selected for the construction project. Unsurprisingly, Benny declines the offer. Even if he was not still dabbing red from below his nose, he would never leave the mill. While she runs, he will be there, his sailor’s-eye watchful for the first sign of trouble. As the remaining mill-workers re-organise themselves to cover the missing men, Dean orders his team to start collecting the materials they will need. Castiel tries hard not to notice what Dean is doing or where he is, but he finds his eye drawn back to Dean, time and again. Even when he forces himself to look away, there is an awareness of the guard that burns under his skin, irritating like a mosquito bite.

Benny stops him with a hand to his shoulder as they all make their way back to the saw-mill. He does not speak. He just drags Castiel to a stop and sends him a warning look as he pushes his way past, disappearing into the shadows of the building.

The prickle of Castiel’s skin tells him who is there before Dean speaks. “You didn’t volunteer.”  

Castiel turns to face him. “I wouldn’t be any help,” he replies, honestly, squashing the urge to point out that Dean should already know that.

Dean hesitates. A muscle twitching in his jaw gives away the fact that Dean is not as calm behind the facade as his behaviour suggests, and he will not meet Castiel’s eye. “I have a job for you,” he says, looking over his shoulder at the entrance to the saw-mill.

“I don’t want it,” Castiel says, taking a step back. He does not know why Dean has approached him now, if this is some kind of olive branch, or an opportunity to prove to Alistair how disinterested he is, but Castiel does not trust it. They need to stay away from each other, and that has not changed.

“It isn’t a request, N-881,” Dean says. So, Castiel thinks, not a gesture of goodwill. “I’ve been told there’s storage out towards the river where I can get the supplies I need. You’ll take me there and help bring them back.”

Castiel tries to keep the confused frown from his face as he speaks, “Wouldn’t one of the construction team be better suited to this task?” He nods towards the men gathered in the middle of the work-site, divvying up the jobs and conferring on the quantity of wood they will need and which sizes.

Dean draws in a deep tired breath. “I’m telling you what is going to happen.” His gaze slides closer, setting just behind Castiel’s right shoulder. Dean seems unable to cross the last of the distance to look him straight in the eye.

“I have no knowledge of these things,” Castiel repeats. “Get someone who knows what they’re doing to help you.”

Dean lifts a hand to rest on the gun at his side. “Inmate N-881,” he says, glowering at the space beside Castiel’s head, “Are you refusing a direct order.”

Dean manages to effectively loom over Castiel even though there are only a few scant inches between them. It is intimidation, pure and simple, something Castiel is accustomed to from the other guards, but not Dean. He stands his ground; head held high, and a dispassionate look fixed on his face. “Of course not,” Castiel says. “It’s this way.”

Castiel leaves the lumber-yard fully cognisant of the glances thrown in their direction. Creedy wolf-whistles as they pass by, then laughs, his fat pink tongue rolling sticky over his teeth as he leers. Dean says something to him as they go by, but Castiel is too far ahead to hear it. All he catches of the exchange is a few words tacked on to the end, when Creedy calls out to him, “Have fun, Ghost.”

Castiel looks back in time to see Dean punch the other guard in the shoulder and grin at the joke, in a good natured brotherly gesture that makes Castiel’s stomach turn. Creedy waves him off, like a pal, like a friend. Castiel finds it amazing that the other guards do not notice that Dean’s smile is empty, a rictus grin that does not reach his eyes.  

They make their way along a narrow path between the trees. There is a longer route they could take down the tracks, the way the goods in storage got there, but on foot the short–cut through the green is easier and far more pleasant. Castiel chances another look back at Dean as they move away from the noise of the lumber-yard, the thick cover of trees muffling the sound. The silence closes in, growing heavy the further they go, the branches over their heads groaning with the weight of it. Perspiration beads on Dean’s forehead even though it is far cooler in the dappled shade of the trees. It trickles down his face, leaving tracks before he can swipe at them with the back of his hand. His face is set, eyes fixed on the ground, body draw in, tight and stiff instead of the easy gait Castiel knows.

He looks like an entirely different person, one that has all the outward attributes of the real Dean Winchester, but none of the substance. It is as if he has been hollowed out and filled up with dirty sawdust and splintered glass. Or maybe Dean is gone entirely, swallowed up by darkness and a changeling, a living marionette, left in his place.   

Flies swirl around them, disturbed from the low hanging branches as they push past, following an overgrown trail. Dean bats at them irritably, flapping a hand in front of his face like the off tempo wiper-blades of an old truck.

“Is it much further?” Dean asks. The sudden noise cuts through the quiet like the blast of a gunshot. A rustle in the vegetation and a grey-furred streak spiralling up a tree to the left suggests they are not the only ones startled by it.

“We’re nearly there.”

“Good,” Dean says, but he does not sound like he means it.

Castiel is relieved when the storage hall eventually comes into view. It is a substantial building, well put together in bricks and mortar, and weather proofed to protect the precious contents. It is widely known that their excellent commander keeps his broken down cars there, safe and sound and useless, stored under fine woven sheets to keep the dust off. Alistair treats the derelict lumps of metal better than the living breathing people in his charge, though they are used up and burnt out just the same.

Dean has a key and he steps forward to tackle the padlock on the door, knocking Castiel out of his path as he goes. Hinges grumble and creak as Dean drags the door open. A fine spray of dust billows from the stuffy choking darkness like a sail catching the breeze. It has been a long time since anyone visited the place and it shows.

Dean sticks his head inside then jerks back, pulling a face. “Yeah, maybe we should give it a minute to air out,” he says, sounding more like himself than he has all day. He turns to Castiel with a stare that wavers for a moment before settling over Castiel’s ear. “Sit down,” he orders, pushing away the slip of familiarity as soon it is noticed. “Over there.”

He points to a patch of grass a few steps away. The area around the storage shed had been cleared, probably with the intention to build more storage, at some point, and the forest has not yet had time to retake the ground. Instead the sward is covered in rough grasses, touched with the brilliant flare of wildflowers in bloom. Blue forget-me-nots and purple fireweed peek out between scrubby tufts; seeds blown in on the wind from the more fertile land below the mountains, or dropped by birds as they wheel overhead on great journeys that criss-cross the globe. Castiel is fond of the hardy little plants, stubborn and thriving in unlikely places. Some of them also grow in the clearing behind the woodshed, where he used to eat his dinner in peace, until Dean.

Dean is dithering awkwardly around the entrance of the building, as if he does not know what to do with himself. It is un-Dean-like behaviour to add to the growing list. He paces for a few minutes before swearing extravagantly, and coming to sit near Castiel. They wait together in silence, the door to the storage shed propped open with a fallen branch.

“It’s good that Hut 19 is being replaced,” Castiel begins cautiously. He had not intended to talk, but he cannot help reaching out in some way, trying to prod and poke and discover the familiar Dean who irritated and delighted him in equal parts. “The overcrowding has been difficult and it’s too hot to be sharing a bunk.”

“You’ve been sharing your bunk?”

Castiel was not expecting a reply, and he cannot help sliding his gaze towards Dean. He is staring at the ground, frowning angrily as he pulls up fistfuls of grass and throws it to the side.

“No, not yet,” Castiel replies, “But someone has to. We don’t get extra bunks just because there are more men, and the floors are already taken up by the latest arrivals.” It takes a while to graduate to a bunk of your own, unless you make friends quickly or a winter sickness clears the way for you.

Dean huffs in derision, “Yeah well, shit happens.”

“It does, and more often than usual in our camp.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dean narrows his eyes, looking at the scrunched up petals of a forget-me-not crushed in his palm as if it had done him harm.

Castiel shrugs, he does not mean anything, he is just thinking aloud. “It’s funny, don’t you think, that a fire started by an inmate in his bunk would catch so quickly? That the person in the bunk would not shout or scream to alert the others when they felt the flames? That there were no guards walking the yard or up in the tower to see the smoke and unlock the door?” Castiel waits but Dean does not speak, so he adds, “Or, maybe it’s not funny at all.”

“Stop talking,” Dean hisses. Castiel lifts his hands in a placating gesture. He had no more to say so it makes no difference.

They sit a while longer, Castiel watching the shaded tree-line and letting his mind drift. The river is close; he can hear it rushing and boiling in a white-foam hurry to get down stream. Even in summer the water roars down from the mountains in the grey-blue distance. Upstream there are other camps, temporary camps, where the loggers who fell the timber live. They float the raw wood downstream on the fast moving current until it hits the shallows, where another work-team drags them from the water to dry before coming to the processing plant. As far as Castiel knows, there is nothing else between here and the mountains and the arctic tundra hundreds of miles away at the tip of the world. No farms, no houses, just a vast unspoiled stretch of trees and wilderness, where the bears and wolves roam.

Out the corner of his eye Castiel can see Dean fidgeting. His feet tap an erratic rhythm as he pulls at his sweat-soaked shirt, the material sticking uncomfortably to his skin. Dean suddenly looks at his feet and they stop moving. Dean closes his eyes and sinks his teeth deep into his bottom lip, hanging his head and exposing the smooth curved line of his neck. He could be praying, but Castiel knows that cannot be true. Still, Castiel turns away, giving Dean privacy to deal with whatever is carving a furrow between his brows.

Castiel, likewise, closes his eyes. He can hear birds squawking in the treetops. The sun, at the height of her power, feels good on his skin. No matter how much they complain about it now, the men will miss the warm weather when winter crashes down on them again. It always comes far too quickly.

The hiss of a sharp breath pulls Castiel out of his reverie. “Let’s get this over with,” Dean says, climbing to his feet.

“Okay,” Castiel replies, though, given the desperate look that flashes in Dean’s eyes, he is not sure the comment was meant for him at all.

“On your feet, prisoner,” Dean says, even though Castiel is already moving. Dean does not wait. He comes over and impatiently pulls Castiel up, his hand in a rough grip around his bicep. Castiel can feel Dean’s palm, hot and damp, through the sleeve of his shirt.  It is the first time they have touched since the soft comfort of their kiss, and the contrast is terrible.

He is pushed in the direction of the open door as soon as he has found his feet. It gapes like a mouth, and Castiel feels the first shuddering touch of an irrational fear that something evil is hiding inside.

A musty smell of decay bombards Castiel’s senses as he gets close and he hesitates before stepping through the entrance. Dean pushes on the centre of his back, over the deepest of Alistair’s tender cuts, and Castiel trips, falling into the lugubrious dark.

The stillness inside the building sets Castiel’s nerves on edge. Nature has been locked out and aside from walls of boxes, and the distinctive shape of covered vehicles, the space is filled with nothing but motes of dust, churning like broken galaxies, stuttering and spinning out of control in the agitated air. Castiel blinks, and rubs at his watering eyes as they adjust to the low light. There is a window, small, high up on one wall, and covered with cloth that recalls the tough weave of a potato sack. The only purpose for it that Castiel can imagine is to hide the contents of the storage-hall from prying eyes—though who the commander expects to wander by, is beyond Castiel’s ability to imagine.

“Over there,” Dean says, directing his attention to a tower of boxes stacked neatly at the far end of the building.

There is more pressure on Castiel’s back again, this time at the base of his spine. He can easily identify the hard smooth press of metal; Dean’s gun. Castiel does not know why Dean would think he would need to use threats to get compliance. Castiel goes calmly, willingly, where he is told, and starts to pull down tarpaulins and dust sheets from the supplies, exposing a treasure trove of nails, and bolts, and hinges. Castiel eyes some of them with interest, wondering if he might be able to squirrel some away in his clothes or his boots. Someone will want them, and he can bargain for extra rations or a new hat, now that summer is drawing to a close.

Descriptions of the contents are stamped in black on the side of each box. Castiel stoops to read them; flat nails, 4 inches; cold-headed bolts, ¼ inch; Phillips screws, 2 inches. There is a huge variety of supplies hidden out here in the forest, hoarded over years, going by the dispatch dates—years that the huts and outhouses have gone without repair. Limited resources: Nothing in the budget: You’re out here to work not to live in luxury. They always have an excuse if anyone dares to ask and all of them are as much bullshit as the prisoners always thought.

“What exactly are we looking for?” Castiel asks, still hunched over and reading labels. He gets no reply. “Do you have a list?” Nothing. “Dean..?”

The silence stretches out until Castiel can hear the thump of his heartbeat, like a last breath held for too long. Something is not right, he thinks, as the hair on the back of his neck stands up. Something is here. Terror breaks over him like a wave of ice-water, flowing through his veins and seizing the fleshy muscle of his heart. He hears the sound of a sob, half-swallowed, close behind him and Castiel turns, afraid for one insane moment that he will find Dean hooked on bloody claws and pinned to the ground.

It is too late, Castiel realises. The threat is no snorting, stamping beast, no yellow-eyed flash of fur and claw in the shadows. It is a human danger, a black-hole growing in the centre of a human heart, sucking in all the light until there is nothing left.

Dean’s gun is raised and aimed squarely at Castiel’s chest. He looks a like coiled spring; Dean’s whole body tense in anticipation of the shot. And finally, finally, he looks Castiel in the eye and it is wholly terrifying. There is a knife-sharp gleam in Dean’s eye, something strange and hungry as his gaze wanders restlessly from Castiel’s face, to his feet, and back again. It rests at Castiel’s chest, at the point his gun is aimed, and Dean squints as if he can see through skin and blood and bone, to the fear-frozen heart underneath.

Dean’s lips are parted, peeled back from his teeth, and he is panting like an animal. His jaw moves minutely, as if he is trying to speak but the words are weighed down, stuck at the back of his tongue. It is all so wrong, so utterly and horrifically screwed up, but Castiel does not fear for himself, whether by Dean’s hand or another’s is not of great concern. He fears for Dean, for whatever is left of the man he knew, trapped inside this twisted dried out husk.

He reaches out. “Dean, please...”

“Don’t,” Dean says, his voice cold and flat. Anger rolls from him, dripping like slow molasses and Castiel does not know why. He cannot understand what has happened to put so much malevolence on Dean’s face. “Don’t you dare move.” He steps closer and Castiel is staring down the barrel of a gun, pushed up into his face.

“Dean...” he starts again.

“Don’t speak, either,” he spits. “Don’t make a fucking sound.” Each word is emphasised with a tiny press of the gun into Castiel’s skin.

“But, I just...” He is stopped by the crunch of metal slamming into his cheekbone.

The blow sends him crashing into the boxes nearby, and he ends up hunched, covering his head, as they crash to the floor, bursting open and spilling their metal innards in dangerous spikes across the floor. The dust sheets and tarpaulins he had just pulled down tangle around Castiel’s feet as he stumbles, struggling to right himself, distracted by the pain in his face.

“What did I just say to you? Are you fucking stupid?” Dean growls. Castiel just stares at him in dismay, terrified that Dean is already too far gone. “Or maybe you think I’m stupid?” he says next, eyes glittering in perverse delight. “That’s it, isn’t it?” Dean takes another step. There is so little space between them Dean has to lower the gun—he does not holster it.

He pushes at Castiel’s shoulder while he speaks, his voice growing loud. It is too hot, too close, too loud, and too painful; Castiel wants to close his eyes, turn away, but he cannot. “You think you’re so fucking clever don’t you.” Shove. “Playing at being friends, just so you could mess with my head.” Shove. “But guess what?” Shove. Dean leans in and whispers the last part in Castiel’s ear, a gritty rumble, low and deadly. “I’m no fucking faggot, Castiel,” Dean drawls his name with a sneer, as if it is something foul in his mouth. “I’m not going to fall for your nasty little tricks. I’m not Gordon. I’m no easy fucking mark.”

He grabs Castiel by the shoulders and pushes him hard, against the wall. Castiel huffs in pain as his back connects with the bricks. Dean’s rage saturates the air making it hard to breathe and his head feels fogged. Castiel desperately tries to make sense of Dean’s words, tries to connect the dots to make a picture, but each time it comes out wrong.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Castiel says. Keeping his voice calm is an effort, but he does not want to antagonise the hissing and spitting thing in front of him.

Dean is not listening. He pushes and pins Castiel against the wall. “You did something to me,” Dean accuses. Tiny specks of saliva stipple Castiel’s face as he speaks. “You twisted something about in my head to make me think I was sick, that I wanted something sick. To make me think I wanted you.”

“Dean, I didn’t do anything.” Stay calm, he tells himself, stay calm and find Dean, he is in there somewhere. Who knows what poisonous things Alistair has been pouring into Dean’s mind. Castiel is sorry that he did not do more to help, to push against Alistair’s influence over Dean when he had the chance.

“Yes,” Dean argues, “You did. I don’t know what, but you sure as hell did something; cursed me, got inside my head, confused me.” Dean’s nostrils flare as he laughs, his damp breath falling on Castiel’s skin. He smells of coffee and stale tobacco. It is unpleasant and Castiel tries to turn his head away. “And I nearly fell for it.”

“This is nonsense, Dean,” Castiel says. “How could I have done any of those things? You’re a guard, I’m a prisoner, and you have all the power here. I never had any. Our meetings in the clearing, that was all on you. You came to me, Dean, do you even remember that?”

“I thought we were friends,” Dean goes on, hissing in Castiel’s face as if he has not heard him at all. “But, all the time you were just playing me. Trying to convince me I was like Gordon... like... God knows how many other people you’ve been on your knees for.”

“No, Dean, I...” Oh. Castiel stops.

The picture snaps sharply into focus. Alistair’s long game; the reason Castiel is still alive, the reason he had to kneel in front of an angry Gordon while Creedy  laughed at them from the shadows. All of Alistair’s watching and waiting, his letting Castiel go after the torture. It was all for this, one grand manipulation to get Dean here, to bring him to the brink of crisis and push him over the edge, let him fall into doing something so against his nature he will be permanently altered by it, carved into a new animal and birthed in blood.

In the murky building Dean’s eyes look dark, almost black. “Turn around,” Dean snarls the words into Castiel’s face, and they fall like lead, heavy and dark. Fear coils through Castiel like a living wreathing thing. This is Alistair’s play. It is not Castiel’s death he wants but Dean’s. He will be destroyed in all the ways that matter. It will only take one bullet to finish them both. “Turn. The fuck. Around.”

Castiel shows his palms in surrender and turns to the wall. His fingertips scrape on the rough-cut bricks, and rust-red dust collects under his fingernails, like flakes of dried blood. An omen, perhaps, of what is to come. “Dean,” Castiel tries again, as the calm starts to slip away from him. These words are the last, he thinks, these words are important. He takes his time, rolls each letter across his tongue, tasting before he lets them go. “Alistair is lying to you. I’ve done nothing to you, Dean. I wouldn’t, you know that, and you know me.” He rests his forehead on the wall, expecting the sound of gunfire at any moment. “I do like you, Dean, and maybe there’s more than friendship there, I don’t know. I’m as confused as you,” he confesses. “But, your feelings are your own, Dean. I did nothing to encourage them. Think about it, remember all the times we talked. You aren’t stupid, and I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re smart enough to see the truth. It’s Alistair who’s lying to you, not me.”

The muzzle of the gun at the base of Castiel’s neck makes him gasp. “He told me you’d say something like that,” Dean sneers. The gun vibrates on his skin. Dean is shaking. “What’s next, huh?” he raises his voice again and it echoes from the rafters. The monster that has taken Dean’s shape huffs excited, blood-lust rising, waiting for the kill. “Are you going to tell me you love me? That you want to touch me? Ask me to touch you?” Dean snarls. “Is that what you tell Gordon?” The gun pushes more firmly into Castiel’s skin forcing his forehead against the wall. “Who else, you piece of shit?” he spits. “How fucking many have there been?”

Castiel’s fingernails gouge the wall where his hands are up, palms pressed flat. He drags in a breath, hard to do with Dean pressed up behind him, and sends up a silent prayer that he can still reach Dean. “None. Dean, there’s never been anyone. Alistair is manipulating you. Thing with Gordon, what you saw, it was a set up; you were supposed to see it. It wasn’t real.”

“You’re lying. I know what I saw.”

Castiel can feel the heat of Dean’s body all the way down his back. “Creedy bound my hands.” A note of urgency creeps into Castiel’s voice, but his words are his lifeline, all he has to fight with, and he has to go on. “He put a gun on me, told me Alistair wanted a show. All Gordon did was stand there and unbuckle his belt. I swear it, Dean. I didn’t touch him.” Even without the gun, Castiel would be no match for Dean in a fight, weary and underfed as he is. “Think; think about what you actually saw. Think about the time we’ve spent together. I never sought you out, Dean. I never wanted your attention.”

“Whatever you had planned it’s over. It stops here, you understand?” Dean gathers Castiel’s shirt in his fist, uses it to pull him back before pushing forward, slamming Castiel’s face into the wall. Only a quick turn of his head saves Castiel’s nose from being flattened, but the pain in his cheek increases with a second blow. He goes dizzy and has to close his eyes as the world starts to shift, spinning out from under him.  

He concentrates on the pain. Lets it ground him. For a quiet moment he is alone in the black with just the sting of pain along the high-line of his cheekbone for company. No storage-hall, no monster breathing down his neck, just the still and blessed dark. It pulls at him and Castiel yearns to sink into it, to lose himself, wrap himself inside the darkness like a lovers’ embrace, the end he’s been looking for since the grey-haunted day he walked through the labour-camp gates.

Dean’s breath is hot against Castiel’s ear. “Alistair told me the best way to deal with your kind.” Dean’s hand on the globe of Castiel’s ass is a shock, one that sparks and trips across his senses in alarm as Dean’s fingers tighten, digging painfully into the fatty tissue. “Is this what you wanted?” The words hiss and linger like hot stains on cold skin.

 “No,” Castiel gasps. He is not sure if he is answering the question or voicing disbelief as he finally manages to interpret Dean’s threats.

He thought he had solved the puzzle but there was one last piece, and it was so much worse than Castiel had thought. Murder alone is not enough to satisfy Alistair’s plans. Dean is a soldier; he would have been forced to fire on friends and neighbours in the name of the Collective during the civil war. What is one more death to someone with that kind of body count? Alistair needs the old Dean obliterated, his soul burnt to ashes, before he can be used as a tool—or a weapon.

Dean had made a place for himself in Castiel’s life, with irreverence and laughter and baffled regard, the one that reached out with comfort in the press of lips on damaged skin, and now he is so close to destruction, that Castiel feels the sting of bitter tears behind his eyes.

Dean is snatching ragged breaths from the claggy air. Castiel feels claws in the press of Dean’s hand. The sting of pointed teeth in the bite Dean leaves on his neck. The bulge of his growing excitement turns Castiel’s stomach as Dean pushes himself against Castiel’s back. There is no escape here. Submit or fight, the end result will likely be the same, but if there was ever a time to try, this is it.

“Are you wearing a belt?” Dean asks as he pulls at the cloth of Castiel’s pants, trying to drag them down over his hips. The question seems so absurdly ordinary Castiel would laugh if he was not so grateful for the length of twine tied tight about his hips. He bites his lip and nods, forehead brushing the wall, leaving brick-dust clinging to his dark hair. Dean draws in a long shaky breath saying, “Take it off.”

“Alistair told you to do this.”

“Don’t fucking talk.”

“Dean. You don’t want to do this. You told me you despise this kind of violence, remember? You would never consider it if Alistair hadn’t ordered it, so who is really manipulating you? Stop and think, Dean. Please.” He gets the words out in a rush. Dean won’t give him long before he starts to use more than words to beat Castiel into submission.

“Don’t talk to me about Alistair,” he says. “You don’t know a fucking thing about the commander.” Dean’s hands are on him, he must have holstered his gun, but Castiel could not say when that happened. His voice turns cold and Castiel can hear the smirk as he says, “If you talk again, I’ll cut your fucking tongue out and shove it down your throat.”

The words are so familiar that Castiel sees a flash of somewhere else. A white room, tiled floor spotted with blood, and Alistair’s voice, always Alistair’s voice along with the pain, “Won’t you sing for me little bird.” He wears the scars of Alistair’s work, bright red dashes, spread like feathers across his shoulder blades and spilling down his back. He has never seen them for himself but he can feel them sure enough. “A reminder of our precious time together,” Alistair said on the very last day.

Dean’s hands move slowly under Castiel’s shirt in a smooth glide over his stomach. Castiel hears the click of Dean’s throat as he swallows—perhaps not as cold and determined as he is pretending. Dean’s hands are hot, rough, but the touch is oddly gentle. It is like seeing a crack in the clouds during a storm, a single ray of light, a glimmer of hope.

Castiel grabs at that dangling thread. Dean’s misplaced faith has to unravel if he is faced with proof of Alistair’s disturbed mind. Dean edges back, allowing Castiel the space he needs to drop his hands to the knot of his improvised belt. It is a bluff. He grabs the hem of his shirt and rips it up and over his head, before Dean can process what is happening, before he can stop him, and Dean is left staring at the hard brushstrokes of Alistair’s work and the ruin of Castiel’s back. 

“What the fuck...” Dean’s boots scrape on the cement floor as he jerks backwards. “What the hell is that?”

 

 

“This is what I know of your commander,” Castiel says, speaking fast. He does not want to give Dean time to recover, re-group, and start touching him again in anger. “I know Alistair very well, Dean. I spent days with him, hours and hours, just the two of us, in a room underground. There was nothing down there but time, and a knife in Alistair’s hand.” He leans forward to rest against the wall. He wishes he could turn and see Dean’s face, his eyes, and know what he is thinking, but Dean needs to see Alistair’s signature carved into Castiel’s back. “So, don’t you dare tell me that I don’t know Alistair, because right now, Dean, there is no one in this camp who knows him better.”

“No, it’s a lie,” Dean says, but the hard edges of his voice have softened, less of a growl now, and more of a rumble. “What did you do, Cas? You must have done something to deserve it.”

“As far as Alistair was concerned, I did deserve it. I had your attention when he wanted you to himself.”

“There must have been more to it.”

“No, Dean. I told you already, he didn’t ask me anything. He wanted to hurt me, and scare me, and keep me away from you, but also because he wanted to. Dean, he enjoyed it.”

There is a pause, and there is silence. No one breathes, and even outside, the birds and the beasts have all gone quiet. Castiel’s world waits, balanced on a razor’s edge, and it is Dean that has to decide which way they go. Now or never, Castiel thinks, and turns to face the monster in the room.

There are deep furrows pulling across Dean’s brow. There is still something ferocious about him, a darkness that makes the hairs on Castiel’s arm stand up. He cannot think about that now. There is one last thing he needs to do. Castiel’s hands move to Dean’s face before he has finished the thought. Dean’s expression changes from confusion to fear and he tries to push Castiel away. Where he gets the strength from, Castiel will never know, but he is immovable as he looks into Dean’s eyes. They are green. A beautiful green shot through with flecks of gold and he does not know how he never noticed it before.

“Dean. You need to stop. Just stop.” He pours every ounce of authority he can muster into the words, saying each one slow and clear. “Alistair isn’t your friend. He doesn’t want to help you. He wants to use you. When he tortured me he threatened my family, my sister, her husband, and my niece. I lied to you because Alistair forced me to. I told you to stay away from me because that was the deal, my sister’s life for your company; forgive me, but at the time, it was not a hard choice to make.”

Dean stares into Castiel’s face as if he could discover the truth there. “Let go of me,” he says. His voice is weak and he makes no move to free himself.

“You know me, Dean,” Castiel continues on. It is too damned important to back down now. There is confusion in Dean’s eyes, a fragment of doubt, and if Castiel can hold it, build on it, it might be enough to bring Alistair’s story tumbling down. “Do you really think I’m capable of being some kind of seducer, some kind of incubus? Dean, it’s ridiculous. Look at me. I’m old and tired, and wearing rags. I was almost invisible until you arrived. Besides, I’ve never had any interest in that sort of thing, never been attracted to anyone, male or female. I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. I barely understand what I’ve been feeling for you, Dean, though the kiss helped.” At the reminder of it Dean’s gaze drops to Castiel’s mouth. He blinks and snaps his eyes back up, guilty, as if he has been caught doing something forbidden.

“I didn’t want to kiss you; you did something, made me do it.” Dean’s arguments are weak, shrinking as Castiel grows bolder.

“You know I didn’t.”

“But, Alfie, you and Alfie, you were together, you said...”

“I never said anything, Dean. Alfie and I were barely even friends. I let you think it because I needed you to leave. It was a lie, I’m sorry.” There is a drumming sound in Castiel’s ears and he cannot tell if it is his own heartbeat or Dean’s, conducting through the skin where Castiel cradles his jaw. Castiel loses track of time as they stand there, staring at each other like bewildered children.

Dean’s frown eases. His eyes go wide. “It must have been you.” Dean’s voice is quiet now, nearly there, but still not quite ready to believe.

Castiel shakes his head, brushes a thumb over the bump of Dean’s cheekbone. It recalls the gentle touches Dean gave that day back in the spring. “No, Dean.”

Dean’s fingers tighten where they grip Castiel’s arms. “Has to be,” he says, desperately. “It has to be you.”

“Why?” Castiel asks.

“Because it can’t be me, Cas, this can’t be me. The way I think about you, the way I want you... It’s sick, Cas... It’s wrong.” Colour rises to Dean’s cheeks and he tries to look away, to the floor, to one side then the other, anywhere but at Castiel’s face and the unwelcome truth he finds there. “I can’t be that,” his voice hitches slightly. “Please, Cas,” he begs, “Please, tell me I’m not a fag.” And that’s it. Dean crumples; whatever he was running on, alcohol, adrenaline, or just plain old anger, it all leaves him abruptly. His eyes clear and he sags against Castiel, murmuring, “Oh God, Oh God,” over and over, like a scratched record.

Castiel pulls him in, wraps his arms around Dean’s shoulders and finds that he fits against him naturally. It feels easy, as if they have done this a hundred times before. With his own legs shaking and Dean shivering with shock, Castiel eases them both to the floor. They sit on the pile of sheets and tarpaulins, leaning into each other, breathing together in the thick warmth of the storage-hall.

Chapter Text

When Dean stirs, it is like watching someone wake from a fever-dream. The expression on his face has softened, falling back into the lines and angles that Castiel has missed. For a while Dean does nothing, just stares and blinks a slow rhythm. Castiel can only guess that Dean’s mind is struggling to overcome the shock of revelation, the dissonance of seeing Alistair clearly for the first time, throwing everything he thought he knew about the man, about the prisoners, about the camp, and even about himself, into doubt. Dean’s eyes widen, going almost comically large. He is pale, drained of blood, a succession of emotions chasing across his face until he settles on a look of sheer horror.

“Oh my God,” Dean says. “Oh my fucking God, what... what... what was I doing?” he stutters. He is wild-eyed and Castiel can feel the post-adrenaline tremors that vibrate through Dean’s body. Sweat pearls on his forehead.

“Don’t panic, Dean, everything’s going to be fine.” He pulls Dean closer to his side, tries to be an anchor for him as he shakes through the last of Alistair’s corrupt influence.

