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Leaving Those Shores Where The Wild Things Are

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Eco-terrorism? Germ warfare? A form of state control gone wrong? The collapse of modern civilisation took the answer with it a century ago, along with evidence and possible countermeasures. Who developed and disseminated the GF32 virus in AD 2025, and why, remains a mystery beyond the scope of this work. My book collates reliable information I’ve found in the ruins of the Old World showing how GF32 modified the human genome, how it still affects us and how it could influence our future. I tried to keep my own thoughts and speculations out of it; read the unbiased material and draw your own conclusions. I’ll only say here, in this foreword, what I think of those unknown scientists who ultimately murdered seven billion human beings and did this to us, the survivors.

May they burn in hell for all eternity.

A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ A late welcome ~~~

 

The hunter’s den is deserted, Dean doesn’t have to keep up the appearance of a dutiful deputy right this minute. He stomps over to the couch and flings himself on it like he’s ten, sending it careening back a foot across the hardwood.

The couch immediately protests with a sharp, “Hey!”

...All of the hunters are down by the creek enjoying the first warm day of the year, Dean knows that for a fact. Only Dean Winchester - son of alpha John Winchester and everybody’s dogsbody - is stuck indoors on this beautiful day doing the boring shit.

Dean stares fixedly at the ledger his dad gave him, but he doesn’t read a word. Instead, he braces his feet against the floor and, ever so gently but persistently, pushes the couch back another two inches.

“Could you please stop doing that?” the couch asks testily.

Dean stops pushing.

The couch has a male voice and a really, really nice timber. Deep and- and kind of like the feel of running your hand over freshly carved oak, it catches your fingers subtly on the grain before letting them slide smooth over hard wood… The thing is, Dean’s been a hunter for nigh on six years, and as John’s eldest boy, he’s active in and around the whole camp. He’s damn sure nobody has a voice like that around. Definitely not the couch, which has never bothered to speak to him before.

Dean puts the ledger down on the knitted grey rag pillow he’s sitting on. The appropriate reaction should be “Who goes there?”, or maybe “Friend of foe?!”, but those both sound kind of silly and officious, and Dean doesn’t want to act like a jackass around that voice.

“So… whatcha doing back there?” he asks, casual and suave. Hand on his gun, though. He’s damn sure an enemy invasion won’t start with the ratty old rag-couch or bother with ‘please’, but one can never be too careful. His inner beastie is already rallying, hair rising on the back of his neck, nostrils flaring, eyes twitching around the otherwise empty room, muscles coiling.

“I’m checking the wiring.”

“What wiring?”

“The floodlight wiring.”

What floodlight wiring?”

“...Aren’t you a hunter?" the couch asks suspiciously. "Who are you? Should you even be in here?"

That’s rich coming from a shady talking couch, but fine.

“I’m beta Dean Winchester, deputy of alpha Hunter Victor Henricksen, so the better question is, who the fuck are you, stranger?”

“...My apologies, beta.”

There’s a scrambling noise behind him.

Dean finally gets up off the couch and turns around, all prepared for reality to not match up to that voice. Reality often sucks that way.

Ah shit. The guy getting to his feet fits that voice like a glove, but in the worst possible way. That really hot bod unfolding from the ground is encased in a brown uniform, and the handsome face has a beard-free smoothness that has never known a razor.

“Castiel, sir, Maker omega.” Not that he had to add that last bit, the hammer symbol is neatly stitched onto his uniform’s shoulder. He’s brushing himself off, bits of lint, old crumbs and a ton of loose fur cascading off his top and thick work pants. He must have been lying down flat on the floor.

The stranger frowns down at his hands. “Shouldn’t your omegas tidy up in here?”

Dean scratches the back of his head and looks around the hunters’ den and rec room, which he always thought of as Cozy and now sees is Cluttered and maybe even Cruddy. The windows are hacked right out of the cabin’s rough-cut logs; the hunters use crude boards to cover the holes when it’s too cool or too hot, they don’t bother with horn or waxed paper panes like the nicer houses in camp... though an industrious and fussy spider has stitched a cobweb over one gaping hole as if to try to make up for the absence of curtains. There’s dents in the log wall near one window from an impromptu knife-throwing competition, the winning dagger still there and used as a coat rack for a jacket loaded with fishing reels and hooks. A pair of dirty boots waits by the potbelly stove for their owner to clean off the dark stuff on the heel - probably dog shit - and on the stained and unvarnished wood table, three old crusts of bread smeared with gravy play ring around the rosy about an old cast iron pot with something a little moldy growing there. Oh, and someone left a box of iron traps by the door, still ripe with blood, skin and tufts of fur, and the perpetrator better clean that up before Victor spots it.

“...I guess they should clean shit up a bit, but our omegas are kinda busy with more important stuff.”

"Aren't mice a problem?” Castiel wrenches his gaze away from the crusts and the pot only for it to snag on the next cleaning cataclysm.

“Well, we're hunters. With big mice-eating dogs. So no.”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” Castiel’s eyes dip to the stained grey rag-couch between them. He’s tall for an omega, Dean noticed that when the dude unfolded from the floor and kept on unfolding, but now he’s bending inwards subtly, shoulders scrunched forward, head bowed. Taking the words as a reprimand for what could have been seen as a rather fresh remark about the hunters. That hadn’t been Dean’s intention, and he fishes around quickly for a change of topic.

“So what are you doing? What wiring? We don’t have a floodlight on the roof.”

The omega is standing near a large gaping hole in the goddamn floor. The couch was inching out over it under the impetus of Dean’s last shove. Floorboards have been pried up, there’s tools and nails around. The floor proper has also been prybarred, and the base of the house beneath that has been sawed open by the looks of it.

Castiel’s eyes (seriously? Castiel? That’s a name?) flick up and down, a weighing moment. “You do have a floodlight,” he says, and Dean is pleased that the guy’s taking him and his question at face value and not as a verbal trap for further remonstrance. “A wire has been sectioned. I was fixing it.” He holds up a pair of pliers.

“Couldn't you go under the crawlspace?” There’s cool air and quite a lot of dust blowing up from the hole.

“I was under there half an hour ago, following the wiring, but this side of the building has sunk a little, the way is too narrow to reach the broken section.”

“I’m not surprised, this place is older than I am.”

“I didn’t want to pull out the entire length of the wire, not if I could fix it from above.”

Yeah, Dean gets that. Copper’s hard to come by, spooling it for wires is finicky, otherwise it has to be scavenged from the old cities where it’s getting harder and harder to find amongst the ruins. If it can be fixed with a minimum of waste, it’s worth tearing up a few floorboards. There's woods all around their territory; unlike copper, trees are not in short supply.

“What’s wrong with the wires? If you say mice, I’m gonna hang my head in shame.”

A surprised twitch of Castiel’s face gives birth to a small smile. Damn, how could life be so unfair as to make this guy an omega? Dean catches that atrocious stray thought and shoots it through the back of the head. The guy is an omega, the lowest on the Hierarchy’s totem pole, but by that same token he’s under Dean’s protection, under the protection of every one of the hundred-and-some betas and six alphas of the Winchester pack, and thus should not have a stupid hunter thinking about the way his smile changes the strong lines of those regular features- not thinking about that.

“I’m not sure what happened. It seems the floodlight’s been broken for awhile now.”

“Hell yeah, didn’t even know we had one up there.”

“The wires were nailed in taut, anything could have snapped them, snow being pushed under the crawlspace, racoons - probably not mice, they prefer the indoors.”

“My pack’s pride is saved.”

Once more that twitch in Castiel’s face. The omega’s shoulders relax, he pats the pliers against his palm. “The whole wiring needs to be overhauled - it should never have been left at ground level to begin with, I’ll be working to elevate it to run from roof to roof at one point, but for now I’m starting with the breakage.”

“Right,” says Dean distractedly, busy not thinking about what he’s definitely not thinking about.

Biology comes to his assistance. Castiel threw him for a second back there because man, does he not sound like an omega. While Dean was still sitting on the couch, the stupid mutt inside him was sizing up the unseen stranger in a 'fight it or fuck it?' kind of way. But the wretched beast is finally switching gears. Castiel stands like an omega, head a little bowed, eyes sort of meeting Dean’s but only in small increments before settling, placid, on Dean’s chin. No fight there, and no fucks either, none needed, none wanted. Dean’s interest - not interest, of course not interest, no interest in an omega, he’s not some kind of sick pervert who’d put the moves on someone weaker than he is and biologically uninterested in getting horizontal - Dean’s curiosity about the stranger is now purely that of a beta towards an omega he’s never seen before.

“Never seen you before,” says Dean, who has never been accused of being a devious thinker.

“I’ve only been in this pack a couple of months. I arrived early in the spring.”

“Aah, gotcha. Got a last name? Uh, not that you have to tell me if you don’t want to.” Foreign betas, now, Dean’s used to dealing with those, but foreign omegas are rare. The only thing rarer is a foreign alpha who’s not trying to rip Dean’s throat out. Bringing up any stray’s past is fraught, an omega even more so, and the way Castiel’s eyes are now once more firmly fixed on Dean’s clavicle informs him that, yep, Dean’s a moron who just made shit awkward.

“Novak. Castiel Novak.”

Dean’s eyebrows reach for the sky. “What, the Utah pack? Hot shit. Oh yeah, dad did tell me one of you guys wandered in. He mentioned it in passing and I just assumed we had a new be- uh, I assumed you got put in with the Ranchers. But the Makers got you instead, huh?”

“Yes. I have skills.” Castiel hoists the pliers in illustration. He doesn’t seem upset that Dean thought the Novak stray was a beta.

“I can see that. I’m Dean by the way.”

Castiel’s lips twitch and his eyes dart up-then-down. They are a clear blue. “You mentioned that.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Dean makes a show of knocking his head with his knuckles. It’s worth looking like a doofus to see Castiel relax all the way now.

“I knew you by sight anyway. You’re alphas Kate and John’s eldest.”

“That’s me,” says Dean, not bothering to go climb a genealogy tree right this minute. “Not that that means anything, mind you, I’m just the same as any other hunter. Our pack don’t work any other way.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Cas's omega is an interesting beastie, now that he’s relaxed and Dean is taking him in. The expected appearance of submission is there, but it’s born on the back of a deep stillness rather than simple placidity. It’s hard to pinpoint in words, but Dean's inner wolfie can analyse it well enough and is pleased. Dean’s never really gotten on well with the drones. Sorry, sorry, that’s a terribly rude term, but if the boot fits, man... In Dean’s world, omegas are allowed to think and have a personality, not just wait around like a chump for orders. For Dean, the few drones he’s had to work with in the past were a chore. As for the few quick but cringing omegas, the ones who escaped from Serious Shit outside… well, they just make Dean so uncomfortable that it’s torture to talk to them. He’s anxious to get out of their presence before he does something big, dumb and beta that might scare them and remind them of shit best forgotten, but he’s afraid to hurry and do the same, so yikes, stress all around.

But most Winchester omegas are more along Cas’s lines, and when Dean says, “I’m late as shit saying this, but welcome to the pack, I’m sure you’ll fit right in,” he means it.

“Thank you.” Though Cas’s posture is still omega, he’s now meeting Dean’s eye more often. Dean’s gut was right, that whole ‘Son of of the primary alphas’ along with their wrong-footed introduction made Castiel cautious, but he’s taken on Dean’s total lack of airs and is now acting like a normal dude. Good. Dean is fine with that, unlike some people who treat the Hierarchy like it’s their fucking religion.

“I’m glad dad sent you straight to Makers. Usually he makes a stray omega work the fields for a year, just to see what they’re made of.”

Castiel nods solemnly. “I expected that, to be honest, and he’d all but handed me a shovel when I mentioned I could assist with a few things in between field work, such as the electrical grid, the motors and the turbines.”

Dean’s eyebrows shoot up. “You know how to fix turbines? How?”

Cas looks like he hesitates over a stock answer and then, with a rather sweet tilt of the head that’s even sweeter because it looks perfectly sincere: “How do I fix them, or how do I know?”

“Both,” Dean decides promptly. All betas are curious, though for a lot of them that curiosity is, shall we say, very focused. They’re the pack’s footsoldiers, the muscle, the guard dogs and the hunting hounds; nobody’s asking them to be great thinkers. But Dean is John’s son, he puts pack above all else. He’ll take information about generators that’ll keep his camp running over ‘where you from and is there anything interesting to fight or fuck over there’.

Cas looks pleased with the answer. He gets back down on the ground while he gives Dean a brief precis about being part of a ‘library crew’ back in his old pack. Their alpha had them going out in foraging groups under beta guard to search out and preserve old knowledge from the dead cities. Dean doesn’t see how that leads to knowing how to fix stuff, even though Cas seems to think the relationship is obvious. It’s when the omega starts talking in depth about the various electric generator types that existed Before the virus and After, that Dean starts to figure it out. Most people in this day and age learn by working under a trade master, but Cas is something much rarer, much more precious: he can read the old books of knowledge, absorb their information like a sponge and turn it into something useful.

“Mostly useful. Well, sometimes useful… Not all that often actually,” Cas admits ruefully as he smears pine resin onto a thin sheet of gum rubber. “But in our present condition, any advances or recovered bits of knowledge are crucial. The rest I learned from our specialists back home.”

Dean, kneeling next to the hole, looks on with interest. “You were an apprentice? To which kind of boss?”

“All of them.” Cas’s head is back down the hole now so Dean can’t see his expression, but something about his shoulder blades seems to smile. “I was tasked with helping them with whatever knowledge I’d gleaned, and when one of them got annoyed with the way I questioned their methods and pestered them for information they didn’t have, they’d pass me on to the next. What I know best is medicine, chemistry and electrical systems. Winchester pack already has enough nurses, though.” And medics are betas, because that’s how things are. You need a bit of fighting backbone before you can deal with a pissy injured beta - or god help you, an alpha. “But when it comes to your grid-”

“What there is of it.”

“Most packs would love to have floodlights, radio and a cold room.”

“Yeah, they’d kill for it,” says Dean, who has good cause to know. “Right, well, I see why John stitched that hammer on your sleeve himself.”

He catches that slice of nearly-smile as Cas reaches back up to reposition a kerosene lantern on the edge of the hole. “I can also sew, so alpha did not have to waste his time.”

“Man of all trades.”

“And master of none, to be honest, but I can muddle along with most things and do a few others adequately enough.”

“That’s all we ask. Here, want me to hold the lantern?”

“Would you? Thank you, beta, that would be very helpful.”

Dean uses the kerosene lantern and a convex mirror Cas also gives him to direct the light down into the hole. He can’t see much past Cas’s head, shoulders and the lantern, but he does catch sight of something wire-shaped in the darkness beneath the floor.

“Hey, isn’t that dangerous?” Dean finally thinks to ask.

“The wires? No, I cut the power to this section of the grid. And took a key component with me so that some ass-... to avoid some helpful soul turning the circuit back on again while I’m working on it, despite the warning flag I put on the breaker.”

“Ah, I see you’re used to working with people.”

A long-suffering sigh from under the floorboard agrees.

They chat while Cas fixes the wire. Nothing too precise about Cas’s origins, naturally. Castiel said he was a Novak but didn’t mention which pack had adopted him and where he comes from, and there could be good reasons for that. Dean is not one to pry. It’s rude to ask any stray about their past unless they volunteer the information. Sometimes an omega stray is actually a beta, or maybe even an alpha who fell down the designation ladder, the stress of losing his position in the pack reverting his biology to the lowest of the low. Cas… isn’t like that; Dean can’t put a finger on how he knows it, he just knows. A lot of things in this post-apocalyptic humanity of theirs is instinct. They call it ‘scent’, but that’s bullshit since the human nose is still ten thousand times less sensitive than any dog’s or wolf’s. Though there is a component of scent in the mix, leaked out in the sweat, more important are the myriad twitches in someone’s face, posture, tone, something humans are a hundred times better at catching than any animal. People talk like it’s all down to the nose though: “Yeah, the guy may be a beta but he smells like he’s a step away from sprouting hair on his chest, that pack’s alpha better watch his back”, “Huh, dude’s been an alpha too long, catch him on a bad day and he reeks of omega, he’ll be unable to get it up and pump out pups and they’ll both be out before the year’s end.”... The Virus Apocalypse, the fertility holocaust, the Great Dying a century ago that stained them down to their very essence and the basic needs of their survival ever since, it’s all been dragging them back to their animal roots step by step, until it’s just easier to talk like they’re all two-legged wolves already and leave it at that.

Dean’s nose (and everything else) tells him Cas has bent omega since his pubes came out, there’s been no backsliding here, but for the most part omegas stay in the camp in which they’re raised, so asking one why he had to bug out and take the risk to stray and wander around… that’s a whole jack-in-the-box conversation if there ever was one, and that’s a no-no. But it’s not like Dean’s fishing around for stuff to talk about. He asks one question about the work John has Cas doing on the grid and five minutes later he’s learning how a spinning metal thingie and a magnet generates power in the wind turbines around the camp because of something called ‘electrons’.

“Of course, storing power is just as important as generating it.” Cas’s blue eyes sparkle, he’s the weirdest thing this side of the Appalachians and Dean is quite happy to let him ramble. The repairs appear to be finished since Cas got out of the hole awhile back, but Dean is not gonna say anything. From the dirt covering the omega, he’s been hard at work today already, he deserves a break. Don’t have many people these days who can fix stuff, or even better, make stuff; gotta cosset them a bit. And Dean is loving this conversation. He grew up in Winchester pack, he knows most of the people in it as well as he knows any member of his family. Talking to someone new is always a pleasure, especially when it’s someone who’s got something to say.

“So that’s what those tanks in the red shed are for?” Dean scratches his chin, staring to his left as if he can see the shack in question through the couch, the den’s wall and a bunch of buildings. “I knew they were something electric, but I hadn’t-”

There’s a ringing hoot of horn followed by a strong shout of: “Fall out!”

Dean tenses, gaze leaping to the closest window. What the- when did the sun get that high in the sky?! Crap!

“Gotta go.” His words are short, terse as he scrambles to his feet and heads to the door, but he doesn’t want to leave, dammit, he doesn’t rub shoulders with the Makers all that often, other than Bobby, Rufus and the medics.

“I need to go flip that breaker and test the light before I fix this floor,” says Cas agreeably, matching step. Yippee!

Cas continues telling him about distilling chemistry-related stuff to help make and store electricity as they head towards the meeting spot, but it’s a short distance, the den being right next to the stompin’ ground. That’s what the hunters call the empty circle of beaten dirt at the center of their small compound where most of the social shit goes down. Now it's rapidly filling with folk streaming in from the cabins and the warehouses surrounding it. Dean waits until the flow slows to a trickle before stepping in with Cas at his heels. Benny’s group is out on long patrol, that leaves some forty hunters in the compound, at present forming in a half circle in front of alpha Victor, front ranks taking a knee so back ranks can hear and see properly. Most of them are only half dressed and still damp from horsing around at the stream, but they’re as attentive as soldiers nonetheless. Dean hangs back at the outer edge of the formation, two steps back rather than his usual two steps forward so he can stand with Cas, who lingers on in curiosity.

“The lookouts say they saw a flash of light up in the north hills,” Victor starts tersely. “Yes,” he adds immediately, voice overriding the chorus of groans, “I’m aware of how bored they get, but you know the drill.” Just because those Rancher bastards cry wolf a lot (sometimes literally crying ‘Wolf!’ after seeing, say, a lonely porcupine cross the trail and look at them sideways) doesn’t mean the Hunter pack won’t rally. It just takes the one time for it to be real, to be real bad. Victor is not the kind to take that risk, one of the reasons he’s alpha.

“I need three groups. Dean-...” Victor looks around in surprise, finally spots Dean and Dean’s raised hand at the back of the crowd. Dean’s his deputy and always first pick, which is great because now he’s got a great excuse not to have read that equipment ledger John gave him to summarize for Vic by sundown. “Dean and Tyler, take your teams, wide sweep. Dean, start at the creek and head east, Ty, take the other side. Annabelle’s group, you stay with her on intervention alert.” Annabelle’s not in stompin’ grounds of course; their pack’s other alpha is at home with this year’s lil’ one. Kid’s okay, right, but he’s not a good sleeper as Dean understands, and so Annabelle’s not been getting a lotta sleep either, and Vic too has got them bags under his eyes that seem to go with being alpha.

“The rest, come with me, we’re going north.” Vic jabs a hand in that direction like he’s chopping it in two with an axe. Yup, whatever’s out there is gonna regret it if a sleep deprived alpha finds it first. Betas may be ready for a fight all day all night, but an alpha in early summer is vicious. “Keep your eyes peeled, hunters, remember the way the herds spooked yesterday, it’s always possible-”

A small cascade of yips interrupt him.

Vic is a scary serious guy, and the hunters are well disciplined when it matters… but they’re pack above all. The crisp military air dissolves into chuckles, good natured ribbing and cries of ‘awww!’

Victor glances down at Clancy with a steely look that would have sent anyone other than John Winchester haring for shelter, but dogs know when their owner is mad and when it’s for show, so Clancy just wags his furry tail and pants.

“If you’ll excuse me- oh, Garth, can you?” Victor scoops up the puppy, giving his troops a picture perfect moment that Dean is gonna treasure forever. Damn if it that ain’t cute.

Wákida, now, Clancy’s predecessor, Wákida was a terror, a dark shadow following Victor’s every move like the sentinel he was named for in Ioway; the epitome of a hunter’s hound. He’d been seven, in his prime and strong, it never occured to Victor that he should be training up a successor. But some fever ran through the camp late last winter; it started with the pigs, but then somehow the dogs caught it. Dozens sickened and ten died, including Wákida. It will take a year and a lot of training for Clancy to grow up to fill those mighty paw prints… until then, Victor will have to go dogless, but since every other hunter owns a mutt, there are enough sharp noses and bared teeth to cover him.

Victor deposits the puppy into Garth’s hands. “Take him back to Annabelle please.”

“Will do, alpha. Come here, lil’ fella!” Garth gives Clancy a hug and a head-scritch. “You’re way too small to go hunting! Soon you’ll follow your dad and the others!” (Garth couldn’t master an omega’s quiet obedience if his life depended on it, and his pack has learned to work around it. Hell, they like him better that way.)

Victor is the man, so he doesn’t even deign to recover the shreds of his dignity, he merely makes a circular motion in mid-air like he’s dispersing them to the wind. “All right, hunters, we leave in ten.”

Dean, conveniently at the outer edge of the pack, takes a few steps to the right and realizes he still has a shadow.

“Gonna grab my kit.” Dean gestures towards his small cabin nearby. “You going this way?”

“I, yes, I need to go back to the breaker, it’s near the turbine.” Not exactly in the same direction, but Cas is looking at the dispersing troup of betas in his omega way: head lowered, gaze only flickering up quickly to features and down again. He’s… not intimidated exactly, but the way he moves and holds himself now smells a little of retrenchment, of caution, and no wonder.

The greater Winchester pack is composed of three subsidiary packs split along lines of function: the Ranchers tend the fields and herds, the Makers cook and preserve, knit and sow, build and produce, and the Hunters, well, it’s right there in the name; they hunt animals, gather outside resources from the furthest edges of the far-flung Winchester territory and beyond, and if they run into folks with bad intentions, then their prey becomes two-legged. It’s not just their jobs that differentiate the three sub-packs. A whole two-thirds of the Makers are omegas, while the Ranchers are… who knows, probably four-fifths omega at a guess, it takes a lotta folk to plough fields and harvest ‘em. But the hunters completely flip that ratio around, there’s over fifty prowling betas about; that’s the other reason Vic’s got bags under his eyes, that’s a lotta energy and aggression he’s gotta keep under control. As for omegas, the Hunter sub-pack only has ten. So yeah, this big group of soldiers milling around is business as usual for Dean and strange as fuck for anybody else in this day and age where communities are small and people tend to stick to their own kind routinely. For an omega unused to it, it’s like being the one lone deer at a wolf parley… Dean-the-mutt automatically steps closer in an effort to reassure/protect, to give Cas an anchor in the hubbub, while Dean-the-dude looks for a conversation starter to throw a verbal rope into the torrent on which Cas can catch himself.

In the criss-cross of betas making tracks to various parts of the compound, the omega’s gaze flinches left and right and then quickly fixes on a familiar brown uniform, crafted on the same loom and identical to his own other than the arrow symbol on the shoulder. Cas looks at Garth carrying Clancy towards Vic’s cabin, a mildly perplexed twist to his brow. Garth doesn’t walk or talk or stand or do anything like an omega. He does them like Garth. Though come to think of it, the other hunter omegas are pretty eccentric too.

“Oh, yeah, Garth.” The hunters all always explaining about Garth in a way that should be embarrassed and that is somehow kinda proud instead (we’re hunters, we’re so tough even our omegas are tall SOBs who won’t shut up to take an order) “Let me explain - you should talk to him when you get a chance. He doesn’t bunk in the omega barracks, you probably haven’t met him yet. Garth is not like other- like some other omegas, he’s made of curiosity, he’ll ask you questions I never even thought of.” A friendly omega will make Cas more comfortable.

There’s fewer betas around already. The hunters move quickly, that’s kinda their thing. Castiel’s shoulders relax again, he’s looking at Dean rather than Garth. Dean wants to say more, a lot more, but the clock is ticking and his small one-room cabin is up ahead. He lifts fingers to his lips and lets out a sharp whistle without thinking.

From her favorite spot under the porch, Ginny leaves whatever noisome piece of long-dead hide she’s been chewing and comes bounding up.

Cas stops dead in his tracks. “Oh, that’s your dog. Right.”

“Yup.”

The omega seems a little unsettled, but so do most people when Ginny came galloping full throttle their way, tongue lolling goofily and humongous paws pounding dirt.

 

~~~ Ginny (a shaggy dog story) ~~~

 

Let’s take a break to talk about Ginny. We have to go back a few years, six to be precise.

Dean is no longer a twenty two year old hunter beta talking to Castiel Novak; he’s sixteen, newly graduated from his hunter apprenticeship, and today he’s gonna pick a dog. By a happy coincidence, Mira has just pupped, and Dean’s been allowed first pick of the litter. This is not because he’s Alpha Winchester’s boy, it’s because he’s earned the right during his four years of training and his first forays. The only way you can say that he owes it to John would be if you counted the man’s hard lessons from Dean’s early childhood and up, instilling strength, discipline and pack spirit in both his sons. After that, Dean was bound to do well in the hunters from the get-go. So hell yeah, Dean’s got first pick, because he’s earned it by being considerably better than all the other trainees - Victor’s words, not his own, and certainly not his dad’s who does not believe in coddling.

John started out as a hunter years ago, so he’s always kept hunter dogs rather than guard ones, and Mira’s been the family’s dog since she was a pup and Dean hit double digits. She knows him and doesn’t make a fuss when he looks over her brood of nine; only two days old, eyes still closed, features half-formed, belly buttons raw around twisted twig-like umbilicals, they look like large dormice, but that’ll change. They’re going to be a sturdy lot… except for one. An all-white bitch with a funny cream spot on her pink nose and ridiculously floppy paws that she can’t seem to coordinate to save her life. She’s noticeably smaller and skinnier than the others. She paws with those ludicrous overgrown mittens at the end of her legs, but her brothers and sisters pay her no heed and she can’t squirm in to the teat. Her movements slow, lethargic, but they still continue as if she’s not going to let the cold hand of death discourage her, no how no way.

“That’ll be the runt,” says John callously. “She’ll be drowned this time next week if she don’t pick up. I’ll let you look them over. You don’t have to make up your mind now. Watch them, choose carefully. A good dog can save your life.”

“Yes sir.”

One of the puppies has fallen asleep, letting go of Mira’s tit. The runt squirms in there and starts sucking like she hasn’t had a square meal since birth.

From two pups down, another dog detaches itself and rolls over. He’s noticeably bigger than the others, stomach round with milk, yet he squirms up, wedges himself right in there and catapults the runt away, before settling down to suck some more.

“Wow, dick move, dog,” Dean mutters.

The runt starts struggling from scratch again but with no sign of discouragement. Dean lifts her up. Her tummy is warm and fuzzy against his palm. He drops her at the nipple the bully ditched, but there’s little there. The runt sucks at it anyway in a dumb optimistic kind of manner. Dean lets his hand linger on the thin flank. So soft.

Runts are drowned.

A long time ago, there were breeds. He’s seen them in an Old World book in their small schoolroom, full of gloriously colored pictures so real they leap off the page for all that age has yellowed and dimmed them. Big dogs, ridiculously small dogs, super-lean dogs, massive mutts, weird things with extraordinary floppy ears or bodies that go on forever.

In Dean’s world, there are two kinds of dogs; guards are mastiff-like brutes that stay put defending the herds, while hunters are rangy, hardy, thick-furred beasts running back full bore towards their distant wolf ancestors. Can’t be said to be breeds exactly, too much intermixing under the bridge. It’s what survives. Humans breed the best with the best still, but a lot of dogs manage on their own just fine, thank you, until Bobby decides there’s a few too many around and goes through a long tiring round of fixing as many as can be caught - a harrowing process as chloroform is a bitch to make in large enough batches. Dean doesn’t know the recipe, except that it involves a barrel of whatever liquor turned out so bad no-one will drink it, followed by some tinkering with wood ash bleach and lye. It looks complicated and Bobby swears like thunder while he makes it, and chases away anyone trying to look in for the reason that the stuff is, on top of everything else, fucking dangerous. Some packs don’t keep dogs like the Winchesters do, and others do but just drown the extras or hit them over the head with a hatchet if they get out of hand. But that’s harsh. To a post-apocalypse human like Dean… dogs feel like more than just animals now, they’re helpers, essential guards, they’re friends and they practically feel like kin, it’s just-... it’s harsh, that’s all. Dean’s glad the Winchesters do it the better way, knocking out the supernumerary mutts for a couple of quick nicks or a crush, but runts are still drowned, and the sick dogs or the ones getting creaky are put down with poison or the whack of a stick.

But that’s evolution. That’s survival. It’s what the world is nowadays. The virus apocalypse, the fall of civilisation a hundred years ago and every hard winter since have hammered humanity and their best friend into a singular mold, and what’s come out, hard and hardy and pitiless, is just the model that is the best survivor, all extraneous matters pruned out.

Yeah.

Well.

Dean reaches over and detaches the bully from the teat. Mira’s head shoots up with a yelp and she gives him a stern look, but she’s known Dean all her life. Anybody else would have gotten their hand taken off at the wrist, but she just flicks her tail and her ears at him with an aggravated look before lying down again.

Dean takes the runt off the exhausted tit between two frantic sucks and latches her onto the good stuff. He puts the bully behind Mira and lets him holler, serves him right.

He’s alone in the stables with the dogs, a few horses and an old mule, John already went back to the house. Dean doesn’t think he’d have done any differently if John was still watching, he’d have just been ready to hear a lecture on survival and shit.

Every evening when he should legitimately be resting from the day’s exertions, Dean spends time with Mira and the pups, choosing his dog. And resituating the runt. She fills out quickly; it makes him feel strange to think that all it required was a little interference, just a small nudge on his part, to make one pup a tiny bit less fat and maybe save another's life.

“What you’re doing is stupid.”

“Mind your own business, Ty.”

Tyler Campbell snorts, arms crossed over the partition of the mule’s stall. “You’re too weak of heart, queen Dean. Feeding a runt is stupid. It didn’t nurse properly after birth, that’ll make it damaged. I mean, look at it, it’s a disaster, and now you’re stopping the others from having a good meal.”

If he says ‘survival of the fittest’, I will deck him, Dean promises himself.

“If you’re too lilly-livered, give it over to me, I’ll deal with it.”

Dean doesn’t bother to answer, he just checks the eyes, open now, of another pup for any signs of irritation or disease.

“Fine, play pattycake with the piece of shit, but I get to pick right after you so don’t fuck up the others.”

“You don’t like it, come over here and rearrange them.”

Tyler doesn't come over because Mira doesn’t know him from shit and would eat him alive. Tyler is a late adoptee from Campbell pack, came over when he was thirteen, and he’s been a bur in Dean’s fur for the past three years. He was the last Campbell to be born from the source, as it were. When alpha Samuel Campbell, Dean’s grandpa on his mother’s side, lost his leadership position the year of Tyler’s birth, he chose to leave his pack. His two adult pups were asked to kindly disperse with him to keep the peace, while Deanna Campbell - Dean’s grandma, his namesake - had died that winter. The shock of losing his lifelong mate was probably the reason Samuel slipped in the first place. But Tyler, being a few months old at the time, was kept in Campbell with Samuel’s indifferent blessing. Until Tyler grew up and got too hard to handle, what with thinking he was owed something due to his last name matching the pack’s, and then John inherited him, lucky Winchesters. As for Samuel, the old codger is still alive last Dean heard; a lone wolf and hunter who comes out of the woods to trade with packs from time to time, deer hides and meat for gunpowder and tools, that sort of thing. Too stubborn to go back to his pack as a beta - or god help us all, an omega. Too stubborn to join John’s pack as a stray. Too stubborn to die. That’s Samuel.

The runt, having drunk her full, rolls off and flops around. She sways like a boozehound until her nose finds Dean’s hand and then she collapses against it and is sound asleep in a blink. At the back of his mind, Dean wonders if Tyler isn’t right; he’s not a Rancher but he knows some husbandry from John and Sam, he knows that not being fed properly after birth can lead to brain damage in newborns, whether it’s horses, cows, sheep, dogs or humans. The lack of coordination might be due to that. Not that any of those other puppies are about to bring down a deer anytime soon, but they seem better than she is.

It’s probably stupid, but Dean keeps looking after the bitch for another month until it’s time to choose under John’s stern gaze and Kate’s encouraging one.

He chooses her, of course. I mean, the dog’s used to him by now, right? What else is he gonna do? He’s already named her and all. Called her Gin; she no longer flops or falls down all the time, her coordination is gettin’ better, but those large paws and odd leg proportions make her walk like she’s hit the hard liquor instead of the tit. But she’s not damaged, she’ll be okay, and, well, maybe nobody else will pick her and she might get drowned, what with that ‘runt’ tag still hovering over her thanks to Tyler shooting his mouth off about her upbringing.

“You’re kidding me!” Tyler, who earned next pick in Victor’s estimation, swoops in quickly and grabs the bully. “Your loss, queen Dean! I’m taking this one. See his size? His don’t-take-shit attitude? This is an alpha dog, loser.”

“He’s a dumb bully,” Dean sneers. “Oh, right, yeah, I see it. Good match. Well done, Tyler.”

“I’m calling him Bravo and you can eat your heart out, Dean.”

“I’m calling him Bully and you can keep your ill-tempered mutt, Tyler.”

(If you’ll allow me a quick jump into the future, it’s worth noting that Tyler is the only one to call his dog Bravo nowadays - some of the time, only when Dean is in earshot. Otherwise Tyler calls him ‘Bully’ like everybody else in the pack.)

Dean is sixteen, a full fledged hunter beta, a man who is getting measuring, approving looks from everybody in camp. But still - dammit! - still he can’t help but turn reluctantly to John, to see if he’s disappointed his father.

John walks over and examines the puppy efficiently, making Gin squirm and yip at the manhandling.

“She looks sound,” he says with a nod, which is good enough a pronouncement for Dean.

“She’s not an alpha, though,” Tyler sneers.

John looks at Tyler and then at Dean with an odd expression on his face, thoughtful and quiet, then he scrubs Ginny’s head with his thumb, making the white tail on the other end wag like crazy.

“Mira’s a great dog, but not the best mom. There’s nothing wrong with the pup, sometimes a litter just gets out of hand. She’s fine, and none of the others suffered either. Dean did Mira’s job and brought them all through, and we have one more good dog to show for it. Our pack will be the stronger as a result. This isn’t an alpha dog, but I'll wager she’ll be an alpha’s dog.”

Needless to say, Dean spends every minute of his spare time after that training with Ginny to make them both worthy of that almost-unique moment of praise. Ginny, for her part, follows him everywhere. When he’s on forays and she’s left behind due to her tender age the way Clancy will be one day, she sets up such a whining fit that Sam, who still shares Dean’s attic room at the time, threatens multiple times to skin her (even though he’s always wanted a puppy before, he’s a whinnier bitch than the dog.)

Today, at six years of age, Bully is a decent dog, though he flaked out hard when he hit the one-year mark and took a lot of work to keep on track.

Ginny is as dumb as a bag of hammers, truth be told, and took twice as much effort to train from day one, but Dean applied himself, and once Ginny learns something, that thing is learned. She never flaked. She never lost that good natured won’t-quit-for-shit attitude. She’s grown into those paws, though. Big time. Six years on, while she’s slobbering on Castiel Novak’s uniform, she’s doing so at the belt line without even lifting her head all that much. She has two inches at the hock over every other dog in the pack and though still pretty dense and lolling and happy to meet people, when Dean is in danger she turns into a perfect hellhound. In her time she’s harried deer, faced down a bear, chased away wolves and she’s already helped bring down four men, though looking at her dangling tongue, soft brown dopey eyes and thumping tail, this isn’t immediately apparent.

“Good dog,” says Castiel a bit helplessly, hand hovering as if he’s not sure he’d rather keep them clear of the drool or shove her away to spare his clothes. Dean didn’t have him pegged as an animal person. Maybe Cas prefers cats. Many of the Makers do, since they keep their stores and kitchen safe, but hopefully not because that would be the end of their brand new friendship.

Ginny breaks off to follow the boss as Dean trots up the two steps of the porch, leans into the doorway open in the early summer heat, tosses the unread ledger onto his bed and snags the strap of his ever-ready pack and his rifle he keeps near the door. That sight makes Ginny give an excited yip and prance; she’s her master’s dog alright, always up for a hunt.

Past the stompin' grounds and the two dozen ramshackle cabins of the Hunter compound, Dean's team is drifting together near the prominent fence and gate leading to the hilly forests surrounding Winchester camp. Pulling on packs, tightening belts, tying back hair and fastening bandoliers and holsters, they're ready to stalk out of here, but Dean’s steps slow as he nears Cas.

“Gotta go. See ya?” It was meant as a casual ‘seeya,’ and comes out as a hopeful question instead, what the fuck

“I’m working all around this compound for the upcoming month, I’m sure we’ll run into each other,” says Cas with a faint smile.

Ginny goes right up to him again and snuffs him as if wondering who this new guy is and why he’s making her boss hesitate and look back rather than forward. Cas looks down with only a faint hint of discomfort and then nods to the dog’s master and departs while Dean hoofs it in the opposite direction.

“Fall out,” he orders his group, sweeping them automatically for anything amiss. They are all packing; bow and arrows for the most part, you have to earn the right to bear arms in this new day and age where gunpowder is traded like gold used to be. Few have rifles, and only Vic, Annabelle, Dean, Benny and Tyler also wear revolvers at their belts.

“I hope it’s raiders,” says Cole because he’s young and a bit of a dumbass. Actually he’s only two years younger than Dean, but age ain’t all in the numbers. He’s definitely a dumbass.

“It’s gonna be a racoon,” predicts Roy.

“It could be raiders.”

“It’s a fucking racoon.”

“It’s gonna take a bite outta you chatterboxes,” Dean states, “even if it is a racoon. Fall out in silence.”

They fall out in silence (bar a little subvocal grumbling on Cole’s part, because he’s a young dumbass.)

Dean’s mind focuses, fits itself into that mold of animal sharpness which the beta hunter inhabits when he’s out of his home territory and facing the great wide world and all its dangers. Castiel Novak is shelved for now.

Chapter Text

Hormones, which I explained previously, are a key part of the changes to modern human behavior. I’ve found scientific articles written a century ago before the collapse, back when biochemical research was still possible, that detail some of the changes our bodies have gone through. The information is confused because researchers back then did not understand the strata behind the changes, aka, the Hierarchy. At the time they couldn’t understand why some virus survivors were almost psychotically hyper-aggressive towards each other, while others demonstrated an abnormal passivity. In fact, these (see Ref # 32, 33, 34, 35, 38) are the earliest descriptions of betas and omegas I have found, though they weren’t called that at the time, naturally. Alphas, being rarest, were barely described at all (see Ref #39) and their effect on other designations wasn’t recognized back then.

When betas meet, an on-the-spot assessment takes place: the slightest shift in posture, assurance, eye contact, physical condition are all weighed to determine dominance; even pheromones (see previous chapter) play a role. This assessment can end in violence, but as long as the fight is purely for the purpose of that assessment, it will not result in permanent injury because the instant one beta feels successfully dominated, a hormonal cascade reaction takes place in both subjects. Adrenaline and norepinephrine plummet in the dominated, aggression also dips in the dominant to a lesser extent, while dopamine levels rise (see figure 1 for a diagram) inducing a feeling of satisfaction and calm which hastens the end of the conflict.

 

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ Varmint ~~~

Sammy’s Rancher look-outs have been known to overreact a tad in the past (to put it mildly and sarcastically) but it’s not a racoon or a baby bear or a ‘weird-looking deer’ this time, the prey is definitely two legged. Only one guy, though, if the tracks don’t lie. One guy and a mule that made that patty perfuming the air. Dean looks around, eyes flicking across the barely-there path between trees. Bent leaves, a broken twig, a cobweb trailing loose from a branch… heading north and west. His nose flares, nerves coil, readying like a spring-trap. At his side, Ginny is his furry mirror, nose twitching, floppy ears doing semaphores. Behind Dean, the team is predator-quiet. They’re well trained, every one of them, even the callow ones; Dean is Vic’s deputy and his team is the other group of heavy hitters in the camp. Individually they are all fierce scrappers, even seventeen-year-old Jo. As a group, they are lethal.

No words needed. They silently follow Dean who follows Ginny’s nose, feet finding twig-free dirt to step on, the ever present breeze flowing through the trees covering the rustle of the buffalo grass. They’re twenty minutes out from the pack’s compound at a hunter’s run. The terrain is sloped, the mule is slow, Dean can hear it up ahead complaining in the way only a mule can.

One sharp gesture sends Cole, Roy and Jo out in a fan formation, while Everett, Nicola and Pah-Ne-Me flank Dean. Dean continues straight ahead. Now he can hear a guy complaining right back at the mule.

“- I’ll skin bits off you and see how many inches of this mangy carpet it takes before you start moving a little faster -yes, I know it’s a slope, maybe I’ll shorten you a couple of hooves on the right side and see if that helps straighten you out, would you like that? Bloody nightmare beast, next time I better get a horse, or a proper-”

The guy pulls himself up with a gasp. Cole and his hound Ripper appeared in front of him, a step ahead of the others as usual (to be fair, Cole’s an asshole and too rash, but he’s a good fighter. Dean wouldn’t let him get away with that attitude if Cole couldn’t back it up most of the time.)

The stranger draws in a breath - loses it and spins around as Dean speaks up five feet behind him, question hard and cold.

“Who are you?”

“Guhr,” the fellow replies, and then makes a show of patting his own chest to get his heart going again. “Hello to you too. Friendly greeting you got there-”

“Who. Are. You.”

“Just a trader, a trader.” Through the mask of an unflappable attitude, the man’s eyes flicker between Dean and Ginny, standing at Dean’s side with head lowered in a half crouch that’s all too ready to pounce.

He tenses as Dean lifts his gun and pulls back the hammer.

“I think you should answer the question,” suggests Jo from the stranger’s left, making the man jump and the mule bray and stagger half a step down the slope it was traversing.

“But I’m a trader!” The man thumps the mule’s pack in illustration, making something go clink. “Crowley,” he adds quickly before Dean can point the barrel in his direction. “My name is Crowley MacLeod. I’m from the east.”

Yeah, Dean can hear that. An accent like that hasn’t wandered over from New England in quite awhile. Was there a bad breeze blowing this morning?

“Pack?” Dean asks.

The eyes flicker, but the dude is now completely surrounded by seven hunters with drawn weapons, seven dogs with teeth bared, he has a right to be nervous. “Uh, somewhat between packs at the moment.”

Dean looks him over carefully. The guy looks the part: he’s in tidy homespun with tough leather boots, while a dark overcoat of good make is tossed over the mule’s saddle in deference to the day’s warmth. It’s the kind of good wear you need when wandering around the midwest where hot and cold can come at you any time. The coat is imprudently covering the draw on the rifle holstered at the side of one of the packs... Still, standard all in all. There’s no immediate reason to distrust him… but Dean’s gut won’t have any of that, and neither does Dean’s inner mutt. His real mutt, Ginny, is making low growling noises and hasn’t lost an iota of tension. Something about this guy feels off. Beyond the obvious, that is.

“What are you doing here? This ain’t the road and you’re past the roadhouse.”

“Oh, am I?” the guy asks, all innocent surprise, and Dean’s conviction solidifies. Too smooth. Something is off. He makes a quick gesture. Cole and Roy vanish back into the woods in almost complete silence to circle around and look for others.

Dean lifts the ox horn every hunter wears and blows his signal - two short calls - followed by a longer one after a pause. Jo and her dog Hooch fade back into the underbrush to listen out for the other teams and lead them in.

The Crowley dude starts to relax as the jaws of the trap lose a few teeth, but tenses right up again as Dean moves forward and circles him from a distance of four feet.

Winchester pack boasts around five hundred members, it’s quite self sufficient. They can manage their own food supply of course, and in addition their large territory covers hills with small iron and copper deposits, a clay pit, a quarry, some old wind-powered oil pumps that still work and bring up enough of the black crap for kerosene, caulking and the like. And then they have solid trade routes going with other packs in the Concordat to barter for what they lack: tin and lead, sulfur and salt and such. In sum, lone traders like this are not a survival imperative. But they are still useful; they bring little pleasures such as gewgaws and new seedlings, sugar and pepper, sachets of spices you can’t get around here, and news, of course. However, they can also bring disease. That’s why they don’t set foot in the camp, they stay at the roadhouse, and the guards there work on a quarantine rotation just to be safe. It’s been that way since Henry’s days as alpha, and it works. That sickness that took out most of Farango pack and a hella lot of people south of them? Didn’t make it here. Neither does the other kind of plague, the one that comes bearing guns and bad intentions. The Men of Letters Concordat have their radio network for that, their intangible net that keeps their packs in touch and communicating despite the distance between them. Dean, as deputy, is well placed to know that this dude Crowley is not on the Expected Guest list coming from any other pack within a month’s march.

He and Crowley size each other up. The man has intelligent eyes, and a mien that he thinks must be harmless and friendly and is anything but. He’s also a backslider. Yeah, Dean’ll bet his life this guy used to be alpha of whatever pack he belonged to once upon a time. But now he’s a solid beta… more than one would expect. Outside of a pack, societal pressure lets go of the nape of your neck. Dean’s met traders before, heck, Charlie Bradbury is one of his best buddies, so he knows what a trader smells like. They’re all betas, of course: they don’t need pack protection like an omega does, and since they’re in charge of nobody but themselves they can’t be alpha either, not unless they’re screwy in the head like Samuel Campbell and a few other graybacks of his ilk. But they’re not strongly beta either, they’re more independent and also less aggressive, they have no need to find their place in the pecking order. This guy… he’s not that. Dean’s itching fists tell him so. No, this Crowley is not ‘between packs’. No way no how. He wouldn’t be so very beta if he were, he wouldn’t make Dean’s instincts want to fight him, get him down in the dirt with Dean’s fingers around the back of his neck. On the other hand, that doesn't necessarily mean Crowley is up to no good. He’s from east. They’re all a bit screwy over there. They have feuds between packs, they have alliances and enemies, they have good reason to play coy.

The silence grows thick and tangled, and there’s a precarious little moment there, but Crowley quickly lowers his head - that’s the mutt’s gesture alright - and he also holds out his hands, nice and empty and clear away from his belt and any weapons. Submitting to the strongest person present of the pack whose territory he invaded unintentionally (or so he claims.) Dean’s a long shadow of silence and threat still, he’s aware of where everyone in his team is and god help this Crowley if he looks away from Dean’s chest and lets that gaze linger too long on one of Dean’s people.

Crowley makes a vague sound and licks his lips. When he talks, his voice is breeze-quiet in the stillness. “So. Ah. Which way to that roadhouse...?”

“Bit too late to ask that,” murmurs Everett.

“I am a trader,” Crowley objects very, very softly and without looking away from Dean’s chest. “I heard Winchester pack is very welcoming.”

Yeah they are, to people who are vouched for, who take the main road, who don’t skip the roadhouse and who don’t smell like conniving varmint.

A low whistle ending in an upward note heralds the arrival of footsteps. Dean’s still staring at Crowley and Crowley’s still staring at Dean’s chest, but their stance and their chemistry spins on a dime as Victor walks over. The alpha presence, that unpinnable feel of Leader and Safe and Under Control takes Dean’s tension down several notches. It’s a physical reaction, and it’s also intellectual. Victor’s older than him by twelve years, he’s been an alpha for nine of those, he’s… well, he’s Victor goddamn Henricksen. He’s got this. Dean will slink over to his side like Ginny slinks to his, waiting patiently for an order that will send him to fly into an attack or fade away back to his kennel. It’s the way it is. Everybody, including a returning Cole and Roy, are now extensions of Victor’s volition and will follow every command without thinking.

“What have we here?” Vic walks over to Dean, leaving the same five foot space around Crowley and not losing sight of the beta, who’s now in a solid ‘I’m respectfully awaiting to be addressed by the alpha’ pose that still somehow makes Dean’s fists itch.

Dean explains the situation and his impressions in a few quick whispers in Vic’s ear. Vic’s eyes don’t leave Crowley, and Dean knows, sure as the bible, that Vic’s conclusions are the same as his own. But Vic, being an alpha, is also a big-picture guy. It’s truly not wise to run a trader out of town unless there is good cause. It’s just not done, it’s like deliberately cauterizing a vein for no valid reason. Winchester may be self sufficient, but there’s still something needed- no, not needed exactly, but necessary all the same; communication between the far-flung human uber-pack, letters and gossip, the exchange of ideas and simple hellos, some semblance of civility harkening back to a past civilisation.

“I’m alpha Victor Henricksen of the Winchester pack.”

“Yessir, pleased to meet you. Crowley, beta Crowley McLoed.”

There’s a little silence where he fails yet again to mention his pack.

Vic looks at him long and hard and, still without breaking that inspection, he says quietly to Dean: “Take your crew, make a wide sweep west to northwest to east.”

Oh boy, Crowley really must be bugging him. That’s three days of spontaneous patrol Dean’s team just inherited. But that’s fine if it’ll keep the pack, their pack, their heart and soul, safe. There’s nothing Dean won’t do for that, that any of his team won’t do. That’s why they’re all locked and loaded; it might have been a racoon (Roy’s mocking words feel like days ago) but they still came out here ready for a ten day campaign, hard-tack in their kits, knives in their belts, enough ammunition for war in their packs and their walking boots on. That’s the hunters for you. Dean’s ready to bet Tyler’s gonna get the east to southeast to west patrol as soon as he rallies to the horn calls. Just to keep their pack safe.

Dean and the other betas from his group fall out without another word. At his back, he hears Vic say: “We will escort you to the roadhouse. While we-”

“Yes, thank you alpha,” Crowley interrupts, speaking quickly and with oily politeness, “ah, thank you too, beta, for finding me. You are?”

Dean glances back in surprise, already twenty feet away. “Me?”

“You failed to introduce yourself,” says Crowley pleasantly. The guy’s a nobody ‘between packs’, would anyone really care if Dean gives in to the urge to punch that smarmy face...?

Vic’s not saying anything, though, so Dean has to rein it in and be polite. “Dean. Winchester.”

There’s a subtle change in Crowley’s posture, and Dean immediately regrets saying anything for reasons he can’t pinpoint. Vic frowns.

“A pleasure to meet you, Dean. Happy hunting.”

Vic looks away from Crowley for the first time since he came on the scene and gives Dean a look. Dean knows. He’s not going to lower his guard for a minute over the next three days. If he feels like taking a break from being vigilant, he’ll just remember Crowley’s smarmy adieu, that’ll get him back up to full awareness in one massive ick.

 

~~~ Angels ~~~

 

Dean would have laid even odds there was something sinister at the outskirts of their territory, yet in the end, there isn’t. Following Ginny’s nose, they track Crowley’s itinerary, which feels a little too meandering to be natural… but Dean knows he might be getting paranoid now. Once the tracks of the wandering dick crosses the very edges of their territory, they pursue for another five miles or so and then break away to make their wide sweep that’ll check half the circumference of the land they call their own. On the second day they run into Benny’s returning group and bring them up to speed. Instead of going back to camp and rest, Benny and his team join forces. But nary an enemy to be found. Was Crowley a diversion? Was his arrival from the north a deliberate misdirection that sent Dean chasing his tail here and Tyler’s group running into trouble…? No horn calls, though, no warning smoke signals, and when they stop at the outermost sentinel post of the Winchester territory, an entire day away from the camp, the guards there have a message from Vic: all clear on all sides and Dean can take some time to go hunting. Dean looks suspiciously at the transcribed message, but there’s nothing to indicate there’s a double meaning there… and Jo picked up fresh moose tracks not half a day ago. They’re already loaded for bear, might as well go after moose and fill the larder.

It’s a one day trip out to the edge of the marshy forest that moose favor, but they track the wandering animal swiftly and bring it down. Two day trip back, carrying the meat and letting the outliers pick berries, wild apples, mushrooms and anything they can get their hands on. These days, most of the greater Winchester pack eat what the Ranchers grow and raise, but the end of winter is still lean, and there’s never been a situation where you can say ‘we got too much meat’. Especially after what happened to the pigs last winter.

The best moose bits get spit fried over their campfire that first night back, the rest, all four hundred pounds, is dragged back on the travois they made on the spot and take turns hauling. It’ll be smoked, shredded, pounded with wild rice they’ve scavenged along the marshe’s edges and whatever they picked, mixed with lard, and end up in the winter’s pemmican that’ll keep them going on their snow-bound hunts, the serious ones that could spell the death or survival of their entire pack. The Hunters have a pride that they never eat anything but what they hunt or barter for from the other sections in the camp. Sure, they are all part of the Winchester pack, but the three lesser packs that compose it - Hunters, Makers and Ranchers - they’re all subtly independent too, their own packs under the umbrella of the larger one. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have alphas. If they didn’t feel like they were their own pack, then Vic and Annabelle wouldn’t have had the surge of command and protectiveness combined to bend into alphas and breed, they’d have stayed beta to John and Kate.

That subtle powerplay shaped the Winchester camp they all live in; they call it a camp out of habit, but it’s been immovable and a town of log cabins and clapboard shacks for well over fifty years. It’s one camp yet the three sections are subtly distinct, separated by fences and spaces. The Makers live in the middle compound, since they have to provide cooked and canned food, cloth, hardware, goods and services to the other two groups. Also in the center of the camp is the omega barracks, easily accessible by all groups and in particular the Ranchers. Their larger block is to the west, it’s got as much people as the other two groups combined, and their compound faces the fields and pastures that are the Ranchers’ stock in trade. Their betas patrol the area; that’s Sam’s guards, they’re top dog there. To the east is the much smaller hunter compound, where you eat fresh meat almost every day, where you have as many dogs as people, where life is good. East is best for the hunters; these days, the midwest, from Kansas to Utah and beyond, is pretty tame. The danger comes from Illinois, from the places where Chicago and Detroit once stood before the Great Dying. And New England past the Appalachians, yikes, rumor has it they eat you over there. The hunter compound may be small, but kick at Winchester pack and the fifty betas will come roaring out of there like hornets out of the nest. The Rancher guards may be defenders, but the hunters are attackers, chivying invaders with their hounds, their guns and their bows, until there’s nothing left of the strangers but crude pyres sending warning smoke signals back east reading: Don’t Fuck With The Winchesters.

It’s a good life, Dean reflects, even if, hell, it keeps him busy.

Four days spent running, walking and hauling moose meat would send Sam’s patrol guards whimpering to bed, but Dean’s got shit to do. First and foremost, he checks Ginny over for burs, ticks, scratches and problems in the paw pads, then he cleans his gun and rifle. After that he circles around and checks his group. Finally, the day being lovely, he takes the small table in his cabin out to his front porch to savor the afternoon breeze while he has a go at cleaning and polishing his boots, a short break before the rest of his travails.

“Hello, Dean.”

The day just got even better. “Hey, Cas! Whatcha up to?”

The omega lifts his toolbox. “Same as last time you saw me. I’ve been working in your battery shed and on your turbine, and overhauling the wires all over your compound. You’ll see the floodlight shining from your community room tonight.”

“Awesome. Though we call it a den. Community room sounds way too tidy, and you’ve seen the place.”

Once again there’s that little shimmer in Castiel’s face that’s kind of like a smile even if it’s hard to pinpoint. It’s all in the way his eyes crinkle and the lines around his mouth smooth out.

“I see you had a successful hunt.” Castiel nods towards the other side of the stompin’ ground. Dean, being deputy, has a cabin right on the edge of the grounds, as does Victor on the other side. It’s a good place to live in order to keep a pulse on their pack, since the grounds is where shit like serious fights can go down, but the downside is that one side of it is the tanner’s yard. Garth and two other omegas, Matt and Elanore, are busy skinning, cutting and hanging the moose in the meathouse sunk three quarters underground to keep cool. The smell floating this way is not pleasant, but Dean’s used to it; hell, his nose pats him on the back with a ‘good job’ every time he catches a whiff.

“I’d offer to go help, but I have no idea what to do,” Cas says, a little nonplussed. “Also, I’m not sure I could stand the attention.”

All the dogs currently in the compound, a good thirty of them, are in a ring around the toiling omegas, staring. Staring. Staring. They’re too well trained to run in and catch anything that falls, they know they’ll get their due when the work is done. That’s the rule. Garth, who takes rule bending to champion level, occasionally goes over to pat one or the other of his favorites and sneak that dog a morsel. Being an omega, Garth doesn’t have a dog, but there’s not a mutt in the pack who wouldn’t die for him.

“Was there good hunting in your previous territory?” Dean asks, a good clean question that is not fishing, no, not at all.

“I imagine so, but I was really not involved with it.” Cas is looking at the dogs looking at the meat, seeming bemused and amused at the same time.

“You ever have fresh moose jerky?”

“No.”

“It’s the best. ‘Specially when you get the good cuts right off the smoker, not the stuff that’s being dried for long storage. Come back this time next week, I’ll give you some. If you’re around. If you want.” Dean contemplates stuffing his left boot in his mouth. Providing food can be seen as, well, a little bit suggestive. Not hugely so, not nowadays, it’s a throwback to how crazy and animalistic shit became in the first two generations after the apocalypse, when life was a whole lot more brutal and handing someone a piece of meat meant you had expectations. But that’s old shit which don’t happen anywhere in Missouri no more, nor in Kansas either. It’s not like Dean committed a major mistake here, but the way his mouth is backpedaling, it’s like he suggested the guy whore himself out for a cut of loin and oh, wow, Dean’s about to find out what boot polish tastes like…

“I imagine I’ll be around.”

Dean dares to look at Cas. Cas is still staring at the scene and does not look like he’s working up an appetite as he watches Matt rip and slice off skin from flesh, leaving the flies free access to the fatty padding beneath. But Cas is a million miles from picking up anything inappropriate from what Dean said. Guy’s smart, like, extremely smart, but that doesn’t mean he’s whip-smart, so to speak. Good. Dean really didn’t mean anything by it, of course. Dammit, it’s easier to talk to Garth and the others, why is that…?

“We smoke it with wood chips and such, it’s awesome,” says Dean, trying to wrestle the conversation back on track. “You’ll love it.

“In my old pack, we didn’t smoke meat.”

“Oh?”

“Wood was not something we wasted when we could avoid it, not when salt would do.”

“You salted the meat? All of it? How much bloody salt is that?”

“A lot,” says Cas with a smile, “but we had the advantage of-”

“Dean.”

Lydia’s just come around the corner of Dean’s cabin. She sashays up to the porch, giving Cas an incurious glance before dismissing him from consideration. She’s cleaned up, got fresh clothes on but a shirt only half buttoned over her cleavage, and a smile on her face that’s not hungry for moose.

Before he made deputy, Dean knew what that was like. Indeed, he might have been the one clawing at her door, he’s done it often enough in the past. At this point, though, all that goes through his mind is: ‘Really, woman? It’s not even four o’clock and I got shit to do.’ It sucks being responsible, sometimes. Betas may be up for it at any time of the day and night, especially after a successful hunt that’s riling up some basic ‘we provided, now we fuck!’ instinct deep inside, but a deputy has, well, a lot of shit to do. The boots are just the start, he’s only cleaning ‘em so he’s not tracking mud everywhere as he goes about his other duties; after this he’s gotta distribute bullet- and arrow-making duty, get more gunpowder from Bobby over in Makers, check in with Victor and make sure alpha's squad don’t need anything before leaving on their own long patrol...

“Bit busy this afternoon, Lyds. See if anyone else is around.”

Lydia’s smile says, oooh, playing hard to get, me like.

“We don’t have no extra salt to spare,” Dean forces himself to say to Cas, hoping she’ll get the hint, while the beta mutt in Dean says: Fifteen minutes, dude! You can have her bent over your bed in three, screaming your name in five, quivering and quiet and full of your spunk ten minutes after that, and you sure will have a pep in your step for the rest of Vic’s chores.

Shut up, Dean tells the inner critter.

“Yes, I didn’t think you used brine for preservation,” says Cas, sweet omega Cas completely unaware of the scents flooding the porch of Dean’s cabin. “That’s why having a cold room is such an advant-”

“You,” says Lydia without even looking at him, “shut up and go away.”

