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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 123--

Propping his feet on the newly-built bannister, wood still unpainted, Castiel settles back in the weathered armchair on the cracked concrete porch of Alison's building. Between one and four in the morning is the least active time period in the town; the third shift is almost entirely composed of patrol and those whose job includes maintenance and observation of the town's general services, including water and electricity, none of which require anyone to even casually be near here and visibly flinch at his mere presence. He supposes uncertainly this could have gone far worse, but that's not exactly a comfort at the moment; to his own surprise, his standards have risen somewhat beyond 'survival' as a measure of success or failure. Dean is a terrible influence indeed.

You get used to it, he told Dean: that's survival, but stupidly--so stupidly--he hoped for more than that.

Two more days in this accursed town; technically, that's not forever, but from this side of forty-eight hours, it certainly feels like it.

The storm door behind him--a new addition, he suspects, from the lack of wear and the gleam of the jointures against the wooden frame--opens abruptly. His eyes fixed firmly on the road, he listens to the sound of uneven steps framed by the unmistakable staccato beat of a cane until they come to an abrupt stop parallel to his chair.

"Good evening, Alison," he says, turning to observe the frozen woman standing three feet away, wearing an oversized pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a flaking picture of what he thinks is a tiger, a blanket thrown haphazardly over her shoulders, and smiles. "How are you this lovely night?"

She hesitates, hazel eyes unreadable, but nothing about her indicates she's ever backed down from anything in her mortal life and certainly has no intention of starting now. With a snort, she turns, limping painfully behind him to the other armchair and dropping into it with a sigh.

"Wonderful." she answers shortly as she carefully braces her own feet on the rail as well. Despite himself, he feels an uncomfortable flicker of pity. The tension that she attempted, with uncertain success, to hide from Dean is impossible to miss now, and he wonders, not for the first time, why anyone sane would call what was given to her a gift. "Giant box in the guestroom; nothing quite like that to really encourage that insomnia habit you’ve been working on."

Interesting. "Foldspace," he offers, tugging the blanket he found in the hall closet more comfortably around him against the chilly night air and settling more comfortably into the frayed plush cushioning. Like the furniture in the town center, it's held up astonishingly well to exposure to the elements, and he wonder if he should acquire one for Dean. He enjoys sitting on the porch, and it's far more comfortable than the stairs. "Collapsed dark matter of zero mass and infinite density. Refutation and confirmation of e equals mc square. Pick one or all of them if you wish."

She gives him a disbelieving look from bloodshot eyes ringed in violet shadows that deepened over the course of dinner this evening. "Physics? I did chemistry in undergrad."

"You were a programmer, I understand," he answers, amused by her irritation. "You understand--very crudely, admittedly--a very small part of the language that created the universe. Not that Microsoft could prove that," he adds a little bitterly after his experiences with Access.

"Jesus Christ, you mean it really is math?"

"Yes, though your definition of math is very narrow. I was rather looking forward to when you discovered a concrete example of an imaginary number." Her eyes widen. "You told Dean I was like a box. Infinity is a very long time, and that's still a new one to me."

"It's much bigger on the inside, trust me." she says after a moment, grinning when he rolls his eyes. "Yeah, I figured you'd get the reference. Dr. Who fan, not a surprise. Did Dean mention--"

"The cold, yes, several times." Her mouth twitches before she brings it under control. "Folded space and fury, an eternally burning sword, infinite justice, chaos incarnate, perhaps even a storm of vengeance and righteousness, but…"

"A box." She cocks her head, fighting a reluctant smile "You're offended?"

"I'm a being of infinite--" He sighs, sinking more deeply into the ragged upholstery. "I don't know. An infinite being who is also a box."

"Maybe you're in the box?" she offers mischievously, and he's unwillingly reminded of this afternoon; it's been a very long time since he experienced a human mind like that, and never one like hers. "The box thing, I have no idea where that came from."

"A cold box," he corrects her acidly before shutting his eyes, appalled. "I had no idea it bothered me this much."

"I'll tell you what I told Dean--I saw a cold box, and something about time--buying time, maybe, and it'll be enough." She shrugs. "I call 'em as I see 'em."

"I miss Chuck's literary period," he tells her. "Narrative flow, coherent plot, realistic dialogue, surprisingly readable style. Have you read his work by any chance? He published under Carver Edlund."

"I think I have one or two," she answers warily. "Why?"

"You might consider them a model for your future work in the field of clairvoyance." Her flat stare tells him she might be considering burning them now. "It's been a very stressful Apocalypse, and despite the fact I've been completely sober for the most recent part of it, the surreality has actually increased compared to when I spent it very drunk and very high."

"Welcome to the club." She gives him a sardonic look. "Infinite being, huh? Nice work if you can get it."

"You'd be surprised." He studies his socked feet (unmatched, again) and thinks about Alicia's dryer elves theory. They're still working on a model for trapping them, but Alicia's reminder that elves have reality-bending capabilities means progress is slow. "Contemplating the infinite variety of the universe when you already know every detail of its inception is less exciting than you might think. I did it most of my existence, and only as a human did I finally have adequate descriptors, which would include 'monotonous' and 'incredibly boring'."

"Nothing new under heaven."

"Heaven is a study of repetition forever, world without end--or in this case, world without end yet--amen. Fortunately, there was always a war against something evil or blasphemous to distract me before I became dangerously close to considering how often one can wonder on the perfection of an amoeba."

She looks at him skeptically; without her glasses, she has a surprisingly penetrating stare. "Really?"

"Of course not; then, I had no context for anything else. Human minds demand active occupation and novelty: angels, not so much. Possibly because we don't know anything else." Even to himself, he's not sure what he means.

"I sound like this when I have insomnia, which, in case you're curious, is always these days." She looks at him for a long moment, the wariness that she almost successfully hid their entire afternoon together temporarily forgotten. "Contamination, right? That's why I can't read Dean and get you when I try." She waves a hand. "No superpowers, just a smart girlfriend."

"Teresa," he confirms, not surprised. "When you tried to read Dean--what you sensed, she recognized it. When she was finally allowed to return home and you could show her, that is."

Alison scowls. "She's still smug she was right about that being stupid, happy?"

"Yes." Her scowl deepens. "What else did she tell you?"

"She has a lot of practical experience with it in all its apparently many, many forms," she answers with an expression he's seen on Dean's face more than once during certain conversations: one part utter bewilderment, one part determination, one part boredom, and one part--fondness, he supposes uncertainly, startled, then with an effort dismisses it. "It comes up a lot in her work."

"She's bound to the earth itself," he agrees. "She's probably more familiar with it than anyone living."

"Yeah, but not like what you're doing," she says slowly, brow creasing before shaking her head with a grimace. "She wanted to talk to you about it after the party was over, but got me to do it by completely forgetting about it and going to sleep." Her expression softens. "As she does."

"She sensed it when we talked tonight, I assume."

"You and Dean are the most interesting thing she's run across in a while that isn't evil and out to kill us, which is depressingly unique," Alison says before adding with deliberate lightness, "She actually does want to talk to you, but I figured I'd break the ice while you were tired. Spare her you freaking out and threatening to ritually execute her in the street, that kind of thing. Just in case."

So she's still unhappy about that. It's not as if the entire afternoon yesterday didn't make that abundantly clear. "That wasn't a threat. It was more a glimpse of the road not taken, which is, in case this needs saying, is both very short and always ends badly." She rolls her eyes. "You wanted to tell me yourself so you could see my expression yourself and not merely in Teresa's memory."

She shrugs. "I neither confirm or deny that statement, Mr. You're Lucky You're Not Crazy Or Evil and Ritually Executed You Psychic Clairvoyant You."

"My human skills need work."

"You mean the part where you pretend you still don't have them or the part where you feel like actually using them?"

"It's a pity you can't read my mind and discover the answer for yourself," he answers, noticing for the first time that while both socks are dingily off-white, one has red seaming while the other has a grey toe. That they're different lengths he was aware of, but he could have sworn they were both at least solid white.

"In this case, don't think I need to." To his horror, she follows his gaze, and only with an effort does he avoid jerking his feet off the banister (and out of her sight), though why he would wish to do that he's not sure. "You know you're--"

"They don't match, I'm aware," he snaps before he can stop himself. Alison raises her eyebrows, eyes dancing in a way that's far worse than commentary. "No matter how careful I am to assure they have their appropriate matches when I take them to the laundry, there's always one missing when I take them home to sort them. It's become a problem."

"You do laundry?" she asks incredulously, sounding so eerily like Dean despite the difference in register that he smiles despite himself. And much like Dean, the hazel eyes narrow in immediate suspicion. "What?"

"Nothing." Ignoring Alison's scowl, he tries to focus on the empty street, but for reasons unknown, he can't stop looking at that glaringly red seam like some kind of fabric stigmata. "It's annoying to wear non-matching socks."

"One of the great mysteries of laundry," she concedes. "Where they go, who knows?"

"That's only one of the questions I plan to ask them," he says grimly. "As well as how, of course. I've narrowed down the window of opportunity to some point between transferring to the dryer and when I retrieve the laundry to take it home, so it's only a matter of time."

"Ask who?" she asks, giving him a bemused look. "God?"

"No, of course not; even if He were here, this is far too elaborate and pointlessly annoying not to be one of His flights into infinite humor, and those He never bothered to explain. Though that may be because He didn't create us with a sense of humor, so we wouldn't understand anyway." she blinks at him, squinting as if trying to bring him into focus. "I'll ask the dryer elves themselves--if they are indeed elves, which is still in question--before demanding the return of my socks. Unless they eat them, of course, which I wouldn't put past Him adding as a bonus." Seeing her staring at him, he frowns. "What?"

"You think there are dryer elves?"

"As I said, that's still in question, but for now, Alicia's term is a convenience."

Alison's mouth opens and closes, twice.

"I can't stop noticing my socks are not only not matched in either length or pattern, but now are also two separate shades of off-white," he tells her, staring at the more off of the two resentfully. "It's one thing to be mortal and deal with the natural--albeit strange, bizarre, and sometimes revolting--inconveniences of this state of being, but quite another for dryer elves to deliberately add to them. Justice must be satisfied."

Alison sits back. "Oh God, you're serious."