Dean looks aghast. “Don’t panic? Jesus Christ, Cas, I nearly... I nearly... Fuck, I think I’m going to puke.” He wraps his arms around his stomach, rocking slightly, where he sits among the rumpled dust-sheets. He is a picture of misery as he turns to Castiel. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, not really,” Castiel replies, the sting of his fractured cheek means nothing in comparison to what could have happened.

Dean turns and looks at Castiel properly, slowly taking in the scarlet pattern of torn blood-vessels under his skin. “Please don’t lie to me,” Dean says. “I don’t think I can handle any more lies right now. I know you’ve had worse, but fuck it, Cas.” He slumps against the wall, picking idly at a loose thread on the cuff of his shirt. “I don’t know how you can even look at me right now. I am so fucking sorry,” he falters and the words trail off into silence.

For minutes they stay like that, side by side, but miles apart. What Dean did, what he nearly did, was a terrible thing, but Castiel can see nothing of the monster that was going to rape him in the man he is looking at now. It was Alistair’s sneer he saw in the twist of Dean’s mouth, Alistair’s words on Dean’s tongue. God-only-knows what Alistair has done to Dean, how he worked on him, infected him with his own sickness. The commander has contacts high up in the Collective, in the security services, and access to things Castiel cannot even imagine. He would not be surprised to learn that more than just words were required to get Dean to a place so close to insanity.

“I blame Alistair for this, Dean, not you,” Castiel says, when the quiet becomes too much. Dean starts to protest, but Castiel does not allow him to argue, holding up a hand until he goes quiet. “He is very clever, Dean, and very very skilled at persuasion. He saw you had a weakness and he exploited it. You’re not the first person to be tricked by him, and I doubt you’ll be the last.” Looking into the bleak misery of Dean’s face, Castiel is hit by an intense desire to close the distance between them, to make it better. The monster has gone but has left Dean wounded, and Castiel does not know how to stop the bleeding, how to staunch the flow of guilt and despair before it does lasting damage. “You stopped,” Castiel reminds him. “You were strong enough to stop.”

“Only because of what you did, your scars,” he says. “What is wrong with me that I could even think about doing something like that? Do you think there’s something wrong,” he asks suddenly. “Something wrong in my head? There were guys, good guys, who went mad during the war? Maybe I’m like that?” 

“Dean, there is nothing wrong with you.” Castiel puts his fingers on Dean’s cheek, turns his head so that he can look into his green-eyes. They are shiny with held-back tears. “Alistair could get anyone to do anything. He did it to me too, remember? It was a different kind of persuasion but in the end, it worked. I did exactly what he wanted.”

“That’s different, Cas. You were never going to hurt anyone.”

“I hurt you.”

“Not the same,” Dean laughs. It sounds hollow, filled with darkness. “It’s not even nearly the same and you know it. Nothing is going to make this right, and it’s still in me, the anger. I can still feel it.” He rubs his fingers over his chest as if he can feel the place where the darkness is lurking.

Dean’s sadness and regret is palpable. It circles him, holds him, like a noose around his neck that might snap his spine at any moment. Castiel feels for him, feels the anguish and wants to make it better. The silence goes on and Castiel tries to fill it; to stop Dean’s thoughts from turning inwards where he will rip himself apart.

“I was arrested for political crimes,” he says suddenly. Dean looks at him as if he has gone mad. “You wanted to know why I was here. I’m telling you. I can also tell you that I am innocent, and that a lot of the men here are innocent.” Dean just blinks. “I have a friend, or more like an ex-colleague, that I sometimes write to in London and he writes to me, just about our work mostly. Apparently they intercepted one of these letters addressed to me and decided I was an ‘agent of foreign influence,’” he says, making speech marks around the charge, “And a danger to the people. You know I’d believed the Collective’s propaganda as well, Dean, up until then. I came home as a triumphant soldier, a survivor fresh from the war, and within a week they’d sent me off to die, all over again...”

“You fought for the Collective?” Dean asks.

“Yes, Dean. I fought for the Collective just like you, just like Benny, and just like Lee... though technically Benny did commit a crime. He was caught in possession of anti-Collective propaganda.” Castiel pauses for effect. “He was smuggling in banned books from Europe on his boat, novels. I think he said that Agatha Christie’s were the most popular.” Dean smiles and Castiel feels like he has won another war.

“They didn’t even give me a trial,” Castiel says, falling back into the original topic. “I just got put in a holding cell for two weeks—a tiny room with thirty other men, worse than the barracks in a lot of ways—and then they hauled me out to stand in front of a judge, with no explanation. I was asked if I’d committed the crime I was charged with. I said no. They sentenced me to ten years correctional-labour, because I didn’t confess or have remorse for my crime... the crime I didn’t commit.”

“Shit,” Dean says. “I always thought I wouldn’t believe you if said you were innocent.”

“But..?”

Dean smiles sadly. “But I do, and that just makes it worse.” He goes quiet again, and this time Castiel cannot think of a single thing to say. “I don’t want to want you,” Dean whispers, a few minutes later. “But I do, and I don’t know what to do with it.” He looks young, so exposed and scared that Castiel aches with it.

“Neither do I,” Castiel shrugs.

Dean’s lips twitch into a forlorn looking smile. “God, I missed you so much, Cas,” he says.

There is a flash of fire in Dean’s eye, warm and welcoming now instead of cold. Castiel moves. There is no hesitation. He kisses Dean without a thought, without a single doubt that it is the right thing to do. His body aches for the touch in a way he did not know was possible. Dean response is careful but eager. Castiel can feel the brush of Dean’s long eyelashes as he closes his eyes, giving himself up to whatever this thing is between them.  

Dean’s hands are gentle as they slide around his back, brushing lightly over his scars in a way that makes Castiel’s breath stutter and catch in this throat. Castiel welcomes the touch, though it is new and strange to feel the skim of fingertips that are not his own, on his skin. Dean’s hands are warm and careful on his ribs, along his jaw, running into his hair and holding Castiel’s head at just the right angle to dip his tongue into Castiel’s mouth, tentative and exploring. It is the touch of a lover and Castiel welcomes it.

He leans back, putting enough space between them that he can run his hand over the buttons of Dean’s shirt. “Take this off,” he says, surprising himself with the request. Castiel is stripped to the waist, it only seems right that Dean do the same.

Dean smiles nervously, his cheeks are flushed with fever and his lips are kiss-pinked and wet. Castiel’s mouth goes dry and he licks his lips unconsciously as Dean opens the buttons. He stops there, letting the fabric hang open, but does not take it off. It is enough. They are both out of their depth in this, and Castiel will not push if Dean is unsure.

They lock eyes for a stunned minute, each daring the other to put a stop to this, whatever it is. No one does. Their hot mouths are moving over each other a moment later. The press of skin-to-skin when Dean leans over him, and presses him back, is perfect. Castiel shivers and smiles into their kiss, enjoying the discordance of the gentle tug as Dean drops small nipping bites on his lips.

For a while, it is as if the world has stopped, Castiel’s focus narrows to the wet slide of Dean’s mouth and the smooth shapes and sharp angles of Dean’s body under his hands. The world speeds up again as Castiel feels the hardness of Dean’s cock rubbing against him, and realises that he is also hard and leaking in his pants. Dean’s touches grow desperate, he is all need and he moans into Castiel’s mouth when he makes room for Dean between his legs, bringing their groins together in a deliciously agonising grind.

Dean’s hand falls to Castiel’s fly, “Is this okay?” he asks, and keeps asking, “Can I touch you?” Castiel answers every question with a yes.

There are reasons, good reasons, to stop this before it goes too far; Dean is hurt and confused, Castiel only just escaped with his life, but they are the same reasons they need this moment of consolation, of refuge, of something other than pain and cruelty. Castiel cannot find it in himself to give a fuck. They will probably both be dead as soon as Alistair realises his plan has failed, so why not have this—a moment of good, stolen from the darkness.

Dean rubs Castiel through the fabric of his pants, leaning so that he can brush his mouth over the red welts, the dots and dashes of Castiel’s scars. It feels like he trying to apologise for Alistair’s crimes, but when Castiel tries to stop him, Dean just murmurs, “You’re beautiful,” as if that explains everything.

With more experience, Castiel lets Dean lead, though they are both fumbling like teenagers at a lookout point. “Is this good?” Dean asks when he slips his hand inside Castiel’s fly and pulls at his swollen flesh. Castiel does not last long under Dean’s hand, shuddering as he comes in his pants. He thinks he should be embarrassed by that, but he just does not care. The thought is lost entirely when Dean kneels over him, pushing his own pants out of the way to get his finger around his own flushed cock. He strips himself hard and fast, and comes when he stoops to catch Castiel’s mouth with his own. Warm come splatters over Castiel’s naked chest and stomach, covering him in new marks, marks he chose.

 

~*~

 

They lie together on their make-shift mattress catching their breath, feeling their racing heartbeats slow, until they are beating as normal. Dean pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and attempts to clean the mess from Castiel’s belly. It makes him laugh.

“What?” Dean asks.

“I didn’t think you were the type to carry a handkerchief, that’s all,” Castiel says. 

“It’s useful,” Dean says in defence.

Castiel feels drunk, and tired, like he could close his eyes and sleep for a week. He drifts in the comfortable quiet, with only the distant sound of the wind in the tree-tops, and the occasional plaintive call of a bird of prey overhead.

“Does this make me gay, now?” The question comes out of the blue. “I don’t feel any different, do you?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel says, pulling Dean into a hug and hooking his chin over his shoulder. “I don’t think I feel different, a little happier perhaps, but that’s not the sort of gay you’re talking about is it?” It is a poor attempt to lighten the mood, and Dean sits up, pulling away. “I don’t know what it makes either of us. I think that’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself.” He rubs a soft circle between Dean’s shoulder blades, trying to soothe the nervous tremors that shake Dean’s body each time he draws a breath. “Nothing has to happen, you know. You’re a guard and I’m supposed to be dead,” he says, “It’s not a great basis for a relationship.” This time Castiel is rewarded with a small huff of a laugh from Dean. It sparks something warm and cosy in his chest that spreads through the pathways of his body until he can feel it everywhere, even in his fingertips. It is sad to know it cannot last.

“Alistair won’t be happy with you after this. He’ll be watching us closer than ever. Maybe this is it for us, this is what we get, and when you’re out of here and back in the world, you’ll forget.” Castiel means it as a reassurance, a way for Dean to get out of a situation he is uncomfortable with, instead it makes him ache like an open wound.

“I don’t want that either,” Dean mumbles, “I don’t want to forget.”

He links his fingers with Dean’s, tangling their hands together. Dean is flushed all the way down his neck and it makes his freckles stand out in clusters, like stars painted on his skin. It is a moment of peace that is over too quickly.

“What do we do about Alistair?” Castiel asks of the rafters. If he looks up he does not have to see the frustration in Dean’s face. “He’ll punish you if I go back to the camp with nothing more serious than a bruise.” He runs the pads of his fingers over the swollen part of his cheek, it is bad, but it will heal, just like everything else.

“He isn’t here, he left this morning,” Dean says, sounding brighter than Castiel expected. “The higher-ups are sending someone to supervise while he’s away, but he put me in charge until then.”

“Then he’ll have Gordon watching you, and maybe some of the others as well. It will be all round the processing-plant by now that you brought me out here, plenty of people saw us go. Everyone will expect something to have happened, and Alistair won’t be gone forever, he’ll find out one way or another.”

Dean nods and hums while he thinks. “I don’t think it was the killing part he was interested in,” he says with a grimace. “If we let them think that I... that I did... you know...” Dean trails off awkwardly.

“The word you’re looking for is rape, Dean. You were going to do it; you should be able to say it.” The chastisement comes out sounding a lot harsher than Castiel intended, but he cannot be entirely sorry for Dean’s humbled expression.

Dean tries again, cautious eyes on Castiel while he speaks. “If we let them think the rape happened, and we don’t get seen together at all for a while, that might be enough. It should be enough until Alistair gets back from Washington, anyway.”

Castiel nods his agreement. It is going to have to be a very convincing act to keep them both safe. “You have to beat me.”

“What?”

“You have to hurt me,” Castiel says. “Make sure it looks bad.”

“I’m not doing that.” Dean stands up, starts straightening his uniform, doing up his fly and the shiny buttons on his shirt. “No fucking way, Cas. I can’t go there, not now, not after what happened.”

“You have to,” Castiel says. There is no room for argument. “It’s the only way we might both get to live through this.”

Dean sinks back to the floor and drops his head into his hands. “Fuck,” he growls. “This is so fucked up.”

Castiel rubs a hand across Dean’s shoulders. “Everything out here is always fucked up,” he says. “Why should this be any different? It’s the best way.” He stops, looks around the shed. “Maybe I can do it myself?” If he can save Dean from re-visiting that black-hole part of him, Castiel will try.

The sigh that comes from Dean is weighed down with resignation. “No. It’ll be quicker if I do it.” He stands up, offering a hand to pull Castiel to his feet alongside him.

“Wait,” Castiel says suddenly. Dean looks at him, clearly hopeful that he has changed his mind. “Don’t we need to get the supplies? Wouldn’t it be easier to do that first?”

“Jesus, Cas.” Dean rolls his eyes, but his lips are tilted up at the corners. “They really broke the mould when they made you, didn’t they.”

Castiel frowns. “I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“Never mind,” Dean says. “Let’s get this over with.”

Chapter Text

A body hangs from a pipe that runs across the ceiling, rusted in places, but strong enough to take the dead-weight of a full-grown man. He must have thrashed about as he died, the body fighting back automatically, no matter what the mind decided. His neck didn’t break, that’s for sure. The prisoner’s face is dark and swollen, lips blue from suffocation.

Dean looks at the list. The thin paper is crumpled where he grips it too tight. It’s hard to read. Hard to concentrate with the dead body just hanging there like so much dead meat, eyes bulging out like a Halloween mask. Prisoner A-643; he finds the number. Zachariah Adler: twenty years for sedition, terrorism, and working against the interests of the people. Dean vaguely recognises the name and the man, even with his face messed up, though he can’t remember if it’s a memory from before the camp, or just because the poor fuck was one of the survivors of the fire in Hut 19.

“Hey, Creedy, Winchester, look at this,” Roy calls out, laughing as he pulls the body towards him ducking under one of its stiff arms. He grins and circles the corpse’s waist to gives thumbs up on the opposite side. “Where’s that little shit Kevin, with the camera,” he asks. “We should get pictures of this shit.”

“The camera is for documenting the incident, not for you to fuck about with the corpse, Officer Miller,” Dean says.

“Aw, come on, Winchester. Lighten up, he doesn’t mind, do you Buddy?” He grabs hold of the man’s blackened face and pulls at it until it’s pulled into a disturbing parody of a grin. “Look, he likes it.”

Dean bites on his tongue to stop from saying anything he might regret. “Just stop, okay.”

“Jesus, boy, you’re no fun at all anymore,” Roy grumbles, though he does what he’s told and leaves the body swinging gently behind him as he moves away.

“He’s missing the commander,” Creedy teases. “Don’t worry; Daddy won’t be gone too long.”

“It’s not the commander he’s missing, it’s that creepy piece of ass he’s been pounding,” Roy leers. “You need a little alone time with your special friend to work out some of the stress of being in charge, huh?”

“Shut the fuck up, both of you,” Dean hisses. “I’m just trying to do my damn job.” He tries to keep the irritation out of his voice, to play along a little for appearances sake, but can’t quite manage it.

He knows Roy is pulling faces behind his back. This is how it’s been since Alistair left for Washington, surprising everyone by placing Dean in command, until a temporary supervisor could undertake the long journey from headquarters to Alaska. It wasn’t fun, but Dean could deal with a bit of shit from the other officers for a few weeks. It would go fast and he had plenty to keep him busy.

The clatter and muffled yelp of someone falling down the stairs into the basement, announces Kevin’s arrival on the scene. He is out of breath, as always, and he fumbles with the strap of the camera case, eyes darting nervously to the guards and the body swinging between them. “The camera,” he gasps between ragged breaths, “Like you wanted.”

“Thanks.” He nods at Kevin, meaning for him to leave, but the boy doesn’t move. He stares at the dead prisoner with something that looks a lot like fear. “Kevin?” Dean says, slowly. “Are you okay?”

The kid shakes himself, sending his shaggy black hair flapping around his head like a deranged crow. “Yes, no, yes. I mean...” He darts a look at the corpse. “That’s Mr Adler,” he says in a whisper, almost reverent.

“You knew him?”  

“Oh, no, nothing like that. I just... I remember the trial from when I was a kid. My family were supporters of his, you know.”

“He had supporters?”

“Yeah, supporters of the RWP: the Revolutionary Workers Party.” He looks up at Dean, all youth and innocence. “That’s probably the reason we all got sentenced actually,” he says simply, as though it’s nothing. “My Dad, he still had some of their pamphlets in his desk when the OSS came and searched the house. He’s dead now, my Dad, I mean. I never found out what happened to Mom.” He shrugs and asks if he can go back to the office. Dean sends him off with a single nod of his head, too uncomfortable to be able to think of anything appropriate to say.

Dean looks at the body. He never troubled himself with politics, he was too busy fighting and trying to stay alive to pay much attention to anything beyond the next order and what he needed to know to follow it. Castiel will know who Adler was, Dean thinks. He makes a mental note to ask the next time he sees him.

Dean is busy, and even if he wasn’t, he feels shame about what happened out at the storage-hall. He can’t sleep for the guilt, going over and over it all as he lies in the dark. All the ways he failed. All the ways he was weak and susceptible to Alistair’s plan. They both have had to put on a show for the prisoners and guards and Dean finds it exhausting, putting up with the comments and sick jokes the officers make at Castiel’s expense. Gordon is the biggest problem, always watching when Castiel is in the exercise-yard. So far, the bruises that Dean unwillingly put on his body, and the way he shuffles with his head down, avoiding eye-contact, staying silent—it is an Oscar worthy performance—has stopped too many questions being asked.

“Poor fuck,” Dean mutters, as Roy and Creedy make a ham-fisted job of cutting the corpse free of the rope around his neck.

“Don’t be feeling sorry for him, Dean,” Creedy pipes up. “The asshole had it coming to him. Someone was going to step up eventually if he didn’t do it to himself.”

“If he didn’t do it himself..? You don’t think it was suicide?” Dean asks casually.

Creedy’s laugh is cut short, and he and Roy exchange a worried look. “No. I mean, sure it was suicide,” he says with a shrug. “I just mean it would have happened sooner or later anyway, so no point in being down about it.”

“Okay,” Dean says, not nearly convinced by Creedy’s explanation, but ready to let it rest for the time being. It’s a pretty clear-cut suicide and he would need more to go on than Creedy’s gossip to set up an investigation. “Finish cutting him down, I’ve seen enough. Put him out back with the others. You can get some of the inmates to dig the grave.” He tucks his pen behind his ear, a habit he’s acquired over the last few days from documenting everything. He used to just put spare smokes up there.

“Right you are, Sir,” Roy says, voice dripping with sarcasm.

Dean turns his back, walks out into the warmth of a summer morning, leaving the others to pull faces and flip the bird behind his back. Alistair would not let their behaviour stand for long, but Dean is past doing things the way Alistair would do them. He pulls his tobacco tin from his pocket, pinching strands of fragrant weed between his fingers and dropping them onto gummed paper. It’s a long practiced motion. The tobacco is old, getting dried out in the heat, but it’s all he has until the next supply train out of Anchorage arrives, and it’s better than nothing.

He leans back, tilts his head and blows out a cloud of blue-grey smoke. When he looks up, all he can see is the vibrant blue of the sky, pure and dazzling-clear. He can pretend for a moment that he’s somewhere else, back home in Kansas perhaps, before the war, when the most dangerous thing he did was ditch math class. It would be so simple; no camp, no Alistair, no guards to get on his nerves, and no Castiel to confuse him with his dry humour and too blue eyes.

When Dean finally gives up his perfect piece of sky for the noisy yard, Castiel appears, as if the thought had summoned him. He’s carrying a bucket to the water pump, limping, and making slow progress; a part of the act, and uncomfortably convincing in its performance. Castiel, like many of the inmates, had witnessed enough of the real thing to be able to fake it effectively—and isn’t that just horrible. It’s not as if Dean didn’t already have enough to keep him awake at night. The blue and purple bruising around Castiel’s eye, his cheek, and the corner of his mouth, however, were real. It makes Dean’s skin crawl to see it.

Castiel goes about his task methodically, rinsing the bucket, soaking a rag, holding it to his bruised face to soothe the throb of his healing injuries. He shoves his head under the tap for a few seconds to wet his hair, before coming up shaking like a dog, spraying droplets in a circle all around. The sight makes something catch in Dean’s throat and he coughs the smoke from his lungs. Castiel does not look over but he knows Dean is there. His determination not to look gives it away. It’s part of the deal they made; play it safe, stay away, don’t look, don’t touch, don’t do anything but play their hideous roles of victim and abuser—it burns Dean like acid eating through his bones that it came so close to being true.

Walt Taylor joins him, his own stubby cigarette clenched between yellowed fingers. “Room for one more?” he asks pleasantly enough. Dean nods to the space on his left.

“You guys finished up down there already?”

“Nah, just needed some air. Dead ones give me the willies even more than the living ones do,” he jokes, nodding at the ragged men going about the mundane business of life in a labour-camp. Dean doesn’t need to look at Walt to know when he sees Castiel, wobbling his way back to Hut 17 with his bucket re-filled and dripping. “Hey,” Walt says, poking Dean painfully in the ribs with a sharp elbow. “That’s your one isn’t it?”

Dean makes a noncommittal kind of noise in the back of his throat.

Castiel stumbles on his way, tripping over something or nothing. It could all be a part of the show. Walt chuckles. “Personally, I prefer them a little more female, but heck if you didn’t fuck that one up good and proper, Winchester.” Walt slaps him on the back for a job well done.

Dean viciously grinds the stub of his roll-up under the heel of his boot, wishing it was Walt’s face. He plasters on his best sneer, the mask he has to hide behind and says, “Yeah, good and proper. He’s fucking loud that one too, a real screamer.”

Walt laughs and points an approving finger in Dean’s direction. “You know, some of us weren’t sure about you at first, Winchester, but you’ve really started to fit in around here.”

Dean’s stomach turns over and he clamps his jaw shut to keep from throwing up. 

 

~*~

 

Area supervisor, Victor Henriksen, arrives three days later. There is no fanfare and no military escort. He doesn’t even have a driver for the small jeep that drives up to the prison gates. It is such unexpected behaviour from a Collective official that Bennet sends for Dean, to verify his papers, before he will open the gate. It’s Walt that throws the heavy bolt and drags the gates open and he does it with a bad grace and a scowl as sour as rancid cream. Walt is old school. He doesn’t like change and it’s as if, with Victor and his fresh-painted vehicle, he can see a new age coming for them down the road.

Even the dust from the exercise-yard doesn’t seem to want to spoil the deep green of the jeep as he drives in. There’s no rust or clunk of tired gears, no creaking protest of the suspension, the thick tyres bump along happily over pot-holes and ruts that make the prison trucks screech in agony. It’s a strange and pristine anomaly in the rotting camp.

Most of the men are out at the plant, but those who work the yard stop and stare at the new arrival, gawping as if they had just witnessed the arrival of aliens from outer space, a flying saucer instead of a brand new car. A hard look from Dean has the prisoners ducking and scurrying on their way. He carries a new air of threat with him now, after what they think he did to Castiel. Dean ignores the familiar flutter of discomfort at the recollection and steps up to greet the Supervisor, friendly smile fixed firmly in place.

This man is an unknown quantity and Dean figures it’s best to approach with caution. “She’s a sweet thing,” Dean says, by way of introduction, as he runs his hands over the warm ticking hood. “New?”

“Four months I’ve had her,” Henriksen replies, puffing up proud, like a father. “Couldn’t bear to leave her behind at HQ since I don’t know how long I’ll be here, and she’s small enough that transporting her wasn’t a problem. You like cars?”

“Sure. Not much call for them out here though,” he says. “No place much to go, in any case, and the roads are a mess.”

“Well,” Henriksen says. “Do your time well out here, and there’ll be posts enough in town later down the line.” Victor grins and Dean can’t help but return the smile. “Commander Victor Henriksen, North Area Supervisor,” he says, putting a hand forward. Dean takes it, automatically giving his name and rank in return. “Now, Dean—you don’t mind if I call you Dean, do you?”

“Of course not, Commander.”

“Great and you can call me Victor.” Henriksen opens the back door of the jeep and hauls out a large military issue duffle, slinging it over one shoulder. “Now, I don’t know how your usual Commander runs things, but out in the wilderness sites, I think it’s good to foster familiarity between the different ranks, and even between the prisoners and the officers when it pays to work together. After all,” he says. “It doesn’t make much of a difference which side of the fence we are officially on, we’re all stuck out here together, and we have to make the best of it.” He stops, looks around at the camp for a moment, his head tilted and lips pursed, considering what he sees. “Some people find my methods a bit modern for their tastes. I hope you won’t have a problem trying something new?” Henriksen asks. The small frown wrinkling his forehead as he watches the dirty gang of a cleaning team heading for the latrines, makes it clear he is not impressed.

“I think it’s always good to try new approaches to a problem,” Dean answers diplomatically.

“Excellent,” Henriksen says. He claps his hands and rubs them together enthusiastically, as if he’s about to get down and start scrubbing the place clean single handed. “I believe Alistair left you in charge, so I’ll be relying on you to help me get to grips with how the camp runs.”

“Sounds good to me,” Dean says. “Shall I start by showing you around?”

Victor makes a good first impression as he strides about the camp, often leading the way instead of being shown, always asking questions, always polite, and always considerate of Dean’s position and deferring to his greater knowledge of the camp and its inmates. Despite his pleasant enthusiasm, there are times when his expression betrays him, when he examines the sleep-huts, when he asks about hygiene facilities, when he stops to talk with Garth about the prisoners’ rations; it’s obvious he has issues with conditions in the camp.

Dean takes it all in as if he is also seeing it for the first time. He knew things were bad, had tried in his own small ways to help, back when he was new. But time and familiarity had worn him down, same as the other guards, same as the prisoners. What once shocked him had become normal, ordinary. It’s amazing how fast someone can adapt to their surroundings. He got used to the noise and stink and racing adrenaline of wartime, and now he is used to the degradation of these men—ordinary men, people with ordinary lives who did little more than back the wrong side in the big prize fight for control of the country. He had let himself be blind to it, and it wasn’t all down to Alistair, Dean had been getting on with business and looking the other way for a very long time.

Victor takes a small book from his pocket, plucking a pencil from where it was housed in the spine, and starts scribbling notes as they walk. Dean can’t see the details but he gets a glimpse of the word “Projects,” jotted at the top of the page, followed by a neat numbered list. The wind blows harder suddenly, ruffling the pages as Victor writes his notes. There is a coolness to the breeze that has been missed.

“Shall we head to the office, now,” Henriksen says, pocketing the book. He sniffs the air saying, “I think there might be some rain coming in before nightfall.”

He is right. The weather changes that day. A summer of dry bones and ashes draws to a close as the wind races south from the arctic circle. Trees that sagged in the short hot summer stand straight, stretch out, and lift their crowns to taste the clear cool air, while nature chatters in the cradle of their boughs. Rains come next; gentle at first, in drizzle and mist, then harder, roaring in squalls and storms. The camp welcomes fall as a respite, a breathing space, a pause, before the slow ravages of winter take hold.

There are changes from day-one. The officers grumble behind Victor’s back about how, “He’s changing too much,” and “He’s soft on the prisoners.” They comfort each other with the knowledge that everything will go back to normal when Alistair return. Dean plays along with them, they think he is Alistair’s man, but he likes Victor, and he sees in him the value of working in the correctional-labour system.

Victor believes the prisoners are here to work off their debt, not to suffer for it, and that healthy prisoners make better workers, better workers have a higher output, more output is better for the Collective, and therefore better for the people. It’s a simple philosophy, straight forward and to the point. No matter what Dean says to placate Gordon and the others, he is glad about the improvements in the camp. Though he dreads what will happen when Alistair returns.

There is an increase in the prisoners’ rations at every meal. Meetings with all the team-leaders are fixed, once a month, where any issues can be raised. Victor sets down rules and operating procedures for handling the quarterly post delivery, that requires letters and packages to be handed out before the officers can rifle through and confiscate most of it to sell on. He approves the use of lumber from the processing-plant to renovate the sleep-huts and latrines. There is even talk of designs for a shower block, of running pipes out from the administration building and under the main part of the exercise-yard.

He involves the inmates in his decisions, asking for volunteers and looking over files to find people skilled in areas that are useful to his projects. Without Alistair’s presence, life at the camp starts to settle into something, if not good, then approaching liveable, at least. The prisoners’ spirits rise with the extra energy of increased protein rations, and they gain colour in their cheeks, purpose in their steps. They stick to the ground like regular humans instead of drifting like wraiths, at risk of being blown over by a sharp breeze.

 

~*~

 

Dean knocks on Victor’s door after nodding a curt greeting to Kevin—who no longer looks like a rabbit in the headlights. He is wearing a clean white shirt and though it’s frayed at the cuffs and collar, he could easily be taken for any other young clerk, in a thousand different offices, all across the country.

“Come in,” Victor shouts. He smiles as Dean opens the door and walks in with the weekly work-report out in front of him, like an offering.

“Quota report,” he says. “Output went up by three percent on last week, even with the half-day rest.” Dean places the small stack of papers on the desk.

“Good, that’s good, should satisfy the higher-ups that the camp is in good hands while Alistair is away.” Victor sits back in his chair and gestures for Dean to take a seat. “I wanted to ask you, Dean, if you had any idea who might make a good assistant or book-keeper? I’m looking for someone to carry out some work for me, here in the offices.”

“Can’t Kevin do it? He’s good with numbers or so I’ve been told.”

“I don’t want to pull Kevin from his regular tasks, and he seems happy where he is. This would be for a special project,” he narrows his eyes and Dean suddenly feels like he’s under a microscope, pinned out and ready to be poked and prodded and examined. “Dean, you’re relatively new here I understand?”

“Six months,” Dean says, “Or a little longer, by now.”

“And you’ve been very helpful in implementing the changes I’ve made.” Dean nods in acknowledgment of the compliment as Victor goes on. “I get the impression that you’re happy with the way the projects are going?”

“Yes,” he says carefully, unsure where the conversation is heading. “The men are more comfortable and their work has improved a lot, in quality and quantity.”

Victor leans forward, places his palms flat on the surface of the desk. When he speaks his voice is quiet, conspiratorial. “I’m going to ask you to help me with this because I believe that you, unlike your colleagues, actually care about how this camp is run. So, I’m going to tell you something in strict confidence.” Victor’s face goes stone-cold and serious. “If I find out you’ve talked to anyone outside this room I will make sure your career is over. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“And are you sure want me to continue?” Victor asks.

He is offering Dean a way out instead of forcing the confidence on him, making him complicit against his will. It is this consideration, this respect, more than anything else, which gives Dean the courage to answer, without hesitation. “Yes, and after that introduction, I kind of have to know,” Dean says, trying to lighten the mood.