“Hey now!” snaps someone who, to Dean’s utter surprise, turns out to be Dean.

There’s an interesting moment of silence. Cas stops talking and looks at Lydia in wary surprise, finally catching on, while Lydia is staring narrow-eyed at Dean like a predator whose prey has just done something unexpected. Also spectacularly stupid, true, but still unexpected. Then with a thinning of her lips, she finally turns to look at Cas, really look.

“I said, go away.” Lydia talks like she’s addressing a brain damaged dog. “You put one foot in front of the other- no, wait, grab those boxes while you’re at it.” She hooks a thumb over her shoulder, there’s piles of non-critical supplies at the edge of the plaza left behind by Dean and Benny’s teams, as well as shit like hard-tack, the moose’s hooves and antlers tied with twine, skin sacks of berries, the usual. “Tidy up the place. Now get.”

“Yes, beta.” Cas’s head lowers in an instinctive flinch, his eyes fix on her collarbone. His body language is shut down and cloistered. Then the fingers on the strap of his toolbox tighten. After a small silence he turns full on back towards Dean, eyes still lowered but voice perfectly steady as he says: “I understand Winchester pack gets their salt from trade and from evaporation traps at the Wilson reservoir, which-”

“Hey! What did I just say?!” Lydia snaps, and oh there’s a new kind of fire in her eyes now.

Cas stops talking. He shuffles around until he’s facing her again and his eyes are still downcast, but they’re- they’re odd, they’re focused on her throat like a drill as he says: “You told me to pick up those boxes. I will do so once I have finished my train of thought on salting as preservative. It will only take-”

“I meant now. Know your place, omega!”

Dean stands up, a boot hitting his porch with a thud-

“Then don't make that place too difficult, beta.”

Cas hasn’t blinked or moved, still in that shuttered-body posture that looks meek and is not. His voice is the same temperature as yonder meathouse where carcases are hanging off hooks.

“In this camp, we accept our place, but we are not slaves or animals. We are your workforce. As long as we are on target for our assigned duties, we still have agency over our time,” Cas says softly, still in that weird state, and oh dear… Dean inches closer because there’s that little tone in the omega’s voice now, like when he was telling Dean about the turbines the other day. But Dean, he was curious and he wanted to know more, he loved that tone. Lydia, in the meantime, is putting together the fact that she’s getting lectured by an omega and Dean can see the realisation rise off her like steam flying from a kettle coming to a boil. “You make our position in this camp too difficult with overwork, a bad attitude or unreasonable demands, what incentive do we have not to try to better our lot through one mean or another? Before you get too snippy with your answer, beta, do you want to carry those boxes?”

Lydia’s jaw drops. Dean’s pretty slackjawed too, actually. Now, it’s a fallacy that all omegas are doormats. A lot of ‘em aren’t. More often their opposition comes subtly, a hidden glare, a muttered expletive and a sudden rash of sloppy work. Others will step up and verbalize their complaints if they feel safe enough to do so, going from a whole lotta whining to the other end of the spectrum, the cheerful chiding of “Wow, turn that frown upside down and give that attitude some rectitude!” (Garth, who else? But don’t let that sunny disposition fool ya, there’s some pretty solid rock beneath it for all that.) Cas is obviously on that end of the scale too, but he surgically removed the cheerful from the chiding and hammered in a whole lotta blunt in its stead, and though that’s not unheard of for an omega, it’s still pretty unexpected.

But of course Lydia rallies, her lips raising over teeth, eyes gleaming. “Oh, you got a mouth. In any other pack, you-”

“But we’re not in any other pack.” And now there’s a hint of steely knowledge in Castiel’s voice, a little cold piece of metal working its way to the bone. “In those other packs, you’d make me pay for what I just said, and in those other packs, once I healed, I’d do what others have done before me: escape in the dead of night or die trying, maybe setting fire to your munitions dump as a distraction first. But that won’t be necessary because you and I both live and work in this pack, so I will carry your boxes and you will say please.”

...Betas do not, as a rule, have the wit for good repartee once the anger sets in.

Lydia’s punch goes off like a firecracker-

There’s a solid thud as Dean materializes in front of her and catches the blow, spinning her around. “Have you lost your fucking mind?! Where do you think you are?!”

Lydia’s got the full-on mad now, the arm still in Dean’s grip is tense with muscle and rage. “This no-balls doesn’t get to talk to me like that!”

“He fucking does and so do I!”

Violence - real violence - hangs on a thread. Lydia’s fucking pissed, but Dean-... oh, Dean’s furious. Just as Lydia’s fist drew back and a moment before Dean snagged it, he caught sight of Cas’s expression. Head down, omega-meek, but still calm. Composed. Certain. Ready to take that blow as his due, the price he’s willing to pay just for speaking his mind - and Dean’s not only furious, he’s fucking sick to his stomach at the thought of Cas - any omega - getting pounded to the ground just for sticking up for themselves. They can’t fight back; their physique rarely lends itself to it, and even when it does, their behavioral make-up is definitely more on the flight end of the flight-or-fight scale. Curl up and hope to survive is their tactic rather than the beta and alpha all-out combat mode. But that’s no excuse to let fly - it’s just the opposite!

There’s the Moment. It can’t be put into words, it’s not a words kinda thing, it’s instinct, that little weighing second where a brawl might break out, not a simple dominance scuffle but an actual fight with real blows flying… but then the tension backs down because the two of them are pack, they know their respective rank.

Dean hurls her arm away and Lydia staggers back, head a little lower, the tail she doesn’t have between her legs, barely.

“Get the fuck out of here, Lydia, before I report this to Victor,” Dean grinds out, back straight, fists clenched. “If I ever see you lifting a hand to an omega-”

She doesn’t lift a hand to Cas, but Dean has to dodge a parting swipe before she storms away. That’s Lydia. Most other betas would have been cowed, but Lydia’s up there in the pecking order, and in addition, she’s-... well, she’s Lydia. She’d have taken that swipe at Victor too, he’s ready to bet. The thing is, Dean remembers clear as day that this is the exact reason he used to fuck her on a near-daily basis a couple years back, until he’d been deputized and got a bit busy. Dean looks at that old Dean with a rather judgmental stare, not figuring out for the life of him what the hell he used to see in that exactly.

A clunk behind him has him spinning, fists tight. He’s riled, real riled. But it’s just Cas, slipping the toolbox down to the porch. “Can I leave this here, beta?” he asks as if nothing happened at all.

After ten seconds, Dean remembers how to talk and not growl. “Uh. Yeah.” Give it another minute and he might remember how to speak intelligently. “Uh...what-”

“The boxes,” Cas says with a half-shrug, heading that way. He’s as still as deep waters and- and steady-... He’d have been the same way even if Lydia thrashed him, Dean knows it in his gut.

Dean opens his mouth to say that Cas doesn't need to pick up their mess, but that’s not right. Lydia might be a bitch, but she is a beta, and, well, the supplies do need carrying and the other omegas are busy. There’s courtesy, but then there’s the way a pack works, and it-... well, it’s just the way it works. From the way Cas is heading towards the boxes, calm and collected, he knows this and he doesn’t even mind. If the bitch had just said please, the supplies would be squared away by now.

“I’ll help.”

Cas looks back, sleeve half rolled up a corded forearm. “No, be- Dean, I don’t- I’m sure you have things to do.”

“Yeah,” says Dean, stuffing on his boots, “I gotta keep my compound tidy, and that means getting those boxes out of the way. It’ll be faster if we both do it.” He speaks clearly, his voice carries, and Cas suddenly glances around, quick-like. Yeah, that whole tense scene back there was noisy. There’s four young betas, previously making arrows and chatting in the sunshine, now hanging around curiously. The omegas are staring their way too, Garth with a huge piece of moose dangling from his arms and bloodying his butcher's apron. It’s not just that Dean has to tidy shit up, that’s not exactly his job. What is exactly his job, though, is keeping pack cohesion, it’s showing a good example and demonstrating that no, Winchester is not that kind of pack, quite the opposite.

“Thank you,” says Cas with a note of true grace that would send even that rabid bitch Lydia to hide in her kennel from sheer embarrassment at her own petty-minded temper.

By the time they reach the boxes, two of the young betas, Chrissy and Aidan, have gotten there first and grabbed the heaviest one together. Chrissy doesn’t smile, she never does, but she does give Cas a firm nod of recognition as she goes by, good kid. Dean waves Garth and the others back to work, and just like that the day returns to normal, a beautiful sunny day after a successful hunt, safe in the bosom of the pack, of family.

The other two are up ahead, walking fast, but Dean hangs back to walk by Cas’s side.

“Hey, what you said… about other packs...” The steel with which Cas said that was the kind that cuts to the bone, that flays truth off of it. Dean doesn’t want it to be first-hand knowledge, he’s terrified that it is.

Cas looks somber, lips pinch briefly, but he shakes his head and there is only a faint shadow of darkness in his eyes. “I do not have any personal experience with that kind of pack, no, but my brother does. Gabriel. He’s a beta, and a perpetual wanderer truth be told. He used to sneak back into our compound on the sly to check up on me and my brother, and he’s told us stories. He’s… ah, he’s a character. He tends to go into those kind of packs, gets welcomed for his humor and that clever mouth of his, and before they know it, everything’s-... never mind… I’m a stray, but I knew where I was going when I left my old pack, and I was careful to get here without, uh, incident.”

Whew.

“So which pack did you come from?” Dean asks, a minor breach of etiquette he’s been avoiding since he met the man, but now he’s just too curious.

Cas looks at him strangely. “Novak.”

“...huh? You-...you’re actually from the Novak pack?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, you didn’t say. You just said your last name was Novak, I thought you’d gotten adopted out.”

“Oh.” Cas looks adorably confused and self-recriminating for a minute. “Right, of course, that would be the most likely outcome as far as you knew. I’m not used to introducing myself- I mean, I’ve been in Novak pack all my life, this is the first pack I’ve been in where they didn’t know who I was. But yes, I was born to the primary alphas and kept.”

Dean turns to stare as he walks. “You are telling me you’re a firstborn of pack alphas Novak?! Holy shit.”

“Yes, though I’m fifth, as it happens.” Cas easily hoists up his box and puts it on top of two others in the storeroom.

“What the hell? How many kids does your family keep?”

“Only the first four in theory,” - already two more than Winchesters do - “but since I was born a twin, and my brother James was fourth, they decided to not split us up and keep the extra,” says Cas drolly. “We had more siblings after that who were dispersed, quite a few, but then my brothers- Gabriel- there was a family falling out and a couple of holes appeared in the family unit. My sister Anna was kept after that, she’s seven by now, but my mother died after her birth. My father strayed and his first-born, Michael Novak, took over as alpha.”

Dean watches Cas out of the corner of his eye as they return for more boxes. Novak is a powerful pack with twice as many people as any pack that exists today. What the Winchesters needed a whole alliance to do to stabilize Kansas and Missouri sixty years ago, the Novaks did to Utah pretty much on their own. The Novaks are an incredibly strong bloodline, all their pack and sub-pack alphas are Novaks, Dean's heard, and there seems to be a lot of them dispersed throughout the midwest who grow up to be betas or even alphas in other packs. You don’t hear much about Novak omegas, but packs don’t tend to boast of those… Even though it’s obvious in a thousand ways that Cas has been an omega since puberty and no question about it, the easy way he carries that second box - and damn, the way he answered Lydia... if that’s what their omegas are like, Dean sees why Novaks are near the top of the hierarchy in a lotta packs from the Rockies to the Appalachians, strong bloodline indeed.

“So you went from Novak straight to Winchester? Wait, isn't that, like, a thousand miles?

“Yes, almost precisely,” Cas says in his teacherly way.

Dean’s undoubtedly boggled expression must call for elaboration.

“It took me half a year to get here.” Cas puts that out there as if this is perfectly rational. “Not directly, of course. I spent the winter with the Lobell pack in Colorado who treated me very kindly. They're part of the Concordat, which is why I stayed there. They offered to let me stay permanently, but I pushed on in the spring. I left with their beta caravan, the ones travelling for the dispersing in the furthest packs in their alliance, and they dropped me off here on the way.”

Dean is strangely reassured to hear that Cas hadn't strayed off too far north or south and ended up in some horrible pack. Though he's very curious why he went wanderin’ in the first place. Betas stray, alphas might lapse and leave or get chased out, but omegas tend to stay put. That question, however, can't be asked.

At least, not directly.

“Novak treats their omegas well, I’ve heard.”

“We’re disciplined more than here, I’d say.” Cas’s gaze drifts towards the direction Lydia stomped off in earlier. “But we are very protected.” He says that in a strange way though.

“Uh...good?” Dean hazards.

Cas shrugs and reaches for the next box. Dean follows suite. Garth, still bloody, has wandered over with his eye on the last one.

Dean catches up to Cas in three quick strides. “It is good, right? I mean, Lydia was way out of line, but she’s been in other packs, the stuff she’s seen as a stray- I mean, she’s told me stuff-”

“Omegas are the basic workforce of any community,” Cas says in a didactic tone, “providing labor without any say in the leadership of how that work is applied and what for. There’s only two ways to keep that kind of system going. Our natural passivity and the hormonal control exerted by the Hierarchy can only go so far to control us, especially since omegas tend to be the most numerous in a pack. So you either enslave them, keep them down, constantly destroy their morale with institutionalized beatings, rapes-”

Dean almost drops the box. He’s always known about that, of course. His pack and their alliance have beaten out that behavior from this region and others are following, but it's still out there. He knew it in his head, but he never truly felt it in his gut just how obscene that is until he hears those words drop, calm and collected, from Castiel’s lips.

“Or you give them a place, as your beta friend doesn't seem to understand. We exchange our labor and our obedience for protection and direction. It’s a fair trade, or it should be unless you want dissension in the ranks.”

It just is for Dean, but when Cas says it like that, he understands why it is, why Henry and others in the Men of Letters Concordat made it so ages ago. He feels a little dizzy as he puts the last box down and follows Cas back to his cabin, like a great big tapestry of history has just shifted under his feet, making its presence known.

“There’s this Old World term I found in a book once,” Cas muses as if the earlier scene and what he’s talking about haven’t touched him. “Passive aggressive. It seems made for omegas, really. It means betas throwing their weight around too much will find a lot less boxes are getting carried, and one of them might accidentally end up landing on someone's toe.”

“Right. Fair enough, in my book. Uh, Novak, I mean, they’re good, right? You were protected back there?” Cas already half-answered that question yet Dean can’t seem to drop it.

Castiel stops near the porch and stares straight ahead in a westerly direction. His features are hard, like when he was facing Lydia. “In Novak, we omegas are called angels in reference to our asexuality and our supposed kindness in dedicating ourselves to selfless service. In Novak, beating or raping an angel is a sin.”

“Right, like here.”

Cas snags his toolbox by the strap, heaves it onto his shoulder, turns to Dean and gives him a look. A long look, right in the eye for once, akin to the scrutiny he gave that broken wire a few days back which suggests he now expects a floodlight atop Dean’s head to switch on.

Dean looks back, perplexed and with the feeling he’s missing something. “It’s illegal here. Hey, nobody’s messed with you, have they?!” Though ‘wolfing out’ is just a fireside legend and completely bogus, Dean swears he feels his canines grow an inch and his hair stand on end. They don’t, but he’s ready to swear they do anyway.

“No, but you just said it.”

“Said it?” Dean makes a concerted effort to unclench his fist and focus his brain. Damn those beta rages at times.

“Here, it’s illegal, against the law.”

“Right. Same thing.”

Cas just looks at him stolidly.

“...Not the same thing?”

“I’ll let you think about it,” says Cas with a faint smile, hauling the toolbox away.

 

~~~ Sin ~~~

 

Dean vaults over the lamb pen’s fence, ducks under a few drying sheets, runs up to the foot of the Rancher’s secondary wind turbine and slams his forearms against the wooden structure of its tower to look up its scaffolding a short ways.

“A sin means it’s something real wrong, unnatural, like screwing a goat, but a law makes it wrong because, uh, it’s wrong, but at least a law treats you like you’re equals, and it’s just saying that one guy can’t be an asshole to another guy just because they’re not the same bend.”

Castiel, a hammer stopped mid-swing, stares down at him, and then he smiles, oh glory, such a smile. “That’s correct, Dean.”

“See? Give me a couple of days and I can figure this shit out.” Dean raps his knuckles on the scaffolding and then waves. “Gotta go, we’re heading out on long patrol, see you in a week, bye!”

“Goodby, Dean,” trails after him.

Benny and the others are waiting for Dean at the gate; Benny’s lot are going deer hunting down south, they’re heading in the same direction for half a day. They got a long trek ahead, but Benny’s looking back over the corner of the Rancher compound Dean just tore through and then back again.

“That the famous Novak omega I hear ‘bout? Up in the turbine’s guts?”

“Dunno about famous, but that’s Cas. Castiel Novak. He’s fixing all kinds of stuff in our grid.” Dean accelerates like he’s trying to put some distance between himself and a subject of conversation he’s suddenly feeling a little squirrely about, though he’s not sure why.

“He really stand up to Lydia?”

“You hear about that, huh?”

“Everybody has, brother.”

...maybe that’s why Cas is working in the Rancher area today, yesterday as well, even though he’d been slated to work in the Hunter compound for a few more weeks. Might be that’s for the best with Dean heading out of the camp for awhile. Cas must have done the smart thing, reported the incident to Cesar or Jesse Cuevas, his alphas, so they could take steps.

“She was way outta line.” Dean tries hard to sound like a reliable law-abiding deputy and not like the guy who’s dreamed of ripping Lydia’s throat out and hurling the body at Cas’s feet for the last two nights in a row.

“That’s what I heard.”

“Yeah. He was just talking to me and she decided to take exception, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, she-... “

“She was being Lydia.”

“Yeah.” Bitch.

“What were you talking about?” Benny sounds curious and also a little puzzled. A Hunter beta and a Maker omega’s worlds do not intersect much as a rule.

Dean opens his mouth and finds himself a little stumped at summarizing the two talks he’s had with Cas. I mean, “Electricity and packs” is correct on the surface, but that doesn’t cover the depth of what was said, the interest, the way Cas can turn a phrase and knock down a wall in Dean’s head, like the beta is suddenly at the top of a really tall wind turbine alongside him and seeing much further than he usually does as a result.

“Well… stuff. He’s from Novak pack, that lot over in Utah, and he’s read a lot. And… he’s interesting.”

Benny seems to mull that over in his slow, sure way.

 

~~~ Benny ~~~

 

Benny’s a beta hunter who strayed into Winchester’s camp almost eight years ago now. Unlike alphas and omegas, betas can stray for a long time. A pack may need all the hands it can get, but not if those hands might disrupt the fragile balance of a small community... and if there’s one word you can use to describe betas, ‘peaceful-like’ ain’t it. There’s quite a bit of shuffling around among betas. If they can’t fit into one pack - or if the pack don’t want them to kick up a fuss - they leave and try the next. Eventually they find their place, most of them do. They find the pack, the one that feels like home, where they can fit into the pecking order without disrupting it, where the people around them feel like kin. Well, not kin exactly, because there’s usually a lot of sex involved in that whole ‘fitting in’ process too, but- oh, you know what I mean.

Typically, a beta’s life from age fifteen to twenty five, is-... well, the omegas term it an orgy, which is a gross exageration, but okay, there is a lot of sex. It’s not just because they can, now. It’s social, it’s sort of what makes ‘em betas, how they find out how they fit on the totem pole, and of course, it’s also so they have a chance of finding the person, just like they found the pack. That’s how they find a mate. Betas usually calm way the hell down once they’re firmly mated, though of course there’s always the randy exception or three. Whatever, as long as no-one gets hurt. Mating is a cog in the wheel of the overall Hierarchy. A mated pair of betas can challenge for alpha if their leaders’ hold on them starts to slip. Getting hitched gets you one step closer to the top position, so naturally you have to really trust that person you’re with, really feel for them, all that. Dean can’t conceive of this happening to him, not with any beta currently in camp, but he’s seen it happen. He’s seen the happiness it brings the betas. He’s seen the pain when that bond breaks.

Benny’s been a good friend to Dean ever since they met, when the latter officially became an adult and joined the Hunters. Benny was Dean’s first serious affair, but that only lasted a while, and ended gracefully once Dean understood that no, he hadn't found the one, and also figured out why Benny stared blankly southwards at times, like he was looking for something he’d lost…

One day, four years ago, Benny went to talk to John for an hour. He came out, packed his bags alone, went to clap Dean on the shoulder - then pulled him into a hug and muttered, “Wish me luck, brother.” Dean offered (well, demanded) to come with him on whatever he was doing, but Benny refused and coincidentally - not - John showed up at this point to make sure his eldest didn’t do anything stupid and stayed put.

Benny was gone almost a year. Went down as far as Louisiane, and eventually came back with Andrea. Turned out, he hadn’t strayed from his old pack so much as escaped. The old pack hadn’t wanted to let Andrea go, though, because she was a valued member and they’d always hoped Benny would return to them one day, tail between his legs, as long as they kept her. But when Benny went back, he didn’t have his tail between his legs. That’s not Benny. He travelled all the way to near Lafayette, broke into the camp and got her out. It ‘wasn’t easy’, he told Dean in his typical understated way, which left Dean guessing how many bodies he’d left strewn in his wake. The type of pack they lit out from… it wasn’t the worst kind, maybe, but essentially their alpha had been their god instead of just their boss, and yeah, it’d been Not Good.

Benny has this air about him; like every day he gets up in the familiar Winchester chaos of chimney smoke, mud and dog shit is a day further away from that crap in Louisiana, a day he blesses. But Andrea… you’d think she’d be glad to break those shackles, but humans are funny critters. Andrea has ideas, see. Ways she’d like to see the pack run, ways she picked up back in Louisiana. She’s in the Ranchers section, and if Benny ever quits the Hunters and joins her, then Sam had better watch himself, there’ll be a hella competition for primary alpha once John slips.

But Benny’s not gonna join her in Ranchers. Dean… he understands Benny; that soft-spoken Cajun is as much a brother to him as Sam is, so he knows. Benny will live and die a hunter because he likes it, he’s very good at it, the Hunter pack is his family, and because if he joins Ranchers, Andrea will be that much closer to taking over the whole shebang and even Benny, who loves her more than his life, knows this would be a Very Bad Thing. Biology’s triage is a strict mistress. Some people are omegas by nature, from their heads and hearts down to their gonads, others are eternal betas and happy with that. And some have the strength, brains and charisma to evolve into leaders, into alphas, and the kind of character that’d lead the pack straight off a cliff…

Dean gives his head a shake and goes back to thinking about Cas. “It’s just good talking to the guy, he’s got a lot of smarts, you know, I learn stuff.” Like the difference between law, custom and sin. Obeying your alpha is law, it’s even built into the human biology in this post apocalypse, it’s bred in the bone. But it shouldn’t be the way Benny’s old alpha set it up, it should never be a sin to disobey, because when you start thinking like that, then too much power gets bandied about in your head. It gets dangerous. You lose some kind of essential freedom that allows you to question, even if you never actually do question because biology, the law and simple respect means you don’t. The difference between sin and law is a funny little thing, a short distance and yet… Lose that little inch of freedom between them, however unused it is in normal circumstances, and you lose everything. And maybe that is a sin, if there is such a thing.

“He makes me think…”

“No harm in that,” Benny says in his usual southern drawl. “We’re out the gate now, put your nose on, brother.”

“Nose is always on, Lafitte.”

“Says the man who trod on a skunk-”

“That was seven fucking years ago!”

“An’ I’ll never let you forget it.”

“I was a pup!”

Dean glances back as they crest the hill that’ll take them out of sight of the camp. He looks back, spots a wind turbine in the distance, doesn’t know why he glanced that way. He catches up to Benny’s long stride in a couple of steps and heads out.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Fertility

This subject merits its own chapter as our species was virtually overhauled by GF32 in this regards in particular. One obvious change is the way males can now be impregnated and females can impregnate. That’s only one of many modifications (though it seems to attract the most scurrilous discussions amongst my pack for some reason.) I deal with that in its own chapter.

By contrast, one of the most important changes has gone almost unnoticed by people of my generation: the length of fertility. Peak fertility in females before the apocalypse was from puberty until age thirty (see Ref # 2). Now it seems entirely dependent on the hormonal changes imposed by being alpha. Lactation no longer works as a fertility suppressant, while the ‘heat season’ (hormonal surge in late July discussed in Chapter 14) ensures that human fertility now adopts a yearly cycle, cleaving to the Animal model. The result of all this? Alphas in packs I have personally known still have children every single year on the dot until past the age of fifty, or until their position slips. The incident of twins and triplets is extremely high now (see Ref # 4), and what’s more remarkable, the probability of multiple births now seems linked to external stressors, though I can’t tell through which kind of mechanism. Despite the huge number of pregnancies an alpha may be subjected to in his or her life, the ratio of healthy births rival those of the Old World’s best hospitals (see Ref # 4 again.) As a race, we are now much hardier breeders, extraordinarily so… but only the alphas, making it one of GF32’s many backhanded blessings.

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ Slap ~~~

Sandy and Mirabelle are smacking each other soundly in the dirt in front of Vic’s cabin when Dean swoops down, catches one child in each arm and separates them.

“Whoa whoa whoa! That’s no way for sisters to behave!” Sure, he and Sam had some rough patches growing up. But it’d been just the two of them after their mom died and John turned Super Alpha on them, Sam still feels like his only family some days, and Dean would die for his baby bro. Family is sacrosanct. Besides, Vic don’t like his people thumping each other in his compound for no good reason, much less his own daughters.

When he puts the girls back down, though, they’re both grinning at him instead of glaring at each other.

“We’re not fighting!” eight year old Sandy exclaims. “We’re playing beta!”

“You’re… uh. That’s… how about you ask your mom if that’s an appropriate game for you,” Dean suggests, because he’s not an alpha yet, dammit, he can afford to pass the buck on the hairy pile of questions that statement just raised.

“She’s sleeping,” says Sandy.

“She’s sleeping,” echoes six year old Miri.

“Lil’ one keeping her up?” Dean guesses. It’s two in the afternoon and Annabelle is normally a powerhouse of work, up with the rooster and down with the moon.

“Yeah.”

“I hope she gives this one away soon,” pipes in Miri.

Sandy smacks her, and this time she’s not playing beta. Her gaze is furious and darts to the house. It’s a nice cabin, the largest in the Hunter compound naturally, fit for a family of five: Victor, Annabelle, Sandy, Miri and… a lil’ one. That’s all they ever call the children after the first two. The child who will not be named. The baby who will leave Annabelle’s arms next spring, when he’s a weaned one-year-old to be taken to the roadhouse where some hopeful beta parents from another pack will be waiting to adopt him. The only thing the kid will keep of his alpha parents will be the bloodline name Henrickson-Morgan, as well as an undoubtedly robust personality...

Dean doesn’t normally think about that stuff. All his life he’s been a gut-reaction kind of guy, a good soldier. His dad raised him that way, for excellence, instinct and instant obedience. Put the pack first, don’t overthink it. Obey God, obey John, obey the Hierarchy and obey your alpha, in that order. This last month, though, Dean’s been flirting with some heavy thinking. He’s not sure John would approve, but he can’t stop his own brain, though right this minute - looking up at Victor who silently appeared on his doorstep, face somber and eyes pained - Dean remembers that sometimes thinking about heavy shit can hurt…

“Girls, your mom’s awake and can use a hand with the cleaning,” Victor says, that expression disappearing behind the mask of the ever-in-charge alpha.

“Yes dad!” Sandy is off like a flash towards the door, while Miri trails after her with a whiny, “Why can’t the ‘megas do it?” Oh yeah, that kid’s gonna be a handful if she don’t grow out of that habit of saying whatever shit goes through her head.

From the way Vic’s looking at her, he’s gonna be addressing that remark. Dean never had to tell Vic about Lydia’s temper flare in final; either one of the Cuevas alphas complained, or Vic picked it up on his own. This place is one massive grapevine after all. There’s been some generalized attitude correction around the Hunter compound regarding how omegas are treated, and Lydia’s been stomping around with a look like thunder ever since, even though it’s been almost a month now since she got her nape chewed over her temper. Dean’s inner wolfie kinda likes that proud-n-fearless attitude and might have gone hound-dogging that way again if Dean-the-dude wasn’t ten kinds of freaked at the idea; as a man, as a deputy, as someone responsible for everyone in Hunter pack including the omegas, and just- yeah, not interested... Lydia’s let him understand that she’d love a revenge fuck, and might even be up for resuming their previous affair serious-like this time - like, mated serious - and Dean would run a mile and cut off his nuts before that happens.

“Dean, are you busy?” his alpha asks over his shoulder. Then he eyerolls away his own question. “Never mind, you undoubtedly are, but can you find someone with half a brain to go supervise something? There’s this Maker working on the wiring-”

“I can do it,” says Dean before his brain can even process more than ‘Hey, that sounds familiar.’

“Thanks, I’m told he’s heading to the lookout tower, you’ll find him near the fence.” Vic’s already back in the house. “Mirabelle, I need to have a word with you, young lady.”

“I didn’t do it!”

Dean takes off at a gentle trot towards the distant fence, Ginny at his heels. He’s halfway to the fence when he remembers he actually came by to see Vic to figure out how they’re gonna deploy in the next month. There’s five additional betas in the Hunter pack and one more omega, more bodies to implement a larger patrol run that’ll protect the buffer zone between them and a couple of their Concordat partners. In addition, Winchester pack has seen a dozen real good years now and is growing, more food will be needed come winter. Longer routes, more people, brand new betas in the compound who haven’t yet properly measured their dicks against all the others in their new pack - so to speak, though four of ‘em are ladies and, as betas, don’t technically have much of a dong to speak of. But trust me, they find plenty of other stuff to measure and are fierce about it. Yeah, all this has thrown Vic and Dean’s careful rotation schedule all to hell, they need to move teams around, but Dean can do it later. Sure, means he’ll be working overtime tonight once he gets his answers, but hell, he’s used to that. Sleeping is a crime when you’re a deputy, it’s right down there in the pack rules, go check it yourself if you don’t believe him.

It’s worth skipping zzzs - and meals, and the occasional quick fuck - in order to hang out with Cas, here or in other parts of Winchester compound. For once Dean’s enjoying being known far and wide as John’s boy, it gives him a free pass to go anywhere without question. I mean, there’s no rule that says members have to stay in their Hunter, Rancher or Maker sections at all times, of course; but it sort of comes naturally. Wander around a neighborhood that’s not yours, and you can expect a few jovial questions aimed at you, as well as loud speculation about who you might be sniffing around if you’re a beta. But nobody’s been asking Dean why he’s been meeting up with an omega so frequently for more than a month now, they assume he’s got some good pack-related reason. And he does have a good pack-related reason. Cas, who needs to work all over the camp, is new to this neck of the woods, while Dean knows all the prickly personalities around and how to navigate them. Dean’s been giving Cas a hand with that and other things, more so at the start; now it’s often just an excuse for them to hang out whenever their paths cross.

Is that weird? That’s not weird. Is it? It doesn’t feel weird. Dean nervously chews it over, and the fact he does so makes it feel weird, but doesn’t mean it is in reality. He’s not attracted to Cas. Dean’s a beta, he’d be attracted to a hay bale if it sent him the right signals, but since that’s exactly the opposite of what an omega does, Dean’s inner mutt has zero interest in the guy. But Dean finds himself looking forward to bumping into him anyway, and even arranges it regularly. Why? Well, why not? Even now that the shiny and new phase is wearing off, Cas is really interesting. He knows so much, and he just- he sees things in a different way somehow, Dean can’t put his finger on it but it’s illuminating. Beyond that, Cas is weird and funny in his serious way, and he, well, unlike everybody else who just sees Dean as John’s boy or as a future alpha or as a soldier, Cas seems to like to talk to Dean as if Dean’s worth talking to. Which is surprising coming from a brainy guy like Cas, but there you go. Dean has always had his feet on the ground and his gun in his hand, never studious or a thinker like his brainy brother, but Cas calls that pragmatic rather than boneheaded. At any rate, Cas frequently swings by to say hi to Dean when he can, he’s obviously enjoying their talks too. Is there a law that says a beta and an omega can’t be buddies? Of course not. And hey, if Dean does take over as alpha, he’ll be responsible for every omega in the Hunter compound, he needs to understand where they’re coming from. So he’s doing it for the pack, really. There.

No, don’t push it, Dean’s not a hypocrite, he’s doing it for himself. But he thinks hanging out with Cas is teaching him shit and making him into a better guy. In the same way rearranging a runt to share out the food can make them all stronger in the end, so can this.

 

~~~ Men ~~~

Cas’s hands are a Maker’s hands: long fingers grip, strong muscles flex when he wields a hammer. But the way he holds that lightbulb, a mother hen wouldn’t handle her egg any more tenderly. He inspects it with care, and Dean momentarily silences his rambling monologue to watch.

Glass. Fucking glass. It was all over the place in the mythical Old World, they just loved to use the stuff. Now you have to scavenge out its relics, windows and broken bottles and such (but only the right kind) or else you have to mess around sifting sand, limestone and potash to cook it direct in a kiln - a fucking charcoal-burning kiln, the most expensive coal-muncher in the entire camp. Other betas outside Makers wouldn’t think about this, but John’s eldest has seen more of the inner workings of the camp than they have. He can see all this labor, all this hard work, hundreds of trees felled, weeks of digging and scavenging, omegas sweating around the charcoal mounds for days on end, hours of hot work at the kiln, all of it boils down and down and down until it’s all held gently in Cas’s hands, a lightbulb the size of a child’s ball with the little gizmos inside that will light it up and make this section of Winchester pack harder to approach at night unseen. Ranchers have the greatest need for these, which is why Cas spent the last week working on their side, giving Sam’s patrols an added tool to keep wolves, coyotes and two-footed predators away from the pens and the stables, from the tool sheds and the granaries. But John decided the Hunters could use an extra light as well, in addition to the one on top of the den, and since he happens to have lucked upon an omega stray who knows a better way to make light bulbs and actually builds small wind turbines and battery combinations from scratch… Winchester Camp is gonna light up like one of those old-time Christmas trees, a beacon of a newly budding society, and John’s gonna feel right proud.

Cas twists the bayonet bulb into the metal projector and fixes it atop the lookout post, the pinnacle of his efforts here. Now he’s gotta work on the battery thing that’ll store the energy from the turbine, perched atop the lookout post with its blades poised to catch the fairly constant breeze that ghosts over from the arm of the Ozark waters bordering their camp. The Hunter compound, being to the east, is up a hill a ways; Dean and Cas, perched up in the lookout tower, can see the whole camp sprawl beneath them. It’s a messy collection of wood and canvas, wire and struts, tumbling down the slope until it looks about to slide into the river. The water sparkles beneath the late afternoon sun. It’s quiet out here, the noises from the camp, the barks, the shouts, the low of cattle floating their way somehow make this little spot feel even more remote.

“I’m sorry alpha’s feelings were hurt,” Cas says softly, starting up their conversation again as if five minutes haven’t just elapsed. It’s a Cas thing, as is the way he sometimes starts a thought in the middle and expects Dean to catch up at a dead run. Dean’s gotten used to it. “I’ve not met alpha Henricksen yet, but I have only heard great things about him.”

“Yeah, Vic’s the best.” Dean swings down the tower’s wooden skeleton to land in the long grass next to Ginny. “Hard as steel, that guy, and a six year old’s words clipped him like a bullet.”

“I’m reliably told that children do that to you.”

“Yeah. Just cruel, innit? The dispersing, I mean. We all pack around Annabelle after it’s done, take her hunting, help her shake it off. And Vic too, us guys, higher betas, me n’ Benny n’ Tyler, we take him and get him drunk, just a bit. But it’s gotta be done, right? I mean, if we kept our kids and didn’t swap ‘em with other packs, then hello inbreeding.” He scritches Ginny, making her turn her head into the gesture while her white tail wags like mad. “Nothing but a hundred lil’ Winchesters and Henricksons and Cuevas running around, all tryin’ to be alpha I bet.” Any way you cut it, it’d be the apocalypse all over again.

“Dispersing children is also an important part of linking packs in the Concordat, it helps solidify ties and spread bloodlines,” Cas says didactically. “But I grant you, that’s not something that will ever console a parent,” he adds with a deep and gentle sympathy, and now Dean knows why he blurted out the scene with Miri earlier; because he wanted someone to- to feel the same way he did on the matter. To say, in that clear simple way Cas has: ‘It’s inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less fucking sad’. Other betas would have just shrugged it off and suggested Dean get drunk and bring Vic along.

Silence falls between them, a natural, contemplative silence. Cas checks over the battery thinger as well as the mess of wires and gizmos that go with it, and that will give the floodlight an On and Off position. Cas calls it ‘a simple circuit’ and Dean calls it a robin’s nest of wires and weirdness.

Satisfied, Cas leaves his little box of mysteries, picks up a board and starts hammering. Normally the lookout point and turbine tower is open to the elements, a skeleton of caulked wood strong enough to support the weight of a guard and little else, but the presence of his precious circuit demands that Cas give the whole thing a cover to protect it from the elements.

“You’re right, unfortunately, it would be inadvisable to keep the children. Winchester pack’s population is too small to absorb that many people of the same bloodline.” Cas pauses his hammer mid-swing and speaks severely as if to chide himself. “I shouldn’t say ‘small’, Winchester pack is definitely not ‘small’. Maintaining a population of five hundred - that’s massive for this day and age, a feat in itself. Especially with only six people in the entire camp who can have children. And at least you have those six. For generations, packs could only survive with one breeding pair.”

“Hmm, yeah. Well, we get kids and strays in from the other packs and all, but yeah, the three-compound system is what makes the whole shebang possible.” Having three pairs of alphas is as weird as a six-legged dog, but it works. It’s what Henry Winchester’s dad set up over sixty years ago.

“Yes, it’s one way around the ridiculous constraints of our biologies, if you can find alphas who can uphold it,” says Cas, eyes distant and distracted in a way that makes Dean want to take the hammer out of his hand before there’s an accident. “Most Concordat packs are now set up with two or three sections like yours, I understand. Lobell pack - the ones who helped me last winter - they’ll be breaking two hundred members any year now. I hear others are trying it too, further and further east. I hope the model propagates successfully. Otherwise, what do we have? Nothing but tribes of humans almost certainly doomed to extinction. Even the most fruitful alphas can’t sustain a population of more than thirty people, fifty at most, but that leaves the pack too small to be self-sustaining, it has to rely on hunting-scavenging like- like cavemen.”

Dean gives him a cockeyed look over the board he’s holding steady for him. “That’s one way of looking at it. The other drawback is: too small and your pack is defenceless against raiders, and too big, it’ll rip itself apart.” A bigger pack needs more betas to protect, direct and feed ‘em, but they’re a volatile lot. If an alpha can’t dominate them properly, make them feel there’s an alpha in charge, then some will start to grow hair on their chest big time and soon the pack will tear itself apart until a newly minted alpha pair leaves, taking a bunch of betas and omegas with them.

“Well yes.” Cas looks a little flustered and then shares a rueful half-smile with Dean. Cas gets like that, and he knows it; so up in the theory of stuff, so to speak, that he forgets that it’s all about real stuff too, real people in real packs with the real scent of working bodies, manure and dogshit floating up whenever the breeze shifts, catching the turbine above their heads as it thrums into life, ready for duty.

“How does Novak manage to keep their numbers going?” Dean asks curiously. “Do they really have a thousand people?”

It’s an open question, and Dean’s ready to walk it back if Cas gives him the brush-off. His friend has been reluctant to talk about his old pack, and Dean won’t press.

“Yes, that sounds about right. We’re actually split into twelve separate packs of sorts, each with its own alphas in their own compound half a day’s ride from each other. We’re all overseen by Michael Novak, our primary alpha, who lives in a larger block of territory in the center.”

Dean frowns. “How does he keep control?” Instinctively he feels that packs in their own camp would not behave the same way as Winchester’s joyful mix barely separated into east, west and central compounds, with everybody rubbing shoulders and John managing the other alphas more as younger brothers than lording it over them. “That’s more like the Concordat, right? Far-flung packs like us and the Lobells, Campbells, Okxas-”

“No, it’s different.” Cas seems a bit hesitant to elaborate. “Each compound is too close not to be under one ruler, and they’re too small to be self-sufficient. The whole has to be cohesive. As to how he maintains control… “

“Yeah, how?”

“Religion.”

That’s not what Dean expected him to say, but that does fit into a whole theme he’s picked up from Cas, his name for starters. Every Novak Cas mentioned has a religious name of sorts, it goes with the notion of angels and sin.

Dean wants to ask a bunch of questions, but for once he doesn’t because it’s obvious Castiel finds the subject both upsetting and distasteful. It doesn’t matter in final, Cas is here now, that's what counts.

Not from the look on his face, though. He’s scowling at the nail still standing half out of the wood as if he’s cross with it.

“We have a city, you know. A real one. Brick and mortar buildings with a temple in the center - this is not an old city we renovated, we built it brick by brick and called it New Eden. The lesser compounds - named after the tribes of Israel, if you believe it - are in a circle around the city at halfday distance by horse, crude camps much like this one-” Dean’s eyebrows twitch but ‘brick and mortar’ and a temple does cast shade on Winchester’s wooden amalgam. “They each have their specialisation in what they mine, farm or produce, while New Eden, controlling them from the center, is touted as a paradise, a beacon of purity and civilisation, one step away from Our Savior. The more godly of the betas are regularly rotated from the outer compounds to the city to be closer to him - to Michael Novak, our leader after God. As a reward, they say, which just reinforces the dogma, and when their turn is up they’re sent back to another tribe afterwards, which stops them from forming partisan relations in one single camp that might superseded their loyalty to Michael. It’s a transparent means of control, but nobody seems to realize it.”

Our leader after God is what they call John too, but you know, most of the time it’s just a nod to it, just, like, he’s the boss, that’s all.

Wham! goes the hammer, shooting in the nail. Cas doesn’t pick up a new one, just hammers again until Dean, on the other side, sees the wood dent.

“We worship Religion in New Eden. I mean we worship God naturally, but we deify Religion itself at the same time, that and the Hierarchy. Religion is what brought us out of the dark ages decades ago, and yes, the preachers are right, I’ll give them that. Secularism and pluralism are luxuries of the past -” Wham! “- that we can no longer afford. Religion gave us purpose, cohesion, it allowed us to- to absorb the horror of the apocalypse by giving it a- a narrative, it’s how we survived. In our version of events, the Great Dying can’t just be because of some virus, it has to be a curse from God, punishing us for every wicked thing Michael can think to list every Sunday - including the hubris of science!”

“Cas-”

Wham!

“Yes, science is what created the Old World and probably the virus that destroyed it too, but that’s hardly a reason- and then to just go straight to the bible and use that to- to rein us in! As if that will actually keep us safe! To-”

“Cas, calm down-”

”He burned my books, Dean! They were just novels! For the omegas! Michael Novak threw them out of the window like he was casting Jezebel down to the dogs and then he burned them in front of me!”

So now Dean knows why Cas bugged out. He figured it was something like that, just from the way Cas - rarely - mentions Michael in their conversations. It took Dean weeks to even be certain Michael and Castiel are blood related brothers, it’s not obvious from the way Cas talks about him. Dean shudders to think what he might ever do to Sam one day to make him talk about Dean like that, just ‘Dean Winchester’ and not ‘my boneheaded big brother who’s shorter than me, what’s up with that, huh, jerk? Hah!’

“Yeah, but you’re here now, and anyone tries to burn anything of yours in Winchester, you just point me at ‘em, okay? Calm down.” Dean catches Cas’s gaze over the board he’s holding, trying to project authoritative calm like he’s seen John and Vic do.

This gets him a venomous look. “I am calm. It’s a fabrication that omegas are more emotional and prone to hysteria than other bends.”

That’s not been Dean’s experience, nor John’s either. Omegas tend to be dutiful and placid when things are going well in a pack, when they’re fed, warm, protected and have a solid alpha in charge. And they tend to go around the bend when things are not copacetic. Dean wouldn’t blame Cas if the stress of remembering his dear brother sent him haring off (one of the many colloquial terms other bends have for the phenomenon, to most omegas’ irritation) but the cleareyed way Cas is glaring at him tells him that no, Cas is not having an omega meltdown, he’s just really, really pissed at his bro.

Cas takes in a sharp breath through the nose, lets it out through his mouth, then stoops for a new nail, speaking calmly if gloomily.

“That’s not the only reason I left. It’s the whole of New Eden. The way it’s structured, its very core philosophy. We couldn’t study back there, we were barely allowed to think outside the box, and after Luke-... Never mind. Long story. Not pleasant.” Cas looks away briefly. “One day Michael told me I was no longer allowed on scavenging tours, that he’d see to it I’d get the books he thought I needed and no others, so I wouldn’t waste my time on frivolous pursuits or blasphemous knowledge. That’s an actual phrase he uses, blasphemous knowledge, the-... It was like living in a prison while wearing a straitjacket. Not just the book thing, everything about New Eden. But…”

His shoulders sag as he listlessly handles the nail.

“But that’s the cost of survival, isn’t it. That’s what he said. Michael. And a part of me knows he’s right. If I rock the boat with my ideas, the benefits may be minute, even nonexistent, and in the meantime we could all flounder and drown. We, humanity, we’re clinging on by our fingernails. Dean… our species once boasted metropolises of more than ten million people. Can you even imagine that? That’s probably more than the entire world population at present. And Michael is so proud of his one thousand pure saved souls, so sure it’s a sign of God’s blessing rather than the result of indoctrination, rigid rules, luck and good management of this curse we’re all under. That’s the root cause of it all. Why Novak and also Winchester -... whatever we build, however big or small, it’s all at the mercy of the smallest problem: disease, strife, or even the weather. We survive on the edge of a catastrophe curve. It cannot be pretty, that’s not the world we inherited. Huddled in our small camps, we’re parodies of what we once were. We live this ridiculous artifice, this- this fraud, where we have to pretend it’s natural that we’re split between - between obedient drones, hyper aggressive bullies - sorry, not you, but most betas- and - and then of course overbearing leaders who are the only ones who can have children and thus perpetuate the whole system, the only ones allowed to give orders-...” Cas stops talking like he just bit down on a nail and is now chewing on the broken teeth.

“...but that is nature.”

“What?” Cas asks sharply.

“I see it all the time - with the dogs, I mean, just the dogs. And wolves and shit - like, every animal almost.” Dean can never seem to stay coherent with Cas looking at him like that, but Dean knows what he’s talking about here, and Cas, to his credit, seems to like it when Dean argues, and always gives him time to sort out his words. “It’s how nature works. The strongest, the best, the toughest in the head, who can just say something and make you do it, and- and keep our zoo here in line… well, they’re top dog, and they breed together, that’s how it goes. That’s how animals better their packs, and us too. And it’s more, it’s… I mean, I’m glad we moved away from the time when an alpha assumed he or she was allowed to stick it into anything, but y’know, sex is a part of the whole shebang out in the wild. And here too. Our dogs, I mean, they go at it like betas, they’re always jockeying for alpha, and that usually comes out as either a fight or a screw.” He gestures off to one side where Ginny watches with keen eyes and perked ears. “Take her now. Ginny's huge, she's the boss now Wákida’s passed, and that's how she reminds 'em. Though of course she's spayed, and she don't have a dick anyway, and she's kinda boneheaded, so she tends to try ‘n fuck their nose or ear or something with what she don't have. But trust me, when she’s mounted them, them other dogs, they get the message. That’s what makes an alpha. I guess you can say it was imposed by the apocalypse and all, but all that I said there, that’s a fact of nature too. Just like the wolves, right? The whole world out there is about who gets chewed into line and who is on top, who fucks and who breeds. Why should we be any different?”

Cas straightens.

“Because we are not wolves.”

It’s not said defensively, it’s not even an objection. It’s as simple as a statement and as resonant as a prayer.

A sacred silence lingers as Cas sweeps his gaze over the ramshackle camp below them, dogs tugging at a piece of rawhide, a couple of people hauling wood and chatting, three Rancher children running around pursued by a rambunctious puppy as they weave in and out of drying clothes swaying in the breeze and barrels of garbage not yet hauled away… and then Cas’s clear blue-eyed gaze pulls in and he turns and faces the hunter full on with a dignity that makes Dean’s mouth go dry.

“We are not wolves or dogs, Dean. We are not demons or angels. But our ability to reason can lift us to heights that rival God’s. We form communities, we anticipate the future and strive to tame it together. When we do that, we are not animals. We are a society. We are men.”

Dean is struck speechless.

“And women, of course,” Cas adds pedantically, ruining the moment somewhat. Though Dean is still looking at him in silence, complicated shit going through his head until it seems to spill out into his chest in a tight warm ball.

Ginny, who’s been looking from one to the other and back again, suddenly rears up, slamming Cas into the boards to lick at his neck. Cas lets out a whoof of surprise, dropping his hammer to squirm around and elbow the dog who enthusiastically continues to explore his arm pit with her nose.

“So, if she starts humping your leg, what does that do to your argument that we can rise above the animals?” Dean can’t help but ask.

“My argument is sound,” Cas declares serenely, gently pushing Ginny away. “My dignity would be the only thing at stake.”

“Here's how you deal with her!”

Dean swings himself under the wooden trestle, catches Ginny by the middle, wrestles her down to the ground and then rolls around in the dirt with her in an impromptu scritching match that has Ginny yelping and squirming with excitement. Cas laughs, and it’s the best sound.

Ginny gets in a few licks - actual real licks against Dean’s cheek - before the hunter lets her wiggle free to prance around like she’s a puppy again. Dean sits up and finds a hand in front of his face. He grabs it and lets Cas haul him to his feet. Cas’s hands are, as I said before, Maker’s hands, tough and calloused yet also gentle in a way, as if they could never make a cruel fist, would never even have to. Dean wonders where his mind is, digging through his memory to determine if yes, this is indeed the first time they actually touched, and why this is important (wait, it’s not important, why should it be-) and why is Cas’s hand still in his. Cas’s eyes are very, very blue, all squeezed up at the corners like he’s still laughing that laugh inside. And-

And that sound isn’t the blood beating weirdly in Dean’s ears, it’s the bell. Wait, it’s the fucking bell!

“Shit! The time!”

Cas’s gaze leaps to where the sun is near to kissing the top of the trees on the far side of the Ozark. “Oh! Is- is that the first bell? I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Yeah, it’s the first, but we’re halfway across camp- C’mon! I know a shortcut. Leave that,” he adds as Cas half turns towards the construction. “I’ll come back later and put it away, batten down anything that might break or suffer from the elements tonight.”

“Thank you for doing that,” Cas says, word broken up by the quick pace.

“Hey, probably my fault you picked up some delays, me and my questions and arguments.”

“Your questions and arguments are very good, Dean,” he’s told in that serious tone, that gravely timbre.

The midsummer evening air is cloying and damp, Dean can’t seem to catch enough of it in his lungs for a second, making him gulp.

Going through the Hunter compound gates would be a waste of time, Dean runs straight through the western part, dodging through the stables to save a few seconds, and then shows Cas where you can squeeze through a gap in their fence (it’s the fence between compounds, Dean doesn’t even know why they have it half the time since they don’t expect an attack from the Makers or the Ranchers, it’s not well-maintained but it’s, well, it’s there, a symbol or some such.)

Just as Cas follows him through the crack, the bell rings again, its gentle toll sounding over all the camp, out to the fields and the river beyond.

“We’ll make it,” Dean says easily. Cas nods but doesn’t say anything. He’s had an inward-looking expression on his face for the past minute when Dean glances his way.

They jog past the Maker’s hall, Dean waves at a beta acquaintance as they go by, and they trot through the large exit out of their compound. There’s a set of buildings up ahead, a dozen long rectangles almost hidden from view by the fence that encircles them, a serious barrier this time. The monitor house is at its apex, the only way in and out of the mini camp-in-a-camp. Gordon is holding the door open to let through a small omega.

Gordon scowls at Dean as the two latecomers approach, and Dean scowls right back. Gordon always makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong every day of the week and twice on Sunday, especially if he spots you with one of his charges.

“Novak, step on it, I just sent Merrick up to ring the last bell.”

Cas strides through the door without any sign of intimidation. “I need to do something before you lock up. Dean, can you stay a minute?”

“Uh, sure,” Dean says, even though now there’s just an open door and Gordon looking at Dean like he eats babies on the sly.

“What’s going on?” the bastard asks.

“Uh, dunno. I was just helping him with our turbine-” great, now he sounds defensive.

In the silence, Dean is pensive. When Cas said that whole thing earlier, ‘we are men’ (and women)… it just resounded so much, it put such a halo of dignity over all their heads, like they are all so far from the animal, it’s only clinging to them like dirt they could simply wash away. The reality is that even in Winchester, where omegas have some rights and all, there is still curfew for the omega barracks, because some betas occasionally go a little crazy in the head and think they’re allowed to fuck everything around, including those who have no interest at all. Another beta can fight a nutsy beta off… in theory. Cases of rape are rare among betas, but Dean understands, in his gut, that this is more because the pecking order makes it hard to admit it happened, makes rape even a method of setting up that order, however much that’s Not Supposed To Happen Anymore. And omegas, well, they have to be protected. Half of them, if they got attacked, they’d not even have the courage to report it if their attacker told them to shut up. That’s why they’re watched over, especially at night, that’s why a pack needs someone like Gordon who, okay, is a beta - who else is gonna keep his charges safe against other betas? - but is the most stringent crazy christian son of a gun this side of the border. Usually this job is left for older betas who are very, very mated, but Winchester pack got Gordon somehow. Folk say he flagellates himself to master whatever dangerous urges he might feel that could endanger his charges. That’s probably bullshit, but if it’s true, well hell, whatever works, Dean, for one, will gladly lend him the whip… But to be fair, Gordon really is very good at his job, Dean can tell from the absolute lack of timidity Cas shows when he walked into the barracks, the way most omegas in Winchester walk about the camp with ease, feeling protected by their fierce watchdog and their alphas beyond that.

The bell starts to ring above their heads. Gordon grabs the door handle and looks about to slam it with great satisfaction in Dean’s face when Cas slips through the opening again.

“Novak!”

“Just one minute, Gordon, that is all it will take,” Cas says calmly. “I’ll be right here, you can watch me the whole time. Here, Dean.”

Dean finds a leather-bound book put into his hands. It’s tied with two cords, crisscross.

“I thought maybe you’d like to borrow this, it’s, um, it’s a project I started back in Novak, but I wasn’t allowed to, ah, to work on it back there. It’s just a collection of notes I found, Old World information, and also reflections on our society, maybe you won’t find it interesting, but you seem curious. Uh, keep it tied when you’re not reading it, a lot of papers are loose.”

He doesn’t have to add ‘be careful’, it’s like he just handed Dean his most prized treasure, arms crossed now, hands bunching the brown uniform under the fingers that fidget and press. His gaze twitches no higher than Dean’s clavicle before fleeing back to the book again. Dean tucks it beneath his arm with great care.

“I’ll be sure to-”

“NOVAK!”

Cas rolls his eyes, uncrosses his arms and pointedly says goodnight to Dean without any particular hurry.

Gordon actually growls.

Dean tries valiantly to keep his face straight. “Good night, Cas, see you tomorrow.”

 

~~~ Notes from a dead world ~~~

Dean dutifully returns to secure Cas’s work site, then he meets up with Vic. They talk over the adjustments to their patrol. Dean sits at the kitchen table sipping a beer and eating a late supper of bread and cheese, Vic circles with the cranky lil’ one in his arms (Dean wisely doesn’t comment.)

The moon is sailing through the sky when he leaves. Dean takes a very small detour back to his cabin, prompted by his thoughts about the omega barracks earlier. There’s a hodgepodge of a shack behind Vic’s place, it used to be a clapboard shed but then it got expanded in fits and starts to shelter a bunch of bunk beds around a coal heater and a long table.

It’s been years since the ten Hunter omegas successfully petitioned John to stay with their fellow packmates at night. If that’s not a testament to how powerful and protective an alpha Victor is, nothing can be. Though Garth and the others still have a curfew, it’s a lenient one and can be ditched until midnight to party with the other hunters as long as apha knows where they are and they stick together. Not that there’s any sick motherfucker in the hunters who’d hurt one of their own, their omegas. But still, it’s a habit and a good one, it makes everyone feel safer. The omegas don’t seem to mind. Dean is at Vic’s a lot, he’s walked by this shack plenty of times at night; there’s often a lot of laughter coming out of there as the omegas sit around their long table and talk indulgently about all the exhausting drama their betas incessantly get up to.

The small barrack is quiet at this time of night. Dean listens in at a window, open to the summer breeze, and hears a lot of soft breathing and one loud snore. All quiet, and Garth would have warned Vic if any of his friends weren't there. Gordon regularly makes noises that all omegas should be under his care, but the hunters take care of their own.

Dean’s back in his own cabin now, and it’s way late. It’s been almost an hour since the hunting hounds near the fence barked the passage of the second wave of Sammy’s patrols around the entire compound. It’s past midnight and Dean has to get up in less than five hours. He just adjusts the oil lamp and squints at the pages of Cas’s notebook again. Most of his school learning was oral, naturally, but he did learn to read and write on slates in his childhood. He was better at the more practical side of studying - the hunting, tracking, the field medicine, making fire, the likes - but he’s not illiterate.

The pages vary wildly in size and texture. Paper is rare in this day and age, a pain to make, it’s reserved for important things such as accounts and letters and the bible (painfully transcribed by Pastor Jim and his omega helper, because John can’t be bothered to scavenge and maintain a printing press.) Cas’s writing is neat but cramped to save on space, sometimes on the back of old missives or ledger sheets. There’s about a hundred pages at first count, a staggering number. Dean reads through the first three, then flips curiously through the rest, reading here and there.

There’s definitely an aim here, but other than that it relates to the apocalypse and the times of the Old World dying, Dean’s not sure what it is. It’s a great mishmash of unconnected thoughts and information jotted down without any guiding thread he can see. They’re all dated, but using the Novak pack foundation date and something called the ‘old world’ calendar, with a dizzying 2104 as a starting number on the oldest note. Dean’s recollection of Old World facts are fuzzy, he never paid that much attention to the details; them details won’t stop him and his pack from starving during a hard winter, now, will they. But with a lot of head scratching and goosing of his memory, he guesses that date means Cas first started these notes a dozen years ago. Cas is three years older than Dean; he started this as a teen, then, before he ever travelled to his first dead city.

Some of the notes are verbatim copies of Old World texts according to the annotations. One page is a long list of questions Cas apparently has about the whole Virus Apocalypse, with only a few crossed out, presumably answered or proven irrelevant. There’s also some letters interspersed with the notes. A few, signed ‘Gabe’, are addressed to ‘Baby Cassie and Baby Jimmy!’ They’re virtually unreadable, ‘Gabe’ has very sloppy handwriting and the pigskin paper he often used is crude as hell. The letters are in order of arrival according to the date a more fastidious hand inscribed at the top, all except one that Dean found first, right at the start of the notebook. This one dates back a year and a half and has been pencilled on, a part underlined. Dean squints and rubs tired eyes. Illinois, that’s one of the words the pencil thought fit to underscore. Illinois library network… is that word St Louis? And something about articles. Dean carefully puts the letter back the way he found it, and then flips through the rest. Another letter is stuck near the back. It’s half written in Cas’s neat handwriting, dated four years ago and addressed to a Dear Luke. I hope you're settling down in Asher. Micheal relented and told me I could write to you. The irony of those words in an unsent unfinished letter makes Dean think unkind thoughts about that pissant Michael again. He skims it over quickly (if Cas didn’t want him to read it, it would presumably not be in here.) There’s only one paragraph after the greetings, it talks about finding more information about something called GF32.

In her spot wedged between the door and the fireplace, Ginny, sleeping on her back with her legs in the air like she just don’t care, gives a sudden sonorous snore and flops over on her side without waking up. Watching the snoozing dog puts ten pounds of tiredness into Dean’s drooping eyelids. He carefully wraps up the book again, making sure everything is in place, and turns the knob of the lantern. He’s asleep before the flame even gutters out.

Chapter Text

A person’s bend develops during puberty, typically between the ages of eleven and thirteen. Betas can suffer the colloquially named ‘bending fever’ or ‘quickening’, lasting up to a week. Symptoms include abdominal soreness, low grade fever, inflammation of the inguinal region (males) and genitals (females) as secondary sexual organs activate in limited ways. Omegas, for their part, tend to linger in a delayed physical childhood. In the Old World this could lead to problems (see Ref #2, sections entitled ‘Cryptorchidie’) but now health, sexuality and fertility are keyed in to our changing bends, and this and many other problems have been removed by the rewriting of our genome. Omegas as a type are quite varied. Some remain androgynous all their lives, while others eventually develop to resemble betas superficially: no pubic or facial hair, no large breast development, but height and musculature are roughly on par. A typical omega will have denser muscle development, the betas and alphas are rangier (to illustrate, think of a plough horse as opposed to a courrier’s horse.) But whether that is due to their bend or to the work they’re subjected to, I cannot say.