He smiles at her. "We are the weight and the scales and that which weighs all things; we are justice without mercy, vengeance without reprieve, chaos incarnate in defense of my Father's work. Do you think I'd do less on behalf of my own property?"

Alison shakes her head on cue, staring at him in fascination. "Dispense justice to dryer elves on behalf of your socks--"

"All of Chitaqua's socks," he corrects her, amused despite himself. "So much of my life has changed, it's depressingly reassuring to realize some things never do."

"Come again?"

"Sodom or dryer elves. As I did before, I do now: it's only a difference in scale." He shrugs, looking away from that penetrating gaze. "You can't understand, of course. Between the moment of your birth and the moment of your death, you will be a thousand people; what an angel is at the moment of their creation is what they will always be."

"Change is inherent in all things,'' she quotes without irony but with malice aforethought, relaxed for the first time tonight. "You're living with us these days, Future Dispenser of Elf Justice. What makes you so special that you get an exception?"

"Angels don't change," he replies. "Lucifer is engaged in a temper tantrum that has lasted eons, if you require an example. It started before you even qualified as sentient and fire still confused you. You'd throw anything at it, including yourselves, yet not your food, not for millennia. Why is that?"

"Since you're not an angel, that wouldn't be a problem, now would it?" Her eyes unfocus when he eases a thought to the surface of his mind. "Very funny, water? Really? To put ourselves out?"

He doesn't answer, watching as she belatedly realizes he didn't speak, hazel eyes widening in horror as she shrinks back into her chair. "I didn't mean…."

"Insomnia is often a problem for psychics," he says mildly. "Generally, the solution to that would be to stop reading everyone in their range and going to sleep. As I doubt that didn't occur to you, that narrows the possibilities considerably." He flickers a glance at her foot pressed helplessly against the cast covering her other ankle before meeting her eyes, unable to keep the edge out of his voice despite her fear. "You risked breaking your own ankle, arousing the justifiable suspicions of the leader of a hunter militia, and let's not forget, the summary judgment of a former angel rather than simply admit you can't control your abilities yet and they were giving you problems. Congratulations: I'm not certain even Lucifer could match such a display of pride, and that is not a standard anyone should wish to reach, much less surpass."

She sucks in a breath, looking away. "That last part I didn't see coming."

"Until Teresa told you what might happen if I ever came to Ichabod, I thought so."

"Yeah, but I didn't….never mind." She blows out an angry breath. "That's why you were down here tonight? Waiting for me because you knew--"

"Dean guessed and asked me to confirm on the way here this morning," he interrupts. "You're very good at hiding it, but Dean's very experienced with psychics dealing with new abilities. He didn't like how much time you spent trying to walk on a sprained ankle, and he knew physical pain was an excellent distractor." He hesitates. "He was worried about you."

Her expression softens briefly. "Anything else?"

"You told Dean you thought it was a fluke, that you couldn't read him when you met. Stop me if I'm wrong about what actually happened; it would be more accurate to say that when you met him, the number of unfamiliar minds yelling in your mind made it almost impossible to focus on any one. Your abilities had recently escalated and you were having problems adjusting to it and still are." The hazel eyes widen. "Joseph would have noticed this level of stress when you first met, and considering your condition as Dean observed it after half a day meeting with the council a few days ago, there's no possible way you would have been able to attend three days of meetings, not to mention so successfully manipulate Joseph and Ana. Did I miss anything?"

"It's like you were there." She looks away, swallowing. "You're good."

"It's my job," he answers impatiently. "What I don't understand is why you didn't simply…." He trails off, abruptly remembering how she looked when she first saw him, and then, quite vividly, a certain conversation at Dean's shooting range. "First impressions."

"What?"

"When Dean was here," he asks slowly, wondering if he actually needs confirmation or can live happily in ignorance, "did you ask him to invite me here or was that polite fiction he was using with the best intentions to convince me to come here?"

"Yeah, I did, and by the way, it's been great," she answers flatly. "Why?"

"You wanted to talk to me" Starting to look confused, she nods, and he wonders if this is an example of irony or just desserts. "This afternoon, in your kitchen, the coffee that was already prepared, that was not in any way in anticipation of us having this very discussion…." Her resentful glare is answer enough. "Before I frightened you, yes."

"Execute me," she says flatly. "In the streets. Ritually. I have no idea what that means, but I'm guessing when execution needs a special adjective, I probably don't want to know."

"First impressions," he agrees hopelessly. "If it helps, I do recognize the irony of mocking the very concept immediately after deliberately making the worst one possible. In my defense--"

"You didn't want to come here at all, I figured." She sighs, looking at him with reluctant sympathy mixed with malicious amusement. "I know I'm not the only one who had a shitty time at dinner tonight. Psychic, remember?"

He stiffens, the memories of this evening forever and always as vivid as the moment they happened, then forces himself to relax again. He supposes in fairness he can't blame her for enjoying that, but he doesn't feel particularly fair at the moment. "I'm glad I was able to contribute to your enjoyment of the evening."

She rolls her eyes. "I wouldn't say 'enjoyed'…."

"Suffice to say, I behaved very badly this afternoon when we met and I apologize for that," he interrupts sharply. Upsetting Dean's friends isn't productive.

She makes a face, but finally nods agreement. "Teresa told me--you had to be sure, I get that. So apology accepted, it's fine."

"So let me try again." Pushing the blanket back, he glances toward the door. "If you're amenable, I'll make coffee, and we can discuss what you wanted to talk to me about when you invited me here to ask for my help."

She hesitates, hazel eyes searching, before she nods. "Yeah, that works."


"The last escalation was immediately after your second meeting with Joseph's team, when the towns accepted our offer?"

"Less than a day." Coffee is truly a wonder; half a cup, and Alison has mellowed considerably. He'd assumed there must be some reason Dean liked her, and he resents realizing that very much. "It's done this every few weeks since this started, but the last one was a doozy."

He nods, taking a sip from his own cup, resenting Ichabod's superior coffee and his own enjoyment of it as well. This can't be healthy. "It's constant now?"

"All the time," she answers grimly. "At first, I could--tune it out, just concentrate on something else, it was fine. Each time, it got stronger, harder to do, but I could still do it. Now--all day, every day, I have to--to work to ignore everyone, and it's like it's--it's fighting me. I can tune everyone out for a little while, but it's exhausting as shit, and sometimes…."

"You can't." She nods helplessly. "That's not surprising. Usually, this is a gradual process, but very few manifest as powerfully as you did, much less progress so rapidly."

"Are you trying to be reassuring?" she asks, eyebrows raised in surprise. "That's not, in case you need feedback on your people skills. Not even a little."

"What you do is instinctive to you," he tries. "It probably doesn't help to know this now, but you will adapt with time. Your mind was formed with the potential for this--very specifically, it's supposed to be able to do this--whether it ever became active or not; it simply needs time to catch up to the reality. In any case, your instincts will provide better guidance than another psychic could be for you at this point. How you conceptualize what you see is intensely personal, and to combine that with that of another psychic...."

"Does this end with 'know thyself'?" she asks incredulously. "I failed philosophy. Twice."

"You pay for your sins, both great and small," he intones, biting his lip against an unexpected smile at her expression. "Perhaps you should have more regularly attended class? It's simply a guess."

She glares her feelings on the subject of her academic career over the rim of her coffee cup.

"It doesn't help, I know, but it will eventually get easier. It's simply a matter of time."

"Teresa helps when she can." She shrugs, taking another drink. "Noise shared is noise halved, or something. I concentrate on her, she can help me block out the rest. Mostly."

"You don't like to do that."

"Everyone deserves the privacy of their own minds," Alison answers softly. "Just because she's willing doesn't mean I should ask her to give that up. Not when--when I don't have to. Noise is noise: it's not as if I even know most of the time who's thinking what unless I focus on them or they're physically close enough to drown out everyone else."

Teresa, he suspects, is far more interested in Alison's sanity than any breach of privacy, but Alison's objections would limit her ability to help.

"I commend you on your ethics," he says honestly. "They're extraordinarily good, even taking into consideration the breaches committed on those we assigned to Chitaqua, since you neglected to inform Dean most were involuntary." She rolls her eyes. "You can't be blamed for using the information you discovered to better protect yourself. You'd be stupid not to."

She shrugs, and he wonders how to explain how rare that is in a psychic, especially a new one. Telepaths, especially powerful ones, rarely develop any ethical standard without either guidance or corrective discipline, and much depends on the early creation of habit to avoid slipping by accident. Pamela is his only practical experience with one, but she'd been exposed to hunters from a very early age, and her abilities had developed over the course of her life, allowing her to learn to control herself before they became a danger to others. Even Sam Winchester, the eternal exception to any rule that ever existed, didn't use them without thought, and while the Host--and Castiel--distrusted him, he never doubted his intentions. That he slipped was not a surprise, of course, but unlike the Host, Castiel was perfectly willing to admit even then while there's always a choice, it would have been of infinite value to Sam to know that choice existed instead of being expected to intuit it from the ether.

(You like them too much, he was told by his superiors; he really should have told them he'd wondered what that feeling was, as he'd certainly never felt it for them, and asked them what they thought that might mean. The answer would doubtless have been hideously painful, but it would have been worth it just for the memory of their expressions when he said it.)

"And now you have foldspace in your guest bedroom, which isn't helping you sleep either." He'd suspected as much, even counted on it tonight; he'd be a very different kind of distraction, one even an experienced psychic might be unable to tune out: an infinite box (infinite being within a box?). Now, however, he can't help but recognize the exhaustion she radiates, so habitual she probably hardly remembers what it's like to feel anything else and wonders if it should be some kind of consolation that she was telling the truth about how bad the evening was for her as well. It's not, but perhaps he could pretend. "Even if you were better able to control your abilities, I'm not sure it would help when it comes to me. Angels can conceal their nature with Grace, and as you must be aware, I can't. It tends to be uncomfortable for humans."

She starts to frown uncertainly. "The box thing?"

Castiel starts to snap that no, she's the only one who seems to regard him as the equivalent of a metaphysical cubical container in a display of psychic individuality, then pauses, taking in her genuine confusion. "At dinner tonight--"

"Okay, yeah, I owe you an explanation, fine." She frowns at the street for a moment, looking--guilty? "Look, it wasn't--Amanda said you weren't into crowds, okay?"

He stills, cup half-way to his mouth. "She did."

