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The Game of God

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--Day 152, continued--

The Situation Room--as its apparently known to everyone (even people he's pretty sure haven't been here)--is now redolent with the scent of fresh lemon from the three fat yellow pillar candles settled on a battered former bedside table with hastily taped leg near the door.

(Dean's not sure if they're having any effect on his 'mood' (or that 'clarity', 'focus', and 'inspiration' were moods) but he's really enjoying how the first thing anyone sees when they come in is the table of candles and the stages of 'what the fuck' that follow. Also, the lemon scent is unbelievable; it's like someone just cut one open in front of him or something.)

Despite having been what he suspects was grand central station for lawyer meetings, he's starting to like the room. Sure, evil building, but the textured beige actually kind of works for it, and now that they're settling in, it's not that bad. The one thing this town doesn't lack is a lot of useless furniture (better furniture than this, he'd think, but whatever). They now have five (5) tables, chairs enough for at least fifteen people (thirty if there's sharing involved) and a hideous couch, and even some vaguely abstract art as soon as they find wherever the hell Cas banished his table-art-map.

More than that though; he's already getting spoiled having an actual room (that's not their cabin) in which they can meet with a number greater than twelve people without effort (and even with twelve a lot of maneuvering). And also--this is key here--not in the same place he and Cas eat and sleep. And will be having sex like a lot.

(Okay, yeah, they're gonna have to do something about that.)

So yeah, not so bad, and the amenities are nothing to sneeze at; for reasons lawyer (he guesses) the meeting room has a direct line to the kitchen and back stairs (why does a law firm need a full kitchen anyway?), its own (really nice) non-functional elevator separate from the one in the front, and an attached bathroom, which is where he had the satisfaction of seeing Joe's eyes narrow. It's three rooms, all granite and dark (expensive) looking wood and shiny fixtures, complete with (big) Jacuzzi tub, an enclosed shower the size of their cabin's kitchen with five separate heads, on a platform (a platform), and a sauna. Off the meeting room.

("Eight," Cas said after staring at the Jacuzzi speculatively and doing what Dean assumed was experience-based sex-to-person-space math. He's got no one to blame but himself for that one; when he and Joe (in retrospect, pretty goddamn stupidly) wondered out loud how many lawyers you could fit in a Jacuzzi that size, they did it in the hearing of a person who lives to answer rhetorical questions. "Sixteen in the sauna, twelve in the shower, but I wouldn't recommend the latter due to the risk of concussions.")

The obvious lawyer-sex bathroom isn't even the weirdest thing they've found, though discovering that there's a larger version on the third floor off what was definitely their soul-selling lawyer's glass-walled office with attached balcony that takes up a quarter of the goddamn floor was definitely up there. The rings bolted into the walls at different not-entirely-random points were bad enough, but Cas raising his eyebrows in what was unmistakably recognition did nothing for anyone, or at least for Dean, since Joe was with them. During a tour of the rest of building with Joe (because Cas needed time with his replacement laptop and he can deal), they discovered the roof has a helipad (a helipad. In goddamn Ichabod) and the remains of a rooftop garden, and even Joe had to take a moment when they were called down to blink at the (empty) swimming pool tucked into the basement along with a small (but kind of nice) gym.

(Dean stands by this being a shitty, shitty thing to sell your soul for, but if you were the type who prized possessions and group sex Jacuzzis and hardwoods and marble everythings, in that sense he has to admit the guy (or woman) didn't do too badly. He's got to wonder what it was like to work here, and if their lawyer was a good boss; if he was, must have been the best job ever.)

Dean also finds out what his job is when not being inspiring and leading people; it's to be given a clipboard and a fresh sheet of paper and sent on his way to find out where everyone is staying and Joe glumly following along with a stack of numbers and labels to tape on the door of each occupied room or common room and check the functionality of the bathrooms.

(All are working, more or less, but Dean doesn't fool himself anyone is gonna use them if they can help it. Bathroom, breaks, and downtime are gonna be on the third floor every chance they get even though he gave a direct order that no, the Jacuzzi could not be tested to make sure it works, come on. He wonders if he should get Evelyn or whoever's front desk to put up a sign up sheet, then remembers that no one in this building will care.)

All and all, the only sane part is touring their new armory on the first floor in a repurposed something room with a good lock. Surveying the metal shelving units crammed into all the available space, Dean nods approval as Natalie explains the logical organization thing going on while one of Amanda's students assists, a tall brunette in her mid-thirties who smiles wryly at his attention and gets to her feet to extend a hand.

"You probably don't remember--"

"Vicky," he interrupts, shaking her hand; some things stick with you, and those reports from the attack on Ichabod he can almost recite verbatim. "Maggie was your sister, right?" She nods, surprised smile fading. "Amanda told us a lot about her. And you, offering to take her place."

She licks her lips. "First thing Maggie did when we came to Ichabod was volunteer for patrol. She was always better at sports, it was easy for her. I was more the--you know, stay home and crochet type, but I went to all her games."

"What'd she play?" he asks, touching her side to move them out of Natalie's way as she goes for yet more boxes.

"Everything, but mostly basketball and volleyball." She starts to smile again, brown eyes warming. "I was her running buddy, though; said sunlight was good and I should learn that more than in theory and actually see it once in a while. Amanda was surprised; she made me run laps, I could do that. The rest…."

"It takes time," he says when she trails off, reminded it's only been a couple of weeks since she lost her sister. "Really. Amanda didn't tell you stories about Joe yet?"

"I heard that," Joe says from outside the door, but he doesn't sound annoyed. "It's all lies, especially--pretty much all of it. By the way, Dean, we got more rooms to inspect. Cas gave us a list and--"

"Yeah, fine." Dean blows out a breath, and has the pleasure of seeing Vicky relax, smile returning. "Duty calls. See you around. By the way, Haruhi's your team leader in training, right? You see her around this morning? Or Derek?"

Vicky tilts her head. "Dolores said she was still in isolation when we went by this morning."

Huh. "Thanks," he says, waving at Natalie on his way out and waits until they're well down the hall before turning to Joe and then realizes something. "Why is Vicky here? Doesn't she have--things to do?"

"Not with training suspended," Joe reminds him blandly. "Yes, all our recruits do, but they got downtime like everyone else--Alison's orders, by the way--and seem to like spending it here. They've been stopping by to help us get the place in shape, bringing snacks, hunt up anything we need, show us where to do laundry."

Dean frantically calculates how many changes of clothes he still has and remembers he packed for a week. "Good call. Where?"

"Down the street somewhere," Joe answers. "At least until Nicole finishes rehooking whatever needs hooking in the one downstairs off the gym. Alonzo is going to work on the kitchen when he goes off duty at noon, no idea why, but I assume he knows. Kind of like having interns, now that I think about it, but they're actually useful."

Dean wonders if this place had interns before and shakes himself. (But seriously, what was the first day like? Here's the helicopter pad, the swimming pool, and the downstairs orgy bathroom?)

"Right, but--hold up." Noticing how close they are to the reception area from the sound of cheerful voices, he grabs Joe's elbow and drags him into a conveniently empty room (beige, again). How many rooms does this building have anyway? "Why would Haruhi be in isolation?"

"Unexpected and unprovoked outbreak of homicidal violence in the mess?" Joe asks with attached sarcasm. "Alison and Teresa gave the order as soon as Naresh saw the mess. Teresa can't guarantee the wards would catch anyone before stage one."

"They can't hold them at the entrance point…." Dean makes a face; most of them have been there for hours already and it's fucking cold.. "Stupid question: how are they managing to hold the entrance point now? I saw the numbers out there, Joe; if those people wanted to stampede the line, they could. It's a rope."

"They don't know that, and we're not going to tell them," Joe says bluntly. "First rule of crowd control; you don't let the crowd guess you even feel like you need to control them, much less that you're doing it. Right now, it's just cold and they're tired, and Dolores has Lewis on the line pulling medical cases and Serafina kids under six and a parent with kids under one, anyone nursing--"

"You'd think that'd piss off the rest."

"These are mostly families," Joe answers. "Mom and Dad want their kids okay, families want grandma somewhere warm to rest, partners want their spouses with babies out of the cold. They brought their families to get them somewhere safe; they see the most vulnerable are going to be okay, the wait is worth it. Mostly, anyway. They're also exhausted, which trust me is a depressing plus here, but when that storm comes in--self-preservation is gonna kick in and that line's gonna break one way or another."

Dean stares at Joe for a long minute, then shoves the clipboard in his hands and goes out into the hall, crossing the reception room and through the door out into the street to look up at the churning-grey sky, scanning the horizon and picking out the distant, heavier darkness in the west that's been growing for days. Even yesterday, though, he doesn't think it looked like this. When the snow happened two weeks ago, it didn't look like this.

Hearing Joe come up beside him, Dean says, "You know, I didn't ask this and that was stupid: how big is the storm? Nice snowy evening, overnight…."

"The lack of meteorologists in our lives are a problem," Joe answers, following his gaze. "You didn't miss anything; I just found out when I went to set up the meeting with Alison."

"Found out what?"

Joe's mouth tightens. "Dina and Antonio have been watching, trust me, but early this morning they went to Alison and told her to upgrade storm prep, just in case. She's meeting with all the leads now."

"They weren't sure until then or it built really fast?"

"I got the impression they were really surprised," Joe says reluctantly and Dean just bites back a curse. "Maybe worse than the one a few weeks ago, but how much, hard to say."

Focusing on the entrance point, the faceless mass of bodies and people spilling into view from the Third Street entrance point--how many people are out there?--the enormity of it hits him all at once, what they're dealing with, what Ichabod's trying to do right now with a resident population at barely a thousand. Why Tony's got everyone with hands helping with the buildings in near all-day shifts, Dolores' extra infirmary, Volunteer Services showing up like it was always there when Claudia got it up and running by yesterday mid-morning, only hours after they realized what was happening.

"You're telling me we have a local refugee crisis and potential blizzard?" Dean asks. "We got who the hell knows how many people walking in the snow out there and there's a fucking blizzard coming?"

"I know it sounds bad--"

"No, it is bad right now," Dean interrupts, unable to look away from all those gathered people and more coming every minute. "And now we're talking near-future natural disaster on our front steps!" He turns to look up at Joe. "Tell me that Alison didn't move us to Second because she thinks they won't be able to keep the grid powering anything but Second, Main, and Syracuse and didn't want us to freeze to death with--"

"She didn't," Joe says quietly. "This is Alison--and Tony, for that matter. Walter's at the plant now, doing--no idea, but give them some credit here. It's--Dean, you get this isn't in your responsibilities and I don't mean in the sense of 'other people'; you can't do anything. None of us can but keep the perimeter stable and help out where we're needed. Residents--and early arrivals--have been storm prepping since yesterday, so it's just--you know, leveling up. Mercedes is leading the groups getting the livestock under cover and also, because this is shit you share, the culling has been going on since last night, so think about that at lunch."

He gives Joe a sour look and catches the faint, playful grin. "Thanks." Which reminds him. "I left yours and Rachel's names at the mess when I was there yesterday equating 'bullet' with 'incident'; just tell 'em when you get something to eat and it'll be porkless, promise."

"You didn't have to do that," Joe protests. "Judaism is practical when it comes to food restrictions and emergencies, and I, my friend, am very practical indeed."