What decides a person's bend at puberty? Alphas are the only ones to breed, but still the A/B/O proportions are respected, so it’s not hereditary. The answer seems to be in large part: societal pressure. Down to our very genes, we know we need two alphas, ten to twelve betas and twenty or more omegas (in the old classic single-alpha-pair model which was prevalent after the Great Dying.) If there’s a dearth of betas in a pack, a pubescent child will be more inclined to bend that way to make up for the lack, while if there are too many, it’s more likely for betas to backslide and children to bend omega. (NOTE! I only have empirical evidence to back this up. I regret my inability to conduct proper research, but even my pack and its allies counted together are not large enough a population for statistical analysis.) But all things being equal, why do two children - identical twins, for instance, raised in the exact same conditions and not differentiated in any way, grow up differently, one becoming an omega and another a beta? That’s the question I’ve already been asked many times since I started writing this book, one of the points on which our generally incurious generation is very curious indeed.

Inclination helps, certainly: any trace of meekness or aggression will lean the child one way or another, and once their body starts to quicken to the role, the cycle is then reinforced by hormones. But there must be something inborn too, it can’t be all down to character. Too many alphas have tried everything they can think of to raise their offspring to take their place, only to be met with failure, the children bending omega while some unrelated beta takes over. There are similar apocryphal reports of omegas beaten down since birth who nonetheless managed to resist violence and the slavery imposed by their hormones to escape and rise to beta in other packs. What, in final, makes a bend? I do not know.

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ After the sermon ~~~

“Bobby, Rufus, how’s the evenin’ treatin’ ya?”

The two old omegas turn and wait for Dean to catch up at a jog. He’s going to walk them to their common destination because these two old cusses are very good friends of his, not because he thinks they need a beta to escort them. The idea never occurred to him before.

“-but yeah, apparently in Novak, omegas aren't allowed to go anywhere without a guard or a chaperone, or a- I don’t know - a dude to make sure they get to where they’re going and do what they’re told.”

“A nanny,” sniffs Rufus, nostrils flared and old eyes narrowed as he walks along. They’re almost to alpha’s house.

Bobby takes the opportunity of Dean being quiet a few seconds to conclude: “I see you been talking to Castiel.”

“Yeah, he’s been working our compound.”

“Interesting guy, right?”

Cas has mentioned Bobby quite a few times in conversation, they work together on various projects, so Dean’s not surprised they’re acquainted. He’s a little surprised Bobby admits to it that way, though. Bobby seems to cherish his image as a grizzled old backsliding bastard whose usual terms of endearment contain as many swear words as the bible contains verses.

“That’s right, I hear he’s been helping you out in the chemistry shed.”

“Has he ever. I might have to adopt him at this rate. He got wisdom I never heard. One day of talking to the dude and I was expecting Michael Novak to come kicking down our front door to get him back. He’s got perfect recall. Everything he’s ever read is right in that head of his, and he’s been let loose for years in Salt Lake City’s libraries and schools. Guy's got more knowledge in one pinkie than all our packs combined. But apparently Novaks don’t like a know-it-all. Especially one who can tell you all about the history of the nail but can’t hammer one for shit. Cesar had to teach him. Good thing he learns quick."

Dean can't help a chuckle. “Yeah, that sums him up. Weirdest mix, right? Knowledgeable, but weirdly naive about pack basics at times.”

“Downright ignorant,” puts in Rufus with a well-rehearsed sniff.

“Nah.” Dean feels a prickle of protectiveness. “Cas has spent years in libraries, he’s… otherworldly. Oh, hi, Vic.”

“I keep hearing about this Novak omega we now have in camp,” Vic says without preamble as he locks step. “Dean, did you get- I see you did.”

Dean’s already hefted the hock of venison in its oilskin wrapper. It’s been cooking part of the afternoon on the hunter spitfire; Kate will hew off slices and Rufus will do his magic and make something amazing for them all, as he does near-on every Sunday evening at John’s large supper. Every sub-pack brings an offering that matches their speciality: the Hunters bring the meat, Sam comes bearing veggies, cheese and ham, and as for Makers… Rufus is carrying a box covered in cloth that Dean’s been side-eyeing all this time in the hopes that the wild apples he strategically dropped off at Rufus’s large kitchen two days ago are comin’ right back at him like lil’ gems in their flaky gold settings. (Technically the kitchen belongs to Amy Drizzler, a beta, but she’s busy organizing the basics such as large scale bread making, preserving, cooking hard-tack, the likes; Rufus is the wizard who works the stoves to make the tastier meals for the alphas.)

A minute later they’re in the large house that’s the primary alphas' home. Tallest in the camp at two stories high, boasts a large office, a vault, the radio room off to one side, and a space in the attic where Dean and Sam grew up, joined by Adam.

They walk right in without ceremony, and cries of welcome echoe around. Jesse, Cesar and Pastor Jim are already there, as is Annabelle, talking to Kate near the large fireplace of the dining hall. Yeah, the house is so big it has a dining hall. It’s only really used on Sundays, or for births, matings and wakes within the main families. All other times, John, Kate and Adam eat in the kitchen like everyone else.

John strides over and salutes Victor. Dean stands behind his alpha, watching the two strong hands grasp, shake once, twice… a faint tension in the muscles rippling over knuckles, flashing through John’s smile that shows eyeteeth, tension ever so faint but it prickles on Dean’s back like he’s sweatin’ out those ‘hormones’ Cas is so keen on in his book. This strange hybrid pack of Winchester - with a primary alpha and a hunter alpha - well, it’s kind of like a tightrope trick any way you cut it. If John ever loses that subtle lead on Victor, that preeminence, if he lets in the slightest edge of a possible challenge… A fight breaks out when alphas run into each other in the wild. I’m not talking about a beta tussle here, I mean a real nasty only-one-walks-away fight. It’s their nature. These two alphas, these two men, have learned to curb their nature for the good of their pack, they walk that tightrope every time they meet until it’s second nature… Dean sometimes wonders about the future (not often, he’s not one to daydream.) He sees himself where Victor is, and Sam greeting him in John's stead; they reach out and shake hands like scales tipping and righting themselves as they weigh out that moment, that tension-... he banishes the thought, he doesn't like to think about it.

Victor goes to salute Kate, and John’s crusty features break into a more genuine smile as he helps Bobby with the small beer keg the latter is carrying. They’re old friends.

 

~~~ Bobby ~~~

Bobby was a hunter once upon a time, but joined the Makers to be with Karen, back around the time Dean was born. They rose to alpha and held the position for three years, but… Dean doesn’t even like to think about it, as if his thoughts on the matter might be too loud and hurt the old man.

Karen… all of Karen’s children died, either in the womb or within days. Needless to say, the position couldn't be kept. They were both loved, and weren’t the kind of hardasses that would be cast out, they could have stayed as betas. But Karen… she fell. Hard. First to omega, and then further until there was nothing left.

Twenty years later, her widower is one of the oldest men in camp along with Rufus, a beta backslider; one in the chemical shed, the other in the kitchen, both meeting in the plaza in the middle to go nag the beta boss in charge of glassware and crockery. They’re old friends, two omegas, but rich with knowledge, experience and wisdom, so nobody looks down on them or asks them to haul crates. And they all, the entire pack, they all look away and don’t comment when Bobby grows silent, watching the pups playing in the sunshine.

Probably not many camps out there where omegas are invited regular-like to these important meals. Not many packs out there are like the Winchesters, though, and not many have omegas like Bobby and Rufus either. Bet Cas could fit at this table too goes through Dean's head before he can stop it. He gives himself a short sharp shake and then hies over to where the beer keg’s now open to see how much he can get away with drinking before Bobby starts talking about fair shares.

The dining table is long, it can sit fourteen easy as they spread out, John at the head, Vic at the foot, the Cuevas sitting in the middle; the three sets of alphas as geometrically far apart as you can manage with a simple wooden rectangle. Dean can’t remember anyone ever setting it up that way, it just seemed to happen. He doesn't know if it’s coincidence or if it’s meaningful, like the handshake is. Does territoriality cover the space you need for forks and spoons…? Kate sits on John’s right side, Adam on his left, like they would if they were eating together in the kitchen. Right on cue, something shifts in Sam’s behavior. Dean’s sitting next to Annabelle, on the edge of Vic’s camp, and Sam’s sitting next to him, on the outer edge of Winchester territory, pushed aside in favor of Adam, even though Adam is an omega while Sam is John’s deputy same as Dean is Vic’s.

John turns to Adam with a faint smile. At fourteen, Adam is in Makers, so father and son don't work together all that much anymore, but they eat at the same table every night, unlike Sam and Dean who moved out years ago and are busy with the patrol guards or the hunters respectively. John's a business-only guy when dealing with Sam in Ranchers, and he only sees his oldest once a week during these dinners, but it’s his youngest who gets the: “You look a bit tired, son. Is that slavedriver working you too hard?” (In the background, Bobby, the slavedriver in question, snorts.)

On cue Sam’s knuckles tighten on his fork, and Dean’s gaze falls to his plate. Oh, sure, the question is totally benign. The problem is, once he finishes chatting with Adam, John is gonna turn to Sam. Kate will have already asked the whole ‘are you boys doing okay? How is so-and-so?’ - you know, parent-son stuff - while John will ask, guaranteed: “Sam, have all your lookouts been taught to handle the new floodlights correctly?” and “Dean, how do the long patrols feel about deer population? Are we looking at a lean winter?” Adam gets to chat with his dad, Dean and Sam get a request for a military report.

There’s some complicated family history here, let’s dig into it a minute to explain it.

 

~~~ Family ~~~

There’s no such thing as nepotism in a pack. It doesn’t matter what the proud alpha parents want: if their kid don’t grow up into a strong beta, respected by the pack, then that kid won’t take over, won’t even have the physical changes needed to take over in the first place. That’s common knowledge.

Well there’s common knowledge, and then there’s John Goddamn Winchester. John paid no more than lip service to the notion that ‘you’re free to choose your path, boys, I will still love you even if you are the most willowy of omegas’ before turning both pre-teens into warriors. Up before the rooster, in bed after the moon, practicing all manners of fighting and woodcraft, out hunting with Vic’s predecessor, digging ditches with their small blistered hands in Ranchers ‘to teach them what life is like for the others in your pack’, and knowledge stuffed into their head until it seemed that John booted them out of bed in the morning with a quiz and put them down at night with a lecture. This was after Mary died, mind you. Dean can't remember Mary that well but he doesn't think she'd have put up with that regimen.

Mary Campbell. She is still a legend to this day. She was no stray, no sir, she was deputy hunter of the Okxa pack, up in what used to be Iowa, almost three weeks travel away from Winchester. Times were hard back then; raids from the old Chicago area were frequent, leaving death and hunger in their wake, and disease soon followed to make up the quota of Horsemen. The Concordat set up a punitive expedition composed of the best hunters from five different packs led by the two toughest betas they had, and you can guess what happened next. But it’s not exactly a ‘they lived happily ever after’ kind of story. There’s few enough of those around these days.

Alpha Henry Winchester was getting creaky, so he decided that his newly mated son and daughter in law could move over to Ranchers and get ready to take over. Though in theory any of the three alpha pairs in Winchester pack could become primary, it was understood that Ranchers, having the most people and the most omegas, was the one that mattered most, so ranchers John and Mary became. That’s the kind of high-handed decision Winchester alphas are rather notorious for, if you’re wondering. It took Dean years to wonder if his parents - both excellent hunters - ever resented Henry’s interference in their lives the way Sam, and even Dean sometimes, resented John’s interference in theirs.

Very soon Henry got too creaky, slipped to beta. Being Henry Winchester, Man of Letters, he gallantly stepped aside and retired to Maker pack - schoolteacher to be exact - rather than force his son to drive him out entirely. But he didn't teach for more than a few years before passing. Yeah, the first years of John’s leadership were bone-hard and bloody. Dean was born, then Sam, and three other lil’ ones were dispersed, one year after the other. But then the Hunter alpha pair both died in battle against hostiles from the east, and, as can happen, the boil of betas in the pack couldn’t resolve into a new steady alpha pairing. Vic had yet to show up in camp at that time, so Mary stepped forward to take over temporarily.

Dean remembers (barely, he was only four) a few strange empty years. He remembers hunger in the winter, he remembers haggard faces and people missing in the spring, he remembers betas fighting savagely out in the open, and John coming down like God’s hammer left, right and center. He remembers the day they brought his mom’s body back, the winter sky as grey and heavy as the smoke lifting from the Weeping Grounds south of camp, where all the pack’s ashes go to rejoin the earth. No, these days, not many stories have a happy ending.

Any other alpha would have flinched, would have maybe slipped to beta or omega, or gotten chased out by a strong pair of mated betas. Not John Winchester, not him. John’s eyes became hard, his fists became harder, he drank more, but other than that, it was like the whole of Winchester camp got caught in the Ozark’s ice, frozen solid, cold and unchanging. It lasted four whole years - four whole years of a primary alpha not only remaining childless, but unmated! That’s like your old testament Joshua holding the sun up in the sky for a day and a night, that’s fucking unheard of.

Eventually the raiders were all exterminated. More and more packs joined the Concordat, settling the midwest. Life in Winchester pack got a little less hungry, a little easier, and the pack seemingly unthawed from one spring to the next. John met Kate, a stray from another camp that’d suffered too many losses and was shedding its betas to compensate. She was no Mary Campbell - then again, who is? - but she was a good woman, and maybe John could not do it alone any longer, or simply did not wish to.

Dean was nine and Sam was eight when Adam was born. Now, in theory Adam should have been dispersed, because John already had two children in camp, but that would have been too harsh on Kate (and to this day there are not many people who’ll call John on anything, from far-off Mexico all the way to Canada; his word is law, his decisions are not disputed.) As it were, all her next children were adopted out, but Adam was allowed to stay. At first Dean was delighted to have a new brother - and he still is, don’t get me wrong, though he doesn’t interact with Adam quite as much in the past five years since he moved to his cabin in the Hunter’s compound. He remembers to this day holding baby Adam in his arms for the first time, and silently promising him that Sammy and Dean would both try to make it easy on him, take on the brunt of their dad’s harsh lessons, the way Dean once took on the worst of it to give Sam a couple more years of semi-childhood…

But them harsh lessons never materialized.

Dean’s never asked his father why him and Sammy were raised like that, tough way beyond the expectations of the pack. Dean just obeys. Sam asks John a lot, throws it in his teeth at every occasion, but that’s just Sammy. John doesn’t give him any explanation in response to his demands anymore than he spontaneously confides in Dean. Whether it was John’s intention to bypass biology, Hierarchy and pack philosophy and damn well breed a couple of alphas or not, Dean does not know, but the results speak for themselves. There’s never been any doubt in anyone’s mind since both Winchester boys hit their late teens: the brainy Sam will be primary alpha one day, and the hard-as-nails soldier that is Dean will be alpha hunter. And Adam? He can be whatever he chooses to be. Right now he’s quite happy as Bobby’s apprentice in Makers.

Every Sunday in their primitive Christendom, once Pastor Jim’s stopped his preachin’ (he does it three times, once in each compound, it takes him most of the day), the Winchesters gather for their Sunday dinner along with the other alphas, their families and friends. Every Sunday, the distinction between Sam and Dean’s upbringing and Adam’s becomes apparent once more, from the pre-dinner drinks and nibbles right up until dessert. Every Sunday Sam gets progressively angrier at their Dad, and Dean gets progressively angrier at himself.

But not tonight.

Tonight, it’s as if Cas is sitting at the table next to him. It’s what he said the other day: everything in this post-apocalypse era from their biology down to their dinner is kinda skewed. It can never be perfect. Humanity isn’t thriving, they are surviving. Thanks to fucking GF32, only three to nine kids are born to their pack each year (and it’s been awhile since any of their alphas dropped triplets.) Sure, the length of time alphas can crank out kids is huge, it can be decades as long as they can hold the position, but that’s what, at most some hundred kids a pair during their lifetime? To uphold a population of five hundred?

Of course the Winchester betas go out and bring back weaned babies born of alphas from all over the Concordat and beyond, and strays wander in regularly to see if they’ll fit. Single-alpha packs, still roaming parts of the Midwest and constantly under pressure, tend to churn out kids at a faster rate than they can feed them, and they often drop them off at a Concordat pack in the hopes they’ll have a better life, that also makes up the numbers. But it’s still a constant struggle just to keep their population stable, and one hard winter or epidemic could see their numbers plummet just like that.

In the past, during the hard years around Mary’s death, their numbers did take a dive. Yeah, that’s how Jo and a few others around camp came about, born out of biology’s sordid, underhanded machination. It’s during the really hard times that alphas start popping out triplets, but if that’s still not enough, and tensions run high as packmates look around and don’t feel the pressure of as many people around anymore, suddenly some beta mates become preggers too. Just like that. Dean, curious, looked it up in Cas’s notebook, and he thinks it’s due to what the omega calls a ‘spontaneous hormonal conversion leading to a fertility burst due to societal pressure’ but then Cas compares it to frogs changing sex, so Dean’s not actually all that sure it’s related…

In the far past, betas suddenly dropping pups didn’t always end well as the alphas took that as a challenge and-... well, you can imagine. But in these enlightened days, it’s understood that if it happens, then it’s meant to happen. The parents are firmly told they will not be alphas but hey, enjoy the fertility while it lasts, and the kids are welcome at any rate. Once numbers feel steady again, things go back to normal. As normal as it gets. But this isn’t a success story of a system; it’s survival on the edge of a cliff.

And in that view, ‘fair’ isn’t a concept they can afford anymore. Yeah, Adam had it a lot easier growing up than Sam or Dean ever had, he had a dad where they only ever had an alpha and, very occasionally, a father, but this is just because life is a little easier now, their dad can afford to relax a little and spoil his youngest ever so slightly. It sucks for Dean and Sam that they were born in the lean years of the camp and their father’s affection, but nobody can be said to be to blame exactly.

Somehow, that helps.

This series of thoughts leave Dean feeling a lot better by the end of the meal, and Sam steaming gently when his father probes him about his responsibilities as future alpha. In the end, with a quick exchange of looks, Bobby and Dean break up the party right after the pie is eaten. Bobby takes John aside to talk about the old days with Pastor Jim, and Dean drags his brother to the firepit outside to roast strips of cooked deer rolled in honey above the flames like they’re ten again, and the others soon join them. Now the meal’s over, some elasticity has appeared in the formation of their tripartite pack, some mellowness. All the bends hang out together in a joyful muddle, drinking, eating and chewing the fat, and playing a round of ‘Which bend has it worse?’

“You can all shut up,” declares fifteen year old Marcos Cuevas, “we betas have it the worst, naturally.” A common opening gambit to this debate.

“Says the guy who never has to cook or clean.” Adam’s voice is quieter, but he’s not going to stand by placidly while his fellow omegas are disparaged.

“Oh come on,” scoffs Marcos, “you lil' ladies are protected, you get regular meals-”

“Wanna join us, dog-bait?” Adam and Marcos, both in Makers, are roughly the same age and have been good friends since they were both out of swaddling.

“We’re not saying it’s easy,” Sam weighs in; he sounds slightly sloshed, the beer and hooch have been flowing tonight. “But betas have to fight every scrap of the way!”

“And screw every scrap of the way,” sniffs a tired-looking Annabelle.

“Well-”

“I remember screwing,” says Rufus in a theatrically whimsical way that makes everyone snicker. “It was rather a nice perk.”

Sam pokes the fire in mock aggression. “We have to grind, we have to fight, we’re always at risk of backsliding if we slip, but do we get the advantages? The kids, the mating season, the right to call all the shots? No, it’s alphas who have it way too easy!”

“Puppies, am I right?” says Cesar with a significant look at Jesse.

“Don’t know when they have it good," his mate chimes in on cue.

“Hey!”

“Oh come on!”

“We get the perks, but also a lotta crap you beta boneheads don’t have to deal with,” Jesse points out. And no, he’s not alluding to the dispersing, they’re just shooting the shit here, no need to dredge up the pain every parent around this fire has felt and will feel again in the future.

“I mean, you know how reamed my ass gets come July?!”

Yeah, that’s the spirit of the game.

“Oh come on, mating season is awesome!”

“How would you know, you beta puppy!” There is some knock on effect on betas in the height of July, they’re definitely randier, but obviously it’s not that, that week where you can’t get an alpha’s attention for love or money, where you avoid going anywhere near their house if you don’t want to get hot under the collar from the sounds and scents choking the air.

“And then, while I can barely walk - or I’m pregnant up to the gills - I have to go and make sure you lot don’t run us into the ground!”

Cue general boos from all the betas and omegas present.

“You love ordering us around!”

“It’s like being the mom of an entire camp of toddlers! Seriously, you say we get the same perks as betas?! We don’t! Outside of mating season, you know when is the last time Jesse and I had sex?!”

“Okay, that’s enough beer, Cesar.”

“I’m too busy! And tired! You guys go at it like bunnies! And we have to do overtime, unlike omegas!”

Dean sidled away to take a piss by the barn ten minutes ago, now he hangs outside the ring of firelight to listen.

How many times have they had this debate? Christ, every single Sunday, sure as Pastor Jim’s sermons, they have a riff off of this. They’re a small pack, these people have for the most part grown up together or known each other for years, they all live in this one square mile of territory, seeing the same faces day in and day out… after you talk about who’s fighting who, who’s doing who and who’s mating who, there’s only so many subjects of conversation available. This is understood, this is just the way things are. It’s a ritualized game now. ‘Which bend has it worse’, same as ‘which sub-pack works hardest’ or ‘which alpha is toughest’ or ‘which allied pack has it easiest and are lazy sods compared to the Winchesters’... they all come up as often as the campfire songs that will eventually follow; it’s repeated again and again, like a skit, with the same beats but with the occasional improvised verse for variation. It’s accepted, it’s the norm, it’s like campfire stories and oral traditions, it’s a way to affirm who they are and also to pass the time. Dean’s normally in there, loudly defending his side. Tonight, though, he’s in a strange mood. He’s enjoying the fun, but from the outside. Rather than going through the motions, he watches the strings that pull them into it like a bunch of puppets. No, that sounds negative, and this is not a bad thing, this joyful argument. It’s sterile, of course, but it’s fun, it’s like shaking an old friend’s hand; just because you do it regular-like don’t mean it’s not important… Dean sips his beer. It’s like his mind is bigger now, it can take a step away from all this and see it from the outside. He feels a touch of melancholy, wondering if that’s what it’ll be like from now on, enjoying things second hand only… maybe this is why John doesn’t want him thinking too much.

“You alright, son?”

Dean almost spills his beer. Yeah, this is why being deep in thought all the time is not a good idea.

But John doesn’t tell him to drop down and give him fifty for being caught woolgathering. He parks himself against the shed next to Dean and examines his oldest under the light of the moon and the flickering bonfire.

“Yeah, yeah, fine, dad, uh, just, just listening in.”

John looks like he’s about to point out that Dean’s normally the loudest of the bunch, but then he’s silent instead.

Hierarchical tension twitches and then dies in the egg. Dean’s a beta, John’s the alpha and from another sub-pack, but they’re also father and son. Biology can take a flying fuck, family is always stronger…

The silence doesn’t stretch too long. John leans more comfortably. “Heard from Bobby that you’ve been talking to Castiel Novak.”

Deep, deep inside Dean is a tiny little flinch of something that could almost look like guilt, though he’s damned if he can figure out what he’s supposed to feel guilty about. “Yeah?”

“He been telling you about Utah?”

“Huh-uh, lots of stuff. They have a city. New Eden.” Dean snorts.

“Hmm. He tell you anything we can use in Winchester?”

“What, from Novak? Fuck no.”

John blinks at him. He doesn’t tell Dean to shut up and let him do the thinking, he doesn’t bark at him to explain, soldier! He just says, quizzically: “They’re an awfully successful pack.”

“That they are. But trust me, dad, success can come at too high a price.”

“...Castiel’s a smart guy and he did bug out of there,” John agrees, tone contemplative.

“You talk to him?”

John takes a swig of beer and shakes his head. “Not as much as I'd like to. From the moment he strayed in, I wanted to corner him and scoop information out of that brain all day long. But either I’m busy or he’s busy, or we’re both busy as hell. In the end, I only saw him again when Bobby brought him over to talk about… something related to chemistry. I won’t go into it, it made my head spin. I just nodded like an idiot until they asked me permission for something, then I said, “Good idea, do it”, and they went away happy.”

Dean snorts in amusement, staring at his father’s profile incredulously. It’s not just what John said, it’s the way he said it, Dean could see exactly how that went down, his father’s usually keen gaze glazing over as Bobby and Cas go all scientific on him…

They talk for awhile, twenty minutes or so, about Novak pack, some of the stuff Cas said, a bit more information on what Cas wants to do (John, naturally, understood more than he made out before he lost the thread of the conversation.) Then a Rancher beta shows up with a problem that requires the Hierarchy to step in, and John, unwilling to drag Sam or Kate away from the fun by the fire, goes off to deal with it. Dean waves him off, then quietly heads back to the Hunter compound by himself.

He walks around, unable to relax just yet with both Vic and ‘Belle out of the area. He drops by to make sure Mike and Pah-Ne-Me are okay with the kids. Miri and Sandy are sleepin’ like angels in the trundle alongside their sitters’ kid Nikð, and the lil’ one is going at it full blast; but Dean’s used to that by now and so are Mike and Pah-Ne-Me by the looks of it. Dean checks in on the omegas, and then on the younger generation of hunter betas - not up close, since from the sounds of it they’re doin’ what betas do when they’re young and randy, but nobody’s fighting by the sounds of it, all good.

On the second tour around the compound it occurs to him that he can never remember having a conversation with John before that didn’t feel like he was proving himself. Just a conversation where a father and son talk about something interesting. A conversation like John has with Adam.

 

~~~ Rosebed ~~~

“Hey Cas!” Dean strides over, the precious notebook in his hands. It’s carefully tied, naturally, and in addition it’s wrapped in an oiled deerskin he’s gonna give Cas for further protection, cut and sewn into a large pouch. It’s from a deer Dean shot years ago, his first one as a matter of fact; he cured the hide himself to get his hand in at the small tasks, then he kept it for sentimental reasons, but it’s one of the few things in his cabin that belongs to him and not to the pack as a whole, so you can say it’s one of the few things that’s his to give- why does he keep rehashing this explanation in his melon? He’s just coming by to give Cas his book back.

… And why is Cas making those huge Go Away! gestures…? He’s usually happy to see Dean-

“Gah! Holy shit! What is that?!”

Dean bends over, hand on his nose, but the stench that clouted him when the breeze shifted has now got him by the snout and refuses to let go.

“Sorry.” Cas looks both irritated and embarrassed. “I tried to warn you.”

“I- I saw you walking over- I have your notebook-” Dean stops talking before he retches.

“Ah. Thank you, but this isn’t a good time. I just got out of the saltpeter beds. Sorry about the stench.”

“Gah, god, yeah, I- I- Christ, how do you put up with it?!”

“Bobby gives us a mask stuffed with eucalyptus leaves, and then you learn to live with it.” There is an audible shrug in Cas’s tone that Dean can’t see because his eyes are watering. “One of the joys of being an omega. We wear protective clothes while we’re wading around. I’m heading to the river to wash them.”

He holds up a large wicker basket full of clothes made of grey oilskins, and Dean realizes this where the stench is coming from.

“We always sluice them off outside the sheds, but every once in awhile one of us has to go give them a good scrub. I drew the short straw.”

He heads back towards the river at a trudge, but looks back in surprise as Dean reaches for one of the wicker basket’s handles.

“Oh, Dean, you don’t need to- you can just leave the notebook with me now, I can squeeze it under my arm-”

“I’m fine,” says Dean, carefully breathing only through his mouth. “I’ll help you get this lot to the river. For the sake of the whole pack and anybody else downwind.”

“Now you know why the saltpeter beds are a distance away,” Cas says dryly. Yeah, quite a distance away, past some of the vegetable fields. You can still smell ‘em when the wind shifts, but then again they can’t be too far away; omegas toil every morning and evening, taking away the chamberpot piss in large barrels on drawn carts, you can’t give them too long a distance to travel.

Dean can still taste the stink. “Christ, I’m sorry you have to work that crap.”

Cas is prosaic. “Somebody has to. All us Maker omegas take turns tilling the beds. Alphas Jesse and Cesar also use this as a punishment chore for those who don’t toe the line. There’s nothing that won’t make our betas blanch and obey better than that threat.”

“I bet…”

“I work there more frequently than others, I assist Bobby with the distillation process.”

“Does that smell better?”

“It’s in the same sheds, so no.”

“...Sorry.”

“It takes thirty beds of feces, wood ash and urine brewing for over a year to make enough gunpowder for you hunters,” says Cas with the easy breezy tone of a guy who’s used to the smell and has the moral high ground because of it. “In addition to several pounds of sulfur, which costs a fortune to barter for. Remember that the next time you fire a bullet.”

Ordinarily Dean’s pretty damn proud to be one of the top fifteen beta hunters authorized to use a rifle rather than a bow, he’s even more proud of his gun modeled after the old-time Colt revolvers, but not right this minute. “Right. I’m the spirit of gunpowder economy from this day forward, I swear.”

“Unless your life is in danger, of course,” Cas adds, quietly but with a depth in his tone that has Dean glancing his way. At the same time Cas turns his head to give Dean one of those patented Cas-stares that underline his more important pronouncements. Those eyes are the same brilliant blue as the sky overhead, warm and clear under an early autumn sun.

Dean’s struck dumb until Cas kindly adds: “If you get gored by a wild boar or eaten by a bear, I’ll undoubtedly miss your questions and arguments after awhile.”

“No wonder, I’m the only guy in the pack who doesn’t tell you to stop being a know-it-all,” Dean scoffs, and wonders why he feels like they swerved around a weird moment there. Meh, probably something omega-ish. Or else the dizzying stench is making him hallucinate.

 

~~~ Hem-... Hema-... that word ~~~

They have to go to the far end of the river in their territory, downstream from where other omegas are washing sheets. Dean nods at a guy - Caleb? Yeah, Caleb Lobell, one of Sam’s Rancher guards on watch duty with a rifle he better not fire off randomly to scare off crows and boredom, or else Cas will have words. Caleb looks at Dean curiously and moseys over with the obvious intent to ask a question. The breeze picks up. Caleb stops dead in his tracks and then moseys off in the opposite direction at a good speed until he’s far enough away where his nose won’t fall off.

After firmly rejecting Dean’s diffident offer to help, Cas sets about dowsing all the clothes, pinning them down with large rocks to keep the current from stealing them. The intensity of the stench immediately dwindles to everyone’s relief. Dean expects fish all over this arm of the Ozark to pop to the surface, stunned, and is mildly surprised when they don’t.

With a bristle brush and a bar of lye soap, Cas attacks the first of the oilskins, up to his knees in the water near a large half-submerged rock that he’s using as a handy washboard. Dean sits on the bank nearby, feeling a little useless until Cas turns to him with a smile of one who wouldn’t mind entertainment while he works.

“Did you read any of it? My notes? I won’t blame you if you didn't, they're disorganized, and you’re so-”

“Course I did.”

“-busy-... you did?”

“Sure I did. All those pages you transcribed that used to be in Old World books - it's like suddenly seeing a hundred years in the past.” Like another mysterious, almost mythical, world...

Cas beams. If he had a tail, it’d be wagging fit to fall off. “Did you find it interesting?”

“Oh yeah. Though to be honest, some of it I didn’t get at all. Way over my head.”

“I doubt that, Dean, your head is very good.”

“Aww, stop kidding me.” But Cas’s look - encouraging without demanding, full of faith in Dean’s pitiful lights - just pries open Dean’s mouth and a whole lot of words come tumbling out. “It really is interesting, man, I learned so much stuff I didn’t know about the times before. Or hell, I even learned shit about us, about new humans. Like, how those hormone things in our blood is what suppresses fertility in betas, that’s really interesting, never knew that. And all that’s changed about the gonads.” Dean’s lips twitch because in his heart of hearts, he’s twelve. “And the tits and- you know, all the bits, everything that changed so alphas can pump out pups every year on the money. Um…” Dean thought that was cool - and kinda necessary to maintain numbers - but in his notes Cas called it ‘perpetual pregnancy cycle’ forcing humans into ‘adhering to the Animal Model’. Cas has a lot to say about the Animal Model in his pages. He’s not a fan. Fortunately he doesn’t go on a rant about it, and Dean feels free to continue.

“Anyway, all the stuff you say about how much that virus changed us, man, it’s incredible. That’s like- like someone doing fine work on a clock’s cogs, but the cogs are in every part of our body and so small we can’t ever have a chance of seein’ ‘em - but they still all have to work together or else it's goodnight Louise. It’s- that any of this happened and our bodies even still work - it just makes the head fucking spin, ‘scuse my language.”

“Right!” Cas’s look is brighter than the sun. “I have no idea why you’re constantly downplaying your intelligence, Dean, your understanding is excellent. I’d say you’re actually doing better than all but one of my brothers,” he adds a bit ironically.

Dean feels immediately bashful again. Cas frequently says stuff that implies Dean’s brighter than he actually is, even getting a little irritated with Dean’s modesty at times to the point of correcting him in a curt reproving tone an omega don’t usually use on a beta, which doesn’t explain why it makes Dean feel tickled and, well, not-dumb every time he hears it. This time, though, faced with the weight of leather-bound knowledge in his lap, he feels a bit like a fraud.

“I’m just parroting what you’re writing… Most of this stuff, I couldn’t figure out the first word. I mean, literally the first word in one instance, the chapter head.”

“Oh? What word?”

“… I don’t think I could pronounce it to save my life. Starts with an H. Ran into it last night and couldn't make heads or tails of it. The word starts with Hem, but it’s not about sewing, at least I don’t think it is, not from what the rest of it is about.”

“What’s the rest of it?”

Dean unties the leather thongs and flips through the pages carefully. “Here. It's the word Hema-... No, Herm-something… it’s about sex and stuff. Uh-”

His hesitant ‘if you don’t mind talking about this?’ is buried under Cas’s snort and a flip: “Three quarters of my notes are about sex and fertility, it’s been one of the biggest consequences on our biology. I may be omega but I’ve never been a prude on that subject. Which section is it? Can you read out the first paragraph?”

“It’s this bit.” Dean takes a discreet breath, hoping his middling-to-slow reading skills are not about to humiliate him. ”The human re-pro-duce- reproductive system was most affected by GF32, in large ways and small.”

Cas nods like he knows what’s going on now, but when Dean pauses, he says, “Keep reading.”

“The largest change may not be intentional, and has to do with development of sex organs in the womb. Spe-cifically, the human race’s new-found- and then there’s that word.”

“Hermaphroditism.”

“That’s the one,” says Dean, hoping Cas won’t ask him to repeat it. “What’s that mean?” He might have figured it out if he continued reading the page, but it got technical and he ran out of time, it’s not like he’s got a ton of it to spare as it is.

“It’s what we are now, all of us. Most of us. Some people, mostly omegas, don’t have fully developed secondary sexual organs- well in short, it means we’re both male and female.”

“No we’re not.”

“Says the man who might one day bear children if he becomes an alpha along with another male.”

“Oh. That's what you mean.” Dean looks at the paragraph beneath it with new eyes.

“I was speculating whether our hermaphroditism was an accident or intentionally created by the people who released the genoforming virus. What do you think?”

Great, there is a quiz.

Dean scratches his head. “Can we know either way?”

“Not for sure, not unless I find some miraculously good information in our October expedition to St Louis, but I was wondering what you thought.”

“... Well… I’m not sure, but gut-reaction? I know what you wrote down here, but I don’t think it was an accident. I think it was done on purpose.”

“Why?” The bristle brush is poised motionless, Cas seems fascinated.

Dean shifts on his rock. “Because, well, sex is part of a beta’s way of finding their way through the pecking order, as well as finding a mate, and, well, we gotta have a go at everybody. I mean, we don’t screw everybody, naturally, but there’s gotta be… there’s gotta be this equality to it. Even if we don’t carry through, I gotta know that Bob ain’t below Betty in the pecking order just because I can fuck and mate with Betty and not with Bob. But if me and Bob have a go at it and we click, that’d be a wrench in the works. Imagine beta pairs that could be tough enough to beat down all other betas and challenge for alpha, but can’t have kids out of the gate - that’d be a mess. It’d gum up the whole Hierarchy.”

Cas looks at him like he’s the new Messiah. “Well reasoned, Dean. I actually hadn’t thought of it in quite that light before.”

“Yeah, you say here this change happened by accident.”

“Oh, no, that’s what I had to write down just in case Michael ever found my notes,” says Cas offhandedly as he resumes his scrubbing.

“Huh?”

“There was such a massive unraveling of our reproductive system that it could be an accidental byproduct, but the fact that we are all of us functioning hermaphrodites - which just didn’t exist in humans before - and that it breeds true generation after generation… I think it was intentional. Despite the Great Dying, I don’t think the maniacs who created GF32 wanted to eliminate humans, but the changes they made were so immense, the Apocalypse was so fraught, I think they built in some elasticity into the model. For instance, if in five generations something goes wrong with their changes and all males - those born with a Y chromosome - become sterile, the females can still breed between themselves. Something like that.”

“Right,” says Dean even though he’s now a bit lost. “But what’s Michael have to do with it?”

Cas pauses, glancing over the river in a westerly direction. “I couldn’t imply that it was done on purpose because the Hierarchy is seen as God’s grandiose and patriarchal plan to end all plans, even when it obviously isn’t. You see, a lot of the Novak pack customs are based on the bible - or a corrupted and rather triaged take on the bible, I should say - and in short, in New Eden, same-sex pairings are a sin.”

“Yeah, a lotta things are over there.” Dean’s no longer even surprised. If Michael Novak decided the sun was a sin because of some obscure bible passage, he’d outlaw daylight and expect everyone to walk around with a bag on their head.

When he says that last bit out loud, Cas laughs for a whole minute and it’s delightful. Dean’s reassured to see he’s feeling better about his brother being an asshole.

“Never thought about all this stuff before,” Dean adds idly once the silence settles again and Cas is on the third oilskin. “When you think of it, after all the mucking around the virus did, it’s amazing any of us are still alive.”

“Well said, and it’s not thanks to those mad scientists that we are.” Cas splashes his brush vigorously in the current like it’s the head of one of those ol’ time virus-makers and he’s tryin’ to club it. “It’s down to numbers. Survival of the fittest. The mills of God ground us down very fine this last century. I imagine we survivors are stronger, faster, more savage and much more resistant to disease than any humans have ever been in our entire history, but that’s not thanks to us or to GF32 or God or anyone.” (Cas is away from both Michael Novak and Pastor Jim right now, he can afford a bit o’ blasphemy and who’s Dean to call him on out on that.) “It’s simply the fact that we’re the only ones who survived and passed on our hardiness to the next generation. Those of us - like you - who will have children, that is.”

Dean jumps, and has to catch the notebook as it slides off his lap. “Huh? Me?!”

Cas gives him the direct stare he’s got no problem using on Dean these days, and who cares about the Hierarchy. “It’s no secret that you'll be the hunter alpha one day.”

“Well, that’s hardly sure, I mean, maybe, I am a deputy, but-”

He dries up under Cas’s clear eyed curious gaze.

“Don’t think about it too much, to tell you the truth,” Dean finally admits. “Vic’s in charge. Firmly in charge. And I’m fine with that. Which is good. Friction between us would have meant he’d have chased me out, and, well, Sammy’s kinda shaping up to take over for dad, so… I’d have to leave.”

“Right, of course. But one day…”

The future dangles like a worm on the hook.

“Yeah, but that’s just it. Vic and Annabelle, they’re both strong. By the time they weaken or stop pupping, I’ll be old and creaky myself.”

One of Cas’s eyebrows arcs up. “You’re what, ten years younger than alpha Victor? That’s not too bad. If you mate with someone younger than yourself, you could still have children. Definitely you would need someone younger. Yes, assuredly.”

The reiteration is odd. Dean shifts, wondering if Cas is just shooting the breeze or trying to tell him something. “That’s not an easy ask. At present everyone who's around my rank is older than me.”

“Yes, I don’t think anyone currently in the hunters would be appropriate for you,” Cas says bluntly and then abruptly lowers his head and fumbles with the lye soap. “Not that I know them all, not that well, but- uh, rumors- that is- at the end of the day I'm hardly met any of them, so what do I know.”

“Rumors? There’s rumors about my love life?” Figures.

The only answer he gets is some assiduous scrubbing.

“What do they say?” he finally prompts.

“I don’t listen to gossip,” Cas tells him in a snooty way.

Dean’s lips twitch. “Liar.”

That affords him an affronted glare which honesty burns away, leaving nothing but a cinder of embarrassment. Cas mutters something almost covered by the vigorous scrub of the brush, Dean only catches ‘two years ago’, ‘nearly’ and ‘beta Lydia’, and he suddenly thinks this conversation makes sense.

“Mate with Lydia? Yeesh, not in a million years.”

“Oh good. I mean, it’s really none of my business, of course. But as we said, if you expect alpha Victor to stay in position for a long time, it would be wise to form a relationship with someone younger and-” the scrub of the brush nearly - but not quite - covers the word ‘stable’. “You’ll have to hope for a new beta stray, I suppose.”

Dean leans back on his hands, enjoying the breeze from the river and the cry of a lone gull up ahead. “I got time, though, this is gonna be years in the future.”

“Yes, indeed.”

Chapter Text

Diagrams 1 and 2 show the reactions of an omega when in the presence of an alpha or a beta. Diagram 3 is an extreme example of what can happen during stress or confrontation, leading to a shutdown of higher cognitive processes. Diagrams 4 and 5 show the corresponding hormonal cascades in alphas and betas in the presence of an omega. As always, hormones and physiological changes to our brains and proprioceptors are key to behavior.

But that's just chemistry. How that attitude is expressed will depend on character. Let’s never forget that we are human. We have had ten thousand years or more to learn how to override our animal impulses. GF32 may have regressed us, may have given us some crude biochemical directives to control us, but the results of their influence depends on the person involved, and saying otherwise is pandering to a puerile narrative that attempts to falsely abdicate responsibility. ‘It’s not my fault, it’s my nature!’ Nonsense. Even at its most intense, the rush of beta or alpha hormones can be controlled, and their expression will depend on the individual. In the presence of an omega, the hormonal changes can translate as protectiveness or possessiveness, as mentoring or bullying, as nurturing or belittling.

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ Omegas ~~~

According to Cas, the boffins of the Old World never figured out there was a Hierarchy until it was too late. Beats me how they could miss it. It’s as obvious as the nose on your face. The Hierarchy weaves through every aspect of pack life. Mostly folk say Hierarchy when they’re talking about the overall bends of omega, beta and alpha, but inside those tiers each member of the pack has a place too, from lowest to highest. John’s the big chief; the five other alphas in camp are under his dominance in the order of Vic, Annabelle, the Cuevas (Jesse and Cesar don’t sweat it between them) and Kate. Betas have a complex and very important pecking order that takes up a good amount of their attention; Dean’s at the top, naturally, at least in the Hunters. And omegas also have a hierarchy. For instance, though the hunter omegas are pretty homogenous and independent, Garth is nonetheless in charge in his cheerful unassuming way. Not many betas and alphas stoop to notice the omega pecking order as a rule, even though it’s right in front of their noses. It’s practically on parade in the group Dean leads out the main gates today. The first two omegas stop as soon as they pass beneath the large wooden W sign; they fold inward timorously like the big world outside the compound is simply chock full of bandits and bears. The third omega is Cas who strides right past them, and seems surprised when his peers don’t keep pace.

“Come on, guys,” Dean coaxes. “We’re just going to the roadhouse. It’s less than an hour away and still within our immediate patrol zone. Nothing out here but goats and gophers.”

That earns him a dubious look that doesn’t reach higher than his navel.

“There are only four traders there at present, and you won’t even see them. You’ll be working on the roof. Only Cas is going into the roadhouse, and beta Ellen Harvelle has been warned to keep the foreigners out of our way the whole time. You have no need for concern.”

It takes a minute. Dean plays it ‘firm but calm’, letting his presence outweigh the knowledge they are out, away from their protective compound. Some other beta bastard might have started yelling at them, shoving them, maybe even cut himself a switch from a nearby tree. That would get them moving too, and a whole lot faster. But Dean’s not that kinda guy, and he knows the omegas will work better if they get there at their own pace, feeling safe and protected. So he talks calmly and ignores the small cloud of impatient steam rising off nearby Jo. Fortunately she knows who’s boss, she won’t derail Dean’s slow progress.

Eventually he gets them moving in the right direction. It helps, he thinks, that Cas is walking at his side without an ounce of anxiety. But he’s hardy for an omega. Jo hangs off to one side, bow in hand, and Everett closes the march, leading the mule and cart.

“Are these the omegas who are coming with us next month?” Cas asks Dean in a low voice.

“These guys?” Dean snorts. As if he’d get these drones any further than the roadhouse, much less all the way to St Louis. “No, we got a specialist team in both Ranchers and Makers for scavenging expeditions, the same guys who go out once a year to mine iron and tin, shit like that. They’re a lot less-... they’re more-... they’re pretty good at keeping up.”

Cas doesn’t say ‘good’ because the omegas are not that far behind them and he’s not a bastard who’ll hurt their feelings, but it’s obvious that he’s saying it inside just from the look on his face.

One of the omegas stumbles, the other slows to help her. Everett tsk’s to slow the mule down and avoid pressing them.

Dean turns and walks back a few steps. “Tell me if we’re going too fast.”

“We’re tougher than you think,” Cas grumbles behind him. “Even between the ears.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t have to baby us so much. Here, do you mind?”

“Er-”

Cas overtakes him and parks himself between Dean and the omegas. “Hi, what are your names? We’ve not met. I’m Castiel.”

There is a timid pause in which the omegas look solemnly at Castiel, and Dean inwardly scratches his head and wonders why he assumed they knew each other when there are almost four hundred omegas in Winchester at last count.

“...Adele. This is Maurice. I’ve seen you in the barracks. You’re a Maker, right?”

“And you’re Ranchers, yes, our sections are right there on our sleeves,” says Cas a little shortly, jabbing a chin at the wheat stalk symbol neatly embroidered on Adele’s uniform. “Look, we have a busy day ahead of us and I’d like to get started as quickly as possible. There’s nothing to be worried about. We’re so close to the pack, they’ll hear us if you stub your toe. So can you please show this beta that you’re not fragile flowers, and walk a little faster?”

The omegas look at him, look at each other, look at him again. They don’t wilt or whine or cry, and when Cas spins around and joins Dean, they pick up the pace and walk quite normally. The look they aim at their fellow omega’s back isn’t the look they gave Dean, though, it’s somewhat wry and along the lines of “yikes, it’s gonna be a long day working with this one…” Dean can’t blame them.

“See?” says Cas, either unaware of the looks or uncaring of them.

“...You’re bossy for an omega, you know that?”

“You’re laidback for a beta, you know that?”

“Smartass.”

“When we get there, I expect you to take full care of those boxes on the cart,” says Cas over his shoulder, ignoring Dean. “I spent days building that aerial.”

Dean’s almost sure he hears a sigh from behind him over the crunch of their feet through early-fallen leaves, but on the plus side, they do seem less cautious, so he lets it pass.

 

~~~ The Roadhouse ~~~

“Run on ahead, Jo,” says Dean indulgently as they near the roadhouse.

Jo hesitates because she’s still a kid, still finding that line of independence between herself and her mom (one that looked a lot like a battle line for a long time, mind you.) But then she runs on ahead to say hi. Dean leads the omegas up the last part of the slope, then he stays outside to supervise as they unload the mule cart.

Dean is encouraging, he’s dealt with omegas before. Even the Hunter omegas… well, they’re cool, proactive and shit, they’re cheerful and can talk back to a beta, but they’re… ah, how to say it? Fragile? They can be free and independent as long as you give them a clear box to be free and independent in. They flourish that way, they feel relaxed enough where they can just be, well, normal people. But if that wall springs a crack, if someone starts shouting unexpectedly, if they’re out and about and suddenly lose that feeling that there’s Someone In Charge, then they can get panicky. Omega behavior is always the best testament to how well or poorly a pack is doing, everyone knows that.

So Dean’s talking to Maurice and Adele reassuringly, giving them firm, clear orders and lots of praise, and Cas is jumping down their throat at the slightest shock given to his sainted boxes.

“No, not that way!” Cas barks for the second time. Dean would make the pair of them curl up and cry if he yelled at them like that, he’s certain of it, but maybe it’s different coming from a fellow omega. That’d make sense, different attitude, different scent, and their biology wouldn’t treat Cas like a stern boss that can either protect or punish, but more like a big brother. An annoying one, if the faint eye roll he spots from Adele is any indication.

Then again, this is Cas’s baby. Seriously, this is a big project for him. Dean can tell from the way Cas talked about it almost every step of the way here. The new radio emitter he built from scratch is already damn impressive, but it’s the new type of… battery-thing to power it that’s the major breakthrough. Except it’s not a battery, it won’t run out. Cas calls it a seebeck cell (he had to write it in the margin of his notebook last week before Dean stopped calling it a see-back.) He and Bobby made it from stuff Cas read about, with bismuth-something and other nasty-sounding materials. Cas has three of them, he carried them to the roadhouse himself along with the transistor. They’re the size of large crackers that fit into a fancy custom-made oil lamp, and Ellen will be able to get energy to the radio just by turning on the flame and waiting five minutes for the things to warm up.

In case you’re wondering why the roadhouse doesn’t have a radio - the place you’d most expect to find one when even far-off Mimetosa pack seven hundred miles away has a station - it’s because Henry originally built the waystation in the U-bend lee of a cliff rearing above it, protecting it from three sides. That’s great for defense and all, but not so much for a steady wind to power a turbine. These see-things are not only useful in the immediate, they open new possibilities, they’re a totally novel creation which Cas wasn’t allowed to work on back in Keep-To-The-Ways-Of-Thou-Holy-Fathers Novak pack, so yeah, in Dean’s estimate Cas is allowed to be a bit of a mini-alpha about all this.

Having reassured his fellow omegas by promising them all sorts of horrible things if they break his aerial while setting it up (Cas’s people skills are… very much his own, let’s say), Cas picks up the box with the precious radio inside and follows Dean into the roadhouse, the beta three steps ahead to make sure Ellen collared all the traders here and consigned them to their separate barracks.

Ellen has failed rather spectacularly, it’s immediately obvious when a foreign beta leaps on Dean, gets him in a chokehold and attempts to wrestle him to the floor.

“Charlie!” Dean growls, trying to get familiar red hair out of his face, “One of these days I’m gonna plant you into the ground like a prize crop if you keep jumping me like this!”

“I can take you, big guy!” Charlie yells. So Dean straightens, picks her up like a kid, detaching her from his back and neck, and manhandles her into a hug. Charlie bursts out laughing, clear as a bell.

“Settle down, children, before you bust the joint.” Ellen’s behind the counter, giving it an indifferent scrub. The roadhouse is set up as a hostel for passing traders, and does a brisk business in booze and cheap food. Ellen took it over years ago, after her mate Bill died in a hunt, and she lords it over the place, ruling over the three betas and two omegas who rotate to the roadhouse as guards and the help. Dean suspects it’s only the lack of a mate that keeps her from transitioning up to alpha of the joint. In the roadhouse, Ellen’s word is Law and even Dean walks on eggshells. Jo’s already sitting at the counter and has been drafted into drying a few glasses while her mulberry leaf tea steeps.

Dean puts Charlie down, but keeps an arm around her shoulder as he turns.

Cas is frozen in the doorway with his box in his hands and a very strange look on his face for a split second before it goes omega-neutral and his eyes fix quickly on the floor.

The turnaround from bossy taskmaster to this very omega stance makes Dean’s eyebrows twitch up. “Cas? It’s okay, come meet Charlie. Charlie, this is Castiel Novak.”

Cas’s eyes lift, but only as far as the arm Charlie’s wrapped around Dean’s waist, and then his gaze is nailed to the floor again in a way that’s very unlike him. What, did Charlie’s over-exuberant greetings bring out his omega caution? Well, she is a foreign beta after all.

“Cas? Come on, say hi. It’s fine, Charlie’s a good friend of mine.”

Those firm, chapped lips pinch. Cas straightens, but only so far as to look Dean in the chest. “I thought traders were quarantined.”

“Huh? Oh, no worries. We let that go for people like Charlie. She’s been comin' here for over five years and she’s never been sick a day, have you, Charles?”

“Just the winter sniffles.” Charlie is looking at Cas curiously, eyes twinkling in the beta-trader way of one who loves to make new friends. And she’s the opposite of snooty when it comes to the Hierarchy and bends. “You a buddy of Dean’s? Pleased to meet you!”

A leaf on a still day wouldn’t nod more than Cas does in response to that before he turns away. “I need to set up. Excuse me.”

The box goes onto the counter. Cas murmurs “Excuse me,” again to Ellen, very low, very polite as he invades her territory with his belongings. Ellen nods permission that Cas, rigidly facing forward, can’t possibly see.

“Dean?”

Dean tenses, rips his gaze off of Cas’s stiff shoulders so he can look down at Charlie. For a second he’d actually forgotten her there.

A cheerful poke in the ribs gets Dean’s arm to twitch up, releasing her. “You’re probably busy. I’m going to go catch up with Jo, as long as mama bear Ellen lets me. Come grab me when you have some free time.”

Oh good. “Yup, yup, go on ahead, I, uh, I’m going to see if Cas has everything he needs.”

Cas is on one end of the counter, near the window letting in a dim milky light through the hide panes. He doesn’t look up when Dean parks an elbow on the wood a few inches away.

“Hey, Cas, you okay?”

Cas carefully lifts the lid off the box, revealing the straw packed around his electrical baby. “I’m fine.”

“...Right.” Dean isn’t great at handling this sort of thing. Beta instincts come to his rescue. If there is something troubling his omega (that is, his pack’s omega- you know what he means) then remove it. “So, you don’t need me for this bit, right? I’ll take Charlie with me and go for a walk.”

The lid hits the counter with a loud rattle. Cas’s shoulders have tensed and he’s staring straight ahead.

“...Jo’s here, and Ellen too,” Dean hazards, “they can watch out for you, keep you safe while I’m not here.”

A complicated look goes over Cas’s face briefly, but then it’s back to that mutely stern expression. “I’m not the one who should watch out.”

“Huh?”

“I did not realize Winchester pack was so lax with their quarantine.”

This again? “Charlie’s fine. Ellen checks all new arrivals for fever. We’re only let slide with people we know well, we trust ‘em to stay away or warn us if they’re feelin’ off."

“You have no idea what an asymptomatic carrier is, naturally,” says Cas in a very soft and slightly snooty voice. Dean’s almost reassured to see a familiar bit of Cas poke its nose out of its hole, and since yeah, he has no idea what an ass-sin-matic carrier is, he lets that pass.

“It’s been ten years since we had any disease come through a trade route, dude, relax.”

“Not all diseases present with fevers or rapid onsets. Sexually transmitted ones don’t, at any rate.”

That comes so much out of nowhere, it’s like one of the omegas currently scrambling up on the roof managed to drop a hammer straight through the tiles to hit Dean on the head. “Sexually what?!”

“That means-”

“I know what that means!” Dean brings his volume back down through a burst of sheer willpower and looks quickly over his shoulder. At the far end of the twelve foot counter, the three women are talking in a bright way that sounds horribly artificial. Dean lays even odds they’re eavesdropping like crazy. “Cas- look- we’re not gonna- Charlie’s just a friend.”

That long unblinking stare suggests an omega knows full well what a beta gets up to when he meets an old friend. The fact that the long stare is directed at Ellen’s beer keg straight ahead and not at Dean suggests in a nutshell that though Cas is fully aware of what Dean’s planning, it is not his place to say anything about it beyond what has already been said.

A weird prickly thing crawls through Dean’s brain, like he’s not sure if he’s amused, hurt, exasperated, offended or what. “Oh man, are you ever barking up the wrong tree here. You know, not all betas- that is, I’m not always-” the prickle grows denser, and Dean has a feeling, without knowing why, that he’s heading into dangerous territory, so he backs out immediately.

“Charles! You want to go have wild sex with me?” he asks loudly over his shoulder.

Ellen spits out her mulberry tea and Jo almost drops her glass, but Charlie, who’s the quickest thinker Dean knows and probably had her ears pricked beside, chirps: “Sure, Dean, swap your dong for a dress and you’re so going on my dance card.”

“Swap your own- just say no next time, Charlie, yeesh.”

“Hey, you want to play the crude game, expect me to double down on anything ya got, big boy.”

Cas is finally looking straight at him, confused.

“Charlie is a good buddy,” Dean says quietly, “but we don’t need to bone or fight to be friends. She’s a free trader, not part of a pack, I got no need to get her measure, and as for the horizontal line dance… Charlie, it’s funny I guess, but she only goes for the ladies.”

Several emotions march in formation over Cas’s face, curiosity bringing up the rear. “She does?” he asks in a low voice, looking quickly past Dean (Charlie is talking with Jo again as if nothing happened.)

“Yup.”

“That’s… I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone’s sexual preference overriding the beta imperative to spread a wide net to find a mate,” says Cas, because that’s the kind of thing Cas says. Dean thinks Charlie just made the headlines of a new page in his notebook once they get back to camp.

“Well, Charlie’s like that,” Dean says with a shrug, never having really thought about it before. It’s not like everybody screws everybody in the beta ranks, there’s some subtle, well, logic to it; you tend to screw around with those who are roughly your rank, who you got a feel for… you’re looking for a mate, after all, as well as fine tuning the pecking order amongst your immediate peers. Yeah, some dudes prefer chicks and vice-versa, but that doesn’t mean they’ll kick a really good-lookin’ fella outta their bed if he happens to wander in there. Dean should damn well know. But now that he’s thinking of it, are his appetites all that representative? And with the Novak stricture on same-sex couples, this is the one area where Cas would probably know even less than Dean does. “Hmm, what about the Cuevas? They’re dudes.”

“...Do you know if they’re exclusively homosexual?”

Dean snorts. “How should I know? They’re your alphas, not mine.”

“Well, yes, but I’ve never really gathered up the nerve to ask them about that,” Cas admits a little shamefacedly. He’s usually not that timid, but there is a long mile between alpha and omega.

“Oh, you should, they’re pussycats,” says Dean, a little rudely but accurately.

“Do you think... “ the omega looks past Dean almost cautiously, like Charlie’s a real-life wolf he’s trying to observe in its natural habitat without getting his nose bit. “Do you think I can talk to your friend about this later? Um, if she’s willing. I didn’t mean to… I was just concerned for your health - for the pack as a whole earlier, I didn’t mean to offend her.”

“You’d have to get up early in the morning to do that. Let me call her over.”

“I need to work on this first.” Cas focuses back on his baby with an almost audible click.

“Later then. She’s also into weird tech and Old World stuff, she’d love to hear about your not-batteries.”

Cas looks a whole lot more relaxed as he nods.

Dean eventually goes to supervise the other omegas outside and chat with Charlie in the sunshine. Charlie is a regular trader between Concordat communities. She winters in nearby Woodson pack with a chick there, Glinda. Why those two haven’t clicked enough to mate for good, Dean doesn’t know, but Charlie, she’s… she’s got stuff in her past, she needs a lot of room. Only the lightest of reins for her. She needs to wander. It might take years for her to settle down. Dean hopes Glinda waits for her-

“Hey!”

Jo’s sharp bark brings Dean’s attention back to the roadhouse. He’s at the door in a split second.

A foreign beta is up against the wall, struggling against Jo’s attempts to pin him. Ellen is charging around the counter, rage in her eyes and shotgun in hand, and-

- and close by, pushed into a corner, stands Cas, looking alarmed.

One second later Dean’s fist closes around the back of the strange beta’s neck. That’s all he can see, the rest of his vision is twitching red and black.

The guy instantly goes limp, his gut telling him exactly how much more beta Dean is compared to him, and how much closer to murder too. This instant submission winds down Dean’s aggression a few notches, though not much.

“Jo?” Dean manages to get out through bared teeth.

“Guy accosted Cas!” Jo’s spitting mad. The stranger not only approached a Winchester omega on the sly, he did it in the roadhouse, Ellen’s territory and Jo’s second home.

A thick silence settles. The stranger doesn’t seem eager to explain himself. Dean swaps a look with Jo, with Ellen. Everett is outside doing the right thing, drawn rifle protecting the other omegas, who, from the banging sounds on the roof, haven't realized anything is amiss.

“I got this.” Ellen’s shotgun is on the stranger, locked and loaded.

Dean forces his fingers off the guy’s nape. He’s born him all the way down to the ground until the stranger is flat on his stomach. Steering clear of Ellen’s line of fire, Dean gets to his feet and goes to check Cas. The omega isn’t panicking, though he’s tense at the scene unfolding before him.

“What did he want?” Dean asks bluntly, not insulting Cas with any ‘are you all right?’

“Nothing,” Cas says blankly, then frowns. “Nothing inappropriate. He just wanted to know if I was a Novak.”

...That’s odd. And faintly ominous. Why should anyone care? There’s a lot of Novaks around. Dean turns back to stare at the hostile, fingers still curled into fists.

“I’m a trader,” the guy says carefully, still flat on the floor. “I’ve been to Novak pack before, and I- I thought I’d seen your friend.”

“My friend is an omega, you wouldn’t have seen him,” Dean says, voice dangerous-soft.

There’s a tentative touch at his elbow. “Maybe he means Jimmy.”

Oh, right, Jimmy Novak, Cas’s identical twin; a beta who works trade routes and does diplomacy on Mike Novak’s behalf around Utah and Colorado. So maybe that’s what happened: this stranger knows Jimmy and he thought he’d say hi to an acquaintance, and he’s got really bad eyesight to have missed the fact that ‘Jimmy’ is wearing an omega uniform and is standing some one thousand miles east of Utah in Winchester territory. Right. Dean’s gonna buy that one right after he hikes all the way to the ruins of old New York to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Ellen, who is this guy?”

“Drew Neely. No pack. Trader, he said. Never seen him before. He passed through Peckanole, Brooks and Woodson packs before coming here, nothing reported against him. Utah?” She glances at Cas. “His itinerary is from the east.”

“I travel to Utah on occasion,” the guy says quickly.

“That’s a really long route.” Jo is right next to her mom, radiating suspicion.

“...I travel a lot, I like to keep moving,” the guy says after that convenient ‘let me think of a reason’ pause.

Cas still looks absolutely fine, so Dean gestures at him to stay where he is, out of grab range, and goes to look the guy over in more detail. Drew’s around Dean’s age, solid, well fed but with nothing soft about him. Clothes are rugged, boots well-worn. There’s a scar across the back of his hand, there was another on his chin, and there’s something… tough here, something like the hardiness of a wolf trying to pass itself off as a dog, but maybe that’s just the ‘hormones’ talking. Dean’s riled. Real bad. He knows intellectually that it’s the wolfie inside taking over; Cas is unharmed, only a bit startled at being approached out of the blue, nothing untoward happened, nothing was going to happen what with Ellen and Jo right there- but the foreign beta broke the roadhouse rules for reasons unknown, which makes human Dean suspicious, and disinclined to rein in the wolf inside, snarling in out-and-out hostility. Guy talked to Cas! A strange beta thought he could look at Dean’s- Dean’s friend, an omega from his pack, and not get his eyeballs gouged out, what the fuck-

The large bang! makes them all jump and Ellen nearly shoots the fucker on the floor by accident. It’s just Charlie though, who sent the door leading from the barrack room to the saloon swinging with a thrust of a hip, hands too full to open and close the damn thing gently like a christian. She’s carrying a saddlebag over her shoulder and two large packs in her arms. The saddlebag hits the floor with a thud and Charlie upends the first pack onto the counter without ceremony, causing a clatter and a racket that has Everett poking his head through the door in alarm.

“Here, Dean, this is that guy’s stuff. Hm… Nothing odd. Nothing all that good, but nothing odd.”

The guy on the floor gives his strewn belongings a swift look but doesn't complain. Either Dean put the fear of god in him or… Dean himself goes over to check, moving goods brusquely aside without regards. There’s bundles of woven cloth tightly wrapped in twine, colors you don’t see around here. Fist-size oil-skin bags peek out amongst the folds of cloth, maybe the dyes used, a good item to trade. There’s some average-looking skinning knives, a small keg of gunpowder, a folder of stiff hide that contains decent-looking paper. A bag tied to the saddlebag goes clink when Charlie toes it, that’ll be the trader currency: strips of copper, tin, lead and such, as well as bits of gold and silver, turquoise and sea-shells if this guy visits packs who can afford a lil’ luxury like that.

“Wait- Jo, cover this weasel and do not take your eyes off.” Ellen hands the shotgun to her daughter and comes over swiftly, scoops up something small and rectangular near the bolts of cloth. A book, cover stained.

Cas is immediately there, taking it gently out of Ellen’s hand. The look of keen interest fades a little as he opens up the old hardcover and reads the title page. “I know this one, it’s just an old novel, nothing actually useful,” he says a bit dismissively.

The cover was probably red a hundred years ago, it’s now faded to a bleached pink. Dean sees illustrated figures standing together like ghosts between Cas’s fingers. The title above their heads is too worn to make out, the pages Dean can see as Cas flips them are yellowed and stained, but all in all it’s still amazingly well conserved for an Old World relic, and certainly the kind of light but expensive item a trader would carry.

“Little Women,” Ellen grinds out.

“Huh?!”

“It’s the title,” Cas helpfully supplies without looking away from the ‘just an old novel’ he’s now reading assiduously. He’s too absorbed to notice that Ellen’s tone is not one that lends itself to literary appreciation.

“Ellen? What’s up?” Dean asks quietly.

Ellen’s still staring at the cover in Cas’s hands. “That book. I happened to check it out already the first time I saw it. I remember it because it has a character in it named Jo. I remember it,” she says significantly, “from the first time I saw it in someone else’s pack: that of the weasel you guys found halfway to camp who hadn’t stopped at the roadhouse."

“Crowley?!”

“Same book, I’d bet my-”

The shotgun report rips the room apart, sending echoes out into the sunny afternoon. Charlie throws herself on the floor, Cas falls back against the wall, white in the face, Ellen and Dean spin around.

The guy is on his back and his guts are painting the floor. And the wall. Buckshot at close range.

Jo makes a noise of stress and fury. “Shit! Shit! Sorry, Dean! He leapt up at me and I- I pulled the trigger without thinking, I was aiming for the legs but I didn’t realize how sensitive-” She’s too young to have been given gun practice yet beyond the basics, she’s a bow and arrow girl.

Ellen comes over to fuss, which just gives Jo’s self-directed ire a new target, but Dean can’t focus on the mother-daughter drama he’s witnessed many times before.

“Everett, Jo! Scout around! Ellen! Charlie! Gather up the omegas and take them to the kitchen via the porch, don’t let them see this and don’t let them freak out! Cas, you okay?”

Cas is backed up against the wall. The book is cradled protectively in the arms he’s wrapped around himself, he’s white in the face, looking away from the body. Nostrils pinch and lips part, breath going in and out in quick staccato, he teeters on the edge…. but he blinks and looks around when Dean gently squeezes his shoulder.

His eyes focus, he nods quickly. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” His voice is a rasp, and he clears his throat. The sound makes him flinch.

‘Okay’ is an exaggeration. Dean can see a wild pulse leap and quiver in the omega’s throat. But he’s still standing, he’s not about to rabbit. Not him. Dean’s seen how tough Cas is. Those bloody diagrams from the notebook dance in Dean’s noggin, arrows and circles like tangled skeins trying to pull Cas down into the depths, smother him into passivity or trigger his flight reaction. But Cas isn’t about to cave in to no fucking biology; Dean watches as his friend claws his way out of it, a look of self-directed anger coming and then going, leaving him pale, sweating but still standing. A hand reaches up, squeezes Dean’s fingers briefly, blue eyes are steady when they open again, he’s risen above it all, and that’s good, ‘cause Dean needs him to right now.

“Cas, how fast can you get that radio up?”

“The- the radio? Uh-”

“I know it takes five minutes to warm up your sea-biscuits, but can you- I don’t know, stick them straight into the flame so they heat up faster?”

That focuses Cas better than any number of comforting hugs. “Absolutely not! That’d ruin them! We don’t have to anyway, I set it up with a crank.”

“A- what?”

“The radio, it has a crank- just a minute. And it’s seebeck cells, Dean, I already told you.” The book is dumped on the counter without ceremony on the way to the radio near the window. “If they finished setting up the aerial on the roof- can you see a wire dangling out there? Never mind, never mind, it’s not far to camp, I might reach them even with the antenna we have here.” He fits a crank to the side of his box and goes at it like a demented child playing hoops. Dean goes and double checks the currently cooling-down corpse, you never know, then he parks himself near the door, eyes on his people and the surroundings outside, mind spinning as fast as the crank.

“Okay, I’m through.” Cas looks briefly gleeful, but the expression fades as he remembers the drilled corpse in the corner.

“Good, let me talk to the operator.”

“I can’t broadcast sound with just the crank. Just a minute-” Cas is tapping a button near the mike in a strange pattern.

The radio crackles. “Cas? That was fast.”

Cas’s finger taps out quickly. Morse code, Dean remembers.

“Huh?” The voice - Malcolm, one of the radio operators, a beta from Ranchers directly under John - sounds perplexed. “Slow down. What?”

“Tell him we need reinforcement here, guards, and send an alpha or Sammy,” Dean says quietly.

Click-click-clickety-click-click-

“Slow down, man! What? You want me to send alpha? Is this a joke?”

Dean growls. Cas rolls his eyes and looks briefly up at the roof as if wondering if he can get the aerial up and the sea-biscuits running in the next two minutes to express his displeasure in something other than dashes and dots.

Finally the message gets through. Then the long wait. The camp feels as far as the moon right now. Dean appreciates just how useful having a radio here will be, but maybe they should have more people too. Especially if weird slimy traders come oiling this way regularly.

 