Henriksen looks relieved at Dean’s easy acceptance. “I’ve been looking over the books and some... questions have come up about the flow of money through the camp.”

“You think it’s on purpose, not just bad record-keeping?”

Victor smiles a little at that. “I think a man who keeps a large house and a fleet of high-end cars, can’t be doing it on wages alone. Believe me, Dean, we don’t get paid that much. But that’s hearsay, and I’ve heard other stories about Alistair and his heroics during the war, but nothing was ever confirmed.”

“Detroit?” Dean asks. Alistair was highly decorated for taking the city from the Government, though it had ended in tragedy. Spiteful in defeat, the Government dropped chemical weapons on the civilian population, killing by the hundreds.

Victor nods. “What I want are hard facts. I need someone trustworthy to audit the books. It needs to be done quickly and discreetly. You know these prisoners better than me, is there someone who might fit the bill?”

“Does it have to be someone with experience of that kind of work?”

“Not necessarily. Why? You have someone in mind?”

“Yeah,” Dean says, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, I think I know just the man for the job.”

“Then bring him to me tomorrow. Let me have a look at him and then, we’ll see what we can do about removing Alistair from this command, for good.”

Patience isn’t a friend to Dean as he waits for the trucks to return from the work-site. There is something stirring in his veins, an eagerness he hasn’t felt since the first days of his residence at the camp. It’s been a while since he’s felt so alive, so awake. It has only been six months but feels like the place has been dissolving him, eroding him for years. Now, he brims with impatience as he watches the bend in the road, listening for the distant rumble of approaching trucks. He leans against the wall of the administration building as he waits, the end of a cigarette between his lips, tip glowing red as he drags the last of it into his lungs before discarding it, pressing it out under a foot that taps a restless rhythm.

Today he can see Castiel without the burden of fear that has kept Dean away. He kind of hates that he’s so pleased about it, that Victor’s request gives him an excuse. He still has doubts about what he feels, about what it is that stirs inside him when he thinks of dark-blue eyes and the warm slide of Castiel’s marked skin. He still fears Castiel in a way, in quiet moments when his father’s voice comes to him like an echo of the past, speaking of values and demands that belong to another time, a world of black and white, when Dean should have realised, long ago, that he has always lived in shades of grey. Whatever else he is, whatever they are or might be, first and foremost Castiel is Dean’s friend, and he won’t give up the one thing that still makes him feel human.

They’ll have to play it carefully, stay in the roles they have invented for themselves. It makes Dean ill to play the bully but now it might actually work in their favour. The gossips have laid most of the work for them, half the camp, and most of the guards—if Gordon’s filthy remarks are anything to go by—believe that Castiel belongs to Dean. Taking Castiel into the offices will be seen as confirmation of that, after all, it will only put Castiel closer to Dean, with more privacy and more access for whenever Dean has an itch he needs to scratch.

The idea makes him nauseous and Dean has to remind himself that it isn’t real. Sometimes, he slips into the act too easily. He spends sleepless nights staring at the underside of Montgomery’s bunk, trying to convince himself he isn’t the monster the whole camp thinks he is; the stories are not true. Alistair’s manipulations are still embedded in his mind and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. He still has questions about how Alistair was able to mangle his thoughts and direct his actions to such an extreme degree. Dean feels pathetic that a few words of sympathy and encouragement, over a measure of whiskey, had such an effect on him. This opportunity with Victor is good. It will work for them. Spending time with Castiel will help put those demons to rest, bring Dean back to the person he was before.       

He rolls another cigarette, absently thinking about what to say when the trucks arrive. There is no thought involved in the action, just muscle memory, and it surprises him when he lights up for the second time in barely ten minutes. Dean ignores what that says about the state of his nerves. He is half-way through the second smoke when the trucks rattle around the corner, swaying alarmingly as they bounce over pot-holes and stones. About fucking time, Dean thinks.

The sun is already low, touching the tops of the mountains, painting streaks of violent red and orange across the sky. Dean moves into the yard as the vehicles roll through the gates. Roy raises a middle finger at the prisoners crowded together in the back of the trucks, slouched and exhausted.

Dean shouts to get Creedy’s attention, as the guard climbs down from the cab of the first truck.

“Get me N-881, right the fuck now, Officer Creedy.”

“Yes, Sir,” Creedy says. He mock salutes and shoots a knowing grin over his shoulder as he disappears among the inmates.

Bedraggled men pour from the trucks like rats escaping a burning ship, scurrying into lines of five for the evening count that Victor has introduced. It seems like a pointless task to Dean. There are very few escape attempts from the camp. What would be the point? There’s nothing out there and nowhere to go. Victor insisted, so the men spend twenty minutes lined-up, before they can go back to their huts, their bunks, or the fire-pit and the food bubbling under Garth’s watchful eye.

Creedy reappears, dragging along a disgruntled Castiel with a fist full of shirt. “As requested,” Creedy says, pushing Castiel towards Dean. “Do me a favour, Winchester,” he adds in a stage whisper, “Don’t mess him up so badly this time, C-784 is out with a fever or some other bullshit, and we need this one at the mill.”

The urge to punch Creedy in his big fat face has never been stronger. “I’ll be careful,” Dean mutters, twisting his mouth into a leer. Dean feels a small sense of satisfaction that Creedy will be pissed when he finds out Castiel is off the saw-mill, though it’s muted by a flutter of concern. The other prisoners will bear the brunt of the guard’s anger in Castiel’s place.

Castiel hangs his head, resists eye-contact and shrinks in upon himself, flinching away when Dean circles loose fingers around Castiel’s arm. Dean makes a show of pulling him into the administration building without a word of explanation. If all this goes to plan, they will be able to drop the act at some point in the future, and rid Dean of the pain it causes to see Castiel act that way.

Castiel is soft and compliant as Dean drags him into a small room near the mess-hall. He hooks the corner of a bench with his foot, dragging it out from under a long table, and pushes Castiel onto it. He collapses, hits it hard, as if all the resistance, all the strength, has gone out of him, as if he has stopped fighting.

“It’s fine,” Dean says, taking a cursory look around the room, before shutting the door. “There’s no one else here, Cas.”

The transformation is instant and complete. Castiel goes from a sagging, helpless bag of bones, to upright and alert in a heartbeat. It’s like a jolt of electricity through Dean’s core, and fuck, he has missed Castiel.

“Are you sure?” Castiel asks, his eyes darting to the darkest corners of the room, squinting into the shadows.

“I’m sure. The others are on duty in the yard or up in the bunk-rooms.” Dean can feel it like a touch on his skin as Castiel’s eyes roam over him. His heart knocks against the back of his ribs, and despite the nervous tingle in his belly, and his ongoing confusion about what he and Castiel are, what he wants then to be, he can’t help leaning down to press a firm kiss to Castiel’s lips. He loves the way Castiel opens to him, tilting his head to deepen the kiss, willing and pliant under Dean’s hands, though he doesn’t let it go too far.

“Not that I’m not happy to see you, Dean, but why did you ask for me?” Castiel says, putting some distance between them. “It isn’t safe for us to be seen together. Alistair...”

“Alistair isn’t here,” Dean interrupts, going on before Castiel can open his mouth to argue. “And anyway, they all think we’re fucking.” He rushes on, heading away from the uncomfortable topic. “Henriksen has a position in the office he wants filled. He asked for my advice and I think you should do it.”

Castiel frowns. “Do you really think that’s a good idea? Alistair might have a few things to say if he comes back to find me alive and working at your side? We’ll both be strung up within a day.”

Dean grins, feeling slightly smug. “That’s where you’re wrong. The job is to look over the books for irregularities. Victor’s investigating Alistair’s handling of camp funds. He’s sure there’s money missing from the budget, and hell, you know better than me, Cas, conditions couldn’t be much worse than they are, and it isn’t supposed to be like this, there is money coming in for food and repairs, but it sure isn’t being used for that.” He pulls over a chair and sinks into it, stretching out his legs and letting the tension ease from his shoulders, just for a moment. Dean tips his head back, stares up at the ceiling, yellowed by time and the veneer of cigarette smoke, and says in a low voice, “Victor can have Alistair removed, maybe even arrested if there’s enough evidence.” He lets his eyes close, lets himself finally admit hope back into his heart. The feeling is dazzling. It seats itself behind his ribs and grows, until it fills him, tingling in his fingertips and his toes.

“Alistair has friends in high places. He might still wriggle out of it, despite any evidence.” Castiel sounds thoughtful rather than contrary.

Dean quells the stab of disappointment that Castiel can’t take a share of the hope being offered. He understands though, Castiel has been here a long time, and it might take just as long for him to believe that things can get better. “Isn’t it worth taking the chance, Cas?” Dean’s eyes wander back from the jaundiced plaster over their heads to looks at Castiel, trying to read what he’s thinking. Castiel gives nothing away. He sits forward, arms crossed over his chest, head tipped to the side, thinking rather than defensive. “If you can’t do it for yourself, Cas, do it for the other men, the ones that died, like Alfie, and Lee Chambers, and Zachariah Adler.”

Dean is about to go on when Castiel cuts him off, unexpectedly. “Zachariah Adler is dead?” Castiel asks, his voice going sharp. The tip of his tongue plays over his top lip as he frowns at the floor. Dean tries not to be distracted by the pink shine of it.

“A few weeks ago. He hung himself down in the furnace room.  You didn’t hear about it? News usually travels pretty fast inside the fences.”

Castiel looks mildly uncomfortable as he confesses, “I’ve been keeping away from the others as much as possible.”

“Still having trouble?”

“Yes and no,” Castiel says, “The rapists have learnt better than to try anything,” he says clenching his fists, still grey with bruises from the last guy that tried to catch him alone. “Now they say I’m a collaborator because I survived both you and Alistair.” He shrugs as if being shunned by the other inmates is nothing at all, and perhaps it isn’t to him. “I doubt working in the administration building will do anything to help matters.”

“So you’ll do it?” Dean perks up at the prospect.

“I’ll think about it,” Castiel replies. “If you’ll tell me how Zachariah died.”

“I already told you; he hung himself from the pipes in the basement. Guess he couldn’t take it anymore.”

“No,” Castiel mutters. Lines wrinkle his brow and his eyes go unfocussed, looking into the distance at something Dean can’t see.

“No? What do you mean, no?”

“I didn’t know him personally, but I knew of him, and believe me, Zachariah Adler would never end his own life. I didn’t support his group, but he was dedicated to the cause and still had influence, contacts on the outside.”

Dean scoffs at that, then stops when he sees the look on Castiel’s face and realises he’s being serious. “How can a prisoner have influence? Pretty sure you told me that people are sent here to be forgotten.”

“That’s the intention, but it doesn’t always work like that. There are people who are still sympathetic to the RWP and other groups that disagree with the Collective’s hold on power. I don’t know for sure, but I think Adler was still writing, still getting his word out into the world—via the railroad workers most likely, or someone in Anchorage perhaps. I don’t know. I never wanted to get involved. Sometimes the less you know the safer you are.”

“So what’re you saying? That someone got to him?” Castiel looks at him steadily, and Dean shrinks under his gaze. He feels small and stupid, ignorant about the world and the things he thought he had been fighting for all his life. It’s so easy to forget when Castiel is dressed in mismatched rags and dirt, his hair cut short, hacked off crookedly at Benny’s hand, that Castiel was a professor, he is smart like Sam; the sort of person Dean never would come into contact with in his old life. They would have passed each other by in the street, unnoticed, and it makes Dean extraordinarily sad to think it.

“Zachariah used to be in Hut 19,” Castiel says, “He got out with only minor burns. I helped treat the wounded that night, and he was shaken, very frightened, which I don’t think was typical for him. He told me that the Collective were going to kill him, that Lilith and Luke wanted him dead.” Castiel shrugs, “It looks very much like they succeeded, with Alistair’s help.”

“Alistair wasn’t here.”

“One of his flunkies then, Gordon, most likely.”

Dean runs a hand back through his hair. “I don’t know. I don’t think Alistair would bother with something as ordinary as murder. He’d think it was beneath him.”

“Unless there is something in it for him, like when you killed Alfie.” There is a bite in Castiel’s voice as he says the name that has hung between them, like a bad omen, since the day they met. Dean starts to apologise, though he knows the words are useless. Castiel stops him with a wave of his hand. “Things are different now,” he says, “We’ll leave that in the past.”

Dean hopes that one day he will be forgiven. “He has connections high-up in the Collective. It’s how he got me this post,” Dean says. “But it sounds like crazy-talk, I mean, Luke and Lilith Mauvais? How could they possibly have anything to do with it? It goes against everything they stand for. Shit, the Mauvais siblings basically founded the Collective.”

“You would have said the same about Alistair a few months ago.” Castiel points out.

Dean ignores the poke and tries to think it through logically. “If someone higher-up is giving the orders, if there was favour or promotion in it for him, then Alistair might be willing to get his hands dirty.”

“And if he knows the Mauvais’ crimes, they’ll want to keep it covered up. My God, Dean, Alistair could get them to do almost anything he wants,” Castiel adds.

“Wait,” Dean says. He remembers the day after that fire. Standing in the charred ruins, the centre of the space still intact as if... As if it had been burned from the outside in, instead of spreading from the bed of one prisoner, as the official record said. “I saw it the next day and didn’t even think.” He slaps a hand to his head. “The flames, the flames were on the outside of the hut. And the bar,” he says, “The bar for the door, part of it was still there because it had metal in it, melted metal, like...”

“Like it had been nailed shut?” Castiel asks.

Dean nods. “Exactly like that. Jesus, fuck.” Dean tightens a hand in his hair, letting the stab of pain ground him. It’s a terrifying thought, and it makes a horrible kind of sense. “Alistair talked about going to Washington, about weeding out anyone that might be doing damage to the Collective. He wanted me to go too, to help him.”

“He wanted you as his attack-dog,” Castiel says, filling in the last blank for him, “An assassin.”

Dean stares and Castiel stares right back. “He’s going for a seat at the table.” Dean says, quietly.

“He’ll sit on the central committee, at the very least,” Castiel agrees. “How long will it be until he moves against Luke and Lilith as well?”

Dean sinks his head into his hands. “Fuck,” he says, very eloquently. “He’s looking to lead, unopposed, and with an army standing behind him. Fuck!” He repeats it over and over, while his brain rebels. Look at what that fucker did to the camp, he thinks, what will he do to the country?

“There have been others,” Castiel says, startling Dean out of his thoughts, “Other men that have died in odd ways. There were the two who escaped that first night. Then Ezra and Ion, they were active in one of the socialist groups; they were accused of attacking one of the guards and executed. And years ago, when I first got here, I heard that Dick Roman had been here. The government men didn’t last very long, and Roman died in an accident. A pretty nasty way to go, a metal spike went through his neck and he choked on his own blood.”

They sit there, shocked in silence, for a while. “You think Victor has enough pull to stop him?” Castiel asks.

“He seems to think so, and you never know, the Mauvais’ might be happy to have Alistair removed, though they’re another problem, if all this is true.” Dean sighs and rubs his fingers into his eyes. It’s all too much, he just wants to go to sleep and forget about it all. “I know I probably shouldn’t, after everything, but I think I trust Victor. He treats people fairly, even the prisoners.”

“You need to stop doing that,” Castiel says, giving him a sour look.

Dean frowns, no idea what he’s said wrong. “Stop doing what?”

“Acting like the prisoners aren’t people. Don’t you think I’m a person?”

“You’re different,” Dean says.

“No, I’m not. Inside these fences we are all the same; rapists, murderers, political activists, and the innocent. We are all people, Dean, and Henriksen is right to treat us as such, no matter what.”

Dean looks away, pulls at the collar of his shirt. He’s too hot even though the room is cool. “Will you take the job with Victor then?” he asks.

“I don’t see how I can refuse,” Castiel replies. “If this is a shot at stopping Alistair we have to take it.”

Dean lets out a breath. “Then I’ll come and take you out of the morning count, Victor wants to see you before we get started.”

Chapter Text

Victor looks Castiel over appraisingly from behind the big mahogany desk. It’s a bright morning and Castiel blinks as the light gets in his eyes. Dean tries hard not to laugh, but the way Castiel frowns and scrunches up his nose in an attempt to remain composed under Victor’s examination, is hilariously adorable.

“You have brains enough for the job,” Victor says. He rubs his fingers through the short hairs on his chin and purses his lips, humming for a few seconds before continuing on. “To do this right, I’m going to need someone I can trust not to go shooting their mouth off about what we’re doing. Can I trust you...” He glances at the corner of the paper in his hands, “...Mr Novak. Dean here thinks I can, but I’d like to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.” He waits, sharp-eyed and focused, despite his casual appearance, leaning back in his chair until it creaks in protest.

“You can,” Castiel replies. “I’ve seen terrible things in the five years I’ve been here, and I have no doubt that Alistair is responsible for most of them. It would be good, for everyone, if he was gone. He is, um... unusually cruel in obtaining compliance with his wishes.”

“You’ve experienced this yourself?” Victor asks.

Castiel nods, “I have.”

Victor draws in a breath and nods his head in understanding. “Then I think you are the man for the job. I’d like you to start immediately.” Dean can hardly suppress the grin that tries to break out across his face. “There is just one more thing.” Victor turns to address Dean, who has been waiting, sitting in a chair set to the side of the desk. “Take him to the showers and see that he gets cleaned up.” He looks apologetically at Castiel. “I mean no offense, Mr Novak, but if we’re going to be working together on this task, I’d rather my nose didn’t have to suffer for it.”Castiel looks to be caught somewhere between offense and excitement at the prospect of a shower—one that does not fall from the sky—for what is probably the first time in years.

Dean hates to be the bearer of bad news, to ruin the small happiness he can see lurking at the corners of Castiel’s mouth, but he has to speak up.  “Do you think it’s a good idea to let a prisoner into the shower room? I’m not sure the other officers will be too happy.” Dean can only imagine the trouble it would cause if Gordon or Creedy came back to find a prisoner getting his grubby hands all over the guards sacred living space.

“Good point,” Victor says. “Use the bathroom attached to my rooms, upstairs.” He points to the ceiling as if the room in question were directly overhead. “I never go up there once I’ve started the day in the office, so feel free to use it anytime, after I’m up and about,” he speaks directly to Castiel, and Dean finds it more of a shock than he should, to see a high-ranking official talking to a prisoner so easily. Dean feels a stab of shame that he has become so immune to the inmates being treated like animals, like vermin, that a simple common courtesy looks like an aberration. “And find him something to wear. He looks like a damn scarecrow,” he says turning back to Dean, “That might do down at the saw-mill, but not in the offices. Get Kevin to help you, he knows where the donations are.”

“Donations?” Dean asks, confused, it’s the first he’s heard of anything like that.

“Yes, the donations,” Victor says, pulling his brows together as if Dean had just spoken to him in another language. “The donations that prisoners’ families and religious groups send, second-hand clothes and books, mostly. They go to a central office but all camps get a share of them...” He stops short. “You really have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” He rolls his eyes as he looks between Dean and Castiel, both of them shaking their heads. “Why am I not surprised?” He spins around and starts scribbling in his note book. The silver pen flashes in bursts as it wriggles across the page, catching the morning light. “That’s another thing on the list for Kevin to look into. Go on then, get on with it.” He dismisses them without looking up.

“That went well, don’t you think?” Dean says as he leads the way up the narrow flight of stairs to the commander’s rooms. The residence is at the top of the administration building, straddling one corner, its small windows looking out over the camp, watching, like a raptor primed for the hunt. “Maybe we should tell Victor about Zachariah and the other deaths?”

“I can see why you like Henriksen,” Castiel says from where he is trailing behind. “He speaks well, and everything is placed to make him seem sympathetic. I’m not sure we should trust him just yet. He is a part of the Collective, and we can’t know where his sympathies really lie.”

“You don’t want to help him get rid of Alistair?” Dean says, slipping into defensive mode.

“I didn’t say that,” Castiel mutters as he pushes past Dean and into the small, well appointed bathroom. “I’ll do the job he has given me. I just think we should be cautious. Right now we only have rumour and speculation to go on. Unless something more damning turns up I think we would be better to hold our tongues.” He stops and looks. He seems a little lost, like a dishevelled kitten in an empty room.

Dean opens up a nearby cupboard and extracts a new bar of soap and rough towel. “You want to shave?” he asks, eyeing up a razor.

“Yes, I think I would. Thank you, Dean.”

Dean grabs everything he thinks Castiel will need and turns to hand them over. He can’t help that his lips quirk up into a grin when he catches sight of Castiel’s face. To anyone else he would look the same as always, wearing an expression that could be summed up as, vaguely pissed off, but Dean knows better, and the glint of excitement in Castiel’s eye, the softening of the lines at the edges of his mouth, they give away his delight. “I’m going to have to leave the door open if I give you this,” Dean says, handing the razor over. “We’re not allowed to leave prisoners unsupervised with sharp instruments or with access to drugs.” Dean waves in the direction of the cabinet and a half-empty bottle of aspirin sitting alone on the top shelf. “I’ll be just outside the door, Cas, that okay?”

“It’s fine. I’ve had no privacy at all for the last five years.” Castiel’s mouth stretches into a smile and Dean feels his own grow wider in response. “Believe me, Dean, I’d undress in front of the guards, the prisoners, and the whole of the Collective, for the chance of a hot shower.”

“So you’re saying you’re an exhibitionist?” Dean teases. He gets a shove and an order to get out, for that.

Stepping over the threshold he pulls the door to behind him, leaving just enough of a gap to see through if he turns his head. Castiel may not think privacy is necessary, but Dean wants to give it to him anyway. This is probably the first chance Castiel has had to get clean since he was hosed down in cold water with lice soap, like all the new prisoners are, when they arrive at the camp. Dean leans back against the doorframe and waits.

The little sound of pleasure Dean hears, along with the patter of water on the enamel of the bathtub as the shower comes on, makes him smile. He zones out for a while, chewing at the corner of a fingernail after rolling a cigarette and pushing it behind his ear—he doesn’t know if Victor would appreciate someone lighting-up in his private rooms, and the last thing Dean wants to do right now is piss him off. The splash of the water as Castiel moves around under the spray, punctuated now and then by little sighs and hums, creates a strange but pleasant soundtrack. It takes a while for Dean to notice when the sound of Castiel moving under the spray peters out, leaving only the steady plash of water from the showerhead.

Dean knocks a knuckle on the white painted door. “You okay in there, Cas?” he asks. When he gets no response, he pushes the door a little wider, just to check, and ready with a quip on the tip of his tongue about Castiel being washed down the plughole now the dirt isn’t bulking him up. Instead, he’s struck dumb. He stands in the doorway and stares, and stares, and stares, as heat coils up low in his belly and wraps itself around his spine.

Lost to the pleasure of warm, clean, water, Castiel is standing with his head tipped back into the stream. Water flows over his naked body in trails, across his chest, his stomach, his thighs, his cock.  He looks like a statue, like something carved to excite feeling, to inspire love or worship. He isn’t doing anything. Castiel isn’t licking his lips, or running hands over his body, or stroking his dick, he isn’t doing anything to justify the dizzying feeling that hits Dean right in the chest like a gunshot, before going lower.

Castiel, who has his eyes closed and his ears filled with the flow of water and doesn’t know Dean is watching, starts to turn around. Dean bolts from the room, his face burning with embarrassment, as if he is twelve years old and never saw a naked body before. He’s at the bottom of the stairs before he remembers that he’s violating protocol by leaving Castiel alone.

There are footsteps in the corridor, growing louder, getting close. Dean checks his pants, makes sure there is no visible bulge where they have grown tight. Montgomery appears, keys and gun rattling on his belt as he dawdles, reeling slightly down the hall, like a sailor, ashore after too long at sea. It’s entirely possible that he’s drunk. The stale aroma of alcohol often hangs around the older guard, though alcohol is supposed to be regulated inside the camp. Dean can’t blame the old guy. He’s been working in the prison system most of his life, and Dean might turn to the bottle too if he had to put up with the brutal, miserable crap  that comes with the job, for that many years.

Montgomery looks up as he gets closer, blinking watery eyes at Dean, pale blue and clouded. “How goes it, Winchester?” He asks. A drunk he might be, but he’s harmless and friendly enough. “What you doing up here? I thought you had important business with the new man.” He pokes Dean in the stomach as he speaks. Unlike Gordon, or Walt, or Roy, or any of a dozen others, Montgomery does it without aggression.

“Just watching a prisoner,” Dean says, pointing up the stairs where the faint sound of the shower can still be heard. “Victor’s picked out a new guy for the office and wants him cleaned up.” Montgomery nods, his smile distracted and lazy. “Hey, you wouldn’t be a pal and take over for me for five minutes would you?” he asks, the idea pinging into his head so suddenly he has to stop himself from looking up to see if a cartoon light-bulb is hanging there. “I need to take a piss.” Nice excuse Dean, he thinks to himself, real classy. But what the heck, he wants out of there and if it works, it works.

“Sure, kid,” Montgomery replies. “When you gotta go you gotta go, am I right?”

“That you are.”Dean starts to walk away, calling back over his shoulder, “If he gets out before I get back, just take him to Victor’s office.” Dean has no intention of going back.

He makes his way back to Victor’s office instead. “Novak’s nearly done, Montgomery is going to escort him back.” Dean says as he enters the room, hoping to head off any awkward questions about why he left his post.

Henriksen looks up from his paperwork. “You sure about this prisoner?” he asks again, as he dashes a line through something, a single strong line, no hesitation.

“Yes, I have complete faith in him.”

“Only,” Victor begins and Dean’s chest tightens with fear that he has changed his mind, that he will send Castiel back to the saw-mill and charge him with insubordination. Not now, he thinks, not when there is finally some hope. “You just missed, Gordon,” Henriksen says. The words are weighed down with meaning, and it does not take a genius to figure out why. “He had some, shall we say, interesting theories about why you picked out Mr Novak in particular.”

“I’m sure he did,” Dean growls. He’ll kick Gordon’s ass up and down the exercise-yard if he’s ruined this for them, turned Victor against them.

Victor puts his pen down and it rolls away across the table, Dean finds his eye drawn to it. “I won’t insult your intelligence, Dean, by repeating exactly what he had to say, it sounded a lot like gossip and spite to me. But, just in case, let me be absolutely clear, I won’t have the prisoners in my care abused, in any way.” It’s straight to the point at least, no dancing around the matter, or creeping hints like Alistair would use. “If your interest in Mr Novak goes beyond what is acceptable, I will have you demoted, and transferred as far away from here as possible. Do you understand me?”

“I understand,” Dean says. He lifts his shoulders, meets Victor and his accusations head on. He has nothing to hide. “I know the rumours and they aren’t true. Ask Castiel, he’ll confirm it. We’re friendly and the other guards don’t approve. That’s all.” Is it a lie? It trips lightly from Dean’s tongue and feels like the truth. It is the truth, he decides, definitely. Whatever other confusing shit Dean might be feeling, whatever it is that pulls him to Castiel like a magnet, they are friends.

Victor’s smile doesn’t look faked or forced. “I’m glad to hear it,” he says. “I don’t put much store by gossip, and Mr Novak doesn’t exactly have the look of a man in fear, when he looks at you.” Henriksen’s eyes dart away to look at something over Dean’s shoulder, through the little hatch-window next to the door. “Ah, and here is the man himself.” He tips his head to the side adding a polite, “Take a seat, Dean.”

He returns to the chair he was in earlier, settling himself just as the door swings open at Victor’s call to enter. Montgomery comes in first, Castiel on his heels and running his fingers through still-damp hair. He glances quickly at Dean before focussing on Victor, standing quietly with his hands at his sides.

Dean can’t do anything but stare, his mouth falls open but he’s too stunned to notice.

“That’s much better,” Victor says, getting up from the desk and coming round to inspect Castiel more closely.

“I feel much better,” Castiel replies.

“Mr Tran picked out these clothes for you, did he?”

Montgomery clears his throat before he speaks. “The kid, T-254, he brought them up to your rooms, said it was on your orders, so I let it pass, though Winchester didn’t warn me about it.” He sounds pissed off, and glares in Dean’s direction.

“Very good, Montgomery, thank you. You can go,” Victor says, sending the older guard away

Dean barely notices. His eyes are stuck on Castiel. His pants are a rough dark weave, probably a bit tighter than they should be, with the fabric just skimming the muscle of Castiel’s thighs, but it doesn’t look bad, at all. His shirt is white, or it was, once. They aren’t new clothes and they definitely show signs of wear and tear, but, they could be the latest fashions, direct from Paris, France, in comparison to Castiel’s old clothes.

However, it isn’t the outfit that has Dean’s mouth going dry and his heart spinning like a top and going crazy inside his chest; it’s Castiel’s clean shaven face. Dean shifts uncomfortably in his seat, pulling his legs in, casually trying to cover his crotch with his arm. His cock twitches in interest completely out of Dean’s control. He can’t do anything but sit there with his mouth open, trying to think of a distraction, something to say, but all the words have fled his brain, it’s a mass exodus as they escape him, possibly never to be seen again.

Even with the layers of grime and scrubby stubble and beard it had been obvious that Castiel wasn’t what anyone would describe as ugly; he was still youngish, tall and relatively healthy, with two eyes, a straight nose, with all of his own teeth in his mouth, and all in their proper place. It hadn’t mattered that Dean hadn’t felt that urgent, hot, pull of lust like he did with the women he bedded. The need he felt for Castiel had been a slow burning thing, shivering in his spine and growing, demanding more attention every day. It was Castiel as a person, his company and his barbed-wire personality that had drawn Dean in—confusing for a man who had always been driven by more earthy and base desires.

He was utterly unprepared, therefore, at the realisation that Castiel was, in fact, incredibly good looking. His face is all smooth angles, with high cheekbones and a finely curved jaw; he looks like something divine, a god, or an angel. The spark, Dean realises, the burst and burn of instant attraction, wasn’t missing at all; it had just been waiting for the big reveal.

Castiel is looking at him with concern. Then Dean hears Victor’s voice. “Dean, Dean?” Fingers snap suddenly in front of Dean’s face making him jump. “Dean, are you okay?”

“Yes?” he says, too loud and too high in the sudden quiet. “I mean, yes, I’m good. Why?”

Victor gives him a strange look but lets it go without further remark. “I was just saying, I’d like Castiel to keep these clothes, and any others Kevin can find for him, for when he’s working here. I want them kept clean so please make sure they are laundered regularly, they can go in with the officer’s things.”

“Yes,” he blurts out. “Yes. I can do that.”

“And what do you think of Mr Novak, here? Is he fit to work in the administration building?” Victor asks.

“You look, you look... really... clean, Cas.” Dean clears his throat a few times, while Victor frowns at him.

Castiel looks at him, eyes glinting in amusement. “Thank you, Officer Winchester, I feel very clean,” he says. Dean can see he’s trying not to smile, the little shit.