"Yeah, but you also hate it more than squirrel," he explains, and Joe makes a face that's not in any way a denial. "Besides, variety in meat isn't a problem; trust me, that's just more chorizo and bacon for the rest of us who really like it." Jerking his head at Joe's skeptical look, Dean starts back to the building when he can't ignore Joe's shivering (or his own, fine). "Over a quarter of the residents don't eat beef, they got kosher, halal, and vegetarian covered fine, not a problem, but Jordan and Deepika need the lists so they know how much to make of everything so they don't run out of anything. Leah's not here to add you and Rachel, and I figured you'd forget to mention it and end up resenting bacon, which dude, that's just wrong."

"I'd just give it to you," Joe counters. "And resentfully watch you eat it."

Dean frowns. "I didn't think of that."

They're almost at the door when Dean remembers what they were first talking about. "Haruhi's in isolation."

"Yeah," Joe says patiently. "So Vicky told us. Why?"

"It's been over eighteen hours since what happened in the mess," he answers as Joe pushes open the door. "Window for Croat is eight hours on the outside, so why's she still there?"

Joe frowns. "Want me to find out?"

"Let's talk to Alison first," he says. "By the way, any idea what Alicia was doing this morning?" She was in the infirmary this morning, so she might know what's up with Haruhi, but it occurs to him he has no idea why she was there in the first place.

"Not sure," Joe admits, letting the door close behind him as he follows Dean into the neat reception area, clear of weapons and condoms, and Jeremy at the new front desk looking very earnestly bored. Waving, Dean starts toward the Situation Room. "The ways of Alicia are mysterious and not for our kind to understand, which is everyone."

With Vera, he remembers suddenly. Who didn't say anything about going back there when they talked this morning, either. He assumed emergency something and Dolores needed her help. "Vera still at the infirmary?"

"Yeah, she sent Esperanza to tell us she'd be back in time for the meeting with Alison." Hands tucked in his coat pockets, he gives Dean a thoughtful look. "Something bothering you? Alicia reports to Amanda, just ask her."

"I did," Dean says, wondering if he should be pissed or impressed. "She distracted me. Just said Alicia would report about the investigation before noon."

Joe is suspiciously silent but it's not like Dean doesn't know what he's thinking.

"I'm not going to just walk in there and shoot them, come on!"

"I know that," Joe says reassuringly before adding, "but once you're in that room, will you remember that?"

"That's--"

"Anyway," Joe interrupts, loudly, "you can't do everything--"

"I don't do anything!" he exclaims, stopping short of the closed door to the Situation Room to glare at Joe.

"--and no offense, but this kind of thing--it's Alicia's thing, trust me."

Yeah, he was wondering about that. "Why is Alicia handling the investigation, anyway?"

"Because it's her thing, like I just said," Joe states, and Dean wonders uneasily if this is one of those things he should already know, but the look on Joe's face is less 'my leader is secretly someone else or he'd know this already' and more 'smug'. "So--no, you gotta experience it to understand. Which I'm assuming is what's going to happen when she reports before noon."

"What?" Dean asks in frustration, but Joe, looking inscrutable, just starts toward the door. Jogging to catch up, he glares up at him and then decides a change in tactics is in order. "Did you know we have nets in inventory in Chitaqua?"

Joe gives him a wide-eyed look of utter don't care. "No, why?"

"Was wondering why Alicia needed them," he says, and watches Joe's hand freeze on the door knob. "Something about situational awareness and the element of surprise or something."

Joe stares at him in horror.

"And roofs. She and Cas are working on it together," he adds maliciously, and beneath the stubble, Joe visibly pales. Awesome. "You gonna open the door or what?"


The table-map is the last thing to arrive, and the expression on Cas's face tells him that his instincts weren't mistaken; he wonders what Cas's instincts told him when he was drawing it.

He wants to hang it up, get some perspective, but it's the size of a six person dining room table and heavy enough to take two people to carry and one to spot, and while the wall's concrete, he's not sure what to use to hold it up.

"Dean--" Cas starts, again.

"It's cool," Dean argues as he has it set against the wall opposite the hideous couch-thing they scavenged out of what was probably a goddamn grave or something. Even covered in a sheet, it's not like he doesn't know what horrors lurk below it. "Give the room a certain something. Horizontal," he says belatedly and gets twin dirty looks from Laura and newly-freed-from-daycare-indentured-servitude Gary as they turn it on its side.

"Oh, cool," Laura echoes when she and Gary join him to look at it in all its colorful majesty. "I didn't know Cas did art."

"I don't," Cas lies from the other side of the room; they all ignore him.

"I hate kids," Gary says, staring at the frame; it's the third time that Gary's said that in Dean's presence with no sign of it ending until he's sure everyone knows all about it. Or possibly ever: he wonders if he should talk to Glenn, find out where Gary was stationed and how long. Toddlers, he's gotta admit, can be an acquired taste.

"Where are you off to now?" he asks Laura, because Gary's answer will be 'anywhere not the daycare, please', which isn't helpful.

"Check in at Volunteer Services, then the mess to give them the final count for lunch," she answers. "Oh, we just got one of Tony's crew stopping by, she said--"

"Storm prep?"

She nods, brown ponytail bobbing. "There's gonna be a meeting in a couple of hours about prep. We need three people to go to the meeting; they're doing that for every building. Volunteer Services is handling most of it, but I said we could handle our building ourselves. And I would like to say, I grew up in Utah; I know blizzards and what to do before, during, and after."

"All yours," he says in relief; one less thing for the volunteers to deal with. "Pick two buddies, you're in charge of storm prep. Do me a favor: see if you can get to the east part of town and hit the houses Volunteer Services didn't, get bedding, mattresses, whatever. I don't want to take anything from Ichabod's supplies or that the volunteers got already if we can get it ourselves. They've got enough on their plate."

"Got it."

At his nod, she and Gary leave, and Dean wonders vaguely considering magic candles can do anything about evil buildings when door abruptly swings open and he hears someone who sounds a lot like Alison say, "Okay, this is much nicer than I thought."

"We have guests," Vera says brightly, leaning against the doorway. "Also, coffee pot delivery from didn't ask at the front desk. Where do you want it?"

"In here is acceptable," Cas says without looking up from the laptop, and it takes everything in Dean not to walk over there and shut it and have an air-tight excuse of 'guests'. Cas is correlating data or something and that may be important, fine, but what the hell.

"I'll get it if I get a cup from the first pot," Vera offers.

"Coffee that bad in the infirmary?" Dean asks casually and gets a distracted nod in return.

"Done," Cas agrees. "Also, tell Alicia, Kamal, and Amanda their presence is requested, as well as your own."

"I don't remember it being this nice," Alison continues from the middle of the room, confirming Dean's suspicions of her motives as she looks around their (pretty kick-ass) Situation Room. They even got maps taped to the wall, very official militia-like. "You have floors. No gouges in the walls, either." She stares at the doorframe accusingly. "And paint."

"Baby," Teresa says with a sigh in her voice as she drops on the couch, which squeals like someone just stabbed it to death, "you hated this building. Everyone hated this building. We built the warehouses six months early just so no one would have to come here to get food because they might just starve to death."

Sitting on Cas's left, Joe drops his pencil, looking at Dean suspiciously. "You got them in on it now?"

"Swimming pool in the basement," Dean tells Alison gloatingly and has the satisfaction of watching her mouth drop open. "Check out the bathroom over there. Does the word 'Jacuzzi' mean anything to you?"

Alison pretends she gives no fucks about the bathroom; no problem, he can wait. She glares at the (really nice) hardwood floor before focusing on the sheet-covered couch with more satisfaction and smiles when it squeals under Manuel's weight when he drops down beside Teresa. Then her eyes fix on Cas and the smile fades before she sets her shoulders and crosses the room.

The moment Cas looks up (wow, so Alison can get his attention from 'thing Dean will set on fire in the kitchen-break-room'), she says, "Cas, look--on behalf of Ichabod, I apologize for what happened in the mess."

Cas stares at her blankly. "What?"

"I didn't think about making sure we had adequate coverage for everyone coming in," she says, and Dean realizes she's been thinking about this; the words are practiced, at odds with her expression. "We know how to handle security, we had it at the party, so it's not like I don't know how this works. The mess should have had a couple of people there from the start, and I didn't think to order it. It's fixed: Naresh has people at all the public buildings and on each street just in case anything like this happens again."

Cas shuts the laptop (really?). "It wouldn't have helped, in this case. As victim--and perpetrator--of the events in question, I can tell you that for certain."

"You're wrong," Alison says, a familiar irritation breaking the rigid calm, "but it doesn't matter. They should have been there, and they weren't because I didn't think about it."

"Apology accepted," Cas says immediately. "From Ichabod and its mayor, for an oversight you couldn't possibly have anticipated during an emergency that no one could have imagined. However, Alison, if you try to take responsibility for anyone's actions but your own…. I can't make you stop, but--it might finally clarify the definition of 'awkward'." He studies her. "Vera told me about the meeting with the Alliance, though the notes are still--misplaced, it seems. You don't like the way you used what happened to get help from the Alliance?"

"No, I don't," she admits, the rigidity vanishing as she drops on the chair across from Joe and Cas with a sigh, and Dean sees the long night and already long day written all over her face. "People are going to die tonight, there's no way around it. I thought and thought, and that's going to happen, I can't fix that. I can't stop the storm, I can't make more buildings safe, I can't feed everyone indefinitely, the list of 'can't' goes on forever. So we stick to what I can do; I can give people space in what we have until it runs out, and that's not yet. I can feed them until there's no food, and that's not yet, either. I didn't know how to get the Alliance to help me do those things--and then, I had a way. That doesn't mean--"

"It means," Cas says, "that it was worth it."

Alison's gaze flies to Cas. "No, it wasn't--"

"It was to me." Dean swallows at the cool honesty, knowing Cas means it. "The seed was poisoned by chance, but it doesn't follow that the tree must be, and the only stain on the fruit is in what is chosen to do with it. You used it to buy lives that would otherwise perish. Well done."

"Profound," Alison says after a long moment, cocking her head. "Nice."

"The poisoned fruit metaphor is simplistic, badly interpreted, and never used for any situation to which it might actually apply," he says, looking pleased with himself. "I've been waiting for the opportunity to see what I could do with it."

"It worked," Alison tells him, and he doesn't think he's imagining the lessened strain. "It's not even noon and I feel like it's already been a week. I've never been so excited than when Joe said Chitaqua officially requested a meeting. I'll agree to anything, and not just because of guilt, just can we stretch it to about two, two and a half hours?"

Teresa giggles, leaning against Manuel's shoulder tiredly, and Dean searches her for any trace of strain from what she did with the wards. It's true about them only needing power from her when they're tested, but even passive ones have a cost when they're raised. It's probably tiny under normal circumstances, something she barely notices any more than the energy he expends to breathe, but it's still something.

Taking the chair at the end of the table by Cas, Dean starts to spread his legs and (kind of) regrets it; the sharp spear of pain shoots up his thigh, and Dean just avoids making a really embarrassing sound, another shot of heat coiling in his belly and its only with an effort he suppresses the video that tries to play through his mind of early morning events. Worse, Cas is right beside him, oblivious to how he's fucked up Dean's life with good sex, God.

"So," he starts, relieved he sounds normal. "Storm prep?" Alison's too good a poker player to give anything she doesn't want to, but he thinks he knows her well enough to make some guesses, and the faint line between her eyebrows means 'trouble'. "How bad?"

She grimaces, but the hazel eyes meet his head-on. "Could be bad, terrible, or catastrophic," she answers. "Dina and Antonio have been watching and even they didn't see the build coming. It's slowed down, so ETA is midnight to six AM--they think--and it could break up before it hits, no idea."