~~~ Lucifer ~~~

The bottle on the table is Ellen’s best stuff, brought out from under the counter in deference to John’s presence. Came himself with the first wave of guards, along with Vic’s phalanx who are now scouring the countryside.

Cas, prosaic, is up on the roof wiring the aerial. He’s fine. The other omegas are too. They were tense for awhile when Dean told them what happened, simply and without obfuscation. That was almost an hour ago, long before an alpha could get here to force them to hold it together, but Dean decided spontaneously that, whatever their bend, they would surely prefer to know what was going on than being kept in suspense, penned in like sheep in the kitchen. Adele and Maurice were nervous, but once Dean frankly answered their timid questions, they relaxed and waited calmly for reinforcements. Dean’s decided that Cas is right, he does coddle omegas a bit too much ordinarily, and it’s not doing anyone any favors.

John’s staring at the book at the center of the table, halfway between the two of them. Such a small flimsy thing to have cut a life short.

“Jo, you sure he reacted to that name? Crowley?” John finally asks, the first question since he entered the roadhouse, glanced at the body and then at Dean with: Are your people alright, son?

“Yes, alpha.” Jo’s a little tense, but sure of herself.

John looks at her and then nods. “You did the right thing.” The guy was armed, even though traders are asked to leave their weapons in their packs while in the roadhouse. A small revolver, a weird make Dean’s not seen before, was slipped in an ankle holster. Maybe the guy was planning on grabbing Jo and holding her hostage until he was out. He didn’t bank on Jo’s reflexes, she’s like a cat. Still young, but she’s gonna be a hell of a hunter in a couple years, and might have her own division soon after.

A nod from John sends Jo out to join the folk patrolling around the roadhouse. It’s only to clear the room and give her something to spend her nervous energy on, since right now a gnat couldn’t sneak in even in disguise.

“All the other traders are regulars, yes?”

“Yes, alpha,” says Ellen. Then she shrugs. “It’s only three at the moment, Charlie Bradbury, Lobelia Westerner and Ryan Ames, you know him.”

“Right. I’ll go talk to him in a minute, say hi,” John says absently. “Ellen, can you please get Stan in here and start to clean this up?”

“Yes alpha.”

Her departure leaves a silence to gather between father and son.

Dean already knows his father’s taking this seriously, what with the patrols and all that. There’s one question he’s gotta ask though.

“Dad, don’t you think we should keep Cas out of this expedition next month?” He hates to ask, Cas is gonna be mad at him, furious even. There’s something in St Louis he wants to get to, some library, he’s been talking about nothing else since John gave the go-ahead on this scavenging hunt, but his safety comes first. Any pack member’s safety comes first, children and omegas above all, but Cas is- Cas is even above those in Dean’s mind. Who else can wire up a brand new radio with an oil lamp and metal wafers, and- and- and just be Cas? They cannot risk Cas.

“I’m not sure I’m letting anyone on that expedition next month,” John points out aridly, scratching his cheek. “Vic told me about that Crowley character. That was odd, him bypassing the roadhouse. But this…? If this Neely hadn’t tried to take a swipe at Jo, I could have assumed he bought the book off Crowley. Traders swap stuff all the time.”

“Yeah. As soon as he heard Crowley, he was off like a shot. He didn’t seem to be that good a liar, I don’t think he expected to be questioned, but still, you’d think he would have tried to brazen it out rather than tackle a room full of betas, one with a shotgun on him. Why did he think the gig was up as soon as we mentioned Crowley?”

“I’m not sure.”

“He was angling to find out who Cas is, where he's from. Dad, do you think this is coming from Michael Novak?”

“You said Crowley had a New England accent.”

“Yeah, but this guy didn’t. Said he’d been to Utah too, though he could be lying.”

John drums fingers on the table. “From all I hear of him, I don’t think Michael Novak does things in an underhanded manner.” John's tone doesn't make that sound like an out-and-out compliment.

The silence is back for another round. It lingers the time it’d take to play a hand of poker.

“What I’m wondering is how often this book has been here these past few months.”

Dean looks up at his father, intrigued. “What do you mean?”

“I’m wondering if other new traders we don’t know have visited us with the same pack of goods in the past few months.”

“...Damn.” They could be sounding out the pack’s defenses. Getting to know the betas here, bored out of their skull and always happy to gossip with a trader who’ll buy them a beer. Maybe see which omegas got rotated here and if any are called Novak...

“Ellen? Can we have a word?”

“Yes alpha.”

“Can we swap this for something lighter?” John asks, nudging the bottle with regret. “I think we’re gonna be here awhile. After that, go somewhere quiet and write up a list of all the traders who’ve been here since the spring thaw. Underline those you don’t know.”

“Sure thing. Here, alpha, you need to see this. Charlie’s been over that trader’s pack with a fine-toothed comb, she knows what she’s looking for. She says it’s all above board, but she found this piece of note scrunched at the bottom of his saddlebag.”

John unfolds the piece of paper no larger than his palm, scrutinizes it. His eyebrows lift up.

“Crowey was the slimeball who came first, right?”

“Yes. This mentions Crowley?” Dean forces himself to sit instead of leaping to his feet, rounding the table and looking over John’s shoulder.

John’s tilting the paper to catch the light of the kerosene lamp Ellen put on the table for them. The sun’s sailed past the cliff around the roadhouse two hours ago, it’s gotten dark. “It’s torn off of the side of a letter, pretty worn. I doubt he meant to keep it, it must have ripped when he took it out and threw away the rest. The bit I can make out mentions Crowley. Hm. Warn Alastair, Crowley’s pulled a runner and is planning to oppose Lucifer. Alastair will want- The rest got damp, ink ran.”

“...Lucifer. Really.” Dean sits back in his chair.

“That’s what it says. In the next line it says, He’s setting up- and that’s all.”

He hands Dean the paper at last, but other than confirm it reads Crowley, Dean can’t make out much more than his dad. He twists in his chair and looks around.

“Cas? You ever hear of a Lucifer?”

Cas is finished with the antenna, he crept back in a few seconds ago, keeping a carefully respectful perimeter around the primary alpha and the hunter deputy while he heads back to his small toolbox . The question makes him look up from his set of wrenches and blink several times. “...Other than the biblical one?”

“Presumably it’s not that one we’re dealing with.”

“Not unless everything I’ve ever known and believed in is wrong,” Cas mutters, breeze-light and meant for Dean only as he leans down to pack the wrenches away.

“Here, come over and have a look at this.” Dean shows him the slip. John’s looking between the two of them... But Cas is smart, Dean’s not gonna get hung up on the Hierarchy if it means availing himself of that big brain.

Cas reads the paper in the light of the kerosene lamp, then he tilts it another way to examine it under the dying light of day pouring through the door behind his back. “No, sorry, doesn’t ring a bell. I can tell you we never had anyone from Novak pack with that name,” he adds with faint irony. He’s smart enough to have figured out the connection they’re most concerned about. “This word here… it says Atlanta.”

“It does?” John lifts his head to pierce Cas and then the paper with a sharp look. “Where?”

“Here, in the sentence below the one mentioning Lucifer. I have a lot of experience deciphering faded and incomplete texts,” Cas adds as an aside.

The paper goes from Cas’s hands to John’s again, Dean can only look at it from the other side of the table and frown, pushing his memory around like it’s a recalcitrant omega. “Atlanta… that’s a city down south and east, right?”

Cas nods. “I understand it’s quite bad in that region. Nothing much there anymore.”

“Yeah. Wonder why it’s showing up in a letter…”

Cas turns, takes a step towards his bag and toolbox, but then he makes it a one eighty to face John again. He licks his lips, hesitates.

“What is it?” John asks, looking up from the strip of letter.

Cas hesitates. “Alpha… Maybe… I don’t want to overstep, but-... ”

“If you have a suggestion, Castiel, I’m all ears,” says John without a hint of bein’ patronizing.

“It’s about the quarantine. I understand Winchester has ways of doing things.” Eyeflick towards Ellen, over at the counter and busy writing with a worn-out pencil. “But you- we- perhaps it should be fully reinstated. There may be cause for concern.”

“What do you mean?” John asks, curious and intent.

Dean feels an odd surge of pride in his old man. That’s what a real alpha should be, you know. You don’t need to throw your weight around, you can listen to every single member of your pack without getting riled that they know more, or pretending that you’re stooping to their level. Dean can only hope to be half the alpha John is some day, if he ever gets there.

Being spoken to like someone with a brain who’s got something to say puts Cas back on track, and Dean buries a smile in his glass as the didactic tone comes back full force.

“Dean told me that the pack - this whole region - has been disease-free for over a decade, and that the quarantine has become lax for well known traders. That’s fine until now because the Concordat and its allies such as Novak have been close to an hermetically enclosed system. You only trade amongst yourselves, and even if this represents a good five thousand people or more, there’s actually very little ingress avenues possible for diseases - the kind you’re not used to, that could cause an epidemic. But if there are strangers coming in from the east, they could bring strains that you’re not accustomed to. Whatever their intentions, this could put everything you’ve built here at risk.”

Dean was thinking of invaders carrying guns, not germs. From John’s thoughtful look, he was in the same boat. But yeah, these guys could harm them without firing a single bullet. Great, more to worry about.

“Thank you, Castiel, that’s a valid concern and I will take steps to act on it. Not just our pack, I’ll get onto the entire Concordat. We’ll circle the wagons, like we used to in the past.”

Castiel nods happily and returns to his radio, where he gets cornered by Charlie asking all sorts of questions sotto voce. The cheerful curious whispers contrast with the silence that has set over the father-and-son table.

...What ill wind is blowing from the east and what is it bringing with it…?

Chapter Text

Excerpt from “History of the Post-Apocalyptic Midwest”, Chapter 4: Thabéta Dórihe / Men of Letters Concordat.

Our region’s most successful packs were born on Native American reservations after the Great Dying. The survival rate there was no better than anywhere else; from the old records I found, and from correspondence with our allies, I’ve estimated only one tribal community out of ten ultimately survived. But once the worst was over, these close-knit communities, at a distance from the warzones that were the other towns and cities, were able to rapidly recover; the survivors had their own water supply, backup power, law enforcement and clinics, all supporting a population to whom a history of endurance, hardship and decimation was nothing new. Up north, packs have adopted a policy of isolationism, but in our regions the most powerful of these groups - the Okxas, Mimetosa and Osage packs - chose to help other non-native groups survive during the first harsh decades. I suppose the looming threat to all of humanity was enough to bury past grievances. These packs are the core founders and three of the four crucial pillars of what is known as the Dórihe in Ioway, or the Concordat in English. The last pillar, and other success story of this region, is the Winchester pack.

Originally the Men of Letters was a science club; university professors and their students debating scientific findings. The president, David Winchester, taught biochemistry at Kansas U. When the plague swept through, he took his family and some colleagues to seek refuge with his wife’s father, Amos Miller. Amos was what was known as a ‘prepper’, living in a bunker near his hometown of Lebanon, Kansas (not to be confused with Lebanon, Missouri, near which the Winchester pack eventually settled to take advantage of the rich Ozark Lake State Park.)

That oddball mix between the Millers and the Winchesters produced a powerful set of survival tools. On the one hand, a paranoid preparedness for the apocalypse, on the other, a profound knowledge of chemistry, botany, and electrical engineering. The last produced the radio network that joins us together to this day, like it did almost eighty years ago when the first message from the call sign “Men of Letters” broke a silence of a decade over a ruined land.

- A-C.N.W, circa AD 2122, Spring day 2 year 75 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ Green Eyed Monster ~~~

“I can do this alone if you need a break, Dean,” Sam says again (because apparently Dean didn’t snort loud enough the first time around.) “You’ve been running at our flanks all day. The hunters must have walked twice the distance we have - and we were on horseback.”

Dean’s retort - “Yeah, but we’re twice as tough,” - is purely knee-jerk. His attention is on the lookouts deploying around this abandoned stretch of what was once a highway. They’ve been following it since a little past Winchester territory. The ancient road systems have for the most part been overtaken by the prairies and forests which are slowly smothering out the Old World that came before, but the one-time highway still carves a semblance of a path through the terrain; trees are scarcer, the walk a little easier for horses and mules, a path straight as an arrow leading them towards St Louis.

A little bit of brotherly bickering ensues, pretty much on automatic. At their side, Ginny and Ruby snarl and snap and go for another round of trying to determine who’s boss until their owners break them up and make them sit like good girls. (Ruby is Sam’s hound and, in Dean’s estimation, anything but a good girl, but for some reason Sam adores her.)

The air is crisp, winter is just around the corner. Both Winchesters glance frequently at the sky overhead, a disquieting slate grey fading to pearl in the west where the sun is crashing towards the horizon behind a blanket of thick clouds. Please god let it not snow early this year…

They stopped a good two hours before sunset today to get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow they’ll be in St Louis. Despite losing a couple of weeks due to the roadhouse incident, John finally decided to push onwards with the expedition, but with twice the guard it would normally have. Sam is here with fifteen armed betas on horseback surrounding the convoy of omegas and toiling mules. Dean and Tyler are on the march at their flank, frequently breaking away to make large sweeps to look for tracks, a long patrol and scouting expedition rolled into one, which is why Sam thinks Dean might be tired out (as if.)

If you’re wondering why Vic isn’t in charge of the expedition, that means you have half a brain. That’d be what you’d expect. But this setup is what John decided. He might be keeping Vic and the latter’s kill squad around in case of trouble while the camp is understaffed. Maybe. Dean suspects this is yet another of his father’s teaching moments. Guarding the omegas and the procession’s safety is Sam’s show nominally, but getting there is Dean’s, the wilds being his domain. Every moment, every decision, from the route they take to where they put the latrines, has to be agreed upon between the two of them, a delicate balance… and John surely did that on purpose, one more lesson for the Winchester brothers: teaching two equally ranked betas from different sub-packs to cooperate, an echo of how they’ll eventually have to work together as alphas.

Dean’s torn on this, as with a lot of things coming from his dad. An adult doesn’t like to feel he’s still being schooled by the old man, but on the other hand, it’s been years since he got to spend time with his brother like this, outside of Sunday meals. Deep down, Dean’s delighted that Sam got put on this expedition with him-

“I had another chat with Castiel today, wow, what an eye opener.”

-though maybe a fraction less now than he was ten seconds ago.

Dean makes a non-committal noise before he can stop himself, a complex roil of emotions pacing around his belly.

“The information he’s got on that virus that did this to us, it’s amazing. How it got into our bodies and changed us. Lord.” The big moose glances down at his own chest as if he can see GF32 tinkering with his working parts even now.

“Hm.”

“Did you know he’s thinking of writing an actual book about all this? When he has the time?” Sam sounds positively awed. Nobody writes books anymore. Nobody creates. They scavenge and scratch and survive.

Dean’s non-committal noise is back, it slips out while the rest of Dean is wrestling the bristly words ‘Yeah, I’ve known about that for months now and I’ve even read the first chapter!’ back where they belong, into the inner cage of the slinky dark critter that’s been pacing around for days. A shameful flea-ridden beast made of jealousy and old hurt, mangy and starved, almost forgotten at times, yet still able to growl and claw at the bars every time Dean’s come back, tired and dirty, from a day of scouting to find Sam and Cas talking together, head down around the fire as they look at drawings scratched into the dirt.

Pretty much since the day Sam could talk in full sentences, it’s been obvious the kid’s brighter than Dean by far. More than that, Sam’s got this- this inner light, this charisma thing going. And that’s fine, Dean’s proud of him, damn proud, no ifs, ands or buts. It’s only occasionally that in the shadow of this great pride lurks that ill-bred varmint full of hurt and loneliness, a nasty jealous rodent who’s seen everyone - his dad, Kate, Adam, Bobby, everyone - treat Sam like the second coming, like his prickly temper and bitchiness are the signs of intellect, independence and greatness, while Dean’s been relegated to ‘good soldier’, the reliable one who'll follow orders and needs no further concern. Now it's not that Dean covets the primary alpha position, Christ no, he'd run a mile if you tried to pin that on him. That’s got nothing to do with it. It’s hard to put into words exactly how Dean feels about it, really, he’s not great at chalking his own thoughts that much. He just knows that every time in the past week he’s seen Sam and Cas head down in deep discussion, he’s had this inky black foreboding that Cas, like everybody else, will quickly conclude that here is the more interesting of the Winchester brothers, and split his time and attention accordingly. And hell, makes sense, right? In the years to come, Cas is going to be working closely with the primary alpha, and that’ll eventually be Sam. Why would Castiel Novak waste his time on a hunter for? It’s not like Dean’s gonna be lighting up Winchester pack with electric doodads in the future. He’ll just be hauling back deer carcasses all his life until something bushwhacks him and another beta takes over.

And you know, most times Dean is fine with this, and he’ll be fine with it again if Sammy would just stop bringing it up! So he had an interesting talk with Cas, why does he seem to find it important to come tell Dean about it every evening as they do their tour around the camp?!

Dean manages to put a cork in it for awhile by finding fault in one of Sammy’s guard details (legit, too, why does Alexandra Harris think she can see better in the lee of a ruined wall rather than on the top?) The sun is all down now, cooking smells waft from the campfire the omegas are tending behind them. They camped in a place where the highway crests a hill, giving a good view all around. The brothers are standing off to one side, looking to the east and the approach to St Louis. It’s all hills and forests, dark as specters all around them, but they can still make out the band of higher trees to their right that marks the Missouri river, snaking towards a flat area a few hours away where vegetation grows scarce and the Mississippi twinkles beneath the rising moon.

Dean’s said what he needs to say about the road they’re gonna take tomorrow and he’s hoping they can now go back to camp for some chow, but from the way Sam’s looking at him sideways and then away again, the discussion is gonna head down a rabbit hole once more, Dean just knows it. What now?

“Is this something else that dad is to blame for?” Sam suddenly crosses his arms with impatience, glaring at the innocent Mississippi which has nothing to do with their family tensions last Dean checked.

“What?” Dean growls, thankful at least this is not about Cas. John is a well worn bone of contention between them, Dean’s used to it.

“All this stuff Cas talks about.” Son of a bitch- “It’s really interesting, but you’re acting like a bloody brute about it. Is this more of John’s ‘My boys have to focus everything on pack survival’ bullshit?”

“What the hell are you on about? Dad never said nothin’ about-... wait, for real, what are you on about?”

Sam makes an irritated gesture. “Everytime I talk with Cas, all I hear is 'your brother had something interesting to say about it’, or ‘oh, I only thought of this because Dean pointed it out’. But when I try to bring this stuff up, what do I get? Just get your best John Winchester impersonation and nothing more! What the hell, Dean? Why can’t you and I talk about this shit too? With me you always go on about how much you lack smarts, but with Castiel, you obviously-”

Dean Winchester’s never lost a fight in his life, he’s that tough a scrapper, but today his furry jealousy varmint takes one look at the monster a’comin’ his way and hightails it like a little bitch, leaving a bumbling, emotionally incompetent Dean behind, holding the bag.

 

~~~ Kissing your sister ~~~

It’s getting late by the time Dean finishes petting his brother’s bristling fur down again. They never did get around to chattin’ about Cas’s stuff, but Dean’s promised them both they'd sit down soon and chew the gristle on it. There’s actual validity in this. Cas, well, he’s up in his ivory tower, his ideas are as high as the clouds. What Dean and Sam can talk about, it will be interesting too but in its own way, it might start with Cas’s research on past knowledge and future improvements, but it could well end up somewhere that’s actually useful for the pack as a whole, even if it’s in the far-flung future well after both of ‘em are comfortably dead and gone.

Dean should be heading to his bedroll. Ginny has already dashed ahead and is turning around and around on the end of it, trampling out her spot. But Dean’s feet insubordinately take him past her to where a familiar brown coated figure putters around camp supplies. Ginny huffs a sigh behind him and follows.

“Cas? You should get to bed.”

Cas flashes him a smile. “In a minute, I’m just putting away the pots.”

“Wasn’t it your turn to clean up last night?” Dean asks suspiciously. Is someone giving Cas extra chores?

Cas assiduously wipes the large cast iron skillet a few times. “I volunteered. The others were tired.”

“You’re not?”

“I’m a bit wound up,” Cas admits with a small sheepish smile.

Dean feels like a complete killjoy, but: “Remember, I can't guarantee that-”

“Yes, yes, I know, we might not have the time to go, but it’s not just the library. I do want to reach it if we can, but if we can’t make it this year, there will always be the next hopefully - but it’s everything else we want to do here too, I’ve made plans which I brought to alpha about what to look for, this is such an important task, so many opportunities-" Cas runs out of words and breath, the pan he waves towards St Louis has to conclude for him.

Dean’s been to St Louis half a dozen times now. It's good scavenging ground, but he doesn’t like it. He hopes it measures up to Cas’s excitement, and he’s worried it won’t. The thought of Cas getting disappointed, of seeing that burning excitement dimmed by crappy reality, makes Dean wish they could just turn around right now. The look Dean aims at the darkness to the east is more a vindictive glower.

Movement catches his eyes on the edge of camp. “Jo. Hit the sack, we’re up before dawn.”

“I know it, boss-man. Night, Cas!” Jo strides off in the direction of her sleep roll. Dean follows her with his eyes, wondering what she was doing - or, being a beta, who she was doing. That’s the problem with having Tyler’s team around, and Sam’s guards too; there’s been a scuffle or two every night as betas unfamiliar with working with each other find their balance, and then after that’s done, there’s been a bit of sorting themselves out the other way; the strong making a point of jumping each other’s bones, taking the conflict into the sheets in pure beta tradition, while the day’s losers have to sit out in the cold, simmering with jealousy. Children, thinks Dean with a patronizing huff (which may go to show he’s got a short memory… but even if he’d be getting up to the same shenanigans this time last year, that don’t signify, he’s matured since then - look how he sorted out his small rift with Sammy with words, like a grownup, see?)

When Dean looks his way again, Cas is no longer trying to bat down St Louis with a frying pan, he’s put away the utensil and is now drying the well-scrubbed cooking tongs while side-eyeing Dean.

“How old is Joanna?”

“Hm? Eighteen, I think. Yeah, I was four when she was born.”

“It’s impressive that she’s already part of your team. I’ve been told that your group is the second strongest after alpha Henricksen’s.”

“Oh, we don’t really measure dicks between ourselves,” Dean lies modestly. Of course their team is second best. In theory it should be Annabelle’s lot, her being their other alpha, but what with ‘Belle being heavily pregnant or nursing half the time… She’s in charge of any hunter who’s been injured but can still hold a gun, and of the pups who are coming up the ladder and who need training, she’s also the short-range defense. Anybody who thinks that makes her and her team weak has never met a she-wolf with cubs, right, but it’s a fact that Dean’s group could take ‘em in a scuffle.

“I understand Jo is rising quickly in the ranks.”

“Yup. She’s going places, that kid.” Not really a kid anymore, at that. In Winchester, you're an adult at fifteen, you take your place in a pack, you start climbing the ladder and finding your place.

Cas is sure cleanin’ them tongs. Dean opens his mouth to suggest the omega finish up and hit the hay.

“We talked a couple of months back about, ah, finding you a suitable mate - someone of equal rank in order-”

“Please tell me you’re not going to fit Jo anywhere into that there sentence you’re working your way through.”

It’s hard to tell in the darkness, but he thinks Cas is giving him an intense side-eye. “… Why not?”

Dean gets that Cas is a great fan of Jo since she pried that beta off of him at the roadhouse, but ick.

“Dude, we grew up in the same pack. I saw her born.”

“Doesn't that mean you're very close?”

“It means she’s my sister! Or just about. Besides, I’m not looking to get mated anytime soon,” Dean says, confesses really. John and Kate - and Annabelle and Benny and others - they’ve been getting on his case about it; in half-words mostly, knowing Dean’s stubbornness to direct suggestions. Hinting that it’s about time he starts looking for something permanent. Sure, Dean’s gonna be twenty three in four months, and most matings happen before you hit your quarter century, but-

“Oh I’m sure there’s no hurry,” says Cas, and then dives into the supplies box and busies himself with something right at the bottom, Dean can’t quite see what. Reassured he’s gotten away without a lecture, Dean says goodnight, does one more turn around the camp, makes sure Cas is safely in bed and then bunks down himself, hand on his gun and one eye open.

 

~~~ Gateway to the West ~~~

The truth that Dean’s too chicken to admit to Cas is that he tried to oppose the omega coming to St Louis with them. John listened to his advice quite carefully for once, Dean was both surprised and grateful, but in the end, alpha decided to send Cas along. John’s forward thinking. The trouble hovering over their camp is hypothetical still, there's been no sign of imminent threat. Next year might be different; next year there might be nobody going scavenging out in the old cities, and in that case, they’d regret not having sent their new brain along this time.

And Dean has to admit John was right. Cas is finding stuff they never thought to look for in a city that’s been picked over by a lot of roamers, scavengers and established packs before. Then again, there is a hell of a lot of city here, and humanity, well, there’s not a lot of them left anymore; the Great Dying alone took out nine people out of a ten.

St Louis is a forest, where it isn't a marsh, but there are still signs of both the Old World and its end all around. The ghost of old streets, some as wide as the arm of the Ozark Dean swam in growing up, have barricades across them dating back to the days of martial law and forced quarantine. Crumbling walls are eaten through by roots but also riddled with old bullet holes. Many buildings are still standing; if you risk your neck to climb one to the top, you can see to the northwest where there’s no city no more, huge swathes still black beneath recovering vegetation where a fire took out a good quarter of the city a century ago, with nobody around healthy enough or organized enough to stop it.

The worst are the warehouses and stadiums, rising like phantoms between groves of cypress, pine and dogwood; once upon a time the army, or whoever was still in charge, dumped the bodies they no longer had time to bury there. The Winchesters avoid those. At one time or another, travelers in the wasteland daubed crosses on the crumbling walls, turning them into crude burial grounds, the best they could do for their forefathers whose wretched bones outnumber their living great-grandchildren ten thousand to one.

St Louis and the other Old World cities give Dean a massive case of the shivers, like he’s camping out in a cemetery, but Cas’s enthusiasm is infectious. Sam being in charge of this part of the expedition, Cas gives him an official report at day’s end, but then he comes over and talks excitedly to Dean and shows him his treasures. Old glass jars of chemicals and rare earths taken from labs and the university that Cas hunted down from old maps (he’s careful, of course, and he only bothers with the powders; the liquids would be too volatile and long-gone useless according to Cas.) He also finds books on chemistry, mechanics and metallurgy so future generations won’t get any dumber; only a few tomes survived, and their faded pages aren’t always easy to read, but Cas claims he can fill in the blanks, and build a library in the schoolroom. A library, Jesus Christ... The greatest treasure are shiny silver cylinders like fat coins taken from junkyards full - full! - of wrecked cars. Neodymium magnets, Cas calls them, something other survivors before them didn’t know could be found in rusted heaps of metal that used to drive along busted highways. Winchester pack can build a lot of shit, but magnets? Good ones? No, that’s beyond them, and that’s a problem as you need them in turbines and stuff. Cas talks excitedly about building motors that’ll turn machines that’ll help them build more stuff that will help Cas eventually retrofit and recover the old hydroelectric dam near their camp, powering even greater machines to rebuild civilisation, if his keenness is anything to go by. Dean shows his respect to the shiny silver magnets, though the only thing he finds them interesting for is the fun way they so totally stick together until you have to use a surprising amount of finger strength to get them apart, while turning them around means you can't force them together for love or money...

But it’s not all fun and games. St Louis, like all old cities, is dangerous. There’s stretches where the ground is dangerously porous, other areas are poisonous from the crap that leaked out of the dead city like fluids from a corpse. The scavengers filled barrels of water from streams two days before they reached the city and put them on the mules. Nobody drinks anything here, or eats what sprouts from the soil. While Cas is on another of his expeditions under guard, the other omegas are toiling beneath an autumn sun which has finally decided to bring back summer for a few days, to the expedition’s good fortune. Phillip, Tok, Mike A and Mike L, Big Alan, Marta, Alex, Dylan and Tee are a mix of Rancher and Maker omegas; Dean made a point of meeting each one, getting their names straight and assessing them on character and not bend on the first day. They’re a hardy bunch for omegas, different in character but now uniformly sweating as they use picks on the old root-shattered roads, freeing an area around a manhole to dig up the wires. A couple of betas are helping them pry up slabs of concrete, and Cole is aggressively doing nothing, sitting in the cradle of a broken wall like he’s in a lounger, watching the omegas work. He doesn’t move, doesn’t bother looking over his shoulder to where Dean is standing on his one o’clock.

“What’s wrong, princess? Got a crick in your back?”

“What, I’m supposed to help?” Cole sneers, still without turning. “I’m not a fucking omega.” One of Sam’s guys, Kyle Westler, looks up briefly from where he’s helping Marta pry up concrete, and fails to look impressed. “That’s what the drones are for. I’m here to guard them, and they can thank me for that. Catch me scratching around in the-”

Maybe if he’d turned around, he’d have seen Dean’s hand coming for the nape of his neck. As it is, he’s off his comfortable wall and on his knees in a flash.

“Yeah, I'm sure they're thankful for the bang-up job you're doing,” Dean declares cooly over Cole’s garbled protest.

“What the fuck!” The kid struggles against Dean’s hand on his nape. “Let me go!

“What you doing here, Cole?”

“I’m on fucking watch!”

“Oh really? It's called that way when you have eyes open and turned on someone coming up behind you. Otherwise it's called snoozin'.”

Cole’s muscles are as tense as a spring, he’s not giving in an inch to the beta who’s got him by the neck, his voice is an aggressive snarl. “I knew it was you, I heard you approach- recognized your step-”

“And how many others creeping up behind me? Maybe with a gun to my head - or to someone else’s head - forcing me to go up to you and disarm you?”

The only answer to that is an ill-tempered growl. Dean presses down harder. Cole’s face must be picking up streak marks that match the broken concrete.

“Yeah. Not much of a guard,” Dean concludes. “Better grab a shovel and I’ll keep a lookout. Since I know that’s Sam coming up behind me.”

“With how many guys?” asks Sam. Dean can hear the fierce grin in his voice.

“Less than the number of bullets in here,” Dean answers, his gun materializing in his hand.

Sam laughs and slaps him on the back in passing.

“Get to work helping them or I’ll get the omegas to sit on this here wall and watch you do it all yourself for the next hour,” Dean promises, low and hard in Cole’s ear. He ignores the growl that’s his only answer. The puppy will do as he’s told or he’ll know the consequences. Cole’s been riding the omegas hard this past week; he’s not used to being in contact with the lower bends outside of the ones in the hunter camp who are implicitly protected by Vic and Annabelle. This freedom to boss some weaker people around has gone to the kid’s head, like it’s gone to stronger heads before his. Dean’s gonna readjust this attitude even if he has to cave said head in.

Dean saunters over to Sam, standing off to one side with a crooked grin on his mug. Seein’ some good ol’ discipline bein’ handed out is always appreciated, it’s a higher beta thing. But Sam gives the subject of Cole the attention it deserves, to wit, none at all, focusing on the more important matters. “Did you find anything?”

“There’s camps dotted here and there, of course, but nothing fresh. Just scavengers like us, I wager.”

Dean, Everett and Jo have been out scouting St Louis since they got here. They should be resting from the trip’s exertion, but Dean’s having none of it. Two days away from Winchester territory, four days ago, Dean came across some tracks; fifteen people, five horses, one mule, no cart, and nowhere near the usual paths taken by travelers between Concordat packs… If those tracks showed any inclination to wander towards St Louis, Dean would have called off the expedition. It was his prerogative, he was in charge of that part. But they were heading away, southeast. Dean wishes he could have followed them. They were two weeks gone at least, but they might have stopped somewhere, the ones on foot would have slowed them down. A fast group of trackers could have caught up with them… Dean would have loved to creep up on their camp, see if they had anyone called Alistair with them. Or Lucifer.

But that wasn’t his job. He just had to get Sam and the others here safely and then keep an eye around St Louis. He’s been hard at it since they arrived, unable to relax with the countryside potentially full of Crowleys and other assholes.

“You could take a breather tomorrow,” Sam says - the brothers often think along the same lines, comes from growing up together and surviving the John WInchester School of Being A Badass. “We’re just packing up, and then we’ll be on the move again the day after that. Be good if you’re rested.”

“Nah. I’m fine.” He’s not even lying. Dean may not have much going for him in the brain department, not like Sam does, but he’s a tough son of a bitch. That’s not boasting, it’s just a fact.

Sam doesn’t insist. He knows Dean’s tough… and he knows his big brother’s not gonna let some random beta take his place tomorrow. At first Sam poked and prodded at Dean’s relationship with Cas; it is a bit odd, a beta and an omega from different sections and all. But now he seems to know, without even asking, that Dean’s not gonna let anybody else but him watch over Cas as he does his final foray into the heart of St Louis.

“Turn in early,” is all Sam says, “I’ll keep an eye on things here.” There’s a faint tilt of his chin in the direction of a fuming young beta toiling away at the concrete. If any other beta had offered to discipline one of his own, Dean would have gotten crotchety, but Sam… Sam’s different. They’re still both betas, will be so for awhile no doubt, but already Dean feels something fitting in between them. His lil’ bro relies on Dean's strength and grit, true, but as far as Dean is concerned, Sam is already a leader of men, a primary in his own right, and the only other person who Dean gives permission to chew on Cole’s rear if the latter acts up again. He claps Sam on the shoulder and takes his future alpha’s advice. Turn in early, get some rest.

Tomorrow, he and Cas are heading out on their own. To a library, of all places… a new experience, to be sure. Better be ready.

Chapter Text

Excerpt from a collection of speculative essays.

In my youth, when I was first mapping out the spread of GF32, I wondered if pockets of un-infected humans might remain on other continents. I can’t say for sure, but if there are, they must have been brought back to the iron age just like us. If they had survived with previous levels of technology, we would have seen some traces by now, if only echoes of live radio channels or jet contrails as they map out the extent of the disaster. Even if someone is out there, they’re unlikely to show up on our doorstep, which is all to the good. For all we know, GF32 could be bonded to us now, we could still be contagious. And I do not know how we would react to a human who does not fit in the Hierarchy now. We are so keyed into our subconscious hormonal responses that we might well react aggressively to someone so ultimately alien to us. Trust would be nigh impossible to establish. The chances of conflict are too great.

Who’d win that fight? (Is what my packmates want to know when I raise the possibility.) Good question. It would depend on their surviving level of technology, really, and on their numbers. But all else being equal? My money is on the packs. Survival of the fittest has made us extremely hardy as long as we’re well fed, and that’s not been a problem in the past two decades or more. Our resources and ability to develop them have only grown exponentially since the Great Dying. We also have a strong sense of cohesion in our favor. Under fire, we act as one. There is no need for us to drill in military units (though we are well-trained nonetheless), obedience and the chain of command are ingrained. And we are ferocious and without mercy when we need to be. To protect his pack, an enraged alpha would tear through a phalanx of soldiers even if fatally wounded, and once he or she fell, the next beta in line would take over seamlessly. Our weakness might be that we are scattered into separate packs, but the Concordat and others have worked together in the past against a common enemy, so ‘divide and conquer’ might not work either, and in that case I do not give our fully human forebears much of a chance against their mutated children.

All this is empty speculation. The artificially spread virus was very thorough, the apocalypse too widespread; no pre-apocalypse humans survived. The hope there is Someone Out There Who Can Fix This is a child’s dream. The stone cold truth is, the Old World is gone, the past is buried, and the land beyond our horizon is either empty or full of threats.

- A-C.N.W, circa AD 2128, Spring day 18 year 81 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ In Search of Knowledge ~~~

Cas’s step has more pep than should be allowed after eleven days of expedition and a lot of walking. It’s like he’s an iron filing, and the St Louis Central Library is a particularly powerful magnet.

“-that just wasn’t done in my former pack,” Cas says, navigating around a claw of rebar swiping out from a large clump of palm sedge. He’s been talking virtually nonstop since they passed by a landmark indicating they were less than ten minutes away from their destination. Dean almost told him to be quiet and let him focus on their environment, but he knows his friend is just real nervous about what they’re going to find at the end of this large road. So he lets Cas talk, most of his attention on the corners of buildings and the alleys and occasional pothole.

“Even asking questions was not allowed. You can imagine how frustrating that was.”

Dean snorts. “Yeah. Well, us Winchesters love questions, but it’s usually the question of, how we gonna feed everybody this year? Hardly elevating.”

“You do our pack too little credit,” Cas says with a bit of amusement blended into his reproof. “Alpha - your father - had some very probing questions for me when I arrived last spring, he was curious about my theories. I was very upfront with him, you understand, I wanted him to know what kind of wonky omega he was getting.”

“Hey now-”

“He seemed intrigued, and open-minded. He’s listened to my advice a couple of times now, I’m very honored.” There’s a soft light in Cas’s eyes and damn if Dean’s not suddenly even more fiercely proud of the old man than ever before. “He’s put a lot of trust in me on this expedition and even gave us leave for this side trip. I am grateful.” His eyes fix right on Dean's face when he says that, like he's giving that same gratitude to him. Dean makes some deprecating noise, followed by a glare at the unseasonably bright day overhead. The sun's bloody blazing, he hopes his cheeks aren't getting sunburned… Cas must get the hint, or else he's done with the unnecessary thanking. All the thanks Dean needs, he finds in the way Cas says ‘our pack’ when talking about Winchester these days, while the oh-so-saintly Novaks have been relegated to ‘my former’. Take that, Michael, and feel free to spin on it.

His boot scrapes concrete and sends pebbles and trash skittering on ahead like little scouts, but for the most part this area is still remarkably intact. The trees started their invasion from the outskirts of town and the parks; this area is still a beachhead of concrete at odds with the leafy sea around them; only a few hardy shrubs, ivy and such, have made headway so far. Give it another hundred years, though, and St Louis will be all but gone. Good riddance, thinks Dean. He dislikes the city. The space here is too wide, the geometry too harsh, too empty and alien. He avoids looking at the rusted pillars clawing at the sky, at the buildings towering above them so high it feels downright unnatural. The flight of a hawk overhead catches his eye and he follows that instead. Probably nesting on an abandoned balcony, and looking for mice in the ruins. Maybe it feels at home here. Dean does not.

 

~~~ Wolves in Cages ~~~

The library is vast, like all buildings of the Old World. They just didn’t build small back then. How the fuck did they heat all this in winter…? Why did it have to be so big in the first place? But the building seems in fairly good state of repair, Dean assesses before he lets go of Cas’s arm and the omega hares off through the large arched doorway as fast as Ginny when she gallops away in search of a hidden bone. Dean follows, alert and with a hand on his revolver, but the place is empty of all but a few scurrying furry things at the edge of his vision, disappearing as he makes his way through a large room and into an even larger one.

“Christ, what a mess. Sorry Cas.” The place is a long-dead carcass; relics of bookshelves stand like bone shards, the glass-less windows empty eye sockets in the bleached skull that is the round room, a dried crusty carpet of dead leaves and mulch what is left of the books that were once here, all pulped and mushed, desiccated remains.

“It’s okay, they’re all like this,” Cas says over his shoulder, already halfway across the room. “Windows break, books get destroyed- here, this way, what I’m looking for will be in the basement.”

Dean and Ginny follow at a trot in the hallway barely illuminated by the light through busted panes, until Cas plunges down a set of stairs leading underground. At that point Dean puts his foot down, gathers the omega close, lights both kerosene lamps they brought, and sends Ginny sniffing out ahead. They're deep enough that there’s not much root damage and too far from the river for water infiltration to have cored the foundation, but there are plenty of other reasons this venerable font of knowledge could fall on their heads.

“I swear, Cas, at the slightest sign of weakness in the ceiling-”

“Of course, of course- here, archives! This way!”

Dean doesn’t know how Cas knows. All the doors and some of the walls have plaques with words on them, but they’re faded, brittle, cracked, and written with weird rounded letters that’s a far cry from the simple alphabet Dean learned on blackboards and hand-held slates in school. Cas seems to be able to read them, though, he brushes each plastic sign screwed onto a door or wall as if they’re old friends he’s meeting again. One of those signs lights him up like a bonfire and he throws himself at the doors - only to bounce off, rubbing a bruised arm.

“You okay?”

“It’s locked!” Cas seems over the moon.

“...That’s good?”

“Yes! It means the microfilms will hopefully be undisturbed. Ah, but we need to get it open. Damn, I wonder if we can find a set of keys at reception, or in the janitor's-” He's interrupted by the crash of the Dean Winchester master key going into action, foot kicking the door in.

“Right, thanks Dean,” Cas says absently, through the doorway before Dean can ask to go in first and check the safety of the architecture. Dean rolls his eyes and follows.

There’s steel shelves everywhere, Dean notes with interest. They’ll have to send a scavenger party back here at some point. He thought St Louis had been thoroughly picked over, but it seems nobody looked too closely at the library.

The room is long but low and windowless, a stark and coffin-like contrast to the large round room somewhere above their heads. Boxes of some light wooden material sag in a kingdom of dust. The firefly of Cas’s kerosene lamp darts around from shelf to shelf, he’s muttering to himself, names and dates and things like “Virology.”

“Yes!” He grabs one of the boxes and levers it off the shelf. “Here, this one. And that one. Let me look some more-” Leaving the boxes in the narrow space between shelves, he’s off again.

Dean puts the lamp down near the door. As Cas pulls boxes from the shelves, Dean carries them out into the hallway. When half a dozen clutter the cracked and dusty floor, he hauls them upstairs two at a time to the main room where Cas will have more light and where Dean can see an attack coming and get them out one of the multiple exit points in a flash. This underground nest of dark musty corridors is making him cagey.

He looks around as Cas puts the last two boxes down on an old countertop of hardwood, still standing. Dean was only looking at the place strategically before, now he actually stares around and tries to imagine people reading here (that’s what they did in libraries, right?)

But there’s not much left to hang his imagination on. The place is too devastated. The counter and a few skeletons of shelves remain, piles of mildewed and much-chewed fabric that might have been clothes or couches… here and there, specks of colored paper that would be the little remaining of torn off book covers. A pile like party-colored snow peppers one corner where the wall and floor are blackened .Someone in the last fifty years tried to light a fire for warmth using the books as tinder. Yeah, traces of the end of times predominate over the previous more civilized uses of this room. That door over there was broken down with an axe. The setup of shelves in the northern corner don’t look natural; might have been used for a barricade. Above them, between two statues, one knocked down and desecrated, someone daubed CROATOAN on the wall.

“That word crops up a lot in old towns,” Cas says absently, following Dean’s gaze as he sorts through boxes.

“What's it mean?”

“Nobody knows for sure. It's historic originally. It marks a mystery from hundreds of years ago. But to the sufferers of the virus, or the survivors, I imagine it only meant one thing: there is no one left here. They are all gone.”

A cold breeze creeps through a broken window and winds its way up Dean's back. He banishes it with a roll of his shoulders that re-adjusts his deer-skin jacket. “Is that stuff usable?” he asks, turning his back on the silent mark on the wall. The omega told him this morning, while they were coming this way, that the material these ‘films’ are made of is highly resistant, meant to last hundreds of years, but if the room’s not properly protected from the elements, they can still become unreadable.

Cas holds a circle of plastic with black ribbon wrapped around it. He’s unrolling the ribbon, holding it up to the light of the kerosene lamp, and squinting hard.

“They’re undamaged… hm… I’ve seen this one already, but…” Dean’s not sure Cas is fully with him here.

“But?”

“Hm?”

“Cas, this what you were looking for?”

“Yes, yes.”

“...You need all of this?” Though the boxes are not too big, they dragged up a lot of them. They can’t bring all this back.

“Oh, no.” Cas finally looks away from the ribbon and follows Dean’s gaze to the disorderly stack of boxes. “I only need those from the right publications from June 2022 onwards.”

“And how do you find those?”

“I have to go through them, but it shouldn’t take too long, the indexing is still readable.” Cas’s eyes fish towards Dean a little tentatively. The beta is in charge of this expedition, naturally, he’s the one who decides how long is ‘too long’.

“Good. Then have a drink of water and a bite to eat first,” Dean orders calmly. “You’ll focus better.”

Cas’s hand leaps to his stomach and he looks down as if surprised it’s still there. It’s been a trek to get here, and an effort to haul up those boxes; if he wasn't so focused, he'd be famished. Cas looks back longingly at his films, but obediently takes a five minute break to bolt down water and some dried meat with hardtack.

“I’ve already read a lot of the newspapers from that time,” he explains between mouthfuls, his mind still on his find even if his hands can’t be right this minute. “From microfilms, of course, none of the physical papers survived, except scraps that are almost illegible. But St Louis - this library- they had a project to microfilm all papers including scientific articles around the time of the plague and the Great Dying. A lot of places stopped once civilisation tottered, but the larger cities kept it up. For awhile. It will help get more details, scientific details from around that time. Unfortunately the library won’t have the most up-to-date discoveries they made as their world died around them. The best would be if I could go to Washington or New York-”

Dean’s snort echoes around the ruined room.

“Yes, I know. Unsafe, especially for an omega.” Cas looks briefly depressed, his hardtack crumbing between his fingers. Then he glances at the countertop on which they’d perched themselves to eat, and dips his chin at a rectangular shape on the desk, old and weatherbeaten to a dirty flaky sepia. “Of course, I could get all the information I need if I could use a computer.”

Dean leans back to have a look at the object on Cas’s other side. It’s about the size of a bowie knife down one end and a skinner knife on the other.

“That’s a tee-vee, right? Seen ‘em in old books. They show pictures. Made up stories.”

Cas hesitates as he straightens up the thing. It lists sideways on a short pedestal. It’s made of plastic, that stuff they loved so much in the Old World and which is fuck-all useful these days, since you can’t readily melt it, shape it or re-use it. A few of the roofs in camp are patched with plastic they found in the old cities, it’s used in some windows, along with cups and bowls and other objects they dug up from Lebanon and Jefferson City, but-... The Dean who’s been hanging around Cas awhile and who thinks in new ways wonders if plastic is really all that impractical, or if the children of the apocalypse simply avoid it out of a sort of atavistic superstition. They use wood, metal, deer bones and hides, familiar materials they can get themselves and understand, not these relics of the Old World that used to bend to their ancestor’s touch and refuses to bow to theirs....

“Um, yes, somewhat similar to a television, but a computer can also give out information that it finds on its network.”

“Its… network?” What, the computer has a bunch of buddies huddling in other libraries throughout the midwest, ready to rally to its defense in case someone attacks it?

“Its connection to other computers. Somewhere in the world, there is almost certainly a computer that has the exact knowledge I’m looking for." Cas lays his hands on the plastic frame as if an act of grace could bring it back to life. “It might even be on the network, it could be right here at my fingertips… except that every link of that spider’s web that could have brought me that information has died and turned to dust decades ago.” Particles and fine grit lift around them and dance in the light as Cas, gestures heavy, lays the computer flat against the wood again, slips down from the counter and moves away.

Dean feels an urge to cheer him up, but has no clue how. To his beta focus, all this stuff is ‘junk’. It’s all part of the fairytale of what came Before, and just about as useful. More than that, this place… he doesn’t like it. The walls are too high, the room too big… Dean’s been glancing warningly at the roof, daring it to fall on their heads. All this wrecked paper and plastic strewn about is like swamp candles, it’s a lure away from the sunshine-flooded reality of the recovering forest outside, it’s nothing but shreds and crumbs of a past that’s no longer relevant.

But not to Cas... “All these wonders,” he whispers, looking around them with eyes that see something other than Dean’s, even as he lifts the lid off the first box by touch alone. “All this knowledge, this… this grace. Broken by the malignance of a handful of fanatics for their own purposes.”

His voice echoes. Must feel good to say it out loud; back in Novak, he’d have been pilloried for suggesting it wasn’t God who sent the Big Bad Virus as punishment for a laundry list of all the sins. But he’s out of Novak now… and Cas let Dean understand, in measured half-words and sentences, that he no longer believes in a just and merciful god anymore, nor an ineffectual bystander of a god either. This don’t shock Dean as much as he thought it would. Dean’s a good christian, of course, but truthfully, he’s only a good christian on Sundays, or whenever the gunpowder gets wet or the deer startles for no reason a second before he shoots it - when he needs someone to blame, in short. The rest of the time he don’t think about it much.

Still a far cry to know it’s people that broke all this, though. That killed so many and changed the rest. Despite months of talking with Cas about it regular-like, Dean still can’t wrap his head around the sheer magnitude of the disaster. So many people… such a massive civilisation, so powerful, with so many machines and- and- wonders and knowledge and-... Jesus… The only way Dean can tackle the thought is to imagine an equivalent in the world he’s familiar with, a few loons taking a hatchet to every single radio and antenna in the midwest, to every turbine, and burning down the fields to boot, a level of destruction that Dean just can’t imagine any human being would ever have the- the sheer insanity to aspire to…

“Any idea why they did it?” he muses, and (since Cas has already told him a couple of times he refuses to speculate) he immediately answers his own question with: “Bet they wanted to be super alphas or something. Kings of the ruins.”

“I doubt they had such personal ambitions, or that they even expected to survive. I also think that what we’ve built would have surprised them.” Cas is talking absently, he’s back to perusing his ribbons.

“Huh?”

“Thinking about it, and from my research, I’m not sure our present society is what they wanted.”

Dean looks at mister ‘I refuse to speculate’ curiously, wondering if the library, or Dean’s effort to bring him here, are giving Cas a free rein he normally doesn’t allow himself. “It’s not?”

“No. Of course, I can’t be sure, I can only judge the changes they made, not their intent, but… hmm, I really do believe they wanted us to imitate wolf packs.”

“Yeah... ? Ain’t that what we got?”

“No. I read a paper once- it was printed in book-form, I wonder if they have a copy here. I had to leave mine in Novak, it was too old to carry without proper protection. It’s a treatise about the behavior of wolves in reserves versus wild wolf behavior. They’re not the same. What we have nowadays is a caged wolf society.”

“But we’re not in cages.”

“No, what I mean- the behavior I’m talking - the initial impression people had for a long time that wolves had alphas, betas and lesser members, a strict hierarchy - this was based on observations of wolf packs that were set up on large nature reservations by humans. For a long time, people thought they were representative of how wolves in the wild behaved, but that’s inaccurate. These caged wolf packs were composed of random members unrelated by blood, heavily stratified, with constant contestation from the beta layer to the single alpha breeding pair. Which is pretty much what we have, if you count obvious differences due to the fact that we’re an intelligent species. But this is not natural, it’s artificial. Do you remember our discussion from a few months back, when you told me that the organisation of our packs - with breeding alphas, betas, omegas, do you remember you pointed out that this is the law of nature? Well that’s not the case for wolves at any rate. Wild wolves are different. There are not really alphas, betas and omegas among them. Almost all wolf packs are nothing more or less than families. The alphas - you can’t even call them bends anymore, there’s just two parents, the breeding pair, and the children. And that’s how they live.”

It hits Dean right in the chest. Cas’s voice is going on in the background talking about strays and lone wolves and this and that, but Dean barely registers as he sees it, he sees it better than he sees these stark walls of an Old World long dead.

The day’s like any other day: hard, but good. He’s brought back a young buck with the help of his eldest. Kid’s twelve and growing so fast… she’s not an omega per se, not exactly a beta either, everything is just-... fluid and natural, you don’t need boxes for people, you don’t need tags and a Hierarchy. Dean is uncontestedly alpha, though, him and his mate walking towards them while swinging their youngest by the arms. And yeah, deep in the privacy of his own brain, Dean doesn’t have to pretend the man walking towards him is a faceless stranger. It’s a private fantasy, nobody can see, nobody can judge or even know who is the man walking towards Dean with that small yet so heartachingly beautiful smile, blue eyes sparkling as he watches their oldest manhandle the deer over. Claire, that’d be her name, nice solid name for a girl who’d be a powerhouse of will if she’s from both of them. The other kids come running from all over the house Dean and his mate built with their own hands, from the barn, the fields and from all four corners of their land, a territory large enough for a family of two alphas and, oh, six pups, none of them dispersed. That’s enough, biology doesn’t feel like it needs to force out more, there’s no pressure here, nothing but two alphas and their family…. Sam and his family are a day’s trip away, John and Kate and their other kids a day beyond that, a whole network of families that can gather together for trade and protection if need be but are otherwise independent, each their own pack… One day Claire and her siblings will leave - though if some bend omega out of nature, they might stay. The others will roam, living off the land the way their daddies taught them until they find a mate from another family. They’ll come back to party with the old pappies, live with them awhile and then eventually settle their own land somewhere not too far off. Or they might just go on roaming, following the tracks of the wolf packs crisscrossing the midwest, wild and free forever…

“-and any effort to build cities or kingdoms would fly apart at the seams under the pressure of the Hierarchy. You can see why they thought this would allow humans to maintain our population without the kind of demographic explosion we’re normally capable of.” Cas is talking in his teacherly tone, his back to Dean. “One family would have enough children to take over and maybe spread a little, but natural pressure would keep the population steady. But of course it didn’t work out that way, if that’s what they intended. Stupid fools. We’re not animals. Our intelligence - our very essence is not that of wolves, satisfied to stay in our families. It’s in our ability to build communities, work with others, depend on them, and defend ourselves against enemies or whatever random events we have the brains to anticipate. That’s our greatest strength. If we were animals, we’d be fine staying within the boundaries imposed by nature, apt to be wiped out at the slightest hiccup-”

The vision changes.

Dean digs the earth. He’s not an alpha, a beta, not even an omega, he is a wrack of bone and sinew with one purpose left. He whacks at the frozen sod, with huge pauses in between swings while he gathers the strength of purpose to do the next, gotta finish before he stops moving, he needs to finish this for them, so he lifts the pick and gives another whack at the hard ground as he finishes digging the last hole, six little, one big, while the reason this happened (disease-bandits-starvation-) hasn't mattered for days now, six little, one big. Six little, one big.

“Humans can't live like that,” Cas concludes fastidiously, picking up the box he’s just checked over and putting it down on the floor with a thump.

It covers the sound Dean makes, a twisted tortured sound like a sob.

Cas looks his way in Dean’s peripheral vision, but the beta’s already strode past him, sending dust and debris pluming beneath his feet- he’s running away.

- It- it split him wide open like a rotten log. The horrendous forbidden thing he’d been contemplating about his best friend - his omega best friend - and the onslaught of emotions from the image that followed-

There were stairs here at one point, climbing to a mezzanine, but they look unsafe to the extreme. Dean vaults up the waist-high ledge rather than risk a broken ankle.

- Betas have strong emotions, but they are aggressive ones for the most part. Dean’s not used to any other kind, he rides this hormonal high since he hit puberty, he’s never had an abyss open beneath his feet, and-

This gives Dean access to the tall rounded windows. Nothing ominous stirring in the early afternoon outside, warm and inviting in contrast to the stark architecture and the damp cold of the room-

- cold feeling marching up his back, seriously, betas don’t get emotions like that, there’s only one bend that flies to pieces when they feel their safe familiar world develop a crack-

Dean moves from the west side to the northern one, still nothing outside for all he stares at every branch and bush, looking for enemies.

- but that’s not happening because Dean is beta, and there is a nasty little question starting to worm its way into his head.

Enough! How long is this stupid library thing gonna last anyway?! He’s the boss, he should be putting a time limit for the poor omega who has no concept of organisation, of danger. Dean pushes himself away from the window violently, turns around to order Cas to wrap up.

Cas is there amongst his boxes, his literal heaven on earth, hands on a lid but he’s not looking at it, he’s staring up at Dean with a concern Dean can read from clear over here.

Dean’s emotional control reasserts itself as if it’d never fled in the first place. His friend is down there, he needs his protection, his reassurance. Cas is damn solid, but he’s not a fighter and he still needs him. Just like that, the moment passes (but the question is deep in Dean’s mind now, it feels like it’s gonna bide its time.)

“Start going through and putting aside what you need,” Dean suggests, practical. “Triage into two piles, the absolute-must-have and the would-like. We’ll see what we can bring back.”

Cas looks uncertain for a few more seconds, then he visibly focuses back on task. “Oh, microfilm is very small and this is well organized, I think we can get a lot-”

“Do it quick, Cas, I want to get back to the others before evening, okay? Two more hours.”

“Yes Dean.” Cas goes rooting through the boxes like a man on a mission, and Dean does a turn about the mezzanine, looking out through the rest of the broken windows at the ruins all around.

 