"With words," Alison says, misinterpreting his expression. "Original plan was small group, nice and quiet, but--I changed it up a little." She swings her gaze around, and yes, guilt. "This afternoon, I mean. After--uh, we met."

"You--"

"Made it bigger. Much bigger." She blows out a breath, slumping in her chair. "Look, I was pissed, all right? If it helps, instant karma was at work; I was just as miserable as you were. I had no idea you were that much not a people person."

"You didn't know…." The first thing--the first thing she asked him when they met was if he was really an angel. Psychic box, but that's all. "You didn't know."

She grimaces. "I didn't think about the fun of that many people in one building, either."

"Too much to focus on any single one, yes." From how she looked through dinner, she spent the majority of her time either failing to entirely block everyone in the room--with obviously stressful results--and possibly hating him for causing what had to be some very unpleasant emotional currents with no idea why they were happening. "Teresa helped you block it tonight as well."

"Had to," she admits sourly. "I get why you were pissed all night, okay, but that was my fault, not theirs. You could have been less of a dick, though; that thousand yard stare of yours is deadly, and you deployed that thing like a weapon of mass destruction."

Castiel takes a deep breath. "My human skills in large groups are somewhat rusty," he says around the warning tickle in his throat; this probably isn't the time. "But I could have been less--hostile, yes."

She nods emphatically. "Seriously, yeah. That was weird tonight." Then, "Look, I'm sorry. I'll apologize to Dean in the morning--"

"No, that's not necessary." Dean's anger in their room tonight was unexpectedly intense, and at this moment, he can't predict what his reaction might be. It's more than likely it was simply the strain of the evening--he could have handled that better, he supposes uncertainly, but time will certainly give him the opportunity to gain experience--but Dean enjoys his visits here far too much to sour them even in this small way. "His lectures on appropriate behavior are well-meaning, but I wouldn't wish one of those on my worst enemy. Or you."

Her worried expression eases, easy humor curving one corner of her mouth. "They're that bad?"

"They're very sincere and at length," he explains. "But if it helps, he only lectures people he likes."

Alison rolls her eyes, but he doesn't miss her relief, either; Dean makes friends as easily as he breathes, and he suspects that's one human skill he'll never possess. Only now does it occur to him that his behavior with Alison this afternoon might have damaged Dean's rapport with these people, and that's unacceptable; he has so little here, it would be cruel to take this away as well.

"A box," he says before he can stop himself. "Is that--all you sense when you see me?"

"A cold box," she corrects him with a hint of lingering malice, then wrinkles her nose. "Well, not the cold part, at least not in person. Very different than from what I picked up through Dean, though." She snorts at his expression. "Did I mention I'm kind of new at this?"

So, a cold or perhaps not box: this has been enlightening.

"Kind of nice," she says with obvious reluctance, eyes narrowing on him in--that would be disappointment, yes, he's very familiar with it. "Finally, one mind not shouting at me all the time--other than Dean's, I mean, which I appreciate--and then--"

"I threatened you." Alison's eyebrows jump, at the quiver in his voice that he fails to suppress: not the time, he reminds himself firmly. "First impressions, yes. Very important."

She nods wary agreement. "Yeah, right. Uh, Cas--"

I wish to make an appropriate impression, he told Dean quite seriously. He used those very words this morning. He's almost sure he meant them.

It's too much; laughter bursts out in a sudden, almost painful gust, and with it goes the anger, draining away with each gasped breath. One mind she couldn't hear, that wasn't trying to drive her insane, it was nice, she said; other than Dean's, she added.

"Cas?"

Alarm, he should deal with that, though how, he's not sure. In a different world--a better one, and there are many of those, all not filled to the brim with the hells he didn't create for himself--he was polite and asked to verify her integrity, and afterward, she asked him for his help over coffee this afternoon, and he might have been able to tell her that he understood very well how she felt. Other than Dean and Chuck, she was the first person who looked at him and didn't feel that fundamental difference between them. Like it wasn't even there.

"Cas?" Alison starts to look in danger of trying to get up. "Should I--"

"No." Dropping his head back against the chair, he takes a deep breath, then another, feeling drained and suddenly very, very tired, an exhaustion that has nothing at all to do with the need for sleep. It's a familiar feeling; despite its recent absence, he never truly believed that it wouldn't return eventually. "It's been a very long day, is all. I suppose I'm simply tired."

"I was warned about your sense of humor," she says finally, setting her empty cup on the ground. "Want to share the joke?"

He finishes the cold coffee without tasting it and setting the cup on the porch as well before thinking how to explain. "Dean used to tell me I didn't have a sense of humor, and it annoyed me enough to make a study of it. It was utterly inexplicable, and six days of the Comedy Network simply confused me."

She nods. "So what was the moment of revelation?"

"About four years ago, I was with Dean under a log in the middle of a West Virginia field avoiding a rain of blood and toads--and what seemed to be the entirety of the FBI, CIA, DEA, two other acronyms I can't bother myself to remember, and a truly excessive number of bloodhounds-- and Dean was engaged in hysterics because I sat on a toad. It was grotesque, and the sound interrupted my calculations on how much blood was being used and where on earth Lucifer was getting it."

Her mouth twitches before she makes an effort. "Sounds shitty." Then, "Okay, I'll bite: how much blood?"

"One hundred and seventy-four million gallons per hour per square mile, one, three, or five because my Brother likes prime numbers," he answers immediately. "Ask me how many human bodies that would be. Even accounting for density, the sheer scope of transmuting water into blood is--"

She bursts into laughter, bending to gasp helplessly against her upraised knees.

"I still haven't worked out where on earth he acquired that many amphibians, though evidence suggests it was worldwide endeavor, since at least two of the toads are only native to the Amazon," he continues, listening contentedly as her muffled howls begin to escalate. "I did several searches after, but worldwide data at that point was almost impossible to collate, so there are several places in the world even now who tell stories of the day all the toads vanished, since knowing my Brother, he wasn't subtle about acquiring them. It may be an Apocalypse, granted, but mass toad dematerialization is memorable no matter the time period."

He pauses for a moment to observe Alison, who is making noises not unlike squeaking between helplessly gasped breaths.

"As you are now, so he was then," he finishes, slumping in his chair; it's remarkable how comfortable that is. "Surrounded by the corpses of various amphibians and coagulating puddles, I realized I'd rebelled against the Host to be chased across the Deep South by a plethora of government agencies bent on arresting me on a truly excessive number of federal warrants--some, admittedly, for crimes I was guilty of committing--and was now sitting under a log in southern West Virginia during a rain of blood and amphibians caused by my Brother with someone who thought this was an appropriate time to indulge in a fit of hysterics because, of all things, I sat on a dead toad. At least, I assume it was dead, it reached terminal velocity before the ground terminated its descent--" He pauses at her breathless gasp and stops fighting his smile. "Should I…."

"Fine," she gasps helplessly, making a choked sound before straightening, face bright-red and mouth trembling. Wiping her eyes, she hiccups another laugh before looking at him, hazel eyes bright. "Sorry. Keep going."

"No offense taken. It was--the future only held misery and privation, the past was unchangeable, and the present was beginning to smell of putrefying amphibian corpses and my socks were utterly soaked with what I knew wasn't water and would have to deal with as it began to dry. Dean wouldn't stop laughing. It was--unthinkable. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before." He looks up at the porch roof, unable to stop smiling. "There was nowhere else I wanted to be or anyone else I wanted to be with at that moment. Even if it was sitting on a dead toad and listening to Dean laugh at me. Revelation is usually much less personally traumatic and generally doesn't require washing blood from my ears later."

(Later, a surprisingly shaken Dean would tell him he thought he was going crazy as they wrung out their (utterly revolting) socks, but he didn't care. He remembered the warm, blood-and-mud churned earth soaking through his coat and bloody rain on his face and the hard ache in his chest from air he didn't need to breathe but did need to laugh, and it would start again, bubbling up in unexpected bursts.)

She grins at him. "Yeah, that's pretty much the definition of humor."

"I'd been hoping for confirmation but never was sure how to ask." He shrugs. "I've been told mine can be an acquired taste."

"I wouldn't worry about them," she replies, eyes dancing. "Gotta say, whoever said that doesn't sound too bright."

"I suppose--if there's not anything else you wish to know, you should go to bed." Looking taken aback, her smile starts to fade. "There's nothing I can do about the effect my presence has on you tonight, but while I told Amanda I would be here for training tomorrow--I suppose to increase her confidence, she wasn't clear--I'll tell Dean that something needs my attention at the camp and I need to deal with it immediately. David will be reporting at noon, and if reality won't accommodate me, and it usually doesn't, I'll make something up."

"You're leaving? Tomorrow?" she asks in dramatic example of stating the obvious. "Why? Because I can't sleep? My life, welcome to it. I told you, it's not that bad…."

"It's very pleasant here, but I'm not--as you know--particularly social," he answers. "I understand why Dean enjoys his visits here so much, but--"

"One shitty party and I get a lifetime grudge for it? Come on." Her eyes sharpen unsettlingly. "You hate it here that much?"

"I'm not a people person. I won't--do anything to limit Dean's visits, of course--"

"That's not…." She looks away. "Well, nice meeting you, I guess."

Yes, it could have been, he appreciates the reminder. Taking a deep breath, he starts to get to his feet. "Likewise. If there's nothing else--"

"It was the Atlantic."

He stops mid-motion. "What?"

"Earlier--you were thinking of water. Atlantic ocean, east coast--Massachusetts, Gay Head Cliffs." Her mouth tightens. "Sorry it took so long to put it together--"

He drops back into his chair, staring at her.

"--but it was harder than I thought." She looks at him challengingly. "So did I pass your test or what?"

"Describe what you saw."

She takes a deep breath, looking annoyed. "I told you--Atlantic Ocean, Massachusetts, Gay Head Cliffs--late summer, I think." Her eyes unfocus. "Late afternoon, empty beach--oh, never mind, they're in the water, missed that earlier."

"Who's in the water?" he asks mechanically, lips numb.

"One--nope, make that two kids," she answers, expression softening. "Looks like they're having a blast, wish I was there." She sighs, eyes focusing again. "Look, it was a lot of information--I've never had to work this much to get it all before. Usually, it's--"

"--effortless, yes." He tries to think. "Is that all?"

