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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 118--

"So you just pulled 'Ichabod' out of thin air?" Dean asks Alison dubiously as he follows her toward the city square, feeling dusty and awkward and like he should be a lot more impressive as the leader of Kansas's only working army against Lucifer. "What was the name of the town before, anyway?"

Alison gives him a patient look not unmixed with disappointment, followed by resignation that he's what she's got, so she's making the best of him. He gets from her a lot.

"It was abandoned," she answers, nailing her cane in the dirt like she's imagining it's his head as she limps determinedly down the street like resting your sprained ankle is for losers. "By the time we got here, the signs were history and most of the official buildings trashed in the newer part of town. You're welcome to look for it," she adds, obviously doubting he'd recognize a city limits sign if he saw one.

Glancing at her, he thinks he gets now how she got past Joe at that first meeting in Harlin. Poker is a bluffer's game, and a couple of hands was all he needed to know she wasn't just good at it; it was instinct. Maybe five eight, late thirties on the outside, and so thin she just barely escaping gaunt (which goes for almost everyone he's seen), dark brown hair frames a thin, pale face, hazel eyes watching the world (him) critically from behind wire-rimmed glasses that have seen better days. Even limping, her movements are abrupt, and the impression of harried impatience and vaguely distracted disapproval--those goddamn glasses--is almost perfect.

As mayor of Ichabod (as in Crane? He's scared to ask) as well as the leader of the trade alliance between the towns, Alison took it on herself to welcome the leader of the terrifying militia just up the road (give or take a few hours at one hundred; Dean loves roads these days like a lot) via beating the fuck out of him and Joe at poker at their first meeting. Their relationship hasn't progressed much since then, which in fairness he can't blame on that, but he kind of wants to anyway. At least that'd be an explanation for her vaguely antagonistic attitude, though noticeably she still thinks Joe is awesome (and also noticeably, seems disappointed Dean's the one visiting regularly instead of him. Not that he cares. Much).

His second visit marked the official beginning of their tenure in Ichabod, at which time Amanda, Mark, and Kamal were formally introduced to the mayors and deputy mayors of the other towns as well as the working government of Ichabod: Alison and Claudia, the deputy mayor; the patrol leader, Manuel; Tony, who was in charge of town services; Dolores, a RN who headed up their medical personnel; Lanak, who was inventory and supply; Dina, head of all things agricultural (he thinks); and the town's council (many, many people), before everyone settled down to figure out how this would work in Ichabod as the guinea pig.

After approving the weapons transfer (he's now officially a weapons trafficker), the first shipment of food to Chitaqua (he may or may not have almost cried when Kamal showed him the refrigerated truck that carried the meat), and giving the towns the first part of the their wish list from James' supply run, he went to approve the preparation of the new training field. Ichabod designated a large area outside the town that may or may not have once been a hay field, the posts for the new fence already in place and a storage trailer in place for their class materials (weapons, lots of 'em). Leaving Amanda, Mark, and Kamal to their enthusiastic work with the residents, Dean spent the rest of those four days split between watching them teach the residents Dealing With Demons 101, walking through Ichabod's patrol routes with a cautious but approving Manuel, and carefully exploring the town, both the inhabited and uninhabited portions, as non-threateningly as possible.

After seeing the destruction in Kansas City and hearing about the other cities and larger towns in the state (and fucking Houston, like he could forget the leveling of a major metropolitan city anytime soon), he braced himself for sub-Chitaqua conditions and was pleasantly (read: enviously) surprised to see at least some places seemed to have survived relatively intact. Not that there weren't signs of some serious shit going down here at some point before the residents found it, even with all the work they did over the last couple of years to get the least damaged parts livable.

The other thing that surprised him (less pleasantly) was the realization that there were worse things than being trapped behind the Kansas border when it closed; there was being here and not being a native of Kansas. Dean wasn't lying when he told Cas that sometimes, he found it hard to forgive humans for their bullshit, and he really wishes that they'd stop finding new ways to make it harder.

Ichabod was settled by a group of contractors, both foreign and domestic, who were--of all fucking things--at a week-long business convention in Kansas City when the borders were closed. Many of them didn't even find out about the quarantine of Kansas until their flights were abruptly canceled, the news shared over the speakers by equally shell-shocked airline employees who were told any plane that got airborne would be target practice for the military already patrolling the skies. There were sixty-seven of them who left the airport together that day in loosely knit groups; a couple of weeks later, fifty-eight of them and forty others they picked up on the way settled in the deserted remains of the town they name Ichabod; today, eight-nine of the original settlers were still alive and grimly determined to stay that way.

Between the day they settled and now, they were joined by other non-Kansas natives who managed to survive long enough to find them, usually after being rejected--sometimes at the point of a gun--from shelter in a variety of small Kansas towns that weren't interested in outsiders as well as refugees from the cities who had nowhere else to go.

Out of state college students and professors; contractors on green card from dozens of different countries; workers whose lack of documentation was overlooked for the low, low price of less than minimum wage; migrant farmers on circuit through Kansas; a couple of vacationers and road-trippers; and a few people who were on layover between cities when domestic flights became a memory: Ichabod was pretty much the only option if they wanted to survive, and it now housed a population of over a thousand and change. Like Kamal, over three hundred of them aren't even US citizens, passports from India and China and Cameroon, Japan and Mexico and Costa Rica packed away as distant memories when their own countries, along with the rest of the world, chose to forget their existence. The three times Dean's visited, he's heard no less than seven separate languages being used in the streets and fields by Ichabod's residents, and that's just the ones he recognized.

He can't help thinking about what Joe and his team said about Harlin and their initial reception. Those military units might have been stationed in the cities, but that didn't mean that they never left them. Kansas is an infected zone, the borders guarded by soldiers as well civilian border patrols, and the only law is martial, which in some ways meant none at all, but in others, maybe a little too much. People are gonna be people and most of the time they're good at it, he knows that, but he's lived long enough to find himself looking at the women here and thinking how thirty miles in a military grade SUV isn't that far coming from Wichita.

He's not stupid enough to ask, and the welcome they received here so far reassured him at least a little that if it happened, it probably didn't happen here. There's no fucking way it didn't happen somewhere, though, and he's got a whole state of somewhere, half a fucking country of somewhere.

"Dean," Alison starts before they're interrupted by approaching shrieks, followed by a heavily accented, "Watch out!"

Bemused, Dean watches three enthusiastically screaming kids flash passed them and down the street, pursued by a fourth who he's pretty sure is the designated demon trying to steal their souls. Two adults hurry by with frazzled expressions shouting in what he's pretty sure is Mandarin, throwing them apologetic expressions as they pass. He didn't have the kind of childhood that came with playing Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, and it wasn't until Leah commented during their first tour of Ichabod that he even noticed what the kids were up to these days. Glancing at Amanda, whose parents were both hunters and was raised by her mother with her two sisters on the road after her dad died on a job, he saw the same look on her face that he felt on his own: survival of the fittest shouldn't work like this.

Peering down the road, he watches as more people emerge from Main Street's repaired buildings, some still faced in faded nineteenth century storefronts, those with children heading toward the town center where the daycare's located while others head toward their jobs or assignments or whatever people do here that kept the town running. The old downtown Main Street, a half mile stretch of what used to be remodeled antique stores and art galleries and quaint mom and pop restaurants (great food), is now entirely residential; along with the two streets on either side and a few outlier, they hold the entire population of Ichabod with room to spare.

"You know, if you want to ask me something, it'd be easier if you actually did it," Alison says conversationally, giving him a single stern glance over the top of her glasses. "What's bothering you?"

Dean fights not to glance back longingly at his jeep at the edge of the town--a whole quarter mile behind them--but to his relief, they reach the eastern boundary of the town center, two massive old-school trailers set end to end in solid concrete that stretches across most of the road. Veering right, he follows Alison to the only entrance on this side and down the short, narrow corridor between the left of the second trailer and a heavily fortified three story former art gallery before emerging into the safest place in Ichabod, the town center, encompassing two city blocks and built when the entire population could fit in three half-repaired buildings, that now houses the town's daycare and school, administration, armory, infirmary, and supplies.

Alison heads toward the four story former antique store now administration building on the right side of the street, where someone sane left a couple of ragged armchairs and a broken down couch beneath the carefully repaired covered sidewalk built for the casual antiquer on the go. Pointing him at one of the armchairs, she sinks down in the other with a sigh of relief, frowning down at her wrapped ankle as if it personally betrayed her by spraining itself.

On the opposite side of what had been a charming two-lane street before the remaining asphalt was pulled up and concrete poured in its place (he can already hear Kamal questioning everyone he sees about how they did it to enable his rollerblading dreams at Chitaqua), the daycare slash school is a hub of early morning activity, kids appearing in twos and threes and sometimes sevens with parents in tow and left in the custody of the teenagers on child care duty.

Proof he's suffering from Chitaqua Syndrome (not unlike Stockholm Syndrome, but weirder): the first time he saw the kids, he stopped short, almost shocked. The echoes of that remain even now as he watches a blond man in dusty overalls pushing a repaired carriage to the edge of the sidewalk to hand off twins that can't be more than a few months old; two women with toddlers chat in rapid Spanish with the daycare's supervisor, Francisco, an elderly Hispanic guy who could be the proverbial wise sitcom grandpa right down to his silver-headed cane; and Eyong and Njoya, a middle aged couple from Cameroon he met briefly on his first and second visit, both once visiting math professors at KSU and now members of Ichabod's town council, dressed in practical cargo pants and work boots and leading a group of six, ages two to twelve, Eyong with a sleeping six-month old in his arms.

He can't stop the grin at the sight of Tony, a tall African-American petroleum engineer originally from Texas who's gotta be his sixties (not that Dean asked; he's not stupid), round, unlined face smiling broadly as he hugs one of the teenagers on daycare duty before the two of them work at disattaching a two year old blonde, face red with the beginnings of a mother of a tantrum, whose thin arms are locked around his neck. Waving at her as she finally settles (hostilely) in the boy's arms, he crouches to urge the six year old clinging to his hand and glaring at him accusingly to go inside, her tiny frowning face surrounded with a riot of black braids.

"Don't let Tony fool you with the old man act," Alison leans over to murmur, sounding amused. "He managed oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and Libya before he retired. He's in charge of town services for a reason."

He doesn't; anyone who willingly takes on two kids below the age of reason probably finds demons pretty fucking mundane in comparison, much less running herd over a whole bunch of civilians keeping them in electricity and running water.

As another young woman herds two pre-adolescents she couldn’t possibly be old enough to have given birth to across the street, Dean wonders how many of these kids are on their second or even third set of parents, both those who lost them during the attacks in Ichabod, and those who'd come here without any at all. Ichabod doesn't turn away anyone, and from what Dean can tell, they've spent the last two years being proactive about finding those who need just that.

Tony pauses to wave at the girls one last time before joining Eyong and Njoya on their way to the small group waiting for them by the western corridor, among whom Dean recognizes Neeraja, a thirty year old former programmer from Kolkata, India who lives in Alison's building, Min, a forty-something Chinese-American human resource specialist, and Dina, a short African-American woman in her late twenties who used to be the hippiest of hippy organic farmers (and still pretty much is; the colorful hemp shirt she's wearing under her jacket reminds him of Cas's guru wear) and now oversees their agricultural efforts.

Dean knows shit about farming, but he's learned this much: it's an all-year thing. Even now, when the harvest's over, there's work in Ichabod's orchards and communal gardens as well as the fields they cultivate for trade, maintenance of the massive combines and threshers they learned to use by dint of sheer persistence, repairing tools and equipment, the care and feeding of livestock, and checking whatever's growing now for the town's consumption, among many, many other things he can't entirely remember (because Dina is both enthusiastic and talks really, really fast).

Apocalypse or not, he reflects, people are people. It may be the end of the world tomorrow, but today, there are kids to feed and toilets to flush, food to get harvested or canned or jarred, and an electrical grid to keep running, jury-rigged to hell and back by Tony and Walter, a third year KSU electrical engineering student originally from Kentucky who got it stable with like, chewing gum and zip ties or something. He tries hard not to think about the fact that when it comes to Apocalyptic living conditions, Ichabod's doing it better than Chitaqua is, but it's kind of hard to deny when the daycare has several working TVs playing every Disney movie ever and the high point of his own career as a shitty electrician was an entire week without random generator failure.

Watching a typical morning in Ichabod, the vivid contrast between the healthy looking kids and the too-thin adults, he wonders again what the hell they're doing. He gets that Ichabod and the other towns are getting something out of this agreement--they agreed without reservation and from Joe's description, with enthusiasm--but he can't quite reconcile that Chitaqua's gonna be paid with the results of these people's backbreaking desperation to survive for doing what should be done for fucking free. And help during planting and harvests, right, there's that.

As the number of arrivals trickle off and the remaining kids are herded inside, he starts, "You know, we don't--"

"--need to eat?" Jumping a little--and hating himself for it when he sees her raised eyebrows--he tries and fails to remember what he was gonna say, which gets him another goddamn patient look. "Joe warned me about this during your first visit after you got a look around the town. He thought it would take another month orso, though, so guess where his next batch of Joe Beer is going?"

"How the hell does he find time to keep up production anyway?" Dean glares in the general direction of the temporary training field south of town. This deal sounded a hell of a lot better before he saw the too-thin residents whose work in the goddamn fields would be funding it, the kids in the daycare that depended what their parents could grow. He can't even offer guaranteed protection, though the patrol that's in charge of this district is under orders to check in regularly, which is once a week, which is great if nothing happens six days before and after they arrive. Amanda, Mark, and Kamal being here means word will get to either the patrol or Chitaqua fast--and Amanda's fucking terrifying, she's an army all by herself--but still. That nothing's happening isn't the point; it will, and Dean's making a bet with all their lives that somehow, when it does, they can get here in time to protect them. Which got him thinking. "Alison--"

"What I'm not sure of," she continues, ignoring him, "is what part is bothering you. Is it your side of the agreement or ours?"

Scratching uncomfortably at the back of his neck, he tries to decide how to answer that. "Both."

"You don't have the people to protect us full time, I know." She says it like it's a fact of life, and God knows for her it is and always has been. Other than patrol of Wichita, Chitaqua rarely came this far south, and Ichabod's been taking care of themselves for a while now (and pretty goddamn well; Manuel knows his shit). "Joe broke it down for us, exactly what you could offer, and kiddo, if you're smart, get yourself a more cut-throat negotiator one day."

"Should see what he gets out of the border guards," he answers, absently shifting his rifle to the ground between his feet and wrapping a hand around the barrel; he's still not used to carrying it, which may or may not mean Cas has a point. "We get food, you get protection maybe, if we can get here in time."

"That's more than we had before." She sighs, looking at him patiently over the rims of her glasses. "You don't have the numbers to be everywhere, but you're gonna try, I know that. That's why you're also teaching us how to protect ourselves better when you can't."

"You shouldn't have to," he answers bitterly. Just surviving these days is a full time job; adding this on top of it….

"Don't think Lucifer cares too much about should," she says dryly. "You don't think it's worth it, not to just know help will come, but that we're learning more about how to protect ourselves?" Before he can answer that--she makes it sound a lot better than it actually is--she sits back in her chair with a loudly protesting squeal of springs. "Why don't we skip ahead of the personal recriminations and you tell me--"

Abruptly, she turns around, and following her gaze, Dean sees a woman at the eastern entrance looking toward them hopefully. Getting ponderously to her feet--and it takes pretty much everything in him not to jump up and help her--she says, "Hold that thought. I'll be right back."

As she hobbles away--she keeps that shit up, that sprain's not ever gonna heal--and starts a spirited discussion with the woman, Dean tries once again to figure her out. It wasn't an accident she was casually having coffee on the porch this morning when he walked by her building on his way to the training field, and to give her credit, she didn't pretend it was, but as yet, she hasn't given him any idea why.

He gets she probably still has reservations (he would in her position) and that as Chitaqua's leader he gets to be the focus of them; he even gets why she might be more comfortable with Joe and Amanda and the others by dint of three of them living here and having more time with Joe during both negotiations and after. The thing is, what he's picking up isn't 'some reservations' but 'a lot of them and still growing', and he's not imagining it; all of them are about him and none extend to the people he stationed here.

Conversation apparently done, Alison limps back, dust rising with every pound of her cane on the concrete before dropping heavily into the armchair, knocking her bad ankle into the leg with a belated grimace.

"Amanda's been staying in my building," she starts, as if at some point he forgot about the living arrangements of those here (and Kamal and Mark are living on the eastern edge of Main Street in Rich's building, another member of the town's council, yeah, he remembers, thanks). "She's in for dinner most nights, but we have coffee if she's running late--that seems to be a thing in Chitaqua, from what she says--and talk about how it's going." He fights not to think there was undue emphasis on the 'thing in Chitaqua' bit, because that's paranoid. (A lot of people talk over coffee. That's what coffee's for, other than helping you accept mornings exist). "It's going great, which you already know, since you spend a lot of time watching her classes when you're here, and for more than the entertainment value of Dennis almost knocking himself out with a broom." Her slight smile fades. "How many of them do you want for Chitaqua?"

Neck prickling uncomfortably under her level gaze, he fights the urge to twitch. "Alison…."

"That's where this is going, right?" She tilts her head, eyes unreadable. "This hiatus--it's not going to last much longer, is it?"

"We don't know what made the attacks stop," he answers, tightening his grip on the barrel of his rifle, palm inexplicably sticky with sweat despite the crisp autumn weather. "But I'm pretty sure we're almost out of time, yeah."

"Not what I was talking about," she says deliberately. "I mean before humanity realizes we're living in the epilogue to a war we already lost."

Dean's head snaps up. "What?"

"Come on, Dean, I'm not an idiot, and I know how to turn on a radio," she answers acidly. "Croatoan is a worldwide epidemic, and there's no cure, no vaccine, and no way to stop it; all this zoning crap is doing is maybe slowing it down. Half the world doesn't know Lucifer's responsible, and most of the rest don't believe it if they do."

"If you believe that, why the hell did you accept our offer?"

"Survival," she answers succinctly. "Just because it's gonna end soon doesn't mean it's over yet."

Despite himself, he feels himself start to smile. "Cas likes saying that, too."

"Not surprising for an angel," she says, a faint flicker of humor softening the set expression. "Not that I've met any to make a comparison, of course."

"The ways of Cas are mysterious, even to other angels," he answers easily, keeping his smile firmly in place. "No explaining it. How you knew he was an angel, though--that I'd like an explanation for."

Alison stills, hazel eyes widening in belated realization. "Amanda--"

"--told you over coffee? Bullshit." Fighting back the spurt of guilt when Alison pales, eyes flickering to his gun, Dean put it together and wonders how the hell he could have been this stupid. "You ever play craps?"

She blinks uncertainly, hand tightening reflexively (defensively?) on the knob of her cane. "What?"

"I got a lesson in probability recently," he answers. "Really should have paid more attention. You shouldn't have beat me and Joe that much at poker that night. I was cheating better than that, even if I was trying to make a good impression. Psychic or impossibly lucky?"

Alison licks her lips. "Now I'm impressed."

"Psychic?" Glancing at his gun, she swallows before nodding slowly. "Have you been reading us?"

"Not you," she says quickly. "That night, I was reading Joe, yeah: that's why you kept losing. He knows most of your cheats and watches for them."

"But you can everyone else?" She nods again. "Just not me. And I'm supposed to believe that?"

"You're the only person I've met that I can't." She grimaces at his skeptical expression. "You're--you're different, okay? It's like--I don't know how to explain it."

Studying her, he tries to decide if she's sincere or just faking it really well. The slip about Cas definitely surprised her, and blaming Amanda was a knee-jerk response, not a planned one; she had to know better than that. A psychic who wants to stay hidden doesn't make those kinds of mistakes often, and a good one would have been prepared for when it did happen.

Nothing about her screams psychic engaged in manipulation for kicks and profit--though granted, she could be psychically manipulating him to believe just that--but paranoia is a survival trait here. He might not notice, putting anything unusual to imagination, but Amanda and Mark are both hunters just like he is and live here full-time. More than that, they're hunters who survived five years into the Apocalypse and were trained again at Chitaqua by a Fallen goddamn angel, and dealing with psychics was definitely part of the curriculum. She might have been able to fuck with one of them, but not all three.

"Does anyone else know?"

"A few," she answers cautiously. "Neer, Claudia, Tony, Manuel--a few others."

"The other towns?"

"Only Danny."

This wasn't on his list of things he thought he'd have to deal with when it came to the towns, but considering, it shouldn't be a surprise. This was going way too well. "Alison--"

"We all have secrets, Dean," she interrupts, hand white-knuckled around the head of her cane, tendons bulging in stark relief against the thin skin. "You, of all people, should know that."

"This isn't," he says as calmly as he can, "just a secret."

"No, it's not," she agrees. "I have reasons, probably some of the same ones you have for hiding that a Fallen angel was part of your militia."


"--different, right? It always is." She looks at him bitterly. "Yeah, I've been reading your people, Dean; do I look stupid? Three months ago, a militia camp up north we'd only heard about--not like you ever came around before--suddenly drops by Harlin to say hi and how's the Apocalypse going for you, had anything attacking you recently, and by the way, nice town, you seem to be doing well, see you later and call if you need anything."

He really, really needs to reread those reports again. "Mel didn't say that."

"I was paraphrasing," she says. "Less than two months later, you people are driving by in military grade SUVs every week, armed to the teeth and waving at anyone you happen to see: very subtle, Mr. Winchester."

"We just set up the patrol districts," he argues, though yeah, that does look a little questionable now that he thinks about it. "We hadn't been doing that before, it was new to them."

"And you decided now was a good time? Right after the military vanishes from the cities--who you were working with, from what I understand--and we enter a period of unprecedented peace and quiet?" she asks. "God knows what you were doing for food before, because it sure as hell wasn't traded on the border--oh wait, was that part of your deal with our martial law overlords?"

So useful information: one, he's gotta talk to Joe about seeing how much it would cost for the border staff to learn the meaning of 'discretion' (probably a lot); and two, she's not actually entirely wrong.

"Then you send Joe and company to talk to us--"

"Must have been a surprise," Dean agrees, sitting back. "I mean, that flat tire Harlin's patrol had was non-existent, but right when we usually show up, you just happened to stop to be sure? In the middle of the road?"

"We were curious," she bites out. "If you were gonna keep stalking us, figured we might as well find out what you wanted."

"We weren't stalking--"

"And then Joe tells them that all he want to do was talk, no pressure though, let me show you how many weapons I usually wear while I remove them one by one--"

"You're holding voluntarily disarming against us now?" Dean interjects before he can stop himself. "He didn't even tell me he was going to do that!" Alison's eyes widen, and in retrospect, maybe he should have left out that last part, but whatever, now he's committed. "Good to know, though: next town we talk to, we'll insist on bringing our rocket launchers to negotiations to show our good intentions. Because that's guaranteed to work."

Alison's eyes narrow. "You have rocket launchers?"

"Read my mind and find out," he answers challengingly. "If any of you actually thought we were gonna hold a gun to your head, you wouldn't have invited Joe to come to Harlin, armed or not. And if we were gonna do that, I sure as fuck wouldn't have given you a month's warning in weekly drive-bys, Jesus."

She smiles at him, all teeth. "Maybe you're just bad at your job."

"Inviting two members of the scary militia bent on extortion into town and give them snacks just in case there was any doubt you had food to steal: oh yeah, that's some genius there," he retorts, smiling back. "I mean, why not show Joe and company where the most useful hostages below the age of ten were located--oh wait…"

"Fuck you, that was after I read Joe and Ana for half a goddamn day to make sure what they said matched what they thought!" she snaps. "The only reason Joe even got a hearing with us was because Danny knew I'd find out what you really meant to do so we could be ready for it." She sits back in her chair, hazel eyes hard. "I'm not apologizing for using everything I have to keep us safe. That's survival."

Yeah, he actually does get that. "What you got from them told you we were telling the truth and you made the deal. So what's your excuse for what you got out of Amanda's mind about Cas?"

"You mean the people who were going to be beating up my residents for educational purposes?" she asks with really unnecessary sarcasm. "Amanda's great, don't get me wrong. We have dinner or coffee, we talk, she tells me stories about Chitaqua and her life before she went there; I haven't laughed this much in years. First day of class, though, and every day since, she gets up at dawn and she and Mark warm up by trying to kill each other for a couple of hours before their first students arrive, and they start showing them how to use everything in your standard arsenal."

Yeah, he called this one, and what Cas said about trust being tested. He tries to remember how he felt the first time he watched Cas and Amanda sparring, strips out the experience with hunters (and angels), adds 'civilian programmer' into the equation, work out exactly where she is right now; they only got one chance to get this right.

"Amanda scares you?" That, he doesn’t believe, not after watching them together. Amanda's as transparent as glass, and if Alison's been reading her mind, she knows that, just like she has to know that Amanda would swallow a bullet before she'd hurt anyone given into her charge.

"No, of course not." There's a brief hesitation. "Are you--are you all that good?"

"No," he answers slowly, making an executive decision and setting his rifle against the wall on the far side of his chair (what Amanda, Mark, and Kamal don't see and therefore Cas won’t find out about won't hurt anyone, especially him). Across the street from them right now is a whole goddamn building of screaming, shouting, running, playing reasons she might not be able to afford to act on faith, not after living here the last two and a half years and thirty minutes from Wichita, not after seeing the reality of what Chitaqua could do after learning the monsters weren't just real but that humans could still be worse. "But probably still better than most of your patrol, yeah. We have to be; we're hunters. It's our job and that's how we've survived this long to keep doing it."

"Fighting the good fight," she agrees cynically. "Would have been nice to have you fighting around here the last couple of years. I'm not saying I don't appreciate you offering now, and it's not like you owed us or anything, but why the change in policy?"

"I'm beginning to wonder about the psychic thing," Dean remarks. "Are you sure you're not imagining it?"

She snorts. "Chitaqua's leader, Dean Winchester himself, top of the list in every most wanted in the world, suddenly decides to save everyone and let's all be friends now?"

God, he almost forgot about that. "They announce that on the radio? How'd I miss that between commercials for air freshener and the 2015 Ford Blitz coming out of Detroit next year, which by the way, is still on fire?"

Alison's eyes narrow. "You're saying they're lying about you being responsible for Croatoan?"

"You know the American military was willing to deal with me, you can read my people's minds--don't pretend you didn't spend some quality time asking the right questions to find out what they thought about me--not to mention the border guards', but no, the radio, which forgets half the goddamn country exists on a daily basis, is your go-to for objective reporting?" he asks incredulously. "Please tell me you're not the one who negotiates at the border, because holy shit, tuna has not gone up to ten dollars a can no matter what they've been telling you. Do we need to talk about Santa Claus next?"

From the way she's gripping that cane right now, he's pretty sure she's counting to ten, each number accompanied with a visual of slamming it into his head.

"Everything you could get from the border about us, including that we were working for the military, should tell you our worst sins in Kansas were of omission, not commission," he continues. "You know I'm wanted for--everything, probably--but you knew that before you agreed to the deal. I'm leading a militia that scares you, which is why you were reading the people I assigned here, I get that, that's survival. You're still doing it, though, unless you're gonna tell me finding out about Cas isn't pretty recent and today's the day you just happened to slip up." He'll give her this much; she doesn't even try to deny it. "Tell me how the hell I'm supposed to trust you?"

"I wouldn't have to keep reading them," she answers flatly, "if I hadn't gotten five towns to agree to the deal with Chitaqua, offered my town up as the testing ground, and only then met Chitaqua's leader, the most wanted man in the world, and found out he was the one person I couldn’t read and as it turns out, the one I most needed to. I know what they believe you're doing, but your state patrol schedule isn't the only thing that's new."

"What do you--"

"I mean you."

He sucks in a breath.

"A few months ago, you had near-death experience in Kansas City and were MIA two weeks; they thought you might be dead," she recites tonelessly. "You came back, though, but you came back a whole new person." Frozen, Dean tries to think, chest tight; if nothing else, he's pretty sure she wasn't lying about reading his mind, or she'd know right now the reason for that. "Great story, they sure as hell bought it, but real life isn't a Hollywood blockbuster with a happy ending. So you tell me, Dean Winchester; how the fuck am I supposed to trust you when your own soldiers' only explanation is the plot of a shitty romcom?"

He hopes to God he looks calmer than he feels. "People change."

"Yeah, they do," she agrees. "But not as much as you did, and I'm not one of your soldiers, Dean. All the fairy tales that I've learned are true I also learned weren't made by Disney."

Jesus. "Do you want us to leave?"

"And if this hiatus ends and we need help?"

"We'll be here the minute you call," he answers steadily, meeting her eyes. "Send someone to get us, I mean, whatever. You want us to leave, I can give the order now and we're gone before lunch, deal over. We won't come back, not unless you ask us to."

She looks away, shoulders slumping. "I don't want you to leave, no. It's just--" She gestures at him. "I don't know what to do with you."

"Because you can't read me." So she read his soldiers as much as she could, trying to find something to tell her she could trust him, and learned all new reasons she shouldn't. "Do you know why?"

"I thought it was a fluke at first," she admits. "Or the number of people around. Some people are harder to read until they relax or start concentrating on something--"

"--like poker," he finishes for her, reluctantly impressed at her rueful nod. "And you got nothing. Besides most of my stakes that night."

She nods. "It was like…I'm not sure."

He raises an eyebrow. "Like….?"

"Like--" She grimaces. "Like I slide right over you and go somewhere else."

"Slide." And he almost thought this couldn't get weirder: why does he keep doing that? "To where?"

The hazel eyes unfocus. "A box," she murmurs dreamily. "Bigger than it looks, smaller than what it holds, and it holds everything. What goes in there is never coming out again." He only realizes he's started shaking when he almost bites his tongue. "It's cold in there." Abruptly, she blinks, the distant look dissolving into confusion cut with frustration. "Sorry, that's the best I can do. I got the feeling getting closer was a bad idea. I'm not very good at this yet."

He nods, not trusting his voice quite yet.

"When--when I found out Castiel was a Fallen angel…." She hesitates, licking her lips. "I wondered if maybe it had something to do with him."

"That's nothing like him." Dean pauses at the thready sound of his own voice and swallows hard. "He hates being cold, I mean. Sleeps with three blankets and a couple of pairs of socks. Why would--what makes you think it has something to do with him?"

"You'd know more about his sock habits than anyone, I guess." She raises an eyebrow at his expression, cautiously amused. "I like your Amanda. She's told me a lot about Chitaqua." They have coffee and dinner and long talks about how things are going, right, but--oh.

"She told you about me and Cas? Like, with words?"

Alison's expression visibly cools. "Was she not supposed to talk about that? Another secret?"

Disney, fairy-tales, happy endings…Alison said romcom: holy shit, his militia really thinks the explanation was a near-death experience and true fucking love. With Cas.

"No, nothing like that," he answers, wondering why Amanda would decide to bring that up. It wasn't casual; she knows gossip and how to use it---with terrifying results--so everything she says about Chitaqua is gonna go toward using it to build up trust with the town and especially with Alison as its mayor. "I just realized how many embarrassing stories she's got to share with a whole town of new people. Luckily, the best ones are about Cas, and there are a lot, so that should take a while. By the way, do you know what a Maharishi is?"

Alison blinks, startled. "Uh, no. Why?"

"The ways of Cas are mysterious and weird." Why the hell couldn't Amanda think something useful, like what the hell that is, along with talking about her leader's relationship status, anyway? Because that's what's important here. "It's not a secret, no. Just…."

"New?" she offers carefully. "She mentioned something like that."

Yeah, new, whole new person: one near-death-by-Lucifer experience and the love of a (good?) man, and he's patrolling the state, making deals with the locals, banging his ex-angel, ex-junkie best friend, and acquiring said as his second in command. It's not like he watches romcoms or anything, but he's gonna say if one of them had that kind of plot, he's pretty sure he'd have seen it because Sam would have a copy and make him watch it for progressive something something reasons. (And because Sam has a not secret at all thing for happy endings, not that Dean can blame him; God knows their lives didn't show any sign of that happening, ever.)

"You could say that," he agrees. "In so many ways. Some I'm pretty sure we invented." And time to get back to the subject, which isn't his gossip-based life-changing epic romance with Cas. "So you think Cas is why you can't read me?"

"I'm saying the first and only person I can't read happens to be involved with a Fallen angel," she answers, cocking her head. "Could be a coincidence."

Could be, but since she doesn't believe it is, he's pretty sure she's got more to go on than correlation equaling causation, and he'd really like to know what it is.

"Why don't you want to cancel the deal?" he asks instead, not surprised at all by the flash of relief when he doesn't question her further. "If you can't trust me--"

"That's the problem," she interrupts, hand loosening on her cane, and half turning, she places it against the wall, absently flexing her fingers as she looks at him. "When I met you, I believed you when you told me what you intended to do for us, even if I couldn't read it out of you."

"And now you don't?" Dean tries to think of something he might have done to worry her and comes up blank. He doesn't really do much, but that's because there's not much to do and not because Amanda, Mark, and Kamal all write reports for Cas, and the Eldritch Horror supply is getting suspiciously low. "What did I do?"

"Nothing," she answers impatiently. "Look, I thought maybe talking to you today--"

"You mean telling me how I'm an international fugitive and secretly planning to conquer your town or kidnap your people for Chitaqua or something was supposed to help?" he asks, borrowing Cas's exact tone of puzzled curiosity, perfected over the years at Chitaqua for maximum sarcastic potential. "I believe you can't read my mind now, Jesus Christ. What the hell?"

"I didn't say that."

"I was paraphrasing."

She glares at him. "You're the most wanted person in the world, you worked for the military--"

"Stopping Croatoan in the cities," he interrupts, "and fighting things that the military didn't even believe existed, much less how to fight, nothing else. Border guards had to have mentioned that, considering they told you everything else, including our regular shopping list. Hell, ask Amanda and read her mind when you do; either way, the answer will be the same."

From her expression, she does know that but doesn't want to admit it. "--and your militia is terrifying even when they're playing normal, which by the way, maybe you should work on that?" He doesn't dignify that with a response, mostly because it's probably true. "I believed you anyway. I still do, and I don't know why."

Huh. "Am I supposed to apologize?" From her glare, he feels like maybe he should, though 'being inexplicably trustworthy' is a new one.

"I thought after talking to you, maybe getting to know you a little better, at least I'd have some plausible after the fact excuse for it," she answers reluctantly.

"How am I doing?"

"Not too bad." She sighs, looking at him resentfully. "Future reference: you ever want to try the sociopathic solider angle, make sure no kids are around or no one's gonna buy it. Or volunteer to watch a class under five without a bet to justify it."

"I could have been luring you into a sense of complacency." She rolls her eyes. "It's possible."

"Yeah, I tried that one," she says glumly. "Even I didn't buy it, not with that age group."

Dean waits for her to add something to that, then gives up. "So…."

"So it looks like we're stuck with each other," she sighs with a real lack of enthusiasm, adding morosely, "And hope for the best, I guess."

"Thanks," he says, infusing his voice with all the sincerity in the world. "Glad we got that out of the way."

She starts to say something, then stops, hazel eyes searching. "Your Castiel, he was an angel? Wings, halo, the whole nine yards?"

"I don't think he had a halo." He should ask Cas about that one day; either way, his reaction will be priceless. "Wings, Grace, soldier in the Host, yeah. Why?" Her conflicted expression isn't encouraging and he wants to add something about glass houses and secret psychics throwing stones, but the words freeze on his tongue; once, just once, he wants humanity not to disappoint him. "Does that bother you?"

"No," she answers, shaking her head. "I get secrets, Dean. It's not that: the opposite, actually."

He waits, but she just sits there, being cryptic and annoying. "Anytime you're ready."

"I'm new at this," she blurts out and closes her eyes with a pained expression. "Really new."

"New at…."

"Oh, for--" She glares at him. "This. Being a psychic." Before he can think of a response--I had no idea, sorry about that, congratulations?, she continues. "At first, I thought I was going crazy. Then T--I got confirmation that it was real, what I was doing."

"Jesus, that must have sucked," he says without thinking, but the surprised expression on Alison's face tells him that for the first time since he met her, he might have actually said the right thing. Pam and Missouri were born doing what they could do, but Sam's powers came a lot later, and he never made the mistake of assuming just because Sam was willing to use them meant he liked them or what they did to him. Looking at Alison now, he can see the same resigned strain on her face he sometimes saw on Sam's before he learned to hide it better; like a lot of things in life, sometimes it looks a lot better on paper. "I'm sorry."

She blinks slowly, and just like that, the antagonism drains away. "Thanks."

"When'd it start?"

"About three--almost four months ago now." Dean stills. "When the attacks stopped--early August, I think, if my calendar's right. You and Amanda and Mark--you were hunters, right? Before all this?" He manages to nod. "Amanda told me about psychics she'd met on some of her jobs. She didn't seem surprised that I was interested in them, but she couldn't tell me much, either."

"I've met a few," he says slowly, thinking of Sam, of Missouri and Pamela, of the others he sometimes worked with and sometimes had to work against, but his mind keeps circling back to the timing: early August. When the attacks stopped. When Dean Winchester had his near death experience and returned to Chitaqua a whole new goddamn person. "I don't know much, though--"

"Would Castiel?" she interrupts, a thread of desperation in her voice. "Angel, I thought maybe--he might know something about what happened to me and why."

A way to make it stop, he interprets effortlessly; if only anything in life was that easy. "Maybe," he temporizes. "I can talk to him about the uh, new psychic thing, see what he thinks."

"Could you--" She stops short, looking uncomfortable. "Do you think he'd come here so I could talk to him?"

Yeah, that might be a problem. "Uh--"

"It's not just--I have dreams, and sometimes, they happen." She looks away, staring down at her hands. "Sometimes they don't, and sometimes they're just dreams, but--I don't know how to explain. I didn't think about it if I could help it, to be honest."

Clairvoyance, too: what the hell, Apocalypse? "When you became a psychic?"

"All my life," she corrects him nervously, watching his expression for disbelief and relaxing when she doesn't find it. "But I didn't--before, I could pretend…" She stops, taking a deep breath. "I was in Kansas City at the airport when they made the announcement that Kansas was zoned. They let us stay the night--not that they cared, everyone was getting ready for a border run--and that night, I dreamed…." She swallows, hands starting to shake before she locks them together in her lap. "When I woke up, I couldn't remember exactly what--but I knew we couldn't risk the border. Not if we wanted to survive."

"No details?"

"Neer asked me that when I was done throwing up," she answers, a flicker of reluctant amusement in her voice. "Whatever I saw--let's say I'm glad I don't remember it." After a long moment, she shakes her head, looking at him with haunted eyes, and yeah, he's glad, too. It wouldn't take any effort at all to imagine what went down here after what Cas told him about California. "I convinced my colleagues and some of the others there not to even try, that we'd find somewhere here to wait it out, somewhere safe."

"Ichabod." She nods. "You dreamed about that, too?"

"I think so," she answers, frowning uncertainly. "No details, remember? More a feeling than anything, that there was somewhere safe, and all we had to do is find it. It was strong, though, and I believed it. It took a couple of weeks, but when we got here, I knew this was where we were supposed to be. Not that we had a lot of choice." He can see the memory of those two weeks in her eyes, finding out just how many places weren't safe for them, the way humans could be the pettiest kind of monster. "It wasn't like anyone else was here to tell us we couldn't have it, so we took it."

"Ichabod." Now he gets it. "'The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.' First book of Samuel. " Her mouth falls open, and really, he never gets tired of that. "Kid was barely born and already lost his parents, his family, even God was gone because Israel lost the ark. Sucked to be him."

She stares at him wordlessly.

"Dangers of your partner being an ex-angel," he explains, remembering grimly pouring through goddamn King James word by goddamn word after the fever, because the ways of Cas are mysterious, weird, and apparently attracted to lyrical Biblical translations when making very elaborate jokes via Enochian symbols. Jokes that may or may not have ended up permanently tattooed on Dean's body if Chuck hadn't intervened that night, which means he may actually owe Chuck for outing him to the camp at this point and fuck his life so very hard. Also, lesson fucking learned. "Let's say forewarned is forearmed when it comes to Cas's sense of humor. Who came up with it? You?"

"Tony," she tells him. "I thought naming the town after a story involving a headless horseman was weird enough, but his explanation proved me wrong." Her mouth twitches. "Can't say it didn't fit, though."

"No shit." He fights down the unexpected spurt of guilt for not being here for them. He didn't even exist in this world then, and even if he had, he's not sure what he could have done, but he would have thought of something, that much he's sure of.

"Anyway, the dream thing has happened a few more times since we got here," she continues after a brief silence. "No details, of course, but knowing I had to do something to prevent--whatever it was I dreamed from coming true." She gives him a wry look. "Nothing quite as motivating as trying to prevent dreams you know you don’t want to remember from happening to make you pay attention to everything."

"I bet." He wishes, suddenly and futilely, that he could tell her about Sam; the visions that haunted him, the ones that they tried to change. That they'd failed sometimes doesn't mean that they ever stopped trying. "What about when you became a psychic? Any advanced dream-warning there?"

"Not exactly." She tilts her head, looking baffled. "It'd been a bad day, the fields were acting--I mean…." She trails off, darting an unreadable look at him. "Something was wrong that day, everyone felt it, not just me. I'd been having problems sleeping for a couple of weeks anyway--just elected, the fuckers didn't even tell me my name was up until it half the goddamn votes were counted."

Dean barely stops himself from laughing out loud at her disgruntled expression.

"What?" she asks suspiciously.

"Nothing." He quickly composes his expression into something closer to sympathetic. "Just--at least you knew ahead of time." That doesn't seem to help. "I'll tell you later. So what happened?"

"Fell asleep in my new office trying to work out how the hell Tony kept from going insane the last couple of years and getting why he resigned," she answers, still suspicious but letting it go for now. "I woke up and--I don't know how to put it."

He nods encouragingly as her frown deepens.

"You ever wake up thinking you'd forgotten something--maybe a birthday or, I don't know, if the season premiere was the night before and you missed it--but you can't remember what it was?" He nods again. "That, except the opposite; whatever it was, it happened right on time and I didn't miss it, so I should go back to sleep, it was fine."

He has no problem at all interpreting exactly what might have been happening at that moment in Kansas City. "Huh. And you realized you were psychic?"

"No, I finished up my paperwork and went to bed," she says slowly, like she's not sure he's paying attention. "When I woke up the next morning to about a thousand people talking in my head, then I suspected something else was going on."

He's glad he can't actually imagine what that must have been like; on a guess, 'sucked' is probably an understatement.

"Anyway, since that happened, my dreams have been a lot more--weird," she decides, going for understatement of the year with a vengeance. "Which makes the ones that aren't just dreams hard to miss."

The way she doesn't quite look at him may be a clue about the content of one of them. "About?"

"Well," she starts. "The week to the day before your Joe showed up to see if we'd negotiate, I woke up screaming."

Yeah, that's--even worse than he thought. "Huh."

"And when I got Danny's message to come to Harlin…." She trails off, looking conflicted.


"Barely remembered to stop and grab my shoes before going for the nearest truck," she confirms. "Manuel saw me running to the garage--carrying my shoes--and stood in front of the jeep until I agreed to let him and Hans come with me." She bites her lip. "And unlock the doors so they could get in."

"And you didn't tell them to shoot Joe and Ana and hide their bodies?" She looks at him incredulously. "Thanks for not doing that, by the way."

"We don't shoot people for giving me shitty dreams." From her expression, though, she kind of wishes now that she could. "When I met Joe in Harlin, I knew what I decided would also decide if I'd find out what I dreamed that night by having to live it."

"No pressure, then." She shrugs. "And fucking with Joe for four days was just business and not revenge for giving you shitty dreams, right?"

The hazel eyes widen before she abruptly starts to laugh, looking surprised at herself. "He told you about that?"

"Yeah, executive secretary of the Apocalypse, and thanks for giving Joe crisis of confidence." That sets her off again, and he watches as weeks--maybe months--of stress melt away. "I gotta know, what were you typing on that laptop anyway? It wasn't just notes."

"How many times 'Dean says', 'Dean thinks', and 'Dean insert word here' came out of his mouth," she admits to his horror. "Compared to how many times he just thought it: me, Claudia, and Manuel had a running bet." He feels his cheeks heat in what fucking isn't a flush, but for some reason, she bursts into laughter again with no sign of stopping anytime soon. So this is going well: definitely better than hostility. He thinks.

Finally, she sits back, wiping the tears from her eyes, but the faint smile remains. "Joe, Amanda, the others I met--people may be able to hide what they are, even from the people closest to them, but there's always a slip somewhere, even if no one wants to admit it. They believe in you. Not a single slip."

"Since I came back from Kansas City as a whole new person." Alison inclines her head. "Because now you believe in shitty Disney movies?"

"I probably should have mentioned I used to own every Disney movie ever released."

Seriously, what the hell? "So you think you made the right decision?"

"I'm still in the dark about my worst nightmare, so there's that," she admits a little dryly. "But yeah, I think I did."

"That's--good." It's really time he went back to check on Amanda and Mark, show he's paying attention and they're doing a good job, important leader shit. He starts to get to his feet in preparation for pretending this didn't happen so he won't have to think about reliving it when he tells Cas about it. "So anything else?"

"Actually, yeah."

God, he knows better than to ever ask that question. Dropping into the chair, he sighs. "Hit me."

She raises an eyebrow. "When I met you the first time--this was just a feeling."

He already hates it, hates it. "When you met me?"

"I would have told you then, but I don’t know if I mentioned this, but when we met--"

"--you couldn't read my mind and beat the shit out of me at poker to prove it," he finishes for her, and her eyebrow--impossibly--climbs higher. "And I didn't know you were psychic, so wanted to avoid a really awkward conversation, fine."

She nods, obviously waiting for something, but after this conversation, if she thinks he's up to any more deduction, fuck her.

"What? You couldn't tell me because without reading my mind, you also couldn't tell how I'd react to you being a psychic, obviously, yeah." Then--seriously, how is her eyebrow doing that--he gets it. "You were going to tell me you were psychic that night?" She nods in exaggerated affirmation, which maybe he deserves, but whatever, he's got this. "When did you find out what Cas was, anyway?"

"Last night." Which is why she was waiting for him this morning. The leader of Chitaqua was a lot less intimidating with his own Fallen-angel shaped secret. "Something you said made Amanda wonder if you'd told Cas that he was your second in command yet?" He laughs before he can stop himself, and Alison grins. "And something about sleeping on the couch as an alternative to smiting, and that being the reason you came back for another visit so soon after the last one."

"Our couch is fantastic, not that I'm sleeping on it or anything," he protests. "He knows, yeah, but everyone's still pretending they don't so he doesn't get spooked. It works."

"I'll take your word for it." She bites her lip. "You have no reason to believe me, but I don't--like doing this. Knowing what people think only sounds good until you have to actually hear it." That, he believes. "I figured a hunter who lives with a Fallen angel can't be too fazed by a psychic."

There's that, yeah. "What are you supposed to tell me?"

"It's--a feeling, like I said," she answers with a moue of annoyance. "We need to be ready. I don't know how long we have, but it'll be enough. Not by much, but somehow, it's gonna be enough." She hesitates for a moment. "And something about maybe."

He waits, but as Alison's expression changes to impatience, he realizes she's done. "Maybe what?"

"How the hell would I know? I told you, I'm new at this, okay?" He holds up his hands, but honestly. "What that is, I don't know, but you coming here--you being here--what you're doing, that's part of it. Now you tell me what you're thinking--since I can't find out for myself--because I think this is how we'll make that happen."

"About our deal with you?"

She cocks her head, frowning. "The look on your face when I mentioned recruitment. Did you change your mind about that?"

"No." More rethinking how to do it after three weeks with them and realizing how much went into just survival. Everyone in Ichabod worked--even the daycare is also the town school where the teenagers take shifts between classes with the younger kids--and if they have leisure time, it's spent desperately learning needed skills, from Dolores' evening classes trying to shove years of nursing school into a few hours a day and Walter spending his nights finishing his senior year in engineering with a couple of other residents under Tony's benign fist to Dina and her leads learning everything that has to do with farming and livestock, because mistakes didn't mean a run to the grocery store but potential starvation.

The only real comfort he's getting out of this deal is Amanda confirming that they're definitely lowering the workload on Manuel and his patrol leads. Because all the able-bodied adults who can take regular patrol shifts, all the residents have drills twice a week, and neither Manuel or his leads were natural teachers or had the time to learn ("There's a reason people who want to teach generally have to learn how to do it. A plan also helps a lot," Amanda told him ruefully. "I didn't know how much Cas taught me about method until I started actually doing it.").

"So let's start there," she says firmly. "You want an army."

"I have an army," he protests, and she raises an eyebrow. "It's just a small army."

"So making it bigger, that's where this is going? To fight Lucifer."

"Not just that, though yeah, that's definitely on the agenda." Gazing at her, he decides to just tell her. "Lucifer doesn't need to step on the field to win this war; right now, all he's got to do is wait until there's no one left who can fight."

"The infected zones are a buffet for things I didn't even know existed before we started fighting them." She licks her lips nervously. "You're a hunter; it wasn't always like this and there were just so many of you that no one noticed?"

Dean thinks about this Dean's notebook; in one way, the minimalism in reporting worked really well. When your entries were sometimes three lines or less, the sheer number of missions packed into every goddamn page--not even including what the patrols dealt with--made it painfully clear in only a couple of pages how much the scale's changed. Add in Cas's notebooks, remember this Dean's goal-oriented approach to hunting, multiply by a conservative ten, and it's not just 'a lot'.

"No, this is much worse." Maybe worse than it's been since humanity got the numbers not to just fight back, but win on their own. "Fighting Lucifer, great idea, but we gotta survive long enough to do it."

"Can we win?" she asks quietly. "Don't sugarcoat it; I don't need to read your mind to know if you're lying to me."

He can feel the weight of that sharp hazel gaze, the lives of everyone in this town, this state, this world. Is hope better than disappointment, how the hell can he believe he'll beat goddamn Lucifer when he can't even imagine how he's supposed to fight him, when the world's half-way to Hell--possibly literally--and destroying itself as much as Croatoan and the monsters are. He has no idea what the hell he's doing; the only thing in a hunter's job description is how to fight, and that didn't cover this kind of war.

"We need more people." He sees her nod. "You know we plan to recruit eventually, but the training--or so the resident expert assures me--takes three months."

"So you want to take some of my people to Chitaqua to train them."

"No." He nudges the newborn thought out to see what it looks like as a whole. "You need everyone you have, I get that. So this first group, we could train them here."


"Train them here," he says, turning it over in his mind and seeing all new ways this is an awesome idea. What Cas told Joe about how they appear to other people and Alison confirmed: this might help with that, too. "We really don't have a lot of space for more people right now at Chitaqua, anyway. We're working on that, but no reason to wait. If they're trained here, you can work with Amanda on how to work in their regular duties with training."

"Amanda will be training them?" Alison asks with a flicker of barely-hidden relief.

"She learned from Cas, and he says she can do it. I can assign a team to Kamal here temporarily to help her out and still keep up our part of the agreement," he continues. "That means we can guarantee help to you and the rest of the trade alliance, no six to twelve hour wait depending on where the patrol is." And if it's something that needs more people, Amanda and the team will be able to help them hold out until he can send more people from Chitaqua. "Good so far?"

"Do you have enough teams to do that?"

"I'll make it work," Dean says firmly, deciding to let Cas tell him how they're gonna do that. "You'll lose some labor you need, I get that, but in return for being host, you can rotate them in with your patrols, put 'em on thresher duty or watching kids, whatever you need when they're not on duty. Keep 'em in conditioning."

"And when they're done training, they'll go to Chitaqua?"

Yeah, that's part trickier; they still have a real lack of cabins without electricity. And roofs. "When we have enough people, we could find an abandoned town nearby and set up shop," he answers lightly. "Happen to know of any?"

"I could make you a list," she offers. "Now, are you going to answer my question? Can we win?"

"I'm answering your question," he says, meeting the skeptical hazel eyes without hesitation. "Yes, I think we can win. So how about helping me figure out how to do it?"

She doesn't answer for long enough to make him wonder if he already fucked up any chance of getting anywhere here. Before he steps on the goddamn field, though, any other answer would be a lie.

"How many do you want?"

Oh God, she wants a number. "Ten?"

"You think ten is enough to make a difference?"

"One is enough to make a difference, so ten times that sounds pretty good to me." Her expression doesn't tell him anything. "Look, talk it over with Joe--"

"I think I need his boss for this one," she interrupts before getting to her feet, teeth clenched together when she puts too much weight on her bad ankle and grabbing her cane with a sigh of relief. Jumping up, Dean gets a hand under her elbow before he can stop himself, holding his breath until she's straightens. To his surprise, she doesn't pull away this time. "Where's your jeep?"

"Uh, west end of Main." Belatedly, he grabs his rifle and swings it awkwardly over his shoulder, trying not to imagine Cas's expression if he'd seen him do that. "Why--"

"I need a ride to the training field. Amanda and Mark are teaching everyone how to not shoot themselves with a semi-automatic, if the schedule she gave me is any indication. We said you could use that land because it was far enough away to risk having firearms easily available without worrying about tiny hands getting hold of them," she says as they emerge from the town center and into the street. "I can work out living accommodations for the team you're assigning here tonight, so right now, we'll start with what else you need other than the trailer Amanda's using as an arsenal."

He nods agreement.

"We're one to two hours from the other communities and you know they're still not sure about how this will work," she tells him, giving him a sharp look.

"I know," he answers. "Hopefully, seeing how it works out with you, they'll--"

"We're the guinea pig," she interrupts smoothly, like he wasn't saying just that. "They'll come around eventually, but we don't have that kind of time, so new plan: the original deal? Let's make one change; instead of you going to them when they're ready, they'll just come here."

"Here?" he asks intelligently.

"Some already are, by the way," she continues. "I took Amanda with me when I visited Harlin and Noak, and she made a good impression, invited a few to come and join the classes now. They're coming already, so let's just make it official. I'll meet with our trade partners and offer to host permanently and work out how many they can send each that Amanda and Mark can handle now. They can relearn the art of commuting, or they can live here for the couple of weeks and we'll host them, freely given." She smiles up at him. "We all throw bread on the water these days; usually, we get it back when we need it. There'll be conditions, of course--"

"What are you doing?" he interrupts.

"I'm answering your question," she answers strongly, tipping her head back to look him straight in the eye. "How we're gonna win. Gotta start sometime, so might as well be now."

He nods slowly.

"Unlike everyone else you've met in this state, I didn't have to go on faith about your good intentions; I read it out of Joe's mind and everyone else's I met from Chitaqua since. You were my big problem, and now that it's solved…" She shrugs. "We don't have time to fuck around here, Dean. It's already been two years since this started."

He takes a breath, feeling a little lightheaded, and it's only the tight grip of Alison's hand on his arm that keeps him focused. "'We need to be ready.'"

"It's gonna be enough," she agrees, mouth quirking. "I don't know about you, but when my clairvoyance offers me fairly unambiguous advice, I err on the side of taking it. Not like it happens often enough to not appreciate it when it does. "

Looking at her, he sees his own hope reflected back at him. And disbelief, because seriously, neither of them work up this morning expecting to negotiate a whole new plan here. The only thing on his morning agenda was convincing Connie and Grant to take an early lunch because they looked hungry (read: go make out for an extra half-hour instead of staring at each other longingly over crayons and spilled milk) and help Dwayne and Sissy finish that Lego castle they were working on yesterday.

"Conditions," he hears himself say, relieved to find out he can still talk, and from the look on Alison's face, she was kind of out of words, too.

"Conditions," she agrees gratefully. "I want Ichabod to have limited access to the training field when you start training our recruits, just like we have now; mayor, deputy mayor, and the town council--you met most of them--and we claim to some amount of labor from whoever is stationed in Ichabod. However, Ichabod keeps its own patrol and it answers to us, not you."

He hopes to God Joe tells him later that's fair. "Okay."

"Amanda regularly consults the mayor--me, right now--and keeps me updated on what's going on. I won't interfere, but..."

"We'll figure it out."

She nods, taking a deep breath, shoulders slumping for a moment as her hand tightens on his arm again. Then she straightens, glancing toward the jeep only a few feet away. "We should get to the field."

He helps her into the passenger seat, feeling a little dazed as he circles the jeep and climbs inside. He has just enough time to turn the ignition before she says, out of goddamn nowhere, "You're not afraid of me."

"Huh?" He looks across the cabin of the jeep in bewilderment. "Because you're psychic or because you gossip with my people? Because hell yes on the second part. What are they telling you, anyway?"

"Well, gotta admit, your press agents there aren't nearly as inaccurate as I thought." Before Dean can take that in (What the hell are they telling her? Or she's reading from their goddamn minds?), she gives the gear shift a significant look. "You gonna start driving anytime soon?"

They're halfway to the training field before Alison breaks the uncomfortable silence with, "So when do you want me to call a meeting of the town council? I don't think there'll be a lot of objections once they hear it, but they'll definitely have questions. You need a few days?"

It's probably just his imagination that she sounds like maybe she wants him to say yes so she can suggest Joe pay a visit. "When's the soonest you can get them together?"

"Tomorrow morning," she answers, smirking at his expression. "Morning off duty for official business with included breakfast? No one argues about that."

He grins at her. "Works for me."

"I was hoping to get to the training field this morning," she adds, watching out the windshield intently. "Teresa just got back from her circuit of our trade partners last night and today's her first day in Amanda's class. Glad you came by this soon: she's looking forward to meeting you. They should be breaking for lunch, so I'll introduce you."

That might be that 'T--" she cut off. "Teresa?"

"My partner."

That explains a lot. "I'm looking forward to it."

"You heard me," Amanda says during the midafternoon break as she leans against the makeshift fence they erected around the training area. It's not a real barrier, more a boundary marker; here be people trying to learn to shoot, speak workable Latin in every possible accent (not like he can judge there), and learn a salt line doesn't need an entire goddamn bag of salt. Dean glares at her from his perch on the top, hooking his feet under the lower rail and watching in longing as Mark patiently walks his group through the punch-and-run-away-fast method of escaping evil, which works way more than anyone gives it credit for. "You even think of getting off that fence, I tell Cas you looked feverish."

Dean glares at the swinging blonde ponytail that mocks him silently. "That won't work forever."

"You'd be surprised. Vera said nothing strenuous until she gets back, and gotta tell you, Dean?" She turns to give him a clinical once-over. "You're way out of shape."

"I could take you," he lies, resting his elbows on his knees. "You always listen to what Vera says?'

She raises her eyebrows. "Uh, yeah."

At some point--not now, and definitely not when she's armed--he's gonna mention that torch she's carrying can probably be seen from space. They live together, for fuck's sake; you'd think by now they'd have fallen into bed together just on principle.

"So what'd you think of Teresa?" he asks casually.

Amanda tilts her head. "Nine, nine and a half, maybe--" Her mouth twitches at Dean's expression. "She's hot, okay? I've been stuck at Chitaqua for a while now. Forgive me for enjoying the new scenery."

"And Alison's girlfriend."

"Alison's hot, and I can be flexible." Her expression smoothes out. "She's a hunter."

"Teresa?" She nods. "I was wondering about Manuel after walking through patrol with him. They were partners before they got here, right?"

"Oh yeah," Amanda agrees, pausing to watch Mark start his next group running back and forth, eyes narrowing. Dean has no idea what she's getting out of this, but it seems pretty important, so he waits until she feels he's worth her attention again. "After working with Ichabod's patrol a couple of times, I wondered, but two years out here, you learn fast or die. Very different training, but it gets the job done."

Dean cocks his head. "Training?"

"Down to their sensible boots," she confirms wryly. "My bad: Cas taught me better than to assume combat skills were universal. Not that they don't have all the basics down just fine. Just not as much, and not as dependent on guns as most hunters are."

"They're from Laredo," Dean tells her, wondering how to put this. "Not a lot of people can afford to carry down there, let's put it that way."

She winces. "That might explain it."

"What's their weapon of choice?"

"Cas'll love 'em," she says, grin returning. "Pretty much anything with a blade. They know their metals, too: silver, cold iron, gold--not plated, either--and get this--bronze, and that's just the one I recognized on sight. And all custom work if I know my weapons. Manuel showed me his collection a few days ago, and Jesus. Handle, quillions, and thumb rise were fitted to his hand by an expert, unreal balance--not throwing knives, but I bet they'd do in a pinch--and weighted for his best reach. The blades…." He blinks down at her, wondering if he should maybe leave her alone or something before she sighs. "Anyway, haven't got a chance to ask to see hers yet, but on a guess, she's got the same. Only thing I couldn't figure out is why we wouldn't have heard about them; not a lot of brother-sister partnerships out there, and hunters are incestuous as fuck."

"Not if they only worked the border," he answers, remembering his time down there. "They'd have enough on their plate just there."

She makes a face, nodding agreement.

"What else you got?"

"She has some of the usual scars, but not in the right places and not as many as she should for her age, but she's got the experience and then some," Amanda says. "Not a lot of close-quarters type, either, if you know what I mean, but here's where it gets interesting; neither does Manuel." Dean looks at her for a long time. "There's only three bathrooms at Alison's; everyone's seen everyone naked, you get used to it."

"Are we ever gonna get you back to Chitaqua?"

Amanda smirks. "Did I mention they both have anti-possession tattoos? And a few others that looked pretty interesting?"

"Keep going," Dean sighs.

"I've been working with Manuel and Ichabod's patrol teams a couple of times a week when they have time, but now that I've met Teresa, I get what I was missing with him."

"Besides the fact he has a sister and they're both hunters?"

"He's used to having her at his back, which is why he seems off with anyone else." She whistles, shaking her head. "I really want to see what they do together. If how they've trained the patrol is any indication, they could teach us a few things. You know, when I officially find out they're hunters, partners, and…" she trails off suggestively.

"Their patrols?" She nods smugly. "She and Manuel also both command Ichabod's patrol. "So I'm not imagining it; they lied to us."

"Not lied," Amanda allows. "More left out a few things. And in case you're wondering if this was just Alison worrying about her girlfriend, it's not. Everyone I had out here today was watching me with her every goddamn minute."

Interesting. "How'd you even guess about Alison?"

"They've been together for two years and I live in their building," she answers in amusement. "You're with someone that long, it's hard to hide, and Alison wasn't used to even having to. Her absence was noticeable, trust me. I figured that was the problem at first."

"And you fixed it with your magical gossip powers." She nods brightly. "Now?"

"That was definitely part of it," she answers obliquely. "The circuit thing Teresa was on, though--that was true. A few days every month or two, she and a couple of others visit the other towns in their network. This time, though, it was longer, that much I picked up. Gay, Alison's girlfriend, hunter, patrol's co-leader--the first two I get being privileged information, but not the last two, not unless it has something to do with why no one will talk about what she's actually doing on that circuit."

"They're trade partners," he argues, more because Amanda's enjoying the roundabout approach and he's got some time. "She could be protecting whoever's visiting or representing Ichabod for Alison. Hiatus or not, you don't break that kind of habit."

"And that's so need-to-know they hide her existence for almost three weeks?" She looks up at him. "Manuel showed you the wards they're using, right? Did you recognize any of the languages other than Spanish?"

"I can't read 'em, if that's what you mean. They're all indigenous to Mexico, though, and at least one Manuel confirmed died out before Columbus came to fuck shit up for the natives. Why?"

"You've seen them before, though."

He hesitates. "When I was on the border a while back, I saw something similar. Manuel was pretty vague when I mentioned it, said it was standard down there, which makes sense."

Turning, the rests her arms on the top rung of the fence to look at him. "And?"

"Cas ever tell you the history of wards through human history?" he asks, and Amanda's eyes widen in unmistakable sympathy. "Interesting fact: all of them have the same base, everything else is extras, but the extras are what makes them do what you want them to. Pop question: would you be okay with trusting wards without knowing every goddamn symbol in 'em and what they meant?"

"If someone I trusted with my life--say, Cas--knew them. That's what I was thinking." She smiles up at him. "Any chance you can be sneaky and watch who checks the wards today and what they do?"

He glances at the sun; you learn fast how to calculate time when you don't have a watch, and it's about two hours past noon. "Hans did the refresh an hour ago."

"Try southwestern end of Main an hour before dusk." She smirks at him. "Manuel's not subtle when he thinks we're busy on the training field and you're not here; he's the one that been actually doing them, so yes, the one o'clock rotation of patrol doing them is indeed totally fake. Which explains why Hans skips a third of them." She shrugs at his expression. "I'm a ninja."

"No shit," he says, a little awed. "Anything else?"

"They both carry steel standard, but Teresa also carries a ceramic knife," she answers. "Six inch white blade, custom design, prettiest thing I've ever seen, wish I could have gotten a better look. Ceramic: harder than hardened steel, holds an edge forever, can take a lot of wear, and…."

"--defines the word null," he finishes, turning it over in his head. "I wonder what you'd use that for?"

"Everything," she says on a gusty sigh. "Or at least, everything that you can kill with a really goddamn sharp blade. Among other things, which I'm guessing Cas might know about."

"You want one, don't you?"

"I want all of them," she says sulkily. "There's gotta be a forge around here somewhere."

"You even know how to make a knife?"

She scowls. "I'm motivated to learn. Kansas Library's gotta have something." Before he can reply that 'Making Mystical Knives At Home' probably isn't a title that's gonna show up on a lot of shelves (though maybe Cas has one of those; he'll ask), she turns at Mark's shout and sighs. "Okay, break's over. You staying here or going back to town now to play with the three year olds?"

"Just doing my part so we look less crazy," he answers with dignity, turning to slide off the rail. Glancing at the sky again, he figures he's got about an hour to find someplace on Main to watch what's going on with those wards.

"That's what I meant." Pushing off the fence, she gives him a querying look. "By the way, I heard Alison telling Teresa you two talked this morning. Any problems?"

"Nothing like that." Dean answers with a shrug as he starts back to the jeep. "She just wanted to satisfy her curiosity."

Chapter Text

--Day 119--

"How," Alison says, leaning against the open door of the toddler room with a wry look, "did I guess this is where you'd be?"

Dean warily looks down at Sissy sprawled across his lap, thin, beaded black braids trailing over his arm. To his relief, she only stirs briefly before turning her head against his chest and falls still again with an unintelligible mutter. Shooting a warning look at Alison--she has no idea how the hell long it took to get Sissy to fall asleep--he tries to decide how the hell to get up off the floor without using his arms and wonders what the hell he was thinking. For fuck's sake, a chair was right there.

"Right," Alison mouths with exaggerated alarm, eyes flickering to Haruhi, who's on her last day of her week in the daycare and jerking her head toward Dean. Reluctantly, Dean lets Haruhi take the sleeping girl to join the other napping toddlers and stands up, ignoring the sound his back makes, and grabbing his jacket off the only adult size chair as he follows Alison out of the room and closes the door carefully behind them. From the way she's leaning on that cane, he's gonna guess she hasn't been kind to that ankle this morning.

"Seriously, you like toddlers?" Alison asks him, waving a staccato greeting at passing parent as they start down the hall. "Not even the people who give birth to them can say that most of the time and mean it."

He shrugs as they emerge into the deserted foyer, trying to decide how to ask how it's going so far. It's not like he was looking forward to talking to the council or anything, but they started an hour after dawn and it's already past noon. "So--"

"I'm starving, how about you?" she interrupts brightly. "Let's get something to eat, what do you say?" She doesn't give him a chance to respond, already limping bravelyout the door, which he assumes isn't a good sign of how this morning's meeting went.

Tugging on his jacket hastily--the constant wind and occasional rain are making up for the lack of subfreezing temperatures--he follows her outside, catching up just as she starts to cross the square. For a woman with a limp and a cane, she can really get around.

"So you gonna tell me how it went?" he asks at the half-way point, shoving his hands in his pockets.

"Not what I expected." She glances up furtively before focusing on the admin building: definitely not good. Swallowing, he forces down disappointment, reminding himself that before yesterday, it was enough Ichabod's residents and his militia didn't shoot at each other on sight. "There are a couple of things that…." She shakes her head. "You like chicken, right?"

"What? Sure, whatever. Look--"

"Good, since that's what we're having," she says firmly, putting on another burst of speed that can't be doing anything good for her ankle, and she's already reaching for the door when she seems to realize he stopped. Turning sharply, she glares at him. "Hurry up, would you?"


Looking annoyed, she sighs, leaning against the armchair to her left. "We're on lunch. Dolores and Eyong went to get it. You're up when we reconvene."

"Okay." He waits, but she doesn't seem to have anything else there. "So how'd it go?"

"Unless you say something stupid, it'll be approved." She shrugs, but even from here, he can see the strain on her face and wonders in growing alarm if she had the kind of bad night that comes from the nightmare that is the future, but for some reason, he doesn't think so. "Sometimes, it's useful to know what people are thinking."

"So--" He has just enough time to realize why she's leaning on the armchair before her cane starts to slide, and darting onto the walkway, he catches her just as she loses her grip and it clatters to the porch. "Alison!"

"I'm fine," she breathes through white lips, flickering an irritated look up at him as he lowers her into the chair. "Just a long morning, that's all."

Crouching, he peers into her pale face, trying to decide if she's telling the truth. "What? You fucking up your ankle worse? Let me get Dolores--"

"No!" Compressing her lips, she squeezes her eyes shut. "It's fine."


"It's not that," she grinds out between her teeth, starting to look worryingly nauseated and this is starting to look really familiar. He glances down and sees her grinding her ankle against the leg of the chair. "I just need. A minute."

"Head down," he says firmly, ignoring her scowl to gently push her head against her knees and rubbing slow, careful circles between her shoulder blades. Beneath his fingers, he can feel every muscle drawn wire-tight; from second-hand experience with a certain psychic brother, he's gonna guess she's been like this for hours. "Deep breathes, you know the drill."

"Oh yeah," she mutters into her jeans. "That. Helps."

"Probably does shit," he agrees. "So tell me what does." Dolores wasn't mentioned on her list yesterday, which only leaves a few options--or hey, go with the obvious one. "Where's Teresa?"

"With Amanda and no fucking way," she answers, sounding stronger, and taking a deep breath, she sits up, leaning her head against the back of the chair. "I'm fine, it was--"

"--just a long morning," he finishes for her. "This happen a lot?"

"No, just when I'm in a confined space with thirty plus people for four hours, half of them thinking about how we're all going to die anyway, so what's the point, and the other half more cheerfully thinking how we're all going to die anyway, so why not." She manages the ghost of her usual glare, but the haunted hazel eyes tell the story better than any words ever could. And people call this a gift: that shit's not even true in fairy tales, never has been. "You try it and tell me how it works out for you."

Yeah, he's been wondering about that. "Maybe not reading them all would help," he says neutrally, sitting back on his heels. "Privacy and everything. Think about it."

"What a good idea," she snaps, a little color returning to her face. "I wish I'd thought of it, thanks. It's not that easy when it's--concentrated like that. Especially four hours of it. Not like it's fun for me."

Fun is the last word he'd use to describe it. "Usually you can, though."

"Usually," she agrees quickly, but he doesn't miss the slight relaxation when he nods. "Look, it'll be fine. Like I said--"

"Don't be stupid, good advice, thanks," he says, glancing briefly at the door. "Now you gonna get around to what else is bothering you?"

She raises her eyebrows challengingly. "Psychic trauma isn't enough?"

"Why the hell you were so eager for a chicken lunch, for one." She winces, swallowing hard: yeah, that's what he thought. "Food wasn't on the agenda here, so wanna fill me in?"

She blows out an irritable breath, shoulders slumping. "I don't know how many recruits you're gonna get," she says finally, and to his surprise, he hears defeat in her voice. "I thought--I don't know what I thought, Dean. I didn't think it would be like that."

He doesn't ask what the hell she expected reading an entire room of civilians for an entire morning, no matter how new she is at this, but he may have a theory. "So what, you want me to inspire them? Stirring speech, all the extras?"

He was actually joking, but Alison looks up at him with the most skeptical expression he's ever seen in his life. "What?"

"Nothing," she lies.

"No really, what?" The addition of incredulity doesn't help. "I can do inspiring."

"Maybe we should wait for Joe," Alison says, starting to brighten. "He could--"

"Get up," he snaps, getting to his feet and extending a hand that she stares at like she's never seen one before. "Not kidding, Alison, I'll carry you if I have to, but we're having lunch."

Alison transfers her gaze to his face. "We are?"

"Yeah, we are; now, you wanna walk or you wanna be carried?" Reluctantly, she takes his arm, and Dean's unbearably grateful he gave her his left; she may be thin, but she's got a grip like a goddamn vice. "We're figure out how the hell I'm gonna play this."

Watching Amanda and Mark dismiss the last class of the day, Dean notes the easy rapport between them and the residents, impressed despite himself. Only two weeks, but Amanda fits in as easily as if she's always lived here, and Mark's not doing too badly himself. Abruptly, one of the residents--Claudia's son Derek, he thinks, squinting against the sun at the vague outline of short, startled dreadlocks a head taller than Amanda--points toward him, and Dean waves weakly at the sudden flurry of attention. He's still not used to that.

Making himself comfortable on the hood of the jeep, Dean waits patiently for Amanda and Mark to cross the field and vault the fence, both grinning up at him with cheerful curiosity.

"Hey," Amanda says as they reach him. "What's up?"

"Change of plans. I'm going back to Chitaqua tonight." Amanda's eyebrows jump as Dean looks at Mark. "I need to talk to Amanda. You have the latest list from Lanak I can take back to Chuck?"

"In my room," Mark confirms, exchanging a look with Amanda. "I'll get a ride back to town with Min and get it."

Dean waits until Mark's halfway toward the remaining residents before turning his full attention on Amanda, who looks back warily. "What?"

"You've made a great impression," he tells her earnestly, bracing his elbows on his knees. "I'm very proud of you."

"Thanks," she answers uncertainly. "It's been great--"

"Up at dawn," he continues, clasping his hands. "Out here all day, maybe a break for lunch, done an hour before dusk….no, wait. That would be around the time third shift is coming on duty."

She makes a face. "Dean--"

"Work ethic is good," he interrupts, no longer smiling. "Eighteen hours in the field every goddamn day isn't a work ethic, it's a cry for help."

She licks her lips, frowning at nothing.

"Four groups daily, three to four hours each, you and Mark split them up anyway you wanted and Kamal assists, that I approved," he says. "Working with Manuel and patrol a couple of times a week, that we agreed to, you picked how you'd do it. Working with a whole new group almost every night--not to mention you and Mark's demonstration matches in the morning--do you sleep?"

"I get bored easily," she answers, giving him a challenging look. "Yes, Dean, I'm sleeping and eating regularly, and when did you become a mother hen?" She winces, closing her eyes. "Sorry, that was out of line."

"Sleep deprivation leads to poor judgment," Dean answers in his best imitation of Cas, relieved when her tension eases. "And narcotics: do I need to toss your room? I live with Chitaqua's resident dealer and perks include knowing exactly what everyone gets from him and how much."

"The relationship between a girl and her dealer is sacred," she argues, crossing her arms mulishly. "But no, I'm not. That's work-only at need, and I'm not an idiot." She hesitates, arms dropping. "I just…Alison said no one bothered Ichabod, but it's not easy to get here unless you know what you're looking for, or you're mapping roads for Cas and know he'll question you if you miss anything."

He figured that was where this was going. "You think those units in Wichita got here after all?"

"Not to Ichabod," she answers. "Alison wasn't lying, but the other mayors were. Something happened, definitely more than once."

"I was hoping I was wrong about that." He grimaces, taking a deep breath. "What'd you find out?"

"Nothing specific." She frowns at nothing. "Ana and Leah asked me to check it out while I was here, find out what we were dealing with. I met with the mayors, toured the towns, and watched everyone who approached us and who made sure they didn't have to. They're afraid of us, Dean; the only reason the other mayors are doing this is that Alison and Danny guaranteed our good behavior personally and Alison backed it up offering up Ichabod as the sacrifice."

"Right." He blows out a breath. "I get it, but what does that have to do with you--"

"They talk a lot, the towns," she interrupts, words falling out in a hasty rush. "They trade, and some have families in the other towns, word gets out. There weren't enough slots in the classes--and some people didn't have time--so I told a few of them here I'd be hanging out in the training field a few times a week after Mark and Kamal went off duty, in case anyone wanted to come by." She meets his eyes. "Some of the ones who are in the day classes, they told me they had relatives visiting and wondered if it was okay for them to come by at dusk."

"From the other towns?" Dean takes in the field and belatedly remembers they no longer live in the age of almost-guaranteed electricity. "Where--"

"In town, Fifth Street, an old YMCA or something. I talked to Tony, and he got Walter to hotwire it onto the grid--don't ask, I didn't understand it when they used small words--for a few hours at night." She brightens. "It's great--from what Tony said, when winter hits, it's gonna be a bitch, so we've been fixing it up."

He cocks his head. "'We'?"

"Haruhi and Derek and a few others volunteered to help me and Mark when they're off-duty. I do the evening stuff there."

"How many?"

"Everyone who shows up," she answers wryly. "First time being a girl hunter has been an advantage; the women I talked to in the other towns came here during the day with the other observers, saw me teaching, heard about the night classes, and suddenly found a reason they needed to be in Ichabod for a week or two. Dean, I've been a hunter all my life, but I never--" She breaks of, biting her lip. "Kids weren't really much of a possibility for me, and my sisters didn't like the life, never even met their kids after they left."

Dean thinks of Sam at Stanford and tries not to think about what almost was. "I'm sorry."

"It happens," she answers with another shrug; yeah, it does, and he gets how lucky he is--incredibly, mind-blowingly lucky--to still have Sam. That's not the rule, not in their line of work. "What I'm saying is, I didn't realize--I like doing this, Dean. It's not just my job; I need to do this, and they need me to do it."

Yeah, and he sent two men and one woman to a town of civilians thirty miles from Wichita, despite his suspicions on what might have happened around here. He thinks of Ellen and Jo, of the women he hunted with and never thought anything of it, of Chitaqua, but when he thinks of training hunters, it's still men he thinks about actually doing it.

"I get that." She closes her mouth, surprised. "You like it here?"


"Do you like it here?" he asks doggedly. "Nice locals, good food--"

"Amazing food," she confirms with a hint of malice. "Didn't used to be a steak person, but now…." Dean rolls his eyes. "Why?"

"You're probably gonna be here for a while," he answers. "The town council agreed we could recruit from Ichabod."

Amanda's mouth drops open. "Holy shit."

"In return, we help out here, pick up some extra duties around Ichabod, and they get a team assigned here," he answers, bracing his hands on the hood of the jeep and enjoying her shock. "And some other stuff, but we'll talk about that later. I'm going to check with Cas, see what he thinks, but--"

"Wait," she interrupts, sounding alarmed. "Cas doesn't know about this?"

"No," he replies. "Council just approved it. That's why I'm going back tonight, let him look over the terms, argue, it's a thing. Why?"

"Uh." Amanda at a loss for words: he didn't know that was even possible. "So he doesn't…."

If he were a better person, he reflects, he'd probably just tell her. "What? Think he'd have a problem with it?"

"Do we even have anywhere in Chitaqua to put new recruits?" she asks desperately. "Generators, electricity--cabins! Not enough cabins, Dean."

"Oh, we're doing it here," he answers, waving a hand dismissively. "No worries."

"You're going make Cas come here?"

"I'll talk him into visiting eventually," Dean says, taking in the sinking sun complacently before starting to climb off the jeep. "Anyway--right, I gotta get out here. Tell Mark--"

"Wait," she says, taking an abortive step toward him. "Look--maybe talk to Cas first, see what--"

"He said he taught you how to train them," Dean says in satisfaction. "I'm sure he'll be okay with it."

Amanda goes still, and Dean can almost see the moment it clicks. "Me?"

"Yeah, so start working on your time management skills," he continues. "So, what do you think?"


He grins. "You want to train hunters? I’m giving you some. Show me what you got."

"You'll need to work out a schedule on who will take the classes we're doing to fulfill our part of the deal and supervise what they're doing," he tells her, checking the position of the sun before turning his attention back to Amanda on the jeep beside him. "Cas will expect regular reports on everyone's progress, so don't think you're getting out of those, but if it makes you feel better, you're now in charge of making sure everyone else suffers as much as you do."

She brightens. "It kind of does, thanks."

"So how long do you need--"

"Now." She covers her mouth, choking back a quiet laugh. "I might have gauged interest already, fine."

"Wow, I never would have guessed." He cocks his head. "So what else do you need--"

"I need Cas."

Dean blinks. "What?"

"Look, you and Cas are the only ones who've ever actually trained anyone, for one," she explains hurriedly. "I haven't, all I did was learn it and I didn't even know that's what I was doing. Two--it's flexible, I get that, the point was for it to work for anyone, but everyone I get will be on the front lines from the get-go, so let's start with those with the fastest learning curve and go from there. Everyone is gonna be motivated--they're protecting their families--but I want them to survive it, too Me, Mark, Kamal, and whatever team you assign here are effectively off the roster for patrol, so the first ones go to you as our replacements, and this hiatus isn't gonna last forever. We need to be ready for it."

Jesus, she has reasons. Good ones. "Cas isn't really--"

"I know," she says shortly, staring at the field. "I was in his last class, Dean."

He nods tightly, wondering how much she judges him for what the other Dean's team leaders were doing, if she thinks Cas finally told him or he knew all along. He's honestly not sure which would be better, or if there even is a better here.

"So first step toward getting over yourself, do it nice and easy," Amanda continues in a more normal voice. "All I want is for him to come down, look over the possibilities, and make sure we have everything here we need to train them. I'd like him to come observe a few times," she gestures vaguely, "ease him into it. There are a couple of things he can teach that I can't risk with newbies later on--not having leftover angel speed and strength--so we start slow."

"Make something up so I have an excuse to bring him here and just happen to check on what you're doing," Dean interprets. "You ever heard honesty is the best policy?"

"How long did you wait to tell Cas what his job was again?"

"I never said I believed it," he replies. "Just saying--no idea. You really need him?"

"Yeah," she answers, licking her lips nervously. "I want him here, too. So sue me, but this is the first time I've done it, and I'd like my instructor to tell me I'm doing okay."

The honesty surprises him; they get along okay, but he thinks that it's possible they're not in just leader-subordinate territory anymore. He didn't expect that, not of Vera's roommate, not this soon.

"So you got some potential recruits in mind?"

"Not a problem," she answers, relaxing incrementally. "We got a lot of potential here."

"For no reason whatsoever," he says, not looking at her, "I'm curious about how the women you're teaching are doing. Any potential there?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Any of them with enough for recruitment and willing to be recruited?" Amanda looks up, eyes unreadable. "They're on front lines, you said it yourself, but I'm willing to defer to you on what that means. Can some of them make the cut?"

He wants her to say yes, because while people are gonna be people and mostly they're good at that, sometimes they're not. Somehow, he just doesn't think that training a whole group of male hunters a town filled with civilians is gonna be a good time to trust good intentions, not in a town less than thirty miles from Wichita City, not with four other towns who know exactly how close that city was.

"This isn't the military," she says, tipping her head back in thought. "Hunting is more flexible. No one living here this long hasn't had to fight at least a few times, and everyone but the kids takes a patrol shift. I can get them, no problem. How fast can you get Cas here?"

"How long will it take you to be ready?"

"I'm ready now," she answers, grinning at him. "But I can wait a day or two, if you need it."

So there it is. "Now just leaves Cas to convince. Any idea how?"

Amanda tilts her head, and he knew it was a stupid question even before he said it. "Not that I'd know, not being into cocks myself, but from what Sean said--"

"Shut up." He's gotta wonder at the unfairness of the universe when it hits you twice in the ass. He's not fucking Cas, and everyone thinks he is, which right now is less important than he can't do what any self-respecting leader would do for the greater good and bang his boyfriend into a good enough mood to agree to do it. He could make it an order, if he was crazy (or was really bored and needed entertainment), but he's beginning to believe the most valuable leadership skill he could pick up is making sure that's the last resort to getting a job done. Telling himself that he won't be the man he replaced looked easy from the outside, but he thinks that the job of keeping that true isn't one he can do alone. It'll help if everyone's in on this one whether they know it or not to make sure of it. "Three days from now. That okay?"

She looks dubious. "Really?"

"Really," he confirms with more confidence than he actually feels. "Have 'em ready by noon and we'll get this show on the road."

"Okay." Amanda turns at the sound of an engine, and even now, her hand drops to her hip before she relaxes. "It's Mark."

Dean twists around to see Mark coming to a stop nearby.

"We did some trading during our tour of the other towns," she explains, sliding to the ground. "We're a lot cheaper than the border guards, and have a better variety, so Cas approved getting rid of some of our surplus. God knows we're running out of space anyway."

They do have a lot of surplus, Dean concedes; Joe inventoried every military installation they could find in all four cities, and they're still sending people weekly to pick up what they couldn’t carry the week before. Joe's also pretty sure now they haven't found all of them, though how he knows that Dean has no idea and puts up to wizardry.

He's also not just a trafficker; he runs a honest to God ring now. Good to know.

"Not much this time," Mark says, joining Amanda. "It'll all fit in the jeep. You mind if I go back with you so I can drop it off with Chuck? He had a couple of requests I need clarification on anyway, and Lanak had a few things for our next supply run."

Dean glares at him. "That's what you're going with?"

"Chuck and I are tight," Mark deadpans.

"Just saying, it's weird how every time I start back, someone's gotta go with me," he says suspiciously.

"Weird," Amanda agrees.

"I don't need a babysitter," he says, which gets him twin amused smiles. "Don't tell me--Cas's orders?" He needs to talk to Cas about that, but as Cas is at Chitaqua, he'll have to get to first. With Mark, apparently.

"Yep." Amanda jerks her head toward town. "I gotta clean up; Manuel's making pork chops tonight. Want me to tell Alison when this show starts? If you're sure, that is."

"I'm sure." He almost sighs when Mark grins up at him, like it's perfectly normal for Dean to be carted around, which come to think, it kind of is. "Let's get out of here."

When Dean arrives at the cabin a few hours after dusk--God, he loves driving, even if Mark does audibly wonder where he got his driver's license and why--the sight that greets him is familiar, in that way that after over two weeks of this almost makes him nostalgic for Cas's halcyon days as a junkie.

Pausing at the door, Dean observes Cas in his new natural habitat: nestled cross-legged on the immaculately clean floor rug between the couch and the coffee table, staring at the screen of his laptop with a half-empty cup of coffee (cold) stationed to his right and a stack of notebooks and reports on his left. He's used to Cas's ability to be eerily still, but not him doing that while also typing three hundred something words a minute, like each almost-blurred finger is possessed and in need of exorcism in the worst way. He can do that, no sweat, and it'd be sad but inevitable that the keyboard (and maybe laptop) would be ruined and maybe salted and burned. Just in case.

Waiting for acknowledgment that's probably not coming but hope springs eternal, he reminds himself again that Chuck isn't to blame for teaching Cas about the miracle of spreadsheets, though he's gotta wonder how the hell Chuck (or anyone who ever met Cas) didn't see where this was going to go.

(The exact chronology is still sketchy but goes something like this; Cas found out spreadsheets were part of a thing called Microsoft Office, discovered Word and something called 'templates', and the upshot is two evenings a week the mess is ground zero for Cas's camp-wide computer literacy program with military surplus laptops because patrol reports now have a standard formatting and God help you if your Times New Roman font is 10 pt and not 12. They live in a camp where hot water is a mostly thing and electricity a sometimes maybe thing, but they may or may not be developing a working LAN, and Dean doesn't have google anymore to tell him what that is. Cas also solemnly introduced him to his personal laptop that at some point he's supposed to use (for what, no idea), like the wound really needed more salt.)

"I'm back," he offers after a full minute of being ignored, most of which he spends restraining himself from snatching that laptop from Cas and using it for target practice. His left needs work. "How's it going?"

Without bothering to look up (seriously, rifle or handgun?), Cas points to the kitchen. "I became distracted before I could put it away, so dinner should still be warm."

"You think the romance is over?" he asks on his way to the kitchen, wondering if Cas will pretend he doesn't get the reference or even hear him (no response, could be either one). Taking the lid of the pot, he surveys the contents and for a long moment, wonders if he's feverish and this is a cruel hallucination because this is his life. "Cas."

"What?" Cas answers impatiently over the endless tapping of the keyboard, because he can multitask like that. "It's stew."

"This isn't just stew," he answers, dazed by the many, many nuggets of actual beef rolling around in an orgy of beauty so profound it makes him kind of want to cry, dotted with vegetables without a set geometric shape and in their natural colors. "This is Bobby's secret recipe for making vegetables delicious. Bobby taught you how to make his stew?"

"He was adamant I acquire useful life skills," Cas answers absently as his fingers test the upper endurance limits of the standard laptop keyboard. "I'm sure even I couldn't get it wrong. He was very insistent about following the recipe."

Getting a bowl, Dean scoops up all he can fit inside it and grabs a spoon before plunking himself down on the opposite side of the coffee table and taking a hungry bite. Beef. Jesus, it's food, real food, and this particular cow was alive at some point in the last week and not preserved in can or freeze-dried or squirrel form. Also, it's almost eerily good, and Dean's been eating real meals in Ichabod, so he's not imagining it; Cas is, actually, a really good cook. Taking another bite, he can't quite hold back the moan of sheer appreciation.

The incessant slur of tapping that Dean didn't really notice (he totally noticed) abruptly stops as he makes his way steadily through the bowl, relieved that this is one of the few times that he's actually hungry. It's still pretty random to feel it, and he appreciates the times it works out that hunger and meals coincide instead of forcing down food out of pure necessity.

Remembering how much was left in the pot (enough for seconds and another meal or two, he thinks happily), he pauses mid-chew; there's no way that Cas actually remembered to make a decent meal for just himself when Dean isn't here. "You cooking for other people now?"

"Alicia and I were working on a project earlier today and she reminded me beef was no longer a scarce commodity. I asked her to taste test the results and tell me if I was successful, as she's intimately acquainted with Dean's culinary preferences and therefore yours." Reassured (and not thinking of Alicia knowing his 'culinary preferences' and sharing with Cas, this day's been weird enough, thanks), Dean eagerly scrapes the bottom of the bowl for the last delicious bites. "I--assume it's acceptable?"

"Oh yeah," he agrees, looking speculatively at the empty bowl and considering the possibility of a second helping. Experience has taught him that his ability to consume food may not equal his stomach's ability to handle it. Setting the bowl aside for now, he turns his attention to Cas, who abruptly jerks his attention back to his laptop, and reconsiders Cas's relationship with food again. "What did you think of it?"

Cas shrugs. "I didn't find the process of consuming it a nightmare from which only completing it would allow me to awaken."

"So you didn't hate it," he interprets, leaning an elbow on the coffee table. "You hate beans, though."

"What?" That must be a really interesting spreadsheet. Can those have compulsions in 'em? He should find out.

"During Stoner Night," he explains. "You and the kids ate all the beans." With sugar, no less.

"Marijuana use causes increased appetite. It's a common side effect."

"Yeah, which you have problems picking up, right?" Cas nods absently. "Makes sense: hard to miss it when you're high. When did you start your drug phase anyway? Before or after you Fell?"

"After. When I finished training the first group of recruits, I sampled marijuana and found it good. Almost worth living for," Cas answers . "Would you like my entire drug history as well?"

"Later," he answers, starting to grin. "So that's why you hate food."

Cas raises an eyebrow, eyes still fixed on the screen. "As always, I await your wisdom with bated breath."

"What's that thing where you don't like something because it's associated with other shit?"

"Aversion." Dean gives himself a pat on the goddamn back, because hey, he just figured it out. "Why--"

"Months of choking down what passes for food here without being hungry: food aversion. On a guess, that included a lot of beans and canned shit, am I right? Bet that shit the army thought was food didn't help, either." Cas actually stops typing, looking at him in surprise. "Should have started your guru act before you learned to hate food, could have avoided a lot of problems. You haven't had hamburgers, right? I mean, you don't hate them yet."

"I have," Cas answers blankly. "But not since I Fell."

"Good, we'll start there." Dean frowns at him speculatively. "We'll get you high first, wait for the hunger to kick in, then introduce you two, see what happens. What do you think?"

"You're encouraging me to get high?"

"Just saying, hamburgers are awesome," he answers, fighting back a smile at Cas's incredulity. "We'll take it slow, don't want to fuck it up and give you an aversion to anything else. Remind me if I forget. We'll have a party or something, see if this works."

"I don't even know how to answer that," Cas says finally, looking helpless.

"Anything interesting happen while I was gone?" he asks before losing Cas to the laptop again. May even notice that he's home a day early.

"Joseph left this morning for his visit to the border guards. Apparently he's formed a bond with Laurence Evans, currently supervisor of Checkpoint Three on the Kansas/Missouri border," Cas answers. "They have whiskey while completing illegal wire transfers and weapons trading, and Laurence is an excellent source of information, especially following two glasses, preferably on the rocks."

"Gossip," Dean says wisely. He has yet to actually see one of the border stations for himself--for reasons of being the most wanted in the world, it's a bad idea for his face to show up on the cameras--but Cas's mapmaking efforts include not only all the border stations in Kansas but their functions as well. The passthroughs are dangerous territory for the casual venality of illegal border transactions--and people wanted in several states under several names--but excellent for information on the movements of the military.

Checkpoint Three isn't a passthrough and doesn't host a military base: settled half-way between Kansas City and the southern Kansas border, it doesn't even have highway access, 69 running parallel to the border, and the closest town is the one that built up around it on the Missouri side, which according to Joe's latest observations just added a Wal-Mart. Wait.

"Does his bond with Larry have anything to do with why Checkpoint Three may or may not qualify for a McDonalds by population? Despite the fact they don't do much but look dangerous while patrolling the Kansas/Missouri wilderness?" And not very: seriously, the few roads around there are shit, and wilderness is the best word to describe it, since most of the towns nearby, including Fort Scott, were abandoned or--according to gossip--forcibly evacuated to create the five mile buffer zone around the border.

"Security access." At Dean's blank look, he sighs. "On the western border, the stations have a three to five day delay to get confirmation of wire transfers, which is why Joseph's trips would usually take a week. As it turns out, the reason is that all transactions of that type are actually done at Checkpoint Three because--"

"Larry approves them," Dean finishes for him, nodding along. "And makes them untraceable, however that works."

"Essentially, though it's actually a very unpleasant analyst named Stephen Walker who does that part," Cas corrects him. "Joseph commented the man was extremely patronizing during their brief interaction."

"The kind of people who charge a thousand percent markup on toothpaste and aspirin aren't the kind that care about making a good impression."

"I don't expect them to be other than swine," Cas answers coolly. "But we pay them enough for them to pretend they aren't, at least to our faces. In any case, the last time Joseph was there, he observed the border guard was supplemented with an unusual number of military personnel despite the lack of activity, but according to Laurence, there's been no sign that they plan to replace the units stationed in Kansas' major cities even though it seems they do have the personnel. He plans to investigate further, as several of the border staff apparently believe he's a former mercenary, international arms broker, intelligence officer for the Israeli army, and secret assassin for the Mossad spying for the American government--or possibly the New World Order, it's not entirely clear--on you, them, Kansas, and possibly the military, and so are extremely enthusiastic in the hopes of being part of the adventure that is his secret life. Lives, rather."

"Nothing about the Illuminati?" Dean thinks of the gleeful stories of Joe in training in Chitaqua and marvels again the guy did three his three years in the Israeli army and managed--against all odds--to remember absolutely nothing about combat. Ana's description of the time Joe twisted his ankle when introduced to his first knife lives fresh in everyone's memories, though no one can explain how since he wasn't moving or even standing up at the time. "All of that? How?"

"Joseph thinks their imaginations seem to be doing the work of explaining that and feels it's best to leave them to it," Cas answers wryly. "They do promise, however, to keep his secret."

"So there's basically nothing about it that isn't ridiculous?"

"Not even the latest prices." At this point, they basically have the border patrol on a quarterly retainer and that shit's expensive, even if they can afford it. He's glad that Cas told him about that stint at JP Morgan Chase. He never questioned the numbers Joseph brought back on those accounts, because while no, weapons trafficking wouldn't bring in that kind of money, he really didn't want to ask and risk finding out what did.

"What do they think happened to those units in the cities anyway?"

"Officially AWOL. Joseph said Laurence seemed genuinely puzzled there's no sign of them being replaced, since the units, understaffed or not, were supposed to eradicate the Croatoan threat so the state could be unzoned once declared free of epidemic."

"To find out if there's no epidemic, might help to actually come inside the state borders," he remarks. "Though why something that shows symptoms in only hours needs a goddamn two year quarantine…"

"Humans show symptoms in only hours, yes," Cas says. "The problem is that demons can keep an infected human body in stasis indefinitely while they're inside it and therefore can pass any quarantine requirements. Lucifer's human followers often hosted demons voluntarily for that reason, and Pestilence also possesses biokinesis. From what I understand, the CDC's lab results that showed the correct timeline were quickly discredited by the reality of the pattern of infection, which could have been easily explained if they believed in demons--or Horsemen--but as they didn't--"

"--they had no idea why there wasn't a match," Dean finishes glumly. "One demon in an infected body throws off the curve the minute they leave it. You're telling me Lucifer was up to date on the latest and greatest in how humans deal with disease these days?"

"Infinite knowledge," Castiel intones before he grins maliciously. "No, of course not. Lucifer would never so lower himself as to inquire on the details of his own master plan; that's what minions are for. In this case, it was Pestilence's knowledge, who spent quality time after being thwarted to make a study of it."

He sighs. "Any less depressing news?"

"James is researching how roads are built," Cas answers fondly, and Dean hides his grin. "He's decided his off-duty hours are best spent learning about asphalt, tar, gravel, and how those things work together to create surfaces on which one can drive, or fill potholes that almost wreck unsuspecting jeeps as the case may be."

"Those potholes are fucked," Dean agrees. "The mess still threatening a mutiny if Penn doesn't come back?"

"Penn requested temporary reassignment from Damiel's team to help Chuck to reorganize our inventory and supply. She's also instructing Brenda more thoroughly in her duties overseeing the mess with our expanded variety, including assuring everyone's dietary requirements are met appropriately. The results aren't yet hailed with enthusiasm but are far less likely to lead to outright warfare at each meal," he answers, though from his expression it was probably a really close thing. "Alicia vouched for Brenda's sense of responsibility, so she'll be trusted with the keys to the cabin that has been repurposed for exclusive storage of our food supply." He frowns. "Brenda asked me yesterday morning if we could steal an industrial walk-in refrigeration unit and freezer due to the increase in amount of fresh food that requires it. While she's familiar with some preservation techniques, some things are apparently much better fresh."

Dean settles himself; this is Cas, and that sounds like a challenge. "Well?"

"Penn and Zack think that we could either disassemble existing units in an abandoned restaurant," Cas says immediately, "or find a restaurant wholesaler in Topeka or Kansas City and get them there. After surveying the mess with Nate, with some minor construction work, we can expand it sufficiently to accommodate both units as well as food storage, both long term and short." Cas pauses briefly. "And perhaps some improvements could be done on the kitchen as well, though…."

Dean keeps his expression strictly curious. "Something wrong with the kitchen?"

"No, everything is wrong with the kitchen!" Cas bursts out, looking appalled. "During our initial efforts to improve our living conditions," Home Improvements Weeks One and Two, yeah, "I didn't think to verify the integrity of the mess, as its kitchen seemed to be fully functional and I didn't care."