~~~ Where The Wild Things Are ~~~

Predictably perhaps, it takes more than two hours before they leave. Cas sorts through his stuff quickly enough, but gives the remaining boxes of films, stranded on the ruined counter, such a doleful look that Dean doesn’t take much persuasion to agree to carry them back down to the room where he wedges shut the door. Cas’s reasoning is that other seekers of knowledge might come here one day, and it’d be a crime beyond imagining to leave this information to perish if steps can be taken to avoid it. Dean thinks Cas is an optimist and an idealist, but since Cas is the reason he even uses those kinds of words these days, he’s fine with indulging him.

As they head back to the stairs, Cas’s steps slow and he heaves a sigh at the sight of a room they passed several times before, stinking of dust and mulch. Despite the smell, the underground space (incoming and sorting stacks, Cas says) still has a lot of mostly-intact books on the listing or fallen shelves. Rodents did a right job on many of the tomes, but here and there, some still look intact.

Dean lets himself cave once more, and Cas spends thirty minutes rooting around for that book he wanted to show Dean, the one on captured wolves. He doesn't find it, but he shoves four other volumes into his arm like a hungry child gathering up a windfall of apples. Dean keeps an eye on the overall weight of their packs, says nothing. On his way out, the omega’s steps slow near a shelf of mostly-disintegrated cardboard, pastel colors bleeding from once-vivid ones. He reaches into the mess and picks out a book, slimmer and larger than the ones in his arm. With a little difficulty, he manages to flip through a few pages one handed. He adds it to the load and walks out before Dean has to pull rank and get him moving, the shadows of the evening now creeping into the ruin of the stairwell nearby.

He’s oddly silent as they move away from his treasure trove. Dean, prosaic, makes sure Cas’s pack is on his back securely enough where it won’t cause him to ache over the next hour of walking, and does the same. The streets are empty, groves of motionless trees and shrubs in the evening calm. Ginny sniffs the ground like she’s trying to inhale it, snorts once, and then trots on ahead.

“Here, for you,” Cas says very quietly, handing him the last book he found before Dean closes his pack. “If you want it. As, well, as thank you for taking me here.”

A year ago, a beta brute would have growled, “John ordered me to bring ya, no thanks needed.” John did order him to take Cas here, but today’s Dean would have done it anyway.

Dean takes the book and says thank you. The cover is so stained it will take him a minute to read the title, though he can make out an illustration, a very weird-... it’s not a person, it’s a critter, possibly a badly drawn bear. He flips through it without reading it yet. It’s full of drawings, the paper in much better condition than the cover. It’s a children’s book, but he doesn’t think Cas is making a point about Dean’s reading level here, because the boy in the book is dressed in a wolf costume and strutting around in a way that makes a small smile bloom on Dean’s face. The kid, who looks like a real brat, has adventures - with monsters and stuff? Awesome. And in the last page he takes off his wolf costume and comes home…

Dean did not leave the question behind him in the library stacks, it still gnaws at him, and the final image, calm - tame - as it is makes something shiver deep inside, but he puts the book in his pack regardless and leads them back to camp.

Chapter Text

The difference between bends is huge, which makes the way we can change from one to the other phenomenal when you think about it. It must have taken a lot of effort to ‘program’ into GF32; it would seem simpler, genetically speaking, to assign roles from birth and keep them fixed rather than give us a path from one to the other. However the health of a pack and the neo-human species as a whole depends on a certain flexibility in designations in order to maintain the A/B/O proportions. Betas and alphas, the shock troops of the pack and those most confronted with the difficulties of the world outside our compounds, are statistically more prone to injury and need an avenue in which to still be useful to their pack if they can no longer serve the function of their previous bend, while a pubescent member of the pack will need the ability to quicken to beta in order to replace them. Thus the ability to change bends is encoded into our DNA.

I use ‘change bends’ deliberately. I despise the notion of ‘rising and falling’, as if going from omega to alpha is a game of snakes and ladders, omega being the losing state. As we saw in chapters 5 and 6, all designations are necessary for a pack, they all have their function and should be treated with equal respect. Yet the greatest fear of any beta or alpha is to ‘backslide’, to see their physiology change to omega. This used to infuriate me, particularly in packs that pay lip service to ‘all bends are important’, where this attitude smacks of hypocrisy. “Of course it’s perfectly fine for you to be omega, somebody has to be… but please god let it not happen to me!” However, meeting more betas and alphas who were actually willing to discuss this with me rather than tell me to shut up about it, I have slowly moderated my opinion. After all, betas and alphas change to omega during crises: a loss of position, of a mate, illness, mental stress, severe injury or old age. They see it as fate’s final insult. If nothing else, it is perhaps the finality of it that terrifies them. There are known instances of omegas rising to higher ranks even after puberty due to changes in circumstances, but I have never heard of a ‘backslider’ (if you’ll excuse my use of the term this one final time) ever changing again. Ultimately, their fear is not a negative judgment on omegas on their part; it is how they perceive the change in regards to themselves. They don’t see it as moving to another role, equally useful to their pack, a natural evolution: they see it as one step removed from death.

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ The Question ~~~

The question Dean brings back from St Louis is like a toothache. A sharp jab of pain to start with, startling in its unexpectedness, but you ignore it hard and it almost seems to go away for a time, or maybe you just get used to it and blindly hope that it won’t get worse while it slowly eats away at your core.

“You sure, Dean?” Lisa asks with a purr, a finger lingering on his chin, tip oh so near to his lower lip, already a caress even if it doesn’t move an inch.

It’s dislodged without ceremony as Dean’s mouth shapes excuses. He listens to his own words at a remove, like he’s watching two other people talk: yes, sorry, Lisa, another time, I’m busy, Vic needs this done…

It’s the truth. But it’s also a lie, since he doesn’t follow up with “hey, I’m free in an hour though, meet you at my place?” either.

Lisa, who is a sweetheart, gives him a quick kiss on the cheek as if making him feel better for being so overworked, and saunters away to find someone else to play with. The diametrical opposite of Lydia’s reaction last week when he turned her down yet again. She broke a door. Swear to god, that woman… Dean’s pretty sure that’s the last he’ll hear from Lydia now, she had that venomous look in her eyes as she stormed out. It was worth having to fix the door afterwards.

But the question gnaws at him as he does Vic’s chore…

He always has a good reason not to fall in bed with someone, but now that the question is squatting in his brain, chewing on his nerves, every instance these past few months where he turned someone down gets brought up and dissected, usually at night. He had good reasons to say no, and he is busy and tired, and - and getting older, there’s more to his life than fucking now. He’s not- of course he’s not, there’s nothing wrong with him, that’s just stupid.

Lydia, Simon, Lisa, Mac… they dance in his head, all the folk he turned down since midsummer, all sauntering away from him in his nightmares while he stands there, helpless - or to use the more cruelly accurate word, impotent...

It gets to the point where he trembles inside when someone turns to him with that certain kind of smile. He wants to feel that red-hot beautiful flush of lust again, he really does, but he’s living in dread of finding nothing there but cold darkness instead (but there’s nothing wrong with him, really-) At this point he’s working hard at being unsociable with anyone other than his team, who know that Dean’s off limits for reasons of discipline. That way he dodges the question for a little while longer, avoids putting it to the test.

Except at night. When he’s staring up at the ceiling and thinking of all the little details, that shot he missed today because he was a second too slow, that girl who did nothing for him last week as she clearly wagged her ass at him, the odd rush of emotions he’s feeling sometimes, and even as he calls himself an idiot, the question bites and burns.

Is he…

No, surely not…

But maybe… could he be…

...could he be falling…?

There’s no reason to, of course.

Isn’t there? whispers the question. Dean’s heard rumors. There’s some betas… the ones who think they’re oh-so-tough but who have a weak head, can’t take the pressure. Who reach too high in their pack. They can’t maintain it. A subtle stress builds up, poisons the body, the bend, and suddenly they- no. Come on. That’s stupid.

Maybe it can happen, but it’s not happening to him. No.

Please. God. No.

But if he is…?

What will his dad say?

What will Sam say? He wants Dean to be his partner alpha. What will Benny and Vic say? Where will Dean even go? He’s not falling of course he’s not- but if he is, no way he’d be able to stay with the Hunters, not with- with Lydia and Cole and Tyler and all of them- ohgodohgodohgod- ordering him around like they do Garth and- nononono-

But then he’ll be shipped off to the barracks and the Ranchers, that’s sort of the default setting, the farms and the fields always need more- more drones. Sweet lord… Or… there’s the middle ground in this disaster: he could be with Adam and Bobby in Makers. He’s good with his hands and all, he could swing it. And, well, then he’d be with Cas too. Maybe help him write his book… The thought is like a lifeline Dean clings to when he feels his whole life slipping under freezing dark waters.

But twelve hours later, at a prosaic one in the afternoon under a watery winter sunshine, Dean’s got a steel grip on the back of Cole’s neck despite the way the brat squirms. Dean watches Cole’s efforts and then, with a serrated grin full of teeth, grinds him down harder into the slurry of mud and snow, a knee on Cole’s spine putting pressure and pain into his lower back, his other hand tightens the arm lock just a bit. He could end this right now with one sharp twist and a dislocation, but Cole’s not gonna be lucky enough for that, he’s gonna have to be a good boy now.

“You done, puppy?”

“Fuck you! Urgh!”

“Hey, I can keep this up all day.” Dean’s voice is as sure as the mountains, as cold as their summit.

As he waits, his inner mutt brings up a tally. Cole’s been having scraps with a lot of people these days. He’s rising in the pecking order. Odd. Dean’s always known the kid was an aggressive bastard and vindictive to boot, but he never had him pegged as ambitious. Yet the way he’s been picking fights, Cole’s been climbing the beta hierarchy steadily since midsummer. He’s still a long way from Dean’s level, though, and everyone knows it. Everyone other than Cole, who decided today was the best day to be aggressively rude to his team leader in the middle of the stompin’ grounds in order to gain macho points, even though it’s obvious to one and all that Dean’s been short-tempered this past month and didn’t sleep well last night. So not only is the kid a stupid temperamental prick, he’s also got no sense of timing.

The betas around Dean, some with fading bruises from one or the other of Cole’s latest bouts of aggression, reek with appreciation at the tableaux, they echo Dean’s certainty: there is no doubt in their eyes who’s the strongest here. Cole finally caves and stops struggling. Dean leaves his hand on the back of his neck for a whole more minute before letting go.

Cole puts his arms beneath him, levers up- flinches as Dean suddenly and swiftly lifts his hand… to scratch his nose. Someone in the crowd of onlookers snickers. Cole flushes an even brighter red, but he cringed, and he knows it. He lets Dean stand up first, a sign of submission, and then he gets to his feet and slinks off, shooting his leader a dirty look but head lowered, tail to the ground.

“Hey, Dean.”

Dean turns towards one of the bystanders. “Ty?”

Tyler saunters over slowly enough for the other spectators to have wandered off or started talking amongst themselves by the time he reaches Dean. He still speaks quietly while looking away casual-like. “So, you maybe want me to take the puppy in my team for awhile? We can swap him with Kaitlyn. You’ve worked with her before.”

Dean snorts. “Does it look like I can’t handle him?”

“No, but you shouldn’t have to waste your time educatin’ a little shit like that.” Tyler spits. “You’re still too lilly-livered, y’know. I guess that’s fine, it’s your style n’all.”

That last is not the words of Tyler-the-teenager Dean knew years ago, it’s from the adult Tyler Campbell grew into. It’s the Tyler who’s matured as he made his way to third in rank behind Dean and Benny, and finally decided he’s fine with that spot. Unlike Cole, who’s racking up ill-will along with his victories, Tyler fits into their group, their pack. He’s still a bit of an asshole, of course, but as far as Dean and the rest are concerned, he’s their asshole; and though Tyler still thinks this pack will never quite measure up to the Campbells, the Winchester Hunters are his pack nonetheless. So Dean knows the offer comes from the right place, but he gives a smirk as he brushes off his hands, and Ty brays with laughter.

“Of course, right, you like the exercise. Fine by me! Offer stands if you want to get that prick out your paw-pads, but otherwise go ahead and thrash him seven ways to Sunday. Just make sure I know to come watch when you do.”

Dean claps him on the shoulder and strides off. As he passes by, the other betas turn towards him, that ever-so-faint bend to their necks indicating respect, submission, appreciation, knowledge of his place at the head of the order. All from sending a puppy scampering back to his kennel, Dean thinks dismissively, but inside a knot untangles. Really, what the hell was he thinking? Dean Winchester, backsliding?! Was he being ten kinds of stupid, or what? He’s a high rankin’ beta, practically an alpha, and just too busy to fuck around, that’s all, and then he let his fears run away with him - what does Cas call that, when you’re afraid somethin’s wrong with you and you start feelin’ the symptoms practically for real? Hypocondy-something?

But then again… maybe there is something real going on, but instead of down, he’s transitioning up?

That thought waits for him under the blankets that night. Maybe his body, his strength, his place in the pack, it’s all tipped that invisible scale inside his body (which Cas could draw a diagram of if he wanted to), that’s winding up the throw that’ll punt him from beta to alpha.

That’d be bad too, though for other reasons, because he doesn't want to clash with Vic. It’s too soon to grow hair on his chest anyway; he doesn’t have a mate. If his biology decides to boost him to alpha, well, strange stuff can happen with that. You can find yourself mated to the strongest other beta around kind of willy nilly, pushed by the wolf inside who knows he’s ready and willing to drag the human along for the ride. Sure, you can form a successful breeding pair that way, but that don’t mean you’ll be happy or all that stable. Far from ideal. Besides, even if an actual good candidate for a mate drops out of the sky in the form of the next stray beta strolling into camp, Dean doesn’t want to fight with Vic and Annabelle, and he does not want to leave Winchester to find a new pack to lord it over. But transitioning up… that’d explain why he’s still boss-dog but with lesser libido; alphas only really get going during heat season.

Then it’s the next day and though he feels a stirring of fire in his loins when Lisa waltzes by, it’s like the wolf is hungry but has no appetite. And that doesn’t feel like an alpha, that feels like an apathetic beta on his way down the ladder, and the emotional sleigh ride starts all over again.

He wants to talk to somebody, but that’s utterly ridiculous. Who on God’s green earth can he look in the eye and say, so, maybe I’m backsliding…? Who? Cas is the only one who comes to mind, kind understanding Cas who is already an omega and makes it work like a boss. Dude knows so much, he might actually be able to tell Dean outright if he’s falling or not, which may be why Dean’s terrified of asking. He can’t bear to hear that Yes, you are, I’m so sorry, Dean. Can’t bear to feel that suffocating sympathy start with Cas, his Cas, his dorky beautiful wonderful friend who always looks at Dean like Dean’s got his shit together. Fuck it all, why is this happening?!

Needless to say, Dean’s winter is a miserable one until shortly after new years, when a bombshell of scurrilous gossip explodes across camp.

 

~~~ Peaches ~~~

Christmas sucks. Sam and John get into an argument, as much as a beta and alpha can. Though when it comes to being pissy and bringing up past grievances, those two seem to bypass both biology and the Hierarchy with ease! Dean, who normally runs interference before things explodes, misses his cue because he’s so deep in his daily dose of the funk, to the point where Kate and Adam, worried, each ask him separately if he is feeling okay. And the crowning gem: John took steps to invite Cas over for Christmas dinner to finally have a sit-down with him, since both his boys befriended him by now and keep talking about him… but Cas came down with something or other on Christmas morning, and is laid up in the omega barracks.

Boxing day is even worse as Cas continues to be sick and Dean overhears Cesar confess to John that he and Jesse are ‘a little worried’. Bobby, who is Dean’s next stop ten seconds later, won’t tell Dean what’s wrong with his friend - “because I’m not his doctor, idjit, and if I was, I definitely wouldn’t tell you!” Bobby affirms it don’t look too serious, but what he cannot do is guarantee that Cas won’t die, because he doesn’t know what the problem is and neither does the doctor or Cas himself, even though the latter has a whole medical library in his brain. Dean learns all this from Adam who, still worried that Dean’s not his usual self, doesn’t take too much persuasion to become Dean’s informant. But all he can tell Dean in final is that it’s not the usual winter cold. Whatever Cas has got, it requires Bobby to brew him turmeric tea with a few drops of ghost plant tincture, so Cas must be both in pain and have a fever.

For all he’s been in the camp less than a year, a lot of people are relieved when Cas gets better on new year’s day, year 69 of Winchester pack. Adam reports that Cas is up and about now, though Dean doesn’t run into him. Not during the end of year celebration, not during the prayers at the various pack congregations the next day, not the day after that, and now Dean’s starting to think it’s a bit strange.

Winter in Missouri is misery incarnate. Makes you call bullshit on Pastor Jim’s assurances that Hell is hot. Life in camp slows down much like the river flowing turgidly under the ice outside their door; cold, dreary, miserable and mostly buried in snow. The Ranchers’ daily backbreaking work in the fields transitions into the backbreaking labor of harvesting trees and working the charcoal burners, as well as tending the animals in their pens. The Makers run around ensuring everybody is adequately clothed and fed, all this in two feet of snow. And the Hunters rev into full gear; the potential survival of their pack falls to them as the winter months march on, slowly emptying their larders. So it’s not surprising Dean hasn’t seen Cas in awhile… except it feels unusual. They’ve fallen into a routine in the past nine months they’ve known each other, they see each other an average of twice a week, and Dean would have gone through hell and high water to stick to it. But not only does Cas not come to see him, Dean thinks he spots a familiar omega bundled in a thick brown coat coming towards him on the second of January, until the figure abruptly changes course and heads off in the opposite direction.

Since Dean is still firmly on his emotional sleigh ride, he’s awake half that night vacillating between worry regarding Cas’s health, and concern that he might have done something to offend the guy. Guilt dogpiles him into the mattress. If Cas somehow figured out that Dean’s been having inappropriate daydreams about him- oh Christ. Damn it, that would be the cherry atop the utter fuck-up that is Dean’s life, if he’s backsliding to omega and the only guy whose presence in the barracks would make it halfway not so horrible currently hates his guts because he thinks Dean is a raging pervert who has nasty beta designs on him…

Dean listlessly pushes a pawn on the board. Normally he and Benny chat about this and that while they play, but Benny is being a real brother and letting Dean macerate in his misery. For now. Dean expects to be interrogated firmly about this funk of his once the game’s over. Benny’s been grilling him on and off about his mood swings these past two months now, ever since St Louis, and Dean has the feeling that his friend is fast approaching the breaking point where he will no longer buy the wishy-washy excuses Dean’s been sellin’.

The door opens, letting in a blast of cold air. They ended up in the den again, dark, smelly and stuffy enough to merit the name, boards nailed over the windows letting through only slivers of light that give the one oil lamp on the table no competition in the illumination department. It’s where most hunters spend their boring winter days when they’re on their rest rotation and not out and about clambering through snowy terrain hunting down thin and skittish deer. Jo is flirting with Moses on the couch, Aaron is telling three young hunters about that bear he killed once (keeps getting bigger every winter.) Everett is whittling something in a sliver of light beneath a window, whistling to himself, and there's a few other hunters about as well. The potbelly stove growling off to one side makes the den one of the warmest places in their compound; the fireplace in a typical cabin loses too much heat up the chimney, the fire is only there to keep them alive and able to cook, nothing more, and when the temperature really rolls up its sleeves and takes a dive, everybody just gives up and comes huddling together in the den and warehouses like a real stinking pack of unwashed wolves. Today, though, it’s not too bad; Dean only had to break a thin layer of ice on the surface of his basin in order to wash his face this morning. He’ll be sleeping in his cabin tonight. Like the others, he’s got a large stone heating on the stove that he’ll take home in a few hours, wrapped in an old hide, to slip into his bed come an early nightfall. In winter, the main activity is sleeping.

Dean’s back is to the door, he doesn’t bother to turn around until he sees Benny sit up straight, a look of welcome almost bordering on relief spreading over his face.

“Here’s someone to cheer you up,” he murmurs, nodding. Dean twists in his chair.

Cas is standing there in his standard omega brown coat and multiple layers beneath it. He’s got his toolbox over his shoulder and a huge fluffy red muffler burying him up to his eyes.

“Cas.” Dean’s not even trying to hide the relief in his voice.

There’s ten other people in the den, but Cas’s eyes are only on him as he croaks: “Dean.”

“I was about to say, glad you’re doing better, brother, but it sounds like you should still be in bed,” says Benny quizzically. “Y’sound like somethin’ I’d fish outta the bayou.”

Cas stares at him in incomprehension, then his eyes flick to Dean, to the stove, to Jo and Moses on the couch, to Dean, to the crack of the boarded window letting in a sliver of white light, to Dean.

“I’m doing better,” he says, voice straightening out a tad. “It was just-... just an inflammation.”

His hands reach for the muffler still over his face, but they twitch away without touching it. He takes off the thick mittens, reaches for his scarf again, but again derails the gesture and takes great pains sticking his mittens beneath his arm before rubbing his hands together. He moves his toolbox’s strap across his shoulder an inch with great care, like it's super-important to get it balanced just right, and then does the hand rub thing again. He’s still rooted in the same spot as when he came in, and now Dean’s wondering if the inflammation in question wasn’t in the brain. This is not his usual Cas, whose omega meekness doesn't stop him from walking straight ahead to his goal without any dithering.

The familiar gravelly voice is still muffled by the scarf. “...Thought I would check your circuit. For your floodlight. Is it still working?”

“Yeah, yeah. Uh, not now, no. It was working last we had some wind, but it’s been too calm with the snow falling, turbine’s not running.”

“Oh. Oh, I see. I’m sorry, there’s not much I can do about that at present.”

“That’s okay, our light ain’t that important in winter, we can see anything moving over the snow for miles, even at night.” Dean’s neck and shoulders are starting to feel uncomfortable as he sits twisted on his chair, and he’s not imagining that every eye in the place are going from him to Cas and back again, wondering at this strange tension between them. Dean’s wondering about that too.

There’s a large thump on the door and someone shouts to open up for him, please. Cas starts like a colt catching a blackfly, he drops his mittens and damn near loses the toolbox too. He picks everything up and hurries over to the door.

“Cas? Is that you? Haven’t seen you in ages! Heard you had a tummy ache.” Garth, with his customary wide grin, brings in the sunshine that's been absent from the sleet grey sky in the past few days.

Cas's denial is obscured by the scarf.

“Oh? I heard your gut was killing you or something. Here, come have some of this! It’ll pep you up and chase away the germs.” Garth carries a large steaming jug in one hand and an unsteady stack of ceramic mugs in the other to the side table. “Mulled lemon, but Danny has a way of making it, puts in a bit of honey and some herbs and stuff, it’s a lot less sour and boring than what you’re used to, I bet.”

Cas mumbles something, probably the scientific reason that they are all made to drink lemon water during the winter on a regular basis, from the interested way Garth goes “Oh?” Most people in the pack know there’s a reason, something Henry Winchester’s pa decreed ages ago, but nobody knows why anymore other than ‘it’s tradition’. But Cas, he’d know.

Moses wanders over, grabs a mug from the sideboard and another for Jo, pours while Garth is distracted listening to Cas.

Dean turns back to his game, mind buzzing. He hasn’t seen Cas in two weeks, counting Christmas and the few days before that, he wants to go talk to him, and the way Cas showed up suggests he wants to talk to Dean, but he wasn’t imagining that weird awkwardness from before, like Cas was… was real nervous to talk to him for some reason. Dean shoves a piece forward on the board blindly, then wonders if it was even his turn. Benny doesn’t say anything, so must have been. Behind Dean’s back, Garth and Cas have stopped talking.

A wet snort followed by a flurry of spluttering erupts behind him. Dean twists around quickly.

Moses is wiping his chin and still coughing up mulled lemon while gaping at Cas. Garth is holding up the jug in a frozen gesture, also staring at the other omega, eyes perfectly round. Cas is doing nothing extraordinary from Dean’s angle; his back to Dean and Benny, he’s just sipping juice from a mug.

“Wow, Cas, nice peach fuzz.” Garth’s voice is both bemused and sunny. “When did that happen?”

The words peach fuzz bounce around Dean’s custard a few times, poking around in the fruit section before falling into an abyss of stormy astonishment. On the other side of the table is the click-tunk of Benny’s pawn dropping from his fingers and bouncing on the unvarnished table.

Cas says something - ‘Thank you’, and ‘this morning’, Dean thinks he makes out, though how he can hear anything when his ears are buzzing this loud-

There’s generalized movement around the room. Jo leaps off the couch, Pah-ne-me and Christy scramble up from their game of knucklebones and Everett plants his dagger straight into the floor next to the whittling he dropped as he gets to his feet. Cas’s frame goes tense, the hair mussed up by the scarf brushes back and forth as he glances around. He puts down the mug abruptly, almost knocking it over, twists on himself, looks fleetingly at Dean, says hurriedly, “Good to see you again, Dean, I’m- ah, see you soon,” and then he’s out the door without even putting his scarf and mittens back on.

Cas is gone. Him and his five o’clock shadow.

Every beta who came bounding over freeze in place for a second, and all eyes go to Dean, twisted in his seat and staring at the spot Cas vanished. Then they all troop around Garth and Moses and start asking questions in really low voices.

Dean’s still sitting in his chair, looking at the door.

“Your turn,” says Benny.

Dean turns, gaze centering somewhere left of the board as he shoves a piece forward randomly.

Benny moves a piece. “Checkmate.”

“Oh. Good game,” Dean hears himself say from a long ways away.

“Hm. Yeah, it would be if we weren’t playing checkers.”

Dean blinks three times and then looks down at the game, which is indeed checkers. Then he looks up at Benny. He’s not sure what expression he’s making, but he’s pretty sure his eyes are screaming for help, because the situation is overwhelming him.

“Why don't you go after him?” Benny suggests gently. “I think he came here to tell you-... to tell you something, but we scared him off.”

Dean convulsively shakes his head. Benny is right, Cas wanted to tell him-... something, and Dean should run after him, maybe Cas is waiting around the corner of the den for him right now, but Dean-... Dean is completely adrift in a way he hasn’t been even once in his entire life, and he’s not sure- he’s not sure of anything. He’s not sure- he’s not sure what he should say, what to ask, if he should ask, if this sudden change means something, if it means anything, and above all he’s really not sure how he’s gonna react if he finds himself face to face with Cas and Cas’s facial hair without someone solid like Benny around to anchor him. But Dean’s not so far gone as to say, “Can you come with me?”, so he’s not gonna do anything, he’s gonna wait for the world to stop spinning so he can get off.

After a minute of coming to terms with the fact that he’s being a coward and an idiot, he grabs his coat and goes out, but whether Cas waited for him for fifty nine seconds or not at all, he’ll never know, because there’s nobody in a brown coat anywhere in sight.

 

~~~ Hot/Cold ~~~

If you could harness the gossip mill that starts up at that point, you could permanently retire the barely-turning wind turbines. The news runs through the entire pack, amplified by the fact that it’s winter and everybody’s bored with nothing much new to talk about.

Half of Winchester is putting the hair on Cas’s chin down to a natural deviation from the omega norm. This happens.

But the other half of Winchester immediately calls the first half a collective bunch of idiots, because that only normally happens with backsliders. Bobby and Rufus both sport facial hair, sparse as it is, right? But Cas is no backslider, he’s been an omega since puberty. When one of them starts to need a shave, that can only mean one thing: he’s transitioning up!

This can happen, though it’s uncommon, and usually along a clear line of succession: a favored omega apprentice to a beta boss will sometimes transition up if the boss dies or is unable to keep up his work, and there’s no other beta around to take over. The omega won’t normally change just from that, even if he’s doing all the work, but if he has to start ordering other omegas around, that’s when he might start to have whiskers (or in a woman’s case, the need for a bra) But Cas is a bit of a loose cog around camp, there’s nobody leaving him a beta-sized hole to fill. Completely spontaneous transition up out of the blue with no clear cause…? Well, it’s not totally unheard of, but it's not happened in Winchester pack in living memory, and have we mentioned that the entirety of the camp is bogged down in the middle of a long winter and bored out of their skulls?

There’s all sort of prurient discussions going on about Cas at the moment. Is this really happening? Could well be! Did you hear he was sick of a fever a short while back? Think that was the quickening fever? Hell, that clenches it then! But why is this happening? Is this related to his change of packs, his Novak blood having less competition to suppress it here? Almost nobody ever hears about pure-bred Novak omegas, after all, right? Maybe he was a beta just waiting to happen - might explain the attitude! Bold bastard for an omega - hey, did you hear he downright attacked a Hunter beta months ago? Swear to god, tore strips off her! Everybody says so! Yeah, why didn’t we see this coming?

And then there's the most frequently asked question by far, and hell, don’t that say a lot about people’s gutterminds? If this is happening, then when is Cas gonna start fucking and who is he gonna fuck first? Folks are giving this question the same importance as ‘how are we all gonna eat come the spring?’, and if Dean gets asked about it one more time he is gonna shoot the person askin’.

Speculation as to Cas’s actual bend is quickly put to rest three days after he showed up at the den.

The early morning is clear, announcing the first sunny day in awhile, and it seems like half of Winchester has turned out, alerted by the buzzings of the omegas around the camp. Though he doesn't live in the barracks himself, Garth seems to have picked up something on the omega radio, because he drags Dean without a word of explanation out of his cold cabin to the edge of the Hunter compound to join a gaggle of bystanders. Just as Dean is about to ask what the fuck, the omega barrack door opens. Cas is standing there with a pack on his back, a roll of blankets under one arm and a recognizable deer-skin package under the other; his notebook wrapped in the hide Dean gave him. Gordon is holding the door open with a forbidding look. As everyone in the bloody pack watches, he shows Cas out like the latter’s a fox Gordon caught in the henhouse. But that’s just Gordon being his puritan jackass self. Cas is a mensh, he’s a Novak, he’s- he’s everything good about new humanity and he was a fucking omega himself five hot seconds ago fer chrissakes, he’s not gonna play dirty games with another omega to get his newly minted rocks off. Even if the whole beta layer is rather intimidating, now that Dean, perturbed, is looking at it from the outside. Though the Makers as a whole are the most relaxed examples of their bend in the whole camp, they are still betas to the bone; Dean spots half a dozen waiting at the gate that leads from the barracks to their section, arms crossed as they observe their unexpected brand new brother walk their way. There’s gonna be some fighting there, and some hard fucking to start seeing where Cas fits on the totem pole… and yeah, let’s not beat about the bush: Dean is a fucking nervous wreck about the whole thing as he stands there, fighting the urge to rush over to help Cas carry his stuff and protect him, even though Dean is, in theory, just one more dickhead Cas is needing protection from. Suddenly betas everywhere feel like hypersexualized predators to Dean (Jesus, he really is falling!)

Cas, every inch his usual cool self, walks without looking left or right straight through Maker camp with his blankets, his book and his bag, passes out the far gate (a hundred bystanders trail him at a distance they must think is discrete) and heads, of all places, to the stray beta bunkroom. Well, there’s free beds there, sure, but… isn’t that still an odd choice? Why there, and not some cabin in Makers? There’s usually a couple of empty ones around, or else he could bunk with someone until the quartermaster sorts him out. Wait. Did some motherfucking Maker beta already try to put the moves on Cas unwanted?! So bad that Cas is scared?! Dean is gonna KILL SOMEONE!!

Damn, his beta rage hormones seem to be functioning…

The beta bunkroom is a shack, empty at present, with a small oven, a rickety table and two sets of bunk beds reserved for strays who come in and want to see where they fit. It’s right behind John and Kate’s house, its door can be seen from John’s bedroom window; beta strays are always potential problems, the alphas need to assess them, keep an eye on them, and John and Kate’s sheer presence and scent can keep the peace if one of them has a screw loose. Cas walks in with his blankets and shuts the door with a firm clack, locking out the curious Winchester pack which finally, after half an hour of fruitless milling around, goes collectively back to its business.

Dean returns to his cabin, throws a few logs on the fire, and then does the most constructive thing he can think of at this point: staring at a wall over Ginny’s head for the next five hours.

He shifts only once, to throw on more logs. Ginny curls up in front of the fireplace, trying to soak in the heat. It’s always cold in the cabins during winter, though they nail deer hides to the walls and stick bolsters around the cracks in the windows and doors. Dean never spends that much time there normally, preferring the den or just patrolling around, checking up on his people; if you’re gonna be cold anyway, might as well be cold while moving around and doing something useful.

Today he just sits. His lone chair and his small table feel like a liferaft lost in the middle of a lake without a shore.

Ginny comes and puts her head in his lap at one point, looking up at him with worried eyes. Dean pats her absently and she settles by the fire again with a sigh.

Night falls outside the window.

Ginny is hungry and pokes him with her nose, whines gently once. He has nothing for her in his small larder, so he opens the door to let her hunt around the outside of the compound, find a mouse under the snow or scraps somewhere. Dean’s not hungry. Ginny looks longingly at the outside, sniffs the air a few times, then turns tail and returns to her spot by the fire from where she watches Dean quietly with big liquid eyes and floppy ears twitched down and back. Dean returns to his chair.

The winter day outside's been quiet until now: he’s heard a few voices, the ‘clack’ of wood getting chopped, dogs barking, an argument in the distance, but then night falls as silently as the few flakes of snow that have reappeared at the end of the day.

Dean sits for another hour. He doesn’t light the oil lamp. The flickering fire eating the pine logs makes the shadows jump about, the only movement in the place.

In the quiet of the night, a growing crunch of boots march through snow. It’s not heading away, each step is louder and louder, rising like Dean’s heartbeat. Ginny’s head comes up with a start, eyes focusing on the door. One second later, the knock is like a thunderclap, and Dean’s fingers spasm on the edge of the table.

He knows who it is. On some plane or other, the whole camp knows who it is.

“Come in,” says someone else in the room, some beta idiot who should be hiding under the blankets and not inviting in the inevitable catastrophe.

The door opens and shuts, someone unwraps himself from a red muffler and a brown coat. It’s Cas. Of course it’s Cas. And why wouldn’t it be. The whole camp knew it. Not the bit- not the shameful bit about Dean developing feelings for him back when it was wrong to, but bloody hell, it’s natural, everybody’s been clearly thinking about it as they look at Dean these past three days of rampant speculation, their eyebrows lifting up as if to say: you guys have been tight for almost a year, he likes you, you’re his friend, who else is he gonna want to fuck first and break it in with?

No no no!

Cas folds his coat neatly over his arm, dusting off the snow assiduously. He’s dressed in his usual brown uniform, but he must have spent part of the day in the bunkroom picking out the stitchings on the sleeve. The empty space is like a declaration of intent, like it’ll soon be stitched with the flag of a brand new nation, a state of independence. He takes a step forward. His gaze is on the ground near his feet, but not in a timid omega way that won’t look you in the eye, no, not at all, more in a way that suggests he’s contemplating the floor and judging every aspect of its floorness. He starts talking like he usually does, like he’s been having a conversation with himself for the past five minutes and assumes Dean is in on it too.

“I didn’t want to presume, of course, or feed the rumor mill, so I went to the bunkroom for strays and waited until nightfall.”

Dean feels like he’s got lockjaw. His whole face aches as it tries to assume an expression -any expression - and fails. He’s paralyzed by a dozen conflicting messages. He’s as helpless as a rabbit as Cas looks up, stares at him in silence for a whole twenty seconds.

Then Cas looks down, shadows from the dim fireplace light covering his face like a veil. “Ah,” he says dully. “I see I’m not as welcome as I thought. I can… I can go-”

“- I can’t - “

Dean bursts out of his chair as if his body is not his own, a wild animal trying to escape - and Jesus fucking Christ is he hyperventilating??

Cas looks up again, startled, and Ginny is on her feet with an alarmed yip.

Dean almost trips over himself as he backpedals- his back hits the wall and he’s still trying to move away, hands up like he’s pushing back. “I can’t- I can’t- I can’t do this, Cas- I’m going insane!”

Cas’s confusion turns to worry. “Dean? What on earth is wrong?”

“I can’t! I can’t watch you start with me and then go fuck half the pack! That- that- I can’t!”

“Huh? But-”

“I know, I know, it's your- it’s your right, your biology - I have no say-so! I have- but I can’t- oh god, I really am falling!”

Cas does his head-tilt thing and his eyebrows perform a little wavey dance that seemed to indicate that they can’t figure out if what Dean has just said is utterly confusing or utterly stupid or both. “You are not transitioning to omega,” he finally affirms.

“I am! For months now I’ve- I’ve been- but now I can’t even-”

“Dean!”

The out-and-out shout is followed by a stern “Down!” to Ginny, who, alarmed by her owner’s emotions, had just come up to give Cas a bit of attitude. Dean’s almost back down in his chair as fast as Ginny’s haunches hit the floor at the commanding tone from the previously placid omega. Not that he’s that anymore.

Cas takes a deep whistling breath in through his nose, lets it out, looks at the ceiling as if praying the Lord he doesn’t believe in for patience. “Let’s start from the beginning here. With biology.”

Dean groans as he buries his face in his hands. “-can’t do a lesson right now-”

“Most of us become betas at puberty as a result of societal pressure, when your pack’s need for another beta combines with your own physiology and mentality. Then you go about fulfulling your desires and biological imperative of finding a mate by having sex with everything in sight, which also aligns your rank in the betas of your pack at the same time. But I think… I have reason to believe there’s a lesser-known imperative other than societal pressure that can make you transition to beta, when you-... ah, when you’re an omega stray who could never be bothered with people much before, but you… but you get to know this beta who’s the nicest man you’ve ever met, simply put, smart, down to earth but still forward thinking, and awfully easy to look at as well, and who is not backsliding, trust me on this, because this hypothetical omega we’re talking about has just had a painful week of his anatomy rearranging itself in order to-... to have a chance to come here tonight. Here, Dean," Cas repeats, measuring each word. “And only here. Nowhere else, not tonight, not ever.”

“Oh thank god,” Dean blurts out as he catches Cas’s drift.

The coat, damp from snow, makes a sound of stressed cloth as Cas’s arms tighten, he’s back to looking at the floor. “I, ah, you understand that I didn’t lead with this because I don’t want you to feel pressured by- by implying that you’re the only reason-... I don’t actually have any hard facts to say that’s what happened, honestly, it could be any combination of factors. The stone cold truth - however unpopular - is that the ends of the bell curves in the omega and beta designations are considerably closer than people make them out to be - you know this, I’ve harped on it enough. You’ve always said I’m tough enough to be a beta, and-”

“I said bossy enough,” says Dean, whose cheeks are gonna explode with the crazed smile on his face. Cas is drifting into the center of the room, but Dean is holding himself back against the wall. If he moves, if he twitches forward even one inch, caving in to the massive pull in his gut, heart, dick, whatever, then he won’t stop moving until Cas is pinned under him on the goddamn floor and that’d be rude. Probably get him bit. And not in the fun way.

“Right.There’s times I act and think a lot like a beta, but the main distinction between our designations is that omegas feel absolutely no desire for sex. But Dean, you can’t just boil us down to our bends. We’re human, and human sexuality is so complicated there are entire library sections about it. In the Old World, they determined- this is not the time for a lesson, I know. Stop grinning at me like that, it’s very distracting.”

“Nope. Sorry. But I’ll let you finish before I jump you.”

“You better,” says Cas sternly. He stares sternly at Dean. Then, just as sternly, he states: “I forget what I was saying.” And no wonder, the way the sexual tension is climbing, the space in Dean’s small cabin is starting to reek of it.

“I think you were saying that you were fine being an omega who was practically a beta in the social sense, because you didn’t feel the need to thrust your dong into everything.”

“Right.”

“But you met this rugged hunter who’s another bend, and suddenly you’re sporting a five o’clock shadow.”

“That’s not the only thing I’ve been sporting,” grumbles Cas, looking down moodily at his baggy brown clothes beneath the coat still folded over his arm, and Dean is suddenly dying to know what’s going on under there. Like, seriously dying, literally dying, his heart is lurching and about to give out and all his blood is freefalling south. “But you know… I’ve wondered at times if… well, it’s possible I had some tendencies towards being a beta all along, like my twin Jimmy, but… something just happened. Talking to Charlie Bradburry and alpha Cesar has made me wonder how strong a role our sexuality plays on our designation in final, overriding our mating imperative. It’d be fascinating, actually, if I could study this, see if my sexuality triggered my change or if my change triggered my sexuality. I used to not speculate if I didn’t have hard data, but you taught me to go with my gut, and… the fact of the matter is, yes, I’ve transitioned to beta, but I have absolutely no sexual interest in anyone else at the moment, and I doubt I ever will. I don’t think this is related to my designation or my transition or anything, I think it’s just me. They used to have a term for this, back in the old days, someone whose sexuality only engages if they’re-... truly interested in another person.”

“Oh? What’d they call it?” Dean asks indulgently, because he’s had nine months of listening to Cas tell him everything under the sun and he’s got no problem listening to nine months more.

“...Right this moment I can’t remember, because every carefully researched fact I ever had has vanished and all my brain can do is picture you naked right now,” Cas says, and whoo, that’s quite the predator gaze he’s got going there.

“Yeah, that’s how it works, I’m afraid. Welcome to the ranks of betas.”

Cas walks forward slowly, tossing his coat and muffler onto the chair’s back sight unseen, that unblinking stare still pinning Dean to the wall. He walks right up to the beta and plants a hand on the wall near Dean’s head with a gesture that is somehow both brash and tentative at once, like a young wolf still learning to pounce for play, but with a promise of something deadly serious in every line, every movement of lean muscle.

“Dean?” He’s real close, that gravelly voice for Dean and Dean alone. “I know this is abrupt, but I don’t think it’s all that big a surprise to either of us, so I’ll just come out and ask. Will you please be my first? And also my next, and my next and my next, and I sincerely hope, my always and my last?”

“Be mine?” Though god knows why Dean asks the question when he doesn't let the poor guy even answer.

Cas’s lips are cold from the walk outside, his whole body has that fresh crisp coolness of new fallen snow. Dean can’t remember doing that, catching him and hauling him close like that, it just seems to have happened, like it was surely meant to happen all along, like this is where Cas belongs, warming up rapidly, every inch of his body pressed against every inch of Dean’s, taking on Dean’s heat and scent - Dean also can’t remember when he cupped Cas’s jaw and started kissing him fervently, blending their tastes together, he only knows that any minute now his mouth is going to leave Cas’s, but only to go and lick lots of other places, spread that taste, spread them all over Cas’s body - whoaslowdown!

Dean grabs himself by the scruff of the metaphorical neck and hauls himself and his inner beastie away, makes it go sit in the corner for a minute. He also separates his mouth from Cas’s and hauls in a breath.

“S-s-” sorry, you’re new at this and I don’t want to overwhelm you by going too fast, is how Dean was going to continue after that single solitary vowel he managed to get out, but he doesn’t get the chance before his head is smacked against the deer hide nailed to his wall and Cas’s mouth is on his again, with this- this little whimper-growl that reeks of arousal and need and a brand new beta who has no interest in slowing down, damn it.

Dean-the-dude has every good intention in the world of taking it slow. I mean, it didn’t come out in so many words exactly, but it’s still obvious now that this isn’t some quick random fuck, this is actually happening, this is it, this is the thing Dean’s been waiting for since the shiny-new wore off of sex back when he was twenty and he saw a lot of his buddies start to pair up and get mated and go around with this bonkers look of complete contentment on their mugs for awhile. This- this, the first time between them, it’s something that only happens once, it shouldn’t be rushed, and besides Cas is completely new to all this, doesn’t even know what’s going on probably. Dean-the-dude’s formulating a plan to take it slow, make sure Cas is at ease, make it memorable.

Dean-the-beta, in the meantime, picked up the challenge and has Cas pinned down on the bed before Dean-the-dude can get more than the first set of thoughts through the metaphorical door.

Cas, flat on his back against the blanket, briefly struggles against the way Dean’s holding him down - not by the wrists, don’t want to bruise, but one hand is curled around the back of Cas’s neck, catching him by the nape, a forearm rests across his chest and Dean’s body weight is spread out at the mathematically exact points that’ll stop legs from squirming free and giving leverage. Dean’s an old hand at this. He looks down at what he’s caught himself, and oh, it’s a glorious sight. Cas is all mussed up and heated and flushed, chest heaving beneath Dean’s hold, mouth cracked open, eyeteeth showing, blue eyes harder than diamonds without an ounce of retrenchment. Glaring up at him.

“Why are you stopping?” Cas demands in a growl that’d make an alpha sit up and take notice.

“Slow down a sec. Do you even know what we’re about to do here?” Dean’s trying hard not to sound amused, much less condescending, but it’s a whole big shift in their power dynamic - and Cas is looking awfully angry and cute right now, dammit.

“Yes. Sex,” says Cas, blunt as a bullet.

“I meant the mechanics.” Dean’s liking the hold he’s got on Cas’s nape, the way he feels a thready frantic beat of blood beneath his fingertips, the solidity of the neck muscles straining, the- everything. The way Cas - surprise widening his eyes at his own unexpected reaction - flinches and stills as Dean presses harder, the animal side of submission and domination, the human side that makes it a hard caress too, everything. It’s distracting, though not as distracting as the way Cas’s features twist.

“The- do you think I’m a child? Of course I know the mechanics!”

Dean bites his lip, already sensitized by that harsh minutes-long kiss up against the wall earlier. “Urgh, stop looking at me like that.”

Cas stopped squirming, his body obeying the hold on his neck even if he barely seems to realize it, but there’s tension thrumming in every inch of his body and it takes him a few seconds to figure out what Dean just asked, by the looks of it. “What?”

“That- that stolid school-teacherly ‘you’re being an idiot’ look you got!”

That earns Dean an extra scrunch of perplexity to the look in question.

Dean loosens the hold, drags his fingers away in a hard caress. Cas is still half pinned but Dean’s now applying a full body pressure like he’s trying to grind them together, and it’s got nothing to do with wrestling anymore, at least not the kind that’s done out of doors. “I liked that look hard enough when you were an omega. Now you’re a beta and sending me the signals, I’m about to snap and either fuck you into the mattress or fight you until tomorrow.”

That gets him an exasperated ‘tsk’ followed by a strict “Dean.” Oh god, don’t say my name like that! “That’s a gross exaggeration, betas are no more prone to uncontrollable aggression than we omegas are prone to exacerbated emotions. Omegas. I mean, omegas, not we omegas anymore- stop laughing!” Cas goes about proving how utterly cool and non-aggressive betas are by wrestling a snickering Dean over and down into the mattress.

Dean retaliates. It’s instinct. Dean’s top dog, it’s bred in the bone, he’s not gonna let some greenhorn beta dominate him, just not gonna happen, that’s a certainty. It’s an equal certainty that on the human side of their couple, sharp-witted and emotionally mature Cas will have Dean totally whipped by the end of the week, and Dean don’t even mind.

The bed slams against the wall with a dull thud. Seams creak and a few buttons go whizzing off to get lost in the rumple of blankets, clothes are a distant memory in no time, the heat between them is so blazing hot it don’t matter that the cabin’s air is barely above freezing, it’s like the whole bed is on fire. Better not be, because Dean’s not wired to care if it is, and they’ll both die in a blaze of glory in that case.

Best way to go, Dean concludes, grinding Cas down into the mattress again with a savage kiss, a second away from conquering every bare inch of revealed skin with his hands and mouth, and the devil take tomorrow.

 

~~~ Face it, that’s way too long ~~~

The temperature does eventually come back to bear, quite a long while later. They’re both shivering when Dean pulls all the blankets over them both, including the two he has to fish off the floor. It takes a couple of minutes, but the heat from well-exerted bodies warms the small space beneath the covers. It helps that Cas is plastered along Dean’s side, looking down at him in the near-obscurity, the embers of the fire not having yet conquered the new logs Dean tossed on while fetching the blankets.

Cas isn’t saying anything. He’s looking down at Dean with a soft expression on his face that suggests he’s quite happy doing nothing more than this until the second coming, and even then he probably won’t look up for more than a minute. Dean grins, rubs his nose, feeling pretty pleased with himself. I mean, sure, love is grand, crucial even, but on a more superficial level you have to feel kinda proud for hooking a guy like this too, even more so for making him come twice, practically sobbing for air and shuddering with pleasure- down boy, jesus, what is he, sixteen again? Dean pillows his head on his arm - the other one is snaked around Cas’s waist - and relaxes fully and contentendly for the first time in months. All that’s put a few questions to rest, hasn’t it.

“So, whatever’s been going on with us this past year, we’re definitely both betas now,” he has to conclude.

Cas snorts softly, his gaze not leaving Dean an iota. “I can't believe you thought you were falling.”

“I was,” Dean declares dramatically. “Falling for you.”

“...That’s so corny I might just go back to being an omega.”

“Christ, don’t do that, my heart will break.” Cas’s eyes go round and real soft. “Also my dick will explode.”

“Dean.”

“Hm?”

“You should have stopped while you were ahead.”

That gummy grin…

“Dean?” Cas asks quietly. “What is it?”

He reaches up, gently removes the hand Dean’s put over his eyes, covering his expression that’s broken like a ship on a reef. His emotions are still all over the place, even though he’s now as sure as hell he’s not falling. But… but maybe a part of him wanted to, you know...? A part of him wanted to go to Cas even if, once arrived, they’d never have had sex. If they'd both ended up together in the omega barracks, they would certainly never have made love like they just did, they never would have touched at all, but still, in a way, in a strange and weird way, he is somehow sure they would still have been lovers…

“I… Cas… look, I gotta come clean to you about something.” Dean’s voice is hoarse, he’s having a hard time not looking away. “You need to know this… I’ve been, uh, sort of… it’s not that I was hoping you’d become a beta, it never crossed my mind, but a part of me-... even when you were an omega, I wanted-… I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t have been thinking of you in that way, but for months now I really liked you and it wasn’t all just about being friends. I- I wanted this. I damn well dreamed of it - I would never have acted on it, Cas, you have to believe me, but-... I hope you don’t think less of me...”

Cas doesn’t keel over in surprise or flee in horror, he just quirks a smile and caresses Dean’s cheek. “I’m here, aren’t I? Don’t just think biology and Hierarchy, Dean. We’re men. We’re allowed to fall in love with people, not just potential mates."

As usual, so true. "Yeah… yeah, you’re right.” Dean rubs his face, sighs, and then starts thinking like a deputy and future alpha again. “You’re right, but let’s not spread that idea around. I don’t want anyone in our pack to think it’s okay to make a move on an omega just because they really like ‘em and maybe that omega is just waiting for the right beta to come along to realize they like sex after all. That’d be… bad.”

A look of almost physical pain goes over Cas’s features. "You are entirely correct, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Sometimes I get so interested in the theory-"

"You forget the real-life effects, I know."

"Good thing I have you to be my compass…” Cas gently touches the tip of Dean’s nose. “I’m definitely the exception, not the rule. Yes, I think I’ll keep my research and my notions of sexuality and bends to myself in this instance. I won’t have it used as an excuse for any omega to get pestered or attacked."

"Right. Fortunately I don’t think anyone noticed I was mooning over you."

"Hm. Think again."

Dean gives him a sharp look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Like it’s got a mind of its own, Cas’s thumb is caressing Dean’s mouth, his chin, his nose - the fingers of his other hand flare, leaving the cheek they’re propping up briefly as if to illustrate something in the darkened cabin around them. "I’m supposed to be in the stray beta cabin, remember?"

"Oh, yeah, did you sneak out?"

"Sneak out from under your father’s nose? I wasn’t even going to try. I went to knock on his door and asked if I could leave, I had somewhere I wanted to be. I expected him to say no, it was his right to forbid me from leaving the bunkroom until he’d assessed my change in circumstances. Instead he said, sure, just be back by dawn so it doesn't look like you’re roaming wild, or else don’t come back at all if you find a better place to stay, and you do know where Dean’s cabin is, right? I said-"

Dean’s sits up in a spasm of muscles, body rigid with horror from the waist up-

"I said I definitely knew where your cabin is, and here I am,” Cas concludes, unruffled by Dean’s sudden surge of movement that pushed him away. He sits up a whole lot more calmly to plaster himself up against Dean’s side again, though Dean, head now buried in both hands, can’t get around to appreciating the fact.

It takes half a minute before Dean can get out anything other than a muffled litany of shitshitshit- "Oh god. Oh god, what must he be thinking."

Cas’s fingers squeeze Dean’s bare shoulder once. "That his son is a very, very good man who would not lay a finger where it was not wanted, for starters, but that he also has feelings he’s now free to act upon."

That sounds better than ‘omega molester’. Maybe Dean will be able to look John in the eye again sometime this year after all.

The way Cas is rubbing his bare shoulder comfortingly is nice, Dean finally realizes. The touch is breathtaking after so long without a partner, and more than that, it’s the- the togetherness it represents, the comfort, the ‘whatever your dad says or accuses you of, I’ll stand with you, we’ll face it together’ sort of thing. It drags him out of his stormy cringe-worthy thoughts. Makes him unwilling to lie back down, too, even if his front is now getting really cold and you could use his nipples to hang your rifle by the strap.

Without a word, Cas gathers the blankets, gives them a yank and somehow manages to cocoon the both of them in warmth again before they freeze, all this without removing his arm from around Dean’s shoulder.

It’s warm again, and we’re not just talking about the temperature.

Finally Dean turns to Cas, eyes adjusting to the dim light. "So… I guess we’re, ah…"

“Don’t say ‘mated’.”

“Huh?”

Cas catches him by the shoulder and pulls them back together before Dean, a little alarmed, can lean away further to look at his face in more detail. “I just mean, don’t use that word. ‘Mated’ is a ridiculous term, primal- slavishly adherent to the Animal Model. Just say that we’re in a long term commitment between two consenting adults, instead."

"...Yeah, but that’s loooong, man."

"Ass."

Dean cocks his head thoughtfully. "You use that word like it's a bad thing, but I think you like my ass."

"I do, but that’s beside the point,” says Cas without batting an eye.

"Sorry, I’m still gonna say ‘mated’ when they ask me why I smell this way in the morning."

"...Fine. Just don’t let me hear you say it."

Chapter Text

From my own observations, I’ve had to conclude that ‘mating’ is indeed a physiological process. Readers will scoff and say that’s obvious, but it’s rash to draw conclusions without solid facts, and I cannot study our hormones and brain patterns like we could a hundred years ago. The benefits of mating are obvious, and would explain why the creators of GF32 went to the trouble and risk of rewriting our genome to include it. It provides stability for families and pack, and preps a pair of betas to challenge and transition smoothly to alpha.

Common knowledge has it that the first six months of mating are crucial: the famous ‘honeymoon period’. Yes, there is a sense of euphoria during that time (see annex on Dopamine and other neurotransmitters) but that’s underpinning a more serious biochemical transformation. After that period, biochemically speaking, mated pairs become linked; protective instincts and codependency develop to varying degrees, some people suffer psychological and even physical distress if separated during long periods, or if the other is sick or injured. The most blatant change is the way the Hierarchy between them is negated. Sure, one of the partners is usually more dominant than the other (what my pack colloquially call the ‘horse and pony’, or much worse) but seeing how betas and alphas relate when they’re not mated, there’s a world of difference in behavior. These strong bonds last a lifetime and beyond, though in some instances widows and widowers have managed to form new relationships after a while. After the initial six months, the net result of mating is a decrease of libido overall, or at least the desire for congress outside the relationship. Mated betas are calmer, more serious, they have more presence too. In my notes, I coined the term of pre-alpha for those mated betas, because in many ways their behavior starts to mimic alphas, as well as denoting the fact that they are one step, one power struggle away from the position. ‘Pre-alpha’ is not a scientific term, they are still fully beta, but they have matured in both the behavioral sense and as human beings.

Though there is a biochemical/behavioral component, please, please bury the notion of ‘true mates’ and other romantic hogwash. There is no such thing as ‘that unique scent that will drive you mad’ or a ‘unique and destined pairing’. Indeed, sometimes mating is purely biological, imposed by GF32: as a beta matures and rises in the Hierarchy, they are increasingly open to mates of equal rank. At its peak, this urge can mate together individuals who may not know each other that well or like each other all that much. But most often it’s the opposite. True affection and respect, the noblest of human emotions, join two people - sometimes more - into a stable, long term commitment in which the biological changes into pre-alpha trigger naturally during intercourse - not always the very first time, but rapidly thereafter. And yes, even though mating is one more change imposed on us by GF32, adhering to the Animal Model, I will not let that detract from the human side of it, the value it represents in our lives. After all, wolves mate for life too…

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack

 

~~~ Good morning ~~~

It’s a bloody short sleep. Can’t be more than three hours before the rooster in the nearest Rancher barn starts doing his thing, and thank god it’s winter or the blasted bird would have been at it even earlier. Three hours barely qualify as a nap, but Dean wakes up feeling better than he ever has before in his life because there’s a warm weight in the mattress next to him, there’s soft regular breath brushing his shoulder, making the skin tickle-

- there’s a second gentle whine from near the door. Ginny’s been a good girl, she’s doing her best, but with everything that happened last night, Dean forgot to let her out a last time before falling into bed.

Cas’s respiration rasps as Dean edges out of the covers with the noiseless attention he uses when stalking deer. A deeper breath tripping lightly into a snore sends Cas sinking deeper into sleep beneath the heap of blankets. Pleased with himself, Dean creeps to the door, cracks it open quietly.

Ginny levers it open with her muzzle and bullets out of there, sending the door swinging open hard, stubbing Dean in the naked toe. An extremely cold blast of snowy wind blows in, shrinking his junk by over half and pebbling his skin with goosebumps. Cas sniffs abruptly and wakes up as if a basin of cold water landed on his head.

Dean slams the door shut, but it’s too late. The temperature, already cold in his cabin, has plummeted to ridiculous depths. His toe hurts, his balls are tiny grapes, his nipples are probably gonna fall off, and Cas is cocooned and shivering in the blankets, awake despite Dean’s efforts.

Cas blinks blue eyes into focus and looks at Dean. Dean looks at Cas. Everything else immediately becomes secondary.

“Hey there, handsome,” Dean says with a happy leer - so glad to finally get his libido back! And that he still remembers how to flirt!

“Good morning, Dean,” Cas answers with a small intimate smile that’s warmer by far than the fire Dean will soon get going in the hearth.

Yeah, best morning ever.