Cas frowns. "When did the build start?"

"Hard to tell," she answers. "None of us are meteorologists, and doing this by eye is a lot harder than it looks on TV. Antonio thinks at the current rate, an hour after dusk yesterday at the earliest and hasn't slowed down since. Of all the times…." Shaking her head, she straightens. "Volunteer Center started recruiting at dawn for storm prep, checklists and fact sheets are being copied as we speak, and Tony and Walter are at the plant doing--fuck if I know, but they're reporting to me at noon with the plan on what to do about power."

"However," Teresa says, "I did get some good news from my last tour of the entrance point and the road crews; we're definitely clear to five miles, all cars off the road and moved ten feet off the sides, along with the snow. We should reach the first feeder road an hour after noon."

"Yeah, about that," Dean starts as Kamal abruptly appears at the door carrying the--really goddamn big--coffee pot, Vera just behind him with a box of what Dean assumes are all the coffee-related paraphernalia they could need.

"Alicia and Amanda are on their way," Vera says as Kamal sets the coffee pot on the desk they brought from the old building that's currently holding the boxes of collected maps and reports and plugs it in before backing away for Cas to deal with. Something no one knew until Cas started drinking coffee in places not home: he has feelings about the amount of coffee that goes in the filter for x number of cups and is less than subtle about expressing them. And opinions on creamer. Dean didn't know you could have opinions on creamer, but Cas has them.

Giving the box to Cas, Vera leans back against the table by Joe to look at the two rows of maps pinned to the east wall, acquired from the people coming in. Amanda had sorted all they'd found into groups, and as of this morning, there are twenty unique variations hanging on the wall, each one representing a slightly different version of Amanda's original map.

Even with the sheer shittiness of the Xerox quality--which makes sense, these are copies of copies--it's not hard to see the differences when set side by side, and especially compared to Amanda's original. The thick black line on each version traces a different route to Ichabod, and not just from different start points in the state; some of the same start points have two different routes entirely, and three had the same start point but diverged a quarter of the distance to match that of one of the other maps.

The start points are weird on their own; some are close to several clusters of existing communities, some in areas that patrol confirmed are nothing but farmland or dead towns, some from a single small town. To compound the not random but what the hell, everything technically to the east of Ichabod (like someone drew a line north-to-south through Kansas with Ichabod at the center) ends up forced to drive almost to the western border to one of those empty-area start points and go from there.

Using Amanda's (color) version makes something else very clear; not one of the routes, even by accident, is the most direct path, and some are so insanely convoluted people drive literal circles on a random assortment of good to shitty as fuck roads without any particular reason. It also makes another thing clear; whatever the reason, whoever did this was committed to making sure people followed their version of the map, enough that entire stretches of roads are erased entirely.

In the margins of their representative sample is Cas's handwritten Greek letters (of course) that mean things like 'erased all of the western roads mid-green and darker' and 'erased all the roads but lime which is dirt roads' and 'I think these are cow trails or something'.

"Cas," Dean says as soon as percolation has commenced. "Go ahead and start."

"I sent Alicia out this morning to find at what point the landscape accommodates maximum visibility of the countryside," Cas starts. "Her job was to find that point, mark it, and continue for ten miles beyond it to see if there was any sign of clear roads."

There's a knock on the door before Alicia comes in with Amanda. It seems impossible by any normal standard, but she actually looks perkier than she did earlier. Unlike Amanda's severe braid, Alicia's ponytail looks like it's gone through a small war, and each step looks like she's barely stopping herself from bouncing; despite seeing her carry two visible weapons (and God knows how many knives) when she sheds her coat, tugging her gloves off with her teeth as she approaches the table, big blue eyes clear as a kid's, it's an effort to see a soldier.

Then again, that's probably why even knowing something is eventually going to be happening involving nets and roofs, he's still going to be surprised when she lands beside someone and covers them with a net. Hopefully beside them. Hopefully only covering them with a net. Christ, the possibilities really are endless.

"Alicia," Cas says, "please report what you told me."

"Me and my team went out to find where the hills stopped," she says, taking the chair between Dean and Alison while Amanda chooses the one facing Dean at the other end of the table with Kamal perched at the corner. Scanning the table, Alicia tugs one of the updated maps with Ichabod's incoming roads closer . "Best view; starts at five and a half miles, half a mile from the first feeder coming in," she says, pointing just short of the first road to intersect with the road coming into Ichabod. "I split us up; each of us took five miles down each of the four feeder roads from the point where it branches from what we shall call IH-Ichabod."

"We are?" Cas asks, and before Dean can deny it, leans out of his chair and writes it on the map. "So decided. Continue."

"Thank you," Alicia says smugly. "Distances are as follows: Road A six miles from Ichabod; Road B, roughly seven and a half; Road C, ten and a half, and Road D, fourteen. At five miles out on each one, we surveyed all within our line of sight, visibility in our current pre-snow mood light and variations in landscape roughly twelve miles; rough count, there are fourteen roads feeding directly into A, B, C, or D, and that includes those composed of nothing but dirt according to my map. On all views, all roads are filled to capacity. So we can assume greater than twenty miles worth of traffic jam out there from all directions but east. Since we're east in this scenario and all."

"Son of a bitch," Alison whispers. "And the people…."

"All walking, all the time," Alicia confirms. "Some have makeshifts sleds--color me impressed--snowshoes, a few intrepid souls on skis, but lots and lots of walking through the snow."

"What," Alison asks, "the fuck is going on out there?"

"I have an idea regarding what to do about those coming in," Cas says, looking at Dean uncertainly, who nods encouragement because this actually is a good idea. Reaching for another map, he pushes the others to the side and sets it in the middle of the table. "I think this might, with some alterations, help."

Alison leans forward as Manuel snags a notebook from those colonizing the table and gets a pencil. "Let's hear it."


Hearing it again--and after Cas and Teresa sketch out a rough draft with a few alterations--Dean starts to see a lot more possibilities in how this will work.

"So from this point," Teresa says, pointing at spot about a quarter mile from Ichabod's patrol line and the bottom of the steep incline leading into Ichabod, "we set Ground Zero, and clear every vehicle from the roads between there and Point D, the most distant feeder road, a little less than fourteen miles." Cas nods, checking his draft. "Block points A, B, C, and D to traffic when they merge into IH-Ichabod--I like that name, we're definitely keeping it--and make them pick-up points."

"Point D is eight miles from Point A," Manuel says, frowning. "How about relaying everyone from B, C, and D to A and pick them up there to bring them to Zero? That way, we get more vehicles on the road for relay between Zero and A."

"I agree," Cas says, making a correction. "Chitaqua's patrol was trained to deal with civilians in a protective capacity, not combative. I don't promise our social skills are the best, but--let's say we're more used to dealing with angry people who believe we are just being lazy in not immediately slaying their monster on arrival than you are. Also, if there is anything chasing them, we can act as first defenders and send word back to Ichabod to give you time to prepare." He gets one of his ruthlessly honest looks. "I've been told we're also somewhat intimidating, so that might help."

"One good reason, one slightly depressing one, and an absolute universal truth," Alison agrees, wrinkling her nose and looking over Teresa's shoulder. "You don't have enough teams here to hold all the roads. I mean, you gotta sleep."

"All of us can work with each other, not just the official teams; that's how we were trained," Amanda says, looking at Cas and then away. "Including the recruits. They're far enough along to know how to work together, and this will give 'em good practice in how to deal with people in large numbers early."

"That gives us ten teams," Dean says, doing the division on the twenty recruits.

"Nine," Amanda says briefly. "At least, until we get our non-regular patrol members organized, so set the potential number at eleven."

"Kyle's competent," Cas says out of nowhere, and Dean forgets his protest at the way Amanda's head snaps up. "During the crisis, perhaps he should be given a temporary team--"

"No," Amanda says in the exact same voice Cas uses raining down judgment for sins great and small, including wet towels on the bathroom floor and the inexcusable lack of internet in their lives. Cas blinks at her, startled. "Look, he's--do we really want someone who decided that an hour before going on duty was a good time to get high, drunk, and stupid because Alicia remembered what common sense is and threw him out on his ass?"

Alicia sets an elbow on the table and frowns, bracing her chin on one hand. "Ouch, but fair." She meets Amanda's eyes for a long (really significant) moment before turning her attention to Cas. "She's right and I do not say this as his maybe stalkee. All sins can be forgiven--and I do mean all--but unreliability is a cardinal one when it comes to your team, and if we can't trust him to do his job, he can't be trusted to lead others doing theirs."

"Sean is still performing his regular duties," Cas argues, and Dean has the feeling he's missing something. "Under the circumstances--"

"Sean is also concurrently experiencing his rightful bout of serious humiliation for being, as we say, a dick," Alicia interrupts, wrinkling her nose. "It's not a matter of degree in sins committed, but trust in your leader. Kyle fucked over his own team when he pulled that shit on New Year's Eve. No one's going to trust him to lead them to the bathroom right now."

"That's it?" Dean asks quietly, and has three sets of unreadable eyes fixed on him. "Anything else I should know?"

"He's also sulking," Alicia says without so much as pausing for a breath. "And doing it loudly. Dean, it's not easy to get everyone pissed at you, but Natalie practically gave him the cut direct--"

"The what?"

"Ignored him super publicly," Alicia explains. "Anyway--"

"How about this," Kamal says, leaning forward. "I'll give you Ana and take Kyle myself while this is going on."

"You're running short with Leah gone," Dean says with a frown, annoyed that he forgot about that.

"It's fine," Kamal says soothingly. "We've been working directly with Ichabod's teams since we train with them while we're here and we all know each other. Anyway, Kyle's assigned to Ichabod now anyway, and Ana's been my second pretty much since we were assigned here. Good choice for a future team leader, by the way; she knows the countryside for miles, the locals, and Ichabod's patrol teams. If you want, I'll take Gary off your hands, too, until Leah gets back at least."

Alicia sits back, looking impressed. "I like it. Even more with that Gary part: you know he hates kids? Ask him about it."

"Don't," Dean tells him, shaking his head at Kamal's confused expression. "Really."

"It's an excellent idea," Cas says approvingly. "Amanda?"

"What?" She straightens, looking startled, like maybe she forgot Ichabod is her command. "Yeah, that's fine," she answers, eyeing Kamal suspiciously. "What do we owe you and don't pretend it's not something."

"I'll think about it," Kamal offers, then belatedly glances at Dean. "Uh, you okay with--"

"Cas does personnel, Amanda answers for Ichabod," Dean says sourly. "I just, you know--whatever I do. What do I do? Anyone know?"

Ignoring him (not a surprise), Cas nods, making some notes. "Vera, get the list from Amanda of all our recruits and you both create a rough draft of shift schedule for everyone after the meeting is over. I'll provide you with a list of those who aren't patrol who are compatible and can work together."

"We get shift control for the road outposts?" Vera asks in elaborate shock. "Careful, Cas, the power may go to our heads."

"Hey," Dean says hopefully. "I have an idea--"

"I didn't coup Chitaqua," Vera says clearly, eyes narrowing. "And even if I ever wanted to, I sure as hell don't want to do it now. All yours."

Yeah, that's what he thought; leadership whatever, this is bullshit.

"Even so, that's a lot to handle…." Alison frowns. "What about civilian teams from Ichabod--not regular patrol, though I'll make sure they do regularly monthly rotations--and put one with each Chitaqua team, give them some help? And instruction in remedial social skills?"

"I like it, but your call," he says firmly. "Your town, we're just helping out."