"God, no," she answers, which is exactly what he didn't want to hear. "Just what I have so far. It's gonna takes me a little more time to get the rest."

"That would be forever," he murmurs, then shakes his head at her sharp look. "That wasn't a test."

"Then what was it?"

"A memory." He focuses at the empty street, the darkness broken periodically by pools of dim yellow light. "When he was very young, Dean's father left him at a small motel near the Atlantic coastline while he worked a job nearby. As usual, it took longer than he expected, and there were limited amusements to be found at the motel, so Dean went exploring and ended up at the beach. He'd never seen the ocean before, and he thought it went on forever." He licks his lips, remembering. "He spent hours playing in the surf, and it was very warm--he always remembered it that way, warm and very safe, happy, free, I think. He'd never seen anything but a motel swimming pool in his life before then, and after that, they felt wrong, to small, too…." He cuts himself off. "Only a child would look upon the Atlantic Ocean and judge its safety by the lack of chemicals and the warmth of the water. Only John Winchester would think to leave children unsupervised by the second largest body of water on the planet and not consider the danger."

She checks a nod. "Your memory?"

"Yes." Mouth dry, he licks his lips. "As an angel--he was my charge, and while all human thought is open to us, his--I was curious. He used to think of the ocean when he was troubled, and I wanted to know why. It was a simple matter to go to that time and place and watch him for myself. Infinite knowledge isn't the same as personal experience; it was a lesson I should have remembered. He said something a few days ago--it's not important, it reminded me of that."

"I wonder what he would have made of the Pacific," she muses, head in hand. "Valente beach: me and Neer were on vacation in LA a few years ago. Never been so cold in my life while getting a sunburn." She shrugs at his expression. "It's very cold, Cas. You aren't ready for that in one hundred and six degree heat."

He stares at her, not sure if he's supposed to answer that. It's true, after all; it is indeed very cold.

"Who's the other kid with him?" Castiel freezes. "Family, best friend, random meeting on the beach? Probably not the last--at least, it didn't feel random. Close? Very close, actually--what?" Her eyes widen. "Cas, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," he answers automatically. "Just surprised, is all."

"Why? You showed it to me." She frowns a little, eyes unfocusing. "Though gotta tell you, not easy to put it together. Like--"

"--a lot of information? It would be. That memory was created while I was deliberately in linear time, so its singular in time, but not in place. Yes, it would take you a very long time to put it together in its entirety, but I wouldn't recommend it, though admittedly, Andromeda was developing sixteen forms of sentient life and one reached the equivalent of the stone age at that very moment…. You'd find it fascinating, but I don't think that Time will last long enough for you to get there. And your mortality would also be of concern--" He forces himself to stop. "As I said, it was a surprise."

"I wish I could read your mind right now," she says softly. "So I'd know why you're looking at me like that."

"You're stronger than I thought," he tells her. "Much stronger."

"What does that mean? Why--" Abruptly, the color drains from her face. "Cas? Just tell me."

He'd lie if he thought it would help, but in this case, ignorance is dangerous. "Latent psychics manifest at only a fraction of their full abilities, sometimes in childhood, but more often during early puberty, when the brain is far more malleable. The time it takes to reach their threshold is variable, but it's usually a matter of years, not months. And you…." He makes himself continue. "Alison, you read the memory of an angel--at least, all you had the context to understand--from the tiniest portion I focused on to give you in a single glimpse, because even now, I have to be careful when exposing you. If that's what you can do after only four months…."

"It started too strong and too late, it's progressing too fast, and I'm not near the threshold after four months," she finishes for him, voice breaking on the last word. Reluctantly, he nods. "It's going to get stronger? How much more…."

"There's no way to be certain." He remembers that night in Kansas City with Dean, seeing all of Creation with human senses; it's no consolation to realize now that even a human mind can find it difficult to focus. Spending all her time and energy simply keeping herself from being subsumed in those around her leaves very little time to do anything else, and it won't ever become easier. "You said it's quieter at night, but everyone in this building would be asleep at night, so your range is farther than that now." She nods shortly. "All of Ichabod?" She closes her eyes. "Farther?"

She wets her lips, hazel eyes bleak. "South fields now. Patrol's outer perimeter, I guess. Hans was…he tripped. German profanity, learned a lot." Taking a deep breath, she nods. "So going crazy, definitely on the table."

"No, of course not--"

"I hear too much now, and I'm not even trying," she snaps, voice breaking again. "And you're telling me it's going to get worse? I'm not strong enough for this!"

"You are," he answers, feeling more helpless than he has at any time since he Fell. "You just don't know it yet."

Alison blinks, starting to frown. "What did you just--"

"When I was angel," he continues, "it wouldn't have mattered. Grace makes all things possible. I could have shown you everything in a thought. I could have controlled it for you until you believed you could do it yourself."

"When you were an angel, you wouldn't have even thought of it." She shrugs, looking away. "This much about angels I think I can guess from what Teresa said. This is life in quantum, and angels see the universe in its entirety. I would have been far too small for you to notice or care if you did." She rolls her eyes when he starts to protest, though how he'd do so while avoiding hypocrisy is a mystery. "Care in the individual, Cas, not the whole. This is--small, nothing. I'm a drop in infinity."

Glancing at the window behind which Dean sleeps in oblivious comfort, she pauses, looking surprised. "The ocean," she breathes. "That's why he thought of it. That's perfect. I always sleep like gangbusters on cruises. Never get seasick, got lucky there: Neer gets queasy just looking at water. Tell Dean thanks for that one."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." She looks her disappointment in his inability to lie well. "You have no idea what you're talking about. You can't even read his mind!"

"I don't need to," she answers. "Experience, not infinite knowledge, you said; that's why you were thinking about it today."

"He thinks of me as the Atlantic Ocean? Warm, safe, and prone to violent hurricanes that regularly devastate the coastline?"

"No, the Atlantic is a motel pool," she answers reasonably. "What else could it be after seeing an infinite ocean? Can't even imagine the hurricanes there." She snorts. "Hell of a lot better than your comparison, by the way. Folded fucking space…."

"Now that's interesting."

"What? It's a good analogy."

"You seem to think so, yes." Before she can answer, he stops her with a shake of his head. "Tell me what it's like for you now? Anything like…" He thinks for a moment. "A very large party? Very loud, far too many people--trying to find a lightswitch? Machetes." Alison's blank stare isn't encouraging.. "It's how I--never mind. It's a metaphor."

"A big party," she says, checking for his nod. "Lots of people, loud music, everyone getting high and talking about their personal revelations at the top of their lungs whether you care or not--I've been to parties like that."

"I've had parties like that." He grins at her mocking expression of shock. "Next time you see Amanda, mention the transcendental qualities of 'shrooms. Trust me, what she'll think of will be--unflattering, yes, but extremely funny."

"Using my powers for personal amusement?" she asks, a reluctant grin tugging at her lips. "What kind of angel are you?"

"One with an extremely long bucket list to check off, and it's still in progress," he answers, bracing an elbow on the arm of his chair. "So the party?"

"Uncannily accurate, now that I think about it. Why?"

"Your one thing," he murmurs, swinging his legs off the rail and turning the chair to face her before sitting down again. "Let's try a variation, however. You'll need to be facing me for this."

She raises an eyebrow. "What am I doing?"

"Something new," he answers, grinning at her. "Be not afraid, for--"

"Whoa, that's spooky," she remarks, tilting her head to study him. "Tell me you had a halo. Dean didn't know."

"I'll tell you anything you want," he answers impatiently. "If you'll please do this, as it's late, I may or may not be experiencing a sense of tiredness--"

"--and you want to go cuddle with your boyfriend?" she asks sweetly. "Join the club: substitute 'my girlfriend' where relevant."

"Ten minutes and we'll both get our wish," he says. "Or I could move you myself. Angelic strength is useful for so many things."

She scowls. "Fine." She carefully shifting her legs to the ground and turns in her chair to face him, performing a picture-perfect attitude of rapt attention. Oscars have been given for far less. "Now what?"

"I'm going to show you something, and you won't understand it at first, but hold it in your mind, every detail. Close your eyes; I need you to focus." With a dubious look, she obeys, and he closes his eyes as well, carefully forming the image in his mind and filling in each precise detail this time, aware he's skirting very close to what he once believed was far too dangerous for any human mind. Time has taught him, if nothing else, that it's usually safe to assume that nothing the Host taught him could possibly be true if they believed it, and the limitations of human mind is only one of those things. Opening his eyes, he studies her frown of concentration. "Do you see it? Describe it."

Frown deepening, she licks her lips. "A lot of emptiness, really interesting--" She stops, tilting her head. "Wait, it's not empty. It's--waiting?"

"Good." Taking a deep breath, he continues. "What else?"

"There's a dot," she says, screwing up her face. "Just off-center or so. Tiny, but it's bright."

"It's very small," he agrees. "It's still growing. It needs time. Focus on it, every detail. You seem to have a talent for that." She pauses, biting her lip. "Do you have it?"

"Yeah, got it." She opens her eyes curiously. "Okay, I give up. What is it? Andromeda?"

"Infinity." He doesn't laugh when her mouth drops open, but it's very hard. "The space around it is in abeyance--potential, unused, still waiting for form. What will be infinity once it's filled."

She lets out a low whistle. "Wow. Where did you get this?"

"Before I rebelled, I never knew that space existed. What I could see was only within that tiny light. Afterward, when I still had Grace, when I could still see all things, that space appeared at its edges--the waiting, as you call it--and I was curious what it was." He remembers looking at it for a long time before finally seeking it out, trying to find the meaning of it, and every time he looked, it grew larger, wider, a vastness that he began to realize was without limit. "At first I couldn't understand what I was seeing or why it was empty. It was new--the first new thing I'd ever seen there. I suppose it had always been there, but I hadn't known to look. I still don't know why I did."

She nods before saying, very gently, "You can't see it anymore?"

"No." When I'm very high, when I'm very stoned, when I'm very drunk, I pretend I still can. "Not since I Fell. This is only a memory of the last time I looked."

To his relief, she doesn't inquire further. "So it's waiting. Waiting for what?"