 

~~~ Benny, on that first day ~~~

Benny is the second person to get the news. Makes sense, he’s as close to Dean as any family, and he’s also closer geographically speaking. His cabin is two doors down from Dean’s, and early morning is the best time to catch a Cajun, before he’s up and about and doing stuff that team leaders do.

A distracted “Come in” answers Dean’s rap on the door; a cheerful, peppy rat-a-tat-tat, because Dean’s in a good mood again after dropping quickly back by his cabin to see if Cas wanted anything (and for a quick kiss and grope.)

“Oh, Dean. You’re around early.”

“Yeah, hi, Benny.” Dean glances around automatically, looking for the source of that warm golden smell. Ah, yesterday’s bread is spread out on a griddle over one corner of the fire. Benny’s kneeling by the hearth, feeding some wood chippings into the flame and keeping an eye on his toast.

“Breakfast?” Benny suggests, familiar with Dean Winchester’s appetite, but no can do. Dean’s got something at home to look forward to, both tasty and hot! And it’s even-odds his inner monologue isn’t even referring to breakfast here!

Dean is certain he doesn't say any of that out loud, but he might as well have from the way Benny is staring at him, toast completely forgotten.

“...Brother? Are you…?”

Dean blushes, swear to god, and a grin that feels larger than his cheeks spreads across his face. Way to play it cool… but oh, who cares.

“Ah, yep.”

Benny’s smile rises like the sun slowly creeping up above yonder horizon. “I’ll be damned. Not that I’m surprised. Faster than I thought - but when it works, why wait? Congratulations, brother.”

“Thanks, man. Hah, now you can get off my back about needing to find a mate!”

There was a regular sound from outside that Dean only notices when it stops with an abrupt ka-thunk. He heard it, of course, you’d have to be deaf to miss it, but the sound of wood getting splintered is as much part of the winter morning as the rooster’s crow, it’s echoing from all corners of the camp by now, so Dean’s ears occulted it from his immediate consciousness even though it was sounding from right outside the cabin’s boarded window.

Two seconds later the door opens - Dean moves aside to make room - and Andrea appears, a hatchet in one hand and a billet in the other.

“Did I hear right, Dean? Have you found a mate?”

Telling Benny is a no-brainer, but Dean somehow managed to forget Andrea in all this, even though she lives in the same house.

“Uh, yeah. Cas. Castiel Novak, you may have heard of him.”

Andrea’s sculpted features deliver one of her smiles that don’t reach her eyes. They rarely do. “Yes, I’ve heard of him. Most of the pack has by now.”

“Right, right, hah, bit of a special case-” Dean’s mouth is not doing a good job at hiding how vulnerable he suddenly feels. Behind Andrea’s smooth smile and weighing eyes lies a judgment he’s gonna get from a lot of people around camp; suspicion about when Cas transitioned and why and just how long Dean has been sniffing around him…

“That’s very sudden.”

“Uh-”

“Interesting.” That word comes too quick for Dean to dig himself into a hole or out of one. But Andrea doesn’t look all that interested in Cas-the-brand-new-beta right this minute, or how Dean got him hooked three hot seconds after his transition.

“Interesting,” Andrea repeats. “Congratulations,” she adds, not even hiding that it’s purely for the form. “So, will he be joining you in the Hunters?”

That last has all her focus.

By the fire, there’s the smell of scorching toast and a solid, hairy silence from Benny who’s not doing anything about the burning breakfast.

...Oops.

“... We… just got together. We’ve not talked over the details yet.”

“Oh really,” says Andrea, gaze going from Dean to Benny and back again with the focused attention of a wolf watching a deer herd, waiting to see which one will totter and weaken first.

Dean manages to squeeze out of there shortly thereafter, with an apologetic look at Benny, who has rescued his toast with resigned gestures. Andrea is still poised there, staring at her mate, hatchet in one hand and wood in the other. Any second now, she’s gonna start in on him again about joining her in Ranchers so they can both be together in the same section, in the perfect position to challenge John or Sam for alpha in order to take over the pack one day, go team!

Sorry, brother…

Dean has other people he wants to see, but his enthusiasm is dampened enough where he goes straight back to his cabin instead. He and Cas haven’t talked over the details and he’s in no hurry to start, he just wants to see Cas, and remember, in those warm arms, why the details don’t actually matter a single flying fuck. They’ll come into play eventually - and god help Dean, that will probably put yet more pressure on Benny. But unlike the ambitious Andrea, if someone told Dean that he could only be with Cas if they worked in different section all their lives and would thus never be in line to take over as alpha… other than sending a silent apology to Sam and his dad, Dean would not think one hot second before saying ‘so be it!’ And yeah, he knows part of this decision is that brand new In Love feeling, that mating bliss you hear about. But Dean knows himself, and he knows Cas, and he knows them. As long as they’re together, they’ll be happy no matter what and no matter where they have to live or how.

Damn, I’m a lucky son of a bitch, thinks Dean, and opens his cabin door to share that revelation with his brand new mate of a few hours, who’s figured out where Dean keeps the oatmeal, tea and kettle, bless his heart.

 

~~~ Homesteading ~~~

Dean and Cas stand side by side in identical poses: arms crossed, backs to the door, thoughtful look on their faces as they contemplate the cabin’s interior.

“The bed for sure,” says Dean, since that’s obvious.

Or so he thinks, but… “Really? I think it’s fine.” Cas sounds puzzled.

“Dude, we- it- have you seen us? We’re both pretty healthy guys. My ass has been hanging off the edge ever since we shacked up!”

“So you found it a little tight for the last three nights,” says Cas who likes things precisely counted. “That’s hardly a pattern. We’re not in the habit of sleeping with anyone else yet, once we get used to it-”

“You don’t want a bigger bed?” The one advantage of mating a Maker, Dean thought, would be easy access to all the prime furniture those guys make for themselves and their buddies while saying they’re too busy to do your own custom orders. He thought Cas would be the one trying to doll up the place and stuff it full of spanking huge new fittings until Dean’s poor lil’ bachelor cabin bursts.

But Cas merely shrugs. “I don’t think we need one, no. Your bed is bigger than the bunk I had in the omega barracks, and that was large enough. In fact on cold nights we’d even share, so I think you and I will be fine.”

“Who is this ‘we’ you’re talking about?”

Cas breaks their symmetrical pose to turn to Dean and stare. “Dean, I was an omega, don’t tell me you think- don’t tell me you’re jealous.”

“No,” says Dean (almost entirely truthfully), “my question is more, was it you and another big guy my size, or was it the collective omega ‘we’ that you’re using, that covers a whole lotta tiny formats who could fit into Ginny’s spot by the fire in a bundle of five?”

“You exaggerate. But I do get your point, it was mostly the smaller, um, yes, I see what you mean.”

“Hah.”

Cas, looking critically at their cabin again, bites his lip. “A larger bed will take up a lot of space, though. If we keep this one, I could make myself a small desk and put it over there.”

Dean blinks at his mate’s profile and then at the spot in question. “A desk?”

“Yes. For my notes. You know.” There’s a tentative tone in his voice, perhaps even a little defensive, and Dean falls over himself to prove that he’s not Michael ‘The Ass’ Novak.

“Of course your notes, for sure you wanna write your book. I think that’s great. Won’t you be more comfortable at the table though?" Dean moves forward a step and invitingly pulls out the second chair they’ve had since yesterday. Comfier and fancier than the first with a nice cushioned seat, it’s a present straight out of Cesar and Jesse’s own cabin, a housewarming gift of sorts (told you Makers have all the best stuff.)

“...I suppose I could use the table, but, ah, I tend to spread out my notes, and I leave them in a certain order afterwards. It helps my train of thought when I write. We wouldn’t have enough room for that and putting down plates.”

Dean’s almost distracted by this furtive glimpse into the creative process, but then he re-focuses on practicality. They only have today to make a whole lotta decisions. Dean’s on a hunt rotation starting tomorrow and he doesn’t want to leave Cas with more of the work than necessary.

As one, they transfer their pondering look from the bed, to the empty space on the opposite wall (handily near the chimney so Cas can keep warm) and then to the table, which honestly was only ever big enough for one person anyway. At the far back of Dean’s noggin is a sort of wonder at what he’s doing right now. Okay, let’s get one thing straight, no way no how can the label ‘romantic’ be stuck on Dean ‘The Dude’ Winchester. Let that be clear. But okay, he’s occasionally had daydreams in the past- an impression, really, an idea, let’s say, of what it’d be like when he finally got mated. He imagined it’d be sex pretty much continuously, bar some occasion where a loudmouth beta rookie would show up out of nowhere to insult Dean’s mate, allowing Dean to show off by beating the bastard up in the best of traditions before dragging his other half back home where it was safe and they could have a lot of sex all over again.

Now fantasy has become reality, and yes, sex is involved, but truth be told, the first three days of being mated are not that different from the last three days of being a sad mateless loser; there’s work, there’s dinner warmed up on the fireplace, there’s friends, there’s a game of chess, there’s sleeping in a tiny bed. The night-and-day difference is that Cas is now fitted into every nook and cranny of his life, making it ten times better. Even as he focuses on work, Dean’s still walking on sunshine knowing he’s not going back to an empty cabin afterwards; Cas brings them dinner direct from the kitchen and they eat it together while talking about their day; all their friends have been clapping them on the shoulders and looking so happy on their behalf that Dean’s chest feels like it’s gonna burst; he’s lost the chess game to Cas who gives no quarters, the bastard, and has that small but ravishingly pretty grin on his face when he wins that Dean can now drag off to bed and make him pay for, and yeah, that tiny mattress has seen some exercise, lemme tell you.

Even picking out the curtains - since that’s what they’re doin’, in essence - is not a chore with Cas involved, it’s a goddamn pleasure, and boy, Dean’s got it bad.

“-we could get a larger table, I suppose, but I’d be worried about food stains-” Cas swallows his words in surprise as Dean reaches over, fits his arm around his mate’s waist and hauls him to his side.

“Let’s get a larger table - or ask one of your buddies to fit this one with a couple of wings, save on wood and time. Like that, we won’t bang knees together like we’ve been doing every time we eat. But as for your writing, well, I clean my rifle on that table, so you’re looking at grease and blackpowder as well as gravy stains. That won’t work. Let’s keep the bed and put in a desk over there, it’s fine, we’ll just get awfully cozy beneath the blankets is all.”

Cas relaxes into the hold, the messy black hair rests against Dean’s cheek. “I think that will work great.”

“Yup. Come summer, we’ll see about, you know, maybe moving or something. Before next winter at least.”

“Hm.”

There’s a little unspoken bit there about the future that they don’t pursue. Getting a bigger cabin makes sense, they can request one now, as mates, but how big a cabin they get has certain political implications within the pack...

Cas twitches a little. “...Dean, do hunters have any real objection to curtains in final?” he starts to probe almost cautiously - still a bit of omega clinging to him at times, or maybe it’s the Maker’s fussiness he’s not sure will fit into a Hunter’s free-roaming lifestyle.

“It’s not against my religion or nothin’, no. Do what you need to do, hon.”

“Well then, I was thinking-”

Damn, Dean’s got it bad...

 

~~~ John, on that first day ~~~

John’s the third person to know, shortly after Benny and two hours before Dean manages to track down Sam in one of the barns.

“Dad,” calls Dean as he opens the door. At this time of day John is at his desk.

In fact John is in the doorway to his office, glancing over his shoulder at his eldest who’s just hit a metaphorical wall as he suddenly remembers that John knows-... may suspect- may think-

“I see,” says John with no more than one raking glance over his son. “I guess congratulations are in order.”

“Er… uh, thanks, dad,” Dean croaks. Jesus, he’s washed off by now - is it written on his face? And how is he going to address The Thing? The thoughts that must be going through John’s mind, as a responsible primary alpha, about what his son might be guilty of-

A clunk and a splash echo from the kitchen, and suddenly Kate is in the room with them like a jack in the box, hands all soapy.

“What?! What happened?!” The look on her face says she already knows but needs it confirmed.

Dean’s undoubtedly weird grin and red cheeks are all the confirmation needed, and the habitually calm, quiet mate of the primary alpha squeals in a way Dean’s not thought her capable of. “Dean! That’s wonderful! It’s- you are-... right?”

“Um, yeah, Kate - and dad - um, I came by to tell you that Cas and I are, well, mated.”

“How wonderful! That was fast! I didn’t think- but that’s wonderful! If a thing’s certain, why wait?!”

“That’s right,” John concurs, looking thoughtfully down at the cup he’d been carrying to his office. “I wish it’d happened faster, actually. Like that you could have told me last night when we could toast this with beer. Tea seems inadequate.”

“Tea is just fine by me! Stay right here, Dean! I’m getting us both a cup!”

Dean looks after her a bit owlishly. There’s a loud clack of a cabinet being thrown open in the kitchen followed by a lot of rapid rustling.

“You may not realize this,” says John dryly with a wave at his office indicating Dean should follow him, “but Kate’s been keen on seeing you mated for a long time. Now you’re dealt with, she’ll be watching Sam like a hawk. Adam’s got a few more years to enjoy being single before she starts fretting about him. I think it’s part of her alpha expression, to want to see you children paired off and safe from the fate of dying sad and alone. Do you have a minute to drink a celebratory tea, son? Or do you need to be off?”

“I got time.” With Kate here, Dean can’t have a heart to heart with his dad, not on that subject, but he’s not too nervous about it at this juncture; from everything his dad’s body language is telling him, looks like Cas was right about John’s analysis of the situation. Whatever he suspected of Dean’s feelings in regards to omega Cas in the past, he knows Dean wouldn’t act on them back then. So now Dean can just sit down with his dad and stepmom to enjoy tea and congratulations and all the warm things. Damn, he should have brought Cas along with him, as the omeg- his mate, the brand new beta whom he mated last night, won’t be getting this kind of familiar congratulations from anyone.

Kate, who makes up for being the weakest alpha in camp by being the most empathetic, has invited them both to dinner tonight before Dean’s tea is even cool enough for sipping, so they can celebrate with Sam and Adam, Bobby and a keg of beer.

All good.

 

~~~ Grapevine ~~~

In the week that follows, the gossip mill goes off like one of Cas’s wind turbines in a tornado. Dean Winchester got mated! With his best friend who was just an omega three seconds ago! A lot of people claim to be in the ‘saw it coming’ school. Nobody seems to suspect Dean of doing anything inappropriate to bring this about, fortunately. Dean’s known about camp, he’s respected, he’s an upright kind of guy… aaaaand a lot of people have also met Cas by now, the quirky omega who worked all over camp on the grid these past few months, giving his tart opinions on how to do stuff to folk all the way up to the alphas; nobody seems to think anyone could impose on him.

Benny, Andrea and Kate’s comment on how fast their mating happened is universally echoed, with an occasional tinge of disapproval: traditionally a new beta is expected to sleep around a lot. It’s kind of their thing. Having one get mated on virtually the very first night… way too hasty, in people’s minds. How can Cas really commit if he’s not played the field? Of course, as Cas points out, the greatest majority of brand new betas are teenagers, so it’s natural they don’t have the maturity to get hitched right away. Him and Dean, though, they’re adults, they know what they’re doing. They knew it even before their first night and the hormones and the bliss and all that. They know what they got.

By the time February rolls around, that’s the pack’s takeaway: it was Meant To Be, and you can’t get in the way of that. The immediate fallout? All the younger unmated betas are constantly requesting the most romantic stories imaginable for their winter fireside storytelling fodder, the ‘love at first scent’ kind that makes Dean cringe, especially when he catches people talking amongst themselves in low voices, then looking at him and a bemused Cas before giggling a lot. A disgruntled Dean is ready to hunt down a bear in its den, kill it with his bare hands and wear its bloodied hide back to camp if that’ll restore his Badass image and stop teenagers coming up to him to ask in a breathless way, “So, did you just look into his eyes that first night and know?”

 

~~~ Sam, also on that first day ~~~

“Knew it. From the minute that hair came in on his chin. Sooo obvious you were done for, Dean.”

“Shut up.”

“Yeah yeah. I'm glad for you. For you both.”

“Stop it, bitch, you're embarrassing me.”

“I don't know how Cas puts up with you, jerk.”

“Hey! Let go!”

“Nope, sorry, this is a ‘my brother just got mated!’ hug. Put up with it!”

“You wanna fight?!”

 

~~~ Adaptation ~~~

In the end, Cas finds a way to optimize their furniture arrangement, bless his clever Maker heart, in order to get them a bigger bed. In exchange, Cas now has ‘his corner’, the furthest from the door. Instead of spreading out his notes, he carefully clips them to a felted mat he hangs on the wall. He sits in a comfortable bag-chair like a miniature rag-couch that’s only a foot off the ground, knees propping up a writing desk in which he crafted an inkwell and pen-holder. Dean worries he’ll get cold there, or stiff, but Cas looks comfortable and can sink for hours at a time into his reading and writing, while Dean peacefully works with hide or deer antlers at the table, cleans his weapons, makes a new bow for Chrissy, whatever occupies his time. When the watery winter sunlight fades, they eat at their larger table, put stones from the hearth into their big bed, and find other ways of keeping warm while the blankets get toasty.

It’s only been a week since Cas knocked on Dean’s door and then decided to stay forever, and Dean’s already used to it - no, more, he's addicted to it. He’s been focused while out on the hunt, of course, three full days of it, but his team is partly griping, partly laughing at him for the way he is constantly accelerating the closer they get to camp.

“Calm down, boss, he’ll be waitin’ for ya,” Everett drawls (from two dozen feet away since he didn’t follow Dean’s latest peel of speed.)

“Jeez, Dean, can you be a bigger horndog?” grouses Jo.

“I think it’s sweet.” There’s a smile in Pah-ne-me’s voice. “I remember, when Mike and I were first mated-”

Cole, in the meantime, doesn't say anything, but sulks even louder if such a thing is possible (he’s still pushing boundaries and got checked hard this morning.) He’s hitched to one of the travois with Everett, hauling the dead buck over the snow. Dean’s pulling the other carcass all by himself, but he feels like he’s flying, the weight of the sled is barely there. He wants to be home already, he wants to walk into the cabin and see Cas sitting in his corner, writing desk on his lap, the lamp fixed to the wall above his head casting a halo around that messy dark hair as he looks up, spots Dean in the doorway and smiles, that small but so beautiful grin-

“Lord spare us, he’s about to run.”

“You slowpokes can’t keep up, is all,” Dean informs them loudly over his shoulder, and oh, look, there’s the last hill up ahead, they’re at least an hour ahead of schedule, fancy that…

Dean tries to follow his routine, make sure the deer are stowed, weapons checked, his team secured… but said team as a man - even the grumpy Cole - chase him away with various threats of physical harm if he doesn’t get out of their hair, let them do the work while he gets his horny ass back to Cas before he rushes them all into an early grave. Thus relieved of duty, Dean is off home like a bolt of lightning, so fast even Ginny has to break into a gallop to follow. There’s the cabin - he’s ten seconds away from opening the door. At this time of day, Cas should be done with work, he’ll be home getting supper ready, or reading some of his notes, but he’ll look up immediately when the door opens - five more seconds - four, three-

Cas is not sitting in his corner, he’s pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace. The air smells of throttled anger, acrid resentment. Dean, elan shattered, stops in the open doorway like he hit a wall.

But then his mate spins around and his face lights up. “Dean! You’re back!”

Oh good. Dean was worried he’d done something to be the focus of that anger, that wouldn’t have been a good welcome home.

“Hey, hon, what’s- oof!”

Cas has him pinned against the wall and is kissing him breathless for the next small eternity, until Jo and Everett passing nearby give them enough catcalls to remind Dean to close the door and shut out the cold temperature. Ginny, already mooching off the heat by the fireplace, gives Dean a rather condescending look before she lowers her head to her paws and starts to nap.

“-missed you-” Cas says between peppering Dean’s face and neck with kisses. Dean’s ready to bet the door slamming shut went unnoticed.

“Missed you too.” And he was only gone for three days on a short-distance hunt. The long patrol in a week is going to be brutal. A whole fortnight without Cas… Dean’s laying even-odds he’ll die of withdrawal. It’s only his pride as a deputy and his iron will that’s not letting him cave to Benny’s offer to take the patrol in his stead (Benny didn’t say why he offered, but he’s been through this, he probably knows how frantic love feels at first… or else he’s got a good reason to want to be out of the house for a few days.)

Finally Cas leans back with a last caress. Shivers of pleasure chase his fingertips along Dean’s jaw and neck. “You must be tired. And hungry. I’ve put on some soup, I was hoping you’d be back today.”

“Hm.” Dean can smell the stew in the pot hanging by the chimney crane. He can also smell a lot of that condensed irritation still. “Can you tell me what’s wrong while I wash up?”

Cas looks blank for a sec. Whatever his cares, they must have flown out the window when Dean walked through the door. But then they come crowding back like vultures overhead. “Oh. Just… a problem in Makers. Don’t worry about it.”

“C’mon, tell me.” Dean peels himself out of his coat and boots for the first time in three days. The soup smells and the muffled rage scents give way to Aroma of Dean, and Ginny, three quarters asleep by the fireside, sees her nose twitch violently for a sec. Cas goes to fetch the basin and fills it from a pail near the fire, but his mind is visibly elsewhere. As soon as Dean’s having a go at the muck on his face and hands, Cas starts to pace again, passing in front of the notes pinned to the wall without a glance; those notes that used to be his shiny purpose and only comfort not that long ago. There’s no apparent change to the order of the pages since Dean left, the latter notices, but there is a new page hanging there, a dozen lines scribbled in larger letters than Cas is wont to use. He’s too far to read it, but something about the large spiky letters makes his instincts twinge.

“So?”

Cas paces from the fireplace to the wall, back again.

“I can’t work with Bobby anymore.”

Water trickles through Dean’s numb fingers, splashing into the basin and wetting the table. “What?! Why not?”

“Cesar said so,” Cas bites out. “Because of the dynamic.”

“...Oh. But… that’s only for awhile, right? He didn’t mean forever.”

“He said a few weeks. Or a few months.” He makes a bitten off sound and turns again, back to the wall. “I was not behaving badly, Dean.”

“I believe you.” And he does. But... but Bobby is an omega, a backslider to boot, they’re always pricklier, and he’s in charge of Adam and Wes, two young omegas. Dean kicks himself for not thinking about this before, though Cas - he’s a bit of an oddity in the pack structure. He doesn’t have a spot per se, he flits from job to job, from need to need, he’s not an official part of the Bobby’s group per se. Yet he needs to work hand in glove with Bobby because a lot of his knowledge, his passion, relates to chemistry. But Bobby cannot have a beta in the mix if he has to keep control of his apprentices and his workshop. Where Cas used to fit in seamlessly as an omega, he’s now like a match in the munitions dump. His scent, his very presence disrupts, especially now, when he’s still finding his feet as a beta. Even if he tries to tone it down, the kids will listen to him instinctively, overriding their boss’s orders, and Bobby will either feel challenged and irascible, or cowed and depressed.

Unspoken, the words were like a spring, winding Cas up and setting him on that pacing. Now they’re out, he’s stopped moving, face turned towards the fireplace, hands propped against the mantle, staring blankly into the fire with an unhappy turn to his mouth.

Dean wipes water off his face, feeling a little helpless. “Hey, hon, it’s okay, you got lots of other stuff to do.” Though that’s definitely going to hamper him, Cas had plans to work with Bobby during the winter when the weather kept him from doing other repairs around camp.

“Hm.”

Dean waits, the cold air prickling at his wet skin. There’s something more here, something is winding up. Cas’s hands are slowly fisting on the mantle.

“I nearly attacked him.” The words are low, dull, spoken to the log broken over the firedogs.

“...Who? Cesar?”

“Yes.”

That makes unfortunate sense…

“I know he has perfectly good reasons, but when he came up to me and said-... I-... for a second there I nearly punched him.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” says Dean prosaically, taking off his belt and starting on his various upper layers. “I know Cesar is over ten years older n’ you and looks like a pussycat, but sweetheart, he would flatten you.”

“For a moment, I wasn’t myself.” Cas doesn’t seem to have heard him. “It was worse than when Jenna picked a fight with me at the start of the week. I didn’t feel angry then. I mean, I was angry, but not-... not like this.” He glares sideways in the direction of his corner and the felt mat with his notes. “I know down to the molecule what is going on in my brain right now, why I can’t sleep, why I’m irritable, why everybody - every beta - seems to want to annoy me - I can draw a diagram of what’s going on, but this- I felt like a stranger in my own body! I was just - I wanted so bad to- Agh!“ Fists suddenly slam against the mantle. “This is worse than being an omega!”

Dean quickly drops the washcloth and moves around the table, but by the time he reaches Cas, his mate is already shaking his head at his own words, “No, no, it’s just different, I’m not used to it…”

“Right.” Dean touches his back cautiously, lets a little twitch pass, then comes up and slides his arms along Cas’s. Dean’s chest comfortingly covers his mate’s back, a thumb massages the tension he finds in the forearm beneath his hands, the coil of muscles. After a few seconds, he feels them relax a tad. “I’m glad you didn’t get into a throwdown with Cesar. Him and Jesse… they’re alpha for a reason.”

“I know…”

“Any other fights in the last three days?” Dean asks, only partly teasing.

“No,” says Cas shortly. “I wonder how exactly Cesar is going to determine when I can-... good grief, yes, I forgot, I got into a fight with Lester the day you left.” Cas sounds bowled over that it’d slipped his mind.

“Who won?” Dean promptly asks with beta eagerness his mate doesn’t seem to share. Cas is staring into the fireplace.

“He did,” he finally answers. “I don’t… I don’t move like they do- like you do. I feel slow and… just slow. He had me pinned against a wall before I could barely blink. He did me the favor of not wrestling me to the floor by the back of the neck like a puppy.”

“Hm. Got bruises?”

“No.”

“Barely a scuffle then.” Dean pats the back of the hand that’s still fisted on the mantelpiece. “Don’t worry, Cas, this is normal, your body is changing-”

“I know.”

“I can teach you a few tricks, give you a headstart, but you’ll be starting at the bottom of the heap anyway. It’s the nature of things.”

Mercurial tension runs through the body close to his. “I don’t care! I don’t care about rankings! I should have just told him that and walked away, let him win by default, but I-... urgh. It feels like my skin is two sizes too small! Like I’m itching all over!”

Dean stays silent, giving him a caress up the arm and across the ribs which Cas doesn’t even notice.

“It’s the hormones,” Cas says dully, as if Dean’s nerdy friend Cas is a third party in the conversation, butting in to reassure beta Cas currently climbing the walls.

“Yeah, bloody hormones,” says Dean bracingly. “Seriously, though, lemme teach you some throws. Even if you don’t care about the pecking order, you’ll feel worse if you let them walk all over you.”

“I really don’t think it’ll matter. My job is not at risk, nobody can order me around. Other than my alphas,” he adds waspishly, then scolds himself with a head shake and a put-upon sigh. “What I need to do is just quickly establish myself into the pack - again - so I can get past this- this phase. Even if I’m at the bottom of the heap once that’s done, I don’t care.”

Dean fidgets, though he manages not to say anything. He’d care a whole bunch, but he’s not Cas. Cas, used to being an omega, might be perfectly fine living his life at the bottom of the pecking order, it’s only that Dean doesn’t like that picture. It’s not a reasonable objection he’s got, it’s just his own hackles raising at the idea of someone disrespecting his mate.

“But hon, if you let them run over you roughshod, they won’t listen to what you have to say later on, when it’s something that matters.”

“They’ll listen to what I have to say because it’s rational,” says Cas in a steely no-nonsense voice. Dean inwardly snorts. Cas may have resigned himself to being at the bottom of the heap, but no way no how will he be stayin’ there even if he wants to. Physical fights are only half the story, especially in the more civilized Makers pack; the rest is attitude and Cas has that in spades.

“You’ll figure it out,” Dean concludes to both Cas and his own inner beastie who’s just begging to be let off the leash to go throw his weight around on his mate’s behalf. That wouldn’t solve anything, though, and then Jesse and Cesar would kick his ass for disrupting their pack, and John would hold him down. Dean-the-human tells the mutt to go roll in the snow and chill.

“So… think you’ll punch Cesar tomorrow? Just making sure I have enough first aid supplies on hand.”

Cas’s fists tighten against the mantle, knuckles standing out in sharp relief. “I will attempt to restrain myself.”

“Good, good. Though you know…”

Cas twitches his head to one side, to see if Dean’s going to continue that thought any time soon.

“It might just have to happen,” says Dean resignedly. “If you felt like taking that swing today, then your inner wolf might just need to learn the hard way who’s alpha in order to… I don't know, fit. Then you’ll calm down.”

“Fit.” The word falls heavy as lead. Cas’s shoulders are like hawsers pulling twenty tons of anger and tension, and Dean’s tentative rub does bupkis.

“...I think that’s why I was so… upset with Cesar,” Cas finally says. “I… my head is so full of-... agitation. I know where I fit, it’s just-... I wanted to go work with Bobby, use my brain, calm down-... I mean, I am calm…” A sigh and the back muscles lose a notch of that strain, his neck bends. “I just wanted to… do some research with him…”

Dean wants Cas to relax, but this doesn’t feel right. He looks with concern at the lowered head, Cas’s brow almost touching the mantle.

Cas takes in a deep shuddering breath. “One of the smartest men I know is a beta,” he says ever so softly as if he’s lecturing himself. “Luke’s the one who showed me what could be found in books, he taught me how to think, he’s-... he can reason, use his intellect. I just have to get past this, this hump, this-... adjustment. And then I can focus again.”

...Dean’s not sure why Cas says that, what’s really riding him, but he can tell this much: Cas isn’t angry. He’s scared. Scared of losing what he does best, of becoming someone too different, too far from the calm, impartial Castiel observing everything from a distance, detached, and always able to think. A scared omega shuts down, a scared beta lashes out.

He rubs Cas’s back, trying to figure out where this is coming from.

“You’ve been doing some writing. Right? That page over there is new.”

The slice of profile he can make out as Cas looks that way is full of gloom. “Not really. That’s just a list, physical and mental changes I’ve noticed. Not many people transition to beta as adults, without having the additional changes of puberty to contend with. It could be some good data.”

“Right.” Dean doesn't know how Cas can dismiss that with a ‘just a list’, he’d never have thought of that.

“I’ll adjust,” says Cas to himself, straightening his head. “It will just take time. And at least I can get things down now. Come spring, when I pick up my repairs again, I won’t be negotiating my way through a bunch of dickhead betas who act insulted when an omega is smarter than they are.”

“There you go, silver lining.”

“Hmf…” Cas slowly leans back, glances down at Dean’s bare forearm cupping his own. “Silver lining,” he says thoughtfully. Dean’s arm gets another longer look. “Are you tired?”

“Me? After only three days of hunting? You makin’ fun of me?” Dean parks his chin on Cas’s shoulder.

Cas is definitely paying more attention to what’s going on at his back than in his head. “But you’re probably hungry.”

“I can wait an hour or two, stew always tastes better the longer it cooks.

“Then maybe…”

“Yeah?”

“Maybe I can read you my list, since you’re always so interested in my research.”

Dean’s heart lurches.

“Right,” he says, making a truly heroic effort to sound enthusiastic.

“Just while you wash up.” Cas turns in Dean’s arms, eyes dancing and that little corner smile that says he knows damn well what he’s up to. “You smell worse than Ginny.” He moves the stew away from the fire as he speaks so it can stay warm for a good long while, and Dean leaps back to the basin in a sudden hurry. He loves Cas’s research, he really does, he’s sure those brains will fire up again once the body is done adjusting, but right this minute, lord forgive him, he’s hoping that there list ain’t too long...

 

~~~ Garth, still on that first day ~~~

Cas and Garth are friends, because everybody is friends with Garth once he grows on them.

It’s still the first day of being mated, they have an hour before dinner with Kate and John and Dean’s brothers, and the two new mates are wandering around the hunter compound hand in hand looking for people who might not know the happy news yet in order to tell them. It’s possible the two of them are a little high on those ‘hormone’ things Cas is so keen on, which are making their mating more and more permanent every hour and every day from now on, like cement setting. So far they told half the Makers and most of the Hunters, and Cas just remembered Garth. They definitely need to tell Garth, he’ll be over the moon.

“Oh, Matt.” Cas takes off at right angle to their previous course, tugging Dean along as he heads towards the omega crossing between two cabins. “Have you seen Garth?”

Matt turns towards them fully. Behind his armload of firewood, his gaze flickers to Cas and then drops like a stone to the ground.

“No, beta,” he says.

They’re holding hands. Dean feels Cas flinch through their connected palm, fingers spasming.

Garth shows up out of nowhere five minutes later and gives them both hugs, behaving perfectly norm- perfectly like Garth, but Cas is subdued as they make their way to John and Kate’s.

 

~~~ Fight or flight ~~~

There’s a knock on the door, to Dean’s surprise. His gut tells him who it is, but Cas lives here now, has been for two months, so why is he knocking?

“Uh… come in?”

Cas enters by increment, like he’s expecting to get attacked if he moves too quickly or aggressively. Dean pauses his polishing and looks at him quizzically.

“Dean… I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Dean asks, puzzled.

A sharp look melds into uncertainty. “For… for what I said. I didn’t mean it.”

Dean shrugs and returns to oiling and polishing his left boot. “Dude, I know that. It was the heat of the moment. You're still-”

That sharp look is back, an expression twisted with remorse, underpinned with self-directed anger. “Hormones are no excuse!”

“But they are.” Seeing how seriously Cas is taking this, Dean forgets his rag in the goose grease jar and puts the boot down on the floor. “Hon, relax. Three months after his quickening fever, Sam punched dad. Or tried to, but the old man-”

From the horrified look Cas is giving him, he’s not interested in hearing a family anecdote right now.

“It is not okay for me - or you - to use violence in our relationship just because we’re betas!”

“Calm down, of course not, you’re more rational than Sam was at that age anyway-”

“I should hope so! I mean, no offence to your brother-”

Dean snorts. “You never met teenage Sammy, or you’d know that there is no offence large enough that he didn’t deserve back then, the long-haired leggy brat.”

Apparently he’s not gonna be allowed to defuse this situation with humor or pokes at Sam, from the look on Cas’s face and the way he’s started pacing yet again. He’s not even taken his coat off, and he’s only walking in circles near the door like he thinks he doesn’t deserve to invade the rest of the house. He’s done so much pacing in the past two months, it’s a wonder they still have floorboards. Dean wipes his hands on his trousers, stands up and goes over to stop that ceaseless turning around by pulling his mate into a hug.

“Calm down, calm down.” It’s a storm in a teacup, but Dean remembers not to sound patronizing or dismissive (learned his lesson last time.) Even though he can’t remember what they were fighting about half an hour ago. Cas called him a brute at the end there and a few other unflattering things - not all entirely off base, honestly, but what started it? They were talking about this new omega who’s come into camp and joined the Ranchers, and somehow it snowballed, Dean can’t quite remember how and it really doesn’t matter.

Cas pushes against Dean’s chest half-heartedly. “Dean- seriously, do not let me get away with this. You don’t blow up at me like that.”

“I’ve had years of living with this,” Dean points out, refusing to let go.

“That’s-...” Cas sinks his head against Dean’s shoulder and talks into his neck. “I need to learn to control myself.”

“And you will. You’ve only been a beta a couple of months, love, give it time.”

There is quiet and stillness in their little cabin for a minute, while Cas allows Dean to give him a slow comforting rub on the back and shoulders. Dean waits for what is surely long enough before pointing out brightly: “You know, make up sex is the best part of-”

“No!” Cas snaps, and this time his shove at Dean’s chest is for real, splitting them apart. Then he groans and rubs his face. “Sorry, sorry, but don’t-... I’m really not there yet. Sex is not the solution to every problem, Dean.”

That’s not been Dean’s experience, but this is Cas’s hairshirt, not his own. Since the temper flared out as fast as it came, he carefully collects his mate again and goes back to the shoulder rubbing.

“Were you like this when you transitioned?” Cas finally asks. He’s propped up his chin on his hand resting on Dean’s shoulder, he sounds tired and a little down.

That’s a complicated question and Dean has to think about it and its corollary for a bit. “No, but I had some bad moments too, bad decisions, trust me. Stuff comes boiling out, you know? Of course puberty made it all… it made it worse, but also excusable. Understandable. With kids we all just shrug and grumble ‘puppies’ and forget about it. But you, I dunno…”

Cas shifts against him. “Hm?”

“I think you may have a lot of anger in there that you couldn’t address when you were an omega, and now its out of its box.”

Silence for a minute. Cas detaches himself, leans back, but only far enough to look Dean in the face while keeping their clench. Then those blue eyes turn inwards. “That’s very insightful, Dean.”

“Yeah, I can do that.” Dean shrugs it off. He’s liked this guy since the moment they met, he’s been watching him closely, and he could sense it deep inside, in a place where words can’t quite go but Dean’s instincts could reach. It was like there was a wolf down there, pacing around a small cage inside Cas all along. For Dean, it’s as obvious as the sun rising that the critter’s now out and in a foul temper. That’s the third fight they’ve had in two months, and seriously, Dean’s just surprised there’s not more, or that Cas is beating himself up about it so much afterwards. It’s part of being beta, after all… and yeah, he thinks Cas has some things inside, in that complicated and very full head of his, that he has a right to be angry about, from his past, from the way his omega nature used to squash him down every time he tried to stick up for himself.

Cas seems to come back from his long trip inside his inner country in increments. “Dean.”

“Hm?”

“I love you.”

Only Cas can say something like that with so much dead-eye strength and conviction without trying to pass it off as a flirt or a joke. It’s like he’s taking all his feelings and socking you in the jaw with them, both shocking and flustering and very pleasant and heavy all at once.

“Uh, um, me too-”

“I am fortunate to have found an emotionally intelligent, smart, strong beta such as yourself, and to have him like me and accept me in a way-... in a way very few people have, even inside my own family.”

And the hits just keep on coming. Dean makes a vague ‘g- um- uh’ noise, cheeks flaming.

Cas’s hand is still on Dean’s shoulder, it tightens and gives him a small squeeze to reinforce his words. “I am asking you very seriously to help me rein in my temper. We’ll find ways to remind me to keep my self control. Because if I am to become a beta, then I damn well want to become one of the good ones, one of the best. A beta like you.”

“Spare me,” Dean groans, burying his red face in his hand.

“I’m serious.”

“I know, that’s what’s killing me!”

“Dean- oh very well.” His put upon sigh is steeped in irony and affection alike. “Fine, fine, you win, you’re an okay beta, barely passable really, and you’re lucky I put up with you. But that’s no reason for you to put up with my tantrums in return.”

“Don’t lay it on too thick. C’mon,” adds Dean with a tilt of his chin towards the door. “Best way to get this out of our system is to take a walk. Let me take you to the creek, or to-”

Cas’s eyes fly wide at the suggestion. “You just got back from long patrol yesterday.”

“What, you’re saying I’m getting creaky?”

“No, but-”

“I can do twenty miles before tonight if I have to, I can take you up to the creek before noon, that’s only-”

“It’s barely above freezing out there!”

“Even better. You’re still building muscle. You know what they say about pups who quicken in winter, right? It’s true, you want to work your body even if it’s hard to go out, or this whole state will last even longer. Besides, the cold will help dissipate that itchy heat you’re always complaining about.”

“That actually sounds valid,” Cas concedes after reflection. “And a good habit to get into when I need to clear my head in the future.”

“And if you’ve never had someone go down on you in the middle of a snowbound forest, warming you up with their mouth before they bring you off, you’ve not been a beta long enough yet. If you’ve finished beating yourself up, that is?”

“I suppose I am,” says Cas indulgently. “Since make-up sex does seem to be such an important part of fighting in your books.”

“Hell yeah, hon, best part, that’s what I keep saying. C’mon, I got to be back by this afternoon.”

 

~~~ On that first day. Vic. ~~~

When Dean steps out the door on that first day with a promise he’ll be back soon, he’s so high on happiness that he expects all his friends to be outside the door ready to yell Congratulations! He’s astonished that they’re not. He’s still getting over the surprise - and he’s never getting over the warm fuzzy amazement of mating Cas! - when he realizes his feet have taken him along the same path he walks almost every morning first thing when he’s in camp.

Vic opens the door to Dean’s knock, which rang overly loud in the dawn quiet (Dean is still pepped like crazy.) “Oh, Dean.”

This is it, this is so exciting, this is gonna make it real! The first person Dean’s gonna tell-

He doesn’t have to. It’s winter, people don’t wash much in the cold, Dean stinks of sex and of all other sorts of things, and he’s probably radiating that Mated look at a hundred paces.

Vic’s face freezes and time stops.

The splinter of a moment coils, weighs, tightens like a spring.

Annabelle, strapping her holster around her waist, appears in the doorframe to see what her mate is doing, standing there in the entrance and letting in all that cold air.

“Vic? Oh, Dean, what’s-...”

A thick silence like tar solidifies around them. The two alphas stare at their deputy, their second in command, the strongest beta in their pack who just got mated…

Above the three of them, the future looms.

Dean can’t remember afterwards what he says exactly, something matter-of-fact about his change of status, while his body language tones down into submissive, a gesture saying ‘easy now, not challenging’... but that unspoken 'not yet' hangs over him, it’s there in Vic’s silent nod, Annabelle’s stillness.

Belle’s expression unthaws into a small smile followed by sincere and warm congratulations, since beyond all else, they’re pack, they’re family, they care for Dean and his happiness, even as the beasts within take stock and know that one day this scenario won’t be so pretty.

 

~~~ Anniversary ~~~

It’s their three month anniversary. Cas is reasonably certain that’s not a thing, but then in an adorably confused way he bows to Dean’s superior knowledge of Winchester customs when his mate assures him that yes, it is, and that the traditional way to celebrate is to drink too much beer that Dean wheedled out of Bobby and eat something good he bargained out of Rufus, alone in their cabin with the fire roaring (Dean’s hands are blistered from all the wood he chopped) before they make love on the bear-skin rug. Ginny has been turned out for the occasion, and is sulking over in the omega cabin, where Garth is undoubtedly spoiling her with tidbits to make up for it.

Beneath the table, their socked feet are already starting the after-party fun, but the meal is too good to let go to waste, so they don’t let themselves get too distracted. While finishing the beer, Cas talks about a small improvement in the meat preservation process that he remembers from some old manual, something that could extend their game’s shelf life even in middling temperatures like today’s. Dean promises to bring it up with Vic. There’s an unspoken bit of something, both pack politics and personal, here. One day, Cas will be bringing this up with Vic himself…

Because right now they may be in different sections, like others before, Benny and Andrea among them, but far, far back of his mind, Dean knows that unlike those others, their situation won’t last. There is absolutely no hurry, however. When Vic starts to get a bit creaky, maybe, or if he and Annabelle skip pups one season, then… well, then Cas will have to apply those lessons Dean’s been giving him from time to time - tracking, hunting, fighting - to become a beta hunter so that one day-... truth is, it makes Dean feel weird thinking about that. Him taking over as alpha was always never-never land, but thinking about it when Cas is in the equation makes it so damn real-

Since ‘nitrates’ are involved in meat preservation, Cas goes back to his second love after Dean, chemistry. He’s back to working with Bobby, to everyone’s relief and no-one’s surprise. Bobby’s not gonna let a greenhorn beta boss him around, and Cas is, well, he’s Cas, and he’s calmed way down this last month. So yeah, Cas is back where he belongs and busy exploring his role as a Maker beta. He and Dean are having awesome sex, and Dean is the poster child for living in the now. Though it feels good, it feels right when Cas spends more of his spare time with other hunters, it feels good and right when he works more and more in their compound, and occasionally points out flaws in their traditional ways of doing things. Still, that future that’s looking over their shoulder? It can keep its distance.

Dean leaves the bowl on the table, tugs Cas to his feet by the hand he’s been caressing for the past ten minutes. Little crows’ feet around Cas’s eyes make a delightful crinkle; when he smiles, really smiles, Dean’s discovered that it changes his mate’s whole face, softens that craggy look, that hardness of his mouth and jawline. He was a boss of an omega, he’s hitting his stride as a beta, but the look that suits Cas best is simply bein’ happy. That suits him down to the ground.

Three months down the road, and Dean’s still got it bad. He’s planning to have it this way the rest of his life, whatever that might bring. And hey, it’s all fine, really. No reason for anything to change any time soon.

Chapter Text

(Excerpt from three pages of notes found hidden in a box, circa 2115 AD, author unknown.)

I look at my diagrams. Hormone cascades, neuroreceptor flows, reflex charts. It’s all theory. Nothing can describe in truth what it feels like to face an alpha.

Am I the only one who can see how obscene this is? That we creatures of higher reason can be so enslaved to the Animal Model that another human, not much different than we are, can make us cower with just one word, one look? The effect bypasses our higher functions. By the time your brain engages to remind you that the man you’re facing puts his pants on the same way you do, it’s too late: every fiber of your body is already standing at attention, trembling to comply. If you’re obedient, a single nod sends endorphins rushing through your system, you feel placid, almost sedated, half asleep as you perform repetitive task after task; easy to get addicted to that if you have no other recourse available anyway. But if he’s angry with you… hands tremble, heart hammers, your gut clenches painfully. Invaded by a diffuse panic, you freeze to the spot like a quail desperately relying on your camouflage instinct, but there’s nowhere to hide; the reaction is engineered into your very body, the predator stalks through your blood. If you did something wrong, or even if you did not, one harsh word is enough. Your extremities grow cold, you shake, flinch, and then depression and guilt set in beyond the ability of reason to dispel. Even if you know intellectually that you’re in the right, and your bro

The tyranny of it is breathtaking. Among the myriad crimes perpetrated by the creators of GF32, this is the worst. They locked us into straightjackets and handed the keys to a random selection of people - not elected by a majority, not any better in matters of morality, ethics, intelligence. No, our wardens are merely stronger, more assured. They can be toppled, yes, but only with some difficulty, allowing all manners of atrocities to be perpetrated before their reign fails. Betas are subject to the same reactions listed above, they can also be cowed and controlled by the alpha’s mere presence. This advantage is virtually unassailable unless old age, disease or injury intercede. Only when an alpha loses his ascendency over a majority of his pack will a new breeding pair take over… and biology ensures it’s more of the same ilk, the cycle of enslavement starting anew. Democracy is deader than the Old World and its teeming billions. We are now and in perpetuity enslaved to an autocracy whose chains sink down into our very bones.

There are alphas out there who use their power wisely, for the good of their packs.

We are meant to feel grateful.

(Rest of the page is torn.)

 

~~~ A winter wonderland ~~~

“For someone who’s never snowshoed before, you’re doing alright, hon.”

The hot tired look Cas shoots him suggests that Dean can keep his reassurances, Cas knows full well he's moving as gracefully as a cow on ice.

“Good- thing- the mine- is only-...two-days-away-” the last is shot out in a gasp. “Th-thanks- for- w-walk-...ing with-”

“Save your breath,” Dean says easily. “Vic’s team is on scouting detail today, my job is to look after the convoy in general and you in particular.”

Cas’s response is non-verbal, a weak smile. His cheeks are red as roses, it’s rather fetching.

Jo comes loping back, eyes on the forest surrounding them. Cas gives her grace over the snow a rather tired look of envy. Not that it's a downright easy trek for anybody. The milder March weather makes the snow heavy, sticky, tiring to plod through even for those betas who are used to winter outings.

February is the best month for this expedition, when the snow is crisp, hard, and less likely to sink one of the heavily-laden sleds into a pocket of air or a rut. But snowstorms and a cold snap pushed the departure back one week, then two. The team geared up to go once the weather broke, but just as they were loading the sleds, John got a call from Abelard Woodson-Morris, his counterpart in pack Woodson. Abelard’s hunters spotted fires in the hills south of their compound, in an area between their territory and Winchester’s. This report delayed the expedition yet again; Benny and his team left in their stead. That was over a week ago. Benny is now resting in Woodson camp, prepping for another scouting expedition in conjunction with their hunters. He radioed in on Sunday; they didn’t find anyone, but they spotted tracks which lead them a merry chase for days, sometimes heading straight out into no-man’s-land, sometimes skirting Winchester territory, at one point doubling back and apparently stalking Benny’s group for a whole day. Were they being probed? Observed? Benny’s team was working with Woodson hunters, beefing up their numbers, maybe that’s why they were not attacked, or… who knows. All he can say is that there are a dozen strangers out there, and a man on horseback who occasionally rides alongside them and sometimes alone.

Dean wishes the mining expedition could have been moved even further back if there’s potential hostiles wandering about, but there’s a narrow window here. You can’t go mining in the depths of winter, too cold, but once the snow melts and the ground unthaws, the roads become impassable for heavy loads until early summer, and everyone is then busy. So John called it. There’s always a need for iron, after all, to build with and to trade. The mining expedition is on, late season notwithstanding, but the beta guards are doubled, and both Vic and Dean’s teams shadow the group, aiming to perform patrol sweeps around the mining camp for the duration.

Jo stops her ceaseless scrutiny of their surroundings long enough to give Cas, laboring in the rear, a thoughtful look before her eyes dart on ahead to the closest sled. She turns back to Cas, opens her mouth- spots Dean’s tiny headshake.

“Don’t worry, Cas, you’ll get the hang of it,” she says instead. She ignores whatever Cas wants to pant in return and she’s off again, bow in hand, quiver open and ready on her back.

Dean doesn’t suggest, as Jo was about to do, that Cas go and sit on the sleds with the omegas. He doesn’t suggest they stop for a break, they’re already at the back of the caravan as it is.

“Hang in there, hon, we’ll be taking a breather in less than an hour. Think of it as a chance to build some muscle.”

“Already-” Cas gasps and then gives up on talking, but the persevering look on his face says it all. Cas has taken that ‘be all the beta you can be’ thing to heart. In this last month Dean’s gone from prodding him gently to work on his strength, skills and endurance, to just keeping an eye on his mate to make sure the latter don’t go and kill himself.

“Good man.” Dean pats him on the back - carefully so Cas won’t take a spill like last time - and then hangs back in order to keep an eye on their six. Ginny, the canny girl, is following Cas closely in his tracks; he flattens the snow so much, even here at the back of the convoy, that she can avoid wasting too much of her energy plowing through the powdery white stuff herself. Sometimes she noses up ahead to give an unsuspecting Cas a questioning sniff as if wondering why he's huffing and puffing so much, but then she falls back again and stays at Dean’s side, vigilant.

 

~~~ End of a long slog ~~~

The omegas alight from the sleds in relatively good shape, though of course their labor is about to begin. As soon as they’re warmed up, they’re going down into the shaft to check on the state of the support beams, then tomorrow morning early they start their work. Their ten betas guards took turns riding on the convoy mules during the trek; they’re Ranchers, not as used to traveling this terrain as Hunters are. But the hard part is over for them, at least for the next fortnight. They just need to keep an eye on the camp.

Cas got the hang of snow-shoeing at some point yesterday, keeping up okay as the convoy reached the mining site, but, collapsed on an empty coalbox in the wintering cabin, he still looks like something long dead and dragged back to a wolf den. This morning Dean dangled the possibility he could ride a mule, just for a while, but Cas didn’t waste a breath on even a short ‘no’. Because he’s that stubborn, and because there are assholes like Lydia in Vic’s team and Cole in Dean’s who’d love to make ‘lazy Rancher’ or ‘weak Maker’ cracks. Cas won’t give ‘em the satisfaction, or let down those of his Hunter friends who believe he’s already as tough as any of them, being the mate of Dean Winchester and all... Cas is dogged. Dean’s inner beta approves, but that puts him into conflict with the rest of Dean who wants to wrap Cas up in warm cotton wool and carry him everywhere for the next few days. Fortunately Cas doesn’t have to do any digging or heavy lifting at the mine, he’s here to ‘improve the process’, his usual shtick. And since he’s now a beta, Jesse promptly put him in charge of mining operations and the omega workers. Nicomi LaPaire, the Maker’s usual beta handler for mining, is staying home this year; she’s getting a little too old and arthritic for long winter treks, bless her heart.

“Get some rest,” Dean suggests gently to his mate as he eases off Cas’s second boot and checks the warmth of his socked toes. “They won’t need you right away, not while they’re unpacking supplies.”

“Wait-” Cas shakes off exhaustion and staggers to his feet as Dean moves away, catching his sleeve anxiously. “You’re not leaving right now, are you?”

“No, tomorrow morning at first light. Sit and rest, you’re gonna be busy before this evening.” Dean sits his lover down again and leaves to get blankets, firewood and an early dinner in here sooner rather than later so all his packmates can start to unthaw and get something warm inside their bellies. He’ll make sure Cas goes to bed early, too. His mate slept poorly last night in their pup tent; now that the cold isn’t nipping at his cheeks anymore, his face is almost grey with fatigue. It’s not easy, travelling and camping out in winter. Neither is mining. Dean wishes he could stay right here, cosset Cas, make sure he rests and doesn’t work himself too hard, then watch him do his magic on the yearly mining excursion, digging up two hundred year old techniques he read in a book once to make everybody’s life easier. But that’s not Dean’s job. At dawn the Hunters are moving out, heading northeast towards Coppertop Hill. Pah-ne-me spotted smoke in that direction last night. If that doesn’t turn up anything, they’ll split, Vic’s team will go north, Dean’s will go south. They’ll both circle and meet up to the west in three days to take stock before heading towards the no-man’s-land between their territory and Woodson’s. They might even run into Benny’s lot out here. Dean is going to make sure that nothing larger than a rabbit can move anywhere inside this hundred square miles of territory without the Winchesters knowing about it. They’ll keep the wintering camp near the mines as safe as houses.