He stands up, feeling a desperate need to be somewhere else, as soon as possible. “I’ll erm, somewhere out there,” he says, like the idiot he is, and steps carefully around Castiel to get to the door. If I touch him right now, he thinks, even by accident, I might just die of frustration.

“Come back at the end of the day, Dean. You are the one who nominated Mr Novak for this job, and given the nature of the task, I’d rather have you supervise him than leave it to the other guards,” Victor explains.

“No, no problem,” Dean says, bumping into the door as he tries to back out of the room. “Right, good. I’ll see you later, then.”He leaves the room feeling lightheaded and stupid, and tries very hard not to think about which part of his body his blood has dashed off to.

With the nights quickly drawing in again, the world has already turned the deep blue of twilight when Victor charges Dean with escorting Castiel back to the barracks. He suggests, before they leave, that Castiel, “Might be wise to keep his office clothes here, for safe-keeping.” Dean has to agree, but his reasons are based more on the feeling spinning through his mind, both possessive and fearful, that he doesn’t want the other prisoners, the criminals, seeing Castiel dressed like that. It feels like courting danger, unnecessarily.

Castiel reluctantly agrees to change back into his old work-clothes, shuffling off the main corridor and into a small empty office, to get it done. Dean hangs by the open door, to keep watch, apparently, but he finds it hard to pay attention to anything other than the dusky pink of Castiel’s nipple, and the freckle dotting his skin just above it. Dean’s been on edge all day and Castiel stripping a few steps away, does nothing to help matters.

“You’re being very strange, Dean,” Castiel complains.

“Sorry,” he apologises, and he means it. He does not mean to be a creepy asshole. “I’m just not used to you looking like this?”

“Looking like a normal human being?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know.” He steps inside the room and pulls the door closed. His heart rattles in his chest as he puts his hand on Castiel’s face, lets his index-finger trail over the virgin skin, hidden for so long behind dark wiry bristles. He skates his fingertip along Castiel’s jaw, down the side of his neck, mesmerised by the tanned skin, warm and perfect, even where it’s broken by Castiel’s many scars. Dean dips his head down, tastes the soap at the corner of Castiel’s mouth, and feels his clean-mint breath on a sigh from parted lips.

“I thought you weren’t sure you wanted this,” Castiel says, “That you wanted us to be like this.” He sounds grumpy but the lie of it is in the way he leans into Dean’s touch and the flutter of his eyelashes against Dean’s cheek.

Dean pulls away, runs the pad of his thumb over the swell of Castiel’s lower lip. “I thought you would have worked it out by now, with all those smarts of yours,” Dean says, honesty hanging on every word. “I’ve got no fucking idea what I want.” He whispers it like a confession, a secret dropped into the ear of a priest. “I thought I wanted to be a soldier. I thought I wanted a wife and kids. I thought coming here with Alistair would be the making of me, that I’d finally be the man my dad wanted me to be. I thought wanting you meant I was defective.”

“And what?” Castiel asks. “I take a shower and suddenly everything is different?”

“No. I just realised today, that I want you more than those other things, and maybe that does make me defective, or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t care, Cas. I liked you because of who you are, the way you talk to me, the way you think, and it’s the first time that has ever happened to me. This,” Dean says brushing his finger over Castiel’s cheek. “This is just a serious bonus.” He smirks and lifts his eyebrows. “What do you say, Cas? You want to take a few more of my firsts?”

There is heat in Castiel’s eyes, the shadow of a smile on his lips. “It would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity we’ve been given, while we have it.”

“Then we make every minute count.” Dean says.

The hint of a smile stays around Castiel’s mouth but there is a shadow in his eye. “Every minute we have left.”

“Don’t be so negative, Cas. We’ve got Victor on our side now. It’s going to be okay,” Dean says, wishing more than believing it to be true.

“I hope you are right,” Castiel says. He plants an artless kiss on Dean’s mouth. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He lets the door, slam shut behind him.

Dean follows to watch Castiel walk across the exercise-yard. The prisoners are back from the processing-plant and it’s busy with the bustle of inmates queuing for food. With his clean hair and smooth face, Castiel stand out like a new-arrived prisoner.

A catcall rings out above the regular hum of the inmates, drawing Dean’s gaze at the same time as Castiel turns to find the source. A frown squeezes a line between his brows. “Who’s a pretty one, then?” One of the men calls out. He has tattoos down his neck that identify him as a member of one of the criminal gangs. Another prisoner in the same group shouts, “If I’d known that was hiding under those whiskers, I’d have given you a good scrubbing before Winchester got his hands on you.” The first man, clearly the leader of the little group, makes a show of grabbing and rubbing his dick through his pants. His companions laugh and jeer, clamouring at his side.

Castiel is unmoved. He walks on without paying any more attention. Dean knew that Castiel had to deal with harassment. All the men were subject to it, the youngest being most at risk—it was well known that when there were no women around, it was the boys who were taken first—but Dean had never witnessed it before. A side-effect of Alistair’s violent aversion to homosexuals was that he clamped down hard on anyone thought to be promoting it inside the camp, and that included rape. With Alistair away, the guards would have to keep a closer eye on what was going on in the yard.

Dean had always assumed the danger came from Alistair, or the guards, or poor conditions and ill health, the winter viruses that took inmates out in the hundreds, cutting them down like fragile stalks of wheat. Dean suddenly feels stupid that he never considered the danger of just existing in the camp, that the other inmates could be as big a threat as the people in charge. At least Dean’s supposed claim on Castiel should keep the worst offenders away. It’s not much of a comfort, but prisoners with disposable lives won’t want to pick a fight with a man holding a gun.

Watching Castiel disappear towards Hut 17 with the pack howling after him, Dean realises that he cannot allow Castiel to stay in the camp. Screw the Collective, screw the guilty verdict stamped in blocky red letters over Castiel’s paperwork. Dean needs to get out as soon as possible and Castiel has to go with him. It’s not about friendship, or whatever the fuck he’s feeling, this is about survival. Without Dean there, Castiel is vulnerable. He was right, Jesus Christ, was Castiel right; Dean put a target on his back and he will suffer before the end.

He goes back inside the administration building with his brain whirring, tracking the problem, turning it over and over. Each time he reaches the same conclusion; Sam, he needs to contact Sam. This is exactly the sort of thing he’s been working on, what Dean mocked his little brother for, calling him a “Soft-hearted Nancy,” on the good days, and a “traitor to the Collective,” on the bad. The last time Dean saw Sam they had argued about him taking the prison job, about Sam’s opinion on the Collective’s overzealous methods of conviction and correction. After all the arguments and the bad blood between them, not just with Dean but with John as well, Sam would have every right to turn Dean away with a laugh and an “I told you so.” It doesn’t matter, Dean has to try.

Chapter Text

Days pass and the mercury falls. Night eats away at the hours, closing in around the camp, making the days short. The world keeps to her schedule, and the prisoners soon wake to the diamond-shine of frost on the ground and the taste of approaching snow, fresh and tingling on their tongues. They bundle up, adding layers under their coats, stamping and breathing into cupped hands while they wait in the exercise-yard.

This year, Castiel is not among them.

There is a window in the office Victor has given him, no bigger than a shoe-box and layered with an accumulation of dust that is years-thick. It blurs his view, but Castiel can still see the prisoners moving into lines for the morning count. Sometimes he catches sight of Dean out there, supervising the last stages of construction on Hut 19. There will be fresh inmates arriving to fill it in the next week or two, racing to beat the winter storms to the camp. They are probably already on their way, in stifling holds, and freezing livestock cars, the living packed in with the dead.

The room is quiet, well away from the mess hall and the guards’ quarters. It is just Castiel, a desk, and rows of rusted filing cabinets that he sorts through, day-after-day, trying to uncover the secrets written between the names and the numbers. There is a strong smell of mildew, and dark whorls of mould pattern the wall, climbing up behind the metal cabinets. The spores irritate Castiel’s nose, and the dust scratches at the back of his throat, but it is a palace of comfort and tranquillity in comparison to the saw-mill.

“How’s it going?” Victor asks as he walks into the room. He does not bother knocking; as the incumbent commander of the labour-camp, it is his right to go wherever he wants.

Castiel pushes his chair out from the desk, climbing to his feet so that he can greet him in the proper way—inmates are not supposed to sit in the presence of an official of the Collective, unless specifically directed to do so. The back legs of the chair make an ugly scraping noise that sets his teeth on edge. Victor pulls a face at the sound as well. “Well, I think, Commander Henriksen,” Castiel says. He taps his index finger on top of a pile of papers, held down by the make-shift paper-weight—an empty metal cup. “Invoices from a business called Mallory Incorporated started coming in about six years ago.”

“And what’s the red flag on those?” Victor asks.

“Nothing obvious, in fact I discounted them to start with, as it all seems in order,” Castiel confesses. He picks up an invoice from the pile. There is nothing extraordinary about it at all, just a bill for twenty sacks of potatoes. “Then I started to notice that the invoices covered a lot of different things; most often food stuffs, but then there was one that included mechanical parts, and another for supplying two thousand pillows and blankets. It seems strange to me that one business would deal in so many different things at the same time.”

“It’s strange, but not impossible,” Victor says, biting at the skin on his lower lip while he thinks. “Have you followed it any further?”

“I can’t find any matching goods in the inventories,” Castiel says. “There is nothing from the last few years. I couldn’t find any records from early years. If they ever existed, they’re gone now.”

“And what sort of money are we talking about?”

Castiel looks at his notes, a column of pencil scratches, dashes and ticks. “So far, it comes to about seventy-nine thousand dollars.”

Victor whistles through his teeth. He has an elbow casually propped on one of the cabinets, as if they are chatting about the weather rather than stolen money. “That’s not exactly pocket change.”  

“The most recent came through just a few months ago, a two-thousand dollar charge for...” He looks down at his note-book, “...wire-mesh security fencing.”

“I take it the fences haven’t been replaced recently?”

Castiel shakes his head. “The fences haven’t been replaced or repaired at all in the time I’ve been here. Though it probably does need doing,” he muses. “There are places along the perimeter where the links are so rusted a good pull could break them apart.” Castiel stops and slams his mouth shut as he realises what he has done. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Victor just laughs. “Don’t worry. I won’t be here much longer, so I won’t tell any tales, so long as none of my workers go missing in the night. You think you’ll be able to make a full report to me in the next few weeks?”

“I’m confident that I can.”

“Then I’ll leave you to it.” Victor closes the door quietly behind him when he leaves.

Victor has allowed Castiel a lot of privileges as an office worker; the office, working without supervision, access to the mess-hall during the day while the guards are out on duty, and the best thing, use of the shower. That alone is worth the insults and innuendo he endures in the exercise-yard. He has even over-heard growls of “traitor” and “collaborator” from his own work-team when his back is turned. Benny tries to keep the animosity over Castiel’s new role from boiling over, pointing out how things have improved for all of them since Henriksen took over, but it has set Castiel apart from his bunk-mates. It has only resulted in one beating so far, and that ended with just a few bruised ribs before he got a chance to hit back.

He understands why Kevin always has an eye open to what is happening over his shoulder. It helps that they all think Dean is fucking him. Some of the prisoners are sympathetic, they assume Castiel has given in to the abuse; Father Reynolds prays for him daily. Others consider the administration job a payment, or reward, for services rendered. They call him a whore and spit on him when he is in the yard, or catcall with vulgar promises of what is in store once Dean gets bored of him.

Only Benny, and maybe Garth—who sees more than people give him credit for—seem to have worked out something approaching the truth. Though, what exactly that truth is, Castiel could not say. The prisoner gossips are wrong, they are not fucking, exactly, but they have long since left platonic behind.

If he leans back in his chair, just right, Castiel can see Dean at the barracks, across the yard. It is a cold day, but he has taken off his coat to help the inmates shift bed frames, cobbled together from odds and ends found around the place, into the hut. He stops to speak to someone, takes the opportunity to gulp down a mouthful of water from his flask, dragging his sleeve over his mouth afterwards.

The warm starburst of affection at Castiel’s core is like nothing else he has ever known. It is as new and unexpected as the dizzy feeling of want, of bodily-desire, that overwhelms his senses whenever Dean is close. He never experienced such a base need to be close to someone before. Sometimes, when Dean hauls him into an empty room, his lips feverish, his tongue curling into Castiel’s mouth with greedy abandon, he feels like he will go mad from the urge to touch and pull and press, to get as close as possible.

For a man with no prior interest in sex, he is a willing student under Dean’s instruction, and Dean is just as eager to teach, and insufferably smug each time he pulls an orgasm from Castiel. The last time was in Castiel’s office—ass balanced on the edge of the desk, messing up his neat stacks of paper, Dean pressed close between his legs with his fist between them, working them both together—and he colours at the memory of it.

Castiel likes the way it feels to be with Dean; hot, and urgent, and intimate. He wonders idly, as he watches Dean, if what he is feeling is the same thing people write novels and poems about, what they write songs about, the reason for the yearning in the voices he used to hear on the radio, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole, soporific melodies he had no frame of reference for. It would be nice to hear those songs again, he thinks, to feel them as they were meant to be. Despite the work he is doing, Castiel doubts he will ever get the chance. Dean thinks that Castiel will get out, that he can serve out his sentence and be free, that they can get out together. It is a fantasy that Castiel lets Dean have, but he does not believe it.

Even if they survive Alistair, Dean only has another year at the camp, to Castiel’s five. Should the miraculous happen and Castiel lives to be released, what then? Dean will have moved on—maybe to build the family he always wanted. Dean has a future, Castiel does not, and he will not be selfish with him or try to keep him at the camp, no matter how much he wants to. Castiel will take what is offered, while he can, but he won’t name it, the feeling that buzzes in his chest and makes his breath catch in his throat, he won’t ask Dean to name it, either. Stay quiet, stay safe, stay alive—the mantra is as true as it ever was.

He turns away back to his work. The numbers he can handle, he knows what goes where and how the sums add up. The case against Alistair grows stronger by the day and it deserves Castiel’s full attention. He pushes down the fluttery distracted feeling that always accompanies his thoughts of Dean, grabs the next set of invoices, and starts to read.

 

~*~

 

“Look at her,” the cry goes up. “Off to get a good fucking are we?” Castiel keeps walking, slow and steady, not willing to be discomforted by the shouts aimed his way. He can hear someone making grunting noises, and others giggling like school boys, but he does not bother to look, he’s seen them perform this pantomime before.

“Ignore them,” Garth says, drawing up beside Castiel. “They won’t touch you with Dean around, they wouldn’t dare.”

“I’m not worried,” Castiel says. He is grateful for Garth’s attention. As the main cook and the main source of extra rations and supplies in the east-yard, Garth is off limits as far as bullying or intimidation goes. You do not want to piss off the man that feeds you.

“Good,” Garth says. He drops his voice low before going on. “I don’t know exactly what happened or why, but I think Dean’s a good guy on the whole. He won’t leave you to the wolves.”

Castiel nods and Garth slaps him on the back in an encouraging gesture. They part ways at the door to the administration building.

He cannot be more than two steps inside the door when Dean accosts him, glancing down the corridor to make sure no one is around before pulling Castiel in for a kiss, slipping his hand across the base of Castiel’s spine. He gives back as good as he gets, twisting his fists in Dean’s shirt and pushing him up against the wall as their lips slide together. Dean tastes of coffee, of smoke, Castiel thinks it should disgust him, but he likes it, laps it from Dean’s mouth eagerly.

“Morning,” Dean grins, as Castiel tastes the word.

Dean pouts as Castiel reluctantly moves away from him. “This is unwise. Anyone could see us here.”

Dean makes to pull him back in, playfully, but Castiel resists and pushes him away. “Aw, come on, Cas,” Dean grumbles. “There’s no one here, and even if there was, they already think we’re doing the dirty, so they won’t exactly be surprised.”

“Victor might,” Castiel reminds him.

Dean rolls his eyes like a big kid. “Well, if you’re going to be all sensible about it,” Dean huffs. “I suppose we better stop.”

Now its Castiel’s turn to smirk, “I didn’t say we had to stop, I just said not here.”

Dean’s eyebrows lift in pleased surprise and he closes the distance again. “Sounds interesting,” he whispers against Castiel’s lips before dropping a small biting kiss onto them, “Tell me more.”

Castiel extracts himself from Dean’s hands and walks away, leaving it up to Dean to decide whether to follow not. He never could have imagined he would enjoy teasing like this. It goes against his straightforward nature, but then again, Castiel does a lot of things with Dean that he never imagined. Dean has been patient, breaking the both of them into this new kind of relationship slowly, but heated groping in closets and hand-jobs in Castiel’s office can only take them so far. Castiel is ready for something new, and maybe that is his nature coming through, the same solid determination that saw him through the war in Rescue and Recovery.

They reach the final flight of stairs to Alistair’s, or more recently, Victor’s apartments. “Really?” Dean asks. There is an unexpected quaver in his voice, he is nervous. “Cas, don’t get me wrong, I like what you’re thinking, believe me, but in Victor’s bed? I don’t think...”

Castiel turns and hushes him. He is leading, a few steps higher than Dean, and it is a novelty to be in charge of something for a change, not forced to hang back, to follow and defer, like a good prisoner.  He presses a soft kiss to Dean’s forehead. “That’s not what I mean,” he says, and Dean looks visibly relieved, and not just about the bed. It is easy to forget, that behind the bravado, Dean is just as lost as Castiel, just as afraid. They are not ready to join in that way, neither of them. Years of ingrained hate and prejudice are not so easy to overcome, and Dean is not ready for such a seismic shift in his identity, his sense of self.

“In here,” Castiel says, opening the door to the bathroom. Castiel is allowed up here alone now, though the razors have been removed as a precaution—he has to ask for them and shave at the sink, in the restroom off the mess hall, where a guard can keep an eye on him. “I always lock the door anyway,” he says, dragging Dean inside and sliding the bolt home. “So even if someone does happen to come by, no one will suspect anything out of the ordinary.” He turns back to Dean and is surprised to find him still looking apprehensive. “I want you to take a shower with me,” Castiel explains, worried that Dean has misunderstood his intention. “I want to see you naked.” He steps forward running his hand down the front of Dean’s uniform. “I’ve never seen you out of these, and I want to. Dean?” Dean’s eyes have gone wide. “We don’t have to,” he adds quickly, worried that he has gone too far, pushed before Dean is ready.

Dean shakes his head. “No, I want to, I want to. God, do I want to.” He puts his arms around Castiel and leans forward for a kiss that makes Castiel’s toes curl. Dean presses their foreheads together and smiles, “Of course, I fucking want to.”

Castiel turns away, to twist the taps and test the temperature of the water until he is satisfied with it. “Get over here,” Dean breathes a moment later, and Castiel cannot do anything but obey.

They go slowly, at first. Dean peels Castiel out of his clothes, knocking his hands away whenever he tries to help, and kissing every fresh inch of exposed flesh. He mouths along Castiel’s shoulders, down his chest, along his hip bones, still sharp from years without enough food. Dean kneels on the floor, tracing his fingers over the planes of Castiel’s stomach. His touch is more tentative than normal. Castiel’s cock goes largely ignored, though it hangs heavy and fat and starved of attention between his legs, twitching as Dean draws near.

He draws Dean up, at last, popping the buttons on his uniform one by one. Dean rests his broad hands on the curve of Castiel’s hip as he tracks the progress of Castiel’s fingers. The shower fills the room with steam; it makes their skin damp and tastes like rain on Castiel’s tongue when he breathes. Dean’s open shirt proves too tempting and Castiel cannot resist running a hand down his exposed chest, muscles twitching under his fingertips. Dean’s breath hitches as Castiel presses his lips to the centre of his chest, over his heart, feeling the thrum of Dean’s heartbeat through his skin.

“Cas,” Dean groans from above. His fingers twist in Castiel’s hair urging him to move things along. The sudden arrow of pain across his scalp is oddly erotic, and Castiel gasps from it.

Dean is still wearing too many clothes and getting him out of them becomes a matter of urgency. Castiel’s faculties are reduced to some pre-historic animal part of his brain, and he fumbles and slips, tugging at the leather of Dean’s belt; the buckle suddenly the most complex feat of engineering Castiel has ever seen, until Dean snaps it open himself. Dean’s pants get kicked to the side, landing in a crumpled heap, forgotten as Castiel moves on, pushing Dean’s shirt from his shoulders.

Castiel is impatient, his eyes greedy to see Dean’s skin, free of the taint of his prison-guard uniform. Like this they can be equal, honest, and unashamed. Dean looks away as the cotton slips from his shoulders, Castiel’s hands following its path over the skin and bone curve of his shoulders, until...

A breath hisses in between Dean’s lips at the same time as the shirt hits the floor. It is not a sound of pleasure this time. Dean keeps his eyes focused on a point somewhere over near the washstand, his cheeks flooding with colour. Castiel’s racing heart stutters and slows, as he runs his hand over twisted red-ropes of scar tissue. The mark flares out below the turn of his shoulder, running down to his elbow in one wide streak of damaged flesh. Patches of it are rough and warped, as if the flesh has bubbled, others are a tight, shiny pink. Arousal is extinguished like a blown out candle, leaving only a curling of smoke and a smouldering coal.

“Don’t,” says Dean, words clipped and cold. “Don’t touch it. It’s disgusting, I know.”

Castiel wants to kick himself. Dean had pulled away from him before, he now realises, whenever his hands had strayed too close; feels ashamed that he never noticed.

“Dean,” Castiel whispers the name, pulling him close, wrapping his arms around Dean’s back. The moment is not sexual. Dean needs reassurance, and Castiel is happy to give it—happy to repay the many comforts that Dean has given to him. “It’s not disgusting. It’s just a part of you, a mark of life, like mine,” he says. Dean is not the only one to have part of their history written into their skin.

Dean’s hand runs down Castiel’s spine over the thin lines of Alistair’s knife, a pair of broken wings that will stand testament to his torture, for as long as he lives. “But these,” Dean says, “These show how strong you are. They show you can survive. This,” he says, pulling away so that he can look down at the red whorls with an unhappy twist to his lips. “This is a reminder of weakness. I was stupid. I disobeyed an order, went into a building that was under attack to find some of the guys from my company. Got shot,” he says, prodding the small round scar on his thigh. He had never kept that hidden, though Castiel had never asked about it.

“Is this why the fire scares you so much?” Castiel asks, treading carefully. He has wanted to know about this for a long time, but felt awkward about bringing it up.

Dean closes his eyes and takes a breath. He shakes his head. “No. That’s a whole different story, that’s...” He takes another breath and this time he shakes with it. “My mother, you remember I told you about her?”

“Yes. She died in the depression, before the revolution.”

“That’s right. I wasn’t completely honest with you though. It wasn’t hunger that killed her. She was sick, really weak from lack of food, and then there was a fire at our house. We got out, but she didn’t. She burned, and I saw it. I saw the flames take her and I left her there to die. I’ve regretted that all my life.”

“Dean it wasn’t your fault, you were a boy.”

Dean laughs, bitterly. “So now you see what I am, Cas. I’m a wreck, a ruined soldier. All scarred up, inside and out. You sure you want to be stuck with someone like me?”

“Dean, most men came back from the war with scars, ones you can see, and ones you can’t. Do you think they’re all weak because of that?” Castiel cups Dean’s jaw and gently directs his attention back onto him, fixing him with a warm open look. “And I would be lucky to be stuck with you, Dean.” He feels Dean soften in response, a tiny fraction of the tension in his body fading away. “You’re harder on yourself than you need to be, Dean. I don’t know what happened, and you don’t need to tell me, but you should know this; you are amazing, you are good, you are strong, and you have given me happiness that I never thought was possible. And this,” he says, running the tips of his fingers down the buckled skin, the burn. “This is just another part of you, and I think it is as lovely as the rest.”  

The scar seems to burn a little hotter than the rest of Dean’s skin and Castiel’s lips tingle as he presses a kiss to it. “Jesus, Cas,” Dean huffs a small sad-sounding laugh. “For all those brains you got,” he taps a finger to Castiel’s temple. “You’re really full of shit sometimes.” He smiles, “And God-fucking-help-me, I don’t know why I like it so much.”

 

 

Then he’s clutching at the back of Castiel’s head, bringing their mouths together in a hot wet press. “Get in the damn shower before the water goes cold,” he says, squeezing Castiel’s ass to encourage him. It is a diversion, Castiel knows that, but he’s said his piece and he meant every word. Dean will need time to think it over before he sees the truth in it.

For now, Castiel is content to focus on more pressing matters, like the way little rivulets of water trickle over Dean’s chest as he climbs under the spray. He follows their path down until he is on his knees in the tub, nuzzling at the crease of Dean’s hip, and running his fingers up and down the length of Dean’s cock until it stands up, flushed dark with blood. Castiel wants the taste of him, wants to feel the weight of Dean on his tongue, but he is afraid too; Dean has been with a lot of women, experienced women who know how to give pleasure. Castiel has nothing more than theoretical knowledge to work from.

He stalls until Dean gasps out above him. “Cas, you’re going to drive me crazy if you don’t put that mouth on me, right the fuck now.” It’s all the encouragement Castiel needs.

He swallows Dean right down in one go, and is rewarded with the groaned-out sound of his own name, as Dean throws his head back, his mouth falling open as he braces himself with one hand against the wall. The other makes its way back into Castiel’s hair, tugging, and sending shockwaves of sensation skittering though his body, flaring out and tumbling down, until he is hard with it. Castiel knows it is rushed and sloppy, probably nothing like what Dean is used to, but he delights in every moment, Dean’s musky scent, the bitter tang at the back of his throat, and every moan, every whispered name and heavy breath that he drags from Dean’s mouth.

Dean growls a warning but Castiel ignores, and suddenly he’s coughing around a mouthful of come. He tries to swallow, but most of it slips from his mouth and drips off his chin, washing away down the drain.

“Get up here, I need you,” Dean says, laughing as he helps Castiel get to his feet. Castiel can feel him trembling slightly, still breathing quick and recovering. He traps Castiel against the wall and licks into his mouth, humming happily at the taste of himself in Castiel’s mouth. “Your turn,” he mutters, around a smug grin, before dropping to his knees and licking a stripe up Castiel’s cock without warning.

For all his confidence, Dean is just as virgin at performing the act as Castiel, choking when he tries to take too much at once. Castiel leans against the wall and relaxes into it, focusing on the warm suction of Dean’s mouth. His hands wandering to Dean’s lips, and Castiel finds he likes the feel of them stretched around him. Too quickly, his thighs start to shake, his hips moving without his say so, rocking into Dean’s mouth with an escalating rhythm. Dean pulls away before Castiel spills, in favour of finishing him with his hand. Dean’s kiss is hot, deep, and lingering, as Castiel shakes through his climax.

They fumble like youths, full of false starts and mistakes, but it is a start, the beginning of something important, a new level of intimacy, with each of their wounds, the claw-marks of their demons, laid bare for the other to see.  

They leave the shower smiling, barely able to dress and get out the door without falling on each other again, but duty calls, and Dean will be missed if he does not leave soon. They try to be quiet as they leave Victor’s rooms. The reality of their situation rushing back to cool the fever that Dean’s hands ignite under Castiel’s skin. Dean makes one more grab for him as they reach the bottom of the stairs, trying to rub his nose into Castiel’s damp hair.

Castiel steps back, shooing Dean’s hands away as he goes, only to walk straight into Kevin Tran. He is standing in the doorway, wide-eyed and slack-jawed in shock. “S-s-sorry,” he stammers, eyes growing wider, if possible, as he takes in all the places they are touching. Dean is curved over Castiel from behind with an arm slung around his waist.

Dean instantly steps away, clearing his throat. “Is there something you want?” Dean snaps, trying to cover his embarrassment with aggression.

“I was,” Kevin hesitates, looking to Castiel for reassurance. “I wanted to speak to you, to both of you, actually.”

“How did you know where we were?” Dean asks.

“I didn’t,” Kevin’s voice croaks. “I was looking for Castiel. I know he comes here most days.” He takes a step back, clearly afraid. “I didn’t know you were here, Officer Winchester, I swear. I wouldn’t want to interrupt...” He looks panic-stricken, his eyes darting between the two of them as if he was watching a game of tennis.

Castiel takes pity on him. “You won’t say anything about this to anyone, will you?” Kevin is timid from being under Alistair’s thumb and a target for the other inmates, but Castiel has never seen any malice in him.

“No, of course not,” he sounds offended at the notion.

“That’s good enough for me, Dean,” Castiel says, looking up at Dean on the step above. He is still giving Kevin the stink-eye. “Why don’t we go to my office? We can talk there.” Kevin nods and rushes off ahead of them. He makes hardly any noise as he goes. As Castiel knows, silence can sometime be the only way to protect yourself. The door closes with a click, leaving Dean and Castiel alone again on the dingy staircase.

“You trust him?” Dean asks.

“As much as I trust anyone here. He mostly keeps to himself, anyway. It would be more of a shock to the other inmates if he started talking to them, than anything he could say about us.”

Dean takes Castiel’s face in his hands and kisses him softly. “They already suspect anyway. I don’t suppose it matters if they know we’re fucking for sure,” he says.

Castiel lifts one of Dean’s hands to his lips, brushing over his knuckles. “That isn’t what I’d call it,” he says. It hangs in the air between them as they walk the halls to the records room, careful to keep their hands to themselves.

 

~*~

 

The lock on the office door is twitchy. It always sticks when Castiel opens up the room in the morning. He yanks on the handle until it opens with a dull click. He ushers the others inside quickly, uneasy with the idea of them all being seen together. It is an idle fear; as Alistair’s assistant, Kevin has the run of the administration building. It would not be strange for him to be running an errand for Victor, but Castiel cannot help being cautious.

“Do you want to sit?” Castiel asks. Kevin declines, he prefers to stand, ready to bolt back to his desk at the slightest hint of danger. There is only one chair and Castiel takes it, Dean sliding in beside him to prop his ass on the edge of the desk. He has his arms folded over his chest, still glaring and suspicious of the nervous boy. “What was it you wanted to tell us?”

Kevin licks his lips and swallows a few times before he speaks. “First, this came for you,” he says, holding out a thin envelope to Dean.” The letter gives Kevin a legitimate reason to be there if another guard stumbles upon them; Castiel is impressed. Dean does not look so pleased, but he snatches the letter and folds it into his coat pocket without comment. Kevin pulls his hand back slowly. “Second, I want to help you.”

“Help us to what?” Castiel asks.

“I know what you do down here.” An angry noise rumbles from Dean’s throat at that. “The audit,” Kevin rushes to say, realising his mistake. “I mean the audit Commander Henrikson asked you to do. That’s all. I didn’t mean... anything else that you... I don’t know anything about that.”

“Who told you about that?” Dean asks. “I thought no one else was supposed to know?” He looks to Castiel for confirmation. He nods his agreement. That was the plan, as far as he was aware.