Don't laugh, Dean tells himself firmly. You can do this. "Like--"

"The ovens that still work only have two temperatures: burned and undercooked," Cas says venomously. "The blackened object they call a range---I asked twice to make sure there was no miscommunication but sadly, that was indeed its actual function--was unable to maintain an even surface temperature for over five minutes in four separate tests I conducted personally, the utensils and cookware are warped to the point of being unrecognizable, and the dishes and flatware…" He trails off, looking haunted by horrors untold. "When I sent a team to acquire the correct kitchen supplies for us when I started cooking for you, it didn't occur to me--how, I'm not sure--that someone wouldn't have the good sense to acquire some for the mess as well."

He winces; he should've thought of that himself. "I should have--"

"Overseeing Chitaqua's services was my responsibility, not yours," Cas interrupts. "I was meeting weekly with Penn; I should have been more proactive to assure she knew I was open to suggestions and not feel unduly intimidated. Instead, when Brenda took over, Alicia had to drag her here forcibly and stand over her while she asked me if I would perhaps consider a few small changes to our center of food preparation but there was no rush."

Cas's incredulous expression is a sight to behold. "So…."

"It's a badly expanded cabin with an attached--and dilapidated--temporary building that is standing only through what must be a genuine miracle, and nothing we can do will change that," Cas answers immediately, leaning forward earnestly. "We need something built to accommodate its purpose as a center of food preparation and storage, that entering is a pleasure, eating within is not a chore, and working in is not a punishment to be escaped at the first opportunity. Joseph and I found an excellent site for it; it's already furnished with the correct lines for plumbing, it's convenient to the other cabins, there's sufficient room for future expansion, and if we rebuild entirely, we'll simply find a restaurant we like and gut it entirely to bring here."

Dean sits back, feeling a little overwhelmed. "You want to build a new mess?"

"No, we are going to build a new mess." Dean blinks; Cas is almost vibrating in place, and oh God, this is an acutal plan. "Nate told me of modern innovations in prefabricated buildings that can be easily transported in their component parts and assembled on location. The interior will require a model, but Joseph and Ana were both in the military--albeit different nationalities--and Brenda in her youth volunteered at her high school cafeteria. They've worked up a rough draft for you to review and a list of required materials is in progress."

Okay, he was only gone two days. He thinks. "When--"

"Last week, when Alicia made Brenda tell me about the problem with food storage," Cas says impatiently, like Dean's not keeping up. "Joseph and I found the site a few days ago, and Nate returned from patrol yesterday afternoon and therefore was available for consultation." Cas makes a face. "Nate's still working on the supply list with Zack as of last night, so assuming Nate didn't make the mistake of drinking and then seducing Zack--who at this point should know better, admittedly--and therefore losing the morning to moody regret for what he enjoyed the night before, it should be ready for your review by tomorrow. If not, next week." He eyes Dean uncertainly. "There is one problem, however."

Dean nods obediently, not willing to even guess where Cas found his Waterloo in all of that. "What?"

"Power." Right, that. Not full-scale construction projects, no. "Above and beyond the needs of the new mess, we'll also need two dedicated generators for each refrigeration unit to assure we don't lose our entire food supply due to localized brown-outs as well as at least one back up."

"Not enough generators?" Finding more isn't a problem, but the gasoline that runs them isn't infinite. They have enough now, and getting it through the border guards isn't a problem yet, but Dean doesn't fool himself that the minute they start asking for more from the border guards, the price per gallon won't jump as well, and not just because of the risk.

"No, that's not…surely there's a more efficient method of powering the camp?" he asks, eyes flickering to his laptop, which Dean assumes was a tragic victim of generator failure during the charging process. "It's the twenty-first century. Your ancestors didn't spend so much time and energy progressing humanity past single room huts and thinking feathers made acceptable writing implements for us to live like cave people who know how to fill a generator with gas and turn it on. Gutenberg's and Tesla's sacrifices for us all should be honored."

He checks his automatic nod. "Who's Tesla?"

Oh God, that's a mistake; Cas stiffens. "I suppose," he says, sounding like he's talking through his teeth, "that you are one of those that consider Edison an unparalleled genius and solely responsible for the major innovations in the use of electricity?"

"No." He never had any feelings on Edison (lightbulb, right?), but he adds Edison to Mark Antony, Calvin, Augustine, the late Roman Republic, and Pope Stephen VI (among God so many others) that Cas has feelings about and God help you if you don't agree. Cas's grudges aren't like other people's; they literally last forever. "Total dick, right? I get you. Ichabod has a power plant; can we, I don't know, build one here?"

"I don't know how," Cas says shortly, expression closing unexpectedly. "However, it's been added to my list for further research."

The List, he means, because it's not only capitalized, it may be underlined. The origin of the List, from what Dean can tell, was the medical equipment needed for Dean's fever and underwent an expansion due to Dean's (in retrospect, maybe a little harsh) reflections on life lived in Chitaqua followed by Home Improvement Weeks One and Two. That part may be considered his fault, fine, but the rest of it was Cas having free time while Dean slept, an entire militia camp to do with as he saw fit, and the undeniable fact that Cas needs occupation like other people need to breathe.

(See: building a new mess, holy shit they're building a new mess. When did this happen?)

Like mapping the state in forty fucking thousand colors and custom designing his own drugs and alcohol, organizing a militia camp falls right into Cas's anal retentive skillsets. In a way Dean can't quite articulate, he also thinks it's also re-introduced Cas to humanity and his own mortality in a way that let him learn more than all the ways he was helpless before it.

(In the back of his mind, Dean's greatest worry wasn't that he couldn't eventually get Cas to do the job given time, but that Cas would have a drug-and-Eldritch-Horror-fueled nervous breakdown in the meantime watching Dean fuck up his lovingly designed report storage system, meticulously detailed duty roster, immaculately organized patrol schedule, and the master notebook from hell that is the blueprint of everyone's life in Chitaqua. He really did want Cas to do it of his own free will, but he has to admit he didn't want to have to defend his life until Cas finally gave up and took over again.)

Looking around the cabin (and thinking of the newest addition to Chitaqua: a cheerful strings of lights greeted him on the main path through the camp strung on industrial wire between newly installed posts), he guiltily takes back his comparison of Ichabod and Chitaqua. Sure, Ichabod has an electric grid and dvd players (and knows how to make food from its ground or animal base), but in Chitaqua, he has a lawn that the Indiana suburbs would kill for, camp-wide night lights, kick-ass wards that could keep out the end of reality itself, and a cabin with a door to come home to, within which his best friend contemplates their power situation and makes fucking amazing stew. And apparently soon will have a whole new mess.

"That what you're working on now?" he asks, glancing at the laptop; at this point, he wouldn't be surprised at all to see notes about a DIY power plant that runs on air or cold fusion or magic or something.

"No, this is some potential alterations to the patrol schedule ." Cas glances briefly at the screen with an expression that Dean avoids identifying for his own sanity. "Currently, the team leaders are engaged in copying their reports onto the computer for easier reference when they have time. I was speaking to Chuck, and he suggested creating a database. He explained the principles, and we're going to work on a model, when I better understand what that should be."

Considering the reports now need their own room, that's not the worst idea he's heard this week, though the word 'database' coming out of Cas's mouth is alarming just on principle. "Huh."

"Being able to quickly search for patterns in attacks when they begin again will be invaluable." He gives Dean a wry look. "Yes, I can remember everything, but it takes time that could be used more productively on more immediate concerns."

Reaching over, Dean picks up the topmost report (printed) and almost drops it when he realizes he only got the top quarter of the stapled together mass. Dragging it with an effort across the coffee table, he reads the name on the front with a real lack of surprise. Goddamn Phil. "How long--"

"Eighteen thousand words," Cas admits, looking at it with an expression Dean hopes to God means he's getting the problem here. "Perhaps you shouldn't read that."

Well, now he kind of has to. Giving Cas a silencing look, he starts to flip through the pages, skimming for 'sun', 'moon', or 'Machiavellian' (because Phil's issues require literary references now) before Cas finally sighs and says, "Page eight."

Dean looks up warily. "How bad?"

"I think you're overreacting to what's obviously an attempt at creativity in reporting." Cas hesitates, eyes flickering down to the report warily, and Dean grimly finds page eight and starts from the top paragraph.

"You're fucking with me."


He looks up at Cas incredulously. "The sun is 'spreading its capricious beams' across all of Babylon--Babylon? Seriously?--while the moon weeps crystalline tears in lonely solitude?"

"I'm not denying his sanity may be in question," Cas mutters, closing his eyes. "And I certainly don't have a great deal of solitude. Alicia's here almost every day when she's off-duty so Andy and Kat can fornicate in the semi-privacy of Amber's bed now that Brenda's is less available, and Joseph and Melanie--"

"Not," Dean grinds out, flipping the report shut, "the point." For why should it return but to leave again, as its nature compels it so, and its preference, too?: what the fuck? Honest to God, if he and Cas were actually fucking, a punch to the face would be in Phil's immediate future. This is ridiculous; who the hell thinks it’s a good idea to accuse their commander via shitty metaphor of cheating on his boyfriend in hopes of getting the boyfriend for himself? While he's gone on camp business? "Cas…"

Cas opens his eyes, dark brown hair falling in his eyes, and Dean finds himself distracted by the way Cas reaches with absent irritation to push his hair back behind his ear again.

"…talk to him," Cas is saying, and Dean jerks his attention back to--they're talking about Phil, right. "Though what I'm supposed to say...."

"What, you've never turned anyone down?"

"Not often, the camp is limited in alternatives. When I do, however, I generally wait until I'm actually propositioned and not via blank verse in an official camp document." With a few key clicks, Cas closes the laptop, gently easing it aside with the reverence due to a major religious artifact, and (reluctantly, Dean thinks resentfully), gives Dean his full attention. "So how was--I thought you meant to stay in Ichabod until tomorrow evening?"

Dean wishes his watch still worked, or he was at least wearing it so he could give it a significant look. "Thanks for noticing."

"You're welcome," Cas answers seriously. "Did something happen?"

"Amanda's been eating steak and gossips with Alison for justice." He waits a beat, adding casually, "Also, Ichabod's letting us start training new recruits there and will give us some to start off."


"Paperwork from the town council's in my bag," Dean says, grinning at Cas's expression. "Amanda's recruiting as we speak. Want me to grab it?"

Leaning back against the couch, Cas folds a leg against his chest. "I'd rather hear it from you."

"Ichabod will give us twenty of their residents for the first class; in return, we don't recruit from the other towns quite yet, let them get used to the idea." Cas nods, which Dean takes as a win. "Also, we assign a team there, which I said we could probably do, so tell me we can actually do that?"

"We can do that," Cas assures him, not even looking at the laptop, though Dean's pretty sure he wants to. "Actually, I was thinking that now that the team leaders and their regular teams have more experience in their positions, it might be a good time to start rotating other members of the camp into the teams to gain experience and assure their skills don't atrophy through lack of use." There's a brief hesitation before he adds, "Though admittedly, some of them--"

"--are better at other things," he agrees, thinking of Chuck and even Sheila and Freddy and Brenda. No one came here who couldn't fight--or at least learn to once they got here--and Amanda kept everyone up on their training, so it's not a question of if they can or how good they are. However, a few times observing Amanda when she implemented Cas's order for a full evaluation of everyone in the camp taught him that being able wasn't the same as being suited for it. "That's the alternations you were working on?"

"Yes, but they're not yet complete," Cas admits. "However, pending your approval--"

"Approved," Dean drones, rolling his eyes.

"--once they are, we can easily accommodate a team assigned to Ichabod to serve the communities we contracted with." He fixes his eyes on the coffee table. "I assume Kamal is your choice to lead them during their time there or would you prefer an existing team? Or perhaps a rotation?"

"No, let Ichabod get to know one team at a time, especially since they'll be working pretty closely with patrol. Amanda's commander there, she can tell us how he does," he replies without thinking. "Especially if it's gonna be permanent."

Cas looks up sharply. "Permanent."

"Yeah." Dean gives himself a minute. "So I met with the town council this afternoon--talked to them about recruiting, made a couple of changes to the original terms, nothing big, Tony took notes and printed me a copy.…" A little desperately, he looks around to see where he threw his bag. "Wait a second and I'll get 'em from--"

"Dean," Cas says seriously, "did you indeed spread your capricious beams across Ichabod so as to get us better terms?"

Dean shuts his mouth so fast he almost bites his tongue.

"I wouldn't judge you, of course. But I would like to hear all about it." He smiles slowly, relaxing back against the couch, blue eyes dark. "In detail. People in relationships do that for each other, don't they?"

"Uh." He licks his lips, but before he can remember what they were talking about--in no world would he be okay with Cas relating his sexcapades in detail, ever--Cas's gaze drops and he starts to laugh, shoulders shaking helplessly.

Right. "You're an asshole, for the record."

"For the record, you like me anyway." Lifting his head, Cas wipes his eyes before making an effort to compose himself. "You were saying something about the meeting with Ichabod's council."

Right, that's what they were talking about. "You know," he says, starting to fake a yawn and stretching obnoxiously, "I'm really tired…."

"I apologize," Cas says sincerely, because sure, he'll buy that when his shoulders are still shaking. "Tell me what happened with the town council."

"A permanent base in Ichabod."

Cas stills, expression going blank. "A base?"

"If--you know, everything works out," Dean says hastily. "The first group we train there, show everyone we're not crazy or indoctrinating the residents into being crazy or whatever, and--we get to stay. For good." He's still not sure what the hell happened during that meeting, but ten minutes in, Alison's haunted look abruptly melted into curiosity, and as it turns out, using a psychic as a barometer for a room is pretty goddamn useful. Tony came up afterward (with his notes) to hug him, and being hugged by six and change of petroleum engineer with arms like oaks isn't something anyone sees coming. "It was a weird meeting."

"What are the terms?"

"Commander gets a seat and a vote on Ichabod's council," he answers in relief, mentally pulling up the big ones he memorized to tell Cas. "Ichabod keeps its patrol, but they split patrol duty with us. Ichabod gives us a couple of buildings and helps get them in shape, we trade equal labor to help them with getting more of the town livable; the labor we already promised from Chitaqua remains the same. Alison and Tony are also contacting the other towns to offer to host their residents in Ichabod to fulfill the terms of our deal of teaching them the basics instead of us going to the other towns." He pauses for Cas to say something, but nothing. "Amanda already got them to help her remodel a YMCA or something for training, so we're ahead there."

"She would," is all Cas says, blue eyes looking into the middle distance. "I assume you already spoke to her regarding the expansion of her duties?"

"Yeah, she was okay with it." He pauses, then adds casually, "I brought back a copy of the terms, since like I told the council at the meeting, nothing's final until I talk to you."

Cas jerks his gaze back to Dean; shock is a very good look on him.

"In case," he continues smugly, "you had any objections. So I could listen to them."

For a long moment, Cas just looks at him before licking his lips uncertainly. "And argue, I assume?"

"And argue the shit out of it," he agrees, spying his bag by the door and getting to his feet. "All night if we have to. Let me grab it and we'll go over the--what do you call 'em?--salient points. I'll make more coffee while you read."

"Yes," Cas says. "I'd like to see them."

Using Tony's notes as a reference point and chewing the hell out of a pen, Cas makes fast work of skimming the additions to the original contract--pending what the other towns say, which on a guess, is going to be a hearty hell yes--and then the terms of the newer one.

"You think Joe should look it over before we sign?" Dean asks when Cas sits back, wondering distractedly if he should tell him there's a smear of ink on his lower lip. One thing you can say about having a former angel involved in the process of reading a contract; they do know what to look for when it comes to shitty loopholes.

"No," Cas answers, shaking his head. "It's straightforward enough to cover the three month trial period. If it becomes permanent, Joe can review the terms then, but I doubt they'll be anything we disagree with."

"Cool." Setting down his cup, Dean pulls it across the table and flips to the last page, holding out his hand. "Pen, Cas."

"Oh." Giving the cratered lid a confused look (like it wasn't just between his teeth), he hands it over, and Dean scrawls his (honestly, terrible) signature at the bottom before turning it and sliding it across the table to Cas, offering the pen when Cas looks at it in bewilderment. "What?"

"Sign it."

Cas looks baffled, but at least he takes the pen. "Why?"

"Because it's your job," he answers patiently and it's only with an effort he manages not to laugh at Cas's expression. "Officially. So put your name on the nice piece of paper below mine."

Cas looks between Dean and the pen before focusing on the paper in front of him again. Biting his lip, he hesitates before signing just below Dean in his ridiculously flawless script. Swallowing hard, Dean reads the name: Castiel Singer, Chitaqua.

He chews his lip. "Is that--"

"Yeah," Dean answers, clearing his throat hastily. "This is exactly what you use it for."

Cas gazes down at the page for a long time before straightening the pages and carefully setting the contract on top of the reports before looking at Dean, smiling faintly. "Would this be the correct time to congratulate you on convincing a town that less than a month ago were still wondering whether we planned to kill them to invite us to live among them and offer up their residents for recruitment?"

He shrugs, wondering if it's getting hot in here or something. "It's only a start--"

"If you count every victory in what it lacks, this is going to be a very depressing war," Cas interrupts. "It's already depressing, so trust me, it doesn't need your assistance."

"Jesus, when did you get all zen about this shit?" Dean demands. "Hopeless war, end times, transcendental orgies--"

"Beef stew," Cas points out, which okay, fine. "Transcendental orgies?"

"What's a Maharishi?"

Cas's eyes widen. "Who--"

"Zoe needs one percent or something to make it work."

"One percent of a community in transcendental meditation can cause a change in reality, and please, please, please don't tell me what she's trying to accomplish," Cas breathes, closing his eyes with a wince. "It seemed like such a good idea at the time."

"I think we both know what she was trying to accomplish with all that incense," he says gloatingly. "You were pretty stoned, huh?"

"My first successful batch of LSD," he admits, pained. "You're gossiping with your soldiers?"

"Like either of us have room to talk there. Sexual healing crystals, by the way?" He grins maliciously. "You gotta tell me about that sometime, unless you want me picking it up on the rough streets of Chitaqua. Who knows what they'll tell me?"

"They'll tell you the truth," Cas answers in resignation. "Let's return to the far less unsettling subject of the end of the world. Or Ichabod. You spoke to Amanda regarding training the new recruits? Did she have any concerns?"

So when they finally get around to finishing hippo porn, Dean's got a fun new subject to explore.

"She wants you down there to approve her choice of recruits." Cas opens his mouth, but Dean spent part of the drive back planning for exactly this reaction. "Look, you don't have to train them yet, and I'm not asking you to, but she learned this from you and you're the only person who knows how it works. God knows I don't, and if you don't do this, she's gonna ask me, the person who supposedly helped invent it. You see where this is going?"

"Amanda is extremely competent…."

"She wants her instructor to tell her she's doing it right," Dean says reasonably. "Chitaqua's commander needs you to become familiar with our allies. And I want you to meet new people and try new things. You're doing this, so pick one."

Cas sighs noisily, and there's a definite similarity between his and Amanda's pout. "If you're going to utilize a pretentious third person singular to make your point…."

"'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's'," Dean quotes with relish, "'and unto God the things that are God's.' Now I'm being pretentious. Well?"

Cas' mouth twitches reluctantly. "I won't ask which one you consider yourself; in this case, ignorance is indeed bliss. You're right, of course."

"Teresa promised to make us migas," he adds temptingly. "You'll love 'em, promise."

Abruptly, he's the focus of Cas's undivided attention. "Who is Teresa?"

"Manuel's sister and the other leader of Ichabod's patrol," he answers. "She--"

"You didn't mention her before."

"I just met her yesterday. She was on circuit or something to the other towns," he says defensively and wonders why the hell he feels defensive. "Also, she's Alison's partner."

He can almost see Cas mentally scrolling through Joe's reports and finding nothing. "What an interesting omission."

"Like I said, she been visiting their trade partners for the last three weeks, which completely explains why no one talked about her," Dean says. "For what, who knows?"

"Alison's partner in the romantic sense, I assume?" Dean nods, resting his chin in his hand. "And co-leader of Ichabod's patrol with her brother. So concealing her existence was probably not entirely out of concern for our reaction the presumed sexuality of Ichabod's mayor and its patrol leader?"

He's not surprised at all that Cas picked up humanity's mixed feelings regarding sexuality after two years, but he hopes it was either in theory (infinite knowledge?) or at least before he came to Chitaqua. Considering their population, if there were problems, he thinks he would have heard something by now, but he's never forgotten Vera's remark about straight guys, either. When she gets back, they may need to have another talk, see if there's anything she wasn't ready to tell him before. Just to be sure.

"Anyway, Amanda's been working with Manuel and the patrol, and after a morning with Teresa, she's pretty sure they're both hunters."

Cas raises his eyebrows. "Interesting."

"Gets better," he adds. "Teresa's also the one that designed their wards."

"You mentioned Manuel didn't know much about their ward system," Cas says. "That would be the reason why, I assume. So she was more forthcoming?"

"Not exactly." At Cas's curious look, he sighs. "I figured I'd just, you know, observe her doing them."

Cas's eyebrows climb higher. "Were you any good at it?"

"Pretty sure she noticed," he admits reluctantly. "Or so dinner conversation about the creepiness of stalkers who don't just come down and say hi seemed to imply."

"So surveillance practice might also be useful," is all Cas says, but Dean can hear the mockery and resents it. "Did you learn anything else?"

"They're definitely similar to the ones I saw when I was on the border," he answers. "And I'm pretty sure that she figured out that I recognized them."

Cas raises an eyebrow, waiting.

"Amanda's about one bad day from stealing their weapons," he says obliquely. "You know how to forge knives by any chance?"

"In theory, yes; practically speaking, no, and I have no desire to find out," Cas answers patiently. "Why?"

"What would you use a ceramic knife for, enough to carry it standard?"

"Other than the excellent edge--"

"Harder than hardened steel, doesn't need much sharpening, great for killing things, yeah, I got that part."

"Ritual magic," Cas confirms, and Dean fights down alarm with an effort. "If you're very committed to your vocation and desire near-surgical purity as well as neutrality to avoid interference with anything you're doing or the materials you're working with, it's the most obvious choice. It literally can't interfere; for all intents and purposes, it's utterly null."

Cas doesn't look too worried, but he's gotta check. "Anything else?"

"If you need to kill something and require a weapon that won't interfere with what you put on the blade to do just that, it's irreplaceable," Cas says. "However, for hunters, it would need to be custom designed and treated to provide higher tensile strength; ceramic can be very brittle."

Until now, he was trying to pretend he was above Amanda's avarice, but Jesus. "Where would you get one of those?"

"I have six, four with six inch blades and two ten and a half inches," Cas answers, because of course he does. "Certain extremely complicated and time-consuming rituals require a purified blade so it won't interact with the materials. Purification is even more time-consuming, tedious, and most importantly, obsolete, as ceramics have been invented, so it's become the preferred medium."

Six. "You needed six for one of those rituals?"

"No, I've never done one of those," Cas replies dismissively. "I just like bladed weapons, so I collect them when I find them. Hunter-grade ceramics aren't easy to find; usually, the blade is also brittle and breaks easily."

So that explains the serial killer vibe going on in the closet-armory. "Teresa's was definitely custom made for her, Amanda says. So guessing here, she's not a novice."

"Did you see something that worried you?"

"No," he answers honestly, because it's true. If Alison and Manuel--and by extension, Ichabod--hadn't made such an effort to hide her, he would have been impressed. Watching her ease with the wards, the automatic, practiced way she refreshed them displayed her skill and familiarity with using them better than words could. "I don't like they didn't tell us about her."

"They probably have reason to be wary of strangers," Cas offers, and something in his voice reminds Dean of Alison when she talked about secrets. "I don't think any conclusions can be drawn on the available evidence."

"So sounds like you have a couple of reasons for a field trip to Ichabod," Dean says casually. "Help Amanda out, check out the town, tell me what you think. Day after tomorrow sounds good, what do you think?"

To his credit, Cas doesn't fight the inevitable. "Joseph isn't due to return until the end of the week, as he's making a stop in Kansas City to retrieve more from the military positions there. Melanie will be back tomorrow from her patrol route, however, and she can supervise the camp in our absence."

Dean supposes he could feel more like a manipulative dick in getting Cas to agree to go to Ichabod, but he can't see how. He wonders if it's better or worse that he feels guilty about it and still has no intention of giving Cas an out.

"It'll be fun," he says, putting all the enthusiasm he can manage into his voice and is impressed despite himself, considering how little he actually feels. Let this go okay, he thinks grimly; if it doesn't, he'll make it okay, somehow. He'll think of something. "Alison has really good coffee."

"I do like coffee," Cas agrees, much like someone on their way to the electric chair expresses their enjoyment of long, lonely walks down endless halls. Picking up his cup, he starts to take a drink before his eyes fix on Dean's right hand as he flattens it on the coffee table. "Is it bothering you?"

"It's fine. Just did more writing today than usual" He makes a fist, frowning at the faint, barely-there vibration, then holds it up mid-air for Cas to see the unmistakable tremor. It's definitely getting better, but the end of day tremor is still a thing, and at this point, he's pretty sure that's not going away anytime soon. Trying to write legibly with his left is still a work in progress, which may explain why Cas was so enthusiastic when introducing him to his personal laptop. "Hey, any chance we can get away tomorrow afternoon for some time on the range?"

"Of course," Cas answers. "Anything specific you want to concentrate on this time or do you want to continue your progress with semi-automatics?"

"Drawing with my left when I'm carrying right." Meeting Cas's eyes, he sees immediate understanding; for no reason (for many reasons), he's not down with carrying left in public quite yet. "And switching when my right gets tired but before the tremor starts so I can give it some rest." So it won't be fucking useless in a fight when he needs it.

"Can you tell when the tremor's about to begin?"

He thinks about it. "When I'm not distracted, I think so, yeah."

"And you need to be able to do so when you are distracted," Cas agrees, eyes flickering to Dean's hands and narrowing. "Once you're certain of how it feels when you should switch, it's simply a matter of reflex training. Sarah can watch the camp tomorrow afternoon while we're away."

"Works for me." Before Dean can suggest more coffee--maybe on the porch--Cas reaches for his laptop, flipping on the screen again. Okay. "So--got some work to do?"

"Finish the alterations to the patrol schedule," Cas says, typing in his password on the obnoxiously blue Windows start-up screen. "If we're leaving in two days, I need to have this completed. Why?"

Seeing Cas already lost in the wonders of spreadsheets, he sighs, getting to his feet. "No reason. I'm gonna go unpack."

Chapter Text

--Day 120--

Dean spends the morning being a good leader and skimming the most recent reports (short version: there are no new ways of saying nothing's going on, but they sure as hell try), checking in with Chuck and Brenda, and watching Cas and his laptop bond like a lot. As yet, he hasn't figured out a legit objection to its existence, but he's sure as hell inspired to keep trying; this is getting ridiculous.

When they drop casually by the infirmary--Alicia's on patrol, which means no one's allowed to get injured and condoms are being distributed by an utterly miserable Chuck--Cas presents to his horrified gaze a red wrist brace (firetruck red, holy shit) like a gift you'd give to someone you hate and want dead.

"For use on the range," Cas explains, capturing Dean's right hand and shoving it on without ceremony before leaving Dean to contemplate how anything can be that goddamn red. "Alicia recommended it to give your wrist support as you rebuild the muscles in your right arm."

Dean hates it, hates it; he hates it even more when he realizes it's actually helping. The brace holds his wrist and forearm steady, reducing the strain considerably and making it a lot easier to concentrate on his aim. That doesn't change the fact it's a red that makes all other reds crawl away in shame and they gotta do something about that.

His arm and hand are both still a work in progress; regaining his strength and range is both slow and incredibly tedious, and how much he'll get back is still up in the air. Cas was brutally honest regarding the combined effects of nerve damage and the potential for long-term paralysis of those muscle groups damaged by the infection, which Dean appreciates; knowing that, it's a lot easier to believe Cas when he tells him how much progress he's made.

If he's honest with himself, he knows he probably won't ever get his right back to what it was before the fever--Cas never said it, but he figures he didn't think he needed to--but weirdly enough, it doesn't bother him nearly as much as he thought it would. Remembering the day he first asked Cas about it--still stuck in bed between fevers with nothing to do but stare at that goddamn bandage, unable to imagine how the fuck he could be a hunter after this--he wonders what the hell he was thinking. Had to be the multiple fevers fucking with his head or something.

Taking his last shot, he lowers the nine-millimeter, clicking the safety on and replacing it in its holster as he stretches his fingers carefully, aware of a sense of satisfaction as Cas's gaze flickers over the targets approvingly. "How'd I do?"

"Flawless, of course," he answers. How's your hand?"

He holds up it up with a grin; he can feel the strain, but the tremor hasn't started yet. "Got it again."

"Excellent. You should take a break and rest it before you try for a fifth time," Cas answers, tipping his head toward the edge of the orchard, where he set up shop with a small armory (in case of wandering demons), several bottles of water, the remains of lunch, and snacks in an ice chest liberated from the mess, and those of Vera's records related to Dean's injury, all spread out on a worn blanket beneath a canopy of bare branches.

It's exactly what it looks like: a really well-armed picnic.

Someone (probably Joe) explained the concept to Cas in detail, since from what Dean's worked out, his camp thinks going to the range to shoot targets is their equivalent of date night (date afternoon?). Cas, being Cas, apparently ran with it, if the ice chest Brenda offered to him with a knowing smile when Cas insisted they stop at the mess before they left is any indication.

("I understand this is a custom among your people," Cas told him blandly when he got in the jeep after placing it, the blanket, and a bag in the backseat. "I'm demonstrating my acquisition of human social skills as well as cultural sensitivity."

"Holy shit," Dean said from the passenger seat, a little awed. "This thing's given you all new ways to fuck with people, hasn't it?"

"And to think," Cas said wistfully as he turns the ignition, "that it used to require effort on my part. And this is socially acceptable as well. If only I'd known.")

Dean can't really fault the shooting practice equals date, though; this definitely beats the shit out of a movie and dinner hands down, and Brenda's romantic soul is the reason there are cookies as well. He assumes there's no wine in the camp or there'd have been a bottle tucked between the cold chicken and the container of butter-soaked sliced potatoes, because Brenda's like that.

Dropping down on the blanket against one of the apple trees, Dean retrieves a bottle of water as Cas finishes with his notes regarding Dean's latest triumph over adversity or whatever. Like Alicia, Cas isn't allowed to write in Vera's actual records--there's added paper with Castiel written at the top, underlined twice--but he religiously updates it for her to read when she gets back.

To his surprise, he finds himself looking forward to it, and not because of anything having to do with Alpha. Unlike most of the camp even now, Vera's filters with him were eroded enough to be willing to say what others still won't, and he thinks he may finally have earned at least the benefit of the doubt from her. More, he didn't have to be so careful with her; those weeks after the fever meant she probably knew him almost better than anyone but Cas. Other than Cas and Joe, she's the closest to a friend he has here, and he misses her caustic commentary as much as the rare moments she forgot who he was and just enjoyed hanging out.

"Kamal is going to require an experienced team in Ichabod," Cas says, tucking away the folders in the bag where there's no laptop in evidence, which just means this day's almost perfect. Except for the wrist brace, but he can fix that. Paint it or something, maybe. "Joseph's team made initial contact with the towns and are therefore familiar, and under Joseph's leadership, they've learned a great deal. They'd be excellent candidates for transfer to an inexperienced team leader."

"You want to take Joe's team away from him?" Dean answers with as much horror and disappointment as he can muster, which isn't much; that's not a bad idea.

"If you wish to have Joseph as well--" Cas starts carefully.

"No, of course not; we need him here." Joe's a good leader; showing the ropes to a whole new team would be right up his alley. Getting him to go along with it is a different story; Dean's pretty sure 'lack of Leah' on his team is gonna be a dealbreaker, not that he pays attention to that kind of thing. "We'll talk to him when he gets back, but I'm telling you now, he's gonna hate it."

"I understand the burdens of leadership include having to deal with your team leaders occasionally not speaking to you due to a sense of personal betrayal," Cas observes helpfully. "It's a commonly known fact. I'm surprised you haven't heard of it, considering I'm intimately acquainted with the phenomenon."

"Yeah, but that's different," Dean argues. "One, you don't care what anyone thinks, and two, you didn't like Kyle anyway."

"Ah," Cas says, nodding. "This would be a textbook illustration of the concept of nepotism and you embracing it. I approve of your progress in corruption."

Dean settles for glaring how much this isn't nepotism, but people skills and being sensitive to your subordinates feelings so they don't shoot you instead of a werewolf.

"Offer him free choice of keeping one member and he'll concede," Cas says finally, looking amused. "And then Sheila won't forget to add oil to the jeeps in passive-aggressive retaliation for taking her partner from her less than two months after they moved in together."

Dean winces; he forgot about Mike and Sheila. "Pretty sure he'll pick Leah." At Cas's skeptical look, he cocks his head challengingly. "What are you willing to lose?"

"Winner names the forfeit," he answers immediately. "Deal?"

"Deal." Setting down the bottle, he strips off the brace to shake on it and winces when he tries to stretch his fingers. No tremor, but the cramps sure as hell are trying to make up for it. "Crap."

"Give me your hand," Cas says imperiously, removing a bottle of oil from the bag. Squinting, he tries to read the faded label, but the herby smell when Cas opens it reassures him that this time, he isn't gonna go around smelling like flowers or something the rest of the day. Seeing his relief, Cas rolls his eyes. "Yes, I remembered this time, though why you'd object to lavender is a mystery."

Extending his hand, he starts to comment on Cas's seemingly endless collection of oils and then belatedly realizes the reason and their probable use before now. Luckily, that train of thought is interrupted by Cas pouring a small amount onto his hand before his magic fingers go to work, and the only thing Dean can think about is the sheer relief as he starts to tease each knot loose.

"You're doing very well," he hears Cas say, thumb working steadily across his palm and leaving a trail of surrendered muscles behind. He didn't think Cas could get better at this after that first time, but he was so very wrong; it's like he can sense what those muscles are doing and knows exactly what to do to make them stop, with truly amazing results.

He raises his eyebrows and just bites back a groan when Cas hits the sore spot in the webbing between his thumb and first finger. It always tightens up fast and no amount of stretching it himself does jack shit to fix it.

"Really?" he manages in what may or may not be a normal voice, but fuck if he cares; that feels incredible.

"It's been less than a month since you started regular practice on the range," Cas points out, thankfully oblivious to Dean's reaction to whatever magic he just performed on his knuckles, Jesus Christ. "You've already increased your accuracy with your left to be almost equal to that of your right with both handguns and most of our rifles in your previous best range as well as increased your best range significantly. You've proved you're a very fast learner; all that remains is the muscle training to make it automatic, which will doubtless progress as quickly as everything else you've done."

"The range isn't real time fighting," Dean argues half-heartedly, almost able to ignore the warm glow of pride at Cas's assessment. Almost.

No matter what's going on in the camp, Cas is always on hand for a few hours on the range, and to his lack of surprise, Cas is actually a very good teacher. His people skills might be for shit when it comes to social interactions, but he's good at combining clinical honesty with utter confidence, and while ruthless in making sure Dean does what he should--including mind-numbing amounts of practice in shit like drawing his gun without actually shooting it--he's of the positive reinforcement school of thought. Dean doesn't want to speculate here, but he can say with certainty that Cas didn't get that from Dean Winchester (of the John Winchester School of Education: lots of yelling just to start), which means what he's seeing is probably at least partially due to Amy of Alpha.

"That's what reflexes are for," Cas answers dismissively, letting go of Dean's hand and wiping his hands meticulously clean before putting away the oil. Dean just barely bites back the protest, mostly because he can't think of a reason to continue when his hand is so relaxed it's almost boneless. "You've identified the point your right hand tires accurately four times so far. One more time today should be sufficient after you've rested it for a little while longer."

Dean nods, taking another drink from his water bottle. He's kind of been waiting for this. "So there's something else I wanted to talk to you about."


"Alison says you're a box," he says with relish. "A cold box."

Cas stares at him for a long time, giving the general impression that Dean's sanity is in question.

"She was trying to read me." Cas straightens so fast Dean thinks he heard something pop: so that's not good. "And said it was like--that you were--"

"A box?"

"A cold box," Dean corrects him. "You wear three layers when you go outside and socks to sleep, so how--"

"Since I'm not literally a six sided storage container, we can assume the cold is also metaphorical," Cas answers impatiently. "Let's return to the far more interesting subject of Alison trying to read you. The mayor of Ichabod is a psychic?"

"And a clairvoyant."

"The mayor of Ichabod is a psychic and a clairvoyant?"

"Yeah, but--"

"To clarify: for over three weeks, you've been visiting a town whose mayor is a psychic--"

"I didn't know about that until a couple of days ago!" Dean interrupts; this isn't going like he expected. "Cas--"

"And you didn't return immediately with those you stationed in Ichabod?" Cas asks him quietly, and Dean belatedly goes on full alert. Last time he heard Cas sound like that, he was describing to Jeffrey his future as a living, decomposing wall ornament for Chitaqua. "Do you realize--"

"She can't read my mind," Dean argues. "She said I'm the first person that she met that she couldn't." From Cas's expression, not only doesn't that help, it's probably word for word what everyone says when a psychic's manipulating them. "It's not like that. She tried and everything, but it doesn't work with me." Also probably what everyone says when a psychic's manipulating them. "Look, that's not the problem--"

"There's something else?"

"Give me a second!" Okay, new plan: actually have one. Alison's not a demon, just a vaguely antagonistic human psychic who looks like she doesn't get much sleep these days and has shitty dreams when she does. "If I thought she was dangerous, I would have brought everyone back and ended the deal."

"And as you felt she wasn't," and the edge in his voice is unmistakable, "it wasn't important enough to remember to tell me last night."


"You said if I agreed to take this position in Chitaqua that you would always listen to my objections, even if you disagreed," Cas says flatly. "If your solution is to avoid telling me what you plan to do so I don’t have the opportunity to object, however, consider this my resignation--"

"That's not what I was doing!" He didn't even think of that, Jesus. "She's human--"

"Humans are the most dangerous predators my Father ever created," Cas interrupts, still in that unsettlingly flat voice. "If you believe otherwise--"

"You'll lock me up in the camp again?"

He regrets it the minute he says it, and regrets it even more when he sees Cas's face just before he looks away. The words seem to hang over them in the quiet of the orchard in endless repetition: he'd kill for a goddamn breeze right now.

"I didn't mean--"

"Yes," Cas says quietly, "you did."

Shoot targets, eat lunch, shoot some more, get a kick-ass hand massage, spend some time with his best friend without half his attention on that goddamn laptop or something else having to do with the camp: it wasn't like he was asking for a lot here. Yet somehow--against all odds--he managed to fuck that up, too.

"Perhaps I should have clarified myself on this issue prior to today," Cas says finally, in the most painfully careful voice that Dean's ever had the misfortune to listen to. "You were correct; I was trapping you here."

He sucks in a breath. "I didn't say that."

"You didn't need to," he answers, looking at him, all expression smoothed away. "It's exactly what I was doing and I apologize. I'd hoped the last two weeks had made that clear when I raised no objections to you spending time in Ichabod, but apparently clarification was needed. You're happier now, and I do approve of that very much." He settles back, looking at Dean attentively, in case this wasn't already a nightmare in the making and it needed the help. "Your judgment regarding Alison is superior to my own, of course. If you feel she's safe, then there's no more to be said on the subject.

Dean would love a demon to attack them right now: he'd take an imp with a chip on its shoulder at this point. Give Cas a way to work out some of that aggression non-passively and him some time to figure out what the hell he missed: everyone wins. That's not happening, so--

"She wants to meet you." Cas's expression of interested attention couldn't be better; Dean almost buys it himself. "She didn't used to be a psychic, that part's new."

Yeah, nothing.

"Started about four months ago, which hey, is it just me, or does that coincide with another weird event that happened around that time?" He searches Cas's face and thinks he may see a flicker. "She said it was when the attacks stopped on her town."

Cas is silent for what feels like years, blue eyes distant, and Dean forces himself to be patient. This is definitely an improvement over earlier, when he was pretty sure Cas was about to go hotwire the jeep and pay a visit to Ichabod, which is not how he thinks Alison and Cas should first meet, but not anything like he'd hoped.

"You wouldn't be aware of this," Cas says finally, "because in general, it's utterly unimportant to know, but roughly twenty-six point eight percent of the human population has latent psychic abilities, and that's during periods of time you aren't engaged in an active war against evil. The percentage is even higher among hunters and are almost guaranteed in families who have been hunting for three generations or more. It's not that unusual."

Dean gives Cas a look to remind him he really doesn't need to know this or honestly care.

"Of course." Cas settles himself into educational mode, which is a lot less annoying than it used to be. "Generally, latent abilities are only awakened by an extremely traumatic event, either personal or global, or long-term exposure to supernatural influences."

"So--going with that--the global event we call the Apocalypse started years ago. If it was gonna happen, it should have happened then, right?"

"The first time it started was years ago."

Dean is halfway through his nod before 'first time' penetrates. "'First time'?"

"Yes," Cas confirms. "In a sense--"

"You think we're on our second Apocalypse?" Okay, this is new information. "So how'd the first one end?"

"With Dean's death in Kansas City," Cas answers.


"Technically speaking, while prophecy didn't require a Dean Winchester specific to this world being present, you are still a different Dean Winchester."

Dean blinks his inability to translate that into 'makes sense'.

"Your arrival might not have caused a continuance, but instead a--reboot," Cas says, brightening. "Like when Hollywood released movies involving the Hulk twice in five years' time under different titles, starring different actors, and with different continuities, yet were equally terrible."

Dean shuts his mouth.

"I found Edward Norton's interpretation far superior, however," Cas continues thoughtfully in the spirit of being a goddamn freak. "The point stands, however."

"That this is kind of the equivalent of a Hollywood remake of the original Apocalypse?" Oh God, he's been around Cas too long, that makes sense. "Second verse, almost but not quite identical to the first."

"It's not as if this has ever happened before," Cas adds almost apologetically. "There are other possibilities--"

"Let's stick with the one I understand," Dean interrupts before Cas actually tells him all about them. "So--going with that--why would Alison be affected by the remake and not the original?"

"If she's telling the truth, I'm not sure." Cas frowns. "What did she say happened?"

"She said that day was bad--off, everyone felt it, and she was napping in her office when something woke her up." He hesitates, but he's gotta know. "She said she felt like--like something she forgot about happened, she didn't miss it, and everything would be okay. The psychic thing showed up the next morning." Cas's expression flickers. "She's clairvoyant, but she can't remember what she dreams, just--something like knowing she can do something to avoid it or something."

Cas hesitates. "I can't be certain--"

"She may have dreamed about me coming here." Saying it out loud makes it real the way it wasn't before. "She just doesn't remember it."

"It's possible," Cas admits. "But until I talk to her myself, that's only a guess, and even then, there's no way to be certain." He gives Dean a searching look. "She told you she can't read you?"

He nods. "She said I'm the only one she can't."

"You believe her?"

"Once she told me what she was, I knew what to look for." Exposure to Sam and Pamela motivated him to learn how to look for retrospective signs, and there aren't any he can find. A experienced psychic could probably get around that, but he trusts his instincts, and they all tell him she's not just new at this, she's bad at it. "I could be wrong, but I don't think so. Any way you can tell?"

Cas tucks a leg against his chest, chin on his knee. "How did she describe what she sensed when she tried to read you?"

"She said you were a box--"

"A metaphor, obviously, though not the one I would have chosen," he says a little impatiently. "What does that have to do with--" He stops short. "Why did she mention me at all?"

"I'd go with weird-ass ocean myself," Dean offers, wondering why Cas looks startled. "She said she slid by me to you, the cold box, and that's why she couldn't read me."

Cas's eyes widen. "She described it as 'sliding'? That exact word?"

"Slip and slide central: not just a fun summer activity anymore." Dean thinks of the doorway of their cabin, the invisible symbols marching up and down the frame. "Is it just me or does that sound really familiar?"

"She's telling the truth" Cas says slowly. "She can't read you."

Dean goes through everything he remembers about what Cas told him about the wards in the cabin and tries to decide what part he understood enough to even ask about so he'll have half a chance of understanding the answer.

"I thought that only happened if I was in the cabin and sleeping there every night," Dean starts. "And I'd be invisible."

"For the wards to work, yes, though recently it seems that the 'every night' is no longer applicable," Cas answers absently. "I meant to tell you about that; it seems they accept your absences as temporary--at least, those of four days, which has been your longest time away--" He makes a face, shaking his head. "However, the wards aren't what's doing this."

Dean fights the urge to groan. Of course it's not gonna be that easy. "Just tell me."

"All the wards do is create an illusion that affects all five senses in corporeal beings within these four walls, making you effectively invisible," Cas explains, getting a look eerily reminiscent of Sam when he reads too much and forgets Dean doesn't care. "Contamination is what gives the wards the object to tell their senses why they can't see you, that being that you don’t exist independently of me." In a stunning display of personal growth, Cas actually stops to think about that. "That sounds terrible."

"Didn't think anything could top 'spoils of war'," Dean agrees, so over the entire 'owns me' thing that it's actually kind of depressing. "So you're saying psychics can't read me even when I'm not in the cabin? Because of the contamination thing?"

"If her description of it as 'sliding to a box'--"

"Cold box."

"--'cold box'," Cas agrees, and yeah, that's definitely an edge, "then no, she can't. I assumed the sigils in the wards were entirely responsible for the mental component, but it seems that contamination itself causes that." To Dean's surprise, Cas's mouth curves in a faint smile. "What she said--it fits how a human might perceive me now. A human psychic can't read an angel's mind, even in a vessel; our true form makes that…."

"A shitty idea," Dean finishes for him, remembering Pamela with a wince. "But you don't have Grace now."

"Which is why she wasn't physically injured," Cas tells him. "There are other dangers, however. Remember how I described what happened in Kansas City when I tried to--"

"--see all things and bled out your ears?" Dean asks incredulously, widening his eyes at Cas's frown. "Sounds familiar, yeah. You said it was like too much information….oh. Your mind would be like that for her if she tried to read you?"

"Infinity isn't something the human mind can deal with well if at all," Cas says. "At best, the sheer glut of information would be the equivalent of white noise and therefore utterly inexplicable, if very loud, in a manner of speaking. At worst…."

"Kill her in a rupturing her brain kind of way, complete with bleeding ears?" No, he's not over it and never will be, thanks for asking.

"Nothing so terrible," Cas assures him. "Insanity, possibly permanent. Assuming she wanted to survive the inevitable migraine of trying to interpret infinity and failing, and I wouldn't."

Oh yeah, much better. "Right."

"I assume by her description that when she realized what was happening, she stopped trying to read you before discovering exactly where she was going," Cas continues thoughtfully. "Excellent decision on her part: at this distance, and being unaware of what she was doing, I'm not sure if I'd even be able to sense it or be able to stop her before she was injured."

"She guessed it was you, though," Dean says deliberately. "After she got what you were out of Amanda's mind the other night, I mean."

Cas raises his eyebrows. "Interesting, considering I doubt a new psychic would have so much experience with angels--or Fallen, as the case might be--to come to that conclusion."

"Especially since you didn't know it yourself," Dean points out casually. "Weird, huh?"

"When did you say her partner Teresa returned to Ichabod?"

That's what he was thinking. "Night before she told me." Dean cocks his head. "Maybe a coincidence."

"It's not." Cas reaches for his half-empty bottle of water and takes a drink, eyes distant. "Do Amanda and the others know yet?"

"No. I told Alison I'd talk to you first, decide how we handle this." Abruptly, Cas starts to smile. "What?"

"If Alison can't read you, that means that no psychic can," he answers. "That may extend to demons as well. I assumed the sigils you were wearing and Jeffrey's distraction were the reason, but this would simplify things considerably." Dean looks at him blankly. "That means no psychic--or demon--can read out of your mind who you are."

"I knew that," he says immediately, ignoring Cas's snort. "Okay, not all of it. You mean even demons won't know who I am?"

"Jeffrey isn't the brightest specimen," Cas admits, then looking more cheerful, adds, "However, the next demon we encounter, we'll test it before I kill it so it can't report back."

How to put Cas in a good mood: imminent demon-killing, or remembering Cas's enthusiasm with the wards, experimenting with bonus demon-killing. He really hopes Teresa's not on the wrong side of the line on use and abuse of magic; Cas really needs a buddy to talk to about this kind of shit who understands it, and while Dean's more than willing when it comes to the former, he won't pretend he'll ever manage the latter.

"Told you Ichabod was interesting," Dean says a little smugly.

"You did. We should finish your last round," Cas says abruptly, getting to his feet and gazing critically to the west, where the sun is almost visibly drooping behind its cover of clouds. "It's getting late."

"Got things to do back at the camp?" Dean asks, not quite able to keep the edge out of his voice.

Cas doesn't notice. "Nothing that couldn't be delayed until evening," he answers. "Are you ready or do you need more time?"

Dean pastes on a smile: good to know where he ranks these days. "Let's get it over with."

--Day 121--

Dean wakes up to an empty cabin where breakfast--still warm--waits for him patiently on the stove; Cas (and his laptop) are nowhere to be found. A note would have been nice, he thinks a little resentfully as he makes his way through oatmeal and Chitaqua toast (with fruit), because apparently Alicia's magic cooking skills introduced Cas to the first and only food he's ever liked and now it's standard. Then again, apparently Cas is experimenting with cooking these days (seriously, the stew was amazing), so maybe he's picking up a recipe-based way to interact with people.

Deliberately leaving the dishes on the table--and feeling kind of like a dick and going back to at least put up the food--he looks around the small cabin and tries to figure out what to do. Watching Cas work half the evening isn't as much fun as it sounds like, and it didn't sound fun in the first place.

Seeing the box of reports he has yet to get through--they seem to be breeding or something--he drags himself to the couch and takes them out, not even surprised to see these have sticky colored flags attached to indicate team and numbered flags for district, and the new standard formatting (12 pt Times New Roman) includes a header--a header--of name, date, team, and location. He's also not surprised that despite a full box, there aren't as many as they appeared at first glance. Dividing them up by team, it's pretty goddamn obvious that Phil's escalation is speeding up now that he's got a keyboard, and his typing speed may not be much slower than Cas's.

Putting them in order of most annoying to least--otherwise, he'd never finish if he didn't have something to look forward to--Dean settles himself with Sarah's team and grimly starts reading.

An hour and a half later, Dean pulls the last three weeks' worth of reports--Cas organizes the boxes by time, which slows him down--and recklessly pulls Phil's, Alicia's, and James' from their boxes, laying them out in date order on the coffee table, and starts from the beginning.

He asked if he wanted Joe in Ichabod. You're happier now, Cas said. Right to his face. He meant it.

He hopes to God this is, actually, just another product of Phil's fucked up imagination, but on a guess, no one's as good as a crazy-ass poet-stalker when it comes to knowing exactly the right metaphor and when to use it.

Chuck once told him that when Cas didn't want to be found, he wasn't. From experience, Dean's found this true, though the number of times it's been deliberate he can count on one hand since that night in Dean's cabin.

At least those that aren't a side-trip to a certain unknown location where Cas placed this Dean's ashes, and he's pretty happy not knowing where that is and would be a lot happier not knowing the signs of an imminent visit. Some things stick with you, though, and once he recognized it, he couldn't ignore it, but working out the trigger is still a mystery, and not one he's sure he wants to solve.

This, thank God, isn't any of those times; this is Cas being Cas, who can't stand being bored and needs things to do like other people need to breathe. Maps, home improvement weeks, patrol routes and reports, building a new mess….perching on top of a twelve foot post like it ain't no thing on the main path through the camp toward the garage, patiently stringing industrial wire peppered with lights through some kind off--ring? Brace?--with James and Zack looking up in horror, their attention split with--oh God, Mira's on the other post, what the fuck?

Dean stops short of the path, eyes flickering to the concrete base and wondering sickly if Nate's mysterious construction skills are up to date on how to make that so things (holding Cas twelve feet in fucking air) don't fall to their deaths (or Mira, of course).

"Got it," Mira shouts, one foot braced precariously on metal ring as she raises a hand with a thumbs-up at Cas. "It's secured, now what?"

Before Dean's disbelieving eyes, Cas leans over impossibly--there's no way he can hold his balance like that--and tugs the wire firmly before nodding. "It's secure. We're done." Twisting in place, Cas looks down at James patiently. "Check them again before we get down."

Tearing his gaze from Cas, Dean sees James (who may or may not look a little ashen every time his gaze drifts to Mira) holding what looks a remote; when he pushes the button, the entire left side of main pathway lights up, and even from the ground, he can see Cas smile. Twisting in place--Jesus, Dean loses a year off his light just watching that--he gives James and Zack a nod of satisfaction.

"Well done. Now we will no longer trip over our own feet at night, and everyone will need to revive their skills in subterfuge if they don't want to be caught sneaking between cabins." Zack turns a very, very bright red, which Dean assumes means someone's walk of shame from Nate's cabin of morning regret will no longer be secret if it ever was. "It will be good practice. Turn them off."

It only hits Dean that there aren't any ladders when Cas slides off the post, dangling briefly from one hand, before dropping to the ground so smoothly he doesn't even realize it's over until Cas straightens from a crouch, blue eyes finding Dean before he goes still, smile vanishing.

"Dean," he says blankly, and the entire peanut gallery--including Mira on top of that post--is looking right at him. "I thought--"

"What are you doing?" He doesn't recognize his own voice, but Cas's eyes widen, while James and Zack take a discreet step back. "Why…" He gestures to the wires in what he hopes is explanation, like why there aren't any ladders? and why are you climbing goddamn poles? and without any spotters, because James and Zack gaping from a safe distance don't fucking count.

"I've been experimenting with outdoor illumination," Cas answers coolly, turning to walk to the other post where Mira's perched like she's not twelve feet in the air. "I checked the output of the generator this morning, and it was too high for us to support the previous set, so we're trying again with LED lights James found yesterday in Kansas City. They don't require any power from the generators and only activate at night." Coming to a stop, he looks up at Mira. "Go ahead."

Dean takes an abortive step toward them, but Mira just braces a hand on the edge of the post and does a picture perfect imitation of Cas up until her hand slips. Dean sucks in a breath, but Cas catches her hips effortlessly, slowing her descent until she's on the ground.

"…dammit," Mira growls, glaring up at the post like it personally offended her. "I thought I had it."

"You moved too quickly, that's all," he hears Cas say. "The only bad way to descend is an uncontrolled fall; remembering your body position and full relaxation are the most important factors and you kept both. Even if I hadn't been here, you wouldn't have even merited an aspirin for the stumble."

Mira sighs, giving the post a last long glare. "I don't even want to know how you got that ranking system."

"It's Vera's," he answers with a sigh. "In any case--"

"I hate to interrupt," Dean lies, stepping onto the path, "but you got a minute?"

"Go have lunch," Cas tells them in the extended silence that follows. "We'll finish the rest afterward."

"Take a couple of hours," Dean says, still looking at Cas. "Have fun."

Giving Dean surreptitious glances, James hands Cas the remote before they start toward the mess in a fast walk, vanishing behind Cyn and Jane's cabin while Cas goes to crouch beside a box near one of the posts and places the remote inside. Staring at Cas's back, Dean takes a deep breath; so this is going well.

Twelve feet up and sure, Cas seemed fine, but come on. "Never heard of a ladder?"

"No, never," Cas answers, not turning around. "Why?"

"You just…" Dean looks at the posts again, trying to remember a twelve foot fall isn't necessarily fatal, unless you fall on your goddamn head, and it's not like that's never happened in history. "Maybe get better spotters. Ones who actually spot you."

"On the off-chance I lose my balance," Cas answers dismissively, "I know how to fall. Human bodies are very fragile, and caring for it did include learning how to avoid killing it outright."

"Your body," Dean corrects him, wishing Cas would fucking look at him already. "Just--be careful, is all I'm saying."

"Spotting can increase the danger if those doing it don't know how," Cas answers in the most reasonable voice in the world. "And twelve feet isn't what I call dangerous."

"What about for Mira?" he snaps before he can stop himself, and closes his eyes: hell, no. "You know, let me start over."

"Mira also knows how to fall, possibly better than I do," Cas tells him calmly. "If you remember, we were fighting with the military in the cities, and not always at ground-level, so that was a standard part of training. However, today Mira wanted to practice landing on her feet and not in a controlled roll, which requires more effort and can result in broken bones if care isn't taken. She was a gymnast in high school and college, so the same skillsets that make up a successful dismount are in the process of being transferred." He looks up at the post in disfavor. "I think her hand still expected a bar, which is the reason she slipped."

Sam's love of the Olympics--all of it, every fucking event--means Dean does indeed know what those bars (the uneven ones?) looked like and the way girls in bathing suits flew off of them to eventually land like gravity was for losers who never learned how to fly. So right, he's being irrational and stupid. Good to know.

"Can she still do that--thing where they run across the floor and flip around?" he asks impulsively. That shit was impressive on TV, and on a bet, the real life version is probably even better.

That gets Cas to turn around, a faint smile on his face. "She demonstrated a portion of her senior routine for something called Nationals one day after training," he answers. "She said the field was larger than what she was used to, so she could make it work."

"Pretty cool, huh?"

Cas nods, a distant look in his eyes. "Extraordinary. The human body's limitations seem to exist only to be immediately expanded upon. I learned a great deal from watching her."

"I could have helped. With the lights, I mean." That's not what he meant to say, but it definitely gets Cas's full attention. Half-turning to face him, he regards Dean through a fall of dark hair. "Fine, I'm pissed because I feel left out of the hanging lights party. Happy?"

Cas's mouth twitches reluctantly. "You were asleep."

"You should've woke me up." Patrol still meets in the morning--he thinks--but apparently he missed that, too. Come to think, he can't remember the last time he went to one of those. "Uh, patrol meets in the morning still, right?"

"Yes." Standing up, Cas looks at him. "Why?"

Dean looks up at the posts and then the concrete bases, trying to remember how long it takes to do that. At least a couple of days, on a guess. For it to--dry or set or whatever, and not crash to the ground when anyone's sitting on them. (How long does it take for Cas to run five tests on a range to learn about the heating issue? How many tests did he run on the oven? How long has the new mess really been in progress anyway?)

"So the lights--what round of experimentation are you on now, anyway?"

"Fifth," Cas says, tilting his head, and Dean lets that number sink in as he adds, "Power is a problem, as I told you. To support more people here, we will need more energy, and my calculations show a substantial increase in the amount of gasoline and oil required for the addition of twenty more people. Reducing our energy needs will be difficult, but I'm working on several solutions to the problem."

"Yeah. That's why I was thinking this first group is probably gonna be staying in Ichabod. Since we're still kind of a work in progress…."

Dean looks around the camp in illustration and pauses, starting over and taking them in. Home Improvement Weeks One and Two caused a massive upgrade in camp living conditions, and the mowing did wonders for looking less third-world, but most of that was interior or maintenance level shit. Now though….

He's not imagining it; the cabins look visibly better, even the unoccupied ones: broken windows are a thing of the past, existing porches look less dangerous, those without now have some sturdy looking steps from door to ground if needed, and all the doors look new (and possibly weather-proofed). The paths between the rows of cabins are very clearly delineated with short wooden posts strung with wire about ankle-level and layered with fresh gravel.

"Pouring concrete for a sidewalk is difficult," Cas tells him, obviously noticing what he's looking at. "Unfortunately, Nate's experience is limited when it comes to concrete so he's studying, but James' work on asphalt is proceeding very well, so it's something of a race between them to see who gets to try their new skills with the walkways."

Dean nods wordlessly. The reward for figuring out the problem is implementing the solution. He'd give a lot to have been here to see Cas exercise those proselytizing skills, but he can guess where he was when that was happening.

"You hungry?" Dean asks abruptly. "I'll make sandwiches and you tell me how the hell you convinced those crazy kids manual labor was a reward for studying. This I gotta hear."

Cas shrugs. "As you wish."

Here's the thing about Phil: he's crazy, but he's the kind of crazy with one streak of absolute genius, the kind that must come standard for stalkers: they're observant as hell when it comes to the object of their crazy. That it's basically in literal metaphorical code just means you gotta know the code, and once learned, it's not the kind of thing you forget. Dean's read every report Phil's ever written (morbid curiosity and duty fuck you forward and back there), but getting the last three weeks of 'em all at once reveals this isn't random variation on a theme.

For why should it return but to leave again, as its nature compels it so, and its preference, too? Thanks, Phil: it's a whole new low to almost be grateful to the fucker, because God knows when he would have figured it out for himself. In blank fucking verse, even.

Getting Cas talking isn't hard, and Dean sets a world record for the slowest sandwich ever eaten to keep Cas going, nodding and chewing hopefully whenever Cas pauses. Sidewalks, a new mess, improved cabins, worrying about power, Nate's concrete research, James' adventures with asphalt, climbing posts for the best night lights: he supposes he could have talked more about Ichabod's power grid and roads and food, but he had to sleep sometimes, he supposes. He was happier, too, can't forget that part. Jesus Christ.

When even the crust is a memory, Dean doesn't give Cas a chance to escape to his laptop of Ways to Make Coming Home to Chitaqua Not a Punishment But a Pleasure and Not Want to Leave Immediately, No, That Wasn't Just About the Mess, Dean. Maybe if Cas had given it that title, he might--no promises here--have realized the potential problem earlier.

"So where's the new mess gonna go?" he asks, collecting their plates and not looking guiltily at the dishes from breakfast piled neatly in the sink. Because he's going to do dishes tonight himself. "We have time before more pole-climbing?"

"As there's still an hour left before their extended lunch ends, yes," Cas answers, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "It's only marked off at this time, however. There's not much to see."

"Dude, if I'm gonna be raiding the mess for sugar when we run out, I better get used to the change in location," he answers promptly, discarding plausibility in favor of herding Cas out the door and down their--fuck his life--repaired porch stairs. A glance on the way down confirms the lack of rotting boards on the porch itself, just in case he missed the point. As they start back toward the main part of the camp, he meets Cas's faint frown with his best 'confused'. "What?"

"You're being…." Cas visibly consults a mental list of words, obviously looking for just the right one. "Uncharacteristically interested in minutia."

Dean goes out a limb and translates that to 'details'. "Dude, I live here; it's not just--that."

"True," Cas says after just enough of a pause for Dean to know exactly what he's thinking: until those buildings in Ichabod are done for their new, permanent camp in the town Dean's spreading capricious fucking beams and leave Cas in solitude in a camp he's absolutely certain won't try to assassinate him, which is the saddest standard for livability he's ever heard of. Because Dean's happier in Ichabod with fucking power grids.

"You--don't think I'm moving to Ichabod with the permanent camp, right?"

Cas stops short, and Dean realizes he actually said that out loud and framed as a question. Taking a deep breath, he turns around to see Cas looking at him incredulously.

"Because I'm not," he adds firmly, which just means Cas's eyebrows get in on the action, vanishing into parts unknown. "Not even on the table."

Cas drags out the silence--he may not understand the concept of 'awkward', but he sure as fuck knows how to get a situation there, no sweat--before nodding earnestly. "I do know that," he says, each word carefully crafted to combine 'puzzled bewilderment' with 'stating the obvious' in a way that he must have practiced on a Dean past; it works. "However, I appreciate your attempt to reassure me on that point."

Right. "Good. Glad we talked about this." Dean inclines his head in the direction they were going--Cas is the one who knows where the mess is, so this is guesswork--and falls into step with him, shoving his hands in his pockets at the unexpected chill in the air. "You are pissed, though."

"No," Cas tells him, making an abrupt right halfway down the main path and leaving Dean to jog if he wants to catch up. When he does, he continues with, "You are happier now that you visit Ichabod regularly, however."

"Yeah--no. It's--that--" Cas sets a walking pace like this is a race, but years of Sam Winchester taught him how to stretch out and make it look casual. "It's not like that. It's just--new, that's all." Then, "Why didn't you say anything before?"

"Yes, I should have," Cas answers meditatively. "Dean, you're enjoying yourself a great deal. Please do that less, or at least less vocally, because your attempts at conversation are repetitious in the extreme and it's very annoying." He stops short, one arm barring Dean from tripping right over the string stretched out in front of him. "The site for the new mess: explore its wonders. I'll wait, of course."

"Thanks, I will," Dean tells him, shoving his arm down and taking in the string-demarcated bare ground that will one day be a new mess. It looks exactly like all the bare ground in Chitaqua, except for the goddamn string. Pacing the length, he nods every few seconds like he's seeing the future and not in a silent competition for best in passive-aggressive; that is not a competition where anyone wins. "You know," he says, turning around to see Cas right where he left him, looking bored out of his mind, "you could just, I don't know, talk to me. If you want me here--"

"I don't want you here," Cas answers, like a quick punch to the gut, airless and over before he even saw it coming. "Not when you don't want to be. You spend every moment you're here waiting for a reason to go back, if you don't already have one already prepared by the time you return."

"I'm not doing that."

"The problem isn't that you have a preference," Cas tells him. "It's understandable; Ichabod is closer to what you are used to in your world, or perhaps what you wish Chitaqua could be. That you won't simply admit it and discard pretense is a problem, not least because of the insult to my intelligence."

Dean swallows. "Look, after this trip, I'll stop--"

"This would be why I felt no need to discuss the subject," Cas interrupts. "You're allowed to want to be elsewhere, and I'm perfectly willing to accommodate that. I'm not willing, however, to accommodate you when you wish to be elsewhere and are simply here out of either duty or guilt. Duty is flexible; guilt is absurd. I would rather enjoy your willing company than be forced to endure your obnoxious attempts to salve your guilty conscience while you pretend."

"So going proves I want to be there, not here, but if I stay, it's because I'm guilty?" he asks incredulously. "What the hell do you want from me?"

"For you not to be miserable," Cas answers flatly. "How stupid of me to assume you knew that. Are you done here, or can we go back?"

"I'm never gonna be done here." Inclining his head toward the main path, he adds, "But right now, we got some lights to fix. We'll start there."

If Cas was totally wrong, this would be a fuckload easier. He's wrong, that's not in question; it's just that he has every reason for believing it, and a few more he probably would think of if he needed more. On balance, Dean's pretty glad he didn't; it's not like he's not at enough of a disadvantage here.

Sitting on a pole twelve feet off the fucking ground isn't, in any way, going to do anything in the way of making Cas understand he's wrong. Yet here he is, stringing fucking lights on a wire, and if anyone asked him what the hell he was thinking, he wouldn't be able to tell them. He's honestly not even sure how he got up here; it's all kind of hazy from the point he said--he actually said this--"I can do that, no problem. Give me the goddamn lights, Cas."

Sam, right at this moment, just stopped to think how Dean's sometimes stupid just for the hell of it. Now he does it with altitude attached.

Mira's voice drifts up to him, sounding worried. He appreciates the thought. "Dean--"

"Almost done," he says steadily, not looking down or checking to see if his voice just went up an octave on that second word; it did, so everyone needs to just move on. Heights don't bother me, he reminds himself firmly. I'm just bitter about not remembering as a demon my wings didn't work and I couldn't fly. Because that's so much better.

Gripping the post with his ankles, he attaches the wire on his third try and fails not to notice how far the ground is from his face. Scrubby grass, bare dirt far, far, far below him: that shit hurts any way you land, but face first is definitely gonna be the worst. On a guess, he's gonna be testing that real soon now.

"Dean!" Zack and James in chorus this time, hitting three registers at once and probably loud enough to be heard across the entire camp. Because what's needed here is more of an audience than he's already got.

Straightening dizzily, Dean sucks in a breath, spots dancing before his eyes, lightheaded with utter relief he's still alive. "I'm fine. No sweat." He risks a quick glance down, where three worried faces and a very expressionless fourth are staring up at him. "James, check 'em."

If he concentrates very hard on the hilarity of James almost dropping the remote in his earnest desire to get this over with, he can almost pretend this is okay. Twelve feet off the goddamn ground, but fine.

"Got it," James says breathlessly, punching down on the button, and Dean watches in satisfaction as the first set of lights come on. So if he falls to his death, it won't be after failing at stringing fucking lights. "It worked! Good job, Dean! Now--now you can come down, right?"

"No way," he announces of his own free will before all the world and Cas. "Whole set of lights behind me to replace while I'm up here. Just need to turn around." This post is not that big, and he's not sure that's possible since he's not a former gymnast or Cas. "Give me a minute."

"Oh God," he hears Mira say in horror. "What's he doing?"

"At this moment," Cas answers coolly, "probably deciding which is worse: falling or admitting he has no idea how to turn around. My money is on the latter."

Dean makes the mistake of glaring down at the group assembled below and wonders if the poll's gotten taller or something: they're really far away. "Fuck you."

"That's one act that traction will make impossible," Cas offers from the far distant ground. "Truly a tragedy: I don't know how I'll cope with the lack."

"Or," James says desperately, "you could come down and we could do the rest later. I think we're out of lights."

Dean doesn't look down at the still-full box; he'll fall, no question, and he's not doing that just to confirm an obvious lie. He'll do it trying to turn on his ass on a fucking post. "I got this. Just give me a minute."

"Take all the time you need to admit the obvious," Cas says, sounding bored. "We can wait."

"You're wrong," Dean snaps, shifting his ankles tentatively to see if maybe--no, that's not gonna work. "So shut up and let me think here! My goddamn camp needs lights, it's gonna get lights!"

There's an ominous silence below, but Dean can't really worry about that right now; is the wind picking up or something? What if he grabs the post--no, that's not gonna work, and yeah, there is definitely more wind. Gotta have a wind factor to cope with: why not?

"We don't want lights!" James says, sounding utterly terrified. It's maybe the saddest thing he's ever heard, and he really means it. Then, "Cas?"

The sudden confusion in James' voice makes him wonder what's going on down there, but not enough to check; the hands thing was the right approach. Brace the heel on the edge, lift, use his ankles to maybe turn….oh God, no, don't do that, and is someone laughing?

"Cas?" Mira says incredulously, and yeah, of course it is. "Cas, this isn't funny!"

"You have no idea," Cas says breathlessly and very, very punchably if Dean was ground level right now, and God does he wish he was. "Dean?"

Dean grips the post firmly between his ankles, trying to remember if it's tornado season; seriously, what's up with the wind?

"Dean," Cas says again, and maybe he's hallucinating (this whole day, if he's lucky) but he sounds a lot closer. "Please consider coming down now in a controlled manner instead of waiting for gravity to decide for you."

Actually, he doesn't have a problem with that plan anymore. "Okay--"

"But while you're up there," Cas continues, and Jesus Christ, he's still laughing, "I'd like to apologize. While I meant for you to take what I said very personally and upset you, at no point did I anticipate this particular outcome. In my defense, I don't see who could have."

Bracing his hands on the post, Dean grimly shifts his ass until he can look down and see Cas just below him. "You what?"

"Are they fighting?" he hears Zack say. "Now?"

"That doesn't mean it wasn't true," Cas says, looking up at him, and while the ground may be a mile down by now, there's no way to miss the blue of his eyes. "I'm obligated to accept your choice, and in fairness I can't blame you for it, but that doesn't mean I have to be gracious about it. What do you want from me?"


"I want you to be happy," Cas says, apparently on a ground-level honesty kick from Hell. "But you can't expect me to not resent that requires you be elsewhere. I resent it, and I don't see a time in the near future that's going to change. Adapt as your ancestors did."

From the peanut gallery comes, "I think they're breaking up."

"No, we're not!" Dean shouts in their general direction, shifting his center of gravity enough not to fall over when he looks back down at Cas between his knees. "You know how you discovered laptops and you spent forty-eight hours trying every goddamn program on there? Forty-five minutes just playing with the calculator? You can do math that hasn't been invented yet, but two plus two on an LCD screen blows your mind. I dealt."

Cas's bewilderment is obvious from a thousand miles away. "Yes, but--"

"Did I shoot the laptop?" The vague sense of motion he assumes is Cas shaking his head. "Did you know I wanted to? People get into new things, they become old things, and it happens; you just deal with it, tell 'em to cut out that shit if it reaches critical, but you do not turn it into a fucking tragedy for the ages!"

Honest to God, he's not sure what's more unbelievable; Cas actually straight-up saying what he's thinking without having to decode it piece by piece (and read fucking Phil's feelings about Cas's lot in life), having this very special first time occur while Dean's twelve feet in the air, or this discussion is actually happening and for that matter, with an audience. He's gonna take the blame for not noticing what he was doing, but if Cas doesn't get yet he's gonna do stupid shit and need to be called on it, time he learned.

"Are you saying I'm overreacting?"

"You think?" Dean shouts down at him incredulously. "You believe Phil's capricious beams bullshit or me? And don't tell me you don't get it now: I read every fucking word he wrote."

"He knows about Phil?" Zack stage whispers to Mira, but the wind helpfully carries it to him anyway. He starts to answer and then notes Cas moving and follows, twisting on the post so he can keep Cas in glare-range, digging his fingers into the wood. "Should we--"

"You three, shut up? Everyone knows about Phil, Jesus! Cas…" Hey, there's a wire in front of him.. Way down--two, three miles, maybe--Cas is watching him, arms crossed. "What just--did I…."

"You wanted to turn," Cas says simply. "So I helped. You're doing fine."

Dean surveys the endless miles of wire to the next post, multiplies that by six, and thinks fuck no. "Yeah, I really didn't. It was fun while it lasted, but--"

"You were having fun?"

"It's a great view," he argues, risking a look around; oh God, that's a mistake. "Our roof's better. More of it and I know it, and I like it. You know?" He peers down at Cas. "Well?"

"You're ready to come down?" He nods as clearly as he can: obviously. "Go ahead."

"Thank God," he breathes, not even trying Cas and Mira's trick and just pushing off and nearly sighing in relief when Cas catches him around his upper thighs. Bracing a hand on his shoulder to balance himself, Dean scowls down at him. "Seriously?"

"Permanent base."

Yeah, okay, he'll give him that one. "We okay now?"

"I suppose." Then, "I found that knife for you earlier. It was packed with the others in--"

"Holy shit, you have more?" he exclaims.

"I told you, I collect--"

"Dean? Cas?" someone says uncertainly, and Dean snaps around to see James, Zack, and Mira huddled nearby looking really uncomfortable.

"What?" Cas answers curiously, tilting his head.

Dean waits, but this looks like it may take a while. "Well?"

"Should we…" James eyes dart frantically from the post to the box to the ground: it's weird. "Uh, you still need us here?"

He looks down at Cas, who shakes his head.

"Nope. Get some help--and goddamn ladders--and finish up tomorrow while we're gone. And spot Mira on the dismount." He waits, but--right. "You're dismissed, yeah. Go." Watching them vanish down the nearest path, he turns his attention back to Cas. "How many knives do you have?"

"Two boxes in the closet and one in the utility closet opposite the Encyclopedia Brittanica."

What the hell is up with that utility closet? No matter how many times he searches it, there's always something he missed. "Three boxes."

Cas nods. "I like knives."

"Show me." Then he remembers something and squeezes Cas's shoulder. "Put me down first, okay?"

Cas smiles up at him before slowly easing him to the ground. "Pity. I was enjoying that."

"Knives, future serial killer," Dean answers clearly, looking toward their cabin significantly. "Now."

Chapter Text

--Day 122--

Dean bangs on the bathroom door again, keeping a wary eye on the horizon. No one likes mornings, especially those that start at fucking four, but he's dealing, so Cas can, too. "Cas, come on! We gotta get going here!"

The silence from inside is ominous on a lot of levels. Cas is a five minute bathroom person (excluding showers of course, which no one notices or judges thereof, though their hot water heater must be fucking amazing, just saying), and they're going on thirty minutes with no sign of emergence. He's not sure what worries him more; that Cas is indulging in stress-related shooting up or, God, that he's inexplicably become one of those people who need thirty minutes to do their post-shower shit (not naming names, Sam).

He stills mid-knock: if someone introduced Cas to weird hair shit or facials or something….

"You may come in."

Pushing open the door, he stops short at the sight that greets him. Cas, using Alicia's tiny hand mirror hanging on the wall, adjusts his posture into a too-erect half-slump beneath the loose grey long-sleeve thermal before turning his head mechanically to look at Dean with a thousand-yard stare from a face like a blank sheet of paper.

Dean takes a step back. "What are you doing?"

"I am attempting an experiment," Cas announces tonelessly, stiffly returning his gaze to the mirror. "What do you think?"

"Uh…" Beneath his horrified gaze, Cas makes a slight adjustment to his posture and hits the uncanny valley like a nuke deployed for maximum dissonance. "Stop that!"

"You don't like it?" He surveys his reflection in the tiny surface, tilting his head like a bird seeing an unappetizing worm and finding it not quite worth stepping on.

"Seriously," Dean says, more unnerved than if he had come in to Cas shooting up or holding product with a desire to actually use it. All those require is a good salt and burn, but this….. "Stop it."

"But I wish to make an appropriate impression on your new friends in Ichabod," Cas states without inflection, turning his head to look at Dean again like a shitty CGI mannequin in a third rate horror movie, or a puppet with expertly pulled strings. "I would not wish to embarrass you in front of them."

It takes a second for the words to penetrate. "You're what?"

"I wish to make an appropriate impression," Cas repeats in the exact same voice "Perhaps a trenchcoat would help."

"You're kidding." Searching his memory, he tries to bring up the memory of Cas newly-vesselled--or even as an angel--but it doesn't fit, and not just because Cas isn't an angel anymore. Cas doesn't wear his body like this, like a badly fitting pair of jeans; he lives in it down to his bones. The stillness is eerie without the barely-leashed energy Cas always seems to radiate, and his movements are too sudden and somehow still too slow, too precise, like they were all learned by careful observation and just brought into practice with only a vague idea of why or when to use them.

More than that, though: it's just not Cas. Tabula rasa: whatever's in there, it's not a person and never has been, and Cas is more a person than anyone Dean's ever met.

"Stop it," Dean says flatly. "Now."

Cas's head snaps around, the thin film of nothingness cracking. "You don't like it."

Coming in the bathroom, Dean leans against the wall by the sink, taking in the too-erect posture, slight slump of shoulders, and expressionless stare; all the pieces of a person Cas hasn't been in years but like a lot of things, the sum then was still greater than the whole. This--this is somehow less.

"It's not you," he says finally. To compound the horror, he spies a pair of scissors on the sink (how did he find them?), but a quick look verifies Cas hasn't done a chop-job on his hair, still tucked behind his ears, but now that he's looking, even that's off--too neat, lying there lifelessly when honest to God, Cas's hair has a personality of its own from the moment he leaves the shower and starts a war with him the minute it begins to dry. "You doing this just to fuck with people or because you think…." He's not sure how to finish that.

All at once, Cas relaxes, scowling at the tiny mirror, and Dean almost sighs in relief as his best friend reappears, vaguely rumpled, surly, and electric like a live current. It's weird; just a few muscles, the way he holds himself, but the difference is huge.

"I'm not sure," he answers honestly, and right on schedule, he pushes back the hair that escaped to hang in front of his eyes and makes a nice mess of the precise part, each individual strand belatedly beginning the revolution of the day. "Was that how I--how I used to be?"

"No." Cocking his head, he tries again, pulling up first impressions--second and even third--but even trying to graft those onto the man in front of him is impossible; you carry your past, no help for it, but you don't wear it: it's too small. "Stupid question: why would you want to even try?"

"You know it doesn't matter how I…people react to what they sense," Cas starts, subjecting his reflection to a critical frown, which Dean can't figure out at all; months of shaving regularly, and he doesn't even cut himself anymore. "I thought perhaps--if it were more obvious…."

"Yeah. I mean, no, don't do that, but I get you." He's been thinking about that since the first time he went to Ichabod, but he needs more information. "Was it always shitty? I mean, with everyone?"

"Besides you?" Cas tilts his head, thinking. "Not always, no. There's always dissonance--again, present company and Chuck excluded--but…"


"Some people don't seem to care," Cas answers slowly. "'Surprised' might be the best descriptor, I suppose."

"Vera?" Cas nods. "Joe? Amanda? Alicia?"

"Yes, and Kamal as well." Of course: the guy Cas lets check his translations. "Ana and Leah, Mark, they weren't hostile, simply--wary at first. There are variations, of course."

On a guess, Cas can remember everyone's first reaction to him perfectly, and not just because of angelic memory. That kind of shit wouldn't be easy to forget, or not think about. Or be able to see when it stops, either. First impressions, as they say, are a bitch, and that goes both ways.

"An adventure every time," he agrees casually. "And the old team leaders--I'm gonna say 'hostile' was a good descriptor."

"Yes." Cas's eyes meet his, an echoing coldness filling their depths. "But they had so many reasons to regard me with hostility, eventually it was difficult to tell them apart."

Dean nods. "You get I'm not bringing anyone into Chitaqua that's like that, right?"

Cas turns his attention back to the mirror: bingo. "You may not have a choice--"

"There's a choice," he interrupts. "I just told you what it is."

"You may find yourself short of recruits in that case."

"No, I won't be," he answers, crossing his arms. "I'll get exactly the ones worth having."

Cas rolls his eyes, reaching for the faded blue flannel overshirt draped over the lid of the toilet, and Dean takes the opportunity to snatch the scissors off the sink, pocketing them before he turns back around.

"Be yourself," Dean advises him as Cas pulls it on, all lazy, unthinking grace, and he finds himself thinking of what Cas said about watching Mira, what he learned from her.

A new human body, for all intents and purposes--tabula rasa--and while he'd learned to fight in it, he didn't become human when he Fell: actually living in it was all new. The echoes of this Dean--and by extension, John Winchester--and the hunters that trained him are always there when he's fighting, but it occurs to Dean now that it was from everyone in Chitaqua--watching, interacting (in every sense of the word), and even training them--that he learned all the ways he could use it, and make it his own.

"You're certain that's a good idea?" Cas asks wryly, removing the mirror from the nail on the wall and turns it before tucking it behind the faucet. "I don't think you've fully considered the potential drawbacks of that particular course of action."

The thing is, Dean has thought about this, a lot. It's the right decision no matter how you look at it, but that doesn't mean that at this moment he particularly likes himself for it. It's really easy on this side of the fence to say that Cas has got to learn to deal with people unless he wants to spend the rest of his mortal life in Chitaqua or only places devoid of other people. After all, Cas is the one who has to actually do it, and Dean doesn't have any context on what that must feel like, a whole world of people who will always know you're not quite what they expect you to be.

"Look, after this--if you hate it, you don't have to go again. Well, I mean, unless something--I don't know." Yeah, that was reassuring; he's got that inspiring thing down. "You know what I mean."

"I do," Cas tells him, passing him on his way back into the bedroom. "Please stop trying to reassure me; you're not very good at it."

With a sigh, Dean follows him out, flipping off the bathroom light--gotta think about the generators--and drops onto the bed tiredly to watch as Cas opens up the closet-armory. It's always interesting to watch Cas arm himself, and not just the somewhat mind-boggling number of weapons he carries so effortlessly that unless you know what he's carrying and where, it's almost impossible to even guess. Cas has a routine, yeah, but other than the basics--gun, rifle, ammo, holy water, silver, salt--there are new variations every time, and they aren't random. He could ask, sure, but it's kind of fun to watch and try to work out the pattern for himself. God knows he's got time and opportunity to do it.

If they weren't in a hiatus, he supposes by now he'd have a routine himself, one that's automatic instead of something he still has to think about, the difference between someone who's just a hunter and one who lives in a militia camp in a world that refuses to end quite yet.

Cas selects one of the hunting knives from the shelf, checking it over by habit. Four and a quarter inch blade, stainless steel, wood and plastic composite hilt so weatherproof, whatever; it's functional, sure, but nothing to write home about. Cas has about half a dozen of them, two and a quarter inches to six and change, but only two of them merit shelf-space and aren't boxed. Sentimental attachment, maybe? No idea.

Shaking his head, Cas sets it back in place before removing a dagger from the wall above it, and that's what Dean's talking about. Four and a half inch double-edged blade just escaping stiletto territory at an inch wide, with an American chestnut crossguard and hilt carefully wrapped in strips of leather that slides into his hand like an extension of his arm. Two hundred years old if Dean's any judge, and he is; they don't make 'em like that anymore, not least because that tree's not found in the wild anymore. The metal, though….

"Tempered steel," Cas says, noticing his attention, and flipping it casually, he offers it hilt first. Snorting, Dean takes it, examining the blade first, noting the well-honed edge and balancing it in his hand. "I liked the weight, and when Bobby examined it, he said it was probably manufactured specifically for hunters. The hilt-wrapping was badly degraded, but the wood beneath was in excellent condition. It was simple to repair once I learned the process to treat the leather. It was one of the first I ever acquired."

Handing it back--and suppressing the urge to flip it first, he's not that stupid, usually--he cocks his head curiously. "Where'd you get it?"

"You'd be surprised what you can find at garage sales," Cas answers, crouching to push up the leg of his jeans and slide it into his boot before going to the closet and returning with another knife; the gleam of pure silver is unmistakable, and so is the weight. It's old, too; he's guessing five hundred if a day, if the elaborate ornamentation on the hilt is any indication. No empty slots for gemstones, either, interesting; looking closer, he finds the sigils hidden in the complicated whorls that aren't just decoration; this was designed by an expert who knew exactly what they were doing and why. A very pretty toy on a glance: not a bad way to hide what you are in plain sight. "I paid only fifteen cents for this: solid silver, created for purpose, and formally blessed by no less than two separate--albeit competing--Christian denominations. It was originally priced at a quarter, but I talked the owner down by pointing out that there was a scratch on the butt and the leather wrapping on the hilt was decomposing as we spoke."

"How often did you need to get change for a pay phone, anyway?" he asks, reluctantly handing it back. Not useful in a fight against anything but something really vulnerable to silver, but still.

"That time wasn't for a pay phone," he answers, sliding it back into its oiled leather sheathe. "A job we expected to take a week to complete ended up taking an hour; the poltergeist, as it turns out, was simply a broken water pipe. The owner of the home was very grateful for Dean's assistance with her pipes but also extraordinarily loud, and I grew bored waiting."

"She was…" Oh God. "You're kidding. He made you wait?"

"In the living room," Cas confirms, setting the knife reverently back on the shelf. "That was perfectly acceptable--"

"Cas, I'm gonna try one more time: the only place that's normal is in Chitaqua." Cas gives him a skeptical look, and honestly, Dean can't even blame him now. "Look, trust me here: when you want to get laid, you like, I don't know, tell the other person to go Xerox shit at the library or go research something or--you had to wait in the living room?"

"She had premium cable and pay per view," Cas explains, like that makes it okay when--in the living room? "However, Dean yelled at me to turn down the TV, which admittedly was at maximum volume for reasons that must be obvious."

"To drown them out, yeah."

"No, it was a new installment of BBC's Planet Earth, which was interesting, but they made it impossible to hear the narrator," Cas explains, selecting another knife that Dean recognizes as Ruby's: demon-killing and good at it. "I couldn’t find the remote control to activate the closed captioning, so it wasn't as if I had any other options."

Dean settles himself; this is gonna be good, he can feel it. "Right."

"So I took half the cash in Dean's wallet and spent the rest of the week going to garage sales to better familiarize myself with your monetary system."

"He spent a week banging someone while you garage-saled your way across--"

"Boston, Maryland."

"--across Boston?"

"No, of course not," Cas corrects him, pulling up his shirts enough to slide Ruby's knife into the sheathe at the small of his back. "He spent the weekend having sexual relations with her and four days looking for me, since I forgot my cell phone and couldn't be certain that the prayers to 'you fucker, where the hell are you?' were directed at me or some other angel that displeased him."

He starts to grin. "He didn't just leave you to teleport back? This was before, right, when you still could?"

"I suppose that was a possibility," Cas concedes, pulling out--Christ--a twelve inch machete, turning it carefully before sliding it into its sheathe and attaching to his belt just above his left hip. And apparently not done yet, if the way he's examining the shelf is any indication. "But this was also when we were still building Alpha, and from what I gather, he didn't want to explain to anyone the circumstances by which he lost me in a major metropolitan city. Or risk me doing so when I returned."

"You blackmailed him."

"I apologized profusely that the note I left could have been interpreted in such a way," Cas answers penitently, but there's nothing about his expression that doesn’t scream 'that is exactly what I was doing and I liked it'. "In any case, whenever there was excess time after a job, it was agreed I could do as I liked until it was time for us to leave provided I took my cell phone with me."

"Going to garage sales and acquiring knives and volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica," Dean says, still grinning. "What about the prayers to 'you fucker'?"

"I explained in detail the myriad dangers of an angel choosing to formally acknowledge anyone addressing them with a name not their own," he answers solemnly, blue eyes wide and guileless. "I offered to compile a list of my acknowledged names for his perusal, but he assured me that 'Cas' was adequate." Turning around, he's holding something eight inches long and still in its sheathe that Dean recognizes from last night's exploration of Cas's boxes of weapons. He'd liked that one, but he didn't think Cas was paying attention. "Try this one."

Yeah, he's gonna have to just say it. "Uh--"

"Your knowledge is functional for your world, not here," Cas says. "I know. That's why I mentioned the need to find you a practice weapon."

"Less than Dean's here, if you think I know how to use that other than the basics," he admits reluctantly, fighting the urge to take it anyway; one day, he assumes that won't bother him, but that day hasn't arrived yet.

"He preferred firearms whenever possible during missions," Cas answers obliquely. "Which was often. Now check the weight and balance, please; this is a titanium alloy, and it should be light enough for your right to handle easily."

Standing up, Dean wraps his hand around the hilt, pulling it out carefully; Cas was right about the weight. Not bad. "Huh."

"I thought so," Cas says in satisfaction as Dean replaces it in its sheathe and carefully attaches it to his belt, taking a couple of steps to check how it feels carrying it. "Alicia regularly carries a similar model, though she uses a calf sheathe."

Dean doesn't even pretend by 'regularly' Cas means 'missions'; he means every time he's seen Alicia around the camp, she's wearing one of these under her jeans and he just didn't know about it. Abruptly, he becomes aware of Cas looking him over, head tilted thoughtfully, and can't help grinning.

"What? Still think I can't arm myself?" he asks mockingly. "You wanna check me?"

Cas tilts his head, like maybe he's remembering that conversation, too. "Actually, I do."

He spreads his arms. "Go for it."

Cas's fingers slide over the top of his belt, and he catches his breath, startled; even through his shirt, he thinks he can feel the brush of fingertips against his stomach. Cas checks the buckle first, tugging lightly before going to his gun at his right hip, testing the holster and the draw, before circling around him, verifying personally and thoroughly that Dean indeed knows how to arm himself, ending with the knife at his left hip in a lingering slide the entire length of the sheathe. Because he's being really thorough. Good to know.

Then Cas drops to his knees and Dean's brain comes to a screeching halt. Mouth dry, he stares down at the dark head as Cas eases up the leg of his jeans to check the plain hunting knife in his boot.

"Weapons can be very personal," he says, fingers tracing restless patterns over the unadorned hilt against Dean's calf as tilts his head back, blue eyes half-hidden behind a fringe of dark hair. "If there's anything I have that you want, consider it yours."

"Okay." He's not sure what to do with that, though he suspects it would help if he could remember what the hell they were talking about. "I will. Thanks."

"You're welcome." Cas smiles up at him before rising to his feet in a single boneless movement; they're close enough that Cas has to tip his head slightly to look up at him. "Are you ready?"

There's only one right answer to that question. "Yeah."

"Good." Turning, Cas gets his jacket and tugs it on before tossing Dean's to him, and it's proof of the power of reflex that Dean catches it with no clear idea of what he's doing. "It's a little more than two hours before dawn; we should check with Melanie before we leave."

Right, they're--going to Ichabod. "Yeah," he answers, just managing not to drop his jacket; what the hell? "Let's do that."

They're about an hour into the drive--Cas driving, of course, which Dean tells himself is because Cas should get to considering where they're going--when he remembers the last couple of days with a qualm of uncertainty. Sure, they talked it out after two days of Cas's passive aggressive (resentful as fuck) acceptance of Ichabod being Dean's potential new home and how he was wrong, but that was only after possibly three weeks of Cas thinking it.

"So," he starts, wondering how to introduce the subject or actually, if he even wants to.


Okay, try the indirect approach. "So is there anything--uh, you wanna know? About Ichabod, I mean?"

"I'm not sure," Cas answers meditatively, flipping on the blinker and coming to a complete stop by the remains of a stop sign and looking both ways before taking a drivers-ed-perfect left turn. "You've told me so much about it, it's almost as if I've been there myself."

Yeah, that's what he thought. "Look--"

"Truly a city of wonder," Cas continues, eyes fixed on the empty road ahead like traffic could appear at any moment and he's gotta be ready. "Covered sidewalks for miles in insulated buildings that possess furnaces providing sufficient heating for winter. Their power plant provides enough power for almost unlimited use of electrical appliances such as lighting, television, DVD players, hot water heaters, and microwave ovens without random bouts of failure. They even have CD players, on which can be played a wide variety of musical genres to while away the early evenings."

Fuck his life: who knew Rabin was a Metallica fan, okay? "Right, but--"

"Street lights are available as well," Cas says brightly. "So it's easy and safe to travel between buildings at night. They have paved streets, well-maintained and without potholes, that provide a superior driving surface, and like the sidewalks, an excellent alternative to mud. The plumbing is--"

"I get it," he states in resignation. "You already hate it."

"There are even gardens attached in some way to the buildings for the convenience of the residents," Cas says. "I've heard of such a marvel only once before; it was considered one of the wonders of the world, but you never elucidated if these gardens could be considered 'hanging'…."

"Oh God," he breathes, looking at Cas incredulously while hating Phil forever. "Ichabod isn't goddamn Babylon!"

"Of course not. A town that takes its name from the first Book of Samuel--"

"Four twenty-one, King James Version," Dean sighs, slumping into his seat. "I know."

"--surely bears no resemblance to the unholy city that tempted the righteous to leave their homes and friends behind so they could cavort to their heart's content without a care for those left behind." Cas comes to a complete stop at the sight of a sheared-off metal pole, checking the intersection of mostly dirt and mostly asphalt before looking at Dean attentively. "Why would you think they have anything in common?"

Dean glares at him, but it's not like this isn't pretty much entirely his fault. "I don't."

"I don't either," Cas says, hitting the accelerator hard enough that Dean's thrown back into his seat with a grunt. "I liked Babylon."

"The meals you've experienced there are beyond words to describe, though strangely, you did keep trying," Cas continues, coming to a full stop to examine what may or may not have once been a county road; with the lack of asphalt, it's hard to tell. "Steak, medium rare with black pepper and kosher salt and baked potatoes, roasted chicken with rosemary and peas and carrots, vegetarian lasagna--I wasn't aware you were so fond of dishes that don't contain meat--beef and cheese enchiladas, paneer curry with rice, a Denver omelet--not made in Denver, I assume, though anything's possible--with homefries, which is I think involves potatoes--"

"How long can you keep this up?" Dean asks bleakly.

"Four separate visits to Ichabod over three weeks: assuming you consumed three meals a day while in residence and at least one on those days that you left or arrived, the estimated total would be between thirty-five and forty-two meals," Cas answers slowly, frowning out the windshield. "That can't be accurate."

He straightens in guilt-ridden outrage. "I did not talk about food forty-two times, come on!"

"My math may be in error," Cas agrees, still frowning as he lets off the brake and tests the time it takes the jeep to go from zero to eighty. "It certainly felt like far more. I'll start at the beginning and you can keep count. Your first dinner in Ichabod: a fall vegetable medley with black beans and whole wheat bread made only that morning with butter churned from the local cows. Breakfast the next morning: hard-boiled eggs with toast and apple preserves….are you counting? We're at two."

He closes his eyes. "Two."

"…and pleasant evenings spent in stimulating conversation with the town's most illustrious residents," Cas continues. "Sometimes enlivened with the antics of immature humans or friendly games of chance with low or no stakes at all but for the simple joy of competition and companionship."

Dean almost thinks--maybe….

"And no stripping was involved," Cas adds, looking at Dean. "I almost forgot that part."

"I was joking," he grates out despite the futility of even trying, but it's not like that's ever stopped him before. "It was a joke."

"It was very funny," Cas acknowledges. "I apologize that I forgot to laugh."

"You said I should talk to you," Cas says reasonably, stopping at yet another goddamn crossroad without even the excuse of a metal post and looking both ways at the sea of bare fields surrounding them. "You were right, but in my defense, your soliloquies were lengthy and often you neglected to even breathe during them, and I didn't want to interrupt. That would be rude."

Dean stares blankly at the endless road stretched out before them, wondering if they've really been driving forever or it's just his imagination. Or Cas has managed by sheer will to reclaim the ability to fuck with time, because if anyone could pull that off, he could.

"You know," he says finally, "I can't even tell how much of this is you actually being pissed and how much is just because you're having fun fucking with me."

"Even to me, it's a mystery," Cas concedes. "Let's say the former informs the latter, but in what proportion, who can say?"

"You got a name for your laptop?" Dean asks, deliberately bracing a foot on the dashboard and biting down the smile of bitter satisfaction at Cas's there-and-gone frown.

"Yes, but as you know, knowing the true name of anything gives you power over it," Cas answers, flickering another glance at Dean's boot. "Why?"

"I'm calling it 'thing I covered in salt and set on fire in the front yard'," Dean answers venomously. "I like it; what do you think?"

"You did a backup, right?"

Cas doesn't answer.

At about one hour away, it dawns on him that Cas is suddenly much more genuinely committed to safe driving than he's ever demonstrated he knew existed when it comes to speed. A glance at the odometer confirms they've dropped to a casual fifty-five, and when Dean ostentatiously removes his foot from the dashboard, Cas doesn't seem to care.

Yeah, okay. "Cas--"

"We're fifty-two minutes from Ichabod," Cas says, having hand-drawn the maps and knowing math. "I suppose this would be a good time to ask if there's anything you should tell me that you might have forgotten, but I can't imagine how that's possible."

"There is, actually," he says, keeping his gaze strictly on the world outside the windshield. "I'm just not sure what it is."

From the corner of his eye, he sees Cas glance at him. "You're not sure?"

"No." He hesitates, turning it over in his head and wondering if this is one of those things that needs to be experienced or whatever to get. "I'm not sure how to explain it."

Cas nods. "Can you tell me what it's about, at least?"

"Yeah," he answers, turning in his seat and taking a deep breath. "It's about Alison."

Just out of sight of Ichabod, Dean says, "Stop for a minute."

That Cas does it without argument is all the confirmation he needs, slowing to pull off the road--for non-existent traffic--and putting the jeep in park. "If you're worried I won't like your city of dreams--"

"Shut up," Dean interrupts. "Just listen, okay?"

Cas sighs--obviously and noisily--before making a performance out of turning to look at him.

"You say you want to leave, we leave."

"Dean," Cas says, sounding as if he's drawing on all his patience, "I don't need--"

"If I think you want to leave, we leave," he says quietly. "Look, we get done on the training field today, we can go back home, no problem."

Cas doesn't answer for a long moment. "This is something I need to do if I'm to be successful in this position. As you said, it's my job."

"Doesn't mean you have to do it all at once just to prove you can. I know you can, but I'm telling you, you don't have to. Do it in stages, baby steps, whatever it takes. It's not a test--"

"--but if it was, all I have to do is survive to pass," Cas drones, sounding bored.