 

~~~ Ice River ~~~

Crowley and Drew Neely are proof that somebody out there has somber designs on the midwest, yet any nebulous plot they might be a part of has yet to materialize. All the patrols John and Vic sent out have so far turned up nothing but dust. Crowley and Neely must be part of something bigger, stands to reason, yet the group they belong to might as well be smoke and shadows.

Today, the shadows have left fresh footprints.

Silence descends upon the two teams, tension touching them like a live wire. It’s early morning, the sun still snagged on the low-hanging branches of surrounding trees, and they are only one hour away from the mining camp; to find a foreign force so close is a shock to the system. The Hunters move quietly through the sparse woods, following those tracks. Five guys. Could be a hunting party from another pack, but this is Winchester territory; foreign hunters would not come without a polite request, they’d not move around without frequently cutting their pack mark into tree bark to signal themselves, they’d leave promptly once they realized where they’d trespassed. These guys… Dean glances over his shoulder and easily finds the plume of smoke rising from the wintering cabins chimneys and hanging in the early morning air a few miles away; there’s no way the strangers missed that, they have to know there are people close by. But instead of coming forward and making themselves known, the prints, heading this way from the direction of Coppertop Hill, swing to the west to circle the mining area in a long meandering itinerary. Which is odd. If they’re trying to be discreet, hopping to hightail it out of here without getting spotted, they’re going about it in exactly the wrong way.

The dogs sniff the snow like they’re trying to inhale it, eyes as hard as their master’s, hackles raised, ears flicked… they’re nervous, turning their heads this way and that as they trot through the woods. Vic gestures to Dean and his group to flank out wider in case of ambush.

The snow barely creaks beneath their feet. The hunters tied their snowshoes to their packs, sacrificing speed for strategic maneuverability. Weapons ready, they follow the tracks at a stalking pace.

Finally the shadows are made flesh.

Two unnamed rivers run through these iron-rich hills and meet up ahead. The waterways are barely visible; frozen on the edges, powdered with snow, only the centers run black and sluggish, moving chunks of ice along with a dream-like slowness. On the strip of land in the V where the two rivers join, four guys are setting up or striking down camp, three hundred feet away from Victor’s group on the other bank. Normally, to reach that spot, you’d have to wade through a chest-high stream or take a long detour, but the tracks the Hunters are following lead down a gentle slope right to the water’s edge. There, rocks and a sandbar slow the flow of the shallower tributary enough for it to freeze solid. A bridge of ice six feet wide locks the stream’s progress, turning the turgid flow upstream into an icy lake with dead reeds bristling up at the edges, a crust covered in wet snow that might or might not crack under foot. The water must be finding some way through. A cold trickle that can’t quite freeze snakes its way downriver from the ice dam.

The tracks mill about in the snow of the sandbar and then lead over the ice and across to the right. The river and the stream meet up there, a raised point of scraggy terrain bare of trees. Their quarry is there. Two of them are standing, one kneels down as he roots through a pack, a fourth looks out over the river. The strangers freeze as first one then the other spot the group of fifteen hunters breaking cover from the forest. The kneeling one stands, takes a step back, so does another, while the closest lifts his hands hesitantly as if he’s already surrendering. Oh, and there's a fifth guy. Sitting on his pack, unmoving, with what is probably a rifle held loosely over his knees. He seems to be waiting. He doesn’t move in response to the Hunters’ appearance.

Vic stops the group a stone’s throw from the ice bridge, narrowed eyes sweeping the area. “Dean,” he says softly. “Rear.”

“Right.”

Dean’s already assessed the terrain in one glance, the forest, the river, the triangle of land with the deeper current on one side and churned ice and water on the other. The strangers chose a good spot to camp safe from wild beasts, but it's a poor location for defense. They’re cornered, and the wide open fluvial terrain offers no cover. Vic’s team can take them, but to do so, they’ll have to move onto that ice bridge and across the barren ground, they’ll have as little cover as the invaders. Not an issue when facing five cornered rats… but if this the party Benny’s been playing tag with this past fortnight, then there should be more of them. That leaves a nasty possibility. Those guys up ahead could be there deliberately as decoys, leaving an equal number hiding in the woods, waiting to rush out once the Winchester pack is engaged on the narrow path like fish in a barrel. Ginny’s been sniffing the air and looking in the direction of her tail for half an hour now; there can’t be anybody sneaking up too close, or she and the others would have given warning, but they could be following at a distance.

“Fall out and back, watch Vic’s rear,” Dean says and signals, while behind him Vic marches towards the tributary’s edge, boots thudding through churned snow with the vicious stamp of an alpha whose territory has been invaded and who’s gonna go find out what the fuck. Those losers better have a reasonable explanation handy, or be very, very good at begging for mercy.

Jo and Cole, always eager, take off at a swift march back up the gentle slope of the wide bank towards the edge of the woods, Everett and Nicola wait for Dean, Pah-ne-me-

Pah-ne-me is looking back with an expression that arrests Dean in his tracks, makes him glance over his shoulder.

“What? What is it?”

Vic’s group, weapons ready and eyes on the surrounding bluffs, trail their leader as he heads to the ice bridge. The strangers are making no hostile moves, one’s backing up nervously towards the trees, another also raises his hands-

Pah-ne-me’s eyes, the sharpest of Dean’s team coupled with the best instincts, dart from Vic, to the path just ahead, to the waiting strangers.

She draws in a sharp breath-

BOOM!

Dean drops to a crouch, shimmies in the snow to not be a stationary target, looks around wildly.

The snow was churned and those tracks- too deliberate- It comes to Dean like the fantasm of a thought, too late.

Vic’s down. Something- no idea what happened but something tore a hole in the snow and the frozen ground beneath it at the river’s edge, and it tore through Vic too. He’s fallen next to the crater of snow, ice and ripped-up sod and he’s not moving. Blood stains the snow, spreads like surging floodwaters beneath him.

“Vic!” The cry erupts from all their throats.

“You bastards!” Cole rushes past Dean, rifle clutched in both hands.

“Cole, stop!”

Cole ignores Dean deliberately and vindictively, steps slowing only long enough to rake the others with an expression of challenge as he lifts his rifle high. “Come on! Let’s make them pay!”

“Regroup!”

Pah-ne-me, Jo, Everett, Roy and Nicola are on Dean’s position immediately, kneeling to present smaller targets, weapons ready, spread out just enough to set up a crossfire, just like they all practiced many times. But Vic’s team is scattered, some running towards their leader, others frozen on the spot.

“Lydia! Elliot! Get Vic! Watch for traps! The others, REGROUP!”

Dean never knew he could hit that volume and tone before. Adrenaline, says the steady little voice in his head that always sounds like Cas. There’s blood in the snow, your people are in danger, your leader has fallen, your hormones are surging.

Cole, the little pissant, sways on the spot, his body wanting to obey Dean’s orders by instinct, that fury-filled head of his wanting to pull everybody into a hapless charge. Dean wants revenge too; his alpha, his friend, the man who made him deputy and supported him all this time, is lying on the ground over there, bleeding like fuck and maybe even dead, and a part of Dean wants to go charging over the ice to rip the intruders to bloody strips, but that’s not what he’s going to do. It’s not what Vic and John want him to do. He’s a leader, he’s fucking well gonna lead and keep his people safe.

The word ‘trap’ is just as effective as Dean’s volume and tone in cooling people down. Cole and the others come mincing back over the snow towards Dean’s position, watching where they put their feet, while Lydia and Elliot, the bravest in the lot, run up, grab Vic by one arm each and pull him back.

“He’s alive!” Elliot gasps.

Thank god fleets through Dean’s mind, but that’s the only good news. They’re in a very bad situation here. The hounds, those that aren’t still panicking from the concussive noise, have started to growl, facing the edge of the forest. Dean can't hear them yet, but he’s betting his life that an unknown number of enemies heard the explosion and have started running towards them. They can’t be too close, the dogs would have smelled them if they were. That gives the Hunters a few minutes of leeway, but with Vic injured, surroundings that could also be trapped and those five hostiles at their six - Dean’s not sure that the time they have is enough to escape the jaws of the trap.

“Hunker down! There and there! Others behind your packs!” Dean orders, short and sharp, pointing towards a couple of large boulders and a fallen tree trunk halfway between the forest and the river’s edge. “Ignore them,” he adds coldly as his packmates hesitate, not sure which side of the cover they should be on, facing the water or the woods. The guys past the stream have pulled weapons from their packs, but they’re too far away for an adjusted shot since Dean’s pulled his people back, and they’re not likely to come charging at them. It would be too big a coincidence if Vic stepped on the only exploding-thing here, there has to be others planted about, which means the attackers will have to move slowly and carefully, or else wade through freezing ice waters, all the while under fire. Dean’s team has a little cover; those losers have none.

“Shoot anyone who comes out of the woods,” Dean orders, the only one still standing as he sweeps his gaze around, judging positions. “Lydia, Pah-ne-me, swap with Marina and Roy and take cover over there.” He points at where the edge of the river bank forms a bluff, hiding them entirely from the woods. “Train your weapons on that island. Keep an eye on our flanks, and if any of those fuckers moves within range, shoot them dead.”

“Yes Dean.” Pah-Ne-Me darts away. Her hound Shú-n-Ta is already ahead of her sniffing the ground carefully. Not sure if the dogs will signal a trap beneath the snow. They might, if the things stink of sulfur, gunpowder or whatever made it explode. If only Wákida was still with Vic… Clancy’s not come out on this expedition, he’s still too little for all this snow. Vic didn’t have a sharp nose to warn him, or a dog walking ahead who might have tripped the trap in his stead. Losing a dog is tragic, but better than losing their alpha.

They've lost their alpha.

...Dean can feel the pressure, the tension like skeletal fingers gripping the back of his neck. They’ve been at war before, the lot of them, and every man and woman here stood strong under fire together, but today is different. He doesn’t dare look in Vic’s direction, where Taylor is applying first aid under cover of a large boulder. Dean’s afraid that if he sees Victor like this, some part of his beta physiology will quail. The others carry it even worse, and Dean can feel it, he can smell it, they’re clinging to his assuredness, his orders, they’re trying to keep steady for him while fear and aggression nip at their heels (betas lash out when they’re scared-) If Dean loses his grip, the others will either freeze, cower, or run off frenziedly in all directions.

He won’t lose his grip. He’s Vic’s deputy, he’s top beta, he’s Dean fucking Winchester. And these attackers? Are dead meat. He’ll kill them all even if they riddle him with bullets, if that’s what it takes to get his guys out of here. As for the rest… Dean coldly catches Lydia’s eye just as she turns to follow Pah-Ne-Me. Lydia stops, unsure of his intent, then looks more closely at the position he’s put her in, protected from any stray shots that come flying out of the woods… She looks back at Dean, and Dean juts his chin at the series of bluffs past Pah-ne-me. He hopes his message is clear, because he can’t afford the blow to morale of saying it out loud. But if things really go south, if Dean eats a bullet, then Lydia is in charge and will hopefully have leeway to get the survivors out of here. She’s a monumental pain in the ass at the best of times, but if there’s one thing he can trust, it’s the purity of her focus and the rabidity of her fury. She’ll murder anyone who gets in her way. She won’t flinch.

Ginny’s head comes up, so do her hackles. Black eyes in snowy white fur fix on the woods. Slowly her upper body sinks, her feet grip snow, and a growl echoes from her large chest.

“Dean, get under cover,” Nicola mutters. She’s one to talk, she’s hiding behind her pack so that Jo, Cole and Marina, the three youngest betas, can take the large fallen log for shelter. Stuffed with a pup tent, bedroll, mess kit and supplies, their packs will stop a bullet as long as the rifle’s not too close and not too powerful… Better than to be caught with no cover at all. Dean pulls off his gloves with his teeth without losing sight of the woods, then he drops his own pack into the snow and murmurs, “Ginny, wait for it.”

Ginny gives out a very short whine, part tension, part impatience.

Noise from the treeline; cracking of twigs beneath blankets of snow, crunch of footsteps. But… it’s not the thunder of a large advance. Dean’s eyes narrow as he drops to one knee behind his pack. Sounds like… half a dozen? No more… Thank fuck, it's definitely the intruders Benny's been chasing. Hmmm… makes sense. A larger force would have been spotted even sooner by the packs in this region; a raiding party of more than twenty would have sent a general alarm ringing out, and Winchester and others would have hunted them down and expunged them weeks ago. But if it's them, only a dozen strong, what do they hope to accomplish? They’re not only slightly outnumbered, they’re split between the wood and the far bank - and the latter group is pretty much pinned down without any cover. Did they hope that the Winchester Hunters would make a run for it, and be easy game for a shot in the back? That’s rather overconfident… Do they have a plan B?

“D-Dean?” Pah-Ne-Me quivers.

Lydia’s tone is curt and foreboding. “Dean, incoming.”

Dean turns slowly, his heart sinking. Instincts tell him what he’ll see.

Four of the guys are still out of rifle range, but the seated stranger stood up and is now walking forwards. A slow confident stride. Power in the shoulders, the long steps, the posture.

Alpha.

Plan B, comin’ this way.

The footsteps from the woods have stopped. Dean cannot see the enemy, they're under cover of the trees, but he can feel their intent. They’re not shooting, though. They don’t think they need to.

Involuntarily Dean glances at Vic, though he already knows there is no help from that quarter. Elliot is covering him with his body where the boulder falls short, Taylor is working on putting pressure on the mess that is Vic’s right leg. Vic’s features are slack, sickly, he’s totally out of it. No help there. Dean thinks their enemy is either very fortunate, or very clever. The decoys on the island were intended to force the Winchester group onto that trapped bottleneck of a path… and having the five men visible and waiting up ahead would naturally draw out Vic. A pack’s alpha is usually the one to go first for just this very reason, in case the other group has an alpha he needs to confront. Where these bastards got lucky - or are extremely knowledgeable - is in Vic being dogless still…

Dean’s rifle is at the ready, drawing a bead on the approaching figure… but they’re in a tight spot. Can he take the shot? Can he risk it? Can he handle the consequences if he misses? Dean has one of the best aims in camp, but cold and shock are gripping his fingers, and he knows full well that their homemade bullets are never packed perfectly every single time. If he misses-... Or worse, if he doesn’t miss, but this bastard has a mate and he or she is lurking in the woods… Then every one of Dean’s team is gonna die hard and bloody.

The alpha is now close enough for Dean to get a good look and he does not like what he sees. Lanky, taller even than Dean, dressed in thick gray corduroy jacket and a bandolier. His long bony face is trimmed with a beard showing a little salt and pepper, but he’s not pushing much past thirty, he’s in his prime. Armed, a heavy rifle held under one arm and pointed at Dean mirroring the way Dean is aiming at him, though the gun is held loosely, almost like an afterthought; as if Dean’s threat is an expected courtesy the other is returning. He moves with the slow assurance of tidal waves. He’s got to have a mate as backup. Right? No, that’s far from sure, maybe he’s just really- but can Dean risk his pack- shit! In the circumstances, and since the alpha is approaching alone, better let him up here and see what he wants, maybe negotiations are still possible...

The guy steps over ice, crosses towards them, then swans off to one side of the snowy sandbar. Though he's obviously taking a safe path through any remaining traps, a path that spells survival in the midst of death, he doesn’t look down at his feet but only straight at Dean. He stops fifteen feet away, close enough where Dean can see his eyes are blue or a slate grey. The guy is smiling. The expression makes Dean’s skin crawl.

“Hello, Dean.”

...What the fuck?

Dean gets to his feet. The guys from the woods won’t shoot with their alpha standing in their field of fire.

In the cover of the bluff off to one side, Pah-ne-me has her rifle trained on the newcomer, but the barrel is shaking hard. This guy is alpha. Primary alpha, if his pack has such a thing. More, there’s something about him... there’s an alpha’s assurance, and then there’s the rabid sense of killing joy coming off this guy, like he’ll ignore even bullets as long as he gets to eviscerate you. Alarm bells are going off like firecrackers in Dean’s skull, those hormone things jumping all over the place. This dude’s all kinds of crazy. Lydia’s aim wavers a bit too, but Dean thinks caution is holding her back as much as inbred fear. She sees the bottom line here, same as Dean.

The alpha finally stops staring at Dean and looks around like he’s got all the time in the world. From Nicola and Roy, to Marina, to Jo and Cole… finally sweeps around and fixes on Lydia and Pah-Ne-Me.

“Weapon. Down,” suggests the guy.

His accent is odd, his voice nasal with something like little deranged sing-song notes threaded through.

Pah-Ne-Me's rifle shakes and sinks to the snow.

Lydia's not so easily intimidated, but her aim is wavering, barrel drawing figure eights. Fear and anger mixed, volatile and maybe just as dangerous as Pah-Ne-Me’s reaction. If Lydia's innate aggression takes over, and she misses that shot, that guy will leap at her and end her before Dean can draw a bead, and then the killer will be firing at their backs in the cover of the bluff.

Dean’s voice is steadfast. “Lydia, Pah, keep your aim on the others on the island.”

Lydia's aim immediately switches and steadies. The odds were good she'd have missed the alpha twenty feet away from her, but she'll nail the invading betas at two hundred easy as breathing, then go spit on their bodies. Even Pah-Ne-Me’s fingers twitch on the weapon sunk into the snow and she swivels it towards the island without lifting it. Her eyes focus past the alpha. In a second, between Dean's directive and Lydia's fierce presence, she'll raise her weapon again and aim.

The alpha weighs the two women, then Dean. Something ever-so-subtle in his scent shifts. Dean’s got the intuition that the tiny confrontation has not gone as the stranger expected. Neither did the way the team regrouped and rallied under Dean so well, closing ranks and leaving very few chinks in the defenses.

“I'm glad to meet you at last, Dean. I’ve heard so much about you.”

The stranger lifts a finger of his free hand, scratches his beard. His eyes seem to wander away from the Hunters, up the slope to a cloud in the sky, falls and skips over Ginny, fixes on rose-red blossoms of snow trailing away to where Vic is lying unconscious. The alpha grins. The color and the contrast of bright red on white seem to appeal to him.

“Are you a man of vision, Dean?” he asks without looking away from the blood.

“I'm envisioning ripping your throat out, does that count?”

The grin widens, shows teeth. It’s not threatening, it’s appreciative, almost encouraging. Like he’s downright proud of Dean for making such a lovely threat in the circumstances. Something deep in Dean’s gut goes cold, hard, uncomfortably sharp. With a curt gesture he pushes back his hood so it won’t impair his range of vision. He’ll negotiate while he can, but he has a feeling this ain’t gonna end in a handshake and a mutual parting of ways.

“I wish He was here,” the stranger muses.

Dean doesn’t ask the obvious question. That grin’s left him with an instinctive reluctance to talk to this fucker and dance to his tune.

“He might actually persuade you. Lucifer. He's very good at… explaining.” He lilts when he talks, the nasal voice measures out words like it’s caressing them with those long bony fingers before dropping them at Dean’s feet.

“Don’t seem like he can persuade everybody. Take Crowley for instance.” Dean’s taking a shot in the dark, but he needs to get this fucker off balance, because the alpha’s assurance is wearing even on Dean, the sheer presence of the man, like the reek of somebody else's blood and bile roiling off of him.

His shot hits the mark. Those blue eyes blink and center on him.

“Oh Dean. Do you know who I am?” the stranger finally asks. God. He sounds pleased. He sounds coy. How fucked up is this dude...

“You’re Crowley’s ol’ pal Alastair.” A further gamble, but since the fool already mentioned Lucifer and there was only one other name of importance on that piece of letter from Drew Neely’s pack…

“Crowley,” says the guy dreamily, staring off in the distance of his imagination where he’s undoubtedly taking Crowley apart with a blunt knife. “My former alpha has a big mouth. Not surprising. Talking really is what he’s best at.”

Dean knew Crowley was a backslider. He wishes Crowley had a big mouth, and came to them and talked and told them this creep was out in the world.

“So Crowley told you all about his old pack, and who leads the Demons now.” Alastair returns from his mind-trip of torturing Crowley to fix Dean with a satisfied look drenched in sadism. “Then he must have told you I can see the future.”

“He did mention you’re a loon, yes. Carry on.” Dean’s not lying so much as predicting exactly what Crowley would have said if the smarmy bastard had had the guts to come forward, he’s sure.

Jo actually snickers, tight, nervous; she’s still fighting the trance this alpha is imposing on their beta physiology.

If Alastair even heard Dean over the sound of crazy in his head, he doesn't give any indication, he just keeps right on talking, that nasal lilting drawl just shy of hypnotizing. “The future is beautiful, Dean. You're going to come with us. We only want you. Unharmed." He gives Dean a long dreamy look up and down. Up, and down... Dean loosens his fingers on the rifle a tad so the revealing barrel won’t shake. “My guests are never that lucky… I won’t get to keep you very long, though. Lucifer wants somebody else in your pack. Once your daddy agrees to a swap, you'll go back to your little patch of dirt. The others can go free right now. My men won't shoot them like, um, like dogs-” an insane titter he quickly catches, he purses his lips like he’s trying to be serious. “No, no, they won't play with the survivors for sport. It's a very nice future. Don't you think?”

The silence stretches.

Alastair lifts one of his long pale fingers as if Dean’s objected, then he reaches behind his back.

“You don’t believe me, but you should. I can see it so clearly now. In five seconds, you're going to throw down your rifle, put these on and come over here. And you’re going to kneel. Then your friends walk away.”

A clink as he pulls something from the back of his bandolier, tosses it, loose and metallic, at Dean’s feet. It's an Old World relic. Handcuffs shining silver in the snow.

Dean’s people shift behind him, tensing in alarm but not daring to say anything, still squashed by this bastard's presence, the unseen threat from the woods, the loss of Vic.

“It’s a nice future,” Alastair whispers to the sky, that cut of a mouth in his long face taking on a turn like a dreamy smile, sensual. You could almost call it pleasant if you gutted the word and mounted its skin on a stake.

Dean doesn’t take long to think. The barrel of his rifle sinks.

He addresses the others without looking away. “Everyone, listen. Betas are never at their best fighting alphas.”

“But,” Jo whispers, strangling into a whimper as Alastair turns suddenly and grins at her like he's carving her into briskets in his head.

People shift, gasp as Dean throws away his rifle, then crouches slowly, hands raised in surrender.

“Dean-” Everett croaks.

“Everyone do as I told you,” Dean says sharply.

Alastair’s gun sight sinks lower, pointing at the snow. He won’t shoot Dean wildly from the hip, he needs him alive.

Dean’s right hand comes down swiftly towards the cuffs - but fingers angled like a hatchet, a sharp jab down. Go!

There's a wild scuffle of claws on ice.

When he pushed back his hood earlier, Dean made a looping gesture. Alastair was too focused on him and the other humans. Didn't see Ginny pick up the flank-and-wait signal sending the white dog slinking off through snow sideways, past Lydia, onto the ice.

All eighty pounds of Ginny at the apex of her leap hit Alastair in the elbow and bowl him over, sending his rifle flying. They hit the snow ten feet from the ice bridge - no explosions, unfortunately, they must be too far from the traps.

Dean pulls his revolver, still crouching to present a low target to the woods, and pulls the trigger - praying he won’t hit Ginny, but at this point- Bang! A miss - another miss- they’re squirming in the snow and ice.

Alastair’s left hand comes up - knife! It savagely slashes the dog ripping at his right arm. More red on white. Ginny yelps and lets go.

Ginny clear! Dean shoots two more times. Can’t tell if he hits anything in the raw second in which Alastair uncoils from the snow and springs at him with the knife. Alastair twists to one side and jabs, blade still in his left hand. The snow is slippery under Dean’s boots - he can’t backpedal or dodge far enough. He can only intercept the knife point trying to find his guts by hitting it with his gun. The shock- so strong! Dean’s hand rings with the blow, his finger spams and the gun fires at the ground. Fuck! Dean throws up his left hand and manages to parry a punch with his forearm - but on his other side the knife twists into his guard and sweeps sideways!

The bladed tip catches his thick deer hide coat but can’t cut through all the layers to his ribs.

Then pain blossoms across his forearm and right hand as the knife continues its sweep, slices over the back of his thumb, catches on the revolver’s hammer and wrenches it away.

Dean’s already moving. Pain is an old enemy, he’s dealt with it before. He will not let it slow him down or freeze him like a fucking rabbit! He twists his left hand around, manages to fasten fingers around Alastair’s wrist and keep him from swinging back and punching again, and in that split second of distraction as Alastair pulls at his captured arm, Dean’s injured right hand fastens around the hilt of his bowie knife in the scabbard tied to the back of his holster belt.

Alistair wrenches free of the hold on his right hand and steps back. They’re four feet apart now. They stare across that narrow space. There’s a red tear over Alastair’s left jacket shoulder where a shot scored him in passing and a spot of red around a hole in his lower abdomen where another shot found a home - fucker took two bullets and still came at me without flinching, knew he was fucking insane-

Dean’s breath peppers the air with crystals, a tiny cloud. The two face each other. Alastair’s injured and it means fucking nothing. The two bullet holes - the place Ginny tore his arm - nothing doing, the rabid assurance is still there. Alpha. There’s no flaw in this guy’s posture, there is no doubt, no weakness, nothing! Just unlimited strength and the unhinged will to carve flesh with a blade. Taking Dean alive is probably off the table at this point.

The frozen second between them is hammered by the noises of repetitive shots. A bullet strikes off a boulder with a ping! The other Hunters figured out what Dean was saying: you can't fight this guy… but you can take on his beta buddies, or at least keep them at bay like you were told to do. Focus on them and only them, the rest… the rest is up to Dean.

Alastair is still grinning. He passes his knife from left hand to right like he’s got all the time in the world. His eyes dance like cold hard stars a night, he looks like he’s enjoying himself and he has a bullet in him! (What does Cas call that - adrenaline-)

He’s the one to attack first. He goes at Dean with the inevitability of an avalanche, like he’ll kill Dean and keep carving him up even while the lifeblood drains from both their bodies. But- but he’s not frenzied, not swinging wild. There’s experience behind the scything blow that probes Dean’s defence, searching for flaws. Dean’s as good at knives as he is at any weapon, he slips out of the way while jabbing back. His own probing blow scores an edge of the thick grey jacket without cutting. Alastair didn’t even try to step back, stays up in Dean’s reach. The sky, the snow are thin white borders around the killer taking up most of his vision. Alastair’s grin is eating the world. The alpha smell is overpowering up close.

In the circumstances, facing this monster, Dean should never have been able to pull that trigger in the first place. As a beta, he should be at a disadvantage, he should be cowed… part of him is.

But somehow he’s still fighting.

Years of training against John, against Victor and Sam and Benny - a legacy of blows, parries and thrusts woven into his very fiber. Dean lets muscle reflex take over. His body and all its experience and scars and training are a piece he can use, one of many, the castle in a chess game he plays with Cas at their table in the evening. The clarity of it - it slows time, it makes things achingly sharp and clear. Still frightening but Dean’s riding that terror now, he’s going to use it like one more pawn.

Slash down. Move left leg forward - slash up sideways into the half-step away as Alastair shifts his weight, finding his footing in snow- strike back and across -

The bowie knife misses the alpha’s chest because Dean’s gotta dodge a blow towards his shoulder, but it’s all in slow motion.

Pass - fall back again, he’s got two feet to play with- stab low - fucker’s fast, dodged - feint to the left!

In an instant he sees it. The checkmate move.

His left hand thrusts out.

(If Dean’s wrong- if Alastair can counter then Dean is dead-)

Instead of grabbing for the wrist to immobilize the knife, he risks a deadly retaliation and hits Alastair near the cuff of his jacket, pushes the arm away, hard and wide-

A snarl and Ginny fastens onto it like he threw her a bone.

Off-balance, Alastair staggers under the sudden weight to his right side-

Dean plunges the bowie knife deep into the junction between jaw and throat and yanks sideways as hard as he can, widens the cut by an inch.

A dull shock of blade scraping bone. Then a noise. A spluttering wet rattle.

Dean’s breath rushes in and out. He’s frozen with his hand on the hilt.

He reacted purely on instinct; now reality, recovering from its stunned second, catches up at a gallop. He stares, almost startled, at the hilt sticking out of Alastair’s throat.

The alpha sways back a step. Bony face goes white. Blood spatters thick down the knife hilt, into snow. Hands lurch up towards his neck only to fall again. Then his legs buckle.

The body thuds behind Dean’s back, he’s already sprung towards where he dropped his rifle. He twists into a crouch, sweeps the aim over Alastair - not moving - and then up towards the woods.

A hammer of a heartbeat, two, three-

No enraged alpha mate comes rampaging out of the forest.

Breath rattles in Dean’s throat. It’s like he’s coming back to his body a piece at a time, discovering bits like foreign territory, the freezing air in his lungs, the creak of snow under his boots, the agony lancing up and down his arm and right hand, the mid-morning sun shining in his eyes, making him squint, the copper-meat smell of blood building in his nose.

Still no enraged alpha mate tearing into him.

There are no more shots ringing out. His people look mostly unharmed, staring into the woods. Dean guesses the firing stopped when Alastair went down. Not surprising. Because if it was a shock to the Winchester betas losing Vic to a trap, seeing their lunatic alpha get knifed in a fight will have taken away these raiders' collective backbone. Dean glances over his shoulder. On the other side of the stream, a hundred feet away, two of the attackers are stretched out into the snow, unmoving. The other two are missing. Did they retreat so far they decided to risk swimming the river…?

Dean finally feels safe to conclude that there is no enraged alpha mate out there, no tidal wave of fury leading furious beta packmates in a charge to slaughter Dean’s friends. The release of all that adrenaline-stuff makes him wobble. These guys are a raiding party; the mate must be back with the pack somewhere, watching over things. Yeah, it’s actually a rather logical conclusion to draw now, after those crazed blue eyes are no longer dissecting him. What the fuck is someone like Alastair doing in the midwest, now that he thinks about it…?

Tiredly he gets to his feet and goes to double check on his kill.

The alpha is flat on his back in a field of red slurry. The way the bastard grins, it's still sending nervous shivers through his body. His inner wolfie, the beta inside, cannot believe he won, expects Alastair to stand up again, he can't be dead… Above the blood-caked knife hilt protruding from his throat, Alastair grins up at Dean. Like it’s a sly joke, like he let Dean win just to tease him. A shudder crawls up Dean’s spine and tries to clamp down on his neck.

He shakes it off. He’s got a burgeoning headache and a taste like iron in his mouth he spits out into the snow. He’s never enjoyed killing and he doesn’t aim to learn to. But right here, right now? He’s very glad to be alive.

It was a close thing. Dean can still feel it. He's fought two alphas before today, but they were nothing like this dude: one was a grayback loner who’d gone a little cuckoo with solitude, the other was the alpha-by-default of a group of half a dozen small-time bandits. They had nothing on this guy’s presence, and Dean had Vic alive and well at his back at the time. Today…

Today Dean won because Alastair miscalculated. Dean's too smart to believe Alastair's assurances of his packmate’s safety, for one. He doesn't know if it was the eyes that warned him, his instincts, or if it was simply the fact that Alastair wanted to cuff him here and now, rather than lead him off in one direction while letting his team go the other. Dean’s gut tells him that as soon as he was safely caught and bound, Alastair would have made a point of executing every one of Dean’s people in front of his eyes. A strategic weakening of the Winchester pack. Besides, he said he had orders to leave Dean unharmed, but that’d only be the more reason to hurt Dean hard where it wouldn’t show. Yeah, the threat to Dean’s pack gave him the strength to take on this lunatic, and if that wasn’t enough...

Dean stares down into the dead eyes. Shouldn't have mentioned you wanted to swap me for someone. Your biggest mistake.

Because Dean suspects who that someone is. There’s no proof, but too much stuff has happened since this spring when Cas walked into camp. Well maybe Dean is completely wrong - he hopes he is - but once the possibility was there… Alastair was a walking dead man, even if Dean was gonna die with him. Dean will bite the bullet gladly if that means keeping his pack, his team and his mate safe.

A whimper to his left.

Dean looks around, crouches numbly in the snow and pats his knee.

“Ginny… good girl…” he examines her quickly once she limps over. The cut is not too deep, the knife thrust was hampered by her thick winter coat, but it’s long across her flank and deep in the haunch. He stops her from licking it. She whines piteously, making Dean wince in sympathy, but he pulls himself together. Day's not over yet.

 

~~~ Doctor’s orders ~~~

The guards are creditably alert when the weary group make their way up the slope to the cabin. If the fact that the Hunters are back only three hours into a three day mission isn’t enough to raise the alarm, the figure bundled onto a stretcher would do it. The Ranchers give Dean’s group a once-over as soon as they’re near enough for visual confirmation of their identity, and then their eyes and their guns are nailed on their surroundings. Only one of them breaks rank, flying past the ring of bristling guards towards the hunting party.

“Dean!!”

Though Dean’s rational mind mapped out the raiding party’s origins, aims and everything, he only feels real relief when he has Cas within arm’s reach.

“Are you alright?!”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”

Cas checks him over - Dean’s grateful he thought to cover the bloody arm of his jacket with his poncho and pull on his gloves, because he doesn’t want to distract his mate. As expected, as soon as he sees Dean’s safe and sound, Cas focuses past him to the approaching stretcher. His face tightens and he leaves Dean standing to go meet the Hunters straggling towards the beta sleeping cabin. Cas doesn’t stop them but lifts the blanket over Vic. His face is real serious as he glances down at the alpha’s legs.

“Take him to the cabin,” he tells Elliot without looking away, “and-”

Then a Hunter unexpectedly grabs him by the collar, detaches his hand from the blanket and yanks him away.

“Stay back, Maker.” Lydia’s voice is sheer nastiness.

Cas boggles at her. “But- but alpha Victor-”

“Is one of ours. Go fix a fucking turbine and leave him to his brothers.” She interposes herself between Cas who’s trying to move past her anyway, and the stretcher Elliot and Max are carrying towards the cabin.

“Lydia!” Dean roars, and is met with a fury that is pure challenge.

“Keep it in your holster, Dean! We don’t all think the sun shines out of his ass just because he reads books!” Her wave encompasses Marina, Roy and others staring at her frozen in uncertainty. “Taylor is the best at first aid, and this fucking barely-beta is no doctor-”

“No, I’m not.”

Dean stops in his furious charge over and everybody else goes still too. Cas’s tone is measured. The snow around them is considerably warmer.

“But I know more about medicine than all of you put together, I have done some nursing, and I am the best you have within a two-day’s march which Victor will not survive without care. You either get out of my way and let me work, or I will inform alpha Annabelle why her mate died or lost his leg out here. If she needs someone to hold you down while she rips out your throat, I won’t be the only volunteer.”

Then he steps towards the stretcher as if he’s got no doubt Lydia’s gonna stand aside. She doesn’t, but in a frozen moment of hesitation she lets him shoulder past her. He catches up to the stretcher in three long strides and lifts the blanket again, scans the legs and the rest of the fallen alpha. He doesn’t see the uncertainty in Taylor and Marina as they watch him, he doesn’t see the angry glares Jo and Everett are directing at Lydia, he doesn’t see Dean three inches away from bloody murder long before Annabelle gets a turn. His focus is so absolute it comes iron-clad in a strange sort of certainty, like, even if Lydia comes running after him to yank him away again, all she’ll do is bounce off, and-... well, it’s an odd moment, but the end result is that nobody stops him following Victor’s stretcher into the cabin.

Even Dean’s anger deflates under Cas’s single-mindedness in the face of all distractions. Like Cas, he promptly classifies Lydia and her objections as non-events, not worthy of attention, and turns to his scattered group. “The injured, go into the cabin.” Roy has a bullet hole in the shoulder that Nicola is putting pressure on, Cole and Marina have through-and-throughs to the forearm and the butt respectively, and Jo has red streaks on her cheek from a bullet that hit the tree trunk and sent splinters flying up towards her face. “Warm up, drink water, keep pressure on those,” he adds to the three with bleeding injuries, field-packed. “Taylor, go with them, start helping. Cas will get to them after he’s done with Victor. The rest, and you guys,” he faces the Ranchers. “Put up a ring of defenses. There are some nine hostiles still out there, maybe more.” Pretty gutted hostiles, he thinks, but he’s not taking chances. “Just close ranks for now, and start sorting yourselves out into groups for patrols. When I’m back, we’ll do sweeps.”

He doesn’t stay and watch as the betas fall out, something in him instinctively trusts them to obey him and do their job. He’ll join them as soon as possible, but he wants to check on Vic. Their alpha regained his senses a few times during the trip back, or appeared to. He could talk and look around, seemed to understand that he was injured, but every time Dean had to explain the situation to him again, and he’s still not sure Vic grasps it. He’s out again now, shock, cold, blood loss, pain, your guess is as good as mine. Dean’s no medic either, but he knows the next hour and whatever Cas can do is going to be crucial.

“Dean?” Cas’s voice is as sharp as the scissors slicing through Vic’s pants. “Can you tell me what happened?”

From his tone and the way Elliot and Max are looking meekly at him from the other side of the table - formerly the dining room’s, now an operating one - they already gave him a quick review and he’s having a hard time believing them.

Cas doesn’t stop moving while Dean explains.

“A landmine.” His voice is dull, heavy. “Of all the things of the past to reinvent-... never mind. Did you get a look at it? At what was left? Did it throw up fragments?”

“I didn’t see, no.”

“No, better you didn’t go near, there could have been others.” Cas stops mid-motion, turns his head to give Dean a long look up and down as if he has to be sure his mate is safe and sound. Dean casually slips his right hand behind his back. His gloves are black cloth stitched over padded lining, it’s not immediately obvious one of them is almost stiff with frozen blood.

Cas looks relieved and focuses back on his patient.

“How is he?” Dean asks quietly, braced for the answer. Vic’s out of it again.

“Bad,” says Cas without sugarcoating. “He’s lost a lot of blood. No arteries pierced, though, or he’d be dead already. His pulse is okay. His right leg took the most damage, but the foot is warm, there’s still circulation. Taylor, is it? Good job with these pressure wraps, you stopped him from bleeding out or going into shock. I can stabilize him, make him comfortable, get out the shrapnel if there is any and disinfect. The problem is the deep damage to the muscles. He needs surgery to repair some of this and I have no tools.”

“I have catgut and a needle,” says Taylor almost timidly. He’s a burly forty year old beta, by the way, built like a brick outhouse, not the kind of guy you think of as easily intimidated.

“Not good enough. Not if he wants to keep that leg and be able to walk. Go get your suture kit, I’ll fix what I can, debride anything that looks like it might go south in the next day, pack the rest. Then - Dean, we need to get him back to the camp.”

“No problem, we’re all out of here as soon as I can get things moving.”

“No,” says Cas, raking Vic with an analytical look, “I need at least an hour to make him ready for travel and to see to the others.”

“First thing this afternoon then.”

“Good. Amelie, where are we with that water?”

“Coming!” squeaks an omega near the stove, her eyes not leaving a cast iron pot.

“Taylor, do you know how to make a jimson weed compress?”

“Uh, uh, no-”

“Follow what I do closely, then, so you’ll know in the future. Jo, please get that box over there, it’s the medical gear. Look for a bottle that says penicillin powder. We’ll need more bandages-”

Dean eclipses himself discreetly to go tend to the patrols. Vic’s in good hands.

 

~~~ TLC ~~~

Everybody’s bolted down lunch in the midsts of some savage packing. Dean orders a lot of stuff - tools, wood for braces, non-perishable supplies - be left on the spot. That will lighten the sleds. All the betas and omegas here are rallying and falling out, their team gearing up like a well-trained racehorse hitting its stride, and so is Dean until he lands himself in the doghouse.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me! How was I supposed to know if you didn’t tell me?!” says Cas for the third time, face tight with annoyance, worry, self-directed blame and sympathetic pain.

“Hon, I- ow! - I know, but you were busy with Vic-”

“You let me take care of Ginny first!”

“Well, she’s hurt worse than me.”

“You have a piece missing from your thumb!”

“Only a bit of skin near the knuckle,” Dean says meekly. They’re alone in the cabin since the packing and readying frenzy has moved on to the sleds outside now, which means nobody can see the mighty Dean Winchester, alpha-killer, get himself chewed out like a puppy who piddled on the floor.

But since they’re alone…

“Alastair?” Cas barely glances up from where he’s pinning fast a clean bandage wrapped around Dean’s hand. “I don’t know anyone of that description. Nor of a pack called- seriously? The Demons?”

Dean nods. Relief washes through him, sweeping away in a flash flood the tiredness and the worry. Must be someone else mixed up in all this, some stray beta who came into camp in the last year. Not Cas after all.

“Raiders all have names like that. The Cassidy Killers, the Reavers, the Butchers…”

“The Demons go well with the name Lucifer. A bit too on the nose,” Cas says with an unimpressed sniff as he starts to tidy up, slipping the medical scissors back in their case. “I'm surprised you could take him seriously.”

“...it wasn't hard at all.”

The first aid kit hits the thin mattress of the bunk they’re sitting on, and Dean is pulled into a comforting hug.

… Dean swallows the acid in his mouth. He doesn’t know where the waver in his voice came from, he’s just glad Cas is the only one to hear it.

He sinks into the hug. He can only indulge in this a minute, but he needed this. He needed Cas fussing over him while gentle fingers cleaned, sewed and bandaged… the scent of his mate, his warmth, it’s wiping away the cold left by Alastair’s smile, the dreamy looks, the blood on the snow… Just a minute… He closes his eyes.

There’s a very gentle whine from the floor.

“No, Ginny, don't lick!” Cas says quickly. “Oh dear, she’s going to ruin those stitches.”

 

~~~ A rider on the ridge ~~~

Cas invents a kind of spiky collar made of sticks, resiny tape, bandages and a strip of leather that he fastens around Ginny’s neck. It goes up past her nose and stops her from gnawing at her injured side while she rides in the sled. Ginny is massively unimpressed. Nobody else is all that happy either, having to fast-march through snow less than twenty four hours since their arrival yesterday, heading out into the cold with their alpha injured and unknown enemies about. Only Cole is strutting, occasionally glancing around to see if there’s anybody else he forgot to tell how he winged three of the attackers in the woods, ‘maybe more’, made them pay.

Vic is lashed onto one of the sleds next to Ginny, she’s keeping his left side warm. He drifts in and out of consciousness, and groans, harsh and bitten off, every time the sled dips or sways. At least he’s aware now when he comes to, he remembers what happened, and confirms that Dean’s in charge and everybody is gonna follow his orders like he’s God’s boss. Cas rides in the sled next to Victor, keeping an eye on his wounds. When he calls for a break, they take a break, no questions asked. Even Lydia shuts it, maybe because she finally accepts Cas as having skills, or because Dean will murder her if she don’t.

They walk and ride through the afternoon, the omegas subdued on the sleds. Any beta who tires takes a turn on the mules. Since they’re following the path they plowed through yesterday, the sleds lightened of supplies and the animals reasonably fresh, they make good time for four hours. Dusk looms ahead. During their second break, Dean has the scouts lash together cloth and wood, make torches to light their way when night falls. They’ll move more slowly, but they can still travel straight on through the night with a three hour rest in the darkest hours, make it back sooner. Cas, looking concerned, says that’s best. If they can keep this up, they’ll be back at the Winchester compound tomorrow shortly after noon, that’s the plan.

“Dean! Someone up there! A rider on the ridge!”

Plans change.

Chapter Text

At 380 nm, GF32 is huge for a virus, containing as it does the RNA for the crispr-cas9 editing enzyme as well as all the new code it needs to transcribe and insert. It’s fragile, unable to live long outside a host, and slow-working, only killing one cell out of a ten thousand infected to make its copies while modifying the others at the nuclear and mitochondrial level (including gametes, an almost unheard of modification that went virtually unnoticed until AD 2023.) It takes weeks for GF32 to become traceable in the blood, up to half a year before symptoms appear. Though not very infectious, this delay meant a lot of people were exposed before it was discovered. In addition, GF32 was deliberately seeded in hundreds of locations through means unknown, including in some of the remotest spots on earth, making it virtually inescapable.

Our campfire storytellers insist that people were dropping dead in the streets. This is incorrect. The mortality rate of GF32 is only 5%, less with proper medical care. Roughly three quarters of the deaths were due to organ rejection of the glandular changes, leading to encephalitis or pancreatitis; once those complications appeared, the virus was always fatal. But most of the infected only experienced symptoms on par with quickening fever, and up to 50% appeared perfectly healthy, passive carriers to spread GF32 further.

As for what happened next… only the biblical notion of Apocalypse is appropriate.

The horseman Pestilence was just the beginning. The morbidity and mortality rates, conflated with the panic and paranoia caused by the release of a designer virus, shook society to its foundations, bringing countries to a grinding halt, but we could have survived that.

But then the recovered started acting insane - or more precisely, like alphas, betas and omegas. In the pressure-cooker of 7.5 billion people gripped by fear… ‘riots’ doesn’t begin to describe it. War marched through our streets. Society, already reeling, shattered. There is no other word for it.

In the pandemonium, essential services were quickly a bygone memory, letting Famine stalk forward.

But Death, when it came, didn’t come just for them; it came for their unborn. Genoforming reduced the fertility of almost every person infected to nearly zero, and that was the final blow. The human race was, as far as they knew then, sterile. Everything that preceded killed people, but this killed hope.

That is the way the Old World ended.

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ Fallen Angel ~~~

The horse makes its way down the ridge slowly, searching for its footing in the deep snow.

Winchester pack, bristling with weapons, waits in tense silence. The Rancher guards pulled the omegas from their seats and hid them behind the sleds. Taylor waits on the one bearing Vic’s stretcher, knife in hand in case he has to cut his leader loose from the ropes lashing him in to pull him to safety.

The snow is very white. The dark roan horse and the rider dressed in black stand out like birds of bad omen.

Behind the farthest sled, an omega asks a question in a tiny, tiny voice and is gently shushed by a guard.

Two hundred feet away from the convoy, the stranger stops. He slides down from the saddle and unhooks a rifle from his pommel. Dean’s fingers tense on his stock, making the stitches on his left thumb and arm ache. But the foreigner’s weapon is held barrel down without immediate hostile intent. A few paces away from his horse, he stops, plants his rifle, stock first, into the snow, then saunters to one side where a fallen tree is piercing through the foot-deep winter cover. He studiously brushes it off and sits down.

Parley, huh? Dean gives their surroundings one last suspicious look. They’re in a gentle basin pockmarked with copses of trees here and there, it doesn’t exactly scream ‘ambush’, but then again neither did the setup this morning. Talking of which...

“Pah-Ne-Me?”

“Yes?”

“Can you see any disturbance in the snow from here to there?”

Pah-Ne-Me licks her lips and narrows tired eyes at the terrain.

“No, but-”

“Good. Stay here, everybody, I’ll go see what he wants.”

“I’m coming with you,” says a firm voice at his shoulder.

Dean turns into the abortive step he was about to take. “No, Cas-”

“You are not going by yourself.”

Dean’s eyes flit towards the distant figure. There’s sort of a code here, though it’s never been written down or anything; you normally send out matching numbers in a parley. He turns back to his mate, and notes in passing that everybody else has a firm NO WAY! written all over their faces, though Cas is the only one to have dared articulate it. Odd how everybody’s acting like they’re part of Team Dean now, even Vic’s people and the Rancher guards; hell, even Dean’s guys, who are normally pretty vocal with their boss, seem unusually obedient lil’ doggies today. It makes Cas, the mulish exception to the rule, stand out like a war banner. Dean has a feeling he could order any one of his people to jump into a fire and they’d do it, but Cas won’t let him move an inch even if Dean starts to yell and cuss.

Dean fixes the rebel with a hard look. “Cas-”

“I need to come.” Cas lowers his voice. “Dean, Alastair wanted to force your father to trade you for someone… Did it occur to you that it might be me?”

“Uh, n-no,” Dean stutters flatfooted, “I mean, you never heard of those loons-”

“But isn’t it strange that all these things happened in the year after I arrived?”

“… We have two beta strays who came into camp-”

“Only after that Crowley character was spotted, they arrived in the summer. Dean- I wouldn’t let you go by yourself anyway after you almost got killed this morning, but if I’m somehow involved-”

“Then that’s a good reason to keep you hidden.”

“Not really, no. We need to know who is out there and what they want, and for that we need information that might be more forthcoming when everyone involved is present.” Cas has his Rational hat on, he sounds so sure of himself that even Dean’s own certainty is eroding. “He’s by himself, he’s no more dangerous to me than he is to you, right? And if it turns out I am unrelated to all this… then I can still be useful out there. You’re by far the better beta, but face it, I do have a lot of knowledge and information from my former pack-”

“Okay, okay,” Dean mutters, hating this but also aware that the sun is inching towards the horizon and they can’t stop here for too long. And Cas is right in what he’s trying to diplomatically say. He is smarter than Dean, he’s overall better informed, hell, Dean would be asking him for his take on whatever the stranger says as soon as he got back anyway. Cas’s safety is paramount, but Vic and all the others have to be protected too, and having Cas with him to help with negotiations might give them an edge.

“You’re taking him?” Lydia sounds very unimpressed.

“Yeah, I am,” answers Dean in his brook-no-argument voice before ignoring her. “You guys, we’ll give you a clear field of fire. If this asshole moves towards his rifle, shoot him like a rabbit.

“Yessir.”

The snow crunching under their boots, the mates make their way towards the stranger waiting patiently on his fallen tree. Dean splits his attention between the guy (could have a hidden weapon), the pristine snow underfoot (traps?), and their surroundings. But other than themselves and some squabbling ravens in a tree off to one side, nothing moves in the still afternoon air. The ridge cuts a clear white shape against the grey sky up ahead, showing no inclination to bristle with a bunch of loony bloodthirsty betas, but if this were to change, Cas has agreed to run back to the convoy while Dean leaps ahead and takes the negotiator as hostage and human shield, just to start the hoe-down on a proper footing.

The man stands up, making Dean tense, but the stranger merely walks slowly forward a few paces and waits for them.

...Something’s off.

Not with the situation, which still hasn’t devolved into an ambush or a trap. The problem is with the man up ahead. Every step Dean takes, the creeping feeling that there’s something wrong grows… It’s not like when he was facing Alastair, and his inner beta wanted to bolt. It’s definitely not the surge of aggression he experiences when spotting a foreign beta, neither is it the protective/superior feeling an omega would incite… Who is this guy? Or more exactly… what is he?

Distracted by the prickles going up and down his spine, his steps slow involuntarily. So have Cas’s. His mate stumbles to a stop. Dean looks around.

He expects Cas to have the same queasy feeling written all over his face, but that’s not what he finds there, it’s sheer amazement.

“Luke?”
.
Dean looks from Cas to the stranger and back again, searching his memory for a Luke. “Your brother? Luke Novak?”

“I-... I think, yes. He… he’s, er, his face has changed a bit, but-...” Cas seems part uncertain, part bowled over.

“...Your brother’s a beta, right?”

“Uh? Yes, that’s right.”

“...You sure?”

Cas re-focuses on the figure and looks faintly perplexed, but then he brushes it off and steps forward quickly. “I’m sure it’s him, yes. Come on, maybe he needs help.”

“Cas- Cas, slow down.” Dean catches Cas’s gloved hand in his own. “Even if he’s your brother, if he was with those loonies-”

“No, of course not! Luke would never- He wouldn't be involved in something like that. I’ve told you about him.”

Not much, really. Luke seems to be a painful subject to Cas. Jimmy and Gabriel were vaguely sympathetic back in Novak, but Luke was much more, he had been an ally; as bright as Cas, as educated, equally chafing under the religious regime of the Novak pack. Something happened, Cas never quite said what, and Luke got exiled to one of the sub-packs in Utah, and then disappeared. That was over three years ago.

Dean lets Cas pull him forward, only pausing long enough to let Dean plant his rifle in the snow twenty feet away. He’s still got his revolver, his knife, and that feeling of wrong deep in his gut. Dean’s instincts are oscillating all over the place, but as he pulls up to face Luke Novak, they slowly settle on ‘unthreatening alpha grayback without a pack’. He can work with that.

“Luke,” Cas breathes out, relief in his voice.

“Hello, Castiel.” Luke nods like they ran into each other in the den on a saturday afternoon.

“I’m Dean Winchester,” says Dean. “Deputy of alpha Hunter Victor Henricksen, Winchester pack. This is our territory.”

Luke examines his brother’s face. He’d be ace at poker, Dean finds him as hard to read as he finds him confusing, but there’s a faint warmth in the pale eyes as he checks out his brother, all hale and hearty. The temperature drops as he follows Cas’s arm down to their joined hands and then up to Dean’s elbow.

“Things have changed,” Luke murmurs.

“What are you doing out here?” Cas is also looking Luke over, probably for injuries. He’s visibly relieved, happy to see his brother, and failing to pick up on the way Luke completely ignored Dean and the latter’s introduction. “Are you alright? Are you out here looking for me? Did you hear I left Novak? I wanted to write to you, but I had no idea where you went. Where are you staying?” A polite way of asking if Luke has a pack or if he’s a stray. There’s an offer to stay with the Winchesters, temporarily or for good, hovering in the wings. Dean looks at Luke. The man has a neutral face that wears that urbane half-smile like a mask. He’s well fed, well dressed in those dark winter clothes out here in the middle of a tight-knit territory of packs who haven’t heard of him before. A few days of scruff on his face suggest he’s been traveling a bit, but he’s way too well put together to be a grayback wintering on his own. And Dean’s already wincing, he already knows that this is not a lovely family reunion, the happy story of one of the nicer Novak brothers saved and brought in from the cold.

“You Lucifer?” he asks bluntly.

That finally gets Luke to stop ignoring him.

“Dean,” Cas protests, but it’s better they know right away. Benny’s radio report echoes in Dean’s ears. A group of twelve or so strangers sneaking around, and a rider on horseback, sometimes with them, sometimes not.

Cas’s bro looks Dean over at last, a hell of a lot less warmly. Dean can see it in those eyes: the intelligence Cas told him about, the coldness and superiority Cas didn’t mention or was ignorant of.

“That’s what they call me out east, yes.”

Dean’s happy they’re not going to waste time beating around the bush in the cold snow and all that, but right now he’d happily murder Luke ‘Lucifer’ Novak for the way he just brought his brother’s world crashing down.

“Luke! No!”

The bastard looks at Cas calmly without an ounce of shame or prevarication.

“You’re with those maniacs?!”

“With the Demons? Please.” Luke’s shudder of revulsion is exaggerated for effect, yet also unfeigned.

Under his audience's scrutiny - Cas confused, Dean suspicious - Luke shrugs. His weatherbeaten features are still twisted in a mou of disdain. “Those lunatics are useful tools - no, no, I stand corrected, since I’m here and they’re not. They’re not only smelly, undisciplined, primitive, brutal and shortsighted, they’re also pathetic. They-”

“You gave them landmines!!” Cas’s voice pitches up, edging towards hysterical.

Luke assesses him and then says, like it’s obvious: “They were outnumbered.”

Cas reels back half a step, the hand in Dean’s is now holding on for support. His face is white, horrified. Dean remembers that you cannot punch anyone in a parley, even if they really, really, really need to be punched. And also shot.

But Cas is no longer the omega he was a year ago, nor is he easily mastered even by his own emotions. The half step he lost, he makes up for, surging forward in cold controlled anger, righteous and condemning like an angel of judgment: “Unforgivable! Unforgivable, Luke! You took- you took what we learned together, our research, our history - and you did that with it?! You brought back such- such a vile and indiscriminate weapon?! You- They- they attacked us! Injured my friends, nearly killed Vi-”

“-one of my pack,” Dean puts in smoothly, squeezing Cas’s hand. Luke may know it’s Vic who’s down, or he may not, but no point confirming it.

“Yes.”

“Yes?! That’s all you have to say?!”

Luke has still not lost that air of utter superiority and assurance. “What else do you want me to say, Castiel? Oh, of course if I’d known you were here - out here on this expedition - I would have planned better. You see, I was informed only specialized omegas go on this yearly mining trip, the big burly kind who can dig holes and little else. It never occured to me these clods could find nothing better for you to do than send you out here. Of course, that’s not the only place where my information fell short,” he adds, raking his brother up and down once again. “No, trust me, if I’d known you were out here rather than stuck deep in Winchester camp, and that there was an easy way to get to you, then a lot of effort and fuss would have been avoided.

“Fuss,” Dean repeats murderously. It was only five hours ago he watched Cas cut away Vic’s trousers and saw what was underneath...

“But why?” Cas demands. “Why did you do all that?”

Luke seems to think the answer is blindingly obvious. “I was trying to get you out of the Winchester pack.”

“Why?!”

“Why? You want to know why I wanted to get my omega brother out of a camp of godless primitives doing who-knows-what to him? At least in Novak I knew the terms of your enslavement, but out here? In this Do-ri-he region of base tribalism?”

“Dórihe,” Dean corrects automatically, “and who the fuck are you to-” just as Cas says: “No! They’re not at all like that! I know the rumors- good grief, Luke! Don’t tell me you of all people fell for Eden's propaganda!”

“Anyway, if you were wonderin’ about his health, you could have just sent him a letter to check up on him,” Dean adds with steely steadiness, choosing to ignore what was said and implied about his pack and the Concordat in favor of moving the conversation forward and stripping brother Luke of his weak excuses one by one.

Luke snorts. “What, send a letter addressed to ‘my omega brother Castiel Novak’?”

“Why the hell not?”

But Cas winces and rubs his brow with his gloved hand. “Oh, right, but Luke, Winchester is not like Novak, their omegas are allowed correspondence."

“Without them getting looked over by anyone first?” Luke murmurs cynically. “Not a parochial beta or alpha honor-bound to ensure a stranger isn’t trying to fill your head with ideas or lure you away?”

Cas looks blank. Dean’s actually not as sure as he’d like to be that Gordon or Ellen wouldn't glance through the oddity of a letter sent to an omega in their camp. Hell, if that letter was brought by a trader they didn’t know - Crowley or Neely - then even John and Kate, Jesse and Cesar would all be reading that missive first, fuck it.

“You’ll forgive me if I didn’t want to take that chance.” Luke looks away archly. “Michael has a long reach, and he’s been trying to find me.”

Dean and Cas both object to that implication together, and Luke rides right on through. “I thought it safer not to write, not to have a letter intercepted, or an answer back that’d been forced out of you. So I tried to contact you through an emissary. That man ended up dead.” A shrug. “You can see why I escalated.”

“Emissary?” Cas asks, voice weak and eyes widening.

Dean puts in sharply: “If you mean Drew Neely, he’d not be dead if he’d not drawn on one of my guys.”

“Really?” Lucifer finally deigns to address him.

“Yeah!”

“How he died exactly is not something I could know.” Not that he sounds like he believes Dean either.

“That’s convenient.” But also true. It’s not like they posted the circumstances of Drew’s demise on the trees all around camp for the magpies to read. Even other packs John warned about this probably only got informed ‘some foreign beta up to no good approached one of our omegas, put up a fight, got shot.’ Nobody but those involved would know the blow-by-blow.

Luke’s still talking to Dean but with an edge that suggests he’s getting heartily bored with him. “I gave Drew strict instructions to cause no trouble - and you’ll appreciate that I sent one of the, shall we say, quieter of the Demons. The less likely to get into a fight with those guards you have ringing your encampment and patrolling everywhere, stopping everything that moves.” He makes it sound like camp Winchester’s a fucking prison. “The man I sent first didn’t even get near your town without raising alarms. I had no idea how I was going to get in touch with my brother. Drew was not to break cover unless it was to speak to Castiel, and I trusted the unimaginative cretin to obey orders. I found his remains on a pyre south of your camp. His packmates were not impressed.”

...Dean’s nape is prickling and his head starts to ache. He knows what happened, of course. He saw Drew-... well, actually, Drew did indeed only go up and talk to Cas - but then he drew a gun! But Drew thought they were on different sides of a conflict thanks to Crowley’s defection... and when you've seen Alastair talk about prisoners, you probably have a ‘nobody catches me alive!’ policy firmly in place… but… Dammit, Dean was fucking right there, yet the more Luke talks, the more he can see where a kind of misunderstanding might have arisen...

Cas has the exact same look on his face “... You thought… oh, but Luke, you got it all wrong. I ran away from Novak to join Winchester, to find a haven.”

“I’m sure. I remember how you used to run from the house and hide in the barn not that long ago.” Luke’s gaze drops to Ginny, trying to scratch at her bandage like she’s pursuing a flea.

Cas’s hand convulses in Dean’s. Whatever memory that evoked hit him like a blow. The reaction stops Dean from getting into a shouting match with brother Luke by a bare whisker. He knows Winchester camp in all its muddy chaotic glory, he knows it's far below New Eden’s gold standard, and he’d die for every shit-ridden inch of it.

“Why didn't you just come yourself?!” Cas sounds tortured, expression turned inwards.

Luke’s gaze wanders to the rest of the pack over Cas’s shoulder. “I had my reasons. Up until recently I was too busy in the east. And I am… I have important things in play. I do not wish to risk myself lightly. I had no cause to believe I would be well received, even if my brother hadn’t reached out to the Winchesters.”

Dean’s got a sudden image of this strange not-an-alpha-but-also-nothing-else walking into camp. He wonders how John would react. His thoughts naturally flow to how John would be handling this parley right now, and he feels both inadequate and angry.

Free hand pressed to his brow, Cas stares blindly at his brother’s shoulder. “I...I see. I.. God, Dean, I’m sorry, Vic - all of this- it’s all because of me.”

“Hardly,” Dean says icily.

“But after all that, I see you don’t need saving,” Luke finally concludes. “Or so I suppose. You are free to leave, are you not?”

“Free? Of course,” answers Cas just as Dean barks: “He’s not going anywhere!”

Luke gives Dean a vaguely triumphant look that suggests Dean’s gone and proven the bastard right in his approach all along.

“I am free to leave, but I have no reason to, is what Dean means,” Cas says firmly, his hand squeezing Dean’s in reassurance.

“I wasn't just trying to save you. I need your help with something of utmost importance.” Luke looks at Dean as if wondering if he can shoo him away like a dog, then he just chooses to ignore him, pretty much like he’s been doing from the start. “Castiel, do you remember what we talked about back in Eden?”

Cas is still massaging his brow. Maybe what’s ringing around Dean’s noggin is striking up a sympathy headache. “What, specifically? We talked about a lot of things.”

That answer seems to disappoint Luke ever so slightly. “And what did it underpin? What was the reason behind everything we studied?”

“What? History, medicine, the-...”

Cas goes motionless, staring blankly at the snow under his brother’s feet. The crows still caw off the one side, and one of the mules behind them brays. Cas doesn’t look around.

Finally, in the kind of hush you use in church, he says: “… you found-... that?”

“What?” Dean growls.

Both brothers ignore him, Cas because he’s reeling, Luke because he’s an asshole.

“I think I am on the right track,” the latter says.

“How? Where?! Oh- Atlanta?!”

“Of course.”

“The CDC…You actually found-...” Then Cas pulls himself together, focuses on his brother, hard. “What did you find exactly?”

“Information. Tools. Knowledge, Castiel.” Luke’s eyes narrow, glint. “Power.”

“But nothing concrete,” Cas states, tone blunt.

Luke rolls his eyes. “No, I did not find an erlenmeyer in a freezer marked “Cure for GF32” on the label. Sorry to get your hopes up, but we-”

“You sure about that?”

Dean’s interruption earns him a cool look. Then Luke takes in the way Dean’s scrutinizing him. He smiles. It’s not a pleasant expression.

“What’s wrong, Winchester? Is my appearance causing your little neurons to misfire? I’m sorry, I shouldn't use big strange words. Is-”

“I know what neurons are,” says Dean steadily, “and no, I guess you’re not cured. You’re just fucked in the head.”

There is a twitch from Cas. It’s never easy when your mate and your family get into a tiff...

Luke’s features take on this expression of pride that Dean thinks is the underpinning of the motherfucker’s entire personality. “Our base instincts can be overridden. It’s not easy, but neither is it hard. It’s just an effort that those rolling in the muck of this primitive world can’t be bothered to provide. But this much is already possible.” He spreads out his arms as if inviting them to admire him. “Focus. Concentration. Dialectical and cognitive therapy. I elaborated the treatment myself, and I’ve been applying it for four years now.”

“Four years?” Cas echoes.

“Yes, I started back in Asher, though I had to keep it hidden of course. Oh, but it was primitive back then. I didn’t have the resources I needed. Not your fault, but you were focused on the historical side of things, on biochemistry and medicine. And of course our dear brother wasn’t going to allow me to go rummage in libraries when I was supposed to be doing something useful for him. But he doesn’t have me caged anymore. Castiel, the things I’ve read. You would not believe it. But I need your help. What I’ve accomplished - it’s a proof of concept, no, not even that, it’s more a litmus test, to give us a handle on how strongly the unnatural behavioral patterns are ingrained. There’s too great a play with the placebo effect and individual variances if we don’t level the field. But your approach, that’s the end goal. Not mitigation of GF32's effects, but elimination. That will require medical and biochemical knowledge after all. And we have that in Atlanta. There is so much to do. There’s a lot of equipment there already. Rigging the labs with electricity should be easy, then we can work on booting up the computers.”

“Yeeeah, your demon buddies don’t seem too big on engineering.”

“They’re not my friends,” Luke corrects without even looking Dean’s way. “I admit, my alliance with them probably paints me and my efforts in a bad light, but I had to find some protection in the wilderness. Our brother sent people to kill me- “

“He did what?!”

“Oh, Castiel.” Luke looks at him almost pityingly. “I know you had it hardest in one way due to your bend, but you have no idea of how Michael and I-... never mind. It’s the past. But I’ve had several posses sent after me, to either silence me or bring me back, which comes to the same as far as I’m concerned. And once I passed the Appalachian line, I had a whole new set of problems. The Demons… you would not believe how these wretches live. It’s appalling. It’s everything we feared about this new world. It was so bad, that first year… there were times I almost gave credence to my brother’s religious zealotry.”

Luke seems to have a bad taste in his mouth as he looks off in a westerly direction. “Ignominious wretches. Calling them bandits is an insult to the profession. And they revel in their barbarism, their cruelty. Crowley spent a decade trying to improve their lot by increments, show them a better way, and all they could do was despise him for not being a sanguinary cretin on par with themselves. Not that he was any shiny example of neo-human himself, but at least he wasn't an idiot. Got his post by backstabbing left and right, playing other betas against each other - he was actually a fascinating study of ENFP-type alpha dominance, I wrote a journal about him,” he adds, and just for a moment that cold sneer that'd looked perpetually ingrained changes unexpectedly to an expression of lively curiosity and clinical fascination, an echo of his brother...

“Crowley worked with me to start with, for the knowledge I possess, but he was a user. He was lining up his cards to control me, wring me of my information and then discard me. Alastair and Lillith are easier to manipulate. They’re in awe of me.” Luke’s near-perpetual look of superior disdain intensifies. Their admiration is clearly relied upon and also thoroughly despised. “Primitives. Surpass their pitiful understanding and they assume you're the devil they worship. I promised them power, control, weapons, you name it, but they'd follow me anyway out of brute superstition. I can't undermine their pack dynamics too much, however, or they'd become useless, which means I need to leave them latitude in fulfilling my requirements. This has led to problems before, believe me. I suppose I do apologize for what happened, Castiel.” (He’s not apologizing to Dean). “I guess I did not judge the situation properly or approach it right, but you know what they say, when all you have is a hammer… But I had to do something. The idea of you, Castiel... imprisoned in that kind of pack- It was unbearable.”

“But the Winchesters-”

“They’re all primitives,” Luke says shortly, but then hauls back his opinion by a few degrees. “I see they didn’t treat you too badly, I am thankful for that. But if you’re that attached to them, consider that you’d be doing this for them too. They don’t need one more omega- or beta, rather. Did you journal your transition?” Again a flash of the brother Cas knew and worshipped, peeking through in a curious and intent look. “It’s information that could prove useful. That’s what you’re good at. That’s what this world needs you to do, Castiel. Not trudge through snow with mules and dogs. I need you to help me set it right.”

Cas stares at him.

“It won’t be in our lifetime, I imagine,” Luke admits, though he doesn’t seem to care, he’s staring off to the west again, or maybe into the future. “But we can sow the seed. And one day…”

“One day what?”

There’s something in Cas's tone. Luke looks around at him.

Cas speaks slowly. “One day what? You’ll release a new genoforming virus that will remove the current changes?”

Luke’s eyes narrow and do not leave his brother’s. “That’s the idea.”

“It’s not a very good one,” Cas says simply.

Dean feels like some kind of chessboard just got turned upside down, the sky and the snow have switched places. The look of amazement on Luke’s face certainly measures up to that kind of seismic shift.

Cas shakes his head. “Luke, think about it. To begin with, I remember very well our discussions back in Eden. How humanity could never afford to be divided into subspecies, how it would inevitably lead to war and annihilation. So making your new virus non-infectious and available only to volunteers is obviously out of the question, you’d have to bypass all notions of consent and spread it to everyone equally somehow, even though we’re so widely dispersed nowadays. And then what? Do you remember the death toll of our genes getting rewritten the first time? And the social chaos? You’d do that to a civilisation barely clinging on as it is? Not that you have a chance on the technical level anyway. The Old World couldn't reverse GF32, and we’re back to the bronze age. How the hell are you going to sequence a virus when you can’t even build a centrifuge or produce electrophoresis gel? Are you hearing yourself? The idea is ridiculous.”

Luke is silent for a long, a very long time. Then he says softly: “So you’re not going to even try?”