"We'll need to clear the remainder of the road as quickly as possible," Cas says as Alison nods at Manuel to add that to their notes. "Chitaqua can't set up the checkpoints until that's done, and once those are established, we'll stop all foot traffic to give you time to retrieve all the people remaining on IH-Ichabod and send the first four vehicles to retrieve people; if we do it quickly enough, there will be very little time for the crowd to become difficult to control. Once they see what we're doing, hopefully they'll understand this is to their benefit and we can implement the entire relay plan."

"Point A to Ground Zero," Teresa agrees, then sighs. "That goddamn hill isn't gonna be fun for anyone on foot."

"Gas," Manuel says succinctly. "I did the math; it takes way too much gas that we could be using to bring more people in. They gotta walk it or we're going to run out fast."

"I know." Teresa frowns for a moment. "One problem averted at least; we never got around to cutting down all that brush around the road--hiding, you know, didn't want anyone to pay attention--so it's gonna take some effort for anyone to wander off the road even in a blizzard without getting stuck in the shrubbery."

"We'll have the walky-talkies," Manuel says, grinning at them. "Walter can start powering up our surplus; God bless lithium-ion batteries. This is Snow Rescue 102: I'll remind everyone to grab their fact sheets to review, but it's not like last winter wasn't saving people from that totally unexpected snow that had been falling for a month."

"You have fact sheets?" Dean asks, wondering why Alicia looks so interested.

"Of course we do," Alison says with a faint grin as she looks over Teresa's shoulder at Manuel's notes. "What about using the horses with those sleds?"

Teresa and Manuel exchange a look, but not mocking, which means these are people who do ride around on horse-drawn sleds in a winter wonderland. "We don't use them much in winter other than the basics for emergencies and ride them between the fields to save gas, give them some exercise," Teresa says. "The last storm hit so fast we haven't had time to do anything but make sure the stables and the barn are warm and our resident equestrians exercised them. First time in harness for months, at night, during a blizzard: oh God no. I can't see how that could go right."

Dean doesn't pretend to know horses. "What's worst case scenario?"

"They bolt and run into everyone on their way to no idea where they're going," she answers grimly. "Difference between a horse-drawn anything accident and a car accident? Horses are like attaching a smart car to another car to pull it, and the car fights you when you try to help while destroying other cars--trust me, it's like a nightmare and all my childhood screaming and crying at me at the same time." She frowns, eyes distant. "But a person on a horse could be a guide or carry double or triple, maybe; we have several trackers with perfect direction sense, so assuming they can ride and control their horse, the blizzard could drop visibility to zero and still they'd get everyone home fine. Even if the horses don't work out, they can do it. We tell them to hit the patrol line at Third Street, they will literally show up right there, no drifting toward Sixth."

"I need Claudia, Tony, Walter--no, they're at the plant, so Denny and Njoya--Rohan, Neer, Sreenivasa, Dina, and Tyrone," Alison recites and looks at Teresa, who thinks before nodding agreement. Getting to her feet, Alison sighs. "Might as well call Lanak in as well, she knows the inventory and supply lists and where everything on them is. Sooner we start, the sooner we maybe can get this working."

"Any chance you could talk to them really really fast or have someone else do it?" Alicia asks, looking at a startled Alison hopefully "Yeah, it's been two and a half hours--my bad, I misjudged, but just got this assignment this morning, slowed me down a little. Also, Teresa, if you could stick around, that'd be a big help."

"For what?" Dean asks.

"My report on the incident in the mess," she explains like it should be obvious. "And--depending on the next hour or so if we're not interrupted--part of what's going on with all the people coming here."

"Thirty minutes," Alison says without hesitation. "Manuel, let me brief you on the way to Admin."

"Do I need to ask permission to go do something?" Alicia asks Dean in the electrified silence. "With Amanda, I mean. I really need everyone here before I start anyway, and we need to double check something, if that's okay?"

"Yeah," he says belatedly when he notices both of them are waiting. After they leave, he turns to look at Vera--sketching absently on a piece of paper like maybe she's avoiding looking at him--and Joe--really into whatever the fuck he's doing--while Kamal (not having paper or a pencil of his own) searches the table intently and randomly moves papers like it's the most important thing in the world. "Leader. In case anyone knows what that is. Anyone?"

Cas, caught in the act of starting to reach for the lid of the laptop, gives him a curious look.

"Nothing," he sighs, getting up and grabbing Cas's empty cup as he stalks to the coffee pot, which just isn't far enough away for anyone to notice he's stalking. "Anyone want coffee?"

"Yeah," Vera says, reaching for her mug, and Joe silently holds up his cup while Kamal looks hopeful. "Two cream and one sugar, thanks"


When everyone returns (in thirty-five minutes, not that he is the kind to notice punctuality or anything), Dean takes in everyone's expression: Cas, intrigued, Kamal and Joe curious, Alison and Teresa worried, but Vera--knows perfectly goddamn well what's going on.

Amanda returns to the table while Alicia pauses to lock the door before turning to face them. "I finished my report of yesterday's events, but I feel text will not fully convey--well, anything, and fine, I didn't finish writing it up, okay? I have my notes on my alpha drive, though."

Taking her seat, she settles herself to look at them all, and he doesn't think he's imagining the way her mouth twitches, or the way Joe's twitches in return.

"Things we do not admit but know as true," she starts, demurely folding her hands on the table like a kid at church. "You send Joe when you want to negotiate, you send Vera when you want to steal, you send Sarah when you want to lie, you send Mel when you want to control a situation, you send Amanda when you want something very dead, and you send me when you're not sure or you don't know what's going on, so I find out."

"We do?" Dean asks.

"We do," she says firmly. "Oh, we recently added, 'you send James if you need something because he can get it', forgot that part, sorry. As I was saying, you send me to find out. For, believe it or not, I am almost always right and that 'almost' is just modesty talking. I called myself Judgement Day sometimes, but then I became a team leader and Team of Justice just--I need something better is what I'm saying."

Dean blinks at her. "Seriously?"

"Has to be experienced," Joe says smugly. "More than one way she helped me out when Erica's team was my border escort."

"My instructions before Amanda sent me to talk to Dean yesterday was to afterward report to the mess and find out what happened before our fearless leader set it on fire or something, then help out Naresh. We'll start there: there was nothing and I do mean nothing right about what happened, and I speak not in morals, ethics, or a just universe, but in the worst of all possible worlds it could not have happened like that. I don't mean your report was outright lies, Cas," she adds, giving him a bewildered look. "Not a single untruthful word, me and Amanda got five people to verify this, and yet…."

"Tell me about it," Dean mutters, ignoring Cas's sharp look.

"Including kitchen staff, there were one hundred and thirty people in the mess when this went down, eleven in the kitchen," Alicia says. "The incident in question began fifteen minutes after Cas arrived and for convenience, ended when he left. When Naresh got to the mess five minutes later, Haruhi had already secured the kitchen and had the very bewildered mess under control."

Dean starts to argue but Cas just nods, expression carefully neutral. "So I was the cause."

"You'd think that," she agrees, cocking her head with a startlingly penetrative look at Cas. "And you'd be wrong, so many kinds I can't even count the number. You were catalyst, not cause, but the problem is, I don't have cause--see what I mean how this couldn't have happened like this? No? You will, and now we are gonna get so interesting you will cry from lack of boredom in your life: I interviewed our five crazy-murder-death people again early this morning in the infirmary." She makes a face. "Not morning people, gonna say. Very cranky and not a little hostile."

Dean cocks his head: leader has to mean something here, right? "Who gave you authorization again? It wasn't me."

"I am Judgement Day and--Amanda, fine," she says, scowling at him. "I checked with her last night, and she said she'd ask forgiveness rather than go within ten feet of your door, come on, Dean. We really, really, really wanted you to relax yesterday; if it was Lucifer himself, he'd have to wait, we could not let you leave that room without at least two orgasms, hopefully three, and Cas…." She trails off, looking at him sympathetically. "Seriously, you had such a shitty day. Glad Dean made you feel better. You look better, much more relaxed, am I right?"

Alison starts to giggle while Teresa and Kamal fight for crappy neutral expressions, but far more tellingly, Joe and Vera both nod like yeah, that's totally reasonable. Worse, he can't think of any grounds for disagreement.

"Excellent judgment on Amanda's part," Cas agrees so Dean doesn't have to admit it. "I do feel better, thank you. What did you find out?"

"The Murder Quintuplets were very interesting. Depending on personality: utterly horrified but definitely justified in their actions yet also bewildered; aggressively sure it was perfectly justified--reasons not entirely clear to them, but they were committed due to having already committed the doing--as well as bewildered; not sure it was perfectly justified but sticking to it with lots and lots of bewildered sprinkles; repeat one; and finally our lone gunman, who I left for last, and glad I did cause didn't like him. He was super pissed you broke his wrist, a little remorseful for the entire pulling a gun and shooting at you thing but believed you should have been nicer when he attacked you without provocation and this would have all been avoided--can't make this up, it was surreal--and also--say it with me--"

"Bewildered," Cas says, sitting back with a strange expression.

"Judgment Day says, they might have been lying, but no, they weren't. I woke them up before dawn still riding the painkillers to Happyville, and this was just a brief, somewhat miserable stop and they wanted back on so much," Alicia says. "The only certainty in the infected zone is death and lack of tan lines for we have no sun like ever, so everything from here on out could be wrong, but not gonna lie, I'm right. Catalyst, not cause, and before you try again, Cas, I'm going to tell you why: Haruhi." She folds her hands neatly in front of her. "Haruhi was in the mess. Specifically, she wasn't in the kitchen during the event in question, only the very first part. After coming out of the kitchen and locking the door, she was subject to a very dramatic freezing in place that she very reluctantly and with great embarrassment described as 'panic'."

Cas's expression closes so fast Dean feels the wind of its passage. "She was upset by what she saw, I assume."

Dean watches Alicia's face carefully, but she uses it like a weapon of mass confusion. "Naresh questioned her last night, but this morning, I questioned her again with the other five. Short version, I had her moved to one of the isolation rooms on the third floor of the infirmary under guard, along with our five crazy people, under suspicion for attempted murder--"

"What?" Cas interrupts, stiffening. "Why? She had nothing to do with it!"

"Getting there," Alicia says, no humor in her voice now. "Haruhi doesn't know this yet, but it's for her--for all of them, though let's be honest, she's the only one we know well enough to care about and I give no fucks for the guy who shot at my leader. Much like our murder men, when I questioned Haruhi again this morning, she was utterly bewildered but here's the kicker--"

"She thought it was justified," Dean says and earns an approving nod from Alicia. "When you say 'justified' you mean, she didn't think it was weird, that she froze?"

"That would be it," Alicia says. "Haruhi heard shots fired, put the kitchen in lockdown--she knows procedure when people with guns go crazy in large groups--and ran out into the mess to deal with the disturbance, and only then freezes--"

"When she saw--" Cas starts.

"If you say 'saw you getting super cranky' one more time, I'm gonna punch you," Alicia interrupts sincerely. "Cas, I get you want this to be you so much, but no, you are not, in fact, capable of turning normal--normalish but very much dicks--people into murder-death-kill machines just by your presence, and also make someone who tackled a werewolf--Naresh told me about it last night, have you heard that story?--suddenly freeze while performing her duties against civilians." She cocks her head, blue eyes dancing. "Or someone, according to the interview, who was just having a really adorable chat about coffee and boyfriends over the buffet table with you."

Dean looks at Cas, who stares at the table with a faint frown. Adorable?