"No," he answers, mouth quirking. "If it was, I'd be the one grading, and you've already passed. It isn't supposed to be hard; if it is, we'll go back, revise the test…."

"You have no idea where to go with that metaphor," Cas observes after a protracted silence, one corner of his mouth twitching reluctantly.

Yeah, he should have thought that one through. "Give me a minute."

"Or I could accept your reassurance and continue driving?" Cas says, reaching for the gear shift before looking at Dean. "Your choice."

Dean nods, trying to relax, but that's just not happening. This felt like a much better idea three days ago; right now, he's having trouble remembering why. "Yeah, let's get it over with." As Cas carefully pulls out, he adds casually, "I usually spend the morning on the training field when I'm here. That's not gonna bother you, right?"

"These are your future soldiers that Amanda is selecting," Cas answers, starting up the sharp incline toward the town. "I assumed you would want to be there."

God, he almost forgot that part. "Yeah, right. That."

"However, while I understand it might become boring," he adds, shifting gears as the incline steepens. "I would prefer you stayed until she's done."

Dean swallows and nods firmly. "Nowhere else I'd rather be."

Amanda and Mark meet them by the weapons trailer, and Dean almost hugs her when he sees that she's holding a large thermal cup that she offers to Cas almost before he gets out of the jeep. Genius.

"Five cream, six sugar, just finished making it, and there's more in the trailer," she recites as Cas looks between her and the cup she thrusts between his hands, blinking slowly. "Dean, go away."

Dean opens his mouth--hell no is he going anywhere--when Kamal materializes as if by magic or some secret signal he's gonna have to learn, grinning at him and holding two more thermal cups.

"Other side of the field," Kamal explains, jerking his head toward literally the other side of the field. "Out of sight, out of mind--"

"You'll intimidate them," Mark says bluntly as Amanda draws Cas step by step toward the trailer and away from Dean, possibly with promises of more coffee. "They all know why they're here, and come on; they don't need to see their future overlord watching every move they make."

Dean fails to resist Kamal not-exactly-a-push in exactly the opposite direction of Amanda and Cas. "But--"

"Drink some coffee," Kamal advises him, giving him the cup as he herds him inexorably away. "We'll sit on the other side so we can watch, let them get focused and everything."

Glancing back helplessly, he sees Amanda leading Cas up the steps of the trailer while on the other side of the fence, the recruits are gathered in an uncertain mass and staring at Dean and holy shit, no. Quickly, he falls into step with Kamal, fighting the urge to speed up at the feeling of all those eyes drilling into his back.

"So over there?" Dean asks hopefully, jerking his chin to the point he thinks is the farthest away they can get. Not much for visibility, no, but that's a feature when it goes two ways.

"Don't worry," Kamal tells him, taking a drink from his cup as he falls into step beside him. "Ten minutes, they won’t even remember you're here."

Later, comfortably seated with Kamal on the fence directly across from the trailer and on his second refill of coffee, Dean reflects that Kamal understated the case dramatically; ten minutes in, Dean's presence is only one of the things the poor bastards forgot.

Taking a drink, he watches the continuing hilarity of all the potential recruits responding to Cas's silent presence by doing everything wrong, even stuff it's pretty hard to mess up, like walking. It's not really their fault, he reminds himself firmly; Amanda and Mark completely failed to pretend Cas was just around for a steak lunch and hanging out with Dean. He supposes they could have a couple of trumpets or something to impress on everyone that This is Fucking Important and Do Not Fucking Embarrass Me In Front of Him, but maybe that would be overkill.

"We shouldn't be laughing," Dean says breathlessly to Kamal, who almost fell off the fence when one of the younger guys tripped over his own feet as Amanda ran him through a simple throw. Amanda's despairing look was just icing on the hilarious cake. "It's just…."

"I know."

Just as interesting--at least to Dean--was Cas slowly drifting from vague, slumping boredom on the trailer steps to actually sitting on the fence, sipping his coffee and looking almost like he might eventually find this interesting. As Amanda leans against the fence beside him, Mark goes down to an inadvertent broomstick via a very nervous Derek--Fighting With What You Have Nearby is both extremely useful in the results and fantastic for the entertainment factor of successfully attacking a werewolf (Mark) with the average contents of a kitchen--and Cas murmurs something that makes her drop her head, hand coming up to cover her mouth as her shoulders start to shake.

Dean hides his smile behind his cup.

"Amanda's getting with Manuel and the patrol leaders to simulate an attack on the town in a couple of weeks," Kamal says cheerfully, getting Dean's attention. "We get to be the demons and Croats attacking the town square, and the recruits have to figure out how to handle it on their own. It's gonna be great."

He gives Kamal a dark look; that sounds like the most fun a hunter can have, and he already knows Cas and Amanda are going to ground him during it, because his life sucks like that.

"You can referee," Kamal offers, like that's any kind of consolation. "Mark went over their usual strategies; he made a few suggestions, but most of it was pretty good, especially since they don't have any kind of physical barrier around the inhabited part of the town, just the town square."

Dean pauses mid-nod as Haruhi, black hair braided in a coronet around her head, breaks from the group observing and starts toward Amanda and Cas. Mark and Amanda have managed to keep everyone at a pretty consistent distance, and until now, the recruits either haven't noticed it or cared enough to try to breach it. Amanda straightens at her approach, glancing at Cas briefly before jerking her chin at Haruhi in what looks like permission.

As Haruhi approaches them, Dean watches her for something--what, he's not sure--then gives up and watches Amanda. Haruhi pauses, looking between them for a moment before focusing on Cas. He can't hear what she's saying, but it doesn't matter; Amanda relaxes back against the fence as Cas tilts his head and answers with unmistakable interest. It's only a few seconds, but when Haruhi returns to her group at an easy jog, Cas's eyes follow her, and Amanda radiates something a lot like satisfaction.

He only realizes Kamal was tense as well when he sighs, taking a long drink of coffee before giving Dean a wry look mixed with relief.

"Worried?" Dean asks neutrally, taking a sip from his own cup.

"They're good people," he answers, eyes returning to the field as Haruhi's group goes out and Amanda and Mark exchange places. None of the others look interested in following Haruhi's example, but Derek's occasional glance toward Cas and Mark makes him think he might want to try. They gotta be curious, he gets that; anyone who makes Amanda actually seem nervous is gonna get their attention. "We had a bet--"

Dean snorts. "You three would bet on anything."

"We make our own fun." Kamal shrugs, but now that he's paying attention, the tension is unmistakable. "They're going to be living with us soon, so might as well start getting to know them now."

He nods casually, watching as Amanda calls a break and starts back toward Cas and Mark with Haruhi at her heels, gesturing and pointing back toward the empty field. As they reach the fence, Amanda waves her toward Cas before settling casually against on Cas's other side, eyes flickering toward the recruits exchanging water bottles and darting wary glances in their direction, Derek most of all.

"This is familiar," Kamal murmurs, a thread of amusement in his voice. Glancing at Dean, he grins. "I forgot, you were on a mission when Cas decided he had nothing better to do that day, so might as well go see the new recruits."

"Like this?" he asks, trying to imagine what it was like to come to Chitaqua and find out your instructor in Everything You Needed To Know to Hunt Lucifer (and Other Shit) was a genuine Fallen angel of the Lord.

Kamal's expression warms in memory, which isn't what he expected. "It was almost noon--back then, we didn't know Cas woke at dawn and didn't get hangovers, so we assumed he was still recovering from the night before--and we're wondering what the hell we're supposed to be doing when Jody suddenly jumps. We all turn around, and there's Cas, sitting on the fence, watching us like…."

"Like he was trying to decide if dealing with you was better than Hell and still wasn't sure?" Yeah, he's familiar with that one.

Kamal laughs softly. "Except he knew Hell had to be better than this and resented the fuck out of being here." He shakes his head. "I thought Vera was going to explode, she was so pissed. She was already halfway across the training field before any of us realized what she was doing. No idea what she said to him, but by the time we got over there, he was more in the resigned stage of grief and Vera looked really satisfied with herself--you know the look."

Triumph over stupid people: oh yeah, he got that a lot from her. "I almost feel bad for him."

"Us, too," Kamal offers, eyes fixed on the same thing Dean is. "Almost."

They watch as Derek finishes his water, twisting the bottle restlessly between long, dark fingers, and despite himself, Dean leans forward. He told Cas this wasn't a test, but that's not true for anyone else on this field today, and he liked Derek the first time they met: open, cautiously friendly, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and like Haruhi, personally recommended to Amanda by Manuel and Teresa. Amanda didn't name names when she talked about potential recruits, but he didn't need her to tell him these two were her top picks, the first to volunteer to help with her indoor hunter training project. That's a big thing in this town, where even off-duty doesn't mean you don't have work to get done, and free time is a luxury.

"When you met Cas, you already knew what he used to be, right?" Dean asks as Derek looks toward the small group by the fence, where Haruhi and Cas are talking, seemingly oblivious to all the attention, and in Cas's case, that may actually be genuine.

"Yeah," Kamal answers after a long pause, echoes of past wariness in his voice that even Vera and Joe's completely secret efforts at reassurance that he's not supposed to know about haven't entirely erased. Whether it's him specifically or just anything that has to do with Cas, he can't tell, but it doesn't matter; either way, the habits of over two years aren't gonna be easy to break. "We knew."

All at once, Derek puts his empty bottle with the others and starts toward the fence, and Dean couldn't look away if his life depended on it. "And?"

"He said his name was Castiel," Kamal says as Derek hesitantly joins Haruhi, who abruptly turns toward him with a gesture that means she just dragged him into an argument he knows nothing about and expects his support. Derek looks at Haruhi and then up at Cas for what feels like years before Cas's head drops, but not before Dean sees he's trying not to laugh. "And watching us mill about aimlessly for the last hour was perhaps the single most boring experience he'd had in his mortal life, but we showed every sign of being able to easily surpass it at the rate we were going."

Dean starts to laugh helplessly, though from relief or Kamal's probably verbatim quote or both, he can't be sure.

"And he was going to teach us how not to die, starting now," Kamal adds softly, watching Derek with a small smile. "That's the part that mattered."

Dean nods, eyes on the tiny group at the fence: they got two. "Yeah, it is."

"So," Kamal says just past noon. "I need to talk to you about something."

Dean glances at him curiously; it's winding down on the field, but by his (very satisfying) count, they got their twenty, easy. He reminds himself to tell Amanda she's not doing too badly at the recruiting thing.

"I've been looking over their warding," he starts, rolling his empty cup between his hands restlessly. "Teresa noticed my interest, showed me around. My Spanish is good, but we're having some translation issues."

Since Teresa's multilingual--born and bred in Laredo, she spent as much time growing up on the other side of the Texas border as on this side, and her grandmother's family had been from Tlaxcala in southeastern Mexico--he must mean the terminology is unfamiliar. Some of it's not translatable, he already knows, and a lot of it dates before the Spanish conquest and in several of Mexico's indigenous languages.

"Manuel showed me," Dean answers absently, fighting the urge to applaud when one of the women finishes a letter-perfect exorcism--the first one all morning--much to Amanda's visible relief. "He told me the warding here is pretty common down on the border."

Kamal gives him a curious look. "You worked on the Mexican border?"

"Years ago," he answers as another candidate picks up a broom. "I worked with a local bruja blanca, and the wards here are a lot like hers." He pauses to watch the same woman (Rosario?) knock the pail head off a makeshift practice dummy (and almost take out another student in the bargain) and Amanda call a time-out, possibly from sheer horror. "Why?"

"She's been teaching Neeraja and Sudha, but the only common language they have is English," Kamal answers. "So I offered to help."

Dean raises his eyebrows in a silent request for more information.

"My Spanish is Castilian, not Mexican, and I don't know the Texas or border dialects--or any of the indigenous languages--but I'm learning. Manuel's been teaching me--when he's not laughing at me." Dean grins. "If you're stationing me here for a while anyway--"

"You're stuck here, yeah." Dean considers that. "When it comes to Ichabod's patrol and defenses, it's Teresa's call, not mine. What'd she say?"

"She's the one who suggested Manuel help me work on my dialects so I could understand what she was talking about," he confirms. "But she wants to talk to you, too. She said that some of the terminology--it doesn't have any equivalent in English or Spanish, but she thinks you can help her with that. I'm guessing now that's because you worked on the border."

"Just a few months in the colonias around McAllen and Laredo," he says in surprise. "Dude, it's not much--"

"She said you've seen some of what she's talking about and can help her describe it to me, one gringo to another," he explains, startling him; no one he assigned here should know anything about that. "English is my fifth language, and don't get me wrong, I'm brilliant--"

"And modest," Dean points out, filing that away. "How many languages do you speak?"

"Technically, I'm only fluent in twelve," he answers with no modesty at all. "I didn't bother getting officially certified in the others--"

"Holy shit," Dean says, finishing his remaining coffee in a gulp.

"--and I don't really count dead languages," he adds as he pushes back a strand of newly-cut black hair and smirks at Dean's expression. "There's a reason Cas trusts my translations and doesn't check my work."

"Is this going anywhere besides your ego?"

"I trained as an interpreter in the Nepalese Army and worked as a diplomatic interpreter before I went to the private sector. Much better money, less danger of being shot--"

"And now you're an interpreter. In a militia," Dean observes.

"But my chances of being shot are still pretty low," Kamal points out. "Not a lot of what we fight carry guns." His expression turns serious. "Translation issues are pretty much my thing, is what I'm trying to say, and I learn fast, but if you help her give me context now, I can do it a lot faster."

Dean nods, shifting his rifle behind his shoulder. "When?"

"She wants to talk to you at Alison's dinner tonight," he answers positively. "Besides, she says you need the practice. Something about oreos--"

"Mal de ojo," Dean murmurs unhappily, waiting out Kamal's delighted laughter. "You tell anyone about that--"

"About what?"

Dean looks up to see Cas five feet away, projecting vague boredom in their general direction. "Nothing important."

"Anyone could mistake an eye for a baked good," Cas tells him, placing a hand on the rough wooden rail and with no discernible effort materializing beside him. "They're both formed from atoms and possess a circular shape."

So there goes that. Scanning the field, he realizes it's empty. "You on break or…."

"Amanda's speaking to the twenty successful candidates now," he answers, nodding toward the trailer. "They'll continue this afternoon to place them appropriately for individual attention in their weakest areas, but all are perfectly acceptable. She didn't require my confirmation, but I understand that validation is sometimes helpful."

"While clean and sober, even," Dean agrees in his most encouraging voice. "Good job, Cas."

Cas ignores him. "Kamal, Amanda says you'll need to take a larger role in teaching the others the basics as per our agreement with the trade alliance while she and Mark concentrate on their students. A team will be temporarily assigned to you here so they can assist you, which may be changed to permanent should you fulfill your duties to Amanda's satisfaction."

Kamal blinks, looking surprised and warily pleased. "Thanks."

"As our liaison here as well as your commander, Amanda will consult with Ichabod's mayor regarding your assignments during your residency. Ichabod is losing the regular labor of twenty of their residents, so they'll be informed that your team will assist them as needed." He turns his attention back to Dean, eyes narrowing. "Was that satisfactory?"

"How'd he do?" he asks Kamal seriously, who stares back at him in unconcealed horror. "Be honest here. Cas is working on his leadership skills. We all gotta do our part to validate him."

"Uh, really good,." Kamal mouths I'm so sorry at Cas with a look of profound sympathy. "Can I leave?"

"No," Dean answers promptly. "Like I can't lip read. Cas, did Amanda say anything else?"

"Amanda would prefer I return before the end of class today and observe tomorrow, for reasons I don't understand," Cas answers, staring at Dean resentfully. "Apparently, we were already scheduled to stay two nights, so that won't be a problem, I assume."

"I packed two bags," he says, kicking the fence rail idly. "You put them in the jeep. I also told you that, twice, and you were there when I told Mel. I wonder how you missed that. Couldn't be because you discovered Microsoft Access doesn't care if you threaten to smite it and so ignored everything I said?"

"I dislike Microsoft," Cas says as he slides back to the ground and ignoring Kamal turning red trying not to laugh at them, at least until they're out of hearing range. "And you, at this moment. I'm ready to leave now."

"Yeah, sure," he answers easily; if Cas needs time, that's exactly what he's going to get, all that he wants. "Kamal, we're heading back, so tell Amanda--"

"That I'll be back an hour before dusk," Cas interrupts as Dean drops to the ground and just barely avoids a stumble. "Dean?"

"Yeah," he says vaguely, waving in Kamal's direction as they start across the field toward the jeep. As soon as he's sure they're out of earshot, he looks at Cas. "So we're staying?"

"Weren't we just discussing this?" Cas asks, giving him a look that implies he's deliberately being difficult. "I may have mentioned Amanda requested my presence this afternoon as well as tomorrow?"

"Yeah, but…." He stops, grabbing for Cas's arm and just escapes being pulled off his feet before Cas finally turns to look at him. "I meant it, what I told you in the jeep. We can leave right now."

"In addition to Amanda's request, I understand my attendance is expected for dinner at the mayor's home tonight and a tour of Ichabod is planned for tomorrow," Cas answers, and Dean really should have talked to Amanda first thing this morning. "I'd hate to disappointment anyone--"

"You won't be disappointing anyone worth giving a fuck about," he interrupts. "We leave now, we'll be back in time for that hamburger experiment I told you about the other day."

"Deliberately get stoned to improve my palate, yes, I remember," Cas says, nodding slowly. "The next morning, I assumed that was a particularly surreal acid flashback. So that actually happened."

"Could be happening tonight," he says, adding temptingly, "Might even join you when I'm done cooking, see who can eat the most hamburgers, maybe steal some Joe Beer. It'll be great." The more he thinks about it, the better it sounds; food, beer, hanging out at home with Cas, especially that last part. Definitely that last part. "Well?"

Cas hesitates, giving him a searching look. "I thought you didn't approve of recreational drug use."

"What? Dude, how do you think I learned to roll joints?" Then it hits him. "Holy shit, did he actually tell you that?"

"There was a speech--several of them, I think," Cas answers to his utter amazement. "If I wasn't high when he gave them, they assured I was afterward, as quickly as possible."

"During or after he finished a line of shots?" Cas makes a face. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Anyway, like I was saying--"

"If we stay, is this offer transferrable to a later date?" Cas frowns, eyes fixed on some point behind him. "If you say no, we're returning to Chitaqua immediately."

"It's open-ended," Dean assures him. "So…."

"I don't have any objection to seeing more of Ichabod than this field," Cas says. "As I'm already here, now is as good a time as any to do so."

He stops fighting the grin. "You sure?"

"No, I could be getting high with you before dusk if we start driving now," Cas admits, sounding pained. "If you ask me again, my answer will change, so it's probably best you don't. I think."

"I won't," Dean promises, resting a hand on Cas's shoulder before starting back toward the jeep. "So, Pinky, what are we doing now?"

"Boomerang was vastly underrated as a competitor to Nickelodeon," Cas says wistfully. "I do have an idea, Brain."

Dean looks at him, projecting 'ready for anything'.

"Where would Ichabod's mayor be right now?"

Cas and Alison's first meeting is everything he never thought to hope for; it's a privilege to just to stand there and witness an irritable psychic in an armchair look Cas up and down while practically radiating skepticism. "You're an angel? Really?"

"Fallen," Dean corrects her as he snags the couch, leaving Cas either standing or the armchair closest to her. Cas can stand forever, but he's been around humans enough to have picked up the habit of sitting when they are, and right on time, Cas slowly--reluctantly, Dean thinks in delight--takes the armchair between him and Alison, obviously resigned to whatever the universe plans for him now. A quick look at Alison confirms there's nothing but curiosity and interest on her face, and something inside him relaxes he didn't realize was tense. "Should see him in a barn in a trenchcoat."

Cas flickers him a glance that promises he'll pay for that before turning to Alison and saying with rigid politeness, "It's surprisingly pleasant to meet you, despite the fact that you didn't disclose your abilities to us, read the minds of our personnel here without their consent, and attempted--albeit unsuccessfully--to read Dean's mind as well."

Alison isn't impressed, but as a quick glance reveals her ankle's been upgraded to a cast, he assumes at this moment, vague threats aren't even making the radar of things that are pissing her off. "If I'd been influencing anyone, I'm pretty sure you would have figured it out when Joe reported back the first time."

Interesting, how Cas totally doesn't deny it.

"So," Dean says into the charged silence, "we got our recruits."

"A team is being assigned to Kamal, per the terms of the agreement Dean made with Ichabod on behalf of Chitaqua," Cas tells Alison. "However, that assignment is pending the disclosure of your abilities to Joseph as Chitaqua's chief negotiator, Amanda as commander of those of Chitaqua's militia stationed in Ichabod, and Kamal as team leader, the latter two agreeing to remain here, and assurances from you that you don't intend to continue to violate the privacy of their minds without an acceptable reason."

"Agreed," Alison says before Dean can decide if he's supposed to confirm that or just look supportive. "What do you need?"

"Can you project as well as you receive?" Cas asks, and Alison frowns, nodding hesitantly. "I thought as much. This is a test, and what you choose to do now will decide if you pass. You may begin at your leisure."

Alison opens her mouth indignantly, but then hesitates, sitting back with a frown, hazel eyes unfocused.

"Cas," Dean asks quietly, unnerved by the silence. "What--"

"She knows perfectly well what I'm asking her to do," Cas answers coolly, watching Alison. "I assume she's currently in consultation to decide if she should."

Dean looks at Alison; so that's what she's doing. "Who's she talking to?"

"I assume the same person who warned her of the penalty should a psychic misuse their abilities." Dean can't help but think of the bathroom this morning and wonders how the hell Cas thought what he was doing in front of that mirror was anything but mimicry, and shitty at that. Half-slumped in a ragged armchair, rumpled and looking bored, Cas doesn't need anything but himself to be exactly what he is. "And informed her of who had the right of judgment."

Alison's mouth tightens, hazel eyes focusing on Cas. "Give me a minute."

"I'll wait."

She frowns, eyes unfocusing again before she abruptly goes still, hands clutching the arms of the chair for a long moment. Humans can't deal with infinity, Cas told him. Worried, he starts toward her, but Cas reaches out and catches his arm, never looking away from Alison, eyes vast, a drowning blue that goes on forever. "Don't."

Shaken, he sits back down just as Alison opens her eyes, relaxing all at once; if anything, she just looks surprised. "Huh." He glances at Cas, and while he can't be sure, he thinks he's amused.

"How are you feeling?" Cas asks curiously, the earlier coolness absent. "I wasn't sure how it would work now."

"Fine. Thanks for the warning," she answers, shaking her head like she's checking to make sure it's still there. "That was--different."

Very faintly, Dean sees Cas's expression flicker, though what that means he has no idea. "Even without Grace, it can be dangerous for a psychic--"

"Yeah, I saw that, very--horrifyingly detailed, thanks for my next nightmare." Cas doesn't wince, but Dean suspects he kind of wants to. "Well?"

The genuine worry in her voice seems to surprise Cas. "Generally, if you have to ask, the fact you can at all is an indication you're within acceptable boundaries for use."

Alison manages to combine relief and incredulity in a single flat stare.

"You're still alive," Cas explains politely, which has the effect of transforming the stare into an outright glare. "Congratulations, and thank you for your excellent ethics. I wasn't particularly looking forward to explaining an extempore public ritual execution of Ichabod's mayor to their entire town."

For the life of him, Dean can't work out if this should have been on his list of potential worst-case scenarios when it came to introducing Cas to Ichabod. Horrifyingly, the answer is probably yes. Still, though. "What?"

"You might be aware your entire planet has not been under the iron fist of a series of powerful psychics through all of its history," Cas tells him conversationally. "There's a reason for that. The Host tended to deal with that problem under the auspices of free will."

"Huh." Yeah, he's got nothing. "So--good thing nothing like that's happening today. Right?"

"Dean wants me to make a good impression," Cas says to Alison, leaning his head against one hand and regarding Alison thoughtfully. "That wouldn't have helped, I assume."

He's kidding, right? "Seriously?"

Alison looks at Dean, and God help them, they're sharing a moment. "Are all angels like that?"

Cas snorts. "I'm not an angel--"

"No, they're not." he says at the same time and gets two pairs of curious eyes--and from Cas, startlement. "You have no idea. So everything okay?" What just happened, he means. Put in words that he can hear, thanks.

"She was assuring me of her good intentions very, very thoroughly, and I had to stop her," Cas answers, gazing at Alison with a hint of exasperation. "In the future, should someone ever ask you to open your mind to them, one, don't do it, and two, shoot them, fatally if possible. At the same moment, preferably. Tell me you own a firearm and know how to use it."

"I thought that's what I was supposed to do," Alison says in bewilderment.

"Not like that," Cas states firmly. "I'll attempt to explain before I leave, though I'm afraid the lack of words for it will be something of a handicap."

Alison frowns. "What did I do?"

"The phrase 'my life flashed before my eyes' might describe it, but substitute, 'your' for the first 'my'," Cas answers. "Don't be alarmed; infinite memory does have its uses in the sheer amount of data available to me at all times. Even if I wanted to remember the minutia of your entire human life--and I can't imagine that happening, ever--the lack of context would make it nearly impossible to find them unless it was by accident."

"I'll keep that in mind. So you can tell me…." She trails off hopefully.

"Vessels' latent abilities are thankfully suppressed, so I have no concrete knowledge to draw on," Cas answers, and Dean files that away for later thought. "You were born with dormant psychic abilities, which isn't at all unusual. They could and in other circumstances should have remained so all your life."

"And four months ago…."

"You told Dean it felt like something happened--something you didn't remember but expected despite that when it did. That was the day that Dean confronted Lucifer in Kansas City."

He straightens; they so didn't talk about this. "Cas--"

"Lucifer's reaction to being thwarted that night seems to have been to release uncontrolled Grace upon the world," Cas continues like they didn't just go seriously off-script, if they'd even had a script, which by the way, they didn't and maybe they should have. "It killed all his followers as well as most of those infected with Croatoan in those cities and areas under his dominion on earth."

Alison's eyebrows draw together. "Why would he…you're saying Lucifer had a temper tantrum?"

"Like a three year old," Dean throws in desperately with a glare at Cas; seriously, what the hell? "Crazy, right?"

"Grace without direction or purpose is very deadly, but that much released on the earth at once would have other side effects as well," Cas tells her, straight-faced honesty better than any lie could ever be.

"Teresa said something about…" She catches herself with a grimace, expression smoothing out before continuing. "So that might have--woke this up?"

"As what happened that night has quite literally never happened before in all of history--any history, anywhere--there's no actual precedent for your situation," Cas replies. "However, as your own clairvoyance possibly predicted this--that would be one reason you felt as if you expected it to happen when you woke up--at this moment, that's the most likely explanation."

Dean glares at the side of Cas's head. "Huh. I never would have thought of that."

"You aren't and have never been an angel of the Lord," Cas answers with a hint of 'patronizing' because he's a dick. "Some things, you must know, are--"

"If the words 'beyond your comprehension' come out of your mouth--" Dean starts.

"I'll have to sleep on the couch?" Cas asks curiously, turning to look at him. "Must be a day ending in 'y', then."

Belatedly, he realizes Alison is watching them, cheeks slowly reddening like maybe this is supposed to be funny or something.

"Cas, you were telling the nice secret psychic about her powers," Dean manages, staring his 'we're so talking about this shit later' right into Cas's wide blue eyes and knowing he's laughing his ass off on the inside right now. "Anytime you're ready."

"Of course," Cas answers graciously, turning back to Alison. "I apologize; we left an hour before dawn and only had time for one cup of coffee. Fortunately, Amanda had prepared more in anticipation of our arrival, but it's been a very long morning ." Cas did not just say that. "You're strong enough to project very clearly, and even without Grace, I can't be injured if you can't control it. This time, attempt to project without firing the entirety of your mind at me at once. It's--disconcerting. Take as a model verbal conversation: only the information you want me to know now."

"Anything specific?" she asks dubiously.

Cas shrugs. "I'd like to know more about your clairvoyance, and I think it would be easier for you this way than with words."

She nods before closing her eyes, and after a minute of watching her, Dean turns his attention to Cas, who just looks like he's inventing new geometry for the next time he reorganizes the pantry. It's pretty boring, but every once in a while Cas looks vaguely surprised, so there's that. Fortunately, it doesn't take long; Alison opens her eyes, looking thoughtful, and Cas's frown deepens, but nothing continues to happen.

"Okay," Dean says finally. "Gonna share with the class?"

"She's psychic," Cas answers, probably just to annoy him before telling Alison, "You're a surprisingly strong telepath, both in reception and projection, which you probably guessed." He tilts his head, studying her. "Clairvoyance isn't unusual, but usually they come together if you possess both, not piecemeal. You've been able to see portions of your future all your life?"

"As long as I can remember," she answers. "Dreams, mostly. A couple of bad trips in college."

"I don't even want to imagine that combination," Cas answers with a wince. "Psychedelics are to be avoided if possible, or at least outside controlled circumstances."

"That," she says wryly, "I learned for myself, thanks."

"Do you ever remember your dreams?"

"Not the details, no, not unless it actually starts or is about to--a little like déjà vu for the lead-up, which by the way worked pretty well as an excuse until the Apocalypse." She grimaces. "At least when it wasn't actually happening."

Cas nods, eyes narrowing in thought. "And it's always specific to you: your actions, I should say?"

"Yeah, I think so," she answers after thinking carefully. "I mean, sometimes I never found out what the decision was that I was supposed to make, but--"

"That would be because something else happened before you needed to make it, rendering it moot. Free will in action." Cas frowns into the middle distance. "That's--I’m not sure."

"What?" Dean asks, glancing at Alison, who looks equally impatient.

"Clairvoyance isn't unusual," Cas explains. "Clairvoyance that warns its bearer of important future decisions is extraordinarily useful and therefore rare, but certainly not enough to elicit comment. Clairvoyance that does all that and manages to avoid traumatizing the bearer to the point of suicide, permanent insanity, rampant alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver at an early age, or a dangerous drug habit as a lifestyle choice….I congratulate on your good fortune. That almost never happens."

"Thanks," Alison says slowly. "I think?"

"I was being sincere," Cas clarifies. "That almost never happens. Congratulations."

"Human skills," Dean tells Alison's slow blink. "We're still working on those."

"I feel better," she tells them both. "I heard a 'but' somewhere in there before being happy I wasn't cutting my wrists in a tub of everclear and heroin, though."

"I'm thinking." Cas studies Alison, and Dean thinks he almost says something before abruptly changing his mind. "After manifestation, psychic abilities tend to strengthen over time. Is it still getting stronger?"

She hesitates briefly. "It's hard to tell. I told you, I'm new at this."

"You haven't reached the threshold of your abilities," Cas answers. "Which you've already sensed, and I'm confirming." She makes a face. "I'm not familiar enough with concrete examples of psychic manifestations in humans to do more now than tell you that your accuracy is surprisingly high, and opiates will help dull the headaches. They may be the only thing that will at this point while your mind adapts."

"We don't have a lot--"

Cas gets a complicated look on his face. "I'm sure we can refresh your supply," which Dean takes as coming from their ridiculous supply of morphine, which puts them in the position of being grateful their dead asshole doctor was a junkie; it really must be a day ending in 'y'. Drug dealers of the Apocalypse is officially on the table as well; good to know.

Looking between them, Dean considers spending the rest of the morning like this and makes an executive decision.

"So, I'm gonna go watch Amanda," he says, stretching elaborately. "My soldiers, duty, you know the drill--"

"You're bored," Cas observes.

"I'd rather watch paint dry," he agrees instantly. "So unless you need me for something--"

"Go away, Dean," Alison says, rolling her eyes. "I'll entertain your angel."

Cas nods. "Enjoy yourself, and if I don't see you until then, don't be late for dinner." Turning to Alison, he says, "I've been told I should request a tour of your town? Apparently I should be interested in your buildings, though I have yet to hear an explanation as to why."

"We can do that," Alison agrees, then adds casually. "You mind if I get some coffee first?"

"We can start with your kitchen," Dean hears Cas say with much more enthusiasm as he starts toward the east exit of the town square and just makes it to the street before he starts to laugh.

When Dean and Cas walk in the door of Alison's building for dinner, he doesn't make a run for it, mostly because Cas is right on his heels and also, he's providing an example.

Looking around the large--and packed--living room, he smiles brightly into all the smiling, curious faces--wow, that's a lot of faces--and reaches back to grab Cas's wrist just in time.

"It'll be fine," he murmurs when he turns around to take off his jacket, staring into Cas's eyes a promise he'll kill him if he abandons him to this. "Promise."

Dean takes in the two bags on the guest room bed of Alison's building and doesn't even pretend to be surprised. Cas, on the other hand stops short, subjecting them to an examination like he's looking for evil spirits or maybe bombs. He's been in much worse motels, he thinks, approving the bare, whitewashed walls, worn, comfortable furniture, and thick, faded quilt. Nothing here smells of body fluids or feet, but there's a hint of lemon and plain soap.

"We got upgraded to the mayor's building," Dean remarks, sitting on the edge of the mattress and giving it a bounce or two while fighting the urge to drop onto it and never get up again after the longest dinner of his entire life. It's much better than the one at the cabin; he wonders what he can trade for it. "Must be you. They've been farming me out to anyone with a spare bed when I visit."

"And Alison wasn't sure of your reaction to the fact she was living with another woman and didn't want to risk you finding out before she knew more about you," Cas says, still staring at the bed. "Amanda and I talked earlier today about what I should expect in social encounters while I'm in Ichabod."

Dean cocks his head. "Such as?"

"Among other things, that humans are very unpredictable in their reactions to other people's sexuality, which is why Alison was justifiably worried about yours," he explains. "She has yet to discover any bias among the residents and has met several people during the course of her investigations that have made her feel very welcome."

"Three weeks and she's already getting laid," Dean interprets, unsurprised when Cas nods. It's weirdly easy to imagine Amanda regaling Cas with her sexcapades in Ichabod, though why, he can't really say. "So she does know what downtime means, good to know. So she was just making sure you were prepared."

Cas nods. "She--"

"Figured I'd forget to do that," Dean interrupts, shaking his head at Cas's worried look. "She was right; I didn't even think about it. Sorry about that."

"From what I understand," Cas answers, one corner of his mouth upticking, "this was more a precaution, as the memory of your discussion with the watch lingers quite strongly in everyone's memory. She recommended I should bring anything I found questionable to her attention first to judge the severity before you traumatized anyone else for life who wasn't one of your subordinates."

Despite himself, he grins. "They still flinch when I do random checks." Looking at Cas, though, the amusement fades. "I forgot you've been at Chitaqua since you Fell, so this would be pretty new to you." He tries not to make it a question; this is definitely territory for Vera when she gets back. "And probably weird," he adds honestly, thinking about what makes up social encounters in Chitaqua. "Speaking of new, what did you think about dinner tonight?"

"New," Cas agrees. "I assume in this case 'dinner' was a euphemism for a casual form of introduction to the town's leaders that included food?"

"You got it," he confirms. "The meet and greet, it's a thing with humans. Food's around to keep you from a cut and run." He'll give Alison and company this much; that was a lot of food, and it was everywhere. Good delaying tactic, he suspects: empanadas to slow you down if you're trying to get out the door. Or so he assumes: those were goddamn amazing, and he had three or four at least.

"Is it usual for there to be so many people at one of these?"

"I don't know," he admits. "I got the more formal version, lots of really polite conversation--"

"Poker until two in the morning."

"--midnight, and who told you?" He snarls at Cas's faint smirk. "Goddamn Alison."

"If they already met you," Cas asks, beginning to frown, "then why did they feel the need to repeat it tonight?"

"Oh, that was for you." Cas starts to look alarmed. "I'm the scary leader of the militia: been there, done that. You, on the other hand…."

"This is part of the reason you wanted me to come here," Cas says slowly, like he's testing the idea. Dean nods, bracing an arm on the mattress behind him. "Other than Alison and Teresa, they don't know what I am."

"They know you're Castiel," he answers firmly. Tonight, there was no way to miss the reactions even if he wanted to, and if seeing it live and in person at less than three feet away wasn't fun for him, he can't imagine what it was like for Cas as the object of it. Amanda really did make good choices for those first recruits, it turns out; none of them, not one, were like some of those here tonight.

It wasn't dramatic, no, but it was there, and Cas was right about the variations: surprise and hesitation, uncertainty, sometimes a very shitty attempt at polite retreat, avoidance after, sometimes requiring the length of the room. They might not be able to help it, but he hated it every time. It made the few who didn't react all the more memorable, though; Teresa, Manuel, Tony, Rabin and Sudha, Neeraja, Eyong and Njoya, Dina, Lanak, a few others he marked for later thought. They knew the difference, that much he could tell, but to them, it just didn't seem to matter.

Alison, he remembers suddenly, didn't react at all. Box thing must have been good prep, he guesses uncertainly.

"You're Amanda's instructor and a member of the militia and--the other stuff," he continues, waving a hand. Weirdly enough, he's not eliding for the relationship thing--that's old news--but the job description, because this is his life. "What you tell them's up to you."

"You'd prefer I didn't?"

"I'd prefer this wasn't an issue," he answers honestly. "If you're asking me what decision you should make, forget it; that's your choice. If you're asking if I want you to…." Jesus, talk about being screwed by your principles. "I want them to get to know you, and that's a big chunk of who you are." He tries on a smile. "I'd also like you to be able to sleep while you're here without feeling like you gotta watch your back."

"That doesn't worry me," Cas replies absently. "You're here."

And like that, he can smile and actually mean it. "Exactly." Cas looks at him, startlement slowly replaced by understanding. "Like I said, it's up to you. I got it covered either way."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Sit down," Dean says invitingly, stripping off his boots before scooting up the bed. For reasons Cas (therefore ineffable), he hesitates before gingerly seating himself on the very end of the mattress, then slowly removing his boots. "So, anything else?"

Warily, Cas turns to face him, cross-legged and thoughtful. "So that was all of Ichabod's current leadership?"

"God, I hope so." The formal intro was a lot different, not least because Alison spread that shit out over a couple of days of very polite dinners that doubled as opportunities to show that Dean and company didn't eat babies raw and could talk about something besides their death counts hunting in the wilds of Kansas. "That was a lot of people."

Alison and Claudia were the official greeters, easing them into the room so that (just guessing) Derek could lock the door behind them. Manuel was next as co-leader of Ichabod's patrols with Teresa, and they introduced their patrol leaders: Sreeleela, Antonio, Sandar, Anyi, Anthi, Shuo, Hans, and Cristian. Dina, their resident agriculture guru, doubled down with her leads, Mercedes, Elena, Thomas, Alejandro, and John for the town's gardens and fields. Sudha and Neeraja, Teresa's non-formal apprentices with their warding and more metaphysical defenses, he met as residents of Alison's building before; much like Teresa's existence, their other jobs were omitted during the original introductions.

That was just the warm-up, though.

Dolores, an RN and their Medical head, had two LVN's and a paramedic with her when they showed up just as the appetizers were getting low, which is when Dean started slipping, though there was definitely a Karl and a Lewis in there somewhere. Tony showed up for the main course after putting his kids to bed, with Dennis and Walter for city services, at which time Dean's brain shut down entirely, nodding on command for the town's other specialists who kept the town working, ending with the town's council, which as far as Dean's been able to tell, was them, twenty people picked in quarterly elections, and possibly everyone who shows up to the meetings, because he can't say this enough, that was a lot of people tonight.

Even visits to Ichabod can't change months of comfortable familiarity at Chitaqua and his people there. It was disorienting as hell, and he's pretty sure it was only Amanda and Kamal's determined efforts (and a lot of appetizers) that kept him and Cas from utter disaster. Act normal, yeah, that helps: what the hell does that even mean?

"A lot of people," he repeats, reassured by Cas's enthusiastic nod of agreement. "You get everyone?" He's kind of counting on Cas's memory to keep track of the bewildering faces and names thrown at them during the Totally Non-Threatening Casual Getting to Know You Food and Chat Thing. It's possible he met all one thousand people living here by the time dessert was served; he sure as hell didn't see many of them twice.

"Yes," Cas confirms, to his relief. "Name, position, tenure, siblings, parents, current and potential romantic partners, and what their offspring accomplished most recently. Cristian and Esperanza's daughter is turning four in one month; is that significant?"

"Cake," Dean says promptly. "Maybe a present? Do they make rifles for three year olds?"

"If they do," Cas answers after they both take a moment to contemplate the horror, "I don't want to know about it."

"Good call: I'll talk to Joe. He still remembers what normal people do." Probably.

He's still not sure what to do with the unsettling suspicion that maybe life in the suburbs didn't work out for him for more than Sam-related reasons. Observation of people in their natural lawn-maintenance and weekend barbecue habitats taught him to fake it, but it was always life lived like a sitcom without a discernible plot. In Chitaqua, he may be technically lying about who he is (though he is Dean Winchester, as Cas regularly reminds him) but what he is, that's not just a valid lifestyle choice--it's normal.

In Ichabod--crowd size aside--it wasn't actually that different from Chitaqua now that he thinks about it, and the differences are ones that seem to be a matter of scale. Leads are the specialists, but everyone does rotation doing everything; like in Chitaqua, there are too many jobs to do and the burden of survival's a lot lighter when its spread out. Besides the evening classes for the residents to learn new skillset, the gardens that feed Ichabod are worked individually and the produce shared communally, and no one escapes How a Cow Becomes a Hamburger and a Pig Becomes Bacon when the time comes for that kind of thing. Chitaqua's agreement with the towns means they'll also be full participants in the glory and dream that is getting food from the ground as well as the animals, which Dean agrees with and is not looking forward to even a little when his time comes.

Dean studies Cas for a moment, trying to decide how to approach the subject of pre-dinner divide and conquer, which quite literally only Kamal's hissed assurances kept him from bringing a dead stop. That and Amanda taking a strategic position that kept her in line of sight of him and Cas so she could nod at him reassuringly.

"So you and Teresa's talk tonight…."

"Teresa was apprenticed to a bruja blanca in childhood and completed her training soon after graduating college." Dean's not sure what to make of the expression on his face. "She felt it was a professional courtesy, witch to Fallen angel, I think. Not that it was something I could miss, but I assumed courtesy required me to pretend I didn't know."

"You know what that is?" Dean asks, intrigued by the idea of Cas exercising his social skills for good instead of weaponizing his lack thereof. Cas gives him a filthy look, but whatever. "You didn't sprain anything, did you?"

"Next time someone implies you must be very good in bed, I plan to suffer a dramatic lapse," Cas answers, smiling pleasantly. "You were saying?"

"I'm impressed and not at all surprised you know how not to offend everyone in under ten seconds in any given room?" he offers, mostly from sheer stupidity. "I'll tell them you like to cuddle."

"I don't care."

Fuck ex-angels and their sheer lack of shame. "Right. I'll pick better battles. Truce?"

"Agreed." Cas fixes him with a thoughtful look. "She told you after dinner?"

"After she talked to you, yeah." He figures the reason why is pretty obvious now. "She was pretty careful about what she told people when she and Manuel first settled here."

"You don't like witches." It's not an accusation exactly, and Dean hears the question under it.

"I worked with a bruja blanca when I was on the border, and they don't tell what they are unless they think it's a good idea," he answers obliquely. "Teresa's mother, as it turns out. I'm guessing after talking with Alison to be sure, she figured we were safe enough."

Cas tilts his head, waiting.

"Did she tell you what there're called? The wards?" he asks. "Las migras de las luciérnagas--migras is a nice way to say border patrol. So, border patrol of fireflies."

"Surprisingly accurate as a description," Cas agrees. "She explained the methodology. A delineated space is indicated, and the ward remains inactive until it's crossed, at which time it activates at that location, causing the intruder to become temporarily disoriented, allowing time to either locate and attack the intruder or flee. It's extremely efficient; it can cover a large area and lowers the number of people required to patrol."

"Did she mention the part where it looks like a little swarm of lights when it comes on?" he asks a little desperately. "Dude, that's the best part."

"I assumed as much from the name, yes."

"You know why she's using that one?" Cas raises an eyebrow, which he decides to take as a desperate desire for information. "The power comes from her, all of it. She's bound to the earth, but according to her, her agreement with it is if she can't do something and needs help, if her intentions are good, she'll get it, but never at harm to itself. She could force it to help her if she wanted to--probably get most of the state if she made an effort--but it's just a request. She's not too worried how the earth judges her intentions, so it's worked out."

"You didn't answer my question."

He sighs, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I don't trust idiots who find neo-paganism on the internet and think it'll grant them a million dollars and a new car if they mispronounce some Sumerian bullshit or fuck around with blood sacrifice for kicks and power. Someone fucking around with what I saw Constanza doing down there like it's a game and thought it looked fun….what they do is more than that."

He actually didn't realize how much that bothered him, above and beyond the danger; Constanza was awesome, and much like Manuel, spent considerable time correcting his language skills with the tried and true method of a lot of laughter. Showing him as much as she did was an act of faith, that much he understood from the start; that she took the risk still surprises him, no matter how much they'd needed help.

"That bothered you."

"They come from a tradition that dates before the written word and they train to do this all their lives: this is their lives. Their job description is pretty much the same as mine. Just more--" he gestures uncertainly. "Talking to the ground. Apparently that part's turned out surprisingly useful, who knew; Teresa can also figure out what the land needs for their crops, not just hunt down fucked-up earth spirts and always find where chupacabras are hiding out, which is a much bigger problem down there."

Absently, Cas loses the entire sitting thing, stretching out on the bed, head in hand. "She's worried about others eventually coming here--not their current trade partners as much as others, if the trade alliance expands as it hopes to with our help. Specifically, from the place she lived before she and Manuel came here."

"The ones who wanted to burn her alive for witchcraft, you mean?" Dean takes a breath, wondering how the fuck he can actually be saying those words. "Kamal said she wanted to talk to me before dinner. Didn't see that coming." He looks at Cas sharply. "You did, though, didn't you? Do I need to even ask...."

"Not that, no," Cas assures him. "No one at Chitaqua ever verbally expressed any desire to burn me alive for practicing evil. That was new to me as well."

Dean notes the 'verbal'; replace 'fire' with 'bullet', and we got a hit. Of course Cas wasn't surprised.

"A woman who offers to protect them and can help them grow enough food so they don't starve to death." Saying it out loud didn't make it any less insane before, but he had to check one more time. "And they wanted to burn her alive. For witchcraft. They were gathering the fucking wood when she and Manuel left!"

"During dessert, she said you told her that she and Alison and Manuel, along with anyone else who felt threatened, were welcome in Chitaqua should they require sanctuary." That makes sense; she'd want to check in with the resident not-human to see how life is there if you're different. Lack of burning people alive would be a big plus; he wonders what she'd say about the secret police thing that used to do it with a gun. "Do you wish me to warn Amanda and Kamal so they can protect them if necessary?"

"Yeah, talk to all of them tomorrow." Dean blows out a breath, forcing out the tension by sheer will. "I don’t think it's gonna be a problem here, but I'd like a contingency plan just in case."

What Cas is (what Alison is, what Teresa is) may not be normal (whatever the fuck that means during a goddamn Apocalypse in the infected zone), but it still blows his mind that in a world where Lucifer walks the earth, Fallen angels, psychics, and witches are feared on principle. Like somehow, an army of fucking demons, werewolves, vampires, and goddamn fae are more explicable than the idea that people can come in a wide variety of magical flavors and still just be people.

After talking to Teresa, he's grateful for Amanda's gossip for a greater good; it gave him every excuse to keep Cas in line of sight if not within three feet or less (his best reach for pulling out of danger purposes). In the back of his mind, he wonders if this is how Alison feels with Teresa, when she goes on those trips to the other towns, checks their fields, tells them all about the earth's thoughts (feelings? No idea) and what to do about it; the only wonder is it hasn't driven her fucking insane. Dean's just barely okay with Chitaqua, and a lot of that is because he's kind of their leader.

Cas nods, then seems to remember something and abruptly sits up. "Dean, should I--"

"Okay, I don't understand, fine." Sliding off the bed, he picks up his boots and places them in easy reach of the left side of the bed before giving Cas a significant look and showing him where his go on the right. Might as well get back in the habit of being ready for anything; the fever just fucked up his routine but good. "Teresa is just a person who knows more shit than they do and people wanted to kill her!" he continues, remembering Cas's three-foot rule on speed; yeah, this is should be fine. "What the fuck was wrong with people? What they hell did they think you were going to do, stare 'em to death?"

"Me." Cas's head comes up sharply. "Dean?"

Dean sucks in a breath, dropping down on the bed with a sigh. "When you said--about how people react to you now--it's not that I didn't believe you. I just--I didn't know it was like that." He looks at Cas. "How the hell do you stand it?"

Cas looks at him as if he's never seen him before. "You get used to it."

"Good try, but no," he answers softly. "Not after what I saw tonight. If I'd known…." If he'd known, really known, he never would have made Cas come here. "I'm sorry--"

"You shouldn't be," Cas interrupts, and when he looks up, there's a thoughtful look on his face. "I met many interesting people. All things considered, while it was a poor alternative to an evening of marijuana and hamburgers with you, it was enjoyable nonetheless."

Dean studies him thoughtfully. For reasons best known to Amanda, she brought Haruhi with her, and she homed in on Cas in five seconds flat. Cas's lack of objections were really noticeable, for the record. "What were you and Haruhi talking about?"

"Six months ago, something incorporeal and very unfriendly was caught by the wards. However, it had limited abilities at projection and some rudimentary psychic abilities that allowed it to manifest what can best be described as version of their worst nightmares," he answers. "As it couldn't get through the wards and they had no idea how to kill it--or see it, for that matter--they simply had to wait out of range until it went away, which took two days. She wants to kill it a great deal, and wants to know how."

He winces. "Got anything for her on that?"

"Several possibilities: Manuel offered to show me where they keep their records, as they thoroughly document each attack," Cas answers, but there's no way to miss the anticipation in his voice. "As she was one of Manuel's patrol leaders, she has access to them and offered to take me to see them herself when I had time."

Sounds like fun; get together with an attractive hunter for an afternoon of reading about monsters and talking about killing things. Three of Cas's favorite things, all in one convenient package. He wonders if that room has a convenient couch so everyone can be comfortable; that wouldn't surprise him at all.

"Huh," is all he says. He could say more, but one, why would he, and two, he's not sure what, because there are a lot of possibilities and none quite convey 'concerned' instead of 'weird'. "Sounds great."

"It does," Cas agrees with really unnecessary enthusiasm. "Derek overheard us and asked to come along tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it."

"Derek's awesome," Dean tells him sincerely, nodding enthusiastic agreement. "Glad we got him. You kids have a blast."

"You're worried." Dean stares at him wordlessly. "You shouldn't be. They all seemed like very pleasant people, at least on such short acquaintance."

"Right." That. "Look--"

"I can take care of myself--"

"I know--"

"--but I do feel more comfortable knowing you would do so for me." He smiles faintly. "Whether or not I need it."

Dean sees Cas studying the wall intently and it dawns on him they're having a moment, an important one, and no one is stuck on a post or feverish while it's happening. Holy shit, they're getting better at this. Hear that, Sam? And he said Dean didn't get feelings. "Anytime."

"Difference can be threatening," Cas continues, switching back to practicality at the speed of light. "You tried to shoot me when you met me. Familiarity makes everything mundane." He does that thing again, like he forgot something and just remembered, straightening on the bed with a faint bounce and absolutely no squealing springs. They have got to get this mattress. "As I was saying--"

"Dude, you were a scary thing with giant wings busting in like…." He trails off. "Hell of an entrance, gotta give you that one."

"Thank you. Dean--"

"It's the fucking Apocalypse!" he says, getting to his feet and looking around for a chair; good, one's already on his side of the bed. "How does a Fallen angel or a witch even make the radar when you got hydras--hydras, what the everloving hell?--shapeshifters, vampires, trolls, gnomes, fucking brownies, giant snakes speaking in tongues or something--"

"A crude form of Aramaic, and yes, that was strange," Cas says, turning to follow his progress as he grabs his bag on his way to the chair. "Dean--"

Unexpectedly, his voice cuts off, and Dean takes a second to pick up his jeans from the floor before looking up. "What?"

Cas gets that look on his face that says he wonders about Dean's intelligence sometimes. "There's one bed."

"What?" Tugging out his sweatpants--once Cas's, fine, but he never used them. Why, he can't figure out; apparently, he just doesn’t appreciate how unbelievably comfortable they are, the thick cotton washed soft and amazingly warm. Snow could happen, he thinks hopefully when he glances out the window after tugging off his shirts and draping them over the chair with his jeans. Temperature may be forties now, but that could change. Tugging on a t-shirt, he turns around to see Cas staring at him from the middle of the bed. "Cas?"

Cas closes his eyes. "I don't sleep with people."

Dean blinks at him, wondering uncertainly if he heard that right. "Uh, Cas--"

"I'm not speaking in metaphor, I mean literally." Opening his eyes, he sighs. "I've never slept with anyone in the sense of sharing a bed or given discrete space with someone for the purposes of an extended period of unconsciousness, is that clear enough?"

"Ever?" This is the weirdest thing he's ever heard. "Seriously?"

Cas's eyes narrow. "Yes."

"You just--get up and leave after?" he asks, unable to stop himself. Sure, that'd be okay during your average group experience--or so he's heard--but one on one… "Throw them out? And you got repeat customers? How?"

"I tell them I had an enjoyable time and…" Cas's expression is like a novel. A novel in Enochian, granted, but Dean's working Cas to English is getting better every day. Cas doesn't just not want to talk about this; this is a not-talking hill he's willing to die on. "I haven't, let's leave it at that."

"Okay." It turns out he's the kind of person who really wants to see how devoted Cas is to that goddamn hill. "So, you want me to sleep on the floor?"

"Of course not!" Cas shuts his eyes briefly. "I only meant that I could--"

"Let me get this straight," Dean interrupts, settling down on his side of the bed and making himself comfortable, because while he's kind of tired, this is also kind of fun. "Body fluids are come one come all but sharing a mattress is a problem for you?" Before Cas can answer, he shakes his head firmly. "Here are your choices: I sleep on the floor, we both sleep on the floor, which is stupid because this mattress.…" He has no words for this mattress. "What's it gonna be?"

Cas's eyes narrow dangerously. "I'll take whichever side of the bed you haven't already claimed."

"I promise to keep to my side, which feel lucky, because Sam, you never know how the hell you'll wake up." He looks into the distance, remembering. "Could be sweating to death with octopus arms or burrito in progress beside you while you freeze your ass off."

"An adventure a night, I take it." Cas finally--and to Dean's eye, not really all that reluctantly--gets up to grab his bag, setting it precisely on the foot of the bed and looking insultingly surprised that Dean knows how to pack.

"You're welcome," Dean says airily, tugging back the heavily quilt, blanket, and crisp sheets in preparation for some seriously comfortable sleep. It's gonna be amazing, his back can already tell. "And for the record, their water heater's kind of a dick and the two available slots are now and seven AM."

"I'll take now," Cas says, correctly interpreting Dean not making any move for the door. "If you'll excuse me--"

"Shower's two doors down," Dean says, arranging his pillows before adding, "Do we need to go over this again or can I get some sleep? Dude, I trip over you tonight…" He's not sure what threat will work--none, probably--but he leaves it open and lets Cas decide what might go there. "Okay?"

Cas sighs; life is hard for ex-angels with stupid hang-ups. "I understand. You'll probably be asleep when I return. I'll try not to wake you." The implication is that he's gonna try, and may not even fake it being an accident. Good luck with that: since the fever, Dean sleeps like a goddamn rock.

"Awesome." Yawning, Dean throws back the covers, settling against cool sheets with a sigh. "By the way, good luck. Wake me up when you're done and tell me how it goes."

Cas nods. "I will."

Chapter Text

--Day 123--

Propping his feet on the newly-built bannister, wood still unpainted, Castiel settles back in the weathered armchair on the cracked concrete porch of Alison's building. Between one and four in the morning is the least active time period in the town; the third shift is almost entirely composed of patrol and those whose job includes maintenance and observation of the town's general services, including water and electricity, none of which require anyone to even casually be near here and visibly flinch at his mere presence. He supposes uncertainly this could have gone far worse, but that's not exactly a comfort at the moment; to his own surprise, his standards have risen somewhat beyond 'survival' as a measure of success or failure. Dean is a terrible influence indeed.

You get used to it, he told Dean: that's survival, but stupidly--so stupidly--he hoped for more than that.

Two more days in this accursed town; technically, that's not forever, but from this side of forty-eight hours, it certainly feels like it.

The storm door behind him--a new addition, he suspects, from the lack of wear and the gleam of the jointures against the wooden frame--opens abruptly. His eyes fixed firmly on the road, he listens to the sound of uneven steps framed by the unmistakable staccato beat of a cane until they come to an abrupt stop parallel to his chair.

"Good evening, Alison," he says, turning to observe the frozen woman standing three feet away, wearing an oversized pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a flaking picture of what he thinks is a tiger, a blanket thrown haphazardly over her shoulders, and smiles. "How are you this lovely night?"

She hesitates, hazel eyes unreadable, but nothing about her indicates she's ever backed down from anything in her mortal life and certainly has no intention of starting now. With a snort, she turns, limping painfully behind him to the other armchair and dropping into it with a sigh.

"Wonderful." she answers shortly as she carefully braces her own feet on the rail as well. Despite himself, he feels an uncomfortable flicker of pity. The tension that she attempted, with uncertain success, to hide from Dean is impossible to miss now, and he wonders, not for the first time, why anyone sane would call what was given to her a gift. "Giant box in the guestroom; nothing quite like that to really encourage that insomnia habit you’ve been working on."

Interesting. "Foldspace," he offers, tugging the blanket he found in the hall closet more comfortably around him against the chilly night air and settling more comfortably into the frayed plush cushioning. Like the furniture in the town center, it's held up astonishingly well to exposure to the elements, and he wonder if he should acquire one for Dean. He enjoys sitting on the porch, and it's far more comfortable than the stairs. "Collapsed dark matter of zero mass and infinite density. Refutation and confirmation of e equals mc square. Pick one or all of them if you wish."

She gives him a disbelieving look from bloodshot eyes ringed in violet shadows that deepened over the course of dinner this evening. "Physics? I did chemistry in undergrad."

"You were a programmer, I understand," he answers, amused by her irritation. "You understand--very crudely, admittedly--a very small part of the language that created the universe. Not that Microsoft could prove that," he adds a little bitterly after his experiences with Access.

"Jesus Christ, you mean it really is math?"

"Yes, though your definition of math is very narrow. I was rather looking forward to when you discovered a concrete example of an imaginary number." Her eyes widen. "You told Dean I was like a box. Infinity is a very long time, and that's still a new one to me."

"It's much bigger on the inside, trust me." she says after a moment, grinning when he rolls his eyes. "Yeah, I figured you'd get the reference. Dr. Who fan, not a surprise. Did Dean mention--"

"The cold, yes, several times." Her mouth twitches before she brings it under control. "Folded space and fury, an eternally burning sword, infinite justice, chaos incarnate, perhaps even a storm of vengeance and righteousness, but…"

"A box." She cocks her head, fighting a reluctant smile "You're offended?"

"I'm a being of infinite--" He sighs, sinking more deeply into the ragged upholstery. "I don't know. An infinite being who is also a box."

"Maybe you're in the box?" she offers mischievously, and he's unwillingly reminded of this afternoon; it's been a very long time since he experienced a human mind like that, and never one like hers. "The box thing, I have no idea where that came from."

"A cold box," he corrects her acidly before shutting his eyes, appalled. "I had no idea it bothered me this much."

"I'll tell you what I told Dean--I saw a cold box, and something about time--buying time, maybe, and it'll be enough." She shrugs. "I call 'em as I see 'em."

"I miss Chuck's literary period," he tells her. "Narrative flow, coherent plot, realistic dialogue, surprisingly readable style. Have you read his work by any chance? He published under Carver Edlund."

"I think I have one or two," she answers warily. "Why?"

"You might consider them a model for your future work in the field of clairvoyance." Her flat stare tells him she might be considering burning them now. "It's been a very stressful Apocalypse, and despite the fact I've been completely sober for the most recent part of it, the surreality has actually increased compared to when I spent it very drunk and very high."

"Welcome to the club." She gives him a sardonic look. "Infinite being, huh? Nice work if you can get it."

"You'd be surprised." He studies his socked feet (unmatched, again) and thinks about Alicia's dryer elves theory. They're still working on a model for trapping them, but Alicia's reminder that elves have reality-bending capabilities means progress is slow. "Contemplating the infinite variety of the universe when you already know every detail of its inception is less exciting than you might think. I did it most of my existence, and only as a human did I finally have adequate descriptors, which would include 'monotonous' and 'incredibly boring'."

"Nothing new under heaven."

"Heaven is a study of repetition forever, world without end--or in this case, world without end yet--amen. Fortunately, there was always a war against something evil or blasphemous to distract me before I became dangerously close to considering how often one can wonder on the perfection of an amoeba."

She looks at him skeptically; without her glasses, she has a surprisingly penetrating stare. "Really?"

"Of course not; then, I had no context for anything else. Human minds demand active occupation and novelty: angels, not so much. Possibly because we don't know anything else." Even to himself, he's not sure what he means.

"I sound like this when I have insomnia, which, in case you're curious, is always these days." She looks at him for a long moment, the wariness that she almost successfully hid their entire afternoon together temporarily forgotten. "Contamination, right? That's why I can't read Dean and get you when I try." She waves a hand. "No superpowers, just a smart girlfriend."

"Teresa," he confirms, not surprised. "When you tried to read Dean--what you sensed, she recognized it. When she was finally allowed to return home and you could show her, that is."

Alison scowls. "She's still smug she was right about that being stupid, happy?"

"Yes." Her scowl deepens. "What else did she tell you?"

"She has a lot of practical experience with it in all its apparently many, many forms," she answers with an expression he's seen on Dean's face more than once during certain conversations: one part utter bewilderment, one part determination, one part boredom, and one part--fondness, he supposes uncertainly, startled, then with an effort dismisses it. "It comes up a lot in her work."

"She's bound to the earth itself," he agrees. "She's probably more familiar with it than anyone living."

"Yeah, but not like what you're doing," she says slowly, brow creasing before shaking her head with a grimace. "She wanted to talk to you about it after the party was over, but got me to do it by completely forgetting about it and going to sleep." Her expression softens. "As she does."

"She sensed it when we talked tonight, I assume."

"You and Dean are the most interesting thing she's run across in a while that isn't evil and out to kill us, which is depressingly unique," Alison says before adding with deliberate lightness, "She actually does want to talk to you, but I figured I'd break the ice while you were tired. Spare her you freaking out and threatening to ritually execute her in the street, that kind of thing. Just in case."

So she's still unhappy about that. It's not as if the entire afternoon yesterday didn't make that abundantly clear. "That wasn't a threat. It was more a glimpse of the road not taken, which is, in case this needs saying, is both very short and always ends badly." She rolls her eyes. "You wanted to tell me yourself so you could see my expression yourself and not merely in Teresa's memory."

She shrugs. "I neither confirm or deny that statement, Mr. You're Lucky You're Not Crazy Or Evil and Ritually Executed You Psychic Clairvoyant You."

"My human skills need work."

"You mean the part where you pretend you still don't have them or the part where you feel like actually using them?"

"It's a pity you can't read my mind and discover the answer for yourself," he answers, noticing for the first time that while both socks are dingily off-white, one has red seaming while the other has a grey toe. That they're different lengths he was aware of, but he could have sworn they were both at least solid white.

"In this case, don't think I need to." To his horror, she follows his gaze, and only with an effort does he avoid jerking his feet off the banister (and out of her sight), though why he would wish to do that he's not sure. "You know you're--"

"They don't match, I'm aware," he snaps before he can stop himself. Alison raises her eyebrows, eyes dancing in a way that's far worse than commentary. "No matter how careful I am to assure they have their appropriate matches when I take them to the laundry, there's always one missing when I take them home to sort them. It's become a problem."

"You do laundry?" she asks incredulously, sounding so eerily like Dean despite the difference in register that he smiles despite himself. And much like Dean, the hazel eyes narrow in immediate suspicion. "What?"

"Nothing." Ignoring Alison's scowl, he tries to focus on the empty street, but for reasons unknown, he can't stop looking at that glaringly red seam like some kind of fabric stigmata. "It's annoying to wear non-matching socks."

"One of the great mysteries of laundry," she concedes. "Where they go, who knows?"

"That's only one of the questions I plan to ask them," he says grimly. "As well as how, of course. I've narrowed down the window of opportunity to some point between transferring to the dryer and when I retrieve the laundry to take it home, so it's only a matter of time."

"Ask who?" she asks, giving him a bemused look. "God?"

"No, of course not; even if He were here, this is far too elaborate and pointlessly annoying not to be one of His flights into infinite humor, and those He never bothered to explain. Though that may be because He didn't create us with a sense of humor, so we wouldn't understand anyway." she blinks at him, squinting as if trying to bring him into focus. "I'll ask the dryer elves themselves--if they are indeed elves, which is still in question--before demanding the return of my socks. Unless they eat them, of course, which I wouldn't put past Him adding as a bonus." Seeing her staring at him, he frowns. "What?"

"You think there are dryer elves?"

"As I said, that's still in question, but for now, Alicia's term is a convenience."

Alison's mouth opens and closes, twice.

"I can't stop noticing my socks are not only not matched in either length or pattern, but now are also two separate shades of off-white," he tells her, staring at the more off of the two resentfully. "It's one thing to be mortal and deal with the natural--albeit strange, bizarre, and sometimes revolting--inconveniences of this state of being, but quite another for dryer elves to deliberately add to them. Justice must be satisfied."

Alison sits back. "Oh God, you're serious."

He smiles at her. "We are the weight and the scales and that which weighs all things; we are justice without mercy, vengeance without reprieve, chaos incarnate in defense of my Father's work. Do you think I'd do less on behalf of my own property?"

Alison shakes her head on cue, staring at him in fascination. "Dispense justice to dryer elves on behalf of your socks--"

"All of Chitaqua's socks," he corrects her, amused despite himself. "So much of my life has changed, it's depressingly reassuring to realize some things never do."

"Come again?"

"Sodom or dryer elves. As I did before, I do now: it's only a difference in scale." He shrugs, looking away from that penetrating gaze. "You can't understand, of course. Between the moment of your birth and the moment of your death, you will be a thousand people; what an angel is at the moment of their creation is what they will always be."

"Change is inherent in all things,'' she quotes without irony but with malice aforethought, relaxed for the first time tonight. "You're living with us these days, Future Dispenser of Elf Justice. What makes you so special that you get an exception?"

"Angels don't change," he replies. "Lucifer is engaged in a temper tantrum that has lasted eons, if you require an example. It started before you even qualified as sentient and fire still confused you. You'd throw anything at it, including yourselves, yet not your food, not for millennia. Why is that?"

"Since you're not an angel, that wouldn't be a problem, now would it?" Her eyes unfocus when he eases a thought to the surface of his mind. "Very funny, water? Really? To put ourselves out?"

He doesn't answer, watching as she belatedly realizes he didn't speak, hazel eyes widening in horror as she shrinks back into her chair. "I didn't mean…."

"Insomnia is often a problem for psychics," he says mildly. "Generally, the solution to that would be to stop reading everyone in their range and going to sleep. As I doubt that didn't occur to you, that narrows the possibilities considerably." He flickers a glance at her foot pressed helplessly against the cast covering her other ankle before meeting her eyes, unable to keep the edge out of his voice despite her fear. "You risked breaking your own ankle, arousing the justifiable suspicions of the leader of a hunter militia, and let's not forget, the summary judgment of a former angel rather than simply admit you can't control your abilities yet and they were giving you problems. Congratulations: I'm not certain even Lucifer could match such a display of pride, and that is not a standard anyone should wish to reach, much less surpass."

She sucks in a breath, looking away. "That last part I didn't see coming."

"Until Teresa told you what might happen if I ever came to Ichabod, I thought so."

"Yeah, but I didn't….never mind." She blows out an angry breath. "That's why you were down here tonight? Waiting for me because you knew--"

"Dean guessed and asked me to confirm on the way here this morning," he interrupts. "You're very good at hiding it, but Dean's very experienced with psychics dealing with new abilities. He didn't like how much time you spent trying to walk on a sprained ankle, and he knew physical pain was an excellent distractor." He hesitates. "He was worried about you."

Her expression softens briefly. "Anything else?"

"You told Dean you thought it was a fluke, that you couldn't read him when you met. Stop me if I'm wrong about what actually happened; it would be more accurate to say that when you met him, the number of unfamiliar minds yelling in your mind made it almost impossible to focus on any one. Your abilities had recently escalated and you were having problems adjusting to it and still are." The hazel eyes widen. "Joseph would have noticed this level of stress when you first met, and considering your condition as Dean observed it after half a day meeting with the council a few days ago, there's no possible way you would have been able to attend three days of meetings, not to mention so successfully manipulate Joseph and Ana. Did I miss anything?"

"It's like you were there." She looks away, swallowing. "You're good."

"It's my job," he answers impatiently. "What I don't understand is why you didn't simply…." He trails off, abruptly remembering how she looked when she first saw him, and then, quite vividly, a certain conversation at Dean's shooting range. "First impressions."


"When Dean was here," he asks slowly, wondering if he actually needs confirmation or can live happily in ignorance, "did you ask him to invite me here or was that polite fiction he was using with the best intentions to convince me to come here?"

"Yeah, I did, and by the way, it's been great," she answers flatly. "Why?"

"You wanted to talk to me" Starting to look confused, she nods, and he wonders if this is an example of irony or just desserts. "This afternoon, in your kitchen, the coffee that was already prepared, that was not in any way in anticipation of us having this very discussion…." Her resentful glare is answer enough. "Before I frightened you, yes."

"Execute me," she says flatly. "In the streets. Ritually. I have no idea what that means, but I'm guessing when execution needs a special adjective, I probably don't want to know."

"First impressions," he agrees hopelessly. "If it helps, I do recognize the irony of mocking the very concept immediately after deliberately making the worst one possible. In my defense--"

"You didn't want to come here at all, I figured." She sighs, looking at him with reluctant sympathy mixed with malicious amusement. "I know I'm not the only one who had a shitty time at dinner tonight. Psychic, remember?"

He stiffens, the memories of this evening forever and always as vivid as the moment they happened, then forces himself to relax again. He supposes in fairness he can't blame her for enjoying that, but he doesn't feel particularly fair at the moment. "I'm glad I was able to contribute to your enjoyment of the evening."

She rolls her eyes. "I wouldn't say 'enjoyed'…."

"Suffice to say, I behaved very badly this afternoon when we met and I apologize for that," he interrupts sharply. Upsetting Dean's friends isn't productive.

She makes a face, but finally nods agreement. "Teresa told me--you had to be sure, I get that. So apology accepted, it's fine."

"So let me try again." Pushing the blanket back, he glances toward the door. "If you're amenable, I'll make coffee, and we can discuss what you wanted to talk to me about when you invited me here to ask for my help."

She hesitates, hazel eyes searching, before she nods. "Yeah, that works."

"The last escalation was immediately after your second meeting with Joseph's team, when the towns accepted our offer?"

"Less than a day." Coffee is truly a wonder; half a cup, and Alison has mellowed considerably. He'd assumed there must be some reason Dean liked her, and he resents realizing that very much. "It's done this every few weeks since this started, but the last one was a doozy."

He nods, taking a sip from his own cup, resenting Ichabod's superior coffee and his own enjoyment of it as well. This can't be healthy. "It's constant now?"

"All the time," she answers grimly. "At first, I could--tune it out, just concentrate on something else, it was fine. Each time, it got stronger, harder to do, but I could still do it. Now--all day, every day, I have to--to work to ignore everyone, and it's like it's--it's fighting me. I can tune everyone out for a little while, but it's exhausting as shit, and sometimes…."

"You can't." She nods helplessly. "That's not surprising. Usually, this is a gradual process, but very few manifest as powerfully as you did, much less progress so rapidly."

"Are you trying to be reassuring?" she asks, eyebrows raised in surprise. "That's not, in case you need feedback on your people skills. Not even a little."

"What you do is instinctive to you," he tries. "It probably doesn't help to know this now, but you will adapt with time. Your mind was formed with the potential for this--very specifically, it's supposed to be able to do this--whether it ever became active or not; it simply needs time to catch up to the reality. In any case, your instincts will provide better guidance than another psychic could be for you at this point. How you conceptualize what you see is intensely personal, and to combine that with that of another psychic...."

"Does this end with 'know thyself'?" she asks incredulously. "I failed philosophy. Twice."

"You pay for your sins, both great and small," he intones, biting his lip against an unexpected smile at her expression. "Perhaps you should have more regularly attended class? It's simply a guess."

She glares her feelings on the subject of her academic career over the rim of her coffee cup.

"It doesn't help, I know, but it will eventually get easier. It's simply a matter of time."

"Teresa helps when she can." She shrugs, taking another drink. "Noise shared is noise halved, or something. I concentrate on her, she can help me block out the rest. Mostly."

"You don't like to do that."

"Everyone deserves the privacy of their own minds," Alison answers softly. "Just because she's willing doesn't mean I should ask her to give that up. Not when--when I don't have to. Noise is noise: it's not as if I even know most of the time who's thinking what unless I focus on them or they're physically close enough to drown out everyone else."

Teresa, he suspects, is far more interested in Alison's sanity than any breach of privacy, but Alison's objections would limit her ability to help.

"I commend you on your ethics," he says honestly. "They're extraordinarily good, even taking into consideration the breaches committed on those we assigned to Chitaqua, since you neglected to inform Dean most were involuntary." She rolls her eyes. "You can't be blamed for using the information you discovered to better protect yourself. You'd be stupid not to."

She shrugs, and he wonders how to explain how rare that is in a psychic, especially a new one. Telepaths, especially powerful ones, rarely develop any ethical standard without either guidance or corrective discipline, and much depends on the early creation of habit to avoid slipping by accident. Pamela is his only practical experience with one, but she'd been exposed to hunters from a very early age, and her abilities had developed over the course of her life, allowing her to learn to control herself before they became a danger to others. Even Sam Winchester, the eternal exception to any rule that ever existed, didn't use them without thought, and while the Host--and Castiel--distrusted him, he never doubted his intentions. That he slipped was not a surprise, of course, but unlike the Host, Castiel was perfectly willing to admit even then while there's always a choice, it would have been of infinite value to Sam to know that choice existed instead of being expected to intuit it from the ether.

(You like them too much, he was told by his superiors; he really should have told them he'd wondered what that feeling was, as he'd certainly never felt it for them, and asked them what they thought that might mean. The answer would doubtless have been hideously painful, but it would have been worth it just for the memory of their expressions when he said it.)

"And now you have foldspace in your guest bedroom, which isn't helping you sleep either." He'd suspected as much, even counted on it tonight; he'd be a very different kind of distraction, one even an experienced psychic might be unable to tune out: an infinite box (infinite being within a box?). Now, however, he can't help but recognize the exhaustion she radiates, so habitual she probably hardly remembers what it's like to feel anything else and wonders if it should be some kind of consolation that she was telling the truth about how bad the evening was for her as well. It's not, but perhaps he could pretend. "Even if you were better able to control your abilities, I'm not sure it would help when it comes to me. Angels can conceal their nature with Grace, and as you must be aware, I can't. It tends to be uncomfortable for humans."

She starts to frown uncertainly. "The box thing?"

Castiel starts to snap that no, she's the only one who seems to regard him as the equivalent of a metaphysical cubical container in a display of psychic individuality, then pauses, taking in her genuine confusion. "At dinner tonight--"

"Okay, yeah, I owe you an explanation, fine." She frowns at the street for a moment, looking--guilty? "Look, it wasn't--Amanda said you weren't into crowds, okay?"

He stills, cup half-way to his mouth. "She did."

"With words," Alison says, misinterpreting his expression. "Original plan was small group, nice and quiet, but--I changed it up a little." She swings her gaze around, and yes, guilt. "This afternoon, I mean. After--uh, we met."


"Made it bigger. Much bigger." She blows out a breath, slumping in her chair. "Look, I was pissed, all right? If it helps, instant karma was at work; I was just as miserable as you were. I had no idea you were that much not a people person."

"You didn't know…." The first thing--the first thing she asked him when they met was if he was really an angel. Psychic box, but that's all. "You didn't know."

She grimaces. "I didn't think about the fun of that many people in one building, either."

"Too much to focus on any single one, yes." From how she looked through dinner, she spent the majority of her time either failing to entirely block everyone in the room--with obviously stressful results--and possibly hating him for causing what had to be some very unpleasant emotional currents with no idea why they were happening. "Teresa helped you block it tonight as well."

"Had to," she admits sourly. "I get why you were pissed all night, okay, but that was my fault, not theirs. You could have been less of a dick, though; that thousand yard stare of yours is deadly, and you deployed that thing like a weapon of mass destruction."

Castiel takes a deep breath. "My human skills in large groups are somewhat rusty," he says around the warning tickle in his throat; this probably isn't the time. "But I could have been less--hostile, yes."

She nods emphatically. "Seriously, yeah. That was weird tonight." Then, "Look, I'm sorry. I'll apologize to Dean in the morning--"

"No, that's not necessary." Dean's anger in their room tonight was unexpectedly intense, and at this moment, he can't predict what his reaction might be. It's more than likely it was simply the strain of the evening--he could have handled that better, he supposes uncertainly, but time will certainly give him the opportunity to gain experience--but Dean enjoys his visits here far too much to sour them even in this small way. "His lectures on appropriate behavior are well-meaning, but I wouldn't wish one of those on my worst enemy. Or you."

Her worried expression eases, easy humor curving one corner of her mouth. "They're that bad?"

"They're very sincere and at length," he explains. "But if it helps, he only lectures people he likes."

Alison rolls her eyes, but he doesn't miss her relief, either; Dean makes friends as easily as he breathes, and he suspects that's one human skill he'll never possess. Only now does it occur to him that his behavior with Alison this afternoon might have damaged Dean's rapport with these people, and that's unacceptable; he has so little here, it would be cruel to take this away as well.

"A box," he says before he can stop himself. "Is that--all you sense when you see me?"

"A cold box," she corrects him with a hint of lingering malice, then wrinkles her nose. "Well, not the cold part, at least not in person. Very different than from what I picked up through Dean, though." She snorts at his expression. "Did I mention I'm kind of new at this?"

So, a cold or perhaps not box: this has been enlightening.

"Kind of nice," she says with obvious reluctance, eyes narrowing on him in--that would be disappointment, yes, he's very familiar with it. "Finally, one mind not shouting at me all the time--other than Dean's, I mean, which I appreciate--and then--"

"I threatened you." Alison's eyebrows jump, at the quiver in his voice that he fails to suppress: not the time, he reminds himself firmly. "First impressions, yes. Very important."

She nods wary agreement. "Yeah, right. Uh, Cas--"

I wish to make an appropriate impression, he told Dean quite seriously. He used those very words this morning. He's almost sure he meant them.

It's too much; laughter bursts out in a sudden, almost painful gust, and with it goes the anger, draining away with each gasped breath. One mind she couldn't hear, that wasn't trying to drive her insane, it was nice, she said; other than Dean's, she added.


Alarm, he should deal with that, though how, he's not sure. In a different world--a better one, and there are many of those, all not filled to the brim with the hells he didn't create for himself--he was polite and asked to verify her integrity, and afterward, she asked him for his help over coffee this afternoon, and he might have been able to tell her that he understood very well how she felt. Other than Dean and Chuck, she was the first person who looked at him and didn't feel that fundamental difference between them. Like it wasn't even there.

"Cas?" Alison starts to look in danger of trying to get up. "Should I--"

"No." Dropping his head back against the chair, he takes a deep breath, then another, feeling drained and suddenly very, very tired, an exhaustion that has nothing at all to do with the need for sleep. It's a familiar feeling; despite its recent absence, he never truly believed that it wouldn't return eventually. "It's been a very long day, is all. I suppose I'm simply tired."

"I was warned about your sense of humor," she says finally, setting her empty cup on the ground. "Want to share the joke?"

He finishes the cold coffee without tasting it and setting the cup on the porch as well before thinking how to explain. "Dean used to tell me I didn't have a sense of humor, and it annoyed me enough to make a study of it. It was utterly inexplicable, and six days of the Comedy Network simply confused me."

She nods. "So what was the moment of revelation?"

"About four years ago, I was with Dean under a log in the middle of a West Virginia field avoiding a rain of blood and toads--and what seemed to be the entirety of the FBI, CIA, DEA, two other acronyms I can't bother myself to remember, and a truly excessive number of bloodhounds-- and Dean was engaged in hysterics because I sat on a toad. It was grotesque, and the sound interrupted my calculations on how much blood was being used and where on earth Lucifer was getting it."

Her mouth twitches before she makes an effort. "Sounds shitty." Then, "Okay, I'll bite: how much blood?"

"One hundred and seventy-four million gallons per hour per square mile, one, three, or five because my Brother likes prime numbers," he answers immediately. "Ask me how many human bodies that would be. Even accounting for density, the sheer scope of transmuting water into blood is--"

She bursts into laughter, bending to gasp helplessly against her upraised knees.

"I still haven't worked out where on earth he acquired that many amphibians, though evidence suggests it was worldwide endeavor, since at least two of the toads are only native to the Amazon," he continues, listening contentedly as her muffled howls begin to escalate. "I did several searches after, but worldwide data at that point was almost impossible to collate, so there are several places in the world even now who tell stories of the day all the toads vanished, since knowing my Brother, he wasn't subtle about acquiring them. It may be an Apocalypse, granted, but mass toad dematerialization is memorable no matter the time period."

He pauses for a moment to observe Alison, who is making noises not unlike squeaking between helplessly gasped breaths.

"As you are now, so he was then," he finishes, slumping in his chair; it's remarkable how comfortable that is. "Surrounded by the corpses of various amphibians and coagulating puddles, I realized I'd rebelled against the Host to be chased across the Deep South by a plethora of government agencies bent on arresting me on a truly excessive number of federal warrants--some, admittedly, for crimes I was guilty of committing--and was now sitting under a log in southern West Virginia during a rain of blood and amphibians caused by my Brother with someone who thought this was an appropriate time to indulge in a fit of hysterics because, of all things, I sat on a dead toad. At least, I assume it was dead, it reached terminal velocity before the ground terminated its descent--" He pauses at her breathless gasp and stops fighting his smile. "Should I…."

"Fine," she gasps helplessly, making a choked sound before straightening, face bright-red and mouth trembling. Wiping her eyes, she hiccups another laugh before looking at him, hazel eyes bright. "Sorry. Keep going."

"No offense taken. It was--the future only held misery and privation, the past was unchangeable, and the present was beginning to smell of putrefying amphibian corpses and my socks were utterly soaked with what I knew wasn't water and would have to deal with as it began to dry. Dean wouldn't stop laughing. It was--unthinkable. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before." He looks up at the porch roof, unable to stop smiling. "There was nowhere else I wanted to be or anyone else I wanted to be with at that moment. Even if it was sitting on a dead toad and listening to Dean laugh at me. Revelation is usually much less personally traumatic and generally doesn't require washing blood from my ears later."

(Later, a surprisingly shaken Dean would tell him he thought he was going crazy as they wrung out their (utterly revolting) socks, but he didn't care. He remembered the warm, blood-and-mud churned earth soaking through his coat and bloody rain on his face and the hard ache in his chest from air he didn't need to breathe but did need to laugh, and it would start again, bubbling up in unexpected bursts.)

She grins at him. "Yeah, that's pretty much the definition of humor."

"I'd been hoping for confirmation but never was sure how to ask." He shrugs. "I've been told mine can be an acquired taste."

"I wouldn't worry about them," she replies, eyes dancing. "Gotta say, whoever said that doesn't sound too bright."

"I suppose--if there's not anything else you wish to know, you should go to bed." Looking taken aback, her smile starts to fade. "There's nothing I can do about the effect my presence has on you tonight, but while I told Amanda I would be here for training tomorrow--I suppose to increase her confidence, she wasn't clear--I'll tell Dean that something needs my attention at the camp and I need to deal with it immediately. David will be reporting at noon, and if reality won't accommodate me, and it usually doesn't, I'll make something up."

"You're leaving? Tomorrow?" she asks in dramatic example of stating the obvious. "Why? Because I can't sleep? My life, welcome to it. I told you, it's not that bad…."

"It's very pleasant here, but I'm not--as you know--particularly social," he answers. "I understand why Dean enjoys his visits here so much, but--"

"One shitty party and I get a lifetime grudge for it? Come on." Her eyes sharpen unsettlingly. "You hate it here that much?"

"I'm not a people person. I won't--do anything to limit Dean's visits, of course--"

"That's not…." She looks away. "Well, nice meeting you, I guess."

Yes, it could have been, he appreciates the reminder. Taking a deep breath, he starts to get to his feet. "Likewise. If there's nothing else--"

"It was the Atlantic."

He stops mid-motion. "What?"

"Earlier--you were thinking of water. Atlantic ocean, east coast--Massachusetts, Gay Head Cliffs." Her mouth tightens. "Sorry it took so long to put it together--"

He drops back into his chair, staring at her.

"--but it was harder than I thought." She looks at him challengingly. "So did I pass your test or what?"

"Describe what you saw."

She takes a deep breath, looking annoyed. "I told you--Atlantic Ocean, Massachusetts, Gay Head Cliffs--late summer, I think." Her eyes unfocus. "Late afternoon, empty beach--oh, never mind, they're in the water, missed that earlier."

"Who's in the water?" he asks mechanically, lips numb.

"One--nope, make that two kids," she answers, expression softening. "Looks like they're having a blast, wish I was there." She sighs, eyes focusing again. "Look, it was a lot of information--I've never had to work this much to get it all before. Usually, it's--"

"--effortless, yes." He tries to think. "Is that all?"

"God, no," she answers, which is exactly what he didn't want to hear. "Just what I have so far. It's gonna takes me a little more time to get the rest."

"That would be forever," he murmurs, then shakes his head at her sharp look. "That wasn't a test."

"Then what was it?"

"A memory." He focuses at the empty street, the darkness broken periodically by pools of dim yellow light. "When he was very young, Dean's father left him at a small motel near the Atlantic coastline while he worked a job nearby. As usual, it took longer than he expected, and there were limited amusements to be found at the motel, so Dean went exploring and ended up at the beach. He'd never seen the ocean before, and he thought it went on forever." He licks his lips, remembering. "He spent hours playing in the surf, and it was very warm--he always remembered it that way, warm and very safe, happy, free, I think. He'd never seen anything but a motel swimming pool in his life before then, and after that, they felt wrong, to small, too…." He cuts himself off. "Only a child would look upon the Atlantic Ocean and judge its safety by the lack of chemicals and the warmth of the water. Only John Winchester would think to leave children unsupervised by the second largest body of water on the planet and not consider the danger."

She checks a nod. "Your memory?"

"Yes." Mouth dry, he licks his lips. "As an angel--he was my charge, and while all human thought is open to us, his--I was curious. He used to think of the ocean when he was troubled, and I wanted to know why. It was a simple matter to go to that time and place and watch him for myself. Infinite knowledge isn't the same as personal experience; it was a lesson I should have remembered. He said something a few days ago--it's not important, it reminded me of that."

"I wonder what he would have made of the Pacific," she muses, head in hand. "Valente beach: me and Neer were on vacation in LA a few years ago. Never been so cold in my life while getting a sunburn." She shrugs at his expression. "It's very cold, Cas. You aren't ready for that in one hundred and six degree heat."

He stares at her, not sure if he's supposed to answer that. It's true, after all; it is indeed very cold.

"Who's the other kid with him?" Castiel freezes. "Family, best friend, random meeting on the beach? Probably not the last--at least, it didn't feel random. Close? Very close, actually--what?" Her eyes widen. "Cas, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," he answers automatically. "Just surprised, is all."

"Why? You showed it to me." She frowns a little, eyes unfocusing. "Though gotta tell you, not easy to put it together. Like--"

"--a lot of information? It would be. That memory was created while I was deliberately in linear time, so its singular in time, but not in place. Yes, it would take you a very long time to put it together in its entirety, but I wouldn't recommend it, though admittedly, Andromeda was developing sixteen forms of sentient life and one reached the equivalent of the stone age at that very moment…. You'd find it fascinating, but I don't think that Time will last long enough for you to get there. And your mortality would also be of concern--" He forces himself to stop. "As I said, it was a surprise."

"I wish I could read your mind right now," she says softly. "So I'd know why you're looking at me like that."

"You're stronger than I thought," he tells her. "Much stronger."

"What does that mean? Why--" Abruptly, the color drains from her face. "Cas? Just tell me."

He'd lie if he thought it would help, but in this case, ignorance is dangerous. "Latent psychics manifest at only a fraction of their full abilities, sometimes in childhood, but more often during early puberty, when the brain is far more malleable. The time it takes to reach their threshold is variable, but it's usually a matter of years, not months. And you…." He makes himself continue. "Alison, you read the memory of an angel--at least, all you had the context to understand--from the tiniest portion I focused on to give you in a single glimpse, because even now, I have to be careful when exposing you. If that's what you can do after only four months…."

"It started too strong and too late, it's progressing too fast, and I'm not near the threshold after four months," she finishes for him, voice breaking on the last word. Reluctantly, he nods. "It's going to get stronger? How much more…."

"There's no way to be certain." He remembers that night in Kansas City with Dean, seeing all of Creation with human senses; it's no consolation to realize now that even a human mind can find it difficult to focus. Spending all her time and energy simply keeping herself from being subsumed in those around her leaves very little time to do anything else, and it won't ever become easier. "You said it's quieter at night, but everyone in this building would be asleep at night, so your range is farther than that now." She nods shortly. "All of Ichabod?" She closes her eyes. "Farther?"

She wets her lips, hazel eyes bleak. "South fields now. Patrol's outer perimeter, I guess. Hans was…he tripped. German profanity, learned a lot." Taking a deep breath, she nods. "So going crazy, definitely on the table."

"No, of course not--"

"I hear too much now, and I'm not even trying," she snaps, voice breaking again. "And you're telling me it's going to get worse? I'm not strong enough for this!"

"You are," he answers, feeling more helpless than he has at any time since he Fell. "You just don't know it yet."

Alison blinks, starting to frown. "What did you just--"

"When I was angel," he continues, "it wouldn't have mattered. Grace makes all things possible. I could have shown you everything in a thought. I could have controlled it for you until you believed you could do it yourself."

"When you were an angel, you wouldn't have even thought of it." She shrugs, looking away. "This much about angels I think I can guess from what Teresa said. This is life in quantum, and angels see the universe in its entirety. I would have been far too small for you to notice or care if you did." She rolls her eyes when he starts to protest, though how he'd do so while avoiding hypocrisy is a mystery. "Care in the individual, Cas, not the whole. This is--small, nothing. I'm a drop in infinity."

Glancing at the window behind which Dean sleeps in oblivious comfort, she pauses, looking surprised. "The ocean," she breathes. "That's why he thought of it. That's perfect. I always sleep like gangbusters on cruises. Never get seasick, got lucky there: Neer gets queasy just looking at water. Tell Dean thanks for that one."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." She looks her disappointment in his inability to lie well. "You have no idea what you're talking about. You can't even read his mind!"

"I don't need to," she answers. "Experience, not infinite knowledge, you said; that's why you were thinking about it today."

"He thinks of me as the Atlantic Ocean? Warm, safe, and prone to violent hurricanes that regularly devastate the coastline?"

"No, the Atlantic is a motel pool," she answers reasonably. "What else could it be after seeing an infinite ocean? Can't even imagine the hurricanes there." She snorts. "Hell of a lot better than your comparison, by the way. Folded fucking space…."

"Now that's interesting."

"What? It's a good analogy."

"You seem to think so, yes." Before she can answer, he stops her with a shake of his head. "Tell me what it's like for you now? Anything like…" He thinks for a moment. "A very large party? Very loud, far too many people--trying to find a lightswitch? Machetes." Alison's blank stare isn't encouraging.. "It's how I--never mind. It's a metaphor."

"A big party," she says, checking for his nod. "Lots of people, loud music, everyone getting high and talking about their personal revelations at the top of their lungs whether you care or not--I've been to parties like that."

"I've had parties like that." He grins at her mocking expression of shock. "Next time you see Amanda, mention the transcendental qualities of 'shrooms. Trust me, what she'll think of will be--unflattering, yes, but extremely funny."

"Using my powers for personal amusement?" she asks, a reluctant grin tugging at her lips. "What kind of angel are you?"

"One with an extremely long bucket list to check off, and it's still in progress," he answers, bracing an elbow on the arm of his chair. "So the party?"

"Uncannily accurate, now that I think about it. Why?"

"Your one thing," he murmurs, swinging his legs off the rail and turning the chair to face her before sitting down again. "Let's try a variation, however. You'll need to be facing me for this."

She raises an eyebrow. "What am I doing?"

"Something new," he answers, grinning at her. "Be not afraid, for--"

"Whoa, that's spooky," she remarks, tilting her head to study him. "Tell me you had a halo. Dean didn't know."

"I'll tell you anything you want," he answers impatiently. "If you'll please do this, as it's late, I may or may not be experiencing a sense of tiredness--"

"--and you want to go cuddle with your boyfriend?" she asks sweetly. "Join the club: substitute 'my girlfriend' where relevant."

"Ten minutes and we'll both get our wish," he says. "Or I could move you myself. Angelic strength is useful for so many things."

She scowls. "Fine." She carefully shifting her legs to the ground and turns in her chair to face him, performing a picture-perfect attitude of rapt attention. Oscars have been given for far less. "Now what?"

"I'm going to show you something, and you won't understand it at first, but hold it in your mind, every detail. Close your eyes; I need you to focus." With a dubious look, she obeys, and he closes his eyes as well, carefully forming the image in his mind and filling in each precise detail this time, aware he's skirting very close to what he once believed was far too dangerous for any human mind. Time has taught him, if nothing else, that it's usually safe to assume that nothing the Host taught him could possibly be true if they believed it, and the limitations of human mind is only one of those things. Opening his eyes, he studies her frown of concentration. "Do you see it? Describe it."

Frown deepening, she licks her lips. "A lot of emptiness, really interesting--" She stops, tilting her head. "Wait, it's not empty. It's--waiting?"

"Good." Taking a deep breath, he continues. "What else?"

"There's a dot," she says, screwing up her face. "Just off-center or so. Tiny, but it's bright."

"It's very small," he agrees. "It's still growing. It needs time. Focus on it, every detail. You seem to have a talent for that." She pauses, biting her lip. "Do you have it?"

"Yeah, got it." She opens her eyes curiously. "Okay, I give up. What is it? Andromeda?"

"Infinity." He doesn't laugh when her mouth drops open, but it's very hard. "The space around it is in abeyance--potential, unused, still waiting for form. What will be infinity once it's filled."

She lets out a low whistle. "Wow. Where did you get this?"

"Before I rebelled, I never knew that space existed. What I could see was only within that tiny light. Afterward, when I still had Grace, when I could still see all things, that space appeared at its edges--the waiting, as you call it--and I was curious what it was." He remembers looking at it for a long time before finally seeking it out, trying to find the meaning of it, and every time he looked, it grew larger, wider, a vastness that he began to realize was without limit. "At first I couldn't understand what I was seeing or why it was empty. It was new--the first new thing I'd ever seen there. I suppose it had always been there, but I hadn't known to look. I still don't know why I did."

She nods before saying, very gently, "You can't see it anymore?"

"No." When I'm very high, when I'm very stoned, when I'm very drunk, I pretend I still can. "Not since I Fell. This is only a memory of the last time I looked."

To his relief, she doesn't inquire further. "So it's waiting. Waiting for what?"

"For you." The memory alone is still enough to make him catch his breath. "Thoughts you haven't had, dreams you haven't dreamed, hopes you haven't yet formed, choices you haven't made--potential unrealized. The length of your life that is yet to be lived in all you aren't yet and haven't decided to be, all you'll ever do." He finds himself staring up at the slice of sky beyond the porch roof and starless night beyond. "The human mind--infinity bothers you, it always has, you can't really see it, and it can drive you insane if you try. This is why: that dot is all angels can see because we live within it, all that is and was and will be, all that is known, but you--your mind is already spoken for, it has far too much to do creating what wasn't before and isn't yet and almost is, and could and would and should be."

She stares at him, mouth dropping open. "Holy. Shit."

"Know thyself," he says. "What I showed you was yourself, that light surrounded by potential. You're not a drop of infinity, none of you are; you are its creators."

She blinks, wordless; experience suggests that's rare for her.

"And to think," he tells her, "I used to have to contemplate amoebas. It's--"

"Funny," she finishes for him. "I get you there."

"I thought you would. Now look at all of it, all that is there to see." He watches her, the hazel eyes still unfocused. "You did it before, and you weren't even trying."

She wets her lips, forehead creasing in effort. "It's--it's a lot…." Her lips part in shock. "Oh my God."

"What do you see?"

One cold hand abruptly closes over his wrist, eyes opening blindly, and he watches, breathless, as she shows him: a vastness that reaches the length of Creation, the darkness shattering at each flare of light, supernovas bursting into being before his eyes.

"That's it," he whispers as more appear, each faster than the last; she's learning. "It's perfect."

"There are--Christ, they're everywhere. How many….?" He fights back a laugh when more appear, flooding her mind with light. "There are more?"

"All who were, are, and will be," he answers, feeling his own smile at the awe in her voice. "We can watch it all, if you wish, but that might take a while."

She nods shortly, another field of brilliance appearing. "Right, so--how do I stop?"

"That's easy," he answers. "The first thing I showed you; that was you. One light among all that you see; go and find it."

"You're kidding. Here?" Her hand tightens on his wrist. "I can't--"

"Of course you can." It expands again, almost but not quite out of her control, not yet. "Your one thing, Alison; it's yourself. Now find it."

She licks her lips, forehead creasing in effort, and he spares a wary look at the arms of the chair beneath one white-knuckled hand, wondering distractedly if anyone here knows how to repair wood. The fabric is most definitely going to be a loss, but a competent upholsterer can take care of that. His wrist, on the other hand….

"You're strong enough," he says quietly as beads of sweat begin to form, glittering on her forehead like captive stars. "You've never been anything else."

She begins to tremble. "Cas--"

"You can do this." Even an angel can't convince someone of anything that isn't true. "Until you can believe it yourself, believe me. One light among many, all that you are and were and could ever be, it's before you now." Reaching out, he cups her face, making her meet his eyes. "Show me. Now."

It stops; a moment frozen, a vast stretch of brightness, before it begins to narrow again, and her mind forms that first point of brightness, blurred and unsteady like an uncertain picture before she focuses and it comes to life.

She sucks in a breath, her expression turns into wonder as the single, shining point of light filling both their minds, flawless.

"Perfect," he says softly. "Well done."

She sucks in a shaky breath, exhaling slowly. "That's me?"

"Yes." He tilts his head. "What do you hear now?"

"I--" Her eyes widen, hazel eyes focusing on him in shock. "Nothing. How….crap!" The image wavers when her concentration weakens--and with it, he assumes the sounds of patrol, possibly near the south fields--and he watches in satisfaction as she focuses on it again, holding it carefully in her mind this time before neatly splitting her attention. "What did you do?"