“No one told me,” Kevin says. “I’ve been working in that office for months. You think I haven’t noticed that something wasn’t right. I see the invoices when they come in, and I know the goods we receive in each shipment. It’s not my job to monitor it, and I’ve never written it down, but it’s all up here.” He taps the side of his head. “I’ve always been like that, good at picking out details, finding patterns.”

“Alistair’s not a fool,” Castiel says. “He always picks the smart ones to work in the office.”

“Like Alfie,” Kevin says, darting a glance over at Dean.

Castiel can feel Dean tense at the name, and wonders briefly if this is another wound Dean will always carry with him, the spilling of innocent blood. “Yes,” Castiel says. “Like Alfie.

“I’ll end up just like him if Alistair ever finds out I told you any of this.” Kevin shifts from foot to foot, looking at Castiel as if he does not know where to start, or if he wants to. He avoids looking at Dean completely.

“We won’t let him find out,” Castiel says, offering a reassurance he has no idea if he will be able to keep. “If the worst happens, we won’t bring your name up.”

“Kevin,” Dean interrupts, “If you know something that can help us, you have to tell us. We can make sure that Alistair won’t be a problem anymore. Victor will find someone to replace him, someone who will run the camp better than Alistair did. You’ll be safe.”

Not that safe, Castiel thinks. There are plenty of other camps, plenty of other commanders, and Castiel has heard nothing good about any of them. Victor Henriksen appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

Kevin nods, his dark hair bobbing around his face as if it had a mind of its own. “Okay,” he says, “Okay.” He takes a deep breath. “When I first started and Alistair gave me instruction on my duties, there was one thing he was very clear on. Any letters marked as urgent and confidential were to be given to him, and must be unopened. It was a while before anything like that arrived. There aren’t many, just a one, every now and then. Each time I found one, I gave it straight to Alistair, like he said. At first he ordered me out of the room, but later on, I think he just stopped noticing I was even there, and he sometimes opened them in front of me. I still didn’t know what they were, but each time, he would get out this book; dark red, like the colour of wine, and old looking, worn around the edges like he carries it with him all the time.”

“This is a great story, Kev,” Dean interrupts, dropping the nickname acerbically. “But what’s this got to do with us?”

“Let him talk, Dean” Castiel snaps.

At the same time that Kevin says, “I’m getting to it.”

Dean raises his eyebrows and lifts his hands in defence from the two-pronged attack.

“As I was saying; each time he got out this book and made some kind of note in it. I still didn’t think anything of it.” He swallows again, and it makes a sticky sound in his dry throat. “Then one day I was going through a delivery that had been sent up from Anchorage, and I opened one.” He looks a little wild-eyed at the confession. “I didn’t mean to. The red ink was faded somehow and I wasn’t paying attention. By the time I realised what I’d done, it was too late. I’d already ripped it open. I couldn’t give it to Alistair like that, so I hid it, thinking I would destroy it when I was alone, pretend it never arrived, so that Alistair would blame someone else, someone not in the camp.”

“Someone he can’t punish,” Castiel finishes for him.

“Exactly,” Kevin nods. “So I waited, and I was going to throw it on the fire, but I was curious, I couldn’t help taking a look at it first. I thought it would be orders or communications from the central committee, but it wasn’t. It was all nonsense. Something about the weather patterns affecting crops in Europe. I thought it was code at first, but it wasn’t anything I recognised. Then I did notice something else; there was one word and some numbers, written right in the bottom corner. It wasn’t part of the letter, not attached to anything, just there, like a reference number.”

“What did it say?” Dean asks, sounding more interested all of a sudden.

“It said: Uriel, two thousand dash zero four.” The way Kevin looks at Castiel tells him that the boy already knows what he is just starting to piece together.

“Why does that name sound familiar?” Dean asks.

The memory is a painful one, and the cogs turn slowly in his head, until each part fits together, and it is all horribly clear. Castiel’s voice cracks. “Uriel is one of the men that died when the saw-mill exploded.” He feels light headed. “I was with him. I was moved, that day, to work next to him.” He turns to see Dean blinking, trying to work out all the angles. “Gordon put me there, remember, he argued with Benny about it...”

 “And he pitched a fit about staying at your post. I remember. You brought the message,” Dean says accusingly, jabbing a finger towards Kevin. “You brought the order from Alistair, to move him to that exact spot.” He is getting angry, Castiel can hear it in the way his words speed-up, the flush on his neck. “Fuck, it was Alistair. The accident, it was Alistair, and he fucking tried to kill you.” Dean reaches out, cups his hand over Castiel’s shoulder, squeezing with his fingers. Castiel can feel him shaking.  

Castiel can only agree. “It’s a death sentence, but it was meant for Uriel, not me.”

 “But the fucker put you in the line of fire as well,” Dean says. “I’m going to kill that son-of-a-bitch, Cas. I promise you.”

“No you won’t,” Castiel says, feeling his temper rise. “I won’t see you in a place like this, Dean. We’ll finish our work and present the evidence to Victor. I trust him enough, and I’d rather see Alistair punished for his crimes. Death is easy in comparison.”

“That’s true,” Kevin agrees. And it is. The labour-camp is like waking to a fresh hell every day.

“Do you still have the letter?” Castiel asks.

Kevin looks guilty. “No. I burnt it. It was too dangerous to hold on to; if he’d found me with it...”

He does not need to finish, they all understand self-preservation. “That’s okay,” Dean says. “We’ll find another way. There must be other letters, other proof. What about the book? Does he keep it with him? Do you think he might have left it here? If there’s something incriminating he wouldn’t want to take it up to HQ, would he?”

“Maybe,” says Kevin, but there is doubt in his voice. “It’s not in the office, though, I’ve looked before.”

“His rooms then?” Dean suggests.

It does not seem likely Alistair would do anything so obvious. Castiel shakes his head. “I doubt it, but we should start there anyway, since we have access.”

“Is there anything you want me to do?” Kevin asks.

“Keep your eyes open. Tell us if you think of anything else, even the smallest thing could be important,” Dean’s words have softened considerably, obviously impressed with what Kevin has done, what he has risked, to bring them this information.

“Thank you, Kevin,” Castiel says.

Kevin just nods and shuffles over to the door. He reaches for the handle, then drops it, then takes it again, as if he cannot decide what to do. He looks back, asking, “Could I speak to you, Castiel. In private.” He drops his gaze to the grubby floor. He is a picture of awkward embarrassment.

“Of course,” Castiel says.

“That’s fine,” Dean says, after exchanging a long look with Castiel. “I need to be getting out to the exercise-yard anyway.” His hand leaves a trace of warmth behind on Castiel’s shoulder, long after Dean’s footsteps have disappeared.

Castiel tries his best to look sympathetic. “What do you need?”

Kevin blushes and says, “No, it’s not about me. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Castiel frowns. “What do you mean?”

“You and Dean, I hear rumours in the barracks. He’s not making you do anything you don’t want to, right? I mean, I think Supervisor Henriksen would put a stop to it, if you wanted it to stop.”

Whatever Castiel was expecting him to say, it was not that. “It’s nothing like that. I’m fine, really.”

“Yes, obviously... Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.” He stumbles back, in a rush to leave the room.

“I’m grateful for your concern,” Castiel says. He tries to make it sound reassuring, but probably fails. He has never been very good at that sort of thing. “But, it is unnecessary.”Kevin flees the room, and Castiel wonders if the boy will ever be able to look at him again without flushing a deep shade of red.

 

~*~

 

Until something material changes, Castiel’s job is to carry on going through the records. He gets back to work, hunched over the small wooden desk and leafing through papers until his fingers bleed from a dozen paper cuts. He does not come up for air again until late in the day, when he is squinting at the papers in failing light. There is a light in the room, a bare bulb hanging on a short cord that reminds Castiel of the one in his underground cell. He had forgotten to turn it on, in fact he had forgotten it was there.

Before Castiel can even think about getting up to flip the switch, the door bursts open with a bang that makes the cabinets rattle. Dean brandishes the sheet of paper in his hand as if he was fencing with it. There is a grin spread all the way across his face. “You have to see this,” he says, and even in the half-light Castiel can see the excitement burning in his eyes. Dean pushes the paper in front of Castiel’s face, putting an end to the idea of getting any more work done.

“What is it?” Castiel grumbles at the disturbance, pulling back from the crinkled paper, in favour of rubbing at the sore muscles of his neck and shoulders. From here he can see the words scratched in black ink on the page. He pushes Dean’s arm down then feels guilty as Dean’s face falls; he wants Castiel to share in whatever it is that has him practically bouncing on the balls of his feet.

He is pleased to see Dean. He is always pleased to see Dean, but there is something nagging at him, something fluttering at the edge of his consciousness ever since Kevin’s revelations that morning. It is irritating, distracting, like a splinter aching to be removed.

Dean sits heavily on the desk, regardless of Castiel’s meticulously arranged invoices and purchase orders and inventories. He forgets sometimes that Dean can be a complete asshole. Castiel narrows his eyes, but Dean derails whatever acid was about to fall from his tongue, and offers up the paper again with a smug grin.

“It’s from Sam,” Dean says, resting the crumpled letter on his knee and running his hand over it, trying to flatten the creases with only marginal success.

“And it’s good news?”

“I don’t know.”

Well, that was unexpected. “Are you having trouble reading it?” Castiel asks, facetiously.

Dean pulls a face. “You’re not too far off actually,” he says. “When I looked at it this morning I thought Sam might have gone mad. Here, take a look.”

The paper is back in Castiel’s face, but this time he takes it from Dean’s hand, glancing quickly over the messy paragraphs. There are the usual greetings and salutations, a little on the day-to-day events of his life, some lines—verging on poetic—about a young lady named Madison, and some fond recollections of a summer when they stayed at a pastor’s house. It is nothing out of the ordinary, and Castiel cannot understand what has Dean brimming with a joy he has never seen before.

Castiel hands it back. “It’s a very nice letter, Dean. Thank you for sharing it with me.”

Dean huffs and knocks his knee against Castiel’s. “You don’t get it, do you?”

“What am I supposed to get?”

He brandishes the letter again. “This letter is bullshit,” Dean says triumphantly.

Castiel is baffled. He can feel the excited energy coming from Dean, like a vibration in the air, like electricity. “I don’t understand.”

“That’s the whole point,” Dean crows, and Castiel has to resist the urge to punch him. “God, Sam’s a genius—didn’t I tell you my brother was a genius?”

“Yes, at length,” Castiel teases.

“This letter,” Dean says. “It isn’t the real letter. When I first read it, I thought something was wrong. I mean, why would he write a letter like this? Full of nothing, when there’s so much important shit to say. Then I read it again, and I realised there are things that don’t make sense, even for a regular letter.”

“Like what?”

“Like the fact that he writes like this,” Dean clears his throat before putting on a theatrical voice before quoting, “My Dearest Brother, it has been too long since I saw you last.”

“And that isn’t true?”

Dean scoffs, “Sam never writes with all that formal crap, and I don’t think he’s ever called me “dearest” in his entire life.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a relief or just very sad,” Castiel says.

“Stop with it, Cas,” Dean says light-heartedly. “This is serious.” Castiel closes his mouth and lets Dean continue. “You see this stuff about Madison. Sam dated Madison years ago, he’s all set to marry Jess next year. No way is that boy even looking at another woman. So then I got to wondering why he’d written at all. If someone was threatening him he just wouldn’t write, right?” Dean pauses. There is fire burning behind the gold and green of his eyes.

“Right?” Castiel says, cautiously. He is hopelessly lost in Dean’s rambling explanation.

“Exactly,” Dean says, as if Castiel had just solved the riddle by himself. “It’s this story at the end that’s important. Listen ‘You asked me if I remember the summer we stayed with the Pastor...’ I never asked him about that, I’d actually forgotten about it. Then Sam writes about how ‘he taught us so many useful things’ and I remembered, he taught us how to write in invisible ink—just lemon juice or soap water, kids stuff.” He looks at Castiel with barely concealed joy. “I think the real letter’s underneath the writing,” he says. “We just need to put some heat under it and the words will show up.”

“You haven’t done it yet?”

“I was in the yard all day,” Dean says in self-defence. “And anyway, I thought you’d want to be here since it’s probably about you.” 

“What do we do?” Castiel asks, ready to help Dean with whatever comes next. “We could use your lighter?”

“I don’t want to burn the paper.” Dean looks around the small room, searching for inspiration. Finally his eyes land on the still unlit light bulb. “That, we’ll use that.” He drags Castiel’s chair to the middle of the room and steps onto the seat, lifting his arms to the sides for balance as it wobbles under his weight. “Go flip the switch,” he says, before wrapping the paper around the naked bulb.

The filament fizzes to life, glowing an egg-yolk yellow. Dean goes quiet while they wait for the bulb to heat enough to oxidise the ink. The first dark stains on the back of the letter make Castiel draw in a breath, while Dean mutters a, “Yes.” It takes a full ten minutes or more, to inch the paper, patch by tiny patch, across the surface of the bulb; leaving it just long enough to brown the ink but not long enough to singe the paper and obscure the words.

“What does it say?” Castiel asks, impatient as Dean climbs down and replaces the rickety chair under Castiel’s desk. Now that it is done, Dean seems reluctant to read it; the fear of bad news ever present.

Dean bows his head as he reads. Castiel watches his eyes as they skip along the browned letters. A frown cuts down between Dean’s eyebrows, but it is from concentration not despair. “This is good,” he says. “Sam wants to take on your case. He says he is already working on something similar for some other clients.”

“Has he seen Anna?” Castiel asks.

“Not yet, but he’ll visit her soon,” Dean says, putting a hand on Castiel’s shoulder and drawing him closer.

“I just hope she is safe.”

“She will be, Cas.” Dean’s confidence is appealing, but the butterflies in Castiel’s stomach take flight at the thought of Anna in danger, of her young family uprooted and scattered to the wind, because of Alistair, because of him. “He says the case will be stronger if we can get evidence of the torture.”

“We can take pictures of my scars, would that be enough? It isn’t exactly proof that Alistair was responsible.”

“He says photographs and records are best, backed up with any witnesses we can dig up for you or any other victims.”

“I don’t think the other victims made it out of the torture room alive, but I’ll ask around.”

Dean nods and draws Castiel closer to him, wrapping his arms around Castiel’s back, dropping his head to nuzzle at the line of his neck for a moment. “We’re going to win this, Cas,” he whispers, the words brushing over the sensitive skin behind his ear. “We’re going to get you out, and we’re going to get Alistair locked up.”

Castiel’s eyelids drift closed and his hands fall to the buckle of Dean’s belt, working it open so he can slide a hand inside Dean’s pants, stroking and rubbing so that his cock starts to fill and fatten under the attention. “I want to believe you,” Castiel says, “I want...” The rest of the words get tangled on Dean’s tongue, and slip from Castiel’s mind as he gets caught up in the way Dean backs him up against the cabinets, letting his hips rock easily into the circle of Castiel’s fingers. Dean’s kisses are excited and biting, and threaten to overwhelm him completely. Not for the first time Castiel thinks, Dean Winchester is a very dangerous man.

 

~*~

 

It takes a few days for Castiel to finally catch the spider of a thought that has been taunting him, sending out silk from its spinnerets like lines to follow, while it dances at the back of his mind on eight spindly legs. He is watching the prisoners going about their duties in the yard while he mulls over Kevin’s mysterious letter, and the scribbled numbers he talked about. Uriel: two-thousand: zero-four. A name and some numbers, not much of anything, but they have lodged themselves in Castiel’s brain, floating behind his eyelids when he goes to sleep. The only things that smother them entirely are Dean’s mouth and Dean’s hands.

With nothing else to do, he starts sorting the suspicious invoices from Mallory Incorporated into date order. That is when Castiel sees it. Something he had put aside weeks ago, consigned to the pile with nothing more than a cursory glance when he saw the name printed at the top. It is part of the food orders that were never filled, but instead of listing all the items individually, the last item says ‘Perishables,’ at a cost of two-thousand dollars. It is dated the first of April, a little more than two weeks before the accident that killed Uriel.

Uriel: two-thousand dollars: in the fourth month: perishables—Alistair really has a twisted sense of humour.

Castiel does not even want to hold the invoice anymore. It makes him feel ill, as if the paper itself was poisoned, a weapon of murder. He gathers up the rest of the Mallory Inc. invoices and shuffles through them, picking out each one marked with that word, ‘perishable’; subject to decay, ruin, or destruction—a cynically perfect way to describe any of the prisoners in the camp. He counts them; twenty, thirty, forty. Who else, Castiel wonders, who else has Alistair been paid to dispose of.

Dated just before the order he now knows is for Uriel’s death, there is another entry for ‘perishables,’ this time for three-thousand dollars. Castiel tries to thinks back over the last five years. Who died? When? And how? He thinks of Alfie, but no, Alfie died because Alistair was done with him. He had no political standing or affiliation, as far as Castiel knew. These others, Uriel and Zachariah, they were people with political pull on the outside. They had followers and popular support. They were a threat to the power of the Collective.

The next thought makes the inside of his skull throb. Of course, Ion and Theo; the two prisoners that escaped the night Alfie was killed. Escaped? Or maybe injured and forced out into the wilderness? Made to bleed, and run, until they found where the wolves were waiting for them, deep in the cold dark woods. They had some connection to another group, Unified Workers Association, if Castiel recalls correctly, some family connection to the founder, Naomi Engels, who had long since disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  

He goes back further; Esper last year, he was one of the old capitalist crowd, and Inias, before that; he taught economics at Harvard. He only lasted about six months before being swept away by a brief but severe bout of flu, an illness that somehow no one else in the hut managed to catch.

Alistair is not only embezzling money directly, but channelling payments for murdering Luke and Lilith’s enemies, running blood-money through the prison accounts. A little more digging produces records of donations made to the prison over the same period of time. The money comes in and the money goes out, a neat little transaction to cover up their crimes. This is much bigger than they thought and that makes it more important than ever to get Alistair out of the way quickly and cleanly. Victor can decide what to do about the Mauvais’, submit the evidence or sit on it; it makes little difference to Castiel. Washington is half a world away and it is Alistair that rules the labour-camp.  

 

~*~

 

“You’re saying this, all of this,” Dean says, making a little circling motion with his hand to indicate the prison around them. “Is for money? He’s getting rich from misery and murder.”

“I don’t know why you’re so surprised,” Castiel says. They are walking side-by-side through the empty grey corridors at the back of the administration building.

“The whole point of the Collective is that we’re in it together, pulling together, and sharing the wealth, making sure the people at the bottom don’t die of starvation while millionaires drive by in big shiny cars, to make sure that the things that happened in the thirties don’t ever happen again.”

Dean is angry and Castiel cannot blame him. He fought and bled for the Collective, his father died for them. To see it turn into something else, something ugly and destructive must be a huge blow.  “The people at the top, it doesn’t matter who; aristocracy, business, politicians; they all end up the same eventually. That is what history tells us anyway. There are prizes to be had from being in positions of power; rewards, people willing to do anything you ask. I suppose it’s just human nature to want a share in it, and once you have it, you believe you are entitled to it, and won’t want to let it go. Not just the money, but the power itself. Maybe it’s an evolutionary thing,” Castiel suggests, “Like fighting over resources.”

“So you’re saying we’re screwed, and everything is shit?” Dean says, kicking at a piece of concrete that has come loose from the floor. “That there’s never going to be anyone in charge who isn’t out for themselves? Jesus, Cas, that’s really depressing.”

“I’m not saying that... Wait!” Castiel grabs onto Dean’s coat, forcing him to stop. “Can you smell that?” Dean lifts his head and scents the air like an animal, closing his eyes to concentrate on it. It smells like damp soil, and rot that someone has tried to cover up with bleach. “And no, I don’t think we’re screwed, I just think we need to be careful not to put too much power in one person, or one party’s hands. We just need some checks and balance, and then maybe things can start getting better. And to get back to your original question, no, I don’t think this is just about the money or the power. In Alistair’s case, I think it’s more about being given free rein to be the monster he is.”

Dean hums thoughtfully for a moment, “What am I supposed to be smelling?”

“Damp, a bit like a wet dog?”

“Never sniffed many wet dogs,” Dean grumbles quietly. They are both on edge and it only gets more obvious the further back they go in the building, winding their way down through the lower levels of the administration building, the parts that are rarely used. “You’re sure it’s this way?”

“I’m not sure,” Castiel acknowledges. “But they let me out very near here, and where else could it be so well hidden.” Castiel is not keen on seeing the torture room again, but they already tried Alistair’s apartments and found nothing. They need the book, the infamous red-bound book that Kevin told them about, and they need photographs and documents for Sam to start building Castiel’s legal case. So here he is, trying to re-trace steps he took when he was bound and blindfolded, and pushed along by Gordon’s rough hands. “We’re definitely close,” Castiel says getting another lungful of the stink of damp decay.

Then he hears the plink, plink, plink of a steady liquid-drip, echoing through the dusty corridors. Castiel tilts his head, trying to find the source of a dripping sound. They are close. He can feel something in the air, tension, like a hangover from too much suffering and misery. It sets him on edge. A muscle twitches in Dean’s jaw as he picks up on Castiel’s growing discomfort. The closer he gets the more the memories come, flashing in sharp bursts, like blades opening flesh in quick flicking bites in Alistair’s steady hand.

“I just want you to know, Cas,” Dean says suddenly. It makes Castiel flinch but Dean does not notice. “If this does all go to shit.” He swallows nervously and looks down at his feet before going on. “If we can’t get Alistair, or he finds out about what we’ve been doing,” Dean looks back up and meets Castiel’s eye. “I think we’ll have to make a run for it.”

“Dean...” Castiel starts. Ready to argue, to tell him that it is unnecessary, the plan will work. He does not want Dean to lose his hope when there is so little of it around.

“No, Cas. Let me finish,” Dean cuts him off.  “We need a back-up plan, just in case.”

“We can make a plan.” What is the harm in it, if it sets Dean’s mind at rest? “But there’s nowhere to go. If we could make it to Anchorage they’ll just turn us in. The train comes once every few months, and there’s nothing on the other side until you hit Canada. It’s already getting colder, we’ll freeze, or we’ll starve.” He steps close to Dean, slides a hand along his jaw. “I’ve watched men starve, it is a horrible death. I don’t want that for you.”

Dean steps away, shaking off Castiel’s hands. “It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not a soft political or an intellectual that spent all day sitting at a desk, reading and writing.” He waves off the start of a protest from Castiel and barrels on, full speed, down the path he has chosen. “I’m a soldier, a good one. I know how to survive, and I can teach you. Hell, even before I joined up, my dad was taking me hunting in places like this. We had to, remember, to keep ourselves fed.” Castiel remains unconvinced, and Dean shakes his head, disappointed at Castiel’s lack of enthusiasm. “I know the forest and you’re wrong, it’s not impossible to survive, and it’s not empty. There are trappers’ and hunters’ lodges scattered all over. We could be safe. I might even know someone who could help. A guy I knew when I was a kid. I’d forgotten all about it until Sam wrote me that stupid letter and got me thinking about all the folks who put us up while Dad was away with the revolutionaries. I’ve already reached out to him, and if he’s still alive, he’ll help, I know he will.”  

Castiel squints up at him. Dean looks beautiful, even in this dismal place. The light hanging behind his head adds a soft halo, and touches the ends of his hair with gold. “If it comes to it,” he agrees. “I will go with you.” He cannot turn away from Dean now, especially not for a thing as meaningless as his life. It has no value inside the prison fences. He may as well take his chances with Dean outside them. “Whatever happens, I’ll choose to stay at your side, Dean.”

Dean looks away, bashful at Castiel’s confession. “I don’t need no moonlight and roses from you, Cas. I just need you to trust me, okay?”

“Okay,” Castiel echoes back, a smile on his lips. He enjoys the way Dean squirms at every new word of affection. Though it is unbelievable to Castiel, that no one ever thought to say such things to Dean before.

“So, you think it’s this way?” Dean says, after clearing his throat a few times.

The smell of mould and wet earth grows stronger as they follow the corridor. As far as Castiel can tell, they are already at the lowest level of the building, nothing beneath them but gravel and the concrete foundations that hold the thick walls up above their heads.

“I think the rooms I was in must have been dug deeper than the rest,” Castiel says as he tries the handle of a door and finds it locked. “It felt different, colder than above ground. Can you open this?” he asks, turning to Dean who is trying the door across from him.

“Sure.” He fishes out the master-key from the busy key-chain that hangs at his hip. They jingle merrily as he tries to open the door. It does not move. Dean tries again, pulling at the door in case it has simply rusted shut. It refuses to budge. “I think we have a winner,” Dean says.

Castiel shivers. He wants to find the place, find the evidence they need, but it would be a braver man than him who could face it all again without any hesitation. His breathing picks up. It sounds loud and strange in the stillness.

“You okay, Cas?” Dean asks. Dean is here, Dean is right here at his side, Castiel reminds himself. He is safe. He pulls his breath in slowly and tries to steady himself, as he nods. “Well I think we’re going to have to pick this lock.”

“I don’t know how to do that,” Castiel says, worry keeping his voice low and quiet.

“Good thing for you then, that I do,” Dean says pulling a little box from his pocket. “Thought we might need these,” he says, as if this is something he does every day. “What?” He asks when he catches Castiel staring at him. “I told you I’ve got skills.” He winks, then bends down to tamper with the lock, jiggling thin pieces of metal inside the mechanism.

It clicks open a minute later and the door swings inwards with a rough creak that has Castiel looking over his shoulder, as if he expects Gordon and Roy and Creedy to come charging towards them with their guns drawn. He is buffeted with a blast of sour air from the entrance, much stronger than it was in the corridor. His stomach turns in protest and he reels from the flash of vivid memory the scent evokes. Dean is with him in a moment, arm around his back, keeping him standing.

“You sure you want to do this? I can handle it alone if you want,” Dean says.

Castiel shakes his head. “No. No, I need to do this.” He needs to face his fear or it will own him forever. Alistair will own him and his broken wings, forever. Fear had already pushed him to do things he regretted—lying to Dean, the performance with Gordon—he refuses to be at its mercy again.

Chapter Text

Dean watches Castiel closely. His shoulders are lifted, his whole body tight, like a cord drawn out too far, ready to snap. Dean wants to touch him, to murmur words of solace in his ear, but he keeps his hands at his sides, curling his fingers into fists to keep them still. Comfort isn’t what is needed. Castiel is anxious, skittish like a wounded animal—likely to bite if cornered. He doesn’t argue when Castiel goes into the room ahead of him. These are Castiel’s demons, he thinks, Castiel’s nightmares to put to rest. Dean can barely handle his own.

The room is more-or-less typical of the administration building. It’s undecorated, as usual, a square of white-washed walls, with a desk and a chair pushed against two of them, their backs to each other. Anyone sitting there would have only a bare expanse of yellowing paint to look at; hardly an inspiring view. The only other thing in the boxy room is an empty set of shelves. It’s made of a dark wood, but otherwise unremarkable.

Castiel focuses on it like a dog that has caught a scent. He stops in front of it, just a step away, his dark head tilted to the side, eyes narrowed. When he steps up and runs his hand along the edge of a shelf, rubbing the dust between his fingers, Dean can’t see his face, but he can imagine it, the puzzled scrunched up look Castiel gets, considering everything, every possibility, before he takes action.

“What is it?” Dean asks. Castiel shows no sign of moving.

“The smell is stronger here,” Castiel says, without looking back. His voice is flattened, dull, and Dean suddenly needs to see him.

He steps around Castiel to knock on the wood of the unit, it’s a weak pretence, but necessary. Castiel looks like he’s not even in the room, his mind gone to some other place, somewhere safe, not here. Dean lets him be, afraid to interrupt and accidentally make this worse for Castiel than it has to be. He examines the shelves, trying to work out what Castiel is seeing. “This room seem a bit cramped to you, Cas?” he asks.

Castiel shivers then looks up at Dean, eyes wide and surprised. He looks around. “I guess so,” Castiel says, eventually.

“Here, help me move this,” Dean says, grabbing hold of the solid piece of furniture.

They drag it forward, away from the wall and out into the room where it sits like a barrier between the two desks, blocking the route to the door. Better hope no one comes nosing down here any time soon, Dean thinks. There’s no way can they hide what they’re doing without a good ten minutes notice. Dean wonders if they should have asked Kevin to help, to stand watch, raise an alarm if anyone happens by. He dismisses the idea quickly. Kevin has done enough to help already. He gave them the camera that Alistair uses to document events for HQ, and has offered to develop any photographs—Kevin likes the space they use as a darkroom, the quiet, the isolation. His offer was immediate and enthusiastic.

There is a door cut into the wall. They don’t speak. There are no whoops of triumph. This is not the time. The door is painted white, same as the walls, and there’s no handle, just a keyhole and the thin grey outline where it meets the wall. Easy to overlook unless you knew what you were looking for.

“Dean..?” is all Castiel says, but Dean understands him immediately. He kneels down and sets to work with his lock-pick. “You can re-lock these doors can’t you?” Castiel asks, as the tell-tale click of the mechanism tells Dean he’s lost none of his youthful skill.

“Sure can,” he says. He tries to sound normal, confident even, not like his heart is fluttering fast, like a startled bird trapped between his ribs. There is a part of Dean that doesn’t want to know what is hidden behind the door. “I won’t leave behind any evidence that we’ve been here,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.” Castiel just makes a nondescript noise in response. It could mean anything.

The door swings open easily and without a sound, on well oiled hinges. It opens onto a darkness that gapes like a mouth. The light that carries from the room they’re in reveals steps; the first few metal steps of a stairway that disappears beneath them, into the black.

The smell grows even stronger, stale urine and faeces adding to the noxious air—the scent of caged animals.

“Well, this isn’t creepy at all,” Dean mutters.

“There must be a light somewhere,” Castiel says. “Gordon wouldn’t be happy stumbling around in the dark.”

“That’s true.” Dean fumbles his lighter from his pocket and flicks at the wheel, the flint sparks and the gas catches, jumping up into a column of flame. It doesn’t give a lot of light, but it’s enough to navigate the stairs.

It’s a narrow passage, similar in size and height to the one that leads up to Alistair’s rooms; planned and built by the same hands, prisoners hands, no doubt. They find a light switch at end of the stairs, just as they step down into a dank corridor. The lights buzzing like angry bees as they come to life, cast crazy shadows that seem to move, dancing and racing away along the scuffed walls, as the bulbs flare one by one along the length of the corridor. The walls are dark with dirt and smears of something Dean doesn’t even want to think about.

“I think the cells must be at the end,” Castiel says, breathing quickly. Dean knows what it feels like to be confronted with the thing you fear. It’s the same way Dean feels when the heat of fire is on his skin and the smell of burning meat and timber fills his lungs.

“You want me to take the pictures, Cas?” Dean offers, though he knows it’s useless. Castiel shakes his dark head and moves on down the corridor.

