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--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."

"Oh?"

"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."

"Cas--"

"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.

"What?"

"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?"

"Cas--"

"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."