"You're doing it," he corrects her, wondering if there's any subtle way to ask her to let go of his wrist. "What a psychic does is glimpse infinity--limited, of course, human minds are far too busy to contemplate the endless wonders of the amoeba, much less all Creation--and how you interpret it will always be personal. Eventually, your mind would have--from self-defense, if nothing else--learned to filter it, but until then…."

She nods, forehead creasing when the image wavers again. "How long can I--"

"Eventually, with practice, you'll be able to do it indefinitely, but I don't recommend it," he answers honestly. "In a sense, this is a dam, and for that matter, your first dam, and it's not very strong yet. When you begin to feel the strain, let it dissolve immediately, and wait until the feeling subsides fully before trying again. Otherwise--"

"Because it could break," she says, nodding. "Good metaphor, you're getting better. Don't tell me--it breaks, insanity's on the table?"

"It's possible but extremely unlikely," he answers dismissively. "Drop it now."

"What? No--"

"It's your first, and it's not strong," he interrupts. "I want to make sure you can do it again from the beginning. Keep projecting--I need to watch while you do it."

She sighs deeply and clears her mind, wincing slightly, and he winces as well; she's a very good projector, and apparently has no problem at all with using it to make sure he suffers along with her. Despite that--the patrol, the power plant, several people with insomnia, several very cranky children, if it's like this at night, he has no desire to find out what it's like when everyone is awake--he's finds himself fascinated.

"Cas?" The projection starts to fade, edged with worry. For him.

"No," he says, shaking his head quickly. "I'm fine. It's--different."

"From when you were an angel?" He nods distractedly. "Hold on, I think--yeah."

He stills at the flood of sensory data, organizing it instinctively--

"Whoa," Alison breathes, startled. "That's fast."

It's not, linear time is so tedious, entire milliseconds passed; out of time is far preferable. A human mind is far more than the thin layer of conscious thought she was able to interpret now, and for him, it's effortless.

"Can I do that?" she asks softly, and he hesitates, thinking about it.

"You could, eventually," he answers slowly, holding her eyes. "A human mind can be as open to you as a book, and you can do what you will with it. Read it, write in it--"

"Destroy it," she says, revulsion rippling through her so strongly contact nausea is a problem.

He nods. "One day, yes."

"I don't want this, Cas," she says, starting to sound frantic: fear, the most dangerous thing of all. "I could hurt someone--"

"I could break your neck before you even realize I've moved," he says patiently. "And yet, I don't."

Her eyes narrow. "It's not the same thing!"

"You can be a weapon," he answers, tilting his head. "As I can be. That doesn't mean you are one, or you can't choose how you use it. Free will: perhaps you've heard of it?"

She glares back, baffled annoyance replacing the fear; excellent. "That doesn't help!"

"It should; it's the entire point of your existence."

Comprehension washing over her face. "This afternoon--you weren't just being a dick. You really were worried about me. About what I could do."

"I was being a dick," he corrects her. "But yes, it was also genuine concern. Dean's judgment is excellent, but I had to be certain."

She hesitates. "You didn't know I was this strong, either."

"It's irrelevant." She stares at him blankly. "I'm not worried you'll abruptly decide to use your abilities for personal gain and assemble a mind-controlled army to try and conquer the earth. Though," he admits, considering it thoughtfully, "even then, you'd definitely be preferable to my Brother. So there's that."

She shuts her mouth with an audible click of teeth.

"Now," he says reluctantly, turning his attention back to what they should be doing and away from the fascinating currents of human minds he's been following with half his attention, "you need to practice. Three times, from the beginning: I'll watch."

Sinking back in chair, she sighs. "I see what you mean."

"It won't always be this tiring," he answers, and finally, she lets go of his wrist to rub her eyes. Surreptitiously, he tugs down the sleeve of his jacket, but unfortunately, she opens her eyes to glare at him and notes her own hand, short fingernails crusted with drying blood. "Uh--"

"What the hell--" Incredulous, her gaze darts from her hand to his wrist, and reaches to jerk back the cuff. "Did I---stupid question, of course I did."

'It's not that bad," he tries, then sighs, looking in resignation at the ring of bruises dotted with red half-moons and bites his lip, remembering Dean's wrist that day in Kansas City. "Karma in action, it seems."

"What?" she asks distractedly before looking toward the door. "Look, give me a minute, I'll--"

"Don't," he interrupts, bracing a foot on the arm of the chair before she can get up. "Dean will just redo it when he sees it anyway. Alicia's an EMT, and he does it to her, so spare yourself the effort."

"Dean." Alison groans, closing her eyes as her head thumps back against the chair. "He's going to kill me. Ran his boyfriend out of town and injured him on the same night."

"He won't--"

"He will." Abruptly, she looks at him, deliberately widening her eyes in a startlingly convincing imitation of hope. "Or….injury yes, but an accident, and you don't storm out of town a day early. Give me another chance to play nice; I can."

Despite himself, he smiles. "After I threatened to execute you?"

"I'm over it," she answers, gesturing expansively with her slightly bloody hand. "Water under the bridge."

To his surprise, he's not entirely opposed to the idea. "Alison--"

"Just think about it, okay?"

"You should be able to sleep now," he says abruptly before he can agree immediately; morning is early enough, that party was terrible. Standing up, he stretches absently before picking up the blanket and folding it over one arm and extending a hand to Alison, he helps her to her feet. "I'm very glad that worked for you, by the way."

She pauses in her reach for her cane, squinting up at him suspiciously. "Me, too."

"I was sure it would." As they reach the door and he starts to open it for her, he adds blandly, "Provided it didn't lead to permanent insanity, of course. The infinite can be troubling, as I said."

Whirling around, she glares up at him, cane slamming into the floor and giving the impression she's thinking of his head. "I could have gone crazy from seeing that?"

"Of course not," he assures her. "I was an angel of the Lord. Getting humans to believe me was in my job description."

Her mouth opens before she closes it with an audible snap. "You…."

"That was my A game," he says, smiling down at her. "And it's very good indeed. But it only works when what I say is true."

She blinks at him slowly, and idly, he wonders what she's calling him in her mind right now.

"Thank you, Castiel," she grates out. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"I was created to serve," he answers wistfully as he follows her inside. "My reward is having done good, as you know. Though--" he pauses at the sight of the kitchen and decides perhaps Ichabod's coffee shouldn't be despised after all. "I would like a few pounds of your coffee if you can spare it. It's far superior to what we have at home."

Despite his efforts to remain silent changing clothes for bed--which are very good indeed--Dean eyes slit open almost before he reaches what he assumes is his side of the bed, sleepy but startlingly focused.

"Hey." Yawning, he sits up, rubbing his eyes sleepily, hair smashed flat on the right side of his head, and Castiel forgets what he was going to do before bed. "So--wait, get in first, it's freezing." Castiel watches blankly as Dean reaches to shove the covers back invitingly. "Well?"

"It's barely forty-five Fahrenheit." Dean raises an eyebrow in eerie similarity to Alison, and taking a deep breath, he eases himself down on the (very comfortable) mattress, pulling up the blankets and arranging them meticulously around him, aware of Dean curled in a warm, sleepy bundle only inches away, watching him intently.

Salome danced for King Herod wearing scarves and chains of gold (and very little of both) for the head of John the Baptist; she was an amateur. Dean in two layers of clothing and under a pile of blankets could request Lucifer's heart and liver at this moment and he'd have them both at his feet before the break of dawn.

He reflects that he'd always assumed insanity--when it finally came, no matter how tardy it might be--would be somewhat freeing and not at any point involve the beginnings of a complicated plan to summon the last archangel in existence for extempore disembowelment. He's not even sure he has the right knife with him, and his supply of holy water may not be adequate. How he'd get to Jerusalem is anyone's guess, but perhaps….

"So how'd it go?" Dean prompts him, distracting him from trying to remember where the weakest point in spacetime is at this moment and if its thinned enough for potential opening with sufficient power; Ichabod does have an excellent power grid, after all, and electricity is indeed a form of power. "Cas?"

"You were right," he answers, just stopping himself from filing away this for future thought. He's not--actually--going to acquire anyone's internal organs for Dean's pleasure; for one, it's insane(he thinks), and Dean hasn't asked. There's something fundamentally wrong with that logic, he knows, but Dean's t-shirt-covered shoulder emerges from the quilt for a dizzying moment and he doesn't really care. "About Alison, I mean. However, I think she'll be better able to control it now. It's very new, but with practice--"

"Not what I meant." He shrugs. "Though yeah, that too."

"I don't know--" He starts to shrug as well, and winces as the thick wool grazes his wrist; that's what he was going to do before coming to bed. Dean frowns. "Everything's fine, yes."

Dean's eyebrows draw together suspiciously, one bare arm emerging from beneath the quilt like Venus from the sea, draped in foam the exact green of Dean's eyes, and he did not, did not just think that. For one, he remembers that day, and the green was far inferior to--

"I'm fine," he says a little desperately, meeting Dean's eyes (not foam at all: unset jade still untapped in the deepest of the earth, late summer leaves last seen in Eden itself). People sleep in beds together all the time, and sometimes they don't even have sex. This will be one of those times, but biology seems to be brutally unaware of that fact at the moment, and-- "Incipient insanity, you needn't be concerned. I think."

Dean opens his mouth, then abruptly focuses on the sheet between them. Following his gaze, Castiel sees a dark smear starting on the (unnaturally white) sheet near the pillow trailing down between them to disappear beneath the blankets in an inevitable path to his wrist. It's very dark, but Dean is a hunter, and a touch is all he needs. "Cas?"

"Yes, that." He takes a careful breath. "I forgot about that."

"That you're bleeding?" Dean asks incredulously, sitting up, flannel and faded quilt pooling alluringly around his waist, revealing the Grateful Dead logo stretched across the expanse of his chest, and Castiel forgets to breathe. "Where? How…."

Dean viciously jerks back the blankets--oh God, bare feet--and Castiel with no clear idea of what he's doing extends his wrist, resigned to the obvious hatred the universe feels for him that proves itself merciless when cool fingers wrap around his arm and tug his wrist--and him--closer. With an effort, he tears his gaze from the vivid purple ring of bruising and crescents of tacky-dried blood to look at Dean's flushed face.

That, he reflects far too late, is a mistake.

"What the fuck…"

"I'd bring all of Creation to its knees for your pleasure," he breathes and means every terrifying word.

"Nice try," Dean snarls back, hands at odds with his voice, almost achingly gentle. "Now, what the hell were you two doing out there? Did she do this? Why?"

He opens his mouth to answer and stops himself; he honestly doesn't know what might come out next, and he sincerely desires not to find out.

"You're gonna tell me all about it," Dean promises grimly, sliding out of bed and stomping to their bags. "While I fix it."

Forty-five minutes later--soap and water, peroxide, alcohol bath, antibiotic, topical anesthesia, all unneed, true, but who is he to argue with Dean's technique--his head is perfectly clear, and only awareness of the contrast is how he knows that earlier, it wasn't.

"I sent you to talk to her," Dean insists, carefully finishing the wrapping and securing it with tape. "Not for her to claw your skin off!"

"It was an accident," he replies. Again. "I almost broke your wrist--"

"That's different!" Dean snaps. Again. "Talk, not--"

"She needed help, I provided."

"You don't even like her!" Dean says incredulously.

"I never said that."

"You didn't need to." Sitting back cross-legged--and apparently no longer concerned with the current temperature, which is actually well above fifty--Dean stares at him. "Look, after that dinner tonight…." Abruptly, he looks down to study the tangle of bedcovers intently. "I know you said you were fine--"

"I am," he answers, with far more honesty now than then.

"I'm not." Dean glances up, a flicker of something he can't read passing across his face before he looks away again. "I've been thinking--"

"When?" he asks, startled. "You were asleep before I went out. You were snoring, in fact."

Dean's head comes up sharply. "I don't snore."

"A regular snort in the indrawn breath followed by a breathy exhale, every fourth period of respiration," he recites, not sure what to make of Dean's expression. "Rather soothing, like a metronome that occasionally mumbles--"

"I don't," Dean says slowly and very, very clearly, "snore. And why are we talking about this again?"

That, he decides, is the kind of rhetorical question that one should never, ever answer.

"Anyway," Dean says warningly, "I guess I woke up, happy? I was thinking about this--"

"I wasn't fine before," he interrupts. "Now, however, I am. More importantly, if I wasn't, I'd make myself be."

Dean blinks his desire for actual information. Not as precise as telepathy, but Dean's very expressive and at this moment, ambiguity is not a problem.

"She's a very quick learner, but technically speaking, I'm not a psychic, she's not an angel, and context is lacking. I thought after meeting Teresa that she would be enough, but I'm not sure."

Dean licks his lips. "She's not--she's not dangerous, Cas. Fine, she pissed you off with the party thing, I get that…." He trails off, wincing. "Okay, that was shitty, you wouldn't--never mind, sorry."

"I reserve the right to take offense in the morning," he answers dismissively. "Yes, she's dangerous, but so am I and so are you. She should be dead by now, and the only reason she isn't is whatever's keeping this state a utopia of peace and quiet."

"Because she's that strong?" Dean asks, leaning back on one hand and looking into the middle distance. "What you said about the Host earlier, for the record, I didn't know angels did that. Human shit, non-intervention--when it's not part of your dad's plan, of course."

"That's because generally, we don't have to--or rather, the potential remains unrealized," he starts. "They tend to go insane, kill themselves--or inspire someone very committed and somewhat suicidal to do it for them--or they're killed before they're strong enough to fight back. Or even know there's something to fight." He hesitates. "Whatever is protecting Kansas, when it falls, this town will be like a beacon, and nothing and no one will be spared to kill her before she even learns how to use her abilities, much less reach her full potential."

Dean sucks in a breath. "You didn't say anything earlier."

"I didn't know until an hour ago." He sighs, annoyed. "I didn't want to, and that was my mistake, which is now rectified. Despite what I said, I--wasn't actually as resigned to this visit as I may have seemed."

"You don't say." Dean rolls his eyes; apparently, that was more obvious than he thought. "So that's why you're suddenly saying you're okay with being here? To--make sure she doesn't go evil or…."

"Protect her from evil as well as this town," he says, tilting his head in bewilderment. "My job, as it were."

"I thought angels killed psychics."

"I'm a hunter," he says slowly, wondering if perhaps that unfortunate earlier--incident--is now affecting Dean. "We protect people. She is a person. Ergo, I shall protect her. We will, I mean, unless you have some objection."

Dean smiles, slow and remarkably satisfied. "Yeah, you are. And this afternoon, the avenging angel--"

"Former. That was then, and this is now." He shrugs. "I contain multitudes."

Dean bursts out laughing.

After packing up the kit and putting it back in his bag, Dean crawls into bed, and wary, Castiel relaxes when there's no bewildering comparisons to Salome or Venus, nor a pressing desire to conquer the world in Dean's name.

(Lucifer's heart and liver are still on the table, but honestly, they've never been off it, so there's that. That's just good fun.)

"My watch," Dean tells him as he wriggles under the covers--highly distracting, and very much worth extensive contemplation, excellent--before rolling on his side. "What about that?"

"What about it?" he replies absently, resigned when biology continues to be very inconvenient indeed. And his next scheduled shower isn't until tomorrow night; perhaps he could borrow someone else's shower. It bears investigation.

"For my pleasure," Dean answers, getting Castiel's undivided attention at the slow, deliberate drawl that turns 'pleasure' into several obscenely long syllables. "How about fixing my watch? It's been broken almost since I got here."

Castiel narrows his eyes. "Fuck you."

"Get my watch fixed," Dean says smugly, "and I'll think about it."

Dean's in an surprisingly good mood when he joins them for breakfast, which Castiel assisted Amanda in preparing, much to her dubious assent and almost insulting surprise, while Alison and Teresa explained their usual daily schedule to Dean. To his surprise, Castiel fell asleep remarkably fast despite the unfamiliar surroundings, distracting bedmate, and biology; perhaps he's getting better at sleep. Dean's snoring was very soothing.

"So what's on the schedule for today?" Castiel asks politely as everyone sits down at the worn dining room table for a late breakfast. In honor of their visit--and due to the fact that today Amanda will begin her first training class for Chitaqua's potential hunters--Alison and Teresa, along with Tony and several members of Ichabod's council, took the morning off their usual duties to observe and provide encouragement to the new trainees, who today will meet at ten instead of the dawn.

("Hangovers," Amanda told Dean when he asked. "They all partied like it was the last day of their lives last night. I'm not gonna be a monster on their first day." She looked at Castiel, eyes narrowing. "Unlike some people I could name."

"If I can fight with a hangover," he told her from the stove, "I see no reason any of you should be unable to do so. After all, you would definitely need to one day, from my observations of your usual habits."

"You'd know," Amanda shot back. "You organized some of our habits yourself. All day events, if I remember correctly."

Dean said, horrified, "What is it about 'making a good impression' don’t you two get?"

Alison and Teresa pretended they were choking on their excellent coffee, ten pounds of which is currently in Castiel's bag.)

Here, sunrise isn't necessarily the beginning of anyone's day. Manuel only just went to bed after his night on patrol, while his fiancée Mercedes and Sudha started at dawn in this building's communal garden, tending to their portion of the town's winter crops. The other residents are already engaged in their daily tasks, which means that Castiel's first attempt at pancakes is currently being evaluated by only Dean, Alison, Teresa, and Amanda, with a promise to Manuel that if successful, some be saved for him when he awakens this afternoon.

"Nothing new for them," Amanda says over her forkful, looking almost insultingly surprised after taking a wary bite. "Wow. You can cook? Since when?" Her eyes travel to Dean, one corner of her mouth quirking. "I withdraw the question."

"Shut up," Dean mumbles happily around his fork, already half-way through his stack of four. Castiel makes a mental note to assure they have sufficient flour to make them a regular addition to Dean's menu at Chitaqua; it's rare now for him to show so much enthusiasm when eating. Dean gives him a significant look that escapes him before he abruptly remembers that Dean can't ask questions about training since he's supposed to be the one to have designed it.

"For the benefit of Alison and Teresa," Castiel says, taking a sip of the truly superlative coffee, and ignoring Dean rolling his eyes at his attempt at subtlety, "perhaps you could explain."

Amanda looks up mid-chew and swallows quickly. "First week is evaluation," she says, turning her attention to Teresa and Alison. "It's stuff they all know from either patrol here or from what me and Mark showed them, see what they're good at and what needs work. Then we'll start working on getting it through their heads that they're not coming out of this able to take on a demon and kill it with their bare hands. Not gonna happen."

"Stronger, faster, and superpowers," Dean agrees like he's ticking off each point from an internal list, which he probably is. "Can't even hurt some things, and the rest heal right in front of us. We're outclassed every time. It's so fucking annoying, you have no idea."

"What he means," Amanda says when Alison starts to look alarmed, "is that mano e mano in the manly art of beating up each other to see who does it best is--well, stupid. We'll lose every time. So we gotta approach it differently. Hunters have been doing this for centuries; we don't survive long if we turn it into a whose cock is bigger contest. It's theirs, always."

"Seriously?" Dean asks breathlessly, after a few long, red-faced moments of visibly attempting not to choke. "Good impression, remember?"

Amanda flashes him an unrepentant grin before continuing. "First thing they learn: they can't win in a straight fight. That's the hardest part for some people to get; it's not always--or even mostly--about killing the enemy. It's about the survival of the people you're protecting, and if possible, surviving yourself. Dying is the only time you fail, and it's not heroic, not when you have other options; all you did is lower the number of defenders for those you're supposed to protect."

From the corner of his eye, Castiel sees Dean looking at him, one corner of his mouth quirking before he stuffs another forkful of pancakes his mouth.

"So what you and Mark do in the mornings," Alison says, still looking a little worried, "that's not enough to kill what you usually hunt."

Amanda winces, but before she can try to answer, Castiel does it for her. "Amanda can fight me and occasionally bring me to a draw. Under the right circumstances, she could kill me." Alison shuts her mouth with an audible click as Teresa leans forward, looking intrigued. "Possibly Mark could as well, but he's far too intimidated by me to believe he can, so it doesn't matter. However, Amanda, like Mark, has been a hunter all her life. There are certain benefits to having a lifetime of experience first."

"And being re-trained by a sadistic ex-angel with a perpetual hangover helps," Amanda says brightly, ignoring Dean's glare to smirk at Castiel and Castiel's polite reminder he doesn't get hangovers (Eldritch Horror doesn't count). "Not knocking method here: it worked." Turning her attention to Alison and Teresa, she shakes her head. "We're outclassed--humans always are--but that just means we learn how to make do with what we have. I might be able to kill Cas," she gives him a quick, surprised look, "but I wouldn't survive it. If I was the only line of defense for a group of civilians, all I've done is temporarily delayed their deaths until something else gets them. There aren't enough hunters to take those kinds of risks, not if we have any other option. Their job is to keep people alive any way they can. My job is to teach them all the options I can and how to find new ones so they can do that."

"During my apprenticeship, our instruction followed a similar principle," Teresa offers, getting Alison's startled attention, a trace of habitual fear in her eyes. "As my mother put it, it's very difficult to do your job well once you're dead."

"Exactly." Amanda pauses for a drink of coffee. "One bad habit I don't have to worry about is training them to work together; you already do that. Let's say hunters generally don't, and a lot of training is teaching them not only to do it, but it's okay not to single-handedly take on everything you see. Besides," she adds cheerfully, "just because killing them in single combat is off the table doesn't mean you can't hurt 'em, though, so kicking ass is also on the agenda. Distract the enemy with violence and everything while your team's working on options, and it's a fun way to pass the time while you're waiting."

"What kind of options?" Alison asks curiously as Castiel reaches for Dean's plate, getting up to check on the amount of batter remaining in the bowl before turning on the electric griddle and reaching for the flour. There's plenty of time to make another batch.

Two hours before dusk, Castiel waits at Alison's for David to arrive from Chitaqua with Melanie's report. Dean, of course, found an excuse to return to Ichabod to take a shift at the daycare after an early lunch and is currently spending a few happy hours being tackled by small children.

("I don't think Ichabod worried he would do anything sketchy if he wasn't watched," Amanda told him the day before. "More losing Chitaqua's leader wasn't good public relations, and I warned them he didn't need to know he was being watched to do his vanishing act. Apparently, they got around that by random releases of two to three year olds into the town square to play. Screaming kids are better than sirens; five minutes or less, Dean was there for important playing duty, everyone was relieved, and we still look crazy, but now also for having a leader who genuinely likes toddlers." She looked at him uncertainly. "I'm kind of on the fence on whether that's any better. I didn't even know Dean liked kids.")

Alison's second (more enthusiastic) tour after lunch ended in her small office in the administration building, showing him how Ichabod was organized. As they'd begun in a deserted town, the foundation of their current organization was created by the first to settle here and improved over two years and a half years and over eight hundred additional residents.

It's perhaps the single most fascinating afternoon of his life, as before his eyes is revealed the administration of an entire town and exactly how it should be done. He blesses his perfect memory; taking notes is very slow, and he'd need a great number of notebooks to do it thoroughly.

Ichabod has a four shift rotation of six hours each for daily tasks, with a more complex system that covers those required weekly, monthly, quarterly, seasonally, and annually, all very neatly organized on fascinatingly complex series of spreadsheets and programs that the settlers--being programmers--wrote themselves or adapted from projects they worked on before. Alison's introduction to their system the day before was fascinating, and she assured him that if he wished, they could adapt it for use in Chitaqua now that they are utilizing computers. She mentioned the need for a server as well, which he plans to have Chuck explain to him thoroughly so they can acquire one.

During the planting and harvesting seasons--in which the entire town took shifts in the fields, both adults and children old enough to help--the work could be grueling, but experience--and learning to use the large number of farming machines--made it far easier than they expected when they first arrived. While the training they offered was the deciding factor, Alison told him honestly, the offer of manual labor was a very large part of their initial interest; having so many physically fit adults available to help would greatly increase what they could afford to plant and harvest for both trade and surplus for future need and decrease their reliance on the border guards and the military's staple deliveries, the latter of which was often both very basic and sometimes not of the best quality. The former, of course, were expensive, and need was the most expensive of all.

"Not to mention the competition every quarter when the military hands out supplies," Alison told him as he explored their inventory lists with a tap of the down button and adding another mental note about speaking to Chuck regarding Chitaqua's inexcusably inefficient reliance on paper. "Got dangerous at the border stations around that time, even if you were armed. We haven't gone to one in about a year now."

"Joseph is careful to time our visits to the border between those," he said. "Harlin and Noak told us they have had problems with raiders near those times."

"Mutual defense was a pretty big factor in the trade alliance, and not just from what goes bump in the night," she said wryly. "That's why we run patrol all the way to the highway and why you didn't know we were watching you until we wanted you to."

Castiel grinned at her. "I was impressed when Joseph told me about your timing."

"We've had a lot of practice," she said, matching his grin. "We trade-off who does the outside circuit, watch for anything sketchy. Last raid in Noak at the end of February, about a week before the drop. They held them easy until the rest of us got there and scared them off."

"Nothing since?"

She shook her head. "Two drops since, we watched every group that passed; no one even slowed down. Ichabod's lucky; the only part of the town you can see from any road is the eastern side, and it's pretty much destroyed. From the highway, you can't see us at all." She sighed. "It's worse near the internal borders in the zone; they have a quarter of the personnel the outer borders do, and the guards don't give a shit. If they happen to notice, all you gotta do is pay up to pass." She gave him a searching look. "You never had problems?"

"Chitaqua is difficult to find," he answered vaguely. "There are also no populated towns near us, and the camp doesn't appear on any maps of Kansas."

Dean's illness occurred during the last quarterly drop; it was almost a week after that he implemented the statewide patrol schedule, at which time those who migrated to the eastern and southern checkpoints for the supplies offered by the military would have returned home. That doesn't explain why they've never seen any sign of people on the major or minor roads all this time; surely at least some of the raiders don't keep to a quarterly timetable to attack less well-protected towns.

"Lucky you," Alison told him with a faint trace of irony before they returned to her laptop and its plethora of information, showing him the organizational structure of the town's various functions, one of the most important is daycare and school for the town's children, who make almost thirty percent of the total population.

Many were orphans, either discovered by Ichabod's patrol or residents during infrequent forays to other towns or brought with new arrivals, and adopted by members of the community. Tony's daughters and Sreeleela and Sreenivasa's son were among a group of thirty-two orphans found soon after Ichabod was settled, quadrupling the number of children in the town at the time and making child care and school an immediate priority.

"We really like kids," Alison said with a shrug as he scanned the latest town census that included four newborns (three male, one female, all healthy and of average weight and length).

He looked at her curiously. "Taking them in must have made your first months here more difficult, however."

"More mouths to feed, you mean?" She sat back in her chair, frowning in the direction of the laptop screen. "It wasn't like there was a convenient orphanage or Child Protective Services office in the zone; they didn't have anywhere else to go. Anyway, everyone here was in the same boat as the kids--lost our families, lost our homes--so I guess like called to like."

From his seat on the front porch, observing the constant ebb and flow of adults and children who pass oblivious to his presence, chattering voices interspersed with bursts of laughter and cheerful shrieks, Castiel thinks about what Alison said about Ichabod's residents; the zoning of Kansas changed their world, in some ways as much as Falling changed his. That they built new lives isn't a surprise--humans adapt, that's what they do--but knowing that as an angel and experiencing it in all its mundane details is very different.

Millennia of observing humans in their native habitat gave him less than no context for living among them in Chitaqua, the long days (weeks, months) of learning the width of the abyss that exists between theory and practice in a world so alien he couldn't imagine being anything but the most reluctant of visitors. The bustling population of Ichabod, so different from Chitaqua in more ways than he can count, is new, fascinating, like visiting a foreign country, marking its differences in customs and people from those at home as well as the similarities from a safe (non-interactive) distance.

Taking another drink of coffee, he tentatively explores the novel thought for flaws, searching for those feelings of alienation he took for granted for so long that it never occurred to him might have changed. The memories remain, of course--the grinding misery and difficulty of learning how to function not just in his body but with a body, surrounded by people he couldn't hope to understand in a world that made no sense to him, the bitterness and anger and frustration that colored everything he did--but the immediacy has dulled. It was a long time ago, he told Dean by rote, never realizing it was actually true.

Dean was right and wrong; it's been over two and a half years since he Fell, but those first miserable months were always yesterday, as if time itself were trapped in amber. That changed, however, that night in Kansas City when he didn't die, the world didn't end, and he met the man who would tell him he should try living life instead of simply marking time until the end. He thinks perhaps he should tell Dean that night in Kansas City might very well be when he did.

"Hey, Cas!" Castiel lowers his cup at the sight of David coming down the street, face wreathed in a cheerful smile. From the way his eyes fix on the half-empty coffee cup before he straightens, caffeine would be welcome. "So--"

"Coffee?" he asks, and David nods frantically, looking relieved. Getting to his feet, he goes to the door. "I just made a fresh pot. And more pancakes, if you're hungry."

After David finishes his pancakes--and offering enthusiastic compliments on Castiel's growing prowess in kitchen-related duties--he leans against the counter nursing a cup of coffee with a wistful expression as Castiel finishes skimming Melanie's report for any problems. Fortunately, the most pressing seems to be James' request for authorization to take a trip to the closest library in hopes of discovering how to manufacture asphalt, followed by Melanie's enthusiastic recommendation to please let him do it so he would shut up about it.

"Tell her to give James permission, and that I commend her on her patience," he tells David as he sets down the report, who sags in visible gratitude. "Have him get the latest request list from Chuck as well; Harlin requested several books and Kansas City's library is likely to have them. Did Joseph select his new team members yet or is he still sulking over Dean's note requesting his assistance in this matter?"

"He said to tell you he'll have names for you by the time you get back but still reserves the right to sulk," David answers. "He took some volunteers to pick up more from the military's stock this morning, so rehearsals have already started. Unofficially, he likes Lydia and Brad, and since Brad's one of the few on watch who doesn't make Dean grit his teeth…."

"He and Dean got along very well when he was assigned to stay with Dean when he was recovering from the fever," he agrees, skimming Melanie's report for anything on the watch, who are still supervised by whatever patrol team is available. Alicia spoke highly of him, and Sarah found him reasonably competent, which for Sarah is an excess of emotion on par to enthusiastic praise. "I assume the watch is performing adequately?"

"No problems," David assures him, taking the opportunity to refill his cup. "Ana and Leah will be arriving tomorrow with Laura, and Joseph says you're welcome."

"There's something very unsettling about having a standing order regarding sex in the mess during meals," he says. "Exhibitionism is to be lauded, and creativity encouraged, but not with silverware and never with meatloaf."

"Don't," David breathes, squeezing his eyes shut. "Just--"

"I apologize," Castiel says sincerely; the violation of even the most liberal interpretation of sexual aesthetics will haunt him all his life, and David was unfortunate enough to be there as well to bear witness to the horror. "Is there anything else?"

He's learned--after both Dean and Joseph explained it--that there are three kinds of reports he'll be expected to receive: the official ones neatly written on paper, the verbal ones that expand the scope of a report or explain a situation, and a third kind that are verbal and take the form of casual conversation. Those can begin at any moment without warning, about anything at all, and he should be prepared to listen.

David, like Alicia, is aware he's still working on the subtle verbal and non-verbal cues associated with them and discards subtlety altogether in the interests of saving them all time and confusion.

"Off the record, Mel told me to tell you that she understands that you don't execute people for being annoying, but what if she made it look like an accident? And any tips you have on how to do that, by the way. No reason."

"Cynthia?" David finishes his cup and reluctantly sets it in the sink before inclining his head toward the door; nodding, Castiel follows him, matching the deliberately slow, unhurried pace down the porch stairs. "I was worried about that."

"Mel can handle it," he assures him. "She's just weirded out. She and Cyn used to hang out all the time, and now, Cyn's acting like Mel betrayed her or something. Cyn's intense, and if she doesn't like you--"

"You know it, and it follows you, possibly to your grave, yes, I'm aware. James was a very poor target for her to choose to target; he's very well-liked by everyone." He remembers something else. "How is Kyle adjusting to his new team member? Is Robert having any problems?"

There's justice for crimes against good sense by risking your team members lives due to your own lack of imagination, and then there's sadism, and assigning Robert to Kyle might have crossed that line.

David snickers, sliding his hands in his pockets in visible satisfaction. "Oh, Rob's great. Kyle's pretending he's not blessing whatever he worships--himself, mostly--that he didn't get his way about Cyn." He almost stumbles in surprise. David nods sympathetically. "Newsflash: lions lying with lambs and walking on water is a new Olympic sport."

"Perhaps I was wrong about the dearth of miracles in modern times," Castiel remarks. "I'll attempt to transmute water into wine at the next opportunity; we'll have a party."

"I could mention that rumor has it that his team threatened to drive into a tree to get on the injured list and off patrol if he didn't shut up."

Cas looks at him curiously. "What else does rumor say?"

"Dean used 'pissing off Kyle' as an inducement to get you to officially agree to his job offer," David says, grinning at his expression. "No need to confirm: just imagining it puts everyone in a good mood."

"I won't say it's not a perk," he admits, tentatively warmed by David's burst of laughter. "I assume you wouldn't feel comfortable telling me if that's causing problems?"

Looking startled, David pauses as they reach the jeep, brown eyes searching before he leans back against the hood. "Cas--"

"I understand if there's discomfort regarding Dean's decision," he interrupts firmly, fixing his gaze on the rearview mirror. "I certainly don't intend to retaliation, but I hope in time--"

"You're trying to be reassuring," David says blankly. "Jesus, why? You've been doing this for a few months." He bites his lip, worried. "Are we still supposed to pretend we don't know about it? I mean, there was an announcement. Dean gave everyone Joe Beer."

Castiel could list the reasons, but for some reason, he can't quite remember them, not in the face of David's bewilderment and Dean's terrible attempt at being subtle. "There was an announcement?"

"And beer," David confirms helpfully, pushing off the jeep. "I better go check in with Dean. Do you want me to swing by before I leave in case there's anything you want to add?"

This would be an excellent time to tell him about the emergency in Chitaqua he'll tell Dean about, but unfortunately, he can't quite remember what he meant to use. Lies should be done well or not at all, he reflects. "I should have finished skimming the reports in an hour, so do so just in case. Eager to get back?"

"Kind of." David makes a complicated gesture. "Liz and Dan are trading watching Mel and Cyn, and it's hard to be inconspicuous with only two people."

Castiel pauses at that. "Do you need an hour to come up with an explanation for that which isn't extremely worrying?"

David grimaces. "It's not serious."

"I changed my mind; I can't wait an hour."

"Right." David frowns. "Mel doesn't get worked up easily. Cyn? Has become the single exception to the rule."

"Is it more than talk?"

"No, nothing like that," he assures him, shifting his weight uncomfortably. "Mel's not gonna call Cyn on being a constant annoyance whenever she sees her--which passed plausible coincidence before lunch yesterday--not when she's pro-temming Chitaqua and supposed to be fair--"

"Abuse of power is a time-honored tradition."

"Tried that, didn't work, but her team, we're off-duty until she goes back on patrol. We can watch out for her."

"Tell Mel she has my permission to do what's necessary, and my definition of necessary is surprisingly broad under the circumstances." He studies David. "What about Sidney?"

"Sid? No, he's fine," David answers in surprise. "Reading automobile repair manuals when he's not on duty or on the training field."

He raises both eyebrows. "Really?"

"He wants back on patrol, and he wants to impress Dean and Jane, not necessarily in that order," David confides in amusement before his expression becomes serious "Which isn't getting him any points with Cyn. Look, Mel doesn't have a problem putting her on restriction until you and Dean get back tomorrow."

"Tell Melanie if she feels it's warranted, do so and send someone to inform me immediately so I can convince Dean to remain here another day. If we're lucky, he won't ask why; otherwise, she'll have to deal with Dean instead of me, and--" Castiel doesn't know how Dean will react if Cynthia so loses her good sense as to be less ambiguous in her objections, especially considering his offer to Teresa. The watch, however, still visibly flinches when anyone mentions Dean's interrogation of them after the situation with Jeffrey, and that story is one that doesn't need to grow in the telling. "At this time, I don't think it would go well for her."

David winces in shared understanding. "Yeah, we figured." Opening the door, he looks back at Castiel. "So I’m guessing when I report to him, everything but--"

"The part where I'm--" He pauses, trying to decide on the terminology. Probably not a coup. "What would it be called?"

"Uh, suborning his lieutenants, but for a greater good."

"That." He raises an eyebrow at David's snicker. "Corruption is terrifyingly rewarding. I had no idea."

"That fit on a t-shirt?" Climbing in, he gives Castiel a grin. "Also, in case I forget: Mel sends her appreciation in the form of a quick harvest that's currently drying in her cabin for you to pick up. She figured you used up what you had ministering to James' trauma, and you'd need it by the time you got back."

"Bless her," Castiel answers sincerely, stepping back before turning to return to Alison's home to finish his reports in time for David's return. With any luck, he'll have time to watch Dean at the daycare before he joins Amanda at the training field after she dismisses her class for the day. Offering encouragement and affirmation without resorting to chemical assistance requires practice, and this would be an ideal time to do just that.

Chapter Text

--Day 126--

In what Castiel assumes is some odd combination of misplaced guilt and very real enthusiasm, Dean throws himself into Castiel's tentative plans for renovating Chitaqua's infrastructure upon their return. This includes spending the last two mornings taking turns with the rest of the camp digging what Castiel was assured is a very necessary hole for the foundation at the site of the projected mess hall.

"I could help," Castiel offers for the third time that morning when Dean drops onto the thick blanket beside him before collapsing backward with a sigh as he absently rubs his right hand.

"You did enough already," Dean grunts, turning his head to regard him with a grin, face flushed and streaked with dirt and sweat. Reaching unexpectedly for Castiel's hand, he flips it over to reveal the healing blisters from extensive shovel use that have joined the gun calluses and gives them a significant look before letting go. "Dude, this is everyone's mess, and you're not doing all of it for them. Leadership and life lesson there. Today, you're supervising."

"Water or coffee?" he asks, pushing himself to his feet.

"Water," Dean answers, grinning up at him, devastatingly bright. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," he responds belatedly, turning toward the nearby tables holding bottles of water, coffee in insulated containers, and sandwiches provided by the mess. This is a new addition to the site as well, appearing yesterday morning, and this morning also offering breakfast to early arrivals, of which there are surprisingly many.

Picking up a bottle--and refilling his own coffee cup, as Brenda assured cream and sugar were available--he returns to their blanket, sitting down and removing the top before handing it to Dean, who offers another grin as he pushes himself up on one elbow to take it, stretching out his legs distractingly.

"Not criticizing," Dean says, taking a long drink from the bottle and wiping his face with the stained sleeve of his shirt, "but why didn't you make it an order to show up for important digging duty? You always have a reason, so let's hear it."

Picking up a clean cloth from the supply he brought--his own efforts were a very valuable lesson in what is needed for people at construction sites--he hands it to Dean, who wets it from the bottle before wiping his face and neck. Despite the rapidly cooling weather, the lack of wind and rain have kept the days remarkably pleasant, enough so that most of the workers have stripped to thermal shirts and t-shirts to dig. It's excellent exercise for Dean, he reflects, watching him take another long drink as Alicia bounces into the slowly deepening hole to trade off with Matt and attack the ground with a shovel with cheerful enthusiasm.

Dean taps the bottle against his knee significantly, reminding him that he's waiting for a response.

"Those that volunteered I assumed correctly were those who--shared my interest in the project and seeing it to completion."

Dean gives him a sideways look. "Didn't want anyone to rain on your new mess hall parade?" He shrugs, but it's true. "It's your first big project, dude. Don't blame you."

"When the actual building phase begins, the entire camp will be pressed into regular duty to complete it," Castiel says. "As much for the actual building as to gain experience for when we no longer have enough residences, though there are still cabins that, while unlivable now, would be acceptable with sufficient repairs."

"And roofs," Dean agrees, taking another drink before grinning as Matt trudges toward them. "Matt, you still alive?"

Giving him a sour look, Matt drops on the blanket on Dean's other side with a massive sigh of relief. Alicia is one of the most consistent volunteers for digging duty, and her team--due to interest, loyalty, or Alicia's sheer force of personality--join her every time. Andy and Matt's determined attempts to match her energy have so far been unsuccessful, but Matt, at least, has yet to declare defeat, and has the blisters on top of blisters that Alicia treats regularly to prove it.

As Matt sits up with a murmured thanks to Andy, who joins him with two bottles of water, Castiel follows his gaze to Alicia, making happy inroads in foundation digging, and revises his estimation of Matt's motivations. A glance shows Dean watching the same thing with a faint smirk before reaching over to slap Matt on the back.

"Dude, no idea how you keep up with her on patrol."

Matt shakes his head, taking another drink. "She slows down to let us catch up. Sometimes."

Dean nods brightly, hiding a smirk under the lip of his bottle as Andy and Matt start to discuss either the horrors of manual labor or possibly Andy's feelings about Kat, which Castiel's discovered are indeed numerous and comprise two-thirds of his conversation.

"What do supervisory duties include again?" he asks Dean as Jody joins Alicia in the center of the site and begin what looks to be an impromptu digging competition, punctuated with Alicia's almost constant commentary that can encompass quite literally anything.

"Just watch," Dean responds, grinning as he surveys their good work. "Worth the price of admission, trust me."

He has to admit, without the distraction of manual labor, the view is very pleasant, and not just due to the extraordinarily attractive portrait people engaged in manual labor offer (hunters are extraordinarily fit, and aren't loathe to show exactly how much), though that's definitely an inducement. It's rare that the camp has the time or leisure to casually congregate, and it belatedly occurs to him that other than the campwide meetings he or Dean call weekly--which are very different in context--he's never seen so many of the camp in one place at one time.

Dean's question about Chitaqua's past celebrations comes to mind. They were rare, he remembers that much, and the lowered inhibitions that came with alcohol sometimes caused tensions he couldn't identify (or cared to), but then, he rarely attended longer than it took to find an acceptable sex partner and never sober. He doesn't think they were ever like this, though; the entire southern perimeter is now spread with blankets for those resting or waiting for an available shovel, small groups gathering and dispersing without any recognizable pattern, and everyone in remarkably high spirits.

Sheila's sudden burst of laughter--due to what, he's not sure--gets Dean's attention and he grins into his next drink before frowning up at Castiel. "Fine, you won. How'd you know?"

"A guess," he answers honestly as Mike pulls Sheila to her feet, smiling down at her with something more than simple amusement. "Joseph--from what I understand--has acted as impromptu counselor as well as chaplain. He knows Mike very well, and I suspect he didn't think exposure to outsiders would be of benefit yet. Especially civilians." He frowns. "I told you that Mike lost his wife and son. His son was infected at daycare with Croatoan in one of the earliest outbreaks."

"Son of a bitch," Dean murmurs. "How bad?"

"I don't know for certain," Castiel answers. "Joseph does, however, and I suspected that would weigh heavily on who he chose to assign to Ichabod after he had the opportunity to observe Mike in Harlin. I also think he doesn't wish to retard Mike's progress; he's reduced his drinking substantially, is making an effort to maintain casual relationships with others, and his cohabitation with Sheila is proceeding satisfactory." Dean bites back a smile. "What?"

"Gotta know, what is a 'successful cohabitation'?"

Before he can answer, Sean passes them on the way to the table, and Dean's gaze immediately fastens on Zack and Mira, trading their shovels to Frederick and Justin before climbing out to collapse on a nearby blanket. Within seconds--Dean may be counting under his breath--Sean joins them with water, coffee, and sandwiches, and Zack visibly brightens at the attention as Mira watches them in amusement.

Dean leans closer. "When did Sean get back--"

"At dawn," Castiel murmurs. "His team went to bed immediately after I took their reports this morning, like anyone sane after a four day patrol route."

"You're supposed to wake me up for those," Dean says, frowning up at him.

Every so often, Castiel is once again struck by being in the position of explaining Dean to himself. "Dean, no one is social in the morning, including you. The difference between you and everyone else is that you can't help but try--duty, I suppose--and they do sincerely want to respond, but they're tired, and so are you." Dean's frown deepens, with the addition of confusion. "If you do it, it takes an hour, and I'm trapped in a room with a minimum of five and sometimes as many as thirteen people who desperately want to go to bed--including you--yet are engaged in horrifically stilted attempts at casual conversation while drinking all my coffee until some arbitrary point passes that they can finally excuse themselves while you desperately wish for them all to die. If I do it, it takes ten minutes, I tell them to leave immediately, and everyone's happy. Including me and my supply of coffee."

Dean opens his mouth to protest--how, he can't imagine, that's exactly what happens--then subsides. "Evenings are mine, though, right?"

"Yes, I thought it was self-evident by the fact you always do them." Dean rolls his eyes. "Why were you asking about Sean?"

Taking another drink, he shrugs. "Zack's looked kind of rough the last few times I saw him. Where's Nate, by the way?"

"How would I know?" Castiel asks, sipping from his cup. "What the camp does during their time off-duty doesn't fall under my current responsibilities, and in any case, Amanda is no longer here to share the sordid details of everyone's terrible life decisions against my will."

Dean stares up at him and takes another drink of water.

"Nate's engaged in one of his interminable crisis of sexuality, and James is with him because he's a good leader and wants to help; hint, nothing will, but he'll learn, as so many before him have," he answers, blowing out a breath in sheer annoyance. "Alicia came by the cabin this morning, but she does so every morning when she's not on patrol to give Andy and Kat privacy so they can have sex and talk about their feelings with each other. She mentioned seeing Mira and Zack at breakfast without James, and historically, James doesn't miss any opportunity to spend time with Mira. Combine that with Zack's recent moodiness plus Nate's absence today, and it's fairly obvious."

"Cas," Dean asks seriously, "do you and Alicia have coffee and gossip every morning while I'm sleeping?"

"We talk of many things," he answers evasively. "Cooking, dream theory, ambush methodology--"

"Dryer elves and camp gossip." Dean's skepticism regarding dryer elves is ironic, considering where they are and what they do for a living, as it were. "You told Alicia that Sean was back?"

"It might have come up," he admits. "Amanda's regular reports served a function that I noticed the lack of when she went to Ichabod. Alicia's a team leader as well as our current doctor, so she knows a great deal and relates what she thinks of interest, and since it's usually in the morning, yes, we have coffee."

"And you don't tell me?"

He raises his eyebrows innocently. "You didn't ask."

"I'm asking."

He sighs, put-upon. "Brian and Brenda are alliteratively involved, much to everyone's immense confusion, but it explains the abrupt increase in quality of the meals at the mess, as Alicia says Brenda told her that Brian's father was a cook that dealt in food no one can pronounce and therefore is expensive." Dean raises his eyebrows encouragingly. "She's warily pleased but says its awkward, as Andy and Kat still use her cabin for their rendezvous and sometimes she's trapped with two couples speaking of their feelings, as neither will retreat to their--or her--rooms for sex while she's there."

"God." Dean takes another drink, appalled. "What else?"

"Liz has terminated her loose association with Zoe's weekly gatherings--"

"Den of Carnal Delights, Mark II," Dean pronounces, waving a hand. "Something Amanda said. So she's picking up the slack on the love guru and transcendental orgies that's been missing from everyone's lives? Totally saw that coming."

"Alicia says she's reached the acceptance stage of grief and is moving on," he agrees. "She's pacing herself, as I advised her, but I'm running low on LSD, which reminds me, I need a day off soon for manufacturing purposes. It's not particularly complicated, but chemistry isn't to be approached with anything but precision. Do you need more water?" Plucking the empty bottle from Dean's frozen hand, he picks up his cup and returns to the table, selecting a sandwich as well as refilling his cup and acquiring a new bottle, before returning to Dean. "Eat this."

Dean takes the sandwich, turning it between his hands with a complicated expression.

"If you don't want me to--"

"Your business," Dean says, taking a bite and chewing thoughtfully. "Is there a notation for days off for drug making in your spreadsheet?"


"Of course there is." To Castiel's pleasure, Dean finishes the remainder of the sandwich quickly before following it with more water. "So Liz is--what, taking up a life of celibacy or what?"

"From what Alicia said, it's a territorial issue. Mel has twice-weekly gatherings with her team to promote team-bonding, and--what?"

Dean takes a drink of water before answering. "You don't even need to tell me what that means, and I'm not surprised, fuck my life. Mel's not the sharing type?"

"Not even a little," he agrees. "Joseph confirmed that everyone involved is very enthusiastic regarding the current arrangement, and it's been extremely beneficial for Liz personally, as she prefers stability and structure in her personal relationships." At Dean's interested look, he shrugs. "Joseph also likes coffee. It's like a compulsion spell, but not ethically horrible and delicious."

"Our camp counselor in action." He starts to take a drink from his bottle, then lowers it, looking surprised at something. "And look who just showed up." Following his gaze, Castiel sees Kyle taking the shovel from a tired-looking Sheila as she and Mike start toward the tables. "Give me odds on Kyle joining in from sheer community spirit."

He shakes his head. "He doesn't have any."

They both watch Kyle start toward the center of the site where Alicia's working alone--Jody, not gifted with what must be preternatural energy, having taken a break--and doing the least convincing performance of accidentally bumping into someone he's ever witnessed.

"Wow," Dean observes, taking another drink as Alicia shakes her head with a grin at Kyle's probable apology, the pace of her work noticeably slowing as Kyle joins her digging efforts. "Wasn't he just like, two weeks ago begging Jane to take him back while stalking her through the entire camp?"

"Jane's otherwise occupied." Dean must hear something in his voice, swinging his gaze to look at him curiously. "Sidney, in case you're curious, volunteered to take Sheila's shift in the garage today so she could spend some time with Mike, since his mission schedule with Joseph is irregular at this time while Joseph performs supply-run based interviews to decide who will replace Leah and Ana."

"What does Sid have to do with--"

"He's reading automobile repair manuals and asked me to review him in small arms yesterday," Castiel continues. "He was sincere in his thanks afterward and we're to do it again the day after tomorrow so as to assure progress, since his performance, while adequate, could be improved. You may not know this, but Jane is--"

"Don't say it." Dean closes his eyes, looking pained. "Jesus."

"Does it bother you because it's Sidney--which is understandable, though he improves a great deal when hostility is absent--or because Dean was involved with Jane?" he asks and earns himself a glare. "Dean was involved with many women in Chitaqua, so why…." He stops himself; Dean's initial inhibitions regarding involvement with anyone in the camp were the result of both unfamiliarity with them and discomfort with the identity he was assuming. Time and familiarity, however, have made both irrelevant, and Jane is admittedly the most physically attractive woman in the camp, if one appreciates Rubenesque brunettes with perfect marksmanship, which is everyone sane.

Dean's sudden bark of laughter interrupts the inevitable conclusion of that train of thought. "I saw Jane in the mess when I went to get us more sugar, and she actually spoke to me, it was weird. Nice not to have her looking at me like she's counting imaginary bullet holes, but weird. And you're telling me I got Sid to thank for that?"

"That's--" He's not actually sure.

"Exactly." Finishing his bottle, he sighs, but shows no desire to return to his labors quite yet. Exercise is all well and good, Castiel reflects, but doing too much is to be discouraged. "Think we can get this done before winter remembers Kansas exists?"

"As winter has a very liberal idea of when it should begin, I'm not sure," he answers. "However, the foundation work, from what I understand, is the part that is most vulnerable to inclement weather, and at this rate should be completed within the week. Or so Nate explained."

Sitting up, Dean frowns into the middle distance. "Level with me here--does Nate actually know what he's doing?"

"Strangely enough, he does, but he's the only one. Once we begin the actual construction--even using prefabricated buildings--the speed of progress will depend on our learning curve, which will doubtless include a great deal of trial and error."

"How long until it's done? Ballpark."

"Three months," he says after a few moments of thought, noting Dean's frown. "Perhaps less, but certainly no more. In two weeks, I've scheduled an inspection of all occupied cabins to verify they're fully prepared for winter, but--"

"No, that comes first, good call." Dean's frown deepens. "So what's after the mess hall? New armory?"

"Why," he asks, "does this sound like more than idle curiosity?" He would, actually, very much like to expand the armory to accommodate at least a portion of the massive stock of military weapons they've acquired and are now being stored in a growing series of temporary buildings that at this rate may outnumber the number of cabins. "Do you have a request?"

Matt abruptly passes them on his way to the south corner of the site, almost snatching the shovel from Evan and jumping down into the six inch progress made there, Andy scurrying after him with a worried expression. Dean's gaze flickers to Jody, who straightens from her conversation with Mira, and even from here, Castiel sees her alarm.

"Told you," Dean says, an unholy smile lighting his face as Andy desperately attempts placation while acting as a physical barrier despite being three inches shorter and at least fifty pounds lighter than Matt. "Who's your money on?"

"Matt," he answers immediately. "But that's preference, not actuality. Kyle fights dirty, and Matt's right is weak."

Dean sighs. "Probably shitty leadership skills not to stop 'em." The green eyes narrow abruptly as Kyle straightens, looking directly at Matt. "Or assume they won't stop themselves. This isn't fucking elementary school, what the hell. She's not a goddamn bone."

Castiel struggles with temptation--Eve's difficulties with such abruptly far more understandable--before sighing in resignation. Alicia certainly doesn't deserve to have to deal with this.

"Alicia," he says clearly, and Alicia's head comes up with a startled look, shovel stopping mid-motion. "Are you certain that Vera would approve of Dean being out in this weather? He looks flushed."

Dean freezes half-way to his feet, looking at him incredulously, then pointedly at the nearly-sunny day: through the cloud cover, you can even see the outline of the sun in a very impressive off-orange.

Grinning, Alicia jogs toward them, oblivious to Kyle's very satisfactory horror and Matt's hot flush when they see Dean, handing her shovel to Jody before bouncing out. Biting his lip, Dean stands still as Alicia looks him over, going up on her toes to peer into his eyes with ostentatious care before nodding to herself with a solemn expression, eyes dancing.

"As camp doctor, it is my learned opinion all is well. Go forth and be productive, for the hole will not dig itself."

"Thanks," Dean says, straight-faced. "Not dying, good to know."

"Anytime--ooh, coffee, didn't see that earlier." Spying Castiel's empty cup, she scoops it up on her way to the table. "I'll grab you some, too, be right back."

Dean smiles at Castiel, all teeth. "Really?"

"People skills," he answers sincerely. "Go forth and terrify Kyle thoroughly before he tries to skulk away. You're right, it's very pleasant to simply observe."

"That's what I'm talking about." Dean crouches to grab his bottle of water, murmuring, "Good job, by the way. So lunch at the mess, or--"

"We have baked ham--with honey--for sandwiches, and I made potatoes last night, sliced very thin and baked until crisp. Salted."

Dean stills. "Potato chips? You made potato chips?"

"Not yet," he answer, frowning. "Very thin fries, perhaps."

"Home it is." Dean tosses him a grin before getting to his feet. "Okay, someone got a shovel for me?" he shouts cheerfully, starting back to the quickly growing hole as Alicia drops down beside him, handing him his cup.

Taking it, Castiel freezes, cup half-way to his mouth, as Dean peels away the thermal shirt and tosses it toward the blanket, leaving him in nothing but a very thin, sweat-stained t-shirt before jumping into the hole. He's almost immediately surrounded by welcoming camp members eager to show him the best places to dig, utterly oblivious to the fact he's now the center of rapt attention from those observing.

"So," Alicia says suddenly, "he's--recovering really well. Getting plenty of exercise, obviously." She takes a long drink from her coffee. "Little thin, but he--yeah, very healthy. I approve."

He gives her a sideways look. "Your commitment to your profession is to be admired."

"Was he always this hot?" she asks plaintively, taking another drink and tilting her head to admire Dean's ability to bend over, revealing a thin strip of pale skin just above the waist of his jeans that vanishes as he straightens. Oddly enough, it's just as riveting on repetition, and digging provides many opportunities for repetition. "He couldn't have been, or I'd been much more okay with the cheating thing last year." She looks at him worriedly. "Uh, he doesn't hold that entire threat to gut him like a fish against me still, does he? I was upset, I didn't even have a knife! Nudity and everything, only conductive to wearing sharp objects when everyone agrees, and Dean never did. No idea why."

He still regrets that he passed out early that night, but as he pulled a muscle laughing after hearing it secondhand, perhaps that was for the best. Actually witnessing Dean's brave retreat without his pants across the greater part of the camp might have killed him.

"Of course not," he says, but despite his best efforts, his voice breaks on the last word. Taking a deep breath, he tries again. "Let bygones be bygones--did you throw his jeans on the roof?"

"All his clothes," Alicia clarifies, grimacing. "Mine, too, and Amber's bra, but who sorts out the laundry when engaged in mindless rage? Kind of defeats the 'mindless' portion of rage, am I right?"

He nods, swallowing hard.

"Tell Amber that," Alicia says with a scowl that melts into guilt. "I got it all down, but yeah, she had a point about what a night of rain does to underwire."

Castiel just manages to set his coffee cup aside before he starts to laugh.

"Tell Dean I still have his boxers if he wants them back," she adds, sipping from her cup. "Kind of pink, but that bra was very red, so what can you do?" Reaching over, she calmly retrieves his coffee cup before he lands on it. "I'll get us a refill while you do that."

He nods helplessly, gasping for breath, and thinks this might take a while.

Dean submits to Castiel's insistence in treating his blisters with suspicious amenability after they've eaten, sitting cross-legged on the couch after a quick shower and extending both hands with barely a protest.

"You ever gonna tell me what set you off?" Dean asks as Castiel examines his right hand for any breaks in the skin. A short, bitterly fought battle commences, won only by sheer will and a warning twinge from his chest not to do that again anytime soon.

"Later," he promises, and distracts himself with noting a broken blister on the palm of his left hand. After double checking for potential splinters from the wooden shaft of the shovel, he cleans each palm thoroughly and applies a topical antibiotic and mild analgesic before lightly wrapping them against further damage and to encourage quick healing. Fortunately, they're in the same general places that Dean's gun calluses are developing, which should speed up the re-acquisition tremendously and will make his introduction to knife fighting much less painful.

Holding up his right hand when Castiel points that out, Dean smiles at the lack of tremor. "Good practice switching, too."

"I'd expect nothing less," he answers, indicating Dean should relax so he can check the scar tissue on his inner right arm. Regular application of mild topical lotions recommended by both Vera and Alicia have kept the scar tissue supple and flexible as it heals, and Dean's never been reluctant to stretch the muscles regularly to assure maximum flexibility is achieved.

"Now that you're successful in consistently identifying the point that you've overworked your right hand and therefore in a very good mood, I'd like you to consider a possible alternative to the wrist brace."

"Something not fucking firetruck red?" Dean says hopefully. "Hell yes, I'm in."

"A glove."

Dean's eyes narrow. "No."

"A glove not firetruck red," he explains to Dean's set expression. "Something to support your wrist and give some protection to your first and second fingers, since you can't at this time easily feel if they're injured without limiting mobility. Or, if I must be graphic, accidentally cutting off your own fingers with your own knife if it slips without noticing their absence."

"Maybe I'll leave knifework out of my skillsets," Dean counters, flexing his right hand restlessly against his knee.

"Is it feeling any strain from today?" he asks, remembering Dean was rubbing his hand during his breaks this morning; he should have asked earlier.

"No--actually, yeah, a little," he answers, frowning at it before nodding firmly, and Castiel takes out the bottle of oil from the kit, taking his hand and feeling out the places the muscles always grow too-tight by instinct. "Okay, about this glove thing--"

"It will be attractive to the eye," he assures Dean, starting at the wrist and working slowly upward. When he reaches the palm, Dean relaxes, eyes closing involuntarily, and he works patiently for a few long moments, deliberately drawing out each slow stroke before continuing. "I consulted with Alicia and Joseph, and Ichabod's efforts at the art of tannery have resulted in excellent quality leather. Heavier grade will be required to support the wrist, but something finer and more flexible will be required for the hand to assure no loss of mobility, and of course we'll test several designs and your approval will decide which you want to use."

Dean attempts an unsuccessful glare from half-closed eyes as Castiel works the tight webbing deliberately. "Huh."

"Maybe something in black," he offers, biting back a smile at the vague interest Dean isn't at all successful in hiding. "Protective gear for the hand and arm are common throughout history. Yours would be modeled on the gauntlet instead of a full glove, though not made of metal of course."

"Gauntlet," Dean repeats in interest before quickly frowning again. Yes, he thought that might appeal to him. "Dude, I'm not gonna be the creepy guy walking around with one gloved hand, that's all I'm saying."

"You won't be," he assures him, adding temptingly, "Depending on the design, metal could be added to the knuckles, increasing the damage caused by punching evil in the face."

Dean's expression goes through several contortions, all of which indicate a positive response to metal-studded knuckles punching anything, which obviously would include but would not be limited to evil. Kyle, perhaps. "You have something in mind?"

"I do," he agrees as he finishes, wiping his hands clean. "However, turning that into a practical design isn't among my skillsets. I'll send a request to Alison if any of the residents have any experience in leatherwork other than the most basic they've already begun to master." He wonders idly how difficult it would be to learn to do that himself if there's someone with the experience to teach him. He learned to wrap his own knives and repair their sheaths, but even the most skillful attention--which he won't pretend he is yet capable of giving--can't do more than slow the rate of decay. He'd like to be able to make them himself, perhaps with modern adjustments to make them easier to carry and conceal as well. Four simply isn't sufficient; there's absolutely no guarantee a werewolf, a fae, a vampire, and harpy won't join forces and attack them, and there he'll be, all his best weapons used and nothing but firearms to protect him from certain injury, possibly even bruising.

"You got that look on your face again," Dean observes, and he realizes that Dean's smiling at him.

"What look?"

"Here." Reaching out, Dean traces a light finger between his eyebrows. "This line here; always show up when you want something and you're already half-way into a plan on how to get it." The ghost of warmth lingers even after he withdraws his hand. "First time I saw it was that day in Kansas City, before your adventures in seeing all things. Figured back then it meant trouble, and looks like I was right."

"I was thinking about learning the art of leatherwork," Castiel answers challengingly. "It's a practical and useful skill. Without access to the military, replacements for belts, gun holsters, and knife sheathes are going to need to be ordered from the border at exorbitant markup--"

"Yeah, not if we can help it," Dean mutters.

"--or we need to either learn to do it ourselves or convince someone in the allied towns who has the skill or is willing to learn it to trade with us." Thinking of the massive store of military surplus they have that could be of use, he doesn't think that will be a problem. "I'd far prefer not to enrich the border guard at the expense of the local population if at all possible."

"You really don't like them," Dean says, cocking his head. "The border guards. I mean, above and beyond your thing for justice and their thousand percent markup on toothpaste. This is personal."

Castiel carefully repacks the oil with the other supplies to return them to the bathroom, trying to think how to answer. "They're not our friends."

"Well, yeah. They're bloodsuckers and the entire infected zone is a goddamn corpse."

"They want us to believe that they are," he says slowly, "so no matter what they charge us, no matter how ridiculous the price, they can believe it, too. It's not enough to have a profit margin that Wall Street itself would envy; we have to be grateful so they can feel better about themselves."

"And that," Dean says, "is why you're not ever gonna be our negotiator at the border."

"You think I can't, if sufficiently motivated, put on the appearance of appropriate submission?" he asks, almost offended.

"No," Dean answers, resting his chin on one hand. "I think, unlike Joe, you couldn't blow it off afterward."

"Could you?"

"Nope," he says. "Which is how I know. Joe, though, entertained himself this last time by convincing Larry we're getting low on money but desperately trying to hide it just to see if he'd take those shitty semi-automatics off our hands in partial payment. And it worked."

He makes a face, obviously still somewhat surprised by what comprises their liquid assets, but then again, Joseph was rather startled as well when given the full list of accounts, and more recently, due to Castiel's own curiosity, how the stock portfolio of Charles Emerson Winchester III of Boston, Massachusetts (of a very old Boston family) was progressing after leaving JP Morgan Chase to buy a Greek island and raise alpacas.

("You actually told them that was your reason for leaving?" Dean asked incredulously as Joseph looked at him in wonder. "And they didn't--okay, why Greek island and alpacas? What's the connection?"

"Wealthy people are always buying islands," he explained in bewilderment. "I liked Greece a great deal--at least, it was lovely when I was last there, the city-states were very pleasant, peaceful--"

"Two thousand years ago," Dean interrupted blankly.

"Slightly more than that," he admitted. "Still, beautiful, and I'd recently watched a very interesting documentary on the future of alpaca breeding, which was guaranteed to replace cattle within a decade and now was the time to get in on the ground floor of this rapidly growing field of animal husbandry for profit. Wealthy people often are involved in enterprises from the ground floor that involve profit. I understand that plays some part in how they become wealthy."

Joseph and Dean didn't stop laughing for a very long time, so Castiel ignored them as he paged through his investments, pleased to note that his decision to concentrate his investments domestically instead of overdiversifying in foreign markets worked out very well, considering the current state of foreign markets being utterly unknown and in some instances, possibly non-existent. And making notes for Joseph's next trip to the border, because as the stock market in the US still seems to exist (how, he's not sure, but then again, capitalism), there's no reason not to make some adjustments. He wonders if Joseph knows what to do with real estate.)

When he returns from putting the kit away in the bathroom, a sheet of the paper that Nate insists is to be used for construction plans is spread on the coffee table, secured by two glasses, an unusually attractive rock Castiel discovered when verifying that mowing duty was being adequately discharged in those parts of the camp not easily visible from the inhabited portion, and a pocketknife.

"Check it out and tell me what you think," Dean says without looking up.

Sitting back down beside him, Castiel surveys the design; it's oddly familiar. "It looks like--"

"The cabin," Dean interrupts, then taps a pencil against a large somewhat rectangular structure attached to the right side that is definitely not in existence now. "So what do you think?"

"It's--a very accurate representation of a rectangle done freehand without use of a ruler?" he hazards, then turns to look at the wall behind them suspiciously. "That will be accessed through a non-existent eastern door. It's a room?"

"You need a library," Dean explains, pointing at the innocent utility closet accusingly. "Dude, come on, even I can tell that's driving you crazy. Books in boxes and stacked on shelves wherever you can get space, not all lined up and organized by geometry or historical color or whatever."

"It's been that way for almost three years and it didn't bother me at all," he argues, unsettled by the truth of that statement. It does bother him now, and he has no idea why. "And the Dewey Decimal system wouldn't be an improvement, considering its emphasis on--never mind. When did you--"

"Nate drafted it for me yesterday, just a--you know, not final or anything," Dean says, then points to the rectangle. "Only thing, can't move the bathroom, but not a big deal."

"Why would we move the bathroom to the library?" he asks in bewilderment.

"I was thinking…okay." Dean sits back on his heels, frowning. "So we make that a bedroom--"

"I thought the point was to build a library."

"--and turn this bedroom into your library, and we share the new one. It's big enough," Dean says quickly, pointing out the straight vertical lines that indicate walls. "Plenty of room for two arsenals--selling point, you can design 'em--an actual closet for clothes, a couple of beds, whatever."

Castiel wonders if he's missing something. "I have no objections to the current arrangement. I like sleeping on the couch."

"You like sleeping any place that's not that goddamn room," Dean answers, staring down at the paper. "Easy fix: make a new place to sleep, and bonus, you get an actual bed to sleep in, not have to wake up looking at…anyway. We're doing the living like people thing, phase two: everyone sleeps in a bed. Whole camp's doing it but you; time to get with the program."

Licking his lips, he stares very hard at the paper as well. "I suppose. Your snoring is very soothing--"

"I don't snore," Dean denies, looking up with a tentative smile. "You were hearing things or something."

Castiel studies the new room thoughtfully. "It would be pleasant to have an expanded space for weapons."

"So where do you want them?" Dean asks encouragingly, shoving a pencil across the table. "It's your room, too. Any ideas? I want to start when the mess is done."

Picking up the pencil, he nods firmly. "A few, yes."

--Day 127--

"Lydia and Brad," Joseph announces upon entering the cabin, glaring at Dean--currently blinking at him from the refrigerator--before dropping heavily onto an armchair with a despairing sigh. "You're welcome. Hi, Cas."

"Good evening, Joseph," he answers, adding the last report on his right to the stack on his left with a sense of triumph. "We have successfully entered the twentieth century; all historical reports are now in digital format and everyone has been issued jump drives to turn in their future reports. At least until I better understand how to build a LAN, which involves cables, routers, and electricity, none of which we have in excess--or at all--and therefore it must wait."

He doesn't need to see Joseph and Dean exchanging a look to know they're doing it; they do that a great deal.

"Joe Beer, Joe?" Dean calls from the kitchen, followed the sound of rummaging and the refrigerator door closing. "So how did--" His voice cuts off abruptly for the unmistakable sound of a very enthusiastic sneeze.

In the ensuing silence, Castiel is aware he and Joseph are both staring worriedly toward the kitchen when Dean appears holding three bottles with an expression that bodes ill for anyone who comments.

But that's never stopped him before. "Dean--"

"Dust," Dean says shortly, stalking across the small living room and shoving a beer into Joseph's hand before balancing one precariously on the stack of reports that Castiel just barely catches before it can spill (possibly onto his keyboard) and dropping onto the couch behind him and taking a long drink. "My nose tickled, that's all. I'm fine. Joe, how was the run?"

"Fine," Joseph answers immediately. "Marked the fridge and freezer for the mess at the warehouse, but we're gonna need to bulldoze the road; couldn't even get the jeep closer than a quarter mile, no way are we getting a truck. I may need Ana, by the way; the loading zone out back is a mess, and the building's got some structural damage that's gonna make it hard to get the units out."

Dean raises both eyebrows. "So you want to blow up the building?"

"Just the back," Joseph answers dismissively, waving his free hand. "Ana knows her explosives; I'm pretty sure she can get us an opening without bringing down the entire building. Lydia took pics of everything and Mike recorded our in and out and the back from pretty much every angle; can you take it with you to Ichabod next week, let Ana look it over and see if it's worth taking her for an in-person check?"

Dean nods, and from the corner of his eye, Castiel sees him swipe his nose surreptitiously. He doesn't think he's imagining it looks rather red, but he tries to believe it anyway. "So, you're sure about Lydia and Brad? You got time until your next border run."

Joseph makes a face, slumping in his chair, but he smiles faintly. "They're good. Except they can't cook, but can't have everything--"

"There's beef stew on the stove," Castiel says, saving his work and backing it up on a separate drive--Alison recommended this very strongly--before closing the laptop. "It's compliant with all kosher restrictions, and there's a container for you to take the rest home with you as well as the recipe. The mess staff made bread this morning, so there's some already cut within the breadbox."

"Bless you," Joseph says, getting to his feet to investigate. "Two days on MREs, my boots were looking good."

"Why'd you decide against Lee?" Dean asks when Joseph returns, sitting cross from Castiel at now-cleared coffee table. "I thought you liked him."

"I do," Joseph answers, taking an enormous bite and looking gratifyingly pleased with the results. "Thought about it, figured you might like him better. Cas, this is incredible."

Dean's grunts were equally enthusiastic. "Thank you."

"I might like him better?" Dean asks, leaning forward and waiting impatiently for Joseph to swallow. "Why?"

"Just a thought." Tearing a slice of bread in half, Joseph shrugs. "I talked to him about his out of camp missions when we were looking for the Colt, got a feel for him. Figured I'd be losing him pretty soon when you were ready to add another team, so why risk it?"

Castiel reviews what he knows of Lee; thirty-six, African-American, male, adequate shot, extremely attractive, very enjoyable as a sex partner, the latter he assumes Dean has no need of for a professional assessment. "He's seen more of the infected zone than anyone in the camp."

"He was in Lincoln when Nebraska was zoned," Joseph says. "Made friends there, too, don't ask me how, he wouldn't say, but I'm pretty sure he did something stupid and heroic, he's the type. Pretty sure he keeps up with some former contacts in the Dakotas, though you didn't hear it from me, as I don't talk about what people ask me to check on when I go to the border." He gives Dean a syrupy smile. "My leader said something about privacy, it was weird."

"Funny." Sitting back, Dean sips from his beer. "Cas?"

"He's always worked alone." Lee is also solitary and somewhat taciturn, but if he's formed relationships with contacts outside the camp, then he should be able to adapt. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn new things. "Jane would be an excellent for his team."

Dean raises an eyebrow. "Tell me there's a reason for that other than to make Sid feel inadequate, though I'm okay with that as one of 'em."

"Jane's a better shot than Lee--he's proficient, but his depth perception is lacking--and they have compatible personalities. Brian and Evan as well, I suppose, unless you have any candidates." He looks back to see Dean smothering what isn't a yawn if the muffled sound is any indication and wonders if he can convince himself he didn't see that.

"Uh, just gonna say this," Joseph says, spoon halted mid-air. "By compatible, you mean…."

"Jane's not loathe to speak her mind," he answers truthfully. "Lee's used to working alone, and he'll need to learn to think in terms of his team as well as accept their input. I can't think of anyone else in this camp who won't be somewhat intimidated by someone who's six three and doesn't like to talk."

Dean blinks slowly. "They'll fight. That's the dynamic we're going for here?"

"Jane doesn't fight with anyone," Joseph states. "She doesn't get mad, either. She tells you you're wrong, how you're wrong, and doesn't even gloat when she's right. It's fucking annoying. Like Sarah, if Sarah wasn't a robot."

"Sarah's simply reserved." Joseph's characterization isn't entirely inaccurate, however. He's long suspected Sarah doesn't so much as experience emotions as observe them from a safe distance with a vague sense of interest in their existence. "Jane isn't volatile, which Lee will appreciate; she's friendly but very calm, and she'll make Lee listen to her without taking it personally if he doesn't."

"She takes nothing personally," Joseph confirms through a mouthful of stew, swallowing hastily. "It's very 'I understand you have feelings and you should express them but let me explain again how you're wrong really reasonably when you're done expressing them, I don't hold it against you'. She can do that. And mean it."

Dean smirks. "Nicest breakup of your life, I'm guessing?"

Joseph sighs, cheeks faintly pink. "My ex-wife and I took six months to finally call it quits with a therapist in on the action; Jane took ten minutes to tell me how much she appreciated our time together, a list of reasons why we weren't compatible, that she understood if we couldn't be friends during the adjustment period but we would be again soon and she looked forward to it, walked me home, and gave me a hug. Ten minutes, Dean."

"Was she right?"

"All of it," Joseph says glumly, wiping up the remaining stew with his bread and stuffing it in his mouth for pensive chewing before he brightens. "Of course, there's an exception to every rule, but as long as Lee doesn't cheat on his non-existent SO with her, should be fine." He smiles at Dean maliciously. "That, she takes personally."

"Fuck. You." Finishing his bottle, Dean gets up, collecting Joseph's plate and empty bottle on the way to the kitchen. "Joe, you want another one?"

"One," Joseph confirms. "Someone left a note at my cabin, wants to talk about something, and I'm guessing from the handwriting they'll need liquid fortification, so I'm gonna need to pace myself." Taking the bottle from Dean, he studies it far more intently than brown glass could possibly warrant. "You know, since Kamal got sent to Ichabod, cabin's been kind of empty--lonely. I could use a roommate."

Castiel can feel Dean looking at him. "Sean spoke to me yesterday morning, but I was waiting for you to return for confirmation. Consider everything approved."

"And?" Dean blows out an annoyed breath, which Castiel tries and fails not to think sounds slightly congested. "Okay, wanna catch me up?"

"Just several requests for changes in living arrangements that required--a logistical approach," he answers carefully. "Kat and Andy have requested the next available cabin for themselves, as there aren't any that are even marginally livable among those unoccupied. Kim, who is currently living alone, as her roommates are in Ichabod, doesn't like the solitude and is willing to take Kat's place with Mel and Sarah, who have already agreed to the change. It will be accomplished after the new year, I think, if the calendar is correct, as it was recommended to Andy and Kat to wait a month to assure their feelings are--whatever feelings lead to successful cohabitation."

"My recommendation," Joseph admits, taking a drink.


"With Jeremy out of the camp and Andy moving in with Kat, Robert asked Zack if he'd like to move in with him," Castiel says as casually as he can. "Logistics were complicated, as I said, and due to--the amount of logistics--moving Zack will be accomplished possibly before dawn, as why wait?"

"That sentence didn't even try to make sense." Dean tips his head back, thinking. "Short version: Zack's tired of Nate's bullshit, time for a change?"

"Oh, I wish," Joseph mutters, looking at Castiel significantly before sinking back on the floor with a frown. "Shortest version you didn't hear from me; right now, he's tired of it, and I say, strike while the iron is hot. Once it's done, it's done, Zack may or may not notice an upgrade in his mental health--hint, he will--and Nate, as it were, will be free of the temptation of mansex since Zack's literally the only person in this camp who will put up with evangelism the next dawn. I don't care how good Nate is, it can't be worth that."

"It's not." Dean blinks at him slowly as he takes a sip from his bottle. "It's very funny, however, but I think you had to be at Nicea to understand why. I can easily understand why others wouldn't find it as humorous."

Dean nods. "Right. They're on the same team. That gonna be a problem?"

"As teammates, they're fine," Joseph answers. "It's everything else that's a problem. They're pros, they know how to leave it at home, but it's hard to do when it's the same goddamn home." Finishing his bottle, he reluctantly heaves himself to his feet. "Cas, can I pick up the stew tomorrow? My next stop--kind of gonna be busy tonight, but a lot less drinking, so it evens out."

"That's fine. I'll put it in a container for you."

"Thanks. Okay, anything else or--"

"Digging," Dean tells him maliciously. "Fun starts an hour after dawn, so make moving night fast."

Joseph sighs. "Sounds great. Night."

Almost as soon as the door closes, Dean makes another not a yawn sound, and Castiel fights down alarm.

"I'm gonna go take a hot shower," Dean says abruptly, voice thicker than it was earlier. "Wind today--you know. Lie down for a little while. It was a long day."

"Excellent idea," he answers hopefully. "Someone should be arriving from Ichabod with Amanda's weekly reports, but unless there's something you need to know, I can handle it."

"Awesome." Dean sniffs moistly and, looking alarm, retreats to the bedroom, and Castiel decides to pretend this isn't happening for as long as humanly possible.

--Day 128--

"Okay, there's something we need to talk about," Vera said, pointing him toward her bed when he arrived at her cabin that evening. Surveying the stripped bed, Castiel found himself in the novel position of hoping that wasn't an invitation and sat down carefully, relieved to see her take a chair, turning it to face him and sitting down. "It's about Dean."

Alison's warning--sent via Leah when she delivered reports before wisely fleeing Chitaqua less than an hour after her arrival--that ten children in the toddler room had come down with severe colds gave Castiel exactly ten hours before Dean stalked out of his room two hours after dawn wearing two layers of flannel and a blanket over a long-sleeve t-shirt, sweatpants, and a pair unmatched socks with a hole in one heel, face pale, nose red, carrying a handful of toilet paper, and punctuating each dragging step with a chorus of sneezes, none of which are in tune.

In that time, Castiel: called an emergency meeting of the available team leaders and various heads of camp functions (Dean went to sleep almost immediately after his shower, a terrible sign of things to come); explained they couldn't resign, be assigned to Ichabod temporarily, or run away or he would hunt them down and bring them back dead or alive (some inquired if they could request 'dead'; the answer was 'no'); sent James on an emergency trip to every abandoned town up to and including Kansas City in a search for tissue (infused with lotion, per Sarah's recommendation); ordered Brenda to turn numerous chickens into chicken broth and a great deal of soup (noodles are apparently recommended); helped Alicia frantically check their medication inventory for anything to assist with colds; and once completed, added all of these things to their pantry, refrigerator, and/or bathroom and resigned himself to dealing with this without killing either Dean or himself.

(Optional: possibly the camp as well, who voted that he who lives with and has sex with Dean must care for Dean in sickness and in health, which he thought only applied to the institute of marriage but apparently can also be subject to the vagaries of direct democracy. He hates democracy. The alternative, however, was a promise (threat?) that he would have to hunt all of them down in the wilds of Kansas, and he taught them how to hide very well. He hates them, too.)

Castiel finishes his (fourth) cup of coffee, forces himself to his feet, and tries not to look worried when he sees the hectic flush spreading over Dean's forehead and cheeks.

"There is tissue, soup, fruit juice, water, tea, coffee, extra blankets, and various analgesics and decongestants on the kitchen table," he says in one breath, but Dean doesn't vary his course. With determination--and two sneezes--he shoves Castiel over, drops on the couch with another sneeze and inefficient use of tissue paper, and looks up at him with huge, red-rimmed eyes, the very picture of resignation in the face of tragic suffering. Followed by a sniffle.

Castiel thinks: I know better than this.

"Would you like me to get them for you?" he inexplicably hears himself say, and Dean nods, wiping his nose with a tiny, pathetic cough before looking up at him again. "Give me a minute."

"Actually," Vera said, leaning forward intently, "this is about you."

Castiel blinked at her. "About me? Why?"

Here's what Castiel learns over the course of the first seven hours:

Dean recovering from a serious illness is desperately eager to do all he can on his own, and is regularly cranky and not a little hostile (or perhaps a lot).

Dean with a cold refuses to so much as move from his spot on the couch unless it's a miserable, solitary trek to the bathroom, and his emotional range comprises of 'sniffling misery', 'resigned suffering (with coughing)' and 'pathetic hope' (sometimes, he sighs as well, setting off a round of carefully suppressed coughing and assuring Castiel does anything he says to avoid its continuance).

Dean is always too hot or too cold, there are too many blankets or not enough, some are too rough and some too soft, the coffee is too strong but the tea is too weak, toast shouldn't have crusts, the wet washcloth for his headache drips, is too dry, isn't in the right place, isn't helping, he's bored with this book, the print's too small in that one, he hates this author, aren't there any others, but he doesn't want to be a bother (a. bother.), but it's okay, he'll be fine. Followed by sniffles.

It's strange; even knowing he's being ruthlessly manipulated for Dean's sadistic amusement, it doesn't actually change anything. He finds a space heater to station by the couch and turns it on and off when desired, gets more blankets/different blankets/blankets from other cabins because they don't deserve them, makes a new pot of coffee with less coffee grains and leaves the teabag in the cup for a full three minutes, de-crusts all the toast, has four washcloths on standby for switching between at a moment's notice, and tells James to take two jeeps to denude the nearest public library of its entire fiction section in under five hours or he'll pray for demon possession before Castiel is done with him.

(Then immediately apologizes and tells him he's doing an excellent job in his studies on how roads are made. It says a great deal that James simply nods with an expression of pity and promises to keep him updated on the pothole situation. For a horrifying moment, he's in great danger of being patted on the back. It's very lowering.)

Dean takes a long nap after the abrupt spike in his temperature lowers again with the application of ibuprofen, and Castiel loses some amount of time that afternoon watching him sleep.

"First rule. Don't panic."

Castiel said, "What?"

"You heard me," Vera answered, staring into his eyes as if trying to force the meaning of the words into his brain by sheer will. "Don't. Panic."

Standing at the stove that evening, Castiel prepares grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner (cheese delivered from the mess because he assumed dairy would be unwelcome due to congestion and was very wrong indeed) (the bread has no crust) while heating up the chicken noodle soup that Brenda swore several times would make Dean feel better.

Putting the grilled cheese (cut in precise triangular quarters, not squares) onto a plate, he carefully measures out the soup for the correct proportion of broth to chicken to vegetables into a bowl, adds both to the tray with a glass of (not too cold) water, a napkin and silverware, before returning to the living room where he catches Dean reading Firestarter by Stephen King, a power that Castiel would very likely sell his soul right now to acquire.

"Dinner's ready," he says, and watches as Dean composes himself into pathetic gratitude--how does he do that?--and blows his nose, following it up with a messy wipe before discarding the tissue in the general location of the wastebasket that was acquired specifically for the purposes of tissue-handling.

For a long moment, Castiel contemplates the existential horror of being attracted to someone with a swollen red nose that's begun to peel and excretes immense quantities of mucus, but then Dean looks up from a blue cotton-wool blend blanket-formed cowl, green eyes shimmering with excess water, and he immediately loses his train of thought. Uneasy, he sets the tray on the coffee table, unable to ignore the warmth that suffuses him when Dean smiles.

"Thanks," Dean tells him thickly before carefully shifting his blanket cocoon enough to reach for a quarter of crustless grilled cheese (evenly browned on both sides) and take a bite, chewing with the determination of someone using the last of their energy to acquire nutrition to combat mortal disease (a cold qualifies, apparently). Then he frowns, looking up at him again. "You gonna have anything?"

Castiel thinks: a long, cold shower and dimebag on the porch after you finally go to bed, yes. "I'm not hungry."

"You haven't eaten all day." Dean's frown intensifies, and reaching for a new tissue, he sneezes twice before continuing. "Get something to eat. I'll wait."

Experience suggests compliance is his only sane course of action, so he resigns himself, getting a bowl of soup and returns, seating himself grimly beside Dean at his sniffling head-jerk, and applies himself to eating.

And stops, startled. Lowering his spoon, he suspiciously examines the rich golden broth, in which is scattered a plethora of creamy-white pasta and generous chunks of off-white meat.

"What?" Dean asks, pausing in his own half-hearted efforts toward sufficient nutrition consumption. "Don't like it?"

"This is chicken," he answers, dividing one of the pieces of meat with the side of his spoon and tasting it warily before looking at Dean. "This is what it's supposed to taste like?"

Dean blinks wetly before taking a bite, nose wrinkling. "Not that I can taste anything right now, but yeah, I guess. You've had it before."

"No, I haven't." He takes another bite, concentrating on the rich, salt-laden burst of flavor. "This is nothing like that square substance swimming in colored water--"

"Salt," Dean interrupts grimly. "I told you, the military was palming you off with sodium free or fat free shit or something all this time, which is what normal people call flavor. People who can taste, that is," he adds darkly, taking another grim bite.

Ignoring him, Castiel eats with somewhat less reluctance than usual, thinking of the last few meals he prepared and trying to mark out the difference. Salt definitely helps: he wonders now if Dean was right about hamburgers combined with marijuana use.

After they've both finished and he's taken the dishes back to the kitchen, he pauses at the doorway. Unobserved, Dean's movements are slower, more clumsy, and he reaches up to rub his temples irritably before his head drops onto the back of the couch as if he can't find the energy to hold it up any longer before he begins to cough again. The faint flush from activity doesn't seem to be fading; on the contrary, it's starting to spread.

"I'm not going to--"

"Are you listening to me? Say it with me, Cas."

"Don't panic," he ground out, resenting Vera's encouraging smile with all his being. "I'll also continue to breathe in and out while you're away; my understanding is regular respiration is somewhat necessary for living. I don't panic."

"Funny story," Vera said, sitting back in satisfaction. "Anyone else, they'd agree. But you're talking to one of the only two people on earth who know you do and exactly what it looks like in action. Ask me who the other one is."

He shut his mouth on the obvious reply; he doesn't panic.

"He can read you like a book, Cas," Vera said. "Don't believe me? You'll find out exactly what I mean the first time he gets the sniffles. Now say it with me..."

"I. Don't. Panic."

Going to the pantry, he retrieves ibuprofen and a decongestant, then adds the hydrocodone-laced cough syrup Alicia promised him would help Dean to rest, before refilling the glass and returning to the living room. Pushing the coffee table back, he sits down, setting water and medication aside, and fights the urge to check his temperature again; he's very flushed.

"I have your medication," he starts and freezes at how familiar those words are on his tongue. Lifting his head, Dean opens his eyes, and the expression on his face tells him he recognizes it as well. "If you would--"

"So how long until ice baths become a feature, anyway?" Dean demands roughly.

"It shouldn't be a feature. This is merely a cold--"

"Most colds start with a high fever?" He snorts, which unfortunately sets off a fit of coughing. "Cas, you think I don't know what it feels like? What is it now?"

He hesitates, but finally reaches out, fingers skimming the hot, dry skin of Dean's forehead. "One hundred point one three eight and climbing, yes, but I have ibuprofen--"

"Like that helped last time?"

"It did this afternoon," he tells Dean. "Vera didn't think your immune system was permanently compromised, as I'm sure she told you more than once, but I did warn you that your body is adapting and that may take time."

"So I'll pick up the first cold I see?" Dean asks, rolling his eyes and pausing for an exceedingly bitter sneeze. "Wish I had that kind of luck with women."

"No, you picked up the same cold that every adult and adolescent who worked in the toddler room also acquired." Dean's never not been lucky with women, up to and including angels who choose to Fall by their own choice, are born into humanity with their own (female) body, and upon reaching adulthood have only to meet him before they're being willingly seduced in the back of the Impala. Not that he particularly cares. "And several parents, including Tony."

"Is he okay?" Dean asks worriedly, straightening. "I mean, he's sixty--"

"Walter and Dennis both live with him and his daughters, and I'm sure are seeing to his care," he interrupts. "When Leah brings the next report, she'll have an update on everyone's status, but Leah gave me Alison's message verbatim and she didn't seem worried."

Dean searches his face for a moment before slumping into the cushions again.

"It is only a cold," he repeats. "Though it's somewhat complicated by the residual infection from the brownie bite, yes, which….." Before Dean does more than stiffen, he quickly adds, "This isn't a relapse, simply the predictable result of your immune system being stressed."

"That's all." Dean stares at him. "So if I get sick--every time I get sick, it'll keep coming back? Vera said she that might happen, and this is proof, right? A goddamn cold and now I'm gonna be exorcising people or talking about sheep…."

"You actually were talking to them," he corrects Dean, but understandably, he doesn't appreciate the distinction. "Dean, you're in no danger of--"

"You don't know that!" he snaps, setting off another round of coughing. Castiel retrieves the tissue box and mutely extends it, waiting for it to taper off. "So don't fuck with me!"

"I do know that, just like I knew when I saw you emerge from your room that day you were already in danger, just as I knew the moment you began to respond to treatment," he answers, keeping his voice far calmer than he feels. "Do you see a blood circle in this room? I'm not going through that again, and this time, I have volunteers for the sacrifice. All I have to do is tell them they have to care for you during your illness, and they'll happily--"


"--sacrifice themselves. If you think I didn't read everything Vera recorded about the progress of that fever or I don't remember helping her to treat it or that I didn't ask her what I should watch for before she left, one of us is hallucinating right now and I hope it's me!"

Dean stares at his upraised knees, mouth tight, and Castiel closes his eyes; surely there is bread somewhere in this camp that needs the crusts removed. He's finished with all that they have in the cabin.

"If it's not serious, why do you look...." Dean's mouth works briefly. "Look like it is."

Somewhere south of Atlanta, Georgia, Castiel knows that Vera just started to laugh and--this being his life, of course--has doubtless intuited from the very ether exactly why.

He hates her, too.

"What is the word for when you associate something with a fairly traumatic event in your life and it has nothing to do with food but instead your best friend almost dying before your eyes from a brownie bite?"

Dean frowns, wiping his nose. "PTSD?"

"Vera told me that the most important thing I could do for you is not to--overreact if you became ill," he says, fixing his gaze on one corner of the blanket. "She told me that no matter what she told you and what you knew for yourself, you wouldn't believe it unless I did. So my behavior now should match what it was when you were still very ill; otherwise, any doubts you might have would be confirmed." He frowns at the blanket. "I told her I had no idea why she'd think I'd need such ridiculously obvious advice."

Dean makes a face, followed almost immediately by another fit of coughing. Annoyed with himself, Castiel reaches for the cough syrup, pouring out a measured amount into the tiny measuring cup and handing it to Dean when it finally abates, followed by the ibuprofen and decongestant.

Handing back the empty glass, Dean is still flushed and irritable, but somewhat less hostile. "It's just a cold."

"It's just a cold," he confirms. "Aggravated by the residual traces of the infection from the brownie bite, which isn't anything to be worried about but will probably magnify your symptoms, and don't panic. Me, not you."

Dean hesitates before nodding grudgingly. "I was okay until you actually cut the crust off of the toast."

"I thought I was perfectly fine until you started to run a temperature after lunch," he offers. "However, before that, I was removing the crusts because it was very funny to see your expression each time I did it."

Dean's head snaps up, outraged, before he abruptly bursts into laughter, inevitably leading to another fit of coughing. One out-thrust hand stops Castiel from moving, and eventually, it tapers off as Dean gropes for more tissues, wiping his nose and snickering hoarsely between two rapid sneezes. Straightening, he relaxes back into the couch--flushed, red (and now somewhat damp) nose, watery green eyes, and still ridiculously attractive. It's surreal; how does he do that?

"People in Ichabod think you're charming."

"Huh?" Dean blows his nose messily before dropping the tissue into the wastebasket--a first, his aim is improving--and acquiring a fresh one. "They do?"

"Yes, Alison told me about what happened at the council meeting, as well as at those introductory dinners she hosted for you," he explains. "She said she was immune, of course--"

"She's not," Dean interrupts smugly. Castiel doesn't agree, but only because Alison begged him not to ever tell Dean it worked, as Teresa mocked her for it enough.

"--but she did ask me if that was why I was attracted to you," he continues. "I had to profess myself utterly ignorant of what she was talking about, as I'd never seen any evidence that you knew the meaning of the word."

Dean's amusement slowly changes into something he doesn't recognize, but there's no mistaking the dangerous light filling the green eyes. "That right?" he says huskily. Wiping his nose, he starts to add something to that and frowns, forehead creasing, and Castiel can see him just stop himself from reaching up: that would be the headache, yes.

"Lie down," he says, inexplicably relieved as he reaches for the empty glass. "It may be only a cold, but I'm assured that while not life-threatening and of short duration, they're utterly miserable while they last."

"They are," Dean agrees far too easily, reaching for one of the pillows Castiel brought from the bed and tucking it against the arm of the couch before curling up with a sigh. A soft thump catches Castiel's attention, and reaching down, he picks up the book Dean was reading. "You're not going to watch me sleep, are you?"

"Yes, I am. Especially if your grilled cheese has to be in cut into triangles and without crust. I think I'm owed this."

Dean begins to grin, and one foot abruptly snakes out from the blankets to kick the couch cushion in a way that seem to be significant. "Read to me."


Another kick, harder this time. "My head hurts and I'm bored. Sit down on the couch like a normal person and read to me. You can watch me sleep, I can pretend you're just reading until I actually am, and everyone wins."

He almost argues the point but realizes no, he can't go cabin to cabin to acquire more bread to cut, and even if he could, he doesn't want Dean out of his line of sight, and the camp is distressingly well-organized at this moment (as well as notable in their absence). Short of continuing research on the feasibility of a building a small nuclear reactor in one of the less desirable cabins--Joseph was appalled, Alicia enthusiastic--he's not actually sure he has anything else to do, and his concentration at this moment is not compatible with primitive nuclear physics.

If only they'd invented cold fusion already, he thinks wistfully, and at Dean's third--and much more determined--kick, he sighs and picks up the book.

"Not that," Dean says. "Hippo porn. I know you have more done, come on."

Castiel thinks of where he stopped translating. "I do, but--"

"Get it," Dean demands snottily (quite literally, even), and with another sigh, he retreats to the utility closet under Dean's eagle eye, finding where he'd hidden the evidence--behind the inexplicably depleted supply of Eldritch Horror--and comes back to see Dean's helpfully left the end of the couch ready for him. Almost as soon as he's seated, Dean promptly decides he must stretch out, long legs abruptly draped across his lap followed by a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction.

Stupidly, Castiel looks at him and gets in return a mischievous grin. "Well? Anytime you're ready."

Castiel thinks: I do know better than this and I don't care.

Carefully setting the original text on the arm of the sofa--burning it would probably contaminate the fire--and his pens on the coffee table in easy reach, he removes the green one as he skims through the notebook, warily relieved to realize there's probably still a great deal of text before…that part.

"Where did we stop?" he asks as the blanket is flung downward, just short of Dean's feet, and he absently reaches down to straighten it over them and tuck in the ends securely.

"South of Memphis, on the road to Thebes, just spent time staring at hippo ass in the swamp while having a lot of feelings."

Flipping to the correct page, Castiel nods. "'Cleft in twain, ripened and honey-glazed--'"

"--'beneath the sun in splendor' that's it," Dean finishes for him, rubbing his nose and abruptly tugging a pillow under his head to look at Castiel through watery eyes. "Hey, what happened to the boyfriend with the blister lips or whatever--"

"'A carbuncle gleaming like a blister swollen with new blood', and I'm honestly not sure. He vanished between the Inundation that entered the Cubits of Plenty--as his very presence also controls the Nile's Inundations, not Pharaoh, who's only a god on earth, after all--" He stops himself with an effort. "That and Pallas Athena's weeping lamentations as the water level rose around her supine form, for in her despair she'll drown herself, though that will take time, since it takes some days for the Nile to rise, but it seems she's willing to wait." Flipping back, he verifies the potential lover's absence since before that obscenely inaccurate rendition of Athena's--there's literally nothing not wrong with it. Entirely new things were created wholesale just so he could be wrong about them.

Going back, he proceeds to the next stanza and comes to an abrupt stop.

….yes, that part.

"Cas?" There's an impression of activity on the other side of the couch, but he needs a moment. "You gonna start?"

It seems as if he'll have to. "'Kneeling within the swirl of mud as the swamp ascended the banks in crawling tendrils of azure and verdant greens'--for the water of the Nile is like tentacles--'he cried out to the heavens, 'Lo, for your name I speak and know, Messenger, come to my bidding with these gifts I seek to give'." The silence from the other side of the couch almost echoes with ominous portents, but perhaps Dean's fever will abruptly spike and a pleasant sheep-based hallucination will commence. Any moment now. "The grammar is--"

"He summoned," Dean breathes in something suspiciously like joy, "an angel?"

Castiel grits his teeth. "Technically--"

"Of the Lord?"

"Technically speaking, no," Castiel says in pedantic misery. "The pantheons of Egypt and Greece had no conceptualization for 'angel'. In point of fact, the word itself is only a very loose translation of--"

"'That which you call a rose'," Dean quotes maliciously. "Or an angel: Shakespeare knew his shit. Was it you?"

Castiel jerks his gaze to Dean in horror.

"Tell me it was you," Dean says gloatingly. "Tell me he summoned you by name and you're immortalized in shitty teenage Greek except in Egyptian pre-MySpace epic poetry being turned down by hippofucker. Is this why you made up shitty excuses all this time about still translating it?"

"The translation is somewhat questionable--"

"Qafsiel Kaziel, Cassiel, Messenger, Castiel--"

"'Anina, Namina, Anael, Ana-el'." He watches in interest as Dean stills, green eyes wide, and abruptly becomes somewhat reconciled to the fact he can't smite eastern Athens the night of this poet's misbegotten birth. "I assume you recognize the name."

Dean's mouth closes with an audible snap.

"'And so they appeared,'" he reads more enthusiastically, "'draped in silvered moonlight like the most diaphanous of garments, laid bare to only the most private of eyes, rich in flesh and rounded in form'--"

Dean promptly begins to cough.

"--'lush, ripe, honeyed fruit falling into his willing hand'--he did have a problem with repetition, it seems," he observes. "Maybe he made a copy paste error--"

"Cas," Dean says in horror. "That's your sister he's--talking about being ripe and honeyed!"

"Incest is a mortal sin, not a divine one," he responds, turning the page. "Among the gods, a relative within the first degree was generally preferred as a mate; in no other way could they consolidate and expand their power. I have no conceptualization of the taboo as such, and if I did, I've never known her in that sense." He looks at Dean in understanding. "That would make one of us."