The cells are both better and worse than Dean expected. There’s no one in them, which is a bonus, and with the lights on, it just looks like a row of six empty cupboards. There is old paint on the walls and a hard-packed floor, made of earth and sunk down a foot or so lower than the surrounding rooms. There’s nothing in them aside from the filth. The smell of shit and piss is acidic and almost overwhelming. There are dark splatters over the walls that Dean does not notice until the exploding flash-bulb of the camera lights them up, bright white.

Fuck Alistair, he thinks, fuck all the piece-of-shit guards. Castiel was kept in this hole for over a week, sleeping and eating and suffering among the foulness. If Dean was a praying man, he would ask God to bless Benny, and all Castiel’s hut-mates, who helped care for Castiel’s wounds—it is a damn miracle he didn’t die of infection.

Castiel takes a lot of photographs. He barely takes the camera away from his eye the whole time they are in the cells. Dean wonders if maybe it’s easier for him to see the place this way, through a lens, more like watching a movie than facing reality. Castiel presses the button and the room is caught, frozen in time on the fragile roll of film, a record, so the people will know what happened here while their eyes were closed.   

“I think I can work out which room they took me to from here,” Castiel says. He pushes away from the wall and takes a few breaths before closing his eyes. Dean’s surprise is short lived. Of course, he was blindfolded most of the time when they moved him around.

Castiel’s body remembers the route it had been dragged along, all those months ago. He narrates a little, as he goes. It distresses Dean to hear it, but if it’s what Castiel needs, then he’ll listen, and he’ll know what was done. “Gordon liked pushing me along by putting his gun to the back of my neck,” he says. “If I didn’t move fast enough, if I stumbled, he’d hit me with it, or kick me, if I was already on the ground. I couldn’t see him so there was nothing I could do to protect myself.”

Gordon: he’s second on the list. Dean’s going to cut his fucking head off, and he’s going to enjoy every moment of it.

Castiel stops by a door covered in metal plate, many of the rooms down here are similarly decorated. There are no numbers hanging on the outside, not even a lock. Alistair must feel safe down here, in his element. “This one,” Castiel says, staring at it as if he could burn a hole though it with his eyes.

The room isn’t what Dean was expecting. It’s flooded with light that sears right to the back of Dean’s eyeballs after the low-wattage darkness of the rest of the place. It’s not a large room, but there are four lights hanging from the ceiling. Every surface is white and scrubbed clean. The tiled floor is spotless, aside from a few stains in the grout.

There is a metal table pushed against the back wall. It reminds Dean of the beds the medics used during the war, when they brought in men that struggled and screamed; the ones that had seen too much. The doctors and nurses would strap them down and injected them with liquid that forced them into sleep.

Castiel starts taking pictures while Dean looks around. He searches the drawers, finding rows of cruel looking instruments, all clean, all shining, all lined up neatly and ready to use. He calls Castiel over to get pictures.

“I don’t think he used these on me,” Castiel says quietly. “I think it was just a scalpel and a knife, an ordinary one, probably the one he carries.” Castiel runs his fingertips over the cold silver of Alistair’s tools. “It was more personal with me, I think. He saw me as a rival, not an experiment.” He laughs sadly. “I suppose I should be glad about that in a way.” He waves his hands over sharp edged scissors and blunt hammers. “It could have been worse. I can’t imagine how many people must have been through here, and I’m the only one not in the ground.”

“Don’t do that,” Dean puts his hands on Castiel’s shoulders, turning him so that he can look at Castiel’s face, at his eyes. “Don’t feel bad about surviving. What happened to you was really fucking shitty, Cas. It doesn’t make it any less shitty just because others had it worse.” He pulls Castiel into a quick rough hug. It’s nothing lingering or sweet. He can tell that’s not what Castiel needs. 

“Have you looked in here?” Castiel asks, running his fingers along the white-glossed edge of a low cabinet.

“Not yet,” Dean says. “Is it locked?”

Castiel gives the door a tug. Nothing happens. “Looks like it.”

“Got it.” Dean gets out his lock-pick, and sits on the floor this time, since it’s clean. “Cas...” he says as he pulls the door open and gets a glimpse of what‘s inside. “You need to see this.”

There are four shelves behind the door, at the top is a camera, much like the one Castiel is using, but a more modern version. Piled beside it, and on the shelves below, are stacks of pictures in their hundreds, maybe even thousands, and even in the grey-scale of black and white pictures, Dean can see the blood, red and oozing, from all kinds of wounds, on all kinds of bodies.

“My God,” Castiel says, as he crouches beside Dean, pressing a hand to his mouth as if he’s trying not to throw-up. “He’s been recording his work.” Castiel reaches for the first pile and Dean automatically goes to stops him, putting a hand on his wrist. All he gets for his misplaced chivalry is a frown, as Castiel pulls his hand away. “I can handle it, Dean.”

“Good for you, because I’m not sure I can.” Dean picks some from the top of a stack. Each one is marked with a prisoner number and a date, on the back. If they look in the archives, will he find these prisoners marked as deceased, as missing, as escaped? Or will the records be missing, an empty file, a person gone, as if they never existed. Castiel is right; none of the people in these pictures will have made it out of this room in one piece. Some of the photographs are obviously post-mortem as it is, with the empty-eyes and slack-muscles of a fresh kill, before rigor mortis has set in. Dean has seen enough of them to know the difference between the living and the dead.

“He’s a collector,” Castiel says. He’s flicking through the pictures, fast, not really focusing on any one but letting the whole lot slide over his eyes, as if he is worried that they might stick, if he looks for too long. “He’s collecting these people’s pain, their suffering.”

On the bottom shelf, there are papers and other items mixed in among the photographs. Alistair’s notes, his distinctive jagged handwriting leaning across the pages, letters pointed and sharp. Without looking too closely they seem to be an account of the best methods to break a man, to extract information, or just to make him scream. It could be the twisted fucker’s version of a diary, but Dean suspects it’s something more. That this is information intended for use elsewhere; in other prisons or future wars.

Dean starts to rifle through, overturning notes, and detailed pencil sketches depicting the muscles of the arms and legs. Dean does not even want to think about what those are for. There’s a square lump hidden underneath some of the papers and his fingers trace the shape before he pulls it out, hoping it might be Alistair’s note-book. It isn’t. It’s a nondescript tin with a small label that reads, “Research and Development,” and underneath, in small inconsequential letters: “Amylobarbitone.” Dean’s never heard of it, but he can’t resist taking a look inside. It’s half full of small round pills. They look a lot like the aspirin in Victor’s bathroom. 

“What’s that?” Castiel asks.

Dean looks at the pills and has an odd feeling that tingles on the back of his neck, as if he has forgotten something. “I’m not sure,” he says. “Looks like some kind of medicine.” Dean hands the tins over when Castiel puts a hand out for it.

When Castiel reads the label his eyes go wide. “These are illegal,” he says. “The old Government developed this class of drug to use as a truth serum. But they never worked. The Government banned them, and as far as I know, that law carried over to the Collective.”

“Why didn’t they work?” Dean asks.

Castiel looks at him, closing the tin and putting it to the side. “They didn’t do what they were supposed to. I think I read that it made the subjects so pliable that they’d give false statements. Somehow it encouraged them to bond with the person asking the question, until they’d say anything to make them happy.”

Dean frowns, his brain working slowly. “It made them easy to manipulate?”

Castiel isn’t looking at him. He’s busy sorting papers into piles. He shrugs. “I suppose so. I guess the subject would just do whatever the researchers wanted.” He stops. His head snaps around to find Dean. “Oh, Dean, I’m so sorry,” he says.

Dean’s lips pull into a grim line. “It’s okay, Cas. Not your fault.” The pills, he thinks, it was the fucking pills. “Just when I thought there was nothing more Alistair could do to shock us,” he says.

“He would have to give them to you fairly regularly, to keep it in your system,” Castiel says, squinting as he thinks. “And you’ve been feeling better recently, since Alistair has been away?”

“Yes.”

“So what else has changed? It can’t be in your food, unless he’s dosing all of the guards, which doesn’t seem likely.”

Dean grimaces as he swallows bitter water. “The whiskey,” he says. “The asshole always gave me whiskey. It was always ready before I went into the office, and he left a bottle with me when he went away, told me he wanted me to keep up our tradition.”

“You haven’t been drinking it?” Castiel sounds surprised.

“Of course not,” Dean says indignantly. “I don’t want a single fucking thing from him, not ever.”

“Are you going to be okay?” Castiel asks, resting a hand on Dean’s knee. “I know you have regrets.” Castiel chooses his words carefully.

Dean huffs, “I’ll always have regrets. No, this actually helps explain a few things. I thought I was just stupid or weak for believing in Alistair, turns out I had a little help.” When they get back to searching the cabinet the drug get pushed to the side, forgotten. It doesn’t matter anymore, Alistair can’t hurt them once he is locked away.

“There,” Castiel says a few minutes later, his voice is urgent in Dean’s ear where he leans in close. “Dean, is that the book?”

The red corner of a book peeks out from under some of the papers. It looks too bright in the white room, among the black and white photographs and ink spotted papers, a single violent point of colour. Dean reaches in and pulls it out. It looks exactly how Kevin described.

“Look inside,” Castiel says, impatient.

There are lists. He turns the pages. Each one is filled with names, some with a number or note beside them. Some have a date underneath, and those have a single line cutting through the name, a hard neat line. They both understand what it means.

“I bet if we look through the photographs some of these dates will match up,” Dean says.

“Not the ones with the numbers, though.” Castiel says. “The numbers are their price. The ordered killings, those people would have been disposed of neatly. Alistair wouldn’t leave any incriminating evidence lying around, even if he never thought he would get caught. The others,” Castiel says, running his finger lightly down the list, and turning the page, searching for something. “The others’ only value would be in how painfully they died, and what Alistair could learn from it.”

“The sick son-of-a-bitch,” is all Dean can find to say.

“Here,” says Castiel, tapping a point in the book, close to the still empty pages at the back.

Dean reads out loud. “Alfie Anslow: compromised.” He looks down the list, doesn’t realise he’s looking for the name until he finds it, scratched in the same black scratches as the others. This entry is intact, Castiel Novak: faggot, thief. “I can take pictures of this,” he says, holding up the journal. “And we can probably take some of these pictures with us. If we take a few shots of them stacked up as well, do you think that’ll be enough for Victor?”

 “He can come down here and risk his own neck if he wants more,” Castiel says, pragmatic as ever. “If it works out, they’ll have to search the place anyway.” He looks up at Dean, the corners of his mouth twitching. “I think it’s enough,” he says. “I think it’s going to be enough.”

Dean is buoyed by Castiel’s words. “We’ve got the son-of-a-bitch,” he grins.

Chapter Text

“I need a little more time to put the last of it together,” Castiel says. Dean watches him hold out a folder to Victor. It’s bound neatly with string as if Castiel was worried something might escape. “But this is the bulk of it; all the invoices that don’t match to any records of goods or services. The money always goes to the same place, Mallory Incorporated, I’d guess it’s a shell company. It shouldn’t be too hard to find out.”

“And you say there’s more?” Victor sounds surprised but pleased.

“Yes, but the rest is different... a bit more complicated,” Castiel hesitates.

It had been Castiel’s idea not to rush handing over the rest of their work to Victor. The involvement of the Mauvais’ made things complicated. There was a risk that Alistair might slip through the net if the whole thing came out at once. They both felt, and Kevin agreed, that the evidence of embezzlement was a surer thing to start with. They would need witnesses for the abuses and the torture, and there was no way in hell anyone was going to stand up until Alistair was locked up, far away.

“I’ve seen some of it,” Dean adds. “I think you’re going to be really pleased with all the work Castiel here has put into this.”

Victor squints and looks as if he is going to ask something. Instead he nods and turns his attention back to Castiel. “Very well,” Victor says, taking the folder between his hands and lifting it as if to weigh the contents. “Unless you have anything else for me, you can go.”

“Wait, Cas...,” Dean says. Two heads turn to him in a synchronised movement. “Sorry, Victor, there’s something else I wanted to say.”

“Okay then, let’s hear it,” Victor stops halfway through untying the strings around the folder, eager to see what is inside like it’s Christmas morning.

“I think we can all agree that Cas has put a lot of work into this, and I think his work allocation should be moved permanently to the offices.” He holds his breath as Victor’s eyebrows creep up his forehead. That wasn’t overstepping was it? Dean wonders. He didn’t think it was.

Castiel is looking at Dean with slack-jawed surprise. It is a more animated expression than he usually wears and Dean feels a smug satisfaction that he caused it. “And what do you think of this suggestion, Mr Novak?” Victor says the name pointedly.

“I’d be happy to accept a more permanent role in the office, if there’s work to be done,” Castiel says, giving nothing away.

“There’s always work to be done,” Victor comments. “You won’t miss the saw-mill?”

Castiel’s lips twitch in wry amusement. “Miss the hard-labour and the noise, and the dirt, and the plague of mosquitoes in the summer? No, Sir. I won’t.”

Victor shrugs and goes back to pulling open the neatly tied strings. “Then we have a deal, Mr Novak, unless there’s anything else Officer Winchester wants to add?”

Dean shakes his head. “No, Sir,” he says, echoing Castiel’s words. “I’m more than happy.”

Victor glances at him again with that same searching gaze. “I’m glad to hear it. Now, you can both get out of my office. I need to get to work on this.”

Dean follows Castiel out the door, dawdling behind him all the way back to Castiel’s tiny office. Castiel packs away his papers in silence, sliding the pack of photographs, that a horrified Kevin developed for them in secret, into the base of one of the filing cabinets; their options for hiding places was limited.

Dean looks out the window while Castiel stacks papers and lines up pens and pencils in a neat row. It is an end of day ritual Castiel has developed over the weeks in the office, perhaps a remnant of what his life was before, old habits returning with the familiarity of paper and ink under his hands, instead of wood and metal. Either way, it’s very Cas, and Dean doesn’t want to disturb him.

They worked late to get the file to Victor today and it’s long past lights out in the exercise-yard. Dean will have to escort Castiel all the way back to Hut 17 so he can bar the door behind him. It’s for the best, an unaccompanied prisoner at night can easily be taken for an escapee, or a saboteur and the guards in the watch tower will shoot at anyone they think might be up to no good.   

“Benny won’t be happy about me leaving the team permanently,” Castiel says, once he’s got the last pencil into the exact position he wants it. “They’ve had problems filling my place these last few months.”

“There’s a new batch of prisoners due to arrive in a couple of weeks,” Dean says. “There’ll be someone they can train up to take your place.”

“New prisoners,” Castiel considers, “Replacements for the deaths this summer.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

Castiel shakes his head. “All those unfortunate people,” he says. “They’ve got no idea what’s waiting for them, just like I had no idea.” Worry wrinkles Castiel’s forehead. “People should know what happens out here, they need to know.”

“They will, Cas.” Dean says. He moves to put his arms around Castiel’s shoulders. It is getting easier and easier, the closeness, the affection for the man in his arms. He was stupid to struggle against it for so long. He pulls Castiel in and buries his nose in soft dark hair, breathing him in, the smell of ivory-soap still clinging to him from earlier in the day. “We have copies of everything for Sam,” Dean reminds him. “He cares about this stuff, and there are others, some survivors even, who are working on it. I know it doesn’t feel like it out here, but there are people trying to help.”

“I know,” Castiel says. “I do know. I’m just not used to having hope. It’s terrifying, Dean. It’s such a fragile thing, and I don’t want it to break.”

Dean pulls back enough to plant a kiss on Castiel’s mouth. “It’s all going to plan, Cas. You worry too much.”

Castiel huffs a laughs. “You might be right,” he admits.

“I’m always right.” Dean ignores the face Castiel pulls at his outrageous lie. “Shut up,” he says. “And let’s get you back to 17 before the night’s half gone.” He kisses Castiel again, with a little more intent this time, and chases him from the room.

“Victor asked me if I’d thought about running this place, once Alistair’s gone.” Dean says it casually, as if he hasn’t been putting off mentioning it for the last three days.

“Won’t they want someone with more experience?” Castiel asks.

Dean shrugs. “Officially it would be a temporary post,” he explains. “But these things take so long to organise that Victor thinks they’d eventually just name me as commander.”

Castiel stops, and frowns at him, reaching out to grip Dean’s wrist tight. “That’s quite a promotion,” he says. “Is it something you’d want? It would make your career, and you could improve things, but...”

“No, Cas,” Dean interrupts. He covers Castiel’s hand with his own. “I told him I didn’t want it.”

“And he’s okay with that? Officials don’t like being turned down.”

“He was surprised, I think, but he’ll understand when he sees the photographs.” Dean strokes a hand gently across Castiel’s back and down his side. Castiel understands exactly what Dean means. The last pictures, ones that Dean took, show the scar-painted wings across Castiel’s back. “I can’t stay here, knowing what happened to you, what happened to all the others,” Dean says. “I hope Victor can make a difference, but he’ll have to do it without me. As soon as you’re out of here, Cas, I’m out of here.”

“Will they let you transfer part-way through a post?” Castiel asks, confused.

Dean laughs. “I mean out of the army, out of all of it, for good.”

“But, what...” Castiel mumbles. Dean knows what he wants to ask. They are the same questions he has asked himself. What will he do? Where will he go? How will he live? And the answer to all the questions is, he doesn’t know, but he’ll figure it out. He can’t stay in the army when he knows that half the things he was fighting for were lies. There’s no more equality or fairness or peace under the Collective, than there was under the old Government. There are good people, people like Victor who see the problems but still try and make it work. But while there’s something rotten at the top, while Luke and Lilith control the central committee, Dean can’t be party to it.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dean says, “I have Sam, and I have you, Cas. I can make the rest up as I go.”

“We can...” Castiel murmurs.

“What?”

“We can make it up as we go,” Castiel says, “Together.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, “Together.” He feels full, as if the muscle of his heart has swollen to fill the entire space behind his ribs. Castiel leans forward, sliding a hand to the back of Dean’s neck, dragging him into a kiss.

“Not here,” Dean says with a smile. They’re at the door to the exercise-yard and even though it’s late there will still be guards on patrol.

Castiel leans against the closed door, tips his head to the side, and looks up through his eyelashes. It’s the closest Castiel has ever got to flirtatious, and it warms Dean in some very special places. “Then you’d better hurry up and get me back to the hut, because I’m not sure I can keep my hands to myself much longer.” It makes Dean’s cheeks feel warm.

“Come on,” Dean smirks, reaching past Castiel to turn the door handle. It opens faster than expected, and Castiel stumbles back as it swings out from under him. Dean catches him around his waist so he doesn’t fall ass-first into the yard. They shush each other as they try not to laugh.

It’s very dark. The lights are out, and there is just a soft glow from the small windows of the administration building, and the lights on the watch tower where Roy is on duty. There is a thick swell of dark cloud in the sky which hides the moon, and threatens to drop the first snow of winter from its belly. It’s overdue. There is a chill that bites at their fingers and the tops of their ears, and a tension in the air, like the world is holding its breath, waiting for winter to show its teeth.    

The door slams shut behind them. It is gun-shot loud in the quiet and they both flinch and grab on to each other as their hearts stutter at the shock of it. Dean starts to laugh. They are both so tightly wound, so primed for disaster that they are jumping at nothing, as skittish as wildcats.

A hard light bursts from the darkness. They part quickly, stepping away and blinking in the sudden spot-light brightness. Dean stands straight, hand on his sidearm in a soldier’s stance. Castiel drops his head and stares at the floor, going submissive for the benefit of whichever guard has targeted them.

They both know they’ve been seen. Dean is just relieved they weren’t caught kissing, or groping, or anything more mortifying. Roy is going to have a field day gossiping about this, even more so if he has company up in the guard tower. Though he should not be messing about with the search-lights and he needs to have his ass kicked just for that.

As the dazzle fades away, Dean’s heart turns to stone. It’s not the search-lights that had them pinned. The beam is the headlights of a sleek black car, almost invisible in the dark. Figures on the smudgy edges of Dean’s vision swim into view when he lifts a hand to shield his eyes from some of the glare. He needs to know just how many asses he is going to have to kick.

He hears Castiel cursing, and moment later Dean has no need to ask why. The whip-thin figure by the car is unmistakable; Alistair has returned.

All Dean can do is follow Castiel’s lead. He makes a show of grabbing Castiel by the arm, yanking him back to his side so hard that Castiel’s feet drag and stumble over the ground. It’s not a display of affection. It’s ownership. If Alistair believes their play, that Castiel is not consenting, that he is a victim, a plaything, it might stay his hand for a few days. Surely he won’t make a move while Victor is there?

Alistair doesn’t speak to them. He just stares through half-lidded eyes, easy and relaxed. Dean has never seen anything so terrifying in his life. How the fuck didn’t he see it before? How did he ever think that Alistair was an okay guy? Something in Dean screams at him to escape, to run. He can’t. He nods a greeting to Alistair and drags Castiel back to Hut 17. At least Castiel should be safe for the night, locked in and surrounded by his hut-mates.

 

~*~

 

Dean chances a look back over his shoulder as they reach the sleep-hut. Alistair is still watching, and even at this distance Dean can see how his lip is curled up into a sneer. He isn’t fooled in the slightest. One look at Castiel’s filled out body, his shaved face and neat clothes, is enough to give them away. They are royally screwed.

“What are we going to do,” Castiel whispers as he slips inside the entrance to the hut. His voice is tight, anxious.

Fuck it, Dean thinks, we were so close to the end. “Victor’s still here,” Dean says with a confidence he doesn’t feel. “He can’t leave until the train comes next week. We’ll just have to speed things up a bit, get the rest of the evidence to Victor now. Once he’s gone...” He doesn’t need to finish the thought. Dean uses his body to block Castiel from view, in case Alistair or any of the other guards are watching, and presses a hand to the curve of Castiel’s neck. “It’ll be okay, Cas,” Dean says, forcing a smile.

Castiel disappears into the hut and Dean pulls the door shut, sliding the bar back into place. He thinks of the fire that burned down Hut 19, how the men screamed as they burned. Dean knows Victor can’t take Alistair down alone. He’ll need paperwork, and orders, and perhaps soldiers in case the guards that are loyal to Alistair decide to try and defend their commander. All of that will take time and they don’t have any.

Dean can’t sleep knowing Alistair is in the building. He spends time thinking about how he can get Victor alone to hand over the folder, but comes up blank.

In the end, it’s Victor who finds him, the next morning as Dean takes an inventory of one of the storage rooms in the basement. He has no idea where Castiel is. If he’s smart, which Dean knows he is, he’ll line up with the others and go back to the saw-mill, where he will be around Benny and the others the whole time.

“Alistair wants me to go as soon as possible,” Victor starts right away. No preamble to soften the blow, he’s straight to the point. It’s part of the reason Dean respects him.

“There isn’t a train until next week,” Dean says, putting his clipboard aside. It wobbles on top of a sack of potatoes. “Where exactly does he expect you to go?”

“Into town,” Victor replies. “He’s all generosity, offered to put me up at the best guesthouse at his own expense if I drive myself there.” He pulls a face as if the words taste bitter on his tongue. “I am sorry to be leaving you like this. I thought I would have time...” His words fade out, helplessly.

“You’ll get it done.”Dean offers as reassurance.

“I’m concerned about your position, Dean,” Victor says, the corners of his mouth turned down in a grimace. “You’ve made no secret of your support for the changes I’ve made and, though I don’t know Alistair well personally, I know he values loyalty. I’m worried he might see us working together as a betrayal.”

Dean could laugh. Alistair will definitely see a betrayal; just not the one Victor is worried about. “There’s nothing to be done about it now,” Dean says, to himself as much as to Victor.

“Well, maybe there is,” Victor says. “I could give you a job on my staff, at head office. Request an immediate transfer, Alistair won’t refuse a direct request from an area supervisor, I out-rank him.” Victor looks at him, waiting for an answer. “What do you think?”

He could get away from Alistair; leave all the fear and confusion behind, work for someone trying to fix the system from the inside. He’d be safe. “I can’t,” Dean says.

Victor looks at him in that searching way Dean has come to recognise over the last weeks. “Because of Castiel Novak,” he says. It’s not a question.

Dean looks away, down at the floor where a silver slug-trail winds its way across the concrete. If he stares at it hard enough, maybe he will find the right answer to that question written in the curls of slime. “I don’t...” he starts. “I don’t know what you...”

“It is fine, Dean.” Victor says. “Well it’s not fine. You’re in a position of power over Castiel and technically, any sexual contact between you could be considered rape, no matter if Castiel consents or not.” Dean feels his face burning, but Victor smiles sympathetically. “I was concerned at first, Dean, but it became very clear, very quickly, that whatever is between the two of you is mutual.” He holds up a hand as Dean tries to speak, to deny it or to explain—he isn’t sure which. “I don’t want to know any more about it, and I don’t exactly approve, but as long as nobody’s being hurt it’s your business and I will keep your confidence, for Castiel’s sake as well as yours.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Victor says as he turns to go. “Thank me when this is over and Alistair is behind bars.”

“Wait,” Dean calls out. “The rest of the work Castiel did, how do we get it to you?”

 “Hand it to me as I leave,” he says. “I have a bunch of paperwork to put in the jeep; I doubt anyone will notice another folder. I’d rather get on a decent road before nightfall, so I’ll be leaving after lunch.”

“So soon?” That does not give them long. 

“Alistair’s been gently encouraging me to go since he arrived last night,” Victor says, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Good luck, Dean. I’ll be in touch soon.”

Dean is left alone then, with only the slugs and the spiders for company. He wishes, more than he ever wished for anything in his life, that he could grab Castiel, jump into the Jeep alongside Victor, and get the hell out of the fucking camp, forever. He’s angry. He wants to beat his fists against something, throw all his frustration and disgust into violence, until it purges him of the seething ball of anxiety and fear churning in his gut. He flexes his fingers a few times, imagines slamming his knuckles into Alistair’s face, Gordon’s face, Creedy, Walt, until the urge passes.

Dean shakes his head, tries to unclog a brain fogged with panic. He needs to think. Dean looks around and realises he’s standing in the middle of a store. There are supplies everywhere. Dried meat, hardtack that they give to the prisoners, tins of beans... all things that travel well. He starts to pull them from the shelves, tossing his clipboard aside. He won’t need it anymore.

He takes the stairs at the south side of the administration building to get to the guards’ dormitories, they’re quieter, less used, safer. There are things he needs in his locker, both personal and practical, that he doesn’t want to leave behind. There is an old photograph of his mother, his knives, matches, a spare gun and his old army knapsack, and of course, the packet of information destined for Sam and his colleagues; their work to clear Castiel’s name.

It’s well past breakfast and the guards will be out on duty, so Dean is not concerned about being disturbed. He sprints up the stairs and rushes to the door to his bunk-room, barrelling through it to get to his bunk and the locker beside it.

Dean stops dead. His bunk is in disarray, sheets and pillows thrown back, mattress crooked as if it has been lifted and dropped back down carelessly. “No,” escapes Dean’s lips. Bright-white panic wraps around his thoughts, slowing them down. The evidence, he thinks, the evidence for Sam. The door of his locker hangs open, swinging from one hinge. Its contents are spilling out and onto the floor. There is an acrid smell that grows stronger the closer he gets. The source is a pile of his clothes kicked to one side. At least it’s only piss, he thinks, it could be worse.  

He reaches for his books, the only things still on the shelf where he left them, though they’ve toppled so that they are on their side. The envelope for Sam was hidden between them, not the best hiding place, granted, but he didn’t think he needed to be over-cautious—no one knew what they were doing, and no one expected Alistair to come back ahead of the train. The envelope is nowhere to be seen.

“Fuck!” Dean shouts, kicking out at the locker door, once, twice, and a third time. He doesn’t care who hears him. The guards already know. What more can they do?

He slumps down heavy onto his bunk, elbows on his knees, hands pressed against his eyes, willing his brain to think. There has to be a way out. He lets his head drop, tightening his fingers around the hair at his temple. He stares at the floor, at his boots—they’re dirty with earth and the ever-present sawdust from the processing plant. Something sepia coloured pokes out under his heel. He lifts his foot and plucks it out from underneath. It is the picture of his mother, one of only a handful that survived the fire—his most treasured possession, and there’s a boot print stamped over half of her face. It sends Dean into a red-rage, and that is exactly what he needs to get moving again.

His brain snaps back into gear, and Dean is on his knees, searching under the bunks for his things. And why stop there? He’s still carrying his lock-pick, and there are other lockers in the room, other supplies that might be useful. They owe him extra clothes at the very least. Dean works his way along the lockers and leaves them open when he’s done—it is not like they won’t be able to guess who did it. He works quickly, eager to find Castiel and get things moving. They’re running out of time.

When Dean turns to leave the room he notices something pinned to the back of the door, a small square of black and white. He knows what it is even before he pulls it free of the small knife stabbed through the top, securing it to the heavy door.

It’s a photograph of Castiel. One of the set they took to help Sam build his case. The others were in the envelope ready to be sent, but this one Dean had kept for himself. He brushes his finger over the image as if he could touch Castiel through the waxy paper. Castiel is turned to the side, showing the scars on his left arm. Dean is not a good photographer and instead of the scars it is Castiel’s face that is in focus. He looks embarrassed, keeping his eye away from the camera by looking at the floor, and his right arm is curled around his stomach. There’s no fear in Castiel’s face, but he does look vulnerable, more so than in any of the other pictures they took that day. It made Dean feel incredibly protective of him, and he could not stand to hand it over with the rest, even to Sam.

Now the photograph has a caption. In blocky capitals along the bottom, it says “DEAD FAG.” Whether the threat is meant for him or for Castiel, Dean had no idea, but he rips the lower part away and stuffs what is left of the picture into his top left pocket. If he’s going to die today, he’ll do it with Castiel close to his heart. In the urgency of the moment the high-romance of it passes without notice.

He leaves the guards’ dormitories behind him with no regrets and heads to Castiel’s office. He hopes that against all odds the evidence they’ve gathered has been left in peace. It’s a futile hope. As soon as Dean sees the door standing open he knows there’s nothing they can do, except run. He shivers as the temperature suddenly drops, and he knows what is waiting for him inside the room.

Alistair is waiting for him, sitting in Castiel’s chair, with one foot hooked up on top of the other knee.

“Come on in, Dean,” Alistair says, lifting a hand in welcome. “I must say I was expecting you to be here a whole lot earlier.”

Anger curls Dean’s lip. “Where’s Castiel, you son-of-a-bitch?” he growls.

Alistair snorts, dismissive. “Don’t you go worrying that pretty head of yours, Dean. Castiel’s fine, for now. He’s at the saw-mill as far as I know.”Alistair sits forward in his chair. “I’m more interested in this, right now.” Alistair lifts a folder from the desk, letting the contents fall. Pictures and papers flutter around him like confetti, or like leaves in the fall.

He didn’t notice when he first went in, too focused on Alistair and worrying about Castiel, but now can see that the room has been ransacked. Records scattered across the floor. Some of the cabinets are askew, drawers yanked out and emptied onto the floor. That’s it then; all that work for nothing. Everything rests with Victor now, and the embezzlement case that he is building—Dean can only hope that Alistair is too distracted with Dean and Castiel and their other work, to realise Victor already has the information he needs.