"For you." The memory alone is still enough to make him catch his breath. "Thoughts you haven't had, dreams you haven't dreamed, hopes you haven't yet formed, choices you haven't made--potential unrealized. The length of your life that is yet to be lived in all you aren't yet and haven't decided to be, all you'll ever do." He finds himself staring up at the slice of sky beyond the porch roof and starless night beyond. "The human mind--infinity bothers you, it always has, you can't really see it, and it can drive you insane if you try. This is why: that dot is all angels can see because we live within it, all that is and was and will be, all that is known, but you--your mind is already spoken for, it has far too much to do creating what wasn't before and isn't yet and almost is, and could and would and should be."

She stares at him, mouth dropping open. "Holy. Shit."

"Know thyself," he says. "What I showed you was yourself, that light surrounded by potential. You're not a drop of infinity, none of you are; you are its creators."

She blinks, wordless; experience suggests that's rare for her.

"And to think," he tells her, "I used to have to contemplate amoebas. It's--"

"Funny," she finishes for him. "I get you there."

"I thought you would. Now look at all of it, all that is there to see." He watches her, the hazel eyes still unfocused. "You did it before, and you weren't even trying."

She wets her lips, forehead creasing in effort. "It's--it's a lot…." Her lips part in shock. "Oh my God."

"What do you see?"

One cold hand abruptly closes over his wrist, eyes opening blindly, and he watches, breathless, as she shows him: a vastness that reaches the length of Creation, the darkness shattering at each flare of light, supernovas bursting into being before his eyes.

"That's it," he whispers as more appear, each faster than the last; she's learning. "It's perfect."

"There are--Christ, they're everywhere. How many….?" He fights back a laugh when more appear, flooding her mind with light. "There are more?"

"All who were, are, and will be," he answers, feeling his own smile at the awe in her voice. "We can watch it all, if you wish, but that might take a while."

She nods shortly, another field of brilliance appearing. "Right, so--how do I stop?"

"That's easy," he answers. "The first thing I showed you; that was you. One light among all that you see; go and find it."

"You're kidding. Here?" Her hand tightens on his wrist. "I can't--"

"Of course you can." It expands again, almost but not quite out of her control, not yet. "Your one thing, Alison; it's yourself. Now find it."

She licks her lips, forehead creasing in effort, and he spares a wary look at the arms of the chair beneath one white-knuckled hand, wondering distractedly if anyone here knows how to repair wood. The fabric is most definitely going to be a loss, but a competent upholsterer can take care of that. His wrist, on the other hand….

"You're strong enough," he says quietly as beads of sweat begin to form, glittering on her forehead like captive stars. "You've never been anything else."

She begins to tremble. "Cas--"

"You can do this." Even an angel can't convince someone of anything that isn't true. "Until you can believe it yourself, believe me. One light among many, all that you are and were and could ever be, it's before you now." Reaching out, he cups her face, making her meet his eyes. "Show me. Now."

It stops; a moment frozen, a vast stretch of brightness, before it begins to narrow again, and her mind forms that first point of brightness, blurred and unsteady like an uncertain picture before she focuses and it comes to life.

She sucks in a breath, her expression turns into wonder as the single, shining point of light filling both their minds, flawless.

"Perfect," he says softly. "Well done."

She sucks in a shaky breath, exhaling slowly. "That's me?"

"Yes." He tilts his head. "What do you hear now?"

"I--" Her eyes widen, hazel eyes focusing on him in shock. "Nothing. How….crap!" The image wavers when her concentration weakens--and with it, he assumes the sounds of patrol, possibly near the south fields--and he watches in satisfaction as she focuses on it again, holding it carefully in her mind this time before neatly splitting her attention. "What did you do?"

"You're doing it," he corrects her, wondering if there's any subtle way to ask her to let go of his wrist. "What a psychic does is glimpse infinity--limited, of course, human minds are far too busy to contemplate the endless wonders of the amoeba, much less all Creation--and how you interpret it will always be personal. Eventually, your mind would have--from self-defense, if nothing else--learned to filter it, but until then…."

She nods, forehead creasing when the image wavers again. "How long can I--"

"Eventually, with practice, you'll be able to do it indefinitely, but I don't recommend it," he answers honestly. "In a sense, this is a dam, and for that matter, your first dam, and it's not very strong yet. When you begin to feel the strain, let it dissolve immediately, and wait until the feeling subsides fully before trying again. Otherwise--"

"Because it could break," she says, nodding. "Good metaphor, you're getting better. Don't tell me--it breaks, insanity's on the table?"

"It's possible but extremely unlikely," he answers dismissively. "Drop it now."

"What? No--"

"It's your first, and it's not strong," he interrupts. "I want to make sure you can do it again from the beginning. Keep projecting--I need to watch while you do it."

She sighs deeply and clears her mind, wincing slightly, and he winces as well; she's a very good projector, and apparently has no problem at all with using it to make sure he suffers along with her. Despite that--the patrol, the power plant, several people with insomnia, several very cranky children, if it's like this at night, he has no desire to find out what it's like when everyone is awake--he's finds himself fascinated.

"Cas?" The projection starts to fade, edged with worry. For him.

"No," he says, shaking his head quickly. "I'm fine. It's--different."

"From when you were an angel?" He nods distractedly. "Hold on, I think--yeah."

He stills at the flood of sensory data, organizing it instinctively--

"Whoa," Alison breathes, startled. "That's fast."

It's not, linear time is so tedious, entire milliseconds passed; out of time is far preferable. A human mind is far more than the thin layer of conscious thought she was able to interpret now, and for him, it's effortless.

"Can I do that?" she asks softly, and he hesitates, thinking about it.

"You could, eventually," he answers slowly, holding her eyes. "A human mind can be as open to you as a book, and you can do what you will with it. Read it, write in it--"

"Destroy it," she says, revulsion rippling through her so strongly contact nausea is a problem.

He nods. "One day, yes."

"I don't want this, Cas," she says, starting to sound frantic: fear, the most dangerous thing of all. "I could hurt someone--"

"I could break your neck before you even realize I've moved," he says patiently. "And yet, I don't."

Her eyes narrow. "It's not the same thing!"

"You can be a weapon," he answers, tilting his head. "As I can be. That doesn't mean you are one, or you can't choose how you use it. Free will: perhaps you've heard of it?"

She glares back, baffled annoyance replacing the fear; excellent. "That doesn't help!"

"It should; it's the entire point of your existence."

Comprehension washing over her face. "This afternoon--you weren't just being a dick. You really were worried about me. About what I could do."

"I was being a dick," he corrects her. "But yes, it was also genuine concern. Dean's judgment is excellent, but I had to be certain."

She hesitates. "You didn't know I was this strong, either."

"It's irrelevant." She stares at him blankly. "I'm not worried you'll abruptly decide to use your abilities for personal gain and assemble a mind-controlled army to try and conquer the earth. Though," he admits, considering it thoughtfully, "even then, you'd definitely be preferable to my Brother. So there's that."

She shuts her mouth with an audible click of teeth.

"Now," he says reluctantly, turning his attention back to what they should be doing and away from the fascinating currents of human minds he's been following with half his attention, "you need to practice. Three times, from the beginning: I'll watch."


Sinking back in chair, she sighs. "I see what you mean."

"It won't always be this tiring," he answers, and finally, she lets go of his wrist to rub her eyes. Surreptitiously, he tugs down the sleeve of his jacket, but unfortunately, she opens her eyes to glare at him and notes her own hand, short fingernails crusted with drying blood. "Uh--"

"What the hell--" Incredulous, her gaze darts from her hand to his wrist, and reaches to jerk back the cuff. "Did I---stupid question, of course I did."

'It's not that bad," he tries, then sighs, looking in resignation at the ring of bruises dotted with red half-moons and bites his lip, remembering Dean's wrist that day in Kansas City. "Karma in action, it seems."

"What?" she asks distractedly before looking toward the door. "Look, give me a minute, I'll--"

"Don't," he interrupts, bracing a foot on the arm of the chair before she can get up. "Dean will just redo it when he sees it anyway. Alicia's an EMT, and he does it to her, so spare yourself the effort."

"Dean." Alison groans, closing her eyes as her head thumps back against the chair. "He's going to kill me. Ran his boyfriend out of town and injured him on the same night."

"He won't--"

"He will." Abruptly, she looks at him, deliberately widening her eyes in a startlingly convincing imitation of hope. "Or….injury yes, but an accident, and you don't storm out of town a day early. Give me another chance to play nice; I can."

Despite himself, he smiles. "After I threatened to execute you?"

"I'm over it," she answers, gesturing expansively with her slightly bloody hand. "Water under the bridge."

To his surprise, he's not entirely opposed to the idea. "Alison--"

"Just think about it, okay?"

"You should be able to sleep now," he says abruptly before he can agree immediately; morning is early enough, that party was terrible. Standing up, he stretches absently before picking up the blanket and folding it over one arm and extending a hand to Alison, he helps her to her feet. "I'm very glad that worked for you, by the way."

She pauses in her reach for her cane, squinting up at him suspiciously. "Me, too."

"I was sure it would." As they reach the door and he starts to open it for her, he adds blandly, "Provided it didn't lead to permanent insanity, of course. The infinite can be troubling, as I said."

Whirling around, she glares up at him, cane slamming into the floor and giving the impression she's thinking of his head. "I could have gone crazy from seeing that?"

"Of course not," he assures her. "I was an angel of the Lord. Getting humans to believe me was in my job description."

Her mouth opens before she closes it with an audible snap. "You…."

"That was my A game," he says, smiling down at her. "And it's very good indeed. But it only works when what I say is true."

She blinks at him slowly, and idly, he wonders what she's calling him in her mind right now.

"Thank you, Castiel," she grates out. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"I was created to serve," he answers wistfully as he follows her inside. "My reward is having done good, as you know. Though--" he pauses at the sight of the kitchen and decides perhaps Ichabod's coffee shouldn't be despised after all. "I would like a few pounds of your coffee if you can spare it. It's far superior to what we have at home."


Despite his efforts to remain silent changing clothes for bed--which are very good indeed--Dean eyes slit open almost before he reaches what he assumes is his side of the bed, sleepy but startlingly focused.

"Hey." Yawning, he sits up, rubbing his eyes sleepily, hair smashed flat on the right side of his head, and Castiel forgets what he was going to do before bed. "So--wait, get in first, it's freezing." Castiel watches blankly as Dean reaches to shove the covers back invitingly. "Well?"