Dean swallows. "Uh--"

"'Their steps fall like raindrops as they stretch--', he's an idiot, he meant 'paces'." He pauses to make another correction as Dean indulges in a rather drawn-out fit of coughing and raises his voice to compensate. "'Their steps fall like raindrops as they pace the length of the swamp on feet of light'--not a completely inaccurate description of our true form, though technically speaking, we don't have feet--'and displayed themselves before him in all their glory, red hair surmounting a face of carved ebony and gold'--acceptable, though the fact he's not being burned alive for the presumption of looking on their true form...."

"You're telling me Ana's true form had red hair?" Dean demands, ending his fit of coughing with remarkable rapidity. "Come the fuck on!"

"'And there's nothing to do but kneel before such in abject worship.'" Castiel glances at Dean's red face--carbuncle-like, even. "Red is often used as an indicator of lust, anger, sexual heat without procreative function: it's a well-known fact. You're welcome to check my translations, if you wish."

"I'm going to," Dean promises, wiping his nose venomously. "Soon as I find a demotic Egyptian to English dictionary."

"I look forward to our future conversations in comparative linguistics," Castiel tells him sincerely before continuing. "'A divine hand fell upon his head, gentle in their touch, warm in their offered benediction, diaphanous robes like mist parting to reveal them swollen, ripe'--he does like the word 'ripe', doesn't he?--'turgid and dewed with divine seed, sweet in taste when offered for adoration, slick in honey-sticky ropes'--ropes, that certainly is an image I could live without--"


"'--thick and heavy, accepting its deserved worship and sending him beyond mortal endurance into both agony and ecstasy indistinguishable. Speared by the heavens before him--"

"Okay, wait, wait," Dean interrupts. "How much of this is there?"

"Eighteen stanzas."

"You're going to read eighteen stanzas of your sister banging hippofucker?" Dean demands, then looks uncertain. "That's…what they're doing, right? The spearing thing, that's…what?"

"I'm honestly not sure," he mutters, frowning at the page before returning his attention to Dean. "As I said, i don't--oh, I apologize. Human sexual prudery--"

"Fuck you, I'm not being--that! No prudery here!"

"--is alien to me. Would you be uncomfortable listening to me read eighteen stanzas of your ex-girlfriend in their true form--"

"She wasn't my girlfriend! It was one time!" Dean bursts out, and earns himself a well-deserved genuine fit of coughing.

"--having what may or may not be anatomically impossible divine and somewhat ambiguous sex in overwrought prose with hippofucker on the banks of the Nile during Inundation?" Dean's face turns an interesting shade of purple, and he sits back, satisfied. "It's your decision, of course. I'll wait.

Dean doesn't speak for several long moments after he's finished. Closing the notebook, he stacks it with the text on the coffee table and puts away his pen before sitting back, wondering if he should admit....

"Okay, I give up," Dean says finally, blowing his nose. "What the hell just happened?"

"I checked this four times," he replies. "I'm not certain whether my former divinity should be offended by the blasphemy--it being fictional--or his lack of literacy when engaged in fictional blasphemy, but it would help to know if blasphemy actually occurred. Fictionally speaking, that is. I was hoping I simply wasn't human enough to understand it." It was a wonderful theory, and he regrets its loss very, very much.

"Yeah, no, that's just hippofucker being--I don't even know." Dean sneezes in resignation. "Okay, let's get it over with."

He takes a deep breath. "Are you sure--"

"Look, we gotta figure this out, not like we're sleeping either way after that--whatever it was. Better to know for sure." Blowing his nose again, Dean motions to the notebook. "I'm pretty sure he was probably talking about Ana's holy cock with turgid seed--"

"Divine seed." At Dean's incredulous look, he shrugs helplessly. "Perfect memory, and I regret it more than you can imagine right now. You have no idea how much."

"Sorry," Dean replies with almost painful sincerity. "Anyway, holy cock, we got that much so far, right? Tell me I'm right, lie if you have to."

"I don't think he knows what a cock looks like." He reads the stanza again, but it doesn't help. "Even his own."

"Which might explain where he thought it was--was it moving or is it just me?" Dean shudders before straightening with a determined look. "Heaven's spearing something, and we're gonna find out what that is or die trying."

"No one dies from reading bad poetry, Dean."

"I said," Dean states, "that we're gonna try. Now 'speared by the heavens': start there."

--Day 130--

Alicia's expression is unrepentant as she saunters up to the porch stairs an hour and a half after dawn, but as she's carrying a basket containing another bottle of cough syrup, bread, and a gratifyingly large container of soup, he decides to be gracious. "How's it going?"

"Very well, thank you," he says pleasantly. "I'm designing a refresher training course for the camp. I think I'll call it 'survival of the fittest'."

Climbing the steps, she sets down the basket near the post and drops beside him with a smirk. "I killed the goblin king with my bare hands and a pocket knife. I fear nothing and no one."

"All goblins call themselves kings. They do that. And it was an four and a quarter inch dagger of thrice-forged cold iron. A sixteenth century mystic and blacksmith just rolled over in his grave hearing you call it called a pocket knife."

"Oh, almost forgot." Pulling the basket closer, she groping inside for a moment before taking out a handful of papers that she presents him with a hopeful look. "Dryer elf trap, Mark III. Tell me what you think."

Taking them, he smooths out the creases to examine the elf trap, sigils neatly delineated at the seven corners, and below it the plan of attack in a series of brief sketches. A dotted line shows the progress of the bait toward the trap, in this case, a sock that fulfills all the requirements of temptation: clean, very white, without holes or patches, obviously manufactured for boots, and part of a matching pair that's been worn at least once and is the only pair of its kind the owner possesses. Nate will just have to deal with the potential loss.

The second page, however…. "You added a potential gnome variation?"

"Yes!" she exclaims, leaning over to look at it fondly. "Small, easy to miss, used to hiding in plain sight via invisibility, and annoying as shit: potential dryer gnome. Not like a civilian--or my mom--would know the difference on sight, am I right?"

"Or brownie," he says, joining her in a horrified shudder. "Luckily, neither brownies nor Fae can pass the wards, so that limits the possibilities somewhat."

"Brownies are locked out?" Alicia asks in surprise. "Since when?"

"Since they attacked Dean." He fights down a wince, glancing at Alicia warily. "They--I'm not sure. However, they're now unable to pass the wards."

That much, at least, is true.

Brownies have existed on earth for so long and bred so consistently in their corporeal form here that they generally seem to straddle the vague line between the supernatural and terrestrial, and it's guesswork at best to decide on which side they might fall. English and Scottish folklore might hold them to be useful in household chores, but Castiel has yet to meet one in the Americas that is other than annoying, entitled, or vaguely feral (an unforeseen danger of importing your mystical helpers when invading foreign continents, he supposes), and often all three.

The progress of technology has eliminated many of their traditional duties, which admittedly may be a factor in their recent development, but instead of adapting to the industrial revolution and embracing the possibilities (surely the vacuum would make their jobs immensely less tedious?), they chose the path of maximum annoyance. When not engaged in either sabotage or outright destruction of machinery, attempting to do what it was doing but far, far worse, and then waiting for gifts to show appreciation for their inferior labor, they gather in colonies to attack unsuspecting humans for daring to enjoy running water, electricity, cable television, and automobiles.

Unfortunately, brownies have never qualified as a threat--natural law being not at all surprisingly as oblivious to the modern era as the brownies--and keeping them out of the camp used to be something of an effort. Killing them is anathema due to their technical status as friendly and helpful toward humanity (he doesn't snort, but it's a very close thing), so infestations tend to require a miserable blunt-force approach to the problem: knock them unconscious, gather them in boxes with very strong lids (preferably the kind you can nail shut) and take them away from the camp and hope they wouldn't return (they do anyway).

(Anathema or not, killing them wouldn't be off the table if he'd found a way to do it. He hasn't.)

In general, the wards reacting to a threat is the equivalent of background noise, barely discernible unless he happens to be in physical contact with them unless it's serious or dangerous enough that his attention is required. However, the very recent rejection of a brownie trying to slip through was neither background nor something he could have missed even if he'd been trying, as the wards awakened him from a sound sleep at three in the morning to bear witness. He would be lying to himself if he said he didn't sense its vicious satisfaction as the brownie ran shrieking its way into the night; it matched his own.

As the wards' presence faded into the back of his mind again, he remembered Dean telling him how only days after his arrival, when he first touched the wards, they wanted his attention.

"It's your Grace in there, right? I could--it felt like you. The first time I touched it."

Dean would be familiar with his Grace, yes, that much makes sense if anything about this is supposed to. That they wanted his notice doesn't, not when they never showed interest in Dean Winchester before. If Dean was accurate about what he sensed--and this being Dean, there's little to no chance he wasn't--the wards knew exactly who he was--and who he wasn't--well before he took Dean to see the wards that night. More unsettling, however, is the sense that they knew him, the unique person, therefore making 'impossible' a loose guideline instead of a realistic assessment of reality. Much like this entire ridiculous Apocalypse.

"No more brownies fucking around with the pipes," Alicia is saying in profound satisfaction, snapping him back to the present with a jolt. "Okay, so the trap: yes, no, maybe?"

"I think it will work very well," he says, focusing on the sketch; it's very good. "Can I keep this copy? I'd like to check a few references before we begin construction."

"That's why I brought it," she answers cheerfully. "You need anything else while I'm here?"

"I can't think of anything at the moment. Joseph usually takes requests after reporting to me in the morning and evening regarding the camp's activities."

"That would be a lot of digging." Alicia sighs before resting her elbow on one upraised knee. "How's our fearless leader, anyway?"

"Resting comfortably." He glances back at the door, behind which Dean is sleeping the sleep of the drugged on hydrocodone-laced cough syrup beneath a mound of blankets with a space heater in convenient proximity. To his lack of surprise, Dean found numerous excuses to avoid sleeping in the bedroom, and Castiel agreed with all of them, even the ones that made no sense, like the paint might be lead-based and kill him in his delicate condition. It's not as if a sleeping bag on the rug isn't very comfortable, but listening to Dean breathe at night, he thinks that they may need to acquire a heavier rug for winter to conserve warmth and avoid taxing Dean's immune system further. Maybe one for each room: it bears investigation, and James does seem to have a gift for finding things. "Somewhat irritable, but that is to be expected."

"Cranky as shit," Alicia translates. "What was Dean doing at the daycare, anyway? Wouldn't have called that one."

"Building a fortified castle," he answers, remembering the sight of Dean and two small, very determined children sitting around four low child-sized tables pushed into a rough square on which was placed a passable castle surrounded by a truly inspiring defensive wall in a variety of primary colors. "He's very fond of children."

Alicia's eyebrows jump. "You're kidding."

"Not at all. He's very popular among the caregivers who wish to take an extended lunch." Tony's younger daughter eventually wandered over from the group entranced by a program starring a large violet dinosaur to observe proceedings. Evaluating the entire construction with a serious expression, she shook her pig-tailed head before pointing at an arbitrary point (blue?) on the wall and babbling what was unmistakably a command that Dean inexplicably seemed to understand, changing the blue Lego for a yellow one.

"Do you like kids?" she asks curiously.

"I'm not horrified by their existence." Alicia wrinkles her nose, apparently unsatisfied. "I've had too little interaction with the immature version of your species to form an opinion."

She waits, adding an obnoxiously tapping foot in unneeded emphasis.

"They're a great deal like the mature version," he continues, remembering Dean dealing with three children competing for his attention. "Loud, opinionated, stubborn, certain they are always right, somewhat irrational when crossed, and extraordinarily unhappy when they don't have your undivided attention."

"You like them," Alicia decides.

"Why would you assume that?"

"A lot like Dean," she says triumphantly. "Especially the attention part."

He raises an eyebrow just as from inside comes the unmistakable sound of Dean's voice raised in what is obviously displeasure on awakening and realizing anew he has a cold. Ignoring Alicia's laughter, he gets to his feet and opens the door to see Dean sitting up with an unhappy expression and wiping his nose with a handful of tissue.

"How are you feeling?" he asks as Alicia thankfully muffles herself against her knees behind him. To be sure, however, he carefully shuts the door behind him.

"Fine, just dying," Dean answers thickly, glaring at him before getting to his feet. "You go have fun outside, I'm gonna take a shower. Hope I don't fall over or anything and drown."

"Try to avoid it." Castiel smiles at him winningly. "Do call if you need anything, I'll be right outside."

The only response is a glare as Dean stalks the length of the living room before disappearing into the bedroom. Closing the door carefully behind him, he turns back to Alicia, currently in danger of asphyxiation.

"Enjoying yourself?" he asks as he sits back down.

She lifts her head, face red, but heroically swallows back her mirth to say, "I am, thanks. So you sure you don't need anything?"

Castiel opens his mouth to reply, then reconsiders. "The four new generators that James and Zack brought for the new mess--are they already running?"

"Hooked up and checking them now," she answers. "Why?"

"I need one of them. And a few other things." This is either a very good idea or a terrible one. "You tell me if you can get them here by tonight."

Alicia nods, intrigued. "Let's hear them."

He tells her.

"Holy shit," Alicia breathes. "That's genius."

He rather thought so himself. "So can you--"

"Not a problem," she interrupts, glancing at the sun speculatively. "I'll get James's team to help. Two hours after dusk at the latest. You know how you're gonna distract Dean?"

He nods thoughtfully. "I think I do, but I'll need your help."

"I'm in," she answers, leaning forward. "What do I do?"

"Why," Dean asks grimly, unmoving beneath a pile of blankets that has grown exponentially since his cold began, "do I need to go to the infirmary?"

Finishing with the dishes from dinner as casually as possible--and it's an effort not to speed up the process--Castiel drains the sink and then dries his hands before leaning against the kitchen doorway.

"Because Vera--"

"Fuck Vera," Dean interrupts, puffy eyes narrowing. "She's not here, and if it's just a cold, not like I need Alicia to look me over now and confirm it."

"--requested, and you agreed, that any illness or injury would be documented thoroughly for her records."

"You can do that."

"Alicia is our camp doctor, and it's both her responsibility and her privilege to fulfill the duties inherent in that position," he responds. "Not only that--"

"What if she wants me to remove my shirt?" Dean asks, pausing to blow his nose as obnoxiously as possible. "So she can do the thing with the stethoscope? See all those missing scars and tattoos? Think of that?"

"I told her she wasn't allowed to undress you," he answers, crosses his arms, and waits.

Dean doesn't disappoint him. "You told her what?"

"I told her that as I was still not entirely conversant with human customs when it comes to committed relationships, I felt it would be best to avoid even the appearance of infidelity," he answers, watching as the red of Dean's nose is lost beneath the general flush of hot color that extends down into the collar of his shirt, though how far he's sadly unable to determine from here and while Dean's wearing three shirts. "Nudity with someone other than your committed partner is to be discouraged outside situations that require it, and in my view, this situation doesn't."

"You didn't say that," Dean breathes, staring at him in growing horror. "Tell me you didn't tell her--"

"Jealousy is a destructive emotion that does not contribute to a stable and lasting relationship or successful cohabitation," he explains. "While I told her that I couldn't be sure that would be my reaction--"

"Jealousy? Because the camp doctor sees me without my shirt?"

"--it might be, and why should we take the risk?"

"You told her you'd be jealous and consider it cheating if she saw me without my shirt?"

"'For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.'' He shrugs. "As my Father is, so are his sons--and daughters--and so follows our reaction to perceived competition. I cannot deny my nature, and I'm rather offended you'd want me to. I also understand you should accept people as who they truly are, and I expected better of you."

Dean opens and closes his mouth helplessly.

"Once I explained it to her, she was very understanding," he continues. "After all, the consequences--"

"What consequences?" Dean shuts his eyes. "You don’t mean--"

"Ritual combat, of course," he agrees. "In response to blatant violation of my rights."

"Your rights?" Dean asks incredulously.

"And your honor," he adds conscientiously. "Not that I would hold you responsible, of course. Please don't let that concern you."

"This isn't actually happening," Dean mutters. "Hallucinating, right--"

"As the one challenged, she would have choice of weapon--"

"Where the fuck are those goddam sheep?"

"--which would of course be knives."

"Knives," Dean echoes flatly.

"She's very good with them, as I might have mentioned before," he tells Dean. "But I'll win, of course."

Dean nods jerkily. "Of course."

"My victory and her death would be confirmation of my claim to you, but traditionally, public sex is recommended as well so it can be witnessed--"

"Oh Jesus," Dean groans, opening his eyes to glare at Castiel before dropping back onto the couch and covering his face. "I hate you."

"Did I mention using her blood to…"

"Fuck you," drifts from the couch, but he can see the faint quivering of his shoulders before Dean rolls over to bury his face against the cushions. Crossing to the couch, he lifts Dean's legs out the way to sit down, rearranging them in his lap as he waits for Dean's muffled laughter, interspersed with coughing, to subside.

When Dean rolls back over, he grabs for the tissue, blowing his nose thoroughly and managing a short-lived glare before grinning at him. "How much more was coming?"

"Serving my every whim to show your gratitude that I defended your honor," he admits, waiting for Dean's next bought of laughter to taper off. "Sexual favors would be prominent among your duties, of course."

"Of course," Dean agrees mockingly. Grabbing a pillow from where it fell on the floor, he tucks it under his head, wiping his eyes impatiently. "How much of that was from your fucked up imagination anyway?"

"Oddly, very little," he answers, folding his arms over Dean's legs. "When fighting a challenger for one's chattel--"


"I know you can't possibly be surprised by how the Host classified human lovers?" Dean makes a face. "Sex would be a human invention that we added into proceedings, however. Also, substitute 'enemy blood' for 'Grace' to be both proof of possession and warning to other angels or gods."

Dean raises an eyebrow. "Handprint by any chance?"

"Nothing so vulgar," he answers. "A form of their public name, usually a translation of their true name from Enochian. Ritual binding, but--"

"Goes only one way."

He nods, not surprised Dean would recognize the reason for that and wondering why he didn't redirect this conversation in any other direction other than this one. "Their true name, willingly given and willingly accepted, would be binding to them as well. No angel would give a human equal power over them."

"So real reason I'm going to the infirmary?" Dean asks abruptly, startling him, but when he looks, Dean's expression reflects only skepticism. "You want me out of here for some reason, right?"

"Yes." Something--disappointment? Worry? Unhappiness?--flickers across Dean's face before it vanishes. "Nothing you'd disapprove of or be interested in. I sent James to procure three new rugs for winter to better insulate the cabin, and I'm using my power for our personal benefit and letting his team assist me in placing them in here and the bedroom."

Dean's face brightens. "And you think I'll bitch at them?"

"I know you will," he answers easily, smirking at Dean's unconvincing scowl. "I thought you'd prefer peace and quiet and not have to change rooms while we move furniture, and Alicia agreed to entertain you as well as update your medical records. And you won't have to remove any clothing, I promise."

"And you couldn't just say that?"

"I could have," he agrees thoughtfully. "But this way was much more entertaining. Your expression...."

"Something," Dean states flatly, fighting a grin with indifferent success, "is wrong with you."

"And you like me anyway," he says. "So how long until you're ready to leave?"

Castiel arrives at the infirmary to find Dean and Alicia sharing the bed and pouring over medical records with matching expressions of horrified fascination, and all hope they're anyone's but his die an immediate death. Shutting the door, he almost sighs as Alicia's head comes up without even the pretense of guilt, while Dean continues to read for a few more moments, shaking his head sadly before closing the folder.

"I hope I'm not interrupting," he says as Dean quickly rearranges his expression to one of sad resignation at Castiel's far too well-documented medical history. "They're done. Are you ready to come home?"

"We were just getting to the good part," Dean complains as Alicia takes the folder and slides off the bed, not hiding her smirk as she places it back in the distressingly large case that usually lives in the bedroom closet in the cabin. "All done?"

"I think you'll approve of James' selections." Dean takes the time to sneeze and blow his nose thoroughly before easing to the floor with a faint, nearly indiscernible stumble. As casually as he can, Castiel crosses to the bed as Dean gets another tissue from the box on the pillow behind him, scowling unhappily. "Congestion affects the inner ear and therefore balance, especially after a period of being stationary."

"I know that," Dean grumbles. "Can we go already?"

"I'll walk with you," Alicia volunteers immediately, locking the case and hefting the strap over her shoulder before gesturing them toward the door. "After you."

As they emerge outside, Castiel watches carefully as Dean descends the stairs and doesn't bother trying to be subtle about it.

"You wanna carry me?" Dean asks challengingly before sneezing again, which interferes with his glare.


"Hell no." He twists around to include Alicia in his warning glare and immediately stumbles, requiring Castiel to steady him to the sound of Alicia's delighted laughter. "Shut up?"

"Yes, Dean," she answers obediently, coming up on Dean's other side just as the cabin comes into view. "If it helps, you sound a lot better, shouldn't be more than a couple more days."

Dean obviously doesn't want it to help but can't quite hide the faint relief behind the tissue, though he does try.

When they reach the steps of the cabin, Castiel glances back at Alicia as meaningfully as he can.

"I'll get the door," she says, darting up the porch steps and opening the door before looking back solemnly. "I'll just go inside and put this up. As one does with things one borrows from others, it's just polite."

"Yeah, okay," Dean tells her back as they ascend the steps. After she disappears inside, he glances at Castiel. "She's acting weird."

"She's always like that." Reaching for the door, he politely holds it open for Dean, who looks at him suspiciously before stalking by him and coming to a dead stop only two steps past the threshold, giving Castiel enough room to enter and shut the door before asking, "So what do you think of the rug?"

Dean doesn't answer, and he follows his gaze to the television now hanging on the wall and the shelving unit beneath holding a bluray player and a selection of movies, liberated from somewhere Castiel felt no interest in asking about but obviously no longer had any use for them.

"You're not looking at the rug," he points out after a long moment, noting James is smiling hard enough to burst, and Zack, Matt, Jody, and Mira are crowded at the kitchen door watching eagerly. "I liked the rectangle motif, but if you prefer--"

"You…." Dean jerks his gaze from the TV to look at him, a slow, wondering smile lighting up his face, and Castiel forgets what they were talking about. "You got me a TV?"

He nods a little vaguely. "While I’m afraid cable is not currently available in this area, we were able to procure a selection of movies--"

"A TV."

"A list of movies," Alicia volunteers from the bedroom door, almost bouncing. "And God help us if we couldn't find at least a few of them. Which perish the thought: we found all of them."

Dean doesn't look away from Castiel, cocking his head. "A list?"

"I know what you like," he answers automatically and almost winces, not sure if that was a mistake considering the source, but Dean's smile widens, impossible as that should be. "John McClane fortunately is a popular choice for many, so…" He trails off, not sure what he's saying anymore. "If you wish to sit down to make your choice--"

"Maybe we should take a vote," Dean interrupts, finally looking away and bestowing a very different smile at everyone waiting. "Movie night, right? Don't tell me you did all this shit and think I'm throwing you out without getting to enjoy it?" He laughs at the eager expressions of everyone, then frowns, looking toward the kitchen in surprise. "Dude, is that--"

"Popcorn," Matt confirms cheerfully. "And a lot of it. Almost forgot how to do that without a microwave."

"Dude," Dean says, shaking his head before he closes a hand over Castiel's wrist and tugs toward the couch, pulling him down beside him. "Okay, so Die Hard okay?" At the general agreement, he grins happily, settling back on the couch, but the hand around Castiel's wrist remains as he reaches for one of the folded blankets beside the couch. "Let's get this started. Grab pillows and extra blankets from the bed if you need 'em and get comfortable."

As everyone's attention is turned elsewhere, Dean finally lets go to spread the blanket over them both, and Castiel fights the urge to touch the lingering warmth from Dean's touch.

"Seriously, you got me a TV?" Dean asks softly, mouth quirking in amusement. "Was I that bad this time around?"

"Of course not. I should have thought of it before." Absently, he smooths the wool blend over his knees as Matt deposits two large bowls of popcorn and several bottles of Joe Beer and a glass of water on the coffee table before returning to the kitchen. "The daycare in Ichabod has televisions to play movies for the children, though I assumed you wouldn't enjoy the program involving a giant purple dinosaur as much as they seemed to."

"You went to the daycare?" Dean asks in surprise, reaching for another blanket. "When?"

"My tour with Alison required visiting all the official buildings." Dean raises an eyebrow. "I was curious."

"About kids?"

"Yes," he answers firmly. "While I've never been particularly interested in procreation, per se, I do enjoy the method by which its generally achieved."

Dean bites his lip. "Right."

"It's possibly the best part of the human design. Not to mention a superlative example of humanity's limitless creativity."

"Jesus, you're weird," Dean says wonderingly, shaking his head. "So you like John McClane?"

"Oh yes," he agrees, as the television flickers to life. "I like when things explode."

"I'll get the lights," Alicia volunteers, picking up two remotes and depositing them before Dean before flipping the lights off, and everyone settles themselves while the FBI warning appears on the screen.

Matt returns from the kitchen as Alicia drops onto the couch beside Castiel and scooting over enough for Matt to join her while Jody curls up in the armchair Zack is using as a backrest. To his lack of surprise, James and Mira have settled together to share a blanket and pillow to the left of the television.

She's been an excellent influence; like all of James's team, she wasn't a member of patrol before, and she's willing to offer James her advice and ask for clarification regarding his decisions, which has encouraged Zack and Nate to do the same. Her confidence has bolstered James' as well as the team's, and not surprisingly, that compatibility is as personally attractive to James as it is professionally, and Mira doesn't seem unwilling consider the possibility, if her response to James' eager attentions to her comfort--spreading the blanket more thoroughly for her and unnecessarily fluffing the pillow between them before offering himself as a backrest--is any indication.

Glancing at Dean, he sees him watching them as well, mouth quirked in amusement. "They look cozy," he murmurs, breath warm against Castiel's ear. "Anything to worry about if that goes anywhere?"

"Mira's involvement with Kenneth was terminated several months ago and they've remained on good terms," he answers. "James, as far as I'm aware, has never engaged in anything requiring termination."

Dean looks at him. "Anything?"

"Literally," he agrees as Mira leans back against the pillow, head resting against James's shoulder and thus guaranteeing he won't have any attention to spare for the movie. "He's always been rather reserved."

"Huh. Hey, where's Andy?" Dean murmurs as he acquires one of the bowls of popcorn and two bottles, grinning at Castiel's quick glance at Alicia. "Right, Sarah's team's back. Remind me to tell Alicia's she's welcome to our floor tonight if she needs it."

He nods as Dean braces his feet on the coffee table, rearranging the blankets before falling into a comfortable slump against his side.

"Alicia," Dean says, reaching for another blanket and tossing it neatly over her head when she turns around. "Blanket?"

"Thanks," she says, sounding muffled before tugging it off and spreading it ostentatiously over herself and Matt before getting a bowl of popcorn. "Also, you're welcome."

Dean smirks at her before relaxing back, settling the popcorn in his lap and then glancing up at Castiel. "Dude, feet up and relax already."

"Yes," he answers, obeying mechanically and thereby achieving contact with Dean's body from shoulder to knee beneath the two blankets that Dean rearranges meticulously before settling back again. "Comfortable?" He hopes so; unless Lucifer himself appears at the door and is on the point of entering, he has no intention of moving for any reason whatsoever.

Dean turns his head to smile at him from only inches away. "Did I say thank you?"

"It was implicit," he answers vaguely.

"Not the same thing," Dean murmurs. "Thanks, Cas."

He nods, swallowing hard before saying, "You're welcome."

Chapter Text

--Day 134--

"So what's it like, then?" Alison persists.

What it's like: so many answers, so few of them comprehensible without a working knowledge of all the planes of Creation from its inception. "Television."

Alison frowns, resting her elbows on the table. "Television?"

"Premium cable package or satellite: every channel that exists, did exist, or ever will," he answers, warming to the analogy. "All of them at the same time, even the ones devoted to infomercials, but the programs started at the beginning of time, will continue into perpetuity, and you see all of the episodes at the same moment in time as well."

"Ten seasons of X-Files in the blink of an eye."

"It won't make the mythology any more comprehensible." Alison sighs in disappointment. "But you can pinpoint the precise moment Chris Carter realized he didn't know it either."

Alison cocks her head. "Watch a lot of TV after you came to earth?"

"Infinite knowledge, and yes, I did. It was educational in human customs."

"You're kidding." Alison fumbles her thankfully empty cup when he doesn't deny it, getting to her feet. "Want more while I figure out what the hell to say to that?"

"Please." Handing her his cup, he frowns as she limps determinedly to the coffee pot set by the oven, but doesn't make the mistake of trying to stop her or offering to do it himself. "I understand that it's exaggerated--and if you think it's overly so, I'd like to introduce you to Greece's entire creative output as refutation--but it's a fairly accurate roadmap for humanity in the general if not the specifics."

"I'm still dealing with you learning human via TV," Alison says, setting his cup in front of him before seating herself again. "That explains a lot."

He hides his smile behind the rim of his cup.

"So what did you get out of it? Roadmap-wise, I mean. We march ever onward to our destruction?"

"You certainly seem to believe so; the sheer glut of nuclear holocaust media alone is breathtaking in morbid speculation of not just the infinite ways to die, but the horrific mutants that will result, rendered in loving detail--you get that from my Father," he adds thoughtfully as Alison sips her coffee, eyes wide. "His work on the original genome that resulted in humans was a great deal like that, but at no time were tentacles going to be a serious addition, He just thought it was amusing as concept."


"You create your own destruction, yes, but almost immediately create a way out of it," he continues, returning to the original subject. "It's like watching endless dress rehearsals for what you might do and how to get out of it, on the off-chance you end up actually doing it. Combining cosmic horror with practicality isn't a universal trait by any means, much less turning it into a visual instruction manual: you are to be commended for that particular innovation."

"Tentacles?" she repeats blankly.

"Oh, that. Humans don't have racial memory, per se, but among the species you evolved from, some did. It's always been something of a thought exercise, wondering if somehow, they retained some faint inklings of that design possibility that you inherited, which would explain your otherwise inexplicable interest in hentai." He takes another drink. "Not that it's inexplicable now; I see the attraction of all those tentacles. Very versatile: the possibilities are endless. I think up new ones every day."

Alison spits out a mouthful of coffee on the table, and he helpfully retrieves a dishcloth from under the sink and cleans up while she remembers how to breathe correctly. Disposing of it in the sink, he returns to Alison's glare. "What?"

Her glare is very expressive; it says many things.

"A rule of thumb when it comes to enlightenment; be very sure you ask the right question, and be aware the answer will always be in essay form and continually in flux."

Alison's eyes narrow speculatively. "Depends on what channel you're on right now?"

He grins at her. "The invention of television is truly a miracle of our time, and not only for its value for not-entirely-inaccurate analogies." Setting his cup down, he considers her for a long moment. "It won't get easier the more that you learn about what you can do; if anything, it becomes harder, because the decisions you make will be greater in number and the consequences more far-reaching. You are the possessor of an ability that quite literally will punish you for being a good person, and the better your ethics, the more ways it will have to do it. It's like classical conditioning for the masochistically inclined. Are you? Masochistically inclined, I mean?"


"You have my sympathy; if possible, try to develop a taste for it."

Alison sighs heavily, taking another drink. "I actually said to myself--I did say this--'what could be worse than threatening to ritually execute me in the street? That's gotta be our low point.'"

"I feel we've both grown as people since then," Castiel says sincerely. "That was almost two weeks ago. At least twelve generations of fruit-flies have passed: it's time to move on."

"I said, 'Ask him for a little more information, can't be worse than that, right?''' Alison takes another drink. "Two minutes, you prove me wrong, and also tell me that wanting to fuck squid is in our genes."

"Or octopus." He thinks for a moment. "And it's been thirty minutes since you asked me to join you for coffee."

"Not gonna lie, the tentacle thing, that--never mind." She fixes him with a grim look. "Any good news? I'll take anything."

"Yes, but I need you to answer my next question honestly."

"I already know I'm going to regret this," she says in resignation, sitting back in her chair. "Hit me."

"Do you want to save the world?"

"Yes," she answers without hesitation, looking startled; most people do when they realize that they mean it. "I do, yeah."

"Then I suggest you pick up your sword and learn how to use it. This time, saving the world will be a group effort, and we need all the help we can get."

Alison sets down her cup. "That was actually pretty profound."

"I have my moments. I like to space them out," he explains. "Keep it fresh. Sometimes, I mix it up, throw in a few dead languages, it's--"


"Te pedicabo ut homo pulcher ovis vilis, the shepherd says to his lover," he intones. "I say, go forth and be fruitful, and please, think of the sheep. Or rather, don't, not like that. They can't possibly be enjoying it."

"Was that even real Latin?" she asks suspiciously.

"Did it sound impressive?" Her expression tells him it did. "Then it doesn't matter."

"Context says it involves fucking sheep," she says, still suspicious. "Do I even want to know?"

"Ask yourself, when you see someone--an infinite being, perhaps--wandering among your flock, why would you immediately assume that they want to fuck your sheep?" It's been on his mind since that conversation with Joseph. "At the time, I thought it was some inexplicable human peculiarity of thought; now, it's equally inexplicable but also deeply horrifying, which isn't an improvement."

"Wool is so scratchy," Alison says, resting her head on one hand. "The chafing--I'm just guessing here, not like I got the equipment to verify, but still, I have an imagination, I own sweaters. That's gotta hurt after a while."

"There are multiple facets of horrifying," he agrees. "Don't be afraid."

"Not afraid--baffled, maybe--"

"Of yourself." Alison stills, looking at him with wide, startled eyes. "What you are, what you'll become. What are you afraid of? Be specific."

"Becoming a monster."

"Good, I thought this would be difficult; don't become one. Anything else?"

She takes a deep breath. "What if--what if I become one anyway?"

"That's even simpler; stop being one." Alison raises her eyebrows. "Of all the things you can't control and have no power to change--the past, the actions of others, the need for regular excretory activities--you always forget that you yourself aren't among that number; you can change yourself, anytime you wish. It's a gift, one to be envied."

"Yeah," Alison says dryly. "A thousand people, you said, birth to death."

"That number might be a little low, all things considered."

"No shit; I've counted ten sitting across from me so far this morning and we're only--what, thirty minutes in?"

Startled, he just avoids knocking over his cup with the judicious use of speed; it's useful like that.

"Know thyself, Castiel of Chitaqua," she says, sipping from her cup with nearly visible satisfaction. "I see what you mean about the profound thing; the look on your face right now...."

"How do I look?"

She grins. "Funny as hell."

He sighs, finishing his coffee before pushing the cup to the side. "Are you ready for your exercises now? It's not as if linear time isn't endless--no, wait...."

"Yeah, I think I am, thanks. Promise, I'll be gentle this time." She extends a hand across the table, grin widening. "Don't be afraid."

He takes her hand without hesitation, squeezing the cold fingers reassuringly. "I'm not."

Castiel considers his second visit to Ichabod an immense improvement over the first, but then again, the bar was set very, very low.

That's unfair; Alison's welcome when they arrived yesterday was genuine, and as if to make up for the original party, she hosted a smaller dinner last night that was surprisingly--and he means this--pleasant. Tony, Claudia and her son Derek, Haruhi, Eyong and Njoya, as well as the other residents of the building were the only others in attendance other than him, Dean, and Amanda. An evening passed in interesting conversation with receptive people: they happened on TV, yes, but that he began to believe might actually be fiction.

Part of thinks, he admits, is that Haruhi, Eyong, and Njoya, like Sudha, Rabin, and Neeraja, may be natives to earth and humanity, but not so much to this continent. There was something very reassuring in receiving confirmation that some things are not only not universal, but utterly baffling to other humans.

("Americans", Njoya told him reassuringly when Dean, Alison, and Tony burst into raucous laughter after Tony's anecdote involving some incomprehensible mixture of football, the FCC, the national flag, and Superbowl commercials. "Just nod and smile politely."

"I knew every word Tony used in that story," Castiel said in bewilderment. "Yet nothing he said made sense. Where does the 'pigskin' come in? For that matter, what happened to the pig?"

"As I said, nod and smile politely, but never--and I do mean never--ask for an explanation. American football," she said grimly, "doesn't translate, but they truly think it does, and they will never, ever stop trying."

"Nod and smile politely?"

She nods and smiles politely. "Just like this.")

Njoya also suggested searching a community college for instructional texts on leatherwork specifically designed for beginners, as well as other very useful vocational skills, at which time Dean, Tony, and Alison decided to join the conversation. It was a very enjoyable evening.

As they leave Main Street for the training field after a very surrealistically productive session in Alison's kitchen, he glances across the cab of the jeep to see her frowning vaguely out the windshield. "How are you feeling?"

"I can't stop thinking about tentacles," she admits, forehead creased. "Woolly tentacles, thanks for that."

"I see you're working on your taste for masochism: excellent."

"Wool condom." Castiel winces before he can stop himself, and Alison grins in malicious satisfaction.. "There we go. Welcome to my brain right now. Chafing."

"Friction burns," he counters, to both their regret, sharing a shudder. "Talk about something else--anything, I don't care. Or never again to me. Either one."

"Dean ever speaking to me again for agreeing he should stay indoors today?" she asks after a moment of silence long enough for him to realize his mistake: woolly condoms on tentacles and the abomination resulting from a squid (octopus?) lying (floating?) with a sheep fill his mind without warning and refuse to leave. On the contrary, more arrive, each more surreal than the one before.

Vaguely, he remembers as an angel watching Dean's mind, fascinated by the way thoughts would pass in casual associative streams, sometimes with provocation (Sam, television programs, that strange spot on the ceiling, the Impala, Zachariah, memories of his father, Sam and Ruby, magazines with well-endowed women, Taco Bell) and with some kind of order, but often, there was neither rhyme nor reason to what caused it or why on earth he'd be thinking of cat whistles or Batman dancing on the Impala or butterfly cookies (whatever those are; Dean's image couldn't have been accurate). It could happen at any time, often when Castiel was explaining his Father's plan to him (in retrospect, perfectly understandable), but sometimes for no reason at all.

He would have been far more patient with it if he'd realized it's not necessarily easy to control; shoving them away creates two more in their place, and they don't actually go anywhere when shoved anyway, like a hydra who doesn't understand how hydras function and the heads refuse to die when you cut them off.


He jerks his attention back to the cab and Alison. Being distracted by Dean being provocative in his sitting and breathing is one thing, but this is ridiculous.

"You probably shouldn't have done that, no. Then again, I probably shouldn't have told him that before he left for the daycare. I knew once there he'd stay indoors, but for some reason, I couldn't stop myself from saying it."

"I hear you," Alison says with a sigh that denotes experience that she also seems to have problems learning from; so he's not the only one. "Speaking of, I checked with Dolores, and all the kids are up to date on their vaccinations, including the newest ones. Amanda explained about the fever he had, so maybe the flu's in his future, but nothing worse."

"The entire camp, as well as Dean, should be up to date within a few weeks. Alicia has a schedule." Vera wasn't here for the first delivery of vaccinations, but apparently Alicia was given strict instructions on what to do when they arrived. In all honesty, that might have been Vera's intention from the first; Alicia's cheerful implacability had been ruthlessly weaponized, and Dean (and the camp) received his first round (of four) the day before they left for Ichabod. Dean's cold was proof of Vera's (via Alicia) warnings regarding the natural consequences of being less isolated from others and the corresponding increase in the spread of communicable diseases.

("Welcome back STDs, we hardly missed you," Vera said wistfully with a sigh that Joseph echoed. "I'll remind Alicia to give the talk to everyone leaving the camp to hang out with the locals.")

"Is that a problem for you?" he asks curiously. "Your trade network is limited, and I assume they do the same."

"No. At least, not yet," she amends, leaning back in her seat. "We have a lot of kids, and some didn't come to us with parents in tow. Older than ten, they can usually tell us about the last time a doctor poked them with something sharp, but the younger ones--we can't take the risk. Lily--Tony's kid," she adds at his blank look, "was only a couple months old, we think, and the other kids didn't even know her birthday, much less her medical history, so we learned that lesson before it became a problem. Dolores loses sleep some nights just thinking about one shitty bug getting through, and not just because of the risk to the kids. Kids can deal better with some shit, but adults are a different story."

Castiel carefully makes the turn that leads to the training field. "And you don't require the same of the adults?"

"We would, but we can't afford it." Her expression darkens, probably thinking of the border guards; he's felt that expression on his own face often enough when reading Joseph's reports, not just on his own transactions, but those of the residents of the zone that travel to the border that he talked to. "Only so much cash we can scavenge, and let's say they don't pay full value for what we can find that they'll take as trade. Priority is to get every kid we can up to date, keep our antibiotic supplies at the ready, and hope for the best."

They both fall silent as the training field comes into view; it's a mistake.

"Would a sheepapus be--

"Land, probably mammalian in its abominable form," he answers immediately as they pull into the parking area west of the training field. "Otherwise, its woolen tentacles would become waterlogged."

She nods in relief. "That was bothering me, thanks."

It's nearly noon when Alison abruptly becomes distracted from the progress of Amanda's students, frowning into the distance. Castiel glances at her briefly, but she shakes her head, so he returns his attention to Amanda, quietly admiring her focused patience.

Alison abruptly grabs for the fence rail, and he barely catches her before her ankle gives out, lowering her gently to the ground. The hazel eyes are unfocused, pupils reduced to dots. "Alison?"

"I don't know," she whispers, blinking rapidly as she tries to gather herself. From the corner of his eye, he sees Amanda signal for a stop, jogging toward him, her hand already dropping to her gun. "We're--we're under attack. All patrol report immediately--they came out of nowhere, drove straight through the wards--lockdown." Her lips move soundlessly for a moment, face draining of color. "They're not thinking….crap, it's too far, it's just--impressions, mostly."

Amanda effortlessly vaults the fence, landing in an easy crouch beside them. "Cas?"

"The town is under attack," he says quietly, grabbing her arm with his free hand before she can move. It's almost a mile from here to Ichabod--even if it's muffled, her range is farther than he suspected. Very strong emotion would definitely be a factor, as well as motivation, however; it's her town. "Alison, relax and focus."

"Give me--" She grits her teeth, hazel eyes unfocusing again. "One minute."

"Could be raiders," Amanda murmurs. "Nothing going bump in the night encourages that kind of thing."

"Then we have the option of asking for their surrender before shooting them." Though not if they're pointing a gun at anyone, of course. "Alison, find someone who can see them and tell me--

"There isn't anyone, they're too far away--" Alison's hand closes tightly over his wrist, eyes narrowed. "Christ, it's loud, they're not thinking. Stop that shit!"

Castiel can almost taste the spike of adrenaline, bitter-iron on the back of his tongue. "Show me."

The noise is almost overwhelming, confusion and terror and rage in an undifferentiated, barely-coherent mass, individual thoughts jumbled between emotional spikes--

"There," Alison breathes.

--except the rage; there's no thought there at all. That's what she meant. "Croatoans."

"Fuck." He nods at Amanda, who gets to her feet and is shouting a command to Mark before she's cleared the fence.

"Can you find Manuel?" he asks, feeling the massive effort it takes her to try and find one mind in all that mass down to his bones. "Tell him we're coming from the training field. We'll report to him, but I need to know where to go."

Under literally any other circumstances, this would be fascinating; in a sudden switch, she focuses on Teresa without effort and uses her to find Manuel. It's impossible to politely look away, the quick, intimate exchange a flash of brilliance--love and fear and reassurance and trust given and received in a moment. Alison takes a breath as Teresa's presence buoys her, focusing with sharp clarity on Manuel.

"He's on east Main, roof of the second building on the north-northwest side; they crossed the wards from the north-northwest, hit the north fields. Six--eight, ten--twelve vehicles he can count he doesn't recognize." She hisses a breath, eyes narrowing. "He can't get a count--Syracuse reported in full lockdown, no one in the street, thank God. Two teams on Main, it's in progress; Second is a mess, both streets are clearing but way too slow. Patrol got the survivors coming from the field--fuck, get me numbers. Sorry, not you," she says, wincing guiltily. "Just venting on your behalf, promise."

Behind him, he hears Amanda arrive, barely landing before she's kneeling beside him. "Two minutes: Mark's checking everyone as they arm, Kamal's team's helping. Where are we?"

"Tell Manuel ETA under ten minutes," Castiel tells Alison. "Where does he want us?"

"He'll meet you at the northwest corner of Third," she answers. "He said hurry, he's not leaving you any if you're late."

"Mark's on his way here," Amanda says softly.

With his free hand, he retrieves his keys and tosses them to her. "Go get the jeep."

"I'm driving," she says over her shoulder before breaking into a flat run.

Abruptly, Alison's hand tightens, and Castiel sees it at the same moment she does; unlike her, however, he knows exactly what she's looking at. "Alison! Stop."

She blinks, focus breaking. "What--"

"Your one thing," he answers flatly. "Do it now."

"I need to--"

"Now." It feels like forever but it's only a few seconds before it's done, and Castiel pulls his wrist free, turning to see Mark just coming over the fence, Kamal and his team just behind him. "Mark, Alison's in your charge. Keep her here--"

"No!" Alison says, struggling to stand up. "I'm going with you!"

"Kamal, take everyone and report to Manuel on the northwestern corner of Third; follow his orders to the letter." A nudge of Alison's bad ankle sends her back to the ground with an audible gasp. "Tell him there's at least one demon orchestrating this, but assume hundreds so we'll hopefully be pleasantly surprised. Go."

Kamal's eyes widen, but he nods, turning to gesture toward the approaching students to follow him to the jeeps parked nearby.

"Cas, I'm going--" Alison starts.

"You're staying here, with Mark in attendance, while admiring how very bright your individual light is," he interrupts calmly. "Unless you want to spend the rest of your very short life as a meatsuit for a demon who will know exactly how best to use your mind--that would be to enslave or kill everyone in this town and possibly the greater Midwest--then please, come along."

She sucks in a breath. "I can't just--I need to help them."

"Then survive long enough to learn how. Mark," he says as Amanda brings the jeep to a stop nearby. "Don't let her out of your sight; if you lose her, I'll probably kill you myself from sheer embarrassment that I trained someone so incompetent."

"Or I will!" Amanda shouts out the driver's side window.

"I know what to do," Mark says firmly, meeting his eyes.

"Alison will tell you if whoever comes to tell you it's safe is being truthful," he says, extending a hand to Alison, who glares at it before grudgingly allowing him to help her up. "As there's also the fact that Teresa knows as well as I do what a demon would do with an inexperienced psychic, and her concentration should be on defense of the town, she won't be any less than painfully honest."

He can still feel her glare as he climbs in the jeep and takes a moment to admire Amanda's driving skills when she hits the gas; how they'll be when confronted with a building at this speed is a question he feels no need to have answered.

"Dean's at the daycare," she says quietly. "Safest place in town."

"He's fine." He concentrates on the speck of the town approaching far too slowly no matter how high the odometer climbs. "Croatoans can't drive, they rarely cooperate enough to hunt in groups, and yet somehow at least one demon conveyed greater than twelve vehicles worth into a small town that isn't even on the maps. Also, our hiatus is over. In case it wasn't obvious."

"Had to happen here," she breathes in frustration, and yes, he finds that interesting as well, and a very useful way to occupy his mind while the jeep seems to creep along the road at the speed of a dying snail. Dean is in the safest place in the town, surrounded by multiple salt lines, two very heavy trailers, Teresa's very effective wards, at least two teams of Ichabod's patrol, and of course, over a hundred vulnerable children in need of his protection.


"Do me a favor," she interrupts, staring at the road. "This time, let me stop the jeep before you jump? That shit's terrifying."

Castiel focuses on the buildings resolving before his eyes. "Stop faster, then."

Manuel slumped briefly in relief when Castiel confirmed that Mark was with Alison. "Thank God," he breathed, possibly on behalf of both himself and his sister, before straightening to give orders in the crisp, calm voice of an experienced leader. Listening to him, Castiel filed away a series of questions on some of his choices for later; Manuel's practical experience coordinating larger groups--and for that matter, defense as well as attack--is unquestionably superior to his own (or Dean's) and they have a great deal to learn.

Later, observing current events from the roof of a former bank on the northern side of Second Street--an excellent choice, where Manuel can see almost all of northern Ichabod as well as keep an eye on the three occupied streets--Manuel finishes taking brief reports from his handheld unit before looking at Amanda, who nods, raising her own unit.

"Mark reports she's sulking but fine," she answers. "Every fifteen minutes, if he can't get me, he'll go to you, then Teresa. Channel twelve: two misses of all three, we go to Plan B, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars."

"If she'd been in town…."

"They would have found her immediately," Castiel agrees, scanning the road. The Croats vanished into the semi-urban wilderness of northern Ichabod and are moving south; a perimeter was established immediately to protect the occupied streets, but despite that, some still appear at random intervals on Second, Main and Syracuse, though thankfully all are reported in lockdown, and no one living remains in the streets. "Mark and Amanda were both instructed on what to do to protect her. He'll take her to Chitaqua if Mark judges the situation untenable, and I told him exactly what that meant, in detail."

Manuel wipes a hand across his sweaty face. "She doesn't know--"

"I didn't tell her." Taking aim at a Croat that makes the mistake of coming out of an abandoned building--no doubt, far too much blood and growling--he shoots it through the left eye, watching critically as the head nearly dissolves due to the high caliber; this is why he far prefers rifles to handguns for this kind of work. He has to admit, it's definitely an improvement over hunting things down to manually chop off their heads, though not nearly as personal.

Manuel stares down at the street intently, knowing as well as he and Amanda that the chances that this is an attack specifically to find Alison are very high. By this time, she can easily be sensed at fifteen miles from Ichabod, and if her estimation of her escalation is correct (depressingly, it probably is), that distance will double every time she grows stronger until she learns how to conceal herself. As long as she has her abilities suppressed, she's perfectly safe, which is why Mark is keeping her at the training field; an alternate possibility to demon possession is Alison reacting instinctively to the sight of her people dying, and instinct is a truly terrible way to find out what you're capable of, for everyone.

"I suggest you and Teresa do so as soon as possible, however," he continues. "After today, there's no reason to hide it and every reason for her to be aware of the danger to both her and her town."

"She'll try and leave," Manuel states flatly. "There's got to be a way to--hide her here for a little longer. Just until she can protect herself better." He doesn't need to say he and Teresa will go with her; Teresa would never let her lover leave without her, and Manuel considers her as much his sister as one born to his blood.

"There is," he answers certainly, taking aim and firing at a half-broken window at the flash of a face twisted into rage; Manuel jumps, jerking his binoculars in the direction of the building across from him. Protecting emerging psychics was so much easier before the invention of the automobile; horses simply could not travel very fast, and gathering your forces--even human ones--took time. "I just haven't thought of it yet."

"How the hell--"

"Fucking amazing eyesight," Amanda says, picking off a lone Croat inexplicably wandering down the middle of Third Street. Manuel retrieves his unit at the noise, raising it to his ear and listening as Amanda does the same at a burst from hers. "Kamal reports Sixth and Fifth are clear. They're finishing the sweep of fifth now and moving to Fourth in two minutes."

"Main reports all is well," Manuel says to them both, displaying unexpected courtesy even under pressure in keeping them informed of developments despite their status as--at best--foreign leaders within his town. Utilizing multiple channels on his hand-held unit to coordinate everyone, reports come at five or fifteen minute intervals, his patrol leaders show excellent sense and no sign of panic no matter what may be happening around them; he taught them extremely well. An excellent commander, Castiel reflects wistfully, and no possible way to pry him away from Ichabod for Chitaqua. "No movement on Syracuse or Main; everyone's reporting the town square's secure. Teresa says nothing's tested the wards there."

He and Amanda both let out a breath of relief; the prioritization of the town square, where the town's children are located, as well as where any citizen on lunch break would have fled if they couldn't get to their homes, was very obvious, but the updates help.

The sudden burst of sound from Amanda's device almost makes him jump, and Amanda's expression while listening tells him it's not just an update. "Kamal reports five--six groups, came out of nowhere heading straight to Second from the east, just crossed Teresa's wards east-southeast--"

"I felt it," Manuel confirms briefly, looking at Castiel. "First group came in north-northwest less than an hour ago. Two groups?"

"Maybe their car broke down on the way." She makes a face; yes, that's another thing that can't help but boggle the mind. Later, of course. "Long walk--yeah, I don't buy it. They think this would soften us up, maybe?" Checking her rifle, she grins at Manuel. "Kamal's gonna be busy with Third, so we'll take Second, if you want. Cas?"

"With your permission, of course," Castiel says, checking his ammunition as Manuel blinks at them.

"Just you two."

"Yeah," she says absently, easing her rifle back over her shoulder and pulling her nine millimeter. "Ask Kamal where they are now?"

"East-southeast, heading northwest toward the north corner of Second and White, ETA less than five minutes," Manuel says after a moment. "Need any help?"

"If you want, but you got enough to do holding the perimeter and clearing the fields," she answers dismissively, ponytail bobbing as she jogs toward the roof exit. "Cas, you coming?"

"I am," he answers, smiling politely at Manuel before following Amanda. "Thank you; idleness doesn't agree with me."

It took Falling for Castiel to begin to realize how much Croatoan showcased not just Lucifer's surprisingly insightful assessment of humanity's greatest fears, but his almost painful limitations, not least of which was a surprising certainty that prophecy would do the majority of the heavy lifting to usher in the dawn of his reign.

To face an army made up of semi-mindless monsters who feast on human flesh and whose primary weapon is their teeth and fingernails and who can make you join their number with the inevitable spray of blood is a horror beyond imagining; to fight an army of monsters and realize victory depends mostly on keeping a safe distance and sufficient reloads for your gun (and avoiding having open wounds or consuming their blood, the last of which is probably not terribly difficult) makes it far more mundane an endeavor. Minimal accuracy is preferable but not always necessary; more than once, he's thought of the minigun he'd read about on Wikipedia once with actual longing and dreamed pleasant dreams of mowing them down by the legion from a nearby rooftop without leaving the comfort of a convenient chair.

Two teams of Amanda's students appear before they finish with the street, and Amanda takes the opportunity to observe them with the few remaining Croats. It's as close to a controlled environment they'll get, and so he and Amanda take up a full sweep of Second Street west to east, herding the remaining Croats toward them. All have at least some experience on patrol--which is true of most able-bodied adults in Ichabod--but practice never hurt anyone and he needs to think, because something about this doesn't fit, other than everything.

They're doing very well, however; the Croats are being isolated and exterminated with admirable efficiency, keeping them away from the temptation of reinforced doors behind which the residents not assigned to protect the town are concealed. This would be going almost unsettlingly well if there weren't so many.

"And fuck my life, a third group just broke through, east-east-northeast--they'll hit north corner of Main in under ten minutes," Amanda reports, jogging up beside him with her unit against her ear. "Manuel dispatched two patrol teams to reinforce the perimeter." She puts it back in her belt with a baffled expression. "Jesus, they must really want her; this is a shitload of Croats to keep in reserve without them killing each other just to get one psychic."

Demons aren't known for their tactical thinking, and while 'throwing everything possible at the problem' is perfectly legitimate, this is a lot to throw, and there's no sign of it ending. His confirmed kill count is over eighty (eighty-three, to be exact), and that doesn't include the confirmed kills of anyone else, which he estimates now number well above two hundred. That number makes as much sense as the inescapable visual of demons herding hostile Croatoans into battered compact cars to attack a town in the southern central Kansas and then making them wait outside the ward line until needed, which is none at all. Even for the joy of slaughter and capturing or killing a powerful psychic, this is overkill for a population of a little over one thousand people.

As Amanda checks each alley on western Second again, Castiel pauses to reload just as a Croat emerges unexpectedly from the third alley connecting Third and Second Street. Annoyed, he slams the magazine in with his knee as he pulls his knife, gutting it when it lurches into range before cutting its throat. A boot on its chest keeps it still long enough for him to estimate the time since it manifested full infection before he shoots it in the head and dodges back to avoid excess entrails. It's not a danger to him, but one of the first things he was taught was to be a good example for others, and Amanda's students might be watching.

Hours, maybe: much more importantly, both the clothing and the thinness of the bodies confirm all of these people are residents of the infected zone, and there's no possible way they were from anywhere but Kansas itself.

Thanks to Dean and a stunning variety of automobile specialists at multiple garages across the greater United States, he knows in no world could this many substandard economy vehicles (nineteen at last count, all in terrible condition, according to Manuel) elude the border patrol on any existing road, and he just doesn't think the upper performance limit of a Honda Accord--even in mint condition, which none of these vehicles are--includes much off-road driving. Especially when the passengers are trying to kill each other, and the ones still alive look surprisingly intact for extended periods of time trapped with their own kind. He suspects when this is over and they check the plates, they'll be from within Kansas, with a potential rental car outlier, and the gas tanks will be very close to empty.

If Jeffrey could get into Kansas, any demon could (but didn't, not since Dean arrived here, not until Jeffrey, who said the barrier was weakening, not until now), and only one would be needed to begin spread of Croatoan again. Jeffrey's first order of business was to confront him regarding the barrier he didn't even know existed only miles from Chitaqua; this demon's (demons?) is to infect a large group to be immediately killed while attacking a town that houses a new psychic. Somehow, he doesn't think Lucifer would approve of such a waste of resources for someone he can kill at his leisure with a thought.

One who should have been killed the night she manifested, if Lucifer hadn't inexplicably abandoned this plane. Lucifer's a terrible general, but he did learn how to evaluate risk and eliminate it. If he knew about Alison, a mere human or not, he wouldn't send his minions to kill her; he'd do it himself.

Amanda jogs up beside him as he reaches the center point of Second Street, handing him a canteen of water and a clean cloth after a single amused smirk. Sighing, he wipes the small spray of blood from his face--he's out of practice dodging adequately, apparently--before handing her back the canteen and tucking the infected cloth into an interior pocket of his jacket. Croatoan blood remains infectious for some time, and they generally deal with the problem with the application of salt and fire.

"Everything north of Second Street is clear. Manuel said nothing else has breached the outer wards and nothing's touched the square," she says in a breath, adding, "Should have gotten a unit this morning like I told you to."

"I didn't know I'd be engaged in combat before lunch," he argues, which simply shows how badly he's out of practice there, too. "Main?"

"Outliers. They're shooting on sight anything that moves, but that's it." She hesitates, lowering her voice. "Manuel's worried about Teresa. She's holding two circles at once, and she's never had to for this long before, not like this. Those Croats are like sinks or something; barely slows them down when they cross, but it takes it out of her anyway when they do." She hesitates for a moment. "Earth's going dormant--it knows the seasons even if the weather doesn't--and she gets too much from it…."

"It will kill their winter crops and the land might not recover in time for spring planting, I know." The earth will protect itself from permanent damage, but that's all it will do; it's Teresa's responsibility to decide the threshold that would include human needs as well.

He calculates the amount of time it's been; the perimeter wards are the only thing they have to warn them if another group of Croats appear and may be the only thing keeping whatever demon or demons at bay who are controlling this. The wards around the square are the only thing other than salt lines that are protecting the town square should those guarding it be attacked.

"How much longer can she hold them?"

Amanda's lips tighten. "She said forever if she has to."

This won't stop until they find Alison or all of them are dead, and that may very well include the people of this town.

Give her the strength she needs, he thinks. She asks only for what is impossible to do alone. It's not so much to ask, for this one thing, in this one time, this place; what purpose could there be to deny her this?

Even to himself, he's not sure who he's speaking to, much less why.

"I don't know why Lucifer bothered with a war; we could have resolved this with a Playstation with the same effort involved in shooting semi-mindless targets." He evaluates the street again and focuses at the sound of a woman's voice cursing in very creatively obscene Japanese: Haruhi. "Amanda--"

"Yeah, I see her--crap, Derek's down." Castiel shoots the particularly annoying specimen menacing Haruhi, who's trying to reload her gun while protecting Derek, sprawled against the wall behind her, unconscious but not visibly injured, and the two members of her team retrieving him. It takes practice to do that when someone is trying their best to chew on you; all things considered, she's doing very well.

Haruhi doesn't waste time expressing surprise at a dead Croatoan at her feet; dodging sideways, she kicks a wheelbarrow at the one behind it, finishes her reload, and shoots it in the head, following with another shot when it hits the ground and skipping back to avoid the worst of the blood.

"That's my girl," Amanda says fondly, signaling to Haruhi that she and Castiel will take care of the others and watching the well-ordered retreat in satisfaction, Haruhi covering their back. Frowning, she helps him neutralize the remaining Croats, watching them die with an unsatisfied look. "Much longer, Dean's gonna be asking us if we're getting soft. Kind of surprised he hasn't yet."

"He's fine." Possibly making those guarding the town square miserable, but fortunately, they seem to have kept their individual units away from him so far. This could be much worse, he realizes in dawning horror; for want of a cold, Dean might have insisted on fighting and Castiel can't pretend he'd actually be able to stop him. For viruses give and they take away, blessed be vaccinations for those that can be and even those that can't-- "Lily was only a few weeks old."

"What?" Wiping her face carefully, Amanda continues her check of the nearly-empty street. "Tony's youngest? What about her?"

"Vaccinations--Alison said the other children didn't even know her birthday. She's approximately two and a half years old. Ichabod was just settled then; why would they already have children without parents that needed vaccinations?"

Amanda gives him a startled look but thankfully doesn't ask; woolly tentacle condoms and sheepapodes are probably not the answer she's looking for. "Uh, Lily--right, those kids. It was weird, actually, how they found them--I told Alison she should tell you and Dean about it, never heard anything like it. They were at--"

"A church," he says. "Fifteen children, two and a half weeks old to ten years, eight months, ten male, five female." He looks at Amanda. "They were the only survivors--them and a young woman."

"Yeah." Amanda searches his face. "Weird shit went down, they never figured out what happened--Cas, it's been years, you don't think.…"

"That they're not here for Alison? Not anymore." He takes the unit from her belt and flips it off, just in case. "What channels do Ichabod's patrol use?"

"Patrol uses first five," she says. "Main's got its own to report, but they're listening on the others probably. Why? Never mind, give it here." Taking it, she flips it on. "Manuel, can't hear anything over the gunfire; repeat your last order three times, would you?"

There's a brief pause. "Hold positions; repeat, hold positions; repeat, last time, hold all positions until further orders. Five units checked-in; good job everyone. Over."

She hands it back. "Last channel minus five."

He methodically switches channels until he hears Manuel's voice. "…anytime you're ready."

"When's the last time those guarding the town square reported?"

"Ten minutes ago: all's well. Why?"

"Contact them and ask them where Chitaqua's commander is in two minutes," he answers, shooting a lurching specimen emerging unexpectedly from an alley connected to Third before kicking it aside. "Manuel, this is important--don't use Dean's name. Also, sweep Third again; I just killed one coming from there."

"Got it," Manuel answers briefly before the channel goes silent.

"Cas?" Amanda asks as he starts toward the nearest alley with access to Main. "Want to catch me up?"

"We're being distracted very well. I'm almost impressed." The desired alley is guarded by a team of Amanda's students, their guns lowering only upon recognition: excellent. "Move."

They do so immediately, and Castiel gives Amanda the unit as he passes them--are those salutes?--stopping just short of Main Street and leaning out for a quick assessment. Several Croats attempting destruction in lieu of prey in full line of sight of the three people guarding the town center. Who show startlingly little interest in the Croats to match the lack of interest the Croats show in them: interesting.

"One minute forty-five," Amanda says after a brief look and turning on the unit again. "Ready."

Emerging onto the street, Castiel notes all three are suddenly very, very interested when they see him. At two minutes and twenty-eight seconds, he hears Amanda's unit make a noise followed by the faint sound of Manuel's voice.

"They said--they told Manuel that Chitaqua's commander's right in front of them," Amanda reports softly. "Manuel, call everyone in now not working perimeter; we got demons guarding the fucking town center."

"At least one is inside the square already." Castiel watches the demons, one shooting at a nearby Croat with very little aim and no enthusiasm at all. They need more practice with convincingly playing human.

"He says the wards haven't been crossed," Amanda says, but not in denial; she knows as well as he does that Dean would react very poorly to demons pretending to be members of patrol. Not to mention their reaction to Dean Winchester's apparent resurrection. "Teresa wouldn't have missed it."

"It was inside before they went up. They had help doing this."

Amanda catches her breath. "Someone in Ichabod?"

"New people, who needed their children vaccinated and could confirm the fifteen children from that church were in Ichabod," he answers as the Croatoans pause in their random labor, brought under control by their masters and turning toward them. Ichabod doesn't get many visitors and rarely leave the safety of the town unless on official business, but they do, sometimes, get new residents, some quite recent. Vera's lecture on the rapid spread of STDs was enlightening on many levels. "And probably gave the toddler room, their associated parents, and Dean that cold."

Amanda says something into the device before putting it away, coming up beside him as he takes in each face. "Are they residents of this town?"

"One's a new guy," she answers softly, observing the street beginning to fill with chill anticipation as her rifle falls into her hand. "None are patrol."

He nods. "I'll take everything on the right."

We are chaos incarnate, he once told Dean; in that much, the only thing that mortality changed was who held the leash, not what happened when it snapped.

He's within ten feet of the trailer when he sees one of the three demons, looking confused and somewhat annoyed only feet from the corridor leading to the town center, tiny sparks fading around him like the flutter of rainbow wings. Disorientation and loss of muscular control: excellent choice of warding to supplement the salt line, he thinks approvingly as he shoves it against the trailer, pinning its head against the metal before cutting through the spinal column and severing the spinal cord.

Averting his eyes from the burst of light as it dies, he lets it fall, kicking the head out of his way and identifying the entrance through the dust and dirt filling the air by the backward tumble of a body landing on its back with bone-breaking force. Still dazed, it stays conveniently prone, oily black eyes widening in belated surprise when his knee shatters their rib cage and spine, crushing the lungs and heart into the asphalt beneath them before he cuts its throat with a gush of blood.

Wiping his knife on the knee of his jeans, he goes still at the feel of a blade against his throat. "Castiel," a voice says in what might be shock, hesitating. "What are you--"

It ends in a grunt from the elbow in its side, bone shattering as he rolls away, catching himself on one hand and tossing the knife to Amanda as she passes him, appreciating her economy of movement as she slams the demon into the trailer, knife sinking into its unprotected chest. She jerks the knife out, turning her head away at the burst of light, and wipes it clean on her thigh before tossing it back to him and getting her rifle again.

"Kamal's team's keeping the other two distracted on the other side while Teresa finishes up a devil's trap," she says, kicking the last remaining Croat through the chest before shooting it in the head when it hits the ground. Adding a second shot that destroys the skull entirely, she jumps back to avoid the worst of the blood and brain, careful to avert her face. "Kamal confirmed they're both riding patrol. What's the call?"

"Hold them with minimal injury, if possible," he answers, starting toward the corridor and allowing for the first time the thought of what's happening to Dean in the town square; the certainty he's fine hasn't diminished in the slightest, but there are many values of fine. "Get a team of your students to guard this side and go verify the demons are safely contained personally, then report to me. I'll handle whatever's inside."

"Yell if you need help."

All three salt lines are intact, he notes at once as he starts down the corridor, stepping over each one, bracing himself for whatever awaits him inside before he emerges into the courtyard and empty, waiting silence.

Quickly, he catalogues the bodies sprawled in various types of dead (Dean isn't among them (he's fine), or any of the children), counting; twenty-one adults, among them two Croats. Near two adult bodies sprawled on the porch (gunshot to the head, not Croat, interesting), behind a barricade of armchairs and an overturned sofa topped with half-open, blood-stained lawn chairs, cluster a multitude of wide, unseeing eyes fixed on something in the center of the courtyard, the only area clear of bodies.

Taking out his shortest knife, he goes to the edge, taking in the completed circle: the outer edge is eight feet in diameter, the inner five feet, the design itself encompassing the one and a half feet between the inner and outer circles. It wasn't done well; the concrete shows signs of changes and corrections to the chalk, barely functional erasures, as if drawn for the first time by inexpert hands from memory. Slicing his palm, he circles the perimeter while letting the blood pool: the same pattern repeats throughout in short, ragged segments counterclockwise northwest to northeast until the last quarter, a more elaborate version of the pattern, new symbols appearing within before joining (barely) at northwest again: a closing sequence.

Crouching at the southeast side, he glances at the immobile children before sliding his hand from the outer edge to the inner circle and feels it unmake, like fabric folding sharp-edged into itself before dissolving from now. He looks up in time to see the children collapse, falling to the porch. Unconscious: that would be for the best right now, especially if they're unaware of what happened out here.

Wrapping his hand in fresh gauze, he takes a step toward the porch and stops short at the click of a safety. Turning, he sees Dean a few feet away, half-hidden from view by an overturned sofa and straddling another, unmoving body in a pool of blood, one blood-stained hand pointing a gun at Castiel's head.

It's too soon to feel anything like relief. "Dean."

"You're gonna have to wait," Dean says, never looking away from the demon beneath him. "I'm a little busy right now."

He's not sure he expected anything like this, if he expected anything at all.

A twelve-inch hunting knife is buried in the demon's forehead to the hilt as it stares eyeless into the sky. That one would account for the dismemberment of the demon; fingers at each joint to the palm, hand at the wrist, forearm at the elbow, upper arm at the shoulder joint, expertly performed and all pieces neatly stacked to the left of the head; the legs are only intact to the knee; the blade became too dull, he suspects from the ragged appearance of the stump, and Dean suited his next activity the blood-stained seven-inch dagger currently in his right hand, completing a full vivisection and castration, organs and flesh piled in an oozing mass just right of the shoulder, before going to work on its head.

"Wouldn't talk," Dean says softly, green eyes coming up to meet his like a punch. "Hard to do without a tongue, though. Didn't think of that."

Castiel nods, licking his lips; the demon's still in there, squirming weakly and not sane by any definition of the word, not anymore. "Dean, put down the gun."

"Not done yet." He looks back down at the demon with a slow smile. "Anyone ever tell you not to punch a three year old? Did you actually need to be told that? Seems pretty obvious to me, but hey, what do I know? No time like the present to learn, right?"

Castiel looks at the pile of upper limbs and focuses on a bloody, upturned palm. He missed it the first time; just visible beneath the drying blood is the symbol he didn't finish on Jeffrey in its completed form.

That, he supposes, would be why the demon is still in there. "Are you going to shoot me?"

Dean scowls, irritated by the distraction. "No, of course not."

"Then put down the gun." He doesn't wait, however; crossing the courtyard, he crouches, extending Ruby's knife to Dean as he takes out his boot knife and sketches the symbol on the demon's intact thigh. "When I unmake it, cut its throat."

"I'm not--"

"You're done," he says flatly, setting the tip of his knife against one edge. "Shoot me before I unmake this or cut its throat when I'm done; I don't know if even that knife can kill a demon before this is unmade and this isn't the time to test it. Now."

A quick slash across the lines unmakes it just as the body jerks convulsively with a burst of dull light. Wiping his knife clean, he sheathes it and turns to look at Dean, who's staring down at the remains of the demon's face, blankness being slowly replaced with a dangerous mix of rage and confusion. Getting up, he crosses to the right side of the body, kicking Dean's knife away as Dean drops his handgun and taking Ruby's knife from the lax fingers; Dean carries his boot knife on the right, and he can easily stop him before he gets it.

"Dean?" he asks quietly, getting his full attention. "Where are the rest of the children?"

"Top floor: Glenn and the other teachers are with them. Salted the door and top and bottom of the stairs myself," he says tonelessly. "They had a list, hit every room with it."

He nods, watching Dean's face carefully. "A list?"

"Of kids--said they needed to pick them up, that their parents wanted them; it didn't make sense." He grimaces, reaching to wipe a blood-soaked hand across his forehead, wet hair clinging to his skin in half-clotted spikes. "I just saw Tony, he was working at the plant today, said he might be late; no way he got there, did his shit, and got back in a couple of hours; they're trying to get Third street up and running. Wasn't even lunch yet--Callie and Emmy locked themselves in the second floor art room," he interrupts himself, looking toward the door of the daycare. "They might be infected, it was--an hour ago?" His expression hardens. "This morning--they timed it, had to, so they wouldn't get caught by the perimeter wards. Infected while stepping over them maybe, who does that?"

He examines the square again, marking out each of the twenty-one other bodies; six he recognizes as parents who dropped their children off at the daycare this morning; four as residents who probably came here when the alarm was called, too far from their homes, perhaps; two as adolescents assigned to daycare duty, weapons still clutched in some hands; two Croats near the unmade circle in the center of the courtyard; the rest, he's not sure.

"Who were 'they'?" It wasn't Callie and Emmy that Dean thinks deliberately infected themselves.

"They're new," Dean confirms, forehead creasing uncertainly as he looks down, but Castiel reaches for his chin, gently easing the green eyes back up. "Part of a group, came--two, about three weeks ago, Glenn said."

"And gave the toddler room and you that cold, I assume." Dean almost smiles, but it's gone before it's anything more than a twitch of blood-flecked lips. "How many were in that group?" Dean's at the daycare at least a few hours every day he's here; he'd notice new children, new faces in the daycare.

"Uh--seven adults, ten kids--Glenn told me about 'em, said they checked in at noon every day to have lunch with their kids, never missed a day." His mouth twists bitterly. "Thought they were really nice. Good parents."

"How old were their children?"

Dean hesitates, eyes distant. "Two in the toddler room, three preschool, uh…two in the five to seven room, two in the eight to ten, one eleven-twelve, one--"

"Thirteen year old," he finishes; that would be for the oldest possible surviving child. They needed a reason to visit every room in the age range of those fifteen children, become a familiar face to both the daycare attendants and the children; they must have checked at least one of the other towns in the trade alliance and to their good fortune, could get information on the other four towns with very little effort.

"I told Callie and Emmy not to let 'em leave--distract 'em, something--and Glenn and Una and Francisco to get all the kids to the top floor," Dean continues, then frowns uncertainly. "No--no, that was after. I was going to admin, but--I went to check the corridors first, don't know why. West side, all three lines were broken--I fixed them, went to admin…." He swallows.

"They were already dead."

He nods, eyes blank. "Two of the new people--they were outside, doing something with the chalk, I thought they were drawing something for the kids at first--I told them to run, tell Manuel about--and I heard Callie scream, right in time to realize they were changing….shot 'em both. I went to the eastern entrance, saw Jake staring down at the salt lines and not liking 'em. Just before Teresa's wards came up; fuck, if he'd been a little closer, they would have caught him. I should've…."

"The safety of the children was your priority." Five adult infiltrators accounted for, including the bodies of one of the demons: that leaves two more. The body Dean's sitting on wasn't one of them; a teenage male--he thinks it may be Grant, whose adolescent romance with Connie has been a fixture in Dean's anecdotes regarding daycare drama, as he calls it. "The other two new residents…."

"Guess he needed helpers that wouldn't turn on him and could still think," Dean answers softly, looking down at the remains with an expression he can't read. "They were keeping the kids in line--looked sad about it, too, Jesus, one was fucking crying--with this guy telling 'em…." He jerks his gaze up to Castiel. "How the fuck did it get across the perimeter wards, get in here to get him? Manuel says it's like touching a live wire when they go off!"

"Where are those two?"

His eyes dart to the porch briefly. "Dead," he says without regret.

"Good." The rest can wait; he'll need to check Callie and Emmy, but if Dean thinks they're infected, it's likely they are. "Were you injured?"

Dean blinks at him slowly before his mouth twists open in a barked laugh. "Yeah, I--" The sound changes into something horrible before it cuts off as he abrupt gets to his feet, taking two steps before his right leg gives out, and Castiel just catches him, easing him to the ground, noticing his flannel overshirt is efficiently wrapped just below his knee: not serious, and the blood he can see isn't fresh. Beneath the dust and drying blood, Dean's nearly grey with fatigue and potential blood loss as well as shock, but nothing sufficient rest and some medical attention won't fix.

"We should leave."

"I can't leave," Dean says, wiping his face tiredly. "The kids--Glenn's holding the third floor until he gets confirmation from you it's safe, I told him--told him not to let anyone else take them until you cleared it. What else…Callie and Emmy, got that--Christ, I can't think…."

"You can tell me later," he says impatiently. "Dolores needs to check your leg--"

"I. Can't. Leave." He stares at Castiel before looking down. Following his gaze, Castiel sees the shape of teeth imprinted in Dean's right forearm just above the wrist through the drying blood, but he has no idea what that's supposed to indicate. "Cas." Tearing his gaze away at the note of urgency in Dean's voice, he looks at him in confusion. "It got to the second floor, was gonna break the salt line, the kids…. I wasn't fast enough. Ten--fifteen minutes, maybe, I don't rem--not sure."

Familiarity with Dean's methodology tells him at least an hour was spent three feet away from their current position: at least one and a half hours since exposure, but less than two.

"Demons got away--I think one of them recognized us, figured out how shitty their lives were about to become. Dolores is checking the residents that played meatsuit, but they seemed--alive, anyway. Manuel reports they've cleared almost all streets, just mop-up now," Amanda says from behind him, rattling off the information as she enters the courtyard. "Do you need any--" There's a short pause--that would be when she realizes what she's looking at, he supposes--then in a completely different voice, "Cas?"

"Everything's dead that could be a threat," he answers mechanically, looking back to see the children are fully awake and staring at the courtyard with glazed eyes. "The children on the porch should be taken to Dolores immediately; they're in shock and should be placed in isolation, but tell her it's very unlikely they were infected. The rest are on the third floor with Glenn and the other teachers; it's best they stay there until…the building as well as the courtyard's been cleared, to avoid the risk of infection." Dean lets out a ragged breath, shoulders slumping. "Dean was injured by the demon, and I don't want to move him until I've seen the extent of his injuries. Secure the square and report to Manuel or Teresa immediately; whatever they were trying to do here failed, but I need time to examine it, and no one is to enter here until I give the order, especially Teresa. Put Kamal's team at both entrances to make sure of it."

"Got it," Amanda says quietly, starting across the blood-soaked concrete to the children. He has no idea how she gets them to move, but shock does have the advantage of encouraging docility. Eventually, they're gone, and he and Dean are the only ones remaining in the silent courtyard.

Dean takes a shuddering breath, then another. "Four to six hours?"

"Approximately. Eight is the threshold." As if it were as fragile as glass, he takes Dean's wrist, easing his arm closer to examine the messy, jagged tears--human teeth even wielded by Croats are not particularly efficient, but they are effective--as his mind runs through the statistical probability of exposure, searching for a single loophole; there isn't one, which probably means he needs to make one up very quickly. "I can't sense anything yet. It's possible--"

"Am I contagious yet?" The fear in Dean's voice is impossible to miss. "I was careful--I think, anyway."

"I told you, I can't sense anything yet." It takes an hour in most cases to show the first stage, but it can be as long as two. "We should--"

"Do it now," Dean whispers hoarsely. "Before I'm dangerous to anyone."

"Do what?"

"Shoot me." As if it's the most obvious thing in the world. "So I don't spread this, so I don't--"

"Shoot you." Sitting back on his heels, he reaches for Dean's face, noticing as if from a distance the tacky-red-black streaks he's leaving Dean's skin and ignoring his efforts to pull away to searches his face in disbelief. "You're serious. Why would I--"

"Cas!" The edge of desperation in his voice cuts through him more sharply than any bullet ever had; hearing it could kill him. "Cas," he says more quietly. "Don't make this harder than it already is."

"Harder." He watches his own thumb tracing the imprint of the wound, and thinks of finding Dean's body in Kansas City, empty windows watching him in the same shroud of silence that fills the courtyard now. He's always been here, he'll always be here; all this time, he never left. "You think--you think you know….you have no idea," he chokes out, "no idea what hard means, hard is--"

"Cas, listen to me--"

"--nothing like this!" he says savagely. "Killing is easy, I've done it more than you can imagine before you were even born. I took human lives in my Father's name without hesitation, but you, you think this is hard--for you, hundreds of my Brothers died trying to free you from Hell, and it was in your name I took the lives of those who survived, in nomine Dean--"

Dean's hands clutch desperately in his t-shirt. "Cas--"

"And thou art a merciless fucking god, Dean Winchester! Even my Father didn't make Abraham sacrifice his son to prove his love, but you ask me to sacrifice you, everything and all things to me, and you call it hard? You don't know the meaning of the word!"

"Cas, stop--"

"Why not, there's nothing else I haven't given at your command, soli Dean Gloria, offered on your altar, ad maiorem Dean gloriam--"

"Jesus, Cas, stop!" Dean shoves an arm around his shoulders, and Castiel collapses against him, helpless to control the broken sobbing. "I'm sorry," he whispers brokenly, breath warm against his temple. "I'm so sorry."

"I'd kill myself for idolatry," he breathes against Dean's shirt, fingers twisting helplessly in the threadbare material, "but it's the least of the sins I've committed meriting execution by degree, and even alphabetically, it's--it's--"

"Pretty far down, I get it." Dean swallows, arms tightening around him. "I'd do it myself, I'd have done it before you got here, I swear, but I'm out of bullets."

"You're out of bullets." He thinks of telling Alison this; he would already be dead, still warm but very dead, when I got here, except that he ran out of bullets. If you don't see the humor of that, I don't know what to tell you. "You forgot to bring sufficient reloads. You're still alive because you forgot--"

"I thought, this morning…" Dean makes a horrible sound that in another life might have been a laugh. "Wanted to see how long it took you notice at breakfast, forgot to grab 'em before I left."

"I suppose you won, then." Dean's shaking from--shock, blood-loss, fatigue, the countdown toward cannibalism and madness, your only hope of a clean, easy death exhibiting signs of incipient insanity, pick them all--and shuts his eyes, breathing in dirt and sweat and blood. He remembers when he thought that the hardest thing he ever did was let Dean Winchester go to that confrontation with Lucifer knowing he would die there; he didn't know the meaning of the word.

Castiel thinks: Give him something, I don't care what, just that it help him. Give me something, anything, that will save him. I ask only for what is impossible to do alone. It's not so much to ask, for this one life, this one man, in this one time, this place; what purpose could there be to deny me this when you've denied me all else? Please help me, help me, help me.

"I'm sorry." Dean's breath ruffles his hair, warm against his sweaty skin. "If there was anyone else--"

"I brought sufficient ammunition and used very little of it," he mutters against Dean's chest. "I could get through a significant portion of this town before anyone could get close enough to even try. I'm not sorry."

He's woken, sick with horror, from dreams of following Dean Winchester to that confrontation with Lucifer: sometimes, he's successful only in joining him in death; often, he fails even in that. Lucifer would mock him while in an alley he would never see, this man he only met once before would be slowly killed, or worse. More times than he can count those first weeks, he sat just inside the door of the cabin and watched Dean sleep until dawn, the rawness of grief somehow eased as he listened to every slow, even breath; Dean was here, he was safe, Lucifer didn't have him, and he never would.

The only thing we risk, he told Dean, is that we might experience a profound sense of disappointment if we survive long enough to realize that we've lost.

If he knew then that it would end like this--the first time he met Dean Winchester, when he rebelled, when he Fell, that moment in the alley, that night in the cabin and those first hideous weeks that were grief and rage and endless, monotonous duty driving every moment awake like a nightmare without hope of waking, the eternity of the fever, coffee and maps and quiet evenings on the porch, terrible Egyptian poetry--if he knew it would end like this….

"I'm not sorry." I'm not; not that I left Dean that night, that I was in that alley while he died at Lucifer's hand, that I met you and saved you, and it was never a question that I'd die for either of you, but you-- "I'd do it again, all of it. It was worth it."

"I know." He thinks he can feel every individual finger digging into his back, bruises he'll feel forever, unhealed. "What the fuck was I thinking…fuck!" Voice breaking, Dean slides a hand up, cupping the back of his neck and squeezing tight. "I'm sorry, I never should have asked you to--some things you don't ask."

Castiel squeezes his eyes closed, trying to concentrate on that touch, this moment, this man and nothing else. Help me. It's not so much to ask.

"Look at me." Dean gently eases his head up, and through the blur of tears, he sees his shaky smile. Biting his lip, Dean uses his sleeve to wipe roughly across Castiel's cheeks, thumb sweeping a gentle apology after. "There we go. You with me?"

"Don't leave me."

The smile wobbles, vanishing, Dean's face crumpling like paper. "God, Cas--"

"Please." Fisting Dean's shirt, he tries to jerk him closer, but the thin material tears away between his fingers no matter how hard he tries to hold on. "Please don't leave me."

"I don't want to." They're so close Castiel can feel his breath against his lips before he tips his head forward, forehead warm against his own. "You--you gotta know I--"

"Then don't!" He loses words in a breathless sob as Dean's fingers curve around the back of his head, shaking hand stroking through his hair. "I can't do this."

"Yeah, you can," Dean whispers. "And this is what you're gonna do now. You're going to give me your gun--"


"--and walk out of here," he continues inexorably. "You're not watching this, Cas. I'm not gonna do that to you. Fucker did that much for you; so can I."

Castiel shakes his head. "No. No--"

"You're gonna back to Chitaqua," Dean says, breath warm against his lips, "and you tell 'em it's not over yet. You're gonna keep fighting."

"It won't matter--"

"It matters!" Dean takes a ragged breath, fingers trembling against his face. "It matters, Cas. Every day, every hour, every minute, every goddamn second you can get, you're gonna take 'em."

"I can't--"

"You can. You will." Dean pulls back to look at him, fingers stroking back his hair to smile in his eyes. "When you step on the field, you're gonna tell Lucifer, the Host, and prophecy to fuck themselves, because you're gonna win this." His smile widens, the wet green eyes incandescent. "You never give up on anything, Cas. You don't even know how."

Dean turns head sharply, and in the distance Castiel hears the dull sound of voices, words slurred into incomprehensibility but growing closer each second that passes. Taking a deep breath, he looks at Castiel again.

"It's time," he says quietly, threading his fingers through Castiel's hair one last time before slowly letting go. "Let me do this, Cas. I'm ready."

It's forever; here, in that room, in that courtyard, in that grove; the voices beyond the trailers, the flat buzz of the monitors drowning out Vera's voice, the sound of Lucifer's footsteps, the shouts of the mob; it's the fate of all those born mortal, the inexorable sweep of death that leaves stillness and silence and unhealed, unhealing loss in its wake.

Time heals nothing. You have to want to.

You're useless to me, you're better than this, why isn't he responding, am I dying, I need time, I can't get a rhythm, it's been ten minutes, I'm sorry, he promised he would be here, you never give up on anything, so what's it gonna be?

Try again.

"Now tell me what the first rule is again?" Vera said sweetly. "Last time before you go, we'll say it together on the count of three: one, two, three--"

Don't panic.

"I'm not."

He catches Dean's wrist just short of his gun, feeling bones as fragile as eggshells beneath the thin skin, pulse beating frantically against the pad of his thumb.

"I'm not ready," he says, meeting Dean's eyes. "It's not over yet."

"Cas, you know how this ends--"

"--and every day, every hour, every minute, every second until then are mine." Holding Dean's eyes, he draws his gun and ejects the magazine, leaving one round in the chamber. "I'm taking them."

"Cas--" He stops, searching his face with sudden attention. "What's going on?"

"I need time."

He stills, a strange expression crossing his face. "Time."

"Do you trust me?" he asks, hearing the voices just beyond the trailers. "Yes or no, it's a simple question--"

"It's a stupid fucking question," Dean interrupts. "Answer's yes and always has been. Now tell me--"

"Then trust me now." Tightening his grip on the butt, he calculates the least damaging angle. "I apologize for the headache in advance. The kit in the car has a sedative; I'll use that on the way."

He's just finished wrapping the bite and easing Dean's limp arm into the protection of his own jacket when he hears footsteps behind him.

"I know Croat bodies when I see them," Amanda says quietly.

Castiel realizes his hand on his gun when he turns to confront her, Dean a limp weight against his shoulder. She doesn't move--even now, he can kill her before she can draw--but if she was going to kill him, she wouldn't have risked waiting; he taught her better than that.

Taking a deep breath, he drops his hand and watches her cross the distance between them. Dropping to a crouch, blue eyes scan Dean carefully, dismissing the leg wound and moving unerringly to his right arm, hidden beneath the sleeve of the coat. She must have seen it earlier, he realizes; she knew before she left with the children.

"I knew I should have assigned someone to watch him, just for the hell of it. Good practice, something." Her voice breaks on the last word before she composes herself. "Goddamn it. If there's a bullet, he's throwing himself in front of it. Or a pair of teeth aimed at three year old."

"It was my responsibility to see to his security while he was here."

She drops her head into one bloody hand for a long moment, shoulders shaking, tendrils of blood-streaked blonde hair that escaped from her ponytail clinging to her cheek, her neck.

"Let me handle clean-up in here," she says finally, lifting her head, eyes red but voice steady and clear. "Manuel went to get Alison personally. She's gonna give the quarantine order as soon as everyone's checked in, but I parked your jeep off the east entrance into here. She said to wait about ten minutes, though; she called a meeting, and that should be enough of a distraction for you to leave. Everyone will assume you and Dean went back to Chitaqua to tell them what happened and get Dean's wounds treated. She knows about the fever, didn't want to risk--you know."

"You knew and told her…." He swallows. "Why?"

"I thought…." She swallows. "I knew you'd want to take him home."

Dean wants more of his militia than unthinking, unquestioning obedience, and for the first time, he understands why. Habit isn't the same as trust, and that trust must be earned to have any value. "He's infected."

She nods, mouth tight.

"He'll survive."

Amanda's head snaps up; what happens to a person when they're infected has never been considered survival. "What?"

"He'll survive it."

She meets his eyes. "You're sure?"

"Yes," he answers. "He will."

She stares at him for a moment before she makes a soft sound, half-laugh, half-sob. Gulping, she wipes her eyes hurriedly and takes a deep breath. "Okay--uh." Glancing down at Dean, she hesitates, looking up, mouth trembling on a smile. "You knocked him out?"

"Yes," he admits. "And never before now have I appreciated more that our kits include sedatives."

"I'm glad I'm gonna be quarantined," she says with a tremulous smile. "Best excuse ever not to be in Chitaqua when he wakes up." Getting to her feet, she listens for a minute; the sound of voices outside the walls is muffled but becoming steadily more audible, though even to him the words are slurred into a dulled white noise. "Okay, you gotta go and I gotta get the courtyard cleaned up," her eyes flicker to the remains of the demon; retrieve Dean's weapons so they'll make the most useful assumption, yes, "and--"

"Glenn won't release the children without my authorization," he remembers. It occurs to him that at this moment, with Dean incapacitated, he's their commander. "Two adults and a possible unknown number of children are locked somewhere on the second floor due to potential infection from a dead Croatoan near the stairs to the third floor."

Amanda swallows. "Were any kids killed?"

"Yes," he answers, looking at the dismembered body only feet away; he wasn't fast enough to save them. "Possibly very young. Verify the salt line is unbroken between the second and third floor; knowing Dean, he salted the entire stairway just to be sure. I don't think anyone on the third floor knows for certain; don't tell them, not yet."

"There's a window facing the courtyard," she says after a moment, starting to the door. "Tell Glenn I'm safe when you see him."

It doesn't take long; Glenn's face appears briefly before the window opens, leaning out with an expression somewhere between fear and relief; he doesn't know. "Cas?"

"The attackers were neutralized. Amanda will instruct you on what to do after consulting with Manuel," he answers, watching the relief spreading over Glenn's face followed by dawning horror when he takes in the courtyard for what appears to be the first time. Good: he forgot he even needed to worry about that. "Send Amanda back down and stay with the children until she returns. Do not leave the room, do not open the door, and avoid the windows, if possible, until then."

Glenn's expression tells him that the last was a given: one look was enough. "Got it. Thanks, Cas." He hastily closes the window, and Castiel tries to think of anything he may have missed. It's several long minutes until Amanda emerges again, face blank, and he can guess what she was doing before she stops beside him.

"One Croat, five adults, and three kids on the first floor. Eight on the second by the stairs besides the Croat; one of the older kids, Una and--six more." He swallows; that's what he thought. "Callie and Emmy said they have four kids with them. Callie says they're all infected. I marked the door before I came down."

"Dean said the admin building--"

"Saw it the first time, counted three: Manuel said that was all that were there today, I asked before I came back." She jerks her head toward the exit. "Now, time for you to go before Dean--"

"Tell Teresa the symbol is inactive; it needs to be cleansed, but it's not dangerous--at least, not right now. No one should come in here other than those involved with the cleansing before it's finished. I'll be sending help from Chitaqua when I arrive; they'll be ordered to report to Manuel and you." Amanda waits, eyebrows raised. "I think that's all, yes."

"Okay, now--"

"Croatoans remain infectious after death."

"Seriously?" she bursts out. "Not my first time at the care and disposal of Croat corpses rodeo here! I'll be careful until--"

"Yes, but--" He stares at the body for a moment, thinking. "Can you get one outside the quarantine perimeter without anyone noticing? A demon would be better for this, but needs must."

Amanda frowns in confusion, then the blue eyes widen in understanding. "Yeah, can do. Training field's unoccupied: it'll be under the arsenal trailer, but tell whoever you send to check with me before they go get it." The white noise outside the square rises briefly, and Castiel hears Alison's voice followed by Amanda's sudden smile. "There's my signal," she says in satisfaction, jerking her head toward the eastern exit. "Convenient having a psychic around. Let's get him out of here."

Stage one begins less than twenty minutes from Ichabod; one hand curled around the back of Dean's neck, he steps on the accelerator more firmly and ignores the odometer. No matter what it says, they're going far, far too slowly.

He tries not to think, but he does anyway; it's hard to stop.

Angels haven't changed since the beginning of time. Surround them with holy oil and light a match, they're trapped; if a person tells them no, they can't take their body for their own; when summoned, they can't help but obey; and when they're banished from this plane, they must leave. The Host and their dogged adherence to prophecy, Lucifer and eons he spent waiting until he could put his plan in motion so he could win without a fight, and Castiel whiling away eternity contemplating the amoeba without irony, all because there was not, is not, could never be anything new, and Enochian has no word for 'boring'. It desperately, desperately needs one.

"Amoebas," he tells Dean, hysterical laughter bubbling up from where sanity once dwelled. In his lap, Dean stirs restlessly, turning his face into the blood-flecked cotton of Castiel's shirt with a sigh and falling still again. "I suppose you had to be there. You would have hated it."

An hour and a half from Ichabod, stage two shudders across Castiel's nerves, a repulsive sense of wrongness squirming toward the surface like maggots emerging from a putrid corpse, and he nearly drives off the road, black spots dancing before his eyes.

Slowing to a stop, he jerks the jeep into park and leans against the steering wheel, fighting back the grief and rage, the discipline he never bothered to exercise for two and a half years slowly, painfully relearned in the wake of Dean's death and brought into practice, because he doesn't doesn't have time for this.

"Don't," he breathes against cracking plastic, "panic."

Concentrating on the steady warmth of Dean's breath against his stomach, the weight of his head on his lap, the slow beat of his pulse against his fingers, he methodically locks everything away but what he needs now. To drive, for example. And arrive in Chitaqua in one piece, also important. With sanity intact. All he needs is time.

Straightening, he wipes his eyes and flips the jeep into drive, checking both ways on the empty road before easing back onto the asphalt and flooring the gas pedal. As the world whips by, he strokes Dean's hair back in apology.

"I just needed a moment to almost despair," he explains in a satisfactorily steady voice. "It's over now."

Castiel blinks in surprise, glancing down at Dean sleeping the sleep of the sedated in his lap. Still--as much as Dean can ever be--every third breath punctuated by faint snoring in arrhythmic accompaniment to the sound of the engine. And yet.

"I wasn't actually being ironic," he says, fighting to keep his voice calm. "I was very high but not stupid. I knew it the first time I saw you, I just thought it was too late. All things must have a name, Chuck was right, and it did; I named it after you."

For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen: six sigils named in honor of an impossible man.

He sucks in a breath. "There."

An army unseen but vast, its numbers beyond counting, has just picked up their swords.

Dean begins to stir just as the walls of Chitaqua come into sight, grunting in irritation before burying his face in Castiel's shirt with an unhappy whimper.


Stopping the jeep in the middle of the road, he reaches for Dean's face and sees the bright flush just before he feels a burst of heat against his palm. For a long moment, he can't move, can't think, can't even breathe as Dean twists again, curling up into a tight ball as beneath Castiel's fingers, his skin grows steadily warmer, reaching one-oh-two point six-three-eight nine within two minutes, slowing but still climbing.

It might be chronic, Vera explained regretfully. Any stress to his immune system could set it off, no way to tell. We don't even know why he reacted like that. It was a brownie bite.

He makes a mental note to tell Vera that Dean's immune system is performing spectacularly well: they certainly know how to use their swords, in any case.

"We'll start with a bath," he says giddily, thinking of Dean's charmingly bizarre conversations with sheep as he puts the jeep into drive. "Just give me a few minutes and I'll run one for you. It'll be fun."

Fortunately, most of Chitaqua is either occupied with their duties, on patrol, or--extremely likely--avoiding open spaces for fear of Cynthia. Leaving the jeep on the far side of his cabin in a perfunctory attempt at subtlety, he deposits Dean on the bathroom floor with a blanket folded beneath him, still too drugged to do more than curl up in a tight, overheating ball of feverish hunter. Kneeling beside him, Castiel checks one more time--the eight hour threshold has most likely passed and Dean's still at stage two, contagious but lacking cannibalistic tendencies--before stripping Dean of his remaining weapons and locking the bathroom door on his way out. This shouldn't take long.

Emerging onto the porch, he watches David jog toward him, waving a cheerful greeting to match the wide smile spreading over his freckled face before he stops short, eyes widening as he takes in Castiel's current state. Belatedly, it occurs to him he killed a great many Croats today and wasn't terribly careful regarding exposure, as he can't be infected. Out of practice: he'll work on that.

"You probably shouldn't come any closer," he decides; good habits should be established immediately. Now that he's thinking about it, he realizes how unsettlingly often he ends up with bloody socks, like now. Dryer elves probably wouldn't take them even if their destiny didn't involve fire and a lot of it.

"Do you see me moving?" The hazel eyes scanning Castiel as he visibly shifts to soldier. "What happened?"

"There was a Croatoan attack on Ichabod," he answers, coming down the stairs as David mirrors him to keep a safe distance. "The attack was concluded successfully, but Ichabod's casualties were still being assessed when we left. Has Joseph returned yet? Where's Melanie? Her cabin?"

"No, yes, and fuck." David matches his pace toward Melanie's cabin. "Dean okay?" The barely suppressed fear is unmistakable.

"Yes, but he sustained several mild injuries, so I brought him back here for treatment; Dolores had enough to do, and--I wanted to avoid possible infection to the wound."

David's mouth twitches: so that explanation worked. "Yeah, Vera lectured everyone she saw on secondary infections while he's in recovery before she left. Twice."

"It will be several days before he can physically hunt me down to kill me," he murmurs as Melanie's cabin comes into view; he really must thank Vera when she returns. Perhaps they could have a party for her and Jeremy: Dean would approve very much of a camp wide celebration, perhaps involving something barbecued. "Alicia's returned? An extra EMT would be of assistance to Ichabod. Dolores's current staff will need help, and she knows what precautions to take to avoid exposure."

"Yeah, she came back this morning. How many are we sending?"

"Everyone who can carry a gun." David only nods, but his shoulders straighten in clear approval. "Brief Alicia and have her pass the word; I expect everyone ready to leave in half an hour. Then find Chuck and the other members of your team and report to Melanie's cabin; I have a special job for her when you get there, and she'll need her team's help."