 “You’ve been a great disappointment to me, Dean,” Alistair says, with an exaggerated sigh. “Your Daddy was right about you wasn’t he? When it comes down to it you just can’t cut it with the big boys. I tried.” Alistair does a good job of sounding hurt and tired. “I tried so hard to teach you, to turn you away from deviancy, to set you on a path to greatness. You could have been something Dean. At my side you could have been important, helped to create a new country under the care of the Collective.”

Dean barks a bitter laugh. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he says. “You can’t even run this fucking camp, Alistair. I’d rather die than see you anywhere near the central committee.”

“That can be arranged,” Alistair says, casually. “But I’m in a good mood today, and I’m inclined to give you one more chance.”

“I don’t want anything from you. If you’re going to kill me, do it.”

“Oh, Dean,” Alistair laughs. “I’m not a murderer.”

Dean’s eyes fall on the photographs spread around the floor. “Bullshit.”

“Eloquent as always,” Alistair says. He stands up, trampling the pictures under his feet. They are nothing more than garbage to him, the pictures and the people in them. “And these, these were not murder.” He bends down and picks one up, a soft smile stretched over his thin lips as if he’s recalling a fond memory. He lets it go, and Dean tracks its progress back to the floor. “These were experiments, or re-education, sometimes, like in the case of your precious Castiel. Not everyone is like us, Dean...”

“I am nothing like you.” Dean spits out the rejection. Not again, he knows this trick now, and he will not let Alistair get under his skin again.

Alistair steps nearer still. If Dean wanted he could reach out and throttle him. He could pull the knife from his belt and push it into Alistair’s eye socket. It’s tempting, but he cannot act until he knows exactly where Castiel is and that he is safe. After all, Gordon and his ilk are almost as much of a danger as Alistair right now. “Yes, you are. You’ve killed people, lots of people, Dean.”

“It was war.”

“We’re still at war, you fool,” Alistair spits. “We both fought for the Collective and I’m still fighting. I’ll fight until every enemy, every weak link, and every pervert is eradicated from our society. And what are you doing, Dean? Fucking the enemy? Give them pillows, and feed them up until they’re as fat and lazy as the old Government?” His eyes glimmer with a disturbing fervour. “No. The country will only be safe once the dissenters, and the dissolute, are wiped out. My work is vital to that, just as yours was when you shot down Government men by the dozen.” Alistair’s insane, completely mad, and Dean never realised. “So you see,” Alistair goes on. “We’re not so different after all.” He turns contemplative then, a finger tapping his long chin as he looks Dean up and down. “As I said, I’m inclined to give you one last chance.” He paces around Dean, circling him like a predator. It makes the hair on the back of Dean’s neck stand up when he disappears from view behind him, expecting to feel the slither of a knife in his back at any moment.

The next words are breathed into Dean’s ear. “Give up the deviant,” he says. “Finish the job I asked you to do before I left. Kill him. I don’t care how. Do it within the day and I’ll consider letting you live.” With that Alistair turns his back. “Go now.” He says. “Gordon and I will be disposing of all this.” He points to the pictures on the floor, then picks up an envelope from the desk. Dean can see Sam’s  address written across the front. “Starting with this,” Alistair says. “And don’t worry, Dean. I made a note of your brother’s address. It would be sad if such a clever young man drew the attention of the OSS, don’t you think?” Dean leaves as Alistair calls after him, “Oh and Dean, make sure you’re there to see Victor off won’t you. He leaves in less than an hour.”

Victor is still in the commander’s office when Dean gets there. Dean can hear him moving around, packing his things in a hurry. Kevin is at his usual post a few steps in front of the door, straight backed and ashen-faced, staring ahead at something no one else can see. Dean can see he’s petrified, that he knows Alistair is back.

“Kevin.” Dean says, waving a hand in front of his face, trying to draw the kid back from wherever he’s gone. “Kevin, come on, man,” he says again. Dean snaps his fingers a few times and finally, Kevin jerks, blinking at Dean as if he’s just woken up.

“Officer Winchester,” he says, his voice shaking. “How can I help you?” It’s back to being formal, dry and nervous, nothing like the guy who was so keen to help them a few days ago. “Do you want Commander Henriksen, Sir?”

“No, Kevin, I don’t.” Dean speaks quietly, and keeps his eye on the door. “I’m sorry, Kevin. It’s over. Alistair has the pictures, all our notes, everything. He hasn’t asked about anyone else being involved, if he does, deny everything. Tell him Cas developed the pictures—he’s smart, there’s no reason he wouldn’t know how—say we forced you into giving us the key to the dark room, and that you were afraid we would attack you. Alistair will buy it, he thinks we’re sick.” He leans down over the desk until Kevin is forced to look him in the eye. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but I need you to do one last thing for me.”

Kevin sets his mouth into a hard line, but he nods, anyway. “What do you want me to do?” he asks.

“Get a message to Cas for me,” Dean says. “Tell him to meet me at the fence.”

Kevin looks doubtful. “What fence? The place is surrounded by fences.”

“Just tell him to meet me at the fence. He’ll know where I mean.”

“When?”

“Tonight, as soon as possible, and tell him to dress warm.”

“Okay, I’ll do my best.”

“I know you will Kevin, you’re a good man,” Dean reaches across the desk and Kevin stares at his hand for a few seconds before taking it in his own, and they shake on the bargain.

“Good luck, Dean,” Kevin says.

Dean smiles at him. “You too, Kev. Stay safe if you can.” 

 

~*~

 

Snow is dusting the exercise-yard by the time Victor is ready to leave. The first snow of the season finally arrived. The sky overhead is completely white and hiding the sun, making it difficult to judge the time of day. Dean is being watched by more than one pair of eyes when he says his goodbyes to Victor, and it only makes him angrier than he already was.

“It’s been good working with you, Dean,” Victor says, loud enough that everyone gathered can hear. “I expect we’ll meet again, sometime soon, I hope.”

“I hope so too,” Dean replies.

Victor takes the last of his bags from Kevin, who is quiet and trembling at their side—from the cold or from fear, Dean doesn’t know—and climbs into his Jeep. He directs a last nod in Alistair’s direction, and then he’s gone, driving away among slow flurries of snow that muffle the sound of the engine and make him disappear before he even reaches the bend in the road.

 “Thank fuck he’s gone,” Gordon growls out. “Now we can get back to running this place properly.” There are mumbles of agreement as the crowd disperses. Gordon sidles up to Dean, puts an arm around his shoulders, gripping painfully over the scarred tissue on his left arm. “There’s a few prisoners need to be put back in their place, don’t you think, Winchester?” he laughs. “And I for one can’t wait to have a nice chat with a certain dark haired fag. What do you think, Winchester, think we can beat the queer out of him? I say we give it a damn good try.” He walks off laughing, leaving Dean trying to swallow down the rage boiling inside.

It feels like the act of a coward, but Dean spends the rest of the day hiding out in the store-rooms under the administration building. He double and triple checks his knapsack and the small pack of supplies he put together in the morning, staying put until after it goes dark and he hears the tell-tale rumble of the trucks heading back to the camp. He can smell the food in the mess-hall, ready for the guards to eat their fill, and it is tempting to give in to his belly; one last warm meal to stave off the cold a little longer.

He waits until the yard is full of inmates, going back to their huts, going to Garth at the fire-pit to get their food, filling bottles at the water pumps. Dean watches from the shadows until most of the guards have headed inside, then slips from the stores and circles around to the fence, keeping the mass of prisoners between him and the administration building for as long as he can. There is a point behind the administration building where the fence hangs loose since the last big autumn storm threw half a tree at it. It was on the list of renovations Victor put together not long after he arrived, but it wasn’t a priority, so they never got around to fixing it.

Dean slinks through the shadows at the corner of the building, moving soft and swift, cat-like in his movements. It’s close to where Castiel had to get on his knees in front of Gordon, and the light that was flickering that night has finally given up the ghost, plunging the whole area into darkness. He takes the turn, dodging behind the building, preparing to make a dash for the fence, when he slams straight into Walt Taylor, who crashes to the floor with a loud curse.

Dean hears the clink of the guns, before he sees the other guards. Then they come, dark shapes solidifying as they drift out of the darkness. It’s the usual suspects; Walt, Roy, Creedy, and Gordon. “Oh, thank God,” Dean says, sarcasm kicking in. “Are you here to rescue me?”

Gordon steps forward. “I’ve been waiting so long for this,” he says, laughing. His teeth are white and shark-like as he grins. “Dean, I have to tell you, I’m practically giddy with excitement.”

The burst of pain when Gordon hits him is hardly unexpected. He hits hard, and Dean falls to the ground, bloody nose dripping into his mouth. He looks up at Gordon, standing over him, and smirks a drunken red smile, blood coating his teeth. “That all you got assho...”

A sharp crack to the back of his head sends Dean spinning into darkness. Creedy steps back, shifting his rifle back into its normal place at his side. “Man, that guy is really fucking annoying,” he says.

Chapter Text

The message comes from Garth, a few clipped words whispered in Castiel’s ear as a ladle of stew is dumped into his bowl. “The fence, get to the fence, soon as you can.” He does not need to ask what it means or who the message comes from. Castiel nods his understanding and gives Garth his thanks, before heading back to the hut, shovelling as much stew into his mouth as possible as he goes. He needs it after a day back on the line at the saw-mill. He had forgotten the way that raw hunger scratches at the stomach after a day of hard labour. Castiel is amazed he could forget it so quickly.

He takes the sheet from his bed, piles his few belongings on top of it then gathers up the corners, tying them together with a length of cord scavenged from the work-site a long time ago. Benny watches from his bunk across the gangway, but says nothing, just tips his hat silently as Castiel stops at the door. He takes one last look around the nasty, rotting, overcrowded place that has been his home for nearly six years. He won’t miss it. He pushes through the door, hefting the make-shift bag over his shoulder, and heads out into the snow-laden dark. He does not look back. 

The route to the woodshed is familiar and easy to navigate. He takes up his old post on the stacked logs, still clean of snow for now, under the shelter of the sloping roof of the shed. Castiel waits. The snow deepens. The night turns a thick inky-black when the camp’s lights are turned out for the night. Every twig that snaps in the forest, every rustle in the canopy, and each call of a hunting owl, makes Castiel’s heart thump in his chest.

Castiel has no watch, no way to mark the passage of time, but he is sure he must have been there for hours, shivering in the dark. He tries not to think about what it means if Dean does not come. A fatalistic part of his brain says fuck it, if Dean is dead, he may as well sit here until he freezes anyway. It’s not a bad way to go, apparently. He’s heard it’s a lot like falling asleep.

A while later there is a disturbance, deep in the forest. Castiel’s mind plays tricks on him as he gets colder, and he thinks he hears voices, but it is just as likely to be a fox, taking its chance to snatch some prey before the snow grows too thick on the ground. It falls through the canopy in slithering gluts as the weight of it forces the branches to give way. The forest goes still again. He starts to feels numb, and does not know if it is the cold outside, or the icy-fear growing inside, spidering out through his veins, like hoarfrost creeping across a window pane.

“Castiel, are you with us, Brother?” Benny says, prodding him in the chest with one finger.

Castiel blinks, and finds Benny peering into his face. He is so close that Castiel jolts his head back in surprise, thumping his skull on the wall of the woodshed.

“That’s going to smart.” Garth is standing a few steps away, keeping watch on the yard, craning his skinny neck to look around the corner.

“I’m waiting,” Castiel says stupidly. He is at a loss as to why these men have appeared. They should be locked in their huts along with everyone else.

“Yeah, we know,” Benny says. He pulls a silver flask from inside his jacket, takes a swig, before offering it to Castiel. “I think you could do with it,” he encourages, and Castiel thinks, what the hell. He takes it and gulps down a mouthful.

“What the hell is that?” he gasps, as fire burns all the way down his throat. It’s about ten times worse than the usual moonshine.

It’s Garth who answers. “The very best in potato-skin bucket-wine,” he announces proudly.

“A very fine vintage, my friend,” Benny says.

“Yes,” Castiel agrees, politely. “It’s very, fresh.”

“Thanks, but we didn’t come here to discuss the finer points of illegal alcohol making.” All humour has fallen from Garth. His expression is more serious than Castiel has ever seen it before.

“Garth here has got something to tell you,” Benny says. “He heard something a little while ago that we think you should know.”

Castiel looks at Garth. “Well?”

“I was hanging around the kitchen just before lights out, looking to collect some scraps for breakfast tomorrow, and I overheard some of the guards talking. Castiel, I’m sorry, but they have Dean.”

Castiel is on his feet before Garth’s finished. “Where?” he demands. “Where is he?”

“Take it easy, Castiel,” Benny starts in his warm southern burr. “You ain’t going to be any use to anyone if you go off all riled like that. They’ll shoot on sight.

“He’s not dead,” Castiel says. “I’d know if he was.” It is nonsense, superstitious fanciful nonsense, but right then it feels like the truth.

Garth moves closer. “He’s not dead. I don’t know where they had him stashed, but they were talking about taking him into the forest tonight, having a bit of fun with him before leaving him to the scavengers.”

“And I saw them,” Benny takes over, “Not more than half an hour ago, three guards and Alistair leading the way.”

“They went on foot?” Castiel asks. He could catch up to them if they did. God only knows what he will do then, but it is more of a plan than he had five minutes ago. It’s something. 

“Yep, on foot,” Benny confirms, “Heading north, up the old trappers’ path. You know it?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then leave this,” Benny relieves him of the bed-sheet sack, untying the top and handing him back the cord, before offering him a small backpack instead. “It isn’t much, but it’s all we could do at short notice. Everyone in 17 pitched in what they could.” He holds up a hunting knife. Where the hell he has been hiding that all these years Castiel will never know. “Put this in your belt,” he says, before putting it there himself, pulling the folds of Castiel’s clothes around it to hide the hilt from view. “God-speed, Castiel, we’ll be praying for you and that boy of yours.”

Garth steps up and wraps Castiel in a thin-armed hug, too brief for Castiel to even think about reciprocating. “There’s a little food in there from me as well,” Garth says.

“Why?” Castiel asks. “Why have you all done this?” He has spoken to these men a little more often than others, but he never considered them friends. Now here they are, risking themselves, their lives, and sacrificing their belongings for him.

“Because you can’t ever come back,” Garth says. “I heard that Alistair wants to burn you, throw you in the fire-pit like a piece of rubbish. I can’t have that going on in my pit,” he says, with a sad smile. “And anyway, it would be good to imagine someone getting out, living out there, being free.”

Benny steps up and puts a heavy hand on Castiel’s shoulder. “Go find Dean. Do what you can. Then you run, Brother. You take him, and you run, as far and as fast as you can. Stay alive for us. Give us hope.”

Castiel looks at the two men and has no idea what to say. There are no words big enough to communicate the gratitude he feels. “Thank you,” he says. It will never be enough, but it is all he has to give these men who have saved his life, and if he is very lucky, Dean’s life as well.

Benny goes to the nearest fence-post, wraps his hands around it and lifts, pulling it and the fence straight up off the ground. He is red-faced with the effort. Garth grips the chain-link mesh and hauls it up, making a gap just big enough for Castiel to wriggle through, dragging the pack behind him.

They do not say anything once Castiel is on the other side. They just raise their hands and watch him disappear into the trees.

 

~*~

 

Castiel picks up the trail quickly. He might not be a career soldier like Dean, but he fought. He has enough training to protect himself, and to take down the enemy fighters if necessary. He chose to rescue instead of kill, but everyone had to do things they regret during those years, Castiel is no exception. He runs down the trappers’ path, feet falling light and fast over pine needles and snow. In rescue and recovery Castiel learned to walk soft, not to disturb the rubble, not to make a sound when the smallest vibration could bring the last standing parts of a ruined building down on you and your soldiers, in a landslide of bricks and girders. He has not lost that ability, and he moves now like the ghost they named him for, slipping fleet-foot and silent between the trees, a shadow moving in the dark.

He follows the distant sound of voices and they take him away from the trappers’ path, drawing him in like a harbour light, guiding him home, bringing him to Dean. The snow is deeper, coming down fast and that is a help. While Castiel can hear Alistair and the guards, who have no need to stifle their voices because they have no fear of being caught, it deadens any accidental sounds of Castiel’s approach and helps hide him from view as he closes in.

He finds them in a clearing, less than a mile from camp. There is nothing significant about it. It is a flat expanse, irregular in shape, no bigger than an infield. Castiel stays back, crouching low behind the brush of the undergrowth, in the deeper shadow of the tree-line. Dean is in the middle, kneeling in the snow, hands bound behind his back, with Alistair standing over him. Of course Alistair will want to do the job himself, Castiel thinks, he won’t let Gordon or Creedy do it for him, what would be the fun in that? There is blood on Dean’s face, but he is alert and furious, eyes alive with suppressed rage.

The guards, three of them, Gordon, Walt, and Creedy, stand further back, ranged around the edge of the clearing, with lanterns at their feet, casting a warm glow from the points of a triangle, that meet where the commander is crowing over his prize.

“Do you know why I wanted you, Dean?” Alistair is saying.

“Was it because of my perky nipples?” Dean sasses without missing a beat.

Alistair slaps him across the face to shut him up. Dean’s head turns with the force of it, but it is not intended as a serious attack, and he sneers when he looks at Alistair again. “It was because good men are more worth breaking, they make the best monsters. A man that’s bad by nature just doesn’t know any better, and they lack imagination. When a good man, like you, learns to throw off the shackles of morality, it’s beautiful,” Alistair pauses and sighs dreamily, like a love-sick boy. “A good man understands cruelty and the many exquisite ways in which a person can be twisted and changed, Dean,” he says affectionately, running his hand through Dean’s hair as if he is a well loved pet.

Castiel clenches his hands into fists, a stab of possessive anger flaring and turning his mind red with rage. He considers the merit in taking the knife Benny gave him and rushing Alistair, cutting off the offending hand before shoving the blade between his ribs to skewer his heart. The breath he takes shivers on his lips as he tries to calm down. Thoughtless acts of heroics will just get them both killed. If Castiel shows himself now he will be dead, with a bullet through his neck, before he can get two steps closer to Alistair.

“I had my eye on you for a while, Dean,” Alistair goes on while Dean rolls his eyes, looks around the space of the clearing as if he is bored. “Did you know I knew your father?” Dean’s head snaps up at that

In the dark, Castiel silently curses. Truth or not, any mention of Dean’s family is not going to go down well, and Dean needs to stay calm; stay still, stay quiet, stay safe—the old rules more important now than ever. Castiel needs time to work out what to do.

“Oh yes,” Alistair says, brimming with pleasure at Dean’s agitation. “We worked together many times, during the revolution and in the war.”

Whatever Castiel does, he will have to move quickly, a knife, his hands and a length of cord are not much of a match for the guns at the guards’ sides. He’ll have to be quick and clever. First things first. Castiel stashes the pack and his bulky coat in a hollow between the roots of a tree. If this all goes wrong he won’t need them again anyway. Next he digs down through the snow until his fingers find cold damp earth. He has no way of knowing if it will work, but since there is an extreme lack of camouflage options, he rubs it over his face in the hope that it will darken his skin, help him stay hidden for as long as possible.

He can still hear Alistair’s voice slipping between the trees. “He was too old to make a good student or I might have taken him instead. Oh yes, there was some darkness in John Winchester.” He laughs. “One day he told me about his son, his pretty son, who cooked and cleaned and cared for his little brother, as if he was a woman. He told me he was relieved when you joined the army. He saw it proof that you were a man after all, not the queer he thought you were. I looked out for you after that, Dean. Your very own guardian angel, though you never knew it.”

“You’re lying,” Dean says

Alistair just laughs. “Am I, Dean? Are you sure? As soon as I saw you in person, I knew you were the one. All that angst, all that self-loathing and those delicious daddy-issues, wrapped up inside a stone-cold killer. You were perfect.”

“Jesus Christ, can’t you kill me already, I’m sick of listening to this shit.” Dean is glorious. He is full of fire, and completely un-cowed by Alistair’s taunts.

Castiel knows he cannot take them all on at once. He is strong but that would just be courting disaster. If he can separate them, lure one of them away, he would have a better chance at success.  He looks at each guard in turn, his brain racing to think of what to do, how to do it. Even the guards seen to have grown bored of Alistair’s voice. Gordon is picking at his sharp teeth, idly keeping one eye on Dean and Alistair. Walt looks agitated, and keeps staring off into the trees, as if he thinks a bear will attack at any moment. Creedy is just looking at the ground, stamping on the snow and making messy footprints.

“And you started off so well, so pliable,” Alistair says. “When you didn’t hesitate to kill little Alfie, I was so pleased with you. He was a sweet boy,” he says. “It’s a shame he started sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.”

“Asshole,” Dean mumbles.

“Oh yes, speaking of assholes. Your special friend,” Alistair says gleefully, lingering on the word special. “He is going to regret the day he ever met you, Dean. I’m going to burn him and he is going to die screaming and cursing your name.”

Castiel works his way through the trees until he is halfway between Walt and Creedy, they seem like the easier targets. As he watches, Creedy sighs and pulls his head up, looking around, before calling to get Walt’s attention. “Going for a piss,” Creedy grumbles. “I’ll be back in five.” Walt just grunts instead of replying.

God-bless Creedy and his over-full bladder, Castiel thinks, slipping along behind the guard as he stomps away through the brush, snapping branches that aim for his face, and cursing up a storm every time his foot gets caught on a tree root. With his wide, squat figure Creedy reminds Castiel of the ogres that populated his childhood books. He does not travel far. He stops just out of sight of the men in the clearing. It is far enough.

Creedy opens his fly, leaning one hand on the trunk of a particularly large tree. He groans with relief as liquid starts to splatter on the ground. Castiel is close, only a step behind, when he draws the cord from his pocket, already fashioned into a wide loop, a noose. He needs this to be quiet. There will be time for the knife later, but this one needs to go unnoticed.

Castiel waits until the splattering fades and stops, until Creedy is looking down, distracted with tucking himself away and fastening his fly. The cord slips over Creedy’s head easily, as if it was meant to go there, and before he can make a sound, Castiel is pulling back, tightening the circle to crush the guard’s windpipe. Castiel throws his weight onto Creedy’s back, pushing him against the cracked bark of the tree he pissed on. He uses it as a support, to help slide Creedy’s bulk to floor.

All the time Castiel pulls on the cord, keeping it tense, keeping it tight. Creedy’s face darkens, it would be puce in the daylight. As it is he just looks bruised all over. The guard claws at his throat, at the floor, at nothing. He cannot see Castiel. He does not know who is killing him. Castiel does not care. Creedy is as guilty as Alistair. Castiel thinks of every prisoner who ever felt Creedy’s noxious temper, his fists, or feet, or the butt of his gun as he broke their bones, and he holds on. Creedy’s heels scrabble on the ground, and Castiel is so grateful for the pile of snow under his feet, silencing them, that he swears right then that he will never complain about winter again.

Castiel holds the cord until Creedy’s feet go still. His eyes are open, bulging and blood-shot, staring at the canopy. Castiel takes the gun from Creedy’s side and looks away. Let the scavengers have him. Let the snow come and hide his bones. Castiel does not care.

He can hear Alistair laughing as he makes his way back. “Poor John, he’d be so disappointed in you, Dean, so ashamed.”

“John Winchester died in the war. It doesn’t matter what he thought,” Dean hisses.

“I know he died,” Alistair says. “I killed him.”

Castiel can hear Dean growling. “Lies, it’s fucking lies.”

“Didn’t you hear, Dean. I’m the hero that saved Detroit from the Government.” Through the trees Castiel can see Alistair crouching down, putting him at eye-level with Dean. “What a shame that those nasty Government men gassed half the city in retaliation.”

“What did you do, Alistair?” Dean snarls.

What next? What next?  Castiel thinks. There’s no time to waste. He looks at the gun in his hand.

“It was your father’s company that went in, not for reconnaissance like the reports say, but to fight. It got messy. The radios were down, and there was skirmishing in the streets like some pathetic guerrilla warfare. It was embarrassing, Dean. But John, he fought on, rallied what was left of his men and came out triumphant. They came back euphoric, expecting us to celebrate with them, but all I could think about was all those people in the city who must have seen them. The Collective People’s Army, who were supposed to sweep in and save them, reduced to a few bloody men using their fists. Not what Luke or Lilith would want; the Collective must be seen to be strong.”

“What did you do?” Dean says again, but his voice is strained, emotion clogging up his throat.

“I solved the problem. I gave the order and we opened fire, and when your father and his men were dead, we decided to toast them with a neat little cocktail of poisoned gas. Didn’t want any citizens telling tales did we? No one knew we had those sorts of weapons, so the Government got the blame for it as a revenge attack. It made them look bad and their support started to fail. It helped win the war, Dean, so don’t look at me like that.”

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Dean shouts, starting to lose his control.

Walt will come looking for Creedy soon. He has been jumpy the whole time, uncomfortable at being in the forest at night. “Okay,” Castiel tells himself. “If they want to know where Creedy is, I’ll show them. He lifts Creedy’s gun, it is heavy in his hands, the chamber full. He aims it roughly in the direction of the place he left Creedy, and pulls the trigger. Then Castiel runs, as fast as he can, circling back the other way, leaving the sound of Walt dashing through the undergrowth and calling Creedy’s name, behind him.

 “Maybe the wolves got him,” Dean is saying as Castiel comes to a stop. He drifts forward until he is hidden only a few steps behind Gordon. Alistair is turned away, following the direction of Walt’s shouts.

“Probably just saw a shadow, Creedy’s always been a little chicken-shit,” Gordon offers. Alistair does not turn to look at him.

Now or never, Castiel thinks. He unfolds himself from his hiding place and slides up behind Gordon, keeping the guard’s body between him and Alistair.

“It doesn’t matter,” Alistair is saying. He turns his attention back to Dean, “Oh yes your brother...”

Castiel presses the sharp point of the hunting knife into the side of Gordon’s throat, wrapping his other arm across his chest to hold him still. “Don’t you fucking move,” Castiel whispers. Gordon is an abomination, and Castiel feels nothing when Gordon starts to laugh and the movement causes the blade to break skin. A line of blood runs down the side of his neck, soaking into his collar.

“I think we might have a little situation here, Commander,” Gordon says.

Alistair swings his head around slowly. “The faggot,” Alistair says, “How nice of you to join us, Castiel.”

“Let him go, Alistair.” Castiel says.

Gordon laughs even more, utterly careless of the knife digging in to his flesh. “You haven’t got the balls, Ghost.”

Alistair’s smile is sickening. He grabs Dean by the collar and drags him to his feet before stepping behind him. “We can all play that game Castiel.” A blade appears in Alistair’s hand suddenly, as if it was conjured from thin air, and he presses it to Dean’s throat. “You should have come up with a better plan than this.” Alistair lowers his voice, making a mockery of Castiel, saying, “Let him go or else I’ll kill him, let him go or else I’ll kill him.” There is no fear in Alistair’s eye, not even a fragment of concern.

Castiel looks at Dean and Dean looks back. He wonders if this is the last time, and he is glad Dean is smiling... Dean is smiling? Castiel’s heart skips oddly when Dean winks at him, quickly, and just once. Good-God, Dean is amazing, Castiel thinks, and after this he will tell him so, as often as he can, for as many years as he has left. He needs a distraction. He has to give Dean a chance to do whatever it is he is planning. Castiel drags his attention away from Dean and forces himself to concentrate on Alistair, picking up the threads of the conversation where they had been dropped.

“But, Alistair,” Castiel says. “I said let him go, I never said or else.” Castiel pushes, sliding the hunting knife into Gordon’s throat right up to the hilt, then pulls it out through the front, ripping open a hole in the front of his neck that gushes blood, meat and sinew dangling from the wound, as he gurgles on his last breath. Castiel takes his weight, holds him up like a shield, living or dead he will still stop a bullet.

Alistair is incensed, his nostrils flare, his eyes go wide, and he bares his teeth like a wild thing. “Now you get to watch this, Castiel,” Alistair hisses.

In the split second that Alistair starts to move his arm, Dean’s hands reach up, free of their restraints. He grabs Alistair’s arm and forces it away. The blade falls away from his neck leaving nothing more than a shallow scratch behind. At the same time Dean throws his head back, hard, his skull connecting with the bridge of Alistair’s nose. It cracks as it breaks. Dean spins away, still holding tight to Alistair’s arm and the knife in his hand at bay. Dean twists, hard and fast, closes in, forcing Alistair’s hand in and up between their bodies. Castiel cannot see the details of what happens as he drops Gordon’s body and runs over, but Alistair gasps and growles and starts to shake. He throws a manic grin at Castiel over Dean’s shoulder.

When Dean steps away the knife is protruding from Alistair’s chest. There is a red slice from his belly to his ribs, and it is being forced open as his innards start to bulge, threatening to fall free. Alistair covers them with his hands and laughs. It ends in a bloody cough as the commander sways forward, knees bending as he topples to the ground. “They’ll be coming for you now and you’ll both hang,” Alistair says, bloody spit falling from his mouth as he speaks. “I still win. I always win.”

Castiel is standing over Alistair, feeling nothing as he watches his torturer bleed out in the snow. There is a gun in his hand. He points it at Alistair’s head. “No, you don’t,” he says, and puts a bullet in Alistair’s skull.

There is a commotion in the trees as Walt half-falls into the clearing, wheezing. “I heard gunfire, what...” His voice disappears, fading with a squeak as he takes in the carnage. Both Dean and Castiel have guns turned on him, and he drops his own in favour of holding his hands up in surrender. “I never liked those guys anyway,” Walt says. “Just let me go and I won’t say anything to anyone. I promise.”

“What’s the name of the girl with the red hair?” Castiel asks. There is a memory, a flash of overheard conversation and Walt laughing. He might not be as bad as Gordon but he has committed crimes, and Castiel is loathe to let him go unpunished. Dean is watching Castiel from the corner of his eye but he stays quiet, makes no move to intervene.

Walt looks utterly baffled. “I don’t know. I don’t know what you mean.”

“In Anchorage,” Castiel says, voice rising. He is starting to get angry. “There’s a girl with red hair that you visit, that you hurt... What is her name.”

Walt’s jaw works itself open and closed a few times. “I’m not sure.” He gasps as Castiel pulls back the hammer on his gun. “Maggie, or Mary. No Maggie, I think she’s called Maggie. Do you want me to introduce you guys to her or something? I could...”

Castiel startles as Dean’s gun goes off. “That’s for Maggie, you piece of crap.” Dean says. Walt looks down at the hole in his chest in confusion, before falling forward, hitting the floor face down and still. “What?” Dean says while Castiel stares at him. “He was wasting time and you know we couldn’t let him go back to the camp.”

 

~*~

 

They stare at the bodies around them, gouts of blood melting the snow that is still falling, thick and fast. It is quiet in the clearing, and distantly, right on the edge of Castiel’s hearing, he can hear something. Distant shouts, men from the camp, brought out by the sound of gunshots and the realisation that the commander is nowhere to be found.