“Well… no,” says Cas, to Dean’s intense relief.

Luke’s still stunned, a good look on him. That fatuous air of one who’s never wrong was just too punchable in Dean’s opinion.

Cas glances at his brother’s face a little sadly before focusing back down on the snow. He massages his forehead with his gloved fingertips. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do - and the knowledge you’ve recovered. If you want me to- to read journals, if you have any here-”

“No. No, you’re coming with me. We’re working on this together.”

The denial is abrupt. Luke sounds absolutely certain. Dean still can’t get a bead on this guy, and he’s also wondering if, despite Luke’s assuredness, cold calculations and control, he’s actually all there in the head.

“Even if we have only a one percent chance of success, we have to take it. Castiel - this isn’t you! You were the only one in all of Novak who understood! Who saw the same thing I did! You were- you were a greater misfit than I ever was! If you weren't an omega, you’d have been in Atlanta before me!”

Cas opens his mouth. Closes it again.

“You hate everything about this new world! You hate what was done to us, this injustice forced on us by those- those scientists playing god!”

“I hate what they did to us, yes, but I don’t hate this world by extension. For all we know, it’s not even what they wanted, maybe we took their curse and made it our own after all. Even if this is exactly what they planned for us, will you cut off your nose to spite your face? Our world has many flaws, but we're addressing them. In less than a hundred years we’ve gone from the apocalypse and complete anarchy to taming the midwest, and we’re inching towards California. Down past the border, in Mexico, I hear they’re actually rebuilding small towns now. We’re progressing! Even if it’s only an inch at a time. It… It is what it is, Luke. What I will not do is perpetrate the same crime as those scientists did, and play god. I-... I won’t lie, a few years ago I might have been tempted, but since then-”

“God, don’t say it.” Luke gives their joined hands a disgusted glance.

“Since then I have seen how new humans can make it work, keep what we have, maybe progress towards better,” Cas perseveres. “And even while I lived in Michael’s house… I wouldn’t have joined you in this endeavor. I had the desperation, Luke, but I have never had the hubris. And I will not be responsible, even in part, for taking away an iota of what my pack and many others have worked so hard for, the health and stability and the start of a society-”

“It’s like a blighted kennel! You hate what GF32 inflicted on us! You in particular! Chains! Chains inside your head! That’s what you called it! The panic that’d nail you to the spot when Michael or a beta raised his voice - the way your brain would stop working when they turned up the pressure - like they just loved to do, they loved to break the studious stubborn omega who never fully let them- oh, but I forgot! That’s all changed! Is that why it’s okay now?! You’re not one of the slaves anymore, you’re one of the new masters! That’s much more acceptable!!”

Cas baulks. “No!!”

“Oh yes! No wonder you stopped looking for the cure! I am-”

“Cas, you done talking to this guy yet?” Dean’s voice crashes through the skyrocketing tension like a prosaic brick through a window. “Sun’s getting low.”

Cas unfreezes and looks back quickly at the sled where Vic is strapped. “I- I-... I’m sorry, Dean, yes, we need to go.”

“I see this primitive owns you after all.” Luke’s still all spite and spittle, fuck it, and Dean’s done putting up with him.

“Nice try, Lucifer, but far off the mark. Cas belongs with me the way I belong with him, and he’s otherwise as free as any beta can be in our day and age. But since you and Cas have a past, he probably feels bad telling you to fuck off. I don’t feel bad about telling you to fuck off. So, fuck off. We got better places to be.”

Cas looks back, looks around, an internal struggle all over his face. Then: “Just… just one more minute, Dean. Please?”

Dean wants to say no, he’s in his right to say no as leader of the expedition with a bandaged and bleeding alpha over there, but he can’t stand the look that’ll undoubtedly be on Luke’s mug if he puts his foot down.

Given permission by Dean’s reluctant nod, Cas takes a deep breath.

“Obviously you have the wrong idea about the Winchester pack. Luke, you need to change your way of thinking. Breaking everything to drag it back to an unattainable start point is not the best option. Better to work with what we have. Maybe-... if you can give me a direction to send you letters, I can explain it to you. The system the Winchesters have developed, it works, and it doesn’t use the rigid unevolving stricture of religion to keep it on track. Their multi-alpha system - look, I’m sure Michael and you would agree on this, compared to New Eden, our camp looks like a zoo.”

Dean’s ready to forgive the unflattering analogy just for the look on Lucifer’s face when he hears that he and Mikey would agree on anything. He doesn’t think Cas notices the feelings roiling around, he’s finally let go of Dean’s hand so he can use both of his to gesture, to carve out meaning and conviction out of thin air.

“It may be more fragile than Novak - or it may not, I think it has what Novak may lack in the end: adaptability. And Luke, if you could see it in action! It’s not fighting the animal model per se, but it is subverting it gently, because the alphas have to evolve cooperation, civility, and they all work to bring together our strengths while respecting our individualities. Luke - you thought I was enslaved? From day one, John Winchester and the Cuevas gave me more latitude than I ever had in my life! And Dean- Dean’s been wonderful. He’s the kind of beta we can build a future on without breaking everything in the process- don’t scoff, Luke, Dean is my- Dean and I are in a committed relation and you will treat him with the respect that demands.”

“‘Mate’ is the sordid word you were avoiding.” Luke can be snide like nobody Dean’s ever known before.

“It’s just a word.” Cas, Dean’s magnificent Cas, is not intimidated, he marches on with a certainty that matches his brother’s. “Don’t get confused by the labels so much that you miss the point. Our community is still in its infancy, it’s still quite entrenched in tribalism, but it works, it’s actually quite complex in its inner workings and amazingly well set up, allowing for changes, adjustments-”

“Yes,” Luke agrees snidely. “They’re the envy of ape colonies everywhere.”

But Cas is already shaking his head. “No, no, listen to me. You’re committing a scientist’s cardinal sin, you’re letting prejudice blind you to all angles of the problem, all possible solutions. This is the gentle way forward. Our communities are simpler than the Old World we admire, yes, it’s rougher and it’s crude at times, but it’s ours, and it’s also honest and uncomplicated, and,” Cas smiles at Dean, “there is great joy here too if you will let it touch you, if you’ll look forward rather than back.”

“Castiel, you’re being a fool! We have a chance to become real men again!”

“We are real men! We’ve been subjected to genetic modifications, yes, burdened with physiological changes that hamper us at times - but they're part of our identity now, I don’t know who we would be without them. ‘Real men’- are you saying- what, are you saying that someone born blind or deaf, someone with a congenital condition, they are not ‘real’ men either? I-...”

Cas stops speaking abruptly.

The silence stretches. Luke’s still got the snide, punchable look on his face, he’s just waiting for his brother to finish in order to be more of a dick. But Cas isn’t finishing. In the silence that stretches between the brothers, the caw! of the crows sounds loud.

“No.”

Cas’s tone has dropped all enthusiasm, all joy. He’s staring at his brother like a stranger.

“They wouldn’t be, would they. Not in your world. I see it now. You don’t want us to be better. You want us to be perfect, without master or equal, rivals to God. And your perfect world full of beautiful, gracious beings is built on the mountain of burned corpses of those that failed your standards. I… I want to ask what changed you, Luke, but I-... I realize now, this has been there all along and I was just too desperate to see it…” Slowly, like something tearing apart strand by strand, Cas’s expression changes. He crosses his arms. “Luke-... or Lucifer, since that's what you so aptly decided to call yourself. I’m sorry. I don’t think we have anything more to talk about. I am never going to help you, and there’s nothing I can do or say or show you, nothing in this world that could make you accept it.”

“I’d rather die.”

“That can be arranged,” puts in Dean, who knows a good bargain when he sees it.

“He’s here in parley,” Cas points out (rather than ‘he’s my brother’ or any other objection.)

It’s not like anyone would know I murdered him under a truce flag apart from my guys, and they’ll be 100% behind me, thinks Dean, but doesn’t say it. Because Cas is right; maybe they’re all monkeys scratching each other for lice, but they’re not backstabbing bastards or their society fundamentally wouldn’t work. He doesn’t even want to think what kind of civilisation this Lucifer character would build. Yikes.

“You got more to say to this dude?”

Cas turns his face away from his brother. “No.”

“Good. You can shut up,” Dean adds, interrupting Lucifer’s next bullshit. “Shut up and fuck back off to New England or New York or Hell or wherever you’re from. If you come anywhere past the Appalachians again, you will find out just how organized and not-so-primitive our society really is,” Dean finishes softly.

“Oh please, do try to frighten me,” says Lucifer, all jocular-like. “My only regret, Winchester, is that your skull is too thick to understand just how much I despise you and everything you represent. You’ll die in that ignorance.”

“Funny. I bet that that’s what one of the makers of GF32 once said to some plebe or other, back in the good ol’ days before they let loose their virus.”

A paroxysm of anger finally breaks the perpetual sneer on Lucifer’s elitist features. Dean takes it as a win.

“Fine, I’ll leave you to your kennel, Castiel. Come find me in Atlanta when you change your mind.”

“Be careful what you dig up in there,” retorts Castiel, voice as cold as the snow and face still turned away. “The last thing we need is another epidemic started by some fool who thought he knew what he was doing.”

Dean watches Lucifer pick up his rifle and head to his horse without a glance back. His hand is on his revolver.

“...He can’t, can he? Start an epidemic?” he finally asks softly.

“No, fortunately. When the electricity went off, all the deep freezers stopped working. The fifty strains of ugly death they kept there will have rotten decades ago. There’ll be a lot of knowledge accumulated in their filerooms…” A flicker of regret on Castiel’s face firms into resolve and he turns his back on the rider climbing the ridge once more. “Knowledge that will serve nothing without the Old World tools to use it, or the building blocks with which to begin. But if Luke-... if Lucifer wants to spend his life digging through all that, it’s better than other things he could be doing. Come on, let’s get back, we need to get Victor back home.”

Dean slips his hand in his and squeezes.

Yeah. Home.

Chapter Text

Not being versed in sociology or anthropology, I cannot explore the subjects in the following chapters in much depth. I can’t even generalize, since I have only lived in two packs myself. I can only write down what I do know from hearsay, general knowledge and my own experience, take this as my caveat. Someone wiser than myself can write their own book on the subject, updating my information and using whatever part of my first-hand account is actually useful and representative.

This first chapter begins within my speciality - the biology of our Hierarchy - and ends in our new subject matter. Specifically, the transition from a beta to an alpha, as this is a biochemical change that both involves and impacts an entire community.

Decades ago, the transition adhered closely to the animal model: always violent, it would end in the death of the old alpha pair, and often the elimination of their children as well. Such barbarism still haunts us in our stories (see collection of tales I’ve transcribed, such as ‘Jeffrey Beauclair’, and ‘The Crow and The Coyote’.) The shadow of it still lives in our blood, it creeps through our nightmares. But nowadays we know our biology, and we refuse to cede to it. We are not lions killing each other for territory and then murdering the loser’s cubs. We are human beings.

The means for a beta to accede to alpha is now as complex and varied as our species. The passing of power can happen peacefully along a pre-chosen line of succession, or it can be an off-the-cuff competition. Sometimes the alpha is picked in what seems to be spontaneity, but in reality is the result of a long-boiling political struggle among higher-ranked betas. And yes, though I hope we’ll outgrow this one day, the process still devolves into violence and even bloodshed more often than not.

This is because the ingrained behaviors I’ve explored in the previous chapters - betas not injuring betas for rank, the alpha’s advantages, omegas being left out of power struggles - are all bypassed when an alpha is overthrown. The churn of uncertainty, rivalry and hormones suspends the rules; a beta can maim or kill a rival without repercussions; rankings become fluid, easy to challenge; matings can happen in a flash as hormones surge. The societal pressures involved are akin to group madness. The loser of a confrontation can be attacked by other betas out of a surfeit of aggression, and get chased out of the pack. At its worst, an entire community can fracture and split, leaving two smaller vulnerable groups in its wake.

In this section I will outline and codify each outcome, and indicate which factors, in my limited experience, contribute to each.

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

~~~ It’s time ~~~

Clancy’s butt is twitching in the muddy snow, his eyes are nailed on the door. Any second now-

The dog explodes into motion, rearing up and clawing at the door.

“No! Down!” Dean scolds.

Clancy whines and sits down again. Twenty seconds. Then his butt starts twitching again, and little whimpers erupt from his throat.

Dean should do something, take charge, discipline the mutt or send for Garth to take Clancy back and keep a better eye on him this time, but honestly, deep in his noggin, Dean’s clawing at the door too. He doesn’t have the heart to come down hard on the poor half-grown puppy. Dean’s arms are savagely crossed so he doesn’t fidget. Can’t afford to show his nerves even though he’s wound up tight.

Shit. Shitshitshit. Why is it taking so long? Vic made it through surgery yesterday, and Roy, who was discharged this morning, said their leader slept a little last night and had even eaten a bite of breakfast. So what’s John doing in there? Making Vic a new leg from scratch?

The door opens suddenly. Dean almost sprains something.

Clancy’s up like a flash- but it’s Annabelle and John Winchester in the doorway. The dog hastily sits down again, head and ears lowered as he tries to make himself real small.

Annabelle blinks at the watery winter sunshine assaulting her reddened eyes. This is the first time she’s left the clinic since they brought in her mate over twenty four hours ago. Her face is tired, pale, but composed, which is a trifle reassuring. John for his part looks completely murderous, but he’s been that way since Dean caught him up on events over a cup of tea to warm his frozen fingers, right after the convoy reached camp yesterday, bringing back what was left of John’s hunter alpha. John spent hours running the radio operator ragged while he contacted all the other packs out there. The primary alpha’s house has been lit up all night, people running in and out regardless of the hour. The entire Concordat is now on alert, and Lucifer better be as canny as his namesake to get out of the net that’s quickly extending to catch him and the surviving Demons. Beyond that, John’s got plans; Kate told Dean about them when bringing him breakfast this morning (she surmised correctly that Dean was going to be busy in the Hunter compound and Cas would be working overnight with Bobby to produce any extra medicine and sterilized equipment the doctor might need.) According to Kate, the Concordat plans to extend friendly feelers towards the independent eastern packs up and down the Appalachian line, see if they’re willing to work with them and form a barrier against batshit assholes coming from the coast.

That’s well and good, Dean feels safer already, but that’s not his immediate concern.

“How’s he doing?”

Anabelle looks at him almost blankly. Then Dean finds himself pulled into a hug so tight his shoulders ache.

“He’s passed the night as well as can be expected. No fever,” John, off to the left, says like he’s an interpreter. “There’s damage, but the doc thinks he’ll be able to walk again. At any rate, no infection’s set in, and we’ll keep it that way.”

Dean releases the tension and returns Anabelle’s bone-crunching hug. He can barely get his arms around her; she’s heavily pregnant now, she needs this crap like she needs a hole in the head, but Lucifer and Alastair don’t give a shit what chaos and pain they’ve left in their wake... Annabelle is stronger than both of them put together, though; Vic will be fine, she’ll be fine, the new pup will be fine.

“Thank you.” It’s a murmur in his ear. “Thank you for bringing him back.”

“You know I would, Belle. I just wish…”

“You brought him back. And Castiel made sure the leg didn’t sour. That is all that matters,” he’s told sternly, tightly. Christ, she sounds like she’s barely holding it together...

A host of diffuse guilts still haunt him, but Dean’s not going to bring up all the ‘what-ifs’ and the ‘if only I hads’, he won’t burden Belle with them. They won’t change anything anyway, they’re in the past. What-ifs or not, Vic is alive and everyone will work hard to see him stay that way, and help him as best they can. He’s pack.

Clancy whimpers. John’s gone down on one knee to pet him, but the dog can’t be distracted from the door. Unfortunately Doc Murphy don’t like mutts in his sick room. Clancy’s gonna have to wait… how long exactly…?

Something shifts and changes.

It rises with John as he gets to his feet. It unfurls along Anabelle’s arms as they leave Dean’s shoulders, it winds its way into her sigh.

“It’s time,” John says.

Anabelle concurs with a nod.

“Tonight?” Dean asks through a mouth suddenly dry.

“The sooner the better.” Annabelle’s gaze wanders back to the door. “Vic agrees too. I can’t- soon, it has to be soon if there’s trouble coming from the east, and I need to focus- we need - we can just focus on his recovery if- when-”

The press of John’s hand on her shoulder stops her from attempting to finish the sentence. Over her head, he gives Dean a significant look.

“It’s time, son. Go gather your people.”

Out of the three or four protests that come to Dean’s mind, only one is actually legitimate. “We can’t, we’re missing a team, Benny-”

“Will be here by tonight. I radioed Woodson first thing yesterday. They relayed the message, and our people were in an outlying post near the border with a receiver station. They’re double-timing it back. Woodson were kind enough to provide them with dog sleds and a team to help. They should be here soon.”

“Oh.”

Then that means it’s time.

Dean swallows convulsively, feeling ripped down the middle. Vic’s only injured, a part of him protests, heck, he might be hobbling around this time next week, and then-

No, something deep in Dean whispers, it’s time.

John runs a slow hand through his hair, nudging his cowboy hat almost all the way off. “Sam can round up the Ranchers, I’ll drop by the Cuevas on the way back. Rufus and Amy are getting things ready.” Translation: Rufus and Amy are cooking up a storm from the end-of-winter rations; John probably told them to do so after consulting with Doc Murphy yesterday already, without waiting for Vic and Annabelle’s say-so. He knew there’d be no miracle... But it’d be harsh to say that within Annabelle’s hearing. She’s still looking back at the door, face tired and closed, and she doesn’t seem to hear.

“Right. I’ll get things organized on my end.” Through the numbness of how suddenly this has happened, Dean starts to pull together plans. He needs to make sure Benny gets in and is ready for this, his people warmed up and fed, the Hunters will need blankets tonight - it’s still pretty cold out - they’ll need food, gotta get some venison cooking, and bring whatever alcohol they can scrounge up. It’s important to make this as grand a do as possible, to celebrate the passing of what was and the arrival of what is to come. It was like that last time too…

The last time an alpha pair was chosen.

That was Victor and Anabelle, as it were, nine years ago. Dean was young, a teen, but he remembers the occasion. He’d turned beta himself by then, he was young and brash, he could take on the whole fucking world. He’d witnessed the new Hunter alphas being chosen, wondering when it was going to be his turn.

Dean’s head is not sure, but his body knows the answer to that question now. It’s known the answer for days, from the moment he saw Vic lying bleeding in the snow, leaving the safety of their packmates in his hands…

His time is now.

 

~~~ Face off ~~~

Massive bonfires set the night on fire, illuminating the large gathering space right outside the camp, a stretch of a hundred feet by a hundred between the outer fence and the river. The time of year is not ideal for this, what with the snow and all, but when it’s time, it’s time. The March snow is so tromped on by now, it’s fair to call it nothing more than mud, but Sam, with considerable foresight, emptied a ton of sawdust over the large circle, and people are bringing out woven reed mats and cushions to sit on.

This is the part where neo-humans disgust the likes of Lucifer by doing this the animal way. It’s always done out of doors, beneath whatever moon is available, come rain or shine (though nobody being a glutton for punishment, if at all possible the time will be pushed back a day or two if the weather is completely shitty.) Long tables on one end of the field host a buffet, a little meager given the time of year, but a welcome change from their ordinary rations as it is, and Bobby broke out more bottles than Dean thought he had. People sit and stand, walk around and chat. One name is on everybody’s lips, the name of the man who isn’t here. Victor Henricksen is cheered, he’s remembered, he’s toasted, he’s mourned (even though he’s only about half a mile away in the medic’s cabin.) A group of soused Hunters sing his favorite song, horribly offkey, then Pastor Jim segues into Vic’s preferred hymn. All in all, Victor’s fall and dethronement is a festive affair. It’s always been so. Grief at the passing of an old era should not be tamped down, it needs to be shared and clamored as much as the new era to come is celebrated. It’s a circle looping in on itself, it’s a renewal, an affirmation of who they are.

At first the Hunters blend and visit with the other packs, greeting friends and trading copious curses on the godless bastards who attacked them, promises of retribution, the like. But slowly they filter out and end up by the biggest bonfire on the outskirts of the gathering, nearest the edge of the wood nearby. Dean, with the clarity he’s gained this past year, sees the mechanisms behind each tradition, each seemingly random choice in the layout and the movement of the crowd. The other packs have to be here; though they cannot interfere in what happens in this growing circle of Hunters, it will impact them, and the knowledge that the three sub-packs need to coexist has to be represented. But they’re at a remove, and the Hunters are near the woods, in case this goes the other way, the wrong way, and some among them have to leave…

It won’t come to that, though. Dean’s sure.

A few weeks back, Dean was hanging out in the distillation shed watching Cas ‘do chemistry’. His mate was fiddling with a glass beaker. He poured one clear liquid into another, and suddenly the previously transparent contents formed meshes and lattices of milky crystals like magic (at which point Cas swore a little, it’d apparently not been what he was aiming for.)

That’s exactly how it goes tonight. Out of a milling crowd of beta and omega Hunters, something crystalizes, a shape abruptly emerges. Dean’s at the center near the bonfire. Tyler, Lydia, Taylor and Max are near, but they all-... it’s hard to say what they do, it’s not like they tuck a tail they don’t have or lay back their ears, yet somehow…. something happens, something shifts. Dean’s more and more at the center of attention. Annabelle, looking exhausted and withdrawn, joins the gathering too, a little at a remove. People shift in her presence, with respect, uncertainty… finally acceptance at the change of place of the previously powerful alpha. Benny, freshly washed and only mildly exhausted, shows up late and joins a growing circle with Dean and the bonfire at the apex; the Cajun saunters over like he’s got all the time in the world, one hand hooked around Cas’s biceps, gently pulling the startled beta into the loose circle to stand next to Dean where he belongs. Everything comes together smoothly.

“No. Bloody. Way,” sneers someone off to Dean’s left.

By a funny coincidence, that’s what Cas said when his chemistry went haywire that one time too.

Dean turns towards the rebellious element, not really surprised. Well, maybe a bit surprised, because surely Cole isn’t that stupid, except yeah, obviously he is.

“Got a problem, Cole?” Dean says, bypassing the ‘you all know why we’re gathered here’ he’d half prepared. And to be fair, he hates giving speeches, he’s all for going right to the heart of the matter.

“Yeah, I do! Why the hell do you get to be top dog?! Or do you think we’ll hand it to you on a plate because of your last name?”

...That attack is a little more intellectual than Dean expected from the likes of Cole. He’d have put down a bet of a thousand to one the puppy would lead with a punch. But the hit is a good one, Dean has to struggle to hide his wince. The mood, the shape of things that’d seemed so rock certain a second ago, shifts a trifle.

Fortunately Dean’s got a counter. “I made deputy on my own merits and you know it, Cole.”

“No, I don’t!” the idiot shoots back, and immediately realizes his mistake. Everybody knows Dean made deputy the right way, John and Vic both made sure of it. Hell, Dean had to work twice as hard to prove himself.

“That’s not the point!” Cole snaps at his lost ground, “being a deputy doesn’t signify! It’s been three years since you got the position! You might’ve earned it back then, sure, but you kept it because it’s for- for organisation and shit. Doesn’t mean you’re the strongest now. It’s been months since you got into a serious throwdown! Things change!”

Another good verbal jab, completely unlike Cole. Where the hell is this coming from…?

“You’re not the only choice and you’re certainly not the fucking best! Just ‘cuz you’re Vic’s gofer don’t mean you can lead us Hunters! Not the right way! You almost got us trapped next to that fucking ice river! We should have crossed- if we went over the ice, we could have bypassed the traps and taken the five on the other side. We could have killed them from a distance! Then taken their spot, waited for the others to charge and killed them too! But no! You made us stay still like sitting ducks and let their alpha waltz right up to us! We could have killed them all - we should have killed them for what they did to Vic! Because of you, most of them got away! You might have killed their boss - barely! - but that don’t mean shit! Lydia killed two of ‘em and I killed one in the woods and injured at least two more! Blood for blood, we got them back for Vic better than you did!”

“It’s heartwarming to see you’re so good at your maths, you being fresh out of school and all.” Dean’s all done being yelled at, thank you. He’s giving Cole the courtesy of throwing down the gauntlet, the kid being younger and the challenger, but Cole better stop barking and back up his words right fucking now or else-

The muscles in Cole’s jaw bulges and his fists leap up. “Right. You’re right. We do this the right way. Come forward, Winchester! I’m calling you out!”

Dean’s fists ball and oh yeah, he is so ready to cave Cole’s face in it isn’t even funny-

A hand catches his. “No,” Cas hisses next to him, quick and low. “It’s a trap!”

“I can take him,” Dean growls, even more ready to prove to his mate what a badass he is.

“For me! The trap is for me!”

Dean freezes. The hackles of the wolf are raised, but the eyes of the human move past the ever-so-punchable Cole, skip over a scowling Benny, a smirking Tyler-

Unlike everybody else present, Lydia’s not looking at Cole or at Dean; she’s looking at Cas until she feels Dean’s eyes on her, and then her gaze shies away.

With the usual sudden clarity he always has when Cas is around, Dean sees it all laid out.

If he picks up Cole’s gauntlet, makes this a fight, that’ll prime the powder so to speak. It puts everything on a physical footing, it taints the gathering with violence, it says you have to be strongest to be alpha. Fists become the answer, as has happened before, and that’s not normally a problem. Dean’s gonna win, of course he is. But then what? He’s not the only one who needs to become alpha here tonight. He can take on all comers… but Lydia knows this, she won’t attack from the front. She’ll come in at his side, at Cas. Once Cole is beat down and Dean that much closer to alpha, she’ll call out Cas as being unfit to be at his side, and either beat him bloody, or show him up big time when he’s forced to admit he’s not yet up to that kind of challenge - not against a high-ranking Hunter beta who’s been clawing her way up the ladder for ten years.

- and fuck it all to hell! She already started this campaign three days ago! That's why she made a fuss about Cas healing Vic. She already knew the lay of the land. She wanted to undermine Cas, cow him, and force Dean to stand up for him like Cas needs a nanny, make him, make them, look weak. Didn't even care Vic's life hung in the balance! The king was dead already, long live the king. And if that king doesn't have a consort that can measure… then that blows the whole thing wide open.

Lydia’s unmated, but this kind of boiling froth of betas here, with their previous alpha fallen and the other alpha having stepped back, that produces all kinds of strange chemistry. This is where biology takes over from the nicer, more human ways of doing things. If Lydia can stomp down hard enough on Cas, she might take advantage of a rather unfortunate timing; Cas hasn’t been a beta all that long, few of the Hunters actually know him, and he and Dean have only been mated three months, they’re still in the binding period. Dean’s heart belongs to Cas, but his body, oh, his body is heading towards alpha, the touchpaper was lit three days ago already. So Cas cannot stay beta, or else they cannot stay mated. It’s rare, but becoming alpha has torn apart beta couples before, especially if they’re still very new.

A confusing kaleidoscope spins around Dean’s head. Cole - it’s Cole challenging, yet somehow he feels it, this is Lydia’s gambit, and a good one. She’s risking little either way. Maybe she might succeed in breaking them up and will take Cas’s place as the strongest unmated beta who almost hooked Dean awhile back anyway… but if the mind and heart of the man won’t take him where the animal wants to go, no matter, she’s got another play already lined up. She’ll pair up with Cole or someone else high ranked. If there’s one thing Dean knows, it’s that Lydia’s got no truck with romance, she don’t care, she’d shack up with a bear if it was tough enough to get her what she wants, let her put all other contenders down. With Dean weakened by Cas’s inability to fight her off, Lydia and a mate might challenge and succeed. Dean’s got the goods, but maybe instinctively the pack will prefer two high-level hunters they know over Dean and one unknown quantity like Cas. Goddamn, this is all because Dean was procrastinating on bringing Cas into the Hunters- but how could he know this would happen so fast?!

All these thoughts flash through his mind at the speed of a deep inhale. Dean’s breath rattles out. Yeah, okay, so he can’t fight Cole then, he can’t afford to make this a physical tussle… but now what?!

His mind flails. He sees John’s disappointment if he fails - he sees Lucifer’s malignancy as he sneers at the animals rolling in the mud -

… he remembers something else. It was months ago now. Up on a hill, the breeze blowing and catching the pales of a newly installed wind turbine… In his mind’s eye, Dean sees a man, a child of the apocalypse, stare out over their camp with quiet blue eyes that sees them as more than just a bunch of animals. Then he turns to Dean and says: We are a society. We are men.

...we are men. We are men.

Jesus, is he seriously contemplating fighting with Cole right now? What the fuck, the idea is laughable. Dean actually smiles faintly as he says: “Fine, it’s a date first thing tomorrow.”

Cole stands there with his fists up and a stupid look on his face. “Huh?”

“Tomorrow - and hell, every day until Christmas - I’ll beat your ass black and blue, Cole, but tonight we have more important shit to deal with than putting down puppies. Right now, we need a leader, and one who thinks with something other than his balls or his fists.”

Cole obviously can’t quite believe what he just heard. It takes him a minute to jump to the boneheaded conclusion. “You’re scared!

“Tomorrow, Cole.” Dean’s already looking past the pain in the ass, tallying his people, seeking from them the connection and the quiet obedience he’s been getting from them without pomp or ceremony since that fight near the ice river. “Promise. Since you’re begging for it.”

“Right fucking now! You-”

Cole comes charging forward - but Benny is suddenly between him and Dean. And Tyler too, and a tired Annabelle, and Jo and Taylor and others gather in a crescent with Dean and Cas in the middle.

“What-”

Benny barely spares him a glance. “Puppy, sit down. The grownups are talking.”

Cole makes an inarticulate sound of fury and confusion mixed.

“As far as we’re concerned,” says Roy, looking at his neighbors, Pah-Ne-Me, Mike and Everett, for support, “the position ain’t up for debate. But if it was… then you’d be the last guy in this pack I’d choose, and I think that goes for us all.” Roy and Everett were two of Cole’s recent victims in his upward push for power, Dean recalls. He’s so far beyond Cole’s provocations by now that he doesn’t even bother reflecting on how consequences are a bitch sometimes, or how amusingly affronted Cole looks right now; instead he starts to calculate how much this will impact the make-up of the teams now the Hierarchy’s been given a shakeup, and how he can compensate...

“That’s not our way!”

“Hey, you want a beating, I’ll provide,” Tyler drawls. “But as far as I’m concerned, the man has spoken: he can’t be bothered with you. I’ll stand in for him if you insist. He’s a bit too nice at times, but he’s tougher than ten of you, he’ll do as my alpha. It’s the Campbell blood in him,” Tyler adds, because even now when he’s being supportive and nice, he still has to fit in being a bit of an elitist asshole.

“If you believe you can beat your way up to alpha, Cole Trenton, then you know nothing,” Annabelle says in a stiff tone that still carries an alpha’s weight. “We need a leader, not a little fighting rooster. I choose the man who got you all safely out of that trap and saved Victor’s life. Dean has been backing us both up these past three years. He’s earned our trust.”

“Yeah, Dean’s got our six!” snaps Jo, bristling like an angry cat and ready to fly at Cole on principle. “He fucking took down that psycho alpha like a boss to save us! He’d lay down his life for every one of us!”

“Even you, Cole,” adds Benny quietly, and turns to Dean.

So does everybody else, and that’s that.

It’s physical. Dean can actually feel it. A jingle of the fancy hormone names Cas taught him dance through Dean’s custard to the tune of the Battle Hymn, but that’s not- that’s not all that this is about, chemistry can’t summarize it. Yeah, they’re humans, a human decision has just been made by the majority, but this weight of responsibility, this feeling Dean’s just aged ten years and yet is also more powerful, like his shoulders have just stretched out to the width they need to carry them all… that’s physical. He feels it in his bones.

He would. He would fight, bleed and die for each and every one of them, even that idiot Cole and that conniving bitch Lydia, because they’re his, they’re his pack, and he is theirs. Their alpha.

...Puts real hair on your chest indeed…

Cas, who’s been quiet all this time at Dean’s side, is weighing the people assembling around them, and then he also turns to Dean with a look of such quiet pride in his eyes it quite takes Dean’s breath away. Amidst the hubbub and the rising cheers of congratulations, they share a private smile.

Cole’s left stranded in the middle of all this, gone from being the voice of rebellion to the puppy locked out of the house. From the way he’s swaying, he can’t quite believe this happened and he doesn’t understand how.

“You-...”

Dean glances at him, wonders if he should come down hard on the pup, but he doesn’t want to. He’s going to have to use Cole in the future, and the guy’s so prickly. Giving him a good slap will be necessary in the coming days, he knows that sure as hellfire, but not in front of everybody, no, that’d do more harm than good.

“You coward!!” Ahhh, adrenaline; Cole’s obviously riding its high and hasn’t realised what’s happened or who he’s talking to yet. “Is that all you can do?! Talk?! You’re weaker than I thought! You just gonna hide behind the others?! Is that all that the Hunters are worth?!”

“Can you please stop shouting?” Chrissy, who’s got a mouth, says off to one side. “Nobody’s actually listening, dude.”

Cole shoots her a nasty look, but doesn’t follow through physically or else Dean would throw the ‘keep Cole’s humiliation private’ plan outta the window right away. “I can’t believe all of you!” he rages. “This is not our way! Fight me, dammit!” He makes a half aborted move forward, but it’s too late; Benny, Tyler, Taylor, Nicola, they're all there like a rampart… and the cement is setting, the rules are coming back into force; Cole’s beta physiology is responding to the presence of higher ranks, it’s not letting him fly straight at Dean and damn the consequences.

“Tomorrow, Cole, tomorrow. Bring some bandaids,” Dean suggests. “Benny, my man, I’m gonna be giving you even more work.”

“Of course you are, brother,” drawls Benny, accent rolling with over-the-top resignation to his fate. But who else is gonna be Dean’s deputy, huh?

“This isn’t our way!” Cole insists, even though the fluid movement of the gathering has pushed him further and further away from the circle and towards the edge. He spins on his heels with a look like thunder on his face, shoves Garth, who was just passing by, out of the way, and stomps off in the direction of the compound. “I’m gonna go tell Vic you’re weaseling your way into his spot! And I’ll tell the primary alpha too, don’t think he’ll let this go just because you’re his son! He knows our fucking ways, he’s a real alpha! He-”

“I wouldn't do that if I were you.”

Cas’s voice cuts through the night, through the rising hubbub of Hunters all relaxed and happy they’ve found their north again.

Cole spins around, marches right back. “What’s that, bitch?!”

Dean growls. Honest to god. Adrenaline, man- but a solid hand in his squeezes his fingers, and Cas merely repeats, cool as a cucumber: “I wouldn’t do that. Not unless you’ve thought through the consequences.”

“Who are you to tell me anything?! You’re no hunter!”

“You certainly won’t be.”

Cole stares. Everybody hushes to listen.

“Right now, the Hunters are deciding things as a pack,” says the professor in neo-humanities at Dean’s side, so cool and composed that it’s a good bet God himself is taking down what Cas is saying as Commandment number eleven. It makes Cole’s temper seem even more callow by comparison. “Choosing the alphas of our pack is our decision to make, it’s our right, it’s even our biology. If you bring in another alpha, whether it’s Vic or John, whatever they decide won’t matter because you’ll have broken that social pact. You’ll be out.”

People glance from Cole to Cas and back again, and a small wave of surprise visibly ripples through them as they must come to realize in their gut that what Cas says makes sense. If Cole tries to rope in John or anyone else, it’d feel… weird. It’d feel wrong. Who else gets to have a say in what the Hunters do, huh? What the fuck?! What’s the idiot thinking? Roping in another alpha - what a mutt!

“And why are you in then?!” Cole blazes. It’s not an alpha-challenge at this point, he’s just frothing at the mouth. “You’re no hunter!”

“I am now,” says Cas simply. “Dean chose me. And I chose him.” The hand is warm and firm in his.

“You can’t shoot a rabbit in a barrel!”

There’s a faint shift in the loose circle, a few people from Benny’s team and Tyler’s look askance - not rebellious, just looking for answers, looking to Dean.

But Cas can stand on his own two feet. “I’ll learn, but I see myself helping in more ways than putting bullets into barrelled bunnies, if that truly is your yardstick of success,” Cas adds dryly, wringing a crazy titter from the younger betas and omegas that takes an edge off the tension. “The Hunters are getting more numerous, your patrols widers, and there might be trouble coming from the east. You can use someone who helps coordinate it all, makes sure you have the right supplies, tend to you medically here and on the field. I will be a hunter, but my role will be more care and oversight and less-”

“Aww, you’re my new pack mom!”

Garth breaks the tension and Cas’s overly didactic speech the only way Garth can, with his enthusiastic hug, and yeah, solemnity and tension stand fuck all chance of hanging around.

Cas resignedly lets Garth have his hug and pats him awkwardly on the shoulder in return. But his eyes are on one side of the circle. Dean follows his gaze.

Lydia stands there with her arms crossed, ignoring her puppet Cole like everybody else is now doing. She is looking cooly at Castiel, and Dean waits to see what she’ll say, because there is a lot of ways to attack Cas’s role and assertions there. Dean can see in his mind’s eye exactly how Cas is gonna fit in and make ‘em all better, but to idiots, what Cas just said might sound like some strange Maker-Hunter hybrid, different than what some of these brutes are used to. This can be a flaw to exploit, and unlike Cole, Lydia’s got a mouth as well as fists, and she knows what to say to make it hurt.

But the bitch can read a room, even when it’s only a circle out of doors. The Hunters have chosen, with their guts and also their heads. They’ve chosen Dean, and they’ll buy into what Cas is selling because he sounds just so gosh darn sure of himself - he saved Vic’s leg too, of course, remember, and hell, Dean mated him and Dean’s got a good head on his shoulders-...

Lydia merely smiles, cool as you please, and says, “The proof is in the pudding, isn’t it.”

“It will be,” says Cas crisply.

Dean isn’t sure he likes his mate and his ex having this whole secret language going on…

As he gives Cas a hug, to the cheers and whoops of the assembly, he mutters into his ear: “What is she on about?”

Cas returns the embrace in silence for a few seconds. “She’ll be pushing. And she won’t be the only one if I can’t quash them adequately from the start. If we don’t feel as if I’m mastering them… then my body won’t respond and I won’t be fertile.”

Ah. Right, shit, there’s that to think of too… And you can bank on Lydia to push. She won’t be the only one, either. Dean will fight and die for every Hunter present, but it’s a fact that they’re mostly betas, and well, there’s a few who love to kick the hornet’s nest just because it’s Tuesday and they’re a bit bored. It’s their nature, they have to probe, to test. They’ll probably get a hoot out of egging on Cole some more, too. Wait- oh, fuck me sideways, Dean suddenly thinks, as he lines up, timewise, Cole’s unusual aggression and rise through the ranks months ago, which started shortly after Dean let Lydia understand he’d rather castrate himself than be her mate. She’s been shaping the little turd to be the knife she inserts into Dean’s back for months now, he’s sure of it. That’s why Cole’s gotten so glib tonight, Lydia’s been feeding him lines all day, “oh, Dean’s only ahead because he’s John’s son, deputy don’t mean he gets the job” etc etc. Dean tries to imagine the hunters with Lydia and somebody like Cole at their head, and his gut goes cold.

The Hierarchy is the only thing standing between that future and the one Dean will helm, and the Hierarchy will only hold if he and Cas push out pups every year. That’s putting a lot on Cas. Dean hadn’t thought about that.

No, he hadn’t thought about it, and maybe it’s because he’s so goddamned in love with the guy, but he believes it’s more. Benny loves Andrea, and he could theoretically situate himself in a position where he’d be alpha one day and give her the power she craves and the kids she wants, but he hasn’t because it doesn’t feel right to him, he knows it would lead to disaster. Dean now, hopefully it’s not the honeymoon hormones talking, but Dean feels no doubt. This guy he’s holding right now: this is his heart, his mate, his alpha.

“Feh, you can take her.”

Castiel’s lips move against Dean’s neck. “I suppose I can. But I hope I can persuade her instead. We’ve had a couple of run-ins now, her and I, and I don’t see her as all that ambitious. It’s not the rank she wants. My read on her is that she can’t stand weakness, anything that might hold back her strength or her pack. But if I can show her that I can make you all stronger, she’ll fall into line, however ungraciously. There’s room for the hunters to grow, Dean, to improve their structure and their habits so they can all safely-”

Cas breaks off with a gasp as Dean claps him on the backside. “Yeah, you’ll be fine.” Being alpha isn’t always about being toughest, especially nowadays and in the kind of community the Winchesters aim to become; it’s about organisation, responsibility and wanting the best for the pack, and Cas is already there without even noticing.

That leaves only one question, don't it.

Who 's gonna get knocked up first?

 

~~~ Epilogue ~~~

Here it is, then: the chapter I imagine most of my readers skipped straight to (I have no illusions.) The following diagrams compare Old World sexual organs with New World ones, male and female. Before anyone scoffs at the crude drawings, please remember that I am etching this on a metal plate with engraving tools and potato acid, and you’re lucky it’s not made with wood blocks that could only print 10 copies before becoming too blurry to use. What matters here is the science in the rest of the book, which needs to be propagated more than- [Excerpt goes on for another three paragraphs on the subject.]

- A-C.N.W., circa AD 2120, Harvest day 23 year 73 of the Winchester Pack.

 

“I’m off, then. See you in a bit, hon. Don’t forget to eat!”

Cas gives him a quick smile before diving back into a box full of ledgers and candles. Dust billows over the chaos strewn throughout the office, but its new owner will soon have it tamed. Cas’s notes are already pinned to a cork board above the desk, and his notebook is in the drawer. A proper workspace for his mate is the one silver lining to their new digs, the only one as far as Dean is concerned.

His boots thump uncomfortably loud through the hall. He’s been in this house so many times, he knows it almost as well as his own. Today it treats him like an intruder, an unwanted guest. It stands around him, empty and despoiled; Vic and Annabelle’s teams came by earlier today to pack their stuff and move them out. Initially, Dean helped - feeling like a murderer trying to clean up a crime scene - until they started to pack away the girls’ toys and then he just had to leave, go back to his lil’ bachelor cabin and give Cas a hand with their own belongings. A ludicrous excuse; the two of them together only have two crates of stuff at most. Once the lids were on, they sat on them together for a while; Cas didn’t say anything, didn’t point out that they both had more to do. He just sat there like he understood that Dean wanted to wait with him, hidden and silent, until the deed was done.

The door, heavier and properly built and jointed compared to his own, slams behind him like it’s throwing him out. Dean glares back at it for a second before trudging away through the half-frozen mud.

He’d have gladly opted to leave Vic and Annabelle in the big cabin, dammit. They have kids, and Miri, for one, takes up a lotta space. But Dean’s alpha now. It’s his cabin, his and Cas’s. It’s not that they need it; they barely finished getting nice and comfy in the bachelor cabin together, what do they need four fucking rooms for? But it’s symbolic. It’s important for pack structure and morale. And… they won’t be rattling around alone in there for all that long. By this time next year, it won’t be just the two of them (Jesus Christ on a dry cracker, that future’s comin’ at them like a bullet…)

Dean gives himself a shake, tries to derail the thought and focus back on his alph- on Vic and Annabelle. Their stuff is going into storage for now, they’re not actually moving anywhere at this juncture. The girls are staying with Pah-Ne-Me and Mike, playing with their kids, while Annabelle is with Vic in Doc Murphy’s clinic, the nurses set up a cot for her next to her mate’s bed; she’ll be staying there probably until she pops, which is any day now. Vic’s still in a lot of pain, he needs her support; for the injuries, for relearning how to walk eventually, and for the transition down to beta that’s already begun... That’s gonna be a thing. Vic’s gonna be a beta, so is Annabelle, and… and Vic’s no longer going to be a Hunter. The knowledge sits in Dean’s gut like a lump of lead, dull, grey and heavy. It’s not just because Vic is the former alpha. They’re civilized men, him and Dean, it wouldn't be a problem, they’d make it work. But Doc’s evaluated the leg a week after the injury, and though Vic will be able to walk, he’s never gonna be able to gallop, damn it all to hell. Dean’s not sure what’s gonna happen to him. Rancher, maybe; he’d make one hell of a crackshot guard… They’ll still live in the Hunter compound, naturally, though truth be told, space is tight… or… there’s lots of nice cabins in Ranchers. There’s that two-room one with the wraparound porch that’s right up next to the fence, that one’s been free since Allison and Liz moved out, the pup having grown. The cabin’s not practical for Ranchers because it’s the furthest away from the fields, but that also makes it the closest to the Hunters compound, so Annabelle can come to work easy-

“Hi Dean!”

Dean waves absently at Aiden, helping Garth fix one of the listing palisade posts. The snow’s melting fast, heralding the time for repairs of the winter damage.

“Everything okay, boss?”

Dean stops, looks at Garth, perplexed. “Sure, why?”

“Everytime I see you, you’re scratching!” Garth makes it sound like having fleas is adorable.

...Dean looks down and catches his right hand in the act of pawing at his chest through his coat and three layers of shirts. “Uh, uh, too busy for a bath, I guess. Maybe when we get to- uh, maybe later.” Vic’s cab- Dean’s cabin actually has a space in the kitchen for a big tin tub near the stove. Easily heated water and cast-iron comfort blasting out heat a foot away. Luxury, his days of washing out of a basin or in the river are done.

“Need to go. Garth, come talk to me later, okay? I’ll be back before sundown.”

Garth waves his hammer at him in a cheerful way and returns to work with a whistle. They’ve agreed to meet up every other day, just to check in. Dean’s taking a lot of care of Garth and the omegas. They’ve been under Vic’s leadership for so long, they were used to him. None of them look like they’re flaking so far, but Dean’s, well, he’s keeping an eye on things. It’s not just to affirm his position or anything. He cares about them, they’re his friends, and he remembers another omega almost a year ago now, standing behind a couch, unable to look him in the eyes…

He’s scratching his chest again, fuck it. It itches. Cas tells him it’s psychomo-...psychosomatic, because though they’re both going to grow hair there and other places, it’ll happen in a few weeks, not a few days. Dean’s not so sure, he’s been looking down at his pecs with morbid curiosity at least five times a day (nothing yet, not even peach fuzz.) He’s also hot as hell again despite the tepid March weather. Hormones acting up. He pays attention to that kind of shit now; in fact he’s keeping a journal as per Cas’s request, where he writes down all the really embarrassing crap like the way his bits have been aching for two days straight and how there was crust around his nipples for some reason this morning. Yeah, he noticed that, and wrote it down for Cas. That’s how much he loves the guy he found behind the couch that day. If it wasn’t so wonderful, it’d be scary.

A couple of Maker betas salute him and then give him curious looks as he passes by. New alphas don’t come along every day, Dean and Cas are still the nine-day-wonders. Damn, but that reminds him that he needs to go greet the Cuevas at some point, an alpha-to-alpha courtesy visit. Eventually. It’s not urgent, he’s got plenty to do, and Cas is in charge of that side of things. Calls it ‘division of labor’. Cas will wrangle supplies with the Makers, and work with the Cuevas to transition out of their sector cleanly. His move out of Makers and into Hunters is not a surprise, they all saw it coming when he hooked up with Dean, but the timing sure caught everybody off guard. Cesar and Jesse are both very happy for them of course - but dammit Cas had better remember he’s one of their main repairmen and science boffins. He’ll be working to pass on that knowledge to others as quickly as possible or Cesar, for one, will empty out his skull and wring his brain into a keg (his exact words, according to Cas.)

Yeah, Cas can manage that side of things. Dean, for his part, has another visit this morning, and it’s long due.

Dean strides through the big house’s front parlor. Like Vic’s house, it looks different today; it’s a large room where an alpha can have mediated meetings with members of other packs, and that means it’s gone from ‘place I walk through to get to dad’s office’ to ‘place I have the authority to use to conduct inter-pack business and shit’. Has it always had this many chairs…? Dean tries to picture himself at the head of the table there, like he’s seen Vic a couple of times, and he can’t really do it. But it’ll come to that sooner or later, now that he’s alpha. Yup, he’s alpha...

It’s been four days, and at times it feels like it’s been weeks, and other times the sheer switchback his life just took hits him like a laundry paddle upside the head.

The door to the office is ajar. His dad is at his desk, leaning far back in his chair, relaxed, a cup of tea in hand as he pours over a ledger. Sam sits opposite. Kate’s not around; lambing season’s gearing up and she’s busy out in the barns.

Without a word, John puts down the ledger and his tea, gets to his feet, comes round the desk and holds out his hand. It’s not their usual greeting. This one has formality. It has weight. He’s seen his dad in passing a couple of times in the past four days, but it was at a distance and practically at a gallop as Dean dealt with a whole lotta stuff. This here, now, this is the first official meeting of two alphas.

Dean shakes his dad’s hand, feels the portent, the shift in their dynamic. The strength of the ol’ man’s presence, Jesus, tone it down a notch, dad, I ain’t challengin’ or nothing…

The moment passes quickly, though. They’re family.

“You busy?” Dean asks. “Do I need to come back later?”

John glances down at the ledger on the desk behind him as if consulting it.

“Lord forbid!” Sammy claps his hands together and wrings them theatrically, like there’s not a shit-eating grin on his face. “An alpha’s business supersedes a mere beta’s! I’ll crawl away and wait. Maybe in the barn. Or the kennel?” Dean’s brother’s been working his hardest to take all the awkwardness in the shift of their dynamic and use it to rag on his brother, Hierarchy be damned. Dean pretends to be annoyed by this instead of grateful.

“...If I’m an alpha, can I order you to cut off that goddamn hair, Sammy?” It’s a weak counter, but hell, Dean’s tired.

“Even I can’t manage that,” John mutters as he heads back to his chair.

“Get off my hair, both of you.”

“Here.” John closes the ledger and shoves it towards Sam. “I’m sure it’s fine, I can trust you to keep your numbers in order, if not your locks.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake-”

“How are things, son? You and Castiel settling into your new house?” John asks, ignoring the grumblings of his deputy.

“Oh yeah, it’s fine,” Dean lies.

Sam stands and collects the ledger after fiddling with a couple of loose papers that are trying to escape it’s amateurish bindings. He doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave, though, he’s looking at Dean curiously. This boost up the Hierarchy is rare, after all, you don’t often get to hear about the nitty-gritty of it from a close family member.

John’s next question cuts past the formalities and into the quick. “Is there a lot of rearranging of your teams?”

Dean collects an extra chair from where they’re kept near the door and sits his hiney down. “Yeah, a bit. As always, I suppose. Annabelle tells me she and Vic had it worse when they took over from Ruth Lobell and her mate.”

John nods faintly. “I remember. They had a weird team structure back then - and of course the Lobell’s left when it happened, and a couple of other betas too.”

Sam and Dean share a troubled look at the thought. They didn’t know all the ins and outs, they weren’t old enough back then to know much about the inner politics of another sub-pack.

Dean’s been in charge four days now and nobody looks ready to form a breakaway movement. He’s half proud, half grateful.

“Well, I got ‘em sorted now,” Dean summarizes, not going into the details of the issues he’s been having trying to fit Cole in a team - after the enemies he’s made - without putting him in with Lydia, and of course Benny’s bombshell- but that’s his hairshirt to wear. At several times in the past four days, as he was juggling temperaments, past rivalries, ranks and roles, he had to remind himself that he wasn’t going to put this together and then bring the result to Vic or to John for evaluation. From now on, Dean’s decisions are final, and so are the consequences if he gets it wrong. The plans he will be drawing up at the desk next to Cas’s in Vic’s- in their cabin’s little office will be the plans that will see the Hunters sink or swim. The buck stops here.

Jesus I hope I’m ready for this, Dean mutters inside. The gravitas of his father’s office seems to look down upon him judgmentally, he feels ridiculously young all of a sudden… He wishes Cas was here. Cas always makes him feel like he’s got his shit together.

“How is Castiel holding up?” The old man has the uncanny knack of following his train of thought at times.

“Good, good.“ This is hitting nearer to one of the subjects he needs to bring up, but he’s not doing that with Sam here.

John moves the teacup around like it’s important he get the position of his fingers around it just right. Just as deliberately, he says: “Bring him over here tomorrow. Send someone ahead to make sure I’m available, though. Lambing season is starting.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“But we need to have a sit down. You, him and Lafitte.”

A sit down. They’ll talk about organisation, lines of communication between sub-packs and such. That’s the civilized reason. The other reason, though, is that John is primary, and he needs to make sure the two new alphas on the block know it deep in their bones, and their top beta too. In the old days, he’d have swaggered into the compound, fought them one on one, born them down with a hand around their throat-... Now they’re going to sit down with him, Kate and Sam, and eyeball each other over a pot of tea and a plate of Kate’s scones. They’ll work on the details that’ll keep Winchester running smoothly and they’ll tame the beast inside at the same time, make sure everybody knows their place in the pecking order. It’s what Cas was trying to get through Luke’s rabid brain; one can fulfil the requirements of biology and GF-fucking-32 while maintaining a degree of cooperation, civility and teatime.

There’s only one small hitch. “No point bringing Benny in on this now. I think I’m going to rope Annabelle into being my deputy as soon as she-”

“Wait, Benny’s not your deputy?” Sam puts in, boggling.

Dean looks back in equal surprise. “What, didn’t Andrea-... didn’t you hear? Benny and Andrea are leaving.”

“They’re what?!” John almost tosses his tea to the floor, eyes sharp and fierce like he’s wonderin’ what the fuck is going on over in the eastern part of his camp!

“Just for a bit, for a bit,” Dean hastily reassures them. “You see - guess she didn’t tell you yet - but they’re leaving next week to join the baby train.”

John and Sam absorb this in intense silence. For Dean, that was just one more hiccup on the path to becoming alpha in the past four days, but for the two others in this office, this is big, weighty news. Very big. For Sam, it’s a game changer. Andrea’s ambitions were never a secret. There was always that chance Benny might cave and join her in Ranchers, the two of them becoming serious contenders if something happens to John. Very serious contenders, since Sam is still unmated.

But joining the baby train… that’s saying something. It’s not a law that adopting kids precludes you from having your own one day if you make alpha, but seeing who’s involved in this case, it’s definitely a white flag, a sign that Andrea is coming to accept that bearing her own just won’t happen…

Sam seems a little dazed. Having Andrea quit the field of battle makes him that much closer to the position of Big Cheese by default. He doesn’t look relieved. Dean’s got a hard time pinning down his brother’s ambitions at times. Sam will make an amazing primary alpha, everybody knows it, even Sam, yet he doesn’t always seem to want it. Dean suspects it’s in part because it’s the old man’s plans (typical Sammy attitude, that.)

“They got somewhere in mind?” John asks after digesting the news a bit.

“Yeah, down south, naturally.” The braver, tougher betas always go further afield for their kids. It’s good to get brand new bloodlines into the mix. Strays from afar like Benny and Andrea like to go back closer to their roots for their kids, so it’s going to be a long haul for them. Dean don’t expect them back before August at the earliest. But Benny’s promised, cross his Cajun heart, that he’ll be back, and he’ll be Dean’s deputy once he is. He did sort of ask Dean if he and Andrea should wait a year just in case Dean needs strong backup right now, fresh into his new position and all. Dean said that if they don’t leave next week, he’ll chase them out the week after with a pitchfork. He’s seen them look at the kids running around. Dean’s got Cas, he knows he can manage, and he wants some lil’ Lafittes around to horse around with his own kids one day.

“I see. If they want me to write a letter or send a message ahead of them, you tell them to come to me direct. I’ll be honored.”

“Sure, dad.” With alpha John Winchester as guarantor, they won’t find any clan who’ll turn them away, they’ll get their pick among the children of any pack they care to approach. Dean’s not sure what that must be like... stopping at a camp or a roadhouse somewhere to meet a child that will be yours… It’s something he will never know now.

And talking of which… Dean bites his lips and gives Sam a look

Sam sticks his ledger under his arm and pushes away from the wall he’d been propping up. “You think it’s cool if I talk to Andrea? Help her prepare for the trip?”

“Sure, Sam.”

“Go get Kate if she can spare a moment,” John suggests. “Andrea probably has questions.”

“Good idea, dad.” Sam claps Dean on the shoulder in passing with this irritating ‘my brother is all grown up now!’ look on his face that he keeps getting, and Dean’s going to have to book time in his schedule to go and wrestle the big moose to the ground and give him a wedgie for old time’s sake. And after that they can talk over a beer and shit. Dean’s gonna be busy like hell for- damn, for the rest of his tenure as alpha, however long that’ll be. He’ll always have strong bonds with John and Kate, but he’s gonna work hard not to lose touch with Sam or Adam in the shuffle.

With his usual foresight, Sam closes the office door behind them to indicate the two alphas don’t want to be interrupted. John putters over to the sideboard for a mug and some hot water from the kettle on the kerosene burner that’s always lit while he’s in his office, next to the decanter which spices the tea up as heavily as needed as the day drags on. He hands Dean the leaves and strainer, sits down, takes a sip of his own brew, patiently waits for his eldest son to broach the subject that’s making him fiddle with his fingers and clear his throat repeatedly.

“So, um, dad, you know there’s been tension in my pack. Not too much for me - except from idiots - but for Cas.”

“Yes.” John’s not set foot in the Hunter compound for four days now, there’s a careful balance taking shape that he can’t risk interfering with, but he still knows. He’s primary, he’s the alpha of the whole shebang. He knows.

“You see… Cas… he barely started off as a beta three months ago, we just got mated, he’s, that is, he was still at the lower ranks in Makers and he’s barely known by the Hunters, you can see where that’s a bit of a problem.”

John nods. “Yes, a high-ranking Hunter mate would have made your life a lot easier. But hooking up with Castiel is the best thing that could have happened to you. I’m sure you’ll make it work.”

That’s so far out of left field for John ‘The Man’ Winchester - non-communicator extraordinaire- that Dean’s left with his jaw hanging near his breastbone.

John smiles into his mug. “Castiel himself could probably have done better, but he’s a nice man, I’m sure he’ll put up with you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

John just grins and leans back in his chair.

Dean scrubs a hand through his hair, trying to get back on track, hard as it is. “Fine. But you see, the problem is, he’s not been a beta very long. So, uh, stuff is still… see, dad, it’d be good to, um, have kids for next year if we can swing it, but you see, we’re not sure Cas is there quite yet, just for the, uh, baby bits, everything else should be fine, uh-...”

Dean stops talking, takes a breath. His father is being a bit of a bastard and not picking up the hint Dean’s desperately trying to give him.

“Obviously, it’d be easier - that is, the decision - there wouldn’t be a decision if he was a girl. Or if, um, I was a girl, but-”

John finally decides to put him out of his misery. “Dean, stop waffling. Kate and I agree, we’d like to see you two start as early as you can, this year if possible. There’s still a few months before July hits, it’s not like it’s right around the bend.”

“Yeah,” says Dean, relief blowing out his ears that he doesn’t have to say the P word to his dad - maybe they can just pretend kids get delivered by storks or something. “It’ll consolidate the Hierarchy.”

“No,” John says softly, staring down into his mug.

“...No?”

“It will stabilize the Hunters, yes, of course, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean to say is, Kate and I are dying for grandchildren while we’re still around to enjoy them, and I really don’t care which one of you pops them out.”

Dean’s breath leaves him in an embarrassing sort of whoosh. He hopes to god he’s not as red in the face as he feels.

His dad looks at him almost curiously. “You didn’t think I cared, did you?”

“Um, no,” Dean croaks, “you always been cool with Cesar and-”

“Dean, I’m primary alpha, and in my life I’ve been mated to two wonderful women, so it was always obvious who’d carry my boys, but don’t think I’d have had a problem getting knocked up if I’d ended up with someone different. Hell, your mother suggested it a few times, usually when she was gettin’ large around the seventh month…”

Dean laughs in a tortured gasp as an image no man should ever have of his parents flashes to mind. Can’t unsee that one, thanks, dad.

John’s wicked grin softens at the edges as he glances at the portrait of Mary painted on birch bark, under glass on one of the walls. He looks away again and down at his mug. “Just get me grandkids, Dean,” he says softly.

“Sure, Dad.”

“I’m warning you, I’m letting you be the hardass they need to grow up as well as you boys, and I’ll be in charge of spoiling them rotten.”

“Hey now!”

“Though I’ll have to beat Kate to it,” John adds to himself.

“How’s that fair?!”

 

~~~ Postface ~~~

As for the future? I do not know. Our society is moving forward by increments, but we still feel so fragile. There is hope in our new world: my children, Claire and Jack, are playing at my feet as I write this conclusion. They are strong and bright, and some days I believe nothing will get in their way. But there is pain too: we lost a couple of good people last winter, there are echoes of strife from the east, and I have had to part with two of my children so far. Two beautiful children born of my body and my mate’s, dispersed to strangers to raise. They’re doing well, we heard from the parents last month, but I still feel a gap in my chest when I think of them, and what might have been.

But that is a delusion, a choice that is now in the past and must stay there. I compiled this book and recorded our history because it would be sacrilege to forget from where we came, the mistakes that were made, the horrors that were perpetrated, but in these past years I have also learned to look to the future, as must we all. We want it to be better, we work every day for that, in faith and hope. As long as we have that, then whatever genetic changes were inflicted upon us, whatever else befalls, I believe in my soul that humanity - the best and brightest of what it means to be human - will endure.

The End.

Alpha Castiel Novak-Winchester, circa 2120 old calendar (approx.), Harvest day 23 year 73 of Winchester Pack.