"I thought you wanted something hard," David answers with a snort as they reach the steps, skipping back a step as he turns toward Alicia's cabin. "Fifteen on the outside."

Castiel realizes he's smiling as Melanie emerges onto the porch with a worried expression, already buckling on her belt. "I'll hold you to it."

Chapter Text

--Day 135--

Dean comes to furious, unfortunately very lucid consciousness three hours past midnight, still lingering at stage two and immersed in a bathtub of cool--but not ice-filled--water. A part of him was looking forward to his conversation with imaginary sheep: it was like spending time with Kellie, but with fewer crystals showing up in inconvenient places and finding very strangely shaped bruises the next day.

"What--" he gasps, pushing Castiel's hand away and flailing briefly. One hundred and two, excellent: it's dropping again. Leaning tiredly against the cool porcelain of the tub, Castiel sees absolutely no need to elucidate while Dean orients himself, looking around the bathroom with a confused expression, sweat and water-damp hair clinging to his forehead.

"I'm in the bathroom," he says slowly, trying to focus on Castiel long enough to glare and achieving a credible if vague squint.

"Yes," he agrees, leaning an elbow on the lip of the tub. "Three hours into a new day, in case that was your next question. Is there anything else?"

There is, of course. With Dean, there always is.

"What happened?" Leaning back in the tub, he frowns, oblivious to the cool of the water and his own goosebumps. "Ichabod. There was an attack."

"That was hours ago. Technically, yesterday." Resting his chin on one hand, he resigns himself to what will happen next. The green eyes widen in memory, and jerking his right arm up, Dean ignores the knotted scar of his death-defying run in with a colony of brownies to focus on the scabbing bite in incredulous horror despite the fact it's covered by a layer of bandages and plastic wrap and he can't actually see it.

"Oh God. I was--"

"Between eleven and fourteen hours ago, approximately," he interrupts, fighting back a yawn. "Don’t be alarmed, but you're currently in stage two. It's possible that you're contagious, but on the other hand, you remain uninterested in consuming human flesh. The door is locked, and while I'm not visibly armed, it's only because you're unsettlingly good at acquiring other people's weapons and I can't risk you getting mine. How are you feeling?"

Dean jerks upright with a splash of water he can't bring himself to care enough to avoid. "I'm--"

"In stage two and feverish, though it's dropping again." Closing his eyes, he feels for his bottle and shakes it to verify the contents before taking out two pills and dropping it back on the floor. "If it helps, I'm not shooting up this time. That won't continue past the forty-eight hour mark, in case that provides motivation for you. I doubt it will take that long, however."

"What's going on?" Before he can answer, Dean becomes aware he's immersed in cold water, and to Castiel's amusement, that his teeth are chattering and have been through most of this conversation. Wrapping his arms around his wet t-shirt clad body--a distractingly good look for him, because Castiel is very tired but not close to dead--he draws up his knees before he unleashes his most effective glare, only marginally lessened by the continued chattering of his teeth. "Jesus, can I get out--wait, why I am in the bathtub?"

"Your home improvement efforts fixing the grout means it now leaks water much, much more slowly, and I don't know where the tub Vera acquired is." That seems to silence Dean, temporarily at least, which gives him enough time to reach over and feel Dean's flushed forehead, pleased to note it's entered the lowest three digit range. "Your temperature's dropping. You can get out now."

Stranding up, he dry swallows both pills on his way to the door and picks up two towels from the pile he prudently remembered to bring in here after stealing all he could find in the communal laundry room after everyone left for Ichabod. There were a surprising number in the dryers, which tells him he's not the only one who hates doing laundry; perhaps this could be considered some kind of life lesson should anyone ask why they were taken. Surely there's a life lesson that applies: he'll ask Alicia when she gets back, unless they're her towels, of course. They should definitely acquire more towels soon, in any case.

Returning to the tub, he ignores Dean's continuing glare and helps him out onto the rug (also stolen, and quite nice; they may not get that back), briskly rubbing him with the smaller towel until he's simply very damp before wrapping the larger one around him and easing him onto the floor. "How are you feeling?"

"Like shit," Dean snaps, huddling in the corner made by the wall and tub as he makes an attempt to bury himself in several feet of faded ochre terrycloth. Castiel watches his maneuvering in fascination before it occurs to him that multiple towels and the blanket might be of assistance and goes to acquire them, turning on the space heater as well; it is rather cold in here. Dean jerks them out of his hands immediately, and by the time he's seated himself again, Dean's achieved something like a very bad interpretation of a multi-colored cocoon, much like he does with blankets, but somehow, impossibly, even funnier. "Like I'm gonna be eating people soon, so--" He breaks off, staring at him from the depths of a frayed mustard-yellow cowl, and Castiel quite literally can't look away. "It's been eleven hours?"

"Between eleven and thirteen. It's not definitive," he admits, briefly distracted by the sight of his own bare foot sliding over the wet tile floor. "Except for the part where you're not progressing toward cannibalism, which I assure you is very new. I'm not despairing, worried, drunk, or high, if that helps. Unless you count on life, of course."

"That doesn't mean--"

"You said you trusted me," he interrupts. "Was that just words so I'd feel better about performing an immediate execution on you or did you mean it?"

Dean peers out at him from the depths of his terrycloth hood, and Castiel files this memory away for later enjoyment. "What're you doing, Cas?"

"That's not an answer."

"You still have a knife at your back. Saw it when you were picking up the towels," Dean points out. "You got your answer. Now tell me what you're doing."

Reaching back, he locates the hilt and tugs it out, skidding it across the floor toward the doorway and ignoring Dean's indignant protest. "No one dies from a brownie bite."

"Yeah, I heard. What the fuck does that have to do with--"

"No one dies from it. Most people never even know they're infected, it's that minor. It was too different for your body to recognize immediately, because this world was too different, which being you, required a dramatic response." Dean's swollen, red-rimmed eyes try to narrow, which makes him look extremely funny. "Not too much for you to adapt of course, but enough so that it took time for you to do it. Human bodies do this, given sufficient time. They're made to do it. You're made to do that, to adapt. It's your--purpose, if you had one other than to exist, multiply, and be fruitful."

Dean's teeth seem to finally decide to stop chattering. "Get to the point."

"Croatoan is one hundred percent infectious, it affects every single human being on this planet in exactly the same way, in the same time general time period with an eight hour threshold, with the exact sequence of stages of infection and with the exact same result, without exception. There's no variation except in compensation for the mass of the victim infected, and that's predictable as well."

"Right, that's…." He pauses, licking his lips. "Interesting, what?"

"That," he announces, "isn't natural."

"You think?" Dean bursts out incredulously. "Not natural, demon virus, really--"

"It's not even alive, not by any definition of the word, because what is living, what is of Creation, is subject to the same rules of existence: to be alive, there must be change. It's a construct of theoretically-organic material, a parody of life, but it's not and cannot be alive. It's--a set of instructions given form and power, but that's all it is. Microsoft could have written it, and in this case, could have actually done a better job of it than Lucifer."


Taking a deep breath at the wary note in Dean's voice, he slumps back against the tub, making himself focus.

"Lucifer did understand this much about Creation--about humanity," he continues, aware of Dean's strict attention. "The human genome is in a constant state of change--you have no idea how much, you won't for centuries, and new mutations are occurring all the time, some discrete and some that can be passed on to your offspring. He couldn't afford a single mistake in making this; he had to cover the fullest potential of human mutation as it was, as it is, and as it will be, and you may not be aware of this, but that information among angels is common knowledge."

"Of course it is," Dean agrees glumly. "Best way to kill us, really popular topic."

"Your entire genetic range--all you were, are, and will be--had to be in Croatoan before it was released, because once it began to spread among the population, all it would need to be stopped was one resistant human body." Dean frowns, terrycloth falling in loose folds around his shoulders. "Just one person is all it would take, a human body with the correct genetic makeup to create the exact antibodies needed to destroy it. Scientists could then have a blueprint for a vaccine, and unlike those associated with a true virus, one hundred percent immunity would be achieved and there would be no possibility of mutation in the interim. Not just to Croatoan; it's probable that immunity would extend to any constructed virus he devised afterward. Unlike my Father, unlike you, angels can't create, only mimic what is already done. He had one chance to get this right, because it wouldn't work again."

Dean nods slowly. "So it had to have everything he knew about humanity in there from the start. Missing anything and it might not work."

"He was also trying to make a terrible philosophical point, which is never a good basis for your method of conquest: perfection and unchanged versus the imperfect in constant flux. Which is why he turned this into an all or nothing without knowing it; he couldn't imagine the possibility of losing. How could he, when all of human evolution was known to him and placed within that virus?"

Dean's eyes narrow suspiciously. "You're enjoying this."

"His lack of a work ethic offends my sensibilities," he agrees. "He almost did it, too. You almost can't blame him for missing it; even prophecy didn't have a contingency plan to deal with a human appearing from an entire different world." Dean's mouth falls open in belated understanding. "Someone whose immune system was surprised unto near death by an infected brownie bite. Someone with a single difference on the genetic level caused by temporal displacement." Castiel smiles at him. "Something new."

"You're fucking with me."

"I'm not a virologist," he starts, grinning helplessly at the return of Dean's glare, "nor am I conversant with Lucifer's truly abysmal grasp of the scientific method, but while you're close, it wasn't programmed for close, because close--"

"--isn't perfect." Dean drops his head back against the wall with an audible thump.

"The brownie infection that lingers in your immune system reacts to stress; it wouldn't have had anything to react to unless, unlike every other human being on earth, yours detected Croatoan. It can't hide from you, you're killing it faster than it can replicate and spread, and it can't fight back, because it doesn't know how." He smiles into Dean's eyes. "He never thought he'd have to fight to win. You weren't supposed to even step on the field."

Dean takes a breath, eyes naked. "You're sure--you're sure that's what's happening now?"

"I know it is." Dean looks away, shoulders slumping slightly as the tension melts away. He hadn't expected that; at best, he hoped for a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to wait; at worst, the unpleasant necessity of restraints until his supposition was proven correct. "You believe me."

Dean frowns. "What?"

"You believe me," he repeats.

"You get I understood maybe ten, twenty words of that, right?" Castiel nods, still bewildered. "But you're saying--correct me here if I'm wrong--I’m going to survive this and not as a--"

"Living representation of the sum of all humanity's fears."

"Yeah, that." His eyes narrow suspiciously. "That's where you were going with this, right?"

Belatedly, he nods. "Yes. You'll survive and not as a mindless monster that devours human flesh for pleasure."

"Then yeah, I believe you." Leaning back against the wall, Dean closes his eyes, the boneless slump beginning to be in danger of becoming a slow slide. "You asked me if I trusted you. You didn't have to knock me out until you had proof. You saying it is proof enough for me." Sighing, his eyes slit open. "Can I get some sleep or--"

"Yes, of course." Dean nods tiredly, looking content to fall asleep sitting up, which can only lead to an unpleasant semi-concussed awakening when he makes painful contact with the floor. Before he can consider the consequences of acting on impulse, Castiel reaches over, tugging him unresistingly from his corner. Dean's eyes open long enough to convey irritation before half-turning and letting himself slump bonelessly into Castiel's lap, sighing heavily as he shuts his eyes.

"Rest," he murmurs, touching Dean's forehead, skin pleasantly cool against his fingers. "You have between an hour and an hour in a half until it begins again if the pattern I've observed so far is any indication."

"So two weeks of this and I might survive?" Dean yawns tiredly, tugging the towels around him before rolling onto his side, breath puffing against the damp material of Castiel's t-shirt, and he wishes he'd thought to bring in another blanket. As Dean curls closer, he firmly reminds himself not to take personally; he's probably a vast improvement on the floor. Not as cold, not as hard, and far, far less wet. "Sounds great."

"It's a construct, so replication isn't based on biological rules, but math, and Croatoan isn't nearly as complicated as a true virus. Between eleven and thirteen hours before you're no longer contagious, and thirty-six until the virus is eradicated entirely. And you'll survive, of course."

Dean nods in satisfaction, closing his eyes with a contented sigh. "Wake me for the next ice bath."

--Day 136--

Exactly forty-eight hours from initial exposure, Dean no longer exhibits any sign of infection. A brief check in the infirmary's small, makeshift lab, using the procedures Vera taught him, he confirms that Dean's blood is entirely free of any sign of the Croatoan virus.

After cleaning and sterilizing the lab, he returns to the cabin with two samples of Dean's blood, along with his notes, and locks them away before asking if Dean wants his grilled cheese sandwich with crust or not.

He doesn't want crust but would like another blanket.

Amanda's terse initial report, conveyed verbally to David at Ichabod's quarantine perimeter on their arrival, was by necessity limited to the immediate deaths during the actual attack, with less exact numbers regarding injury. On her return just before dusk with the last of the militia who went to Ichabod's assistance, she submitted her final report on the attack on Ichabod as well as conveyed Alison's message on Ichabod's status and her thanks for their assistance in enforcing her quarantine order on the town.

The meeting, attended by the teams who returned from Ichabod, was notable in both its brevity and the almost perfect silence broken only by the brief verbal responses to Dean's increasingly careful questions. In Amanda's initial report, none of Chitaqua's militia were killed or injured, but Ichabod wasn't so fortunate; three of Amanda's recruits were killed during the attack; Ichabod's patrol, one; civilians, fifty-eight, including the ten children who were killed outright at the daycare; Croatoan bodies recovered, four-hundred and seventeen. The final version included the addition of one of Amanda's students, one member of Ichabod's patrol, and an additional seventeen civilians, including Emmy, Callie, and four children at the daycare, the cause of death due to injuries accrued during the attack that proved mortal.

It's polite fiction; no one survives injuries sustained during an attack by Croatoans.

The math of Croatoan, as he told Dean, is unchanging, and its communicability one hundred percent; until Dean, there was never a single exposure that didn't end in manifestation or death. All that could be offered was a clean, easy end to life while they were still themselves, their minds and bodies their own, before Croatoan manifested and their lives ended in a protracted nightmare that only began in madness. Chitaqua's residents performed that service more times than he can count on careless people wandering into the cities and rescued far too late, stumbled upon during patrol, within Chitaqua's walls to more than one of their own; it was mercy, always. No one who had watched a human being succumb to Croatoan would ever believe anything else.

They never did this before, however: stood helplessly outside the quarantine line for a town whose people they were beginning to know and listened to the sounds of weeping adults, screaming children, and the sudden muffled silence that descended without warning but not without cause; they held their guns at ready as they tracked the perimeter to shoot anyone who tried to cross it, and it was only Ichabod's internal procedures that assured they didn't have to.

Amanda never did this before: waited helplessly within the quarantine line with the people she was given to protect and saw both the bodies of those who already died and the ones for whom death was merely delayed. She never stood over the bodies of her own students or sat with last one for the endless, too-short hours that remained of their lives. In Chitaqua, mercy was performed by team leaders or Dean himself and she only stood witness; she was never the one who must be merciful, to take their lives while they were still their own, before Croatoan could take it from them.

After the others leave to dim the memory of Ichabod in any way, every way they can, Dean drops a bottle of Eldritch Horror on the coffee table and three glasses, matching Amanda for every shot, listening to her eventually talk about those long hours after they left.

She led one of the teams collecting Croatoan bodies for examination, pictures taken of each monster who was once a human being, a husband or wife, a father or mother, a daughter or son, before they were carefully wrapped for burning. Habit, Alison told her: a photographic record against a day none of them truly believed would ever come, a chance for those who lived to one day finally discover the fate of their missing and mourn their dead.

It's late evening, the chill of the night closing around them, partially blocked by the heavy draperies over the door that Dean summoned from the depths of inventory (or more likely, told James to look for during his trips to Kansas City).

"We do that as well," Castiel says into the lingering quiet, realizing at Dean's surprised expression that he never told him that. "Chuck is backing up the records for Chitaqua with the external hard drives we took from the military."

"Good idea," Dean agrees, pouring each of them another shot and watching Amanda grimly throw hers back before she continues.

Ichabod's dead were gathered in one of the buildings adapted for that purpose. On the first floor, their bodies carefully placed for identification without risking infection to family members too distraught by grief to remember to care. On the second floor, the infected marked out the hours until they joined the dead, forbidden only physical contact but never company, never the comfort of family and friends, sharing those final moments before they said goodbye.

"Cyanide, usually, after a sedative," Amanda tells them dully, taking the shot Dean helpfully offers. "They--they asked me first if I knew how to shoot someone up," here, she smiles unhappily at Castiel, "and I told them, yeah, I had a friend showed me how to do it right. Jason told me he was honored--and then he went to sleep, and when they got to the bed to check him, he was gone. We did the burn at dusk after quarantine ended. I brought Jason's--" she stopped, taking a shuddering breath before continuing. "Alison gave me a copy of the town's records on him and Jules and Maggie and Finn to add to Chuck's records. Pics, too. They were gonna be ours, so--"

"They were ours," Dean says firmly, looking at Castiel for a long moment before filling their glasses from the second bottle. "First thing tomorrow."

"Her--Maggie's sister--came to talk to me after the burning. Asked if she could--could take her place. She'd do the extra work to catch up, anything I wanted, she said…" Amanda's eyes glaze, mouth trembling. "It's a tradition in the town--two years, but they sure as hell had plenty of opportunity to make them--that friends or family take the duties after if they could. Too many jobs, not enough people, everyone had to do everything; I guess we're part of it now. Jason's sister, Finn's uncle, and Jules' stepbrother showed up this morning with Vicky ready to go. Nights, weekends, holidays, whatever it took to get them up to speed. Cleared with Alison that morning, and I sure as hell would have appreciated the warning…." She trails off, mouth tightening.

"You gonna take them?" Dean asks softly.

"If they're able to do it," Castiel says before she can answer, "there's no reason to refuse."

"Is that an order?" she asks challengingly, almost knocking over her glass. "Train them up and send them to die before they're ready to--they weren't ready. I saw Maggie go down, a week, three days, she'd have been faster, the fucker would have missed her. Reflexes need time, she was almost there already--they all could have survived this, this was nothing, a fucking video game! Shoot, get out of their way, shoot again, it's easy, just don't let them get too close, don't let them gang up on you!" She swallows hard, eyes blank. "Once you know, it's easy. I should have--"

"Once you know, it's easier," he corrects her, wondering why Dean is looking between them. "They're still faster than we are, stronger, and not mindless enough to be predictable. That's why--"

"They weren't ready!" she shouts, coming clumsily to her knees, catching herself on the coffee table before she overbalances. "They didn't know enough, I didn't teach them enough--"

"You won't."

Dean sucks in an audible breath in the silence that follows, but Amanda stares back at him, wet eyes dark. "What?"

"You won't teach them enough. Even when you tell them they're ready, they aren't and you know it. Three months--hunters had to learn over years, often by trial and error, but we fit it into three months. It was a compromise," he says, thinking of those months with Amy and Dean and the other hunters. "We had to choose what was most important when all of it was important, what could be taught or learned without experience and what could only be learned by doing. The arguments…." He pauses, remembering listening to Dean and Amy, Bobby and Lissa and Byron and Doug, experienced hunters offering their services and screaming each other down as they tried to create something that would work, always work, that would buy a new hunter the time they needed to survive long enough to gain experience. "It was a compromise, three months, not six, not a year; we didn't have time, and neither did the world. You have three months to teach them what they need to know to survive long enough to learn the rest."

"It's that easy?" Amanda demands, voice shaking. "When you trained us, that was just a given; three months, now get out there and deal, good luck with that, now ready for the next group?"

"Amanda--" Dean murmurs, but he's looking at Castiel.

"Did you even remember any of us when you were done? Other than who you were fucking, I assume that got through." Amanda's voice hardens. "I can't do that, I can't just--"

"You have to," he says calmly. "Or did you think it would be simply a matter of being admired by your students for your abilities and--" He catches her punch before it connects. Dean hisses, but mercifully, he stays where he is. "This is what you can do," he continues, holding her fist effortlessly. "You can teach them what you know, all you can in those three months you have them. That is what you'll do, because there's no one else who can."

He can almost see Amanda running through various scenarios on what to do next: he knows everything about her, her weaknesses and her strengths, trained her ruthlessly to use the latter to compensate for the former, and how to use both to her advantage. She was a very good hunter when she came here, but now, he can think of few that could match her, and even fewer that could hope to defeat her.

Jerking back, she almost overbalances again before getting unsteadily to her feet and looking around a little desperately. "Bathroom's through there," Dean says helpfully, correctly interpreting her expression and pointing toward the bedroom door. "To the right."

"Thanks." Not looking at either one of them, she crosses to the door with the careful movements of someone far more drunk than they thought they were when they were sitting. Once the door's closed behind her, Dean takes her shot empty glass and sets with his own on the far side of the table.

"Okay, question," Dean says. "Am I supposed to do anything about her attacking you just now?"

"That wasn't an attack," he answers, tearing his gaze from the closed bedroom door. "She needs someone to fight. If she were sober, I would oblige her. She can't risk that with anyone else, especially now." Dean raises his eyebrows in mute query. "Her judgment is impaired, but drunk or sober, her reflexes are excellent. That combination simply means she won't know when to stop, and I'd rather not risk injury to either of us before she wears herself out."

"She really could hurt you?" Dean asks incredulously. "I mean, without you letting her?"

"Strength and speed are excellent tools, but they're only tools, and like any tool, they can be used against me. It's one of the advantages of being trained by a former angel; I didn't need to simply tell them that, I could show them. She probably couldn't kill me--not without a great deal of preparation and some luck--but a hunter learns to set the bar to the best possible, not the ideal. And right now, I'm fairly certain the bar would be something requiring painkillers." And possibly a splint.

Dean leans an elbow on the coffee table, glancing at the bedroom door for a long moment before jerking his chin at Castiel. "Okay, you're up. Go."

"Go?" he echoes. "Where?"

Dean sighs, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Cas, she didn't come here to tell us what we could have gotten from the report she gave us." He studies Castiel's bewildered expression for a moment and sighs again. "Jesus, okay. Cas, she needs her instructor, that taught her to do this, because he's the only goddamn one here who knows what she's going through now. That would be you." He points toward the door. "Go."

Hesitantly, Castiel gets to his feet. Amanda's reaction he'd expected and prepared for, but this…. "I don't know what she needs me to say."

"I don't think she cares what you say," Dean answers implacably. "She cares that you're there at all. Go. You'll figure it out."

Amanda's slumped on the foot of the bed, head buried in her hands behind a cascade of blonde hair. Carefully closing the door behind him, he tries to think of what to say that would be of help. She knows all of it now; earlier than he hoped she'd have to, but to say it would be better to have happened later is only in the delay.

She doesn't look up, even when he tentatively sits on the other side, but the tension seems to change, though he can't tell if it's for better or worse.

"I should assign you laps around the camp," he offers into the pregnant silence. "Why didn't you flip the coffee table first to distract me? It's probable in the confusion that you would have landed that punch."

She turns her head, swollen eyes narrowing. "Still had half a bottle of Eldritch Horror sitting there. Didn't want to waste it."

His judgment tonight may also be compromised; that seems like a perfectly logical reason.

"You know, back then, I didn't ask why you kept me back when Vera and the rest were cleared for duty. Or Mark," she adds belatedly. "Not then, anyway. No one else knew either; everyone else got the three months and good luck, but--Vera didn't believe me, that it could be worse than three months of Castiel on the training field. Get a full two months of his personal attention, then we talk about hard. My parents trained me from the moment I could walk, and I was doing jobs with them before I started high school, but that was like playtime or something. After, when Dean told me I was taking over evaluations for Chitaqua's militia, keep them up to spec, I thought that was the reason. I was your way to opt-out for good."

"It was very convenient," he agrees. "I almost wish I thought of it earlier. It would have saved me a very protracted argument about the needs of the militia."

Surprised, she straightens. "Back then--Dean wasn't recruiting. I mean, he wouldn't if you didn't do the training. If you were teaching me to train more hunters--"

"I didn't tell him that." He thinks of Dean in the next room, who suffers enough for what he sees as his predecessors sins as if they were his own. This one he can't add to it, not when the past is so easy to forget, to blur, overwritten with the actions of the man who currently bears that name. "At the time, there was no reason to do so; Dean didn't plan to recruit again in the near future. It might also be accurate to say that I didn't admit it to myself, which might seem hard to do, but I'd had a great deal of practice."

She nods slowly, waiting.

"I was instructed specifically to train hunters," he says. "It was my--purpose, I suppose. There was no reason to pass on those specific skills to you, but before I met you, I never wanted to. You weren't the best of that group; Mark was far better, and Debra was almost disturbingly prodigal even for a hunter, but--"

"Debra died, yeah."

"No." She frowns uncertainly. "The difference between you and them was that you could be more. In a field where the competition is very high, you could be the best I'd ever trained."

"Me." Her eyes widen suddenly. "You trained hunters before Chitaqua. That's what you meant about compromising."

"Yes. Dean was my first instructor, but not my last. One of them--the last, who took it upon herself to make sure that I could do this job--set a standard far higher than that required of anyone else. Not just because of my abilities, but because I wasn't human, and she didn't trust me to do it without--" He breaks off, not sure how to explain. "I didn't understand what she meant, and in the end, I think it was more in hope than anything that she said that I had performed to her satisfaction."

"She didn't think you were good enough?" Amanda's incredulity is almost palpable.

"To teach hunters to survive, yes," he answers slowly. "Her concern was why I was doing it. She said there was a difference between doing this because it was my purpose and doing it because it was something--something that I needed to do. Because I wanted to.

"Dean knew this would be my last class, and I agreed to do it without any other goal than to train you all to the best of my abilities. Meeting you and then Debra's death changed that; it was the first time I understood what she meant. The very last time I would ever teach, and in an exercise in irony, I not only wanted to do it, but had a student with untapped potential, one who could very possibly learn, after those three months, what before I'd only taught to the most experienced hunters who'd been approved by my instructor first. And one who would not only be able to pass on those skills to others, but wouldn't be able to stop herself from doing it because she needed to do it, too."

"How did you--"

"By the third day, you were already sneaking out to the training field at night to drill Vera and Joseph because you knew they needed more practice."

Amanda's mouth drops open. "Did Vera tell you--"

"Of course not," he answers, biting back a smile at her expression. "I watched you work with them."

"You watched?"

"Having to limit my substance abuse while I was teaching left me with a surprising amount of free time," he says. "I appreciated the entertainment a great deal."

Amanda gapes at him.

"When Dean told me you had started a separate evening class in Ichabod, he was concerned that you were stretching yourself too thin. I explained he shouldn't worry unless you started another midnight tutorial in addition to that."

"I checked the training field," she says faintly. "Where the hell…."

"I've had all of time to learn to hide." She makes a face before smiling weakly. "It wasn't particularly unexpected after watching you in class. You knew what you were all training to do, and you wanted everyone to be able to do it up to standard without exception. What you didn't know then--and I felt no need to inform you of it--was that the first week was evaluative. I use it to discover as much as possible about those I instruct, not only what they already know, but how they learn and what they'll need. Supplementary instruction would be provided after that, but between your efforts and everyone's utter horror of the unknown consequences of failure, your class did the work of three weeks in one. Thank you for that. The instruction in hostile dryads isn't standard; I had to come up with that when I realized we had two weeks left and why not."

"Oh." Amanda half-turns on the bed to face him. "Debra said something like that, but I wasn't sure."

"Debra was right," he agrees. "But she could have easily been wrong, and considering how good she was, she could afford to believe it. You couldn't afford it, because you weren't thinking of yourself."

Amanda's expression flickers. "Debra wasn't--"

"This isn't a judgment of her as a person; Dean instructed hunters at one time, but he didn't feel a particular burning desire to do it when it wasn't driven by the personal. If Vera had asked, Debra doubtless would have drilled her, but Vera didn't have to ask you, because after three days of training, you knew she needed more help, and your first instinct was to do something about it."

She nods slowly, looking at the floor for several moments. "You meant me to do this."

"You meant to do it," he answers quietly. "I only taught you how. The standard my instructor set for me, I set for you, and you exceeded it far beyond my expectations." Her shoulders hunch. "You get three months, but that's all you have; within that time, you teach them what they have to know so they can survive what can only be learned by experience. You can and you will, because you made yourself fit to do it; if you weren't, I wouldn't have taught you how."

When she lifts her head, the blue eyes are tear-bright, streaking her cheeks in shimmering silver lines. "And losing them? That's gotta be experienced?"

"I couldn't teach you that." He thinks of Luke for a moment, of Debra and Risa, of the names of everyone who passed through Chitaqua's walls in a litany, added to those who went before them, and slowly, uncertain, he moves closer to her. That seems right; she turns immediately, burying her face against his shoulder with a strangled sound, and all at once, the tension breaks into quiet, heartbroken sobs. Carefully, he wraps an arm around her, surprised at the loosening in his own chest, something he hadn't even known he still carried, had carried for so long.

Feeling her arms wrap around him, too, offering the same comfort, he takes a deep breath and shuts his eyes.

When he comes back out, the coffee table is cleaned of the excesses of the evening, and Dean's slumped in the middle of the couch, one foot on the coffee table, reading one of the journals with desultory interest. His head comes up immediately as Castiel shuts the door behind him, setting it aside. "She okay?"

"She fell asleep," he answers. "I promised the sheets had been changed recently." He takes a deep breath. "I don't want her to--feel alone tonight."

"Good call." Dean's mouth curves faintly before he reaches out, patting the space beside him. Still feeling unsettled, he takes the space and the offer of one half of the blanket draped over Dean's lap, settling his feet on the coffee table, and with the addition of the warmth of Dean's shoulder against his own, he feels less uncertain, more--whatever this is. A coffee cup materializes as if from nowhere, and taking it, he considers the possibility that Dean is actually a wizard.

"How are you?" Dean asks quietly, picking up his own as Castiel tests the temperature--still hot--raising an eyebrow at his surprise. "Please, you think I don't know that look? Sat with Jo and Sam after serious shit went down; it ain't easy to bear witness, especially when it's someone you care about. Bobby did it for me, too, though…" He wrinkles his nose. "Anyway--you okay?"

Taking a drink, he considers the question. "I don't know if I--helped."

"You did," Dean says positively, taking a sip from his own mug--still full, Castiel notes in surprise. "She felt okay complaining about our sheets? You got it right." He cocks his head, smiling at him. "Cas, you couldn't do it wrong. She needed you; being you was all you had to do to get it right."

He stares at the still surface of his coffee, aware of Dean's attention despite the fact he's gazing into the distance--the wall, from direction--and wonders what he's waiting for. After several long moments, Dean turns in place, bracing an arm on the back of the couch.

"Tell me."

"What?" he asks, not entirely truthfully.

"Three months." Dean raises his eyebrows. "It's always three months, you said."

"An advantage of an angel being indoctrinated into the training process," he says wryly. "I took my instruction very literally. It's one of the reasons Dean and Amy thought I would be an adequate instructor; when the final model was approved, they taught it to me first and supervised my first class. It was harder for the other hunters to argue when we already had the first group successfully taught using it, and they couldn't argue with me to change anything, since I wouldn't deviate from my instructions." Dean nods, taking another drink, and after a moment, he realizes what Dean wants to ask. "You want to know why Debra was put on patrol before she finished training."

Dean hesitates, studying him intently, before setting his cup down on the coffee table. "Was it Dean's order?"

"No." Despite the warmth of the mug, his hands are numb with cold. "It was mine."

Dean waits, sipping his coffee.

"We were--for a variety of reasons--running a skeleton patrol," Castiel continues flatly. "A recent fight in North Dakota meant we had too many people on either limited or very restricted duty. One of the regular patrol managed to sprain their ankle very badly during a routine check of Wichita, and we couldn't pull anyone to take their place. Everyone is trained to work in teams, and going out with one less, while not necessarily dangerous, wasn't encouraged. Dean asked me, since we had three hunters in this class, if one of them could be temporarily assigned to that patrol team."

"Asked?" Dean asks skeptically.

"My agreement to instruct Dean's hunters came with conditions," he explains. "Among them was that my authority wouldn't be challenged as long as they were in training. This was my class, the first that answered to no one but me." He searches Dean's face warily but sees only understanding. "So yes, he had to ask."

Dean's mouth twitches. "So when he asked, you agreed."

"There was no reason for me to refuse. It was both temporary and mind-numbingly routine; at the time, due to the efforts of the military, the threat was believed partially contained, so the patrol's only duty was to check the perimeter for any potential breaches." Not looking at Dean, he takes a breath. "Also--and this was possibly a factor--several of the militia, being off-duty and therefore with far too much time on their hands, had been observing training. Apparently, some of them didn't see why I insisted all of them must complete the full three months before they were allowed to go on duty and shared that information with the class."

Dean snorts softly. "Armchair quarterbacks. That's--"

"I recognize the reference," he says, belatedly smiling and nodding politely in emphasis. "For most of them, it was a non-issue; after a week, they knew very well what they didn't know. For Mark, it was less clear; for Amanda, I'm not sure, but it could have been because she was far too busy trying to single-handedly assure the entire class passed each morning evaluation, so she didn't have time to feel insulted."

"So she's always been like that."

"Even more now than then," he agrees, eyes fixed on the rim of his cup.

"Teacher's pet," Dean mocks gently, shoulder nudging his. "Blue-blackest of them all."

"I'm almost sure she's forgiven me for that."

Dean nods. "And Debra?"

He licks his lips. "Debra was the best of that class, and better than some of those currently on duty. She felt it was a waste of her time to be instructed again in what she already knew, and as she was very outgoing, she was already friendly with many of Chitaqua's members, including Erica."

"Especially the ones that told her she was too awesome to waste time with that training bullshit." Dean shrugs cynically. "Just a guess."

"I wouldn't know," he answers carefully. "We never spoke outside of training."

"Now there's a surprise." Dean sighs noisily. "Don't tell me--one of them told her about the position on patrol and she volunteered before you even got a chance to think about it."

"Erica told her; she and Debra became very close very quickly. When I arrived the next morning, Debra told me she had already went to Dean to volunteer, and he'd agreed."

Dean frowns. "I thought you said--"

"Dean asked me during the noon break the day before," Castiel continues. "Several people were listening, and I assumed by the time everyone returned, they'd all know. I couldn't take the risk that the wrong one would volunteer first and require me to refuse. Dean would want to know why."

"Who…." He sucks in a breath. "Amanda. You didn't want her to volunteer."

"I didn't want any of them to volunteer, but Debra was the best of them," he answers slowly. "She was the obvious choice to anyone who had been observing the class, but Dean hadn't had time due to his other responsibilities. It was much easier to assure that Amanda simply didn't have the opportunity to volunteer."

"What happened?"

"I invited Dean to watch the class for the afternoon and assured that Debra was paired with Amanda," he answers. "Debra could usually beat her, and that day, knowing Dean was watching, she was very motivated to do just that. Dean suggested Debra, I agreed should she volunteer, and Amanda--who was somewhat unhappy after spending several hours being enthusiastically beaten by Debra and rightly blamed me for it--asked her then-roommate to distract me and stole some of my vicodin so she could still have her midnight tutorial."

Dean bites back a laugh. "How'd she convince her roommate to do it?"

"We were both sleeping with her," he explains, and watches, bemused, as Dean loses the fight against laughter, burying his head against the back of the couch. "Joan could be extremely distracting when she wanted to be. I bore her no ill-will; that evening was certainly worth it."

After several moments, Dean sobers, though his cheeks are still flushed with hot color. "You blame yourself for what happened to Debra?"

"No, of course not. Debra was the best choice. That doesn't change the fact that of the two of them, Amanda was the one I wasn't willing to lose. The sin wasn't in commission but intention, I suppose. I wouldn't change it, if that's what you mean."


His thoughts circle restlessly; even after all this time, he's not satisfied with the answer, possibly because he never asked himself the question. "Amanda--all of them--I wanted to teach them. It was the first time I understood the reason I was willing to learn to do this, and it was the last time I'd ever do it. I'm not sure that class noticed any benefit from it, but I enjoyed it very much, and Amanda's supplementary and surreptitious instruction helped far more than I expected. That wasn't in the model," he adds thoughtfully. "We never had time for experimentation once we had it working, and we found out very quickly that choosing someone with the ability to instruct was as important as the model."

"Something new to while away the time until the end of the world," Dean says, mouth quirking. "Kept yourself entertained?"

"Drug-fueled orgies can happen at any time, but--" He shakes his head. "I couldn't think of a reason not to see what happened with them. When I started instructing Amanda and Mark after training ended, other members of their class and even some of the others would volunteer their time off-duty to give Amanda and Mark a class to work with after I taught them something that wasn't in the three month curriculum so I could observe their method of instruction and make corrections. I made things up from my own experience, which is why one of them knows a form of combat exclusively involving knives used only by a very small cult in ancient Mesopotamia roughly six thousand years ago."


"She has a natural affinity for bladed weapons--which is why her and Dean's breakup was stressful for everyone involved." He smiles in memory. "Alicia's the only person I ever met who, like me, prefers blades; it was a very enjoyable way to spend the evenings. She works regularly with Amanda even now to keep in practice. During the months after her separation from Dean, she practiced a great deal."

"Would this be when you also instructed them in the skill of stoned combat?" Dean asks thoughtfully.

"It was very late," he answers obliquely, wondering uneasily just how much they've told him. It wasn't a secret then, exactly--he certainly didn't make any comments to give that impression--but in Chitaqua there were few secrets, and the best kept ones were always the ones hiding in plain sight. Risa was a participant on occasion, and he assumed her promotion made her more determined to improve her skills, which was probably true--considering what she knew of the other team leaders, she would have been motivated by self-preservation as well. She was also, he remembers suddenly, Amanda's other roommate then. "Due to my schedule, I didn't have time for much recreational activity," he continues, wondering why he's thinking about this now. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. And that suggestion, by the way, was Vera's."

"Not actually surprised," Dean offers, but there's an odd, speculative expression on his face, and Castiel wonders what he's thinking. "You were having fun, weren't you?"

"I think plausible deniability to anyone but myself ended with the Etruscan drinking songs," he agrees. "Even I can't remember how I tried to justify that as a necessary part of training. I wanted to teach Amanda and Mark, but hedonism can also be expressed practically. I enjoyed it. I didn't want to stop quite yet." He looks at Dean for a moment. "So I trained them both to do something I never planned to let them actually do--much less tell them the reason they were learning it--and made sure they were far too exhausted to ask me why. It worked very well."

"That's why you pulled them from duty when Joe started negotiations," Dean says in amusement. "You weren't just refreshing them. You had to actually tell them." He chuckles quietly. "Jesus, I would have loved to hear that conversation."

"Fortunately, they took it in stride," he admits, remembering Amanda's carefully blank expression. "Both of them had been in the field long enough that after observing them, I could add instruction in what before it was too dangerous for me to teach without Grace to protect us both. I was drilled very thoroughly to do it with very experienced hunters for that eventuality, but it's been years since then, and reflex--as Amanda rightfully pointed out--needs time to develop, and it takes time to relearn them as well. It's one of the most important parts of training, especially since very few are naturally gifted, but with time, anything can be taught. I assure you, constant monotonous drilling will do the job for anyone, even the most clumsy, and you've met Joseph."

Dean laughs softly. "He really was that bad?"

"Terrible. He tripped over his own feet, and sometimes, he wasn't actually moving when it happened. However, the earnest desire to learn--and Amanda's midnight tutorials--assured that he could see his own progress and kept him motivated to continue. She still works with him and Vera regularly, as well as the others here, and when I told Dean to put her in charge of evaluations, she could make it an order if they refused regular practice." He realizes abruptly that he's rambling; it's only when Dean takes the cup away that he realizes his hands are shaking too badly to get to his mouth, skin sticky. "I don't…."

"Okay, yeah." Setting the cup aside, Dean regards him for a long minute before an arm goes around his shoulders, pulling him into gratefully into the solid warmth of Dean's body. Distantly, he can feel Dean's soothing murmurs, though the words stubbornly refuse to resolve into anything he can understand, chin resting on top of his head in another point of warmth. "I get it."

"After all this time," he breathes against Dean's shirt, "she came to me for this. Why would she need me? I don't understand it, I gave her no reason--when I was done with them, I--how did she put it--"

"Get out there and good luck?" Dean murmurs helpfully.

"I don't understand humans."

"Like the love of God," Dean says with what sounds suspiciously like relish, "we passeth all understanding."

"That's a terrible adaptation."

"Yet true." One hand smoothes up the length of his back. "Weird about life, when you start actually living it. Sometimes, it sucks, but sometimes, it just wonders why it took you so long to catch up."

Chapter Text

--Day 138 A--

Ensconced in the middle of the couch under a blanket due to the fact that even this close to noon, the temperature now only barely reaches above freezing, Dean grimly continues his third re-read of the reports from Ichabod.

He began just after Amanda left at noon the previous day, and his mood, while not particularly cheerful, degenerated rapidly despite an impromptu trip to his shooting range that afternoon. Rage and grief resulted in the destruction of many, many, many targets until his right hand shook too badly to even hold a gun, fingers refusing to even close, and his left little better; for the first time, Castiel was forced to stop him before he did himself serious injury. Dean didn't even seem to notice as Castiel treating his blood-streaked palms, skin a mass of broken, oozing blisters between the bright swells of new ones growing beneath the developing calluses. Glancing at his still-bandaged hands, gauze wrapped up to his wrists, he looks away before Dean catches him; Dean may not have noticed the damage he'd done to his palms, but he never stopped looking at the half-healed outline of teeth just above the wrist until it was covered by the gauze, expression a mixture of blind rage and blank curiosity edged with uneasy fear.

Observation and carefully worded questions over the last four days have confirmed beyond any doubt that Dean doesn't remember anything from when he arrived on the second floor of the daycare to the moment Castiel entered the courtyard. After that is a blurred, inchoate mess that consists of snatches of his conversation with Castiel from his seat on Grant's dismembered body between spaces of uncertainty, becoming steadily more organized until the moment, crystal-clear despite being unspoken between them, that Dean told Castiel to shoot him.

His nights, however, are where he makes amends for what he can't do awake, punishing himself in endless, terror soaked nightmares that he can't remember in more than unformed impressions of revulsion and sickened pleasure taken in inflicting pain and his own endless horror. Private consultation with Amanda, who like Dean was raised to be a hunter from childhood, confirmed his own belief that if Dean's own mind, inured to horrors beyond anything most humans, even hunters, ever have to bear, felt it necessary to block it out, it was possible it had good reason to do it.

("I listened to the way he questioned everyone yesterday," she told him, glancing at the door every few minutes despite the fact that Joseph was keeping Dean occupied with very important business regarding his last trip to the border and wouldn't let him out of his sight until Amanda personally dropped by with a casual question to indicate it was safe for Dean to return home. "And I watched him while I was telling him about the daycare to see how he reacted. Cas, if there was something there to trigger, that should have done it. If he remembers on his own, that's one thing, but telling him the details to force it…"

"You're certain?"

"Nothing's certain in life, even death and taxes; it's always gonna be best guess now and hope for the best." Licking her lips, she met his eyes. "He knew Grant."

"I know--"

"You don't…" She looked away, taking a deep breath before looking at him again. "Grant was thirteen when his entire town was wiped out by Croat just before Kansas was zoned. His parents--they were picking up his baby sister from preschool on their way out of town when one of the teachers turned on her class, the one his sister was in." She paused, swallowing convulsively before continuing. "They got out, but not before--they were all infected and knew it. Grant was waiting in the car, though, he was still okay, so they told him they'd changed their minds, decided to lock up the house and wait it out.

"They took him home, locked him in their attic with all the food in the house and the bottled water they'd bought for when they left town, and told him they loved him and always would. They blocked all the windows and doors as best they could to protect him, used their truck to block the front door, and drove the car to the other side of town to kill themselves and her, just so he wouldn't have to hear the gunshots. It was only luck that Alison's group happened to check that town for livability and found him." She looked away, swallowing again. "He was in shock. Dolores had to put him on an IV, and Tony was force feeding him in a goddamn van for almost a week just to keep him alive before they found Ichabod."

In the infected zone, tragedy was the rule with painfully few exceptions, but its power somehow never seemed to lessen no matter how great the number. "I didn't know--"

"You couldn't," she interrupted, eyes suddenly filling with tears. "No one knew, not all of it, except Dolores, maybe. Grant never told them any more than what they could figure out for themselves--except Dean. And then he told me, because he wanted to know how old he had to be before he could start training for Chitaqua and be--be a hunter like Dean and help him save the world. So he could stop what happened to him--to all of them--from happening again."

Dean's amused anecdotes regarding Grant and Connie now have a different context. "Oh."

She wiped her eyes impatiently. "That demon would have killed Grant anyway, we both know that; the kind that goes in for human sacrifice make sure the meatsuit's fucked before they leave, voluntary or not. All Dean did was cut short what it would have made Grant do before it let him die. How Dean did it…." She shrugged helplessly. "Details. For now, if his mind thinks he shouldn't remember it, I'd say it knows better than we do what he can handle. Which I'm pretty sure you already figured out on your own."

"I wasn't sure I was being objective." He looked away, almost ashamed of admitting his own failure in his duty to Dean. He deserved the best, and Castiel's best will never do anything but fall far short.

"You aren't," she answered bluntly, closing a hand over his in unexpected reassurance. "You can't be; no one is, not when it comes to someone they love."

"It's my job to--"

"It's not your job to do everything," she interrupted, fingers squeezing his in emphasis. "It's your job to do what you can, know what and when you can't, and get help to get it done, and by the way, that's exactly what you just did. Congratulations on your leadership and your human skills," she added with a faint smile. "Even humans fuck up there, and I'm pretty sure that's one thing Dean's never learned himself."

Looking into the warm blue eyes, he realized he was smiling. "Thank you."

She smiled back. "Anytime.")

Ichabod's final count of casualties totaled sixty-nine: fifty-five adults and fourteen children (not including the seven adults who lived in Ichabod only to betray it). While tragic, the number is far lower than any town could have expected, a credit to Ichabod's strict protocols and experience, but Dean judges victory not in those who survived, but defeat in those who didn't. The names of the dead, like those of the team leaders that Dean didn't even known, are branded into his memory for all time, losses carried by a man for whom fault and responsibility are interchangeable at best.

Survival, however, always carries its own burdens, demanding payment for the privilege of living not limited to the grief for those that were lost. In a town that by necessity and choice required of its residents an intimacy unknown in even the smallest of towns before the Apocalypse, no one is exempt from paying it.

Sandar and Julio, the two members of patrol that were possessed when guarding the town center, are currently in Dolores' care, but despite few injuries, the psychological impact of possession always lingers, especially in those whose duty is to protect others from harm and were forced to cause it themselves.

Glen, Serafina, and Francisco, the only teachers to survive, were spared only the sight of the victims in the daycare, not the knowledge of what happened or how they died. Though the building was thoroughly cleaned and the damage repaired, reminders exist in the empty spaces in each classroom that was once a child, a teacher, an adolescent or adult on duty, in the parents who no longer appear to drop off their children each morning and pick them up in the evenings.

Three entire families lost their lives in the daycare that day; a mother and her two children; a father and his only daughter; and two women newly married the previous spring died on the first floor only moments after the human infiltrators succumbed to the Croatoan virus they'd deliberately allowed to infect them; the women's five year old son and two year old daughter were killed inches from the second floor stairs and safety. That may have been considered the kinder fate to some of those who survived and now lived the alternative.

Dwayne, six weeks from his third birthday and killed on the daycare's second floor before Dean's eyes, was the only child of his parents, who found Ichabod after fleeing the raiders who attacked their small town on the northern border of Kansas the year before. Del, only two days old when Castiel first visited Ichabod, was her mother's first and only child, born seven months after the death of her father in one of the last attacks on Ichabod before the barrier enclosed Kansas. Ten year old Jessica and her four year old brother Lian were found alive and uninjured in the locked kitchen pantry, their dead mother slumped across the doorway with a bloody butcher knife still clutched in one cold hand, the Croat she'd frantically half-butchered even as she died beside her; Dean was the one who put the bullets in its head that finally ended the weakened, mindless atrocities it was still committing to her dead body. Sandy, Una's five year old daughter, was among the last of the children to escape to the third floor as Una and her eldest son, fifteen year old Clark, blocked the stairs to protect them. Grant's birth parents may have been dead, but Dolores became as much his mother as the woman who bore him over the short years she'd had him, her contained grief no less for it being under such strict control as she continued in her duties to the town and the other survivors.

Ten grieving, bewildered children, brought to Ichabod as bait and now left alone in a town they barely know, live in a limbo of fear, loss, and uncertainty, victims of the most personal, most devastating kind of betrayal, the brutal violation of the trust invested in those given the gift and responsibility that comes with raising a child. If there's anything to be thankful for, it's their youth; only the oldest of them can even begin to grasp it, and Glenn and Serafina have worked tirelessly to shield them as best they could from what couldn't be hidden.

Amanda wasn't the only one who had the responsibility of ending the life of one of those infected; it was the duty of every leader in Ichabod to the people under their command. Manuel was the one to give Leanne, the only member of patrol who was infected, the shot that ended her life, and he and Teresa waited with her body and that of Hobby, who lost his life in the northern fields in defense of the town he loved. Tony took that duty for Jordan, a member of city services as well as a close, personal friend, who used his own body as a distraction in the northern fields to let the others escape in the few, too-long minutes before patrol arrived to protect them. Dry-eyed and tearless, Alison and Claudia stood witness with the other town leaders to the burning of the bodies from the moment the tinder caught until the ashes were placed within the town's cemetery under a layer of salt before they were covered in earth, a single large stone with the date of death above a painstakingly carved list of the names of those that died.

Like Dean, they don't see their success in those that survive, but failure in each and every death of those under their care.

(Some things couldn't be written, and even more shouldn't be, and not just for Dean's sake; those things were private, meant for no ears but those chosen to share it. In the bedroom that night, Amanda told him more, spilling words between sobbing breaths that described life in the wake of a tragedy that left no one untouched.

She volunteered for duty in the mortuary as one of the few who hadn't lost family by blood or choice and stood witness to the most intimate, most private moments of pain of those left behind; the agony of parents in silent vigil over their children, the children old enough to be allowed to do the same with and for their own parents and siblings, the extended families that gathered by each sheet-wrapped body, some having first waited out the short hours until the end with those infected from the other side of the fragile barrier of a pane of glass.

Cathy, Del's mother, had to be dragged screaming from the tiny bundle of her child's body, already half-unwrapped when they stopped her attempt to infect herself and is now being carefully watched and cared for by those in her building. The night before the bodies were burned, Connie evaded the watchers to see Grant one last time and had to be restrained by Amanda in her hysterical horror and grief at what was left of him until a shattered Dolores arrived to sedate her. Irrational from guilt and shock, Sandar escaped from the infirmary and broke into the mortuary to hold Leanne's sheet wrapped body in his arms under Manuel and Teresa's supervision the endless hours until he could carry it to the fire himself before he collapsed.

Amanda looked in vain for the faces of the four students she lost, feeling the shock of loss anew every time she couldn't find them. Her new students channeled their fierce grief channeled into learning everything she could teach them, burning out their pain in exhaustion on the training field each day, to honor the memory of those that they replaced. Jake and Peter were the two residents the demons possessed that he and Amanda killed; the grief-stricken families gave her without hesitation the absolution that she never would have asked them for, that couldn't and still can't give herself.)

Abruptly, Dean throws the report back on the coffee table, nearly knocking over a half-empty cup, coffee long grown cold. "This can't happen again."

From the other side, Castiel nods agreement to what they both know is true; this won't happen again. It will be a variety of different things, but apparently not quite yet.

"Surprised anyone could get through the barrier? It's getting weaker, Cas."

Jeffrey, six demons infecting over four hundred people with Croatoan for the attack on Ichabod, and that design in the courtyard that was purified by Teresa and Kamal. The laws of contamination should assure that anything left of the original was dissolved during the cleansing, breaking the tie with the children entirely if it existed at all. And yet….

This much has been confirmed, at least: when David and Melanie took the Croatoan body to an unoccupied portion of the border, there were results, though none of them quite know what to do with the information that the dead body burned to ash before their eyes when they finally decided just to throw it across and see what happened. Sometimes, Melanie said, still looking deeply unsettled, old school is best.

(Whatever that means. He's not certain any school in all of history recommended tossing Croatoans across state lines just to see what happened, but its effectiveness argues it definitely should have been.)

While he generally wouldn't extrapolate from so little information (or the words of a demon as incompetent as Jeffrey), at this point it's fairly obvious the barrier exists and is indeed the reason for the current hiatus in Kansas. Demons can somehow now cross it, however, because it's weakening. An experiment that confirmed absolutely nothing they didn't already know while providing nothing new, even the origin point of the power that fuels it (and for that matter, what powers it). It's not that he doesn't appreciate visual proof, but that's literally the only thing they didn't have before.

Amanda's report--with amendments and notes from Manuel as well as the others involved in the ongoing investigation--gave the current number of vehicles so far found at twenty-eight, including a retired school bus, two dilapidated minivans, and three vans. All those with plates were ones issued in Kansas, inspection stickers dating to three days before Kansas was declared infected. Searches of the interiors showed wear consistent with age and use, but far less bloodstains and far more intact upholstery than one might suspect from a vehicle that housed multiple Croatoans for any length of time. Only half of them had keys, the others showing signs of having been hotwired for use. The interior cabs as well as the trunks were otherwise immaculate; the minutia of trash, equipment, and personal items are absent, trunks empty even of a spare tire or tools and equipment generally found in vehicles in frequent use.

Castiel's familiarity with humans' relationship with their automobiles, both those in constant use and those left to rust, tells him these were deliberately stripped. If he were guessing (he's not, he's certain), that would include the missing license plates as well.

Ichabod's mechanical experts, Melody and Tyrone, are still in the process of examining the vehicles, but their initial findings are as confusing as the rest: many of the vehicles had engines that were barely serviceable, but some were brand new, as if taken from an empty dealership, and few showed signs of regular maintenance and very recent at that: oil changed within the last six months, sufficient brake and steering fluid, dashboards with signs of cleaning, engines repaired

The list of license plate numbers will be sent with Joseph on his next trip to the border, along with casual questions about any problems with people crossing either into or between the zones, but it's far more likely all of those infected were from somewhere within Kansas. It's not particularly limiting; the infected zone is dangerous, and acquisition would be both painfully easy and in some parts probably unremarked. People vanish every day from existing towns, and that doesn't include the migratory groups or the raiders who move restlessly between the infected states and whose exact numbers are unknown.

("Definitely not raiders," Amanda told them. "From what I've heard, they keep their vehicles in good repair and sometimes mount rockets on the roof, the better to hit and run. Ichabod didn't have much of a problem with them, but Mount Hope's practically on top of 96; they got hit regularly before the alliance with the other towns and still get a couple of outliers every few months."

"You're kidding," Dean said blankly. "You're not. Rockets?" Then, "You want an SUV with a rocket launcher on the roof, don't you?"

"I do, and so do you," she answered serenely. "Sheila's working on specs right now from all those military vehicles we stole--uh, repurposed since the military didn't need them anymore."

Dean looked at him helplessly, but Castiel couldn't deny that he would indeed like a rocket launcher mounted on the roof of his jeep. And a minigun as well, so as to kill Croats by the legion from the convenience of the driver's seat: who wouldn't want that?)

"Cas? You with me?"

Making an effort, he returns his attention to Dean; from his expression, he's been failing to get his attention for several minutes and it's done nothing to improve an already terrible mood. He almost misses the resigned inevitability of a future ice age without generators and megafauna bent on consumption of human flesh; Dean's bitterness fills each extended silence far more loudly than his anger. He supposes he should be grateful; it could have been absent, after all, and Dean as well, ended with the bullet he requested that Castiel place in his head.

"This--Cas, tell me it's a coincidence," Dean continues. "Nothing for months, then we go to Ichabod and suddenly they're under attack?"

"It wasn't our presence there that attracted them." That demon's surprise was genuine when it saw him, which is curious in itself, considering that the one that spoke to Manuel identified him as leader of Chitaqua. He doesn't think 'Cas' or 'Castiel' is that common a name on earth, much less Kansas, and he's definitely the only one in Chitaqua. "They wouldn't have risked that attack with so few demons if they'd suspected anyone from Chitaqua was present. Especially if they meant to accomplish a complete human sacrifice without interruption, which is probably why they needed so many Croats to provide a distraction."

A very sensible precaution, especially considering these were demons and 'sensible' generally isn't a characteristic they possess. With most forms of human sacrifice, any interruption, even the most benign, ends in failure at best, often killing those performing it in the process as well as the sacrifices in question. The rules are very strict, and those exclusively devoted to the acquisition of power are even more so, but all of them have three things in common: each human must satisfy the strictest interpretation of the criteria, the time to perform it is limited, and once it's begun, it must be completed all at once or it fails.

Using children isn't uncommon, no, but the criteria for inclusion is never that general, and their range of ages makes even the general suspect; ten years old, after all, is well past the traditional age of reason. The oldest of them has already entered puberty, and whether or not her body has achieved menarche, she wouldn't satisfy even the loosest interpretation of 'child' when it comes to stringent requirements of any form ritual magic.

"Six is a few?" Dean asks incredulously, interrupting his thoughts, then makes a face, possibly remembering he and Amanda killed three themselves with minimal effort. To be fair, however--he doesn't have to be, of course, but he can be generous--their combat skills were truly terrible. "Never mind, I withdraw the question. Look--"

"I need a day, perhaps two," he interrupts before having to work through whatever caustic commentary Dean happens to have at hand to deploy at his pleasure. "I need to go the church where the children were originally found two years ago and see if I can discover what happened there. If it was a human sacrifice, then perhaps--"

"You think they were trying again in Ichabod after failing the first time at that church with the same kids? Why? Dean snorts. "They couldn't have been that stupid. Why not use the people they infected for Croat duty instead of attacking a goddamn town to get those kids again?" Still scowling, he reaches for Amanda's report and skims to the relevant portion for this conversation and pausing, scowl fading. "Amanda asked good questions."

"She knew I'd want more information and since I wasn't there to get it, she did it for me." Amanda was succinct but thorough on the major points, and during quarantine, he supposes the distraction might have been welcome to everyone involved. "At least, more information than I already seem to have."

Dean doesn't look up. "What?"

"Fifteen children, ages two and a half weeks to ten years and four months, were found in a rural Roman Catholic church that housed thirty-five members of order of the Sisters of Mercy, one novice to the order, and a priest." Dean looks up, startled. "The only survivor other than the children was the novice, a young woman, aged twenty-four, who was completing her apostolic year in the novitiate and preparing for her first profession. The Sisters were crucified on the church walls by demons who possessed the priest and four lay members of the church and were engaged in ritual human sacrifice that was stopped by means as yet unknown, but it's possible that part is simply delayed and will appear at any moment. Give me time."

Dean slowly lowers the report. "How do you--"

"I don't know how I know any of that," he interrupts flatly. "Or why, until the attack on Ichabod, I didn't even know that I knew it."

There's more, of course; Amanda's report was startling not in content, but in how little he seemed to already know as he read it, more pieces appearing as from the ether and clicking into place with every word. The novice was near-catatonic and either unable or unwilling to tell them what happened or even her own name before she recovered enough to regain mobility and vanished from the infirmary one night despite the watchers who swore they'd been awake the entire night and never saw her leave until dawn broke to illuminate her empty bed. Alison wasn't able to describe her knife very thoroughly, as the novice refused to release it, but he didn't need it to know every detail of what she carried or why she wouldn't let it be taken from her hands, and he can easily guess why she was able to evade her watchers so easily. The problem is that particular knife shouldn't exist on this plane, not anymore.

"Infinite knowledge that you just didn't find it until--yeah, didn't think so." Dean glances at the report one more time before setting it aside, green eyes suddenly focusing on him with visible worry. "Cas? What's wrong?"

What's wrong. "I--" He can't find the words to explain; they all sound like lies. "I don't know how I--why--"

"Hey, hey, stop it. Come here." Obediently, Castiel gets to his feet to join Dean on the couch, almost immediately gaining half the blanket as well as Dean's entire attention. "You okay?"

Smoothing his hand over the soft wool, he tries to organize his thoughts to something approaching coherency. "I'm not sure where to start."

"Anywhere you want," Dean says promptly, inching closer--to keep his share of the blanket, he supposes--before turning sideways and bracing an arm on the back of the couch. "Just start and we'll go from there."

Strangely enough, that actually does help. "Human sacrifice has a distinct pattern and angels would recognize it in all its many, many obscene variations, but the design in the courtyard--I recognized it for what it was, but I didn't remember it being in existence until that moment. That's not possible unless it went into use after I Fell and the Host left or it would have been known to me from the moment of my creation."

Dean accepts the variability of infinite knowledge with a resigned nod. "So it's new?"

"Yes, and that's very rare and therefore troubling in itself," he explains. "For one, it's not easy to hide something like that from Time itself. For another, Hell doesn't encourage innovation. I'd expect a human practitioner of the darker aspects of ritual magic to come up with something new--they do that as a matter of course, a solution for boredom, I suppose, though generally they kill themselves in the process of failing at it since knowledge is always lacking--but a demon, no. The rack and eternal suffering tend to have a dulling effect on creativity, and what little they might still exhibit isn't encouraged by their masters, unless it results in new ways to inflict pain on the rack, of course."

"Can't risk demons getting above themselves, yeah." Dean studies him thoughtfully. "That's not the part that's bothering you, though."

"It bothers me, it's simply lost among the many other things about this that bother me more," he answers. "I didn't remember the church until I asked Amanda about Lily's vaccinations. When I saw the design in the courtyard, I recognized it, but not just the pattern of human sacrifice and not just that it was new to all of Creation. I also remembered it, the unique configuration of symbols that made it despite the fact that I have no memory of ever seeing it before that day."

Dean sucks in a breath in belated understanding of the distinction. "You don't forget anything."

"I can't forget anything," he corrects Dean. "I remember everything that's ever happened to me since I Fell, and nothing--and take this as a given, I do mean nothing in Creation--can affect infinite memory from when I was an angel. The only explanation that fits is that not only did it come into existence after I Fell, but I witnessed not just it's use in that church, but it's first use on earth in all of time and somehow--forgot about it. And this," he adds for emphasis, "isn't something I would have voluntarily attempted not to think about."

"Right, so let's start there." He cocks his head. "Who--or what--could fuck you’re your memory? And for that matter, why?"

"For the first--that is a more complex question than you might think." Dean's eyebrows jump. "From what Alison told Amanda, this occurred over two and a half years ago--though due to their own problems, the exact date is vague--and since I know it happened after I Fell, the Host would have already been gone. Even if they'd been here….if Lucifer, the most powerful archangel in existence, couldn't read my mind as I am now, I seriously doubt the Host could manage to erase any portion of it."

"Or care enough about earth to even try on the way out the door." Dean's mouth quirks briefly at his emphatic nod. "So next up…."

"My Father," not adding 'obviously' in the spirit of open and non-hostile communication. "However, in this case, there's another possible candidate: a god. However--"

"A god," Dean repeats blankly. "A god could fuck with your memory? Any god?"

He hesitates. "Not any god, no. But--"

"So this might have happened before they all--died, ran, were killed?"

"No, it definitely happened before then." The knife is fairly convincing proof of that much.

Dean starts to say something, then frowns. "You know, I never asked--how did you know about that, anyway? Them all dying or whatever?"

"Cosmic events tend to attract attention, and the gods vanishing from existence all at once qualifies without exception."

Dean snorts. "So a god might be able to fuck with your memory?"

"In my true form, or even in a vessel, it's possible, but only in the sense that anything is possible, but extraordinarily unlikely, and not just due to the amount of power that would take or the fact they probably wouldn't survive it. Call it a courtesy between infinite beings: generally, we're discouraged from anything less than outright warfare to the death, and it's fairly rare that there's any reason for confrontation. Different spheres of interest, you might say."

"And now?"

"If Lucifer couldn't read my mind, then they couldn't either," he answers. "And certainly not like this; they wouldn't even know how."

Dean leans forward. "What do you mean 'like this'?"

This is more difficult to explain. "I can't forget anything, but you have to understand what that means. Think of it as someone writing on a blank sheet of paper and then erasing a portion; that portion would be blank, but you'd still notice where the words were on the page. Even if--in theory--a god could remove those memories, they couldn't remove the space that those memories occupied any more than you can on a sheet of paper. I would notice a blank space where something should be, and there isn't one." Not looking at Dean, he forces himself to continue. "If I actively participated, however, that would be different. Because my memories are now formed organically and in linear time, they're stored sequentially, past to present. All I'd need to do is take them out of the sequence so they wouldn't appear in my past."

"And the blank spot?"

"There wouldn't be one, because the memories still exist; to find them now, I'd need to know exactly where to look, the absolute last moment before they were removed as well as the absolute first moment after, and then look between those two points or I'll miss it."

"And when you say 'exact'…."

"Even if those two points were in the same minute, in linear time it would take me centuries of interrupted time to examine each and every point of time within sixty seconds to find the absolute beginning and end, and even then, I'd need to find both points at the exact same time or I'd still miss it." Honesty forces him to add, "Dean, I couldn't manage doing that for ten minutes. Imagine examining your life in slow motion, and 'slow' being an insufficient descriptor of the progress by several orders of magnitude."

"Holy shit," Dean says, looking horrified. "Talk about boring--"

"Whoever said you can't die from boredom, they're lying, and if I do that, I can prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt." Shaking himself, he returns to the original subject. "Gods--and for that matter, angels--exist out of time, but more importantly, they don't understand human memory, much less how it's stored in linear time. I certainly didn't until I was subject to it, which is why I'm the only one who would even know what to do, much less how to do it." He looks at Dean. "However, I don't have Grace, and to do this, I'd need power that I could use. A god could supply that, provided they were willing to do it, and I was willing to let them."

Dean's sheer lack of surprise is almost as reassuring as it is baffling "Weirdly enough," he offers, seeing Castiel's bewilderment, "I kind of saw that coming. Keep going."

"A god who let me use their power--and who I'd accept it from, even under duress--narrows down the possibilities dramatically," he continues, reluctantly filing it away as yet another example of the ineffableness that is Dean Winchester, which are now greater than the largest number humanity has found a word to describe. "And there's only one whose most distinctive weapon was a knife that could kill demons and couldn't be removed from its bearer except by their own will."

"The one the novice had with her," Dean says in satisfaction. "Yeah, I was wondering why the hell they couldn’t get it away from her. So that knife--"

"It was the weapon of choice of her acolytes as well, who were, in case this sounds familiar, exclusively women who vowed themselves to her in divine service."

"Service--humility, poverty, feed the poor, help the helpless--"

"--and slaughtering demons with the knives they carried, as well as anything supernatural that threatened humanity. Mostly the latter, however." Dean's mouth drops open. "Her cult was an exclusively militant one: very small but extremely dangerous. They had a very high rate of success in their area of influence."

"A cult," Dean says slowly, like Castiel just offered him a wrapped gift holding everything he ever wanted, including an endless supply of bacon cheeseburgers and pie, "of knife-wielding women who kill demons for fun and their goddess? Where the fuck was that in history class?"

"Perhaps you slept through it during sophomore year?" he offers wryly. "Her cult died out before the fall of Babylon, and in case you slept through this as well, at that point in history written records were rare, and literacy even more so."

"You knew her, though. Got a name for me?"

"She doesn't have one."

Dean closes his eyes briefly, looking pained. "Of course she doesn't. Too easy, right?"

"At least, not one I know anymore," he continues, which makes Dean sigh his resignation to the universe making his life more difficult than it should be. "When her cult died, she destroyed her temples and disavowed her known names as well as her true one, effectively erasing her existence on this plane unless she took another one first, which is apparently exactly what she did. What it is, however, I doubt anyone knew but her. Privilege of a god: even angels aren't permitted to access the full knowledge of their former names without their consent, which is one of the reasons that Gabriel was so successful in hiding what he was after he became Loki."

Dean's interest sharpens. "Can't get a lot of worshippers like that."

"She wouldn't have done all of that if she still wanted them," he answers. "I don't know why she disavowed her true name, but it probably proved very useful when Lucifer began his purge. It's very hard to find a god in time and space without a name and no active worshippers, especially when the only point of reference is a very short period of time--by divine standards, in any case--millennia ago. As Lucifer probably discovered, hopefully much to his frustration, as he deals very badly with that."

"All things on this plane have names, yeah, I remember." Dean cocks his head. "You didn't just know her, did you? What was she--friend, friendly ally, chaotic neutral--"

"My very first instructor in hunting in a human body on earth." He bites back a smile at Dean's surprise. "Or rather, of two of my vessels, who housed me during my assignments on earth then."

Dean glances outside, eyeing the sun an hour short of its zenith, then sheds his blanket of misery--both metaphorical and literal--like an ill-fitting skin, stretching absently. "Joe's got nothing to do until Ana gets back to him about how to blow up that warehouse or his next border run, so he can watch the camp while we're gone. We leave now, we can probably make it a couple of hours before dusk, but just in case--"

"You want to come." He's not sure why he's surprised. What happened in that church in the past not only caused the attack on Ichabod, but could be a precursor of something yet to come. "I'll speak to Joseph," he says, standing up belatedly. "Do you want me to--"

"Cas, you're not doing this on your own, and--look, you want someone else, too fucking bad, it's me or you're not going." He watches Dean's expression abruptly change, belligerence becoming--he has no idea. "Uh, if this is about--look, I get we really haven't talked about--you know, what happened."

Castiel stares at him for a moment and decides not to even try; at his best, it could take days to decipher that, and he'd like to arrive at the church today. "Dean, the number of things that have happened that we haven't talked about is legion. Even if we only count from this morning--"

"When we were--" Dean's face goes through various contortions, all of which resemble pain. "In Ichabod. I told you to shoot me, you--you didn't like that," that would be one word for it, he supposes blankly, but only if there were no other words in all of existence, in which case he would have invented all of them then and there, "and things were said….whatever. Look, just take as a given, I get that was you were upset."

Castiel nods, trying to decide the number of syllables for the word he's inventing at this very moment, because 'understatement' has the same relevance when applied to this conversation as 'didn't like' describes to his reaction to Dean's demand that he shoot him and 'upset' his feelings at the time. It may very well require an entirely new language, or in lieu of that, a very carefully controlled punch to Dean's face; it could go either way.

"Yes," he agrees when he realizes that Dean's actually waiting for his answer. "I was."

Dean starts to relax, like someone having successfully navigated a minefield without certainty they would emerge unscathed: the idea of two punches in succession grows almost unbearably attractive. It's not as if the camp doesn't have an icemaker should the freezer not contain sufficient ice to deal with the copious swelling.

"Not a problem," Dean tells him, emanating reassurance and sincerity like a cologne experiment gone hideously wrong. "Just forget it, okay? I don't want this to be weird."

Weird. That word again.

"Would it be--weird," he asks, staring into Dean's eyes, "if I was engaged in a fit of hyperbole that day or if I were being both literal and breathtakingly honest?" The utter horror that stares back at him is almost as good as three punches followed by an ice bath and a diet exclusively devoted to oatmeal without sugar and canned lima beans. "Whichever is less so, you tell me."

Dean visibly swallows before saying, "You get Joe, I get armed, and we don't talk about it ever again, how's that?"

"Good. Remain in the cabin until I return," he adds on his way to the door. "I'm checking you thoroughly before we leave, so make sure you're fully armed, which includes carrying sufficient ammunition. This is a test, and if you fail, I'll be arming you myself every time you leave this camp for the foreseeable future."

"You can't--"

"Yes I can." Pausing halfway out the door, he has the satisfaction of watching Dean's mouth snap shut. "But please, if you have any doubts, feel absolutely free to make me prove it."

"Why," asks Dean, two hours and twenty-two minutes later, "do you always have to drive?"

There's a sense of honest bewilderment in his voice. It's almost surreal. "It's my jeep."

"Could have taken mine."

Yes, they could have, which has been pointed out at least eight times since they left the garage, each time in response to Castiel's answer to his question on why Castiel had to drive. That means that they've had the same conversation an average of every seventeen and three quarters minutes, and the last four he's fairly sure have consisted of exactly the same words.

"We took mine," he answers--now five times using the exact same words, maybe he should set a goal--and Dean returns to pondering the unsolvable mystery of why Castiel prefers to drive, expressing the winter of his discontent to the passing scenery.

He double checked the route on the latest updates to the maps from the patrol before they left, so very soon, a clean stretch of highway will appear, the pleasures of which even Dean can't deny but will inevitably hasten the next reiteration of why Castiel is driving and he isn't (possibly requiring him to recalculate a new average, that's something to look forward to, he supposes). The reason why he likes to drive should be blindingly obvious by now, or their average speed during their drives together should have suggested at very least.

Deciding the scenery isn't that interesting after all--overgrown fields, the occasional rusting car, some terrible road maintenance, sometimes a small abandoned town--and possibly feeling it's not yet time to reiterate the topic of why Castiel drives so soon, Dean returns his attention to Castiel to ask, "Why did those demons go after a convent of nuns and kids in the first place? Virginity get you a higher octane sacrifice or something?"

"That's assuming--wrongly--that only virgin women take orders; in case this wasn't obvious, that's often the exception, not the rule. Chasity is a requirement of service, but certainly doesn't extend to the time before they took orders." Uneasily, he starts to wonder just how often Dean slept during history class. "In any case, a virginity requirement is generally a drawback when it comes to any ritual magic, especially human sacrifice in pursuit of gaining power Those that do require it are rarely used unless it's the only option, and even more rarely are they successful. What defines 'virginity' can be subject to a surprising amount of interpretation and can vary by culture due to the differences in terminology as well as period of time. The corruption of presumed purity via sexual congress, willing or not, is most often simply a revolting perk."

Dean grimaces. "I really didn't need to know that."

"I'd prefer not to know it either, but I don't have a choice," he answers truthfully. "As sexual purity is, for some less unthinkable rituals, a very strictly define requirement, the inverse would be preferred for human sacrifice. In this case, it was probably their presumed vulnerability. A group of cloistered women, part of an order emphasizing service and humility would seem--"

"Easy pickings." Dean's sour expression deepens. "Son of a bitch."

"They weren't as easy as that, if what little Alison learned from the young woman and traders was accurate. The surviving woman was a novice to the Sisters of Mercy, an order founded on service with an emphasis on helping women and children. This particular convent, however, apparently took that in a unique direction in fulfilling their calling after Lucifer was freed from the Cage; they became hunters, and their service included finding and rescuing families as well as orphaned children, and they went into the world armed to do it. I'm going to guess that they made life very inconvenient for demons here."

"Sounds familiar," Dean says, looking at him speculatively. "Huh. You think that's why your goddess may have been there? That doesn't make sense. They weren't hers, so why would she care?"

"In this case, it wouldn't have mattered if they were hers," he tells Dean's skeptical expression. "You could say as a god that was her--purpose. If she'd known about an attack on a convent--or any enclave of women given to divine service--it would have attracted her attention, especially ones founded to help women and who fought demons as part of the terms of their service, no matter when it happened in time or what god they served."

"I'm not seeing it." Dean's cynicism radiates almost visibly from the other side of the cabin. "We're nothing to them but food, sometimes literally. They don't even see us."

Castiel thinks of what Alison told him: life lived in quantum. A very intelligent and insightful observation, especially from a woman who disclaimed any knowledge of angels. Amanda's report wasn't clear on the reason why the town investigated that particular church, though he suspects it was probably been as a result of either Alison's clairvoyance or possibly Teresa's bond with the earth, either of which would explain Alison's reticence. Their relationship would make Alison personally ambivalent regarding disclosures that might threaten Teresa's life, even to trusted allies who she knew were already aware of Teresa's abilities, and the same would be true of Teresa regarding Alison.

Teresa would have done her best to isolate the contamination of the earth at the church even if she couldn't break the bindings then. Even as strong as she is, a human sacrifice would be dangerous for her to attempt to cleanse alone, and she would have weighed the corruption of the earth against her duty to the people of Ichabod and the earth there. It makes him wonder if that was, at least in part, among her reasons for sharing her knowledge with Neeraja and Sudha, even given the difficulties far greater than simple translation.

Bruja blanca, white witch, is a general term describing any witch who followed the path of good, but Teresa came from a very specific tradition encompassing not simply doing good, but seeking out evil and destroying it; as Dean had pointed out, her job description and his had many similarities.

Dean's, however, didn't come with the strict, merciless training that began in early childhood and continued throughout apprenticeship, unforgiving of weakness and uncertainty, tested and tempered and shaped to bear the responsibilities of the power they would wield and pay the price it would exact without hesitation. The ability to enslave the very earth isn't one that can be entrusted to anyone who would ever imagine doing it, and that was only one of the things Teresa could do; to share even a little of her knowledge with anyone not raised from birth in her traditions would be dangerous enough, but outsiders who embraced them with whole hearts and minds would always be accepted. Neeraja and Sudha are neither of those things, and her choice to teach them any part of what she did was one of faith and desperate hope; hope that it would be enough to save them all, and faith that whatever qualities had made her choose them would be proven true when they were tested.


Frowning, he returns his attention to the subject at hand. "It's not as simple as that."

Dean's expression tells him what he thinks of that as an argument; the problem is, he's not wrong, and his experiences may be subjective, but they aren't unique. It's also an opinion that he's begun to share; what he accepted without question as an angel on the nature of the divine and its rights on this plane has undergone a revision, and possibly one far less forgiving than even Dean could be. Unlike Dean or any human, the unfathomable isn't a mystery to him, and the longer he lives on this world, the more he thinks the protections inherent to humanity have depended far too much on good intentions and good faith. Knowing the rules would help them a great deal, he reflects idly; that would probably be the reason they've always been denied that knowledge.

"Gods have a bond with their worshippers," he says, testing the idea. "It's not one sided, it can't be, any more than an object dropped can defy gravity. There's a price that comes with accepting worship, and it must be paid."

"Never noticed it slowing them down fucking with us."

"Humans possess free will; gods, like angels, don't. They only have purpose, and that purpose defines them." Dean blinks, looking at him in dawning surprise and something like approval, but why, he's not sure. "A god requires worship--it's why they exist--but to accept it is as binding a contract as any a human makes with a demon, and the terms are far less forgiving."

Dean nods, still smiling faintly. "Huh."

"There is no negotiation; the terms were set before Time began, and those terms are unbreakable." He doesn't fight the smile now; Dean will appreciate this. "Even Gabriel found that out the hard way. He enjoyed being a trickster, yes, but that was simply good fortune. Once he presented himself as Loki and took human worship in that form, he was bound to it as long as his worshippers existed on this earth. And that's only one of the terms."

Dean's grin takes on an edge of pleased malice, and he finds himself thinks of his own counterpart again, this time with a sense of unreality; he had to have known what it would mean to try and claim Creation itself and accept the worship of all humanity. The limitations of an angel are nothing to those that bind a god; even dimly, he must have guessed how much he would lose.

"It's a contract in that sense, but it's strict and unambiguous in interpretation, and the penalty for consciously breaking it is far, far worse," he continues, shoving thoughts of that Castiel away. "Either way, the penalty is identical." Dean cocks his head, curious. "An eternity in Hell would be a far kinder fate for a god who breaks faith with their followers than that. They'd kill themselves to avoid it."

Dean straightens, startled. "That why some of them did it here? Instead of fighting for their worshippers or running away, they killed themselves?"

"Lucifer was the first archangel of Heaven with all of Hell under his command. They couldn't hope to defeat him." He pauses, considering his answer carefully. "Taking service with Lucifer would not, specifically, break their contract--an oversight I still have yet to understand--but to some of them, I think--they could have fought yes, but defeat in battle has its own rules."

"Spoils of war," Dean says, expression hardening. "He'd get their worshippers?"

"It's possible, even if an angel, technically speaking, shouldn't be able to claim them. Kali, for one, wouldn't have taken the risk; she'd burn her own temples to the ground and destroy her name and self to be certain he couldn't touch them once she was gone." Dean's skepticism increases. "The bond with worshippers includes love, however it may be defined, however it might be twisted, and love is neither kind nor merciful. But they could be those things for those followers; out of love, they might have chosen their own destruction rather than take service with Lucifer or fight him and risk what would happen to their worshippers when they lost. It would be the one way, perhaps the only way, to free their followers from any possibility of becoming slaves and unwitting agents of humanity's annihilation."

"So your goddess--who doesn't have worshippers or a name and hasn't even been around in almost forever--you think she got involved in this because those women were doing her purpose?" Dean asks doubtfully.

"That knife guarantees her presence; more importantly, the novice couldn't have wielded it unless she was acting as avatar or vessel of her divinity on earth. What I don't know is how they could possibly have elicited her attention at all, especially considering her absence from this entire plane. They were Christian nuns; while the Roman Catholic church does keep track of gods," he pauses for Dean's shock; eliciting that has become a very enjoyable habit, "her cult wasn't even in existence any longer when Rome was founded, much less the Church. If there are records of her anywhere in existence, I don't know about them, and without knowing her name, she wouldn't have heard them."

"You're a record, kind of," Dean points out. "No, I get it; no name she recognizes now, so wouldn't help even if there were records. Okay, so this is what we have: a nameless pagan goddess showing up to smite the fuck out of some demons who were killing women whose divine service included killing demons, and she used a random novice to do it." Catching Castiel's expression, he sighs. "Next you're going to tell me it's not random."

"It's random, as much as someone fit to be an angelic vessel." Dean sighs noisily. "Which means it's not random at all. The line of descent would have to be from one of those worshippers who bore children while in her service. She didn't choose maidens, only women, but they didn't interact with men, often for very, very good reasons, not least of which was the reason why they were no longer maidens."

Dean blows out a breath, looking grim. "So not many?"

"There were some, of course; she had no objection to her worshippers marrying or bearing offspring, but they were a very small cult. In that much, a portion of the current population would qualify, but there's also this; this woman survived being an avatar of a goddess, and relatively intact if what Alison remembers is accurate."

"Even archangels can't manage to pull that off," Dean observes caustically. "Or just don't want to?"

"I don't know," he admits under the weight of Dean's judgment. "The only thing that is required of us is to gain consent."

"So archangels are bigger dicks than I thought." Sitting back, Dean turns his gaze to the passing scenery, but the feeling doesn't lessen. "I didn't even know that was possible. They don't have to, so they don't fucking bother."

Castiel makes a conscious effort to loosen his hold on the steering wheel.

"When given the choice, gods will almost always choose someone that can hold them without permanent damage," he says. "They make an effort to assure there's at least one person living at any given time who qualifies in that respect. It's not a break of faith to choose otherwise, but in memory, I can't think of one who did so when not under extreme duress."

"Because that's love: not destroying them, just taking over their bodies and their lives," Dean snorts. "So what would this goddess need for her perfect vessel?"

"A non-virgin woman of unbroken female descent from one of her worshippers."

Dean whistles softly. "So that's really specific. Why?"

"She was--when her cult was founded, she was only one aspect of a much more powerful goddess." Dean's expression goes from surprised to bewildered to interested in turn. "For lack of a better term, she--separated herself and became an fully independent entity instead of merely a facet of the whole."

"Gods can do that?" Dean asks curiously. "That happen a lot?"

"All the time; that's one of the ways the number of gods increase. They simply don't often succeed." Dean nods slowly, mind filing that away as he does everything else he learns for later follow-up. "She was effectively a new god on earth, and like all the gods, she had to start from the beginning and establish the foundation of the bloodlines from those who chose to worship her. There were restrictions, and she never gained enough power from worship to expand the scope of potential vessels."

"Are there any left?"

"When I Fell, there were six women living who qualified, and two women and three children who could potentially do so," he answers immediately.

Dean's eyebrows jump. "Small cult, few kids, but eleven potential avatars?'

"An advantage of being a potential vessel for a god--or for that matter, an angel--is that as long as they exist--and she did still exist--potential divinity does somewhat skew the odds of survival to bear appropriate issue in their favor." He grins at Dean's expression. "Angels and gods can also make humans lucky, you might say."

"No shit. How do you know that, anyway?" Dean demands, waving a hand as he opens his mouth. "No, I get it, infinite knowledge, but usually it takes you time to find shit like that now. Spend a lot of time searching your memory lately? When?"

"Oh." He wonders if this is what 'uncomfortable' feels like. "It's different when it's knowledge I actively--sought for myself."

Dean sits back. "You tracked her bloodlines? All this time?"

"I also followed the those that would produce potential vessels I could use," he counters. "Keeping track of the various bloodlines on earth might be considered the closest thing to a hobby in the Host and among the gods; everyone did it. Those families with the potential to bear archangelic vessels were very popular subjects, as were those who were fit for use by the more powerful gods. Not to mention," he adds temptingly in the face of Dean's interest, "their habit of procreating with their followers, which considerably shortened the process of acquiring acceptable vessels. Zeus's propensity to impregnate anything that qualified as living with a lack of particularity on how or in what form should be explanation enough. His potential vessels can be found in most of the animal kingdom, if you're curious."

"Like squirrels? Seriously, how--" Dean makes a visible effort and stops himself before focusing on Castiel speculatively. "Right, this was your Friday night in Heaven, sounds great. But your goddess has been off the radar for a while, and you said she wasn't very powerful in the first place."

"Oh, she was powerful," Castiel corrects him. "As an aspect of a god, upon separation, she was all that they were when they were first created. When I say separated, it might be more accurate to say 'rebelled'."

Inexplicably, Dean starts to smile. "Your buddy was a rebel goddess? You don't say."

"She was successful in her rebellion--again, translation is somewhat wanting in this case--so she lost nothing. As far as personal power is concerned, she was a perfect--much younger, for value of 'younger' when it comes to infinity--replica of the goddess she separated from. She simply didn't supplement it from gaining a large following to offer worship, which is a different kind of limitation."

"Were you watching to see if she came back?"

Cas focuses on the stretch of road before them; potholes do terrible things to the undercarriage. "She gave up not just her followers but her own name; gods don't come back from that." From the corner of his eye, he sees Dean's eyes narrow curiously. "Two of my vessels served in her temple and bore female issue after entering her service, and three of the women and one of the children who could act as her avatar were among their descendants. One of them I was considering as a vessel before I chose Jimmy, and she was extremely attractive. I often wondered if you would have responded better if I'd come to you in a female vessel instead of male."

Dean smirks at him, frustratingly undistracted. "You're allowed to say it's personal and you don't want to talk about it." The smirk widens annoyingly. "And admit it's personal and not about freaky angel hobbies."

"It wasn't personal," he answers shortly. "I was just a soldier in the Host, Dean, not an archangel; to us, there was no concept of personal. My contact with her through my vessels made her of interest, but that was true for any contact the Host had with the gods."

"Like Gaius in the Grove," Dean answers, sitting back and turning his gaze to the windshield. "That was just a mission, nothing personal."

"That was different. His mother summoned me by name, and Anael was insistent…." He knows from the faint uptick at the corner of Dean's mouth that he lost something, though what, he's not sure. "What do you want me to say? You remember how I was when we met; as I was then, I was always. I didn't think like that."

Dean crosses his arms. "So you're saying I changed you?" Before he can answer, he adds, "Frustration. You told me once before you met me, you had no--what do you call it, 'concept' of that."

"Yes. I'm feeling it right now, in fact."

"You never felt it before or just didn't know what it was called?" Dean challenges. "Sound of one hand clapping, Cas; think about it. So," he adds, turning to face the windshield and bracing a foot on the immaculately maintained dashboard as if entirely unaware how long it takes to remove scuff marks without damaging the vinyl, "how much longer until we get there?"

"Another hour at most," he answers uneasily, trying not to look at Dean's boot drag across the vinyl a full inch before stopping again. "You can't clap with one hand."

"And if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?" Dean smiles in satisfaction. "Tell me what you come up with. I always wondered about that myself."

From the outside, the church itself looks untouched, but that might be relative, since it's also the only building left standing.

There were five others at one time, if the crumbling remains of the foundations half-buried in dry, dusty earth are any indication, making a square around what was once perhaps a walled garden or courtyard. The convent itself, of course; the priest's home, depending on how literal the rules of the order or how they strictly they kept them; a guest house, possibly, though there's no way to be certain; and a surprise in a small country parish, the remains of what he thinks might have once been a small school and attached dormitory for its students. Despite the passage of time and decay, their original architecture is noticeably more modern and utilitarian, as if added quickly and without attempting to match the other buildings. Preparing for the future, perhaps from the moment Lucifer was freed from his cage: the mystery is how on earth they could have known short of clairvoyance. The Host certainly didn't bother to offer them divine revelation on ongoing events, considering how little even the Host was permitted to know.

Looking at the once-neat grounds, he wishes he could have met the priest assigned to this parish. He would have been the one who authorized and encouraged this radical departure from the traditional duties of the Sisters of Mercy for this convent as well as possibly the construction of that school Preparation, defense, education, gaining training and weapons for the women to fulfill their calling, and sending them into the world with his blessing and support. A man with this kind of mind should have had the attention of the Host from the moment of his birth, the women here cared for and offered strength and support in their work.

They weren't; a single convent, a single man, in a small parish in rural Kansas were far too small for the Host to care enough to even see.

"Cas?" Dean shuts the door and circles the jeep, coming to his side on the edge of the road, eyes flickering over the crumbling remains and focusing on the presumed school "Dude, a Catholic school out here?"

"Zachariah much preferred the period before the Enlightenment," he hears himself say. "Knowledge was why you were throw out of the garden--metaphorically speaking--but that also made it your birthright to acquire, and that was always discouraged. It was far easier to manipulate those whose faith was untouched by knowledge; they don't ask why, and if they do, they accept answers no matter how inane without question."

Dean looks at him quizzically. "Not a surprise, knowing Zack."

"Father Francis was a Jesuit; they believe in education, in the spread of knowledge, and this convent benefited from that. These women were warriors of the Lord," he answers bitterly. "Here, in this place, they fought for five years against demons after Lucifer rose, and we never saw them. I was training hunters in Georgia, and I didn't even--"


"Infinite knowledge," he spits out. "All I had to do was look, and I didn't. It was--they were too small. It wasn't important enough for me to even bother."

"Maybe," Dean says quietly, hand coming to rest on his shoulder, "you had enough to do back then, even if you were still an angel."

"That's not an excuse."

Dean studies him for a long moment before his mouth twitches, curving in a faint smile. "You really don't do anything half-way, do you? Called that one." Shaking his head at Castiel's mystified expression, he squeezes his shoulder before tilting his head toward the grounds. "Let's check it out so we can get to the church while we still have light."

The sight of the bare, dry earth is disquieting, but the first step is disorienting, a different world entirely, the corruption spreading so deeply it's an abscess in the earth itself, rotten and putrid and oozing filth.


Castiel thinks, shocked: I didn't realize I could still feel that.

Dean catches him the moment before his legs collapse beneath him, steadying him against his own body until the vertigo passes enough for him to find his balance. Watching him sharply, Dean reluctantly steps back at his nod, but one hand lingers determinedly on his back as the green eyes search his face.

"You sure you're okay?" There's a sharpness in his voice that demands honesty, and the implication anything less than a definite yes means they return to the jeep without hesitation.

Taking another breath to be sure, he nods. "Yes. It was--a surprise, that's all."

Dean frowns and starts to say something before abruptly turning face the church and grounds, lips tightening as his hand dropping automatically to his gun as if he's fighting himself not to draw it. There's nothing here that qualifies as a threat that would respond to gunfire, but he's learned that instinct rarely succumbs to logic without argument.

"It wasn't surprise." As Dean swings to face him, he belatedly realizes that Dean had no reason to expect him to have any reaction to stepping off the road in the first place, much less catch him before he even fell. "Try again. Tell me what that was."

He starts to answer and stops himself, distracted by the memory of the two days he watched Dean as his body burned out Croatoan. He didn't lie to him in the bathroom; forty-eight hours is his limit on how long he can go without sleep with only prescription stimulants before speed is required. However that was because while he couldn't recognize his own need for sleep until exhaustion made it impossible to do otherwise, he could recognize the signs of mental degradation, and they kept it at bay.

That's changed, and those two nights made that painfully obvious. He doesn't need them simply to think; now he needs them to stay awake.

The biological urge for sleep, like hunger and thirst, has always been difficult for him to interpret, but until this moment, he assumed that Dean's insistence on strict adherence to a schedule was the reason he now ate and slept at regular intervals and why he needed prescription sedatives less often. In retrospect, that was remarkably stupid; habit may be powerful, but it's not that powerful, and for that matter, while he's tentatively begun to explore the idea of enjoying food, feeling hunger is still something he has yet to experience.

If 'falling asleep' can be defined as a sense of drifting that culminates in abruptly becoming aware he's cold, stiff, and drooling onto the couch cushion by Dean's hip despite the fact that his last memory was leaning against said cushion reading only seconds ago and yet hours have passed--and thankfully, while Dean was blinking at him sleepily, he didn't seem to notice the grotesque wet patch before Castiel quickly covered it with his dropped book--then he thinks that yes, he's officially experienced the human sensation of sleepiness.

That's new, and he doesn't think he can at this point legitimately pretend habit is another word for 'magic'.

"How does it feel to you?" he asks before he can stop himself.

"Me?" Dean hesitates, but the tension in his body is too obvious to be denied, and to Castiel's mild surprise, he doesn't even try. "I don't know. Weird, I guess."

Dean's concept of 'weird' is both wide in range and narrow in scope; it's all in the inflection, and Castiel's still learning how to interpret it. "Dean--"

"Wrong." Dean's expression changes, eyes distant. "Like it's dead, but it can't die, not really. Even wants to be."

He nods, mouth dry; that would describe it very adequately. "Corruption. At this stage, for the earth, it's like living death; it's being consumed until it's almost starved but kept living just enough to be an ongoing source of feeding."

"Sounds about right. And one more thing." The green eyes meet his. "It feels like I really don't want you anywhere near it. That enough for now or can we get this over with so we can leave?"

He can't be certain, of course, but if he were guessing, Dean doesn't want to talk about this anymore. "Of course."

"Good." Sliding his rifle into easy shooting on sight position, he jerks his head toward the ruined buildings. "Let's check the grounds first."

The first circuit of the grounds gives them an overview of the scope of the destruction and at least some idea of the sequence of events. The convent itself was burned first and done thoroughly, leaving nothing but blackened and cracked foundation half-buried in the ground; the school and attached dormitory, on the other hand, were done last, and interestingly, not nearly as completely. Despite the amount of time that's passed, it's clear that while the fire damaged the structure, its final collapse was due to decay of the unburned wood.

Dean's tension is noticeably increased by the time they finish the second circuit, but he pauses at the edge of the cemetery behind the church with a frown. Eyes flickering over the twisted remains of the wrought iron fence, he passes over the various headstones without interest before returning to the fence. Then, shoulders straightening, he looks at Castiel in a silent but unmistakable question.

Obediently, Castiel steps over the twisted remains of the fence and feels the difference immediately; the consecration of the cemetery wasn't broken despite the fact that the church and grounds were and very thoroughly. The omission is unusual; demons are very attracted to sanctified places for the purposes of destroying them, which he assumes is what passes for a hobby among them.

Looking up, he sees Dean looking at him, expression unreadable but unmistakably more relaxed. Apparently talking about it is anathema, but not testing it.

"Consecrated separately from the church grounds and unbroken," he confirms, looking down at the neat line of dead grass on this side of the fence edging the bare earth on the other: the difference between early winter somnolence and corruption, bloating itself on the earth's richness until only the faintest spark remains, content to leave it alive just enough feed from it into perpetuity. After all, if it killed it, there'd be nothing left for it to consume, and that's all it knew how to do. "If they'd survived, they would have done it before they left. Just for completion's sake."

Dean's in front of him the moment he steps back over, but he's prepared this time for the vertigo, but nothing can prepare him for how it feels to stand on a living corpse that only wants to die.

"And we have the answer no one really wanted on what demons do on Friday nights," Dean says grimly, turning away to look at the church, but the hand on Castiel's back lingers. "Okay, you ready?"

The answer is no, he's not, but that's irrelevant; this is something they need to know.

"Yes." Dean didn't need to say: we don’t have to do this now. You don't have to do this to yourself. This isn't a test, and if it was, survival is all you have to do to pass. It's a test, it's always a test, but it's easier to pass when he's not alone. "I am."

The listing doors creak open at a touch, the heavy wood, while subject to the vagaries of the weather, surprisingly intact. Which is more than can be said for the interior; even with Alison's verbatim description of the church in Amanda's report, he wasn't prepared to see the reality.

Dean sucks in a breath, coming to a stop just inside the door. "Holy shit."

The description was unsparing and thorough, yet somehow, it still fell far, far short of what they're seeing now..

The walls are all still intact, peeling dingy paint in strips like shed skin between wide swathes stained yellow-brown from water damage and exposure and blackened streaks and stains of old blood in hideously distinctive patterns. Frayed streamers of tattered, grey-red fabric from the carpet cling to what remains of the aisle between the decaying remains of the few intact pews at the back of the church, and near the altar that, though subject to exposure, is also intact; those are the only things that still are.

The splintered, blackened remains of what were once pews, clotted with fluttering yellow-edge pages from ruined hymnals, the twisted remains of tarnished candlesticks dotted with the remains of wax, torn strips of the formal vestments of a priest performing mass, the cracked vinyl covers of shredded Bibles and slivers of stained glass from the empty windows, crumble together in haphazard piles around a circle of clean, bare wooden floor in the center of the church, its perimeter outlined in charred black.

Dean's shoulder brushes against his, a single point of reassurance in a place not simply stripped of what it was meant to be, but re-purposed to be everything it stood against. Taking a deep breath, he forces himself to dismiss the sacrilege committed for the most obscene of purposes and examine it like the hunter he chose to become.

"Right," Dean says, voice startling loud in the lifeless silence. "Left or right?"

"I'll take left," Castiel decides after accepting both will be equally horrific and he wants neither one.

"Good, that's where I'm going, too." Shifting his rifle automatically--he's noticeably improved with his weapons--Dean jerks his head for Castiel to follow him before starting toward the wall and the first set of bloodstains surrounding the empty holes where a woman sworn to service to the Lord was crucified.

They came back for the bodies after taking the children to Ichabod, Amanda's report stated. After Dolores examined them, each body was carefully cleaned as best they could and each woman was photographed, along with as complete a written description of each woman, her clothing, her hair, birthmarks and old scars, anything that might--one impossible day--help identify her to her family or friends.

Afterward, their bodies were carefully wrapped in clean sheets, the town's only Catholic (albeit somewhat lapsed) reading the prayer for the dead before their bodies were consigned to the fire with the entire town present to bear witness. They didn't have the legal names for any of them; what the children remembered were those that they took when they joined the order. The ashes were placed in the town cemetery, covered with salt and buried in consecrated ground, each name carved into the stone that marks the place they were laid to rest. Teresa and their few religious leaders hoped that would be enough to keep them safe from whatever happened in the church.

"The priest was possessed," Castiel says into the uneasy silence as they come to a pause before the altar after passing the eighteen places where a woman was nailed to die, with another wall and seventeen more to go. "He must be how they gained access to the church and the convent."

"Yeah, there weren't any men among the bodies," Dean says, balancing the rifle against his shoulder, fingers sliding restlessly along the strap. "I remember that part from Amanda's report. Just women, and the kids."

"The nuns were hunters, and a direct confrontation would have been unwise. Father Francis was very old, and the other men were laymen who were attached to the church in some way and assisted Father Francis and the Sisters in their calling. They needed a less dangerous method of gaining access here."