Dean looks at him, frowning. “What do we do now, Cas?” he sounds a little lost, and all Castiel wants to do is wrap him in his arms, make all the blood and the horror go away.

They cannot run. If they do, the guards will follow them, send the dogs after them, until they are hunted down like animals. They cannot go back. There is no way anyone would believe their story, and all the evidence against Alistair is with Victor, on his way to Anchorage. Alistair, Castiel realises with his heart sinking like stone, was right, they will both hang for this. Their plans are in ruins, their future as dead as the men going cold around them.

Castiel always knew he would never escape the labour-camp. He was a fool to let himself believe, to let himself hope, that it could end any other way. A quick end and a shallow grave; he is okay with that for himself, but Castiel cannot stand the thought of it for Dean.

The answer comes all at once, a spark of inspiration set alight in Castiel’s mind. Dean can be saved, and Castiel will do whatever it takes to make that happen. The dead men were the inner-circle, Alistair’s faithful guards. No one else knew about what was happening, not in any detail anyway, even if they had suspicions. Roy might be a problem but he was always more laid back, easier going than the others and a peripheral member of the team at most.

Castiel moves closer to Dean, lifts his arm, and presses the gun in his hand to his chest, near his heart. The weapon is still warm from the last shot. He holds Dean’s hand with his own, holds it steady. Castiel tries to make Dean see that he is okay with ending his life here, now, with Dean at his side.

“What are you doing?” Dean asks, his forehead creased with lines of confusion. 

“You have to kill me.”

Dean staggers back as if Castiel struck him. “What are you talking about? We should run, right now.”

Castiel shakes his head. “If you run, you’ll be suspected. You’ll be seen as a criminal.” He tries to explain, to make Dean see that this is the only way. “You’ll end your days a prisoner, in a place like this, or more likely, they’ll just kill both of us. I can’t let them do that to you, Dean. You deserve to live. You have a chance.”

Dean shakes his head. His eyes glitter with water but he does not cry. Perhaps he does not know how? “No, Cas, I can’t hurt you.”

“You have to.” There is a sound of dogs, gruff barking through the trees. They do not have long.

Castiel lets Dean drop the gun away, down to his side. He puts his hands on either side of Dean’s face and pulls him in, presses their mouths together, just once, just one last time. Castiel takes strength from it. I was lucky, he thinks, to know Dean and to love him.

When Castiel moves away Dean hangs his head, his eyes fixed on the bloody floor as he shakes his head in sorrow. After a moment he stops, takes a deep shuddering breath, and looks up, straight at Castiel. It is the smallest change but Castiel has come to know him so well he can see the moment Dean realises he is right. Dean closes his eyes for a second and when he opens them again the green is no longer dulled with despair, but sharp and bright and alive. “Okay, Cas. We’ll do it your way.”

Castiel smiles and runs his hand down Dean’s arm to find his hand, squeezing his fingers in a way he hopes is reassuring. “I knew I’d never leave the camp, but I am glad that I’m giving my life for you.”

“Close your eyes, Castiel.” Dean says. Castiel does as he is told. He feels Dean’s hand slide up and into his hair. He pulls on it the way Castiel has discovered he likes, and covers his mouth with a hard kiss, licking at the seam of his lips until he can dip inside Castiel’s mouth. The kiss burns and Castiel tastes the salt of tears on Dean’s tongue. Dean steps away, taking the heat with him. “It’s okay, it’ll be over soon.”

Castiel whispers a prayer, asks God to have mercy on his soul. “Live for me, Dean, please.” The words catch in his throat suddenly, hot and thick, and he has to swallow them down. “Remember me, and live.”

There are voices getting closer, shouted orders and questions. Castiel still hears it when Dean says, “I love you, Cas, and I’m sorry.” Then he pulls the trigger.

The force of the bullet spins Castiel around. The burn and rip of his flesh as it separates around the intrusion makes him cry out in pain. He lands face down in wet snow. His vision is blurred but he can see Alistair’s face, his vile grin frozen there forever. Castiel is lying in a pool of Alistair’s blood. He can smell the rust of it as the darkness starts to close in on the edges of his vision. Or maybe it is Castiel’s own blood. He does not know, or care, since he is dead.

“Don’t you dare pass out on me, Cas,” Dean hisses from somewhere near by. There is a burst of agonising pain in his shoulder. Dean is poking at it, and it hurts. Why does it hurt? Why isn’t he dead?

“Dean,” Castiel whispers. “What’s happening?”

Dean just shushes him. “Lay still, Cas, and be quiet. Can you do that?”

“I don’t understand.”

“I shot you in the shoulder, Cas. It’s a clean shot, in and out. A bit of tender loving care and you’ll be just fine.”

Castiel tries to move, but Dean holds him down.

“You were right, you do need to be dead to get out of here, so keep quiet and don’t move. I’ll do the rest. I’ll tell them you escaped and we came after you. That you attacked us and I shot you.  They won’t want to be bothered with the bodies, Cas. They’ll leave it to the prisoners to clear up, as usual. As soon as we’re gone, you run. Do you hear me, Cas? You run, as far and as fast as you can.”

“There’s a light over here!” Someone one shouts.

Dean’s voice is urgent, his face pinched with anxiety. “Go to the river, not the main one, the smaller one over to the east. You know it?”

“Yes. I can find it.”

Dean cups Castiel’s cheek and gives him a strained looking smile. “Good. Follow it south and you’ll find a hunting cabin on the west bank. It belongs to my uncle and you can stay there and be safe. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to understand. Do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

“Then do as I say,” Dean smiles. “You’re dead now remember? Your afterlife belongs to me, so run.”

Chapter Text

As soon as the sound of the guards and the excited yelps of the dogs have faded far enough away, he gets to his feet. Wincing at the pull of the wound in his shoulder and stumbling for a few steps, as he fights against a wave of dizziness—blood loss taking its toll—he runs across the clearing. He does not look at the bodies, little more than misshapen lumps against the pale backdrop of the snow, now the lanterns have been removed. Castiel ducks under low hanging branches and feels his way back to where he hid his coat and the pack Benny had given him.

Snow has covered the hollow where he left his things and he shovels the snow away with his bare hands, leaving them cold and stiff. The temperature has dropped and Castiel is already shaking, his body trying to keep itself warm against the odds. A hand pressed to his shoulder comes away dark and wet, he is still bleeding and he needs to find something to staunch the flow. There is already a strong chance that he will freeze before he can follow Dean’s instructions to completion. The more blood is lost, the higher that likelihood becomes. The thought of Dean looking for him, waiting for him when Castiel is never going to arrive, is troubling.

He takes a second to think it over then grabs his things, pulling on his worn prisoner issue coat, and heads back into the clearing. He does not look at Alistair’s carcass, or Gordon’s. Instead he goes to Walt. The guard is still as they left him, face down on the ground. Dean had told the men from the camp not to touch anything, spinning them some rubbish about needing pictures of the crime-scene, and how they should try not to touch anything or disturb the evidence, as if he was a two-bit detective from a movie.

He rolls Walt over and pulls at his sleeve until his coat falls free. It is thick and dark and lined with sheep-skin to keep out the cold. Castiel pulls it on, pleased to find he can even close the buttons over the layers of his clothes. He takes Walt’s gloves, his hat, and his sidearm. Castiel looks at Walt’s boots for a while, considers taking them, but decides against it, judging it better to have cold feet than blisters rubbed raw from the wrong sized shoes. He takes his knife to Walt’s shirt, tearing a wide strip from it, intending to use it to bind his shoulder as soon as he can.

The snap of a branch in the trees across the clearing is startling. Castiel turns, gun in hand, waiting for a guard or one of the dogs to come charging out of the undergrowth. There is nothing but the rush of Castiel’s blood in his ears as his heart beats fast, rattling like a drum under his ribs. He has to go. He has delayed too long already. He pulls the pack over his shoulder and sets off, heading north and east, searching for the river Dean told him to follow.

Castiel runs.

The snow grows deep, thickening even under the trees. He runs blindly in the dark trying to dodge around the black shapes of trees and brush that loom suddenly in his path, trying to catch him, make him stumble. Later, as the snow starts to ease, the moon is at last able to break through the clouds, blessing Castiel with some much needed light. He finally hears the sound of water rushing over rocks.

His heavy breaths cloud and hang in the air, leaving a slowly dissipating trail, in translucent jelly-fish daubs.  His heart pounds wildly in his chest, in time with the rapid thump of his feet hitting the ground. The temperature plunges as the night stretches out, until cold starts to sting his eyes, making them water until he can hardly see. Busy wiping his eyes and the water from his face, before it can freeze and blacken his cheeks, he arrives at the river without warning.

The trees end abruptly and the steep bank drops away under Castiel’s feet, and he slips, falling on his ass and skidding, slipping on icy rocks. In mindless fear he throws his arms out wide, fingers searching for a hold. A low hanging branch saves him from an icy death and he clings to it gratefully, heedless of the sharp needles that stab him through the wool of his gloves, and tries to ignore the burn of his bullet-wound  as the muscles around it are forced to work. Slowly, very slowly, Castiel manages to pull himself back to the top of the slippery bank.

Dean told him to follow the river so he does, but it is a merciless guide, driving him on through heavy thickets, and ever deeper drifts of snow as he travels north, away from the camp and towards the mountains. He trips over roots and fallen branches, lands heavy on the frozen snow, grazing hands and knees. Every time, he picks himself up and presses on, following the curves of the river. Branches at the lip of the forest rake his face with bony fingers, cutting skin and dragging on his clothes. Blood seeps from shallow wounds on his face, but Castiel goes on, always mindful of the promise he made to Dean.

He does not stop until dawn. Sitting on a long fallen tree, covered with yellow and green moss where he brushes away the thick layer of snow, he watches the sun come up, rising into a pink sky, the snow-clouds, for now, gone off to someplace else. He explores the pack that Garth and Benny put together for him, and finds a little parcel of dry bread and pork-fat, that he chews with grateful appreciation. He takes the opportunity to bind his shoulder with the strip of cloth he cut from Walt’s body. It is not much of a bandage but it is nearly as good as anything he would have had at the camp. He makes a pad and ties it on as tight as he can, and does it quickly, without the cloud-cover it gets colder and all he can do to keep warm, to keep his heart pumping what is left of his blood through his body, is to move.

The short day sees Castiel reach harder, rockier ground, at the foot of the mountains. They are just as awesome up close as they are seen from the camp, if not more so, bursting up from the ground in a row like teeth in the jaw of some terrible beast. He is thankful that he does not have to climb the steep slopes. The river starts to swing further east, sweeping through a series of densely forested valleys.

Castiel allows himself to stop once more before the sun sinks that night and eats some more of the food he finds in the pack. His body is starting to ache, as the panic and adrenaline fade. He dreads to think what sort of a state his feet are in. Castiel has been reduced to hobbling for the last few miles. Sleep starts to pull at him and it takes a herculean effort to force himself up and on. He has to walk through the night. To stop, out in the open, would leave him too vulnerable. Castiel’s shoulder is still slowly oozing blood and the scent could easily attract predators, their sharp senses attuned to sniffing out the weak. At least it isn’t so cold tonight, he thinks idly, before starting out again.

The moon is full tonight, and the snow only falls in brief flurries as the clouds scud across the sky. The thin moonlight is a boon, and he walks more comfortably and with less urgency. The events of the night before seem to drop away, dissolving into a patched and incomplete memory, as if they happened to someone else, and it was nothing more than a story Castiel had been told. He is far enough from the camp that he feels safe to set a more sedate pace, and the easy rhythm, the soothing rustle of the treetops in the breeze, and the warmth of Castiel’s stolen coat and gloves, starts to lull him into a quiet daze. He would wonder if any of it was real if it was not for the constant pain in his shoulder. Castiel walks on, fighting against the tiredness that makes his eyelids start to droop. The world becomes hazy at the edges, and the pull of sweet warm sleep starts to get the better of him.

He is dragged rudely back into consciousness at the sound of dogs, close by. “What’s happening?” Castiel says aloud, as if he expects someone to answer. He shivers, though he does not feel cold. He is leaning, slumped sideways against a tree, though he has no memory of stopping. His mind is fogged, but he cannot be too careful. He has to move, just in case.

He goes forward and finds that his feet are slow to follow, dragging through the snow, feeling heavier than they should. He is starting to feel uncomfortable in Walt’s thick coat and considers taking it off. Instead he takes off a glove and scoops up a handful of snow, pressing it to his face enjoying the coolness of it against his heated skin.

“Something’s not right,” he says into the dark. There is a twist of fear inside him but he cannot make his brain work, his thoughts lumpen and slow as molasses. There is movement at the corner of his eye. Castiel turns to see it flashing between the trees, close to the ground and moving fast, grey in the speckled moonlight. For a moment he thinks, they’ve found me. He expects the thump of men’s boots and bodies to come crashing through the forest.

Then the cry goes up. It curls up, spiralling into the sky, lifting over the treetops, eerie and beautiful at the same time. The hairs stand up on the back of Castiel’s neck and cold dread washes over him, chasing away the unnatural heat in his body. He does not have time to think about what that means. The wolves are hunting, and they are hunting Castiel.

He takes the revolver from where he tucked it into his belt, and checks the chamber, all six bullets are there. Castiel can only hope that it is enough, that the hunting-pack is small and easily scared away. He picks up speed as best he can with legs like lead and the sharp throb of a headache starting behind his eyes. He does not want to use the gun unless he has no other choice. With no idea how far he has come, or how the sound might carry through the valleys, Castiel worries that the noise might create unwanted human attention. Even if he is too far from the camp for them to be a threat, one look at the clothes he is wearing underneath Walt’s bulky coat, the identity labels sewn onto his sleeves, and anyone will know where he came from.

He tries to run, has to fight through the ache to make his legs move faster, wary of the pale ghosts that flicker at the edge of his vision. He sees them more and more as he goes on. They are closing in. Castiel is at the head of a wide valley when he sees the alpha. He stands on a ridge directly in Castiel’s path, big and powerful, his dark coat lustrous in the moonlight, yellow eyes shining with animal intelligence as he watches Castiel. They’ve been herding me, he thinks madly, they brought me here on purpose.

He holds up the gun, aims it at the beast in front of him, but Castiel’s body betrays him. Pushed to its limits, exhausted, weak and racked with a growing fever, he cannot hold the gun still. He tries to hold it with both hands, but his teeth are chattering and his fingers are sore, stiff and arthritic. The ghostly companions are still there, weaving through the brush, getting braver now the alpha is with them, drawing closer.

Castiel aims at the pack-leader again. He takes a breath and starts to squeeze the trigger. At Castiel’s side there is a blur of silver streaked fur and a mouthful of yellowed fangs snaps inches from his throat as another wolf attacks from the side. Thrown to the side, Castiel’s shot goes wide, hitting the ridge below the alpha with a puff of stone-dust and a clatter of falling rubble. The leader is unfazed, but the noise makes the attacking animal hesitate just long enough for Castiel to squeeze off another shot at his attacker.

It hits the wolf’s leg and sends it running back to the cover of the trees with a whine. Castiel gets to his feet, scared and shaking, and realises the big pack-leader is gone. He cannot see him but Castiel can hear him when he howls, others joining in one by one. Castiel tries to count them, and there are at least seven different animals. He has four bullets and he is so tired he could weep.

He drags himself further along the riverbank, up and over the ridge. He staggers and trips on a fallen branch that crosses his path, his knees sink into the snow and he has to put his hands out in front of him to stop from collapsing into it completely. The ghosts flicker through the trees, and he hears a low growl next to his ear, the warm puff of stinking breath on his cheek as the alpha dog scents him.

His hand tries to close around the gun, but it is lost, dropped in the snow as he fell. Castiel closes his eyes. It’s better than dying in the camp, he thinks, better to be food for these clever animals than fodder for the likes of Alistair and his friends. He feels regret that he let Dean down, but not much else.

The cloudy dark along the edges of his vision is growing thicker, spreading faster, threatening unconsciousness, when Castiel hears a great rumbling bark. Not the sound of a wolf, but the gruff bass of a dog. He is sure it must be a hallucination. The streak of yellow flame across his vision a moment later, however, is not.

“Get out of here. Go on, get out,” shouts a rough voice. Castiel looks up to find the alpha backing away from a man brandishing a torch, waving it closer and closer to the animal until it runs. “Yeah, you better run,” the man shouts after them as the pack slink away, disappearing into the dark under the trees. The man is old and gray and has furs over his shoulders, and a thick wool hat on his head. He looks like something sprung from nature rather than humanity, like the forest gods of the old world. He looks eternal. He looks strong.

Something wet and stinking lands on his face, and Castiel turns to find a huge brown lump of a dog grinning at him. “Get back you stupid dog,” the man says, nudging the beast aside with his foot. He bends down and hooks an arm under Castiel’s shoulders and pulls him from the floor. “Come on, boy, I’ve got you,” he says. “I got a cabin close by, we’ll get you sorted.”

Castiel manages to rasp out a, “Thank you,” as he leans heavily on the arm around his waist, feet dragging in the snow. 

“Thank me when you’ve got breath to spare. You’re a mess boy. I only came out to make sure those assholes weren’t after my kills. I didn’t expect to be rescuing someone from old pointy jaws out there, that’s for sure.” They shuffle along a little way in silence, Castiel grunting at the stab of pain in his shoulder at every step. “Not far now,” the old man says. His voice a lot softer and kinder than before. Castiel wants to say something, to thank him again, or ask him who he is, but his body has other ideas. “Hold on boy. Nearly there.” The words are far away and getting further as Castiel sags to the floor, all his energy leaving him at once. The last thing he hears as he falls into unconsciousness is a rough croaked out, “Balls.”

 

~*~

 

“You awake, boy?”

There is a heavy weight on his chest. He hurts, aches all over, even his toes feel sore. He wiggles them experimentally. They seem to all be there, but he supposes he better take a look to be on the safe side. He peels his eyes open, or he tries to. For a moment it won’t work. His eyes are gummed shut and sticky and it makes him panic. What’s happened? Has Alistair taken his eyes? He struggles against the weight holding him down.

“Shush down now,” a gruff voice says. “No call for getting worked up, you’re safe here.” The voice is familiar, not Alistair’s hissing tones.

“I can’t open my eyes.” He feels the heat of another person close by. The man is leaning over him.

“Not surprised. You were damn near dead when I found you, and you still got some healing to do. Don’t suppose that underfed body of yours wants to wake up.” Warm water drips on to his face followed by the swipe of a rough cloth that smells of pine needles. “I reckon you can give it another go now.”

Castiel peels his eyelids open, squinting and blinking the blurriness away until the room comes into view, dark-wood walls, a black stove near his feet kicking out heat, guns and animal skins on the walls. “How did I get here?”

“Walked, mostly,” the man says. Castiel turns to him. His head covered with a cap but grey hair pokes out from underneath, and there is a fine growth of a beard on his chin. It starts to come back to him, the walk, the wolves, the forest. “But I had to carry you the last little way—and you might look skinny but you ain’t no easy load. Now you can answer a question for me. What’s your name, boy?” 

“Ca... Cas... Castiel.” He shivers suddenly and violently. It makes his teeth chatter and he stutters as he tries to get his name out of his mouth. “Castiel Novak,” he manages finally.

The man hums thoughtfully for a moment. “Not too many with that name, I reckon,” he says. “You must be Dean’s Castiel.” Castiel stares, unsure if this knowledge is a good or bad thing. “Now don’t be looking at me like I just stole your lunch money, kid. I’ve been looking out for you; though I expected you to be in better shape.” He slides his cap from his head, and nods his head. “Bobby Singer, at your service.”

“Bobby, you... you’re Dean’s uncle?” There is a dim recollection of Dean mentioning the name that Castiel digs out from the back of his mind. He could cry with relief. The name means safety. It means escape. It means that Dean can find him.

 “As good as,” Bobby says. Castiel shivers again. His teeth rattle. “You’ve been out of it for three days,” he says as if it is no big deal. “I cleaned up that mess in your shoulder.” Castiel looks down, finds his shoulder and half of his chest wrapped in clean raw bandages. “Infection set in and you had a fever like I’ve never seen. You must have some metal in you, boy. I don’t for the life of me know how you made it this far with that poison in your blood. Wasn’t sure if you’d ever wake up, but here you are.”

“Is Dean..?” He does not know what to ask.

Bobby rolls his eyes. “How the heck am I supposed to know?” he grumbles. “You think the postman calls by everyday out here?”

Castiel whispers a meek, “Sorry.”

Bobby waves it away. “I’m sure he’ll be here, as soon as he can,” he says. He stands up and wanders over to a table set in the corner and covered with feathers, spools of thread, and a small metal vice of some kind. “You need to get some more sleep. Get yourself better for when he arrives. I didn’t give up my damn mattress, let you sweat all over it, to lie there yammering all day long.”

Castiel does as he is told, realising now that Bobby has pointed it out, that despite the chills, his clammy skin and dry mouth, he is more comfortable than he has been in years. The mattress under his back has broken springs, and the blankets are scratchy even through the sheet that covers him, but he is warm, cocooned from the ice and the terror and the blood outside the door. The pull of sleep is demanding and irresistible, and for now, he thinks, why not let it have its way.

 

~*~

 

A familiar voice is calling to him from far away. “Cas? Cas? Are you in there?” There is a hum of amused laughter and the sound warms Castiel from the inside out. He lays there enjoying the feeling, letting it spread out from his chest, though his body. It’s Dean’s voice. He loves Dean’s voice, he thinks idly.

Castiel’s eyes snap open. “Dean,” he tries to sit up, but wide hands press him back down. He blinks, tries to clear the last of the sleep from his eyes, and finally Dean—wonderful, beautiful Dean—comes into view.

He looks tired, but healthy, and has a growth of hair on his face. He smiles, “Hey there, Cas. How are you doing?” It is such an ordinary, mundane question, that Castiel starts to chuckle. “Hey, I didn’t risk life and limb to get here, just to be laughed at,” he says. His grin proves he does not really mean it.

“When did you get here?”

“Just a few hours ago. Bobby said you’d been sleeping for the best part of a day. He said you’d been ill, real ill, so I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“You should have woken me, I’ve been worried,” Castiel says, coughing around the words. Dean holds out a flask and shakes it in invitation. Castiel takes it and drinks, relieved to find it’s nothing more than cool fresh water. He wants to pull Dean to him, to show him how happy he is that he is here, that they are here together, but there is more he needs to know. “What happened, Dean?” he asks, “What happened at the camp?”

When Castiel hands the flask back, Dean catches his hand, presses it between his own. At first Castiel thinks it is going to be bad news. Then a slow smile spreads over Dean’s face, his green eyes shining with an easy joy. “They believed the story, Cas.” He says. “You’re dead as far as the Collective is concerned, sent the report up to HQ myself. Benny Lafitte knows and a few others that he trusts from your old team,” Dean confesses. The fact that he used Benny’s name does not go unnoticed. It represents a shift in mindset; from prisoners to people; from numbers to names. Castiel holds tight to Dean’s hand. “I let him put together the crew to clear the bodies.” Dean grimaces.

“What is it?” Castiel asks, propping himself up on one elbow, so that he can see Dean’s face better.

“By the time we got back, it was dawn and the animals had been there. It was pretty horrific, Cas. I don’t know if it was because his insides were already outside, but Alistair was in two parts, and his eyes were gone. I guess it was crows.”

“I won’t say he deserved it,” Castiel says. “But I won’t say that he didn’t either.” He sits up fully on the mattress. The blankets pool around his waist and he catches Dean watching, a blush starting as two spots of colour high on his cheeks. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore. He’s gone, it’s over, and we survived him.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be possible, Cas,” Dean says awkwardly.

“Why?” Castiel frowns.

“Because Victor is still going to be building a case against him,” Dean says. “Well not against him exactly, more against the parts of the system that allowed things to get so bad at the camp. He’s going to use it as an example of what needs fixing in the system, and try to take down anyone who let it happen.”

“How?” Castiel asks. “The embezzlement doesn’t link to the other crimes without the rest of the evidence, and that’s gone now. I can only guess that Alistair made sure the rest of it was destroyed, the torture room as well.”

Dean smirks. “As it turns out, young Kevin Tran is more resourceful than we realised.” Castiel cannot help smiling at that. He always liked Kevin. If he had not been sent to the labour-camp he would have gone far; maybe he still can, he is still very young. “He’s also a bit paranoid, probably from seeing up close how Alistair worked.”

“Get to the point, Dean.”

“Okay, okay,” he holds his hands up, grinning. “He made copies of everything. Took pictures of all the documents, copied out others, and made statements about his own experiences, the things he’s seen, the things he’s heard. He had a whole separate project running at the same time as ours. When Victor left he hid the packet in with some other paperwork, the sort of stuff Alistair would never bother to look at, and handed the whole thing over to him right in front of us.”

Castiel looks up at him wide-eyed, stunned. “You mean..?”

Dean nods, bites his lips excitedly. “Yep, it’s all still on. Even though Alistair’s gone, the people that helped him, the ones that tolerated or approved his behaviour, they’re still in the frame. Victor’s been in touch with Sam too, he’s going to help with the whole thing. There could be real change across the whole system, maybe even in the Collective itself.”

“The Mauvais’, he’s not going after them too, is he?”

Dean shakes his head. “Not right off the bat. He’s going to start small, get a group of good people together so they can work out the best way to handle it at every step. But one day maybe, who knows?” Dean’s enthusiasm is infectious and Castiel can’t help smiling along with him. He’s only stopped by a cough that squeezes up through his chest, and steals his breath to leave him wheezing. “Cas, you okay?” Dean looks worried and Castiel hates to see that look on his face.

“It’s just the last of the sickness. I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?” he asks with a glint in his eye. “You look pretty cold in there. I don’t think that can be good for you.” He stands up, hands moving to the buttons of his shirt. “I think we better get you warmed up, soon as possible.”

Castiel’s mouth goes even drier as Dean peels his clothes away. “Bobby?” he rasps out.

“Gone up to Fairbanks, wanted to get more supplies before winter closes the roads. He’ll be back in a few days. Until then, we have the place to ourselves.” He steps out of the trousers dropped in a heap around his ankles. Castiel laughs. “Dude,” Dean says. “That’s not exactly good for my ego.”

“I’m just really happy to see you, Dean.” He turns down the blankets and beckons Dean forward, holding out a hand to pull him down once he is close enough. “I missed you,” he says against Dean’s lips.

“Yeah?” Dean says, as he slides between the sheets. His warm body brushes all the way down Castiel’s side, and it makes him shiver in a completely different way. Dean pushes him onto his back and leans over him, pushing his leg between Castiel’s, making him gasp, before leaning down to press his lips over the wound on Castiel’s shoulder. It is an apology of sorts, though he does not need to make it. The bullet that killed him also saved his life. Dean’s hand comes up, presses along Castiel’s jaw, thumb tracing his lips. There is wonder in his eyes and Castiel is certain Dean must see the same in his, as he smoothes his hands down the long curve of Dean’s spine. “Show me how much you’ve missed me.” Dean says.

That is one order Castiel is happy to obey.

Chapter Text

“Come on Cas, we haven’t got all day,” Dean yells from the doorway of the cabin, shifting a knapsack to make it more comfortable on his back.

“Don’t stand there letting all the heat out, idiot!” Bobby growls. He’s sitting at the table tying tiny pieces of feather and fur around a metal hook. This one is a Stoat’s Tail fly, made with squirrel hair and black thread, a good fly for catching Salmon in the spring. Bobby told Castiel all about it one day when the snow was coming down fast. There are all kinds of different flies for all kinds of different fish. It’s an art form, getting it right, and Castiel is always amazed at the delicate precision with which Bobby ties them, his rough hands turned patient and gentle. “And don’t you stand there staring,” Bobby grouses at him. “Go on get, I’m sick of looking at your face, and that God awful love-struck expression.” He looks back at Dean and yells, “That goes for the both of you. Get the hell out of my cabin.”

Four months. For four months they’ve stayed there in the little cabin deep in the woods. Bobby left for the worst of the winter weather, and Castiel still isn’t sure if it was really because he preferred to stay in town, or because he didn’t want to be subjected to any more of their, “Handsy stuff,” as he called it.

When he came back, he brought messages. Updates from Victor, and repeated offers to Dean, of a job on his team. He does not know that Castiel is alive; he can’t know. He might have told Dean that it was understandable that Castiel would want Alistair dead, but it was still murder, still a crime, and Victor would be bound by honour to bring Castiel in, if he had the chance.

Sam knew, and he understood. He made promises to keep their secret from all but one other person. Enclosed in with Sam’s last letter was an envelope, thick with the papers inside. It had Castiel’s name on it. It was from Anna. She and her family were safe. They were happy. The ink was blotched and tear-stained; she thought he was dead, she said, that she sent letter after letter, and heard nothing. There were photographs, pictures of his niece growing up, of Christmases and Birthdays he missed, and Castiel wept with joy at the sight, and he knew that one day they would see each other again.

The other thing Bobby brought back with him—and Castiel suspected it was the reason he went in the first place—was Castiel’s new identity. How he got them, Castiel doesn’t know, all the gruff old man would say was, “I know a guy who knows a guy.” There was a passport, a drivers’ licence—funny because Castiel had never learnt—bank records, and a birth certificate, everything he needed to start again. Though he wasn’t sure about the name, and when he asked Dean about it he shrugged, gave an innocent look, then distracted him with a hand down his pants.

Castiel Novak was dead, Cassidy Newman was about to set out to start a new life across the border, in Canada.

“If you boys want to make it to the road before nightfall, you better get your asses moving,” Bobby says, then returns to mumbling darkly under the brim of his cap.

Castiel lifts the pack onto his back. It’s easy. He’s strong now, filled out from a winter of eating game and chopping wood, much to Dean’s endless fascination and delight. “Thank you, Bobby,” he says, “For everything.” Bobby waves them away, and Castiel closes the door of the cabin behind him. It’s been a good place for them, a place of healing, though there are still nightmares, still demons that slip in under cover of darkness and leave them sweating and fearful. These things take time, and now they have all the time in the world.

“Bobby got Rufus to drive the spare truck down from Fairbanks last week,” Dean says, as they set out tramping through the shallow snow. It’s iced over and crunches under their boots. “It’s waiting for us just off the road towards Tok. We’ll stop there for the night, then make our way to the border and towards Whitehorse. From there, I don’t know; check out the cities, find work, whatever we want.”

Castiel takes a deep breath, sucking in clean crisp air and savouring the taste of it. The forest is beautiful around Bobby’s cabin. One day they will return. It is inevitable. There’s Victor’s case to keep an eye on, family to visit. “Whatever we want,” Castiel echoes with a smile on his lips. He is alive, he has a future, he has Dean, and he has hope; that is all Castiel needs to be content. They can work the rest out as they go.

He catches Dean’s hand and links their fingers together as they walk side-by-side down the trail, moving east.