"Catalyst," Alicia states, "but not cause. Also, Alison, if you're wondering why I'm kidnapping your residents, Naresh left orders with Rohan to follow my recommendation without asking why; like I said, he felt something was wrong, too, and told me I could do what I wanted before Suma caught him still awake. We're tight."

"Why didn't Naresh tell me?" Alison asks mildly.

"Same reason Dean was kept distracted and Rohan wasn't given any more instruction than 'what she said'," Alicia answers. "This was very need to know for reasons that will be clear pretty soon now: Amanda knows all of it, Naresh will get the rest when Suma lets him out of bed, and Vera and Dolores found out this morning when we put them back in full isolation. What you do with this information is up to you, but my recommendation is that it doesn't leave this room, excluding those Vera and Dolores judge need to know for mysterious medical reasons."

Dean licks his lips. "This isn't about Croat."

"A coercive," Teresa says slowly, sitting back in her chair. "You think they were under the influence of a coercive?"

"Compulsion, obsession, idee fixe, geas, intrusive thoughts, binding, more words for things that make you think, feel, or do things without your consent inflicted by an unknown third party either by accident or on purpose," Alicia confirms. "Kidding: definitely on purpose."

"But Haruhi didn't attack Cas," Dean argues.

"They call it fight or flight, but it's really fight, flight, or freeze," she answers. "Basically, adrenaline hitting the brain like the fist of a really cranky God and it's all who knows, especially if you aren't expecting it and don't know what to do with it. Look," she says, peering earnestly around the table, "even leaving Haruhi out of the equation, probability itself hates this scenario. Out of one hundred and nineteen people in that room, five people, all civilians--sure, three were carrying, but this is the infected zone and also America, or so they tell us--four with families and exhausted from a hell of a walk, two of them related and therefore the only ones from the same part of the state, all see Cas and have not just the five percent reaction, which I could almost buy, but all five also take the brand new and never before seen homicide approach? Cas, describe what happened with our first candidate for a Darwin award's again in your own words; I'll wait."

"He knocked into me at the buffet table, became--upset, and then tried to punch me," Cas says evenly, but the wooden set of his shoulders has Dean fighting the urge to reach under the table and touch him, be reassuring, something. "I stopped him, turned away, and he drew his gun and attempted to shoot me. Then the others…." He trails off, looking startled. "They were on the other side of the room."

"Boom," Alicia states, grinning at everyone's mystified expressions. "For those who have no idea what we're talking about--I like people like that--crappy reactions to Cas tend to require proximity and focused attention or something, but it's not something he wafts around a room."

"Wafts," Dean echoes.

"Wafts," she says firmly. "Anyway, Cas is an expert at avoiding notice even in a crowd; Darwin's Proof had to knock into him to notice him, and our other four weren’t physically close enough and from their own words had no idea what was going on at the buffet table--until they heard that shot. My theory: the gunshot focused them on Cas, who got their attention, they freaked above and beyond what anyone's ever has before, and boom, we got our runners up for the Darwin award. And the fact that first guy even took a shot in the first place…." She shakes her head.

"I have to admit," Amanda says reluctantly, "I wouldn't have called 'tried to shoot Cas' as first reaction for anyone, ever."

"I've been on sixteen missions with Cas, both with and without a team, and never, not even with those army guys, did anyone go after him on spec," Alicia says. "So to reiterate: not just worst possible reaction, but worst reaction any of us have ever seen from five separate people, four of them only seconds after the first one, and while I can't speak for anyone else at this table, I'd like to see you stop me when I say this doesn't happen. Unless I’m wrong, which I'm not. Throw Haruhi freezing into the mix--like I said, this combination couldn't have happened in the worst of all worlds, not without something else to help it along."

"But no proof," Dean points out.

"A coercive is forced behavior," Teresa says, an edge of frustration in her voice. "Behavior is the proof. If someone knew they were being coerced--or it was obvious to others--it wouldn't be nearly as effective. Only way to even know it exists is observation when they're triggered and hope whoever set it prioritized doing the thing over subtlety, or the discipline for non-compliance is unusual or noticeable."

Dean just stops himself from rubbing the palm of his hand against his knee. "So how do you get rid of it?"

"Other than let them do what it wants them to--assuming it has an end point in the design--we have to identify it first," she says, and Dean notices Alison is carefully staring at the table. "That's an adventure in itself. There are hundreds of types of coercives, and the variations on those are endless."

"Which is why Haruhi's being treated as a prisoner, just like the other five," Alicia explains. "We're adopting the 'why take the risk' principle; all we know for sure is it exists and maybe the event that triggered it, but not that it's the only event that matches the trigger conditions, or even if there's more than one trigger. So assume anything could trigger it, and that includes any of our six potential victims being told they're being coerced. Not to mention if there's a discipline for non-compliance or what that is, because fun for evil people involves being super creepy, I guess."

Dean debates only for a second, but he's gotta be sure. "You don't think it was aimed at Cas?"

"No," Alicia says positively. "That would have been a lot easier to figure out if it was, trust me, but no. Too many moving parts: they arrived at different times, are from different parts of the state, and one was here at the party and only in the mess because he's having a torrid affair with one of the kitchen staff who brought him with him, no names but apparently they're living in a romantic disaster novel, very dramatic with lots of sex, I want their pre-mess lives. Anyone who wanted Cas dead enough to go to the trouble of setting up a coercion to get it done wouldn't have done it using five civilians. An army, maybe, but those five? Didn't even give Cas a workout. That fight took forty-five seconds to a minute start to finish and that includes the time Cas used to display how one makes a gun into a stress ball for the edification of all."

"Forty-five seconds?" Cas echoes, startled. "It was longer than that."

"Oven timer in the kitchen says differently," Alicia says, but Dean notices she's watching Cas carefully and thinks he's starting to get what Joe was saying about having to experience it. "Bread had two minutes left--Dara swears this is so and bread is not something you mess with--shot was fired when Dara put on her second oven glove five to ten seconds later, Haruhi ordered the kitchen into lockdown and left, locking the door behind her, terrifying silence, timer went off and scared the fuck out of the kitchen staff immediately before they heard Haruhi shout for everyone to remain calm, which is right after you left the mess. A minute, maybe, Haruhi said it took her a few seconds to calm down, but she's a trooper. Time flies when you're teaching people the error of their ways, am I right?"

"No," Cas says flatly. "It was longer. I know, Alicia, and in this, I can't be wrong. I may not consciously notice the passage of time, but I don't lose it entirely. From the time the shot was fired until I left the mess it was…." He stops short, and Dean sees his face go blank.

Alicia cocks her head. "Cas?"

"I'm not sure," he prevaricates, expression settled into defensive stubbornness not to be trifled with or else. "However, the point stands. It was--"

"Longer, yeah, and I believe you because it's you, but also because that explains something. For despite the oven timer and being able to nail this entire event at under two minutes, every witness in the mess itself without exception thought it was longer, too."

"How much longer?" Dean asks when Cas doesn't. "Minutes, hours.…"

"Keeping in mind all these people just came from terror in the mess to terror in isolation due to suspected Croat and therefore not rational--and can't blame them--they were startlingly consistent in describing it in versions that can be summarized as 'felt like forever'." Alicia sets her chin on her hand, watching Cas. "Their reaction to being told the actual timeline was much like Cas's, as in, no, we were so very wrong let us tell you how much and at length, which from my side did indeed feel like forever. Naresh noted that very interesting tidbit in the spirit of the one single part of this where consensus was reached on the event in question and therefore super weird, since that doesn't happen with three people describing the same thing much less one hundred and nineteen. And in case this wasn't obvious; only the people in the mess itself, including Haruhi, seemed curiously unable to tell even semi-accurate time."

Cas nods shortly, and Dean decides maybe this subject should be explored later. "So the five and Haruhi are in isolation now?"

"Which is why I called Vera and Dolores in this morning." She looks at Vera attentively. "You're up, for I know not the ways of the medical people; enlighten us with your wisdom."

Vera sighs, rolling her eyes. "We're using standard procedure for suspected Croat, but with additional restrictions: no physical contact, no direct communication including vocal, and minimal interaction and I do mean minimal. They're all under observation twenty-four seven, and their observers are required to record any and all behavior even if it's just staring at the wall." She looks at Teresa. "Dolores said you instructed her in procedure, though she said it was usually for non-demonic possession and dreamwalkers."

"It's standard on the border," Teresa answers, nodding. "Who did the warding for each room and the observation rooms?"

"Dolores used the one you taught her," Vera says. "But she--and I--would like you to check it for us, see if we missed anything that might be more specific to this."

Dean looks between them. "Okay, I give up; why are you and Dolores handling it?"

"Because this is also a medical case," Vera answers. "We set up isolation and have all of them hooked up to monitors to watch heartrate and blood pressure, and fuck I would give something for an EEG to watch brain activity, but for now, observers are going to be my diagnostic machines. According to what I know about coercives--which is pretty much entirely what Cas taught us in training--if it's a compulsion, with zero contact and no way to carry it out, the discipline for non-compliance will usually kick in within twenty-four hours or less."

"If they're triggered but can't comply or whatever…then what?"

"Self-mutilation is more common," Teresa answers, and Dean just stops himself from flinching, hand clenching into a fist against his knee to stop the urge to rub. "Creative, but generally not harming themselves in a way that could limit their ability to comply. That much, we can deal with medically." She nods to Alicia. "I'd like to see your notes, Alicia."

"I made a copy on my epsilon drive for you," she confirms, patting the pocket of her flannel.

"You all were busy this morning," Dean observes and bites his tongue; thankfully, no one comments, but he judges them for what it's clear they're thinking. "Okay, so--anything else?"

"The people coming here," Alicia answers politely, like she's trying not to say out loud that she's wondering if Dean's suffering from some specific very recent dementia. Before his eyes, her messy ponytail loses another strand of hair to curl against her cheek, and wrinkling her nose, she blinks at it cross-eyed before shoving it back behind her ear.

A soldier. Who finds out things.

In sheer incredulity, his gaze drops to her hands and sees the network of scars peeking out from the cuff of the too-big flannel and remembers how she casually she flipped that knife. More than one reason Alicia helped Joe at the border: he wonders if they're all at a place where he can ask exactly how Alicia got around Erica and the rest of her team to get Joe the time he needed unobserved with the border personnel to get that unauthorized information. Alicia was also, he remembers, Cas's way-too-early-in-the morning coffee-and-camp-gossip buddy.

You send Joe to negotiate, but Alicia is the one you send to find out.

"Blackmail," he says, testing the idea, and Alicia focuses on him with wide, innocent eyes. "You're the one who figured out who to blackmail at the border and with what?"

"The first rule of fight club," Alicia answers solemnly, "is one does not talk about fight club. You'd think people would realize that's a really useful life lesson when taken as a metaphor, and yet."

Dean looks at Joe (smug) then back at Alicia, who smiles winningly. "How--"

"The border's pretty whatever," Joe says. "Let's just say it; the law is what you can get away with, not like anyone in the infected zone has any way to complain on the off-chance someone cared. So when it's something one of them wants to hide, it shows. At least, Alicia can tell."

"I was bored, Erica was all 'we must be on guard at all times' and staring at people only goes so far for a week straight, so I made my own fun: pattern recognition from observed behavior combined with whatever Joe could get off their own computers for me to read," she says proudly. "Turns out I'm okay at that kind of thing, who knew? Also useful for successful ambush strategy," Joe winces, good, "and tactical exercises. And filtering gossip for Cas over coffee and Chitaqua toast, of course."