"So they used men the nuns knew and trusted," Dean says in disgust. "They weren't stupid; they wouldn't have let a stranger anywhere near them, especially when they weren't armed, not if they were hunters. Son of a bitch, the fuckers must have loved that part."

"From what Alison gathered from the other towns and some traders, Father Francis was instrumental in helping the Sisters acquire weapons and some basic instruction, though she didn't know how or from who. He also joined them in daily practice despite his advanced age."

Dean's mouth quirking faintly. "My kind of priest."

"Then you'll appreciate how well he was able to manipulate his superiors--including his bishop--to overlook what they were doing here before Kansas was zoned as infected." Dean's smile widens. "When he was given--very much under the table, or so Alison gathered from some of those who worshipped here--advanced warning of Kansas's coming status and orders to leave--"

"They stayed," Dean finishes softly. "Of course they did. Saving people, hunting things: fuck leaving, they were just getting started."

"The nuns discarded their habits entirely for more practical attire and were armed even during mass," he continues, looking at Dean. "Which was apparently very memorable to the very few alive who used to occasionally attend mass here."

"Nothing like a nun with a gun to get your attention," Dean agrees, fingers sliding restlessly the length of the strap of his rifle, fingertips brushing the holster of the gun at his hip. "If we'd known about them, we could have--" He stops short, a fleeting expression of surprise crossing his face. "I mean you--him, back then, maybe he could have--"

They didn't know, but sins of omission and sins of commission are only different in action, not intention; they should have tried to find out. "If even a rumor had reached us, we would have been here to help."

Dean's mouth tightens grimly. "He surveyed the entire goddamn state and he missed them? How--never mind." Shaking his head, he tips his head toward the other wall and the seventeen blood-marked spots awaiting them. "Let's get the other side and the gallery upstairs before we check out the main event."

It says something--though what, he's not certain--that as little as he wants to examine the other wall, it's still more than he wants to examine that clean, black-ringed circle. "I agree."

Well after they left Chitaqua, it occurred to Castiel they should have acquired Chuck's camera before they left to document the condition of the church so they could examine those as well for anything they might have missed. As it turns out, it wouldn't have mattered if he'd thought to acquire it or not; even if he'd been holding it in his hands, nothing could have made him actually use it.

(Or as Dean put it, surveying the church floor from the gallery: "Perks of leadership; we make someone else to do it."

"I'm very glad I accepted your job offer," he told Dean, and meant every word.)

He means it even more now, standing only feet away from the reason thirty-five women and five men died two and a half years ago, and four days ago that almost killed the fifteen children that survived.

There's no sign of the actual pattern any longer, replaced by a ring of blackened wood, charred almost through the church floor. One and a half feet from the outer circle to the inner, the same as the one drawn in Ichabod's courtyard. Unlike that one, however, the outer circle here is roughly fifteen feet in diameter, the inner twelve: large enough, he supposes, to hold fifteen children in the center, though with very little room to spare.

Stepping into the inner circle--the hardwood dusty but otherwise untouched--he turns in a slow circle before crouching to study the char more closely. After he Fell, before the gods died, soon after Ichabod was founded: that should be enough to give him something approaching a date, but no matter how often he searches his memory, there's nothing to find. Even the corruption of the earth--something that can be objectively studied and quantified, the rate of decay measurable--is useless; Teresa possibly was able to stop it if not cleanse it, but even before that, it's--

Impulsively, he opens his sense of time and barely shuts it back down before the migraine starts, but not before dropping to the floor with a strangled gasp.

Not strangled enough, if the sudden appearance of Dean crouching in front of him is any indication, hand on his handgun. "Cas? You okay?"

"I'm fine," he says, and regrets it when he hears his voice crack on the second word. Resigned, he waits for his vision to stop swimming, but it's not as if he needs to see to know Dean's dangerously still and is most likely glaring at him. "Dean--"

"You didn't do the--seeing all things shit again, did you?" he demands, one hand roughly tilting his head up, the better to glare directly into his eyes as well as check for bleeding. "Tell me you didn't--"

"No. Just time," he interrupts, adding at Dean's mystified expression. "I was checking for a time differentiation, and there is one. At some point, this church was removed from linear time."

Dean blinks at him before looking around warily as his shoulder dips alarmingly, as if it might be in danger of sliding into his hand despite the fact there's nothing to shoot. "Uh, we're--not out of time now, right?"

"No, I couldn’t see Time where it doesn't exist," he answers reasonably, which inexplicably makes Dean's eyes narrow. "It's just--off." Dean blinks at him in a silent request for clarification. "I don’t know how to explain."

"Try," Dean says grimly, fingers tightening on his jaw as if Castiel might pull away and he'd like to keep the bone as a souvenir.

The television analogy unfortunately won’t work here. "It was taken out of time at one point in linear time and replaced at some point in the future. It's future, not ours. Well, it would be the past now, of course, but then…." Looking at Dean's increasingly frustrated expression, he has a moment of inspiration. "Like you were, but only in Time, not place."

"Right, so how long--" Dean sits back on his heels, looking into the middle distance before focusing on Castiel again. "You said 'some point', not what point. You don't know how much it's off? Why? You knew with me."

One day, he's going to tell Dean that he's only pretending to believe him when he pretends he's not as intelligent as he actually is. Depressingly, now isn't the time. "No. Before you ask," he continues as Dean starts to open his mouth, "yes, there are many possibilities for why, including the fact that I have no idea how I can still do that or how it works in this form, but no, I can't narrow them down without more information, including speaking to Alison and Teresa personally about what happened when they found the children. Or I could--"

"No," Dean interrupts flatly.

"I didn't even tell you what--"

"Don't care." The glare returns with a vengeance. "No seeing Time, no seeing all things, no anything you can't do with five plain old human senses and no bleeding from your ears, got it? We'll do this the old fashioned way." Dean's fingers tighten on his jaw. "Got it? I wanna hear the words, Cas."

Staring into Dean's eyes, he summons his most earnest expression, one guaranteed to convey both unmistakable sincerity and fuck you at once. "Yes, sir."

"I'll hold you to it," Dean says pleasantly before straightening and starting toward the back of the church. "Would hate to accidentally concuss you with my rifle," he adds over his shoulder, "but I won't be sorry for it. Just for the record."

Dean's method in the church is much like the one he used on the grounds; the first circuit to establish familiarity before a slower second one, pausing at the walls to study each set of blood stains with the experienced eyes of a hunter and searching not for what they can recognize, but for any discrepancies. The variations on human sacrifice are numerous, but crucifixion, like rape, is always preferred when other forms of torture are inconvenient or when time is not of the essence; he supposes doing both in a church while at least one wore the body of a priest and the victims were nuns is what passes for ironic humor among demons.

Stopping at the altar again on his second circuit, Dean stares up at the remains of the cross on the wall above it with a fixed expression. Still inside the circle, Castiel frowns, focusing on the wall, and sees the blackened smears of blood on either side of the cross, the spacing of the holes matching those that line either side of the church: that makes thirty-six, but only thirty-five bodies were taken back to Ichabod. Thirty-five bodies, fifteen children, and one young woman, whose injuries didn't include those associated with crucifixion


"She was up there," Dean interrupts without turning around. "The novice. That's where they put her. Half the nuns were dead, the rest were almost there, the kids were already in that goddamn circle…and she was still fighting to get down to save 'em."

Swallowing, he paces the length of the aisle to join Dean at the altar, mentally scanning Amanda's report again; it didn't mention where each body they removed was located, and it would've mentioned if one of them was above the altar itself. Following Dean's gaze to the remains of the altar, he pauses, studying it more carefully; despite the dark wood, the blood stains on it are obvious, a spray fanning upward from near the base and sprinkling the floor as well before trailing off at the very top. Looking down, the floor before the altar is stained with the unmistakable signs of coagulated blood, smeared but each one consistent with the center of the average female foot from the heel to just short of the ball.

Abruptly, Dean turns, looking down at the tattered remains of the carpet, focusing first on the area just in front of the altar before startling toward the center of the church again, eyes tracking the remains of the remaining carpet and then bare wood. Following, Castiel sees the fading bloodstains that still mark it as Dean stops short, staring at an unstained area of the floor a foot short of the outer circle.

"She stopped there." He tears his gaze away to look at Castiel with the eyes of a stranger. "Tore herself off the wall--that she was nailed to--and walked on two surprisingly unbroken feet all the way here while pulling a goddamn knife out of thin air. She said yes to your fucking goddess because she wanted to save the kids and didn't care what she gave up to do it."

Even that long-ago day in Dean's cabin when Dean asked him what he was, he didn't look at him like that, as if he was-- "I don't remember."

"That makes one of us."

Turning away, Dean gives the circle a wide berth on his way to the back of the church. Taking a deep breath, Castiel forces himself to move, stepping into the circle and crouching as if to study the char again, though all it tells him is fire was involved at some point; the design itself was burned away entirely. It's an excellent excuse, however, to pretend not to hear Dean as he approaches, footsteps echoingly loud in the silence before coming to a stop directly behind him.

After an eternity--or thirty endless seconds--Dean sighs. "Jesus, this place--you done yet? It's char, nothing to see here." Then, with an attempt at annoyance, "For the five regular old human senses, anyway."

"I'm not human," he answers flatly before pushing himself up off the floor and making himself turn around. "However--"

"Look, this place…" Dean turns to look back at the open doors briefly, expression unreadable. "Something about it--you being here, it's getting to me, okay?"

Disarmed, he nods tiredly. "It's unsettling, yes, but--"

"I don't mean--it's not..." Dean scowls, eyes drifting toward the doors again before snapping back to Castiel. "I don't know what I mean, but let's wrap this up before I knock you out and drag your ass out of here, okay?"

That's--unambiguous. "The circle isn't active. At least, not now."

Dean's eyes narrow. "That's not the same as 'gone'."

"I was trying to ease into the subject," he admits.

"A for effort," Dean says, not quite rolling his eyes. "Now tell me what that means."

"The corruption of the earth isn't expanding, but it's not healing itself, either," he starts. "Even if Teresa decided against trying to purify it after they found the church, her presence would have been enough to elicit some kind of response, but as it was then, it is now. This is--it's as if the corruption is in stasis. If I were guessing--which is exactly what I'm doing--that's because while the circle was destroyed here, it still exists, just not now."

"You even know what you mean?" Dean looks at the blackened outer ring, shaking his head. "So what your goddess did wasn't enough? Divine fucking fire? You can't even see it anymore."

"I'm not sure--"

"It killed the demons pretty thoroughly," he adds in surprise as he scans the area around the circle again. "Not even ash left--not that we'd be able to see it in this mess--"

"They didn't die in the fire," he interrupts. "I don't need to remember what happened to know that. She didn't need a full manifestation complete with avatar to kill them; she could do that with a thought without leaving the comfort of non-corporeal existence. This was an execution, and to observe all the formalities, she had to be on this plane to do it."

Dean closes his eyes briefly. "I'm gonna regret asking this, but…."

"It's what I'd do, if I had Grace and the permission of the Host when I was among their number," he answers. "Or even after I rebelled and simply had Grace and this kind of motivation."

"Anytime now, Cas."

"There are no human remains of those possessed by the demons, even ash," he explains indicating the entire church. "She broke the binding between soul and body on this plane to free the souls but not the demons before moving them out of time with the demon still inside. The physical body can't survive that without protection, as I explained before, but she only needed it to contain them until they were beyond any possibility of escape."

"And then? She killed them there--wherever that is--instead of here. What's the difference?"

"The goal of a formal execution isn't death, it's justice." Dean sucks in a breath, eyes widening in understanding. "She hunted them down one by one and killed them there. She's still hunting them and then killing them there. Long after she died by Lucifer's hand, she will be killing them anew. As Gabriel did to you, she does to them in a discrete pocket of time built to that purpose, but the loop never stops with death before starting anew and they never forget what came before. It hasn't stopped and will never stop, without a moment's rest or freedom from fear or pain."

"Kind of like you did to that guy in Michigan?" Castiel nods; there are similarities, yes. "How long?"

"Forever," he answers softly, meeting Dean's eyes and seeing the flare of satisfaction that matches his own. Of all people, Dean may be the only one who would understand. "Until the end of reality itself."

"If reality wasn't trying to end now," Dean says finally, breaking the comfortable silence, "that'd almost be enough." Flickering a glance at the walls, his face darkens. "Almost. So tell me more about what they were doing before they got fucked by a goddess."

Castiel calls up the memory of the completed circle in Ichabod, tracing the design over the burn line. Almost effortlessly, a polished wooden floor stretches out below his feet as pews are ripped up and tossed aside to make more space, carpet stripped away by eager hands. Blurred, indistinct figures work together to draw the circle with slow, patient strokes, the individual sigils flowing from the stark white paint--paint, not chalk, another difference from what happened in Ichabod--this time starting at the north--the direction of the altar--and moving counterclockwise to the east, the symbols entered confidently with experienced hands. Until they reach the east--

"--and stopped," he says tonelessly, vaguely aware he's been talking but unable to remember when he started or why. "They entertained themselves with raping them while waiting for it to dry--they had to wait, because the nuns were protected against possession. That's why they used paint; they couldn't risk a single smear, and the nuns would find a way to break it no matter how badly they were injured if they used chalk."

As if from a distance, he feels Dean's hand on his shoulder, fingers reassuringly tight. "Keep going."

"They…." For a moment, he has a multiple visions of ghostly feet crossing in and out from what feels like a dozen perspectives, stumbling or dragged, digging their bare feet into the wood, scratching at it with broken fingernails as they passed; some were carried, bound and still fighting, too dangerous to risk forcing them walk despite being uncertain it would still count if it wasn't done under their own power. Low, malicious laughter interspersed with pain-soaked, enraged screams echoe through the church for hours--days--as they were raped and tortured, whatever the demons could imagine without risking a too-early death that would make all their work useless, giving the sacrifice more power, before one by one each woman was nailed to the walls of the church.

Hours--days--a week, perhaps: it doesn't matter. It felt like forever.

Finally, a single vision dominates, clear and hard, edged with rage and fear so strong it burned away physical pain; each half-conscious child (they didn't have time to hurt them, too. It took days to find them, she didn't hide them well enough, her fault, she should have learned more before she….) was carried inside the circle and placed within the inner circle before the last quarter--the closing sequence--was drawn, in chalk this time, because--

Mouth dry, he looks at the wall above the altar. "--once closed, it was done. That only brought it into existence; once it existed, it didn't matter if the lines were erased. I was too late."

Even divine fire couldn't destroy it, they realized: nothing could, it was new, and how they created it was unique. All that could be done was--

"….Cas?!" There are hands on his shoulders, squeezing with the strength of desperation, and he focuses on Dean's voice, then his face, green eyes wide and dark in a face washed of color. Blinking, he realizes they're both on their knees. "Cas, talk to me!"

Licking his lips, he tries to speak, but for some reason, he can't form words; how strange.

"Cas, you got to three and I'm dragging you out of here," Dean snarls, cupping his face with shaking hands. "You tracking yet? One, fuck it, we're leaving--"

"It…" He swallows at the thready sound of his voice, barely a breath, and forces himself to focus. "They had to forget it."

Dean stills. "What?"

"It couldn't be destroyed, because once it was completed, it didn't just exist here," he says as the blurred details slowly click into place. "That's how they did it. They weren't sure it would work, but it was worth the risk to find out, and it did." He closes his eyes, realizing he's shaking: has been, possibly for some time. "When I saw it, I knew it was the first time it had ever been attempted."

"It was new, yeah."

"Yes, but not just that." Dean nods encouragingly and slowly, painfully, he retrieves knowledge he wasn't even aware he had. "All but one segment was completed before they began to make them enter it. They used--"

"Paint," Dean interrupts. "So the nuns couldn't fuck with it, yeah."

So he was talking that entire time: good to know. "They put the children inside and closed it immediately; they were almost out of time before their absence was noticed, I think…." She must have ripped that part from their minds, but the jumble of unorganized images is impossible to organize, bring into focus. "I'm sorry, I can't--"

"You got nothing to be sorry for," Dean tells him fiercely, giving him a shake. "Don’t even start. Now deep breath--what else? Why were they dragging the nuns into it if they were just gonna hang them on the goddamn wall?"

One deep breath doesn't help; several, however, do. "Something new. When it was complete, everyone who was within it and everyone who had passed through it before were bound to it, and it was bound into them. Once the circle was closed, it burned itself into their memories, and that's where it still exists in everyone who entered the circle before it was closed. All of their minds hold it, and the only way to destroy it there--"

"--is to kill them, which would also complete the sacrifice, son of a bitch." Castiel nods tiredly, a faint throb starting in his temples from the effort of locating knowledge without the memory of acquiring it to give him guidance. "Wait--everyone within it and everyone who was in it and left before it was closed?" He nods again. "You mean all someone has to do is walk through it before it closed and they're part of it?"

"That marks them enough for the circle to be lodged in their memories upon completion. He swallows, fighting down nausea. "I don't even remember being here, but I apparently learned a great deal."

"The nuns and the novice watched the whole goddamn thing live and in person," Dean says quietly, squeezing his shoulder again. "What they knew, I guess your goddess got from them, and she must have given it all to you to help her figure out what this was before she fucked with your head." He pauses, glancing toward the altar briefly. "How were they going to do it without the novice, though? They had to know she wasn't in Ichabod; were they gonna go look for her next or something?"

"The novice wouldn't be part of it, even if she'd entered the circle before it closed," he answers, relieved beyond words to be on sure ground. "Being the avatar of a goddess does have some advantages; this only binds a human, not a divine being. It was burned out of her the moment she became a vessel."

"I'll give you that one." Dean cocks his head, eyes distant. "Okay, let me see if I got this. Those kids were still in the circle when your goddess started smiting; they were already marked as sacrifices by that. The nuns were in it before it was closed and taken out, so they were marked when the circle was completed and the hanging them on the fucking wall was just entertainment and more pain equals more power, am I right so far?" He nods at Dean's glance. "So that circle they were drawing in the town square during the attack, it wasn't big enough to put anyone in, which makes sense now; they didn't need it to be big. The kids didn't remember what happened in the church, much less the circle, so they had to draw it again so they'd remember it."

"They had to redraw the circle either way to give it form on earth, but to connect it to the original, the children had to see it as well as remember it. Once the connection was made, it's as if it had never been erased, with all the original properties--and chosen sacrifices--of the original." An arrested look on Dean's face tells him he recognized that much. "You only notice it when its worst form is seen, as I told you. Though no one's ever used it like this before."

"Contamination." Dean sighs in disgust. "Okay, let's go back. How much has to be complete for it to start marking the sacrifices? Ballpark?"

"At least over half, I would assume, but….." Dean nods grimly; there's no way to know for sure without testing it themselves. "From what I could read of it, the final segment of symbols are the closing sequence, and must be done all at once to complete closure. When we have time, I'll reproduce it to study it closer--"

"Uh," Dean looks alarmed. "You think that's a good idea?"

"No, but it's not dangerous," he answers, mouth quirking faintly. "The other reason new innovations in human sacrifice aren't common is humanity's lack of knowledge on the meaning of all the symbols, much less formalities of their design. Whoever created this one not only knew those, they also knew conventions that haven't been used on earth for a very long time. This one has restrictions specifically excluding anyone not born human from using them, a variation of those I carved on your ribs as well as Sam's. Like you, it's invisible to a god or an angel not in corporeal form and looking directly at it."

"Anti-angel and anti-god?" Dean sits back, startled. "That's really old shit. So that hasn't been used in--"

"A very long time," he agrees. "The most ancient rituals created on earth often featured such measures, but for obvious reasons, that innovation wasn't popular, and among the gods and the Host, it was agreed that knowledge shouldn't pass to future generations. Those rituals were buried as deeply as possible in human history along with the knowledge of what they meant."

Dean reaches for his chest, palm flattening over his ribs almost unconsciously. "You didn't tell me that when you started carving up my ribs. That was forbidden?"

"Dean, I'd just rebelled against the Host, been killed by archangels, and resurrected without explanation," he answers, grinning helplessly at Dean's quiet laugh. "Ask me how much I cared about archaic restrictions."

"Not much."

"I taught Bobby as much as he wished to learn--which, as you can guess, was everything--but the majority of it has value only in defense. I think I still have the notebook he used for his notes, if you wish to see it."

"I kind of do," Dean admits, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck before shaking himself. "Until you get a chance to draw your own copy, can you tell me anything else?"

His smile fades. "The final closure has to be done all at once, which is one of the few hard limitations I can see in the design. It can't enter their memories and exist there until it exists in this form first."

"Not really a limitation if we're talking--" he looks around the circle, eyes narrowing, "--fifty, sixty feet around? Last segment is--"

"One quarter of the whole."

"Eleven, twelve feet, that's nothing, a couple of minutes…." Dean breaks off, looking at him, then at the circle again. "The one in Ichabod was smaller. How long was the closure?"

"A quarter of the whole."

Dean stills. "And if it was bigger…?"

"A quarter--"

"--of the whole, I really don't like where this is going. You're sure about that?"

"Yes. The closing sequence is of a different pattern than the whole. Think of it as a binary door; it's closed or open, but nothing between. It's a compromise; instead of having to do the whole at once, they only have to do a quarter at once. Not a bad trade-off, in a horrific sort of way."

Getting to his feet, Dean turns in a slow circle to take in the circle again. "The one in Ichabod had three or four sets in the exact same sequence before the closure…." He looks at Castiel. "How many on this one?"

He pulls up the memory of the completed circle again, ignoring the instinctive revulsion. "Ten, with more space between the symbols, though not much; they were more experienced with drawing ritual circles. I can't tell the significance of that on a glance, however."

"Shit." Dean closes his eyes. "It's a repeater. You can keep repeating the same goddamn symbols over and over again to get it bigger as long as each set is complete." He spears Castiel with a look that begs for contradiction. "Including the closing ones?"

"I'm not sure," he prevaricates, but that's not an answer. "However, it's either that, or the number is the same, but each one is simply very large. It's very new, and since the sacrifice was never completed, only the creator would be able to tell us what he designed it to do, and only the first time it was completed successfully would he know if it actually worked."

"Let me get this straight," Dean says with fragile calm. "At half-done, it's ready for business and you don't even have to stay in it to be marked. Once it's closed, everyone's part of it, even if all they did was walk through it without knowing it. Even if it's erased--by divine fucking fire--everyone who was marked can be hunted down one at a time, draw that thing again so they can see it, use their memory of the original to make the new one become the old one, and kill them then. And there's no limit on size?" He nods reluctantly. "All the fucking benefits of human sacrifice, none of the inconvenience of having to do it all or nothing."

He nods again, feeling impossibly tired. "That would be it, yes."

"Right." Taking a deep breath, Dean scans the church before extending a hand. "Okay, we're getting out of here."

He takes Dean's hand and is surprised how much he needs it, stumbling briefly. "Dean--"

"No arguments," Dean interrupts, hand shifting to his upper arm and pulling him unresistingly to the door. "We're going home. Anything else you need to know, it can wait--"

"We still have a problem, and it won't wait." Making an effort, he stops short and is almost pulled off balance by Dean's momentum. "Dean. It doesn't exist now, but it does still exist. The children remember it now, even if they didn't before. If it's drawn again in their presence and they see it--"

"It's back, fuck." Dean closes his eyes. "Even if we got all the demons this time, no way they're the only ones that heard about it."

"They're still in danger, and not only because they're still bound," he agrees. "Everyone who saw even a portion of the design in the courtyard now has the memory of it. It can't hurt them, since they weren't part of that sacrifice, but any demon can read it from their minds and no demon who saw it wouldn't know what it was as well as exactly what it can do."

"Fuck. We gotta get to Ichabod." Pulling away, Castiel crouches and reaches into his boot, feeling the edge of the knife sheathe for the small lump beneath it. "Cas what are you--"

Pulling out the keys, he straightens and presents them to Dean; it's almost worth not driving to see the expression on his face. "That's why you couldn't find them."

Dean's eyes narrow before flickering down to his boot in unmistakable speculation.

"I'd like to see you try," he adds, tipping his head toward the door. "Let's go."

They're almost a quarter of the way to Ichabod when Dean finally says, "What if we're wrong?"

Turning from his contemplation of the badly degraded road, Castiel frowns. "About…?"

"What if other demons know about this already? If they're using it--"

"They aren't."

Dean jerks his gaze from the road. "How the hell would you know--"

"My fallen Brethren would purge their territory at a hint of something like this being spread among their followers," he answers. "A human sacrifice that may only be limited by the physical size of the initial circle, and once closed, marks the sacrifices in a way almost impossible to remove, and who can then be hunted down and killed at their leisure? The first time it was successfully completed on earth, there would be no way to hide it from them, and if there'd been a purge in Hell of that magnitude, we would know about it."

"Forgot about that," Dean bites out, fingers tightening on the steering wheel. "Torturing demons for fun and profit at Chitaqua, why not get the gossip while you're at it?"


Dean's the first to look away, but it doesn't give the satisfaction that it should. Several miles pass in echoing silence before Dean finally breaks it.

"Cas, how many people were part of this one? Nuns and the kids, that was it?"

"Assuming Alison was accurate on the number of women's bodies they took from the church, fifty, including the children they rescued."

Dean frowns out the windshield, but he doubts its due to the execrable condition of the road. "And how much power would that give a run of the mill demon these days?"

"Not enough to challenge an angel in Hell," which makes Dean start, "nor the most powerful and oldest demons, but sufficient to claim territory in Hell from less powerful ones. Possibly even enough to carve out territory of their own and force the submission of lesser demons to gain sufficient followers to protect it. However, the first time it's completed in its entirely, Hell would notice that much power acquired that quickly and wonder why. They'd have one, perhaps two more opportunities to use it before they were tracked down from the contamination of using death and pain for power, especially in these numbers."

Dean nods, swerving reflexively to avoid a pothole the size of a small car. "You were right; the church was a test drive to see if it worked. Probably why they did it at that convent; out in the middle of nowhere, not much of a congregation showing up every day, limited numbers, no chance of interruption--who could call the entire goddess showing up thing--"

"I could be wrong."

"Dude, I learned not to bet against you the hard way," Dean says, tossing him a smile. "The only thing I couldn't figure out is why they didn't start a new one instead of taking the time to go after the kids in Ichabod, but…." He pauses. "Formal execution, that sounds like the kind of thing you don't make mistakes doing. Like letting one of them get away."

"No." That much he doesn't need to remember to know. "Even if one of them wasn't at the church at that moment or tried to escape, performing a human sacrifice doesn't just contaminate the earth, but those who did it. There's nowhere they could hide that she couldn't follow them, and she would've found them."

"What about the creator? If he wasn't there…." Dean snorts, shaking his head. "No way he shared that before trying it himself. Or ever."

"Unless the other demons killed him before attempting it at the church, yes, but I doubt he told them enough for them to risk that. What does that have to do with…." For once, following Dean's train of thought is almost effortless. "So how did those demons in Ichabod four days ago know about it at all?"

"The original group sure as fuck didn't share with the class before they died," Dean agrees. "Doesn't mean they didn't drop hints, though; threat of a purge just means it spread slower. How long has it been in Hell since then?"

"Roughly three hundred years, maybe as much as four hundred, depending on when this happened," he answers, looking at Dean curiously. "You think they were following a rumor in Hell?"

Dean snorts. "You got a better explanation for risking going into Ichabod to get those kids three to four hundred years later? They weren't guessing, Cas; they were sure enough to send four hundred something Croats and six demons to make sure they could finish it."

"There's always the possibility that a demon, for no particular reason, recently went to the remains of a destroyed Kansas church and worked out enough to become uncharacteristically curious and made an impossibly stunning intuitive leap to draw the correct conclusion." Dean gives him a disbelieving look. "I didn't say I believed it."

"Or they came here following that rumor," Dean says, slowing to search the darkness outside for the turn-off. "Church would be enough to tell them it was true, but not enough to actually do it. Question is, how the hell did they get the symbol if the kids' memories were wiped? Everyone else was dead."

"The novice survived," Castiel answers quietly. "And so did I."

Dean starts to answer then abruptly seems to change his mind. "Yeah, might as well just ask. Cas," he says, voice stripped of expression, "did you trade an unspeakable ritual for a human sacrifice to a demon for drugs?" He cocks his head, looking thoughtful. "That's how you been getting your scripts? That explains a lot."

"Of course not, the border guards are perfect happy to…." He narrows his eyes as one corner of Dean's mouth twitches upward. "That wasn't funny."

"It really was. I think we can safely exclude the avatar of a goddamn goddess and a Fallen angel from trading this, considering that if you can't remember it, I doubt she can either. If she's still alive, anyway."

"That's probably the reason I don't remember," he admits, and Dean's faint smirk vanishes. "As you said earlier, I'm a living record. My brethren in Hell have no knowledge of its existence, so that rules out any surviving demon, and I assure you, none would have survived that night. If she guessed--or I told her what it could do--that would have been a very good reason for her to want my memory altered. As the likely alternative was killing me, that would be one very good reason I'd agree to do it."

Dean jerks his startled gaze back the road just in time to note a very inconveniently placed boulder that looks like its origin was the Red Hills, though what it's doing here is anyone's guess. Swerving onto the shoulder with a muffled curse, he waits until they're back on the road before looking at him incredulously. "Your goddess-buddy would have killed you just because you saw it?"

"Hell's ruled by corrupted angels," he explains. "The last angels in all existence, in fact. She wouldn't trust a Fallen angel to resist them for long, or perhaps even want to. They are--technically--still my Brothers."

"Bullshit. They got no claim to you," Dean says softly, but the ripple of anger in his voice is unmistakable. "And she didn't know you very well if she thought you'd do that. Dude, you need better friends, just saying."

"That was a long time ago," he answers, unsettled and warmed at the same time. "I think you might say I've upgraded since then."

Dean grins at him, and for a moment, Castiel almost forgets what they found at the church tonight.

"There aren't any secrets in Hell," Dean says suddenly, returning to the original subject. "Three hundred years: someone knew about this all this time, so why now and not anytime in the last couple of years?"

"This isn't just a secret," he says slowly, not sure how Dean will react to this part. "Demons began as human, and even Hell can't burn out the part of you that will be ruled by no one but yourselves. Humans aren't meant to be ruled by angels, even as demons, and obedience is enforced by fear and pain, loyalty bought and sold to the highest bidder, which is the only way angels can control the population of Hell, which considerably outnumbers them."

"It's worked until now."

"It's worked," he answers deliberately, "because the rulers of Hell are angels who kept their Grace when they followed Lucifer to Hell; unlike demons, for whom it takes time to gather power in Hell and it can be easily lost, theirs is effectively unlimited. However, angels haven't broken a human soul on the rack since they first acquired enough followers to do it for them."

"Demons are better at torture, thanks for the reminder," Dean says glumly, easing onto the edge of the road to avoid the large area of missing asphalt in the shape of a hexagon. Looking out the passenger side window, Castiel wonders if a ruler was used at some point; those are very straight edges for someone ripping up asphalt freehand. "What does that have to do with--"

"In return for their service, those first demons were given power, and those that have survived have continued to acquire it since. Angels may rule Hell, but those demons effectively run it for them, and they assure no other demon ever gains enough power to challenge them even if they were to band together, which granted is unlikely, but why take the risk. Something like this, however…."

"Cause some problems for the status quo for demons, yeah."

"Not problems, and not just for those demons," he says softly, getting Dean's undivided attention. "We're in an Apocalypse, and there are few secrets in Hell, including that Lucifer wants to wipe humanity out. No bodies for demons on this plane, all existence confined to Hell, and that's only if Lucifer doesn't purge Hell as well. They have to suspect that much, and the rulers of Hell would be stupid enough to threaten that to assure such loyalty as Hell defines it, because despite their power, fear and pain are the only things they know how to use. Dean, this isn't a problem; this is revolution."

Dean catches his breath.

"It takes millennia for a demon to gain power, and only the most ruthless ever gain enough to have territory. None of them, however, can hope to challenge the oldest demons, those who were given power by my Brothers and run Hell for its rulers." Castiel licks his lips. "Not until now."

"A demon could get enough power from this to take out the most powerful demons?" Dean searches his face before abruptly stopping the jeep in the middle of the road, turning in the seat. "What?"

"Not with fifty sacrifices, no. But once they knew how much could be acquired from fifty, it would be a matter of math to decide how many deaths would be needed so they could. A single sacrificial circle that can be of any size, take any number of sacrifices, and once it's closed, the deaths could be accomplished over days, weeks, even months…."

"Draw it around a town in the infected zone," Dean says tonelessly. "One demon could do it and have all the time they needed to kill everyone afterward no matter how many there were."

"And no one in Hell would know about it until it was completed," he says. "Which would give everyone just enough time to try to run. Except my Brethren, of course, but they might surprise me by showing some amount of intelligence and doing just that."

Dean stares at him. "They could get enough power to kill an angel in Hell?"

"Yes, but--"

"Which would leave the rest to get together and go after whoever did it, so what would be the point--"

"That would only be a problem if you killed them." He looks at Dean. "So don't. They're far more useful still alive."

Dean stares at him. "What?"

"The power from the sacrifice would eventually run out, but the Grace of my Brethren in Hell replenishes itself," he answers. "Why kill them when you could break them and force their submission to your will; then you'd have at your command the Grace of an angel as well as all that they rule in Hell."

Dean licks his lips, eyes never leaving his face. "How--"

"I told you; demons began as humans, and obedience is enforced with fear and pain; it's the only way to control them. Angels in Hell, however, are still angels; they were created to obey. Demons have had millennia to re-create the tortures of the rack in their own image; what it is now is beyond what it was when it began."

"Hell's first tortures were how angels were disciplined in Heaven." Dean swallows, eyes dark. "For disobedience."

"You can only suppress the instincts of an angel for so long. They were made to serve humanity, and demons are, in some ways, even more attractive; they were remade in the image of angels. A demon who could break them would get their willing submission; they'd obey not because of pain or fear, but--"


Looking at Dean, he nods; if there was ever a demon that Hell would willingly kneel for, it would have been Alistair's apprentice. "We do respond well to being forced to kneel and obey," he says more lightly. "You of all people should know that."

After a long moment, Dean smiles faintly. "Dude, I'm trying here, but this coming from the guy who told Lucifer to fuck himself to his face…."

"I have no objection to kneeling, you understand," he says idly. "In certain contexts, at least."

Dean snorts before putting the jeep in drive and starting down the road again. Stopping at a crossroad--or rather, a road crossed with what may or may not be a cattle trail--Dean carefully eases past the oversized tumbleweed formed of barbed wire and what seems to be kitchen appliances.

"Would Lucifer?" Dean asks softly, staring out the windshield intently. "Could a demon break him?"

"He's still an angel," he answers, equally soft. "What it would take to do it would be interesting, but ultimately academic. He'd kill himself first, and in any case, it would be both quicker and far easier to simply kill or Cage him."

There's a brief hesitation before Dean nods. "Right." Peering out the windshield, he starts to smile, and Castiel, following his gaze, sees the faint sprinkle of lights in the distance. "Well, you ready?"

"Not yet," he answers quietly. He's never ready, but it doesn't matter. "When we get there, I will be."

Chapter Text

--Day 138 B--

It's just an hour short of midnight when they arrive in Ichabod, which means either waiting for the patrol or deliberately crossing the ward line and seeing how long it takes for patrol to notice strangers wandering down Main Street. Which may or may not end with them being shot, though he assumes they'd be sorry afterward.

Fortunately, Dean decided against causing anyone post-murder anguish, which is why patrol finds them leaning against the hood of the jeep when a flashlight abruptly illuminates their faces, Dean with his arms crossed and looking annoyed.

"Dean?" a familiar voice says, and the too-bright light is immediately averted toward the ground. Blinking the spots from his eyes, Castiel makes out Amanda as she gazes at them in surprise, one of Ichabod's teams hovering behind her. For a minute, he hesitates, studying her, a sense of something different dancing across the surface of his skin that he can't quite identify. "Everyone stand down," she orders, looping the gun over her shoulder as the team with her does the same. "Hey, what are you doing here?"

"You run patrols now?" Dean asks, rubbing his eyes ostentatiously. "Not that I care or anything, but--"

"Mark took the kids this afternoon so I could sleep before taking the night shift. Manuel wanted a night off," she answers, beginning to smile. "Mercedes just found out she's pregnant."

Dean's faint frown evaporates. "How far along is she?"

"Twelve weeks, so she's pretty sure it'll be okay," she answers, matching his wide grin. "After the last few days, we needed some good news. There'll be a party on the next rest day, but tonight's was family." Amanda looks between them, smile fading. "Everything okay?"

"We gotta talk to Alison and Teresa," Dean says with a sigh. "She gonna kill us if we wake 'em up?"

Amanda's eyes unfocus for a heart-stopping moment. "No, it's fine. Give her a few minutes." Felipe, you're in charge until I get back." Felipe salutes playfully, punching Amanda's shoulder as he passes them toward Ichabod's perimeter. "I'll walk you down."

"Great," Dean says, looking at Castiel for confirmation before adding, "Hey, tell her we're sorry for showing up this late before you tell me when you started giving Alison an all-access pass to your head."

Amanda's shoulders stiffen. "Dean--"

"What's Alison's range, Cas?"

Coming up beside him, Castiel stares at Amanda for a long moment. "At least a mile with any reliability, but to be safe, behind Chitaqua's wards would be the my preference to assure there's no possibility that Alison--"

"I volunteered," Amanda interrupts, looking between them worriedly. "She didn't manipulate me, I swear. It's just an experiment."

"An experiment." Amanda's eyes widen at whatever she hears in Castiel's voice. "You consented to what experiment, exactly?"

Amanda shifts uneasily. "It's all or nothing, she said; she can shut everyone out or hear everything, and she needs to sleep, but since the attack, it's been tense. It's just a test to see if she can hear patrol if there's an emergency, that's all."

Castiel nods agreeably. "So she can wake up even if she's closed her mind entirely?" Amanda nods hesitantly. "Right arm below the elbow: let me see."

Amanda swallows before carefully removing her rifle, setting it on the ground between them before sliding her right arm out of her coat and pulling up her sleeve. Reaching out, Castiel takes her wrist and turns it to reveal her inner arm, aware of Dean beside him, frowning at the smooth expanse of winter-pale skin before looking at him curiously.

"You can't see it?" Dean shakes his head, lips tightening as Castiel draws a line across the barely-healed cut just below her elbow. "Blood was the binding: shallow cut, just enough to make a symbolic offering. Teresa's a strict traditionalist; if you can't see it, it was done with full and knowing consent of both parties."

"Ritual magic." Dean looks at Amanda's pale face, eyes narrowing. "That's a little more complicated than a psychic learning how to listen for someone specific."

"Dean, I didn't mean--"

"Alison can't yet." Letting go, Castiel takes a deep breath, fighting to keep his voice calm. "She isn't nearly experienced enough to filter that specifically; this required a very skilled witch."

"Five minutes," Dean tells Amanda as she pulls her jacket back on. "Exactly--and I do mean exactly--what you consented to and when."

"This evening before I went on patrol, she asked me and Manuel if we'd be okay with trying something, to get around the block she puts up to keep the town out until she's better at filtering all the mental traffic from everyone," Amanda says carefully, watching them both. "It was Teresa's idea how to do it, but she wasn't sure if it would work with me at all without a blood relationship like Manuel, so I made the offering. It's just a--like an indicator, wakes Alison up if I think directly at her or if something upsets me, but Teresa wasn't sure of the threshold or if that last part would even work."

"Active versus passive," Castiel tells Dean rigidly. "The first is simple, if difficult to accomplish; the second isn't simple even when there's a blood relationship. Alison--through Teresa--would need to be subconsciously monitoring your emotional state constantly to first get a baseline on you specifically before narrowing it down to only trigger at specific levels of emotional intensity. That would take weeks."

"She said something about that, but it isn't supposed to last longer than morning when she breaks it," Amanda agrees, licking her lips nervously. "That's why this is a test; she never tried anything like this, but she…look, she said she got the idea from you. Cas, I'm not an idiot; she explained the whole thing and the risk; the worst that could happen is it wouldn't work."

Castiel stiffens, but aware of Dean's flickering glance, confirms with a slight nod. Taking a breath, Dean turns to Amanda, who visibly fights not to shift in place under the cool gaze.

"You didn't think you should check with me?" he asks neutrally, but it's enough.

"No," she answers, voice subdued now. "I didn't think about it. I should have asked permission first, I'm sorry. I get my first responsibility is to you and Chitaqua."

"It was your call to go ahead with it if you wanted to," Dean answers, surprising them both. "You wouldn't be in command here if I didn't trust your judgment, but with great responsibility comes great--other shit, like making sure your commander knows what the hell you're up to. You tell me first, because you're ours first, and it'd be nice to know when you're about to do something stupid. You understand?"

Amanda blinks at him, disarmed. "Yes, sir."

"Not like I have enough hunters now," Dean mutters after a moment of silence, shoving his hands in his pocket to glare at the ground. "It makes a shitty impression to have one of my lieutenants suddenly go crazy, you know?"

"Right," Amanda answers immediately. "I knew that. She's breaking it at dawn, if you want to be there."

"I will definitely be there," Castiel says shortly, getting both of their undivided attention. Dean cocks his head, like he's about to speak, but before he can, the warm lights of Alison's home spill across Main Street in the distance.

"Amanda," Dean asks, still looking at Castiel, "anyone around who can send a message to Chitaqua? Joe knew we'd be late, but overnight might be stretching it."

"Uh." With an effort, Amanda thinks for a moment before nodding. "Kamal's up."

"Not Kamal," Castiel answers. "I need you both here tomorrow."

"Leah," Amanda says after a moment of thought. "She wanted to get a couple of things from home anyway, say hi to Joe. I'll wake her up; it'll make her night." The blue eyes look between them warily. "Should I--"

"We'll talk again tomorrow," Dean interrupts, squeezing Castiel's shoulder before he starts down the street. "I'm gonna go say hi to Alison right now. Cas, we'll be inside; take your time."

Castiel watches Dean jog toward Alison's building for a moment before returning his attention to Amanda, whose alarm abruptly returns. This shouldn't take long.

It doesn't. "Look, I didn't think--"

"That it would affect anyone else, other than the need to provide our contingent here with a new commander or losing another hunter?" he asks caustically, and Amanda takes a startled step backward. "Trust isn't the same thing as safety; even with the best intentions, what Teresa did was new to her, and you could have been injured. At very least, you should have requested a deferral to consult with others before making your decision."

"I should have sent a message to ask permission," she agrees quickly. "I get that now, I just--"

"No, you should have sent a message asking for me to come to Ichabod immediately, so they could explain, in all the detail I required, exactly what they wanted to do to you," he interrupts impatiently. "Then I would have explained it to you, including the risks, so you could make an informed decision on whether to proceed, and if you decided to do so, been present during the initial test to assure your safety. I'd expect you to insist on that much."

Amanda belatedly shuts her mouth. "I can do that?"

"I spent five months training you to protect yourself as well as others against anything you might have to fight!" he bursts out before he can stop himself. "You have no defenses against a psychic that powerful or a witch; no matter how good their intentions or how pure their motive, there is always and will always be a risk. You can't protect yourself from that, but in this case, I could have done it for you! Of course you can do that! You're supposed to do that! Is it that difficult to understand?"

"Oh. Right, got it." She shifts again, biting her lip before peering up at him, a flicker of humor in the blue eyes. "So in the morning, you'll tell me if it's okay to do again?"

"I'll evaluate the risk and give you my opinion after observing the process and speaking to Teresa and Alison. After I'm satisfied as to Teresa's intentions as well as the safety of what she asked you to do, we'll talk about it, and then you can decide whether you wish to continue."

"Okay," she answers promptly. "Sounds good."

"You can go," he says finally, not sure what to add that he hasn't already said; repetition would be perfectly acceptable, but Dean's waiting inside and she's supposed to be on patrol. Also, Joseph will be worried about them if they don't send a message. "Have a good night. I'll see you at dawn."

"You, too." As he starts toward Alison's building, however, he hears her add, a thread of warmth in her voice, "Sorry for scaring you, Cas. I won't do it again."

Before he can answer, she's vanished into the night.

When he arrives, Teresa is on her way to making up the guest room for them after ushering Alison reluctantly into the kitchen and a convenient chair, "…if you make your ankle worse--again--I'll tie you the goddamn bed until it heals. I'll make the tea when I get back."

"I'll do it." Activity, he's learned, is a superlative ameliorator of stress, and he's familiar enough with the kitchen to find the tea and set a kettle on the gas burner to heat. Turning around, he sees Dean and Alison staring at each other across the kitchen table with matching expressions. "Dean?"

"Oh, just checking that Alison gets I'm okay this time with messing with my people's heads," Dean answers evenly, never looking away.

Alison rolls her eyes. "Can't read your mind, Dean."

"Right now, I wish you could," he answers sincerely. "You get the only reason I'm even marginally okay with this is Teresa, right? Her oaths are strict when it comes to harm, and she wouldn't do something like this unless it was imminent death or zero."

"I know, and I should have asked you first." After a moment, she sighs, sitting back with what he hopes is a frown of profound guilt. "It's temporary, lasts a day at most even if we don't break it. This was just a test; symbolic offering, no commitment, just--"

"Do you even understand the rudiments of what you and Teresa engaged in tonight?" Castiel says flatly, watching Alison stiffen. "You don't, or you would never use the word 'just' when speaking of anything that requires a free offering of blood."

Alison's jaw tightens mutinously. "Cas--"

"It was Amanda's decision to agree to your request, but it was yours to ask her the question, and that carries a degree of responsibility in the outcome," he continues, keeping his voice even with an effort. "Especially since of the three of you, only one of you had any idea of the seriousness of what you engaged in, and what she was doing was based, at best, on a guess from what you sensed from Dean."

"I had more than that," Teresa says from the doorway, introducing herself into the room and the conversation before crossing to the table and seating herself to Alison's right and reaching absently for her hand, lacing their fingers together. "If you need to apportion blame, it's mine, not Alison's; it was my idea, and I convinced her to try."

"I think there's blame enough for you both," he answers, ignoring the way Alison stiffens, fingers closing more tightly around Teresa's. "Alison had no reason not to disagree, after all; the only risk was to Amanda."

Dean glances at him briefly before returning his attention to Teresa and Alison.

"If there'd been any risk to Amanda, I wouldn't have done it," Teresa says, voice hardening. "I know my craft, Castiel; I've practiced it my entire life."

"That you can say that means you know nothing!" he snaps. "The earth is old, Teresa, but it is hardly more than a child compared to me. I was there when it came into being; do you think I don't know what it is? There's no guarantee that the earth's priorities would include protecting Amanda if you made a mistake, however unwitting." He swallows, remembering the church again, the women there who were forgotten before anyone even knew that they existed at all. "It is vast, and it is ancient, and she's a single breath in all time and space; it doesn't know her, how important she is to those here, how--how we'd be lessened in her absence. It knows you and Alison through you, it can't not, but Amanda? She's small, do you understand that? It can't even see her!"

Teresa's eyes widen, defensiveness vanishing. "I would have made sure it saw her."

"I'm certain you would have tried," he says bitterly. "You must forgive me, however, for not giving the earth the benefit of the doubt on how much it would care, for value of 'care' with an entity that has no context for it."

"You know what it is," she agrees, "and you also know that's exactly what I am: context." Even in oversized sweatpants and a flannel shirt over a sweater, black hair twisted into a loose braid, Teresa gives the impression of stillness, dark golden-brown skin smooth in lines of highly trained calm habitual to the point of reflex. When she meets his eyes, the sheen within the brown of the iris doesn't make her any less human, but simply more; a curiosity alien to all that is mortal, fragile, that lives and breathes on the surface of its skin peers out as well, watching him as carefully as she does. He wonders what it sees when it looks at him, if it's offended a being so foreign to all it is dares wear the skin of those born to its ashes and its dust. "That's why I exist, Castiel; so it knows what we are, what we need, and that's not just because it's got nothing else to do. From the earth we came, and to it we return; it can't not care, not since we were first created from it. It wants to know us."

"Cas," Dean says quietly. "Kettle."

Startled, he turns to see the kettle starting to vibrate with the boiling water within and hastily removes it from the gas, turning off the burner with hands not entirely steady. As he starts to search the cabinets, Dean is abruptly beside him, hip-checking him before reaching for the mismatched cups himself and setting them safely on the counter.

"You okay?" he asks quietly, standing casually between him and the women at the kitchen table. "Tell me the call and I'll make it."

Slumping against the counter, Castiel takes a deep breath, then another, forcing himself to consider it dispassionately. "If Amanda were in any danger, it would have occurred immediately, not several hours later. She's safe."

"Not what I asked," Dean murmurs, stepping closer until Castiel has to look at him. "You want me to get her back here and they break this now?"

"Teresa was accurate in her assessment," he admits. "I do know, and that should be enough."

"It's never enough," Dean corrects him. "Not when it's someone you care about." He inclines his head toward the table. "Come sit down, have some tea, breathe a little. Do your dead eye stare at them for a while; it's creepy as shit and it'll freak them out."

"I don't do that," he protests, picking up two of the cups.

"You know, I get why angels always had to say 'be not afraid'," he says thoughtfully, getting the other two cups. "After seeing that, probably only way people didn't drop dead of a goddamn heart attack."

He frowns. "I never noticed."

"Now you know," Dean says cheerfully, shoulder brushing his as he goes to the table. "So enjoy it."

Castiel ignores the charged silence as they sort through the cardboard box of tea bags, choosing their favorites from the variety available. To his surprise, Dean picks over them for several seconds before fishing out two, dropping one in Castiel's cup and then his own.

"Try this one," he says as Castiel pours out the water in each cup. "Tell me what you think."

He considers the novel idea of Dean having opinions on tea as he fills the kettle with more water before setting it on the stove and turning the gas burner on. He suspects this conversation would be improved by alcohol, but not necessarily anyone's ability to think, so tea it will be, and probably a lot of it, if for no other reason than to give them all something to do other than look at each other. There's a pattern regarding his visits to Ichabod, he thinks; at some point, surely he'll get better at not offending anyone within moments of arriving. Stranger things have happened, like learning sugar makes everything better and how to fall asleep.

When he returns to the table, he picks up the cup curiously; though still steeping, the fragrance is very pleasant. "Black currant."

Dean shrugs. "Mom liked it. It's weird what you remember, but that smell--it took me a while to track it down."

Castiel considers his cup for a long moment before putting it down again to finish steeping. Alison's glare indicates they've lost several steps in the progress of their relationship; he supposes adding 'accusing her girlfriend of being stupid and terrible at her job' to 'threatened her with execution upon meeting' wasn't the best choice in reactions, all things considered.

"I will require a complete explanation of what you did," he starts, "its structure and requirements, the expected results as well as the actual, and for that matter what you were thinking in the first place and exactly how it relates to what you saw in Alison's mind regarding what she sensed in Dean."

"Both of you," Teresa corrects him mildly as she removes the teabags from hers and Alison's cups before placing them on a chipped plate apparently present for that purpose. The brown eyes study him for a moment before she inclines her head. "I should have spoken to your first about that. I meant to during your last visit…." The flash of pain is muted, but Alison shuts her eyes tightly, reminding him abruptly it's only been four days since the attack, less than three since quarantine ended and they burned the bodies of their dead. "Paranoia doesn't lead to clear thinking, and none of us have done much of that. I know better than to--"

"It was my decision, too," Alison interrupts, squeezing Teresa's fingers as Dean dumps both their teabags on the same plate and starts adding sugar to both cups. "It wasn't your fault. And I thought," she adds, turning her glare on Castiel again, "that by now we'd have earned the benefit of the doubt. Maybe less in the way of execution threats?"

"He didn't threaten to execute her, Jesus!" Dean answers, dropping the spoon. "What the hell, Alison?"

"Not yet."

"You think he shouldn't be a little upset?" Dean asks incredulously. "Fucking with Amanda doesn't fall under 'benefit of the doubt' here; Cas sure as hell had every right to question what the hell you thought you were doing. Using blood's serious shit; you know it's the bodily fluid with the most potential for mystical abuse?"

Castiel just avoid spitting out a mouthful of tea at the familiarity of the words, frantically fighting not to choke as Dean adds self-righteously, "So don't tell me we don't have some grounds here to be concerned!"

"Bullshit," Alison snaps back, ignoring Teresa's frantic squeezing. "We got enemies enough, Dean; we sure as fuck don't need our supposed allies turning on us for one goddamn mistake!"

"A mistake?" Dean exclaims, half out of his chair and oblivious to Castiel's attempts at a significant glance to indicate this isn't necessary. "You gotta be kidding me!"

"Teresa," he says over Alison's not-entirely-reasonable response, "I apologize for reacting as I did. It was a surprise, and after tonight, I seemed to have reached my limit on those."

"…don't tell me how to run my town!" Alison shouts, chair scraping back emphatically as she continues to clutch Teresa's hand. "Who do you think you are?"

"It's fine," she answers, glancing up at Alison when Dean answers with something both very short and extraordinarily obscene before picking up her cup with her free hand. "I'm sorry for not speaking to you and Dean first. Amanda's become a friend, and that's who I asked to help, not one of Chitaqua's officers and representatives in Ichabod. I forgot she had other responsibilities."

"…and you were the genius who invited us into your town!" Dean yells back, bracing a hand on the table with an audible thump. Castiel winces, taking a sip of tea. "You're lucky we didn't conquer your asses for the fuck of it! So that'd take Cas about an hour: I'll give him the rest of the day off before we take over the rest of Kansas! Week, maybe two, we'll talk about who knows what, how about that?"

Teresa gives him a querying look. "I was being hyperbolic," he murmurs in resignation. "At least a little: transportation alone would slow our conquest a great deal. As I was saying, under the circumstances, your actions were perfectly understandable. And a credit to Amanda as well. You've been very welcoming to her and our people here, and we appreciate that a great deal."

"…when I'm done with their minds, they won't be able to find their asses with both hands! Or remember what asses are!" Teresa winces, biting her lip. "So fucking try it, Winchester, I fucking dare you!"

"She can't even step on a spider," Teresa mutters, closing her eyes. "I have to take them outside so they can live and be free. She makes us watch The Bridges of Madison County once a month and cries the whole time." He makes a note to find that movie; Meryl Streep's performance was supposedly sublime, or so several very trustworthy websites assured him. "You and Dean made good choices on who to send."

"They all speaks very highly of the your town," he continues, trying to ignore Dean's unsettlingly convincing plan to salt the earth where Ichabod once stood as a warning to those who cross him. This is not a moment he would appreciate being corrected on several misconceptions on the feasibility, and that doesn't even include the existence of a witch with a bond to the earth being in residence who might object to poisoning the earth in front of her. "He spent hours explaining in detail to everyone at the camp what would happen to them if they made anyone in Ichabod so much as nervous. The only reason we're allowed to be armed is it was in the agreement with the alliance and the entire point of our being here at all."

Alison smiles at Dean, all teeth. "Bring. It. On."

"Amanda is very much enjoying living here," he tells Teresa's pained expression.

Teresa smirks over the rim of her cup. "I'd say so, yeah."

"As well as the residents," he adds casually, and Teresa's smirk widens knowingly. "Or so she's told me, in startling detail."

Teresa bursts out laughing, and as Castiel takes a satisfied drink from his cup, he realizes the kitchen's now unexpectedly silent. Looking up, he sees Dean staring down at him with an expression drifting between angry and bewildered. A quick glance at Alison verifies she's looking at Teresa in a very similar way.

"You're done?" Teresa asks sweetly, raising her eyebrows, and Castiel watches, fascinated, as Alison's mouth snaps shut, hot color spreading across her face not entirely the result of anger. "Tea's getting cold. Sit down and drink some. Now."

"It's very good," Castiel agrees, retrieving Dean's chair--which has inexplicably slid back several feet--and nudging the back of Dean's knees with it to indicate he should sit down before Castiel has to apply enough pressure to make him. To his relief, Dean does so without the need for additional measures, and if he's not mistake, the flush isn't entirely the result of energetic shouting of useless threats to any and all who would oppose him (that being Alison). "The tea, I mean," he adds, pushing Dean's cup in front of him. "An excellent choice: thank you. You should have some."

"Anytime." Warily, Dean takes a sip, eyeing a subdued Alison on the other side of the table uncertainly. "So--everything okay?"

"Yes," he answers, turning to Teresa. "I--"

"Any chance you'll get to the point of this little visit?" Alison asks, glaring at them both before jumping slightly, tossing an uncertain look at a serene Teresa. "I mean, please tell us. We truly want to know. Please."

Dean's left eye twitches, but a very gentle nudge to his ankle seems to cut off whatever terrifyingly explicit threat he was considering as a viable response. "What happened four days ago--we think we know what happened, or part of it anyway."

Alison's hostility fades as she searches Dean's face. "Right. You went to the church?"

"Yeah." He looks at Castiel.. "You want to start?"

"No, not at all," he says, setting down his cup with a rattle. "The first thing you need to know; it might not be over yet."

Teresa lets out a breath when they're finished. "Whoever said there's nothing new under heaven lied."

"An angel probably inspired it," Castiel tells her as she looks mournfully at her empty cup before going to retrieve the kettle. "They always lie."

Alison's mouth quirks, murmuring thanks to Teresa as she refills her cup before looking at Castiel curiously. "So using memory to keep it active--I'm guessing that's different."

"It's a creative solution to the vexing problem of interference in ritual human sacrifice," he answers as Dean selects their teabags. "However, as with all things, there is a price to be paid for every advantage. From what I've read from the design, the requirements are very strict regarding killing those marked after the circle is completed if they don't or can't do it immediately It's a risk that a more orthodox version wouldn't have; the victims can't simply be killed or die in any way other than according to very specific criteria or it fails and unmakes it all."

"The memory needs to be active," Teresa interprets, nodding. "And they don't forget it, for that matter."

"Both, though the second is assured by ritual itself when the memory is first created," he answers. "To recreate the original, the circle must first be completed anew and the victims must see it. That triggers conscious recall, which is required to connect the newly created circle to the original and bring it back into being, and only then can the victim be killed and their deaths qualify for inclusion. It does still has one component in common with all others, however: it's all or nothing when it comes to the victims. Everyone marked is part of the whole, and one single death outside those parameters makes it impossible to complete and unmakes it entirely."

Dean drops his teabag on the plate with a thump. "So one breaking their neck after getting away--"

"A revoltingly ironic way to unmake this, yes. And considering the mind of a demon, probably a perfectly acceptable as far as limitations go."

Dean grimaces as he finishes adding sugar to Castiel's tea. "No way out but death. Including being killed by someone who wanted it to fail and knew how to make that happen."

Alison takes a drink, looking grim. "I told Amanda everything I could remember about what we found at the church, but I can show Cas what I saw directly if that would help…." Startled, he fumbles his cup at the casual offer, tea spilling over the edge. "What?"

Ignoring Dean's curious look, he takes the towel Teresa offers and wipes up the tea as he tries to work out how to explain what should be obvious.

"Generally," he starts, "you don't simply--offer up your memories to anyone who may want them. You shoot them, in fact: I think we've discussed this? I know Amanda drills you weekly on the firing range; your progress is excellent, by the way."

"I knew you were behind that," she mutters, scowling at him. "Cas, I show you shit all the time during our--that thing we do when you're here. What makes this different?"

"It's different," he explains patiently. "That's for your benefit, and your consent limits me to exactly what is required to teach you, nothing more and nothing less, and that gives you protection."

"Then I consent to you seeing anything you want!" Alison says in exasperation before he can stop her--or even realize there was something he would need to stop--before picking up her cup again. "Though maybe after I slept? Reliving that…before breakfast, though."

Castiel closes his eyes; you can explain in small and very easily understood words exactly what not to do--in their mother tongue, even--and yet, humans give blood, memories, and consent in blank check form at the drop of a hat to whoever may ask.

"Cas?" asks he who didn't even bother himself to ask why Castiel wanted his blood that day for the wards and showed as much interest in his reasons after the fact as before, which was none at all.

"Tomorrow," he says shortly; perhaps by then, he may be able to frame a better explanation of why one doesn't give consent to even Fallen angels to do what they will, since historically that's exactly what they do and never, once, has that ended well for the human in question. "Teresa, what did you sense at the church grounds?"

"I've never felt anything like that before," Teresa answers, eyes distant. "The corruption was too large to risk cleansing alone, but I've checked it regularly, and it hasn't spread."

"It was wise of you not to take the risk," he confirms, seeing the lingering guilt; a witch bound to the earth would feel that as a failure no matter how necessary. "Anything you accomplished would have been temporary at best; as long as this exists, so will it. You also have greater responsibilities that must take precedence."

She shrugs, staring at her cup as the tea steeps into the water. "I know. It doesn't help."

"How'd you find out about it anyway?" Dean asks Alison, smiling in satisfaction at her guilty start. "That's what I thought. You do more when you're sleeping than I do awake these days. Any reason you didn't mention this before, like when we got here? A warning would have been good here."

"Dean, it was years ago," she argues with muted heat--probably as a result of Teresa's warning glance--before reaching for the sugar. "Pretty soon after we settled here, in fact, and I gotta tell you, since then, not exactly unusual to find whole towns wiped out."

Castiel gives Dean a sidelong glance. It's becoming an effort to remind himself Dean's only been here four months, but Dean's face doesn't reflect any surprise. "You went looking even after you settled here?"

"Church set a precedent, I guess," she responds, playing nervously with her cup. "We'd hear things, go check it out, see if there was anything we could do. Usually that was just burning the bodies, but sometimes, there'd be survivors. We'd bring 'em here; not like we didn't have room."

"'Hear things'?" Dean asks mockingly. "Really?"

She makes a face. "Sometimes euphemistically, but yeah. If I'm gonna dream the goddamn future so I can fix it, might as well get to doing just that. Why not?" She raises her eyebrows challengingly. "Like you wouldn't do the same goddamn thing."

Of course she would do something, and becoming mayor has only increased the scope of her activities, and he doubts her leadership will ever be other than by example, the more dangerous the better. He makes a mental note to speak to Amanda about arranging with Teresa regular time for Alison on the training field as well and verify exactly what she knows and what she's capable of doing now. Teresa and Manuel would have seen she knew the basics, but it was probably difficult for both of them to be objective with family, and Alison would take advantage of that uncertainty, since from what Amanda's said, Alison is not overly fond of exercise and the outdoors.

"Fine, got me there." Dean blows out a breath, aiming a rueful grin at Alison. "Go ahead; tell us about your dream trailer of the church."

"It was--I'm not sure how to explain." She glances at Teresa, hazel eyes unfocusing briefly before she nods and returns her attention to Dean. "Teresa and Manuel had just arrived a few days earlier with another group, and…" She grimaces, looking at Teresa again. "You were doing your thing that you do."

"Listening to the earth," Teresa says patiently, a sigh in her voice. "That was only during daylight hours, however. I was actually sleeping that night. I think I mentioned once or twice I hadn't actually practiced that part of my craft since I finished my apprenticeship. It was exhausting."

Castiel tries and fails to imagine sitting for hours doing absolutely nothing but communing with the earth. The sheer tedium….

"They knew what I meant," Alison objects.

"I didn't," Dean volunteers, getting a dirty look from Alison. "Keep going. What happened?"

"I woke up," Alison says, rolling her eyes at Dean's scowl. "Obviously. I knew the signs of something I needed to do, but this was--stronger. And you," she says to Teresa, "were awake in the kitchen."

"To get some milk," Teresa says, glaring at Alison in return. "You're the one with the weird visions, I just listen to the earth."

"And it talks back!"

"And I'm the one with a fallen angel," Dean says, looking between them. "I win forever, okay? And--wait, why does it even matter?" He cocks his head, studying them before he starts to grin. "You just met--you didn't know what either of you were, did you? That's when you found out?"

"Pretty much," Alison answers sourly. "Teresa kept asking me if I was okay--"

"You looked upset."

"You try having a strong compulsion to explain you dream the future--and don't get the details--to someone you've spent a week trying to convince you'd make an excellent life partner! While your brother was hovering every goddamn time I went near you!" Teresa's mouth twitches as Alison looks at them in remembered outrage. "They didn't give details about what happened before they came here, which join the party, that was everyone here, no one asked. I thought it was some nice, garden-variety homophobia from Manuel--you know, normal bullshit." She snorts, looking eerily like Dean for a moment. "Like it could be something that simple."

"I hear you," Dean commiserates. "So it was--wait, did you say compulsion?"

Castiel straightens; he assumed that was a figure of speech, but as Teresa's partner, she wouldn't use that word lightly, not anymore.

"Every time I opened my mouth, that's all that wanted to come out," Alison confirms as Teresa nods agreement. "Ten minutes of that, Teresa had a choice between being creeped the fuck out or trying to work out what was going on. Thanks, by the way," she says to Teresa. "I never did tell you I appreciated the part where you didn't go for your gun when I started freaking out on you in the middle of the night over warm milk and toast."

"I recognized what it was," Teresa tells them, curling her fingers through Alison's reassuringly. "Since I was the object, clear questions and physical contact helped clarify what she needed to tell me while repressing the memories, which I assume is why she put it on herself."

"Generally, clairvoyance isn't concerned with the continuing mental health of its bearer," Castiel says, surprised. "I wondered how she managed to avoid--"

"Cutting my wrists in a heroin bathtub?" Alison interrupts sweetly.

"Yes," he agrees, ignoring her scowl as Teresa nods. "You think she's deliberately blocking the memories?"

"In the Valley seers weren't uncommon," Teresa says. "I worked with enough of them to get an idea of what they could do, and I was called in for a few when they first manifested. It wasn't rare for them to block themselves entirely if what they saw was traumatic enough, especially if there wasn't anyone they could trust enough to tell what happened to them or would believe them if they did tell." Her expression darkens in remembered pain. "The ones that didn't decide on another option, that is."

The modern era isn't so different when it comes to those who are different, and true clairvoyance has rarely been anything other than a burden. Even during times they were believed, acceptance was always at whim; serving an emperor or burned alive, it was always a matter of luck even if they survived the horrors their own minds inflicted upon them. And even then….

"In any case, this time a compulsion allowed her to tell me before she forgot it, without having to remember it herself," Teresa continues in a more normal voice. Taking a sip from her cup, she shakes her head. "It's not impossible for someone to do it without training, the human mind is--"

"Like that," Dean agrees briefly, fingers slowly loosening from their tight hold on the cup. "So she told you what happened?"

"Of course not," Teresa says, lips curving in a mocking smile. "When does that happen? No, a very brief--but very detailed--description of the church and the grounds, that there was something we needed to do there--not much there, but after seeing it, I think I can guess why--and a rough idea of where it was. Luckily, there's a Catholic church in Ichabod, and I used the diocese records to find it. Not all that difficult: only place in Kansas that had a bishop's personal authorization for Father Francis to open and supervise a rural school for indigent children with funding provided by an anonymous donor into perpetuity." She grins at Dean's mystified expression. "You're not Catholic; let's say I can imagine the reaction here when a rural parish priest gets a bishop telling everyone to leave him alone to do his good work; talk about jumping a few levels of very important-in-their-own-minds bureaucracy. The letter was hilarious if you know what you're reading: no one can formally say 'fuck off and God bless you' like a pissed bishop to a whining local priest not happy he couldn't get a recalcitrant parish priest recalled and then finds out said priest got his school approved and fully funded."

Dean grins appreciatively. "¿Si vas a hacer, haga con huevos?"

Teresa laughs delightedly. "Spanish for tourists stuck, huh?"

"Shut up, your mom taught me that after the thing at the diner when I asked for eggs." Taking another drink, Dean taps a discordant rhythm on the table. "Got anything else on Father Francis from that church? I'd really like to know how long he was working on this."

"Not much, but I'll show you what we have," she assures him. "Anyway, Alison figured out I wasn't just another resident, and all things considered, took the witch thing really well." Alison gives her an incredulous look, and Teresa's mouth twitches. "Actually she said 'whatever, but are you interested in me?' While I was breaking and entering a church, by the way, to track down her dream location. Because that was the important part."

"It was to me," Alison protests, and from the corner of his eye, he sees Dean hide a grin behind his cup. "Anyway, we had location, so I woke Manuel up--and I apologized for calling him a homophobic dick and he forgave me when I assured him I didn't have any intention of burning Teresa for witchcraft--and we went to the church. It was--" She hesitates, looking at Teresa. "Teresa almost passed out when we stepped on the grounds; Manuel caught her just before she hit the ground."

"Yeah, you can thank me for Cas not having a bloody nose," Dean says, eyes darting to Teresa, who's frowning uncertainly. "Something else?"

"Yes," she says slowly, staring at the surface of the table intently. "Before that--just before I stepped on the ground--I thought…." She trails off, frustrated, then looks at Castiel. "It was now, had been, would be, always. It was nailed into the earth and the sky, unmoving, until we touched the ground. Then it was--now-now."

"Cas?" Dean prompts, and he realizes he's been quiet for too long. "What?"

"Time differentiation, but I've never heard it put like that," he answers, wondering at the very distant possibility he isn't interpreting Teresa's explanation correctly. "It broke when you stepped on the earth there?"

She nods. "Never felt anything like that, but the earth--let's say it confirmed what it was."

"When you entered the church, how long did it appear to have been since the slaughter?"

"Last death was two to four hours earlier," Teresa answers. "Rigor mortis hadn't set in on any of them when we got Dolores there, and she used that to get a rough time of death for all of them when we got them back to Ichabod. Best guess, they were all within six to twelve hours of each other, but how long it was outside the church grounds…."

Castiel sits back in his chair. "The earth didn't know?" Then, at Teresa's raised eyebrow, "It didn't tell you?"

"Which would normally injure my professional pride," Teresa admits, folding an arm on the table and resting her chin in her hand. "In this case, though--and keep in mind translation is sketchy when you're speaking to something that has no sense of time as singular instead of cyclical--it didn't notice it. Or possibly wasn't supposed to notice, that wasn't clear."

Taking a drink from the cooling tea, he thinks wistfully of far less stressful times, when his decisions only extended to the number of sexual partners in any given room and who would top. He also remembered those times existing, which is a feature he never realized could be optional instead of mandatory. "What you sensed was a fixed point in time, a kind of bubble, and grounded in the earth itself. Within it, time ran on a different scale, though at this point, there's no way to be certain on the difference. What was a day for them may have been weeks, even months here. Your arrival was apparently an indicator to bring the church and grounds back into the regular time stream, but whoever did it didn't compensate for the differentiation. Or rather," he adds, "may not have been alive any longer to fix it."

"And that means…." Dean trails off invitingly.

"It's younger than the rest of Creation," Teresa explains, with the ease of someone who's lived for years with someone who often required such explanations. "Not much, though: a quarter year, I'd be able to tell from the differences in the earth myself, and Castiel…."

"Cas," he corrects her absently, fighting down frustration with his lack of knowledge. "I should be able to tell no matter how much--I think--but observation states less than two months. Six weeks, if I were guessing, which I am."

"How much power does something like that take?" Dean asks curiously, taking another sip from his cup. "The time bubble thing, I mean."

"Almost nothing. It's practically useless, in all honesty. To put in human terms, it's the equivalent of a parlor trick." He bites his lip, amused by the incredulity reflected on Alison's and Dean's faces as Teresa hides her amusement at the same behind her cup. "Remember the frame of reference for the immortal is very different. It's generally used by the gods--and Gabriel, who possibly perfected the use--as a facet of extremely elaborate practical jokes on each other. Using it on humans was also an enjoyable pastime, but they couldn't really appreciate the full range of a joke that could last centuries." Despite himself, he has to fight down a smile, keeping his expression rigidly impassive; for the first time, he thinks he can understand the appeal. "Eternity is a long time, and even gods can become bored, I suppose."

"Better than an amoeba," Alison murmurs, one corner of her mouth quirking slyly. Ignoring Teresa and Dean's quizzical looks, she cocks her head. "Remind me before you leave: we got a couple of copies of The Three Stooges and I grabbed one for you the other day. Got a TV at Chitaqua by any chance?"

"We just acquired one," he agrees, intrigued.

"Tell me what you think after you see them," she says with a ghost of a smile before returning to the original subject. "Okay, time was stopped at the church for six to eight weeks, is that what you mean?"

"Slowed, not stopped," he corrects her absently and immediately becomes the center of attention. "Think of time like a river: if a dam was built, the output of power needed would be immense just to keep the pressure from destroying it, as well as require constant attention and maintenance." He sits back, slotting it together. "Stopping time is also very, very noticeable; it's rather obvious when a river stops flowing and bears investigation as to the reason."

"Hard to miss?" Dean offers. "Might as well put up a sign saying 'something interesting's going on here'."

"Complete with fireworks and a chorus, preferably Greek, yes," he agrees, warmed by Dean's smile. "Slowing time, however, is different; it's simply changing the speed of passage in a discreet space. To even see it, it'd be like looking at a large river and finding the slowest point on a glance; you'd have to know it was there to find it and exactly where to look. There's no way to tell without investigating whether it's a natural characteristic of the river or artificial, and why would anyone bother unless they were in on the presumed joke, since that's what they generally were?"

"Time has slow points?" Alison asks slowly, looking pained. "Chemistry was at one, physics was eight in the morning; sue me, I'm not a morning person."

"Don't trouble yourself," he tells her earnestly. "You were at least two centuries from accidentally breaking cause and effect while expanding your understanding of special relativity; have you seen Groundhog Day? It was like the director was there. I can point out the relevant scenes if you have a copy available."

Alison stares at him before she slowly begins to smile. "And it all started with sitting on a toad."

"One hundred and seventy-four million gallons per hour per square mile," he agrees, smiling back. "For three hours, thirty two minutes, and fifteen seconds, roughly."

"Do you need us here for this?" Dean asks, green eyes telling him that they'll be revisiting this topic in private for a full explanation one day. "Moving on from--both of you being freaks--let's go with this not being a practical joke of the gods, just so I can sleep at night."

"It wasn't a joke, but it would have looked like one on the off-chance anyone saw it and knew my Brother," Castiel assures him as he takes another drink. "Everything in that church was consistent with her purpose, except those children; that's what doesn't fit. Those woman were the foundation of her claim, and the execution of those demons was just. That was all she would have been interested in--in a sense, it was all she could be interested in--so why fix that point in time afterward? And for that matter, use time to hide it? Gods generally don't think like that."

"That's why it was slowed, not stopped," Dean says in a strange voice. "Hide it…Alison, this town, all of you are here because there wasn't anywhere else to go, right? What was the reaction to those kids when you brought them back?"

"We almost had a war on Main Street when we brought them home," she replies with a faint smile, remembering. "The older kids told us--those nuns, they were hunters, but they didn't just save them from whatever killed their parents. The nuns never told them this, but the older ones heard enough to--the towns wouldn't take them, even the ones their parents lived in before they died. Sometimes their own relatives…." She takes a breath, the flash of hot anger there and gone in an instant. "All of us here--we knew what that was like to lose everything, even our homes and some of us our countries. Let's say the kids were really surprised we almost had fistfights in the street over who got to raise them."

Dean nods, mouth softening. "That how you got your trade network started. The kids: you started working on contacting other towns, spread the word that there was still somewhere for the kids to go with the church gone, search towns when you heard something went down. I wondered about that."

"We'd only been here a little while, and there weren't many of us. Enough dry goods were left behind and some gardens still producing for us to be okay, but that wasn't gonna last forever. The future--what future did we have, just surviving ourselves was hard enough, you know? And even wanting to…." Dean nods. "The kids, though--babies need milk, kids need food, and they couldn't survive on their own; if we were gonna save them, we had to save ourselves to do it. So that's what we did." She shakes her head. "Word spread. We never turned anyone away without damn good reason. Side effect: regular contact with the towns close to us made us familiar--kids help with that kind of thing, I noticed--and half the battle was won right there. From there, it was easy to build up trust."

"Bread upon the water," Dean says, smiling. "You found those kids a month after you settled here, right?"

"About six weeks, give or take," she answers, looking amused. "God, those first weeks….we all huddled in the buildings and didn't even go outside if we could help it. Me, Neer, Sud, and Rabin would go days without seeing anyone else. Get out, stock up our supplies, cook on a fire in the fireplace downstairs, stay away from rooms with windows." The hazel eyes grow distant. "Then--out of nowhere--the lights came on."

"Tony and Walter got the grid up."

"Yeah, for five seconds. Then it overloaded and lights out, except--" She sits back, eyes fixed on the table. "Five seconds, I looked around and saw my best friends and I were sleeping on a pile of clothes and mattresses in a room with peeling wallpaper, with a pile of empty plastic bottles and crap we couldn't be fucked to throw away because why bother. Animals do better than that. We weren't living, we weren't surviving; we were marking time until we were dead."

Dean takes a sip from his cup.

"Me and Neer braved the wilds of town looking for the power station, found Tony and Walter, and they explained that they couldn't bring it up again without risking burning it out, not until we could lower the load on it. Every house in the town had to be checked to turn off the lights and unplug the cells and turn off the coffeemakers. A few months of hard work, and we'd have electricity. Probably. If we didn't miss anything."

"And option two?" Dean asks, looking like he's enjoying himself immensely.

"Everyone get together, pick one area for all of us to live, and he'd work out how to cut power to everywhere but there. We go though, flip everything off that needed electricity, and a week, two at most, we'd have lights." She looks up at Dean. "But to do it, it would take everyone, and we'd have to be outside, right in the middle of the street every day, going between buildings and checking and double checking, because we only had one chance to get it right.

"I lived in that goddamn building with peeling wallpaper and I wanted light to see how to get that shit off. I wanted to sleep in a bed and eat food off a plate and to do that, I had to go outside and I wanted to do that and not be afraid. I got three of four; I was still afraid, every minute, but when Tony showed us the guns he'd collected from around town, me and Neer were first in line to get them and learn to use them." She wipes hastily at her eyes, glancing at Teresa in a moment of shared warmth, before looking at Dean again. "And for his efforts, Tony got back to find out the lights were on and he was our first mayor. I don't think he's forgiven us for that one yet."

"So after six weeks, give or take, you got electricity, plumbing, and people ready to start living their lives again," Dean says cryptically. "Ready to start taking in survivors who didn't have any place else to go, and you get a goddamn dream telling you exactly where to get some kids who needed just that. Anyone see where I'm going with this?"

"You think that goddess screwed with time to hide them until they had somewhere to go?" Alison asks incredulously, eyes darting to Castiel. "Would she do that?"

"Her purpose was those women; that's why she was there. The children--she wouldn't hurt them without reason, but they weren't--" He pauses; they were small. "She wouldn't even see them."

"What about that novice?"

"If it was to save her, she could have taken her when she left." He studies the edge of his tea cup resentfully. "I need to point out, what we know is almost entirely speculation. It would help, of course, if the earth would give us a narrative of events," he adds in Teresa's direction, "but I assume you've done your best."

Teresa rolls her eyes, unoffended, while Alison and Dean both seem to find some point in the distance utterly fascinating.

"Amanda's report covers the rest," Alison says after taking an unnecessarily large drink of tea, cheeks suspiciously flushed. "When we had the kids and the novice home and were sure they were okay, we went back to the church, got the bodies down, and brought them here for Dolores to check out and give them a clean burn. The kids only knew the names they chose when they took orders, and since everything was either charred or wrecked, we buried them here under their names in the order."

"What about the novice--the kids had to know her name, too." Alison makes a face. "Don't tell me--they couldn't remember it. Because of fucking course they can't."

"Or they just aren't telling," Alison answers wryly. "They visited her every day, brought the babies with 'em. Weren't surprised when she left, either. On a guess, the older ones helped her out, though I can't prove it. All they said was it was a really long drive, and she really wanted to go home."

"Did she drive?" Dean asks.

"No missing gas or cars, but I guess she could have found one on the road," Alison answers, shrugging. "We got her picture still--in retrospect, I'm surprised she didn't take it with her--and Dolores' guess on her age and some basic demographics, in case--in case anyone came looking for her, we could tell them something."

There's a pensive silence after that, and it's Dean that finally breaks it.

"You said the kids don't remember anything about the courtyard? Or the church?"

Alison shakes her head. "The courtyard--it's blurred, lots of blank spots, shock I guess--but the church…." She gives Castiel an uncertain look. "What happened to them there--it's like…."

"Like the memories aren't there," he says numbly. "And no space where they should be."

"There should have been, right?" Alison sighs in relief at his brief nod. "Thanks, I was wondering about that. It was like it didn't even happen."

"Including the symbol?" Dean asks. At Alison's nod, he focuses on Teresa. "Do you remember? The symbol, I mean."

"Of course." She looks at Alison. "I haven't asked Kamal and Amanda yet, but I assume they do as well."

"We can ask them in the morning," Dean says grimly. "On a guess, they will. Anyone else see it?"

"Amanda followed Cas's order that no one else enter unless by my will and with my express permission," Teresa answers, choosing her words carefully. "Alison gave the order to the town, and no one disobeyed. I asked Kamal to join me in case he had seen it before, and he insisted on remaining in case I needed help to complete purification. No one else entered or left." She hesitates for a moment, exchanging a look with Alison. "Why did you ask if we remembered it?"


"Because what Alison described regarding the children's memories is what was done to mine," Castiel interrupts. "By me."

Alison's eyes widen as beneath the table, Dean's hand suddenly closes around his wrist, conveying reassurance with a warm squeeze. "That doesn't mean--"

"It means the goddess didn't remove their memories," Castiel says softly. "I told you, a god wouldn't do it like this, they wouldn't know how. I did it, and then my own. It doesn't make sense. Why wouldn't I simply let her remove the design from their minds or do it myself?"


"You said this works on active memory?" Teresa interrupts, leaning forward when she sees she has their attention. "Dean, you've seen the symbols for Ichabod's wards; do you remember all of them?"

Dean starts to answer, then grimaces. "Most of them, yeah. Why?"

"Most, not all, and you saw them in Laredo first; that's why you recognized them, right?" He nods. "But if I gave you a pencil and piece of paper, I'm going to guess you'd only get maybe get half of them accurately." Dean blinks at her, hand frozen in the act of picking up the cup. "What about that design in the courtyard?"

"Every line," he answers softly; he can't remember anything before Castiel's arrival, and nothing of actually seeing the design in the courtyard even after Castiel unmade it with his blood. He remembers that, however. "Teresa?"

"I can," she confirms. "So why can't the kids after seeing it this time? Even if it was shock, Alison should be able to find it in their memories, and she can't."

Dean sits back. "At all?"

"Nothing," Alison confirms, gulping the last of her tea before looking at Castiel. "No blank space, either."

"Why go through all the trouble of making something without a time limit and risk fucking it up by depending on the same shitty human memory that makes you lose your keys five seconds after putting them down?" Teresa asks in what he supposes is supposed to be a rhetorical question.

"That's a different type of memory," Castiel argues, unable to help himself. "In any case, what does that have to do with--"

"Think about this one. You escaped--or think you did--a human sacrifice and can't get the memory of that design out of your head," Teresa says conversationally. "What do you do now? Other than visit a psychologist: let's assume you realized you needed a little more specialized help."

"Go to a professional in the field," Dean says immediately. "A hunter. Ritual human sacrifice: that would get our attention. Protect them while we tried to figure out how to fix it, yeah."

"A psychic, a seer, a witch, any practitioner," Teresa says, counting off on her fingers. "Who else would a human who was desperate go to?"

"Crossroads," Dean breathes, sitting back. "Make a deal to get out of it."

"Exactly the people you don't want to know anything about this. Not a great way to keep a secret, especially if you want to hide this from other demons," Teresa says. "That's assuming our smarter than average sacrifice didn't run into any demons along the way who read their minds, saw that design, and realized what it did. First principle of keeping a secret: be the only one who even knows a secret exists."

"If the sacrifice doesn't remember the design until they see it again," Dean says, starting to nod, "they don't know it's even there, much less have any reason to try to find a way to get rid of it. Repress that shit and move on."

"We can remember because we weren't part of it; unintended consequence of making a memory stick, it works on everyone who sees it, but the full ritual is the only way to hide it after. If Alison can't see it in the kids' heads now, even going to a pro wouldn't help," Teresa continues, bracing both elbows on the table and leaning forward. "They wouldn't even know the person was still marked, or how, much less where to look." She turns at Castiel. "This thing is using organic human memory formation to do the job, no magic needed; the only thing new here is persistence, making sure you can't get rid of it and keeping it from degrading or altering, since memory does that all the time. Even if a goddess could wipe their memories of what happened entirely, how do you get rid of what they don't even know that they remember?"

"Human memory can't be entirely destroyed without physical alteration to the brain itself and that's not easy, even for a god," he says, thinking carefully. "When humans form and store a memory, each engram is encoded redundantly and with multiple alternate pathways should one or more be destroyed. The persistence isn't magic; the ritual simply takes advantage of what your brain already does on its own. What it does is protect it after formation, as well as the redundant copies. That would include hiding it, even from the brain itself so it wouldn't affect the memory."

"Exactly," Teresa says softly. "With only one built-in trigger: seeing the design. Perfect way to keep a secret: no one knows it's there, even the one carrying it, not until you want them to. Even if you know it's there, the only way to trigger it is to know the design and show it to them."

"Including an angel or a god," Castiel realizes, looking at Dean. "That's why those restrictions were added to the design; not just to hide its existence. To keep the memory from being removed at all; even if they were looking at it in a human's mind, they still wouldn't see it."

Dean swallows. "If that goddess couldn’t see it--"

"The only way to be sure it was gone would be to wipe their memories entirely. Everything they were, are, and could ever be, damaging the brain beyond repair." He meets Dean's eyes, seeing his own horror reflected there. "Tabula rasa, a blank slate whose pen was destroyed just to be certain; as they were at that moment they would always be. It would be kinder to kill them."

"Or an angel who just learned all about human memory the old fashioned way told her there was another option," Dean responds, looking at Alison and Teresa. "Cas, how'd you do it with yours again? You literally can't forget anything, so…"

"I removed all the memories from the linear sequence," he answers. "In effect--"

"Hid them," Dean finishes in satisfaction, and Teresa straightens with a startled expression. "Most of the benefits of wiping them, but no mindfucked kids. All the demons were dead, so far so good, there was no one alive who knew the design or about the sacrifice at all. The kids remembered almost being sacrificed, though; that just might make a demon curious when they saw it, and wiping it--big blank space--would get attention. So lower the risk, just in case. Take everything about that sacrifice, and bonus, improved mental health for the under-ten crowd."

"Best case scenario: all organic triggers would be gone that would retrieve the memory of the design, and maybe that would break it," Teresa agrees, nodding. "Didn't work, but it was a longshot anyway. Second best: with all the demons who were there for the first try dead, there'd be no one to come after them, so it wouldn't matter if it was broken or not. That doesn't mean word didn't get around, though, and that's exactly what happened. Removing the memory of the sacrifice would protect them not just from a random demon, but even from one who knew enough to go looking for some kids with a memory of a failed human sacrifice or--"

"--kids with a big blank space in their memories, all in the same place," Dean finishes for her, looking at Castiel. "I heard something about that being kind of noticeable. I'm guessing a demon would notice that, so instead, hide the kids in plain sight. Only way to find them would be knowing what to look for."

Alison closes her eyes. "And it almost worked."

"It worked perfectly," Dean says softly, but he's not looking at Alison. "The kids survived." With a flickering smile, he returns his attention to the others. "Not only that. Two and a half years since then; those demons weren't waiting, they've been looking for them. Only way they found them was using human tools who could ask the right questions and even then, they had to be here for weeks before they were sure it was these kids. And that's the only reason we know this exists at all, much less that somewhere out there, someone else knows not just it happened, but the design. All the kids were was confirmation; eventually, they would have tried this without 'em and we'd be fucked and not even know enough to realize how much." He slumps back in his seat, expression darkening. "And we're no closer to figuring out how the hell to get that out of the kids' heads before someone tries again. If the only way to remove it was mindfucking the kids, then…."

"We don't have to remove it," Teresa says slowly, looking up with a startled expression. "Just unmake it."

"They were watching when I unmade it in the courtyard," Castiel answers. "If that didn't work--"

"In their minds," she says, tapping the table restlessly. "Natural memory formation of the original, unnaturally persistent and no degradation, because it's protected; they want to make a memory a sacrificial circle, we'll treat it like one. Draw it again, let the kids recall it, then unmake it in their memory when it's active as well as here."

"And what about the copies?" Dean asks, the hope suppressed but there. "Will doing one get them all?"

Teresa looks at Castiel thoughtfully. "If they're linked by contamination, unmaking one will unmake all the copies. On a guess, though, they aren't; this thing makes the brain do the heavy lifting, so each copy will be discrete. However, that means every time recall is established, all the copies have to become active; not like they know about each other and can pick which shows up. Once it's in their conscious memory, Alison can see it--see all the copies--and we can find and unmake each one."

"We draw it, they remember, Alison reads their minds and…that's not where this is going?" Dean finishes at Alison's baffled expression. "Teresa?"

"She can see them," Teresa agrees, and Dean follows her gaze to Castiel. "Altering them, though…."

"She could," he admits finally, and Alison's eyes widen. "However, I wouldn't recommend this as a good way to learn the principles."

"I could do that?" Alison asks blankly.

"You can do it now," he tells her. "But it wouldn't end well, and please don't ask me to elaborate on what that means."

"I'm not asking," Alison assures him, looking shaken. "So how--"

"Something Teresa shouldn't even know enough to guess," he interrupts as Teresa shrugs. "The earth is indiscreet, I see."

"The earth," she says, "is practical."

He sighs, looking at Alison again. "Even if you were experienced, mistakes are still possible, and with something like this…. It's not a matter of knowledge or experience, but--something more fundamental."

"What?" Dean asks when the silence stretches to the (very short) limits of his patience. "Seriously, just say it."

"An angel would be very useful; manipulation of human memory is intrinsic to their beings, and they were created to serve humanity. However, due to their absence--and the restrictions against them, which may even apply to active memory.…" He closes his eyes, resigned. "The fact I altered my memory--and apparently that of the children--without ill effect proves I retained that, which shouldn't surprise me as it's certainly useless enough to qualify...nevermind. We can't make mistakes; it's instinct, and there's no danger of permanent damage to the brain because we know exactly how to do it. What I don't have," he adds, opening his eyes to stare at Teresa, "is Grace, or even a compatible source of power….you must be joking!"

"Me," Alison says blankly, looking at him, then at Teresa. "But I don't have any power. I just--do it."

He sighs, ignoring Teresa hiding her smile. "You do, it's intrinsic and specific to your abilities so useless for anything else, and I don't have time to explain more thoroughly on the off-chance you actually care, so just take it as a given. And this is a terrible idea."

"No, it's a good idea," Alison argues, looking between them. "It's fine, what do you need me to do?"

"Survive," he says quietly, watching the color drain from her face. "I don't know if I can see it without you, but even if I can, I would need you so I could make the changes, and that means access to your entire mind and exposing you to mine. You won't survive, not even for the few moments it would take me to unmake each memory."

She licks her lips before nodding. "I'll do it."

For a moment, he forgets how to breathe. "Alison--"

"I'll do it," she repeats. "So I'll ask you again: what do you need me to do?"


"Fifteen kids, Cas," she says, learning forward urgently. "It's worth the risk--"

"No." Focusing on the table, he takes a deep breath, trying to think. "The children aren't in immediate danger. We have time to consider other options."

"What options?"

"And time to think of them as well," he answers flatly. "This isn't and will never be one of them. Teresa, how you could even think--"

"On a guess," Dean says casually, "because she thinks she can protect Alison. Or the earth will."

Teresa doesn't answer, eyes darkening.

"Alison said you used to help her block everyone out," Dean continues, taking a drink from his nearly empty cup. "I didn't think much of it, but the thing with Amanda--Cas said she was the only one in danger, the earth would protect Alison. She's not bound to it, you are. So why would it care what happened to her specifically? Your feelings?"

"That's one way to put it," Teresa agrees reluctantly, flickering a glance at Castiel. "It's…private."

"Which is why Cas can't tell me?"

"Actually, I can." Teresa's eyes narrow. "The formalities required of an angel when interacting with Creation--which includes the earth and all that concerns it--no longer apply. It's a matter of courtesy, and I'm willing to discard that at need or simply for spite. This would be need, but spite isn't off the table."

Teresa makes a face. "She's bound to me, and what concerns me concerns the earth."

Dean blinks slowly. "What?"

"She did it to save me." Alison stares at her cup, fingers tightening in Teresa's. "I--wasn't entirely honest about--I didn't wake up hearing everything the next morning; it was two weeks before I woke up. In the infirmary, on an IV line, with Teresa looking at me like I just came back from the dead."

Dean lets out a breath, the set look softening. "How'd you do it?"

"Same way I was bound to the earth," Teresa answers, calm fragile enough to shatter. "It took me two weeks to find her, and once I gained her consent, I could take it from her enough for her to adjust."

"Noise shared is noise halved," he murmurs, and Alison, glancing up warily, nods. "That's what you meant."

"And finally wake up," Teresa whispers, eyes dark with remembered fear. "I'd die for her; living for her was a bonus."

"That's not to the death, you get that, right?" Dean asks, turning on Alison. "Teresa's bound until it lets her go, and death's not necessarily a dealbreaker. You get this--"

"I get her," Alison answers, covering their joined hands protectively. "Even if it wasn't my life on the line, I would have done it."

"Cas, I made my offering when I was bound to the earth," Teresa continues. "I got all of it in return, and I survived; that's the test, and that's how I passed. What I can do, she can, but that's not what made her able to interpret that memory she got from you: that was her. If she can do that--"

"One memory," he spits out, panic clawing through him. "One, and this isn't a memory. This isn't like your offering to the earth; all that it was, is, and will be is the smallest fraction of the whole of Creation, and Creation is only a single mote of what's contained within me. She'll shatter in a single breath!"

"Then when you're unmaking those memories," Alison says into the ensuing silence, hazel eyes certain, "do it faster than I can breathe."

Teresa thoughtfully left clean clothes for them on the bed, which is less of a surprise than it once would have been. Changing clothing specifically for the purpose of going to bed is still a concept he finds difficult to grasp, but in this case, it's not simply due to the sometimes inexplicable habits of humans. Dean is a hunter, and he rarely bothered to do so without some other factor (damaged or otherwise unacceptably soiled clothing, an injury requiring him remove it so it could be treated, a shower, sexual intercourse), but for reasons that elude him, Dean now does it every night and insists that Castiel acquire the habit as well.

Four months of experience have taught him this much; even the most inexplicable of Dean's rules for human cohabitation is perfectly acceptable when supplemented with a system of rewards for compliance. That would be less of a problem if the reward system involved regular sex; sexual favors offered to reinforce acceptable behavior is one of humanity few successful leaps of logic. That it's based entirely on Dean's personal happiness and sense of comfort in his surroundings is not something he's prepared to consider, at least until denial is no longer a viable option, which thankfully is not quite yet.

Picking them up--they're very large, and he wonders if Teresa and Alison simply keep random clothing for potential guests available at all times or if she borrowed them from someone living here--he flickers a glance toward the door and the safety of a Dean-mandated habit of showering before bed. Somehow, he thinks tonight Dean will feel an exception is warranted.

"Gonna have to skip the shower tonight," Dean confirms, kicking off his boots and setting them beside the nearby chair before pointing to the foot of the bed. "Sit down, Cas."

Reluctantly, he toes off his boots first, another inexplicable habit, as Dean makes himself comfortable against the headboard and warily takes his assigned position at the foot, extremely aware of the space stretching between them.

"Okay, first thing--you don't even remember what happened last time with that goddess," Dean says unexpectedly. "This is all guesswork."

"It's possible I had a nefarious purpose instead, yes--"

"Don't fuck with me," Dean says warningly, and he shuts his mouth. "Your experiments in doing shit like this are running one-one when it comes to safety, so tell me you know doing this won't kill you. I mean, not guess, not 'let's try seeing all things oops that was a bad plan and blood loss'; you can tell me this is totally safe."

"Altering their memories?" he asks in surprise, adding quickly at Dean's scowl, "No, there's no danger at all. But I'd like to remind you that I didn't agree to it."

"You will," Dean responds venomously. "Show you a fire, tell you it's hot, you'd walk through it just to see if you could. So let's get this part out of the way now: you're telling me it couldn't….I don't know, do something to hurt you? By accident? Or on purpose," he adds. "Let's put that on the table, okay? Alison's a psychic, tell me she can't--do anything to hurt you or--whatever?"

Castiel blinks slowly. "A human psychic?" Dean nods empathically, seemingly forgetting Lucifer's abject failure when simply attempting to read his mind. "Even if she wanted to," he says slowly, wondering if he should be offended or worried about Dean's display of very specific anmesia, "she couldn't, no." Then, "Why would you think she would?"

Dean's expression goes through several bewildering permutations, each equally baffling, before settling--almost gratefully, he thinks--on anger. "Just covering all the bases, okay?"


"Okay, next subject," Dean interrupts. "Why don't you want to do it?"


"The thing with the kid's memories and Alison," he explains, as if that's actually what he thought Castiel wished to have clarified. "Teresa thinks Alison will be okay, so--"

"She doesn't know what she's talking about." Dean cocks his head. "She's not wrong, but the scale against which she measures me is--inaccurate--because the earth doesn't know what it isn't, only what it is. Dean, the earth needs Teresa to tell it what you are when you walk the surface of its skin and are nourished by its bounty despite the fact you are born of it: it thinks of you as earth and is continually surprised you aren't stationary and require food and dislike earthquakes. The obvious escapes it with truly unsettling regularity, because it's limited only to what it is: earth and all that it encompasses. It knows what an angel isn't--earth. What they are--what I am--it cannot know, and as that's not earth, it doesn't even know that!"

Dean starts to nod then sighs. "I get--none of that, but you'd know, so I'll go with it." He does something with his hands that after a moment, Castiel realizes is supposed to convey calm. "It's a risk, a big one--"

"It's not a risk," he says flatly. "I will kill her. And possibly Teresa as well if their connection is as strong as I think it is and the earth doesn't take action to cut its losses when it realizes nothing it can do will save Alison from me."

"Right." Dean hesitates. "That's the only reason?"

"It's the only one I care about." Dean looks startled and tries to hide it, but not quickly enough. All at once, everything of this day, of the last four, coalesces into a single mass; anger, at those demons, at Lucifer, at the Host; at a goddess who's been dead for years who would have dissolved those children's minds without a thought; at Dean for what he asked of him and wants to ask of him now; at himself, for all that he isn't and even more for what he still is, for a small convent who died in horror, unknown and unmourned, their names lost, because they were too small, and he had other things to do. You don't understand, he wants to tell Dean; all I had to do was look, we could have saved them all, and I didn't. They were too small. "You think I wouldn't care."

Dean's eyes widen. "No, of course not. I just--"

"One human life," he hears himself say. "I've killed so many of you, so why would one more bother me? It would be for a greater good, after all; I've heard it before. It's always for a greater good. What does that even mean, greater good? Are there small ones? Who cares for them?"

"Cas, listen--"

"I'd shred her mind into ribbons, and I'd see it happening and still be unable to stop it," he says, hearing his own horror in every word. "Every part of her would be dissolved into infinity, into what I am, into me, and it would take forever, I would watch it, she would feel it, we would feel it forever, because where we'd be when we do this, there's only now. And when it was over…." He'd gaze upon the still-breathing corpse of a living woman, one who sees the vastness of humanity as he once did, a field spread with lights brighter than any star could ever be. He showed her herself, one light among so many, and he--he'd be the one to put it out. Simply by being what he is. It would never be over. "Killing is easy, Dean. If you want an executioner, let me put a bullet in the head of one of the children the way you asked me to put in yours; it would break the circle, take far less time, be far less painful, and one human, after all, is very much like another. You tell me which child: I'll wait."