"It's barely forty-five Fahrenheit." Dean raises an eyebrow in eerie similarity to Alison, and taking a deep breath, he eases himself down on the (very comfortable) mattress, pulling up the blankets and arranging them meticulously around him, aware of Dean curled in a warm, sleepy bundle only inches away, watching him intently.

Salome danced for King Herod wearing scarves and chains of gold (and very little of both) for the head of John the Baptist; she was an amateur. Dean in two layers of clothing and under a pile of blankets could request Lucifer's heart and liver at this moment and he'd have them both at his feet before the break of dawn.

He reflects that he'd always assumed insanity--when it finally came, no matter how tardy it might be--would be somewhat freeing and not at any point involve the beginnings of a complicated plan to summon the last archangel in existence for extempore disembowelment. He's not even sure he has the right knife with him, and his supply of holy water may not be adequate. How he'd get to Jerusalem is anyone's guess, but perhaps….

"So how'd it go?" Dean prompts him, distracting him from trying to remember where the weakest point in spacetime is at this moment and if its thinned enough for potential opening with sufficient power; Ichabod does have an excellent power grid, after all, and electricity is indeed a form of power. "Cas?"

"You were right," he answers, just stopping himself from filing away this for future thought. He's not--actually--going to acquire anyone's internal organs for Dean's pleasure; for one, it's insane(he thinks), and Dean hasn't asked. There's something fundamentally wrong with that logic, he knows, but Dean's t-shirt-covered shoulder emerges from the quilt for a dizzying moment and he doesn't really care. "About Alison, I mean. However, I think she'll be better able to control it now. It's very new, but with practice--"

"Not what I meant." He shrugs. "Though yeah, that too."

"I don't know--" He starts to shrug as well, and winces as the thick wool grazes his wrist; that's what he was going to do before coming to bed. Dean frowns. "Everything's fine, yes."

Dean's eyebrows draw together suspiciously, one bare arm emerging from beneath the quilt like Venus from the sea, draped in foam the exact green of Dean's eyes, and he did not, did not just think that. For one, he remembers that day, and the green was far inferior to--

"I'm fine," he says a little desperately, meeting Dean's eyes (not foam at all: unset jade still untapped in the deepest of the earth, late summer leaves last seen in Eden itself). People sleep in beds together all the time, and sometimes they don't even have sex. This will be one of those times, but biology seems to be brutally unaware of that fact at the moment, and-- "Incipient insanity, you needn't be concerned. I think."

Dean opens his mouth, then abruptly focuses on the sheet between them. Following his gaze, Castiel sees a dark smear starting on the (unnaturally white) sheet near the pillow trailing down between them to disappear beneath the blankets in an inevitable path to his wrist. It's very dark, but Dean is a hunter, and a touch is all he needs. "Cas?"

"Yes, that." He takes a careful breath. "I forgot about that."

"That you're bleeding?" Dean asks incredulously, sitting up, flannel and faded quilt pooling alluringly around his waist, revealing the Grateful Dead logo stretched across the expanse of his chest, and Castiel forgets to breathe. "Where? How…."

Dean viciously jerks back the blankets--oh God, bare feet--and Castiel with no clear idea of what he's doing extends his wrist, resigned to the obvious hatred the universe feels for him that proves itself merciless when cool fingers wrap around his arm and tug his wrist--and him--closer. With an effort, he tears his gaze from the vivid purple ring of bruising and crescents of tacky-dried blood to look at Dean's flushed face.

That, he reflects far too late, is a mistake.

"What the fuck…"

"I'd bring all of Creation to its knees for your pleasure," he breathes and means every terrifying word.

"Nice try," Dean snarls back, hands at odds with his voice, almost achingly gentle. "Now, what the hell were you two doing out there? Did she do this? Why?"

He opens his mouth to answer and stops himself; he honestly doesn't know what might come out next, and he sincerely desires not to find out.

"You're gonna tell me all about it," Dean promises grimly, sliding out of bed and stomping to their bags. "While I fix it."


Forty-five minutes later--soap and water, peroxide, alcohol bath, antibiotic, topical anesthesia, all unneed, true, but who is he to argue with Dean's technique--his head is perfectly clear, and only awareness of the contrast is how he knows that earlier, it wasn't.

"I sent you to talk to her," Dean insists, carefully finishing the wrapping and securing it with tape. "Not for her to claw your skin off!"

"It was an accident," he replies. Again. "I almost broke your wrist--"

"That's different!" Dean snaps. Again. "Talk, not--"

"She needed help, I provided."

"You don't even like her!" Dean says incredulously.

"I never said that."

"You didn't need to." Sitting back cross-legged--and apparently no longer concerned with the current temperature, which is actually well above fifty--Dean stares at him. "Look, after that dinner tonight…." Abruptly, he looks down to study the tangle of bedcovers intently. "I know you said you were fine--"

"I am," he answers, with far more honesty now than then.

"I'm not." Dean glances up, a flicker of something he can't read passing across his face before he looks away again. "I've been thinking--"

"When?" he asks, startled. "You were asleep before I went out. You were snoring, in fact."

Dean's head comes up sharply. "I don't snore."

"A regular snort in the indrawn breath followed by a breathy exhale, every fourth period of respiration," he recites, not sure what to make of Dean's expression. "Rather soothing, like a metronome that occasionally mumbles--"

"I don't," Dean says slowly and very, very clearly, "snore. And why are we talking about this again?"

That, he decides, is the kind of rhetorical question that one should never, ever answer.

"Anyway," Dean says warningly, "I guess I woke up, happy? I was thinking about this--"

"I wasn't fine before," he interrupts. "Now, however, I am. More importantly, if I wasn't, I'd make myself be."

Dean blinks his desire for actual information. Not as precise as telepathy, but Dean's very expressive and at this moment, ambiguity is not a problem.

"She's a very quick learner, but technically speaking, I'm not a psychic, she's not an angel, and context is lacking. I thought after meeting Teresa that she would be enough, but I'm not sure."

Dean licks his lips. "She's not--she's not dangerous, Cas. Fine, she pissed you off with the party thing, I get that…." He trails off, wincing. "Okay, that was shitty, you wouldn't--never mind, sorry."

"I reserve the right to take offense in the morning," he answers dismissively. "Yes, she's dangerous, but so am I and so are you. She should be dead by now, and the only reason she isn't is whatever's keeping this state a utopia of peace and quiet."

"Because she's that strong?" Dean asks, leaning back on one hand and looking into the middle distance. "What you said about the Host earlier, for the record, I didn't know angels did that. Human shit, non-intervention--when it's not part of your dad's plan, of course."

"That's because generally, we don't have to--or rather, the potential remains unrealized," he starts. "They tend to go insane, kill themselves--or inspire someone very committed and somewhat suicidal to do it for them--or they're killed before they're strong enough to fight back. Or even know there's something to fight." He hesitates. "Whatever is protecting Kansas, when it falls, this town will be like a beacon, and nothing and no one will be spared to kill her before she even learns how to use her abilities, much less reach her full potential."

Dean sucks in a breath. "You didn't say anything earlier."

"I didn't know until an hour ago." He sighs, annoyed. "I didn't want to, and that was my mistake, which is now rectified. Despite what I said, I--wasn't actually as resigned to this visit as I may have seemed."

"You don't say." Dean rolls his eyes; apparently, that was more obvious than he thought. "So that's why you're suddenly saying you're okay with being here? To--make sure she doesn't go evil or…."

"Protect her from evil as well as this town," he says, tilting his head in bewilderment. "My job, as it were."

"I thought angels killed psychics."

"I'm a hunter," he says slowly, wondering if perhaps that unfortunate earlier--incident--is now affecting Dean. "We protect people. She is a person. Ergo, I shall protect her. We will, I mean, unless you have some objection."

Dean smiles, slow and remarkably satisfied. "Yeah, you are. And this afternoon, the avenging angel--"

"Former. That was then, and this is now." He shrugs. "I contain multitudes."

Dean bursts out laughing.


After packing up the kit and putting it back in his bag, Dean crawls into bed, and wary, Castiel relaxes when there's no bewildering comparisons to Salome or Venus, nor a pressing desire to conquer the world in Dean's name.

(Lucifer's heart and liver are still on the table, but honestly, they've never been off it, so there's that. That's just good fun.)

"My watch," Dean tells him as he wriggles under the covers--highly distracting, and very much worth extensive contemplation, excellent--before rolling on his side. "What about that?"

"What about it?" he replies absently, resigned when biology continues to be very inconvenient indeed. And his next scheduled shower isn't until tomorrow night; perhaps he could borrow someone else's shower. It bears investigation.

"For my pleasure," Dean answers, getting Castiel's undivided attention at the slow, deliberate drawl that turns 'pleasure' into several obscenely long syllables. "How about fixing my watch? It's been broken almost since I got here."

Castiel narrows his eyes. "Fuck you."

"Get my watch fixed," Dean says smugly, "and I'll think about it."


Dean's in an surprisingly good mood when he joins them for breakfast, which Castiel assisted Amanda in preparing, much to her dubious assent and almost insulting surprise, while Alison and Teresa explained their usual daily schedule to Dean. To his surprise, Castiel fell asleep remarkably fast despite the unfamiliar surroundings, distracting bedmate, and biology; perhaps he's getting better at sleep. Dean's snoring was very soothing.

"So what's on the schedule for today?" Castiel asks politely as everyone sits down at the worn dining room table for a late breakfast. In honor of their visit--and due to the fact that today Amanda will begin her first training class for Chitaqua's potential hunters--Alison and Teresa, along with Tony and several members of Ichabod's council, took the morning off their usual duties to observe and provide encouragement to the new trainees, who today will meet at ten instead of the dawn.

("Hangovers," Amanda told Dean when he asked. "They all partied like it was the last day of their lives last night. I'm not gonna be a monster on their first day." She looked at Castiel, eyes narrowing. "Unlike some people I could name."

"If I can fight with a hangover," he told her from the stove, "I see no reason any of you should be unable to do so. After all, you would definitely need to one day, from my observations of your usual habits."

"You'd know," Amanda shot back. "You organized some of our habits yourself. All day events, if I remember correctly."

Dean said, horrified, "What is it about 'making a good impression' don’t you two get?"

Alison and Teresa pretended they were choking on their excellent coffee, ten pounds of which is currently in Castiel's bag.)

