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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--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?"

"Alison."

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."

"But--"

"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?"

"What?"

"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?"

"Me."

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."

"Dean--"

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."

"What?"

"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."