"That's not--" Dean starts, starting to look upset: good.

"What you meant? Of course it's not: you're not the one who has to decide whose head gets the bullet! That decision is and will always belong to the person who's holding the gun, and that isn't you either!"

"I know." Dean takes a deep breath, clenched hands relaxing with a visible effort. "Alison volunteered. Look, I'm not saying to do it--"

"Yes you are."

"--just--look, if the only option--"

"It's not," he says. "There's a choice, it's just not one you have to make, so you don't have to admit what it would be. Alison volunteered; you don't have to say her life matters less to you than those children's. I'm the one who will kill her; you don't have to suffer a single sleepless night after her death. Did I miss anything that you won't have to do?"

"Fuck you," Dean says hotly. "You think this is easy for me?"

"You'll be alive, you won't grieve for your lover and your sister, and you won't have killed a woman whose mind you knew and remember each and every horrific detail of how she died for the length of your life," he answers and has the satisfaction of seeing Dean flinch as if he was punched in the face. "Yes, I do think it's very easy for you, and only you would be stupid enough to imagine you had the right to even ask that question."

Dean licks his lips. "I'd take her place if I could."

"You should be glad you can't or there'd be one less child alive tonight and the circle would be broken," he says, turning away from Dean's stricken expression. "Don't pretend to be surprised; it's simply their misfortune that they aren't you. You'd choose otherwise, I'm sure, but much like killing Alison, much like your request that I kill you, it isn't your choice to make. Spare me your horror and your protests: this isn't about you, no matter how much you think it should be."

Behind him there's only silence, the room closing tight around him; he can barely breathe, but they're not home in Chitaqua: there's nowhere else to go.

"I'm going to take a shower," he says on his way to the door. "Don't wait up; it may take the rest of the night."

Chapter Text

--Day 139--

Dean's weirdly unsurprised to see Alison come in the kitchen, sleepy eyes focusing on him briefly in insomnia-fueled hostility before melting into relief when he points at the kettle. Returning to the table with cup and hot water, she stares at the box for a moment before selecting green tea, which as far as Dean's concerned isn't tea, which should be fucking black as God intended. He has opinions on tea, okay.

After taking a drink--unsweetened, Jesus Christ--she sighs. "Nightmare."

Dean lowers his cup warily.

"Not that kind," she says scornfully. "Teresa. Before she came here--that last town."

He thinks about the wall in Cas's cabin, an invisible map of bullet holes lingering beneath repaired drywall and paint behind the TV. "Yeah."

"She was alone," Alison whispers, "hiding in an overgrown field. She could hear them shouting that they had to find her, so she had to be quiet." She stares down at her cup. "I'm just standing there, watching them coming for her, and I can't do anything. Just watch."

He swallows a scalding mouthful of tea and barely feels it.

"I'm guessing talking about the church set this one off." The hazel eyes grow distant. "Lucifer wiping out humanity: doesn't seem like a bad idea, nights like this." She lifts her cup, smiling sardonically. "So I come downstairs and have tea and think about tomorrow's schedule. I'll tell you this; for not being a people person, mayor really works for me. I don't have a lot of free time to contemplate the pros and cons of the genocide of humanity by an archangel with daddy issues."

"I clean guns," Dean offers. "Tell myself I'm not tempted to use them, which sometimes works, since the people I'd use them on are already dead."

She raises an eyebrow. "You want to talk about it? It's rare these days to say that to someone and not be ironic."

He does, actually. "Some people at Chitaqua--they tried to kill Cas. Long time ago, when we were all--more crazy than now, considering." He swallows, tracing a finger over the rim of his cup. "They hated him, which--I'll be honest here, I tried to kill him the first time we met, not like I can judge. Yet I still do, a lot."

"You tried to kill an angel?"

"I didn't know he was an angel!" he objects, feeling defensive. "Comes in the barn, whipping coat, giant fucking wings, talking about my destiny, defecting bullets, putting Bobby to sleep…" Alison's eyes widen. "Maybe you had to be there. It got better."

"You do win for weird on that one," she agrees. "My sex partners have been exclusively human, and generally women. Yours include angels."

"Mine were all human women. You know, before." He reconsiders that in light of the fact that actually, no, they weren't. Even excluding his non-existent sexual relationship with Cas. "Okay, Anael, but--"

"Sounds suspiciously like it rhymes with 'Castiel'," she observes just as he catches he totally used the wrong name there. "Not that I'd know the naming conventions of angels--"

"She wasn't an angel then, that was before." Oh yeah, that helped. "And later."

"So you slept with his sister first? Kinky." Alison gives him a malicious smile, but before he can explain how completely non-kinky it was, she adds, "Though I'll give you this one; no one can claim two angels on their scorecard. Not bad."

"Yeah," he says a little flatly, turning that over in his head and weirded out by his own vague sense of annoyance that technically, it's actually still only one; two would, actually, be pretty goddamn sweet.

"What happened?" Alison says softly, taking another sip from her cup. "With the people who wanted to kill Cas?"

"They stalked him all day, didn't even hide it." She nods slowly, eyes dark. "They--he and Vera--she was a target, too, that's another fucked up story right there--were in his cabin. Waiting for them." Like Gaius in the Grove of the Furies, his murderers screaming for his blood while he told a Messenger about how humanity was better than this and believed every goddamn word he said. Because that was the important part for him: not his death only moments away, but an idea, a promise received from an infinite being to remember it no matter what. Cas didn't forget, not when it mattered most; that's the reason twenty-something murderers didn't die in Chitaqua that night. "They survived. Un, I mean--"

"Yeah, I figured," she interrupts soothingly, and reaching across the table, she takes his hand, work-callused fingers tight around his. "You didn't know?"

I wasn't even here, Dean thinks helplessly, but it doesn't matter. "No. I should have, though."

"You think?"

Dean jerks his hand away and almost spills the remains of lukewarm tea at her odd smile. "What the hell--"

"Oh boy," she mutters. "Let's hit all the magic words now: should, would, could, hindsight's twenty-twenty, objects in the rearview mirror--"

"--may appear closer than they are," he finishes in disbelief. "Meatloaf, really?"

"Bat Out of Hell II. It's a ten minute track, pretty hard to forget," she says with a shrug, picking up her cup again. "Yet you still forgot. How is that working out for you, anyway?"

He blinks at her.

"It's not," she tells him, waving expressively at--his cup? His head? No idea--before rolling her eyes. "I'm gonna give you the cheat sheet on this one; yes, you should have, would have, could have, and you didn't. Now hindsight's twenty-twenty, we both know the Meatloaf song by heart, so move the fuck on already." She starts to take a drink and scowls unhappily at her empty cup. "More tea?"

"Yeah," he says blankly, watching her retrieve the kettle and pour them both more water before taking it back and after a moment, refilling it and setting it on the burner. Dropping a teabag into his cup, he gets another of the green shit and places it in hers to seep, sighing. "You don't know all of it."

Alison sits down again. "Then why don't you tell me?"

To his own surprise, he does.

"So that's why you waited until after we talked to bring him around," Alison says, retrieving the kettle and giving them both a refill before refilling the kettle and sitting back down. They both go for black this time and let the fuckers steep; caffeine is everyone's friend tonight. "Makes sense."

Sweet and strong as fuck: just like he likes it, nearly scalding his tongue on the first drink. In hindsight, it occurs to him that he didn't have any actual reason for not asking Cas to visit Ichabod before Alison revealed what she was; he just didn't.

"Yeah, it's--"

"Wait, you said it was a feeling," Alison says suddenly, and Dean catches up just in time to see an arrested expression on her face. "Like--random and inexplicable hostility at a large party you put up to someone being a dick? Anything like that?"

Dean takes a drink of tea; there is no safe answer to that.

"Oh God," she says, slumping back in her chair. "There were like, seventy people--"

"Eighty-three," he corrects her, because he's dumb like that. Alison spears him with an incredulous look. "Look, it's not everyone getting the shitty vibes, okay? Just some people--"

"How many?"

"Five left the house, eight avoided any room he was in, and six just stared at him from behind furniture," answers whatever's got control of his tongue. "Look--"

"And that would be why you were Mr. Creepy Possessive Boyfriend all night," Alison says, and Dean blinks as guilt and regret chase each other across her face. "Goddammit, Dean--"

"They can't help it, it's not a big deal, and Cas didn't want you to know, so don't tell him," Dean bursts out before he forgets the first two; the first and third may be true, but the second isn't, not to him. It's not that he objects to getting her on his side in this, but he's still just sane enough to realize one of them just might regret what happens when a psychic gets pissed off, and her expression says that's definitely on the table. "He really--really--doesn't want you to know, okay?"

Alison licks her lips uncertainly. "Why? If I didn't even feel it--"

"That," Dean interrupts desperately, "would be why."

She's quiet for a few seconds, hazel eyes distant. "Everyone--feels it?"

"Everyone feels something," he confirms. "Except me. And you." He hesitates, then decides to just say it. "He can't hide what he is, so--not like I can read his mind here--I think it's nice to be around someone who literally can't tell the difference."

"Other than his boyfriend, yeah, I get that." Alison chews her lip, reaching for her cup before giving Dean a searching look. "People can't help it?"

"That's what he says," Dean answers grudgingly. "Not like I can tell. It's a great way to pass the evening,though. Next time we meet a whole bunch of new people, I'll see if he wants to start a betting pool, figure out if I can call it on sight."

"Can't live his life for him," Alison says practically. "Can't order him to stay in your camp--oh wait, you can do that. My mistake."

Dean glares at her and takes a drink of tea before he says something else he really won't regret.

"Every time Teresa's late getting back, I remember how a few of the people in that town looked really sketchy last time I visited. And why did they want her back so soon, anyway?" Alison takes a long drink, shaking her head. "Kind of suspicious, don't you think? No one mentioned those new vegetable experiments at the last meeting; I wonder if there's a connection?"

He nods slowly; that would be it. "Every time?"

"Every. Goddamn. Time." She takes a drink. "My hindsight starts when she leaves town, Dean. I'm godmother to Danny's next sprog, and yet, I'm trying to figure out if I can give them all the plague with my mind--Jesus, hope that isn't a coming feature, I can tell you right now that won't end well for anyone--because the roads suck and yes, it does take that long every time to get back." She gazes at him over the rim of her cup. "It won't get better, in other words. That doesn't help, does it?"

He tries to remember why he thought he liked her. "Not even a little."

"Could be worse," she adds more lightly. "You could dream the tragedy that is the future and know your job is to stop it from happening on top of that. While not even remembering it."

"Could be," he says, staring down into his cup. "Don't do it."

Alison pauses mid-drink

"He's right, the kids aren't in danger right now, so why jump the gun?" he continues in a rush. "Options: we'll find 'em. All we need is time."

"Dean, we don't know if there is time," she answers, setting her cup down. "Two of those demons got away, and they're going to come back and try to finish this. We both know it's not just a matter of time; it's going to happen and soon."

"I'll put more people here--"

"And when more come after them?" she asks. "And more? How many are going to die to protect them? All of us," she says, answering her own question. "We will, Dean, we'll protect them until every one of us is dead. Or--I do this."

"Or I take them to Chitaqua." Alison opens her mouth, but hey, that's actually a goddamn option, who knew? "Nothing--and I mean nothing--can get through our wards. Not demons, not Lucifer, not the end of reality itself, whatever. It'll be fine."

"…the end of reality?" she falters, eyes wide, and Dean looks suspiciously at his tea; drunken confessions usually need you to be drunk first.

"If that happened." Yeah, that's not reassuring, but he'll pretend it is. "Which it won't. Look, this'll work, I'll just--"

"Move fifteen kids and their parents to a militia camp?" He tries to decide if he should be offended: they got outdoor lights and finished hole for their future mess, and though he still doesn't know why you have to dig a hole before building something (pipes are involved, and maybe concrete?), he's gotta admit as holes go, it's pretty awesome. "Dean, no."


"Because your cabins don't have roofs, and he's not going to kill me, so let's save ourselves some stress and do it this way." She takes a serene sip from her cup. "Which I don't need to be psychic or even reasonable observant to know is the problem here."

Dean grits his teeth. "Look--"

"You realize your room is on the other side of the bathroom from me and Teresa's?" she asks curiously, and Dean shuts his eyes, finishing his tea in a blind gulp. "Walls are great, didn't get the words, but tone--and volume--were pretty self-explanatory."

"I don't want you to die, and I sure as fuck don't want him to have to live with him being the reason." He's still not sure how he ended up apparently arguing for Cas killing Alison for the greater good--what the hell?--but Cas sure as fuck believed it, and Dean picked that up way too late to course-correct back to sanity. Which is why a waterlogged Cas is currently asleep on the very edge of his side the bed (they do, actually, have sides) in the most miserable huddle of ex-angel he's ever witnessed, and he's discovered all new, amazing vistas of guilt.

(It also dawned on him way too late that staring at someone's sleeping back for an hour straight qualifies as goddamn creepy, which would be why he's up the ass-end of the ass-end of the morning. Discussing his domestic issues with his presumed boyfriend, potential human sacrifice, and Meatloaf's back catalogue over tea with a lesbian psychic between sharing stories of how their partners were stalked by mobs who wanted to shoot and/or set them on fire and how to handle that.)

"Tried offering sex?" Alison asks, wide-eyed as she sips from her cup. "Works for me."

Jesus, if he thought that would work, he'd be naked and enthusiastically putting off the inevitable sexual identity crisis for when he has time to deal with it (after: Lucifer's defeat, saving the kids, curing Croatoan, finishing the mess, remembering the password to his goddamn laptop, saving the world, building the new room on the cabin, dealing with that end of reality thing….seriously, he's got a lot of shit to do). He's not goddamn Nate, fucking with Zack's head for two years and change because he can't deal with what he wants and making everyone else not-deal right along with him. For once in his goddamn life, he's not gonna fuck up, and there's no margin of error here, not when it comes to Cas.

…he has no idea where that was going. "He's not doing it. I'll make it an order if I have to." Engaging Cas's auto-reaction to someone giving him an order…it's not that Dean doesn't believe Cas when he says (sincerely, even) that he can obey, but Dean thinks testing that should be left to later, and by that he means 'never'. But whatever, he'll deal.


"Not happening," he says, gulping the rest of his tea and regretting it at the burn of scalding liquid all the way down. Suppressing a cough, he glares at Alison. "No."

"He's not going to kill me."

"You don't know what you're talking about!" he answers, just barely remembering not to shout, though honestly, if tonight's drama double-feature didn't wake the rest of the building up, nothing will. He scrabbles for something--anything--that might make her understand, but he doesn't understand, and that's the entire problem. "You don't understand what he is--"

"You're right," she answers calmly. "I don't."


"Have you ever just watched the stars?" she asks. "I tried, once; my ex tried to introduce me to constellations, swore it was just like connect-the-dots." She makes a face. "Shitty visual imagination or everyone else is crazy, no idea, but I couldn't see it, and I tried, Dean. She was hot."


"I get it now," she continues quickly, staring at the table between them. "He thinks of us in constellations; all the lines are how we're connected--family, friends, guy you met once, it's the Kevin Bacon game but you're playing with infinity and it's not six degrees, it's like four, but in three dimensions--maybe dozens, who knows...." She makes a face, shaking her head. "I don't need to see the lines; they're just there, and some of them are so strong…you have no idea."

Dean licks his lips, chest tight. "Cas."

"I think I reached the edge of the solar system about an hour ago," she adds, emptying her cup in a single gulp. "Not sure, but he thought that was Pluto, anyway, and who am I to argue with an angel's memory?"

He looks at his empty cup and heaves himself to his feet, hoping the kettle's still got some water left, then rethinks that. Turning around, he sees Alison pointing at the cabinet. "Top left cabinet, top shelf."

Coming back to the table with a dusty bottle, splashing three fingers in each of their mostly-empty cups. Clicking the clay rims together, they both take a drink, and Dean makes a mental note to ask where she got this, because Jesus.

Coughing, Alison wipes her eyes, color coming back to her cheeks. "Never used to drink before I got here," she wheezes, setting the cup down unsteadily as tension rolls out of her like an unspooling thread.

"I used to drink a lot more." These days, he's got to set a good example for the crazy ex-angel sleeping the sleep of the Dean-related in the bedroom who's still hazy on the line between recreational and rehab. Between Cas's religious adherence to well-balanced meals and the lack of convenient bars, despite the entire fever shit, he's never been this healthy in his life; somewhere, Sam is waking up to burst out laughing and has no idea why.

Shoving aside the low ache when he thinks of Sam--so habitual he barely notices it in more than changes in pressure--he reaches for the bottle and pours two more fingers for each of them before firmly screwing on the lid.

"Okay," he says, meeting her eyes. "Tell me why you'll survive it."

Alison picks up her cup, contemplating the whiskey. "I'm not sure how--"

"Start with the memory thing," he interrupts. "What memory?"

This part, Dean actually gets.

"It's like this," Alison tells him, hands closed white-knuckled around her cup but expression wondering. "It wasn't just the memory; it was all the times he remembered it, too. How he remembered it and that--changed what he saw," she corrects herself uncertainly, peering at Dean. "Does that make sense?"

It does; the difference between living it and the colors you paint it in afterward. Cas's memory is perfect, it couldn't change, but how he viewed it did. Two children by the ocean: the impersonal curiosity of an angel whose recalcitrant charge was a source of both bewilderment and distant stress, the first time Cas maybe started to question and search out the answer. The layers came afterward, when they became Dean and Sam playing in the surf miles from the motel they'd been trapped in for days before they finally escaped.

(He wondered why they built a sandcastle, then wondered about the lack of accuracy in the turrets, then wondered why they didn't get more water to achieve better sand-to-liquid ratio and wished he could have helped; he wondered why they ran into the ocean laughing, then wondered why they didn't do it more, because it looked very enjoyable, then wondered what it would feel like to walk into the water himself, feel it lapping around his feet and knees and be consumed beneath the waves; he wondered why they loved it there so much, what attraction the sand and water and air could offer them, then wondered, with a pain almost physical, how they could bear to leave, and how their father could possibly want to make them; he'd stay forever if he could.

It's a good thing he never drives when he's drinking; otherwise, he'd have thrown Cas in the cabin of the jeep already and made for the coast, direction unimportant, just so Cas can walk on his own two mortal feet on shifting sand and see his face the first time he steps into the surf.)

"He likes remembering it," Alison murmurs with a secret smile, eyes distant, like she's feeling it herself, and the blaze of envy, jealous, anger, pick them all, is so strong he can't even speak for a moment, harsh words trapped on the tip of his tongue. Like she's taken something away from him, even just that glimpse into Cas's mind.

"Yeah," he says roughly, pouring them each another finger; they need to pace themselves to get through this, no matter the attraction of more alcohol to drown out what he can't deny. "Keep going."

She does, putting into awkward words what no mortal in all of time has ever experienced; she's glimpsed infinity--a single drop of time and space within a single infinite memory--and survived to tell him she can do it again.

They've done some damage to the level of alcohol in that bottle when Alison says, "It's not just that, though."

Resting his chin in his hand, Dean sighs; of course it's not. "Look, it's not that I don't believe you--"

"You don't believe me."

That's true. "I believe you believe it," he concedes, picking up the bottle and pouring them both another couple of fingers. "Cas knows he will kill you, though. Believe versus know…you see where this is going?"

"Which is a problem," Alison agrees, looking into the depths of her cup thoughtfully. "I'm not sure what to do about that, though. Any ideas?"

Dean stops mid-drink, lowering his cup. "What?"

"Know he won't kill me," she says, turning the cup in her hands. "Even 'maybe': I can handle it from there. Only a second, Dean, that's all it'll take him to fix the kids' minds; that long, I can do this. But not if he doesn't know I can. And that he won't. Kill me, I mean."

He briefly considers just how much alcohol he's had tonight, but depressingly, he's pretty sure that's not why he knows exactly what she means. What he's started to suspect--vaguely, but he's pretty certain he's right--is only confirmed by what she's told him.

For an angel, 'personality' is a very thin veneer over the massive combination of infinite knowledge and cosmic power that makes up what they are and what they do, and that doesn't even include the built-in shit Cas calls instinct because Dean wouldn't understand it under any other name (he does get Cas dumbs shit down for him a lot and appreciates how Cas manages not to roll his eyes when he does it). It makes sense, he supposes; it can't be easy to even develop something approaching individuality when most of you isn't even, technically speaking, 'you', and that's even if you--for what value there is of that--know what that even means.

Angels, like gods, don't have free will, and maybe that should have told Dean everything all on its own, but it didn't, not until he realized he was looking at one that had just that. Nothing like watching someone hemorrhaging blood in front of you to teach you fast exactly what encompasses 'all things' no matter how sketchy the explanation might have been, and what it meant that he could turn it on but not off. There are rules, Cas told him more than once, but for a god, for an angel, those rules are there from the moment of their creation, and those kind of rules aren't the kind that you can break.

When Cas couldn't stop, he looked surprised, but Dean wasn't, not really, not when he thought about it. Watching Cas's increasingly frantic efforts, it hit him like a truck that it might not be possible for Cas to stop; in all his existence, he'd never had to or needed to--or even a concept of doing that--and it would follow the off-switch may not simply be hidden, but not even exist. The built-ins for an angel didn't include how to stop being one even when they weren't one anymore.

Then again, he wasn't sitting on an angel's lap that day; this was Cas, and even back then, Dean was starting to understand the only limits on what Cas could do given motivation were the ones he believed in himself. If there wasn't an off-switch, not a problem; Cas would fucking make one, and if he never knew the difference, all the better. All Dean needed to do was get him to do it, and if there's one thing Dean Winchester's past and present got down to an art, it was that.

"Even if--" He cuts himself off; even saying that much is a betrayal, though of whom he's not sure. "What if you're wrong?"

"The risk--"

"I know the risk!" Alison stiffens, eyes wide. "If it's not a hundred percent guaranteed, it's zero, and he's not doing it."

He tosses back the contents of his cup; it's not about you, Cas told him, and it may be simultaneously the truest and stupidest thing said in that room tonight (and God knows, it had some competition). The place where Dean's supposed to be a leader is still in progress, but he'll get there one day. The place Cas has was there first, though, and when those two aren't compatible, he's not sorry at all about which one's always gonna win. Cas doesn't need to fight everything on his own, not anymore; for once in his goddamn existence, he'll have one person that's fighting for him, and he's still not sure just how pissed he is that Cas hasn't figured that out on his own.

After a protracted silence, Alison sighs, refilling both their cups. "I didn't think you'd go for it."

"I'm surprised Teresa did," he answers without thinking and is rewarded with Alison's cup making very aggressive contact with the table. Looking up, he catches a fleeting look of resentful guilt and does the (only slightly drunken) math. "Tell me why you're up this late again?"

"Nightmare," she says shortly, daring him to contradict him as she takes her shot and pours another; at this rate, they're both fucked, so why abstain? "Your fucking boyfriend gave her second thoughts, happy?"

"Hell yes." Saluting her, he takes a moderate sip from his cup, grinning maliciously at her. "Must be weird."

She rolls her eyes, reaching for the bottle again. "What?"

"You and Teresa--" He just catches himself, wondering what the hell he's saying. She gives him a querying look over her cup, and he tries desperately to think of something else to add to that. "Did it bother you--when you found out? What she was?"

"Why would it?" The hazel eyes narrow. "She could have been a werewolf, and we'd just, you know, work with it. Avoid hanging out during full moons, that sort of thing."

A werewolf-witch: only a surprise he hasn't run into one of those before, now that he thinks about it. "And the thing you have--"

"Bond?" she clarifies with elaborate patience.

Dean grimaces; 'thing' was working just fine for him, thanks. "It's like a shitty episode of Star Trek when you say that."

"TOS or TNG?" He opens his mouth to answer and just barely catches himself at her satisfied expression. "That's what I thought."

"Look, easier to let Sam watch his shitty sci-fi than argue, okay?" Alison blinks, brown eyes focusing abruptly, and Dean curses whiskey and a liver that's way more surprised by alcohol these days than it has any right to be. Licking his lips, he opens his mouth to tell her cousin, friend, random dude on the street, but the words die in his throat. Denying Sam's like denying part of himself--the best part, the part that gave him a reason to get up in the morning and go to bed at night, live high school again in report cards and books and essays and fucking Trig and Calculus when dawn was only hours away and exhaustion sure, but that could wait, Sam had class and it wouldn't. There's nothing of him that Sam didn't create, change, mold into the shape of the man he became, and denying it would be like killing both of them at once. "My younger brother."

"Oh." She straightens, fingers closing more tightly over the body of the mug. "Brother. That--huh."


"Nothing," she says too quickly, taking a drink from her cup. "Random thought, dreams--"

"You're bad at lying."

"Shitty side effect of being psychic," she mumbles, giving the cup a resentful look and then adding him for good measure. "Nothing like being able to read other people's thoughts--whether you want to or not--that makes you sympathetically honest just to compensate."

Despite himself, he's curious. "People lie to themselves a lot?"

"Know thyself," she snorts. "Most people never even met themselves, it's crazy. I'll tell you something else--nothing like being a psychic to learn people. I avoided it most of my life, and trust me, I get the dramatic irony of it."

"Can't help your opinion on humanity," he says wryly, unbelievably glad he doesn't have to deal with that. Sometimes, it feels like he's a shitty thought away from being a really efficient serial killer; sometimes, he thinks he already is and just got really lucky on his preferred choice of victim. It's not a thought that keeps him up at night, though, and that should worry him more than it does, which is never. People lie to themselves: no surprise there. Who would want to know themselves, that's the question.

"Lies about lies about lies," she sighs. "People are so much better than they think they are."

Dean checks himself, cup half-way to the table. "What?"

"Tell me about it," she says with a snort. "Prescriptivist judgment calls they'd never expect another person to live up to, but themselves….it's like living inside a goddamn purity test that never fucking stops, and those went out with the dodo bird and flannel shirts when I was in grad school. People bend themselves into every shape under the sun to get all the answers perfect. It's not that hard to be a decent human being," she adds. "But everyone--and I do mean everyone--thinks they're one step and bad day from a clock tower. Metaphorically speaking."

Dean tightens his grip on his cup.

"I catch myself hugging people," Alison continues, bafflement in her voice. "No way I can tell them, it's okay, it was one extra ration of grain, it happens. You yelled at your kid: surprise, kids are people and can be dicks, too. You faked sick to get out of work: sunshine, everyone pulls that shit, including Teresa's mysterious migraines that clear up amazingly after a chapter or two alone in a not-so-dark room."

"My migraines," Teresa says from the door, voice husky, and whoa, maybe not something he needs to be dwelling on, "are not fake."

Alison's face lights up, hazel eyes glinting green and gold like light through stained glass, even as she settles her features into sardonic amusement; he wonders, uncertain, what it's like to have someone look at you like that, like you're the best part of their world.

"Yes, dear, of course," Alison answers with syrupy sweetness. "Fran finally banging Stuart was better than morphine, I noticed that."

"'The Stand', Stephen King," Teresa tells him, hovering behind Alison's chair and curling her fingers in the loose hair to tug Alison's head back and glare into her face. "Educational as well, considering our lives."

"My mistake," Alison answers mockingly. "Your migraines are educationally cured. You are truly a wonder of nature." The corners of her mouth turn up. "Literally. Or so the earth seems to think."

"Insomnia," Teresa tells Dean, still looking down at Alison. "And this is my life. It's all I dreamed of as a girl."

"And you're marrying me," Alison marvels. "Should I give the ring back?"

"Fuck you," she answers, leaning down for a kiss that Dean really thinks may deserve privacy, which doesn't change how he's totally not looking away. Plucking the cup from Alison's hand, Teresa bolts the contents and sets it back on the table. "Anytime you're ready."

"You're getting married," Dean says belatedly, looking between two sets of startled eyes; yeah, they forgot he was even here. "I mean--are you?"

"Yep," Alison answers as Teresa pulls back her chair, a smile lighting up her face. "Come summer--it's kind of a thing here, no idea why. Giant party, lots of food, do the marriages and baptisms and comings of age thing, whatever." She smiles lasciviously. "Do the math at the daycare; we got a lot of births come March and April."

Dean smirks. "Keep on keeping on. People are awesome like that."

"Manuel and Mercedes are relieved," Teresa says, reaching for Alison's hand and manually guiding her out of the chair. "That we will no longer be living in sin, as it were. I get lectured about making Alison an honest woman every time he goes to confession."

"Judge not," Alison intones as Teresa steadies her, and not just because of her ankle, "lest not ye be judged."

"Lightweight," Dean says mockingly, raising his cup in a toast. "Love, honor, and obey, not that I judge."

Alison's eyes narrow before they dart sideways and she begins to smirk. Dean's got no excuse for being surprised when he hears, gravelly and rough, "At least the two of you aren't playing poker until dawn."

Dean closes his eyes as Cas crosses the room, stopping just behind his chair, but for some reason, he can't quite stop smiling. "That didn't happen."

"It did happen," Teresa says, a ripple of laughter in her voice. "But I acquired several pairs of socks and a Glock automatic, so I'm not complaining. You got him, Cas?"

"She looks like a high school teacher," Dean tells Cas, tipping his head back and noting Cas looks hilarious upside down, "but she's a shark, dude."

"Yes, we're fine, thank you, Teresa," Cas tells Teresa, and Dean watches in bemusement as Cas takes his cup and checks the contents before finishing it off. He stands up on his own, though, unlike Alison, who Teresa's supporting pretty much completely (table's kind of unsteady, though. And the floor, too). "Have a pleasant night."

"Night," Alison says over Teresa's shoulder on their way to the door. "Don't do anything I wouldn't. Though that's not much. Except for dicks; never really got into them."

Teresa makes a soft sound that Dean assumes means she'll be laughing her ass off once she's got Alison dumped into bed. Turning around, he looks at Cas, who stares back balefully.

"What?" Searching Cas's face, Dean remembers their earlier conversation. "Killing Alison. That's not on the table."

Cas's expression melts into--holy shit, what is that?

"I don't. Want that." Dean stares into Cas's eyes as hard as he can. "I figured it out. Got us some options. One option. Good one, though."

Cas blinks at him helplessly before tilting his head toward the hall. "Perhaps we could discuss this in our room?"

"Alison says the walls are great, but tone carries," Dean tells him wisely, waving a free hand and immediately losing his balance. Cas catches him, of course, heaving one of Dean's arms over his shoulders with a strangled sigh. "I'm not drunk."

"You're very drunk," Cas corrects him, eyeing the bottle on the table that looks--actually, really empty, and he's pretty sure it wasn't near that earlier. "If it's any consolation, Alison is as well."

"I'm not that much of a lightweight," Dean protests, and proves he just might be when his feet refuse to do the walking thing, knees dissolving like water. "Am I?"

"Now you know I felt the other night," Cas answers sympathetically. "It's very disconcerting."

"Pot may be a sacrament," Dean tells him as they start toward the hall to their room, "but alcohol is like, air or something. This is wrong."

Maneuvering them through the bedroom door, Cas pauses to close it behind them before walking him to his side of the bed and easing him onto the mattress, vanishing only to return with a fucking huge glass of water and watching until Dean gets it all down. "You should lie down--"

"I wouldn't ask you to kill Alison," Dean says again, looking up at Cas. It's too dark to see his expression, but he hopes it's getting through. "You gotta know that."

"No, you wouldn't."

"I don't want you to, either."

Cas stills, and God, Dean would do anything right now to see his face. "If you want to talk, lie down first. You're much better, but it seems I need to remind you that you just recovered from yet another ridiculous fever and your strength is limited."

"I do it just to piss you off," Dean tells him, but lies down anyway, watching Cas circle the bed. "It's fun for me."

"I suspected as much." Pulling back the blankets, Cas climbs in with the faint awkwardness of someone practicing a new skill. Rolling on his side, Dean waits for Cas to notice him and has the satisfaction of seeing him actually jump a little. "You should--"

"You don't believe me." He may be drunk, but he's never felt more sober in his life. "Why? You think I don't get--"

"You think--think I should consider it, however."

"I think we should consider all our options. That's not the same as doing any of them. And I got a new one anyway, so let's consider that one, how about that?"

He can actually feel Cas's gaze sharpen. "What option?"

"Take 'em to Chitaqua," he answers promptly--and maybe a little smugly, but whatever. "Wards will protect 'em until we can figure out how to fix 'em. Buy us some time."

Cas seems less than impressed. "Chitaqua?"

"Repair some cabins, get 'em water and a few generators, it'll be fine." Cas isn't the only one who can handle logistics. Details are kinda sketchy on how to make that happen, but he'll figure it out. "It'll work."

"And Alison agreed to this?" Cas asks dubiously.

"She will," he answers confidently. "So what do you think?"

For some reason, he's getting the feeling Cas isn't feeling this plan. "Dean, have you considered--"

"It'll work," Dean interrupts; maybe he just needs time to think about it more, see the awesome? "They're safe, and you don't worry about--you know, what's not on the table. Not even think about it."

"Moving fifteen families to Chitaqua isn't…." Cas trails off. "So I won't think about it?"

Dean nods, unbelievably grateful Cas made him lie down when the room does something a lot like spinning in place. "Exactly. I'll make it an order."

"That…I won't think about it?"

"Do it." Finally he thinks his eyes have adjusted enough to get an idea of Cas's expression, which just makes it fucking annoying he still can't read it. "So you don’t have to, you know."

"Think about it?" Dean nods enthusiastically and regrets it; that nodding thing really should have been a lesson. "Oh."

Cas's silence is somehow worse than the anger, creating a distance that nothing he's said seems to be able to cross. "Cas--"

"Tomorrow--or later today, I suppose---we should discover more regarding what happened at the church if we can, since my lack of memory makes a great deal of our conclusions simply speculation." To Dean's surprise, Cas lies down, tucking an arm under his head before continuing. "I'll request access to Dolores' records on what she found when she examined the bodies. There are certain--things that would be more familiar to me than to you. Historically speaking. They might give us more information, or an indication of where we should look next."

Dean nods slowly; maybe he was imagining--whatever that was. Lightweight, he reminds himself hopefully.

"I'm helping with breakfast," Cas adds in an abrupt change of subject. "According to the schedule on the refrigerator, it's Sudha's turn tomorrow, and she promised last time I was here to show me how to make nopalitos con huevos with naan. Apparently, nopal did wonders for her morning sickness, and she's acquired a taste for it."

"It's cactus."

"It's nutritious, and the recipe involves several other vegetables, which according to my calculations, will cover two of your four daily helpings of fruit and vegetables."

Vera wasn't actually joking about Cas reading her books, but it was so much funnier when it was obscure diseases, prescription interactions, weird allergies, and Vera's suffering. "I don't hear bacon on the ingredient list."

"A third of the household is exclusively vegetarian," Cas says didactically, because he takes Dean's food intake seriously and asks people about things like this, "so most dishes are meat-optional and meat is prepared separately and added to the dish for those who eat it. Sudha's husband, however, does not have a religious dietary restriction against pork, so that will probably be a feature in the morning. He seems to have a fondness for chorizo."

"Fuck this army to fight Lucifer bullshit," Dean breathes. "Let's live here and be farmers."

"And salsa," Cas adds, like it's no big thing when holy shit, salsa, "as Manuel was able to successfully culture the correct peppers in their garden and the results preserved in jars in their pantry." He frowns. "Making Eldritch Horror did make me familiar with preservation techniques when applied to alcohol, and I certainly was extremely successful in my gardening efforts, such as they were."

Dean blinks slowly. "You want to--plant a garden in Chitaqua so you can make salsa?" Dean's tries to work out what gardens need and how they can get it to Chitaqua. It involves dirt and seeds and watering cans--on TV, they have flowers on 'em, no, he'll get something more metal for Cas--and Cas spreadsheeting his gardening efforts (color coded, that map pencil thing told him a lot), maybe chewing straw because TV, but even his imagination fails at Cas in overalls. "We can do that. When do you want to start?"

"I wasn't serious."

"Yeah you were." Cas wets his lips, and the lack of denial is pretty noticeable here. "Why not?"

That's the bulletproof question: Cas's approach to life on earth hasn't been--by any sane measure--an unqualified success, but coming in as a rebel with way too many causes (legion, even) means he gives zero fucks when it comes to bullshit restrictions on anything and the why-not threshold, as far as Dean can tell, is set somewhere in the stratosphere.

In the part of his mind that's deeply uncomfortable with even the comparison, Dean wonders if his predecessor tried the Raising Sam Method with Cas, a proven approach that totally works right up until it fails like a lot (age 9, if anyone's curious). It's not that he's comparing Sam and Cas (he really, really is), but if he's right (oh God, he thinks he is), Dean the former got lucky; Sam just ran off to college: evidence suggests that if Cas had run off, it'd been to Oklahoma or Waco or something to start a freaky sex cult fueled by mescaline and pseudo-adolescent rage against the man. It's not like entire thing about driving is subtle, above and beyond Cas's completely unsurprising lead foot when given highway and a means to drive it. He has previous-Dean-shaped demons of long drives past to dispel and fantasies of the German autobahn to aspire to. Not a problem, though he's waiting for Cas to finally snap and just shout he gets a hard-on for triple digit speeds.

Wow, he's totally a lightweight; definitely the alcohol talking. Thinking. Something.

"I don't have time for frivolous pursuits," says the founder of the Chitaqua Stoner Society and Group Sex Project, who organizes his map pencils by tint, private armory by functionality, pantry on a rotating schedule getting more esoteric by the week, and gets really intensely into the right mix of oils to get that 'does this a lot' gleam to his guns. Someone Dean owes a lot taught Cas to fold their clothes department store-crisp, and he really, really needs to go to Laundry Day soon and observe the magic of Cas facing down that dryer with the broken timer. "There's too much to do--"

"There's not, and if there was? Blow it off."

Cas looks at him blankly, oblivious to the existence of all-night orgies with a Sex Pistols soundtrack and a 'shroom religious experience in the training field, the colors, man, infrared is like--dude. Intense. Or so Mark said.

"Hobby," Dean explains, and if anything, Cas's expression enters a whole new realm of bewildered. "Thing you do because you like it and it's fun. Just because you want to. It's relaxing." Or so he's heard; the hobby thing is new territory, and for a while, he had a vague idea it had something to do with stamps or coins or sitting in trees staring at birds or something. "It'd be good for you."

Cas' radiates a combination of confusion and suspicion, like maybe Dean's fucking with his secret garden of the year aspirations for kicks. "You don't have a hobby."

"I could get one," Dean counters. "Gardening? Sounds cool: I'm in."

"You're serious." Like he just can't believe they're having this conversation. That makes two of them; this went sideways somewhere along the way, but fuck it, he's committed now. "You want a garden."

"You want a garden," Dean answers firmly: watering cans, seeds, things you dig with, some claw thing, can't be that hard, goddamn cavemen pulled it off, but he's not okay with overalls, that's just not happening. They'll start when they get back to Chitaqua, and this--this entire thing will be over. It'll be fine. "So we're making one. Any questions?"

The smell of deliciousness wafts into the bedroom, drawing Dean from his hard-earned rest and into the shower and then the kitchen without any clear memory of the chain of events that led him to holding a cup of hot coffee and being gently ushered through a couple of rooms and out a door he's never seen before.

Blinking uncertainly, Dean comes to realize he's standing on a small stone patio and the subject of three sets of curious eyes and also, there's a lot of green out here. "Hey."

"Not just you," Manuel tells him, hovering over something that looks--he's not sure, it's green. No sign of peppers, but maybe it's the wrong season or something. Do peppers have seasons? "Sudha said we were screwing with Cas's concentration and threw us out."

Dean gulps a mouthful of scalding coffee to get something like clarity, sinking down on the concrete steps and taking in what he's pretty sure is what he and Cas are going to be trying to create real soon now.

What was probably once the back alley of this building and the one on the next street has undergone a revolution; concrete pulled up, rubble turned into what he thinks are maybe borders. Craning his neck, he looks either direction and is faced with what looks like miles of greenery, the bobbing heads of other people up at this ungodly hour doing their thing. Whatever that is.

Straightening, Teresa stretches her back, sighing at the audible pop, and makes her way to the steps, snagging a coffee cup from the ground and dropping beside him with another sigh, resting her head on one hand. There are faded olive stains on jeans liberally dusted with fresh earth and the ragged flannel shirt over a worn Henley has the same look of habitual garden wear. So there's clothes for this that aren't overalls: good to know.

"God," she groans, taking a drink. "It's too early to be awake."

"You out here every morning?" Dean asks, trying not to be appalled at his potential future spread out before him in all its organic majesty.

"Nah, just once a week during the off-season unless we're growing for personal use," Teresa says with a yawn, eyes falling half-shut. "We're late spring and summer on this street; Syracuse does fall and winter. Herbs and specialties are Second Street That way, everyone gets a seasonal break. Slack off."

Dean's eyes travel to Manuel hovering over his plants protectively, staring at a leaf intently like it's telling him secrets. Well, his sister's a witch who talks to the earth; if Manuel can talk to plants, not a surprise. And really useful, come to think; he wonders how well Eldritch Horror would trade for talking up Cas's garden and encouraging it to be bountiful and lush and amazing. One thing even Cas won't be able to believe he did wrong.

"So these feed everyone here?" Dean doesn't even pretend he can do vegetable math, but he's falling short on quantity per person.

"There was life before mass farming," Teresa tells him, sounding amused. "People did it like this for centuries and it worked out just fine. Give or take a famine or two." He follows her gaze to Mercedes, serenely hard at work moving--leaves?--around, long brown fingers twist-tying pieces of what Dean realizes is chickenwire into shape around a group of plants huddled close to the ground. "South fields, too: north fields are where we grow what we're gonna trade."

"And the animal--stuff." Teresa winces. "You, either?"

"This close to vegetarian when I took my first shift and we were doing a culling," she says sadly, holding finger and thumb very close together. "I named them. I didn't know."

Yeah, that's what he figured. "I have no idea how you're all doing this."

"Me either," she answers, smirking at his surprise. "I'm just a pair of hands and a check-in with the earth. Mercedes and Alejandro are third-generation migrant and Dina got a degree in agriculture. They do all our crop planning. Every season, they take a week and three laptops to one of the rooms in admin and do a review, call in the leads to survey the land, Lanak from inventory for our supply lists, work out the margin of error we have to work with." She give Dean a wry look. "INS saves lives, who knew?"

He grimaces. "Mercedes and Alejandro were in custody when the borders closed?"

"With me and Antonio," she confirms, blowing out a breath. "The migrant circuit--let's say there's a lot of people confusing 'assumption' with 'fact'. I grew up in the Valley, went to UT Pam-Am after I graduated high school--"

"Did an apprenticeship for witchcraft," Dean interrupts.

"--and got a degree in History," she says, raising her chin. "I kept busy." The faint smile vanishes. "After my first circuit with them on a hunt, I started carrying my birth certificate and social security card with my ID, like Mercedes told me when I volunteered to follow them in the first place. Hearing 'Do you speak English' as the first question anyone in a uniform asked me stopped being funny really fast, and so did being taken into custody until they could verify my citizenship." Her expression darkens. "They were used to it; show their papers, get stared at for a while, then they'd get let off with a warning to be less Hispanic or something, that never was clear. I wasn't." She slants a look at him. "You made a weird la migra, Dean; you never asked the right questions, for one. "

Dean closes his eyes, fighting the urge to curl up in a ball. "How much did they tell you?"

"A gringo with a Spanish For Tourists in his jacket pocket, that he'd actually try to use?" She leans closer, mouth curving in a smile. "It was nice; I got back from New Mexico after a stupidly long job--fucking fae, in goddamn Phoenix? Why?--and got to feel professionally inadequate because the reason they didn't call me back was some random guy showed up. And your eyes--Jesus, if I heard one more sigh about 'totally like jade or emeralds, Teresa'…."

"Zena," Dean says immediately, and Teresa's eyebrows soar to her hairline. "Uh, we--got to know each other. She was really helpful. Hey, tell me what you're growing? Do you use a watering can?" Then, "So you--knew her?"

"First cousin on my mother's side," Teresa says with relish. "Third year of her apprenticeship; she came to it late and volunteered to vet you." She waits a deliberate, heart-stopping beat. "Thoroughly."

He'll say this much; Zena was very, very fucking thorough. "Uh."

"You passed, by the way." Teresa laughs heartlessly at his expression. "Mama thought it was hilarious, once she was sure you were legit. A hunter in the colonias of all places--how old were you, anyway? Twenty?"

"Twenty-two," Dean answers glumly, taking another drink of now-cool coffee; Sam just left for Stanford and Dad was being Dad a little too much for close contact without the potential for patricide. "One of my first jobs on my own. It was late, bartender in Las Cruces mentioned something going on west of McAllen, thought I'd check it out."

"You were there to exorcise the altar boy." Teresa sighs noisily. "Everyone wants to. We have a club for it. I got four hundred years of maps and notes from about half a dozen generations, never got anywhere. In Laredo, before you ask."

"I'd kill to see 'em," Dean says honestly. "A border guard or two wouldn't bother me too much. Just saying."

"Raised their prices again?" she asks wryly. "Tell me about it."

"You wouldn't believe what they charge for some shit," he answers, frowning at his cup. "Information and prescription speed, not a problem--okay, the prices are ridiculous, but still. Anything else, though…." After getting his hands on Joe's meticulously documented records of his supply runs over the last couple of years, he learned more about economics than high school ever got around to explaining. Talk about the raw potential of supply and demand when demand needed it to survive.

Teresa gives him a curious look. "What were you trying to get? Viagra?"

"Funny." Finishing his cup, Dean sets it on the porch, staring at the greenery. "Okay, so this is your summer crops. So how does it work? You--"

"Why," she asks suspiciously, "does this feel like actual interest for more than guilt-related purposes?"

"I feel guilty," Dean protests, clutching his coffee cup and feeling trapped. "This is guilt. So much guilt." Then he gives up, because come to think, he's really gonna need help with this. "Cas wants a garden at Chitaqua."

From beside him radiates silence that can't mean anything good.

"Look, he's done it before," Dean continues a little desperately. "The gardening thing, I mean, it was just--"

"Marijuana, friend of us all," Teresa drawls, south Texas dripping off every word, and yeah, gossip. "I'm assuming this isn't going to be Chitaqua's cash crop…."

"I'm still not okay with being drug dealer to Kansas," Dean interrupts. "Call me crazy, but we got standards."

"Please, like we don't grow our own," Teresa sniffs. Before he can process that, she adds, "So Cas wants a garden? For what?"

"Maybe salsa?" He can actually feel Teresa's eyebrows go up. "I don't know. Something that'll grow and he can preserve or something." Running a hand through his hair, he sighs. "Look--"

"Give me a minute," Teresa says in a different voice. Startled, he looks at her, and sees her eyes unfocus for a long minute, something gleaming in them before she starts to grin and relaxes. "Sorry, I didn't know the earth could laugh."

"You're really working the weird angle this morning," Dean points out, depressingly not even a little unnerved.

"Let me talk to Mercedes, see what'll work for a beginner," she says, still grinning. "You want me to come up and check the land? Tell Cas it's ready to grow things, give him some confidence?"

"Yes, please," he answers gratefully, only belatedly aware it was a test by Teresa's expression. "We weren't lying--if you and Alison need help, bring your family and come. We should get you up there anyway sometime soon; Cas has to do something with the wards to key you or whatever. Make it a weekend. We can get you a cabin. Might even have electricity."

Behind them, the door opens and Cas's head pokes out, surveying the garden with a brief, speculative look that confirms that no, last night wasn't a weird alcohol-related hallucination; he's not that much of a lightweight, and right this moment, that's a genuine goddamn disappointment. So. He and Cas will be planting a garden. Jesus Christ.

"Breakfast will be ready in five minutes," he announces, accomplishment adding a sense of righteousness to his voice that Dean hasn't heard since Cas talked about the Lord's work. "You're supposed to wash your hands beforehand." A glance at Dean, accusing, tells him that he didn't know this was a prerequisite for meals and guess what Dean'll be doing when they get back in Chitaqua.

"Thanks, Cas," Dean tells him sincerely as Cas deliberately shuts the door, aware that Teresa's looking at him quizzically. "Human cohabitation rules. He takes notes. Doesn't need to, just wants 'em to use against me later. Who knew that 'we were inconsistent in applying them'. That's a quote, by the way."

"And that's your partner," Teresa observes.

"Yeah," he answers, matching her grin; it's true. Getting to his feet, he extends a hand to help her to her feet, then seeing Mercedes rubbing her back, remembers what Amanda told him last night. Skipping down the stairs, he uses one of the little concrete-block paths--oh, that's a good idea, remember that--he helps her up.

"Hey, Amanda told me last night," he says, suddenly feeling awkward, because she's not even showing yet, and is it his imagination or is she glowing? Or maybe just from work. "Congratulations. The baby, I mean."

Mercedes smiles up at him, immediately moving in for a hug, and Dean fights the terror of touching her too much--Jesus Christ, she's not made of glass, just pregnant--while Manuel wipes his hands on his jeans on his way over, looking so happy that Dean's chest tightens in sympathy.

Honestly, this is one of the better mornings he's had in his life.

After breakfast--and Dean's never blessed Cas's perfect memory more than at this moment, doesn't even need to write down the recipe--Dean and Teresa take over clean up while Alison and Cas argue silently using their forks and food to express their feelings until there's literally nothing left on that table they can eat and everyone else has cleared out (looking sympathetically at Dean and Teresa, but not sympathetic enough to stick around).

Clearing the table hastily of the detritus of breakfast, Dean escapes to the sink for voluntary dish duty as soon as he can be reasonably sure it doesn't look like the full scale retreat it is, Teresa right behind him.

He's learned this morning that the water from the sinks and the showers are redirected into some kind of filter thing and then to the gardens out back, so watering cans are for spot-checking only. So all he's got to figure out is how to do that, and Cas's adventures in upgrading Chitaqua's plumbing woes to minimal human standard are gonna come in handy. The reports covering Home Improvement Weeks have their own box, but Dean's pretty sure Zack's name was on the list of people who knew shit about pipes, but on a guess, this is gonna be a camp-wide effort.

Then Cas says, "I wish to address the parents of the affected children today. When would be the most convenient time to do so?"

"What," Dean asks blankly, wrist-deep in soapy water.

"What?" Alison asks almost on top of him. "Why?"

"I was present during the initial attempt to sacrifice their children," Cas answers. "They have the right to know what happened--"

"You," Dean says over his shoulder, unsteadily handing Teresa a plate, "don't remember what happened."

"--and that I was there to witness it." Only belatedly does Dean recognize the lack of vocal cues, sarcasm and amusement and personality flattening away; Cas the angel is back in the building, and it's nothing, nothing at all like what he was doing that day in the cabin. "And what I am."

Dean turns around. "No."

"They should know," he says to Alison, and Teresa catches the cup Dean's still holding that drops from numb fingers. "I want to tell them, if you think they'll believe me."


"I'm updating my playbook," Cas says simply, not looking away from Alison. "So far, it's been somewhat successful. As you told me it would be."

"For the record," Dean answers tightly, "I was lying, all of it. Baby steps, Cas. Let's start with people I can shoot without feeling bad about myself because I command 'em."

"Teresa?" Alison asks as Dean stares at Cas, a faint prickling running up his spine. "What do you think?"

Glancing at Teresa, he's surprised to see her watching Cas. "Alison, call a meeting with all the parents for after the noon meal; we need to do it anyway, so might as well do it now. I'll take Cas to get copies of Dolores records on the bodies before we burned them. Dean, meet us at admin at one. Until then, Alison can show you our crop schedule."

"I'm what?" Alison asks blankly, almost drowning out Dean's "What?"

"I don't really care what you do," Teresa says dismissively, nudging Dean to finish the few remaining dishes. "Anything's fine. That's the plan. Deal with it."

Talking with Tony--currently in admin and Alison's first stop in times of trouble, as mayor emeritus is apparently a lifetime position--is reassuring in that way that nothing's really reassuring right now, because Dean's been at Chitaqua too long. After sending someone to pass the message to the other affected parents, they settle down in Alison's office for some quality sitting time.

"You know," Tony says thoughtfully, leaning against the official desk of the mayor, which looks like it went through a couple of wars and what he's pretty sure is actually char on the right side, "that explains a lot."

Dark skin uncreased by time, Tony still has the body of a roughneck, thin but carrying the rangy muscle of years working on rigs; even the boss got down and dirty when it came to living on an tiny metal island miles from the coast for months at a time. He doesn't show his age in anything but experience, and considering his experience ranges from Gulf rigs to Mediterranean ones, traveling under the radar through half the Middle East because nineties America loved oil but their contractors were disposable, that says something. Fluent in more than one dialect of Arabic, learned the old fashioned way from crews who didn't speak English and disliked Americans on principle (and as Tony remarked wryly over homemade beer, for pretty good reason), it doesn't surprise Dean at all he's the one that held Ichabod together from the first and built it into the town it is now. Alison is only now learning to work with people, but Tony's life didn't offer a lot of choice in getting people skills fast, and you can't do much better than model on someone like him.

Dean, slumped in one of the ridiculous comfortable chairs, all sun-bleached overstuffed comfort and smelling vaguely of outdoors--Alison's office is awesome, no lie--stares at him in bewilderment. It's not that Cas isn't weird, but….oh. "You saw him fighting the Croats?"

"Walter recorded it," Tony confirms, flooring Dean once again on the ways of Ichabod. "Security cameras. We installed them last year on Second and Main, because Walter needed something to do and inventing cold fusion and the internet again wasn't working out. We figured it couldn't hurt, surprised us all when he got them online. He flips them on during attacks on the town. Unexpectedly useful when we can get them up; he's still working on that part."

"Of course he is," Dean commiserates at Tony's put-upon look. "So the footage was weird?"

"Cas was with Amanda a lot," Tony says wryly, crossing his arms. "I've seen her on the training field, so she was a good baseline. Between them, they almost cleared Second and Main all on their own. He decapitated two Croats that got too close by ripping off their heads, didn't even slow down on his way to the square." Tony radiates cheerful satisfaction, which makes sense; this is Apocalypseworld, those were Croats, and people here are crazy. "Manuel and Amanda had all the patrol leads and the trainees review the footage. Might have pulled rank and sat in to watch."

"You don't have any in the square?" Dean asks casually, fighting the urge to rub his arm. He doubts it, which is great--Croat bite and talking about feelings and everything--but that blank space should worry him a lot more than it does.

"Not yet," Tony answers ruefully. "He only found six in working order--don't ask where unless you really want to hear the details of the epic search through every deserted retail outlet in town--so he set them up on, let me get this right, 'the potential vectors of attack'."

"Sounds like Walter," Dean agrees. "It's eerie. We could find you more cameras. James is jonesing for another supply run in the city. Tar."

"Potholes," Tony says wisely. "Send him down on his next day off-duty and I'll hook him up with my road crew. If you want, I can send them back with him for a few days, do some work."

"You just saved everyone's sanity," Dean answers sincerely, sinking more deeply into the cushions with a sigh. "Mira may start talking to him again. It's been touch and go for a while; Cas says she's been requesting way too much target practice."

"How's her aim?"

"Creepy as shit if you're a guy," Dean says, trying not to shift uncomfortably. "Cas encourages her. He thinks it's--"

"Cathartic?" Alison asks sweetly, both elbows on her desk.

"Funny," Dean says shortly, relieved that Tony joins him in glaring at her unrepentant smile. "Gotta be leftover from female vessels or something, I don't know."

"I never thought about it until Amanda told me some stories," Alison says thoughtfully, horrifying him almost beyond words. Almost. "Militia camp, and same problems as we have here. Just different scale."

"They're weirder problems," Dean counters. "Mira's fighting with James, Brenda and Zoe take her side, Joe stupidly--so fucking stupidly--tries to talk to her and suddenly, half the camp's in on it and the mess is inedible because Brenda forgets to add salt to anything. Then Cas announces a low-sodium diet promotes good health because he does shit like that just to see what happens, and I got Phil writing poetry about the moon's fucking wisdom and kindness without the glare of the capricious fucking sun obscuring his glow--"

"Is Phil trying to steal your boyfriend?" Alison asks maliciously. "You're the sun in this scenario? Just checking."

"Yes, he is," Dean tells her grimly, because finally. He's never missed Vera so much as during those conversations with Cas; she'd confirm what Phil is doing. "Cas doesn't believe me. He just says his command of iambic parameter--"

"Pentameter," Alison murmurs.

"--is getting better." Dean glares at Tony and Alison, who aren't even pretending they don't find this hilarious. "Look, everyone's got a past--I'm not judging, I got my own--"

"Including Cas's sister," Alison tosses in there because she's fucking evil. Tony's eyes widen, but he keeps his pokerface, which right now Dean really appreciates.

"--but mine doesn't look at me like I committed a federal crime trapping Cas in sober monogamous bliss against his will!" Dean snaps. "Add in Phil, who I swear to God would poke holes in the condom if he got Cas into bed to get Cas to marry him so he won't be a single parent. Phil is like this, no lie. Vera was with me on this one: this shit's gotta be shut down now."

"Uh." Tony scratches his head, looking at him sympathetically. "Look--"

"I live in an Apocalyptic soap opera," Dean tells them bitterly. "I'm fighting a war against Cas's brother. Tell me Phil isn't pointing that out when I'm gone--"

"Dean," Tony says gently. "Breathe. It'll be okay."

"--not that he and Lucy get along or anything--"

"Telling the parents what he is," Alison says from the other side of the desk, understanding filling her eyes. "It'll be okay, Dean."

He wets his lips, wondering how the fuck they ended up here. Cas in Chitaqua, safe and sound, surrounded by wards and people who know Dean won't hesitate to shoot if it comes down to it. Cas on the roof, staring wistfully into the darkness at a world only he could see, a world he only visited with another Dean Winchester's permission, business only, because he didn't know how to let go of anyone, not even just to let them breathe. Cas' entire world was behind the walls of Chitaqua, because it was safe; it wasn't, though, and it's not that Dean doesn't think he could do better--he can--but he's pretty sure even thinking that is missing the entire goddamn point.

Chuck was right about the why, Dean knew that; he just didn't expect to live it. Sam's safe and sound in another world, and after this long, he's either figured out what happened or is working on the grieving process and starting to move on. God, he hopes he's moving on, somehow, that this isn't Gabriel redux, that Sam won't spend his life searching for him, carry on the Winchester tradition of mistaking revenge for a life lived. Sam deserves better than that, and Cas deserves it, too.

"I told him," Dean says roughly, "that we weren't all like that, so why should dickheads with a fucking grudge get to define what people are like? People can be awesome, and that if he got to know them, he wouldn't be disappointed." He looks at Alison helplessly. "Being shot, is that the same as disappointment? He'll be too dead to feel it, so I guess that counts."

"Dean," Alison says softly, "it'll be okay."

"Because people are better than they think they are?" he asks bitterly. "Good to know, but it sure as fuck never stopped them from trying to put a whole goddamn wall of fucking bullets in someone's head!"

Tony and Alison exchange a long look before Alison says, "They won't, for one; these are my people and I can vouch for them."

"Yeah, I feel better, did I mention I recruited the fuckers who went after Cas?"

"…and I'll be reading their minds the entire time," Alison adds, raising her eyebrows. "What happens today, Dean, you won't be going on guesswork and faith. Though that offer about hiding in Chitaqua? I may need to take you up on that, since I'm telling them what I am, too."

Dean stares at her. "You--"

"If he can do it," she says, meeting his eyes, "so can I."

"You're not going anywhere without us," Tony says, half-turning to look at her as Dean takes that in. "You and Teresa go, your family'll going with you, including me and the kids. We'll find another town; God knows there're enough of them." He spears Dean with a look. "Unless you could use a petroleum engineer, of course."

"Sure," Dean says, knee-jerk. "I mean, anyone who needs it, yeah, it's fine. Great. How are you on fixer-uppers? May need a little work. A roof, I think, but that cabin definitely has water."

"Love 'em," Tony answers firmly, then looks at Alison. "Backup plan, good call. But that's not gonna happen, and you know it. Because they're good people, and it's gonna be fine." Huffing a breath, he frowns at Dean. "How close are you to dragging Cas to your jeep and making for Chitaqua?"

Dean reaches down into his pocket, completely unsurprised by his lack of keys. "Cas picked my pocket."

"Right, and God knows where Teresa's hiding him now," Tony says, pushing off the desk. "Alison, you got nothing to do this morning, so I'm making a request of the mayor for desperate mayor duties at the power plant. Dean, you're coming because you're curious about electricity."

"You hook it up and turn a few screws," Dean says vaguely. "Then add gas and--it comes on. Hitting it helps, sometimes."

Tony nods agreeably. "Time to learn. Electrical Engineering 101: you can take notes. Let's go."

"He's where?" Dean asks when they arrive back in admin just short of lunch.

Teresa winces. "The daycare."

Dean's never thought deeply on the combination of 'Cas' and 'kids'; it's one of those things that just stretches beyond weird territory and into the blessed unknown. Also, the few experiences he's observed with actual interaction involved non-standard children, such as demonically possessed or Anti-Christs, which isn't what he'd call a good baseline (please God, let Cas show unusual insight and not mention that, ever).

If he's ever interacted with a normal child (and remembered it, anyway), Dean will be really surprised; nothing he's gotten from Cas so far indicates his awareness goes much farther than 'immature versions of the adult of the species' and really, he should have tested him with puppies and kittens, got an idea on Cas's concept of 'cute', 'adorable', and 'awesome'. He's got squirrels--small and possibly cute, who knows--that were used for meals before they got real food again, which tells him nothing useful except more proof Cas' hatred of food isn't unjustified.

Which means there's no good reason for Cas to be there but a lot of very, very shitty ones.

"If you did this to convince him to--" Dean starts, trying to sound threatening while facing someone who can (maybe?) get the earth to swallow him whole or something if she gets annoyed.

"I didn't know!" she answers, looking harassed. "We were touring the fields, and he said he was interested in attempting to commune with the earth while in this form--"

"And you believed him?" The guy who invented transcendental orgies because meditation was too boring asked to voluntarily sit still, clear his mind, and stare at the dirt for a while: he supposes Cas could have said straight out he was making a break for it for purposes unknown, but maybe that would have been a little too subtle.

Teresa's eyes narrow dangerously, but to his surprise, Alison nods with a resigned expression. "My fault, I should have warned you about that; his attention span's shorter than mine."

From the appalled look on Teresa's face, that's pretty goddamn short. "So why--"

"Because he's an idiot. Wait here," Dean snarls to Alison, starting out the door of admin and across the town square toward the daycare with Teresa on his heels. "How long ago?"

"Less than an hour," Teresa offers, coming up beside him. "He wants to see the kids, doesn't he?"

That's pretty much the only thing Dean's sure of; the why is still up in the air.

Entering the foyer, Dean starts to tell her to split up and do this room by room, but a nervous-looking Serafina is just coming from the hall, and the relief on her face tells him finding Cas isn't gonna be a problem. "Where is he?"

"Second floor, third door on the left," she begins, and Dean starts for the stairs, taking them two at a time: they switched up the rooms when they got the daycare cleaned out for reasons Dean's pretty sure were good ones but right now he can't remember, like he can't remember what group's in that room.

Reaching the top, he starts to count doors and abruptly realizes he doesn't need to. One's open and apparently a hot spot for kids to gather, clustered close to the doorway and staring inside. A little farther down the hall, a couple of people on daycare shift linger, watching the kids with resigned expressions but not making any effort to get them back to their classrooms.

A hand closes over his arm. "Serafina says--"

"That's them." He doesn't need Teresa to confirm: thirteen, so the other two must be inside. The oldest girl picks up a five year old, bracing him on her hip so the kid can see inside, big brown eyes wide.

Height has its advantages; coming up well behind them, he can just see over their heads, and barely stifles a surprised smile.

From the look, this is the new toddler room; surprisingly good hand-drawn pictures of Mickey Mouse and Goofy and the entire Loony Toons cast as well as crayon drawings line the warm yellow walls, low tables covered with crayons and markers and paper surrounded by tiny chairs scattered around the room, and plastic crates overflowing with toys stacked against the walls.

Cas is sitting rail-straight on a colorful rug in what Dean assumes is the reading-slash-nap area with a worn hardcover book in his hands and surrounded by ages two through four, with Glenn sitting beside him, eyes carefully not darting to the door even though it's obvious he's aware they've got an audience. Ambient noise makes it impossible to hear what he's solemnly reading, but Dean bets its awesome and Dr. Seuss-like, because Cas has a thing for rhyming (explanation for Phil, maybe?). He would love to know how Glenn got him to do it and reminds himself to ask later.

"Serafina said they gave up herding the kids back to class," Teresa murmurs, though why she bothers he's not sure; those kids aren't paying attention to anything outside this room. "They just come right back, so why fight it?"

"They didn't react like this last time." He glances down at Teresa. "Did they?"

Teresa's mouth twitches. "Last time he was here, it wasn't to see the kids." His bewildered expression must convey he's not getting it. "He wanted to see what you were doing, Dean. Five, maybe ten seconds."

He looks at her uncertainly.

"Might not have mattered anyway," she continues, eyes going back to the door and narrowing speculatively. "That was before."

"If they don't remember…."

Glenn enthusiastically leads the clapping after Cas closes the book with the kind of ceremony due a major religious rite, staring at the kids like a deer realizing the headlights aren't good news, but it's mixed up with utter fascination. Only this age group, Dean thinks, wouldn't notice they're being studied under a Cas-shaped microscope; he almost can't wait to hear his observations later.

As Glenn jumps to his feet, waving toward the tables, Cas's attention fixes on the tiny brown-eyed blonde Dean recognizes as Tony's younger daughter Lily, and Paul, Claudia's youngest son; with his dark hair in its first careful twists, he looks enough like Derek to be his brother by blood except for the startlingly blue-green eyes. Getting to their feet, they ignore the others, wandering up to Cas with the open curiosity of kids who've never been anything but welcome wherever they go.

"Lily was the youngest in the group," Teresa says softly, "but Dolores put Paul at about three months and change. I don't think this has anything to do with memory."

Toddling closer to Cas (who can indeed sit very still when he wants to), they peer into his face, Paul's tiny eyebrows drawn together for a long moment before he says something. Cas's eyes widen, then he slowly nods, and with a kid's lack of boundaries, they crawl into his lap, Lily trying to stand up. Cas steadies her before she tumbles backward, and she breaks into a bubbling laugh, chubby arms wrapping around his neck.

Cas's expression answers one question, at least; he does like kids.

Dean swallows, watching as Cas tentatively rests a hand on her back, looking down at Paul's happy grin with an expression it's no effort at all to interpret. The blue eyes flicker to the door, widening as they take in the audience, and like it was permission they were waiting for, they trickle inside.

"It wasn't supposed to notice, so it didn't," Teresa murmurs, almost as if to himself as the kids settle down on the carpet. "Earth can't lie, but it does know how to confuse the issue if I don't know the right questions to ask. Not bad." She glances up at him. "You knew."

"Which part?" The oldest girl--Jessica, got it--asks Cas something, dark head tilted curiously; there and gone, amusement flickers over Cas's face, but he answers with the seriousness of profound dialogue, and she sits back, satisfied. "Only thing I couldn’t figure out was how the hell he got that goddess to go along with this, but if Alison and Lucifer can't read his mind, good luck a goddess getting through." Too bad it would be two years and change and a meeting with fucking Lucifer to find out about that little trick again. "Not bad for a plan made up on the spot; it worked perfectly."

Teresa's eyes dart back to the kids inside, then to him. "They survived. That's what you meant."

"Not like she'd know he was lying through his teeth about what he did with their memories," Dean answers softly. "Jesus, she even gave him the power to do it. Angels being better at manipulating human memory and everything: he must have pulled out all the stops for that one."

Teresa's eyebrows climb disbelievingly. "Then why didn't he--"

"I know; he doesn't." There's nothing on Cas's face right now but interest in all the immature humans surrounding him who define the difference between what you remember and what you know in your bones. If Dean was guessing, right at this moment Cas is way too distracted by the company to remember why he came here in the first place, but seeing Dean watching might just remind him. "We should--"

"--go, yeah," Teresa agrees, falling into step with him on their way to the stairs. "How'd you know?"

"Five minute rule." Bobby would shit himself; someone actually paying attention to his words of wisdom. "If you can't kill it and you can't run away from it, buy time to figure out how to do one of those things. Also applies to saving kids from goddesses whose purpose was just those women with a design stuck in their heads you don't know how to get rid of." The fucked-up part is it would have worked, too; the end of the Apocalypse would have taken care of this little problem by way of mass death of humanity. If that's not irony, he's not sure what is.

Reaching the first floor, Teresa stops him, tilting her head toward the kitchen before leading him down the hall. It's empty, which is a relief, and Dean settles against the counter to think. About what, he's not sure, but he thinks--just maybe--he knows why Cas wanted to see them for himself, and it sure as hell wasn't sentimentality or guilt.

"Cas really has a thing for figuring out how to hide in plain sight," he says abruptly, feeling the pieces slowly assemble into something he maybe should have guessed last night. "There was a time--after he rebelled, the Host hunted us constantly." " He hesitates, thinking about that year on the run with Sam, all the times that Castiel was there, but now he wonders uneasily about all the times he wasn't, how somehow, he never got around to asking about. Cas was hunted for three years here, two longer than Castiel had to deal with, and then he ended up in Chitaqua, where he was hunted all over again with nowhere to hide. "Off the top of my head, I'm not sure there's anyone who hasn't fucked him over and back again. That's gotta do something to you."

"You live and you learn." Glancing over, he sees her staring hard at the wall, eyes dark. "And then you get up and try again, because they don't decide the terms on which life is lived. And you meet someone…" She pauses, mouth curving in a slow, private smile. "Someone whose pick-up line was 'I knew I felt the earth move the first time I saw you' when I told her what I was."

"Oh God," he says, appalled.

"Exactly." Teresa's smile fades. "Cas may not remember what happened in the church, but it's not like it's not obvious. The earth doesn't answer to anyone it doesn't want to, even its own gods. It had to be someone with dominion over Creation itself who could give that kind of order and have it obeyed." He looks at her in surprise. "Perk of being bound to it: there aren't a lot of secrets it can keep from me, and even fewer it would want to. I thought about this all last night and this morning, and what you just said, about Cas and hiding in plain sight, that makes sense now. That bubble was grounded in the earth so the earth itself would hide it, and that included everything inside it. Anyone but me looking at it wouldn't have even seen the church itself."

"Alison and Manuel both saw the church when you got there," he counters, but he thinks he knows where she's going with this. "But if you aren't with a bruja blanca so the earth knows it's okay, what are you gonna believe; the earth telling you nothing but rocks and dirt are here, or your own two eyes? It's not even a lie; there definitely dirt and rocks around."

"Exactly." Teresa studies him for a long moment. "He doesn't want to admit it."

"He's just not thinking about it. He's good at that little trick."

"Do you know why?"

He thinks about the way Cas smiled when he talked about gods and tricks: jokes that last centuries, so why not two years? "Yeah, I think I do."

Alison and Tony, being fucking turncoats, agree with Teresa (another of them) that Dean shouldn't be at the meeting.

"Other than the fact you look two steps from jittering out of your skin and you'll scare them to death?" Alison asks caustically, cornering him on the first floor in admin before he can get upstairs. "I can't have Chitaqua's leader in that room, Dean."

From the first step, Tony nods agreement, one hand resting on the bannister.

"What," Dean asks, outraged, "do you think I'm gonna do?"

"Nothing!" Alison answers impatiently. "But what they'll see is the man who leads a small army watching them, and unarmed or not, you're a living, breathing warning. They don't need that."

"This is just a goddamn talk!" Turning, Dean paces toward one of the empty desks shoved against the wall, wondering how the hell he's supposed to deal with this. "Can I at least listen or--"

"I'll be fine," Cas says, slumped against the bannister and looking bored. "I understand some things humans do are best done on their own, so as to develop character--"

"You," Dean says, pointing at him, "have all the character you need. You got enough for three people, okay?"

"I think you're outvoted," Alison says, despite the fact Dean doesn't remember agreeing this was a democracy (it's not). "Go talk to Amanda, watch training, take a drive, but Dean--this is proving good intentions time. You cannot be here, they have to know you're not here, that everyone associated with Chitaqua is safely in the training field because this has nothing to do with the militia being here. This is about Ichabod's kids and what happened to them."

"Goddamn it--"

"I got it, Alison," a voice says from the door to the street, and Dean spins around to see Amanda come inside, pink cheeked and breathless before exchanging a glance with Cas like he needs confirmation this was planned. "Come on, Dean," she says coaxingly. "One on one, I'll even let you win. Maybe."

Dean looks between her and the group by the stairs helplessly. Cas can probably take an entire room of worried parents without even breaking a sweat, he gets that; he also gets that disappointment never killed anyone, but he's so fucking tired of it, and he doesn't think how much hope will survive if he sees it on Cas's face, unsurprised, because Dean was wrong about people.

"It'll be fine," Tony promises, jerking his head toward the stairs. "We should get up there."

Amanda's beside him before he even realizes she's moved, one arm sliding through his. "Let's go," she says more quietly, pulling him unresistingly toward the door. "Mark's drilling the kids, so I got some time. What do you want to do?"

Looking back, Dean watches Alison, Teresa, Tony, and finally Cas vanish up the stairs. "Anyone on the target range?"

Amanda fails not to look impressed, though she makes an effort, he'll give her that. Retrieving the targets, she drops them on the growing pile, circling to raise his right hand and frowning at tremor from before he switched hands, then glancing his left, steady as a goddamn rock. He wasn't careful, again, and he's got to stop doing that.

"Hold up your arm," she says, tugging back his right sleeve and running her fingers over the scarring from the brownie, fingers trickling faintly over the bandaged Croat bite. "No sensation yet?"

"Not much," he says, making himself look at the still-ugly red-raw ropes of scar tissue extending from two inches below his elbow to an inch above the Croat bite; at this rate, his entire right arm's gonna be unrecognizable. "Vera said it could come back or not, which, useful to know. That nursing degree of hers really paid off."

Amanda rolls her eyes, placing a hand under his elbow and taking the weight; the tremor eases slightly, but overwork is overwork, and he hopes no one wants him to sign anything today, because that's not happening. "Any weakness generally or is it just when you overwork it?"

"I'm not sure," he admits as she stares at his skin like she's reading hieroglyphs by guess. "Why?"

"Thinking," she says absently, cocking her head before removing her hand. "On your very special shooting range at home, Cas having you work your left more? Your accuracy's better than it was before the fever, which is saying something. Probably better than mine now," she adds with a grin. "Always had the best eye of anyone I ever met."

"Pretty much every time I go out," he admits, feeling a flush of pride and trying not to think he just won a non-existent competition with the other Dean Winchester as well as Amanda, but yeah, he's thinking it, because that's exactly what he did. "Got a recommendation, sir?"

"Funny." She takes the nine millimeter, checking it before returning it to the weapons table. They've hit everything on it, and he's got the feeling Amanda's trying to decide how creative she should get. When she turns around, though, she surprises him. "Cas gave me Vera's notes, and I think right now it's as healed as it's gonna get. It was one hell of an infection and between ripping out the stitches while you were feverish and the drainage cuts, there was a lot of damage that can't be fixed. Biggest danger is what you can't do anything about: it's gonna degrade, but how much is anyone's guess." Before he can take that in, she adds, "I don't think it matters, though."

Dean blinks at her, distracted from starting a nice session of self-pity. "What?"

"First, you should know me and Cas have been planning for this," she says easily. "Exercises you've been doing until now were light so nothing would interfere with the healing. Now we know that part's over, we start working on building the muscle up again, and I'll tell you right now it's gonna suck. Cas says you can tell when the tremor's about to start; your job, and you kind of have to accept it, is extending the time you got until then. Strength will help, but what we need here is endurance, and then learning how to compensate for the tremor when you have to shoot anyway."

"Then how doesn't it matter--"

"That's second, and I was getting there.Dean, how often are yo u gonna need to shoot that long without a rest?" she demands. "Short range, even with a tremor, the margin of error is pretty good; long range, switch hands and be done with it. You miss them close up, switch hands and then punch them in the face. Tremor's not gonna affect a fist to the face with your shoulder behind it, you get my meaning?"

Dean blinks, startled. "Uh--"

"Hunting is the art of the practical," she continues, ignoring him. "You taught us that in the field again after Cas banged it into us during training. You are never just gonna stand there for hours with your arm up shooting shit; the enemy'll be bored with that even faster than you. The only time this might--and I emphasize the might--be a problem is with the rifles or shotguns, and that's just a weight issue. Come on, they're bulky and show us down on the run, anyway and you're sure as hell not going to be carrying it in your hand for hours. Jesus, you're hunter and we're pretty fucking mobile on a hunt. This is barely a blip."

He wets his lips. "I don't like having that kind of limit."

Amanda shrugs, unimpressed. "I don't like having a leg that remembers when I broke my femur at age twenty-one and didn't finish rehab when I run too long." He pauses, scanning her legs blankly, like maybe she'll suddenly fall over or something. "Weirdly, I will rarely need to sprint five miles, and when I do, the least of my problems will be my leg at that point. How I got into that situation is way more worrying, you know?"

"Five miles?"

"Three, fine, and some of it at a jog," she bites out, looking annoyed. "Welcome to the twenty-first century; we have jeeps."

"We could run out of gas," Dean points out.

"I'll get a horse." She shrugs. "Hunters don't survive because their bodies are in pristine condition; they survive because their brains are in working order and that's the best weapon you'll ever have. The rest--that's just details."

Dean wrinkles his nose at Amanda's smirk, sighing when she inclines her head toward the conveniently placed chairs and bottles of water, because they're responsible about being well-hydrated. Dropping into the chair, Dean takes a long drink from the bottle Amanda offers as she joins him.

"I should be doing more before now," he says finally, rubbing a heel into the dirt and wondering if the earth is telling Teresa he's sulking and if she'll tell Cas. Very crazy, he thinks hopefully, but the idea just sits there like that's actually sane. Jesus, his life. "Should have gone out in the field more, fevers are almost gone--"

"You're what, three days from the last one?" Amanda asks, eyes traveling to his wrist and staring significantly before meeting his eyes. "Dean, we don't get time to heal up--really heal up--because we don't take the time to do it. I didn't, and I'm paying for it with a two mile--"

"I thought you said three."

"--fuck you, lots of jogging for the three, maybe limping," she says, taking a drink from her bottle. "Loners can pull that shit and regret it later; lucky us, we got an entire camp to enforce the beauty of the healing process. Deal with it."

"We may not have that kind of time."

"If you're set on jumping off a cliff," she says, "at least wait long enough to get there to do it. Otherwise--no reason to jump, unless you just want to make dust clouds."

Dean turns in his chair to stare at her satisfied expression. "That was a terrible analogy."

"Obviously not, since you understood it," she points out smugly.

She's got him there. Taking another drink, Dean frowns toward the distant training field, Ichabod in the two mile distance, then at the sun sinking toward the horizon. "So this is taking a while."

"Good sign," Amanda assures him. "They're listening. When it begins with 'so your kids are part of an ongoing human sacrifice', listening is something that's gotta be worked up to."

"Hopefully they didn't start with that."

"I'm sure they eased into it," Amanda agrees. "Tomorrow's winter solstice. You know what that means, right?"

Dean racks his brain for whatever unholy event is associated with solstice--something about the lack of sun really makes people crazy? Freaky ritual? Yule log?--when he stumbles over the obvious answer. "Four days until Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," Amanda corrects him, nudging his shoulder. "So what'd you get him?"

"Get him?" he echoes blankly, then realizes what she's talking about. "Wait, like a present?"

"Yeah?" She frowns at him. "You forgot?"

"Uh, no." It doesn't count if he didn't think of it at all, but that's probably worse. Since this is his serious imaginary relationship here, and also apparently Christmas. "We don't do that. Do you do that?"

"Am I half-married to anyone?" she asks.

"Besides Vera?"

Amanda's eyes narrow. "You're pushing it."

"Just saying, her gorgeous perfection and everything--"

"I was so drunk," Amanda mourns, slumping in her chair. "Rules of drinking games: we don't talk about drinking games and what was said. Don't turn this into an arm's race, Dean; I'll win."

"My lips," Dean lies, "are sealed. Unlike you, I don't need to be bribed with Eldritch Horror." Amanda scowls at him. "By the way, how'd it go this morning?"

"Fine," she says in surprise. "Cas said it was okay. Did you, uh--"

"He woke me up and said he'd watch and I could sleep in," Dean answers. "Not much to see; was there chanting, waving hands, the earth moving?"

"There was coffee and naan with butter and cheese," she tells him. "Rabin brought me burritos from breakfast during break."

"It's nopales con huevos."

"It's wrapped in a bread substance: burrito. If the bread is hard: taco." He cocks his head, blinking at her. "Yeah, I'm in beginner Spanish class an hour every night now, Manuel officiating. Como esta, puta?"

Dean takes a drink of water, fighting down the temptation to verbalize her relationship with sheep in Yiddish, via Joe being awesome. "You scared Cas last night."

"I know." Amanda sighs, setting the empty bottle on the ground. "I apologized for that."

"Good." Finishing his bottle, he tries not to check the horizon again; it's just gonna confirm the sun is lower and they're still waiting. "Don’t do it again. Check in before you start giving blood to people, you have no idea what that shit can do. Ask Cas: there's a list, it's unreal."

"I won't," she answers. "Dean?"

He looks at her.

"I'm sorry I scared you," she says in a breath, like she's not sure this is a good idea but doing it anyway. "Just throwing it out there."

"Me? I'm fine," he answers, crossing his arms. "Not even--a little, maybe."

"Right." Abruptly, she swallows, and Dean closes his eyes. "Looks like a jeep's coming from Ichabod."

"Yeah." Dean takes a deep breath, standing up, checking the sun just touching the ground, and nods to himself. "Let's go."

Dean isn't even pretending he's casually leaning against the fence as the jeep comes to a stop. Behind them, Mark's wrapping up training for the day, oblivious to the drama happening as the passenger side door opens in slow-motion and Alison gets out, Teresa coming from the backseat. Taking a deep breath, he hears the driver's side door close, Cas circling the jeep, and wonders why it's so goddamn hard to look at his face.

"So," Alison says, shutting the door, expression half-guilty, half furtive triumph, and Dean suddenly knows exactly why they didn't want him at that meeting. "I should--"

"We're going to try and unmake the design in the children's memories," Cas interrupts. "Emphasis on try."

Yeah, how the hell did he not guess this was coming. "How--"

"Something I didn't consider last night," Cas says as Teresa joins Alison, and from the look on her face, she's in on it, too. "Even if the earth can't protect her, Teresa's attachment to Alison will allow her to pull Alison out should she become distressed before any damage occurs, just as she did when Alison was catatonic. Tomorrow morning will be an experiment to see if she can do that much while I simply observe; if she can, then I can judge if that would be enough time to alter the children's memories since while doing that, I won't be able to concentrate on anything else, including her."

"And the parents?" Dean hears himself ask in a voice way too calm for how he's feeling right now. "They're okay with this?"

"Yes," Alison says, glancing at Teresa. "Cas told them everything, and they consented."

Dean watches Cas watching him; it's not about you, he said. The choice belongs to the people doing it, he gets that.

"So," he says into the awkward silence, "it's about time for dinner. I'll cook."

Everyone goes to bed early--from Alison and Teresa's expressions, it's been a long day for them, too, or maybe they have the crazy idea that Dean's kind of pissed--and he patiently waits for Cas to fulfill his shower and brushing his teeth habits, wondering just how long it will take for him to--

"I would have told you," Cas says abruptly, apparently realizing that he's already dressed for bed and has zero reason to need to search his bag for this long. "I wasn't sure--"

"Sure enough to get Alison to keep me out of the room this afternoon," Dean interrupts, sitting up against the headboard. "Afraid I'd talk you out of it or agree you should do it for the greater good?"

Cas winces, closing his eyes briefly before pushing to his feet. "Dean--"

"Not," he continues mildly, "that it's got anything to do with me. Because this, it's not about me, right?"

"They knew me." Cas looks up, and yeah, that's what he thought. "And I knew them. Teresa confirmed the earth wouldn't answer her question on who--ordered it to ignore the church until it returned to the regular time stream, because it can't lie to her. I gave her two names, however, and when she asked, it was silent for only one of them."


Cas nods, obviously bracing himself for the obvious question. "Okay, if the earth--if you tell it--something, release it, whatever--can it tell us what happened?"

Looking surprised (relieved), Cas drifts to the foot of the bed and sits down. "It couldn't tell us very much, even if translation and context weren't a problem. The corruption of the earth would have been its priority, and I doubt it even noticed--or cared--what was actually happening in the church itself, it not being earth," he answers, pulling one knee against his chest and frowning. "Even if it could, however, I wouldn't release it."

Dean blinks. "Why?"

"When Teresa said--what she understood from the earth--is because she's bound to it and it has no reason to be less than entirely truthful," Cas answers slowly. "However, should it be asked by someone else, the answer would depend on how precise the wording of the question asked. Anything outside that, the answer would be the equivalent of 'I have no idea what that question means'."

"Earth can play dumb, who knew." Dean blows out a breath. "Wanna share the reason?"

"Because if I went through the trouble of ordering it not to reveal who gave the order, I probably first asked exactly how to make sure the earth never had to give the answer," he says, resting his chin on his knee. "Just in case someone of higher rank in the hierarchy showed up to countermand me, and using that, could simply go back in time to watch what happened for themselves."

"Lucifer." Okay, so that changes things. "Why would he care what was in that church, Cas? The design?"

"He can't see it." Right, he forgot about that. "The children wouldn't particularly concern him, either, and while the goddess would be of interest, the bubble would have been set after she left. There must have been something in that church that I didn't want him to know about, but what…."

"So Lucifer--I mean, this is the guy that took out all the gods, he's that paranoid. Why wouldn't he check it the bubble just on principle?"

To Dean's surprise, Cas starts to smile, like he did when he showed Dean how he powered the wards. "Lucifer doesn't have a sense of humor."


"I think it may bother him, actually," Cas continues, smile widening maliciously. "Not that he'd admit it, of course--it's beneath him--but this isn't something he simply chooses not to understand; he actually can't. I'd be very surprised if he even understood what 'fun' was, much less the amount of effort one will put into achieving just that. Time bubbles are usually part of a game--something I would be amazed he could even conceptualize--as well as a useful way for the human-hybrid offspring of gods to gain full maturity quickly, I forgot to mention that part. You can't play unless you choose to be subject to linear time; otherwise, it's just a river, and to continue the metaphor, it's a very big river and this is very small."

"You can't see the slowest part unless you know what you're looking for."

Cas nods. "If Gabriel found it, he'd check it just to see what it was, and if he won. Lucifer, on the very off-chance he even lowered himself to acknowledge something so trivial, would find it beneath him to even show interest, as one does when they don't understand the joke, and voluntarily subject himself to linear time just to confirm his ignorance--no. The Host suffers from the same problem, and Gabriel used it to his advantage." Abruptly, Cas's smile fades. "Gabriel and Lucifer were once very close, and he knew Lucifer very well. Hiding something important inside a game: that is very much something Gabriel would do."

"You miss him," Dean says without thinking and immediately corrects their course. "Okay, yeah, we didn't have a great relationship, but compared to the rest of your family, definitely my favorite."

"I'm sorry to hear your feelings for Anael have suffered a revision," he answers, raising an eyebrow "Also, thank you for the interesting conversation I had with Alison--"

"Jesus," Dean groans, covering his face; what was he thinking? "Sorry, last night--lightweight, remember?"

"I've never aspired to out-perform Zeus's hideously complicated family relationships while on earth," Cas muses. "However, fucking my sister's ex-boyfriend, with whom I also share a brother via his current vessel and who I resurrected in what could be considered analogous to--"

"Don't say it, Cas."

"--creating life--it's certainly far more straightforward than some of the ways Zeus fathered offspring, but that's not saying much." Abruptly Cas tilts his head, looking disturbingly thoughtful. "I don't object in principle, you understand, but had I known this was a potential future, I would have chosen a female vessel. Surely by now, we'd all be waiting with bated breath to discover if you or some other human fathered my nephilim offspring. It's an Apocalypse; a hybrid abomination with tendencies toward giantism and megalomania would fit in perfectly."

Dean stares at him in horror. "How long have you been thinking about this?"

"Alison told me before the meeting, I assume to add a note of levity before I faced worried parents. It was a long meeting and a great deal of it required I merely sit there and try to project righteous serenity and kindness toward all mankind."

"They buy that?"

"Apparently." Cas takes a deep breath before abruptly adding, "I should have told you this earlier, but--Phil doesn't possess a uterus. However, that is immaterial in this case, as he seems very unclear on the facts of biology while I'm this body."

"Fuck my life, I'm gonna kill Alison--wait, what was that about Phil?" Dean stops staring resentfully at the door to see Cas sigh. "You talked to him? When?" Then, incredulous, "Hold up, he really thinks you can knock him up with--how?"

"If I apologize for not believing you and assure you I told him that I was deeply in love with you as well as sexually enslaved and will therefore forsake all others unto my literal death," Cas says quickly, blue eyes haunted, "will you let me relegate that part of the conversation to the very farthest reaches of my memory?"

Dean hesitates; there's not a lot that would make Cas look like that. "That bad?"

"Dean, I will promise to forsake all others until my literal death, thus dooming myself to a life of tragic celibacy and unsettlingly frequent masturbation, if I don't have to--would that conversation define the concept of 'awkward'?"

"No," Dean answers sympathetically, feeling vaguely like he should be patting Cas's shoulder or hugging him or something. "That's trauma, and repressing is legit; go for it." Cas relaxes, the haunted look beginning to fade, which is why he thinks it's okay to ask, "So he's gonna stop, right?"

Cas closes his eyes--oh Jesus, not good. "I’m not sure. It's your turn; deal with this, I don't care how."

"How do you want me to…." Dean trails off; he likes this plan. "I can do this."

"Are duels still an acceptable way to deal with someone encroaching on a romantic relationship?"

Dean looks at his left hand complacently, remembering all those targets this afternoon. "We'll let Phil decide." Glancing at Cas, he notes he has both knees pulled up and may be clutching them against his chest; oh, Phil's got this coming. "You need anything?" Hugs are definitely on the table.

"What were you drinking last night?" Cas asks without hesitation. "Is there more?"

Or that. Dean slides off the bed. "You got it."

With the lights off, the thin spill of silvery-grey coming from the window turns the room into ghostly shadows, wall vanishing behind a curtain of gloom. Could be the alcohol--not like he's got Cas's night vision--but he has no problem making out Cas at all, sprawled stomach-down on the bedcovers beside him, socked toes just touching the edge of the mattress, head pillowed on one arm and three fingers of fucking amazing whiskey clutched in his free hand.

He's not the only one working with a liver that's confused; Cas is relaxed to the point of boneless, squinting at his third drink like it's betrayed him but he can't remember exactly why. "How long have I been…" Trailing off, he frowns at the cup, then at Dean. "Did I stop drinking? When?"

"We stopped drinking," Dean corrects him, taking a very moderate sip from his own cup; last night was educational on his current limits. "Well, we had coffee. Me anyway, but I was dying; what's your excuse?"

Cas lifts his head to take a larger than recommended for the long-term sober drink--oh, mistake, Dean really should warn him about that--before dropping back to the bed with a grunt. "It's very pleasant. Addictively so."

"Coffee?" To be fair, Dean's really drinking, just not nearly as much. He's not Cas's mother--freakish Greek gods and their freakishness--and if Cas needs this after facing Phil's creepy, creepy passion head-on as well as everything else, he gets it. Judging Cas's exact state of slump, he thinks just maybe it's time they talked about the thing they're not talking about; like the reason Cas went to the daycare today. "Cas?"

Cas wrinkles his nose, and Dean will shoot himself before acknowledging it's kind of goddamn adorable. "Hmm?"

This was a much better idea before he actually had to figure out how to actually do it. "The kids….what happened at the daycare? When you were with the kids?"

Cas half-sits up and finishes the cup, thrusting it carelessly into Dean's lap before rolling onto his back. Catching it before it rolls onto the mattress, Dean gratefully sets aside hangover temptation on the bedside table before turning his full attention to Cas.

"My family," Cas announces, sounding painfully earnest, "tried to kill, possess, or manipulate yours, and with surprising success considering their utter lack of anything resembling competence or subtlety. It helps to have a playbook written by my Father; all they had to do was follow it to the letter while he conveniently took an unexpected roadtrip for eons." He wets his lips, a faint impression of pink, there and gone. "I miss him."

Dean nods; he's not talking about his Father right now. "He was your brother."

"I didn't--that concept is foreign to them, to feel that absence." Dean notes the switch of pronouns in interest and files it away for when he has a clearer head. "When I made--the first time I summoned Lucifer inside the wards, I thought--Gabriel would have approved. Mourned the lack of a chocolate aspect, of course, but you can't have everything. He would have….."

"You wanted to think he made that time bubble around the church," Dean says softly. "That he was there."

"It's not proof, I have no idea if I could sense his Grace on those children….this is so much like him, all of it. I thought how he must have laughed when he saw the tape." Turning his head, he looks at Dean. "Gabriel, Loki, messenger, archangel, pagan god: you and Sam knew him better than I did. Yet last night, all I could think was how Gabriel would react in the cabin, because the wards would assure he couldn't see you when you punched him. He'd summon Lucifer into the wards for weeks without stopping just for the sheer pleasure of doing it. He'd think of entirely new ways to annoy Lucifer without leaving the comfort of the camp and provide everyone with confections while we viewed the footage."

In the splash of weak moonlight, Dean sees the silvery track of tears. "Hey." Scooting closer, he wipes a thumb across Cas's cheek before he can think about what he's doing. "It's okay."

"But it wasn't him," Cas whispers. "I suppose I was the only one who thought--thought it might be. Because I wanted…it's not as if he had any reason to come out of hiding since then. It's different with angels, especially--why would he bother just for me? Why," he whispers, "did I even care?"

Dean's not sure what to say to that.

"Tell me about grief again," Cas demands, voice cracking. "Tell me how he could die years ago and only now do I feel his absence? I didn't know him, so tell me why--why now--of all times--why all I could think of is how badly I want my brother and wish for his return?" He sucks in a breath, looking at nothing. "In the church…. She died two years ago, but I hadn't seen her in millennia. I knew she was dead with the other gods, I've known for years, but why is it now--I want to remember what happened in the church, if I said goodbye to her, as I couldn't with him. Time heals nothing, you said, but you didn't tell me it could be years before I even felt the wound. How is that fair?"

"It's not," Dean says quietly.

"I prayed for him!" Cas snarls. "Saint Gabriel, Angel of the Incarnation, Messenger of God, I beseech thee, as you consoled our Savior in his agony and Mary in her sorrows and Joseph in his trials, console me for the loss of my Brother in your return. Saint Gabriel, Prince of Heaven and Scourge of Disbelievers, who clothed in your righteousness did so stupidly face Lucifer alone, as if that would work, and died by his hand and by his will, surely that was another trick, so in your wisdom return from wherever you fucked off to. Now would be acceptable, two years ago would have been better, but I've learned to take what I can get. Saint Gabriel, Strength of God, Defender of the Faithful, if this wasn't your idea of a terrible joke, I ask you especially for this favor: fuck you for leaving. Amen." He swallows, blue eyes wet. "Two useless prayers in the span of five days; it truly is a time of miracles. Tell me--tell me how this makes sense?"

"I don't know." The shittiest part of grief is experience means jack shit when it came to someone else's or even your own; it's brand new every goddamn time. "I never said it made sense."

"Is this human?" Cas asks bitterly. "This is what you call living; the constant awareness of your future as an inevitable string of losses, feeling each new absence in accumulation, knowing they will never again be filled? Unless you're fortunate enough to die first and simply be an absence for someone else? Tell me the attraction of mortality again: I think I've forgotten."

Dean sits back on the mattress, wondering uneasily how it is he's counseling an angel through an existential crisis about the meaning of life.

"Five days ago, I almost watched you die."

Yeah, he knew this was coming. "I didn't."

"You didn't," Cas concedes bitterly. "He did, and left me behind; you didn't, but you certainly tried. Tell me how I can heal from what didn't actually happen when I'm not sure if I ever will from what did? If time can't do the job, I'm open to suggestions on what might." The red-rimmed eyes narrow. "Dean, Righteous Man and Defender of Humanity, I beseech thee, five days ago you wanted me to put a bullet in your head, so I ask you especially for this favor: fuck you for even asking. Amen."

It's an effort not flinch. "You done yet?"

"You're still alive," he answers. "So I suppose that means no, I'm not. When will I be, Dean?"

There's no way to mistake what he's asking, but it's not like Dean really believed--he's not the right Dean, he always knew that. "Do you want to be?"

"I don’t know." After a moment, he sits up. "Alison, Teresa, and I will start at dawn. There's no reason for you to--"

"Get up, since you don't want me there, either." He really wants to take satisfaction in the fact Cas flinches, but he can't really feel anything right now. Pulling the blankets out from under him, he eases beneath them, rolling to face the wall, shutting his eyes like maybe he might actually sleep tonight. "Night."

He wonders what he should be feeling--anger, frustration, sympathy, something--but there's nothing but a hollow space, like something's been taken and he can't remember when.

Chapter Text

--Day 140--

"What are you doing out here again?" Amanda asks, wiping her face as she and Mark take a break from attempted homicide (her) and nearly dying (him), also known as how crazy people have fun before sunup. She flickers a wary glance to the sun hovering just above the horizon. "You know you aren't a morning person, right? Cas promised everyone he'd break it to you."

Dean lets his glare over the top of his thermal cup of desperately needed coffee be his response to that bullshit. He's great at mornings.

"Anyway," she continues, "I thought you were gonna watching the thing that Cas and Alison--"

"Change of plans," he interrupts, taking a drink of coffee so he can pretend he doesn't see her smile fade. "So this is what you do every morning?"

"Pretty much," Mark answers, leaning against the fence and grinning up at him, smugly secure in the fact his ass wasn't stuck in a bed for weeks and his right arm works just fine. Or maybe Dean's projecting, who knows? "Why? You wanna go a round?"

It's a stupid question, he gets that, but his specialty is stupid questions, both in the asking and the answering, and he's got a record to protect.

"Sure." Hopping off the fence, he sets down his thermal cup, and Mark's horror is almost but not quite worth the beating he's gonna get, or worse, the one he won't because he's still recovering and they gotta be careful with him. Tugging off his coat, he drapes it over the top rail of the fence and looks between two dubious faces challengingly. "Well?"

"I really don't want Cas to kill me," Mark starts, which was of all the wrong things to say probably the worst.

"He won't care." Dean strips off his sweater--and by will alone controls the shivering from the not-subzero-but-close temperature this morning--and tosses it at the fence. Amanda's eyes widen, but before she can say anything, he frowns. "What was that?"

"What was what?" she asks in confusion. "Hey, target practice, that would be--"

"Maybe I want to get dirty," he counters.

"I'll throw some dirt at you," Amanda snaps back. "Dean, just--"

"Sucker punch work for you?" He's got enough sense left that