Here, sunrise isn't necessarily the beginning of anyone's day. Manuel only just went to bed after his night on patrol, while his fiancée Mercedes and Sudha started at dawn in this building's communal garden, tending to their portion of the town's winter crops. The other residents are already engaged in their daily tasks, which means that Castiel's first attempt at pancakes is currently being evaluated by only Dean, Alison, Teresa, and Amanda, with a promise to Manuel that if successful, some be saved for him when he awakens this afternoon.

"Nothing new for them," Amanda says over her forkful, looking almost insultingly surprised after taking a wary bite. "Wow. You can cook? Since when?" Her eyes travel to Dean, one corner of her mouth quirking. "I withdraw the question."

"Shut up," Dean mumbles happily around his fork, already half-way through his stack of four. Castiel makes a mental note to assure they have sufficient flour to make them a regular addition to Dean's menu at Chitaqua; it's rare now for him to show so much enthusiasm when eating. Dean gives him a significant look that escapes him before he abruptly remembers that Dean can't ask questions about training since he's supposed to be the one to have designed it.

"For the benefit of Alison and Teresa," Castiel says, taking a sip of the truly superlative coffee, and ignoring Dean rolling his eyes at his attempt at subtlety, "perhaps you could explain."

Amanda looks up mid-chew and swallows quickly. "First week is evaluation," she says, turning her attention to Teresa and Alison. "It's stuff they all know from either patrol here or from what me and Mark showed them, see what they're good at and what needs work. Then we'll start working on getting it through their heads that they're not coming out of this able to take on a demon and kill it with their bare hands. Not gonna happen."

"Stronger, faster, and superpowers," Dean agrees like he's ticking off each point from an internal list, which he probably is. "Can't even hurt some things, and the rest heal right in front of us. We're outclassed every time. It's so fucking annoying, you have no idea."

"What he means," Amanda says when Alison starts to look alarmed, "is that mano e mano in the manly art of beating up each other to see who does it best is--well, stupid. We'll lose every time. So we gotta approach it differently. Hunters have been doing this for centuries; we don't survive long if we turn it into a whose cock is bigger contest. It's theirs, always."

"Seriously?" Dean asks breathlessly, after a few long, red-faced moments of visibly attempting not to choke. "Good impression, remember?"

Amanda flashes him an unrepentant grin before continuing. "First thing they learn: they can't win in a straight fight. That's the hardest part for some people to get; it's not always--or even mostly--about killing the enemy. It's about the survival of the people you're protecting, and if possible, surviving yourself. Dying is the only time you fail, and it's not heroic, not when you have other options; all you did is lower the number of defenders for those you're supposed to protect."

From the corner of his eye, Castiel sees Dean looking at him, one corner of his mouth quirking before he stuffs another forkful of pancakes his mouth.

"So what you and Mark do in the mornings," Alison says, still looking a little worried, "that's not enough to kill what you usually hunt."

Amanda winces, but before she can try to answer, Castiel does it for her. "Amanda can fight me and occasionally bring me to a draw. Under the right circumstances, she could kill me." Alison shuts her mouth with an audible click as Teresa leans forward, looking intrigued. "Possibly Mark could as well, but he's far too intimidated by me to believe he can, so it doesn't matter. However, Amanda, like Mark, has been a hunter all her life. There are certain benefits to having a lifetime of experience first."

"And being re-trained by a sadistic ex-angel with a perpetual hangover helps," Amanda says brightly, ignoring Dean's glare to smirk at Castiel and Castiel's polite reminder he doesn't get hangovers (Eldritch Horror doesn't count). "Not knocking method here: it worked." Turning her attention to Alison and Teresa, she shakes her head. "We're outclassed--humans always are--but that just means we learn how to make do with what we have. I might be able to kill Cas," she gives him a quick, surprised look, "but I wouldn't survive it. If I was the only line of defense for a group of civilians, all I've done is temporarily delayed their deaths until something else gets them. There aren't enough hunters to take those kinds of risks, not if we have any other option. Their job is to keep people alive any way they can. My job is to teach them all the options I can and how to find new ones so they can do that."

"During my apprenticeship, our instruction followed a similar principle," Teresa offers, getting Alison's startled attention, a trace of habitual fear in her eyes. "As my mother put it, it's very difficult to do your job well once you're dead."

"Exactly." Amanda pauses for a drink of coffee. "One bad habit I don't have to worry about is training them to work together; you already do that. Let's say hunters generally don't, and a lot of training is teaching them not only to do it, but it's okay not to single-handedly take on everything you see. Besides," she adds cheerfully, "just because killing them in single combat is off the table doesn't mean you can't hurt 'em, though, so kicking ass is also on the agenda. Distract the enemy with violence and everything while your team's working on options, and it's a fun way to pass the time while you're waiting."

"What kind of options?" Alison asks curiously as Castiel reaches for Dean's plate, getting up to check on the amount of batter remaining in the bowl before turning on the electric griddle and reaching for the flour. There's plenty of time to make another batch.


Two hours before dusk, Castiel waits at Alison's for David to arrive from Chitaqua with Melanie's report. Dean, of course, found an excuse to return to Ichabod to take a shift at the daycare after an early lunch and is currently spending a few happy hours being tackled by small children.

("I don't think Ichabod worried he would do anything sketchy if he wasn't watched," Amanda told him the day before. "More losing Chitaqua's leader wasn't good public relations, and I warned them he didn't need to know he was being watched to do his vanishing act. Apparently, they got around that by random releases of two to three year olds into the town square to play. Screaming kids are better than sirens; five minutes or less, Dean was there for important playing duty, everyone was relieved, and we still look crazy, but now also for having a leader who genuinely likes toddlers." She looked at him uncertainly. "I'm kind of on the fence on whether that's any better. I didn't even know Dean liked kids.")

Alison's second (more enthusiastic) tour after lunch ended in her small office in the administration building, showing him how Ichabod was organized. As they'd begun in a deserted town, the foundation of their current organization was created by the first to settle here and improved over two years and a half years and over eight hundred additional residents.

It's perhaps the single most fascinating afternoon of his life, as before his eyes is revealed the administration of an entire town and exactly how it should be done. He blesses his perfect memory; taking notes is very slow, and he'd need a great number of notebooks to do it thoroughly.

Ichabod has a four shift rotation of six hours each for daily tasks, with a more complex system that covers those required weekly, monthly, quarterly, seasonally, and annually, all very neatly organized on fascinatingly complex series of spreadsheets and programs that the settlers--being programmers--wrote themselves or adapted from projects they worked on before. Alison's introduction to their system the day before was fascinating, and she assured him that if he wished, they could adapt it for use in Chitaqua now that they are utilizing computers. She mentioned the need for a server as well, which he plans to have Chuck explain to him thoroughly so they can acquire one.

During the planting and harvesting seasons--in which the entire town took shifts in the fields, both adults and children old enough to help--the work could be grueling, but experience--and learning to use the large number of farming machines--made it far easier than they expected when they first arrived. While the training they offered was the deciding factor, Alison told him honestly, the offer of manual labor was a very large part of their initial interest; having so many physically fit adults available to help would greatly increase what they could afford to plant and harvest for both trade and surplus for future need and decrease their reliance on the border guards and the military's staple deliveries, the latter of which was often both very basic and sometimes not of the best quality. The former, of course, were expensive, and need was the most expensive of all.

"Not to mention the competition every quarter when the military hands out supplies," Alison told him as he explored their inventory lists with a tap of the down button and adding another mental note about speaking to Chuck regarding Chitaqua's inexcusably inefficient reliance on paper. "Got dangerous at the border stations around that time, even if you were armed. We haven't gone to one in about a year now."

"Joseph is careful to time our visits to the border between those," he said. "Harlin and Noak told us they have had problems with raiders near those times."

"Mutual defense was a pretty big factor in the trade alliance, and not just from what goes bump in the night," she said wryly. "That's why we run patrol all the way to the highway and why you didn't know we were watching you until we wanted you to."

Castiel grinned at her. "I was impressed when Joseph told me about your timing."

"We've had a lot of practice," she said, matching his grin. "We trade-off who does the outside circuit, watch for anything sketchy. Last raid in Noak at the end of February, about a week before the drop. They held them easy until the rest of us got there and scared them off."

"Nothing since?"

She shook her head. "Two drops since, we watched every group that passed; no one even slowed down. Ichabod's lucky; the only part of the town you can see from any road is the eastern side, and it's pretty much destroyed. From the highway, you can't see us at all." She sighed. "It's worse near the internal borders in the zone; they have a quarter of the personnel the outer borders do, and the guards don't give a shit. If they happen to notice, all you gotta do is pay up to pass." She gave him a searching look. "You never had problems?"

"Chitaqua is difficult to find," he answered vaguely. "There are also no populated towns near us, and the camp doesn't appear on any maps of Kansas."

Dean's illness occurred during the last quarterly drop; it was almost a week after that he implemented the statewide patrol schedule, at which time those who migrated to the eastern and southern checkpoints for the supplies offered by the military would have returned home. That doesn't explain why they've never seen any sign of people on the major or minor roads all this time; surely at least some of the raiders don't keep to a quarterly timetable to attack less well-protected towns.

"Lucky you," Alison told him with a faint trace of irony before they returned to her laptop and its plethora of information, showing him the organizational structure of the town's various functions, one of the most important is daycare and school for the town's children, who make almost thirty percent of the total population.

Many were orphans, either discovered by Ichabod's patrol or residents during infrequent forays to other towns or brought with new arrivals, and adopted by members of the community. Tony's daughters and Sreeleela and Sreenivasa's son were among a group of thirty-two orphans found soon after Ichabod was settled, quadrupling the number of children in the town at the time and making child care and school an immediate priority.

"We really like kids," Alison said with a shrug as he scanned the latest town census that included four newborns (three male, one female, all healthy and of average weight and length).

He looked at her curiously. "Taking them in must have made your first months here more difficult, however."

"More mouths to feed, you mean?" She sat back in her chair, frowning in the direction of the laptop screen. "It wasn't like there was a convenient orphanage or Child Protective Services office in the zone; they didn't have anywhere else to go. Anyway, everyone here was in the same boat as the kids--lost our families, lost our homes--so I guess like called to like."