Soon, he's gonna sit down his soldiers and find out everything they've been hiding the last two years, especially the stuff they forgot they don't need to hide anymore. "Okay, let's hear what you got."

"This was purely accidental," she starts, flashing him a grin. "Who knows where an investigation will take you? Well, it does get you a lot of witness reports, and witnesses, as we all know, have a flexible interpretation of staying on topic. I was taking notes anyway, so figured might as well see what I could figure out about the Great Kansas Migration of '14 and '15." Belatedly, Dean realizes from the direction of her gaze that she's looking at the maps on the wall. "This is a plan."

"That much we guessed," Alison says with barely controlled impatience. "What kind of plan is what I'm wondering about."

"Patience, grasshopper, and you shall know all," Alicia answers grandly. "The problem here is, I for one expect something as dramatic as this to be working as intended, and so we wonder what the end game is when step one is 'overrunning a town with people', am I right?" She nods and carries the table with her on sheer charisma. "Right. It's so incredibly weird, it wouldn't occur to us that step one actually is the end game."

Alison's eyebrows draw together in sharp disbelief. "The plan was to overrun Ichabod with people?"

"Goal, actually. See, this was either a very bad plan that had some accidental working parts or an almost decent plan that went terribly wrong, but it was not and never was a good plan," Alicia explains. "Which can indeed be summarized as 'Goal: get everyone to Ichabod'. And gotta give them credit, it worked. Sort of."

"What?"

"You're probably wondering why," Alicia continues blithely. "I was wondering, too, and then it occurred to me; we are way too cynical as people and that, my friends, is sad. We should trust our fellow man, is what I'm saying, and instead of judging, we just listen. To their explanations of 'motive to cross the state of Kansas to walk in the snow to Ichabod'. Sure, so much lying and weirdness but there's got to be a truth in there somewhere, am I right? So we picked the ones that sound--well, sane. The military coming back, for example." Alicia looks around the table. "Big mistake. Huge. Let's not do that."

This time, Dean's the one who asks, "What?"

"We are going to be the most credulous people in the world and assume all of them are speaking God's own truth--don't say it, Cas, I can't do relative truth today, it's not gonna work." Cas frowns but manages to restrain his need to tell them all about relative truth because he does shit like that for fun. "I mean from giant spiders to the Democratic party taking everyone's guns--seriously, has no one read the reports? They're awesome--all true, they really genuinely worried about this very unlikely and sometimes flat-out impossible thing--at least, I hope impossible, no one correct me about the spiders thing. What do these people have in common in every story no matter how crazy?"

"They're…." Alison stares at Alicia's expectant expression like a deer trapped in the most cheerful headlights ever. "They're coming here?"

"Boom," Alicia says. "Have I blown your mind with this very obvious fact? Deep breath now, going for two in a row; now we're going to take all the stories and assume they are all lying, hallucinating, whatever--all of the stories, especially the cockroach army, which thank God because that shit happens all you'll see of me is my piss-stained ass running in any direction not them--all lies, wrong, mistaken, cannot be true. We'll call all those things 'x', still a huge field but possibly less desire to evacuate my bowels while screaming, and we insert x into all the stories as 'object', and now they have one other thing in common. Wait for it…"

"They are running away from x," Vera says wryly. "And to Ichabod."

"Logic is our bff. From the sheer desperation, I'd say guilt was a factor here in whoever came up with this plan in the first place; ie something they did, did not do, or knew about was going to cause a lot of death and they wanted to prevent it. The deaths, I mean. Solution: send everyone somewhere safe." She searches everyone's faces. "That's consistent, too, from everyone who's arrived so far once we got past the 'totally the party' thing. They came here to get their families and friends somewhere safe. X exists."

"Just because they believe that--" Dean starts.

"We have upwards of twenty thousand reasons to believe it," Alicia answers. "And no reason whatsoever to think otherwise. They may be lying or wrong about the exact 'thing that will kill them' but not about there being something. This wasn't just to get them here, but--"

"Keep them here," Dean says, straightening and remembering just in time the two-inch rule regarding knees; this is so not the time. "It was a trap, but the other kind."

"And not something trying to gather everyone up to kill them?" Alison asks skeptically. "Why not?"

"Parking," he says, and Alicia nods. "Only a human would set out a strategic master plan for getting people across the state away from home with logistics that include a plus thirty-mile traffic jam that was at least partially deliberate, including--on a guess--the parking lot disasters, which were definitely deliberate."

"The plan included saving all the people; kind of pointless if all those already conveniently in our safe place of Ichabod start leaving after the party. Step some number but we'll say three because I like three: we need the people who are already here to stay here and not be suspicious making that happen until it's too late. Answer: Parking Lot Hell with our first group of panicked arrivals, am I right?"

"You got it," he says distractedly. "I saw it that night, but with everything else--yeah, that explains it."

"Not a good plan, no, but fantastic example of working with what you've got," Alicia says admiringly. "Except for the part where it didn't have to be terrible, or more accurately, less terrible because again, not a good plan. They put effort into this: twenty versions of the map with the routes neatly outlined and then copied by the thousands. That took time, time they could have used to concurrently realize implementing this already bad plan in less than three days would do nothing to improve it." Crossing her arms, Alicia eyes the maps again. "I'm going to guess they didn't get the significance of color here. Not like they had a lot of time to look at it, just copy it--Alison, Admin have a color Xerox machine or just black and white? I'm going to say it doesn't."

Alison opens and closes her mouth. "No, why? Wait, it was done here?"

"Our person of interest stole Amanda's map," Alicia explains, smiling at Amanda brightly. "Me, if I was stupid enough to do that, I'd want it out of my hot little hands as fast as possible so as not to die. Anyway, they knew the Xerox machine worked here--you use it to make copies of fact sheets, after all--and it was right down the street, so why go anywhere else? Sprint their ass to Admin, Xerox the shit out of the original--high contrast likely or they would have been unreadable when we got to the copy of a copy of a copy stage--sprint the map back to Amanda's trunk and remember what it's like to breathe normally." She cocks her head. "Machines keep a history, I think, and unless our intrepid person thought to erase that--which I don't know how, so I doubt they did, or thought to take the time--it should show up there. Something, anyway, no idea, Xerox is wizardry or something."

"Who has access to Admin?" Dean asks Alison.

"Everyone," Alison answers, annoyed. "Up until now, anyway. Only thing we keep restricted is supply and inventory, and fear of Lanak tends to make that unnecessary. Even if we had wanted to restrict it before, I don't see how."

"The daycare's right there," Dean agrees, slumping in his chair. "That doesn't narrow it down much."

"The people here who worked with those demons are my choice," Alicia says, startling them all with what is probably--to her--an obvious fact. "No reason to assume another creepy group was creeping Ichabod at the same time for different nefarious purposes that include stealing maps when we got one group conveniently creeping already and were semi-residents as well. Logic."

Alison frowns. "But they're dead."

"They are," Alicia agrees. "Which may explain how this became a terrible plan instead of an almost-decent one, I'll come back to that. Anyway, we have two demons who got away, human tools are disposable, and not like it's hard to find more in the infected zone, which is my next point. Whether or not this is directly related to the first attack--and while I can't see how it is yet, Occam's razor applies, so they're related--we definitely have demon involvement here." She looks around the bewildered faces. "By the way, I guess no one's noticed Cas's art class project has a lot of overlap with our twenty maps there? Probably the colors distracted everyone; me, I like color. Makes things a lot clearer."

"What?" Cas says in surprise, but Dean almost hears something click over that's been in the back of his mind since he first saw it. Getting to his feet, he crosses the room to the table map leaning against the wall and crouches to follow all those colored roads.

"Joe," he says, "help me get this up on a table by those other maps."

"I'll help," Manuel says as everyone gets up, Amanda clearing the table before she and Vera push it against the wall.

As soon as he, Joe, and Manuel get it in place on the table and at eye level with the twenty maps, Dean takes a step back to take it in; the blotches of color as they trail from point to point before joining other colors, the occasional barely-visible dot that represents a town, the anonymous brown lines that represent the presence of roads, all drawn from memory, but unlike every other map Cas has made, this one doesn't tell them road quality, town location, patrol zones, population; one thing only, but it's a doozy.

"Migration patterns," he says out loud, just to make sure he's getting the obvious here, and takes the lack of dissent as yes. Glancing at the closest of the twenty maps, he checks Cas's map and sees every goddamn route. "Color indicates origin north, south, east, west, and where they join up. Cas?"

"Yes," he says after a moment. "I was reading the reports, and I--I've found writing things down sometimes helps me find clarity. In this case, I wondered if a visual representation might--do that."

"You were right." Dean focuses on the one thing that he couldn't quite get: those grey lines. Pale silver at all start points--and always on or near those splotches of color and bracketing each road those colors follow. As the colors deepen with each convergence of the roads--or join other colors as more people join each other on the roads or maybe pick up hitchhikers, explains why Cas started out with primaries and white to get oranges, greens, and purples in varying shades and depth--the grey darkens with them. The four roads into IH-Ichabod are surrounded in dark grey, but IH-Ichabod isn't just dark grey, but layers of it, almost tearing the paper in violent strokes. And Ichabod itself is the only town that gets more than a dot--it also gets a dark grey link to a jagged black circle that surrounds the whole.

"Alicia," he says over his shoulder. "You see what I see?"

"I do," she says, coming up beside him. "Cas, you said you pulled this from the reports?"

"Yes--at least, those who talked to patrol about how they got here, and what our patrol reported to me," Cas answers. "It wasn't much."

"It was at least one example of each of the map routes and from this, I see maybe five we missed," Alicia answers, and Dean looks at her, seeing the blue eyes narrow. "Make that possibly seven--we only have two confirmed routes from the south on the wall, which isn't very well represented in refugees so far. I wonder if they ran out of time getting this around the state?"

"Is anyone going to fill us in?" Teresa asks, joining Alison, who's standing a few feet away and staring at Cas's map with a blank expression.

Dean steps closer to trace a thin brown line going south, bare of ornamentation, wondering about the wide areas that don't have any color at all; places that didn't get the memo, maybe? "The colored roads are the exact routes on those Xeroxes, making sure everyone took these specific roads and joined at these specific points."

"I see it," Teresa says, waving toward the north and goddamn Waterville. "Starting north?"

"I think east," Alicia says cryptically. "They had the longest to go, and if you ask why our person sent the east all the way west? Not sure since we don't have a detailed explanation and the probable original planners are dead, but on a guess, to avoid them arriving too early, too late, and/or going through any other town and maybe stopping to ask about the thing before our person had been there to tell them about the thing themselves. Or be killed for being strangers, as is the way of some towns, not naming names or anything. For as you may notice, these routes may start at a town, but don't go through one once you start. At least, not one with an existing population. Cas?"

"She's correct," Cas confirms. "At least, as of our check of Kansas four months ago, which our map showed as well."

"This is what I meant about this being possibly an almost decent plan that went so very wrong," Alicia says thoughtfully, nodding to herself. "First mistake: timing. Implementation dates, I mean. That's the only explanation."

Dean tries to see what Alicia's seeing and just doesn't. "Anytime you're ready to tell us….?"

"I mean, from the look of this, the routes--weird as they are--weren't a terrible way to space out arrival," she says, tipping her head sideways before pointing at the start points. "You're thinking of shortest line between two points, getting them here fast; that wasn't the original goal."

"But you said--" Dean starts.