From his seat on the front porch, observing the constant ebb and flow of adults and children who pass oblivious to his presence, chattering voices interspersed with bursts of laughter and cheerful shrieks, Castiel thinks about what Alison said about Ichabod's residents; the zoning of Kansas changed their world, in some ways as much as Falling changed his. That they built new lives isn't a surprise--humans adapt, that's what they do--but knowing that as an angel and experiencing it in all its mundane details is very different.

Millennia of observing humans in their native habitat gave him less than no context for living among them in Chitaqua, the long days (weeks, months) of learning the width of the abyss that exists between theory and practice in a world so alien he couldn't imagine being anything but the most reluctant of visitors. The bustling population of Ichabod, so different from Chitaqua in more ways than he can count, is new, fascinating, like visiting a foreign country, marking its differences in customs and people from those at home as well as the similarities from a safe (non-interactive) distance.

Taking another drink of coffee, he tentatively explores the novel thought for flaws, searching for those feelings of alienation he took for granted for so long that it never occurred to him might have changed. The memories remain, of course--the grinding misery and difficulty of learning how to function not just in his body but with a body, surrounded by people he couldn't hope to understand in a world that made no sense to him, the bitterness and anger and frustration that colored everything he did--but the immediacy has dulled. It was a long time ago, he told Dean by rote, never realizing it was actually true.

Dean was right and wrong; it's been over two and a half years since he Fell, but those first miserable months were always yesterday, as if time itself were trapped in amber. That changed, however, that night in Kansas City when he didn't die, the world didn't end, and he met the man who would tell him he should try living life instead of simply marking time until the end. He thinks perhaps he should tell Dean that night in Kansas City might very well be when he did.

"Hey, Cas!" Castiel lowers his cup at the sight of David coming down the street, face wreathed in a cheerful smile. From the way his eyes fix on the half-empty coffee cup before he straightens, caffeine would be welcome. "So--"

"Coffee?" he asks, and David nods frantically, looking relieved. Getting to his feet, he goes to the door. "I just made a fresh pot. And more pancakes, if you're hungry."


After David finishes his pancakes--and offering enthusiastic compliments on Castiel's growing prowess in kitchen-related duties--he leans against the counter nursing a cup of coffee with a wistful expression as Castiel finishes skimming Melanie's report for any problems. Fortunately, the most pressing seems to be James' request for authorization to take a trip to the closest library in hopes of discovering how to manufacture asphalt, followed by Melanie's enthusiastic recommendation to please let him do it so he would shut up about it.

"Tell her to give James permission, and that I commend her on her patience," he tells David as he sets down the report, who sags in visible gratitude. "Have him get the latest request list from Chuck as well; Harlin requested several books and Kansas City's library is likely to have them. Did Joseph select his new team members yet or is he still sulking over Dean's note requesting his assistance in this matter?"

"He said to tell you he'll have names for you by the time you get back but still reserves the right to sulk," David answers. "He took some volunteers to pick up more from the military's stock this morning, so rehearsals have already started. Unofficially, he likes Lydia and Brad, and since Brad's one of the few on watch who doesn't make Dean grit his teeth…."

"He and Dean got along very well when he was assigned to stay with Dean when he was recovering from the fever," he agrees, skimming Melanie's report for anything on the watch, who are still supervised by whatever patrol team is available. Alicia spoke highly of him, and Sarah found him reasonably competent, which for Sarah is an excess of emotion on par to enthusiastic praise. "I assume the watch is performing adequately?"

"No problems," David assures him, taking the opportunity to refill his cup. "Ana and Leah will be arriving tomorrow with Laura, and Joseph says you're welcome."

"There's something very unsettling about having a standing order regarding sex in the mess during meals," he says. "Exhibitionism is to be lauded, and creativity encouraged, but not with silverware and never with meatloaf."

"Don't," David breathes, squeezing his eyes shut. "Just--"

"I apologize," Castiel says sincerely; the violation of even the most liberal interpretation of sexual aesthetics will haunt him all his life, and David was unfortunate enough to be there as well to bear witness to the horror. "Is there anything else?"

He's learned--after both Dean and Joseph explained it--that there are three kinds of reports he'll be expected to receive: the official ones neatly written on paper, the verbal ones that expand the scope of a report or explain a situation, and a third kind that are verbal and take the form of casual conversation. Those can begin at any moment without warning, about anything at all, and he should be prepared to listen.

David, like Alicia, is aware he's still working on the subtle verbal and non-verbal cues associated with them and discards subtlety altogether in the interests of saving them all time and confusion.

"Off the record, Mel told me to tell you that she understands that you don't execute people for being annoying, but what if she made it look like an accident? And any tips you have on how to do that, by the way. No reason."

"Cynthia?" David finishes his cup and reluctantly sets it in the sink before inclining his head toward the door; nodding, Castiel follows him, matching the deliberately slow, unhurried pace down the porch stairs. "I was worried about that."

"Mel can handle it," he assures him. "She's just weirded out. She and Cyn used to hang out all the time, and now, Cyn's acting like Mel betrayed her or something. Cyn's intense, and if she doesn't like you--"

"You know it, and it follows you, possibly to your grave, yes, I'm aware. James was a very poor target for her to choose to target; he's very well-liked by everyone." He remembers something else. "How is Kyle adjusting to his new team member? Is Robert having any problems?"

There's justice for crimes against good sense by risking your team members lives due to your own lack of imagination, and then there's sadism, and assigning Robert to Kyle might have crossed that line.

David snickers, sliding his hands in his pockets in visible satisfaction. "Oh, Rob's great. Kyle's pretending he's not blessing whatever he worships--himself, mostly--that he didn't get his way about Cyn." He almost stumbles in surprise. David nods sympathetically. "Newsflash: lions lying with lambs and walking on water is a new Olympic sport."

"Perhaps I was wrong about the dearth of miracles in modern times," Castiel remarks. "I'll attempt to transmute water into wine at the next opportunity; we'll have a party."

"I could mention that rumor has it that his team threatened to drive into a tree to get on the injured list and off patrol if he didn't shut up."

Cas looks at him curiously. "What else does rumor say?"

"Dean used 'pissing off Kyle' as an inducement to get you to officially agree to his job offer," David says, grinning at his expression. "No need to confirm: just imagining it puts everyone in a good mood."

"I won't say it's not a perk," he admits, tentatively warmed by David's burst of laughter. "I assume you wouldn't feel comfortable telling me if that's causing problems?"

Looking startled, David pauses as they reach the jeep, brown eyes searching before he leans back against the hood. "Cas--"

"I understand if there's discomfort regarding Dean's decision," he interrupts firmly, fixing his gaze on the rearview mirror. "I certainly don't intend to retaliation, but I hope in time--"

"You're trying to be reassuring," David says blankly. "Jesus, why? You've been doing this for a few months." He bites his lip, worried. "Are we still supposed to pretend we don't know about it? I mean, there was an announcement. Dean gave everyone Joe Beer."

Castiel could list the reasons, but for some reason, he can't quite remember them, not in the face of David's bewilderment and Dean's terrible attempt at being subtle. "There was an announcement?"

"And beer," David confirms helpfully, pushing off the jeep. "I better go check in with Dean. Do you want me to swing by before I leave in case there's anything you want to add?"

This would be an excellent time to tell him about the emergency in Chitaqua he'll tell Dean about, but unfortunately, he can't quite remember what he meant to use. Lies should be done well or not at all, he reflects. "I should have finished skimming the reports in an hour, so do so just in case. Eager to get back?"

"Kind of." David makes a complicated gesture. "Liz and Dan are trading watching Mel and Cyn, and it's hard to be inconspicuous with only two people."

Castiel pauses at that. "Do you need an hour to come up with an explanation for that which isn't extremely worrying?"

David grimaces. "It's not serious."

"I changed my mind; I can't wait an hour."

"Right." David frowns. "Mel doesn't get worked up easily. Cyn? Has become the single exception to the rule."

"Is it more than talk?"

"No, nothing like that," he assures him, shifting his weight uncomfortably. "Mel's not gonna call Cyn on being a constant annoyance whenever she sees her--which passed plausible coincidence before lunch yesterday--not when she's pro-temming Chitaqua and supposed to be fair--"

"Abuse of power is a time-honored tradition."

"Tried that, didn't work, but her team, we're off-duty until she goes back on patrol. We can watch out for her."

"Tell Mel she has my permission to do what's necessary, and my definition of necessary is surprisingly broad under the circumstances." He studies David. "What about Sidney?"

"Sid? No, he's fine," David answers in surprise. "Reading automobile repair manuals when he's not on duty or on the training field."

He raises both eyebrows. "Really?"

"He wants back on patrol, and he wants to impress Dean and Jane, not necessarily in that order," David confides in amusement before his expression becomes serious "Which isn't getting him any points with Cyn. Look, Mel doesn't have a problem putting her on restriction until you and Dean get back tomorrow."

"Tell Melanie if she feels it's warranted, do so and send someone to inform me immediately so I can convince Dean to remain here another day. If we're lucky, he won't ask why; otherwise, she'll have to deal with Dean instead of me, and--" Castiel doesn't know how Dean will react if Cynthia so loses her good sense as to be less ambiguous in her objections, especially considering his offer to Teresa. The watch, however, still visibly flinches when anyone mentions Dean's interrogation of them after the situation with Jeffrey, and that story is one that doesn't need to grow in the telling. "At this time, I don't think it would go well for her."

David winces in shared understanding. "Yeah, we figured." Opening the door, he looks back at Castiel. "So I’m guessing when I report to him, everything but--"

"The part where I'm--" He pauses, trying to decide on the terminology. Probably not a coup. "What would it be called?"

"Uh, suborning his lieutenants, but for a greater good."

"That." He raises an eyebrow at David's snicker. "Corruption is terrifyingly rewarding. I had no idea."

"That fit on a t-shirt?" Climbing in, he gives Castiel a grin. "Also, in case I forget: Mel sends her appreciation in the form of a quick harvest that's currently drying in her cabin for you to pick up. She figured you used up what you had ministering to James' trauma, and you'd need it by the time you got back."

"Bless her," Castiel answers sincerely, stepping back before turning to return to Alison's home to finish his reports in time for David's return. With any luck, he'll have time to watch Dean at the daycare before he joins Amanda at the training field after she dismisses her class for the day. Offering encouragement and affirmation without resorting to chemical assistance requires practice, and this would be an ideal time to do just that.