"Get them here was the goal," she says, eyes never leaving the map. "But in a not-terrible-plan timeframe, just an almost but not quite decent one. First rule--don't put them all on the same roads on the same routes at the same time, both to avoid traffic--which we all see failed but only once they got to the bottlenecks near Ichabod and started stacking up--and possibly 'avoid everyone noticing everyone else fleeing' and setting off real panic. Or hide it from Chitaqua's patrol," she adds thoughtfully. "These do avoid our patrol routes as much as possible.

"I'm guessing--and this is a guess, but it's what I would have done with this if I made bad plans that I wanted to work somehow--that the original plan potentially had our first arrivals showing up four or five days before the party and steadily continue in large but less traffic-intense groups," Alicia continues. "Sure, way too many people in one space, but to give them credit, there was no way around that part, since getting them here was the goal; at least they were mitigating it by spacing it out a little more and the roads into Ichabod wouldn't be Tokyo on a bad day. Instead, the earliest person to be told about this who's arrived in Ichabod got the news three days before the party. I'd say this plan was put into action at most five days ago to account for people not doing what they were told immediately or packing, whatever. And they did pack," she points out. "Saw it myself, trunks were full."

"Three to five days? How the hell would they be able to get all over the state--" Dean shuts his mouth. "One of those demons recruited someone else--a lot of someone elses--to finish the job? Since the people who were planning--probably planning this were dead?"

"This is the infected zone; someone's always interested in making a deal," Alicia answers. "Which is why not a good plan, but it may have been almost decent if it was implemented by the people who came up with it and in time. Instead, we got someone--maybe our mysterious trader and others--starting it very late and had to get all the way around the state in three to five days while handing out these maps. It can't be done by a person in a jeep or even a few dozen, Dean, this is just reality. The trader in question talked to people, handing out maps and talking earnestly about their personal relationship with their lives and how they can be saved. How evangelical of them: I wonder if they got a couple of Jehovah Witnesses to help? They're really good at being earnest."

"And you still think this is to save people?" Alison demands. "If demons are involved--"

"To save their families, those people made a deal," Alicia interrupts with an edge in her voice, and Dean just barely stops himself from reacting. "All the infiltrators had kids of the right age to match the ones in the church, that part makes sense; those are the ones the demons made a deal with--"

"It makes sense?" Flushing, Alison turns on Alicia. "Those fuckers sold out this entire town and were gathering up our kids to watch them be killed in front of them! They brought their kids here, what kind of people--"

"It was for their kids!" Alicia snaps back; the flash of anger comes out of nowhere, like lightning from a clear sky. "They knew at least some of them were going to die doing this--this was contract, what the fuck do you think they were getting out of this if they were going to be too dead to enjoy earthly delights?" Hands clenched, she never looks away from Alison. "Those people were going to knowingly infiltrate a town, live with the residents, use their own kids to help them identify the kids from the church, and actively help those demons kill those kids and die themselves in the act; it's a very small percentage of people that could do that and not care, and I seriously fucking doubt this group just happened to break the odds. This was shitty, it was unthinkable, but if they were gonna do it, they sure as fuck made sure what they were getting was worth it!"

Alicia pauses, taking a deep breath. "Some people sell their souls for success, for revenge, for power, name it and someone's been stupid enough to want it enough to sell themselves to get it," she says with fragile calm, and distantly, Dean feels Cas's arm against his, fingers brushing over the back of his hand. "But top of the list will always be love. They didn't make contract for themselves; it was for their kids. They're all still in Ichabod right now--why? Their parents could have asked pretty much anything from a demon-shaped genie--and don't kid yourself here, this wasn't their only option--but here those kids stayed when their parents died. That was the contract: what they did in exchange for what they wanted for their kids, and they wanted what all parents want: safety. Ichabod--the town they betrayed, who would have less than no reason to look kindly upon their children after their parents murdered the kids from the church--was still their best possible choice, and there's gotta be a reason for that. It's a nice town and you take in orphans, you're great, don't get me wrong, but come on; no one sane would have assumed your altruism would stand up against straight-up premeditated murder with their kids' lives on the line unless this was their best possible option."

Alison doesn't answer, mouth tight, but Dean thinks she's getting it. "Best possible option."

"Best in this world," Alicia says more quietly. "Whatever is bringing everyone here, it's the same thing those people were afraid of, enough to…." She stops again, licking her lips. "They were still people, and people do shitty things for what they think are the best possible reasons. That doesn't mean they didn't feel it and try to do something--anything--to justify it. So they wanted to make sure other people--and their kids, to make up for the fifteen they were gonna kill--had the chance to survive. Give everyone what they sold their souls to give their own kids " She points at the map. "This is the proof."

"Guilt," Alison says heavily. "Jesus Christ."

"So let me get this straight," Dean starts. "The infiltrators planned this, and with all of them dead--which probably wasn't part of the plan, some were supposed to survive--the demons had to make another deal to finish it." Alicia nods earnestly. "Since those people--maybe--put saving the entire state in the contract?"

"That very last part I'm still working on," Alicia admits with a scowl, having apparently forgotten all about that burst of anger. "This plan was human-approved; all they needed demonic assistance for was getting around the state and maybe help be convincing with special demon powers--can they do that?--but if the plan to get people here was demon approved, you'd think there'd be--I don't know, fine, but parking and traffic wouldn't need to be features, let's put it that way. Demons are evil genies; you'd think they'd use that if it was contract for more than supernatural chauffeur."

Dean starts to agree when he stops short, meeting Cas's eyes and seeing it hit him at the same time: contracts, deals, how those happen, maybe at a Crossroad, fuck. "That's how they've been getting across the border with the barrier up."

Teresa frowns. "Yeah, I'm still wondering about that. If the border turns Croats into ashes, how the hell are demons--" She stiffens, turning to Dean, and he wonders if it makes him feel better she didn't figure it out either. "Fuck."

"Glad to know we all missed this one," Dean says in disgust. "We saw the fucking Croats start on fire at the border, yeah, but a demon wouldn't risk testing that in a meatsuit. Better idea: forget the body, test the barrier holding out against a summoning. That's how Jeffrey knew the barrier was weakening: a Crossroad summoning to make a deal with someone in Kansas finally worked. Same way they got through Ichabod's wards; they can't block a summoning, can they, Teresa?"

Teresa shakes her head grimly. "No, just slow it down. If I'm aware of it, a lot, but if I'm not…dammit. With the number of Croats hitting the ward line, I wouldn't have been able to even tell it was even happening, especially if they timed it to match the Croats. Not bad as a distraction."

"And now we know why there were so many Croats," Dean says grimly. "The barrier became permeable to summoning two months ago, with Jeffrey arriving to tell us all about it. What are the chances it's about to fall, and after a five month hiatus, everything out there that's pissed at being locked out is coming back in and is going to show everyone in this state just how much?"

"That would explain why Dina and Antonio were surprised by the storm's rate of build," Cas says unexpectedly. "To create a barrier of that size and with those properties--as well as maintain it--takes an immense amount of power. If it's collapsing, that only means it doesn't have enough power to maintain itself, not that there's no power left at all, and when it's released, it has to go somewhere."

"Backlash," Teresa says. "You think it's down already?"

"Something that large would take time to collapse," Cas answers. "Which we can all be thankful for, and it's not as if there's anything else so we should take what we can get. Assuming the storm's growth is any indication, it's just started and the backlash will be spread out over days, even as much as a week."

"It making a blizzard from a snowy night is best case scenario?" Alison asks flatly. "What's worst?"

"If whoever designed it was incompetent or if for some reason something caused it to collapse all at once," Cas says. "In which case, best case scenario would be the instantaneous death of everyone in the state."

"You know what," Dean interjects before someone insists on more totally unnecessary information for theoretical trauma purposes, "if it's not happening, I don't care. Moving on."

"What's happening today is definitely related to the attack on Ichabod," Cas continues gloomily. "This would be the latest part--that we know of--of a larger plan, likely with more parts we have yet to discover in case anyone was foolish enough to believe in the existence of optimism, but at least we can now confirm they're all joined by the Crossroads."

Dammit, that's exactly what Dean didn't want to hear.

"So the goal was to save everyone in the state," Alison says in a rigid voice. "Or almost everyone. That meant they had to be here. So my question--why here? What makes Ichabod so special?"

"There are no start points on Cas's map--or the others--within about, what, thirty miles of Ichabod?" Alicia frowns at the map before nodding. "Sure, that's mostly locals and the Alliance, so why bother--and for that matter, risk someone telling Ichabod about the thing too early--but--hey." Going to Cas's map, she draws a line in the air from north to south down the rough center of Kansas, crossing just east of Ichabod, then repeats east-west, and Ichabod's just south of that. "Congratulations, Alison. Ichabod is the only town that passes for dead center of the state. Or, farthest point from any of the borders. Teresa's wards were probably a plus, but in a show of understanding reality, our not-as-stupid-as-I-thought planners did get you can't fit the entire state in Ichabod and gave them a thirty mile buffer. Not that our refugees were told that, though: I wonder why?"

Before Dean can say anything, he feels something like a ripple just as Cas stills, eyebrows jumping. Following his gaze, Dean sees Alison staring at the map, but the hazel eyes are fixed, pupils swallowing the iris into a thin greenish strip; beside her, Teresa has her head tilted, like she's listening to something. A glance around: Vera and Joe look confused, Alicia curious (of course), but Amanda and Kamal are standing very still, expressions intent, like they're trying to hear something very, very far away.

Fighting down alarm--they like Alison and trust her and everything--Dean nudges Cas as another not-ripple slides by him. "Uh, what is Alison…doing right now?"

"Saving time I already don't have enough of already," Alison answers, sounding strained, and he wonders if he's imagining the faint echo in her voice. "Let's start with numbers, Cas. Those routes are statewide; that means, unless I miss my guess, the whole state could be coming here. Total possible: go."

"One half million people, but if the migration pattern is accurate, either some didn't receive the invitation or…."

"Aren't here yet," she finishes. "Cas, do your math trick for me. The only thing I care about is space, as in physically possible to get people into and away from death by exposure; snow is coming at midnight, and that's what we're dealing with first. Reference: Syracuse to Fifth, and I'm thinking right now of Tony's last report on buildings repaired."

"One hundred and twenty thousand, four hundred and ninety-five using ten square feet per person," Cas answers like it's perfectly normal to talk to someone staring at the wall. "Roughly one hundred and eighty-five thousand if reduced to six point five feet per person, and I wouldn't recommend dropping lower than that for very long. Humans are social animals, but you do like your space and will kill others to acquire it."

In the silence that follows (though with weird almost-there ripples that he realizes are actually possibly avoiding him; what, does he smell or something?), Dean decides to just ask. "Cas, who all is she talking to? And why?"

"Everyone she needs for what she's planning to do now," Cas answers, tilting his head with a faint smile that--holy shit, is that pride? "And--" He frowns faintly, and Dean has the very unpleasant realization that Cas can hear her, too, has since the first. "Yes, excellent, they can also hear each other now as well. She's making extraordinary progress."

"Baltimore to Seventh," Teresa says unexpectedly and reaches unerringly for Alison's hand, squeezing it as it tries to clench into a fist. "Nine streets. Cas?"

"Three hundred and ten thousand at six point five feet per person."

"We'll start there," Alison says, eyes narrowing before she nods at some unheard comment and closes her eyes, staggering and almost falling before Vera catches her while Kamal and Amanda shake themselves, looking way less surprised than they should be if this is the first time Alison's been hanging around their minds. "Thanks," she says faintly, reaching up to rub her temple and wincing. "Migraines are for later, this is now."

Dean swallows: one half a million people, Jesus. "Alison--"

"Our Allies need to know now," she says, looking at Dean. "They're being informed as we speak. With other people telling them," she says acidly at his expression. "With their voices--"

"Got it," Dean snaps back. "Thanks. Wait, right now?" Alison nods sardonically. "Joe, you and Vera go for me and Cas and give our votes, which is whatever Ichabod goes with."

He knows he just admitted something when agreeing to send proxies for him and Cas, but he's still going to say fuck no when Cas finally asks him what he knows he's been thinking since he said the common thread was Crossroads. And worse, Dean thinks he just might have a good reason to say yes.

"Alicia, Kamal, wait up front," he says. "I need to talk to Vera, Amanda, and Joe before they go."

"Got it," Alicia says with a jaunty salute before following Alison and Teresa out the door, Kamal politely closing it behind them.

"Vera," Dean says quietly. "Lock the door."

As soon as he hears it click, he turns around, avoiding looking directly at Cas.

"Cas, you said--remember when I asked you how much power it would take to make a barrier around Kansas?" he asks. "You said it wasn't impossible, but--"

"It'd be faster and easier to simply kill every supernatural being with a rusty knife," Cas interrupts impatiently. "For a human, your memory is annoyingly good. I remember."

"How about now?"

Cas licks his lips. "I'm not sure. If I read the circle correctly, at least two thousand to cover the same length of time: probably more, but certainly no less. Blocking summoning as well as Greek Fire both require a great deal of power, and they may decide to improve it."

For a second, Dean can't see anything, black spots filling his vision, even as Vera asks, "Wait, what? Two thousand what?"

"Human lives." He takes a deep breath as the memory of the circle burns itself into the backs of his eyelids, glowing sickly white and putrid yellow-green, carved into the snow around an isolated town, maybe, one that didn't get the message to run and each route coming to Ichabod was careful to avoid. "Part two of the Ichabod Plan. Part I; find out if that circle even works. That was why the demons are still involved, or at least part of the reason. The kids from the church were supposed to be the test case, make sure the sacrifice worked and if it did, how much power they could get so they could do the math for something bigger." He looks at Cas. "Much bigger."

"The barrier?" Vera sucks in a breath. "You think whoever made it in the first place is--recharging it, whatever? Why?"

"Possibly the same reason it was created in the first place," Cas answers evasively and Dean hopes to God he didn't just flinch. "That would explain why people are being sent to Ichabod, and not just from whatever could be outside the border. Moving this many people this quickly: something specific is waiting for it to collapse as well."

"Why something specific?" Dean asks.

"The existence of the barrier would be interesting--and by that I mean frustrating--to anything that uses Kansas as a hunting ground," Cas answers. "But it would be very interesting--and by that I mean dangerously intriguing--to anything that wanted to know what was here that it's protecting, and once it's down, will make it their business to find out."

Mouth dry, Dean braces himself when he remembers he's not the only one in Kansas for whom that barrier was pretty goddamn useful. "Alison."

"Alison," Cas agrees, expression darkening. "And that will bring more attention to Teresa and her apprentices as well. While I can't guess what specific entity is waiting, there are none that wouldn't qualify as incredibly dangerous on this plane just by the fact they exist."

"If we could find out where they're doing the sacrifice…." Amanda trails off, closing her eyes. "Crap, we can't."

"Even if we knew and could get out--and we could get enough clear road--we can't leave now," Dean says. "When the barrier comes down, everything out there--and whatever those people were worried about coming through--is going to notice the migration in progress to Ichabod. They don't have to bother hunting down the survivors all over the state; they're here or on their way. It's like a goddamn arrow pointing straight here."

Cas tilts his head. "Unintended consequence of an already bad plan."

"Half a million people in Kansas against those kids, a few deaths on the road, and whoever's gonna be sacrificed to get the barrier up," Dean spits out. "Who says no when they're asked to save the world? Or at least their part of the world. Guilt in action."

"If the circle raises this much power," Cas starts, "all of Hell will know of it very quickly, and whoever performed it will be discovered one way or another. Altruism isn't generally a characteristic I associate with demons."

Dean opens his mouth to answer then realizes they're not alone in the room.

"Okay, you three, go hunt up the other mayors before the meeting and start working on them," Dean says, jerking his head toward the door. "Whatever you can to get them to help with this."

Dean waits for them to leave before locking the door himself. "No."

"Dean--"

"No," he says again, starting back to the table and trying to think of an actual reason his answer. "Cas, don't even think it. Do you even know him?"

Cas shrugs. "We met once before I Fell and not since: why?"

Dean fights back a groan; why the hell haven't they talked about this before? "Look, it's not that much of a risk for him, he's using minions, so it--" Cas's eyebrows jump. "They're his demons, fine! They were summoned, that doesn't mean he's involved--fuck, even I know better than that, son of a bitch. Crowley set it up, somehow, all of it; all he needed were some desperate people to summon the Crossroads to set it in motion."

"Which leaves many unanswered questions still, but the most important is why Crowley would want that barrier back up," Cas says, frowning. "He may not want Lucifer to win, but what use would it be now to him? As far as he knows, Lucifer won."

"Give me a second." Christ, why didn't he ever think to tell Cas about Crowley before? He wants to think he just didn't think about it, but no. "So you know the bigger plan which has many parts, some we don't know about yet? I may know what the end game is here."

"Somehow getting Lucifer back in his Cage?" Cas asks, eyes wide. "I wouldn't have guessed that."

"Or kill him, and end game, get crowned King of Hell."

Cas makes a face. "Crossroads is very powerful, yes, and Crowley does have an almost endless supply of minions, but--"

"Remember when I told you how we got Lucifer back in his Cage?"

"You're very loquacious when you're drunk," Cas agrees warily. "Why?"

"Did I tell you about what happened after?"

"No, you passed out before…" Cas stares at him for a long minute, and Dean can almost see it click. "You're joking."

"Nope."

Cas eyes fix on the middle distance. "He had a plan."

"He had a plan," Dean says. "All he needs is Lucifer back in the Cage."

"Dean," Cas says finally, "in that case, you must see why--"

"You want to go to the nearest crossroad not occupied by cars outside of Teresa's wards," Dean says flatly. "And summon a Crossroad demon, politely decline a deal but would like to make an appointment with Crowley, is now a good time?"

"Essentially," Cas agrees, "yes."

"No."

"He may have a reason to kill me," Cas says slowly. "But I doubt it, and in the absence, there's no reason for him to do so and many reasons to want me alive."

"How about for fun?" Dean counters desperately. "He's a demon! They do that shit all the time!"

"He's not just a demon," Cas answers. "He's King of the Crossroads. He was heir of the oldest demon in Hell, and he is for a demon very young and was even younger when Lilith chose him. Ruthlessness in this case must be leavened by judgment, and that includes recognizing the potential for use of anything or anyone he may need to advance or hold his position against all challenge. Killing for pleasure is of course a wondrous way to pass the time, but so is ruling the entire Crossroads and being the most powerful demon in Hell. He won't kill anyone with any potential use to further his ambitions, protect his position, or cause problems for his enemies. I may be useless on two of those, but the third--I'm a guaranteed at minimum annoyance to Lucifer simply in existing."

He's not wrong--especially considering it's Crowley they're talking about--but that's not the problem. "That isn't a good reason--"

"For Crowley? That's a very good reason to want me to be alive and continue to annoy him and hopefully do things to further upset him," Cas argues, which Dean can't actually argue because it's true. "This is one of those few times that it's perfectly acceptable to be what I am. It bothers my Brothers very much."

"An angel wallowing in the dirt with humanity?" Dean asks, honestly going for mean but context: uh.

Cas smiles at him, and Dean's suddenly trapped between Cas and the edge of the table with no clear idea what they were talking about. "Oh yes," he says huskily. "Wallow, consort, cavort, lie with humans at my pleasure and much more horrifyingly, theirs. And now," Cas's voice manages an impossible gravelly drop, "I share my bed exclusively with the Righteous Man who willingly made binding with me. If I could, I'd marry you immediately and ask Crowley to take pictures and send them to all my Brothers just on principle."

"Marry?" Dean says blankly.

"That's the part you heard," Cas says with a sigh. "When Lucifer saw me in Kansas City, he confirmed that within this flesh is my true form--an angel bound to ashes and dust--and in retrospect, I'm actually somewhat surprised he didn't kill me in sheer horror of degradation by proxy. Small miracles indeed, but illustrates my point; anything that distracts and upsets my Brothers is to his benefit, from recruitment to expansion of territory, and it costs him nothing to let me live so I can continue doing it."

Fuck his life, Dean actually can see that. "No."

"And less certain but only because all things are--he does want me for something, if Jeffrey is any indication, and it might be best that I find out sooner rather than later. I have to admit," Cas adds thoughtfully, and Dean hates those two words already, "both an honest dread of how Crowley thinks I could be useful as well as reluctant curiosity." Jesus Christ, this is actually happening. "In any case, I'd rather find out on my own terms rather than his."

Reaching out, he jerks Cas against him, gripping the soft flannel desperately. "Look--"

"And this--whatever this is--is related to the barrier, a barrier that was constructed in conjunction with your arrival in this world," Cas says quietly, leaning his forehead against Dean's and fighting with unfair shit like facts. "If I can find out something--anything--that may--"

"Don't say it." Closing his eyes, Dean takes a deep breath. "This isn't about me, we got too much shit going on right now to even go there."

"As you wish." Cas hesitates. "The last reason--even less certain at any other time except now--is that I'm the only of my Brethren would could--potentially--deal with him. If he wishes to rule Hell, he must deal with my Brothers, and if he has a plan, I may be able to give him a better one."

Christ, can history repeat itself--sort of--in a different world where that's not actually in its history? "Cas," he tries, "he can't actually believe you'll deal with him."

"He's not stupid enough to assume there are no circumstances in which I wouldn't," Cas answers with terrifying accuracy. "Even I don't believe that. He's Crossroads; he knows better than either of us there is a price on every soul; his job is to meet it. I don't know my price, but I can't risk believing he couldn't discover it, or that one doesn't exist." He studies Dean for an unnerving moment. "What, specifically, concerns you?"

"All of it?" Dean tries desperately. "You get--if you don't come back--"

"I'll come back."

"If you don't come back," Dean says flatly. "I'm gonna come find you."

Cas starts to smile, but it vanishes as he takes in Dean's expression.

"Every risk you take," Dean continues, holding his eyes, "I'm gonna be taking with you. Cas, it's your life, I get that, and I can't stop you. But you can't pretend that you're the only one that's gonna be affected by the choices you make and you have no fucking say over mine. You don't come back by dusk, this is what's going to happen: I will come and find you."

"Dean.…"

"So don't do anything stupid," he interrupts, hands fisting helplessly in the soft flannel. "You get in, get shit done, get out, and kill anything that gets between you and here, but you get back. Something goes wrong--anything--don't worry about it, I can handle it. There's nowhere they can take you that I won't find you. Got it?"

Cas nods slowly. "I understand."

"Good." Dean realizes he's able to smile, and to his own surprise, it's genuine now. "Gotta tell Alison this one. Sure, her girlfriend can order the earth around, but my partner's gonna confront the King of the Crossroads, and fuck yeah I win."

Cas starts to laugh, head dropping against Dean's shoulder. "I'm not an angel anymore. In a straight fight, he'd win with very little effort."

"Then make sure it's not a straight fight," Dean whispers, closing his eyes and holding on a little tighter: just a few more minutes. "And hey, bring me his head when you're done, okay?"